Parenting isn’t easy business. There are weeks when I cruise along and life is smooth. There are other weeks when I’m drowning in the stress of it all. I wonder at times, is it only me? Why does this feel so difficult? Am I ill-equipped to raise three boys?
It was during one of the hard moments when I wrote the poem below. I was at my wit’s end. It was a moment of doubting my capacity to do what needs doing. None of my strategies were working. My boys were each grappling with different end of school year transitions and the accompanying unease. Daily life was full. The sibling rivalries were kicking. Separation anxiety was rearing its head. Mother’s patience was waning. Every day seemed to usher in a new fight and new difficult moments. Meanwhile, the summer heat had arrived and school was out. Energies were high and my boys’ motion was ceaseless. I found myself daily contemplating the difficult grit of raising boys. And so, this poem was born.
It’s a window into one dimension of my experience raising boys ages 3,5 and 7. Of course they are kind and sensitive and full of sweetness. They are full of imagination and energy. They defy any attempt at categorizing or containing. They also confound me daily with their intense energies and a need to bump physically against their surroundings (and one another). They wrestle. They take a baseball bat to my roses one minute (!?!?) and carefully save a spider the next. They tend the garden the next moment and then make a game of throwing pinecones or rocks at each other’s heads. One moment they are contemplatively sculpting creations out of play dough and the next they are dismantling said creations, stomping on them and throwing chunks up in the air.
On and on this goes. It’s a seamless and fast dance to keep up. When do I pick my battles with them? How do I hold together the structure needed to foster safety and clear boundaries? How do I let them run a bit free and wild while also ensuring they are decent and kind? On some days, I’m interfering all day long. “Don’t do this! Don’t do that! No! Stop!” I keep thinking: there must be a different way. But what is it?
The journey of parenting keeps me on my toes. When one thing isn’t working, its indeed time for another.
Purveyors of sharks.
You trample on life’s delicate,
You spin chaos,
You unfurl conflict.
Wielding everything as a weapon,
Your ocean of energy defies all attempt of containment.
This is the difficult grit of raising boys:
I want you to be free and wild,
But I also need you to be decent and kind.
I want you to live into the best of being a fierce protector,
defender of what is right.
I want you to use and feel your full body, while also understanding limits essential for a life of well-being and peace.
When I’m at a loss as your mother, I want the arms big enough to embrace it all.
In moments of chaos we head to the hills.
Under the sky is the space needed for all of us to breathe.
There is no problem here.
Its only that the world too often enjoys boxes and walls and so much structure –
with little boy souls needing curling and hurling and bending and unfurling,
a mirror to nature’s perfect playground where wild energies can truly run free.
“Everything is ceremony in the wild garden of childhood.” ~Pablo Neruda
The end of the school year ushers with it a flurry of ceremonial markers. May Day flower crowns are made and traditional dances are twirled around the May Pole. Its not only the opportunity to welcome spring’s lovely new flowers, but also an opportunity to participate in a yearly tradition with very old roots.
My mother-in-law joins me to watch the dances and she marvels that my oldest son’s elementary school takes the time for such festivities. She recently moved here from the East Coast – and after a lifelong career in education, she bemoans that too many schools are losing the arts, the festivals and the music. “I remember doing these dances when I was in school,” she says. But now? “Its all about the standards and the testing.” For a brief moment, we nod at how great it feels to be together as a school community, celebrating the seasons and sharing music and tradition. This, too, is important.
My middle son, Braeden, prepares to finish preschool and his class also takes time for ceremony. Not only is there a ‘graduation,’ but there is also preparation for the transition out of preschool. His class has been together for three years with the same teachers. Just a few weeks before graduation, 23 preschoolers and three teachers embark on what has been an annual tradition for over 25 years. They go on a “hero’s journey” together – which includes a field trip into the mountains where they walk a labyrinth and do practices to connect to the elements: earth, air, fire and water. They paint, sing, dance, and do simple rituals together.
Leading up to the graduation ceremony, the preschoolers watch a chrysallis turn into a butterfly in their classroom. Its a slow process and involves a lot of patient watching. During these same weeks, they practice acting out a story. Each child begins in a cocoon, curled up in a ball. The teacher talks them through their rebirth into something new and magnificent – a butterfly! They practice acting out this story again and again – and for the graduation ceremony they share it with everyone. They, too, are now getting ready to fly…
I witness all of these moments and milestones and I wonder: what do we lose when ceremony is set aside? These traditions bring meaning and deepen an experience of community. Even at a young age, children can relate to ceremony. They can understand the gravity of a transition. Ceremonies can connect us to the seasons and the passage of time. They can carve out space for even a brief acknowledgement of change. Perhaps ceremonies and traditions can serve as benchmarks of stability and structure in what can often seem like an endless flow of ‘busyness.’
For me I know this to be true. I often wish I could slow down time. My children are growing up so fast and I know that all of these small milestones will coalesce into memories. What will stand out? Of course there will be memories from the daily rhythms. But there will also be these signposts. The ceremonies with my children remind me to soak in each moment, to take time to pause, and to talk through transitions. They remind me to take note of beginnings and endings. They also remind me that each season and period of time has its gifts and challenges. And then we can honor, celebrate, learn – and turn the page into the next chapter.
A few years ago, Rowan got a betta fish for his birthday. We had him for just under three years – and he did indeed become part of our family. “Fishy” swam in a three gallon bowl on our dining room table and would often look right at the boys when they sat down for a meal. Over the years we added bamboo to his habitat, then rocks, then driftwood. Each time we changed his water or added a new feature, he’d let us know he liked it by blowing bubbles at the surface.
The kids helped to feed Fishy and enjoyed following his movements. I knew that we were lucky to have had our fish for as long as we did – and as Fishy’s third birthday approached, I began to talk to the boys about a betta fish’s lifespan. We noted how he moved more slowly. We tried feeding him extra special fish food just in case he was nearing his end.
When we came home one April evening to find that Fishy was no longer in the land of the living, my two older sons were devastated. They immediately burst into tears and cried for what felt like a full hour. My oldest kept saying “maybe he is sleeping! Won’t he come back?” My middle son was concerned with what would happen now. Will he float to the top? Where will we put him? And also, is it okay to feel sad because Fishy had died? My youngest (age three) was the most matter of fact. With his head tilted to the side he would say, “Fishy died. He’s going back to the earth. Just like great grandma LaRue.” Each had their own response and way of processing Fishy’s death.
I had to think on the fly. I knew it was an important moment. Why hadn’t I thought more about what I would say? It was bedtime and my husband wished I had waited until morning to reveal Fishy’s fate. My two older boys were pacing around, crying and largely unconsolable. I sat on the couch and invited them to sit with me. Yes, bedtime was upon us but we needed a moment of coming together and processing both our feelings and what had just changed.
It was time to be real about life and death. It was time to lay it out bare about what would happen to Fishy’s body now, and how we could best support Fishy’s transition. We talked about how we could still send love and wish him well on his journey to another world. We talked about the mystery of death – and how we don’t know what it is like or where his spirit may be now. We talk about having done our best to be kind to Fishy during his short life. Didn’t those three years of Fishy’s life go by fast? And what can this moment teach us about our own lives going forward? There is no time to waste being kind and appreciating the things around us.
The next day I made sure that each brother was present for Fishy’s burial. We clipped a few flowers from a lilac bush and plucked a few dandelions. I explained that it is nice to offer something beautiful to honor Fishy’s life. We dug a hole and found special rocks to decorate his resting place. Rowan, who took Fishy’s death the hardest, took his time writing a note for Fishy’s ‘tombstone.’ I encouraged him to sit with Fishy’s resting place and feel whatever he was feeling. There was a space for silence.
What struck me most was how easy it would have been to have glossed over Fishy’s death. Life gets busy and I’m too often overwhelmed. And – wasn’t it only just a pet fish? Taking the time needed to do honor to the moment took effort. And yet, the boys had so many questions. They wanted to be intimate with the burial process. They each wanted to scoop Fishy from his bowl and place him in the earth. For days after they kept asking if Fishy’s body had returned to the earth. Was he still there? Was he just bones now?
I was reminded of my grandmother LaRue’s memorial service not too long ago. The great-grandchildren were the ones who immediately stepped up when the Funeral Home staff had asked if anyone wanted to place dirt on Grandma’s urn. They’d just placed her in the earth – and it was the one moment when the boys were entirely focused and present. The rest of the service had been for talking, reflecting, sharing. We’d been in the more ethereal realm of words and memories. But now – this was something tangible the boys could understand. And they were ready to participate.
Rowan and his cousin Lundin shoveled the dirt needed to fill Grandma’s slice of the earth. For me, it was the gritty part. For them, I sensed that they could grab onto this. It made sense. They knew what was happening. They were helping Grandma return to the earth. During the memorial service Rowan had been running around collecting seeds. Now, he wanted to toss them in with Grandma. He intuitively understood the cycle of life.
What if we don’t give children enough space to fully participate in the process of death and dying? What if we exclude them too often from our rituals and rites? These moments honoring both my grandmother and our pet fish reminded me that children are not only profoundly curious about death – but they are also deeply capable of understanding. And, it helps if we can give them something tangible to grab on to and participate in. For me, I needed to create the space for not only processing our feelings and questions – but also for expressing reverence and love.
Somehow, I wanted to make death our friend. I wanted to be intimate with it. I wanted to weave it into the fabric of life as being totally natural and cyclical – while also allowing the space for it to be sad and mysterious. As Rainer Maria Rilke once said, “Death is our friend, precisely because it brings us into absolute and passionate presence with all that is here, that is natural, that is love…”
A note to readers: Hello! It has been awhile since I’ve been posting regularly. As I mentioned a few months ago, I’ve been busy editing my book – The Invitation of Motherhood, coming soon! Meanwhile, I’m catching up to speed on the blog and you’ll see a few posts this week (along with a new look) as I finally get them online. Enjoy!
Over the years, I’ve written a bit on the amazing preschool that my boys attend in Boulder, Colorado. It has been a beacon of wisdom and insight, and I’m eternally grateful. Rooted in the tradition of Shambhala Buddhism, the teachers act based on the premise that there is a basic wisdom inherent in human experience, where bravery and fearlessness can be cultivated. Rowan, Braeden and Kienan’s first year classroom at age two was called the Tiger Classroom, the tiger referencing one of four “dignities” that Alaya Preschool founder Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche used as metaphors for stages on the path toward realizing our inherent goodness. Each ‘dignity’ points to certain characteristics a practitioner develops in order to bring wisdom and compassion into daily life. At Alaya Preschool, it is never considered too early to begin instilling the human qualities of discernment, discipline, compassion and wisdom – which the four dignities point to.
Just like the contemplative educational tradition encourages, I wanted to nurture reflection, practice slowing down, and make time for consideration.
Thanks to Alaya Preschool for the following ‘Principles of Contemplative Parenting.’ On a normal weekday morning at drop off, a stack of handouts highlighting these principles greeted interested parents. The following are ones that most resonated, accompanied by short reflections on how these weave into my family life.
Children need to experience how we work with strong emotions. This one gave me a sigh of relief. I often feel bad for expressing my own ‘big’ feelings. Yet I want to be authentic and honest about my own experiences and feelings. Yes! Children do need to see how we work with strong emotions. How do we navigate our own hurt feelings? What do we do when we’re angry? We are always modeling for our children – and any moment working with emotions is a potential teaching moment.
Children do want to be the cause for the effect… So, don’t attend to negative attention seeking. I’ve often worked with trying to focus my energy on the ‘positive.’ I don’t want to get into negative cycles – but I often find myself gravitating towards ‘negative attention seeking.’ How to shift that common pattern? I try to tend to what needs tending, while being aware of overly placing attention in one area.
Taking care of oneself is the best way to take care of the family. This one resonates as my growing edge. How is this possible? It is hard enough to complete even the basic tasks of a day: breakfasts, lunches, dinners. Laundry. Getting to work on time. Each of my children seems to clamor for my attention when I am with them. There are needs to be met – and there are difficult moments at school to process. It is all important – so how to prioritize? Currently, my self-care happens after the kids are in bed. I have yet to crack the nut of how to fully give myself what I need during the days without feeling I’m shortchanging my family. And – I see that if I am nourished and resourced, I always have so much more to give.
Use slogans! In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, slogans (or Lojong) are used as a mind training practice. By practicing with slogans in mind, I could better remember how I wanted to live into my family life. I took some time to create my own slogans for what I wanted to practice in my daily life. I posted them on my bathroom mirror.
Slow down. Take a breath. Take Care
Less ‘time outs,’ more ‘time ins.’ Take a break for self instead.
Did you do quiet time today?
“Time outs are better for us to take than to give to our children.” I never like giving “time outs.” And, there are times when space is needed, both for myself as well as between brothers. I’ve been trying on this idea that time outs are better for us to take than to give to our children. “I need some space!” I will often hear myself saying. In a heated moment, I try to move away and take a deep breath before responding. For my boys, I will often say that they need to take space after making a mistake (especially after making choices that hurt another brother). I am sure to invite them to come back when they are ready. I’ve also been trying the idea of a “time in.” I’ll encourage my son to stay with us all in the same room, but to sit out for a moment, taking a few deep breaths. We often “push the green button” to start over. The key is to interrupt the cycle and to infuse a sense of space.
Check posture & Speak slowly. I love these reminders. They are so tangible. When I speak slowly, I am most often speaking more mindfully and deliberately. When I’m frustrated or angry, my voice often raises and I speak faster. There is less time to consider what I actually want to say. There is more reactivity. So the pause to check posture realigns me with my intentions. If I commit to speaking slowly, I am usually speaking more kindly and thoughtfully.
Compassion: let your kindness be the guide. There are moments when I feel I’ve gone astray from my kindness. It might be the middle of the night and my three-year-old is up screaming because he can’t have the drink he wants in bed. Or it might be that one brother has hurt another and I’m angry beyond words. If I’m tired or overwhelmed on top of any of these things, it can be hard to respond as my best self. So remembering the simple word ‘compassion’ helps. It reminds me to see my children with softer eyes, and to look for the feelings behind their actions. It also reminds me to be gentle with myself.
Make quiet time part of the daily routine. Why is this so difficult on many days? I’m one who prioritizes simplicity and who values down time. And yet it can feel so elusive with three boys in tow! Even my best efforts for quietness are often thrwarted. The boys want to jump and wrestle. They want to play soccer and bike. They want to make physical contact with every object in the house. I can of course steer the energy towards quieter activities – but sometimes this is to no avail. So I model the quiet time myself. I commit to sitting on the couch and watching the birds at the bird feeder every day. I read a book and invite them to join. I practice saying no to the ceaseless activities – making sure that I’m noting that some stillness and quietness is good for me. Sometimes they join, other times they don’t. The key is for me to create this time and space.
My grandmother LaRue Marie Brown Lundin just passed away on Tuesday, October 18th at 11:15pm. She was 100 years old, born on May 2nd, 1916. At the time of her birth, Woodrow Wilson was president and the United States was just about to enter World War I. The automobile was still relatively new, having been around only 30 years. Motion pictures were still being produced without sound. As a teen, she would have heard about Gandhi’s Salt Marches and Amelia Earhart being the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. When she was 29, she would have likely been amazed at the unveiling of the world’s first computer.
She lived through World War II and Vietnam. Her first husband walked out, leaving her to raise two little girls solo in the 1940s. She was a woman who rarely sat down until well into her 90s – and even then she would put up a fight to help with the dishes. The ham and potatoes were always perfect and served on her finest china. She had to have things done her way. She ruled the roost – and her kitchen especially – late into her years. Forks went one way in the dishwasher and spoons another. In her life she was often feisty, funny and quick witted. She was known to ride roller coasters even in her 60s. In her 80s she took a ride in a motorcycle side car with a wide grin on her face.
I was lucky enough to get to her death bed in Casper, Wyoming a few days before her passing and shared some of her last words before she fell silent on Saturday. There were so many poignant moments all at once. The wind was harsh and chaotic, contributing to my own turmoil as I balanced parenting my three young boys with my desire to sit quietly at her side. It was the familiar feeling of being splattered in too many directions – laid bare and stretched toward a horizon as vast as the Wyoming landscape my grandmother called home for her last years of life.
Her imminent death was inviting me to slow down and abide. And yet the chaotic, messy, tumultuous land of my very much alive three boys inevitably eclipsed my need for silence. Wanting to pay homage to my grandmother’s life, I took every opportunity I could to sit with her and hold her hand. Each moment of reflection felt stolen as I bounced back and forth between my grandmother’s bed and the quickened pace of parenting. The experience of holding space for my boys, holding space for myself, and also simultaneously holding space for my grandmother felt both relentless and impossible. My two-year-old tantrumed like never before. I scrambled to cook, mitigate conflict, launder and keep up with the potty training and snacks. There was a diaper here and another there. Did they brush their teeth and was I connecting enough with them? The Hospice nurse’s injunction for quiet contrasted sharply with my bundle of never-ending movement and energy wrapped in three precious boys. Where was the place for children in this liminal moment of parting? How to not drown in what felt like unconquerable chaos? It was a feeling I was well aquainted with, amplified by Death’s Door. I only wanted to focus on what’s important – but how to do that when so much calls for one’s best and most present self? I took the moments of quietness I could get, and tried to go gently.
Sitting with my grandmother, I was struck by all she worried about in her final days. In particular, the fierceness of a mother’s love and care until the very end shown through. That some of her last words were about a baby – and her “two baby girls” – sinks deep. She needed reassurance that they were okay. As my grandmother struggled, the Hospice nurses recommended a Reiki practitioner who does energy work with those dying. She did her work from a distance, only knowing my grandmother’s name. She didn’t know that my grandmother had been talking about a baby and telling us over and over again that she was ‘seeing’ a baby. And yet, the practitioner relayed that my grandmother was struggling with an early pregnancy loss. She was meeting the baby, said the Reiki master. She was talking to the lost child, apologizing. Apparently, she needed to work through this loss before she died.
“I can’t believe I’m leaving,” she said to me as she looked intently into my eyes. “Unreal. Absolutely unreal,” she said. In her final days she said “sorry” many times. “I just have to say that.” She also told us she loved us. When I mentioned her great-grandsons were there to see her, she said “Oh wonderful!” and called them honeys.
While we aren’t sure all she was sorry for, we do know she was grappling with different moments in her life. The regrets, the love, the mistakes, the hard moments. She was worrying about her two daughters. Were her “two babies” okay? She worried about money. Was that okay too? Whatever she was working through, she held on fiercely. For days the Hospice nurses said it was the end – but her heart kept beating and her lungs kept breathing. “Are you ready to go?” we asked her on Saturday. “Yes.” I whispered in her ear that she could let go and that all was okay. “Thanks. That would be nice!” she said, with her familiar humor. Different names were spoken. She called for someone named Wesley. She asked for my brother. Was Aunt Carole okay?
The Hospice nurse called it “Terminal Restlessness.” She had only seen one other person hold on so tightly for so long while they were actively dying. For Grandma, she was actively dying for many days. She didn’t eat for almost two weeks. Some breaths had 45 seconds in between. Others, a minute and a half. At one moment I asked my two-year-old what he thought was important to remember when being with his great grandmother as she dies. Without hesitation he says “give love.” He and my four-year-old both sang sweet preschool songs to her and touched her forehead as they said goodbye. My oldest sat guard just outside, practicing his knitting – perhaps as a way to integrate the gravity of the moment.
After a while her words stopped. She couldn’t move her mouth any longer and her eyes were mostly closed. My mother and I light candles. We speculate on what she could be waiting for. She was one who was very particular about the parameters of her comfort. We awaited the constellation most supportive of her release.
Her death reminds me that more important than the dishes or the dinner or keeping up with the endless sea of daily tasks is the airing out of our mysteries and darker internal experiences. She reminds me that taking time to fully digest and integrate my experiences will pay off as I age – and perhaps as I too am faced with my own death bed. Her death reminds me of the importance of staying current and connected with our deepest troubles and doing the work required to allow them to heal. And – I’m also reminded that some things may never dissolve, even at the end. Here she was, 100 years old, ready to go but somethings perhaps left unresolved. She tries to communicate and we only get snippets towards the end. Money. Babies. The number 59. Like riddles unsolved or pieces of a puzzle without the whole, we choose to reassure her. We tell her it’s all taken care of. What’s left in the heart and mind can be released. And, if letting go is a task impossible, then blend the light and dark, lovely and difficult into one expansive, integrated gesture in the heart. I whisper into her ear that the heart can hold it all. She doesn’t have to be burdened with casting something off or letting something go before her final release – but rather she can accept, embrace and integrate. Then, let it all dissolve. We remind her again and again that she is so loved, even when she tells my mother at one moment that she can’t feel that.
Her death reminds me of the lifetimes of baggage we can carry – perhaps even to the grave. She reminds me that the experience of motherhood is one of the most important in a lifetime – and that we likely worry about our children intensely until the end. My grandmother’s death also reminds me not to waste any time in delighting in the feeling of sun on skin or wild winds in hair. She reminds me that love is the most important thing.
Death is akin to a birth – a labor of anticipation. In my grandmother’s case, it appeared that hard work and surrender was required. She had to struggle to find her final resting place. On the night that she died, my cousin Michelle had a dream. “I was trying to find her a place to sleep. She didn’t say anything. We just walked around a house, sometimes her leading me and other times I was helping to keep her steady. Every room had a fireplace, but all the beds were taken. I had to grab someone else’s couch cushions and laid them down to make a bed for her…I don’t know if I have ever dreamt about Grandma so it’s incredible that I dreamt of her on the night of her passing.”
Just before she died I saw her via a video call. Like looking into a mirror at the future, I witnessed the way in which nature and life do their alchemy of transformation on each of us. Her skin and jaw were falling towards the earth in a profound dance of gravity and release. As my grandmother held on with quick shallow breath, I wondered about the ways in which we hold and process memories throughout our lives. What happens if we don’t say what needs to be said? Is there unfinished business to tend to? When we too are knocking on death’s door, will something hold us back or give us pause? What life did we lead? And was it what was imagined or hoped for? Her eyes leave me with the silent injunction to ask again and again what is needed to come to peace with our one precious life.
“The Goddess weaves her magic through the seasons, endlessly aging and growing young. She gives birth to the wild force of Nature, unleashing her mighty child to grow, and decay – sacrificing her progeny time and again into the vast Dark, feeding the Power of Life. Ahh – time to look at what we have birthed into being this year. What did we bring forth that totally awakened our desire? What of our own creations did we so fall in love with that we married it down in the marrow of our bones? What now are we getting ready to take with us into the dark?
Fall is a time of decision, of gathering in, of choosing what to keep and what to let go. Fall now into our heart of hearts. Dive now into the deep end of the pool of ourselves. Let go of the above ground. Burrow now into our dream cave taking with us the final harvest, the essential piece that will nourish the root of our being and bring us through to our next life.”
– Miriam Dyak, Mother Tongue Ink
“She gives birth to the wild force of Nature.” The line sticks with me as I contemplate how each mother in her own way also gives birth to the ongoing force of human nature – with little ones often bringing with them wild joy and spontaneity – and sometimes wild, unbridled energy. We do a serious work bringing our children into the world – and can at times forget our own center or balance as we set aside so much in service of another.
Today’s Equinox – a time of equal lightness and darkness – ushers forth the perfect opportunity to reflect on balance. While summer offers the natural space for extraversion and generativity, the advent of this new, darker season serves up a moment to contemplate how balanced or imbalanced we’ve been. How can we say goodbye to the fruits of summer and recommit to a sane rhythm of life as the season shifts? What to keep and what to let go?
A friend once said she was so tired of reading ‘mom blogs’ that dwell on how exhausted parenting can make us and how many messes we are tasked with tending to. Her comment has stayed with me as I’ve struggled to find balance these years while these two dominant themes seem to rule my experience. Exhaustion and Mess. Should I just gloss over these overwhelming aspects of motherhood? Should I shift my focus? Even in the midst of the dishes and laundry and wet bed sheets and diapers, what do we also bring forth that inspires our creativity and inspiration? It must be about finding balance – and honoring both sides of our experience. Yes, exhausted. Yes, always a mess. Yes, zany, wild joy!
The word balance comes from the Latin ‘bi lanx’- ‘having two scalepans.’ As mothers we are always holding many scalepans, and perhaps the key is to find the grounded center in the middle while holding all the conflicting realities and responsibilities. If we tip one direction and get lost in the tiredness and the never-ending piles of housekeeping, we lose balance. If we tip another direction and get lost in work, we lose balance. And if we only play and frolic, we also lose balance. Instead, the invitation is to hold the myriad scalepans from a grounded center of perspective. Yes, I’m tired and yes I can’t stay ahead of the mess. But I can also enjoy the daily delights with full presence and appreciation along the way. I can focus fully in one area, then focus fully in another.
Nonetheless, the exhaustion and messes do serve as a significant backdrop and inform my experience of balance (or imbalance!). I am at my most balanced when I can hold the scalepans of exhaustion of mess and not let them take me down. I am at my most balanced when I remember to see through the lens of joy and appreciation. For me, the quiet moments with my children in the garden or under our grapes, or the moments dipping our toes into a creek on a hot day have most recently brought me joy. The delight has been about bringing forth a quality of life for my family which will hopefully endure into the future through sane and grounded children going on to become sane and grounded young men. Part of this is modeling a slowness and relaxedness, even in the midst of often overwhelming responsibility. When I hold this perspective while tending to the duties of caregiving and householding, I can find a more sustainable center of gravity from which to live.
As Miriam Dyak reminds me, fall can be a time of decision, of gathering in and of choosing what to keep and what to let go. What are we balancing in our lives right now? How are the scales tipping? How do we stand in the center? What perspective dominates? What are we getting ready to take with us into the dark? What would like to fall away like the leaves leaving their trees?
Burrowing into the dream cave of darker days indeed does call – and a dive into the deep end our ourselves…
Each year the transition back to school ushers in a set of unique challenges. After a summer of less interrupted family time where we are on a slower schedule, the abruptness of the school bell hits us in often hard ways. Of course parenting three boys ages 2, 4 and 7 carries with it a dose of chaos no matter the circumstances. But add in getting dressed, brushing teeth, making and eating breakfast, packing lunches and finding shoes all before 7:55 and you have a recipe for mayhem unlike any other. The trouble is this sort of rushing and time crunching goes against every fiber of my being. It violates the principles upon which I want to orchestrate my family life. It decimates slowness and simplicity. It adds pressure and stress. Mix in the nerves of new classrooms and friends and the inevitable tears along the way and it can all seem impossible.
Each August I have to work with my own resistance to what feels like additional balls to juggle and responsibilities to manage. There are the hundreds of emails from teachers, administrators and the school district. There is the new online student registration system. There is back to school night to add to the calendar, the paperwork for each child, physical exams, the carpooling schedule, the need for transportable lunch foods, and the extra sets of clothes for preschoolers. To stay on top of the logistics is one realm worthy of an award in itself. To stay on top of the emotional realm is an entirely different story.
Each year I go towards the first day of school with a measured optimism. I’m sad to see the summer go. I love the additional family time, the time spent outdoors, the visits with family and friends and the adventures undertaken with sunflowers and crickets as the backdrop. The kids and I get into a flow and settle into our own simple routine. Days are long but slow. There is time to attend to whatever arises as it arises. There is time to toss rocks in water or catch bugs along a trail. But when school begins it is a different story. The structure of it all can feel oppressive. The tight schedule, the classroom door locked at 8:20am on the dot. Does a seven year old really need to learn the lesson this sharply about punctuality? All of the sudden my second grader is gone seven hours a day and finding time to connect is at a premium. My seasoned preschooler can struggle with separation anxiety and each goodbye is tender, even two years in.
I’ve been reading The Wonder of Boys, a book by Michael Gurian about what parents, mentors and educators can do to shape boys into exceptional men. One of the striking things I’ve digested is that boys need so much more than the nuclear family to thrive. Gurian suggests that boys need three ‘families’ – the birth or adoptive family (including grandparents or other relatives who help raise the kids), the extended ‘family’ – which includes relatives or friends, day care providers, teachers, peers, and mentors, and the ‘culture or community family’ – the broader community which includes other institutions and community figures as well as the government, media, etc. He quotes Kurt Vonnegut who said, “Until recent times human beings usually had a permanent community of relatives. They had dozens of homes to go to. So when a married couple had a fight, one or the other could go to a house three doors down and stay with a close relative until he or she was feeling tender again. Or if the kids got so fed up with their parents that they couldn’t stand it, they could march over to their uncle’s for a while. Now this is rarely possible. Each family is locked into its little box…When we ponder what’s happening to America – ‘Where have all the values gone?’ – the answer is perfectly simple. We don’t have enough friends or relatives any more. And we would if we lived in real communities.”
While each year I revisit whether school away from home is ‘right’ for my children, I do feel committed to this notion that an extended community of peers, teachers and mentors is at its core healthy. Even with concerns about separating too early, peer pressure or not enough recess time, I’ve looked for schools and educators I can trust to add to many voices teaching my children – so that they hear what Gurian calls “echos of values, wisdom, self-worth.” And, I am lucky to live in a place where schools share my values and where I have choices about where to send my children. It has been gnawing at me that so many don’t – and that we live in a system where too many children are growing up without intact and healthy first, second and third families. How did we get to this place of imbalance? How can we all contribute to a greater sense of community for our children?
Even with my children being in schools that meet my vision of community-based wisdom sharing, there is still so much to tend to as we greet a new range of complex feelings and issues. What to do about all the emotions that surface during the transition into each school year? Why is my oldest so full of unbridled energy at the end of the day? Why does he seem unreachable? Why is he messing with his brothers in a way I didn’t see all summer long? The struggles encountered surface my own fears of “doing something wrong”– or “not doing enough.” My own stress gets in the way. I feel, as Vonnegut captured so astutley, like a family “locked into its little box.” I’m rushing more and the all too familiar feeling of drowning in over-responsibility begins to engulf me. Instead of sitting on the couch with the kids I’m tinkering with dishes in the kitchen and trying to clean the bathroom. My patience runs thinner and I find myself less available to see more deeply into what is going on.
So today when my oldest son was spinning around, bouncing off of things and tripping his brother, I found myself yelling. There was a spiraling out of control and I couldn’t find a point of connection. Nothing was working. Ultimately, he was asking for help but I couldn’t see it until I cracked. It was one of those moments when I could have remained self-justified that he was in the wrong. I could have walked upstairs and started cooking dinner. I could have stayed focused on the logistics of surviving the day. But I was called back to connect, even in my exasperation. What did he need? Did something happen at school? I circled back to ask. Did he want a blanket and to sit on the couch with me? Did he know I was so sorry that I yelled? Was there something he wanted to tell us? Indeed, there was.
The lesson of this time is to remember to attend to the deep trove of emotions that run often wild as we hand over our children to the ‘second family’ of our schools and communities. Broken or intact, for better or for worse, this is where we can learn resilience. In a culture that too often neglects simplicity and slowness in favor of over-structure, over-scheduling and over-stimulation, we can prioritize creating moments of quiet in the midst of chaos. It is in this open space that our children can come to know what is bothering them or causing them confusion or pain. It is here where we can return to our ground and reconnect. It is here where we can serve as mentors and guides, not only in the boxes of our nuclear families, but also reaching beyond in order to be more available in creating ‘real’ community where needs are tended to and we can thrive and grow.
In this quiet space we can, even if just for a moment, remember the deep lessons of summer: to take time to smell the flowers, to enjoy the simple things, to bask in the moments of less structure and to practice the fading art of quietly listening to ourselves and one another – while also hearing the soft hum of crickets just outside the window – a reminder of our larger web of community indeed…
Last weekend my family drove four hours north to Casper, Wyoming to celebrate my father’s retirement from 41 years of ordained ministry as a Lutheran pastor. My sister-in-law and I drove with our boys through several hours of open land, pronghorn antelope and buffalo occasionally dotting the landscape. I was entering my own liminal space of transition, battling a cold and dealing with my own response to what was yet another of life’s great thresholds.
For my whole life I’ve witnessed my father in action at work: sharing his wisdom on Sunday mornings via his sermons, running out the door to get to the hospital late at night to be with a sick person, presiding over funerals, baptisms and weddings, and generally attending to the needs of those in his community. He set a great example of integrity and service. He gave it more than his all. And somehow, he has managed to be an amazing father while balancing his many responsibilities and his calling to serve.
It was one of those days of celebration and honoring where I was holding a lifetime perspective, feeling the long stretch of time that my dad’s 41 years or ordained ministry is – and how that length of time mirrors my own lifespan. With my mother and brother by my side, I feel where I have come from and our long journey together as a family unit, with my father’s work with the Lutheran Church always there as a constant. While the church communities and locations changed, the rhythms often remained the same. Growing up Lutheran entailed many a church potluck with casseroles and jello (and dad’s retirement party was just the same!), and a long succession of kind and generous people offering their love and welcome to my brother and I as the proverbial ‘pastor’s kids.’
For his final sermon, my father spoke about ‘leaving home.’ While he was speaking about his own journey with the transition into retirement, the theme of threshold and change resonated. In fact, the occasion reminded me of my own journey of ‘leaving home’ to become a mother and cultivate my own newer nuclear family. It reminded me of my own ‘leaving home’ from my family of origin, charting my own path and how suddenly I find myself age 40 – basking in midlife with three of my own children in tow. As I struggled to listen amidst the clamor of my three boys’ shuffling and persistent requests for food, water, crayons or stickers, I felt my own sense of being ‘betwixt and between,’ as my father describes it. Pulled between two worlds I stand: one wanting to pay homage to my father and honor my (and his) past, the other grabbing for my attention via whines and taps as my boys adjust to a 90 minute church service in wooden pews.
The transition to motherhood indeed was also a leaving of home, a leaving of the familiar. In past years I could listen attentively during important occasions, offering up my full presence and attention in an undivided way. Now, I do the dance of bifurcation – split in four directions at all moments during a day. My brother is a father now too and we connect during the event about how different it is now. Time has surely passed and entered us both into the middle ground of our lifetimes, where the territory is new and the familiar ballasts of the past fade.
The moment of dad’s retirement is a marker of one such ballast fading. Of course the transition brings newness and hopefully new adventures for my father in his 70s and beyond. But it also marks an end, and reminds me of the wilderness of what is to come when my parents pass into the next world. As dad said during his last sermon: “Life is always taking us to the wilderness. The wilderness is an “in-between” place. It is a place of awareness, a threshold. We are betwixt and between. We are neither here nor there. We have left behind what was and what will be is not yet clear. In the wilderness we come face to face with the reality of our lives; things done and left undone, our uncertainties, our hopes and dreams, our sorrows and losses, as well as the unknown.”
Leaving “home” can be difficult. As dad reminded me last Sunday, it invites us to change and opens us to new discoveries about ourselves. “It challenges our understandings of where we find significance, meaning, and security.” Yet perhaps most importantly, “leaving home” is about our continued spiritual journey and growth.
That night as I lay in bed with my boys, we talked about the day and about all the photos my mother had prepared for the event. We talked about my father’s lifetime of work and adventures. And Rowan said, “Mama, I heard one thing in Grandpa Bob’s sermon today. It was about how hard it can be to leave home.” He wanted to hear more. Why was it hard? Did everyone have to leave home? How do you find your way back? This led me into telling them their nightly story as they fell asleep. I heard myself speaking about how every person leaves home in different ways, and that there are times when we are in periods of the great unknown. The story took us into a forest, and into a great wilderness, but there we found a river where we could begin again and be transformed. And then, somehow, we find our way to a new home – over and over again finding our way home to what is ultimately our own beating heart. We can change and we can grow. We can journey thousands of miles. Things inevitably change, and around each corner there is a new self greeting new life circumstances.
And still, we can seek out the comfort of home, wherever or whatever that might be – coming back to ourselves with a spirit of rememberance of something in us that is unshakable, like a steady thread flowing through lifetimes regardless of time, external conditions, life transitions and even space. As I drift to sleep with my boys, I realize that this is my journey into motherhood and mid-life: old reference points fading, new challenges emerging daily, new responsibilities, new juggling, constant invitations to grow and learn. Some days I pine for the familiar or yearn for what was. Today, seeing my dad set sail into new horizons, I choose to let go of grasping for the lines that mark the past. I’m indeed in a great, new wilderness, charting my course and witnessing life’s great passage of time.
“In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in a clearer light, and what is elusive resolves itself into crystal clearness.”~Mahatma Gandhi
One of the things I find myself pondering daily is how life with my three boys seems to be one continuous boundary against ‘treats,’ screens and rushing from one place to the next. Sugar has infiltrated every crevice of American life such that now we consume on average 130 pounds of sugar each year, or about 3,550 pounds of sugar in the average lifetime (in case you are wondering, that’s enough to fill an industrial sized dumpster). And kids generally eat more than adults – averaging 32 teaspoons of sugar a day (which happens to be three times the amount recommended by the American Heart Association). Don’t get me wrong – I do love sugar myself, even though I try to limit how much I consume. But in spite of my best efforts, sugar seems to be everywhere – and at kid eye level to boot.
The same goes for screens. As with sugar, I’ve decidedly aimed to set limits and hold boundaries. On average my boys watch less than an hour a week and yet they go through periods where they whine for it daily. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, kids under age 6 watch an average of about 2 hours of screen media a day, and kids and teens 8 to 18 years spend nearly 4 hours a day in front of a TV screen and almost 2 additional hours on the computer (outside of schoolwork) and playing video games. Even when trying to avoid conforming to these statistics, the screens can infiltrate the back drop of daily life, just like the sugar. At dinner out last week we counted six viewable screens. And there they were again at the coffee shop, and there they were again in the waiting room at the car wash. (The car wash waiting room also boasted Oreo cookies, candy cars and a wide variety of colorful gum drops in plastic bags). The opportunities for participation in screens and sugar are endless. Eat a little here, watch a little there. When I confront this daily reality coupled with the constant transition to and from school, often with the rush to get there on time and avoid a “tardy,” I want to crawl in a hole.
How did the dominant culture in America get to this place? A recent week of spring break at home with the kids reminded me of the slower rhythm possible in our mornings when we aren’t bound by the clock or getting in a car. Time could slow down a bit, more mindfulness prevailed over meal times and food choices. In general, there was a bit more silence. I liked it. Immensely.
Jean Arp says, “Soon silence will have passed into legend. We’ve turned our backs on silence. Day after day humans invent machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation… tooting, howling, screeching, booming, crashing, whistling, grinding, and trilling bolster the ego. Anxiety subsides. The inhuman void spreads monstrously like a gray vegetation.”
It is this gray vegetation that I’m trying to reckon with as I raise my children. Its the gray vegetation of too many treats and the glorification of screens. Its the gray vegetation of the cars in traffic on 28th street as I switch lanes in order to get Rowan to his 1st grade door at 8:20am sharp. Its the gray vegetation of a life with too few pauses and too much stimuli of all kinds. All of the sudden the experience of life can become the blur of scenery flying by on a road that looks the same everywhere you go because you aren’t close enough – or slow enough- to notice subtlety, or the quiet, simple beauty of the lone flower peeking out in spring under snow.
The absence of silence feels intimately connected to the influx of sugar and screens. The rushing, the noise of city life, the extreme sweet foods and the screens everywhere you go combine to form a cocktail of madness that swirls like a hum underneath it all. I choose to live in this swirl with as much slowness as possible, even while making a practice of setting boundaries. I say “there is no rush” over and over again to remind myself, and my boys, that we don’t have to live like a dog on a leash being flung around by an unknown owner (even though I am indeed worried about being late and daily wishing for a more flexible system). When I’m with my children the phone goes on airplane mode. In the car, the radio is always off. I practice taking deep breaths while driving and make a point to notice the details of the trees along the road. We play ‘I spy’ as a way to connect to our surroundings, even when in transit.
Perhaps the pining for more silence and stillness was what prompted my husband and I to begin sitting with the Quakers this past year. Those hours spent in absolute silence are often the most restorative and grounding in a week. Young children are welcome to join for the first 15 minutes of silence, and even though mine have yet to top 8 minutes, I know that this gesture of inviting them into a world of stillness is a rare gift. So I focus on what gifts I can give as a parent – the gift of quality time, full, engaged presence, silence as the backdrop as often as possible, and the freedom of no agenda most afternoons after school and work.
Prioritizing simplicity and silence feels like the antidote to a culture gone nuts. I am constantly tracking how I can integrate more time outside, more time getting lost in the small details of nature, more art and movement, more quality time with friends and less running around on the fly with granola bars gobbled in the back seat. I am doing more contemplating before saying YES to anything – and trying to be more mindful of how the grams of sugar pile up. Perhaps most importantly, I’m trying to remember that I do have agency in how I live my life and how I raise my children. Even though I feel pulled into a very fast stream, I can still swim like a turtle – carrying a home where there is always the possibility of finding stillness and silence in a world full of noise.
*Note to readers: It has been awhile since I’ve posted – but the things I want to write on swim in my mind every day. This past year I’ve focused my bits of spare time into writing a book based on the themes of this blog. I’m now focusing my still scant spare time on finding a publisher for said book. (!) Thank you for bearing with the silence and the long stretches! – Deborah