What about Anxiety and Dark Spaces? 5 Practices for Working with Children

Over the past months and years, I’ve often found myself in over my head as a parent. One of my boys has been recently struggling with separation anxiety – and learning how to respond and offer support has been an ongoing, often stressful journey. I’ve often felt like I’ve been wading through dark spaces, at a loss as to what to do with the big feelings being expressed. At the bottom, navigating transitions has been difficult. And – no matter what is unfolding, I believe my son is trying to tell me about his broader experience, even if I can’t yet entirely understand.

So what to do? After months of limping along and struggling, I decided to reach out for help. Since the spring, I’ve been having ongoing coaching sessions with a professional counselor who focuses on a psychodynamic approach, with an emphasis on development, attachment and neurobiology. I’ve also been exploring my own strategies – trying new things and seeing what works. Here are a few take-aways from this process.

When the going gets rough, model your own ways of coping. One of the things I often found myself doing in rough moments with all of my children was to offer verbal advice. And yet, there are times when words alone don’t help. All the chatter and suggestions and reassurances were seeming to get us nowhere. Instead, I began to describe my own feelings and experiences and share what helps me during difficult moments. What if I could intentionally model staying with my own hard feelings and give voice to what I do to stay grounded and resourced when facing challenges? “I feel anxious right now too. Goodbyes are so hard. Sometimes it helps if I move my body. Want to march with me?”

My coach reminded me that during difficult moments, our systems are often trying to find balance. When we are in balance, we are regulated and our emotions aren’t bigger than ourselves. When we aren’t in balance, we might be hyperactive or we might shut down or ‘collapse.’ We can serve our children by showing how we face difficulties from a place of regulation. “I’m feeling anxious. I’m going to shake my hands or rub my legs. Want to join me?” We can share our own challenges and how we work with them. I wanted to model staying with hard things. I began to do more describing of my own experiences and what helps. “I’m starting to feel sad and worried too about saying goodbye. It helps me when I feel my feet on the ground and take a deep breath.”

Bring it back to the body. Bringing awareness in each moment to what is going on in our bodies is not only grounding and resourcing, but also can help to cultivate a greater sense of balance. It also helps to decrease any mental anxiety or churning. During the hard moments, I began to pay more attention to what was going on in my own body, while also getting curious about what was going on for my children. Getting to know what the body is feeling is a skill and takes practice. I began to model paying attention to my own experience in this way, and also ask questions that bring that awareness to my kids. “This moment is feeling really hard. I feel it in my chest. And, my stomach is starting to hurt. I wonder what you feel right now in your body?” Checking in with myself can also help my kids check in with themselves. I began to name my own experiences more, inviting them to join me in noticing and paying closer attention to what was going on in their own bodies.

Just breathe together. One of the main reminders from talking with my coach was around the importance of just breathing together. She would often say, “Use fewer words. Do more holding and breathing.” Just breathing together and having more physical interaction helped me to slow down and connect more. “Let’s take a few minutes to just breathe together,” I would say. These moments of breathing together didn’t always assuage the underlying difficulties, but it did offer up important moments to pause and connect, and bring us back to the simplicity of feeling our bodies and taking a deep breath together. Even for a moment, it provided a brief respite – and a reminder of how a deep breath is always available as a way to calm down.

Make concrete observations. I wanted to find ways to say “I hear you. I see you. It is hard, and you can do this.” So I started paying closer attention to the tangible things happening in any moment, and began naming those things. “I see you walking in circles right now. Are you getting nervous about school?” I wanted my kids to know I was paying close attention to them. Beyond listening to them when they were trying to communicate something verbally, I could also let them know I was really seeing them too. It helped me to connect more to what was going on in the present moment – and to also bring awareness to the concrete things that were happening. It was also a way to bring me out of my complex mental churnings about what was going on – and trying to assign stories to those things. Instead I could stay more focused on each present moment and what was arising. I could use observation statements to let my kids know “I’m with you. I’m paying attention. I see you.”

Express empathy. Connect heart to heart. My coach calls this “joining and affirming.” I can say, “you’re really hurting. That’s hard.” Or, “Wow, this feels big.” At first I was trying to connect during difficult moments by saying “I love you no matter what…I’m right here…” Then I realized that expressing empathy and connecting heart to heart is so much more than expressing only our love and appreciation. When a fellow adult comes to me with a trouble, I never respond simply by saying “But I love you!” No. I listen. I mirror back what I see and hear. All of the sudden it seemed ridiculous that I was trying to patch up the moments of anxiety with my kids by saying “I love you.” Perhaps I wanted a simple fix. Perhaps I didn’t know what else to say. I wished that love would be enough to assuage the hard spaces.

Those words of love are of course important – but more so in moments of smoothness. During moments of separation anxiety, confusion, anger or frustration, expressing empathy is better shown when I name what I see and try to join and affirm. I began to try to see the struggles wanting to shine through. “You feel scared. You feel stupid. That must feel icky.” I could say, “I hear you. I want you to know though that I don’t see you that way.”

At the heart of all of my efforts to meet my children during their difficult moments was a simple reminder. I must take the time to really listen deeply. I can revisit the tough moments to debrief and connect. I can learn from my own mistakes and fumbles (which have been many during this particular season of parenting!). In this way, we connect and reflect. We learn and grow, together. Resilience is slowly cultivated. Over time, we come to accept more gracefully that things happen that aren’t comfortable – and, we find ways to get through them. As Naomi Wolf says, “Obstacles, of course, are developmentally necessary. They teach kids strategy, patience, critical thinking, reslience and resourcefulness.” We could now at least face our obstacles together with a deep breath.

 

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Creating Space: Children’s Processing of Death

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…”

The Power of Bedtime Stories

Each night before sleep my husband and I take turns telling our boys a bedtime story. Its a tradition we started early on and for some reason it stuck. We make the stories up and sometimes they are silly and other times they are intentionally slow and simple to help transition to sleep after a full day. Sometimes the story holds a lesson. I often relate the story to events from the day – inviting a bit of reflection on anything that may be unresolved.

After a particularly choppy day, I told my boys a story about a boat on water. It had been one of those days when the emotions were running high. There had been conflict. There had been a good dose of mayhem. As I laid in bed with two of my sons, I felt completely belaugered. How could I ease the ending to what had been one of the more difficult days I’d had with my boys in a long while?

With the stories I tell, I often follow what I need to process just as much as what I imagine my boys may need to work through. The image of water came to me as I’d been flooded with emotions – and I myself felt like a boat on choppy water. How could I hang on? What was needed in order to find equilibrium after an evening of tumult?

The story slowly unfolded with the image of two boys on a boat. They were on a journey after a storm. Things had just begun to calm – and the previously choppy waters had returned to relative stillness. I began to talk about how our emotions are also like water – sometimes choppy and sometimes calm. Just like a sailor on a boat, how can we too aim to find equilibrium? How do we feel what needs to be felt but not be entirely controlled by the emotions? I ask the questions as they slowly drift to sleep.

The story is about the power of observation. The boys on the boat observe the water and full spectrum of the horizon as they also tune in to how it feels on the boat. The observant sailors have a special ability to feel the full spectrum of what is happening, but also not to be yanked like a dog on a leash by big waves or big feelings. They know how to weather storms. How? Through practice.

The story explores how to find balance in spite of storms. Some things are beyond our control – but how can we stand on deck, using our inner resources to meet what comes? What bravery is needed? And what about when confusion reigns and mistakes are made?

The boys on the boat somehow find their strong center of gravity, even when there are big waves, sharp edges and hurt feelings. There is no need to be perfect here. Boats rock. Waves roll. But then the calmer waters are restored. As the boys drift across the water, they take time to feel the full spectrum of life’s journey across the world.

                                                                                                      From Carl Jung’s Red Book

Back to School: Sorting Through the Chaos and Emotions

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…

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Words of Life: The Lesson Will Teach Itself

“You can speak to your children of life, 

but your words are not life itself. 

You can show them what you see, 

but your showing and their seeing 

are forever different things.

You cannot speak to them of Divinity Itself. 

But you can share with them 

the millions of manifestation of this Reality

arrayed before them every moment. 

Since these manifestations have their origin 

in the Tao, 

the visible will reveal the invisible to them. 

Don’t mistake your desire to talk for their readiness to listen. 

Far more important are the wordless truths they learn from you. 

If you take delight in the ordinary wonders of life,

they will feel the depth of your pleasure

and learn to experience joy. 

If you walk with them in the darkness of life’s mysteries

you will open the gate to understanding. 

They will learn to see in the darkness and not be afraid. 

Go for a slow and mindful walk. 

Show them every little thing that catches your eye. 

Notice every little thing that catches theirs. 

Don’t look for lessons or seek to teach great things. 

Just notice. 

The lesson will teach itself.” 

-William Martin, The Parent’s Tao Te Ching: Ancient Advice for Modern Parents

Commitment: Saying Yes to the Crucible of Family Life

“In commitment we say yes to the unfolding, impenetrable arc of uncertainty. 

Love does not arise, abide or dissolve in connection with any particular feeling.

Love has instead become a container within which we live. 

Through time, riding mysterious waves of passion, agression and ignorance, 

we begin to live within love itself. 

Each time we open up, extend ourselves,

accept what is offered or step beyond our comfort zones, 

the structure is reinforced. 

And if you are looking for a crucible in which to heat compassion, 

marriage is a good one…”

– From “I Do?” by Susan Piver

Over the holidays my mother handed me a piece of card stock paper with a poem typed on it. It looked vaguely familiar but I couldn’t place where on earth I knew it from. She said, “Don’t you remember? Its from your wedding invitation!” I couldn’t believe it. It has only been nine years and I’d completely forgotten about this poem and how central it had been to the spirit of how my husband and I were wanting to enter into our marriage vows. It was just what I needed to read again, except this time instead of the word marriage in the last line, I inserted ‘family life.’

Indeed family life (marriage included) does feel like a crucible in which to heat compassion, as well as a place where I certainly ride the waves of passion, aggression and ignorance while also simultaneously relaxing into a container of love. The commitment to stay present and keep showing up in the spirit of connection is the glue that often holds it all together for me – especially in the moments where I feel profoundly disappointed, angry or frustrated.

The word ‘commit’ has its origins in the Latin committere, “to unite, connect, combine; to bring together.” Indeed it often feels like the commitment to one another, and to the broader values of love, intimacy and connection, is what brings us together and back together after being apart as we weave our way through the ups and downs of our days. I notice with my six-year-old that there is (after a great deal of work) finally a safety net that we both seem to relax into during and after our most intense moments of conflict. I’ve practiced telling him again and again “I love you no matter what…we all make mistakes…” And, I am sure to own my part of wrong-doing in moments of discord. We can now seamlessly express our anger, have our outbursts, share our disappointments and frustrations with what went wrong and what we wish went differently, apologize to one another, and end with “I love you. Let’s start again.” (For those who have been following this blog over the years, you know what a journey it has been to get here!)

Today the role of commitment shone clear as I took some space after raising my voice after 10 ‘kind’ and ‘gentle’ prompts. It was the ‘same old, same old’ familial conflict: older sibling messing with younger sibling, mischief underway, constant bantering teetering on the edge of physical harm with the resulting screams and cries of younger sibling striking me like nails on a chalkboard. During my moment of space before re-joining the flow of family life with young children, I take a pause to just feel what I feel. I’m disappointed in how the day has unfolded. I’m disappointed in my son’s behavior. I’m also disappointed in myself for raising my voice. I know apologies are in order on both sides, and what helps to pull me back together in order to step forward as my best self is the experience of feeling married to the container (or crucible) of what has become 24-hour-a-day family life coctail. I am wedded to the intentions I (and we) have set over the years per how we want to live together as a family unit. I am committed to holding on to the path of parenting and family life as one of integrity, where I can model humility and vulnerability – and I can own up to my own mistakes while also calling forth the best in my children.

My oldest knocks at the bathroom door and says, “Mama, can you apologize first?” Somehow this makes it easier for him to then apologize for “not listening” and “messing with his brother.” He then asks me, “Do you need a hug or anything?” It has taken time, practice and patience, but slowly over the course of these six years since he entered my life we’ve figured out how to communicate. The path to get here has certainly followed an ‘arc of uncertainty,’ where I’ve had to set aside many assumptions and grapple with feelings of failure and inadequacy in the face of what family life demands at times.

And then, Susan’s words shine through: Love has become a container within which we live. Through time, riding mysterious waves of passion, agression and ignorance, we begin to live within love itself. Each time we open up, extend ourselves, accept what is offered or step beyond our comfort zones, the structure is reinforced. 

Indeed this is the gift that commitment offers up. There is the container of love, yes, that is there to relax into when the commitment itself is fed and nourished. There are also the crazy waves of joy and tenderness coupled with exhaustion and frustration. There is the overwhelming appreciation followed by the intense aggravation. There is the utter chaos of constant movement and noise followed by the quiet moments of snuggles before sleep. There is the fierce kick to the shins right on the heels of the most precious moment of sibling love.  And, it all happens in one day.

Family life at its closest (and with young children) is not for the faint of heart. There is no seclusion here, no retreating to quiet, familiar places. There are always fresh invitations, fresh wounds and conflicts, and fresh moments offering fodder for appreciation and seeing with new eyes. There is always a wave to ride. Sometimes jumping off has its allure – but then I realize that the true gifts of staying commited only come to fruition over time and after the hard work of staying present, particularly through difficult spaces. The true gifts are only often revealed when we say a loud Yes! to the crucible of family life – hurt feelings, wild joy, messy chaos, arc of profound uncertainty, and all.

Meditate Like a Mother

When the mother hears her baby crying, she puts down whatever she has in her hands, she goes into its room, and takes the baby in her arms. The moment the baby is lifted into the mother’s arms, the energy of wisdom already begins to penetrate into the baby’s body. The mother does not know yet what is the matter with the baby, but the fact that she has it in her arms already gives her child some relief. The baby stops crying. Then the mother continues to hold the baby in her arms, she continues to offer it the energy of tenderness, and during this time the mother practices deep looking. A mother is a very talented person. She only needs two or three minutes to figure out what is the matter with her baby. Maybe its diapers are a little bit too tight; maybe the baby has a touch of fever; maybe it needs a bottle? Then when the understanding comes, the mother can transform the situation immediately.

It is the same thing with meditation. When you have pain within you, the first thing to do is to bring the energy of mindfulness to embrace the pain. “I know that you are there, little anger, my old friend. Breathe—I am taking care of you now.”

-From True Love: A Practice for Awakening the Heart, Thich Nhat Hanh

Working with Difficult Emotions

I’ve been working with difficult emotions this past year. Several relationships have unfolded in ways I don’t like – and it has been a long road in accepting what is beyond my control. Over and over again I have been bidding myself to ‘let go.’ Wishing I could simply set aside the feelings I don’t like, I imagine myself over and over again relinquishing anger, hurt feelings, disappointment, bitterness, irritation. It isn’t that I diminish the feelings or try to push them away. It is just that holding on too tightly to disappointment or hurt feelings doesn’t serve my capacity for joy and presence. A constant trying to ‘let go’ of what I dislike has left me realizing that I’ve not been living with a full embrace of what just is.

Which leads me to reflect on the notion of ‘letting go.’ First, ‘letting go’ of difficult emotions is no small – or easy- task. Trying too hard to ‘let go’ may move us more in the direction of ‘pushing away’ instead of drawing close and becoming intimate with our feelings and experience. It doesn’t mean simply setting something aside like you set aside the cup of coffee you are finished with in the morning. It is more a gesture of being open to the often slow and mysterious process of transformation, through becoming intimate with whatever difficult emotions arise. Second, just “dropping” difficult feelings when we are done with them is only a temporary measure. (“Oh, I don’t need you anymore so to the rubbish bin you go!”) Instead, we can acknowledge we’d like to be done – and then practice patience, trusting that with attention and light shed on our experiences we will eventually metabolize what needs to be metabolized. Finally, when ready: full embrace. Contrary to the notion of ‘letting go of something,’ we can actually move in the opposite direction via the alchemy of loving and intimate embrace of our full range of experience. For me, this is when the true letting go (through transformation) can occur. I can let go of expectations, standards and story lines, and tune inwards with the spirit of unflinching acceptance. And – with full embrace of our own reactions and feelings, we can be led to also more authentically embrace those who we feel have let us down. We can enter the realm of forgiveness – which inherently (and etymologically) entails a “giving up” or giving over

And why is this important? Holding on to anger and its recurring flare doesn’t serve the capacity to live from a full gesture of Love. Even with anger, as with other difficult emotions, we can hold what is real, what is happening and what has happened, in an embrace. This is life. There are things beyond our control. People don’t and won’t always act how we prefer. It hurts sometimes. And, we don’t have to hold on and fester as an ongoing habit. Instead, we can slowly turn away into something new when we are ready – as if turning away from an old, familiar friend. I may see you again – I may not. Regardless, let’s end well.

 

Finding Refuge in Change: Love, Nature, Goodbyes.

“I am slowly, painfully discovering that my refuge is not found in my mother, my grandmother, or even the birds of Bear River. My refuge exists in my capacity to love. If I can learn to love death then I can begin to find refuge in change.” – Terry Tempest Williams

I’ve been wrestling with goodbyes. My two-year old began preschool this Fall and each goodbye for those first few weeks was heart-wrenching. My husband summed it up well in an email a few weeks ago after drop off: “It was a heartbreaking goodbye – my heart still aches. Braeden looked me in the eyes with streams of tears coming down and said, “Bye bye Papa.” It was like he knew with courage that the separation is an inevitable part of life but he was also holding his need to cry. I wish we never had to say goodbye to our kids. But this is just a taste of what is to come when they leave our home, and then when you and I die. Painful stuff and yet real…”

And so it was with the goodbye to my grandmother a few days ago. Breathing through a tube of oxygen, she culminates 91 years of life: still poised, nails done, a paragon of loveliness even in the midst of terminal lung cancer. The few days there are like the weaving together of a multi-generational tapestry of Life. Time slows down. My baby mingles with Grandma and he is fresh to this life: non-verbally absorbing the history and felt experience that is unique to each family. We sit together in the smallest room of the house, surrounded by photographs. We all know this is precious time. Priceless time.

Family stories abound, accompanied by the emotional undertones and overtones reminiscent of a life full of everything: Birth and death, the dramas, the pain, the hurt feelings, the love, the mistakes, the brightness, the seasons of youth, the tragedies, the years of habit and routine, the joys and kindness, the shadow and the light. Photos from the 1959 vacation to Mexico are unearthed. The scrapbook from Grandma’s 90th. Grandpa’s album from World War II and Iwo Jima. The photos from the last family reunion.  Baby photos from the births of each of my sons. Happy memories knit together with sad musings about my Grandpa’s final days. “Remember those pancakes he used to make on Saturdays?” Everyone laughs. “Remember the burned tapioca pudding?” Then, some tears are shed. Some slow rolling, some more fervent. My aunt cooks up a feast and my brother asks my grandmother what wisdom she can share for us young “foolish” ones. “Just keep loving,” she says.

Eva Saulitis, another woman with terminal cancer, wrote in Into the Wild Darkness: “Ultimately, what I face every day is death impending – the other side, the passing over into, the big unknown – what poet Harold Brodkey called his “wild darkness,” what poet Christian Wiman calls his “bright abyss.” Death may be the wildest thing of all, the least tamed or known phenomenon our consciousness has to reckon with…Can I take comfort in the countless births and deaths this earth enacts each moment?…Death is nature. Nature is far from over. In the end, Nature endures. It is strange and it is hard, but its comfort, and I’ll take it.”

The goodbyes too are strange and hard. They are bittersweet, but mostly sweet – like a cool cup of water on a hot day – or a rest in the shade of an old, solid tree. For a pause I consider my own season of life, traveling in a web of time, knitting myself into a few precious days of drinking up memories and considering those familial ties that bind and the lifespans of those before and after me. Ultimately, it is those younger than us who will likely be at our proverbial death-beds. I reflect back on the tearful goodbyes with my two-year-old. Who will he become? How will I know him as he and I age? If I, like my grandmothers, live past age 90, will I have grandchildren attending me? Rising and falling, the knits of each day unfold. Some stitches stick and others fade away. What will remain?

Love. Nature. Goodbyes.

This time, I don’t grasp. Instead, I practice finding refuge in change. I listen. I sit still. I give myself over completely to this moment. Because I know this is fleeting. I know it is likely the last time together. And so every day should be lived: giving ourselves over completely to what arises. Dip into homage and gratitude. Let go of bitterness or disappointment. Surrender to chaos. Let even the full, zany – often frustrating and exhausting – days and years of raising young children be medicine for a lifetime. In the final hours this shall all fade away with love in its wake. Some patterns dying while others survive. All: a blink of the eye.

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Follower of No Separation

Right now I am a follower of 

“No Separation” 

This nor that, 

Here nor there

I weave between traditions and practices

like a mendicant in search of a holy light, 

which is always

already

Here.

No separation: seamless living with what arises,

going with a flow, 

acknowledging grace of present moment,

being in a state of love –

and not just in mind or heart

but full body

extending into an ether of oneness. 

No separation: quiet gaze understanding

common heart of wisdom

swimming beneath all disputes and orthodoxies.

Soft wind blowing leaves,

reminder of cycle of life

which transcends words.

No separation: the space Beyond and Before.

The space steeped in silence

like hot cup of tea:

burns but delicious – 

a drink to be savored, 

a Holy Gift:

just like human life with all its complex flavors

unfurling into 

One 

Great

Expression 

(some call God).