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?

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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.

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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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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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The Borders of Choosing Love: What Place Does Anger Take?

“Conflict and tension are as much a part of the human condition as interdependence is. There are times we have to have conflict, and tension has to exist to bring something else into being. But they have to coexist with a deep sense of connection and shared destiny.” -Ai-jen Poo

I’ve been reading Dr. Laura Markham’s Aha! Parenting updates. She signs off each of her columns with “choose love.” I of course want to choose love. And, I’ve been reconciling what has felt like a dichotomy between the traditional expressions of loving-kindness and anger as a parent. You see, the truth is: I get angry with my son. Some of his antics infuriate me. I’ve been practicing with how I respond, meandering clumsily on a journey towards integration. I’m riding along that border of choosing love and I want to know: what place does anger take? How can I express the energy of anger from a place of union, connection and integration?

The Hindu goddess Kali comes to mind. She is the fierce consort to Shiva (upon whose body she often stands). She is black in honor of being the first creation before light. She is often said to be “beyond time.” She often has blood dripping from her mouth and wields a sword for lopping off heads. Her fierce, forceful energy isn’t relegated to shadows. Instead, she points to the dynamic aspect of creation: the consort to “being-bliss-consciousness.” For me, she points towards a creative integration of seemingly conflicting energies. She is a protector. She can still be fierce. If something needs destroying, or if a boundary needs to be set, she’ll likely wield her sword while dancing.

I too do a daily dance with my son. My anger with him is rooted in the energy required to set boundaries. Sometimes, when I look carefully, there is a deep sadness beneath it. There is also sometimes a texture of indignation: the interpretation of my son’s actions as a personal affront. How can he be doing these things? Why does he keep pushing boundaries? How can he keep hurting his brother? There is also confusion. How should I respond? What does he need? How on earth can I keep ‘choosing love,’ even when I’m being kicked, scratched or spit on?

One thing I’ve landed upon is that choosing love doesn’t mean rejecting anger and all the accompanying subterranean emotions. Choosing love does mean prioritizing equanimity as often as possible and holding a space for all emotions arising. Choosing love also means staying intimate. It means staying connected, even when setting a fierce boundary. Choosing love does not mean altogether rejecting forceful energy (although beware: force is too often misplaced and misused).  As the images of Kali conjures, dynamism is an appropriate response to certain tensions. The key is to be in a dance of integration of opposing energies – the primordial dance of creation and destruction. This is the ultimate ground of union. (Which is likely why some  gravitate towards fighting in order to be “close”).

When I pay attention with the above insights in mind, the dance with my son reveals a different narrative. Through his constant testing of boundaries I hear him asking for reassurance. Will you love me even when I am anxious and confused? Will you join with me even in these sticky places? Will you stay with me even when I push you away? Do you still love me even when I am a horror to myself? The answer must be yes – even when coupled necessarily with the energy of a forceful self-protection or protection of my other children. (By this I mean a firm holding back of kicks or hits, or firm words of redirection). Some things do require the energy of destruction. We can always begin with a peaceful and patient joining, rooted in our equanimity – as well as be prepared to dance into the more tricky realm of fierceness – holding the proverbial sword that slices though ignorance: not to harm, but to stop the rise of nonsense and needless suffering.

The “low road” of parenthood shows up when we succumb to isolation and punishment. It is when the path of union has been lost (even momentarily). “You don’t love me!” my son says at times. I realize in these moments he points me to the places in my heart that have yet to relax into my infinite capacity to love. He shines light on the places within me not yet residing in ultimate union and intimacy with everything that is arising (particularly the messy, miserable, frustrating moments of parenting). I believe he will mirror this place to me again and again until I meet him from a place of no-separation, from a place of ultimate and unconditional acceptance, free of conditions.

And so, I dance my way into expressing the energy of anger from a place of union and integration. The only “space” taken must still be together in spirit – where time slows and response can be masterful. The only pain results from how close we want to be but haven’t yet grown into yet. As Ai-jen Poo says, “There are times we have to have conflict, and tension has to exist to bring something else into being. But they have to coexist with a deep sense of connection and shared destiny.” Aha! Indeed.

Negativity Simply Becomes Food

“Originally there were conceptual ideas and then they were cut through altogether so that you no longer regarded light and dark as light and dark. It becomes the non-dualistic state. Then negativity simply becomes food, pure strength. You no longer relate to negativity as being good or bad, but you continually use the energy which comes out of it as a source of life so that you are never really defeated in a situation. Crazy wisdom cannot be defeated. If someone attacks or someone praises, crazy wisdom will feed on either equally.”

-Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, The Myth of Freedom

My oldest son is teaching me about working with ‘negativity.’ He’s also teaching me about my own expression of anger in response. We often talk about how in our family “our love includes everything,” even the frustration and mutual mistakes. And, “mistakes” have been abounding. The stress of multiple transitions has affected each of us and wires are frayed all around. My son pushes the boundaries of my capacity to “positively parent” with patience and the face of love which feels most comfortable. I keep hearing the voice of my yoga teacher: “Real Hatha Yoga begins at the point of failure.” A mother recently said to me after she’d been yelling at her daughter: “Motherhood is a humbling series of failures.” I concur.

The question for me becomes: What do you do when you are standing at this humbling doorway of failure and mistake? How do you dance with negativity?

Chogyam Trungpa has an answer for me. “You must not make an impulsive move into any situation. Let the situation come, then look at it, chew it properly, digest it, sit on it….Frivolousness means reacting according to reflex. You throw something and when it bounces back you react. Spontaneity is when you throw something and watch it and work with the energy when it bounces back at you. Once you are emotionally worked up, then too much anxiety is put into your action. But when you are spontaneous, there is less anxiety and you just deal with situations as they are. You do not simply react, but you work with the quality and structure of the reaction. You feel the texture of the situation rather than just acting impulsively.”

Let’s break down what this looks like. My son throws his toothbrush. He does it again. He then pushes his brother. He now throws the toothpaste along with the toothbrush. (Mix in a bit of yelling and writhing on the floor even though we are 10 minutes late for school). “Are you trying to make me mad?” “Yes, mama.” And then, I do get mad, toss the equanimity out the door and resort to acting like a four-year old myself, raised voice, slammed door and all. Note: This IS reacting according to an agitated reflex. Note: This is NOT reacting with spontaneity. Note: This IS impulsive and I AM emotionally worked up. Note: Anxiety has definitely entered the picture. Note: Something along these lines happens daily right now. As parents, what do we do when we are consistently pushed to the edge of what feels tolerable in terms of ‘negative’ behavior? How to work with it? What to do? Where is my love when I fly off the handle? What do you do when it just feels like a continual, grueling mess?

Then, I remember what Dogen Zenji says: “Enlightenment is intimacy with everything.” I can hold all of this: the letting myself and my family down, the experience of failing, the loss of control, the dualistic mind that self-judges, the wrestling with shadows, the impatient mother in me who doesn’t want to deal with four-year old antics. And, as Trungpa points to: I can practice an integration of “negatives.” I don’t have to fall into labeling anything (including my own actions) as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Rather, this whole process of working with ‘negativity’ can be used as food for my dance in life, energy for my continued unfolding and relationship with what is. As in some Tibetan Buddhist images, I can use the ‘negativities’ – the painted demons or a crown of skulls – as ornaments of my own existence of grappling. I can remember that all feelings are allowed, and all actions can be danced with. I can remember to still set limits, while welcoming the full spectrum of emotions (including my own). Most importantly, I can stay close and connected with my child when ‘negative’ behavior is flourishing. I can do this because I have done the work of staying intimate with my own negativities. Not avoiding. Not ignoring. Not glossing over. Not pushing away. I can be angry, too. And still, I can work to restore calm, not from a place of this being ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ but from a place of spontaneous dance through whatever is being tossed at me in these crazy moments of parenting young kids.

Falling Forward, Falling Back: What Nobody Wants to Talk About

“The Women’s Health Initiative found that more than 34% of women in the U.S. with a uterus had significant cystocele (bladder prolapse). The figure of 50% of all women who have given birth (experiencing some form of prolapse) is published widely in gynecologic literature. These statistics show that prolapse occurs far more often than any other women’s health disorder.” – Christine Kent

Let’s put it right out there: I have a postpartum bladder prolapse. Three vaginal births and a 14 inch head coming down the birth canal last month did the trick. A month-long chronic cough also helped pave the way back in January. Don’t get me wrong: Life is good, nonetheless. I’m one of the lucky women with no symptoms and a positive prognosis for healing. And, there have been challenges. The chronic, debilitating cough. The whole family sick again right after birth (including my four-day old newborn). Then there was the stomach bug (mine) in postpartum week three. Then there was another cold this past week (week four). Oh, and of course there was the high blood pressure news delivered up by my midwife alongside the newly acquired retroverted (tipped) uterus revelation. (Perhaps that is why those afterbirth pains were so excruciating?) Oh, and yes, the bladder prolapse. Did I mention the bladder prolapse?

Wow. Did you say prolapse? Yes: “a slipping forward or down of one of the parts or organs of the body.” (Although it actually isn’t a falling forward but rather a falling backwards). WHAT? There was dismay. Confusion. Distress. Even despair. I cried. Was my body failing me? There was worry. My husband tried to reassure me (based on the midwives’ assessment) that prolapse after a third birth is ‘normal.’ (But really, death and disease are ‘normal’ too and that doesn’t make it any easier, right?). Luckily, my midwife handed up sound advice: “Worrying is the worst thing you can do. You are sending negative energy to the very part of the body you are trying to heal.”

But wait: Why hadn’t I heard of this? Why was nobody talking about this? I vaguely recall hearing of prolapse occurring in older women. But 50% of all postpartum women? Me? According to the NAFC, one in five women will go through prolapse surgery in her lifetime. One in five?! NAFC also estimates that the number of women undergoing surgery to treat pelvic organ prolapse will increase by 48 percent between 2010 and 2050. Furthermore, 27 percent will have repeat surgery. And so it appears I’ve stumbled upon a quintessential women’s issue. A motherhood issue.

The emotions accompanying the reality of this experience swing all over the map. Two things I know as a constant truth: This is hard. And, this merits practice. This is about my body, our bodies. This is about shedding light on what wants to remain in the dark: personally and culturally. This is the very literal expression of depth, right here in the organs at the base of the body. First, there is the uncomfortable process of acceptance. Then, there is the confusion about what to do. There is the conflicting information. The surprising revelations. “Kegels are the only thing that will make it better,” my midwife says. But wait! The kegel actually might not work? In fact, it can make prolapse worse? But wait! What do you mean the field of gynaecology is based on a faulty 500-year-old understanding of female anatomy? Wait! Squatting regularly like our ancestors did helps? Oh, and carrying heavy loads on our heads like indigenous women serves the feminine lumbar spinal curve which keeps organs in their proper place? Oh, sitting on couches can make our pelvic muscles weak?

After several weeks of mulling, inner work, research and a trip to a physical therapist, I come away with several insights that I hope will serve the women and mothers reading:

1. Knowing our own bodies is essential. This shift in my body has elucidated how little I really know, and how much I take for granted. Each woman’s body is different. We need to find out for ourselves what is true of our own experiences. Believing everything we are told about our bodies doesn’t always serve us. Cultural patterns of disconnection and dissociation from the base of our bodies fuels bodily complications.

2. It is important to tend to the deeper emotions embedded in bodily experience. Our bodies are home to long-held psycho-emotional patterns and habits, either our own or inherited genetically. Birth too comes with its own imprints and associated bodily ‘traumas,’ even for peaceful, non-complicated births. Prolapse has pointed me to the ways in which my own body has been adversely affected as a result of my three births: pelvic bones out of alignment, tailbone tipped to the side, tissues rubbery from stress…

3. Self-reliance and trying to “hold it all together” is a bust. Tucking the tailbone, sucking in the stomach muscles, overly contracting the pelvic floor and trying to “hold it all together” doesn’t work. One vein of research addressing prolapse points me to the practice of softening the belly, deepening the breath, loosening the tailbone, and reconnecting with the natural feminine curve of the lumbar spine. Apparently the force of our deep breath coupled with good posture serves to maintain the proper position of our organs. As Christine Kent says, “Part of the graceful curvature that makes us women is the pronounced curvature of our lumbar or lower back spine. It is this curvature that allows our organs to stay to the front.” Instead of trying to “pull in,” stay “strong,” or “hold it together,” we can instead let the belly relax (postpartum pooch and all), be okay with ‘softness,’ and let go of trying to overly control situations in our lives. We can practice a relaxed trust in the female body’s natural alignment, even when that alignment is out of balance and things are asunder.

4. “Letting go” is key. My physical therapist tells me to ditch the kegels. “You don’t need more strength here. If you contract the pelvic floor muscles too much you will shorten them and eventually weaken them.” And – you guessed it: this can tip our organs out of place. “What you need is release.” We need to remember lengthening, letting go, releasing and relaxing, just as much as we are told to practice the contracting strengthening exercises. (Of course!) Kara sums it up well: “It’s easy to see how we heard Dr. Kegel telling us to squeeze, but we ignored that bit about releasing…who among us has an easy time “letting go?” That, right there, is what childbirth is all about: letting our body open up and let go. Open up and let go? Huh, what? No, letting go just doesn’t come naturally to us in our society. We can clench and squeeze and get nice and tightly wound, but ask us to let go?…The exercise of letting go is always a good one to practice in any aspect of life.” 

The experience has ultimately led me to ask essential questions about my body and my broader existence. What is true of my own body and experience? What habits need tending so that I can be healthy into my later years? What do I need? Where do I need more support? Where do I need more strength? What is out of alignment? Where do I need to let go?

Once again, motherhood and birth deliver life-altering challenges that ultimately move me to new perspectives and make it impossible to ignore or dismiss the deeper layers of my human condition.

Despair v. Intimacy With Reality

Some context: I’ve been searching for a new childcare provider for over seven weeks. During my last interview I told the woman (who I’ve since hired thankfully!) that the whole experience has been so uncannily difficult that I can’t help but believe in a greater force at work trying to teach me something. Again and again the women I’d lined up to interview didn’t show up nor did they call (I have had at least 4-5 ‘no shows’). Another called in sick 15 minutes before her interview. I offered the job to another who then promptly changed her mind the night before she was slated to start. Another woman didn’t speak English and asked me to chart out her bus route to my home for her interview. And yet another woman applied from Turkey (!?) and said she wanted the job so she could learn English. It had become a comedy of errors. Meanwhile, I desperately needed to find innovative solutions so I could get my job done. I maintained staff meetings while pushing a stroller. I worked while Braeden slept. I cracked open the laptop at 9pm. It has been *ridiculous.*

The overarching theme in my experience since the turn of the seasons: exhaustion and the feeling of an absence of adequate support to relax into. It isn’t that help isn’t offered (because it is – thank you, friends!) It is simply that I am seven months pregnant and my body is tired and my nervous system is frayed. No help seems enough. Again and again I greet my wall of challenge that has become a familiar friend since becoming a Mother. This time the situation is amplified by my trying to patch together child care amidst failed attempt followed by failed attempt. Some of it bad luck. Some of it perhaps divine intervention.

This particular period has given me the gifts of illness, injury and this strange karma with not being able to find adequate childcare help on top of the baseline of daily responsibilities.  Parenthood has gifted me with feeling my own profound confrontation with the limits of what I can often bear. It isn’t enough for me to just “survive” – and that is what many of my days have felt like as I’ve settled into balancing work, motherhood, laundry, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning and generally maintaining Home and Family (amidst near constant bantering and rough-housing amongst brothers in the foreground). The responsibilities of being a householder and parent seem to augment as the months go by. There are food allergies to tend to. Emotional outbursts to sit with. Complex feelings and questions to tend to. Meanwhile, the laundry pile becomes the size of Kilamanjaro and dinner needs to be cooked… Then I ushered in a shaky, queasy stomach virus and a showering of vomit. It was a perfect expression of how I’ve been feeling. Nothing to relax into. No rest to be found. Behind in everything. And yet, I write knowing too that none of this is a problem. None of this is “bad.” I’ve little to complain about AND something about vomiting for the 20th time allows me the privilege of being pushed into a realm of choice: Despair (and the accompanying loneliness of that experience) OR Intimacy with Reality, Intimacy with What Is.

Which brings me to the essential question: What is there to relax into when support and safety nets feel frayed along with your own inner and outer resources? The answer: Reality.

Let me explain. The experience of loneliness/aloneness/lack of support/depletion while parenting presents two options.

1. Despair, depression and an exhaustion that annihilates, even pulverizes the capacity for joy and appreciation. Along with this experience comes the specter of moving functionally through life without joy and vitality.

OR

2. A pressing of oneself lovingly into deeper, more heartfelt relationship with Reality (or God/the Divine).

And this revelation is exactly what my recent life circumstance has pushed me to realize. What is there to relax into when all systems are bust? For me it is what I am pressed into  – forced into – when other mechanisms of support are thinned (including my own inner resources). It’s the reminder of the moment of imminent death – where the journey into that new form is mine alone. It’s a reconnection with my capacity to be in love with anything that is arising, and a reminder to stop looking for something “other” – particularly in the form of “help.”

Yes, there is the practical domain of needing help in order to work (not to mention cook, clean, take out the recycling and get some self-care in!). But regardless of “practical” or “external” factors at work, there is the underlying basic relationship with and in Reality/Being Alive: and that is what can truly sustain us. Those exuding the greatest sense of peace are ones rooted in an experience of communion with that which is beyond Self and Ego – an experience of divine submission to a Mystery called by many names. So it is here that I am driven by an essential force in my times of fraying sanity and when I feel alone in my role as a Mother – where body and soul are, yes, depleted, and still: the aches of parenting and all the associated work and emotions aren’t the absolute Truth. They are real and I feel the ache, yet each time I greet these hard places I dip in and out of the choice to become greater bound to Reality and Life as it is, with Love – or not, and suffer as a result.

The key is to move through the pendulum of these spheres with an awareness that the backdrop, foreground, interior and exterior are inextricably woven into the fabric of Reality (or God/the Divine). Despair, depression and annihilating exhaustion can be true – as is the specter of moving functionally through life without joy. If not awake to our experience, we can all of a sudden fall prey to a tendency of habit which marries us to misery and drudgery. Our own storylines can be interpreted as a truth which prevents seeing beyond our limited egoic experience. But, with careful attention we can peel away the layers of loneliness, despair or exhaustion that prevent joyful seeing and press ourselves lovingly into a deeper, more heartfelt relationship with Reality. This is the ultimate gesture of relaxation and surrender. And the beauty of it is that there is nowhere to go, nothing to attain – only Reality itself to greet as if settling into the presence of an old, supportive friend.

 

Beginner’s Mind

“By definition, having a beginner’s mind means having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and freedom from preconceptions when approaching anything. Beginner’s mind is actually the space where the mind does not know what to do. It is that delicious state when you are sure of nothing, yet completely fearless, totally available to the moment.” – excerpted from Nithyananda Mission’s website

Beginner’s mind suddenly struck me as the perfect practice solution to the troubles arising in my household: a constantly repeating and exhausting cycle of Rowan feeling jealous (his words), Rowan causing mischief with his little brother, his brother getting sad (usually crying), and me (mother) getting utterly frustrated and exasperated to the point of snapping. The cycle continues over and over again. I try patience. I try speaking kindly. I ask over and over again for a change of choice and behavior, and yet – here we go again. And again. And again.

The mantra “Connect, even when infuriated” surfaces over and over again in my awareness. Connect. Even when infuriated. And yes, I do get infuriated. Tripping, flinging any known object to man in his brother’s face, a vice grip to his brother’s neck or shoulders, an “accidental” body slam while pretending to fight dragons… Day in and day out I am constantly saying No. Please don’t. What are you doing? I resort to sending him away for time outs (usually unsuccessfully). I even resort to taking time outs for myself to get away from the madness. (Rowan won’t take space for himself in his room? Fine. I’ll lock myself in the bathroom then and count to ten). In my worn down state I know that none of this is working. Pushing my son away is not what I want to do. Connect. Even when infuriated. I recommit to keeping him close and not sending him away, even for 10 seconds. I amp up the positive reinforcement. I commit to “no more firm talking” (as the continuation of the above mentioned cycle is Rowan then moving from mischief and jealousy to his own aching heart of sadness and hurt feelings. “Can I just sit on your lap, mama? Don’t talk firmly to me. It hurts my feelings!”) How hard it is to stay close to love when I am angry, tired and worn down! The authors of Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Lives of Boys say that “violence is the product of an exhausted mind” – and this rings truer than ever. I’m perennially exhausted so my fuse is shortened. I’ve over time come to expect ‘negative’ antics from Rowan towards Braeden. My responses have become painfully stale and ineffective. We’re stuck. I’m stuck. So what to do? What to do…

And then it strikes me one day: Beginner’s Mind! Like a dog barking from the bottom of a very distant well, I hear a crackle of inspiration. What if each day I commit to looking into the moments of angst from a fresh perspective? What if I choose an orientation of inquiry? What if I ask questions? What if I dig deeper into the emotions and actions of the moment? I can choose to be curious. I can practice letting go of any storyline that I’ve created about my children’s behavior. Even though I’ve just been here in this mess of redirection and bubbling familial conflict five minutes ago, what fresh response can I bring now? And now? And now?

Since we’re practicing Beginner’s Mind, let’s encounter this again as if for the first time: “By definition, having a beginner’s mind means having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and freedom from preconceptions when approaching anything. Beginner’s mind is actually the space where the mind does not know what to do. It is that delicious state when you are sure of nothing, yet completely fearless, totally available to the moment.”

So how can I be free of this cycle of suffering? Set aside preconceptions when approaching anything. The space where the mind does not know what to do is actually something to celebrate. Rather than scramble for an ‘appropriate’ or ‘effective’ response to any potentially harm-inducing action arising in my household, I can slow down and consider not knowing what to do, then start fresh from that place. I can practice seeing my oldest with new eyes, over and over again. I can accept what is, loosening my own vice grip on my desire for change. I can throw strategy out the window and be spontaneous with my responses. Rather than resist and succumb to our literal wit’s end, we can choose fresh availability to the present moment as if we’ve never experienced anything like it before. Because, truly, we haven’t!