Fall Equinox: A Moment to Contemplate Balance

“The Goddess weaves her magic through the seasons, endlessly aging and growing young. She gives birth to the wild force of Nature, unleashing her mighty child to grow, and decay – sacrificing her progeny time and again into the vast Dark, feeding the Power of Life. Ahh – time to look at what we have birthed into being this year. What did we bring forth that totally awakened our desire? What of our own creations did we so fall in love with that we married it down in the marrow of our bones? What now are we getting ready to take with us into the dark? 

Fall is a time of decision, of gathering in, of choosing what to keep and what to let go. Fall now into our heart of hearts. Dive now into the deep end of the pool of ourselves. Let go of the above ground. Burrow now into our dream cave taking with us the final harvest, the essential piece that will nourish the root of our being and bring us through to our next life.”

– Miriam Dyak, Mother Tongue Ink

“She gives birth to the wild force of Nature.” The line sticks with me as I contemplate how each mother in her own way also gives birth to the ongoing force of human nature – with little ones often bringing with them wild joy and spontaneity – and sometimes wild, unbridled energy. We do a serious work bringing our children into the world – and can at times forget our own center or balance as we set aside so much in service of another.

Today’s Equinox – a time of equal lightness and darkness – ushers forth the perfect opportunity to reflect on balance. While summer offers the natural space for extraversion and generativity, the advent of this new, darker season serves up a moment to contemplate how balanced or imbalanced we’ve been. How can we say goodbye to the fruits of summer and recommit to a sane rhythm of life as the season shifts? What to keep and what to let go?

A friend once said she was so tired of reading ‘mom blogs’ that dwell on how exhausted parenting can make us and how many messes we are tasked with tending to. Her comment has stayed with me as I’ve struggled to find balance these years while these two dominant themes seem to rule my experience. Exhaustion and Mess. Should I just gloss over these overwhelming aspects of motherhood? Should I shift my focus? Even in the midst of the dishes and laundry and wet bed sheets and diapers, what do we also bring forth that inspires our creativity and inspiration? It must be about finding balance – and honoring both sides of our experience. Yes, exhausted. Yes, always a mess. Yes, zany, wild joy!

The word balance comes from the Latin ‘bi lanx’- ‘having two scalepans.’ As mothers we are always holding many scalepans, and perhaps the key is to find the grounded center in the middle while holding all the conflicting realities and responsibilities. If we tip one direction and get lost in the tiredness and the never-ending piles of housekeeping, we lose balance. If we tip another direction and get lost in work, we lose balance. And if we only play and frolic, we also lose balance. Instead, the invitation is to hold the myriad scalepans from a grounded center of perspective. Yes, I’m tired and yes I can’t stay ahead of the mess. But I can also enjoy the daily delights with full presence and appreciation along the way. I can focus fully in one area, then focus fully in another.

Nonetheless, the exhaustion and messes do serve as a significant backdrop and inform my experience of balance (or imbalance!). I am at my most balanced when I can hold the scalepans of exhaustion of mess and not let them take me down. I am at my most balanced when I remember to see through the lens of joy and appreciation. For me, the quiet moments with my children in the garden or under our grapes, or the moments dipping our toes into a creek on a hot day have most recently brought me joy. The delight has been about bringing forth a quality of life for my family which will hopefully endure into the future through sane and grounded children going on to become sane and grounded young men. Part of this is modeling a slowness and relaxedness, even in the midst of often overwhelming responsibility. When I hold this perspective while tending to the duties of caregiving and householding, I can find a more sustainable center of gravity from which to live.

As Miriam Dyak reminds me, fall can be a time of decision, of gathering in and of choosing what to keep and what to let go. What are we balancing in our lives right now? How are the scales tipping? How do we stand in the center? What perspective dominates? What are we getting ready to take with us into the dark? What would like to fall away like the leaves leaving their trees?

Burrowing into the dream cave of darker days indeed does call – and a dive into the deep end our ourselves…


Love Is Not Bound By Reality

Love is not bound by reality – 

But it is bound by infinity. 

Some moments it can be entered

and others it is like a slow, distant orbit: 

like planets around a sun – always warmed by a pervading grace 

but just distant enough to merit the mystery of the unknown. 

Love is not bound by reality – 

It is bigger than all that. 

Instead, it lives in quiet corners, 

surprising us with unexpected delights…


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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Leaving Home…

IMG_0239Last weekend my family drove four hours north to Casper, Wyoming to celebrate my father’s retirement from 41 years of ordained ministry as a Lutheran pastor. My sister-in-law and I drove with our boys through several hours of open land, pronghorn antelope and buffalo occasionally dotting the landscape. I was entering my own liminal space of transition, battling a cold and dealing with my own response to what was yet another of life’s great thresholds.

For my whole life I’ve witnessed my father in action at work: sharing his wisdom on Sunday mornings via his sermons, running out the door to get to the hospital late at night to be with a sick person, presiding over funerals, baptisms and weddings, and generally attending to the needs of those in his community. He set a great example of integrity and service. He gave it more than his all. And somehow, he has managed to be an amazing father while balancing his many responsibilities and his calling to serve.

It was one of those days of celebration and honoring where I was holding a lifetime perspective, feeling the long stretch of time that my dad’s 41 years or ordained ministry is – and how that length of time mirrors my own lifespan. With my mother and brother by my side, I feel where I have come from and our long journey together as a family unit, with my father’s work with the Lutheran Church always there as a constant. While the church communities and locations changed, the rhythms often remained the same. Growing up Lutheran entailed many a church potluck with casseroles and jello (and dad’s retirement party was just the same!), and a long succession of kind and generous people offering their love and welcome to my brother and I as the proverbial ‘pastor’s kids.’

For his final sermon, my father spoke about ‘leaving home.’ While he was speaking about his own journey with the transition into retirement, the theme of threshold and change resonated. In fact, the occasion reminded me of my own journey of ‘leaving home’ to become a mother and cultivate my own newer nuclear family. It reminded me of my own ‘leaving home’ from my family of origin, charting my own path and how suddenly I find myself age 40 – basking in midlife with three of my own children in tow. As I struggled to listen amidst the clamor of my three boys’ shuffling and persistent requests for food, water, crayons or stickers, I felt my own sense of being ‘betwixt and between,’ as my father describes it. Pulled between two worlds I stand: one wanting to pay homage to my father and honor my (and his) past, the other grabbing for my attention via whines and taps as my boys adjust to a 90 minute church service in wooden pews.

The transition to motherhood indeed was also a leaving of home, a leaving of the familiar. In past years I could listen attentively during important occasions, offering up my full presence and attention in an undivided way. Now, I do the dance of bifurcation – split in four directions at all moments during a day. My brother is a father now too and we connect during the event about how different it is now. Time has surely passed and entered us both into the middle ground of our lifetimes, where the territory is new and the familiar ballasts of the past fade.

The moment of dad’s retirement is a marker of one such ballast fading. Of course the transition brings newness and hopefully new adventures for my father in his 70s and beyond. But it also marks an end, and reminds me of the wilderness of what is to come when my parents pass into the next world. As dad said during his last sermon:
“Life is always taking us to the wilderness. The wilderness is an “in-between” place. It is a place of awareness, a threshold. We are betwixt and between. We are neither here nor there. We have left behind what was and what will be is not yet clear. In the wilderness we come face to face with the reality of our lives; things done and left undone, our uncertainties, our hopes and dreams, our sorrows and losses, as well as the unknown.”

Leaving “home” can be difficult. As dad reminded me last Sunday, it invites us to change and opens us to new discoveries about ourselves. “It challenges our understandings of where we find significance, meaning, and security.” Yet perhaps most importantly, “leaving home” is about our continued spiritual journey and growth.

That night as I lay in bed with my boys, we talked about the day and about all the photos my mother had prepared for the event. We talked about my father’s lifetime of work and adventures. And Rowan said, “Mama, I heard one thing in Grandpa Bob’s sermon today. It was about how hard it can be to leave home.” He wanted to hear more. Why was it hard? Did everyone have to leave home? How do you find your way back? This led me into telling them their nightly story as they fell asleep. I heard myself speaking about how every person leaves home in different ways, and that there are times when we are in periods of the great unknown. The story took us into a forest, and into a great wilderness, but there we found a river where we could begin again and be transformed. And then, somehow, we find our way to a new home – over and over again finding our way home to what is ultimately our own beating heart. We can change and we can grow. We can journey thousands of miles. Things inevitably change, and around each corner there is a new self greeting new life circumstances.

And still, we can seek out the comfort of home, wherever or whatever that might be – coming back to ourselves with a spirit of rememberance of something in us that is unshakable, like a steady thread flowing through lifetimes regardless of time, external conditions, life transitions and even space. As I drift to sleep with my boys, I realize that this is my journey into motherhood and mid-life: old reference points fading, new challenges emerging daily, new responsibilities, new juggling, constant invitations to grow and learn. Some days I pine for the familiar or yearn for what was. Today, seeing my dad set sail into new horizons, I choose to let go of grasping for the lines that mark the past. I’m indeed in a great, new wilderness, charting my course and witnessing life’s great passage of time.


Finding Silence Amidst the Sugar, the Screens and the Endless Rush

“In the attitude of silence the soul finds the path in a clearer light, and what is elusive resolves itself into crystal clearness.” ~Mahatma Gandhi

One of the things I find myself pondering daily is how life with my three boys seems to be one continuous boundary against ‘treats,’ screens and rushing from one place to the next. Sugar has infiltrated every crevice of American life such that now we consume on average 130 pounds of sugar each year, or about 3,550 pounds of sugar in the average lifetime (in case you are wondering, that’s enough to fill an industrial sized dumpster). And kids generally eat more than adults – averaging 32 teaspoons of sugar a day (which happens to be three times the amount recommended by the American Heart Association). Don’t get me wrong – I do love sugar myself, even though I try to limit how much I consume. But in spite of my best efforts, sugar seems to be everywhere – and at kid eye level to boot.

The same goes for screens. As with sugar, I’ve decidedly aimed to set limits and hold boundaries. On average my boys watch less than an hour a week and yet they go through periods where they whine for it daily. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, kids under age 6 watch an average of about 2 hours of screen media a day, and kids and teens 8 to 18 years spend nearly 4 hours a day in front of a TV screen and almost 2 additional hours on the computer (outside of schoolwork) and playing video games. Even when trying to avoid conforming to these statistics, the screens can infiltrate the back drop of daily life, just like the sugar. At dinner out last week we counted six viewable screens. And there they were again at the coffee shop, and there they were again in the waiting room at the car wash. (The car wash waiting room also boasted Oreo cookies, candy cars and a wide variety of colorful gum drops in plastic bags). The opportunities for participation in screens and sugar are endless. Eat a little here, watch a little there. When I confront this daily reality coupled with the constant transition to and from school, often with the rush to get there on time and avoid a “tardy,” I want to crawl in a hole.

How did the dominant culture in America get to this place? A recent week of spring break at home with the kids reminded me of the slower rhythm possible in our mornings when we aren’t bound by the clock or getting in a car. Time could slow down a bit, more mindfulness prevailed over meal times and food choices. In general, there was a bit more silence. I liked it. Immensely.

Jean Arp says, “Soon silence will have passed into legend. We’ve turned our backs on silence. Day after day humans invent machines and devices that increase noise and distract humanity from the essence of life, contemplation, meditation… tooting, howling, screeching, booming, crashing, whistling, grinding, and trilling bolster the ego. Anxiety subsides. The inhuman void spreads monstrously like a gray vegetation.”

It is this gray vegetation that I’m trying to reckon with as I raise my children. Its the gray vegetation of too many treats and the glorification of screens. Its the gray vegetation of the cars in traffic on 28th street as I switch lanes in order to get Rowan to his 1st grade door at 8:20am sharp. Its the gray vegetation of a life with too few pauses and too much stimuli of all kinds. All of the sudden the experience of life can become the blur of scenery flying by on a road that looks the same everywhere you go because you aren’t close enough – or slow enough- to notice subtlety, or the quiet, simple beauty of the lone flower peeking out in spring under snow.

The absence of silence feels intimately connected to the influx of sugar and screens. The rushing, the noise of city life, the extreme sweet foods and the screens everywhere you go combine to form a cocktail of madness that swirls like a hum underneath it all. I choose to live in this swirl with as much slowness as possible, even while making a practice of setting boundaries. I say “there is no rush” over and over again to remind myself, and my boys, that we don’t have to live like a dog on a leash being flung around by an unknown owner (even though I am indeed worried about being late and daily wishing for a more flexible system). When I’m with my children the phone goes on airplane mode. In the car, the radio is always off. I practice taking deep breaths while driving and make a point to notice the details of the trees along the road. We play ‘I spy’ as a way to connect to our surroundings, even when in transit.

Perhaps the pining for more silence and stillness was what prompted my husband and I to begin sitting with the Quakers this past year. Those hours spent in absolute silence are often the most restorative and grounding in a week. Young children are welcome to join for the first 15 minutes of silence, and even though mine have yet to top 8 minutes, I know that this gesture of inviting them into a world of stillness is a rare gift. So I focus on what gifts I can give as a parent – the gift of quality time, full, engaged presence, silence as the backdrop as often as possible, and the freedom of no agenda most afternoons after school and work.

Prioritizing simplicity and silence feels like the antidote to a culture gone nuts. I am constantly tracking how I can integrate more time outside, more time getting lost in the small details of nature, more art and movement, more quality time with friends and less running around on the fly with granola bars gobbled in the back seat. I am doing more contemplating before saying YES to anything – and trying to be more mindful of how the grams of sugar pile up. Perhaps most importantly, I’m trying to remember that I do have agency in how I live my life and how I raise my children. Even though I feel pulled into a very fast stream, I can still swim like a turtle – carrying a home where there is always the possibility of finding stillness and silence in a world full of noise.


*Note to readers: It has been awhile since I’ve posted – but the things I want to write on swim in my mind every day. This past year I’ve focused my bits of spare time into writing a book based on the themes of this blog. I’m now focusing my still scant spare time on finding a publisher for said book. (!) Thank you for bearing with the silence and the long stretches! – Deborah


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.

Halloween: Reaffirming Death and Its Place as Part of Life

FullSizeRender (3)“People in every disguise imaginable are taking to the streets and parading past grinningly carved, candlelit jack o’lanterns, re- enacting customs with a lengthy pedigree. Their masked antics challenge, mock, tease, and appease the dread forces of the night, of the soul, and of the otherworld that becomes our world on this night of reversible possibilities, inverted roles, and transcendency. In so doing, they are reaffirming death and its place as a part of life in an exhilarating celebration of a holy and magic evening.”

– Jack Santino, The Folklore of All Hallows

I love to tell my children the old stories of Halloween – how for at least 1200 years (and likely much longer) people of Celtic heritage were celebrating a festival of the dead on October 31st, complete with bonfires, costumes, and treats left on stoops for the wandering spirits. November 1st was the marking of a new year in the Celtic calendar, the beginning of the darkest half of the year. Harvest in, darkness falling earlier, leaves almost all tumbled off the trees, it was seen as a time when the veils between the worlds were said to be thinner and the spirits of the departed returned to frolic once more among the living.

Out walking with Braeden today we talked about what it means to return to the earth. We studied the leaves just fallen from the trees and I showed him how the colorful ones still had their sweet pliable lifeblood about them while the brownest ones were easily crumpled, crunchily turning back into the earth before our very eyes. In our bedtime stories of the past few evenings I’ve woven in how our ancestors likely were paying very close attention to the natural world and the lessons contained therein. Just like the leaves returning to earth, this is a time for us too to contemplate those who have passed to the other side before us.

FullSizeRender (6)The day after Halloween we set up our ‘Day of the Dead’ altar with photos of my Grandpa Lundin, my Grandma Rhea and Grandpa Nick, and my great great grandmother Wilhelmina. There is a photo of my father paying his respects at my grandpa McNamara’s grave in Normandy, where he died right after D-Day during World War II. It got us talking about our bodies returning to earth, and why some of us are buried in the ground. Rowan got out his drawing paper and asked me to draw a person who had “gone back to the earth.” He then drew a “hole” (which for me harkened a tree – the symbolism of which wasn’t lost on me since many of my European ancestors believed we came from trees and thus should return to earth in trees – hence the wooden coffin). Rowan added hearts around the body, and peace signs representing how those who “have gone back to the earth are thinking about peace and surrounded by love.” While explaining his drawing to his friend Emily today over a lit candle he said “here is the dead person in their cradle, back to the earth.”

Yes! Here we were, getting at what I think is part of the central essence of this ancient celebration. Like Jack Santino writes, here we are “reaffirming death and its place as a part of life in an exhilarating celebration of a holy and magic evening.” Over lollipops left over from trick-or-treating we talk about how the candy of the season should really be a reminder of the sweetness of life since we are here amongst this glorious land of the living. Luckily, the six year olds agree. “It shouldn’t just be all about the sugar.”

Today, November 2nd, is “All Souls Day,” designated as such by the Church sometime in about 1000AD as a day to honor the dead. It built upon the existing “All Saints Day” of November 1st, which had been designated in the 8th Century by Pope Gregory III, a feast day to coincide with the pagan Samhain and the Celtic New Year, with the evening before known over time as “All Hallow’s Eve,” now our current ‘Halloween.’

Of course the more ancient origins were rooted in the pre-Christian Celtic festival of Samhain, where bonfires were lit and people would wear costumes to ward off and confuse the ghosts traveling between worlds at this time of the year. It was seen as a liminal time, when spirits and the souls of the departed were catered to with offerings of food and drink (often ale or wine). Trick-or-treating likely has its roots here, or perhaps from the tradition of going door to door collecting food for Samhain feasts, or from the All Souls Day parades in England, where people would give out ‘soul cakes’ in return for praying for departed family members.

In a culture gone mad with candy and consumerism, I pine for the quiet thread of story that Halloween, Samhain, Day of the Dead, and All Souls Day weave together. I tell it to my children in several acts each night, and build on the themes during the day. What do we notice about nature around us? How is the darkness landing earlier and earlier and how does it make us feel? Why is it important to remember those who have passed before us? And, is there really a mysterious realm of ‘other-world’ that we cannot truly know?

For now, I tell them that this is the time of year to go inwards into the light of their own hearts even as it is getting darker. This is the time to feel our roots settling deeply into the earth, even as the leaves of our activities may be falling away. What sustains us deep below that is beyond the fruits of our labors? Where can we find life in hidden places, even when so many things are dying? These are the words I utter as they slowly drift off to sleep.

FullSizeRender (4)Rowan’s drawing of a person who has “gone back to the earth, in their cradle.”

What We Have Been Makes Us What We Are

“Our deeds travel with us from afar, and what we have been makes us what we are…” – George Eliot

IMG_2080Like a slow burning candle, our lives pass – and what remains is a holy mystery to behold: the shreds of paper, the unwritten stories passed on, the recorded histories from 1000 years ago, the letters, the photos, the standing stones and cave paintings. “We were here,” they say. “This is what happened. You too will be history one day. You’ll be gone with only traces of your humanity left, imprints on time and space to be felt through story and artifacts.” And so it is with the stories of my great great grandparents settling on 143 acres in Parkersburg, West Virginia. Stories told by my father about his childhood summer at the farm take literal shape as we visit the old barn and land where the “old home place” stood. The cicadas are in full force and the place is teeming with life. I stand at the center of what would have been their home and feel outwards for a trace of what their lifetimes could have been like: hours spent on the porch, watching the sunlight in the trees and listening to the insects. Tending hearth and land. Milking cows. Making butter. Raising children. Hosting grandchildren and great grandchildren. Births. Baptisms. Marriages. Funerals. A new highway slicing their land in two.

The stories and histories of my ancestors weave behind me like threads in a braid, coming together into the braided DNA of my present moment form. The past is pulled together into what is now – cellularly as well as from a storyline perspective. In this way there is really no beginning and end – but rather a continuous thread with different points of origin. Still weaving, I marvel at the continuation of life and genes passed on to my children and wonder how to impart to them a perspective of lifespans that moves beyond our present moment expressions. Taking this on prods me into the realm of deeper and larger questions to be answered together. It takes us into a territory of mystery and spirit. Where do we come from? Why are we here? What is our journey leading us to? What is sacred about this lifetime? How are we connected to ‘place?’ When do we have to die and what happened to those who went before us?

My grandmother’s wish was to be buried at St. Paul Lutheran Church Cemetery in Parkersburg, which is why we are all here. This is where she was born and where her mother and grandparents and great grandparents are buried. We are now eight generations past and present together on the old cemetery land. We walk over the bones of our ancestors, us in full bloom standing atop our literal roots. My boys ask questions about what it means to “go back to the Earth.” We talk about the cycles of life and the bones beneath our skin. We talk about how some things are constant but how all living things do have to die. We try to prepare them for when people might cry.

It isn’t often I can take my children to a place and say “this is one of many places where you are from. This is where many of your ancestors lived and died. You too are from here in some way.” My grandmother has given us a profound gift through her wish to be buried in the old family plot. It brought us together to a place few of us know, but nonetheless represents the origins of our German family line’s presence in America. It prompted old stories, memories of childhood overnight bus trips from Cleveland to Parkersburg – and the transition from city life to the country. Some of us visited where the old home place used to be, meeting relatives who still live on parcels of that original land. It gets me thinking about what home is, and my longing for a deeply connected sense of place which is often cultivated over time and across generations. For many European Americans like myself, that experience is different now. And yet, how can I raise my children with a sense of home and place and history, even when so much of our recent family history has involved movement and migrations?

“Our deeds travel with us from afar, and what we have been makes us what we are…”

I remember the Armenian family at the passport office this summer, the father preparing to take his four teenage children to Armenia so that they could greet their homeland. He and his wife are descended from orphans, their great grandparents killed during the Armenian genocide. Our conversation is a solemn one. They are planning for a trip of a lifetime. They are learning Armenian, traveling this year to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the genocide and plan to go to the spot in Armenia where they can gaze out over what used to be their ancestral homeland (now in Turkey). The conversation prompts me to reflect on the places my European ancestors are from and how many of them came to America fleeing poverty or persecution, or were forced off their own ancestral homelands, even if longer ago than Armenia’s 100th anniversary of the genocide this year…

It’s something that isn’t often tended to in the European American experience. Many of us with European ancestry may identify with the oppressor, having come to America and stolen lands from Native Peoples. Were we meant to cross the great ocean and forget our roots and begin anew, forgetting the cycles of trauma and displacement that many European Americans endured? In the threads of my own braided history there was the French Protestant Ezell family fleeing Catholic persecution, where being burned at the stake or cut down by the sword because of your religion was the norm. There were the Delameters, also fleeing France and seeking refuge at Canterbury before finding a safe haven in the Netherlands. There were the Belgian/Dutch Walloons, also Protestants fleeing persecution and landing in New Amsterdam (New York). There were the Scottish Highland Chisholms, driven off their lands by the English and massacred at the Battle of Culloden. There were the peasants from Mecklenburg, Germany, still living in one of the last and poorest serfdoms in the late 1800s. And there were the McNamaras – the line of my name – who lived in place in County Clare, Ireland, for no less than 1,200 years, defeating every intruder until Oliver Cromwell came with his guns and cannons and enforced new tenant landlord laws, driving the native people off their lands, burning churches and evicting all but six of 200 McNamara families. They hung on for 200 more years in Ireland, Catholics punished for their religion under oppressive English “Penal Laws,” until the Potato Famine final forced them across the ocean to the tenements of New York. The story braids itself to my father, Robert McNamara, whose mother was born and buried in Parkersburg.

In Ireland, the bards or poets historically played an important role, filling the office of both historian and genealogist. They curated the stories and signposts of a family or clan, recording and sharing them across generations, handing us the artifacts that pointed to the significant impressions made over time. In this way, culture and identity were transmitted. Where we come from and where we have been was deemed of utmost importance. In today’s very different world, we as parents and elders can still play these vital roles, reminding our children of the larger spans of lifetimes, putting our current lives in perspective and context, and sharing the stories we deem important for posterity. We can inspire respect for those who have passed before us, and a sense of awe and mystery in the face of where we have come from and where we are going. What survives over centuries? What traits do we inherit from those we’ve never met but who we are related to? How did so many of us become so short-sighted? How do we maintain vital connections to our past while also shaping our future, keeping in mind what legacy we as individuals, families and societies wish to leave behind? Can we see ourselves both as the oppressor and the oppressed, thus inviting the possibility of deeper understanding and compassion for all sides? This surfaces with my children when recounting stories or histories where it is easy to fall into “good versus bad” or “right versus wrong.” Even with my own past, I feel the tendency to side with one side, and then I remember that in almost every instance my bloodline embodies both/and. I was the Viking invader and the native Irish. I was the English colonizer and the Scottish Highlander. I was the Catholic and the Protestant. I was the Patriot as well as the Red Coat, and I was also the Confederate and the Union.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once pointed to “the bards sublime, whose distant footsteps echo through the corridors of Time.” In these distant footsteps I catch faint whispers pointing to the path of integration. I ride the waves of old story and ultimately see clearly the inevitability of my and our dissolution. And yet, something endures – at least for a time. The bones in the earth, the stories across generations, the old barn, the same sound of crickets or cicadas chirping now that would have likely piped up 50 or 100 or 500 years ago too. The light across an old doorway, or the bond between a mother and her child. And age-old important questions: Are we making time to share what is most important? Are we telling the stories we want to hand down? It is a time for remembering the long term perspective of Life. What are we growing in this lifetime? What are the roots? What is worth preserving and upholding across the vast annals of time?


Dry Run Road, Parkersburg, West Virginia

In Search of La Dolce Vita

Like a tea bag pulled out of the hot water after a good steep, I re-enter my habitual life after a dream-like frolic with the ancient, devotional, artful aspects of Italy. I was there for a reunion with some of my oldest friends and we dipped into the world of slow food, fresh melons and prosciutto, local mozzarella, white wine and goat cheese, staying in a 400 year old ‘convento,’ which drew us together for three hour dinners under an old stone archway.

It was just my youngest son and I traveling and I got used to parenting only one. Attunement to his needs was more easeful. I could enjoy the simple gestures that inform the daily bonding of a mother and her child in a way that I can’t when I am balancing the myriad needs of all of my children combined. I could see him more clearly. It was an unexpected gift. This – combined with the luxury of finished sentences, time with old friends, delicious food, good coffee and the never-ending beauty of medieval stone towns, old cathedrals, vineyards and olive groves – was truly the good life.

Returning home to family life with fresh eyes, I immediately feel the effects of splitting my attention amongst three. The essential questions have become: how to not succumb to scatteredness? How to stay centered and remember the simple pleasures of life? And, how to cultivate ‘la dolce vita’ here at home amidst diapers, fevers, almond butter and jelly, dinner thrown on the floor and the barrage of whines? I start with slow sips, remembering to drink in each moment at home just as I did the gorgeous light of Tuscany. Then, I weave in doing something I love each day and making sure to bring the kids along, even if they resist. I remember the nourishment of just being alive: the feeling of air on skin, the beauty of sunlight on a wall, the taste of food (even if not cooked in local olive oil). In this way, we don’t have to travel far to find the sweet nectar of being alive…

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