On Sunday morning the strong wind outside our windows whipped the tall redwoods and eucalyptus trees into a frenzy. Smoky air, electrical outage, it was time to go.
I grabbed the bags I'd packed the night before as my daughter cried, "Mama but what if our house burns down!?"
"Our house will probably be fine, sweetheart," I told her. How could I come up with the right words to soothe a child sensing the intensity of a nearby wildfire? She said goodbye to her papa, tears in her eyes bringing tears to his. It was a sad and beautiful moment.
Now five days later, I sit in the home of a close friend, 180 miles away. Air here is clean, my daughter and I are comfortable and feel good about leaving the scene in our hometown.
Life normally isn't frenzied. Earth is warming, fires and winds are strong, these are a new kind of times yet they've become the norm. Somehow it seems to me that life, in all its bold human courage and humble wild whispering, is messy. Just like an evacuation. All the pieces are strung about in "normal" life just like they are during wildfires.
I've come close to dying a few times.
Once was on a plane during a typhoon above China. Once was on a river in India. There were more, and was this fun? Never. But has it been helpful, in the way it opened my awareness to the fact that we are mortal? Showed me my body will die, as will everyone else's, even in a culture that likes to pretend we will not?
Yes, yes. Seeing death a few feet from my nose has been helpful.
When people say, "I'm sorry" about the evacuation, I thank them for being sensitive and yet I notice that I've felt nothing tough about it. I don't need "I'm sorry."
My house can burn, I may cry a bit and miss my piano and my baskets of greeting cards and pens... but if I am alive... if my daughter and husband are alive... I am rich! There is nothing to mourn long about.
Having lived many messes, some caused by my fear and some by others', I know in my bones life is messy. It is actually freedom, to know this. No longer do I try to keep all the pieces together within myself or in my outer world. It's OK to be messy! It is... natural.
From where I sit, two 9-year-old girls chat on walkie-talkies about whether one of them is going "number t-w-o or number o-n-e." Ha! As they spell out the difference between pee and poo, I feel an amused spark in my belly about the mess of life.
It is wonderful to have a home to go back to, that isn't burned down. While I extend deep compassion to those who have lost homes and businesses, wineries and cars, in these fires, I also extend an invitation to all of us to BE OK WITH THE MESS. Life is a mess. When we breathe in and out accepting that, we fight the natural flow of all the pieces less.
Are pet peeves meant to whip us into spiritual shape? When something triggers us emotionally, isn't that a sign that we aren't at peace, that we have given this "thing" power over us, that we have something to forgive, to let go, to accept?
For me these days, being ignored is that thing. It really bothers me, and it's happened a few times in the last two years with people who I thought were "above" or beyond ignoring. People who I expected were able to speak up, even if it meant saying something awkward. And then my own greatest masterpiece, my daughter, brought the topic to the table -- ignoring people in a way that seemed to ask me to step-up. Teach her. Show her. Dive into it. At this point ignoring is knocking on my door.
Let's start with spiritual responsibility -- or personal responsibility. When I am being ignored enough to bother me, I need to look in the mirror. Am I ignoring people? Is this my own unhealthy habit staring back at me?
All I need to do here is pay attention and step up. Live the Golden Rule, be the change I wish to see in the world. When someone calls to me, respond. Beggar on a city sidewalk or my husband. Respond. I can do this.
It was two years ago when the first ignoring instance happened -- a significant one, not a little small silly thing where I called to a stranger, asked them a question and they ignored me. I can let that wash off my shoulders. This was a bold, intelligent, empowered woman friend who I had written to from Sweden. Along with a long, beautiful letter, I had sent her children drawings from my daughter. When I didn't hear back I reached out again, months later, and... nothing. She ignored me.
Fast forward one year. Her ignoring me didn't weigh me down. I called her one day out of the blue to see if she was willing to talk about marriage -- out of the box, because she is a free thinker not constrained by the bulk of our culture's in-the-box ways.
She answered the phone and said yes. She asked me to text her to set up a time and... Flop. Ignored me again. So my mind goes through its little dance... Am I "not cool enough" for her? That sort of thing. But I happen to really like me, and that kind of thought doesn't weigh me down long.
A question remains. I'm left wondering and a bit annoyed that someone I saw as a conscious communicator could actively ignore me. How does it feel on her end?
At a recent family reunion, a family member ignored me. Upset with something I had done that somehow really upset her, she walked past me upon arrival without saying much, and left the reunion without saying bye either. She ignored me the whole time, and for decades I've been a person who can "see the pain" in this kind of behavior, who can stay mostly in a place of forgiveness, this time I felt angry. Underneath it there is sadness because the way we communicate is so, so sad to me -- but there is also anger on top, and at this point in my life I am letting all my feelings be heard. One big fat piece of ignoring. Ouch. This one hurts a bit. Will we die disconnected?
Yes anger, you get to have a voice too and I hear you. It has been decades. It is time.
In July one of my dearest long time friends visited the beach near me and I saw photos on Instagram. His daughter and I are close pals, having had many play dates when she was a little girl. I adore him -- he's wise, honest and bold and he treasures his family.
So I was a little surprised they didn't let me know they were so close, at the beach near our house. Just so I could go sip coffee with them, or take a barefoot walk in the sand. Whatever. But see them! They are very dear friends. So I texted him asking why he didn't let me know in advance. He said they needed time alone.
I get it. Life is outrageously intense these days for humans. I get it. It isn't personal.
And then I realized I had a request. Could I take this to a new level in becoming a better communicator? I asked myself. Or is it no big deal, just to be let go? The answer within me was to make a request. So I did. I left him a voice message asking if he's willing to learn from the situation with me, and hear my request. I asked: Would he, next time he is near me, just let me know in advance? If they wanted alone time, I could accept that. Truly, giving space is easy for me and 99% of the time I don't take things personally. I need two days of alone time every month. But knowing they would be near me, I realized, would feel good to me. He could say "no" to my request -- it wasn't a demand. I sent the message.
Blank. Ignored again.
Between two of these people, I get the sense I'm "too much" for them. Leave it alone, Rios, it's no big thing. Well guess what? If it is to me, it is to me. And I matter. If you care, you can extend just a few words to show it.
When I wrote long emails years ago, or when I write a long letter these days, sometimes people feel silly writing a few words back. Please don't feel silly writing just a few words back -- writing nothing is way worse than writing a few words back.
Being ignored can leave someone in an empty space, wondering. Is that the impact you intend to have?
"Thanks for the note! I'm busy at work... sending you a hug!"
"I hear you and I need space right now."
"I care for you and am just not available to talk. Let's chat next week."
Whatever it is, show love. Please don't ignore people. Babies learn the world is an unsafe place when they are ignored for too long. It hurts adults, too. If someone is being mean spirited and really off-base, calling you names and insulting you, take space! Yes, don't lean into violence and expose yourself to abuse. But if someone simply asks for help, or doesn't communicate the way you do -- ignoring is not the loving way.
I remember, as a child, feeling loved and celebrated by my church community. My mom and her best friend cooked together at our church on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, where I met you 30 years later as you spoke at a homeschool gathering. My very Christian aunt Irma was unusually affectionate and showed me how to shower people with love, often in the form of squeezing their cheeks and exclaiming effusively, how delightful they are.
Yet by 2nd grade, when I realized religious people usually believe their religion is right and others are wrong, I decided religion wasn’t for me. That didn’t feel like love. And love was the only thing I could see as true religion. I’ve not missed Christian church one day since then, as mine is a life that is filled with spiritual depth, enormous beauty, and rich and joyful relationships of all kinds.
But there’s something I have missed, and that is the shared and deep passion that is sometimes felt inside a church, among the church community.
When I got to college, I wondered how I could find that same level of devotion. Surely, I felt love just as intensely as some people feel their religious God. What could I discover or create that might bring about a community that shares this kind of devotion together?
Now as a mother who homeschools her child, I notice the same theme is present. A few weeks ago it struck me that Christian families, who have long been a big part of the homeschool population, have it easier in some ways. They have the Bible. They have the scriptures that dictate what they teach. They know their kids will be taught based on the same core beliefs when they go to friends’ houses.
Not being religious, what would that unifying, core devotional element be for us? What is that thing that has us feel safe in each other’s company, trusting, deeply rooted together? Maybe it’s not that we have a meditation circle or something we actually praise or uphold in a religious way. What is it?
As I grow homeschool community in my town, for my daughter and our family, I offer my best attempt to define core principles that unite us. There are three.
The first is physical safety, teaching about poisonous plants, how to be safe near steep cliffs and making sure we inspect our bodies for ticks when we get home.
The second is emotional intelligence, honoring our feelings and the power they hold for us. When a child is afraid, confused, or lonely, they should be met with emotionally mature, gentle and attentive guidance to honor and help them move through their feelings. Children should be treated as equals to have something to teach us — lots of things actually.
The third is respect for our life support system, ecological respect, planet earth. What materials are our art supplies and toys made of? What kind of food do we eat and how was it grown? Respect for this beautiful planet we call home.
Somewhere in there, in all three of them, is the great guiding power of love. Perhaps it’s so big, given that it is the most powerful force in the universe, that it’s just too big to make into a guiding and core principle for our homeschool endeavors. Or maybe not. Maybe I just haven’t been bold enough to do this yet. But I simply can’t think of anything else that could bring about the devotional quality for non-religious people like me, more than love.
And so, I wonder.
As a child, I lived in a house where Conflict Avoidance was the primary communication style. I didn't learn how to argue. Arguing didn't happen in my house until one traumatic day, my parents were arguing and my mother left. From that point on, I saw her every other weekend. It sent me on a lifelong journey of studying communication. And to this day, I live in study of this rigorous and rewarding field.
Today I learned that even when we extend ourselves with courageous and kind hearted intentions, our actions can hurt people we deeply, dearly love.
Life is messy.
If you want to live with a big, bold, loving heart, you will make messes. You can't control this. Your heart will push itself outward, sometimes disregarding the laws of the world, and at some point you will really upset somebody you never, ever, in a billion years thought you could deeply upset. It's the last thing you would expect. Are you kidding me? says the rational mind.
Enter heart, again.
If you're fortunate enough to have people who will sit with you and talk things through, seize the opportunity. It's richer than gold. Go over there, to her (or his) eyes. That wasn't what you meant to have happen. Still, it happened. You are having a human experience and it is messy.
Apologizing for your impact does not mean you are kneeling before an unloving God who says you've sinned. Nope, nah, nizzle. Get over trying to protect your ego. You are valid, valuable, loved. Your feelings matter. And theirs do too!
Apologizing for your impact means you're humble enough to honor their feelings, and that you acknowledge an impact happened that you did not intend.
I am so glad to have been studying communication all my life, prompted by the gift of my parents' divorce. Every bone in my body wished intensely that my mom and dad -- who I adore indescribably -- could communicate more effectively. They were doing their best, and on that summer day, it was painful and messy. They didn't intend for it to be, and it was.
From here on out, if you have a child or intend to live bigger in Love tomorrow than you did today, simply accept that conflict is human and it happens.
You can choose to be afraid of it or you can choose to face it when it comes. You can choose to teach your child the myth that conflict is unnecessary or unhealthy, or you can choose to help them prepare for what is inevitable.
Tonight my heart got to witness the pain I unintentionally caused two people I respect and love. It hurt then, and it still hurts. My skin, eyes and heart feel raw. Rawness takes time to melt away. And that's OK. Right now I am more humble and strong than I was before this conflict showed itself. I have no regrets and enormous gratitude for friends who are brave enough, and who respect themselves and me enough, to stand tall through conflict -- however awkward and uncomfortable it may be.
Your child can find him/herself shocked by conflict at age 28, in a marriage with emotional abuse and unable to engage healthfully. Or your child can start learning now that conflict is normal, and we can become skillful communicators, empathetic beings, who aren't afraid to face the fire.
Lead the way.
Mothers hold... so much.
I see it, I'm stunned by it, I try to grasp why mothers' work is so undervalued and...
How the heck could it be so hard for us mamas to articulate the "all" of what we do, and hold? and...
I'm left speechless.
But I'll find words soon. Because it's a really, really big important deal.
And if you're a devoted mama? I see you. I see all that you hold. You are doing the great work. Thank you.
It's been a long winter in California. While grateful for rain, it seems everyone was out hiking or otherwise soaking up the sun this weekend. Finally, spring came.
Spring has a way of inviting humans to open up like flowers: our smiles, our sidewalk hellos, our eagerness to create and connect.
Spring says, "Come, try something new, let me see your petals too."
One way I show my color, my petals, the life inside of me -- is through letter writing. This spring I'll begin a yearlong workshop guiding participants to create or deepen intimacy with key areas of life: your body, food, family, friends, money, ancestry, home. We'll write letters to all these areas, these places where we are in relationship.
Life is relationship. Just as we can share human experience and deepen connection with a close friend or spouse, we can do this with non-human relations. Truthfully relating with anything or anyone -- in this case, through letter writing -- brings enhanced mindfulness, communication, and personal power.
Participants can join in person north of San Francisco in Sonoma County at Literic Petaluma, where I will lead the workshop. Those unable to attend in person can join the separate (but similar in content) online version, which I will post the week after.
I've written thousands of cards and letters in my life.
Some delivered, some not. Some graceful, some clumsy. Some potent with love and wisdom, some flapping in a sea of insecurity.
Each letter has given me greater clarity about who I am and what I want. Each piece of hand written correspondence has conveyed to its recipient, however short of long, that I value them and want them in my life. Some friends have hundreds of letters and cards from me tucked away in a box. Not emails, as those can't be touched.
Letters please the senses. Letters say spring.
If you want to deepen intimacy with key areas of your life, infusing your world with truth telling power and vision in ink, on paper, for the senses, for the fullness of life... Join us! If you're in Petaluma, call or email Literic at email@example.com / (707) 658-1751 to sign up. Cost per workshop is $30.
As published in the Natural Parent magazine, February 21 2019, New Zealand.
Halfway through a childbirth education class, I was seven months pregnant and it landed on my forehead. Surrender. The word, the idea, the powerful call. It was the one thing I most needed to do at this point, as I neared the big day of bringing my child into this world.
Before that, it had been so many things. Eat well. Move my body. Hydrate, hydrate. Surround myself with people who would not tell me their birth horror story or try to scare me out of a homebirth, but who would instead affirm that a woman’s body was made to give birth to new life. “You can do this” kind of people. As Ina May Gaskin said to women, “Your body is not a lemon.”
Now it was surrender calling my name. The rest was in place. Now, surrender.
It turns out surrender was exceptionally helpful during labor. Oh, the pain. Oh, the power of what was coming through me. It was all so big, the only response that seemed to match it was to surrender. So I did. With my heart, I reached deep into my womb for a sense of my co-leader’s strength, and we chose surrender together.
What did that look like? Knowing ultimately, between contractions in my candlelit bedroom, I was not in control. Knowing a larger power, the divine, was holding me and my child during this experience. It mostly meant letting go of all my hopes and wanting, so I could allow this baby to emerge knowing we were held and wanted by something I could surrender to.
Moving into my daughter’s early years, surrender kept showing up. Always with a powerful invitation, not always easy for me to accept. Some of these themes are common for other mothers, so I share this as an invitation to open yourself up to surrender when it might be a really, really helpful thing to do. To stop the pain of clinging.
Early childhood vaccinations asked for surrender, big time. Conversations were heated with other mothers who were making different choices than we were, with their babies. We argued about the diseases and the vaccines, what made sense, what was loving. We tried to convince each other, usually unsuccessfully. I hang with other strong women; we don’t budge easily.
Ultimately, for us surrender meant honoring our values and research around vaccines for our daughter. It meant being willing to let go of friendships where the conversation was unfriendly, seasoned with blame.
When it came to diseases, vaccines and the pharmaceutical industry, keeping friends wasn’t our top priority. We were interested in making wise choices for our tiny daughter’s body and life. Thankfully, years later one of my dearest friends is someone who has made the “opposite” choice from ours. The rigor of those heated exchanges fed us. Now our children are almost six years old and we can hear each other and respect our right to differ without feeling a deep lingering divide.
Mainstream pop culture has required significant surrender for our family, too. Overconsuming sugar, playing with plastic or mechanized toys, watching TV or engaging in hours of mobile phone screen time every day, all these things are the norm for most families. For us, they’re not. And although we have confidently communicated about these things, creating community that is solid around values we hold dear, we have also had to let go sometimes.
We don’t solely have eco-friendly toys and books with hand-created art rather than computer art. Allowing some of these things into our space has been, in part, an expression of my willingness to open my heart in a sigh of humility around the choices our culture makes. Maybe sometimes it’s OK to expose our children to those things. Idealism and surrender are a healthy pair.
One of the most challenging places surrender has come into play for our family is around our finances.
What I want more than new shoes and frequent travel or a big house, is to mother my daughter in a way that blows my mind.
She chose me, and I know fierce love. But love is not a prominent value our culture is led by, so… Sigh… Finding paid work that supports this way of mothering has not been easy. Mothering by instinct, with strong attachment, gentleness and beauty, has meant surrendering my high-paid consulting work and the lifestyle that came with it.
I want my child’s wellness more. I can’t be with her the way I want to, guiding her with my fierce love, if making “good” money weighs more.
And hear me, this has been hard. Not because I ever struggle with the choice around how to mother her, but because it made me really angry when I realized how hard it could be for a mother to thrive financially, while, oh, doing the most important work there is: delivering and lovingly guiding new life. Surrender has been essential in this place. Otherwise, I’d be walking around holding on to anger, not a healthy choice.
Overall the most beneficial way surrender has shown up in my parenting life, is through my choice to embrace our family’s values and accept that this would not present to us the easy path.
Quiet over noise and busyness, a small space to live rather than something fancy, choosing earth-honoring materials for toys, reimagining holidays away from consumption as a central principle, and now unschooling rather than school. All these ways have given us a chance to grow as communicators, to stand for our values, and this often involves finding the language to let our daughter know they why of it.
We love Mother Earth, so we want to respect her gifts and take care of her.
We like a small home, because it helps Mama be less grumpy about cleaning up.
You want Valentine’s notes for your friends? Let’s make some! We put time and love into things because it feels good, and we don’t have to go to a store to buy our joy.
For the naturally minded parent, surrender is necessary for sanity. Surrounding ourselves with like-minded people is important so we feel seen and supported. Yet the world that’s not so resonant will greet our paths, too, and unless we want to cling and create ludicrous pain as a result (e.g. my two years of horrifically painful, multi-day migraines, which are now over!) … we must make surrender a very good friend.
Those of you who read my blog regularly are likely aware that I'm not talking about money. I am talking about what makes us truly rich, not financially rich.
I'm talking about relationships. Any not just the romantic kind.
Your long time closest friend. Your newest close friend. Your uncle, your mother, your hilarious free-spirited cousin. Your postman, postwoman or favorite barista. Your next door neighbor who gives you butter or lemons when you run out. Your spouse. Your boss. Your daughter. Your dog.
One of the most comprehensive studies of emotional well being in history, The Harvard Study of Adult Development, found the one thing that makes people happy is good relationships. What does this mean, in simple terms? "They care about me and I care about them," says masterful relationship coach Charles Zook.
What does this have to do with being rich?
To be happy is to be rich. To genuinely feel satisfied with what you have, to exhale daily thanks for your health and family, to revel in the majestically giving and gorgeous planet we get to call Home. Happiness gives us a feeling of being so-filled-up, we're rich. Full. Basking. Profoundly grateful.
Showing love has been my thing since early childhood. Giving eager hugs to my aunt Irma, telling my parents I love them, writing letters to friends in the mail... It has always been a high priority for me to invest in relationships. It feels natural. It feels real. It feels good.
So it struck me a few years ago that calling people rich primarily or only when they have abundant financial resources is a very silly thing. That isn't true richness. Money is useful, important, yes. But it isn't what makes us rich -- not in my values system.
Love makes us rich. And where do we give and receive Love? In our relationships. With ourselves, and with the people we hold most dear.
If you are starting to feel swallowed up in the commercial culture of heart-shaped candy and red roses surfacing for Valentine's Day, I feel for you. Making a consumer issue out of Love is rather sick.
Yet, though the culture has a big impact on us, it does not have power over us. You can choose to feed your sense of richness, feed your joy, by doing one simple and profoundly enriching thing: Feed Your Relationships.
Today, give this to yourself. Don't let yourself be under-fed. How? Pick someone in your life, call them and be curious. Be interested. How are they really doing? Have they healed from the death of their loved one? What are they creating these days? Where do they see themselves in 20 years?
Yes it is very simple. Still yes, we need reminders.
Go for a hike with a friend. Call your aunt and uncle to congratulate them for 55 years of marriage. Ask your dad if he needs help with his computer, or anything else. Thank your postal delivery person for their work, rain or shine.
This month, invest your time and voice in your own richness by showing Love to those who you value in this one precious life.
I wrote this poem-like letter in my journal in 2011, after becoming certain I wanted my own chid someday. I had never been pregnant and was starting to feel concerned. Fortunately, in 2012 I got pregnant and began a journal to the life inside my womb. Six years later, I still keep a journal of letters for my daughter. It's deeply rewarding. After I leave this body, my daughter can read her mother's thoughts and stories -- all in my own, real hand writing.
Dear Baby Boy Soul,
Are you calling to me?
I dreamt of you last night.
Someone in India had asked me to care for you while traveling.
For two weeks, you'd be mine to watch and care for.
And in that dreamscape where all lines cross
and one reality becomes another
you felt like
my little boy.
Then one day our group of travelers
went to the mall. I had dressed in a full silk sari
fuchsia, magenta, pumpkin colored
wide skirt flowing at my ankles.
A tall American girl I had befriended
walked beside me and somehow
she was holding you now. She said,
"I'm going to hold him for the next few hours."
My heart fell deep into pain.
I had loved holding you.
It was heaven and I'd waited all day
to be with you again
your soft brown hair and chubby thighs
felt like my hands were designed to hold them
as you sat on my hip.
"No you're not," I said to the tall girl.
"I've been wanting to hold him all day and he's
my responsibility. I'm watching him."
She said, "Well, too bad because I'm holding him."
I stood there shocked, jaw dropped down toward
layers of pink and orange
floral print silk.
Fighting energy does not belong
I would not grab you from her arms
She would give you back later
but the grief...
Baby boy soul
are you real?
Like in Velveteen Rabbit...
are you real because I love you?
Will you pass through my body someday
bewildering my being
with the sheer miracle of yours?
I would die with love for you every day.
Am I going to have you?
And if not, why do you keep
showing up in my dreams?
Do you believe there is one thing you were born to do or be? Were you born to be an ice skater, or to sing opera, or to help transform the way humans relate to plants? Though there are people who have found that "one thing," to me it seems we are all vastly talented -- how could there be just one thing?
If there is one thing I was born to do, it is to love people through writing letters. To feel the Love that powerfully pulses through my heart, the connection, the admiration, the curiosity, the thanks, and to put pen to paper. I've placed 1000s of letters in mailboxes in my lifetime, using this powerful art form to find people feeling more loved, more seen, and more valued than they did before getting my letter.
It started when I was five years old — now it's time to take it to a new level.
That's why I'm sharing this big announcement with you! Beginning this year, I am offering my lifelong art of letter writing more widely, as a service to humanity. I offer two services to help you experience the power in this simple, affordable, powerful, seemingly old fashioned art form.
For those who want to write your own letter, I offer coaching to help make the letter say just what you want, in a way that matches your style and voice. I help you find the essence of what you want to say. You might want to strengthen or heal a relationship that is important to you. You might have something difficult to say that you'd rather put in writing than say it via phone. Or you might just be struck by someone... their grace, their wisdom, their dance moves... ;) and want to put your admiration into words. My coaching happens over the phone, so you can be anywhere in the world.
For those wanting me to write the letter for you — using your wisdom, your feelings, and some of your words intermingling with mine — I can be commissioned to write a letter. This involves a coaching session (via phone) and then I write your letter and send it to you via email so you can hand-write or print it, and mail it yourself.
Fun, huh? For me, it is! Letter writing is rewarding, meaningful, therapeutic, generous and sensually pleasing. I write like I breathe. I was born for this. The photo above was taken in Ladakh, northern India in 2006. As usual, I was writing letters, and as seen here licking stamps, this time on a rafting trip in the Himalaya.
To explore more, check out my letter writing website here. Thanks for helping to spread the word, too! As I'm not on Facebook these days, I'd appreciate it if you shared this post there for others to see.
For a solo-go at activating your letter writing practice, read my post A Year in Letters and begin!
Our featured free recording for November is a one hour interview with Serra Wells called The Power of Living Village. Listen here!
Jessica Rios, Founder of Leaning into Light, is a mother, coach, lifelong letter writer, and eternal fan of Mr. (Fred) Rogers. This deeply personal blog and our free recorded conversations are devoted to one of her greatest passions: illuminating the beauty of the human spirit.