This is The Motherhood Letters #11, previously published by Mothering Arts.
Dear Matt and Peter,
Thirteen days ago, the town where we met back in the late 90’s changed drastically overnight. Up the hill, Paradise roasted in flames from the Camp Fire as Chico sat close-up watching, in shock. Thousands of jaw-dropping stories rolled down social media streams. Friends lost their homes as parking lots turned into donation centers and wind blew toxic smoke to Sonoma County where I live.
After eight days of unhealthy air, I’d had enough. I needed to get my child out. We drove up into the Sierra Nevada mountain range on Friday to find you waiting.
For two nights we stayed with you Matt, and your daughter and son. For the next two nights we stayed with you Peter, and your two daughters.
I could breathe. My child could breathe.
In Tahoe’s fresh air, 7,000 feet above the smoky valley, my heart and lungs felt relieved of the physical and emotional intensity they had been holding for a week. My child and I were gifted “tribe time,” four unexpected days and nights with you and your precious, fast-growing babies, who I adore deep in my Tia Jess bones. I watched my child run, giddy, with your children. My own dull-aired living room more than 200 miles away, I exhaled deeply, gazing out the window at redwood trees as I listened as your child read books to mine, chased her around like a wild tiger, helped her feel like family.
And we are. We are Soul Family. We chose each other. And we still choose each other.
All three of us know we are fortunate to have had those days together. We all know we are fortunate to be alive, with homes intact.
What I mostly want to tell you isn’t “Thanks, Again.”
What I want to tell you is that I’m floored by your fathering.
I’ve been watching you parent for a decade. As your children were born and grew into toddlerhood, I watched you. You have always been good fathers. Yet this time it was different. Somehow, the beauty of fatherhood has seeped into your skin in a way that’s left me feeling really, really fortunate to know you.
You know I revere children. Watching you with yours was like seeing the future treated with the dignity it needs to become bright.
You weren’t like a magazine of picture perfect fatherhood. You did your own thing as they did theirs. But all through those high alpine moments, your voice for them was one of Love. Both of you, in your own ways. How could I not notice that, as a result of a devastating fire, I got to witness two spectacular fathers, one after the other, each for two precious days and nights? This isn’t the norm. Great fathers aren’t everywhere. How could I not be head-shakingly grateful that you are two of my dearest friends? In so many ways, you shone the light of powerfully loving fatherhood upon those days.
When your children needed boundaries, you set them. You named them, you clarified them, you checked in with your children, you listened with your heart engaged.
You didn’t make demands; you made requests. Do you realize you might have prevented a future mean-spirited boyfriend or girlfriend from violating your child, because you’ve shown them that somebody who cares for them will not try to control them?
You didn’t use fear to force them to comply; you used a strong, loving voice to show them the limits.
We’ve had some wild times together, having known each other since college. The men I see now aren’t the same men I met 20 years ago. Your children have offered you a chance to expand into a fuller, more step-up-to-Love’s-plate place within yourselves and you accepted. You stepped right up to that plate. Far fewer fathers do that, than children deserve. Watching you father your children makes me love you even more — did I just say that? Was that even possible?
Deep bow to you both. Thank you for all the stretching you have done over the years to evolve into such beautiful fathers. This is not easy work. Parenting well is high service to humanity — nothing less. What you are doing for your children is the greatest work there is, and I admire you with all my Tia heart for it.
Last Thursday morning my daughter and I were headed to stay in Chico for three nights with my core tribe, my people. It’s three hours north and we go regularly to bask in the sweetness of friendships I’ve put 20 years of myself into. As I sipped my morning Earl Grey, a text came in from Serra who we would be staying with.
“Are you gluten and dairy free right now? Thinkin’ of an old awesome mac n’ cheese dish for Saturday dinner.” Or something like that. Her two small kids were reading and playing in their morning way, and she was checking in with me about dinner.
Ten minutes later, she called. Frantic, frenzied, breathing fast. “Jess there’s a fire. It’s big. I might have evacuated friends staying here. Can you check in with me later?”
“Forget about me,” I told her. “We’ll stay home.”
For ten days now the air has been gray-orange where we live. Wind has blown some of the most toxic air south, 160 miles from the fire. Hundreds of texts have flown back and forth between me and six of my dearest friends there, as they watched Sheriff fire alerts on Twitter and friends’ posts on Facebook. They packed their belongings. Sent photos of a dark smoky sky that turned red in two days’ time.
What do I do?
What do we do?
Bewildered, we ask each other. We ask ourselves.
I turn to the place in me where the spirit of the great Fred Rogers lives... What are people feeling? That will help us know.
In canyons and up and down steep hillsides, that fire moved so fast, swallowing so many homes. Is this really happening? Shock runs deep in people’s traumatized bones. Suddenly our lives and bodies feel so fragile, even or perhaps especially for those hundreds of people who just escaped driving through miles of flames.
Disbelief in my blood. All my children’s things are gone? This cannot be. To the pure part of our mind that knows we are eternal in Spirit, this is unreal.
Is this the new normal? Fires strung across our summers and now a smoke-filled Thanksgiving, with air too hazardous for kids to play outside? This feels like war. Have years of drought and irresponsible human behavior really led us to a place of survival, where we’re making sure we can breathe, scrambling to provide clothing, food and beds for those suddenly homeless? Schools closed for weeks. Taping the leaks in our old window frames. Saying “I love you” more than we ever did before.
So what do we do? There are thorough lists like these from Daily Acts, a group in our town offering support for last year’s massive fires nearby. They group the first of two lists, Daily Actions to Reduce Toxics Exposure, into five areas: 1) Reduce Exposure, 2) Nutritional Support, 3) Herbal Support, 4) Gentle Detoxification, and 5) Self Care.
Love, as vague as that one word may sound, is the only thing that heals.
Love expresses itself in endless ways. In each moment, you choose what feels like Love to you. I aim to choose Love over its alternative, fear, as often as I can. We all slip. Then we recover. This is leaning into light.
Broken down into three parts, here are the top three ways I can suggest for responding with Love to the disaster we’ve named the Camp Fire.
1) Feel it all.
Waterfalls of tears and shock can be painful. Ouch to the heart, ouch to the mind. So. Much. Sad. Yet tears and shock will not kill you. If you feel all the horror, sadness, confusion, the sense of being lost…
Letting these feelings be felt through you will expand your capacity to feel — and feeling is the most powerful thing humans can do.
Ultimately, we are usually sad because of Love, because of love for what was lost. Trauma like this surfaces all kinds of feelings. They don’t need to “make sense” to your rational mind, for you to honor them by listening to them and letting them move through you. Anger, blame, it’s all worth listening to because it can all lead you back to Love if you let it.
A short video from Megan Devine on How do You Help a Grieving Friend? offers clear, powerful guidance for being in the presence of feelings this big and painful. It is an animated guide to healing for self and other.
2) Offer and ask.
With so much loss and need, step in and give. Extend Love; that is what Love naturally does. And your giving isn’t better or worse than anyone else’s. Love has no degrees; Love is Love.
Whether you offer free coffee from your RV window early in the morning, or volunteer at an evacuation center, or sit and listen while a grieving friend spills out her sheer despair and soaks your sweatshirt shoulder in her tears — your offer of Love creates a world with more Love in it. And if you’re like me and not in the belly of the disaster, instead a distance away, extend Love however you’re guided to from there. Call someone, tell them you’ll listen. Ask what you can do.
If you lost your home or a friend, the practice of asking for help may have gone from zero to 60 overnight. Let’s put it this way: Don’t rob others of the opportunity to show you love. It is life’s greatest honor. And you are a splendid person to love — always have been.
For others who are not in the heat of the trauma: That doesn’t mean your rights are less valid than anyone else’s. Ask for what you need. You matter. Our air quality has been awful; our house didn’t burn down. I didn’t lose my daughter. Yet still my feelings matter, and the needs of me and my family are as real as anybody’s. Five days into awful air quality, my eyes scratchy and with chance of migraine increasing, I asked my husband to buy us an air filter. Two days after that, I asked which friends we could stay with at Lake Tahoe where the air is cleaner. Ask for what you need, and let Love in.
3) Express gratitude.
We cannot live in two moments at the same time. If you didn’t lose your home to the fire, how fortunate you are. If your child, grandfather or best friend is still alive, there is wow in your world to be grateful for. There is always something. Focus on that for a moment. Bask in the shower of light that is gratitude.
Here in the west we walk around pretending our bodies won’t die. If you've been to India, you've seen that they accept the fact that we all die. In the west we live in deep fear and pretending. Times like these, however atrociously unfortunate and sad, can help us remember the most important thing: In this moment, show Love. In the next moment, show Love.
A week after Donald Trump was elected. I walked into the café, ready to order my cappuccino, and there you stood.
Rather than sharing café small talk, you asked how I was doing and I knew you didn’t want to hear, “Fine.” You didn’t want to hear an answer that superficially informed you of where I was going next. You wanted to know how I was really doing, and it showed in the warm presence in your eyes and the spaciousness in your heart.
That’s just your way. You actually, really care.
I had been numbing myself. Until that morning when I saw you, hiding in my own escapist ways from the shock of what had just happened on the national stage. Suddenly, in your presence, the tears emerged. Standing there by the espresso machine, I cried out some of my despair. It needed to happen.
Within minutes, thanks to that moment of opening, I made a decision that led to the biggest adventure of my life so far. My family and I would move to Sweden for a year to be near my husband’s family in his native culture. Your open heart, attentive eyes, and deep capacity for listening were the container I needed to really hear what wanted to happen. Looking back now, almost two years after that café conversation, I see that it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
I’m not putting you on a pedestal. You wouldn’t accept that from me. I’m not saying you made the decision for me.
I’m saying that in your strikingly beautiful presence, I was able to live my truth in a way I might not have been able to without you. Every mother needs this kind of presence in her life.
Think about it. Right now there is a mother reeling from last night’s drunk abuse, somewhere in America. Right now there is a mother whose child is dying in a hospital bed. Right now there is a mother so lost and lonely she doesn’t know if there is a way out. In fact, there are millions of these.
All these mothers could use a presence as spacious and honest as yours. Thank you for being the way you are. May all these mothers find — now — what you showed me that morning.
And may I be a sliver in life, for others, of what I find in you.
In deep respect,
Ever since high school, I have been into this thing called leadership. Holding various leading positions, starting non-profits and businesses, following the recipe: 1) Listen for the fire in your soul, 2) Clarify your vision, 3) Make it happen with your voice, hands and heart. Always holding a vision for what the world would look like if your big dream came true.
That vision of what is possible can help you rise out of bed every day. It can put a spark in your step. It can motivate you to put in that extra hour of work, believing in something you cannot see with your eyes.
Yet until recently, there was something missing for me. It had to do with being too focused on my vision, too caught up in making it happen, not relaxed enough to feel a true sense of enjoyment about it all. At times I got so caught up in trying to make something happen, that it gave me severely painful multi-day migraine headaches. Too much pressure.
What was missing was a simple practice, a new way of being with leadership. This new way kept tugging at the back of my neck, gently, a little more every day…
One day at a time. That is all I can do.
One day at a time. That is all I am being asked.
It’s a whisper in society’s sea of noise...
One day at a time.
The first time I remember practicing this was to try and get out of a 13 month postpartum depression. I had gone through trauma starting two hours after my daughter was born, and in the days that followed, some of the things I noticed about our world felt really, really sad. It was a heavy load to carry on my mind, and I didn’t really know how to get out.
One day it struck me that I was the only one who could break this cycle for myself, creating peace of mind and a sense of contentedness. I decided I would engage in a simple process of asking myself questions, one moment after the next.
Springtime sent the scent of lilac across our front patio, through our front door. Following the heavenly lure, I stepped out for a walk. I took one step forward, my daughter in her flower-picking state of toddling glee, and paused to silently ask myself, “In this moment, am I depressed?”
“No!” I responded, again quietly, “In this moment I am walking on a sunny day, with my healthy child. I feel grateful.”
With my next step, I paused again to ask. My response was, “In this moment I am admiring a cheerful, crisp purple paint job on my neighbor’s house, my daughter is laughing, I feel good.”
Within moments I realized I had taken the power back from my own cyclical sad thoughts. I could decide with each step, how to feel. And within a few days the dense fog that sat with me for 13 months was lifted.
That was four years ago. Since then, I’ve experienced dozens of highly challenging situations and adventures. What seems to be rising to the surface is this simple way of living taught by many living and ascended masters. Take life one day at a time. Take life one moment at a time. One step, pause… Here we are now.
It doesn’t interest me to dive into the question of why we get so caught up in the future, or in the past.
What interests me is sharing with you how much freedom greets me when I take life one day at a time. How much freedom is available to you, through your own choice about where you put your attention. All it takes is the awareness that when you feel tense or strained, unpleasant or frustrated, you can check in and bring yourself back to this day. Feel what you’re feeling now, even if it hurts. But don’t feel what you might be feeling tomorrow, because you’ll never be there.
You can only be here, today, now.
And I suppose that’s the truth behind it all. Tomorrow never comes, it is only a dream that tries to take us away from this precious present.
May you remember in this moment -- as you read these words -- how loved you are, how brightly the earth shone on the day you were born. May you look around you and focus on what you appreciate, knowing your appreciation and attention will help it grow. Listen within for your leadership vision, clarify it, give yourself to it, and let it go so you can enjoy this one precious day you’re living in.
Turn off the TV, put your cell phone away for the weekend. Screens aren’t so helpful in magnifying the beauty of the now.
Stare at the sunlight bouncing off your Marigolds in the garden. Listen to the soft texture of the wind. Somewhere, an elder is being served warm tea, her wrinkled hands shaking in thanks as somebody values and cares for her. Somewhere, somebody is opening a handwritten letter they got in the mail today.
One day at a time, may the light within us rise.
It was 1996. I was at a college party with the usual dynamics at play. Youngsters flirting and flaunting goofy theatrical dance moves, getting into conversations deeper and looser than those that happen sober. The hotness factor was high, hormones ripe and bodies ready. We were 20-something adults from Marin and Southern California, living in Chico for an education and to party, in good shape with stylish clothes.
My two housemates at the time were San Diego beach-born and -raised, pretty and full of spice. One of them had mentioned her name before. Piper. A girl she didn’t like much for whatever reason.
I had learned in high school not to like or dislike others because of what someone else said. I hadn’t met Piper yet.
And then she came shining.
I didn’t know who I was seeing at the time. What I saw was a young woman whose confidence lit up the room like fire.
Her humor wasn’t the kind used for distraction or avoidance. Her words weren’t used to impress anyone else. Her ways seemed to come from a deeper well. Hers was the kind of confidence that other girls wanted, not the temporary boost gained from mascara or a fresh tan. I was stopped. I fell in love. Her soul captivated me. My respect for her ways and choices led me to aim within myself for more confidence, too. Her name was Piper.
Twenty-two years later, she remains one of my closest friends. Our friendship has ebbed and flowed as great ones do, and through it all she has beamed. She is a shining ray of rooted woman confidence that comes from deep within herself, tapped into the divine.
Through my 13-month postpartum depression, with all its riveting questions and despair, it was Piper who helped me realize that I parent by instinct. Beyond attachment parenting, mothers can honor our instincts — ancient, clear and piercingly beautiful — and this was the way I was meant to mother. Accepting this has given me freedom I couldn’t find anywhere else. I was fortunate to have a lighthouse to look to. In Piper’s confident claiming of her own parenting style, I found mine.
Being witness to this kind of confidence in a woman during my 20s gave me a renewed sense of what is possible for women. Five years ago when I gave birth, a strike of lightning reaffirmed this possibility. When women wake up to our own power, astonishing beauty unfolds. Our power lies in no one else’s hands.
If I could show every teenage or 10-year-old girl what it’s like to feel deep inner confidence like I’ve seen in Piper, I’d wave my wand and do it fast. No soap opera Kavanaugh courtrooms could live in that universe.
On this day, her birthday, I bow to the willingness in my friend Piper. And I bow to the willingness in a woman, every woman, when she chooses to lead from the power within her.
If you have a woman friend like this, call her now! She is actively creating a world in which women are valued.
Happy Birthday, friend. Your willingness to open to the divine and let it lead your life makes my head and my hips shake with wonder. I love you past the soft rolling hills of Denmark and into the furthest peppery galaxies!
It was evening.
We sat in your living room and as you do every day, you watched the evening news.
Summer time in California meant every other story was about wildfires. Then came the reports of shootings.
When the guns, blood, police sirens and faces of black American citizens flashed on the screen, I asked you to turn off the sound because my daughter, your 7th grandchild, does not know what a gun is and I don’t want that horror present in her awareness yet.
You turned off the sound, and then it happened again. Another story about another shooting. This time you were a bit annoyed when I asked you to turn off the volume. You said, “Someday she’s going to have to learn about reality.”
And I get that you see that as reality. I’ve been through this before with another family member.
Deep sigh from my Mama Bear heart.
This is a letter to you and to millions and millions of people in our culture who would feel the same way you did in that moment. Annoyed, like I am privileged and should be teaching my child about shootings and other violence already.
Simply put, and with love and respect for you, I have every right to differ and I do.
Just as somebody might choose to use a gun to protect their child, I choose to use my instinct and powerful voice — and my ability to select what she is exposed to — to protect mine.
Back up with me for a moment. We all get to choose what we read, what we watch on TV or if we watch any at all, where our information and education comes from… Yes?
That’s worth asking. It’s worth considering. Otherwise, we’re just going with the default. Is life meant to be lived by default?
The news most people watch comes from big business corporations. Let’s not get elaborate here, this is simple. I don’t want news that is chosen and delivered by a big corporation and I don’t want my daughter receiving news from a big corporation either. Our news comes from smaller entities that we find trustworthy. It’s a simple as that. We want to expose ourselves to trustworthy information that affirms the life-honoring values within us and teaches us how to create a kinder, more loving world. You choose your news, I choose mine.
It’s important to recognize that what you call reality isn’t the reality I live in. Yes, I sound privileged to a lot of people. Yet we do not all live in — we do not all experience — one reality.
We all get to make 1,000s of choices daily that culminate in different “realities.” But absolutely, and with great sadness I say, we do not recognize this freedom inherent within us. We see ourselves as imprisoned, each of us in our own way.
Life is sad and beautiful, as a dear wise friend once said.
I choose to expose my child to the violence in the world in those moments, one by one, when it is time for her. When we are ready. That’s not up to anyone else to decide.
How can we dampen the ever-sprouting, sheer joy of a child? Children are here to play, feel safe and loved.
My child is not here to fix the problems in the world right now. She is here to grow and blossom as a healthy citizen who will, one fine bittersweet day at a time, get to know the horrors of the human experience in more detail.
For now -- and may it forever be my foundation -- I teach Love.
I teach her that we all have different skin colors because we come from different parts of this life-giving, colorful planet. I teach her that when she feels pain, and when a friend feels pain, she can show love. I teach her kindness. I teach her how to communicate with her words, not with violence. These are tools she’ll need to lead to a world with less shootings to report on the news.
You are a beautiful father and I wouldn’t trade a single thing for the fortune of having you as mine. I’m glad we can share how we feel and see life, and keep showing up to love each other through it all.
Your youngest daughter,
Originally published in Natural Parent magazine July 12, 2018
Recently in a greeting card mailed to me by a wise and long-time friend, she wrote that I “more singularly identify with being a mother” than any other mama friend she has. My initial inner response was, Oh great, am I weird in yet one more way in life? Does that mean she thinks I’m boring now? Have I gotten lost in the dance of mothering, and given up on my other passions?
Within moments, my little self-doubt voices dissipated. Her words then struck me as a powerful invoking of reflection about the last five years of my life.
Let me call myself out, to begin. Curiosity is powerful in relationships and I have not yet asked this dear friend what she meant by “singularly identified”. Letter writing is a slow exchange, more spacious than talking or texts, and my next letter to her will include a question seeking to understand what she expressed from her bold, loving heart.
According to standard definitions, I could interpret what she said as this: I am more remarkably, extraordinarily, and exceptionally identify as a mother than any other mama friend she has. Sounds like a big, kind compliment, right?
My friend’s bold way of showing me love in her letter left me with a feeling of pride about how I mother. Her words felt like a spotlight on a stage where I am dancing the awkward, passionate, indescribably rewarding dance of being a mama. So that is what I will respond to here, as I know many of you reading this have your own way of shining in your very own mothering stage.
On the surface being a mother is all about playgrounds, naps, tantrums, cuddling and a giving-up of self.
Right beneath it, there appears a mountaintop presenting to a mother some of the richest and most fertile personal expansion terrain available in life.
It has been said our children are our greatest teachers. To actually experience this in life can be fascinating, blissful and grueling at times. We can pay money for meditation retreats and gurus, yet our children offer astounding spiritual lessons for free on a daily basis. Children are the original gurus.
And I’m up for that. My religion is Love. In this life I want to shed all my layers of fear and bloom open to what Spirit, what Love, has to offer. Bring it on, little guru.
So it isn’t surprising that life hasn’t let me detract substantial attention from this opportunity in order to “make” other things happen, since my child was born. While I’ve tried to create a stable income flow, I’ve instead seen a path dotted with seemingly random creative output, unstable income and no clear sign of what’s to come. When we are trying to force something to happen, it is a pretty clear sign that it’s not meant to happen right now. It’s just not time.
In a way, motherhood has swallowed me whole. I have allowed it, though, feeling the briefness of this sacred encounter. Years fly. My guru won’t live with me forever.
My top priority is being the mother I am meant to be. It appears the priority is my child, but equally the priority is me giving her the all she deserves… Me welcoming the extraordinary and unmatched opportunity of being spiritually stretched and widened, that she presents to me. It is about me being the fullest version of myself that I can be, expanded by the presence of a being who I love as much as, dare I say, God. Or so it feels that way.
To the friend whose handwritten words led me to this helpful self-reflection, I extend my deep thanks. You see me from a perspective I value. However clumsy and grumpy I may sometimes be, I like who I am as a mother and as silly ol’, perfectly imperfect me.
It was mid-July and we were preparing to celebrate Sweden’s biggest holiday: Midsummer.
Days were full, with sunrise around 4:00 in the morning, and sunset around 10:00 at night. Children gathered flowers for crown making, and in the kitchen sat mounds of strawberries and a big metal bowl of fresh whipped cream. A cool breeze whirled in the bright sky, the sounds of my daughter squealing in glee with her new friends who lived on this land. We erected a giant Midsummer pole and decorated it with branches, vines and stems of white, purple and yellow flowers.
My family had been in Sweden for more than 12 months and we were heading home to California in two weeks. Though I knew we’d back in my familiar native land soon, I still stood on Swedish soil 5,200 miles away. Winter’s long, dark days had not been easy.
Then the bus pulled up across the rural road. In the farmland quiet, I heard the front door open and began to watch feet step down onto the roadside gravel. Her black clogs emerged, and with them her gait, which I knew, having walked many miles with her in life. When she reached the back of the bus and turned toward the house where I stood, her face beamed in its born-smiling way and she began to cross the road.
Emptiness filled my body. I felt as if all the strain of winter’s icy grit and gravel suddenly blew out of me with the cool summer wind.
Was this really happening? Was one of my soul sisters from the past 15 years actually walking towards me? My eyes could see her, yet it was almost hard to believe this was actually happening. Weeks from home, and yet… right here, Serra.
We hugged. There were tears. I didn’t want to let go. Touch is essential for healthy newborns and though we pretend it’s not, it is also essential for healthy adults.
We talked, we ate, we watched our children play together with the usual sense of awe and fortune we feel when it comes to our children. Into the night, we talked more.
Sleep had its restorative way with me, and in the morning I awoke ready to release some of the big feelings that had built up over winter.
Tea mug in hand, I sat on a bar stool at the kitchen counter and Serra sat next to me. Could I really touch her? Was one of my best friends really right next to me, like, in hugging distance? I reached out to hug her, and then the sobbing began. On her shoulder, sobbing, tears all being emptied from many 18-hour days of darkness and more than enough slips on the icy sidewalk. Sobbing out my longing for home. Home had come to get me.
In all my years of looking toward the light we’re made of — which is Love — it has been clear that along a way, I’ve often devalued the body. The physical part, the form. Eh, that’s not who we are, so… Not consciously devaluing the body, but using this lofty spiritual lens to escape from the fact that I am having a human experience, an embodied one — when the truth is, the body matters.
On this day it wasn’t the conversation or the companionship that moved me to sob on her shoulder. It wasn’t her friendship; that was always mine. Through winter I hadn’t felt abandoned by Spirit, as if my friends didn’t love me anymore. None of that intangible stuff was lost.
It was the touch piece. The physical being-with. Her skin, her teeth, her warmth of presence. Her hands brought me home, though we still stood far from our California shores. Her strong, open arms welcomed me back to the feeling of being held — which we all need.
And so, for being the Home that came to get me, Serra, thank you. You wrote to me in Sweden. We talked when time zone coordination made it happen. You showed up for me. Yet in person, something else showed up that mattered. After every big adventure there awaits a set of arms that offers release and return. After the biggest adventure of my life so far, these arms were yours.
This is #7 in The Motherhood Letters, a monthly feature in the Mothering Arts community by Leaning into Light founder Jessica Rios. Rooted in universal themes of motherhood, Jess shares the essence of her unique art of mothering through letter writing.
It’s only been two days since we said goodbye. Our little family of three is jet lagged as expected. Sweden to San Francisco, for us, meant a 26 hour trip. And after every plane I’m in that lands, my heart is wide open. I know I could have died. Life is more lucid than it was the day before.
I’m writing to you because my heart is filled with a bewildered sort of thanks.
It's the kind of thanks that questions why we can’t all be as good at showing up for others, as you are. It is the kind of bewilderment that wonders how I got so blessed to live a life with people like you in it.
Moving to a different continent and culture 5,200 miles away from my California home took a lot of courage. Even though I knew it was the thing to do, the experience presented multiple stretches way outside my comfort zone.
For our entire year there, you lived close by. So close that you saw my first bout with anxiety, when physical circumstances stood my hairs on end because I feared for my daughter Helena’s life. So close that, as her grandfather’s long time wife, you spoke up about it. You felt it, too. You voiced your Mama Bear concern, assuring me that I had a right to be scared. Sometimes we need to be reminded of that. You were that mama for me.
Through your empathy I stood stronger in my own mothering skin.
From the moment we landed, you were abundant in the attention you shared with me and Helena. You gave generously with your curious, attentive spirit, becoming her gardening partner and playful companion. I knew I could trust you to be honest with me, and that made me feel more at home even though I was so far from it.
When I accepted that I didn't feel a genuine desire to learn to speak Swedish while there, simply because my "plate" felt too full already as a mother and writer living abroad, you accepted me. I didn't feel judged by you.
That kind of love is really, really helpful to a mother of a young child, who is navigating life in a whole new land.
At dinnertime during one of my horrible multi-day migraines, you asked if I wanted the overhead lamp turned off. I could barely answer; I could barely think. You didn’t wait for me to reply. You stood up and turned the light off. And that wasn’t the first time you noticed something on my behalf, or Helena’s, and took action because…
Village. We had a village together for that one precious year.
In a world so far away from what I knew, your outrageously radiant smile shone through your eyes at me, reminding me that mamas always have each other’s backs.
And I also saw you honor your own limits. When you were tired, you told me you were tired and you told Helena, too. You didn’t force yourself to be something you were not. Through this you showed me and my daughter how women can take care of ourselves. It helped me to give myself full permission to be my true self, too. When I was grumpy about the long winter or my marriage, you were fine with me where I was. Not taking sides, not feeding my complaints, just letting me be me.
When I birthed this child and married her father I had no idea you were coming along with the deal. I had no idea I would gain in my life, a woman who I’d lean on intensively, and who would show up with a spirit of sheer generosity as I lived out one of my life’s greatest adventures.
Mamas need each other. Women need each other. Life depends on other life. You aren’t my mother, and you sure showed me and Helena love that felt as deep as a mother’s love, while we were there.
We miss you with every jet lagged, bewildered tear our eyes shed. OK, she’s not shedding tears. I am. I really love you.
Endlessly, endlessly, thanks.
Last week we put on life vests and climbed aboard your grandfather’s wooden sailboat, the one he built when your father was a little boy, the one they spent summers on for many years in your dad‘s young life on the coast of southern Sweden.
Your grandfather is a master sailor so I knew we were in good hands. But I was also quite afraid because the ocean is our planet’s greatest wilderness — and four years ago on my first and only other sailing experience, we experienced trauma that left me scarred inside.
You were 18 months old and carsick from the curvy drive over the Santa Cruz mountains to the harbor. You clung to me from the minute we climbed on the small sailboat until the minute we climbed off four hours later. You were my emotional safety blanket, as giving you comfort swayed my attention away from the fear that wanted to eat me alive as we drifted further out to sea. The boat’s sails were not working properly, it was windy, and my old college friend was not skilled enough to sail in these conditions. Our radios and phone signals weren’t working for a while. I was terrified.
What made it worse on so many levels was that your father and I had neglected to put life vests on any of us, probably because we felt confident climbing on the boat – but we were both disgusted when we realized what we’d done — no child should be without a life vest out on the ocean. I was humbled and horrified. We finally reached support and a boat came to toe us back to the harbor.
Your father was indescribably amused as he’d had hundreds of successful sailing trips with his father, and now this… Now he sat with a freshly cracked open beer in a boat being towed to shore.
As I healed through this traumatic experience, I used a tool that comes in handy during hard times. I asked myself, How is this perfect?
What came to me was how beautifully you were a willing player getting us safely back to shore. If you had been actively toddlering about the boat, it would have been much more dramatic as I tried to keep you stable on an insufficiently equipped boat without life vests. Being carsick somehow kept you safe at my chest, and kept me comforted as I comforted you.
It’s peculiar, isn’t it, this great and crazy thing called life?
As expected, the sailing trip with your grandfather, your father, you and I was very different. We sailed to an island the first day, you ran around on the big boulders watching them catch fish, fell on a rock and got a fat lip for the first time, asked 100 glorious questions about the ocean, and charmed the three of us to no end.
The next day we sailed to a different island, your father tied the boat to the rocks and we hiked up giant boulders to explore lush green meadows with a wandering herd of sheep, flocks of geese and duck families with newborns waddling, and the old rock wall that used to be the border of Norway and Denmark.
As the rain came in that night and the boat rocked back and forth during our sleep, my fear washed in like a wave again. Wind and rain does not make for enjoyable sailing. But we decided to venture back to the island where your grandfather keeps his boat, and we made it through significant boat rocking, wind, and some big splashes on our faces. You asked about whales, you stayed calm and sat down as your grandfather had asked us to, you made your mama and papa so proud… Not of what you do or don’t do but simply of who you are.
In the great wilderness of the ocean, you exhibited a splendor and beauty of presence, from within your own great inner wilderness.
As we reached the dock, you said, "I want a boat and I want a dog on my boat." My whole soul smiled. Your father has now shared one of his life’s peak experiences with you – sailing with his father on the boat he grew up on.
I may never go sailing again, but you might. Remember, just like your mama, you’ve got the ocean in your hips. Breathe, ask questions, move to the high-side of the boat when the waves feel too big.
I want you to know about these experiences through my words because you may not remember them in a conscious way if I don’t write it down. And I love writing letters; they help me live my fullest life. Writing letters to you is mega double joy.
Our free recording for December is a 43-min interview On Privilege, with Griffo Distillery's co-founder and Director, Jenny Daly Griffo. You can listen to it 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.