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.
It was September, just starting to get cold here in southern Sweden, and I remember the looks on their faces. When locals would ask me if I had ever been through a whole winter here, I would say, "No, this will be my first."
No matter who it was, their whole face went sour. "Ohhhh..."
October came. Layers started piling on. An underlayer of wool pants, long sleeve shirt, a scarf you actually needed so the breeze didn't chill your neck. In November, beanies became the norm, plus long wool or down coats and mittens. My husband schooled me on how mittens are warmer than gloves because your fingers share heat inside them. Every day my daughter Helena wore snow pants with suspenders to preschool, along with all the other clothing necessary to stay warm and dry here and one day as she flopped to the floor in frustration over all the stuff she had to put on and take off several times a day, I counted 12 items. Twelve tops and mittens and socks and layer upon layer upon, oh sweet darling spring will come, layer.
On Christmas Day out walking with family, the icy wind chill of the drizzling gray day left me realizing I was really in for it. We were really in for it. This winter would be long, dreary, dark and cold in a way we'd never known before.
This photo of my daughter and me on Christmas day in 2017 shows how we felt about the Nordic cold.
Ohhhh, what this winter strained out of me. How I've gushed silent spills of praise for my California home climate. Deep longing for sun. My skin more pale than it's been since I was in my mother's womb.
Winter in Scandinavia is a big adventure all to itself. Letters lifted my daughter and me out of many dark days this winter.
Once among the best postal systems in the world -- surprise surprise, we are talking Sweden here -- these days it's dropped down several notches. In recent years it became semi-privatized, and now natives comment on how disappointing service is these days.
On many days my frustration about postal cost and delivery here led to praise, once again, for our U.S. postal service. It is one thing we do well in the States. Complain about long lines and underfunded offices all you want; it is cheap to send a letter in the US, and our postal system does it pretty darn well most of the time. In 38 years of sending lots of mail, I've had almost unnoticeably low mail loss, delay or damage. An international stamp in the US costs $1.15. In Sweden, it's 21 SEK, which converts to $2.53.
Yowch, that's an expensive habit.
Yet it's a happy, healthy habit. For every 10 letters or cards I write and send, about one person writes and sends one back. Decades ago I decided this is just fine. My soul spins in joy to write to people. It is as much a gift for me as for the receiver. And because I write a lot -- and Helena now has a card-making practice -- we've gotten mail every week for the past 9.5 months, all the way across the world. Sometimes it's one letter. Sometimes it's a stack of ten, and wow how good that feels.
I see the hand writing on an envelope from someone who loves me...
She touches the orange and purple crayon drawing of a pal back home...
I notice people seem more willing to vulnerably share feelings from across the ocean...
I strategize on how to "make the most" of each piece of mail we send...
And I reach for courage to ask friends to write to us, because it really does make a difference...
Receiving mail from friends and family 5,200 miles away has made us feel like we were still being held in the love of friends and family back home.
It has eased winter's edge. And it has helped my daughter retain a memory of friends she treasures, so that she's rooted emotionally, so that she has continuity in her relations, and so that when we return home, she sees faces and hears voices that are familiar to her, where she feels safe, seen and loved. How wondrous is this for a child who has just lived for a year in a whole new land, learning its language and adapting to its climate and culture?
To all the friends who have written to us -- and to my mother, who has been outrageously thoughtful and generous in sending us packages -- WE THANK YOU. Letter writing is a powerful art. It is an art of Love. Your mail has been the sun on many dark days.
Two weeks ago an article appeared in my Facebook feed with these words: You don’t realize it, but you are being programmed. It was written by a former Facebook executive, and my response was simply to shrug because, frankly, I know that. Look around you. On buses and trains, at dinner tables in people’s home or out at restaurants, everywhere you look, people have married their screen devices. Computer phones. Whatever you want to call them, these devices are “smart” in that they’re very much designed with the intention to grab your attention, and keep it.
That’s it, I thought. I’m out. It’s time. And in that moment, after skimming the article which was basically an affirmation of my own years of discomfort with humanity's screen device habits, I decided I’d take two weeks and deactivate my accounts on Facebook and Instagram.
It wasn’t the article that tipped me over. Other people’s thoughts don’t have that much power over me, or so I think. I brought that discovery into my life to help me make the tip, the lunge, the leap.
What about the joy? Oh, there is indeed joy. My top intent while spending time scrolling social media scenes is to share joy, to share love, to illuminate the beauty in being human. Openly I share my huge heart’s love for humanity, one person at a time. Openly I offer kind words to anyone who seems to need them in one post. Or another. On it goes, joy being shared, big questions asked, some useful information gathered, yet overall…
Wellness is only a slice of the feeling I get from participating in social media. For every bit of my precious life that I enjoy interacting there, in the background there’s a tension, sometimes hard to notice, often hard to name.
What could be bothering me?
Could it be that I stopped watching TV in 1993 and suddenly I feel like I got snatched from behind, tugged into a TV-like landscape that I didn’t really know I’d get so tugged into? It’s awfully cunning, the waterfall of tricks and drips of happy, hooking hormones showered upon us as we use social media.
Did someone else tug me into it or did I willingly dive? As one wise friend pointed out, we cannot be programmed unless we allow ourselves to. She’s so right, on an essential level. Yet very few people I know have actually mastered the art of having full command of their attention, very few people I know find a deeply balanced relationship with screen device use. Quite frankly, almost everyone I know -- myself included -- has become more habitually enslaved to their devices, than not. Who’s doing the programming? This is where I give both parties credit.
It’s a relationship. And a very intimate one.
We take our phones to bed. They live against our skin, in pockets and bags. They sit on our dinner tables, always ready to serve. We’ve basically married them, but never written vows, and never consciously acknowledged we were entering an intimate partnership. We tend to our phones more closely than we do to most -- all? -- people in our lives. Including ourselves.
This is the itch. Something is tugging at me, itching my skin, and it’s stronger than the tug of sharing life with friends and family on computer screens. One thing I’ve learned that I’m downright thrilled to know, is that feelings aren’t usually easy to name, especially when they’re edgy, and yet they must be honored. Feelings don't just go away because we deny them and try to pretend they're not there.
Just because I can’t articulate my reasons for leaving social media with highly sophisticated eloquence, I know for sure it’s the right thing to do. For me. I know for sure that I will find pleasure in re-routing the ways I share life and joy with people. I know for sure it feels good to be honoring this feeling, and that life outside social media will satisfy me in at least these three ways: It’s less noisy. It’s less shallow. It’s less cluttered.
When I choose quiet over noise in life outside the screen, why would I choose the noise of social media as part of my everyday life?
When my deep-feeling heart extends itself to feel big things in the collective human experience, needing close relations to listen, to witness, to really see me with their eyes, presence and words, why would I spend so much time in a landscape I find so shallow?
When I don’t allow clutter in my home space, it simply doesn’t get to live with me, why would I allow my eyes, ears and attention to lay in a landscape filled with clutter?
Questions, for me.
For you they may have no ring, no resonance. For you social media might be a wonderful place where you love to play, where you feel your time is well spent, with no tug to do otherwise. You might even be one of the rare ones who’s found gorgeous balance in your own engagement with screen time. To you, I bow in respect! I seek that balance. I haven't found it yet.
Even with minimal engagement on social media, implementing my own mindfulness practices including focusing on those who are dearest to me, keeping comments brief yet packed with Love’s punch, and rarely scrolling my own "Home" wall or anyone else's, I’ve found it to be too much. Even with limited engagement, the tug of irritation has persisted.
That’s when I knew it was time, and that’s when the article appeared. Ha! Don’t you love the swift-winged synchronicity of this universe?
So here I sit, with one day left before I deactivate my accounts and begin the rerouting process. One day after deciding, I already felt weight lifted off my shoulders. In my bones, I know this is right for me.
Still, leaving social media when I’ve been engaged with it intimately for nine years is no small thing. It’s 2018. Come on. Social media is, like, life. Right? Riiiight?
How will I reroute regular contact with my teenage nieces and nephews? Will it be arduous, like that one time I tried to dump my new computer-phone for an old phone, and realized it just made life more difficult? Will it feel effortful to engage in causes I care about -- like Raffi’s Centre for Child Honouring, the Free Range Learning Community, Wild + Free, or simply hearing about fabulous things my friends are doing, parties they’re having, prayers they’re calling for?
I am left with trust that all will find its way, as I know I’m the one person alive tasked with taking great care of me. And as I age, I take this job more seriously and find it more and more delicious.
When my daughter looks around and sees people plugged into their screen device most of the time, I want her to have another example.
I want her mother to be one of the people who offers a way that’s more real-touch, real-time. More based in pleasure, the sand, the light of the sun not the screen. Ultimately I’d like to offer her and me, a way of using screen devices that is balanced, moderate, engaged, while not being tethered. I haven’t found that yet, and stepping out feels like the best way to rewire my own brain’s engagement, while rewriting the story I tell about sharing life and joy with those I love.
You’ll find me most easily via email, through the articles I soulfully write for a number of international publications, all of which are posted on my blog, and through my newsletter (sign up!) which will contain all the goodies I produce including news of my first book, coming out in the fall of 2018, and the podcasts I’m about to bust out.
With love, I salute you and your choices.
With love, I salute me and mine.
See you ‘round the way!
Five months into our family’s yearlong adventure living abroad in Sweden, I'm wondering where all the light went. It sure is dim and dark outside. Yeah yeah, I knew it would be like this. But living in it is always different than knowing, in your head, it is coming.
In my life I’ve had many, many experiences of choosing to “lean into light” — to recover from fear and pain to love and joy — yet this is the first time I’m actually facing this kind of dark.
Long seasons of cold, rain, wind and dark have been known to knock people off-center, and I am committed to utilizing all the tools I’ve got for self care, as the season rolls on. Buy a UV light? Maybe. Get outside, walk up stairs and hike up hills? Oh yes.
How would you make it — without too many grumpy days — through a long dark winter?
Letter writing has always been a therapeutic art for me, so I’ll write through the winter. Last week I wrote this letter for parents to use as they wish, since there is a growing number of parents who want their holidays to be less about presents, or “stuff” — and more about connection and quality time.
Whether you are a parent or not, chances are you want less stress and debt this holiday season. Consider this. How much more rewarding would it be to spend less time, money and attention on presents and more quality time with people you’ll miss indescribably when you die? Yep, when you leave your body. Because we all will, right?
In western cultures, we tend to avoid talking about our inevitable physical death. What purpose does this serve? If anything, I've seen people enjoy life more when they stop pretending to be immortal.
There’s no good reason to wait until we’re taking our last breaths. Ask the big questions now. Express your big feelings now. To your friends, to your mom or cousin or favorite co-workers…
What would you do if you knew you had two weeks to live?
What art is living inside of you, that you are denying and want to step-up?
What makes you feel alive, and are you doing that enough?
They'll feel your love.
From one perspective, living in a human body is rivetingly blissful and filled with pleasure. From another perspective, our bodies are limited and the real "light" is on the "other side," after we leave our bodies. Wherever you stand in the range of these beliefs, I will assert that we are here on this Earth to become really good at leaning into light. During long dark winters, or divorce or destructive wildfire, or adolescent growing pains or while we're looking for a new job that actually feels worth our time...
Asking the big questions and expressing the big feelings can help us feel alive.
Last night it was our old next door neighbor. The one back home in Petaluma. In my dream she was sorting through things in her car. And she was pregnant.
Each night before, for the past two weeks since we left our home in Northern California, it was another dear one. Somebody who’s tucked way deep into the caves of my heart, whose love I must feel as I sleep, to be here, to be brave, to wake up optimistic about all the new sounds, words, sights and choices each day brings.
Two weeks ago we came to Sweden. It’s lovely. Waterways and ferries, charming schools, clean streets, lots of bicyclists, people walking with their families, often with a scoop of summertime sunshine in hand — ice cream. We’re staying for a year, through the dark and cold of winter, so my daughter can absorb her father’s native culture into her bones — its language, her grandparents and cousins, a whole new map of humanity to add to the one she’s known all her life in America. And I am here to see my life and homeland from a distance — to gain some perspective.
It is a mystery, what exactly this year will bring. As always in life, we do not know. Yet adventure seems to make life more unstable… usually in a positive way.
Daily I begin writing blog posts in my head...
How to Support a Child During a Big Move
The Mama Bond and How It Impacts Parenting
Social Solidarity and Unschooling
What if Everyone on Earth Had Their Own Dream-Space for Art?
The Art of Knowing Nothing
And then, all that lands on paper is letters. To friends back home. To my mom. Letters write themselves so easily through me, because they are an expression of love in relationship. No thinking required.
So here, I’m doing a little of that in a blog post. Highlights “on the surface” of my intercontinental family move, in the form of five Notes to Self. Under the surface, in the subconscious and unconscious mind — in that place of dreaming-asleep — all the musings inside that place are way outside of words even between me and myself, so I don't dare try to make any sense of them on paper. Here are the ones I can make some sense of — those personal bits I’ve dug up from my own life that might be of value to you.
#1: Way to land it, Mama! Six and a half months of deciding, planning, envisioning, orchestrating, and you have landed this family plane! Now rest. If that pressure behind your eyes has anything to do with the long daylight hours, you can rest assured knowing fall and winter will bring plenty of relief from light. But let’s just say that you’ve worked your tail off, with bucket-loads of help from friends and family, to get here and now… You. Are. Here. Note to Self: Stop. Slow down. Give yourself time to recover not just from the jet lag but from all the project management energy you exerted to make this shift. Rest is so, so important. Stay true in knowing that, even when the ‘outside’ world tells you to go, go, push on, go.
#2: Our shipping crates are somewhere off at sea. Estimated delivery was five days after our arrival, now changed to seven weeks. We’ve got clothes and a few toys and books for our daughter, but there is no doubt those carefully chosen material things we packed into crates bring enormous value — joy, familiarity, a foundation. Things that are helpful on big adventures. Note to Self: Continue on your journey of finding true balance and joy — sufficiency as Lynne Twist calls it in her famed book The Soul of Money — with material things in life. And when you have what you perceive as “too much” in life — clutter, excess, gluttony — aim to be grateful that at least you have enough. And when you don’t have quite all the things you’d like to have, like now, be grateful they are coming, and that you can find happy days as a family even with only the things you packed into a duffel bag.
#3: I’ve never stuck with gyms for long. I join, the going feels great and then I fall out of love. Only those movements that bring me real joy — like frisbee, dancing and bicycling — tend to last. So I’ve noted for a good life, this body needs those playful things. And meanwhile, here I am living my dream of not owning a car for a year! It’s been a decade in waiting. I’ve wondered how much America’s obesity epidemic has to do with how people move — or don’t. Here we’ve been walking a lot every day and it feels so good to know this won’t end in two weeks when my vacation is over. This isn’t a vacation; this is our life on a different continent. And… Note to Self: Though you might feel lighter — and better — with all this walking, do not forget that it is playful movement that truly lights up your body from the inside. You will find that capoeira class. Its berimbau song sings you awake like nothing else. Fall in, girl.
#4: As ten of your dearest lady friends told you two weeks ago, seated on colorful blankets circled up in a farewell ritual, they are holding you. Your web of women is something fierce, in a landscape of loneliness. You will never be lonely for long because of the way you revere your relations. Note to Self: Even when your letter writing and other ways of feeding friendships seem to be devalued — as they’re not compensated financially and the bonds aren’t always tangible or visible — they hold you up. Keep them strong. This you know. Without your tribe, you fall and it hurts. With your tribe, you fall and look around to hear familiar songs singing you right back up.
#5: Despite the temptation to ask, “Now that I’m in a new place, who am I here?” you are who you are, in essence — everywhere. Joy is joy wherever you are. You don’t need to search for a new joy, though many might find you. Note to Self: Music lifts your soul; Sing loud every day. (Presently overhearing my daughter leading her father through Bob Marley’s song One Love in the kitchen… She knows.) Art keeps you grounded, so you know that your place on Earth is a beautiful one, no less useful than the sun as it shines on moss green fields of rice. You were born a “profound romantic” — a lover of humanity — and expressing this through writing is your gift and your art. Keep giving. Find your paper people, those who know the art of letter writing is not dead. Dance in the joy of that knowing, together. An art is not dead if it is being lived.
My dream is to write like crazy while we’re here in Scandinavia. I know this can happen, and it likely will. Being in a culture that truly values art is indescribably refreshing — but I can’t say just how, at the moment. Receptors are inward, picking up, not yet forming the full articulations of what I am noticing.
Thank you for being with me, anyone who’s reading this, as we journey on. May our little family's adventure light up your own desires to move upon this great, glorious small planet we call Home, our precious Mother Earth.
Our featured free recording for September is a 35-minute conversation with mailman Sean Lanham called Mailman Magic and the Power of Letters. You can 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.