This is the fifth piece from The Motherhood Letters, a monthly column of letters written by Leaning into Light founder Jessica Rios for Mothering Arts.
I’m writing to remind you that we’re mortal. (Go ahead, start laughing about your nutty aunt now, I know I toss you some funny curveballs in life.) 😉
We're mortal. Not your soul, not the Spirit you’re made of, not the love in your heart. That’s all eternal. Our bodies, dear nephew, will die. Yours, mine, everyone’s.
Ridiculous, right? Why would I take time to write you a letter about this, I mean, come on, you’re 19 years old. You are well aware that every body dies. But are you, really?
Let me tell you why I ask. Let me tell you why I’m writing you this letter.
Plain and clear, we live in the west where most people pretend they’re not going to die. Living this way is a lie, and I love to you too much to miss this chance to help you live awake to the fact that your body will die.
Look around. Most people eat like it doesn’t matter what we put into our bodies, as if their bodies will tolerate crap forever. Most people withhold the truth from themselves and others, and they sit around wishing and dreaming without stepping up to the plate to follow their dreams.
Following your own joy will show you this tragedy, because you will have awakened eyes to see how unusual it is for many people to follow their joy, and when you see this it will break your heart.
Let’s admit it. Often times, people seem half dead. Eventually they will lay dying in a hospital or sit dying in a wheelchair, and they’ll wish — they will wish — that they could turn back the clock to when they were your age, and make different choices. They’ll wish they had loved more, worried less, and spent more time with people who love more and worry less.
The bad news is that living in a culture where people pretend we don’t die means you’ll absorb some of this mentality.
The good news is that no one else’s beliefs have power over you. You choose what you believe and how you live your life.
In my life of adventure — with all its challenges and joys — I have found that life is most vivid, vibrant and satisfying when I remember I could die tomorrow. It doesn’t make me depressed; it gives me confidence! It gives me courage to take risks that lead to great learning. To say things that are in my heart without walking on egg shells. To follow my dreams even when I’m afraid. It attracts people to me who are truly interesting and alive.
My handsome, kind and funny nephew, you’re there now, in your young healthy body, facing the bulk of your life. What an exciting time! So much is unknown.
I’m not your mom; I am your aunt. Still, I love you like crazy. I care for you so, so very much. I want you to love this one life you’re living. And I’m here to support you 100% to make it so.
At your age, very few people know what they want to do for the rest of your life. Literally very few. Some people have an idea about what they might enjoy doing, that could earn them money — such as becoming a police officer, nurse or school teacher — but even people who “know” at age 19 might find later on that they were just settling. They didn’t really know.
To really get a sense of what you would deeply enjoy doing for work, it takes time, travel, experience and exposure to the great big world. Please don’t rush it.
Looking outwardly at what careers are available will give you some insights. It is by looking within your own gorgeous heart -- at what brings you most alive -- that you will find what lights you up.
Ever heard this quote?
Don’t ask what the world needs. As what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. — Howard Thurman
Alright. Now that we’ve gotten that out…
Will you play a game with me?
Every day for one week, starting as soon as you finish reading this letter, I want you to ask yourself this question, and answer it honestly. Write the question and answer in your journal. Journaling is powerful stuff! No need to share your answers with anyone, this is for you.
Here's the question.
If I knew I had one year left to live, what would I do today? (Then do it.)
I’ll step up to the plate to give you an example. If I knew I had one year left to live, today I would decide what three songs are my favorite to sing, and I would sing them out loud, today.
Alright, another example. If I knew I had one year left to live, today I would update my Living Will so that all my friends and family hear what I most want to say to them — and where I want my stuff to go, so they don’t have to think about all that when I die.
I know you’ve felt moments of being truly alive in your life. Aren’t they awesome in contrast to those moments when you feel bored or uninspired?
This life is yours, bud. Don’t follow anyone else’s truth. This is your one precious life. Follow your joy, follow your heart, that is where your wisdom lives. And as you tell yourself the truth, the path forward will reveal itself — one small step at a time — one day at a time. You are young, and time will reveal what you want to do in life. Travel. Read. Follow honest media sources. Watch people, watch life, listen for clues to the song your soul wants to sing. That is beauty. And you’re up for it. I’ll always be your ally.
Love and hugs,
It's usually when I walk around in my underwear. On occasion my daughter, who just turned five, chases me squealing, "Mama your legs are so biiiiiiig!" She giggles and wants to touch me and play with me.
The first time she said it was about six months ago and it caught me off guard.
Did she really just say that?
It was one of those semi-shocking moments, when a child blurts something you just wouldn't say as an adult. Women don't want to hear that. But plain truth be told, my legs are bigger than hers. She has a slender build and I am almost twice as tall as her. Plus her body is lean and I spent my early childhood snacking on Oreo cookies and ice cream. Mine's not so lean.
So once I got over the reaction I would have had 20 years ago: Whaaaaaat? Ohhhh this hurts, ouch, she's right, I really need to get more exercise or stop eating sugar or... which took about three seconds to move through me, I simply said what seemed true and loving: "My legs are just the right size for me."
Frankly I almost couldn't believe what I'd said. Was that really me talking, saying words of self-acceptance about my body? Who was this matter-of-fact-I'm-fine woman that I'd become?
Let me answer that question. This woman is a woman who has experienced so much culturally and self-inflicted criticism, yes mostly self inflicted, about my body that I refused to ever, no I have not ever, said one negative word about my body around my daughter. I don't talk about women's bodies as if they are to be criticized. Spending 30-something years in the pain of that world was enough.
This is a woman who birthed a girl child, for whom I want as little of that kind of pain as humanly possible. Magazine ads and peer chatter will be enough for her to pick up on society's sick perspectives about the female body. I will not be contributing to that.
We all get to choose our parenting style. We all get to choose what we say to our children. So many of us want our children to be free of the wounds we lived through in our own childhood.
Will we teach our daughters to focus on their bodies' strength, on how they feel?
Will we teach our sons to respect girls' bodies, by respecting our own in front of them?
As for me, the best I can do is let the outrageously big love I feel for my daughter escalate my own process of accepting that I am fine.
I am just fine, just the way I am, whether it's summertime and my skin is glowing, or a long dark winter where I'm pale as a pigeon plucking snow from the curb. At age 14 I had magazine covers plastered on my walls because I thought supermodels were it, and I wanted to be like them. Now, things are different. Age has freed me up. Something like that.
Yes I know full self acceptance is a tall order. Yet I know it is worth wanting.
Thank you, child, for calling forth my wiser self. May you always know your legs are just the right size for you, too. May you have no idea how many thousands of hours I've spent criticizing my own body, and especially my legs, until someday by the fire while we're camping, it feels like time to tell you that story. Dear child, may your life show you a way that is glorious galaxies beyond the wisdom of mine.
as published in the Natural Parent magazine, New Zealand
Idealism can be a blessing and a curse. To be at peace we must surrender our ideals at times rather than clinging to high dreams. Yet the imagination is a gift, and if we are in love with the human spirit — as I am — we ask ourselves which elements of society best honor the human spirit, and which do not. In this article I will leave out criticisms of school, its original design, and how it fails young humans and our future. Those critiques are not the best use of my writing. Sharing what I believe does serve life, is.
What I will assert is that all children are naturally curious. All children are born ready to learn, and homeschooling is a brilliant way to honor a child’s inherent beauty and wholeness.
Once led by religious families who wanted God to be central in their education, the homeschooling movement is now comprised largely of families who simply want their children’s learning to be natural. Less forced, more free.
Consider 30-year-old Tiffany Smith, who was homeschooled from 4th-12th grade and completed all her degrees, Associates through Doctorate, online. “My mom paved the way for child-led learning for me. She let me choose what I wanted to learn. I graduated two years early, valedictorian out of a class of 600 in our homeschooling program, then went on to achieve awards and graduate with honors for every degree. I am very grateful for my mom’s faith in me.”
On average, two hours per day are required for a homeschooled child to learn the subject matter. In school, this is found to be the actual amount of time spent learning subjects.
How about socialization? The myth that homeschooled kids are largely under-socialized is amusing to me at this point. Homeschooled kids overall do not lack social skills in contrast to schooled kids. In my experience, homeschooled kids often possess unusual levels of maturity in social scenarios, including a noted ability to interact with adults.
My own self-directed learning journey began in college when I stepped into a professor’s office in tears about something disturbing I had learned in his class. He listened attentively, said I’m not an average student and that I might want to write my own major. We opened the Course Catalog, I chose courses that were highly appealing and spoke to my strongest curiosities, and two years later I graduated with a BA in Social Ecology and Personal Ethics.
No, those two years weren’t easy. Charting a homeschooling path for our own children isn’t easy, either.
Most parents who homeschool their kids find themselves asking, every so often, Was I crazy to do this!? Yet quickly they bounce back to being 100% convinced it is the richest and most joyful educational path, worth all the time and heart, courage and vision it entails.
As with any rich topic worth exploring, it’s wise to keep an open mind and trade defensiveness for curiosity.
Conversations about parenting and how we educate our children can lead to divisive degrees of blame and other negative emotions and communication dynamics. School teachers and parents who feel judged or threatened by the idea or practice of homeschooling are a prime example. Yet it is possible to find teachers and parents with open minds, who accept that we don’t all need to see or choose like each other. Chances are, you will find open minds when yours, too, is open. That said, don’t expect to find these conversations easy at every turn. This is not the easy path.
I don’t want to paint an excruciatingly rough picture, and I also don’t want to portray homeschool life as “eating Bon Bons on the sofa all day.” One defensive school teacher mom voiced this remark and I mention it as a reminder that those who choose to homeschool are in the courageous minority — fast growing, yet requiring maturity to face ignorant perspectives like this, and then move on.
Thank goodness we are well supported by our own primal instincts and maternal intuition, by studies, and by a blossoming number of well informed leaders and organizations.
Turning to other moms is my Step Numero Uno when facing a tough issue or decision. Half of the time, that’s all I need. Where I live in coastal Northern California, there’s an abundance of homeschooling and the well informed open-mindedness required to do it well. When a mama friend isn’t enough to solve my problem, I reach for movement leaders and organizations with deep wells of wisdom and resources to share.
Wild + Free began as a small community of Instagram’ing mamas on the U.S. east coast and grew a ton in recent years. At the heart of W+F is the desire to give children a quality education while preserving the wonder, freedom and adventure of childhood. Recent articles released by W+F include Shaping Souls that Break the Mold, The Lost Art of the Family Walk and Nature Journaling the Human Body. “For as long as humans have lived on this earth, children have been schooled at home. Still, we homeschooling mamas often feel like pioneers forging a new path for the next generation,” writes W+F founder Ainsley Arment.
Feel the spirit? Pioneering requires great courage, so having a supportive community is essential.
Self-Directed Learning advocate Blake Boles quit his college astrophysics program to design his own degree in alternative education. Blake leads teenagers on international self-directed learning trips through his company Unschool Adventures, and is the author of three books including The Art of Self-Directed Learning (2014) and College Without High School (2009). He also wrote one of the most compelling pieces I’ve ever read on education: What Does it Mean to be Educated?
Thirsty for a deep critique of school? Turn to one of the greatest minds in the homeschooling movement, former New York State and NYC Teacher of the Year John Taylor Gatto, who wrote Dumbing Us Down and The Underground History of American Education.
Speaking in London on The Purpose of Education in 2012, Noam Chomsky rolled out genius reflections that may be tough for some to swallow yet will thrill anyone who is open minded and interested in the brave pursuit of an authentic life for self and child.
School reformer, youth rights theory pioneer and former classroom teacher John Holt (1923-1985) published several books including the popular How Children Fail and How Children Learn.
Numerous groups are available online for homeschooling families. Laura Grace Weldon’s Free Range Learning Community is one of my favorites. For bedtime reading without the glare of blue light escorting your dream state, her book Free-Range Learning beautifully explores the meaning and importance of natural learning.
Unschooling is a form of homeschooling guided by the learner, where self-chosen activities and life experiences of the learner lead the way. The Alliance for Self-Directed Education created a fantastic short video for those curious about what self-directed education means and why it’s beneficial for learners.
Most of the homeschooling parents I know are far-out passionate about providing a rich educational life for their children, one rooted in the most natural way young humans learn — based on interest, with freedom to play, non-coercively.
Yet for many parents who want to homeschool, it just doesn’t work out. For many families, school is an easier path for one reason or another.
Lifestyle and income play a huge role. Often in homeschooling families, Papa works at a paid job full time and Mama leads the homeschooling journey (on top of her other unpaid jobs). But this recipe doesn’t work for everyone, and it doesn’t work for my family. As with any path worth walking, this one requires a willingness to explore possibilities and see what works for you. Buying less stuff? That helps. Spending more time with our children sometimes asks that we be willing to downsize, live minimally.
Parenting is the big work of life. We are all doing our best. A mother’s intuition is one of a child’s greatest allies. After all, as Laura Grace Weldon wrote, Mother and Child are Linked at a Cellular Level. Humanity will become more clear of this in time.
Be honest about what you want. Find community to lean on.
In the words of former Waldorf teacher and homeschooling mother of three Melanie Heysek-Macdonald, “Do what feels right for you. There is lots to consider, and there are so many options for what’s right out there.”
As Christmas approaches, I am being courageous and communicating about something important to me, even though it’s a bit awkward and out of my comfort zone. Being courageous in communicating about things that are important to her is what I’d want my daughter to do — so shouldn’t I model this courage myself?
In giving myself permission to communicate this with you and others who I care deeply about, I ask that you first and foremost keep in mind that: 1) I love you, 2) I value you and all the ways you are generous with our daughter, and 3) this is nothing personal about any one person, including you. It is simply an expression of our family values — something we genuinely believe in — and I trust that you will receive this in a spirit of curiosity, with an open mind and a warm heart.
Here’s what we’ve noticed.
Whenever our daughter receives a lot of presents, she feels overwhelmed. It’s like her nervous system is frayed, and she can’t seem to appreciate or focus on any one thing. It’s as if she would prefer quality time rather than a lot of presents. It’s as if she is — without words — asking us to “step up our game” and show her how meaningful life can be without material excess.
She is fortunate. We are fortunate. And we’re grateful. So grateful that, in fact, we want to extend our gratitude into a family challenge to focus our time and attention more on laughter, music, conversation, cooking together — rather than having a holiday that is swimming in stuff.
We want this for our daughter, so that her holiday memories are rooted in the sharing of love. Yes, presents are usually given with love. Yet — they can also easily overwhelm children, and there is a growing movement among parents who recognize this overwhelm and want to teach their children how to live with less stuff. And less debt.
We also want our daughter to know that this living planet we call home — Mother Earth — is our life support system, and that we honor her future on it. We want her to know that buying more stuff is not good for the planet we love — which is her home.
My wish for our daughter is that she receive one very special gift from her family at Christmas. When we sit around our tree on Christmas morning, we would like her to revel — with attentiveness, presence and joy — in one very special gift her family has come together to purchase for her. We want her to feel what it's like to thoroughly appreciate and enjoy one gift. The magic of presence.
Trust me, if you want to be part of this gift I will be sure she knows that you are, as is anyone else who contributes to make it happen.
This year, we’re still on the case 😉 investigating what one “big” thing she would like for Christmas. Maybe it’s ice skates or a sled, or a day in the snow with a friend. Maybe handmade doll clothes. If you would like to contribute, please let me know.
If there is something special that you want to give her, let’s do it at a time when we can be with you, outside the holiday rush perhaps over a peaceful dinner, spending quality time enjoying the gift of your generosity and the huge blessing of your love in our lives.
(also published in Holistic Parenting Magazine, spring 2017)
Listen to our free recording for July, a 33-minute interview with Jessica Rios & Mirsad Cindrak, called Perspectives from a Refugee Hairstylist... here.
Jessica Rios, Founder of Leaning into Light, is a mother, coach, lifelong letter writer, and eternally a fan of 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.