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.
Sometimes life feels hard. And sure enough, sometimes circumstances are muddy, mucky and real rough. Especially with our closest relationships, things can be intensely challenging.
Sometimes though, we make our own lives more difficult — usually without realizing we’re doing it. Each of us has much more power to influence our lives than we accept.
The good news is that this is changing.
Every time one of us steps up to sharpen our communication skills, we bring more skillfulness and humility to our relationships. And every time that happens, the world becomes a place that is more loving, safe and kind.
Whenever I discover a simple tool that helps bring about this kind of world, I share it. Reflective Listening is a widely known skill in the world of interpersonal communication, coaching and couples therapy. It is exceptionally simple and I’ve detailed it below so you can practice. All humans would benefit from communication classes starting at a young age, with this exercise being practiced starting around age 10.
If you’re in a committed partnership with someone who’s open to learning new things and wants to see the relationship become more fulfilling over time — someone who’s willing to do their part and not just expect things to improve on their own — you are fortunate. Practice with them. I am extremely thankful my husband is willing to use these tools with me. Reflective Listening has been transformative for our our marriage.
Otherwise, ask a good friend or family member to practice with you. It doesn’t have to be deep or intense -- you can talk about ice cream or travel if you want.
For a short taste of what it’s like, you can take 10 minutes, five each, trading places halfway through. For a fuller experience that might be more rewarding, set aside a whole hour and each take 30 minutes. Or, you can have your turn today as Sharer, or Listener, and switch places tomorrow.
Benefits of Reflective Listening often include:
Ready for some of that sweetness?
Reflective Listening: The Basics
Try it, let me know how it goes for you, send me an email if you want to share what worked and what didn't. Be gentle with yourself. Even a simple exercise can be challenging, especially when it has the potential to bring about so many positive changes.
And if you find yourself all jazzed up about the power of Reflective Listening, share this link with a friend who’s struggling in relationship. Or if you have the spirit of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street running through your veins like I do, and being a good friend is enormously important to you in life, call a friend on the phone today and tell them you want to gift them 20 minutes of your time, as Listener in this exercise. Lead them through it.
It feels really, really good to have someone truly listen.
Of the hundreds of people I’ve met and had conversations with, there are probably 10 who I consider to be masterful listeners. To those people, thank you. I’m not there — yet. I am definitely on my way. To all of us who are heading that direction, kudos, it is good to be in your company!
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.
Anyone who’s been in a committed relationship knows it’s not easy. Down the line, divorce and affairs are common. Couples begin with starry-eyed mutual adoration and eventually find themselves facing some of their toughest life’s work.
Those who are a good match, with shared values and vision, who are willing to do the work presented by the relationship, can end up in an extremely satisfying place with an expanded sense of what’s possible in life. Maybe you know a couple who has made it this far.
There’s no right or wrong — in my book — about whether you have or haven’t made it through huge bumps and reached the other side. It doesn't make you more worthy of love, just because you have done the work partnership has presented to you, and come to a place of discovering you are both “new” people with grown spiritual and emotional muscle.
Whether we do this or that, whether we show the face of fear or love more often, we are all equally worthy of love. Still, it is very impressive and worthy of applause when two people do reach the "other side" in relationship.
If you are someone who’s done the work of long term intimate partnership, I commend you. I applaud you. Please share your insights with others, however it feels natural for you. People all over the world are longing for more satisfying relationships, and sadly, many are not willing to ask for help.
One of the big dying myths of our time is the myth that we don’t need each other.
Why stand at the wedding altar and ask that all all our guests be witnesses and help us out when things get tough, if we aren’t willing to ask them for help when we need it?
Friends, cousins, peers, coaches, many people in our lives would be happy to offer wisdom or a listening ear when we face relationship challenges. I am outrageously fortunate to have worked with a masterful relationship coach for 13 years. There are countless mediocre coaches out there, yet there are great ones too and there is one who’s a match for every one of us. And in asking for help, from whoever you ask, there is deep sweetness awaiting your soul. That place within you that values yourself enough to feel worthy of support, is a very sweet place.
If you’ve got one really good friend, or a sister or father or neighbor who genuinely cares for you, ask for help, alright?
There is no need to struggle in relationship.
Let us not wait for hurricanes, wildfires and war to teach us that Love is the way. Giving it, receiving it, any way you look at it... Love is the light.
Popular culture sees intimacy as exclusive to romantic relationships. But anyone who’s done deep human work knows intimacy can happen between any two people, even strangers -- and even with yourself.
Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase “into-me-see,” referring to how, when we share intimacy with another, we can see into that person’s inner landscape, and they can see into us. Being with someone where they’re at -- not where you wish they would be -- creates intimacy, closeness, a deeper bond.
Sounds great, I’ll take it! Right?
Ha! But there’s this. When someone asks, “Where do you work?” you’re likely to answer with what you do for income, your paid job, your career work.
Yet, as a lifelong student of what “makes life tick” for human fulfillment, I would assert that “work” is most appropriately tied to the deepest, most essential work: the work of intimacy, the work of relationships.
This is The Work. It is far from easy. It is work.
Last week I asked friends for insights about their experiences with intimacy. A handful of the wisest women I know responded. Here are some jewels from the conversation. I asked:
For those who have high levels of intimacy with your closest friends, peers, immediate family members and spouse/partner... What is your secret? How would you point others to find this same depth and richness in life?
“Being vulnerable with others and being curious about them.” Straightforward wisdom from former schoolteacher, outdoor enthusiast and supermama, Meno Reiner, who’s been a friend of mine for 19 blessed years. Her words pretty much sum it up!
Remembering whose shoulders she stands on, "grain-to-glass spirits" entrepreneur, former bike racer & schoolteacher, and supermama Jenny Daly Griffo said, “I feel that somehow finding a genuine interest in people drives a lot of my intimacy. I try so hard to emulate my grandpa who formed rich relationships everywhere he went. What I saw in him, was a genuine belief that people were interesting (beautiful humility) and a desire to hear their stories. Such a high bar!”
Even after years of developing intimacy and communication skills, I notice many women share the experience of still being challenged, and most challenged, by intimacy with oneself.
Lisa Kiehn, Supermama Extraordinaire of five children, massage therapist, psychic healer and birth doula, has been dedicated to intimacy development for many years. She says, “As I looked at my own issues of communication and a desire to hide or be shy, I pushed myself to come forward more because I desire intimacy. It was difficult in the early years but I would force myself to stay put, open myself to bravery and focus on their eyes. Honestly, this has been a lifelong journey. It takes bravery and a willingness to accept all that is present in the moment or many moments. I am willing to share, I am willing to be present, and my latest piece these many years is being open to receive myself.”
One of my “big sister” mentors of many years echoed this challenge with the Self.
She said, “The edge I've been exploring in intimacy this past year is with myself. Some aspects of my own experience are more difficult for me to be with. For example, I've spent an entire lifetime not-allowing myself to feel jealous or insecure or needy. I've been unwilling to love those experiences or the aspects of me who have them and have been extending myself this past year more courageously toward my own most hurting parts. Intimacy with me means loving all of me, being brave enough and compassionate enough to sit still and stay present for all of it, not just the fun and interesting parts. This is way easier for me to do with others than with myself.”
Does that resonate for anyone else? Easier to love other people where they are, with all their human “imperfections” than it is to love yourself in this way?
As the jewels of wisdom streamed in from these women, I was curious to hear from a man, too. So on one of our weekly collaboration calls, I stepped into Beginner’s Mind and got curious with my coach of 12 years, who is now my collaborator, Master Relationship Coach Charles Zook, CPCC. He’s coached 1,000s of couples and is considered a wizard in the world of relationship coaching.
Here’s what Charles had to say: “The word intimacy is not code for sex, it’s not code for a Hallmark card kind of moment -- a candlelit dinner -- it’s not code for holding hands walking on the beach.
"The definition we’re working with (in Leaning into Light’s Relationship Series workshops) is not those cultural connotations of intimacy.
"Intimacy means sharing human experience. If my partner is gone at work today, and I’m looking forward to having a fun, sexy evening with her after she gets home tonight, if I want to be intimate with her, I’m gonna have to be intimate with the experience she is having. There is no ‘fun, sexy’ that’s available right now.
"If I want to be intimate with her I have to meet her where she is, because that’s really the only place to be with her. In a Yoda kind of way, it’s the only place to be with someone: where they’re at.”
In other words, if you really want intimacy, you’re gonna have to be here now, as the famous Ram Dass book is titled. And that’s not easy; we’re culturally trained to want to be somewhere else, to want something else, and to just-wish for things rather than step up to create them.
“Rather than intimacy being a unicorn that we seek and wish for,” Charles continued, “participants in our next workshop will learn practical tools to generate intimacy and connection with others in your life.” Join me and Charles on Sunday April 24th for our phone workshop, Deepening Connection in Intimate Partnership (10:00-11:30AM PDT). That is, if you’re up for the work, and the rewards, of intimacy.
If there’s one thing I’ve noticed about us humans it’s that we benefit greatly from reminder, reminders, reminders. We don’t make change until we’re ready -- no one can force this kind of choice upon us -- and especially when it comes to life's biggies, we need 100s of reminders before we are ready.
The benefits of being ready?
One is being seen in the light of day. Dabbling chef and mother of two, Juniper Rose shared, “I feel I have deeply intimate relationships. It takes courage to be wholly myself in any given situation as well as openness to growth. Being truly intimate means all those little pieces we hide from ourselves and others will eventually be brought to light.”
Sometimes, perhaps until we’re totally awake and can make decisions from a place of total self-love, as a benefit for All of Life, it can be motivating to know how our actions impact the whole world. If we truly care about life, we can step more fully into it simply because we know our actions affect the whole.
“Intimacy is an investment in our world as a whole,” says Lisa Kiehn. “I believe that once we become intimate and understand the way of intimacy, we will continue to be so with all aspects of our experience. Intimacy is a profound healer. It is proof of life.”
And in case you're wondering, why, YES! All of my mama friends are Supermamas.
If you're like me, something intense happens when you see a fluffy slice of flan (my mom's is the best) topped with vanilla bean ice cream, or a dainty pot of crème brûlée. It's not only your mouth that waters; your soul drools. Inside that first bite lies a seduction of the senses, a taste of heaven's gate, pleasure not only for your taste buds but for your eyes, tongue, the tissue on the insides of your cheeks, your throat. All of you is lusted.
And if it isn't sugar, it might be alcohol or other drugs, overworking, shopping, gambling or pornography. There are many ways we humans seek connection, deep sweetness, a sense of freedom, outside ourselves. Not everyone tries to "externally resource" what can only be found within us, but many of us do.
It's commonly called addiction. And I'm writing letters to it.
I was a kid when I befriended sugar. Through the trauma of my parents' divorce, sugar became my go-to for facing emotional intensity. Chocolate chip cookies were always available and easily sent my tears into some other distant closet.
For at least 20 years I've made attempts to resolve this unhealthy dependency. Unlike my husband, who could eat ice cream every few months, or not, I could eat it ravenously on a daily basis.
And every time, every time, inside this cycle, guilt would follow. It has done so for all the years in my memory, at least since high school, ever since I became aware that my relationship with sugar was strikingly out of balance.
I'm not a lazy person. As someone who is highly self-determined, proactive, and motivated to reach deep within myself into the arms of Love, to heal wounds in life, it's been frustrating and discouraging that all of my efforts have tanked. Again I return to the butter and puff of a divine croissant, or the organic dark chocolate peanut butter cups that mimic my Reese's addiction from childhood. Not every few weeks or so. Habitually. Out of longing. Every-other-daily. And again, ah yes, Hello Guilt, there you are again, oh-so-reliable and anticipated.
One thing that's clear now is that I'll try another 1,000 times to clear this up, if I have to. I will do everything in my capacity -- I will call upon angels -- to not die in this dance. If it's deep sweetness I'm longing for, the kind I feel when I'm entangled in the presence of my daughter, well then I'll find that somewhere other than within a pint of Strauss Mint Chip ice cream.
Something is shifting. I can feel it in my bones. I could write a lot about this whole realm, and for now I'll stick with this: Writing a letter to your addiction is a very powerful thing.
Two mega-powers convene: 1) Writing things down. Scientifically proven to have a significant impact, writing things down is an act of listening to what's showing up and landing it on paper. Giving it a place to reside, outside the constant craze of your addiction thoughts. It frees you up. It loves what is, by putting it on paper. 2) Being in conscious relationship. Relationship is the core of life. Being self-determined, proactive, consciously engaged in your relationship with this thing -- this "addiction" -- you've given your power over to, is very powerful. Writing a letter is an excellent way to stand in conscious relationship.
It just so happens that letter writing is my lifelong art. At this point I've written two "Dear Sugar" letters and throughout this spring, I will be sharing elements of this rich process that feel helpful for others: blog readers, peers, companions, fellow travelers in this sad and beautiful human journey.
But for now, I've been told by some wise friends that it is very helpful to have a template. Not everyone loves writing letters and makes a practice of it, and even those who do can sometimes use the support.
Give it a shot. Pull out some paper and a pen. Here is a template to use for your own Dear Sugar letter. Or Dear Booze, or Etsy, or Maryjane, or Unavailable Men. If there's something you habitually turn to for consolation when you know it tends to leave you feeling guilt or shame, that's the thing.
I notice... (you're speaking up a lot these days, it's clear you have a lot to say, I feel upset by all the stuff you're saying...etc... any observations you have, just noticing...)
I am listening. I hear... (that you think I'm not a good mom/lover/wife/woman/person/friend... that you don't find me to be gifted/honest/loving/deserving/capable/etc...)
I want to honor what you have to say. Yet ultimately you won't be allowed to drive this car. To make decisions. To play a leading role in my life. I simply want you to know you matter and you're being heard. I am open to what you have to share with me. What else do you have to share? (list, list, list...)
What I want for myself is...
Yes- I want more of __________, __________, ____________... and less of ______________.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me. I am here to listen until it feels like our conversation is complete. I'll be back. I'll be listening for what else you have to say.
And before I go, I will fill up my cup with some self love.
I acknowledge myself for _____________________________ and
I acknowledge myself for _____________________________ and
I acknowledge myself for _____________________________ ...
From / Love / Sincerely / All For Now / Thanks,
Our free recording for November is here! Listen to The Spirit of Waldorf Education and Tips for Parents, our 55-minute interview of Education Director Shannon O'Laughlin, 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.