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.
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.
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,
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.
These days a gigantic contrast stares me down, every single day.
On one hand there’s my 3.5-year-old daughter who, almost entirely unexposed to violence and other unpleasant aspects of the world, still simmers with innocence and purity. This summer when she saw a pinata being hit with a bat, she shuddered. (Whacking a creature with a bat!?) She expects utmost respect and kindness. She leads our daily gratitude ritual at dinnertime. She talks about how her heart is full of love. She sings about her two grandmothers, and how much she likes them both. Every week as I head out the door for acupuncture, she runs to me squealing, “Another kiss Mama! Another kiss!”
On the other hand is the pain of the world. Several states east of us in North Dakota there’s a militarized squad of armed men in black standing on the sacred soil of Native American ancestral burial grounds, spraying tear gas at non-violent people trying to protect the water. Signing the paychecks for the squad of violent men are corporations "too big to fail" like Marathon Petroleum, Wells Fargo and Bank of America. And our own government — in this case not “by the people and for the people” — is supporting this violence.
Welcome to the human experience, Mama Jess. In the words of our friend Nina in Sweden, the world is “sad and beautiful.”
Yet as a mother, this is big stuff. What does this mean for my daughter? How do I help her to face all this? It’s bewildering.
And there’s no escaping it, because there’s as much pain inside the human soul as there is in the world that appears to be outside of us. As her mother I must show her how to be with what shows up, not how to avoid it, deny it, pretend it’s not there.
Contrast. What a teacher.
So where did I turn? To women.
Women. The most natural place for me to turn to. Women’s wisdom — from intuition, from instinct, from the heart — is ancient, instantly accessible and generously offered.
I asked some of my dearest girlfriends to write a letter to their inner-6-year-old. Looking back, what would they tell themselves at six years old, knowing what they know now? What do they see? What wants to be said or seen or soothed?
They dove in, and here’s what came through. Some used their real names, some not. Some signed it as themselves, one as Auntie.
What they wrote is already helpful to me, and will continue being helpful for the sometimes-dreaded, inevitable, bubble-busting moments ahead in my mothering path.
A few of them said this exercise was deeply therapeutic, healing, they really enjoyed it. My hope is that other women and mothers living on this beautiful Planet Earth might write their own letters to their inner-6-year-old girl. As we unwind the wounds of our own past, weaving in the wisdom of ourselves in our 30s and 40s and beyond, we create a brighter and more gentle future for all.
Dear Six-Year-Old Shirley Marie,
I look back and see how alone and afraid you were.
You needed a wise, grounded, sober adult to take care of you. You needed someone to NOTICE what was happening, and essentially rescue you. A mentor. A bold and strong auntie. Your sister. You needed someone to sit down, to look into your eyes, to smile a full and sincere smile, to hold you and rub your back and say: “Your experience matters."
You were given no guidance, no example. You needed safety.
With all of my love,
Dearest sweet Pamela:
You are smart, intuitive and kind. This kind of intelligence requires you to stay wildly connected to your body, my sweet, so dance, play, sing… my darling.
Pamela, mother of four
You get one life. Live hard. Fear is a bitch.
You are so loved by your friends and family. Love yourself at your worst and best. Always.
I have grown up knowing there is more. Don't regret what you missed or never had.
Nature never disappoints. Fresh air solves most of the noise in your head.
Your biggest strength will be your ability to find good in all people .
Childhood ends at one point but being spontaneous, fun, active, silly, courageous, proud, and optimistic doesn't ever have to end.
You, Sylvie, are a bad ass.
Me at 40
Listen and trust the voice in your heart to make it through the ups and downs of life. There is a light in there that will help you see the way. There is a light in there that will remind you that you are never alone.
Every ounce of you is meant to be here. Enjoy every ounce of you.
Never stop playing...
Auntie, 33 years old
Dear 6-Year-Old Irene,
I want to tell you that… you are good and loved.
I see that you are confused and insecure and this has caused you to suppress who you are, and I want to share something with you… Even though your life circumstances have put you into “flight" mode and caused you to feel you cannot fully trust the world around you, these circumstances that you have lived through in this life, and all others, are leading you down the path that you will walk this lifetime. If you can release the fear and doubt, you will realize that God is everywhere and is offering you guidance in every moment. You don't have to know everything, you don't have to have things figured out. You just need to build trust and depend on God.
I wish for you to believe in yourself and in life and believe in the amazing possibilities that God has in store...
As I've grown older I've seen how quickly things can change and how fast time goes by. This is something many people will tell you, and that you will not understand until you have reached a certain age. But please don't delay in putting everything you are on the line for what you believe in, for what you know to be true. Jump now, and you will see that you can fly!
Dearest little wild one,
I see you. Always climbing to the top of your lemon tree, then squeezing through the hole which leads to a quiet view from your roof top. I see you in your blue Mickey Mouse tee shirt stained from a pomegranate snatched from the neighbor's tree. Adventurous, excitable you.
Even though your mother loved you so deeply, you always wondered what love was meant for. It was meant for you. You deserve all the love which pours forth to you.
I repeat. You are worthy. This is your journey. I'm here, as the 45 year old woman that struggles to believe... to whisper to your soul: Sweet love, you are worthy.
In admiration of you,
Reflections on Little Jenny, from Jenny in her 30s, Mother of Two Boys
Throughout my childhood people asked me what I “wanted to be when I grew up.” I always felt like there was going to be a point where I “was,” or where I had “arrived" and this distant future of “being" was going to stop be in the future.
I wanted to feel important and to feel valued so I set my sights high. I wanted to go to Stanford. I wanted to run a company that made the world a better place. Then, I would be lovable and I would finally “be.”
So, I did. I accomplished big things. And yet, this feeling of “being" never arrived. There was always something more to accomplish. I always thought, Strive more then you will “be," then you will “arrive.”
I wish I could say I came to my senses early. But, it wasn't until I had children of my own and I looked into their eyes and hearts and I saw that they were complete as they were. They didn't need to become anything, because they already were! And, this great burden of accomplishing fell off my shoulders and I realized that I, also, was complete as I was. I didn't need to become anything.
So, to the children out there. When someone asks you what you want to “be" when you grow up. How about you respond with, “I want to be me." Because THAT is enough. You will do so many things in your life. And, I hope you feel fulfilled and joyful. But, don't confuse “doing" with “being.”
Ode to you, beloved ladies...
I invite anyone else who wants to share wisdom, insight or other words for your inner child, to post them in the Comments section here, or email them to us. It’s an act of self love, a nod of self worth, an expression of self-care. It’s good for you. And what’s good for you is good for the world.
No, I don't have a crush on him. (We have to say that, right, in a culture that equates love with romance?) But I do think our mailman Ruben is a stellar example of "love at work" -- a spirit of love embodied in the workplace -- and for that he has my utmost respect. He has found a way to enjoy the task that eats up most of his waking hours, and this places him in the small minority among Americans.
More than once I've wondered how he gets his job done on time. Always willing to say hello, never giving off the feeling that he'd rather rush from house to house than spend a moment saying hi, he has a Buddha-like presence that's profoundly admirable. He is present. How many of us bring true presence to our working moments, day in, day out?
He wears a smiley face button on his hat and it's quite possible that iconic grin was made in his impression.
As I walk the neighborhood with my napping toddler, I notice him zipping along with letters in hand, always seeming to smile from the inside out. He chooses joy.
There is something simple about Ruben... a feeling that he isn't here to prove anything, that he just wants to enjoy life. And he does! From what I can tell, he has found a way to live in a contended state of mind, something most humans strive for to the grave.
Without knowing it, Ruben probably brings therapeutic wellness to dozens of people on a daily basis. We don't pay him anything (except a miniscule percentage of a penny from income taxes) and he loyally delivers the mail to us every day he works.
Is the U.S. Postal Service, his employer, partially responsible? Judging from the bulk of postal workers I've met in my life, as someone who's written and mailed 1000's of letters, I highly doubt it.
I think it's just Ruben. It is what he's chosen. He wants to enjoy his life and he has, through some of the simplest and most profound of values -- presence, joy, contentedness -- found a way to do that.
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,
Listen to our free recording for August, a 30-minute talk with Jessica Rios on her 13 month adventure living abroad, Humane and Heartbreaking, 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.