Those of you who read my blog regularly are likely aware that I'm not talking about money. I am talking about what makes us truly rich, not financially rich.
I'm talking about relationships. Any not just the romantic kind.
Your long time closest friend. Your newest close friend. Your uncle, your mother, your hilarious free-spirited cousin. Your postman, postwoman or favorite barista. Your next door neighbor who gives you butter or lemons when you run out. Your spouse. Your boss. Your daughter. Your dog.
One of the most comprehensive studies of emotional well being in history, The Harvard Study of Adult Development, found the one thing that makes people happy is good relationships. What does this mean, in simple terms? "They care about me and I care about them," says masterful relationship coach Charles Zook.
What does this have to do with being rich?
To be happy is to be rich. To genuinely feel satisfied with what you have, to exhale daily thanks for your health and family, to revel in the majestically giving and gorgeous planet we get to call Home. Happiness gives us a feeling of being so-filled-up, we're rich. Full. Basking. Profoundly grateful.
Showing love has been my thing since early childhood. Giving eager hugs to my aunt Irma, telling my parents I love them, writing letters to friends in the mail... It has always been a high priority for me to invest in relationships. It feels natural. It feels real. It feels good.
So it struck me a few years ago that calling people rich primarily or only when they have abundant financial resources is a very silly thing. That isn't true richness. Money is useful, important, yes. But it isn't what makes us rich -- not in my values system.
Love makes us rich. And where do we give and receive Love? In our relationships. With ourselves, and with the people we hold most dear.
If you are starting to feel swallowed up in the commercial culture of heart-shaped candy and red roses surfacing for Valentine's Day, I feel for you. Making a consumer issue out of Love is rather sick.
Yet, though the culture has a big impact on us, it does not have power over us. You can choose to feed your sense of richness, feed your joy, by doing one simple and profoundly enriching thing: Feed Your Relationships.
Today, give this to yourself. Don't let yourself be under-fed. How? Pick someone in your life, call them and be curious. Be interested. How are they really doing? Have they healed from the death of their loved one? What are they creating these days? Where do they see themselves in 20 years?
Yes it is very simple. Still yes, we need reminders.
Go for a hike with a friend. Call your aunt and uncle to congratulate them for 55 years of marriage. Ask your dad if he needs help with his computer, or anything else. Thank your postal delivery person for their work, rain or shine.
This month, invest your time and voice in your own richness by showing Love to those who you value in this one precious life.
I wrote this poem-like letter in my journal in 2011, after becoming certain I wanted my own chid someday. I had never been pregnant and was starting to feel concerned. Fortunately, in 2012 I got pregnant and began a journal to the life inside my womb. Six years later, I still keep a journal of letters for my daughter. It's deeply rewarding. After I leave this body, my daughter can read her mother's thoughts and stories -- all in my own, real hand writing.
Dear Baby Boy Soul,
Are you calling to me?
I dreamt of you last night.
Someone in India had asked me to care for you while traveling.
For two weeks, you'd be mine to watch and care for.
And in that dreamscape where all lines cross
and one reality becomes another
you felt like
my little boy.
Then one day our group of travelers
went to the mall. I had dressed in a full silk sari
fuchsia, magenta, pumpkin colored
wide skirt flowing at my ankles.
A tall American girl I had befriended
walked beside me and somehow
she was holding you now. She said,
"I'm going to hold him for the next few hours."
My heart fell deep into pain.
I had loved holding you.
It was heaven and I'd waited all day
to be with you again
your soft brown hair and chubby thighs
felt like my hands were designed to hold them
as you sat on my hip.
"No you're not," I said to the tall girl.
"I've been wanting to hold him all day and he's
my responsibility. I'm watching him."
She said, "Well, too bad because I'm holding him."
I stood there shocked, jaw dropped down toward
layers of pink and orange
floral print silk.
Fighting energy does not belong
I would not grab you from her arms
She would give you back later
but the grief...
Baby boy soul
are you real?
Like in Velveteen Rabbit...
are you real because I love you?
Will you pass through my body someday
bewildering my being
with the sheer miracle of yours?
I would die with love for you every day.
Am I going to have you?
And if not, why do you keep
showing up in my dreams?
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.
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!
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.
(also published in Holistic Parenting Magazine, spring 2017)
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.