As I laid in bed yesterday, the left side of my head ripping apart from the inside with constant pressing pain, it felt like the end of a burning softball bat was pressing against my blood vessels. Migraine #8 has been an acutely painful dance. Life from here on out must look different. I cannot live with this kind of pain. I must hear the message it is meant to bring. I surrender.
Have you been in pain like this? Are you among the 19% of women with migraines or chronic back pain, or some other bodily agony? What about your child – are you a mother whose child lives with Crohn’s Disease, another autoimmune disorder, a vaccine related injury or some other kind of pain?
Pain is, above all things, a messenger. Suffering does not need to happen as long as we listen to the message that pain brings and tune in to what is being asked of us – we are, in pain, always being asked… something.
On the very bright side, there is unlimited love right at our very own fingertips. We can speak sweet words to ourselves in our own minds. This nurtures our hearts. We can tend to our physical pain with massage, acupuncture, plant medicine. This nurtures our body. We can take time for ourselves to be spacious, rather than planning too much. This tends to our soul. We can tend to our own body, heart, and soul in many ways and this is always available to us at no cost, with no delay, and with no limits.
How rich we are, that we can love ourselves like this! That we can model for our children what it means to care for the self. That we can create a reality, by “being the change we wish to see in the world” as Gandhi said – a world that is more gentle, more kind, more delightful than before we found it.
Beyond the riches of our own capacity for self-love, there lies an oceanic swell of love felt for us by others. Whether or not we see it, it is absolutely there.
As my most painful migraine thus far carried on, the option of caring for it “all by myself” disappeared. There was no way I could function; I had to call for help. At 6:30am one morning, a neighbor went out into the world to buy medicine and bring it to my doorstep, while my brain felt as if it were about to explode. What was going on in my head? I didn’t know. But I did know I needed help, and he rose to the occasion before the sun came up.
That was when it became clear this was no time to pretend I was independent. We need each other.
A chorus of compassion started singing in my head. I thought of all the other women in the world who experience painful migraines. I thought of the men who do, too. Many of those women and men don’t have friendly neighbors who’ll run errands at the crack of dawn – or worse yet, they don’t have the inner self worth to ask for the help in the first place. My heart swelled with compassion for the emptiness, the hole, the sad state of being so many people live in while living with pain. My life is full of soulfully rich relationships. Many people’s lives are not. And even with rich relationships, life presents significant, sometimes lengthy and seemingly insurmountable challenges. How tough must it be for those people who don’t have this kind of relationship wealth in their lives?
Sidled up to my compassion for others who experience migraines is a batch of compassion for mothers who wanted to give birth vaginally and ended up with a C-section. Some mothers truly mourn the loss of the labor they dreamed of; others are fine with whatever turned out. I feel for the ones who felt a loss, as I too experienced labor-related trauma, even though it was after a vaginal home birth.
Sidled up next to these compassion wells is a deep bay of feeling for those who struggle with emotional eating, overindulging in sugary foods, and deep loneliness. I have faced these dark valleys, and they are not sweetened by the breath of spring lilacs. There is charcoal lining the way. What I would give – I’d give a lot – to soothe the aches and sorrows of anyone suffering along these painful trails.
That’s a lot of compassion. And it’s only my own.
I thought of all the friends and family who offered – from the abundant goodness in their hearts – acupuncture and massage and magnesium in the mail and child care, care packages at my doorstep and fiercely empowering text messages to my very soul. The mountain of compassion embodied in these hearts astounded me.
How sad it is that anyone on Earth ever feels alone in their pain. How unnecessary and inappropriate this is, when every woman, man and child on this planet has access to this riveting chorus of kindness, love, compassion.
There is only the space of one single thought in between any single person – you, your partner, your child, your mother, your neighbor or best friend, or the homeless person on the city sidewalk – and this chorus of compassion that can soothe all the pain in the world. Sit with this. If your child lives with pain, if you live with pain, stop pretending this is not available to you.
All the love in the world belongs to all of us; it is no one’s alone and could never be.
Let us teach our children, first by modeling ourselves, the importance of self-care for a life well lived. That their mother and father are worth all the asking for help, all the affirming mantras, all the pauses and song that are needed to fill up one precious human soul in the busyness of life lived these days.
When our child is in pain, let us show them how to treat it like a friend – to listen to it, to love it like it has something important to say. It does. And our children, energetic masters of feeling and presence, will be glad to step up into seeing their pain as the messenger it is. Let us remind them of the compassion-filled universe awaiting their requests, their calling, their ask. Let us help them lead the way.
As I write, I hear the sound of our old dog snoring. It's a gentle, quiet snore, not disturbing whatsoever, but tonight it stands out more than ever because I know Rosco is dying.
We're all dying, yes. And with old age, most likely we get closer to leaving our body.
Rosco is old for a dog. The lumps on his sides, which weren't found to be cancerous on his last vet visit, seem to have grown in recent weeks. He is moving much slower than he did last month. Something has shifted.
Not only am I certain he knows there is big change in the air with our family venturing to Sweden for a year beginning sometime this summer, but I am certain that he also hears me and "knows" what I'm saying when I talk with him, whether I speak out loud or not. I tell him we are going, though he already knows that. I tell him that I see he is in pain, and that if he feels ready to die, we are willing to hold him as he passes. I tell him that if he isn't ready to die quite yet, he can live with my dad and get lots of petting and treats. But Rosco knows all that. He feels it. Dogs are energetically very in tune -- in ways the majority of adult humans cannot relate to.
I tell him I am listening. I ask him to show me signs. I've held a dog as she died before, and Lusa was my soulmate. I'm willing, honored and ready to do it again. It's up to him.
If he's ready to go after being brought from an abusive home to the animal shelter as a 1-year-old puppy, and then being adopted by my husband and spending 14 good years in his care -- then I accept that.
Having seen how miserable end-of-life can be when close relatives aren't ready to let go, and someone is in pain and wants to go themselves... I want to be loving, and let go.
But how does he want to die?
I don't mean medically. I mean, if we really were to show love for him... if we really were to care deeply about how he spends his last days... if we considered it important to support our loyal, affectionate, protective, playful friend by assisting him to leave his body in a state of mind that is truly peaceful...
What would that look like?
How can we help him to pass, feeling loved?
What does dignity look like in dying?
Do we take him to the beach one day, let him run in the waves and then bring him home where a vet comes by with an end-of-life injection? And we hold his body close, petting his fur gently as his heart stops beating, telling him, "You're a good boy Rosco..." just as I've done dozens of times during his seizures?
Do we feed him raw meat and take a family walk the hour before?
Do we all sit and pet him, tell him we love him together, or should it be just his dad?
What we do not want to do is let him suffer in pain for any longer than he needs to. It's just so hard to tell sometimes with dogs, stoic as they can be with revealing their pain. We want to let him go when he is ready. Really, for us that feels like love.
Half of me writes this article to process this sad reality, myself. By stating in writing that we want to support Rosco to pass when he's ready, maybe that means we'll get a clearer message somehow.
The other half writes because I'm not afraid to talk about death, and to wonder how I'd prefer to die and to ask...
How do you want to die?
Have you thought about it? Perhaps you know how you don't want to die: in horrible pain, or in terrible fear, or all tied up with tubes in a hospital bed.
Most of us have no control over how we die; we're not going to take our own lives prematurely. But we do get to dream. To be in conversation with the great mystery of the future, and all that is unfolding. To lend light to the wanting, to give name to the joy.
When you take your last breaths, do you want:
I'd like to live another 50 years or so, and watch our daughter grow up and blow my mind with her brilliance, courage, playfulness, passion and grace. I'd like another Queensland Heeler puppy to care for its entire life. I want to live to see my husband living his art and joy for work. I want to live at least as long as my parents, so I can care for them with my whole heart, as a duty of honor. At least as long as it takes for our daughter to choose to have children, or not, so that I can play with my grandchildren...
And when I leave this body, I want:
That's what dignity in dying looks like for me. That's what dignity in dying might look like for Rosco. What does dignity in dying look like for you?
I’m grateful. Really, I’m grateful for you. You were the 3rd migraine in my life and all three happened over the course of one year.
Clearly, you have all been trying to tell me something. Clearly, the human body is a messenger letting us know what needs attention. When we listen, things go well. When we don’t, we tend to suffer.
But you see, Leadership. You know?
No, no, not status or a professional or scholarly title. Leadership: the art of expressing your vision in the world, giving it your best so that it thrives, thereby having more of what you want, and creating more of the kind of world you want to live in.
Beginning in childhood and throughout my life, I’ve been supported vigorously enough to believe my vision mattered. Confident and resourceful, I’ve started numerous businesses and not-for-profit organizations, and given birth to many movements, ideas and pieces of edgy, thought provoking writing. Leadership? I got this. Even in the realm of romantic relationship, at least three times I have written and refined a list of what I wanted in a partner, only to have that vision show up right before my eyes.
So after giving birth to my daughter at home without any drugs or interventions, boy I sure thought I could do anything. And anyone could do anything, as long as the essential ingredients are present: Vision, Alignment, Action, Surrender.
Wait. That last part.
Sigh. Apparently you, dear Migraine, came to help me with that part.
After a vibrant launch of my new project, Leaning into Light, a hub for human fulfillment offering phone workshops and blog posts addressing the deepest, most fundamental human needs, you showed up. Weeks of pressing on, trying to figure out how to make income from this project, investing potent heart, wisdom and soul into it… It wasn’t giving me back one of the fundamental ROIs a business should give: income. Press on, persevere, figure it out… Boom. You arrived. And as with the last one, my head throbbed painfully with a message I still needed to hear. Again. Surrender.
Wait. Just surrender. Let go. Release. No figuring it out. No pressure.
Spaciousness. Relax. Joy. Ease. Allowing. Spaciousness. Right underneath you, dear Migraine, was a layer of communication saying, “Spaciousness.”
That’s when I posted a note on the Leaning into Light website about how spaciousness came calling, and I answered. Prince had just died; I wanted to dance. And cry. The whales were migrating down our coast; I wanted to tune into their big, slow song.
So I did.
I didn’t know what would happen, I didn’t know where it would lead, everything was unpredictable but I knew one thing: Living my truth is the way I want to live. Anything else is a disgrace to this precious life I’ve been given.
The day after I made this decision, I was still breathing.
My daughter was still the most magnificent thing I’d ever known. Our family was fine, sheltered, and happy in our simplest moments. Nothing exploded. And within two days, you were gone.
I stopped trying to figure anything out.
I opened up to let the voice within take center stage.
I got quiet.
And when I get quiet, as in, days of defaulting to quiet, that’s when I know things are gettin’ real good.
Here I am now in the Great Unknown. I’ve heard it is Love, and I trust that even though my faith wobbles, fragile, in occasional moments. I know it in so much of me; I want to know it completely.
You came to lead me back to the greatest truths I know:
I am here to be happy.
Joy is my birthright and welcomes me as much as I am willing to allow it in.
I can recover to feeling good every time I slip.
I am blessed beyond words.
Love is who we are, and our natural state of mind is always available.
Circumstances have no power over our experience unless we give them power.
I know how to feel good, and my choice to feel good is a gift to all of Life.
These are inherent human truths, and anyone can choose to accept or deny them.
Enough about me. What’s next for Leaning into Light?
No Earth shattering news here. Deep in my bones, I feel resonance with this project, this endeavor of art and soul. As the main steward of Leaning into Light, I will keep writing blog posts to express my love for the human spirit, and to invite others to embrace their own authentic lives more fully. Workshops are paused at the moment, but only to give them some breathing room away from the incessant noise of left-brain planning, internet marketing and automation technology. They will be back with more refinement, more punch, more power.
Brewing slowly yet with giant fire underneath the blog posts and workshops is a deep-core vision I have had for years. It’s that “one thing” I’d do if I knew I had one year left to live, type thing. As in, the thing I am supposed to be doing n-o-w because this is it. This is what I’ve got and all I’m guaranteed. The here and now. It is about the illumination of the beauty of the human spirit. Yes... more of that.
This piece? It's close.
I feel its breath on my face. I feel its hand in my pocket. Truth. It’s right here, whispering to me. And I am listening. There is no hurry. It is my art.
Farewell Migraine. I don’t really like your company but I appreciate you. I see that you’re just the rough side of an inner messenger trying to guide me to Light. And if I ever said I didn’t need help leaning into light, I was ridiculously mistaken.
One recent evening, I heard the shocking news that she had passed. Aja ("asia"), daughter of a very dear friend of mine, one of the most soulful and vibrant young ladies I had ever met. She'd passed in the night, it wasn't known how, and a ripple of disbelief rocked the world around her.
I met Aja through her mother Ginger, and instantly adored her. The kind of person who wasn't afraid to tell you that she loved you, she had either outgrown the scarcity myth around love being special, reserved for only those precious few around you, or she never bought into it in the first place.
One day out of the blue she asked me to photograph her wedding in Kauai. Feeling incompetent, I said, "But Aja, I'm not a real photographer. Your wedding photos should be stunning, and what if the ones I take aren't?"
Without stomping her foot down, it was as if she did. Emphatically, she said, "Jessie, I love you. I want you to photograph my wedding."
She clearly didn't wait to die before getting the "Love is All That Matters" memo. The wisest don't.
And so it was. Months later I found myself immersed in the tropical kiss of fiery Kauai herself, photographing a feisty mermaid in her gown. And when we reached the "Trash the Dress" session on the beach in Hanalei, I found myself taking photos in my bikini. I thought I was dreaming. Not to be in Kauai, not to be photographing a wedding there, but to be doing it in my bikini -- let's just say that's not exactly my comfort zone attire. Aja's free-spirited affection and acceptance of me had opened a window to a place where it didn't matter how much fat I had on my thighs. I was loved, happy and free.
Hundreds of other people have stories like this about Aja. Somehow she was an expert at making people feel loved. I assert there is no greater art in the human experience.
Hearing of her death left a hollow dark pit in my chest, especially when I thought of the pain her mother must be feeling. Part of me still doesn't believe she's gone. A light that burned so intensely bright.
I imagined those creamy childhood cherub cheeks her mother would kiss as a child. The squeals she'd make when she landed a perfect gymnastics move. Her smooth, assuring voice and how her two younger brothers, Tyler and Travis, would do without their older sister's wise embrace.
And her father. She was the apple of his eye, every second of her precious life. Would they ever get over this?
Soon I decided No, they wouldn't. Just as she thought, spoke and moved so vivaciously through life while breathing, Aja would live with no less of a spark after she left her body. The pit of sadness left in the hearts of all who love her, would feed the depth of empathy and love we were all capable of choosing, and might even be moved to choose more, once she had gone.
At her ceremony, held in a gym packed wall to wall, it was the words of her father that broke the dam withholding tears inside my chest.
"This is not a sad day." Tim Chew spoke into the microphone. And just when I thought he might gloss over the sadness, highlighting only the beautiful life she lived, he continued, "No, this is not about sadness. If it were, there would be no flowers. There would be nobody here..." He went on, "What is sad is all the people who die every day unnoticed, unnamed." Dam, busted. That a man so eternally in love with his first born, his only daughter, on this day dedicated to her, could take it to this level... Pulling from within his noble heart, a voice for those far less fortunate than his daughter. Awe.
Dear Aja, I am truly touched by your existence. Your wide open love made me feel like an instant big sister, and your acceptance helped me feel free in my own skin. I was one of many witnesses to how you loved, and my life is forever better because of you. Thank you for living. Shine on, feisty mermaid.
I used to think intimate relationships were all about romance. I had watched enough Disney movies and chick flicks, swooning over the guy who constantly dotes on the girl. It seemed dreamy to be in a partnership where "we always get along" and that seemed so very possible based on the movies and fairy tales. Disagreements were a sign of failure, because couples who always got along were the happiest... right?
Well, actually, there's no such thing.
Sure, in the beginning of many relationships, there is a period of time where the waters between you and your partner feel like they're sparkling, when you're so enraptured in the newness of this person, so enamored with the way you feel in their company, that a significant disagreement seems almost impossible.
Arguments have no room here. This time is meant for feeling what it's like to fly together -- because later on, if you stick with it, you'll need to know that this sense of flying is possible. You'll need that early state of ecstasy to keep you rooted in doing the work that long term intimate partnerships are meant to offer.
The truth is, relationships are always mirroring back to us precisely the work we need to do in order to grow spiritually. While companionship is certainly a jewel of committed partnership, the big gift it offers is the deep and brilliant beauty it can illuminate within us. Relationships are the core of life; they present us with the greatest opportunity for spiritual and emotional growth, and for joy.
All my life I've been observing relationships. My own, my friends', my parents'. Real relationships, not the kind in movies. I've watched what makes them thrive, I've watched what deteriorates them, I've watched how people tolerate mediocrity even when their insides are screaming out for something more fulfilling. I've watched the courage that it takes to let them take each partner to a higher level of being.
I've felt suffocated in my own partnership, feeling I'd done everything in my capacity to rise to the occasion and "do the work," finally choosing to end the relationship because it had milked everything out of me. It had served its purpose; it was time to move on. Staying would only be an attempt to force something to work that wasn't working. And damn, I took good notes that time around. One of the notes was that I could only do my own work; I couldn't do somebody else's.
What's become clear now is that if we are to rise to the occasion as a species devoted to advancing our potential spiritually, we have a stellar tool in relationships. (Here's a recent talk on Oprah by Marianne Williamson called The Spiritual Purpose of Relationships.)
Whether you are:
Then, I want to say that all the love in the world is "on your side." The key factor here is your desire. If you are ready to see a shift, even if it involves stepping out of your comfort zone -- and it likely will -- then it is simply a matter of knowing what's true for you, honoring it in word and action, and inviting your partner to step into this place with you.
For me, the rigorous personal and spiritual work of intimate partnership has required stellar support, both from friends and family members, and from mentors and a coach. I have able to stretch myself spiritually only because I've asked for and received help from others who care for me.
Energetic applause goes to anyone doing "the work" of intimate partnership. It is far from easy, and everything you do helps to make this a world with more skillfulness and compassion between people.
P.S. Walt Disney has contributed a lot to the world of family entertainment, but Disney films have not been so good at presenting a guidebook for real life relationships.
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.