Transitions

My eldest daughter finished primary school yesterday.  She and my other daughter went back into school part-time last year after some years of full time home-educating,  when I myself went back into full-time study.  And what a year it’s been!  Big ups, even bigger downs, a massive roller coaster ride of emotions amidst an almost continual questioning of “Are we doing the right thing?”  (Finally, after more than 11 years of parenting, I realise, of course, that we can never truly know the answer to this question.  So much of this journey feels like one huge experiment.  Which feels frightening when what we’re talking about here is a person’s life.  The shaping of a person’s ‘person’ if you like.)

Anyway, it occurred to me over the past few days of heart-wrenching decisions and tearful farewells, that I do not actually know what my eldest daughter is going through right now.  Throughout my whole school life, I never experienced that sense of completion that comes when you finish one level of schooling alongside your peers.  Before the end of primary school, I was taken out and sent to a different school.  Before I was finished at that school, I moved to secondary school.  Between my A level years, I then left secondary school to go finish up (theoretically with more ‘success’) at college in London.   With each of these moves, though, alongside feeling sad and at times very, very alone, I also missed out on that shared ‘ending school’ rite of passage – something which, looking back, and also seeing what my daughter is going through now, feels crucial somehow.  Not to have experienced, alongside all my fellow travellers on that horribly mixed emotional journey of school, the final end to it all.  A sense of completion.  Of survival even.  Of witnessing each other as we both celebrated and grieved for what we were leaving behind, what we’d shared together, and what we were each stepping into in the next phase of our young lives.

(I’ve been wondering, too, these past few days how these missed experiences also feed into that sense I have of myself not fitting in.  Not belonging.  Not quite knowing where to put myself, because, well, actually, I’m not sure I really do fully understand what it means to be a ‘complete’ part of something.  Another piece to the puzzle at least…)

So, when my husband suggested the other day that he’d like for us to think about how we might honour and celebrate this rite of passage for our daughter, I felt, suddenly, like I’d missed something big.  How could I have almost let this moment pass me by? I know now, of course, that the significance of this moment did almost pass me by simply because of my own missed experiences.  (And so, I’ll gently forgive myself for that one.)

Transitions like these, that we go through from the day we are born, are huge.  And, I believe, we should not take them for granted.  Firstly, let us begin simply by acknowledging them!  Let us allow them into our psyche, and see them for what they are.  Then we must find ways of honouring and celebrating them.  Ways that are true and real to us as completely unique individuals and completely unique families – what works for one, after all, might not be relevant for another.  We need to hold our children’s hands through these massive changes, because yes, they are scary!  Those feelings of grief at having to leave behind friends and familiarity, that sense of unknowing and fear of what is to come, they are real and they are big. And, crucially, we will all continue to experience many endings and beginnings throughout our lives.   We can’t take those feelings away from our children, and, indeed, I believe we do them a great disservice by asking them to feel anything differently from what they do, even though, at times, these emotions can make us feel vulnerable ourselves.  I myself have felt confusion, sadness, guilt and a sense of loss of late.  Uncomfortable feelings indeed.  Yet, as I keep reminding my daughter, and myself: to grieve for something is to understand what it really means to care.  We honour where we have come from and what we have come through by remembering it and by grieving for it.

It is in those moments, too, when we feel guilt, shame, anger, sadness, where the true gold is to be found.  If only we could just let ourselves BE in those moments, and not continually strive to push them away.  We are always looking for joy, for happiness, for the ‘good’ emotions – in Buddhist teachings it is exactly this that is the cause of our suffering.  Not that we suffer difficult feelings, depression, loss, death even, but that we do not allow ourselves to really feel these things when they arise, nor accept them for what they are.

And so I say: Let us not let these times past unwitnessed!  Let us be truly mindful of what it is to feel sadness, loss, fear and anticipation.  We all grow through these experiences, but only if we can truly accept what is happening in the moment and to allow our bodies to FEEL it deeply too.  Also, importantly, let us remind ourselves that these difficult emotions do not mean that we have done something badly or made the wrong decision.  We need to learn to embrace them as we do all the happiness, excitement, wonder and joy that will also come our way.

I want to honour this first big transition in my daughter’s life.  I want her to know that I see her and I feel her.  This is one of many, many evolutions she will go through in her beautiful, precious life, and I really, really want to get it right.

The Essence of Life

In the midst of a turbulent emotional time recently, I picked up Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart again.  It’s a book I keep coming back to when I feel like I can’t seem to step back from where I find myself.  When the ground disappears from underneath me and I don’t know where to find a foothold.

I, like almost everyone else I know, can feel too busy, too preoccupied, too frightened, quite frankly, to allow myself to really feel the true depth of my emotions sometimes.  I was not brought up understanding how to express myself clearly or cleanly.  There is so much that goes on in my body and mind that I am only just beginning to decipher.  And that is only after doing a lot of hard work, going through some dark times, sharing my story with some incredible people, having daughters of my own… and reading some amazing books.

“The essence of life is that it’s challenging.  Sometimes it is sweet, and sometimes it is bitter.  Sometimes your body tenses, and sometimes it relaxes or opens.  Sometimes you have a headache, and sometimes you feel 100 per cent healthy.  From an awakened perspective, trying to tie up all the loose ends and finally get it together is death, because it involves rejecting a lot of your basic experience.  There is something aggressive about that approach to life, trying to flatten out all the rough spots and imperfections into a nice smooth ride.

To be fully alive, fully human, and completely awake is to be continually thrown out of the nest.  To live fully is to be always in no-man’s-land, to experience each moment completely new and fresh.  To live is to be willing to die over and over again.  From the awakened point of view, that’s life.  Death is wanting to hold on to what you have and to have every experience confirm you and congratulate you and make you feel completely together.”

This passage resonated deeply with me, because what it does is give me permission to open up to those dark places.  In fact, not only does it allow me to go there, it says to me that actually I am not truly alive if I don’t!

Anger, grief, fear, all of these emotions that so many of us are taught to lock away, hide, not deal with, put a smile on, smooth on over, suppress… these are REAL emotions! They are a part of who I am, and I know I need to acknowledge them, accept them, welcome them, even, into being.  Without them I am incomplete.  Without them I am dead.

It is hard feeling angry, sad, scared, worried, confused, groundless.  In our busy, preoccupied lives it can feel almost impossible to find that space in which to allow those emotions to surface. And yet, I can truly now say I know that this is just the point at which we can all begin again.  Each and every time.  If we choose to.

I choose to do this for myself.  And I choose to do this for my daughters.  Because I see all that rage, fear, confusion and sadness in them sometimes and I know how they feel. However hard these emotions are to deal with in the moment, I will never ask them to suppress any of them.  Because to suppress is to die, and I am just not willing to let that happen.

Beauty and pain

Last night, as I watched my two daughters and their beloved cousins dancing around the living room to Michael Jackson, Queen, and Culture Club (our usual playlist), in amongst all the laughter and the silliness and the pure, innocent joy, I realised I felt a pang of sadness.  These four beautiful beings are getting so old!  Their independence grows as they move more and more into their own beings.  Where will these days and nights of endless talk and ridiculous giggles go?  How will things unfold for them?

Every day, in my meditation practice, I make the intention to “come back to the present moment”.  I have a huge tendency to imagine the future, to lay paths out in front of me, and to see myself walking those paths to some distant, imagined, future.  I am so good at this, in fact, I catch myself constantly daydreaming.  Children, for me,  are the very essence of living in the moment.  Yes, they hold memories of sad times, hurtful words, and painful moments, and yes they, too, at times worry about the future.  And yet, time and again, as a full-time parent I witness astonishing moments of acceptance, forgiveness, and letting go.  It humbles me, and it is a huge gift.

In fact, when I take a step back and really see just what my children have brought to my life over the past ten years, I feel quite overwhelmed.  I remember the feeling when I held our first daughter in my arms after she was born – “How am I to take responsibility for this?!”   And yet, every day for the past ten years, as a full-time mum and home educator, I have had to make decisions that affect both my daughters’ lives.  Not only their ‘presents’, but also, potentially, their ‘futures’.  Nowadays, we lack the precious and crucial roles of elders in our society, and so many of these decisions we, as parents, make alone.  And when we choose to take the less conventional roads, such as home educating, we again take on not only so much more of the decision making in our children’s lives, we also often have to forge our own ways with it too.

I feel so grateful for the path we have chosen up until this point.  Although many people see it as somehow ‘less’ than a full time job (because, after all, where’s the respect if you’re not getting paid for something?), the home educating journey is by no means an easy one.  I have met incredible people who walk this path.  The commitment and dedication that they show to their children often blows me away.  I find their deep rooted beliefs that this is the right path for them and their family humbling and, at times, awe inspiring.   They know what they believe, and they walk their talk.  And, for anyone that has ever stepped off the path of convention knows, this is NEVER the easy option.

In September, I will be starting full time study, and my daughters will go to school.  I have a whole range of emotions about this new trajectory.  Right now, what I’m sitting with is just how much I am going to miss these days I spend with my girls.  The last ten years have been hard and relentless and exhausting and challenging and, and, and….  And they have been wonderful.   To watch them grow, to see the developmental leaps that they take EVERY SINGLE DAY, to be such a close part of their daily experience of life – this is a precious thing.  As a result of having spent so much time together in their early years, our relationships are strong.  I have witnessed so much of their lives up until this point that I believe I truly know them.  They, too, have watched me navigating the rollercoaster ride of life, with all its ups and downs.  They have seen me giggle ridiculously and dance wildly.  And they have seen me cry with uncontrollable frustration too.  Many times.  This is not ‘sheltering them from the world’, as some critics of home education argue – on the contrary,  I believe this IS the world, and it has only served to make the bond between us and our children tighter.

I embrace the future, and I am excited beyond words about how it might unfold.  And, yes, I am mourning all that needs to change too.  I accept that this is a major part of parenting, this letting go.  Sometimes I see the joy in it, the openness… the freedom!  And sometimes I feel the loss and sadness that walks hand in hand with that joy, with a pain that is both emotional and physical.

I honour my daughters’ journeys, as I honour my own.  I trust in the decisions we have made so far, and all those decisions that are yet to come.  And, I see the beauty and pain that are sometimes so closely interwoven, some days it can be hard to distinguish between them.

Simple pleasures

I like to think I’m actually quite easy to please. (Yes, I appreciate this might not seem 100% true 100% of the time but…)

Take my latest source of deep and divine (yes really) pleasure…

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Yes, it’s a sofa.  But it’s not just ANY sofa.  THIS sofa is in what I like to call my new ‘snug’.

I really wish I’d taken a before AND after photo now, but to be quite honest with you, BEFORE made me deeply unhappy.  I’d even go as far as to say despondent, hopeless and despairing. And why would I want to take a photo of something that had such an effect on me?! Well quite.

So, all I have is the after photo.  It may not seem like much to anyone other than me, but what it represents brings words like calm, serenity, quiet creativity, order, beauty, and MINE to mind.

This is a space I’ve carved out for myself in amongst the piles of stuff and things to do and general chaos and mess that I feel takes up most of the rest of our house most of the time.  And I have decreed this ‘snug’ a whinging/complaining/arguing/shouting and above all mess-free zone.

Kids (and farmers actually) make unbelievable mess!  I am still amazed, after 9 years of parenting, at just how much of a mess they can make.  I’d like to say I’m totally zen with it all, that it washes over me like a Himalayan waterfall of enlightened non-attachment.  However… I do struggle with mess when it is EVERYWHERE, and in a farmhouse with 1 farmer, 1 basketmaker, 2 home-educated kids, 1 dog, 2 cats (one of whom brings in a semi-consumed dead offering at least twice a day) I feel like there is mess everywhere all of the time.

So, this little niche is a place for me to escape to when I need to remember what it is like to feel clutter-free.  Somewhere I can go to to escape the chaos of everywhere else.  Somewhere to meditate.  Somewhere to dream.  Somewhere to turn soul-pleasing things like this…

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…into things like this… (more on the delight of mandalas soon…)

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I believe everyone needs space like this.  Whether it’s a whole room or a corner of a room, a window sill or a special place outside somewhere. One friend disappears into a caravan when he seeks reconnection. For some people it’s their car.  Or their bed.  For others, it’s a particular cafe that they go to for escape and to connect into the part of them that they know is buried deep beneath all that chaos. And for others it’s not even a place, but a time in the day or week where they can carve out that space and give back to themselves the love and nurturing that we all, on one level or another, really, really need.

I know that the stillness and centring I seek when I spend time in my snug can be found within my very self.  I know that through yoga, meditation, mindfulness and conscious practice I can tap into this part of myself more and more easily.  And yet I’m not sure even the Buddha himself could have attained enlightenment if he’d been surrounded by hungry, demanding children, a throwing-up dog and a god-forsaken mess to tidy up first.

Breathing in… Breathing out…

Parenting will call into question virtually everything we think we know, beginning with who we think we are. (We’re not!) Children have an extraordinary talent for breaking apart our roles, demanding again and again that we meet them right in the moment, meet our lives, meet difficulty, moment by moment meet and resolve the extraordinary mystery of ‘the other’.  To do this we must time and again lose our precious adult facades and have recall or regain access to the mysterious and creative core that has no name, the source, that we brush again and again in meditation.

Susan Murphy, in Buddhism for Mothers

“I cant meditate.”  That’s the recurrent message I’ve played out for, hmm, about 15 years – the period of time since I first seriously tried meditating, at a vipassana meditation centre in Chiang Mai, back in my good old footloose hippy days.  I lasted 4 days out of a 10 day retreat, telling myself, as I pulled my various shades and layers of tie dyed clothing back on, “I’ve learned all I need to.” Nothing to do with the lack of food, sleep, interpersonal communication, colourful attire, or my inability to sit still for THAT long then?  No, nothing at all.

So, the fact that I have now been meditating regularly for two and a half months comes as a little surprise to me every now and then.  I know many Buddhists would balk at the idea of it, but for practical reasons, I’m doing it the 21st century way (through an app on my new iPad – Headspace, check it out), and it’s really working for me.  Now that my children are old enough to not need something from me every 10 minutes (unless I’m on the phone or toilet of course), I have the space and time to give this to myself almost every single morning.  And I’m loving it.

Ok, so often my practice looks a little like this:

“Breathing in… Breathing out… Breathing in… Breathing out… Gosh my breathing sounds loud today!  I wonder why.  Funny how my breathing sounds different one day to the next.  Oh yes… Breathing in… Breathing out… Breathing in… Breathing out…  Is that a mouse I can hear in the rafters?  Ooh sounds bigger than a mouse.  A rat?  What’s it eating?  Maybe it’s just a bird on the roof after all.  Oops… Breathing in… Breathing out… Breathing in… Breathing out… Is that K getting up? On her own? Hooray!  Oh, maybe it’s the cat.  She’d better not have brought in another bloody rabbit and left it to half fester under our bed again.  Aargh that cat!  Ahem… Breathing in… Breathing out… Breathing in… Breathing out…  Hmm what shall I write my next blog post about?  Haha, I know, I could write about meditating.  Oh lord, what a joke… COME BACK TO YOUR BREATH WOMAN!!  Breathing in… Breathing out…”

(Yes… I realise I’ve a way to go before nirvana becomes more than just a few graphemes put together in an interesting way…)

BUT I do believe that those tiny moments of bliss I experienced in the first few weeks of meditating are genuinely growing.  And I’m seeing myself, in a detached, interested, reflective kind of way, in how I deal with things the kids throw at me in particular.  A common one is: “Why did I just respond like that?  That was unnecessary.”  Because it’s a learned REaction, rather than a conscious response, that’s why.  And it’s time to change direction.

I know I have weeks, months, YEARS of practice ahead of me before some of these neurological habits are shifted onto other clearer, cleaner, calmer pathways.  AND I know it must be doing something good already, because I look forward each morning to starting my day in this way.  I’ve had glimpses into what that clearer, cleaner, calmer mind looks like.

I’m learning a LOT about how and why my mind works as it does and that, actually, what is crucial is not so much about WHAT is happening but HOW I choose to run with it.  I could let all these (quite frankly unimportant) thoughts rampage round and round my head, distracting me from what I’m doing here and now, OR I could learn to simply acknowledge them as mere thoughts and bring myself back to the (much more interesting) present.

After all, the present is where life’s really happening.  It’s where the kids reside every single minute of their tiny, beautiful, inspiring, innocent lives.  And it’s where they constantly drag me back to when my mind is wandering off in other (deceivingly seemingly more enticing) lands.  They’re a relentless wake up call to live life HERE and NOW.

Ah yes indeed, “children are the most demanding and merciless of spiritual teachers” (Sarah Napthali, Buddhism for Mothers).  I’ve known this on some level or other these past 9 years I’ve been mothering, of course.  Now I’m trying really hard to pay deep and close attention to what they’re actually trying to teach me.