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Pilgrim, Mother

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The birth of my child, Madeleine left me in an open field, literally wondering where my self had gone. There were many versions of myself I had imagined and worked towards: the professor, the writer, the world traveler. The mother did not fit in any of these versions. But the loss of the sense of self gave way to pulsing desires from the moment her hot skin lay on my bare chest. Wandering in this foreign landscape, stranger to my own body and to my former life, the framework that kept rising in my memory, that most resonated with my experience, was that of pilgrimage.

The pilgrimages I had walked in Spain and France years before had so imprinted on me that I told myself, if I could, I would do this every year of my life. At the destination, I felt adrift and went back to work on academic pursuits. But when Madeleine came, my mind and body recalled that pilgrim way. As I’ve been writing through these associations, a book length series of essays has taken shape. I’m calling it Pilgrim, Mother. You can find an introductory essay to the book here.

Like Rachel Cusk, in A Life’s Work, my experience of motherhood completely upended my existence. However, unlike Cusk, whose memoir beautifully evokes motherhood as a dystopian experience, my story is of finding my path to myself through finding myself a mother. Sarah Menkedick, author of Homing Instincts, writes “I believe we are at the cusp of a golden age of literature about motherhood in all its depth, complexity, and potential.” Our literary culture has a hunger for nuanced narratives of motherhood, and that hunger is being fed by writers, like Menkedick and Cusk, who tell stories that shift the cultural imaginary about what it means to be a mother.

The essays in this book interrogate the dissonance between what I thought I wanted in life—professional dignity and freedom to roam—and what I encountered—a vulnerable form that called forth my own hidden life. As I’m continuing to write this book, I’ll be blogging here about ideas that I’m exploring, research for the book, or just tangents that take hold of my attention. As I’ve been on this mothering, pilgriming excursion , I’ve found myself in a beautiful community of people along the path. Some of these people are parents, some are caregivers for the earth, for their students, for the stranger. All have a common desire that sets us on this path—to be transformed through the contact of the body with the earth, through our contact with each other, through our search for contact with the Being that holds us all together. I hope this blog can a place where we can encounter other pilgrims on a long and dusty road.

Writing in Crisis as Necessity

The time we’re in can aptly be described as a crisis. There’s a very real life or death risk of unknowingly infecting someone or contracting this virus that could put someone high risk on a ventilator. We can’t see each other in person. We’re isolated in our homes, physically detached from our communities. So we meet and look at each other on screen and try to connect. We talk about what we’re feeling and how we’re coping.

How do we cope? Do we push away the unease with Netflix? Do we numb ourselves by starting drinking earlier in the day? Do we do mindfulness exercises and focus on a gratitude practice to get our minds off the the very unsettling other feelings that rise up, that flare up like flame too close to the skin?

I want to suggest that one of the best ways to care for ourselves in those feelings is not to walk away from them to but let ourselves dive in. Writing is one way to take a deep dive into the uneasy. Candyce Counseling, a grief counselor at Deep Center for Growth, notes that much online advice about coping with the daily experience of grief in this unsettled present urges us to activities “that kinda sorta help—mindfulness, exercise, staying connected, controlling what you can, gratitude practice.

Yet, she continues,

“none of these articles address the bedrock, existential emotions that generate the anxiety and/or sluggishness. They offer advice for distracting from or allowing feelings, but not understanding, expressing, and soothing the feelings. And they only address the top layer of (very important) things we’re grieving. In my personal and professional experience, if you don’t name and soothe what you’re really feeling, all the tools are simply band-aids. Don’t get me wrong, we all need band-aids when we’re bleeding. But we also need help to see the wounds clearly, so we can accurately tend to them and help them heal.”

Paradoxically, moving into, opening to, the woundedness we are experiencing and have experienced is a crucial step on a path to healing. Feeling the stress, the anxiety, the grief of this moment is part of self care. Writing about it can be a way to access it.

Maybe this capacity to access existential realities through writing is connected to Virginia Woolf’s startling claim at the onset of WWII: “I feel that by writing I am doing what is far more necessary than anything else.” (Sketch 73).

How can writing the self be a necessity in time of war—or pandemic? Writing seems to many, even to writers themselves at times, to be gratuitous, a form of escape even. Nowhere near the necessity, for instance, of working in the ICU or even just keeping a social distance from those you love for the sake of community health.

An entry from Woolf’s diaries around the same time gives some insight into how she sees the work of writing functioning in wartime:

“And for the 100th time I repeat—any idea is more real than any amount of war misery. And what one’s made for. And the only contribution one can make. This little pitter patter of ideas is my whiff and shot in the cause of freedom—so I tell myself, thus bolstering up a fragment—a phantom: recovering that sense of something pressing from outside which consolidates the mist, the non-existent (Diaries 235).

The whiff and shot of war—the act of discharging a weapon—has the effect—like illness, or like social distancing—of fragmenting, of turning people into phantoms, or into images on a screen or in memory. The work of writing has an opposing effect. Woolf asserts that, in writing, she gathers together the phantoms of the nonexistent. War, like a deadly virus, turns physical presences into phantoms, while writing gathers phantoms into lived experience. Or rather, to take a closer read of her very precise language, she becomes aware of “something pressing from the outside,” gathering together, “consolidat[ing] the mist.”

Here, the work of writing itself does not do the work of gathering. Rather, the writing brings to the surface an awareness of this gathering force. It’s the gathering force that “is more real than any amount of war misery,” more real, perhaps, than any amount of pandemic misery.

Is this “what one’s made for”? Perhaps so, if one feels a compulsion to write. Certainly Woolf is not arguing that writing is the most necessary thing for anyone to do in war. But for a writer, attending to her deepest calling is most necessary, regardless of the state of the world. Woolf writes that her sense of self as writer is related to her capacity to receive shock:

“I still have the peculiarity that I receive these sudden shocks, they are now always welcome; after the first surprise, I always feel instantly that they are particularly valuable. And so I go on to suppose that the shock-receiving capacity is what makes me a writer. I hazard the explanation that a shock is at once in my case followed by the desire to explain it. I feel that I have had a blow; but it is not, as I thought as a child, simply a blow from an enemy hidden behind the cotton wool of daily life; it is or will become a revelation of some order; it is a token of some real thing behind appearances; and I make it real by putting it into words.”

The sense of shock, for a writer, leads directly to a “desire to explain it.” And the shock does not only refer to a trauma, a sense of grief violently impacting the self. The writer can be shocked by a sense of joy, by hope, by the light coming through the leaves of trees, illuminating the chlorophyll life force pulsing in the veins. The blow comes from an awareness of “some real thing behind appearances,” an awareness so sharp that she can only liken it to receiving a blow, like a sensation of desire can strike the body like a wave, can wash over the body with an undeniable physicality.C18467EA-E1AD-45A9-BD6A-F83403D2CA16

Yet, in spite of the undeniable reality of this gathering force, Woolf oddly continues: “I make it real by putting it into words.” This paradox sums up the tension of the life of the writer. A writer may sense something so strongly that they experience it as a physical blow. And yet, it has no presence in the life of the world. Perhaps in accessing it in writing she brings it into the world. Perhaps writing helps to retain that sense so that it exists beyond the immediate moment of the impact. Perhaps writing gives that gathering force a space to exist in the present and the future.

She continues this line of thought:

“It is only by putting it into words that I make it whole; this wholeness means that it has lost its power to hurt me; it gives me, perhaps because by doing so I take away the pain, a great delight to put the severed parts together.”

In putting the blow into words, in gathering together the severed fragments of existence, she brings it into a whole, takes away its power over her, and gathers a power from it.

To me this means that, as writers, we don’t have to do the work of making the shocks mean something. The meaning is there. The pattern is there. The work of writing calls the pattern, the gathering force, to our awareness, accessing it, letting it form our awareness of our present.

But its not easy to access the pattern. Sometimes you can’t access it directly. You can’t start by looking at or for the meaning. A good way to start is by finding an image, a picture of a moment, and trying to accurately describe it as you experienced it. In trying to find the words to write our experience, we find the meaning, the pattern, the gathering force. The sensory details of life contain all the meaning.

Writing in this way is a way of life, a habit of being that trains us to inhabit our moments of being as we are living them. It’s a a way to bring the gathering force to awareness and to be gathered in that force.

Nesting Instincts, Guest Post

In my “Writing Memoir in Time of Crisis” course last week, we asked “How is our memory of the past shaped by the present moment of pandemic? How is your relationship with memory affected by the questions you ask of your memory?” Memories do not exist in a vacuum but are shaped, toned, and seen through the present moment. Likewise, accessing memories and reflecting on them shapes our understanding of how they relate to the present, and thus may affect how we live in the present.

Joyce Carol Oates brings to mind the familiar reality that our memories are shaped and solidified by the things that we choose to take a picture of:

“Memory is our domestic form of time travel. The invention of photography—in particular, the ‘snapshot’—revolutionized human consciousness, for when we claim to “remember” our pasts, we are surely remembering our favorite snapshots, in which the long-faded past is given a distinct visual immortality. Just as art provides answers long before we understand the questions, so, too, our relationship with our distant past, in particular our relationship with our parents, is a phenomenon we come to realize only by degrees, as we too age, across the mysterious abyss of time.” (Joyce Carol Oates, 49 in The Nonfictionist’s Guide).

Our memory derives so many images from the moments we’ve captured in a “snapshot.” Because the moments we photograph are moments we return to, remind ourselves of, think about long after they pass, they find a place in our memory and in our narrative of self. Writing, of course, can be another way of taking a snapshot of the present, documenting events and reactions to events as they unfold, creating a word image that will shape our understanding of the past in the future.

I asked course participants last week, “If you were to take a snapshot of that would show what this life is like right now, what would you snap? Write a description of a snapshot you would take. Describe a scene of what life looks like in this COVID moment. Maybe write two.

You may also take a snapshot of a moment of your childhood. Briefly describe the photo you see, or an image you remember photographically. Put these two photographs in relationship with each other. How does that self in the past relate to self in the present? What would one self speak to the other? In what sense was the present already in the past in seed form? How does the past enter the present? Are there questions that you ask in the time of COVID that you may ask of your memory that you haven’t asked before?”

Photo by Sarah Hartung

In Sarah Hartung’s work below, she evokes how the living space of the present looks out onto an uncertain future—through the work of bread making. This work of reading the present through the future offers a twist on the question of how perception of the present takes form.

Nesting Instincts

Sarah Hartung

I’m baking bread again today. I was baking bread months ago before it was hip, before everyone was stuck at home in one global nesting impulse. What the hell will we birth out of this darkness? I start the recipe in between telehealth therapy sessions, wearing my faded pink pj bottoms and green printed blouse. I tell myself how convenient it is that quarantine descended just when my belly swelled past the point of fitting even my maternity jeans. I tell myself how nice it is to only have to look professional from the waist up. I tell myself many things these days.

The no-knead bread recipe cycles through my mind, memorized from repetition:

4 c. flour

¾ t. instant yeast

2 c. water

2 t. salt

Mix and let rise 18 hours. Punch down and let rise another 2 hours.

Bake at 450 degrees for 50 minutes.

Today I google the conversion between active dry yeast and instant yeast. Add yeast to the list of things in scant supply at Fry’s and I’m making do with what I can get. I tell myself I’m lucky to have any yeast, a thought that two months ago I would never have even imagined thinking. I take comfort in having the recipe memorized, in reaching for familiar metal measuring spoons and feeling the weight shift of flour from canister into cup into bowl. There’s no recipe for panicked pandemic pregnancy. This is not how I imagined third-trimester nesting.

I keep thinking about those Harris Hawk nests on the desert trail six weeks ago. Which feels like six months ago. Or maybe six years ago? Time collapses in on itself in this season and I wonder if I can really be trusted to track bread rise-time or gestational progress. I lean my aching back against the kitchen counter and re-calculate the weeks til my due date, feeling my stomach settle at the confirmation that I am counting right. As if the ability to track time predicts my ability to mother amid chaos, as if my little one even cares if I count. He will come on his own when the time is right, a primal mystery that defies any recipe.

Those nests I witnessed on the trail were perched in the spiny crook of Sagura cactus arms, suspended 50 feet from the ground, cradling black-winged beauties and their trill lullaby. I remember being struck by nature’s irony: a mama choosing to home-make amid cactus barbs, exposed to blaring sun and dust storms. Where is the lullaby to haven us in this spiked desert of a moment?

I miss my mom, who was supposed to come visit a couple weeks ago, who will now not have a chance to feel the kicks and stretches that puncture so many moments of my day. My mom who lives across the country, who just bought a refundable plane ticket around my due date. Refundable, just in case. It’s hard to finish the thought, to imagine the pandemic preventing her from being able to visit, to imagine early mothering without my mother. It would be nice to be a bird, to mother purely from instinct without the throat-catching desire for my own mom’s steady physical presence and confidence born of bringing four babies into the world. I’m not used to feeling this desperate for holding and guidance from her. I’ve been the independent one for a long time.

I wipe up spilled flour and get ready for my next client session, grateful for the technology to sustain my personal and professional relationships but more aware than ever of its utter failure to connect to the sheer physicality of stretched skin, tiny heels, and milky infant smell. I set a reminder on my phone for 18 hours from now to check the bread, not trusting myself to remember.

 

Sarah Hartung lives in Phoenix, AZ with her husband and beloved cat, Luna. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Registered Drama Therapist who has worked since 2012 with individuals healing from trauma and eating disorders in a variety of settings. With a background in theater, writing, and literature, she incorporates creativity and embodiment into both her healing work and everyday life. She deeply enjoys being out in nature and engaging in community dance spaces.

www.desertwillowtherapy.com

Writing Women’s Memoir in Time of Crisis: Self-Reflection as Self-Care

During a time of crisis—as in this time of being isolated, rising death tolls, economies crumbling, and jobs slipping away— writing about one’s self or personal past may seem self-indulgent. However, somewhat paradoxically, the work of writing about personal past experience can be a powerful tool to enter the present more fully.

Like many freelance writers, I was hit recently with a job loss due to changes in the work availability brought on by COVID-19. A good friend of mine suggested that I offer an online course on writing memoirs, as a way to fill the gap while also doing something I love. My gears started turning. I studied WWII civilian women’s memoirs for my doctoral dissertation and found that women like Virginia Woolf and Hilda Doolittle used memoir writing as a tool for sustaining the self against the fragmenting realities of wartime.

My mind lit up with the possibilities and connections—writing the self can be a potent form of self-care, a way to express the fragmentation and dissociation of current experience, laying the fragments out to piece together a whole. Why not use this time of forced isolation to go inward, to explore how the past shapes our experience of this present and to very intentionally take note of what this strange present looks and feels like?

Passages from Woolf’s “A Sketch of the Past” came rising up from the dusty memories of my dissertating days. Woolf wrote “Sketch” from 1939-41, the early years of the war, from the relative safety of the English country village of Rodmell. Though the Woolf’s were set apart from the graphic violence of the London blitz, the frontline war zones, and the death camps, the violence of the war encroached on all sides. Both of their homes in London were bombed. German planes flew over with the regularity of vespers bells. Voices of dictators raged into the living room through radio transmissions. News of the dead piled up in newspapers. The threat of war haunted them to the point that Virginia and Leonard had plans for suicide in the event of a German invasion.

At one point, Woolf returned to her home to dig though the rubble in order to find her diaries, from which she gathered memories to write this memoir. The very material from which this memoir is drawn was salvaged from the wreckage of the war as it ripped through the present.

In the midst of this reality, Woolf writes about her childhood, inquiring about the nature of memory:

“[I]s it not possible—I often wonder—that things we have felt with great intensity have an existence independent of our minds; are in fact still in existence? … I see it—the past—as an avenue lying behind; a long ribbon of scenes, emotions. There at the end of the avenue still, are the garden and the nursery. Instead of remembering, here a scene and there a sound, I shall fit a plug into the wall; and listen in to the past. I shall turn up August 1890. I feel that strong emotion must leave its trace; and it is only a question of discovering how we can get ourselves again attached to it, so that we shall be able to live our lives through from the start.”

From the present of wartime, Woolf describes the experience of memory as something existing independently, whether or not she is actively remembering. It’s as if the traces of the past are playing in radio waves all the time, and she has only to turn the dial and turn up the volume to hear those scenes playing. This frequency in some ways may drown out the voices of dictators and news of war trauma that also come through the radio. But the traces of the past also intermingle with the present, affecting what can be heard even after the station is changed.

Later, after attempting to describe her aversion to looking into the mirror, and exploring the childhood trauma that precipitated that aversion, Woolf questions the nature of memory and the problem of accessing past experience:

“The person is evidently immensely complicated. Witness the incident of the looking-glass. Though I have done my best to explain why I was ashamed of looking at my own face I have only been able discover some possible reasons; there may be others; I do not suppose that I have got at the truth; yet this is a simple incident; and it happened to me personally; and I have no motive for lying about it. In spite of all this, people write what they call ‘lives’ of other people; that is, they collect a number of events, and leave the person to whom it happened unknown” (69).

Woolf illuminates here how the impact of a moment on the perception of the self may be inaccessible to that same person, not only as the experience is happening, but also decades later, with the perspective of a lifetime. However, the work of delving into her memory, through writing, places that fragment in the context of a larger tapestry. Bringing the fragment to the surface, she takes hold of it and explores its colors and patterns in relationship to other fragments.

Memoir writing, in this way, becomes a way to inhabit our experience. Writing about the past, in the present, we inhabit memory and bring it to life, tuning into its frequency and becoming attuned to how the traces of strong emotion inflect what we hear in the present. The practice of memoir enables us to explore the depths of experience as we live through it, seeing the picture as more of a whole, even if it’s patchwork, composed of many fractured pieces.

How do Woolf’s reflections on memory accord with your own experience? Does memory have a life of its own? How is the work of memory affected by writing in the midst of crisis? If you tune into moments in your past and turn up the volume, how does that frequency interact with the noise of this present moment of pandemic, quarantine, and uncertainty?

The Opening of Morning

“IMG_2567” by Ben’sMom is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In the morning I had both my girls in my arms. Catherine snug on top of my bicep, hair nuzzled in my armpit. Madeleine just beyond her, within reach of my fingertips. Both almost breathing heavily, eyes almost totally closed, but then a cardinal lights up the widow with a red splash of sound. Both girls’ eyes brighten and startle out of their snuggles to their knees to look for the singer. My frustration slips away in their wonder, yes, it is the opening of the morning, it’s pure wonder, the clarity of that bell traveling through the half-light into our open window.

Madeline whispered, “It’s the first light of morning.” “Yes,” I whisper, “it is.” “We’re seeing the dawn!” And I suddenly, in my sleepy stupor, want to see the dawn with them.

We listen for awhile and they get chilly and cuddle back down under the heavy covers. I slip my arm back under Catherine’s three-year-old head and watch Madeleine’s eyes get droopy and close, like a miracle falling from the sky.

I lay there and hold them, unable to sleep, uncomfortable, listing to the noisy cardinal, the planes overhead, deeply glad to be able to hold their bodies close to mine, that their worries and needs are something I can take in my arms and hold them while they gently subside. If only there would always be such a balm for their loneliness, their cries. For now, come here, come lie with me under the covers. Let’s doze to the opening of the morning.

Of Denim Jumpers and Blackberries

I never thought I’d homeschool. Not in a million years did I want to be associated with the families in denim jumpers, with awkward social skills, knowing lots, sure, but not knowing how to live in the world. Why would I want to do that to my kids?

And what about myself? Of all the things I could be doing with a PhD–to teach my own two children, to spend so much time and energy to educate just these two–and in doing so ensure that I’m not teaching the potential high school or college classes I could pursue. Or I could work as an editor for a small press, or take up journalism, or, or, or, or…

I could. I could put them in school–there’s a very good public school right down the street. And that would be lovely. They would have dedicated teachers, make new friends, learn things I hadn’t thought to teach them, learn the crucial skill of how to survive with a pack of kids. And they would ride the bus–which, to Madeleine, is the single most important symbol of really being in school.

And I would breathe a sigh of relief, as they rode off on the bus, and I’d walk home and get ready for work. And I’d have a salary. And I’d have something interesting to say when people ask me what I do. And my parents would have something interesting to say when their friends ask them what I do. And I’d spend time everyday with adults. We’d have meetings and make important decisions, and we’d blow off steam at happy hour every now and then. And I’d have a salary. I’d buy new clothes, look sharp. I wouldn’t think twice each time I pick the organic option. We’d buy plane tickets and stay in Air BnB’s around the world.

But, just like when I was about to put Madeleine in preschool, and I found Free Forest School, I realized–I don’t need to put her in a school so she can learn and make friends. We can do that ourselves–with this woodsy group of people who want the same things for their kids. We’ ll band together and build a moat of protection around these kids and let them play in the wild kingdom of nature–taking risks and making experiments, learning how to balance on wobbly trees and how to walk down a slippery slope, mastering the art of playing with sticks and rocks without clobbering your friends.

And we’d have time. Time, that most valuable of commodities that is not a commodity at all but is existence itself, there for the living. Time to move more slowly, time to cuddle and read together, to say yes to one more book and have the kids think they’re getting away with something. Time to have another cup of coffee. Time to spend outdoors, in nature, in the park, in the garden. We could plant and to watch things grow–every day. What happens to the flower on the okra plant? What does the young shoot of broccoli look like? What happens to asparagus fronds when they grow tall?

Over these forest school preschool years, my desire for a successful career has loosened until my hands are just open.

I had thought my life was leading towards something that would make it worthwhile. A title. A salary. An office. It wasn’t. It was always leading towards right here. The present. Learn to live in the present.

The life of the home, the natural world, the family, community are not in service to the career. It’s flipped upside down. The career is needed to support the life of the home, the community, the family–lived in broader community with the natural world as we all work to find food, to weather the elements, to care for this space we share, to enjoy the breeze.

People whose survival is threatened know this. When people in war torn regions are asked what they really want, they often answer, just peace. Peace to live and to love.

What if that is the whole purpose of life? Just to seek and create and enjoy peace. To live in this stunning and strange world and take a look around. To enjoy the company of those we are here with and to learn from how they see the world.

My life has been unfolding into that realization for years–maybe all of them. It was a slow and hesitant epiphany to realize that homeschooling could be a way to live out that realization.

It seems like a gift that’s too good to be true (in the abstract of course. The reality is full of bickering and messes) that at this point in my life–I’m inching closer to 40–my job could be to take another look at everything that is most amazing and wondrous and mysterious, to seek answers to difficult questions, and to get to share this journey with the two people I love so deeply that it’s like a wound.

Add to that that we can do this in a community of people with a similar vision, who love the world and who want to share its beauty with each other. Who share their wisdom with me and help me figure out the nuts and bolts. So the kids and I can be in community–socially engaging with a range of ages and personalities and so many minds to learn from.

And in all this I can have time to write–to live fully in that part of my being–because I have time. And because my friend is watching my kids. And it’s 11 am on the first day of school. Because we can do school after lunch. Because we have time.

I do want to underline that I’m not arguing that this option is the best choice for everybody, or that other careers are wasting time, or that all women should be home with their kids. Certainly not. This complex world needs all kinds and people find joy and meaning in different ways. I’m just trying to articulate why this choice brings me joy, because it’s something I’ve grappled with. And I’ve come to believe that following what brings you joy can be the best marker of which path to take.

It does seem too good to be true. But that’s how true goodness is, isn’t it? Like a blackberry, growing plump in the woods, hanging on the vine when you come around a corner.

At least that’s how it feels on this first day.

Hiking in the Rain for Mental Health

Finding community in Free Forest School

When we moved to San Antonio in 2016, I was 8 1/2 months pregnant, with a 2 1/2 year old. I had my baby the next week. It felt like I’d been ripped from my community and thrown into a sweltering solitude, in a new city, with no friends close by (at least not close enough). On Sunday evenings, when the reality would set in that Erick would leave us alone again for school in the morning, a heavy desperation would weigh on me.

It wasn’t until I was introduced to Free Forest School that I found myself in community again. Free Forest School is a volunteer-led movement started by Anna Sharratt in Brooklyn in 2015 to be an avenue for children to be out learning in nature, in all weather, as in the Scandinavian forest schools. Volunteer facilitators and parents accompany children into the woods and watch as the children explore and collaborate and learn with all their senses. I found my people. It felt so right to be out in the woods, sitting in a circle of like-minded parents, helping each other keep an eye on which baby was crawling too close to poison ivy or which 4 year old was climbing near the wasp nest.

I was hooked from my first session and started facilitating as soon as I could. I recently wrote a blog post for the Free Forest School website, Hiking in the Rain for Mental Health. It shares a glimpse of encountering nature in community has helped to keep me integrated these past two years, and delves a bit into the psychology of why nature can be so crucial for mental health.

I hope you’ll check it out! And while you’re there, I hope you’ll browse the FFS website a bit. There are Free Forest School chapters all over the country and in at least 6 other countries. And if there’s not one in your area, the organization has a simple process for starting one!

Stay in touch! Click here to join my email list.

Feasting in Haste

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What are the rituals that sustain you? Morning coffee and deep breaths, sun salutations, setting intentions for the day, prayer before meals and bed? I’m a big believer in the power of ritual to hold us together in the midst of life’s constant demands and anxieties. To me, while other actions have a purpose in accomplishing something—like feeding ourselves and others, completing projects for work, gaining education—ritual is marked by stepping away from accomplishing and into reflection and observance. Rituals are a platform to help us see where we are. In daily life, we plod along in dense brush. And here in Texas, the brush is thorny. Acts of ritual work like rungs on a ladder to give a vantage point from which we can see the trail, take a deep breath, take in the view, and descend again to the path.

For me, religious ritual—even that old-fashioned one of going to church every week one—sustains me in ways that surprise me. Even when I’m disgusted with the church as an institution, I crave the act of kneeling in community. Entering the walls of the church, stepping out of the current of life’s demands, places a marker of completion on one week and marks the beginning of another. During Holy Week, the ritual of the church reaches a crescendo. As the practice of going to worship each week holds my weeks together, I’m realizing that attending these Easter services holds my years together, weaves the chaos of life into a story, and helps me to imagine myself again within that story.

If you grew up in a faith tradition, as I did in Christianity, or even if you just grew up in America, the tropes of the faith are entirely familiar, and their familiarity renders them boring. If you’re an intellectual type, as I sometimes imagine myself to be, the familiarity of the story makes it seem simple-minded and not very useful to those of us who got past all that a few centuries ago. But this is just where Christianity draws me back in. While I enjoy the complexity and the deep wells of theology and mysticism found in Christian thought, it doesn’t require a PhD to comprehend its tenets. The message can be carried in the mind of a child. Of someone who never went to college. Or high school. Of someone who is illiterate. The essence of this faith—that God became like us to bring us back to God—is not defined by its difficulty to grasp, but by the total demands it requires in order to live it out.

What does it demand? It’s dangerously familiar. Jesus washed his disciples feet. He broke bread and poured out wine and ate and drank of it with them. Do this, he said. Instructions don’t get any more simple than that. It doesn’t get any more difficult either. Don’t think highly of yourself, but stoop down and take care of the bodies around you, in the most physical, necessary ways. Take this bread and nourishment to go break yourself and pour yourself out. Love the most unlovable around you, even the ones who stab you in the back.

I got to sit in the Thursday service all by myself, as my husband had offered to stay with the kids. I get stuck in so many questions about the history of the church, about troubling teachings in the Bible, and I am cynical about the present life of the church. These are important dilemmas, urgent questions. As I get tangled in all the questioning, the story itself loses its interest and any hold it had on me. It feels completely out of touch and irrelevant. But every now and then, some detail, some phrase catches hold of me and pulls me back in. Last night, the reading from the book of Exodus brought me back into the story. The reading describes how the people of Israel were to prepare the first Passover, where the blood of the slaughtered lamb painted their doorposts and the angel of death passed over them. They received this instruction for the feast: “This is how you are to eat it: with your loins girt, sandals on your feet and your staff in hand, you will eat it in a hurry. It is the LORD’s Passover.” They are instructed to eat the feast as people who are in flight, taking quick nourishment, just enough to keep them alive and moving. The intensity and the urgency of the ritual is jarring against our current backdrop where religion is something that holds us back from doing what we really need to do, something out of touch with reality, a chore for keeping up appearances. No, in this ritual, the act of feasting is urgent, entirely necessary to keep from being overtaken.

The thread of urgency weaves through the service. Of course, when Jesus breaks bread and pours wine with his friends, he is eating that Passover feast with them. And he is in haste; the angel of death is in pursuit. Knowing this, he retreats to pray and urges his friends to stay awake, to pray with him. Those fellows fall asleep of course.

After mass, the bread and wine were carried to the front porch of the church, where, in the middle of a bustling urban area of restaurants and bars, apartments, and beautiful homes, the church had set up a large, white sheet partitioning off the porch from the city’s activity. Candles lit the contemplative space, and small palm trees enclosed the space, which was further enclosed by overhanging live oaks above and Texas mountain laurels on the sides. I stayed awhile, enjoying the quiet of contemplation, marveling at how this physical space was transformed by the spiritual intention brought to it. These stone steps are usually empty, usually just the entrance to a building that most passers likely think of as obsolete, or more likely, don’t think of at all. But this evening it was a contemplative garden, and a crowd of people gathered and knelt, pouring out desires and griefs stored up over the weeks, over the year. You can make any kind of space you can imagine, I thought. You just have to imagine it. And do the work to bring it into being.

I knew full well that I would not stay until midnight, as we had been invited to. I wondered if anybody would, as so many had already filtered away, checking phones, going out to dinner. I knew in a few minutes I would head home so I could hug my girls and read them a story and put them in bed. But I felt as if I were being asked a question: what would it mean for you to stay awake? The urgency of the evening recalled to me the words of climate activist Greta Thunberg: “I don’t want your hope. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I do. Every day. And I want you to act. I want you to behave like our house is on fire. Because it is.” How would we live if we acted in full awareness of the realities we live in? In other words, how would we live if we lived out what we believe?

What do you believe to be true, at the core of your being? What would it mean to stay awake to that truth? For me, staying awake would mean actually getting involved in welcoming and providing for the migrants arriving by the thousands in my city, as I’ve been meaning to but haven’t actually taken any steps towards. It would mean continuing to look honestly at how my decisions affect the ecosystem and how my purchasing contributes to injustice in local and global systems. It would mean going without items that are part of a system of harm. It would include caring for my children in the full awareness that the way in which I care for them is shaping them for their whole lives. It means interacting with each person I encounter as someone carrying the divine spark. On Easter, the sun rises with the hope of new life, and we feast with our faces shining. We feast, though, in haste, gathering energy for the work to be done, staying awake for the road ahead.

Come Home

I remember the first Ash Wednesday service I went to after Madeleine was born. I was caught off-guard when my introspection swerved into an image of the face of my baby smeared with ashes. She wasn’t with me, but the image was stark, a cross swiped in black ash, off-center on her forehead.

That year I had been thinking of the ashes, reminder as they are of the certainty of death, as if they were human ashes. I know, kind of weird. In reality of course, they’re the charred remnants of the fronds that adorn the air on Palm Sunday, hailing the arrival of Jesus to Jerusalem, before people realized why he has come. But the idea of human ash, human dust, still holds in my mind. That year I saw people walking across my Jesuit university campus in the drifting snow, with their own incinerated bones scrawled on their foreheads. I don’t know. I was studying trauma. I was writing a dissertation. I was nursing a baby at night instead of sleeping. From dust you are and to dust you shall return. This is a true statement, no matter how you understand your creation or evolution, and it is equally true of my daughters as of myself. Who needs to be reminded of that? We all know this, every minute of the day, right? But don’t we also structure our days and our lives to blur out this reality?

What struck me that first Ash Wednesday as a parent was that I was being asked to love my daughter as someone who would always be passing away from me. How do I hold someone— whom I love with such ferocity, with such need that it frightens me—loosely, like a butterfly, not like a body pillow or a rope hanging from a cliff?

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Copyright Phil Roeder

I vacillate between living the days in awareness of their beauty—this sweet time together, cuddled in the mornings, reading books and drinking coffee, and hiking in the evening, sharing our awe at the unfolding, tender leaves on every tree—and terror mixed with existential nausea that these days will end. (Of course, there are days too, and many moments within the day, that are like a marsh of paralysis and inability to inhabit the present, but it’s the other poles I’m thinking about right now).

There’s a song, “Come Home,” by the band Cloud Cult that I love, even though, and perhaps because, it makes me weep nearly each time I really listen to it. It always comes as a shock, like a wave—the wave that is the reason for the cliché—that hits you from behind, or in the face, just at the moment you came up for air and had yet to open your eyes. I learned of the band from Krista Tippet’s On Being, where I also learned that the lead singer and his wife, also in the band, lost their 2 year old son, and their grief permeates much of their music in the years since his loss. This knowledge, with the swelling orchestral background, the hauntingly simple piano melody, and the poetic lyrics that inscribe the loss into images of longing so strange that I’m able to see them, combine to knock me off balance enough that I’ll be singing along one moment and weeping in the middle of traffic the next.

“I gave my skin back to the prairie
So in the coldest thundershowers
You can see me in the flowers
I gave my soul back to the breeze
So when you’re feeling down, you
You know I’m all around you
And though your hand I’ll never get to hold
Just give me one more chance to say
I love my baby, so
Come home.”

The way I keep returning to the song, again and again to experience that flood of tears and raw emotion, has led me to think that I need to connect with this grief for some reason. What am I crying over when I hear this music? I feel foolish on one level, or like some poseur, because I haven’t lost a child. They’re right here, in fact, wrestling noisily on the reclining chair behind me. Some part of it is an empathetic grief, experiencing vicariously the unimaginable loss that this couple faces and brings out in the open. Mostly, though, I think the music connects with my fear and certainty of losing them. I think this fear, this certainty, and the grief that accompanies it, rises so overwhelmingly because it’s always with me and I will not or cannot acknowledge it. The images and the music in “Come Home” provide a way to access the nerve fibers of grief that run through the reality of loving someone deeply. We can’t always connect with these nerves; we wouldn’t be able to get through the daily tasks. But the catharsis brought about by being able to weep over the passing of my children feels like cleansing, like it helps me see the tender and fragile beauty of holding these bodies for this time.

Ash Wednesday brings the sign of death into the everyday, marking me and my children at lunchtime in the middle of the week, my toddler receiving the smear on her forehead while asleep in my arms. At the same time, the ritual begins the season of Lent—the lengthening toward the coming dawn, which asks people to look closely at the things that we hold tightly, the things that we hold onto to keep from feeling the feeling of falling. The ash streaks on my children’s faces tell me starkly, all this is passing away. What can we hold to?

Yesterday morning was one of those days when I woke in a haze of discontent and paralysis, groggy and ungrateful. Instead of ignoring my heaviness, I actually pulled myself to my yoga mat and breathed and prayed into it. I felt lighter, like I could breathe again and sat for a while breathing and cupping my coffee in my palms. I wrote about the moment earlier: ‘Madeleine came and stood in front of me smiling. I gave her a hug and looked at her in the morning light. “I love you.” “You said I love you like I’m leaving,” she said. “That’s true,” I said. “I did.”’

How do you love someone who is leaving?

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We ended the day with a hike in the woods, winding along a footpath through glossy, silver persimmon trees and cypress. I had thought the sun was already down, because the sky had been darkening since we left the house. Then we came around a bend and Madeleine shouted, “Look at that light!” The cypress grove in front of us was flaming with mandarin-rose light. The three of us gasped and turned around to see the fireball of the sun emerging from the cloud bank. Just then, Erick careened around the corner on his mountain bike and stopped to watch the light with us. He took Madeleine with him up the trail on her bike, and Catherine and I followed on foot. Catherine reached an open field and sat down, carefully and deliberately crossing one leg over the other. She actually said, “Let’s just sit and breathe.” Of course I sat next to her, in the dry grass, and took deep gulps of evening air, watching the flaming light scatter over the treetops, over the grass, and recede beyond the horizon.

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(Car) Camping with Kids: The Basics

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We have a campout coming up with our Waldorf co-op this spring equinox, and a couple of families have asked for advice on some of the basics of camping with children. I remember the first time I was contemplating whether it would be worth it to camp with my first child. I grew up camping and have always camped as an adult, but had never been since I had a child. I scoured the internet for good, practical advice that would tell me how to do this and whether it would be worth it or would end catastrophically. I found enough practical advice that I was encouraged to go ahead and try it, and now camping is a staple of my family’s life. I think every family has to decide for themselves whether or not it’s worth it. A big factor in whether it will be worth it is the perspective you bring to your trip.

Maybe instead of asking how you can go camping with kids, you’re asking, why in the h*** would I want to go camping with kids? Camping is kind of funny. We take a whole bunch of our stuff to the great outdoors and set it up out there so we feel like we’re at home. It’s a lot of work. It’s exhausting. There are bugs. Those criticisms are totally true, of course. But even so, I still think that the reasons to haul your gear and your kids outweigh the practical naysaying.

I’ve always believed that being out in nature made me feel better, not just a little bit, but in a deep-down, in touch with my soul and balanced with the earth sort of way. Scientists are now mapping what causes these feelings and finding compelling evidence that just being in natural spaces, (or even just near them!) physiologically lowers stress, which in turn lowers heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol, and negative feelings. Contact with nature also lights up the parts of the brain associated with empathy and altruism and improves concentration. These effects can be seen after just a 15 minute walk in the woods. (“Call to the Wild”) Imagine the changes that happen in your body and mind when you stay in the woods for the weekend! There’s nothing better than being out for a hike, and, as the sun goes down, not having to return to the highway, to the daily grind, but instead, to enjoy the falling night, hear the nocturnal sounds, experience the stars coming towards me instead of away, and feel the fresh air waft across my face as I try to sleep. I want the experience I have while hiking to keep going. If you can relate to that, then camping is probably a good fit for you.

If camping is good for you, it will be good for your kids. Kids will experience all the same physiological and psychological benefits that you will. On top of that, they’ll benefit from being with you when you’re less stressed. Being out in nature will teach them a myriad of lessons that they can’t learn inside. They can learn to take risks and know their own limits. They can experience discomfort —in the different elements, with bugs, with minor scrapes and bruises—and learn to adapt. They build resilience in the outdoors (for more on this, see Last Child in the Woods). They can connect with the world without a timeframe pushing them to just keep walking and stop looking at every daisy along the way. When they’re camping, they have the freedom to just look at a daisy for days. Maybe at the end of the trip, you’ll even want to take a look, too.

So, what about the practical matters? What makes for an enjoyable camping trip with kids? For me, it boils down to bringing the necessities and letting go of what is not essential. (Also, letting go of what you forgot).

Here’s my list of essential things to consider/bring:

  • Shelter:
    • You’ll need a good tent to fit your family. If you’re just starting out, you may be able to borrow a tent from a tent from a friend. Be sure to bring the instructions! If you don’t have one and are going to invest, as with most outdoor gear, spending a little more will get you something that will last longer and be more enjoyable to use. A less-expensive tent will likely work just fine.
    • We also bring a big tarp with rope to make a shelter over our fire pit and table when it’s raining steadily. This really helps to keep from getting stir-crazy, so you don’t have to just sit in the tent together.
  • Sleeping
    •  A foam sleeping roll will be perfectly comfortable for most kids. These are pretty cheap to purchase. Several blankets folded up would also work fine.
    •  Try to get them a warm sleeping bag, depending on what season you’re camping in. The degree comfort levels marked on sleeping bags are pretty accurate. Be sure to check the nighttime lows for when you’re going. It’s really not fun to worry all night if your kids are freezing.
    • Sometimes we have issues with our kids rolling out of their bags and waking up cold. I think it’s generally a good idea to bring a few extra blankets—to cover over their bags and to place beneath all the sleeping pads. A lot of the cold seeps in from the ground.
    •  Strange things can go on at night while camping (well, and at home.) This can be the most difficult part of camping—dealing with kids waking up and not going back to sleep when you’re exhausted. A good friend of mine shared this perspective with me: I asked how her night was, and she said, “Great.” I asked how she slept, and she said, “Well, I didn’t sleep, but I don’t plan on sleeping much when I camp.” While this philosophy is a bit much for me (I always plan on sleeping, even when it’s not likely), I think it’s a useful attitude for camping. Just know it’s going to be very different from home. Try not to get angry or stressed about it, but try instead to focus on the sounds you can hear out in the woods that are so rare in normal life. Remember that kids are learning how to relax in a very different environment, and learning to be comfortable in the wild is lesson that will go deep in their bones. The work you may do in helping them rest at night will go a long way.
    • I like to put my kids in the tent, read to them and snuggle for awhile and then go back out for a drink by the fire. I think it’s good for them to learn to fall asleep by themselves, even if they cry a little. I always go to check on them and reassure them that I’m right here. After a few nights, they become more comfortable with the night, and it’s beautiful to see them developing that capacity.
  • Chairs: Having a camp chair is nice for everyone. It makes sitting around a lot more comfortable. But if you don’t have one for everyone, don’t sweat it. Unless you have specific health reasons to use a chair, sitting on the ground or a tree stump will be fine. Bring a picnic blanket to sit on.
  • Les toilettes
    • If you have kids that are potty training or even just still little enough to sit on one, bring a portable potty. That way, if your kids have a hard time peeing on trees or squatting, they can use the potty for the million times a day they have to pee, and you won’t have to walk at a toddler pace back and forth from the restroom all day. You can toss the pee away from camp.
    • When they poop in the potty, just take it to the restroom and flush it. Be sure to bring wipes to clean it out. If you can’t take it to a restroom, you can also bury it. Go about a hundred feet from your camp, others’ camps, and water sources, and bury it at least 6 inches deep. Use a rock or stick to dig if you don’t have a trowel. But hopefully you can just take it to the restroom.
    • If you have a child who is newly potty trained at night, you may want to take extra precautions at night while camping. One good trick is to put a diaper outside her underwear. They won’t feel like they have permission to pee in the diaper, because they’ll feel the underwear. But the diaper will keep the pee from soaking the sleeping bag and ruining your night. See my post about backpacking with children for a detailed glimpse of what this look like.
  • Food
    • Eating while camping is for some reason extremely pleasurable. Being outside just makes you more hungry and makes food taste better. Maybe the scientists will tackle this benefit of nature next. Maybe they already have?
    • I like to make a little chart for each meal and the days I’ll be camping to figure out exactly what I need and then make a grocery list from that.
    • I make things that I can prep a little bit ahead of time, or even have pre-cooked. Kids love to help with camping food. Try to slow down and remember this is part of what they’re learning about the work of living outside. Let them help assemble, stir, whatever they can do safely.
    • Don’t forget the coffee, salt, and cooking oil/butter!
    • Coffee: We use a French press, which works well, except the clean up is messy. Percolators are fun, but take awhile. There’s always instant coffee!
    • Try to do meals where you can use ingredients for more than one meal. This will cut down on your groceries considerably.
    • Bring a stove to make cooking much easier. Cooking over a fire can be tricky, and having a fire is never a certainty. Don’t forget a pan and spoon to stir. A two-burner Coleman style stove is pretty ideal for car camping.
    • Dishes: I like to bring metal plates and utensils, to cut down on trash. These can be cleaned with a sponge (or fingers) and a very small dab of soap, then rinsed with a little water and wiped down with a bandana. I know a lot of people heat water and have washing stations and all that. I admire that. But I’m usually totally worn out by that point and just do the bare minimum. Follow your own hygiene tolerance!
    • Trash: Bring a trash bag or two and tie it to the pole that’s likely provided if you’re in a public campsite. Bring another bag for recyclables and tie it up too.
    •  Keep food in your car at night, or inside a heavy-duty, well-sealed box. Raccoons and skunks (we don’t have bears in Texas) can get into ice chests. Your safest bet for not being up with scavengers all night is to put it in the car. Don’t bring food in your tent! Some critters, like skunks, can also open zippers (really!).
    •  Resist the temptation to toss food scraps, even fruits and veggies, into the woods. It seems fine—it’ll just decompose, right?—but think about all the people at a public campground who think the same thing. The effect of all these food scraps is that animals are attracted to the site. If you don’t want to be the main raccoon attraction when you’re trying to sleep, put your scraps in the trash, or burn them thoroughly in the fire.
  • Fire: Bring your own firewood. Most state parks don’t want you to gather wood. Bring newspaper, cardboard boxes, dryer lint, or even fire-starter sticks to help get it going. Don’t forget matches.
    • Kids are actually generally respectful of fire. Teach them clear boundaries and enforce them strongly. But sometimes getting a little too close to the fire is the best way to learn. Kids usually back up when they get too hot.
    • Keep water close by to put out any errant flames.
  • Dirt: Resign yourself that the kids are just going to get dirty. Don’t worry; it’s actually good for them. They’re building up their store of good bacteria (more on this Let them Eat Dirt). I let mine get dirty all day and then clean them off before they get in the tent. Also, no shoes in the tent is a rule kids can learn pretty early. Mine had grasped it by age 2. Before that, you have to enforce it yourself or else you will sleep in a sandy sleeping bag. Also, teach the kids to keep the tent closed all the time. You’ll be amazed how many bugs will find their way in just so they can buzz around your light when you’re trying to read.
  • Babies? How young is too young? We waited till our first was 6 months old before we went on our first venture. Then, that weekend was the first time she learned to put things in her mouth! She spent the entire weekend trying to fit an assortment of sticks of rocks in her mouth, so I spent the whole weekend getting them out. Is this reason not to camping? Nah, I’d be the same thing at home, right? I’m just saying that it’s actually easier to go with an infant than a baby who is moving around and getting into mischief. As soon as you recover from labor is probably the best time. The baby doesn’t move, you’re already not sleeping…why not be camping?
  • First-Aid: Definitely bring a first-aid kit. It doesn’t have to be an actual first-aid kit. Just gather the basic supplies you’d use at home if someone was injured. I like to include:
    • Band-aids, iodine or alcohol or some other disinfectant, a relieving cream like Neosporin
    • Benadryl and Benadryl cream—a real lifesaver if someone finds their way into a fire ant pile
    • Dr. Zarbee’s kids cough syrup (honey and melatonin)—I’ve had kids get sick suddenly while camping, and this syrup really does help.
    • Ace wrap
    • A few larger bandages
    • Tweezers
    • If someone gets seriously injured, do your best to stabilize and relieve the pain and high-tail it to the closest medical care center. It’s a good idea to find out where this is before you get to camp, in case you don’t have cell service.
  • Finally, there’s the whole letting go philosophy. On a canoeing trip with my dad and step-mom in Big Bend, we had a guide in Big Bend who told us, “If you don’t got it, you don’t need it.” It’s always interesting to make do. Use your creativity, and learn to adapt. Everything is an adventure when you’re camping. Everything that goes wrong can teach you something about yourself and your relationship with the world around you. If you can hold this attitude for most of the time you’re camping, your kids will catch on, and the minor catastrophes will be great stories for your family to laugh over.

Is it possible that something catastrophic will happen while you’re camping? Yes, definitely. But it’s also possible in your front yard, or even in your house. For me, the risks that we take in being outside the security of modern conveniences are worth it because they let us avoid another catastrophe: living life without being connected to the wild natural world.

Well, those are the basics of camping with children in my world. What are your essentials?

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