A Grieving Child for Life

PrinceHarryPrince Harry’s recent revelation that he’s been in therapy to address long unprocessed grief about his mother’s death startled the world with its frankness on this vulnerable topic, especially from a member of Britain’s royal family. He described how in his late 20s, he began to have chaotic emotions, especially unexplained anger and panic, that after talking with others over time, including a therapist, he was able to trace back to the death of his mom when he was twelve. His story struck such a chord for me as my mom died of breast cancer when I was seven. I was aware she was sick but did not know it was cancer or that it would be terminal, so my dad’s announcement one morning that “we have an angel in the family” came as a tremendous shock, an abandonment.

Like the Prince I was puzzled in my mid-20s by unusual emotional reactions. Mine were clearly triggered by the trauma of a dear friend being hit by a car as a pedestrian immediately after I’d dropped her off on a downtown street. Though injured, her survival was never in question. Even so for weeks afterward I was weepy and shaky, lost inside as though in free fall, sensations that were strange to me yet also somehow familiar. Soon I recalled that’s how I’d felt in the aftermath of my mom’s death. Also like Prince Harry, I talked with friends and sought help from a therapist. A key insight I gained is that the unexpressed grief resided in me as a seven year old, the age I was when my mom died, even though I was 25 when it began to surface. I needed to let that inner lost girl vent and cry over a period of years before the deepest sorrow was released.

I am curious about how Prince Harry’s grief journey will continue to unfold and hope that he discovers even greater resilience and peace over time. For me grieving has spiraled through my entire adult life ever since the day of my friend’s accident. Ultimately, becoming a mother and providing nurturing that I missed to my own children brought powerful healing. However, every time I believe I’m mostly “through it,” another new milestone or transition, such as moving to a new house or the departure of children to college or the death of an elder relative, prompts another recalibration of my life in relation to grieving mother loss. I’ve learned that such recurrence is typical and would offer that awareness to Prince Harry.

He went public with his story to encourage others to seek help in hopes of removing any stigma associated with mental health issues, an initiative I applaud. But more particularly, his experience shines a bright light on the often overlooked needs of grieving children.  According to the Children’s Grief Education Association, 4.8 million children in the United States are mourning the loss of a parent to death. It need not take twenty years to feel one’s feelings in order to cope with mother loss or any other death during childhood.

Children grieve differently than adults. At young ages, they may be sad one moment and then shortly afterward resume playing as if nothing has happened. They may require repeat explanations that death is permanent, that their special person is not coming back. Older ones may act out in ways that are not obviously related to grief, and it takes sensitive adults to help them understand their emotions.  At all ages, bereaved children need to be told the truth at whatever level they can comprehend; otherwise their imaginations will fill in with fearful or blaming thoughts. It’s also common for grieving children to feel  different from their peers and therefore very alone.

Prince Harry attributed his delayed grief in large part to his being so in the public eye as a 12-year-old dealing with his mother’s death. Then he refused to think about her or his loss for nearly two decades, rationalizing that feeling sad would not bring her back. I’m not certain why my grieving was delayed. For sure, my family did not openly deal with difficult emotions. I also wonder if I just was not ready to take it in completely as a child, so the grief waited for years until I was. That’s how grief is. It never, ever goes away. It can only be felt, and sharing with others can bring great solace at any age. In that spirit I am hard at work writing a memoir of childhood mother loss. As Prince Harry put it, “The experience I have had is that once you start talking about it, you realize that actually you’re part of quite a big club.”

Childhood Grief Resources:
National Alliance for Grieving Children
Six Reasons Why You Should Focus on a Grieving Child
How Children Grieve
Motherless Daughters by Hope Edelman
The Loss That Is Forever by Maxine Harris, Ph.D.

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Signs of Resurrection

“I said to the almond tree:
Speak to me of God;
and the almond tree blossomed.”
— Nikos Kazantzakis

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Library Love

It’s National Library Week — April 9-15         NationalLibraryWeek

On a recent weekend away with several high school friends, around the outdoor fire pit one night somehow we began sharing stories of our early experiences with libraries. I thought I was just weird in my heartfelt devotion to these sacred spaces, but it turned out each of us holds treasured stories of interacting with librarians, loving books and feeling attached to a particular branch.

I vividly recall applying for my first library card when I was about six years old. My mom had been working with me for weeks to teach me how to sign my name, the major prerequisite of the application process. She and I sat together at the kitchen table as my chubby fingers clenched the pen and laboriously imitated the letters she had demonstrated. At times I cried when I couldn’t shape them to my satisfaction, but I kept at it. My mom was mostly patient and encouraging, though she occasionally sighed at my outbursts of frustration. Finally I achieved success, and one evening after dinner we went to the Northern Hills branch, where I proudly reached up to the desk to hand over the green cardstock form. The librarian smiled and told me I could take out two books that night on a temporary card until my actual one was sent in the mail.

I don’t know if I asked for the library card, sparking the signature lessons, or if my mom initiated the idea. Either way, I love this memory. It is one of only a few specific recollections that I have of the two of us, because she died of breast cancer when I was seven. A year and a half ago I began working on a memoir about grieving mother loss, which for me didn’t really begin until young adulthood. As part of the writing process I felt drawn to re-visit this memory in greater detail, so I took a field trip. Now called just the College Hill branch library, it’s 15-20 minutes from my home, so one morning last January I set off to visit. I hadn’t been inside since childhood and only drive past it occasionally.

IMG_1549It’s a low rectangular structure made of light brown bricks in varied shades with a covered entry supported by distinctive pillars made of cement with decorative stones in shades of brown and gray. The pillars create curved arches inside the building and outside under the overhang. On the day of my visit, the library was bustling with people working at the computers, getting assistance with their searches and how to print a document. There were people checking out books, reading materials at the tables, and several filling out forms. One may have been a job application; forms for various assistance programs were available and tax forms too. A friendly, busy energy permeated the place. I felt welcome but not particularly noticed, which was perfect.

On the way in, a historical marker by the side of the parking lot explained that the land occupied by this branch of the library, the public elementary school next door and the “commons”/park behind the parking lot were originally part of the Crawford Farm. John Crawford, who fought for the Union, donated the land for a rest home for black soldiers of the Civil War, which later merged with a facility for African American women. The library was built on the site in 1966, making it only a few years old when I applied for my first library card there. African American history awareness continued inside the building with a poster on the right wall over the copy machine describing a slave escape of the Underground Railroad that occurred in the area, the largest one, 28 escaped slaves transported by posing as a funeral procession.

Following my brief tour, naturally I browsed the shelves and left with several mysteries, savoring the familiar richness at having a stack of new books to dive into. After my mom died, our neighbor up the street who drove us home from school each day would take us along with her two daughters to the library every few weeks. I spent a lot of time with this family on many outings and visits, but even then these regular library trips meant the most. Books were a refuge for me. Mysteries like Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames. IMG_2382Historical fiction like the Little House books, the Betsy-Tacy series, and Little Women. I also read a lot of biographies of men and women, especially presidents and their wives such as Lincoln, Washington and Kennedy, as well as other historical figures like Elizabeth Blackwell and Helen Keller. Often after school I curled up in the corner of our family room couch with an apple and read until dinner. When I became a mom myself, taking my children to the library and eventually applying for their own library cards brought special satisfaction. My love of libraries continues to this day, and it’s a real joy to trace this lineage all the way back to my mom.

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Libraries need our love! For the first time, National Library Week includes an advocacy component in the form of Take Action for Libraries Day on Thursday, April 13. All are urged to speak up against cuts in federal funding to the Institute for Museum and Library Services.  Learn what you can do. 

 

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What Is Essential?

On Thanksgiving Day, a dear friend sent an email greeting containing a link to this short reflection by Parker Palmer that included an amazing poem I’d never heard before, called “The Almanac of Last Things” by Linda Pastan. Kind of a reverse bucket list. The poem’s title alone spoke viscerally to me as  a writing prompt. What is most essential? What is meaningful? These are the questions that beckoned. Sitting in my study relaxing between family gatherings on Thanksgiving, I just had to start writing. I worked on this poem a little bit each day of the holiday weekend and feel moved this morning to share it here.

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From the almanac of last things,
I choose coffee with real cream,
In solitude or community,
Warmth that suffuses my body, grounds the day

I choose the sunrise, and the sunset
First, a greeting,
Every day is birthed anew
Then a surrender,
Comes the night with nurturing dark.
Enter rest and be renewed

I choose immersive water,
With salt, with chlorine, with sand
To buoy my body,
Renew my soul

I choose memories
To embrace, not clutch
Touchstones of joy,
Entwined with sorrow.

I choose today
To receive the present moment as gift
To show up for my life
Now, always

 

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Grappling with Body Image

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Akagera Nat’l Park

Recently I spent 10 wonderful days in Rwanda with my 22-year-old daughter. She studied there for a semester during college, and this trip was a chance to re-trace her steps and introduce me to the people and places she fell in love with two years ago. Likewise, it quickly became obvious that her host parents Hortense and Athanase along with their network of friends and family had fully embraced Kieran in return.

The first morning after our arrival, Hortense’s sister Immaculate stopped by and her words of greeting to Kieran completely startled me. “Wow, you’re big!” She spoke in a marveling tone, stepping back and looking carefully, assessing. What!? Kieran is not fat! We would never say that here, even if we thought it, though Immaculate’s tone mirrored the way I might exclaim to a friend, “Wow, you’ve lost weight! You look great.” Later when we were alone I interrogated Kieran, “What was that? Why did she say ‘you’re big’!?” “It doesn’t mean the same thing here, Mom. She was telling me I look good.” Sure enough, it happened two more times in the ensuing week, with a friend of Hortense’s who we ran into at the grocery store, and then during a visit with the director of Kieran’s prior study program.

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Kieran with Celine, her study program director, and Hortense, and Celine’s new baby.

A little research turned up that plump, buxom, rounded women have traditionally been seen as desirable in many African cultures, to the extent that young girls were sent to “fat farms” before marriage, to gain weight. They sat around, no activity, and were fed (force fed in some descriptions) high calorie foods like dates, couscous, etc. This practice apparently continues to some extent in the present. From a patriarchal perspective, large bodied women signify the wealth of her family and her fitness for childbearing.

Witnessing my daughter’s encounters with three African women of today, all in their 30s, I heard pride and celebration in their voices. Near the end of the trip, still shaking my head a little in disbelief, trying to imagine telling someone at home, “You’re big!” and having them feel pleased about it, I brought it up with Hortense. She hardly even understood the question, as though why would I wonder about something so ordinary. “They were saying that she looks good, that she’s grown up. When you studied here two years ago, you were still a girl.”

How about that? Acknowledging the natural process with pleasure. I am practically overcome by the chasm between “You’re big!” and the American cultural icon of beauty as skinny and emaciated, straight lines rather than curves. All I can say is “What if?” What if all women adopted this attitude? What if all cultures believed it and actually lived it? Real health consequences are at stake. In the US, the incidence of eating disorders rises each decade across all ethnic groups, with serious health effects ranging from blood pressure changes and tooth decay to loss of bone density, kidney failure and gastric rupture. While there is no single cause of body dissatisfaction and disordered eating, research clearly links media exposure to the thin ideal with the development of these conditions. The effects seem to be stronger on young adults than children or adolescents both female and male. Interestingly, in an exception that supports the rule, Hispanic and Black girls and women who watch more Black-oriented television have higher body satisfaction. In addition, with increasing globalization studies indicate that as countries become more Westernized – with more mass media exposure – eating disorders increase.

I listen to the women complimenting my daughter during our stay in Rwanda and hear an invitation to embrace my body as it is, which includes caring for it as best as I can, lovingly, gently, without criticism or disdain for its expanding girth. What would it take to celebrate roundness? How could this change be brought about? I think we’d need new images, new icons of beauty. I’ve just read several articles and watched part of a video about ideals of beauty through different historical periods. Ancient Egypt revered thinness while the Italian Renaissance had high regard for full hips and breasts and rounded stomachs. But these just reinforce that an externally defined ideal is precisely the problem. Thin women during the Renaissance would have the same problem of dissatisfaction that I do now. The key is to revere what you have.

So, roundness is what I’ve got. What would it take to celebrate it? One autumn day a few years ago when I was doing work hours at the local farm where we were CSA members, I received a clue. It was a misty, chilly October morning, invigorating and peaceful both. As we returned to the shed dust-covered after pulling turnips from the ground, a seasonal display to the left of the door suddenly caught my peripheral vision. I almost gasped aloud at the voluptuous orange pumpkin juxtaposed with other gourds in deep green, clean white and even a rich purple. In a flash of intuitive clarity, I understood middle age as the autumn season of life, how this stage could be vivid and beautiful in its own way. Jewel toned against a softer light rather than the intense colors of summer’s fiery height.

Just this past weekend I was in Washington DC with Kieran as she departed to a year-long volunteer commitment here in the states and twice “roundness” caught my eye in the Hirschorn Museum sculpture garden on the National Mall. The image on the left is called Seated Yucatan Woman by Francisco Zuniga and on the right is Evocation of a Form: Human, Lunar, Spectral by Jean Arp.

Author Alice Walker is credited with coining the term “womanist” to denote African American women’s experience and reflection as distinct from feminism dominated by white women’s stories and concerns. Her 1983 book In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens includes an expansive definition of Womanist that in its third definition speaks poetically to the matter of body image: Loves music. Loves dance. Loves the moon. Loves the Spirit. Loves love and food and roundness. Loves struggle. Loves the Folk. Loves herself. Regardless.

 

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What Comes Next

In the wake of last week’s terrible tragedies I have been reflecting yet again on how I respond to such events. I had a sudden recollection of hearing of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 when I was a stay at home mother of a toddler and preschooler. They were napping and I sat down on my bed and simply cried, trembling at the realization that acts of terror could be “here” rather than far away. I wonder now how I heard the news. I think a friend told me and then I probably turned on the TV. Now more than two decades later, the news is ever present via my iPhone, and shootings and bombings are sadly ubiquitous. Sometimes I cry and mourn, other times it’s too 346445375_8efe3e3f27_mmuch and I become numb or just avoid it altogether. Since becoming conscious that certain tragic events receive greater coverage and public outcry than others, I’ve tried to be more aware of all the places that are suffering beyond just those that connect to me personally in some way.

The Dallas shootings last week coincided with a night that I already could not sleep, and the news came to me well after midnight via text from my oldest son who was visiting friends out on the west coast and forgot the time difference. (Why I was looking at my phone in the middle of the night will have to be a different post!) Friday dawned and I was a complete wreck with exhaustion. By blessed coincidence  Joe and I had already planned a weekend away, about an hour from here at a place his family has owned since his childhood, fondly known as the Farm. It’s a number of acres in rural Ohio where we have many memories and there is no Wifi. Awake very early on Saturday morning my mind was going at a million miles an hour. I couldn’t let these tragedies go by without doing something. Should I write my legislators again? Write to the whole Congress? Join Black Lives Matter? Initiate new Red Boot meetings? All of the above? Around and around it went.
Hints of a beautiful sunrise filtering through the window shade called me to get up even though it was only 6:00 am. As the coffee brewed, I did a few stretches and walked quietly around the house, looking out the windows. Stepping outside, I moved a chair into the field for the best view of the sunrise. Dew chilled my feet, darkened the foot beds of my Birk sandals. The symphony of birds and insects sounded distinctly different than at home. Light of the emerging sun reflected on the barn. I just sat there surrounded by cool clean air with clear blue sky above. Then a rooster crowed from down the
road! Just as the sun peaked over the horizon. Increasingly bugs began to nip at me, buzzinIMG_0778g angrily as if I were disturbing their turf so I moved to the patio. Following the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012 the wisest words I read came from Buddhist teacher Susan Piver: “Using ideas to treat or metabolize feelings is ineffective. Then what? I’m afraid that there are only a very few things we can do other than to be absolutely, irredeemably heartbroken . . . I’m not saying we shouldn’t act. WE  SHOULD. But before we act, we should feel.” In this interlude of serene beauty at the Farm, space opened up for me to feel my actual feelings. Somewhat to my surprise, the strongest emotion was Fear — of guns, of violence, of hate, of what might happen next. Then I understood how  Fear takes me to a black and white, either-or mindset, as though now is Bad and there was some idealized time before that was Good. Fear wants me to yield to that spiral, to fall further and further into helplessness, ever more tightly wrapped in paralysis, wringing my hands. “Oh no, nothing can be done. We’re doomed.” Fears pushes me to numb, to distance, to hide, to label.

But Hope says instead, stay open. Open your eyes to the beauty all around you. Open your heart and let it be broken by the pain of so many, including the very Earth beneath my feet. Go ahead and cry, lament and grieve. But also hug and garden and write and gather together with real live people to work for change. Offer healing and hospitality. Hold space for all of it — the pain, the beauty, the loss, the violence, shots fired, man down, plants growing, children laughing. The sun rising and setting day after day.

Returning home the next day I had an email from a friend looking for companions to attend the Black Lives Matter protest and march downtown that very afternoon. My inner Yes came from a completely different place than my previous frantic musings about “what to do.” and I approached the event with greater openness, fewer expectations. Standing beneath the beating sun outside police headquarters, I listened to stories from family members of people killed by police that were heartbreaking. I listened to harsh statements about police that were hard to hear because of my work in local government and friendships with police officers. I walked through the streets of downtown in a massive crowd of people chanting “Black Lives Matter”,”Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and “No Justice, No Peace.” I placed a flower at the site where Timothy Thomas was killed by police in 2001 which sparked riots. In the end I was just grateful for the experience of being there, for the presence of people speaking up and taking peaceful action, and I’m open to whatever comes next.
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Bring Forth Your Birth Story — Free Download

I’m very excited to share a free Mother’s Day self-guided retreat on birth stories!
Bring Forth Your Birth Story is an invitation to step into your own sacred space and create your unique birth story in a powerful, empowering way.
Download it here:  2016BringForthBirthStory
Please share with others!

IMG_0648[1]I’ve long dreamed of a common language for telling birth stories, a unifying way to share about childbirth as a personal rite of passage regardless of where it takes place, how it unfolds, who is there or how many years since it occurred. Birth in our culture is treated mostly as a medical event, so clinical language often is the mother tongue for describing the experience. Sometimes it’s related as a war story, told with relish and drama, while for other women the process is so distressing as to be silencing. Women who birth without medication or intervention, possibly at home, bring a different vocabulary that may seem foreign, off putting even, to those unfamiliar with it. Their stories can spark difficult emotions in women for whom birth was disappointing or even traumatic.

What if we drew a big wide circle around all mothers and called every single experience just “birth”? Could we metaphorically join hands and create such a circle for ourselves? This mini-retreat hopes to do just that.  Happy Mother’s Day!

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Easter, Unexpectedly

I read a great blog post by John Pavlovitz the other night that precisely captures how I feel about the Easter Triduum, once my most beloved time of year:

When your beliefs begin to shift or when doubt creeps in, those dates on the calendar that used to bring such joy, that once set the steady rhythm of your spiritual journey each year, suddenly don’t provide the familiar comfort they used to.

Instead of being more deeply connected to God and to your community of faith than ever during these highest of holy days, you tend to feel more like an orphan; a former insider pushed to the periphery of the party, no longer sure whether to jump back in again or walk away for good.”

We were just home from the Holy Thursday mass at our parish, and I remarked in the care on the varied emotions and reactions I experienced during the service. There is such beauty in the hand washing ritual that our parish does on this night instead of foot washing, so that everyone can participate. I love witnessing children pour water over their parent’s hands and then dry them with the fluffy towel in a reversal of the usual daily routine. It was touching to see a couple I’ve known for many years, the wife now quite infirm, as her husband guided her through the ritual with quiet help from others. The woman who offered a reflection on scripture presented a compelling message about how to imitate Jesus in our daily lives, not only in “service” settings but all the time. But the atonement language of the liturgy  and the absence of women from the Last Supper narratives bother me a lot.

In this high holy season I find myself still looking for an “answer” to my “religion question.” What am I?  Am I still Catholic? Do I want to call myself Christian at all? Would I feel more peaceful if I just let go of Christianity altogether? By clinging to Christianity from the periphery, am I just coaching my emotions into something more manageable? Instead do I need to roar a big No, Goodbye! to all of it, the patriarchy, the misogyny? Who AM I? (Does this question even matter?)

imageThe next morning, on Good Friday (on which I did not go to church), a quiet, almost trite response gently surfaces: Person on a journey. I am a person on a journey, no more and no less. Let the labels fall away. This image rather ironically  brings an immediate association with the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. I’ve always loved the inherent mystery pulsing at the heart of that encounter, and I am amused to realize that following the Easter events, the followers of Jesus likely felt similar to what Pavlovitz described which resonated so strongly for me. Confusion. Sadness. Loss. Not knowing who they were. A sense of not fitting back into their old box without a new box to belong to — maybe not wanting a box anyway.

Presently the image of myself as a person on a journey is also true in a very literal way as my husband and I depart Tuesday on a three-week trip to Europe that we have been planning for almost a year, primarily in Germany and Poland. We are able to do this because he is on a one-semester sabbatical from teaching, and we seized the opportunity in celebration of our 25th anniversary earlier this month. Between packing for the trip and covering responsibilities here at home, I feel buried in details at the moment, but I look forward to stepping across the actual threshold of this adventure and getting underway. Open to mystery!

(The WordPress app is on my iPad so  international posts are possible. Stay tuned.)

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Rewild Yourself for Lent: Fasting

What does it mean to “rewild yourself” and how does such a process connect with Lent? No immediate answers came forth to these questions that seized me at the start of the season and they’ve continued to intrigue. I have always had ambivalence toward Lent. The traditional triad – fasting, prayer and alms giving – seems disparate, and the season itself too long and drawn out, making me feel discouraged right from the start.

Oddly though, this year I found myself wanting to fast in a meaningful way, greatly inspired by an extensive discussion of fasting traditions on a site called Living in Season, particularly because the writer, Waverly Fitzgerald, draws intriguing seasonal connections.

IMG_0786If you think about what’s going on in the natural world, these food deprivations make sense. This part of early spring is the most hazardous time of the year for people living close to the earth. The first bitter greens (so prominent a part of spring equinox feasts like Passover and Easter) are just emerging. Fresh eggs, also associated with these feasts, are not yet available; birds are just beginning to nest. The foodstuffs, particularly the salted and smoked meat, that were stored to carry the family through the winter may be giving out. The potatoes and apples left in the cellar are getting soft and of dubious quality. The deprivation of Lent may not be voluntary but a necessity imposed by nature.”

There is a long tradition of spring purification. Cleansing is part of the action of the tonic herbs of early spring on the body. Also think of spring cleaning. Those who planned to be initiated during the Eleusinian Mysteries in the fall participated in purification ceremonies in the early spring, which included bathing in the sea. When the world is being made anew, we wish to make ourselves new.”

 

imageBrooke Medicine Eagle likens fasting to a vision quest in her book Buffalo Woman Comes Singing. “The fast seems to work the same way with all people. It is a brilliant tool for opening ourselves to the Great Mystery and to the Source of Life within our own being.” She recommends approaching a fast “not as a punishment or a sacrifice, but as a joyful way to call upon another part of yourself, a way to awaken to Spirit’s voice within you.”

YES, this fast calls to me.

Though it may sound lame, I decided to give up drinking alcohol during the week. Not so heroic as complete abstention the entire six weeks but for me a noticeable sacrifice about which I really feel motivated.  (Giving up negative self-judgement around this process too!)

Three weeks in, it finally occurs to me that this is Rewilding: a joyful process of making ourselves anew and opening to Great Mystery in connection to the natural world.

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Rewild Yourself for Lent?

The images in this poem are captivating me, speaking somehow about Lent but I’m not sure exactly what. Letting the questions be the practice for today’s start of the season. (Click the link below for the author’s further reflection on the poem.)

There are places in you
Where thousands of bright, tiny flowers
Open each morning to the sun
In meadows as vast as the sky.
An ancient alchemy courses through your bones.
It speaks in feathers and stones and
precious metals and the footprints of mandalas
left by the stories we tell with our lives.
Rewild yourself.
Until green tendrils sprout from your fingernails
And lichen swathes your eyebrows.
Rewild yourself.
Until your roots spread and uncoil and
Writhe down through soil and rock.
Rewild yourself.
Rise up into your magnificence and
Take your place among the constellations.
Rewild yourself.
The Earth is her own medicine.
Be yours.
~Caroline Mellorhttp://www.rebellesociety.com/2016/02/03/carolinemellor-rewild/

 

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