This season brings up different emotions for each of us. Whether or not you’ve been craving family time—it’s different this year. If you plan to communicate in-person or virtually with the people you grew up with, here are a few simple tips that may help your well-being.
Boundaries can support your relationships by front-loading your expectations and needs before a challenge comes up.
Perhaps you’d like everyone to wear masks. Maybe you don’t want to dive right into politics. You don’t eat meat anymore? Whatever it is, that’s ok, that’s you. Setting firm boundaries and communicating them early on to at least one trusted family member can help. This way, you will have an ally who can stand by your side and hold you and others accountable (and mediate, if necessary). Your boundaries can change as you do, but if you don’t communicate what you need—no one will know how to hold you.
We all have our history with family, which often magnifies our challenges.
No matter where we stand in our values, most of us are genuinely trying to do the right thing. We are more polarized in many ways with all that’s come to the surface this year, and yet many of us still choose to spend time having a dialogue, debates, and discussions with family. You are brave. When we remember that we are connected by bonds stronger than race, religion, and politics—we can learn so much from one another even if it makes us want to pull our hair out sometimes.
Also, leading a dialogue with “before I respond to your question, I just want you to know how much I love you” may perhaps help us and our family members feel a little more present and relaxed. Maybe not, but it’s worth a try.
What might this person have to teach you?
Perhaps what we learn is not about the content of the conversation, but about how to relate, listen, and respond rather than react. The Sustained Dialogue Institute defines dialogue as “listening deeply enough to be changed by what you learn.” A slight focus shift from what we’re listening to, to how we’re listening may be the key to depolarizing our dinner tables—and our country.
If you don’t feel safe, respected, or heard, it’s ok to step away.
Unfortunately, setting boundaries doesn’t always mean they will be respected—but if you have made your expectations clear, it will be easier to bring them up again later. Your action to take some space for your well-being may be better understood and carry more weight if you’ve set healthy boundaries and expectations up-front.
Moving our bodies can help us alleviate stress and connect deeper with those around us.
Getting outside, moving our bodies, and playing can help us relax, unwind, and remember why we came back here. Plus, some healthy competition can get some of that pent-up energy out in a healthy way.
When you feel frustrated in a conversation, notice your breath.
Our communication or relationships will stagnate if we’re all holding our breath in frustration. For me, I often feel a fire in my chest and throat when I hear something that doesn’t sit right with me. My breath gets shallow almost immediately. If I speak right away, my voice shakes. Instead of screaming, like my body probably wants me to, I try to take a deep breath. These breaths help me stay calm, and it’s not surprising that I speak and listen better when I’m calm.
No matter what you believe in now, this soil formed you.
You don’t have to have all things in common, but practicing gratitude may help us feel a little better. Gratitude doesn’t have to be blind positivity. You can simultaneously be speaking against an ideal or policy your family supports while being grateful that they taught you to think for yourself. It is human to feel the spectrum of emotions that we all feel when with family.
And if you don’t feel safe in this soil, return to your boundaries and it’s ok to ask for help.
I wish you all well as you embark on this adventure of holidays during the pandemic. Be safe out there.
The aspen shivers. There are thousands of others just like her, but she overlooks the sanctuary that surrounds her. She only feels her frozen bones as her costume falls to decompose. She is naked and alone in the forest as the land cycles into winter.
In whatever ways grief has prepared you for this year’s wintertide, you’re not alone if you feel completely exposed to the elements.
As all of us learn at some point in our lives, wellness is continuous action—not a destination. Seasons of winter, loss, and uncertainty either awake or shake us.
Along this journey, we may arrive on a mountain peak of well-being for a moment and enjoy the beautiful view, remembering all that our bodies and minds are capable of feeling—one glimpse of the calm. And then we return, and not always to a safe place. We return to our conditioning, our obligations, our “shoulds,” and the misty valley below, obscuring our genuine vision. We stay on the run.
I take flight from the uncertainty in the valley. I fight the systems of oppression with these same oppressive rules driving my change. I freeze at death’s sting. It’s harder than ever to return to safety and calm with unlimited access to all that’s wrong in the world.
As Emily and Amelia Nagoski share in their book, Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, “To be “well” is not to live in a state of perpetual safety and calm, but to move fluidly from a state of adversity, risk, adventure, or excitement, back to safety and calm, and out again. Stress is not bad for you; being stuck is bad for you.” There’s a time for everything under the sun.
The sympathetic (fight, flight, freeze) and parasympathetic (rest) systems are survival mechanisms. We need relaxation to restore and recover—but excitement and risk show us what we’re capable of; adventure and adversity strengthen us. The stress in our bodies is on purpose, but staying there can cause chronic dis-ease. Rumination keeps us stuck, and so does suppression. Ideally, we have a balance.
The individual members of a forest find this fluid balance by communicating below the surface, providing information through mycorrhizal networks: a symbiotic relationship when fungus attaches to hair-like tree roots to connect trees with others. Without the community I once required for my balance, I have so much that I haven’t said. I feel alone. My roots long for connection.
We are blessed in many ways that our roots aren’t physical. Whether it feels like a blessing or not, we’ve learned to connect without touch, and our roots are deeper for it. Like the forest that surrounds one lone aspen, we are profoundly united.
Like the earth, my body knows what she is doing. In every season, she knows. If I allow the stress and rest to move, my body will flow through another season—inside and outside. I give and receive under the surface of this frozen land.
When we speak our body’s language, she responds. Whether through worship’s windy chills, the fire of a run, the grounding of a walk, a wave of tears moving through me, I am clothed in peace.
One way the soft animal of our body may respond to hardship on the horizon, like plants in winter, is to dive into our roots—protecting, conserving, waiting for safety in the depths (Mary Oliver). We may fear that we are alone here and will be here forever, even though we know that this is the sabbath we need. A sanctuary now surrounds you.
Exercising the Balance:
When was the last time you felt a deeply rooted positive emotion such as connection, joy, laughter, wonder, enthusiasm, or curiosity? Write, draw, meditate on, or speak to a trusted person about—what you felt, how you know it was good, and where inside your body you felt it.
Consider what environments help you experience this sensation? (Perhaps it’s setting boundaries around news or social media, persistence in reaching out to a friend you long to connect with, or walking at the park even if you don’t feel like it.)
Make a plan to take one step to amplify the still, small voice of peace inside you.
You know your way: Your body is the map, your heart the container to bring along all you need for the journey ahead.
We rise to mountain tops and we fall into valleys. The shadows leave what is true, if we stay a while. But we don’t, we seek the temporary light in the valley. Cover up the dark. Run away. We leave and we return, again and again. Wishing to be on the ascent.
To feel deeply is to know life. To hurt is to taste life. To grieve is to touch life only for a moment, and then let her go.
The sun shines in the day, the moon and stars guide you by night. You are safe. You are protected. But this will hurt.
We must be here, to be there. The valley has much to teach us, blessings of skin and sand and sage. Stay here a while, but leave the weight. Receive your rest. And when it is time, take up your things and go softly.
3 Journaling Prompts:
If you could time-travel to 2019, what advice would you give to yourself or others? How can you still share or receive this advice now?
When was a time that you sat with your discomfort instead of distracting yourself? What was it like?
Who is a person that is going through a challenging season that you can have more compassion for? What does your compassion for them look like?
These dry, cracked, and scarred hands seem to stare back with weary eyes. They are overworked from following my restless lead. I have kept them busy storing up for my future. They’ve been gathering and keeping, and it all keeps slipping through my fingers.
In their life of toil, these hands have hurt and they have healed—and they remember it all. They show a mother’s courage, a father’s resolve, and humanity’s ferocity. They are slowly, and yet too fast, growing into the skin which will forever contain them. I need to let them do what they’re created for before it’s too late. I need to let go.
All of your stories—past and future—are written in the body. Your hands are no exception. Your hands know the way of the work you must do—the way to bring your within out into the world. Do you not know that here, in these wise, weathered, and empty hands, is your gift?
If you stop trying to gather, all the words spoken infinite times before will take on new life in your hands. Are you open to receiving the guidance and direction and answers for all of your questions? If you are open, who are you listening to?
Are you turning your ear toward the clamor? Or your own knowing?
In this surreal time where we cannot consume as we’ve been so used to, we have an essential choice—to seek out more noise to try and fill the void, or put our ear to our depths and listen.
If change really does start from the inside out, this external shifting will not change us. Circumstances have changed, stress and anxiety and health has changed, but we are still the same going through them.
We will always be stirring if we don’t allow these times to stir us up. We may as well stay hidden inside, even when we can finally come out of our homes.
If I stay quiet even when I have something to say—even when I don’t know how to say it—what purpose does my voice have?
What kind of life will my heart live inside me if I never allow it to fill up to overflow, so that others may taste my purpose?
What good is purpose if it stays in winter’s sleep even when spring comes?
Our life is nothing without the heart, so why do we keep her beat from being heard? Maybe it’s because this clock beneath the ribs frightens us, reminding us that we are not forever. But this beating heart inside you will heal you, whether or not you let her. She will guide your true work through your hands if you just listen to her. Sense her, touch her, know her. Don’t be afraid. Feel her love and pain together as one flesh. One body—your body, who already knows with every cell how to be fully alive. You are a safe place for a beating heart.
I have great confidence in you. In your purpose. In your God-given ability. In your strength and resiliency. You can do what you’re setting out to do. You will do that which is written in your body.
Some days it will look different, morphing along the way—but this is normal and good because your dream is alive. It grows with you, eager to create more in you, especially during changing times.
Don’t fear these changes. Embrace them, because this right here is what you’ve been seeking in all your wandering, in all your restlessness. You are exactly where you need to be to move on the dream that has been moving in you. You have always been and will forever be the perfect human to make this into your Truth. What are your heart and hands craving today? Do just one action—one step, big or small, toward this.
Start here, where you are. Where you are today. No matter what was there yesterday or will be here tomorrow. What you are and have now is all you need for this journey.
To be there, you must be here. Those who cut corners will create a circle and end up right back here, where they were. This moment has something great to teach you. So do the next good thing, the next hard thing. Lean in to the outside change and let it change you as if you were really living for eternity. Create one good thing today as if it could make all the difference. A love note, a song, a dance, a warm drink, a kind word, banana bread—create something good today.
Your words have been sung before, but not in the way you can sing them. Your lips know how to speak this love and sound into life. Your heart knows how to keep a beat, and your hands know how to dance along.
Yesterday—during the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere—I was still by the fireplace, overflowing with gratitude for the warmth and shelter in this sustained “winter,” for solitude, for health. I listened to the wind cut through the windows causing eerie whistling and deep-bellied growls. I watched the pines dance to the wind’s heavy-metal song. Then I went outside for a short run only to come back to the warmth of the fire after 30 minutes.
Creation does not know of our calendar year, our comfort-zones, our illnesses, or our fears. She continues to dance through her seasons of fertility, harvest, and stillness, taking only what she needs and giving all she can. She is a gift from God. We can see her teachings if we slow down.
When the surface of our land looks so still and fragile, nature keeps everything alive in her depths. And since you and I are part of it all, we contain this wisdom too. We just have to look a little more closely—under the surface.
Nature uses the season of winter to rest from the productivity of spring, summer, and autumn. We all know this but rarely practice it. In my lifetime we haven’t ever had to cease producing and consuming. We haven’t had to rest. There’s new growth and ideas and goods always sprouting up. We’ve been encouraged to keep up, keep going, do more. Our soil is overwhelmed and our roots have become entangled. Now, we are discouraged from even going out to non-essential spaces: a brutal halt from the over-activity we’re so accustomed to.
There’s so much to learn from this unprecedented stillness. Perhaps, we need this mandatory winter to restore our health, our energy, and our purpose. When our lives reunite again, what will you remember from this season: Death’s cold sting, or the fire you still chose to ignite? I hope you recall the warmth of our flames.
Whether you choose to go outside for fresh air or stay cozy indoors, allow the stillness to soak in. Question what is essential. Listen, observe, and act according to what you notice beneath the surface of all that is happening right now. What we choose to prepare in this inner-winter can set our lives, our communities, and our world up for a fruitful spring to come.
In the depth of winter, it’s been difficult to imagine the lush growth of spring. I’m not sure if you’ve been experiencing this as well where you are, but in Montana, the weight of the snow and the deep dark is pressing in on us.
Through each outside season over the last year and a half, I’ve been working with teenagers in their last seasons as “kids.” Winter, is especially hard for them. It has been one of the greatest blessings to teach and to learn from these young people who are going through it. Life is so hard at that age—or really, any age. The past springs up when we’re least expecting it, hormonal imbalances reveal our fragility, “I should” seeps into the way we interact with the world and others, hindering us from actually becoming what we’re made for.
In this season in my work, I’ve been talking to the “kids” about self-care and their vision for the future. I’ve realized through these conversations, it is so hard to nurture yourself when doubt speaks louder than anything else. Instead of creating more “shoulds” throughout our day, I want to take a step back to the lessons I’ve taught and learned throughout this work.
Breath. Surrender. Forgiveness. Honesty. Opening my eyes and looking at my pain even when I want to keep them closed. This leads to the healing I seek. I need to practice what I preach. I need to share this story with you.
This past year has been one of the most challenging years I’ve made it through—even more challenging than high school. Within 12 months, I’ve had two lengthy spells of postpartum depression—without a child on the other side. I feel it in my throat, making it harder to speak my truth. I feel this past year in my chest, some days taking over my breath and sending me into a spiral of anxiety. I struggle to trust my body most days, even though I know in my mind that it contains all the wisdom I need to heal.
This life is the most beautiful and rare gift. That I am writing this—and you are reading it is a miracle. There is much more, especially including genetics, fighting against us than for us being here. But yet, despite all odds, we’re here. Please keep this in mind if you chose to practice this meditation. You are on purpose. And so am I. If for nothing else then to share our stories with one-another.
Anichka, a five-year-old, smiles sweetly and grabs my frozen hand, leading me toward a tiny house heated by a wood-fire. Before I open the small door, another child named Fafa hands me a soft broom and points to Anichka’s—and his own—dirt-and snow-caked clothes. My stiff hands grasp ahold of the broom and they both giggle as I brush the snow and dirt off of their snowsuits. A few mild tears spill out Anichka’s wide eyes as her face begins to thaw out from winter’s chill. We just spent the whole morning playing in the forest.
Other than for a warm lunch meal, naps, and an occasional local children’s theater performance, the students at Marianka Forest School in the southeastern Czech Republic spend their days playing and learning in theforest—year-round. As a weekly volunteer during the spring of 2016, they welcomed me into their world and taught me far more than I expected to learn from four-and five-year-olds who didn’t speak the same language as I did. My role as a volunteer was to come from 9-10 am on Tuesday mornings to open up conversations, songs, and games in the English language to the little ones. Each week, I stayed past lunchtime—during my short stay in the Czech Republic, this tiny community became like home.
In forest school—rain, snow, hail, or sunshine—the kiddos play outside, and they play hard. They run up big hills, climb around trees, and slide down frozen dirt chutes with a running start. They learn about navigation, they use their imaginations, they become students of life—and teachers. In a natural environment, children learn more about themselves and their bodies, their relationships with others, and life then in any school I’ve ever attended. Here are some of the lessons the forest school taught me:
If we give kids responsibilities, they can learn how to be responsible.
On my first day at forest school, I walked past zlatá brána—the “golden gate” that marks the entrance to the school—and saw three children playing as they cleared the snow from the little walkway with their mini shovels. They were happy and playful in their task to help make their place a little better. It was such a small task, but their smiles told of their big feelings of accomplishment.
These young people aren’t helpless—they’re full of help! Kids love to feel needed and appreciated. When we give them little tasks and the tools to do the tasks, they learn how to take care of themselves.Even though it takes some up-front work and supervision, delegating responsibility is the key to educating and empowering others.
There is a universal language.
Even though few teachers or students spoke English, we felt the same sun radiate through the forest trees, we felt the same dirt beneath our feet, we played the same games, and we all shared the fresh air. I did learn some Czech language and they learned some English words and songs, but mostly we communicated through smiles, snacks, and snowballs. Rather than focusing on all our differences, we focused on all the amazing human things we had in common.
When the sun comes out, sometimes you just need to run around in the forest with your buns out.
On the first warm day in a while, we all couldn’t get enough sunshine. Since trees weren’t yet in bloom, most of the group played as the sun radiated down through the branches. The three girls in the group wandered off toward a sunnier area. From a small distance away, I saw them taking off their snow-pants. Giggling, they ran between the trees and danced in the warmth.
When we stay present in our environment, we become more sensitive to all the changes happening. When we’ve been cold, we feel early-summer warmth deeper in our bones. When we’ve been present in sadness, we notice when joy returns. While most people can find something to complain about in any situation—these children are paying attention to their internal and outside environments and making the most out of any weather.
Small hills are as important as the mountains.
On a race up a small hill in April, four kids ran as fast as they could, all barely making it to the finish because of all the spring mud. The youngest child of the group kept sliding down to the start. She tried many times and became upset. She was very small and the task seemed too impossible. I walked behind her and encouraged her on. Determined and slow, she made it to the top by her strength.
The little victories teach us about our capabilities and help us discover the courage to do big things in life. Each struggle we face, no matter what size, can strengthen us.
Breaking some branches and picking flowers in nature is much less damaging to our environment than never experiencing it.
I’ve been too many places where I see a parent scolding their child for playing in dirt or picking a flower. Yes, a flower will continue to grow better if left with its roots, but what’s the harm in trying to capture a bit of beauty? If kids fear touching nature and getting dirty, the activities and things they will use to entertain themselves with will be far less enriching and potentially far more damaging to their lives and our natural environment.
One sunny winter day I saw a child named Honza staring deeply into the skeleton of a leaf. When he saw my curiosity, he quickly invited me over. This little explorer revealed the perfect similarities between the leaf and the palm of my hand by placing the leaf in it and tracing the lines in both. He showed me that we are all connected, and some unstructured time during our day gives us the freedom to explore the mystery of it all. We can discover all the little treasures surrounding us when we receive the gift of time and slow down.
Whether they’re examining a leaf or a bug, playing red-light-green-light, picking wildflowers, sliding down hills, drawing a map of our surroundings, gathering sticks for firewood, or managing a fight with a friend—these kids were connected to the gift of the present at each moment I was blessed to spend with them. Under the forest trees we grew from the dirt, together, as the seasons changed before our eyes.
Outside, the summer wind breathes through the lush and bursting forest, and inside, a cold breeze chills even safely-buried roots. Overgrown stinging nettle stings my legs with each step, stabs my tongue with each word. I am left speechless in my own skin.
What happened to the good stories? Life weaving braids of gratitude and adventure and optimism, fresh breath of air stories. Mountain summit other-side of addiction adolescence pain rivers roaring stories. Long lovely days Milky Way laughter warmth of fire passion ablaze. Legends now.
A sea swells within me. Falling, crashing, and ebbing. Roots entirely washed away by a swollen ocean. Bones both cleansed and battered as I let go.
Mother-love growing roots expanding waves. Delicate baby girl waves. Teeny baby boy waves. Momma Mary watching Jesus Christ nails in the flesh over broken bones son of God almighty forsaken and limitless waves. Darkness covers my eyes falling deeper Frida Kahlo broken daughter bleeding artist lo que el agua me dio waves. Waves of woman sisters in the depths, crashing, crashing, cresting. Floating. Quiet floods that will never be painted in beautiful colors on the body for others to see. Writing, dear old friend, I give you my heart, howling with grief and dripping with blood. I shatter onto this page.
These days brighten and wane like whole seasons. Red raspberry wisdom, huckleberry finger stains, sunshine sweat and naps in the shade, cold river runoff dances around my toes, warmth of loved ones and chocolate chip cookie days—outside really is your best side kind of days. But every single one of these passing seasons earth rotations are part of the story. Can’t just tear out some pages or whole chapters and leave the lovely ones to enjoy with a grande cup of lukewarm coffee with extra room for “I’m fine.”
Honestly, alive feels so good, but it hurts too badly sometimes. For now I’m just growing through the cracks of being. Trying to embody the forgiven joys as fully as the guilt-aches. The rising tides crushed, and left shattered what’s true. I just need some time to pick up all the pieces. And then maybe someday, all these pages will dance in the wind like summer again.