Here I am headed off to kindergarten in the early 1980’s.
My oldest, Coleman, started first grade this week at a local dual language public school. It is a bright and happy place and Richie and I, who both learned Spanish as adults, are excited that he will be in a bilingual environment. Yet the occasion is bittersweet– it is our first time to send one of our little ones (who have attended a small Montessori preschool) off to a big school.
On the first day I walked Coleman to his class, but the next day we just rolled on through the drop off line. A parent volunteer opened the car door and greeted him and then he was sent off down the sidewalk into a swarm of children in blue navy shirts and khaki pants. Coleman didn’t really know where to go yet, having never lined up before, and I watched him walk away into the crowd, stop, and look confused. He was wearing his big backpack and a new belt he’s proud to be able to fasten himself. And watching him navigate new surroundings–something in my heart just broke open. I stayed long enough to see a teacher engage him and show the way, but the poignancy of watching him disappear into a crowd of people for the first time has stayed with me all week.
This is the power of life transitions—they remind us of the really real which is so often veiled under the surface of full lives and agendas. Seeing Coleman alone on that sidewalk I got a vantage point on my love for him. Sure I know I love him, but in that one moment I felt the depth, power, and raw intensity of my connection to him –something that I rarely have time to consider as we go about the more daily tasks of preparing meals, taking baths, or playing outside.
Rites of passage open a window into the mysteries of life. They are also a natural opportunity to take stock and to recommit to one’s true priorities. Yet often we sleepwalk through these moments, clamping and locking down the gates of our hearts to drive on through to what we consider more important tasks: be they work deadlines or the steady stream of household chores.
But if you don’t honor these moments they have a way of exerting their power over you and derailing your attention. I came home from the first carpool drop off and was so thrilled to have childcare after a summer home with all three that I immediately got to work on a new monthly gathering I’m organizing. But nothing was coming together easily. As I grumpily scanned through garden mandalas trying to find an image for the website I realized my heart was not in it. Though in a different moment I would have enjoyed this work I was forcing my way through it and not respecting my inner guide. And ultimately not being productive at all. Later in the day I argued with my husband, got into a mean-spirited tug of war with one of my kiddos over an outdoor seat cushion (not my high water mark as a parent) and generally revealed my dis-equilibrium in big and small ways.
So the next day, I tried a different strategy. After drop off I asked myself what I needed to do to mark this occasion well and spent the morning doing some of my favorite things: spending time in nature, gathering books at our public library, and writing. Today I dropped him off and took a deep breath and am once again able to pick up my work and hold the tensions between being a parent and a professional in a way which gives me life rather than drains me.
Rooted in my own recent experience, here’s a guide to navigating big life transitions:
1) Step up the self care. Often rites of passage are busy times. Births, deaths, weddings, back to school time, graduations. These transitions include full calendars and chronic rushing. But if we can care well for ourselves— we will be better able to experience and to enjoy the momentous moment that is unfolding. This can be as simple as eating a boiled egg before we head out to the door to take a child to their first day of school. Or choosing to turn off the computer, close the door on the piles of unfolded laundry in the laundry room and lay ourselves down to sleep at 9:15 the night before a big event. Although big transitions feel like they take over our lives, truly we are the only ones responsible for our self care and with conscious intent we can make it a priority.
2) Craft your own small ritual or symbol to mark the occasion. As I checked in with myself around this transition I realized I wished I could sit around a campfire with my soul friends and just soak up their wisdom. In another phase of life I might be able to make that happen, but for now I will simply send an email to these ladies, near and far, many of whom have known Coleman since a babe, and ask them to send a brief written blessing for him and me at this time. Then my plan is to sit outside one night after the kiddos are in bed and read them out loud with a lit candle nearby. I’ll probably tuck the blessings away for Coleman to read one day too.
3) Employ your non-dual seeing. This is the oldest spiritual practice there is. In the Christian tradition it is called contemplation. From the Buddhist perspective it is mindfulness. We all share a tendency to receive the present moment and immediately categorize different dimensions of it good or bad. This opens the door for judging and criticizing everything and offering ourselves a relentless inner monologue about it all. In so doing we can miss the texture and subtleties of life. Non-dual seeing is the practice of noticing the present moment and allowing reality to be what it is, always and every where a combination of good and bad. I might have to drive five minutes further to Coleman’s new school but it is located right next to this nature preserve which I love but we hardly ever visit because it wasn’t part of our regular circuit. Spontaneously yesterday I stopped and walked through the rolling hills. It gave me the gift of a green encounter and chance to gently start my day.
I look at Coleman this week and I see the kaleidoscope within: one part open to this new experience and eagerly leaning into the future and another part which is nervous and self-conscious. Seeing his kaleidoscope reminds me of my own and the truth that we are always walking through life vulnerable to its hard edges and eager for its gifts. Rites of passage just remind us to take time to consciously walk through the big changes with open hearts so that in all the other small moments we can find the courage to do the same.
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Courtney Pinkerton is the owner of Bird in Hand, a holistic life coaching practice. She completed dual Masters degrees from Harvard DivinitySchool and Harvard Kennedy School in 2008 and draws spiritual wisdom from the contemplative and desert traditions of the Christian faith as well as Buddhist teaching. In addition to weekly blog posts on meditation and other mind/body practices, Courtney provides one on one coaching using the Enneagram as well as custom-designed retreats. She lives with her husband and one-time Peace Corps companion, Richard Amory, in Oak Cliff where they try to keep up with their three young children and plot in the community garden. Her newest ecourse Parenting with the Enneagram: 9 Human Energies + How They Live in Children is now available as a self-study.