Our older son will turn fourteen this week, and as part of the Jewish tradition he will be walking through the rite of passage of a Bar Mitzvah. Given that my husband was raised Catholic and now connects most deeply to Source through art and nature and the fact that we’re not raising our boys in a traditional religious setting, this will be a very creative interpretation of a traditional Bar Mitzvah. One of my dearest friends from childhood who is studying to become a rabbi will be officiating, we’ll be celebrating in a tent in our backyard, and my son will be offering a highly unusual drash (interpretation of his Torah portion), which has to do with his passion for airplanes. Like all aspects of our life, we’re doing it our own way.
Nevertheless, forty-five people will be joining us, many coming from around the country, and we need to make sure that they’re fed! There’s the ritual aspect, where our son will be leading prayers and offering his thoughts and expressions, and then comes the party, which arrives with all of its attending details: the tent, the food, the music, the flowers, the cake… etc. etc. and as I contemplated these details in the months leading up to the event my brain started to hurt. As much as focusing on the details didn’t bring me joy, I still found myself thinking about them constantly. As you know if you’ve planned a large party (like a wedding), it becomes frightfully easy to focus on the details as we live in a culture that encourages this at every turn. And what a convenient way to avoid what really needs attention, which are the feelings that accompany transitions.
This was the premise of my first book, The Conscious Bride, and now I’m experiencing it again in spades. Except now it’s not me who’s losing an aspect of my identity; it’s my son. But as I intuited twenty years ago when I wrote the book, a child’s transitions are a parent’s transitions, and what I know now as a parent is that a child’s transitions are often felt more acutely by the parents. Every time my son has taken a leap into the next stage of growth, whether his first tooth, turning one, leaving little boyhood and entering big boyhood, having a birthday, or becoming an adolescent (to name just a few), it’s me who has felt the grief more than him. I have cried at every threshold, allowing myself to shed my grief privately so that I could join him in his joy.
At each threshold, each transition, the ache of loss needs to be actively acknowledged and grieved. Clients often say to me, “But I’ve grieved this loss so many times”, and I say, “But you’ve never grieved it for this transitions and each transition offers an opportunity for another layer of healing.” The loss of father, an estranged mother, absent friends, the death of a grandmother… these losses and others need to be grieved otherwise they manifest as anxiety.
But I’ve never encountered a threshold of this magnitude. I look at him and sometimes he’s barely recognizable. “Where is our little boy?” I’ll ask my husband. “It’s going by too quickly,” he responds. Every day he looks older. When my dear friend Lisa stops by, who has known Everest since he was four years old and her son was two and a half, she stares at me with wonder and whispers, “He’s a man!”
I don’t know how this happened. I mean, obviously I do, but it doesn’t make any sense to my heart.
My heart hurts. It hurts from pride, from love, from loss, from gratitude, from grief. It hurts the kind of ache that only arises when we love with abandon, the kind of love that brings with it daily the fear of loss. It’s a bittersweet pain: the love and loss all intertwined around each other until it feels like the heart is going to burst. It’s the hurt that we work so hard to avoid.
By focusing on the food, I avoided feeling the grief that arose daily when I looked at my son, three inches taller than me, and wondered where my little boy has gone.
By focusing on the cake, I pushed aside the pang of loss-pride-awe (all mixed together) that thudded my heart when I saw the tangible ways that his body is changing.
By worrying about the heat and mosquitoes (which can be quite intense in our yard in August), I distracted from the nameless ache that accompanies raising kids and is amplified during these transitions. The grief that no matter what we do, they grow up. The grief that I don’t touch him or hold him in the same way. The grief that he’s becoming his own man.
All those years of early motherhood desperate for a few minutes alone and now, at the end of the day, when he’s doing his own thing and I’m alone in the kitchen, eighteen doesn’t seem so far away. Wasn’t it just a few days ago that I was lying with my baby boy on our bed in Los Angeles, nursing away the hours and crying for the day he would leave home? That day isn’t quite here yet, but I can feel it, like the first crisp tinges of autumn in August. If I focus on the stories of life – whether the Bar Mitzvah or whatever grabs the ego’s ever-wandering, worry-seeking mind – I avoid the pain. And the pain is what needs my attention.
But then he comes downstairs and smiles that same smile I’ve known for almost fourteen years, and I feel grateful that he still wants to spend time with me, that he comes down as soon as he hears me in the kitchen. He sits at the counter and we have a bedtime snack together: he, apple and peanut butter; me, toast and acorn squash. We talk about our cat and our plans for the weekend. As he chatters I just stare at him wondering, “How did you get so big?” He’s still here. And I want to be present for every moment of it.
The antidote to overfocusing on the details, as always, is to let go of the mind-spinning so that I can make room for what actually needs attention. The food will be handled, the cake will be great, the heat and mosquitoes will be what they will be (it’s like the bride worrying about rain on her wedding day; as if we have any control of the weather!). When I remember to gather the stories and worry and send them off to another realm, I breathe more deeply, and in the breath the grief arrives. My own medicine these past few months has been to allow time and space daily to turn inward so that I don’t fall into the trap of focusing on externals as a way to avoid the pain.
When I allow myself to grieve, I also make room for the gratitude, pride, and joy to enter. Grief and joy live in the same chamber of the heart, as I wrote about so many years ago. I haven’t felt that statement so acutely as I do right now as we walk toward this momentous day, watching him grow up and, eventually, fly away. As I wrote about a few weeks ago, once I walk through the grief and fear, the pride and excitement burst through. On the one hand, the statement, “He’s becoming a man” makes me sad. But in the same breath that same statement fills me with pride. How lucky I am to mother this most extraordinary child! How blessed we are watch him grow up and step more fully into his passions and calling. How magnificent it is to witness him maturing, to see him making wiser choices and working to soften his rough spots.
How I’ll stand beside him on the day of the Bar Mitzvah and offer the traditional speech from parent to child without dissolving into a puddle of tears I cannot tell you. But that’s exactly the medicine: to allow myself to cry when I need to cry and break down when I need to break down. It’s what I tell anyone on the threshold of a transition when they ask me how to stay present: feel your feelings. Be willing to cry. Be willing to mess up your makeup. Feeling the full range of our feelings is the gateway to presence. But I’ll make sure that there are plenty of boxes of Kleenex around. Oh, better add that to my list ;).
Every blessing in my life – our kids, my work, our home, our land – is based on the foundation of our marriage, and not a day passes when I’m not filled with gratitude for the beauty that surrounds us. None of this would have been possible had I allowed my fear-walls to dictate my actions, had I allowed the “not enough” lens through which I initially viewed my husband to shut me down or convince me to walk away. It’s through the Love Laws and Loving Actions that I teach in Open Your Heart: A 30-day program to feel more love and attraction for your partner that the fear diminished and our love, our beauty, and our blessings grew and continue to grow. When practiced daily and diligently, especially in a group, we lay the foundation and plant the seeds that allow love to flourish.