Searching for the Sacred

I think what I miss is those moments when we are all working together towards a common goal. I miss the hush that falls right before a bride walks down the aisle. I miss the feeling of unity as perfect strangers come together to celebrate the love of their mutual friends. I miss the pomp and circumstance of a graduation ceremony, the feeling of celebration as parents breathe a collective sigh of relief that they got their kids through their school years. I miss getting dressed up and going to a really fancy restaurant – eating together with others, ordering off the same menu, and navigating all the tiny forks together as one.

I am slowly and tentatively emerging from my pandemic bubble. Omicron is still up in the air, but as Scarlett O’Hara said, “I can’t think about that right now. If I do, I’ll go crazy. I’ll think about that tomorrow.” As I emerge, I find myself grieving a bit for life pre-Covid and the sense of community we’ve all lost. 

By community, I don’t mean crowds. I do not miss the busyness of people. I do not miss Christmas shopping line-ups or even Christmas parties with hours of small talk. I don’t miss the atmosphere of everyone having their own agendas and doing their own things side by side.

I also find myself fortunate to have rich friendships and deep connections with others: my kids, my husband, my neighbours, and – with the help of technology (Marco Polo and FaceTime) my friends and family back home. When I speak about grieving a loss of community, I don’t mean intimate relationships. It’s been hard to put my finger on – what do I mean by loss of community?

I think what I miss is those moments when we are all working together towards a common goal. I miss the hush that falls right before a bride walks down the aisle. I miss the feeling of unity as perfect strangers come together to celebrate the love of their mutual friends. I miss the pomp and circumstance of a graduation ceremony, the feeling of celebration as parents breathe a collective sigh of relief that they got their kids through their school years. I miss getting dressed up and going to a really fancy restaurant – eating together with others, ordering off the same menu, and navigating all the tiny forks together as one.

Graduates in Wuhan, China in June 2021, with COVID under control in China

In chatting with my husband about this, he identifies a similar feeling in loss of community through almost two years of remote work. My husband works for a large company with offices all over the world. Before the pandemic, when everyone was working in-person in their respective offices, there was a fair amount of “tribalism” between sites – different sites would oppose one another in coming up with a solution to a common problem. Yet, after almost two years of working remote, that tribalism has completely disintegrated – which is a good thing. People are collaborating across worksites more harmoniously. However, at the same time, he also feels they have lost a team-wide excitement for working on a problem together and a motivation for achieving a common goal together. As humans we are built to be in community and, at times, in healthy competition with one another. We come up with ingenious solutions to problems when we are supported and challenged by our peers in community.

I miss the rituals of community and the feeling of unity that comes when people participate in a ritual that transcends social structures. Anthropology super-nerds, like myself, will recognize this as what anthropologist Victor Turner called communitas. “During the period of the ritual, rank and status are forgotten as members think of themselves as a community. This helps cement unity among community members.” 

Our wedding ceremony in 2014

In the weeks before Covid shut everything down, we were busy with our weekly nature walk group, our Mothers of Preschoolers Group (MOPS), and having friends over for dinner. And while none of that seems as inherently ritualistic as say, a wedding, there were elements of ritual there. Take for example, my moms group (MOPS) meetings.

Moms Group Meetings 

Every second friday, I would drop my kids off at childcare and go into a theatre space next door to enjoy a hot potluck breakfast with 100 other moms seated at tables. We’d listen to a speaker and eat a hot meal with no kids asking us questions or pulling at our clothes. We didn’t have to cut anyone else’s food, or hop up from the table to fetch someone water or grab a cloth to wipe up a spill. 

Stay with me while I get into some nerdy anthropology theory over this. One anthropologist, Arnold Van Gennep wrote about rites of passage, defined as “a ceremony or event marking an important stage in someone’s life, especially birth, puberty, marriage, and death” (Oxford Dictionary). Van Gennep argued that all rites of passage had three phases: separation, the liminal phase, and aggregation. One familiar rite of passage is a graduation ceremony, so I’ll use it as an example. In the separation phase, the ritual-participant is separated from their role in the social structure – they sit apart from their families in special gowns. In the liminal phase, ritual-participants are neither here nor there – they are betwixt and between and form a new kind of community with the other ritual-participants. The students sit together as one and wait for their turn to cross the stage and receive their diploma. In the aggregation phase, students are reunited with their families, the tassel has been pulled to the other side of their hats, they have a diploma in-hand, and they are reunited in the social structure with a new status – that of a graduate.

Graduating from my Master’s in Social Cultural Anthropology in 2011
Graduating in 2011

Victor Turner took this further in his book The Ritual Process. He expands the idea of these phases to other rituals, not just rites of passage. Rituals are “a set of fixed actions and sometimes words performed regularly, especially as part of a ceremony” (Cambridge Dictionary). My moms group meetings were rituals, not rites of passage – but I see the same phases present. First, in the separation phase, we dropped our kids off at childcare. Then, in the liminal phase, we sat together, undefined by the number of children with us or our visible parenting style. We ate together and we learned together listening to a speaker brought in especially for us. Turner writes, “What is interesting about liminal phenomena for our present purposes is the blend they offer of low lines and sacredness, of homogeneity and comradeship. We are presented, in such rites, with a “moment in and out of time,” and in and out of secular social structure, which reveals, however fleetingly, some recognition (in symbol, if not always in language) of a generalized social bond that has ceased to be and has simultaneously yet to be fragmented into a multiplicity of structural ties.”(p. 96) In the liminal phase of our weekly ritual, we were women eating together in communitas – we were not only “Mom of multiples”, “Working mom”, “Stepmom”, “SAHM” or any of the other mom-statuses we ascribe to ourselves. In the third phase, we were reunited with our social status of “mother” as we picked up our children from childcare and continued about our days in this role, inspired through our participation in the ritual.

Victor Turner continued, “There is a dialectic here, for the immediacy of communitas gives way to the mediacy of structure, while, in rites de passage [or rituals], men are released from structure into communitas only to return to structure revitalized by their experience of communitas. What is certain is that no society can function adequately without this dialectic.” (p. 129.) Through this ritual, we moms were released from the expectations and constant responsibility of motherhood to eat together in communitas, and then return to pick up the kids and our responsibilities, re-inspired and refueled for the days ahead. Since the pandemic began and many of these sorts of community “rituals” ceased, I’ve noticed how much I miss them. 

Recently my husband attended a summit for his work – his first in-person work meetings since the pandemic began. He found the meetings to be incredibly productive. Participants were “released” from the expectations and daily structure of responding to online messages in order to work together on a specific problem in communitas. They left the summit with a clear direction and inspired by a sense of teamwork and accomplishment. When people say they want to continue to work remote even after the pandemic, I don’t know if they realize what they’ll be missing without communitas

Reverence

As we’ve moved away from so many in-person rituals in favour of two-dimensional online interactions over zoom and through status updates, comments and hashtags, I also feel a loss of reverence. While this pandemic would have been impossible without all the technologies available to us to interact with one another online, I have yet to experience a moment of reverence through them. I’ve missed the awe and wonder, the anticipation, and the deep respect for the moment, the place, or the person that allows a hush to fall over a crowd. The awkward silence at the beginning of a zoom call is not reverence. 

While being at home with two young children through this pandemic was life-giving and purposeful and in many ways it saved my sanity – potty-training, whining, and night terrors are also not reverent.

In an attempt to find what was missing, I decided to attend a nearby Presbyterian church. Previously, this church would not have been my style. I used to feel deeply uncomfortable with liturgy. I’ve always felt awkward with call-and-response prayers and with communion. And I treated hymns with derision. I preferred “cool” churches – with contemporary music, dark concert-like venues, coffee, and denim. And yet, in a moment when the entire congregation recited the Lord’s Prayer together, I felt both communitas and reverence for the first time in years.

Our Father, who art in heaven

Hallowed be thy name

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done 

On earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this our daily bread

And forgive us our debts, 

as we forgive our debtors.

And lead us not into temptation, 

but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.

Amen

To me, there was something so moving about a whole group of people reciting the same thing together. It reminded me of going to a Taylor Swift concert with my brother when she stopped singing and fifty thousand fans filled in the gap with a resounding chorus of her lyrics. Except instead of a song that has been around for a few years, we were reciting a prayer that has been prayed by millions of people over thousands of years and translated into hundreds of languages. A prayer people have recited together in community, and in the stillness of the night kneeling alone by their beds. I can’t think of any other collection of words that has connected humanity across time and space as the Lord’s Prayer. Can you?

Right Brain Left Brain

I don’t think reverence has to be religious. A great many secular moments from graduations to Taylor Swift concerts to the carving of the Christmas roast can be reverent too. 

Recently, I read My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte Taylor. The author was a neuroscientist who had a stroke and remembered the experience of having her left brain completely destroyed by the hemorrhage. Several years later, when she had regained her ability to speak and write, she wrote about the experience of living in her right brain – a place where she felt no judgment or self-criticism – she just felt at peace and one with the world. Dr. Bolte Taylor describes the differences between the right brain and the left brain as this – imagine you hike to the top of a mountain. You get to the peak powered solely by your own body and you are surrounded by a beautiful view of a cascade of mountains and a crystal clear sky. Your right brain is in awe of the beauty that surrounds you. Your right brain perceives the majesty and makes you feel like you are one with the universe, whilst at the same time a tiny speck on the enormous planet. Meanwhile, your left brain is assessing whether or not you need to put on a sweater, if you’re hungry, what you should eat, and which angle to take the selfie. 

It made me think, maybe reverence, is just something that exercises our right brain, just as talking exercises our left brain. Maybe it’s something our brains need. Maybe there is one true religion or God. Or maybe humanity has sought out God and the supernatural because it’s what our right-brain is wired to do – to perceive the incredible and feel at one with the whole. 

However you experience communitas and reverence, whether in a sacred or secular way, I think it’s a fundamental part of the human experience.

I know I’m in a rut because of the pandemic. I could go out and socialize, but I’m happy in my house and it’s so much energy to get back out there again. But I know I need to. I know my kids need to be in community again. My husband is still enjoying remote work, but he knows he needs to get back to the office so he can feel part of something important again, rather than just another cog in the machine.

Community gives us a sense of purpose, belonging and significance. And the love, beauty, and harmony that comes with feeling part of a community is fuel for our right-brains. I have lived much of this pandemic in my left brain – analyzing COVID stats, deciding whether I should wear a mask in this particular case or not, questioning whether I have a tickle in my throat or COVID. I am ready to re-engage with my right-brain. What about you? 

RinkydinkMum in 2018

Becoming a mum for the first time is a rocky transition.

When you’re pregnant, you’re sooo looking forward to meeting your little bundle of joy and becoming a parent and you want to punch every well-meaning truth-speaker who tells you to “enjoy life while you can”, “you can’t even understand how much your life is going to change”, and “be selfish now!”

I know I hated people who said that to me. Of course I know life is going to change. Why do you think I signed up for this in the first place? I can’t wait for my life to change. Enjoy life? My life will be even more enjoyable once I welcome my baby into the world. Seriously, I hated those people. But now, 17 months in, with daily 3 am nightwakings, mopping my floor every day from far-flung-food, and listening to the constant frustrated whines of a young toddler – I find myself saying to my pregnant friends, “Congratulations! You’re about to walk off a cliff of delusion. Enjoy your life while you still can.”

Once you become a mom, shit gets HELLA-REAL and you realize very quickly that while you thought of yourself as a pretty selfless person – happy to give your time and energies to others – you didn’t even know how to spell the word before becoming a mother.

In the newborn phases, people say “Oh the newborn phase is the worst, the sleep deprivation is just killer.” But you read Happiest Baby on the Block and you and your newborn are coping just fine. So you start to find your identity as a new mom, deciding to set up camp as an attachment/baby-wearing/co-sleeping/positive discipline/no-screen-time parent and you truck along not realizing that again, the parents who are a year or two ahead of you on the parenting trajectory shake their heads and think, “She just doesn’t understand. Just wait until ___”.

I’ve made some big mistakes this past year in my relationships with some other mothers. And I’ve paid the price and been hurt in retaliation for some poorly chosen words.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately of what I want for RinkydinkMum – do I want it to be a sounding board of my ideas/opinions on parenting (No!), do I want it to be a place where I highlight my parenting achievements and showcase myself as a supermom? (BARF, ABSOLUTELY NOT). I want it to be an honest, authentic account of being a mom. My successes and failures, information I’ve found interesting or helpful, and perspectives I don’t know that I agree with, but can wrestle with in an open and honest way. Lastly, and most importantly for 2018, I want my blog to be a place where I lift up the triumphs and trials of other mothers in the thick of this confusing, exhausting, ever-changing, loving, infuriating journey.

Food Fights with a Baby

My little guy has been really tough to feed solid foods. He’s all about the boob. Which was fine until he lost weight and his pediatrician said, “He needs more calories. Milestones. Milestones. Milestones. Formula. Milestones. Calories,” or something like that…that’s what my spinning freaked out mom-brain could hear during the visit as my thoughts went to the extremes.

Getting him to eat was a struggle. He wouldn’t drink ANYTHING but water out of a bottle. He’d just spit it out, “What is this POISON?!”

I made him so much food that he wouldn’t touch and I was very frustrated. “He’s so PICKY”, I would vent to my husband. “This is your fault. You’re picky, so he’s picky.” I’ll eat anything that doesn’t eat me first, so it’s definitely not my fault.

In addition to the calorie intake problem, he wasn’t pulling up to stand on his own and I was stressed out about that. I was trying to motivate him, putting toys in front of him, cheering him on – but he wouldn’t do it. He’d just cry and crawl away, finding another toy to play with. “Low muscle tone. Physiotherapy. Calories. Calories. Physiotherapy. Low Muscle Tone,” said the pediatrician. And I freaked out anew.

I try to keep DK away from screens as much as possible, but in a screen-filled world in Silicon Valley, that is a major challenge. DK is transfixed by screens. He loves them and is drawn to them like mosquitoes to a light. One day, I had to work on some things on my laptop. So I put the laptop on the coffee table, I sat on the floor, and I began typing away. Of course, DK wanted to see what I was up to, so I was encouraging him to pull up to stand to the coffee table to see. Again, cheering him on, “C’mon DK, you can do it! Pull up! Pull up!,” and he quickly began whining and lost interest. Oh well. Back to my typing.

I heard him babbling away behind me, I turned around to look – and he was STANDING against the couch, with no help or encouragement from anyone. In fact, he did it when I wasn’t even looking.

And then it dawned on me….DK does not like to be pressured. This should have been obvious to me, because I know someone else who hates pressure-cookers. Me. As soon as I know someone has expectations of me completing something, I lose all interest. If I tell friends about a project idea that I’m working on before I’ve actually finished it – I lose all interest in doing it. It’s like as soon as someone says, “Ooh good idea, I can’t wait to read it! I’m like…”Nahhh, I’d rather work on something else.”

Sure enough, as soon as I stopped encouraging him, pushing him, challenging him, he started standing up and cruising around on everything. So I took this newfound and pretty-obvious-to-probably-everyone-but-me wisdom and I applied it to mealtimes.

If DK thought I wasn’t looking and was busy with something else in the kitchen, he would pick up a tiny piece of chicken and he would eat it. This discovery floored me. Of course he didn’t want to eat when I was shoving food in his face going, “Eat it. Eat it. Eat it.” There’s no way I’d open my mouth either if someone did that to me.

Around this same time, I was reading, “How to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen” by Joanna Faber and Julie King. In it, there’s a chapter on eating (GREAT book by the way). They write,

“There’s actually a scientific explanation for picky eating. Little babies put everything in their mouths, but around age two they become cautious about new tastes. That caution protects the freely moving toddler from the danger of eating poisonous things. In fact, we’re a species of picky eaters, since historically the pickiest of toddlers survive to reproduce. Picky eating is in our DNA!”

I realized that I was pushing so many new tastes and textures on the poor kid, trying to find something that he would eat – that he was just shutting down all food into his mouth probably on instinct.

And so I had to change my attitude.

First, I started by deciding firmly that our son was not a picky eater. That was no longer a label I would give him. People tend to gravitate towards the labels that we give them so that they feel a sense of belonging. I did not want DK to find his identity among the label of picky eaters as he got older.

Second, I had to re-think what I thought of as “baby food”. I thought home-made was best and that I would fail if I gave my son a premade purchased pouch. And when I did give him a pouch once, he just squeezed it everywhere and made a huge mess, so I wasn’t looking forward to trying that again. But I also couldn’t get my son to eat anything off a spoon. He only has 4 teeth, so while he loved eating anything crunchy (crackers, cheerios, teething rice rusks), my husband and I worried at length that he would choke on the food we were eating. I was also concerned that the food I prepared for my husband and I at mealtimes was too sweet or too salty. I was stressing so much on the quality of what I was trying to give my kid that I wasn’t giving him much at all. I kept reverting to breastmilk as the only safe option. I had to change my attitude to accept that an exclusive breast-milk diet at 13 months old wasn’t going to be healthiest for him long-term and that any food that he will eat (within reason) is better than high-quality homemade food that he won’t eat.

Third, and on a similar vein, I had to accept that it’s okay that he sucks some of his food out of a pouch instead of eating it off a spoon. I had this ill-conceived notion that  my baby should eat purées with a spoon, because otherwise he’s learning to eat food the wrong way. But guess what? He loves sucking Apple Carrot purée out of those pouches while in his stroller. It’s the best way right now to get him to eat fruits and vegetables. I had to change my attitude to accept that first, he needs to get used to the flavours and the textures and then he will get used to a spoon. A few months later, and he eats his purées off of a spoon and even spoon feeds himself.

Fourth, I had to change my attitude and accept that mealtime with a one-year old will mean complete outfit changes for us both and a bath every night. It’s a messy disgusting stage, but he’s learning and I need to let my kid play with textures, and experiment with his food, make a mess and get some food into his mouth. I now accept that my best friend is a steam mop and I am not the only mother who loathes wiping down most of her kitchen three-times per day, but we do it because we love our babies and they need to experiment in order to learn.

Fifth, we had to make enough time for mealtimes. My husband and I are not the kind to lounge over meals. We eat and we move on to other things. But we’ve learned that our son can take an hour or more to eat enough. We thought him throwing food on the floor meant that he’s full…but it really doesn’t. It’s just play and exploring food and he will usually eat more of something else if it’s offered to him. Accepting that mealtime can include some playtime has made it a more enjoyable hour that I spend with my son and he actually eats until he’s full.

Sixth, I had to accept that he’s going to be wasteful while he’s learning textures and flavours and that’s okay. I hate wasting food. I feel so guilty throwing stuff down the garburator or swept off the dustpan into the garbage. But it happens, and I’ve put my energies into making sure that I waste less food when I eat/cook, so that my son can throw a quarter cup of cooked chicken on the ground and I’m no further behind. Soon our city will be delivering our new compost bins, so that will be wonderful in also dealing with the food-waste-guilt.

Last, I shared my worries and dislikes with my husband. I told him that I hated mealtimes. I told him that I dreaded them. Somehow, confessing that out loud to him made me realize that “hated” and “dreaded” were perhaps too strong as words. He sympathized with me and said he disliked it too, but he hadn’t realized that I equally disliked it. Once he realized we were both equal haters, he stepped up to feed DK more often and give me, my clothes and my hair a break so that we were both doing equal time on the front lines of the food fight.

Prior to these attitude changes on my part, mealtimes were a stressful, anxious, dreaded affair. But now, I actually find them to be a fun way to engage with my son over food. So what if I have egg in my hair at suppertime? So what if I had to change my pants three times today? It’s a phase and it too shall pass. And the great development is that my son is gaining weight and is eating a lot more both in quantity and variety without all the added pressure from me to eat enough, eat quickly, eat cleanly,  and eat it all.

When I think back to how I did things before I’m like…duhhhhhh of COURSE he wasn’t eating!!!

Good Judgment