I walked into the living room to find my daughter bent over, every ounce of attention involved in a secretive enterprise.
If I had paused and taken a quiet, centering breath I would have realized the sacred nature of her task, her smooth and unbothered brow, her mouth slightly agape in wonderment.
But I didn’t pause and the breath I inhaled was taken in to yell at her. By the time I exhaled, I had tempered my volume as I said, “Why would you pull the feathers off of the cat’s toy bird? Arty has a very small world and this toy is important to her. I’m astounded that you would do this.”
She looked at me and down at the feathers on the floor and she ran to her room. The wind from her feet caused the feathers to rise a bit and resettle. They were white like snow and clouds, two of her favorite things.
It was at this point that I took a centering breath. Why had I approached her like that?
Why the hair trigger? Why the guilt?
In fact, Arty has many toys and I don’t know that this one is particularly important to her.
I knocked on my daughter’s door entering with her permission. “I’m sorry I hurt you,” I said. “You have a good heart. I should have just reminded you that we don’t damage others’ things. You care about Arty. If I had reminded you, I know you would have stopped. I should have done that.”
“Yes, you should have,” she said.
That night as I tucked her in she continued our conversation. “Grownups have this way of talking when they want to yell. They lower their voice so they can say they’re not yelling, but inside they really are.”
“So, you feel a kind of violent energy when grownups do that?”
“Yes,” she said.
She had totally nailed me, of course. “Is that how you felt today?”
I felt it too, felt what my energy had done to her. “I’m sorry. I’m working on it. I don’t want to hurt you.”
As we cuddled closer she said, “Maybe you should take those classes that help you manage your anger.” Her voice was not harsh or judgmental. She was giving genuine advice.
“Maybe I should,” I replied, humbled. I think that I need to meditate more and be especially vigilant when I’m tired. We’ve all been running pretty hard lately. There’s been a violent twinge in the air with the conflicts between she and her older brother getting mean and physical on both sides. I think about how I am the leader—this is my circus and these are my monkeys and the best thing I can do for my beautiful children is model a peaceful energy.
I asked my daughter if she’d heard of St. Francis. “Animals loved him,” I said. “Wild animals would just follow him around and sit on his shoulder. Do you know why?”
“Because he didn’t yell?”
“Yes,” I say, as if I am certain of the story, which I’m not. “He didn’t even think about yelling or want to yell. No part of him even had a thought of hurting anything and the animals could sense that so they wanted to be around him.”
As her bedtime story, she wanted to hear about her birth which was the most peaceful one of the three kids. I recount again how I stayed up late talking to her aunt, my newlywed sister-in-law, between contractions, called the midwife at 5 am, went for a walk, and into the world she came by about 8 am. We were attended by a midwife, her assistant, and a nurse in our home. I wanted all of my births at home, but hers was the only one that worked out that way and it was very gentle compared to the hospital world of IVs, monitors, and surgical steel. She likes knowing that her favorite purple exercise ball is the one I was leaning on when she practically fell out.
Later I look up St. Francis. I’m amazed to find he was a soldier during The Crusades who became an advocate of nonviolence, returning to the battlefield as an agent of peace. In 1219 he walked unarmed for a year through the war zone from Italy to Northern Africa where he met the leading Muslim of the time, Sultan Melek-el-Kamel who said, “If all Christians are like this, I would not hesitate to become one.”
St. Francis certainly did much for humans, and the endorsement of the animals is meaningful. How many times have I given someone more trust because my shy cat liked them?
Perhaps children, being less corrupted by societal training, being more fully human have their energy receptors intact.
Perhaps they can sense even more than adults the angry, sardonic, resentful thoughts and feelings that emanate from us like Chernobyl waste.
I can’t get it out of my mind that my daughter clearly feels these things. It’s so intimidating, so much responsibility to think about the fact that my bad day or lack of enlightenment or tools is doing harm to her and to my boys.
I have peace and energy on the brain.
It’s appropriate that one of the most famous stories about St. Francis is about his meeting with a Muslim leader. I think of our own tradition of Islam, and how the meaning of the word is “peace through submission.”
The yogic concept of ahimsa comes to mind as well. It’s nonviolence and compassion for all living beings. I took a yoga teacher training once that emphasized looking upon students with kindness and non-judgment because even your thoughts about your students can affect them.
Then there’s the study by Robert Rosenthal where teachers were told that some of the children in their classrooms were about to make big leaps in IQ. The students were randomly selected, but the ones in the “high expectations” list did make big IQ leaps. Scientific commentary on the study points to additional time and care given to those students, but I also think their thoughts and energy had an impact.
My son wasn’t ready to read in kindergarten. This wasn’t a big deal to me and the reason he was in a Montessori class was so he could learn at his own pace, as Maria Montessori modeled. But suddenly there were parent-teacher meetings about how he was “falling behind.” I had to get him tested for learning disabilities—tests which proved what my mother instincts said, that he was perfectly normal, intelligent, and sensitive.
Though none of us spoke to my son about how his reading compared to others’, he got the idea that he is not a good reader. The following summer, he started reading almost on his own and has learned to read pretty well through home schooling. But he still tells people he can’t read. That unspoken thought seed germinated and I’m not sure how to help him uproot it.
In the days since I found my daughter on the floor with the feathers, I’ve been embarrassed to realize how often my thoughts and sometimes my words and actions jump to blame, shame, threats, comparison.
This doesn’t match the concept I have of myself and I’ve had to eat some not-so-subtly-seasoned humble pie.
But eat it I will.
In a time when the world is demonstrating so much violence, maybe one small thing I can do is create a non-violent ecosystem in my own family and with the people we interact with.
If all those hokey ripple-effect and pay-it-forward ideas are true, this could change the world, do the “impossible” as St. Francis encouraged.
But even if not, it will change the world for my children and that is something.