On parenting in the dark.

For the next four days I am alone. I am completely alone in my house for the next four days. 

Ok well, there is a dog and a cat here but for the next 96 hours there are no other beings in this household that require my attention.  I haven’t been alone in my house for this length of time in over four years. My son’s father came and picked him up this morning, headed to see family 400 miles away. For all my initial anxiety about the upcoming trip, by the time the moment arrived to see them off I was awash with a mixture of unexpected feelings. This week has been one of the darkest and most intense weeks of parenting that I can remember.

The world at large right now feels heavy, hurting and angry.

My heart is heavy, hurting and angry.

And my son, three and a half, seems to have tapped into the collective wellspring or is otherwise coming up against his own pain and rage over the current state of things on the micro-level of his family and immediate environment.

And I am his target for all of this, of course. And target in every sense of the word. I am bruised, battered and raw from the battles of this week. Where has my sweet little companion, full of smiles and affection gone? And what phenomenon is he currently processing to cause such a disturbance in our normal balance of daily life??

I know all the “things”: It will pass, it’s normal. It’s not about me. All I can do is give him a safe place to feel and process. Stay connected. Stay neutral. Stay present. Don’t take things personally. The caregiver he’s closest to gets the worst of it. Practice self-care. Model healthy boundaries. Model healthy ways to work through strong feelings. Give him words and tools to identify what he is feeling and what he needs. Remember the relationship comes first. 

But all of these truisms don’t help me right now. Because even with trying to do my best to remember all of these things, deep in the moment parenting just feels shitty and terrible and awful and unfair. And because I am just empty. That’s it. I’ve just got nothing left to give this kid right now.

And so suddenly this trip feels like grace for both of us.

He is ecstatic to see his papa. He runs screeching and laughing into his arms. He waves goodbye and doesn’t look back. And I am grateful. For their bond and the relationship they have cultivated, which is much closer and more loving than either of us had with our own fathers. Grateful he is not fearful about leaving me. And grateful because honestly – I just don’t think I could have stood another hour of being beat up, being bullied, and of battling it out.  Grateful because honestly – I don’t even like my child right now. And I don’t feel capable of being his mother.

And closing the door behind them, this truth makes me cry and cry.

Last night I heard him tossing around in his bed, calling out softly in sleep. It woke me and I lay there for a moment, waiting to see if the he would settle himself and drift off on his own. He probably would have after another moment or so but I got up anyway and opened the door to his room and crossed the carpet to kneel at his bed. He mumbled incoherently in a half-wakened state. Tentatively, I reached out to stroke his forehead and he allowed me to comfort him. Then slowly, inch by inch, I moved onto the bed next to him and curled my body around his. For the first time in weeks he didn’t resist but relaxed and nestled against me.  I held him close and rubbed his back. In the darkness he reached out his little hand to press it against my face and I saw his brief, small sleepy smile in the glow of the nightlight. I lay there for an hour or more relishing this rare moment of closeness, not daring to move a muscle lest the spell be broken and the feral animal awake. My arm fell asleep and my back started to ache but I couldn’t bear to move. For a short time I felt again our sweet bond. I needed to remember.

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I know it will pass. I know we each have to process in our own ways what it means to not be an intact family living under one roof anymore, and who we each are as we grow into the people we are becoming.  And as we test the limits of what we think we know and are capable of and explore our own spectrum of experience, we come to understand the safety and strength of the container of this relationship. We trust that it can hold our process, that it can honor both the darkness and the light. But it is only in the darkness where true resilience is revealed, when we find it is stronger and more spacious than we thought, that it can allow and recover, heal and adapt. That it can both nurture and even be strengthened in times when the light is scarce. That it is both steadfast and constant and that it is also ready to change as we change.

Tiptoeing back to my room and back to my own bed, I feel thankful for this tiny bit of reprieve. In the morning I ask him and he doesn’t remember anything. But I know it wasn’t for him. It was for me.

As I watch the car pull out of the driveway this morning it occurs to me that there may come a day when he wants to go and live with his dad full time. The thought hits me a little like a sock to the stomach. As I stand in the middle of the empty living room I am gutted by the realization that ultimately all of this effort, the intense marathon of parenthood, the unwavering commitment to every small teachable moment, the anguish over whether or not we are doing things right, whether we are giving them the right tools, laying the right foundation for healthy relationship with themselves, with others and the world — all of it — every single worry that keeps us up or on the phone for advice or nose deep in books, all of the ceaseless energy we put into giving our children the best possible start guarantees absolutely nothing.

We do all of this with the acceptance that all possibilities exist and one being that there could come a day when our child says goodbye and walks away without looking back. We have great hopes. We cultivate hope against odds at every turn that our kids will emerge from childhood undamaged, happy, vital and devoted to us. But in the end we are all forced to relinquish every expectation and investment in the outcome. We do this parenting thing in every moment out of some mysterious compelling place of unadulterated selflessness. Its the biggest most profound lifelong investment we ever make and yet there are no guarantees of anything. And still, as a species we have decided it worth doing over and over and over again.  It makes no sense.

They won’t remember all of the tiny moments you sweated and grasped for answers, fumbling for the right tools, the right words, the right thing to do. They will just be left with this broad, colorful landscape, full of feelings they felt. And they get to interpret it however they choose. The only certain thing is that we won’t see it the same way.

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I read somewhere that parenting is the a lifelong exercise in unfailing optimism. That sounds about right.

And I have the next four days to find my bootstraps.

 

And then suddenly, he was a boy.

I have been pretty unsentimental, I guess, about  a lot of the milestones so far in my son’s almost-three years of life.  I don’t necessarily feel the pang of being needed less as time goes on, certainly not in the way that maybe the mother of three does watching her last baby graduate from infancy to the front steps of her kindergarten classroom –  in what feels like the space of overnight. I’m three years in. I basically still don’t really have a clear reference for time. I know that there was life before my son, but it’s kind of hard to believe that it actually existed – since what could I have possibly done with all of that free time ?? I am fairly certain I wouldn’t recognize that 31 year old girl if she showed up on my doorstep much less relate to her (what does she DO with all of that free time?) I’ll be honest, its all a little fuzzy and not totally unlike the feeling of having been on a bender for the last three years of my life. Except that, unlike the consequences of unrestrained drinking, some really great things have happened.

The bittersweetness of common landmarks have bypassed me: walking, talking, sleeping in his own bed, going to daycare, potty training, etc.  Babyhood was hard for us, this stage feels lighter – maybe that is a big part of it. Or maybe that he is my first and only kid. I know its a precious and fleeting time. And if ever I forget,  there is someone to remind me everywhere I go and at every chance, how fast it all goes and how much I will miss it when its gone. Thank you, stranger in the check-out line, for letting me know essentially, that I am guaranteed to feel shitty later thinking about how I should be happier right now in this moment which will invariably get gold-plated in my memory…… that I will um, revisit when I am older and sipping my tea in my quiet house with piles of books around and art supplies and projects that I don’t ever have to clean up because no one’s going to touch my stuff and I have the whole weekend ahead of me to putter and dally and not cook for anyone and stay up as late as I want??? Just kidding. Sort of. I know my kid is going to grow up and we always feel wistful for what is behind. The past is like an Instagram account with flattering filters to highlight all of the high moments and none of the bad days. Oh wait, no that is actual Instagram.

At every stage of his increasing autonomy I cheer him on, marvel unflinchingly at the passage of months gone, feeling  a sense of satisfaction that he is finding his footing in this world, as they do kind of with, without, or in spite of me at all.  Often my partner and I will look at each other with some variation of, “Can you believe …?” But I’m still the one without a lot of nostalgia about it. I guess kindergarten will be a big one, we’ll see though.

Anyway, we decided it was time to cut his hair. It’s wild, unruly, a battle to wash and comb through and people have been mistaking him for a girl, (which he’s always gotten to some extent, but now he is starting to notice). We’d been getting comments for awhile from his grandpa and others (seriously, what the hell makes you SO uncomfortable with my kid’s hair?) which was frankly really irritating mostly because it starting making my son self-conscious about it. I was a little scared though, because I had also been told his curls won’t last. The ringlets he inherited from neither his father or myself, I had been warned, would disappear with the first cut. Literally, EVERYBODY has told me that. But he was excited. His first haircut! We promised ice cream afterward.

She didn’t even take off that much. Just a trim. He looked so big sitting up in the chair.

And as soon as I watched those first strands fall to the floor, I wanted to cry.

He sat very still and when she was finished he saw himself in the mirror and smiled with pride. We went to ice cream.

And I just could not look at him without tears spilling over. Just like that, everything had changed. The baby had disappeared. He was a boy.

My heart was gripped with the realization that we’d crossed over a threshold. There was no going back. I tried hard not to let my son pick up on my feelings. “It will grow again,” my partner reassures me when we are alone.

“No,” I say, “everything’s different.”

I was unprepared for the level of emotional reaction. Of course I know, it’s just hair. It will grow. It will be whatever it will be, curls or not. But is these such landmarks, the ones that don’t just naturally happen on their own but require the diligent, careful eye; the sense to know when it’s time to gently remove the scaffolding, the lovey, the comfort habit that has outgrown its service, the training wheels that have lingered past their usefulness. And no matter how much you might want to hold on to it for what it represents –  it is these moments of stepping in to move forward the hand of time when only you can and must, that cause the heart to waver. It is these pivotal moments, some without as much fanfare as a haircut, that come and go in the most ordinary way and yet leave behind a profound imprint of what parenthood is again and again, the letting go. It is the thoughts that buzz around like a mosquito in your darkened bedroom as you lie awake and  throw up a prayer for the twenty-seventh time that you did the right thing . Because even though you might know it was, it still pangs.

Like knowing it was the last time I would breastfeed my son.  The moment I decided I was through pumping. Breastfeeding was complicated, arduous and emotionally wrought for us. Weening was something I had to accept long before I had wanted to. Though it was clear it was best choice for both of us, I still remember that quiet moment, in the dark, with my baby beside me, when I decided to let my body be done. It’s the Instagram reel without the filters, full of the raw emotion of what it really means to be a mother.  In yogic philosophy there is a name for this letting go again and again: aparigraha, the principle of non attachment.  Over and over again, we watch for the signs for when its time to let go a little bit more, when its time to release our attachment to the current story and let the next chapter begin.

“Motherhood is at once an exercise in unwavering fortitude and complete surrender.”  (Read: Suspended in a State of Mommyhood. I’m serious, if you are  a mother or a young parent, you’ve really got to read it. Go, right now.)

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Honoring the Dark.

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Altar to honor the Winter Solstice and return of the light.

December fell over me like a heavy blanket. All at once it seemed, I felt the energy drain out of me. I worried I was slipping into depression, as I have in the past struggled against that gravitational pull, down into darkness, silence, deep introspection, isolation. I spent most of my adulthood watching for the signs that the dark was creeping in to grab hold again and drag me under. When I hear the first notes of that ghostly refrain I usually launch into my list of preventive action steps: I push myself to go running, to get out and socialize, to eat something nutritious even when I don’t feel hungry. I talked to my therapist: “I don’t know,” she said, “This doesn’t sound like depression to me. Could your body just be telling you that you need to slow down and rest?”

The next day I reread a text message I sent to a good friend: “I wish I could just curl up in my room for three days and see no one and do nothing. Then I could re-enter the world and be ok again and do Christmas.” Suddenly I flashed back to a year ago almost to the day, telling another friend right before a week long trip to see family: “I wish I could just check out from everything for two days and then come back and do the whole holiday thing.”

My life is as full as always: work, and school, a preschooler, household stuff and new projects on the horizon that I am excited about giving my time and energy to. But everything feels overwhelming. Not uninteresting just…too much.  And the more I push my body the greater the urge to retreat. And it’s no wonder, as we are linked to the earth’s cycles along with every other living thing. Since the Summer Solstice, we have been incrementally losing light here in the northern hemisphere. The longer nights and lower temperatures signal the trees to drop their leaves and the animals to start preparing for winter. When winter arrives, the trees are almost all bare, many of the plants that once flourished in the sun have let go their leaves and blossoms. If you didn’t know better, many of the plants and trees might appear as if dead. There is no movement, thus begins a period of conserving energy through the coldest months. Though life force is just as present, activity becomes dormant.

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And why should we be any different? (Read: BODY RHYTHM, PLANETARY RHYTHM). 

Alan Fogel, author of Body Sense, writes in Psychology Today:  “I’ve always thought it odd that in the late Fall — when my body just wants to withdraw into cozy, warm rest in response to the longer nights and cooler temperatures – urban culture becomes more active, more complex, and more demanding. The trees are shutting down all but the most basic functions and mammals are retreating to their dens and burrows for some form of hibernation. I want to go with them but I can’t because school is in session, there are performances and shows and social events, business deals are being made, and then the winter holidays come with all their pulls and obligations.

All this social pressure coming at a time when our bodies want to slow down is a perfect storm of stress and anxiety. Could it be that SAD and other seasonal dismays are not the result of darkness at all but rather a psychological splitting as we are torn between social demands for increased activity and the planet pulling our body sense in the opposite direction? Perhaps it is not our dark moods that are problematic so much as our sense of their cultural unacceptability?

Let’s imagine that we could just accept and embrace our body sense as it follows the lows and highs of seasonal cycles…Let’s imagine letting ourselves feel tired, I mean really feel like we are going to collapse if we don’t crawl under a blanket. Probably, you could find that feeling inside right now if you let yourself. Let’s imagine that we could give in completely to our sadness, that tears might come because we really let our feeling fill up the present moment; we become sadness and there is nothing else in the world but sadness. What would happen if we could do that?”

Well, what would happen?

There is  another pattern I have started to notice over the past four years of noting my natural cycles of highs and lows throughout the year is the near inevitability of a melancholy February and March, where exhaustion is often accompanied by sadness and loss of passion and interest in normal things. While this could be in part a natural reaction to the lack of sunlight (I plan to invest in a magic desk lamp this year) could this also be a result of pushing through the holidays, work, family gatherings and social events instead of honoring my own need to retreat, rest and conserve energy during the darkest months? Why is it so often our habit when feeling out of balance to add more instead of doing less?

Maybe there isn’t anything “wrong” with me at all but this natural inclination to check out from the world for awhile, even to be sad, to let the soul mourn it needs to could actually serve my highest good? Can I make space for honoring the dark? 

Perhaps I can’t take a week off my job or check out of parenting and run away to a hotel for three days by myself but can I bring the feeling of nurturing and self care into my life in small ways? What if, I could prepare for December the way people start their Christmas shopping early or string their lights up after Halloween? What if I could start creating space in July by working a few more hours to set aside for the December days when I need to work a bit less? Or be more deliberate in advance about keeping my schedule light during the holiday season?

Just by beginning to entertain these things, my heart begins to feel lighter. I don’t have to fight this, I don’t have to resist. I can make tea. I can change into my pajamas early. I can “check out” in the evenings with  something good to read, with a movie or a good show. I can decorate my altar to honor the Winter Solstice. I can let the house stay messier than usual, I can honor my body with a restorative practice instead of power vinyasa.  I can make a big pot of bone broth, I can clear my calendar of unessential items and I can curl up under this blanket for awhile and just rest… that is, until my kid calls me to come wipe his bum.

So yeah. That’s where you’ll find me. Don’t be offended if I don’t answer the phone. I’ll be back just as sure as the light returns.

Look at me all honoring myself and shit. I’ve come a long way, baby.

Winter’s Cloak

This year I do not want
the dark to leave me.
I need its wrap
of silent stillness,
its cloak
of long lasting embrace.
Too much light
has pulled me away
from the chamber
of gestation.

Let the dawns
come late,
let the sunsets
arrive early,
let the evenings
extend themselves
while I lean into
the abyss of my being.

Let me lie in the cave
of my soul,
for too much light
blinds me,
steals the source
of revelation.

Let me seek solace
in the empty places
of winter’s passage,
those vast dark nights
that never fail to shelter me.

~ Joyce Rupp

What She had to tell me in the end.

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There is something about Fall. Something about the change of light, the movement of air, the fragrance of earth and bark and foliage that makes my heart feel a fullness it hasn’t felt all year. Something about this season reminds me of the passage of time more than any of the others; the simultaneous coming to a close of one era and the beginning of another. The darkening days lend a mood of introspection, the slowing from the buzz of summer activity, a cool breeze taking the edge of the simmering heat of the last few months – and I find myself sitting still a little longer, lingering by the open window and …watching the sky. I feel time moving.

In autumn, I always feel all of the autumns past. And it is at once an overwhelming gratitude, heartsick nostalgia and a profound awe. It catches me off guard and it always takes my breath.  How far we’ve come.  And all that is passing away as we speak. It almost feels like too much to bear.

Last week I hiked solo to the top of the ridge behind our house, a steep climb through the forest to a spectacular view of the valley with the river running down below and the one main road that leads through our rural community and on out to the sea. At the top of the hill has stood for a few hundred years an ancient, gnarled and sprawling magnificent oak. Whenever I have hiked this ridge, I have paused before Her in reverence; in the wetter seasons, reaching into the well of Her womb for the water that collected there.

“Holy water,” I said, anointing him and then myself. I remember it made him chuckle the first time I did it.  We were new and exploring, I was the wild and mysterious girl from the woods, we were in love and every single thing was pure magic.

We like to say it was She that brought us together.

One summer five years ago, on a whim I emailed this stranger to ask if he wanted to come build a tree house with me and live in it all summer. I said I knew the perfect tree. I was on a very serious kick to sell all my belongings and go and live out of doors, “off the grid”.  I was in that restless place of transition without having a clear idea of what the next stage of my life would look like. Recently I had picked up a book written by this interesting guy – a book which also contained his contact information.  I was bored and curious (a combination I have found leads either to stupid decisions or serendipitous ones!).

He wrote back. Thus began the two and a half years of correspondence that would eventually, finally lead him to my doorstep and “the girl in the woods by the sea” became no longer a mystery but now leading him up a mountain to the very tree that inspired it all, where we carved our initials (and later, a third set). Near Her roots we would bury a list of our heart’s aspirations for our life together as a family.

In the last couple of years, I have had fewer opportunities to visit her.  Days have been full and gone are the free hours when I could go get lost in the woods for half a day at a time. In the shorter walks we’ve taken through the woods with our son, the little Acorn Scout, we’ve watched the Phytophthora ramorum, the sudden oak death, sweep through the forest swiftly claiming one after the other, both the tan and the scrub oak. At first, just a black nodule here and there but within months hollowing them out and felling them like twigs. From time to time, I worried about Her.  I had seen the tell-tale signs high up on Her branches as well. But it was hard to believe that She could not withstand this too, for She had seen so much, She had stood for so long.

~

Last week I made the trek up the mountain for the first time since Spring. With the change in temperature, the bright red leaves of poison oak plant have begun to wither and recede again, making the way less perilous. I made my way up the mountain slowly, pausing to notice the filtered sunlight, the shift in temperature as I rose higher, the breeze as it sounded through crisp and drying leaves.

Reaching the summit, I came around the familiar bend and suddenly —

there She lay.

Half of Her tremendous weight collapsed across the path before me.  I could still see the freshness of Her wound where She split, taking smaller trees down in the power of Her wake. I stood unmoving.

Who knows when it had happened exactly, when the moment had finally come, when it was time to let go.  Had the forest mourned? Had the trees reached out their arms to soften Her fall? Had they bowed their heads to the great Matriarch, now Herself riddled with the disease that she had watched claim each of Her children?

How long had She stood watch over this hill? Hundreds of years of roots were not enough to protect Her. How long had She had stood with dignity even as the black death slowly ate Her from the inside and hollowed out all Her limbs? Now from where She lies upon her side, I can see how She held out to the very end. While I lived my life out below, She watched and waited patiently for the end to come. Lichen and moss still cling to Her like royal adornment, the emblem of our names now blighted with bulbous growth.

And I want to cry but I can’t and I am filled with shock and sorrow and I want to understand what it all means and I think of my partner and how hard and painful things have felt between us for awhile and how much we’ve grown since it felt like we were children clambering up to sit in Her branches. When She held us. When it felt like we were just beginning.

And I think of all the teachings. About non-attachment. About the impermanence of all things.

I want to cry but I don’t have any tears. So instead I find a foothold and lift myself up to rest my body against Hers. My hand runs along Her mossy trunk and I close my eyes.

Deep deep down, Her pulse still echoes. I slow my breath to listen.

She says: I am not gone. It’s just time to transform. My time in this form has come to an end, that is all. I am only changing form.

And then I see.

The forest does not know loss or grief. It only knows change. It only knows transformation.

It doesn’t know death, only surrender. Only becoming.

And I see.

That the sadness comes from the holding on. From the clinging to the old form past the time when it’s been worn out, expired and no longer of service.

It’s just time to transform. I am only changing form.

I am too.

We are.

And I want to cry or laugh or, or – something. But I can’t. My heart is too full.
So I just be still. I just be still and know.

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Creating space.

We must create space for what we ask for.

When we feel the subtle stir, the gentle rumblings of shifting ground, the task is to be still. Through stillness and space we open the door. With quiet curiosity, we allow it to be.

2014 seems like it brought some major chaos for a lot of people immediately surrounding me as well as on a global scale. This last year we have seen what feels like a concentrated dose of trauma, of upheaval and disaster. There is a tension, an anxious vibration hanging in the air, which at times can feel ominous, but most certainly heralds change.

I had a recent conversation with a friend whose own family has experienced tremendous upheaval in the past year. She said that although the last 12 months have seen a lot of adversity and challenge, she has also witnessed many people in her life expressing desire for big changes in their own lives and she wondered about the correlation. Few would argue the overwhelming need for political action, environmental action and social action on the front of major crisis in the United States and the world. This isn’t the blog for those issues, but it is about the crisis that begins and ends with each one of us.

As she spoke, I realized I shared her observation. The call, the need, the draw to shift on an individual level has been reflected is many of my relationships, in my own family and in my spiritual life. Before something new can be created, the old structure must be torn down. Don’t be afraid of the mess. 

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I have seen a lot of people’s lives turned upside down this year but I believe that 2015 is a year of reconstruction. I don’t think we have seen the end of bedlam or turmoil but I believe we will see the fruits of well placed intention sprout and grow at a rapid pace, that we will see powerful, sustainable positive change coinciding with the extinction of old frameworks. The turf is ready and the seed planted in fertilized soil grow well, nourished by what has come before.

The Feng Shui Saying goes, “If you want to make space for something new, you have to let go of the old.” 

How can we create space? Physical, mental, emotional?

In the last few months, I’ve identified four specific time and energy drains in my life. Here are four ways that I can create more space, save more of my attention and energy starting now:

 1) Get off Facebook. While I see its value at times, I do not see the benefit to the amount of time I spend mindlessly scrolling through the feed, pulled one way and another by stories and other people’s drama that sap a lot of time and energy that right now is better spent intentionally. If I have 20 minutes to scroll through my friends’ Facebook statuses, I have 20 minutes to check in with myself. I began a 90 day hiatus from Facebook. I feel so much freedom already.

2) Quit mentally rehashing conversations past (including emails sent) and/or rehearsing conversations for the future. Once I identified this habit I realized I do this all of the time! It is a totally futile attempt at control and driven by anxiety, self-doubt and insecurity. Done with it!

3) Do a major sweep of all closets and cupboards and fill up at least three 21.5 gallon Rubbermaid tubs of stuff to give away or take to the thrift. Commit to not bringing anything new into the house for the next 90 days that we do not absolutely need.  (I will report back on this!)

4) Limit myself to one cup of coffee per day. Sip and savor that delicious mug in the morning and then concentrate on putting into my body what will bring me health, (natural) energy and vitality instead of riding the caffeine high all day and depleting my body of hydration and essential minerals and vitamins it needs to function optimally.

Where are we willing to let go of in order to let something new in?

What habits can you identify in your life that are not serving you?

Do we believe we are supported enough to let go of the thing that is makes us feel safe and in control?

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Pranidhana Mudra (Gesture of Surrender)

This mudra (hand gesture) is helpful for releasing attachments.

1. Touch the tips of the thumbs to the tips of the middle and ring fingers of the same hand

2. Extend the index and little fingers

3. Bring the tips of the extended little end index fingers together

Hand mudras are gestures that can be used in meditation to bring about specific qualities in our physical, psychological or spiritual levels of being. Mudras direct breath and energy awareness, evoke feelings and cultivate specific qualities. They are a powerful tool to use as part of any meditation or asana practice. For best results, sit in a comfortable seated posture and hold for at least 5-10 breaths, allowing the breathe to be natural and not controlled in any way. Mudras work with the body’s subtle energies, directing awareness and breath.

The affirmation I like to use with this mudra is, “As I learn to release old attachments, I naturally find greater ease and harmony.” I think it is the most effective when you find your own words and phrasing that resonate with you personally.

(To learn more about mudras see Mudras for Healing and Transformation, Joseph and Lilian Le Page)