The Deep Story

Our days are happier when we give people a bit of our heart, rather than a piece of our mind.” – unknown

I have a perception problem that caused a disagreement. I adore my brother. I see him as smart, likeable, responsible, resilient and industrious. I also know he has faults and avoids conflicts, will disengage instead of work things out or stand up for himself and has trouble being vulnerable.

We have another family member that sees him as manipulative, irresponsible, underhanded and arrogant.

Generally, we know the same history of my brother with the ups and downs of his life and interpret the story with our own lenses. I see him as the older brother I can always call and she seems him as the schmuck that dated her best friend in junior high.

In this On Being podcast, sociologist and Professor Emeritus Arlie Hochschild talks about the idea of a deep story which she defines as what you feel about a highly salient situation that’s very important to you. A story that explains how we can look at the same set of facts but come up with different conclusions because of the emotions that underlie the story. Her work has been primarily about our political divide – the deep stories of the red states and blue states.

But I see it at work in the stories of my family. It explains why we see things differently and have this perception problem that no amount of facts can solve. It points to the amount and type of work my brother and our family member would have to do in order to rewrite the deep story.

It also predicts that my brother and I will probably always be in accord through the rest of our lives. For me it makes some sense out of the unconditional love and adoration I have always felt and acted on through our many different phases of life.

Finally, it reminds me that the work of empathy for and listening to others is not only necessary for our relationships but also possibly the most transformative. Because even when we don’t agree on the facts, understanding someone else’s deep story at least brings the a-ha moment of understanding.

Are their deep stories in your family? Are there places where facts don’t seem to matter?

(featured photo from Pexels)

Looking for Evidence

Remember it is who you are that heals not what you know.” – Carl Jung

Yesterday I came across some notes I jotted on my phone of books that my brother recommended the last time we were together.

I adore my brother. He’s 6-years-older than I am and has been the sibling that I’ve looked up to since I learned how to look up. I’ve lived near him my entire adult life, I was very close with his daughters when they were growing up and now he’s very close with my kids. There was even a time 20 years ago when I worked for my brother at his company.

So I think it’s safe to say we have a natural affinity for one-another – we have lovely conversations, enjoy our time together and have stuck together through the ups-and-downs of life.

But I can’t name a single book that I recommended to my brother that he has read. And he reads all the time so it isn’t because he doesn’t like to read. Same goes for podcasts, tv shows (back when I watched tv) and spiritual practices like meditation.

It’s taken me a lot of growing up to be able to say with certainty that it isn’t because I’m his younger sister. I know he thinks I’m smart and he respects me.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who has looked for evidence that they matter in the lives of the people close to them. I’m thinking of a comment I once heard a husband tell me that his wife had to vote exactly the same way on a ballot which surprised me for an independent couple.

When my brother eulogized my dad he described my dad’s ability to “meet you where you were at without leaving where he was at.” Coming back to that helps me remember that hearts are the center of friendships, not heads. The work of love is to meet each other so we all know we aren’t walking alone. Instead of looking for the ways I’ve influenced my brother, perhaps I should just count all the miles we’ve walked together.

 I ended up not checking out any of the books on the list from my brother. Not because he doesn’t read mine, but because I like it when he tells me the stories of what he’s read and where’s he been. It gives us something to talk about when our hearts meet.

Do the people in your lives read the books or content that you recommend? Does it matter?

Life Lessons

Every day is an opportunity to make a new happy ending.” – unknown

The other evening on a clear night my kids and I were out riding bikes. As I pumped up a hill, my two-year-old son sitting on the back on my bike noticed the moon bright in the sky. He softly said, “I want to hold the moon.”

It’s a good thing parents and lovers aren’t omnipotent. I assume it would result in the moon being pulled out of the sky on a regular basis.

A few days later my 6-year-old daughter was excitedly awaiting a new clock to arrive from Amazon. She was so excited to have the very first clock that she picked out herself and could set the alarms on. I question why she’d want to start with alarms so early in life but keeping my opinion to myself, helped her track the package. On the day it was supposed to arrive, the status went from “out for delivery” to “undeliverable” right before bedtime.

My daughter was so disappointed. Rightly so and exacerbated by being tired. In that moment, I would have driven the Amazon truck myself to make sure there wasn’t a tired six-year-old lamenting about unpredictability.

Sometimes I wonder what I’m teaching my kids. Fortunately life partners with me so that I have plenty of opportunities to talk about what we dream about. I get to review what we can and cannot control. And I can demonstrate how we can to flex our muscles of patience and perspective when things don’t work the way we want.

Gratefully, I have the chance to assure my kids that we might not always get what we want but we always get what we need. And remind myself of the same along the way.

(featured photo from JOOINN)

Sacred Objects

Everything you can imagine is real.” – Pablo Picasso

My two-year-old son has a stuffy he likes to carry everywhere. It’s a small pink bunny that fits perfectly in his hand and he carries it when we are biking, hiking and most everywhere else, except swimming.

Knowing how important this bunny is, I ordered a backup of the same stuffy. Fake stuffy isn’t worn in the same way so it doesn’t work to soothe if he’s lying down for a nap and I can’t find the real one – it just infuriates him. So when fake stuffy went missing for 6 months, it was no problem.

Until he resurfaced a month ago and now my son likes to carry around both the real one and the fake one, multiplying my problem of making sure we have the necessary parts before embarking on the next part of the schedule.

So, I ordered 6 backups of the fake stuffy for $2 each on eBay and implemented a rotation schedule so there’s only one out at a time but they all look more of less the same amount of worn.

It’s a silly routine but it’s made me appreciate the power of sacred objects. I drink my tea every morning from a mug that says “LOVE” and was the first thing my daughter ever bought me with her own money. Everything tastes sweet in that mug.

And when I use the tools that used to be my father’s, I feel his warmth, energy and enthusiasm welling up inside me and I’m more certain the project will turn out fine.

I have a gold-plated Angel token that I bought for $3 and carried in my pocket a dozen years ago when I was going through my divorce. The touch of it reminded me to have faith that life would work out. Although I don’t carry it anymore, when I come across it in my drawer, I smile and celebrate what faith has delivered.

I can visit the places I’ve traveled in a short trip through my house remembering the laughter with friends as we picked out Tibetan singing bowls or travel through time when I touch my stuffed koala from childhood. They are just objects but they open doors that are shortcuts to places that I want to go.

So I happily do the stuffy dance with my son. He’s taken to telling me “Don’t say ‘Yay’” when I want to celebrate a potty training victory. Something about my natural enthusiasm is overwhelming to him in that private context. Instead I channel it along with my love, sending it along with him in his sacred objects.

What are your sacred objects?

Hot Mess

The good road and the road of difficulties, you have made me cross; and where they cross, the place is holy.” – Black Elk, Oglala Lakota Medicine Man

Yesterday morning I was feeling so optimistic about getting the kids out the door. It was a beautiful spring morning, I’d just had lovely quiet time meditating and writing. Then I got the kids up and I had my two-year-old son changed into his Superman costume for the day and breakfast on the table.

And then with 15 minutes to go we had a potty accident. Trying to recover from that, I didn’t give my 6-year-old daughter the 5 minute warning before she had to turn off her math game and get her shoes on. All of a sudden we were late, Mr. D was having a fit. I think it was mostly because he hadn’t eaten yet but probably a little because he had an accident and although I hadn’t said anything, he was attuned to my stress of being late. Miss O was upset because the pressure was on to get out the door. Our neighbor girl who carpools with us looked a little horrified as our hot mess unfolded.

I could find nothing to help my toddler calm down –  he didn’t want to sing or rock, he was resisting sitting in his car seat, screaming about going to school, there was no way to get him to eat and the pressure was on because we were going to make my daughter and her friend late to school if we didn’t leave NOW. All of a sudden, I went from my usual “it-will-all-work-out” state to being emotionally flooded.

I’ve seen different descriptions of the being flooded – but generally it seems to describe a feeling of strong emotions, release of adrenaline and cortisol in the body. For me it shows up as an inability to be creative and problem solve in the moment because the surge of emotion. I got the kids into the car – my daughter was fine after the initial grump that I was hurrying her – but I just couldn’t wait to drop my son at daycare because I was flummoxed.

After we dropped the girls at the elementary school, I still had no success in calming my son who was really upset. He didn’t want to listen to music or for me to talk. And while I still just wanted to drop him at daycare and make it someone else’s problem, this state was so unusual for my easy-going toddler I just couldn’t. In fact, I knew that not only he needed to calm down and heal from this moment – so did I.

I found myself driving to Home Depot which thankfully had small excavators and backhoes for rent sitting in their parking lot. I parked where he directed me to, scrambled into the back seat to be next to him and his curiosity for the construction equipment took over. Once he started doing something else, I could get him to eat and everything settled from there. We ended up having a lovely time at Home Depot. The great thing about kids is how quickly they heal and move on.

It reminded me how in the moment where we are flooded, doing something else until we can restore our balance is the only thing that works. I’ve heard Drs Julie and John Gottman suggest doing a crossword or going for a walk – anything but continuing a conversation that can’t go anywhere.

I’d say 90+% of the time, my little family operates according to plan and we all do great. But it’s in messy 10% that we find our resilience and healing, figuring it out one Home Depot parking lot at a time.

Forgiveness or Letting Go?

Forgiveness does not require reconnection.” – unknown

I was recently reading the section of Why Won’t You Apologize by psychologist and therapist Dr. Harriet Lerner where she makes the distinction between forgiveness and letting go. Here’s Dr. Lerner’s description of forgiveness, “I use the word forgiveness sparingly and only when it is earned through a process of open-hearted listening and self-examination.”

She goes on to say, “..the word forgiveness is not a word I use to describe this compassionate or accepting place that I may or may not come to when I feel wronged by someone who can’t get it, who is too defensive to take in what I am saying, and who will never genuinely feel that they have something to apologize for.”  

It made me think of my family. I’ve said often that I work so hard to make sure my kids are friends because I grew up feeling like my sister, who is four years older, hated me. While we’ve had times in our lives where we got along fine, that hasn’t been our primary place.

About 6 years ago, my sister met my daughter for the one and only time. During that short visit (about an hour or two), she offered an apology along the lines of, “I’m sorry I was mean to you growing up. I don’t know why I acted like that.” It was easy to think there wasn’t a lot of self-examination behind that apology and she might have only said that because at the time she wanted something from my mom.

And then about a year after that apology, my sister sued my older brother and it felt like she demanded that we all take sides. When my mom suggested that she should settle, my sister stopped talking to her for about five years. Even when my sister’s anger isn’t directed at me, I find it to be incredibly unsettling because it radiates from her in hot waves.

Fortunately for my very patient mom, my sister finally got back in touch with her. My mom says she’s in a good place. But without any substantive change to my sister’s life philosophy or self-regulating resources, I find myself skeptical.

But throughout all this, I have developed a lot of compassion for my sister. I think that in a family of happy optimists, she felt like an outsider because that isn’t her default. In fact, I think she felt that the emotional space from which the rest of her family operated was a fake, construed lie and her incredibly smart brain catalogued all the differences she noticed. In short, I think she grew up feeling like she didn’t belong.

There’s a passage about belonging in Brené Brown’s book Braving the Wilderness, that was a huge a-ha moment for me about my family of origin and my sister in particular.  “Even in the context of suffering – poverty, violence, human rights violations – not belonging in our families is still one of the most dangerous hurts. That’s because it has the power to break our heart, our spirit, and our sense of self-worth.”

If I was to go by Dr. Lerner’s description of forgiveness, I haven’t forgiven my sister. My personal usage of forgiveness is a little more expansive. But whatever you call it, whether it be forgiveness or letting it go, I can attest that there’s a lot of peace to be found when we do our own work to try to understand people who are or have been in our lives. I recognize the irony that growing up in a family to which I did feel like I belonged has helped underscore my own feeling of peace and forgiveness, work that I imagine would be much harder for my sister.

Postscript: One last note that I gleaned from Dr. Lerner’s book as it applies to my family, “In my professional work I am struck by how often sibling relationships fall apart around the life-cycle stage of caring for elderly parents, and dealing with a parent’s death and its aftermath.”

While the groundwork was laid throughout our lives, many of the most explosive events that happened between my siblings happened in the years right after my father’s sudden death. There’s no way to know if my dad could have prevented some of the rupture of our family or if the grieving itself caused some of our recent struggles. But I’m sure it didn’t help.

Feeling Things All the Way Through

What is not expressed is depressed.” – Mark Nepo

The other day our honorary grandfather said to my two-year-old son who was fussing over a circumstance in his life, “Boys don’t cry.” While it was said totally genially and as a way to humor a child out of a mood, there was no doubt that he believed that mantra.

Which brought to mind the quote included at the top of this post by author Mark Nepo, “What is not expressed is depressed.” The longer that I live, the more that I have come to understand that emotions wreak havoc if not allowed to be felt all the way through. It brought to mind a comment I heard from emotions researcher Barbara Frederickson that all emotions have utility – sadness and depression when experienced in the typical course of life often tell us to stop doing what we are doing.

It’s when we refuse letting them tell us things that we shut down our own ability to listen to our inner source of knowledge. I spent years doing that when I was married because numbing my emotions was easier than taking the steps to acknowledge that under the surface of my positivity that I was miserable.

I haven’t gotten much better at vocalizing my less enthusiastic emotions since then but I have gotten better at recognizing them. The other day I was really resistant to working on a particular client project and internally thought, “Wow, I can’t stand this project.” And that strong note which often doesn’t arise in me made me realize that the way this particular project is structured doesn’t work for me. Observing that, I could acknowledge I won’t do it this way again.

Watching my son with his honorary grandfather reminded me of a passage I read in Listening to Your Life by Frederick Buechner. In it he points out the similarities between old age and childhood – the body does not support everything you want to do so you learn to play, you aren’t at an age where you have to prove yourself and:

Very young children and very old children also seem to be in touch with something that the rest of the pack has lost track of. There is something bright and still about them at their best, like the sun before breakfast. Both the old and the young get scared sometimes about what lies ahead of them, and with good reason, but you can’t help feeling that whatever inner goldenness they’re in touch with will see them through in the end.

Listening to Your Life by Frederick Buechner

The great thing about toddlers is that there seems to be very little artifice to the emotions they share. In the course of learning to regulate them, they express what strikes them at the moment. Boys do cry as do girls, and then they move on. It’s like watching master class on authentic expression and I can’t help but be impressed and learn a little bit more every day.

Today

When you realize how perfect everything is, you will tilt your head back and laugh at the sky.” – Buddha

Potty training is really getting my goat. A month in and we mostly have successes but the failures are memorable! It’s unpredictable, impossible for me to control (which seems to be most of the battle) and creates a lot of laundry.

I catch myself thinking, “Pretty soon we are going to be through this and then life will be great.”

Which I think will be true. Especially if I remember how to savor today.

Because I think is how we wish our lives away and as a parent, how I could wish my kids’ childhood away. Waiting for the thing we don’t like to stop and THEN we’ll be good. Or waiting to lose 10 pounds, reach a milestone or be better at meditating – anything I reflexively put between myself and my experience.

Returning to today – we still laugh and learn every day, and I still love my kids to pieces every day. Yep, every time I leave, I just need to come back from my visit to the future and love today. And also I need to buy more laundry detergent.

The Flow of Life

Travel light, live light, spread the light, be the light.” – Yogi Bhajan

In 2014, I had worked up the nerve to have a child on my own. I’d chosen a fertility clinic, gone through all the screening and work-up process so by November 6th, I was sitting at my desk signing the last document I needed to begin the invitro fertilization process. I clearly remember that moment at my desk with my beloved dog at my feet thinking wondrously, “Life is about to change.”

Then the next day I got a call from my mom that my dad had died in a bicycling accident in Tucson. Sh!t! That wasn’t how life was supposed to change.

Seven years later I think through all the changes, big and small:

I have a beautiful baby girl.

My gorgeous dog dies.

My mom moves to be only 1.5 miles from me.

I miscarry a baby.

I get pregnant again and have a beautiful baby boy.

The pandemic happens.

My daughter turns 5 and goes to Kindergarten.

Kindergarten is virtual.

My son learns to walk.

And it goes on and on. Perhaps it’s because my kids change so quickly that’s making me learn to just enjoy the flow. One minute they have a habit that’s irritating me – like playing with water at the kitchen sink and getting it all over the floor and the next they’ve moved on and can now zip their own coats.

Yesterday I got a delightful message from someone I went to high school with offering me and my family free accommodations in Colorado for 4 nights in April. Yay – what a fun surprise. And it was also my dad’s birthday so he was close to my thoughts and I missed him.

The longer I go on, the more I realize that this is the flow of life – we go up and over some things and under others. It’s when I try to grab on to some branch to cling on and stay in one place that I suffer most. The more I work at my spiritual depth and faith, the easier it becomes to stay centered in the flow and live it all with openness and curiosity.

What a ride!

(featured photo from Pexels)

The Ripple Effect

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

My dad once made a comment that when he focused on a topic for a sermon, there was a noticeable effect on his life. If he was preaching about parenthood, he’d be a better parent for that week. Likewise about being a better husband, friend or citizen as he focused on those topics.

As I was writing my post for Pointless Overthinking this week, The Art of Apology, I found the same ripple effect in my life. Reading through Dr. Harriet Lerner’s book Why Won’t You Apologize gave me so many great talking points for how to sincerely apologize and it also reminded me of the practice of accepting apologies, especially from kids.

Two points that really resonated with me. The first was not to brush off an apology with a “it’s no problem” when someone, especially a child, has worked up the courage to offer one.

And the second was not to use an apology as a springboard to a lecture. Responding to an apology with something like “Well, I’m glad to hear you apologize for hitting your brother because we don’t do that in this family” is the best way to make kids regret ever offering one.

When we apologize, we help heal the wound however slight for someone else. When we accept an apology, we affirm the courage of someone else to voice their mistakes.

As Dr. Lerner says “We take turns at being the offender and the offended until our very last breath. It’s reassuring to know that we have the possibility to set things, right, or at least know that we have brought our best selves to the task at hand, however the other person responds.”

The other day my 6-year-old daughter was making sticker art for people in her life. One mermaid that she made lost an itty-bitty piece of her tail and my daughter said, “I’m going to give this one to Nana. Because even though I lost the sticker, she’s a great forgiver.”

Isn’t that a great way to be known?