We Carry Them With Us

“At some point, you have to realize that some people can stay in your heart but not in your life.” – Sandi Lynn

When I woke my daughter up last Friday for the last day of school, she had a frown. I thought perhaps it was just the fog of sleepiness still lifting but she told me otherwise.

I was happy that it was the last week of school but I’m not happy that it is the last day. It’s not like you can ever go back.

She didn’t want to leave her beloved 1st grade teacher. I thought the buildup and anticipation of summer would carry the day so I was caught off-guard, something fairly common for me as a parent.

The grief of the school year ending reminded me of a Ten Percent Happier podcast about the science of loss and grieving with Mary-Frances O’Connor, Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Arizona. She talked about what happens when we bond with someone – it actually changes the brain so that we encode that person is special. In the brain imaging studies O’Connor recounted, yearning for someone lit up the part of the brain that is the reward center of the brain, the nucleus accumbens.

Her conclusion was that even when our memories tell us that something has changed – someone is gone, an experience has ended – even when we know all that, the part of our brain that was transformed when we bonded still lights up. In O’Connor’s example, when she goes to pick an Easter dress, she’s still impacted by her mother. She may pick the dress her mother would like or the one that her mother would hate, but either way her mother is still present.

This explanation resonated with me. It explains that warmth I get when I think of my dad putting his arm around me and saying “It’s going to be great, Kid!” Or the little skip in my step I experience when I hike a trail my beloved dog Biscuit liked and I think of how he’d run back and forth.

I’ve often said that the longer my dad is gone, the more that I feel him inside me as if I have to act out the parts that I used to rely on him playing. O’Connor’s research says that in a way, that is true because he lives on inside my brain. I’d say that same about my dog which is true but also I’ve always had a personality much like a golden retriever.

Knowing that I’ll always exist in my kid’s heads gives me a little perspective on what that voice should say. Is the soundtrack that wants them to pick up after themselves or the one that says that they are lovable, kind and capable of anything? I’m aiming for a little bit of the former but mostly the latter.

As we moved through this past weekend, my daughter kept asking, “what would I be doing at school now?” She was processing the experience of being done by remembering all her school activities and quoting her teacher to me. Knowing a little about the science of how we record things didn’t help me know what to say, but it did give me a lot of patience for her yearning.  

By the end of the weekend, my daughter said, “I’m so happy for the Kindergartners that will have my teacher next year.” To get to our new experience, we have to cross the threshold of leaving the old. But the bonds we formed in the old experience go with us.

Sorry Your Head Hurts, Do You Want Something to Eat?

I am becoming water; I let everything rinse its grief in me and reflect as much light as I can.” – Mark Nepo

Last night we were having dinner on my brother’s World War II era tugboat. He has lovingly renovated it over more than 20 years so that it’s very comfortable for him and my sister-in-law to live on, but it still has a lot of steel edges to bump into. Which is what happened – my 2-year-old son was looking out a port hole, stood up quickly and bonked his head. My sister-in-law was standing there with me, saw him do it and as I picked him up, showered him with sympathy.

But 30 seconds later (maybe longer but not much), my sister-in-law said to my son, “What’s the matter, Buddy? Are you hungry?”

It struck me as a common thing we do as humans. It’s hard to witness someone else’s pain. So we express sympathy and then we are ready to move on. Three things strike me about this.

First, we often move to trying to solve the problem. I find this impulse, especially as a parent, to be so alluring.

Second, if things last longer than we expect, we try to conflate the pain with something else as my sister-in-law did. Is it not surprising that we grow up confused about what our feelings are if the grown-ups around us think that what is wrong is that we are hungry when really our head hurts?

Third, we compound the original pain with our discomfort at sitting with someone in pain. So that they often are moved to pretend the pain has stopped so that they don’t have to contend with both their own pain and the pain of the people who are witnessing it.

It’s hard but sometimes the best thing to do when someone is in pain, is just sit with them. As a mom, I want to reach for the ice pack, the bandage or the song but I’m working on just letting the tears fall onto my arms as I hold them. We have to clean our wounds before we bandage them and, in a way, letting the injured party cry for as long as necessary is the best first step.

Still Waters

God leads me to still waters that restore my spirit.” – Psalm 23

Today is my birthday. When my 6-year-old daughter realized that earlier this week, she said “Great, can you wake us up early on your birthday so we can make you a surprise?”

Wait a minute…this is a trick. So sweet of her but that morning time is my sacred time. Waking my kids up early is the opposite of a birthday present.

I’ve often thought that the transition between my quiet morning time when I do yoga, meditate, read and write to the time when I get the kids up and ready for school was a hard transition because I was selfish and wanted more quiet time. But something I read this week sparked the thought that it’s really something deeper.

In those quiet morning moments, I find my own stillness. I breathe into the space beyond myself and feel that unity with the Universe. And in that place, the feelings settle, the rush quiets down and it feels like I see beyond all of our physical boundaries if just for a moment.

And I feel that love for my kids that came the moment they became real for me. It’s bigger than a reaction to something they’ve done or the way we express ourselves. It’s that pure connection between the core of them and the core of me, not complicated by any movement. It’s that overwhelming feeling that I get when I creep in and watch them sleep. They are quiet and I’m quiet.

When I’m still, it feels like I’m standing in one of the clear lakes in Northern Idaho we used to visit in my childhood on a hot day without wind. I can see all the way to my feet and beyond.

Then it’s time to wake them up – and any movement stirs the waters. I reach for them and stir up the waters between us. It’s time to accomplish things, meet a timeline and respond to any worries. It’s like going from my peaceful standing in the lake to a full-on water fight. I have trouble traversing that threshold because I miss the quiet view of my little loves.

It’s not just these relationships either. When I’m quiet and peaceful, all my relationships seem clearer and easier to understand than when we are in front of each other talking and stirring up all the things that come with interplay. It’s harder to feel the full appreciation for the depth of each relationship in the busier moments, I just have to hold the quiet snapshot in my heart.

My friend Betsy, who is a more experienced parent than I am, suggested what to do about my birthday. Get them up just a couple of minutes early – so I get my morning quiet time and then also get to feel their love in full audio as well.

Simple and Direct

The problem of distinguishing what we are and what we are not responsible for in this life is one of the greatest problems of human existence.” – Dr. Scott Peck

We were at a community swimming pool the other day when we walked by a grown-up forcefully saying to a boy who looked about 12 years-old, “Stop talking. All I hear from you is blaming others, saying how they made you do what you do instead of taking responsibility. Stop talking.”

It was easy to have great sympathy for both of them. The grown-up who also had 3 other children younger than the boy with her and the boy who looked stunned to have a grown-up yelling in his face.

Thinking about it, it reminds me of the quote for this post, a great line from psychiatrist and author, Dr. Scott Peck, “The problem of distinguishing what we are and what we are not responsible for in this life is one of the greatest problems of human existence.

We all personalize or project. When we personalize, we think that everything happens has to do with us. If the boy at the swimming pool personalized, perhaps he thought that the grown-up’s mood was his fault. And when we project, we take our feelings and color everything around us.  In the swimming pool scenario, the grown-up could have been tired and frustrated after the effort to get four children dried off and changed after swimming so she projected that frustration onto the boy.

Dr. Peck wrote that we all exist on a continuum between neurotic and character disordered. When we are neurotic, as I tend to be, we take too much responsibility for things and when we are character disordered, we take too little. We see it all through our lens and then it’s a struggle to find a way to just own our part.

It’s a hard thing to teach to my kids since I’m still working it out myself. But I’ve been practicing just being direct – not embellishing either why it happened or owning too much or the scenario. When I step on the cat’s paw when she is winding her way around my ankles as I feed her, I try to model just saying “I’m sorry I stepped on your paw” instead of “I’m so sorry, it’s all my fault” or “you made me do it, you shouldn’t have been underfoot.”

At the swimming pool, I walked by the intense scene and then went out the double doors just past them. I’ll never know if the boy was able to say, “I’m sorry I did that” and the woman to say, “I’m sorry I took my frustration out on you” but I hope so.

The Choices We Have

Life is the sum of all your choices.” – Camus

I was talking with my friend, Betsy of the ParentingisFunny blog (possibly going to be renamed the Chex and Balances blog) but a delightful and fun blog about life, Jui Jitsu and the Universe at any name. We were discussing the idea of choices that behavioral economist Dan Ariely discusses in his book Predictably Irrational. He gives so many great examples of how our brain works to make choices based on the options presented. Like if we are looking to be a house and are comparing two ranch style homes, one that needs work and another that doesn’t, and a colonial, our brain will make the choice based on the price/work of the two ranch homes because they are similar. And even if it isn’t a totally rational choice if you really figured in the third option (the colonial), it’s repeatable because of way the brains anchors the choice by comparison.

Betsy said something lovely about admiring my ability to read and listen to interesting stuff. I replied that being single gives me more free time in which I fill with listening to content. And maybe it even fulfills a need for this intellectual stimulation since I’m not getting that from a partner at this point in life.

Which isn’t to say that I’m recommending being single, it just is a little amazing how much time being in a partnership can take. Choosing to do fun stuff, watch tv or even make dinner together – wonderful things to enjoy in a relationship but it fills time in a way that is hopefully fulfilling but might not leave time for reading behavioral economists. Or it could be deemed rude to put a podcast in at night when folding laundry or working out.

So I have the great pleasure of having time to listen and read great content. And then I have so much life in my house and little ones that I get great joy in processing the ideas and trying them out on them. Like with choices, if I think my little one should wear sneakers instead of rain boots, it works marvelously well to give him the choice of two pairs of sneakers and the rain boots. Just like the houses, it works!

Then Betsy generously added, “Your brain is being so enriched. And then you share your newfound knowledge with others. What a service! Especially when you share the highlights to those of us who don’t have time to learn things ourselves.” Which was a delightful thing to hear but also explained by behavioral economics.

In Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely describes an experiment they did at a college campus. They had pictures of two attractive people – Student A and Student B. They created a triptych of pictures with student A, Student B and a third picture where they altered student A to be less symmetrical and therefore less attractive.

When students were given the choice of who they found to be most attractive, the majority picked Student A. The third picture, the altered student A gave them something to compare against that steered them towards student A. They did this with several pictures to make sure it wasn’t specific to Student A.

Applying that to life, the choices are

  1. Being single with a rich blogging/writing life
  2. Being in a partnership with a great intellectual conversation
  3. Being single but feeling isolated because I’m not discussing the ideas that have inspired me.

Since option B isn’t really viable right now, it’s a no brainer that I happily choose to listen, write and share since it enriches the option that I have.

(featured photo from Pexels)

Open Up, Buttercup

Self-pity in its early stages is as snug as a feather mattress. Only when it hardens does it become uncomfortable.” – Maya Angelou

The other day on the carpool home from school, my daughter teed off when her friend said something about being called on in class. “I never get called on in class!” and “I never get to say my ideas!”

Self-pity is the emotion that I have the most trouble with. I think the idea that we should never feel or express self-pity was inculcated in me from an early age. My memory is that it was communicated in statements like “You can join us again when you are feeling more positive.” Or “Can I join the pity party?” or “Toughen up, Buttercup.”

So I think I came by my intolerance of self-pity in myself or others honestly from probably generations of family habits. But a little self-reflection shows me that the complete shutdown in my ability to listen and feel when self-pity appears is neither the person or parent I want to be.

I was mulling this over when I heard a Ten Percent Happier podcast with therapist Dr. Jacob Ham that helped clarify the underlying question. In the course of the conversation the topic of whether you have to love yourself to love another came up. Dr. Ham’s answer was it depends – “It depends if your fear is so great that it inhibits connection to yourself or another.”

While my natural inclination is not to name the feeling as fear, it gets at the heart of the question of solving things in ourselves so they don’t hinder our connection to others. I still have trouble thinking of self-pity as anything useful – but I also know my resistance tells me that it’s inhibiting the Flow of life somewhere and it’s worth a look.

In the car when I was listening to my daughter’s complaints, I could relate that I often see a skewed version of events when I’m tired or not feeling well. In my daughter’s case, I think she was both tired and hungry so I asked if we could come back to it after we filled her tank.

She said it was frustrating not to feel seen at times but after acknowledging that, we made a list of things she wants to do so that she can speak up about her ideas like raising her hand more enthusiastically. We’ll see if it works but I’m just grateful that I held on long enough to participate in the conversation.

(featured photo from Pexels)

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)

The Short Good-Bye

Dogs are not our whole lives, but they make our lives whole.” – Roger Karas

At the end of April, a few days before we were leaving for vacation in Colorado, my friend Eric mentioned his dog, Argus, started limping. Since Eric was going on vacation with us he wanted to get his Argus into the vet before we left. His regular vet didn’t have any openings but fortunately he found one a little further away that could see him on a Sunday. I texted him after the appointment asking how it went and he didn’t respond. A delayed response is pretty normal for Eric but this felt ominous.

Five years ago, I was feeling pretty tender after losing my beloved dog Biscuit and as an antidote was browsing the local shelter’s website for available dogs. It was a Friday afternoon and all of a sudden a dog that was a yellow lab/golden retriever mix popped up – so new to the site he didn’t even have a picture.

As soon as Miss O woke from her nap, I scooped her up and we went to the shelter. The dog had just come in, they thought he was 2-3 years old. He’d been adopted out from a shelter and then returned two weeks later because he was too high energy. I knew that with a 1 ½ year-old child that I couldn’t adopt him but I filled out the paperwork to put him on hold in case Eric did. Many years prior when Eric and I dated (before we become just friends and it’s not just a phrase but it works for us), he had a yellow lab and I had a golden retriever. His lab had died at a ripe old age and he hadn’t yet gotten a new dog.

Eric came down and visited the dog the next day with us. When he jumped at the opportunity to adopt him, he was surprised to find that I’d already filled the paperwork out. It started the joke that I adopted the dog for him.

Argus was high energy and full of surprises but he fit with Eric. Argus would find a way to lie on the couch no matter how many stools or chairs Eric put up there to keep him off. So Eric came up with a plan to put a towel on Argus’ side of the couch where he could lie – but that just meant Argus laid on Eric’s side. Have you seen that Internet meme where there’s a couch with three dogs on it and a man sitting on the floor in front of it that says, “It took a lot of training but finally he learned”? That was a perfect description for Eric and Argus.

A few months ago Eric ordered take-out Indian food. He put the Naan bread on the table when he stepped into the kitchen for a moment to load his plate and came back. There was “non” bread anymore and Argus didn’t even look guilty.

Miss O thought she could practice training dogs by working with Argus. Which worked pretty well when Argus felt like complying. One day we right behind her as she walked Argus until he saw some dogs ahead and pulled off like a shot, Miss O hanging on to the leash as he pulled her along on her butt down the sidewalk for 50 feet.

Eric called me the day after his vet appointment. The vet found cancer all through the leg and it had already spread to the lungs. Treatment meant amputating the leg and a lot of chemotherapy and the vet was pretty clear it still wouldn’t likely work. Eric had to make the decision to put Argus down. He said it took 90 minutes from the beginning of the appointment to the end.

Hot tears spilled on my cheek as we talked about Argus and saying good-bye. It didn’t feel like he was old enough to have to go. Where were the golden years when he mellowed out? It’s taken me three weeks to write about this because my ache for my friend and this beautiful dog is too close to the heart.

But then yesterday I listened to a Ten Percent Happier podcast with New Yorker writer and author of Lost & Found Kathryn Schulz and it helped me find the words. She observes that it’s funny that we use the same word “lost” to describe the hat we misplaced and the people we love who have died. She added that we grieve in proportion to the way we love them which I take to mean that I wouldn’t have spent six paragraphs describing my hat like I just did with Argus. But she eloquently described the bafflement we feel when we’ve lost our keys and when we’ve lost someone to be very similar. Even though the time and way we’ll grieve will be different, the feeling of “What? I just had them in my hand!” is the same incomprehension.

I’ve been writing about the long good-bye for my daughter and her friend that is moving in three months and then this too short good-bye snuck up to show me the opposite end of the spectrum. It turns out that all good-byes feel hard. But I find solace in to knowing that good-bye started as a shortening of “God be with you,” I find comfort in wishing God be with you to Argus.

P.S. If the name Argus (or sometimes spelled Argos) sounds familiar, Eric named him Argus after Odysseus’ faithful dog. When Odysseus returned from his 20 years at war and wandering, Argus was the only one that recognized him. He lifted his head to see his master one last time and then died.

Dear Mom, Part 2

Motherhood is the great mesh in which all human relations are entangled, in which lurk our most elemental assumptions about love and power.” – Adrienne Rich

Today is my grandmother’s birthday and even though she’s been gone for 22 years, I still mark this day in celebration of a confident woman who led a purposeful life even with a limited education.  So it seems like a perfect opportunity to post the results of the contributions you all made about what we learned from mothers.

I have broken the contributions into sections but left them as they were written – because they are all written by talented writers who say it best in their own words. I’ve linked to each person’s blog to provide ready access to more of that amazing writing by each of these authors.

Skills/Practical Advice

There were many interesting skills and practical advice taught by mothers:

  • TamaraKulish: Even though I had a very tumultuous relationship with my mother, I’m still grateful for her example of a strong woman who taught her son and daughter how to take care of themselves. We both learned not only how to cook, clean, and do laundry, but we both learned how to use hand and power tools to make minor repairs around the house. We learned a strong work ethic and the value of completing tasks properly!
  • MSW Blog: My mom has taught me so many things, but the one that got me through my years of academia was,” Always keep an emergency $20 bill in your, wallet it will get you through more jams than you can imagine.” She was of course correct as I was able to replace stockings, late night snacks, cover taxi fare, study supplies etc.
  • Rebecca Cuningham: My mom taught me women can do anything and everything; play sports, wield a hammer for Habitat, teach math…
  • Swinged Cat: My mom taught me that Sauvignon blanc wines from the Marlborough region of New Zealand are far superior.

The last being from the always funny Mark Petruska might be tongue in cheek but I don’t know.

By Example

And there were a lot of suggestions of things taught by example:

  • Ashley Peterson: I’m grateful that my mom instilled a love a reading in me.
  • Jane Fritz: All that having been said, my mother (1917-1974) was a remarkable, strong woman. Although in a very strong and mutually supportive marriage in a different time, when many considered the man to be the provider, by example the importance for a woman to have a career of her own. She taught me by example the importance of lifelong learning, of being informed, and of having the confidence to use her voice. And, along with many other things, she gave me a lifelong love of music and books. I have missed her every day for nearly 50 years now.
  • Finding Grace: When I think about what my mom taught me, some of it was overt and purposeful, but some of it was through example… it was just part of who she was. My mom taught me to give compliments freely (she would always compliment people, even random strangers), she taught me that learning to love began with learning to love myself, she taught me to set boundaries with others, she taught me that family and connection is everything, she modeled for me how to be strong in the face of adversity, and she taught me a love of growing things (people, pets, flowers, etc.). My mom was good at meeting a person where they were. She was supportive and encouraging, without being overbearing. Oh, and she also taught us to own up to our mistakes head on. She was all about integrity.
  • Julia Preston: I was raised in the “Children are to be seen and not heard” era. While she did not easily fit into the warm and fuzzy category, my mother was an outstanding role model. Her love was expressed by example rather than hugs. We never knew until we were adults that she detested vegetables, which she faithfully ate every night of our youth to set a good example. She passed away at 101, by which time, hugs became a part of our daily lives. I miss her every day.

And of course, love…

And there was a strong theme of love to the contributions including:

  • DutchIl: my Mom taught me to follow my heart and my dreams and be me… 
  • Hart Inspiratons: My mom taught me many things, and did me many things for me (for which I am grateful), but her primary lesson was to love myself. I’ve been processing that one my whole life. 

For our children

And finally in the category of motherly advice to give to children, there was this wonderful contribution from MSW Blog:

  • MSW Blog: The advice I would pass on to my children is listen. truly listen to what a person is saying, as it will allow you to not only communicate more clearly but obtain a clearer picture of the whole person.

And for interesting and thought-provoking reading, which is what Jane Fritz always provides along with some humor, Jane wrote a wonderful post on her Robby Robin’s blog entitled Mother’s Day: appreciation but no glorification please!

The Hot Goddess published a great post about lessons both good and bad that she learned from her mom and as befitting her gifted and entertaining blog, it is well-worth reading.

(featured photo from Pexels)

Here and Now

How simple it is to see that we can only be happy now, and there will never be a time when it is not now.” Gerald Jampolsky

Last weekend as I was planting some new strawberry plants in a planter next to some well-established ones, the 8-year-old girl from next door reached out to gently finger the leaves. “I am going to move before these strawberries come” she said a little wistfully but not too sadly.

As I wrote about in the post The Long Good-bye, our neighbors and my daughter’s best friend are moving to a city 1,200 miles away in 3 months. Every time I see the girl, she says something about moving.

“I want to ride bikes to school again before we move.”

“I think we are going to start packing soon.”

“Eighty-seven days until we move.”

I asked my daughter how her friend feels about moving she says disappointed to be leaving but excited to have a bigger house. Watching this happy and social child talk about her family’s plans, I recall that before this move came to be, the farthest forward time I ever heard her mention was dinner that night.

I know leaving now to imagine what the future might be like is pointless. More than that, every time I give in to worry over the specifics of how it might come to be I feel the drain of energy and faith that pulls at me.

But there is nothing like watching a child leave right now to visit some fuzzy future to illustrate the point. I see her eyes get a little unfocused as she tries to imagine what her days will hold in this vision she has no control over. Then she gives an almost imperceptible shake and returns.

This little girl calls my daughter her soul sister and me her soul mother. Trying not to mother too much, I mentioned that we don’t even know if the strawberries will bear fruit this year but there were some inside right then if they wanted to taste the present.