Life Banged Me On the Chin

Turn your wounds into wisdom.” – Oprah Winfrey

The other day my 6-year-old daughter and my mom were climbing into my car when my daughter said, “Mom, I hurt my chin.” I scanned the car to see how and she explained that she’d hit it the evening before when she was having an overnight with her aunt and uncle. Then they’d taken her to drama camp, my mom had picked her up so I hadn’t seen her all day and she was reporting something that had happened almost 24 hours prior.

It is unusual that we spend that long apart so of all the things she had to tell me from her many adventures that day, it’s funny that was the one she picked. She didn’t need any extra hug or even an after-the-fact ice pack, she just wanted me to know.

I’ve had to think about it for a couple of weeks to piece together why she told me. Then I happened upon a book about parenting I read a couple of years ago. The Whole-Brained Child by neuropsychiatrist Dr. Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, PhD. In it they explain the different parts of the brain – the logical left part of the brain, the emotional right part of the brain, the upstairs brain, which makes decisions and balances emotions and a downstairs brain that is in charge of automatic processes, innate reactions (fight or flight) and strong feelings (anger and fear).

They explain that the work of parenting is to help kids wire the parts of the brain together. By letting kids tell stories, they wire the words of the left brain to the emotions of the right. And by helping them calm the downstairs brain of fight or flight, we can then engage the upstairs brain to “think” about it.

But I don’t think this is just the work of parents. I think as friends, partners and bloggers, we are continually helping ourselves and others to make sense of experiences. We all need help interpreting, finding perspective, extracting the “lessons learned” from life.

I remember a particular friend in college whose long-time boyfriend had cheated on her and then broken up with her. She told the story over and over again to anyone that would listen. She was trying to figure out why it happened. It was a perfect example of this quote from The Whole-Brained Child, “The drive to understand why things happen to us is so strong that the brain will continue to try making sense of an experience until it succeeds. As parents, we can help this process along through storytelling.”

The reactions from our college-aged friends tended toward the sympathetic “What a jerk.” and “You were better than him anyways.” As momentarily comforting as those were, it wasn’t until someone pointed out that breaking up was always messy but she had faith in other parts of her life and she had to have faith about this too that my friend started to see the bigger picture and heal. Helping her see the mystery of life was just what she needed to become unstuck from the mire of life not being fair.

So we tell our stories to each other and the process hopefully helps us turn our wounds into wisdom. Because sometimes life bangs you on the chin and then you need to understand why it happened and what to learn.

(featured photo from Pexels)

Synthesis

“Whatever you are, be a good one.” – Abraham Lincoln

My best friend since second grade, Katie, was telling her college aged daughter that I was one of the smartest people she knows. I laughed knowing all the stupid stuff I’ve done over all the years that Katie is very well aware. But getting my bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering was one of those things that made people think of me as smart and so I just smiled.

But it also struck me that it’s been a long time since someone called me smart. And then I heard a 10 Percent Happier Podcast yesterday that explained why that might be. The podcast featured Arthur Brooks, a professor at Harvard who has just written a book From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life. In it, he discusses two types of intelligence: fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence.

Fluid intelligence is raw smarts, solving problems and doing it quickly, thinking very quickly. It is the brain power of young brains and it starts to decline in our mid-30’s to 50. Young tech entrepreneurs tend to rely on a lot of fluid intelligence.

Crystallized intelligence is what emerges as fluid intelligence declines. It is the ability to synthesize so that we become better story-tellers, teachers and are able to put ideas together and explain them to others. Historians are great examples of people that are using their crystallized intelligence to its fullest potential.

Which brings me back to thinking about my friend Katie. She graduated with honors as the 11th in our high school class and I graduated 12th. The reason I go to Katie for advice isn’t because she’s smart – it’s because she’s wise, kind and understanding. Most often, she is using her crystallized intelligence to relate the stories of her life to mine.

It also struck me that with those descriptions, all of us over 50 bloggers are in our sweet spot. Telling stories and synthesizing life, we are making the most of our crystallized intelligence as it starts to come to the fore. And if I’ve done a decent job telling this story, you all should be feeling great that you are right where you need to be!

(featured photo from Pexels)

Moral of the Story

Follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness.” – Allen Ginsberg

My 6-year-old daughter told me a story she heard from her Parkour coach, Lewis.

Lewis and his brother were at a water park. On one slide, there was a man and his daughter in front of them. The man, who was really big, put his daughter on his lap and pushed off when it was his turn.

When it was Lewis’ turn, he found that the man had gotten stuck and he had to push him all the way down the slide. At the bottom the man said, “That was fun!”

My daughter then turned to me and said, “Do you know what the moral of the story is?” I waited with baited breath until she revealed, “When you go to a water park, you’ve got to have fun!”

Ha, ha, ha. Not the moral I was expecting. But we all get to have different takeaways on this thing called life!

What Made Me Laugh This Week: Dec 5th

I was digging in my dad’s humor note cards again this week and found this story:

A woman hired a carpet layer to put down a huge new carpet. It was a job that took most of the day. After the largest room was laid, the worker stepped outside for a smoking break. But he couldn’t find his pack of cigarettes. He went back in to look for them and saw a small lump in the middle of the huge living room carpet. There was no way he was going to pull the carpet up – so he got a mallet from his truck and pounded it flat.

Just then the woman came in. “Oh” she said, “I found these cigarettes in the other room. Are they yours? Now if I can just find my parakeet…”

Story-Telling

Life is not measure by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.” – Maya Angelou

I met my friend Phil on the side of Mt. Rainier in the middle of the night 20 years ago. The group I was with was just crawling out of our tents to get ready for a summit bid. The group he was guiding had started 1,000 feet lower down and was passing by on their way to the upper reaches of the mountain. He gruffly joked with me, “Keep that tent open, I think I’ll just crawl in and sleep awhile.”

Phil is a very accomplished climber and mountain guide – the first American to climb the north side of Everest, the eighth person to climb to the highest place on each continent, over 500 (I think) ascents of Mt. Rainier. But one of the most noticeable things about him is his ability to tell stories.

It seems like mountain climbers and story-telling often goes hand in hand. Probably because there is a lot of down-time waiting for the right time to summit. On our way to Everest base camp in 2001, we would trek one day and rest one day so that the group of 5 people who would be climbing Everest that season could acclimatize. On the days off, we’d just sit in the mess tent, play cards and tell stories.

Blogging reminds me of that. I’ve been blogging every day for over 6 months. The other day reading this blog post about lessons learned in marriage and parenting a special needs kid by Ab, I realized that blogging is part of my self-care. It’s a way of processing and sharing the things that I want and need to learn from. But it’s also just daily practice in telling a story.

On every trip I’ve done with Phil I’ve noticed how deep his relationship is with the people his climbed with over and over again. I’m thinking about a really nice man from Michigan that we climbed with both in Nepal and Peru, that Phil used to joke, “I keep saying to Bill that he reminds me of a helicopter. Just looking at him, it doesn’t look like he should be able to climb, but he does!”

Phil is now 70 years old and doesn’t climb much any more. But when I’ve visited with him over recent years, I’ve found that telling stories is a way to bring what means most alive to the fore. May we all live our best stories and then tell them again and again to celebrate where we’ve been.

My Mother the Spy

Who in the world am I? Ah, that’s the great puzzle.” – Lewis Carroll

My 6-year-old daughter and her friend have a particular camper van that is regularly in the school parking lot. They are so fascinated by its story – it has a license plate that says VANLIFE and they wonder if anyone lives in it or if it belongs to a teacher. Playing along, I suggested that if we were spies, we’d put a tracking device under the bumper and see where it goes. They thought this was a great idea so I suggested my daughter should ask my mom for practical advice because we’ve always suspected she’s a spy.

My mom learned Russian in college while getting her major in Far Eastern Studies. When she graduated in the early 1960’s, the CIA offered her a job. She’s always said that she turned the job down and instead chose to get married.

But would there be a cover any better than being a pastor’s wife? In the 1970’s we lived in the Philippines and my mom took private Russian tutoring lessons. She and my dad visited the Soviet Union in that time when very few Americans ever did. I believe they even smuggled jeans in to give to their hosts.

When I was in college, my mom returned to college as well to get another degree in Russian Language and Literature.

After the wall came down, my mom lived in Moscow for five weeks to teach English. She developed such strong bonds that she and my dad led “work trips” there for most of the 90’s for people who were interested in supporting some soup kitchens and religious studies programs that were non-profits that she supported.

When I went to Russia almost 20 years ago to attempt to climb Mt. Elbrus, she sent cash with me to give to her contacts. They gave me the most vibrant walking night tour of Moscow in August I could have imagined.

And the last piece of “evidence” – she’s smart enough, adventurous enough and driven enough to pull it off. When you ask her if she’s a spy, she just smiles.

So it was my mom’s “professional” advice to my daughter NOT to track that van. She said she wouldn’t want anyone knowing where she goes so it’s best not to know that about others. 🙂

The funny thing about family lore like this is that the secrets are so much fun to speculate about because don’t we all have mysterious sides? And by that I mean avenues we could have pursued and alter egos we might have been had the Fates come down just a little differently. I’m guessing that now that my mom is in her 80’s, it’s safe enough to hit publish on this – or so I hope.

(photo by Pexels)

Know Your Audience

Integrity is the ability to listen to a place inside oneself that doesn’t change, even though the life that carries it may change.” – Rabbi Jonathan Omer-Man

My 6-year-old daughter asked me yesterday if stealing was bad. I told her it was always wrong and then tried to illustrate it with the example of us going to the store to buy groceries and then coming out and finding our car was stolen. How would we feel? Would that be okay? She countered, “But then we could just walk home.”

I agreed with her resourcefulness and then tried another example. “What if someone stole our Halloween decorations we just put up this weekend?” “That”, she emphatically agreed, “would be so, so bad! You can’t just go around taking other people’s Halloween decorations!”

Which reminded me that while our values don’t change, stories need to be tailored to the audience. 😊

A Show of Character

Your life is your message to the world. Make sure it’s inspiring.” – unknown

Twenty years ago I was climbing in Mexico when a guide told me a story about an exclusive Colorado ski resort that he worked at in the winter. The only way to get to the lodge was by sno-cat so they limited the clients to only one bag. On one trip, a customer had his bag and his guitar case and they politely reminded him it was only one bag. The guy had no problem accepting that policy and returned the guitar to his car. It was only later that they realized the guy was James Taylor!

That story is so much better than if they’d let him have the guitar! After all, I’m sure it would have been a wonderful concert but we wouldn’t have learned anything about James Taylor’s character. And it wouldn’t have reminded us that sometimes life doesn’t go our way – and then it becomes part of our story.

Happy Families

There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” – Maya Angelou

My mom told me that one of her friends from her retirement community keeps asking her about my kids. He’s 98 years-old, never married and has no kids, and he asks repeatedly about how I conceived them as a single mom and what I tell them about their parentage. As she was telling me this, I thought “Given that they didn’t even invent invitro-fertilization until he was in his 60’s, I can’t imagine what he thinks.” But in this most recent conversation they had, he started telling her about the traumatic childhood he had — his father’s abuse of his sisters, his mother’s nervous breakdown when she discovered the abuse and his mother’s instruction to him to make sure he never left his younger sister alone with his dad. At the end of relating the story he simply said to my mom, “I would have been a lot better off without a dad.”

This makes me so sad. First of all because I had a great dad. Nothing about what I’ve done is a commentary on dads in general. It was simply a matter of not having the right one for my kids and running out of time.

Secondly because of the shame he still seems to carry. The answer to his question about what I tell my kids is that I tell them whatever they ask but I don’t complicate it with more than they want to know at the time. The first time my daughter asked she said, “Did I have a dad when I was born?” and I said “no” and then she followed up with “Did I have a dog when I was born?” and I thought “that’s where you’re going with this?” and answered “yes”. We’ve had more in-depth conversations since then about me going to the doctor to become pregnant and a little about sperm donors but she’s not all that interested yet. I have no way of knowing how she or her brother will come to feel about this (and it’ll probably be many things) but whatever it is, I will do my best to make sure it isn’t shame. My primary tool to combat that is not to have any secrets about their origins.

I’ve been thinking a lot about a Tolstoy quote I recently came across, “Happy families are all alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Given that Tolstoy lived long before invitro fertilization and also gay marriage, I’d say maybe in his time happy families were all alike. But they can look pretty different these days.

But I think Tolstoy was right that unhappy families have many possible reasons that can echo for a long time. I hope that we see my mom’s friend again soon and somewhere in the telling of his story and the grace of being interested in my happy children since he never had any of his own, he finds peace for his inner child.