The Give and Take Problem

Alone we go faster, together we go further.” – African Proverb

For my birthday six months ago, my brother and sister-in-law gave me a voucher for taking care of the kids for two nights. I haven’t used it yet because I’m saving it up. I’m not sure for what but it’ll be big. For example, if some great opportunity to spend the weekend with the love of my life (not yet found or looked for), I want to have that voucher in my pocket to use.

This uncovers what I think is a flaw in my default mode. I tend to think of relying on others as “using chits.” For a project a couple of years ago when I was replacing the tension coil on my garage door, my mom suggested that maybe I should get my brother to do it. And it was a good idea but I thought I’d give it a try first so I could use my “chits” for something that I couldn’t fix.

In this way, I’ve learned to be very self-reliant. And I value that. But I’ve also become increasingly hardened against needing others. I’ve forgotten that needing others isn’t a bad thing.

This is probably no surprise to anyone reading this. After all, this might be exactly how I came to choose to have children on my own. While on the practical level it was because I hadn’t found the right partner and time was running out, it’s probably healthy to admit that I have some work to do on being inter-dependent on others.

I’m thinking about this because of the gift giving that goes on this season. We have to be as good at receiving as giving. It reminds me of a great post that Todd Fulginiti wrote: Helping Others: Can You Dish It Out But Not Take It? He made the point that receiving with gratitude feels good. It doesn’t make us needy, it makes the other person feels like they’ve given something of value.

I know when I find the love of my life, I’ll need to drop that independent shield to be vulnerable. And I bet my brother and sister-in-law will be so thrilled that they’d happily take the kids whether or not I have a voucher.

(featured photo from Pexels)

(The quote for this post came from a post by my lovely Wise & Shine colleague Cristiana Branchini on her blog Appreciating the Differences)

Unlearning My Way Back

A child can teach an adult three things: To be happy for no reason, To always be busy with something, and To know how to demand with all his might that which he desires.” – Paulo Coehlo

My sister-in-law recounted a conversation she had this week with my daughter, 7-year-old Miss O while holding hands and walking through an outdoor shopping center near our house.

Miss O said, “I love this place. Fun stores, good food, no BS”

My sister-in-law paused for a beat, wondering if she should ask, hoping Miss O didn’t know what it meant, and then asked, “Do you know what BS is?”

Miss O replied brightly, “Of course! Bad Service!”

After I stopped laughing, I wondered why it is that we think it’s bad for 7-year-olds to know swear words. Other than the fact that their executive brain function isn’t fully developed and they might deploy them inappropriately, indiscriminately or both. I landed on the fact that it feels like a loss of innocence.

I heard an interview once with singer and songwriter Billy Bragg where he posited that the opposite of faith isn’t doubt – but cynicism. If I think of Miss O using bad language, it feels cynical as if some beliefs of childhood would have had to have suffer in the process.

At their age, Miss O and Mr D believe that:

They are loved beyond measure and worthy of love

If you pray, those prayers will be answered

There is magic in the air so that sometimes fortunes found in fortune cookies will reveal the next fun thing

Potential new friends are everywhere

If you cry and show your vulnerability, you will be taken care of

Looking through this list I’ve typed, I think that I need to unlearn my way back to those beliefs. Because my cynical self might have been feeding me a lot of BS instead – and by that I mean bad service, of course. 😉

Taking Risks

Sometimes it’s riskier not to take a risk. Sometimes all you’re guaranteeing is that things will stay the same.” – Danny Wallace

A few years ago, a man fell into the crater of Mt. St. Helens while taking a summit picture. He was standing too close to the edge when a huge piece of corniced snow fell off taking him with it.

When I heard the news, I thought, “Oh geez, I probably stood on just corniced snow there too.” On St. Helens, which blew a great deal of its top off when it erupted in 1980, it’s hard to tell where the actual rim is and the pull to look into the crater is powerful.

Taking risks, hopefully wiser ones than that, is the subject of my Wise & Shine post this week: Life: Risky Business.

(featured photo is me on the rim of Mt. St. Helens)

Dancing In the Dark

Though my soul may set in darkness, it will rise in perfect light; I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.” – Sarah Williams

My kids are going through this “scared of the dark” phase. It seems to be seasonally inspired as the nights and mornings get darker. When we have 16 hours of daylight in the summer, they don’t see the dark very often but right now we’re at just over 10 hours of daylight. By the time we get to the solstice, it’ll be something like only eight hours of light each day.

I asked them what the dark feels like to them. Mr. D said surprise. Miss O added that someone could be a foot away in the dark waiting to snatch them and they wouldn’t know.

It makes me think of one of my darkest moments. When I miscarried a baby 4 years ago, overnight the world completely lost all its color and I couldn’t give a care about anything. In the moments that I felt anything, it was anger like I’d never felt before – rage, really – and nobody could do anything right. Except Miss O – I could muster some energy to pull it together for her. This started 4 days before Christmas, and I stumbled through the motions of the holidays just trying to be polite. I could get the smallest glimmer of peace in the morning when I meditated and every once in a while something amused me but overall the landscape looked completely black/white/gray with an occasional spot of color that pulled me through.

In a few weeks I evened out and I could work through the loss. I had stopped taking all the hormones that come with invitro fertilization when I miscarried so I guessed that there was a strong physical component to my experience of darkness.

Going through this gave me the great big a-ha that my assumption that my life experience and outlook were solid was totally wrong.  And I also began to understand that others might come at life from a completely different felt experience.

Mr. D told me his strategy about his dark – get a flashlight. And I love that because it’s a brave looking into the dark. To illuminate the things that scare us so we can lean in to look more closely. And I keep reminding them that there are many things we see in the dark that we can’t see otherwise – like our adventure to see the stars, Halloween decorations not to mention our own frailty. It’s easier to be vulnerable in the dark.

Sometimes the dark makes things visible– and they are different things to see and learn from than in the light.

My kids love Rihanna’s song, “Dancing in the Dark” from the movie, Home. So I’m suggesting that we can dance in the dark until it doesn’t seem so scary and then stay with it long enough to maybe even understand ourselves and others better.

The Window

Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art…It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things that give value to survival.” – C.S. Lewis

The moving truck has come and gone and with one last sleepover, it’s official that my daughter’s first best friend and our neighbor has moved away. We ticked through the 90 days since the announcement, some went quickly, others with a happy unawareness and then finally the days when it hung over our choice of activities like a dark cloud. And then the time arrived.

This is the first friendship that I’ve seen through my kid’s eyes. It started when my daughter was 3-years-old, I’d put her on my shoulders so she could see across the fence to talk to the little girl next door. If they were really lucky, Miss O would be up on my shoulders and Miss Z who was then 4-years-old would be up on her daddy’s shoulders and they could talk face to face.

As Miss O got bigger and I got closer to my due date with her brother, I searched for a new solution as the shoulder carry got uncomfortable. Putting my 6 foot ladder next to the fence, Miss O would climb up to the highest step we agreed upon, Miss Z would climb her tree and they’d talk.

The ladder stayed next to the fence even as they became more and more comfortable with play dates and visiting each other’s yards. Then one day I found my 1-year-old son who’d just learned to walk atop the ladder looking as comfortable as can be.

Of course I snapped a picture of it as I ran across the yard to get him down. That night after I got the kids in bed, with agreement from Miss Z’s family, I got out my dad’s Sawzall and cut a hole in the fence. After I attached two little hinges and a doorknob for each side, it become Miss O’s portal into the yard next door.

At the beginning of the pandemic, each girl would put a table on her side of the fence and they’d “eat together” talking through the window. They’ve passed markers, stuffies and shared deserts through the window in the fence. They’ve argued and then put apology notes through the portal. When we’ve accidentally stomped a rocket all the way into their yard, sometimes it comes back through the window in the fence.

This window has given me an insight about friendship. About the little windows in which we are visible to each other. The doorknobs we pull tight when the vulnerability is too much. The transparency with which we are willing to regard our own and other’s lives.

Now the window is closed. Sure, they’ll stay friends and figure out how to talk but this open-window era has ended. If fences make good neighbors, then little windows in them make good friends.

Young Love

The minute I heard my first love story, I started looking for you, not knowing how blind that was. Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere. They’re in each other all along.” – Rumi

The other day Miss O came home from playing at a neighbor’s house with a mystified expression. She told me that the 9-year-old brother had been kidding his 7-year-old brother about “playing with his girlfriend.” It appears that the younger brother had confided in his brother about a crush on Miss O and now the older brother was teasing him mercilessly.

Now I understand why that delightful boy is always smiling ear to ear every time I see him. I had just assumed he was extraordinarily happy and polite.

There are so many places to go with this story it feels target rich – the complete and utter delight of having a crush, the irrepressible urge to tell others when someone sparks your heart and the vulnerability of sharing your secret.

Just witnessing the potential energy of this little scene reminded me how powerful young love is – and I don’t mean just love among the young but the first stirrings of the heart. There are so many more questions than there are answers, the anticipation is excruciating and life is so wonderfully alive! It’s the heart begging to be let off the leash and dance, the mind trying to fill in the blanks all the while you are pretending to have it under control even as you know nothing is actually normal or controllable.

So you have to tell somebody – and this leads to the next potential topic from our story. It makes me think of the time in junior high that a friend told me she’d been making out with my best friend’s boyfriend on the side and swore me to secrecy. After I sweated it out for a couple of days, loyalty won out over secrecy and I told my best friend. And it also reminds me of my friend in my adult years that would relish in telling all the dirt she knew about other people’s indiscretions. She always had a story and it made hiking up a trail a little more interesting.

Then when my husband’s infidelities came out, I found out it was my messy life that was her fodder. I was chagrined that I had listened to those other stories. And I also learned that the vulnerability of falling in love might actually pale in comparison to the vulnerability of falling out of it.

So then we get to the third act – the brotherly teasing. In his book, The Thin Book of Trust Charles Feltman defines trust as “choosing to risk making something you value vulnerable to another person’s actions.” It seems like siblings and these juicy secrets full of so much potential energy are often the proving ground for trust. And we don’t always get it right.

Our neighbors were leaving for an extended trip on the day after older brother revealed younger brother’s crush. Hopefully that gives the boys time to work it out. Meanwhile, Miss O doesn’t seem too changed by the news which makes me glad that the power of love is still pretty tame at age almost 7.

Ying and Yang

We spend the first year of a child’s life teaching it to walk and talk and the rest of its life to shut up and sit down. There’s something wrong here.” – Neil deGrasse Tyson

The other day I was driving in the car with my kids when my 2-year-old son, who’s favorite show these days is the British cartoon Peppa Pig, started doing a great imitation of Daddy Pig snoring.

My 6-year-old daughter laughed and then asked, “When we get a daddy will he always be falling asleep, snoring and messing up the map reading like Daddy Pig?”

Which made me want to snort with laughter like Mommy Pig does.

It seems like toxic masculinity is a term we bandy about these days. It reminds me of when I was a kid in the 70’s and Bobby Riggs and Billie-Jean King played their Battle of the Sexes and male chauvinism was such a hot topic.

But years ago I read something from University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson that made me think that this topic is deeply seeded in humans. In his book 12 Rules for Life, he talked about selection of male partners.

Woman are choosy maters (unlike female chimps, their closest animal counterparts). Most men do not meet female human standards. It is for this reason that women on dating sites rate 85 percent of men as below average in attractiveness. It is for this reason that we all have twice as many female ancestors as male (imagine that all the women who have ever lived have averaged one child. Now imagine that half the men who ever lived have fathered two children, if they had any, while the other half fathered none).

I thought that was a stunning statistic of the big picture view that only 50% of men, averaged over all time, have fathered children. But then it’s the next part of the passage that gave a hint about toxic masculinity:

It is Woman as Nature who looks at half of all men and says, “No!” For the men, that’s a direct encounter with chaos, and it occurs every time they are turned down for a date. Human female choosiness is also why we are very different from the common ancestor we shared with our chimpanzee cousins, while the latter are very much the same. Women’s proclivity to say no, more than any other force, has shaped our evolution into the creative, industrious, upright, large-brained (competitive, aggressive, domineering) creatures that we are.

I know Dr. Peterson is a controversial character. But taking this argument at face value, but it doesn’t seem like too much of a leap to believe that women have sought out men who are certain, successful, strong and seemingly invulnerable. And so perhaps women can help to change that nature too, or at least I’d like to think we can help:

By raising sons who are free to grapple with their emotions.

By being a safe place for our brothers and friends to talk about the pressures they feel.

By helping out with map reading.

By letting our daughters know that it’s great to choose men who let their non-aggressive flags fly.

By listening and supporting everyone who says this is hard.

Maybe when I have a partner in life again, he’ll fall asleep and snore. But like Daddy Pig, he’ll be able to laugh about it because he knows we don’t expect him to be perfect, just true.

What do you think? Can women help with toxic masculinity? Is it too much of a buzz word to have much meaning? Is it okay to quote someone like Dr. Peterson even if I don’t agree with how he’s been politicized?

(featured photo from Pexels)

I Haven’t Tried Anything and Nothing Works

I believe you have to walk through vulnerability to get to courage.” – Brené Brown

I was talking with a friend the other day about her marriage. On the surface everything is fine but underneath one partner feels the pull towards adventure and the other partner doesn’t want anything to change. In fact as we talk through different possibilities of things that could give the relationship new ground – therapy, different types of dates, a shift in the balance of things – the answer was no to everything because it was too threatening.

It reminded me of a man I used to work with who would describe his team as running around with their hair on fire whenever there was a problem, which since it was a technology company, was often. If you asked them what they tried, he’d joke that they’d say, “I haven’t tried anything and nothing works!”

My friend’s situation also reminded me of my marriage after my husband’s infidelities were revealed and we were trying to work on it. He sat around and stoked his anger at his friend who had told me. Meanwhile I was casting about trying to find ways to heal. It felt like his check-ins consisted of asking me if I was better yet while he pursued nothing to find change and healing in himself.

While that might sound overly harsh, let me also admit that I’ve been the person in a relationship too frozen with insecurity and fear at what I might find to look under the hood. I’m thinking of a relationship I had in my 20’s where I found it too threatening to take that step towards introspection so that I preferred breaking apart rather than seeing whether we could alter our patterns and change together.

In the work scenario, I know it was our office dynamic that led to people not being willing to try anything because there was a company culture that was big on blame. Stepping your toe out to fix something could result in exposing yourself to fire. Creating an environment where it’s safe to be vulnerable seems like the best way to lead people to change, whether that be a family or a workplace.

Thinking about my friend and her marriage, I think relationships often set us up in dichotomy with each other. The adventurous one – the stalwart one. The one who wants to look – the one who wants to avert their eyes. So I silently root from the sidelines that they can cultivate a little more vulnerability to face change together.

I understand the fear that looking inside might reveal something ugly but I’ve come to learn it’s the not looking that is the real threat. If you don’t change from the inside, life will often change you from the outside. “I haven’t tried anything and nothing works” was a great company joke but it always required someone brave enough to break the trend to fix the problem.

(featured photo from Pexels)

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.

The Learning Curve

It always seems impossible until it’s done.” – Nelson Mandela

We worked hard on potty training this weekend. I found it to be a fascinating window into the nature of learning. And that’s not just me putting a positive spin on it.

Day 1: Chaos. The first morning was hit and miss (or more miss than hit). By naptime we were both exhausted. My son because of the huge change that comes learning how to use his body and me because infinite patience takes a lot of energy! So the first lesson came after we’d both napped. Rest helped consolidate the learning so that he was a better student and I was a better coach.

Then after an afternoon and evening of more efforts and celebrations, my son was never happier to have the feel of a nighttime diaper, jammies and to snuggle up and read books. And it underscored for me the need to have comforting rituals to soothe ourselves when in the midst of big change.

Day 2 was characterized by a lot of resistance and efforts to control everything else around. It reminded me of a Brené Brown podcast I heard years ago that whenever she has led or attended a three-day conference, day 2 was always marked by the doldrums. Brené likened it to the middle part of the hero’s journey as described by Joseph Campbell. The hero does everything in their power to pursue all options except for the one that they are called to that leaves them feeling vulnerable.

Day 3: We needed expert help. Which is uncomfortable for me not have it dialed but the amazing teachers at my son’s daycare have said repeatedly that they are more than willing and able to help with this journey. For which I am so thankful. I left him on Monday with a “Good luck” and “God bless you” and I couldn’t have meant both more!

This learning curve at times has felt impossible, exhausting, vulnerable, and not worth it. Somehow it reminds me of learning to snowboard – and also mastering a new technology, figuring out to give my dog allergy shots, starting to blog, and learning how to do mosaic tiling.

Each new venture has roughly followed the same pattern of chaos, resistance and then leaning in and asking for assistance if needed. And it’s not just me. I have a dear friend who didn’t learn how to swim until she was 60 years old. And my 82-year-old mom has been figuring out how to do piano performances online for her retirement community.

Watching my son, I am reminded how hard learning something new is – until it isn’t. And while grown-ups might not be taking on changes as transformative as potty training, we still need to give ourselves the rest and rituals to support our learning, grace to survive the resistance and the courage to lean in to expert help when we need it.

Because as Nelson Mandela says, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”

(featured photo from Pexels)