Thursday, November 28, 2013

Give the Gift You'd Like Most of All

Opening up the local paper online this morning, on route to the days obituaries (I’m not morbid, it’s actually part of my job) I was surprised to see a familiar face. Dave Lewis, a former teacher of Rebecca’s. His story was main stage, the headline: ‘Kitchener Man Remembers a Plane Crash Tragedy, 50 Years Ago Near Montreal’, a picture accompanied of Dave sitting solemnly in his living room holding a book ‘Voices from a Forgotten Tragedy’

I read through the account of Dave’s Story (capital S because it is his great significant tale) and was saddened to learn that at the age of 11 he lost his father in one of the largest aviation disasters in Canadian History. The article outlines the tragedy, shares some history and details plans for a commemorative memorial being held this week in Quebec. (I invite and encourage you to read it here) Dave’s Story touched my heart and drew me in, partially I am sure because he is someone I have known but more so for that very same reason. He is someone I have known.

Does that make the story more compelling and relatable? To be frank I do not know Dave well beyond the part-time hours he taught my daughter, so I would not expect to know his Story; but that he had a Story never consciously crossed my mind. That is more to the point.

We forget that every single person we know has a Story. While we are busy talking about progress in reading and comprehension we forget that the person on the other side of the conversation has a private journey of highlights and struggles, successes, failures, great joys and heartbreaking tragedy.

Some Stories we know; the Stories of our friends (those they choose to share) that connect us to them beyond casual acquaintances. Our families have Stories; ones we are a part of, ones we’ve bared witness to and ones we support one another through. Our children have Stories, some are big and loud and exciting like learning to blow bubbles and scoring winning goals. Some of their Stories are quiet and hidden like first kisses and liquor cabinet raids. Our partners have Stories from their lives before we meet them that weave themselves into our fabric and become part of our own Story.

The one defining thing about all these stories is that they equalize us, don’t they? Our Stories are like flowers; each species has its own virtue, each is complete and beautiful in its own entirety, in this way they are the same. However, no one can say that one single flower is more beautiful or has the most pleasing fragrance. That is unique to each heart that looks upon the flower. 

No two journeys are the same; my tragedy does not outweigh your tragedy and make my Story more valuable. Your Joys do not out shine my joys and diminish their value. They simply can’t, we have not lived on one another’s Story to know and measure. In our Stories we are equal, in that each one of us has a very private personal one, equal because they touch all of the same emotions. The way a person feels sorrow or joy, the degree to which it makes them ache or radiate is as individual as our fingerprints and DNA, there is where the difference lies. How we feel our Stories makes us believe that we live a more difficult path or a more joyful one than our acquaintances. If our journey is one of great sorrow and pain, it is easy to feel we deserve greater portions of sympathy. If our Story is filled with great moments of boundless success and joy we may perceive that we have lived a greater life. How we feel our own Story pits and ranks it against the Stories we don’t really have the capacity to comprehend. 

In our experience, in our view, our own Story is most beautiful, most fragrant.

Our own Stories captivate us. Sometimes so much so that they keep us stuck, reliving a passage or a chapter over and over. We become so enthralled with living our Stories and creating our Stories that we forget that others have Stories too and we don’t value them the way we should as unique and beautiful flowers.

Sharing our Stories is a healing tool but it makes us bad listeners. Whether you vocalize it or not, at the very moment someone begins to tell you their Story your brain calculates “Ya, but do you know what happened to me?”  Put 6 mothers in a room and start a labour and delivery room conversation and you will see exactly what I mean. It’s so predictable it’s downright comical! Take those same 6 mothers aside separately and ask them to re-tell a labour story they just heard and I bet you they can’t. We don’t listen to understand, we listen to inform. We listen for breaks in conversation to share more of our own Story. Rude to the ultimate degree but so natural that we don’t even recognize we do it.

The end result, none of us really ever feels like our Story has been heard. It makes us feel anxious and angry, frustrated and disappointed. It makes the hurt last longer; it makes the joys feel uncelebrated, makes sadness reverberate in our hearts long after the event has come and gone. Most of all, it leaves us searching all the time to be heard.

Reading Dave’s Story this morning made me think; “How many Stories am I missing?” And I realised, there is a beautiful gift each of us has the capacity to give.

You can change how much you suffer by finding someone to tell your story to and you can change how much someone suffers by listening to their story.

What a beautiful thing, especially as the holidays approach and people are overwhelmed with memories, joys, sadness, grief and longing, what a gift to be the listener. What a gift I have to give; to give someone’s story my undivided attention, to hear it all the way through from beginning to end. To listen without sharing, comparing or fixing. To, for the time of a tale, wrap attention around them like a blanket around their shoulders.  Be completely present, riveted in the moment of their story and not mentally online or at the mall or at my desk.  To just smile and nod and give them all the time they need. It’s a gift that, is going to take some effort.

I hope you find this a gift worth giving and I hope you find someone to give it to…. but mostly I hope someone gives this gift to you.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Heated Seat - Comutication and Poop

Mike and I are comuticating...
That’s a real word, because I said so and also because I am at a loss to, in any other way, label the 23 minutes Mike and I spend together in the vehicle each morning.

Driving to work together is a new experience for us. (Imagine that, after almost 30 years together we’re still ‘keep’n it fresh’) It is a pretty economical decision and also not much of a choice as we are a one car family. I knew when we launched this effort a few months ago that our 23 minutes would become a daily mini married speed date. We can cram a lot of conversation into that short time, (time has been a great teacher). I knew we would tackle issues of family importance; budget meetings, scheduling, disciplinary hearings (sorry kids, family democracy isn’t really a democracy). I knew we would discuss vacation planning and errands, family squabbles and home repairs. I was prepared for it all.

I failed however to remember that I was driving with Mike; the man behind the Mickey Rourke incident. This morning I'm fairly confident that I left a few brain cells out on the highway.

Don’t ask me how it happened but we left the driveway talking about the night’s schedule for hockey and practices; we gravitated naturally to the radio hosts bantering about a recent survey of 1500 adults and their sexual history. That conversation morphed into a commitment discussion which led eventually, at the end of a long convoluted journey, to some random debate on whether in fact whales actually poop or not AND if they do... would said poop be slippery or frozen if it found itself mysteriously on an iceberg. I don’t even know how we got there. Two left lane passes, an off-ramp and a road-rageous comment and we were there. That’s all I know.

Luckily, the conversation went into the ‘blocked from memory’ vault and I managed through my work day to focus on death, investments and premiums.

Then I came home, opened my email and there was this…..

‘new message from: Mike    Subject: whale poop’

I never see it coming.


Monday, November 25, 2013

The Best of Attentions

Sunday this past weekend found me with a rare opportunity of un-allotted time; a few non-committed hours between hockey arena appearances and taxiing teenagers back and forth to work. Mike was occupied with a 5 hour training session for his coaching role and E-man was engrossed in a Lego project. (That was nice to see, he spends so many hours growing up these days that it was comforting to be reminded that there is still a little boy underneath all of the increasing independence.)

When you are a mom and this rare opportunity presents itself you have a checklist: ‘everything I’ve been neglecting’. It’s prioritized and itemized and burned into that part of your subconscious that wakes you up at 3am for a chat. My list looks like this

1.       Fold the laundry.

That’s it, a list of one item. Folding laundry is always the neglected chore; it is always on the list and always at the top.

Presented with an afternoon of un-allotted time and some careful planning a mom can also do some serious damage to their list! By the time my morning coffee was finished I had successfully set my intention on folding the laundry while everyone else was busy. At a steady pace and with a good dose of PMA (present moment awareness) I calculated that the mound of ‘washed and fluffed’ on the laundry room table could be diminished to 5 neat and tidy stacks of crisp corners and pretty pleats in under 2 hours.

With my day planned and myself psyched up for the folding job, I met Mike and Kate in the truck and completed the first run of drop offs. On the way back home I popped into the grocery store to pick up butter and parchment paper, stewing beef and dates. I made a quick stop at the hardware store for an extra string of Christmas lights and some zip ties to complete our outdoor light display. When I arrived home I put the zip ties to work stringing garland on our rusty porch rail while I still had my coat and gloves on. I unloaded the groceries from the car and went inside to put them away. While unpacking I warmed up the oven; Date Squares might as well be baking while I’m folding I figured (never overlook an opportunity to double duty). Date squares come together so easily and with so little effort you can also whip up a batch of oatmeal macaroons and dice a pot full of veg for Sunday stew and have a great conversation with a teenager at the Kitchen table all without breaking sweat. So quickly in fact that you can find yourself with some leftover time to accept an invitation to cuddle up on the couch for a movie and wash the dishes and answer a few emails. Heck before you know it you can be back in the taxi again – this time for a round of pick-ups that soon became dinner served, dishes washed, tea time –feet up, tuck-ins and pillow talk. Before your eyes you’ve accomplished a record number of successes in a single day!

Then comes Monday morning.
Here I am, in the laundry room, rummaging for matching socks and measuring wrinkled-ness against wear-ability; a little frustrated with myself for failing to achieve my intentions. All the time thinking to myself “Dam, Oprah and Deepak nailed it this morning!” Reflecting on day 11 of our 21 day Meditation Challenge (okay technically it’s day 15 but folding laundry isn’t the only place I’m behind). This morning’s meditation was focused on Intention vs. Attention and here I was wading up to my earlobes in example; well played universe, well played you caught me with my attentions down, shiny things got into my line of sight and I lost focus of my intentions. How
often does this happen? With certain regularity I'd say; to me, to you, to most people in the modern civilized industrial world. Unless you are a fulltime granola crunching, commune living, peace and enlightenment seeker, removed from society (for the record this would be me, if I wasn’t secretly terrified of having to stomp my own cabernet.) and even then I bet it happens, our best intentions don't get our attention.

This is the habit of our modern life and I am brought to mind Cecile Andrews' book Slow is Beautiful; a
n exceptional primer (if not a little too politically rich for my free thought spiritual brain) on reclaiming a life of meaning over matters. In her writing she addresses the very real paradox that the things we are very well able to identify as the most meaningful aspects of their lives, (think deathbed regrets); family, love, relationships, spending time with others and enjoying life are also the things we have great intentions to do right by.

Then we spend all of our attention on the very opposite; work, advancing careers and educations, increasing worth and consumerism, amassing and paying down debt, striving for markers of success and status, vacations and cars and promotions, trips to the dentist and Black Friday sales, Thursday night premiers, cellphone launches, networking groups, social branding, what we wear, how we smell, where we buy our tofu and who knows it.  We get distracted by shiny objects, misplace our attentions and find ourselves wearing really great shoes and staring at a pile failed and neglected intentions.

My intention was to fold the laundry, my attention was not.

It makes me curious...... just how much of my attention is actually being misplaced?  
Working on the premise that:
Intention is to speech as Attention is to action. One wants to accomplish great things, the other does.
I’m going to ask myself for the next little while “Is my Attention focused on my Intention right now?”

Worst case scenario; my family and friends will be getting a better piece of me. Best case scenario; the laundry will get folded!
Thank you Deepak, Oprah, Cecile, and the laundry Gods.  

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

We Day - Our Part

We Day arrived in Kitchener Waterloo today with all of the buzz and excitement expected when the travelling ‘do good’ show comes to town. The kids love it, teachers love it, social media folks swoon over it like the latest specialty offering at Starbucks. So much praise for the event and for so many great reasons. The day is devoted to celebrating the greatest potential in our community youth. It is devoted to celebrating young people of leadership and to encouraging young people to be the change the world is waiting for. We Day is a fabulous thing!

And it has me reflecting (are you surprised?) on what leadership is and who leaders are and what responsibilities leaders have to the people around them.

I’ll be very honest here and admit that the attendance process had me a little bummed and flustered, you can’t buy tickets to We Day. You can watch it live on-line but you can’t get in unless you’ve been selected through your school or service club or church or social ‘connections’. And while the tickets are free, make no mistake; like any other social, brand marketed, mainstream event, attendance to We Day is bought, by people who can talk about it or who will be talked about.

Rule number one of marketing; if you want to reach the greatest number of people you need to deliver your message to the people with the greatest audience to spread it to. Makes perfect sense. There are 6,000 seats for the young leaders of today in the auditorium and many of them will be filled by limelight leaders of our youth; student council chairs, youth group leaders, volunteers, but I guarantee and hope that a great many will be filled not with extraordinary examples of leadership by ‘popular demand’. For very good reason; choirs don’t need converting.

Popularity is so easily confused with Leadership. To be very clear they are NOT the same thing, they do however have a responsibility to one another. We Day organizers are very cognisant of this I believe and I wish them great success in delivering to the popular seat fillers the real message of We Day.

Not that they are great leaders but that they have a responsibility to become great leaders.

That, as History has proven in catastrophic proportion, your ability to retain followers does not certify the content of your message. Our school yards are filled with live demonstrations of this every single day; popular kids inciting bullying and segregation, promoting exclusion and demonstrating ‘under the line’ choices like drug use, profanity, and disrespect.  Certainly, they are leading by virtue of personality but they are not leading anyone to a brighter tomorrow.

…..But they could be, with a little encouragement, a little coaching, a little accountability, a little We Day demonstration of what positive leadership can do. Imagine the impact a socially popular student could have on our community with their notable reach if they could learn and adopt the leading traits of our best messengers.

Our best messengers; the quiet kids on the playground, the invisible leaders who’s strengths are kindness, compassion and empathy; kids who seek the odd man out and raise their hands to lend a hand, not because it increases their exposure but because they like the way it feels to do something nice for someone else.

These kids are great leaders too who very often go unnoticed by their peers and teachers and grown-ups simply because they do not command the same attention as the popular set, they do not have the same notable ‘reach’ (not yet).

One of the greatest markers of a true and exceptional leader is their ability to generate an atmosphere others can thrive in. Our best messengers, our quiet leaders do this every single day by simple virtue of living by example

So today while we are celebrating our strong visual community youth leaders and encouraging our popular kids to live up to the responsibility of their stations I want to encourage every adult to take a moment and thank a messenger; one of the kids in the middle who might not feel like they are making a difference because they miss out on the loud revival message and the fanfare. 

They need our praise and encouragement because they just as much, if not more, represent the future and the change we will see in the world. When the kids grow up and the wheat of leadership is separated from the chaff of popularity, the goodness of our society will depend upon leaders who live a great message everyday, pass it along to there own children and make our world a better place.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Sunday Sunrise

Sunday unfurls as the cat burrows under the blankets and nips gently on my leg “It’s about to begin” he whispers, “get up and watch the sunrise with me.” I stretch and rise, reluctantly but awake none the less.

We pad to the kitchen, I brew coffee and lift the living room blinds just enough for Curious to perch on the sill and check on the outside world. Satisfied he trips gently across the piano keys, the devil, on route to a freshly filled breakfast bowl; a little musical interlude of gratitude, perhaps just loud enough to wake another.

In the corner of my eye a sleepy ruffle headed boy crosses the hallway to wipe the sand from his eyes before joining me on the couch. He snuggles his pillow wrinkled cheek soft against my arm and yawns a “Morning Mom” his breath warming the backside of my coffee hugging hand. These days are not long.

Before they become a creaking downstairs door and quiet footsteps that ascend in search of a shower and toast before work. A gentle quiet smile for mom and a snuggle for Curious, who knows he cannot be resisted, and soaks up a tender good morning nuzzle from the girl who brought him home. These days have come too soon.

From when not long ago she, like her sister, would protest an early end to slumber a little too emphatically to match the glimmer in her eye. It’s so early on a Sunday for a perfect outfit and well styled hair. A ‘see ya’ thrown over her shoulder to mom as she bounces out the door to her knight in shining armour with the engine running. There is a promised day of adventure ahead.

I rise to refill my coffee mug and I count quietly the years since those days were ours. I wander to close the bedroom door against the noise of the wakened day. Glory the vision that greets me; my love, lazing peacefully in a bed of tangled sheets. I smile at the way he uses up every inch of space and at the content that lingers on his face even as he sleeps.

I pause to love this moment as I watch his breathing rise and fall. Around my ankle Curious circles and I reach down to pick him up. “Yes” I whisper “my sunrise is a beautiful thing.”

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Small ~ Quiet ~ Life

It is funny that in our fast paced life while we are rushing from commitment to commitment and striving to fill all the needs, it takes something completely out of proportion to stop us in our tracks and grab our attention. We are amazed by names etched on grains of rice and dogs bred to retain the miniature cuteness of puppyhood, tea cup kittens, Smart cars, and hamburgers the size of Ritz crackers. We pull over to the side of the road to have our picture taken with statues of ginormous buffalos, giant hockey sticks and cowboy boots the size of Mac trucks. People will stare mesmerized for a very long time at a dollhouse where everything is a miniature recreation of its life sized counterpart. They marvel at tiny spoons and plates, tiny portraits that hang on papered walls, they remark at the stitching of teeny little quilts that cover teeny little beds and nuzzle teeny little sleeping figurines.

This happened to me in my absence from life over the past year. As Mike and I worked through the challenges of rescuing our family from a life that had strayed from its heading, my focus needed to be small and narrow. I did not have the time or energy to both regroup and touch many if any of the things outside of our immediate life that I once believed the world needed from me. To commit to our vision I had to retreat from everything beyond fulfilling the basic needs of our family and that made my world incredibly small. We changed the proportions and I stopped in my tracks and was suddenly seeing my life, our life, for the first time from a new perspective. I was mesmerized by its details.

I hadn’t really given it much thought, how much we have actually accomplished in the past year. We just go about living and enjoying the days as they unfold. Then this quote crossed my desk this morning

"A happy life must be to a great extent a quiet life, for it is only in an atmosphere of quiet that true joy dare live” ~Bertrand Russell

This sums up this past year for me beautifully.

When life got small, life got quiet.

It was already happy but as Russell suggests, when it got quiet I found joy. Partially because I removed all of the distractions, partially because I allowed myself to concentrate fully on the blessings in my life rather than just caring for them. I began reading and studying and learning how to support myself, my life, my husband, my children better. I got quiet and focused and meditative and looked for answers to questions I never wanted to hear the answers to before. I’ve become a student of living, real heart open ‘all in’ living.

This year of honest living has been a tremendous teacher and to be fair, I’ve practiced hard.

I’ve learned so much.
I’ve learned a lot about letting go, I’ve learned a lot about letting people discover their own paths, I’ve learned a lot about trusting that everyone gets to their ‘place’ in their own time and  a lot about holding the light rather than cutting the path for them.
I’ve come to understand that my happiness, my children’s happiness, my husband’s has nothing to do with the dishes on the counter or the age of the car we drive or the length of my hair or the colour of its roots. I’ve learned to admit that these things really don’t matter to me and that I won’t be kicked out of the human race for saying so. I’ve learned that their true happiness depends on how they are honoured, loved, respected, listened to, and cherished, and the time I can devote to celebrating them and supporting their dreams is what is needed.  
I’ve learned that loving people doesn’t mean fixing them, it means loving them broken. I’ve learned that I am not always good at doing this.
I’ve learned to be fearless by releasing a need to judge. It’s a backwards strategy but it has taught me not to worry what other people think of me, or my views or my possessions. That people will love me or hate me no matter how I try to please them or fit in and that’s okay because there are people I don’t appreciate very much either. I’ve learned that having an opinion does not change who they are or what they love or how they behave.  I am learning to find myself in other people instead of measuring the ways they are different.  
I have learned that our stories are courage for other people. I’m learning that compassion and understanding take work.  
I’ve learned that the smile I can put on someone’s face is more important than the food I can put in their stomachs or the gift I can place in their hands.
I have learned that every good memory depends on how I behave in this very moment.
I am learning to have patience with the way people treat me, that their behaviour has less to do with who I am and our situation than it does with who they are and the past they come from.
I am learning to get quiet when things get crazy, that there is joy to be found in every single tragedy, setback, disappointment and frustration. I am learning that sometimes you just have to look a little harder for it. I’m learning that it’s important to live in a way that makes it easier for other people to find their joys, to be a light not a shadow.  
I’m learning that I don’t want to be a good person, I want to be a better person than I was last year, 10 years ago and yesterday.
I've learned that just how much joy hides in a small quiet life.