Family: Then and now

Where I have worked for the past two and a half years is all about families. Especially the ones that aren’t working very well. Love cracked open, disappointment spilling out. Yet even as my fingers type that sentence, I realize, no, that isn’t quite right.  The part that isn’t working in these families is just one part of their complicated stories.

On the flip side of the brokenness are individuals who are absolutely driven to create a family, so much so, they’re willing to go through more than anyone who conceived kids the old fashioned way probably ever would.

After I listen to the people I sometimes get to talk with, their stories linger for a long time. I think about them because the stereotypes I hold become really clear whenever I talk to someone who has chosen to create or grow their family through adoption.  

And there are so many versions of families these days. I wish there was a less loaded term, something other than the word “family” to describe the multitude of scenarios that bring people together into co-habiting units.

Compared to years past, adoption seems now to be a whole other dimension of relationships and hearing firsthand about that shift is what I most like about the conversations I have with adoptive and foster parents.  

Almost all of their stories are about connection and re-connection across multiple families, of light finding its way through the cracks, just like Leonard Cohen said it would.  Foster families might still be in touch after adoptions or even provide respite to the new adoptive parents. Extended families are caring for relatives’ kids. Same sex families are adopting kids who identify as trans. Indigenous families are taking on guardianship. There is no such thing as a “typical” family.

Yes, we hear horrible stories in the news about some foster parents. But we rarely hear about the life changing being there for kids like they have never known that I know happens as well.

Whenever I speak with foster or adoptive families, I’m reminded that, “We all need backup. We’re not islands unto ourselves.”

I often wonder about all those faces I conjure up in my mind –  children and teens –  in foster care and wonder how broken their hearts might be, and all the complexity of the scenes that unfolded to land them there.

Excruciating decisions and no decision-making at all. Neglect, addiction, alcoholism, mental illness, the fallout from poverty. The death of parents or any combination of the above. And then miraculous resilience in those same little ones, like paper whites inching their way back up in spring. Overcoming all odds.

And so many kids so eager, in spite of everything they’ve already been through, to find that elusive loving relationship. The one that’s going to work, that they can count on. A place to call home that they feel good about calling home.  A mom and a dad, or a dad and a dad, or a mom and a mom, or just a mom, just a dad, grandmas and Nana and Oma, aunties and uncles. Sometimes just a family friend who has stepped in, lives overlapping, coming together in the best case scenarios to put the kids first.

What is it that sets the best parents – biological, foster or adoptive – apart? I wonder about that but it always returns to the simplest of answers: unconditional acceptance and love.

Your children can only be their own person. They won’t grow up to be who you wish they could be or who you wish you’d been. Stop trying to make them someone else. You will lose that battle eventually or ultimately you will lose them. As Kahlil Gibran wrote, “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself…” I’ve always believed that. It’s as if we were were all formed in spirit before we were even born.

When I cast my mind back on myself as a toddler,  I see myself with dolls. I’d carry them around. I’d sit across a small wooden child-size table and have invisible tea with them. I really liked to put different dresses on them.  I don’t think I ever consciously thought about whether I’d have my own kids while I was doing it.

In my thirties, I didn’t experience any ticking of the proverbial biological clock. Maybe that was because my own life was so often in emotional chaos that having a baby was just relegated to some reality that had nothing to do with me. Depression played a significant role in that detour, among many other things, usually related to men, that with the benefit of hindsight I see much more clearly now.

And while it’s true, I have some regret about not having created my own little family, if I’m being honest, those regrets are actually relatively minor because I stopped romanticizing the reality of family a long time ago.

For as long as I can recall, I wasn’t interested in creating a group of people who would feel like a burden, because that’s how I viewed family. My entire focus had been on being free of constrictive responsibilities and, my God, I have succeeded beyond all expectations in that regard.

I guess the lack of a strong meaningful emotional connection that both my parents seemed capable of creating with their children was a major contributor to my family-as-burden archetype. But an even bigger factor was probably just observing my mother and how much work she did every single day to raise five kids, seemingly single-handedly. No thanks! I know my parents did the best they could based on their own upbringings and they worked so hard, maybe too hard. And I’m pretty sure, if they’d had more choice, they would have made different choices.

Now, when I see/hear good parents in action, just listening to how they speak with their children can melt my heart (because it’s so caring) and break my heart (because it reminds me of the type of loving softness and comfort that my parents weren’t able to give to us), not that they didn’t give in other ways.

I guess that’s why it’s a bit of a surprise to me now to recognize how I have come to understand, albeit a little late, how much family matters.

They push our buttons to an extreme. We might be estranged. We might fantasize about how things could have been so much better if only we weren’t related to THEM! Or they can be our best friends. They are that cast of wacky characters in our own weird little “All in the Family” mini series. They are the ones who are there when family members get sick. If we’re lucky, they are the ones most likely to be there at the end.

The older I get, I have come to understand that there are few things more comforting than a feeling of belonging, and nothing generates the feeling of belonging the way a family can, especially  through the sharing of happy moments.

That’s why I hope you do something this Family Day weekend that brings enjoyment to your kid(s) and shows them that you still actually know how to have fun. Be unpredictable! It doesn’t have to cost a lot.

Be who THEY need YOU to be.

Microcosmic Orbit intercepts my own orbit

I absolutely love it when I’m introduced to something that I’ve never heard of before. In my guided meditation class the other night, we were introduced to the Microcosmic Orbit.

This is from Traditional Chinese Medicine and refers to the meridians in the body in which qi or life energy flows throughout the body.

Apparently there are 12 standard meridians in the body. The fire channel, or sea of the yang meridian, is up the back of the spine also called the Governor, running from the  perineum to the top of the head, over the head and connecting with the water channel, the conception, sea of yin meridian, that circles back down to the perineum.

Starting at the belly, imagine molten lava boiling in your belly as you breathe deeply in and out of the belly.

The tongue is held against the top of the roof of your mouth, as far back in the mouth as comfortable, and when the yang energy arrives just above the upper lip and the circle becomes complete, the tongue seals the meeting of the two. At least I think that’s what’s going on.

Imagine a pearl of energy circling the body in this way with your mind focused on the energy of the pearl as it makes the microcosmic orbit or small heavenly wheel around the body joining the yin energy with the yang.

Based on what I’ve learned so far in my qi gong  and meditation classes, I thought this video did a really good job of describing how to do it and what’s happening in the body. Of course, it could take quite some time to get good at it to reap the rewards and probably another lifetime to get my big old belly to move like his. Whatever!

 

Qi Gong: Awakening the tiger

In the new year, I decided  it was important to do something that was out of my head so I signed up for a few courses at my local community centre.

Sunday morning is for Somatic yoga. I call it yoga for lazy people because it feels like the instructor is doing all the work. It’s as if she’s leading some organized travelogue around my body while I’m just the tourist, on the bus, staring out the window of my mind, assessing my limbs and their weight against the ground. 

“Is your right calf touching the floor in the same way as your left? How does it feel? What about your hips? Is one hip higher off the floor than the other. Strangely enough, the day after the first class, I woke up and my left hip, which has given me problems, was feeling looser. The pain in the morning wasn’t really there. Am I just imaging that, I asked myself. Three weeks later, the stiffness has remained less.

Wednesday night is for Guided Meditation and realigning the chi, listening to soothing music and rebalancing the chakras.

Thursday night is for Qi Gong.  I’d heard about Qi Gong but didn’t really understand what it was. Body. Breath. Mind. Being aware of energy. Moving energy in a healing way inside the body.  The instructor is a man who I’m guessing to be nearing his late sixties. He might be older and because of his fitness, looks younger.

As one would hope, he’s very calm. He speaks very softly but as soon as he takes control at the front of the room, you know he knows his stuff even though you have no idea what that stuff is. 

The class is packed. He seems to have a following. It’s as if everyone in the room, except me, knows each other. It’s as if they’ve been doing this for years. When I go back home, I Google him. It says: Eric Tuttle is the only person in Canada who can do all four traditional Chinese internal martial arts at a master level. He is also the highest ranked non Chinese person in the history of the rare art of Xin-Yi Quan (Heart, Mind, Fist), the oldest internal martial art in China. 

The morning after, as I was Googling him, I looked up Qi Gong on YouTube to see if I could find out more. I found this video. I think it’s a great way to start the morning.

 

Taking the toxic out of masculinity and femininity

I heard that term toxic masculinity the other day, which of course I’ve heard before, but this time for the first time ever, I thought to myself, Ouch!

It could be that I felt that pang of emotion because I spend most of my weekdays with guys who seem to have more feminine qualities in many instances than the females they work with and I include myself in that assessment.

They’re quiet. They’re thoughtful. They’re intelligent. They read a lot. They have excellent manners. I feel like they barely take up any psychological space at all which is a rare and precious quality even though it sometimes leaves me wondering how all that restraint impacts them. Do they go home at night and beat the hell out of their childhood stuffed animals after biting their tongues all day long?

If there was a toxic masculinity scale, I’m sure they’d fall within the under 5 percentile. They’ve all probably even been victims of the reality behind the term.

On the other hand, our leader, a female, while very feminine in appearance has no trouble pulling out the yang when she needs to. She often yells out between walls when she wants to talk to someone like she’s some old grizzled print editor from a 1940s newsroom. She does have a really good sense of humour but in order to be funny, it does help to not be overly concerned about political correctness, so she isn’t.

And then there’s me. Let’s just say, should toxic masculinity raise its entitled head anywhere within the vicinity of our cubicles, it would be smacked down faster than unevenly matched opponents during a wrestling match in a high school gymnasium!

Toxic masculinity is all about power and entitlement to that power and then blindness to each of those things and the impact of those qualities on all those around who are being impacted by it.

It’s always confused me that men still have all the power in the formal world when it seems like women have almost all the power in interpersonal relationships. Or maybe that’s just true of the people I know. Or maybe it just looks like that observing people’s intimate relationships from the outside. 

It made me wonder what toxic femininity looks like. Helplessness. Pretending to be less intelligent than you really are. Talking about nails to an extreme. Expecting dates to pick up the tab even when you make more money than they do. Using sexuality as a manipulation tool. I wonder what else might fit into the category.

There are those who argue that there is no such thing as toxic femininity because all femininity is a response to toxic masculinity and the imbalance of power that has resulted from it.  This assumes that everyone in the world is cis-gendered.

As you can imagine, I’m not here to defend men, but it would still hurt to have a term that trashes an entire gender applied to oneself as an individual, especially if you’ve been a victim of that reality yourself. 

Here is a way more assertive, insightful and sometimes humorous reflection on toxic femininity in a feminist magazine I’d never read before called Bust.

And here’s a history of the term toxic masculinity in a sometimes hard to understand article in the Atlantic.  

You’ll never get this time back so don’t blame me if you click the links.

I liked thinking about this topic through these articles even though there are way TOO MANY ADS getting in the way.

Top of Mind 2020

1. Privilege  Educate yourself about what the term privilege means and how it’s bigger than you, yourself and oh yeah, you again.

2. Gender Pronouns

If you don’t already know, discover why personal pronouns matter and what it means to not just be okay with them but how respect for others is inherent in using them.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9iKHjl5xAaA

 3. United National Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: https://www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/wp-content/uploads/sites/19/2018/11/UNDRIP_E_web.pdf

 4. Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, Final Report: https://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/

5. The #Me Too Movement in Canada

6. Climate and Earth

7.  The Sustainable Way

The Levee, the Westie and the Lieutenant Governor of BC

Having had the most uneventful New Year’s Eve on the planet, in bed by 10 p.m., I sprung out of bed on the first day of the New Year at about 6:30 a.m., a typical time for me. Well, you know what they say about consistency and routine and sleep! I’m on it.

I wanted to partake in something I’d heard about the year before which was the New Year’s Day Levee hosted at Government House with the Lieutenant Governor, Janet Austin, in attendance.  

The word levee (from French, noun use of infinitive lever, “rising”, from Latin lev?re, “to raise”) originated in the levée du soleil (rising of the sun) of King Louis XIV (1643–1715). … It was in Canada that the levee became associated with New Year’s Day.

I didn’t know what was going to happen at this levee but I was looking to get some exercise and the 45 minute walk from James Bay to Government House fit the bill. It was a beautiful morning and the streets and Beacon Hill Park weren’t completely empty but they were silent. Just the odd dog walker and photographer there the way early mornings are on a holiday.

The event started at 10 a.m. with advisement to go early.  By the time I walked through the gates of Government House, I had it in my head that surely I would be one of the first to arrive. As the house came into view I saw a huge line of people, two by two and three by three, including one of my coworkers and his partner, standing in a snake of a bloody long line that wound around the front of the old regal place right on up onto the red carpeted entrance. I couldn’t believe it. I got in line behind two women who either said they’d come every single year or hadn’t ever been in spite of having lived in Victoria most of their adult lives. One of them was the President of the Victoria Bluegrass Society.

We eventually stepped over the threshold in a consistently moving line and were directed down the red carpeted stairs into the basement, past the Susan Point prints that flanked each side of the staircase, past the official necklace on display, past a billiards and games room, snaking back around on the other side of the hall. Then  back upstairs and through the main entryway again, past the collection box to drop a donation into for The Cridge Centre for the Family and eventually past an attractive police officer who appeared to be high ranking, for all I know he may have been the Chief of Police for Victoria.

Next there was another man dripping with medals who asked my name and proceeded to repeat my name to the Lieutenant Governor by way of formal introduction who proceeded to wish me a happy new year as I did to her as she shook my hand.

When I woke up that morning, having no idea what I was about to partake in, focused mainly on getting some exercise, I threw on my sweat pants, was still wearing the T-shirt I’d slept in the night before under my Gore-Tex jacket and laced up my MEC lace-up boots.

I wasn’t anticipating being up close and personal with a government dignitary, The Honourable Janet Austin, before 10:30 am on New Year’s Day. That poor woman! She had to shake more than, and I’m guessing here, 500 hands first thing on Near Year’s Day and one can only imagine the names that came at her, forcing her to attempt them or just let them slide by, the number of syllables so many, no point in even trying, a smile and a greeting having to suffice.

After that, we entered a gracious wooden room, grand staircases sweeping up to the landings on either side that ran the full length. I could hear a military band playing but couldn’t see where the music was coming from. I looked up and more uniforms with instruments were crammed into the very front of the second floor, like the prow on a ship, the light from the big windows gleaming off their shiny bits. I felt like I was on the Titanic.

There was a grandiose feeling of anticipation. More and more people were streaming in. The sound of bagpipes were wafting in from some distant part of the building. There were tables lined with cups (Styrofoam I might add. Change that for next year if you please!). The right side of the table was set out with alcoholic punch and the left, non-alcoholic, the Styrofoam cups filled and ready for the taking.

Further on there was another busy table with little bags being set out like gifts, and staff replenishing the bags as people took them. Inside the bag was a small bite-sized quiche tart, a shortbread, a chocolate chip cookie and a tiny croissant. Tasty! Thank you very much.

I wandered around taking in the scene, feeling like a true Settler, like I’d stepped onto some movie set of some soiree of colonial re-enactment.

I made my way up to the second balcony on the opposite side of the room and soon enough, the pipe band was being introduced and marched towards the front of the room, the whirring of the pom poms on the drums, and later, my co-worker describing the antics of one of the drummers who was throwing his sticks in the air as confident and proud as the majorettes at the front of the marching bands in Pasadena at the Rose Bowl Parade.

An elderly woman beside me, in great shape, stood to attention as soon as the pipes and drums sounded  and she began to mimic with her hands as if she were playing her own imaginary drums. I got close and spoke loudly to ask her, “Did you used to play?”

In a voice that could have been Robin Williams’ accent in the role of Mrs. Doubtfire, she said, “Oh, dear, I’m from Glasgow, the old country. As soon as I hear the pipes, the wee hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention. I once played the Calgary Stampede. That parade was 4 hours long, wandering through those streets. It was so hot. My name is Iona, like the island.”

The Lieutenant Governor was finally piped in and her little dog, a white westie (West Highland white terrier) whose name I couldn’t hear when she introduced it, led her proudly on his red leash. She said some humorous things about everyone being there for the dog. She introduced the elder. She gave a nice speech to greet the New Year and introduced an interesting new initiative focused on conversations about democracy at a time, she said, when we are seeing too often how fragile democracy can be, more fragile than expected, even in the places we never imagined it would seem threatened and to watch out for ways to participate or host such conversations.

Near the end of the event, the band in the balcony played a short version of a song. I wondered why it sounded so familiar. When I asked someone I knew who was there, he said, “It’s Auld Lang Syne, Gayle! Maybe you don’t recognize it because usually you’d hear it after you’ve had 7 or more drinks by then,” referring to the time of night it usually gets played on New Year’s Eve, not to my drinking patterns. I laughed a lot at that witty response.

I was intending to spend maybe 30 minutes at the levee that morning, but greeted by such a unique spectacle, such pomp and circumstance and feelings of community, I couldn’t pull myself away.  Next year, I’ll be sure to dress for the occasion.

Happy New Year!

A guided meditation to mark the beginning of 2020

The turning of one year to the next has always been a time of quiet contemplation for me. Given a choice, I would always choose an intimate gathering over a party with a lot of people, most of them strangers.

Of all the New Years I’ve lived, only a relative few seem all that memorable. Way back, as a pre-teen, I recall a big house party with the excitement of all the preparations that entails. The moving of furniture, the choosing and purchasing of food and drink. So many people of all generations, relatives and friends mingling in our big old house. There were party hats and food and noisemakers and music and dancing and even a champagne cork exclaiming the significance of the evening by popping with such force, hitting one of my older sister’s boobs. Ouch!

Or that time at the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver after the shout outs of Happy New Year and the kisses for those who had a special someone then, after the clock struck midnight, the excitement of being part of a huge conga line, ushering in the new millennium, 2000, with frenzied exuberance that had no intention of going quietly into that special night.

On Salt Spring at Fulford Hall and a terrific live band as one would expect with community members packed onto the dance floor. The volunteers busy in the kitchen or taking drink tickets as I watched with amusement (and a little bit of horror) as someone I know enjoyed happy sips from as many drinks as she could get her hands on, left on tables by those who were oblivious on the dance floor.

Being in that small church in the West End, where we’d walk the labyrinth as one does to mark transitions. And that one time when a man playing the didgeridoo off to the side, saw a father pushing his young son in a wheelchair and he’d instinctively walked over and pointed the sounds towards the place on the person’s body that he intuitively believed made sense – between the shoulders or the heart centre. Walking behind that father, I could feel the relief fall off him, maybe because somebody had felt his burden or felt his joy, or both, a part not apart.

The best of my new year’s memories such a long time ago now at Carol and Butch’s floating home on the Fraser River with my beloved in that packed little house. Towards the end of that evening, a belting out of the words of the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald as the tugs blew their horns, the sounds reverberating out and back from the shore, and his arms wrapped tightly around me. There is indeed something to be said for shared commemorating.

No matter how you like to acknowledge the passing of one year to the next, it’s always good to set intentions. Even if you’ve never lived on Salt Spring, meditated, done yoga and couldn’t bring yourself to say “ohm” without choking, at the end of this post is a really nice 20 minutes of relaxation.

You could choose to listen to it as a way to acknowledge the end of the last day of 2019 and your hopeful expectations for 2020.

Yes, it’s an artificial marking of time, but I think it is important to prepare with right intention for the blessings you hope to create as you mark the passing of one year to the next, and let go of all and any sorrow you really need to let go of knowing how short life is.

Why not take that time now and listen to this beautiful, calming 20 minutes?