Nostalgia

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.

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?

Whatever you do don’t stand still

Lately, and I guess it’s totally related to aging, its becoming a little too clear to me that we really are all just lined up like airplanes on a runway waiting for take-off, except we have these invisible expiry dates stamped onto each one of us and we don’t find out our own Best Before date until it’s game over. Thank you ma’am. Boom. Done. Next.

I know what you’re thinking. Oh oh. This is a tad morbid. 

Lately too many people I have known are flying off into the big airport waiting room in the sky. They’re like missing luggage from United Airlines. It’s never coming back. And that is causing me an existential crisis that’s actually a little more disturbing than all the other crises I’ve already overcome in the past 20 years.  

Clawing my way back from depressions? Been there. Done that. Overcoming heartbreak as a result of bad choices in men? Ack. Whatever! Unemployment? But would you look at all that free time I had?

Now that I’m older and wiser, I actually find it amusing when people refer to a mid-life crisis, as if there is just a single crisis and once you get that baby under your belt you’re home free. Not true.

The mid-life crisis is like the beginning of the Bible. One crisis begets another crisis begets another crisis and so on and so forth until the ultimate end of life crisis. That’s how it feels to me these days.

My crises right now, at least, are a little less drama filled than in the past. No sex, drugs or rock and roll. In this phase of the crises, which is a total drag for sure because it’s so boring, albeit easier on the mental health and the blood pressure.

Maybe because of my birth order as youngest in a family of people who were a lot older, or because I’ve always befriended people that are older than me, aging is constantly on my mind these days. It’s like a third character shadowing my monologue.

I can no longer make any decisions without thinking about the fact that I have X number of years, barring early onset dementia, to work at a “real” job, before I have to give up that real job and become a greeter at Walmart for which I’d surely last maybe half a day before being fired.

I try to think of the kinds of jobs I might do, when I have to give up my “real” job, and it’s as if I have no useful skills at all. I’m like one of those people who can’t use common sense to get around the corner to the 7-Eleven because their GPS has led them astray even though they’ve lived in the same neighborhood for 35 years.

I used to quit jobs I didn’t like on a dime and worry about it later. And in a blink of an eye, over the last 10 years, later IS now. So, even if I don’t like the job, I could quit, like my younger self surely would right this second,  except experience has taught me that impulsivity can lead to even bigger crises.

As a result, the ugly reality of aging is beginning to turn me into the kind of person I used to disdain. That is, the kind of person, who at 30 years old is factoring pension into any equation. In my former world, if you were thinking about your pension at 30, you were leading the kind of life that surely must have made it feel as if you’d already died before you were dead. I had nothing to say to you.

Trying to make decisions along the time versus longevity continuum is like one of those mathematical word problems in Grade 3 I could never solve correctly and would now  have a totally different twist. 

My new mathematical word problem would go something like… If you get to be 60 years old and you don’t have cancer and you quit your job to go to the Ashram in India where you could theoretically live out your days working harder than you’ve ever worked doing some form of selfless service, how many fewer regrets might you have? Answer _____!

If you sold everything you owned and bought an RV and just drove in the direction of a hot beach, stopping on a whim, would you really be happier? Freedom being just another word and all that…  Wherever you go, there you be.

Except, that statement isn’t totally accurate because sometimes wherever you go, if it’s the right place, really shakes things up and changes life for the better. Of course, leaving can do the exact opposite as well. 

We’re supposed to live in the moment. Be present. Breathe. And that sounds good except when you begin to wonder what happens if your choices based on living in the moment mean you’ll be lining up at the food bank in 10 years? What then?

Does life really work that way? You might not even be here in 10 months. And then all the decisions you never made, the adventure you opted not to take, means you didn’t meet the love of your life or end up, through a detour, doing the best thing you’ll ever do, meeting your tribe or having experiences that create the kinds of memories that will overflow from your heart and fill it up until your very last sentient breath.

When I worked in Computer Science at UBC, I recall interviewing a prof whose research revolved around something called game theory or decision theory or something like that. I remember I couldn’t believe such a thing existed. I still can’t. It was like having a fortune teller in a machine except smarter.

You mean I can put all my questions into a computer with a special fairy godmother algorithm and have it spit out my next course of action knowing that something way more logical than me has done a risk assessment for me and then it has decided I should head that way? Over there. Keep going. A little to the left. Don’t look back. Don’t look too far ahead. And whatever you do, read my lips, definitely don’t stand still.