Jan 23, 2011

There's Baby and Patrick and Mary, oh my!

I cheated on my wife last night. Tucked her into bed, then snuck back out first to expose myself on internet, then finally curled up on the purple couch with a supple 16-year-old (and her roughneck boyfriend third-wheeling).

Yesterday's posting about juggling too much was all about me, and for me. I was feeling fractured, too divided to even sleep with my beautiful wife, and writing about it helped make it manageable. Somehow when things are in a list, and the dayplanner is open to a fairly open next week, the overwhelming gorilla gets reduced to bunch of bite-size body parts and extraneous hair that can be shaved off. At 11pm I hit "publish" then wrote a quick, prioritized things-to-do list that let me finally let go of worrying about it.

Then I indulged in my favourite feel-better pastime - watching Dirty Dancing. Nobody puts Baby in a corner, and nobody makes me feel better about the world than Baby. In 1985 I finished a workday as a social worker by dropping off a 10-year-old boy off at his basement door while listening to his mother screaming and throwing things upstairs, watching him shrug "this is normal, I'll deal." I drove straight to Macs to pick up Dirty Dancing and a pack of Twinkies, then lost myself in that incessant Patrick Swayze pelvis and the tender moment he called her Francis and let go of what I couldn't change for that real-life boy. It's been my go-to ever since.

Huge disclaimer - my one true love, even greater than Baby, is Mary. During grad school, every weeknight I'd study in my office till 11:30, play guitar with Ted and Mark till 1am, then go home and watch Mary Tyler Moore reruns till 1:30, and sometimes again till 2am if I really needed it. And still wake up at 7am sharp without an alarm to go swimming the next morning (our communal bathtub was so gross that I vowed to never use it - a vow I kept for the full 2 years). No matter what I'd experienced that day, she could certainly make it all seem worthwhile.

We all have comfort foods and soul strokers, and that's all just a long-winded way to give you a glimpse into some of my self-nurturing quirks you may not have guessed. And to let you know that the puzzle may never be finished, but the pieces are sorted and do seem like they'll add up to a coherent picture.

PS - Turns out the joke's on me. While I was cheating with Jennifer and Patrick, Sarah was dreaming that she'd become engaged to a gambling statistician who looked like our Texas real estate agent, and who gifted her with the incredible romantic book "How to buy swimming pools with your kids." Well my dear, that may have amused your hungry eyes, but in the meantime I had the time of my life.

Jan 22, 2011

Puzzled by too many pieces

When do the long lazy nights of winter start? When will I finally get to read those books, sharpen those tools, watch those movies, talk to those long-distance friends? I've created wonderful diversity and, in a strange way, balance, but it sometimes adds up to too much of a good thing, or at least too many good things. In this past week I've been involved with:
- facilitated Cowichan Fundraisers Exchange, then typed and distributed minutes to over 80 non-profit members
- meetings with two new prospective non-profit clients
- started a year-long once/week job at OUR Ecovillage
- work sessions and follow-up with two ongoing clients - Glenora Farm and Biodeisel Coop
- two Bikram yoga sweats
- Social Health Committee meeting (agenda, facilitate, type and distribute notes)
- arranged caller and fiddler for spring Barn Dance
- worked with electrician to finish running wires to new rental cabin extension
- teleconference of new fundraising committee for Canadian Friends Service Committee
- finished boiling first batch of maple syrup, plus picked up 29 new collection bottles from friends and drilled more trees
- had a tree guy reduce a towering 100-year-old Douglas Fir into 20-foot lengths, and arranged for a portable mill to turn it into beams for the rental cabin reno
- attended a full-day school workshop on enrollment and fundraising
- family hike with another dear-friend family; other family here for dinner
- lotsa dealing with parents, faculty, self and son about bullying issues
- hot tub, final garden planning and seed order with sarah and crystal
- submit grant application for community centre development
- neighbourhood association meeting
- plan ski trip, writer's retreat, and March Toronto trip

Plus of course all the un-bulletable parts of housekeeping, cooking (including a fabulous upside-down apple-strawberry cake), parenting, firewood chopping, chicken-tending, writing, etc etc.

'Twas a good week to practice being fully present for each activity, but a challenge to then do the proper follow-through even while shifting to the next appointment or task. I wrote this time last year that I refuse to use the word "busy", and that's still not my complaint here. The entire list of things I did this week are worthy and I don't see any that I want to cut. Just need to keep on top of everything, tend to details, follow through, take time to absorb learnings and challenges, let the water carry the good stuff down to the roots before shooting off in another direction. And somehow find time to read a book and still get one of those blessed 12-hour winter slumbers.

Jan 19, 2011

Watching my Son be Bullied

We are all victims of bullying. Amidst all the beautiful outpouring of support after my last blog post about my son being bullied, was an astonishing number of people talking about their own experience being bullied as children.

On one hand it's perhaps comforting to see how these young tormented children have grown up to be confident, loving adults and friends. Then again, it's a scary indication of our world that it's such a prevalent experience. It also makes me wonder how our own experience of it (or of anything, for that matter) colours how we deal with it when our children enter the same cycle.

Interestingly, no-one admitted to being a bully. I will, right here. Andre, Indra, David, Brian... I can name all the classmates I tormented from grades 7-10, and dearly wish I could apologize to them now, call them up and let them know that somehow I did eventually become more compassionate, as if that could relieve them of the pain I caused. Even having been in that role, I can't understand the bully's motives; can't pinpoint why I behaved that way, why I chose them particularly as targets, or even why I stopped. But it does at least propel me to try to find forgiveness and latent goodness in the children now causing the same pain in my son.

Sandwiching those cruel years were experiences of being bullied in grade 4 and then in grade 10 (the latter being one of my targets who suddenly grew and turned the tables - sweet karma). I've tasted that same salty fear that now stings my boy's eyes, and my inability to deal with it then certainly colours the support and reaction I give to Galen.

It's time to finally share a painful blog entry from two summers ago, when we were already dealing with these issues (with a different boy). It's more raw than constructive, and in that way perhaps more real. It helps me remember that I'm more than the helping adult in this situation - I'm a full-on player with my own history breathing into how I act and react. And lest I ever minimize my little boy's experience, it's powerful to remember that my own first experience of being bullied that's mentioned below - an experience I carry with me to this day - was when I was the exact same age as Galen is now.

August, 2009

"Punch him in the nose." That was my dad's advice when Danny Gay threatened to beat me up in grade 4. "Say to him, 'Danny, I don't like what you've been doing to me,' then punch him in the nose to make his eyes water, then beat him up."

It sounded so brutally simple and it terrified me, and I never did get over that fear of being hurt in a fight. I just walked around in a lot of fear and nightmares, and prayed that I'd make it to the age when fights don't happen anymore. So to now see my own son start to go through the same cycle is heartbreaking.

The school bully of grade two came for a playdate next door. We'd already had incidents with him last year of teasing, pushing, even kicking in the groin (yes, in grade one Waldorf). Today Galen came back to our yard bravely holding back tears to tell me that X kept running at him and pushing him down. When I suggested he stay out of the rough-housing games that all 8 kids were playing, he said that he was just sitting by the car but X wouldn't stop. Could I go talk to him?

I tried to explain that Daddy stepping in would just make things worse. We talked about a strategy to just ignore him, to not show fear and not react, so that X would just get bored from not getting a rise out of his victim.

But what I really wanted to say was, "PUNCH HIM IN THE NOSE!" I know it would just beget a cycle of violence, and that Galen's pacifist stand was much braver and ultimately more effective, but deep down I just wanted him to plaster that little punk. I wanted him to overcome the fear that I never did.

At the root of pacifist non-violence there needs to be a deep compassion and love for people and the world, and an unshakable belief that violence is not the answer. There will always be a doubt in my heart about whether I reached this Quaker non-violence stance from true conviction or from fear. So I desperately want my boys to find true inner power to guide them on a path of strong gentle love.

I joined in the children's play for a spell to diffuse the energy, then watched from a distance as X resumed a pattern of repeatedly wrestling with Galen and throwing him to the ground. I watched my little boy be beaten up, under the thin guise of play-wrestling. And I watched him bravely - so incredibly bravely - pretend to wrestle back each time, pretend to not be afraid, and refuse to leave the group play in defeat.

Although I confess to a dark desire for X to be expelled from the school and our lives, I do feel compassion for him also, knowing that he is acting out something hard for his 8-year-old soul. And I know that our deeper work and responsibility is to nurture a strength and Peace in Galen. Our son is a truly gentle, beautiful soul who does not enjoy the rough play of other boys. This will not be the last time he will have conflict with boys who play by different rules, and who connect on a more physical level. Our energy needs to be with Galen, not against X.

This parenting gig is difficult at the best of times, let alone times when our children are genuinely afraid or sad or hurt. The challenge is to support them with the best of our beliefs and inner strength and hope, while somehow avoiding unloading our own baggage on them. Any words of wisdom or support you can share would be much appreciated as we continue down this bumpy road.

Jan 17, 2011

I want my free little boy back

I need help. My 9-year-old son is being bullied. Again.

I want advice, tools, tricks, books, magic words to build strength in my boy - social resilience is the key word. There's something in him that puts him repeatedly in this role, and it's my job to help him grow past it. The growing has to be from and by and through him, but I'm looking for ways to support him, guide him, mentor and teach and hold space and shine a light that will help him find the way.

I want a magic mirror that lets him see into the future. Lets him see the beautiful confident man he will grow to become, when these playground terrors are done with. Some of the same traits that make him a target now will make him free and unique and cherished when he's older. That may not make him less afraid to go to the morning line-up outside the classroom, but it strengthens me to have this confidence in that special light of his that will shine so bright later on, and maybe it can be something for him to hold onto when he's a bit older.

I want a best friend for him. Just one or a few peers who see the beauty and honour the odd in him, that he doesn't have to try so hard or wonder so much or long so hard to feel loved or even liked. Overall the children do like and appreciate him, but he's not the top of anyone's birthday invite list and he feels it.

I want him to like himself. Miraculously he still embraces his own different ways of being in the world, still is natural and free in who he is. But the unforgiving social mirror makes it hard to feel likeable sometimes, and when he jokingly calls himself a "dumbhead" there's a doubtful part that wonders if it's true.

I want his childhood to last as long as he deserves. He's still a little boy, imaginative, innocent, believing, wondering, a bit magical, a lot wide-eyed. It's too soon to have to put up guards, to be afraid, to learn to Deal with stuff. He needs to experience the world, not manage it or fear it or make the best of it.

I want school to feel safe for him. As a member of the Social Health Committee I'm respectful of the serious steps the school has taken, and we've mobilized the protocol to bring the whole community in on the solution. This includes meetings with the teacher, heart-felt communication with the other child's parent, and a faculty-wide report so that all eyes can be watchful and compassionate toward both boys. I don't believe that policing is the ultimate answer, and I don't believe that the one other boy is the whole problem, but an immediate sense of safety will open up space for the other work of strengthening our son's resilience.

For myself, I just want to be held. To be told that I'm right in believing in my son, that others see his special sun and how it shines and will continue to shine. I want to hear about other parents and children's struggles and successes, to know that there are many paths and that all have been walked before us. I want to hear that others are watching and holding Galen and our family, and reaching out as possible with invitations to play, or kind words, or kind and hopeful thoughts. To know that we're not as alone as Galen sometimes feels.

I want my summer break Galen back. The one who feels light and natural. The goofy, laughing, sensitive, inquisitive, self-challenging, exploring, treasure-finding child who only knows flowers and basketballs. We managed to not lose most of that when school started in the fall, but 2 weeks after a warm, centred family Christmas I can feel him slipping away. The hugs and snuggles are more insistent and searching, the calls for reassurance and connection more frequent and hungry.

This is more than rhetorical reflection or poetry. It's a genuine call for help and support. I know that loving my boy is the best I can do, and I'm trying to hold him in every way possible. But any of the above wants that you can help us find, any advice or ideas or telepathic hugs or or or..., send them this way. My boy needs me right now, and I'll leave no rock unturned to give him what he needs.

Jan 10, 2011

I am the decisive element

I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element.
It is my personal approach that creates the climate.
It is my daily mood that makes the weather.
I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous.
I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration;
I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.
In all situations, it is my response that decides
whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated,
and a person is humanized or de-humanized.
If we treat people as they are, we make them worse.
If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become
what they are capable of becoming.

- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Jan 8, 2011

Simply Strong

Beyond suffering lies struggling. And beyond struggles lies strength. I discovered this at yoga, but it seems to be a pattern across many aspects of life.

At first Bikram was a hot-room of torture. 90 minutes of trying not to pass out, give up or walk out. 90 minutes of wondering if I'd make it, or why it matters, or if it could ever feel better. Then collapsing in the changeroom, long cold showers trying to regain equilibrium, melting into the bench trying to summon the energy to put on clothes and limp down the hall into the cold world. I knew there was something here that my body and soul needed, but couldn't see it through the sweat.

Then one day I decided to stop suffering. Didn't let myself wonder if I could make it through a pose, chose energy instead of depletion in the changeroom. I am physically and mentally strong enough, and yoga does give energy, not take it.

This re-assertion that I am in charge of my reactions ended the suffering, but didn't make the poses any easier. Now I entered a period of struggle. Forcing and grunting my body to go deeper, hold longer, stick truer to the proper form. I wanted to get better, to get the most possible out of this discipline, and (I must admit) to be the best in the room. I may not have chosen the label "suffering", but still experienced physical exhaustion and strain in the pursuit of excellence.

Then somehow yesterday I transcended both suffering and struggling, and instead found strength. Instead of pushing myself to go deeper, I just went there. Rather than hope or resolve or push to hold a long endurance pose, I just held it. I wasn't watching or measuring, wasn't comparing myself to others in the room or to me on other days or to what the instructor was calling. I was just doing it, and finding new strength and endurance and flow. My body knew just what to do, once my mind got out of the way.

Parallels can be brought to other parts of my life that feel like they're flowing well these days. As per my new year's reflection, I feel socially like I'm moving past feeling hurt or left-out, and also past trying too hard to be included or make things happen, and just enjoying the security and strength of a good community. As a parent I'm dwelling less in the pain of my children's hard times, spending less energy struggling to make playdates, and just enjoying and nurturing the inherent goodness of my beautiful boys and trusting that it will shine and call out to the world in its own ways and times. Even as a so-called "Radical Homemaker" my energy is less in global despair or impossible lists of things to do about it, and more in just doing what calls me most and taking one project at a time.

I'm still not sure what led to this unexpected and unintentional shift in the yoga studio. A very sore body allowed me to give myself permission to not push too far. The fact that I hadn't planned on going to yoga that day made it feel like anything I did was a bonus, so again no need to struggle. This particular instructor has a gentler approach. We got there 15 minutes early, allowing lots of time to relax into the heat and feel prepared.

But beyond those immediate factors is perhaps a wider-view reason that I've paid my dues. Have been in the hot room on and off for 5 years, and consistently since last summer. Have worked hard to develop core strength, flexibility, endurance, technical sills, and mental discipline. I really don't know if a more evolved and physically skilled person than myself could enter an experience already at this epiphany level that I only experienced after five years (and who knows, may not again next time).

The same applies to the other examples I gave above. It's much easier to feel social security after having built up a good network of friends than when we first arrived as strangers. Parenting is flowing better partly as a result of our children having become established in their own circles and in themselves. We've worked hard enough on our homestead and lifestyle that we can more easily reap the benefits now. We've gone through the spiritual trials and sill-building that now allows us to move on to a more centred place.

So what I'm left wondering is... are suffering and struggling necessary steps on the road to strength?

Jan 3, 2011

2010 - A Year of Reawakening and Renewal

In the hot tub on New Years Eve, when it was my turn to share with three dear friends, I had been so thoroughly engrossed in their journeys that I hadn't prepared my own soliloquy (a good sign of good listening, I think). So I looked through the cold clear night at the stars for a second and listened again to see what would rise up (a sign of a good Quaker, I think :). Two things jumped out loud and clear.

The first was my body (health, that is, not jumping out of the hot tub). Not so much the three months quite restricted by pain and fear of further injury until a July hernia operation, but the rebuilding process. After a 3 year hiatus, I returned to the hot Bikram yoga studio and discovered just how much I had lost in strength, flexibility and endurance. And as I sweated myself back to wholeness, I realized that I had never really recovered from the appendectomy the summer before. After that trauma I had become used to a lower level of energy and capacity, unconsciously reconciling myself to a premature aging. Never got back to ultimate frisbee, stopped jogging, moved slower around the land. Now as I return to vibrancy I find myself alive and focussed and open in a way I had begun to let slip away. I'm not 43, I'm just Rick.

The second was the return to professional work by launching FreeRange Consulting. Characteristically overconfident in my abilities and deliberately oblivious to the challenges of finding cash-strapped non-profits with the resources to pay me, I managed to carve a niche in the valley, become established in a marvelous circle of great organizations and committed leaders. It felt exhilarating and integrating to get connected to the community in this way, to start giving back and serving. I ended up investing much more time and identity than originally intended, and feel much more whole for it.

The extra money also allowed us to start an addition onto the rental cabin. It was a richly revolving year as our beloved Joe and Nathalie moved out after their baby Thomas made the space a bit too tight. Ironically, a family of four then moved in for the rest of the school year, then another family of 4 plus a dog followed for a 1.5 month stint while their house purchase came through. That fit the gap just perfectly for our new community member Crystal and her 4-year-old Tristan. But after 3 successive Good families adored the space but found it too small for a long-term stay, we felt compelled to make the investment in an office and 2nd bedroom to make it work for these types of people that we want in our lives long-term. In hindsight, I realize that I made the mistake of building the perfect bachelor suite when really we want family.

Crystal and Tristan have indeed quickly become family. We share 3-5 meals together per week, Crystal shows up with chai for late-night fireside visits, and we often wake up on weekends to find Tristan happily playing with the boys in the living room - for how long we have no idea, nor does Crystal. All four families who have lived in the suite created a different and rich iteration of Community - another one of the great gifts of 2010.

Writing continued to be a journey of faith in 2010. My blog readership doubled from the previous year (1,000 of you per month - thank you!), and I feel like I've found a voice and rhythm and breadth. I finally took a few writer retreats and sketched three different book outlines, one of which I'm committed to writing in 2011. Part of that process was reviewing all blog entries and magazine articles to find themes, gems, and misdirections to build upon. I never found/made time during regular life to move it beyond the detailed outline and first chapter written, but now have a base and vision to work with. And a working title: Slow F... actually, I think I'll keep that quiet for a while :)

Another emergent theme of the year, which only really becomes clear as I take time to look back at it, has been a deepening confidence in friends and family. Moving from the insecurity of counting friends or feeling left out, I find myself needing less quantity and discovering more quality in the people around me. Preferring an intimate dinner for four to a fun party for forty. I would still like to see more of our close friends, but quietly know that they feel the same, and don't put pressure on them or the relationship by equating time with essence.

It's seeped into my parenting as well. I'm setting up less playdates and instead finding and creating more magic and adventure with the family. The kids - Galen especially - exude a greater confidence and inner strength that in part arises from this solid, love-filled, trust-based home foundation.

Despite working over 30 hours a week, I still cling to the Stay-at-Home Dad identity and responsibility. More than ever I cherish the multiple walks/rides to school each day, the afterschool projects and play, the bedtime snuggles and secrets. Zekiah reduced to only 2 afternoons at home per week (down to 1 starting next week and zero after Easter - grade one gradual entry), so I suddenly didn't want to waste those precious 2-hour alone times on naps or playdates or setting him up with Leggo while I worked. We did more projects, card games, longer chats over lunch. That same lesson extended to afterschool times with both boys - the window of having their undivided attention and need is narrow, and I want to suck all the marrow of this bone I've dug up while I can.

A very unusual feature of 2010 was sports. After growing up religiously reading the sports pages, comics and Anne Landers each morning, I found while living in Africa that the newspaper clippings my dad regularly sent meant less and less, and I've easily stayed away from investing energy into other peoples' games since then. But I became much more excited about the Olympics than intended, then segued into the Stanley Cup and the World Cup soccer. All short-term dalliances, and I'm back to blissful unawareness of who won the Grey Cup or how the Canucks are doing (oh, just checked and they're first in the NHL! I admit, that does make me happy - still a Canadian, eh?)

Last but not least in this incomplete list, farming continues to underlie this new way of being. Our first growing season on our own (after mentors Joe and Nathalie moved), we spent the year just gulping and gasping for breath, figuring things out and trying not to pressure ourselves to overproduce. The result was a hands-on learning and still a decent crop, and a new confidence that we really can and will get it. I learned that our number one crop for the first 5 years should be not produce but soil, so we started aggressively composting and learning how to build soil fertility. This winter I've been able to start understanding farming books, with just enough experience and awareness that they make sense and help me form real plans for next year. It's only been 2 years, I'm still a baby farmer, but the important thing is that after the honeymoon I'm still a farmer.

After a revolutionary 2009 of renos, new farming and new identity, 2010 has been a rich year of new growth. Finding how to add professional work into the parenting/farming/writing/community mix; becoming a Slow Friend and Slow Parent; learning to trust and nurture my quieter voice, and relearning to trust and honour my body.

I was going to barge straight ahead with resolutions for 2011, but want to take time to read what came out tonight and reflectively build upon it. So for now, thank you 2010 for the time to learn the richness of Slow, without slowing down.