Monthly Archives: July 2011

The Circle of Life

I quietly feared the moment when my son would ask why my dad wasn’t in his life.  Like many parents, who wish to avoid discussing the proverbial “elephant” in the living room (those family secrets, unspoken expectations, and difficult topics), I wasn’t really prepared for how early or how I would answer some of my son’s questions.  So, I was shocked when, as I tucked his 2 year-old body into bed one night, he whispered in the dark, “Mommy, where is your daddy?”
The truth is my dad died when I was young.  My dad will only be a part of my son’s life through some shared memories and DNA.  It is also true that he died from alcoholism and that my son was too young to know about that particular fact.  Though I’d already begun our conversation about the circle of life, and about how important it is to take good care of our bodies.  I wasn’t prepared for my son’s tender-hearted, painful realization that since my dad died when I was young, that I, too, could die while he’s still young; and that he, too, would someday die.  Like the connecting links on a chain, my son’s toddler logic strung the reality of life and death together in seamless motion.    I suddenly remembered what a good friend and also a mom of two young children, faced with a terminal breast cancer diagnosis, once said to me, “Tell the truth, even though it may hurt.  Just don’t make false promises.”  So, I stayed away from promises about living to 100.  Losing a parent early in life will teach you that kind of realism.  However, when we take away some belief from our kids, such as our immortality, we need to replace such illusions with hope-infused beliefs. 


Snuggled up with my son that evening twelve years ago, quietly crying together over the eventual loss of one another in some imagined future, I could honestly reassure him that my love for him is as strong as anything life can toss at us.  And our love is likely to even outlast our death.  Drawing on our trust, faith, and love for one another; we managed to create a little life raft that evening with our intertwined bodies.  A raft we still rely on during tough times.

Since that night, as my son is approached adolescence (soon facing the possibility that a friend will offer him his first alcoholic drink), we have spoken much more candidly about our family’s history of alcoholism.  We have discussed the risks associated with this genetic loading.  The preventative steps we have taken as a family to confront addiction head-on to protect his generation include having open, honest, discussions about the realities of today’s peer pressure, substance use/abuse, and the nature of addiction itself.  Such candid discussions are an indication that the tides have turned in my family’s favor this generation.  Our conversations are not fear-based, but proactive and educational.  Fear, after all, has a nasty way of bringing about exactly the result we may well want to avoid.  I trust that by being open and honest, by modeling healthy behaviour, and by having started these difficult discussions early, that my son will always feel free to approach my husband or myself with any number of difficult topics.  

In stark contrast to a Tibetan friend, Sonam, whom I met whilst living Japan in my late twenties, I did not grow up learning to meditate on my own death (a Buddhist practice with the aim of infusing reverence and gratitude for life through acceptance and a focus on the present moment).  My daily childhood practice looked more like sharing in the family chore of sweeping the painful stuff under the living room carpet.  When my dad died, there was little done to ritualize or honor his death, let alone talk about it.  I was adrift in my own ocean of complicated grief for many years, with little land in sight.  Sonam, in stark contrast, spoke of the peace and gratitude she felt about her father’s death when she, too, was in her teens.  Peace, I could understand that with all her years of meditation.  But, gratitude?  She shared with me that her father had meditated and prepared for his death for months in advance.  He had lived a good life and accepted his own death; he died peacefully with his family surrounding him in prayer.  She possessed an uncanny grasp of both the preciousness and yet transitory nature of life.  Sonam did not grieve for years, as I had. She had accepted her father’s fate, and dwelled in gratitude for the time she had had with him.  She gained peace from his acceptance and grace in death. Ultimately, her religious faith was deeply grounding for her.  Her faith seemed to strengthen her and offered her spiritual courage and hope for the future.  It would take me many more years after losing my father to cultivate such a spiritual foundation.

My son and I have continued to talk about his grandpa over the years, looked at family photos together, and honored his life and death in other simple ways.  At times my son, and then my daughter, have both expressed regret  about not having had the chance to have met my father (though I admit to being grateful at times that they didn’t as he was a complicated, ill man when he died).  The fact that I now have discussions with my children that I can’t with my own father is proof to me that life goes on in all it’s bittersweet grace.  The Buddhist saying, Nam myoho renge kyo (which I learned in a meditation class, loosely translated as “The deeper the mud, the more beautiful the lotus flower blooms“) reminds us all that spiritual strength, beauty, and a reverence for the circle of life are possible through life’s most difficult experiences.  

Upcoming:  10 Tips for Talking about Tough Stuff with Kids

Courage Challenge of the Day

Challenge your palate today.  Visit the grocery store or farmer’s market and find something you’ve never eaten.  Is there a funky-looking vegetable you can’t even identify?  Will you have to ask the produce manager what it is and how to cook it?  How about a spice or sauce with a name that’s hard to pronounce?  Get out of your comfort zone and into the kitchen.


The story of the Brave Little Parrot reminds me of a story from my own life that I have shared with K., and that I will probably share many more times. It’s a cautionary tale!

Many years ago, I lived in an old house on the side of a hill in a wooded valley. My boyfriend and I were restoring this old house, and frequently had heaps of old lumber to dispose of. There was a large field to the south of the house, and one autumn day we made a burn pile there.The wind was high, the grass was dry – and you can imagine what happened.

To our horror, our fire began to spread through the grass, the line growing longer and longer.We tried ourselves with rakes to stop the fire from spreading, but to no avail. As if to make matters worse, the wind picked up; the fire was now racing up into the woods, which were full of dry leaves. Being an intelligent and resourceful person, I had had few experiences of making a mistake I could not fix myself (and easily cover up), and this was a humbling and frightening experience. Obviously we had to call for help.

Fighting fire in a rural area involves men with tanks on their backs going where trucks cannot go. We had to stand helplessly by while the fire companies from all the surrounding communities sent their fighters up into the woods. There were houses up there. I will never forget the sick disbelief I felt at what I had done, and the anxious hours (yes, hours!) we spent waiting to learn if the fire was completely out, and wondering if we should have called for help sooner. To our great relief, nobody was hurt. No houses were burned. All the same, I spent weeks punishing myself for being so stupid, so careless, so – so everything bad I could think of, as if I were a person who was to make mistakes. I felt the shame that only a smarty-pants can feel when caught in a mistake, made even worse by knowing that shame had kept me from making that 911 call sooner.

What I know now, of course, is that none of us are free from bad decisions. Intellectual courage helps us to recognize when our brushfires are beyond our control, and ask for help. As my daughter approaches puberty and greater independence, I hope she will keep this story in her heart.

Here is our 5-Minute Courage Workout: Playing with Fire

The Legend of the Banyan Deer

There is another story from India that has some similar features to the Damon and Pythias story. This is another tale of self-sacrifice, a difficult concept for many kids to wrap their minds around. This story is slightly more challenging because it is not a sacrifice for friendship, but rather a sacrifice for leadership, which requires not just emotional courage but social courage as well. I found this in a collection of Jataka tales (stories of the incarnations of Buddha), and it is called The Banyan Deer.
Long ago, there were two tribes of deer, the Banyan Deer and the Monkey Deer. Each of these tribes had a magnificent king, with beautifully branched antlers and bright bold eyes. Nearby there also lived a human king, who loved to hunt. He often hunted for deer, but whenever he chanced upon the deer kings, who were as princely and splendid as he was himself, he would lower his bow and arrow. “The deer kings will never be harmed,” the human king decreed. 
The servants who helped with the hunting found the hunts time-consuming and difficult, and decided to create an enormous fenced park. Then they herded the deer into it, and from then on the human king could hunt much more easily and the servants could attend their other jobs. However, it sometimes happened that more than one deer might be wounded in the chase, or die of fright while running, and so more deer died than were shot. The Banyan Deer King and the Monkey Deer King consulted one another, for this was becoming a crisis.
“Let us draw lots in our tribes, one day among the Banyans, the next day among the Monkeys, back and forth, and who is chosen will go to the gate and be taken, and that way the rest of the tribes will be safe and we will suffer the losses equally.”
The human king was amazed to find a deer waiting at the gate each day, and so it continued for some time. One day, when the lots were drawn, a mother Monkey deer with a young fawn was chosen. She went to her king and begged that she might wait until her fawn was older before she went to be sacrificed. “No!” said the Monkey Deer King. “You must take your turn when you are chosen, just as the others have done.”
In despair, the mother went to the Banyan King, and told him her trouble and begged for help. The noble Banyan King went himself to the gate, and waited for the hunters. But when the human king saw which deer was at the gate, he cried, “No! I have said the kings of the deer tribes must not be killed! What do you do here?”
The king of the Banyan Deer replied, “I could not ask my people to do what I am unwilling to do myself.” 
Such courage and self-sacrifice coming from a deer king put the human king to shame, and from that time he gave up hunting the deer.
Giving up something precious for someone else can be hard. K. and I have a tradition of exclaiming “It’s Lucky Money Day!” whenever we find money on the ground, be it a penny, a quarter, or once a five dollar bill. It used to be finders keepers, but this year we agreed that all Lucky Money will go into a donation jar, as well as the change that winds up in coat pockets and the bottoms of handbags. K. chose the animal shelter where we got our family dog as the recipient for this year. I’ll be curious to see how much Lucky Money we collect. Enough for a trip to the movies? With popcorn? We shall see what could be ours, but what we will give up instead.

Losing it All and Gaining Everything That’s Truly Important: Robert and Emma’s Story

Robert and Emma* liken their declaration of bankruptcy in 2007, the resulting loss of their house and all their possessions as a result of Robert’s failed business venture, to having the skin removed from their bodies.  That painful, yet also, incredulously, freeing.  They and their three teenage children managed to come through the financial crisis stronger, clearer about their purpose in life, more loving and accepting of one another, and with a renewed commitment to family time and family fun.  They both said, many times during our interview, “It’s all just stuff.  The only thing that matters is the love in your family.  We had a wake up call to make our family our top priority—not our careers.” 

To learn more about how to be a resilient family and harness the kind of courage to climb your way out of difficulty, read on!

*I’ve changed Robert and Emma’s names to protect their privacy.

Robert and Emma credit their ability to thrive despite losing everything they owned, to the fact that they told the truth about their experience to anyone and everyone—including the IRS.  They were continually surprised at how many families shared the same sometimes shameful secret of family debt and/or bankruptcy.   By sharing their experience openly and honestly with friends and family, they not only gained support, offers for affordable housing, tuition assistance, but new job opportunities to start over also.  They felt no shame about their financial situation, which seems to have freed them to be able to quickly transition to new opportunities.  In contrast to those families who avoid facing the painful truth about their financial situation, hoping it will all just go away or magically resolve itself, Robert and Emma chose to accept their situation, face it head-on with a daily list of what had to be done to dig themselves out, and modeled for their kids the hard work involved with creating a good life.

The short time that they blamed each other for their financial mess was a disaster for their relationship.  As soon as they both decided to work together to clean up their financial mess, the marriage grew stronger and supported them both through the tough times that followed as they auctioned off all their belongings, got recertified in their professions and searched for new jobs—all whilst handling their kids’ own adolescent struggles. 

They did not shield their children from the financial crisis their family faced.  Instead, they chose to tell them the whole truth of their situation, whilst at the same time educating them about financial responsibility.  They developed a family savings plan that would get them back on-track, and everyone in the family contributed as they were able.  The kids were free to ask questions, to seek reassurance, and to participate in most family decisions—as appropriate.  They all had to make sacrifices, adjust to smaller rental homes and very few extras.  At the same time, they made a commitment to sharing at least one meal together each day, to spend time in nature to restore their spirits, and have fun together at least once a week.  They relied on friends, a structured daily rhythm, and modeled the hard work and courage necessary to build anew. 

Robert has retrained, relicensed, and returned to his work as a physician.  Emma became a school teacher, and now works as a cook.  They still have several years ahead of serious saving to help the kids with college.  During our interview, their kids weave happily in and out of the living room, checking in with mom and dad—their teenage friends in tow.  The love between them all is evident, as it is clear that this is a house where their children and all their friends are welcome.  Truth and lack of physical pretense provide the supports for this home.  Simply decorated, this is their third rental house in as many years.  None of the kids is suffering from a lack of material possessions, most are second-hand, but all lovingly cared for.  In fact, they all have part-time jobs to supplement any material desires they may want.  Everyone in the house is more financially responsible as a result of the bankruptcy.  As their children have grown in maturity, they do not take for granted simple family outings or vacations—if only to a park for a picnic together.  They certainly do not take for granted the opportunity to take an extracurricular course or buy new clothes.  It is evident that they have all had to learn to live with less.  Yet, they all agree they have more fun, more family time, connect more, and love each other more as a result of bankruptcy and their commitment to rebuild a good home, a good family, and a good life. 

Robert and Emma, towards the end of our interview, shared this advice for families faced with any sort of financial or other crisis:
  •   Trust in your children’s resiliency, and your own.
  •   Dwell in the present moment, don’t scare yourself about the future.
  •   Be flexible, but make a step-by-step plan to rebuild.
  •   Learn from your children, they are wiser than you may think.
They have learned to live more in the present moment.  The more they could accept the reality of their losses and forgive the past, the freer and more able they became to start building anew.  Though not aligned with any particular spiritual faith, they both developed a deep reverence for finding joy, truth, and beauty in life through losing all their “stuff”.  As they both stated, “In the end, we lose it all anyway, and it’s just stuff.  We are only left with love, the love we share with others and that we feel for ourselves”.  Though humbled by the past few years of relative poverty, this family states that they’ve learned to focus on what they do have:  each other, the love in their friends and family, and their health.  These gifts, in their estimation, are at the heart of the truth of what truly matters in life. 
An update since my interview with Robert and Emma: they have relocated closer to family across the country, bought their first house since declaring bankruptcy four years ago, and are all thriving in work, family life, and in their new community. 

Courage Quote of the Day

May it please me that my mercy may overcome my anger, that all my attributes be invested with compassion, and that I may deal with my children in the attribute of kindness, and that out of regard to them I may pass by judgment. 

                                                                                                  ~ The Talmud

Courage Challenge of the Day

Say YES!  To EVERYTHING!  Don’t tell your kids in advance, but it won’t take them long to figure out that the word “No,” is not in your vocabulary today.  You definitely want to set yourself up for success with this one, so it might not work today.  But soon.  Pick a day when you have no have-to’s on your schedule, and just say yes to life.  Chaos may well ensue.

For a funny take on this approach to life, try the movie Yes Man with Jim Carrey.  Caution: rated PG-13.

The Children’s Room

For the most part, if you want to find fairy tales and folk tales and myths and legends, if you want to use enchantment, you must go to the children’s room of the library, or the children’s section of the bookstore. This has created the false impression that these stories are intended only for children. It wasn’t always that way.
In the generations before blogs, before video on demand, before t.v., before radio, before books, even, entertainment in the form of oral storytelling was just about the only game in town. For all the centuries before the industrial age, labor meant repetitive tasks over many tedious hours, hours that were relieved by telling stories. Spinning and weaving, for example, are sedentary and monotonous, and played such a huge role in the tradition of storytelling that spinning a yarn and weaving a tale are now synonymous with the art of the story. We fabricate our own stories or follow the thread of someone else’s adventures. Text and textile both come from the same Latin word, texere, to weave. Everyone shared the stories while they worked, young and old, even when it was R-rated and even X-rated — I suspect covering the children’s ears happened sometimes, but not always!
It wasn’t until the great collectors of folklore in the 18th and 19th centuries that the “wonder tales” were written down systematically, and then found their way into the nurseries and school rooms of the literate classes. Suddenly, the bawdy stories that had provided laughs for laboring grown-ups were deemed immoral and unsuitable for children, and new editions were printed with a young audience in mind. Scholars have traced the banishment of many stories from the later editions of the Grimms’ collections that had appeared in the earliest, for example. Eventually it came to seem that the principal audience for the stories was and always had been children, and such tales became “childish.” So began, I believe, the steady exile to the children’s room of all traditional stories, be they myths, legends, fables or fairy tales. It’s as if a stern voice said, “Go to your room!”
Now, I don’t mean to take these stories away from children, obviously. However, the problem arises when older kids take the view that they are too old to hear stories, or when adults think there’s nothing on those shelves to share with teens and tweens. Listen well: there is more than enough to fill the heart and mind for them as well as for their parents! What a treat there is if you look! These are “messages from our ancestors.” Let’s keep our ears open for those messages, for there is much wisdom in them.

The beautiful children’s room of our public library is in the lower level, and the approach down the stairs is painted with friendly beasts and characters from well-loved classics. If my daughter gets to be too cool to go downstairs there where the little chairs are, I’ll keep going there for her to get the books to share. Hopefully, she won’t get to be too cool. Hopefully she’ll always have the social courage to ask for these stories herself.