Gift love

Sometimes love is easy; other times… not so easy. When love is easy it bubbles to the surface of our skin, comes out in words, touch, and little notes. We don’t have to think about it. When love does not come easily it can still be given consciously and with effort. This, is gift love.

This post has been in my drafts folder since A was small enough to nap on her dad’s body. The picture is out of date but I kept it anyway because I like the palpable familial love so visible in it. I like to see M’s eyes sparkle; and baby A in that purple dress with her one-year-old mowhawk before the sides of her hair had grown in. I love the moment when this picture was taken.

Gift love started as my way of thinking about how to reconcile daily grievances, make-up when the unthinkable just happened, and forgive when apologies have not necessarily been given. Anyone with a spouse will relate, but also anyone with any valued long-term relationship; be it with a parent, sibling, lover, child, or friend.

The first few years of parenting are hard on a marriage, and I’m not sure it gets any easier. Why are relationships so hard? Why is it that the people we love most have this endless potential to cause harm; to take the most tender parts of ourselves, twist them into something ugly, and fling it back into our faces?

Gift love, put simply, is empathy. It is meeting a person where they are and saying,”I see you.” In loving a person at their worst we invest in the parts of them that are soft, vulnerable, fragile, and help those parts to grow. To love a child is somehow easier than loving an adult, but it is the same. Each of us was once a child. Each of us started out as precious.

Gift love is the love we give even when we don’t feel like it. It is courage mustered in small moments when we want to roll away and offer our back, but instead roll to and bravely talk about how we feel. It is a love given humbly, in remembrance of the big picture, and to the people without whom we would be lost. When it all falls apart, someone has to start somewhere.

I wish there existed some rote method of reconciliation that everyone was trained in: Then we could just move through the process and get on with it. You speak, and I will listen. I speak, and you listen. We each apologize and take responsibility for harms caused. Forgiveness is complete. Once again, we feel safe and loved in each other’s presence and the relationship is whole. We part ways feeling right with the world.

What holds us back? Part of gift love for me is that I will only take your words 100% seriously when you are clear-headed, centered, and speaking from the most authentic core of your being. I picture a circle of emotions that each of us works with. All of the places we reach for in difficult moments are along the edge: ego, pride, anger, control, defense, greed. The center is where the heart is; the authentic place we speak from when we are feeling vulnerable but brave and can be proud of our words and actions. When we speak from this place it is easy to love ourselves and each other; and when the conversation is over we rest in the knowledge that we did our best.

What do we do with nasty things said in a heated moment? The things we can’t rescind or un-hear hold kernels of truth. Take them seriously and reflect; but at the end if the day, understand that my harsh words are more a reflection of how I am doing on this difficult journey than of how you are doing. Know that I will want a chance to make things right.

Relational stress is the worst for me; it hurts for years. On the receiving end of an ear-full I take your words pretty hard. Maybe I should see that you aren’t centered in your emotional circle and try not to take you so literally. Maybe, if I stay centered, I can resolve some piece of your suffering rather than adding to it.

I am trying out this idea of asking people to apologize. It’s awkward but if you need something, ask for it. If I didn’t believe in you, if I didn’t value our relationship and want it to continue, I wouldn’t bother. I would write you off as a lousy human and move on. Revealing my hurt, is me loving you. This too, is gift love.

As a person who messes up frequently, I have had lots of practice apologizing. I have no shame in righting my past wrongs. If I caused you harm then I was oblivious to your needs in that moment or not centered in my circle. I don’t feel a need to justify my past poor behaviors; so please, just ask. I will hear your words as a gift.

I want to be a refuge for my people; a place where you can come to be heard and understood. I look at myself and my husband in this picture and I see how our lives have become more stressful than they used to be. I see how needs now go unmet; his and mine. Still, on a good day, we make each other lunch. We hold hands and kiss before dinner every night. We prioritize time together on weekends during nap time. I see how these small efforts, made with great love, accumulative into the days of our life. Love given freely always comes back in some form.

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Ten helpful ideas for parenting strong-willed kids (part 2)

In part 1 of this story, I shared our family’s reconciliation between practical parenting needs with our daughter’s strong will. Here, I summarize some points for parents struggling with the same behaviors and provide references for further exploration. Enjoy!

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Strong-willed children cannot be made to do anything they don’t want to do, but they can be convinced. If the expectation is reasonable, and your child understands the reasons and loves you, then your kid will often be on your side. Here’s how:

1. Value your relationship above all else and give up control whenever possible. For example, my daughter gets full control over what clothes, hair-dos, and blankets she wears (life-threatening situations excepted). At age three, she is granted these rights and also the responsibility for her choices. For example, she has full permission to puddle stomp, but I don’t end adventures early because she’s wet.

2. Parent in the affirmative. Say yes whenever possible, as in: “Sure, you can have a treat. As soon as you pick up your toys, like we talked about.” Tell your child what to do instead of what not to do and go along with her antics, ideas, and fun-loving nature when you can. Delight in her.

3. Avoid power struggles and direct commands; e.g. whenever you don’t care enough to take it to the death. In moments of small infringement when I got nothing, I often say, “I don’t like it when you do that,” and go on as if nothing happened. Kids have nothing to lose, and their conviction is often stronger than ours. Instead of mandating what your child must do, explain what you will do, the behaviors you will tolerate, and what will happen if you don’t see some cooperation.

4. Save your breath. Adults who give constant feedback risk becoming innocuous background noise. Remember the teacher from Charlie Brown? Waa wah wah waa wah wah. Don’t belabor the point when behavior is marginal or danger is a mere possibility. Your words may then ring true in moments that count.

5. Allow natural consequences to teach your child. If there’s none then think up an appropriate one and offer it as an alternate choice to the behavior you want. Don’t offer choices you’re not 100% ok with and don’t invest in the outcome. Stay neutral. It’s up to your kid to cooperate or take the consequence.

6. Set a few rules, even for toddlers (age 1) that you know you can enforce. Articulate the reasons behind the rules, the music behind the madness. A strong-willed child needs to understand why rules are in place, and have permission to work the available loop holes. She will be looking for them. When your kid discovers situations where the reasons don’t apply, then bend and hope she’ll learn from your modeling. “I see your point,” I like to say. “I can be flexible about that.” Or “Sure you can; as long as it’s not a problem.”

7. If you want your kid to listen the first time then don’t ask more than once. Assume your kid remembers and understands what you said. Choose a consistent cue like “uh-oh” to let your child know that a choice or consequence is coming. You are not required by law to give a warning before a consequence.

8. Try non-verbal forms of communication. Refrain from verbal directives especially in moments when your child is “on the edge.” Open your arms for a hug. Hold up a single finger for “just a minute.” Learn the sign for “don’t touch.” Reach out your hand to hold when you want to leave. Go get him or move to where you want him and start eating, reading, etc. Give him a chance to follow of his own accord.

9. In emotionally charged, right-brained moments (i.e. tantrums), a. Use non-verbal signals to communicate comfort. b. Offer empathy to validate feelings and help your child get calm. c. Be a good listener or talk a non-verbal child through what happened. d. Wait to reflect and request different types of behavior until your child is back at stasis.

10. Decide what qualities you want to cultivate in yourself and don’t let your child push you to become angry, anxious, or mean. Keep your cool. Kindness can be the most effective way to change challenging behavior. Your kid is going to grow up to be awesome.

Suggested resources:

Circle of Security International www.circleofsecurityinternational.com/

Cline FW & J Fay (1990) Parenting with Love and Logic.

Forehand R & N Long (2002) Parenting the Strong-Willed Child.

Shanker S (2016) Self Reg.

Siegel DJ & T Payne Bryson (2014) No-Drama Discipline.

Tobias CU (2012) You Can’t Make Me (But I Can Be Persuaded).

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Millennial me

Hi. My name is Heidi, and I am a millennial. Before you judge, let me explain:

I was born in 1981; a cusp year. I grew up watching the Cosby Show, Smurfs, and the first class of Saved By the Bell. I played with Little Miss Make-up, Care bears, and Pogo balls. We wore slap wraps, hammer pants, hyper-color shirts, and a bunch of other stuff most millennials have never heard of.

I grew up with gen-X friends and cousins who probably see millennials as a bunch of lazy, self-serving good-for-nothings living off of their parents and whining that they’d get rich if only they could get their big break… Or maybe that’s a thought I’ve had. I hoped if I passed myself off as one of you, I could escape that reputation and my sense of personal specialness.

For a long time though, I’ve excused myself as being “culturally gen-X” under the guise that upbringing is more important in deciding generation per se than birth year. Like maybe I would have been a millennial if I was cool enough to have dial-up internet in 1993 when the only thing to do online was talk to people you didn’t know in weird, themed chatrooms; but I was’t. Be-bo-be-bo-crrrrrrr.

My family did not “get the internet” until 1998 when I was about to graduate high school. I spent a lot of time those days on Instant Messenger talking to friends who had already gone away to college.

Also, I can’t spell “millennial.” I have been struggling with that one for 19 years so how could I be one? Thankfully, I use the internet well enough that I was able to come up with the correct spelling for this post plus lots of pictures of young people taking selfies.

The first time I heard anyone use the term “selfie” was in 2014. I was working as a Park Ranger in Glacier Bay, and I was aboard a cruise ship parked in front of a tidewater glacier. A young man with an iPhone caught my eye and said, “Selfie?” I didn’t understand what he was asking, and I didn’t like it, so I just kept walking like any self-respecting gen-Xer would do. A few minutes later he was back, peering at me from around a corner; “Selfie?”

Whaaaaaaatt!?

Thankfully, being from the most empathetic generation ever, he read my confusion and used a complete sentence: “Can I take a selfie with you? ”

“Oh,” I said. “Sure.”

What good is identity anyway? I like to rebrand myself now and then just to keep my inner psyche on her toes. Here’s what did it:

Last year I watched Iliza Shlesinger’s Netflix stand-up comedy special, Elder Millennial, thinking I’d get to enjoy feeling superior to the millennial generation. But I got all of the jokes. I loved it, and I identified with it.

Wait a minute, said my cerebral cortex, if she was born only two years after you…and she’s a millennial…wouldn’t that make you…

Stop! Shouted my limbic brain. No need to go any farther with that thought!

Ok, said my cerebral cortex. My mistake. She is from New York City so her family probably got the internet really early, like 1992…

Phew, said limbic brain. That was a close one.

Meanwhile the participation trophies are still lined up on the shelf, threatening to overthrow my childhood bedroom. (Actually, all of my childhood stuff is still basically in that bedroom. It’s like my own personal shrine.)

Sigh. I know Millennials have a bad reputation with older generations, but the older I get the more I relate to and need my younger friends. Here’s what I love about them, ahem, us:

I’ve never met a group of people with such admirable hearts. Millennials are smart, creative, funny, honest, and ambitious. We refuse to compromise who we are. We have the courage to ask hard questions about who we are and why we do what we do; because experience with failure has caused us to lose our fear of failure. We ask the hard questions – Who am I? Isn’t there more to life than this? – over and over, and we are not afraid to change the answers. We accept ourselves and empathize with others. We refuse to compromise who we are and so grow into people of great faith and focus. Our roots are woven together into a fabric of human equality, ethics, and a vision of a better world.

Ambitious haircuts still make me nervous. I don’t have an Instagram account, and I struggle to use hashtags (#wtfhashtags). But I’m working on these things. Like it or not, I’m a millennial, and I might as well get used to these things. Maybe generational confusion is a natural part of growing up as one generation of peers makes its way out of the world, and the next generation makes its way in. Or maybe that’s just me, a millennial, thinking I’m someone special.

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Book group/Support group/Same same

Two weeks ago, while our president was tactically separating parents from their kids at the border, and a city in Oman sweated under a new record for the highest low temperature ever recorded–109° F, my friend J put out this call on Facebook:

“I ask for your advice, and support… a suffocating sense of powerlessness to help solve the world’s problems… it’s been hard to find…the energy for giving back to my community which adds to my sense of uselessness… With so much to…break our hearts in the news these days I welcome practical ideas. Because terror in my name is not ok.”

Me too. So, what do we do about it?

I am politically active; I enjoy being part of a small group in Gustavus called AK Standing Up. We host progressive political candidates who want to visit our little town, we participate in national marches, and we made some timely bumper stickers:

I also act as the liaison between that group and the Tongass Democrats, who meet monthly in Juneau, Alaska.

These are small things, but they are also big, because shared events and ideas give us a collective voice, one loud enough to be heard.

Locally focussed groups of 5-15 people have the ability to turn non-active citizens into powerful agents for change.

Small, autonomous groups acting locally organized the resistance against fascism during the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, and Indivisible.org recommends this model for resisting Trump’s agenda.

Turning me into we, connecting and organizing people, enables groups to shape our world in a way that individuals just can’t.

When AK Standing Up meets, and I see familiar faces gathered for a good cause, it adds spark to my own momentum and energy. And it’s fun, because I love these people, and I love spending time with them.

But there’s another need right now, beyond translating anger into activism: We need conversations to help us process who we are as people alive at this crazy time. As citizens of the United States, and the world, we need to help each other digest the news, and all of these graphs where quality of life on Earth ends in the year 2100. Without action, this scary information stays stuck in our throats along with high-pitched emotions, and anxiety becomes the great unifier of our time.

We need to build the collective emotional strength to accept the miles racking up on our odometers every week, and the pile of single-use plastics filling our trash cans now that China has stopped buying America’s recyclables. These impacts, multiplied by all of us, are hard to swallow.

As a place to start such a conversation, someone suggested J read this book-

Mary Pipher’s The Green Boat: Reviving ourselves in our capsized culture. I also reached out to J, and now I find myself in a book group/support group with her and another woman, D.

The copy I read came from the 303.4 section at the library, which I would describe as “Hopeful books about moments when real people changed the outcome of history, at least for themselves.” I checked out some other books from this section too.

The green boat was difficult to begin but great for emotional processing. Mary Pipher does us all a favor and skips the glaze-your-eyes-over science of climate change and cuts right to what matters: how we feel about it, and what the hell are we supposed to do with that? As she says, Emotions, not facts, are what energize people to act. It’s a book that drives those emotions home, forcing one to sit still, read, and feel for a couple hundred pages.

Without flickering lights and Hollywood camera action, a book provides little escape via the senses. There is nothing to jolt one out of the body and into the sensation-loving mind. It’s a slow, simmering soup and readers will sit there and stew. The first day I felt so much anxiety that I quit drinking coffee again.

But the second day Pipher’s words lifted and loosened the anxiety somewhat from my body. I read the rest of the book straight through, eager to find out how I would feel at the end.

The finish is smooth, heartwarming, and helpful: Nobody knows what will happen to the planet, she writes, but we do know what makes humans stronger, healthier, and more resilient. That is facing the truth, dealing with it emotionally, and transforming it. Regardless of the results of our work, when we are doing our best, we feel happier and less alone.

Our book group has met twice now to discuss, both times late on a Sunday afternoon over pints of stout and Belgian ale. We talk about intentions, action items, what helps us cope. I’m still not sure what our group will become, but I like it, and I look forward to our meetings.

Facebook gave me a survey question a little while ago: Is Facebook good for the world? I let my response be colored by all the crap – the weird, deluded messages that people sling that they would never say face to face, the teenaged bullying, and the constant pressure for perfect-self portrayals – “No!” I said. But then there’s also our book group, and countless fun barbecues and other good connections, that come out of Facebook too. I’d like to publicly rescind my answer. Like any platform, Facebook is a stage for the whole human drama – comedy, or tragedy. It has the same potential to harm or heal as we have ourselves.

Imagine all the people

I remember the first time I saw this sign at the library for the University of Southeast Alaska in Juneau. I was nervous to go in. Would I see anyone of ambiguous gender? Would there be men? Would there be anything unsettling about the experience ? But then there were just some stalls, I washed my hands, and that was it. I walked out feeling very hip.

Alaska can be slow to arrive at hip; also slow to shed what is unhip (ie. last week my husband suggested I take up rollerblading = $&@%*!?!), so I’ve been impressed with this new idea of how to be a bathroom. Here are some more good signs:

This walk-on-in bathroom movement has been helpful for fathers with daughters, moms with sons, and parents of disabled children, but the root of the idea comes from the transgender community.

Let’s all take a minute to imagine what we think it is like to be a transgender person. Or if that’s an easy one for you, pick something else: beauty pageant winner (you’ve trained your whole life for this?), professional clown (what twisted path led you here?), rocket scientist (so, what do you do for fun?). This, imagining what it is to be someone we don’t understand, is empathy.

Do it now.

As part of this empathy project I also searched for posts about being transgender (use the internet for good!). I encourage you to click below; the images aren’t inappropriate, but they might make you uncomfortable. Your choice (or maybe you’re curious about investment bankers, or tiger veterinarians, or paintball champions…?)

This is what I learned: Transgender includes anyone who doesn’t identify with the gender assigned based on their genitalia at birth. Some “girls” eventually get facial hair and deeper voices. Some “boys” develop very real breasts, or become beautifully feminine. Sometimes the outer expression of a person’s gender is different from what is between their legs.

Which damn bathroom are they supposed to use?

On April 3rd Anchorage will vote on how we/they think transgender people should pee, or at least, in which bathroom.

A no-vote on proposition 1 upholds the current anti-discrimination laws that support the uni-sex bathrooms and the idea that each of us knows best which bathroom we belong in. Leave it at that.

Vote yes if you’d like the legal right to ask a person, in a bathroom, to see proof of their gender as assigned at birth. Because we all carry our birth certificates and enjoy bizarre conflicts with strangers in bathrooms ($&@%*!?!).

I do these mental empathy exercises a lot; there are a lot of people I don’t understand. The only time I falter, and basically can’t get there, is when I try to picture having very little empathy, e.g. some people feel so uncomfortable about the idea of sharing a public bathroom with a transgender person that they’d rather not share it at all. That level of discomfort must feel terrible, but I have a very hard time identifying because don’t you think it’s way tougher to go through life being transgender?

That, and I just hate when I gotta go, and can’t find a bathroom.

You may say I’m a dreamer

But I’m not the only one

I hope some day you’ll join us

And the world will be as one.

– John Lennon