I am a writer. It took me a while to say that, to myself, before I could proclaim it to the world. I grew up with the notion you had to BE, before you could claim to be. There was something in my mother’s teaching that made me reluctant to attest to something about myself unless someone else, officially, had acknowledged it first. Even when I became an adult and wrote for my daily newspaper, my mother continued to think; ‘a Writer is someone who writes Books.’
I have mixed feelings about the drive to be a writer as my father spent almost every spare moment during my pre-teen years clacking on his Underwood. Having gone through my own mid-life crisis I can recognize now, what was going on with my dad. He was at a crossroads and he thought sending off manuscripts, with rejection slips inevitable, just might bring him the fame he was after. My mom kicked him out of the apartment for his ‘writing obsession’ and only let him back after he promised to write no more. These were very stressful days for me. The house was suddenly very quiet after he took his typewriter and left. To this day I will feel heartache whenever I see one of these antique word processing machines. The departure scene became forever connected to WRITING. To venture into the land of career writing became filled with the prospect of following in my father’s failed footsteps. Nothing pleasing to picture with that scenario; move along please.
What a negative space I occupied; Being unable to write because it didn’t feel right. Thankfully I recognized that this attitude was largely self-imposed. As my teaching career wound down I approached our local daily newspaper with an idea for a weekly column. It felt like a rite of passage when I got hired. The Daily Press even used me as a roving reporter covering the arts scene on the weekends. I tapped away on the keyboard of a new Bondi Blue iMac (much quieter than my dad’s machine). I discovered that the more I wrote the more I wanted to write. I had tapped into an artistic side of me that had been hungering for release. I wrote editorials. I wanted to be a righter of wrongs. I kept poetry diaries and trip journals. During my last few years of teaching everyone in my classroom wrote lots of stuff. We shared the results together with delight. We played with homonyms, synonyms and antonyms. We made up nonsense words and made them into cartoon characters. Sometimes it only takes one person to read your work to make you feel accomplished.
One year, to honour the passing into the new millennium, I wrote a full page of thoughts for each day of 2000 thinking it would be a curiosity for my grandkids someday. My wife was diagnosed with stage four cancer in January 2001. For the next 288 nights she asked for a bedtime story; either Winnie the Pooh or a page from my Millennial Journal.
If I am resilient I can survive change. I may not completely bounce back from the trauma nor will I necessarily become stronger simply by dodging a proverbial bullet. My experiences may make me better able to cope the next time a challenge arises. Trouble is, there may be enough difference in the new situation as to make my response difficult. I must rely on my belief that, given time and adequate support, things will get better.
One of the best things teachers, parents and coaches help us discover is our personal resilience. I can credit my years as a Boy Scout with teaching me a lot about resilience. I was instructed to hope for the best and prepare for the worst, to seek shelter when confronted with a storm, and to try one more time. I remember one portage in particular during a canoe trip through Algonquin Provincial Park. I had felt a head cold starting the morning of the third day into the trip. The paddling part was a blessing as the breeze cooled the fever my body was developing. Once out on the land and weighed down by packsack and canoe the going got tough. Biting insects could not be swatted and our path was through boot sucking mud. Each step was agony. I was young and wanted to cry. I faltered briefly and looked up as my Akela now stood near me. Quietly he asked, “Can you go to the next tree?” I repositioned my load and said yes I could. He walked beside me until the tree and said, “Can you make it to the next hill?” Somehow I could and just past the hill was the location of our camp for the night.
I recall having my meal that night in one metal bowl; a ground beef mixture, cookies and chocolate pudding. I tagged out of the next activity to get some rest in my tent, quickly falling asleep. Much to my surprise, my Sixer came to wake me for Mug-Up. My body still aching, I was persuaded by this familiar before-bedtime tradition of a warming tin mug of hot chocolate, so I rallied myself. The next morning I felt like I could canoe forever, no matter what might lay ahead on the trail. I was a modern day voyageur. I was invincible!
A resilient attitude is elastic. It bends like the marsh reed to the wind’s insistence. Rigidity can cause us to snap under pressure. Sometimes we can only respond to the change that blows our way. Other times we can make a change that will bring us closer to who we want to be. We can build resilience in mind, body and spirit by being watchful for opportunities that test us to be better.
What Akela had taught me that day was that I had more resilience than I ever imagined. By shrinking my goal I could continue. By sometimes taking baby steps I wasn’t diminishing myself. By trying one-more-time I found I could discover something new about the person I was becoming.
Learning how to relate to another person is tough. We can be advised to ‘walk a mile in their shoes’ or be asked the question; “How would you feel if they were you?” We have to be open to the idea that we are not the only person in the world. We must learn that others may have a different view yet still require our respect.
This learning about relationships takes time and can be distorted by conflicting messages or misguided influence. In my growing up time I learned early to question my mother and follow my father. These two dominant relatives were responsible for helping me decide the kind of person I wanted to be. I would often avoid my mom because of her inconsistencies. Her standard instruction to me was, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Whereas my father, man of few words, would lead by quiet example. I learned by watching his response to the world’s pressures.
It was easy to relate to my father. I watched what he stood for in life. He was good at relating aspects of his life journey through story. I adopted some of his philosophies of life into the pattern that was to become me. Relatively speaking I have found it easier to relate to one of my sons over the other two. It’s not a question of picking favourites. It has more to do with recognizing life style and the behavioural choices that go along with daily living. It’s also not about judgement, since my relationships with my sons requires a recognition of time and place factors. It may be easier to relate when a son is doing it my way (the familiar way) yet I’ve come to enjoy being introduced to other, equally satisfying, solutions to problems. I enjoy opportunities to update our relationship within current contexts so I can rediscover my sons. I hope I continue to be relatable to them.
My first wife instituted a bedtime prayer with our wee sons that ended with, “God Bless Mommy, Daddy and all our friends and relatives near and far away.” She was a fan of A.A. Milne and may have formed her opinions of the value of honouring friends and relatives from one of his books. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gkr4E1Q1Dds
Relating to relatives isn’t easy. In-laws get the brunt of relationship jokes mainly because they lack history with us. Gatherings can quickly become shouting matches because, without a sufficiently long context, we have fewer ways to counter thoughts of ‘How can you think like that?’ or ‘You just don’t get me.’
There are ways we can make ourselves more relatable. Being consistent in our behaviour can be a start for people to recognize the patterns within us. Allowing someone else to know through our words that we have experienced some of the same life adventures can help open the door to a relationship. Until you hear the multitude of life stories you can’t really grasp the reality of all things being relative.
In the inner city elementary school where I was hired to provide Guidance programming there were many children with mental health issues. In one case, a grade two classroom teacher asked me if I would help reduce the amount of bullying that she had observed. I began by building awareness amongst the students by asking them to wear a tag, during recess, fastened to a chord around their necks. Every time they felt they were being bullied they were to tear a little piece off of their tag. When we met at the end of the first day we talked about the damage that had been done to their tags. Some students hadn’t torn any pieces off their tag. Others had a few pieces missing, while a few had most of the tag gone.
The focus throughout this exercise was not on the bully but on the response to a feeling of being torn.I recorded these results, using the data to design an appropriate program. By the end of the month the majority of the students were talking freely about their feelings and were sharing with their teacher how they were standing up for themselves.
Every teacher will tell you that they learn from their students. In this particular case I was shocked to learn how many people (young or old) can feel that pieces of themselves are lost by the end of each and every day. As we tear around trying; to get what we need, to satisfy our wants, to please others whom we love, it’s no wonder we can feel shredded.
The youngsters in my school setting would often tear up as they told me their stories of being pushed around. At that age emotions rule. Everything HAS to be fair. Crying helped to a degree but then the tears would dry and a more constructive solution had to be found. I was pleased to see that, over time, many students understood that there were things they could do as individuals to protect their ‘tag’. If they didn’t reduce the tears, at least they could find ways to repair themselves to face another day.
Much later in my life, a friend of my wife introduced me to this wonderfully poignant song by Peter Mayer called Japanese Bowls. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOAzobTIGr8
The imagery is outstanding and relevant to the notion of our amazing ability to be resilient to the soul tears each life can experience. As I have come to feel the full understanding of this song I often cry. The tears that fall are from the joy of my personal healing.
Whether in early stages of personality development, in relationships that fall apart or in end of life considerations, assessing our tears helps us to decide what to do next. The data we have collected on ourselves is not always pretty. Our experiences may have left scars.
But I believe we can always come around again to the beauty of life.