Eternal Youth in Everyday Life by Shelley Robinson

 

Keeping an Eye on Youth:  There are so many times that I accept that I am getting older.  I catch myself telling people my age, and joking about how things are different now that I am in my fifties.  With this being said, I still keep an eye on my youth.  I catch glimpses of it now and again in myself, when I laugh really hard at a good joke; dance the night away with my husband; travel to new places; tell someone a secret; and experience something new for the first time.  I realize that youth is not a destination, but a way of experiencing my life.  My body may be giving away my age, but my spirit is still youthfully in tact.  Staying young is a very desirable endeavour and I think that there are ways to extend my youth, or find it again amidst the routines of my everyday life.  I am learning that “[i]t is not how old you are, but how you are old” (Jules Renard) that counts.

Travelling Often:   The more that I travel, the more I realize that travelling is my way of staying youthful.  It affords me an opportunity to think and feel young while living my day-to-day life filled with the mundane tasks of taking care of my body, finances, possessions, family and other responsibilities.  There is nothing that feels as youthful to me as not knowing what will happen in a day or what lies around the next corner, or how food that I have never tried, will taste.  I love being surprised by life.  Youth is all about experiencing things for the first time, and when we can continue to explore new life sensations through travel, we can reclaim our youthful mindset.

One example of travelling with youth in mind for me was walking barefoot up the calcium rocks of Pammukale with its aqua pools.  It was an eternal youth pilgrimage that Cleopatra reportedly made here to swim in the hot pools at the top of this white mountain in Turkey.  I struggled with the ascent as my feet were sensitive to the rocky surface.  Like others, I carried my shoes up this national park path to avoid damaging the salt-white mountain.  The view was dotted with people wading in the water taking pictures of the white crystal paradise.  Once I reached the top, I ventured around the large hot pool cluttered with Roman columns and rock formations where history sprung to the present.

Pamukkale is reputed to be a pool of eternal youth and who was I to ignore the possible benefits of this mineral water?  I wanted to jump right in and give it a try.  All of my blemishes and wrinkles might soften in this hot water.  I revelled being in this Muslim culture worshipping the history of Egypt and Rome in a place heralded to be filled with magic.  I navigated through steaming water around the ruins of a temple lying in the water.  I imagined my body healing as I luxuriated in this public bathhouse in a foreign culture that so desperately wanted me to buy into its mythology.  I am convinced that I shed 10 years that day.

Being Creative:   Every time I create something, I resurrect something inside of me that needs expression.  When I write, paint, or make something, I re-invent a part of myself.  I capture an old or new idea in a way that brings life to it.  I give birth to new feelings and ideas that might otherwise stay hidden beneath the surface.  Every time I share something that I have created with someone, there is risk involved.  People might ignore or dislike it; but then, there is also the possibility that they might connect to it and, in turn, understand something inside of me in this transformation of inspiration.  Every idea comes from somewhere, and it is this rejuvenation of old ideas and experiences, transending time that makes it possible to experience timelessness.

When I was young, I was constantly experiencing something for the first time like my first kiss, my first massage, my first skiing trip, my first helicopter ride and so many other things.  When I create something, I can re-experience these types of life events in different ways.  Activities that help me stay youthful can be simple acts of creativity:

  • Writing a story
  • Making a new recipe
  • Painting a picture
  • Designing a new house project
  • Making a party invitation
  • Setting the table differently or in a new location
  • Planning a picnic
  • Mapping out the itinerary for a trip
  • Making wine
  • Sketching
  • Pulling together pictures for a scrap book
  • Sending a card
  • Doing my hair differently
  • Wearing interesting clothing
  • Going to a new restaurant
  • Planning an interesting date

All of these creative activities involve thinking about things just a little bit differently, and it switches on my young brain again, and takes me out of the brain fog of old age.

Acting Young:   In the desire to be logical and handle life and relationships with maturity, I can get lost to it.  Staying calm and level all of the time can be downright boring.  What about having a good giggle over something and being silly about things?  It is contagious to answer questions with good-hearted teasing.  Joking and finding the pure delight in my social interactions is a real skill, and can prove to be very rewarding.  There is nothing more enjoyable than being around someone like my husband who abandons himself to the moment through happy and playful behaviour.  Even better than being with playful people, is to actually be this type of person.  Joy is a youthful experience and the more that I act joyfully, the younger I continue to be.

I like booting my husband in the bum, or jumping on top of him on the couch, surprising him with my adoration.   He likes showing up with flowers or a card or something interesting to remind me that he loves me.  What about throwing water at someone when they least expect it, or doing each other’s faces with a black charcoal face masque (they are ugly, but feel great)?  My husband and I have an ongoing joke about who last filled the toilet paper roll.  For some reason, the empty roll keeps showing up.  Chris keeps sending me pictures of the empty rolls which throws me into hysterics every time I get these text messages.  (It is likely me not filling the toilet paper roll container, but I will never admit it.)   Having fun is simply the best way to stay young, and I find ways to enjoy myself everyday despite the curve balls that life keeps throwing me the older that I get.   “You don’t stop laughing because you grow older. You grow older because you stop laughing” (Maurice Chevalier).

Opening Up:   Do you remember sharing your heart with your friends and family?  As I have aged, I fight the habit of keeping things to myself.  I find that I can handle most of my own problems without burdening other people with them.  However, when I choose to disclose my feelings to others, I am reminded of my inner, vulnerable child.  I feel connected to the person with whom I have decided to share these special confidences.  I reunite my youthful self with my mature self admitting that talking to people about my insecurities is sometimes better than keeping these feelings inside.  I learn more about myself through these special conversations, and in doing so, I reinvent myself.   In turn, other people feel comfortable talking to me about their problems.  I am reminded that this open book attitude was the way that I used to be when I a was a young girl.  I would open my heart to my friends and tie up the family phone line for hours on end, causing my parents no end of frustration.  As we age, we have to remember to pick up the phone and ask the question:  “Do you have a minute?  I wouldn’t mind your advice on something that I am going through right now.”  The old person in us often shuts these opportunities down.  The youthful part of us decides to take the risk to be vulnerable and it can open doors to renew our relationships.

“There is a fountain of youth: it is our mind, our talents, the creativity we bring to our life and the lives of people we love. When we learn to tap this source, we will truly have defeated age” Sophia Loren.  This attitude towards life and aging, keeps me acting and even looking young.  I find that when I am in the grips of a problem, and I look in the mirror, my age shows.  When I am experiencing joy and fun, I see the child in me, and my eyes brighten, and my face glows.  Age is really a state of mind, and I am enjoying staying young and having people ask me from time to time, “How old are you?” When they do ask, I have to stop and remind myself before I answer, “29 of course…”

 

 

 

 

 

Intersection by Shelley Robinson

 

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Yesterday:   Navigating Through the Traffic 

I made it.  After a harrowing taxi ride through a flurry of scooters six-deep in a road designed for two lanes of traffic, I was dropped off at Ms. Hay’s Vietnamese Community Volunteering (VCV) Centre.  I was late for the meet-and-greet lunch date in the Nam Tu Liem business district of Hanoi, Vietnam.  The traffic lacked any rhyme or reason to it in a haze of pollution that was testament to the almost eight million people that lived here.  My driver pointed me in the direction of a tall grey cylindrical building.  He seemed relieved to be rid of me because he did not speak English and could not answer my questions.

I was left to wander apprehensively with the address in hand, until a security guard sitting outside of a bank took pity on me.  He walked me to another building where one of the ESL teachers, Jackie from Texas, met me.  She was a tall, curly-haired girl with the look of a well-seasoned traveller, and she moved with ease around pedestrians and traffic in this urban high rise jungle while telling me all about VCV.  We headed up to the 5th floor of a run-down office building where I was met by the aroma of ginger, garlic and fish sauce.  A small group of lean travellers were huddled over a kitchen table.  When we arrived, they stood up to welcome me like I was a long lost friend.

“You made it!” Ms. Hay grabbed both of my hands with her wet ones that she had just pulled from the sink of dishes.  She quickly introduced me to everyone who became a blur of tanned faces.  “This is Natalie from Calgary, Canada that I was telling you about.  She is a teacher.”

I nodded and smiled, hungover from my jet lag.  Everything felt surreal and I attributed it to hunger and some shock at my recent and sudden decision to leave my job and everyone back in Canada, in particular, my boyfriend Kyle.  I pulled off my wet rain jacket and sweaty backpack and set them in the corner.  I was immediately fit into the company of six people perched over steaming pho chicken noodle soup and spring rolls.  Along with Jackie, who had proven to be a pleasant woman who excitedly told me about her life exploring South East Asia on her gap year, Cam was a retired military lieutenant from the States with balding grey-hair and bright blue eyes.  A New Zealand couple, Emily and John appeared to be newly-weds because they held hands and giggled quite a bit.  George was a quiet, middle-aged doctor from Sydney, Australia of East Indian descent.  He looked eager to start eating.

Ms. Hay had a policy that anyone that came to visit the centre needed to be interviewed by the group.  Because it was Northern Vietnam in a communist country, she could not afford to pay people legally to be instructors at VCV, given some of the work visa stipulations. However, she could provide room and board, wifi and other amenities that could make the “volunteering” experience affordable.

Cam, clearly the oldest in the group, explained that he had served in Vietnam during the war.  “I love working here.  I’ve been here for six months.  I found out I had cancer a couple of years ago, and decided to come back and buy a place in Danang.  I live there for next to nothing, and I work here for a few months at a time to help people out and to get to know new people from around the world.  Also, Ms. Hay is an amazing cook.”  Everyone agreed smiling appreciatively at their hostess while we slurped at their soup and sipped lotus tea.  I could feel the energy of this group’s camaraderie as we visited and got to know each other.  Relationships were often forged quickly when like-minded travellers of every shape, size and colour came together in unexpected ways.  I had shared many evenings with globe-trotting hostellers in the common areas of kitchens, porches or living rooms, sometimes in guitar sing-alongs or competitive games of crib or chess.  I found that solo travellers often connected in powerful and unexplainable ways as we shared, quite vulnerably, our experiences with people that we would likely never see again.  This friendly gathering here in this fragrant, humble Vietnamese kitchen of mismatched plates, glasses and utensils, felt familiar to me, and I was immediately interested in becoming part of this community.

Vietnamese students ranging in age from 19 to 30 started pouring in the side of the kitchen.  They chatted amongst themselves in broken English while we finished our meal.  Ms. Hay waved them into the other room while we cleared some of the table.  “We are taking the students to the museum today.  We hope you will join us,” she said.  The New Zealand couple, Emily and John added, “You didn’t think you would be thrown into the deep end today, did you?”  The remaining dishes were left on the table with the explanation that everyone could tackle them later.

“Sure,” I was enthusiastic, but nervous.  “Sounds like fun.”  

“We will pair you up with one of the better scooter drivers, Nga.”  Ms. Hay waved Nga over and introduced us.  The student bowed slightly and laughed with me and everyone around her as I stammered out questions about riding a scooter.  Her graciousness would normally have put me at ease, but the thought of jumping onto the back of one of these motorbikes terrified me.

Before I knew it, they were fitting me with a tight helmet.  Once on the bike behind her, I held her slender body with one arm and used the other to clench the handle of the seat.  The other dozen or so scooters coupled with students and some teachers, zipped by me giving me a thumbs up.  I forced a smile and chided myself for carelessly agreeing to travel on the back of a stranger’s scooter, while also secretly wishing that someone would take a picture of me to prove that I had done it.  George from Australia smiled as he passed by me on the back of another scooter, holding his seat with both hands.  He appeared at ease in our buzzing swarm.

The afternoon passed easily with me speaking in English to enthusiastic adult students about the exhibits and artefacts in this small and out-dated natural history museum.  I learned that they came to VCV once or twice a week to learn English from the international volunteers.  George was animated with the many students that surrounded him as they snickered at his jokes.  They were enterprising students describing dreams of building businesses in a communist world.  One petite single mother talked about wanting to help her family get ahead in the family store.  Another young male student who was my shadow the entire afternoon, explained that he helped with his father’s restaurant.  He asked more questions than the rest of the students and wanted to see some pictures of Canada.  At this point, George peeked over my shoulder while I flipped self-consciously through my photos.  I shared a few key moments in my life over the past year of my house, my friends and family, and some Rocky Mountain hiking shots.

I fast-forwarded past pictures of work and my failed relationship, as I was not really interested in talking about it.  Kyle was a very busy financial investment consultant, and was so distracted by his life of work that it became obvious that I would never be a priority in his life.  He was rarely present with me because there was always something that he had to do, or somewhere he had to be. 

George took quite an interest in my hiking.  “I’ve always wanted to hike in Canada.  I hear it is a lot like New Zealand.” His brown pupils dilated underneath thick black fringes.  Intense eye contact always challenged me.   I changed the subject and turned to the students, “Tell me how you would say this in Vietnamese?” and then pointed to a skeleton of a man.  All of the students were more than willing to teach me Vietnamese as George and I rallied English back and forth with them. 

We ended the museum tour in the museum cafe, drinking jasmine tea and re-living highlights of the afternoon.  “Have you had a chance to see the show of the water puppets in the Old Quarter?”  Jackie asked.  “It features stories about the legends of Hanoi and Thap Rua Island in Hoan Kiem Lake.  The performers operate the wooden puppets from behind a screen in the water and it has a very real feel to it.”  Cam joined in to add how to find it, offering to give me his map. 

While we enjoyed some satay chicken skewers, Ms. Hay expressed that she was eager to bring me on board with the group, most likely because I played the piano and music was a definite need in the program.  “I am interested in joining your team for a month,” I confirmed and we worked out details of moving my gear from my guesthouse to their location the next day.  In our rush to get to the museum, I had only briefly glanced at the large VCV dorm rooms for single teachers, and the private rooms for couples.  They were basic and clean, and I was looking forward to the company of this happy group.  I bowed out of their offer to take me back to my guest house today by scooter, but I accepted George’s offer to walk me home because I was still unsure of the city, my directions and navigating the traffic.

After some cheerful good-bye’s, George and I made our way through the busy streets back to the guest house past the magical Ngoc Son Temple on Hoan Kiem Lake.  Through the foggy, smoggy twilight, I marvelled at the classical red Rising Sun Bridge that spanned the water between where I stood on shore and the pagoda temple on the small Jade Island in the middle of the water.  The thought of walking hand-in-hand here with Kyle, made my heart ache a little bit with the loss of our relationship.  Whereas, George walked beside me with his hands solidly in his pockets.  He was quite a bit taller than me, very tanned by nature, and fit, likely from hiking in Australia.  Knowing that I liked to hike, we stopped a couple of times so that he could show me his iPhone photos of his Cape to Cape Trek in the southwestern corner of Western Australia.  After that, he talked casually about the local culture, as he advised me of what and where to eat, and how to get around Hanoi.  I found his company comfortable and undemanding and let him lead the conversation without feeling a need to participate much other than to nod and smile.   I was exhausted.

When it came to crossing one of the main roads, I froze, uncertain of where to break through the steady stream of scooters as their focussed, masked drivers weaved around each other.  There were no rules and few stop lights.  He grabbed my hand, coercing me to follow him into the dangerous road where there was no intersection.  “Just walk slowly and they will move around you,” he instructed.  I hesitated at first, and finally agreed to let him lead me through this torrential traffic.  At one point, we stood for several seconds in the centre of the flow of vehicles with no place to go as people drove around us like a stream parting for boulders.  Drivers honked to let us know that they were aware of us until we finally saw an opportunity to run to the other side.  “Oh my God!” I exclaimed as we reached the sidewalk.  He let out a deep laugh at my terror and offered to buy me some ginger tea on the corner.

We sat quietly sipping the tangy golden concoction while perching on tiny little plastic chairs that reminded me of children’s furniture.  It afforded us a chance to watch the frenetic world whiz by us in our little social bubble.  Someone offered to clean my shoes.  Another came up and showed me soft and colourful silk scarves.  We enjoyed each other in companionable silence. The entire time, I was very aware of George’s steady presence without ever really looking at him.  

Last Night:  Sleeper Car to Chiang Mai

It had been difficult to sleep the first few days of arriving in Hanoi.  I was 13 hours ahead of my home time-zone, and in this day and night reversal, my body was spinning upside down.  As well, this busy street below me in this hotel, came to life at just about the same time that my circadian rhythms wanted to shut down.  The fragrant beef and chicken bun and pho that the little restaurant served at the base of the stairs, tempted me.  Regardless, I was determined after my busy day at the museum, to just go to bed.  I washed the city dirt off of me in my room’s little electric shower.  The large, hard empty mattress felt delicious to my sore body in this simply decorated room with only one painting adorning it of the famous Halong Bay.  It took very little time for me to lose myself to sleep and the ensuing dreams that had been so viscerally present over the past few weeks.

When I inquired about the seat, a friendly looking Canadian in shorts and a T-shirt with a flag on his backpack, introduced himself as Bryan.  He welcomed me to sit beside him on the sleeper train heading from Bangkok to Chiang Mai.  I was relieved to sit next to a friendly face.  The aisle was narrow in second class and we were served tea by the steward who walked around to collect our 881 baht for tickets.  “Where are you heading?” Bryan made small talk with me once I sat down and fit my backpack under the seat.

“Chiang Mai,” I answered, happy to be off of my feet.

“Me too,” he grinned.  “We have quite a bit of sleeping to do before we get there.  Have you travelled by sleeper train before?”

“Yes, in Egypt.  I barely made it from Cairo to Luxor alive.  The tracks were so rough.  We stopped several times through the night.  Will it be that way on this train, do you think?”

He shrugged his shoulders.  “Most of my friends told me that they drugged themselves up so that they could sleep.   They had nothing bad to report though.  I’m not really big on sleep medication, so it is bound to be a long night.”  He wore a blue baseball cap and dark curls sprung out from underneath it fringing a freckled face.  His eyes held mine for a few seconds as he seemed familiar.   

“Me neither, although I can sleep through pretty much anything most of the time…trains, planes and automobiles.  It’s a gift,”  I joked nervously.  I realized that despite having a fair amount of common sense, I was really just a lucky world traveller.  So far, God had given me the grace of no muggings or worse.  I relied quite a bit on intuition, and my gut was telling me that this guy was just another Canadian in between jobs trying to figure himself out on the cheap in South East Asia.

After sharing travel stories about Bangkok, he successfully dozed off, and I found my way to the shared bathroom for this car.  The train was bouncing around like a bronco.  I was careful to hold on, first, to the door, and then the bathroom walls while I attempted to latch the wooden door locked behind me.  I grasped the sink as the train lurched sideways and caught my face in the mirror.  My red curly hair had fallen loose out of its elastic that had attempted a pony tail and I was in need of some make-up to hide my pallor.  Undoing my pants and then finally squatting over a tiny silver toilet seat without falling over was a major feat while the clattering of the tracks vibrated beneath my feet.  I sat for quite awhile on the toilet seat, appreciating the privacy.  Someone knocked at the door, and I gathered myself together for the wobbly trek back to my seat.

Later, the steward pulled down our bed assuming that we were married.  We agreed to share a bunk because our stuff and each other would likely be safer in the same cubicle.  “Blankets in between us, please.”  He nodded in agreement, and raised his hand and three fingers in the “scouts honour” salute.  For some reason, I trusted him.  I had learned that when travelling, I had to evaluate in the moment the pros and cons of who to trust.  In this case, we could help each other out as we both needed to sleep.  

After the bed was lowered, and the window curtains were closed, the steward pulled the aisle curtain around us into an intimate cocoon, snapping it shut from the outside.  Bryan laid on his back with his arms underneath his head.  I turned to him, seeing the stubble on his chin, and let out an awkward laugh of us being complete strangers in this tiny bed together.  He looked as shy as I felt, and was also smiling at our unconventional circumstsances.  Underneath the blankets we were provided, I loosened and undid my clothing, and the gentle rocking of the train took hold of me.  I curled up like a cat near Bryan’s warm body and slept.

My phone alarm jolted me awake to remind me that I needed to get ready for Ms. Hay to pick me up.  The lubricious feeling of Bryan lying next to me in my dreams still lingered.   I tried to hold the image of him in my mind, but the more that I grasped at it, the more he faded away and finally disappeared.  Oddly, I had been having regular dreams about this same person over the past few months.  These dreams were always set en route somewhere.  In each dream he reintroduced himself to me as if we were meeting for the first time.  Other times, he was very familiar.  Once, in a dream, we had made love.  One time we were married.  Sometimes we were younger, and at other times, I caught grey in his hair and he was wearing reading glasses. This time, we were merely companions on a train, but the light freckles, the low timbre of his voice, and his energetic presence were the same in every dream.  I had mentioned these recurring dreams to my girlfriend, Leanne, and she was fascinated.  I explained to her that my grandmother had described similar dreams about my grandfather long before they had finally met.  “Natalie, have you actually met this person somewhere before?  Is this someone you have seen on television or a movie?  How exciting it is to have a lover in your subconscious world.  You should see a hypnotherapist and find out who he is.  Maybe you can find him…”

Today:  Moving to the French Quarter

The Internet connection in the guesthouse hotel was intermittent, and I could not download files, or upload pictures to my email or social media sites.  I noticed nothing from Kyle in my messenger in-boxes, and I told him to “fuck off” in my head.  “What an ass!”  I thought of him busy at his work, ignoring the fact that his girlfriend had left him after several attempts at trying to reach him.  After being ignored for a few days after his birthday, it inspired me to make a drastic decision.  I gave notice to my surprised supervisor for a year’s leave of absence and booked a flight to the other side of the world.  Kyle’s apathy of my feelings gave the term “negligence” a new meaning.  It was obvious that our relationship had meant pretty little to him for him to drop me so easily.  He was probably still caught up in the legal suit that he was involved in with someone from Ontario, but I thought that at least he would have noticed that I had left enough to acknowledge me or even to say good-bye.

George and Ms. Hay showed up at the front door, and helped me load my large backpack and satchel into their van.  “Good morning, Natalie!”  she pronounced my name with some difficulty.  George came around to help me with my bags and held my hands tenderly with a slight bow.  He was formal in his manner today and it gave me pause to wonder where our more easygoing conversation that had developed yesterday had gone.  

“Are you ready to join VCV?  Did you sleep well?”  Ms. Hay asked in her endearing Vietnamese English.

“Absolutely,” I assured her, ready to move forward with a new day in a new life.  George drove slowly through the chaotic Old Quarter while she explained some of the history of the area.  Ha Noi could be traced back to the 11th century where King Ly Thai To decided to choose Thang Long (now Ha Noi) as the capital, and build his palace here in a walled city.  It was also known as “36 Old Streets” referring to 36 member streets which was Vietnam’s version of the European guild community.  Historically as artisans moved to the capital city to do business, they gathered together in this area to share their resources.  As a result, many of the streets were named after the crafts sold on them.  Pho Hang Bun (Vermicelli), Pho Hang Ma (Paper Product), Pho Hang Bac (Silver), etc. were examples of the streets carrying the name of the products sold on each.  As we drove past one street after another, it was interesting to see the harmony of the colourful textiles juxtaposed against the loud people and tattered laundry hanging against a back-drop of run-down buildings.  My senses were overloaded with this city’s sights, sounds and smells bursting through the open car windows.

“George has offered to show you around our area so you can get oriented and we will have you start working with students after the weekend when you are better rested.  Does that sound good for you?” Ms. Hay inquired with a gracious smile, looking down at her phone.  This culture was very plugged in to each other and I was learning to have conversations with the locals while they engaged simultaneously in their text conversations.  Their phones were ever-present in everything that they did.  I, on the other hand, was happy to be disconnected with no sim-card, and no real reason to stay in touch with anyone.

Once we brought my gear inside, I settled into my simple room on the VCV Campus in the French Quarter of Vietnam.  It was a spartan space furnished with two bunk beds, a worn wooden desk, two mismatched chairs, and a clothes hanger frame for drying clothes.  I would happily make this place my home for the next few weeks.  The sun shone through the window creating a milky patch of heat on the middle of the hardwood floor, and I longed to lie down in it and rest.  Fatigue had become my ever-present friend and I tried to remember a time when I had not been this tired.

In the kitchen, we enjoyed some spicy noodle soup for lunch, and the tea and conversation with John and Emily about New Zealand roused me enough to tackle the afternoon on foot with my travel guide, George.  He sat quietly in the corner nursing Twilight of the Idols by German Philosopher Nietzsche, but he peeked up long enough to catch my eye.  I asked Cam questions about the Vietnamese exchange rate.  Jackie was glued to her phone, but they all quickly bounced into gear once the lunch-hour was over and some students started to arrive.  We brought dishes over to Ms. Hay who took this responsibility in hand with happy efficiency.  They had all discussed some plans to play language games in the large common area down the hall.  Apparently, adult Vietnamese students enjoyed vocabulary games and especially when there were chocolate bars for prizes.

George gave me a bit of an itinerary for the afternoon that involved finding the local store, bank and laundromat.  “Coffee is a national habit here,” he explained.  “You’ll learn to love the specialty coffee over coconut ice.  It is my favourite addiction and there is one cafe in particular nearby that does it perfectly.”  What I was really interested in finding was an art gallery, temple and maybe a park.  I needed to find the sanctuaries “far from the madding crowd”.  Then, I would be able to handle the Vietnamese sensory overload.

He pulled out a map and a pen and started drawing stars on it for my reference.  “It is easy to get turned around.  The streets are all quite angular here without the grids that we are used to navigating.  Lots of South East Asia is like this in densely populated cities.  Have you been anywhere in South East Asia before?”

I shook my head.  “No, but I really want to see Thailand and Cambodia.”

He nodded and continued, “There are many times where I have crossed an intersection or a round-about here, and found myself heading in the wrong direction,” he laughed. “Being from Australia, I’m not used to everyone driving on the right side of the road either, although everyone drives whichever way they want to here.  I especially love it when they drive right at oncoming traffic.”  I saw wrinkles cross his forehead as he laughed at his own sarcasm, and a few grey hairs defined his temple.  He put his glasses on and looked back down at the map in concentration.  “I will take you for a bit of a ride on the train as it is important for you to know how to get around the outskirts of the city and the local region.  Does this all sound good?”

“And the local hospital?”

“Are you expecting to get ill?” he joked.

“No, but it could happen,” I was unsure of how the medical system worked here.  

He took out his pen from his shirt pocket and added another star to the map and looked back up at me to confirm that he was listening.  “No worries.  I’ll email some links to you too so you can think of some things you might like to see,” he offered.

Two Nights Ago:  Jumping Below the Surface

“Jump”, Bryan yelled.  I was petrified to leap into the depths beyond the log where I stood agonizing about going into the water for the past few minutes.  Giant tadpoles the size of my fist swam as freaky half-frogs in front of me below the surface.  A pale white fish lingered just past where Bryan swam, luminescent in the foreground of this placid lake.  The blue-sky water melted into the smokey grey-layered hues of the Coastal Mountains.  I was never really interested in jumping into any body of water and finding out what lived beneath.  However, I had promised him that this time I would get into the water.  He was a true beach bum who loved to float for hours in his snorkelling gear inspecting the rocks or reefs; whereas, I was a prairie girl, contented to sit comfortably on shore or on a boat beside it.

Finally, I clenched my teeth, held my breath and pushed off of the rocks into the clutches of the fresh, frigid water.  My senses were consumed by the immersion.   Under the mirky water, I could not see, hear or smell anything beyond my body.  I felt his hands grab me, and pull me towards him as the water bubbled into my ears.  I gasped upwards, getting oriented with the air again.   “You did it!” He sounded like a proud father.  I tread in place and wondered what to do:  swim to shore, or swim further out.  The buoyant freedom of this cold black depth both scared and relaxed me.  My body with a little belly starting to define itself, floated effortlessly.  I kept my head above water, focussing on Bryan’s smiling face, not daring to see what might be lurking around me.

“God, it’s cold.”  I said excitedly, swimming towards him.  He teased me by kicking backwards so that I could not reach him.  “Stop it,” I splashed him.  I wanted to grab onto him.

His eyes were dancing mischievously as he popped up and down around me just far enough away so that I could not touch him.  Our game of tag continued until we were far from shore and I felt a bit of panick.  “Bryan.  I am not sure I want to be out this much,” I admitted.  He did not answer when I turned around in different directions to find him.  “Bryan!”  I called out a bit more frantically.  He did not surface.

I could feel my body freeze when after a long wait, I started back to shore where I would be better able to see him from the cliff.  Suddenly, like a spouting grey whale, Bryan breached upwards out of the water directly behind me and laughed loudly as he splashed me with his body. “Shit, Bryan,” I reprimanded him.  “You scared me.”  The fun had gone out of the swim for me all of a sudden.  I breast-stroked through slimey lake grass, and then teetered over sharp rocks to climb out onto the hot, dry bluff.

“Sorry, Natalie.  I was just goofing around.”

I grabbed the bright green sarong that I had brought back with me from Thailand.  He got out and sat beside me on a driftwood log with his beautiful wet body gleaming in the bright sunlight.  We sat looking out at the lake together, and after my breathing slowed down, I realized that I was not very fun lately.  “Sorry.  You scared me,” I was embarrassed by my over-reaction.

“I know,” he put his arm around me.  “I’m glad you got in.  I haven’t seen you swim since Thailand.”

He was right.  It had been awhile with me having my feet too firmly planted on the ground, clinging to my shore of work and preparing to have a baby.  “We’ve been busy,” I smiled.  I looked back at the water wanting to prove to him that I could do it.  Unexpectedly, I stood up and without announcement, slipped back into the water and then dove underneath with more confidence.  As I swam under water for several seconds, I forced myself to open my eyes through the murky waters and saw rocks beneath me.  I heard him hoop and holler as he lunged in behind me.  At one point, I touched something with my feet and then push myself back upwards.  Our bodies collided and he pulled me into a hug.  I could still wrap my legs around his athletic body and he laughed into my wet hair.  “I love you,” he said and kissed me.  His wet lips mixed with the water on mine and I felt aroused by his touch.  

A jolt shook me awake, reminding me that I was on the plane to Vietnam.  The pilot calmly announced turbelance insisting that everyone needed to return to their seats and fasten their seat belts.  The older woman from Denmark sitting beside me, told me that this rough ride was common flying into Hanoi.  I leaned back into the seat, and wondered about my nocturnal protagonist.  I could still feel him tracing my tongue with his.  I could still feel the unusual stirring of having a little being forming inside of me where my stomach was now flat.   

Everyone made a collective gasp as the front landing gear hit the runway twice.  I decided that I was ready to start a positive, new chapter in my life working as an English as a Second Language (ESL) adult instructor in Vietnam.  Working with adult students who really wanted to learn a language seemed like a welcome change from my day-to-day grind back home.  Some might call it running away from my old life with a few uncomfortable conversations with landlords; my school district’s human resources department and subsequent paperwork; and then hiring a moving company to box and haul my stuff into storage.  They were probably correct that I was looking for a quick exit.  However, I was interested in transcending an old life, and building a new one.  It felt good.

Two Weeks Ago:  Looking Down from the Tower

I made reservations for us in the Sky 360 Restaurant at the top of the Calgary Tower.  It was a revolving bar and restaurant with enormous windows that showcased incredible views of the city.  As the evening progressed, restaurant patrons were never exactly sure of where we would end up.  The restaurant movement, like the earth orbiting around the sun, was too slow to be truly noticeable in the moment.  Every few minutes, I lost my reference points outside of the window and had to figure out directions.  I remember being enchanted by it when I was a little girl, and my father had taken our family out for dinner here for the first time.  I could not get over the fact that the floor moved.  It was magical to me then, and still fascinating to me now.  At one point, we could be looking over at the Rocky Mountains for which Calgary was famous.  Later, we would see the curving Bow River with poplar and oak trees beside it; and finally, we would be enjoying the view of the Stampede Grounds coming to life beneath us as it did every June preparing for the beginning of July.  After an hour, the views would circle around again, and each time they would appear in different light.

I had chosen this place to celebrate Kyle’s birthday because it was also where we had enjoyed our first date two years ago. Kyle was pleased when I told him where we would be meeting, and I reserved a seat directly beside the window.  If we leaned over far enough on our tip toes, we could look down the dizzying 627 feet to the 9th Ave below us and watch the heads of people crossing the busy intersection at the base of the tower.  It made me feel queezy, but I appreciated this bird’s eye vantage point.  

We had not spent a lot of one-on-one time together lately.  Kyle wore one of his pressed dress shirts without a tie.  As always, he was clean-shaven and sharp looking with his dark, full hair slicked back.  His piercing green eyes penetrated everything around him.  He always turned heads, and I was both proud of it and a bit disconcerted by the attention he got whenever we went out.  He always claimed that it was because he had me on his arm, but I was quite certain that I was the last thing that these women were looking at when we walked by them.   We talked about his work at the firm, and his investment portfolios that he was juggling.  He asked me about my last week of the school year after complimenting me on my new blue dress and red hair curled down long and soft like he liked it.

June was always mayhem for me wrapping up the school year with report cards and other end-of-year responsibilities. My heart had not been into it lately as the educational bureaucracy had lost its appeal to me.  I was now at a stage in my career where I could go on auto-pilot with my year-end list.  I got a few presents from the best and the brightest students, and a few parents came in to shake my hand and wonder about where their children would be placed next year.  My principal came in and spoke with me briefly about the final meetings and asked me to do a staff meeting presentation on assessment after massaging my ego enough to get me to agree.  “You are one of our most experienced teachers and you have a lot to share.”  I considered the work involved in developing the media-presentation that would be required where I had originally planned to do a final re-stocking of my classroom cupboards.  I had still not learned to say “no”.  However, I was always conscious of my supervisor’s opinion of me because in the educational world, teachers are only as good as our most recent reference.  

Kyle sighed and shook his head as I explained the story.  “You don’t get paid overtime for all of this work you do.  It is the end of the year, Natalie.  Maybe you should call him tomorrow and say that you would like to bow out of it?”

I shook my head as he held my hand in his.  “It’s just as easy to just do it as opposed to agonizing over not doing it.  It is the last week,” I explained, and looked at him knowingly. “Besides, you will be working this week too…”

I could tell that I had hit a nerve as he promptly took his hands away from mine and grabbed his napkin to unfold it onto his lap.  He did not look at me.  “I don’t want to get into this,” he warned me.

There was nothing I hated worse than being pre-emptively shut down for something that he assumed I was getting into.  I kept my tone quiet.  “I’m not getting into anything.  I am just saying that I will likely have time to work on this project because you will be busy too.   You will be busy, won’t you?”  I could feel my resentment about his busy schedule bubble up.  

It was a sensitive topic for us, this matter of him being too occupied with work.  There also seemed to be a double standard about our work schedules.  Where Kyle’s work seemed to be essential, mine was often optional where things came up as “priorities”.  He replied quietly, “I am taking on an important client at work this week.  It could mean several million dollars for the company.”  He spoke quietly as if by emphasizing it in a whisper, it was more impressive.  He was missing the point that millions of dollars did not matter to me.  They were not my millions, and I was getting absolutely no benefit from Kyle’s compulsive work ethic, and I was not convinced he was either.  It did not seem to be my place to tell him this point over and over again.  He acted like a gerbil on a treadmill chasing money, and I was not sure if he would ever get off of it.  I was proud of his ambition and drive, but I saw the writing on the wall for us.  I was just ignoring the inevitable decision that I would have to make with this relationship.   He continued, “I also have to resolve this problem with this idiot from Ottawa.  He is making a legal claim against me because one of his investments fell apart, and he is blaming it on me.”

I felt sympathy for him.  I never liked it when disgruntled parents complained to me about their A students getting A-‘s , and I equated this feeling with what Kyle experienced when his Type-A clients were often panicking about their investments underperforming.  “I’m sorry.  Is it serious?”

“Kind of.  I have a lawyer friend from school looking into it for me.  I have helped him out a few times.”  I worried about Kyle because he sometimes had anxiety attacks.  He had one so badly when we first met that I drove him to the hospital thinking that it was a heart attack.

“Are you okay?”  I was genuinely concerned, and his eyes softened looking into mine.    He held my hand again.  “I want you to be happy, Kyle.  I want this year to be the very best year you can have.  Maybe it should be the year that you take karate class, or go on that trip to Peru that you have been talking about.”  He sat looking through me instead of really focussing on me which he always did when he was distracted.  “Are you listening to me, Kyle?  I am not lecturing you.  I am just really caring about you.  You’ve lost weight.  You have stopped hanging out with your friends, and I just think that you are driving yourself too hard.”  As soon as I said it, I remembered it was his birthday, and chided myself for saying too much.  His phone rang, and he answered it and squeezed my hand before getting up and stepping away from the table rather too conveniently.  I was beginning to think that his work was to him like alcohol was to my Uncle Jack.  One sale and one drink were never quite enough.

He left me sitting there for almost a half an hour, and when I got up to look for him, he was nowhere to be found in the circular restaurant rotating on its axis.  I stood by the window and looked down and waited.  My heart felt sore and my hands felt numb.  He had stood me up.  I picked up my coat from the chair, and made my way to the elevator.  I looked to see where we were at in this revolving world and was glad to see that we were back to looking at the beautiful mountains in the sunset.  It was the longest day of the year tonight being summer solstice, and I was sad that I was choosing his birthday, and this beautiful night to be the one where I would finally walk out.  I stepped onto the elevator and pressed the button down.  It was a relief to get off of this merry-go round restaurant and the dizzy track of life where I had been stuck waiting.  I counted down the floors that lit up as I descended.  It was time to launch.

Today:  Crossing Over

We walked forever down many streets leading to the French Colonial Opera House built between 1901 and 1911.  As we explored around the impressive stone building with its regal columns in the front, I realized just how culturally diverse the Vietnamese history is embedded in strife and conflict influenced by the French, Chinese, Mongolians, Cambodians, Japanese, Russians and Americans.  The Vietnamese were fierce survivors and despite the international aggression situated in and around their country, they held onto their independence.  In the end, they had come out as a complex communist country growing and developing in exciting ways.   This large building was a busy art centre hosting many events from dance through to opera.   It was situated right beside one of the city’s busiest traffic circles with road signs that were confusing to both of us.  On the map it was a circle with six roads coming out of it like spokes on a wheel.  Even the competent George got turned around as we considered our next steps on a traffic intersection not really meant for pedestrians.  We joked with each other as we passed the map between us.  I finally grabbed it and turned it upside down so that the opera house was behind us and we were looking in the right direction in my opinion.  He laughed at me, “How can you possibly figure out directions when you turn the map upside down?”

“Easy,” I looked behind me and considered the web of roads in front of us, each leading in completely different directions:  Ly Thai To; Co Tan; Trang Tien Right; Le Thainh Tong; Pha Chu Trinh; and finally Trang Tien Left.  “The Opera House is there,” I pointed, and we want to go that way,” I pointed across the scooters that noisily roared by us, beeping their whereabouts to each other.

He reached out to hold my hand.  “Are you ready?” 

I shook my head.  “Can we drink a bit of water out of my backpack first?”  He agreed and we made our way over to a bench underneath an ancient Sau Tree typical of the Old City.  There was free Internet reception which was common in some public parks in Vietnam.  Notifications started leaping out of my phone, alerting me to texts and emails.  One stood out.

Hi Natalie.  I just got your messages.  I have been in the hospital.  I had another attack, but this time it wasn’t anxiety.  I can’t believe you just left and went to Vietnam.  Really?!  Where are you?  Contact me, please.  Kyle

I could feel the blood drain from my face, and I had to sit down.  George inquired and I just waved my hand in front of me to show that I was upset.  He sat beside me without further questions.  The world slowed down and everything got quiet in my head as I digested what was happening.  Kyle had not abandoned us.  I had.  I had assumed the worst and had acted on it impulsively, but now that I was here, I could feel a fresh start unfolding.  It was exciting to me.

Eventually, we stood up and I looked at George.  “I just got a message from home.  It surprised me.  I’m okay.”  

His eyes were warm and compassionate. “Let’s get across this road to somewhere a bit quieter and we can talk about it,” he suggested.  I nodded.

I flung on my pack and started across the road.  I was getting braver and focussed on the centre garden monument marking the middle of the traffic circle as a goal for the first part of my crossing.   It was best to think in one section of the road at a time before traversing the remaining part to the other side.  In my nervousness, I moved into the traffic without George.  He had stopped to pick up our map that had dropped on the ground.  Once reaching the middle island, I turned around to see him stranded back on the curb behind me.  He waved at me across several lanes of trucks and scooters, gesturing for me to stay put.  I signalled back that I understood.  The tornado of engines droned and honked around me, and I was caught in the vortex of an exhaust storm.

I jumped up on top of the garden edge to see my destination at the other side of the circle where I hoped I would escape, and spotted a familiar face.  His curly black hair was hard to miss over a boyish splash of freckles.   Tanned forearms underneath a large backpack reminded me of his lean strength.  He was a traveller right down to his hiking boots, and I remembered him excitedly.  It was impossible, but it was Bryan from my dreams.  He appeared to be real.  He was looking around him holding a map as if to get his bearings.  He did not see me.  I squinted to make sure I was not imagining it, only to confirm that it was him even though this possibility was confusing to me.

George was still trapped at the other side trying to see over a rickshaw that was being tailed by a truck.  He was attempting to jog around it, but kept getting stuck between drivers.  I turned back to see Bryan.  I was tempted to wave, but I was not sure if he would recognize me.  Had we shared the same dream with me?  There was simply too much noise on this road to know what to do.  None of this made any sense to me in the middle of the spinning motors.  

My phone vibrated.  I looked down and read a notification that pushed through to me.

Natalie. Where are you?  I need to talk to you.  Kyle

Part of me felt a twinge of guilt over having left Calgary so suddenly, but then, I had been contemplating changing directions for a long time.  His behaviour had served as a catalyst for me to finally leap into another direction.   As well, a week had passed and no one had thought to contact me about him being in the hospital.  I was genuinely concerned about what had happened to him because it sounded serious enough to keep him from getting a hold of me.  However, if it had been serious, why was I the last to know?  His family, friends and work knew my different contact information.  I was reachable.  I had not run away to another planet.  Or maybe they had tried to reach me.

I looked up from the phone, and noticed Bryan walking away.  I kept an eye on his dark head as it slipped into the crowd.  I heard George hollering more urgently from behind me, “Natalie!”  I was torn between my phone message, and each man on either side of the road.  I had to choose.  Bryan’s head disappeared into the crowd.  I did not want him to vanish again like he did every time I awoke from a dream.  

Bryan!”  I sucked in my breath, and burst into the busy traffic, dodging a scooter and then another as I attempted to make it to Bryan’s side of the road.  Being desperate to catch him gave me courage to tackle the stampede.  A scooter with a family wearing exhaust masks swung around me to avoid a collision.  A taxi driver yelled at me out of his window.  A motorist clipped my backpack with his arm as he bumped past me.   With a final push, I made a leap onto the sidewalk away from the traffic and then ran with crazed abandon into the people.

I raced down the street into a lane of clothing stores and past silk shops where I had last seen him heading.  “Tôi xin lôi!” I apologized as I wove around people holding their shopping bags, and the hands of their small children.  After a few blocks, I stopped to catch my breath as my adrenaline burst disappeared.  After searching around me in all directions, I realized that I did not know where I had run.  I did not see Bryan nor George, and when I looked down at my phone, I no longer had any wifi connection with Kyle either.  “Shit!”

Guilt washed over me as I realized that I had left George behind wondering what madness had possessed me to run away.  I would need to contact him, but in order to do so, I needed to find an Internet connection somewhere.  My feet throbbed from running hard on the cement in sandals, and I longed to find somewhere to gather my thoughts.  There were simply too many people pressing in around me and I felt rattled by my loss of direction.

I popped into a cafe-pub and found a table on the patio by the road.  I took off my backpack and waved down the waitress for a tea, and a wifi password.  I stopped to collect myself as my phone loaded new information and then I scoured through past emails to find George’s contact information.  When I could not find it anywhere, I started to panic, realizing how rude I had been to him for just disappearing.  He was likely wondering what to tell Ms. Hay and this was likely ruining any chance of me getting off to a good start with VCV.  I opened my junk mail to see if George’s information had landed there, and found three emails from Kyle’s work email instead.  Again, I was shocked at my oversight, but I rarely checked my junk mail.  I paused wondering if I should contact him now.

A familiar voice interrupted me.  “Do you know the Internet password?”  I whirled around to see him.  Bryan.  My heart jumped as he smiled down at me.  He had unwittingly stumbled across me and he scrutinized me intently as we made our initial contact.  I thought I caught a glimmer of recognition in his eyes.  His bottom lip quivered a bit deciding what to say next, and his eyes blinked quickly.  His real life face was younger and more animated than any dream I had ever had of him.  He set his pack beside mine, “Can I join you?”  

“Sure.  I can type the password in for you,” I offered.  His soft fingers touched mine as he passed it to me.  It was odd that he did not know who I was when I knew him so intimately from an alternate world.  Serendipity, synchronicity, and part magic had something to do with this reunion between he and I.  I caught him staring at me.  I looked back directly into his eyes, willing him to recognize me.  I motioned for him to sit down at the table.  “Do you know Hanoi?” I asked.  

He cocked his head in a way that suggested the he was still wondering about who I might be.  I could feel the question on his breath, but he stopped and shook his head.  “Not really.  I just arrived.”  He pulled out a water bottle and then ordered a Tiger Beer from the waitress, as she handed me my tea.   He wiped his head with his bandana, and then his hand on his shirt and with a chuckle stuck it out to shake my hand in a sweaty introduction.  “My name is Bryan.  I’m from Vancouver Island, Canada. ” He pointed to the Canadian flag on his pack.  “Where are you from?” He seemed very curious and he looked down at my bag only to see the peace sign patch that I had sewn on it when I was younger.

“Natalie.  Calgary.  I am here for work.  I got a bit lost crossing that traffic circle back there.” 

“Me too,” he laughed, and pulled out his map.  “Do you know how to get to the Ngoc Son Temple?”

 

“That’s the problem.  I’m a bit turned around,” I admitted, looking up into his friendly eyes.  Life was always about changing directions and sometimes doing so in miraculous ways.  “Why are you visiting Vietnam?”  I was curious to hear him talk and to explain to me exactly who he was and why he was here sitting next to me.

“I have friends meeting up with me, but then they are heading back to Germany, and I’m going on to Thailand.”   He was a sociology student working on his post-graduate studies.  We talked for awhile over our drinks, and he explained his desire to do an ethnography up in the mountain villages along the Northern border close to the Golden Triangle.  His eyes lit up with excitement as we talked about teaching and working overseas.  Working visas were always tricky.  We commiserated over the matters of currency rates.  I observed his blue eyes as they crinkled at the corners, and how his long, tanned fingers played gently with the corners of his beer label.  He had been travelling up the coast from Ho Chi Minh City, and Hanoi was his final stop before hopping on a plane to Bangkok. “What brings you to Hanoi?” 

“ESL work.  I am going to volunteer for a month at an English Language Centre.”

He nodded appreciatively.  Our conversation was easy and I revelled in the profound connection happening between us.  I was sure he felt it too by the way he leaned forward towards me to listen and consider my answers.  There was a distinct flavour of déjà vu in our words.  He finally asked, “Have you ever been to Thailand?”

“No, I have always wanted to see Thailand.”  It was the beginning of a friendship that would start our story that had been laid out for us by something divine and unexplainable.  

“So, tell me where you want to go in Thailand,” he inquired, asking the waitress for another tea and beer, and then shifted towards me with his chin on his hand as if to say to me that he was all ears.  He was studying me.  “Do you like backpacking?”

I grinned with relief at the certainty that I felt in meeting him.  I would tell him what I knew about us later as my truth was baffling.  Maybe he sensed more than he was letting on as well.  For now, I wanted to enjoy meeting him for the very first time.  I wanted to know who he was, where he was going, and if we were really intended to share something together like my dreams had suggested.  Everything else that had seemed important to me an hour ago fell away as I sat transfixed in this moment.   I reminded myself to breathe.  “Yes, I love to backpack,” I answered.  It was here where our journey began again.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stonewalling: Finding Better Solutions by Shelley Robinson

Hadrian's_wall_at_Greenhead_Lough

Difficult Conversations:  I was raised in a family that said what we had to say (sometimes emotionally); got it over with, and moved on.  I have not realized until recently, how “socially intelligent” (Goleman, 2007) this type of behaviour is for a family that came from humble beginnings and probably didn’t even know that this transparent communication was an effective and efficient way to interact with one another.  I also was part of a profession that made it incumbent on us as part of our professional code of conduct to resolve matters with whom we had difficulties before we went over their heads.  We were discouraged from gossiping and encouraged to handle our problems directly.  “Difficult conversations” (Stone and Patton, 2010) at home and in the work place require considerable social and emotional maturity because embracing conflict with anyone is particularly challenging.

I have learned that nobody really likes conflict, and for those who do well at it, they have likely devoted some time and attention to how to manage tricky social situations.  One of my supervisors taught me that having compelling conversations that are open and honest with people can not only resolve problems, but can actually improve workplace and personal relationships.   When doing so, these conversations become learning opportunities for everyone involved when the elephants in the room are observed, addressed and solved.  I learned over time in my life that avoiding conflict only delays and often complicates communication with people.  However, sometimes we are dealing with people who default to “unhealthy defense mechanisms” which impede the ability to be solution oriented in our interactions with each other.

Freud talks about how “when anxiety occurs…a range of defense mechanisms may be triggered…Defense Mechanisms share two common properties:

  • They often appear unconsciously.
  • They tend to distort, transform, or otherwise falsify reality.” (Changing Minds Org., 2016)

“The list of defense mechanisms can include the following:

(http://changingminds.org/explanations/behaviors/coping/defense_mechanisms.htm, 2016)

As a result, any rational effort to get inside of a topic and look at it with a healthy approach to tackling the difficulties so that there can be compromise and solutions can be thwarted by defense mechanisms.

Stonewalling:  My father who comes from an Irish background told me a few times about what he calls the “Irish Snub”.  When people stop talking or obstruct the ability to communicate, they are in fact creating barriers to communication that much resemble the term given to the act of “stone walling” which by definition is “refusing to answer or cooperate” (www.thefreedictionary.com, 2017).  When I travelled to England, I was amazed at the miles and miles of stone walls that have lasted centuries, in particular, Hadrian’s Wall that was built before 122 AD with the intention of this Roman Emperor to keep the empire in tact.  The wall was originally very tall and long, and served as a formidable barrier.  It still stands today.  Stone walls typically stand the test of time, and once fortified are very difficult to break down.

What I am noticing more and more is that people are able to stonewall easily with the advent of technology as a major mode of communication.  Choosing to simply ignore emails, texts and social media messages is becoming the new “no” to answers, instead of being direct and answering people with positive and negative replies.  People have stopped answering their phones in favour of replying virtually, and they delay far longer than I have ever been comfortable, putting somebody on hold for days on end.  People tend to have an attitude that justifies not replying to people as if to suggest that they do not like the imposition of someone needing to talk to them; especially when they feel too busy to do so.

Courageous Conversations:   The first step to communicating effectively with people around us, is that we need to respect each other.  When we admit that everyone deserves respect, we start acknowledging our responsibility to being effectively communicative and in timely ways.  Leaving people hanging is incredibly rude and hurtful for those of us who have been on the receiving end of it.  It is a power play that puts the receiver of it in a no-win situation.  There is often no choice but to be persistent or to accept the delay no matter how uncomfortable this might be.  Stonewalling has the potential to create rifts that can sometimes become insurmountable with time as being ignored in this passive-aggressive manner is considered to be one of the most hurtful things to do socially (Goleman, 2007).  When anyone is put in the position of feeling unworthy of a reply, or shut-down, it can cause incredible emotional injury.   Being excluded, ignored, shut-down, cut-out, and marginalized, is a powerful passive-aggressive method of holding power over others.  It perpetuates the above defense mechanisms instead of coping with people and problems face-to-face or head-on in healthy and ethical ways.

It takes courage to pick up the phone and call someone back when we know that the conversation is likely to be difficult, or may not go our way.  We may have every reason to justify not feeling up to it, or being overwhelmed by the prospect of addressing someone with topics or feelings that we find challenging.  However, the rewards of facing our fear of having difficult interactions with others, are numerous.  Being accountable to others is an important part of having successful adult relationships (Rico, 2002).  The argument for delaying communication is often that people feel that they have a right to decide when and how they will communicate, and to some degree this is true provided that they are not using delay tactics too often or for too long, or as a means of avoiding another person altogether.  Sometimes a bit of delay can allow people to calm down, and helps them prepare for effective communication.  However, when this type of delay becomes the predominant style of communication between people, this idea of stonewalling comes into question.

Addressing a Stonewaller:   Sometimes there is no really effective way to address a stonewaller without sounding like someone who is impatient or nagging.  However, there are things that can be done when these matters become contentious and debilitating to our own self-esteem and our relationships with these people.  Here are some strategies that have worked for me:

  1.  Set a Deadline:  When someone puts you off, set a deadline and indicate that you can accept some delay, but they must reply to you within the day, week or month as your timeline is also important.  It reminds the person wishing to delay communication that there are two parties involved in determining when the communication will happen.  “I would like to talk with you about this on Saturday.  I trust that this will give you enough time to consider the issue.”
  2. Communicate the Issue in Another Way:  Sometimes when someone shuts us down in person, a well-written letter can diffuse the situation, although this type of correspondence can also escalate matters if not composed carefully.  Remind the person who is blocking communication that your feelings are important and that you are attempting to find constructive solutions to the problems at hand.  “I am writing you this letter because I think it might help to shed light on the difficulties that we are having.”
  3. Refuse a Delay:  If someone continually puts you off, it is important to draw a line in the sand and refuse a delay.  In other words, providing an ultimatum that things need to be discussed, or the relationship will come into question is a bold response to being stonewalled, but it may become necessary if stonewalling is a pattern of behaviour that has become damaging.  “I do not want to wait to talk about this.  I would like to talk about it now, please.”
  4. Educate Stonewallers:  Remind people that refusing to communicate is harmful to relationships and provide them with literature that might make them think twice about doing it.  Sometimes people do not see their own negative behaviour until it is pointed out to them in mature and respectful ways.  “I have an article that I would like you to read about healthy communication and what we might do to improve our communication.”
  5. Give Them a Taste of Their Own Medicine:  Although I have never liked playing relationship games, I have learned that some people learn best when they are shown what it is like to be ignored (only after other strategies have not worked successfully).  It is not a great way to behave, but again, when stonewalling becomes a power play, it is important to teach someone what this might feel like to be on the receiving end of it, provided that it is done within reason and with a thoughtful lesson in mind.  If this strategy is not successful, it does not bear repeating.  “I will talk to you later when I calm down.”
  6. Model Constructive Communication:  I have learned that the best way to improve relationship communication is to explore better communication strategies together and to practice them through reading, counselling and classes.  Sometimes, articulating our desire to ignore a problem out loud but choosing not to do so, shows others that despite the desire to put something off, it is wisest to address problems directly.  “I do not really want to talk about this with you, but I think that it is important that we address this matter before it gets any worse.”

There is no real solution to addressing passive aggressive behaviour unless the people doing it begin to recognize the damage that they cause when they behave this way.  Stonewalling is learned behaviour that takes time and discipline to re-program, but only when there is a willingness to change.  Otherwise, I suggest that where this habit of behaviour is too hurtful to be around, people need to know when to leave toxic relationships that continue to ignore their most basic needs to feel valuable enough to be heard and to discuss matters of importance to them.

“It’s better to be alone and keep your dignity than to be in a relationship where you always sacrifice your self respect.” Auliq Ice

 

The Resilience Factor: Being a Little Bit Crazy Helps by Shelley Robinson

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The Question of Resilience:  Today, I got a voicemail message from a friend who gave me an enormous compliment.  It was unexpected, and came at a good time for me.  She asked, “I am journalling today about resilience, and I thought of you.  How are you resilient?  What do you do?”  After getting over the flattery involved in the question, I percolated for a while, and had a bit of an epiphany now that she had posed this question of me.  Sometimes, I think, people associate resilience with nothing but positive attributes that are strong, sane and healthy.  It is often defined as“…the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness”.  Patience and grace and being “limber, empowered and authentic” (Joanie Connell) are other noble qualities required for it.  However, what if the negative traits (that we have been told are negative) that we struggle to control and the difficult behaviour that we attempt to manage over our lifetime, are, in fact, the very things that get us through the difficulties?  What if some of our neurotic and psychotic tendencies buried beneath our redeeming qualities are in fact our friends at times of difficulty?

I asked my husband what he thought of when I told him my friend’s question.  “Do you think of me as resilient?” I was curious.

“Absolutely,” he replied and then explained.  “When something bad happens to you, you don’t withdraw, you mobilize.  You drive me crazy, but it seems to work.”

“I suppose it is better than the alternative,” I answered.

Mobilizing in my childhood had sometimes been described as being feisty and obstinate by my parents and teachers.  I was not always easily convinced of things.  In my later years, working on something to exhaustion until it was solved was considered to be compulsive or controlling.  “It will all work out okay,” was a provocative ideal to me, but held little proof for me in the real world.  I had learned that for things to turn out really well, I had to be part of the solution.  Henry Beecher describes this level of self-regulation in the following way:  “Hold yourself responsible for a higher standard than anybody else expects of you. Never excuse yourself. Never pity yourself. Be a hard master to yourself-and be lenient to everybody else.”  In truth, this philosophy of resilience is rife with obsession, narcissism and hyper-vigilant behaviour that can be outright difficult; but there is something to it, in my experience.  This type of tenacity flies in the face of the “let it be” ideal that can be so tempting to embrace because it also has merit.  My reality has always been that there is a level of risk and courage living a successful life because “[l]ife doesn’t stop for anybody. [We must keep] going or [we’ll] fall behind.” Avina Celeste  Life is a little bit crazy too.

“Sisu” is a “uniquely Finnish quality that references a certain level of craziness and recklessness that inspires someone to take on something in the face of incredible odds” (Urban Dictionary).  There are so many examples of it around us, and yet, we often give credit to luck or God.  As religious as I desire to be, I think that our odds of success are dramatically improved when we look life in the eye and face it head on.  Being squeamish and meek when dealt a problem rarely goes well; whereas, holding strongly to the reigns of the bulls that long to buck us off of them as they twist and turn underneath us, takes “grit” (Duckworth, 2017:  https://www.ted.com/talks/angela_lee_duckworth_grit_the_power_of_passion_and_perseverance).  Don’t get me wrong.  I never mix up this idea of embracing crazy as being unethical or lacking in integrity.   Integrity is essential to all true survival.  No.  I talk about those shadow side qualities that give people a bad rap sometimes.   For example, my lippy nature in childhood that drove my parents crazy has served me well in adulthood when I have had to stand up for myself and others in unusual situations, granted I have learned to do so with greater discretion. (My husband describes my “sass-factor” as being a bit over the top when I stand up to him.) My manic nature which ignores doctors when they advise that I should not expect to hike again after two feet and two knee surgeries, and then climbing into the middle of one of the Great Pyramids a few months later, could be considered unwise by some.  However, I have found that the positive results of believing that I could do it, far outweighed the risks.

Internal and External Locus of Control:  When I wrote my dissertation, I came across this idea of being “conative” (motivated).  I heard an educational speaker Ernestine Riggs (2007) talk about how some cancer patients survive, and some do not, and much of it is based around their habits of mind and their conative spirit of survival.  “Attribution Theory” (Heider, 1958) follows this line of thinking when outlining the differences between people who have a stronger internal locus of control as opposed to an external one:  “Internal Attribution is the process of assigning the cause of behaviour to some internal characteristic, rather than to outside forces…External Attribution is the process of assigning the cause of behaviour to some situation or event outside a person’s control rather than to some internal characteristic…”  Attribution theory clearly outlines that people who believe in themselves are more successful.  When we believe that our circle of influence starts from within and we believe that we have efficacy within our life circumstances, powerful things happen.

Doors open.  People welcome us.  Problems get solved when we believe in ourselves.  This grand notion that “anything is possible” has its limitations, but it is this singular spirit of enterprise that holds open the door for us to change and grow.  Welcoming change is the very life force of resilience.  On the flip-side, the very things that are best for us (and this may not always be apparent to us at the outset of any key life event that requires a decision) may not be best for everyone else.  It can cause problems in our lives (relationships, work and circumstances) when we tackle things the way that we know intrinsically to be necessary.

Making difficult and best choices; and then sticking with them (discipline) until we need to update them with new best choices, is the crux of it all.  In essence, being resilient is a commitment to a good life by not just keeping up with it, but staying clearly ahead of it so that it doesn’t knock us over.  Staying ahead of things takes a level of logic and foresight that has taken years of trial and error for me.  The best mantra that I strive daily to achieve is being responsible for my actions: “I say what I mean and do what I say”.  By living like this, I have learned to be accountable to myself at times of incredible vulnerability.  In being committed to myself and others in this way, I then trust that I can do it over and over …and over again, regardless of the difficulty.

Breathing Life into Practice:   Recently, I was in the hospital that turned into a five-day stint in intensive care.  Like so many times in my life, I had been diagnosed with pneumonia and then pleurisy and other related issues that have rushed me to the emergency room.  All of a sudden, in this little town of Powell River, I was being treated (as my doctor referred to me) as a bit of a “crime scene”, and much medical testing ensued.  However, to my dismay, none of the testing that they did with me involved taking a sputum culture.  Even though I knew the doctors were the experts, so was I about my own body.  Nobody had paid as much attention to it over 51 years as I had done.  In my lifetime, which was a predominantly positive, healthy and active one, but rife with extreme bouts of pneumonia, I had learned that my sputum cultures had often grown some “pretty strange stuff”.  These tests helped me to identify bugs and treat them with the right antibiotics.  Otherwise, it was guesswork in my opinion, and hard on my body when taking the wrong medication.

I took a deep breath from my oxygen tank, looked the doctor straight in the eye (making he and everyone else in the room uncomfortable) and asked for a sputum culture.  I could feel his ego crinkle a bit at my question as it was not part of his testing protocol.  “I don’t find much success with sputum cultures,” he replied and continued to explain why this was the case.  I repeated my request firmly, and he agreed to requisition this test for me with an air of indulgence.

This one act of self-advocacy started a chain of events that had never been afforded me before.  Doctors paid attention to a bacteria that grew in that sputum culture.  They connected it to others that had grown in my medical files many years ago (that I rounded up for the doctors involved).  I was poked and prodded and asked many questions about my health, so that some of the medical dots started to connect for all of us.  It wasn’t until I was asked to do pulmonary function and sweat chloride testing that important information started to surface because we were addressing an old problem with new lenses.  The research process was rigorous with the results still pending a couple of more tests (genetic testing), but it appears that I may fall on the cystic fibrosis spectrum (CF).

This term CYSTIC FIBROSIS jumped out at me as absolutely inconceivable.  Terrifying!  What would become of me?  Would I live a shorter and more difficult life than I had expected to live?  How could I possibly tell anyone this terrible news?  I envisioned disaster.

Living My Truth:  So, there it is.  The truth.  I said it out loud, and now it is real.  That is the first step to resilience:  trying the truth on for size before it swallows me up.  I imagine the worst case scenario and I mobilize.  In this case, I pulled out all of my breathing equipment, sterilized it, picked up medication (extensive) from the pharmacy despite hating all of it, and set it up on the dining room table.  It was time to take this matter of my breathing very seriously.  Fortunately, I have been eating an extremely healthy diet, and have been active despite not really feeling well.  I had moved to live by the ocean to help with my breathing and that has been a good choice.  Staying positive at a time where the news is difficult is particularly challenging as I feel that I am balancing precariously on the edge of feeling defeated.  Instead, I let the tears come.  I talk about my fears and worries with my husband, sister and friends.  I get it all out…and then, I mobilize.

First, I research.  Researching is a powerful thing to do when it is done with vigilance and not hyper-vigilance, and when it is done with more logic than emotion.  I find that there needs to be a level-head and a means of triangulating information so that I can decide if there is value in what I am reading.  At no point, do I think or act, even to myself, like I am a medical doctor.  Instead, I am responsible for gathering my own evidence so that they can make an informed diagnosis.  The problem, I find, with the medical profession is not the incapacity of doctors; rather, their lack of time to pull information together and review it.  Therefore, I compiled my medical history succinctly for the doctors and discovered that things were starting to make sense to me, and to them because of it.  It was therapeutic and they appreciated the effort.  By doing so, I looked this possibility of CF squarely in the eye.  All the while, I was both horrified and relieved at this potential medical diagnosis.  I was always drowning in phlegm my entire life, and now, after 52 years, someone believed me.  After reading about CF online, I learned that eighteen adults a year are diagnosed with CF later in life in Canada (http://www.cysticfibrosis.ca/about-cf/living-with-cystic-fibrosis/adults/late-diagnosis/).

Now What?  I do not know the end to my story.  I just know that I will be okay because it isn’t what happens to me, but my attitude about it and how I handle it that is the important thing.  Yes, I will continue to work at the things that I love.  Yes, I will continue to hike, and bike and dance and travel.  Yes, I will continue to do all of those wonderful things with my new husband who is so very supportive of me on every level.  Not doing any of it is not an option.  However, I have to make this reality possible for myself, in spite of a diagnosis.  I will not let a diagnosis define me.  Life must go on, and so it will.  Some would call my belief a bit of denial—craziness, and this might be so.  However, being just a little bit crazy has kept me relatively healthy up to this point.  The doctors marvelled that my lungs are as good as they are at this point in my life given some of my realities.  (It must be a result of all of that hiking that I do that I was told I would not be able to do again).

Therefore, my response to my friend’s question that resulted in a much longer answer than she probably intended, is this:  Life is not always easy.  When it is tough, learn everything possible about it.  Then, stand up.  Get dressed and get busy.  Nobody else will do it for us.  Then sleep and recover after the hard work has been done, so that we can get ready to do it all over again when it is required of us.  The rest, I believe, falls into place with a bit of divine love and intervention.  A little faith goes a long way.

“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage” (Seneca)

Hands-On and Hands-Off Relationships by Shelley Robinson

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“Love is not patronizing and charity isn’t about pity, it is about love. Charity and love are the same — with charity you give love, so don’t just give money but reach out your hand instead.” Mother Teresa

Helping Hands Where Not Requested:  I have been considering this idea of being helpful.  The Bible speaks of the value of doing good deeds for others:  “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay” (Matthew, 10:8).  The assumption in reading this scripture is that these people are not only needing help, but they want it.   However, what about the people close to us, like our children, parents or significant others, who do not ask for, nor sense that they need help; and don’t want to be offered it, especially if it comes attached with mentorship and advice?

The sandwich generation of 40- to 60-something people, are often watching keenly as our aging adult children, parents and significant others make decisions that have direct bearing on their, and to some extent our, futures.  We are sometimes caught up in their choices as the safety net (caregiving, financially, logically, legally, and/or emotionally).  We often have some education and life-experience, and it is difficult just standing by while the people that we love make decisions that we believe might cause them set-backs or failures.  As proud as we are of our adult children, and as strong as we believe in our other family and friends, there comes a time where we need to ask the following questions:  “Do I want to have a compelling conversation with the intention to help this person, or do I need to leave the matter well-enough alone so that he or she can figure it out for him or herself?  In other words, do I want to have what I refer to as a “hands-on” or “hands-off” relationship where either choice to engage or disengage seems fraught with difficulty.”

Locus of Control:   “People who base their success on their own work and believe they control their lives have an internal locus of control. In contrast, people who attribute their success or failures to outside influences, have an external locus of control” (Rob Wengrzyn, 2017).  I also believe that people have a certain mentorship locus of control.  In other words, some people can accept advice as a mentee, and be secure enough to receive it; while others are not able to accept new information from someone else without feeling intruded upon or defensive.  I have observed that the more information that mentees can request and/or accept with grace from mentors, the better the experience might be with this support.

It is particularly important to listen to people who have education and experience in the context of their advice, and not merely attend to those who merely proclaim their strong opinions.   Mentorship credibility is sometimes very important in discerning from whom we will and will not accept advice.  With this being said, there is a clear balancing act of maintaining boundaries while accepting advice so that well-intentioned mentors do not over-step and insist on controlling mentees beyond suggestions.   However, assertive intervention on the part of the mentor/parent/child/friend is sometimes important (when handled correctly) where serious matters arise.

Hands-off Relationships:   Ideally, it would be great if we could just count on others to figure things out for themselves with limited consequences:  They would seek and listen to advice from relevant sources; research new ideas; consider all of the variables; and make well-informed decisions that would be the best ones possible for themselves and those around them.  However, sometimes this standard of problem solving is simply not possible, and the red-flags pop up in the forest.  The warning signs are everywhere, except to the people not seeing the forest for the trees.  In these situations, what do “hands-off” relationship builders do?

Typically, these people trust the natural outcomes and consequences in life.  They appear confident that decisions will come to some type of fruition from which new wisdom can be learned.  They trust that everyone involved, even in times of failure, will be resilient enough to get themselves back on track.  Nothing is too difficult to handle, or if it is, what is meant to be will be.  They trust in God, and say things like, “Everything happens for a reason”.  They feel that their intervention might appear arrogant, nosey or overbearing to assume that they know best.  They would prefer to let others figure it out for themselves, and to be supportive of people when they are asked to be involved.  “How else will they learn?”

The down-side of this “hands-off” mindset, is that occasionally, our loved ones, friends and other do not have the coping skills, education, emotional capacity, nor insight to always do what it takes to move forward in ways that are beneficial to them.  Sometimes people simply do not know what they do not know.  For example, aging parents are often unable to change easily due to fear brought upon them by their physical and emotional challenges.   Our children might simply be too young, have addictions, learning disabilities or other obstacles that are far beyond their psychological development or coping abilities.  Our significant other might be blinded by a fear of failure brought on by his/her family of origin.  When “hands-off” people stand back without providing information to their loved ones in need simply because they are not asked, or because it might involve conflict, things have the potential to spiral out of control.

There is often an external locus of control theme in their words:  “I have tried and whatever else I do will not likely make a difference, so why bother?  Why rock the boat?”   On the flip side, there can be a wisdom in saying, “I have done my best.  I have offered what I can, but it is up to them now” provided that every effort to help has actually been made in times that are possibly negative life changers for the mentees, such as illness, depression, suicide, unemployment or poverty.  Sometimes apathy, carelessness and neglect are cloaked in what people justify as a desire to simply be “hands-off”.  “It’s none of my business,” is the common disclaimer, or they don’t like “complicated, and so they will avoid anything that might resemble it.

Hands-On Relationships:  Ideally, mentees would ask for advice where they need it.  Unfortunately, they often do not due to pride or confusion, and if or when they do, it is sometimes too late.  Instead it comes in the plea for help in the middle of the night when a  girlfriend has dumped him, or a parent has been rushed to the hospital with a stroke after lying unnoticed for several hours because they were not wearing a lifeline.  “Hands-on” people choose to look ahead and anticipate problems.  They prefer to warn people about the Titanic that they see about to hit the ice-burgs.  They have learned some of their own life lessons the hard way (or through other means), and they want to proactively prevent problems.  They have a different type of trust.  They trust that God helps those who help themselves, and they want to help people be a couple of steps ahead of their difficulties.

What do “hands-on” people do in times of difficulty?  They tend to roll up their sleeves and get involved.  They don’t wait to be asked, even in the potential of rejection or reprisal.  They see it as their duty to help their tribe, and in doing so, they hope that this type of assistance will be reciprocal for them in the future.  “We are all in this together” is the shared sentiment of the “hands-on” mindset, even when it can seem like an overwhelming amount of information for the mentee.

The challenges of being with “hands-on” people is that sometimes it rings of co-dependence.  “Why are they this invested?” mentees ask themselves.  Mentees might feel it as an intrusion.  They want to have the opportunity to figure it out for themselves.  The lines of leadership become blurred as there are sometimes too many cooks in the kitchen.  Mentees often feel the pre-emptive pinch of these perceived worriers of what might happen and want to approach things another way.  Advice from mentors can come across a bit like judgment.  As a result, lines are drawn in the sand as the mentees set up boundaries.

“Hands-on” people sometimes sound a bit like “know-it-all’s” to the recipient of the information.  These people offering unsolicited advice sometimes do not know how or when to step in, nor how to do so kindly and tactfully.  Their effort to help is actually hiding a need to be important and valuable where they might be lacking it in other parts of their lives.  Where mentors might benefit mentees by giving them space to consider next steps, they jump in too quickly in an effort to rescue them.  It has the potential to create discord, especially where the people that they seek to aid are already feeling a lack of confidence in their circumstances.

Bystander Apathy:   Despite my effort to see the benefits of both mentor-mentee relationships writing this article, I think it is pretty obvious where I stand on this topic.  Too many times in history people have stood on the sidelines watching other men and women become oppressed by outside forces of war, famine, poverty, and discrimination; or by problems fought on the inside as a result of illness, addiction, or abuse.  “It’s none of my business!” is a powerful non-response made by those who could help.  I refer to this in its extreme context as a form of “bystander apathy” where people in crowds may be less likely to help someone in distress.  However, I have observed subtler shades of apathy in intimate relationships.  In contradiction to this type of thinking, the running commentary in my mind (right or wrong) when I grapple with whether to be involved or not in other people’s problems, is often, “If I don’t help, who actually will?”  It may be none of my business, but then are we not all in the business of being in a collective community where we help and look out for each other?

I remember visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, learning that only a small percentage of people involved in World War Two assisted people from the impending Jewish genocide.  The Holocaust Memorial in Israel recognizes only 24,356 people as Righteous Among the Nations helpers of the Jewish people (http://www.yadvashem.org/righteous, 2017).  As well, in North America,”[t]he Underground railway…was a complex, clandestine [and small] network of people and safe houses that helped persons enslaved in Southern plantations reach free soil in the North” (Henry, 2017, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/underground-railroad/).  These heroes and heroines chose to get involved in situations that were life-threatening even when they were not asked, and in some cases, where they failed to succeed.  Everyone was in danger, but the impetus to get involved was profound.

Being Judiciously Invested and Involved:  These are extreme war examples of support by small groups of people assisting large groups of people being bullied or targeted by hatred and fear.  However, it reminds me that sometimes the wars that people are going through may not be those of Nazi Germany or the war on slavery, but are the trials and tribulations of people simply growing older in the trauma of everyday life.  I believe that we need to find ways to be supportive of others even when the first response that they might snap back is “leave me alone!”  I know all too well how precarious it is to offer my twenty-five-year-old son advice when I believe that it is necessary to do so.  Unfortunately, he is just not that interested in talking to me about it.  However, if I don’t talk to him about key life matters as his mother (who has a strong relationship with him and has known him longer than anyone, by the way) can I count on another person to want to tackle it?

I guess I would rather error on the side of offering too much to people and getting hurt in the transaction rather than offering too little and having regrets, or worse yet, risking any harm coming to them because I did not offer my best.  Perhaps doing my best is to carefully consider the options and do one or the other or both:  to offer support in the form of empathy or solutions, and/or to stand back and let them steer their own ship to safe harbours without any involvement from me whatsoever.  There are no clear “right” answers in this regard as we are all entitled to our own opinions; and each situation should be measured on a case-by-case basis.  However, in reflection, I favour people taking action (within reason) because it is often that little intervention of constructive criticism, feedback or advice that can make all of the difference to a situation.

For me, an example of when I was offered unsolicited advice in my life, my mentor nominated me for a promotion without my awareness nor permission.  At first, I was scared, and not sure that I wanted to be pushed out of the nest of my current job, but eventually, it became the first step in a long line of next steps towards a rewarding career.  My father was also someone who was always willing to step into the fray with me as a mentor, and would often ask if I had changed the oil in my car or had invested money in RSP’s.  I found the reminders incredibly annoying, but he had an uncanny way of knowing when my odometer reading required attention for a tune-up or my bank account omitted savings.  Later in life, I found myself calling my son with the same reminders, meeting with the same annoyed sigh and agreement that, “Yes, he would get to it next week“.

In terms of my marriage, my husband reigns me in.  I do not like to be told when to stop doing things when I am in full motion, even when it is late at night.  It feels a bit like jumping off a train when I am just passing by the best scenery, but he is usually right about some of my tendencies to burn the candle at both ends.  I recently re-read the classic book The Road Less Travelled by M. Scott Peck (2003).   It reminded me of the value of honesty in a relationship.  “…[L]oving spouses must repeatedly confront each other if the marriage relationship is to serve the function of promoting the spiritual growth of the partners. No marriage can be judged truly successful unless husband and wife are each other’s best critics.”  My experience has been that offering feedback to my spouse is a very tricky, but valuable “hands-on” approach to deepening and developing our marital relationship.

Building Bridges Over Troubled Waters:  And so, my husband and I do speak openly and honestly to each other about almost everything, and although it can be sometimes contentious (not always), we have become more adept at being honest with one another.  My son keeps coming home to visit, regardless of the possibility of a lively mother-son check-in on certain compelling topics, such as diet, doctor’s appointments, investing and exercise.  Our relationship has become more authentic as our roles have morphed into some role-reversal moments.  He now offers me advice on my health and wellness, and I need to be receptive so that he gets practice in this regard because someday he will be my caregiver.  My friends and colleagues keep in touch, and where I may have given them advice in the past (and visa versa), some of them are now infinitely more knowledgeable in their lives, careers and specializations.  I find myself asking them for advice quite a bit.  Yes, I have also lost people along the way where our relationships could not sustain what we were offering or not offering each other.  However, I have learned something from every relationship, appreciating the hands-on and hands-off approaches that both helped and hindered us within them.

In essence, “[l]ove is not simply giving; it is judicious giving and judicious withholding as well. It is judicious praising and judicious criticizing. It is judicious arguing, struggling, confronting, urging, pushing and pulling in addition to comforting. It is leadership”  (M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Travelled, 2003).  Both hands-on and hands-off relationship strategies are valuable, and are not always mutually exclusive of each other.  However, how easy would this question of being involved or not being involved by mentors be if mentees simply asked for help or advice.  Instead of getting caught up in pride, ego or fear, we would instead turn to people who we know can mentor us with their knowledge and love; and support us through the experience.  The humble and magical words, “I could use your advice,” can often break the spell of relationship ambivalence, intrusion or confusion.  This way we can all reciprocally connect and support each other building bridges over troubled waters and developing efficacious relationships in the process.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stepping Inside Another’s Space by Shelley Robinson

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The Immersive Visit:  When we immerse ourselves into another’s space, we have a rare opportunity to share an intimate experience with another person inside his or her world, and, in turn, we can sometimes see our own lives differently in this new context.  Typically, we surround ourselves with our own paraphernalia of worldly possessions, tools and mementos within our own familiar walls.  These things serve to help us and, in some cases, cocoon us in our daily routines.  It is not until we slip into someone else’s life for a few days, that we experience a different way of breathing new life in and expelling old life out.

It is quite special to try someone else’s skin on for awhile and feel its fit.  When we slip into his or her linen at night with perfumed pillows and listen to the sounds of the home and neighbourhood inside of and beyond new windows, life becomes poignant in its unfamiliarity.  The cars and sirens on the road sing urgently.  The music blaring in the neighbour’s garage is foreign even when we recognize the melodies.   The ornaments on the dresser tell unknown stories and the dust bunnies under the bed have inherited the dirt of other people’s feet.  The dog of the house curiously peeks in to love new company.  The books on the shelf express another’s interest in biology and science fiction.  Who are we here in someone else’s room?

We Become Connected:   It is in these special visits that we become connected to our hosts in powerful ways.  We ask different questions of them prompted by the stuff of their lives.  “Who is that in the picture?  Where did you get this…?  What a lovely picture?”  They have let us into their personal space.  We shower in their bath tubs, and sit on their toilets.  Our skin touches the soft bath towels that have cleaned their bodies many times before us.   “Why have they chosen this soap with tiny granules of salt and apricot nut?  What a pretty picture of what looks like the Grand Canyon to pause at while I do my make-up?”  I notice when visiting a friend’s home that I am engaged differently by my morning nuptials, using the bathroom products chosen by somebody else and for different bodily reasons such as cleaner teeth or filing down calluses with interesting pumice stones.

We talk longer because we have the luxury of the whole day.  The challenge in this intensive visit is to consider how to navigate the twenty-four hours of one or more days together when we are used to squeezing people into a coffee visit for a couple of hours at the most.  What will we do?  What will we talk about?  Somehow, the days pass fluidly and we find our groove.  We learn each others’ likes and dislikes and we align together in compelling and memorable ways.  The visit becomes a milestone of our relationship because we disclose more than we thought we might, and we trust each other more because of it.

Being the Hostess:   As life-changing as being a guest can be, so too, can it be to invite someone else into our homes.  I feel my day-to-day experiences keenly when I welcome someone into my space and re-visit my own way of being through their lenses.  I clean the house carefully to consider their potential cleanliness standards when I know that my own day-to-day complacent routines can sometimes overlook details.  I feed them my paleo diet, and explain its benefits as others politely nod and drink my homemade chai tea made from fragrant Moroccan spices.  My fluffy ginger tabbies jump up on them and demand cuddles, and I set the furnace thermostat higher to consider their comfort when I have gotten used to wearing sweaters to combat the moist morning chill of the Canadian West Coast.

We walk on forest trails that bring me peace despite the bears that make them look around tentatively.  I tell them stories of a mill town that has seen better days.  We take naps in the afternoon, and after dinner, we enjoy some blackberry liqueur on the veranda while contemplating the peach hues of the Powell River sunset.  Humming birds stop by for a buzz and then quickly flitter away.  The older gentleman neighbour walks by with his dog and waves at us as if he has known us for years.  My houseguests wonder how I handle the privacy of this little life in this small town while my husband ferries away working on Texada Island everyday.  “I like it, ” I explain, not quite sure how to explain that I feel bigger here, not smaller; safer, not wilder, “I like it…until I don’t, and then we go away somewhere until we want to come back again.  As well, it affords me time to think and to write.  I have joined a writing group.  I have always wanted to be in a writing group, but have never had the time before.”  I catch them wondering if they could manage the isolation away from the urban grid in this beautiful forest life.  It can be lonely and people do not really like being alone.

Couch Surfing:  Many people couch surf around the world.  I think that they enjoy it not only for its affordability, but because it brings them this rare opportunity to see life from their hosts’ perspectives.  Sharing personal space with someone else can be very game-changing as I know many people who have made major changes in their own lives upon returning home by adopting some of the diets and day-to-day skills that they have learned on their trips.  For example, they have begun composting; taken up new hobbies; started listening to new music and much more.  The Dauntless Jaunter (2012) explains that there were over 4 million successful couch surfing experiences reported in their data and research (https://www.dauntlessjaunter.com/travel-tips-advice-how-tos/couchsurfing-complete-guide/5/).  There is always risk involved in this type of whole-hearted leap of faith into someone else’s home, but the rewards seem to be plentiful.

The Value of Full-Immersion:   I remember being told by my friends who had gone to other countries to learn new languages that they had come back not only learning the language better than they might have done from books and a teacher in a classroom, but they also learned about the culture within which the language was used.  They were forced, in some ways, to try new things that they might not have done otherwise.  I remember learning to appreciate olives when visiting Spain where before I found them bitter and distasteful.  All of a sudden, I liked dates after tasting them in smoothies in Bali.  Where I was initially shy of public baths and massages, I learned to embrace new spa experiences in different bathhouses around the world.  The Turkish bath was the most aggressive exfoliation and massage of my life.  In another case in Chiang Mai, after a Thai woman jumped on top of me and moved my body in uncomfortable positions, I walked away from the stretching experience being able to move my hips without pain.  Vietnam set my feet on fire with reflexology that had been passed down as a science from one generation of masseuses to another in the city of Hanoi.

By immersing myself into other people’s lives and customs, I have found new ways of living my own life.  So often we are caught up in living life second-hand through books, social media and other forms of media.  Unfortunately, in relegating most of our relationships to this type of pseudo-connection, we do not gain the profound opportunity to be truly in touch with each other.  It prompts me to write this article to invite people to come and visit me more often, and to remind them to invite others into their own homes for these special kinds of visits where we can explore ourselves and our relationships in new and authentic ways.   Immersive visits are very important gifts to share with our friends and, in some cases, strangers, and I encourage us to take off our shoes at the doors of other people’s homes and step inside to become mindful guests with an open spirit.

“I thought it peculiar how one new experience can alter your perspective on places you’ve known your whole life.” M.J. Prest, Immersion

 

 

 

 

 

 

Geography, Generation and Relationship: The Power of High School Reunions by Shelley Robinson

 

Taking a Leap:  Recently, I decided to fly to Tennessee, United States from my little home up North of Vancouver, in Powell River, Canada.  An old friend from high school (a fellow alumni from our class of 1983 from Calgary, Alberta) started talking about her home in Humboldt, Tennessee (near Memphis) at one of our recent school reunion gatherings.  She had a lovely way of describing her neck of the American woods in her strong Southern drawl, and I was intrigued to learn about the music, food and wineries that she described.  It got me thinking about how nice it would be to experience the deep South of the United States known for its musical culture, civil unrest, and the hot sub-tropical climate, while reuniting with a person who I had always thought was very interesting.

We really had not hung around each other much in high school.  She was one of the prettiest girls in school, and was part of the “in-crowd”; whereas, I was someone who enjoyed the company of different groups of friends, and was likely deemed a band nerd.  When I told some of my old classmates with whom I still stay in touch, that I was going to see her, they were somewhat surprised because we had not been associated as friends back in school.  However, over the years, we started to connect at our alumni gatherings, and realized that we had more in common than we had originally thought.  I started to learn that “[r]eunions reveal friendship potential that have not emerged in the past.”  (Beta, 2011).  It is for this reason, that I, like Ambrose (2015) believe in the value of high school reunions (“Five Reasons to Attend High School Reunions”, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/elaine-ambrose/reasons-to-attend-school-reunion_b_6580028.html).  Facebook has also helped me reconnect with people from childhood, some of whom I know more about now than I did then.  Therefore, after 34 years since our high school graduation, I thought I would take the plunge and go and visit someone who I had only passed by in the school hallways.

Arriving in Nashville:   My husband and I found a place for us to stay in Nashville on Airbnb, and the plans started to take shape.  However, I did wonder, as I flew into Nashville, if maybe my leap of faith to spend an entire week (24/7) with someone who I did not know very well, was one of the best decisions that I had ever made.  The only thing that we really had in common was our high school connection.  What if we did not get along or did not travel well together?  I decided to let go of any worry or expectation and to just embrace the idea.  I felt that there must be some reason for reconnecting with each other at this point in our life journeys, and I just needed to trust what that might be.  I knew nothing about Nashville (she calls it Smashville) and Memphis and I decided to just enjoy learning about this historical state.

Let’s Dance:  What became apparent on this trip together through our discussions and behaviour was that where we came from and when we grew up had an incredible bearing on how we connected at this point in our lives.  Many of our mutual interests, values and philosophies about life were shaped by being raised in the conservative social climate of Calgary, Alberta.  Being born in the 60’s and being raised through to adulthood in the 70’s and 80’s by hard-working baby boomer parents definitely seemed to influenced how we viewed and behaved in our lives.  Each time she would recollect some of her experiences growing up, I could identify.  It had meaning to me because I knew about what she had experienced first-hand.

On our first day together wandering through downtown Nashville, we really came to life when one of the bands on Broadway started belting out some of “our” old rock and roll tunes from the 80’s.  We literally jumped onto the dance floor in the bar that we had only intended to peek into, and started dancing.  We had both been raised to listen to our baby boomer parents’ country, rock and other crooner music like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Waylon Jennings, Patsy Cline, Jim Reeves and others.  As we grew older, we listened and danced to Stevie Wonder, Kool and the Gang, Michael Jackson, ZZ Top, Rolling Stones, Queen, Doug and the Slugs, Wang Chung, Wham, Hall and Oates, Whitney Houston, and so many others.   We agreed that the music from the 80’s was superior to all other music.  We were a generation that was Internet-free, and so our music was very important to us.  We listened to it over and over again on our radios, records and tape decks, and later in music videos on MTV.   We both remembered our high school dances fondly.  “We had dances where we actually danced!” we both agreed.

Home and School Memories:  We spent quite a bit of time reminiscing about how we lived “way back when”.   Our parents were frugal people having been raised in the 40’s and 50’s.  As a result, as children, we worked hard to support ourselves alongside what our parents provided us.  We both had jobs in our teenaged years.  There were no misconception about hand-outs and easy rides.  In fact, we both spent a lot of time on the city bus, riding our bikes to and from school, and doing a lot of chores for our families.   We worked hard and played hard in and out of school, and we remember that we partied (in different circles) and had our fair share of adventures and misadventures (albeit all pretty innocent, by the sounds of it).  Neither of us had particularly high grades because we were working, enjoying a social network, participating in sports and music, and we had family responsibilities.  As well, the pressure to perform in school seemed to be less rigorous in those days than seems to be expected of students now.   We both continued on into post-secondary school without much difficulty.

Generation X:   We marvelled over how a day in the life of someone from the 70’s and 80’s was very different from our lifestyles today.   We both only had one telephone with a long cord in our homes.  If we had a conversation on the phone, everyone was aware of it (and we could listen in to calls).  My father would give me a time-limit for talking with my friends so that I would not tie up the lines.  She and I agreed that people were very socially connected to each other in an era that was predominantly face-to-face or by telephone.  We confirmed each others’ thoughts on this trip that “the world was indeed going to hell in a hand-basket” due to being too plugged-in to technology on our cell phones and computers.   The world of our three-channelled televisions with rabbit ears seemed so much simpler.  The introduction of a micro-wave and dishwasher later in my teen years was a big deal.  The radio was also a big part of our family until we got a larger stereo.  I did most of my education on an old typewriter until I was liberated by an IBM type-writer given to me by my parents.   Each addition of some new technology into our homes was a major life event.

It was an age where we did not lock our doors.  The milk man brought us our 2%, and the mail was delivered safely to our doors.  We drove in cars that sometimes lacked seat belts, and air bags were non-existant.  I hung our laundry out to dry on the clothes line, and my idea of a good date out with a young man was to go and play tennis, or to go bowling.   She told stories of sneaking into outdoor swimming pools, and confided about some of the parties that sounded like a lot of fun.   The people that we remembered came back to life vividly in our collective memory as if they were with us just yesterday.

Do You Remember…?:  As we explored all of the sites of Nashville (Broadway, Cheekwood, and the Grand Old Opry area), and then Memphis (Beale Street, Graceland, National Museum of Civil Rights and the Peabody Hotel),  we shared our past narratives together quite naturally.  People who did not grow up in the same decades, in the same cities with the same people might not be able to do so as easily.   Our conversations often started with: “Whatever happened to so and so?”  or “Remember that place downtown?”  We would slip into memories of a city that had started out for us as a place with 300,000 people and has now grown to over a million.  We concluded that Calgary was a great place to grow up, but we both needed to spread our wings and had ended up in different places, with different people, following different life paths.

Having had similar life starting points launched us into different directions with an unbroken umbilical fondness for our childhood urban prairie home with the big blue skies and clear Rocky Mountains to the west.  It was a white-collar oil and gas town in the middle of a farming and ranching prairie community known for its Calgary Stampede.  How we began our lives formed much of how we now looked at life and operated within it.  As grown-up mothers of adult children; daughters of aging parents with typical elderly challenges; and wives of wonderful husbands, we had a lot to talk about.  Our common alma mater frame of reference was just a starting point for an emerging friendship.  We learned that as grown, responsible women, we were more than capable of navigating a week together in the beautiful State of Tennessee.  I learned a lot from the experience.  She drove me around in her red convertible Volkswagen to explore some of the pastoral countryside of large maple, poplar and magnolia trees hiding the elusive armadillo.  An adventure is typically an experience when we are not exactly sure how it is going to go, and therefore, it may involve some risk.  In this case, all roads ended in some very happy Thelma and Louis memories (minus the affairs and driving over the cliff at the end).

Our High School History:  1980-1983:   What do we have to talk about looking back at 1980 to 1983?  Pierre Trudeau was our Prime Minister and Ralph Klein was the Mayor of Calgary.  Both were controversial leaders in their time.  John Lennon was murdered.  Personal computers (PC’s) were introduced by IBM.  It was the launch of the first Space Shuttle.  There was the attempted assassination of US President Ronald Reagan.  U2 released their first album Boy.  The Falkland Islands were invaded by Argentina.  The album Back in Black was released by AC/DC.  Prince Charles married Princess Diana and many of us stayed up late to watch the royal wedding.  Mount Saint Helen’s erupted and ash blew everywhere.  Aids was identified as a plague.  Everyone was playing with the Rubik’s cube (although I never figured it out).

However, it is more likely that we would try to remember our teachers and some of our favourite haunts in the city.  On this trip, it was most interesting to discuss the little details that we had experienced growing up in Calgary, like skipping class to go over to the Dairy Queen, or staying late to watch the rugby games and talking about boys.  Near the end of our trip, we looked ahead with some anticipation to a potential 35th reunion as another opportunity to see everybody and each other again.

Why Attend?  So many times, I hear that people do not want to attend high school reunions by saying: “I didn’t really know all of the graduates.  Why would I attend and see a bunch of people who I never hung around with before?” Or, “I didn’t have very many positive experiences in high school.  Why would I go back?”  I would argue, now that I have had this new experience making a new friendship with a former school mate, that there can be (not always) something truly magical about reconnecting with people who shared the same geography and generational starting point in high school.  I have learned, like Ambrose (2015) that we are humbler as we near the 40th reunion.  Life has touched us all in unique and profound ways and we have more empathy for our classmates.  We have stretched beyond the relegation of past high school personas and become unique personalities.

In reconnecting, we have the opportunity to reach out to people and look back at where we came from and consider our common history.   Our stories are interesting and worth sharing with people who really understand what we have experienced.  “Ya, I remember him.  He was that crazy teacher that kept falling asleep in class.”  Or,  “Ya, I remember that place up on the hill.  I had my first beer there.”  Going “home” sometimes has a powerful potential to re-visit our pasts and to look at them through more mature lenses.  We can see ourselves all over again in the company of the people who have walked, to some extent, a mile in each others’ high school moccasins.

“We grew up on the same street,
You and me.
We went to the same schools,
Rode the same bus,
Had the same friends,
And even shared spaghetti
With each other’s families.
And though our roots belong to
The same tree,
Our branches have grown
In different directions.
Our tree,
Now resembles a thousand
Other trees
In a sea of a trillion
Other trees
With parallel destinies
And similar dreams…”

Suzy Kassem (2010)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Surfari: A Poem by Shelley Robinson

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Surfari

by

Shelley Robinson

 

Seeking out the big surf

Big gun ready to grab the barrel

Yesterday’s glass

Last week’s blow out

Last month’s cruncher bail out

Don’t matter

 

Surfs up

It’s time to catch a wave

Shoot the curl

Face down, smiling into its fine foamy face

Waiting for the honker to shape

Wanting to rip it

 

Instead of backing down

The swell starts

Crest caps

I climb and drop through its body

Carving my wave

No need to bail out

Riding it

Completely

The Snub is the New “No” by Shelley Robinson (Rantosaurus)

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Indifference:  Too many people than I can count lately, have mastered a communication style that is foreign to me.  They simply choose to ignore direct communication and not reply.  They don’t call people back, nor return emails, or even texts.  Instead, they leave people like my husband and I, hanging, waiting in ambivalent purgatory while our imaginations wreak havoc with our insecurities.  Instead of saying to us something like “No, sorry, we are not interested, but please contact us again in the future, or perhaps try this other contact,” or “I am not happy with what you are asking from me, so let’s figure out a better way,” they just avoid having these uncomfortable conversations altogether, and don’t call.  The snub is intended to be the new “no”, and this new way of saying “no” to people is a very negative type of communication.  I am always reminded of Elie Wiesel when I encounter this sort of apathy in human relationships–apathy that promotes a non-response:  “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

Rejection:  Many companies have removed the old courtesies of saying, “No, we don’t want you at this time.”  It has resulted in eager and hopeful applicants no longer even receiving the infamous PFO (Please F— Off) letters that tell them politely that their information submitted was received, but not successful.  When my husband was off work and applying for different positions, he was shocked at how many companies did not acknowledge the receipt of his applications; nor did they send out rejection letters; and even when they were interested, kept him hanging, sometimes for weeks before informing him of his successful hire.  We have both been disillusioned over the last few months of encountering experience after experience of companies; social connections and even friends and family not contacting us back after our initial efforts, even when they say that they will do so.

Break-ups in relationships now look more like a blocked Facebook friendships or an “unfriending” or the “restricting” of each other.  Some people have told me that rather than being told face-to-face that they are no longer wanted in a relationship, they are texted.  This type of passive behaviour is hurtful and leaves people wondering what has happened to make them so unworthy of a call-back.  I agree with Samuel Johnson who famously states “I would rather be attacked than go un-noticed.”  As busy as people get (and we are all extremely busy), it bothers me that these social niceties of making time to stop and respond to communication–the good, the bad and the ugly communication, have started to disappear.  The empathy required to spare people the waiting and wondering seems to have become a thing of the past.

Social Graces:   I remember being brought up to reply to people.  My mother would sit me down in front of the thank you cards, and expect me to write to people who had given me music scholarships, or to appreciate my aunts and uncles who had sent me gifts for holidays and birthdays.  If a date called me, even an unwanted one, my parents would remind me to call him back.  I was taught to say “you’re welcome” when someone thanked me.   My mother modelled the same behaviour and always called people who had hosted dinners parties, to thank them the next day, and remind them of how much they were appreciated.  Phoning people within 24 hours was an expectation of my family and of the companies with which I worked.  If I did not contact people back in my line of work, I lost their respect and their business, or raised their ire enough to call my supervisor.  It was simply not tolerated.

Waiting and Waiting:  Now in the generation of social media, and automated industry communication management systems, people (even paying clients) are expected to wait…and wait, and sometimes hear nothing back at all.  And worse yet, there is no recourse for this type of behaviour.  We can go elsewhere to another company operating in exactly the same way.  If we get frustrated and ask to talk to the manager, it is likely that the manager is too busy responding to like-minded calls to get back to us.   Recently, my husband dealt for almost two months with an insurance company through a trail of missed emails and paperwork; unfinished tasks warranting follow-up phone calls to calling managers in absolute frustration.  After three months, I was finally added to his insurance policy and notified by a letter in the mail with no explanation or reply to our questions.

Difficult Conversations:  It is extremely disillusioning to be old enough to know that there is a better way to communicate that results in positive relationships and exceptional business partnerships, but to instead watch dysfunctional types of communication systems emerging in so many places that matter, like where people are dealing with our money, our minds and our bodies–and our children.  I’ve seen and experienced better communication processes and know that it can be done in families, relationships and businesses.  There is something very admirable about people who say what they mean, and do what they say.  They pick up the damn phone and have the courage to call us back, knowing full well that the conversation might not be easy.  However, most skilled communicators know how to diffuse difficult situations quickly and put all parties at ease.  It is a social art that people are not learning how to do because they have allowed technology to replace their social integrity, or they have become so busy that they have excused themselves from having to care.  Regardless of my beliefs in this regard, I keep stepping into the rabbit hole of answering machines; no replies and no return calls and emails.  It is a quagmire of “what do I do next?”  Are they saying “no” to me, or what is happening here?

Solutions:  The key, I presume, is to be very clear at the outset of any communication of the expectation of a reply.  It is best, I am learning, to be pre-emptively assertive.  “I appreciate doing business with someone who gets back to me in 24 hours.  Is this how you operate?”  Or, “I am not an email correspondent client.  I prefer phone calls.  Can I count on this from you?”  I reward the behaviour of those who take the time to communicate clearly and effectively in a timely way.  Getting a reply to some unanswered questions is a valuable commodity that I feel is worth spending my time and money on in the business world.  My husband and I are both learning to walk away from the business of those who do not.

In my personal relationships, I am starting to hang around with people who know the art of give and take through our human interactions and compassion for each other.  I avoid people who leave me hanging for too long, or communicate with me in short disconnected sound bytes of communication and time, and with little depth.   I am moving toward the light of being with people who validate and respect me enough to keep in touch in rich and meaningful ways.  I value people who look me in the eye and take time for real conversations.  These are the engaged and courageous people who know how to  truly be with people and to experience the reward of understanding them, and in turn, themselves.  In initiating and replying to communication respectfully, we make each other visible in a potentially isolating, lonely and invisible world.

The Hats That I Have Worn by Shelley Robinson

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I have spent much of my life wearing many hats, both literally and figuratively.  I have never really been fond of them.  First of all, they never seemed to feel very comfortable, nor remain on my head very long.  They were often hot and hid my face, or did not suit the various occasions that I attended.  Instead, I liked the freedom of letting my hair hang down recklessly curly (and often uncombed) around my face.  However, I think back over my lifetime and smile at the times where hats served a purpose, and defined some of my experiences.

Childhood Hats:  My mother used to knit me warm toques that I would wear in the winter time.  I had one for years that was dark blue.  The boys used to steal it off of my head and make me chase them in order to get it back.  It would often end up in a mud puddle, or a snow bank.  Finally, it ended up in the mailbox where I could not retrieve it.

I sported a brown felt beret for three months when I attended brownies in first grade.  I could not stand the hat, the uniform, nor the ceremonial dancing around the mushrooms that we did under the guidance of some good female leaders (mothers) known as brown owl and snowy owl.  In retrospect, doing tasks that identified me as a productive female, like cooking and cleaning to get badges to sew on my uncomfortable uniform did not motivate me.  Even before I knew what I disliked about it, I resisted it.  My mother quickly relented and put me out of my misery by signing me out of the organization so that I could go back to playing soccer with the boys in the evenings.  I never wore nor saw this little brown hat again.

I was never dressed up as, nor pretended to be a princess with a crown.  I did have one hat that I liked very much in Grade Six.  It had a bit of personality to it and fit my rather large head.  It was a blue “Gatsby” style cap that suited my tom-boy ways.  I wore it everywhere, and it was probably the only time in my life where I truly identified with a hat.  I have so many pictures of me sporting it with my dark glasses, and my mischievous smile.   I do not know what became of that hat, or the cheeky girl that used to wear it.

Stylish Hats:    Through my teens, I wore a few caps, toques, fedoras, boater hats, cowboy hats and so forth depending on the weather or the occasion and my mood to do so.  I usually took them off as soon as I could as they seemed to serve little purpose other than to hide me underneath of them or get in the way.

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As I got older, I continued to explore different styles of hats hoping for something fashionable for my professional life, such as wool casquette caps, felt bucket or cloche hats, and even a rabbit felt Australian Akubra (and I regret that 20 bunnies died to make it).  Of course, I wore a wedding veil cap, stylish in the late 80’s that hid my face as I walked down the aisle and eerily represented how I felt (naively veiled) going into my first marriage.

I kept almost all of my highly unused hats hoping that someday I would feel compelled to bring them back to life when the style to wear them reignited my effort to do so.  I thought it might be an older person’s preoccupation, so, instead, I bought my father interesting hats from all over the world as gifts to him from my travels.  He was always amused by them and kept them on his dresser, and even went so far as to wear the English Ascot Cap with which he became rather fond.

Figurative Hats:  The Roles in My Life:  What became more important to me in my professional world was wearing the various leadership hats that I needed to wear in my daily life.  I remember reading an article about the six hats of leadership back in the 80’s by Edward de Bono (see picture).

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My assistant superintendent, at the time, explained to me that all of these hats were required in a successful organization.  We needed to welcome all of these roles around a meeting table, and to not be afraid of them which I was at the time, as welcoming conflict into an organization was new to me.  It was early on in my career that I learned to respect the person who innately gravitated toward being the black hatter in the group.  This person often questioned the status quo; typically played devil’s advocate; and in my mind, had a bit of a cynical Eeyore (Milne) quality to him or her.  I typically wore the green hat (the creative innovator), but got used to wearing the other five when I had to do so.

As well, if I were to think of the roles in my life as hats, I wore many:  mother, teacher, administrator, friend, advocate, wife, writer, composer and family member.  Later in my career, when having compelling conversations as an administrator with students, teachers or parents, I would typically tell them that I was going to take off my principal hat, and put on my mother hat.  It was the hat that served me well throughout most of my career.  I felt most comfortable giving people advice wearing it and people seemed to welcome information from me more openly when I announced it.  With it securely on my head, I would speak openly from my heart, and with my female intuition in mind.  It was interesting how important having the opportunity to wear a mother’s hat has changed my life for the better, albeit, it was a hard-earned hat to keep squarely on my head.  Being an empty-nester, I still take it out of my drawer every so often when called to do so.

Academic Hats:  The hardest earned hats that I ever wore were my ceremonial academic ones.  In my under-graduate and graduate ceremonies, I wore mortar boards where we would move the tassels from the right to the left side upon graduation.  When I completed my post-graduate degree, I purchased the stylish black velvet tam and my alma mater blue and red gown from the University of Calgary.  I wore it very proudly for the academic ceremony that I knew would be my last.

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These have been hats that people find contentious if I wear them.  Unfortunately, they are not always seen for what they represent which is a life dedicated to research, study and teaching.  In some schools where I have worked, I have been told by my superiors not to even speak of my degrees as it might be seen as being pretentious and unwelcome.  Therefore, I rarely wear these hats in public, except when asked to do so.  I am puzzled why these hats make people uncomfortable in my professional world; especially in the area of education when we are promoting some of these types of academic accomplishments.  I hope in time, I can dust them off and wear them proudly.

Wear Our Hats:   I have always wondered what it would be like to wear a crown and lead a nation, or to wear a fireman’s hat and rescue people from burning buildings.  A hat says so much about who we are when we wear them.  I still get nervous when a policeman with a full uniform walks into the building.  His/her uniform commands attention and respect.  Perhaps we all need to remember to take some of our hats out of our drawers and wear them with pride, and not embarrassment.  They are there to protect us from the elements; build our sense of style; and to remind us of some of the roles that we have in life.  Sometimes, by taking one off and putting another one on, we get a fresh perspective about how we view the world, and how the world sees us.