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Last weekend I took a whole hour and listened to an audio recording that my cousin made with my grandma about her life. It was recorded 20 years ago, when she was 82. She was a graceful and reserved woman and one of my life’s true heroes. She told stories of her childhood, and her service overseas in WWII as one of the first women deployed as a member of the WAAC. I loved hearing her voice again. I grew up being told I was like her, tall and Dutch, reserved but with so much quiet purpose. I hope so. When I look at my hands these days, I see hers. Although she was raised in another time, and we never talked about race, I never saw her treat anyone with disrespect and the European fight against Hitler’s troops was clearly a highlight of her life. We all need to belong to a calling bigger than ourselves.

I had another blog ready to go this week but the changing landscape of the news hit hard over the last few days. The violence and ensuing riots and destruction is heartbreaking to watch.  The act of harming another human being, let alone killing someone is not just unfathomable, it’s sickening. Things are broken in a deeply systemic way and it feels disempowering, because the problem runs so deep on a societal, economic, and psychological level. But at this point, standing up against indignity and injustice and speaking George Floyd’s name is the only choice, because I am sure that from the position of privilege I was born, if I’m not saying something, I’m part of the problem. Violence is never the answer, but it is the symptom of a deep rooted problem. And when something so fundamentally wrong has been done over and over again to people who have been made to feel unsafe in their own environments, there is a breaking point…and we are seeing it.

This morning I stood in my kitchen talking with my kids about what was in the news. Skin color in my own mind and day may be irrelevant, but the history that exists around it is not. And while anyone can be prejudice, prejudice only becomes racism when one group has more power than another and uses it to oppress and harm in a systemic way. I wanted to help them cut through the defensiveness and the noise to see what they can each do in the world to affect change.  There is nothing in me that condones violence on any level, and I don’t believe these riots will fix anything, but I can see how after so many years of trauma and mistreatment, the rational mind is no longer leading the charge. So, even as I can feel overwhelm creeping in on my own nervous system about how a problem so big begins to heal, I take my words with them back to what I can control and as we talked, a totally different conversation from another day entered my mind.

While we were out on a walk one day a few years back, my friend Robin asked me:

“If there were more people like you in the world, would it be a better or worse place?”

I had of course never asked myself that question before and on that day I was feeling pretty down on myself because of my own family situation. Even though it felt like a less than humble answer, I managed to answer her…

“Better.”  I said, and it filled me up inside. I want to be on the side of better.

To my kids I say: try, listen, be kind, stand up for yourself, and let people be themselves without your judgment. But above all treat every human with dignity and respect.

I never want anyone that crosses my path to feel less than, fairness is at the top of my list of virtues. As people, there isn’t one of us that doesn’t want to belong or know the sting that comes from being ostracized from the group. When that feeling is embedded generation after generation, the pain that it causes is great. Belonging helps show us our purpose and our path. Not belonging can carry us far from it and allow us to make decisions that are far from our best interests.

I believe most of us want to feel empowered, to find the energy and the lack of fear to be the change. We have to believe that this problem could be made better one person at a time. We want to be on the side of better. I could sit here and try to write something that inspires massive and systemic change throughout our country, but that would leave me feeling defeated. This isn’t a problem that gets solved overnight or by one person. But I can wake up every day and be on the side of better.

To all of the moms who live with fear about your sons being out late with their friends, I can only imagine that worry, but I’m with you. To the wives worried about their husbands when they haven’t come home, I’ve been there, but when I was, I didn’t have to wonder if my husband was going to be a victim of police brutality because of the color of his skin. Until all American’s are treated the same by our justice system, there will be violence that begets violence, the rift is too deep.  But what I want to do everyday with my thoughts, words, and actions, is be on the side of better. Don’t be afraid to speak up just because this isn’t your reality or you are afraid to not get the words right.  The strongest case for justice and dignity needs to be made by the ones who get to sleep peacefully at night. The controversy for speaking up is nothing compared to the damage that is done with our silence.

I talk a lot about self awareness.  I definitely think I was born with the introspective gene, because thoughts about how and why things work like they do and how I fit into the big picture of life have been going through my head as long as I can remember.  The thing about being introspective though is that without action and challenge in life, it can turn into rumination, and turn your mind into a hamster wheel that just spins but doesn’t go anywhere.  

Self awareness comes in two forms, internal and external. Internal, as the word clearly describes, is how we see ourselves from the inside out.  It helps us discover our gifts and talents and what holds our interest so we can see what we want to be in life.  External self awareness can be a little bit trickier in my opinion, because it is understanding the way other people in the world view us…basically ourselves from the outside in. Understanding both of these is a journey in life that never ends and its possible that we are better at one of them than the other. Giving these two equal weight is a tough one in my mind, I’m not sure I want to. I fight the urge to say it’s not as important how other people see us and more important the way we see ourselves.  But there is a catch, how other people see and relate to us has an impact on where we go in life, the impact we can make, and the relationships we form with other people and I’ve discovered it’s brave to care to understand this side of self awareness. As we go through life, the most transformational leaders and the longest lasting growing relationships lead with vulnerability.  It’s a quality that keeps humans connected at the most primal level.  Vulnerability isn’t asking for someone to fix the things in us that are hurting, or do things for us that we can do for ourselves. What it does do is create a bond out of the human condition that we share. It seems to me that when we are younger or haven’t spent time figuring ourselves out, we run into more meanness, because being vulnerable when someone else doesn’t want to can cause them to shut down or act out defensively. But as we get older, and begin to form a tribe of people who are on their own journey, our ability to be vulnerable can both help us lead with integrity, and also uncover another layer of ourselves if we are brave enough to keep going.  

As I write this, Lauren is out on another adventure.  She went back to Texas to move all of her stuff out of her dorm room…it’s a tough one for these college freshman. I remember the springtime of my freshman year of college, I was just hitting my stride.  The homesickness had gone away and the friendships, ones I still have today, had taken root. For her, her first beach volleyball season was underway, she had recovered from the nasty bought of mono she had in the fall, and, because we had just visited her, I could see she was hitting her stride as well.  I can’t imagine having it all come to an end in an instant and moving home to mom. Of course what has come out of it for me has been a gift.  Often she joins me on my nightly sunset walk that has become a quarantine ritual for me, and we talk about life, and the world, and how things work.  We talk about the hard parts of being human and what we are grateful for. Over the last few years I’ve watched her learn to take challenge and let it shape her into a stronger, more aware version of herself. As she hashed out her road trip from last week, she talked with such enthusiasm about the conversations she had and the people she saw…her grandparents, her great aunt and uncle, and close family friends from different generations than hers.

“Mom, they kept saying, thanks for taking time for the old people. But I was having such a great time, we talked for hours and I could have kept talking. I love these connections.”  I felt the proof of belonging, that her mind works a little bit like mine…connection for me is what it’s all about. 

When I started writing The Optimists Journal, my biggest goal was generational learning, the ability to share our stories from generation to generation.  I’ve learned now that the benefit works both ways, older generations get the chance to share what they’ve learned (and when we write it down, there is a record to come back to, so younger generations can take it in at their own pace) but there is also the benefit of the older generation getting to relive the experiences of their youth when they see them running through the eyes of someone that has the world at their feet…to imagine what they will do with it is invigorating and joy inducing on its own. These conversations bring us along on the journey to self awareness, both internal and external, and to me, there is no greater gift in this life. We absolutely must take the time to do it. 

Writing for me has always been a journey to self awareness and as an introvert, I am comfortable spending lots of time alone. But I have a burning desire to answer the questions about myself right, or at least be aware of the answers as they change over time. I’ve discovered that process requires deep connections and meaningful relationships where I have the space to be myself, learn to risk, take meaningful constructive criticism, and be lifted up and invited in by others to share life together. I’ve been through the stages of dependency and needing, and it’s taught me a lot about how to be on my own, but the best life will always be built on connection…and I don’t intend to stop seeking it at every turn. 

Happy Memorial Day. Remembering all of the Americans who gave the ultimate sacrifice so we can live freely. The things we face today would be no match for these heroes…let’s keep living to make them proud.

August 1994 - I still remember the feeling of circling in the city. There were no cell phones, I had stopped at a gas station on a busy corner to ask for directions, but the man inside at the counter only spoke Chinese.  I couldn’t find my way across San Francisco to the Golden Gate Bridge so I could keep driving north.  There were detour signs that led me around in circles, all a result of one of our trademark California earthquakes and I was late to meet my parents to watch my sister in the California Junior Miss Pageant.  The sun was setting on what had already been a four hour drive and I was frustrated, but not scared.  There is an invincibility that goes with the freedom of that age, I was 20, that went away when I had kids, but has come back in small doses in the last few years.  

These days, we are thinking a lot about freedom…what it means individually and how it applies to a collective society.  Who’s job is it to protect us, what precautions are ours to take to keep ourselves and others safe, what can and should the powers that be do for us to protect us from a pandemic…something that the current population, unless you are a centenarian, has never witnessed in their lifetime. The answers are varied to these tough questions and they have us on edge with each other, simply for having our own philosophy.

The freedom I feel today has less to do with what we are debating in the news, and more with the state of my own heart and mind. As an American, I’m not saying that the former conversation isn’t a worthy one, but as usual, I let my thoughts be shaped by what I can control.  Yes, there is the definitive sadness of the experiences that we have lost, but the lightness I feel by not being tied to a overpacked calendar has been a source of energy for me since this whole thing started. The introvert in me has enjoyed the time at home, the less crowded streets, and time to process my thoughts and create something from them. This is a time to embrace what intrinsically motivates us, away from the constant feedback of the world. 

On so many levels, I have always considered myself a creature of habit, finding comfort in the schedule and the known quantities of my days.  What I have discovered in all of this lack of structure is that, while there is always room for improvement, the habits that bring me contentment and success are built by the freedom that lies in the choices I do have to shape my day with things that are truly unique and important to me.  This time has given way to prioritizing what I love and it is the silver lining of this temporary normal. Routine, while it can build the consistency that every productive and fulfilling life requires, can also be stifling and limit our creativity.  I’ve actually known this since I was in college.  Even in those days, I was an early riser, knew I had to get my workout in, and loved to keep a regular journal with the thoughts on my mind. But right around the ninth week of each quarter, I would start to itch for change and find myself ready for a new schedule with new classes and challenges to reinvigorate me.  Life is no different today, I hang on to the routine that keeps life on a steady course…paying bills, working out, writing with consistency, but at the ninth week of this great pause, we all got a little stir crazy and this blog finds me taking advantage of a less crowded schedule, sitting in the living room at my lifelong friend’s home, a six hour drive north, writing in St. George, UT. 

On Tuesday, after nine weeks of quarantine, my almost 20 year old daughter got in her car and headed north.  All the way up the state, she’s visiting people she loves…from her grandparents, to her friends from school that she has missed, to her great aunt and uncle and their best friends from college.  As they all sat, (socially distanced) on the front lawn at their friends home in Pleasanton, generations of people were reminded of what it feels like to be young and free and find those relationships that will last a lifetime.  At one point in their visit, their son, who went to college with me came through, saw Lauren, and immediately knew she was my daughter. With all of the changes and normal life that we feel have been lost, she is still getting the chance to the experience the freedom that comes with her age. I feel both the nostalgia for that time of life, and the pride that comes with watching her step into the freedom that she has earned by knowing herself and understanding the connections in her life that matter. It’s a period of our lives when, no matter how lost we get, there is time to circle the block one more time, without fear, and take note of what we see and learn. She is taking it all in and doing just that, like I did when I eventually found my way across the Golden Gate Bridge and up to NorCal to meet my parents in August of 1994. I’m sure they were worried, but when I got there, they didn’t show it. I was free, and they knew it, just like I feel with Lauren right now. The freedom to grow can never be taken away from us, and as long as we choose that path, we will never be lost.

As I wandered the aisles of Target a few days back looking for Matthew’s birthday present, a wave of nostalgia washed over me. I hardly go there anymore, but when they were little, it was an outing that passed the time and brought in the necessities. As my eyes scanned the aisles, I saw all of the phases I’ve been through as a mom…from formula and diapers, to high chairs, strollers and Thomas the Tank Engines, their little faces sitting in the cart, or Lauren’s who would always hold my hand and walk from before she was two. It’s a time so close to my heart it brings tears to my eyes but as I blink them back it feels like a different life. 

This week my house became an all teenage zone.  It’s hard to believe that it was thirteen years ago yesterday I came home from the hospital with Matthew to a home that I loved and three other little ones. Kate was still one, Luke was four, and Lauren was six and in afternoon kindergarten. Every time we brought a new baby home, I called it going into the tunnel.  I knew I was going to be endlessly tired with a foggy brain and hormones that did not settle back into place without a fight. The hours in those days were long and there wasn’t a lot of time for reflection, it was physical work that left me tired enough to drift off to sleep sitting up in a chair.  They say the pain of childbirth has a magical way of disappearing from our memory, and I agree, but after almost 20 years of parenting, the tiredness and anxiety of those early days has also faded into blissful memories.  Some of them are captured on video and nothing makes us laugh harder than some Matthew footage at three or Luke talking in the kitchen when his voice was hard to distinguish from Lauren and Kate’s…that certainly isn’t the case today. 

Being a mom requires bravery, usually we know the right answer, we just have to have the courage to act. The job asks us to make decisions from love and not fear, which, especially as they get older, is hard to decipher.  Sometimes those decisions make us less popular today, but I trust that we will be friends when they are 40. Letting them have their freedom is part of the journey to self awareness, but how fast we let it out has such huge implications for the safety of their heart, mind, and physical body.  We have to find it within us to give them that freedom to explore who they are apart from us, while providing the guidance that they are blessed to have. Without faith it would all be impossible.

I texted Matthew at the end of the day on his birthday,

“thank you for being born.”

He wasn’t with me, and although I have weathered the 50/50 storm pretty well, birthdays are always tough. He has taught me so much about staying the course, consistency is key for all of us, but his development has illustrated this rule of life for me in the most hands on kind of way. Thankfully, I know he’s safe and warm and with people who love him. In the end, all I want for my kids is for them to keep breathing, in and out, and for them to know they are loved. I let go of what I can’t control and it’s good for all of us.  

In some ways, this process has made me better at letting go as they grow, whether they are with me or not.  As they grow older, who they become is less and less a part of me, I am the launchpad, but each day the journey becomes more up to them and what they decide to put into it. It they can gather strength from the safety and love I provide them, they will be able to take the risks required to live their version of the fullest life. I show them how to do hard things, not because I ever want to see them suffer, but because it’s what life asks of us if we want to grow into our own greatness. If we don’t work on the realization of that greatness, our soul gets torn, just a bit at a time.  It’s so small at first we don’t even notice it because our ego swoops in and puts a little patch on it.  It means well, it’s just doing it’s job, but its patches aren’t bullet proof. They leave us weakened and not quite up to that greatness that is calling. Those patches aren’t strong enough to keep out self doubt or give us the strength to make that choice to leap into the next phase of life that is calling. Over time, a lot of life’s damage that ultimately needs to be repaired gets done this way, but we are always strong enough to sort it out if we are honest with ourselves. 

As I finish this blog, I’ve had calls from two of my kids as they are out walking. The back and forth conversation with older kids is the best thing about this stage. Nothing makes me happier. Happy Mother’s Day. There are so many ways to fill the role. What’s best is when we can form bonds with freedom and as our truest self. Like a close friend’s birthday, I am always up for a reason to celebrate. So today, I will celebrate with you if you have little ones and you get a much needed nap. I’ll cry with you if you are missing your mom today.  We grieve the loss of the loves that make the greatest imprint on our lives. Most of all my kiddos, thank you for being born and making this life the amazing place that it is.  You are all exactly who you are supposed to me, I’m here to challenge you to make the most of what has always been yours, but trust that I always have your back. 

Our country is awash in opinions, reds and blues, conservative, liberal, and everything in between.  It’s not a new phenomenon because of COVID-19, as Americans, we have always been a diverse bunch. Our perspectives are formed from the youngest ages based on the homes we grew up in and the life experiences we have under our belt. Couple that with the algorithms on social media that funnel us to the next article to reinforce our opinion, rather than steer us toward a different perspective on an issue, and we have the makings of a country divided.  I was raised in a political home, my dad held public office from the time I was seven until I was 24, but it’s that same home that taught me that America is made of many different faces, experiences, and opinions, and that was what made us great.  You may not agree with everyone, but there was never a harsh or demeaning word about someone that didn’t sit on the same side of the aisle, or hold the point of view that he held. Although I hold back on politics every time I sit down to write, there isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t take in the perspectives of my favorite columnists, the weekly political roundtable on NPR, and the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal.  Point being, I’m informed, but not entrenched and I like it that way.  

Realizing that we are dealing with some very diverse and serious opinions these days on big American issues like civil liberties and constitutional rights, the current state of the world, especially on social media has me thinking. How can we all be a little less activated and more able to listen when people have something they want to say.  As humans, it’s in our DNA to want to connect with each other, feel understood, and be seen and heard.  As I sat scrolling and reading this morning I jotted down a few of my thoughts:

1.Be humble.  Before we speak, can we take the time to consider our audience and where they may be coming from.  That isn’t to say make assumptions on what their opinions are or to that we should tailor our message to fit what they think.  We all want space to speak our minds, but when a message is delivered with humility, and not as ‘the only way’, hearts and minds soften.  Positive Psychology teaches us that perspective is a human trait that can be developed and improved upon throughout our life.  We are never done learning. We need to be strong enough to form our own opinions and not be afraid to speak them, but humble enough to listen and learn when we are exposed to another person’s thoughts.  There is never one way to think or do things.  Opinions are not facts and if we listen without feeling threatened, it’s been my experience that we come across some amazing life stories.  

2. We cannot pressure people into seeing it our way. If we are informed enough to have an opinion, it’s likely that we know at least one other argument on a subject that runs in contrast to our own.  If we have the presence of mind to acknowledge at least one, if not more, different thoughts on a matter as we present our own story, it shows that we are informed and interested in learning from someone else’s experience.  This is where true connection takes place and real problems get solved.  We will never convince anyone to listen to our view if we are shaming them in the process of making our own point.  We have to recognize that their opinion was born under other circumstances and a different upbringing or culture.  They are not wrong just because they think differently.

3. If our voice can not be heard, how do our actions represent our point of view?  Consider what the scene looks like if you were being interviewed but the sound was off on the TV.  Imagine people can’t hear your words, but they can read your body language, and see the actions of the crowd surrounding you. Does this scene look compelling or intriguing to someone who does not share your opinion?  When we speak, are we trying to create more consciousness or more division? These are honest questions to answer in our own minds before we begin to speak. Opinions are not all of nothing, maybe our thoughts will create a new middle ground…but we have to be articulate and nonjudgmental enough to allow for that to be a possibility. Presenting a point of view has a strong element of emotional regulation tied to it. Anger, fear, chaos, and shame will never bridge a divide.  We have to speak and act in a way that diffuses tension and brings people out of fight or flight before minds and hearts can find common ground. 

4. We can’t get our feelings hurt or be defensive if people don’t come our way. People say don’t talk politics or religion, but if I were being honest, those are some of my favorite  and most life changing conversations.  They just need to be discussed in open air, where everyone gets mutual respect, a chance to speak and listen, and even show emotion. We have to cultivate the skills to settle ourselves when other people have different ideas than our own that they are passionate about. We shouldn’t expect that we can show our passion if we don’t have the tolerance for another to show her own. There is no way to do that if we don’t disagree on matters of opinion sometimes. I have some beautiful relationships in this life with people who have different backgrounds and ideas than my own that have offered me my biggest opportunities for growth.  Life would be boring if we all thought the same things and far less would be discovered. 

In the end, we get to set our own boundaries for what we want to take in everyday in the way of opinions, stories and news.  As always, we are in control of our own choices.  There have been a lot of days when I silence the noise, and keep my TV’s off, choosing instead to listen to podcasts on sports and psychology.  But my heart will always come back to my earliest memories of going with my parents to vote, learning to raise a flag in the flag ceremony because my elementary school principal was a Marine, and knowing that I was born in the greatest democratic experiment ever conducted. I live everyday to do that story justice and like nothing more than hearing about the stories that have brought other people to where they stand today.  Those stories have gotten us this far, and we aren’t even close to done yet.

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