Lessons from my Hero

Mornings were often difficult for me in the first few years of adjusting to having a family after living 48 years on my own with only a big white fluffy dog and myself to manage. Having three, sometimes four people in the house, different schedules and (here’s the worst part) different styles and rhythms, is a lot.

My stepson has a deliberate, contemplative pace. In other words, he’s freaking slow. He takes his time, with everything – with eating, waking up, chewing food, finishing a cup of coffee, getting to whatever chore I’ve deemed an emergency.

And as you may have surmised, this is not me, at least as it relates to my expectations of other people.

Why can’t everyone be perfect, like me? The world would be a much easier place to navigate, right? Maybe there’s a reason I stayed single for 48 years.

Most mornings, when I’ve done everything I have to do because I wake early and have literally hours to prepare for departure – don’t get the wrong impression here. Most of that time consists of sitting in bed with a cup of coffee reading the news – I’m ready to go before Sean has even surfaced from sleep. Never mind that it could be an hour before we absolutely need to leave. I have nothing to do now but wait, and I choose to spend my free time complaining, nagging and judging his speed, which, in case I hadn’t mentioned it before, is always slow – without the decency of apology, shame, or any suggestion of an inkling of altering his natural rhythm for anyone or anything.

I admire this, when it’s not driving me completely bugshit.

One morning, by the time we’d loaded into the car and were well on the way to dropping him off at school, I realized (as usual) that we had plenty of time to get everyone where they needed to be on time, I shifted into regret and shaming myself for my behaviour. Over a lifetime of practice, I had basically become an expert at making myself, and by extension the people around me, feel shitty.

I managed to stop my brain from its self-flagellating long enough to apologize to Sean for setting such a negative tone for the morning.

He listened, thoughtfully as is his way (another thing I absolutely admire about this kid) and after a (much too long in my impatient opinion) pause, replied softly “Well, it’s not too late to turn the day around, is it?”

BOOM!

So much ease, so much acceptance, so much forgiveness and softness and gentleness in that one statement flowing from this beautiful soul.

(There is song by Hawksley Workman called Oh You Delicate Heart that I’m sure was written about Sean. Look it up. It’s beautiful.)

I often return to that moment when I find my brain racing to punish and shame myself with false deadlines, impossible to meet and pretty much unnecessary in the first place. I hear Sean’s voice reminding me that it’s not too late to turn it around; and I’m able to pivot.

Fast forward ten years. In March, days before the stay at home officially began, we drove to Montreal to bring the boy – now an impressive young man – home from university for an undetermined duration to ride out the pandemic in this new house he’s never lived in; the new house I have had a hard time warming up to. We moved in order to have better access to community, public transit, walkability, and this neighbourhood has all that. But the old house was perfect; this one is not.

Adjusting to sharing the smaller space, adjusting to having two other adults at home full time with me, has been a challenge. And I’d reached my limit.

Last night, on getting ready for sleep and searching the house for my earbuds, required to meditate my perpetually stressed-out ass to sleep, unable to find them, I of course opted to create a crisis.

I’m storming around the house looking for the fucking ear buds – noisily, grumpily, in full-on drama queen mode, not expecting (but really deep down expecting) the household to upend itself to find my earbuds and none of them are moving off their asses goddamn it.

Sean and David had already retired for the evening, but Sean walked back upstairs with his set of earbuds in hand and offered them to me “to use for now.”

In case you’re getting the idea that I’m all bitch all the time, I will say that my brain had the decency to be appalled at itself. It just didn’t have the will to stop me.

Instead I yelled “But I don’t want them! I WANT MINE!” to which he responded in his gentle soul way, “Well yeah, I get that. But these might work until you find yours tomorrow when it feels easier to look.”

And just like that I’m hauled back to sanity by his grace, horrified at my behaviour, thank him and take my phone, my borrowed earbuds, and my sorry ass to bed.

I find my own precious set of earbuds tangled in the bedsheets where I’d left them that morning.

And David laughed. And I said “I’m a horrible human being.” And he said “Yeah, and I love you.”

And I fell asleep without using any earbuds at all.

I am so grateful, so blessed, so lucky, to have been welcomed heart, soul and warts into the lives of this family that has so much to teach me about living more softly and being gentler with myself.

I know there must be some hope for me – after all, I attracted them into my life, right?

This morning I sit in this imperfect house, in my imperfect body, celebrating my imperfect heart and soul that can appreciate that the sun is shining brightly, the plants we put in the garden yesterday survived the night, the cardinals are singing at the windows.

I have books, pens, a teacup full and a quiet comfortable corner to contemplate life and write clumsily about it, a hammock ready to set up in our imperfect yard with the sometimes noisy cigarette-smoking neighbours, David out for a hike along the river, Sean not yet awake even though we’d planned to get out to the bike shop first thing to replace his tires and it’s now well past first thing in the morning.

I can let it go.

My heart is happy and grateful for all this goddamned imperfection because it means there’s more growing, more learning, more healing, and more loving to come.

I leave Sean’s earbuds where he’ll find them easily on waking, with a little note that says thank you in a hand-drawn heart, and remind myself to tell him over and over and over again how much he is loved, exactly the way that he is.

And I walk down to the beach to greet the morning.

Rabbits on the Beach – Both/And

There is a French colloquialism that goes “trop de la pain sur la planche” or “too much bread on the board.” It is meant to describe being too busy, having too much to do. Before the 19th Century, the same phrase was used to describe being comfortable with one’s resources; having enough to get by.

It is interesting to me that something that meant “having enough” came into new use with industrialization as a phrase to describe overwork. Capitalism in action.

My friend, a teacher of the French language, told the story of a student who misheard “trop de la pain sur la planche” as “trop des lapins sur la plage” – easy enough to do. “Trop des lapins sur la plage” means “too many rabbits on the beach.”

Being my father’s daughter, the apple not falling too far from the tree and all that, I’ve incorporated the misspeak into my own personal lexicon, often yelling from my office “Too many rabbits on the beach!” when faced with a deadline and feeling overtaxed.

Curiously enough, no one has asked me about this idiosyncrasy… I imagine they just chalk it down to Janine being Janine, shrug silently and go about their daily business. I suspect I get a lot of that. I suspect my dad did as well. Tant pis.

Often, in community or coaching groups, we are encouraged to explore the ‘both/and’ of where we are in our bodies, mind, spirits.

Both/and is a kinder gentler approach to the either/or of the industrialized Western world, and is described in detail as a “Coaching Power Tool”created by Kimberley Parrott here.

Both/and recognizes that we can carry disparate feelings in our bodies simultaneously, that it’s natural, and healthy to observe and honour. Both/ands are integral to the state of being human.

It has never been a concept that felt uncomfortable for me; both/and more often than not seems the best descriptor for my state of being.

Born on the cusp of practical Capricorn and dreamer Aquarius: both/and

Born to a maternal family of boisterous extroverts and a paternal family of quiet introverts: both/and

Born female into a patriarchal society: both/and

Finding the space in the coaching and healing community to describe my both/ands feels natural.

This is the Bertolo family cottage (or camp as they’re called in Northern Ontario), on Nils Bay on the North Shore of Lake Superior. As you can see, the shoreline is rocky; the edges of the stones worn down to smooth by the wind and the waves over centuries – an abundant eternal source of skipping stones and beach glass treasures.

The camp was named the Cedar Shore; you can see the cedars protected from lake erosion by a gabion wall in right side of this photo. Left of this view, out of range of the camera, the cedars meet the pebbled shore and go on for quite a distance.

One hot August day, when the lake was uncharacteristically still as glass, not a cloud in the sky – Ami McKay described such a sky as “fool’s blue” in her masterpiece novel The Birth House:

“it’s the kind of sky that begs to you sit and look at it all day. Once it’s got you, you’ll soon forget whatever chores need to be done, and before you know it, the day’s gone…”

On this particular hot sunny day, I opted to float out on a giant inner tube, on the calm mirror of water into the middle of the bay, dangling my feet in the cold lake, dipping in occasionally for a swim, and climbing back onto the inner tube to sun, like a turtle, until I was too warm to stay still and dipped back into the lake to cool off. Alone and not a sound except the occasional chirping of cicadas in the hot summer air. It was sublime.

And then, a soft sound. A gentle clicking, then silence, then clicking again, silence again, clicking again.

Click, click, click.

I scanned the beach to figure out where the sound was coming from and saw… rabbits!

Five or six of them, playing tag with each other at the base of the cedars, chasing each other in and out of the trees, skidding on the stones and sending them tumbling over each other in the game.

Click, click, click.

It was truly magical.

The scene would have been invisible from any other perspective. It was if they were doing bunny ballet solely to entertain me; and themselves. They were obviously having great fun skidding in and out of the cedars from shade to sun and back again.

Both/ands are not static; they change from day to day, from moment to moment, from human to human. For me, there is always both/and when I think about rabbits on the beach. It is an image of busy overwork and, at the same time, it is an image of sublime peace and delight.

I’m curious to know: do you have both/ands to share? Let me know in the comments or leave a message on my Facebook page.

Speaking of Dragonflies

Speaking of Dragonflies - Watercolour painting of a dragonfly

In my experience, dragonflies have never posed a physical threat. I teased David once that he must have some Disney princess in him when a persistent dragonfly kept landing on his face and t-shirt while we walked in the woods one day.

They seemed to be a random but consistent theme for gifts for me and by me, dragonfly images in jewelry, pottery, a favourite tea mug.

When we joked that the new town we were moving to reminded us of Stars Hollow, the fictional setting for the Gilmore Girls TV series, we named our house the Dragonfly. And when my mom passed away, my brother and sister in law gifted me with a metal dragonfly sculpture for the garden in lieu of flowers.

Their prehistoric beauty weaves a magical thread through my life.

They are truly amazing creatures. Here are seven fascinating things you might not already know about dragonflies. And if you’d like an updated, comprehensive guide, you can find one here.

I hear my father’s voice most every time I see a dragonfly in nature. “They’ll sew your lips shut,” he’d say, and we saw them a lot. Someone had passed this piece of false folklore on to him when he was a young child. Well into his 60’s as we walked together, it had obviously left an impression, one that he handed down to me.

Years ago, walking in the woods along the north shore of Lake Superior with my nephew who was about 4 or 5 at the time, I remember the heat of summer rising up from the forest floor, the sun filtering through the trees, the song of cicadas heralding the approach of summer’s end, and dragonflies thick in the air. Their darting and hovering, the iridescence of their bodies and wings had always fascinated me.

“They’ll sew your lips shut Nonno says.” I suppose I made to pass on the story another generation. The nephew stopped in his tracks; I had to double back a bit when I realized this. His sunny expression had darkened as he quite firmly requested that I please not say that again, especially while walking this path.

Only then did it occur to me that the thought of an insect sewing one’s lips shut might be disturbing to a child. It had never bothered me, I supposed because I was most of the time a fairly serious child with two feet planted firmly in the ground, pretty sure this could not occur in real life.

On other topics I was more gullible. There was, for example, the few days I crawled out of bed on my hands first because I’d believed an aunt who’d told me that your feet would stick to the floor the next morning if you swallowed your gum. Kids choose which stories to trust; it’s random.

My nephew wanted neither my dad nor I to speak of dragonflies sewing your lips shut ever again. I wonder if he’d ever been as solid in this request of my dad as he had of me. I never told my dad that story; I wish I had. And I wish I had asked him how he’d felt as a child when whoever it was told him the dragonfly lie.

Because obviously the words had left an impression.