Thoughts

Sharing Sacred Space

For most of my adult life, I would consider myself a man with faith. The object of that faith however has not been constant, consistent, apparent, valued, or at times even defined. I have, like most people, I suspect, shifted on the “faith continuum” anywhere and everywhere between atheism and belief. Today, I think I would categorize myself in the camp of solid agnostic. A man filled with constant doubt, and uncertainty. Truthfully that space is one which I find it difficult to live in, but for the foreseeable future, I think that it is where I will remain; getting comfortable with mess, and doubt.

With all of that said, I have always found the mountains to be a sacred space. Whether I shared that sacred space with my late cousin Josh, or then after with my warrior wife, and now with my kid, mountains have always been, for me, a sacred space. Maybe it is the influence of the many First Nations people that I have known and been influenced by? It could also be a product of what Richard Rohr and many others call panentheism where you find the Divine in all things. I honestly don’t know what it is, but what I do know is that mountains evoke something in me, that very few other things do.

This weekend I spent 2 ½ days in the mountains with my amazing son, and an amazing friend. I have only known Tim for a couple of months, but every now and then, someone comes along in your life and you discover that your are kindred souls, something just clicks. Tim is one of those people. A side benefit is that he is an amazing alpine guide, and he sacrificed time away from his family to hang with Andrew and me and guide us up two multii-pitch climbs. His enthusiasm in imparting his vast body of alpine knowledge and experience is inspiring. But more than that, he and I share the same love for mountains, and this weekend we got to share time in that sacred space. In many ways I am envious of the fact that he lives in the mountains all the time. Andrew would love it if we packed up and moved out of Edmonton and to the mountains where he could pursue climbing and snowboarding full time. That move is not likely in the cards. But weekends like this past one, help fill the tank so to speak, and enable me to reconnect in ways that very few venues allow me to.

On Saturday we climbed Mother’s Day Butress on Cascade Mountain, a 400 metre ascent which was awe inspiring, but not all that difficult in terms of climbing. Don’t get me wrong, we were still attached to ropes and harnesses, but the level of difficulty (5.4 - 5.6 for climbing geeks) wasn’t up there. Our Sunday climb, our going to “church” climb was altogether different. Sunday offered up a 250 meter climb up the face of Tunnel Mountain on a route called Gooseberry. It was a cakewalk for our accomplished guide, but thankfully he gets his kicks out of teaching newbies like Andrew and I how to become proficient climbers as much or maybe even more than being personally challenged in terms of his own climbing career.

The climb today was probably one of the most difficult things I have ever done in my life. I fell on a mountain and learned to trust not just my guide but my equipment. I navigated pitches where at first glance I had no idea how to ascend, and then through grit and determination, found a way. I watched my kid struggle and achieve the same milestones today (minus the falling) which was a profound gift in itself. Tim provoked and encouraged us, leading us up a challenging (at least for us) adventure, where we discovered that there is more in the well, just sitting there in reserve, at our disposal, if we just put ourselves in places where there is a legitimate need to draw from it. Add to that great conversations, meals shared, wine and great beer consumed and it was a profound few days, that I will never forget.

I write this post, exhausted, bruised, cut, swollen, muscles protesting, and more importantly, full of heart, a soul refreshed, I pride not only in my own accomplishment, but in my growing and amazing young man of a son. And I reflect on the growing friendship that is built on similar passions and a perspective that enables a sharing of something sacred, ill defined, messy, mysterious, and yet at the same time vastly profound.

What does it mean to be a man?

I don’t know if you have noticed it too, but men are not the most popular people on the planet right now. On the whole, I think a lot of criticism directed towards our cohort is well deserved. The Metoo movement rightly calls out reprehensible behaviour that until just recently was largely glossed over by society, and many would argue still is; after all, we do have a self-declared misogynist in the Whitehouse.

Yes I know, there are plenty of good, decent men in the world still. Some days, I would even count myself among them. And yet, I too know in my inner core, how men have, and still do think of their counterparts, how even good men talk about women when they are not around. How even good men perpetuate stereotypical behaviour and reinforce traditional roles where women live in a subservient position.

So what does it mean, look like, to be a man? Robert Bly offers up some thoughts on this in his book Iron John. A book in which he exegetes a Grimm Brother’s fairy tale about a young prince and his journey towards manhood. Truthfully, Bly’s book is not an easy read. It is full of poetry, difficult prose, myth, and can easily bog down. I did persist and finished it just yesterday. Now I think I need to read it again. Not because I think that his book is the new manual on manhood or masculinity, not by any stretch. But it forced me to look inwards, self-examine and start asking myself difficult questions. It is not just my fifty year old self who needs to know how to be a man, but my fifteen year old son, who is teetering on the cusp of manhood as well. The stakes are kind of high.

One of the major themes throughout Bly’s book is his treatment of the “wild man”. He documents a number of variations of the wild man in numerous cultures (the hairy man, the hairy woman). I think that our contemporary society often celebrates the idea of a “wild man” a man of extremes, independent, daring, cast all caution to the wind. I know my son was smitten with this persona after watching Alex Honnold free solo El Capitan. And yet, Bly clearly states that the problem with manhood is not that we aren’t all wild men, but that most men are not at all in touch with the wild man. In other words, it is not about wanting to become the wild man, living in the woods, under a lake, covered entirely in hair, but rather, that most of us have never even ventured into the woods, and given ourselves a chance at encountering that character.

I don’t think that this means that we as men all need to buy an axe and a tent and head out into the woods to get in touch with the wild man either. Although that also seems to be a growing trend in my circles these days too.

I find it interesting that Bly highlights the genetic similarities between genders, and then focuses on the three percent which separates us. Men and women are almost genetically identical, and yet, three percent creates a vast difference. We are virtually the same, and yet not. My reading suggests that it is in trying to ignore that three percent, that leads many men to become frustrated, angry, and even at times tyrannical.

I actually don’t know the answer to the question posed in the title of this post. I know that I, like so many others, want my life to have meaning, purpose, significance, and authentic relationships. I think myself, and many men I know yearn for these things, and don’t know how to get our hands wrapped around them. I think the wild (nature) beckons many of us, because inherently the woods, the mountains, the rivers, the ocean offer up a glimpse into the transcendent, and speak whispers to that longing deep inside which we so deftly quell. And I don’t think it is enough to venture off alone either. We may encounter the wild man out there, by ourselves, but I know personally, it is in sharing a common experience where true meaning is found. Very few of us are cut out to sit atop a pole in the middle of the dessert.

If I am honest though, it is not merely company that the average man seeks. Life is full of company. We have company on our teams, in our work place, on committees, even within our families. Company rarely offers up honesty, transparency, or self evaluation. I have been enamoured for decades by the stories of the Inkling - a literary society made up of kindred spirits who regularly gathered at Magdelan College or the back of a pub in Oxford (the Eagle and Child, I have sat there, and drunk a pint in their honour). C.S. Lewis, J.R Tolkien, among many others. These stories have formed for me a standard of sorts, a demand for brutal honesty, self disclosure that truthfully I have rarely encountered (even in myself).

I think the wild man calls us out of our comfort zone, our habitual way of life, and beckons us into the woods. Into a place that is unfamiliar, where we are forced to examine our own limitations, deficiencies, and our skills and talents. It calls us down, into the ashes, into places we might not want to go; to acknowledge the wounds and stare into the grief we have accumulated along the way. I personally have found this to be mostly a solitary journey, but I don’t think it need be. I think it could be made by an intentional group of men and boys who follow the wild man into the woods. Sojourners with a common purpose built around vulnerability, to discover what it means to be a man, what it means to live life well, what it means to contribute to the betterment of our world. To ultimately discover what difference that three percent makes, in a positive manner, which celebrates the uniqueness and strength of masculinity without the need or tendency to resort to misogyny.

If you are inclined to read Bly’s rendition of the Fairy Tale, I have attached it below.


Screen Shot 2019-06-30 at 3.06.14 PM.png
Screen Shot 2019-06-30 at 3.07.35 PM.png
Screen Shot 2019-06-30 at 3.09.00 PM.png
Screen Shot 2019-06-30 at 3.09.51 PM.png
Screen Shot 2019-06-30 at 3.10.10 PM.png
Screen Shot 2019-06-30 at 3.11.17 PM.png
Screen Shot 2019-06-30 at 3.11.28 PM.png
Screen Shot 2019-06-30 at 3.12.39 PM.png
Screen Shot 2019-06-30 at 3.12.50 PM.png
Screen Shot 2019-06-30 at 3.13.09 PM.png

My Cousin Josh

Flying to Atlanta today, I found myself writing a poem about my cousin Josh. He died tragically, far too young, in a climbing accident in Kananaskis country. Seventeen years later, I found myself compelled to remember, to quietly grieve on an airplane and write the following poem. Oddly, as I have turned fifty, I now find myself pursuing many of the things that he loved and that we shared together, not as often as I would have liked. I have taken up mountain climbing and kayaking and now share those pursuits with my son. While I was devastated by his death, I don’t think I actually grieved his loss. It is so odd that this should begin, so many years later, but perhaps it is the beginning of many of these occurrences. As I said in my last post, I am mostly a man unaccustomed to grief. Not unaccustomed to loss by any means, but for the most part of my life, too shut off from my own emotions to experience them in a healthy way. Perhaps you can teach old dogs new tricks.

Climbing. 

A tribute? 

A long buried need for shared adventure, danger, beauty, clinging to rock, to dreams, even a glimpse of the divine.

But how, gone now, so many years, decades even, your laugh echos within the caverns of my mind, wispy remembrances, breeze through lava tubes in the desert.

A new partner, unexpected, but in so many ways, like you. Glint in his eyes, passion in his bones, craving life, drinking it in, throttle open wide.

Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh. Like ours, so many sunsets past, I hold it all loosely, open hands, striving not to grasp, lest he too trickles through my fingers, smooth grains falling back upon the beach, tide lapping it back into the deep.

Climbing.

Buried grief, now rising, pushing up, unwanted and grateful together. Tears, seventeen years in the making stream down hot cheeks, I remember your smile, your zest, sun dogs for a halo. 

What might have been, could have been. Cousin, son, husband, brother, friend, uncle to so many left wanting.

Another crag, another crack, one more crux, hands reach upwards, feet searching for solid holds. 

Climbing.

Grief and Ashes

I am in the middle of reading Robert Bly’s book Iron John. Frankly, I am surprised to only have recently learned about it (thanks Tim) as it sat upon the NYT Best Sellers list for sixty-two weeks after being published in 1990. The book essentially addresses the issues around masculine rites of passage (or the lack there of, in North American culture). In it Bly exegetes the Brothers Grimm fairy tale which tells of a young prince’s journey into manhood. The book is full of prose, poetry, myth, legend and Jungian psychology. In short, it is making me think, which I enjoy, on the whole.

One of the things he addressed is the idea of sitting or living in ashes. Ashes are often used as metaphor for grief, loss, a going down. Job sat in ashes, young Danish vikings would live in the ashes of their longhouse fireplaces in between being boys and becoming men.

I have been told on an occasion or perhaps two, that my ability to discern my own emotions, let alone those of others is stunted. Just recently I have becomes aware, through the honesty (about frickin time) of a few that I am a bit of a control freak. Put another way, I am still in a place of self discovery even at the ripe age of fifty. I think one of my issues, among many, is that I still haven’t learned the art of grieving.

It hasn’t just been Bly’s book that has revealed this insight. A number of people in my life have made note of this deficiency in the past couple of months. Despite my own myopic self perspective, I must admit that it is not something that I am familiar with. Perhaps I am in need of some time in the ashes?

One incident where I feel like I became acquainted with grief was in 2011 when I visited Burundi. I made a trip to the impoverished African country as a coffee consultant with Food for the Hungry. I actually went reluctantly at the time, and most likely would still have the same reservations today. With that said, I encountered at the same time, a spirit of resilience and a crushing poverty on that trip. One evening I called home to talk to Michelle, standing in the middle of rural Burundi I sobbed uncontrollably as I recounted to her how broken the country I was visiting was. Even now, as I think back on that experience, I am confounded by my own response to what I was experiencing. What is interesting, in hindsight, is the fact that my trip to Burundi was my last trip to origin until last February. In many ways, Burundi was for me, the straw that broke the camels back. It was if my subconscious had had enough of poverty, injustice, and suffering. Visiting Costa Rica last February was the first time I returned to a coffee producing country in seven years.

So I am a man very infrequently acquainted with grief it seems. Despite personal loss, death, and failure, I seem to not know how to grieve. Despite almost a decade of living with a warrior wife, who suffers daily, I remain on the fringes of knowing grief. This post offers up no answers. I am not offering up solutions, nor dispensing wisdom in this regard. I am still a young boy in this aspect of my journey. In the Grimm tale, the young prince sets free a hairy wild man, which sets in motion a series of events which leads to maturation. Perhaps having turned fifty, I am finally about to become a man? At minimum, I need to spend more time in the ashes, learning how to discern the emotions in my chest, and in turn, having the courage to look that guy in the face, despite the clouded mirror, and acknowledge the wounds, and learn to grieve.

Mournful thoughts

I am reading searching for sunday by Rachel Held Evans, recently and tragically departed. It seems strange to mourn the death of someone you never knew, grieving a friendship that didn’t exist apart from words on a page. Regardless it, along with the works of Pete Enns has spawned this somewhat angry poem, not directed at them in any way of course, but by elements of my own messy journey.

The world burns,

flames lick hungrily at barred doors, and still,

the bride cowers in stoic certainty, her attendants overwhelmed by deafening silence.

Defiant she braces against the tide, pugnacious, she feigns hospitality.

Self proclaimed heraldess of truth, she secretly harbours judgment and disdain for all those who dare question her.

All hail the word, lifted above the heads of the throng, to be worshipped above all else; idolatry tolerated.

The world burns,

flames lick hungrily at barred doors,

the wedding guests panic in the heat, their cries for sanctuary go unheeded.

Shameless and silent, she sits, confident, upon a crumbling throne.



Time to Change the Failure Narrative

A recent conversation with a friend, about the future of Transcend ended with him saying these words to me:

Poul, you need to learn how to be kinder to yourself.

Over the past six months, this message has been rattling around my head, spoken by people like Brené Brown and others closer to home who have been speaking into this messy journey I am on. As I told him, I reiterate here, it is one thing to know that, and quite another to live it.

As I have been more reflective of late, I am beginning to discover long held habits and narratives that dominate my mindset, both consciously and subconsciously. One of those narratives which rarely pokes its head above the surface, but lingers beneath the surface, shaping my perspective is a powerful narrative that I am a failure. For many of you who know me, I am guessing that you would have a difficult time affirming that. Even I have a difficult time with that narrative. But despite those reservations, I have to acknowledge that it is a very powerful voice within my head.

One of the things that I have become more aware of is how fiercely independent I am. Jonice Webb labels it as counter-dependency. On the surface, counter dependence can look like a very positive thing, being confident, self-reliant, competent, all of these traits are valued by most in our society. They are indeed traits that prove extremely valuable in regards to being an entrepreneur. But as I am discovering, being counter-dependent is not a healthy state to live one’s life in. Aloofness, refusing to ask for help, emotional distance, short bouts of mysterious depression, are all indicators of counter-dependency, are all apt descriptions of a guy I getting to know.

So much of our personality as an adult is formed during our childhood years. Everything I am reading is illuminating the profound impact our growing up years have on us, regardless of whether we are aware it is happening. My childhood was complicated. It wasn’t bad, or abusive, or in any real way traumatic apart from what we might call growing up in a normal environment. But what I am learning is that as children, we respond to events, subconsciously, which have far reaching implications.

I was adopted. I knew that from very early on. It was never a problem for me, I freely talked about it, even as a young child. I have discounted the impact that being adopted has had on me almost up to this very day. While the jury is still out, I think there is a good chance that I am in denial regarding its impact on my life. I know that the constant teasing and bullying is a key part of the equation. Big ears, bright red hair, glasses, all impacted me in terms of how I grew to view myself. Subconsciously I shut down emotionally to protect myself, as I have learned, a necessary coping mechanism for kids, which now as an adult, has significant negative implications. I found it interesting recently, going through a memorabilia box and looking at all of my school pictures. I started wearing glasses in grade one. Interestingly, not one of my school photos has me wearing glasses. Perhaps an sign of being self conscious, LOL.

Fiercely independent, mentally tough, risk-adverse, reckless, passionate, stubborn, intimidating, domineering, indifferent, opinionated, pretentious are all words that have been said about me, and probably more importantly, by me. These are words that I use to describe me, it wasn’t a hard list to come up with, and it definitely isn’t complete. And then when you pull the curtain back, behind all of these forward facing words, is another one, which lurks in the shadows - failure. What?! How can you possibly think that, look at your life. Ah, but you don’t REALLY know me, do you? Don’t know the real story, don’t see how I have let so many people down, not lived up to the expectations, both real and projected. If people really knew me, they would see it clearly. What is the term bouncing around out there right now, Imposter Syndrome? I know, I know, we have a label for everything right now; modern day maladies are a dime-a-dozen. But, as the hard protective shell that I have lived in for most of my life, begins to crack, I can see now how much impact my narrative has had on me, and on those closest to me. My wife has endured twenty-seven years of my emotional paralyzation. My fifteen year-old kid, one of the best things in my life, has suffered from it, suffered from my harshness, my anger, my emotional distance. I am scrambling to right those wrongs, before he springs from the nest. It has had a huge impact on Transcend, on employees along the way. It has had a massive impact on me, reinforcing that negative narrative, resulting in my own avoidance tendencies and behaviour. It has impacted friends, family, and investors. The hard truth is that I am beginning to see how vast an impact that narrative has had, and see now how important it is to find the pause button, no more than that, the rewind and delete button (a reference to cassette recorders for those of you too far away from fifty). It is time to record a new narrative, one that is kinder, that is more generous. I know there is much to celebrate in the almost fifty years I have spent on this spinning orb. The challenge though remains, moving from a place of knowing something to a place of living something.

The other night, while sipping wine and conversing at some friend’s place, a wise man in the room said that we need to learn to embrace our ordinariness, give up our quest for significance. I challenged him as he spoke these sentiments, but upon reflection I think he is right, I did say he is wise. Striving, grasping at significance has caused me to perpetuate a myth. I am hoping as I crest the hill of fifty, that I can settle into a place where I can embrace being ordinary. Where I can celebrate and rest in the knowledge that where I find myself is where I am supposed to be, and that if I never move from here, that is fine, no more than fine, it is good.

You only are free when you realize you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great.

Maya Angelou

High School, Seriously

Sitting in the large gymnasium this evening at Scona High School, I was almost reduced to tears. No it wasn’t the school jazz group serenading us, although they were good, and it wasn’t the drama team’s opening act of Big Fish either. I found myself fighting back tears at the prospect of my son starting high school there in the Fall. How the hell can he already be old enough to go to high school? Scona did a fine job with their open house, and moved him from I doubt it, to a very strong maybe.

When the hell did I start grade ten, oh right, it was 1985. That was the year “We are the World” topped the charts, the first .com was registered, Coca Cola blundered with New Coke, you could go to a movie for under $3 and if I had the cash or the inkling, I could have bought my first house for $75,000. I was entering grade ten almost thirty-five years ago, and now I have a fifteen year old who is about to do the same. No wonder turning fifty is such a mind-fuck.

We were talking later this evening in the hot tub about what attending high school will be like for him and I remarked that no matter what, he will have a better experience than I did. My kid is the well liked, popular kind of kid, good looking, athletic, friendly, outgoing. Most of the things that I wasn’t in high school. For that I am thankful, and I told him as much. While he finds the academic aspects of school much more difficult than I did, he seems to have the social aspect down. I recounted my awkward years, bright red hair (not cool ginger as it is now) big ears, and glasses, not to mention I was geek before there was geek, and I was an average athlete in a school where there were barely enough people to field most teams. He slid over, after, put his arm around me, and said that he was sorry that I had to go through that. Another thing my kid has on me, EMPATHY; he must get it from his mother.

There are only forty days left for me to revel in my forties. I guess I am entering a twisted sort of personal lent (40 days before Easter) where I get to count down the days until fifty. Typically people give things up for lent, to prepare themselves for the coming of Easter. I don’t think that is the right thing to do in my case. I think my twisted personal lentish period should be filled with doing, noticing, embracing, remembering, reflecting, and maybe a little eating and drinking, but for sure, it should be a time full of “inging”. Then maybe, if I am lucky, I will be prepared to step over the threshold that my son stands pointing at, whether he wants to or not.

Confluence

The Oxford dictionary defines confluence as an act or process of merging; two rivers coming together to form a single confluence. Lately it seems as though my life has been impacted by several confluences.

Without any design, I have found myself in the midst of three interesting influences. Including my recent trip to the mountains, George Orwell’s novel 1984 and the Netflix series Black Earth Rising.

While driving home through Banff National Park, I muttered more to myself than anyone (I am prone to this behaviour) about how being in the mountains is good for the soul. My wife sitting next to me, overheard my muffled utterance and asked me why, and truthfully I was at a loss to explain my statement. Upon further reflection, I am still left with a bit of “je ne sais pas” but I also have, perhaps, a little bit to put my finger on. More than being awestruck by the scope of the peaks, or their snow capped beauty, it is in part their towering permanence towering over me. They have been where they are for eons, and I am but a blip, passing quickly by. Then there is the experience of standing on top of one of those peaks (Whitehorn) squinting in all directions from the summit, sunlight blinding. On Sunday, bluebird skies abruptly reaching upwards from sparkling white ridges, all I could utter was “fuck it is amazing up here”.

Sharing the day with my kid, who is far more brave than I, being challenged by him to ski down a run so steep that my heart and mind raced with anxiety and exhilaration. Seeing his joy, his excitement, the satisfaction of riding terrain that few would dare, filled me at the same time with trepidation and pride. I think all of this was at least in part, an answer to the why? There is something about mountains. There is something about granite uprisings that confound our understanding, our mortality, our reason, or at least mine. And then there is the cold, the snow, the ice, all of these, speak to me, convey something deep, too deep for me to comprehend. Maybe it has to do with the Scottish blood running through my veins? Who knows. We, my son and I are somehow bound together by the cold, the beauty and harshness of winter. It is a season I relish, long for, and likely will never despise, no matter how old I grow, or how loud my old bones protest.

Onto Orwell; more relevant today than ever, in the shadow of the puppet to the south. Freedom is slavery. Thought police seek to enslave, blue overalls rewrite history, eradicate it and mold it into a fabricated fiction. Truth is nothing but a mist burning up in the heat of the sun. How is it possible that a book penned seventy years ago can be more pertinent today, than it was when first conceived? Prophecy, prognostication, call it what you will, but as I read, I am challenged, caught off-guard by my present reality.

And then a story about Rwanda, the genocide of eight hundred thousand Tutsi slaughtered by their Hutu cousins. Oblivious to the holocaust at the time, caught up in being a president of students, occupied by trivial issues, budgets, Ralph Klein, a new library. How is it that a dramatization could strike so deep? How is it that two weeks in Burundi eight years hence could impact me so deeply. The divide between tribes, etched in my soul. The plight of Africa seared across my soul. Broken promises, poverty, hopelessness, chaos. A night of tears, torrents streaming down my cheeks, haunt me still.

Confluence. Different streams, past and present merge into a torrent of unrest; thoughts of jumbled poetry jostle themselves onto a page. And then to end it all, two nights of the Hobbit brought to life on a screen. The magic and genius of Tolkien adding to the mix. Parting words of my son, as he makes his way to bed…. How does he do it dad? Happiness and sadness at the same time, profound observations at fifteen, I think, almost fifty now. Thankfully he won’t have to wait as long as I, to unlock the mystery, he is already riding the path towards wisdom.

Ascending up from "Stove Land"

I think I have always wanted to write. Even as a kid, I think that desire was buried somewhere deep, but it was there. I read voraciously as a young person. I was reading heavy books too, Roots, Shogun, The Chronicles of Thomas R Covenant, just to name a few. Reading for me, unbeknownst to me at the time, was most likely a form of escape. The stories in those books were filled with places I could go to avoid pain. As I continue to dive deep into this journey that I am on, I am confronting the patterns of many others, and seeing similarities. Reading like I did as a youngster is definitely a common theme.

Despite the fact that I have often had a blog as an adult, I also know how much eleven years of university sucked the joy of reading and writing from my bones. It is only in the last year that I have even started to pick up a book, and the same can be said with writing. I attended a food and wine writing workshop in Kelowna in 2013, hosted by my friend Jennifer Cockrall-King, and truthfully I have often wondered why. That conference was a great experience in terms of the activities that we participated in, but the writing workshops almost had a negative effect on me, shutting down my desire to write. I think that I, like so many others, struggle with the basic notion of being a writer. What do I have to offer, what would I write that anyone would want to read?

I picked up Steven King’s “On Writing” this week and started in on it today. I started Margaret Atwood’s Master Class this week, and both offer up the sage advice that you aren’t a writer if you don’t write. So start writing! Like many who like to watch programs about cooking, but don’t cook, I think I adopted this perspective about myself in terms of writing.

I guess I had already decided a while ago that I was going to just write, regardless of what people thought about what I wrote. While this isn’t entirely true, I haven’t yet written with complete abandon, I have already let that horse out of the barn.

Back in December I asked people which book they thought changed their life.

I am indebted to my friend Dave Z for recommending “The Brothers K” by David James Duncan. It is a beast of a book! And to be honest, I have listened to this book via Audible, and not sat and read it (which probably would have been faster). I am almost finished, less than 30 minutes left in the over 28 hours of audio. I have spent a lot of time walking, and listening, getting to know the Chance family. The narrator of this book should get an Oscar (if they had one for reading audio books!). If you haven’t had a chance to read this book yet, I too, highly recommend it.

As someone who is emotionally stunted and emotionally illiterate, I am beginning to discover that books, or maybe more accurately, the accumulation of language is perhaps a key to unlocking the cage which has held all of my emotions locked up all these many years. Obviously writing about my journey in this blog has been therapy of sorts, but more than that, I am beginning to actually experience an emotional response as I listen to books like The Brothers K or Washington Black. Prior to this, I would say that it was only while watching movies that I felt any real emotions, and now that seems to have expanded to the realm of words.

The character Irwin who is emotionally damaged after his stint in Vietnam and a military mental asylum (electric shock therapy and all) begins to find his way back to being human by building wood stoves. It is his way of trying to climb back up from the nether regions of previous trauma. Irwin’s brother Peter names this intermediary emotional world as Stove Land. This idea of Stove Land resonated with me. The idea of climbing up from a world devoid of emotions, finding something to cling to, some common language to speak in the process. I am beginning to understand that perhaps writing is my Stove Land.

I know that one of the tasks at hand is to broaden, or more accurately develop, an emotional vocabulary. I don’t even have words for most of what I feel, which makes it hard to articulate those feelings with any precision. I recently finished reading “Running on Empty” by Dr. Jonice Webb and she has an appendix of words to describe one’s emotions. It is a very long list, I have a lot of words to learn.

I am also determined, perhaps not yet fully committed, to writing a book. I haven’t yet decided whether this book will be fiction, or not, whether it will be related to my life, or not, but I am going to write it. You may never get to read it. As Margaret Atwood says, the waste paper basket is God’s gift to the writer. Having said that, I will most likely eventually put it out there, with trepidation, but then as I am discovering, this is the plight of every writer. Until then, this blog and the Transcend blog will have to do.

Bullshit and the middle of the Mess

I had a chance to catch up this week with a friend (and colleague) that I haven’t seen in a while. I enjoy these lunch dates. Rarely do I dine at “supper time” but I find the middle of the day a great time to connect and catch up.

Plug for the Marc and their Wednesday Burger, always a highlight!

During lunch, I expressed to my friend this growing need within me to pen a book. I have wanted to write a book for a long time, and have even had a working title and table of contents saved on my computer for years now. But, I just don’t know whether people want to read about my journey into the world of coffee?

Carolyn had what might be a brilliant idea for me though. She suggested that I write a book on Bullshit. She said my naturally “grumpy” disposition (she meant that as a compliment, I am sure) was perfect for the subject matter.

You may not be a humorist Poul, but you have sarcasm enough to make up for that!

The idea has stuck with me for the rest of the week. I have witnessed so much bullshit in the world of coffee, just as I know you have witnessed a ton of bullshit in your life. I think Bullshit is a common thread in all of our lives for that matter.

Everyday, I am confronted with bullshit advertising in coffee, bullshit claims about sustainability and ethics, bullshit corporate social responsibility, the list goes on and on. So perhaps there is a book in the middle of all of this mess.

I am beginning to realize that the mess is really where all of life happens. I am just starting to come to grips with how to reside in the middle of the mess and not succumb to the panicked emotions clambering for escape. To live in the middle of the mess where I am not desperately grasping for recognition and praise, affection, and affirmation. To live in the messy middle where I can be free with my emotions, but not controlled or enslaved by them. To revel in moments of anger, angst, and then in the next moment feel joy and hope without thinking that I am losing my mind. This journey of unravelling started with a vague notion that there was a destination at the end, somewhere to get off, an oasis of contentment. But as I continue down the path I am on, I am beginning to wonder if that oasis in the distance is just a mirage, and that I am destined to journey onward despite it all.

I am starting to get a glimpse that living in the middle of the mess, learning how to be content in the middle of the mess, learning how to revel in the mess, is perhaps the destination. To have the freedom to cry BULLSHIT when appropriate and then to raise a glass and shout CHEERS in celebration, all within the same day, the same moment, is not madness.

The writing of a book may not be in the cards, perhaps all I have in me are muddled thoughts on the screen of a mostly unread blog. But regardless, I am starting to understand, albeit slowly, that my journey will likely never lead me out of the middle of the mess.

_________________

wrote a couple of poems this week about some of this stuff….. this one is called Stirrings.

Unfamiliar stirrings, unwelcome, yet ironically full of promise, declared the spectators.

Dubious silent lament, accompany my journey, heavy upon my shoulders. A broken compass in one hand, a snuffed lantern in the other. 

Uneven the path extends before me, shrouded in fog and relentless chill. Stiff with uncertainty I move forward, possessed only with awkward trust.

Cruel memories of fellowship haunt me. Flashes of warm conversation and laughter weigh down my garments, as if heavy with rain.

Fleeting whispers of hope echo off the barren landscape, dragging me forward, ignoring parched lips. 

Far off, a dim light flickers just above the horizon, doubt floods in, is it only a mirage in this frozen desert? Taunts of something more emanate and beckon me forward on weary limbs. 

A crumpled and faded map leads me onward, a promised oasis of wisdom and contentment. Heavy footsteps crunch and break the silence beneath me. A gnawing pang drags me along, mocking the looming urge to succumb to the surrounding wilderness.

The Windhover

For reasons I can’t explain, this poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins has been bouncing around in my head. It has also led me to remember Paul Upton who despite a rocky start, inspired me in the realm of literature during my time at the U of L.

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king- dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing, As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing! Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier! No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear, Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

I don't care what people think... (no… actually I do)

Lately I have been combing my memories looking back at my childhood for instances that gave me cause to start putting on the armour that I wear. I saw a new therapist for the first time on Saturday, and Cheryl listened patiently to me ramble on, with no clarity of why I was really there, other than a sense that I need some help navigating the quagmire that I currently find myself in. It reminds me a lot of the scene in Lord of the Rings where Bilbo and Sam are trying to make their way through the swamp of the dead, and Gollum keeps telling them not to look down, and hurry up so they don't end up there forever. Right now, it kind of feels like my journey is stuck in that swamp, caught between what I am discovering, and the destination (at this point unknown).

For a long time, probaby as long as I can remember, I have been very insecure. I was an awkward kid, with Howdy Doody orange hair (adults commented and kids teased) glasses, and a head that hadn't grown big enough to fit my ears. I remember getting called "goggles piizano", "big ears", "carrot top" all of which seem pretty trivial to me now, but back then it was anything but. My therapist told me that children develop their sense of who they are between the ages of three and twelve, and I definitely would have internalized that I wasn't cool, wasn't good enough, wasn't a lot of things during those formative years. She also said that those years are when kids start to self protect, and I definitely did those things, namely started putting on the armour and the persona built around the act of "I don't care what anyone thinks".

My indifference was almost universal. While I knew I was smart, I also quickly came to an understanding that being too smart only invited ridicule from my peers as well, so I stopped trying, and started to coast, an unfortunate habit that has dogged me my entire life. Unless of course, someone could inspire me, and then I would go all in. I had a teacher in Grade Six, Mr. Norton, who found a way to inspire me, and frankly our whole class. He made us feel so smart, he told us we were smart, he tapped into something that made me want to try, to give it my all. I remember him teaching us about base 5 math - he told us that it was the math he was teaching to his university students. It was the only year during my primary eduction that I got honours. After Grade Six I went back to not caring. That pattern of not caring took me through eleven years of univsity culminating with a degree in Law. Sounds strange now, but looking back I see how much more I could have gleaned from my many years of attending school, if I had just allowed myself to care about the process a bit more.

Not caring was a great coat of armour, thick and strong enough to protect me from the hurt of rejection. Not fitting in was a pretty common theme of my life, and yet that is all I wanted to do. I tried so hard (too hard) and as a result came off desparate most of the time, which isn't a very endearing quality. I was always too intense, too talkative, too verbal. Even the seed of becoming a lawyer was planted early on, as I was always talking and arguing, and being told I would make a good lawyer when I grew up.

I retreated into books, I read voraciously as a kid, often staying up until three in the morning reading books (crazy big books) like Roots, Shogun, and all kinds of fantasy novels. What kind of twelve year-old reads Roots? Don't get me wrong, from the outside my life looked pretty normal, pretty average for a kid growing up in rural Alberta. I liked motobikes and horses, I was a cowboy in the making. But what I am beginning to realize now is that I wanted desperately to fit in, to be popular, to not be the kid that everyone mocked, to not be the kid that was laughed at.

The shame associated with those formative years, appears to be the thing I have to deal with now, at the age of forty-nine. My therapist told me, in a very matter-of-fact way that I am essentially emotionally paralyzed from the neck down. In other words, I just don't know how to relate on an emotional level, as I learned early on that living in my head hurts way less. And she is right. I have cultivated an identity over decades that is built around my brain. I am quick, combative, fearless, impulsive, intimidating, reckless, confident, brash, at times a bully, relentless (I have been called a Bull in a China shop more than once). All of which I have worn proudly, like the boy scout that I once was. Becoming an expert in coffee, wine, cooking (sort of) all of which gave me a sense of importance. Being perceived as fearless, an entrepreneur, someone unafraid to take risks is all part of the act too. I am beginning to see that a lot of it is just performance, and my body belies the act. While I may appear to be completely in charge, my body deals with the stress through intense perspiration, my armpits are like fountains whenever I am stressed, and lately it takes far less to stress me out.

So I am learning is that all of this has kept me from allowing the real me to see the light of day. The vulnerable, scared, insecure kid with bright orange hair and big ears, has been locked up all these years. I locked him up, because I was tired of the pain and the shame, and I opted instead to be the confident, dauntless Poul, that most people see today. Brene Brown talks about self compassion as a critical element of being wholehearted. I think that part of this journey will require me to look the awkward twelve year-old in the face and tell him that I like him, actually love him; although right now, I think I may still be embarrassed by him (obviously something that still needs work).

I have no idea where this is going to lead. While intellectually I understand what my therapist says when she tells me I am emotionally paralized, I have no idea what learning to use the rest of my emotional body looks like, let alone how to actuate it. The only time I cry now, is during movies, perhaps because it is dark, or it is safe, but it is the one place in my life where the emotions actually bubble to the surface. Sometimes so much so that even my son will notice it and ask "dad were you crying" with a quizacal look on his face. So I know that I have emotions, and occassionally they are allowed to surface. Truthfully the whole prospect scares me. I don't know what my life will look like without my armour. I don't know what my life will be like when I open the vault that keeps my emotions in check. What I do know is that I am tired of living the lie of "I don't care what people think" and look forward to retiring from my acting career, and settling into a place where I can just be myself. Until then, I will keep walking the dog and listening to thoughtful people. Turns out that my therapist lives in my neighbourhood and has a dog named Charlie too. Too bad I couldn’t just do sessions while walking the dog, it would be way cheaper, LOL.

Grief (A man unacquainted)

Grief is something I am not good at, never have been. Honestly, I don’t think I have allowed myself to experience grief very often; part of the bit of wearing my teflon suit of armour. It’s not that I haven’t had opportunity to experience grief - my cousin died tragically, numerous grandparents are now dead, my dad died… I have experienced plenty of death in my life. Yet in all of this, I remained relatively stoic, reigned in my emotions, was “tough” and '“strong” through it all.

I have been listening to Brené’s Rising Strong for a second time (needs time to percolate) so that it will sink in. At one point she refers to one of her favourite quotes from C.S. Lewis

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries, avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable. To love is to be vulnerable.

That protective way of life, has largely been the path that I have chosen, as I instinctively knew that it would result in less heartbreak. I am not for a moment suggesting that this was the better path, but it was definitely the less painful one. With that said, I now am beginning to realize that while that path is less painful, it is also far less real, and far less meaningful.

I am slowly learning that leaning into the hurt, leaning into the emotion of heartbreak is a required element of grief. And while we typically associate grief with the death of loved ones, we can experience grief in all types of circumstances. The death of a job, a dream, a community, a friendship, or frankly anything in our lives where we have significant expectations that are unmet.

I am just starting to come around to this, and starting to recognize in myself the hurt and pain associated with unmet expectations (mostly what Brown calls “stealth expectations”) largely uncommunicated. I am beginning to wonder whether in fact, these stealth expectations are harder to reckon with than those that are laid out in the open. The ones held close, seem to be stronger, more important, more linked to emotion, and as a result, more easily dashed.

Grief is the emotion, the process, the path into that hurt and heartbreak which must be taken, if we are to emerge on the other side more whole hearted. I am just learning to rumble with this. I am having many conversations in my head as I walk and listen and think, trying to work this out.

I am finally seeing a psychologist again for the first time on Saturday. I have no idea whether we will connect, but I am hopeful. I hope that there will be a fit so that I have a way to navigate these rough waters. Rough water is not always a bad thing! As a beginner kayaker, I prefer the calm water of the North Saskatchewan River, but as I improve in my technical skills, I know that like all things, I will go looking for something with more kick, more excitement, more danger. I will be on the hunt for rougher waters.

Until then, I will have to do the work of navigating the rough waters of my emotion, my unspoken expectations, my bottled up grief, and I actually think that this ride will be better than the real water counterpart could ever be. We shall see.

A Collection of Poems (I wrote this during 1987 - Grade 12)

I stumbled upon a collection of poems that I penned during what must have been my grade twelve year of high school. I think that they are significant only in that they give me insight into what was rumbling around in my head thirty-one years ago. Oddly enough, some of the same thoughts are still rumbling around in there…. testimony to the reality that age doesn’t in itself produce wisdom. In fact, reading these words with older eyes makes me wonder where some of the wisdom has gone.

These poems were never published in 1987, so I feel it only appropriate that they get published now.

ANTICIPATION

Silence

deep, unnerving

the birds all gone

the leaves all fallen,

and blown away.

The fields all barren

now stored:

grain or hay.

Silence

deep unnerving

waiting only,

for the first feathered flake.

UNCERTAINTY

Often confiding,

daring almost to share,

Often restless,

almost accepting support,

Often doubting,

almost accepting advice,

Often saddened,

accepting cheer, then no!

Often fearful,

nearly accepting comfort,

seldom a friend,

But gladly taken.

THE FARMER

The sky darkens with heavy dark clouds,

rain transcending to the ground.

The stalks heavy laden, ben lazily down.

Hail ten miles over; shells that which

is already on the ground.

Hope flutters like an autumn leaf drifiting

in a breeze.

He sits watching and waiting for a

sign up above.

Time crawls slowly across the plains.

Patience prevails and a new day brings a new

light and new warmth, he looks up

smiling as if greeting an old friend.

Migration near completed; off on cold north

winds.

The lands now silent.

What once was, is now only half.

Struggling on he thinks only of next year.

FRIEND

Caring,

yearning,

listening,

comforting,

loving always in a special way,

seeking,

thinking,

then dropping from view,

resting,

watching,

until needed again.

YEARNING

The sky cold and windy grey,

and as I sat there that day I pondered,

the events of that day,

perhaps is was only in my sight,

yet within it still grows,

to you probably,

always untold,

yet someday, who knows.

The man who sits here may someday seem more bold,

until that day,

I sit here and ponder,

hoping still a sunny day may come,

gazing at hidden stars up yonder,

wanting only for this day,

to finally be done.

THE BEAST (man)

I chanced one day upon a fawn,

a clear could morning early,

just before dawn.

No wind blew.

The grass swayed to the sound of the silence,

each blade shedding a single drop of dew.

I pondered then on man’s great achievements in science,

though never able to create the simplest form of life.

Yet I marvelled at the beauty of nature

before my eyes.

The pines awaiting the breath of day,

across the meadow up on a hill I spotted the doe,

watching me; seemingly with perfect trust.

Through the trees the sun now rose,'

and as I walked away, a shot shattered the silence.

My heart filled with rage, my mind with shame,

and I pondered once more,

Man’s Great Achievements In Science.

GRADUATION

For most

eighteen years do pass,

slowly at first,

then almost too fast,

hurts, wants, goals, failings, wins,

losses, friends, shadows,

all are now past.

For most,

parties,

some seldom not,

but one remains!

Anticipation arises,

childhood dreams now dying,

friends crying,

come what may,

yet always take the time to ponder the past,

yesterday,

life goes on

but memories always last.

Brutally Honest (holding my breath with this one)

I wrote about expectations a few days ago. We all have experienced poor customer service because of unmet expectations! Deliver on my expectations and I am satisfied (but only), fail to meet my expectations and I am pissed (and will tell everyone how you failed over and over again) and if you happen to exceed my expectations, I will sing your praises until the cows come home (Canlis, Au Pied de Cochon). I may be wrong, but I think this is just human nature. These concepts around customer service is what we are trying to instil in our team at Transcend; exceed customer’s expectations and we win! I point to companies like Apple, Virgin Airlines and Mortons, as all of these organizations are famous for exceeding patron expectations and as a result garnering rabid customer loyalty. We all love to be treated well, to be known, to feel connected, to feel like we are included and belong, even with businesses we engage with.

Brené talks a lot about those who are wholehearted. Those subjects (research subjects) who have this innate sense that they are worthy of love and belonging. After reading Daring Greatly, I actually thought of myself as one of those people (confident of their innate worthiness of love and belonging). Oddly, after reading Rising Strong, I realized that I am actually not one of those people who inherently believe that they are worthy of love and belonging (I was lying to myself). I have another blog post in the cue about that, later.

Getting back to expectations. I realize that I am poor at communicating them. I rarely communicate them, maybe because I haven’t taken the time to figure out for myself what those expectations even are, and perhaps because articulating expectations is an act of vulnerability. With that said, I have started thinking about what my expectations are going forward when it comes to the notion of friendship. For those of you who (Still) count me as a friend, I apologize in advance.

I realize that I am disappointed largely because of my unspoken expectations in and around friendship. And yet I know that the people in my life cannot meet my expectations if I never communicate them. Even having to think about what my needs are in relationships is venturing into foreign territory for me. The process of communicating expectations requires courage (obviously something that I lack) to suffer discomfort and perhaps more risky, having my expressed needs rejected. So instead of taking that risk, I have in the past, mostly opted for the thing which is fast and easy, namely suppress, quell and ignore my needs and expectations, and then live frustrated in the reality that my relationships don’t measure up (circular and self defeating reasoning, I know!).

As I journey through all of this, I am beginning to realize that the lack of mutual connection in my life, is a source of pain. As I critically evaluate many of my friendships, I am finding that I have to admit that I am the often the instigator when it comes to facilitating connection. I enjoy hosting people, enjoy cooking for people, enjoy throwing a party (smaller lately). While all of this is true, what I am also starting to realize is that being the one to initiate these connections most of the time makes me wonder about the actual strength of my relationships. I get that that sounds shitty, TRUE, but I am trying to be more honest and vulnerable.

As I begin to attach words to long held feelings of unworthiness, I am asking myself why it is that I initiate text conversations at a ratio of 10:1? Probably because I crave connection? The same goes for hosting people for dinner. But at the risk of being considered petty, I am starting to realize that if I don’t initiate contact with many friends, it rarely seems to happen. Assuming that all of my friends are doing the best that they can, I have to assume that everyone is busy, everyone has a lot on their plate, and that life swallows up time and opportunity to connect. Yet, with that said, I also have to acknowledge that upon reflection, it doesn’t feel very good knowing that without my initiative (on the whole) my life perhaps would be largely devoid of meaningful connection. This realization is definitely an area of shame in my life, and one that I want a reckoning from.

So if I have to articulate my needs and expectations in and around friendship, I have to say that I have a need for greater mutuality when it comes to connection. How can friends be vulnerable with each other if there isn’t an opportunity to connect and build relationships of trust? If we are all too busy to connect, the chance of meaningful conversation built upon mutual vulnerability will likely never exist. Perhaps this is the reality of the world we now live in? And while the mad scramble of life seemingly takes no prisoners; I don’t have to like this reality that I find myself part of.

I realize that what I am writing is probably going to be perceived as being shitty. I realize that this may possibly result in less dinner invitations being accepted. But in truth, this is not my intention. My intention with this post (albeit raw) is to be brutally honest, and truly vulnerable about how I feel. As someone deeply committed to the notion of community, one of the things I long for is authentic connection. I also realize that many people in my life aren’t in the same place I am, aren’t in the same stage in life or career. I am aware that I am afforded a rarefied luxury of flexibility and freedom in my day-to-day life, and I think that this freedom perhaps, is in part to blame, because I have time to connect when most everyone else in my life is busy with work and family.

Me writing this, doesn't diminish my affection for my friends, on the contrary. Me writing this doesn’t negate my desire to host dinners, fires, or get-togethers. But having said all of that, what it does articulate is a deep desire to know that I am worthy of love and belonging and that my friendships aren’t simply a byproduct of my own creation, a product of my constant persistence (a polite but persistent nagging) and people simply giving way. Sounds a bit like junior high, I know, but this is where I am at; forty-nine years in the making.

Badassery (redefined)

For almost all of my life, I have respected the idea of a badass. Someone who lives on their own terms, lives without fear, perhaps even lives dangerously. Maybe it is a byproduct of growing up on a farm (of sorts), or at least growing up in the country, where we just did things without giving much thought to the consequences. Jumping motorbikes and snowmobiles over fences, pushing the limits with equipment, basically thumbing our noses at danger. Truth be told, I am still a bit too much like that (everyone at Transcend Coffee thinks of me as a cowboy, doing things that the average person wouldn’t even consider). I am not trying to be reckless, but I think it is a bit hard wired into me, from my time growing up - that you just get er’ done, safety be damned.

So working through Brené Brown’s definition of a badass (or badassery) has been a bit of an adjustment, and upon reflection, her notion of being a badass is growing on me. I like that she flips the notion on its head, and rather than celebrating the reckless, cowboy, safety be damned approach to life, that I grew up admiring, she celebrates the one who has the courage to be vulnerable. She writes

To me the real badass is the person who says, “Our family is really hurting. We could use your support.” And the man who tells his son, “It’s okay to be sad. We all get sad. We just need to talk about it.” And the woman you says, “Our team dropped the ball. We need to stop blaming each other and have some tough conversations about what happened so we can fix it and move forward.”

I have found the response to this blog interesting. I never expected many people to read it, and frankly, I am surprised that as many people have taken time out of their busy lives to ingest it as have done. But even more surprising than the analytics, is the conversations I have been having here and there with people who want to encourage me with the project.

I have had a couple of very encouraging conversations in the last couple of days, not because of them celebrating this blog, but far more importantly, because we had honest, raw, emotion filled talks about the shit in our lives. The conversations were about suffering, emotions, regret, failure, anger, resentment, and disappointment. And while that might not sound like fodder for great conversation, I left both instances feeling refreshed, uplifted, because for the first time in a long time, I was having meaningful interaction with friends which transcended the day-to-day, the mundane, the weather.

This little quirky project of mine, a journey into living wholeheartedly, and then writing about it, has opened unexpected doors into not just my life, but the raw lives of others, and is enabling human connection, the thing I have been longing for.

I still have no idea what the hell I am doing, or how I will get to where I need to ultimately end up. I still need to find a good therapist (if you know of one, please pass there name along). I still need to ingest more learning (2nd time through Rising Strong on my walks with Charlie). I need to figure out how to lean in more and practice it. I need to quit reacting and making assumptions concerning unpleasant circumstances and start living in the knowledge that people are doing the best that they can. I need to start being more curious about my own reactions and emotions, hell I need to figure out how to name my emotions! You would think that someone who can taste and identify flavours like black currant and jasmine in coffee and wine would be better at identifying the physiological and psychological responses that my body has; so much work to do. But in the midst of it all I am moving forward, growing, and more importantly seeing the fruit of this journey into being more vulnerable (Julie, I think you might be proud of me?).

So, while I still give props to the somewhat reckless actions of my youth, and acknowledge the things in my life that exist because of misguided bravery, I am starting to grasp (albeit slowly) the true bravery required to live wholeheartedly, to live in the midst of courageous and difficult conversations. Now I just have to figure out if I can still be a cowboy and a badass at the same time? LOL.

Generosity and Expectations

We have been talking a lot at Transcend about expectations and customer service. Good customer service is very difficult to find in the market place, and I think that the biggest problem with this deficit is most of us have unmet expectations which leave us feeling cold. We have been talking about exceeding people’s expectations as a way to win at customer service, but that requires that you actually know what the expectations of your customers are, or alternatively help to set those expectations.

I think the same is true in life. I think that many of us live our lives without any real thought as to what our expectations are in life, and as a result, often find ourselves disappointed and frustrated.

I know that I fall into this pattern of living. It is easy to drift into the daily grind of getting up, doing work, catching a bit of TV, maybe if we are lucky a little exercise and then bed. The cycle continues day after day, until another month, year, perhaps a decade has passed, and we look back and wonder where the time has gone, and why we feel so disconnected.

I have never been good at setting goals. I tried once to outline a five year plan and it was a complete waste of time. I feel constrained by plans, goals, metrics. But I also know that I often find myself disappointed in life and I think that is because I have very rarely taken the time to understand and more importantly communicate what my expectations are to myself and those around me. I am not talking about being demanding, or pushy, but rather being clear about what is important to me, so that others know, and can assess whether they are up for being part of the journey, and can decide whether or not they can actually meet my expectations.

I know that I have always longed for meaningful community. I wrote a small blog post a while ago on this subject. Truthfully, I have never had that longing met. I talk about community, think about it, but I don’t think I have ever stopped to identify for myself what my expectations are in and around community. As a result, I am often disappointed and frustrated with any attempt to build or nurture community. True vulnerable mutual friendship is a rare thing in my life, and I am guessing in most people’s lives. We all are busy, we have more to do than time to do it, work and family consume most of our time leaving most of us sleep deprived and exhausted. When we do find time to get together with friends, it can often feel hollow and unsatisfying. I am beginning to wonder whether this is because we (I) have failed to define for ourselves and communicate our expectations, and as a result, have them left unmet.

The problem with communicating expectations is that it is scary, at least on a personal level. Being vulnerable and communicating our needs to others opens us up to rejection which in turn causes pain. So instead, I know that I mostly choose to live in a place of frustration, due to unspoken and unmet expectations. I would say this is true in my life, even with those closest to me. I have never sat down with my friends and articulated what I would like to see in terms of how our friendship might work. I have never had one friend sit me down and tell me what they expect of me either. So I am guessing that like me, they have experienced frustration and disappointment as well (some of which I am likely the author of).

I have always held generosity as a personal core value. I like to think of myself as a generous person. While I think that I can say that this is mostly true (I am not always generous) I can honestly say that I rarely establish boundaries around that generosity. The result of this is often disappointment and unmet expectations; feelings of being taken advantage of, always having to be the one who initiates….

Brené Brown talks about “living big” and poses this question: what boundaries do I need to put in place so I can work from a place of integrity and extend the most generous interpretations of the intentions, words, and actions of others?

She goes on to define integrity as the act of choosing courage over comfort; choosing what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy; and choosing to practice our values rather than simply professing them.

I know that the thought of communicating clear expectations is a daunting prospect. Even as I write this, my thoughts rush to the assumption that my heartfelt needs in friendship are likely unreasonable (if they weren’t why do they seem so unattainable). This thought pattern may be totally inaccurate, but up until now, I have rarely (perhaps never) had the courage to articulate my expectations even to those people closest to me. So rather than exercising courage, I have chosen the easy way out, but the easy way leads to frustration.

Brené suggests that we take a piece of paper, one inch by one inch and write down the name of everyone in our life that has earned the right to hear our deepest thoughts and feelings. She says if there are more names than can fit on that tiny piece of paper, we need to edit that list because we aren’t being honest with ourselves. My initial thought when she said this was wow, that is harsh. But is it? It seems ridiculous that I am approaching a half century on this planet, and for all of it, I find myself in (what must be very common) a place of solitude because of my own inability to be vulnerable with others. Years of wearing armour, upgrading that armour, to ensure that nothing gets through the cracks has led me here. And yet when I am honest with myself, I don’t want to be where I find myself, and worse, I don’t have a map to show me how to navigate to where I actually want to be….

More rumbling required.

Rumbling

Brené Brown talks a lot about the notion of rumbling, or wrestling with our stories. We all tell stories about our lives. I have been telling stories about my life, and most of those stories have a narrative where I own very little of the responsibility. I think wearing armour for most of my life has me making up stories to help me explain my sense of isolation, and my lack of community. I think that being a risk taker, doing it alone, not needing any help have all been part of my narrative. This narrative though is one born out of need to protect myself, and are not born out of a place of being vulnerable.

I am actually a pretty good story teller. I can hold court, so to speak, and when I get on a roll, people tend to engage. I actually believe that I can (to some extent) talk my ideas into reality, and perhaps that is true, I am actually not sure anymore. What I am learning is that these stories that we tell ourselves are often not accurate, and are instead the things we tell ourself to protect and deflect. Brown defines these protective stories as confabulations, or fictions told in earnest. So in other words, we tell ourselves lies, but actually believe our own lies, because we see them as true. I guess it is looking at my life through rose coloured glasses. Brown says

the goal of the rumble is to get honest about the stories we’re making up about our struggles, to revisit, challenge, and reality-check these narratives as we dig into topics such as boundaries, shame, blame, resentment, heartbreak, generosity, and forgiveness. Rumbling with these topics and moving from our first responses to a deeper understanding of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours gives birth to key learnings about who we are and how we engage with others. The rumble is where wholeheartedness is cultivated and change begins.

I have been starting to look more closely at my Teflon coated life, my stories, and my bottled up emotions. To be honest, I don’t much like the squirmy process. I don’t like how it makes me feel, I don’t like the emotions and pain it is welling up. Frankly, I am not good at it; I am so much better at avoiding this stuff, not leaning into it. With that said, I know if I want to grow into a place where I can live more wholeheartedly, I need to give space for the rumble. Frankly I need to get some help with this (anyone know a good therapist) as already, it is self evident that I can’t do this on my own (ironically, that is one of the most powerful stories I tell myself, I can do it by myself). Admitting my need is a very vulnerable space for me, and it flies in the face of my narrative of being a generous person. My version of generosity is about giving, but my version rarely if ever receives.

I have lived with the narrative that it is better to give than to receive all of my life. I have lived with the narrative that we are not to let the right hand know what the left hand is doing (or in other words, you never talk about the good that you do). I think the problem with these stories that I tell, is that they inherently keep me from be honest about my own needs, my own expectations, and as a result I often live in a self made shadow of isolation and frustration. I blame others “I just am not into small talk”, or we don’t have anything to talk about, we just don’t connect. But I am learning that vulnerability is built on being curious, curious about one’s own fictional stories, and I think curious about what drives others. If looked at from that vantage point, we all have intense points of interconnection, where, if we are willing, we can practice being vulnerable, and perhaps in the process be heard, and understood just a little bit more?

To be honest, I don’t have any clarity or answers at this point, and that in itself frustrates me. So instead, I will take Dr. Brown’s advice and lean into the rumble for as long as it takes, continuing to struggle with my own made up stories, and trust that the process in and of itself will provide some reckoning..

Don't want him to be a wuss

When my son Andrew was born, I was overcome with emotion, one of the few times in my life, where I allowed myself to cry without restraint. It was an extraordinary event in my life…

Michelle and I had avoided having children for the first eight years of our marriage, as we had our sights on completing our education. We were married relatively young, I was twenty-three she was a year younger. We were still both attending the University of Lethbridge at the time.

Years later when we decided it was time to start a family we discovered that we were not naturally inclined towards procreation. I remember having a sperm test done, to determine if I was the culprit in our lack of success. I remember visiting the doctors office where I was secretly relieved as our odd practitioner (he always wore a Star Trek badge) informed me that “I could father nations”. At least I wasn't impotent. After that, we started the initial phases of fertility treatments and despite our efforts, we remained childless. After a couple of years we simply decided that having kids wasn’t in our future and we resigned ourselves to a future without children.

I can still remember the place and time that Michelle told me that she was pregnant. I was driving in a rental vehicle on my way back from the Stoney Reserve just west of Calgary. I was practicing Aboriginal Law for the firm Ackroyd and had been down attending a meeting with Chief and Counsel. I had just left Red Deer, and the phone rang. Michelle was on the line, obviously emotional about something. She blurted out that she had suspected for a while, but hadn’t been sure, but now she was, and couldn’t wait until I got back to Edmonton, to let me know that we were expecting. I don’t remember much about the rest of the drive home, as I was ecstatic.

The remaining months of the pregnancy were actually tumultuous. After visiting friends in St. Andrews, Scotland and our friends Mark and Ronenne in Cambridge on our first real vacation, I arrived home and back to work only to be met by the managing partner who let me know that I had until the end of the day to pack my office and vacate the building. The partners had met to discuss my future at the firm while I was on holidays and decided there wasn’t one.

Andrew was born on the 2nd of January, 2004 and we couldn’t have been more excited. It was bitterly cold that winter, and I remember bundling him up, as we brought him home from the hospital. Our journey as parents had officially begun and I didn’t have a clue what the hell to do with a new born.

Andrew was probably only two or three weeks old when Michelle caught me tossing him in the air and catching him. Now in my defence, I was being careful, and I wasn’t tossing him very high, but nonetheless, she was horrified. My response to the chastisement was that “I didn’t want him growing up to be a wuss”! Needless to say, my rational for my actions was met with disbelief and I promptly halted that misguided parenting behaviour.

Why tell this story? Fourteen years later, my kid is healthy, brave, and at times reckless. I doubt it has anything to do with being tossed in the air as a new born. But it may have something to do with my attitude and my perspective as a dad. You see, I think growing up constantly being bullied and put down, had burned into my psyche that fact that I was weak, and in my mind weakness was to be avoided at all costs. And the solution to being weak was to ensure that my son was going to grow up tough, so he could avoid the pain of being subject to ridicule and shame like his dad had experienced.

It all sounds crazy looking back on it, but reading Brené Brown’s books has me rethinking a lot of things, and I can see how so much of my parenting style has been influenced by what I experienced as a kid. I let Andrew do all kinds of questionable things as a youngster, like jumping off of a roof onto the trampoline (I am sure most of our friends think we are insane). Michelle gave up trying to override my tendency towards fostering Andrew’s recklessness a long time ago. Amazingly, and thankfully he has had little in the way of injury or scars to show for his bravery, and I am sure in part, he does a lot of those things to impress me, even though my encouragement is mostly subconscious.

The one thing that I haven’t encouraged in him (thankfully it isn’t too late) is to be vulnerable. In fact, I am sure that I have discouraged it most of the time. I have never been a fighter, but I have in the past encouraged him to be tough, and “stand up for himself” even to fight if necessary (there was a period of time when he was being bullied at school), a definite trigger for his old man.

It is such a cliche, but so true, that we men typically see vulnerability as weakness. We shouldn’t cry, show our emotions, or have too much empathy; it just isn’t manly. I am slowly discovering that this is all bullshit. That the emotions that well up in me as I watch a movie (sometimes even a commercial) are not a sign of weakness but that of being a healthy human. I know I have a long way to go in this regard, and frankly I am not sure how long it will take for me to allow myself the freedom to experience my emotions in their entirety. But what I do know is that I want to rectify my misguided approach to parenting before it is too late, and let my amazing kid know that vulnerability does not equate to weakness. That being a real man means embracing and owning our emotions, leaning into them, naming them, and working to understand them. Maybe, just like we are enjoying the process of developing our golf games together (he is already better than me) we can share the journey towards wholeheartedness together?! Hopefully then he will have a whole lifetime to live wholehearted, unlike his dad who is only just figuring it out with the last half his life already gone (turning 50 soon).

On Shame and Vulnerability

I listened to Brené Brown's book Daring Greatly over the past couple of days, I am now onto her book Rising Strong. My former psychologist suggested that I read Daring Greatly two years ago, which I brushed off at the time. Truthfully, had I listened to Julie back then, I might have more of a headstart on the personal work that needs doing now (I am not stubborn at all!). For those of you who aren't familiar with Brené's work, a great introduction to her research on shame and vulnerability can be found in her wildly successful TED talk. I like Brenê, and while I have never met her, I feel like I know her in part, because of how she communicates. I guess one of the benefits of listening to a book, vs reading a book, is that you get to hear the author read their work, which I think imbues it with more gravitas. I like the fact that she swears, she is real, she tells it like it is, and probably most importantly, she makes me squirm.

You might think it odd that I like that she makes me squirm, but in truth, I have always respected those who speak with clarity, who challenge me, who force me to look at myself. I don't suffer fools or small talk very well. I am someone who lives a lot in my own head, and I feels deeply, passionately most people say, but I rarely have a clue as to what I am feeling or how to name or process those emotions. I have worn Teflon most of my life, and for a long time, even was proud of that; I have been labelled a shit disturber, and a bull in a china shop and these are the kind descriptions.

What I am learning from Brown is that shame is a powerful thing, which impacts us early on, and has long-lasting impacts on how we live out our lives. As I have listened to Brené talk for well over twelve hours now, I am slowly realizing how many significant shaming events I endured as a young person. I was mercilessly ridiculed for having red hair (Howdy Doody red hair long before ginger was in style). I wore glasses starting in grade one, had big ears, and was completely awkward. I was punished by my grade one teacher for getting my work done too fast, was thrown down the stairs by bigger kids in grade two, picked up by my ears (literally) by my teacher in grade three for being a smart ass, and the list goes on. This bullying and shaming continued throughout my time in school, even until grade twelve where I was still mocked for my hair colour and appearance. When I look back on my grade twelve grad photo, even I am a bit shocked at how much I look like a complete cowboy nerd. I was so shy, so unsure of myself, so utterly lost. I was selected to travel to Ottawa in grade twelve as a participant in the Forum for Young Canadians. It was quite the honour, only four hundred kids from the entire country were selected, and there were thousands of applicants. I was so excited, and when I got there, that awkward, acneid, weird cowboy nerd was almost univerally rejected by the other attendees in my cohort. Frankly, I hated high school, and couldn't wait to get out of the small community that I grew up in. For as long as I could remember I felt like an outsider.

It wasn't until I spent a year in Denmark after graduating that I started to grow a little self- confidence. The year I spent in Europe after high school was cathartic. I got a chance for a new start, got a chance to be part of a new culture, a completely differnet social mileau. I left for Denmark an awkward cowboy, and came home one year later as abearded, pipe smoking, clog wearing european intellectual (my parents almost didn't recognize me when I came through the airport).

Yet upon entering university later that year, I remember that same lost feeling flooding back, as I  wandered through long hallways at the U of L in what seemed like an endless sea of people who wanted nothing to do with me. But it was in university that I decided (a forceful act of my will) that I was no longer going to be someone who lived on the peripherie, and I forced myself to move out of my protective shell and into what Brown calls the arena. I have made it my goal to live in that arena ever since.

Brené Brown's work leans heavily on a quote from President Theodore Roosevelt in a speech that he gave where he made this statement - 

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

I am someone who is pretty risk tolerant (perhaps an understatement) and I have generally thought of myself as someone who has life pretty well put together. Confidence has never been in short supply in my life, or at least that is the mask that I put on most days, the version of myself that most who know me get to see. I think, in retrospect, that my resolve to live in that arean (although I wouldn't have described it as such until recently) forced me to put myself in harms way. In univeristy I got myself elected as the President of the Students Union. In grad school, I got into a pissing match with my supervisor and in protest wrote the LSAT and applied to law school. Upon being accepted, I quit my MA program (despite my wife Michelle's protest) moved to Edmonton and started law school. While I enjoyed much of law school, I quickly discovered that law wasn't what I had envisioned. My articling year was another year of battling an extreme fear and shame culture, topped with a little corruption. 

Actually, looking back, I now see how even the training we receive in law school and in the practice of law, solidifies and galvinizes unhealthy communication practices, competitiveness, us vs them, argue to the death, bully, the list goes on.... and I now see how as part of this journey I am now on, I need to unlearn much of what I acquired during my legal training. 

While I have lived in the arena, for many years, and most recently in the last twelve years, starting and growing my own business, I am beginning to realize that I have done so, mostly with little or no awareness of my own emotional wellbeing throughout. I have had little awareness of how I have used shame, avoidance, and many other unhealthy mechanisms to get through it all. In short, I am beginning to see that despite all of my accomplishments, I have not been living in a very wholehearted manner. It is namely this deficit that I hope to figure out along the way.

Whether you want to read about my journey into wholeheartedness and vulnerabilty, and away from the crippling effects of shame is up to you. I would like to say that I don't care if anyone reads this (me wearing Teflon) but that is simply not true. But I am not writing this so that it will be read widely. But rather, I am writing this, because just like I think and process things verbally, on the fly (I argue with myself and others a lot), I also know that I process things more effectively when I write. Perhaps it is the creative process that Brown talks about, which has a healing effect, I am not completely sure? But what I am sure of is that when I put my thoughts down (on virtual paper) and then publish them, I have to own them, which makes them more real, more powerful; and thus, I will continue to write and publish my thoughts regardless of whether I have an audience in the process. Because at the end of the day, what I am after is transformation, a move towards vulnerability, leaning into the hard truths, so that I can be a better dad, a better husband, a better boss, a better friend, a better member of the human race.