journey

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

Unexpected Interruptions

On a bitterly cold winter day, fifteen years hence, my life was interrupted. It wasn’t a surprise, I knew the interruption was imminent, longed for, even delayed. I had been anxiously awaiting that moment for ten months, anticipating the birth of my child (didn’t know it was a boy) with unbridled excitement that was a cocktail of uncertainty, hope, pride, and a dash of healthy fear.

When the time finally came, we were ready. Well my part was easy - pace, support, and wait. Michelle, on the other hand, was in labour for over twenty-two hours. The baby was just so relaxed and calm, not in a rush to meet the world, comfortable inside his windowless carriage. Michelle was a warrior, as always! I think that giving birth was an initiation of sorts for her, going med free, intervention free, enduring almost an entire day of labour without a single cry. Despite the fact that she has a “heart big enough for two” and is one of the most empathetic people I know, she is tough as nails, and she didn’t even grow up on a farm! I marvel with each passing day, how she endures the mental and physical anguish she is confronted with.

But back to the interruption…..

When Andrew Allan Mark was born on January 2nd, 2004 he didn’t even cry. When I recently told him that, he was surprised too, asking aren’t all babies supposed to cry when they are born? Not when they are already breathing, said I. He was born ready to interrupt.

The Boy and his father

The Boy and his father

This past year has been somewhat monumental for me, as you probably already know, if you frequent this space on the internet. As I have reflected on the nearly fifty years of breath I have had on this fragile spec of a planet, I am starting to see an accumulation of unexpected interruptions. The first one (undocumented as of yet) when I was twelve, then seventeen, graduation, Denmark, a cheque for $500, the University of Lethbridge, Michelle, marriage, presidency, grad school, law school, getting fired, and then THE BOY! There have been many unexpected interruptions since the one on January 2nd, 2004 but none so life altering.

I penned a poem for Andrew this year, and gave it to him for Christmas. I knew that it would be hard for him to understand, the imagery isn’t immediately accessible. So I sat down with him one morning and walked him through the events described in the poem. It was an amazing experience, for both of us I think. When he first received the poem on Christmas Day, he spent time reading it, and was appreciative, but after we read it together and I explained the significance of the words, he was moved. It is probably one of the best things I have ever done as a dad. I am astounded almost daily how I got so lucky to have a kid like I do. He isn’t anything close to perfect, but he is an amazing kid. I would be far less human without him in my life, that much I know. When I finished walking him through the poem, he was quiet for a bit, and then looked at me, said “I love you dad” and gave me a hug. The relationship I have with my “teenager” amazes me. Yes we fight, and we both make each other rage at times, but on the whole, we are on a journey together, which I know is a blessing. We still share Michelle, snow, mountains, golf, travel, and a desire for adventure. It is more than I could have ever dreamt of.

My friend Greg Zeschuk was recently notified that he is to receive the Order of Canada. When I found out I was very proud of him, and I found myself a little envious. You see, we are almost the same age, he has four months on me. Upon self reflection, I found myself wondering what I had accomplished these past fifty years, definitely nothing which has had an impact on our nation like my dear friend. And not to diminish in any way the significance of the Order of Canada, I found that I only had to look at my son Andrew to exit that short lived state of funk.

I added the previously referred to quote by Maya Angelou to the header of my website today.

Open your eyes to the beauty around you, open your mind to the wonders of life, open your heart to those who love you, and always be true to yourself.

Today I will celebrate (with those who love us) the birth of my son Andrew who is fifteen years old. I don’t know how it is possible that he is already that old, but I do know how much I love this BOY. I know how much he has shaped my life, altered it, interrupted it, and for that I will be forever grateful.

Here is the poem that I wrote for Andrew this Christmas. I called it THE BOY. If you ever want me to walk you through the imagery I would be happy too.

Crisp azure sky, sun hovering above unbending horizon.

Ribbons of concrete stretch out long in both directions.

An unexpected call shatters the welcome silence, unrestrained news!

My watch stopped, unbroken, the wind holds fast at the intersection of time, yielding to my passing by.

Salty swollen eyes, gaze into the future. A child, a miracle. It was not meant to be, despite Abraham’s abundant seed!

Now we wait, anxious anticipation, fortnights, seven, strewn about, thirteen more cue up like soldiers ready for inspection.

Even then you traveled, warm inside your windowless carriage, destined to see the world. Wallace, Stirling, even a Saint in your name. Chasing Highland sheep, heather underfoot, land of scorched thistles, wilting in hot sun.

A Fall of uncertainty, stained with a father’s defiant shame. Faltering steps, tilting, bracing against the tide, not yet ready to be your OLD MAN.

Resting easy under a patchwork quilt sown of a mother’s love. Deaf to the doomed proclamation of a dragon, concerned more with her hoards of gold, you slept confidently, quietly, unconcerned with what lie ahead.

A new year breaks through frozen sheets of time. A winter etched in our hearts, brittle, and brimming with hope. Silent screams of welcome pain, time now bending its knee, as we wait.

Undeterred, you arrive in your time, unkempt, adorned in a chalky gown. Not a cry to announce your arrival, peace in hand, beauty in the other. A new Old Man weeps tears of joy, a mother’s tired eyes smile down at you.

The Boy, author of welcome interruption, snatching up my pen with pink hands, a predictable story disrupted, tossed aside, forever altered. A new story unfolds, adventure, challenge, a path of unbridled joy now visible. We march lockstep, brave into the unknown. 

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.