Category Archives: Relationships

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch: Westerns, Blackberries, and Windfall Profits

This was not the day I was expecting.  My school was closed in honor of Veterans Day.  I woke up at 3:00AM (my usual time), got comfortable, and managed to stay in bed ‘til 7:00AM.  My day had endless possibilities.  I walked around in pajamas, drank coffee, and watched a little TV, but a missed call from my husband plus a voicemail was how I learned that my father-in-law, Chris Allgyer, the reason we get to enjoy this beautiful country life, died in his sleep.  Chris had spent the last five days at home but the previous six weeks in the hospital fighting complications from cancer.

The rest of the day was a whirlwind of tears, visitors, and funeral arrangements.  Even the animals were confused at all of the activity.  One of my indoor cats ran outside and had still not come back in by our bedtime adding to my conflicted emotional state.  I went to bed but did not sleep.

Westerns

Chris 1
There weren't many places we went without Chris. This was before a Valentine's Day dinner at a local church.

In 2004 after we sold our house in the city, we moved in with Chris. The trailer was small, but cozy.  Well, not as cozy as it was HOT.  He kept the thermostat at 73 degrees all while running the propane heater in the living room.  I tried to watch Friends reruns, but he insisted on watching anything on the Encore Western channel instead.  Chris loved Western movies.  Gradually, the Westerns grew on me.  I loved the horses and the old-fashioned cowboy attire.  I even consented to watch different versions of the same movie…the old one…. and the really old one.  We continued the “watching Westerns during dinner” tradition even after we moved into our own house.  Most Sunday nights I would cook dinner for Greg and Chris, Chris would complain that I didn’t put enough chicken in whatever we were having (he called it “dragging the chicken through”), and I would find a Western for us to watch during dinner.  After dinner Chris would settle in the big chair, close his eyes, and ask for a blanket.  Our thermostat was not set at 73 degrees.

Blackberries

One day while I was mowing Chris’s yard, I came across some wild blackberries.  He informed me that he knew about a gold mine of the berries and promised to take me.  The next morning we gathered our buckets and I met him at the tractor.  I stood on the Bush Hog (kids, don’t try this at home) and he drove us down to the corner of his property. We picked pails of blackberries and I made my first blackberry jam and cobbler.  This past summer he was too sick to take me, so while my OSU friend Kim was visiting, I took them both to a nearby blackberry farm.  Kim complained about the thorns and Chris could not breath well enough to get out of the car to help.  Chris, sitting there in the car, reminded me of how he used to sit in his own truck in the shade and take a nap.  The cobbler didn’t taste nearly as sweet as it did the summer before.

Windfall Profits

In the summertime, it was often only Chris and I at the ranch.  If I had a little cash on me, I would text Chris and ask him to lunch.  His first question would always be to ask me where I got the money.  My standard answer would be “Don’t worry about it.  I’ve had a windfall profit.”  He always laughed and started calling any amount of cash I had on me a windfall profit. We would try to go to lunch at least once a week or two to the post office in Laconia, TN.  It was one of his favorite places to eat.  For me, not so much, but I would still go and get a little cornbread and green beans while he loaded his plate down with chicken livers, greens, and other country-fried foods.  It didn’t take me long to clean my plate so I could be the first to survey the dessert table and report back the selection.  I’d pay the tab (a total of $8.50 for all-you-can-eat) and we’d head home.  On into the evening he would walk out onto the back porch, turn on the porch light, start up the diesel (I could hear it from my house) and take off for a late night cup of coffee and a lottery ticket.  Before I went to bed I would wait for his headlights to come up his driveway.  If my husband was still awake, I’d simply say, “Dad’s home.”  The truck was parked and the porch light was turned off.


Mitchell, Christin, Chris, and Melissa at Greg's 50th birthday celebration. Chris was proud of his grandchildren.

This morning I woke up to find my missing cat scurrying on the porch past the French doors that face Chris’s trailer.  I noticed the porch light at Chris’s still on.  I know the evenings of looking for his headlights coming up the drive are gone and that porch light will stay on until one of us goes up there to turn it off.  Once I let the cat safely in the house, I thought to myself, “Dad’s home.”

Forest, Trees. Clouds, Crystals. A Micro-Macro Meditation.

Monday afternoon I was sitting in the window seat of a plane flying toward Minneapolis.  During take off preparations, some of the shiny chrome trim on the tarmac equipment caught a reflective beam of sunlight and sent it directly into my eye; so, I had shut the window cover.   But now I was curious.  I wanted to see the view, to look around and say hello to the sky.

 

Ice crystals. Some of them looked like tiny caterpillars or stands of mitochondria.

 

When I lifted the plastic shade I was met with a view of tiny ice crystals that had been forming on the outside of my window.  I examined them and looked for purpose or replication in their pattern.  I thought about Minnesota and wondered if the quilted jacket I had with me was enough to keep the cold air at bay.  My thoughts turned toward the conference.  It had been a long day, so I reached up to once again close the shade and try to nap.  I had been up since 4 a.m. and had a long night of preparations still in front of me.

Just as my arm started the downward motion to close the shade, something caught my eye.  I stopped and took in the “skyscape” moment,  visually tracking the long blanket of cloud cover beneath the plane all the way to the horizon.  I’ve seen the clouds before, but I almost missed them this time.

 

Oh, HEY clouds. Good to see you!

I had allowed what was right in front of my eyes to be all that I considered.  I then wondered, who had I done that same thing to today? Yesterday? This week?  So my hope for you today is:

 

Remember to also step back, take in the whole person, and enjoy or consider their sum.  After all, their whole being is always so much more than the sum of their individual parts.

Happy skyscaping,

Red Dirt Kelly

Dear Sweetheart: 25 Years of Married Life Lessons for My Engaged Daughter

My daughter at six weeks old. Spring, 1987.

Dear Sweetheart,

On the day you were born I looked down into your tiny pappoose face, your three inches of thick black hair pointing every direction possible within a 180 degree range, and thought about you on your wedding day.  Who would you be? What would you look like? Who might you marry? How would you meet him? What would he see in you that would make him fall in love?  What would make you know that he was the one?

I had these thoughts because your dad was holding you, and when I watched him get up to walk you around the hospital room, he and I had only been married for one year and nine months.  We were still newlyweds ourselves.  But we’ve recently celebrated our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary and we have changed a great deal over that quarter-century.  A friend used to say, “I’ve been married to seven different men during my lifetime, and all of them were the same person.”  Well, I think your dad and I are at least on person number three or four in our own marriage.

However, you and he are on your first. So I thought I’d share in the best way I can my memories, thoughts, lessons and wisdom from our marriage for your upcoming life together.  This is all I’ve got, sweetheart, except the fact that we’ll be there if you two need us along your own journey together.

Years one and two

At this present point in my life, all I can conjure up in my head from our first year together is that we did a lot of running around, said “We’re married!” quite a bit, wrote lots of thank you notes for the gifts we’re STILL using, and learned quite a bit about each other’s families.  By the way, if you get a few things you could stand to go without, I recommend trading them in for one good set of culinary knives.  You’ll use them every day.

I think we also had to work out the “self-imposed weirdness” regarding the unspoken assumption that we were having sex.  Seriously, the first time we went to the lake with your Roberts’ grandparents and spent the night in one bedroom together, we couldn’t even look people in the face at breakfast the next morning. Not that anything happened; I feel quite certain I wore three extra layers of clothing during that trip and felt mortified that your dad’s family was walking around in their robes drinking coffee and reading the paper.  We were shy, awkward, and probably were much more uncomfortable than anyone else at the cabin.  So, perhaps the lesson from year one is: Enjoy the newly wed high, and work out the weirdness…as best you can.  We’ve already talked about the essential premarital preparation, so I won’t harp on that.  You’ve made your appointments, right?!

Years three through five

For us, these were our hardest years.  Your father began working nights six months after we got married – stressor #1.  I began a sales and marketing job with a good deal of travel-related requirements – stressor #2.  We had you – blessing, but in reality the addition of children to a family are also stressors, #3.  We internalized our feelings, didn’t communicate, began distancing from each other and really considered splitting up, results of stressors #s 1-3, plus we didn’t know how to handle conflict or much of what it took to manage distance and conflicting schedules – stressors #s…well, a whole bunch of them. But, our friends, our family, our leaders at work, and a therapist didn’t give up on us when we were giving up on ourselves.

So what’s the lesson from us to you for years 3-5?  Use your support system, ask for help or get it if you need it, and when you find yourself turning inward – then that’s the key time to begin reaching out to each other.

Years six through fifteen

These were our regrouping years, our managing years, our family life years, and our time together where we really began to learn how to be a family.  We got involved in your school, we had your sister, we downsized to a smaller house so I could spend more time with you and your sister (among other reasons)…in a sense, we started our second marriage.  We began learning how to parent, how to co-parent, how to trust each other better and how to manage all the responsibilities that came with a young family.  In other words, we were getting to the place that I wish we had been in years 3-5, but it just didn’t happen that way.

What’s the lesson here? Well, mostly it’s that if you begin a family, you will always be considering your actions, your goals and your decisions based upon not just you, or even the “us” in your marriage, but the “we” as an entire family.  You may give a little more than you expected at this point in your life, but the entire family gains.  We were worn out, broke, and sometimes at our wits’ end with parenting demands, but those were really, really good years.

Years fifteen through twenty

At some point in your family life, there will be a juncture where you don’t have to drag around baby paraphernalia, you’ll be able to sit down and eat entire dinners together as a family and enjoy the conversation with everyone there…you’ll be able to sit back and take a breath as a parent.  This was during years 15-20 for us.

Wow, it took a great deal of energy to get there, but – wow again, it was such a good feeling to be able to allow you and your sister to:  Go to your friends’ houses and spend the night, take a short vacation with just Mick and I, and allow you to drive to places we had always shuttled you to before this time. You became more autonomous, and we began enjoying that change.

The lesson?  I hate to write this phrase because it has sort of been captured by the bullying community now, but it holds true in marriages as well… “it gets better.”  When you pour your love, your energy and all you have together into child rearing, family development and professional development – eventually, it DOES get better.  To have enough money to eat dinner out occasionally, to sit back and watch you and your sis go to prom and then to college – – what a rewarding and blessed time those years were for us!

Years twenty through twenty-five

I think of these years as the time where your dad and I got to shift a few resources from you and sis and begin redeveloping ourselves.  Your father began to really enjoy golf again, he began to get tickets to sporting events and take a few trips with men from church.  I went back to school and began really working at my career in a more in-depth way than before.  I’ve worked on developing a few ideas I’ve always wanted to do.  In other words, we got to help you begin your own journey, then begin enhancing our own.

The lesson of this time in our life?  I think for one thing, you WILL be able to change your role as parenting/overseer to parent/mentor and encourager.  You’ll be able to sit back and offer guidance to your children when they ask, but enjoy watching them manage their own lives as they can.  You’ll be able to rediscover the desires of your own heart and take more than two or three-day vacations with your husband.  And, you’ll be able to go to dinner with your children – oh, say – at a restaurant in south Oklahoma City, where they tell you, “Mams, Paps…we’re getting married.”  And, you’ll be able to celebrate with them, because you’ll know they are as ready as they can be at this special time in their life.

Dear sweetheart – when you and your fiancée are in the middle of a stressful time somewhere in your future life, just let us or his parents know…and we’ll do our best to help you get through the wrinkle.  The main point of this letter, though, is that you CAN.  There will be struggles, you can get through them, and to have a husband you can grow with over the next twenty-five years and beyond…well, it’s a blessing that I could never had comprehended.

Your dad and I love you very much, sweetheart, and we love your chosen man too.  May your first twenty-five years together be all you could hope, and may our Lord richly bless you and he over the next few months as you get ready to begin your life together.

All my very best….Mams

My daugheter at six months old. Fall, 1987.
My daughter and her boyfriend goofing around at the movie theatre, in Spring 2007. They had been dating about 3 years or so at this point.

The Mother of All Catch-22s

My name is Kendy and I’m a working mother.

This relatively innocuous statement actually has the power to evoke pride, guilt, judgment and even jealousy depending upon who’s in the conversation and their bias about what’s “right” for children, and society.  But what’s right for the moms?

Of all discussion topics, working vs. staying home gets the most play among my group of friends.  Some of us have full-time jobs and some have forgone a career to raise children.  Some need two incomes to get by, while others simply can’t imagine life without a career.  Some who stay home have realized that working is actually more expensive than not, given the high cost of childcare.  Regardless of the situation and our level of satisfaction with it, we all agree that there is no single “right” answer, as we are all faced with a different set of circumstances that impact our decisions on the issue.  However, no matter how satisfied we are with those decisions, we sometimes find ourselves peering over the fence to see if the grass truly is a deeper shade of green.

Even moms who count their blessings about being able to stay home with their children sometimes long for the adult conversations they remember having when they were working.  As one friend says, “When you start to discuss your problems with a toddler-sized plush SpongeBob doll, you know you need some time with grown-ups!”  I’ve had moms admire my shoes and comment longingly that they could never justify the purchase given the few places they would have to wear something so dressy.  Others feel they have no break from their children – as precious as they are – and battle conflicting expectations when their husband arrives home from his own long day at the office.  But these may very well be good tradeoffs for the ability to share all of life’s important and teachable moments.

On the flip side, working moms are often overwhelmed with guilt about the time they spend away from their kids.  I’ve always been career-minded and relatively confident in my ability to have it all in life.  But, even though I often don a super hero cape, I also have some pretty powerful kryptonite.  Looking down at those little people in my life makes everything go just a bit hazy.

At work, I find myself drawn to various pictures of my smiling kids.  I wonder if they’ve had a healthy lunch, whether they’re watching Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel, if Nolan’s had a good “pee pee in the potty” day, and whether Bailey’s loose tooth is still hanging on by a thread.  I feel anxious.  I guiltily remind my mother-in-law about the soccer practice that begins before I’m even supposed to clock out for the day.  And I miss them.

All that would be fine if the culmination of my day wasn’t hearing Nolan burst into tears and state emphatically that he doesn’t want to leave grandma’s house with me.  Bailey sends her own message by ignoring me altogether.  In these moments, when I’m kidnapping my own children from their grandparents’ house, I feel unsettled, disconnected, and a little like I’m watching my life go by from behind a pane of glass rather than out living it.  I’m jealous…jealous of my friends who don’t HAVE to work and surely aren’t subject to the sadness I feel at this repeat, albeit momentary, rejection.  I’m jealous that they get all day to reinforce bonds, while I’m trying to force that into the 60 minutes between dance class and bedtime.

These are the moments when the fantasies of quitting my job and becoming an at-home mom take over.  I imagine myself going on all kinds of daily adventures – to the zoo, the park, and museums – while organizing play dates, catching up on scrapbooks, teaching the kids a foreign language, and sewing their winter wardrobe.  We won’t go into the holes in my fantasy, but let’s just say the likelihood of me actually doing all these things is iffy at best and I stopped just short of adding to the list “make my own soap.”  Hey, it’s my fantasy and I’m sticking to it.

...and I stopped just short of adding to the list “make my own soap.” - Click photo for Making Soap article.

But it’s not all bad.  In fact, when I stop to remember that life isn’t all about me (what??), there are some really great benefits to my kids of being a working mom.

First and foremost, they have an amazing relationship with their grandparents that they likely wouldn’t have if I stayed home.  Having more than just mom and dad to teach, reinforce, and love is an incredible blessing.  In rational moments, I’m glad to endure some hard mommy moments in exchange for the wealth of experiences and memories made with their grandparents.

As much as I enjoy the work I do, my kids are really proud of me, too.  When we’re having our “what happened today” conversations, I get to tell Bailey about all the babies and children who have the benefit of two loving parents in their lives because of the work my company does.  The pride she feels and the fact that I’m modeling for her what I preach – that she can do anything and be anything – is enough to give guilt a high-heeled kick in the pants!

So, do these benefits outweigh the disadvantages?  I honestly don’t know the answer to that question, nor would my answer be the same tomorrow as it is today.  What I DO know is that I have two great kids who will never want for love, guidance, or the discipline and boundaries they need to grow into the kind of adults I want them to become.  And that makes my heart happier than any amount of time with them could.

But, just in case I happen to win the lottery one day, I bookmarked some You Tube videos on making soap at home.  I’m just sayin’….

Intent, Interpretation and Response: Anatomy of a Super-Sized Conflict

Let’s face it.  “Super sized” any-food is too much unless we’re talking about athletes, extremely physically active people or adolescent boys.  I once saw a six-foot, thin-as-a-rail boy down two super sized Mc-Meals without blinking an eye…his body was a consuming machine, growing nightly and amazing those around him daily.  But for most of us, the super sized phenomenon has resulted in a proverbial thunder thighs and badonk-a-donk butt plague gripping America by the cholesterol-packed veins.

But this essay isn’t about America’s battle of the bulge.  Rather, it’s about the something else that makes you feel like you’ve just eaten way too many calories and and you can’t shake the weight of what’s getting you down:  a super sized conflict with someone you love.

When someone begins eating healthy, the first thing they usually have to do is come to terms with what it is they are actually putting in their mouth.  Sometimes you look at a plate of food and it just doesn’t seem that 1200 calories are sitting there waiting for you to engage.  It’s the same thing with fights…people rarely understand how they started, the result is overwhelming and they feel as thought they bit off way more than they could chew.  And…frequently they experience physical symptoms like indigestion!

However, if you break down a Big Mac into all its parts, you can see what you’re getting yourself into. From the seventies we know this is…

Click photo to view the Big Mac "Two All Beef Patties..." commercial.

And, once you know what you’re getting into sometimes it seems easier to make choices that affect outcomes.  For a Big Mac, we could pull off the middle layer of bread, one of the patties, all of the sauce and have a moderately decent meal.  For fights, however, the ingredients are invisible.  Here’s the list:  feeling, action, intent, interpretation,  and response…FAIIR.  And, fair fighting is something the world could all use more of so we’ll stick with that acronym to help you remember our anatomy lesson.

Generally about this time in an article I would provide an example of an argument.  However, I think what I’d like you to do instead is think back to one you’ve had recently.  What was it about?  How did it start?  Got it in your head?  Okay…here’s the breakdown –

Feelings There are feelings surrounding every action, interpretation and response in an argument.  Identifying those feelings and being clear about them is the first order of business.  If you started it, what were you feeling?  Sometimes you have “feeling salad” wherein you have several at the same time.  Make sure and list them all.

Action Usually the feeling precedes the action; feelings are the propulsion, so to speak, for your move.  So, what did you do?  What action did you take?  Sometimes a fight is precipitated by feelings and the action becomes “shutting down.”  It doesn’t always have to be a forward-motion behavior.  It’s important to note, however, that there is always an intent for the action.

Intent Here is a major key for you – most all intentions within normal couple fights are positive.  It’s actually a positive thing to want to resolve an issue.  It’s a positive thing to want the fighting to stop.  It’s a positive thing to think you’re protecting someone’s feelings.  It’s a positive thing to try to change something that’s not working.  Even though your partner may not view your action as having a positive intent, it usually does…even if that intent is only to protect yourself because you’re feeling attacked.  That’s a positive action!  No one wants to feel attacked!

Interpretation The next part of the argument, however, is the interpretation.  In most every fight, the “intent” of one person is “interpreted” in a negative manner.  This is where the real problems lie.  A history of hurts pile up and so many times interpretations are based upon historical “sameness,” even if this fight is different.  Further, negative intents are often labeled (correctly) as “mind-reading.”  No human being can read minds, have ESP about another’s feelings, or judge what an intent really is…you’re just not that good.  Neither am I.  But over time, trust erodes when fights continue and it’s difficult to remember that your partner is a living, breathing, autonomous person with their own thoughts and feelings.  So, this is where you need to be the most cautious:  assumptions of negative intent are toxic.

Response You can tell where this is going now, right?  If you have an behavior that was feeling inspired, had a positive intent, but then a negative interpretation…the logical “response” would be to then counter with a behavior that is feeling inspired, has a positive intent, but will probably be negatively interpreted.  This is how humans, and for that matter pretty much most of the animal kingdom, are engineered.  And many times, we can’t even really identify where these fights began or how they ended.

If this type of escalation continues, it becomes super sized.  And before you know it, your relationship may have some pretty heavy baggage (thunder thighs) to slowly repair with healthier interactions.  However, the cool thing about healthier eating and exercise, AND about healthy communications and interactions, are that they make a difference immediately.  And both, over a longer period of time, can radically change your outlook on life.

Envisioning a relationship with healthy communication (clear, open and FAIIR dialogue) feels good doesn’t it?  As I think about it, I am experiencing absolutely NO indigestion!

(Now that you know the anatomy of a fight, follow THIS LINK to learn what you can do better to avoid some of that mess I just shared with you!)

After you do that, if you’re still not there…write us and we’ll get you more resources.  Thanks.

Seeking H-E-L-P Can Be H-E-Double Toothpicks

A small farm town is great for overhearing comments like these:  “Oh, he has heart trouble?  Better not let him out on that tractor during harvest.  You won’t know if he’s had any chest pains until he gets every last acre of that crop in!”  Then everyone around bursts into laughter, nods their heads, and asks to hear more about Farmer Brown’s cardiac condition. However…

It’s a human law of nature, isn’t it?  We laugh the loudest at that which rings the greatest truths?

Over the last ten years or so, I’ve studied one area about relationships more than others, and it’s because I know so many “Farmer Browns” in Oklahoma:  the phenomenon of seeking help.  Some of the reasons I began researching this topic are personal.  My own husband and I struggled with seeking outside assistance when we were having marital issues around the third year of our marriage.  When we finally DID access couples therapy services, however, it only took two sessions for both of us to realize that our marriage was much greater than the two of us sitting in the room.  It took longer for our emotions toward each other to repair, but once we made the decision to stick out our relationship we looked at all our other decisions in a very different way.  And, recently celebrating our 25th anniversary felt really great.

Another reason I’ve spent so much time researching this topic is because it’s such a pervasive problem.  I’ve only found one paper over the years by an anthropologist who wrote specifically about Oklahomans’ inability to ask for help when they need it, but through my own research and that of my colleagues, I’ve found out a little more.  Here’s what I know about folks in Red Dirt Country (AND for the rest of the US…I have national data sets as well).:

1) It’s easier for people to tell their friends to go get help than it is for them to go themselves.  A full 95% of respondents from one of my surveys stated that they would “encourage their friends to seek premarital or marital education,” or “therapy.”  However, around 60-70% of most populations said they thought they might try it themselves – many of that population responded “only when it’s the last option.”  It’s easier to suggest to others than take our own advice, it seems.

2) The number one constraint to seeking marital education OR therapy services among Oklahomans in 2003 was the concern about “getting the other person in the relationship to agree to the idea.”  In other words, it wasn’t the individual’s attitude or belief about seeking help as much as it was their fear or anxiety about bringing up the discussion, or anticipating how their partner might respond to their request.  So it seems that sometimes what we think about others, or how they might react, is even more powerful than what we believe for ourselves.

3) On a better note, however, a greater majority of people were more willing to get couples counseling, attend marriage or relationship education, or other type of couples service (retreat, take an inventory, etc), than they were to seek individual help or education for themselves.  So, they are thinking of others or their relationship over themselves, for the most part.  This is important information – knowing that someone might make a decision for the sake of another over themselves is valuable when we’re talking about relationships.


These are just a few tiny bits of data out of a very large amount of information but I think they might be useful for a couple of reasons.  First of all, what this information tells us is that it’s NORMAL to feel conflicted, worried or resistant to opening up our relationship to outside help.  Some even feel that going to an educational workshop over relationship skills will “make things worse;” that if they just ignore the issue and keep the boat steady, maybe things will blow over.

Others feel ill-equipped to know where to begin when asking their partner to go with them.  This is NORMAL too!  If you’ve been arguing or the two of you readily step into “blaming mode,” then it’s easy to see how something well-intended could turn sour quickly.  The very best way to bring up a topic like this is to make sure to “own your own wishes” (say, “I’d really like for you to go with me.  Here’s what we can learn.  Would you please think about this?”)  and resist the urge to blame or to criticize, or make things personal (for example, “Maybe this will keep us from arguing about the dogs.”)  If you talk about what you can GAIN, and avoid bringing up what is WRONG, chances are the conversation will go better.

Telling your partner about skills the two of you can learn is a much clearer message than telling them what’s been wrong.  They already know what’s gone wrong; reiteration isn’t needed in a committed relationship.  You know each other very well.

Finally, if you happen to be the one who is thinking about inviting your partner to begin therapy or attend a relationship education workshop, having the information handy is also important.  Don’t know where to start?  I’ve got four links for you I’ll share at the end of this article – you can look up the information right now!

So, what have we learned?  Seeking help is hard.  People are scared to ask their partners to go with them.  People are willing to do something for others over themselves.  How does this work together?  Well, the fact that “people are willing to do something for others” actually increases the chances that your partner will accept an invitation from you.  Now, all you have to do is ask.  Good luck…and let us know if you need extra support.

Here are those links I mention:

For marriage or relationships education for all adults, ages 18 or over:  http://www.okmarriage.org/

For a national resource, check out this directory of programs: http://www.smartmarriages.com/app/Directory.BrowsePrograms

To find a couple or relationship therapist:  http://www.therapistlocator.net/index.asp

Or, to look into an online community about couples, go here: http://twoofus.org/index.aspx

For more information about help seeking or for citations to the research used in this article, please contact:  kelly.m.roberts@okstate.edu

We’re All Human Beans; Let’s Find Common Grounds

Sometimes I think a blogger has to be vulnerable with their community in order for important messages to resonate.  That’s why today’s “Relationships” post includes a personal story.  Two of them.

When I was bullied

I grew up in a fairly rural community surrounded by independent and small farms.  I can always recall the year of any grade level during my youth because I was in kindergarten (grade “zero”) in 1970.  Life was fairly stable and slow-paced during my early childhood.  The definitions of the community I knew as a youngster were changed, however, when the social breezes turned into troubled storms.

Desegregation busing was in full swing by 1974 and my hometown was close enough to Oklahoma’s largest metropolitan school districts to become a haven for what has become known over the years as white flight. I can’t blame any family or individual for how they reacted to change.  People are scared of what they don’t know.  I can say, however, that I was affected by the change in our own community.  There was an influx of “city kids” into our country town, and with that change in our landscape came some challenges for both populations.

I experienced new emotions, unfamiliar to me until that time period in my life.  I was met with students who were socialized differently, whose wardrobes were by and large purchased from department stores, and whose houses were larger with more amenities than the previous norm.  I’m sure the incoming students were met with challenges as well.  They had moved into a new town with new rules; it must have been difficult for them.  I know it was for me.

I frequently became the recipient of comments about my hand-me-downs, about my hair cut, and about the way I talked.  New “street smart” lingo was wielded like weaponry in the halls and my wounds got deeper as the weeks passed.  In hind sight, I can now see that much of the behavior I encountered was a form of bullying.  Unfortunately, my response to this was to become a bully.  I’ll never forget one day on our playground in either the sixth or seventh grade.  I had worked hard to gain the acceptance of some of the newer kids and seemed to finally be making some headway.

When I became a bully

Standing with the group, their attention turned toward a weaker individual in our class.  She was socially less skilled and struggled with grades.  The group began taunting her and I joined in.  I was now the bully, not the one being bullied.  At some point she began shouting back, and in an attempt to protect my new status as a cooler kid, I stepped toward her and pushed her backwards.  I must have pushed pretty hard because she fell to the ground.  What’s worse, she tried to get up once and I pushed her backwards again.  She stayed put the second time.  Those who I stood with began to laugh at her and call her names.  My face flushed…this girl was a “country kid” and I had just hurt one of my own.

Over twenty years later I tracked her down and apologized for that day.  The guilt from my physical aggression weighed heavily on me and I needed to make amends.  Interestingly, she didn’t even remember that day or what happened.  So, the act of reconciliation was basically for my own healing I suppose.  I’m sharing this illustration with you because “bullying” seems to be in the air on the national news, we continue to have bullying problems and Safe Schools programming challenges here in Oklahoma, and bullying is a social problem that happens across races, cultures, social classes…and even within our family trees.

As I watched a few of the “It Gets Bettervideos this past week, I was reminded that human beings respond to their own pain many times by taking it out on others.  The thing is, though, those they take it out on are human beings too.  They were born, they have some form of a family most of the time, and…they have feelings and hopes and dreams.  Just like you.  Just like me.

So today my message for you is this:  Whether you are being bullied or are the bully, try to step back, take a fresh look, and find common ground if possible.  If you can’t stop hurting people, there is help.  We’ll help you find some at the RDC if you don’t know where to look.  If you are scared and hurting because people can’t stop hurting you – same thing.  Everyone is valuable and you’re no exception.

We’re “human beans”…so let’s find some “common grounds.”

I’m going to get a cup of coffee now…Ciao.

Me Do It Myself: The Toddler Syndrome

Thank you for all the positive feedback on my first post.  Here we go again, folks!

“ME DO IT MYSELF, MOMMA!”

"Me do it myself, momma..." Even as a baby, Nolan loved to try and brush his own teeth!

I hear this statement from my 2 year old multiple times every day.  Whatever the activity – wrestling with his shoes as we’re hurrying out the door, opening a carton of applesauce at dinner, or brushing his pearly whites before bed – it’s the same old song and dance.When I’m in a hurry and desperately trying to meet whatever deadline is looming, I am frustrated by the seemingly silly process of letting him attempt a task that I know good and well will end in tears of frustration.  Why doesn’t he just let me help?

Even though this independence comes with the toddler territory, I’m just as guilty of possessing the “Me do it myself!” mentality.  I don’t need anyone’s help because I can handle it. In fact, I will reject every offer of help – politely, of course – even if I truly desire the support.  An example:

Some really thoughtful person says, “I’ll watch the kids if you guys wanna go to a movie sometime.”

I think, Awesome, we sooooo need it!  When are you free? There’s a movie I’ve been dying to see that’s playing this weekend. Oh, and maybe we could even grab a bite to eat beforehand!

But I actually say, “Oh, that’s so sweet.  We’re usually so busy during the week that we just like to do stuff around the house on weekends.  Plus, ya know, we have Netflix.  Soooo, how’s that project you’ve been working on?”

And, scene.

In contrast to my own actions, I know quite a bit about the importance of establishing a personal community to support someone during both good and bad times.  Further, we’ve all heard that African proverb about how it takes a village to raise a child.

To my knowledge, there’s no proverb that warns against accepting an outstretched hand or advises braving the journey alone at all costs.  If assistance from others is a necessary piece of life’s puzzle, why is it so difficult to accept goodwill?  This is an especially intriguing question when compared to how easily most of us reach out to others when we know THEY need something we can easily provide.  So, why the paradox?

Maybe receiving assistance is perceived as weakness.  Perhaps we worry that the offer is not genuine and acceptance will be met with awkwardness or hardship.  Or maybe we are simply unsure how to adequately show our appreciation, so avoidance seems far easier.  I don’t know about you, but I claim all of the above.

I recently heard someone equate acts of service to gifts received at a birthday party.  A gift is a gift, regardless of its form.   And, it is almost always given with love and careful thought behind it.

When the package is opened, the only acceptable response is “thank you.”  The recipient wouldn’t return the present with an eloquent speech about not needing the item for this reason or that, so how is it any better to decline the gift of support when it is offered with the very same sentiment?  This way of viewing the issue makes me feel badly about all those times I’ve said no to others.  In reality, I deprived them of an important opportunity to share something meaningful with me.  In fact, they probably thought the very same thing I do when my son displays his stubbornness…..why won’t she just let me help, for goodness sake?

So, I know what I have to do.  I have to start saying YES.

Need help with the kids?  YES!  Can I carry that box for you?  Sure!

Will you join me?  Just Say Yes.  Actually, it feels kind of good.

Mrs. Reagan, I do believe there’s a new motto in town.

Thanks, Nolan, for helping me learn not to act like a toddler...Just Say Yes!

The Roach Motel has an Emergency Exit

I sat in the dark, staring up at the aging, Jewish researcher sporting his yarmulke and hunkering over the lectern on stage.  He had the rapt attention of 3,500 marriage and family therapists as he intertwined his lifetime of research, vulnerable and human stories of his own marriage, and a joke here or there.  John Gottman was on a roll.

I had heard most of his speech before, but noticed that his personal examples were getting more poignant.  He had peeled back a few layers of caution; a nice trait you rarely see in addresses to such large audiences.  I was about to lean over to my colleague, Suzanne, for the twentieth time (we had been whispering back and forth, making those “aww” noises when he would say something heartfelt…you know, the classic therapist speaker-interaction behavior), when Gottman’s words stopped me.  He was saying, “You know…getting into one of those really crazy intense conflicts with a partner is like checking into a roach motel.”

I forgot what I was going to whisper to Suzanne and began to search frantically for my Blackberry instead.  Digging around in my purse proved rather noisy and I received three “shame-on-you” glares by the time I found the thing.  I didn’t care.  The Memo Pad on my phone needed a notation.  I pulled up my “Relationship” file and typed in: “Negative conflictual escalation like a roach motel…check in, but can’t check out…runnin, dark, worst selves”

The fact that I correctly typed all words but “running” in the dark on that tiny keypad pleasantly surprised me.  I hit “save” and turned my attention back to the spotlighted man on stage.  He was already into something else cool and I had missed half of the lead-in.  I decided not to ask Suzanne to catch me up lest I receive more glares from those around me.

I made six more notes before the speech ended, but my mind kept jumping back to the Roach Motel metaphor.  It was true.  Roaches follow the bait into a place they really shouldn’t go.  They can’t get out and really have no idea how they got there in the first place.  They enter quickly, into a dark and sticky place and become immobilized.  Stuck there with the others who did the same thing.  Not a pretty sight.

Couples do this.  People do this.  Someone drops the “bait,” another begins to follow the trail and before they know it they’re both stuck in dark and sticky fight they can’t leave.  Once those involved engage in a negative and escalating sequence, the fight usually builds until it explodes…or until it dies down and simmers for a very long time.  Neither of these potential endings are desirable.

Gottman went on to say that at any given time, based upon everything else going on in a person’s life, the probability that one person in a relationship can be “emotionally available” or “attuned” to their partner is 50%.  Put that with another person who is also attuned at a 50% probability level, multiply them together and the result becomes this:  At any given time a couple is together, they might BOTH be emotionally aware or available to their partner 25% of the time.  The other 75% of the time could potentially end up in a dark, sticky place with both trying desperately to get out of what they just entered.

I’ve been there.  Have you?  In the middle of a conflict with someone you love and you just can’t get out?  So where’s the “Emergency Exit?”  Gottman called these times “Sliding Door Moments.”  He coined the phrase from a Gwenyth Paltrow movie that Suzanne said ‘wasn’t really that good, but must have had redeeming values to provide this metaphor.’  (Yes, she whispered that to me during the speech.) Sliding Door moments basically boil down to a split-second of time where you reach out, slide away the glass and open up yourself to the other person in the fight.

Gottman described one of these moments wherein he noticed his wife was sad.  He began brushing her hair and asked, “What’s the matter, baby?”  She disclosed to him that her mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and she couldn’t grasp the fact that she was going to die in such a difficult manner.  He said that the moment before he “attuned” to her sad face, he wanted his own needs met.  He chose, instead, to ask her about the look on her face.   He wasn’t in a conflict with her at the time, but they were definitely in that 25% time where neither were really regarding the other.  An escalation could have easily happened.

So how do you find a Sliding Door moment in the middle of a Roach Motel fight?  Look at their face.  Your partner is hurting, they’re sad, they’re angry, they’re alone…they need something.  You stop, slide the door open, and think about what they’re really trying to say to you.  You might not necessarily have to pick up the hairbrush and begin stroking their hair, but you CAN connect with them and ask, “What’s really the matter, baby?” Some people call it a time out.  Some people call this slowing things down.  I call it realizing your partner is a human being with feelings and thoughts.

Chances are, they’ll look into your eyes and see the exit.  Isn’t it nice how Emergency Exit signs illuminate a dark place?

Ha, Ha, Ha! = I Love You

I’ve had this cartoon hanging on the outside of my university office door for about three years.  That side of my door is plastered with quotes, thoughts, cartoons, etc.  My thesis advisor used to plaster his door and he’s now retired.  Somebody’s got to pick up the hallway humor and I figure it might as well be me.

I change the quotes out periodically, but this one has stuck for a while now.  Just about the time I think it’s time to take it down, I’ll see a person look at it, pause, then smile.  Sometimes they are with another person and they comment to each other.  So, I guess it will stay put for a bit longer.  The cartoon does, however, remind me of something that I think about a great deal:  humor within relationships.

Humor in the classroom has shown to have positive effects in terms of students’ perceptions that they are learning more.  Humor in the military is a tried and true coping mechanism – a mainstay of comrades helping each other get through extremely stressful situations.  Attraction science measures “type of humor” as one of the highest factors in selection criteria when young couples begin pairing up for potential marriages.  And, humor is even considered a type of power among same-gendered groups.  In other words, he or she who has the humor, has the power.  Social scientists continue to be interested in the secret to humor and how it is useful (or not) within our relationships.

Sometimes when I think about my husband during the day, I catch myself thinking about a joke or a laugh we’ve recently shared together.  In fact, our entire 25 year marital history is now a complex and interwoven “secret language” of inside humor, insider stories and meanings or narratives that only the two of us would fully understand.  But I also wonder why it’s the laughs that I use as a memory resource.  Are the laughs a reserve, perhaps, like the old emotional bank account adage of deposits and withdrawals? Big laughs certainly punctuate our human bodies with nice doses of hormones which are helpful to our emotional well being.  Maybe returning to those memories is like “going back to the pool” for second dip.  It’s a good thing.

This post isn’t meant to be a long drawn out literature review on humor and relationships so much as it’s meant to ask you a simple question:  Are you laughing?  Are those with whom you are close sharing laughter occasionally?  Do you feel supported or connected because of those humorous moments?  If yes – good!  Keep it up!

If not, then here is your prescription today:  Take one joke before each meal, three times daily.  Share with those you love.  And start building your happy memories.

Alphabet Relationships: What A, H and M Shapes Mean

Some people are visual learners.  Some people are “repeat the information over and over and I’ll finally get it” learners.  And some people touch things or are walk-around-and-think learners.   Visual, auditory, tactile or a blend of all three…which are you?

What I’ve noticed in working with couples over the years is that many times the same message or intervention needs to be implemented using two different methods in order for both of them to really get it.  That’s because they each learn or process information in slightly (or vastly) different ways.  The context, process and perspective of each person has to be understood in the therapy room, as well as how it looks when they are together.

This is why although therapists utilize their theory of therapy to guide, assess and manage what goes on in a room with couples, they also make occasional trips to their “Toolbox.”  A therapist’s toolbox can include actual “tools” such as games, figures, assessments or other manipulatives to use in session, or ideas and resources.  Today I’m going to share a resource that I seem to use at least once or twice per year because some couples (or individuals) are visual learners.  The lesson for them with this tool is understanding the difference between “unhealthy dependence” versus “healthy interdependence.”  Here is a copy of what I summarize on a white board or provide them to take home. I apologize for the tilted view. CLICK CHART TO SEE LARGE VIEW:

An “A” shaped relationship is frequently seen in those with co- “needy” behaviors.  A couple might get together because one is the life of the party (filling a need for the other’s wish to be expressive) and one is structured and responsible (filling a need for the other’s wish to be respected or mature).

We often see this in co-addictive relationships involving substance abuse, but we also see it in couples who sometimes describe themselves as acting like a “parent and child” or “victim and rescuer.”  These couples will ultimately get their real needs met when they find their own self-actualization; their own individual happiness.  If they continue to lean on each other because of their unmet illegitimate needs, the tension becomes too great (the bar in the A breaks) and they fall (which would happen to both sides when the bar was no longer there).

A, H or M...which one represents your couple relationship?

An “H” shaped relationship is very common in the U.S.  We especially see this pattern in “DINK” couples (double income, no kids).  The independence they feel from meeting their own needs to such an extent, and avoiding engaging their partner in asking for legitimate needs to be met, distances the couple over time.  If you look at the H shape you’ll see that the middle bar could eventually be broken due to extreme independence and distance (pulling away), but both sides would remain “standing” as “I”s…still themselves, but certainly not a couple.

And finally, the “M” shaped relationship is a type that most couples find they can grow and thrive within best.  They each have a healthy identity for themselves, but they also engage each other in requesting and meeting needs.  Their relationship with one another can develop and strengthen over time because they support each other in ways that don’t rob the “self” of either individual.  This dynamic is very powerful and is a worthy goal of couples who might find themselves in a different part of the alphabet.

Dependence, Independence or Interdependence.  A, H or M.  Which are you?

Signing off on R-day (relationships), K-E-L-L-Y.

Note:  Most of the basis for this information and the chart come from “Illusion and Disillusion: The Self in Love and Marriage,” by John Fulling Crosby, 1991, Chapter 2.

A Kairos Moment at Culp’s Hill

by Josh Bottomly

Down through the centuries, theologians and mystics have spoken of divine experiences in human time as kairos moments.  By definition, a kairos moment is an event used by God to impact one’s life.  It involves an intersection of sorts between the horizontal and vertical, the humdrum and holy, where, for a fleeting moment, one experiences God’s nearness in his life and God’s hereness in his world.

Kairos moments have happened infrequently in my life.  But none was more pivotal and life changing than the karios moment on an obscure battlefield at Gettysburg.

The months leading up to this event had been colored by deep darkness.   It had been almost two years since my wife and I first visited the fertility clinic.  Now the “I” word was not some distant and remote diagnosis.  It was a sobering reality.  By this time, my prayer life had been reduced to a whimper of faith.  The silence of despair grew firm within my chest.  On the brink of a spiritual breakdown, I prayed as a desperate man for a break through.  Little did I know how God would answer my prayer.

Culp's Hill

While attending a leadership conference at Gettysburg, one night I was approached by Marty, a conference leader.  He asked me if I wanted a personal tour of Culp’s Hill, a famous battle during the Gettysburg campaign.  I grabbed my Mountain Gear fleece;  I was definitely up for it.

After snaking our way up through hills exploding with green April foliage, we stopped at a tiny knot of cedars surrounded by large boulders and scattered tree logs.  “This was the Union army’s extreme right position,” Marty exclaimed as he pointed to a breastwork of cobbled stone covered in moss and dirt.  “It was here that the fate of the Union army largely hung in the balance.”

As Marty began to lead me around the markers that jutted up around the hill, the whole scene suddenly transformed before my eyes into a dramatic amphitheatre of war.

The main battle commenced at dusk on July 2, 1864.

As darkness moved in amongst the thick trees at Culp’s Hill, the NY 137th disbanded in a thin line from the saddle down to the lower hill.  Below the hill, gathering in a swale, and quickly filling up many trenches was a Confederate brigade led by General Steuart.

About that time, General Meade of the Union Army sent orders to Colonel David Ireland, the twenty-five-year-old commander of the NY 137th.  General Meade’s orders were short and exacting.

“Colonel Ireland, hold the line at all costs.”

Soon Steuart’s men moved into position behind the low stonewall in rear of the 137th.
They quickly unleashed a staccato of gunfire.  Before they knew it, the 137th was taking heat from front, right flank, and rear.  Their position, as Marty described it, was “like a finger, surrounded on three sides.”

At about that time the 71st Pennsylvania regiment showed up.  They were backups sent by General Hancock to assist the 137th.  But seeing Ireland’s men taking heavy musket fire from all directions, the 71st fired off a volley or two at Steuart’s men and quickly withdrew from the line.  Their position was untenable.

Union fortifications built to ward off the Confederates.

With half his infantry dead, resources depleted, and reinforcements in retreat, Ireland decided to order one final defensive tactic:  commanding his regiment to stack up granite rocks to form a stone wall.  There, entrenched on the saddle back between the hills, Ireland waited with his men.

As Marty showed me where Ireland had burrowed in with his men, I tried to put myself in the young colonel’s shoes.  I got down on my knees behind the stonewall and peered out into the thick darkness with only the silhouette of the overhanging limbs visible.  I wondered how Ireland held his men together as trees splintered from canon fire, bullets pinged off granite rocks, and hot metal tore through sinewy flesh.  I suddenly felt like I could hear the shrieks of young men as they breathed their last breath and their souls slid out of their bodies.

Effects of Union shot and shell on Culp's Hill - photo by William H. Tipton.

Somehow through the long and unrelenting night, Ireland and his men found the strength and fortitude to stymie every Confederate charge up the hill.

At around three a.m., Steuart’s men suspended their attack due to complete lack of visibility and thus an inability to determine who was who.  They feared they were shooting and killing their own men.  As their attack subsided, the 137th found renewed strength and hope as the 14th Brooklyn and the 6th Wisconsin showed up with reinforcements.

Had the Confederates known the 137th was the end of the line, they could have advanced toward the Baltimore Pike and overrun the Union army, changing the outcome of the battle at Gettysburg, probably turning the tide of the whole Civil War.

But the line never broke.

After Marty finished telling the story, I stood in complete silence, as I suddenly felt like Culp’s Hill was becoming holy ground.  I didn’t see a burning bush or hear an audible voice.  But as the wind rustled through the Pennsylvania birch trees and I stood against the cobbled traverse, I sensed somehow that God was near.

A scripture came to mind, one that I had memorized early in my life.

Let him who walks in the dark,
who has no light,
trust in the name of the Lord
and rely on his God.

~Isaiah 50:10a

For two years I had endured what St. John of the Cross called the oscura noche, the dark night of the soul.  During that time, I felt like Job—confused, doubtful, and befuddled by God’s seeming absence and deafening silence.  My prayers were punctuated by sighs and groans.  I came closest to God in my questions.  I wondered not whether God existed but if God knew I existed.  Did he know my pain?  Did he see my suffering?  Would he respond to my cry?

As I walked the hallowed grounds at Culp’s Hill, I began to pray.  Specifically, I echoed Peter’s prayer: ‘I do believe, Jesus, help me overcome my unbelief!’ (Mark 9:24).  I confessed to him that I felt like I was living within a precarious space between two parenthetical opposites: one being faith, the other being doubt.  The bitterest pill I felt I had been forced to swallow involved watching Amy suffer and hurt and not knowing how to palliate her pain in any way.

In that moment, though, as the moon rose high into the starless sky and the leaves turned silver, I felt that God was near.  For so long, God had seemed distant and remote, like a satellite.  Sensing God’s closeness now, I cupped my ear and leaned into the silence.  What I heard filled me with a renewed trust that the night would give way to the day.  And somehow, in some way, against all odds, pressed in on all sides, he would hold the line.  Like Col. Ireland and the NY 137th, Amy and I would see the first gleam of dawn burst through the darkness.  We would feel the sun on our faces again.  We would hear a new word heralded through the clouds:  a new day had arrived!

~~Note:  Josh and his wife Amy documented their journey, struggles and resolution to travel to Africa and adopt a child in their book, “From Ashes to Africa.”  This post is a revised piece from that book.  For more information visit http://fromashestoafrica.com/

The Ping of Your Relational Sonar

I liked this photo so much that I decided to use it and give nanukphotos.com a free ad shout-out. While I'm not in the mood to pay $60.00 for the rights to use it (we do our own photography, although I do purchase iStock photos occasionally), I am willing to reference back to them and their very cool work. The photo shows the same sky type of sky mentioned in this essay.

It’s about 9:00 p.m. Labor Day night and I’m putting the last check into the last envelope as I finish paying my monthly bills.  The day has been a long one with the majority of my time spent in my office reading and working on my statistics homework.  I get up from my chair, stretch, grab the stamped envelopes on my desk and head to the mailbox.

I head down the long slope of the paved driveway.  It’s getting dark and my mind switches from wondering if my bare feet are going to find a wayward stone (protective-mode thoughts) to the overwhelmingly beautiful twilight sky (refreshing, happy thoughts).  My pace slows and I remember that my hair is pulled up into a ponytail, bound with a brown velvet scrunchie; perfect for a little pillow to rest my head on the concrete.  I drop to the warm pavement, lay down, breathe in the cooling air and take a few moments to study the sky more closely.

It’s beautiful out tonight.  The sun has dropped below the horizon so far that only the slightest hint of light shows along the western line.  From there sweeping upward is light blue, medium blue, dark blue and the deepest midnight blue right over my head.  The stars are beginning to show and as I lay still and focus, more and more tiny lights begin to peek out of the deep blue.  I can now see about 30-40 stars, but one in particular catches my eye.  It’s brighter than the rest and seems to be moving.  I assume at this point that it’s a satellite and I watch it travel ever-so-slowly across my view.

My body begins to relax as I start realizing how many layers of sound are filling up my ears.  I can hear the distant click of a katydid, intermittent bursts of cicadas, a constant tree frog sound, and another rhythmic frog sound over that.  There is a dog somewhere in the distance that barks occasionally and every three or four minutes a car passes down the street, headed toward their homes for the evening.  I look around for the satellite and find it again.  I started thinking about my husband.

On the way down to the mailbox, I had hugged him goodnight because he was heading to bed.  He gets up at 4:00 a.m. every morning to go to work.  I had said, “I missed you today.”  He said, “I missed you too.”  We talked a bit about the homework I was doing and said goodnight.

I watch the satellite another minute more and my mind drifts back to a conversation I had last week with a colleague.  He had written a blog entry for contract work we do over the topic of “checking in” with your spouse during the day.  I’m watching the satellite and thinking about that topic when I link a thought about the sonar pings made by satellites, submarines or other devices that also “check in” with those monitoring their progress.  I begin to play that sound in my head and think about parents monitoring their children as they grow and develop, spouses checking-in with each other to make sure all is good between them, leaders checking in with their team members in places of employment.  Ping, ping, ping.  The satellite has now passed two stars as I watch it continue to creep across the sky.

I start thinking about satellite orbits and how they decay over time.  Without the sonar or other monitoring devices, there could be no awareness of how that orbit had decayed or whether it was stable and in good working order.  Mother mammals of tiny babies constantly check to see if all their offspring are accounted for, birds guard their nests, alpha males of various species watch over their herds in case they are threatened.

I want to think about this balance or out-of-balance checking in between couples just a bit more so I reluctantly get up, walk the rest of the way to the mailbox (I only step on one small pebble), and head back to my office.  On my way back up the driveway I hear a car leave our neighbor’s driveway, muffled rap music coming from the interior.  I wonder what type of sonar is going on between he and his parents as he drives down the road.  I get to my office and begin searching for sound files of sonar pings.  I find some cool files of a WW II submarine sonar.  CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO THE SOUND.

While I’m playing with these sonar sound files I begin thinking, “They sound a little bit like a heartbeat.”  My mind drifts back to all my relatives who have been in the hospital with heart monitoring devices…ping,  ping,  beat…beat.  I think about the inordinate amount of journal articles I’ve been reading the past six months over a person’s physical well being and how it relates to their relational well being.  People who are stressed because of unhealthy relationships actually have different vagal tones when on a heart monitor than when their relationships are better, or when they feel closer to their partners.

I make a mental note of this thought process and head back into the bedroom to tell Mick goodnight a second time.  I need to check in with him and make sure our orbit is not in decay.  He’s fine.  We’re fine.   I’m glad I check, however.  He tells me goodnight a second time and that “All systems are go.”

How about yours?

Meanwhile, Back At The Ranch: Divide and Conquer…..Together

It’s a Saturday.  The nine-to-fivers are reveling in the covers that hide the dawn’s glare this A.M.

Purple Martin house
Purple Martins found a home out here at the ranch just one week after it was built.

But not us.  My husband and I begin our weekdays before some people go to bed,  and the weekend is no different.   Like every household, we have things to do.  OUR problem is that usually we have each created our own lists (hidden in our own minds) and have divided the chores out between us without telling the other about the plans.  It could be a problem if we let it.  We don’t.

I stopped picking the last of the tomatoes to watch Greg lower the Purple Martin house to get it ready for the winter and ultimately next spring.  He joined me in the melon patch to check on our first watermelons.  We are both amazed at how much fruit our only two melon plants have produced.  I made a mental note to put the tomato cages up for next season.  He set up the sprinklers to water the yard.  I fed the kittens.  He fed the cats.  I carried my coffee across the pasture to give the horses some carrots.  They knew it was not my usual time with them, and they seemed grateful.

Fence
Turning the corner on fence painting.

There is always so much to do out here, but neither of us seem to mind.  We have stopped to sit on the backporch to have some coffee.  Greg remembered that the front gate doesn’t latch.  We have got to fix that.  It’s added to the list.  Before noon we will have added as many chores as we have completed this morning.  Maybe he’s right next to me; maybe he is across the pasture.  Either way, we are content to divide and conquer our chores for today, so we can spend the evening……together.

From a White-Skinned Father to a Black-Skinned Son

Josh and Silas, November 2009

I am a white-skinned father with a black-skinned son.

A little over a year ago, my wife, Amy, and I adopted our son, Silas, from Ethiopia.

Silas turned two in December.

Today our conversations tend to revolve around our favorite snacks – yogurt and lemon pound cake at Starbucks – and favorite TV characters and movies – Elmo and Ratatouille. We also squabble very little these days. Sometimes Silas will take a swing at me when I take away the Wii joystick. And other times he’ll treat the cheese sandwich I made him for dinner like a Frisbee.

One day, though, Silas will want to talk about other things.  Like the color of his skin. And my skin.   And his mother’s skin.   And pictures and events and people and dates he finds in his history textbook.

There are some historical dates I don’t want to broach with Silas then. August 12th, 1955, for example.  That’s the day Emmett Till, a 14 year old boy, was brutally lynched in Mississippi by white, southern, “Christian” men.

Then there is September 15th, 1963. That’s the day when four little girls were killed by a white supremacist bomb at 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

Or April 4th, 1968. That’s the fateful day Dr. King had his hope-filled voice silenced by a sniper’s gun.

But then there are days in America’s history I can’t wait to explain to Silas.

Days like December 1st, 1955, for example.  The day when Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white man. That small, defiant “no” reverberated out into a large, defiant “no more.”

There are other days, too. Like August 28th, 1963. The day Dr. King delivered his famous message, “I Have a Dream.” It was a day unlike any other day. It was a day of dreaming of another kind of America.

And then there was November 4th, 2008.  Obama’s presidential victory.  And then there was January 20th, 2009.  Obama’s inauguration.

These are dates I look forward to telling Silas about – not as a student of history, but as a participator in making history.

Baby silas
Baby Silas

And I will tell Silas this: whether one voted for Obama or not, one could not argue that it was a significant symbolic moment.  And a storied moment with deep biblical resonances.  From hundreds of years wandering in the wilderness of prejudice and oppression.  To now the new days of exploring the “milk and honey” land of equality and opportunity.

Undoubtedly, MLK glimpsed the Promised Land from a distance.  Like Moses.  Like a dream just beyond his grasp.  But Silas, you, and others of your skin color will experience this land as a blessed reality.  Like Joshua.  And the nation of Israel.

I can only pray that this new land for you will shimmer with the topsoil of fresh possibility, and contain in its seedbed the promise of renewed dignity.  But, Silas, there are still weeds trying to choke out these verdant seeds.  For though the “color line” W.B. Dubois spoke of has been broken in America’s political establishment, it still exists in America’s religious establishment.  95% of the evangelical church, for example, still remains divided along the color line.  Unfortunately, Martin Luther King Jr.’s truism stills rings true today:  11 am on Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in America.  Perhaps, though, Silas, by the time you come of age, that small, subversive 5% of the American church will have grown and spread through the body of Christ like a lush vine.

Voting though won’t bring this change.

Only Spirit-led repentance will.

I can only pray that you discover these seeds pods of repentance bursting within my heart.  And your mom’s heart.  And your grandparents’ hearts.  And in the hearts of all of those who you know that call themselves Christ followers.

I am reminded of observing MLK Day last year.  You, your mom, and I celebrated Dr. King’s legacy with our adoption community at the Queen of Sheba, a local Ethiopian restaurant.  On that special day, our dear friends, Eric and Tara, received their referral picture from Ethiopia of their soon-to-be-adopted baby boy, Malak. That night we laughed and cried over Malak’s picture, ooing and awing at his large black eyes and his luminous smile.

Later that night as I lay awake in bed and reflected on that festive evening, I couldn’t help but wonder if in fact Dr. King were alive today, would he approve of couples like us and the Silvestres adopting black children. I also thought about how far we have come, from an age of colonialism, where Africans were our slaves, to this new post colonial age, where Africans are now our sons. And I wondered if Dr. King could have even dreamed of such a day when such transformation was possible. Who knows really? But it makes me wonder if at the Queen of Sheba, if just for a fleeting moment, with our bellies full of freshly baked bread, and sweet Ethiopian wine on our tongues, and with you in our arms, and Malak’s picture in front of our faces, if we did not glimpse even if for a moment, the future community of God, the eschatological days when the old age of hatred and racial division will be truly over, and a new age of love and racial harmony will have begun.

As I closed my eyes to sleep, I suddenly recalled Dr. King’s words spoken days before he was assassinated.

“The end is reconciliation;

the end is redemption;

the end is the creation of the beloved community.”

And remembering these words, Silas, I thought to myself, Perhaps the end has already begun.

-Josh Bottomly

Editor’s Note – this article is reprinted from Relevant, an online magazine. It was published as a Martin Luther King Day feature dated Monday, January 19, 2009.  Josh is the Director of College Counseling at Casady High School in Oklahoma City.  He coaches basketball, is a husband and now a father of TWO children from Ethiopia. Silas has a little sister.  She joined the family in June of this year.

Nemo, Normandy and the mind-NUMBING Magical Power of the Sistah + Bro-hood Wedding Planners

My clinical supervisor once gave me some advice that plays over in my thoughts from time to time.  She said, “You don’t really have to guess at what people are thinking.  Usually, whatever comes out of their mouth is what is at the top of their mind.  And context?  Wherever they live and whatever they’re surrounded by are clear determining factors of what they’ll be bringing with them into the therapy office.”

I was thinking about this message last week because I was wondering why weddings have been occupying so much of my thinking lately.  I didn’t have to wonder too long, however, because my supervisor was right.  I’ve been attending weddings because it’s the summer “wedding season” of 2010 and I work at a university populated with students.  These students are generally of the age to begin wedding hopes, dreams and plans…and also host or attend wedding ceremonies. Finally, my children are 18 and 23, which means THEIR friends are also thinking about and participating in weddings.

I’m immersed.  Immersed in “dreamy-hopeful-lovey-cool-fun-startingoutonournewjourney” land. The upside of this immersion is having the chance to observe magical moments at each and every ceremony.  This particular story is about magic.  The magical power of a network of friends – focused, purposed and amazing.

And speaking of being immersed…I’ll begin the story by considering Nemo.  “Finding Nemo” was a Disney masterpiece chock-full of important life lessons.  The illustration I’d like to highlight is the “SWIM DOWN – KEEP SWIMMING!!” scene.  Do you remember it?  Nemo and Dory were almost home from Sidney when Dory was scooped up along with a massive school of fish into a fisherman’s net.

As the net began an upward ascent, pulled by a hydralic lift aboard the boat, the fish began to panic. That’s when the magic happened.  Nemo and his father began spreading the message to all the fish to swim downward.  It would only work if they ALL swam together.  Here’s a visually rough clip of the scene.  I get goosebumps when watching it.  Take a look….

Amazing things were accomplished when all the fish focused toward one goal.  And ONLY because they planned together (Nemo and his father agreed on the plan) and worked together.

Another example?  Amazing things were accomplished when hundreds of thousands coallition troops stormed the beaches of Normandy and paratrooped from the sky to turn the tide during WWII. And ONLY because they planned together and worked together.

And, amazing things were accomplished by a powerfully cohesive and supportive group of friends at Ryan and Elissa’s wedding in Stillwater, OK – Fall of 2008.  And ONLY because they planned together worked together.  Here’s what I witnessed when attending this wedding of my nephew Ryan and his lovely bride, Elissa:

I walked into the church before it began and was met with a visual of thirty or so college aged attendees greeting each other, opening the doors for guests arriving, suggesting to those just arriving that they sign the guest book, walking through the sanctuary of the church and meeting and greeting those seated.

What I immediately noticed was a warm and inviting environment that seemed to be completely manged by the bride and groom’s peers.  “Interesting,” I thought.  “They all seem invested in this process, and genuinely engaged in helping the guests feel welcome.”  I found my seat, said hello to my family and made my second observation:

The bride and groom’s friends were basically running the ceremony.  Although they had the traditional pastor-types leading the ceremony, the fingerprints of the wedding party were everywhere.  They sang and accompanied several songs, the groomsmen pulled out matching sunglasses on a particular cue, the bridesmaids walked as if they knew each other and didn’t miss a beat whenever the bride’s dress needed arranging or the flowers needed to be held. Hmm.

This group was synchronized like a well oiled support machine.  My next observation?

After the ceremony, the entire wedding party had exited to music played by their group. As I stood up to leave the sanctuary something caught my eye.  In a flash, the bridesmaids came back into the emptying auditorium and began to spread out.  They had a purpose but I didn’t yet understand what they were doing.  I watched with intrigue as they began to quickly pick up all the wedding flower decorations, speak with the groomsmen who were tearing down the musical equipment authoritatively, talk with each other about “who cleaned out the dressings rooms and did they do a final check on all the lights,” and other efficient and responsible dialogue.

What was UP with this group??  At other weddings I had witnessed planners and/or bride or groom relatives do this same kind of task.  But THIS was entirely the wedding party.  Before I could really process this modern-day “Elves and the Shoemaker” magic, the auditorium was spotless.  The work was DONE.  And…we all headed to the reception.  What did I find there?  I’m sure you can guess…

The groom’s friends DJ’d the party.  The bride’s friends escorted her outside when she got hot, and responded to the groom’s request of a drink for his bride.  The group danced with the groom’s grandfather, they danced together, and they danced with each other.  And, every time I turned around, one of them was talking to another guest – engaged in a genuine conversation and getting to know someone they had only met that night.

HERE IS A SHOT OF THE BRIDE AND HER MOTHER GETTING THEIR HAIR AND MAKEUP DONE BY TWO OF “THE GROUP.” ELISSA’S MOTHER HAS RHOMBERG’S DISEASE AND GETTING A MAKEOVER WAS A SPECIAL TREAT. ELISSA SHARED WITH ME THAT THIS WAS ONE OF HER FAVORITE SHOTS OF THE WEDDING…SHE AND HER MOM TOGETHER, GETTING READY WITH THE SUPPORT OF HER FRIENDS.

This group dynamic was the most powerful I’ve witnessed at a wedding of that age group (22-28ish).  Later I found out the bride’s friends did the photography for the wedding, did the hair and make-up for the bride and her mother, and did the flower decorations and arrangments for the church and reception.  When I asked the bride about the role of the “group” she said: “I truly do have a great group of friends that allowed us to have a magnificent wedding on a small budget. My hair, set-up of everything, photography and flower and decor arrangement was done by tons of our little helpers.”

So what is to be gained from learning about this group?  Are groups important?  Do they provide a social safety net for young couple stress and for setting norms about the institution of marriage itself?  The short answer is yes. What a culture or society “agrees to” is extremely influential regarding how people think and feel about a particular issue.  So the answers as to what can be gained are these validating life lessons, taught by group instruction:

When you need support, we’re here.
When you need diversity and creativity, we’re here.
We were beside you when you were married, so we’re in this together.
You’re worth our time and attention.
We believe in you, your marriage and your future.

When a group “blesses” a wedding, it’s a powerful thing.  I would say it’s magic.  And in this particular case, it was the mind-numbing magical power of the “sistah and bro-hood” wedding planners extraordinaire.

They were there when it started and I have a sneaking suspicion that when Elissa and Ryan celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, they will already know who to call to plan their party.

A Lifetime Lesson Within a 45 Second Prayer

I’m not sure how many weddings I’ve attended in my lifetime.  When I was very young, I paid attention to how comfortable the seating was and how long the service “droned on.” As an adolescent I paid attention to the dresses, hair and makeup of the bride and her party.  In college I paid attention to the ideas of the service, cake, programs and invitations as I began to plan my own wedding.  And now, having been married 25 years and been a family therapist for almost ten, I pay attention to the system.
I am fascinated by the rhythm of certain weddings, the families involved and the styles or personalities of the combined group of “his and hers” parties and guests.  Simply sitting back and taking it all in is pure joy, especially when I notice the one thing that I want to take away as food for thought.  Two weeks ago, I enjoyed an especially flavorful bite…maybe dessert.  I didn’t attend the reception, but felt as though I already got my wedding cake.  Here’s the story:
The chapel was filling with people.  The daughter of my childhood church camp friend was getting married and we arrived only a few minutes before the service began.  We were seated near the back and I was later very grateful for that particular vantage point.  Normally I want to sit close so I can really soak in the action.  However a seat in the back gives wedding guests a different perspective; a bit removed, but also broadened.My husband watched his former college roommate, the father of the bride, walk his daughter down the aisle.  Next, I watched my dear friend light one of the family tapers for the unity candle ritual.  It was because of the bride’s mother and father that my husband and I had met.  They introduced us my sophomore year in college.  As I sat there, I began to think about being in their wedding, and then they participating in ours.  I broke out the Kleenex at least 15 minutes earlier than my normal crying point. I really love my friend and was excited for her daughter to experience this big day.

As the service began to get started with introductions and welcomes my mind turned to those getting married rather than those giving the bride away.  The pastors and the betrothed were smiling occasionally, and some of the narrative was interjected with talk of “wedding day jitters.”  At one point, one of the pastors made a comment about the groom feeling anxious and excited about their big day.  I noticed that both the bride and the groom’s body language matched the conversation.  My mind flashed back to my niece’s wedding last year where she bounced slightly and swayed from side to side during the wedding because of her sheer happiness and excitement.  Her body movements kept us entertained the entire service.

These particular wedding day jitters weren’t that overt, but they were definitely a part of the discussion.  I smiled again as the groom agreed about being excited for the wedding as the speaker noted his visibly heightened mood.

The message to the audience and the exchange of vows passed quickly and the unity candle ritual followed.  As the music for this portion began, the bride and groom lit the larger candle, took communion and then repositioned themselves in the middle of the stage.  While the music continued, they began to talk a bit and I saw the groom bouncing slightly.  As the seconds ticked by and they continued chatting with each other, you could see their energy or anxiety build a bit as they laughed and tried to wait through the song.  Just then, I saw the groom ask a question.  I could tell this by the slight tilting of his head.  I saw the bride respond by looking at him, smiling, and nodding in agreement.  They took each other’s hands, bowed their heads and he began to pray.  She was clearly in sync with him because you could see her head occasionally moving as he uttered a phrase, or she would smile and nod intermittently.

This shot shows the bride and and groom just as they began to pray together.  Her grip is tight, his face is flushed and they aren’t quite centered yet…still approaching God through their prayer.

I was grateful for the length of the song because I was witnessing something amazing.  As the prayer continued, his head bowed slightly more, the flushing on his face disappeared and his body got quiet.  Her shoulders relaxed, her elbows dropped a bit and a peaceful smile replaced the smile of excitement there only a minute before.  Their heads leaned in a bit closer and my sense was that the chapel full of people were disappearing in their minds.  It was just the bride, the groom and God.  There must have been an “amen” because they both took a deep breath and lifted their heads – more sure of themselves, relaxed and ready for whatever would meet them next.

This shot was taken close to the end of the song and their prayer.  Kiley’s face and arms are relaxed, Josh’s shoulders and neck are relaxed and even the maid of honor is quiet and focused.

Long after the introductions of the newly married couple and the recessional of the wedding party, the prayer scene played over in my mind.

As a therapist, I had witnessed a “symmetrical to complementary shift” take place…the individual and couple anxiety that had been rapidly cycling was released over to a higher power they trusted to manage their next steps.  As a Biblical scholar, I thought of the numerous examples I’ve read about in the scriptures of godly men or women wrestling with an issue, praying it through and then celebrating their relief as they are redirected with a renewed purpose or vision.  As a family scientist, I was glad they had spirituality as a core element and resource in their relationship – a strength that would get them through many times of anxiety or stress they would face down the road.  And as a friend, I was grateful (and emotional) about the thought that the children of our younger selves were growing up and prepared to begin their own lives.

What can we learn from Kiley and Josh, the praying newlyweds?  Well, I suppose that when we’re considering our own food for thought, prayer is certainly an excellent ingredient for a well balanced relationship.  After all, wouldn’t most of us appreciate a way to externalize our anxiety and place it on shoulders much bigger than our own?  Knowing God carries what they can’t is a sure-fire way new couples can walk with confidence through their newly-wedded life.

And for me, I suppose another thing I’ve learned is that when attending the weddings of my friend’s children, carry the super jumbo pack of tissues.  If this generation continues to teach me lessons such as I witnessed this time, I’ll be keeping Kimberly Clark in business for a good, long while.