The art of negotiation

At about eighteen months, my son started to display his will. It all began one night when he wasn’t feeling well and I was trying to get him into the bath, an activity he usually ran to participate in. On this night, however, he simply refused, kicking up such a fuss that a stranger walking by might easily assume that he was being tarred and feathered.

My mother, visiting at the time, decided to soap him up outside of the tub. When I tried to dunk him in, I was met by an absolute refusal. At this point, desperate enough to resort to bribery, I said “I’ll give you a cookie if you get into the tub for one second”. And that was enough to start a chain of interactions that changed my viewpoint forever.

“Cookie? No candy.” This, from the child who had only ever eaten candy once before, made me realize that I was dealing with a great negotiator. “Ok, candy.” “No, two candy.” Flabbergasted, I agreed, “OK, two candies”, thinking that for effort alone I should reward him with what he demanded. In response, I was told “Blue candy and green candy.” “OK”. And with that, negotiations were complete and for the first, but not last, I was bested by my son.

Years later I still reflect on this incident, thinking about how much my son has taught me about the art of getting to yes. And about how he much he has taught me about the irrelevance of absolutes in this world.

When I was younger, I saw the world in terms of black and white. Although I knew that shades of grey existed, I had a hard time recognizing them. Things were either wrong or right and there was generally only one way of doing things. As I grew older, I slowly and painfully through much trial and error learned the art of perspective and the ability to step into another’s shoes.

Now, as a parent, I try to remember that things aren’t always as they appear and that there is validity in another vantage point, even if it comes from someone who is a fraction of my size. And so, our daily interactions are routinely marked by a series of negotiations around how things will unfold and the events that will take place. Throughout it all, I try to remember to give in when it doesn’t make a difference, even if it’s not the way that I would choose, and to stand strong on the important issues that actually matter in the long run.

Looking forward, I hope that if I can teach my son to be flexible while helping him to hone his innate negotiating skills, he’ll be ahead of the game, able to adjust and adapt to change while staying true to his own goals and harness the power around him to bring to life an environment in which everyone feels fulfilled and empowered.

An inelegant but parsimonious theory of death

Last night I dreamed about my great-grandmother, Buby. My last strong memory of her is of the two of us standing in her studio apartment’s kitchenette: me, a rebellious sixteen year old with attitude; her, a warm and wrinkled ninety-four year old asking me what I was going to do with my life now that I was finished my schooling. Even though she could not wrap her head around the idea that I wanted so much more for myself than working as a salesperson in a shop and that my education was barely beginning, the over-riding feeling that flows through this memory is one of all-encompassing love and acceptance.

Last night’s dream was usual in that both my great-grandmother and my grandfather, who died around this time last year, made an appearance. Sitting in the front passenger seat of a car, I turned around and there she was. Younger than I remember her in my mind’s eye, she was wearing a soft baby blue cashmere turtleneck sweater reminiscent of her daughter, my great-aunt Muriel and plastered across her face was a wide open smile, framed by her famous red lips and carefully rouged high cheekbones. As she registered my surprise at seeing her there, she let out a relaxed little laugh and said “You didn’t really think I was gone? Don’t you know that I’m always there with you?”. As I turned, I saw my debonair grandfather in the driver seat, wearing his signature tie and fedora he smiled and nodded his agreement at me.

I woke-up soon thereafter with tears streaming down my face. As I navigated my way towards consciousness a more recent memory of my son came to mind. At the age of three and a half, he became very curious about death, asking me “What happens when we die?” That evening, lying together cuddled in the darkness, I explained to him that when we die, our bodies eventually disintegrate, like discarded orange peels that no longer contain delicate fruit needing protection. But, the part that makes us us, the part that makes him the special and unique person that he is and that holds his light, never disintegrates, it just disperses into everywhere and nowhere.

Initially, this knowledge translated itself into vigorous planning manifested in the following forms: “Mom, when you die, I’m going to bury your body in brown, so that no one will see the dirt on you”, “Mom, I get to have all your money when you die since I’m your only child, right?”, “Mom, when you die, I’m going to add another floor to the house and renovate it”, “Mom, don’t worry, I’ll always come visit you and talk to you when you’re dead so you won’t be lonely.”

Over time, my son’s preoccupation with the details of what to do with the physical when I’m gone morphed into a more sophisticated dialogue about death. And throughout it all, I was reminded of how at various points in my life complete strangers have pulled me aside to let me know that I have many guides escorting me through life, keeping me safe, sometimes in spite of myself.

And now, as my son and I talk about death, I know that I will need to explain to him my true beliefs around death: that when we die, our soul or energy does not disperse. Instead, it goes into the universe and attaches to what, for lack of a better term, I call the great glob of souls in the sky. When a new person is born, a soul is created from the amorphous mass that is either identical to one that previously existed or an entirely new combination with bits and pieces taken in various percentages of older souls.

For me, this explains why we sometimes meet someone and instantly have a connection and are drawn to them, recognize something of ourselves in another, or see bits of someone else we know or have known in another. It also explains why some people have outstanding talents in certain areas, such as master painters, musicians, or mathematicians, having amassed all of that particular energy from preexisting souls, and why others have incredibly outstanding dominant traits, such as mother Teresa or Adolf Hitler, that allow them to leave a legacy to the world.

As I think about this, I gaze at a painting on my desk, given to me by a stranger over fifteen years ago in Nepal. On the front of it is a simple image of a face but inscribed on the back is a reminder of how all of us in the universe are connected. Keeping this in mind, I know that as long as my son understands that the universal we is me, he will be able to live his life and meet death with joy and equanimity, knowing that our time on this planet is just one stop in time on an ever continuing journey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Having a posse

When I turned six, my family imploded. From the outside, we looked like a picture-perfect family: my mother was a stay-at-home mom and my dad was a university professor who was around most of the time. But, as we all know, appearances can be deceiving. Underneath the Cleaver exterior, the 70s political and social hippy revolution was alive and kicking in our home.

By the time I was eight, my parents were engaged in full-blown open relationships, my dad was openly bi-sexual, we had an anarchist press operating out of our basement, and my parents were constantly trying to convince me that it would be best if my brother and I were home-schooled, an event that was to take place in the idealized school bus that we would purchase and convert to tour across the country. In all reality, I was probably the only child who begged and pleaded to be allowed to go to school. For me, it and all the friends that I had there represented a haven of sanity.

When we reminisce about this time, my cousin constantly reminds me that it’s amazing that we all turned out so normal, functional and successful. And I can’t help but agree.

When I reflect on why things turned out this way, the only answer that I can come up with is that, no matter what, we always knew that we had a posse. Regardless of what crisis or upheaval we were experiencing, we always knew that when push came to shove, our parents would drop whatever insanity they had embroiled themselves in and be behind us one hundred percent. And, in spite of the myriad changes to our family constellation, this fact has remained strong and true to this day: I know that no matter what is happening in my parents’ and brother’s lives, and no matter what was said or done in the past, if I need them, they will be there for me, rearranging their lives to give me the physical and emotional supports that I need to get through a particularly difficult situation. This fact has proven true time and time again.

For myself, knowing that I am part of a unit that will circle the wagons in closed and protective ranks has created a deep-seated sense of security lasting well into adulthood. Fundamentally, I know that I am never alone. And, the adage of there being strength in numbers seems to hold true.

As a parent, I find myself consciously trying to create this same sense of security for my son. Although formally, from the outside looking in, it is currently just he and I, I find that this is not quite an accurate depiction of reality. By extending my notion of family to include not just blood relatives and immediate family, but all the people who care for and love us, I find that my son already has a sense of security in his place in the world, confident that if he needs help or assistance someone will be there to provide it. And, by fostering the conditions that allow him to be showered in various forms of love while maintaining the illusion that the world is going to love him for as long as possible, I believe that his equilibrium and ability to cope won’t be fundamentally rocked when he realizes that the world isn’t only a joyous place to be but often requires fortitude, resilience, strength and a belief in oneself to succeed.

Love

When my son was nine months old, he would play on the double futon I had installed in his room. For hours on end, he would stand up, hold on to the window ledge and then let go, spiraling into a free-fall. In the small span of time between letting go and landing, bouncing softly and comfortably into the mattress, a smile enveloped his face depicting his delight in being out of control while knowing that a safety net was firmly in place.

Watching him, my heart would race, aching for the naiveté and absolute trust required to capture that heedless sensation of wild abandon. It would make me remember how, when I was first taking ballet at the age of six or seven and, having recently fallen in love with the nutcracker, I would pirouette and jettée across my living room floor, convinced that I was experiencing a novel sensation of free-floating headiness that no one had previously experienced but, given the minutest chance, would do anything to.

And then it occurred to me. Falling in love is similar, without the safety net. My first experience of love was like being struck by a bolt of lightening. It came at me, unexpected but strong and sure, changing my chemical and genetic composition forever. It made me happier, nicer, and more loving in general.

At that time, it never occurred to me that things wouldn’t work out and that there wouldn’t be a happily ever after. When the relationship ended, my complete faith in fairy tale endings was destroyed.

Watching my son execute his spirals of innocently sinful delight, it occurs to me that love is much like his actions. Until you come up hard and fast against the realization that there is no safety net in place, you can abandon yourself completely and give your heart away on a silver platter as if an offering of delectable delight that’s impossible for anyone to refuse.

Once you realize that no one can guarantee a happily forever after ending and that, by definition, love and relationships are risky, you also realize that therein lies the magic. And, in a heartbeat, I realize that this is something that I want my son to learn.

Falling in love is part something that happens to you and part a conscious choice. When two people meet, and there is that spark and recognition of the other, there is often a point at which you have to decide to take a step and let go. The step may be small, but, once aware that a safety net doesn’t exist, it’s the hardest step you’ll ever take. It requires you to take a leap of faith built on vulnerability and hopefulness while trusting in something entirely intangible and out of your control. But, if you willingly suspend disbelief and open yourself up, the rewards are usually unexpected and unquantifiable.

A work in progress

The part of me that I hate the most is my temper. Arising quickly, seemingly as if out of thin air, it resembles the summer storms of my hometown: the sky darkens, electricity gathers, lightening strikes, and the heavens open up to a torrential downpour. Within minutes, the storm passes through leaving a clearing or, sometimes, a hot uncomfortable residue of oppressive air in which it’s hard to take the next step or think clearly. Paradoxically, my display of temper is often followed by anger directed inward or shame for allowing myself to express the full force of my feelings in such an unproductive way.

Having recently had an interaction in which my temper made itself known, upon thinking about how the scenario unfolded, aside from wishing that I had kept a cooler head and having to think about how I’ll do some damage control, I’m suddenly reminded of my dad who likes to say that “every man has his Garibaldi” noting that my temper is certainly mine.  In the same moment, I remind myself that life is a practice and a journey in which we take each step with the ultimate hope of becoming a better version of ourselves.

As I reflect on this, I think about my son who has his own Garibaldis to climb. And I remember how, at an early age, I explained to him that we all have a black dog and a white dog that live inside of us and that at any moment of any given day, we have the singular choice to choose which dog to feed, knowing that the one that’s fed will ultimately grow stronger, potentially creating a situation where an untamed dark side can come to control us in ways that don’t serve our higher selves.

In the end, it’s my hope that as my son develops, he will practice feeding his white dog more regularly than his dark one, even when temptation exists, learning to make choices that serve him in the long run. And that when he invariably gives in to his darker impulses, he’ll  remember that, like all interesting journeys, life’s trajectory is not direct but involves twists and turns and ebbs and flows that sometimes make you feel as if you are making progress while at others as if backsliding into an uncomfortable but familiar abyss.  Throughout the process, however, I hope that he treats himself with compassion for his flaws, is kind to himself, and that he accepts his human frailty while learning from it to create a narrative in which he can momentarily fail and still see himself as lovable to himself and others.