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Family Traditions – Keeping What We Give Away

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When I was growing up I don’t remember that my family had any traditions beyond activities associated with the major holidays of Christmas and Easter.

My wife and I are doing something different for our family. We have incorporated many traditions and activities into our year. One of our favorites is on New Year’s Eve, when we’ll walk through each month of that year and recall the highlights, the achievements, and some of the challenges. It’s a wonderful way to recap and appreciate the many gifts of the year.

Another tradition for New Year is that when we’re at our cabin in McCarthy I’ll blow my conch. It’s a massive shell with a hole drilled in the side that when blown into creates a resounding and beautifully deep call that echoes up and down our valley.

What’s so special about getting to blow the conch for New Years isn’t so much the fun of making a joyous noise, although that’s surely a big part of it, but the opportunity to tell again the story of how I came to be the keeper of the conch.

When I was growing up the conch was one of the few possessions of my stepfather and I used to love to take it outside and bring to life its resonant bellow. My stepfather was a rambler living in a converted school bus when my mother first met him. We lived with him for about 7 years and after their less than amicable separation we moved from the remote mountains of Northern California to the urban expanse of the Bay Area.

We didn’t see or hear much from him over the next few years, but one day he showed up as he was passing through town. At one point he invited us out to his car and after opening the trunk he pulled out gifts for my brother, sister, and me. They were each special and unique treasures, things that were meaningful to him that he wanted us to have to remember him by.

To my surprise and delight, out of that trunk came the conch and he handed it lovingly to me.

My stepfather’s act of giving was deeply touching and a first step on the long path of reconnecting with his kids (me included!). It was made more poignant by the fact that during the trip his house accidentally burned to the ground and he lost everything that he owned.

Everything that is except for the few dear possessions that he had given away to us that day.

So the conch holds many things for me … fond memories of childhood … connection to an important man in my life … and the very real lesson that we keep what we give away.

And to bring us back to the point of this story, the conch is an important part of my family’s New Year tradition. When the clock hits midnight we all take turns blowing the conch to raucously ring in the new year. And as part of that tradition I tell the story of how I came to be the keeper of the conch, sharing stories of my childhood and the important lesson of how we keep those things that we freely give away.

As we step into the new year, what traditions will you or your family celebrate in 2018? What makes them important to you?

A Midlife Awakening to a Grandfather’s Gift

By | Family, Masculinity, Mortality, Relationships | No Comments

How Tales From the Past Spark Adventures of the Future

Last night was probably the last night I will get to spend with my grandfather. We sat at the dinner table as we often did in the evenings during my visits. He in his seat to my right, in front of the bookshelf that stores many of his treasures, the props used to spark memories and kindle stories of his life’s adventures.

I would sit for hours listening to his tales of travels as a salesman throughout the U.S.; hunting trips in Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico; river trips down the Rio Grand or the Pecos or the Colorado. He had done so many things and had so many adventures.

He was a great weaver of long stories with dramatic pause and em-PHA-sis (as he would say), which would keep me spell bound for hours. It’s part of the reason I’m such a good listener. Listening was my part in the magic of our relationship.

But during this visit his well has run dry. Those memories are no longer in him. His nearly photographic recall of those stories is gone. Many pages of his grand and adventurous life are blurred or just blank.

No more fountain of stories.

No more images of the American West when it was still wide open enough for the imagination to run wild and there was still wildness in it.
The first couple of nights during this visit it was quiet, something had shifted.

Clearly something was missing.

And then I realized what it was.
And then I realized our roles had changed.
And then I realized …

It was now my turn to tell stories, and that I had some that needed to be shared, for me and for him.

So I spun tales of my trips above the Arctic Circle during my time as a wilderness guide, of bounding across the vast, open tundra and running its wild rivers.
So I spun tales of my adventures exploring the great glaciers in the icy realms of the Wrangell Mountains.
So I spun tales of adventures flying white-knuckled through Alaska storms in single-engine planes and swimming naked in the Pacific Ocean while a lone wolf loped along the beach.

It turns out that I too have many stories to tell. I too have adventures to share. I too have lived a life adventuring in the last great reaches of our country’s wilderness.
He sat there quietly enjoying each telling, swelling with pride at my adventures, as listening now became his role in the magic of our relationship.

I realize clearly, with this shift in our relationship, that my grandfather’s stories were part of what got me to the wilderness. His stories had lived in me as the seeds of my own adventures. His courage and yearning to live a life of exploration was an example by which I would live mine.

To my grandfather, I will always be grateful for the life of exploration that your stories sparked in me. Grateful also that I got to thank you for your gift in my life and the important part you played in instilling adventure. And so too my sons should be grateful for a great grandfather’s contribution to their lives of adventure in the wild places of this beautiful world.

The Healing Power of Math at Midlife 

By | Family, Kids, Mirror | No Comments

midlife mathI never imagined that math could be such a powerful force for healing childhood wounds. Especially given the scars from mathematics I’ve carried since middle school.

Scars of childhood

When I was in 7th grade I hated math … or I should say, I hated my math teacher. He was the high school football coach and he “motivated” his students off the field just as he did on the field: intimidation, yelling, and public humiliation. I was the focus of his wrathful attention on more than one occasion because I couldn’t understand what he was teaching.

His tactics of humiliation and public shaming had the opposite effect of his intention, if in fact his intention was to impart an understanding of mathematics.

Math became a trigger for me as a child and young adult. I found myself often demotivated, frustrated, or checked out in math classes. I had the emotional scars of being “not good at math” and it showed up from balancing my checkbook to learning calculus. Fractions haunted me when building our remote cabin in McCarthy, Alaska.

It took me quite some time to regain my confidence in my math abilities. I had to learn that my experience wasn’t really about me, but how the subject was presented and how I was (or in this case wasn’t) motivated to learn.

Okay, Allwright, sorry about your mean middle school math teacher, but are you going somewhere with this trip down memory lane?

Repeating the patterns (wounds) we’ve experienced

That old math trigger was tested recently. My oldest son is taking an online pre-algebra class and he began to fall behind. He would complain when I pressed him about his progress … it was “too hard” and he didn’t “get it” and he wanted to drop out.

So one weekend I sat down with him and we begin to review his work and the roadblocks keeping him from success. Shortly after we began our work together his self-defeating whining began. I started to feel frustration and disappointment rise within me from my perception of his lack of motivation and drive to succeed.

Suddenly something felt oddly familiar as I sensed my anger rise. I noticed a familiar tone … a “You’re gonna sit there and get it done or else” voice began to bubble up. You know the one … it sounds like an old football coach yelling in your face that you’re going to do it until you get it and you’re going to like it.

The power of choice – a new perspective

In that moment I witnessed how I was about to repeat the same do-it-or-else pattern that I had suffered. I observed how I was beginning to project my old math teacher and was about to impart to my son a similar soul-crushing math experience that I had.

So I stopped, took a breath, and then another, and shifted from a soon-to-be-boiling-over father to a curious and loving dad. I shifted my focus from the trigger (the math) to my response to the trigger (frustration and a sense of shame). I recognized in my rising anger my own fear of his potential failure and the possibility that he might experience the same mathematically challenged childhood that I had.

By observing what was coming up inside of me in the moment I saw through what stuff was mine and I was able to get clear on what was real. The reality was that my son needed me and it was my job to be present. He needed my patience and calm so that he could stay focused, engaged, and enthusiastic about learning.

From this new perspective I could see things from a completely different vantage. I could see what he didn’t understand and why he was frustrated.

From this new perspective of curiosity I could see and evaluate what he wasn’t getting. I was able to be present with what he needed to succeed and what I needed to shore up in the places he wasn’t understanding.

From this new perspective teaching him was fun! I realized it was about teaching him the strategy, not necessarily the content. I was able to show him that math wasn’t hard or complicated. Sure, it was complex, but complex things are made up of multiple simple steps. And with this new perspective he can figure out anything.

And so in one sitting of pre-algebra I was able to:

  1. purge (and find compassion for) an old spirit from mathematics past
  2. support my son in keeping alive his love of math (and hopes of one day becoming an aeronautical engineer)
  3. forge a deeper bond with my son
  4. and most importantly, be the kind of loving father and supportive man that I aspire to be

Who would have thought that math could be so powerful?

Have you ever had a transformational math experience? How about greater awareness of triggers and sabotaging self-talk? Share your experience in the comments below!