In the past six months my thoughts have turned into lists. They are endless lists of urgent tasks accompanied by a sense of impending failure. Yet lately the lists are shorter, and I begin to see the results of those lists in projects accomplished. The lists are going to last through July, but they now have some spaces between them. Those spaces are going to get larger. Occasionally when I am inside of one of those spaces I feel a little lost. I’ve forgotten what to do when my days are strictly constrained by urgent tasks. I know that I should begin picking up my own long-neglected projects, and I will, but not just yet. First I need to teach my brain that it is okay to not think in lists all the time.
I read a lot of articles online, but when I read an excerpt from Lisa Damour’s Untangled, I knew I wanted to read the rest of the book. I approached it cautiously. I’ve picked up so many parenting / therapy / self-help books and been disappointed in them. Sometimes these books irritate me by assuming things about me or my child that do not apply. Other times they accurately describe my problem, but then try to prescribe fixes for me that simply would not work in my house. Most often they simply have little new information to offer. I end up skimming through pages and pages to find a single idea that I can apply in my life. So I checked Damour’s book out of the library expecting to skim and glean some useful information. By the end of chapter two, I’d ordered a copy for myself because I want to be able to re-read it and write notes in the margins.
Right in the introduction Damour stated that she did not seek to be prescriptive, she just wanted to describe the natural emotional / intellectual development of teenage girls and let readers come to their own conclusions or solutions. (The same development happens in boys, but it manifests a bit differently and Damour chose to focus on teen girls.) She does offer suggestions here and there, but they’re almost always a list of “some have found this works” or “you might want to try this.” I can tell you the exact paragraph where I fell in love with Damour as a writer / psychologist / mother. She was describing a study that has been done about the correlation between teens doing well socially and academically and them eating dinner with their parents more than three times per week. I already knew about that study. I’ve read it. I’ve felt guilty about it and resolved to do better at making family dinner happen. Then I’ve watched the efforts fade away so I felt guilty again. After describing the study, Damour says this in a parenthetical:
At that moment I knew that Damour gets it. She understands that every thing we do for our kids, for our work, for or ourselves comes at the expense of some other good thing we could be doing. Time, energy, and willpower are limited resources and we all have to make choices about how to spend them. After that parenthetical I was very willing to read more of what she had to say. She didn’t disappoint.
The other reason I was afraid to read the book was because of where I was emotionally. I was in the middle of a grief I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to get rid of. I was actively grieving the normal teenagerhoods that it seemed my kids would never be able to have because of their combinations of mental health and developmental issues. I was very afraid that this book would just make me cry because it would describe a teenage experience that was out of reach for my family. It did the opposite. This book shifted the way I think about my teens (the boys as well as the girl) and healed much of the grief I had been feeling.
Damour’s book describes specific developmental drives that happen in teenage brains. She talks about how those drives can manifest differently in different teens and different parent child relationships. Then at the end of each chapter she outlines some things to watch for which might indicate that your child has a problem which isn’t covered by “normal teenage development.” Reading Damour’s descriptions, I was finally able to see how much of my teen’s behaviors are actually normal rather than driven by their issues. It can be really hard to tell with teens because normal teenage behavior would be disordered behavior if done by an adult. Damour’s descriptions have finally provided me with the tool to sift through the things my teens do and say. Knowing which behaviors are normal means I am better able to sit back and let them learn through struggling instead of jumping to their rescue. I’m also able to look at which developmental drives are being interrupted or hampered by the mental health issues. I can see ways to help that I hadn’t seen before. All of this is subtle, but very significant.
I think Damour’s Untangled is going to be like Gift of Fear by Gavin DeBecker, a book that I recommend over and over again to people who are struggling. It certainly feels like a personal paradigm shift, like when I first read the article about The Power and Peril of Praising Your Kids. That article changed how I parented forever. I’m still absorbing information from Damour’s book and letting it settle into my brain. Yet, I’ve already been less stressed and anxious. I’ve changed small decisions every single day based on what I’ve learned. Instead of jumping in with concern (thus communicating that the experience is not normal and is an emergency) I’ve been able to stay back and express confidence that my kid can handle it. And they have. And everyone was happier and more confident for it.
So if you have a teenager, are going to have a teenager, or know teenagers you want to understand better, I recommend Lisa Damour’s Untangled.
I retrieved Kiki from college on Friday. Then she and I spent Saturday assembling an IKEA dresser and using power tools to create a platform support for the back half of the bed. I feel very pleased that the platforms were created entirely from materials that I salvaged while removing the wall. The result is a lofted bed with a dresser so that the old dresser can be removed from the room, giving her even more space. Also, there is a crawl space behind the dresser which is very useful for storage of college things that she won’t use again until August.
I’m bumped, bruised, scraped, and sore, but the project has been a good one. Now Kiki can set up art studio space in her room.
I went searching for a quote from Van Gogh that someone quoted to me recently. This one:
It has a lovely thought about the importance of creating even in the midst of self doubt. In searching for that quote, I found an entire wikiquote devoted to Van Gogh. I began to read Vincent’s letters to Theo, and discovered they were full of the amazing thoughts of a brilliant mind who battled depression and other mental health issues without recourse to modern pharmaceuticals.
This one in particular cried out to me:
I’ve spent the past several years dwelling in a place like the one Van Gogh describes; keeping going, but not counting on things getting any better. Except lately it feels like the endless gray is beginning to clear. I’m beginning to look around and feel that there was something after all. Many of Van Gogh’s other thoughts speak to me as well.
Seeing his words, seeing the darkness and light that he struggled with in his own mind brings a new dimension to the paintings. I have a new found respect for who Van Gogh was, and a new grief that he struggled for so long with no societal support and without the resources necessary to continue.
I know so many people who are like this: brilliant, shining, thoughtful, good, and swamped by darkness generated by their own minds. I wish it were not so. And even as my world begins to feel brighter, I am aware that storms will come and go in the years ahead. But I can’t let some imagined future storm stop me from enjoying the sunshine today.
Occasionally life offers a clear moment of transition. There is a clear marker of the current thing being complete or the next thing beginning. Most of the time I’m surrounded by a plethora of transitions as one project trails off to a conclusion, another idles, a third begins ramping up. On this day Planet Mercenary is in its final stages. After months of me pushing as hard as I can every day, I’ve come to the place where I’m waiting on other people instead of being hyper aware that others are waiting on me. It is strange to not have a long list of urgent tasks to do. I’m actually finding it a bit difficult to focus my days. Some of that is pure fatigue. It is normal for me to go a bit drifty after a period of sustained energy. I should probably expect this period of driftyness to feel a bit different because I’ve never had such a prolonged period of sustained energy. I’ve been pushing hard on Planet Mercenary since late December.
Now I am beginning to have spaces and I’m trying to remember what I ought to do with them. Much of my time has been spent on parenting tasks, paying more attention to house, homework, children. Last week was full of melt downs, difficult conversations, realizations, and emotional reactions to all of it. Perhaps all of that is also a natural reaction to the shift in focus. I’m still processing. I’m tired and discouraged on several parenting fronts, while seeing encouraging growth on others. Somehow the fatigue makes the discouraging stuff easy to see and the encouraging things out of focus.
Part of the challenge is that while I’m not pressed with tasks that are “do this today” levels of urgent, I still have a long list of tasks that are urgent this week and this month. Planet Mercenary still has important tasks associated with it. I’m writing the bonus story for the next Schlock book. We’re preparing to do crowdfunding for the deluxe handbrain screen whose development was partially funded by the Planet Mercenary Kickstarter, but which we can’t afford to print without pre-orders. There are some posters and other merchandise which we also want to release soon. And I’m working to release all the currently available Schlock books in PDF as well as print. I have not run out of things to do. They won’t until after Planet Mercenary shipping in July.
And yet, I’m beginning to be able to imagine there being spaces. Up ahead there will be days where I can ask myself “what do I want to work on today?” instead of being dictated to by urgent deadlines.
“I’m really more of a family therapist. Have you considered family therapy?” The therapist asked. I was once again at the clinic of a local university seeking individual therapy for my fourteen year old. Except they’d assigned me a family therapist instead of what I had asked for. The very question spiked my anxiety, poked all the guilty places in my brain. I know that there are patterns in my family which aren’t ideal. We all spend too much time on screens. We don’t go outdoors enough or get enough exercise. We eat too much frozen food. And yet, some of these patterns we’ve fallen into were extremely adaptive and necessary survival tactics faced with the quantity of mental health issues and the pay-the-bills business tasks that we had. Were I a being of infinite energy we would have handled it all and still had regular meals together, gone on picnics, and played board games regularly. I feel terribly guilty for not having that infinite energy, even though I know that every day I made the best choices I could with the limited resources available. But when family therapy was suggested it unleashed the howling voices of self doubt which gleefully shrieked that I had made all the wrong choices. Obviously.
It was an agonizing few minutes trying to answer this question from the earnest young man who was very perceptive and thus recognized that his question had opened a huge well of emotion. He was poised to dig and help me sort all of those emotions, as surely was his job. Only it wasn’t his job. I was asking him to help my son. I’d deliberately tried to set boundaries for the therapy. I’d done so in advance, being very specific about what I was seeking. Then when I was in a room alone with him, the therapist questioned why I had the boundary in place. The howling self-doubt, the confusion about being questioned on the topic, and my own natural tendency to empathize with my conversational partner all combined to make answers difficult to articulate. He tried to be a good therapist and say accepting things, but it was obvious to me that he believed family therapy to be the one true way to solve issues, including my son’s depression, loneliness, and inability to make friends at school.
Outside that room, in the car on the way home, all the emotional noise subsided. My son and I talked. Both of us felt clearly and calmly that family therapy was not what we need at this time. For all that we have some isolationist habits and some individual family members with communication issues, those issues would be simply resolved simply by spending more time focused on talking to each other. We don’t need a mediator to help us be find hidden resentments. We already know how to discuss such things the minute it becomes obvious that they exist. I can’t count the number of difficult conversations my kids have been through with me, with each other, with Howard. We know how to talk about the hard things without letting anger or frustration make us mean. Yet I don’t think I could have convinced the therapist of any of that. Until he saw it for himself, all my statements of “I don’t think we need your help” sound like I’m scared or anxious trying to desperately prevent change and growth in family patterns. I did not have the patience to disrupt my entire family for weeks of sessions just to demonstrate that while we’re not perfect, mostly what we need is more time together not a mediator. Besides, some of the things we do have more to do with being a family of introverts than with being broken in some way.
My son and I decided that this therapist would not work for him. Which was sad, because the therapist had good rapport and my son instantly liked him. I can add one more failed therapy relationship to the list. There was one thing the therapist said which rang true to me. Patterns in the home are translated out into the wider world. Requiring my son to practice more social skills at home will help him use those skills at school. This left the problem of how to draw a family of introverts from their isolated comfort zones and into more shared activities. I’ve discovered more than once that when I want to change a family pattern, the wrong solution is exhausting and falls apart, while the right solution clicks into place and makes everything easier. I began mulling over what we should do. Part of my mulling involved prayer. The answer I got wasn’t what I expected, which is true of many of my answers to prayers.
Netflix has a show called the Great British Baking Show. I’ve never been interested in cooking shows, let alone competition cooking shows. Yet several online friends expressed what a delight this one was, in part because everyone is kind and helpful to each other rather than cut-throat competitive. So I began watching and I liked it. Up there in paragraph one there is a little sentence “we eat too much frozen food.” It has been more than a year since I cooked regularly. For a long time it has felt like I’d completely forgotten how to cook. Even on days where I had time and energy, I would stare at a cupboard full of ingredients and have no idea what to make from them. I’d come to the conclusion that I just wasn’t a cooking person now that the kids were old enough to get their own food. Then I started watching the cooking show. Part way into season two, I found myself wanting to make a trifle. Not just eat one, but also make it. Within a two days of wanting to make trifle, I got a clear answer to my prayers about bringing my family together. The answer was “cook more.”
Over the next week I considered my answer. Then one day I stuck in a frozen pizza, planning to watch more of my show while I ate it. No sooner had the pizza emerged when three family members had come into the kitchen to cook food. My quiet space was gone. The smell of food had summoned them from their corners. I shut my iPad and watched them move through the space. They smiled and interacted more, even when they were dodging each other and some of the kids were still trying to watch a video while preparing food. I began to see that if I were making more food to share, instead of food for one, that togetherness would flow naturally from the process. If I called people in to help me with the food preparation, they would be pulled away from their screens and into an activity which simultaneously engages multiple senses and encourages being social.
Of course there are potential problems with building social habits around food, particularly if the food is heavy on dessert offerings. Yet if I am conscious from the beginning to focus on healthy foods, we might all experience health benefits as well as social ones. I’m not going to perform a massive overhaul of our family eating habits. That way lies exhaustion and discouragement. I’m starting simple and small. I’m going to cook more often than I was. I’m going to keep watching cooking shows that spark food ideas. I’m going to encourage social time in the kitchen. I’m going to be patient and see what these small changes shift before attempting any more. Oh, and I’m going to cancel any further appointments with that therapist, he’s not what we need right now.
As I listened to Hardcore History’s series on World War 1, the narrator spoke in detail about how that war was a watershed in human history. Afterward everything was different than before. And it all began abruptly, with a single event that led to a cascade of other things until all of Europe was at war. I remember in particular one segment after the war had begun when the narrator spoke about average citizens in their home countries, that they didn’t understand yet that the world had changed. They went about their lives, had picnics, went to work, complained about the small inconveniences of life. The narrator was so surprised, how could the people not be struck by the trend of events?
In the past week my country ordered a strike on Syria. North Korea has been in the news. This same week my daughter spent hours by a pond catching frogs while we’re on vacation. I sent emails to continue a work project because I have a responsibility to see it through. I took pictures of the pond and of flowers. And I begin to understand why those people over a hundred years ago went on picnics. Some of them knew that the world had changed. They knew that death, grief, and disaster were coming for them. So they treasured the picnic while they had it.
The terrible pictures on the news exist in the same world as my pictures of bumble bees and blue skies. For a while I was participating in political discussions on social media. Lately I’ve been so overwhelmed with it all, and with my own urgent tasks, that I have not. I feel guilty about this. I should do more, spend more effort, time, money to improve the world for those who struggle more than I do. At the same time I know that if I deplete myself I will not have stamina for the long haul. Taking care of others is always a long haul. And if the current folks in power get to stay in power, that haul will last at least four years. I’m keenly aware that my efforts or lack thereof have an effect on whether they get those four years. My personal effect is minuscule, but not nothing.
One of the things I feel I can do is provide some places of respite. I can share my pretty pictures. Because when souls are beaten up and grieving over terrible images, sometimes beautiful things can help. I have to remind myself that the picnics which the hardcore history narrator marveled at were important. People on the front lines desperately need to know that there is something normal, beautiful, peaceful that is worth saving. When people rotate off the front lines something comforting needs to be there for them so that they can rest up before doing battle again.
So here are some of the pretty pictures of a vacation that occurred simultaneously with a series of events which may cascade and permanently change the world I live in.
I love General Conference. It reminds me to set aside regular things and feed my spirit. After a long run of heavy work focus it was nice to listen while I worked in the garden on Saturday morning. Then it was nice to half-listen while I played a four-hour-long board game with my sons. I’ll have to take time to listen to that session again with more attention. There was good stuff in there that I missed. For Sunday sessions we gather everyone into the family room and put conference on the big TV. It is nice to have a time to be quiet and be together.
I have much to think about and attempt to apply in my life. Some of the talks I’ll need to read and listen to again. I heard words on accepting and loving everyone around us. Elder Christoferson spoke against shame culture. Elder Uchtdorf had an entire talk about using fear as a motivator, that while it can work, it doesn’t transform people. He said that fear is not the way to lead. Many of the things said connected to many of the things I have been thinking about. Some intersected with personal issues inside my home. Others seemed to speak directly to the politics of the US which have been adding so much stress to my life.
Even more important than the specific words are a feeling of renewed connection to my spiritual roots and my LDS community. I’m calmer and happier this weekend than I have been for some time.
There is something extra beautiful about a sunny day after an extended period of gray and rain. We had sunny today. It was still chilly and windy, but the sun was shining. I have flowers blooming in my front beds. They’ve poked up in spite of the fact that no one has cleared away the dead plant detritus from last fall. My 16yo went roller skating for the first time in months and felt happy instead of depressed. The 14yo exercised without me requiring it of him first. College girl called yesterday with only happy things to say. She’s figured out how to finish college in one more semester instead of two. 19yo has consented to attend a job fair tomorrow so that he can begin picturing the kinds of jobs he could be applying for. The taxes are done and we’re getting a return this year.
On the business front: I printed out pages from the Planet Mercenary book in color. It always feels more real, and much closer to done when I can turn the pages with my fingers. I’ve also printed out some posters that I hope to put in the store soon. And I finally cleared the dumb hurdle which was preventing me from making Schlock book PDFs.
The day hasn’t been completely joyful. I’m all too aware of the news and the fact that I’m not doing enough to participate in ongoing public conversations and legislation. There are upcoming expenses related to book printing and shipping that have me stressed. And of course there is the ongoing weight of Planet Mercenary tasks. I can’t slack off because deadlines are close.
Yet, despite all of that, the sun shone. The day was pleasant. And I think it is very important to spend a few moments sitting in the sun at the end of a long cold time.