Love and toxic families

I almost made myself cry last week.

One of my grandgirls, Avery, loves music. When she vocalizes, she does so in melodic tonal movements, and now that she’s started talking, sometimes her word repetitions sound like little songs. Obviously, Gramma wants to encourage this, so I sing to her sometimes.

I have to admit, though, I have become bored with traditional children’s songs. Last week, I changed stations. I started singing tunes I’ve learned playing guitar, including some old John Denver songs. I’d begun “Leaving on a Jet Plane” before I realized what I was singing. Tears popped into my eyes as soon as I heard the words come out of my mouth.

“I’m leaving on a jet plane, don’t know when I’ll be back again.”

Yep, that’s pretty much the scenario. The countdown to real life has begun. My plane ticket has been purchased. The girls started transitioning into day care today. Next week at this time, I’ll be flying over the Rockies on my way to the Twin Cities. (Only an airline would thing the shortest distance between Sacramento, California, and Rapid City, South Dakota, is through Minneapolis-St. Paul.)

My heart already aches. I have said it before and will undoubtedly say it hundreds of times in years to come, but I didn’t expect to love the girls as much as I do. That is not to say, I didn’t expect to love them. I did — both because I have a loving heart by nature and because I love Sara so much. How could I not love her children?

But the overwhelming sense of falling head-over-heels into a love that never ends? Nope, I didn’t expect that at all.

How could I? What mental construct did I have for that kind of relationship? What kind of experience?

Both of my grandfathers had died before I was born. My paternal grandmother died before I started school; I remember visiting her — but only vaguely. She gave me orange juice to drink.

My maternal grandmother wasn’t the warm, fuzzy type. She didn’t give her grandchildren cards or gifts for Christmas or their birthdays. If she had anything good to say about them, she said it behind their backs. She seemed to thrive on hurting family members. I stopped visiting years before she died when she told Sara, who was six at the time, that she’d never amount to anything because she had a worthless mother. I had no intention of letting anyone into my daughters’ lives who would undermine their self-confidence or plant seeds of self-doubt like those which had taken root in my life.

If you can’t say something good to my beloved daughters, you aren’t going to be given the opportunity to say anything at all. Period. Non-negotiable. Their lives were too precious to me, and it was my responsibility to safeguard their futures. Everything else was secondary to that.

Sandwiched in the middle of five generations, looking forward and looking backward, I’ve come to understand God’s time and God’s love and even some of the gospel stories a little better.

God’s time is always about the big picture, not just about the here and now. God looks down the road in ways we cannot see. And God’s love is infinite beyond anything we imagine or anticipate. He holds us in his heart and encourages in us gifts which are part of our character.

But God’s love also calls us to have clear priorities. I’ve always been troubled by the ruthlessness Jesus showed in his remarks to a follower who wanted to bury his father before becoming a disciple. “But he (Jesus) answered him, ‘Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God'” (Luke 9:60). And when another wanted to say good-bye to family members before entering into discipleship, “To him Jesus said, ‘No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God'” (Luke 9:62).

Family is a gift as far as I’m concerned. Family is the central relationship in our lives. Family teaches us about the give and take of loving and being loved. Family prepares us for other relationships and helps us learn how to build up the body of Christ in this world. How could Christ possible tell his followers to turn their backs on family?

I have begun to suspect he could say this because the reality of family doesn’t always measure up to the ideal. Families can be toxic.

But, not all toxic family members are like my grandmother. Sometimes family members can tear us apart inside with the best of intentions simply because of value differences.

I, for example, am fundamentally incapable of placing my best interests above those of others or the common good. Recently, when my former employer appealed a decision by the division of unemployment to approve benefits, I opted not to call as witnesses fellow employees who heard me say more than once I did not want a position for which I knew I was temperamentally unsuited or to call as a witness my immediate supervisor who assured me I would not have to take it. I did not want to force them to choose between lying to maintain a good working relationship with their employers or telling the truth and jeopardizing that relationship. Consequently, my former employers got away with lying, with saying I asked for the job and then changed my mind. They won the appeal.

Dealing with the financial ramifications of having a moral conscience isn’t easy, but I operate under the assumption it’s easier than it would be to ignore God’s call to build up community in this world. Still, I’ve had more than one person tell me I need to make caring for myself my first priority. These folks love me and were trying to help. They do not realize I simply cannot put myself first. I am not wired that way, nor does my spiritual journey allow me to act as though I’m the center of the universe.

I have begun to suspect that in telling his followers not to go back and deal with family matters, Jesus was telling them they didn’t have to deal with toxic family situations, with differences such as these. They didn’t have to be torn apart by the way family expectations conflicted with their personal value systems; they could live undivided lives. They could do what their hearts called them to do — follow him, lead lives of love.

I can live with that interpretation of that gospel passage, and in a week, I will begin learning again how to live without daily contact with my precious granddaughters. It will be hard. I will wake in the morning disoriented because I won’t be crossing the hall to lift their sweet weight from cribs and dressing them. I will find myself measuring my days by where I imagine they are in theirs. And slowly, bit by bit, my days will stop revolving around them.

But, this does not mean I will stop asking God to show me how to be present in their lives, how to nurture and support them as he nurtures and supports me. Healthy love is like that. It goes on and on.







I Should Have Known

Really, I should have known.

Or, at least, realized I needed to check. But I didn’t.

I just updated the last resume I put together and started sending it out. After three months without a job offer and, in instances where I should have at least received an interview, only rejection notices, I challenged myself to consider possible barriers.

Obviously, my age could be one, but since I can’t do anything about that, I have decided not to worry about that unduly. It’s equally possible that I’ve been blackballed; I’ve not had a positive working relationship with either of the last publishers for whom I’ve worked.

Since I’ve been reading Stieg Larsson’s trilogy (“Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Girls Who Played with Fire,” and “The Girl Who Kicked a Hornet’s Nest”), the idea of being victimized by the system is appealing. Granted, I’ve long been aware of the benefits of being affluent (not something I’ve experienced) and well-connected (ditto). The opportunities and social networks inherent in those conditions open doors the rest of us struggle to enter with hard work and persistence. However, I’ve not felt especially handicapped by the dearth of those benefits. I’ve managed to get a college education, maintain employment (for the most part) and raise two children as a single parent. I have also managed to accomplish these things without harming others or becoming bitter as a result of the injustices I’ve experienced from time to time. I can live with that.

Because I can live with the consequences of the choices I’ve made, I’m not overly concerned about the possibility of being blackballed. I’ve more or less decided I want to get out of the newspaper industry, anyhow. I still enjoy talking to people and writing about it, but unless I’m working for someone who appreciates my skills (as the editor and publisher at the Capital Journal did), the business is more stressful than satisfying. I’m too old to live with stress day in and day out. Once upon a time, it challenged me. Now, it simply exhausts me.

After considering those things, I considered the third item on my list: presentation. No, I’m not talking about my physical appearance. I actually clean up fairly well and have several outfits which are professional in nature to wear to interviews. Rather, I’m talking about the aforementioned resume.

I didn’t even think about checking to see what is recommended these days when it comes to selling yourself, which is odd. In the past, researching resume styles has been part of my plan for seeking employment. I’ve put together chronological resumes and skill-based resumes. I’ve put together one-page resumes and two-page resumes. I’ve tailored my resume to jobs that interested me, and simply put together a single resume emphasizing my skills and experience that I’ve sent out with cover letters tailored to the jobs.

About the only thing consistent has been one guiding principle: keep it simple. That’s pretty much the way I live my life — simply. I am a creature of habit and create as much order in my life as possible. I tell myself I choose this approach because it allows me to be creative.

Gustave Flaubert, author of “Madame Bovary” (which I have never read), apparently wrote or said something to the effect of “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” The first translation I heard was “Be bourgeois in your life, so you can be daring in your work,” which I have to admit I like better, but it amounts to the same thing. Order, rather than stifling the imagination, releases it to create powerful work — in some medium.

Unfortunately, the order which I chose to structure my last resume has not released in my life the opportunity to unleash my skills in any way, not even in a boring manner. So, I now find myself faced with the rather depressing task of deconstructing my work experience in order to reconstruct something which will interest a potential employer. Lucky me.

At least, I’ve identified a problem I can tackle. It beats sitting around and wondering what’s wrong with me. Besides, it’s a new year, so I might as well be positive!



Do Not Play with the Children

The children were nestled all snug in their beds …

Whoops! Wrong holiday. This is New Year’s Eve, not Christmas Eve. However, since I’ve spent the day with my grandgirls, it feels like Christmas to me, with all the blessings that family time with children brings.

I also did some reading, primarily because I received strict instructions when I arrived last night. Do NOT play with the children all of the time; they need to play by themselves. Consequently, I just sat in their playroom and kept an eye on them while beginning the book BLINK: THE POWER OF THINKING WITHOUT THINKING by Malcolm Gladwell.

I picked it up in the Salt Lake City airport during my layover there. It’s supposed to help those who read the book become better decision makers. After this past year, I’ve decided I need all the help I can get. The blessings of the year had nothing to do with decisions I’d made, and the challenges had everything to do with my decisions.

For four years, I worked for an employer whose organizational structure was not compatible with my style because (a) I dislike moving, (b) I loved my little house with colored walls, (c) I had a great deal of admiration for many of the people in the community, and (d) one of the women with whom I worked acted as a buffer, making the rest bearable. During this time, I turned down the opportunity to own my own weekly newspaper as well as several excellent job offers. I worked long hours, won a few awards and told myself no job was perfect.

When a new general manager has hired, the organizational balance shifted and it was necessary for me to move on. She and I worked together as well as the proverbial oil and water combo; I was not entirely surprised when my employer decided she had more to offer his organization than I did. I had hoped to establish my own timeline for leaving, but that did not prove to be the case. Fortunately, I was offered another position before I was fired. Unfortunately, the new position proved to be less than satisfactory and I was out of work five months after moving across state.

I’m not complaining about the move, though, because I had the good fortune of joining an incredible parish family, one that’s inclusive and has given me a true home. I hadn’t even realized how lonely I was until I found this place where so may people made me feel welcome and where I’ve been able to use some of my gifts. I cannot take for granted this precious gift at this point in my life.

That being said, getting a job appeals to me, especially since it does not seem likely I will win the lottery. This time, I would like to work for someone who values the work I do, at least a little, and I would like to find a permanent position. Once upon a time, I enjoyed the opportunities inherent in new beginnings. These days, I would prefer the comfort of routine job responsibilities and familiar surroundings. So, how do I manage this?

Gladwell’s premise is simple: we can make good decisions quickly, but we can also be wrong. However, if we learn to identify the factors which mislead us on a fairly consistent basis, we can overcome their influence and become better decision makers. Thus far, I’ve read just under 100 pages, and the book is making sense.

The introduction lays out the premise, which I just summarized. The first chapter discusses research on “thin slicing,” the ability our unconscious has to find patterns in situations very quickly. The second chapter discusses factors that influence the unconscious. (I’ve underlined a couple lines from this chapter because they appealed to me so much: “We have, as human beings, a storytelling problem. We’re a bit too quick to come up with explanations for things we really don’t have an explanation for.” Since I am a storyteller by nature, I find amusing the idea that storytelling is a problem.)

Chapter Three, which I’m reading at present, discusses the William Harding Error. Apparently, Harding was the worst president in the nation’s 200-year history. Apparently, he wasn’t very bright, but he looked like a president. Even though he was gambler who liked to drink and was a womanizer, he won the highest office in the country due to his appearance. In other words, we have preconceptions that may mislead us.

Thus far, I haven’t read anything that’s sent me scurrying for my journal in order to reflect upon this past year, but I do find myself fascinated by what I’m reading. In the long ago days when I was working on a Master’s degree in education, I studied the intuition in a class on gifted education. From that I learned to trust my gut as well as my head in decision-making, although it did nothing to alleviate my gullibility. Too often, I have ignored both my gut and my common sense to respond to a plea from someone who wouldn’t do themselves what they were asking me to do. I suspect I am gullible in these situations because I have a deep commitment to the common good.

That being said, I’m getting too old to put my livelihood on the line over and over to benefit others. There’s got to be a way I can be financially secure and self-sufficient without being selfish or self-centered. I just have to find it. Hopefully, if it’s related to decision-making, BLINK will help me. Even if it doesn’t, the book is definitely worth reading.

And since I have been instructed to let the girls play by themselves, it’s good to have a book in hand that’s at least interesting — maybe not as interesting as they are, but I am not sure anything is more interesting to a grandmother than her grandkids.