Parents & Children

Our parents fail us, and we in turn fail our children.

Take your eyes off the road for just a second, or focus too narrowly, and you fail.

We get behind the parenting wheel with directions we have written ourselves: avoid this pothole, don’t go down this road. And then we fail our children other ways, all unaware: casually or sadly or cruelly, though rarely with malice.

What we have done to them or failed to do is irrevocable and cannot be erased. When we realize what it is that we have or have not done, we see the bloody fingerprints everywhere, upon the babes in our arms to whoever they are now. But only to a degree: there are strange lights and shadows where our children (have) travel(led) that confound our gaze — valleys where they walked amidst enemies, looking for friends.

It’s Official

I am “defecting to the typewriter”. I believe in the luck of my children, who have not devoured me; I believe in the luck of my husband and lover, who keeps a free woman. (Thank you, Carolyn Kizer!) As of March 1, 2021, I am a writer only. The first day went great. The second day started earlier and with even more enthusiasm. Here’s a little bit of what I’m working on:

In dole service I was a little more judgey, because I was older and looking for something — evidence, reasons, a clue. Dole service has a element of choice to it, at least until the choices become who you are. I was working in a market, once, wrangling folding tables and sweeping floors. It was the kind of market where the hard goods are second- or third-hand and the groceries are all past their best-before dates. A frowsty-haired woman named Brinda had a table there, displaying gloriously scented bruised pineapples and small piles of limp or desiccated vegetable items I didn’t know the names of. I bought avocados from her. I only knew one thing to do with them, a kind of creamy, spicy spread, and the very soft, beginning-to-blacken ones she offered suited that purpose. We got to talking about journeying and I said I was thinking about going home for the solstice festival.

“Oh, I never go otherwhere for something,” she said. “I just go, and see what there is when I get there.”

“Why?” I asked. 

She squinched up her face as if tasting something sour. “You gotta to leave at the right time, and get the hops timed just so,” she said. “Weeks in advance, sometimes, you have to plan. And life’s not like that; you can’t count on things staying the same for long.” She shook her head. “Too chancy. I go when I want to.”

I didn’t know what to do with that. I felt sorry for her mysteriously stormy, precarious life so prone to falls. On the other hand, her reasoning felt itchy. Wasn’t it more unsettling to go any otherwhere at a moment’s notice than to go with planning and purpose? So what, or who, was chancy here?




Q If God, why so much suffering?

A Theologians, philosophers, mystics and writers have been wrestling with this question in its various forms for as long as we know. They’ve come up with some interesting answers and their work is still in print or available no further away than an internet query. So, why are you asking me?

Q Because I want to hear your answer.

A I just gave it to you.

Q I want to know what you think.

A About what?

Q About God and suffering.

A Do you, though? Do you really?

Q Yes.

A Well, you’ll have to shadow me for the rest of my life, then. Because I’m thinking all the time. Even in my sleep — that’s called dreaming.

Look, let me put it this way for you. If someone really needs an answer to that question—if their faith or their refusal of faith depends on it—then they should engage with those theologians and philosophers and mystics and writers. And not just ask any old person who believes in God. That’s like handing your nest egg to a passing acquaintance to take care of. Instead of doing some research and finding an actual money manager you can trust.

Q How so?

A Write this down: Matthew 25 verses 14 to 30. Now write this down: “Talent” doesn’t mean what you think it does.


Tears are the waters of truth. As in labour, they flow to ease delivery. 

Truth will out; to stifle it completely means a death. Arriving, it pains; abandoned, it dies. Protected, it has a chance. It will teach those who receive it what they need to know to raise it up. Truth transforms.

Truth is so strong. Even the worst parents produce miracles, while the best parents release into the world something steady and ready to repeat itself. Truth is also vulnerable, dependent as it is on cracked vessels to carry it. Despite our best efforts, it gets twisted, it frays. When the truth is that we’ve botched it, the tears are scalding, hot as fire. Bitter truths still bless our attention, though. When the blood is washed away and the broken body carefully wrapped, we will receive the same truth again, more softly, in a shower of sorrow.  

Therefore, respect tears, yours and other people’s. Respect them especially when they come in anger or relief, or inexplicably. Don’t suppress or ignore: interrogate. Pause the conversation and ask yourself — ask the weeper — calmly, curiously, without fear or haste: “Where are these tears coming from?” 

Spread your hands and prepare to catch the birth of truth.

Photo copyright LauraPeetoomWriterOnline, 2020

With thanks to Kathleen Sutcliffe, BA, MDiv, RMFT, RP, for asking the question.


Forgiveness sheds what hampers you.

Imagine being in a bouncy castle; only, it’s not for fun, you’re living there, trying to get stuff done, trying to get places, and there’s this moving, bouncing, rocking, unsteady surface beneath your feet. All the time. 

That’s your victimhood. When you forgive, you plunge a knife into the side of it and all the air comes out. It’s not gone; your pain is not gone. But you can get around much more easily, here and there and everywhere.

And you know, traffic has a way of wearing at things. By the end of your life, your pain may be worn away to scattered scraps—so easy to pick up and toss into the trash can on your way to heaven. 


The way a magnifying glass — like, those solid domes of clear glass or resin you can glide over the page — makes the one bit under it large and clear while the rest of the sentence runs on indistinguishable: that’s how it is when you’re young. Every one moment so intense and important, and at the same time having no clue, no clue what it’s all about.

That’s how it is when you’re young…

I grew up believing life must have a narrative. In that narrative, the main character has drive, has purpose, has intent. In my late teens and early twenties I kept looking for a telling thread to guide me in the maze my lived life seemed to be, the one word or phrase that would give me a clue. I didn’t understand that the sentence is a run-on of literal transcription, and meaningless as such. Time and experience bring the meaning, the loupe of memory telling hindsight’s tale about itself.

But Out

I’ve done some emotional learning in my time and one of the most useful little tools I was given was to stop using the word “but”.

It’s a small word with a powerful punch that you can feel coming. The tension of its imminence raises hackles and closes ears and when it lands it negates everything that came before it. So often, it acts not like a simple conjunction but more like an injunction. Let me give you some examples.

  • This is a great piece of work! But you made some spelling errors.
  • You have some great ideas but they aren’t very practical.
  • We’re really proud of how well you’re doing in school but you could be a little more helpful around the house.

Now let’s revise, using alternatives.

  • This is a great piece of work! One final pass and it will be ready for posting.
  • You have some good ideas and I’m eager to see how you would put them into practice.
  • We’re really proud of how well you’re doing in school and would love to see that same improvement around the house.

Do you feel the difference?

It takes some practice to be able to censor yourself, pause to rethink, and then go on along the lines I’ve shown above. The first step is to simply replace the word “but” with “and”. It will feel unnatural, even silly, but and it works!

Butting Heads

Remember how I said we can feel that “but” coming? Well, people with low self-esteem or a lot of insecurity are especially sensitive to that tension and develop ways to cope with it. (This is a subject worthy of its own post, so I won’t elaborate right now.)  Whatever their strategy, it takes energy and thought and they end up missing half of what you’re saying — the complimentary half. All they hear is what comes after the “but” — the criticism, which they respond to according to their particular coping method: excuses, accusations, anger, tears, withdrawal, some act of passive aggression or active rebellion.

When the “but” doesn’t arrive, it’s disarming. The anxious listener is surprised and quickly runs through what they just heard, realizing that half of it was positive. Suddenly, where there was an enemy there is now an ally. Where there was conflict, there is cooperation.

The anxious listener is surprised… 
A great scene, with Ebenezer and Bob the day after Christmas.

The Difference One Little Word Can Make

The word “but” invalidates what comes before it: “This is true but this is more true.” The word “and” sets up a dialectic, in which two opposite truths are balanced as equals. Human beings like balance. It feels good. In balance, there is space and time for thought, choice and meaningful action.

Let’s go back to that second set of examples used earlier and unpack them a little.

  • This is a great piece of work! One final pass and it will be ready for posting.
    • The writer (for example) gets a no-strings compliment and is invited to prepare the work for publication, the implication being that there are some minor fixes to do. The writer can choose to leave the work as-is and not publish or find out what the errors are, fix them, and post the work.
  • You have some good ideas and I’m eager to see how you would put them into practice.
    • The colleague (for example) gets some clear validation and an invitation to build on their success. They can choose to continue on their own or ask for some input or guidance. They can also ask for clarification: “I understood that this was a brainstorming exercise. If we are problem-solving I can come up with more practical ideas.”
  • We’re really proud of how well you’re doing in school and would love to see that same improvement around the house.
    • The teenager (for example) gets both validation and praise and an invitation to go further. It’s not a demand which they have to respond to in the moment; they can carry the invitation until they choose a way to define it—by cleaning up their room unasked, or taking out the trash, or attending to a younger sibling. The good feeling coming from the no-strings praise will be their motivation.

I have had great success with the “but out” strategy with my kids, at work and in relationships with friends and family members. Try it yourself and, if you get a positive result, consider encouraging others by sharing your experience in the comments section. 

The Tough

When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

Great saying — except the “tough” often don’t know when to stop. If you suggest they take some time off and rest, they say, “Yup, sure. Will do.” And then they don’t.

I’m Fine!

Some people have trouble understanding that psychic distress is real (i.e., has measurable effects) and universal (i.e., if you are a living creature with a brain, you will experience it). These people are “fine” and “just have to get this done”; it’s only other people who feel anxious and overwhelmed. Their quaint belief is sustainable as long as the stress has a deadline. (The job gets done and everyone gets a rest.) It’s different when the stress is long-term and without a definite end. In such times, how do you show the Energizer bunnies and never-say-no types that they really do need to check out for a while?

Honestly, Buddy …

You’ll have to be direct, because a stressed-out person doesn’t do subtlety. To avoid sounding accusatory it helps to call out observable effects — impatience, irritation, brusqueness, mistakes in what they’re doing, mishearing what others are saying. If there’s blowback, validate their feelings (“I can see this really upsets you”; “I understand you may not want to hear this right now”) and reassure them of their value: “You’re an important member of this team. We can’t afford for you to burn out.”

It’s a Blizzard Out There

I find it useful to avoid psychological language. Lots of people discount psychology altogether or think it doesn’t apply to them, and will tune you out the minute you start talking about feelings. Try weather analogies instead. Compare the current situation to a hurricane or ice storm — any climactic condition that interrupts business as usual and impedes our habits. Liken the brain to a house or a car or anything that might take a licking in such weather. Rest, recreation, whatever is grounding and spiritually or mentally restorative: this is like putting shutters on the windows or making sure the tank is filled and the windshield wipers are working.

Because a storm is what we are experiencing now, during this Covid crisis. NOTHING IS NORMAL, and our brains are working overtime, making adaptations all day, every day. Eventually, our brains will recognize the patterns of the new normal and will be able to work more efficiently. In the meantime, we’re going to be feeling anxious, overwhelmed and exhausted — whether we are aware of it or not.

Aware = Care

The key point is awareness. Our “tough” friends (lots of our “emotional” friends, too!) are often unaware of their own anxiety; indeed, some of them don’t understand anxiety at all. They confuse it with worry and are blind to its effects on their behaviour. Again, under ordinary circumstances we can chalk this up to “personality” and make the necessary accommodations. But in a crisis, unacknowledged anxiety can cause serious problems. Because anxiety is really uncomfortable, even painful. The anxious person will do anything for relief — act rashly, pick a fight, lash out. Those actions cause damage which then takes precious energy to rein in and repair.

People who are aware of their own anxiety, on the other hand, have their inner traffic lights on yellow. They approach tricky situations cautiously and give others the benefit of the doubt. They check their first reactions and balance them against the facts. They remember their manners!

Take a Rest; Then Bring Your Best

The emotionally aware can really help in times like this, by calling out (lovingly or at least non-judgementally) any anxiety-driven behaviour they observe and offering clear and acceptable ways for the colleague, friend or family member to take a break and take care of themselves.

But be careful, you emotional geniuses: Your gift can quickly become a burden. Expect a point at which you must stop helping others and care for yourself for a while. You might find it difficult but it’s a matter of survival. Say to yourself, “Just because I understand it doesn’t mean I’m responsible for it.” Picture the concern or situation or person as a book. Close the book and put it on a mental shelf. You can always pick it up again later; in the meantime, take a bubble bath, go for a run, hug a tree or smash some tennis balls against a wall for a while — whatever it takes to settle your insides and clear your mind.

Friends, we need to pace ourselves. Because this is a marathon we’re running.

Darling Starling

Yesterday, I heard the queerest bird song — like a vireo’s but not. I had to go outside and investigate. I tracked the sound to the area of its source and looked up, as vireos sing from the treetops; not that I expected to actually see it, since they are so well camouflaged. I’ve only seen one once, in early spring before the leaves had come out.

Bridal Wreath Spirea

While I was searching, I realized the sound was coming from ear level. “Are you in the bush?” I asked. (Yes, I talk to Nature.) The bird song stopped. I whistled and it answered; in the whistling was something very familiar — a prickly, rustly burble. I reached into the bush a metre or two away (a lovely, blooming spirea) and shook one branch. The song went silent. I concluded that my hunch was probably right: there was a starling in there, secretly trying out a vireo song!

It’s easy to dislike starlings. They form huge flocks and can do a lot of damage to a crop in a short time. They’re highly adaptive to urban life, too, and can often be seen arrayed on wires, murmuring, whistling and dropping lots of waste as they socialize. Most significantly, starlings are an introduced species that competes against and displaces native North American species. The first starlings were brought to North America and released by a fool who thought it would be nice to bring over all the birds mentioned in works by Shakespeare.

“Nay, I’ll have a starling shall be taught to speak nothing but Mortimer, and give it to him to keep his anger still in motion.” 

Henry IV Part 1, Act 1 Scene iii

Nevertheless, starlings have pecked their way into my affections. They are amazing mimics. At different times I have heard a cat’s meow and a car horn coming from on high and, puzzled, looked up to see a solitary starling, shifting on a wire and looking pleased with itself. The most incredible performance I’ve witnessed was a starling sampling the songs of half a dozen other birds — the modus operandi of the Northern mockingbird. A mimic imitating another mimic: Wow!

I also can’t help but admire a flock of starlings in the air. Hundreds, even thousands, of individual birds behave as one, fluid entity, cavorting in the air the way certain schools of fish do in the ocean. It’s a wonder, to watch them paint their ever-changing shapes on the canvas of the sky.… Check out this National Geographic video and you’ll see.

P.S. Starlings aren’t particularly handsome but they are easy to identify. They’re a kind of dark no-colour with a little iridescence about the shoulders and their feathers have an untidy aspect. A flock will include many immature birds, which are speckled all over with “stars” of white — hence the name.

Tense Time

This is on my mind.

We’re living in a tense time. Unable to live our lives in the usual way, we are missing the conscious and unconscious ways we feed, comfort and satisfy our deep selves. This means we’re going to encounter one another’s inner wailing infants much more often. Wailing infants can neither hear nor understand words. Apologies and explanations are useless. If you have tried and failed to appease someone who is really upset with you, don’t take it personally. Don’t respond with anger, impatience, annoyance. Be the grown-up. Respond with love.