Starting Fresh at the Finish Line

FullSizeRender 4Well, I finally did it.  When I first decided to start writing this blog, I set myself a goal to write an article every week, for one entire year.  It’s not always been easy, or convenient.  I’ve often struggled for ideas, energy and time.  But here it is- one year of articles.  Done.

The reason I wanted to pen one year of stories from our lives was simple: to create a kind of journal for my sons.  Life has a way of scrolling by so quickly.  There are details and opportunities that I miss every day.  Writing about our life has in many ways forced me to slow down and become more observant.

A lot can happen in one year.  There have been happy days and holidays, sick days and messy days.  There were birthdays and celebrations.  There were good news, sad news.  There were days that dragged and days I feel that I entirely missed.  I got promoted, I got made redundant, I started my own business.

I made new friends, said goodbye to others.  Started relationships.  Ended them.  I’ve cried.  I’ve made people cry.  I’ve had moments of quiet pride; and quiet moments of terrible shame.  I’ve questioned myself as a parent and as a woman.  I’ve felt like I understood nothing.  And then in fleeting little moments, I felt like I understood everything.

We’ve laughed a lot.  We’ve played games, cooked together.  Tried new parks and gone back to old ones.  We read books, found new music.  We’ve tried things for the first time.  We’ve tried things for what I hope will be the last.

There have been cuddles.  There have been fights.  There were tears and apologies.  There have been words I wish I could take back.  There have been stupid things I swore I’d never do again; and then I did.

And there have been days that I wish I could have stayed in forever.

But it is all happening so quickly.  That’s why I decided to write one year of it down.  To mark the moments and search for some permanence in the details.  Because if I don’t stop and think about every week, they just slip through my fingers like rain.

I was pregnant, and I couldn’t wait for them to be born.  They were born and I couldn’t wait for them to start sleeping.  They started sleeping and I couldn’t wait for them to walk.  Then to start school… now suddenly I blink, and I have a son in high school!  Everything in me is begging for the rush to stop.

Please just slow down, let me cup my hands and catch it.  Because once we pass this moment, we won’t ever have it again.  The world is so concerned with destinations; a flustered race towards some event.  Waiting for something to happen.

What writing this blog has taught me is that the ‘something’ is now.  If we just paused and opened our eyes, there are moments to write about within each day.  Destinations happen all the time.  Not just when the kids grow a bit more, or when I get more balance with work, or when we get through the school term.

I want to wake up inside of every moment and remember that I’m already there.  The curtains are up and my life is happening now.

The encouragement and feedback of so many of you has been worth the world to me.  Plenty of times I wondered if there was any reason to keep writing, and your kind words kept me going.  Now, at the completion of ‘one year in our lives’, I am grateful for the humbling experience of being able to share so intimately from my life and family.

What next?  The start of something new.  I feel like I’ve said enough and I would like to start sharing content from other writers, god help us, maybe even professionals who actually know what they are talking about!  I’m sure there will be moments that I will want to share; but overall, I am taking a step sideways and inviting other voices to the microphone.

I started this blog on Valentine’s, and it seems appropriate that I finish on the same day.  Despite all the topics we’ve covered, and all the things that have happened and changed, there is one thing that remains untouched.  Unaffected, for even one moment.  My love for those boys.  My commitment to make their lives better.  The hope I carry that they grow into good men.

As I take a step back from writing weekly, I can genuinely say that I am proud of all the words that captured our year.  Because it showed me that even though so much happens in twelve months, so much more can happen in one moment if we just learn to look for the stories.

That is what I have learnt in one year of writing.  So much is always happening.  What a shame it would be to miss it all, because I’m always looking to the horizon, wondering about what is going to happen next.

Next is now.  Thank you all for reading.

Win or Lose, you learn.

Screen Shot 2017-02-06 at 12.22.21 AMIt’s been a big week for sports.  Federer defeated Nadal in what proved to be an epic final of the Australian open.  Greene got 10 rounds of controversial revenge on Mundine.  And a very aggressive season of my Kitchen Rules got off to a punchy start.

Adding to the excitement, my boys played several matches of futsal, one of them started tennis and my grade oner had a brawl with a bully in the school yard.  Like I said, It’s been a big week for sports.

And as always, the results are a mixed bag.  There are always wins, there are always losses.  There are times of beauty and grace, and others of shameful disgrace.  Whether it’s on a world stage, or in the back yard, there are moments that make you shriek with excitement and moments where even your breath feels too loud.

This is why we love sports.  Every match, round or game is a little pantomime of life.  It’s seldom an even playing field.  Everything is a mysterious combination of skill, effort, courage and chance.  And at the end of the day, the score card isn’t always fair.

But there are always lessons to learn…

Winning.

I remember jumping back into the car after one particularly gruelling soccer game, having a revolting sock shoved into my face by one of my sons, and hearing him say, “Take a deep breath, mum.  It’s the smell of victory”.

Winning is fun.  We try and tell the kids that it’s not about winning, but let’s be real for a sec.  It’s sport.  So it kind of is.  I hear a lot of parents say that “it’s just about having fun”- and that’s great.  But have you ever had a season where you spend week after week getting defeated?  It’s not that much fun.

So here goes… in my opinion, of the three top things that kids can learn from winning, the first one is:

  • It’s ok to want to win.  Desire, focus, motivation… none of these are evil, but our culture has an insidious way of pairing these emotions with their sinister counterparts like greed or arrogance.  Let’s never ask our children to apologise for having the audacity to see themselves as little champions.
  • Winning takes effort.  It’s true that every game has an element of chance.  There are lucky shots and fortunate coincidences; but they are usually only moments, and very rarely responsible for the entire sum of the final score.  It’s important for our kids to re-inforce the correlation between effort and reward.  One day, it might mean a promotion, or a marriage saved.
  • No victory is permanent.  I am fortunate enough to coach one of my son’s futsal teams.  The kids are young and some are new to the sport.  We win a few, and we lose a few.  The important thing to remember when we win, is that there are no guarantees for next time.  We respect each brand new opportunity to prove ourselves and we guide the kids in being gracious in both victory and defeat.

Loosing.

Loosing isn’t QUITE as much fun as winning, but knowing how to do it well is an important part of life.     Here’s why…

  • You have a chance at some objective self appraisal.  With each loss, we are able to reflect on our limits and make an assessment about the things that we could have done differently.  I find that so long as we are kind, it’s important to be honest with our kids.  Don’t tell little Johnny that he played magnificently, if he spent most of the game picking his nose in the shade.  Highlight the good things, and ask your child to make his own observations for areas he would like to improve.
  • You gain empathy.  It stings, it always stings.  Knowing what it feels like to lose,  allows us the perspective and compassion to handle our victories with more grace.
  • No defeat is permanent.  Kids amaze me with their ability to bounce back.  The paralysing grief that follows a devastaing loss can usually be dissipated with vanilla milkshakes.  By next week, nobody really remembers the score and even if they did, it is no longer relevant.  In sport, like in life, the only thing that matters is:  what will you do next?

At the end of the day, that’s all the matters.   The spirit with which you recover from a loss and the grace with which you handle your victories.  There’s a lot to learn from both winning and losing; the important thing is to stay out there, and keep playing… both in life and in sports.

As I said to the boys recently- play life a little bit more like it’s a game.  And play your next game a little bit more like it’s your life.

Making Manners

Screen Shot 2017-01-29 at 11.08.50 PMIt’s an old English saying that the boy’s father often says to them: “manners maketh the man”.  And although it sounds funny, the older I get, the more it rings true.  You can truly tell a lot about someone’s upbringing, values and social awareness by the manners with which they handle themselves.  It’s not about being a snob; it’s about making the decision to be considerate to people around us.

We never sheltered the kids to the world when they were little.  We travelled with them from when they were only a few weeks old, we continued to work, socialise and live our lives.  When people used to question me as to why I was so relaxed about the lack of routine, I used to tell them that I didn’t want to raise children who expected the world to adjust around them, but who understood that they would need to adjust to the world.

In my opinion, having manners is one small way that we show that adjustment.  In a world where everyone appears desperate to be different, the resistance against complying to convention often leads people to confuse the absence of traditional manners with individualism.  “I’ll burp loudly if I want to.  It’s who I am.  People can take it or leave it.”

In my opinion, if your display of ‘individuality’ involves a lack of consideration for others, you’ve actually become desperately unoriginal.  Ignorance is not scarce.  It seems to me that sadly, with each generation, it’s the kids with manners that are starting to stand out as unusual.  For that reason, and many others, I have always made it a priority to ensure the boys grow up into well mannered men.

Back in the days when I was a corporate trainer, I came across a term I’ve never forgotten and now use heavily in parenting: experiential learning.   Endorsed by personalities from Aristotle to Sir Richard Branson, experiential learning is simply the process of adopting new skills or principles through personal experience (and reflection), rather than through theory.

Run a search on google if you like, and you’ll come across a plethora of research that supports experience as being an accelerated way to learn, problem solve and retain a lesson.  If we look at the ‘learning curve’ – a term we all use frequently – what it basically tells us is that the absorption rate of something new decreases from 100% on the first day, to 50-80% by the second day, to approximately 2-3% after thirty days.

Well at least this helps explains why we find ourselves repeating things to our children a million times.  They’re not just trying to annoy us.  Turns out, this is a ‘thing’.  In the world of corporate training, this is why your weary HR department hires people in bright t-shirts to make you play trust games and other joyful activities with your reluctant colleagues.  You’re more likely to remember something you did, than something you heard, saw or read.

When it comes to trying to teach the kids something, I often ask myself the question, “can I turn this lesson into an experience?”  It doesn’t have to be anything dramatic, even little moments can have a lasting impact.

One such moment presented itself earlier this week, when the boys and I were walking down to our local sushi place for dinner.  I was trailing sightly behind, when we passed an older gentleman watering his roses.  The boys are normally fairly polite kids, comfortable with greeting adults when warranted.  But on this occasion they walked right past the older man, absorbed in their chatter, and ignored him.

I caught up to them quickly and without explaining why, instructed them to turn around and go back up the hill.  They were confused and reluctant, asking questions as to what madness I might be up to now.  We walked back to where the man was watering his garden and I explained to them that on their first pass they had failed to show the man the respect he deserved, and for that reason, they were going to do a take two.

The gentleman was watching us with curiosity now.  The boys were a little embarrassed, but I reassured them that we would loop back twenty times if required and repeat the greeting until it was sufficiently warm and polite.  With sushi on their mind, they went all out and showered the stunned gentleman with excessive hellos, good afternoons and nice roses!  He chuckled and thanked the boys warmly.  It was clear that he was a little chuffed. 

The second part to Experiential Learning is reflection.  As we sat down over our teriyaki chicken bowls we discussed the importance of being aware of people around them, and the value of not missing an opportunity to make someone’s day a little better.  Manners aren’t just something you bring out when you want something.  Saying please and thank you is something we could almost train our dog to do.

Manners are small gifts of character that we offer others in order to improve the quality of our interactions.  Whether it be opening a door, offering someone a drink, helping someone or giving a genuine compliment, it all goes to say the same thing: you are important.

And there isn’t one of us who doesn’t need to hear it.

To Compose a Life

cello-110981_1920Every now and again, something beautiful just catches your breath.

It’s Sunday evening; the kids and I were all on the lounge room floor labelling books for the start of the school year tomorrow.  In the background I was playing some of my classical favourites.  I love all types of music, and my long suffering neighbours can probably verify that the boys are exposed to everything from Broadway musicals to 90s grunge, to the great rock gods of the 70s and hipster acoustic remakes of everything in between.

But when I’m seeking to create peace for my spirit, I can never go past Bach.  So there we were, listening to Johann’s beautiful cello suite number 3 in D major, surely his best known Aria, when one of the boys actually turned to the speakers with undisguised awe.

“What is that music?”

The fact that the music had caught his breath, caught my breath.

I put the books aside, turned up the incredible piece and took a moment to tell the boys a little bit about the man behind the music.  Even though we now call his music classical, for the people of his time, Bach was radically controversial.  He took the piano to technical levels that others were afraid to follow.  He pushed his compositions further than anyone, always searching and finding beautiful new places to take his art.  His organ pieces were so daring, they were seen as dissentious by church members.

Bach was often criticised, dropped by patrons and questioned by the public… but he was uncompromising.  He backed and believed in himself despite it almost costing him his reputation.  Today, of course, he is hailed as one of the greatest musical geniuses of our time; the ‘father of harmony’, as Beethoven would put it.

We listened to a few other musical mavericks.  The great Czech composer, Dvorak, the devout patriot who infused his music with his Bohemian and folk heritage.  He brought gypsy and even African elements into his powerful orchestral pieces, unafraid to challenge contemporary expectations.  We listened to Gershwin, the great American composer, whose music became a quintessential part of New Yorks identity as it rose out of the Great Depression.  Criticised for daring to blend elements of jazz unashamedly into sacred classical melodies.

Both men were later hailed for their originality and brilliance.  The greats are remembered for their boldness; and the critics are always silenced by time.

As I tucked my eldest son into bed, we spoke briefly about the day that looms tomorrow- his first day of high school.  I asked him how he was feeling and he admitted to being nervous.  It’s a big school, he knows nobody.  Has he got the right shoes?  His pencil case is looking old.  He doesn’t like the way I’ve cut his hair.

To make things even harder, he is part of a small group of kids going into a program of Spanish immersion.  High school can be a tough gig, for these bunch of kids, it’s going to be even harder.

I put Bach’s Aria back on as he drifted off to sleep and I encouraged him to remember that being ‘different’ is not something to be afraid of.  In the years ahead, being comfortable in who he is, will become his biggest asset.  Kids around him will wrestle with their identities, trying to fit in, even when ‘fitting’ in sometimes goes against ‘who they are’.

Our lives are a composition of all the influences that are important to us.  In order to make choices around our values, we need to know what they are.  Just like the great composers, who stuck unashamedly to the music that they loved, we all have a choice to pick our tune and walk proudly to it.

There is nothing more appealing in a person, man or woman, than personal confidence.  I kissed my son goodnight and told him that I wasn’t going to give him any advice for high school, other than to remember who he is, and who he wants to become… and never ever compromise on anything that asks him to be any less.

Business Boys

c9fqyqiecds-mike-petrucciIt always astounds me that whilst our education system happily covers topics such as the use of synonyms and the patterns of continental climate… that it generally fails to deliver much substance across more hands on, real world subjects such as financial planning, relationships or personal development.  God forbid we teach our children something they might actually use.

I’m not having a go at teachers; goodness knows I admire them deeply.  I’ve been fortunate to know many that tackle their role with incredible pride and prowess.  But even the most proactive teachers are bound by the state curriculum; and it’s important as parents, not to abdicate entirely the role of ‘education’ to our education system.

I feel it unfortunate that the school system does not generally reward risk, or mistakes, or originality.  It does not overly welcome change or challenge.  Instead, it mostly applauds conformity and the regurgitation of pre-determined information.  You get ticks and stars for the ‘right’ answers.  That is perhaps why innovators, mavericks and entrepreneurs do not usually thrive within the school system.  Education prepares a young person for further education (tafe, university), but in my humble opinion (of which I’ve got plenty), it is not a great instructor for the world of business.

Learning to manage your finances can be a bit like learning to drive a car- you could learn all by yourself, but it’s so much better (and safer) to be taught by a person who already knows.  And you’re less likely to make a mess.  Unfortunately, the stats show that when it comes to our finances, most of us do make a mess.  The current national credit card debt of over 32 Billion sort of confirms that.

Putting aside my disillusionment with the state curriculum, I do believe it is important to begin bridging this knowledge gap and take a more deliberate attitude to preparing our young people to manage their future finances.  One practical way to do this, is to help your child set up a little business.

My sons came to me earlier this week with a proposal.  They had an idea for a business and were requiring my help to get it started.  The concept was pitched: a dog walking/washing/minding service for busy families in our area.  Whether their little business works or not, isn’t important.  What was important, was jumping on an opportunity to learn practical lessons that could really count later in life.

So I decided that if they wanted to do this, they were going to do it properly:

  1. We had to come up with a business name.  We bounced around a lot of ideas, testing them for marketability and searching for available domain names.  We settled on a name that was playful and easy to remember.  We registered the business name, website domain and email.

Ok, I know that this may seem excessive, but I want my children to know that ‘starting a business’ is not reserved for someone with special permission, or knowledge, or money, or tools.

The first step to building a business can be taken by anyone with an idea… and a little guts (and it’s not that hard).

2.  I then suggested that we develop a basic business plan.  We took some paper and wrote down a general action plan.  Which afternoons would they use?  How many dogs could they walk?  What would their rates be?  How would they distribute profits?  Which percentage of profits would they re-invest?  How would they grow the business?

3.  Marketing.  We jumped on the computer and designed a little flyer for distribution.  We looked on google maps and made a decision about the area that the boys could cover.  We also brainstormed about ways to source organic business, building incentives and freebies for anyone who refers a new customer.

4.  Admin.  We created and printed templates for keeping detailed customer records, payment records and a bookings calendar.  Since this was the least fun part of the exercise, I asked the boys to imagine how much harder it would be to run a business without keeping careful books… and the problems it could lead to down the line.  No thanks.

5. Goals.  Finally, we wrote down some basic short and long term goals.  I believe it’s important to teach children the art of simple, but specific goal setting.  Setting targets that were: quantifiable, measurable and dated.

Once again, with all of the above, the point wasn’t really about trying to set up a dog walking empire (insert poolside visions of my early retirement).    Whether this little venture does well, is almost irrelevant.  For me, the focus was on teaching principles; because principles, after all, are timeless and transferable.  I would rather lessons be practised and learnt within the confines of a little neighbourhood enterprise, than later on when their mortgage is on the line.

And so, the boys are soon set to open doors to their little gig… and I’m certain that the lessons to be drawn from this are still plenty ahead.  At the end of the day, however, the greater lesson that I hoped my sons would gain is:  don’t be afraid to have a go.  No matter who you are, what you have, what you think you’re missing, what anyone else is doing… take a chance.  And do it well.

Every success story starts with a dream.  Every dreamer was once a child.

Your Move

b4op5oz4x5q-lou-levitJanuary would not be January in Australia without tennis, soaring temperatures and random torrential rain.  It was on one such afternoon last week when we decided to christen the new wooden chess set the boys had received for Christmas.

As a bit of a chess enthusiast in my youth (yes, I was a nerd…ah, am a nerd) I fancied that I may well be able to impart onto my sons some mild interest on the strategic game.  To my surprise, the boys took to chess like naturals and it wasn’t long before a full tournament had been announced.  The next couple of days were spent listening to the rain, glaring at each other across the black and white battlefield with furrowed brows.

I brought my best game, and yet it didn’t take the young men very long to defeat me.  I experienced pride and a slight touch of humiliation.  Several victory dances were performed.   We all remained reasonably good sports.

Eventually, the rain dried up and the sun came back out.  We were on our way down to the park when we started recapping the epic two day tournament.  Suddenly, and entirely out of the blue, one of the boys commented that the best thing about chess, was that it was just like real life.

Curious about such a casually profound statement, I asked him if he could please explain to me what he meant.  Soon enough, all the boys were piping up with little theories of the ways that playing chess emulates every day life.  In their words, I would like to share what they came up with:

With each move you make, you have to be careful with what might happen next.  It’s true, everything we do in chess and in life, has a direct consequence.  My role as a parent is to help my sons understand that no action goes without repercussion, and it’s important to think ahead.  We can usually track our mistakes two or three decisions back.  The lessons that we don’t learn now, life will teach to us later.  Only usually, with less mercy.  

When you change positions, you gain some things… and you lose some others.  Life is full of trades.  We make career and relationship choices, financial trades, we surrender time, opportunities and lovers.   We call these decisions sacrifices, but they are really trades.  When we look back on our lives, all we can hope for is that we made those trades consciously and that each transaction was worth the price.

There’s always risk.  All you can do is make sure the risk is not too big.  Whether it’s in business or relationships, small decisions or big adventures, there is always an inbuilt risk within every decision.  As my sons grow, however, I often talk to them about embracing risk.  You’ll never see the view from the top, if your feet are always safely on the ground.  Success belongs to the greatest risk takers and bold decision makers.  The most dangerous risk, is not to risk anything at all.

Sometimes you have lose one good guy, to take down a better one.  It’s one of the hardest things to do, but sometimes you have to walk away from something good, because you know that you deserve something better.  It may be a job, or a partner, a friendship or even a lifestyle- it’s painful, but part of making mature decisions is the ability to surrender the pleasure of instant gratification for long term reward.

If you make enough bad moves, you’ll probably end up stuck.  It’s true that it’s ‘never too late to change’, however when we stack one bad decision on top of another, it does become increasingly hard to turn back.  We are all faced with the chance to make ‘comebacks’ in our lives: from neglected health, finances, relationships and from mistakes.  Recognising incorrect choices early is one way to ensure that we don’t go too far down the wrong path, that it becomes too far a distance to come back.

 

Aside from these great observations that my young children drew from playing chess, I gained one additional insight myself.  In the noise of life, caught up with everything that keeps me busy, ticking off all the boxes that I hope make me a good parent (like ‘would Jamie Oliver approve of the food in these lunch boxes?’)… I forget the value of offering my family some uninterrupted time.

It’s something that can’t be bought, but has more value than anything else I may be able to give them.  My time.  A simple game of chess, a little chat on the hammock, extra long cuddles at night.  Really really listening when they explain why Anakin Skywalker turned to the dark side.  Really engaging in the game of soccer like the entire Real Madrid team was counting on me.

Like most parents, I have little free time and even less of an idea what to do with it.  Sometimes I get discouraged that I can’t do more to inspire, impress and entertain them.  What I learnt from our chess tournament this week, is that it doesn’t take much.  A wooden board and some carved shapes provided two days of thrills and connection.  Not to mention a myriad of lessons.

We are always looking for the big extravagant move, but at the end of the day, even a pawn can kill a King.  There is power in simplicity.

Goals and Gratitude

FullSizeRender-1I am generally defiant in the face of cliches, however I can’t help but feel that the turn of the new year really is a great time to make some resolutions.

Like many people, I set goals every January.  Business goals, heath targets, financial plans, personal growth… and even parenting goals like ‘learn the names of five new pokemons’ or ‘make less trips to the ER’.   I also recycle goals.  Some of my goals keep reappearing on the list year after year; but I’ve decided that I don’t mind.   How unexciting would life be, if you accomplished everything you wanted in one year anyway?

To me, New Year’s resolutions have always been about performing my own personal ‘life audit’.  Choosing what still matters, dismissing things that no longer do.  It’s about taking an honest look at where I am across all aspects of my life, in order to map my way forward.

I grew up in a tiny central american country called El Salvador, surrounded by a large, loud and colourful extended family.  My uncle Bruno was one such unforgettable character- larger than life, passionate and wise.  He was particularly obsessed with nature, constantly gushing in awe at the roots of a tree or the colours of a beetle.  He was convinced that mother earth was the gatekeeper to every lesson a person might require.

Uncle Bruno had an Hacienda and coffee plantation where all the families used to gather several times a year on festive days.  On one such trip I recall being bundled into the back of his pick up truck with about a dozen of my cousins, when we suddenly pulled over by the side of the dusty road.

Gruffly, he ordered all the kids to jump off the back and stand in a line.  He then pointed up to the sky and asked us all to face North.  We all looked at each other with confusion.  The truth is that we had no idea where we were, or which way we were facing.  Finally one little kid bravely piped up with what we were all thinking, “but uncle, what does it even matter?”

Uncle Bruno leaned over us with intensity in his eyes and imparted us with the following words: because you must know at all times where you are, in order to know where you’re going.

I’ve never forgotten that and in a similar way, I’ve chosen to begin this year by asking myself the question, “who am I today and who do I want to become?”  Pondering on those two things led me to a minor epiphany: this year, before I write down a list of goals, I’m going to write down a list of gratitude.

It went a little something like this:

Over these past 12 months, I am grateful for…

My family’s health.
The country we are privileged to live in.
The roof over our head, the food on our table.
All the cuddles I’ve enjoyed.
All the kisses I managed to land on my boys.
All the laughs we’ve shared.
Every time it wasn’t a broken bone.
Every bedtime story.
Every Sunday sleep in.
Every magnificent sunny day, and all the cosy rainy days too.
For coffee.
All the “I love you’s”.
All the hard lessons…

The list goes on.  Because really, we all have so much to be grateful for.  And even though I could be tempted to say that this has not been an easy year, when I look at that list, there is such an abundance of blessing that silences any desire to complain.

Every now and again we need to pause, in amongst the gargantuan chaos that life with children can be, and remember the great fortune of each moment.  I’m guilty of missing them- the present so often goes unsavored, in exchange for a constant hunger we carry for all the shiny things that look appetising in the future.

My list of goals is always long, but I’ve decided this year to make my first goal, to stop being obsessed with goals. Things don’t need to change for me to be happy.  I can be happy now, with what I have today, without what I don’t have and before any of my actual goals come true.

In this moment, I am alive.  The evening looms, there is a warm breeze on my shoulders.  I have dominion over nothing but my own mind, and I am grateful for the frightening freedom that this gives me.

Yes, I have goals.  We are hunters and there is no mistaking that I look at 2017 with the desire for achievement and growth.  What I won’t do, however, is put my happiness on hold.  It is not an item to be bargained with, traded against, won or lost.  My happiness is a choice based on my ability to find gratitude in the present.

On this first day of the year, I give myself that gift…. and hope that you do too.

A Merry Little Christmas

Screen Shot 2016-12-25 at 5.06.51 PMHave yourself a Merry little Christmas.  It seems like such an innocuous request, and yet for many, it may not be as simple as that.

Let’s face it, the images in movies and advertising tell a very two dimensional story of Christmas.  Laughing families gather gladly underneath the soft glow  of the tree singing carols in perfectly tuned acapella.  Yet the reality for some, is very different.

In my own circle I know families having their first Christmas without a loved one, couples thinking of a baby they should’ve had, and friends getting through Christmas without money or a job.  I know parents who were in court custody battles this week.  I have a friend waiting for a bed in rehab.

Some are asking questions.  Some are wondering why.  Others are waiting for answers.  Some are waiting for forgiveness.

And then there are the broken hearts.  The type that feels like it may never heal.

I apologise if this isn’t a fuzzy holiday message.   I know that reading this kind of stuff isn’t as entertaining as watching Chevy re-runs; and for that I’m sort of sorry.  But there are two reasons why I’ve chosen to write this particular article-

Firstly, because this stuff is true.  Christmas can be a really difficult time for some and it’s important to acknowledge those families.  Secondly, because there is one simple little thing that we can all do to make a difference.  Someone did it for me, and it transformed my day.

I’m not complaining.  Compared to many, I’m having a wonderful Christmas.  I have my beautiful family around me, a roof over my head and plenty of food in my tummy.  And yet, like most of us, things aren’t perfect.  I’ve made mistakes in my life, and for many of those, I’m still paying the price.

My divorce is one such account.  My ex and I came to the best agreement we could design around the season.  The boys spend Christmas Eve with me, both parents do Christmas morning together and then the boys go and enjoy Christmas day with their dad.  It’s the fairest way that we could do it, and yet,  it never gets any easier to watch my boys leave.

My brain understands, but my heart is always confused.  This morning I walked the boys to the door, wading through discarded wrapping paper, saying goodbye in a gaggle of happy laughter.  I gave them hugs, wished them an awesome day with their dad and assured them that I had my own ‘fun plans’ for the day.  I waved like a happy goose from the driveway…  And then I walked inside to fall apart.

I don’t care what anybody says.  You don’t ever get used to not having your kids at Christmas.  It’s like trying to have Easter without chocolate.  You feel robbed of the sweetest part.

Unbeknownst to me, the kids had forgotten something and had to turn back.  And so there I was, mopping the floor alone, crying to Bing Cosby’s emotional rendition of Silver Bells, when my eldest son surprised me.  It was awkward.  It was also evident that I didn’t have any ‘fun plans’.  I pulled myself together and explained that I was fine.  He gave me a compassionate hug as he left.

I was so disappointed in myself.  I didn’t want my boys carrying guilt or worrying about me.  I spent a few hours feeling miserable about the situation and then one little phone call changed everything.  It was my eldest son, calling to assure me that he and his brothers were having a great day.  And then he finished by thanking me, “for letting them have this special time with dad”.

I nearly choked up.  It was only a brief call, but his reassurance put everything into a new light.  I was able to take the eyes off myself in the situation and was reminded that my sacrifice was actually a little gift.

Sometimes pain cannot be changed.  But it can be framed into a fresh perspective.  And even in the darkest circumstances, there is always some element of hope, gratitude, growth or gift.  There is always something to hold on to.  But every now and again, we may need a little hand.

A twelve year old made a phone call today that changed my day.  In a few moments, I’m going to take my phone and make a call that might improve someone else’s.  And I bet there is probably someone in your phone right now, who would see it as a gift to hear from you.

In all the noise and excitement of Christmas cards, gift paper and presents, let’s not forget to do some real giving today.

My Cubs

Screen Shot 2016-12-18 at 6.13.16 PMI would like to think that I am generally a peaceful person, with calm and rational reactions (insert manic laughter of anyone who actually knows me).  Well, that’s how I try to be anyway.  Except when it comes to protecting my sons.

A whole bunch of kids were playing on the street yesterday afternoon, while I lounged on a bean bag with my laptop on our driveway.  The boys were riding scooters, bikes and skateboards on the road, jumping gutters and spinning out.  It was beautiful warm weather; kids laughing and having good old fashioned sweaty fun.

And then suddenly- and entirely out of the blue- I heard one of the neighbours shout profanities at one of the boys for daring to cross his driveway.  The man in question is already known to the street for his foul temper.  I guess most neighbourhoods have one such tortured soul.  Someone who hates kids, hates anyone having fun and probably hates Christmas and rainbows too.

For the most part, we all manage to stay out of his way.  But on this particular afternoon, a child had committed a ‘crime’ and the old man decided to take the foulest parts of his vocabulary to express his disdain.  The children scattered, surprised and afraid.  What happened next is not something I am entirely proud of, but there was a lesson in respect I needed my sons to witness.  And sometimes you have to get a little dirty in order to clean up.

I leap up and was on his driveway in an olympic leap.  Bullies usually don’t expect anyone to stand up to them, and by the look on his face, I don’t think he quite expected me to confront him either.  The children gathered wide-eyed behind me while I explained to the man that this street would not tolerate abusive language to our children.

His answer: you need to teach your children some respect.

After I pointed out that he may want to consider improvements to his own example, I reminded him that there were possibly ten other ways he may have wanted to ask the kids not to cross his driveway, including speaking to me directly.

In the end, I turned to my children in front of him and gave them two instructions:

  1. Never, ever go on this man’s driveway again.  Ever.
  2. If the man ever talks to them aggressively again, they are to report immediately to me.  Because respect is not a lesson limited by age.

I heard Aretha Franklin play loudly in my head as I marched back to my bean bag perch on the driveway.  I sat vigil for the rest of the afternoon, watching my kids play like a lioness over her cubs.  Could there have been other ways to handle myself?  Probably.  Do I regret showing my children that I’ll stand up for them when they need me?  No.

I very rarely come to their rescue.  They fall, I tell them to get up.  They complain, I tell them to get over it.  But every now and again, it doesn’t hurt to show our kids that they have us in their corner.  More importantly, I wanted to remind my sons that:

We teach people how to treat us, by what we tolerate.

And whilst the man has the right to request the kids stay clear of his driveway, he does not have the right to insult them.

Later in the afternoon, my second son came and sat down next to me to chat about the incident.  I reminded him of the above and also explained to him that “there are times to turn the other cheek and there are times to protect your cheeks”.

“Yeah”, he nodded, “Otherwise you’ll run out of cheeks”.

Wisdom.

The Catch

gjshuj_qb2s-alan-bishopIt’s December and the thing I’ve done at the end of every year with my children since they were little, is head up to our northern beaches for a week.  There’s a particular spot right on the water in Noosa that is a true slice of paradise.  We swim right off the jetty, take boats up the river, watch sunsets, build sand castles and fish.  Well, we try to fish.

The truth is, we really suck at fishing.  We’ve never caught anything- ever.  And it’s not that the spot is useless either, we see people pull in fish and crabs all the time.  It’s usually fathers and sons; or old leathery guys that look like they could cut fishing line with their teeth.   The pros.   So, ok… we may not look the part, but we came prepared.  My father had bought new rods for all.  We were armed with the best lures on the market.  That’s what the packet said.

The lines were cast and our confidence was high.  And then five days later, it wasn’t.  We had seen kids catch fish all around us, we had changed the amazing lures, the size of our hooks, where we were casting… and still nothing.

Suddenly, it was the last night before we returned home.  I had put all the younger kids to bed and then went to say goodnight to my eldest.  Of all the boys, he had been the most desperate to catch his first fish.  I was tired and had so much packing to do, but seeing him so quietly disappointed, I decided that we wouldn’t go down without a fight.  I reached down to the floor and handed him his shoes; we were going to back out on the jetty for one last shot.

As we sat there shivering and chatting through the cool night, staring out into the seemingly lifeless water, I was reminded of two things:

Firstly – my son is a great kid and I should spend more time with him on our own.

Secondly – the unknown sucks.

We tried to imagine what might be going on in the darkness beneath us.  Were fish about to bite?  Were we casting just a few metres in the wrong spot?  Perhaps all the fish were further, or closer?  Perhaps there were none.

It’s been a strange week in my business.  People I believed were supportive, turned out not to be.  People I had expected little from, surprised me by coming through with a nice catch.  I spoke to my son about the parallels between going after a fish and going after anything in life.  I drew analogies from a very neat little formula that I came across in an Anthony Robbins book that I’ve been reading:

  1. Be clear about what you want
  2. Launch massive action towards getting it
  3. Review what is and isn’t working
  4. Make adjustments
  5. Repeat cycle until you get there

This deceptively simple approach is something I can apply whether I’m chasing a business target, or a health goal or the relationship of my dreams.  We talked about how it might be relevant for my son and his goals as we stood on the end of the pier pulling in seaweed and sticks.

Man, I really wanted Jack to catch a fish.  Not only because it would have been a fantastic demo of the principle we were discussing, or a great story for this blog, or because I wanted so badly to go to bed….  I just wanted my boy to catch a fish because he deserved it.  But life has nothing to do with being owed and sometimes you need to call it a day.  It was nearly midnight when we packed up, empty handed and headed back up to our unit.

We stopped outside the door and I turned to him to say that I was sorry we hadn’t caught our first fish.  He turned to me with a grin and the best attitude I’ve ever seen, and added one word to my statement:

Yet.

We haven’t caught our first fish yet, mum.

And there it was, the 6th and most important point in any recipe for chasing down a goal: move through steps 1-5 like you believe it’s going to happen.  Maybe not tonight, maybe not exactly how you wanted.  But walk with the certainty that eventually you’ll have your prize.  It’s only a matter of time.

We are looking for new places to fish.  Even though I already went home with an incredible catch.

The ancient art of raising boys, as mastered by none.