Personal Essay: The Princess and the Toddler

I am sitting for a friend’s dog this month.  And not just any dog.  She is a lumbering Labrador who must be related to Marley in a former life.  In just a few short days, she has scratched the paint off the wall, eaten two pillows and a chair, spilt coffee on the new carpet with her hyperactive tail, bloodied my daughter’s knee in what turned out to be a horse-pull rather than a “walk” and managed to piss off the neighbors with her pillaging of their cat’s food.  It is going to be one long month.

And then there is her desire to be friends with the pug – my aging, sophisticated princess who spawns proudly her Chinese royal descent. The pug would rather this guest just go back to wherever it is she came from. I mean really … who the hell is this stranger to get my Mama’s attention, run circles around me (only stopping to smell you-know-what), drink my water bowl dry when she is not slobbering from the toilet bowl, jump over me as if I am some hurdle or for that matter, just bulldoze me flat as if I don’t even exist? Pu-lease. Give her some Adderall for that ADD and send her to her crate. I have a nap to take.

Yes, it will be one long month as we try to forage family togetherness out of utter chaos. One long month of seeking a semblance of harmony between the princess and the toddler. The lab says, “Come play with me!” and the pug says, “Why are you bothering me?” The lab says, “Woo! We are free! Let’s run around the neighborhood and make Mom chase us!” and the pug responds, “I don’t do running. We have done our business and it’s time to go back inside now.” The pug says wisely, “Listen up, Newbie. I know the ropes around here. You’d be smart to pay attention” but the lab says, “To hell with that. Let’s see how many rules we can break!” The pug says, “I know the schedule” but the lab says, “What schedule? I am on vacation!” The lab says, “I am going to keep provoking you till you lighten up and have some fun with me.” And finally, the pug hits the limit of her patience. She now reaches for ugly and becomes very non-relational. She goes Upper-Right (see prior article on “The Four Corners of the Relationship Grid”) and loses it, snapping at the poor innocent giant who is standing in dismay as if to say, “What did I do? I just wanted you to play with me.” And on it goes in hopelessness that the discord will ever be resolved.

Thank God, for me and the pug, it is only a month and not a lifetime. But what a minute … damn, I forgot. I think it is a lifetime. I got some form of that toddler and that princess battling it out in me. Freud even named them – the Id and the Superego. The spontaneous, vital child trying to co-exist with the internalized punitive, stuffy parent. The messy, to-hell-with-it rule breaker alongside the grandiose, know-it-all. The live in the moment free part with that suppressed fear of judgment part. The instinctive cauldron full of seething excitement trying to co-exist with the learned inner judge who holds the standard with a commanding presence.

The princess and the toddler – think Felix and Oscar of TV’s “The Odd Couple” – all impersonated in parts of my very own personality. In some days and some moments, it is the critical me front and center, standing in my ideals, prohibiting any coloring outside the lines. And in other days and other moments, I am caution-to-the-wind, indulging my primary process, swirling in the chaos, enjoying the wind in my hair. I really can’t imagine one energy without the other. It would be either all drama or all doldrums and I dare not exist only in the extremes. Yes, I want it all. Both the free spirit of the lab and the wise experience of the pug. And whichever part shows up in the moment, I want to embrace all of her. For, I am learning that I can trust my inner wisdom – that she’s got my back, that she will enliven the part of me that is most needed to meet the present in its fullness.

When the month comes to a close and the loveable lab departs, I think I will have a mixture of feelings. On one hand, I will be relieved in that my home will return to the calm it once was. That being said, the pug and I might get a little bored. We might need to find a way to add a little spice to our lives, even though I highly doubt that it will be in the form of chewing a piece of furniture.

A GPS for Relationships

With our modern technology, there really is no excuse to being lost. Just type or speak where you are and where you want to be, and boom … all systems are pointing to your final destination. It is as if we now live with a magic Genie in our pockets instead of an antiquated compass.   If only this ease and convenience were available for life’s more complicated nuances. Like relationships.

Far be it from me to offer something like Suri to guide our relational ways, but I do have a few suggestions. All of which just might make a relational undertaking a bit less frightening and a bit more normal. The following phases just might give you a rough estimate of where you actually are in relationship when you feel hopelessly lost with no apparent way out. And don’t just think about these junctures in relationship to your romantic relationships. My tween daughter uses these terms. I can hear her now – “Mom, we still have to repair.” God, what have I created? I digress. Here we go …

Harmony. Ah, we love being here. The living is good. Both parties in the relationship are feeling content and safe. The atmosphere in the relationship is one of connection, warmth and love. Brains are regulated. Waters are calm. We are kicking back enjoying the free flow of positive energy that exists between us. Like two kids skipping through a field of daisies, time stops and we are fully alive in the contentment of our space. However, life is not meant to be – or able to be – a state of continuous pleasure and gratification. Harmony dissipates and we move to …

Disharmony. Uh-oh. The calm has been disrupted as turbulent waters surface – at times, seeming out of nowhere. One party of the partnership has been triggered into a dysregulated state.  In other words, he or she is now upset. Frustration, annoyance, anger, rage, disappointment, fear or any semblance of feeling other than satisfaction becomes the current emotional state. If one or both partners are in disharmony, the relationship or the “we” of the shared space is also in disharmony. In fact, our relationship might be in disharmony and I may not know it because you are in disharmony. Furthermore, when the mess of disharmony comes (and it always does as a natural and normal part of relationship), it cannot be denied. We might try our hand at fooling ourselves with all sorts of avoidant blinders, but if the reality says it, so it is. We are in disharmony. The rational and reasoning part of our brains has given way to the more primitive, reptilian section which is hell-bent on protection and survival, even at the expense of the relationship. Thus, as feelings dispel, the relationship needs to move into a conscious and active state of …

Repair. The success of any relationship is based on intention plus process. In other words, our ability to stay in the process of showing up with relational skill and compassionate generosity lays the groundwork of moving effectively through conflict back into harmony. Relational living is a learned art. “Falling in love” is the easy part, but the maturity needed to sustain the adventure – none of us were born knowing how to do that. And yet without learning this necessary skillset and applying it with consciousness, we are doomed toward either a failed relationship or one that is limited by superficiality. As partners reach across the divide of the disconnected space with understanding, empathy, humility and ownership, repair begins and the couple warms to a harmonious state once again. Brains become regulated and calm. Safety and trust are reestablished. Play and delight can be reengaged.

If a relationship survives the round and round of this cycle, over and over again, it moves into the beautiful state of being …

Vintage. Don’t you love how that sounds? I want to die being in one of those. When you accept the totality of the journey with total abandon – both its inevitable multiple ruptures and then its sure-fire repair – a thousand times over. A wonderful example of this type of vintage love comes from the 1981 movie, On Golden Pond. An older married couple has the following conversation:

Norman: You want to know why I came back so fast? I got to the end of our lane. I couldn’t remember where the old town road was. I went a little ways in the woods. There was nothing familiar. Not one damn tree. Scared me half to death. That’s why I came running back here to you. So I could see your pretty face and I could feel safe and that I was still me.

Ethel: You’re safe, you old poop. After lunch, after we’ve gobbled up all those silly strawberries, we’ll take ourselves to the old town road. We’ve been there a thousand times. A thousand. And you’ll remember it all. Listen to me, mister. You’re my knight in shining armor. Don’t you forget it. You’re gonna get back up on that horse and I’m gonna be right behind you holding on tight and away we’re gonna go, go, go.

Norman: I don’t like horses. You are a pretty old dame, aren’t you? What are you doing with a dotty old son of a bitch like me?

Ethel: Well, I haven’t the vaguest idea.

So, there you have it – the simplicity of a relational compass. Where are you with your partner, your child, your family and friends? Acknowledge what you need to add to your emotional repertoire as to increase your mobility through the phases. You deserve that as do your loved ones. Hopefully, I will see you on the road. For, if you are like me, we both have a few laps to go.

Personal Essay: Smoking in Stretch Pants

Several summers ago, my neighbor and I dragged our kids to a summer adventure. We followed the then new, hip trend of taking our kids to a farm stay. Have you heard of the idea? Many farms are opening their doors like a B&B. They make much needed added income and we urbanites get to show our fancy know-it-all kids what real life is like … getting up at the crack of dawn, milking the cows, gathering chicken eggs for breakfast, repairing the broken tractor, and on and on. (Honestly, I just like to go for the fresh air, the sleep, the simplicity of being in the country with lots for the kids to do and little I have to do.)

But then, there is Ms. Sherry’s cooking. Damn, that woman can cook. I can taste her pancakes and homemade afternoon cookies now. All you can eat farm breakfast and dinners come with the package vacation deal. (When are we going back, Patti?) Every meal is spent around the table as delicious surprises flow from the kitchen. Family life at its best.

The chair at the end of the table is always saved for Grandma. This particular farm in upstate New York has been in the family for three generations. When it was passed down for operation to Ms. Sherry and Farmer Frank, Grandma got smart and moved to Florida. But then, of course, she got smarter and moved back home. At the ripe old age of 95, she is as active as they come. Her mind is sharp. She walks without assistance. She plays Scrabble every night with her daughter-in-law. And after every meal, you will find her on the front porch in a white rocking chair smoking her cigarette.

Patti and I decided that Grandma is our hero. We want to be 95 years-old, playing Scrabble and smoking cigarettes. Her example became a running joke between us. At what age can we stop being so disciplined and well-behaved? When can we start smoking and even better, when can we just buy stretch pants and say to hell with it … pass me that second helping of Ms. Sherry’s mouth-watering pancakes. We decided the benchmark is 80. No, let’s make it 70. No, screw it, we are shooting for 60.

Patti was over visiting the other day. I rearranged my dining room and for the first time, she remarked that I have a beautiful dining room table. She had never noticed it before because I cover it with a table pad. You know, I have to protect it for the future. For someday. She asked me at what point I planned on showing off this antique Art Deco table. Immediately, our farm jokes of smoking and stretch pants came to mind.

When does this wistful someday arrive? At what point, do I embrace letting go and living in the moment, allowing myself as much joy as I can find? When can I push back the voices in my head that tell me tomorrow I will get to that? Or soon I will embrace all the wishes that I have been delaying for who-knows-what-reason on God-knows-when timeframe. Today is what I got. It is not necessarily dictated by yesterday. And I will miss it if I focus on tomorrow.

Knowing me, I highly doubt that anytime soon I will be sitting around my shiny table in stretch pants, smoking a cigarette, having just finished a piece of chocolate pie on the good china. But the idea of it pushes me to rethink my days and more importantly, my moments. For it is the moments that add up to make a lifetime. And I want to fill this life I have been given with all I can hold. You fill it too, my friends. To the brim. And perhaps one day we will meet on the front porch, pushing 100, with a lite cigarette in our hands saying to each other, what took us so long?