Personal, Stories Told

Telling Dad’s stories

When I launched this blog in 2007 I was beginning to heal from a destructive marriage and a brutal divorce. With a few key exceptions (like this, this, and this) I haven’t told stories from those years. And in those exceptions I made the stories be about me and not my ex.

I could easily have written a few dozen very unflattering stories about my ex. I had considerable righteous anger and I would have loved to vent it. But I made a vow to myself that I would not do that. I feared that it would be unhealthy for me to wallow in it. And I sure as hell wouldn’t like it if my ex blogged unkind stories about me. We were a hot mess — we both have terrible true stories to tell about each other.

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Proof that this father and son could be happy to be with each other

I have stories to tell about my father, too. Plenty of them are right on the tips of my fingertips when I sit down to blog.

My dad could be most unkind. He was also frequently domineering and controlling. It did damage that hindered my ability to form healthy relationships when I was an adult. It contributed strongly to why I chose my first wife and to my dysfunction in that marriage.

After Dad died and I wrote his life story I had a conversation with my cousin Susie. She’s Dad’s first cousin, born when Dad was a teenager. She has always loved and looked up to my dad. She tells stories of him tutoring her in arithmetic when she was a girl, making it all come to her so easily when she just couldn’t understand it in school.

I mentioned that I had more stories to tell and not all of them were flattering. But I was reluctant to tell them because the family respected my father so much. I didn’t want to come across as an ungrateful son, petulant, unforgiving.

Susie’s response surprised me. “Tell your stories if they’ll help you grieve. Don’t worry about how we’ll take it. We all know how he could be. It’s no secret. I’ve received it from him, too, and it hurts. It’s a Grey family trait. Some of us have learned to control it.”

I didn’t know anybody else knew. And: ooh, she is so right. I’ve had to beat that same trait down in myself over the years. To learn how to manage my emotions so I can speak and act kindly, in ways that build people up.

I’ve also learned how to choose better the people I keep in my life, and to behave in healthy ways in my relationships. I’ve done a ton of work on myself and I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished.

In my late 30s I was finally able to make peace with most of what happened between my dad and me when I was young. The remaining few difficult moments were damaging enough that, a couple years ago, I saw a good therapist who helped me heal.

As I continue to grieve my father’s death I’m sure I will write more about him. Or, rather, I’ll write more about me in my relationship with him. Some of what I write will likely show some of my father’s unfortunate traits. I will write it only when I can’t tell my own story without revealing those details.

Because like Susie I know two sides of my dad. The other side of him is remarkable. My father, who exited a chaotic childhood feeling unwanted and having no idea what normal was, went on to make a stable, successful family. His two children were the first Greys ever to graduate college right after high school. The conditions he created and his encouragement helped us both move from our working-class roots into upper-middle-class careers. Contrary to the American mythos, this is actually enormously difficult. My father was satisfied with what he accomplished, as well he should have been.

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It’s easier to cut with a sharp knife

This post from 2011, which I’ve freshly updated, deserves another chance.

knives

I hang my most-used kitchen knives on the wall next to my sink so they’re always at hand. Use wears them down, of course. When they won’t glide right through a tomato or when a roasted chicken shreds rather than slices, I know it’s time to visit my father. Dad has mad sharpening skills.

When Dad returns my sharpened knives he always says the same thing. “Now,” he begins, with an air of authority, “these knives are sharper than the day they left the factory. They will cut you deeply. You will probably see your blood before you feel any pain. But they are now safer than when you brought them to me. A dull knife tears rather than cuts. It is more dangerous because it can do more damage.”

It is obvious that a sharp knives work best. On the face of it, it seems just as obvious that a sharp person works best, but that’s been a hard lesson for me. I have pushed myself too hard for too long on many occasions, bringing on exhaustion so deep that recovery took weeks or even months. I’m definitely a type-A personality, and maybe I’ve had a bit of a martyr complex too. But fortunately, I’ve figured out that taking good care of myself gives me the resources to be the man I want to be – kind, patient, giving, involved, and effective.

I guess most people find that middle age brings deeper self-insight, but I’ve found it startling just the same. Happily, that insight tells me how to stay sharp:

  • I need at least seven hours of sleep each night. I can get by on less for a few nights, max, but then I become very grouchy.
  • I need to talk through things that trouble me, even small things. Just telling them to a friend helps, but it’s even better when my friend can ask questions and give feedback. I find that when I talk through these things, I am more likely to resolve them rather than let them molder and become big problems.
  • I need to hang out with bright, articulate people with whom I can have meaningful conversations.
  • I need to spend time with my sons, who are my favorite people in the world. I like to hear their stories and just hang out with them. Nobody makes me laugh more than my sons.
  • I need to spend quality time at home almost every day. My home is the center of my world.
  • I need regular quiet meditative time. My thoughts and feelings run at a hundred miles an hour. They need a break, even if it’s for just ten minutes.
  • I need to singIt’s cathartic.
  • I need to have personal projects that I can work on at my own pace. My career is full of discussing strategies, planning projects, building schedules, leading people, and driving deadlines. The pressure can be very high. I need little things I can do with my hands and finish them at whatever pace I choose. It feels freeing to work on them whenever I darn well please, and when I finish, I feel like I’ve accomplished something.
  • I need hobbies that let me explore and learn. This is why I taught myself how to write code as a teenager and why I take pictures with old film cameras today. I find it exciting to build deep knowledge by discovering it through direct experience.

Sometimes life conspires to keep me from these things. Sometimes I fool myself into thinking I don’t need them. When it happens, I soon find myself tired and irritable. If I let it continue, my reserves are soon tapped and I risk depression and exhaustion.

Do you know what you need to be whole, loving, and full of grace? I’d love to see your list in the comments or, even better, on your own blog with a link back here.

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It’s easier to cut with a sharp knife

I hang my most-used kitchen knives on the wall next to my sink so they’re always at hand. Use wears them down, of course. When they won’t glide right through a carrot or when a roasted chicken shreds rather than slices, I know it’s time to visit my father. Dad has wicked sharpening skills.

When Dad returns my sharpened knives he always says the same thing. “Now,” he begins, with an air of authority, “these knives are sharper than the day they left the factory. They will cut you deeply. You will probably see your blood before you feel any pain. But they are now safer than when you brought them to me. A dull knife tears rather than cuts. It is more dangerous because it can do more damage.”

It is obvious that a sharp knives work best. On the face of it, it seems just as obvious that a sharp person works best, but that’s been a hard lesson for me. I have pushed myself too hard for too long on many occasions, bringing on exhaustion so deep that recovery took weeks or even months. Maybe I’ve had a bit of a martyr complex. But fortunately, I’ve figured out taking good care of myself gives me the resources to be the man I want to be – kind, patient, giving, involved, and effective.

I guess most people find that middle age brings deeper self-insight, but I’ve found it startling just the same. Happily, that insight tells me how to stay sharp:

  • I need seven to eight hours of sleep each night. I can get by on less for a night or two, max.
  • I need to talk through things that trouble me, even small things. Just telling them to a friend helps, but it’s even better when my friend can ask questions and give feedback. I find that I grow closest to people with whom I can talk like this.
  • I need to hang out with bright, articulate people with whom I can have meaningful conversations.
  • I need to spend time with my sons. They’re my favorite people in the world. I like to have adventures with them, hear their stories, and just hang out with them around the house. Nobody makes me laugh more than my sons. I am at loose ends when I go more than a few days without seeing them.
  • I need to spend quality time at home almost every day. My home is the center of my world.
  • I need daily quiet meditative time. My thoughts and feelings run at a hundred miles an hour. They need a break, even if it’s for just ten minutes.
  • I need to sing. It’s cathartic.
  • I need to have personal projects that I can work on at my own pace. My career is full of discussing strategies, planning projects, building schedules, and driving deadlines. I seldom do “real work” anymore. Most of my personal projects involve working with my hands; they all involve producing a finished product. They’re not on deadline and I can put in whatever amount of effort satisfies me. They give me a feeling of having accomplished something.
  • I need hobbies that let me explore and learn. This is why I taught myself how to write code as a teenager and why I follow the old roads today. I find it exciting to build deep knowledge by discovering it through direct experience.
  • I need to get away every three to six months for a day or two. I pray and listen for guidance. I consider what’s going well and what’s making me unhappy. I review and adjust my goals and plans.

Sometimes life conspires to keep me from these things. Sometimes I fool myself into thinking I don’t need them. When it happens, I soon find myself tired and irritable. If I let it continue, my reserves are soon tapped and I risk depression and exhaustion.

Thanks to Tim Stevens, who through sharing his list on his LeadingSmart blog caused me to quantify my own list. And now I ask you the same question he asks at the end of his list: Do you know what you need to be whole, loving, and full of grace? I’d love to see your list in the comments or, even better, on your own blog with a link back here.

I usually recognize it when life is starting to back up on me. But when I don’t, my dog always lets me know. Find out how.

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