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My theme for 2021

It was probably in adolescence that I conflated conflict with harm. I was a quiet nerd, not tough, which made me a bully target. At home, my dad was demanding, exacting, critical. It was safer to go along to get along. Sometimes it was safest to run away.

Me in the 7th grade

What we learn to make it through childhood doesn’t serve us well as adults. I’ve shed my childhood survival tactics save this one: unless I feel perfectly safe, I avoid disagreements.

There’s more. I want to live a life that’s true. If you’re my friend or my family, I want the same for you. Trouble can come when you and I are interdependent, but the life that’s true for you doesn’t fit the life that’s true for me. Then I tend to defer to you, because I want to be empathetic to your needs and challenges. I think I can suffer discomfort for a while so you can do what you need to do.

Over the last few years I’ve gone along with too much that I didn’t agree with. I’ve said yes to too many things I didn’t want or could not sustain. A lot of the stress I’ve experienced has come from saying yes when I would rather have said no. This is not serving me well.

Each New Year’s Day I share a single word that guides the choices I want to make that year. This year my theme is:

congruence

— that is, to live in line with my values and needs. That means I have to be more honest with my yes and no. As much as possible, I need to say yes only to things I can truly support. When I’m not sure, I won’t answer until I am. If I then need to say no, then I will say no. The more I do this, the more I will live according to my beliefs, desires, values, missions, and goals.

This is going to be tricky. Sometimes interrelated and conflicting beliefs, desires, etc., play in a situation. It can be hard to know which ones to prioritize so I know what to do.

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When I was Director of Engineering at that software startup a few years ago, they brought in a new VP over me and nine months later she fired me.

She demanded unquestioning loyalty, which set her whole leadership team on edge. She abruptly fired two of my peer directors who weren’t fully playing her game. A third would not work in such an environment and resigned. I was the only person left from the original leadership team. I could see that she was toxic and I didn’t want to work for her, but I couldn’t afford to quit without another job lined up.

No Outlet

Openly disagreeing with her was dangerous. I did disagree, frequently. At first I tried to gently discuss my positions with her. Sometimes it held her off for a little while. After she terminated my peers I became less willing to engage. I tried to find a new job while mollifying the boss, but I didn’t find one soon enough.

In the last month or so of our time together, she said to me a few times, “I don’t think you’re telling me what you really think. I can’t trust you if you don’t tell me what you think.” But it was obviously not safe to tell her what I thought.

If I had it to do over, I’d disagree boldly. It didn’t work to mollify her like I did my childhood bullies and avoid her like I did my father. I can only guess at how it might have gone had I pushed back. Maybe she would have fired me sooner. That would have been better because it would have shortened my misery! It’s not impossible that if I had spoken boldly, outcomes could have been shaped for the better. Either way, I would have kept my integrity.

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About five years ago, at church we started a day care and preschool. I was (and am) an elder there, and I was also a trustee then. That’s a lot of responsibility and accountability. The rest of the elders and the trustees were very excited about starting this day care. I wasn’t. I thought we shouldn’t do it.

Our neighborhood desperately needed a day care and preschool. Reliable, low-cost child care would enable many single moms in our neighborhood to work. Even the income from a job at Wendy’s or Dollar General could lift a mother out of serious poverty into…still poverty, but more functional and less stressful. Moreover, statistics are clear that early childhood education cuts later incarceration rates in half in economically challenged neighborhoods like ours.

My church has plenty of heart, but seriously lacks in organization and execution. I’m very good at those things, but I’m only one man and I was already organizing and executing all I could manage. Our existing ministries and programs spread us tissue-paper thin: Sunday services, a food pantry, a youth program, and a ministry of renting a couple houses we own at below-market rates to people in transition. We managed Sunday services well, but everything else needed help.

Not only did I not see how we could add a day care and preschool, but also I could not see how we would run it at the level the government required. They would come to inspect us every few months. I said to everyone over and over that I didn’t think we had the ability to take this on successfully. The rest of the elders and trustees wanted to move ahead anyway.

I acquiesced. We invested in considerable building renovations to meet safety standards, hired staff, and opened.

From the start we struggled to manage it. We struggled to attract qualified staff. We struggled to maintain required staffing levels for the number of kids we had. We had the usual amount of parents upset over this or that, but we struggled to handle the complaints. We failed a number of state inspections. We couldn’t even manage to file the paperwork on time to renew the federal funding that kept the cost low for parents. We temporarily lost that funding more than once, which was incredibly disruptive for parents.

I was right: it was more than we could handle. I wish I could go back and stand on a table and beat my chest that we were not equipped to handle the day care, and insist that we reconsider. I did not at all enjoy the months we operated the day care. I wish I had resigned over it. It burned me out on the church, and I’m still not recovered.

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Atlas

I moved in with Margaret three years ago, after we married. We like to joke — though it’s no laughing matter — that we’ve lived through more difficulties than most couples face in 20 years. Several close family members have faced heavy grief and peril. So have Margaret and I. It’s been intense. We’ve stepped into the gap for our family members over and over. I prioritized my values of supporting our family, and of supporting my wife as she supported our family.

In service to these values I have said yes to several things I wasn’t enthusiastic about and to a few things I preferred not to do. They were reasonable responses to what we faced, but they took considerable time and energy. Because there’s only so much of both to go around, I have deferred pursuing some things at home that mattered to me. I also need a lot of down time, and I haven’t gotten nearly enough.

It’s all left me feeling angry. When I haven’t been angry, I’ve been depressed — which some say is just anger that lacks enthusiasm. Everybody in this house feels my anger.

I couldn’t foresee at first that we were in for several years of difficulty. I failed to prioritize my key needs enough. I can live in chaos for a time, but not for years as we’ve done. I need a quiet and predictable home life, and an orderly and beautiful home. I’ve deferred these for too long.

What I’ve learned is that every time I defer my needs, I don’t know for sure how long it will need to last. All of us can defer our needs temporarily for the greater good.

This isn’t going to be a simple matter of saying no more often. It’s going to also involve sometimes saying yes, temporarily. In other words, I can and will do this for a while. But long term I need whatever it is I need, and as you can see this thing I’m saying yes to isn’t that.

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Saying yes when I’d rather say no to is a lifelong pattern. I did it in my first marriage, too. One of my first wife’s key insecurities was probably a deep-seated worry that her husband wouldn’t protect her in the clutch. She was insecure enough about it that she created all sorts of crises to see if I could rise to the occasion. I ran myself ragged trying to do what she wanted. I couldn’t manage it all, and it exhausted me. I finally did start to push back against it but by that time I had let years of irritation and anger build and I pushed back with fury. She never took even finessed, graceful pushback well. We ended up in ugly fights, and we coped in destructive ways. We couldn’t recover. As I’ve written before, ultimately she ejected me from the marriage.

I think that’s what I’m afraid of: ugly fights, being ejected, ending up high and dry. But obviously what I’m doing isn’t working. I was ejected from my first marriage, I was ejected from that job. Or as happened at church, I wasn’t ejected but I went along for a long and difficult ride that burned me out.

I can think of a few other situations in my life where my prolonged tongue-biting, where saying or intimating yes when I wanted to say no, ended up damaging or destroying the relationship anyway. Going along to get along keeps getting me exactly what I don’t want.

This may seem fundamental. But after a lifetime of trying to go along to get along, my awareness growing all the while that it wasn’t working for me, I’m finally ready to do something about it.

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My theme for 2020

I don’t like to dwell on it here, but the last three years have been incredibly difficult for my family. We’ve faced one crushing challenge after another.

The first of each year I think of a word, a theme, that represents the growth I want to achieve that year. My themes for the past two years have reflected a desire to get out on top of these difficulties. In 2018, I was going to build stability for my family. In 2019, I would seek renewal in my faith, my career, and my health. I was going to regain control of my life!

Yeah, that didn’t happen. At all. 2019 was the hardest of the last three years. I’ve written about the structural failure at a rental house we owned (here) and us eventually selling it as is (here), and how intensely stressful that was. I mentioned the death of my mother-in-law. I’ve not written, and won’t, about some of the serious life challenges some of our adult children have faced. Three of them live with us right now while they sort their lives. Meanwhile, both my wife and I started new jobs twice in 2019. I told the stories of mine here and here. The first came after being fired in 2018; the second came out of the blue. While it was a terrific career move, new jobs are always very stressful while you learn the ropes.

Clearly, I lack control. It’s driven me to drink, it’s messed with my sleep, and I’ve gained 15 pounds. In about March I threw up my hands and got a therapist, who’s gently helped me untie a knot of anger and resentment, and begin to find peace so I can move forward.

I admit that these problems have been bigger than me. My attempts to control them have failed. I’ve been upset most of the time for far too long, and I want that to end. It is for that reason that in 2020, my theme is equanimity.

Equanimity is a mental calmness, composure, and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation. It is admitting that I can’t always do something about unwelcome life events, but I can seek inner peace as they fall. That can be very hard in the face of a shock. But my inner state is ultimately the only thing I can control.

I want to be like a blade of grass. When the strong winds blow, the blade of grass lies back until it passes. Then it stands up straight again, and keeps on growing.

If you’re curious, you can look back at all the posts I wrote about my annual themes here.

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My theme for 2019

I’ve never had a theme for a year be so useless as last year’s was: stability. 2018 turned out to be incredibly hard, maybe the hardest of my life. My dad died. Our daughter-in-law died. We helped elderly parents transition to the home where they will live out their days. Several of our children had serious struggles. There were family squabbles. Work was brutal, needlessly so, culminating in me losing my job.

Meanwhile, my wife had her own life challenges, including a serious back injury, all while she and I are still fairly new in our marriage and are still trying to figure out how to blend our families and love each other. We frequently got it wrong.

It’s been too much.

We’re still grieving our losses and trying to make sense out of all that’s happened. But — dare I risk saying it? I’ve said it before and have been wrong — the worst is over.

Early spring crocus

It’s time for Margaret and I to get back to our core principles and values. To take good care of ourselves. To build our marriage as if it were brand new. To love our families.

It is time for me to renew myself. My faith, which is lagging. My career, which took it on the chin. My physical health, as I’m overweight, my digestion is bad, I sleep poorly, and my blood pressure has soared. My mental health, as the twin monsters of anxiety and depression are holding me back. My marriage, as the events of the last couple years have really been hard on us.

That’s why my 2019 theme is renewal.

I’m going renew my faith, first by spending time in my Bible every day this year. I have a great Bible that lays out the entire Scripture chronologically in 365 chunks. I’ve read through the Bible this way a few times before and I always find it incredibly rewarding and enriching. It’s been years; it’s time for me to do it again.

I’m also going to rededicate myself to my service in the church. I’m an elder in my congregation, a sort of lay leader. But I’ve not been able to fulfill most of my responsibilities there as our family’s challenges have been so consuming. I don’t think I’ll be able to give the church all of the time and effort I want to in 2019, but I expect to be able to give significantly more than I did in 2018.

I’m going to renew my health, in three key ways. First, I’m going to shed the 15 pounds I’ve put on, by limiting my calorie intake and taking long walks every day. I love to walk.

Second, I’m going to keep working toward best possible function through a chronic condition I live with. I changed to a functional medicine practitioner last year and she has already seriously moved the needle on my health. But there’s far more that needle needs to be moved and she and I need to seriously team up to make that happen.

Third, I’m going to stop relying on my nightly shot of bourbon to help me sleep. Through all this stress, sleep has been elusive. All the sleep aids my doctor prescribed had unacceptable side effects. My nightly shot of bourbon, which I’ve come to very much enjoy, works great. The trouble is that it sometimes becomes two, and once in a while three shots. It reduces the quality of my sleep, is a source of empty calories — and is potentially a slippery slope.

I’m going to renew my career, by getting busy learning the ropes in my new job, which starts Monday. It still stings that my last job ended the way it did. It hurts that my dream of startup glory had to die. But I know I’m fortunate as hell to have landed another role at comparable pay so quickly, and that I’ll learn a lot at this company.

I’m going to go away with Margaret once a quarter for a long weekend. We find it possible to talk about things on these breaks that we just don’t get to at home. We remind ourselves just how much we love each other’s company. 

We’ve already agreed that in 2019 we want to focus on our relationship and our home, making both happy and comfortable.

I’m tired, and I’m sad. I’ve earned these feelings; something would be wrong if I didn’t have them. But now I believe I have the time and emotional space to let them work their way through my system. I’m looking forward to renewed energy and happiness in 2019.

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My theme for 2018

2017 was a year of great transition for me and my family. I saw my youngest son graduate high school and go off to college. I sold my home and moved in with my new wife. And then a bunch of serious family difficulties piled upon us one right after the other. All of our parents, some of our children, and even each of Margaret and I found ourselves in distress and needing considerable time and attention. It threatened to bury us. For a while, all we were doing was whatever seemed best at the moment and hoping the rest wouldn’t crash into the wall. A little of it did, a lot of it didn’t, and the rest is still to be determined. So it was good and right that my theme for the year was family. Our family absolutely needed us.

NYC after dusk

It made for a messy 2017. Heh, that doesn’t begin to accurately describe it. Crazy. Overwhelming. Depressing. Maddening. Chaotic. It’s not been good for our young marriage and newly blended family.

Chicago

And so my theme for 2018 is more obvious to me than any previous year’s theme(s) have been. This year, it’s stability. Whatever I’ve got to do to help this family get onto a good track — to resolve challenges, to eliminate chaos, to provide firm footing — that’s what I’ve got to be about.

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My theme for 2017

When I wrote last year’s list of themes for my new year, I felt sure it would be the last one, that my annual setting of direction had run its course.

Autumn Iris

I think a lot about who I am versus who I want to be. Some might call it navel gazing, but self-analysis is core to who I am.

Yet I want to remain open to the road ahead so I can take the interesting turns as they come. And they always come! So I avoid new year’s resolutions and I don’t set hard goals. Instead, I set direction. And I follow it generally, always scanning the road ahead for opportunity or need to alter course.

My annual list of three watchwords or themes, a tradition for years in my life and as my first post each new year here at Down the Road, is the major way I’ve done that.

2016 was a remarkable year. I got married! If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you know I had a disastrous, destructive first marriage. It was best for all of us when it ended almost eleven years ago. In its wake, I focused on building a happy, healthy life as a single man and as a dad to my sons. I became content living essentially alone, and I could have continued it for the rest of my life. Yet I wondered if I could finally find love. I looked off and on for a few years and met some nice women, but finally decided that the search was more challenging than it was worth. So I quit looking. Just then, I met Margaret.

Frozen Custard

She’d been married before, too, and has four children. Between us, and including my stepson from my first marriage, we have seven! Remarriage generally means blending families. But the blessing of doing it at our age, about 50, is that our children are older. Our youngest just turned 16. Our oldest is 31.

Our empty nest is in sight! But for several good reasons involving our children, when we married it didn’t make sense for us to live under one roof right away.

It’s an unusual arrangement, and it has been hard. We knew it would be. Who wants to be married, yet not be able to connect in person every day? We’ve had to be very deliberate about creating face time with each other. Still, we’ve encountered challenges staying connected and coordinating our lives. Extra grace has been required.

But now a couple more of our children are near natural transition points and will not call our houses home for much longer. Them moving on will let us move toward living under one roof. We have decided that it will be her roof, at least until her youngest finishes high school in 2018. That means I’ll be listing my home for sale. There’s a fair amount of work to be done here first. With effort and luck, we’ll have it done by summer.

It’s going to be a big year. And it makes my 2017 theme clear: family. Just one theme, not my usual three. But this theme has three dimensions.

The first is care. My relationship with Margaret needs extra care while we continue to live apart, and when we eventually make the adjustments of sharing a home. And our children need parenting care to help them navigate their late teens and early 20s, and to move into their adult futures.

The second is workIt will take considerable work effort to ready my home for sale. We will spend a lot of our spare time at it through at least this summer. And all of the relationships in our family need us to be fully present and do the work to keep them healthy and happy.

The third is money. It will cost money to ready my home for sale, even though we will do the work ourselves. And two of our children are in college, and another starts this fall, and the youngest starts the fall after that. Neither of us has ever focused on maximizing our incomes, but we need to make career (and side-work) choices that let us pay for everything.

Margaret shares this theme with me. And as we play it out big changes will come to our lives — some of which we can see, and some we can’t.

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My themes for 2016

Instead of making New Year’s resolutions, at the beginning of each new year I think of three words that represent the growth I want to experience in the coming 12 months.

Putnam County bridges

2015’s words were gratitude, power, and realism. I focused on them as best I could until June, when I lost my job. And then I had the most remarkable summer of my adult life, one that clarified my values, which had shifted on me in middle age while I wasn’t looking.

My 2015 words were no longer relevant. I had gained a whole new perspective on my life, and I spent the autumn exploring what that meant. I discovered that I don’t want to bear down so hard on myself anymore, as if there’s something elementally lacking, something fundamentally wrong in me that needs to be better. I finally see that I’m basically fine just as I am. From here on out, I’d rather enter my days peacefully and enjoy them for what they are, whatever they are.

And so I’m not even sure I need this annual exercise anymore. But it’s been so helpful in the past that I’m going to try it one more year and see how it goes.

Serenity — This kind of serenity, the kind where you accept life for what it is (emphasis mine):

God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
As it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
If I surrender to His Will;
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life
And supremely happy with Him
Forever and ever in the next.
Amen.

Presence — As part of that acceptance, I want to be fully present in whatever situation I find myself in. Not blocking it out, not denying its reality, not kicking up a storm trying to change what is is beyond my control. If I’m in a traffic jam, I want to just calmly let it be and wait for it to clear. If I’m in a bad job, I want to peacefully go to work each day and do the best work I can until I can find a better job.

Goalless — All I mean here is that I want to stop chasing after things, stop striving so hard. I don’t mean to drift aimlessly. But instead of constantly trying to shape my life and world to be exactly how I think they should be, I will point myself in directions that seem right or interesting and work diligently at whatever I find myself doing, but then let life unfold as it will. And then I will see what life has brought, and if needed, alter my direction. Moni Smith wrote a great post about just this idea recently; please go read it.

I’m not checking out on life. I’m just launching a rest-of-my-life initiative to not create my own stress anymore. Life brings enough of that on its own.

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