The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overpower it. – John 1:5

The longer I live the more I realize our lives are cyclical.  Hills and valleys are the norm, most of us do not live on the plains.  My entire life has been spent living in places between Illinois, Tennessee and Ohio that had rolling hills.  I’ve visited places like Kearney, Nebraska, right in the center of the state and very close to the center of the USA, and seen the vast difference.  You can see for mile in Kearney, not simply because of the totally flat land but also because of the lack of a significant amount of trees.  It takes the contrast of understanding the alternative to truly appreciate the difference.  I recall being told the story when visiting a plant in Kearney of how the facility had been closed one January day because no one could get in the building because of the one inch snowfall they had had overnight.  You see because of that lack of trees or contour in the land, the wind had blown the one inch of snow from miles around and it had hit the one obstacle it could find on that prairie, the building, and covered the building to fifteen feet deep in snow, licking up over the roof.  I’ve seen much smaller versions of that when I lived in Illinois, but it was counteracted by snow fences erected along farm fields to keep the snow from blowing too far before it hit something.  The hills and valleys may add more difficulty in movement or other things but they also provide protection, which allows more trees to grow, which adds to the protection from billowing snow, for example.  I was talking to someone at a whitewater rafting company this week and asking about the scattered thunderstorms forecast for the week of our upcoming vacation and how that would impact our ability to get on the river.  She said that we’re going to be wet anyway, so they raft rain or shine, but if it does get severe enough, they pull out for fifteen minutes as the storms come over the mountains and then break up pretty fast, yet another example of the barrier providing some protection.

In another contract we have light and dark.  Have you ever been outside the city, say in someplace like Kearney, Nebraska, and been able to see the difference it makes in the night sky?   You can see so much more.  It is not the darkness that is the barrier in the big city, it is the light.  The light near us overtakes the light coming at us from out in space.  Get in a dark space however, and the light of the stars blast through.  Moving from physical light, to spiritual light, we see that God has designed the same process.  This is where more life experience and more cycles gives you a greater perspective.  Someone younger may not have much opportunity to travel and so may never see the difference from where they live.  Similarly, having been around for many decades, I’ve had some pretty dark times in my life.  It seems the darker the time the more glorious the light.  When we are downtrodden and feeling hopeless, it is then we can truly begin to understand God’s power to breakthrough and aid us.  That aid may be comfort, it may be peace, it may be new, unexpected circumstances.

Regardless of the level of darkness, it is never strong enough to stop the light.  Have you ever been in a cave?  There is no deeper physical darkness you will ever experience on earth than in a cave.  Most cave tours have you experience this at some point when they turn out all the light.   One of the best experiences I’ve ever had of this was in Mammoth Cave in Kentucky.  While the tour group is in the darkness, one of the guides has circled back and turns on a small light, which pierces the blackness.  As the guide with you continues to talk about the lack of light and that impact, the other guide spends those minutes walking to you.  The light never really gets bigger or any brighter, but you can see it jiggling ever so slightly as the guide walks and when they finally arrive in about five minutes the guide shares with you that that guide just walked half a mile to get to us.  That pin prick of light from a tiny handheld penlight broke through the utter darkness for half a mile and was visible by us. The darkness could not overpower it.

I have been through divorce, death of friends and family members, loss of jobs, alienation from family members, struggles with children.  Without the hope of light, I am certain the outcome would have been terrible.  I’ve seen people struggle with depression and fear.  Going back to the cave, every time I experience some flavor of the example I shared above, my thoughts go back to the early explorers, those who only had candles or oil lamps and did not have things like cell phones or battery powered flashlights that can provide a steadier, more reliable source of light.  When they got lost in the cave and their light source gave out, how would they feel?  After the initial fear, what would they do?  The longing for the light in all of us is strong.  Even for those few minutes, even though we know this is temporary and controlled, either in the cave or when they lock you in a solitary cell in Alcatraz, you still feel a bit of panic: What if something goes wrong and the light does not return?  When the storms of life surround us, and we know we are not in control, that darkness can be overbearing.

This is the brilliance of the interplay of light and dark that God has designed into the universe He created.  Whether it be physical or spiritual, even a tiny amount of light will not be overpowered by darkness.  If you find yourself in a dark place, look for the light.  Pray for God to show you the light.  God’s grace will always shine through for those who believe.  Keep that truth in your heart and no matter your circumstances, whether it be illness, deprivation, injustice or some other dark time in your life, you will find your way to the peace and comfort that God has in store for all of us.

Advertisements

It’s finally spring time up here in the Upper Midwest, with this weekend having a prediction of 70 degree weather this Sunday.  As I sat this morning in the front room I could hear bird outside in the sunshine and see the last vestiges of the snow that had fallen last Sunday night melting away, hopefully for good until next winter.  Soon plants will be growing and I’ll have to get outside to clean up the yard and mow for the first time.  While I hope for a bit of a reprieve, for as I get older I find I have less desire for the manual labor required to do this work, yet I know it is necessary.  Growing up my mother used to spend hours in the yard each weekend working on the flowers or the garden.  She had many rose bushes,  I remember another chore I used to hate in the fall; bringing out the giant stack of Styrofoam rose cones that were in the shed and helping Mom cover the rose bushes.  We’d carefully tuck everything in and then I placed bricks on the corners of the cones to keep the winter winds from blowing them away.  We have a large rose bush on the side of our house now, much too big to cover.

When spring came my Mom would uncover the rose bush, or my wife now goes out and the first thing that is done it to prune the rose bush.  I’ve also seen my wife do this with flower arrangements I bring home from time to time.  I just bought the thing and it is bright and shiny and new, and the first thing she does is take scissors to them to prune.  I thought, “Why?”, but was always amazed at how much better it looked afterwards.   The rose blooms were now arrayed in full splendor instead of hiding like Easter Eggs in the grass.  Some time she had also taken the one arrangement and made several out it, taking a flower or two in a vase in the window by the kitchen sink, a few more on the kitchen table and the rest on the island where I had set them originally. The effort of pruning had turned something that was already wonderful into something glorious.

I should not be surprised.  After all Jesus uses many times to explain how pruning not only takes away the dead growth, the vines that bear no fruit, but that he will even prune the vines that are bearing fruit so that they will bear even more fruit.  My Mom and my wife do this with plants all the time, but on this early spring day, my thoughts have turned more to Jesus’ example and what I can do with my life and what I see others doing as well.  What can I prune?

I think back to the many, many times I feel I know what will be said, and from my impatience, I jump in and finish a sentence.  I have justified the action in my head as showing I am listening, or I am in tune with the speaker and I am just showing them I get it.  But what if I’m not?  What if they were going to say something totally unexpected?  How many times has this action cost me something?  A better relationship?  A new view on a staid, old happening?  A chance to see a rose that was buried until someone pruned away the greenery that was hiding it?  If I prune away jumping in with my own opinions, I might hear something amazing.  More importantly I will make sure that whoever I am spending time with feels heard.  I see the reaction far too often.  The nod and statement of agreement, “Yeah, that’s right”, after I jump in, coupled with the look in the eyes that there was something else, but they’ve chosen to move on.  I vow to do better next time, but then fall into the old habit.  I have made it a goal for me to sit on my hands and keep my mouth shut more often, keep the thought in my head, and let others speak and see if they match.  In the short time I’ve been actively doing this for the last few weeks, I have been wrong more than I’ve been right, on where I thought the person was going.  How much have I missed for years because I failed to prune this behavior from me?  While I’ve had great relationships with people and had great conversations (fruit), how much more fruit could have been gained by pruning this away?  I hope to find out going forward.

I am also keeping an eye on where else I can prune over the years.  While I think my self-focus is reasonable, what if I cut back on that some more?  Would it open me to seeing how I can help others?  I’ve done a bit of that when I helped with divorce support, but with that gone now, I find I have a desire to do something else, which may turn into financial coaching, but that is still something I’ve determined by looking inward into how I think I can help.  Am I missing other gifts I have that could help others because I am looking only at what I can think of and not listening for clues people are giving, but I am missing, perhaps for the behavior above?  I want to be open to better results there.

I have been in a new job for a month now.  I no longer have a role where anyone reports to me, something that I have had for over fifteen years.  I have found that I had to prune away methods and actions in the last four weeks that I have been doing for over a decade.  I have to avoid jumping into other people’s areas of responsibility and being OK with handing the problem over to another, my part being done.  I have to let reciprocal relationships build where in the past I could have relied on positional authority to force the issue if I needed.  I’ve also exercised a lot of what I just spoke about, waiting for the other person to finish before I jump in.  I’ve not been perfect on that, as it is hard for decades of habit to get cut away in a few days, but just as my wife can quickly prune away the unneeded parts of the rose in a few seconds and uncover something great, I’m working on that too.  I consciously decided to prune away high level management responsibilities because I did not like the type of person they would drive me to be.  The stress and pressure to do the impossible was wearing on my family, my friends and my co-workers.  It was also wearing on me.  Just as unfruitful growth still saps the strength of the vine until they are removed because they still take energy to sustain, those things were sapping joy and peace away, so I decided to remove them, and it has been very pleasant.

My wife is also pursuing some pruning on her job front for some of the same reasons.  She’s returning to working with students individually through private practice rather than going to a school and having to deal with all the politics and blocking that goes on that are sapping her happiness and fulfillment.  She started out this way but without as many connections and reputational bridges as she has now, it was difficult to find enough students to help.  Now she feels that is different and she’d like to prune away the job that bore this fruit, to allow even more fruit to spring forth.  I look forward to seeing what will blossom, and I think my wife does as well.

I think I understand what this means to her, but I’m going to use my newly pruned “shut up and listen” self to hear what it really means to her, rather than making assumptions that her journey is the same as mine was.  I believe that pruning will lead to more growth in our love and respect for each other which will grow into other areas of our life and the world.  It is what we are meant to do, prune away even those things we feel may be of some good, to realize the greater good they have been hindering from springing forth.  It is also important to prune constantly, not just at set times.  I have avoided New Year’s resolutions for exactly this reason.  Why wait to prune until the turn of a year, or the turning of a season?  I happen to have been a bit more self reflective today and it tied a bit to all the changes I am going through in my job and the season happened to align, but I embraced the change rather than put it on a list to hit in nine months.  I’d encourage everyone to do the same, to strive to be a healthy vine and encourage the vines around us to do the same.

Opening of a Hand

Posted: April 4, 2019 in Family, God, Kids, Parenting

I’ve written a lot about the challenges of parenting in this blog.  It is something I think about a lot and have prayed a lot about over the years as various trials and situations come our way.  I’ve also tried to understand how God designs us as parents to come at things differently, and it is this area that I felt drawn to write about in this post.

I’ve spent a lot of words on my perspective but not so many on how I see the role of mothers as carved out by God and the unique burdens that are placed on them and their hearts.  I’ve seen a lot of this struggle played out through observing my wife, most recently with the challenges of the last year or two.

What I’ve seen is that the role of motherhood is a continuous process of release.  Initially mother and child begin interconnected and one, with the mother carrying the fetus in her womb and finally releasing that child from her body in the process of birth.  The infant clings to its mother and we see countless examples of this interplay dramatized in books and movies of how the child longs to hear its mother’s voice or the only one in the room who can console them when in distress is their mother, who holds them and instantly the crying ceases.  It does not always play out that way in real life, but it certainly is the norm; the way God designed it to work.  An infant is helpless and must rely on others for everything; food, protection, and all care.  Most mothers breastfeed, at least for a while, and the next major release comes with the weaning, when the child again moves further away and mom should let it happen.  The child moves into toddler-hood and the releasing continues, as they become more independent, and the next big milestone, I imagine, that is stored in the movie reel of a mom’s memories is their first day of school, when the reluctant child heads off through the doorway.   Sometimes immediately, sometimes in days, maybe weeks, but with certainty for all, at some time, that child is no longer even looking at mom when they part, and the release progresses.  I did not personally get to witness any of these moments of release with my wife, but I can see how they might have been in the conversations we have and how she handles the releasing I am blessed to witness since our marriage.

God gives us an example of this through the story of Hannah in 1 Samuel.  After asking the Lord for a son she provided him to God’s service.  The thing of her deepest longing was granted to her by God, only to have her realize that her child was not hers after all. All of our children are simply gifts from God and were are given the responsibility of caring for them, but He sets their ways, whether they follow Him or not.

All our children were well into the school years by the time we met.  I have witnessed other moments of release over time and it has been fascinating to me, I believe largely in part because Nan did not possess the typical ties of motherhood that my wife does.  For Nan, the items above were very freeing, and things she longed for.  It was unlike what I typically saw from others in my family and also experienced in stories, so I knew it was off, but it never got me to understand this process at all until I got to experience a more typical mothering set of behaviors over the last few years and not only observe them from afar.

In this observation I have seen that, while it may be necessary, it can be both a pain and a joy, a torment and an anticipation.  As a father, we tend to not be as attached in the ways a mother is to our offspring.  One can argue how much is nature and how much is nurture, but fathers seem to expect this release and not fight it as much as a mother does.  It is through this lens that I have begun to see some of the stresses my wife has gone through over the years as the children continue this process of release.  A hug, while a gesture of greeting and affection for a father, I imagine takes on a very different place for a mother.  I’m beginning to understand her reluctance to get to this point of release in her relationship with her kids when they are “too old” for mom to hug them.  For my wife, this is yet another milestone of release that has been going on much more profoundly for their whole lives that I ever experience as a father.  I can see why this releasing must be more difficult for her.  As they move into driving age and begin to separate even further, now no longer reliant on others for mobility, this process of release continues.  No longer does a mother always know where her kids are, or will be.  Another dichotomy to contend with.  Some of our kids have moved away.  More release.  The kids are expressing preferences for one parent over the other.  More release.  The kids want more autonomy in what they eat, wear and do.  A mother’s role is a process of continuous release.

Viewed another way, a child’s life is measured as the opening of a hand.

A mother’s grip is a closed fist at the beginning and this process , over decades, is the slow opening of a hand until she must fully let them free into the world and make their own way.  As a father I do not feel this the same way.  Fathers do not have that tight bond of carrying the child for nine months and going through the birthing process and continuing that closeness.  For men, we are more detatched. A new child is obviously emotional, but not in nearly the same way as for a mother.  As I’ve thought about this over the last few weeks I think it will help make me more helpful in conversations as we figure out what to do next in a given situation.  By understanding the differences in viewpoints of this process, I can show more empathy, and acknowledge that some of this releasing is harder for my wife than it is for me, because as a father I do not view it in the same way.

When you get to the point of having kids, one of the impacts is that you likely get to see how much things change between your experience and theirs.  There are countless things written about how the pace of change is higher than it has ever been and how it is growing faster and faster. Even with regards to written information I saw something that said what was produced (mainly on the internet) in the last two years exceeds everything created in the prior two hundred.  I used to have an expectation when I was very young and had just learned about the library that by the time I died I could read everything. I realized how wrong that was pretty quickly and this pace of creation has sealed the deal. Asides from not wanting to read everything any longer (there are far more topics I really have no desire to explore in any way either fictionally or non-fictionally) even in the areas I am intrigued about there is far more material than I could ever consume in a lifetime.  

This is just one area where the pace of change is incredible, but the things that drive me loopy as a parent and make me wonder how different it is from my parent’s experience with me as a child continue to increase all the time.  I am a pretty simple guy at heart and I’ve settled in to a belief that I can keep myself quite content and busy for decades with access to my library and a streaming service or two when I want some video entertainment. Even some of these things, that are normal now, are still a recent novelty and that was more of what I have been thinking about for the last few weeks.

As I study history it is fascinating how even within someone’s lifetime and certainly just a little beyond that, nearly everything has changed incredibly.  Just 100 years ago (which can be in a few centenarian’s lifetimes even now) WWI was still going on. Weapons that caused ghastly amounts of damage and suffering were being used such as the machine gun and the various forms of gas on the battlefield.  Gone were the “gentlemanly” days of battle when things happened mostly one on one. Many of the people who were living then could have remembered back to the Civil War and carnage they entailed and been amazed and how much more killing could be done just a few decades later.

Depression era family

People now in their late 70s and older would have been alive for at least part of the Great Depression.  The lack of ability to get even the most basic or resources was everywhere and is a stark contrast to the “worry” we have today with the vast social safety nets put in place by most developed nations.  Food pantries, unemployment and other social welfare programs and other safety measures exist to at least provide some cushion in times of hardship. Life in the US at that time was already far ahead of most other nations, in part because we had escaped the devastation of lives and infrastructure that most of the rest of the developed world had gone through.  The progression through WWII and the decades after was ever increasing and as technology started having a daily impact lives were transformed.

The home became full of gadgets and appliances.  Washing was no longer done in a tub with a washboard and elbow grease and clothes left to dry on the line but instead was able to be done in a machine that did a lot of the work.  Initially you still had to run the clothes through rollers to press the water out, but quickly faster spinning machines were able to suck the water out using the power of centrifugal force and clothes dryers appeared.  One could say progress slowed on the clothes washing front but even recently we have seen HE devices that use less water and cleaning products and keep driving innovation forward. Every other aspect of home life was transformed in similar ways.  Brooms and dust pans gave way to vacuums and Roombas. Outhouses turned into indoor plumbing.

TI-99/4A, the catalyst for my life’s work

As I move through middle age, I am amazed even over my relatively short lifespan so far how things have changed.  I still recall black and white TVs in our and my relatives homes. I recall when I had to watch what was on when it was on on a small set of channels I could count on my hands.  I remember cars that were gigantic and having a difficult time getting information about topics. I remember encyclopedia salesman, and vacuum cleaner salesman and other salesman visiting our house.   I recall being fascinated with typewriters that could “erase” mistakes with a white ribbon and then typewriters with tiny displays, that then led to spell checking before it went to the page and then led to my kids saying “what’s a typewriter?”  The horse and buggy lasted for hundreds, even thousands of years, but we’ve seen entire product life cycles comes and go in a span of a few years or decades, being made obsolete by something else, that was repalced by something else. In the short time I have been on this earth, we went from live TV only, to VCRs, to laserdiscs, to DVDs, to Blu-Ray and HD-DVD, to streaming on demand.  Similar changes have taken place with written formats, where books and newspapers and magazines are not electronic on Kindles and websites. I used to have to go to the library to look something up and now I can see it in seconds. We used to laugh that the processing power in our calculators when I was in high school was more than that in the lunar module that had landed on the moon barely twenty years before that and now we look at those calculators like the more arcane relics ever.  They might as well be abacuses for all the computing power they had compared to the smart phone I have now, which dwarfs my TI-99/4A computer I got for Christmas when I was 12. It came with a speech synthesizer, as TI was a pioneer in that technology, that plugged in on the right side and is larger than that smart speakers you can buy now that connect to the internet and are computers in their own right. Now my smartphone or car will talk to me and I can talk to it. All the speech synthesizer could do was talk to me.  The shame.

The change my parents will see over their lifetime will be dwarfed by the change my wife and I will see and it will likely be dwarfed by the change our kids will see, but I’m at the point now where I wonder if this is a good thing and how to stay grounded in that, how to manage that change so it does not overwhelm us and make us irrelevant, or worse, do us harm.  I recently came across a study that shows that brain scans of kids who engage with screen a lot show an thinning of the outer membrane of the cortex that is used to engage with the physical world. No one knows what that means yet, just that it is there, and it is beginning to be shown to be tied in a causal way to changes in the environment around us that we have embraced.  Could similar things have happened with earlier generations as we moved from walking everywhere to riding in carts to motorized transportation in our musculature and ability to support our own bodies over a lifetime? Highly likely, but these changes did not occur multiple times over one lifetime as they do now. When I got that TI-99/4A I knew that is was the start of something amazing but I in now way predicted anything close to where we are now and I still likely have decades to go before I die so I have no clue what will be the landscape in various areas of life compared to now.  When I watched the Jetsons as a kid, I could not wait for my flying car before I was 30. That did not happen, but I have a phone in my hand that is thousands if not millions of times more capable than that TI computer was in about the same time period. So while I cannot predict what the change will be, I now it will happen, and I have to determine how to handle it.

My concern now returns, as it does often as a parent, to my kids.  I think I am seeing a lack of capability in dealing with change in a healthy way.  I’ve talked about this in other posts about attention spans and inability to focus, have patience or do other things.  My concern is that just like I cannot foresee the change itself I believe our kids are doing things that they have no idea what it will cause them years down the road.  Are their brains developing in ways that will cause problems? I recently heard about the latest popular thing among kids, Mukbang, which is watching videos of people eating.  When I was a kid I has a hard enough time watching the real people around me eating, let alone searching for and then watching other people I do not know eating on a screen. I struggle with simply thinking that this behavior is not an indicator of something else.  But what? Is it good or bad? Does it indicate that we are not going to head to more extreme version of entertainment or is it the opposite, the shutting down of ambition leading to finding that watching someone eat a bowl of noodles is “strangely satisfying” as one kids described why they watch Mukbang videos.  Are we transitioning further into a state, as happened with texting years ago, where people would rather do something virtually than do it in person? What does that mean for our development as a social species? Does this help us drive more division and hatred because we no longer need to be civil to each other, because we can just sit around and watch other people eat and be strangely satisfied?  You can likely continue this butterfly effect for quite a long time, if not forever.

Is that fact that we struggle to find jobs that satisfy us a cause of dissatisfaction with work or is a symptom?  Work used to involve getting together with people and talking and working on things in the physical world together.  Now we e-mail and Skype and play with virtual models. We analyze things and microsegment and divide things into smaller and smaller pools because we can make simple ad clicks on a website turn into thousands of dollars if we just get enough interest in whatever we are saying or doing (some of the top Mukbang producers are making over $10,000 a month, making the “job” of eating and filming yourself doing it far more lucrative than the average income of a US household).  What does that mean? What behavior does it drive?

Overall I see the struggles in anxiety and depression just with our own kids and I begin to wonder if it is not a form of inability to deal with change.  In a world where change is constant and we are supposedly so good at it, are we reaching a point of overload, and are our kids the canary in the coal mine telling us enough is enough through the mental health issues that are becoming more prevalent?  I am concerned that the rate of change makes it impossible to study the impacts of change on us and we move on to the next topic to study because we do not have the time to figure out the impact of one change before we change again. I have memories of living in a time that was very different to fall back on.  I enjoy sitting and reading for hours because I learned I could do that. As I begin to think more and more about what I will do after I stop needing to work, I see a life more and more about basic things like reading, walking, talking with people and sharing time with them. As I watch my kids I see them mainly engaged with screens and I get more and more unsure if they would even be capable of that.   And maybe that’s OK, but maybe it’s not. And what is they determine it’s not but they’ve damaged their neurology enough that there is no going back? Where if they are not plugged into the matrix that they will have a mental breakdown and go into some new form of psychosis? My wife and I increasingly are having discussions about things we are amazed to see our kids are not capable of dealing with as we did at their age, almost as if they lack resiliency, sticktoitiveness and passion.  I see younger employees unable to focus and devote the diligent and sustained work needed to solve big problems. Will that ultimately be what slows down the pace of change? Wouldn’t it be ironic if the rate of change breaks the mechanisms in the human brain that allowed us to impart the effort to get here in the first place and causes us to stagnate as a species?


Another transition we have been moving through is children leaving the house.  This is a normal rite of passage for any family, but as you might expect a blended family brings with it some potential nuances and perspectives that might not exist.

The most impactful is not having control over the culture of the household for the children because they have multiple households in a blended family.  In an optimal situation the households would be similar and therefore no tension would exist.  Out situation is not optimal.  Both Bert’s and Nan’s households are vastly different in rules, expectations, belief systems and operational flow.  If you listen to our kid’s our household is the worst of the bunch because we have rules, we have expectations, we believe in Jesus Christ and the parents define and execute the operational flow.   They would prefer to have no rules, no expectations, believe in whatever makes you feel good at the time and they would get to determine how things operate, and they get all or most of that at Bert’s or Nan’s so, surprise, we are a terrible place to be and they cannot wait to get out of here.

As I’ve talked about in earlier posts that Marcia moved out about three years ago to go live with Nan just a few months before she turned eighteen.  There were conversations with her and Nan and she moved out around Thanksgiving and it was disappointing to see her go but not something I was going to fight.  To hear a recent conversation with Greg, it is amazing what the human brain can create.  Greg’s view of events, while he was yelling at me about how he wants to spend as little time in our house as possible, was that I threw Marcia out of the house and was yelling at her as she left.  Just like the difference in households being almost mirror opposites, this recollection of events was very opposite what I recall happening.  Marcia felt her lifestyle choices were not being supported and so felt she had to leave.  As an adult who could fledge the nest whenever she wanted, I let her make her choice and go without much ado.  This is where I think it is hard to understand the pressures and the realities if your perspective is from an unbroken household where you and your spouse are the sole family unit for your kids.  Speaking to friends, my parents and others who have not had to live in the dynamic I get a lot of judgment,lack of sympathy and at times even anger that I am doing something wrong.  I’ve been told I should have made Marcia stay.  I’ve been told I should have guilted her into staying.  I respond with questions about how do I make an adult do something against their will, and more importantly WHY would I want to do that? Our household was a constant ball of emotions and feelings of resentment and just a lot of angst.  That went away when Marcia decided to leave.  It was a relief and many times I felt bad about the fact that I was happy Marcia was gone.  As I have had more time to absorb things, I have changed my perspective to understand that this is part of the process of a blended household where the other choices are different.

You see, it is much safer to know you have an environment with a parent to go to if the one you are in is not to your liking.  In a typical family the adulting children do not have that alternative.  Their choices are live with my family who will likely put up with my foibles and warts and love me anyway, or go out into the big, scary world and make my own way with strangers, or at best some friends who might agree to room with me.  When you have another parent on the other side reinforcing their feelings that I. my wife, or both are nuts or mean or whatever adjective you want to label us with, things are so much easier.  It is an echo chamber of the strongest confirmation bias they will ever have; their own flesh and blood is aligning with them and telling them they are right.  It is hard,from the outside, to see how hard it is to compete with that.  As we have let time pass and tried to learn and grow and get counsel from others we have determined we are not going to compete with it, and that transition has been one of the most soul wrenching yet liberating aspects we’ve been through recently.

Whenever we look for guidance we return to the owner’s manual for life, the Bible, and it was in these interactions that we have been shown the meaning of Matthew 10:34-36, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. 35“For I came to SET A MAN AGAINST HIS FATHER, AND A DAUGHTER AGAINST HER MOTHER, AND A DAUGHTER-IN-LAW AGAINST HER MOTHER-IN-LAW; 36 and A MAN’S ENEMIES WILL BE THE MEMBERS OF HIS HOUSEHOLD.”  In most of our disagreements with our children, it comes down to our identity as Christian’sand the living out of that reality that cause the divide.  Marcia is not happy that Christ condemns homosexuality as sinful.  Nan has argued with me that I should be able to walk away from my church for the sake of my child.  A sword cuts things asunder, it is not made to join, it is made to split.  Our blended dilemma is certainly exacerbated by the fact that of the three households involved in out blended family, we are the only Christian one.  Living in the world is tempting.  Living as Christ demands of us, is hard and not glamorous, and many times not fun, at least not until you get to the point of Christian maturity when you understand the peace you are given by the Holy Spirit in these times when your own children want to walk away, but you know that the path you have chosen is the only one, and that the issue is that the children need to accept salvation and not that we are driving them away.  They are running from God, and as consequence from us.

Next, we had Jan decide Bert was easier to stomach than our mantra of personal responsibility and consequences after she got into a couple car accidents quickly and was going down the path of blaming the other parties and accepting no responsibility for herself. Her departure, along with Bobbi at the time, was like a thief in the night, having Bert come collect them and their belongings when my wife and I were out.  Again, Jan is over eighteen,so no longer in any way under a court ordered set of visitation and therefore was free to make her choice not only from us but from any other authority.  Fighting her was not something we did, as we understood they need to want to be present with us on our terms, which echo God’s terms.  If that does not sit well, then they are free to do something else. Bobbi was forced to come back because of the court order and her age, but her raging against he machine has never truly ceased and it came to a head recently, but I jump ahead.

Jan returned to the nest for a brief respite in the fall for about three months.  Bert had stolen over$7,000 for her by promising a car that was never really delivered.  When he asked for thousands more, something clicked, and Jan asked to move back here. My wife agreed, but only after making clear that there were rules,expectations and a method of operations. Calling it a negotiation makes it seem more complex and heartless than it was, but it was an adult conversation about what each side was willing to live with.  In the last few weeks Jan has moved into an apartment with a couple people. She continues to get advice from Bert on things and if he provides poor advice Jan will bear the consequences.  We’ve let her know we are available to help if she wants, but she clearly has the pull of the opposing households as she still wants validation from Bert, though I personally feel she is still to naïve to see through his manipulations and is likely to get burned.

While the custody situation for Peter is still in flux,Bobbi has decided to push living with Bert even though she is still a bit over a year away from hitting eighteen, but as with the two older kids, it seems we have arrived at the heart wrenching decision to let her go rather than fight them on something they clearly do not want to do.

Cindy is off at college away from home so she is out of the next for nine months of the year, but is probably the only child who has not stirred up issues on this particular front.  She’s struggling in other areas and we help again, when she asks, because she’s passed the magic age of eighteen when our relationship naturally transitions from one of telling or dictating to a parent/adult child relationship where you simply offer your opinion and they can tell you buzz off or ask for more. 

That is then where we sit on this transition, having made the tough choice to stop fighting the kids, regardless of their age.  So Greg has been vocal about how horrendous he thinks our house is, so I gave him the option to spend more time at Nan’s over the summer, but now he’s back tracking. At this point Peter’s situation is more dependent on the court proceedings and so no discussions are happening with him.  He has made enough noise to third parties that my wife has also confronted him on if be wants to be at Bert’s more and he also seems to back track and say no, he likes things the way they are, but that may change.  The dynamic is not one I’d wish on anyone because the stress of it is high and at times overwhelming (my wife and I have both used that word to explain how we are feeling over the last two months). 

So we basically have four of the kids gone for large periods of time, two permanently, one just being away at school and one actively choosing to be defiant and using the fact that Bert will support her choice to be there even though no changes in custody have been made.  We’ve transitioned, certainly during the school year to being a household with one or two boys here with us depending on which day it is.  The move towards the empty nest has begun and we are several years into the journey, with likely a little under four years to go until we’re fully there, but could be sooner ifGod chooses to make it that way.  As with any transition there are some good things and some bad.  We are both more at peace with the situation as we have turned towards God’s Word to help us navigate this difficult time,but we are also human and therefore sometimes gnash our teeth and think we can make people do what we’d prefer they do when it is really not up to us.  I think the biggest challenge we will continue to face is determining that fine line between when tough love means we refuse to let them make the choice of where they spend their time and deal with the unpleasant dynamics that may cause or when we say we’ve done our best, they have not chosen us, and to let them go and deal with the potential consequences they will have of what we feel are poor environments for them.  Three have officially passed the age of responsibility and the others are one, two and a half and three and a half years away.  Is our house half empty or half full?  The answer depends on when you ask.  We’ll keep trying to see it as half full more often then not, but I’d be lying if I said after years of fighting the good fight that we don’t  look at each other and say it’s time to stop fighting.

Transitions – Part One

Posted: December 5, 2018 in Finances, Philosophy, Tools

Over the last few years (2014-) our lives have progressed through several transitions.  We both changed jobs, we added a few pets (admittedly not high on my list of favorable transitions), some kids legally became adults by hitting their eighteenth birthday (I will talk about that a bit in an upcoming post) and I began walking us down a more intentional path towards our “golden” years, though my target is to get us there sooner, through a process that has become known as FIRE (financially independent, retire early).  This last transition is one I will spend some time talking about in this post.

For those not familiar with the term, let me start with a bit of background.  FIRE is the goal of “buying your freedom” from work and making the conscious decision to be much more intentional with your decisions on what to do with your money with the goal of increasing our saving rate and/or lowering your expenses.  You can find a lot of detail about the math and the ideas on sites more devoted to that, and since my goal right now is to not convert this blog into a FIRE site, I will leave you to dig around on those sites if you want to get into the nuts and bolts, but I will likely talk more about concepts related to this as I go forward as it has become a big focus for me basically beginning in 2016.  You can find people who retired in their 30s.  I just read an article today about a woman who retired at 28 in New York City.  The variations on the how and why are endless and as the reaction moves from “you did/are doing WHAT!?” to “tell me more” the mainstream media is starting to take notice of this not-so-new lifestyle choice that prioritizes a meaningful and enjoyable life over the consumption driven lie that Madison Avenue likes to convince us is how life works.

So our unique story is that the E part of FIRE, by the nature of when we began is not so early.  As things sit now if all continues on the plan I hope to walk away from a job I must do about ten years earlier than I would have if I stuck with the traditional model and worked until my federally approved retirement date.  I am still about ten years from that point (a little less, but we’ll deal in round numbers), but the focus being shifted coupled with a less than joyful work situation for me in the last year has raised the level of urgency in my head quite a bit, which leads me to things like writing this post about it.  I’ve spent the last few weeks looking at houses in areas we have thought we might want to retire to, beginning in earnest a retirement budget in our budgeting software we use so make sure that the target level we’ve set really works for us (I plan to spend 2019 refining that and capturing expenses in enough detail that my wife and I can sit down and look it over and see if it seems comfortable and know our target seems solid).

I’ve always been relatively frugal (by American standards anyway), doing what I thought was a good job as keeping stupid expenses as bay.  As I got better jobs and the higher pay that came with it I was never a fan of keeping up with the Jonses.  I drove what I felt were relatively reasonable cars while colleagues went with the luxury lines, massive SUVs and sports cars that tend to come with a typical middle class American dream.  The inflatable house was never something that drove me either, feeling the need to expand the square footage per person available just because the bank said I could, like so many people fall prey to.  I was pretty proud of myself, that is until I started to learn about FIRE and get exposed to the thinking of the community.  It began to show how far I still could go.  My particular journey began as many do, with a quest to validate something I felt was right with some evidence.  In my case it was the long held belief that the insane amount in retirement calculators from large investment firms like Vanguard and Fidelity were not realistic and that we’d be just fine with less.  A lot less.  When I ran numbers in those calculators I kept getting values between $5-$10 million dollars as what I should be targeting, and try as I might, I could not envision how that was explainable.  I set out in late 2015 to find some discussion, with strong logic and math behind it, to back up what I felt in my gut was true.  I was expecting to find something that showed a decreased, but what I cam across was nothing short of life changing, a transition of massive proportions. I searched for a long time, finding more of what I thought was garbage, and eventually I stumbled upon a site that had been around for a few years at that time but one I had never heard of called mrmoneymustache.com (known as MMM for short).  The specific article I started with was ‘The 4% Rule: The Easy Answer to “How Much Do I Need for Retirement?”’  As I read it, I felt I had found exactly what I was looking for, but little did I know I had found so much more.  I had heard of the 4% rule before but it was couple with the 80% rule as well, which was what was spouted off by the investment firms who said you need 80% of your income to retire on, so if you did quote well at your job over time and got a salary a ways into six figures, which in my field of technology is certainly quite possible you would need $4+ million which was better than the calculator numbers but not by much.  The part of MMM’s philosophy (what I came to learn was a core principle of the FIRE community) that hooked me was that if you could get your expenses down you could retire on less.  A lot less.

I sampled a few other posts on the site and was amazed as what I was seeing.  I very quickly followed a link he had on his home page that let you start at the first blog post and then spent the next three months reading every single post consuming it voraciously, until I was done with the hundreds of posts.  It’s been joked from time to time that Mustachianism is a cult and boy was I hooked.  I now am a frequenter of the forum section where like minded folks can talk about all types of topics.  It really is a great community and if the FIRE concept intrigues you in the least, I’d suggest a visit to the site.

As I was moving through this material and sharing with my wife, the transition began.  I had a new focus for the retirement target and it was not to wait until 67 and it was liberating because it was clearly doable.  The challenge we have is that we came upon this concept quite late in our lives and have the baggage of some poor (by FIRE standards) choices that were made, but as a wise man once said, “you have to begin where you are”.  The discussions at times became heated because I would share what I was learning, and my wife was thinking just because I spoke about something, that I wanted to go do that.  The most obvious one of those was MMM’s focus on a car being a huge drain on savings and so you should bike everywhere and only use the car for long road trips or when you had to transport things you could not on your bike, like construction supplies.  I clearly understood that our bed was well made at that point, and was not proposing we sell our cars and bike thirty miles to work (MMM does bike year round in Colorado and has several posts about not whining about biking in winter).  I was just sharing to show some of the radical thinking that could be used to drive down costs that help you get to the 60%+ savings rates needed to get to FIRE in a 10 year period.  The part that was missed in this was that using the principle of begin where you are, we were not starting out from $0, so we can still hit the 10-12 year window without being so radical.  I did however want to make as many changes as we could that fit within our reality.  We also have the added challenge/goal of being at the phase of life that we want to help with our kids college costs, though not at the fully funded level that is still lingering with some parents.  With six kids though, even a partial funding is still substantial.  So we have not moved, nor are we planning to move, to within a few miles of our jobs so we can bike, but we are being conscious about our car expenses, looking for the cheapest gas with Gas Buddy, waiting for sale where possible on big ticket items like tires (just replaced the tires on my car after 83,000 miles during a sales event where I got to buy 3 and get the 4th for $1, and replaced them with the same Kumho tires with the target of getting 83,000 out of this $300 set), and likely not buying new cars going forward (since I keep the cars till they fall apart I always figured getting new was best and frugal, but not so sure after reading many articles about it in the FIRE community).  This has shifted my mind set to a much more engineered and focused exploration of how to maximize our dollars for happiness, including the happiness of retiring early.

We are targeting around $40-$48K per year as our expenses so that translates into $1-$1.2 million in savings, a much more palatable (and possible) target.  This is well below the 80% of what we make target that is most popular out there, and therefore makes for some interesting conversations with family and friends when it comes up.  The load lifted by not having to figure out how to support a much crazier target is immense.  That target is still pretty generous by FIRE standards and I am hopeful we may be able to lower it a bit however we need to plan for a target that is doable for us, not simply accept what others have accomplished.  There are some people in the FIRE community, known as Extreme RE who do things on $12K per year and love it.  The accepted FIRE level is $25K or less.  We are moving into what is known as “fat FIRE” with our level because we know we are leaving excess luxuries in the budget, but I still do not feel like we are going hog wild because I’ve seen a lot of fat FIRE targets of $60-$80K and we are still quite a ways below that, so I feel great about what I will call our Goldilock’s FIRE level.  Not to small, not to big, but just right, especially for us.  I do think we could do $30-$35K pretty easily but targeting a bit more gives us some added things which may be important as we want to travel with the kids or be able to host a bigger event or two each year that may cost a few thousand dollars and we have that room to do that.  We’d then have our social security on top of this as we move into normal retirement age and that gives us even more cushion (and also why I think we may settle on a lower number as we’ll have the added money later).  The benefit of a lower number is we hit the target sooner and can make the ultimate financial transition that much faster.

So that is a lot about one of the biggest transitions we’ve gone through in the last few years.  I will get into some of the others in future posts, and as I said at the start, I know more will be said about how frugality and maximization is impacting choices.

I’ve shared in earlier posts about Nan deciding to take a trip to the beach instead of being here for Cindy’s graduation.  The kids were at Nan’s this weekend for the normal visitation.  Based on past history, this being the week before Mother’s Day I assumed I’d be getting some communication from Nan or perhaps from Cindy or Greg about this Sunday given that this year Mother’s Day weekend falls on our visitation.  I was speaking with my wife about this a couple times over the weekend and the time came and went without a peep on the topic.  The kids came home Tuesday night as always and with busyness and all everyone was in bed before the thought “It’s odd that nothing has been mentioned about Mother’s Day” crossed my mind.  Last night talking with Cindy she asked if she could have friends come over after prom this Saturday and spend the night.  That was fine and it led naturally into the question of if they were heading over to Nan’s for Mother’s Day.  Cindy informed me Nan said she did not want them to come over.  Bam.

We moved on from that statement and just continued the conversation, but inside me their was a sadness along with a rage of the callousness of Nan.  This is not a new feeling for me, and sadly whatever feelings Cindy, Greg and Marcia have are also not knew, but it never ceases to amaze me how Nan can find ways to one up herself in the emptiness inside.  For you to fully appreciate the agony that must be occurring for Cindy, I need to fill you in on a development related to the graduation fiasco.

The weekend before this Cindy has come home and through general conversation she raised the point of the mess that Nan is creating with grandma, for clarity Nan’s mom.  I asked what that meant and out poured the most sadly amazing story I have heard.   It seems that that weekend while Nan and Cindy had gone shopping with her grandmother she continued to have mobility issues that have been part of her life for a while and had difficulty making it from the handicapped space into the store, due to her COPD breathing issues.  Nan then decided that her mom was in no way capable of attending Cindy’s graduation but she decided that her mom is so depressed about all she can no longer do that she needed to come up with some other way to get her to not go.  So she concocted a yarn that was that we have now decided to take all the kids to visit my parents down in Florida and the Cindy will not be attending her graduation.  Cindy then proceeded to explain how a couple occasions had come up where she almost gave away the lie because at one point she almost walked downstairs in her cap and gown and another time almost made a mistake and said something that would have given up the lie.  It was evident in her telling me this whole story that it was stressful to her.  I was furious.  Because Nan already made the decision to not be present for Cindy’s graduation now she was making Cindy partake in a lie about it, not be able to share the event with her grandmother, and further stressing out a kid who is on medication for anxiety?!!

After explained the unfairness to place her in that spot and how sorry I was she had to deal with this, we arrived at the point that she would rather I speak with Nan about clearing this up.  After a long discussion with my wife, I decided to contact Nan.  I made a few mistakes in the heat of the moment with including my own personal indignation about being included as the basis for the lie and how I would not be a party to that, but in the end I cut everything out but the heart of the matter.  Cindy should not be made to carry around a lie for the remainder of her grandmother’s life about her graduation.  I also wanted to make sure this was not Cindy’s burden to resolve, because that would just be more stress, so I let Nan know that we would be sending the announcement for the open house we were having the day after the graduation to celebrate to her Mom but would wait a couple weeks.  Nan ended up calling me up and claiming that her mom was suicidal and to please not put Nan in the spot of having to tell her mom something else she could not do.  I asked for counsel from several people to make sure my clouded perspective with being furious with Nan was not making me make a poor decision on how to handle it, but everyone agreed this burden needs to be removed from Cindy and Nan needs to have an adult conversation with her mom.  After several days Nan decided to talk to her mom and it turned out to make no big deal according to what she said.  Cindy was at least free from the burden of Nan’s lie.

So when I add up the graduation skip, the stress of these several days of fabricating a lie about it and keeping her own mother from being allowed to make her own decision about her granddaughter’s graduation, now we throw in the latest slap; don’t come over on Mother’s Day because we’re too busy packing for our trip that we are leaving for in a few days.  Does my ex just have a hole in her chest where her heart should be?  What can I do as a parent on the other side of this train wreck to protect my children’s hearts?  As I have been operating for some time the answers are yes, and I wish I knew.  I am sure I am not alone in feeling that I am always amazed that my ex can somehow find a way to do something more appalling than ever before.  I’m sure she feels that way about me on things, though I am not sure what (and I’m sure she’s amazed I find her behavior so poor).  In the end I keep reminding myself that my focus needs to be on supporting the kids and I offer someone to listen, to offer advice when wanted and in general just to help them as they want.  My concern, however, is that are they becoming unable to understand what is normal?  In much the same way that we worry about Bert’s effect on Jan, Bobbi and Peter’s ability to process certain things normally, I worry about what having a mom who “loves” in such a strange and bizarre way does to their expectations, how they will develop as people and parents themselves.  Will their romantic relationships be dysfunctional?  How will they view their own kids?  As disposable and easily ignored as Nan views them, or will this drive them to do better, or go too far the other way and be smothering and too attached to compensate for what they felt they were deprived of?  I already have discussions with Cindy where she says all these things are OK.  I suggest they are not OK and that I am sorry, but still try to respect the boundary of not bad-mouthing Nan, but the longer this goes on the more difficult that becomes.  When they were younger I always felt that when they got older they would find their own voice, and perhaps they still will, but I get more and more concerned that they are stunted forever in these spaces and did I miss opportunities to have changed that?  I have no idea where, but that does not make the voices in my head any less vocal.

I’m also not the most empathetic person in the world, so I tend to press too hard into the realm of “suck it up buttercup”.  My wife calls me on it from time to time, and I and so grateful for that, because it certainly helps to avoid further unintended damage from my directness.  This topic is an area that haunts me.  Just as I could not love enough and want to stay together hard enough for both of us with their mom, I can also not do anything to replace the emptiness that must come from knowing that your mom only kind of loves you or however they perceive it.  A child should never have to feel that their parent views them as nothing more than another person.  I get that there are many parents like that, for which sacrificing for their children is not in their worldview, I just feel guilty that that is who I provided my children with on the other side.  I understand the pointlessness and the incorrectness in that viewpoint and I work hard to not get sucked into it too often, and it certainly happens less and less as the years go on, but when one of my kids is in the midst of another vortex of uncaring from Nan, it still surfaces.

We’ve both got exes that cause some form of this feeling of failure in us.  Bert is a terrible role model in many areas of his children’s lives and to some degree I believe my wife has those same feelings that I do about how her choice to have kids with that particular individual will cause them harm and pain for the rest of their lives.  It’s a burden I know not every divorced parent has, but it is certainly one that we have and on days like this it’s really, really heavy.  Writing this blog helps me air those thoughts out in the open and maybe get some comments to help me process, it’s cathartic.  As I try to be open I believe I keep these bad thoughts far enough away to not drag me into a depression of some sort, but does it make me somehow callous as well, as what I am worried my kids are experiencing?  Does having to figure out how to parent kids with a mom who is not a prototypical mom in any way effect me as much or more than it does them?  Is that healthy?  Is there anything I can do about it?  Lots of questions with no right answers.  They can all be seen from two sides of the same coin.  I do the best I can every day, and that’s all we can do as divorced parents.  One day at a time.