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Why Being Not Okay, is Okay

It is okay not to be okay. This I have learned from two friends and my significant other who have lost children to terrible diseases in the recent past. I don’t know that anyone can truly “get” the enormity of the grief that comes with losing a child unless one has actually lost a child. However, I believe my friends and partner when they talk about how heavy that grief is at times. It sounds unbearable and yet it must be borne.

People say the most insensitive things to parents who’ve lost children. More often than you’d imagine, people (and I’m willing to bet I’ve been one of them) say things that they intend to be comforting, but which feel like daggers to the heart of a grieving parent. For example, someone told one of my friends that, although it is a terrible thing to lose a child, it would have been worse if she’d lost her husband because then her other daughters wouldn’t have a dad. Evidently, the loss of sister didn’t rank as high on the scale of bad things that happen in that person’s eyes. Attempting to rank the significance of another’s loss is always a bad idea.

Time Does Not Heal All Wounds

My friends have taught me that time does not heal all wounds. In fact, when it comes to losing a child, the opposite may be true. That is, for many parents who’ve lost a child, grief actually intensifies over time. One friend shared that she’d expected her pain to be less acute once the first anniversary of the death of her daughter had passed. That was not the case. On the contrary, as the numbness that set in immediately after her daughter died wore off, the pain became more acute.

If that didn’t already suck enough, others sometimes assume that time has done its healing thing. They may expect the grieving parent to be ready to “move on.” It’s almost like there’s an unwritten statute of limitations about how long a grieving parent can take to settle into a new normal. Whether we like to admit it or not, many people secretly hope that the new normal will relieve others from having to tippy-toe around the discomfort of navigating another’s grief. Such hope, unspoken or not, conscious or not, risks making a grieving parent hide his or her grief, in the interest of others’ comfort. So begins an existence that may feel inauthentic to the person living it.

Sometimes asking how someone is doing is more about the asker than the askee. Maybe we ask because we want the other person to say “I’m okay.” After all, “I’m okay” signals that we don’t have to navigate an encounter with a grieving person. I’m not saying we don’t want our friends to be okay. Of course we do. Let’s be honest though. A friendship, or any relationship for that matter, is much easier when those pesky emotions like grief don’t get in the way of what is easy and comfortable.

My significant other just lost his son. I am seeing what that grief looks like up close. I want it to go away, but I know it is here to stay.

My goal is to resist any self-serving urge to try and move him into a “better” space where grief isn’t as visible and life is more fun. I know that a grieving person might not even be able to imagine such a space, let alone go there when invited. It’s important that I learn to be okay with his not-okayness.

This is new terrain for me. It’s hard to resist repeating the scripts that are supposed to make others feel better. They may work in some instances, but they have no impact on the pain of a grieving parent. When it comes to a parent’s grief over the loss of a child, nothing can or will fix what isn’t okay. Not now and not ever. That sucks.

I suspect there is a love language in which to communicate with grieving parents. I’m trying to learn what that language is and how to speak it. I know I’m going to fail often in my attempts. I’m going to try anyway. When you love someone, that’s just what you do.

Running Hills: Why We Should Do Things the Hard Way

Hill Training

Sometimes doing things the hard way is good. Any runner will tell you this. In junior high and high school, I ran on a city track club called the Edmonton Huskies–if you’re from Alberta, there is no connection to the football team, if you’re wondering. Hill training was a big part of our program. As I recall, we usually ran hills on Wednesdays or Fridays during outdoor season. Sometimes we did “30 X a hill” on a long, moderately steep grade. Other times we did “6 X a hill” on a very steep grade, usually made of grass or dirt. Stairs counted as hill training too. Edmonton runners know, and many love, the long flight of stairs from the river valley to the downtown area. I bet someone can tell me the exact number of stairs on that flight. That workout was one of my favorites, especially in the fall when the trees in the river valley showed out. Running hills was an important part of developing both strength and endurance. Thanks to Michael Cameron for sharing this picture of his running group on the stairs!

river valley stairs in Edmonton

 

Years later, I was living in Thornhill, Ontario–part of Toronto–while attending York University. The area where I lived was very hilly. My running routes ranged from 5k to 8 miles and each one of them included terrain full of rolling hills. Hills ceased to phase me after a certain point. They were just part of running.

Take Ten

One year, as part of my preparation for a fall half-marathon (my first), I signed up for a ten-miler. I chose one called “The Run Through Hell” at Hell Creek Ranch in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Who wouldn’t want to run a race with all of those names attached to it? It seemed like a good choice.

On race day, I showed up feeling nervous. It was my first crack at a ten miler and I’d not run further than nine miles in practice. As luck would have it, it was POURING rain. Registration was in a little barn and runners had to wade through mud to get inside. After collecting my number and a super cool t-shirt that said “I Ran Through Hell,” I returned to my vehicle to change my soaked socks. Trying to warm up in the elements seemed futile. All I could think was, “this isn’t going to be good.” I briefly considered backing out.

Thankfully, the rain stopped just before the scheduled start time. As we mingled around the starting line, I overheard people who’d run the race before talking about how hilly the course was. I was already nervous about the distance. The hill talk wasn’t helping.

The Run Through Hell

When the gun went off, I headed off with the pack. The race was on gravel roads and the course was quite pretty. Despite the lack of a warmup, I felt good. It was warm, but not too warm, and my legs felt ready to do what I needed them to do. My plan was to finish in 1:30 and it seemed that the stars were lining up in my favor. In the back of my mind, though, was the thought of the hills that everyone had buzzed about. I knew it was wise to play it a little safe until I saw what there was to see.

I don’t remember how far into the course we were when the hills met us on the road. Runners around me started to struggle on the inclines and I expected to struggle along with them. I took each hill, one at a time, with the words of Edmonton Huskies’ coach, Gerard Lemieux, in my head: “increase the effort up the hills; keep up the pace.” When there was a downslope, I let the hill do the work. (In a ten miler, that works; in a marathon, the downhills can hurt as much as the uphills, especially in the last miles, but I was not to learn that for a few years.)

I finished the Run Through Hell in 1:29:29. It was tough, to be sure. But here’s the thing. I’d done my homework. I’d put in the miles in the months leading up to the race. I followed the program Lou Hetke, a former Huskies’ teammate cum personal trainer, had made me. And I was lucky to live in a hilly area of the city so my body was not thrown by the hilly course because I ran on hills every day. Hills were my friend. They challenged me, but I’d prepared to meet the challenges they posed because of where I ran regularly.

Life’s Hills: Do things the hard way!

I can’t tell you how often I hear students complain about their university courses being hard. Some make a point of avoiding professors whose courses are known to be rigorous. I’m sure you also know people who seek the easy route no matter what. I’ve never understood this. What’s the point of taking the easy road as a matter of course? Where is the satisfaction in that? What parts of life’s journey does taking the easy road prepare us for?

I learned a lot of things from my years as a runner. Among the most important is that when we train on hills regularly in practice, we’re ready to tackle them when we find ourselves on a hilly race course. The work we put in ahead of time is what allows us to pass those who opted out of the hill workouts when they had a choice. The same is true in just about every other aspect of life, don’t you think?

When we push ourselves in any realm, we learn how to perform when we find ourselves facing a challenge of one type or another. Pushing ourselves regularly doesn’t guarantee that we won’t meet a challenge that kicks our butt. Hill training doesn’t guarantee we won’t see God at the end of a hard, hilly race. Pushing ourselves regularly does guarantee that when we face challenges we’re ready to rise to them.

Life is full of hills. At the end of the day, though, our lives will be fuller if we spend them climbing every hill we can find and not avoiding them in favor of an easy route. If there is one thing I know for sure, it’s that when my race is over I want to have left it all on the course. Don’t you?

As always, thank you for reading. I appreciate you.

 

Why We Should Talk to Strangers

As children, most of us were cautioned against talking to strangers. As adults, we need to unlearn that lesson. There is a lot to be gained from talking to people we don’t know. A few years ago, I had a life altering, 2.5 hour conversation with a stranger.  I’ve written about it elsewhere, but I want to share it here as well. 

A walk in a park

I was on a research trip and had stopped in Birmingham, Alabama to visit the Birmingham Civil Rights InstituteAcross the street from the Institute is Kelly Ingram Park. The park was once the site of some of the worst acts of civil rights violence and is now a site of memory. Its history is retold through sculptures and other art installations throughout.

It was July and so I decided to stroll through the park first thing in the morning before it got too hot. I was studying a sculpture depicting vicious, snarling dogs when I heard a voice behind me say, “nothing has changed you know.” I turned around to see who’d spoken and there was Willy.

A talk with a stranger

Willy was an African American man, probably in his sixties. We introduced ourselves and I learned that he had grown up in the area and was homeless. I asked him to elaborate on what he’d said about nothing having changed and he was happy to do so. We sat down on a bench and Willy told me stories about living in the segregated South and in the South as it is today. His stories revealed a life of pain and possibility, of humiliation and happy times, of terror and tenacity. Before I knew it, 2.5 hours had passed.

When Willy finished speaking, we sat silently for a time. Finally,  I asked Willy, “if you could have it any way you wanted, what would your life be like? What kind of life do you dream about?” His response was so quick and vehement that it scared me at first. He jumped to his feet and shook his fist in the air while shouting, “I would dominate. I would control everything. Men, women, children! I would be the one telling people what to do and when to do it and I would make them obey me! I would own everything and I would control all the money! I would be in control!”

When he finished, Willy glanced nervously in my direction. He returned to the bench and sat down. Shaking his head he said, “I’m sorry. I just said all of that because of everything I’ve been through.” He lit a cigarette, took a deep drag, and exhaled slowly. “But that’s how I feel, you know?”

Willy stared off into space for a few minutes before speaking again. This time, his voice was soft.  “You know all that stuff I said? That’s not really what I want.” He glanced sideways at me. “Do you want to know what I really want?” he asked. I nodded and he continued. “What I really want is to have people to love and to have people who love me.” Then, Willy turned his whole body so he was facing me. He looked straight into my eyes, and asked, “but isn’t that what we all want?”

Isn’t that what we all want?

In Willy’s rhetorical question was a powerful assertion of sameness about people–all people. He knew that love is buried among the differences that so many use as licenses to hate and exclude. He also knew that everyone, no matter how  much or how little he or she has, can both give and receive love. It costs nothing to do either. We are all equally rich in this regard. Why, then, is it so easy to be stingy with our love? What’s the payoff? I don’t know.

What I learned from Willy

Here’s the thing. What Willy knew and believed with all his heart, despite all he’d been through, was that everyone wants to have someone to love and to have someone who loves them back. We stand in the way of that happening in so many ways. For example, many of us are quick to judge ourselves on the basis of our intentions and others on the basis of their actions–I am SO guilty of this. And have you noticed how often conditions are attached to others’ “lovability” and  “value” in homes, in communities, and in society more broadly? How much of the crap that we create and navigate in our day-to-day lives would just fall away if we kept Willy’s very simple observation in mind? I wonder.

There’s merit in talking to strangers

I did not enter that park expecting to have a conversation with a stranger, let alone a life-altering one. But maybe I should have entered that park looking for an opportunity to have one. If Willy hadn’t spoken to me, a stranger, that day, I’d have missed out on an amazing encounter. I probably would have just walked by him with little more than a nod and a “good morning.”

It’s easy to walk by people like Willy. He didn’t look the way we generally expect wise people to look. Most of the time, therefore, he’s invisible. That’s tragic. There’s no telling what we miss out on when we don’t “see” and talk to people like Willy–strangers. Imagine what we might learn about ourselves and others simply by looking for opportunities to talk to people we don’t know. 

What do you think? Have you had encounters with strangers that have been meaningful in some way? How did they happen? Why were they valuable? And do you agree that there is merit in going out of our way to make them happen again? Share your thoughts below and please subscribe or follow my  blog.

As always, thank you for reading. I appreciate you.

Guest Blog: A Letter to a Friend by Michael Cameron

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This week my significant other lost his 17-year-old son–a cancer warrior. Grief is a suffocating, all encompassing emotion that I am just now realizing I know nothing about. My friend Michael, though, does know a thing or two about grief. His girlfriend, Colleen, who was also my junior high friend and track teammate, was murdered by an ex-boyfriend in 2015. Michael wrote the following blog entry sometime thereafter.

I have found and continue to find Michael’s post one of the best things I’ve ever read about grief. Only now, though, am I turning to it for my own purposes rather than just sharing it with others. Funny, how life has a way of dropping you to your knees in ways you don’t expect. When I’m able, I will share more about that.

For now, though, with Michael’s permission, I am posting his blog post called A Letter to a Friend. Thank you Michael Cameron for the use of your words.

A Letter to a Friend by Michael Cameron

Dear Friend,

I can only begin to imagine the pain you are feeling right now.  While I have known monumental loss, loss of a proportion previously unfathomable, only you can now know what personal hell you are going through.  I can try and offer you guidance and share with you what things helped me cope with the feeling of utter helplessness.  I can try and assuage the feeling of despair.  I can empathize with the lens of pointlessness that will likely shroud your world for a time.  I can try and do all of this though, ultimately, it is you that will have to make the choice to endure what you have to in order to become the man you are meant to be.

I am grateful to be able to call you a friend and can only hope that the lessons I learned through my loss can help you bear yours.  The ability for me to be here even in small measure today helps to add meaning to my lived experience.

Make no mistake you will have to bear the unbearable and I am sorry to say that this is not a burden that can be avoided.  I did at times find solace in sharing with others but at times found frustration with well meaning individuals who simply did not, and likely never would, fully ‘get it’  I don’t think it was a lack of understanding that frustrated me, more the lack of empathy.

My advice here is to surround yourself with those that ‘get it’ and find forgiveness for those that do not.  I recently did an interview where I was asked for my top values.  It was for the reasons above why Empathy was at the top of my list.  I believe that the quality of being able to feel what others feel gives you the greatest insight into who they are allowing you to find ways to make the greatest impact in their life.  Examining, absorbing, and enduring what you are feeling right now will allow you to grow substantially.  While this is of little comfort now it is the truth.

There is no easy road.

At least not one that I was able to find.  For me I swore that her story would not end with her life.  That I would continue to ensure her legacy lived on.  I carry her with me daily.  I resurrect her in my memory as often as I can.  A song, a smell, a view, a memory or a conscious tug on my ear lobe like she used to affectionately do, brings her to life even if just for a fleeting moment.  There is not a day that goes by that she is not still alive within me.  I don’t know if this helps or hinders but it is the choice I have made.  Everything you have ever experienced, everything that has made you the man you are today has prepared you for this.  You will survive and you will adapt and it will fucking suck.

You will learn more in these moments than ever in your life.  I encourage you to practice staying open to the lessons.  The line in Ram Dass’ letter to Rachel that spoke to me most was when he said “Who among us is strong enough to remain conscious through such teachings as you are receiving. Certainly very few”  I made a decision to remain conscious.

While this is not an opportunity you would wish upon your worst enemy it is an opportunity very few are afforded.  Even fewer courageuos enough to receive the lessons.  There will be times when you are not strong enough to stay conscious.  Don’t.  Retreat when you need to.  For me it was yoga.

Maybe for you it is a walk.

They will tell you to “Be Strong”. I love them for their intentions but curse them for their ignorance.  There can be no strength without weakness just as there can be no light without dark.  If ever there was a time to be weak, this is it.  Sometimes I would curl into a ball and weep softly, other times I would wail loudly cycling through grief and anger beating my hands violently on my steering wheel while driving.  I would let the emotions envelop me completely, simply observing them.  I think this allowed me to detach, so as to not become completely overwhelmed, while still letting the emotions flow.

There is no ‘right way’ to do this.  Only your way.  They will try and tell you the right way.  Nod and acknowledge them but find your own intuitive way.  Your heart will know.  There is no time frame for this.  I believe I moved through, and continue to move through, my emotions because I did not and do not fight them.  I feel.  Even the sadness has become a friend.  Sometimes I will weep alone, holding her in my mind.  They will ask “Don’t you find that painful?” To them I say no, it is more like having a coffee with an old friend.  A quiet comfort held close.

Finding something ‘spiritual’ to grab onto helped immensely.  The only way through is to have faith on what is on the other side of this.  I believe it was you who said “Just about everything awesome is on the other side of something shitty.”  I know this seems impossible today but have faith that tomorrow it will seem just the tiniest bit more possible.  Run this marathon one step at a time.  Keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Fuck I hate cliches.

You didn’t lose 100 pounds overnight, you lost it one pound at a time.  Narrow the lens of the world to as short a time frame as you need to survive.  Maybe you just need to get through the next 30 seconds.  Maybe you can picture making it through an entire day.

I do not have any of the answers my friend but know I love you.  I will never forget saying goodbye to you in the parking lot of the restaurant when we went for dinner just two days after Colleen was killed.  You hugged me goodbye and said “Keep it together” I replied “Nope, I’m going to go home and lose my shit”.  You looked at me, cocked your head and said “Don’t confuse the two. Sometimes in order to keep it together you need to lose your shit.”

I see you, I feel you and I am with you.

“For a good life
we just might have to weaken
And find somewhere to go
Go somewhere we’re needed
Find somewhere to grow
Grow somewhere we’re needed”

Tragically Hip

Much Love,

Mike

 

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Don’t Pursue Happiness; Follow These Steps to Get Happy!

There is no point in pursuing happiness. That is, there’s no point in doing stuff that you think will one day lead to being happy. I can almost hear you thinking,  “wow, this one’s going to be a downer. No thanks!” Before you stop reading, stay with me for a minute or two. You’ll be, um, happy you did.

I am a huge fan of Shawn Achor, positivity psychologist and author of The Happiness Advantage. His Ted Talk is among the most watched of all time too. Here is a link to it.

Shawn Achor’s Ted Talk

In both his book and Ted Talk, Achor draws on research in his field (who knew, by the way, that studying happiness was a thing?) to teach us that there are things we can do daily to increase our levels of happiness. Increasing our happiness, in turn, improves our relationships with others, our productivity at work, and so on. In other words, happiness isn’t a thing one acquires after achieving certain goals or reaching certain milestones. e.g. “I’ll be happy once I make enough to buy a house” or “I’ll be happy once I get that promotion.” Nope. Achor says we’ve got it wrong. It’s the other way around. We don’t become happy once we are successful. We become successful when we are happy.

So, how do we create happiness?

According to Achor, there are five concrete, simple steps that we can do to increase our levels of happiness. When we do these steps, we increase the likelihood that we’ll achieve our goals, which we once thought would make us happy. Instead, being happy helps us achieve our goals. We had it backwards! Those five things are so easy to do that it almost seems too simple, but the research is tried and true.

The Five Steps to Happiness

For 21 days, which is roughly the amount of time it takes to form a habit, doing the following things each day produces the effects Achor discusses.

  1. Identify three things for which you’re grateful. Again, write these down or tell them to someone.
  2. Exercise–just move. You don’t have to become an ironman triathlete.
  3. Meditate for a couple of minutes. You don’t have to be Deepak Chopra. Just get still and let your mind be. Prayer is fine too.
  4. Perform a random or conscious act of kindness or send a positive email or text to a colleague or friend.
  5. Journal about something positive that happened during the day.

Partner Up to Create Happiness!

In the past, my significant other and I have “worked the steps” for periods of time. Not only has the time we spend talking been good bonding time,  but we both agreed that following the steps changed our outlooks on life quickly and in very noticeable ways. Both of us, in other words, felt happier.
Each evening we checked in with each other by going through the five steps. We didn’t write anything down unless we weren’t together and were texting. We just talked. We listed our “gratefuls,” as we called them, talked about something positive that happened that day, and accounted for the other things. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves noticing things to be grateful for throughout the day. Sometimes, I was grateful for little things, like the barista making my specialty coffee just right, or  having a good ride on my horse. Lots of times our “gratefuls” were about each other. What is more affirming than having someone tell you why he or she is grateful for you?
 

Join the Facebook 21 Day Don’t Worry. Be Happy Challenge!

I’ve started a Facebook 21 Day Don’t Worry. Be Happy Challenge group. Anyone is welcome to join, so please visit my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/lettersfromthecoffeeshop and join the event: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1932943440349972/?ref=bookmarks
It’s going to be a fun, no pressure, positive, 21 days. I hope you’ll check it out and join us!
Everyone is welcome. Let’s start a happiness revolution.
As always, thank you for reading. I appreciate you.
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Why We Should Tell Others What We Think About Them

I was reminded this morning that it is a really good idea to tell others what we think about them when what we think is positive. There’s a woman at CrossFit who started coming to the 5 a.m. class a while ago. I’ll call her Ali because, well, that’s her name. 

I’ve watched Ali work out with both fascination and admiration. Ali is often the last person to finish the WOD. I’ve been very impressed by how precise and patient she is as she executes the various parts of a work out.  Ali’s focus seems to be on maintaining good form instead of rushing to finish quickly or to complete more reps during an AMRAP.

women doing wall balls

Embracing the Suck aka Winning the WOD

Recently, we had a super tough WOD: 50 MED BALL squat cleans, 100 air squats, 50 push ups, 100 mountain climbers, 25 med Ball squat cleans, 25 air squats, 25 push-ups, 25 mountain climbers, followed by two minutes of lunges. (Yikes!)

Ali finished a few minutes after I did.  As I stretched, I watched in admiration as she tackled each rep slowly and correctly. She was tired–it was seriously tough–yet, she didn’t try to speed things along as she grew increasingly fatigued. From my perspective, Ali just embraced the suck and kept moving.

woman doing deadlift

After the workout I told Ali that I admire her approach to the WODS. She thanked me and then we both headed home.

A little while later, Ali messaged me and thanked me for telling her that I admired her. She said she was down about finishing last. (Last doesn’t matter at CrossFit, but I get it.) She said my words helped her feel less discouraged. I was so glad I’d told her how I viewed her.

Shortly after, my friend Michael complimented me on Facebook. He said I was disciplined and committed to self-improvement. I was both floored and flattered. The compliment meant a lot coming from Michael who is almost super human when it comes to those traits! His compliment made my whole day.

It’s amazing how good it feels when someone shares something positive she or he thinks about you. It feels especially good when you had no idea that the person has such an impression of you.   Ali had no idea that she’s been a role model for me the last few weeks. I had no idea Michael thinks of me as disciplined and committed to self-improvement.

We Should Tell People What We Think About Them

There’s a lot to be said for saying the positive things we think about others directly to them.  How often, though, do we actually do that? It’s not rocket science to pay a compliment to another person. We should stop being stingy and offer genuine compliments to others more often.

Here’s the thing. We are the stories we tell ourselves. Sometimes those stories are incomplete, inaccurate, or overly negative. Fortunately, words are powerful. When others say positive things about us, directly to us, their words can offset the effects of the blind spots in our views of ourselves.

Kind, affirming words might make someone feel good for a few hours. They also might change someone’s ideas about himself or herself drastically.  You just never know what people need to hear or when and why they need to hear it.

Words are free. It doesn’t cost us anything to use them to tell people positive things we think about them. I think I’m going to make a point to do that more often. Will you join me in this effort? Do you have a story about a time when someone else’s words have made an impact on your day or your life in ways you remember fondly?

Please share your story in the comments and don’t forget to subscribe or follow!

As always, thank you for reading. I appreciate you.