Monday, March 18, 2013

The Art of Communication

What image comes to mind when you think of 'art'? Do you see a Monet or Di Vinci? A painting or a sculpture? Whatever the piece is, I'm sure its the beautiful, breath taking finished product that's in your mind's eye and not the chaotic artist's studio that the work of art came out of. Communication, especially communication in marriage, is very similar.

Mr. Awesome and I receive comments and compliments on our teamwork all the time. People see us respecting each other, valuing each other's opinions and supporting each other. What they don't see is the chaos that has lead up to the harmony, the hours of hashing things out so that we can be a team, the endless conversations that frame our respect. Last night, we stepped into the artist's studio, we made a mess but this morning we were able to enjoy our latest masterpiece.

That sounds so poetic and constructive and lovely, how I said that just now, but the truth is we had a heated discussion. An intense fellowship. A forceful conversation.


We argued.

Yes, its true ... This Random Mother and Mr. Awesome still argue. We often disagree and we don't always keep our cool during those times and last night was one where we broke all the rules, or very nearly broke all the rules.

During our first year of marriage we went to marriage counselling and a large part of the time we spent there was dedicated to learning how to communicate with each other and how to disagree with each other. We were given a few simple rules about how to argue and live to love another day. Over the last 15 years we've added to these rules from our own life experience and now we have some set boundaries on how to work out disagreements. This works for us. Usually. When we follow the rules.

It took us a while but we did get back on track last night and we were able to go to bed without anger and with a better understanding of what we each need from each other. The turning point in our argument was when we both started remembering the rules and returned to 'fighting fair'. So, if this helps someone, awesome, if not ... just chalk this up to more ramblings of a random woman. But here it goes ...

Rules of The Artist's Studio (aka How to Fight Fair)

1. Don't dive in after dark. We try very hard to stick to this one. We have realized over the years that nothing good comes out of bringing up an emotionally charged issue after a long day of working, parenting and spousing. Rarely is an emotional issue urgent, its usually something that pops up in your marriage time and again so its safest to table these issues to when both partners are not exhausted and more apt to say something less than constructive.

I get this is a tough one when you have kids because you're never alone until they're in bed but here's a few tips we've done through the years to stick to this rule. We call an 'Out of Bounds,' which is basically a grown up time out. We let the kids watch TV or a movie and we go to our room to talk. We also schedule lunches together while the kids are at school or for several years we had a standing 90 minute date once a week at the neighbourhood Starbucks. However you do it, carve out purposeful time when both people are alert and ready. Bedtime is not the time for heavy conversation.

2. Stay on topic. Admittedly, I have a hard time with this one because in my mind one thing leads into another and another but before you go off chasing rabbits to make your point remember what the issue is in this moment and stick to it. I've discovered that once I go off topic and start grasping at straws to build my case I make it nearly impossible to find common ground again. We have a saying in our house, "We all can't go to Crazytown, someone has to stay behind to show us the way back!" and I assure you, straying off topic during an argument is the first step toward Crazytown!

3. Know Your Purpose. Why are you arguing?

Do you genuinely disagree on a certain topic or incident or are you just being cranky and argumentative? Be honest.

Are you having this discussion to put your partner in their place, to prove how wrong they are or are you trying to communicate your perspective and your needs? Be honest.

Are you fighting to win or are you striving to make your relationship better, stronger, healthier? Be honest.

If you are just being cranky, are trying to put your partner in their place or are just plain going for the win stop talking. Exhale. Apologize. Move on.

If you genuinely disagree, are attempting to communicate your needs or are trying to improve communication in your relationship  stop talking and ask yourself if what you are saying is honest, respectful, necessary and affirming. If the answer is yes, then make sure your tone is communicating as loudly as your words. If the answer is no then revisit the purpose question.

4. Fight the flight. Maybe its just me, but whenever Mr. Awesome and I really get into it I would rather sleep on the floor of the garage than next to him and the very last thing I want to do is make gentle physical contact with him but this rule is an absolute for us. We do not sleep apart out of anger and if things are really getting emotional then one of us has to be the bigger person and reach out to the other. Hold a hand, rub a shoulder, something to bridge the gap.

We have found that if we reach out to each other physically during an argument that the whole situation deescalates. There is healing power in physical touch, there is an instant reminder of safety, friendship and family when your partner reaches out to hold your hand even though you're angry. Try it. Seriously.

5. Choose your weapons carefully. Words have power so we have a strict no name calling, no personal jabs, no tear down rule when we are in conflict. Absolutely none. Not ever. We're grown ups and like it or not we have to act like it. Even when we're mad.

So last night, things went off the rails for a while but in the end we remembered the rules, we remembered that we really do love each other, respect each other and want to create art with our lives. And like I said, art is created in the middle of mess and chaos but the artist always has the finished product in mind

So do I. And So does Mr. Awesome.

A happy marriage is the union of two good forgivers. -Ruth Bell Graham

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Living a 'Whatever' Life

What's the standard you live by? Not the right words you say when asked random questions like this one but the real honest to goodness, walk it out every day in every way, standard you live your life by? What factors in when you make decisions? What words come flying out of your mouth in an emotionally charged moment? What influences your behaviour?

We've been talking to Dude about this topic a lot lately. We've been working on having him understand the importance of taking responsibility for his actions and decisions. It hasn't been easy; not to communicate and certainly not to enact, but we're finding our way.

This week our 52 Weeks of Giving Challenge (yes we're still doing them, even though I've not been writing about them) focuses on respect. The challenge is to learn about respect, what it is, what it looks like and how it feels to be respected and disrespected. Interesting one, considering what's been going on the last couple of weeks.

I've been struggling with how to set the parameters of respect for our kids. I don't want a list of rules for them to follow, I want them to understand  respect. This morning I found a thread that will, hopefully, begin to weave together the big picture of respect.

Every Tuesday morning I lead devotionals at Dude and Crafty's school. Several parents in the community take turns each week leading the kids in a five minute Bible focus before they start their day. Its voluntary and we do it before class starts.

So this morning, as I was walking into the school to get ready for devotions, I stumbled into the middle of a student exchange that exemplified disrespect. Honestly, I wanted to keep walking, as if I didn't hear what was said, but I couldn't. I was the adult on the scene. I had to respond. So I did.

With this incident fresh on my mind, I walked into the library and looked into the thirty eager faces waiting for my words of wisdom. The only thought I had was, "I got nothing for you." That's when the thread appeared.

I asked the kids to think of the words that are their 'go to' insults, the first thing that comes to mind when they are mad, put down, humiliated. Now, is that insult true? Is it noble? Is it just? Is it pure? Is it lovely? Is it good? Is it virtuous? Is it praiseworthy? Probably not. Yet, its what comes out of us first when we're under pressure. I'm guilty of this too. I have my favourite quasi swears and ripping zingers. I have a list of things that run through my mind when I'm under pressure and I can tell you, none of them are just, pure or noble.

But what if we retrained our brain? What if we decided to set our standard high? What if we only spoke words that were true and noble, just, pure, lovely, good, virtuous and praiseworthy? What if we operated our lives in relation to a standard of respect. Because that's all this is, really. Its the idea of respecting yourself and others enough to only build up and never tear down. To only encourage and never humiliate. To only extend grace and never judgement. To only bring peace and never harm.

Crazy idea, eh?

But what if? What if we lived a Whatever Life? What if?

Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and f there is anything praiseworthy - meditate on these things. The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do and the God of peace will be with you.
~Philippians 4:8 & 9

Friday, March 8, 2013

Crime; Boy, I Don't Know.

I could home school. Or maybe we could look at private school? No, homeschooling would be better. Maybe we should move? To the neighbouring town? Back to the city? Out of province? Out of country???

This has been the spinning top in the back of my mind for the last week. I'm not sure what the right answer is but right now, the way things are, the current set up isn't working. As things are, I'm sending my kid into a hostile atmosphere with a gaping wound. He is in so much pain that even when people accidentally touch his 'wound' or intentionally touch it to treat it he lashes out. And don't even get me started on the ones who inflicted the wound in the first place.

Dude has had one heck of a year so far and he just can't seem to catch a break anywhere. The year started off a little rocky. Mr. Awesome and I had concerns about his program and classroom right from the start of the year. Then, two months into the year The Incident happened (can't get into it for a number of reasons but suffice it to say, those who know the details can't believe the year we've had!) and we had Dude transferred out of his homeroom.

In the midst of the upset that comes from taking a kid with Asperger's, who thrives on routine, hates change and can't understand social subtleties, and switching classrooms, peers, routines and teachers on him, he was/is dealing with being a target of some very malicious behaviour. So, what we have now is a boy who is confused, angry, hurt and full of distrust walking through the halls of a middle school (which is not the most nurturing atmosphere at the best of times. Seriously, how warm and fuzzy was your grade seven experience?) totally on edge and freaking out on people in a huge way for what seems a minor offence.

I've had a total of nine hours of conversation, since Monday, with different administrators in our school and school division about Dude, the school culture, school division policy on bullying and how it actually plays out day to day. We've talked big picture and we've talked minute detail.

The West Wing is one of my all time favourite shows (no, this isn't a rabbit I'm chasing, this ties in, I promise). In one episode President Bartlett is talking to his political opponent. Bartlett is informing his opponent of the murder of a secret service agent in a violent gun attack. His opponent's reply? "Crime. Boy, I don't know." Bartlett looks at the guy like he's on crack and then sets out to annihilate him in the election.

During my conversations this week and for the past two and a half years I've been working with the schools in my area, I've had a lot of "Crime. Boy, I don't know" moments. As adults, we sit around and lament about the state of our kids, of our schools and of our communities but we don't actually do anything about it. Or if we do try to do something, its not enough and falls short of real change.

I'm tired of lamenting. I'm tired of talking and frankly, I'm afraid of what will happen in our schools, in our community, if things continue this way. Suicide? School shooting? Who knows, but it shouldn't have to get to that before we, the adults, set a new course for our kids.

Now, before you think I live in a war zone and my kids' schools are hotbeds of violent activity, you should know that I live in a beautiful small city with schools that are filled with caring and committed staff and compassionate and connected students. There is a lot of good, a lot to be celebrated. But there is also  a lot of room for improvement. We need to do better for our kids, we need to require more.

We can't wail and bemoan the lack of moral fibre in our kids and then go on our way. Illuminating the problem isn't enough. We have to do more.

So I am. I am going to do more. To be more. To expect more.

I promise because, "Crime. Boy, I don't know," is not an answer.

Knowing what's right doesn't mean much unless you do what's right.
~Theodore Roosevelt 

Friday, March 1, 2013

Easy Target

This past Wednesday was National Anti-bullying Day or Pink T-shirt Day. A few years back, in Nova Scotia, a boy was bullied at school for wearing a pink t-shirt. The next day 50 kids showed up wearing pink in support of anti-bullying. Since then, schools all across Canada have participated in this anti-bullying movement.

But on Wednesday we weren't celebrating a day of unity against bullying, we were grieving the injustice of being made a victim.

All year Dude has been a target of harassment. I wrote a while back about how he worked to resolve issues with one boy and I wish I could say that that was the end of that kind of treatment for my boy, but it wasn't. Another group of boys have been targeting him since the start of the school year and on Wednesday everything came to a head.

The ring leader sent Dude on a wild goose chase through the school and then sat back and laughed as Dude became completely undone. By the time an adult was made aware of what was going on Dude was humiliated, angry, exhausted and heart broken. He had a meltdown that was anything but funny.

When the ring leader of this stunt was asked by the principal why he was targeting Dude, he said, "His disability makes it so easy."

Those words have been echoing in my mind since I spoke to the vice-principal yesterday. My heart is broken for my boy and I am filled with anger and frustration at the whole situation. While I was muddling through my day I cam across this blog post in The Huffington Post. As I read Marc and Craig Kielburger's words all the pieces came together.

I had heard kids at Dude's school talking about how funny Seth Macfarlance was during The Oscars, well overheard actually. On Tuesday I was in the school because Crafty was too afraid of being bullied to walk down to her class by herself so I walked with her. As we walked down the hall I heard grade five and six students relaying jokes of a racial and sexual nature, all from the Macfarlane's Sunday night performance. I was bothered by what passed as entertainment these days but I was also too caught up in my own moment to put much more thought into it but today, today I had time to think.

Celebrities make a very profitable living from saying exactly the kinds of things we're trying to get kids to stop saying to each other.

From all accounts, Macfarlane went for the easy laugh. He targeted people based on their weight, ethnicity and sexual preferences. He made light of domestic violence. He went for the shock factor and received a lot of uncomfortable laughter for his efforts. He went for the easy laugh and was rewarded with high ratings.

So if this is the standard of entertainment why wouldn't a 13 year old kid target the kid with autism. Its just an easy laugh, isn't it? If a comedian can get a gig based on his ability to mock an incident of domestic violence why shouldn't a girl get mocked at school because her mother came into her room in the middle of the night and cut her hair off and then beat her? If its funny to comment on a singer's weight at an awards show then why wouldn't it be funny for one 10 year old boy to tell another ten year old boy that he's so fat he has boobs? Its all just an easy laugh right?

Folks, we're the adults. Its up to us to set the example and lead the way. We need to expect more from each other, from ourselves so that we can teach our children to be better. We need to stop going for the easy laugh, to stop laughing in our discomfort. We need need to start speaking up. Everyday should be a Pink Shirt Day for us. Everyday we should speak up for what is right and stand against what is wrong.

And by the way, the girl whose hair was cut and the boy who's told he has boobs are two spectacular kids that we know. Two brilliant, loving, hilarious, full-of-potential kids and they are anything but easy targets.

The change starts within each one of us. And ends only when all children are free to be children.
~Craig Kielburger, founder of Free the Children