25 March 2009

limbic connection

Tonight, cuddling in a big family pile on the couch, I asked Aidan what it was like to be loved as much as he is loved. He laughed and said, “It is so good in my limbic system!” This shows that we’re geeks here to talk about these things, but it’s also so true. What beautiful limbic systems we must have.

It has been one of those days where I wonder why on earth I’d ever leave New Zealand. I had a lovely day working on the leadership development programme I’m teaching right now and feeling the deep and abiding satisfaction of helping people come to a new place with their skills and relationships. Then it was to school to watch Naomi’s netball trials, Aidan playing in the schoolyard around us. It was too sparkling an autumn day to stay at home at the end of the practice, so we headed out to the big sweeping low-tide beach. The sun was hot and the wind was cold; there were goosebumps on my bare legs, but the sand was soft and warm underfoot. We walked to the stream because Aidan wanted to climb and build and play there. Once we arrived, Naomi, oh-so-grownup now, told me that she would neither climb nor play nor build, because she was too mature to do such things. But she said it with a lilt, teasing herself as much as she was teasing me. And when she passed by me 90 seconds later, her arms filled with driftwood, she explained that she was not building nor playing but rather creating a way to cross the stream. When I pointed out that she could perhaps use the bridge to cross the stream, she turned pointedly away from the big bridge span and returned to her driftwood piles. The rest of the time there was spent in the earnest construction of a bridge structure (as it has been every time we’ve been to the stream in the past two years) and the pealing laughter and adolescent shrieking when the bridge turned out to be less reliable than planned.

On the way home, Naomi kept the subtle mocking tone. Pulling my arm tight around her, she teased about the hideous puddle (the sea), the vast rubbish piles (the hills) and the annoying mud (sand) underneath us. We laughed about how ugly it was in the sparkling sun. She affected the humourless big girl who was finding everything boring and impossible, and then disintegrated into giggles. We chased each other through the shallow water, our mirror images laughing and splashing along with us.

So here is the great benefit of this mother-of-a-tween life. Naomi is big enough to be incredibly interesting, her ironic sense of humour making me laugh so hard tears poured down my face in the wind. And she’s small enough to still want my arm wrapped hard against her, still want to stop and hug me in the sunlight. She is aware enough of her own foibles to be playful with them, even as she is caught by them. She knows that her perfectionist tendencies are absurd, and she is still a perfectionist. She knows her jealousy of a friend is limiting, and still she is jealous. She is big enough to watch herself—and feel amused, dismayed, proud, frustrated, joyful. And I watch her and feel all those things too.

Today was just about joy, though, about a dog running in circles the stream, Naomi’s purple jandal flip-flopping in his mouth. It was about cuddling on the couch while a smelly wet dog left sandy dog prints all around us. It was about admiring my children so hard I thought my heart might burst. There are times when parenting seems a trial, when every sentence feels like a conflict, when every word is a limit that needs setting. And there are days like today, when each act of parenting feels like a gift, when I don’t even regret that I’ll never hold my sweet baby children in my arms again because holding my lanky articulate children is so uniquely satisfying.

May each of you, gentle readers, be filled with love for someone precious today. It’s really good in your limbic system.

20 March 2009


It is the long-awaited Friday of The Busy Week. I have taught things to university faculty, conservationists, and judges. My new job was announced at work in my absence. I have seen a dear friend launch her new CD and walked around a thermal lake edged by boiling mud. To say I am full-up would be an understatement.

Today was to be my wind-down day. It is the day when I could call my parents for a long talk while I cleaned a house made ragged by my busy period. It was a day when I could go through and answer the important but not urgent email that has been building up in my in-box. It was a day for sending invoices and tidying up. It was a day for regaining connection and regaining control.

When the power first went off this morning, I was mostly untroubled. The power sometimes goes out here, but never for very long. And while I can’t be on the phone or the internet while the power is out, I figured I could take a few minutes over breakfast and just sit and stare at the waves and listen to the surf. A bigger deal is that a colleague is coming to stay tonight, and very late last night when I got home from Melissa’s concert, I didn’t have time to email my future guests with directions to the house. They were to call in the morning, which now wasn’t going to be that helpful as the phones all require power. And I couldn’t email them, because I had no internet.

I called Michael to ask a quick question and mentioned that I hoped the power would come back really soon. “Oh yeah, today is the day it’s out from 9 until 3,” he told me. I can almost not describe the panic that welled up inside me as I realised that each of my plans was attached to the electric wire. I felt waves of sorrow. Not to hear my dad’s voice today? Not to clear out my inbox and write to the friends and colleagues who need my attention? Not even to blast my music and clean the house? I ached with frustration at my day’s plans now in ruins at my feet.

After solving the problem of the colleague who might think I was blowing her off, I sat down to collect myself. These are times in general when we are called to turn challenges into opportunities to be different than we were before. The financial crisis does this, and here this little micro challenge did it too. In many ways, it’s the same challenge. In a world of finite resources (with time being the most finite of all resources and money looking importantly finite), the loss of something we thought we had is devastating. Watching our retirement savings dwindle to negligible amounts this past year has been life altering even if I don’t know what the lessons are. Similarly, the passing of a day without any of the connections or accomplishments I’ve craved is somehow a void, a removal of a felt promise of time.

It wasn’t until I tried to reframe the day from a ruin to a fresh possibility that I recognised what my tunnel vision had done. I had not considered a walk on the beach. I had not considered finishing Twilight (which, ok, everyone is reading but is seriously compelling all the same). I had not considered a day in the garden or painting the cottage out back or or or. My eyes, focused on my plans, missed the possibilities.

The power is due back on in 45 minutes. I have scrubbed the house and kneaded bread dough for challah tonight and rearranged some furniture. I have unpacked from my trip and written this blog. I have taken a little nap. I have spent the day on these little bits of trivia and not felt the little twinge of responsibility saying that I should be doing something else all the time, accomplishing more, not wasting my time. I know that each of these activities would have given me pause on any other day. But today I can putter and knead and stare and dream. Somehow I’m powerless to be productive, which gives me a whole new set of powers. Who knew there was so much possibility for getting what you really need on a day when you don’t get what you wanted?

ps pictures today from the trip to Rotorua, and of us eating our first dinner on the new deck!

15 March 2009

Work work balance

It is the start of a busy week in a very busy season. I’m on a train Saturday morning at first light. I’ve left my house before the sun to start a week that is representative of the weird corners of my life right now. Today I’m off to Christchurch, hoping that the skies, cloudy here, will be clear on the flight down so that I can catch a glimpse of mountains on this short flight, snow-capped from the first fall of early autumn snow.

Today I’ll present about Kegan’s theory today to a group of researchers who are thinking about knowledge. They want to understand the connections between New Zealand’s new curriculum, the way schools need to change to face the 21st century needs, and the way teachers make sense of diversity. And they think that Kegan will help them with that.

Monday I’ll head to work at NZCER and wrestle with large issues in the world and important issues in our organisation (for the blog we’re writing about helping to shift education into the 21st century, click here).

Tuesday I’ll facilitate at a meeting at an organisation where I’ve been doing lots of leadership development work. It’s an interesting request for them to have me come in for this meeting between the chief executive and some of his senior leaders. About half of those leaders have been through a quick programme with me (and Keith), and the organisation is wanting them to both use those leadership skills/habits/ways of thinking to change the way this meeting feels.. Wednesday Keith and I will do a one-day programme with the senior team in that same organisation (would be nicer if these went in the opposite direction, but such is life). And Thursday Keith and I will give a two-hour keynote workshop to the New Zealand District Court Judges about how they might think in new ways about their work and their growth.

So it’s a week where I teach about development to researchers, teach about development to leaders to help them develop, use developmental ideas to teach about leadership, and finally use all these ideas to help leaders begin to enact change in a real-time situation.

This is not just a to-do list of my week so you’ll understand the silence or write to me with sympathy. This is the braid of my work life that I’m trying to understand, the mix of my activities in proportions I’m trying to get right. I love each of these pieces, love the braiding of research, practice, and teaching. I relish the opportunity to touch them all in a single week, to test my own knowledge and have it bump up against these many varied situations, to have the proximity of these different ways of thinking about and working on the same basic problem (how do adults grow on the job?).

And at the same time, it’s such a disjointed and fragmented list. Half of the groups I’ll work with this week I’ll never see again; the other half I am getting so immersed in I can hardly see anything else. I’ll move from context to context, teaching the same thing more than once but in these different ways; I’ll be surprised if I don’t screw up the presentations, lose the one I’m doing now for the one I’m doing next, find myself blinking, doe-in-the-headlights wondering which group this was again.

I have been wrestling with this coherence problem my entire work life. I am not interested in doing one piece of this work—am not wanting to give up the research or the writing or the teaching or the consulting. But there isn’t one job with all those bits. And so I do a piece of this here, a piece of that there, and hope that in the end these little bits add up to something bigger than the sum of hundreds of day-long workshops. It’s so hard to see the pattern of my life as I’m weaving it. Enough of this shade? Too much of that one? And how does it contribute to the knowledge base in the world? How does it contribute to the lives of individuals? To the mission of organisations? I’m not sure, and maybe won’t ever know until it’s behind me. Seems a hard way to craft a work life, especially when you’ve only got the option to write a first draft of life, without being able to go back and edit and rewrite.

Today I’ll fly off into the grey clouds. Monday I’ll meet with Robyn and think about my work life at my day job. I am excited to be in the space I’m in here; it is a privilege and an honour to be with people in the many ways I have to do that. And in two weeks, I’ll get the vantage point on my life that only travel offers when I head to the US. Fasten your seatbelts. In a time like this, there is always the potential for unexpected turbulence.

ps The picture today is just a randomly beautiful sunset from last week. And I can't even describe how magnificent the plane ride home was. Seriously, this is the most beautiful place I have ever seen, and it's changingly beautiful again and again and again...

13 March 2009


There is a section of department stores called “tweens” now. There 10, 11, and 12 year old girls can find clothes that are suitably fashionable without scaring the hell out of their parents by shopping in the full-fledged Juniors section complete with pre-torn jeans and blaring rock music. These girls are now a major industry with their own music, movies, video games. There are magazines for tween girls and there are websites and Disney stars. This is a demographic to die for.

But the thing I haven’t known until fairly recently is that there is a tween place for parents, too. I am a tween mom right now, and there are no department store areas set aside for me, no rock bands that sing of my particular angst. I am betwixt and between, having kids who sometimes need me and sometimes don’t, who get mad if I don’t walk them to school and then get mad if I try to hold their hands as we cross the street. There are all new rules now, and I haven’t gotten the rule book. Oh, and the rules change from moment to moment. Somebody twitter me the latest version.

Take the netball trials on Wednesday. Naomi wanted me to come and watch her—it was seriously important to her. So at 3 I went off in the sudden autumn drizzle to watch her doing wind sprints and ball drills in the school hall before playing a scrimmage in the newly-sunny school yard. Naomi is lovely at netball, her willowy body and endlessly-long arms stretching and grabbing the ball magically, her determination and drive etched in fleeting lines around her eyes and mouth, lines which time will carve into her face.

I had been briefed on my behaviour before hand. No yelling or cheering, no calling attention to myself or to her. Nothing that would suggest to any of the other girls that I was her mother (why she thinks they might forget is beyond me). I did what I was told, although I smiled at her when I arrived (seemed in bounds). I tried to sink into the wall and become innocuously invisible, as I was the only mother in attendance.

So it was a surprise when, at the end of practice, she turned and huffed home, not a word to me. Aidan and I followed, perplexed, and came home to an empty house with Naomi’s door closed—as usual. I tried to check in with her and got a grunt. Pushing it a little to see what was wrong, I got snapped at. So much for that. So Aidan and I played and talked and hung out for a while. Maybe it was the smell of popcorn or the sound of cards being shuffled, but suddenly, an hour later, Naomi was there, no mention of the sulking or what it was attached to, wondering if she could eat and play with us.

So what do I do with the push-me-pull-you of that? Suddenly, I’m 13 again and feeling slighted by a friend. I don’t want to share my popcorn or my cards with her but to glare at her and mutter under my breath about how she’s missed her chance, about how I’d given up an hour and a half of my day in this slammed-busy week without so much as a thank you, without so much as a daughter to walk home with after school. But I am not actually 13, and so I pushed the popcorn over to her and dealt her into our hot game of Go Fish. This was just a little scab, a little time for me to practice my attachment and my non attachment, to understand that she’s needing to separate and also still needs her mommy. I’m good at the theory of it all.

But the tween-ness of it isn’t just hard on her. It’s hard on me because I never know which Naomi I’ll find and thus which mother I’m supposed to be. When I walk her to school, each moment is a barometer of the constantly shifting weather; some days she drapes my arm over her shoulders; other days she storms off ahead of me. Not knowing which Naomi I’ll get makes it hard for me to find stable ground for where to put my own emotions. Her dance of attachment and separation is my dance too, only I am definitely not leading on this dance floor. The theory is one thing but the practice of it is wearing.

Wednesday night, I went to cuddle with her before I worked out, as I do each evening. Aidan insists upon the nightly cuddle, yelling out for me if I’m taking too long to make my way upstairs to him. Naomi could take it or leave it, shrugging some nights when I ask whether she wants to cuddle or be left alone to read. “S’up to you.” This night, because it was up to me, I wanted to hold my girl again. I climbed on to her bed, stepping over piles of tween magazines and stacks of tween books, pushed the dozens of stuffed animals out of my way, and snuggled down with this angular big girl, complete with velvet sleeping mask. We talked about her day, about why she was so frustrated at the netball trials (had nothing to do with me, of course—she wasn’t even thinking about me when she stormed home). After a while, I got up to go—there was sweating to do and then lunches to finish and the dishwasher to load and I am always pushing against the merciless onslaught of time. Naomi held me tight. “You always go so fast,” she complained. “Couldn’t we slow it down just a little?” And on the one hand, she was wrong. I don’t go so fast, I make heaps of time for her, and I didn’t have time to slow down a little. It was another example of Naomi putting her needs ahead of my needs to work out, to take care of the house, to sleep. But on the other hand, she was naming one of the fundamental truths of parenthood. It goes so fast. And one of the fundamental desires of all of us sometimes: Can’t we just slow it down a little? And so I relaxed back into the conversation, stroking her hair, hearing her sleepy laugh, holding her and being held by her. The memories of the chubby giggling toddler and the imaginings of a graceful grown woman danced at the edge of my mind. I am a tween mom, between childhood and adolescence. Between attachment and separation. But the thing that does not change, the rule book that does not need to be updated, is that I am fully inside of love.

12 March 2009

pictures from the quiet

ok, I know I've been super silent. AND I have heaps to write about, mostly about what it's like to be the mom of a "tween." Tonight, though, there isn't time for more than giving you a glimpse of a magical sunset with children playing on the beach. Ah, and there's the new deck, here with images under construction, and soon (tomorrow?) pictures of the final product. There will be words from me soon, too, if you're interested. Until then, enjoy the full moon that we share.

04 March 2009

From one extreme…

Ok, so it’s not like this has been a bad day. It’s the most shockingly beautiful late-summers day here. The sky is cobalt blue, the still sea is azure striped with turquoise. The seagulls are flying low on the still air, surfing the currents right at my window-height. I have been running so fast for so long, I hardly remember how to slow down, breathe, and be.

So this morning was my chance to check it out. My two close collaborators from these last two days are nowhere to be found: Carolyn is gone now, on a plane back to the US after a blissful time working and playing together; Keith is off to Europe so that he can run the board of his international NGO for a couple of weeks. The kids are off at school. I sat down, ignoring the to-do list which had important but not urgent things on it, and just worked on my book. MY book, the one I’ve been working on for years (seriously, years) about the connection between adult developmental ideas and organizational development and leadership development practices. This was heaven, bliss, brilliance. This was everything I wanted, a quiet house, a blue sky, an empty day, a laptop in the sunshine.

And that was fantastic for the first little while. And then I remembered that really what I needed before writing was coffee. So I made that. THEN I could write some. Ok, but then I was getting the nibbles, so I ate a peach (which always always makes me think of ts eliot—anyone else like that?). THEN I could write some again. But oh how sleepy I was getting. And there were emails to write. Perhaps tea and a little break to do emails. And then, er, lunch. And dessert of lunch. And after-dessert tea.

I did write, really. I wrote well, and finished off the section of this chapter I’ve been stuck on for months. Does writing always make me so restless, though? Or is it the empty house and the friends on airplanes jetting across the world? Or the constant thrumming of the hammer on my new deck?

Finally time to pick up the kids. Now I’d have someone to be with, someone who loved me. I’d put aside my work and play with them this afternoon. Naomi wanted to do a baking project—as she often has for the past nine years, ever since she could say “baking project” when she was two. But now she likes to do them ALONE, thank you very much. Aidan wanted to build a toy for the pet rats he is sure I’ll give in and say yes to. No one wanted to swim with me! Or play with me! Or do anything else that would prevent my working!

And so now I’m alone in this lovely house by the sea. Aidan has gone to cricket. Naomi is off practicing netball at school. Rob is riding his bike north of here, and Michael is riding the train south. Tomorrow will be a bustling day of airplanes and meetings and (at long long last) a hair cut. Perhaps the one extreme of people everywhere and always something I had to be doing is not well-followed by people all somewhere else and nothing I have to be doing. Perhaps gradual would be slightly better than one extreme to the next. (But please, no one remind me of this feeling when I hit the next wall of work two weeks from now. I can’t stand to shatter the mirage that I do stillness well.)

ps the pictures here are for Carolyn--ordinary visions of life here in paradise.