” Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”- 2 Corinthians 4:16-18
Today will be difficult so I am writing. It’s my drug of choice in times of strong emotion and particularly soothing right now with a cup of hot green tea at hand, in the quiet of the earliest morning before sunrise.
Later today we will bury Harrison. His obituary says: “He passed peacefully in the arms of his family after a beautiful and unforgettable hour. His life was a brief gift to all that loved him and he will never be forgotten.” Harrison was the newborn son of my nephew Patrick and his partner Diana.
When Patrick was born 28 years ago, my brother (his father) and sister-in-law let me come into the delivery room with them. Patrick came forth after the normal struggle of childbirth and we laughed that he was a “conehead” because his pointy head had been squished in the birth canal during his entrance.
Patrick grew up to be a fine man. I served as Patrick’s godmother as he entered the Greek Orthodox faith through baptism and chrismation. He became a church altar boy and made the family proud with his sweet and gentle demeanor. I still see the faces of Patrick and my son Clint in altar boy robes as they flanked the casket of my father at his memorial service, tears streaming down their young boy faces in the light of the candles they held.
Patrick and Diana made a family with Diana’s young daughter Mya, and their son Lincoln who will be 2 this year. They were delighted to learn Diana was pregnant again but their joy soon turned to shock and sorrow when they learned their infant had Trisomy 18, a life threatening genetic disorder that causes devastating medical issues and often death. Undeterred, they named their in utero baby boy and we all became acquainted with Harrison.
From the moment they named him, Harrison became a person. A person who was a member of our family, and for whom we began to pray and worry. Patrick and Diana started a gofundme account to help with the inevitable medical expenses and the cost of sole provider Patrick’s projected absence from his job as a chef near their home in Northern Iowa. Their page kept us all posted on Harrison’s developments.
From the beginning the young parents were committed to seeing Harrison all the way through his birth. Abortion was mentioned by well meaning relatives, but they were champions of life from the get go. After all, this was not just a fetus; it was Harrison. As a pro choice individual I have to admit, Harrison brought me to a new understanding of life and I am more conflicted than before about this delicate issue.
Harrison’s parents sought the best medical treatment for his imminent arrival. They were connected to a hospital well versed in Trisomy 18 and the doctors were strong partners in their quest to spare no effort in helping Harrison. The ultrasound confirmed abnormalities would be life threatening once he breathed his first breath. They were encouraged with small bits of hopefulness such as the determination that despite other challenges, his heart was strong and mighty.
Spiritual support came forth. A Greek Orthodox monk friend saw Patrick’s Facebook post and rallied the monks at his monastery. “We are praying for Patrick, Diana, Mya, Lincoln and Harrison each specifically and by name,” he reported. Graciously they also volunteered a burial plot at the monastery for Harrison should it be needed. Being covered in prayer, the family felt supported in ways beyond the reach of a gofundme page.
At 33 weeks, “Harrison took things into his own hands,” stated Patrick’s Facebook post and Diana went into labor. An unusually fierce snowstorm had struck and they were unable to make it to the hospital that was awaiting Harrison’s arrival. Instead a nearby hospital would have to do, and Diana gracefully demanded a C-Section when the staff who were not as familiar with Harrison’s medical condition tried to get her to have a vaginal birth. Harrison’s siblings Maya and Lincoln were along too since the grandmothers could not make it through the storm in time to babysit while mom and dad went to the hospital.
The obituary had it right.Harrison lived an hour. He was surrounded by his family. His medical conditions were too substantial to sustain life. Even the more elaborate hospital couldn’t have helped. A professional photographer came in to take his baby pictures. He was wrapped in a blanket and stocking cap, showing only his perfectly formed, beautiful angelic face. When Patrick sent me the picture all I could say was “There’s Harrison!” as though I had known him my whole life.
“I don’t want to say goodbye to him,” Patrick texted yesterday when he and Diana were on their way to the mortuary to see their son for the last time. Harrison is coming home to be buried in the same cemetery as my father. To conserve funds, Patrick will drive his son in his tiny casket from the mortuary three hours to the grave site in West Des Moines. “I’m leaving soon to get my boy,” he texted me moments ago. He is bringing his son home. Harrison will be buried in the “Garden of the Innocent” not far from the mausoleum where my dad rests, and amidst other babies who have died.
Later today, our immediate family will gather at the gravesite, along with our monk friend and our Greek Orthodox priest. On St. Patrick’s Day we will bury Patrick’s son, our beloved Harrison. He is every bit as cherished a member of our family as the old grandparents we have buried before him. It’s hard to explain how one can feel so connected to a spirit who only passed through so briefly. It’s something I have never experienced before in my life, and has been quite unexpected. I like to envision my father holding his great grandson Harrison in his arms with a big smile, like I saw him hold my three adult children when they were infants.
Harrison’s innocence, his courage, his radiance, the devotion of his parents, his reminder to all of us that life is fragile and every moment matters, and his valiant struggle to breathe in this beautiful gift of life for even only an hour has profoundly changed us. Godspeed my great nephew.
We love you Harrison.
O Lord Who watches over children in the present life and in the world to come because of their simplicity and innocence of mind, abundantly satisfying them with a place in Abraham’s bosom, bringing them to live in radiantly shining places where the spirits of the righteous dwell: receive in peace the soul of Your little servant Harrison, for You Yourself have said, “Let the little children come to Me, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Amen.
This blog was originally published in December, 2012.It is sent out with love to women struggling with their first Christmas post-divorce. You are not alone.
The experts will tell you that you need a full year to recover from divorce. This is based partially on the fact that you have to go through all of the holidays once without your former spouse. Christmas was already a difficult time for me since my dad died a week before Christmas during my first marriage after I’d taken care of him as a hospice patient in my home for months. I remember putting him in a wheelchair from his bed in the guest room and wheeling him in to watch my children decorate the Christmas tree. After divorcing FP in October, the first post-divorce Christmas came quickly and I had to find a way to cope.
Wanting to put on a brave face, I decided to gather up my women friends and have a party. I sent out an email: “At this holiday time you always hear about the wise men but what about the wise women? I am inviting the wisest women I know to a ‘Women of Wisdom’ gathering at my home. My two daughters will be in attendance. Please come with two gifts for them: your best piece of wisdom and the one song they need on their iPod.” Continue reading
One of the most important relationships in my life has been working with my life coach. I began working with Paul when I was struggling with finding a sense of purpose. Was I really meant to be a lawyer? Or had I missed the mark for my destiny and just followed in the path opened by my lawyer-father?
Having taken a course from Paul based on his workbook The Extraordinary Power of A My Focused Life: A workbook for leaders who want to finish well I’d answered the question about my purpose. Yes, I was meant to be a lawyer. But that was only the first part of the answer. Once I’d confirmed my purpose what should I do next?
An epiphany came that I needed to write a book, and to write articles and blogs about compassion and spirituality issues, particularly for lawyers. The idea of writing a book was daunting and since I’d have to do it while simultaneously working in my busy law practice, I was sure it would never happen. So, I hired Paul to coach me. The Compassionate Lawyer was published in 2014 and I am editing a second book now.
I wonder now how I ever got along without a coach. Being thrilled with the impact coaching had on me, I took coaching training and have worked for the past few years in serving as a coach to others. Most of my coaching clients are lawyers and law students but I also coach divorcing people in how to find a lawyer and navigate the legal system in their divorce. My coaching practice is growing and it’s one of the favorite things I do.
What is coaching? Coaches listen intently to their clients, asking questions so the person being coached will be able to think more deeply. The client is then able to find solutions in a way that makes them feel empowered to take action. Unlike a mentor who gives advice, the coach controls the urge to tell people what to do and instead uses questions to draw out thoughts and ideas. In my coaching relationships we “do life together” in intentional scheduled conversations. Every conversation produces insights, discoveries and action steps.
Who can be a coach? As a lawyer I am a professional problem solver and as a “seasoned” lawyer I can draw from years of skills training and life experiences. That being said, I found the coaching skills training to be some of the most transformative training I have ever taken. It literally changed the way I operate in most all of my relationships. I found when I took to having conversations with my adult children from the coaching vantage point instead of as the intrusive mother, our relationships grew. While many people say they are a coach, it’s like saying you are a mediator. Anyone can label themselves this or a that, but without skills training they can be dangerous. The coaching title isn’t regulated so beware.
How is a coaching relationship structured? The structure and cost of each coaching relationship is different. Some of the people I coach meet with me once a month (in person or virtually) and send me weekly accountability emails. Some only structure meetings with no contact in between. Some have a defined term; with others we just check in regularly to see if the relationship is still fruitful. I have worked with my own coach for years meeting monthly, moving to biweekly coaching meetings during times of focused productivity or unexpected lethargy. I sent weekly accountability emails to him for years. Now I’ve moved to an occasional email between in person sessions. I cried and floundered during my first meetings and now come prepared with focused agenda items and action plans including a diagnosis of what I think went wrong for things that have not come to fruition. Each coach charges either an hourly or session rate, which may vary depending on circumstances.
What makes a good coaching relationship? The productivity goals are secondary for me, and the best byproduct of my work with Paul is how he points out areas of my personal growth and increased focus. For others who hire a coach, it may be all about finished work product. Each coaching relationship takes on it’s own personality. Some young lawyers I coach are in their own solo practices and enjoy having a more experienced lawyer helping them think through things. Other lawyers have productivity goals. Law students often need someone to help them with stress management and overcoming perfectionism. Experienced lawyers are often looking for more meaning in a stagnant law practice. While a lot of people leave the law during those times of restlessness, I am a proponent of helping lawyers stay in the law while finding ways to practice more authentically. My divorcing coaching clients are intimidated with the legal system, and want an experienced guide to walk alongside them that isn’t their own lawyer.
Why do I love being a coach? Every day in my legal practice I have to “fix” problems for my clients. As a coach, I don’t have to “fix” anyone or anything. I just have to hold space for people to feel safe enough to unearth what is inside of them. Being a coach inspires me to do better work in all my relationships, business and personal. For me, having a coach is like having another family member who is unconditionally in your corner even in your imperfections. I’ve had plenty of meetings with Paul bemoaning how I “botched things” and asking him to help me process how I would regroup. And when I received the Drake alumna of the year award Paul and his wife Leslie were there with me at he head table clapping and smiling. I feel the same sense of pride over the people I coach as I see them moving their lives forward in meaning and purpose, fully awake.
Is coaching for you? Let’s explore that question with no cost or obligation to “sign up.” I love connecting, whether we end up working together or not. Email me: email@example.com
“Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”-Philo of Alexandria
In my love affair with perfectly foamed lattes, I’ve spent many happy days at Starbucks. When the children were small, my friend Laura and I would meet there every single day. I would have a latte, usually with nonfat milk, except when I went through my soy phase. Laura would have an Americana with room for cream.
The Phoenix area has a million Starbuck’s, so we would call each other (before texting was available) to coordinate which location was convenient for our meeting, based on our schedules. “I’m picking up the triplets at school early for a dental appointment,” she might say.
“I will be at the church, can we meet half way in between?” I’d respond, and for several years we accommodated each other without the slightest amount of stress.
“I need to go first today,” one of us would say once we sat down with our coffees. We poured out stressors and anxiety becoming each other’s amateur therapists. People are in disbelief that we only missed a handful of days over the course of several years, before I moved back to Iowa.
Our daily meetings grounded me during years where I was lonely because of a traveling husband, unsure how to raise kids, and yearning for my lawyer world during a period as stay at home mom. Laura could validate my feelings, tell me the kid’s coughs needed Robitussin and being a lawyer herself, explore the injustices of the OJ Simpson case based on an analysis of the evidence.
I supplied similar support to her as she raised triplets with her busy emergency room physician husband. By the time we finished our coffee and dashed to our respective mom mobiles to get back to our duties we were poised to face life with a fresh approach.
At our favorite Starbucks, Carl was the manager. Because we were regulars, it was like meeting another friend when he was working. When he transferred locations we moved our rendezvous to his new store whenever possible.
When I was divorced from my children’s father, I was in between jobs, having given up my status as VP of a California based mediation firm to try to save a failing marriage. Post-divorce I was left having to regroup to get a job in Scottsdale, and doors were not opening.
One day at coffee, I made a spontaneous inquiry of Carl. “Carl, would you ever hire me?”
Carl was puzzled knowing I was a lawyer, but also knowing Starbucks provided medical health benefits, which I needed. The next thing I knew I was handed a green apron and a post at a new Starbucks Carl was managing in a stylish part of Scottsdale.
The people I worked with had no clue I was a lawyer. I tried to keep that fact underground, partly from embarrassment that I was underemployed, and also to avoid getting asked for legal advice. I was just “Kim,” and I didn’t feel like I was being judged. Secretly I was “Kim, the lawyer who struggles to steam milk.”
My twenty-something coworker Maggie became my guide to the Starbuck’s world. Keeping up with a busy caffeine -seeking crowd, was not easy. Some customers were rude and impatient, some downright hateful, others were pleasant. Those who said hello, asked how I was getting along as the “newbie,” and called me by name were a joy. I was working hard, on my feet, trying to live up to Carl’s rigorous standards for a clean store, going home tired at the end of my shift, particularly on days when it had started at 5 a.m.
If I would gripe to Maggie she never engaged, but instead was always upbeat, expressing gratitude for her job. Maggie would often excuse herself abruptly for a bathroom break. I became curious as to why she would leave her work station so suddenly. Eventually I asked a coworker.
“Maggie has cancer,” he told me. “She is going through chemotherapy and leaves her post to get sick. She has to work to keep the insurance. Poor thing should be home in bed.”
I was shocked. Here I had been a prissy Scottsdale lawyer/mom who had thought I was so noble working at Starbucks. Right beside me was Maggie, struggling to survive. I eventually asked Maggie if there was anything I could do to help her. She seemed disappointed that her secret was out, and basically said “Thanks so much but I am fine. I enjoy working with you.” That was it.
The next morning when it was still dark, as I went in to open the store I saw Maggie getting off the bus. For the first time in my life, I was unable to know what to do to help someone. I decided the best thing I could do to honor her was to watch her humility up close and to learn to do something about my own ego based on her example.
A few mornings later a particularly obnoxious business woman came to the counter enraged, oblivious to the line packed tightly out the door. “You are out of cream!” she squealed. “Perhaps “you people” don’t know what it is like to be a busy executive needing to keep on your schedule! We get delayed by something that you should be taking care of!”
My initial instinct was to lash back saying: “I will have you know I am a lawyer and I doubt YOU are qualified to argue before the Supreme Court!” At the same time, I saw Maggie down the counter from me, smiling and selecting a pastry for a customer.
“I am so sorry ma’am, let me get you that cream right away,” I said instead, grabbing the decanter and filling it up. “I am sorry you were inconvenienced and I hope you have a wonderful day.”
Somehow I was able to channel what I’d learned from Maggie. And strangely, in the turn of a moment, I really did want the woman to have a wonderful day. For all I knew she was in a struggle of her own, unable to handle it with Maggie’s grace.
Eventually I left Starbucks and Arizona, resuming my law and mediation practice in Iowa. Leaving Laura’s friendship was devastating. I visit Arizona often and we always “do coffee” daily while I am there.
I ‘ve gone back to the Starbucks where I worked. It’s been totally remodeled. Carl is gone to stores unknown. Maggie is not there. I wonder if she is even alive.
Now, when I walk into a Starbucks I take a moment to look the barista in the eye, smile, make small talk and even call them by name. I do the same with the clerk at the grocery store and the cashier at the gas station. I know from my work at Starbucks that a little kindness makes all the difference.
And all of our lives, matter.
This post was originally published in 2013. My son Clint, age 23, has started working part time as a barista at Starbucks so it reminded me of this post. Welcome to the barista family son!
Let’s get this straight. There is no such thing as work/life balance.
When I hear the phrase “work/life balance” it elicits shame. I berate myself for intense and difficult spurts of work that leave me depleted, and also for vegging on the couch on a Netflix binge.
There’s a phrase that suits me better: “work life integration.” “Integration” seems more possible than “balance,” and produces a mental image of the scale swinging gently back and forth in easy flow, never tipping too far to one side or another. The swaying gives more grace for imperfection and seems more achievable than the tension of a perfectly balanced scale.I’d had a rough week in my work as a lawyer. Clients were stressed, several cases arrived concurrently at court deadlines, and I was a grouchy document drafting, fire-putter-outer. I knew the scale dance was woefully out of sync.
I reached out to one of my special girlfriends, Dr. J a wise and unconditionally supportive friend, bemoaning my need for re-calibration. Since she is also a physician she gave me a prescription. “Come to the farm and spend the day. It’s crucial for you to connect with nature.”
Her recommendation seemed underwhelming but then I took inventory. I’d been eating clean food, vigilantly engaging in my spiritual practice and getting 7-8 solid hours of sleep (sometimes falling into bed shortly after getting home from the office), but I was still out of whack. Since that usual list of de-railers was in tact, I decided to follow doctor’s orders.
I love it when God endorses a game plan as he so clearly did on the day I traveled to her farm in rural Iowa. The weather was perfect enough to put the top down on the convertible and I cranked classic rock tunes along the back roads through small Iowa towns and green fields eventually arriving at the farm.
My friend greeted me with a big hug, a glass of iced green tea, and a cozy rocking chair on the front porch with a front row seat to several hummingbird feeders in the nearby trees. We sat rocking, sipping our tea, watching and listening to an assortment of hummingbirds zipping around us. I remembered when I’d been a little girl and my grandfather had sat for hours watching birds and beckoning me, “Look Josie(his pet name for me), watch this one right here.” I’d thought he was boring, and I’d look at the bird mildly entertained never sitting very long.
That day at the farm, we sat in the quiet open spaces feeling the perfect breeze blow by, occasionally sharing things girlfriends share without interruption or distraction. At the suggestion of Dr. J’s partner “Good Dave” who was giving us girlfriend -bonding space, we strolled past the hens and baby chickens roaming in a vast corner of the farm. The rooster crowed and his voice was clear and strong and it thrilled me to experience the familiar cock-a-doodle-do happening live and in color. Dr. J often gifts me eggs these beauties lay and they taste wonderful and fresh and now I’d met the sources of this generous gift of nourishment.
“Take off your shoes,” Dr. J instructed as we reached another area of the farm, “and run your toes all through the grass being mindful and really feeling it,” she instructed.
“The therapeutic benefit of this is tremendous,” she insisted although the skeptic in me doubted. I’ve since found that “earthing” is real, and research shows the body draws electrons from the earth benefitting heart rate, immunity, blood viscosity, the endocrine and nervous systems.
We rocked and talked more, and eventually Good Dave left and brought us back a surprising lunch: bacon cheeseburgers and onion rings. Having my health guru there gave me permission to divert from my usual clean eating without guilt. The junk food was a reminder to not take myself so seriously that I missed the chance to have self- compassion when other areas of my life missed the mark of perfectionism. I felt my stress melting more rapidly then other go-to remedies.
After lunch we ventured out in what I called a “pimped out golf cart” parking next to the river deep in the woods nearby, where we simply watched the river run and listened to the water. My friend urged me to take a turn at the wheel when we got back to the farm and I did, driving all over with a stop to admire the vegetable garden. Ultimately we parked and walked to the farm pond throwing small pieces of bread into the water while groups of fish scurried to the crumbs in hopes of making a score. A bug eyed, green slimy pond frog pushed his head up out of the water striking a pose while I snapped a picture on my phone.
My trip to the farm had an incredible healing effect on my weary soul, dislodging it from it’s stuck position such that the gentle swaying back and forth of the scales was reinstated. I felt rested and whole for days after, even while dodging the demands of a high stress job. I was born and raised in Iowa and it took me until now to fully appreciate the healing effects of nature.
If only I’d sat and really watched those birds with my grandpa years ago, I might have figured it out sooner.
“Peace begins with a smile.”-Mother Teresa
I believe that each of us navigates life with an ever-present stream of malaise that runs inside of us. Sometimes it’s a low trickle, and other times it rushes as a result of life’s storms that fill it to capacity.
I’m working hard to navigate internal rushing waters at the Phoenix airport, returning to Iowa after a week long Arizona visit. I’m leaving behind in Scottsdale my three children and best girlfriend and her husband. My children’s father is here as well, and we’ve spent the past week as an emotionally healthy post divorce family having some quality time together, reminiscing about a past that was simultaneously painful and exhilarating. Our time has included the seriousness of my former husband’s diagnosis with a terminal disease that is ravaging his body.
My gate to Des Moines is full of sleepy passengers, some eating gross burritos and thick crust pizza from the food stands near our gate, even though it’s only 8AM. Most are tired, flat affects, biding time before being smushed into a small plane with luggage and their souvenir cactus in a box.
I decide to grab a nonfat chai latte but Starbucks is too far of a hike, so I find my place in the reasonably short line at a nondescript coffee kiosk. I let out a deep sigh as the wellspring of emotions continues to bubble up.
I look ahead in line to see which coffee cashier will serve me, and am immediately drawn energetically to “left cashier.” A 40-something striking African American woman with a big beautiful smile and bright eyes, she beams with light greeting each weary traveler with a vibrant “Good morning!” and pleasant small talk while making direct eye contact. “Right cashier”on the other side of the kiosk has a low grade smile and is not nearly as exuberant.
I try to jockey into position so I can end up with left cashier. I want to suck in her emotional state because I feel immediate internal calming just from studying her from my place in line.
This phenomenon of reacting to another’s emotion has been proven scientifically. It’s “emotional contagion” and studies at Yale and elsewhere confirm that every encounter we have produces an invisible impact of emotions that transmit between us. Our emotions have the power to nourish others or produce toxicity.
It’s thanks to our brain mechanisms including the amygdala and the basal areas of the brain stem that regulate reflex and automatic response. Once the physiology kicks in the path is open for the emotions to flow. My low energy crowd at the gate was bringing me down and left cashier’s glow zapped my brain into receiving a whole different emotional path.
Studies in emotional contagion prove that both good and bad feelings spread, although the research is mixed on which are more contaigous. Objective measures show those impacted by the virus of good emotions register higher in cooperation, fairness, collaboration and overall group performance. I have seen this in my work as a professional mediator, watching upbeat emotion and a positive outlook in the private meeting rooms result in more settlements.
We’ve all experienced the brain circuitry of emotional contagion; think about when someone smiles and we smile back without even thinking about it. When I train mediators, I assign the students to make eye contact and smile at every person they encounter, from the grocery clerk to their children and spouse, after they leave our training day. Debriefing confirms the emotional contagion process is real, and the trainees are exhilarated by the exercise. Past trainees often tell me they still practice the exercise.
A New York study confirms that emotions are highly contagious in our most emotionally laden relationship: marriage. Humans react most severely to negative emotions including pain, sadness, and fear. Thus, one spouse’s depression is likely to trigger a similar depression in the other spouse. This begs the question of whether a spouse who sets an intention to consistently exude positivity can counteract one who’s consistently sad.
Some of us are more susceptible to emotional contagion than others, and a good indicator is how much your mood changes when you are around strong emotion. I identify as a happy, optimistic person but also I am an empath. Empaths are people who are hyper-sensitively tuned in to others’ emotions such that we sometimes take them in without even realizing it, often causing strong emotional swings. I’ve learned to be vigilant putting up a mental shield to negative emotions, which can be difficult in my work as a family lawyer and mediator. I also try to consistently emote positive, healthy emotions to supercharge the atmosphere around hurting clients. If I am not rested or I’m “hangry” (that ugly state of being hungry, low blood sugar and grouchy) I easily take in the low energy emotions of those around me.
Despite my attempted maneuvering, I end up in right cashier’s line. I make direct eye contact and smile: “Hi, I’m Kim how are you today?” and she smiles back saying she is doing well. I find out she is Michelle and we have a light hearted smiling exchange as she rings me up, making direct eye contact, and tells me to have a wonderful safe journey. I’m hopeful that the virus now permeates the entire coffee kiosk line and maybe even the whole airport. I sip my warm latte, noticing the malaise river is back within it’s shores. I pull my shoulders back triggering erect posture and walk purposefully to my gate. I board the plane to Iowa, off to do the work I know I am called to do.
If you are interested in coaching or mediation training contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org
If you ask my three young adult children to summarize my motherly advice they would give you three words: “make good choices.” I could have easily dispensed other advice.“Don’t do drugs,” “Study hard,” “Eat your vegetables.” Instead, I concluded “make good choices” covered everything, and I made it my constant theme throughout their lives.
As they grew up, there were many opportunities to discuss choices with my two daughters and my son. There were also many opportunities to admit my own choices, good and bad, as I lived out the consequences of those choices right in front of their eyes.
The most important advice I can give to those involved with divorce is similar but more succinct: choose happiness.
I was divorced from my children’s father after 18 years of marriage. I entered into a second marriage but due to a series of devastating events, after only two years that second marriage also ended in divorce. I was so grief stricken that I could barely function. There were days I just chose to stay in bed. During that time, a friend called. “When your divorce is over, you’re going to SOAR,” she said to me.
SOAR? I was barely upright. But something in her words resonated. I WANTED to soar. I wanted to heal. Most importantly I wanted to be happy.
Through my own healing journey, and watching the thousands of people I have worked with in court and mediation, I have concluded that instead of being a victim, focusing on the sadness, and anger, You must CHOOSE happiness.
Even though I was laden with grief, I started to look up. I focused on the birds flying, flapping their wings over the lake near my home. Often there was only one bird in the sky all by itself, and I jokingly called it my spirit guide. I set my sights on soaring in happiness and used the birds as my guides.
My counselor told me “fake it till you make it.” I began to smile, laugh, speak positively about life. I took up salsa dancing. I was still in deep grief, shock even, that I was divorced. Yet I approached others with a positive, happy attitude. Consistently, I decided to choose happiness, to watch the birds, and to open my heart to life.
In his book The Untethered Soul, author Michael A. Singer says the key to staying happy is to understand your inner energies. “If you look inside, you will see that when you’re happy, your heart feels open and the energy rushes up inside you. When you aren’t happy your heart feels closed and no energy comes up inside. So to stay happy, just don’t close your heart. No matter what happens, even if your wife leaves you or your husband dies, you don’t close.”
I once mediated a case where a father fled the United States after he divorced his children’s mother, leaving her unemployed, with four children to raise and $17 in the bank. He was gone 14 years. The mother told me that she had literally lain crying on the floor for days while her young children watched her. Suddenly it dawned on her that she had a choice. She could choose to be a victim, or she could choose happiness. She picked herself up off the floor, went out and got a job, took classes to refresh her teaching credential and ultimately became a teacher during the day and a sales clerk after hours. It was painstaking and slow, but she rebuilt her life.
The mediation was for the father’s failure to pay child support while he was out of the country. At one point in the mediation the two parties and I met together without lawyers in the room and the husband asked the wife “How did you manage after I left?” The wife told him, “I chose to be happy.” The wife looked at peace, very attractive and calm. She also said that as a result of choosing happiness, she was able to find forgiveness for her husband. Conversely, the husband who ran from his life circumstances was suffering with various physical maladies, looked older than his biological age and spoke from a place of regret and sadness.
Her success because of her choice is not isolated. Recently I received a call from another former client. When we spoke, she was teary and confided that since I’d seen her, her second marriage had collapsed after her second husband admitted an affair with a coworker. She was devastated.
“I know you are hurting, but I promise you, if you choose happiness, you will SOAR,” I told her.
Some months after our conversation, I received a letter from the woman. It read, in part:
Thank you for sharing your experiences with me. As crazy as it sounds, our phone conversation changed my life in an instant. I was in a pretty dark hole and trying to deal with pain, unanswered questions and figuring out how to raise my kids when I wasn’t in a good frame of mind. You said some key things to me. The first was that I would experience great happiness and great joy like I had never felt. I made a decision that if I was going to feel those things, why wouldn’t I open my heart now instead of waiting until I healed, which might not happen if I didn’t move it forward. It was an instant mind shift on my part. I have such inner peace and calm. I see my kids and my friends in a whole new light. I take it all in. I am not living to please my husband. The more I gave, the more he took. It wasn’t pretty for anyone. I am living purposely. And I’m laughing….a lot!
The formula is not as difficult as it seems. According to Singer, “You have to stay conscious, centered and committed at all times. You will have to stay one- pointed on your commitment to remain open and receptive to life. But nobody said that you can’t do this.”
And, as my counselor said, “fake it till you make it.”
What does Singer describe as proof the process is working? “ If you remain open enough, waves of uplifting energy will fill your heart.”
Eight years post divorce, my children tease me about my affinity for watching birds, particularly when there is one that seems to be the only one in the sky for miles. “There’s mom’s spirit guide,” they laugh. To this day a lone bird in the sky symbolizes a choice I made at my lowest point: I chose to soar.
When I passed the bar exam in 1982, I became the second practicing lawyer in my family. My father, a 1958 graduate of Drake University Law School was the first, and he taught me how to be a lawyer. In 1987 I took my first training as a mediator. I trained my father and other seasoned attorneys in the process, feeling haughty that I taught dad a new skill.
Fourteen years after Dad’s death, it is abundantly clear that Dad taught ME how to mediate.
My father grew up in a part of the city of West Des Moines, (known previously as Valley Junction,) where everyone knew him as “Danny.” He had a small law office in a remodeled house, and as a young girl I would earn money answering the phone and noticing all of the interesting people who came to see Dad. His clients were all colors, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds and they included flamboyant “nightclub people” who were in the crowd around his parent’s bar and steak house. Several spoke broken English. Dad once told me one of the things he loved about being a lawyer was that “you never know what’s going to walk in the door.” Whoever walked in got to see Danny, always with a smile on his face, and they never felt rushed to leave or like the billable hour clock was ticking loudly. As they passed my receptionist’s desk people always left the office with a lighter step than when they had come in.
When I was a little girl, Dad served as “justice of the peace” performing marriages. People would come to be married at our family home and my two brothers and I would watch the wedding from the top of the stairs. I now see that many of the people who came to be married were unconventional couples for the times; interracial couples, hugely pregnant women, people who were obviously poor, people who were stressed and unhappy at the occasion. My father smiled and treated them all with respect and he let my brothers and me throw rice as the couple drove out our curving driveway.
Dad’s friends were the bankers, the insurance men, doctors, and other lawyers, but it didn’t matter if he was talking to a businessman in a starched shirt or a worker with dirt and grime on his clothes, he treated every person the same. He gave them respect, listened, joked with them, and of course flashed them that ever present smile. My dad was the first person people went to when there was any trouble not just legal trouble. Be it their house, their finances, their spouse, their children or their state of mind, people knew they could count on Danny to help. Whether it was calling his friend the banker to see about a loan for them, sending them to his doctor friend to for a physical, even paying their utility bill out of his own pocket if their lights were shut off, my dad gave them each something that they lacked before they talked to him: hope.
Often on Sundays after we worshiped at the Greek Orthodox church, Dad would take us to the nursing home to visit the elderly Greeks and old Valley Junction folks, to say hello and let them know they were being remembered. I mostly hated those visits because I was a kid and I wanted to be doing something else. But I was stuck going, so I watched my dad interact with the people during our visit, sometimes listening to the same story week after week. I watched how tender he was with them, having all the time in the world to hear them, letting them know they mattered, and administering that same medicine to everyone: hope with a smile.
Dad always looked professional. Every day my mother laid out a suit, shirt and tie for him to wear. He always looked like a stylish Perry Mason. When people came to his office they saw a man who looked like he had wisdom and authority. He made you feel better just sitting across the desk from him. He looked like a lawyer should look.
My father did lots of free or reduced fee legal work. In addition to working through the Volunteer Lawyer’s Program, he helped people have access to justice through his office. When he died we found many clients on the books with hundreds of dollars of bills that they were paying off at $25 per month. I never saw my dad turn a client away.
Dad wasn’t perfect but he also handled his imperfections with class. An active member of gambler’s anonymous, he donated time to assist fellow gamblers with their recovery. He told his own story without shame, knowing that his testimony would help others who suffered with the addiction. Showing them that a smart successful lawyer faced his struggles head on, set an example for others to find their own courage.
When I first introduced my dad to the concept of mediation he said “This is how we resolved cases in the old days. The other lawyer and I would sit down and drink a scotch and when we were done talking the case would be settled. And we always kept our word.” I snickered wondering how he could have such a lack of insight. In mediation you had to ask certain questions, do risk analysis with the parties, employ skillful negotiation strategies. You had to write out a full mediation agreement. What did he know?
Turns out he knew a lot. After mediating for 29 years I have come full circle. I can’t tell you the last time I asked the magical five questions, did “the two number technique” or employed any particular mediation trickery. The most important thing I do now is meet people with a smile on my face. I try to listen attentively to them as though we have all the time in the world. I empathize with them and give respect no matter who they are or what I hear. I don’t worry about whether the case settles or not, or if I can claim a sterling settlement record. I act as a problem solver, exploring ideas to help resolve matters and providing options to the parties and their attorneys.
I sometimes have to translate legal ease to the clients when their own attorneys miss the fact that the client is too stressed to follow big words. I help parties dig deep to find their highest selves and come up with an agreement that works for them. I don’t coerce them to sign something in the pressure of the moment.Inspired by Dad’s vulnerability in sharing his own story, when appropriate I share my own life experiences to let the people in mediation know they are not alone in navigating life’s struggles.
No matter what, as a mediator, I try to remember what every good lawyer knows. Hurting people look to us for help. In addition to our legal knowledge we can dispense respect, wisdom, empathy, and courage. And most importantly, the medicine developed by Danny. Hope, with a smile.
Waking up at 4AM without an alarm has become second nature and today is no exception. I move into the kitchen to brew a strong cup of dark coffee, adding just a tad of half and half, and ultimately find my way to the bar table in my small kitchen. There I switch on the “happy light,” a full spectrum light box that wakes me up and wards off the winter blues.
With the light in my eyes I open my bible , finding today’s passage. As I take the first delicious sip of steaming coffee, I think of Tich Nat Hanh’s directive: “Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.”
Today’s Bible reading is a good one; lots of juicy quotes from Jesus that are controvertial at first blush, and that warrant my popping up the laptop to clarify through online commentaries. I smile as I read them rapidly and zero in on the basic teaching point: “Just love, and then love some more.”
Hurrying to put on my gym clothes, I notice in the mirror my morning “look” is rather frightening. But my 5AM tribe at the gym is used to it by now and they each have their own morning persona as well.
At the gym I greet the “towel guy” Preston. “Good morning sunshine!” I say to him in our usual ritual and he smiles and hands me a towel. We exchange brief updates on our lives as I head into the darkened mirrored room for cycling class. Befriending Preston makes me feel good. I’m connected to someone I wouldn’t otherwise know and I have an accountability partner who admonishes me if I don’t show up on a weekday morning.
Inside the darkened spinning room the usuals take their usual bikes, making the necessary functional adjustments so they can spin to their heart’s content. Our favorite teacher is on deck today and we begin with some raucous music as we all wake up our cycle legs and settle in.
The usuals are all accounted for: front row man who adoringly watches his spinning form in the mirror throughout the class oblivious to the instructions of our leader; the guy who is suited up in bike regalia as though today’s class is really the first leg of the Tour de France; the woman who spins with reckless abandon breathing hard until her face is beet red making me worry she will stroke out; and the three in the back who chat through some of class annoying the rest of us.
Today, at the 7 minutes mark an interloper appears on the scene. A millennial man in long sweat pants with a long sleeve shirt under a bright orange t-shirt endorsing a race of some sort, with an undeicpherable hashtag on the back. He has three towels, obviously expecting to “sweat it out” and he hops on the bike right next to me disrupting my usual cycling vibe.
Millennial man spins his legs quickly and once he is with the groove he starts to sing. To every song. He is a regular karaoke affiicanado seemingly knowing the words to every song of the instructor’s playlist, including songs from my generation, which is a good thirty years earlier than his.Soon he begins to play air drums all over the bike handles, and up in the air shaking his head in beat to the bass. I ‘m annoyed but then I remember “just love and then love some more” so I relax and welcome this disruptor of my continuum.
At once my annoyance turns to amusement. I began to enjoy his performance, delighted in the fact he’s infusing new energy into the spin class, and giving me a chance to just love and then love some more. Just as the endorphins peak, the playlist offers up a spiritual song in perfect tempo “and not a tear is wasted, in time you’ll understand, I’m painting beauty with the ashes, your life is in my hands….”
The millennial stops playing the drums and sings the song softly, with great tenderness. “you’re not alone stop holding on and just be held….”
I’m shocked. I’m amazed. I get the message. I just love and then love some more that this millennial man has come into my cycling class today shining a light into the dark spinning room. And he is my brother.
The song ends and so does the moment, and Pink starts wailing about raising a glass. The instructor shouts something about lactic acid and we spin like we’re expecting the bikes to fly into the sky, the millennial breaking into full blown song and air guitar accompaniment. Class ends, and I offer him a fist bump: “It was great to spin next to you today man!” He fist bumps me back, “I’m going to keep riding till they kick me out of here!” and for all I know he is still spinning.
I change out of my bike shoes and don my sweatshirt and coat as Preston comes up to tell me about the high school basketball game from our mutual alma mater. I soon walk out into the cold dark morning, pausing to look at the sky thinking about the rest of the world just now waking up. Gratitude overwhelms me. I have a faith, a healthy body, a genuine caring for people, and a full day awaiting me with chances to just love and then love some more.