Take-Out, the Terrace, and the Long Tail of Desperation

We’ve all been there.  A loved one is sick or in need but because you live across the country or in another country, you feel helpless to provide any practical support.  It’s a desperate feeling.  

This past fall I got a FB message from the wife of a old work colleague who had taken that desperate feeling in Seattle and turned it into virtual action.  Her Dad was going through prostate cancer treatment in London and so she reached out to the handful of people she knew living in London and asked if any of us might be willing to bring him a meal.  Take-out was fine, text was not.  A proper phone call would be best.  People responded immediately. 

That’s how I met John and his partner George.  It was a quick drop off of Syrian food at their flat in Covent Garden, but even in the eye of the treatment storm, they beamed with appreciativeness and interest.  It was late October and I had just recently come back from signing the papers on our new holiday house in France and mentioned it in passing. Through a few follow up questions - Condom as our nearest town always gets a rise - we discovered that they had a very close English friend who also had a holiday house in the same region (the Gers) of South West France.

Fast forward to last Tuesday when my phone rang as I was driving on the outskirts of Condom.  It was John.  The connection wasn’t good but through his more tech savvy daughter, I knew he and George were in the Gers visiting their friend Allison.  After playing cell phone coverage cat and mouse, they invited me over to Allison’s house the next day.  They kindly invited the boys too but with the combination of their cycling plans and the tangential line connecting this 60+ crowd to any person they remotely knew, I let them coast pass this invitation.

This time I showed up with a bottle of Rose.  Allison’s house was only a 15 minute drive from my house, which in the French countryside, is to say we are nearly neighbours.  The first stroke of serendipity.  

As I was introducing myself to Allison in her beautifully renovated farmhouse at the edge of a countryside hamlet, she asked whereabouts in London I lived.  As I started to geolocate my London house with landmarks very unlike the open fields we were looking at, she flashed with recognition. She had lived in the same neighbourhood years ago.  But when she said the name of the street, I nearly choked on my Rose.  In a city of nearly 9 million people, we lived on the exact same small terrace street of only 22 houses, only 15 years apart.  She lived in #2 and I now live in #20. Needless to say, the second stroke of serendipity came in with swagger.

It was delightful to spend time with John, George and Allison - who are all fascinating and warm people — and talk about further get togethers both in London and France.  They sent me off with the fill of some wonderful stories, including tales of John’s 70th destination birthday party in India now 10 years in the rear view mirror.  They also sent me with directions to a farmer down the road whose fresh basil was not to be missed.  Serendipity made sure I got their last bunch plus a free melon because “I was a friend of Allison.”

I couldn’t help but think that the compounding delight of the day started from a place of desperation.  How an email from a worried daughter in Seattle could be used to help someone meet their neighbour in the countryside of France.  This was a thread we could follow but there are so many unseen threads when someone rises up in love to help. 

Yesterday was the annual garden party for our terrace in London.  Having been the past two summers, I was sorry to miss it this year.   But then again, being with a terrace alumni in a garden of box-hedges, lavender and roses, maybe I didn’t miss it entirely.

How (the Idea of) A Rebel Book Club Helped me Find the Jet Stream

Sometimes finding the jet stream or seeing an old challenge in a new light be like this: 

  1. You browse through (last week’s edition of) Time Out London because better late than never.

  2. You see an article titled “Eight Bloody Brilliant London Book Clubs.”

  3. Before you can even finish the bloody article, you’ve already started the google search “Rebel Book Club” - the editors pick for Best Book Club for non-fiction fans.

  4. Within 90 seconds, you’ve decided that you will apply to join.

  5. You shove the website under your husband’s nose and he says, “Why would anyone pay a monthly fee to read a book?”

  6. You meekly say something about community and cocktails, but then within 90 more seconds, you have a new plan that involves printing out the library of 48 book titles the group has already read.  

  7. Armed now with the list so you can read like thinkers & doers, you pull up an app you’ve already paid for called Blinkist to start getting the book summaries.  After all, you are a doer even if you have chosen to lay forth and conquer.

  8. Since it’s too early for a cocktail, you make yourself a second cup of coffee, wish for a donut, and settle in to the first book summary: Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth.  

  9. You are intrigued enough by the key messages of the book to send your Economics major son a WhatsApp about the book suggesting *he* read the full thing.   

  10. Since you need to set your sights on something more doable than building an economic system that encourages growth while also preserving the environment, you move on to the second book summary: Atomic Habits by James Clear.

And there it was.  The actionable thing I wasn’t actively looking for but needed to hear.  

The main idea in Atomic Habits is that small changes in behaviour done over time can have a big impact.  The author described it with this analogy:  if a pilot of a plane taking off from LA to NYC decided to move the nose of the plane 3.5 degrees to the south - a change so small that it would not be felt by passengers -  at the end of the flight, you’d be in Washington DC not NYC.  Small change, big impact. 

Patience then is having confidence that though you may not be seeing immediate results, you know you are on the right trajectory.  Habits are one way to get yourself on that trajectory.  I may still jiggle in the middle but I’ve got enough of a habit around exercise that should I stay the course (and manage my chocolate intake), things will eventually firm up.  

Things however have not been looking so good in regard to my getting any closer to having a basic conversation in French. With a French home, car, and bills to pay, I have an incentive to learn.  I have plenty of learning materials.  I have had fits and starts with using them but absolutely no habits that have stuck.  I have tutors - who can’t charge me - living in my house.  But I have had this massive mental block. “Bordeaux, we have a problem. We can’t figure out how to take off.”

Since the whole point of personal growth book is to do something, I decided to apply the principles described in summary on Blinkist to my challenge of learning French.  The first thing I did is reframe my goal.   It’s no longer “Learn how to speak French,” my first goal is “Learn how to be more comfortable and not panic when someone is talking to you in French.”  Along with a more realistic goal, I’ve set a smaller daily habit of 10 minutes a day and bundled it with my use of my laptop.  Now when I fire up my laptop, I made a rule that the first thing I force myself to do is go to one of my paid online programs and listen to one audio conversation in French with subtitles, on repeat, for 10 minutes.  That’s it for now.

We are still in the very early days but another thing they tell you to do is to us trackers, make contracts or in my case - write about it - as a way of making you more accountable.  I was telling my youngest son about my breakthrough and he said: “Isn’t that just common sense?”  Probably. But dude, I wanted to tell him, sometimes you need to travel a curvy road, take a pass on a Rebel Book Club, and relax into something you kind of knew but didn’t know how to start. 

It seemed apropos that todays’ conversation included this:  “Ah ben ! Ce n'est pas simple, hein. Mais on essaie.” Translation: “Oh well ! It's not simple, is it ? But we try !”

Meeting Ottolenghi and the Case for Cauliflower

It actually happened.  I met one of my heroes last week.  Thursday, April 25 to be exact.  It didn’t unfold as I had scripted it in my mind, casually bumping into him at our neighbourhood green grocer while evaluating some broccoli rabe or reaching for a packet of sumac.  Instead, I met Yotam Ottolenghi at a book signing after hearing him speak as part of a panel at the British Library on the topic “Taste: How Does it Work?”

Though I didn’t think ahead to bring one of my many marked up cookbooks for him to sign, I waited in line with a post-it note.  He was as generous and engaging as I imagined he would be, seemingly delighted to hear my story about feeding three hungry boys (he having two boys himself) who now refer to “Ottolenghi” as either a verb or food group category.   We then talked about being neighbours — I told him what street I lived on and he told me which street he lived on, though it was a detail I already knew.  We all have a little stalker in us.

And while it was fun to meet a celebrity chef who has single handedly up’ed my cooking game, I’ve actually been thinking more about the topic of the talk that night — taste and why it matters — more than I have been daydreaming about my famous neighbour bumping into me, remembering my name and our delightful conversation and then casually extending a dinner invite.   My brain has been tied up and my kitchen in varying states of experimentation to get too far into my Yotam Delusion.

It’s a given we need food for survival.  It’s also well understood that we need certain kinds of foods to deliver nutritional value.  Receptors in our mouth help check for poison and pause for kimchi.  But taste and flavor is that elusive thing we don’t have a great vocabulary for and yet are also wired to need.  The wired bit has to do with the fact that many of our 26,000 genes are geared towards our senses.  Taste then is that deeply personal experience in our nose and mouth (and to a lesser degree our stomach) that makes us either want or reject a second bite.

Perhaps most interestingly, taste isn’t something that’s static. Though we each start in different places (and different parts of the world with different food options), it is up to us to develop.  We can moderate our tastes like a dimmer switch through exposure.  Receptors drop off if we don’t use them.  It’s why you can hate mushrooms as a kid and learn to like them as an adult. 

It was a stimulating conversation, but it’s been swirling around in my head because it’s interlocked with this equally mysterious verse from the Bible: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”  I’m not talking in a literal communion wafers and grape juice kind of way (because that would be tragic), but in a metaphorical kind of way.

We were taught the four basic food groups to deliver nutritional value in the same way that faith has been reduced to a basic moral framework.  We count our good deeds like calories.  But faith, like food, is only absorbed when you let it pass from lips to your gut.   And like taste, which is so specific because it’s tied to our individual memory centers, we don’t have a lot of useful language to explain the phenomena of faith.  We just know it’s the thing that moves us to want or reject a second bite.

It makes me think of the many people I know who had an early bite of religion and thought it was not very good.   But if taste is truly dynamic, is it possible that what we put in our mouth or heart one or two times isn’t the final word?  If converts have been made out of the Case for Cauliflower then isn’t the Case for Christ worth a few more tries?  In the same way it’s not useful to label a child a “picky eater” when eating is one of the few things you have true agency over as a child, it also seems hasty to accept an early decision you made on something as delicious as avocados because you weren’t into “anything green” back then.

One of the other interesting things that Yotam and the taste panel talked about was the danger of the movement towards homogeneity. It’s not only the sweetening of the global palette through packaged products that condition people to crave more sweetness and softness that is alarming, or the many known diet related diseases, but it’s the movement towards the “flattening out” of taste that poses the greatest threat.  It’s a threat because one size does not fill all and because our gut requires variety.  Sounds a lot like the danger happening in many churches. 

Anyone who cooks knows that sometimes it’s a labor of love.  But when you watch someone’s reaction to something you’ve made — and you know it’s good — and then you see their eyes roll back and they make that “mmmmm” sound,  there is pleasure going both ways.  Maybe it’s a little like that verse that keeps urging us to try new things: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”

Six Months in Le Couloume


It was the day I took Brett back to the Toulouse airport, after a longer than expected IKEA stock up, that I arrived back to Le Couloume late.  It was October 16th, eleven days after we had closed on the house.  I hadn’t thought to leave any exterior lights on, not yet familiar with how dark the French countryside can be after sun down.  I nervously fumbled trying to unlock my particularly French antique door by only the light of my iPhone.

Unnerved by my darkened welcome for my first night alone at Le Couloume, I locked and relocked all the doors - and the front door shutter for double protection - and headed straight for bed. The howling wind and a couple of mice having a party behind the wall only added to my disquiet.   But it was seeing the “pas de service”on my iPhone — no cell phone service, no wifi, no neighbour — that it finally hit me that we had really, really just bought a house in the country in another country.  

It’s been six months since that “this is real” moment.  Our wifi - inclusive of two additional networked routers to deal with the stone walls - is up and running (and miraculously of excellent quality!) after a convoluted sequence of steps I could never walk anyone through.  The mice have quieted down now that we know where to leave the bait and though the French antique door key remains special, we scarcely keep the doors locked when we are home. 

And starting from zero, the house is according to my husband and credit card bills to Westwing France (an online French homewares marketplace for flash sales) fully furnished.  I agree until I visit Didier’s brocante (antique) shop called Un Coin du Passe in Castera Verduzan … most recently I found two 19th century fencing masks to use as light sconces … which is squarely in the miscelleanous/want to have category. And of course we have kept Amazon France very busy filling our house with all the things you need but can’t fit into your checked luggage.

To keep my chin up during these last six months of figuring it all out, I read Peter Mayle’s book A Year in Provence.  The book was written thirty years ago but many of the trials, hilarities and missteps of a foreigner setting up a home in France - be it Provence or the Gers - are exactly the same in 2019.  The important differences for us however being a) we were fortunate to have bought a house that didn’t need work and the help of local contractors and b) the technological advances of Google Translate (my pocket BFF) and online shopping (<ajouter au panier>). We have also used our boys a lot to help with translation.

No one can write more winningly than Mr. Mayle on the subject of what it’s like to become new owners of a old farmhouse in France.  I don’t think he covered the need to burn dangerous caterpillar nests in the spring or how not to lock yourself out of your own house. Our experience hasn’t been near as colourful or challenged, but there have been a few notable highlights and wins over the past six months:

  • A holiday house needs a house alarm.   What a holiday house owner doesn’t need is a middle of the night call every 48 hours for the first three weeks because the alarm keeps going off.  And then a follow up call 90 minutes to confirm - after sending security - that yes, it was indeed another false alarm.  We may not have a pet but as owners of a holiday farmhouse, mice and spiders are like your pets and alarm systems *must* be calibrated with them in mind. 

  • We have a working, very sophisticated furnace after finally understanding, three service calls with Michel later, the only 5 buttons of the 850 settings we should be touching. In what can only be related news, we’ve had three 1,000 litre deliveries of oil to our oil tank. This could be normal if we had been living in the house full time but since we don’t, a) someone siphoned our oil or b) we misunderstood Michel’s “holiday mode” instruction. There’s some evidence pointing towards b). 

  • We have water but no water contract.  This after seven calls and currying favours with every French native speaker I know kind enough to call on my behalf.  The company is “upgrading to a new system” but I am not to worry because we are in the queue!

  • We *believe* we have completed our file with the dozen plus documents and local stamps to register our car in France, which feels as certain as how many digits are there after the decimal point in pi.

  • We have troubleshooted our own electrical problem over a holiday weekend.   If you can’t get an electrician to come out to troubleshoot a blown circuit that happens to run your furnace and all kitchen appliances, try unplugging the lame toaster you had your doubts about from the very beginning.  Who in France even uses a toaster?  Case closed!

  • We have already had our first septic tank dig.  Nothing says “welcome to the countryside”  like shit coming up your shower drain 12 hours before departure.  The fix was in last week … phew, phew, phew.

Far outweighing the hassles and headaches, the joys have been pouring in.  We have been able to spend Christmas, a week in February, and the April school break at Le Couloume.  It was our hope that Le Couloume, though remote in terms of geography, might be not just a personal pitstop for refreshment (and lots of cycling) but also a place of connection making.  A few stories of how that is already happening:

  • The trickiest part of having a house in another country is finding reliable people you can trust to take care of it.  We have that with the person who mows the grass, signs for delayed deliveries, fixes odds and ends as well as the amazing cleaning lady we found through a referral.  They along with the fantastic stone mason who rebuilt the house for the previous owner and is now building us a terrace garden table and benches give us confidence in our absence. The table is going in this week …

  • The first people to use our house were a young couple from the USA.  He is serving in the military, spending extended time apart from his young family, and he and his wife were able to use our house for a long overdue vacation.  It also just so happens that he is the son of the first people to ever have hosted me in Europe when I was 19 years old.  A full circle gift 30 years in the making.

  • The next person to use our house is a college friend who has a spiritual coaching small business.  She is just starting up a year long coaching program but had been looking for a place to use as a kick-off spiritual retreat … and next month she’ll be doing that at Le Couloume.

  • Another college friend, moved by our desire to share our house with others, sent an email not asking to use the house but asking if she might gift us a logo.  She recently finished a second degree in Advertising and Graphic design, and gave herself the project of designing two logos for Le Couloume … just because.  It was her way of vicariously participating and paying it forward.  We picked the beautiful one with the sunflower above.

  • Over Christmas, we were invited by a Seattle colleague of my father-in-law to come round to his French’s girlfriend’s family’s home in a nearby village.  Nothing says “welcome” like being invited to a huge extended French family gathering over a holiday and leaving with the 92 year French patriarch’s business card urging us to stay in touch so we an get together again this summer.

  •  Our realtor Karen Pegg who owns Bliss is also a writer who just published her first book of a three part series.  So after reading Peter Mayle’s book, I had the pleasure of reading another memoir set in France but this time written by someone I know!  A Stranger in Paris is a great read that I would highly recommend.  Karen also hosts these writing retreats in France called A Chapter Away.  Who knows how Le Couloume might be able to support her writing retreats?

  • On our most recent visit, I met another American women in the small village of Lectoure.  Upon hearing that I was originally from Seattle, she mentioned another Seattleite who owned a well-known Seattle restaurant had also recently moved to the area to start a cooking school called l'Abattoir.   Susan and I have already connected over email and plan to meet next time I’m in town.  Who knows how Le Couloume might be able to support her cooking school?  

When you believe that everything you have is a gift, it is easier to keep those gifts in circulation.  The hassles of an old farmhouse in France make for good storytelling, but since that’s a story that’s already been told and told better, I’ll keep my ear to the ground for other stories of connection like these.  La vie est belle.

Video Ready ...

I know there’s an easier way to do it — in the same way I know I can speak my texts — but it’s hard to teach an old Blackberry user new iPhone tricks.    And so when I want to free up storage space on my iPhone, out comes my laptop and cables.  Excuse me, my MacBook Pro.

I’m making room on my phone this morning in anticipation of taking some videos later this week. My youngest son has a role in his all school play.  There will be 3 performances this week and so 3 opportunities for me to take poor quality, zoomed out, shaky hand iPhone videos that only a grandparent can love.  I’m sure I’ll give you the chance to like them on social media too.  Best of luck finding him.

As I was clearing off some videos on my phone, I couldn’t help but notice how bad so many of them were.  The videos where you start recording 20-30 seconds too early and still nothing very interesting happens.  The videos where you start recording too late and miss the goal or save.   The ones where your subject is altogether not happy about you videoing.  The ones where a random head enters your frame and obstructs your view.  The ones where you try to capture a moment that has passed and it’s so..not..looking..natural. 

Sometimes we do get the timing right and we are able to capture a moment.  It’s rare when it happens but the authenticity of the moment makes those videos instantly shareable.  This video of my son serenading me with this of-the-cuff beat box six years ago was on of those moments.

It got me thinking however that we don’t have to wait for the iPhone to be turned on at just the right moment.   We are the official storytellers of our lives.   We are the only ones with the full length footage and we are the only ones with exclusive editing rights on how we share our experiences.  There are some bad experiences but most of our experiences have a shareable moment and it’s our job to mine it.  Not just for the world, or our friends, but mostly for ourselves.  We get to decide where the close ups will be and where to fade out.   Your best stuff probably won’t have the Eiffel Tower in the background or you in a duet with Bradley Cooper. But it will have some gold.

It’s an awesome creative task to decide what bits to leave in and what bits to cut out.  We can replay all the borings bits, or the missed opportunities, or the obstacles in the viewfinder, or the conflicts, or chose to tell the put ons rather than the naked truth.  Any story finds an audience but the ones that have an impact, the ones worth sharing, are the ones where something authentic was able to shine through.  

You don’t need a laptop or cable to make room in your heart,  but you may need to siphon off some garbage saved in anticipation of moments ahead you won’t want to miss.  And good news is you’ve got a front row seat.

Women Running the World: A Story from Milan


Running is typically thought of as a solitary endeavour.   Or, not thought of as a good idea at all.  Until you move to London as a stranger in a foreign land, desperate for community, and you hear about this group called Women Running the World (WRW.)  Anyone can join and there’s no membership fee but they have this audacious ask that you turn up with running shoes on at 8:15 in the morning, 2-3x/week, and RUN.  

As women show up in the fall, they sort themselves into various pace groups and if their current pace is “i prefer walking, thank you very much” they join the beginners group.   What you don’t know at first is that this welcoming group is also a well oiled machine.  There are pace group leaders, beginners coaches, route masters and weekly emails longer than some US tax returns. And of course there is post run coffee.

Community forms first within the pace groups.  On the runs, heavy breathing together make you forget to be any version but your real self struggling to get up a hill.  On the couch at home with ice and rollers, the steady stream of WhatsApp group texts encourage, entertain, and expect you to be there tomorrow.   

The promise is that if you do this running together, with some commitment, you will be ready to run a half marathon in the spring. The logic being: London, the city where there’s always a tube stop in case you need to bail.  London, the city where Sporty Spice made a track suit look glam.   London, where if you can run city streets, canals, parks, and boroughs for several months and live to tell the tale, you’ll be ready for any 13.1 mile obstacle course.

This weekend was the half marathon promise.  It was in Milan.  119 women signed on. We all wore pink hats.  As a group, we were hard to miss.


The presence of prize money, the requirement that each runner be registered as part of an official running club, and a less than generous cut off time were all signs that the Stramilano Half Marathon was perhaps targeting elite runners.  Not exactly our profile.  Race day confirmed these hunches.  But even though we were the caboose in a fast race, with hotter temperatures than we had trained in, and water tables along the route running dry - we were a group of women determined to run our slogan: anytime, anyplace, any pace.  


Some people had great races. Some had really hard races.  Many had their very first ever race.  But of course it’s both about the race and the weekend.   Some already felt connected to the group before the weekend.  For the rest still lingering on the fringes, the weekend brought them firmly into a sweaty group hug.   It’s not just about running and it’s not just about women.  It’s about creating an atmosphere for this kind of moment. We need each other. Yes we do.


Since we were in Milan, many of us were fortunate to get pre-booked tickets to see the famous Last Supper painting by Leonardo da Vinci on Saturday.  The masterpiece known as “the painting that speaks” captures Jesus and his disciples at their last dinner together.  Our Saturday carb loading eucharist was filled with bread and *moderate* amounts of wine and though we love each other, there was no corporate foot washing ahead of Sunday’s race.

BUT there was THIS at the end of Sunday’s race.  A modern day example of love in action.

A sea of pink hats chanting “DARLAH DARLAH! DARLAH!” as the very last runner crossed the finish line.  She was one of ours, seized up in pain from a flared sciatic nerve but still on her feet because she was being supported by a small cadre of coaches.  The course was being cleared but given the volume of the cheering, you might have thought this was the main event.   Witnessing that moment felt like an embodiment of Jesus’ words: “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” mixed with a little Spice Girls philosophy:  Don’t tell me you love me.  Say you’ll be there.

We can and do accomplish things as individuals, but there is something that stirs deep within us when we behold courage propped up by togetherness.

The individual results and details of the race will eventually fade but there are 119 women and untold numbers of bystanders who will never forget the way the last woman crossed the line.

Rinse + Repeat


All the big grocery stores in Europe seem to have at least two sizes of coin operated trolleys. This is moderately convenient until you go to return your trolley and there isn’t any of your kind to attach to and release your coin.  It’s one of those “how much is a pound worth to you” questions on whether you persist to another trolley return location or abandon cart and coin.  

Yesterday I was standing at a row of grocery trolleys and noticed that someone had solved this dilemma. They had taken their wrong sized trolley, saddled it up perpendicular to the row of other sized trolleys, and stretched the chain just far enough to release their coin.  The chain of nesting carts was broken but this geometrically-gifted shopper found a way to leave with her pound. Wa-lah!

I know this isn’t as groundbreaking as something really useful like having your trolley do your shopping for you, but it was one of those things that stood out for it’s simple ingenuity.  In my six years of scrambling around for spare change because I’d like more than a hand basket to carry my groceries, I had never seen someone have their coin and tether their ill-fitting cart too.  It was only a passing thought but it landed:  “See! sometimes the solution is right there, you just have to pivot 180 degrees to see it.”

All Moms chose their furniture carefully.  When we moved to London I bought the dining room table of my dreams and the dining room chairs of my reality.  They have dark, durable, washable fabric seats.  It’s a draw on whether more spot cleaning would be required if my children or hamsters roamed freely.

After the grocery run, I was arranging cascading bowls of fruit on the dining room table hoping to have answered the after school snack question with a visual aid.  In that process, I caught sight of my durable fabric seats and decided the ice cream to put away could wait.  I mean how much ground in chocolate can one Mom survive?  As I started to wipe down the seats, watching them magically look like new again, another thought attempted landing: “Just like you.”  

Kind of vague, honestly, but this was a situation where the possibility of negative thinking was ripe and so why complain for lack of clarity. 

That thought was unspecific enough that I didn’t think much of it until later when I was washing up.  I noticed a new hand soap at the sink.  Now I don’t have a hand soap fairy but I do buy in bulk at TK Maxx and so it caught me off guard when I saw the label on the new soap: Rinse + Repeat.  Incoming: “Just like you … all things are made new …over and over again.”  

Take in that thought on its second try and add in the smell of coconut and jasmine and you have yourself a little buzz.

Yesterday was also my son’s 16th birthday.  That by itself is a special day but then I showed up for my spinning class and realized I’d blindly signed up for bike number 16.  In case you need more information to be moved by this coincidence, there are 53 bikes and I had never ridden bike number 16.   

Some might still say “yeah, so…” (some of those people live in my house!) but when you are about 30 minutes into your workout and the endorphins are going, and you think about the beautiful life that was birthed out of your body 16 years ago, and you feel that older but still able body crushing it on bike number 16, and in comes the thought: “your body is a temple” accompanied with not just a buzz but pure pleasure … well, you believe it. 

It wasn’t a newsworthy day.  No personal productivity records were set.  I didn’t make any money and spent very little of it.   I didn’t accidentally bump into Russell Brand in my neighbourhood and have that imaginary conversation I’ve been planning.  No, none of that.  But when I hit the pillow last night and felt that quiet peace that envelopes you in the dark, it was confirmation that it had been a very good day indeed.

We think we want what people flaunt - power, prosperity, fame - when really our deeper needs are much more understated and accessible:  knowing that an a-ha moment might be right around the corner, the chance to start again and experiencing the thrill of living in your own sanctuary.   

Parenting in the age of Parent Traps and Admission Scams

“We think your son could benefit from extra help outside of school,” his teacher announced during our first parent/teacher conference at an International School in Europe.  

Blindsided by the gravity of the concern but at the ready with notepads, the PE teacher continued: “His swimming is far below standard.”  “As in, he can’t pass the swimming test?”  we asked reliving all the times we’d left him in the deep end, assuming.  It’s not like we hadn’t invested in several summers of swim lessons. “Oh no, he can swim — but his technique, particularly his breaststroke, is very poor.  We recommend you get him involved in an outside swim club.”

We did not write anything down.  But had I, I would have passed this note to my husband: “She should see you swim.”

That same year our oldest son struggled through, working as hard as he possibly could, for his worst grade in high school.  In Art.   His project from that year hangs in our dining room now as a remembrance.  And near as we can tell, our youngest son, who was in Kindergarten, was doing everything but learning how to read.

Those memories came flooding back when I read an article a few weeks ago.  In the article “The parent trap: the greater a country’s income inequality, the likelier parents are to push their kids to work hard,” the authors make the case that parents in countries with the greatest income inequality (USA, China, Russia) stress hard work and achievement over other values (like independence and imagination) which has led to the rise of helicopter parenting and an arms race for a diminishing number of opportunities.   Almost prophetically, the US college admissions scandal broke soon after.

We certainly haven’t been immune to the tendency for overdrive in wanting our kids to succeed but we’ve also benefited from leaving the nest of Seattle.  Your parenting is bound to evolve when you are doing it across cultures and in different educational environments.  When you have been a witness to models where swimming proficiency is a core life skill, where the arts are as rigorous as any academic subject and where educators have a different approach to early literacy you start to understand that every culture has their own priorities. There isn’t one ladder that everyone is trying to climb.  There’s lots of ladders and paths, enough to make it difficult to chart your kid against the others. As my husband likes to say, “the bar isn’t set."   

We haven’t shied away from the message of hard work but we’ve seen how putting more value on independence has been a fly wheel for one of our kids to internalize hard work.   And we’re aware that if not for the opportunities to take risks outside of the world of sports which was our comfort zone, we might have inadvertently lidded one of our kid’s creativity.  Above all, we’ve noticed that the exposure to other models has abstracted our children from the cookie cutter machine of what makes a winner and allowed them to accelerate the process of getting to know themselves.   The child who was trying to teach himself Icelandic a few years ago has moved on to other pursuits but how fun that he gave it a go.

Even with all this “insight,” we still don’t always get it right as parents.

That awareness came into focus several weeks ago with our son who is in the final push of studying for the GCSE.  The GCSE is a set of exams taken in the UK at age 16 after 2 full years of  study and your results determine what school and what you can study for your last two years of high school.  He doesn’t have his sights on a top school but he has marks he needs to hit to get into the schools he wants. The exams are this May and in preparation he had said yes when I suggested he take an optional, highly regarded review course outside of school over Easter break. 

After signing him up, he happened to see the receipt for the class on the desk. He was furious that I hadn’t told him how much it would cost and I was surprised that he was furious. He refused to accept what he believed to be an unfair advantage by taking a course that only the privileged could afford to buy.  He was adamant that I get a refund and that he was fully capable of self study. 

I don’t think it’s wrong to give our kids what we can, but he made it clear that we were giving him the wrong thing.  We wanted to give him peace of mind, and maybe a few extra points on his exam, but in my blindness to help him I overlooked the cost to his sense of social justice. He wanted to do his small part to keep the playing field level or at least not “pile on” more advantage. I suspect there are a lot of young people who share both his cynicism and idealism for how the system should work.

As parents we can’t always tell in the moment when our kids are avoiding something they don’t want to do or when they are standing up for something they feel strongly about.  When we heard “I’ll do it myself!” when they were three years old, we thought it was cute and gave them healthy boundaries and soon they were dressing themselves. “I’ll do it myself!” at sixteen is a bigger conversation but the potential for upside is also bigger. We backed down and he in turn has doubled down on his own efforts.

Our kids need our support and guidance, but they also need us to trust their inner voice when they hear it.  That is certain to take them further than any marginal gain a highly regarded opportunity could ever do. 

The Work of Life


The work of life
by kate ballbach

Jobs come and jobs go
The work of life, wreathed with fear and failure, never lets up
We carry a thousand yesterdays of burdens and a small army of tomorrows cares
Reaching for distraction or fast tracking connection, we blindly give away our autonomy to shiny things and notification sounds
We seek more input, or attention, while solitude waits in the wings
eager to take a long walk in the park.
She waits, through the bender and after the detox, confident she is the best algorithm to live by.
You only have to put on your shoes
And wade through the awkward silences, skipping or stomping if you please
Asking your scattered brain to slow down the pace so your head and heart can join in conversation
You are not being graded on whether that conversation is lively or barely detectable
Thank God.
It is simply noticing your body, not his or hers, but the guts and glory of yours walking for you because you can do things
Or that small patch of green grass and a few crooning birds flooding your senses because you can feel things
Or the smell of car exhaust mixed with roses because your nose knows the work of life can’t just be a walk in the park
New hope, big or small, might spring from a small screen but chances are better with a long walk in the park

Where do all the good ideas come from?

I have this app on my phone called Blinkist.  It’s one I actually pay for.  It’s an app where someone reads a non-fiction book and then puts together a 15 minute summary of its key insights that you can either read or listen to.  These modern day cliff notes are available on books covering psychology, personal growth, management and leadership, biography, science, history, and many more categories.  The summaries are long enough to make you feel like you get the gist of the book but short enough to embarrass yourself at a dinner party should you claim to have read it. 

At this point, I have way more advice on better living than I have time to put into practice.  And, a few - bless the effort - books that feel repetitive even in brief summary.  It’s led me to buy a handful of the books in full and it’s been a way better use of my time now that I took the FB app off my phone.

People have been dishing out good advice with an aim to improve individual lives and public life, for thousands of years.  As CS Lewis remarked, “There’s no shortage of good ideas.”   But I was realizing recently that my early Christian life (where CS Lewis featured heavily) taught me that Jesus’ advice was all I needed. Full stop.  I was taught to be suspicious of influences - moral guidance in particular - that didn’t originate from the church.  My interpretation was that I was supposed to put my fingers in my ears and say “la, la, la.”

I carried around that suspicion — with a sense of danger for rock musicians, yogis, and democrats.  Ironically, Purple Rain was my first R rated movie and I did marry a democrat at 21 years old.  Yoga remains a stretch.  My first job out of college - a litigation consultant for Arthur Andersen - forced me to confront other people whose advice might be questionable: lawyers and people who worked on Sundays.  

Over time, my misgivings mellowed. And morphed. My fingers came out of my ears but mostly to politely listen, still cautious.  If Jesus didn’t say it or say something similar, it still wasn’t worth much thoughtful consideration.  I continued to seek the buzz words I’d been trained to hear as they related to peace, joy, love, forgiveness, purpose, wisdom, etc.  It was like signing up for Spotify but only listening to three playlists.  For a middle aged white woman, that’s an intolerable amount of Ed Sheeran.

In this last decade, however, I’ve become fascinated in what other people - different than me - have to say. It’s maybe why I love my Blinkist app. I have this hunch that Jesus has actually pushed me in that direction.

On reflection, Jesus wasn’t pounding his chest claiming to be the best moral teacher, dishing out helpful advice.  Instead, he talked about a new kingdom where all things are made new.  His challenge was much bigger.  He said Follow Me.  You would “stay and listen” to a great speaker but his invitation was “come and see.”  As in, let’s go on an adventure.  And adventures always involve food and music and big ideas and leaving buildings.

And when I focused on following Jesus - not just reciting his words - I started to notice all these other tracks and new artists.  Which makes sense because if he is truly God and the embodiment of love and goodness - the church walls and even the scriptures (which incidentally I read now with more enthusiasm than ever) have no power to contain him.  So today when I read a full book or a packaged up summary of one, or listen to a podcast, or enjoy a great meal, or experience creation, or have a conversation  — I listen more closely as I expect that Jesus will be collaborating with truth wherever it is found.  

Thanks for listening.