Genuine Friendship vs. Being a Big Talker

Photo credit: Sarah Dibbern

Photo credit: Sarah Dibbern

Twenty years ago my ears were opened to the possibility I wasn’t a good conversationalist. I wouldn’t have believed it had it been said straight up–as I’ve always been a talker, someone who can fill most any awkward pause with a random story, quip or observation. But I’ve learned something that maybe you’ve known all along; genuine conversation should consist of more than the sound of our own voice, whether it’s out loud or rambling inside our head while others are talking. Real conversation involves intentional listening, questioning and a genuine interest in the lives of others.

How did I discover I wasn’t doing it right? Welp, I was at work and had wandered into a colleague’s office to share a story. He seemed to welcome the interruption and smiled broadly at whatever I was saying. I carried on, holding court for several minutes until I finally said, “I’ve been talking so much and you haven’t said a word.” His frank response, believe it or not, was, “People like to talk about themselves; so I let them.”

Imagine the gobsmacked expression on my face. My temptation was to be insulted and defensive because I believe my banter to be entertaining and even informative. But the truth is, I want to be more than a verbal performer. I want to be a better conversationalist, colleague and friend.

Getting beyond small talk…

It may seem like a no-brainer, but for people like me, who’re apt to plunge into any conversational lull in an attempt to keep things moving–try not to monopolize a discussion. Whether you’re talking about family, fashion or current events, be sure to pause and ask about others’ thoughts on a topic or switch the focus completely to another person by inquiring about what’s going on in their life.

Ask questions and actually listen to what you’re being told. If people don’t open up right away, be patient. Some folks need a few seconds to build courage and those seconds of silence only seems painful to a talkative person. Plus, be sensitive to whether your opinion or response is invited or if your friend simply wants to talk about what’s on his or her mind. Shockingly, I’ve learned not everybody cares what I think about what they say. Sometimes people simply want to talk. And in my wise friend’s words, we should let them.

Questioning forces our active interest in others, and the deeper a relationship, the more important reciprocal interest should become. Sometimes I practice not volunteering information about my life unless I’ve been asked. This seems like a good way for me not to monopolize any given conversation. But I’ll warn you–by doing this, I’ve discovered that some people don’t ask. Maybe they’re so used to windbags like me freely offering up information that the need to question doesn’t occur to them, or maybe, {gasp} they don’t really care. I know that seems a harsh assessment, but it’s why I’m trying to be better about questioning and listening, because I do care. Well… not about everybody or everything. But I’m working on it.

Try not to interrupt even if you think you have something important to say. I never realized how bad I am about interrupting until I lived away from my hometown for several years. Then during a return visit, a bunch of relatives got together, and at the end of the evening, we attempted to play cards. Oh, how I remember the many members of my beloved family chiming in to give instructions on how to play the game, each louder than the last so as to be heard without actually waiting for anybody else to stop talking. I became overwhelmed by a layered cacophony of boisterous know-it-alls competing to be heard. Don’t get me wrong. I love my family. But it was in that moment I recognized a learned behavior I must work to reign in. Well, unless I have something really important to say, which of course I often do. I suppose discerning the importance of our words is probably best left for another post.

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It’s Elementary: Thoughts on education…

photoIt’s official. Summer is over. The kiddos are back in school and I’m back to espousing my mental musings here and there. This week, education is at the forefront of my mind. I’ve attended open houses, met teachers and reviewed curriculum pertaining to my children’s education. I’ve also read some interesting articles about the future of higher education, and I’m beginning to prepare a presentation about how certain elements of education have impacted me. I suppose, growing up in an urban environment with a single working mother who didn’t have the time or inclination to hover over my homework is why I’ve been asked to reflect on such things. Some thoughts about what’s as important as the 3 R’s…

Instill Confidence over Cynicism:

I was never taught that my gender, economic situation or rather smallish stature would impede my success. I was never told the deck was stacked against me even though at times it may well have been. That naiveté was most likely a blessing in my younger years. I’ve been the only female in some classrooms and conference rooms only to reflect on the curiosity of that fact afterward. I don’t come from money and didn’t attend an exclusive university. But since I wasn’t taught to lament inequality, I’ve rarely felt intimidated or unable to compete. In fact, my confidence has often been a few steps ahead of my ability–which is not all bad since faith inspires action.

Provide Access to Information:

My mother and grandfather, the most influential people in my life, were readers. They modeled curiosity about the world and often read for pleasure. Both accumulated stacks of books on varied and interesting topics. Also, a public library was within walking distance of my childhood home. Access to information is a vital education component. Today, access for young people should include digital as well as print material. And parents, let your children see you reading a book, newspaper or essay on your phone, instead of only utilizing technology to check Facebook or email.

Seal the Cracks:

My high school counselor was paying attention. When I hadn’t applied to any colleges by senior year, she called me into her office and practically insisted I do so. I applied to only one school, was accepted and became the first in my family to obtain a bachelor’s degree. (Well, technically, the second if you count an uncle on my father’s side, but you catch my drift.)

Now, I’d always been a good student and enjoyed learning but college was not discussed or even on the radar screen for most kids in my community. So that one visit to a high school counselor’s office most likely impacted the trajectory of my life more than anything else in my high school career. She couldn’t possibly know that, and I don’t remember her name to thank her. So instead, I’ll encourage any educator reading this post–what you do, sealing even the smallest of cracks that a kid could fall through, makes a difference!

Be Patient and Teach Patience:

In this era of instant gratification, reinforcing a long-term view can help young people overcome most short-term setbacks. But patience and humility are intertwined, and humility has only begun to develop later in my life. A healthy dose of humility may have helped me be a better learner, less concerned about appearing to have all the answers, softened the edges of overconfidence. That said, humility also might have helped me ruffle fewer feathers along the way. Something I’m still learning…

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Seeking Shelter in a Storm

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

Life is difficult. This is what I often tell my children. That life isn’t all about things coming easily but that it often can be about rising to challenges, overcoming obstacles and mustering courage until things get better. What I forget to tell them is that we aren’t meant to suck it up and power through life’s challenges all on our own. That we should be cultivating friendships that provide more than just a gang to go to the movies or lunch with, but relationships that become a framework of stability made up of people whose ears listen, whose arms embrace and whose hearts desire only the best for us.

The news of Robin Williams’ suicide shines a light into the shadows of depression. It’s not that his passing is any more tragic than any other loss of human life, created in God’s image and deserving of love. But the shock of it, the reality that no amount of money, fame or success can insulate a person from the prowling lion of despair, demands a shift in thinking. How do we defend against hopelessness?

I once heard it said that depression can be like missing layers of protection necessary to guard the windows of your heart, mind and soul. So when the winds of calamity blow in, carrying heartache from around the globe via network news, or spin up like spontaneous tornados in our own personal lives, it’s impossible to draw the blinds, slam the sash or secure the shutters. It all just pours in unfiltered, overwhelming our coping mechanisms and churning up emotion void of perspective. I can only imagine that a similar unfiltered awareness of the world is also part of what makes an artist able to portray great depths of reality or an addict more prone to seeking shelter in the numbness of self-medication.

And when the storms come, to the depressive and non-depressive alike, why do we feel the need to hunker down alone? Do we really believe nobody else understands? Or cares? Are we embarrassed by our suffering or our seeming inability to improve our own condition? It’s probably this and more; cultural heritage, family history, fear of difficult or unwanted advice. Silent suffering is why we never seem to know when friends are getting divorced until the papers are filed or when someone has lost their job until the house goes into foreclosure. Lips remain sealed and those who are supposed to be our friends languish alone in a crowd.

I am blessed to have fairly well functioning “window coverings”, and yet I’m not immune to episodic bouts of gloom. Sometimes it’s hormonal or seasonal and I know from experience it will pass. But other times, a life event, like a storm brewing on the horizon with angry black clouds, can threaten the integrity of my otherwise good mental health. And when that happens, I am tempted not to tell. If it’s a recurring struggle, I don’t want to rehash an overplayed complaint. If it’s an embarrassing situation, I’m tempted to resist any exposure at all. And if my story would be a buzz-kill at a dinner party, I may simply lift my glass among the revelers, smile, remain silent and sip until I feel less…

But, No! I will not let the lying lips of despondency convince me to close off from those who love me. I will not avoid opportunities to talk about what’s bothering me. I will not refuse to at least consider well-intentioned advice or encouragement. I will affix blessings on my doorpost and I will not be deprived of the power of prayers offered up by the God-fearing people in my life.

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

Photo by Sarah Dibbern

I will be honest. I will admit when I’m afraid or sad or in pain. And I will remind my children, my husband, and my friends that I love them and that although we are to have courage, we do not stand alone.

 

 

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Travel Tips from Our Family Vacation in Washington D.C. & NYC

We live on the tundra. This means I prefer to vacation someplace warm in winter and sit around sipping beers and reading books on my front porch during summer. We typically head to SoCal sometime between January and March because we have family in that area. But as our ducklings get closer to leaving the hubs and me to waddle around the yard alone, we’ve decided to be a bit more adventurous and take a few family vacations to previously unexplored destinations.

We made a list of locales we’d like to visit and began to plan. First on the list was Mount Rushmore since it’s not far from home. But when the oldest went on a church mission trip to the area, South Dakota was demoted from priority status. Next was Washington D.C. because the middle school sponsors a student trip there. I convinced our sons, (decided for them) that it would be more fun to go with family. Plus, I’d never been there and was excited to see our nation’s capital for myself. So for the first time, we ventured east for a summer vacation. Here is some of what we learned along the way…

TRANSPORTATION

We flew and decided not to rent a car when we arrived. (We also packed light, each with only a backpack or small carryon suitcase.) I was told the Metro rail system around D.C. is easy and efficient. This proved to be true. Once we deciphered the fare machine and route maps, we became pros at navigating the city by subway. This may have been one of our kids’ favorite vacation activities.

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Re-loadable fare cards also work for the bus system and twice we used a combination of train and bus service to visit more distant attractions: the Washington National Cathedral and Mount Vernon. But, the subway isn’t necessarily quicker than taking a taxi­–and for four passengers, riding the metro isn’t a lot cheaper either. So, if you’re in a hurry, are traveling in a group and don’t have far to go, a cab isn’t the worst decision. If you plan to drive, the traffic didn’t look horrible but I have no idea how much it costs to park.

Halfway through our trip, we boarded an Amtrak train to New York City. Friends had tied these two destinations into one vacation and it seemed like a good idea. Amtrak is much different than air travel: no security line and no assigned seats. I’d pre-purchased tickets online. From there, you just show up, wait for your track to be announced and rush the platform to ensure getting seats together. Not particularly scenic. Not luxurious. But easy enough.

ATTRACTIONS

We spent a total of eight days in D.C. and three days in NYC. This seemed adequate for seeing most of what we wanted to see. I did minimal pre-planning. Outside of the Amtrak tickets, the only pre-purchased tickets were for a visit to the Statue of Liberty, which was totally worth it. Getting to the ferry was a short cab ride from midtown. Security was tight but tourists were moved along efficiently and quickly.

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While in NYC, we also visited the 9/11 Memorial and museum. I’d been advised to purchase advance tickets but didn’t. No problem. We were able to walk right up and get tickets for the same day.

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Other NYC vacation highlights included a full day exploring Central Park (probably the kids’ favorite place with its large outcroppings of stones for climbing adventures), and a double-deck bus tour around Manhattan (this type of excursion was better in Chicago where the quality of our tour guide was superior). There is surely more to see and overall, everyone agreed we’d like to return to NYC sometime.

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In Washington D.C., we visited most every monument and museum as well as Arlington National Cemetery and Mount Vernon. We did not coordinate tours for the White House or the Capital building, which require advance planning. But we saw SO much, I don’t feel as if we missed out on anything. Some of our D.C. highlights were:

Going inside the Washington Monument. (The hubs got in line at 7:30 a.m. for free same day tickets.)

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Strolling around the National Mall monuments at night.

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Resting my weary body after walking MILES each day.

FOOD

I’m not a trinket buyer so most of our pocket money went toward food. And I must say, I was disappointed by the lack of decent restaurant fare in D.C. Again, maybe my lack of proper pre-planning and research are to blame. But a simple Google search should have turned up something filling, healthy, moderately priced and within walking distance from the National Mall. But alas, our days were filled with fast food, cafeterias and bags of Combos. The museums have a great racket going with free admission, IKEA-style exhibit paths that make it virtually impossible to exit until you’re exhausted and famished, and then–a cafeteria filled with tourists and $40 family lunches not including beverages as we carried our own water.

Dining was easier in NYC with its wide variety of dine-in and take-out restaurants and delis. Many also had lovely patio seating.

We treated the kiddos to a meal in New York’s Little Italy one night for funzies. This was by far the most expensive dinner of our trip. But it was relaxing. The food was fresh and tasty. And of course, mama slowly sipped a wonderful glass of wine. (Most nights, I sipped my evening allotment of resveratrol back in the hotel room, poured from a bottle I picked up for $10 at a nearby drugstore. Don’t judge.)

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ACCOMODATIONS

We have been saving Marriott reward points for years thinking we’d use them to take the family to Europe someday. But that day may never come and if travel companies decide to change the rules before vacationers like us get the chance to use those precious points, we’re screwed. So we decided to start using points now. This meant ‘free’ hotel stays but limited us to three Marriott properties based on availability: the Marriott Courtyard and Marriott Gateway in Arlington, VA and the Marriott Marquee in Times Square.

Arlington is a bit farther than I would have preferred for daily treks into D.C., but it was easily managed via Metro rail. I was really excited about staying on Times Square in NYC and the hotel is very nice. But, a room with a view costs extra and the tourists packed onto the street just outside the hotel made Times Square one of my least favorite places to wade through daily. I only needed to see it once.

Overall, the biggest surprise of the trip was being less overwhelmed than I anticipated. “Would a big city make us anxious?” Nah. Both cities seem pretty much the same as anyplace else, only bigger. Oh, and D.C. smells better than NYC. Gah! (More photos on Instagram @wordsbyangela)

Next on our list, Yosemite National Park!

If you have questions or additional travel tips for readers of this post, please add them to the comments section.

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Don’t Let the TV Define Beauty for your Daughter

My teenage self shopping in Beverly Hills.

My teenage self shopping in Beverly Hills.

I recently told a friend’s teenage daughter I was glad she wasn’t mine. Whoops. That came out wrong. What I meant to say is that I think in some ways it must be more difficult to parent daughters than sons. I remember being an incredibly sassy, strong-willed, thought-I-knew-everything kind of teenager. But of course boys and girls can be equally obnoxious. Teen girls haven’t cornered the market on moody outbursts or pompous condescension toward their parents. No. Something else seems more challenging about raising daughters, clothes shopping.

My friend and her daughter seem to be having an ongoing debate over what constitutes appropriate apparel for a young girl, or maybe even women in general. I get it. The pressure on young people to conform is enormous. And girls who want to fit in often have to squeeze their bodies into outfits that are not only inappropriate, but also often downright unfortunate. And all for what? To distract people from the enormity of their intelligence? I think not.

If I had a daughter, here are a few things I might say to her on the subject.

First, popular culture would have women of all ages believe that sexy and pretty are synonymous. They are not. To dress sexy, or “hot” as the kids like to say these days, is to be suggestive, to arouse desire and tell the world, this body is ready to rock and roll. This may be the case for Hollywood entertainers and many Wal-Mart shoppers, but it’s probably not the right message for my teenage daughter to be sending to the world. It is possible to be feminine, attractive and stylish without dressing for school as if you’re competing for the mirror ball trophy on Dancing With the Stars.

Also, if dressing in short shorts and low-cut tops garners attention–and you like the attention–then you may have been mislead into believing attention equals affection or admiration. It does not. And for every boy whose attention you’re hoping to grab, there are most likely countless creeps who are also enjoying the show.

Now I’m no prude and believe the human body can be a truly beautiful thing. But haven’t women evolved enough to understand the true nature of their own beauty? Or maybe it’s darker yet, maybe girls use sensuality to compete against other girls, winner take all in an adolescent game of physical prowess and one-upsmanship. The female version of boys flexing their muscles to display dominance in front of other guys. Gross.

If I had a daughter, hopefully she’d heed some of my wisdom on this topic. But if she didn’t, as a parent, I’d still bear responsibility for clothes purchased and clothes worn. I would need to set certain standards about modesty and be willing to go to the mat to protect my daughter from culturally distorted messages about beauty and body image. So, as I stated earlier, I’m glad she’s not my daughter.

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May God Bless Your Obedience and other “Whacky” Sentiments

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This July, the hubs and I celebrate 19 years married. Not to brag since many have logged more years than us. But as the daughter of divorced parents and granddaughter of divorced grandparents, it’s kind of a big deal to me. I have no disrespect for divorced people, especially those who’ve suffered through abuse, addiction or adultery. For them, divorce can be a most welcome salve to their wounded spirit. But if I had any tip for staying married under what some might call more ideal circumstances, it would be this–the needs of the marriage must trump the wants of the self.

To illustrate, let me share a story from my first year of marriage. The hubs and I had packed up and moved west for kicks and giggles. We told folks, if we loved it, we’d stay and if we hated it, we’d leave. Trouble was, we had no plan for if one of us loved it and the other didn’t. We purchased a house in a suburb outside Seattle and spent our evenings after work going for walks around our new neighborhood. We talked about the future, promotions we hoped to attain, money we hoped to make and the number of children we planned to have. One of the hubs’ recurring dreams was returning to the Midwest. “The Twin Cities are great,” he’d say. “You’d really like it there.”

I’d roll my eyes and nod my head. Being a Michigander who’d always dreamed of living west, I had no intention of ever doing winter again. I’d joke in response, “Fine but you’ll have to get a promotion and a relocation package, help selling our house, and I’ll need a winter clothing allowance.”

Two years into our west coast adventure, I’d snagged a great promotion and was excited for more travel, more responsibility and more money. Three months after that, the hubs was also offered a promotion and a relocation package to guess where?? That’s right, the Twin Cities.

His news disappointed me to say the least. But I recalled another component of our evening walks, discussions of starting a family. I wanted a career but I also wanted to someday parent our future kiddos full-time. I’d seen enough jet-set executives to know I couldn’t do both. That meant, gulp, that his promotion meant more to our future family in the long term. I resolved to move to Minnesota and find another job.

I broke into tears when telling a friend my tale of woe. She responded by saying, “God will bless your obedience.”

My tears may have sucked back up into their ducts as I stifled a laugh. Only a religious nutcase would say such a thing, or so I believed at the time.

But 19 years later, I’ll admit that getting to raise our kids in Minnesota is one of the many blessings I’ve experienced since letting go of what I thought I wanted in favor of what my marriage needed.

Growing up with a single mother taught me self-preservation. Submission was not modeled in my mother’s home. Like her, I refuse to be anybody’s doormat. Even the term submission may stir up a feminist rant complete with finger snaps, head bobs and curse words. And yet, year after year, regular practice of submission, putting my individual wants second to the needs of others, particularly my spouse–being obedient to what I know in my heart is right–has brought me blessing. Truth!

I blow a kiss across the plains to my religious nutcase friend whose wisdom once sounded whacky to me. And if you’re trying to cobble together some good years with someone in marriage or even in friendship, consider which small sacrifices each person in the relationship could make for the good of the whole. And may God bless your obedience.

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Sip Your Drink Slowly, and Other Tips for Handling Irksome Family Members.

Large Group of Happy People standing together.Things don’t always turn out how we want. Blah Blah. Heard it all before. Right? Make lemon drop martinis out of lemons… or something like that. But what about when people don’t behave how we want them to? Yes, if we’re honest, we must admit we have certain expectations about human behavior. Not usually our own behavior, no, our harshest criticism seems especially passionate when it comes to the folks who happen to be related to us.

It’s summer and the season offers plenty of opportunity for family gatherings, or at least the expectation of some level of family togetherness. And when it comes to family, what I seem to notice most consistently is the disappointment people harbor when it comes to certain family members.

“Why doesn’t he call more often?” “She forgot my birthday.” “He’s too busy and doesn’t make enough time for me.” “She’s spoiling her children.” “He doesn’t pay enough attention to his children.” “They only call when they need something.” “She’s so critical of everything I do.”

On and on it goes, an endless lament of unmet expectations sprinkled into a simmering stew of deeply held disappointments and grudges.

Welp, here’s the deal as far as I see it. When it comes to family, we’re kind of stuck. Unless there is some really hurtful dysfunction or brutality at work, a la August Osage County, it’s difficult to have relationships if we just pick up our toys and go home when others get on our nerves. Instead, consider a handful of coping techniques I’ve found helpful when tempted to complain about someone else’s behavior.

First, I’m willing to bet that most of the time another person’s behavior isn’t about me. It’s about them. They’re trying too hard or aren’t trying at all because they’re worried about perception or making a mistake. My mind can be hard to read and yours probably can be too. Heck, the people who live in my house with me are often unsure of how to make me happy. So how can we expect others to know exactly what to do or say to please us? Or maybe that person you’re annoyed with is just plain clueless and has no real intention of being helpful or hurtful. So what? Laugh it off. Give it a pass. Don’t keep a record of wrongs.

Second, generational and cultural differences do exist. So stop measuring other people by the social mores of whatever generation, town or religious tradition you came of age in. Be gentle, not condescending. And even when it’s difficult, try to give the old folks a break–for many reasons, but mostly because our behavior toward them is teaching our children how to treat us when we’re old. Seriously. Think about it.

Lastly, stop being pissed off that your family doesn’t mirror some romanticized TV version of unconditional campfire Kumbaya. The fact is many people simply cannot live up to the expectations we’ve set for them. Either because they never learned how or are emotionally unequipped to do so. So when we get anxious, angry or agitated because others are not meeting our needs, we’re being just as annoying as they are. Put yourself in their shoes and consider the source. Then consider the only true source of life, the creator and maker of all things who stands ready to meet our very real needs.

I pray blessings on all of your family gatherings this summer and hope we can be quick to forgive, offer kindness and seek a spirit of harmony. May our expectations be in line with what’s realistic and our concerns be more about how we can bless others rather than how we desire others to bless us. Oh, and if life give you lemons, be sure to sip your lemon drop slowly.

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