29: Fighting a Peaceful Heart

This office has decided to terminate your employment, effective immediately.  Sent by email.  At 5:39pm.  On a Friday.  I was already out for early dinner with a friend so I received this about midnight when I got home, drunk.  I just closed the laptop and stumbled to bed.  At some point in the wee hours of the morning my eyes popped open and I sat straight up in bed.  “FUUUUUUUUUUCK!” I shouted.

Although I knew I wanted to go to law school, it took a couple years after I graduated college for the timing to be right.  In the meantime, I decided, to focus on getting a job as a legal assistant.  I had never known any lawyers and, but for the kind of lawyers I saw on crime shows, knew very little about what the possibilities were in the legal field.  I was thrilled when I got a call from a small firm in Virginia.  I was ready for a move, the firm agreed to my meager salary request and even offered to throw in a couple hundred bucks for moving expenses.  I just knew this was it for me.  The turning point I needed.  The start of the rest of my life.

Not so fast.

Looking back, this was absolutely the wrong job for me at any point in my life.  The nature of the work, the culture in the firm, it was just the worst.  I graduated magna cum laude with a double major three and a half years after graduating high school.  Still, during my interview my would-be boss asked me if I’d ever attended school anywhere he might have heard of.  It was only when I mentioned starting college at West Point that he seemed to perk up.  Day 1 of the new job, the boss asks me to come into his office and then tells me there is one rule in this office: when he shouts, I come.  There were five employees in the whole firm, one was his son (who was my age), one was his best friend, and everyone but the son was female.  I was instructed to call everyone Attorney and Ms. and Mr. So-and-So but they all called me and each other by first name.  I once got pulled aside to have a conference about my stapling.  It was just weird.  Worse than weird, my misogynist boss would say borderline, if not fully racist and classist things.  I still regret not having enough self respect to quit, but remember, I didn’t know any lawyers so I just thought this was how it was everywhere.  It just made that stupid quitting time email a bigger slap in the face.

This was a very difficult time in my personal life.  I was a mess to be sure.  I was trying to hold it together but not doing a great job of it.  It was one of those “when it rains it pours” kind of times in life, and it was only with the benefit of hindsight that I saw I was making a lot of choices that perpetuated what I perceived to be bad luck. I never got an explanation for my termination.  During the process of filing for unemployment the investigation revealed a claim of unauthorized use of the internet which was deemed unfounded.  And, of course, at-will employment meant it didn’t matter the reason.  It is entirely possible they just didn’t like me.  As much as I could rationalize how much better off I’d be not working at this place I obsessed about getting fired.  I thought about how I could stick it to my boss and his stuck up, Junior League associate who was his mouthpiece for the dirty work.  Five years later when I won a professional award for being an Up & Coming Lawyer I thought seriously about mailing him a copy of the article.  There was some allure about the satisfaction of revenge.  The image of a giant two-fingered fuck you to this jerk of a man brought a smile to my face.  See, it was a mistake for you to fire me.  This article proves it.

Christmas marks the end of Advent and the end of my four part series reflecting on the weekly principles of Advent.  See my previous posts here:

26: Arrival of Hope

27: Daddy Issues

28: My Obituary

Like the other three principles (hope, love, and joy) it is so easy to use peace superficially.  Think of “Miss Congeniality”:

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When I attended church growing up there was always time in the service to pass the peace.  You would shake hands with the people around you and say “peace be with you.”  It was so awkward.  People seemed to want it over as soon as possible.  No one was really extending heart felt wishes for peace.  It was just going through the motions.  It’s too bad.  Wishing peace for someone may be one of the most compassionate gifts we can give to others.

“Anatomy of Peace” is a book authored by the Arbinger Institute.  I read it after a drug court participant described it as “life changing.”  The storyline is corny but is an effective way to get across the lessons.  The book argues that the way we treat others in conflict whether in day-to-day interactions in our own lives or the way countries treat each other in war is a reflection of ourselves.  Behavior that is destructive comes from thoughts that are destructive and usually the root of the bad thoughts about others is actually negative beliefs about ourself.  We then build walls of justifications around our bad behavior so we can rationalize our beliefs and actions.  “…when I betray myself, others’ faults become immediately inflated in my heart and mind. I begin to ‘horribilize’ others. That is, I begin to make them out to be worse than they really are. And I do this because the worse they are, the more justified I feel.”

Chicken or egg.  Harm done to me or harm I cause myself.  Who knows which is first.  “As painful as it is to receive contempt from another, it is more debilitating by far to be filled with contempt for another.”

Children raised in households with alcoholics often live in a hypervigilent  state and have profound fight or flight instincts.  One article gives the top ten commonalities found in adults raised in households where alcoholism was present:

  1. They are more concerned with others than themselves.
  2. They have difficulty following a project through.
  3. They exhibit black and white thinking.
  4. They have difficulty having fun.
  5. They judge themselves harshly.
  6. They constantly seek approval.
  7. They feel different from others.
  8. They ‘love’ those who need rescuing.
  9. They feel guilty standing up for themselves.
  10. They are extremely loyal.

The majority of these characteristics describe my default personality, some I’ve overcome more than others.  These defaults are ever-present for me.  When criticism and judgement, extremely high standards, and overall rigidity gets directed at others it becomes a huge barrier to interpersonal relationships.  But it’s not so easy to just flip a switch and change it. Everything I’ve ever achieved in life has been the result of fight, fight, fight.

In yoga and in Shambhala instructors often talk about softening.  The idea of physically letting go of tension in our bodies that holds us back.  Emptying the mind of distracting thoughts, coming back to the simplicity and nowness of our breath helps to relax the muscles, slow the heart rate, and ease tension.  Softening is a foreign concept to me.  The most difficult yoga poses for me are the heart openers.  Relaxing the shoulders, opening up the arms, letting go of the stomach, pressing the heart out and up.  I want to keep working at this.  Softening the body.  Softening the mind.  Remembering that peace with others begins with peace in me.  Sometimes the fight just isn’t worth it.

For years my New Years goals have included some form of chilling out.  Peace, acceptance, letting go, softening.  It’s the hardest because in addition to self-love, cultivating joy from within, allowing oneself to dream and be hopeful…all of the lofty ideals that conscientious people spend a lifetime striving for… it also encompasses all the things you’re not proud of.  Failure, falling short, letting people down, not reaching that goal, not being the person you thought you were.  It can be the thing you fight with your whole life. What this year has shown me is that my default characteristics aren’t just a barrier to interpersonal relationships, but my intrapersonal relationship.  The projection outward is the reflection of the lingering internal tension.  So, there is still work to do.

When we were in Washington D.C. this Fall, we walked around the National Mall at night to see the monuments.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s was very impactful.  Standing in the darkness staring at the carved granite, I could see and touch the words that become anchors for who I want to be.  Justice.  Dignity.  Humanity. And…

Peace.

It’s time to find that within so that in every interaction with others I can truly pass the peace.

“We must come to see that the end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience.” ~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

 

 

 

 

 

 

21: Sissy

I know exactly what my first memories are.  It was the day my sister was born. I was 2 years, 2 months and 15 days old.  I remember helping my dad pick out a balloon at the florist.  I remember walking into a hospital room and seeing my mom laying there.  I remember trying yogurt for the first time.  I didn’t really understand what was happening, but whatever it was it was a BIG deal.

We were not always close.  On any given day, we were likely to be somewhere on the spectrum between annoyed and outright disdain.  She was into dolls and dress up and drama.  I was into sports and school and socializing.  When we were younger, attempts to do much of anything together inevitably wound up in a fight.  It wasn’t uncommon for us to be forced to sit on the kitchen floor looking at each other and “thinking about how much you love your sister.”  There was a time I put chewed up gum in her hair so she had to have a piece of her hair cut off.  There was the time she was jumping on the bed, fell off and then told my parents I pushed her.  But we were built-in companions so we found ways to compromise so we could play together.  She would play alligator swamp on our swing set with me…if we could put on sparkly outfits and pretend we were in the circus.  I’d play dress up with her…and be maid while she was the princess.  We’d play softball in the backyard and when she got tired of me winning she’d just throw the ball at me instead of running to tag me out.  We managed.

As we got older we just avoided each other more and more.  Middle school was brutal for us both (and everyone right?) and we both had some self esteem problems.  By high school our interests and personalities were so different there just wasn’t a need to spend time together.  We didn’t get each other.  She was angsty and didn’t care about school or much of anything it seemed.  And from her perspective I was a goodie two shoes know-it-all just looking to tell her what to do any chance I could get.

I graduated high school and moved away.  Cell phones and social media weren’t really a thing yet so my Krissy updates came through my mom.  It was only because she guilted me into staying at my sister’s new apartment while I was home on a visit that we are so close today.  She showed me her new place with pride, we ate Kraft mac and cheese and talked.  For some reason, we both had our guard down this time and we learned a lot about each other.  The rest is history.

Our lives and interests are still very different.  My path was easier for people to wrap their heads around, school, career etc.  Krissy paid her way through her early 20’s and cosmetology school by working at Hooters.  When she told us she was going to start working at Hooters, it would be an understatement to say that our family had “concerns” about her employment choice.  We also quickly saw that Hooters wasn’t as scandalous as we thought and that she was kicking butt at the company.  In her years at Hooters she traveled all over on the company dime for special publicity events, received national-level awards, was an extra in a Denzel Washington movie, did a segment on Good Morning America, was  a contestant on the Singing Bee, was a regular in the Hooter’s calendar and swimsuit pageant, and was the covergirl and centerfold of Hooter’s Magazine.  Oh, and she also was quickly recognized as a fantastic salesperson and an even better mentor/trainer.  Within a few years, she was promoted to store manager and, let me tell you, any idea you might have about how she may have been treated as a Hooter’s Girl pales in comparison to how she was treated as a young female manager.  She proved a lot of people wrong.

Despite that, people have always had some skepticism about Krissy’s ability to do things.  “Are you suuuuuure you’re gonna do _________?”  I’m embarrassed to say that I have fallen into that category too.  Last Fall Krissy asked me one day if I wanted to go on a run.  Sure, I’ll go on a run.  I told her we’d run on the Oak Leaf until she was tired.  Four miles in I told her we were turning back.  That first eight mile run led to jokingly suggesting that Krissy run a half marathon with me.  About six weeks later Krissy ran her first half marathon.  “Why haven’t you ever done this before?” I asked her one day.  “Because I never thought I could,” she said.

I suggested the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington D.C.  The race is always on the Top Ten marathon lists and the idea of traveling somewhere for a race appealed to me.  It also happened to be one of the only races that allowed you to transfer bibs or defer to the following year.  Perfect, I thought, if I get pregnant or she’s not ready we can just defer a year.

Training started pretty slow.  A lot of sporadic short runs that we walked half of. If I didn’t suggest a run, we weren’t doing one.  We were sitting by the pool on vacation in California with about 12 weeks til the race, surely safe enough to broach the topic of being in or being out of this race.  Clearly annoyed I’d even brought it up Krissy said “I’ve been running you know.  I wanted to surprise you.”  Right then we agreed we’d do our long training runs together every weekend no matter what.  We were doing this race.

My confidence wasn’t fully restored when we started our training runs.  A lot of “I didn’t eat enough” or “I didn’t stretch enough” or “what’s that pain?!”  I didn’t know how to help or what to say.  Without an athletic background, she had no way of knowing whether what she was feeling was just her body adjusting or something that meant she needed to stop.  I didn’t know when to be soft, when she needed tough love, or what advice to give.  We both just fumbled our way through.  But one thing was clear from week to week, she was getting stronger.  The distance we struggled to finish last time, she would run with ease this time.  She learned from her mistakes and got into a solid habits.  She took care of herself.  She tried different things on her runs.  All of it was paying off.

Our 14-mile run was a major breakthrough.  It was raining, not like sprinkling, really raining.  True to our word, we were running today.  No excuses.  We hooked up Juneau and off the three of us went down the Oak Leaf, completely soaked.  Luckily the rain was warm and there was no wind, so besides wet, we were pretty comfortable.  And it started to be a fun, cool thing that it was just us out there…training…in the rain.  Doing our thing.  About mile 9 Krissy started to fade, needing to walk more, clearly struggling and the thought of four more miles daunting.  We walked for a bit.  She cried.  We decided to bail out and called for a ride back.  Krissy was so mad.  Totally down on herself, doubting whether she would be able to do this.  She called me later that day.  She’d been out doing errands and at two different places overheard people talking about marathon training and having to bail out way sooner on their runs than we did.  With that, she was back in it.  We agreed to redo our 14 mile run the next week.  She was very angry with me by the end, and struggled through the last couple miles but she finished it.

A couple weeks later as we prepared for our 16-mile training run, I could already feel her uncertainty.  Can I do this?  We had guests in town who ran the Chicago marathon a couple years ago.  She told me later talking to “normal people” made all the difference.  With that, her mind got right and stayed right.  There was such a determination.  Not all fired up and intense and rah rah like I get.  Quiet, matter-of-fact almost.  She was running better than I’d ever seen her.

Race day was great.  We weren’t rushed for time.  Of course there were Marines and flags and cheering people and motivational signs all over the place.  We’d were very strategic about our race shirts.  It was common for us to brainstorm shirt slogans in the worst part of our training runs and we settled on “Bad Year to Bad Ass,” a nod to using some of the recent challenges we’ve each had to motivate us to focus on something positive and accomplish something we could really be proud of.  On the back, her shirt said “My first marathon” on the back of my shirt “Krissy’s first marathon, show her some love.”  The strategy worked.  The entire race people were shouting “Go Krissy” “You got this Krissy” “It’s my first marathon too!”  But they were also shouting “And GO Krissy’s friend!”  I found myself wanting to correct everyone who said this.

She’s not my friend.  She’s my sister.  She’s in a whole other category.  She takes more of my grief, gets more passes, has said yes to the most crazy ideas, and has more of me figured out than anyone besides maybe Noel.  Even more than him sometimes.  She will literally share more years of my life than any other person. After years of Krissy showing up at every athletic competition I’ve ever done with signs and support and the title of “Katie’s sister” it was one of my proudest days not to be Katie but to be “Krissy’s sister.”  Back when we were just trying to become close, I called Krissy for advice about I don’t even remember what and her answer was simply “family comes first.”  She has lived by that not just in words but by showing up, taking a backseat, being a supporter.  What a privilege to be by her side as she accomplished this goal for herself.  I hope she always knows that I’m by her side.  As she’s accomplishing goals.  As she’s figuring it out.  And when she’s not her best self.  I also hope she never doubts herself again.  I know I won’t.