Tents, Togetherness: Relationship Tools

Tents, togetherness and relationships. Makes perfect sense.

We’ve spent a fair amount of time living in tents, my daughters and I – enough to be thankful we have houses to live in most of the time. Tents probably wouldn’t be much of a thing if we didn’t want to be outside, where it sometimes gets cold and rainy. They allow us to spend time with people in places we might not normally get to visit.

Some tents also provide gathering spaces bigger than our houses, and we’ve done a few of those also. Small tents give us intimate space with a few people. Big tents give us casual space with many, many people. Both are useful and available in a variety of styles, and a frightening array of prices.

I’ve had a fascination with tents since I was a small child. My father set up a used army tent for me, in our yard, for one of my birthdays. I spent a good deal of time in it that summer. I’ve gone on to own three or four tents and they were all dear to me. Some of them leaked but I loved them anyway.

Tents are a relationship tool, but I’m not saying there is a guarantee the relationship will be good. But you and others will be together, like it or not.

There I’ve about said it all for tents and togetherness. Here are my illustrations from my own experience.

Tents in our backyard in Florida served as extra bedrooms for people who got very little sleep. This one was big. It also leaked.
The one on the right is my “other” tent, ready for occupancy at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Requires being horizontal.
In Cambodia I attended many large gatherings in tents. They know how to put on fancy events in them.
Yeah, this is snow. It is the food tent at the Birkie International ski race in my hometown. It was not very warm inside, but better than being outside.
And talk about togetherness! Happening here.
A tent allowed us to gather, during the pandemic, for my sister-in-law’s memorial service. Technically, we were outside.
In 2020 I rented a wedding tent. It did keep us fairly dry in the downpour, at night. Another pandemic gathering outside.

This spring (if it ever arrives), I want to put my tent up by the pond behind the barn, and listen to the spring peepers. Probably no one will join me but I will strengthen my relationship with nature, or frogs and mosquitos… All good.

Saving: A Relationship Building Tool

There are people who don’t have a soft heart toward animals (I think we call them psychopaths). We are not those people. From their earliest days, my girls and I have been saving one lost animal after another. Our collaboration on this mission has helped our relationships grow stronger. After all, if we will do it for an animal we will probably do it for a person. We trust each other’s soft, compassionate heart for things that live.

This has been on Mom’s refrigerator for years. I think that’s why I must have started picking up strays.

Giving kittens a good home was one of the girl’s first projects. We had (way too many) barn cats that usually could not be caught, unless they were very young. The girls were “kitten tamers” so that they could be given to good homes. They were mostly successful, except for the one that had to go growling and hissing into a box, fastened shut. We prayed it would not be returned to us.

Baby birds, found near dead, were nursed back to life. I was commonly looking for recipes for baby animals and conferring with veterinarians on their care. Wounded squirrels found refuge at our house, in spite of being little terrors and biting us. One even got taken to the family chiropractor in hopes that his weird limp and inability to walk a straight line without falling over could be corrected.

Yes, even ants. Activism’s early beginnings.

Kitten tamers and dog trainers, they excelled in their saving of animals, and the animals got bigger. Julia brought a Wisconsin horse home to Florida, not knowing it was pregnant. Her herd started that way. Years later, she has four horses she cares for, plus two ponies, two donkeys, four sheep, two goats, three dogs and two cats. It is a good thing financially that she is now a large animal vet, but it also means she is always hearing about one more animal that needs to be rescued or put down.

Esther has become a greyhound expert, having given two of them a good home while they were alive. She has a third one now, and has had a couple of other dogs along the way as well. She has a passion for training dogs to have good relationships with people, so they aren’t a burden on others and can have forever homes.

I am going to give credit to our experiences saving animals, building trust relationships with them, to our ability to relate in good ways to people. After all, most of the same principles apply, and should be applied. Love and attention, reliable boundaries, consistency, proper care and feeding – doesn’t that sound like what you and I want? Yes, all that. And, in fact, we often buy pets for children in hopes that they will learn to do these things and be responsible for their animals and their people.

It is true that those skills in being compassionate do bleed over into concern and care for people. Both Julie and Esther value their close relationships and tend to them responsibly. It is a joy to watch, and also a comfort to consider as I get older and closer to needing “saving” myself. We’ll see how that works out.

Rescuing animals can be a good tool in teaching about relationships. It was for us, and has been for many others, maybe you? Sometimes it’s enough to send a check to the Animal Rescue Society, after watching one of those commercials about starving, shivering puppies tied up in the snow and mud. For the most part, we do have something in us that longs to save. I don’t believe it’s an accident that we were created that way. Just sayin’…

Once homeless, Shadow lives with me.

Ride: Epic Moves for Building Relationships

Riding of any kind can be an opportunity for building relationships. There’s usually an element of being captive for hours of togetherness. I’m thinking of the road trip I took with daughter Esther from Atlanta to Seattle, in a small SUV packed to the roof with the remains of a household and two large dogs. It was epic.

And epic is my favorite word when it comes to activities that build relationship, because the more epic it is the more memorable. At the end of an epic event, I am usually bonded for years to come with my companions. This was definitely the case in my ride across the state of Florida with daughter Julia, on horseback. It was the Cracker Trail Ride of 2007. Epic.

We survived the Cracker Trail together.

The Cracker Trail was the route that Florida cowboys drove cattle to the Gulf Coast for shipping in the late 1800’s. Central Florida has a large cattle industry even today so there is lots of interest in keeping history alive with the yearly Trail Ride. The route is 120 miles.

I tried to do this ride in 2006 on a borrowed horse and only got about a mile from the start when the horse insisted on being the first in line (not allowed), and seized up when I wouldn’t let him. He was an old race track pony horse and just couldn’t understand that trail ride business. He got put in a trailer and taken back. I was disappointed.

The next year I had my own horse, Andy. Julia had one of her horses, Fea. We had a two horse trailer and a fancy black truck to pull it. We, and a couple hundred of our friends and acquaintances, spent the next five days riding from Bradenton, Florida to Fort Pierce on our horses. We camped in tents at night, in the fields of some of the large ranches in central Florida. There was a chuck wagon that served meals and usually some kind of fun activity or socializing each evening.

Every morning, after breakfast we would pack up camp, saddle up and ride until noon. At our lunch stop a bus would take drivers back to their vehicles and trailers. We would drive ahead to the next campsite and then take the bus back to the lunch stop, where we would again get on the horse and ride the rest of the afternoon. Logistically, it was pretty well planned. At times we rode on major highway right-of-ways, but often it was on ranch property.

Neither of us had ever ridden all day for five days in a row, so it took a day or so for us to get hardened in. We had been trying to get the horses ready for the event, but it was extreme for them too – not only the distance but the crowd of other horses, wagons, and road traffic. We (both us and the horses) were a little nervous the first day. Poor Andy got a red bow tied on his tail to warn others that he might kick if they got too close.

As I said, it was an epic trip for me. Having that once-in-a-lifetime adventure with my daughter gave so much opportunity to learn, to be challenged in our abilities, to succeed at something unusual. It was worth every minute, but it was hard. We were glad and ready to head home at the end of the ride.

Significant relationships are built in small ways, day by day, and that is great. But it is very important, when opportunity allows, to do something special. Maybe it is something challenging, or extravagant, or luxurious or as sometimes happens, something very miserable – but it will be memorable and talked about for a long time. Getting through escapades like this with your children adds so much to the relationship with them. You are investing time and money in an experience with them, and that speaks volumes. And the payback is pretty good – I wouldn’t trade my memories of that ride for anything.

Quietude: A Relationship Baseline

My story is not everyone’s story, of course, but some will identify with it. My relationship with my children has revolved around quiet times more than any other type of activity. I won’t say that we abhorred noise (got some stories to negate that) but our household was quiet, and I think we came to associate that with comfort, safety, calm, peace, refuge and rest.

When they were small, the girls did a lot of quiet playing. We read a lot. During their school years, they studied at home so the house was quiet during school hours. They liked being in their rooms, having friends over to talk or play games. As music got more prominent in their lives, there were occasional loud moments but there didn’t seem to be a time when they were afraid of silence.

Sunset silence, on a walk.

This is a very loud world and I’m kind of glad that we adopted quietude as a way of life, a baseline. I still see Julie and Esther doing their best to plan quietude into their lives. I have many memories of morning coffee time with one or the other of them, in a quiet coffee shop or outside on the patio. We take quiet walks, just us and nature. We sit around campfires with only the sound of the flames and some nightbirds. We sit in the kitchen late at night talking, but not always talking, sometimes just being. We like quiet sports, bike riding, hiking, kayaking and horseback rides. It’s not just okay to be quiet, it’s actually healthy and healing.

Quietude is also about calming and bringing peace, and often when I’m bothered about the twists and turns of life, I call or text my girls. The relationships we’ve built help settle me, make me feel known, heard and somehow calmer. A quiet talk with someone who loves me, listens to my story, maybe even prays with me is the best medicine ever!

Quietude in our relationships tells us it is okay to retreat to a dark room with a headache if we need to. We understand when one of us needs to leave the crowd, or get away from overstimulation. One on one has always been my preferred way of interacting and definitely preferred in my relationship with my daughters. It allows for being quiet, personal, and more deeply relational.

My daughters don’t live near enough to have regular, in person quiet times with me, but my mom and my youngest brother do. Most every morning I take the short walk over to Mom’s front door and open it, knowing the smell of fresh coffee will be there inside. Mom will wave at me from her recliner and we will just sit for a while before we begin to talk. A few minutes later we will hear the door open again and my brother will come in and sit down with us. We talk about what we’re reading, what’s on our mind, how our families are getting along, what our plans are for the day. But often we are quiet, just sitting, thinking. And that’s okay.

Just thinking, in the woods where it’s quiet.

Planting: Relationship in the Garden

Planting, in the garden, was a very early relationship building activity. Julia and I both love dirt and have a long history with it. As a family, we have always had some kind of garden on our property, and except for a few hot days picking beans or hoeing, Julie and Esther loved being there. During their teen years, they didn’t feel the ownership of the garden quite as keenly but I still preached it as an important way to connect with God, nature, and fellow gardeners.

Now that they are grown, I see that has paid off. They are plant lovers, landscapers, gardeners, people who appreciate things that grow. They both have their own style, suitable to the places they live and the time they have to invest. It’s another thing we love to do together when I visit. There are always things to do in their yards or gardens.

I have always loved that taking care of plants is such a learning experience. Going through the seasonal process of planting, growing, harvesting and resting provides such teachable moments. I have tried to convey to them that a garden is truly a kind of spiritual place. Air, sunshine, water and earth are clearly seen as elements of life. We get to watch the miracle of a dead looking seed respond to these elements and become something completely different. We get to see how weeds can take over and choke out useful plants. Unprotected borders let rabbits and deer in to eat. We have also killed our share of plants, but that is the price to be paid. Plants don’t live forever either and there is something to be learned even in that. I can hardly be in the garden without a God-analogy coming to mind.

Esther lives in an urban community and has a small but beautiful yard. She loves small space gardening, and has a yard where entertaining is easy and fun. Plants thrive in the mild climate in Washington state. Almost every time I visit we go to her favorite garden center and look (well, and buy).

A couple weeks ago I was in North Carolina, where the grass is already green and the trees are flowering. Julie had a day off and we had nothing planned. Of all that we could have chosen, planting the salad garden and working in the yard was what we wanted to do. She too knows that I would rather work in the garden than sit around.

If you discover that planting is an activity that someone in your life would like to do with you, go for it. And don’t forget – plants are alive. We don’t know what they are thinking, if they think, but we know they have likes and dislikes and they seem to know when they are being treated kindly. It’s a bit spooky if you think about it. Makes it more fun. Just sayin’…

Organizing: Can Cleaning Closets Build Relationship?

Yeah, let’s whip this into shape!

I wouldn’t have thought organizing was an activity, or that by doing it, we could be working on our relationships, but it was and we did. However, my two daughters gave me completely different experiences of organization.

One of them, (not saying which one) had her ways and was very particular. You could take a look at her sock drawer, every pair bundled and stacked according to color and thickness, and you knew what kind of a kid you were dealing with. I couldn’t really say she was a collector, but she seldom got rid of anything so she had to organize to make the best use of her space. That is who she was at twelve, that is pretty much how she is today.

The other one only organized certain things, on occasion. We had some very sweet relationship building times cleaning her room. I would come in, sit down on the bed, if I could find it, and we would pick up one thing at a time and ask “where does this go?” Eventually it would all get into place. She loved a clean room but it wasn’t a necessity. She gives me credit for the quotable sentence “A messy room is not an indictment, it’s an opportunity.” For us, it was an opportunity to spend time together (and find lost stuff…).

Our times together organizing have a somewhat different flavor, now that we are all adults. When I visit them, we often go through closets, looking for things to fold, stack, throw away and give away. Those are hard chores that people tend to put off doing, but they are easier when there are two of us. We might even love going through kitchen cupboards, rearranging, and finding out what’s in there.

I especially like seeing all their shoes. Believe it or not, their shoe choices (and whether or not there are both a right and a left to be found) give me clues as to what is going on in their lives. Has she gone sensible yet, or is she really wearing those six inch heels? Has she been feeling the need for shopping therapy or is she okay? There are clues to all these things.

I am always making out pretty good after these organizing sessions. Both girls give me clothes they don’t want any more. That is the only reason I have anything from Nordstrom’s in my closet. But, speaking of my closet, I’m about due for some organization soon and plan to have that fun activity on the schedule the next time I get a visit.

By organizing and sharing our various ways of creating order, we have helped each other, we have been productive, we’ve communicated values, and we’ve spent time together. It’s been good for our relationships, and actually, we’ve found a lot of missing stuff.

Noticing: A Relationship Building Skill

Not too long ago, I was waiting outside a public men’s restroom for my husband to come out. He is disabled and whenever we go travel, there are challenges to be dealt with. I’m often aware that we are slow and inconvenient for people around us. I’m also aware that the husband needs to have his dignity protected and his needs addressed with kindness. This is a balancing act and my patience or lack thereof is often on display.

We are slow and careful, but people often notice and help us by holding doors and waiting. Much appreciated!

On this particular day a man came out of the restroom ahead of my husband and stopped to encourage me. I forget exactly what he said, but it was something about having noticed us and feeling that we were a good example. He evidently had caught one of my more patient moments and had given thought to what life was like for us.

As he went on down the hall, he stopped to talk to another elderly woman who was sitting on a bench. He got down on a knee to be on eye level with her. This man was an expert “noticer”. He was building relationships. I found out later that he was a very prominent man in the community and in his field of business. He had at one time addressed a United Nations assembly. I believe his behavior and his prominence are related.

Sometimes I notice, and sometimes I don’t. The more often I notice people, really see them, the better my relationships with them become. But noticing is something of an art.

There are times when I am so focused on what’s going on in my head that I’m blind to what’s going on around me. People have facial expressions, body language, behaviors and words and I should be paying attention if I value the relationship with them.

It’s the best feeling in the world when I’m able to do a successful “notice”. Especially with my daughters, if I’m able to pick up on when they are frustrated and need to talk, I can just listen. When I sense they need some privacy or alone time, I can disappear. And when they need some help, I can figure out a way to help them. Over the years we have learned to count on each other to notice because they do the same for me. Our relationships are all the more comfortable and beneficial because we know each other from our years of noticing.

Noticing is very much like the present trend of being “in the moment” and fully aware. It’s probably not something any of us can do all the time but we can intentionally get better at it. We once had a neighbor who was a police artist. My mom took some art lessons from him and they talked at length about how few people are prepared to be expert witnesses, because they don’t notice with intent. See if this exercise gives you increased awareness of what you notice:

Think of a person you love, with whom you have a relationship – someone you are with often. If you had to describe them, or if you tried to draw them yourself, what would that be like? Think of the details of their face, the most prominent features, their most usual expression. If you were asked what their most recent concern was, would you be able to name it? When you last spoke, did you leave them in a better mood than you found them? How could you tell?

I value the people around me who notice. It can be painful to be in a relationship where I am not noticed. I imagine you feel much the same. We want good relationships. Let’s go out and, quietly but intentionally, notice our important “others” and see what happens.

Laughter: Relationship Necessity

Laughter is the lifeblood of my most important relationships. Sometimes it is all we can do. After we have talked, struggled together, cried, and hugged, if we can still find the smallest of reasons to laugh at our circumstances or ourselves, the relationship will survive. Laughter is precious.

I would not say that any of us in our family are gifted comedians. Other than my husband who is master of “dad jokes” and teasing, our humor tends to be more on the dry, satirical side. I am not good at telling jokes, never have been. I laugh quietly with an occasional explosion. When something is really hilarious, I like to watch others laugh more than doing it myself. But I am laughing on the inside…

Master of Dad jokes. DO. NOT. GET. HIM. STARTED.

What I can say about my family, and the relationships we have built, is that we like to look for the humor in ordinary circumstances and play that up any way we can. Whenever I get “needy” for fun I love to text my girls and get a conversation going. It often breeds laughter because, for some reason, it’s easier to be ridiculous with the instant written word. We get funny, pretty easily and I so enjoy those times.

The girls love to add memes to family photos.

An interesting experiment that anyone with a smart phone can try is to let predictive text write for you. Pick a like minded individual to text and start choosing words as they are offered to you. Sooner or later you are going to have to laugh. Try it.

You can also build a laughter bond by looking at old photos with your adult children and pointing out how trendy you all dressed years ago (not). And the hair, always the hair…

Since the digital age, I have saved photos of my girls that make me laugh. It is so much easier to get them in funny poses or crazy situations. I’m not sure how those photos make them feel, but when I look at them and laugh I simply could not love them more.

I keep this one with me in my planner, for low moments.

Every now and then, we sit with each other, talk and laugh and enjoy the comfort of it. It’s not so much the things we laugh at, it’s the sharing of a funny moment with someone I know will remember and treasure it as much as I do. It kind of cements that tribal feeling.

It’s not just a family thing, of course. I feel the same way with others as I work at building relationship with them. Conversations are better, healthier, when they are mixed with frequent laughter. It’s a tool, a good one.

Movies: Choices in Relationship Building

This topic has become a more serious one for me of late. I’m aware that what goes into my mind in any form has consequences for my mental, emotional and physical health so I do what I can to guard those parts of me.

The room is dark but the glow from the computer monitor reflects off surfaces throughout the room. We are spellbound and immovable, except to push pause and rush to the kitchen for more snacks. We have both hopped into another world, another time and are making memories, living vicariously through the characters in our chosen story. We are engaging in 21st century binge watching. In recent years I have done this with both daughters during visits to their homes.

Eons ago when they still lived at home, lots of movies were watched. Julia’s room was more of a theater than a place to sleep, with a projector on a ceiling mount and a sheet for a screen. Friends coming over to watch movies was a frequent event. We didn’t have hours upon hours of a single story available, so we often watched the same two hour movie over multiple times. It still amazes me that they can quote a good portion of Princess Bride, or certain episodes of Mystery Science Theater, or Monty Python. Useful phrases like “anybody want a peanut?” should forever be available at a moment’s notice. Fun times.

What a character. I love him.

Then came mini-series and shows online with no commercials (yay!). Often the girls would have something that they were wanting to watch and we would do two or three hours at a time some evenings. The stories often had an historical bent or exciting plot that we couldn’t wait to get back to. Watching “Victoria”, “The Man in the High Castle”, “Poldark”, “Larkspur to Candleford”, “Madame Secretary” and “Downton Abbey” all have produced memorable times in my relationships with family members. It is easy for me to recall the details of sitting and watching with them, and discussing how it made us feel.

What I have to admit is that I don’t watch much on any screen the last few years and am pretty ignorant about what is out there. For a long while I grew weary of looking for movies that had content good enough to balance out the violence, perversion or superficiality also included. It was disheartening, and a waste of my time.

I think that is the important question for me – is it a waste of my time? I have decided to be very discriminating in what I watch when with others or alone. Like reading a good book, a good movie can be a wonderful way to escape my own problems and thoughts for a limited time. What really adds to its value though is watching with someone else and using it to build relationship.

Because movies are a reflection of the culture they come out of, and some are made with intent to influence, I always try to be aware of that with anything I watch. Even when controversial, movies can be starting points for some interesting discussions. Discussions are part of being relational, and getting to know others, so in that sense they are not a waste of time, but a tool.

Another consideration, cinematography has gotten so much better and more complex that it is sometimes the main focus of a film. Sometimes the realism is frightening. Sometimes I have to ask if a movie could actually be detrimental to healthy relationships. This is where discrimination is important.

Summing it up, movies and film in general are a big part of the world we live in and we end up making decisions about how we use our viewing. These stories and images can be a fun, interesting, educational tool in building our relationships, or something other than that. I’m glad that we do get to decide. Just sayin’…

Best movie you’ve watched recently?

Karaoke: Giving Voice to Relationship Building

There are probably some people reading this who remember being four years old and singing dramatically into a hairbrush “microphone”. Or better yet, you might have had access to a “singing machine” where you practiced your dream of making the songs you loved come out of your own mouth.

Confess. You want to pick one of these up and test it out. Yeah, you do.

Karaoke is what it’s called now and it’s come a long way, technically speaking. The words and music to thousands of songs are available through apps on the web. With very little trouble, anyone can have a fun night of singing in their own home, with their favorite people.

Because both the husband and I were musicians, our girls were always involved in singing and as karaoke became a thing, we often had our own singing events at family gatherings. I will give my brother Gary credit for starting it. He brought his machine to a reunion and had everyone wanting to join in before the night was over. Music in general is a great relationship builder (letter M is coming up) but I think there are special things about karaoke that give it a different twist. We all have ears, and voices, so the chance to pick up a mic and sing is a very accessible tool.

One of our early karaoke nights, when we were the young ones. My four brothers all like to sing.

The goal at our family sings is never to be just like a particular artist. We don’t kid ourselves about perfect pitch and tone, or knowing a song perfectly – we know we don’t. We applaud those brave enough to risk looking a little silly. Even before a very friendly audience, it is sometimes scary to do challenging things that are as personal as singing. Sometimes we sit waiting for the next volunteer singer, someone who is brave enough to mentor the rest.

This is what I’ve noticed. The bravery is contagious. We have a lot of younger family members, including my daughters, who willingly (I might even say eagerly) plan what they will sing for the next get together. Having fun and participating are both the goals and the rewards, and as the young ones get better and better from practice, we, the older, get more humble – as it should be.

The bottom line is that there is fun to be had. Not everyone sings but we all love to be entertained. We enjoy relationships built around fun, and we can acquire a reputation for being fun people, even if we do sing a bit funny.

Here is a screen shot from Kara-Fun, the karaoke app I have on my IPad. We’ve been able to find something for everyone to sing, so far. You can find it in your App Store for a reasonable subscription price.