Whale Watching: Something Different Builds Relationship

We had traveled north from San Juan Island in a boat that comfortably held the seven of us. We went at a good clip past numerous islands with rocky outcroppings, our guide pointing out landmarks here and there. We crossed into Canadian waters, into the Strait of Georgia and slowed as we drew near a gathering of other boats. We were whale watching, and our guide had heard via his radio that there was a sighting. A known pod of orcas was close by. It was an exciting adventure for us, one we won’t forget.

What does it have to do with building relationships, you might ask? A lot.

A few years earlier, youngest daughter met a man worth getting to know better, she reported. I think they must have been at that stage when a couple starts wondering whether their parents might like each other, and wouldn’t that be nice if they did. His parents had been watching the relationship develop between their son and our daughter and were evidently as curious about us as we were about them. They invited my husband and I to visit their home on San Juan Island in the Pacific northwest. I had been to Seattle before but I had not been north to Vancouver or Canada at all, and I had never been whale watching. On one of the days of our visit they arranged this great outing with a captain friend who knew how to give a great ride.

Our kids have family instincts. They naturally gravitate toward close, happy family units. It matters to them that, if at all possible, the people who are important to them, like each other and are capable of getting along and having fun together. This weekend was the perfect test.

We had a wonderful time, and in learning a little about Ryan’s parents, I was also learning things about Ryan. In learning more about Ryan, I was also learning things about my daughter Esther. My husband and I were building relationships with Esther, with Ryan and with his parents as we spent time together doing interesting things over that weekend.

I’ve also had a wonderful time meeting Julia’s in-law family. Getting to know and like them was interesting for many reasons, particularly because her mother-in-law and I are both named Shirley. We both played piano, we were both in a caretaking role for our mothers. We both had severe arthritis in the same thumb, had both been wearing a very distinct, not common brace for years and she was able to encourage me to get the surgical fix that she had just successfully gone through. I think there were other similarities that I can’t remember now. It was uncanny. It created a nice start to our relationship, which has continued.

Our relationships with both of these families was very important to us and our girls as they went through the stress of planning and holding weddings during the pandemic. Talk about bonding experiences… weddings will do that, and in such a memorable (and nice) way.

One way of staying close to my adult children has been getting to know the people in their lives. It started in play groups when they were very young. It continued through the school years when I wanted to know their friends, their teachers, who they played music with, who was in their youth group or on sports teams with them. And now, look where it ended up – watching whales in the Strait of Georgia. Two good words that both begin with W. Isn’t life interesting? Just saying…

Veterinarian: Building Relationship through Work

It’s such a long word, that I will shorten it to “vet” for this post – not to be confused with veteran though.

I think a good addition to the holiday calendar would be a “Take Your Parent to Work” day.

After living with my daughters for years into their teens and more, it was easy for me to view them in light of their history. I remembered all their intermediate steps of growth into maturity, but didn’t always remember to view them in the present, as someone would meeting them for the first time. That’s why it was such a pleasant surprise to see them at work. It added a new dimension to our relationships to be able to view them as respected professionals with awesome people skills. (Of course, there is still a little motherly bias in my evaluation… it’s allowed.)

My daughter the large animal vet started working in a practice right out of school. She often had to drive to farms, haul equipment into the barns, keep her own digital records, handle phone calls on the fly, and more without any assistance. When I would visit for a few days I got to ride along as vet tech. This was an interesting pastime for me, having been a people nurse for years and finding that there are a lot of similar procedures. As I have written back on day S, I also love saving animals when possible.

Oh the things I never thought I would see. Foals being born, horses castrated, goats getting C-sections, llamas, cows, pigs getting diagnosed and treated. There were calls in the middle of the night, and times when different equipment was needed for emergencies that helped me understand the stress of the work. I heard Julia giving good news to clients, and bad news, handling both with diplomacy and compassion.

She works with a larger group of doctors now and often has an intern to help, so I don’t ride along anymore. I do hear the stories though. It’s now easy to also see her as an adult professional, as well as a daughter. I think it’s a very important perspective for a parent to have and I’m thankful.

Different professions create differing opportunities, of course. I remember when daughter Esther started in retail sales when she was 15. I would go to pick her up sometimes and watch while she handled sales in a busy clothing store (I am so compulsive – would straighten clothing racks while waiting!) She had stories of shoplifters and irate customers that were hair raising. With amazement, I have watched her climb the career ladder as she mentored others and stepped into the role of consultant. I don’t get to go to work with her, but I can, and do, ask questions. I want to know the role work plays in her life. I want her to talk to me about work when she needs someone to listen, and to reasonably expect me to understand. It adds much to our relationship.

And a lot more has happened in the last 8 years!

So here’s the question. What do you know about your adult children at work? Did you ever take them to your work when they were young? Our work is a big part of life. Knowing something about each other’s work life is a huge part of “knowing and being known” and that is what relationship is all about.

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.

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?

Jigsaw Puzzles: Relationship Building Tools

The letter J has given me much anguish. After finishing a post with which I was very satisfied, I selected the text and moved my hand to select “copy”. My hand inadvertently touched something it shouldn’t have and most of the post disappeared. I could not make it reappear although I tried for an hour. I also could not remember what I had written. Wow.

A puzzle on a table in a public space is like a magnet to me. I will find myself working it with strangers who become friends, briefly.

To be up front, I consider jigsaw puzzles a diversion, an activity somewhat like washing the dishes, riding in a car or sitting around a fire. When you are lucky enough to be doing them with another person, you might as well talk while you’re working at them. You’re in close quarters with fellow puzzlers, doing something methodical and fun, and you can slow down if you wish. It’s pretty good for low stress relationship building.

My family often has a puzzle going somewhere in the house, and always at larger family gatherings, especially Thanksgiving. We even make jigsaw puzzles out of our family pics, just for fun. My daughters have grown up in this culture (loosely defined) and both will do a puzzle with me. Esther will join in for an hour. Julia has to be pulled away when the lights are shut out.

Name of puzzle: Family in Silly Hats at Thanksgiving
Even the turkey got in on this one.

Since people respond differently to this activity, when the goal is working on a relationship, it’s good to consider carefully if it’s the right tool for a particular person. Some people think it’s absolutely crazy to spend hours fitting 1000 pieces of a picture together so you can take it apart and put it back in the box a day later. I have found that even those people will stick it out for an hour or so. They aren’t much help but they will converse, and that’s sometimes the whole point, right?

There are others of us who feel like puzzling is exercise for the brain and totally worthwhile. Our eyes are seeing the slight variations in colors and shapes and our memories of where on the table that exact piece is – well, doing all that is keeping us sharp. We have our methods of working on each type of puzzle and frankly, we’ve never met a puzzle we didn’t like. Or almost never.

Because of all this, you actually can find “your people” and develop some good relationships over jigsaw puzzles. So many times our Thanksgiving puzzle marathons have ended wit high fives and such a feeling of corporate satisfaction. We did it, and it was a hard one too!

I have also discovered that there is a far deeper level of puzzle love than even I knew about. Some people are perfectly content, maybe even prefer, to do puzzles by themselves. They find community by sharing their accomplishments on social media and developing their relationships there. They trade names of their favorite puzzle brands and talk about what they do and don’t like. They have a whole social world built around puzzling.

Even the Coke can is a puzzle.

This is my present puzzle stash. Most of these beauties have been passed on to me by friends, because puzzle trading is a practical thing. I’m going to be paring down and would love to share some of these with anyone who is able to come get them, because I don’t usually get emotionally attached to any of them. This is not always the case. One of my puzzle friends has passed on her jig saw genes to her daughter who works as an artist for a puzzle company. Those puzzles are rightfully considered as family art and she probably won’t be parting with them any time soon. To her, puzzles have a definite relational aspect. Her puzzle library is also a little more extensive than mine. It’s serious, just sayin’…

Dedicated space, all categorized, dates of completion recorded… did I say serious? Yes, I did.

Inquire: Building Relationships

I love questions. Good questions. In the interest of building relationships, I am trying to learn to quit talking and ask good questions of people.

I’ve had some mentors along this line, like cousin Ruth. She comes armed to all family gatherings with a list of things she would be interested in knowing about us, and she inquires. We can count on her to get conversation going, and not just about superficial topics. I feel honored when she makes sure I get a chance to think on and answer her questions. She listens, maybe asks more questions, and she remembers. Ruth has built relationships with many of us based on wanting to know, inquiring and listening. How rare.

Sometimes I go from year to year, in my relationships with my adult children, thinking that I know them already. After all, I lived with them from their birth and was around when they became themselves. Who should know them better? But no. They have now lived more years apart from me than with me, and nobody, nobody tells Mommy everything. My history with my children does give me some advantage, but I realize that I don’t know everything about them, and some good, respectful questions can add to our relationship.

“What is one thing about yourself, that you wouldn’t mind telling me, that you’re pretty sure I don’t know?” I consider asking this question, and almost feel like it takes a bit of courage to ask it. It’s then I realize that my children are their own persons, not a known extension of me or my own thinking. I might be surprised by their answer, and that’s okay.

You would not believe some of the questions in this book. They were very thorough! Bravery required.

My relationship with my own mother has deepened through inquiry – not my own but that of a “do-it-yourself memoir”. She doesn’t like to write, so I write down her answers for her in this small, hard bound book. They aren’t all relevant questions but the ones she does answer provide details about her life and who she is that I would not have discovered any other way. Lots of our history and even our thoughts and philosophies, don’t come out in common, everyday living. I get a more complete picture of who Mom is through questions.

Actually, inquiry, is at the heart of most of my in-person visits to my children. I hope when I come that they feel my desire to know them better. I want to see with my own eyes what life is like for them, how they respond to the people in their lives, their work, their pressures, their joys and sorrows. I don’t want to “snoop”, I want to see what they don’t mind showing me, for the purpose of loving, supporting and building relationship.

Can you think of a really interesting, respectful question that you would like to ask in a relationship building encounter? Share it please!

I have to add this. I listen to a lot of podcasts and interviews and one of my pet peeves is the phrase “that is such a good question” given after every question, whether it is a good one or not. Just answer the question, okay? We’ll decide if it was good.

Cooking: A Means of Relationship Building

Everybody eats, and when we are together it makes sense to share the job of getting a meal together. It’s called cooking, most of the time, and it’s one of my least favorite jobs. Knowing that I have to think of something to eat, two or three times every day, for the entirety of my life sounds like cruel punishment to me – made tolerable only by sharing the load.

My children have sometimes made the job easier, but a lot of our bonding over food is because they have made it more complicated. Youngest daughter E decided to be vegetarian in her early teens. My memory of those years is foggy, but there were a lot of brownies, and peanut butter/jelly sandwiches for her. The rest of us ate everything, but it was hard for me to think I might be shortening her life by not feeding her better.

Oldest daughter J, on the other hand, was early into amateur chef behavior. Even on our hike on the Appalachian Trail, she was the one who had to bring real coffee, and fixings for blueberry pancakes. Now I have given up learning how to use all the machines she has in her kitchen. Electric crepe griddle, blenders, choppers, mixer, espresso machine, ice cream maker, air fryer, steamers, driers, toasters, more – I just can’t think of them all. I find cooking with her very interesting because it’s about the only time I really use a recipe, and I get to learn a new gadget. I am in awe of her knife collection, and her many pans.

Looks dangerous, I know. What are all these?

Cooking with E became easier when she started eating more food and searching out some of her health problems. We spent time on special diets like the autoimmune protocol, where we did things like making spaghetti sauce out of beets, and talking about umami, and boiling bones for hours and hours. One of her favorite recipes from childhood is still the meatloaf made out of everything except meat.

We had fun making ordinary food. No beets were involved.

Even though I don’t like to spend hours in the kitchen on fussy food, I have inherited a gene that demands food on social occasions. I get it from Mom, better known in the family as Cinnamon Girl. She always make the cinnamon rolls for our family gatherings and although we have all tried to learn, no one does it quite like she does. The feature film “Cinnamon Girl”, made by my marketing guru brother, is a family treasure. It was supposed to be a tutorial for us all, but we laugh so much that it’s more of a comedy documentary.

I find that bonding and relationship building over and around food is really pretty available, easy and satisfying. I text the daughters and send pictures when I make milk soup. We laugh over our dinner menu of popcorn, just popcorn. We have rituals involving donuts and ice cream. Maybe it’s not all technically “cooking” but that’s where I put it. Just sayin’… close enough.

The chicken is sitting in a really awesome pan! Also, all those spices in matching bottles – I’ve never been able to do that…