Speeding through the hills on the winding road, I desperately rush from the house once I see the drawer where we keep the coffee is empty. First, I scoured the shelves in the pantry, then I remembered Laurie telling me, “Don’t forget to pick up coffee.” But, alas, I forgot. So to the car I went. As I reached the intersection between our country road and the big four-lane feeder, it was emptier than a teenager’s gas tank, a rare sight. Usually mornings are packed with bumper-to-bumper Austin traffic. So I take my time, ease out, and make the one-minute trip to the gas station — which I’m dreading, because how good can the coffee be, after all? I’m surprised to see machines with grinders, and hopeful, but alas, the watered-down coffee is not my normal rich brew. Guess what I won’t forget to do today?
The air is thick with humidity, slightly cool, but signaling a nice warm day, though I’m guessing without glancing at my screen that it will be rainy. I like rain; it removes the pressure of getting out and keeps me home to do a stack of projects that have been building up and calling out to me for months, sometimes years. Today I may continue my purge, prompted by dealing with my mom’s stuff.
Speaking of moms, last week a dear friend who had been estranged from her daughter wrote to tell me she was seeing some light through the darkness of estrangement. The illness of her grandchild brought them together again briefly, resulting in an invitation. Though she did not ask, I suggested she back off.
Listening for Reasons
If we are listening, we may hear about the things we cannot understand. In her case, she has never really known why her daughter suddenly cut her and her husband out of her life and maintained radio silence for close to a decade. But, like it or not, there is a reason, and no matter how much you reach out to try to resolve the conflict, first, you listen. (Listen, Trust, Pray, Wait.)
When my friend talks to me about her daughter, she truly has no idea why they are estranged. I don’t think she is hiding anything, but there is something circling, like a vulture, in her daughter’s head. It builds and escalates each time it circles. Over the course of years, what might be a small problem grows like a cancerous tumor.
A Sad Leap
My friend John argued with his daughter one night, as we all do. She went to her room, and in the morning he found a note saying he would find her car at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. She had jumped, and he has spent his life wondering why. What was circling in her head that made her feel so hopeless?
Looking for Clues
Another friend managed to prevent his daughter’s suicide, and after much therapy, he told me that they discovered that one small thing, something he had shrugged off as meaningless teen stuff, was the driving force. His advice to me: “Listen carefully to everything. There are always clues.”
Though my friend did not ask my advice about visiting her estranged daughter, I offered it anyway (a good way to lose friends). Because I know her and her intense personality, I simply sent these words. “Use the opportunity to show her how much you have changed. Don’t push the buttons you can push with your mommy instincts. Let it be fun and enjoyable, without the temptation to give parental advice.” I should have added, “Listen carefully.”
As a parent, I desperately want to keep my kids safe, teach them important lessons, and push them in directions I think they need. But there are times I am accused of “checking out,” when it’s actually me backing off. It’s a trait I inherited from my dad, who is the master of backing off. He is brilliant at the art of not interfering.
Giving My Parents Nightmares
Though I can’t say I gave my parents a hard time, I now realize there were times they were probably concerned, but they never said a thing. For instance, there was a period in my life when I developed a friendship with an erratic, somewhat crazy individual. I looked the other way when I discovered he had a drug problem, and when I heard rumors of physical abuse. His strong personality was attractive, he was fun to be around, and I ended up becoming business partners with him. And, just like parents do, we can see our kids sometimes pick friends we believe are not good for them. My mom and dad never said a word, or if they did, I never heard it. Yet they had to be concerned. I know I would be.
When Bad Friends Happen
With my own kids, we sometimes see them make friends with people who might not be good for them, yet if we point it out, it strengthens the glue between them a little more. In teen thinking, the opposite of parental wishes is where they want to go. And if we keep saying, “Don’t do this,” they hear, “Do this.” It’s why so many parents can’t understand why “Don’t do drugs” and “Don’t get pregnant” or “Don’t have sex” don’t work. Instead of telling them, we have to help them discover things on their own.
Backing off, as difficult as it may seem, can be highly effective. I’m sure my folks wanted to say something about some of the girls I brought home to meet them. I once dropped a girl after one of my parents told me they liked her. I’m not advocating zero communication, or not providing feedback, or not training your kids to do the right thing, but sometimes a good story about someone else will cut through when a direct approach won’t.
Just Hanging Out
When people are ready to talk about something, signals are there. The other day I noticed my daughter came into my studio when I was painting. “Just hanging out, Dad.” But I put down my brush, sat on the floor, and just started talking to her, and soon, she started sharing things. We talked for quite a while, and clearly she just needed to connect but hadn’t realized it.
We humans are flawed. We’ve all been brought up differently, even if we’re brought up in the same household, and we can’t communicate. Yet, by backing off, you sometimes open up a safe space.
I realized that this is true at home and in business. I spent a lot of years pushing, only to realize that the most effective approach is pulling.
Where do you need to back off?
Who needs you to stop offering advice and stop trying to control them?
Where are you saying too much, when fewer or no words will work better?
Backing off takes more time, and it’s like a mental chess game. It requires patience. It’s the “wait” part. It reminds me of baking a cake as a kid. Though the recipe says to let the cake cool, I’d try to put the icing on right away, only to get clumps of cake in my icing. Sometimes waiting serves a purpose.
Listen, but don’t react. Instead of reacting, listen some more. Sometimes people need to be heard. On occasion my wife has reminded me, “I don’t need you to solve my problem, I just need you to listen.” It’s excellent advice for us all. It could also be cast as “I don’t need to hear your opinion, unless I ask.”
Give yourself time to hear the true meaning behind words.
Yesterday I saw this on a sign:
Before you speak, let your words pass through three gates:
At the first gate, ask yourself, “Is it true?”
At the second gate ask, “Is it necessary?”
At the third gate ask, “Is it kind?”
The art of backing off includes all three gates.
Enjoy your Sunday!
PS: I trust you had a happy Valentine’s Day. I can remember being young and depressed because I had no one in my life on Valentine’s Day. Though we celebrate those we love, let’s always look for opportunities to be sensitive to those who are without and try to include them in our plans.
PS2: When my kids were born, I used to calculate how old I’d be when they turned 18 and what year they would graduate high school. Because I’m a time traveler, this faraway time has already arrived. In 2002 my wife broke water when laughing at America’s Funniest Home Videos. We rushed to Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, California. Because she was pregnant with triplets, they needed to give her a drug called a surfactant for 24 hours to aid effective birth. As she was lying in the hospital bed, miserable, they checked her temperature every hour. Everything was fine, but one bright nurse allowed her instincts to kick in. She said to me, “I wonder if this thermometer is working right. She feels warm.” So she got another, discovered a fever (not a good thing), and they rushed her into the birthing room. Neither of us were expecting this. I grabbed my video camera, only to realize it had only a small amount of battery power, so while they prepped her I literally ran down the street to a photo store — only to find out they did not have what I needed. So I ran back, and by then we went into the delivery room. I watched as they pulled these precious gifts out one at a time, and just after they got them out, and into the warming beds, the video ran out. I plan to show the kids that video today.
What a blessing life has been with triplets. Though we estimated that we went through 50,000 diapers, and though we had to do everything times three, we would never trade it for anything. My wife has been amazing through it all. And continues to be “on it” as we go through the final stages of life at home, college applications and preparation, and all the drama and sadness that comes with it.
Happy birthday to the oldest, Grace; Brady in the middle, who is named after my grandfather Brady Goad; and Berkeley, who got his name as we drove past the “Welcome to Berkeley” sign on every trip to the hospital. You three are the very best thing that ever happened to us.
I can say that we were one of those couples who were not sure we wanted kids. Life was pretty good without them, but once we decided to do it, it was better than we could have ever known or expected. There is no love like the love of your kids.
PS3: Another celebration: Kari Stober joined my company in 2012, and today we celebrate eight years together. It’s been fun watching her develop and become absolutely indispensable. Also Stephen Parker, who is one of the best designers I’ve ever worked with, joined in 2013, and today we celebrate his seventh year.
PS4: Artist Johanne Mangi, one of the best animal painters I’ve ever seen, is staying in the world famous artist’s cabin starting today. She will be shooting a new video this week on how to paint horses. I’m still not sure how we’re going to get a horse in the soundstage.
Artist Carl Bretzke checked out of the cabin last week, after shooting a video on how he does such stunning nighttime (nocturne) paintings. In fact, we shot one of the scenes on our property, where he painted the world famous artist’s cabin.
PS5: Every year when Presidents Day comes around, I remember my childhood friend Stewart Berk, who today celebrates his 64th birthday. We were inseparable from second grade until we graduated high school, and today we still talk, always picking up where we left off. He is a dear friend. Though I don’t understand how it is that my friends get old, yet I never do. Hmm. It’s also the birthday of my friend Robin Marshall, the radio and TV talk host. Happy birthday, Robin.
PS6: Soon the PleinAir Salon art competition will close out. We close it March 15 because we have to pick winners, who will be awarded at the Plein Air Convention in May. If you’ve got some great paintings around that deserve recognition, you might consider getting your entries in soon.
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What good advice!!! I have two daughters living close by and I need to remember to listen!
Dear Eric THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH for the beautiful story today and all the others wonderful ones. You are truly a blessed Artist Man, and i feel special and blessed for sharing it to all your friends.
Love and Blessings,
Hi Eric, I enjoy reading your Sunday coffee writings! I always take something away from them that reminds me to stop and think. I’ve saved a number of your articles to go back and reread because I need to be reminded of what I’ve forgotten. Amazing that you have triplets and had them later in life! Congratulations!
Thanks for sharing this particular article. I have had to take a bunch of steps back with my 44yr old daughter who needs her own space and fills most of her time working. I try to remember what it was like when I was a single parent at her age and the kind of relationship I had with my parents. It’s hard sometimes to let go and watch your children make their own mistakes and grow up, but isn’t that what we all need to do in order to experience life and grow?
I’m signed up for the Plein Air convention in Denver so I hope to meet you then!
Great thoughts, Eric! As a parent of four now adult children I have had to learn backing off. (I think I have scars on my tongue from having bitten it so often!) I tell my friends on the verge of this stage of parenting that it’s like walking through a minefield: you must step VERY carefully. On those occasions when I’ve stepped on a mine, I’ve asked my kids for forgiveness and grace. My husband and I are blessed to have good relationships with our children. But the best part–which you have yet to experience– is grandchildren! The love and joy is immeasurable! So keep up your listening skills!
I’ve just forwarded your column to a friend. Not that he needed it, but it is such good stuff! We all need to listen more and provide the kind of sanctuary for others to be able to talk. I can appreciate so much that your daughter felt safe coming to talk with you. I didn’t always have that growing up. Around the age of 33, I was given the opportunity to be a peer counselor on workshops for troubled people and listening was the primary requirement. It saved my life and I believe I helped a lot of others. I am grateful for that opportunity!! Thank you for your column. I look for it every week!! It inspires me and takes me to your woods peacefully as well.
I can’t tell anyone how very important it is to be a LISTENER……..don’t listen to answer or give advise……just listen to hear the deep unspoken cries. When I was thinking about ending my life a number of people knew I was upset but all I heard was advise and how wonderful of a family I had….what a beautiful house…..a new car etc etc. No one just wanted to listen so I could hear what was going on in my head. It takes a special desire to help when you can learn to listen……to what is not being spoken
Mother of three, grandmother of six, and this is the BEST ADVICE EVER!!! This should be handed out to every parent before they leave the hospital with their newborns.
Thanks for sharing.
Very appreciative of your Sunday morning offerings.
Enjoy reading your Sunday Coffee stories. Good conversations for sure.
Your latest Sunday Coffee touched me deeply and yes, made me realize that I needed to back off sometimes with my daughter regarding my grandkids. What good advice with such poignant stories. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and opening yourself up to us. Makes me want to hurry over and see them to try out “backing off”, I wonder if I can do it. I sure hope so because it was excellent advice.
Love reading morning coffee! Happy Birthday to your children and what a celebration really for all of you including you & your wife!
I’ll spend my day backing off. Thanks for the reminder, best regards,
Wonderfully written, sage words of advice.