Unpack That Heavy Baggage
We all collect baggage — unpleasant memories, disappointments, rejections, maybe even traumas. Part of the Appreciative Inquiry process is learning how to unpack that baggage, salvage what’s valuable and discard–free one’s self from–what isn’t.
The Santa Barbara Independent columnist Starshine Roshell, author of Wife on the Edge, wrote a Fathers’ Day piece about that painful but ultimately rewarding process. I reprint, Lost: One Father Remembering the Man Who Made Her Write with her permission. It’s so clear and so powerful that I have no comment to add. Starshine says it all.
Lost: One Father
Remembering the Man Who Made Her Write
I always knew I’d speak at my father’s funeral.
It’s a morbid thought, I know. But I was sure I’d deliver his eulogy. See, he’s a fascinating man—passionate and charismatic, the kind of guy who seems to have lived several lives in the space of one. A dozen careers. Hundreds of adventures. Thousands of friends.
And my father taught me how to write. By turning me on to cunning authors and forcing me to rewrite shoddy school essays, he helped shape my voice. We share a love of style, an ear for rhythm.
So I assumed that when the time came, I’d need to squelch my own sadness, stifle my tears, and sum up the substantial capacity of this man’s character. The notion scared me half to death myself. I spent years wondering what I’d say to honor such a life and whether I could do it justice.
But I don’t wonder that anymore. Now I just wonder if anyone will tell me when he dies.
Technically, he’s not my dad; he’s my stepdad. But he was a real father to me for 30 years. He coached me in table manners and protected me from bullies. He donned a grass skirt to man the grill for my Sweet 16 backyard luau. He wrote a poem for me and read it aloud at my wedding.
That day—the day I got married—he was already one year into a secret love affair with a woman who was not my mother. The liaison lasted 12 years before Mom discovered it.
What followed was a mess of barely bearable emotions for all involved. Shock exploded into anger. Anger roiled beneath hurt. Hurt melted into disappointment. Love was lost; trust was overturned. Our family was broken.
He moved far away and remarried. We corresponded awkwardly for a while, exchanging stilted pleasantries about meaningless things. Congratulations on your success. Good luck with that project. Enjoy your vacation.
When we waded any deeper than that, the waters got murky. And cold. We kept repeating the same simple truths: I love him, I miss him, I resent him; he loves me, he suffered, too, he’s moved on. There was little left to say, and it was hard to think of a good reason to stay connected. Our shared past was well worth remembering—cherishing, even—but I no longer needed a protector. And although I could still use some coaching, his counsel was less credible to me than it had once been.
Our communication was so fraught with disillusion and regret that it was less painful to simply … let go.
The last time I heard from him was two years ago. He wrote this: “Losing you is a price I am willing to pay for my happiness and peace in the last part of my life.”
I still write to him every few months when I recall something wonderful about him. I say I’m grateful for the time we spent together. I include photos of his grandsons. He doesn’t answer anymore.
We are estranged—a strange word for a strange situation. It’s odd to lose a parent who’s still alive. Uncomfortable. Sad, certainly.
I know he’s alive because I spy on his Facebook page—the parts that non-Friends are allowed to see. He has a new wife, new stepdaughters, even. He looks happy.
If I were to speak at his funeral one day—were to somehow even be invited—I might say different things than I ever expected to. I might not mention the tears I’ve shed as a result of loving him; you’re not supposed to dredge up ugly bygones at funerals. But I’d thank him, at the very least, for teaching me how to write about it.
Starshine Roshell is the author of Wife on the Edge.
If you would like a no-fee coaching session to discuss how Appreciative Inquiry might help you to unpack some of your own bags– unload the negatives while keeping the positives–you can schedule a phone session at the website of Dr. Lynn K. Jones.
p.s. I always am interested in what you think about these discussions. Please post your thoughts…your constructive criticism and support is appreciated!
Dr. Lynn K. Jones, Certified Personal and Executive Coach
Dr. Lynn K. Jones is a Certified Personal and Executive Coach. Her doctoral work completed at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University concerned organizational culture; she coaches, consults and trains organizations on what they need to do to create organizational cultures that are aligned with their vision and values.
Love Starshine, one of the best writers out there! Great column! Thanks for reprinting it! In the end it seems like the ONLY thing we have is ourselves, who we are. People and things come and go. Once we realize that and appreciate it, we’re FREE! Heaven is really in your mind…
That is true, but Starshine teaches an important lesson: in most things, even when they seem negative, there is the potential to mine good memories along with the ability to practice gratitude–and no one can take that away from us. The research from Positive Psychology shows that people that experience gratitude are happier and healthier, so it is worth the effort to look at those difficult experiences for the positives just like Starshine did in this case.
Interesting that he doesn’t answer her letters anymore. She says she could still use his coaching. I’d say he could probably use hers.
Man, are you right about that. It is hard to imagine why someone wouldn’t be breaking down the door to stay in touch with Starshine. He would be so proud of all that she has accomplished if he allowed himself to be.
I always found it remarkable that people cannot just tell the truth to each other–but I’ve never been married and life is complex. Perhaps, her step-dad cannot deal with his own guilty feelings which muddle his proclaimed happiness. When he goes near her, even through writing, it probably feels laden with some emotion he is not fond of. It is vulnerable of her to reveal that she still misses him.
I agree that it took a lot of courage for her to tell that story. I love that she hasn’t allowed all the icky stuff get in the way of holding onto the great stuff that came with that complex relationship. Thanks for commenting!
Thanks for sharing this moving post from awesome writer and woman Starshine Rochelle.
I really understood this. Father’s Day was odd for me. My Dad and Mom divorced when I was two. Should I make him a card or not?
Then there was my step-dad who vied with me for my Mom’s attention. Pretty much had to do a card there.
Then as an adult I just did the dutiful thing and called and wished Happy Father’s Day even though it was bordering on ridiculous.
Happily when I married I found a Dad worth celebrating on Father’s Day. My Bio Dad and Step-Temporary-Dad are gone from this world and I cherish my Dad (father-in-law) and celebrate him on Father’s day.
I think of my Mom that day too. She stepped up and wore both hats and was both Mom and Dad to me.
“So hey Mom, Happy Father’s Day!”
Thanks for sharing that Calla. Starshine teaches an important lesson: no matter how complicated the relationship was, there are good things to be carried into the future!
Starshine is a fantastic writer. Thanks for sharing her message.
It is not always possible to shed your baggage easily. Sometimes those who have everything to be grateful for become depressed. Me included.
Her father probably cannot handle the lost or presumed lost love of Starshine and has therefore possibly attempted to dump his baggage. Not because of his lack of love but perhaps because of the pain he has inflicted on himself. I love your message and sincerely hope I never have to call on you.
Silvio, I agree. What impresses me is that Starshine was able to unpack her baggage so successfully! I hope that when I am Young at 86 that I have been able to let go of resentments and have gratitude for the good stuff half as well as Starshine. (I would love to be writing half as well too!) Thanks for commenting on the piece!
This post is a reminder of the work I’ve done to clear up my “heavy baggage”.
My father died 8 years ago due to metastasized cancer. For a long time, even after his death, I thought he never loved me. As I looked closely at his actions, I can see that he loved me more than anyone in his life.
Love sometimes doesn’t come to me the way I want it, I have to look deep and see how the other person is choosing to give love.
Sometimes a pat on the back, a phone call, silence, etc. are the only ways the other person can show love. My job is to open my heart to see it and receive it.
It saddens me that your father died and that you never felt loved by him. You are right that we look for demonstrable actions that we are loved, when for so many complicated reasons often totally unrelated to anything about us, the person is unable to show them. I admire you for looking deep to see that he did love you and for making the commitment to carry that into the future with you.
That was great read!!! We are all alone eventually. I had read a book called “Signals: Life after death”. There was a line in that “Meeting is the beginning of parting”. It is a true fact that we refuse to accept many times. At the end of the day, it should be about us and how we make our relationships last most of the times in our memories!!
That is such a lovely thought, Neha. Do you have any particular thoughts about how to support lasting memories? Time seems to go by so fast and it sometimes seems hard to remember things from one moment to the next! Love to hear your thinking about that.
Thank You Dr. Lynn but I am a little confused about your question. Did you mean how can we always keep hold of our memories because of our human nature to forget? If yes, I feel the key is to let go and not hold on.
Have you ever noticed that as time goes by we tend to only remember the fun and loving memories; and if there are negative or painful memories, eventually we forget where it all started. I think one must prepare themselves to let go of the memories, then you will only recall the positives of your life even in the negatives. Letting go is one way I feel to support lasting memories because good memories will never die or end and you open your mind to learn from the hard times. Always remember every new moment brings a new memory. It is on the person to capture it or not, positively or negatively!!! Holding on only makes things harder, good or bad memories. “Meeting is the beginning of parting” just like that letting go is the beginning of living in the moment.
Hope I answered your question.
Yes, you understood my question correctly. That is so profound, Neha. Thanks. The old mantra, “forgive and forget” really holds true!
For me,repeating the experience mentally keeps it forever. I still have fond memories of being nursed by mother and her reading to me from the bible while holding me in her arms while I was just a baby.
That is an amazing memory 86 Years Young! Thanks for sharing that. Participating in this discussion with you all has made me decide to recommit to reflecting more on my own good memories. I am happy if this blog helps people to do that!
I recall my father always insulting me in front of his friends but inside I knew I was fine. You can be loved and feel unloved and unloved and feel loved . The secret lies within you to choose how you feel about yourself.
Very true, Silvio. As a coach I help people develop their confidence around who they are by coaching them on their strengths and what they are doing well. That makes it a lot easier to reject information that doesn’t reflect who they are on the inside, like you did so well with your father. To be ridiculed by your dad in front of his friends could have had a devastating effect on a kid. Probably if you didn’t have the strong early attachment to your mom those comments wouldn’t have rolled off your back as easily as they did. Thanks for deepening the discussion on my blog!
My mother died when I was 14 and my dad threw himself into his work, as opposed to me. When I played football in high school he always rooted for the other team, and was very in-your-face about it. We won the first championship ever for our schooi in my senior season, after going 1-15 the first two, and I was All-Conference. I felt like it was the first real achievement of my life.
After high school I had a choice between going into the Marines or going to school in Nebraska. I was pro-war, my dad was anti-war but I chose college. When I returned after a year, it was the opposite: I was anti-war and my dad pro. When I refused induction into the draft, my dad told me I couldn’t do that, and I was too independent for my own good. I proved him wrong again when I managed to get the State Director of Selective Service, the man who would determine if I was prosecuted, on my side against my draft board.
In the process of beating the draft I became addicted to Meth, in addition to the standard drugs of the day, like acid and pot. I hated my life, had no clue about what I wanted or where I was going with it and used the drugs to tear everything apart. In June ’69 I hitchhiked from Maine to Berkeley, where I started hanging with some friends who beacme heroin junkies. My experience with the speed made me think, Woah, I don’t want to go THERE again. When I called my dad at Christmas, instead of being happy, relieved, or anything else, he just started yelling at me. I took it, but the first time I hung up on him was very gratifying.
I hate the term “Mentor”, but I met legendary rock musician Skip Spence who took me under his wing and showed me what Art is, how to learn it, practice it, how to become a master of it, but not any particular medium. Skip let me play his guitars and other instruments, pointed out other musicians, like Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, etc, what made them great and how they became that. Also his own bands Moby Grape and Jefferson Airplane, their failures and successes. Eventually I became an oil painter.
When I returned to Maine in 1974, I thought my dad and the rest of my family would be happy that I was doing something constructive that I loved, but you would think from the reaction that I had become a serial killer or something! I did get some support from his best friend who told me “They’re just jealous. They hate their lives, and you have gotten out of here and made something of yourself, and are doing something you like.”
My dad and I sort of declared a truce at some point, and in the early ’80’s, after he had some setbacks we became friendly at 3500 miles. I still hung up on him a few times, but I never, or at least rarely doubted that he loved me. We became very close but I was still intimidated by him until I turned 50.
My dad definitely prepared me for life as an artist, who refused to sell out and was determined to do what I wanted to do, how I wanted to do it, and everyone else can think of me what they will, I don’t care! Along the way I met a beautiful woman who spent 30 great years and who loved me and supported me unconditionally. We saw every major ballet company in the world, the greatest operas, all 38 Shakespeare plays, and much more, all world class. Also a beautiful Himalayan cat who spent 11 years and was like my guru and taught me about simplicity, humility, and much more.
Skip Spence once told me that your path just crosses with people, you walk with them for a while, come to a fork in the road, and you go one way, they another. Be grateful for what you get and give what you can. The great painter Eugene Delacroix always said how everyone leaves at one point or another, and I have prepared myself for solitude most of my life. Now that it’s here, I can look back and honestly say that I wouldn’t trade my life for anything as I wrap it up. Delacroix said “An active mind with busy leisure makes all places and things enchanting.”
John Wooden defined “Success” as “The peace of mind in knowing you have done your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” Even though, along the road, I thought I could do more at times, now that I look back on my VERY large body of work, at 62, there is absolutely nothing better than that piece of mind as I reflect on the fullness and richness of my life to here. If it had been different, I would be a different person, but I’ve lived the best life I could ever have imagined. I can only ask, who could want more?
Hi Paul. I just couldn’t help but admire you for sharing an important part of your life with me. I really appreciate it and honestly, it inspires me I complain about my struggle to find a job and searching for direction while being educated but you have just strengthened my perspective that if I am determined to do what I want to do in life, then I WILL DO IT. So Thank You for sharing your determination and success story.
I agree Neha–Paul is such a great role model when you feel that your determination is flagging. I love the John Wooden quote (a personal hero): John Wooden defined “Success” as “The peace of mind in knowing you have done your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”
Thanks for sharing such a fascinating story. There are so many elements to your life that I would love to comment on, but I especially appreciated how all the heartache with your dad culminated in you being the artist that you are, one who “refused to sell out and was determined to do what I wanted to do.” Your art is beautiful and a gift to all of us! I hope the participants in this blog will check out Paul’s art galleries at http://www.paulb.com!
Thanks very much Lynn and Neha. I guess the bottom line is that I don’t let the baggage get that heavy to begin with. I try to keep a pretty even keel, don’t get too high with the good things, and don’t get too low with the bad. I find there’s value in both and I look for that. One more great Woodenism here: “Adversity often produces the unexpected opportunity: look for it, appreciate and utilize it. This is difficult to do if you’re feeling sorry for yourself because you’re faced with the adversity.”
I am going to hang on to that Wooden quote! It is so true that positivity does seem to spring out of negativity. You hit on an important aspect of all of this, which is striking a balance. We sure hear about that a lot as coaches. You have given me lots of topics for future blog posts in this thread!
Everything has a price. It is up to us to choose whether we would like to pay it for what we want for ourselves.
Like planning a trip the next thing to do after choosing the destination is to figure out how you are going to get there what is the price of passage where will you stay, how much will it cost, where am I going to get the money etc.
It is a good analogy, Silvio. Sometimes people don’t know what their destination is tho. One of my coaching clients said that very thing to me: “I feel like I am all packed and ready to go, I just don’t know what the destination is.” I’m happy to say that through the coaching process, identifying his strengths and how to use them, he did figure out a destination!
I really have enjoyed reading all of your comments. Silvio, I can relate to what you say here. As someone who has been a full time student for several years and working one to three jobs the entire time (gratefully!), sometimes I have noticed that sacrifices come with the choice of pursuing my edu. Your analogy is something I can probably use to help me hone in on some of my own personal issues/life challenges. Thanks for that perspective! Fitness is another “how much do you want it” analogy many of us can relate to.
Neha, your optimism is contagious and Paul…I love the journey with bumps in the road which ends with such positive light. It’s easy to get lost and off track…yes, it is along the lines of what you said, Lynn. Many of us don’t know exactly where we’re headed so it can be hard to apply the tools mentioned here. But I believe in determination in persistence.
Neha, I hope your dream job swoops through your life post haste! 🙂
You know, I think that determination and persistence is a really important aspect of success. I always say that I would never have finished my doctorate without my dad pushing me to persevere. At the end of the day, persistence (not smarts) is what separated those of us that finished from those that didn’t. Thanks for your comments about the big picture of this rich conversation!
Offering specific advice under unknown circumstances can be very dangerous. I find it much safer to speak in parables if I have one handy.
Practice moderation in all things including moderation itself. Always remember what Kahil Gibran said. “Sorrow is the cup that holds happiness”.Persistence is a valuable stance but there are many times you must let go. Wisdom is the ability to know when.
I have heard that Wisdom comes from experience but unfortunately bad experiences often comes from lack of wisdom.
Both those parables are so true and really wise, Silvio. Those 86 years have made you a pretty smart young guy!