Archive for December, 2012


happy hollydays

December 24, 2012


Readers, meet my Mom.  Mom, meet my readers.  Her name is Holly (née Green).  You can imagine that Christmas is of particular importance to a woman who grew up as a little girl named Holly Green.

If you were to pass my mother on a sidewalk, here’s what you’d see:  a petite woman with elegant silver-white hair coiffed in a stylish bob.  What you might not recognize from looking at her is the college student who marched for civil rights and met Martin Luther King.  You might not glimpse the university senior who finally acquiesced to be set up on a blind date with my Dad one day in December and was married and volunteering in the Peace Corps by June.  You might not see the young mother who made us powered milk and had a living room that sat empty for seven years until they could afford to furnish it.  In short, she is a polite yet immovable force.

Especially at Christmas time.  Consider this vignette from a time when I was a little girl.  The family service at St. John’s Episcopal Church on Christmas Eve was in direct conflict with the Christmas party thrown by my parents’ dear (Jewish) friends.  Holly was unwilling to give up either event.  From one year to the next, the church service was mysteriously shifted to begin an hour and a half earlier.  Plenty of time for Holly’s kids to be in the nativity pageant and then drive the dozen blocks to the Soule’s party.

How did she manage the great switcheroo?  It is a glimpse into her mastermind.  She can explain things in a way that makes everyone else in the room believe the idea is in their best interest and that they helped craft the solution, even though she was the force behind it all.  As my brother-in-law Doug said at our wedding “General Schwarzkopf has nothing on Holly”.

Another one of her gifts is the ability to take an ordinary experience and transform it into a symbolic gesture that deeply emotionally resonates.  As my brothers and I like to joke- Christmas isn’t over until she’s made somebody cry.  In a good way.  So if you get a gift accompanied by a typed letter with a purple ink signature at the bottom?  Fugetaboutit.  You’ll be reduced to a puddle by the end of the first paragraph.  {Remind me sometime to tell you the story of the framed bell and the quote from The Polar Express.  But bring your Kleenex – I recommend the Costco-sized package}.

I’ve learned a long list of lessons from my Mom over the years — how to:  sort laundry;  view life;  buy children’s shoes half a size too big;  look for the best in everyone, even when they can’t see it themselves;  sew a straight line;  see the world as a village; believe in effort and redemption.  I may not have learned to cook, but I learned the recipe for humanity.

So this Christmas as I reflect back on the Eve’s of my childhood, I wonder.  Why did she feel so compelled to have the service changed?  We could have easily slipped out a side door after communion.  Why stay?  I suspect it is this.  Because to her, the end mattered most of all.  When all is said and done in the service– after the greeting, the readings, the sermon;  after the prayers, the benediction, the blessing;  after it all comes the dismissal.  It is here that her wisdom can be found.  It is here that her vision for the world becomes translated into words.  It is here her life’s work is revealed.  It is here, at this most poignant time of year, she wants us to remember:

Go in Peace to Love and Serve.





Merry Christmas, Happy Hollydays.


chains of love.

December 14, 2012

We want to shield our children.  Protect them.  Keep them safe.

We want to make the truth of what happened this morning untrue.  We worry about what to say.  We worry because we don’t want to say anything at all. So how do we parent in a moment when our own humanity feels so vulnerable and fragile?

We walk bravely into the face of love.

We talk with our children.  Because if we don’t, they will hear the news from a hundred other sources.  We need them to know that we are here.  That we are bigger and stronger than any disaster.  That we will be present for them, no matter how overwhelming life feels.  We give them the briefest information, not the gory details.  And then, we listen.  We listen to their concerns, their confusion, their worries.  We allow them the space to weep and wonder, and we model for them the river of tears that is our grief.  We cannot solve this for them, nor should we.  These are the deep mysteries of life.  We can be their guides.  We can show them how we wrestle with understanding events that can never be fully understood.

And we show them love.  We point out that while there is only one shooter, there are hundreds of responders.  Hundreds of adults who are right there helping each one of the children.  As Mister Rogers reminded us:  “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

And then we can ask for their love.  Is there anything you’d like to do for the families in Connecticut?  They may initially not know.  And that’s ok.  We can circle back later and ask again.  Or offer up possible ideas- do you want to draw a picture?  Start a fund to help hire grief counselors?  Hold a vigil?  Say a prayer?  Create a paper chain – each link a hug for the children of Newtown.  By finding their own voice in this tragedy, they learn that they can make a difference in the world, no matter what events unfold.

Don’t fret about the words you use.  Simply start the conversation.  See where you child takes you.  Listen for the emotions that are under their words, assure them that all of their feelings matter.  Hug them tightly.  Let them feel your tears.  Then hug them again once more.

My love to you all.


life in 3/4 time.

December 14, 2012


[This is the 4th year I have performed in The Nutcracker, and the second time I’ve written a letter to the two young women dancing as Clara.  {By my count, that makes it a tradition}.  Here’s a link the one from last year, and the new one below. ]


Dearest Clara,

The very first time I rehearsed the party scene with Ms. Stephanie she said to us “listen to the music, it tells us what to do”.  Her words sounded like a foreign language.  She wanted me to enter when?  Cross the stage at what point?  All I could think was: what 8-count are we on and when do I begin?

The appeal of the Nutcracker to both audience and dancers is how it mirrors the events and emotions of our own lives.  Boisterous parties, sweet dreams, first loves, chaotic fights, unexpected adventures.  But what if the soundtrack were scrambled?  What if the Chinese Dragon appeared on stage to the music of the Flowers?  Or if the Party began to the sounds of the Fight Scene?  Or Spanish were switched with Snow?  It wouldn’t make sense.  The audience couldn’t follow the story and the dancers would get disoriented, spun around, collide and step on one another’s toes.

Stephanie’s right.  And not only about dancing on the stage.

There is a loud chorus of ‘shoulds’ in our lives – an incessant drum beating, trying to tell us what to do, when to do it and in what order.  Driving us at a 4/4 march, when a 3/4 waltz is the true rhythm of time.

So as your life unfolds, listen.  Listen to the beat of your heart, the music of your mind.  It will guide you.  When it sounds dark and foreboding, proceed with caution.  When it is light and airy be complete in your joy.  When it plays a single note at a time, revel in your solitude.  There are times when it will call for wide-open spaces, and others when it craves environments as tightly packed as a regiment of soldiers.  There will be movements of travel to new and distant places, and phrases that remind you there’s no place like home.

And sometimes the music will get lost.  Overwhelmed by the cacophony of the others around you.  Find it in the call of the wind, the crashing of the waves.  Find it in the places that offer you solace.

And sometimes the music will be silent.  Take the offered rest and rejuvenate.  For the moment of its return will come, and then you will be ready to go on.

Can you hear it?

The pre-show announcement is over.  The audience is hushed.  The lights have been dimmed.  The overture has yet to begin.  It is the music.  Not of the Russian dance, or the Angels or any other part of the ballet.  It is your music.  The music of your life.

Listen again.  Can hear the music of the audience?  Each one of them is here for a different reason.  Watching a relative.  Bringing a child.  Reliving a family tradition.  Creating a new one.  Young.  Old.  Middle ground.  Tonight we are together, creating a symphony that plays underneath Tchaikovsky’s score.

Can you hear it?

It is the sound of my love.

Mama Stahlbaum



December 11, 2012

Smile.  Shake hands.  Small talk.  Exchange of pleasantries.  Kids.  Parenthood.  Jobs.  ‘Oh!  A parent coach…..”  Then she leaned forward and in more hushed tones asked “How do YOU know if I need a coach or a counselor?  How do I know?”  Great questions.

A coach’s job is to help parents who are feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, stretched beyond their comfort zone.  But not in crisis.  That’s the province of counselors.  What’s the difference?  Where’s the line?  Well, it isn’t in a fixed place.  It moves for each of us.  A situation that merits therapy for one would be coaching for another, and vice versa.  There is no definitive list.  No True / False test.  Because life doesn’t come in a neat stack of clearly labeled boxes, we never know what we will find inside.

It isn’t decided by the events in our lives, but in our emotional responses to them.

And, if you’ve been reading for a while, you can guess I’ll further explain with an analogy or personal story.  Today we’re going for the former.  Here’s the analogy.  It’s the state championship game.  The players on the field are focused, intent, dedicated.  There’s a rush for the soccer ball and in the scuffle a player goes down.  She grips her thigh, grimacing in pain.

Stop action.

What now?  Option A:  pulled hamstring.  The coach is there with experience and information:  ice this, elevate that, compress there, rest for these many days.  Option B:  broken bone.  The physician takes it from there.  Surgery.  Setting.  Cast.  Crutches.

Resume action.

Which way did it play out?  There’s no way to predict, because the identical play on the ball would result in varying injuries for other players.  Or even the same player on two different days would experience alternate outcomes based on fatigue or stress.

In either scenario, the helping professions are here.  We are all trained to help direct you to the right place for guidance.

So what does working with a parent coach look like?

Parents arrive in my office with either a specific or systemic issue.  It might be that you want help teaching a toddler to use the toilet, or a tween to manage homework, or a teen to respect curfew.  But it also might be that you want help with blending together two families, or a mother-daughter dynamic.  It might be a dad who wants to go beyond where his father lead, but doesn’t know quite how to do it.  We meet for a session, a series or a season.

What happens in a coaching session?

A session is the place for the Oprah A-ha’s! and Homer Simpson Dohs! of life.  It’s a safe space to laugh, to cry, to grow.  It’s rare in our lives to stop and take the time to reflect.  Coaching allows you to slow down, consider, and shift.  Can I provide you with practical nuts and bolts?  Yes, absolutely.  But I also help you examine the issue from a different angle, a new perspective.  Often, when we can see the exact same situation from a new place our understanding opens, awareness blossoms.  A change of spirit alters the outcome.  We live in a dynamic system in our families, and the alchemy of change means that often it’s not that the problem gets solved, it’s that the problem dissolves.

What’s my role as your coach?

My focus is to help you with the issue immediately in front of you, and to also add tools to your tool-box for when the next event comes along.  Because they always do.  When a different situation arises, you will have the skills and perspectives in place to problem solve.  And, if it is still a challenge, you are always welcome to come back and see me.  I’d love to have you.

Back to our analogy.

A coach on the field observes a player’s skills- then works with them on specific changes to enhance their abilities. The coach sees not just one player, but the team, the field, the flow of the game. Through sharing these perspectives, the coach expands the player’s understanding of themselves and of the game.

Option C.  Let’s assume our player gets back up.  This time the coach helps her pause.  Take a deep breath.  Focus.  A well-coached player returns to the field with confidence, a leader of the team.

As a coach I help you see the parenting and family field from a different direction, a different perspective.  I help you see the strength of the ‘opposing’ team.  Because let’s face it- sometimes our kids feel like they are playing for the other side instead of being on our own J.V. squad.

And when we work together, it’s the game of life.  So let’s suit up.  Game On.


vital signs

December 3, 2012

“I just wish they’d give me a cow and be done with it.”

I love this line from my friend Lisa* for so many, many reasons.  It summarizes all of the complexities of the gift-giving season in 13 words.  All of the “I’d love to receive a gift knowing it is a sign of your love for me, but I think you give me gifts sometimes because we are related and you don’t feel like you have a choice.  Either way, I want to honor your intention to give it.  Really, though, every year you give me something I don’t actually like.  Or can’t actually use.  But give it you do, so I’ll wear it or hang it even though it makes me cringe.  Then I’ll wonder how long it has to be on display before I can give it away.  And, honestly, I don’t really need anything.  So I’d much rather you give the money to an organization to help others.  But if I tell you that, you might get offended and assume it is because I don’t like the taste you have in gifts.  Which is true.  But it’s more true (or maybe equally true) that I’d like the abundance to be shared with those who have a higher need.  So please, don’t worry that it seems generic or impersonal, I really don’t mind (really really).  Just buy a damn cow.”

It doesn’t always feel like the most wonderful time of the year, does it?

If we were lucky (and I was) December as a child was magical.  Filled with anticipation, exhilaration, and, well, sugar.  It didn’t focus on budgets and shoe sizes and practical realities that go bump in the night.  So, how can we, as more giver-than-receiver adults, go back to the charms of childhood?

Swap verbs for nouns.


Let me explain.  Last year in our graduate studies, we read Parenting Well in a Media Age(full disclosure, the author, Gloria DeGaetano, is the founder / director of the program).  In it, DeGaetano examines five essential needs that must be met in order for children (and adults) to thrive.  As she describes them – The Vital Five.  It is impossible to give a nuanced report of each one in depth here, so, with my apologies, I am going to do a hack job.  I’m boiling 245 pages of careful research and reflection down to five verbs.

Connect.  Be.  Make.  Create.  Contribute.

Huh.  Five verbs for better living.  I looked at the kids’ activities.  I looked at mine.  We examined how we spent time as a family.  A little tweak here, a letting go there, an added something elsewhere.  Higher quality of life, greater balance.

Which made me wonder.  Can I apply the five verbs in other places?   I tried an experiment.  What if I used these five verbs as the framework for the gifts we gave?  Any gift.  For any person.  All season long.  And while it seems like it would make it more complex, it actually made it much easier.  An Occam’s razor for giving.

Since we are entering Occam2.0 this year, I thought I’d share the word.  Well, words.  Especially after two other parents mentioned their struggle with gifting.  So, here it is.  The questions are placeholders- you can phrase them anyway you please- and resay them for any situation.

Connect.  Does this give us time to spend together?

Be.  Does this provide the opportunity for quiet solitude?

Make.  Does this offer a chance to explore the world in a new way?

Create.  Does it encourage self-expression?

Contribute.  Is it an invitation to become a part of the community?

So make your list, check it twice.  Does it match one (or more) of these verbs?  Then Bazinga!  [Now this doesn’t guarantee that the toboggan you bought will be the right color (puce is never a good choice, that’s why it’s on sale)].  The beauty is in the simplicity.  There are no rigid rules, just a loose frame that works no matter the occasion, recipient, budget, sense of humor or sense of style.

Hmmm…Maybe, just maybe, it is the most wonderful time of the year.

(And if you are wondering whether Lisa gets the cow of her dreams?  Don’t worry, I’ll keep you posted.)


*Reader, meet long-distance Lisa (not to be confused with local Lisa).  Lisa, readers.  Lisa is from Wisconsin.  Doesn’t that make the cow line even better?

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