Tuesday, December 18, 2012

what I like about being stuck at the train station

My parents are coming for a Christmas visit.  This is desired, but always leads to a bit of stress -- the stress of combining busy schedules, plus a holiday, plus houseguests.  It led to a conversation between Kathy and me yesterday about how we could better manage the stress of it all.  My parents, like most parents, have things they do that annoy their children. They know this.  I, like most children, have things I do that annoy my parents.  I also know this.  Necessarily, this will lead to conflict at some point.

"You know," Kathy said, "I wish I could just handle it like Diane.  She never seems to get ruffled by this stuff.  What would Diane say?" 

A few years ago, when B was turning 6, we had a birthday party at our house, which involved renting a pony.  This was much less expensive than we thought, and really, what could make a better birthday party than having pony rides in your tiny suburban backyard?  NOTHING.  We were so excited, we invited Diane to the party, even though she was not a first grader (she was, and is, an adult).  She planned to take the train in from New York City, and either Kathy or I would drive down and pick her up before the party. 

Only it started raining, and the pony arrived and made a mess of the backyard, and everyone was clamoring for rides anyway so we had to make garbage bag rain ponchos for 10 six year old kids.  And we completely forgot about poor Diane at the train station.  She tried calling Kathy's cell phone, but who picks up their phone when there is a pony crapping in the rain in your back yard?  She didn't have our address, so she couldn't just take a cab. She was just stuck at the train station. 

(not our train station, but just try to imagine)

An hour or so later, when the pony was packed up and everyone was eating cake with their we hair dripping all over an old sheet on the floor of the living room, Kathy checked her phone. "OH MY GOD!  DIANE!"  She called Diane, raced to the train station, and picked up Diane, who was mildly annoyed but mostly unruffled. 

"I just thought, oh, well I'm stuck and it's raining.  I have an umbrella, I guess I'll walk around.  What I liked about it was that I had some time to relax and go for a walk.  I'm glad you came to get me though."  Yeah.  She was able to say "What I like about being stuck at the train station for an hour is..." Of course we have teased her relentlessly about this over the years.  But there is something to it.  So I thought more about how it is she is able to have that attitude, and what we could do to apply it to parental visits.

Upon further reflection, there seem to be two qualities that are important.  The first is an ability to set boundaries.  The ability to say, "I would totally love to do that for you, but it's just not going to work out this time."  In other words, "No."  But, you know, more compassionately or something. 

Boundary-setting is especially important, because it sets the foundation for the second quality, which is the ability to accept the situation you find yourself in.  If you can set boundaries, you are less likely to build up frustration by constantly finding yourself in situations where you're resentful and annoyed.  And honestly, if I could think of two words that sum up my feelings about going to the Macy's in Herald Square during the holidays, it would be "resentful" and "annoyed." 

Anyway, if you set the boundaries in the first place, when something comes up that you truly can't control, you can look a bit more objectively at the situation and say, "Well, what I like about finding myself stuck at the train station in the rain is.... I can finish the chapter I was reading!  I have some time for meditation!  I can go for a relaxing walk with no goal in mind!  I can try out that seedy-looking sports bar across the street!"  Whatever it is.

So, what would Diane say?  Originally, I thought maybe she would say "What I like about Macy's at Christmas is..."  But in reality, the better answer is probably, "You know, I would love for you to be able to go to Macy's, but I'm personally not that crazy about it. How about we meet by the west entrance in an hour and a half?  I'm going to go get a coffee while you shop."

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