Great Minds Discuss Ideas

It’s been said that “small minds discuss people, average minds discuss events and great minds discuss ideas” (though apparently there’s some dispute about who actually said it and which exact words they used, though it’s most often attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt).

I’m not a great mind, I’m fascinated by people and super inspired by their stories, whether they’re stories of success or stories of failure. Recovering from a narcissistic relationship is weird. Some of the personal work I have to do is examining my own mindset and discovering ways that I allow my “light to be dimmed” by trying to live up to the expectations of other people, or my own self-talk.  It’s really weird.  Because in order to be in a relationship like that you have to detach; it doesn’t matter what you think or how you feel about anything, it only matters how you’re perceived in light of the abuser’s insecurities.  If that sounds a bit like trying to balance a wobbly gyroscope by firing at it with a slingshot full of broken rubber bands, then you’re understanding the situation really well.  It’s as hopeless as it sounds.

In 2011, when I returned from speaking at the first Life Rocks Unschooling conference in North Conway, New Hampshire, I had learned something huge about myself, namely that I was a stranger in my own life.

At that point, my main social contacts were friends of my (then) husband.  Friends I had chosen for myself were always looked on with suspicion. I was literally “not allowed” to be friends with one of my favorite people in the world, and was feeling lonely, awkward and out of place, on a deep cellular level, during every waking and sleeping moment. I was the living definition of discontent.

I knew life had more to offer and the stress in my life was keeping me from experiencing it all. For the first time ever, I had taken this trip alone. I knew I needed time away to think and was really looking forward to that. I knew I’d be surrounded by like-minds, in the educational/ parenting sense and that, without my children there, I’d have time to chat with other parents who were raising their children in this alternative way, and possibly sharing some of the same struggles and joys that my life held.  When we share our troubles they are divided; when we share our joys they are multiplied.

Instead, it became glaringly obvious to me that something was ridiculously wrong in my life.  The words I’ll never forget were delivered by the photographer, who might as well have thrown a brick at me when he said “So you’re committed to providing your children with a life of freedom, peace, and opportunity but you’re not allowed to enjoy that too?”  Maybe a brick is an understatement, but a ton of bricks is a cliche, so let’s just say that in that moment and I suddenly felt that I had been seen. I’ve heard good photographers can do that sometimes.

No photos were taken of that moment, except in my mind. Six years later, I still revisit that moment. The edges haven’t curled, the paper hasn’t yellowed and the bricks have landed into a little pile of rubble. There’s always possibilities in rubble.

As if personal revelations aren’t heavy enough, unschooling conferences are always packed with amazing families who are living and loving life in unconventional ways that speak to my heart.

In my mind, families are the base of exploration of the world and it was always my intention to facilitate my kids’ childhoods by surrounding them with the tools they need to develop into the best versions of themselves. When I’m around people who are doing that, I am energized and excited about life.

That year, there was the family who lived in their RV and traveled the world with a little trailer where they ran a mobile dental mold company, exploring the landscape, supporting their financial needs and learning more than any classroom could provide.

There was also the woman who borrowed the personal effects of Thomas Edison and Christopher Columbus from the Smithsonian to compile a beautiful book called Lost in Learning. She gave an amazing talk about the childhoods of some of the most influential minds in history and apparently, as children, they were quite a handful and didn’t thrive in the classroom.

There was also the gal who saw past my passive/evasive language into the truth of my marriage and gave me a dog-eared copy of The Verbally Abusive Relationship, which she’d previously shared with several other women who went on to escape the prisons of their marriage and become independent.

I sat in my hotel room that night answering “yes” to way too many of the quiz questions in the book until it became undeniable that my situation was out of hand.  Damn, even 5 years later, I still find myself using detached language to describe this.  “It became undeniable that I was the victim of verbal and emotional abuse.”  That’s still passive. “I finally admitted to myself that I was a victim.” A stronger part of me wants to use words like gaslighting and emotional torture, but I can’t bring myself to say it. I just want to continue moving on.  I fucked up.  But I got out.

I have to clarify that because right now, even so many years later, if I focus on where I failed it makes it harder to move forward. The one thing I was passionate about- teaching my kids to be actively engaged with the outcome of their life by contributing to society, embracing opportunities, making the world a better place and harvesting peaceful relationships was a bust for too many years. And look… even in my “recovery” the guilt is difficult to escape from. But I got out. Let’s leave it at that.

Anyway…. after the conference, as I was writing out my recap and setting new intentions for my life I wrote in my personal journal that “I need to be surrounded by people who are thinking about bigger things. I need stable people around me who aren’t inventing personal dramas to distract themselves away from being effective in the world and creating a better future.”

So much of my life had been spent reeling in emotional turmoil from one stressful drama to the next. Being emotionally pummeled by an irrational family member is exhausting. I couldn’t continue “being me” when so much of my attention was spent wondering “what did I do wrong now?”

And my kids were living in so much fear as well. What would they get in trouble for next?  Will there be enough food tomorrow? If you’ve never lived in poverty, with someone whose anger dominates the home, then you really have no idea what it’s like to know that every word that comes out of your mouth will be twisted around into some imagined offense. The events from today might feel OK, but you could be called into question a month later for something that felt benign at the time.

It’s exhausting and I suspected that life could be so much simpler.  That’s not to say that I wasn’t able to develop as a person. My #1 commitment, since the day my kids were born, was to my kids. But the uncertainty of life with a narcissist and addict had the effect of skewing my perspective so that I was able to look at life and say “This is good” because my kids were overall happy and thriving. I’d slave away on my laptop generating a paltry income so that our power wouldn’t be disconnected and comfort myself with the knowledge that there are third world countries where nobody had electricity. I had myself convinced that life was OK when the reality was that our entire life experience was limited simply because I allowed the force of absolute evil to penetrate our lives so deeply.  Detaching the reality about how horrible life was became the only tool I had that kept me striving each day to put on a happy face, read bedtime stories and fix the lego bridge. You know, the things that mattered.

There’s so much talk about the importance of working hard to stay married, but for me it was a life-and-death fight to stay detached enough that I could pretend I wasn’t living in a horror film during the moments that mattered. I’d walk into the house after being shouted at and cursed at because there were no pickles left and pause at the back door. I’d wipe my tears away, take a deep breath and walk into where the kids were playing as if nothing had happened. “Hi sweetie, wanna go for a walk? We need to get pickles for daddy.” My personal persecution was turned into a walk with the girls and from their perspective, probably felt like something nice we were doing for their dad.   Marriage was REALLY hard work.  I’d rather work for something more important.  My failure to thrive in an abusive marriage has a much smaller effect on the world than raising 6 daughters who perpetuate the cycle of abuse simply because they’ve had ME as an example.

And now I have the opportunity to reinvent myself, but there’s always a shadow of doubt. I’m constantly second-guessing my instincts and decisions.  Each day I wrestle with the fear that he was right about me being a good-for-nothing-loser. But each day I look around at the happy home we have, feeling the peace and tranquility,  my aching bones and muscles from kicking ass at work, my throbbing eyes from staring at spreadsheets and computer screens, the dishwasher full of dishes where my kids ate food that I didn’t purchase by scraping all the change out of the couch cushions or recycling aluminum cans and I know that the fight I’m fighting now, the one in my head, will end one day. Instead of surrounding myself with people who direct their dramatic bullshit upon me, I’m surrounded by people who are supportive, energetic, principled and loving.

This past weekend I went to Carmel-by-the-Sea for the 10th annual EG conference.  Like an unschooling conference, the speakers were inspiring. But this is very different from the conferences I usually attend.

Since it wasn’t family-focused, there were very few children present.  They didn’t state a focus, and the EG in the event’s title, I later learned, stands for “Entertainment Gathering” which speaks to the world-class violinists, pianists, magicians and comics in attendance, but it was so much more than that.

Or maybe the shallowness of that statement is due to the fact that my own life experience has been so limited by poverty and the social aspects of deprivation that my personal definition of entertainment tends to exclude intellectual pursuits.

Which is odd because I’m the girl that’s always found nonfiction more entertaining than fiction. I enjoy some fiction, the Game of Thrones is one of my favorites and is completely fiction, but my fascination with the fiction I engage in is always a behind-the-scenes nature. “What kind of camera did they use for that?” or “Imagine how long it took to make that costume” and most often “I wish I was a fly on the wall when the writers came up with that line.”

So I’ve always allowed myself to be stimulated by ideas of the future and progress in worldwide efforts to reduce environmental toxins, historical accounts of important events from different perspectives and of course research in the worlds of psychology, child development and education.  The only reality I’m not the slightest bit able to stomach is nonfiction human-on-human violence.  The world isn’t a better place for anyone when my heart is broken. Game of Thrones is fake. War is real. World politics is a dangerous abstraction I can’t wrap my head around.

After my divorce I sought to surround myself with new mentors, I befriended people who weren’t bound by the constraints of poverty and hoped that I’d learn something more about how to be successful in life.  And I did.  Widening my circle of associates was the smartest thing ever. I went from having “no real friends” because the only people I ever saw were my ex husband’s friends to suddenly rekindling and embracing friendships with whoever I wanted. I finally got to make my own decisions about who I could choose as a friend.

And having successful friends makes a big difference. As I mentioned before, I really AM kicking ass at work.  I still don’t entirely understand corporate hierarchies and I still struggle to meet my family’s needs but we’ll never be as broke as we were when we had no hope.

And the EG conference represented hope on almost every level.

I loved how the conference was organized.  Unlike other events I’ve attended, there were no overlapping sessions. It’s possible to “not miss a thing.”  On the first day of the conference, new attendees were warned to “pace yourself.”  Honestly, I have no idea how to do that. Pacing myself isn’t my superpower.  I learned what it probably doesn’t mean, which is sitting in on every single session (2-3 hours of back-to-back beyond-TED-talk-caliber speakers) for three consecutive days.  My mind works slowly at times and I’m still processing some of what I’ve seen. Getting up to stretch late in the second day was super helpful. Yes, I missed a little bit, but no more than I missed when I fell asleep in my seat after sitting. for. so. long.  I don’t sit still easily, I need to stretch. My mind works better when I’m periodically contorting myself. I’m learning.

Only here I am, having just celebrated by 4 year divorceaversary, feeling no closer to figuring out who I am than I was on that day that I discovered I didn’t know.  The only thing I really know about myself, the only part of me that I haven’t lost, is that my kids are #1. So my first mission is to make sure I’m not raising my kids in such a way that their passions and futures are dimmed by complete lack of opportunity, basic resources and healthy relationships.  No matter where you go in life and what you do it’s all for nothing if your relationships suck.

I guess I know one more thing about myself, and that’s that I have absolutely no tolerance for imperfect relationships. Life is too short and I’ve wasted too much of it already. My kids are my inner circle, and that’s just fine for now.

I feel slightly obligated, at this point, to talk about some of the amazing speakers, but honestly my mind is still blown.  And beyond the speakers themselves the other guests were unbelievably amazing people with colorful histories, notable accomplishments and passionate lives they devote to making important changes in the world.  THAT is what I want for my kids, and for myself.

It was interesting to be among 650+ people whose life experiences were so different from mine.  For one thing, the cost of attendance is pretty steep.  I happen to be the luckiest person in the world, and was, therefore, not among those who paid full price. Left to my own devices, I would have used that amount of money to make sure my car insurance was paid, utilities were caught up and that we had groceries. With anything left over, I’d have had the kids’ computers repaired, signed them up for some kind of educational experience or ordered pizza for dinner.  But the rest of the attendees don’t have the same challenges I have in life and if I don’t occasionally peek over the fence into what life is like when you’re not stressed about keeping the lights on, my world will be darker anyway.

It’s hard not to be bitter when 20 something tech geeks are standing 4 feet away from you talking about their recent vacation in Peru and not even excited about having climbed Machu Pichu. Some of these people are changing the world with their inventions and discoveries while others are oblivious to the magic around them and attending the event simply because they want to network with the wealthy folks who might fund their tech startup.  One of the speakers said it best; “The world doesn’t need another app.” Which reminded me of another often-misattributed quote:

“The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.” (David Orr)

So I’m home now… writing this when I should be writing to pay the power bill, imagining all the ways I can keep this inspired feeling, live a more effective life and most importantly, keep my kids engaged in their own lives long enough that they’re able to grow into adults who never feel lost, never forget who they are and never allow themselves to participate in relationships that limit their happiness. I have a few ideas about my future, and that’s part of the problem.

My goal is simply to remain inspired long enough to settle on a path that meets the requirement of 1- generating enough income for us to live without fear 2- provides enough freedom for me to actively engage with my kids’ exploration of their passions and interests and 3- make the world a better place.

There are good people and idiots at every socioeconomic level.  Money doesn’t keep anyone from destroying relationships or living in destructive ways.  In the past, I might have been content to trade the likeliness of future happiness for financial success but today, with ever-looming financial disaster, a peaceful home full of happy and healthy kids, a wish list that’s as long as it ever was and some hope in my heart that the good things in the future world are fully funded by bright minds and innovative thinkers, I think my perspective is different.

And now… If you want to relive some of the mind-blowing presentations at the EG Conference I attended, pull up the comfiest seat in the house (and grab a box of tissues because there are tear-jerking moments) and witness only the 10 hours, 25 minutes and 34 seconds that were recorded on the live stream.

And.. for archival purposes, here are some pictures from the conference, without context or additional information…

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