The Four Agreements and Trying To Be Real
Have you read The Four Agreements by Don Miguel Ruiz? I just finished my second read – I often re-read books in different periods of my life and find when I do, there is a reason.
This has been (and is still) a year of embracing change. It’s a year of as many endings as beginnings, of tears of happiness and fear of the unknown. Change is hard for me, despite how much I tell myself to embrace and enjoy and find the silver lining.
And it’s not just with my children graduating and moving on to new stages of their lives. It’s not just me shifting from full-time mom to an empty-nester wondering how I’ll fill the afternoons and evenings without having a child wandering in and out of the house.
Part of is a shift in me – of stepping into a new phase of life where I’m feeling the gratitude of launching my children into the world, and feeling the thunder of a new shift happening in my career.
I don’t know what it is quite yet, but I do know the Universe is rumbling and gearing up, the earth beneath me is beginning to vibrate with possibilities I haven’t imagined until now.
I first read The Four Agreements years ago – I’m not entirely sure why I picked it up for the first time. Maybe it was one of those titles I’d heard about and figured I should read, for cultural literacy’s sake.
It made an impression but never was a guiding force.
It surfaced again last month, finding its way to my bedside table and into my lap for morning reading. I took it a chapter at a time, slowly digesting the lessons and realizing I had been wrong – the four agreements really were guiding me, I just hadn’t been paying enough attention.
The Universe has a funny way of placing just what we need in our path. I’d been re-reading notes jotted down months ago while listening to Ali MacGraw’s Super Soul Sunday podcast (you can listen to it here) – after my first listen, I’d written about finding my true self, but now, thinking about her stories and Don Miguel Ruiz’s four agreements made sense in such a different way.
Living your authentic life, finding the gratitude of each day is wrapped up in Ruiz’s words, his urge to:
1. Be impeccable with your word,
2. Don’t take anything personally,
3. Don’t make assumptions, and
4. Always do your best.
Makes perfect sense, right? Or is it a case of ‘easier-said-than-done’?
In my teaching life and my personal life, these four agreements are there every day, intertwined with spirituality, kindness, compassion, and non-judgment. Trying to remember that connecting with those in my presence is where I find the deepest joy, and that really, our pain is all the same.
Being impeccable with my word means pausing, thinking, and honoring the power of language. Words CAN hurt, but they can also soothe, comfort, warm and empower us. Being impeccable with my word means honoring the time when being silent is stronger than yelling, and when breaking my silence requires courage.
Not taking anything personally is hard. Teachers tend to take everything personally. It’s a profession where many, many people think because they went to school, they can tell me (and other educators) how it should be done. These types of comments force me to remember it’s not me – it’s them. If I take it personally then I am ‘eating their emotional garbage’, and allowing their beliefs to impact my own ability to life MY authentic life.
Ruiz reminds us that making assumptions leads us to believe an often false truth, all because we don’t have the courage to question. Finding our own voice, realizing that not everyone in the world thinks as we do, and breaking bad habits with clear communication puts us on the path to personal freedom.
Always do your best – in my teaching world, kids feel pressure to BE the best. But that’s infinitely different than DOING your best. I struggle with helping kids realize that when you feel you’ve done your best, that’s good enough. Compete against yourself, not others. Go YOUR extra mile, and then rest. It’s not an easy concept. The last words I say to my son as he leaves each morning? “Do your best” and “I love you”. I feel as if it’s my best gift I can offer as he ventures out into his day; Ihope when he’s not at home next year, those two phrases echo in his mind as he learns how to make his way on his own.
I won’t be able to connect with him every day – I won’t even hear from him every week, I’m sure. But hopefully, if I’ve done something right, the four agreements have been absorbed into his being the way they have in mine.
Do yourself a favor this week – grab a copy of this tremendous book, and savor it. Make this post the reason to bring the four agreements into your life – it may just change your life.
“We are walking each other home”
– Ram Dass and Paul Gorman
I should be at your funeral right now. A celebration of life, your memorial…I should be there. Except, I just couldn’t.
It’s been on my calendar and in the front of my mind since you passed two weeks ago. I figured I would slip in, soak up all the goodness and love people were pouring out in their tears and slip out, unnoticed.
And then this morning, as I was waking up, listening to the mockingbird outside my window and looking into the eyes of my mutt, so happy to see me, I absolutely couldn’t bear the thought of it all. Despite how brave you were, how you surrendered your fear of death and embraced everything joyful about life, I knew that the best way I could honor you, sweet friend, was with words.
You see, I dreamed about Disneyland the night after you died. At first, we were there and everything seemed fine. I had been elected some kind of ambassador to Disneyland and wasn’t quite sure why, because I never had that same feeling about it as you did. I know everyone says it’s the happiest place on earth but happiness was never my strong point.
When we first met in 1991, I was always the glass-half-full kind of girl. We were both fresh-faced teachers, barely adults, excited to be at Jackman together, not quite sure what the heck we were doing but pumped up to make things happen.
Suddenly, we were pushing through the crowds. I was smiling – people were paying attention to us. You always had a way of lighting up a space, my dear.
PE teachers and English teachers don’t always gravitate towards each other, but being in the midst of a brand new school, kids who hungered for relationships and trying to build a community, we bonded. That’s the way you were with everyone – your big smile, huge hugs, and endearing personality charmed everyone – especially our students.
Stopping mid-stream, I bent down and picked up a wedding ring off the ground and put it in my pocket. It seemed like someone must’ve dropped it but I wasn’t sure why and everyone was so happy I didn’t want to stop and damper the mood.
I only invited three work friends to my wedding in 1994 – you were sweet enough to come, helping me make my special day perfect. You just had a knack for that.
We found ourselves on some sort of up in the air train or bus – people kept sitting down and getting off, and at one point you leaned over and whispered, “I’ll be back in a second,” and you jumped to the side of the freeway. Another person came and sat down next to me – he had trouble with his legs. He was telling me how he couldn’t roll over and was having trouble with mobility.
John always liked you, you know. We were an unlikely pair, you and I – an ex-Goth girl turned English teacher, and an ex-basketball star turned PE teacher? Introvert and extrovert. Do you remember that time we went to CLMS with Ann and Tina? I’m pretty sure that was my first official work conference – all I remember is the laughter.
People kept coming onto the bus, sitting down, getting up, trying to get going. I asked the man next to me where you were and somebody shouted, “She’s over on the other side!” and there you were, smiling that enormous grin that filled up the whole room. It was taking forever to get to Disneyland, the traffic was bad, and you started talking about all the challenges in life. The mom behind me was arguing with her son because he wanted to get off, go out on his own, and I leaned over the seat and told her I knew how she felt – I let my son move away and eighth grade, but he came back. I told her was all going to be OK and we kept on the journey.
I remember the last time I saw you. It was after I started teaching AVID, and came back to Jackman to see the program there, but I think I spent more time with you than anyone else. It was so strange walking back through the gates, across the quad and back into another time. I had become a mom by then, and you’d met Nat and were so happy with her. I remember getting back in my car, driving around the neighborhood, and thinking I shouldn’t let life get in the way of seeing people I really care about. I wish I’d listened to myself.
I didn’t quite know what to do so I got up and started feeding people. I was cutting a cake into little tiny bites, hoping it was going to be enough for everybody – and suddenly, the train stopped. We were finally at Disneyland, and everybody started pushing to get off the bus and I lost track of you. And I didn’t feel so much like people were paying attention anymore – it was just over, we were going our own ways, not unhappily or happily, just moving through the journey.
I found out you died on Facebook. Not what I ever expected to read the morning of April 9, 2018 – that your journey on Earth was over. I was shocked. You looked so strong in your photos, so happy. How could you be gone?
I’m going to miss you, Carrie.
You were brave with your life. I’m grateful that Facebook brought us back together over the last decade. I’m grateful I got to watch as you filled your life with happiness and smiles, and that I saw you adore your family, your travels with Natalie and your Ladd-strong battles with chemo. I love seeing pictures of our old friends from the beginning years – people you stayed connected with, but I let go. When I look at my wedding photos I can hardly remember the girl I was in 1994; it was before I even knew really who I was, but you were there smiling cheering me and John. I can’t believe I can’t return the favor, that I can’t finally drive across the causeway, pull up a chair with you in a garden, drink a pint and just laugh and remember and let you know how important you were in my life. I’m sorry my kids didn’t get to know you, and I’m sorry that they didn’t get to see what true bravery looked like. I’m sorry I left it up to Facebook to keep in touch.
But my dear, sweet Carrie, please know that you are carried with me into my classroom every day. You’re in my heart when my students need a hug or someone who will listen. You’re with me when I look into the faces of children who struggle to get to school or to simply smile. When I see a teacher being goofy, dancing to their own tune at an assembly, I know you’re with me, too. And you’re there, always, when a teacher friend walks up, puts her arm around me, and gently says, “Hey, Jen”.
You’re all that, and more, Carrie. I hope you understand now why I couldn’t slip into your service today, and instead, I sit alone in my room, gazing out at the treetops, writing these words, glancing up at my calendar that reminds me that although this is the month we lost your body, your spirit will always be right here with me.
Until our souls meet again,
Authenticity: When I Wonder If I Am Enough
I didn’t really set out to be a teacher – or a parent. I wasn’t a child who dreamed of my ‘perfect’ career or ‘perfect’ family. I didn’t have names picked out for my future children. I rarely thought about life too far in advance. I mostly did what I needed to do, took the side roads instead of the highway, and generally landed on my feet – often times a bit wobbly or off center, but not completely upside down.
At least not more than once or twice.
The fact that teaching and parenting have defined me for 27 years is really quite surprising.
I’m grateful for my teaching job. I’m told I’m good at it; I’ve stuck with teaching middle school, through three different districts, dozens of principals and multiple iterations of teaching kids. Yes, the content and class titles have changed, but not my focus: kids first, content second.
And I’m grateful for my parenting job. I’m thinking I’m pretty good at it; my oldest is graduating from college, my youngest from high school. Neither has been in ‘trouble’, they care about people and take their education seriously. They are good humans. And they still check in with mom and dad and put up with my innate tendency to worry and create elaborate ‘what if’ scenarios in my head.
And yet, still, those moments creep up on me, silent and stealthy and surprising with their intensity – moments when doubt creeps in, wraps like a tourniquet around my forehead and squeezes out my confidence. The moments that I’m learning to beat down, to thrash out at with a violence built up over half a century of battling self-doubt.
I’ve been rolling around this idea for awhile now, waiting for just the right inspiration – and today, the Universe responded with a quote from Coco Chanel in my “Year of Daily Joy” guided journal: “How many cares one loses when one decides not to be something, but someone.”
I honestly think that’s where I am right now: deciding to be someONE. I’m fairly certain it has to do with being 50+, with having a supportive husband who helps me along a path that just feels like the right one to take – even when I’ve got no other justification than that. I would bet that it has to do with feeling supported in my work – but administrators, colleagues, parents, and students who allow me to succeed and fail, who listen to my audacious ideas and trust me enough to join in.
And I know for sure that my children, the two humans who have taught me the most in life, are at the core of my decision. Loving fiercely, parenting two spirits that aren’t afraid to call me out and show me their side of the story, enable me to look in the mirror every day and ask, “Am I enough by THEIR standards?”
Knowing that if I walk my talk, if I believe in my power enough to show them they can believe in theirs, is flexing my authenticity muscle. With every risk I take, with every failure and stumble and crash I hope I’m showing them that I care. That I believe in searching for fulfillment for myself and being open to what the Universe has in mind…even when I want nothing more than to stay under the soft covers of my bed and listen to the birds chirping outside on a cloudy morning.
Martha Beck says, “Refusing to risk is like allowing a muscle to atrophy; it doesn’t hurt, but when the muscle isn’t fulfilling its purpose, it loses whatever strength it has.”
I love thinking of these moments of wondering if I’m enough like a muscle I need to exercise. We all have authenticity inside, wrapping our bones and covering our hearts with abundance and love. Why have so many, like me, found it easier to refuse to risk, to scramble under the covers instead of undertaking the hard work of finding – and cultivating – it?
I have struggled most of my life with a paralysis of perfectionism. I don’t know where it comes from or why, and I honestly don’t care.
What I do care about, however, is how this paralysis impacts my ability to find authenticity-in my parenting, my teaching, my writing, and my daily interactions with strangers and friends. Part of that is recognizing that when the Universe sends me former students who remind me I was their ‘favorite’ teacher, or when my son responds with a hug to my request to spend more than an hour a day together, or when I connect with a stranger on Twitter who honors my work, I am making a difference.
I care about authenticity. I also care deeply about being ‘enough’. So I’ll show up, I’ll puff out my chest when I’m feeling less than brave, and I’ll live. I’ll take the risk. I’ll flex the muscle. I’ll show the Universe more love. I’ll do things that I want to do, and I won’t let perfectionism paralyze me ever again.
The thick envelope arrived in the mail yesterday, blue lettering screaming “OPEN IMMEDIATELY” and “YOU”VE MADE IT”!
It might have just as well said “REMINDER: THE END OF CHILDHOOD IS HERE”.
It wasn’t the college admissions response – we have another month or so for that one.
Instead, as I slit open the “TIME SENSITIVE” stamp reminding me to ‘celebrate these moments’, out tumbled direct, glaring evidence that he’s turning 18, an adult, and the 12 years of education-under-my-roof is about to end.
I’d actually have been more prepared for the college response – that’s one I’ve predicted, played over and over in my mind. I know next year he’ll be living somewhere east of the Mississippi, far away from mountains and the Pacific Ocean just a hill-hop from our house. There was no box checked on his Common App shouting, “Yes, you should stay within driving distance from your mother” – only ambitious dreams of east coast living beacon to his 18-year-old self.
And that’s ok. This is my second time around for college birthing; it’s not a huge shock.
But as the four rectangular glossies shouting ‘Graduate 2018’ tumbled from the envelope, a different kind of jolt hit me. My boy, my baby, my 6-foot-something little guy smiled back at me in sixteen different poses, tuxedo-clad and cap and gown gleaming. His gleaming white teeth, no longer hidden with silver and turquoise appendages blared a smile so bright and proud I did a double take. That’s my Cam, smiling with glee and excitement to celebrate his accomplishment. He’s turning 18, he’s graduating, and it’s time sensitive.
When Cam was little, he would talk to anyone. His spirit was contagious – no plumber, stranger waiting in line, or colleague at work was immune to his charm. He always had some sort of quip or question and if that didn’t work, he’d shimmy up the nearest pole/wall/tree branch to get their attention. But it in the quietest way possible. Cam has never been a loud type of ‘look at me’ kid, instead choosing a stealth-like approach to scare the crap out of parents who had no idea what he was capable of, while his dad and I took deep breaths and accepted who he was.
Turning 18 has changed nothing, in some respects.
At the beginning of last summer, he talked his way into an internship at a venture-capital firm. Three times a week he’d throw a crisp dress shirt over his sinewy frame, lace up his one pair of non-athletic shoes and take the bus over the river to downtown, take the elevator up to the 26th floor and join a group of entrepreneurs decades older than him for a day of research, listening to start up companies pitch their ideas and business lunches with the CEO.
And he got a promotion.
All fall he huddled in his room, balancing school work and an after-school job with writing and rewriting college admissions essays, focused on what he deemed ‘the reason he went to high school’. This kid is ready for his next step. Only occasionally would he peek into the kitchen as I chopped chicken for enchiladas or sat down next to me in the study, interrupting my grading or writing or laundry folding – all of which I gladly abandoned for the chance to get a glimpse into what’s going on in his world.
Shortly after turning 18, he announced he’s moving into a new phase in life and would appreciate only ‘on-demand’ parenting from this point forward. “What exactly is on-demand parenting?” I asked, to which he responded, “You know – when I need parenting, I’ll ask for it.”
Ha. The fact that he doesn’t think he’ll ever see a time when I might have something to add BEFORE he needs it is so typically Cam, so typically 18.
We’ve debated curfews and weekends away with ‘the boys’, tracking his whereabouts on his phone and exactly what he should be required to do on his own now that he is suddenly an ‘adult’. He’s smart enough to remember what I was like when his sister left for college and says he’s preparing me for his departure early so it ‘doesn’t hit me so hard’. Somehow I think that’s not possible.
Twenty days from now his first college decisions should start rolling in, more envelopes with not only answers but evidence of the passage of time, the passing of childhood. And just like this week, I’m sure I’ll watch with an eagerness only the mom of an eighteen-year-old knows as he slides deftly open the envelope to reveal his future. I’ll be prepared to hug him tight, either way, to remind him of how proud I am of the adult he’s become, and no matter what, this is only the beginning of the next plot twist of his life.
And as soon as he leaves the room, I’ll likely shed some tears and head back to my writing to start the next part of his story. I hope you’ll ride this one out with me – I’m going to need you.