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Like a River Flows

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They say that our thoughts naturally turn to contemplation of the future when we watch water in motion.

When I was about to turn 60, my brother, Guillaume, died of a glioblastoma multiforme brain tumour and I came across ‘The Waterfall’ by Zen philosopher Shunryu Suzuki.  It is his reflection on life, upon a visit to Yosemite National Park where he observed the cascading waterfalls.  He describes the water coming down ‘like a curtain thrown from the top of the mountain’.

He says ‘…and the water does not come down as one stream, but is separated into many tiny streams….And I thought it must be a very difficult experience for each drop of water to come down from the top of such a high mountain.  It takes time, you know, a long time, for the water finally to reach the bottom of the waterfall.  And it seems to me that our human life may be like this.  We have many difficult experiences in our life.  But at the same time, I thought, the water was not originally separated, but was one whole river.  Only when it is separated does it have some difficulty in falling…Only when separated into many drops can it begin to have or to express some feeling….’

The water in the river is an analogy for ongoing and perpetual life.

Before we are born we are as water in the river: one with it all.  After we are born we are like the droplets of water that get separated from the river as it cascades down the waterfall. We are still water – we are still part of the river of life but we have consciousness about our individual life and persona and we each follow our own path down.  Then there’s that uncanny drive we all have, to be in community with others:  We go down the waterfall, each one alone, occasionally combining with others in puddles and trickles, before separating again, sparkling, creating rainbows, adding our voice to the thunder, as we reunite and form the river below the falls, after this life.

‘When you do not realise that you are one with the river, or one with the universe, you have fear. Whether it is separated into drops or not, water is water. Our life and death are the same thing. When we realise this fact we have no fear of death anymore, and we have no actual difficulty in our life.  When the water returns to its original oneness with the river, it no longer has any individual feeling to it; it resumes its own nature and finds composure.  How very glad the water must be to come back to the original river!’

I’m not a religious person, but I’ve come to understand why it remains important in so many lives.  I am fascinated by the conversations about ‘what’s my life’s purpose?’ that is the foundation piece in life coaching.  Is the coaching conversation the new confessional? (Except that the coach moves from the premise that you already have the answer within you, rather than that it was written a long time ago by a prophet or a disciple.)

I know, because he told me, that Guillaume approached death, not as the completion of a journey, but as taking an exit off the highway, heading into a new direction that he could anticipate, but towards a destination one cannot imagine. For me, his exit was that final glittering cascade into the main river at the bottom of the falls:  A river that will travel who knows where, but which represents a perpetual continuity of life.  My brother would’ve turned 72 on August 5th.  He escaped this world of escalating global warming when he was 63. It was painful to see him suffer and painful to let go.

Typically I don’t think about this stuff when I’m at my desk – I think of office and work stuff.  But just let me get out on the water and my mind naturally moves into a state of connectedness – of peace and pleasure and comfort with myself and everything that touches me in the present; and about the future.

The thing about water is that it FEELS alive.

I love swimming and kayaking on and on and on, ever further into the lake where I live.  It has always felt like my natural medium. My mind stills and I remember those who have gone down that waterfall before me and have rejoined the river. It is not a sad reflection. There’s nostalgia and there is a deep inner joy that they had been in my life.  Yet often I’m travelling a route on the lake with the people who are in my life right now, in their own kayaks too. The lake to me is a sort of holding pattern – it’s where I hang out with my friends and family and where I go meditating by myself, reflecting on those who have rejoined the river at the bottom of the falls.

I’m not frightened of drowning, so I just keep going even though I know I don’t have the stamina of a 40-year old. Sometimes it is hard because the wind blows directly against you, but it fills me with a sense of adventure and it is deeply gratifying to feel the strength in my arms and shoulders as I plough my way through and get home safely. Your sixties is a great physical and mental space to occupy – full of experience and solutions that work, full of memories of people and adventures, and also still full of creative possibilities. You can still dream although your dreams have lost the naïvete of youth.

This, the summer of 2016 is a dry one.  The lake is lower than it’s been in years. Places that were safe to kayak a mere 14 days ago are now populated with huge boulders rising up like angry hippos or lurking just under the surface of the water, ready to bring the lovely flowing motion of the kayak to a jarring halt.

Beautiful vast beds of lily pads lie shriveled up in crust-curling drying mud.  The water level in the lake has dropped by 5 feet by now.  Today I saw the first posting on Facebook, from someone in my own neighborhood, asking for advice about how to get a dry well replenished. You can call the fire department, I believe, and they go and suck some water out of a nearby lake which they then release into the well that feeds your domestic needs.

It is a very different kind of drought from the ones of my childhood in South Africa. There, when the well is dry, there IS no ‘other lake’ to replenish supplies from.

Lake Charlotte Sept 19 2016

So, as I paddle I ponder Shunryu Suzuki’s waterfall and river and I continue to miss my brother, while seeing the evidence of global warming all around me. I wonder and worry that one day the river will dry up and there will no longer be a waterfall because the infrastructure that supports it has died.  And somewhere in a galaxy far, far away there will be a star ship, its mission to go where they believe no man has gone before, and they will find this dead planet and wonder at the way in which evolution burnt itself out in what looked like it could have been paradise.

©Delphine du Toit 2016

The Roads Less Travelled


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Twice in the past 48 hours my GPS on my not so smart phone encouraged me onto roads very infrequently travelled.

My standard mode of transport is a 9 year old Toyota Corolla – so middle of the road that I regularly have to use the little red button on the remote to find it in parking areas.  It looks like every second car out there.  Moreover, it has no 4X4 capacity.

I’d been listening to Daniel Goleman’s Focus on an audio book as I was travelling.  He talked about wandering minds and I was totally engaged:  for a long time I’ve trusted my subconscious mind to sort out my thinking about things my conscious mind seems incapable of resolving.

When I was younger I thought for a time that I’d made a unique discovery in the power of the unconscious mind, but now I know better.

Nonetheless, it is always wondrously affirming when high cred gurus write best sellers about something I’d discovered for myself.

Truth be told, I constantly had to rewind to catch up to where my mind had started drifting, pulled away by the natural beauty surrounding me on these less travelled roads.  It was as if Goleman was watching me, because he went on to talk about those times when you realise your mind had been wandering and how you would return to an earlier point in reading a book – to the place you last recalled paying attention.  He calls it conscious consciousness – you’re aware of the fact that your conscious mind is at work.

Goleman talks about productive daydreaming – that artists and inventors do a lot of it – it’s where creativity lives.

He draws a distinction between the times when we deliberately gather information or when we concentrate on solving a specific problem, and the times when our brains go walkabout – where they wander off and flirt with new ideas; seeing patterns where no patterns were in evidence before and then sometimes seeing linkages that our problem-solving data-gathering brains simply could not see.

And so my G20160829_175154PS, which seems not to have much of a feel for Cape Breton  Island or Guysborough County, Nova Scotia, enticed me into the walkabout mode, in my car, by directing me to non-existent roads, where I could then choose either problem solving or just free-form exploration.

The rougher the terrain became the more obvious it was that the road was not going to take me to where I was heading.  Yet I kept going.

My curiosity suggested that there were things that needed to be seen, by me, just around the next corner.  My problem-solving mind attempted to remind me that I had never changed a flat tyre on this car and that I don’t even know where the jack is, but my wandering mind wanted to keep going.

It has been a busy and pretty stressful summer with too much going on at the same time – I realised that this mental and physical wanderlust was what I needed. A slightly risky, mildly nerve-wracking adventure, on my own (yes, I could end up being stranded on a logging road in the dark – and I’ve been told of Steven King novels that have anticipated such adventures) but I could also just enjoy experiencing what was there.

The texture of the road’s surface was fascinating: there were water puddles – sometimes slightly daunting to go through, and sometimes the surface was strewn with seriously uneven rocks, as if maybe someone is laying the drainage foundation for what might become a real road in years to come.  I wondered about the reasoning behind all the effort to cut this road here, and to prepare this surface – some of it looked old and neglected, and then, in the middle of nowhere it looked newly attended to in a sort of amateurish way.

That was the first road.

Eventually I ended up in a clear cut site – after travelling through such beautiful forest it was heartbreaking to see. I wondered about the people who earn a living doing this. What is their aesthetic taste? What are their dreams for their grandchildren?  Of course I couldn’t answer that. I turned around and gingerly made my way back to a more credible road and eventually got to my friends’ farm where I visited, ate and slept.

Then the next morning, again, I opted to trust the GPS in travelling a new road – I had never been to Mulgrave, Guysborough or Canso.  And so, with the previous day’s adventure having opened up my mind and giving me renewed curiosity for exploring, I travelled home along the coast, turning off the highway shortly after crossing the causeway that links Cape Breton Island to the mainland.  Goleman was still going on about Focus – he’d now got into climate change and then the usual leadership diatribe about Enron and the corrupt practices that lead to the 2008 meltdown. I wasn’t so much listening to him anymore as enjoying the sound of his voice for company.

I vaguely thought that by not listening but by only hearing, maybe some of his ideas would embed itself in my brain and some time in the future I’ll have a brilliant idea that I would think was my own, and then I’d be awestruck when I’d watch a YouTube of Goleman talking about the same topic, that he and I would have had the same idea.

I was so mesmerized by his voice, my thoughts and the scenery that I didn’t notice that I’d run out of viable road.

The lady in the GPS hadn’t told me to turn off anywhere, so I’d just kept going, and there I was on a very rocky beach road, gradually becoming rougher and less passable. But, the scenery was lovely and I could see – barely – a large ship on the horizon, heading north-east.   And then there were some beach peas flowering right next to the car, and some ducks – I wondered whether they might be eider ducks – they had those long straight Richard Gere-style noses – floating among the shoals just off shore.

So the dog and I got out of the car and went for a walk along a very rocky beach. It was hard going – good work for the ankles, and, I was thinking, for the brain – all those signals between the nerves, tendons and muscles of the foot, being sent, received and interpreted by the brain so that I could keep going.

We eventually returned to the car, both had a long drink of water, shared some raw almonds and as I turned the Corolla through its 180 degree arc I admired the Toyota engineers who had so thoughtfully designed a nice tight turning circle in this most pedestrian of cars.   And then we got onto the designated road to Sherbrooke, Sheet Harbour and other points South-West. I don’t know about Farley The Dog, but my mind was at peace – I’d allowed it free reign to play and it was grateful.  As Stephen Covey says, sometimes the main thing isn’t what you think it is. At least I think he said it. I don’t know. Maybe it’s my own original thought. What do you think?





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My summers in Nova Scotia are defined by the number of kayaking adventures I can pack into a week.  Sometimes I go out alone – for quite long trips – ‘quite long’ in my books usually means several hours, not several days or weeks.  Most often I am joined by friends or family and we choose our direction based on the aggregate of the skills and abilities in the group (and the direction of the prevailing wind, which is sometimes misleading because winds shift around here).

Sometimes this means that I have to pace myself to remain within chatting distance of a convalescing friend; and sometimes it means really having to put some muscle power into keeping up with a much younger, stronger, fitter (male) relative, like a son, grandson or nephew.

We’re all, no doubt, familiar with the expression ‘paddling your own canoe’. According to http://www.phrases.org.uk/ it originated in Malaysia: the following comment on the lack of community spirit among the coffee planters was published in The Selangor Journal: Jottings Past and Present, in 1807.

“If the planters would unite and use their united influence they could start a bank to advance money to deserving young planters… but they won’t do it. They let each poor fellow paddle his own canoe, and if he capsizes and stretches out his hand in despair for someone to save him… they won’t do it.”

Lord Baden-Powell, associated by most with the founding of the Scouts movement, but in my culture associated with the Siege of Mafikeng at the beginning of the second Anglo-Boer War, in later years advanced the concept of self-reliance in a book he titled ‘Paddle your own Canoe’. I’m tempted to digress to stories of the siege: how the British soldiers had to resort to eating horse-meat and the tacit agreement between Boer and Brit that there would be no fighting on Sundays. But then the Brits starting playing cricket on Sundays and so General Cronje (the hero on my side), issued an ultimatum “You stop playing cricket on Sundays or we’re going to start shooting on Sundays.” (Or words to that effect.)  (The Boers were seriously into paddling their own canoes and did not like the Queen’s armies invading their independent republics much at all.)

The Cambridge online dictionary defines ‘paddling your own canoe’ as someone who acts independently and does not need help from anyone else.  The independence of mind implicit in the phrase seems to be contrary to the team-based  workplace cultures that is so de rigour,  and that’s what I want to talk about, by means of telling you about last Sunday’s kayaking adventure with William and Daniel on Lake Charlotte.

Last Sunday I went kayaking with a nephew and a grandson. We each had our own canoe and paddles. We had sandwiches, some energy bars and water. We took sensible clothing to cover us up, against the onslaught of the hot summer sun on the lake waters of Nova Scotia.  There we were: A grandmother on the other side of 60, a nephew on the younger side of 40 and a grandson on the teen side of 20.  Fitness and kayaking competence was not evenly spread, but there was enough to go around to complete a 4 hour exploration not only of the lake I live on but also of the next lake – down the rapids I’ve been avoiding since I discovered them, for fear of not being able to get back home.

We each paddled our own canoe, and yet we were on this adventure together: we paced ourselves, at times lagging behind and at times zooming forward; chatting; occasionally yelping at a splash of cold water; slowing down to point out some loons or eel grass in the middle of the lake where a week ago there was nothing; and a bald eagle swooped overhead just to remind us of the sky above, causing reminiscences about cloud animals spotted in the past.

The fittest and most practiced member of the group didn’t so much set the pace as mapped the course of our journey. Most of the time he was far ahead of us, yet it didn’t feel that he was rushing us. It felt more like his curiosity was pulling him forward. The rest of the party had their own curiosity, but weren’t quite as driven.  We were happy to follow, while staying together in our own comfortable pod. Each paddling their own canoe, but in constant contact (mostly talking, but occasionally we ran into each other too, but always with good humour.)

There was an undefined and flexible gap between the first and the second kayak – it never got to be so great as to lose line of sight, but it was beyond hailing distance, except when the paddler slowed down to experience the stillness of a lily pond and to forecast that good bass fishing seemed likely in that spot.  We were each paddling according to our own understanding of our craft and within our own physical inclinations, imagination and curiosity.  The outlier canoeist is a nephew of mine.  He runs a very successful business started by his parents; his passion is sailing – the adventurous long distance kind – on the wide open Indian Ocean.  Yet his thrill at being on a Canadian lake where nothing man-made was visible other than what we’d brought with us was as great as mine.

I couldn’t help but reflect on theories of leadership and group formation as we moved across the water.  In my own experience of being compelled to work in teams, and subsequently happily to lead and then to coach teams,  paddling one’s own canoe is in fact a component of being a good team member. By failing to paddle at all, or by paddling badly, a team member causes the entire pod of kayakers (or workplace teams) to flounder, lose momentum and direction.  By paddling diligently, you contribute to team cohesion – you share experiences and insights, you make decisions together, you offer and receive help when needed, and everyone moves in the same direction – towards the destination you envisaged as you embarked. By taking responsibility for yourself, inside your own canoe (applying your skills to the best of your ability to manage your resources toward arriving at a common goal), you contribute to team success.

Yet, there are those among us who are loners – who want, not only to paddle our own canoes, but to launch out on our own.  Although we humans are social creatures, there are those among us who are unique – those who shine more brilliantly on their own than confined to a group or team.   The leadership challenge is to recognise that we’re not all equally anxious to be team players, even though we may very well be as committed to the same goals – we just have different ways of getting there.  The leadership challenge is to enable those entrepreneurial spirits to blossom in their own canoes, off on their own adventures, and to make it possible for them to come back with their creative ideas in a way that stimulates excitement and engagement in the rest of the team, rather than resentment that everyone isn’t treated the same.

IMG_20160731_202306The greater leadership challenge is in being that entrepreneur – that outlier – who wants to go further and faster, who needs to know when to come back and how to share the experience in a way that excites and motivates the stay-at-home pod. And, sometimes, in slowing down and bonding with the pod, because if the leader is too far removed, too often, the bond weakens, jealously surfaces and trust is at risk.

And, my final point is that the leader who thinks s/he has all the answers and all the dreams is bound to run afoul of the team.  As the text books all say, leaders need to be visionaries but they also need to be collaborators if they want team cohesion and trust.  So when that lone kayaker, approaching the next set of rapids, realises that the connection with the pod is at risk, he comes back, and asks what the pod would like to do next.  “Swim and eat lunch.”  And so the entrepreneurial leader and the pod agree to head to an island in the middle of the lake where they moored the canoes, plunged into the water where they each swam and floated as they saw fit, and afterwards came back to eat their sandwiches and drink some water.

©Delphine du Toit 2016

The Speed of Trust – reflections upon

The lid stays on

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My son gave me a Vitamix for Christmas. 

I’ve become pretty proficient at creating interesting and sometimes compelling smooth greenies as a result.  I’ve developed quite a taste for them, in fact.

It is a formidable machine. It is to blenders what the Lexus is to cars.  Some might even say it’s what a Kirby is to vacuum cleaners.  It has never let me down and it maintains an awesome presence in my kitchen.  I use it several times a week.

But I don’t yet trust it.

You see, when I was about 6 (a long, long time ago), my father came back from the USA with an Osterizer.  Sure I’d seen milkshake machines in cafés (as we called corner stores back in the Old Country), but no-one owned their own private machine that could whip milk, sugar, food colouring and flavouring into a crazy frothy delicious drink, right in the privacy of your own home.

There was a slightly domed stainless steel lid that had a lip which fit snugly inside the top rim of the stainless steel jug, with a tiny air hole right in the middle.  After dropping all your ingredients into the jug you had to wedge the lid firmly into position before throwing the ‘on’ switch.

The most important thing I learnt from the Osterizer was about trust.  It had a propensity for popping its lid and spreading its largesse all over the kitchen.  It became a cast-in-stone rule that you had to keep your hand firmly on the lid for as long as the motor was running.

I must have made at least 10,000 hours’ worth of beverages with my hand on that machine because I am highly skilled at maintaining a firm hand on the lid of a blender – any blender. (Per Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers description of what made Bill Gates and the Beatles great – 10,000 hours of skills practice.)  On the other hand, it also means that I’ve never learnt to trust blenders.

Then, late last year I signed up for a new online health program, called WildFit (Yes, OK,  I admit: It’s the creation of the son who gave me the Vitamix and it is a great program. Trust me.)

They recommended a green smoothy they call an AlkaGizer.

I wasn’t convinced that I wanted to reduce my salads to green slush, and so resisted the pressure to acquire a blender. Then as the pressure became more than I could bear, I went to Value Village and bought one for $12. It lasted for about 4 rounds with the spinach, celery, avocado and other stuff.  The smell of burnt electrical wiring was a bit off-putting.  I went back, got another one, and another. I maintained a firm hand on all of their lids for as long as their motors worked, but still had several spills.  For example, there was the time that I stepped back, just two steps, to answer the phone. Just as I was out of reach of the lid, it released like a Frisbee.  It was ugly, what happened next, AND I learnt never to let go of the lid while the motor was running.

Keep all hands on deck

So when the Vitamix entered my life I knew where to keep my hand. Friends and relatives with Vitamixes had made me very nervous in the past by filling them up with all sorts of stuff and then letting them blend at the highest of speed and decibels while they went back to do the dishes or something, on the other side of the kitchen.   This blender goes so much faster and in a so much more determined fashion than any I’d used before.  It is seriously intimidating. And that, then, is where the speed of trust comes in.

“When things go slowly you have time to assess, judge; and test against your own beliefs.”

Building trust is like that, except that some of us are more capable of taking a giant leap into the abyss: Trust immediately, totally. Then, if it pays off, you trust both yourself and the other more deeply.  If it doesn’t pay off, the other person’s trust score crashes through the floor quite quickly. Your trust in your own judgement isn’t necessarily immediately compromised, unless over time, you are confronted with the evidence of what?  That you have poor judgement? That other people are all untrustworthy?  A little of both? And then you have to rethink your approach to trust.

Those of us who are more cautious take the Steven Covey savings account approach – each nickel of trust has to be earned, and gradually they build up in the savings account until you get to a point of trust. Then trust starts being able to build interest: Once a solid baseline trust investment has been made the speed of trust accelerates rapidly and you’re ready for great adventures together.  The risk in this approach is that sometimes the other person does something to break trust with you, or you blow the lid off yourself.  In this paradigm, because trust was so hard-earned; because it took so long to build; it is all the more painful when it breaks.   It crashes and burns.  Fury is unleashed.  The lid comes off the blender and your entire universe is besmirched with the debris of broken trust. It feels impossible to rebuild anything. It’s easier to pack up and move away.

Then I saw the speed of trust in a mediation.

I recently worked with a family who wanted to find a new way of interacting – their wounds from perpetual misunderstandings, wrong assumptions and unexpressed emotions had brought them to mediation.

In one of our conversations one person suggested adopting a rule to trust each other.   The non-verbal reaction rippled through the room like an incoming rip-tide and I had to say out loud:

“You don’t negotiate trust.

Dictating a rule that you must trust isn’t going to work.”

Trust comes in the process of negotiating.  If you’re communicating in good faith, in a respectful manner, and towards a mutually beneficial common purpose, trust will come.  I told them about the Covey bank account.  It made sense to them.  The conversation became about how to seek to understand, and about how to use empathy and feedback (verbal and bio):  They agreed to adopt a principle instead of a rule:  Reflect: “Did the person understand what I intended to communicate or did I inadvertently step on a sore toe?”

The energy in the room became electric as everyone wanted to share their ideas on how they could improve the way they’ve been with each other.  “I’m embarrassed that I never knew,” declared one participant, about the impact his rather sharp tongue had had on the others.

When mediation’s results become visible

By the time we said our goodbyes that evening I knew that the mediation was over:  I had taken my hand off the lid of the blender.  I trust that they will work things out further because they have the right ingredients to work with: love; the willingness to rebuild trust; a common purpose; personal insight and introspection; and a determination to make it work.   I am slightly nervous that they will move too quickly into the high-speed setting, but I have such faith in the process we followed that I also trust that the lid will stay on and they’ll create a great new way of sharing their lives.

I also believe that even if the lid does come off because the pressure was misjudged, and the blender spreads everything all over the kitchen of their lives, that they will use that experience to clean up and start again, at a slower setting to begin with – where trust is nurtured until it blooms.

Lao Tzu

My offer to you is this:  If you’d like to receive a few amazingly tasty recipes for smooth greenies (that area SO GOOD and GOOD FOR YOU too), then message me here.  

And, if you want to restore a relationship damaged by loss of trust, message me here. 

© Delphine du Toit 2016


Four Decades of Being a ‘Senior’

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There are more and more forecasts that more and more of us will live to be one hundred.

Our eligibility for Canada Pension kicks in at 60. For many of us that marks the beginning of our new status – we’ve moved from middle-aged to being senior.  At 65 all sorts of perks kick in. As long as you admit that you’re over the hill people will give you discounts for all sorts of stuff.

My personal favourite is that I no longer get fined for having overdue books and movies from the library.  Just as my memory shifts into ‘cruise’ and I don’t always know where I left them, I don’t need to worry because I’m off the hook.  I think there may be a connection between the reduction in responsibilities and mental deterioration. Not that I know much of anything about brains and memory, just thinking out loud, as it were.

Canadian Association of Retired Persons

I attended the annual general meeting of CARP the other evening.  I have a few things I could say about that too – “CARP” is an acronym for Canadian Association of Retired Persons, although many at the meeting told me that they were still working and still running their businesses.  Many are hard at it, volunteering all over the place. Busy people out for the evening, with a purpose. A formal meeting at which we moved and seconded the acceptance of reports, minutes, applauded the granting of an award, and chatted with the sponsors who had their wares on display on the side of the room.

One person suggested that the R should be reframed as ‘R = Rejuvenated’.  That was certainly a better thought than the one I had, with ‘R = Retreaded’.

carp_clipart_TTo me, they have the wrong logo – the carp is an Asian fish that has caused grievous ecological damage in its non-native world.  Someone at the meeting told me that the carp is a symbol of good fortune in Japan – probably some of the reasoning behind the rich man’s fetish with spending thousands on keeping koi – ugly, dull, sluggish, boring fish. One man’s good fortune is another’s poison. So it is with carp then.  Good fortune is not what carp brought to South Africa, nor to North America.

So yes, I deviate at a serious tangent here, but I think CARP needs a logo change.

Elder Mediation

The reason I travelled all the way into town wasn’t so much that I’m a meeting junkie or that I like criticizing people’s choice of art work.  No, I went because I wanted to introduce my new service to the CARP folk.  I was invited by a colleague, Jim Dalling, to participate in the Elder Mediation display he was able to put on, as a result of becoming one of the sponsors of the meeting.

The meeting was so well attended the organizers had to request extra chairs – how often does THAT happen at a meeting of a voluntary association? (Not very often, in MY experience.)  I was impressed.

Funny though, this was really my cohort – the folk who have come out alive at the other end of a lifetime of working for other people; the folk who have their fair share of wrinkles and grey hair.  I’d expected to know several people. Instead I knew no-one but Jim and he’s young. He’s my boys’ age.  There was a great deal of camaraderie among the folk – clearly they’ve been together in this organization for many a year.  It looked like an authentic community of people with a great deal of interests in common.  I liked what I saw.

CARP NS AGM June 2016Four Generations of Seniors

What struck me as I milled around was how we have this crazy thing of lumping all ‘seniors’ together when we talk about generations.  There’s a tendency not to differentiate between the generations beyond 60.  This has the effect, I believe, where the young and viable seniors (yes, like me) are dismissed as out of it; irrelevant; dependent; in need of help; mentally slow; creaky; and in need of humouring – not to be engaged with in any serious conversation.  And the older you get, the worse that disempowering assumption becomes, even though you may still be a retired orthopaedic surgeon researching new ways of doing a triplanar osteotomy.

Many years ago when I was doing my final course work for my MSW at Dalhousie University, I did an independent study on the politicization of the elderly.  My professor, CG “Giff” Gifford, was heading towards retirement and had a strong interest in the power of the grey vote as it might serve the cause of protecting the natural environment. He wanted to deepen his understanding of how older people – seniors/elders/geriatrics might be engagable on the issue of environmental protection even though they were approaching the last years of their lives.  He believed that their love and dreams for their grandchildren would fuel an environmental altruism and a quest for peace (he was an RCAF veteran of WWII) that could be the collective fuel for a Gray Panthers movement – potentially a powerful voters’ bloc that would influence national policy.

In our conversations and my research I then first realised that there are multiple generations in the ‘seniors’ category, and that they are as different from one another as the differentiation we indulge in now, when we talk about Gen X, Millennials, etc.  Back then I was in my 30s and being old seemed like a very long way off – the differentiation between the recently retired and the very old was of academic interest – I read the research only with an eye on writing an A+ paper. Now, as I compare and contrast the folk in attendance at the CARP meeting with some of the folk I see at retirement homes and assisted living arrangements the difference is very real to me.  I wish I’d kept that paper to see what I thought back then.  I did the second best thing this morning. I ordered Giff’s book from Amazon.

My new career – plus what I already do, not a replacement.

And so as I progress in my new career as an elder mediator I’m beginning to see the importance of serving as a link between generations.  Not that I interpret one generation to the other, but that I facilitate the conversation they need to have to understand and appreciate each other at an authentic level.

People typically resort to elder mediation because the younger generation has to step into the role of decision-maker and caregiver and they can’t agree on how to do it, and sometimes the older generation won’t cooperate, or gives up too quickly, or simply isn’t capable of playing any role any more in making decisions of any kind.  Who knows how families dealt with this stuff a hundred years ago.

What I know now, based on what I’ve learnt and experienced, is that it is far less painful to take on that shift in roles in a collaborative and constructive way than to avoid admitting the change until it is too late.   So.  I’m convinced that the career I’m moving into now is immensely helpful.  I expect to be doing this work still for a long, long time, and I expect it to make a great positive difference in hundreds of lives.

WhDelphine du Toit Mediatorat more can you ask for, really?

“Eat your peas” and Conflict Resolution


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I was recently asked about my background in conflict management/resolution, and specifically, how many years’ experience I have in the field.

I help people with all sorts of conflict –

  • The inner conflict you have when you should have stood your ground but didn’t, which you still regret after all these years;
  • The insidious conflict in the workplace where a person specializes in creating cliques of in- and out-groups through gossiping, ‘sharing’ strategic corporate information with their select group in a way that suggests a strong power base vs. a bunch of naïve drones who are the members of the ‘out’ group; and
  • The open warfare of strongly held opposing positions where neither side will budge and important decisions fail to be taken, typically to the detriment of employees and the organization.

This is all workplace oriented though.

I also help people with the conflicts in their personal lives:

  • The family that cannot agree on ‘what to do with mom’ as frailty and reduced mental acuity takes their toll on someone who may previously have been the key decision-maker and controller of resources in the family;
  • The siblings that carry years of relationship baggage that makes every Christmas a nightmare;
  • The disagreement with the neighbor about blocking your driveway with his car,
  • and so on.

My response to the question about my experience was spontaneous and not part of what I’d prepared as a succinct and compelling professional representation of my marketable skills.  I said “It all started at the dinner table when I was the little girl who refused to eat her peas”.  The audience laughed and I carried on with the more professional version of who I am.  Yet, afterwards, I had all sorts of people coming over, wanting to find out more and asking for my business card.  Several made reference to the peas story.

As I said that thing about the peas I immediately regretted it: I thought I’d got it wrong because offering  my childhood stubbornness as a credential in my service as a conflict resolution guru would signal the wrong thing.  I was concerned that I’d created the impression of someone who likes quarrelling and winning. But no, apparently I had discovered a new rule about public speaking:  Not only giving the folks something to laugh about because they can relate so personally to what you said; but also peak their curiosity by not telling them the whole story. No pontification about the message or credentials.

Many of the people who came to speak to me wanted to know how the pea story ended and THEN asked for my business card.




Get Beyond the Bad of Stress. But you Must Want To.

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Stress is a natural part of life.  In limited doses it is good for you – for your brain and for your body. When your brain grabs hold of some old unresolved quarrel, though, and it simply won’t let go, you can end up in a chronic state of stress which is not good for you at all.

In my conflict management coaching practice I often work with clients who have been harbouring the pain and stress of long-ago conflicts that remain unresolved.  It’s very gratifying to see a client shift in their relationship with that long-ago conflict, how they develop clear intention about the way forward and then go ahead and change things.

Recently, in a webinar on mindfulness, the facilitator used the term ‘adventitious suffering’. I had never heard of ‘adventitious’ yet my intuition, applied in context, suggested to me that that’s the suffering I help my clients with.  And so it makes sense to look at it more closely than I have, thus far.

I’m starting you off with the quote below, from the Washington Post article “To Survive Stress, Keep It Brief” by Cecilia Capuzzi Simon.  (Dec 13, 2005):

The body makes no distinction between immediate, in-your-face stressors and chronic, in-your-imagination ones, Sapolsky said. Faced with either kind of threat, the body reacts, and when the threat is sustained psychologically, the physically destructive stress response continues.”

To me it is a bit like tinnitus then – it is in your head, and your head keeps it alive by revisiting it. Your brain looks for it; and in looking, creates it.  If your brain would stop looking it would stop creating and there would be no tinnitus, or, no adventitious suffering.

It isn’t pleasant to be stuck in a perpetual conversation with yourself about an old conflict.

You’re inclined to do the ‘what if/if only’ thing which does what? Stimulates stress hormones.  Long term exposure to stress hormones is not a good thing, the doctors tell us.  There’s no reason not to believe them. So what to do about it?

In conflict management coaching we drill into that stressful thinking pattern in your head – figuratively speaking. We expose it and we poke around until we know its full nature and dimension.  We see the assumptions that led to things being said or not said.  We see the values that were violated when a line was crossed. The client realizes that assumptions by the other person may also have steered things off course.  As the picture becomes clearer and the noise in their head simmers down, the client, with the coach’s help, considers their options in getting rid that adventitious suffering.

Sometimes forgiving the other person does the trick; often forgiving yourself works. Sometimes there’s more action – like inviting the other person to a mediation meeting, for some exploration – chances are they’re also in the adventitous suffering bull pen.  Having a common goal of getting rid of the pain is a good place to start. Achieving it is always a great cause for celebration – especially when the pain is replaced by mutual respect and agreement to ‘let’s not do that again’.

For Ms. Simon’s full article, click here.

If you recognize yourself in some of this, consider that the timing of this blog is perfect – you can start your process of getting rid of that circular pain saw in your head right now.   Who’re you going to call?  Me. Call me, of course.


What does resilience really look like, anyway?

From Wikipedia on Indian Ocean Cyclones 1993/4

<1457 words – yes, this is a long one but it contains an interesting story and some pictures :-)>

And, I’ve added a link at the bottom of this blog to a very informative article on resilience that appeared in the New Yorker in Feb 2016. More on the science of….

Screenshot (36)

Do any of these words sound like things you already do?    Are you working on becoming more resilient? Which of these words and phrases make sense to you in that context, or in other words, do they sound like descriptors of what you consider resilience to be?

One of the dangers of adopting popularized words for the things we deem important is that we try to be things we are not, because the fullness of the concept unclear.  We talk about them as things we must have, and if we don’t have them, or if we are not like that, somehow we are deficient and need to work harder.

In thinking about resilience of course I explored what the Internet had to offer – all the words in that picture come from sites that talk about what resilience is or what you should do to get it.

  1. From a website, a definition: Resilient people are able to utilize their skills and strengths to cope and recover from problems and challenges. These problems may include job loss, financial problems, illness, natural disasters, medical emergencies, divorce, or the death of a loved one.”
  2. The human mind is a remarkable organ – we will each reframe what we read to suit our understanding of ourselves and the world. And so some of us will believe we’re following the good and well-intentioned advice while, in reality, we pursue a glorious path towards self-sabotage. It’s like reading about a weight-loss diet and then trying it on your own, without understanding anything about nutrition, metabolism or habits.

I’m not a resilience guru, but I AM a resilience practitioner.

There’s a fine line between being resilient and being an Adrenalin junkie.   I think I’m on the resilient side of the line, fortunately. There’s an equally fine line between being resilient and being numb.

I was an Adrenalin junkie many years ago, when I was engaged in warfare with an alcoholic partner and some rebellious teenage sons.   I claimed to be drained by it all and wishing for peace, but I sought the fights with my adrenal glands in overdrive, until I burnt out and had to retreat. I retreated so thoroughly that I changed continents, and then moved into the numb quadrant.

Numbness is where you claim, and/or believe, that you are strong and you can overcome any adverse conditions that may come your way, which can cause survival but not personal growth.

In truth, numbness is where you avoid engagement – you are emotionally detached; you pretend to lack ambition; you pretend to have ‘moved beyond’ looking for love or sex.  You are able to achieve great things, ironically, in a state of numbness, I found.  I did well in the job I acquired on the other continent, made new friendships, and reconnected with my family of origin (vs. my own family of my own loins and loves).  Because I avoided the highs I also succeeded in avoiding the lows. My expectations were managed; my emotions regulated; I had a great sense of control; I saw myself as a survivor and not a victim – all the stuff the resilience gurus on the Internet advocate. I believed I had great self-awareness. I once told my ex-husband, during this time that “I’m the sanest person either of us knows.”  I truly believed it.

And so I viewed myself as resilient through those years of my life, and in many ways I was, but it was not the resilience that I now believe is the real thing.  I’ve moved on way beyond being numb. I can even tell you when it happened.

I was in Tanzania, in 1993/94, working as a labour relations consultant to the expat management team at the Tanzania Breweries.

One Sunday the Dar es Salaam-based expat group decided to go to a beach south of the Dar harbour, for a braai (BBQ) and an afternoon on the beach. Fathers, mothers, kids, beet salad, steak, beer – the works. Loaded into a convoy of 4X4s, it was a mini African adventure.  It was a great afternoon and the group members did various things collectively and separately.  Some took the kids to the beach to play cricket, some stayed in the shelter of the boma and drank beer and chatted.  The waves looked great for body surfing and so I headed into the Indian Ocean.

I’d never swum there before and the other folks in the group weren’t much into swimming, so there was little knowledge to draw on about where it might be the safest to swim.   I learnt many things from my father, and watching and reading the ocean was one of those things. I could see from the pattern of the long curl of the waves, the crash, and the fizzling roll onto the beach, the back wash, that it was fine and safe.  They were great surfing waves.

The surfing was wonderful.  Never had I surfed in such warm water.  But gradually the size of the rollers was getting bigger. And bigger. I realized I was spending more time diving under great big breakers just before they broke, to avoid being tumbled, than I was surfing. In fact, it was no longer possible to surf. The waves came in a short-wave pattern – I hardly had time to come up for air before I had to duck under again.

When I looked back at the beach, briefly, risking being tumbled as I turned my head away from the waves, I      found to my horror that the cricketers on the beach had reduced in size to no more than large ants.  There was no point in shouting – my voice would not have carried.  I attempted waving but no-one was watching, and without binoculars it was unlikely that they’d even realize that I was in trouble.  It was a remote, desolate, African beach – no life guards, no rescue boats.  I had to get myself back.

Die_Eiland_RobbergDuring my summer seaside holidays South African I had learnt a great technique for getting back to shore when the waves became scary  – you take a deep breath and dive under the giant breaker, heading toward the open ocean -into  the path of the next waves. You then stick your legs out as far as you can, pointing to the beach, so that the energy of the breaking wave would pull you closer to the shore, without tumbling and tossing all of you.  I did that for a long time; wave after churning wave.  I gained ground.  I finally made it back.   When I approached my colleagues, drenched; exhausted;  proud and relieved; one of them said “You are REALLY sunburnt – you should be careful with this tropical sun – you swam for far too long.”

That night, as I watched TV in bed in my hotel, the main news report was about the damage that had been caused by a cyclone that had made its way to the Swahili coast from Madagascar. Seven people had been reported drowned on the Kenyan coast…. I believe the featured image to this blog shows the cyclone I rode that day – it is the one that curls onto the African coast and back into the Indian Ocean.

Was that experience  in the cyclone about knowing the ocean; having great swimming skills; or about resilience?

It was then that I discovered how strong my will to survive was.  And where I realized that this had been a far greater threat to my survival than any I had previously experienced, and that I’d remained calm; focused; confident; patient; and that I’d used my entire body to  get back to safety.  Had I experienced fear?  Only in the abstract, somehow, and then I had shut the fear out – there was no time for fear I was too busy. The Adrenalin that must have been pumping was the ‘fight’ secretion, not the ‘flight’ one.  I had migrated well out of the numb-zone, back into the Adrenalin zone.

I realized afterwards that my crisis was relevant only to me, because I had survived and overcome.

Had I not survived, it would have been dreadful for my hosts, my family, my employers and my friends. I would have turned into a lesson about the foolishness of taking risks.  Not only am I thrilled to be alive to tell this story so many years later, but also to know that it was the lesson I needed to learn to get out of the numb zone into true resilience – what I like to think of as the fight to continue the adventure of life.

Resilience is not merely a skill; nor is it a fixed attribute: You only know you have it when you need it.  It is something we can build and then build upon,  even when you have the natural ability.

Some may lean more naturally towards resilience, but I believe it is something that is a beneficial by-product of working consciously on one’s life in all its aspects – whether it is to be a good parent; an influential leader; being a remarkable kite surfer; an unpublished author of a ground-breaking scientific book; or an extreme mountaineer.  It’s a bit like those other parts of being human: intuition and empathy.  You have them, but until you know you have them they aren’t of much use to you or anybody else.  And, until you use them you can’t know you have them.

You have you find your own model of resilience – there is no finite formula.


Set your sail to the winds that buffet you – not merely to survive but to continue the adventure of your life.




PS.  When you’re trying to sort out how to deal with a conflict, much of what is described as resilience is handy to have in your repertoire.   I do, of course, work with people who want to come through and learn from the conflicts in their lives.  SO:  Contact me , and refer your conflict-stressed friends. Conflict management coaching really works.


New Yorker: How people learn to be resilient



In preparation for my previous blog (YOU DO NOT HAVE TO FIRE NEGATIVE FRIENDS) I looked around on the Internet for quotes.  I landed on one of my favourite sites www.businessballs.com where they listed an entertaining elaboration on the theme of whether a glass is half full or half empty.  I enjoyed them so much that I offer a selection for your amusement – copied directly from Businessballs, in the hopes that my readers can add to the discussion there.

is the glass half full or half empty?..

(Most recent last)

This collection continues to grow. If you can extend the debate as to whether the glass is half-full, half-empty, in some other state, or in a different space/time continuum altogether, please send me your contribution. The world needs to know.

Recent additions and names of all contributors appear last. So this collection shows the oldest first and the newest last.

The optimist says the glass is half full…..The pessimist says the glass is half empty.

The project manager says the glass is twice as big as it needs to be.

The realist says the glass contains half the required amount of liquid for it to overflow.

And the cynic… wonders who drank the other half.

The school teacher says it’s not about whether the glass is half empty or half full, it’s whether there is something in the glass at all.


The ground-down mother of a persistently demanding five-year-old says sweetheart it’s whatever you want it to be, just please let mummy have five minutes peace and quiet.


The homebuilder sees the dirty glass, washes and dries it, then puts it away in a custom oak and etched glass cabinet that he built himself using only hand tools.

The worrier frets that the remaining half will evaporate by next morning.

The entrepreneur sees the glass as undervalued by half its potential.

The computer specialist says that next year the glass capacity will double, be half the price, but cost you 50% more for me to give you the answer.

The first engineer says the glass is over-designed for the quantity of water.

The computer programmer says the glass is full-empty.

The Buddhist says don’t worry, remember the glass is already broken.

The logician says that where the glass is in process of being filled then it is half full; where it is in the process of being emptied then it is half empty; and where its status in terms of being filled or emptied is unknown then the glass is one in which a boundary between liquid and gas lies exactly midway between the inside bottom and the upper rim, assuming that the glass has parallel sides and rests on a level surface, and where it does not then the liquid/gas boundary lies exactly midway between the upper and lower equal halves of the available total volume of said glass.


The personal coach knows that the glass goes from full to empty depending on the circumstances, and reminds the drinker that he can always fill the glass when he wishes.

The grammarian says that while the terms half-full and half-empty are colloquially acceptable the glass can technically be neither since both full and empty are absolute states and therefore are incapable of being halved or modified in any way.

The contrarian says: When everyone sees the glass half-empty, I see it half-full, and vice versa.


The physicist says that the glass is not empty at all – it is half-filled with water and half-filled with air – hence, fully filled on the whole!


The person who is no longer trapped in The Matrix (whatever one might call him/her) says: “There is no glass…”

The adolescent student says the glass is just another dirty trick played by the teacher to prove that students are dumb.




The co-dependent hurries to fill your glass, but not so completely that you would spill it and get upset. Because when you get upset…



Schrödinger’s cat doesn’t want anyone to observe the glass to begin with.

The police officer says: “I’ll ask the questions.”


The banker says: “I see an opportunity! Let’s put a couple of options on the full half and leverage it until it’s too big to fail, then sell a tons of it… Heck! While we are at it, let’s do the same to the empty half and sell that too!”


The politician says that under the last government the glass was half-empty, and becoming emptier, but thanks to his own party’s new leadership, the glass is definitely now half-full, and becoming fuller; but if the other party were to return to power, the glass would once again undoubtedly empty rapidly.

The call-centre operator asks if you’d mind holding while she finds out for you. (Your call is important to them…)

The IT support person asks if you’ve tried emptying the glass and then refilling it.



Google would try to find out for you in under 0.48 seconds.




You Do Not Have to Fire Negative Friends

868 words

When you Google ‘negative friends’ it virtually immediately offers up the highest performing results of the 340,000,000 out there.  Of the ones I examined, most offered survival advice – how to cope with or avoid the negative person, and if all else fails,  how to dump them and find a new friend.

In my younger days I was a bit of a monkey-see-monkey-do learner. So, if I was with someone who was negative, I would copy the negativity.  Once I got good at it, I started working on out-negativing them.  That it was contrary to my natural born optimistic and cheerful nature seemed to show how far off course I was. I lacked the self-confidence to be my natural cheerful self.  Negative people were cool: they had the political analysis; they were critical of anything the bosses might come up with; they had intimate knowledge of the patterns of conspiracy; I sat at their feet in avid admiration because they knew so much more than I did.  Positive and optimistic people were naïve. I did not want to be that. It would not be cool.

One negative man I knew was a very good looking trade unionist in a highly volatile sector in a country in deep political crisis.   He was so burdened by his deep appreciation of exactly how bad things were that he virtually walked with a limp.  I invited him to be a guest speaker at a joint labour-management conference once, because I was in awe of how serious and critical he was – try as I might, I could NOT out-negative him.  I had a wake-up call about him when one of the shop stewards in attendance at the conference asked me, privately, why I would ask such a negative man to come and speak at an event where the agreed intent was on finding areas of common interest in order to rebuild relationships.  I said “well, because he’s so high up in the trade union movement and very knowledgeable.”  The shop steward’s response was:

“We’ll never rebuild this country with people like that on the podium.”

That was a long time ago. Nelson Mandela was still in jail.  I found that I struggled to find my feet: if we could not listen to these people with their hyper-critical and humorless analyses, who could we listen to? Who would guide us?  I continued for a time to fall victim to negativity – indeed, I would say that I was bullied by such a person, to the extent that I quit my rather lovely job with the business class seats and the five star hotels.  But it is what I learned afterwards that is of value:

Avoiding negative people isn’t always possible. Moreover, it changes nothing.

Engaging them ON THEIR NEGATIVITY, now THERE is a courageous act.  The first time I tried it was with a very dear friend who had sunken into a negative funk about perpetual frustrating failures in obtaining financing for a project he so firmly believed in.  I had recently undertaken the journey of learning to be a coach, and with that, the art of re-framing and the tactic of ‘holding up the mirror’.

Re-framing is where you see, and then point out, the silver lining around the storm cloud.

(“It’s raining AGAIN: I can’t stand it” – re-frame about the rain – “Yes, it’s wonderful how the rain is soaking into the forest floor – we’re bound to see lots of Mayflowers the next time we go for a walk.” OR “Yes, can you imagine how the Musquodoboit River is tumbling downstream – do you want to go kayaking down the rapids when the rain stops?”)

Holding up the mirror is where you give the other person honest and respectful feedback:

“When you keep emphasizing the negative it gives me the impression that you’re never satisfied with anything – that you’re stuck in a miserable life. Is that so?”


“I find it really hard to spend time with you when you’re so negative. Is there something we can do to make our time together more fun?”

That friend I mentioned:  He’s lived a difficult life.  He’s had more than his fair share of setbacks. Maybe he’s entitled to be negative? On the other hand, does his negativity not hold him back?  What I do know is that, since I held up the mirror to him, it has become easy to break the negative spell. I just need to say “Hey! You’re doing that negative thing again”, or “this conversation isn’t enjoyable anymore” and he stops. He rethinks and he re-frames. I’m not claiming that his life has turned around as a result of my actions. What I’m telling you is that there’s no way our friendship will ever flounder on the rocks of negativity because we’ve named it and we have moved on.  When it tries to creep back, one of us just has to say ‘it’s B-A-C-K’ and it STOPS. And we laugh, together.

Two little figures in the snow

I believe it is better to take the negativity head-on. It takes courage and curiosity.

Courage because the other person may initially escalate the negativity; curiosity because the potential for positive fallout is huge – wouldn’t you like to see where a relationship can go when you work at it, rather than walking away?

© Delphine du Toit 2016