Shots Fired! Wild Horses to the Rescue

This is the fifth in a series of posts that offer a caricature of the seven combatants that grew up on Peary Street. These brief sketches also point to the third guideline of symmentropy, the way people respond to what we say is rarely what we expect.

Third rule of nonlinear storytelling

Storytelling rarely produces the outcome we expect.

It could have been the first time in over 20 years that the seven children of Peary Street were in the same room at the same time. It could have been a time of warm greetings. It could have been a moment of shared grief. It could have been a lot things, a whole range of possibilities, but it turned into a meeting of a board of directors planning hostile takeovers.
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Because I had not seen most of my siblings in over 20 years, my expectations were limited to getting to know who these people had become and giving them a chance to know me. I hoped that we would spend some time filling in the blanks. I hoped that we would share our stories and look to a future without our father. I hoped that the family I left behind had found a way to overcome their anger and resentments. I hoped that my brothers and sisters had some idea how important they were to the hurricane. Things could have turned out better. The first words made it clear that personal animosity still ruled Peary Street.

The youngest sister, the artist, the liberal, had not arrived from her home in Connecticut. I did not have the stories, but the rest of the group knew the history of her chronological challenges. The two younger brothers announced that they had been named executors of the estate and were in charge. The second sentence defined all of my family's interactions, past and future, as they announced that our liberal, artist was on the road, and they were glad to get started before she arrived so that they could “get things done”. The seat beneath me still felt basement cool while I recovered from the realization that for the denizens of Peary Street, it was business as usual.

I walked into that room expecting to find that my family had grown into a different dynamic than the one that I had known. I did not know the stories of the Big Kids continued resistance to joining in the family activities. The stories of the Little Kids returning to Peary Street without addressing the simmering anger putting on the show of the happy family, only became apparent over the next several months. I was unaware that my oldest sister had been separated from her husband for a while and that the coming divorce would consume her. I had not heard the stories of my older brother devoting his energy to his wife as she dealt with both of her parents' slow descent due to Alzheimer's. We never shared the stories of the Little Kids feeling so intimidated by the detachment of the Big Kids.

I thought I was the only one of the seven that did not have the stories that could define us to each other. When I removed myself from the group, I expected that I would lose the thread of the stories and so I approached them as strangers. I wanted to know about the Little Kids and how their lives had changed. Instead, all that I had was the caricatures of my youth. Our parents' insistence that stories remain untold prevented all of us from knowing each other. I was left wondering what had happened to my youngest brother's sense of humor, which was completely missing. I wanted to know why his brother was so angry with his sister and whether he ever stopped talking like a lawyer so that he could try to sound like a brother who had lost his father. As I talked with my brothers and sisters over the next several days, it became apparent that they either could not or would not provide the stories.

As I flew back to Texas after the funeral, the disappointment mixed with the sadness to produce a good level of Peary Street induced anger. Years ago, I would have allowed that to drive me further away. By the time the plane landed in West Texas, my thoughts were on the small herd of mustangs that would greet me. The similarities between a herd and a family reminded me that getting mad at the horses because they establish their own pecking never produced anything but angry people. Getting mad about any group of people establishing a pecking order cannot have a better outcome. I knew that I would allow the horses to guide my responses to my family and remember to keep my horse sense.

When I began teaching classes based on dynamic systems approaches, some of my students grabbed the concept, while some gave me blank stares all semester long. One that stared blankly showed up every new semester to try again. One summer session, I organized a class that met in our paddock and focused on the mustangs use of body language to organize the herd. We worked with the wild horses to understand their body language and how to talk back to them with shoulders, hips and eyes. We moved with them, and my students began to see the horses testing them to see where they fit in the pecking order. Near the end of the class the blank stare was replaced by a sparkle that only a teacher can appreciate.

The young women that I met with that shy blank stare leaned against the fence with self possessed calm while she explained to me that in the courses she had taken before, she thought that I had left some of my common sense on the east coast. Then she straightened up off the fence and said, “I get it now! Everything for 3 semesters makes sense from watching your mustangs!” I saw her again about a month later when she bounced into my office to tell the story of a family gathering she had attended. She told me that she could see how the family kept people in assigned roles. Then she told me how she had used what she learned from my horses to tell her family about her college courses and what she was doing. Finally, she looked at me and said, “That is the first time my family heard me as an adult. Thank you, so much.”

So, what was the magic phrase that suddenly brought months of course work into perspective? I wish I knew. If I knew, I would have said it months before. The truth about all storytelling is that we never know exactly how our stories will be received. The less we know about the people we are talking to, the more we are guessing about what stories they will understand and use to understand what we are saying. We use the caricatures and stereotypes to give us a framework for guessing how to make our stories clear to a listener. When that does not work, we get impatient and blame the listener. Chaos theory made it mathematically clear to me and mustangs made it flesh and blood clear to me that we cannot expect our stories to be heard the way we tell them. When we are surprised by someone's reaction to our stories, we can only blame our own misjudgment of the audience. We fool ourselves and the surprise shows the world our error.

I thought I met with my siblings with no expectations, but I was the victim of my lack of stories. I expected that all of us had done some growing up and learning about our own strengths and weaknesses. I was wrong. Because I was wrong, I was surprised. It was so easy to fall back into the anger of Peary Street, after all, it used to be my home. My student may have been right about my common sense but this time, I applied some horse sense. I would spend the next five years being reminded that none of siblings ever rode a horse.

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