Following our own yellow brick road

In first grade, my son’s teacher read The Wizard of Oz to the class. I had never read the book, and became curious when Adrian recounted parts of the story that weren’t in the 1939 version of the movie I’d seen. Not long ago, we checked out the recorded book from the library, and listened to it several times.

In the book, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, the Lion, and Dorothy all yearned for things they thought they lacked. The Scarecrow wanted intelligence, the Woodman wanted a to be able to love, the Lion wanted courage, and Dorothy wanted to go home. They were all convinced that the Wizard of Oz could give them these things.

But as problems arose on their journey to see him, the Scarecrow solved them with great resourcefulness and intelligence. Whenever the Woodman witnessed injustice, he wept tears of compassion (which always caused a fuss, because everyone was afraid he would rust. Surely author L. Frank Baum must’ve known that tin doesn’t rust?). The Lion carried his traveling companions across obstacles and defended them when they were threatened. And Dorothy? She experienced “home” as being with those she loved–not just a place to live.

Long before they reached the wizard, they already possessed what they desired. On arriving in Oz, they discovered that the wizard was just a regular person who could not grant their wishes.  But he gave the Scarecrow, the Woodman, and the Lion symbols that represented what they sought, and that seemed to satisfy them. He intended to take Dorothy home in his balloon, but the balloon took off without her.

Dorothy’s journey was the longest. Although the Scarecrow, Woodman, and Lion had already found what they sought, they accompanied Dorothy on a yellow-brick-roadless journey to find Glinda, the Good Witch of the South. It was Glinda who revealed to Dorothy that she (surprise) possessed the ability to go home all along. All she had to do was ask her silver shoes to take her there.

There’s a lot to learn from the Wizard of Oz. As we follow our own roads (yellow brick or otherwise):

  • We find that it is not in anyone else’s power to give us the qualities, characteristics, and things that we seek.
  • We develop the qualities we think we lack by facing the challenges that arise on our journeys.
  • Our life experiences transform our perceived weaknesses into strengths.
  • The shoes that have been on our own feet all along are the ones that will take us home.


One of Kris Wiltse’s illustrations from the Mixed Emotions card deck.

Guilt as a motivational tool

As a child, I believed that I was responsible for my mother’s happiness. The way I ensured her happiness was to behave in exactly the way that she wanted me to. I believed that my mother would love me only if I stayed within the “target zone” of her expectations, and losing a parent’s love is a risk that a young child cannot safely take.

I became a master at reading the subtle changes in her facial expressions and moods and adjusted my behavior accordingly. In my constant attentiveness to her needs, I never became acquainted with my own. In fact, it never occurred to me to want anything that she didn’t.

What I learned from my mother served me well when I went to school, because meeting my teachers’ expectations led to good grades. And it made me a good employee, because I could anticpiate my employers’ expectations and quickly respond to their needs. But I still didn’t know who I was, what my own expectations were, or how to think for myself. That didn’t happen until I was in my late 20’s, when I quit my job, cashed in my 401k, and spent a year in Europe.

The farther I get from childhood, the more I doubt some of my memories–especially those having to do with my mother’s parenting techniques. Fortunately, I have an 8-year-old son, and watching the two of them interact confirms that my memories are accurate. If Adrian doesn’t do what my mom wants, she says something like, “Well that makes me really sad, Adrian.” I watch to see if he will be as consumed by guilt as I would have been, capitulate, and do what my mom wants. But he doesn’t. For him, guilt doesn’t work as a motivational tool, and I am so relieved to know that he has not inherited what I call my “overactive guilt gland.”

When I read Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller, I realized that my mother had used guilt to get her needs met. It takes a special combination of people for that parenting technique to work–a match made in Hell, if you will. Guilt doesn’t motivate Adrian to do her bidding, for example, and it didn’t work on my sister either. But me? Oh, God. On me, it worked in spades.

It has taken a lifetime to overcome the effect that guilt has on me, and I’m still working on it. Even as I write this, I worry that my mother might see this post. What if it hurts her feelings? What if . . .

But the silver lining is that, in the process of working through all this, I created Mixed Emotions.


Kris Wiltse’s illustration for the “Guilty” card from the Mixed Emotions deck.

Is it selfish to be happy?

I once had a conversation with artist/author Jerry Wennstrom that I’ll never forget. I had recently created my card deck, Mixed Emotions, but wasn’t really sure what to do next.

“When will I have met my obligation to the Universe?” I asked Jerry. “Have I already met it by creating Mixed Emotions, or won’t it be met until every single copy in the warehouse is sold?”

“Maybe,” Jerry said, “Your obligation to the Universe is to be happy.”

Isn’t it funny how the biggest epiphanies you’ll ever experience are also the simplest?

I didn’t feel like I had much choice in creating Mixed Emotions. Sometimes you have an idea and sometimes an idea has you. Mixed Emotions was definitely an idea that had me. I felt like I was hand-picked to bring it into being. I enjoyed creating it, but once it was published, I had no idea what to do.

Like many creative people, I didn’t have much experience in business. I also unexpectedly found myself separated from the father of my 12-month old son. Our divorce was final three days after my father died, and a few weeks later, the first few cases of Mixed Emotions arrived from the printer. It was onto this fertile soil that Jerry dropped his seed–the idea that my happiness might just be a worthy and legitimate thing to pursue.

I was not raised to believe that my happiness mattered much. It was the happiness I could give others, especially my mother, that mattered. But, to be fair, how am I doing as a parent? Am I teaching Adrian that nothing is more important than his own happiness? After all, he would’ve been happy if I’d let him skip school yesterday and I said no.

As the creator of a deck of cards, I’ve collected quite a few sets of cards over time. One of my decks is by Esther and Jerry Hicks, and is called The Teachings of Abraham Well-Being Cards. My favorite card sits in a holder above my sink and says simply this:

My happiness is my greatest gift to others

Thanks to Jerry Wennstrom, that is now the motto that I live my life by. And if I can somehow get that across to my son, I will consider myself a success as a parent.


Kris Wiltse’s illustration for the “Happy” card from the Mixed Emotions deck.

Illustrating emotions

When I realized that I had to come up with 60 images, I knew I’d need help. So, I invited three dear and creative friends–Tony Nahra, Rand Babcock, and Peggy Fitzgerald–to join me for regular brainstorming sessions. We sat around my dining room table and tackled one emotion at a time. Each of us silently wrote down images that came to mind, and afterward, we discussed them. Usually, one image emerged as the strongest, and we moved on to the next emotion.

Our ideas enabled me to tell artist Kris Wiltse, “Grief looks like an adult curled up in a fetal position.” Kris drew a rough sketch, and after I approved it, started carving the linoleum blocks. In the case of Grief, the rough draft and the final illustration looked a lot alike:

Grief Grief

But other illustrations went through changes before we settled on a final image. Here are the rough and final versions of Hate, for example:

Hate Hate

These changes came about, in part, because I sent the rough drafts to a group of people via e-mail. The feedback that people sent led to better images.

One of the things I enjoy most is collaborating with others to create something that none of us could have created individually. Being artistically ungifted, there’s nothing better than working with a commercial artist as talented as Kris. But Kris wouldn’t have had anything to illustrate without Tony, Rand, and Peggy. What a gift they gave to me, and to the world!

The best place to see all of Kris Wiltse’s illustrations is in the free e-cards area on the Mixed Emotions web site. Just click a thumbnail to view a larger image.