How To Raise Word Nerds

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Dictionary, unplugged. (crdotx’s flickr photostream)

When I tried to throw our dictionary out my oldest threw a fit.

This is a very old dictionary. It was owned by my Great Aunt Mildred. The book is huge, with indents along the side for each letter of the alphabet. It’s also not in good shape. Threads are hanging out of a nearly wrecked spine and the pages are yellowing. Until recently it sat on our living room trunk, ready to answer all inquiries. As my kids got older and Google got ever closer to our fingertips, I figured we didn’t need it. According to my son, I am wrong. He has more than a sentimental attachment. He knows what this book holds — the power to create word nerds.

Here’s how.

In part, we used the dictionary to settle disputes, which happened more often than you might imagine. I’d be happily snuggled on the couch reading aloud to my kids and run across a word new to them. I’d tell them what it meant but one of those little darlings would invariably question my expertise. Having a writer for a mother may make kids more feisty when it comes to words, I don’t know. They’d rush off to drag the huge volume back to the couch where I’d read the definition aloud. Then we’d wrangle over what the definition really meant. Maybe things are more peaceful at your house.

My kids also used the dictionary for games. Something about having that whale of a book right there in front of them inspired word play. Well, that and a few other factors like parental limits on electronic entertainment.

The games my kids played with the dictionary roughly fall into three categories.

Bet You Don’t Know This Word:   Sibling one-upmanship is rarely pretty, but I can overlook it when it’s a vocabulary builder. Simply open the dictionary, find a tough word, and challenge a sibling to define it. The kid with a finger on the word has to pronounce it correctly, otherwise the challenge doesn’t count. (This meant they’d run to me with pronunciation questions until they got a better grip on phonetic spelling.) Winner on either side may torture family with the word the rest of the day. Other family members should sigh in exasperation, but we know the more a word is used the more likely it is to be understood. Win for vocabulary expansion!

Guess the Right Definition:  There are better ways to play this but our made-up version is easiest. Find an esoteric or outdated word to use as a challenge. On the same page find another word with an entirely different (hopefully strange) definition. Or find two other words to make it harder. Read aloud the challenge word, then mix up the different potential definitions as they’re read aloud. Again, winner may torture the family with the word the rest of the day.

Blackbird:  This is my favorite. Think of a question (one that can’t be answered with a simple yes or no) and ask it aloud, like “Why is my hair curly?” or “Should we get a pet hamster?” Then open the dictionary at random and, without looking, put a finger on the page. Look at the word under your finger and read aloud its definitions. It may take some stretching (a nice use of reasoning powers) to make it fit as an answer, but it usually works. For example, my curly-haired child placed a finger on the word “law.” One of the definitions is “binding force or effect” and another is “regularity in natural occurrences.” That led to a nice discussion about genetics and hair. The hamster question led to the word “fury” which takes little effort to decode, especially when one definition is “angry or spiteful woman.” That would be me, faced with one more pet in this house.

  • So leave a (newer, sturdier) dictionary out in your house. Let your kids see you use it regularly. Help them use it and display interest as you do.
  • Play some word games when boredom hits. Need another? Pick three words at random and challenge your kids to make up a story or song or nonsense rhyme on the spot using those words. Yes, your turn is next using three words they pick. This works nicely in the car. Maybe you need a pocket dictionary in the glove compartment.
  • Tsk tsk a little when they look up “bad” words (otherwise it’s no fun for them).
  • Act as if it’s completely normal when your nine-year-old describes a problem as a predicamentimpasse, paradox,or quandary.

If you choose to allow a dictionary to assume this power in your family, I have one warning. Dictionary silliness will lead to language savvy. If your kids use a lot of obscure words in their everyday discourse they’ll need a droll sense of humor, the better to handle their flummoxed peers.

Free Fix For What Troubles Us

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Most of my adult life I’ve taken a daily walk. A lot of those walks took place while pushing a stroller or hurrying behind tricycles. Now I walk while holding the leashes of three dogs on a rural road where vehicles are rare (when they pass they do so at high dog-frightening speeds). I try to use walks as a way of decompressing while paying attention to the moment I’m in rather than mulling over my current worries.

Apparently I could be getting much more from my walks. So could you.

I learned this in a roundabout way. I’ve been reading a lot the last few years about how we humans process trauma. What we perceive as traumatic can be any experience of fear or pain in which we feel helpless. This happens more often than we might imagine, particular in our earliest years. Consider being held down for a medical procedure as a small child. People loom over us, their words barely understood because we’re afraid or hurting, and we’re completely vulnerable. Trauma can be entirely emotional in nature too— sudden job loss or betrayal by a loved one or any of life’s common cruelties.

Normally, the support of people who care about us helps to ease trauma we’ve experienced, particularly if we’re free to exhibit shakiness and sighing along with other necessary bodily reactions. Plus, truly restful sleep helps to cool the heat of most traumas. As we enter the REM state of sleep, when our eyes zip back and forth under our eyelids, we’re processing stressors while refreshing ourselves for the upcoming day. (Even the happiest people have more negative than positive dreams, indicating that the dream state is a natural time to work through stressors.) Those who suffer from depression or PTSD often have disrupted sleep, leaving them with a build-up a unrelieved stress and trauma.

Talk therapy for trauma is important, yet research shows us that it’s not all in our heads. Trauma lodges in our subconscious and our bodies as well. That’s why innovative therapies such as Somatic ExperiencingEFT, and EMDR are so helpful.

As biologist Robert Sapolsky pointed out in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers , despite constant vigilance, zebras still witness members of their herd, at times their own young, being torn apart and eaten by predators. Although animals are regularly exposed to such traumatic events, they don’t suffer from the health effects of chronic stress as humans do.   Are humans weaker? Hardly. We’re as self-healing as any other creature. Nature’s wisdom allows us to recover quite nicely from illness and injury. Nearly every generation of our ancestors have overcome hunger, disease, accidents, and yes, psychological trauma too. Chances are in the hunter-gatherer era, which made up 99 percent of human history, people could count on rituals to ease psychological trauma after getting through a famine, an attack, or an accident. Those rituals often involved dancing and drumming. And that’s where I get back to walking, because I discovered the mention of drumming and dancing as trauma-recovery methods in a book with an unfortunately self-help-y title, Walking Your Blues Away by Thom Hartmann.

Hartmann points out that such rituals are bilateral activities. So are many of the body-based trauma healing methods I mentioned. These methods all use bilateral movement while evoking what distresses us, dissipating the strong “charge” associated with trauma throughout the mind/body. Hartmann explains that bilateral movement (even of the eyes) is a fundamental and elegant mechanism for healing trauma.

In its simplest form, this mechanism involves rhythmic side-to-side stimulation of the body. This side-to-side motion, or bilateral movement, causes nerve impulses to cross the brain from the left hemisphere to the right hemisphere and back at a specific rate or frequency. This cross-patterning produces an organic integration of left-hemisphere “thinking” function with right-hemisphere  and brain-stem “feeling” functions. This integration is a necessary precursor to emotional and intellectual healing from trauma.

Hartman says that the rhythmic left-right-left-right of walking, paired with a visual/mental process, also stimulates this internal integration. Which makes sense. Because until relatively recently in the long span of history people spent a lot of time walking. Walking away from the hunt, the battle, or any misery helped our ancestors process trauma. Even long after mankind began using the wheel, people walked a good distance every day. Walking is just one of the many ways that a more active, collaborative way of life once entirely natural to our kind helped us to operate with both hemispheres of the brain fully engaged without significant hemispheric dominance. (Check out The Whole-Brain Path to Peace for more on this.)

Hartmann writes about a way of walking that helps to release emotional charge, even reawakens motivation and inspiration. It relies on simply walking with your arms freely moving as your legs stride forward. Not talking, window shopping, listening to music through earbuds, or walking with arms restricted (by strollers, leashes, carried items). Here’s the general method.

1. Define an issue that troubles you, even something small. If there’s no issue, then select an optimal future state for yourself and visualize it.

2. While walking, bring up the story around your issue and frame it in a few words or sentences. Notice the strength of your emotions around that story. Give it a number on a scale of 0 (don’t care) to 100 (extremely intense).  If instead you are taking an optimal future sort of walk, while holding your visualization also remember times in the past when you accomplished or felt something similar. Allow the emotional state of those positive memories to suffuse the hoped-for future state.

3. While walking, gently keep your attention on the issue or visualization/memories you’ve chosen. Walk at a relaxed speed, for about a half hour.

4. Notice how the issue changes. The charge around it may begin to fade, the memory remaining but in perspective. Let the process continue until you notice a shift in feeling. Retell the story to yourself, and again rate your emotions on a scale of 0 to 100. (For the story to become more useful and less painful, several walks may be required.) Whether taking an issue walk or optimal future state walk, allow yourself to feel the positive changes you’re incorporating. Stand up straighter, breathe deeply, experience the pleasure of your stride.

5. Anchor this new state by observing the new internal story and new feelings. Think of ways your new perspective is helpful to you, perhaps even framing how you might tell the story or see the future differently. You may want to create a gesture, word, or sound to anchor it further as you finish your walk. You may also want to talk to someone about it, or sketch, write a journal entry, or in other ways help yourself more firmly hold this expanded awareness.

Walking for our own peace of mind and to create new inspiration sounds wonderful. I may not be ready to give up walking with my dogs, but I’ll be out there swinging my leash-holding arms while envisioning a world of greater hemispheric balance.  What does walking or other body-based practice do for you?


Walking Your Blues Away: How to Heal the Mind and Create Emotional Well-Being by Thom Hartmann

Any books by Peter Levine. The first one I read, In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodnesswasn’t aimed at the layperson but I was still captivated by its brilliance.

Somatics: Reawakening The Mind’s Control Of Movement, Flexibility, And Health by Thomas Hanna (his discussion of red light, green light response is illuminating) and the organization Somatic Experiencing

Focusing by Eugene Gendlin and The Focusing Institute

The EFT Manual by Gary Craig as well as the EFT organization 

Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy by Francine Shapiro as well as EMDR Institute

Scared Sick: The Role of Childhood Trauma in Adult Disease by Robin Karr-Morse

Hope For Humanity: How understanding and healing trauma could solve the planetary crisis by Malcolm Hollick

Right Now You Are Activating Change

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My mother tried throughout her pregnancies to get hospitals and doctors to change their rules. She wanted a natural birth, she wanted her husband with her, she wanted to hold her babies after they were born. Instead regulations were followed— every decision excluding her. That meant her labors were induced, she was given painkillers, my father had to stay in the waiting room, and except for standard in-room hours her babies were kept apart from her in the hospital nursery. Such procedures made it easier for the institution and less trouble for doctors.

By the time I had babies her futile requests were standard policy. Every woman was encouraged to have one or more support people with her, to room in with her baby, and to give birth naturally. It took change-makers to turn those policies around. Those change-makers were ordinary people who had a vision of something better. Some of them actively worked to see those changes happen but I suspect most of them simply talked, read, wrote, and otherwise carried on with what looked like everyday lives while activating awareness in people around them.

This is how real progress happens. Yes, there’s the much cited quote by Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” And yes, there are torchbearers for our big changes who are often misunderstood, even persecuted, while they lead the way. But lets not assume that we don’t qualify as “thoughtful, committed citizens” if we aren’t at the front of any movement. It’s about action but it’s also about attitude. Those attitudes make justice, ecological harmony, and peace possible.

Those “in charge” are often well behind the consciousness of the people they supposedly lead. Many in authority impose the same order, same rules, same limited thinking on people who have opened themselves to bigger possibilities. That’s true when we look at mainstream medicine, education, organized religion, finance and banking, government, science for hire, and multinational corporations. Such established institutions tend to become more rigid in response to vital change shaking their structures loose. The lower levels of moral reasoning that often hold those structures so restrictively in place (might makes right, or an eye for an eye, or conformity to norms) have less relevance when more and more people are in touch with deeper wisdom.

You may be activating change right now by the content of your conversations, the ideas you see taking hold around you, the way you stay informed, the way you raise your children and treat your friends, how you choose to spend your money and not spend your money, the way you make a living, the causes you advocate and believe in, and how you interact with our living planet. You, like so many change-makers, may already be living through deeply felt, personally lived ethics. That itself causes rippling change. Torchbearers of the last century who brought about so much good could do so because awareness shifted and deepened.

It may seem that small personal efforts make little difference when the problems facing the world are so huge. But bemoaning what’s wrong usually doesn’t effect much positive change. It may very well just entrench the feeling that we’re victims of all that’s Big and Bad. Instead we can see how truly interconnected everything is. Mind and matter, internal and external, thought and deed–all are aspects of the same essential aliveness in a universe where nothing is really separate.

My mother didn’t go looking for causes but when they were in front of her, she stood up for what was right. This happened often when she was a young registered nurse working in a large Chicago hospital. She defied rules requiring nurses to stop laboring women from delivering until a physician was present (perhaps to collect higher fees?). Nurses were expected to keep women from pushing, and in extreme cases, to hold back the head of the emerging baby. As you might imagine, some infants were deprived of oxygen or worse. My mother refused to follow the policy, more than once delivering a baby herself if the doctor didn’t arrive in time. She also refused to follow the policy that restricted incubators to private pay patients. When necessary she simply went to another ward, took an incubator, and faced the consequences. She got in trouble over and over. She did it anyway.

Once she had children of her own, my mother spent much of her life as what she’d call a homemaker. She did all sorts of good on a small level. She herself been a lonely child, perhaps as a result she was remarkably skilled at staying closely connected with and supportive of people. She functioned as a sort of informal Wikipedia for her wide network of friends, always putting her hands on an article she’d clipped so she could advance knowledge to help others. I often didn’t agree with her political opinions but I saw from her example that activating change often has more to do with living as if compassion is not just necessary, it is essential.

Who or what in your life reminds you that progress is happening, even on a small personal level? 

Talking During Recess

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collage by L.G. Weldon

“That’s not true,” the girl behind me said in a singsong voice. “You’re lying.”

I turned around and shook my head, hoping she wouldn’t attract the teacher’s attention. Judy’s hair was unkempt and dirty. Maybe her mother didn’t love her enough to take good care of her. I knew I should feel sorry for her, but Judy was as nasty as she smelled.

Rain rolled down the windows during indoor recess. Our second grade classroom was a neat rectangle except for the jutting wall where the door fit in. I preferred symmetry. At seven years of age, my mother’s mindset formed neat geometric spaces in my head. I adhered to her categories: clean and dirty, right and wrong, bad people and good people, truth and lies. Well, I had some trouble with the truth.

My mother often said that she loved us more than any words could say. She told us no one tried harder to have children than she did. Then she would tell us how many babies she had lost in order to have us.

Lost. The word resounded throughout my body.

When I was very small I worried that I too would be lost, as I often was in the grocery store. When I understood that her babies had died before they were born it didn’t help. My mother talked about the lost babies to express her love for us. She went through eleven pregnancies to have a family with three living children. I did the math. My brother, sister and I were conceived because those babies died. I tried talking to my sister about it once but she didn’t understand.

“They weren’t even people yet,” she told me. “They were probably smaller than a minnow. Don’t get all weird about it.”

But they were people to my mother. And to me.

Sitting at our desks during indoor recess, vying for attention, I casually mentioned to my friends, Jennifer and Stephanie and Julie, that I would have had a big family but lots of the babies died. I knew this wasn’t really true. My parents planned to have three kids, they just wouldn’t have had me. I also knew it was wrong to make family grief into a public tale even if it gave me momentary thrill of popularity.

“Oh, the poor babies,” Jennifer said.

“How many babies?” Stephanie wanted to know.

“Lots,” I said. “Eight babies.” I knew I’d gone too far.

Judy overheard, and she piped up, “I’m telling Mrs. Lauver.”

I felt my fate as tightly sealed as the braids my mother lovingly bound in colors to match my dress. I was in trouble.

After the tattletale got to her, Mrs. Lauver called me up to her desk. My knees trembled when she paid attention to me. I was a good student, but sometimes my teacher called me names and then pointed out that I was blushing. We had moved the year before and rules from my last school, such as rising when called upon, had been hard for me to break for the first week. Mrs. Lauver called me a “jumping jack” and punished me when I didn’t stop standing up right away. That started it. It seemed she was always after me.

But this time I’d brought it on myself.

Everyone watched as I walked up to the front of the room. No one got called up to the teacher’s desk during indoor recess. The teacher normally had that time off, sitting with her friends in the smoke-filled lounge, so she tended to ignore us and read a thick paperback at her desk, her chair turned slightly away from the class as if we weren’t her responsibility. We honored that inattention by keeping the hubbub down. After recess she would read a chapter of Charlotte’s Web to us.  She always threatened that if we got too loud she might deny us that privilege and go right to social studies.

I went up to Mrs. Lauver’s desk as slowly as possible. Anxiety made my senses acute. I could smell the awful geraniums she kept on the windowsill, their brown sickly leaves rotting away. I could feel my classmates’ eager curiosity—-cartoon watchers waiting for the silly wabbit to be shot. As I got closer I could see where the teacher’s too tight sleeveless dress cut into her flesh, the frighteningly hard texture of her hair and the orange-hued makeup on her face. I wanted my mother badly. Her dresses were loose, her hair soft, her face never anything like my teacher’s.

I should have been planning what to say, but a liar sticks to the story, sometimes makes it worse. I made it worse. I stood at the desk, unsure of what to do with my hands that twisted the ends of my braids. I insisted that our family did have lots of children once but they died.

“Oh, and how did that happen?” She had a tight smile on her face.

I thought about it.

I saw them inside my head, my unknown brothers and sisters. They would have been older than me. If they had lived, I would not have been born. To me, their deaths felt like a gift and a burden. Standing there at Mrs. Lauver’s desk I saw their lives pass without breath in the darkness of water, waves breaking over their heads in the distance. I could almost see their faces. So I said simply, “They drowned.”

Despite further questions I couldn’t get another word out.

“I’m calling your mother,” the teacher said. “We’ll see what she has to say .”

That awful outcast’s land. Wanting one’s mama, but being in trouble. Now how could I rush home to a welcoming hug when I would encounter anger? My stomach folded up and I had to remember what my face was supposed to look like the rest of the afternoon.

After school there was a scene. My mother said that only bad people were liars. Liars grow up to commit crimes and go to jail. Over and over she asked, “Just tell me, why would you make up such an awful story?

All I could answer was, “I don’t know.”

I didn’t. What I said about the lost babies couldn’t be explained. I took my spanking and went to my room. My parents had a conversation later and came up with a punishment—write an apology to my teacher for lying. My notebook paper was filled with carefully printed words, but they were just shapes. I didn’t feel anything I’d written.

When I stood there in front of Mrs. Lauver that afternoon I was being honest. I told her what I saw. A child may not have words for what she knows even on the day she begins to understand that there are no neat categories for truth and lies.

I haven’t forgotten those lost babies. I hope I live as a testament to the joys they never knew, like telling stories true as our shared DNA.