Hopeful, Helpful Holiday Links

hopeful, helpful holiday links

“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.”     Helen Keller

Sharing ideas and reflections here in hopes of passing along some holiday inspiration. 




100+ non-toy gift ideas100+ Non-Toy Gifts for Toddlers to Teens 

Give real tools, out-of-the-ordinary experiences, even a giant Scrabble game. Over 100 suggestions to deepen connections and spark new ideas.


Resources for Simple Holiday Gifts & FunResources for Simple Holiday Gifts & Fun

Dozens of resources including simplified holiday traditions, DIY gift-giving, and more.


Fighting Crazed Holiday SyndromeFighting Crazed Holiday Syndrome

Five tactics to de-stress the holidays, including Shun Those Voices and renounce How Does She Do It All Disease.


aDo-Gooder Gifts: Personal As Well As Global

Clever ways to pair gifts to charity with a personal gift.




Our worst Christmas became our most memorable ChristmasOur Worst Christmas Became Our Most Memorable Christmas

Heartwarming true story with despair, secrets, delight, and some poo.


aWhat Do Your Gifts Say? 

There’s meaning embedded in our gifts. We have certain intentions as we shop, wrap, anticipate giving, and finally offer the gift. Our efforts try to say something.


Preserve the Santa myth without lyingDo You Tell The Truth About Santa?

How to preserve delight in Santa without lying to your kids.

Calling the Dog



 Calling the Dog


Following messages left in leaves, soil, air

he wanders too far.

When I call    he pauses


to hurl fullness and glory

ahead of the self

like whales breach, tigers lunge, hawks soar.

There’s nothing but an arc

between hearing his name and springing

toward the one who named him.


I want this completeness.

I want to feel 100 trillion cells spark

from my body in answer

to what we call spirit.

I want to taste

the shimmering voltage course

from every rock, tree, star.


A moment before reaching me

he unsprings,

back to golden fur and brown eyes

arriving tongue first.


Laura Grace Weldon

from Tending  (for my friends Cocoa Bean and Winston)

Sideways Procrastination

Procrastinating by accomplishing other things.

Tipping over in 1, 2, 3.   vintag.es/2015/02/a-list-of-donts-for-women-on-bicycles.html

Several very large deadlines lurk on my horizon. Instead of clicking into high gear to get going I’m barely pedaling fast enough to keep from tipping over. The more I excoriate myself for falling behind, the farther I fall behind. I could easily blame this on chronic insomnia or existential angst or a nasty case of what-the-hell-did-I-get-myself-into. Blame, however, is useless for motivation purposes.

I was raised with the Puritan ethic: work hard, be polite at all costs, and avoid the unspeakably vile sin of laziness. Yet I’ve come to believe it’s in our do-nothing moments, like lying in the grass watching the clouds stroll by, that we most truly inhabit our lives. This probably explains why two tigers, named Full Tilt and Full Stop, tend to snarl at each other in my mind. I compromise to keep those tigers at bay.

I do this by letting myself be lured by the call of other things I want to do, things that suddenly seem delightful in comparison to the things I have to do. Here are a few examples.

  1. When I agreed to help a non-profit streamline their mission statement, I stalled by reorganizing kitchen cupboards.
  2. When I committed to editing a dissertation on organizational differences in international companies, I put it off by planting a few dozen strawberry plants and weeding the asparagus bed.
  3. Heck,  a few years ago when I was supposed to be editing an anthology, I dawdled by writing poetry. That turned into a whole poetry collection!

This, my friends, is what I call Sideways Procrastination.

The practice is weirdly energizing. For rationalization purposes, I tell myself that by doing something amusingly unrelated I’ll return to the task I’m avoiding with a fresh outlook and enhanced enthusiasm. I’m not sure it works that way, but it’s my operating excuse.

Here are three of my recent Sideways Procrastination endeavors.



My dear friend and filmmaker Susan took me along on her latest adventure, filming Artocade in Trinidad Colorado.

Artocade art car festival 2015, Trinidad Colorago

Here are a few of the amazing entries in Artocade 2015.

To send her a small token of my thanks, I turned a toy truck into a toy art truck. Gluing baubles and beads was play to me,  and play, as we all know, rejuvenates the spirit 

tiny art car, er, truck



I dug around in the sewing supplies left to me by my mother and grandmother for a project. I turned an unused piece of red satin,  an old white sheet, and lots of vintage notions into a Red Riding Hood costume for Liv.  It was challenging (especially turning a tiny scrap of quilted fabric into a vest) and it was fun.

vintage notions, Red Riding Hood costume




My daughter and I invited a few arty friends over for a Day of the Dead art party complete with skull painting, Barbie head alterations, finger cookies, and shrunken head punch. Preparations were a blast, the event was even blastier. ((I know “blastier isn’t a word but it should be.)

dead of the dead art party


Many people seem to be great at focusing, but I’m not. I’ve got to sidle up to a task, peek around, and then break in burglar-style.  Sometimes that approach works and the marvelous state of flow settles over me. Often it doesn’t and I find myself escaping into more Sideways Procrastination.

Chances are good that right now I’m in the kitchen concocting something fussy for dinner, or outside hauling something around in our old blue wheelbarrow, or curled on the couch reading a book I promised to review. I’m doing this even though I should be at my desk clattering away on the keyboard. What can I say? It’s just what Sideways Procrastinators do.

Early Childhood Education, 1938 version

Preschool learning by doing.

Guest post by Charles Clanton Rogers, pictured here before his blogging days.

“Catch that bird! Don’t let that chicken get away, Charles!”

I was four years old, enrolled in  Grandmother’s Biology & History class.  On that morning we covered the food chain, the hunt, the kill, butchering, anatomy of a hen, and introduction to animal reproduction.

This was 1938 Oklahoma. Money was scarce for everyone. My great inherited fortune was not money, but family. I was an only child and only grandchild of a doting family. I was kind of a “prince” of an infinitely small principality consisting of five adults and one little boy.

I didn’t know it then, but the entire country was mired in the Great Depression. In our state, dust bowl conditions were destroying farms and forcing “Okies” into a desperate exodus in pursuit of California jobs.

vintage unschooling,

Farm equipment buried in dust. Image: americaslibrary.gov

Back to the morning’s Biology & History lesson. Grandma and I were “the hunters.” We caught that chicken, terminated its earthly journey, then plucked and cleaned it. I learned comparative anatomy as Grandmother identified the hen’s internal structures. She talked about the chicken and egg as a circle of life. Then she coated the pieces in egg and flour, and fried it along with fresh okra that we picked from her garden (we were the “gatherers” too). After lunch was my Music lesson, which meant Grandmother sang.

That was just the morning.

My grandmother earned supplemental income by sewing clothes for ladies in the community.  That responsibility couldn’t be neglected.  Her sewing machine was a Singer foot trade model.  She sat with both feet on the treadle. Pumping it back and forth moved a belt from the treadle up to a pulley attached to the needle mechanism. I didn’t realize it then, but observing the mechanical action was itself a Physics lesson.


Image: oldsingersewingmachineblog.files.wordpress.com

Grandmother would spread the material out on the floor and pin the pattern pieces. She trusted me to cut pieces around the patterns with pinking shears. I knew a mistake could cause waste and expense so I took this responsibility very seriously.

While she was making a dress, I had my own little sewing projects. I learned how to thread a needle and sew two pieces of cloth together.  It seemed like a way to pass the time, but that early sewing experience came in handy years later when I became a physician.

When I tired of sewing I passed the time with coloring books and Crayolas . I think I had 8 or 10 colors.

After dinner, Grandmother read to me. (The Little Engine That Could
was my favorite.)

Grandmother had plenty of other things to do, but whatever she was doing I was part of her team.  Often she impressed upon me that I needed to learn my lessons well, because I was going to grow up and have children and students and it would be my sacred responsibility to teach them the things she taught me just as her parents had taught her when she was a girl.

Grandmother’s love was undeniable. She certainly knew, as the poet wrote, “The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.”

Every waking moment was an education. That suited me just fine.  It did not occur to me that the immersive learning of my early years were in any way unusual.  My “preschool/home school” didn’t have any names or labels. It was just Life. I thought it was what everyone did.

George Gershwin and DuBois Heyward wrote Porgy & Bess in 1934, my birth year. The lyrics of its immortal song, Summertime, could have been the theme of my preschool years:

One of these mornings you’re gonna rise up singing,

And you’ll spread your wings and you’ll take to the sky,

But ’til that morning, there ain’t nothin’ can harm you….

hush little baby, don’t you cry.


I came across retired physician and teacher Charles Clanton Rogers through his post Journey of the Human Mind. In it, he describes living with a sense of astonishment. As he puts it,  “I have an idea of what it is like to experience life before a thing is known; and then to witness its deployment. ” Dr. Rogers’ site, The Rogers Post, offers his musings on history, science, art, and much more. I’m grateful he’s sharing this glimpse of a lovingly guided early education with us. Thanks Charles! 

Are You A Jackhammer or a Hummingbird?

Hummingbird or Jackhammer: styles of full spectrum learning

What lures you to full spectrum learning?

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” ~John Muir

Ten-year-old Matias is enthusiastic about all things automotive. He calls out model and year of cars passing the street in front of his apartment in an impressive display of mental acuity. He learned every detail of how engines work by quizzing everyone he could who knew anything about cars, then turned to YouTube for more in-depth information. That led to inquiries about types of fuels and manufacturing processes, which led to questions about the history of the assembly line and the formation of unions. Books and documentaries have made him familiar with figures such as Nikolaus Otto and Karl Benz as well as Elon Musk. Matias loves going to auto museums, car shows, and races. Although he says a visit to a demolition derby didn’t upset him, he’s been talking ever since about ways to save cars from junkyards. He’s excited about the potential for energy-efficient vehicles and he really hopes self-driving cars don’t become a thing before he gets to drive.

Notice how this fascination leads him eagerly through all sorts of fields?

Natural learning takes place across a spectrum. History, math, music, science, art, literature, business, philosophy, and athletics don’t neatly divide into “subjects.” They’re interrelated. A child notices one bare sliver of a topic, and intrigued, follows it. That pursuit lights up a totally new subject until a dazzling array of possibilities opens, each refracting new angles. The thrill of exploring is inseparable from a love of learning.

Some children, like Matias, become so absorbed in a single subject that it seems their personalities are inseparable from that passion. Their bemused families can’t help but stoke the fire of that interest. Activities and discussions with the child take on a distinct tone. Indeed, family members are changed by close association with someone who loves the world in such a focused manner.

Most of the time children learn in far more unobtrusive manner. It may seem they go through their days unaffected by the influences that pour in all around them. Yet gradually their comprehension deepens. This is a mysterious process, an ongoing improvisation that weaves together previous experiences with new comprehension and insight. But then, our children are changed by what they’ve come to understand in ways none of us can measure or assess.

Few of us are absorbed by the sort of overwhelming fascination Matias shows for all things automotive. Instead we’re open to many directions, staying with our interests as long as inspiration calls us before moving on.  We have what polymath Emilie Wapnick calls “multipotentiality.”  As she writes,

The only constant in my life is shape-shifting, exploration and evolution… There’s something that draws me to each of my interests and it’s not “excellence.” I have no interest in committing to one thing forever. Once I no longer feel inspired in a field, I simply move on. Some people call this “quitting,” I call it growth.

You’ll notice, however, that “find your passion” is the recommended approach.  The pressure starts in childhood, with well-meaning people doing their very best to get kids on a fast track to success in sports or music or STEM.  The push to find, pursue, and excel in a particular field doesn’t stop after graduation. Throughout adulthood we’re told “find your passion” in our careers, our creative lives, even our spiritual development.

I think writer Elizabeth Gilbert shares an apt metaphor in her recent talk. She says some people are like her, driven to focus on one pursuit. She calls such people jackhammers. Other people flit from curiosity to curiosity. This, she says, is the “flight of the natural born hummingbird.” She admits that for years she exhorted people to act like jackhammers in order to reach their goals. Then she had an epiphany — the world needs more than jackhammers. When people allow themselves the freedom to be hummingbirds, she says,

Two things happen. One, they create incredibly rich complex lives for themselves. and they also end up cross-pollinating the world. That’s the service you do. You bring an idea from here and you weave in and take up the next thing, because your entire being brings a different perspective. It ends up aerating the culture.

Chances are, most of us can’t be fully described by terms like jackhammer or a hummingbird.  The larger lesson here is the wisdom of freeing ourselves (and our children) to explore what intrigues us. Then we understand on our own terms that full spectrum learning is inseparable from life.


Portions of this post are excerpted from Free Range Learning

17 Playful Cures for a Toy Overload

toy overload, play without toys,

But there’s nothing to do! (CC by 2.0 Dennis Brekke)

Friends of ours were burdened with a serious toy overload. Their four children had generous weekly allowances and lots of gift-giving relatives. As a result, there were more toys than I’ve ever seen in one home. When the family room was overrun,  their father would use a snow shovel to scoop the floor clean. He dumped the shovelfuls in big plastic bins and hauled them to the basement. After doing this a few times he realized the kids rarely bothered to get out those particular playthings. They didn’t really miss them at all.

I deeply admire the mother I interviewed for The Boy With No Toys although we’ve personally never taken an anti-toy stance in our family. Over the years we’ve happily accumulated dolls, trucks, building sets, art supplies, stuffed animals, as well as lots and lots of books. We emphasize quality, not quantity. It’s one way of sparing our planet the burden of sweatshop-made, eco-unfriendly products.  And more importantly, we think it’s part of raising kids who aren’t oriented toward materialism for their own well-being, both now and in the future.

These days, typical options for childhood amusement include overly structured activities, lots of screen time, and commercial playthings that do the entertaining for them. Unfortunately, kids can become accustomed to someone or something else providing the fun for them. As a result they may not be attuned to the slower pace of conversation, the expansive pleasure of make-believe, or the subtle wonders found in nature. They may actually have trouble generating their own fun.

Even if you limit screen time and emphasize free play, young children can still be overwhelmed by too many playthings. A recent study  done in Britain found the average 10-year-old owns 238 toys, but mostly plays with 12 favorite items!

Simply reducing a toy overload can help children play more creatively, cooperate more easily, and become more resourceful. Here are some toy overload solutions.


Rotate toys

Make it a family policy to have fewer playthings available any one time. This way your child can deal with a smaller selection and play areas are less cluttered. Take a sensitive approach. Pick up a few things that have been long ignored and put them away for that proverbial rainy day. When you do get out a toy or stuffed animal that has been “resting” you’ll want to put away another object. If children notice, it’s common for them to feel sudden affection for the toy you’re putting into hibernation. When you face objections, don’t make the policy painful. Work together to find another toy that your child can agree to put away. You’ll find the same old toys take on a new luster when a young child hasn’t seen them for a while.


Reserve toys for specific situations.

It’s helpful to deem some toys for use only under certain conditions. These might be perfect opportunities to use toys that require a parent close by, or a way to minimize use of passive entertainment toys they’ve been given. Keep such items for situations when your child is forced to be passive anyway such as the car seat, waiting in line, at a restaurant, or while you’re on an important call. Even very young children come to recognize that such toys are kept in a diaper bag, a parent’s car, or on a high shelf for special occasions. Explanations before and after use, “We only use this in the car” or “This is a Mama’s-on-a-work-call toy” help keep the boundaries drawn and make it easy to put the toy away for the next time.


Join or set up a toy lending library 

Collections of donated toys can be found through some museums, community centers, and public libraries. Toy lending programs give families access to a wider range of ordinary playthings and more expensive toys than they might ordinarily afford, as well as toys for special needs children. Search online to find a toy library near you or for helpful advice on starting a collaborative toy lending service. Find a toy library near you using USA Toy Library Association listings and find out more via the International Toy Library Association.


Assemble play kits using non-toy items

You can throw together kits that stimulate imaginative play while repurposing old objects. (Of course, these suggestions are not appropriate for children who put objects in their mouths or are too young to use the items safely.) To keep up the appeal factor, put the kits away between use. They are great to get out when kids have friends over.

Office: Use a briefcase or file box. Tuck in office-type items such as memo pad, non-working cell phone, calendar, writing implements, round-tip scissors, post-it notes, and calculator. A big thrill is a tape dispenser—this alone can keep small kids happily occupied. A major coup is finding a manual typewriter at a thrift store. You’ll need to help kids understand how to type one letter at a time to keep the keys from becoming tangled.

Doctor: Fill a small suitcase with a stethoscope, tongue depressors, tiny flashlight, notebook for doctor’s notes, band-aids, and plenty of gauze to bind up injuries. Children particularly enjoy using the items to diagnose and treat dolls or stuffed animals.

Costume: A costume box or trunk is a childhood classic. Add cast-off and thrift store items likely to enhance make-believe. Don’t worry about actual costumes, just toss in a range of imagination-sparking things. Include work wear, dress-up, jewelry, wallets, purses, shoes, vests, tool belt, badges, lengths of fabric that can be used as capes or veils, and plenty of hats.

Building: Fill a large container with heavy cardboard tubes as well as sturdy cardboard boxes. Add a roll or two of masking tape, string, clean yogurt cups, egg cartons, popsicle sticks, corks, plus hardware cast-offs such as nuts and bolts. Encourage children to build whatever they choose from the cardboard supply. They might need help punching holes in the cardboard to insert bolts or string. When you can, bring home the largest cardboard box you can wheedle out of an appliance store. Children will find all sorts of ways to use it.

Market:  Save empty clean food packages, reglue boxes shut so they look new, and keep them in a bin along with any toy fruits and vegetables you may already have. Children can set up a play shop with these items, adding their own toys or books for additional merchandise. Lend them your fabric shopping bags to load pretend purchases. They may want to swipe a pretend debit card, use homemade money, or barter to cover their transactions. (They can use a similar concept to play Library with their books, Car Repair Shop with their riding toys, and so on.)


Encourage Deconstruction

Grandparents on both sides of our family kept a lookout for broken items our kids could take apart. This is marvelously fun as well as educational. It also requires very close supervision! Kids will need flat head and Phillips screwdrivers, needle-nosed pliers, safety glasses, wire cutters or heavy-duty scissors, and possibly some child-sized work gloves. Before letting them start, cut off and discard any electric plugs as well as cords on the item. Also check for glass parts or batteries that can cause injury, and make sure the item doesn’t have tubes (as old radios and televisions once did) Be forewarned, kids may encounter sharp bits of metal, coiled springs, and other surprises.

We put small deconstruction items in a shallow box (to catch the pieces) . Normally they’d work at the kitchen table to take apart things like a watch, Dymo labelmaker, motherboard, hand-held mixer, clock, printer, VHS or DVD player,  can opener, camera, radio, household fan, remote control car, and once a Furby (which creepily resumed its ability to talk once it was little more than a Furby skeleton), Large items they’d take apart outside on the driveway, with a big open box where they could put pieces. They took apart a microwave, several different bikes, and a lawn tractor. (This led one of my sons to drag a neighbor’s lawn tractor out of the trash, whereupon he fixed it and used it to make money mowing lawns!)


Permit hideouts

Most children like making their own realms under blankets, in closets, and behind furniture. Outdoors they make dens and forts out of a few branches or leftover planks. Provide sheets or blankets to drape over the furniture for an indoor hiding place, with couch cushions for support. On occasion, try to get a large packing box from stores selling refrigerators and washing machines. Your child can direct you to cut a few openings to transform the box into a boat, space ship, or castle. Once inside a hideout, children are in another entirely necessary world.


Let them play with water

Little kids adore water play. Pull up a stool to the sink and let them wash a few unbreakable dishes or toys with mild soap. They’ll stay busy pouring water from soup ladle to funnel to pitcher to cup. Add to the fun by putting a few ice cubes in the sink, giving them foil to shape into boats, or letting them add food coloring. Encourage them to gather a few water safe objects (perhaps a block, a spoon, a popsicle stick, a ball, a rubber band) and guess which ones will float before putting them in the water.  Or you might let them play in the tub for an hour or more while you sit nearby reading a book or getting some work done on the laptop.

Outdoors there are many more water options. On a hot day, water wiped on the house or driveway with a brush temporarily darkens the surface, giving toddlers the satisfying impression they are “painting.” It dries quickly so they can paint again. You can also give them a bucket and sponge to let them wash a tricycle, a watering can to give the plants a drink, or a sprinkler to run through. Don’t forget the pleasures of water added to dirt. Mud pies are a childhood classic.


Help kids set up obstacle courses

A rainy day indoor course might consist of a few chairs to wriggle under, a rope to hop over, four pillows to leap on in a row, three somersaults through the hall, and a quick climb up the bunk bed ladder.  Outdoors they can set up a bike, trike, or scooter obstacle course. Mark the course with sidewalk chalk or masking tape. The course may lead them around cones, through a sprinkler, under crepe paper streamers hanging from a tree branch, and on to a finish line. More fun? Setting up obstacle courses on their own.


Bring back legacy games

All that’s needed for most sidewalk games are chalk, while backyard games only require a ball and a sense of fun. For instructions you may have forgotten or never learned, check out Preschooler’s Busy Book, Great Big Book of Children’s Games, or Team Challenges.  Or dig into the game database offered by Bernie DeKoven at DeepFun. And remember to add those classic hand-clapping games, typically played while chanting a rhyme. A few rounds of Miss Mary Mack or Say Say My Playmate aren’t just fun, studies show they’re also brain boosters.


Stage treasure hunts

 First hide a prize. Then place clues throughout the house or yard. For very young children, those clues can be pictures or rebus sentences. For older children, the clues can be written as poems or riddles. Each clue leads to the next set of clues before the treasure is discovered. The prize doesn’t need to be a toy or goodies, since the hunt itself is the real fun. Try “hide a packed lunch day” and let everyone search for the cache of lunches. Those who find sustenance first need to help others so the kids can eat together. Or hide the book you’re been reading aloud so kids can search for the treasure of the next chapter. Once they’re familiar with treasure hunts, children can create them for each other.


Let them help

Even the smallest children want to participate in the real work that makes a household function. They want to tear lettuce for a salad, clean crumbs with a small whisk broom, measure beans and pour them in the coffee grinder, sort socks, carry kindling for the fireplace, water the garden, basically anything they see their elders doing. They benefit in remarkable ways, from greater dexterity to the development of character traits that lead to long-term success. What’s more, they have fun doing it.


Emphasize non-toy gifts for holidays and birthdays

It’s disheartening to give a highly anticipated toy or the newest gadget only to see it ignored a week or even a day later. You can give things like real tools for working with wood, crafting with fiber, or exploring the outdoors. These tools will be used over and over again as kids build valuable skills. You can give passes to events, subscriptions, and much more. For a listing of over 100 non-toy gifts, check here.


Take advantage of temporary circumstances

A large tree with damage from a lightning strike had to be taken down in our back yard. What was left behind were perfect playthings. There were large slices of wood the kids used as blocks and wheels. There were piles of brush they cut up with small hack saws and used to make forts. There was the stump itself, the best home base ever for games of tag.

One time my husband hauled home a junk car he’d bought for next to nothing so he could cannibalize it for parts. The few days it sat in our driveway were a delight for our five-year-old. We put one of his dad’s old shirts on him, mixed up a whole bucket of thick red tempera paint, and handed him a large paintbrush. He dragged a step stool around and painted the whole car, windows included. When they could, neighborhood kids came over to add second and third coats.

The septic system had to be dug up and fixed at our next house. When the company was done they left a towering pile of dirt. It was there for months until we had the money to rent the equipment necessary to move it. The kids called it their “mountain.” It inspired lots of imaginative play, one day they might be explorers running over the top and the next day they might be sitting in the dirt playing with toy trucks. They were sorry to see it go.

You may never have these particular circumstances, but there’s a good chance you’ll have others. Mother-in-law coming for a visit? Get her to teach your kids something she enjoys doing, maybe knitting or playing chess or Tai Chi. Power disrupted due to a storm? Let the kids play hide and seek or flashlight tag in your suddenly spooky dark house.  Invited to a wedding? Find some instruction on YouTube and practice the dances that are likely to happen at the reception. Nothing like kids who’ve got the moves! Your kids won’t have much trouble finding the most playful options for any circumstances. All you have to do is say “yes.”


Portions of this article were first published in Natural Life Magazine

Everyone Is A Poet

everyone is a poet

When people tell me their largest stories I am helpless as a page under pen.

A woman told me how, as a child of 11, she struck out when her grandparents were ignored rather than served at a restaurant in the deep South. Her anger was so heated that she used the restaurant’s complementary matches to start the place on fire.

It wasn’t entirely the content of the memory or the force in her voice. It was the way she strung words together; spare yet detailed. She talked about her grandmother’s arthritic hands picking up and putting down a salt shaker. She described her grandmother’s dark green dress and sensible heels, the patient smile she wore even though no one came to take their order. Before this raised-up-North granddaughter could utter a word of complaint she was shushed by her grandmother’s stern look. As her grandparents stood to go the girl ducked into the cloakroom and in seconds set to smoldering the hair oil soaked fedoras left there by white gentlemen. Of the fire she said little, except that the restaurant was forced to turn everyone away that day.

A teen described how, when he was a small child, his mother got so strung out that she’d leave him alone for days at a time.

He ended most sentences with “you hear me” and “wasn’t nothing” as he talked about licking his fingers before running them along the insides of drawers and cupboards to find crumbs. He said his mother got angry if she caught him sleeping curled next to the apartment door. She’d yell “I didn’t raise no dog.” When his story ended a refrain continued. He said “wasn’t nothing” four times, each repetition softer until his moving lips made no sound at all.

An elderly woman recounted the story of union busters coming by their cabin at supper time to beat up her father, who’d been organizing his fellow coal miners.

She didn’t recognize her own family any longer but vividly remembered this tale from her earliest years. Her words were impressions. I saw her mother standing fearfully at the door insisting her husband wasn’t home, children clustered behind her wide-mouthed with alarm. I envisioned this little girl with the presence of mind to hide her father’s dinner dishes. “Just laid em in the stove with a cloth over,” she said. When the men barged in they found only enough place settings for mother and children on the table. They left, never looking under the porch where her father hid. She had no other stories left to tell. This one was large enough for a lifetime.

Not only do I feel what they’re saying, I’m awestruck by how they say it.

When people talk about extremes they’ve experienced they speak as poets do. They rely on verbal shorthand made up of sensory description and metaphor. They drift from past to present, change viewpoints, dip into myth and scripture. Often they end abruptly, as if what they’re trying to say can’t truly be said. Their stories, powerful already, gain a sort of beauty that sends ordinary language aloft. It’s truth that trembles. To me, it’s poetry.


This essay first published in Poet’s Quarterly.







17 Ways to Show Authors Your Love

image: vjcx.com

We know how to love celebrities and athletes in our culture. We hashtag them, go to their performances/games, read about them, imitate them, talk about them, and in many other ways make these people an ongoing presence in our lives. (Note: there may be a strange reason we’re so obsessed with celebrities.)

It’s less common to love writers, far less common to show it.

Today’s publishing houses expect authors (other than the most commercially promising ones) to do their own book marketing. We’re expected to blog, tweet, arrange book signings and readings, do interviews, and otherwise connect with potential readers as if there’s nothing awkward about begging people to buy our words.

But we know that books, articles, essays, poems, blog posts, (actually, all forms of writing) live on only when they’re read. It’s even better if they’re discussed, shared, and remembered. My writer friends and I do our best to promote one another’s work to a wider audience. Most writers do this for each other. If you’re inspired, take a tip or two from us and show some authors your love.

Share a great author interview or book review. Share a passage from a book, article, blog post, or poem. Toss it out there on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Tumblr, whatever social media you use.

Quote. If you’re writing a report or giving a presentation, sprinkle in a relevant quote or line of poetry. It’ll add another dimension to your work.

Review books you love on Amazon.com, Goodreads.com, LibraryThing.com, BarnesandNoble.com, wherever you go to check reader reviews. You can make it easy on yourself by simply leaving a bunch of stars. Take it up a notch with a glowing one-line opinion. On Amazon, you only need to click “like” to boost a book or other people’s reviews of the book. Your viewpoint really does help potential readers find what to read next.

Contact local authors. Ask an author to answer questions for an interview you’ll publish online or in print. Invite an author to do a reading or lead a discussion for your organization, club, or business either in-person or via Skype.

Advocate for writing that has changed your outlook, expanded your interests, led you in entirely new directions. A few months ago Facebook bristled with personal lists of 10 Life Changing Books. I love hearing what books impact other people and I’m often inspired to read those titles too. (Here are 10 that occur to me at the moment: The Secret GardenOriginal Wisdom, The Continuum Concept,  Nature and the Human Soul,  A Paradise Built in Hell Pronoia Is the Antidote for ParanoiaMan’s Search for MeaningBeyond WarSpontaneous Evolutionanything by Charles Eisenstein.)

Give books as gifts. They make wonderful presents for birthday, holidays, and milestone celebrations. They’re great to give simply when it occurs to you that a specific book and a specific person might go well together. Give books to children for special occasions but also for fun. Don’t forget to leave an inscription even for the youngest. If you like, pair a book with a small related present. Tea, coffee, or something more spirited is a perfect accompaniment to any book gift.

Try something different. Indulge in your favorite genres and let yourself branch out from there. A fan of historical novels set in a certain era? Try poetry from that time period, non-fiction books about the art or science of the era, biographies of people from that time, as well as history magazines and related sites. I’ve come across writing I normally wouldn’t read only to discover a passion for science-y novels, tomes on evolutionary biology, sites offering vintage maps, work by outsider artists, and other fascinations.

Request. I couldn’t possibly afford to buy a fraction of the books I read. Instead, I’m a unrepentant library addict. If there’s a book you’d like, order it from your local library. They’ll call or email you when it’s available. If they don’t own a copy, ask them to purchase it. Some library systems put request forms online, other systems prefer you go directly to a librarian to request a book acquisition.

Hang out with other book lovers. Our boys’ book club lasted till they all went off to college, over 9 years of lively bookish gatherings. And I’m a long-time member of an adult book club. It prompts me to read books I wouldn’t normally read and our wide-ranging discussions are a delight. You can start up a book club with friends or join an existing group. Check out nearby clubs through Reader’s Circle, your local library, or Meetup.

Offer books for sale through your business. If you have a bike repair shop, offer guides to bike trails along with some bike-riding memoirs. If you run a stand at a farmer’s market, offer a few cookbooks and urban farming volumes. If you own an art gallery, sprinkle a few poetry and art books among your offerings. (I am endlessly grateful that Elements Gallery  in Peninsula, Ohio sells copies of my poetry collection.)

Give magazine subscriptions as gifts. There are a wealth of options, from boat-building magazines to literary journals to kids’ science publications.

Recommend. Create your own list of favorites on a topic via Amazon’s Listmania. Perhaps “Little-Known Poetry Books You Should Read…” or “Alternative Education Books We Use….” While you’re at it, search all the Listmania lists of interest to you.

Link. An insight or idea sticking with you? Link to (or at least attribute) books or author sites when you write about ideas they’ve prompted in you.

Talk about writing you love. I tend to go on and on with vast enthusiasm about what I’m reading. I adore memoirs from the sublime to the hilarious: A Private History of Awe by Scott Russell Sanders, A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel, and Kick Me by Paul Feig. Beautifully written, unforgettable novels such as All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr,  The History of Love by Nicole Kraus, State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, and Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. Animal books, a worthy indulgence, including The Good Good Pig by Sy Montgomery and A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life by Steven Kotler. Sci-fi like The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You by Dorothy Bryant and Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi. And  books that don’t fit in any category like Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman. Really, read these books!

Promote. The Southern Independent Booksellers Association started a YouTube channel called Parapalooza! Submit a video of yourself reading a passage from a favorite book to parapalooza@sibaweb.com. If you live in the UK, contact Steve Wasserman of Read Me Something You Love. He’ll come out to record your reading of a passage you choose, along with some conversation. If it’s poetry you adore, read one you love aloud for Record-a-Poem. You can also reach out to others in your community who’d like to share a favorite poem through the Favorite Poem Project or start up a poetry-sharing group on Meetup.

Read already. Titles piling up on your Kindle, overdue library books, a teetering stack of magazines next to the couch are all evidence that you want to read. But you’ve got more to do than you’ve got time. Admit it to yourself, you’ll never defeat your in-box. Might as well go lie on the grass or in the tub or on your couch and read!

Connect. Follow authors on Facebook or follow their tweets. Write to them care of their publishers. You might send a brief note about how much you enjoyed a book or how it or improved your life. You might send suggestions, questions, a cheerful aside. Writing is a solitary occupation. When an author hears that his or her work made a difference, I guarantee it’ll have an impact. On a few rare occasions readers of my first book let me know it changed the way they parent or educate and how that’s impacted their lives. These communications are the sort of wealth I’d never believed possible. Utterly priceless.

Some days I like to imagine a world where we love our writers and artists and scientists and volunteers with the same passion we show celebrities. A girl can dream.

Alejandro Mallea's flickr photostream

Alejandro Mallea’s flickr photostream

“The writer’s way is rough and lonely, and who would choose it while there are vacancies in more gracious professions, such as, say, cleaning out ferryboats.”

Dorothy Parker

A Sandwich Made of Kindness

how to help a parent whose child is hospitalized

CC by 2.0 Kyle Simourd

Waiting for medical test results is itself a stress test. I play mental games, especially the one where I won’t let myself check the time even though I’m also cheating by checking the time. I keep busy with small tasks. Mostly I try to smother dread by piling on layer after layer of positive thoughts.

This is what I was doing the day we took our firstborn baby for an upper GI. Benjamin was a bright-eyed delight, so enthralling to his new parents that we’d watch him sleep while commenting like giddy sportscasters at his every facial expression.  But as weeks went by, we realized he was sick and getting sicker. He’d nurse contentedly but the milk didn’t stay down. Sometimes immediately, sometimes not for almost an hour, he’d struggle as if in pain until he vomited the milk back up in forceful plumes. By the time he was two and a half months old he was nursing almost continually, desperate to keep something in his stomach.

Doctors, nurses, friends who were parents, and our own parents all said he was fine. We were told we were overreacting as first-time parents tend to do. We were assured that he was allergic to breastmilk or that he wasn’t being burped correctly or that he needed rice cereal to settle his stomach.  We were told he had reflux or colic. The usual refrain was, “He’ll grow out of it.”

Being me, I researched every possibility for our baby’s symptoms. One that stood out was pyloric stenosis. This is a narrowing of the pylorus, the lower part of the stomach through which food passes to enter the small intestine. The opening continues to narrow as the disease progresses, eventually preventing the baby from getting any nutrition at all. Our doctor said that diagnosis was unlikely with a “big, strapping boy” like ours, and not to worry. My mother, an RN, showed me pictures of babies diagnosed with the disease. They looked like famine victims, not at all like my baby.

By the time he was four months old Benjamin’s weight had stalled. The doctor said if we insisted, he could schedule an upper GI, but he was sure the baby was just fine. I ordered John Gofman’s Radiation and Human Health from the library and was horrified to read that the earlier a child is exposed to x-rays, the greater his lifetime risk of cancer. That didn’t make the decision easier.

I also read more about pyloric stenosis. Like some kind of Biblical plague, it’s most likely to occur in firstborn male babies. It also runs in families. I remembered hearing that the first son in my father’s family had died in infancy.  (My grandmother blamed herself and refused to nurse her subsequent children. The formula she used caused my poor father to have eczema so severe that the doctor ordered her to spare his skin the pressure of being picked up, that instead he should have his arms tied to his crib all day so he couldn’t scratch. I’d like to reach through time and throttle that doctor.)

After putting it off for a few days, my husband and I were sure we saw desperation in our nearly five month old son’s eyes. We took him for the test. Then we waited. And waited.

Finally the doctor called with the results. He told us to take our baby directly to the hospital for emergency surgery. Benjamin had the blocked digestive tract indicative of advanced pyloric stenosis.

When we got there our baby was deemed so severely dehydrated that it was too dangerous to take him to surgery right away. After many attempts to insert an IV, each second a screaming misery for our child, Benjamin ended up with a line running into his head. Worse, I wasn’t allowed to nurse him in case surgery was scheduled soon, so he screamed with hunger as well. Hours passed and the surgeon didn’t show up to examine him or talk to us.

I was frantic, knowing that my baby had been starving and yet I wasn’t able to feed him. One nurse assured me that the glucose drip was as good for the baby as mother’s milk. Another nurse, seeing that we were holding him rather than letting him wail in the crib, told us “I don’t have much use for pick-me-up-shut-me-up kids.” That explained the largely ignored toddler in the next crib who cried mournfully, so traumatized that he barely paused his crying when we tried talking to him and playing with him.

Hours dragged by and the surgeon still hadn’t arrived.  I went to the nurses’ desk and said as politely as I could that if the surgeon didn’t speak to us in the next half hour I would nurse my inconsolable baby on the way to another hospital.

That did it. A sleepy-voiced surgeon roused himself to call, saying with annoyance that he’d operate in the morning.  And he did. The stenosis was repaired and our baby faced a few more days of hospitalization  to recover.

My husband and I, first time parents at 22 and 24 years old, were so focused on our baby’s health that we were barely aware of our own stress. We’d decided to live on one salary. Our budget had space for homemade meals and quiet pleasures like taking a walk. It didn’t have space for my husband to take off more than the day before and day of our baby’s surgery. It didn’t have space for parking fees in the hospital lot. It didn’t have space for meals in the hospital cafeteria.

I stayed at the hospital with Benjamin as he recovered. Nurses snuck me cans of apple juice and crackers. They brought me pillows so I could lie back in the chair holding my baby. They looked at my bedraggled state and hinted that I could go home to shower. I was still not allowed to nurse until my baby had healed, a source of misery for both of us.  And I suffered over every procedure I could hear being performed on crying children up and down the halls.  Every beeping monitor and rattling cart jangled at what was left of my nerves.

Plenty of people offered to help. I was entrenched in such moment-to-moment care that had no idea what help I needed. My husband was there every spare hour, other than that no one came.

Then one afternoon my husband’s Aunt Grace showed up.  Despite our affection for her we rarely got to see her. She was and still is a private person who is a busy volunteer and active grandmother. Just seeing her familiar face was a blessed relief. She said she wasn’t going to stay long, she just wanted to hold the baby for a bit to give me a break. I hadn’t imagined such a break, but passing him over let me take what felt like the first deep breath in a long while.

Then she gave me a white bag. When I smelled it I realized I’d been hungry for days. Ravenous, actually.  I pulled out a warm foil-wrapped sandwich with deep gratitude. As I unwrapped it my hope flagged. I’d been a whole food vegetarian for years, yet here was a white roll with roast beef and mayonnaise  — a trifecta of What Laura Doesn’t Eat.

I didn’t want to seem unappreciative. Maybe I could wrap it back in the foil and pretend I’d eat it later. I looked at her holding my baby on her shoulder, her cheek against his cheek.  She looked back with such deep kindness that I bit into that sandwich, wiped the goo from my lips, and took another bite.

I could practically feel every cell in my body embrace those nutrients.  Never before or since have I eaten something so powerful. That sandwich tasted like love.


Life is full of tests that have no assured results. A big one is how to help someone in crisis. If you’re not sure what to do, take it from Aunt Grace. Show up. Hold whoever needs holding. And bring a sandwich.

Kids Can’t Filter Out Advertising

kids don't understand advertisements

Image: Dad Zen CC by 2.0

My son was invited to take part in a market research session when he was eight years old.  The whole idea seemed bizarre to me. We were raising him in a frugal household out of necessity, but also because materialism isn’t great for people (or the planet).

Naturally, my hand-me-down-wearing kid was eager to participate. The program checked out as reputable, the entire process would take less than a half hour, and a parent was welcome to stay. I let him sign up, not only in response to his enthusiasm but also because I thought it might be an interesting experience for him. And yes, I had the smug idea that he might actually  show marketers they can’t sway every child’s opinion.

When we learned he’d be giving his impression of a Huffy bike commercial I knew he’d already established some strong opinions. His older brother, at 14, worked a few hours a week for a local bike shop assembling bicycles for a big box store. Most were inexpensive bikes with low-quality parts, some bent or broken before they’d ever been used. Quite a few were Huffy bikes. Many nights his observations steered our dinner table conversation toward the tactics companies use to maximize profit and how advertisements can dupe prospective buyers.

As we drove to the market research session I explained to my eight-year-old how they might try to influence him. “There’s no way they can convince me Huffys are anything but junk,” he said fervently. “No way.”

We were shown into room with a one-way mirror and a large video screen. I was relegated to a folding chair in the back while my son sat in a comfy seat at a table with a woman who asked him warm-up questions clearly designed to establish rapport. When she asked about bikes and bike riding he explained he’d learned to ride on a older model Murray bike, then graduated to a vintage Schwinn bike (yes, the kind with a  banana seat and high handlebars).  He told the interviewer his (brother-influenced) opinions on how offshore manufacturing affected quality and his (parent-influenced) opinions  about the importance of buying products designed to last for decades. He reiterated in several ways that he would never consider asking for a Huffy bike.

Then she played a 90 second advertisement. It showed a boy hurtling over hills at high speeds and skidding sideways in a triumphant finish as he beat other kids in a race.

In those few seconds he changed his mind.

He wanted nothing more than a Huffy bike, he told the interviewer. He couldn’t explain why. He had no language for the powerful effect of the stirring music, symbolic language, and rapidly flitting images. He just wanted one.

Every year, a 17 billion dollar marketing industry is aimed at our kids. That money is spent because it’s effective.

Susan Linn, who teaches psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, notes in Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood that psychological and neurological research is used to exploit the vulnerabilities of children. She writes, “The explosion of marketing aimed at kids today is precisely targeted, refined by scientific method, and honed by child psychologists – in short, it is more pervasive and intrusive than ever before.”

These advertising strategies are embedded in websites, video games, television, and movies. They’re designed into packaging and implicit in many toys. They’re built into “advergames” targeted at young children  in free apps and downloads. They’re nearly ubiquitous in schools.

Let’s take a quick glimpse at one aspect of advertising, fast food, to see how well advertising works.

*Twenty percent of commercials on kids’ programs are food-related, and of those, 70 percent advertise sugary food, chips, crackers, and sugar-added beverages, and fast food restaurants.

*Preschoolers surprised researchers when they were able to recognize up to 92% of corporate logos.

*There’s a strong link between fast food branding recognition and obesity in preschoolers.

*One study discovered that familiar food logos stimulate the parts of children’s brains associated with motivation. The researchers noted, “Considering the pervasiveness of advertising, research should further investigate how children respond at the neural level to marketing.”

*A more extensive three-part study showed the mere act of thinking about fast food makes people more impatient, more eager to use time-saving products, and less likely to save.

Young people have minimal defenses against advertisers’ tactics. Children under the age of eight may easily recognize advertising, but not understand that they’re being persuaded to buy a product. That means they take in the information as uncritically as they might from a parent or teacher. Older children often fail to see product placement as advertising and typically don’t recognize marketing tactics at work.

network in the brain necessary for many introspective abilities – forming a self-image, understanding the ongoing story of one’s own life, and gaining insight into other people’s behavior – is profoundly weaker in young people. Those brain networks aren’t fully established until adulthood. Just at the stage when selfhood is forming, our children are most vulnerable to the messages of a consumer culture.

My son’s desire for the specific model bike he saw didn’t wane for weeks. He  may have been more easily influenced by that 90 second advertisement because he’d been exposed to very little commercial television. Still, the experience rattled me. I’d believed that a close family and strong values were sufficient insulation from a culture of rabid consumerism.  I was wrong. There’s much more we need to do to protect our kids.

BTW, he never did get a Huffy bike. Although kids weigh in on over one-third of purchase decisions, in the final analysis, parents are the ones who make the spending choices.



 Materialistic attitudes are related to unhappiness, low self-esteem, antisocial behavior, even health problems.

10 Ways to Reclaim Childhood from Corporate Marketers 

Raising Media Aware and Current Events Savvy Kids

Protest corporate marketing in schools.

Avoid screen time for young children.

How the boy without toys is being raised with no commercial playthings at all.