The Ache to Make

My daughter needs a new pair of pants hemmed. I dig through a jumbled box of vintage thread for the right color. I find it, gray the color of a mourning dove, wrapped on a wooden spool. I cut a length, thread a needle, and stitch at a backslash angle. I hope I’m also sewing some love into the hem.

I eagerly take refuge in tasks like hemming pants or pulling weeds or chopping onions, probably because what I do to earn money requires no movement other than typing and no strain other than the effort to keep my wandering mind on the screen.

My life would be unimaginable to most of our planet’s previous generations. Our ancestors lived by the work of their hands. They hunted and hoed. They cut stone to line wells, make fences, and build cathedrals. They turned trees into wagon wheels, bridges, and ships. Nearly everything they wore and ate came from their hands and the hands of people known to them.

Our hands do much less than theirs. I’m typing this on a comfortable chair in a warm house in the middle of a life much easier than my forbears could have dreamed for themselves. Yet I know my worst insomnia happens on deadline nights after I’ve made myself stay at the screen hour after hour. And sitting too long at the computer doing nothing more strenuous than moving ideas to documents makes me feel like a suitcase crammed with stuff, straining at the hinges and ready to burst. I want to MAKE something.

So, even though I’ve got another deadline looming and a community action meeting tonight, I’m going to get up from this desk to go do something with my hands.

As fiber artist Renate Hiller says, “our destiny is written in the hand.” I like what she has to say about the ache to make.

What hands-on work are you drawn to do?

Heart Intelligence

” The heart hath its own memory, like the mind.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The deepest truths are felt by the heart. Humanity has known this since prehistory. We keep this knowledge alive in repositories of original wisdom—our stories, our art, and our bodies.

Our hearts brim with the same neurons as our brains, so we experience the world first not through our thoughts but bodily intelligence, both heart intelligence and gut intelligence. We make decisions, learn, and remember with our bodies as well as our brains. Our hearts perceive and respond to the meaning encoded in experiences, building an intrinsic memory of emotion. Sometimes we feel a response directly in our hearts, although we don’t have words big enough to describe this.

In ancient Greek medicine it was known that noble sentiments such as honesty, compassion, and courage strengthened the heart while the most dire emotions weakened it. We now recognize they were on to something. Cardiologists say there’s such a thing as a broken heart, found in people with no blood clots in their arteries, no evidence of coronary heart disease. Instead, stress cardiomyopathy can be caused by intense grief or trauma. We can indeed die of a broken heart.

Heartbeats are a language affecting the way we perceive and react to the world around us. It’s known that strong negative emotion can cause heart rhythms to become irregular and disordered, disordering other body systems as well. In contrast, positive feelings of love, gratitude and compassion create coherent heart rhythms. These coherent heartbeats put the body in sync. As a result, the two branches of the nervous system coordinate with enhanced efficiency, immune responses are boosted, protective and regenerative hormones are released, even brain function improves in alignment with the heart. It’s no wonder that positive emotions summon a full-body sense of well-being. We are biologically guided toward feelings such as compassion and appreciation, since our bodies function most effectively in this state.

Our hearts are not only a primary form of perception. They also communicate with others at a level below our conscious awareness. According to research by the HeartMath Institute, the electrical field emitted by a human heart is 60 times greater in amplitude than brain activity. Its electromagnetic field is 5,000 greater. The heart’s field radiates through every cell in the body, extending well beyond the skin. In other words, we broadcast the electromagnetic signal of our own hearts. This can be measured several feet away from our bodies. Energy activity in the heart of one individual affect and can be measured in the brain waves of another person (or pet!) in close proximity.

As HeartMath Institute studies continue to show, the most powerfully coherent heartbeat is that of the caring heart. Love and compassion are not only emotional experiences, they are sent outward in signals that can calm the heart rates of people nearby. A loving heart at close proximity can calm an angry heart, a sorrowful heart, and yes, a lonely heart.

With feelings of love or gratitude, you reach for your child’s hand in a crowded stadium or subway. Your loving heart rhythm affects your child, and more, it also affects the stranger at your side. All three of you are blessed by those harmonious beats emanating from your chest. Poets had it right all along.

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i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)   -e.e. cummings

Portions of this article are excerpted from Free Range Learning.

Decision To Make? Ask Your Body

I tend to fuss over decisions, considering all possible options while weighing the benefits and risks for everyone involved. Sometimes I choose the most difficult path even when it clashes with my admittedly Hobbit-like nature, in part because I have the annoying idea that growth comes from taking on new challenges.

Unfortunately the process of logical decision-making tends to wedge us into what we intellectually determine is best even if it doesn’t feel right. (I’ve gotten myself into plenty of tough situations doing exactly that.) Many of us tap into our intuition as well, but we usually give much more weight to what reason has to say.

These days I’m trying to rely less on my head and more on gut feelings for decisions large and small. It doesn’t take much to realize the glad expansiveness in my chest is a “yes” while a heavy clenched feeling in my throat is a “no.”

I don’t always succeed at this. Recently I agreed to give a series of talks and already dread them. The process of trying to be more aware of what’s authentically right for me is gradual. (NOT public speaking, my body retorts.) I suspect many of us push ourselves until our bodies force us to start paying attention….

Let’s remember, each one of us is a whole person with intelligence coming from our hearts, our guts, maybe all of our cells. But our culture teaches us from our earliest years to be in our heads while ignoring, even shutting off inner knowing. When inner promptings are so strong they override the left hemisphere of the brain, children are often labeled something else entirely—-lazy, reluctant, stubborn, headstrong, picky, anxious, timid, fussy. In reality, our bodies are telling us we need:

1. time to process or time do things at a pace natural to us

2. to step away from a particular person/situation/food/obligation

3. to honor the voice inside that already knows the answer

This is the kind of awareness that people have used since the beginning of humankind to make decisions fully, in ways we rarely access in today’s world.

Here’s a recent example of what can happen through listening to body wisdom. I have poor posture. I fight it, when I think about it, by holding my head up straight for as long as I can remember and more recently, by learning to practice natural posture. But when I’m working at the computer my head tends to sink forward until I’m hunched like a half-conscious orangutan. I know that listening to the body means, in part, paying attention to the body’s messages. So one afternoon I stopped resisting, just for a few minutes.

I listened to what my slumped posture had to tell me. It didn’t say “sit up straight!” It said go with the slump. Feeling a little silly, I let my head sink forward to a ridiculously exaggerated degree. Instantly I recognized in my body the way my father slouched when he was sad, the way my mother’s head jutted forward and down with disappointment. Their postures are in me, speaking to me. I didn’t analyze this, I just sat with it, paying attention to my body in that posture. Strangely I felt relief, even comfort, as my upper body curled like a fetus.

Then I tried the opposite. I pulled my head up into rigid “good posture”and was surprised when tears came to my eyes. My throat felt vulnerable and exposed, as it did when I was a little girl and couldn’t sleep unless my throat was covered. Again, I didn’t analyze right away, I just sat with it.

The whole process took about three minutes. Yet afterward I felt a wonderful strength up my spine. My posture felt buoyantly upright. The feeling lasted all afternoon. It was astonishing to get so much benefit from such a short body-awareness experience.

What I am saying is that your internal guidance system is there, ready to be accessed. You possess logic, which is invaluable as you consider variables and imagine outcomes. You have remarkably instructive emotions—you may feel excited, a little scared, a little eager, and pretty relieved when you imagine yourself going forward with one decision while you may feel let down, hesitant, and resistant when you imagine going forward with a different decision. Just past logic and emotion are actual body sensations. You may feel tightness in your jaw or churning in your stomach or tension in your back. You might feel the urge to stretch or dance or take a deep breath.

Simply remember, when you have a decision to make, consult your thoughts and emotions and body wisdom. The answer is there, waiting for you to pay attention.

For more on this, check out:

7 Ways To Access Your Body’s Unique “Knowing”

Free Fix For What Troubles Us

The Little Trick To Make Any Moment Better

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Don’t Sit Up Straight: Why Natural Posture May Be Better

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Pondering the skeleton within (Image CC by 2.0 Dreaming in the deep south)

I come from a family of slouchers and after a typical day at the computer I have ample reason to worry I’ll develop the dowager’s hump my grandmother had by the time she was in her late 50s. Worse, my husband recently required back surgery due to longstanding problems after a car accident.

That’s why I’m on a quest to find out all I can about our spines and our posture. It has taken me in some unexpected directions. Here are some crumbs along this trail.

First off, don’t sit or stand up straight. At least not the way we think is correct, with our shoulders back and chins held high. That, my friends, is not remotely natural no matter what your mother or your gym teacher or your fitness coach told you. I learned this from a book with gorgeous photographs of people all over the world engaged in often strenuous tasks, yet moving with posture that is graceful and perfectly supported. The title, 8 Steps to a Pain-Free Back: Natural Posture Solutions for Pain in the Back, Neck, Shoulder, Hip, Knee, and Foot. The title doesn’t hint at how important this book is for those of us who don’t have back pain, but nonetheless plan to continue using our spines. The author, Esther Gokhale, teaches what she calls “primal posture.” Her book is packed with more than inspiring images. It explains how we can sit, stand, walk, and lie down in ways that contribute to our overall health and well-being. For example, by using a postural method she calls “stretch sitting.” She gives a brief intro in the following video, instruction starts about 4:20.

Next, all the fuss about building muscle doesn’t get to the core of the issue. Toned abs can’t replace strong, well-aligned bones. I learned more about this from another amazing book Natural Posture for Pain-Free Living: The Practice of Mindful Alignment
by Kathleen Porter Ms. Porter explains that children in the non-industrialized world naturally sit and stand with aligned posture they maintain their entire lives without the neck, spine, and leg problems that plague people in the developed world. She also contends that a child’s naturally good posture supports learning.

Why do we have so many slumped kids and achy adults in industrialized countries? Our fixation on TV and computer screens may be part of the problem. But Ms. Porter thinks it starts earlier. She notes that the design of car seats, strollers, and baby seats work against an infant’s developing posture. (She offers one solution, called a Baby Wedgie.)

I suspect it has something to do with how little free play today’s kids enjoy, a time when they can engage in brain-boosting and spine stretching movement. A recent study of 4 million U.S. preschool-aged children found that almost half were not taken outdoors to play on a daily basis, probably because we’re busy carting those kids around in car seats that incorrectly position their spines. Ms. Porter explains how to raise kids with healthy posture in her book Sad Dog, Happy Dog: How Poor Posture Affects Your Child’s Health and What You Can Do About It. The following video does a good job of showing how to grow up with naturally aligned posture.

And finally, it’s worth considering how our bodies react to strong emotion.

During frightening, painful, or otherwise highly stressful experiences our bodies are flooded with chemicals preparing us to react physically. Most often our response, in today’s world, is not physical. We aren’t running away from or fighting off predators as our ancient ancestors did, although our bodies respond in the same way (the “fight or flight” response). We staunch our physical impulses and sit still during all sorts of stressors, remaining immobile during a painful medical procedure, while the boss politely tells us we’re going to be laid off, or when our car is nearly hit on the highway. Experts in trauma tell us that mentally processing a frightening or powerfully upsetting experience doesn’t always resolve it. The bodily movements we wanted to take, but didn’t, are still locked within. There they can cause all sorts of long-term problems, including back pain. (Check out what movement can help alleviate this stress.)

I’m still learning about this as I read remarkable books by Peter A. Levine. The first one I waded through is geared more toward physical therapists and psychotherapists, but still highly relevant for the layperson. I stumbled on it initially because I loved the title’s implication, In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. It’s one of those books to read with a highlighter in hand. Now I’m reading one of his far more accessible books, Trauma-Proofing Your Kids: A Parents’ Guide for Instilling Confidence, Joy and Resilience, which I heartily recommend. It casts a bright light on experiences adults may consider average, but which can turn into long-term trouble for kids (masquerading as behavior problems, hyperactivity, anxiety, or depression) unless we know how to help them deal with it.

I love the way seeking out information tends to lead us in new, unanticipated directions. I’m still on the lookout for what I can learn about natural posture. And I’m working on sitting as if I had a tail, one that is behind and not under me. I swear this effort makes me look taller than my almost five foot three inch height. See, another unexpected perk!

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Originally published in Wired.

Common Sense Laziness

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When we first moved to the country a farmer gave us some good advice. “Make it easy on yourself.” His organic, widely diversified farm was (and still is) an example of ingenuity. He and the generations before him who ran the family farm figured out ways to make necessary tasks go smoothly with less effort. This didn’t mean going into debt to buy expensive equipment. It meant thinking for themselves as they designed alternative methods of manure removal, tinkered with ways to reduce the strain of loading hay into lofts, and built beehives into an eight-sided shed. Their methods made the job more efficient, sometimes more elegant, and always easier.

This is an example of human ingenuity, a trait that has been characteristic of our species since we first grunted in self-awareness. Let’s face it, we prefer to avoid wasting unnecessary effort on unpleasant tasks. Let’s call it common sense laziness.

This approach worked pretty well for us back in the earliest days when saber-toothed tigers lurked. Evolution favored individuals who didn’t wear themselves out. They had more energy to flee from danger. More energy to anticipate and guard against potential threats. Some of this saved energy could be devoted to developing story, song, dance, you know, culture. We humans like expending energy that way.

Our forebears passed along the genes for innovation as well as the genes for common sense laziness. We like the innovative genes. But we judge ourselves pretty harshly for the lazy ones. Until very recently people got plenty of exercise from the work necessary to house, clothe, and feed ourselves. Researchers in an Australian study checked the activity levels of men who worked in a historical re-enactment village. Each subject wore a device that measured body movements. The results were compared to activity levels of men in current day occupations. Over the course of a week the 18th century pretenders showed 60 percent higher activity levels than the modern group. And it’s worth noting that re-enactment is surely less strenuous than actually living as people did back then.  Other studies have found significant differences in calories burned when we wash dishes by hand rather than use a dishwasher, climb stairs rather than use an elevator, and walk to work rather than drive.

We try to compensate through something we call exercise. It’s a strange concept, really. We run nowhere, lift weights only to put them down, stretch without trying to reach anything.

At the very core of our being we’re motivated to exert energy when there’s a purpose. Accomplishing real tasks in the real world builds muscles, burns calories, and as a side perk, gets things done. By real, of course, I mean tasks that people several hundred years ago would recognize. (Not the sort of work I do for a living, using the tools of a swivel chair and computer.)

In our society we eagerly embrace labor-saving devices and often pay people to do the physically demanding work of maintaining our homes, yards, and vehicles. To afford this ease, we work longer hours. Then we “discipline” ourselves to engage in strenuous exercise despite the evolutionary pull toward common sense laziness.

We need a middle ground. I totally agree with our farmer friend. Making it easier on ourselves is smart if we’re doing the hard work of traditional farming or any other physically taxing pursuit. For most of us, that’s not an issue. What is the issue? Recognizing that our bodies need and our minds want full engagement. I know purposeful work is waiting for me: helping a friend move, digging in the garden, painting a room, organizing a closet, and plenty of other movement-based activities. It feels good to get something done, with a plus—exercise is built in.

To fully benefit, a change in attitude is important too. Scolding ourselves for laziness has a powerfully negative effect. Consider a study done with hotel maids as subjects. All day long these women performed physically taxing labors as they hauled heavy carts, bent, scrubbed, and pushed vacuums. Yet when asked, the majority said they didn’t get any exercise. Even more strangely, although these women got more than the daily recommended quota of physical activity, their bodies didn’t seem to benefit. Indicators including body fat, blood pressure, and waist-to-hip ration matched their perceived level of exercise, not their actual level of exercise.  It gets even more interesting. Half of the maids were educated about how many calories their daily tasks burned and told their work qualified them as physically active. The other half were not. Within a month, the attitude change group showed a reduction in blood pressure, waist-to-hip ration, and weight. So how you perceive the chores you do each day or the basement you cleaned over the weekend is important.

One caveat. Common sense laziness is irrelevant when it comes to fun. Playing and dancing and otherwise moving for sheer pleasure may provide exercise but more importantly, exuberant activities fully engage our whole being. They remind us how good it feels to be alive.

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Vagus Overusers Anonymous

 

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sigh

There I go again, sighing. Most of the time I don’t know I’m doing it but thanks to my family I’m aware that I emit plenty of audible exhales.

My grandmother was a chronic sigher.  Each time she sat down, air rushed out of her mouth. It just seemed like an intrinsic part of her mechanism. A decade or two later my mother became a sigher as well. I should have realized the same fate would eventually strike me. I persist in thinking it’s a phase. Surely the women in my line sighed for the same reasons everyone else does—blowing off stress, expressing relief, giving in to exhaustion. Maybe they just had more than their fair share of sigh-worthy burdens.

There are good body-based reasons to sigh. When we’re stressed or fatigued our breathing is less variable. That’s not healthy. Our lungs, like the rest of our bodies, operate best dynamically. Our respiratory function becomes less efficient if we breathe in one state too long. A deep sigh resets breathing, loosening the lung’s air sacs and providing a feeling of relief.

More importantly, a deep sigh also stimulates the vagus nerve. We know all about the flight-or-flight response, which is controlled by the parasympathetic nervous system. In that state our stress hormones are turned way up. We’re jittery, impulsive, and cued to react to stress. When we are relaxed, the opposite system, the parasympathetic nervous system is active. The vagus nerve is a primary stimulator of this feel-good nervous system, operating via the neurotransmitter acetylcholine. This neurotransmitter promotes relaxation and a feeling of well-being. That’s why good deep breaths are linked to the stress-quelling results found with the Relaxation Response as well as more traditional meditation. Acetylcholine also has to do with learning, memory, even reduced inflammation. So stimulating your vagus nerve is great for brain AND body.

Not ready to sigh just yet?

Well, Dacher Keltner, psychology professor and Director of the Greater Good Science Center says that the vagus nerve is responsible for much more. Biggies like empathy and who we are as a species. In his book, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life* he explains that the vagus nerve,

…resides in the chest and, when activated, produces a feeling of spreading, liquid warmth in the chest and a lump in the throat.  The vagus nerve…originates in the top of the spinal cord and then winds its way through the body…, connecting up to facial muscle tissue, muscles that are involved in vocalization, the heart, the lungs, the kidneys and liver, and the digestive organs. In a series of controversial papers, physiological psychologist Steve Porges has made the case that the vagus nerve is the nerve of compassion, the body’s caretaking organ.

…Porges notes that the vagus nerve innervates the muscle groups of communicative systems involved in caretaking – the facial musculature and vocal apparatus. In our research, for example, we have found that people systematically sigh – little quarter-second, breathy expressions of concern and understanding – when listening to another person describe an experience of suffering. The sigh is a primordial exhalation, calming the sigher’s flight/flight physiology, and a trigger of comfort and trust, our study found, in the speaker. When we sigh in soothing fashion, or reassure others in distress with our concerned gaze or oblique eyebrows, the vagus nerve is doing its work, stimulating the muscles of the throat, mouth, face, and tongue to emit soothing displays of concern and reassurance.

Second, the vagus nerve is the primary brake on our heart rate.  Without activation of the vagus nerve, your heart would fire on average at about 115 beats per minute, instead of the more typical 72 beats per minute. The vagus nerve helps slow the heart rate down. When we are angry or fearful, our heart races, literally jumping five to ten beats per minute, distributing blood to various muscle groups, preparing the body for fight or flight. The vagus nerve does the opposite, reducing our heart rate to a more peaceful pace, enhancing the likelihood of gentle contact in close proximity with others.

Third, the vagus nerve is directly connected to rich networks of oxytocin receptors, those neuropeptides intimately involved in the experience of trust and love. As the vagus nerve fires, stimulating affiliative vocalizations and calmer cardiovascular physiology, presumably it triggers the release of oxytocin, sending signals of warmth, trust, and devotion throughout the brain and body, and ultimately, to other people.

Finally, the vagus nerve is unique to mammals…as caretaking began to define a new class of species – mammals – a region of the nervous system, the vagus nerve, emerged evolutionarily to help support this new category of behavior.

I’m sticking with what the body knows. I’ll be activating my vagus nerve, feeling calm and relaxed. Vagus Overusers Anonymous here I come. sigh

*Portions quoted from pages 228-230 of Keltner’s wonderful book. Read the whole thing!

 

A Child’s Place Is In The Kitchen

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It’s easier to cook when kids aren’t in the way. Bubbling pots and sharp knives, after all, are hardly child-friendly. But the kitchen shouldn’t be off-limits to kids.

Yes, dinner takes longer to make when Mason snips the cilantro to shreds and Sophie reads the recipe out loud. And you’ve got places to go — probably places to take your darling children, like T-ball practice or that great science program at the museum.

But how much, really, do our beloved kids benefit from a steady schedule of, well, scheduled activities? Those educational, adult-led activities may very well be counterproductive. We tend to forget that ordinary things like cooking together are flexible, hands-on, purposeful learning experiences.

As they snip, read, and converse with us, our kids are learning physical, mental, and social skills. Here’s how cooking can be educational for them.

Mirror neurons. Even a baby in an infant seat benefits from time in the kitchen. She pays attention to your actions. She’s delighted when you talk to her and show her what you’re doing. Due to mirror neurons in our brains, all of us mentally duplicate actions and emotions we see. This inborn way of learning means that we’re continually participating in what we observe. Your baby’s mirror neurons allow her to vicariously experience what you’re doing. As she sees you wash, peel, and cut carrots, she’ll form a mental template for that task, essentially allowing her to practice in advance.

If you change an element of that familiar activity — perhaps by using garden-fresh carrots with long waving fronds instead of milled carrots from a plastic bag — your little one will pay heightened attention. If your knife slips and you cut yourself, she’ll react to your surprise and pain, making her understanding of sharp implements more real than any warning might accomplish.

Meaning. Young children clamor to be included. When a preschooler begs to help prepare dinner, he doesn’t want to play with a toy cooking set; he wants to participate in the real work that’s taking place. It slows us down to let him cut fresh mushrooms with a butter knife (and restraint to avoid criticizing or re-cutting), but your child recognizes his contribution toward dinner. He’s also more likely to eat it.

Responsibility. Research has shown that children who participated in household tasks starting at age three or four were more likely to succeed in adulthood. I’m talking really succeed: educational completion, career success, and good relationships with family and friends. Even I.Q. scores had a weaker correlation with success than giving children early responsibilities. And waiting until children were older tends to backfire. We spend much time and money on enriching activities and products for our children, but if they don’t get the chance to take on real responsibilities, we’re depriving them of key components of adult competency.

Higher-level learning. Kitchen-related tasks allow kids to learn more than how dry pinto beans can transform into enticingly tasty refried beans. Kids begin to see scientific principles at work. They develop personal qualities such as patience. They are motivated to apply what they’re learning to more challenging endeavors. Sure, it doesn’t hurt to know what it takes to grow the tomatoes, make the sauce, and prepare the beans for tonight’s enchiladas. But more importantly, as children become proficient in the kitchen, they also see themselves as capable learners. That perception transfers across all endeavors. 

Sensory learning. Full sensory learning has staying power. Apart from nature, it’s hard to find a more sensory-rich environment than the kitchen. As your child’s little fingers crumble blue cheese into dressing, add raisins to a measuring cup, or tear mint leaves for chutney, the tactile and olfactory pleasure help encode specific memories. Perhaps the happiness your daughter feels making mint chutney with you today will be evoked each time she smells mint in the future. We humans must see, hear, smell, touch, and, yes, taste to form the complex associations that make up true comprehension.

Active learning. Childhood is a period of major neuroplasticity, when learning actually changes the brain’s functional anatomy. Hands-on experiences are particularly vital at this time. In fact, the child who spends plenty of time with manipulatives (arranging veggie on a platter, sifting flour, washing silverware) and using real-world math (measuring ingredients, counting celery stalks, following recipes) has a strong foundation of representational experience, which in turn enables better understanding of abstract mathematical concepts. These movement-oriented activities also contribute to reading readiness. Another benefit of kitchen learning? Cooking and tasting the results a short time later provides wonderful lessons in cause and effect.

Simplicity. Children accustomed to blinking, beeping toys and rapidly changing screen images may become so wired to this overstimulation that without it, they’re bored. The slower pace of kitchen conversation and cooking tasks can be an important antidote, especially when we’re willing to go at a child’s pace. Young children tend to balk when they’re hurried. They show us, stubbornly and often loudly, that there’s nothing more important to them than the here and now. So whenever possible, simplify so you can make your time together in the kitchen enjoyable. Slowing down is better for digestion, concentration, and overall happiness. Letting a small child spread his own peanut butter, cut his own sandwich, and pour milk from a tiny pitcher into his cup is a way of affirming the value of the present moment. It also makes for an effortless tea party.

Skill building. There’s no denying that children who help out in the kitchen pick up useful skills. They learn that a cake takes lots of mixing, but muffins very little. They can set the table, toss a salad, make a sandwich, and boil pasta. Not right away, but eventually. They also learn from the examples we show them, such as how to handle pressure and ways to learn from mistakes. Whether we’re four years old or 40 years old, gaining competency feels good. It doesn’t hurt to give credit where it’s due. So if your child has been busy peeling potatoes and crumbling bacon, try renaming the entrée “Max’s special potato soup” for extra reinforcement.

Purpose. When we prepare a family meal, bake a cake to celebrate a friend’s good news, or change a favorite recipe to accommodate Grandpa’s diabetes, our efforts have noticeable value. As our children participate along with us, they feel that same satisfaction. So many educational tasks put before our children serve no purpose other than to instruct. But when learning is connected to something truly purposeful, it can’t help but spark enthusiasm. Children feel honored to be included in real work that includes real challenges. If we pay attention, we’ll see that’s just what they pretend to do when they play.

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Getting Started

Even toddlers can help. Let small children cut mushrooms, pears, bananas, and other soft items with a blunt knife. Encourage them to stir (as long as you or they hold the bowl). They’ll be happy to add ingredients, tear lettuces, and grate cheese. When putting together forgiving dishes like soups or casseroles, have them help you choose herbs and spices by smell before you toss in a pinch or two.

Encourage your small fry to wash unbreakable items in a sink of warm soapy water. Let them clean up crumbs on the floor with a small whisk broom or handheld vacuum. Put them in charge of setting out napkins on the table and calling family members to dinner.

Give them the job of stacking unbreakable containers in a low cabinet. Solicit their opinions on aroma, taste, and appearance as you cook together. And remember to thank them for their assistance.

As they get older, children can read recipes, plan meals, and do nearly every task required to make the dishes they enjoy. The time will come when they won’t want you in the room explaining how to fix a lumpy cream sauce or talking about how Nana always mixed pastry dough with her fingers. They’re on their way to making the kitchen a proving ground for their own culinary adventures. Hopefully you’ll be invited to taste-test while you relax for a change.

Parking the kids in front of the TV while we dash to get dinner ready may be efficient, but it’s not the way young people have matured throughout human history. Children need to watch, imitate, and gain useful skills. They’re drawn to see how their elders handle a crisis, fix a car, create a soufflé, build a bookshelf, heal what’s broken, and fall in love.

So welcome your little ones into the kitchen. Let the cooking begin.

 

First published in Culinate.com

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?

resources

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

Dying My Hair Pink

Time to dye it?

Well, maybe. I haven’t seen anyone with pink hair in our small town, passing through or otherwise. But I’m contemplating it. Action may be necessary after what happened the other day.

I was out on the town engaging in a not-so-fascinating adventure: shopping for canning jar lids. I heard someone call out behind me from a distance. It was a stranger’s voice.

Using the logic bestowed on most members of our species, I assumed she was hailing some other person in the store so I ignored her. A moment later that stranger zoomed up behind me and said,

“Oh, I thought you were my mom.”

I’m a warm and motherly person, true. But I was not that stranger’s mother. Worse, she was in my approximate age group. Which means her own mother either looks like someone who gave birth as a kindergartener OR I look really old. (Particularly from behind.)

The stranger muttered something like, “Sorry, she has blonde hair too.”

Raised to be polite at all costs, I simply smiled at her (fist shake at Nice Girl upbringing). I’m not sure what an appropriate response might have been. Snort-enhanced laughter perhaps.

Wait, it gets worse.

I saw her join a woman one aisle over. I witnessed her call this woman “Mom.” Her mother was clearly 15 to 20 years old than I. And wearing tan stretch pants. With tennis shoes. And a quilted handbag.

Alas, I see I’ve fallen right into the basement of People Who Make Superficial Comments despite my regular attempts to be my Better Self.

I’m not mocking my elders, heck, I’m looking forward to being a rowdy old lady myself (which is how I’ll finally outgrow that Nice Girl upbringing). And I’m in no position to judge this woman’s appearance, especially after outing myself as a beauty flunky. As I tell my kids, everyone has a lovely gleaming soul. (Boy do they ever like to hit me back with that one when I get snarky.) But I’m finding the chronological escalator a bit too relentless.

When I was younger I took a constantly functional body and seemingly unlimited time ahead for granted. Now various parts creak and I realize I may not be able to fit all my enthusiasm into an ordinary lifespan. Sometimes I walk by the library windows, noticing a stumpy little woman in the reflection. Who is that woman, I wonder? Why is she carrying my purse? It takes a moment to sink in. That’s me. I may feel like a fourteen-year-old sneaking out of the house in a halter top, but instead I’m some lady wearing a scarf.

I was raised to use everything up. To smack the bottle till it was empty, then add a little water and shake it to get out the last lingering drops. I fully intend to do that with my life too. I’ll be using up every single bit. But if I get any more reminders about being old before my time, you may see me with pink hair. Or at least pink streaks. My quietly rebellious fourteen-year-old self would be proud. And the rowdy old lady I hope to become will understand.

Reading Readiness Has To Do With The Body

reading readiness, kids sit too much,

Sitting down. (public domain by Jusben)

Today’s kids sit more than ever. Babies spend hours confined in car seats and carriers rather than crawling, toddling, or being carried. As they get older their days are often heavily scheduled between educational activities and organized events. Children have 25 percent less time for free play than they did a generation ago, and that’s before factoring in distractions like TV or video games.

Left to their own devices, children move. They hold hands and whirl in a circle till they fall down laughing. They beg to take part in interesting tasks with adults. They want to face challenges and try again after making mistakes. They climb, dig, and run. When they’re tired they like to be rocked or snuggled. Stifling these full body needs actually impairs their ability to learn.

Sensory experience and fun. (CC by 2.0 Micah Sittig)

We know that our little ones walk and talk on their own timetables. No rewards or punishments are necessary to “teach” them. Yet children are expected to read, write and spell starting at five and six years old as if they develop the same way at the same time. Academics are pushed on young children with the assumption this will make them better students. This approach is not only unnecessary, it may be contributing to problems such as learning disorders, attention deficits, and long term stress.

Studies that follow children’s reading instruction at ages five and seven find earlier lessons may damage reading development. By the time children reach the age of 11, students who were instructed earlier show poorer text comprehension and less positive attitudes toward reading than children whose instruction started later.

Literacy isn’t easy. It requires children to decode shapes into sounds and words, to remember these words correctly in written and spoken form, and to understand their meaning. Allowing reading to develop naturally or teaching it later tends to create eager, lifelong readers. Why?

why pushing school-like lessons hinders learning,

Children pushed to read young (not those who naturally pick it up) tend to rely on right brain processes because that area matures more quickly. These early readers are likely to guess at unknown words using clues such as appearance, context, beginning and ending letters. Their main tactic is memorizing sight words. These are valuable methods but not a balanced approach to reading. Such children may quickly tire after reading short passages or read smoothly but have difficulty deriving meaning from what they read. The procedure they use to decode words can make the content hard to comprehend. These reading problems can persist.

On the other hand, children benefit when they learn to read naturally or are taught later. That’s because, as the left brain matures and the pathway between both hemispheres develops, it becomes easier for them to sound out words, to visualize meanings, and mentally tinker with abstractions. They memorize short sight words but sound out longer words, an approach that is less taxing. As they incorporate more words into their reading vocabulary they more easily picture and understand what they are reading.

developing eager readers,

Developing eager readers (CC by 2.0 Daniel Pink

In order for children to read, write and spell they must be developmentally ready. Some are ready at the age of four or five, some not for many years later. This readiness includes complex neurological pathways and kinesthetic awareness. Such readiness isn’t created by workbooks or computer programs. It’s the result of brain maturation as well as rich experiences found in bodily sensation and movement.

These experiences happen as children play and work, particularly in ways that cross the midline. They includes expansive movements such as climbing, jumping, digging, swimming, playing hopscotch and catch, riding bikes, sweeping, running. They also include fine movements such as chopping vegetables, drawing, building, playing rhyming and clapping games, using scissors, and playing in sand. And of course there’s the essential growth that comes from snuggling, listening to stories, singing, trying new tastes,  enjoying make believe. Children are drawn to such experiences. Without them, they won’t have a strong foundation for learning.

how to boost reading readiness,

Play is related to reading readiness. (CC by 2.0 stevendepolo)

These activities stimulate the child’s brain to develop new neural pathways. Such activities also build confidence, smooth sensory processing, and create a bank of direct experience that helps the child visualize abstract concepts. Well-intended adults may think a good use of a rainy afternoon is a long car ride to an educational exhibit. A young child is likely to derive more developmental value (and fun) from stomping in puddles and digging in mud followed by play time in the tub.

There are many other factors contributing to reading readiness. Perhaps most important is a supportive family life where play, reading, and conversation are an enjoyable part of each day. But it helps to remember that young children want to participate in the purposeful work of making meals, fixing what’s broken, and planting the garden. They also need free time without the built-in entertainment of specialized toys, television, or video games. Their development is cued to movement. These bodily experiences prepare children for the magic found when shapes become words, words become stories, and they become readers.

raising eager readers,

Reading enthusiasm isn’t magic. (CC by 2.0 John-Morgan)

Portions of the post excerpted from Free Range Learning.