Making Memories Through Music

image: pixabay.com

image: pixabay.com

Do you attach any significance to songs that start playing in your mind? I do. Maybe that’s because they often get stuck, becoming earworms that loop around for what seem like hours. Sometimes they even wake me in the middle of the night.

I can’t help but wonder why the underpinning of my consciousness loads a particular piece of music. Sometimes it’s easy to figure out because my husband was whistling it or it was playing at a restaurant or I heard a slice of it when a car stopped next to me at a traffic light. Most of the time it seems too random to be chance. So I try to figure out what the song tells me in lyric or mood or memory.

Today, simply walking into a room, my mind’s playlist came up with a tender song I haven’t heard in decades, “Never My Love.”

It took me right back to my childhood home. Most evenings my schoolteacher father sat in an armchair grading papers. I liked to sit on the floor with my back against his chair reading a book in the same warm circle of lamplight. On those nights he played music like  “Only You” by The Platters, “Happy Together” by the Turtles, “Cherish” by The Association, “Both Sides Now” by Judy Collins, “So Far Away” by Carole King, “Close to You” by the Carpenters, and just about anything by Burt Bacharach.

My father loved all kinds of music. In college he was nicknamed “Pitch Pipe” – a play on his surname Piper and an homage to his perfect pitch. When my siblings and I were tiny he’d turn the stereo up so we could dance to big band music, the score from a musical, or a classical standard. He’d sing along, harmonizing against the melody. Without a shred of self-consciousness he’d lift up his arms to conduct a particularly tantalizing portion of Bach or Mozart. And sometimes after dinner a song would come on the radio and he’d dance with my mother, both of them smiling as they swooped around the kitchen linoleum.

My father’s father died when my dad was only five years old. The only thing my dad owned of his father’s was a guitar, which he taught himself to play. Supervising little kids’ baths was one of his chores in the parental division of duties, so he’d sit on the toilet lid singing and strumming that guitar while we played in the tub. My splashy siblings and I sang right along with him to tunes like “You Are My Sunshine” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” We also sang songs he remembered from his college days, lyrics edited for little ears.

I don’t know what it means that I’m hearing “Never My Love.” Most likely something below the surface of my awareness triggered a childhood memory. But I prefer to think it’s a form of connection that lasts even when death separates us.

I’m singing it aloud Dad. I’m singing it for you.

Where Fascination Leads

child's interests, toddler's fears show inclinations, fear is fascination,

Born with uniqueness.

“I didn’t say I liked it. I said it fascinated me. There is a great difference.” Oscar Wilde

My oldest was calm and attentive as a baby, except around vacuum cleaners. The machine’s sound made him scream with the sort of primal terror normally associated with death by predator. He had no previous experiences with loud sounds in his short life, good or bad. Except for surgery, performed when he was five weeks old, he’d had no bad experiences at all.

As a first time parent I turned his reaction into a giant philosophical issue. (Okay, maybe I turn everything into a giant philosophical issue.) Should we only vacuum when one of us took him out of the house until he somehow grew out of it? Or should we hold and reassure him when the vacuum had to be turned on? I was convinced whatever we decided would somehow have lifelong ramifications.

For a few months we relied on the first solution. The only vacuum sounds he heard were through open windows. Even outside, he listened on Baby High Alert status until it was turned off, with wide eyes and a stiff body. Fortunately the vacuum didn’t run long since our house was tiny. Then winter hit. It wasn’t easy to go outdoors simply to turn on the vacuum. Much as I appreciated any excuse to be slothful, I was still in the first child clean house stage (that ended resoundingly long before child number 4). So we tried desensitizing him to the Terror Machine sound. Although he initially screamed when I got it out and named it, he began to calm down as I did this day after day, naming it, then saying OFF and ON while performing those functions quickly. I was relieved when he no longer cried in nervous anticipation. Next I’d hold him as I pushed it around, doing one room before letting him turn it off. His tension dissipated and it became a favorite activity. Have you guessed? Mastery of fear led to fascination.

One of his first words was “vacuum.” He wanted to know all about them. He loved sale fliers with pictures of vacuums. I ended up cutting out all sorts of vacuum pictures to put in a photo album so he could flip through it, pointing and making “vroom” noises. Anything associated with vacuums, like hoses and plugs, also made his fascination list. An early talker, he memorized manufacturer names of vacuums and, like a household appliance geek, would quiz other people about vacuums. I recall one such incident when he was not quite two. We were at the park when my child tried to instigate a conversation with a fellow toddler. It didn’t seem the other little boy was a talker yet. Meanwhile my son, telegraphing his strange upbringing, was asking, “Do you have a Eureka vacuum at home? Do you have a Hoover? A Kirby?” When he saw the respondent didn’t understand, my son tried what he thought was an easier question. “Is your vacuum upright or canister?” Both little boys looked up at me with incredulous expressions, as if asking what was wrong with the other.

He often called his play “work” and was never happier than when he could contribute to real work. For his third birthday my son’s dearest wish was for a hand vac. And to go to Sears so he could hang out in the vacuum section. That’s what we did. Even his best buddy Sara, who had come along for the birthday excursion, patiently indulged him. She understood him well and when they played house she often had him fix pretend things or turn on pretend things, which always made him happy. That year he got a gift wrapped hand vac.

The vacuum obsession wasn’t his only early childhood weirdness. Once he figured out that bones have Latin names (I think a physician friend leaked this info) he insisted on memorizing those names. He liked to rescue bugs from situations he deemed dangerous, telling them “go in peace little brother,” a line he got from one of his favorite books. He preferred actual tools to toys, and before he was four he started building things out of scrap wood and nails, carefully hammering them into shapes almost as incomprehensible as his crayon drawings.

Around that time I read a fascinating book by James Hillman, The Soul’s Code. Hillman is a deep, insightful thinker. It has been a long time since I read the book, but I recall that it described each of us as coming into the world with a uniqueness that asks to be lived out, a sort of individual destiny, which he termed an “acorn.” It’s a remarkable lens to view who we are. A child’s destiny may show itself in all sorts of ways: in behaviors we call disobedience, in obsession with certain topics or activities, in a constant pull toward or away from something. Rather than steering a child to a particular outcome, Hillman asks parents to pay closer attention to who the child is and how the child shows his or her calling.

The examples Hillman gives are memorable. If I recall correctly, Itzhak Perlman, now one of the preeminent violinists of our time, became fascinated when he heard classical music on the radio as a three year old. He wanted to feel the same rich notes coming out of a violin in his hands. His parents lovingly presented him with a toy fiddle when he was four. He drew the bow across the strings and was horrified at the cheap squawk the toy made. Enraged, he threw the instrument across the room, breaking it. His imagination had already taken him to the place in himself where beautiful music was made and he was unable to bear that awful sound. We normally call that behavior a “tantrum.” Another example is award-winning director Martin Scorcese. As a child he suffered from terrible asthma and wasn’t allowed to go out to play on the New York streets. So he watched the world framed by a window. He drew what was going on, making frame after frame of cartoons. He was teaching himself to create scenes and action, essentially tutoring himself in the basics of moviemaking. We’d normally consider his circumstances a form of deprivation. Reading Hillman’s book gave me insight into the acorn of my own fears, longings, and daydreams. It also helped me see my child’s interests with new eyes.

My firstborn is an adult now. He can weld and fabricate, repair tractors and cars, build additions on a home and turn a shell of a room into a working kitchen, drive heavy equipment, do complicated calculations in his head, make do on little, and work until everyone around him has long given up. He’s also witty, intelligent, and endlessly generous. I don’t know if those early vacuum terrors had anything to do with how he’s turned out, but I’m sure the child he was would be amazed at the man he has become.

What was your earliest fear, fascination, and other ways you may have shown the “acorn” of yourself?” What about the children in your life? 

Child 1

This article first appeared in Life Learning Magazine.

A Child’s Place Is In The Kitchen

kids learn in the kitchen, kids learn by helping, kids help in the kitchen, what kids can cook,

flickr.com/photos/eyeliam

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.

kids help in the kitchen, how kids can cook, preschoolers help in kitchen,

flickr.com/photos/limevelyn

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

Imaginary Motherhood

Belakane und Feirefil by Margret Hofheinz-Döring

I’m a much better mother in my imagination than in reality. That imaginary mother has casual grace and unflappable calm. She doesn’t speak in funny accents or talk to inanimate objects. She also has the confidence to wear a bathing suit. In public. Without scuttling around using a small hut as a beach wrap. But I digress.

In my imagination I sparkle with enthusiasm for trigonometry and better yet, can explain it. I drive everywhere for everyone without grumbling about contributing to global warming. In fact, I am the mother my teens long for. I tell them I’ve secretly been saving up for one son’s trip to New Zealand to study spiders and another son’s year long trek along the Pan-American trail. As they leave I wave goodbye cheerfully.

The real me doesn’t sparkle unless craft supplies get loose. (Glitter has a half life.)

I’m guilty of excusing myself to hide in the bathroom when my offspring go into lengthy monologues about topics I’ll never fathom. I ply my family with goodies in a not-so-subtle way of getting them to watch the documentaries I want to watch, even though it is entirely necessity after that endless German film about Mongolian salt miners. The stories retold with great hilarity by my kids usually feature my tendency to trip over invisible objects and my exaggerated startle reflex.

In my imagination I cook using recipes instead of improvising. When my children ask, “What are we having for dinner?” I’m able to answer with the names of actual dishes. This reassures them that someone, somewhere has taste tested the food before them. This also spares me the daily trauma of watching my offspring tolerate meals made with home grown vegetables, dark scary grains, spontaneously seasoned sauces, and no names for anything.

“Why,” my son once asked, “can’t we try the kind of macaroni and cheese that comes in a box? It’s really bright yellow!” He regretted the question instantly, because unlike that imaginary mother who laughs sweetly as an angel at such questions, the real mother explains things. Or according to the daughter in the family, she rants.

In my imagination I am never preoccupied, never busy. When sought out I’m fully attentive. When my children look up from their pursuits they find my adoring eyes, but not often enough that they think I’m creepy and plot to institutionalize me. My wonderfully creative life inspires my children to live their own dreams (while still getting their omega-3 fatty acids and sufficient rest).

The real me falls terribly short. I kvetch. I get tears in my eyes easily, even from poignant long distance ads. I juggle obligations badly while tossing out sarcastic asides like a performing seal with Woody Allen syndrome. I plot giant world saving accomplishments while forgetting to water the plants. I fuss and grumble and speaking of short, I’m also shorter than everyone in the house. That can’t be right. In my imagination I am tall.

In my imagination our family spends every evening together as we used to when the kids were small, back when we snuggled on the couch reading books, making puppets out of our socks and making up games out of nothing. Although now we wouldn’t all fit on the same couch and the kids would suffer withdrawal symptoms away from glowing screens and friends.

But still, the vision of togetherness keeps the imaginary mother in me quite happy. She is able to hold on to every moment of the kids’ earliest years. She builds precise memories of each squabble and laugh and each child’s way of drifting slowly toward his or her larger self because she knows the actual mother, me, never could have imagined how fast time would go by. For real.

bittersweet motherhood, children nearly grown, being a better mom,

Nachtgespräch by Margret Hofheinz-Döring

                

Mine Is The Wrong Kind Of Lust

don't make me travel, why I stay put,

Image: babyoctopuss.deviantart.com

Let me explain.

My schoolteacher father had summers off, so my parents made the best use of that time. That meant teaching their children geography and history through travel. Each winter my mother started planning our frugal summer trips. She sat at the kitchen table with maps and guidebooks arrayed in front of her as she carefully plotted a route that maximized educational stops along the way. Old battlegrounds, restored villages, and scenic natural wonders were her priority. The other priority? No admission fees.

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why I don't travel,

One summer we traveled over 6,000 miles. Most days we had an early breakfast, drove for six hours, spent the late afternoon sightseeing in the steamy heat, then went on to a trailer park where our 15 foot Scotty was invariably the smallest trailer around. Other folks in these places looked like there were staying a few days. They sat in lawn chairs and chatted around campfires. My parents meant business. Ours was a carefully planned agenda which meant we kids showered soon after supper in those ubiquitous cement block restrooms and went to bed early, usually lying awake in the hot metal trailer listening to other families laugh and talk under the trees.

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why I don't travel,

Our trips were strictly no-frills in every way. My parents spent as little as possible on food—we never had fast food or restaurant meals while we traveled. I ate a peanut butter minus jelly sandwich chased by Tang every day at lunchtime. They scouted out the cheapest gas and took only the most carefully considered photos in those pre-digital days. Miraculously they maintained family peace in very close proximity for weeks on end, although we kids found minor parental spats over directions and mileage calculations secretly hilarious.

Don’t get me wrong, my parents had wonderful motives. They piled three kids in a small car and showed us the country. But I was a lethargic and grumpy traveler. Hurtling down the highway with windows open (air conditioning allegedly reduced fuel economy) only aggravated my asthma and hay fever, plus I suffered with relentless headaches and nausea from car sickness. Yet I wasn’t sufficiently self-aware to let anyone know that I felt dizzy, woozy, and short of breath. I longed for the comforts of home: library books, a familiar bathtub, my trusty bike, and some control over my own life. As soon as my mother got out the maps to start planning I felt nothing but dread, which I masked with a facade of eager anticipation lest I be called “ungrateful.” But every minute our car headed farther away from home seemed wrong somewhere in the center of my being. Until we returned I felt suspended from my own completeness—a weary, one-dimensional version of myself.

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I refuse to travel,

Perhaps these long yearly trips, taken when I was unwell and unwilling, served to inoculate me against travel. As an adult I still struggle to feel wholly myself when I’m away. That marks me as seriously maladjusted. Wanderlust, or at least the urge to get away, is the norm. All sorts of well-meaning people mock non-travelers as people with no sense of adventure.

Oh sure, I long to go places. I’ve even traveled of my own volition. But I rail against the backward century in which I’ve been born, or perhaps the backward planet I’ve been born on, because I can’t adjust to the concept that it’s not possible to mosey over to Belarus or Uruguay or Finland this afternoon, have a wonderful lunch, meet some new friends and assure them that I’ll stop by next Friday. The problem isn’t the destination, it’s getting there. I know poets and sages say it’s all about the journey. I’ve journeyed, believe me. I say all of life is a journey, every single moment that we’re wide awake and fully participating in the process of living.

hermit's rationale, staying home, peace in place,

Besides, aren’t poets and sages all about being true to oneself? Being true to myself means giving in to the lust to stay rooted.

I experience a kind of delicious completion as I perform the simple rituals of life right here every day. I make cheese from our cow’s milk, walk the dogs, chop vegetables, work at my desk—-all in view of the fields and trees that sustain me season after season with their subtle, incremental changes.

I hope those of us who are truly rooted have something to offer this ever faster world. Our insights may be simple. I pay attention to the vegetable gardens, the beehives, to blackbirds convening in a clamor across the treetops. Changes I see are those that take place slowly and noticing them is part of the pleasure I find in being fully here. To me there’s soul-drenching nourishment that comes of contemplation, quiet, and service. Thank goodness we can fulfill the desires we choose, leaning eagerly toward the excitement of travel or to answering longings that serve a quieter nature.

You know where to find me. I’m right here.

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staying home, anti-traveler, delights of home,