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.

Sprouting Plant Advocates

Every growing season our four children choose which crop will be theirs to plant and tend in our vegetable garden. It doesn’t make my work easier. But this tradition helps them understand how intrinsically connected we all are to sunlight, soil, and the lives of growing things.

Claire always insists on sugar snap peas. They grow quickly enough to gratify her restless nature and besides, they’re fun to eat fresh from the vine. Her three brothers aren’t as opinionated. They choose something different each year. Last year Benjamin had a great crop of sweet corn, buzzing with honeybees and taller than his pre-teen shoulders. Little Samuel’s green peppers struggled—perhaps too close to the shadowing tomato plants, but still they produced a gratifying harvest, heavy and large in his preschooler’s hands. Only Kirby’s chosen crop, watermelons, disappointed. He’d picked them out of the seed catalog based on claims of huge size and juicy red flesh. He took personal pride in the resulting vines stretching vigorously across the garden. Yet the flowers never fruited. Instead they turned brown and curled up.

This winter, before we’ve even ordered our spring seeds, Kirby’s second-grade class begins a unit on botany. He comes home and tells us that everyone got to write his or her name on a Styrofoam cup. Then they filled the cups with potting soil and each planted one white bean. Although he’s seen this miracle happen over and over at home he’s excited about the project at school. Daily he supplies progress reports while unloading his book bag containing carefully drawn worksheets with terms like root, stem, leaves, pistol, and stamen.

For nearly a week the cups show only dirt. Then one day Kirby eagerly hurries from the bus with wonderful news. A bean has sprouted! Emily’s cup is the first to show life. “It’s like a little bent green rubber band,” he exclaims.

Every day he reports whose cups are bursting with growth. It has become a competition. Emily’s plant, at first the class wonder, is now no longer the tallest. For a few days Jason’s plant is the tallest, then Kerri’s, then Christoper’s plant takes the lead. Only a few cups show no visible progress. Kirby’s cup is one of those. His enthusiasm is not diminished. He’s seen what happens when a seed awakens, splits its shell, pushes through the dirt, and stands upright. He trusts in the life force of each seed.

That Friday there’s a teacher study day. A three-day weekend with no one at school to water those little cups. I find myself wondering about the tender green beans lined up in the cold window, dry and struggling to live. I’m almost afraid to send my trusting son off to school on Monday.

But Kirby returns home with a shy grin, as if he can hardly believe a long-awaited hope has come true. “It’s this big!” he says, stretching his thumb and forefinger apart. Apparently his little plant mustered up some courage during the long weekend alone. Not only has it burst through the soil, it’s already competing with older seedlings in height.

A few days later I volunteer in the classroom and notice the progress of the seedlings. Standing up from cups – children’s names scrawled proudly across the front – they appear to have identities of their own. But they’re getting gangly, leaning on the window or neighboring plants. They need to be put into bigger pots or, if only they’d been planted at the right time, into a garden. It seems an ill-timed project.

The next day, coming in from errands, I’m disconcerted by a terse phone message from Kirby’s teacher. Something about non-compliance. The teacher wants me to call back to help her determine an appropriate punishment. I can’t imagine what might have gone wrong. I start to call her back, but then I hear the school bus rounding the corner. I’ll wait to hear what Kirby has to say first.

There’s a look children get that’s hard to describe. They appear so full they may burst, but they don’t know if they can let out what has them so overwhelmed. The adult world has them confounded. That’s the look Kirby wears. Misery, anger, guilt, petulance, and defiance as well.  There’s so much emotion on his face that I can only give him a big hug and ask him to tell me.

He can’t sit. He paces as he starts to explain. Today in class his teacher had each pupil take his or her plant, sit at their desks and…. for a minute he can’t go on. He tries again. Finally I understand. The ultimate purpose of the seedling is to serve as an example of plant anatomy. “She wanted me to kill it Mom!” he said, wide-eyed at the injustice of it.

It seems Kirby took the plastic knife he was given but just sat there. He wouldn’t take his plant out of the dirt, he wouldn’t cut it apart. While the other children followed instructions on their worksheets the teacher scolded Kirby.  Then took his plant and put it back on the windowsill where it sat alone, nearly tipping over without other seedlings to lean on. My son waited, knowing he’d done something wrong.

It’s too soon to plant the bean plant in the garden. Repotting might not give it a strong chance either. I have to tell him the truth about his plant’s chances. But I explain that I’m proud of him for doing what he thought was right. The world needs more people who listen to their hearts.

I call his teacher. I try to explain that my kindhearted son felt he was sticking up for a friend of his, that sometimes following the rules doesn’t always serve the higher good. The teacher doesn’t agree. The next day Kirby is punished. He is learning that rules, even the ones we feel are wrong, bear consequences.

Although his bright green plant isn’t likely to survive, I suspect that, this year, Kirby will decide to plant green beans in our garden. He’ll grow them in memory of his friend and of the fallen green comrades who gave their lives for second-grade science.

First published in Green Prints, a loooong time ago!

Are You An Anthropocentrist?

 

animal intelligence, anthropocentrism,

Paradise, by Gillis d’Hondecoeter circa 1575

When I was growing up we were taught humans were at the top of every chart, far superior to all other living beings. Our textbooks, illustrated with stereotypical images of “cave men,” proved the assertion with a long list of what our species could do that others could not. The list was so smug that I was a bit embarrassed on behalf of my fellow homo sapiens. A skeptic even then, I thought the list was somewhat prejudicial. Worse, it didn’t acknowledge what feels obvious to young children, that we are all things and all things are us.

I don’t for a moment dismiss our many human accomplishments—among them language, science, the arts, and shared rules meant to advance mutual compassion. I simply mean to point out that we’re not better, we’re different.

Besides, what I was taught as a kid doesn’t really hold up. Here are some reasons why.

Tool use was a biggie on that list. It’s true, animals haven’t developed the smart phone (thus are spared walking into traffic while texting) but they naturally incorporate tool use when it makes sense for them.

  1. Crows make tools like hooks and rakes out of twigs, leaves, even their own feathers to obtain items just out of reach and can use three tools in sequence.  They also will drop pebbles into a container in order to raise the level of water, understanding cause and effect as well as a seven to 10-year-old child. Other examples of tool use by crows? They’re known to drop nuts on a roadway so cars will crack the shells, then wait for a break in traffic to retrieve the nutmeat. Interestingly, they’re more proficient when they grow up watching adult crows fashion tools. (Crows might wonder why we segregate human kids away from the interesting work-a-day world of adults.)
  2. Naked mole rats dig with their teeth, but to keep from inhaling dust and dirt they’re known to position wood shavings in their mouths as rudimentary face masks.
  3. The octopus is more closely related to clams than to people, yet these invertebrates plan ahead, tool-wise. For example they’ve been seen carrying coconut shell halves they can hide under later in order to grab unsuspecting prey as it passes.
  4. Orangutans fold leaves into a usable “musical instrument” that modifies their calls, making them sound lower and therefore more threatening to large predators.

Math was another obvious difference. We were taught that numerical sense is evidence of higher order thinking. Yet the animal kingdom uses math when necessary.

  1. Bears can count. Although they don’t benefit from the intelligence-boosting effect of living in social groups, research shows bears can estimate quantities just as well as primates. One particular study taught bears to discriminate between dots on a touchscreen computer, a situation about as far removed from relevant bear smarts as possible. Their abilities in natural habitat are likely to be far more impressive.
  2. Elephants have substantial numerical skills, outperforming primates and even human children when tested for their ability to find the difference between two quantities. A study found elephants can discriminate between one and two as well as between larger numbers.
  3. Baby chicks can not only count, they can even can add up numbers based on groups of objects they can’t see at the moment.  And that’s when they’re a few days old!  By two weeks of age, chickens can take into account the sun’s height and position to navigate. Plus they’re able to draw inferences and plan ahead, for example choosing to delay gratification in order to reap a greater reward. And who’d have guessed, but chickens prefer to count from left to right.
  4. Pigeons are able to learn abstract rules about numbers and order pairs. Aside from humans, only rhesus monkeys have been able to perform at this level.
  5. Insects also use math. Honeybees can distinguish between and remember quantities up to four. They can also match patterns. Ants operate with a collective form of intelligence, able to use complex problem-solving strategies to optimize time and energy spent feeding the colony.

People, we were told, communicate in complex ways while animals are, well, just animals. Again, not true.

  1. Elephants communicate sophisticated ideas in a variety of ways including low-frequency sounds from 1 and 20 Hz that can travel over miles. So far, researchers have identified nearly 200 expressions and gestures, along with nearly 100 vocalizations. Elephants can recognize at least 100 other unseen elephants by voice alone.  Their remarkable ability to understand communication isn’t limited to their own species. African elephants can differentiate between languages, gender, and age of human speakers.
  2. Dolphins remember one another, without contact, for at least 20 years. In fact, researchers have found that dolphins call each other by name (in this case, distinctive signature whistles).
  3. Koko, a western lowland gorilla, has been taught American Sign Language and, according to her trainer, understands about 1,000 signs along with nearly 2,000 words of spoken English. Sometimes, when there’s not a relevant sign, Koko invents her own signs. For example, she “compounded the sign for scratch with the sign for comb to mean, “brush” (scratch-comb).”
  4. Alex, an African gray parrot, learned well over 100 words that he used appropriately in unique contexts, demonstrating the intelligence of a five year old human child. He died suddenly in 2007. The last thing he said to his trainer upon going to his cage for the night was, “You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.”

Which brings us to emotion and personality. Yup, non-human types are brimming with it.

  1. Chimps not only create social traditions, they’re interested in what’s trendy. Researchers are just now catching on (academic types are not known for fashion forwardness) to the latest thing, chimps wearing grass in their ears.
  2. Stressed-out honeybees show an increased expectation of bad outcomes. In other words, they become pessimists. The bees also showed altered levels of neurochemicals associated with depression. Other invertebrates, such as crayfish, can exhibit anxiety and respond well to medications that relieve anxiety in humans.
  3. Dogs traumatized by military service or abuse exhibit signs of canine Post Traumatic Stress Disorder 
  4. Rats feel regret after making poor choices.
  5. Crows will eat nearly anything, but prefer French fries from a McDonalds bag to the same fries in a plain brown sack. They not only hold grudges against specific humans who have done them wrong, but will teach other crows to react badly upon seeing them as well.
  6. And play? There’s plenty of it. Crows like to ski down icy rooftops and snow-covered slopes holding sticks or boards in their talons. River otters, elephants, and whales are known for playful behavior.

 

Let me push it one step farther, to compassion and even spirituality. We’ve been told that only humans have evolved beyond survival-based selfishness to establish ethics and morality. We’ve been taught we’re the only species to perform rituals as we mourn the passing of our departed, the only ones to meditate in silence, the only ones to experience a sense of awe akin to reverence. Apparently not true either.

  1. Altruism? There’s plenty of evidence. A dolphin saving a beached whale and its calf. Gorillas working together to dismantle dangerous poachers’ traps. A pod of sperm whales adopting a disabled dolphin. Rats gnawing through cages to help other imprisoned rats. A bear assisting an injured crowLions chasing away an Ethiopian child’s kidnappers and guarding her until human help arrived.
  2. How about awe? Chimps are known to ritualistically dance at the advent of thunderstorms and dance at waterfalls. They’ve also been observed dancing (rather than fleeing instinctively) in the face of wild grass fires.
  3. Meditation? Baboons have been observed performing a sangha, sitting in silence for over a half hour gazing at a stream of water, even the juveniles remaining quiet.
  4. Love? Probably yes according to research with cats and dogs who seem to be tapping into fields beyond our conscious awareness to know when their owners are coming home.
  5. Funerals, those too. Elephants weep in sorrow and grieve their dead. They’ve also been known to sense the death of humans important to them, even from great distances, as two tribes of African elephants did when they walked for hours to mourn at the home of a conservationist who’d once rescued them. Ritualized behavior to mourn death is common in animals including foxes,  magpieswolves, dolphins, and gorillas.
  6. Maybe even religion. Cetologist Hal Whitehead‘s research indicates that sperm whales not only transmit culture to their young, they may have have evolved a form of religion to make sense of their purpose.

 

Even these terribly incomplete examples have probably taxed your patience although there are thousands of other fascinating proofs out there. Let’s remember, all these observations are human-centric, further evidence that we judge animals against one species—-us.

We wouldn’t have particularly good scores if tested according to the abilities of our fellow creatures. It’s not as if we can age in reverse as a jellyfish named Turritopsis dohrnii does, possess a snake’s infrared vision able to assess the difference in temperature between moving prey and surrounding area on the scale of milliKelvins, emit a protein that neutralizes nearly every poison as an opossum does, regrow limbs and organs as the salamander can, or are able to hear as well as the wax moth Galleria mellonella which is capable of detecting frequencies of up to 300kHz, (we humans at best hear to about 20kHz).

According to evolutionary biologists, we humans aren’t better than animals, just different. Researchers in fields like comparative psychology and language study, say there’s an “emerging consensus among scientists that animals share functional parallels with humans’ conscious metacognition — that is, our ability to reflect on our own mental processes and guide and optimize them.”

As naturalist Henry Beston wrote in The Outermost House,

We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.

 

animal capacities, Eden,

“Paradijs met dieren” by Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1620

Stock Photo Bias: Youth Version

bias against kids, child stereotypes,

Search for “kids learning” stock photos. Image: bigstockphoto.com.

Female images typically found in stock photos are airbrushed models posing in starkly stereotypical scenes: sexy domestic, sexy business, and sexy-wearing-a-hardhat. These images have a great deal to say about societal perceptions of women and girls.

That’s why it’s good news that Getty Images is releasing the Lean In Collection. Their library of more than 2,500 images shows women and girls in real and powerful roles.

However, there’s another stock photo bias. Back in 2010 while layout for my book Free Range Learning was being finalized, the editors allowed me to choose the photos that would appear every few pages. I delved into the stock photo world expecting to find a whole range of relevant images, such as kids exploring nature, engaged in make-believe, being silly, spending time with people of all ages, you know, being kids. Because the book’s topic is homeschooling and alternative education, I also wanted to avoid images of young people in instructional settings (indoors or out).

No matter what search terms I tried, I kept coming up with the same limiting choices. Any variation of “learning” produced classroom-type results as well as endless photos of kids facing computer screens. It was extremely difficult to find representations of kids volunteering, doing chores, or engaged in any other purposeful work. It was even more impossible to find kids in mixed age groups (babies to elders) doing anything other than staring right at the camera with the fake merriment that seems to infest stock photos.

And gender bias was blatant. For example, any search term including “boys” showed many more active images than the same search term including “girls.” When I tried to find photos specifically of teenaged girls, the results  were downright alarming. Page after page showed two categories: grimly pensive faces or, more often, coy come-on faces.

Is this how our young people are seen?

Of course, there are many ways to measure limitations and bias. (I’m particularly fond of the way Sociological Images juxtaposes images with analysis.) And there are many filters through which the world is shown us. The filters themselves don’t just affect our perception, they affect the very people they intend to portray. Stock photo images and other portrayals of youth in our culture don’t come close to showing the vibrantly whole lives around us.

As for my efforts, I gave up after several days of bleary-eyed searching. I didn’t pick any stock photos for my book. Instead, I asked people from around the country to contribute pictures of their kids doing all sorts of things. The images are small and low res, but they’re a far more valid representation of today’s young people.

Lollipop Epiphany

child's near death experience, choking on candy, end of life vision,

Image: prelkia.deviantart.com

Jennifer took the second-to-last Dum Dum lollipop in the bag, root beer, leaving me the lime green one. Lime was my least favorite but I didn’t say anything. I pretended to flick open a lighter and held that invisible flame to the end of my lollipop. Jennifer did the same, exhaling around the side just like teenagers did with real cigarettes. We wanted to be older that badly.

Like all the other fourth grade girls we knew, she and I exaggerated. When we walked we went on for miles. When we were thirsty we drank gallons. So of course she said that her older sister Mary Beth would die if she found out that we were not only listening to her records but had also finished the candy. Happy to be playing in Jennifer’s basement, dying was the last thing on my mind.

Jennifer and I danced, whirling around as we sang, “Jeremiah was a bullfrog, was a good friend of mine.” Suddenly the round green lollipop I was sucking on separated from its cardboard stick. It hurtled to the back of my throat and lodged in my windpipe.

I couldn’t breathe.

My arms flailed as I tried to inhale, make a sound, get Jennifer’s attention. Still, no breath.

Quickly my body slid into a state I’d never experienced. The music played on and Jennifer danced on, completely oblivious. That abstract concept, time, lost meaning as I looked around me. Everywhere there were details I’d never noticed. The texture of the cement block walls, the colors in a blanket tossed over a worn couch, the beauty of my friend. It was all tender perfection.

A kind of knowing completely filled me. Even as my awareness expanded my vision dimmed. The room began to darken. Without making any choice at all I loosened my hold on living. It felt easy, right, and wonderfully peaceful. Just past letting go, I knew a sort of bliss. The body slackening toward the floor no longer seemed like my own.

The last image flickering in my consciousness was my mother’s face. That glimpse activated something I couldn’t explain. Although my mind no longer seemed connected to my limbs, a sensation of strength came into my legs. Instead of dropping to the floor, those legs churned up the stairs as if powered by an engine I didn’t drive. I was outside myself, watching as I wavered at the top step, nearly falling backwards.

Jennifer’s mother appeared just past the door. She took a look at my blue face and bulging eyes. In one swoop she turned me upside down, smacking my upper back hard and repeatedly.

The lime green Dum Dum rolled across the floor.

I gasped.

There were no words for that moment, although I was bursting with emotion. So, like any other fourth grade girl, I said dramatically, “Wait till Mary Beth finds out.”

Jennifer’s mother told me to be more careful about dancing with candy in my mouth. Jennifer put another record on. What had been an ordinary day continued, though I’d seen the veil between worlds.

I never told anyone the last thing I glimpsed back in that basement. Unable to breathe, I saw my mother already grieving my death. No exaggeration, that moment woke me to the rest of my life.

near death experience, child's near death experience, child choking,

Image: Steve Snodgrass

Why You Care About (insert celebrity here)

celebrity obsession, fans, reality tv, media hypervigilance, celebrity worship, celebrity idols,

The distance between a baby in arms and nursing mother is eight to 15 inches, perfect for the focusing ability of a newborn. Even the youngest babies speak with their eyes. They hunger for eye contact and tell us how to respond to them by looking delighted, looking away, watching intently, or drifting off to sleep. When babies are cared for by people who are nurturing and responsive they learn to trust.

When a baby is a few months old,  he or she is held upright in a parent’s arms, still in close facial range. Such young children, still new to speech, pay close attention to a parent’s expression especially in new or unsettling situations. Eye contact is paired with the comfort of close body proximity. The child’s nerve endings continually input the sensation of being held safely but gently while correlating movement, smells, tastes, and sounds they experience.

celebrity worship explained, eye contact through tv screen, depression linked to tv, relationships versus tv, screens and mental health,  Close proximity to loved ones. (dhgoodman's flickr photostream)

Close proximity to loved ones. (dhgoodman’s flickr photostream)

As children get older they still are in close proximity to caregivers and family members, but also become close to friends. Face to face contact is likely with a few close friends as the child matures, and perhaps some face time with a disciplining teacher or coach also makes a pretty strong impact.

I’m not heading in the direction you suspect. This isn’t about growing up with insufficient eye contact, although when everyone is distracted by handheld screens this may be an increasingly sorrowful issue.

There are cultural variations in personal space as we become adults but in general, close personal contact has a lot to do with close emotional connections. We care about the people we’re closest to, literally, and our emotional health hinges on whether they care about us. In fact, two studies showed that strangers who were asked to maintain eye contact for two full minutes reacted by not only liking the other person but feeling “passionate love” for that person. Talk about the power of eyes, up close!

We also have, whether we recognize it or not, close associations between their facial expressions and our own self image. Closeness to another person’s face also means sensory experiences—smell, touch, taste, and movement that helps us continually form a sense of ourselves in relation to other people. That may be why brief sexual encounters and bad relationships are so emotionally damaging, not enough time spent looking with affection at one another’s faces along with insufficient eye contact. We’re left feeling as if we aren’t fully ourselves in the relationship, we’re not SEEN for who we are. That may be the case in unhealthy family dynamics too—-not enough face time or face time associated with unresponsive nurturing (either inattentive or intrusive). And inappropriate facial closeness, a screaming boss or threatening bully or dangerous intruder, can strip away this very essential boundary we establish early on that only welcomes those people who nurture us in some way to get that close.

How many people have you been in close facial proximity to over and over, so many times that their faces are more known to you than your own face? I’m guessing not that many. In childhood it was likely your parents, maybe a grandparent, and a close sibling or two. In adulthood it may be a partner (or several partners over time) and your own children. Tally that up. Perhaps a dozen people in total?

proximity and relationships, eye contact effects, eye contact affection,

I know, I’m slow getting around to my point but here it is. We are primed to care about and expect reciprocal caring from people whose faces we regularly see up-close, to know we have a place in each other’s lives. Screens change all that.

Movies, television, videos, and some video games bring other faces into personal range. You aren’t nose to nose with the screen but zoom shots bring those expressive lips and eyes up close, letting our brains experience an intimacy that isn’t there.  That’s the only way acting and filming techniques work, when viewers suspend reality by believing what’s on the screen. These screens have been around a scrap of time in the long expanse of human history. We’ve evolved to care intensely for and do everything we can to stay in touch with to those who have been repeatedly in close eye contact with us. They are, our bodies and minds believe, the core members of our tribe. Now there’s a good chance you see close-up faces of broadcasters, movie stars, and sports figures at least as many hours a day, probably more, than you do your close friends and family.

alienation tv, eye contact essential,

Feel connected? ( Bludgeoner86 flickr photostream)

I deeply appreciate the way technology allows us to learn and connect. I’m also a movie-watcher and fan of several TV series, so I’m not pointing any fingers. But I am intrigued about the way technology intersects with, perhaps intrudes upon, the unspoken essence of loving connection.

I wonder if this explains obsession with celebrities and absorption with lives of reality TV participants. I wonder if this relates to widespread problems in sustaining relationships, to general malaise, and to the fact that ten times more people are suffering major depression than than during World War II. (Yes, there are other factors.)

If we expect reciprocal attention and care from those whose faces are close to us, yet those faces can’t see us, it may very well reinforce a sense of loneliness and misery. It would drive us back to those screens, to look again and again at eyes that for the moment seem so close.

The concept seems laughable, but still I wonder. What do you think?

Right Now You Are Activating Change

attitude change saves world, global consciousness, gay rights, human rights, change makers,

(ssuunnddeeww.deviantart.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fighting Crazed Holiday Syndrome

un-busy your holiday, un-crazy Christmas, slow Christmas, slow holiday,

life-takers-crayons.deviantart.com

Who isn’t busy all the time? But around the holidays we’re crazy busy. I venture to say women are especially busy and those lights in our lives we call children make the pace even more frantic.

Sure we make all sorts of efforts to simplify and de-stress but for most of us the joys of holiday shopping, gifting, cooking, decorating, visiting, hosting and merrymaking have to fit right into our regular (overburdened) schedules.

It’s not like we can make more time where there is none. Well, maybe we can. Or at least use our time differently. I confess to the Crazed Holiday Syndrome but I fight back with these tactics.

Renounce the How-Does-She-Do-It-All Disease. You know the symptoms. You show excessive responsible because you’re sure no one else will do it (or do it right). You uphold traditions your family counts on. You pay close attention to get just the right gifts. You worry about money more than usual. You try to keep the focus on intangibles like faith and togetherness. When the frenzy is over you end up with an empty feeling. I’m the first to stand and admit that I’m still in recovery from this disease.

The cure? Talk to your loved ones about what means the most to them, slice away the rest. If that doesn’t work, slice anyway.

Shun Those Voices. They’re everywhere around the holidays. They seem so genuine and alluring but their sole aim is to make you feel insufficient. They speak to you from Pinterest, TV, magazines, websites, blogs, store displays— let’s admit they’re ubiquitous. These voices tell you that you’re not enough. To compensate you must do more. Dress beautifully, make elaborate meals, buy lavish gifts (and wrap them a whole lot better too).

This is the only diet you need to go on. Don’t watch a single cooking show, don’t open one slick women’s magazine, it’s best if you avoid stores as much as possible. You’ll have a lot more time plus you won’t have to reassemble what’s left of your self esteem.

Screw Tradition. No, I don’t mean avoiding your house of worship or shunning Grandma’s house. I do mean it’s possible to celebrate the season without so much of the heavy Gotta Do It weight hanging over you.

Some of our most memorable holidays have actually been those that veered wildly from tradition. My family will not forget a holiday dinner at Becky’s house featuring walls of wet paint, an oven on fire, and a dog getting sick everywhere. The zinger? She was eager to show foreign guests how we celebrate here in the U.S.

Try doing things a little differently, a little more slowly. If you’ve always gone to the movie theater to see the newest holiday releases after a day of shopping, skip both and go to a play at your community theater. If you’ve accepted every holiday invitation despite the costs of babysitters, travel, and lost sleep instead limit your selections to a few events that are reliably warm and wonderful. If you’ve always made a big meal, consider ordering take-out from a locally owned restaurant and serve it on your best plates. If you’ve always accommodated your kids’ requests for gifts because it’s Christmas or Hanukah or Kwanzaa put new limits on materialism, letting them know you’ll consider one or two items they consider their highest priorities. If you’ve always driven around to see the holiday lights, go outside on a frosty night to sing together (even if only to a lone tree lit by moonlight). You’ll not only save time and money, you’ll also create new traditions.

Rethink Gift-Giving. Things have gotten out of hand. Children in this country once looked forward to a fresh orange, maybe a piece of candy and if they were lucky a toy or useful gift like a pocketknife or sewing kit. Historian Howard Chudacoff writes in Children at Play: An American History that most toys co-opt and control a child’s play. They’re better off with free time and objects they can use to fuel their imaginations (yes, a cardboard box). I even know a child being raised, quite happily, without a single purchased toy.

I admit things got out of hand in my own house. In a quest for meaning (let’s rephrase that to my quest for meaning) we’ve always had handmade holidays. Yes, I’m one of those annoying people….. Meals from scratch, homemade organic cookies, handmade gifts. Each of my four children made gifts for everyone every year, gifts that took substantial effort such as woodworking, felting, and ceramics. My teens still make some of the gifts they give although thankfully I’m not the one coming up with the ideas and supervising the process. The last few years economic realities have made hand made gifts ever more necessary, for other gifts I turn to non-profit and artisan sources. Try products offered by non-profits you support, works of art sold at local galleries, items directly available from artisans at Etsy, gifts of service or gifts of experience.

Last Resort. This tactic is heavy duty, the one I bring out when I start to feel sorry for myself. Because we’re not crazy busy in comparison to women throughout history. We think we’re stressed? Our foremothers hauled water; carded, spun and sewed clothes; chopped firewood and maintained the fire they cooked on; ground grain and made bread each day; planted and weeded gardens, then canned or dried the harvest; stretched limited food reserves with careful planning to last until the next harvest; cared for babies, children and the elderly with no professional help; treated the sick, stitched wounds and prepared the dead for burial; well, you get the idea.

Worse, many many women in the world still do this sort of grinding labor each day. Typically, women in developing countries work 17 hours a day.  Our sisters receive a tenth of the world’s income while performing two-thirds of the world’s work. These harsh realities put any concept of busy or stressed right out of my head. (For more information and ways to help, check out the wonderful book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide.)

So fight the Crazy Busy Syndrome with all you’ve got. Remember to count your blessings, including the joy of not eating my homemade buckwheat cookies!

 

Monday Hearts For Madalene

art from found objects, love made visible,

Page Hodel

A heart-shaped anything used to seem overly sentimental, even mawkish, to me until I encountered those created by Page Hodel. Her hearts are ephemeral and made from the unexpected. Things like chile peppers, paper clips, postage stamps, kumquats, metal bolts, cast-off sneakers, green onions, all sorts of colorful objects.

The story behind her art is equally unexpected and poignant. Page is a disc jockey whose presence unifies and enlivens a crowd. Billboard magazine named her one of the country’s best. She also works for the non-profit Rhythmic Concepts to foster jazz education. Before she started making hearts her hands-on creative efforts took place on a larger scale, including the renovation of large vehicles and homes. Her life seemed full. Then she met her neighbor, Madalene Louise Rodriguez, a librarian and glass artist. The moment they met, they both fell in love. As Page writes on her site,

There is something extraordinary about falling so deeply in love later in your life. The profound awareness of the miracle of finding the love you have looked for all your life, and the realization of how much you each have to share having lived so long and experienced so much.

Page began making hearts out of buttons, leaves, anything she could find to leave on Madalene’s doorstep late each Sunday night. That way when Madalene stepped out to go to work the next morning, she’d be greeting by a beautiful reminder of their love.

Page Hodel

Page Hodel

Only seven months after they met, Madalene was diagnosed with late stage ovarian cancer. Page promised to continue making hearts for her each week, no matter what. After a courageous battle, four months later Madalene died.

Page never intended the hearts she created to be anything more than a private way of expressing her feelings. Thanks to a request by Madalene’s brother, she gradually began sending online photos of each week’s heart to loved ones, inviting them to forward the images as a way of putting more love out in the world.

Page initially refused offers to collect the photos into a book. The feeling associated with them was too painful. But she kept hearing from strangers whose lives were affected by the hearts. She realized that her love for Madalene could touch others.

Now you can find 100 hearts collected in a beautiful volume titled Monday Hearts for Madalene as well as Hearts for Madalene Notecards. Page donates a portion of the proceeds from each sale to the Women’s Cancer Resource Center.  Anyone who would like to receive a weekly email with the newest Monday Hearts For Madalene, simply email  page.hodel@gmail.com with “subscribe” in the subject line.

Seeing these images, hearts can’t help but take on a larger meaning.

Page Hodel

Page Hodel

The Antidote Is Awe

cure for stress, coffee ritual, easing worry, finding peace,

We seek refuge on the porch each afternoon in a ritual known simply as “time for coffee.” Somehow just out the door we’re a step away from the pull of obligations and worries. Here we feel centered by the light through the trees or the sounds of birds or the strange lumbering grace of a bumblebee in the flowers.

Our lives, and yours too, are twisted into knots so complicated we can’t see where they start or end. Those complications are made of bills to be paid, old arguments that didn’t heal, long hours and too little sleep, by endless political bluster and the fallout it causes. It’s good to let go of those tangles, even for a while.

Today on the porch we watched an insect we’d never seen before. It skittered without visible wings, its body open like the spokes on a wheel or the arms of a star. It looked improbable as an undersea creature swimming in the air. We gaped in quiet wonder until it was out of sight.

A few moments of awe are all it takes to remind us that our lives aren’t about those knots. We are pulsing, breathing wonders ourselves in a world bursting with miracles.  It takes looking closely at only one thing to see those miracles, whether watching a spider spin her web or looking at fungi that seemed to spring up overnight.  We exist for so short a time on this beautiful planet. We clamor over concerns when our lives may be better measured by how much awe we allow ourselves.

I have things to do, but it’s time for coffee. I’m heading for the porch. Hope you do the same.

We are, perhaps, uniquely among the earth’s creatures, the worrying animal. We worry away our lives, fearing the future, discontent with the present, unable to take in the idea of dying, unable to sit still.   Lewis Thomas 

Reprint from my farm site Bit of Earth Farm