Pregnancy Loss to Newborn Wonder

pregnancy loss, ectopic pregnancy, birth story,

“Do you know what day this is?” Dr. Hasan asked me as I held my newborn son. He stood by my hospital bed looking at both of us with an odd expression. My doctor and I had been through a lot together, but I’d never seen that expression before. I wasn’t sure what he was asking.

“My son’s birthday,” I answered cheerfully, then turned back to gaze in fierce adoration at the baby in my arms.

He looked again at the chart in his hand and said, “Exactly one year ago to the day I performed the surgery on you. Exactly.” Then my face, I’m sure, reflected back a similarly odd expression, the sort of look that can’t fully convey how odd  synchronicity can be.

A year and a few weeks before my son’s birth something painful began to happen to my body, something I didn’t understand nor did the doctors I consulted until it was almost too late. That night I nursed my toddler to sleep, tucked my other two little ones in bed, and settled down to relax with a big bowl of popcorn and a new library book. I stayed up much later than usual and when I climbed into bed next to my husband I began to think I shouldn’t have eaten so much popcorn. The discomfort got worse. I told myself that I was dealing with indigestion, maybe even a gall bladder attack, although I’d never felt such shooting pain. I spent much of the night on the floor next to the bed in various yoga positions trying to find a way to rest. But each time my husband woke up to ask if I was okay I told him I’d just eaten too much popcorn and I’d be fine. He threatened, at some point near dawn, to call an ambulance. By then the stabbing pain had ebbed to a tolerable dullness and my toddler was up, so I started another busy day.

I made it though that day and the next before I realized the pain, although it came and went, wasn’t improving. I was barely able to get through preparations for a Memorial Day picnic. So I got visiting family members to babysit and drove myself to the ER. I almost didn’t stay. Hospitals bulge with extra patients on holiday weekends and no one took a young person with abdominal pain very seriously. I kept thinking of my children and how soon I could get back to them. When I was finally seen by a doctor, he couldn’t find any signs of appendicitis or infection. I was sent for an x-ray. In the hallway waiting for the test I had to sign a form attesting that I wasn’t pregnant. I figured there was always a chance. So they jabbed me for a quick pregnancy test. That caused another delay and again I wondered if I should just get up and go home. I found out in that crowded hallway that I was indeed pregnant.

Suddenly they took the pain more seriously and admitted me for overnight observation. I was preoccupied with worried about the separation from my nursing toddler and my two older children. A friend of ours, an internist, came by and told me I was a “pregnant blooming rose.” I didn’t feel like one. The doctors were taking every precaution to protect the new pregnancy. I was examined by several doctors. Each one wanted to know exactly how much pain I was in. I tried to explain that most of the time it was tolerable, like walking around with a headache, except in my belly.

The resident, a man with beautiful brown eyes and long dreads, told me that women with small children are the most difficult to diagnose. He said they diminish their symptoms, without even realizing it, in order to be present for their children. He asked me to close my eyes and try thinking only of my body as I described what I was feeling. I tried to be fully aware of my abdomen and when I did, I saw a horrible darkness. I was suddenly afraid that the baby was there to warn me that I was dying of some terrible disease. I opened my eyes, looked at this kind man, and couldn’t think of a way to explain that fearful darkness to him.

I was sent home with instructions to come back every three days for a blood test to determine pregnancy hormone levels, which would insure that the pregnancy was proceeding. For nearly a week the levels were within normal limits. Although I feigned good spirits for the sake of my kids, I was barely hanging on. Normally I research everything but I couldn’t muster the energy to read let alone explore the possible reason for my symptoms. In fact, I could no longer eat. Whatever I’d eaten days before felt stuck in my body like a boulder. The pains came and went with sharp intensity. While pushing a cart through the grocery store the pain bent me double. I pretended I was picking something off the floor so my children didn’t worry. One afternoon, as a friend and I sat in her backyard watching our kids play together I curled up on a lawn chair in the blazing summer sun shivering and asked for a blanket. My mind kept drifting to the darkness I’d seen. The next blood test found my levels were dropping. I was told the pregnancy was no longer viable. I would need exploratory surgery.

I had no idea what Dr. Hasan was concerned about until I went to pre-admission testing the day before my surgery. I was examined by the first female doctor I’d seen throughout this crisis. She was outraged on my behalf. She told me it was possible I had an ectopic pregnancy which could burst and threaten my life with internal bleeding. I hadn’t considered that nearly two weeks of pain could be related to something so acute. I still remembered when a friend’s mother went through an ectopic pregnancy years before. She’d felt unbearable pain, nearly died in the ambulance, and her blood loss was so severe that one of the paramedics lay on a gurney next to her at the hospital to provide a direct transfusion. She survived but was never able to have children again. This doctor told me the shoulder pain I was also experiencing was an ominous sign, signaling that I may already be hemorrhaging. She didn’t want to let me stand and walk out of her office, literally to move at all. She made a few phone calls and then angrily told me that it had been decided I would be fine until I came back for surgery the following morning. It was the only time a doctor ever walked me to the elevator and watched me until the doors closed.

Dr. Hasan came out to talk to my husband during the surgery the next day. He said I was so packed with old blood that he had to “unload” the contents of my abdominal cavity and pick apart clots that were strangling my intestines and compressing my organs. He explained that he’d sent several masses to the lab for tests and prepared my husband for a possible diagnosis of cancer. The surgery dragged on most of the day. By the time I was wheeled to recovery the doctor had determined that I’d suffered an ovarian pregnancy that had burst some time ago. The blood had limited the function of my pancreas and several other organs and I already had a serious infection. He wasn’t going to rule out cancer until all possible lab tests were in by the next day. My husband wisely kept these details and his fears from my parents, only giving them the good news when the lab tests came back clear.

I wasn’t aware of any of this. My health insurance company wanted me discharged after three days even though I couldn’t sit up or remain conscious for long. My doctor battled for an extension and lost, so they discharged me in paperwork only and readmitted me. I was aware of none of this. Going home after six days was still extremely difficult. Despite all I’d been through, I recovered quickly in the next few weeks. When I walked in Dr. Hasan’s office for a one month post-surgical check up he couldn’t believe how fit and energetic I looked. He cautioned me when I asked about trying for another baby. He said my chances were very slim. I had only one ovary left and he wasn’t sure how much function it had due to damage from internal bleeding.

Amazingly I was pregnant only three months after my surgery. Science tells us the cells of babies we’ve carried even for a short time, will be with their mothers into old age, and I thought of the child I lost. That baby taught me so much about healing and hope and giving voice to my pain.

My labor with this fourth child was unlike my first three. For hours my hands radiated so much heat that I was given ice packs to hold. They melted quickly, so nurses kept giving me new ice packs. One nurse in the birthing room said she could see waves of heat around my hands. It felt too strange for words. I wondered what energy I’d contained that was now manifesting.

Finally our son Samuel arrived. His birth came exactly a year after my husband sat all day in the waiting room afraid I might die, the day the darkness was taken out of me so life could flourish again.

ectopic pregnancy, birth story,

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!

Understanding Children Through Imitation

follow your child's example, what it feels like to be a child, child's experience,

Mirror a child’s movements. (morguefile)

So much of a child’s experience, from infancy on, is constantly being shaped by adults. Their behavior, posture, movement, and sound are restricted by structured activities, confining seats, and grown-up expectations . If we allow ourselves, we can drop into a child’s world for few moments by replicating his or her movements. It’s a form of listening at the bodily level that can be instructive as well as enlightening.

I’ve admitted to trying this the very first time as a new mother, imitating my newborn’s movements in an experience so profound it felt like a ceremony.

I didn’t try it again until I was the mother of three kids under six. I’d dashed over to a friend’s house to drop something off, feeling rushed to get back to my nursing baby. My friend’s children were asleep. I stood in her quiet kitchen telling her how much I wanted to sit down and chat, but couldn’t spare the time. She answered my complaint with mock outrage, “Don’t you dare relax! What were you thinking?”

In my best imitation toddler voice I said, “WANT TO!”

She wagged her finger. “That’s enough out of you. Do what you’re told right this minute.”

Then I dropped to the floor in a full-on act of defiance; lying on my back, kicking my legs, and squalling, “You can’t maaaaaake me!”

By this time our hilarity was well out of proportion to this brief moment of improv. When I got up I felt different—wonderfully de-stressed and energized.

I insisted my friend give it a try. She resisted, until I admonished her with the same phrases I’d heard her use on her kids. I even flung out her full name accompanied by finger wagging. That did it. She twirled around whining “Noooooo. No no no!” till she was out of breath, with hair in her mouth and a smile on her face.

We both agreed we felt incredible.

I don’t for a minute suggest you do this, ever, in front of any child. Self-expression should never be ridiculed. But if they’re not home, give it a try. What this did, for me as well as my friend, was let us fully express strong emotions through our bodies as our children do, as we used to do when we were children. We may have been well-educated, reasonably sophisticated women but the need to indulge in some primal venting hadn’t left us. A little method acting gave us both new insight into what our children experience.

After that, I looked for ways to learn from my children through imitation. We adults do this all the time when we play with our kids. We chase and let them chase us. When they pretend to be an animal or make-believe character we join in. We’re the big bad wolf blowing down a child’s fort made of cushions. We’re the sotto-voiced doll talking to another doll or the train engine struggling up an imaginary hill. Playing is a window into a child’s experience, and remarkably restorative for us as well.

But what truly let me honor my children’s world was letting them choreograph my movements. Sometimes we’d play what we called “mirror”— standard actor training done face to face. The child is the leader, the parent the “mirror.” As the child makes gestures, facial expressions, and hand movements the parent tries to duplicate the movements exactly. Then we ‘d switch so the child got a turn being the mirror. I always ended up laughing first.

Sometimes we played a variant of this, making each other into emotion mirrors. One would call out a feeling like “surprised” or “angry” or “wild” and the other would try to convey the word through facial expression. (This is also a great way to advance emotional intelligence.)

My favorite imitation was through dance. We’d turn on some lively music and I’d try to copy my child’s dance moves. This is much more difficult than it sounds. It’s nearly impossible to keep up with a child’s energy level for long!

My kids are past the stage where they want me to imitate their dance moves. But I haven’t forgotten how much letting my kids choreograph my movements taught me. Even now, they’ll catch my eye across a crowded room for a brief moment of mirroring. It’s funny, warm, and lets us both feel understood.

Don’t miss this wonderfully expressive choreography by Zaya, imitated by real dancers.

Family Stories Form Us

 

My mother kept family stories alive by folding them into our lives as we grew up. She’d remark, “This would have been your Uncle John’s birthday,” and then she’d tell us something about him. Like the time he taught her how bad cigarettes were. That day he took her behind the garage and let her smoke until she was sick. (She was four years old.) Or how he skipped out on his college scholarship and pretended he didn’t have a bad back so he could sign up for the Air Force. His plane was shot down on his 47th mission, his body never found.

She told us about a great-great-grandfather, left to take a nap under a shade tree as a baby. He was taken by passing Native Americans, who may very likely have thought the tiny boy was abandoned. His parents didn’t go after him with guns, they brought pies and cakes to those who’d taken him to ask for him back.

She told us about a tiny great grandmother who expected other people to meet her every need, but when a candle caught the Christmas tree on fire that same helpless little grandmother immediately picked it up and threw it out the plate glass window to keep the house from burning down.

She told us about her Swedish grandmother who was widowed not long after coming to this country, but kept the family together by taking in laundry. And about the only son growing up in that family who ran away as a teen. They didn’t hear from him till he’d made a new life under a new name, years later.

My mother didn’t just talk about long-gone family members. She told us about people in our everyday lives too. She talked about dating our father, saying he was still the most wonderful man she ever met. She told us about meeting his sister and her husband for the first time—they were on the roof of the house they were building together, hammering down shingles. And she shared inspiring stories from friends, neighbors, and people she’d only read about. She never said it aloud, but her stories gave me the sense that I too had within me the sort of mettle and courage to handle whatever came my way.

Turns out there’s more value to stories than my mother might have imagined.

1. Child development experts say young children who know family stories have fewer behavior problems, less anxiety, more family cohesiveness, and stronger internal locus of control. When mothers were taught to respond to their preschool-aged children with what researchers call elaborative reminiscence, their children were better able to understand other people’s people’s ideas and emotions—a vital skill at any age.

2. Family storytelling provides remarkable benefits as children get older. Preteens whose families regularly share thoughts and feelings about daily events as well as about recollections showed higher self-esteem. And for teens, intergenerational narratives help them to shape their own identity while feeling connected

3. Researchers asked children 20 questions on the Do You Know Scale, such as:

  • Do you know where your grandparents grew up?
  • Do you know some of the lessons that your parents learned from good or bad experiences?
  • Do you know the story of your birth?

Results showed that the most self-confident children had a sturdy intergenerational self, a sense they belonged and understood what their family was about. This sense of belonging was called the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”

I’ll admit, the stories my mother told throughout my childhood didn’t skimp on tragedy but always highlighted positive character traits. It wasn’t until I was much older that more shadowed family tales slipped out—stories of mental health problems, alcoholism, and lifelong rifts. Those stories are just as important.

Our family tales are simply stories of humanity. All stories help to remind us what it means to be alive on this interconnected planet.  Every day that passes gives us more stories to tell. Even better, more to listen to as well.

family stories, tell children family stories, share family history, family history stories,

image: Navanna

 

Idleness Is Not The Devil’s Workshop

wive's tales, idleness is the devil's workshop, parent bad example,

Workshop? What workshop?

Portuguese  Cabeça vazia é oficina do diabo (An empty head is the devil’s workshop)

French “L’oisiveté est la mère de tous les vices” ( Idleness is the mother of all vices )

Egyptian Arabic
الإيد البطّالة نجسة el-eed el-baTTaala negsa   (roughly translated: the idle hand is impure)

Finnish   Laiskuus on kaikkien paheiden äiti.  (Laziness is the mother of all the vices)

Spanish  “La pereza es la madre de todos los vicios” (“Laziness is the mother of all vices”)

Italian “L’ozio è il padre dei vizi” (Idleness is the father of the vices)

When I was growing up my mother used to say, “idleness is the devil’s workshop.” Apparently this is one powerful saying, because variations of the same adage can be found in Finland, China, France, Italy, Egypt, Portugal—actually in nearly every country. Hearing this must have affected my character development. If I have a few spare moments I can’t rest until I find something useful to do.

Well, that is, until a few years ago. My husband and I were meeting friends for dinner in about an hour. I figured I could finish the plantings for our back balcony if I hurried. I carried a nearly empty bag of potting soil from the shed. On second thought, I dragged a heavy new bag just in case I needed more. My youngest, Sam, who was 8 at the time, offered to help. Together we scooped soil into the pots and spoke companionably to the seeds and plants as we tucked them in, introducing them to their new homes and pot-mates.

We tamped the dirt down, watered each from our iron-rich rusty sprinkling can and stood back to admire our work. The pots offered plenty of space for the plants to fill in yet already they were abundantly textured with greenery and blooms. Our large back balcony would be graced with color. As soon as I got the pots up there.

“Are we going to carry all of these through the house?” Sam asked doubtfully.

“Good question,” I said.

The balcony has no stairs. Carrying the muddy pots through the house, past a jumping dog, and out on the balcony didn’t seem like the most reasonable idea. I thought of an easier method. Our house is built into a gentle slope, so the balcony is almost low enough for me to hoist the pots above my head and onto the balcony floor. Afterwards I could walk through the house unimpeded to arrange them as I pleased.

When I announced this plan to Sam he didn’t seem convinced. He was downright alarmed when I pulled a chair directly under the balcony’s edge.

“Mom, isn’t that the chair you got from the garbage?”

“Yes, someone it threw out, but it’s still perfectly good,” I told him. “Remember? We’re going to sand and paint it. It’ll look great outside.”

“But you’re not going to stand on it now are you?” he asked.

“It’s fine, see?” I stood on it to demonstrate the chair’s worthiness. It held as firm as a rickety discarded wooden dining room chair could.

“Now hand me the first pot, Honey,” I said confidently. “I’ll just scoot it up on the porch.”

“That’s not safe Mom.”

“Come on, it’ll be fine,” I told him. “You’ve gotta try new ideas sometimes.” Clearly I wasn’t passing along my mother’s time-honored adages. Ones like, “Pride goeth before a fall” or “Better safe than sorry.”

He handed me the first pot. I wasn’t quite as steady as I’d expected and the pot was a lot heavier than I thought it was, but I was determined to be a good example for my little boy. I hoisted the pot up and onto the balcony floor just slightly over my head. I didn’t even make too many “ooof” noises in the process.

“See,” I said, somewhat euphoric with success, “it’s not hard at all.”

Sam continued handing the newly planted pots up to me as I smiled encouragingly down at his trusting blue eyes. When the last of the plants were finally lined up above us, I smugly explained to Sam from my lofty perch on the chair that it’s important to trust ourselves. After all, I said, how would anything ever get done except the same old way?

Just about to hop down from the chair, I noticed the unopened bag of potting soil. That would be handy to have in the house. I could repot some houseplants in the laundry tub without making a mess.

He hauled the heavy bag from the ground and, with some effort, hoisted it up to me. I grabbed it. It was much heavier than the pots and worse yet wobbly as soil shifted inside the plastic. I reached up, extending my arms as far as I could reach. I still couldn’t get the bag quite high enough to slide onto the balcony floor. I stood on my tiptoes, the bag teetering above my head.

The unusual pressure on the potting soil bag took its toll.

The bag split wide open.

Keep in mind that some reactions are beyond our control. So when my eyebrows tensed and my mouth opened in an involuntary expression of surprise and dismay, it just so happened that this took place at the exact second that the bag’s contents sprung free. It emptied in a sudden rush, piles of dirt cascading in my hair, down my collar, and directly into my open mouth.

I jumped off the chair and did an improvised dance to shake potting soil from my hair and clothes, spitting dirt and laughing while I whirled around the backyard. Sam, bless his heart, never said, “I told you so.”

Later that evening as we enjoyed dinner with friends (my hair still wet from a hurried scrub) I realized the old adage about idleness and the devil didn’t really suit me. I’m giving up the tendency to fill each moment with a useful task. When I have a little time a-wasting I remind myself that all work and no play makes a woman spit dirt.

bad example, kid's common sense, lack of common sense,

An old story from our farm site

Leaving Little Love Letters

mother's love notes,

Image: Ebineyland

My mother regularly wrote little love letters to her children.  They started appearing on our pillows when we could first read, at least one every month or so. Sometimes her notes would reference something we did or said but mostly they simply gushed with affirmation. Her standard ran along the lines of, “You are the nicest, most wonderful seven-year-old in the whole world.”

Her one or two sentence notes were usually written on a scrap of paper. My mother made “scratch” paper out of junk mail and school fliers. She tore paper on the fold lines, getting three pieces out of a standard letter-sized sheet. This made the flip side of her little love letters unintentionally quirky, with references to bank policy or reminders about choir practice. My brother and sister got their own notes but we never mentioned them to each other. They were a private and cherished connection between mother and child.

By the time I was nine or ten years old I wrote little love letters to her too, hiding my notes in her shoe or tucked into her jewelry box. It was easy to tell when she’d found one. She’d dole out a big hug and whisper a line I’d written back to me.  It seems these notes meant as much to her as they did to me. After she died I ran across some of them stuffed into her favorite cookbook, effusive words penciled in my best handwriting.

I know all too well that family life sometimes scrapes us like sandpaper against those closest to us. We don’t talk enough about what amuses or delights us because we’re busy saying that the towels aren’t hung up, shoes are blocking the door, and food is left out on the counter. We may also be dealing with doubts kindled by worry and annoyances that can spark into anger.

Sure, we linger over tender moments that we wish could last forever. We praise the effort (as all those relationship experts tell us to do). But there’s something special when we take the time to write down our very best feelings for one another.  A note is a tangible expression unlike any other.

I won’t kid myself that I’ll ever write as many tiny love letters as my mother wrote in her life. But today I’ll be writing a few sentences to my loved ones and hiding those notes where they’ll find them. I know there’s a sense of completion when we say what’s in our hearts.

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.

Mother & Child Are Linked At The Cellular Level

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Fetal cells remain to heal a mother throughout her life. shortgreenpigg.deviantart.com

Today is my youngest child’s birthday. As my mother used to tell me, we always carry our children in our hearts. I know this is true emotionally. Apparently it’s also true on the physical level.

Sometimes science is filled with transcendent meaning more beautiful than any poem. To me, this new research shows the poetry packed in the people all around us.

It’s now known that cells from a developing fetus cross the placenta, allowing the baby’s DNA to become part of the mother’s body.  These fetal cells persist in a woman’s body into her old age. (If she has been pregnant with a male child it’s likely she’ll have some Y-chromosomes drifting around for a few decades too). This is true even if the baby she carried didn’t live to be born. The cells of that child stay with her, resonating in ways that mothers have known intuitively throughout time.

Fetal cells you contributed to your own mother may be found in her blood, bone marrow, skin, kidney, and liver. These fetal cells appear to “treat” her when she is ill or injured.   Researchers have noticed the presence of these cells in women diagnosed with illnesses such as thyroid disease and hepatitis C. In one case, a woman stopped treatment against medical advice. A liver biopsy showed “thousands of male cells” determined to be from a pregnancy terminated nearly 20 years earlier. These cells helped her body recover just as fetal cells you gave your mother rush to help repair her from within when she’s unwell.

Fetal cells may influence a woman’s autoimmunity, although it’s not yet known if they are always beneficial. According to fascinating accounts in Do Chocolate Lovers Have Sweeter Babies?: The Surprising Science of Pregnancy, the more fetal cells there are in a woman’s body, the less likely she is to have conditions such as multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis. That’s not always the case. It’s thought that sometimes a mother’s body may instead battle those cells, thus provoking autoimmune disorders. (Apparently family dynamics are complicated even at the cellular level.)

There’s evidence that fetal cells provide some protection against certain cancers. For example, they’re much more prevalent in the breast tissue of healthy women than in those with breast cancer. Fetal cells are less common in women who developed Alzheimer’s disease, suggesting they provide late-life protection. Fetal cells can contribute stem cells, generate new neurons in the mother’s brain, even help to heal her heart. Her heart!

Look around at your family. Any woman who has ever been pregnant, even if she miscarried so early she never knew she was with child, is likely to be a microchimera (a person who carries the cells of another person).  Fetal cells have the imprint of her child’s father and his ancestry. Fetal cells can be shared from one pregnancy to another, meaning the cells of older siblings may float within younger siblings. These cells are another reminder of the ways we are connected in a holographic universe.

Overall, the presence of fetal cells in a woman’s body is associated with substantially improved longevity, with an overall mortality rate 60 percent lower than women whose bodies don’t contain such cells.

I’d like to think that my fetal cells helped my mother battle the congestive heart failure that eventually took her life. I like to consider that I carry within me my older sister’s fierce intelligence and that my talented younger brother benefits in some way from the cells of both his sisters. Knowing that I carry the cells of my four living children as well as babies I lost makes my heart ever more full on this special day.

We heal our mothers and our children heal us. Again poetry takes a back seat to nature’s awesome secrets.

Pride Goeth Before Tiny Bite Marks

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I don’t take credit for my children’s many accomplishments. They are their own remarkable people.

As a new mother I didn’t have this quite figured out. Yes, I recognized that babies arrive on this planet with all sorts of traits wired in. I knew it’s up to us to gently nurture them, shelter them from harm (including the damage cynicism can do), allow them to take on challenges, help them learn to trust themselves, and let learning unfold in delight.

But I had a few early years when I thought, probably with obnoxious smugness, that my wonderful parenting had something to do with how well my kids were turning out. They were very young and so was I.

My oldest, a boy, was thoughtful and clever. He liked to take my face between his little hands and call me every superlative he could think of (“dear, sweet, wonderful Mama). Isn’t this positively swoonable? He rescued insects from the sidewalk, telling them “go in peace little brother,” a line he picked up from one of his favorite picture books. When his father and I tried to talk over our little one’s head about issues we thought he shouldn’t hear, we used Shakespearean language to obscure our meaning. We had to stop, because our toddler began regularly using words like “doth” and “whence.”  What made things work fascinated this little boy, from the bones in our bodies to the engine in our cars, and he insisted on learning about them.

My next child, a daughter, was assertive and talented. She drew, danced, and sang made-up songs of such pure wonder that, I kid you not, birds clustered in trees near her. The force of personality in that tiny girl led us all to laugh at her improbable jokes and enter into her complicated realms of make-believe. Born into a home without pets, her drive to be close to animals was so intense that she kept trying to make worms her friends. Entirely due to her persistence we ended up with several pets by the time she was three.

Although our beautiful little children had medical problems, we had money problems, and other crises kept popping up I felt as if I lived in paradise each day. There’s something remarkable about seeing the world anew through the eyes of the planet’s most recent inhabitants. It’s like using an awe-shaped lens.

But I still had plenty to learn about parenting.

I recall being quietly horrified at a Le Leche League meeting when one toddler bit another. I thought about it for days, wondering what sort of parenting resulted in such an impulsive child. All the parenting books I read, all the non-violence courses I taught assured me there was a right way. Of course my comeuppance would arrive.

My third child was born soon after. This endearing, curious, and constantly cheerful little boy possessed relentless energy. By the time he was 14 months old we had to twine rope around all the chairs, lashing them to the table between meals, otherwise this diapered chap would drag a chair across the room to climb on top of furniture in the few seconds it took me to fill a teakettle. Before he could say more than a few words he’d learned to slide open our windows, unclip the safety latches on the screens, and toss the screens to the ground. He liked to grab the hand vacuum for experiments on his sister’s hair, houseplants, and other normally non-suckable items. He watched with fascination as drips from his sippy cup fell into heat vents, the hamster cage, the pile of laundry I was folding. We had no idea he could climb out of his crib till the evening he opened all the wrapped Christmas presents I had hidden in my room (keeping them safe from him) while we thought he was in bed. The look of complete joy on his face nearly made up for the hours of work it took me to rewrap. I found myself making up new rules I never thought I’d utter, like:

“Don’t poop in Daddy’s hat.”

“We never run with straws up our noses.”

He became a little more civilized by the time he was three, but not, as you might imagine, before he bit a few children.

Utterly besotted by the bright-eyed charm and endless curiosity of this dear little boy, I never suspected the labels doctors and schools so easily affix on non-conformist kids might be slapped on my child.  I never realized how much he would teach me about what real motivation and learning look like. And I never imagined how much he’d show me about what it means to pursue success on one’s own terms.

Today he is one accomplished young man, in part because he continues to see the world through an awe-shaped lens. And I am still learning from the remarkable people who came to this world as my children.

Eat Your Dandelions

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“You EAT them?” a little boy new to the neighborhood asks. He leans forward for the answer, his face ready to constrict in doubt.

Children already well acquainted with our family’s springtime ritual stop picking.

“Yeah!” they eagerly assure him, “They’re really good.”

They aren’t referring to a new vegetable in our garden. They’re talking about dandelions.

Herbalists tell us exactly what we need grows nearby. Those plants we call “weeds” may in fact remedy what ails us. They are so common that their properties are easily overlooked in a culture searching for packaged wellness. Plantain, mullein, comfrey,mint, mugwort,St. John’s wort, chicory and purslane spring up wild in my untreated lawn and garden. Weeds, but also powerful healers.

Today we’re picking dandelions in full flower. It isn’t about finding a remedy. For me the harvest is has to do with celebrating spring and affirming the beauty around us. For my children and our neighbors it’s about fun. I wait until the blooms are at their peak. Then I call friends and neighbors to announce, “Today is the day!”

Children spread out across the yard holding little baskets. A girl squats in front of each plant, pausing a long moment before she reaches out to pluck a flower from its stem. The  oldest boy in the group walks by many dandelion plants to pick only those growing in clusters. And the newest little boy falls silent, as the rest of the children do, taking delight in the seriousness of the harvest.

European settlers brought the dandelion plant to this continent for food and medicinal purposes. The perennial spread easily across most states. It’s a testament to the power of herbicide marketers that such a useful plant became so thoroughly despised. Standing under today’s blue sky, I look at exuberant yellow rosettes growing in bright green grass and feel sheer aesthetic pleasure.

After the children tire of picking we sit together on the porch and snip off the dandelion stems right up to the flower. We mothers look over their busy heads—blonde, brown, black—and smile as we watch them stay at this task with the kind of close attention children give to real work. One girl remarks that the flowers look like the sun. Another child says her grandmother told her that in the Old Country they call the plant by the same name as milk because of its white sap. The newest boy chooses to line the stems neatly along the wide porch planking, arranging and rearranging them by length.

Every aspect of a ritual holds significance so I pay attention to the warm breeze, the comfortable pulse of friendship, and flowers so soft against my fingers they remind me of a newborn’s hair.

When we’re done the flowers are rinsed in a colander, then it’s time to cook them. I’m not a fan of frying. There are better ways to preserve the flavor and nutrients in food. Consequently I’m not very skilled. But this is easy. The children, their mothers and I drop the flowers in a thin batter, scoop them out with slotted spoons and fry them a dozen at a time in shallow pans.

After the blossoms cool slightly on paper towels they’re put on two platters. One is tossed with powdered sugar and cinnamon, the other sprinkled with salt and pepper. Handfuls are eaten in the kitchen while we cook. Then we carry the platters outside. Children run off to play in grass polka dotted with bright yellow flowers. We adults sit on the porch laughing and talking.

It’s suggested that we should be eating healthfully prepared dandelion greens and roots rather than indulging in delectable fried blossoms. That sentence fades into a quiet moment as a breeze stirs new leaves on the trees and lifts our children’s hair. I feel enlivened. Everywhere, around me and inside me, it is spring.

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Gather dandelion flowers from areas free of chemical treatments or fertilizer. Pick in a sunny part of the day so the flowers are fully open, then prepare right away so flowers don’t close.
Cut away stem, as this is bitter, leaving only the green part holding the flower together.
Douse briefly in salt water (to flush out any lurking bugs). Dry flowers on dish towels while you prepare batter.
Ingredients
3 to 4 cups dandelion flowers, prepared as above
1 cup milk (dairy, soy, almond, coconut, any variety)
1 egg (or equivalent egg replacer product)
1 cup flour (slightly smaller amount of any whole grain alternative)
½ teaspoon salt
oil (frying is best with healthful oils which don’t break down at high temperatures, try safflower oil, coconut oil or olive oil)
Method
1. Combine milk, egg, flour and salt in wide bowl. Mix well. Heat an inch or two of oil in skillet (350-375 degrees).
2.  Drop a dozen or so blossoms into the batter, stir gently to coat. Lift out with slotted spoon or fork. It’s best to hold the bowl over the skillet as you drop each blossom into the hot oil.
3. Turn flowers over to brown on both sides. Remove with slotted spatula to drain briefly on paper towels. Continue to fry remaining flowers using same steps. Toss cooked dandelions with sugar and cinnamon. Or salt and your choice of savory flavoring such as garlic, pepper or chili powder.
4. Making flower fritters is a speedier method than frying individual flowers. Simply drop flowers and batter into the oil by the spoonful, then turn like a pancake. Serve with jam, maple syrup or honey. Or try savory toppings like mustard, ketchup or barbeque sauce. These fritters are endlessly adaptable. Try adding sunflower or sesame seeds to the batter and serve with either the sweet or savory toppings.
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What You May Not Know About Dandelions

The common dandelion, Taraxacum officinal, has been used in traditional medical systems around the world to boost nutrition as well as treat conditions of the liver, kidney and spleen; slow abnormal growths; improve digestion and more. Recently science has taken a closer look at this often scorned plant. No surprise, traditional wisdom holds up under scrutiny.

~Dandelion root stimulates the growth of 14 strains of bifidobacteria.1 This is good news, because bifidobacteria aid in digestion. Their presence in the gut is correlated with a lower incidence of allergies.2

~Dandelions appear to fight cancer. Researchers testing for biologically active components to combat cancer proliferation and invasion note that dandelion extracts have value as “novel anti-cancer agent[s].” Their studies show dandelion leaf extract decreases growth of certain breast cancer cells and blocks invasion of prostate cancer. The root extract blocks invasion of other specific breast cancer cells3  and also shows promise inhibiting skin cancer. 4

~Dandelions work as an anti-inflammatory and pain relieving agent.5

~Dandelion extract lowers cholesterol. This, plus its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities leads some researchers to believe that the plant may reduce the risk of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).6

~The plant’s leaves are an effective diuretic.7

~Dandelion shows promise in diabetic treatment. It slows the glycemic response to carbohydrates, thereby helping to control blood sugar.8

~Dandelion extract increases the action of estrogen and progesterone receptors. It may prove to be a useful treatment for reproductive hormone-related problems including PMS.9

~ Leaves, roots and flowers of the humble dandelion are fully edible. USDA National Nutrient Database analysis proves that a festive array of nutrition awaits any lawn harvester. One cup of chopped fresh dandelion greens are extremely rich in vitamins K, A and C as well as good source of vitamin E, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B6,  calcium, iron, ,magnesium, manganese, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids.10

The flavonoids found in dandelions are valuable antioxidants and free radical scavengers.11

 
1 I. Trojanova, V. Rada, L. Kokoska, E. Vikova, “The Bifidogenic Effect of Taraxacum Officinale Root,”  Fitoterapia vol 75 issue 7/8 (December 2004), 760-763.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15567259  (accessed 8-29-09)
2  Bengt Bjorksten, Epp Sepp, Kaja Julge, Tiia Voor, Marika Mikelsaar, “Allergy Development and the Intestinal Microflora During the First Year of Life,” The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology vol 108 issue 4 (October 2001), 516-520. http://www.jacionline.org/article/S0091-6749(01)96140-8/abstract  (accessed 8-29-09)
3 S.C.Sigstedt, C.J. Hooten, M.C. Callewaert, A.R. Jenkins, A.E. Romera, M.J. Pullin, A. Korneinko, T.K. Lowrey, S.V. Slambrouck, W.F. Steelant, “Evaluation of Aqueous Extracts of Taraxacum Officinale on Growth and Invasion of Breast and Prostate Cancer Cells,” International Journal of Oncologyvol 32, num 5 (May 2008), 1085-1090.  http://www.spandidos-publications.com/ijo/article.jsp?article_id=ijo_32_5_1085  (accessed 8-30-09).
4 M. Takasaki, T. Konoshima, H. Tokuda, K. Masuda, Y. Arai, K. Shiojima, H. Ageta,  “Anti-carcinogenic Activity of Taraxacum Plant,” Biological & Pharmaceutical Bulletin vol 22, 6 (June 1999), 602-605.  http://web.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.cpl.org/ehost/detail?vid=1&hid=108&sid=b7ce94b0-1484-4aef-a5a8-73e1efddb194%40sessionmgr104&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=cmedm&AN=10408234  (accessed 9-1-09).
5 H.J. Jeon, H.J. Kang, H.J. Jung, Y.S. Kang, C.J. Lim, Y.M Kim, E.H. Park, Anti-inflammatory Activity of Taraxacum Officinale,”  Journal of Ethnopharmacology vol. 115, 1 (January 2008), 82-88.  http://web.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.cpl.org/ehost/detail?vid=1&hid=108&sid=4b56dd3a-f9b3-4444-b85d-80d79eb1f3ce%40replicon103&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=cmedm&AN=17949929  (accessed 9-1-09).
6 Jinju Kim, Kyunghee Noh, Mikyung Cho, Jihyun Jang, Youngsun Song, “Anti-oxidative, Anti-inflammatory and Anti-Atherogenic Effects of Dandelion (Taraxacum Officinale) Extracts in c57BL/6 Mice Fed Atherogenic Diet,”  FASEB Journal vol 21, issue 6 (April 2007), 1122.  http://wf2dnvr17.webfeat.org/aNuiM141/url=http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?vid=1&hid=5&sid=a168be9f-0a5c-41c6-b86d-2a9c3677c6f4%40sessionmgr4&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=aph&AN=25598840   (accessed 9-1-09).
7 Bevin A. Clare, Richard S. Conroy, Kevin Spelman, “The Diuretic Effect in Human Subjects of an Extract of Taraxacum Officinale Rolium Over a Single Day,” Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine vol 15, issue 8 (August 2009), 929-934.  http://wf2dnvr17.webfeat.org/aNuiM14/url=http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?vid=1&hid=9&sid=a26346e7-f010-44fc-88ea-891214f7539a%40sessionmgr10&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=aph&AN=43671001     (accessed 9-1-09).
8 Secil Onal, Suna Timur, Burcu Okutucu, Figen Zihnioglu, “Inhibition of a-Glucosidase by Aqueous Extracts of Some Potent Antidiabetic Medicinal Herbs,” Preparative Biochemistry & Biotechnology vol 35, issue 1 (February 2005), 29-36.  http://wf2dnvr17.webfeat.org/aNuiM141/url=http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?vid=8&hid=104&sid=982fd009-501c-4a90-9ce3-7d5475b2ed05%40sessionmgr4&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=aph&AN=16133864    (accessed 9-1-09).
9 Zhi Xu, Ken-Ichi Honda, Koji Ozaki, Takuya Misugi, Toshiyuki Sumi, Osamu Ishiko, “Dandelioin T-1 Extract Up-regulates Reproductive Hormone Receptor Expression in Mice,” International Journal of Molecular Medicine volume 20, 3 (2007) 287-292.  http://cat.inist.fr/?aModele=afficheN&cpsidt=19007317   (accessed 8-27-09).
10 USDA Agricultural Research Service, USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 21, (2008) NDB # 11207  http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/cgi-bin/list_nut_edit.pl  (accessed 9-1-09).
 11 Hu C. Kitts, “Dandelion (Taraxacum Officinale) Flower Extract Suppresses Both Reactive Oxygen Species and Nitric Oxide and Prevents Lipid Oxidation in Vitro,” Phytomedicine 12, 8 (August 2005), 588-597. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16121519?ordinalpos=1&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_DiscoveryPanel.Pubmed_Discovery_RA&linkpos=2&log$=relatedarticles&logdbfrom=pubmed  (accessed 9-1-09).

This post is reprinted from an article that first appeared in Natural Life Magazine