A Sandwich Made of Kindness

how to help a parent whose child is hospitalized

CC by 2.0 Kyle Simourd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Learning. It’s Not About Education

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Learning is a whole experience of mind, body, and self in relation to the world

When you pick up an orange you feel its texture and weight in your hand. You breathe in scent emitted by the brightly colored rind. If you’re hungry, you peel and section it to savor piece by piece. A fresh orange has phytonutrients, fiber, minerals, and vitamins that promote health. And it tastes wonderful.

It’s possible to purchase the separate nutritional components of an orange. You simply buy vitamin C, vitamin A, flavonoids, B-complex vitamins, fiber, potassium, and calcium in pill form. Of course replacing an orange with supplements is ridiculously expensive compared to the cost of consuming the fruit itself. And isolated compounds don’t work as effectively in the body as the whole fruit. Besides, where is the sensation of biting into an orange bursting with juice? Lost. Divided into a fraction of the experience.

Imagine being told in your earliest years that pills were superior to food and should replace it as often as possible. Even if handfuls of supplements were deemed more valuable than food by every adult in your life you’d still clamor to eat what you found appetizing. If meal-substitution pills became mandatory for children once they turned five years old, you’d never relate to food (or its replacement) the same way again. The body, mind, and spirit reject what diminishes wholeness.

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Don’t argue. Just take it.

Yet that’s an apt analogy for heavily structured education, where learning is set apart from the threads that connect it to what has meaning and purpose for the learner. Conventional education separates learning into thousands of measurable objectives. It has very little to do with a child’s hunger to master a particular skill or thirst to pursue an area of interest, in fact such appetites tend to interfere with institutional requirements. It’s not designed for the whole child but aimed at one hemisphere of the brain, doled out in pre-determined doses and repeatedly evaluated. The most gifted, caring teachers are stuck within systems that don’t acknowledge or understand natural learning. In fact, most of us believe, however grudgingly, that schooling is necessary for learning without recognizing that damage is done.

For the very youngest children, learning is constant. Their wondrous progress from helpless newborn to sophisticated five-year-old happens without explicit teaching. They explore, challenge themselves, make mistakes, and try again with an insatiable eagerness to learn. Young children seem to recognize that knowledge is an essential shared resource, like air or water. They demand a fair share. They actively espouse the right to gain skills and understanding in a way that’s useful to them at the time.

Although we have the idea that learning flows from instruction, when we interfere with natural learning children show us with stubbornness or disinterest that it has nothing to do with coercion. Children often ignore what they aren’t ready to learn only to return to the same concept later, comprehending it with ease and pleasure.  What they do is intrinsically tied to why they do it, because they know learning is purposeful. They are curious, motivated, and always pushing in the direction of mastery.

Learning is a hunger too.

Learning is a hunger too.

But schooling irrevocably alters the natural process of learning for every single child.

  • The very structure of school makes children passive recipients of education designed by others. They cannot charge ahead fueled by curiosity, pursuing interests wherever they lead.  Although interest-driven learning results in high level mastery, the top priority in school is completing assignments correctly and scoring well on tests. Despite what individual children want to learn, value is given to what can be evaluated.
  • Segregated by age, children are limited to examples of behavior, reasoning, and ability from those at a similar level of maturity. They have little exposure to essential adult role models and minimal engagement in community life.  They’re also deprived of the opportunity to practice the sort of nurturance and self-education that happens when children interact in multi-age settings.  Even collaboration is defined as cheating.
  • A child’s natural inclination to discover and experiment is steered instead toward meeting curricular requirements. Gradually the child’s naturally exploratory approach is supplanted by less meaningful ways of gathering and retaining information.
  • The mind and body are exquisitely cued to work together. Sensory input floods the brain, locking learning into memory. Movement is essential for learning. The emphasis in school, however, is almost entirely static, and almost entirely focused on left-brain analytical thinking. Many children ache for more active involvement, but their attempts to enliven the day are labeled behavior problems. The mismatch between school-like expectations and normal childhood behavior has resulted in millions of children being diagnosed with ADHD.
  • Coming up with the correct answer leaves little room for trial and error. Thinking too carefully or deeply may result in the wrong answer. The right answer from a child’s personal perspective may actually be the opposite of the correct answer, but to get a good mark the child cannot be true to his or her experience. The grade becomes more important than reality.
  • Emphasis on the correct answer squeezes out unconventional thinking. The fear of making mistakes squelches creativity and innovation. After years of being taught to avoid making mistakes, the child has also learned to steer clear of originality.
  • Readiness is pivotal for learning, particularly in reading. In school, reading is used to instruct in every other subject, so the child who doesn’t read at grade level quickly falls behind. The subject matter in school, even when taught well, isn’t necessarily what the child is ready to learn. The way it is presented tends to be indirect, inactive, and irrelevant to the child. Schoolwork repeatedly emphasizes skill areas that are lacking rather than building on strengths, or goes over skills already mastered with stultifying repetition. Neither approach builds real learning
  • The desire to produce meaningful work, the urge to make contributions of value, the need to be recognized for oneself, and other developmental necessities are undercut by the overriding obligation to complete assignments.
  • Conventional education takes the same approach to a six-year-old and an 18-year-old: assignments, grades, tests. Self-reliance and independence doesn’t easily flourish in such a closed container.
  • Children must hurry to do the required work, then change subjects. The information is stuffed into their short-term memories in order to get good grades and pass tests, even though such tests tend to measure superficial thinking. In fact, higher test scores are unrelated to future accomplishments in such career advancement, positive relationships, or leadership. Students aren’t learning to apply information to real life activities nor are they generating wisdom from it. The very essence of learning is ignored.
  • Schoolwork clearly separates what is deemed “educational” from the rest of a child’s experience. This indicates to children that learning is confined to specific areas of life. A divide appears where before there was a seamless whole. Absorption and play are on one side in opposition to work and learning on another. This sets the inherent joy and meaning in all these things adrift. The energy that formerly prompted a child to explore, ask questions, and eagerly leap ahead becomes a social liability. Often this transforms into cynicism.
  • When young people are insufficiently challenged or pushed too hard, they do learn but not necessarily what they’re being taught. What they learn is that the educational process is boring or makes them feel bad about themselves or doesn’t acknowledge their deeper gifts. They see that what they achieve is relentlessly judged. They learn to quell enthusiasm and suppress the value-laden questions that normally bubble up as they seek to grow more wholly into themselves. Gradually, their natural moment-to-moment curiosity is distorted until they resist learning anything but what they have to learn. This is how the life force is drained from education.

We’re so committed to structured, top-down instruction that we impose it on kids beyond the school day. Young people are relentlessly shuttled from the classroom to enrichment activities to organized sports and back home to play with educational toys or apps when there’s very little evidence that all this effort, time, and money results in learning of any real value.

Many of us think that education has always been this way—stuffing information into young people who must regurgitate it back on demand. Based on dropout numbers alone, this approach doesn’t work for at least a quarter of U.S. students. So we advocate copying Finland or Singapore, using the newest electronics, taking away testing, increasing testing, adding uniforms or yoga or chess or prayer. We’ve been reforming schools for a long time without recognizing, as Einstein said, “You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it.”

free range learning,

Figuring something out is itself a delight.

Structured education is actually very new to the human experience. Worse, it actually undermines the way children are primed to advance their abilities and mature into capable adults. That’s because most of the time humanity has spent on Earth has been as nomadic hunter-gatherers, before the advent of agriculture. This time span comprises approximately 98% of human history. Although our culture and lifestyle have changed considerably, our minds and bodies have not. Like our earliest ancestors we are still tuned to nature’s rhythms, cued to react quickly to danger, desire close interdependence with a cohesive group of people, and need in our earliest years highly responsive nurturing that gradually fosters our abilities.

Studies of isolated groups who continue to live in hunter-gatherer ways have shown us that during this era (and throughout most time periods afterward) babies are breastfed and remain in close contact with their mothers for the first few years. This results in securely attached infants who are more likely to grow up independent, conscientious, and intellectually advanced.

Their children play freely in multi-age groups without overt supervision or direction by adults. Such free play promotes self-regulation (ability to control behavior, resist impulse, and exert self-control) which is critical for maturity. Play fosters learning in realms such as language, social skills, and spatial relations. It teaches a child to adapt, innovate, handle stress, and think independently. Even attention span increases in direct correlation to play.

Playfulness can’t be separated from learning. Children watch and imitate the people around them. The child’s natural desire to build his or her capabilities doesn’t have to be enforced. Instruction happens when the child seeks it. The learning environment is particularly rich when young people are surrounded by adults performing the tasks necessary to maintain their way of life. Children naturally learn as they playfully repeat what they see and begin to take part in these real life tasks. Mastering all the skills for self-reliance isn’t easy. Hunger-gatherer children must recognize thousands of species of plants and animals as well as how to best obtain, use, and store them. They must know how to make necessary items such as nets, baskets, darts, carrying devices, clothing, and shelter. They need to learn the lore of their people and pass along wisdom through story, ritual, and art. And perhaps most importantly, they need to be able to cooperate and share in ways that have allowed humanity to thrive. In such cultures, children learn on their own timetables in ways that best use their abilities.

free range learning

It’s about curiosity and awe.

We don’t have to live as hunter-gatherers do to restore natural learning to children’s lives. Homeschoolers and unschoolers have been doing this, quite easily, for a very long time. Our children learn as they are ready and in ways that augment strong selfhood. They stay up late to stargaze or make music or design video games, knowing they can sleep late the next morning. They may fill an afternoon reading or actively contribute to the community. They have time to delve into topics of interest to them, often in much greater depth and breadth than any curriculum might demand. They explore, ask questions, volunteer, hang out with friends of all ages, take on household responsibilities, daydream, seek challenges, make mistakes and start over. They’re accustomed to thinking for themselves and pursuing their own interests, so they’re more likely to define success on their own terms. Because homeschooing/unschooling gives them the freedom to be who they already are, it pushes back against a world relentlessly promoting narrow definitions of success.

This kind of natural learning isn’t just an antidote to the soul crushing pressure of test-happy schools. It’s the way young people have learned throughout time.

Let children sleep in. Let them dream. Let them wake to their own possibilities.

free range learning, holistic learning, effect of school, school mindset,

This is an excerpt from Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything.

Worst Christmas Became Most Memorable Christmas

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Photo by doortoriver via Flickr, CC by 2.0

One year it seemed we were having the worst Christmas ever. That autumn my husband had been in a car accident. His broken neck was healing, but it left him with severe migraines and what doctors thought might be a seizure disorder. Because he wasn’t medically cleared to return to work, we had to pay for health insurance through COBRA (which cost more than our mortgage) while not receiving a paycheck. In addition, my mother was fighting cancer, my brother-in-law was recovering from open heart surgery, and my son was struggling with asthma so severe that his oxygen intake regularly hovered at the “go to emergency room” level.

We were broke and worried. But I insisted on a normal Christmas. I put up our usual decorations, baked the same goodies, and managed to wrap plenty of inexpensive gifts for our kids. Everyone else on my list would be getting something homemade.

Each night after getting my four children tucked in, I sat at the sewing machine making gifts for friends and family. The evening of December 23rd as I was finishing up the last few sewing projects I realized I didn’t have a single item for the kid’s stockings and absolutely no funds to buy even a pack of gum. I put my head down, too tired to cry. I was so overwhelmed by the bigger issues going on that the stocking problem pushed me right to the edge. I don’t know how long I sat there unable to get back to sewing, but when I lifted my head my eleven-year-old daughter stood next to me. When she asked what was wrong I admitted that I had nothing for any of their stockings. Her response lightened up my mood then and still does every time I think of it.

“All that matters is we’re a family,” she said. “ I don’t care if you squat over my stocking and poop in it.”

I laughed so loudly and for so long that something cleared out in me. I felt better than I had in months. She and I stayed up at least another hour together, restarting the giggles with just a look or more hilariously, a squatting motion.

When I woke up the next morning I still felt good. Until the phone rang. It was Katy* who said she needed to talk to someone. The mother of one of my children’s friends, she always seemed like a super women who did everything with panache. It was hard to imagine her with anything but a big smile. She said she didn’t want to tell anyone who might feel obligated to help her but, oddly, said she felt free to talk to me because she knew of my family’s dire financial straits. “We’re in the same boat I guess,” she said, “sinking.”

Katy revealed that her husband had been abusive and she’d finally worked up the courage to ask him to leave. He did, but not before emptying their bank accounts, turning off their utilities, disabling her car, and taking every single Christmas gift for their four children. Utility companies had promised to restore power to their cold, dark home but she was left with no money for groceries and no gifts for her kids. Katy said she was going to talk to her priest, hoping he’d find someone willing to drive her family to the Christmas service. She said her problems would be public knowledge soon enough. The neighbors would notice that her husband had punched a hole in the door on his way out.

Heartsick at her situation, my husband and I agreed we had to do something. I spent that day in eager anticipation of the plan we hatched. I went through the gifts I’d wrapped for our kids and took out about a third, putting on new gift tags for Katy’s children. I rewrapped gifts that friends and relatives had sent for me, putting Katy’s name on them. While I was happily engaged, my friend Rachel* called, someone who didn’t know Katy. I told her about the situation without revealing Katy’s identity. A few hours later Rachel showed up at my door with a tin of homemade cookies and a card with $100 tucked inside. She said she’d told her mother about the situation, and her mother insisted on supplying grocery bags full of holiday treats including a large ham.

Close to midnight my husband and I loaded up our car and drove quietly to Katy’s street. Snow was falling and the moon was full, like a movie set Christmas Eve. He turned off the headlights and cut the engine as we coasted into her drive. We quietly stacked groceries and piles of gifts on her porch, then pounded on her door yelling “Merry Christmas!” before dashing to make our getaway. By the time our car was a few houses down I could see that Katy had opened the door. Her hands were up in the air in a classic gesture of surprise and delight.

Katy called the next day. She told me there’d been a late night interruption. She thought to herself, what now, but when she got to her door her porch was full of gifts and groceries.

“You wouldn’t believe it,” she said. “The gifts had the kids’ names on them and were just right for their ages and there were even gifts for me. We can’t figure out who might have done that. I know it couldn’t have been you but why wouldn’t someone leave their name so I could thank them?”

I could only tell her that whoever left her porch that night must have wanted the gesture to remain a simple gift of love. She said her kids were calling it their Christmas miracle.

A small gesture of kindness hardly makes up for what Katy’s family endured that Christmas. But as we drove away, my husband and I felt a lift of euphoria that our own circumstances couldn’t diminish. That feeling stuck with us. It held us through problems that got worse before they got better. Even when our situation seemed intractable my husband and I could easily summon the sense of complete peace we felt in those moments at Katy’s door. I’m not sure if a word has been coined that encompasses that feeling: a mix of peace, and possibility, and complete happiness. But it’s far more precious than any wrapped package.

Oh, and that Christmas my brother gave my daughter, who at that time was an aspiring paleontologist, the perfect gift. Coprolite. Basically a hunk of fossilized poop. He thought it was a funny present but never understood why seeing it made me laugh until tears came to my eyes.

*Names changed to protect privacy.

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Photo by andrewmalone via Flickr, CC by 2.0

Heart Intelligence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Portions of this article are excerpted from Free Range Learning.

Angry Stranger’s Gift

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Years ago I waited in a convenience store line in complete desperation. I was still bleeding after giving birth to my daughter and needed pads. The customer ahead of me was working her way into a snit because the store was out of an item she wanted. She refused to buy similar products the clerk offered. I stood behind this customer trying to keep from judging her (and failing). She was middle-aged or older, wearing expensive clothes and fussily styled hair, but what really defined her was the kind of self-absorption that turns a minor inconvenience into a personal offense. She demanded someone check the back room where she was sure the product languished due to employee laziness. She demanded to see the manager, who wasn’t there. She. Wouldn’t. Leave.

I was so exhausted that I simply wanted to curl up on the floor. It was the first time I’d left my baby’s hospital bed for more than a few minutes. My newborn suffered from a serious malady that hadn’t yet been diagnosed. She was increasingly losing weight and vigor. All the while I missed my three-year-old fiercely. I hadn’t seen him for days aside from brief hugs in the parking lot. I spent all my time by my baby’s side. It was a triumph when I could get her to nurse for a few moments. Sleep deprived and terrified for my baby girl, I clung onto hope like a parasite.

The customer ahead of me was now yelling. I assumed she’d had no greater trouble in her life than being deprived of a convenience store product. I realized that she may have been older than my own mother, but she had less maturity than my firstborn who knew enough to respect other people and more importantly, to care about them.

I’d been in the hospital environment for so many days that simply driving to the store was a sensory overload. Bright sunlight, traffic, people engaged in daily activities were all so overwhelming that I felt like a tourist visiting for the first time. Maybe that’s why I felt a sudden tenderness for the customer ahead of me. It was as if some surface reality melted away to expose this woman’s beautiful soul. I didn’t know if she was going through a difficulty that left her frantic to have her needs, any needs, recognized. Or if she had experienced so few difficulties that she hadn’t developed any tolerance for disappointment. It didn’t matter. I saw her as utterly perfect. In that moment I felt nothing less than love.

Just then she whirled around and left. I exchanged a look of solidarity with the clerk, made my purchase, and drove back to the hospital. That encounter not only gave me a powerful surge of energy, it also boosted my spirits in a way I can’t explain. It was a boost that lasted. All these years later I remain grateful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

stress relief, trauma relief, don't sit up straight, natural posture,

Originally published in Wired.

A New Curse Word

 relax your words,

We hear it all the time. Chances are we say it all the time.

I swear (hah!) it’s the curse of our era.

What’s up with you?


How’s work?


How are the kids?


What was your vacation like?


What’s next week like for you?



We are busy, pulled in so many directions that we don’t have words powerful enough to describe how time starved we feel. Swamped, hectic, rushed, hurried, slammed, or crazy busy can’t come close.

I suspect that we aren’t busier, in terms of obligations using up our time, than someone our age might have been 100 years ago. Chances are those folks kept the house warm with coal shoveled into a furnace; worked long hours for poor pay in factories, mines, slaughterhouses or worse; traveled at low speeds to get where they were going; struggled to stay healthy in a population easily ravaged by flu, tuberculosis, polio, and other diseases; and put a lot of hands-on hours looking after their homes and families. Talk about busy.

But there’s something going on, because so many of us are constantly overwhelmed. I planned to have some handy studies to cite but the books I meant to consult, The Distraction Addiction and Time Warped were overdue before I’d gotten more than a few chapters in. (Partially the fault of more alluring library books like Someone, The Name of the WindAnd the Mountains Echoed.) And I was busy!

Since the sun’s magnetic field is about to flip, I’d be happy to blame our time hunger on a wavering magnetic sheet and extra cosmic rays but science tells us there’s not a noticeable effect.

Mostly, I’m tempted to point the finger at all those things fracturing our attention. I’m pretty sure that ample time for daydreaming and contemplation is essential to a sense of peace, no matter what’s going on in our lives.

Which gets me back to the curse word of our times, busy. I’ve decided that using it is a form of negative self-talk. So I’m not saying it anymore. It is banished from my vocabulary.

My friend Margaret is sure that our perception of time will slow down to a more manageable pace if we replace frantically busy words with words that describe a slower, more relaxed attitude. Maybe then our lives will slow down too. She suggests words like,






You may be flinging yourself from store to store to get errands done. But consider describing it to yourself as strolling through stores, pondering some purchases, relaxing in check-out lines. A time-shift may just happen.

But give that attitude shift time, lots of room-to-stretch time.

no time, slow vocabulary, slow conversation, self-talk

Vagus Overusers Anonymous


vagus nerve peace, vagus nerve calm, vagus nerve relaxation, sigh for relaxation,



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

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

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

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

Not ready to sigh just yet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Escaping Into Novels

good novels, book addict, library addict, book zombie, novel recommendations,


Books have been my escape mechanism ever since I started reading as a child. I’d load up with all the books I could carry from the library with absolute glee, launching into the first one in the backseat on our drive home. I couldn’t wait for the power of a story to overtake me.  While reading I was completely oblivious of my surroundings, caught up in another world entirely. This got me into trouble at school plenty of times. I’d read after getting an assignment done, never noticing as the class moved on to spelling or math or even lunch. That’s the down side to being what I call a book zombie.

I continue to have a pretty advanced case of library addiction and plunder the stacks on a weekly basis. Unlike my earliest years, I mostly read non-fiction. I don’t know why I’ve come to associate facts with the reading equivalent of a meal, necessary and good for me in a way that dessert is not. That doesn’t mean I don’t indulge in novels. In my reading-intensive life I usually stuff in a novel a week, plus several non-fiction books (and lots of online reading).

But this week I haven’t opened a single non-fiction book. I’m in complete escape mode—all dessert. That’s because my beloved husband has been in the hospital for some extensive spinal surgery. That first day I relied on a stack of novels to transport me away from his nearly seven hour surgery plus many more hours of waiting for him to get out of recovery. The next few days I found that, between visits, I didn’t have much gumption to get my work done. Okay, no gumption whatsoever. I kept sneaking back into novels where I lingered quite happily for hours. Thank goodness I stocked up. It’s like having a whole pantry full of goodies.

Here are a few I’ve been reading that you might enjoy.

Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan is a clever and mysterious book. It’s a quick read but not remotely fluffy. On the surface it’s about the way the love of books intersects with the might of today’s computing power. But it’s also about magic, mystery, the awesomeness of Google, and the singular meaning of real relationships.  (Five stars!)

Truth in Advertising by John Kenney is sharp and funny. It’s follows a man whose current challenge is producing a diaper commercial, whose personal life is barely perceptible, and who takes a sardonic view of anything remotely sentimental. The passages skewering corporate absurdities and fast forward trendiness are delicious. That the story ends on a sentimental note provides a perfect balance. (Five stars!)

Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt. Set in the late 1980′s, this book is told through the eyes of an adolescent girl who had a close relationship with an uncle who recently died of AIDS. A few days after his funeral she receives a strange package, an artful teapot she and her uncle always used when they got together. It was sent by a mysterious man who asks to be her friend. And so begins an unusual relationship that teaches the girl, her family, and this man more than they might have imagined about forgiveness, love, adventure, and being true to oneself. Compellingly written and insightful, this story lingers. I can’t remember loving characters as much as I loved this girl’s uncle and the man who becomes her friend.  (Five stars!)

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson is translated from the Swedish language and has sold three million copies. As the title suggests, the tale has to do with an elderly gent who runs away. His life story happens to interconnect with major political happenings around the world, Forrest Gump-style, although this main character is far less innocent especially where explosions are concerned.   It’s a bit of a history lesson, entirely beyond credulity, but nonetheless entertaining. I’m guessing a movie will be forthcoming. (Four stars)

The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons isn’t my usual read. I am allergic to most anything with “romance” as a major plot point. But I read a review noting that this is the book for Downton Abbey fans and couldn’t resist. This is meatier, in some ways, than Downton Abbey. The main character is the daughter of a wealthy, cultured Viennese family who seeks asylum in 1938. She ends up in England as a servant. Her culture shock and class shock are interesting, so is life in the remote coastal area that has a unique historic angle. (Four stars)

The Red House by Mark Haddon (author of the absolutely wonderful The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) is about family relationships, all happening within a holiday week. The style is faintly jarring, flitting from one point of view to another, sometimes in the space of two paragraphs, but it’s also full of the moments a reader waits for, those quiet but significant insights that are illuminating. (Four stars)

Maybe I’m working my way toward a more balanced reading diet. I still don’t have the slightest urge to pick up a non-fiction books, even the ones I’m supposed to be reviewing. It feels decadent and delightful, like skipping the salad and going right for the chocolate. In a few minutes I’ll be leaving to pick my husband up from the hospital. On the way I’ll be getting his prescriptions, a shower chair, and maybe, if there’s time, books I ordered that are in at the library.

Tell me what YOU are reading so I have more reasons to indulge.

Free Fix For What Troubles Us

walking cures trauma, right way to walk, walk for inspiration, body-based trauma recovery, trauma recovery, depression recovery,


Most of my adult life I’ve taken a daily walk. A lot of those walks took place while pushing a stroller or hurrying behind tricycles. Now I walk while holding the leashes of three dogs on a rural road where vehicles are rare (when they pass they do so at high dog-frightening speeds). I try to use walks as a way of decompressing while paying attention to the moment I’m in rather than mulling over my current worries.

Apparently I could be getting much more from my walks. So could you.

I learned this in a roundabout way. I’ve been reading a lot the last few years about how we humans process trauma. What we perceive as traumatic can be any experience of fear or pain in which we feel helpless. This happens more often than we might imagine, particular in our earliest years. Consider being held down for a medical procedure as a small child. People loom over us, their words barely understood because we’re afraid or hurting, and we’re completely vulnerable. Trauma can be entirely emotional in nature too— sudden job loss or betrayal by a loved one or any of life’s common cruelties.

Normally, the support of people who care about us helps to ease trauma we’ve experienced, particularly if we’re free to exhibit shakiness and sighing along with other necessary bodily reactions. Plus, truly restful sleep helps to cool the heat of most traumas. As we enter the REM state of sleep, when our eyes zip back and forth under our eyelids, we’re processing stressors while refreshing ourselves for the upcoming day. (Even the happiest people have more negative than positive dreams, indicating that the dream state is a natural time to work through stressors.) Those who suffer from depression or PTSD often have disrupted sleep, leaving them with a build-up a unrelieved stress and trauma.

Talk therapy for trauma is important, yet research shows us that it’s not all in our heads. Trauma lodges in our subconscious and our bodies as well. That’s why innovative therapies such as Somatic ExperiencingEFT, and EMDR are so helpful.

As biologist Robert Sapolsky pointed out in Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers , despite constant vigilance, zebras still witness members of their herd, at times their own young, being torn apart and eaten by predators. Although animals are regularly exposed to such traumatic events, they don’t suffer from the health effects of chronic stress as humans do.   Are humans weaker? Hardly. We’re as self-healing as any other creature. Nature’s wisdom allows us to recover quite nicely from illness and injury. Nearly every generation of our ancestors have overcome hunger, disease, accidents, and yes, psychological trauma too. Chances are in the hunter-gatherer era, which made up 99 percent of human history, people could count on rituals to ease psychological trauma after getting through a famine, an attack, or an accident. Those rituals often involved dancing and drumming. And that’s where I get back to walking, because I discovered the mention of drumming and dancing as trauma-recovery methods in a book with an unfortunately self-help-y title, Walking Your Blues Away by Thom Hartmann.

Hartmann points out that such rituals are bilateral activities. So are many of the body-based trauma healing methods I mentioned. These methods all use bilateral movement while evoking what distresses us, dissipating the strong “charge” associated with trauma throughout the mind/body. Hartmann explains that bilateral movement (even of the eyes) is a fundamental and elegant mechanism for healing trauma.

In its simplest form, this mechanism involves rhythmic side-to-side stimulation of the body. This side-to-side motion, or bilateral movement, causes nerve impulses to cross the brain from the left hemisphere to the right hemisphere and back at a specific rate or frequency. This cross-patterning produces an organic integration of left-hemisphere “thinking” function with right-hemisphere  and brain-stem “feeling” functions. This integration is a necessary precursor to emotional and intellectual healing from trauma.

Hartman says that the rhythmic left-right-left-right of walking, paired with a visual/mental process, also stimulates this internal integration. Which makes sense. Because until relatively recently in the long span of history people spent a lot of time walking. Walking away from the hunt, the battle, or any misery helped our ancestors process trauma. Even long after mankind began using the wheel, people walked a good distance every day. Walking is just one of the many ways that a more active, collaborative way of life once entirely natural to our kind helped us to operate with both hemispheres of the brain fully engaged without significant hemispheric dominance. (Check out The Whole-Brain Path to Peace for more on this.)

Hartmann writes about a way of walking that helps to release emotional charge, even reawakens motivation and inspiration. It relies on simply walking with your arms freely moving as your legs stride forward. Not talking, window shopping, listening to music through earbuds, or walking with arms restricted (by strollers, leashes, carried items). Here’s the general method.

1. Define an issue that troubles you, even something small. If there’s no issue, then select an optimal future state for yourself and visualize it.

2. While walking, bring up the story around your issue and frame it in a few words or sentences. Notice the strength of your emotions around that story. Give it a number on a scale of 0 (don’t care) to 100 (extremely intense).  If instead you are taking an optimal future sort of walk, while holding your visualization also remember times in the past when you accomplished or felt something similar. Allow the emotional state of those positive memories to suffuse the hoped-for future state.

3. While walking, gently keep your attention on the issue or visualization/memories you’ve chosen. Walk at a relaxed speed, for about a half hour.

4. Notice how the issue changes. The charge around it may begin to fade, the memory remaining but in perspective. Let the process continue until you notice a shift in feeling. Retell the story to yourself, and again rate your emotions on a scale of 0 to 100. (For the story to become more useful and less painful, several walks may be required.) Whether taking an issue walk or optimal future state walk, allow yourself to feel the positive changes you’re incorporating. Stand up straighter, breathe deeply, experience the pleasure of your stride.

5. Anchor this new state by observing the new internal story and new feelings. Think of ways your new perspective is helpful to you, perhaps even framing how you might tell the story or see the future differently. You may want to create a gesture, word, or sound to anchor it further as you finish your walk. You may also want to talk to someone about it, or sketch, write a journal entry, or in other ways help yourself more firmly hold this expanded awareness.

Walking for our own peace of mind and to create new inspiration sounds wonderful. I may not be ready to give up walking with my dogs, but I’ll be out there swinging my leash-holding arms while envisioning a world of greater hemispheric balance.  What does walking or other body-based practice do for you?


Walking Your Blues Away: How to Heal the Mind and Create Emotional Well-Being by Thom Hartmann

Any books by Peter Levine. The first one I read, In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodnesswasn’t aimed at the layperson but I was still captivated by its brilliance.

Somatics: Reawakening The Mind’s Control Of Movement, Flexibility, And Health by Thomas Hanna (his discussion of red light, green light response is illuminating) and the organization Somatic Experiencing

Focusing by Eugene Gendlin and The Focusing Institute

The EFT Manual by Gary Craig as well as the EFT organization 

Getting Past Your Past: Take Control of Your Life with Self-Help Techniques from EMDR Therapy by Francine Shapiro as well as EMDR Institute

Scared Sick: The Role of Childhood Trauma in Adult Disease by Robin Karr-Morse

Hope For Humanity: How understanding and healing trauma could solve the planetary crisis by Malcolm Hollick