A Free Guide to Being Human

fun expert, make life fun, fun at work,

This volume should really be titled A Guide to Being Human. I recommend you read only a page or two at a time. Let it sink in. Apply it. Revel in it.

It’s authored by game designer and deep fun theorist Bernie DeKoven. I got the chance to interview Bernie last year and immediately found myself wishing he were my next door neighbor. (I still do.) For 40-something years Bernie has been promoting playfulness. He was instrumental in the New Games movement and a pioneer in computer game design. He’s developed games for the likes of Lego, Ideal Toy Company, Mattel Toys, and Children’s Television Workshop. He’s collected little-known games, created new ones, researched the value of fun, and organized all sorts of play events.

The book is actually titled A Playful Path and it’s jam-packed with awesomeness. It’s made up of tools and ideas to inspire the possibility-building, wide-open glory of playfulness. DeKoven writes,

Fun is at the heart of things—of things like family, marriage, happiness, peace, community, health; things like science and art, math and literature; like thinking and imagining, inventing and pretending.

Sure, the playful path can enhance relationships, advance careers, and  promote health. It can also help us deepen into who we truly are, beyond the limits of rules and score-keeping. As DeKoven calls it, becoming “embiggened.”

For adults, following a playful path is a practice, something you put into practice, and then practice some more. When you were a kid, it wasn’t a practice. It was what you did, always. You had to be reminded not to be playful. And you were. O, yes, you were. But now that you have become what you, as a kid, called “an adult,” you find that play is something you have to remind yourself to do, playful is something you have to allow yourself to be.

And once you again take up that playful path you knew so well, you discover that it’s different, you’re different. You can play much more deeply than you could before. You are stronger, you understand more, you have more power, better toys. You discover that you, as a playful being, can choose a different way of being. A way of being as large as life. A way of being you, infinitely.

Written in short one to two page segments, A Playful Path is perfect to read on an as-needed basis, sort of an antidote to all the not-fun that drags us down.  A Playful Path is an entertaining book. It’s also wise, true, and entirely useful. Just like play. Get your copy in paperback or as a free e-book.

For more Bernie in your life you can keep up with him on G+ and Facebook, stay current with his blog. and read MIT Press’ re-release of his groundbreaking book, The Well-Played Game: A Player’s Philosophy. Oh, and be sure to bookmark his collection of games!

Bernie DeKoven, A Playful Path,

Play is how we have learned to learn. Instructions? We don’t need no stinkin’ instructions.  Bernie DeKoven

It’s About Reading For Pleasure

One week during the summer I was twelve, I had a crisis.

I ran out of library books.

Sure I rode my bike, went swimming with friends, and listened to music trying to figure out what the lyrics meant but I also indulged in hours of reading every day. Books transported me. My mother would call me to dinner and I’d look up, astonished to find I wasn’t a wolf on the tundra but a girl in shorts lying on the carpet. Or someone would knock on the bathroom door and I’d remember that I was soaking in the tub, not eluding soldiers in a medieval battle.

My parents supported reading, but they had no problem saying “get your nose out of that book and go outside.” They didn’t take us to the library more than two or three times a month, so the stack of books each of us brought home had to last.

When I realized I was bookless, I turned in desperation to a volume my older sister read as a class requirement. It had tiny print and a not-too-inspiring title, The Scarlet Letter. “It’s too hard,” she told me. “It’s a classic.”

I didn’t know “classic” meant it was good for me, like a bitter vitamin tablet. I insisted I was out of other options.

I promptly fell into Nathaniel Hawthorne’s words. They were exquisite in a way I’d never experienced, centered on the inner life and all its convolutions, something I already knew well but didn’t have the sophistication to express. I wasn’t aware such books existed. Instead of racing through it, as I did with every other book, I savored it. It felt as if I could run my fingers over the page and feel the texture of shame and longing. When I finished I was newly in love with the idea of classics, so I got books by Charles Dickens out of the library. I worked my way through two of them that summer although they didn’t live up to my great expectations. I thought Dickens droned and was nothing like Hawthorne.

Several years later I had to read The Scarlet Letter for English class. Everyone grumbled when assigned more pages to read. Those piercing insights, when listed in bullet points on the board, didn’t sink into my heart. Lectures and assignments obscured the book’s beauty. I didn’t read it with a cloak thrown over my head or the prick of a rose thorn in my skin. It lay dead, like a victim on the autopsy table.

Then I realized that my love of books had developed entirely outside of the classroom. I’d never really fallen in love with any of the books assigned in school, although the ones our teachers read aloud after recess, a few pages a day or an entire chapter on special days, still stood out in my mind. Reading, for me, was about pleasure. It was more than a habit, it was an integral part of my being. The books I read helped form my outlook and character. I dare say that many of us, if we look back, will find that favorite books from childhood have a surprising link to who we are today.

If I could, I’d reclaim reading for all of us, from earliest childhood on, as pleasure first and foremost. Turning to the written word for information and edification then becomes a pleasure too.

My New Book is Out!

Tending rises from my life on the farm and my fascination with the world at large. Informed by quietly ordinary days, these poems look into the nature of things with questions that circle the stars. I’m thrilled that the cover photo is by talented artist (and my sister) Cynthia Piper.

 

“Laura Grace Weldon employs radical empathy to enter into the hidden lives of rutabaga, cows, the neighborhood bully, and the beating heart of life itself.  Playful, curious, sensual, she aims to open the reader’s eyes and heart.”

Alison Luterman, author of See How We Almost Fly  and The Largest Possible Life.

 

“Laura Grace Weldon’s poems remind us that our world’s necessary brushes between nature and technology, human and animal, are not necessarily ones of friction. Instead, Weldon sees these moments as truly wondrous ones, available to us not only on the farm, but also in the back pocket of a window washer, swinging among the skyscrapers.”

Brad Ricca, author of American Mastodon and Super Boys.

 

“Memory, faith, and the natural world as both witness to the cycle of human life and healer to a questioning heart are at the core of this lovely and lyrical collection of poems. The weather changes, people come and go from cities and towns, babies are born, grow up and depart from their parents’ arms, but still, the countryside and its rituals sustain the people and creatures who know how to read the signs of the seasons. In these pages, Laura Grace Weldon shares those signs with us; her poems are the fruit of a wonderful harvest.”

Eleanor Lerman, author of The Sensual World Re-emerges: Poems and Mystery of Meteors.

 

“Laura Grace Weldon’s poems are concrete, allusive, and rich.”

 Diane Kendig, author of The Places We Find Ourselves.

 

“These are calming poems, set deep in the specifics of this life.”

David Budbill, author of Moment to Moment: Poems of a Mountain Recluse
and Happy Life.

 

Published by Aldrich Press. Order HERE.

(My friend Penny, from Dubai, suggests I share a sample. Here’s a poem from the first section, one no journal accepted although there are so few odes to root vegetables…)

Rutabaga

You darken as my knife slices

blushing at what you become.

I save your thick leaves

and purple skin

to feed the cows. 

 

A peasant guest at any meal

you agree to hide in fragrant stew

or gleam nakedly

in butter and chives.

 

Though your seeds are tiny

you grow with fierce will

grateful for poor soil and dry days,

heave up from the ground

under sheltering stalks

to sweeten with the frost.

 

Tonight we take you into our bodies

as if we do you a favor—

letting your molecules

become a higher being,

one that knows music and art.

 

But you share with us

what makes you a rutabaga.

Through you we eat sunlight,

taste the soil’s clamoring mysteries,

gain your seed’s perfect might. 

Laura Grace Weldon 

peace in tragedy, energy fingerprint, what we leave behind, act in crisis,

Image:andrewpoison.deviantart.com

10 Reasons To Become A Library Addict

library addiction, book zombie, build a library habit,

Image: CC by 2.0 ricardo266)

My name is Laura. I have a chronic library habit.

Sure, I have other, less socially acceptable habits. We can talk about those another day. Right now I’m trying to convince you to become a fellow library fanatic.

I’ve already been successful with my kids. The stacks of books my family brings home may be pushing up the state average. Now that my kids are older they are surprised most of their peers don’t bother with libraries, in person or online. And I’m surprised to see how many of my friends don’t use libraries either. Some haven’t been since high school. For those of you who don’t bliss out over libraries, or worse, dismiss libraries as dim places with a distinctive old book smell, here are the ten best reasons to get hooked on libraries.

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1. Magic water.

magic water, As a small child I was convinced there was something magical about drinking fountain water at our local library. It tasted better than water anywhere else. I wondered if it had to do with enviable proximity to all those books.

When I had kids I  rhapsodized about the water at libraries. And they’ve always been able to taste the difference. Even though I realize there’s no factual basis for this belief, library water still seems more deeply refreshing than ordinary water. Try it and see for yourself.

 

2. Awe.

library addict, library love, A much more vital magic is evident in libraries around the world.

It has to do with a sense of history, of freely shared knowledge, and awe-inspiring architecture. When traveling I make sure to hang out in libraries. Most recently I found time to soak up the atmosphere of one of NYC’s awesome libraries.

*

3. Librarians.

love librarians, librarian stereotypes,

ala.org

Surely you celebrate the annual Hug Your Librarian Day. These folks are amazing. As  Erica Firment writes on Librarian Avengers,

People become librarians because they know too much. Their knowledge extends beyond mere categories. They cannot be confined to disciplines. Librarians are all-knowing and all-seeing. They bring order to chaos. They bring wisdom and culture to the masses. They preserve every aspect of human knowledge. Librarians rule. And they will kick the crap out of anyone who says otherwise.

Librarian stereotypes aren’t relevant or cute. Don’t believe me? Check out The Bellydancing LibrarianThe Steampunk Librarian, and Miss Information. Still think of them as chronic shsser’s? Then read Your Librarian Hates You.

*

4. Library materials are free!

new library services, Our taxes pay for them whether you use them or not. Only suckers don’t get in there to scoop up books, magazines, movies, digital downloads, recorded books, electronic readers, programs, classes, performances, and more. My kids and I have strolled out after a library visit with well over 100 items checked out on a card or two.

Today’s libraries offer much more than well worn books and a chaotic Story Hour. Click over to your library’s website. You’ll find an amazing array of offerings well beyond the newest bestsellers. There are probably programs to get you started in fencing or felting or fraternizing with fellow foodies, just this week alone.

*

5. Ordering.

order library materials, library request, OMG, I love ordering materials. In my area library systems are linked, so holdings can be sent from libraries in quite a few counties right to my own little branch. I can read a review of a book before it’s released, then go to the library site to pre-order it. I can order special book group offerings for our book group (up to 20 of the same book) that come organized by some saintly librarian with supplemental materials. I order obscure specialty books that were published back in the 1920’s and earlier.

We’ve homeschooled on the cheap thanks to our library system and the wonders of ordering materials. No way could I afford to expose my kids to the depth of information and range of experiences they’ve gained via libraries.

*

6. Online renewal.

library perks, I don’t know about your library system, but mine permits renewals up to five times. Online. That gives me several months to adore most materials. Those months are necessary. I use books in my work, take them with me lest I have a dull moment, and leave them around for my family members to pick up when their eyeballs are unoccupied.

Sometimes I find books so precious that when they are finally and irrevocably due I end up buying a copy. But let me point out, I only buy books after proving their worth to myself. No regrettable book purchases here. Yay savings.

*

7. Library privileges.

I’ve been in a steady human relationship for a loooong time, but I’m a non-monogamous library user. Judging by the number of library cards in my name, I’m a pushover for the sweet allure of any library’s New Acquisitions section.

It’s hard to unearn library privileges. Late fees are usually minimal and in many systems there are no late fees for seniors, teachers, and homeschoolers. Even when my account is labeled “delinquent” due to a late book or two I’m still able to check out and reserve materials. I don’t mind a few dollars here and there to make up for my late return crimes. Totally worth it. Unlike most human relationships, my library is always buying me something new, forgiving me when I atone, and consistently planning unexpected ways to lure me.

*

8. Research databases.

library search functions,Library systems subscribe to pricey online database services that none of us could afford on our own. I access most of them from my home computer, simply logging in with my library card number. These databases include genealogy, academic research, news archives, digital images, health, and much more. I relied almost entirely on the resources of my award-winning Medina County Library for the research necessary to write my book.

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9. Book Zombie Fuel

book diet, reading addict,

sundaykofax via Flickr, CC by 2.0

A wealth of materials is essential for those of us who are Book Zombies. We absolutely must gorge on fresh brains books, feeding an insatiable hunger for that oblivious-to-the-world swoon we call reading. We don’t hear or see what’s happening in our “real” lives when lost in a book.

Libraries feed that hunger, gladly buying books for us and storing them until we’re ready for more.

*

10. That smell.

foreign language library, Children of Chernobyl, Libraries don’t smell like someone’s musty basement. The odor is something entirely different. I’ll tell you what it reminds me of, right after I tell you about how much I appreciate Russian language library materials.

For five summers we hosted a little girl from Belarus  through the Children of Chernobyl project. And every summer before she arrived I called the librarian in charge of the foreign language collection at the Cleveland Public Library. We talked over Tatiana’s age and interests, then every few weeks through her three month stay this librarian sent to our rural library branch a wonderful selection of Russian materials including Harry Potter books, children’s magazines, recorded children’s books, popular music, and much more. When my kids curled up with books or went to bed listening to CD’s, Tanya was able to do so as well. I hoped it eased the hunger she must have felt to hear her own language. Beyond that, it built connections between us almost immediately.

The first day she arrived, exhausted from long flights and weak from some medical problems, there was no way we could really communicate. It became obvious that our efforts to learn Russian had been laughable and as a seven-year-old her grasp of English was limited to “yes” and “thank you.” Then I remembered those blessed library materials. In a few minutes all of us were dancing to the Russian version of “Hokey Pokey” and laughing before collapsing in a heap on the couch together to giggle as we paged through a Russian/English picture book, challenging each other to pronounce the words. That stack of Russian library materials smelled, more than anything, like home. To me, every library smells like my place. Bet they smell like your place too.

Build Community Using Bookish Goodwill

sharing economy, free books, little libraries,

You can’t have too much of a good thing, unless you’re averse to bliss. One of life’s Very Good Things, in my book (pun!) is the library. There’s a movement afoot to augment our public libraries with other ways of spreading bookish goodwill. This doesn’t just get books into more hands, it actually builds positive networks between people and strengthens our communities.

Roaming Libraries

One unique venture is BookCrossings.  Started in 2001, it’s a read and release method of sharing books. Once you’ve read and enjoyed a book, simply go online to print out a label, then leave your book in a public place like a coffee shop, hair salon, playground, or doctor’s office. The label assures others the book is free to anyone interested. The label also contains a code so readers can track and follow books as they are read, discussed, and released again elsewhere in the world. Currently over 8 million books are traveling through 132 countries.

Handmade Book Libraries

In the art world, hand crafted books of all kinds have long traveled on round robin circuits allowing artists to collaborate in making and appreciating these unique creations.

Handmade books are also released in limited runs to appreciative readers who share the works through lending programs such as the Underground Library in Brooklyn. Here experimental literature is bound using labor intensive traditional methods, then distributed to members who pass the book along to a dozen other people before it’s returned to the library.

Banned Book Libraries

Surely people have been sharing what authorities don’t want them to know long before information was stored on papyrus scrolls. Remember the parochial school student who stocked her locker with banned books, using a check out system and due dates to keep track? This may be an urban myth but we know full well when reading material is banned it attracts even more dedicated readers.

This is true even when real danger is involved. As Azar Nafisi described in her memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, after Ayatollah Khomeini banned Western influences she gathered students in her home to read and discuss books, some photocopied page by page, despite the risk.

Micro Libraries

Tiny libraries are appearing in all sorts of places. For example in San Jose four new libraries don’t have funding to hire staff.  Instead, volunteers run a Friends of the Library book lending program out of a small room in a community center.

In San Francisco, a few shelves in the Viracocha antique store have become a tiny library called Ourshelves which is “curated by local authors and readers eager to share their favorite works with fellow book lovers.”

Free-standing libraries, called Corner Libraries are popping up in NYC. These tiny buildings evade zoning requirements by remaining on hand trucks, usually chained to a stationery object. One is a four foot tall clapboard structure offering books, maps, even a CD featuring baby photos of world dictators. Another Corner Library, named the East Harlem Seed & Recipe Library, looks like a planter but has a drawer with seed packets and recipe cards.

Stranger Exchange boxes are also appearing, asking people to take or leave items of interest. In Boston the first such library, a repurposed newspaper box, has featured such items as CD mixes, hand drawn maps, batteries, party invitations, and artwork.

These free-standing libraries have a precedent in the UK, where a phone booth was turned into a 24 hour library,recently followed by a phone booth library in New York.

And a non-profit called Little Free Library aims to establish thousands of new libraries (no bigger than large bird feeders) all over the world.  It has inspired people everywhere, like 82-year-old Bob Cheshier, whose goal was to get little libraries outside of all 71 elementary schools in the Cleveland district. Teachers and kids loved him. He died recently, only partway to that goal, but the community is carrying on his vision.

The process is simple.

  • Figure out where you’d like to place a Little Free Library. A community garden, bike path, civic center, or your front yard?
  • Determine who will be the steward of the Little Free Library.
  • Decide if you’ll build it or order it pre-made to decorate as you choose. You may choose to endow it for someone else (tax deductible) or set it up to honor a certain person, place, or organization.
  • Build support. You may want to find business or civic sponsorship, host a design contest, and in other ways spread the word about your Little Free Library.
  • Contact Little Free Library to register your library on the map, get updates, and more
  • Enjoy. Encourage people to visit, keep it stocked, and watch how sharing affects your neighborhood.

I hope traditional libraries as we know and love them will always exist. They are vital, vibrant institutions ready to be an important part of every person’s life.

But these smaller exchanges actually enlarge our potential. They foster connections between us each time we share, lend, and collaborate. They’re another way of making our communities work.

More Community-Building Inspiration

Engage the Window Box Effect

Bring Kids Back to the Commons

Front Porch Forum

i-Neighbors

Better Together: Restoring the American Community

The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods

All That We Share

community building through books, neighbor to neighbor, micro library, book sharing, birdhouse library,

Celebrate Hug Your Librarian Day

librarians, celebrate books, Hug Your Librarian day, book crafts, library crafts,

movin.deviantart.com

March 1st may or may not be International Hug a Librarian Day. There’s some confusion online but librarians are too busy to keep up with fan clubs anyway. They don’t just find information, they also review, organize, assess, explain, figure out, calm small children, put up displays, run programs, read aloud, expand collections, apply laser-like focus to advance other people’s knowledge, and much more. Why limit librarian love to one day?

I have a chronic library habit myself. There are at least ten reasons to adore libraries and the professionals who make these places adoration-worthy,  so we probably need a more than just a Hug A Librarian Day. Perhaps a commemorative week or month. I’m thinking year round.

Here are some ways to celebrate.

Vote yes for library levies.

Surprise your favorite librarian with a hand-written thank you note.

Start or join a book club. Many libraries offer meeting space, some offer book club collections of the same book bundled with discussion questions.

Savor quotes from your favorite books by copying them onto a plate or mughand printing them on a scarf, or writing them on a shirt using a bleach pen.

Read This Book Is Overdue!: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All.

Bring flowers, good coffee beans, homemade cookies, or a tray of fresh fruit for your librarians to enjoy.

Join your branch’s “friends of the library” organization.

Blast away any librarian stereotypes you harbor by taking a peek at some librarian blogs like Miss Information, Librarian Avengers, The Lipstick Librarian, The Laughing Librarian, The Society for Librarians Who Say MF, and Your Librarian Hates You.

Read Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian.

Check out books that have been challenged or banned.

Start your own tiny library to benefit others.

Surprise your favorite librarian with a certificate for locally owned store, restaurant, or theater performance.

Keep an eye out for librarian characters (and inevitable stereotypes) in movies. Try these:

  • Goodbye, Columbus
  • Stephen King’s It
  • The Name of the Rose
  • The Mummy
  • Maxie
  • Kit Kittredge: An American Girl (kids) 
  • The Pagemaster (kids) 

Attend library programs and give positive reviews afterwards.

Shape snacks that look like books out of fruit leather, honey, and chocolate.

Or heck, volunteer to help your library run an Edible Book Festival.  Check out images from the Seattle festival and an international festival.

Organize your own book collection into a lending library using book pockets and library cards, perhaps putting your stamp on each volume with a custom book embosser. Or use an all-in-one library kit. This is particularly fun for kids.

Do everything in your power to keep your library system well-funded, lest they be forced to accept advertising dollars to stay open.

Make easy felt book covers , a more complex quilted composition book cover, or even try bookbinding.

Consider the possibility that you’re a Book Zombie.

When traveling, make a point of visiting libraries. For incentive, check out images of inspiring church libraries and public libraries.

Avoid saying the following to your librarian:

  • Must be nice to sit around reading all day.
  • You’re supposed to find me a job on the Internet, right? 
  • Do you volunteer here? 
  • I haven’t stepped in a library since ______.  
  • I hear that you will fill out my tax return.
  • Libraries just aren’t the same without card catalogs. 
  • Have you read all the books here? 

Read librarian-centered books to kids such as Librarian on the Roof! A True StoryThe Boy Who Was Raised by Librarians, and The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq.    

And if you know your librarian well enough, offer a hug.

Do Childhood Books Shape Us?

story and character formation, selfhood and book, self-image and books, girls and books,

Building a self. (andycarter’s flickr photostream)

Children’s inner lives may not seem all that complicated. But they are, even if kids aren’t fully aware of the complexities they’re dealing with until they’re much older. That’s one reason it’s hard for them to talk with their parents about ways they are gaining strength, inspiration, and a sense of self.

Their favorite books offer a clue.

Children are drawn to stories that resonate with the same challenges they’re facing. Authors know kids seek out tales that present certain compelling themes. Speaking one’s truth, overcoming adversity, enduring tragedy, relying on wit or cleverness, making a sacrifice, establishing one’s own values, finding a kindred spirit, gaining new powers or knowledge—this is the stuff that translates into purposeful meaning for the young reader.

To understand what kids are going through as they grow up, it helps to look back at the pivotal books that made a difference during our own formative years.

As I look back I realize two books I read over and over still echo in my life today. One of my favorites was Johanna Spyri’s Heidi. It’s the story of a little girl who is taken to live in the mountains with her grumpy but kind grandfather. She loves to spend her days outdoors on the hillsides, playing with the goats, talking to Peter the goatherd and his blind grandmother, and eating simple wholesome foods like cheese made from goat’s milk. When Heidi is taken away to live in the city, a companion to her sickly cousin Clara, she’s deeply homesick. Although she happily learns to read, hoping she can go home to read to the blind grandmother, each day away from her beloved mountains haunts her. She convinces her uncle to let Clara come back with her for a summer visit. There they spend days outdoors, playing with the goats, eating her grandfather’s hearty food, and laughing. Her cousin recovers her health and Heidi is free to stay in the place she loves.

My other favorite book was so pivotal I’ve called it the book that saved me.  The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett is about a lonely girl named Mary who lives on the moors of England. She befriends a boy, Dickon, who can speak to animals. She also insists on becoming acquainted with an invalid named Colin. Mary doesn’t want dolls or toys. She wants the joy of helping a hidden garden come alive. She wants to remain free of lessons so she can learn Dickon’s wisdom. She wants to understand the mystery that makes flowers grow, helping Colin find that strength in himself.

Both books are about a certain kind of justice, one that permits self-determination and self-definition. Both are about the value of staying rooted and feeling nourished by a sense of place. Both are about the restorative power of nature. I feel those elements in my life strongly. Yet I see even more of these books in my choices. My children have grown up without schooling, as Heidi and Mary did. I make cheese from our cow’s milk, insist on wholesome food, and speak to all the animals on our little farm (though I’m still waiting for birds to alight on my arm as they did on Dickon’s). I have Heidi’s passion for reading and Mary’s passion for watching things grow. And I hope I have what both characters had in abundance, the determination to speak up for what they believed was right.

What books made you who you are today?

Did you share any of that book-related inner growth with the adults in your life?

And does looking back at these influences give you a glimpse of your own child’s complex emerging selfhood?

Book Zombie

zone out while reading, reading addict, can't stop reading, staying up late to read, tune out the world when reading,

L.G. Weldon, book zombie

book [book]  noun
1. a work of fiction or nonfiction bound within covers or digital version
zom·bie  [zom-bee] noun
1. a person whose behavior or responses are wooden, inanimate, remote
 2. an eccentric or peculiar person.


I stayed up past two a.m. last night happily churning through a book. Reading seems timeless to me, a book-related fugue state that got me in trouble in elementary school.  Many days the class moved on from reading time to math while I remained completely absorbed in a book. I’d look up to find I’d been called on to answer an equation. My brain would scramble to move from The Wolves of Willoughby Chase’s18th century manor house to third grade long division, the plight of children dealing with villians more real than dreary numbers chalked on the board.

This still causes me trouble. I have no idea how many minutes or hours have elapsed when I finally lift my eyes from the page. That’s not helpful. At night I tuck into an enticing stack of books, often enjoying non-fiction for a few hours and then finishing up with a long indulgent dessert of fiction. The evening me doesn’t care about the morning me, she unpages chapter after chapter oblivious of the clock’s reality. But no matter how late she stays up reading there’s still an early start. When the morning me looks at the stack of books she isn’t bitter. She may sigh, but she also looks forward to reading some more.

When my kids were tiny I only let myself read when they were asleep or nursing. Okay, I also read while they were safely strapped in the stroller, pushing it with a book propped against the handle. I hoped this would keep them safe from their mother’s zombie reading state. It didn’t. Now they’re zombies when they read. Or maybe they pretend to be, the better to filter out reminding parental voices.

I can’t recall a fraction of all the marvelous books, essays, poems, and articles I’ve read over the years. But I’m convinced that they’re in there, ready to provide a bit of insight or wisdom I might call on when the need arises. They are a part of who I am as surely as the experiences that make up my life.

Yes, today I feel pretty zombified with only a few hours of sleep due to the magical novel, The Night Circus. But if my schedule allowed I wouldn’t wait until this evening to finish it.

Perhaps because I’m tired, it occurs to me that books lure us into this zombification. Think about it. Close scrutiny of readers reveals that we willingly zone out, only our eyes moving in oddly repetitive back and forth motions. While reading we are out of our own minds, happily roaming through the imaginings of someone else’s. Perhaps our beloved books build brains to feed on them. If that were true I’d say, “Nosh away my dear books. Make a buffet of my mind. I am your happy zombie.”

Are you a fellow book zombie? If so, what are you reading lately? And if not, does something else cause you to zombie-out?

How The Secret Garden Saved Me

inner life of children, kids' religious worries, what kids hide from their parents,

My mother gave me an old clothbound book when I was nine years old.  It was her childhood copy of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.  I felt a sudden tug of connection to the little girl my mother once was, especially when I found her name carefully penciled on the inside cover.  Right away, I signed my name under hers.

Although written in 1911 and clotted with Yorkshire dialect, that book became an essential nutrient to me.  It told the story of orphaned Mary Lennox who was sent to live with her silent brooding uncle on the English moor. Little Mary had no lessons imposed on her and was given the opportunity to explore.  I envied her freedom.  A character named Dickon befriended animals so easily that they gathered at his feet and ate from his hand. I, too, liked to go in the forest behind our house in hopes that woodland creatures there would come to accept me.  And I understood Mary’s response when her uncle inquired if she wanted anything. He suggested toys or dolls.  Instead she asked, “Might I have a bit of earth?”

More than my favorite book, The Secret Garden provided comfort at a time when I could find no other solace.  The year I received my mother’s copy was also the year that one after another of my grandparents succumbed to long, painful illnesses. By the time I turned ten, all my grandparents had died.

I’d watched them struggle for each breath but it hadn’t occurred to me that they wouldn’t get better. That’s what doctors and medicine were for. That’s what prayer was for. Now we would never have Sunday dinner together again. The seasons would come and go without canning applesauce or planting bulbs or going to the lake with my grandparents as we always did. I couldn’t stop thinking about death.

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Other children probably weather grief with more resilience but that year was a dividing line for me. The blithe happiness of my childhood came to a halt. I couldn’t bear the idea that everyone I loved would die some day—my pet rabbits, my friends, and worst of all, my parents. My mother assured me that God simply called people home to heaven when it was their time. I kept asking why, if God were all-powerful, would He allow people like my grandparents to suffer so horribly before they died. She said His wisdom was beyond our understanding. Her answers left me with more and more questions. I could see asking them only intensified the sorrow she felt. So I tried to keep my worries to myself.

Now added to my fear of this unknown thing called death a new bleakness was added. Where I once prayed and worshipped without doubts, I was set adrift somewhere beyond my parents’ beliefs. Religion seemed piteously small when confronted with bigger dilemmas. And more of them occurred to me each day. What was the purpose of existence in a universe of unimaginably vast time and space? How did everything start when it had to come from somewhere? How did our tiny lives matter? I didn’t like the thought that adults believed in something that made no sense. I felt I was standing in a blizzard outside the warmth of answers that faith provided. It was lonely.

I tried to reconstruct my comfortably safe worldview with the tools I’d been taught were the most powerful: good behavior and prayer. I knew I wasn’t really the good girl I seemed to be. I was a picky eater, I argued with my sister, and I was lazy about chores. So I tried hard to be better, to be so worthy that no one else I loved would be taken away. The effort was a useful distraction from my preoccupation with big questions about death, meaninglessness, and infinity.

And I prayed, fiercely and in my own way, using pictures in my head and silent words. It was a gamble because I was no longer sure that God existed or if He did how on the job He was, but I had to do my best to keep my family alive. Here’s how my keep-them-alive game worked. If I thought of people I loved I had to pray for them. This was somewhat less burdensome at school because I was busy. It was overwhelming when my parents went out for the evening. I thought of my mother and father constantly, each time silently praying that they would come home safely. I summoned up images of my parents driving, chatting with their friends, driving home, then walking in the door. My whole body could feel the relief of their imaginary return. But as the evening wore on my prayers got more fervent and I took up a position watching cars go down the street. Their return was always later than I expected, probably because I was constantly willing them home. As soon as their car pulled in the driveway I ran to bed, feeling a sense of blessed completeness I couldn’t explain. They were back. Everything was okay.

It was exhausting.

importance of stories to girls, what books mean to kids,

I couldn’t imagine how but my parents weren’t fooled by the cheery act I put on. My mother told me that sometimes people need more help getting over their grief. She made an appointment for me to see a psychotherapist. I knew full well what this meant. I’d read my share of children’s books where unfortunate characters are locked up in institutions or sent away for their own good. It rarely went well for them. I was determined to act as un-crazy as possible. The day of my first appointment my mother made me wear a summer dress, sweater, and saddle shoes—the clunkiest fashion statement imaginable even to my ten-year-old sensibilities.

My mother usually stayed with me in the pediatrician’s office so I expected the same. Instead I was ushered in to see the doctor by myself. An older lady sat behind a large desk. She asked me to sit facing her in a chair much too large for me. I sat, my throat clenched with so much tension that it was hard to swallow. She asked me how I felt about coming in. I knew it wasn’t polite to admit my true feelings. Kids constantly have to filter what they do and say to please adults. So even though I feared and despised everything about the appointment I told her I was fine and didn’t need to be there and I was perfectly happy except for the embarrassing outfit I was wearing. I said it nicely. In fact I thought my comment about the outfit was a light-hearted joke. The doctor turned it into the topic of a lengthy question and answer session. She seemed to think I hated my mother for making me wear clothes I didn’t like. I couldn’t imagine that she’d had a mother recently or she would know that mothers make you do all sorts of things you don’t want to do. Eat all your dinner, clean your room, write thank you notes, well the list was endless. Frankly a dorky outfit was the least of it. Clearly I would have to filter what I said even more carefully.

Next she got out a series of large black and white photographs. She said it was a fun kind of test. I always got good grades on tests at school but the rules were pretty flimsy for this one. All I had to do was look at the pictures and tell her a story about what was happening. That included what happened right before the picture was taken and what would happen immediately afterwards. The first picture showed a dark-haired woman walking by herself on a beach. She didn’t look all that happy.Right behind her was a man with his arms reaching up in such a way that he seemed ready to choke her. The look on his face was creepy as well as dangerous. But I put the lightest tone possible in my voice and told the doctor that it was the woman’s birthday and she didn’t know her friend had come to surprise her. He was going to put his hands over her eyes and ask her to guess who and she’d be delighted. Nearly every picture was equally disturbing. I churned through them with Pollyanna-ish stories in my attempt to demonstrate just how mentally healthy I could be.

Next she brought up my grandparents’ deaths. The questions she asked were so upsetting and intrusive that I couldn’t answer. I shouldn’t have been shocked but I was. Having a stranger try to get me to tell her things about those who were dead alarmed my whole body. I could feel every inch of the chair touching me. The smell of the office, dusty and airless, made me want to choke. Although I willed them away, tears kept springing up in my eyes, and I set my mouth as tightly closed as I could.

The doctor changed her tactics back to the earlier conversation about my mother. I tried to unlock my mouth into a polite smile but I desperately wanted to run out the door. I knew my mother would be waiting and ready with a comforting hug. All I needed to do was just hold on until the appointment was over. Then the doctor made a statement so insane that it seemed whole adult world might be slipping away on a raft built without logic. She said I was upset because I wanted my mother dead.

That was it. I was willing to sacrifice the time I’d invested in good girl behavior but I would never go back there. I would do whatever it took. I would throw fits if necessary but I would not speak to that doctor again. On the drive home and all through supper I tried to figure out how to best make my stand. I decided to be logical and calm, although I wanted more than anything else to climb into my mother’s lap. That evening I sat with my mother, the person I prayed for most often, and lost my struggle to keeping from crying. I told her the unspeakable thing the doctor had said. My mother was gratifyingly appalled. She hugged me for a long time and then we talked as if we were on one side and the doctor on the other. It was delicious.

My mother called the doctor the next day and afterwards confirmed that I was a good judge of character. I would not have to go back. I overheard her telling my father that the doctor “didn’t have her head screwed on tight.” But my mother did think the doctor was right about one thing. I wasn’t getting over my grandparents’ deaths.

That wasn’t it. The loss of my grandparents had tossed me into a realm of questions I couldn’t ask and worries that faith couldn’t explain. I knew my parents were concerned about me so I ramped up the cheerful act. Masking my fears actually helped, at least during the day. But at night I couldn’t sleep. If I didn’t work hard to steer my mind relentlessly toward peaceful thoughts I’d feel as if I were falling into dark nothingness. The galaxies we learned about in fourth grade, black and endless, seemed like a void that would swallow up everything I knew. On the worst nights I could feel the fabric of the ordinary world stretched thin over a much larger unknown. Then I couldn’t even cry myself to sleep.

So I resorted to the distraction of reading. As soon as the rest of my family went to bed I turned my light back on. Most often I chose The Secret Garden. I turned to the same passages over and over. I read about the garden that seemed dead in the early spring chill until Mary cleared away branches and leaves to find tender green sprouts in the soil. I read about the crippled boy whose limitations Mary refused to accept and of his triumphant recovery in that garden. I read about her sorrowful uncle who awakened to joy after years of despair. Then I could sleep.

~

I don’t regret the fears and doubts of my childhood. They set me on a richly rewarding lifelong path of seeking answers to big questions. But I didn’t realize why I turned to The Secret Garden until I found the book years later. I opened it to see two childish signatures, my mother’s and my own. Rereading it, I recognized the passages that sustained me when I felt most lost. Each one was about about redemption, nature’s wisdom, and offered what I needed most of all, simple hope.

If I could meet a person from history I’d choose Frances Hodgson Burnett. I now know about the losses she suffered, the despair she fought, and the writing that was her life’s work. I’d tell her, a bit shyly, that I make a living as a writer too. I don’t think I could express how profoundly her book calmed a little girl too upset to sleep but I’d want her to know that her words were a soothing balm during those dark nights.

And I’d tell her that The Secret Garden didn’t just save me, it also shaped my future. Today I live on a small farm where my children have no lessons imposed, just like Mary. The animals here eat from my hand, as those in the book did from Dickon’s hand. Maybe I’d simply say, “Frances, our land is named after lines you wrote. We call it Bit of Earth Farm.”

Laura Grace Weldon

Six Ways Introduce Fine Arts Using The Happy Idiot Method

Artwork by Samuka

“You’re a frigging idiot.”

That’s what the guy behind us said. He spoke so loudly that two rows of concert-goers heard it. He didn’t even wait until the intermission to announce he considered us boorish.

I’m still not sure what upset him so much. My seven-year-old daughter had begged to attend what she called a “real performance” after enjoying a number of the Cleveland Orchestra’s Musical Rainbows concerts for young children. Nearly every day since she’d been three years old she put on recordings such as Beethoven Lives Upstairs,
Prokofiev – Peter and the Wolf,  Song of the Unicorn, and Mr. Bach Comes to Call.Sometimes she played,  sometimes she danced but mostly she drew pictures as she listened to compelling music woven around stories.

Going together to the concert was a rare night out for the two of us but I knew her three brothers weren’t as entranced by classical music. So that evening she and I dressed up, taking our eagerness to velvety seats not far from the stage. As the concert hall filled many people greeted us kindly. The musicians began to tune up and my daughter nodded at me. She knew this was her cue to be quiet until intermission.

Then the man behind us arrived. He squeezed past others, sat down and said aloud, “Oh no.” Because he exhaled so repeatedly and in such an exaggerated manner I wondered if he’d sat on something awful. Nope, the something awful was us.

Just as the conductor lifted his baton, the man behind us leaned forward as if to whisper, but his hissed words weren’t quiet at all. He said, “I paid good money for this seat. Your kid better not wreck it.” Then he muttered “idiot” under his breath. I turned around to look at him, more surprised than annoyed, but he wasn’t looking at me. He was glaring hatefully at my beautiful child.

The performance started and my daughter was enraptured. At times she looked over at me, squeezed my hand or leaned her head against me. Sometimes her hands floated just above her lap as if carried by sound. I paid close attention, hoping to hold the whole experience in my memory.

As the applause died down after the first piece the man behind us started sighing in exasperation. And he kept it up. I tried to notice what might have been bothering him. My daughter didn’t speak, didn’t hum along. She simply adored the music. But when the man started bumping my seat I turned my head to look at him. He was still glaring at my child.

For reasons of his own he was fed up. He looked at me and said loudly, “You’re a frigging idiot.”

The moment intermission began he stomped off and didn’t return. I hoped he’d find some peace despite possession by keep-children-out-of-concert-halls demons. But I’m no saint, I was pretty thrilled he left.

The woman next to my daughter assured us we weren’t the problem. An elderly gentleman at the end of our row, an orchestra patron for thirty years, said he hoped to see more children who loved classical music. By the time the musicians filed back some people had chatted with my daughter, happy to learn about her specific knowledge of that evening’s program. Others said, quite tactfully, that it was rare to see youngsters attend an evening concert.

A common perception is revealed by this experience. Fine arts and eager children don’t go together.

It’s not just one guy convinced the presence of a kid will ruin his evening. Most people set the arts aside as something special or worse, something for those who really know what they’re reading/seeing/hearing.

To me that’s the sort of separatist thinking that keeps fine arts in the underfunded, under appreciated realm where nearly extinct things go to die. But that’s how they’re introduced to most young people. Arts are imposed using the old “eat this spinach or you’ll be punished” method. Great way to inspire a hatred of spinach. And art. It isn’t woven into their lives and it doesn’t grab them (or at least many of them) in a way that’s personally meaningful. Instead fine arts are introduced in later grades. Students are lectured, assigned work, and graded. If they’re lucky they get extra doses of the arts doled out in guided museum visits and a class trip to see Shakespeare performed after weeks of preparation. The vitality is bled right out.

In Shakespeare’s time his plays were part of popular culture. People from all social classes crowded into the Globe Theatre where they enjoyed the bard’s social commentary, melodrama and comedy. Chances are they didn’t bother to analyze a thing. Chances are those plays did for them what art does when it means something to any of us, it illuminates.

I love the way young people discover and appreciate art when it isn’t imposed on them. These days my kids are older (teens and young adults). They enjoy fresh visual arts on YouTube, soaring new classical music scored for video games, and performances everywhere. Better yet, they aren’t passive. They connect and engage with it. During a recent discussion I overheard my kids relate the theme of a recent movie to Homer’s Odyssey, tie that to quotes from a Terry Pratchett book, then they were off parodying the theme using quotes from movies and song lyrics. Lightening fast, funny, and sharp. No curricula could possibly keep up.

My kids swam in the current of fine arts from the very beginning, as it flowed naturally with all the other influences in their lives.

Here’s the enjoyment-based, jump-right-in way we’ve always gotten comfy with fine arts in my family. (Caution, some may deem it idiotic.)

  1. Build in some fun. If you’re going to a concert in the park take along silent amusements for small people—a tiny stuffed animal that just might want to dance on its owner’s lap, drawing materials to capture impressions of the performers or the feeling of the music, a small treat that’s specific to concerts (consider bending that no lollipop rule). And if it isn’t much fun don’t stick around. Mosey off and wait until your children are older. And once your kids are older the experience is a greater pleasure for them if you let them invite a friend. We were often surprised to find that our 10th trip to a museum, where my kids clamored to see favorite sculptures and new exhibits, was the first trip for their friends.
  2. Make it an adventure. When you journey any distance to see a music performance, attend a play, or ramble through galleries make that stop one of several anticipated events.  Try to spot murals or other public art on the way. (When they were little my kids knew we’d arrived when they waved at the Guardians of Traffic pylons as we drove over the bridge to Cleveland.) Take a break in an ornate big city library, eat a packed lunch in a park, stroll through an open air market, pick up unusual snacks at an ethnic grocery, and let your child’s curiosity help guide the day’s events.  If part of the day incorporates a lot of sit down time (including the ride to and fro) be sure to balance that with movement, exploration, and sensory adventure.
  3. Tune it to the child’s level. Let preschoolers stroll as interest leads them through museums, especially art museums. You might decide to look for something specific on the way (one of my sons liked to spot animals, another son made it his quest to find anything airborne—birds, planes, angels, flying carpets).Make galleries a place of discovery. chat, ask questions, and when they lose interest it’s time to go.
  4. Make it an ordinary part of life. As with anything, it’s what you pay attention to that you magnify. Conversations about music, philosophy, or logic are just regular mealtime topics, brought up with the same casual interest as sports or the weather. Literary discussion with a four-year-old is easy. Simply talk about the picture book you’ve just read together. How could it have ended differently or gone on longer? Why do you think the main character acted that way or made that decision? Which character would you like to be in the story? Why?
  5. Start early. Listen to music as you nurse babies to sleep, imagining the wonderful association that child is making between sound and comfort (whether Bach or the blues). Hold up tiny ones to get a better look at paintings or sculpture. Indulge in sock puppet conversations with your toddlers. Dance and sing together unselfconsciously. Display your child’s artwork in frames and on shelves. Make CD’s available to kids for bedtime listening or quiet time, especially those by professional storytellers such as Odds Bodkins (who started my kids’ love of Homer’s Odyssey) and Jim Weiss. A great selection is available at Gentle Wind, Chinaberry, and your local library.
  6. Enjoy it the way you choose. Shakespeare’s work may spark fascination in a lavishly illustrated picture book such as Coville’s William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Picture Yearling Book), an early chapter book such as Mayer’s The Tempest, or maybe a graphic novel like The Tempest The Graphic Novel (American English, Original Text). See The Tempest in any number of movies from productions done in 1928 to the newest, recasting Prospero as a woman. Check out how The Tempest has been interpreted by artists throughout the years. My kids appreciate a stage performance best after they know the story well, on their own terms, after bumping into it in books or movies or music. After seeing the play, one of my kids noted that it was written 400 years ago but names from The Tempest are still popular today— Miranda, Ariel, Antonio,Iris, Sebastian. That reminds me that the roots of what we care about today go much farther back than we imagine.

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