Sprouting Plant Advocates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First published in Green Prints, a loooong time ago!

Response to Kids’ Misbehavior: “Good Old Days” vs. Now

older generation of kids, historical comparison of children,

Learning from earlier generations. (CC by 2.0 SimpleInsomnia)

Unable to find a job in my field after college, I ended up working as a nursing home activity director. It was the best job in the place. Unlike overworked staff in other departments, I had time to form real relationships with the residents. This was 25-some years ago (yes, I’m that old). Our 100 bed unit was brimming with people too frail to care for themselves but most were otherwise mentally acute. (Not one patient with today’s unnecessary plague, Alzheimer’s disease.)

These elders were in their 80’s and 90’s, born around the 1900’s or slightly before, and always happily reminisced with someone willing to listen. They were extraordinary teachers and gave me perspectives I could have encountered nowhere else. One angle new to me was how differently childhood was viewed by adults back when they were growing up.

Kids worked hard then. They were expected to do heavy chores at home as well as work on the family farm or family business. Some even held jobs in factories. But when their obligations were over they were entirely free. They roamed the streets or woods with their peers, improvised games, put on their own skits and plays, made playthings like twig whistles and soapbox cars, built forts, swung from vines into swimming holes, and indulged in make-believe well into their early teens. They skirted around the adult world in a realm of their own, as children have done throughout human history.

criminalizing children, school-to-prison pipeline,

Costumed kids, skit to come. (image: Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries)

I’m not implying that childhood was remotely easy back then. Aside from hard work there seemed to be very little recognition of a child’s emotional needs. Worse, it was a time of blatant racial, gender, ethnic, and class discrimination. But I’d like to point out that when these elders were kids back in 1910’s and 1920’s many of them caused real trouble. Here are a few of the more extreme stories they told me.

Halloween was a holiday with no real adult involvement or interest. That night kids of all ages went out trick-or-treating, knowing they weren’t likely to get a treat (cookie or apple) from most neighbors. Preteens or teens often played tricks to retaliate. Soaping windows was the mildest trick they described. Most were much worse. Wooden steps were pulled away from doors, gravestones left in yards, pigs let out of pens, fires set in dry cornfields ready for harvest, water pumped into basements. One man told me he and his friends put an elderly widow’s buggy on top of her back porch roof. It wasn’t till a few days later that her plight was noticed and someone strong enough to help could get it down. A common Halloween prank was lifting an outhouse a foot or so to the side. In the dark, an unsuspecting person heading out to use it was likely to fall into the hole.

A 14-year-old stole whiskey from a bootlegger and got shot at as he ran off. Another bootlegger was blamed and never seen again.

A 15-year-old took her older sister’s papers booking passage on a ship to the U.S., saying her sister could better look after their family back home. Once she arrived, she worked as a cook for a family that paid for the ticket, answered to her sisters name, married under that name, and gained citizenship under that name. Her sister used the same name back in Ireland all that time.

There were plenty of other stories. Public drunkenness, fist fights that turned into brawls, runaways who rode the rails and runaways who got married against their parents’ wishes, shoplifting, breaking into school offices to change grades and steal tests, and one story of a school riot over a change in dismissal time.

These people suffered no appreciable consequences from authorities.

Not. One. Of. Them.

Their parents were certainly angry if they found out. The usual punishment? More chores. If police were informed they gave the kids a talking to, in the most extreme cases put them in the back of a squad car for a more serious talking to at the police station. No charges. No jail time. No record of their misdeeds beyond a local cop’s memory. Back then, it was assumed that kids would grow out of it.

All of these people grew up to work stable jobs and own homes. Most were married until death parted them from their spouses. One was a judge, one a career military officer, several were in the skilled trades, several others were business owners, many were homemakers and tireless volunteers, nearly all were proud parents of highly accomplished children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Yet today’s kids are being criminalized.

I’m not for a moment defending any young person’s impulse to wreak mayhem at home or in the community. I am saying that today’s response to (far less drastic) behaviors common during any child’s growing up years is appalling.

These days armed officers roam schools in thousands of districts. Studies show their presence doesn’t actually improve safety. Instead, children are often treated like criminals for common disciplinary issues such as yelling, swearing, or pushing. Here are a few of the more extreme examples.

A seventeen-year-old girl spent 24 hours in jail for truancy. This honors student works two jobs to help support her family and can’t always get to school.

A six-year old boy and avid Cub Scout was suspended for five days after bringing to school his Cub Scout eating utensil containing a fork, spoon, and knife. Due to public pressure, the school board voted to spare him the other punishment he’d received: 45 days in reform school.

A thirteen-year-old boy was handcuffed, arrested, and transported from school to a Juvenile Detention Center although his parents weren’t notified. His crime? He “burped audibly” in gym class.

A twelve-year-old girl was arrested for doodling on a desk with a green marker.

A seventeen-year-old boy who broke up a fight between two girls was shot with a taser by a deputy on duty at the school. The young man suffered a brain hemorrhage, spent 67 days in intensive care, and remains brain injured. The officer wasn’t charged due to lack of evidence.

The Guardian interviewed Deborah Fowler, who authored a 200-page study of the consequences of policing in Texas schools. They report,

…most schools do not face any serious threat of violence and police officers patrolling the corridors and canteens are largely confronted with little more than boisterous or disrespectful childhood behavior.

What we see often is a real overreaction to behavior that others would generally think of as just childish misbehavior rather than law breaking,” said Fowler. Tickets are most frequently issued by school police for “disruption of class,” which can mean causing problems during lessons but is also defined as disruptive behavior within 500 ft of school property such as shouting, which is classified as “making an unreasonable noise.”

Minority students are much more likely to be disciplined, fined, or arrested than white students in what’s being called the school-to-prison pipeline. Huge corporations like Corrections Corporation of America and smaller companies like AIM Truancy Solutions lobby for get-tough policies that bring them big profits in tax-payer money.

In some states tickets are issued, even in primary grades. These citations may compel the student to appear in court to face sentences including fines, court costs, and mandatory participation in remedial programs. This means the child is now entered into the judicial system, with police or court records that may or may not be sealed. If students don’t appear or their families can’t afford the fines, an arrest warrant may automatically be issued when they turn 17. This means childish misbehavior can follow young people into their adult lives. There’s a common question on applications for college, the military, and employment “Have you ever been charged with a crime?”  The answer, for these kids, is “yes.”

Heavy-handed tactics used against children may get worse very soon. School districts in 22 states including Texas, California, Florida, Kansas, and Utah are participating in a federal program which provides military surplus to local law enforcement organizations. We’re talking gear like assault rifles, extended magazines, military vehicles, and other weapons intended for combat.

What happened to free range childhood? Why do we act as if every choice a child makes must be the correct one? That risks are always too risky? That freedom of any kind equals danger?

The goal of creating high-achieving young people through unremitting scrutiny, at times backed up by force, is wrong. But today’s treatment of young people isn’t even based on evidence. Ask any high-achieving adult about their youthful high jinks. Better yet, ask the oldest people still left to us. A long look back may be the cure we need.

“We live in a decaying age. Young people no longer respect their parents. They are rude and impatient. They frequently inhabit taverns and have no self-control.”  inscription in an Ancient Egyptian tomb

“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless… When I was young we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly unwise and impatient.”   -Hesiod, 8th century BC 

“The world is passing through troublous times. The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for the girls, they are forward, immodest, and unladylike in speech, behavior, and dress.”   -Peter the Hermit, sermon preached 1274 AD

what your great-grandparents did, oral history,

What our elders can tell us. (CC by 2.0 SimpleInsomnia)

We Have Room

 

refugee children, host border children, welcome the stranger, angels unaware,

All images thanks to wikimedia commons.

There may be no more powerful image in art, no more important message in scripture, than open arms. Welcoming the stranger is a basis of civilization, especially if that stranger is a refugee and always if that stranger is a child.

“You shall love the stranger, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt.” Christianity, Deuteronomy 10: 19

“Charity—to be moved at the sight of the thirsty, the hungry, and the miserable and to offer relief to them out of pity—is the spring of virtue.” Jainsim/Kundakunda, Pancastikaya 137

“When the Holy One loves a man, He sends him a present in the shape of a poor man, so that he should perform some good deed to him, through the merit of which he may draw a cord of grace.” Judaism. Zohar, Genesis 104a

“One should give even from a scanty store to him who asks.” Buddhism. Dhammapada 224

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Christianity. Hebrews 13.1

“Serve Allah, and join not any partners with Him; and do good – to parents, kinsfolk, orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer (ye meet) and what your right hands possess: For Allah loveth not the arrogant, the vainglorious.”  Islam. Quran 4:36

“A traveler through a country would stop at a village and he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food, entertain him. That is one aspect of Ubuntu.” Nelson Mandela, discussing the southern Africa tradition of Ubuntu

“See to it that whoever enters your house obtains something to eat, however little you may have. Such food will be a source of death to you if you withhold it.” Native American religions. A Winnebago Father’s Precepts

“`0 Ke aloha Ke Kuleana o kahi malihini. Love is the host in strange lands.”  Hawaiian saying

Relieve people in distress as speedily as you must release a fish from a dry rill [lest he die]. Deliver people from danger as quickly as you must free a sparrow from a tight noose. Be compassionate to orphans and relieve widows. Respect the old and help the poor. Taoism. Tract of the Quiet Way

 

child 2

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Whether scripture or statue inscription, we all know it’s easier to state our principles than adhere to them. I’m as weak as the next person in actually living up to what I believe.

I’ve vowed to keep politics out of this site, so I won’t be talking about lies fostered by divisive media or shockingly cruel attitudes toward refugees of any age. I’ll only say that it takes an extraordinary act of love to scrape together the coyote fees to send one’s child away in hopes of a safe haven. It takes inestimable courage for that child to walk through deserts, ride the tops of trains, and face down thieves along the way in hopes of real freedom.

My husband and I did some soul-searching. We talked to our kids. And we decided we cannot stand by while refugee children turn themselves in at the border only to be treated like criminals. We have room to host refugee children.

We applied to the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. We were told placements might be for a few months or they might be permanent. So we re-imagined our lives. Now that our kids are college students and young adults we thought we were done raising children, but we can go back to homemade popsicles and toys on the floor and books read aloud. We have our own problems with unemployment and a not-remotely-profitable small farm, but what we have can always stretch. There’s a place in our home and our hearts.

That doesn’t mean we have a greeting card view of this. These children will be traumatized, experience culture shock, and face learning a new language. We’ll have plenty of adapting to do as well.

Lately before falling asleep, I look ahead to rows of family pictures stretching into the future. Those pictures seem to hold two dark-haired faces newly dear to me, and eventually, more of their relatives joining them and becoming part of our extended family, on for generations, with babies in arms growing to stand tall, my husband and me fading into old age and beyond. It’s a good vision.

Right now it looks like that vision won’t come true. I just got an email from Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. It said, in part, 

After exploring the nationwide LIRS foster care program network, I am sorry to share with you that LIRS does not have a foster care program in the geographic area that you are located. If at a future time an opportunity arises, we will reach out to you at that time.

I wrote back, asking if there was some way I could help set up a program in our area. Apparently the only option is applying for a grant through the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement, which I admit is probably past me. So now I’m applying to other agencies.

I only mention our quest in hopes that someone out there may qualify even if we don’t. Here are resources to investigate.

Office of Refugee Resettlement

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

Bethany Refugee Care

Texas Interfaith Center
refugees, host border children,

 

I Heckle, You Heckle, Let’s All Heckle

heckle, roots of word heckle, change the world,

I just got back from a workshop teaching us how to research injection wells for a citizen’s audit project. It’s boring and difficult. I’m appalled when I look closely at the data. I don’t want to do it, although I will because we’re currently mired in a struggle over fracking.

That may not be your issue but of course there are plenty of others that jab at our consciences. Drone strikes, refugees, melting polar regions and burning rainforests, poisons in our food, toxic tactics wielded by the powerful. The list goes on and on. We feel like screaming in the streets, but there are bills to pay and meals to make.

I haven’t thrown open my window to yell, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.” But I want to affirm the heckling all of us do. These days the word “heckle” has entirely negative connotations. It conjures up images of rude people who interrupt performers and ruin the experience for everyone. Instead, lets hop on a wagon to the past where this word meant much more (as explained by Mark Forsyth in The Etymologicon).

Heckling originally referred to the process of combing sticks, burrs, and knots from sheep’s wool so it could be spun into usable fibers. Sheep tend to ramble around without any concern for fleece-related loveliness, so this is quite a task.  People who did the combing were naturally called hecklers.

Back in the eighteenth century, the wool trade flourished in the town of Dundee, Scotland. Hecklers worked long hours together. In the morning as they set to work heckling, one of their fellow hecklers read aloud from the day’s news.  There was plenty to read, since this was an era when all sorts of publishers put out lots of newspapers, broadsheets, and handbills. The hecklers were thus well-informed in many subjects.

When politicians and power brokers of the day addressed the public, the hecklers combed over their speeches as thoroughly as they combed wool. They raised objections, pointed out contradictory facts, called people to account for their behavior. In other words, they heckled. These hecklers formed what would now be called trade unions, using their collective efforts to bargain for better pay and perks. They also stirred up awareness of worker’s rights while empowering ordinary people to speak up against injustice.

Hecklers were people who were knowledgeable and alert to hypocrisy. They were aware how easily something nasty can snag what’s useful into uselessness until it’s pulled free, no matter how arduous and smelly the process.

Heckling is a potent way to question the powerful. Over the centuries the term implied thoughtful questions from the audience which a speaker would answer before going on. In parliamentary proceedings it remains a method of engaging in open discourse with a speaker by someone who isn’t entitled to the floor.

Nearly everyone I know is actually a heckler. We’re well-informed. We care. We lean toward positive change, willing it into being by our words and thoughts as well as our actions.

The poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti joins other writers and thinkers who claim the masses are sheep, as he does in this evocative poem.

PITY THE NATION
(After Khalil Gibran)

Pity the nation whose people are sheep
and whose shepherds mislead them.
Pity the nation whose leaders are liars,
whose sages are silenced
and whose bigots haunt the airwaves.
Pity the nation that raises not its voice
except  to praise conquerors
and acclaim the bully as hero
and aims to rule the world
by force and by torture.
Pity the nation that knows
no other language but its own
and no other culture but its own.
Pity the nation whose breath is money
and sleeps the sleep of the too well fed.
Pity the nation—oh pity the people
who allow their rights to  erode
and their freedoms to be washed away.
My country, tears of thee
Sweet land of liberty!

With respect to Mr. Ferlinghetti, I disagree. His poem is packed with truth but it doesn’t acknowledge how these exact circumstances also propel people to deeper understanding and stronger commitment to change.

I see eyes opening. I see loving hearts broken by Earth’s sorrows, knitted back together with hope. I see the sort of consciousness rising that wakens more and more people.

We aren’t the sheep. We’re the hecklers.

social change, heckler,

Heckling combs. Image: nimpsu.deviantart.com

How To Walk Your Talk

walk your talk, unconscious to conscious competence, cultivating good habits, being your best self,

Emilian Robert Vicol’s flickr photostream

Chances are you’ve never heard of Richard Enty. He’s the executive director of Metro Regional Transit in Akron, Ohio where there are firm safety policies in effect. Consider texting. For the first texting/phoning offense, a bus driver will be suspended for three days (executives will be suspended for five days). Second offense requires a 15-day suspension and a third offense can result in dismissal. The policy applies specifically to those who are driving revenue-producing vehicles, such as buses or trains.

Enty is tuned in to accident prevention. He was once a passenger when two trains collided, an accident that cost another passenger both legs. His current job involves ensuring a climate of safety. So one day when was driving his own car, just as a bus pulled up next to him, he was startled to realize what he was doing. He had a texting problem. Even though he wasn’t driving a revenue-producing vehicle, he decided to turn himself in. The board wanted to respond with a letter of reprimand but Enty asked to be treated like anyone else. So he was suspended without pay for five days. He tells the local newspaper,

As the leader of an organization that stresses safety and always striving to do the right things, even when no one is looking, I had to make this [decision]. Because, again, we are all human, we all have certain habits and what I have learned in accident investigations…is that accidents usually result from series of bad habits that go unchecked over a period of days, weeks, months, or possibly even years.”

This man walks his talk.

Truly living out what we believe is never easy. It’s essential to be attuned to the positive, to see how we’re making progress rather than focusing on where we’re going wrong. That said, we’re never going to live up to our ideals all of the time. Not even close.

It helps to understand what’s called the four stages of competence as we learn a skill or act on new knowledge. For example, say you became aware of an issue a few years back such as sweatshop labor. You were troubled to realize how much your purchases contributed to the problem as you grabbed great deals without thinking. You were in the first stage. Finding out, becoming conscious of your incompetence, is the next stage. It can be a blisteringly self-conscious process as you struggle to figure out what you didn’t know and how to react. You’re aware of what you’ve done wrong without having sufficient tactics or information to do a whole lot better, although you try. Working to adopt new behaviors is the third stage and it requires sustained effort. For this particular issue, it might be shopping less, seeking out sustainable and local sources, thrifting, advocating for change, and more. You’ll still make mistakes, falling into old patterns when you’re stressed or rushed. The fourth stage is effortless. The knowledge and skills you once sought simply become habit.

unconscious to conscious competence, walk your talk, creating good habits,

I’m somewhere between the Conscious Incompetence and Conscious Competence in many parts of my life. Blurting out what’s on my mind before thinking. Starting projects I don’t have time to finish. Not making enough time for those projects in the first place. Worrying. Pouring another glass of wine. Not remembering conflict resolution tactics until after the moment has passed. Skipping pleasure for work when I know damn well life is to be savored. But castigating myself isn’t useful. Paying attention is.

Kids certainly do their best to assist. They have a way of spotting hypocrisy and tossing our words back in our faces. I can’t rant about a crazy driver or duplicitous politician without getting one of my adages right back at me, like, “Everyone has a beautiful gleaming soul.” Ouch. Yeah, I believe it but don’t always feel like applying it. I have all sorts of standards I don’t entirely live up to. That’s okay, it’s a process.

Those four stages aren’t comfortable. That’s just who we are, people continually unfolding. We make mistakes, struggle, and slowly grow to new ways of being. Even our small personal changes make a difference to the larger reality. I’ve spent a lot of time teaching courses on non-violence. When I work with teens, many weeks into our time together, we start talking about what is important to us. Everyone has strong opinions, everything from “being respected” to “making the planet a better place.” Then they come up with how to live that in their daily lives, from acting in ways that draw respect to making decisions that benefit the ecosystem. When they’re ready, I get out permanent markers and we write on the soles of our feet, reminding us to walk our talk.

That’s why I want to remember Richard Enty. He knows it’s easier to mandate how others should behave rather than follow it ourselves. He’s walking his talk even if it costs him five day’s pay and more public attention than he expected. He seems fine with that. I bet it’ll help him move on to the next stage.

Do you see yourself in Enty’s story? How are you trying to walk your own talk?

Right Now You Are Activating Change

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

(ssuunnddeeww.deviantart.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

Dying My Hair Pink

Time to dye it?

Well, maybe. I haven’t seen anyone with pink hair in our small town, passing through or otherwise. But I’m contemplating it. Action may be necessary after what happened the other day.

I was out on the town engaging in a not-so-fascinating adventure: shopping for canning jar lids. I heard someone call out behind me from a distance. It was a stranger’s voice.

Using the logic bestowed on most members of our species, I assumed she was hailing some other person in the store so I ignored her. A moment later that stranger zoomed up behind me and said,

“Oh, I thought you were my mom.”

I’m a warm and motherly person, true. But I was not that stranger’s mother. Worse, she was in my approximate age group. Which means her own mother either looks like someone who gave birth as a kindergartener OR I look really old. (Particularly from behind.)

The stranger muttered something like, “Sorry, she has blonde hair too.”

Raised to be polite at all costs, I simply smiled at her (fist shake at Nice Girl upbringing). I’m not sure what an appropriate response might have been. Snort-enhanced laughter perhaps.

Wait, it gets worse.

I saw her join a woman one aisle over. I witnessed her call this woman “Mom.” Her mother was clearly 15 to 20 years old than I. And wearing tan stretch pants. With tennis shoes. And a quilted handbag.

Alas, I see I’ve fallen right into the basement of People Who Make Superficial Comments despite my regular attempts to be my Better Self.

I’m not mocking my elders, heck, I’m looking forward to being a rowdy old lady myself (which is how I’ll finally outgrow that Nice Girl upbringing). And I’m in no position to judge this woman’s appearance, especially after outing myself as a beauty flunky. As I tell my kids, everyone has a lovely gleaming soul. (Boy do they ever like to hit me back with that one when I get snarky.) But I’m finding the chronological escalator a bit too relentless.

When I was younger I took a constantly functional body and seemingly unlimited time ahead for granted. Now various parts creak and I realize I may not be able to fit all my enthusiasm into an ordinary lifespan. Sometimes I walk by the library windows, noticing a stumpy little woman in the reflection. Who is that woman, I wonder? Why is she carrying my purse? It takes a moment to sink in. That’s me. I may feel like a fourteen-year-old sneaking out of the house in a halter top, but instead I’m some lady wearing a scarf.

I was raised to use everything up. To smack the bottle till it was empty, then add a little water and shake it to get out the last lingering drops. I fully intend to do that with my life too. I’ll be using up every single bit. But if I get any more reminders about being old before my time, you may see me with pink hair. Or at least pink streaks. My quietly rebellious fourteen-year-old self would be proud. And the rowdy old lady I hope to become will understand.

Engage The Window Box Effect

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CC 2.0 by ahisgett

When I was in college my professors enjoyed crushing what was left of our youthful optimism with miserable statistics about how bad everything was and how rapidly it was getting worse. (Even their cynicism was too small to envision our current issues.) I remember a semester-long course that had to do with reversing urban blight. After being taught about this dire and growing problem we were introduced to the standard remedies. Our professor scornfully dismissed every effort to reverse urban blight. The worst thing that could be done? Coming in from outside the community to impose a do-gooder solution. The only right thing to do was a vast overhaul of our economic structures. (Those structures are even shakier today.) I wrote sufficiently miserable papers to get an A but was left with quiet despair in my ever-hopeful heart.

Soon after that class I read about one woman’s experience of urban blight. She’d lived in the same house for decades, watching her neighborhood decline. There were few jobs and the ones available paid poorly, with no benefits or job security. She sadly listed the local businesses that had left, leaving her area with no grocery, beauty shop, or movie theater. The only places that remained were bars and corner stores selling little in the way of real food. People lost their homes and landlords took over, rarely keeping up the property. The city lost revenue, doing little to keep up with residents’ complaints. It seemed to her that young people were lost too. They swore in front of tiny children and their elders, hung out all hours on street corners, got into public fights, abused drugs. She was quoted as saying that people complained they got no respect from young people, when really the young people had no respect for themselves.

The reason she was being interviewed? She was credited with beginning a tiny urban renaissance that was evident on her street and slowly spreading through the neighborhood.

Here’s how it happened. She’d been in poor health and adjusting to widowhood. Her home had been well maintained over the years but like many wood-sided homes, it began to look shabby when too much time went by without new paint. After her husband died she didn’t do well keeping up with yard work and because the street had changed she rarely sat on the porch as she used to do in years past, chatting with neighbors and greeting young people by name as they went by. It wasn’t just friendliness. When everyone knows everyone, word of misdeeds travels home quicker than an unruly child can get in the door. And when a child really knows the elders on his or her street, they have many more potential role models to benefit them as they grow up. That’s the proverbial “village” it takes to raise a child.

This woman wanted to do something. All she could afford was a few packets of flower seeds. She got out on a spring day to plant the seeds in her long-unused window boxes. She started sitting on her porch every afternoon after watering them, greeting those who went by even though she didn’t know them. Renters in houses where her friends once lived began talking to her. By the time the flowers were in bloom she noticed a difference on the street. She said that people were sweeping their porches and planting flowers of their own. Because they were trying, she got out there to do her part, attempting to take better care of her lawn, telling people who passed by that it was a good way to get exercise she needed. Every time she couldn’t get her mower to start she’d ask a teenager walking down the street to help her. Then before starting to mow, she’d ask for his or her name, shake hands, and thank that youth for doing a good deed by helping her. She made sure to greet those young people by name every time she saw them afterwards.

That summer one family painted their front door. Someone else cleaned up an empty lot that had been a dumping place for trash. People started sitting on their porches, waving to each other, stopping for conversation. It began to feel like a neighborhood again. Building on what’s positive is powerful indeed.

There are plenty of ways people are revitalizing their communities these days. They’re reclaiming empty lots as gardens or play places for their kids, running micro-businesses out of their homes, starting up tool-shares and neighborhood work groups. They’re using social media to connect and collaborate with each other. They’re mentoring kids in the neighborhood and finding ways to get kids more involved in the larger community.  Studies show that urban gardens and other revitalizing efforts make a difference, reducing the crime rate and fostering all sorts of positive relationships. An old theory, kind of the flip side of what I’m calling the Window Box Effect, was called Broken Windows Theory. It posited that minor examples of breakdown (like a few broken windows) leads to greater disorder, dragging down not only the appearance of an area but also leading to crime and property damage. This has largely been disproven because crime is actually deterred when people know they have the power to affect their communities and benefit from strong networks within those communities.

Sure, we have a lot to work to do rebuilding our sorry infrastructure and easing the ever-widening income gap. But it doesn’t hurt to remember that noticing a little beauty can amplify the greater beauty that’s everywhere, waiting to bloom.

There are plenty of ways to apply the Window Box Effect.

Tell me how the Window Box Effect works in your life.

25 Ways To Spread Some Kindness

Image: SweetOnVeg’s flickr photostream

1. Take your compliments about an employee to management. Chances are you’ll never see the impact. Chances are, it’ll be greater than you imagine.

2. Give up a great parking space for the car behind you. Parking farther away simply gives you more exercise.

3. Call an elderly relative or neighbor once a week to chat. You may think you’re enriching that person’s life. They’re enriching yours too.

4. Hold the door open for the person behind you.

5. Write a thank you note. To see the powerful impact this practice can have, check out A Simple Act of Gratitude: How Learning to Say Thank You Changed My Life.

6. Write an anti-thank you. Sure, it seems counter-intuitive but it’s a way of using a  negative experience to help others.

7. Leave money in vending machines, especially in hospitals and detention centers.

8. Leave a positive review for a local business on Merchant Circle, ThinkLocal, or Yelp.

9. Listen. You know how it feels when someone really listens to you. They look into your eyes, they react to your words, and you feel understood. Check your listening skills against the Scale of Attuned Responses.

10. Research shows that newborns bond with parents using scent. Help out by knitting or crocheting a crib blanket via Blankets For Deployed Daddies. The new dad transfers his scent by sleeping with it in his pillowcase for several nights, then sends it home in a sealed bag.

11. Give genuine compliments. You might want to challenge yourself to give compliments to five or ten people a day. It keeps you on the lookout for truth and beauty. Tell a clerk she has a lovely voice, a child that his smile made your day, a loved one that their eyes are beautiful.

12. That kid who keeps hanging around, looking as you grill dinner or wanting to talk while you wash the car? He may be longing for encouragement. Even a few kind words may be the kind of mentoring he needs.

13. Help budding entrepreners through Kickstarter or Indiegogo. Make your money go farther by lending to a Kiva project.

14. Greet new people on your street with a small gift such as a houseplant or plate of cookies. The neighbors you’ve never met? Try online resources to connect such as i-neighbors or front porch forum.

15. Give gifts that do some good.

16. See an act of aggression? Get involved even if it seems like none of your business. That’s a kindness too.

17. Set books free. Donate them to a good cause (a nearby school, your library’s book sale?) or leave them ala Book Crossing to find new readers.

18. Donate pet food to the nearest animal shelter. While you’re there, offer to walk a few dogs.

19. Patronize kids’ car washes and lemonade stands.

20. Be aware of newcomers to your workplace, school, church or other organization. Make a point of greeting them and introducing them to others.

21. Keep duplicates of your child’s toys and books in the diaper bag. When you encounter fussy children, offer an extra to their parents.

22. Smile. Find out 10 ways this face stretcher benefits you as well as those on the receiving end.

23. Donate blood. One pint of blood can save up to three lives.  

24. Designate a tiny container as your family’s Pass It Forward box. Tuck it somewhere one member of the family will find it (under the bed pillow works) with a little surprise inside (a loving note, a handmade coupon for an unexpected perk, some chocolates, a drawing, a map of a place you’re going that day, a compliment). That person is expected to put something else in the box and leave it for another family member, so kindness can circle around and around.

25. Set a good example, be kind to yourself.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FTXMTptqGwI

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