2019: What A Year

2019 seems to have stomped by in adjective-defying ways, with giant lows and highs. And that’s just my own life.

I don’t make resolutions or choose a word for the coming year, valuable as those traditions may be for others. But I do have a ritual for the end of the year. I take down my old wall calendar (where a Luddite like me keeps track of life) and refer to it as I enter birthdays and anniversaries into the new calendar. There are plenty of digital solutions that would relieve me of this task, but I like going back over the last 12 months. Each day is scribbled with names, places, and events. As I write important dates in next year’s calendar, here are some of  my 2019’s most memorable contents, randomly ordered.

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Long walks with people dear to me, including one recent wintry stroll when I mimicked a fake fall on ice right before actually falling on it. Living example of the old “pride goeth” thing.

Shorter walks with small dogs. On our street we’re likely to hear braying donkeys, yelling goats, and neighing horses. We’re likely to be passed by pickup trucks, school buses, tractors, and the occasional Amish buggy. Occasionally our walks are entirely quiet except for wind in the trees.

Teaching creative writing classes for Cuyahoga County Public Library, Literary Cleveland, and other community-based organizations. I never imagined I’d get to do something I love SO MUCH.

 

Grayson Books publishing my poetry collection Blackbird. I am forever grateful for publisher Ginny Connors.

 

Watching my husband lift off in a helicopter from our small town hospital, headed for a big city hospital’s neuro ICU. The 50 minutes it took me to drive there, unsure if he would be alive when I arrived, was the longest trip of my life. Affirmations and prayer couldn’t staunch my full scale weeping, and I needed to see in order to drive. What really propped me up was talking directly to him as if he could hear me. “You’re fine,” I told him over and over. “You are fine. Everything is going to be fine.” He was. It was.

Doing art with little kids. A recent project was painting trees. Not painting representations of trees on paper, I mean using paintbrushes and washable tempera to paint on sycamore, maple, and ash tree bark.

 

A group of six intrepid poet friends who gather monthly.  They tell me how screwed up my poems are and I tell them how screwed up their poems are. Essential. We go by the name 811s, named for where in the Dewey Decimal system poetry books are shelved. (Name suggested by brilliant poet librarian Laurie.)

My longstanding book group, full of smart interesting people who make me read books I’d normally ignore.

Cooking weird things. These are stuffed enchilada skulls, with the filling showing through just enough to look thrillingly like decomposition. The most recent birthday cake I made featured gummy teeth. I cannot be stopped.

The utter delight of seeing out-of-town friends and family.

Books! With insomnia like mine, I get through a lot of books in a week. Some of my nonfiction favorites this year have been Nature, Love, Medicine: Essays on Wildness and Wellness edited by Thomas Lowe Fleischner, The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth by Thomas Morris (more medical history than you wanted to know, amusingly told), The Wisdom Way of Knowing by Cynthia Bourgeault, It Didn’t Start With You by Mark Wolynn,  A God In the House: Poets Talk About Faith edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler, The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth, and Lynne McTaggart’s The Power of Eight, which inspired several of us to start a focused intention group. I was also lucky enough to get an advance copy of Mystical Activism by my friend John C. Robinson, who is a contemporary of Robert Bly,  Michael Meade, and James Hillman. I’m talking real wisdom in usable form. Read this!

 

The newest kitchen wench in training.

 

Hosting house concerts. Excellent live music in an intimate venue, a true delight.

Being interviewed by Dan Poletta. My squawky voice on NPR!

Vigils, rallies, marches. Fewer this year than last because I simply feel broken by all that’s going on, although what needs to change is ever more urgent. And I am ever more likely to cry at these things. Tears are not a useful measure because I also tear up at musical performances, fire trucks hurtling by, and any act of kindness.

Wonderful opportunities to read poetry at Loganberry Books, Wm. Skirball Writing Center, Lit Youngstown, Visible Voice Books, Wick Poetry Center, Ohio Poetry Day Association, Second Sunday Poets, and Literary Cleveland.

The incredible honor of having an excerpt from one of my poems stamped in a public sidewalk, thanks to Lit Youngstown.

 

Audiobooks, which turn a long drive into an enchanted journey. My favorite this year was The Highland Witch by Susan Fletcher (originally carrying the much better title, Corrag). There’s unforgettably pure vision in this historic story, made real by  narrator Rosalyn Landor.  Other gems include Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier, Never Home Alone by Rob Dunn, and Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield.

Podcasts. I used to listen to NPR while cooking and doing projects, but the last few years I’ve had to limit my news intake to an early morning deep read of the NYT and Washington Post lest I fall into ever deeper weltschmerz. The rest of the day its music, podcasts, or sweet sweet silence. I mostly listen to science podcasts but my newest delight is Emerging Form, a podcast about the creative process with poet  Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer and science writer Christie Aschwanden.

 

The amazing garden bells my husband makes. He kept this one for us.

 

A poetry appreciation group called Flat Tire Poetry Society, so-named because the idea for the group came about when four of us were stranded late at night somewhere in Cleveland on our way home from a poetry workshop. In the hour it took for a tow truck to arrive we talked about poetry that had changed our lives and decided we wanted to do this more often. Not the stranded part but the poetry discussion part. Now we meet seasonally with whoever of 20-some members can make it.

Two different women’s spirituality groups, one that digs deep into study and practice and another that dives deep into support. Both are lifeblood.

Dear friends who tell me when my work isn’t working and who support my writing no matter what.

 

Indulging in puddle delight.

 

Apollo’s Fire which enlivens even my pores. Alan Choo doesn’t plan violin so much as radiate music from his whole being and Amanda Powell’s voice makes any space sacred. We manage to afford two concerts a year and they tide us over.

Violating basic gardeners’ rules by planting seeds directly into hot compost, nearly all of it chicken coop bedding. Result? The most massive heirloom squash plants and fruits we’ve ever seen.

Putting up food from our gardens. This year we canned somewhat less than usual, but still put up well over 100 jars of salsa, sauces, jam, and syrups. This melange was photographed in our five gallon pot.

Binge-watching, because retreating from reality restores me enough to face it again the next day. We don’t have cable, so our binges are limited to Netflix and series we can order from the library. This year our binges included The Kominsky Method,  Occupied, One Strange Rock, Happy Valley, Grand Designs (our favorite episode was the handcrafted timber house in Herefordshire, from the 2017 season), the requisite Great British Baking Show, and the simple comfort of Father Brown.

Going through volunteer training so I can run writing workshops at a local domestic violence shelter. A lot of training…

Three Pushcart nominations this year thanks to Grayson Books, Gyroscope Review, and Typehouse Magazine.

Being named Ohio Poet of the Year 2019. I am still astonished.

 

 

Teaching one of my favorite small people the most important word.

A Different Kind of Genius: Standardized Learning vs Beautiful Diversity

What society seems to favor in young people — obedience, popularity, good school behavior, robust mental health, plus good grades and test scores — doesn’t necessarily build on their inborn strengths. In fact the very things we define as problems are vital aspects of human diversity. Suppressing them hinders a young person’s full development into who they are.

Here’s some of the science behind kids who go their own way.

image: youtube

Eleven-year-old Bill was defiant and got into heated shouting matches with his parents. By the time he was 12 years old, things had gotten so bad he was in counseling for his behavior. He told his counselor, “I’m at war with my parents over who is in control.”

Plenty of us broke the rules growing up and didn’t go on to earn billions as Bill Gates did, but there may be something to defiance. In 2008, researchers got in touch with nearly 750 participants from a 1968 study. In the original study these participants had been sixth graders who’d had their intelligence, attitudes, and behavior assessed. Now the participants were in their 50’s. The researchers looked for personality traits correlated with success. They controlled for IQ, household income, level of education, and other factors. They found one particular childhood characteristic predictive of those who went on to become high achievers in adulthood — rule-breaking and defiance of parental authority.

Other studies amplify these findings, showing that teens who were truant from school, who cheated, shoplifted, or displayed other anti-social behaviors (although not serious crimes) were more likely to go on to found their own companies.

We don’t know for sure why there’s such a strong correlation between youthful defiance and adult success, but it we do know traits that make strong-willed kids seem “difficult” — things like persistence, non-conformity, boldness, confidence, intense interests, and independence- —  are the same traits that in adulthood characterize leaders in business, governance, athletics, and entertainment. Strong-willed kids want to find out for themselves rather than be told, and this not only helps them resist peer pressure, it can help them think beyond conventional thinking to new ways of doing things. Like Bill Gates.

image: YouTube

Stefani wasn’t popular. According to the book Doable, she was teased, called “ugly” and “weird,” and could barely face going to school. Stefani was so desperate to transform herself from a “voluptuous little Italian girl” to a “skinny little ballerina” that she became bulimic in high school, stopping only when her vocal chords started to become damaged.

Lady Gaga is now one of the best-selling musicians of all time. Unpopularity doesn’t mean we’re likely to top the charts in 20 countries, but popular kids with loads of friends aren’t actually happier than those with just a single really close friend. Kids with larger, less intimate social networks worry, even obsess about their status, influence, and power. Instead of having close relationships, they often have many people to manage. Popularity, especially in girls’ high pressure online lives, can feel more like managing one’s self-image than being truly known to one’s friends. Studies indicate kids with few, but close friends, even one best friend, grow up to have less depression, less anxiety, and higher self-worth.

How popularity may be gained is another concern. Research shows teens (especially young teens) often try to look and act more mature than they are in order to gain peer approval, what researchers call pseudomature behavior. This can include early use of drugs and alcohol, smoking, sex, and late partying. This often works short-term to boost their popularity. Long-term pseudomature behavior is linked to a greater likelihood of serious problems in adulthood including difficulties with close relationships, substance abuse issues, and criminal behavior. And overall, it turns out those who aren’t the “cool” kids in school are more likely to be personally and professionally competent as adults.

image: Erik van Leeuwen

Michelle was a handful in grade school. “I could not sit down long enough to study and to learn,” she says. She was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD. Although she still struggled, she learned to work harder and work differently. Michelle Carter is now an Olympic champion holding the American record in women’s shot put.

Sally Shaywitz, co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, says there’s a strong connection between dyslexia and success. Although fewer than 10 percent of the U.S. population is believed to have the disorder, a study found more than a third of entrepreneurs identified themselves as dyslexic. It’s thought struggling to get by in a reading world helps people develop skills like problem-solving and perseverance. It also gives them experience with failure early on, teaching them to take more calculated risks and see opportunities where others don’t.

Dyslexics may have other strengths as well. Dr. Gail Saltz, author of The Power of Different, explains in a CNN interview that there’s a good probability people with dyslexia are more likely to have an enhanced aptitude for visual-spatial relations. “It has to do with the wiring that makes it difficult for (a person) to read and do things in a very particular way. That same wiring permits a certain kind of ability in (a person’s) peripheral vision and processing and visual-spatial processing and pattern recognition.”

Many studies have found a link between dyslexia and creativity. Comparing scores on Torrance’s Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT) between young students with dyslexia to those of normative TTCT samples indicated children with dyslexia were significantly better at generating many ideas and more original ideas.

Comparing scores on the WCR (widening, connecting and reorganizing) Creativity Test between middle school students with and without dyslexia showed students with dyslexia were better able to carry out unusual combinations of ideas. (What researchers strangely called “the peculiar cognitive functioning of people with learning disabilities.”)

And after years of seeing an association between dyslexia and remarkable artistic creativity, a school of art and design funded research to study the link. Admission to the school was extremely demanding, meaning student vocation choice relied on talent and not compensation for failure in conventional academics. Lead researcher Beverley Steffart found the student body intellectually at the top 10 percent of the population, yet three-quarters of students overall were found to have some form of dyslexia. In an interview with the Independent she said, “My research so far seems to show that there does seem to be a `trade- off’ between being able to see the world in this wonderfully vivid and three-dimensional way, and an inability to cope with the written word either through reading or writing.” “

Thomas G. West points out in his book In The Mind’s Eye that dyslexic people often have the gift of thinking in three dimensions, easily able to rotate an image in their minds or visualize every detail of a completed project. He write, “historically, some of the most original thinkers in fields ranging from physical science and mathematics to politics and poetry have relieved heavily on visual modes of thought. Some of these same thinkers, however, have shown evidence of a striking range of difficulties in their early schooling including problems with reading, speaking, spelling, calculation, and memory.” He notes such early learning difficulties plagued Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Auguste Rodin, Leonardo da Vinci, William James, William Butler Yeats, and many others. “Many of these individuals may have achieved success or even greatness not in spite of but because of their apparent disabilities. They may have been so much in touch with their visual-spatial, nonverbal, right-hemisphere modes of thought that they have had difficulty in doing orderly, sequential, verbal-mathematical, left-hemisphere tasks in a culture where left-hemisphere capabilities are so highly valued.”

image: Britannica.com

At 14, David was bored and reclusive. He spent most of his free time in his bedroom on the computer. His mother, a science teacher, didn’t push him to pay more attention to his classes at the Bronx High School of Science. Instead she suggested he drop out to homeschool so he could learn what he wanted to learn. After that, David didn’t pursue traditional academic subjects or go on to college. By the time he was 17 he was living alone in Tokyo, writing software, and providing tech help for a parenting blog.

He didn’t like writing as much as the blog required, so when he had a two-week gap in contracts he worked with a friend to set up a tumblelogging platform. In 2013, David Karp sold Tumblr to Yahoo for 1.1 billion. Many of us homeschool and haven’t come up with a lucrative innovation, but we do know the emphasis on high grades and test scores isn’t a formula for success.

As education reformer Alfie Kohn explains, “Research has repeatedly classified kids on the basis of whether they tend to be deep or shallow thinkers, and, for elementary, middle, and high school students, a positive correlation has been found between shallow thinking and how well kids do on standardized tests. So an individual student’s high test scores are not usually a good sign.”

Research also links higher grade point averages to less innovative or creative work overall. What’s being tested is has so little to do with the adaptable, creative, critical thinking necessary for today’s world that employers like Google, Apple, IBM, Bank of America don’t emphasize grades, test scores, even college degrees the most important criteria in the hiring process.  Actually, studies show that high test scores in school don’t necessarily predict any of several hundred measures of adult maturity and competence. Increasing test scores, however, were found to be directly related to interpersonal immaturity.

We’ve known this for a long time. Back in 1985, the research seeking to link academic success with later success was examined. It was appropriated titled, “Do grades and tests predict adult accomplishment?” The conclusion? Not really. Grades and test scores only do a good job of forecasting a student’s future grades and scores. They do not necessarily correlate with later accomplishment in such areas as social leadership, the arts, or sciences. And they are not good predictors of success in career advancement, handling real life problems, or maintaining positive relationships.

That’s true in other parts of the world as well. Students in China who achieve the highest scores on college entrance exams have been found to achieve less in life after school than those who scored lower. All this test pressure, to decrease a child’s chances of success!

 

 

image: Britannica.com

Another boy named David struggled with anxiety and compulsions. His repertoire of tics included rocking, counting his steps, and hitting himself on the head. Teachers were particularly frustrated by his urge to lick light switches. David was also witty and a close observer of people. He dropped out of college, did odd jobs, and dabbled in art throughout his 20’s, finally finishing an art degree in his early 30’s. When he was invited to read one of his humorous essays on NPR, David Sedaris’ career took off. He’s now the author of nine bestselling books and his speaking tours sell out each time he travels.

In an article titled “Misdiagnosis of the Gifted,” Lynne Azpeitia and Mary Rocamora explain that gifted, talented, and creative people “… exhibit greater intensity and increased levels of emotional, imaginational, intellectual, sensual and psychomotor excitability and that this is a normal pattern of development.” These attributes, however, are often misunderstood and mislabeled by teachers, parents, and therapists as mental health disorders. They may try all sorts of interventions in hopes of normalizing what are essentially symptoms of an exceptional individual.

As Ms. Azpeitia and Ms. Rocamora go on to explain, “For the gifted, inner conflict is a developmental rather than a degenerative sign, because it drives the gifted person forward to replace current ways of thinking and being with those of higher level development. This type of positive disintegration is characterized by an intensified inner tension between what one is and what one could be. This dynamic tension is what fuels the creative person’s complex inner life and provides the impetus for growth and development.”

All sorts of studies have found links between creativity and mood disorders like anxiety, depression, and compulsions. One such study followed participants in the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop. For ten years researchers tracked 30 participants in the program along with 30 people matched in age and IQ who didn’t work in creative fields.  Close to 30 percent of the control group reported some form of mental illness. In contrast, 80 percent of the writers suffered from some form of mental illness.

According to neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen, author of The Creating Brain, creative people are often skeptical of authority and prefer to make up their own minds. They are more drawn to questions than answers, and may find rituals help them cope with ambiguity. Feelings of alienation, fear, and depression are common and can themselves drive even greater creativity.

We talking about a different kind of genius.

Mathematician Eric Weinstein says conventional educational gets in the way of genius. Genius is associated with high-variance, and such variance is often found in people who are diagnosed with dyslexia, ADHD, and other differences. Dr. Weinstein says they aren’t suited to conventional educational systems, and explains,

“If you look at the learning disabled population they very often are the most intellectual, accomplished members of society… These are the individuals who are going to cure cancer. These are the people who are going to create new multi-billion dollar industries… How much genius is squandered by muting the strengths of these populations?”

Standardized expectations don’t allow us to see that our differences are a necessary part of who we are. That isn’t to minimize the difficulties people experience as they struggle to grow up and find their way, but it can help us to accept each person as a unique constellation of traits, abilities, and inclinations. Instead of emphasizing what we perceive as a young person’s weaknesses, we can build on their strengths. Instead of forcing them to “make up” for what we think they’re missing we can let them explore what enchants them. Instead of insisting on one narrow path to adult success we can throw the definition of success open to what each person makes of it.

House Concerts

Big LIttle Lions here September 2018.

Our home seems made for house concerts. This place is open in an unassuming way. Plenty of space for people eat and talk, then find a spot to sit when musicians begin to play. I feels to me as if a glow hovers around everyone at these events, intensifying as the evening goes on.

It doesn’t matter that our carpet is three decades old, that portions of the kitchen floor are in ruins, that there are several different colors of siding on our house. What matters is making very real connections in an era when we’re ever more likely to be distracted and rushed.

Two years ago my husband wanted to cancel our scheduled house concert. He insisted it would be too much for me. I’d recently gotten several frightening diagnoses and he was worried. I told him every crisis reminds us how radiant our lives already are and we were absolutely going ahead with the concert.

Our performer that autumn was veteran singer-songwriter Doug MacLeod. Doug had long performed the blues as a story-teller and won many  national Blues Music Awards. When he showed up we were all in his thrall. Can you remember the hippest guy in school, exploring the best music and coolest haunts but too laid back to brag? Doug was that guy, all the more awesome for each of his years. Doug sat down to play, man and guitar, his sandpaper-y voice wearing off our sharp edges. His stories and songs held us . Late in the evening he told us about his son Jesse’s cancer diagnosis and how they had begun composing together.  Quite a few of us were madly in love with him by evening’s end. Maybe, from sheer proximity, a little more hip too.

Our most recent house concert happened this weekend. We are honored to host amazing musicians from around the country, around the world (many found through the Concerts in Your Home network). I send out invitations well in advance, ask for RSVPs, try to have a houseful of around 30 people all donating a decent amount (100% to the musicians) to make it worth the musicians’ while. Many musicians stay here overnight, our breakfast conversations a rich new element to this experience. I tend to stress over RSVPs, probably because so many musicians performing in our rural home travel long distances to get here.

Maybe it’s a symptom of our times, but increasingly the 70 or so people on our invite list do not respond. Or they say they can come but cancel a few days before the performance. Recently a friend who cancelled actually paid for the two seats she and a friend would have occupied. Otherwise people don’t seem to understand that this is opportunity to engage with live music on the most direct terms —- literally feet away — with established, talented, extraordinary artists. The audience for this weekend’s concert, including family members, came to only 14 people in attendance.

My spouse says that our house concert experiment has run its course after nearly four years. I disagree. I did my share of active worrying when I got cancellation after cancellation for this weekend’s show, many of them less than 24 hours before performance time, but those who came told me it would be perfect exactly as it was.

They were right.

Artist Noah Derksen and his accompanist Abby Wales made it an all acoustic show to accommodate our small audience and it was perfect. Nothing will stop me from continuing after the marvelous energy of this show.

The community we all need is  in front of us. Miss your village? Maybe it’s right here, waiting for you to show up.

 

Yellow Dress Woman

“Enter each day with the expectation that the happenings of the day may contain a clandestine message addressed to you personally. Expect omens, epiphanies, casual blessings, and teachers who unknowingly speak to your condition.” ~ Sam Keen

I never forgot her. The young woman wore a yellow dress and her smile seemed to glow in the sunshine. I’m pretty sure she was with a young man, but as a child that didn’t interest me. I was on another of our family’s summer trips. These were starkly frugal, multi-week affairs meant to educate us at every free historical site possible. Our days were spent in a hot car, our nights in our tiny travel trailer. Much of the time I was carsick or asthmatic, or both. I longed for my library books, my pink bike, and all the other comforts of home.

On this day I stood in a crowd of tourists watching a demonstration of colonial candle-dipping or blacksmithing. Trapped at armpit height behind people holding cameras, I couldn’t see a thing. That’s when I noticed Yellow Dress Woman strolling on the grass nearby. I squinted at the aliveness she radiated.

It occurred to me that she wanted to be there and I realized with a sudden full-body shiver that growing up wasn’t an abstraction. This was a revelation — that a time would come when I too could make my own choices. Her image stayed with me like a beacon through the rest of my growing up years.

I shared that story with my regular Wednesday class as I asked them to think of an image that made a deep impression on them, then write about it. A lengthy pause. No pens hit paper, no fingers tapped keys. Oh no, I thought. I came up with a writing exercise that’s not working. This has happened a few other times over the years. I usually jump in to expand the concept. But heads began to bend over their stories and I relaxed.

It’s strange how fleeting images manage to plug into a waiting receptor. A man stopping to help an elder or a woman unselfconsciously nursing her baby may expand your awareness, give you new resolve, or offer clarity. We gather and hold these moments, none of us knowing what moments from our lives are carried by others.

Fifteen minutes later it was time for class members to read aloud. As always, powerful original stories were shared to rapt attention. Then on to discussion, finding insight in each other’s words. I’ve seen stories connect and uplift us so many times that I’m convinced listening to one another’s stories is the most healing thing we can do for each other, and for the times we live in.

What images do you carry that have changed you?

What Not To Do While Being Interviewed

I have done all sorts of phone and online interviews since my first book was published nine years ago. Such interviews neatly fit into two imperatives for me:

  1. Make myself do hard things.
  2. Honor my hermit impulse to stay home.

Because I never, ever listen to the resulting podcast or online discussion I don’t have to count my digressions, annoying laughs, interruptions, or “um’s.” I’m pretty sure if I had to hear my voice I’d curl up in a nice comfy corner and avoid hard things forevermore.

But I recently told students in a writing class about my worst interview, so I guess I can tell the story here.

I prepare myself for the phone call as usual. I go into my home office and shut the door to keep out dogs and visitors. I say nice things to myself like you can do this while looking at the clock. I remind myself the interviewer’s name is Julian* and the call will be coming in at 7 pm my time from California. It rings at 7 with a local number, a number that looks like my friend Andre’s number, but I can’t hear the caller. Just static. The call ends. A minute later my phone rings again. Frustrated, I say “Andre?” into the phone. No response. The phone rings again and this time it is indeed Julian, the podcast host, who explains he is trying to work out some equipment problems. As we talk he says, “Whoa, it’s really loud from your end.” I hope he can dial it down so his listeners didn’t have to listen to me at max amplification, but he’s not sure he’s able to equalize my voice and his.

Julian plays the opening music, introduces me, and I promptly say, “Thank you for inviting me, Andre.” Apparently I still have Andre’s name in my head due to those glitchy calls. I laugh, apologize, and we start over. But making a mistake in the first minute isn’t the best thing for my confidence.

I have two tactics to deal with my nervous energy during interviews. I stand looking out the window at trees, which is calming. I also play with Thinking Putty, a gift from my much-missed friend Bernie DeKoven. The putty keeps my hands busy while I try to avoid what I consider some of my common interview failings:

  • telling the same stories I’ve told in previous interviews
  • making unequivocal statements
  • leaving air space while I ponder
  • giving in to my urge to talk about research (exciting to me, deadly to most listeners)

As the interview proceeds I roll the putty into an ever-lengthening strand, twirl it around into a tiny coiled pot, then squish it and start over again. Pot after pot is created and destroyed until a bubble forms in the putty. As I squish it a loud slow sputter noise is emitted. It sounds rather like a human emphatically passing gas. I am so startled that I pause what I am saying long enough to remember that my side of the conversation is over-amplified. Michael pauses too. I prattle on again in the eager high tone of someone trying to cover up a mistake, the badly behaved putty now back in its tin. But a few minutes later my nervous energy gets the better of me and I’m back to rolling it into strands, then coiled pots, then back into lumps to start over. And yes, before the end of the call the damn putty makes yet another resounding fart noise.

It may be a coincidence, but I haven’t been asked to do a single podcast since then. So here’s my advice — avoid playing with putty while being interviewed unless you really want to go with that hermit impulse.

*Julian and Andre’s names have, of course, been changed. 

Ohio Poet of the Year 2019

 

I got a suspicious email back in August. It alleged I’d won a statewide contest. I am not so easily fooled. I wrote back:

“In case you are a wealthy foreign prince, I have nothing to extort. I’m a friendly hermit who drives a  rusty 2004 Honda and wears worn out shoes.”

The emailer responded with contact info for the Ohio Poetry Day Association (OPD), which has awarded Ohio Poet of the Year since 1938.  He said he wasn’t affiliated with the organization, but was helping out since they had trouble getting in touch with me. He asked me to call Amy Jo Zook, contest chairperson for Ohio Poetry Day and coordinator for Poet of the Year. He explained the organization is run by such a venerable board that they only operate by phone and mail.

Suspicious indeed. But I investigated.

I googled Amy Jo Zook and discovered she has a doctorate in English, won the Ohio Poet of the Year award herself back in 1988, and has volunteered for literary causes for decades. I reverse-searched the number I was given and it matched up with her name.

Hmm. Could this be a real thing? My publisher had sent my book off for several awards…

A Nigerian prince  seemed a more likely possibility than my winning anything. Rather than think about it, I went back to editing manuscripts. When that distraction didn’t work, I took a bucket of kitchen scraps out to the chickens, picked some green beans, and watered our mulberry saplings. I still couldn’t muster up the courage to make the phone call. Maybe it was the memory of my mother listing among a woman’s sins the attitude, “she certainly thinks highly of herself.”

That evening, bolstered by two substantial glasses of Merlot, I finally called Dr. Zook. She explained that books are nominated by publishers, literary groups, libraries, and other independent sources — self-nominations are not accepted. No list of nominees is released. The choices are narrowed down to eight or fewer books, which the OPD judges then compare individually before voting.

She told me about the history of the award.

Back in 1938, the State of Ohio set the third Friday of every October as Ohio Poetry Day. This was the first poetry day established by a state government in the United States, thanks to Tessa Sweazy Webb who spent thirteen months lobbying the Ohio General Assembly. She argued, ‘For each living reader a living poet, for each living poet a living reader.’

And Dr. Zook told me about her years handling the details of Ohio Poetry Day and its publications, all proudly done without email or internet. She said the annual OPD event takes place the weekend of October 18-19th at the Troy Hayner Cultural Center in Troy, Ohio with workshops, readings, and all OPD awards.  (She mentioned Mary Oliver was Ohio Poet of the Year in 1980!)

All this to say, I was indeed voted Ohio Poet of the Year on the strength of my newest collection, Blackbird

My impostor syndrome is now in full flare. Vast appreciation for Tessa Sweazy Webb, Ohio Poetry Day board and judges, and my wonderful publisher at Grayson Books, Ginny Connors. Also, vast shock at finding myself in any category that includes luminaries such as these recent Ohio Poet of the Year winners: Susan Glassmeyer, Kathy Fagan, and Maggie Smith. Sometimes good news IS real.

Pinch me when you see me.

“Poetry is more a threshold than a path.” Seamus Heaney

 

 

Benevolent Childhood Experiences

Back in my social worker days, I served as support group facilitator for adults who were abused as children. Participants ranged from early 20’s to late 60’s, each one haunted by neglect or abuse in their formative years, each one dealing with the after effects. We sat together week after week in a circle of folding chairs while people explored confusion, loss, despair, pain, vulnerability, fear, anger. We talked about what it took them to shape a life beyond early suffering. The stories told there  will stay with me forever.

We also explored stories of when they felt supported or understood.  One man remembered a coach who put a hand on his shoulder. The sensation of an adult’s hand touching him without malice was so unfamiliar that the man, as a boy, had trouble concentrating on his coach’s words. When he did, he realized the coach was saying something kind. This happened one time, and yet the man cherished the memory for decades. He said he could still summon the feeling of that hand on his shoulder. Other people talked about teachers who noticed something special about them.  They talked about a friend’s mother who would let them stay for supper or join in on family outings, about an aunt who would hug them, about neighbors who let them stick around, about grandparents who took them in when things got out of control at home.

These seem like small gestures, the sort of kindnesses adults should quite naturally extend to young people, although some in our group could recall only one or two such instances. Yet these memories sustained them for decades. Many people spoke of intentionally recalling these memories to shore up their spirits, break self-destructive habits, even keep from attempting suicide. That coach, that friend’s mother had no idea what light they’d lit in another life.

We know chronic stress or traumatic events in childhood have cumulative long-term effects on the mind and body.  The more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), the greater the damage is likely to be.  But that support group taught me more than I expected about Benevolent Childhood Experiences (BCEs). One group of researchers refers to these experiences as “angels in the nursery” serving as “protective factors that buffer adolescents, adults, and parents with histories of adversity.”

Here’s a glimpse of questions on the BCE scale currently in use.

Did you have at least one caregiver with whom you felt safe?
Did you have at least one good friend?
Did you have beliefs that gave you comfort?
Did you like school?
Did you have at least one teacher who cared about you?
Did you have good neighbors?
Was there an adult (not a parent/caregiver or the person from #1) who could provide you with support or advice?
Did you have opportunities to have a good time?
Did you like yourself or feel comfortable with yourself?
Did you have a predictable home routine, like regular meals and a regular bedtime?

I’d argue these questions are simultaneously too broad and too limited. Still, studies based on the scale show young people with caring adults in their lives are less likely to suffer the physical and mental health ravages of ACEs. In fact, “favorable childhood experiences may counteract long-term effects of childhood adversity.

Perhaps a scale of beneficial experiences helps to reinforce that each child needs and deserves consistent, committed, caring adults in their lives. It can help us remember to BE that benevolent person to children in our lives, even those we might know only briefly.  And it helps to remind us of benevolent adults in our own formative years.

Who in your childhood and teen years made you feel safe, worthy, understood?

Thank Eustress

I am sitting on the ground weeding our tomato plants. I gratefully take refuge in useful tasks like gardening and cooking. Busy hands almost always un-busy my mind. But that’s not working for me right now.

Instead I’m thinking about several editing projects nearly due. I also need to plan a class, complete a volunteer training program, deal with a health insurance hassle, and prepare because we have nine people coming over for a meal tomorrow. Mental fuss is erasing me from the garden.

I take a deep breath, choosing to put myself right back where I am. That works. I hear birdsong, hear the plop of a frog in the pond. Soon I’m complimenting our plants on their sturdy stems and reveling in the breeze.

I learned the word eustress while researching my first book.  The term was created by adding the Greek prefix “eu” — meaning “good, healthy” to the word “stress,” It’s defined as a positive stress response, often generated by a demanding but worthwhile effort. Stress is inherent in growth-producing situations. We stress our bodies to reach greater levels of physical ability, breaking down muscle to build it stronger. We tear down old limitations when challenging ourselves to do something hard for us like taking on a public speaking role, mastering a new job, or asserting ourselves in a tough situation. Stressors like these, even if we haven’t exactly welcomed them, help to strengthen us.

We’ve long been told stress is bad for us. Maybe that perception is bad for us too. A few years ago a study was done to determine if our beliefs about stress affect our health. Nearly 30,000 adults were asked how much stress they’d experienced over the previous year and if they thought stress was harmful to their health. Then their health records were tracked for the next eight years. The results were surprising. People who most strongly believed that stress impacted their health, and then went on to experience a great deal of stress, exhibited a 43% increased risk of premature death over that time.

Research psychologist Kelly McGonigal cites this study at the start of her TED talk, How To Make Stress Your Friend. When we’re in a stressful situation our pulse rate  increases, we breathe faster, often sweat. Most of us interpret those physical changes as signs we aren’t coping well under pressure. But what if we saw those as indicators our bodies are energizing to meet the challenge?

Participants in another study at Harvard University were told to interpret these symptoms as helpful. They learned to recognize that a pounding heart prepares us to take action. Faster breathing brings more oxygen to our brains. People taught to view stress responses as promoting performance were less anxious, more confident, even showed fewer physical signs of stress.  And although blood vessels typically constrict during stress (making chronic stress damaging to our hearts), people who viewed the stress response as helpful exhibited more relaxed blood vessels, the sort of reaction typically seen in moments of positive emotion.

Dr. McGonigal goes on to explain something even more remarkable. She reminds us that we think of oxytocin as a love hormone. It prompts us to strengthen close relationships, especially the mother-child bond. It’s released when we snuggle with someone we love and when we play with a pet. As she says in her TED talk,

But here’s what most people don’t understand about oxytocin. It’s a stress hormone. Your pituitary gland pumps this stuff out as part of the stress response. It’s as much a part of your stress response as the adrenaline that makes your heart pound. And when oxytocin is released in the stress response, it is motivating you to seek support. Your biological stress response is nudging you to tell someone how you feel instead of bottling it up. Your stress response wants to make sure you notice when someone else in your life is struggling so that you can support each other. When life is difficult, your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you….

Oxytocin doesn’t only act on your brain. It also acts on your body, and one of its main roles in your body is to protect your cardiovascular system from the effects of stress. It’s a natural anti-inflammatory. It also helps your blood vessels stay relaxed during stress. But my favorite effect on the body is actually on the heart. Your heart has receptors for this hormone, and oxytocin helps heart cells regenerate and heal from any stress-induced damage. This stress hormone strengthens your heart, and the cool thing is that all of these physical benefits of oxytocin are enhanced by social contact and social support, so when you reach out to others under stress, either to seek support or to help someone else, you release more of this hormone. Your stress response becomes healthier, and you actually recover faster from stress. I find this amazing, that your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection.

A final note by Dr. McGonigal. Even people who are dealing with a great deal of stress have no increase in mortality if they also reach out to help others.

I don’t mean for a moment to minimize dangerously depleting forms of stress, especially long-term stress. I’ve had some miseries the last few years that include having to cancel a book contract, getting a difficult diagnosis, and someone I love removing me from her life. My family’s crisis hamster wheel has included financial problems, health complication, and my husband being life-flighted from one hospital to another last month. (He’s going to be okay.)

I acknowledge there are much larger stress-related issues undermining people. Some of us are temperamentally more sensitive to stress,  many of us are permanently affected by adverse childhood experiences, and many deal every day with the crushing effects of poverty, prejudice, and violence.

Right now I am bringing in an armload of fresh tomatoes. There’s dirt under my fingernails and a remnants of the straw we use for mulch falling from my knees. I affirm to myself that my obligations stem from work I love. That I’m eager to volunteer in a new program. That our insurance bills result from positive medical interventions. That I am grateful to the core for every loved one coming here tomorrow. Reframing these small stresses into blessings it makes all the difference.

There’s Something About Stacking Stones

I’ve always loved stones. Not gemstones; I’m not a swayed-by-shiny-baubles sort of girl. I mean the wonderfully rough-shouldered stones found heaving up in the garden, pasture, and woods. I’m drawn to their geologically long view of things. Their solid gray patience with scurrying life forms. And their reassuringly substantial form in a world preoccupied with ephemeral concepts like wealth, fame, and power.

Maybe that’s why I’ve got a thing for stacking them.

It’s intriguing to pivot one stone on another, finding the spot where they rest in pleasing balance. Then to place another stone on top, then another, and another. I need to be careful. I don’t want stones to drop on my loved ones or my dogs or other innocent being happening by. What’s interesting is that they don’t. Sometimes stacked stones slump sideways a bit, almost as if establishing a balance they find more pleasing. Or maybe the Earth’s rotation is felt more honestly by stones as they lean in accord with the great whirling Mother stone.

The stack on the left is leaning off in its own direction.

A few seasons ago, what looked like a stone forehead emerged from our lawn. Every time the tractor passed over it the mower blades shrieked. So my guys got out a shovel, crowbar, and wheelbarrow to fully liberate it from the earth it was trying to exit. Now it’s above ground again, nestled with companion rocks by our garage door, safe from the mower. Being a stone, it’ll sink back into the ground eventually, waiting for Earth’s tides to heave it back up again.

Here’s that stone, waiting for a taller and more artful stack.

Actually, quite a few of my stone stacks have rocks piled nearby, waiting until I’m hit by stacking inspiration.  Like this one,

and this one.

These are sister stacks, seen from the side,

a

My current favorite is this gravity-defying stack.

a

I also stack stones indoors, although I’ve kept myself to one spot, the little dresser that served as our Waldorf-y nature table for years. (By the time my kids were teens that mostly meant animal skulls, fossils, and strangely shaped sticks.) These are three of the seven stone stacks there. Now, seeing this picture, I realize the one on the left has lost the pyramid-shaped stone that used to perch there. I’m off to search for it!

” The observer, when he seems to himself to be observing a stone, is really, if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of the stone upon himself.”  ~ Bertrand Russell

This post is shared from our homestead-y site, Bit of Earth Farm

Time For LovingKindness

The Greek word agape describes unconditional, universal love. This kind of love is at the core of nearly every religious tradition and deep wisdom path. We’re talking Big Love, made up of compassion for all of Earth’s inhabitants.

Be always humble, gentle, and patient. Show your love by being tolerant with one another. Do your best to preserve the unity which the Spirit gives by means of the peace that binds you together. (Ephesians 4:2-3)

Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings; radiating kindness over the entire world: spreading upwards to the skies, and downwards to the depths; outwards and unbounded, freed from hatred and ill-will.  (excerpt from Karaniya Metta Sutta: The Buddha’s Words on Loving-Kindness)

He who sees all beings in his Self and his Self in all beings, he never suffers; because when he sees all creatures within his true Self, then jealousy, grief and hatred vanish. (Paramananda, The Upanishads)

Benevolence towards all living beings, joy at the sight of the virtuous, compassion and sympathy for the afflicted, and tolerance towards the insolent and ill-behaved.  (Jain text, Tattvartha Sutra, chapter 7, sutra 11)

There are many forces trying to tear us away from such a compassionate approach, forces that foster divisions to gain profit and political power.

But we can quietly amplify love in our daily lives, even while waiting in line at the market or sitting on the bus by practicing lovingkindness. This is one of the most ancient forms of Buddhist practice, known for over 2,500 years. Consider the following studies showing how effective even a secular and simplified lovingkindness practice can be.

Intentionally take a lovingkindness walk. In a study out of Iowa State University, students were asked to think genuine kind and loving thoughts about each person they saw on one 12 minute walk. They were also told to recite this affirmation to themselves each time they saw a stranger: “I wish for this person to be happy.”  The study compared them with other students who were told to walk and consider what they had in common with passersby, students who were told to walk and compare themselves with others, and students who simply walked while observing others. The students who practiced lovingkindness toward others benefited from “…lower anxiety, greater happiness, greater empathy, and higher feelings of caring and connectedness…”

Intentionally cultivate feelings of compassion. A University of Wisconsin–Madison study put people through a mindfulness program. They were required to follow guided audio instruction for 30 minutes each day for two weeks. Half participated in compassion training in which they worked at cultivating feelings of compassion for different people (a loved one, the self, a stranger, and a difficult person). The other half received reappraisal training in which they “practiced reinterpreting personally stressful events” with the goal of lessening their negative emotional reaction.

Before and after the study, participants’ brains were scanned as they concentrated on their assigned strategy (compassion or reappraisal) while viewing a series of images. A majority of those images depicted people suffering. Brain scans of those who received compassion training revealed “a pattern of neural changes” related to empathy, executive and emotional control, and reward processing. In other words, they expanded their capacity to care.

Also, all participants took part in an online “redistribution game,” which imposed unfairness on others while giving participants a chance to rectify it. People who completed compassion training spent nearly twice as much of their own money to try to rectify unfairness as those who completed the more neutral training. Researchers wrote, “This demonstrates that purely mental training in compassion can result in observable altruistic changes toward a victim.”

Intentionally relate to a person unlike you. Back in the 1980’s, sociology professor Charles Flynn created The Love Project. Professor Flynn asked students in his Miami University of Ohio classes to make a semester-long, specific effort “to relate in a loving manner to someone they wouldn’t otherwise relate to.” Flynn also showed videos of Leo Buscaglia’s lectures and made Buscaglia’s book Love a requirement.

Over several years, more than 400 students kept journals and completed questionnaires about The Love Project. Evaluating these materials, Flynn found that 80 percent of students experienced an increased sense of compassionate concern for people in general. Sixty-five percent of the participants had an increased sense of their own self-worth. A follow-up survey showed these effects diminished somewhat but still persisted  a year later.

Scrolling through our phones is almost automatic when we’re stuck in a waiting room, standing in line,  or sitting at a coffee shop. But next time, lets try a few minutes of lovingkindness instead. Compassion can grow anywhere.