Finding Ourselves In Biographies

What makes us into who we are? I wondered about that early on, thanks to four rows of biographies in the children’s section of Porter Public Library. They were shelved separately from other books, even other biographies, in the Childhood of Famous Americans series. Each featured a different person of importance, yet the worn spines looked very much the same when same lined up — as if to say greatness is consistent.

I rode my bike, played with friends, spent time in the woods behind our house,  and indulged in make-believe. I also read for hours every day. I took a stack of books home each time we visited the library. Usually a book or two about animals, a biography, and as much fiction as I could carry. I also brought books home from the school library each week. Typically I finished all the books before it was time to get more, then suffered without reading material.

I carefully selected books from the biography shelves. Initially I chose life stories of anyone Native American, any scientist, any artist. This was a smaller selection than I would have liked. Next I chose any book about women. Also a smaller selection that I would have liked. I worked my way through these shelves, skipping only the volumes about sports giants. Each book, written by template, found significant factors in the subject’s childhood that presaged their future greatness. Of course this led me to consider my own not-so-unique childhood. Being an introvert, I was somewhat relieved that greatness wasn’t in my future. Being  a child obsessed with suffering in the world, however, forecast that I might not grow up to make things better. This added to the burdens of my elementary years.

In my teen years I read well beyond those tired old juvenile biographies, finding books that illuminated these luminaries while showing them as human sized. I realized that people considered leaders in public life were quite likely, just like ordinary people, to be morally weak or otherwise plagued by common failings. My parents weren’t happy when I mentioned these revelations at the dinner table. “There’s nothing wrong with looking up to someone,” they told me. “What do you gain by diminishing heroes?” I thought it helped us see that people considered important aren’t so different from the rest of us. (I didn’t win those dinner table debates.)

I also began to read deeper, more revelatory biographies of people I admired. I watched plants grow through the mystical eye of George Washington Carver.  I hiked  into euphoric vistas with John Muir. I sank into despair with Jane Addams and rose from it as she found her purpose in a dream. I traveled and healed with Albert Schweitzer. I wondered if I might have survived, growing into wisdom as Elie Wiesel had. I fell into Huey P. Newton’s stark revelations about racism in America. I considered my own silence in relation to Maya Angelou’s childhood choices. I examined my dreams after reading Carl Jung’s insights. I crouched behind trees with Jane Goodall, considering our oneness with all creatures.

I suspect each of us is seeded with all sorts of abilities and possibilities. And when challenged, we are likely to do good. What we call “heroism” is explained, by those who exemplify it, as “I was just doing what anyone would have done.”

I remain fascinated by what makes us who we are, beyond neat templates. We can explain this as individual callings, ancestral legacies, trauma-encoded behaviors, archetypal journeys, the grand mystery of each life’s catalysts. Or not explain it at all.

I also remain fascinated by the stories that called to us in childhood, what those stories mean in our lives today,  and how stories of our own ancestors affect who we are.

What “important person” did you look up to as a child? What template was imposed on your childhood? How do you see “greatness” differently from an adult perspective?

 

 

Author Photo Angst

There are very few photos of me, probably because I don’t willingly appear in any of them.  Even when I was very small I was bad at pictures. For years I wanted nothing more than to have buck teeth like a friend of mine, so every time I was expected to stand still for a family picture I put my top teeth over my lower lip, causing my patient father to intone before clicking, “Put your teeth away, Laura.”

Looking awkward is one of my natural gifts. I probably look awkward in photos because I am awkward in real life. Like the time I was attacked by vegetation. Or the time I threw myself into a cute boy’s locker while trying to play hard-to-get.

But now, to my horror, I’m told I need an author photo to promote my new book. Although I successfully eluded requests to put my picture on the back cover, I’m told I need such a photo for publicity materials. Whaaa? This is my third book (or fourth, or fifth, depending on how you count) and I’ve never had to assemble anything resembling publicity. But book reviewers, apparently, want to check the flesh-covered skull I smile from before they consider cracking open a copy.

In an effort to put this off longer, I have procrastinated by looking up what sort of photos truly laudable writers have gotten away with over the years.

Edith Wharton hides behind hat, enormous sleeves, and dogs.

Susan Sontag wears a costume and peeved expression.

Tom Pickard augments architecture.

Gwendolyn Brooks is ornamented by the treasure of her family.

Astrid Lindgren shows what she thinks of the pretense.

I have no illusion my work will ever come close to that of these legendary writers, but it’s fun to watch what they do with their faces.

I have never successfully posed for a picture. My eyes slam shut. I make silly expressions. I put things on my head. The whole idea of being captured by a camera seems ridiculous, maybe because the concept that we are what we appear to be is absurd.

So here I am, expected to supply a new, professionally taken picture. I’d like to find a photographer who would let me pose on a tree limb, owl on my shoulder, teapot on my head, tender defiance on my face. That’s hard to do when the budget is zero. So I’m going with an unedited picture my daughter took of me a few years ago, riffing on Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s well-known picture. It’ll have to do.

 

(BTW, if you actually know where I might find the rare creatures known as “book reviewers,” please whisper their hiding places to me.)

On Shrinking Skulls, Squash Shaping, & Science at Home

We tend to discuss unusual topics here. Things like sarcastic fringehead fish, cave burritos, declassified Russian psi experiments, cube-shaped wombat poo, and salamander stickiness.

We indulge in a strange array of podcasts and publications, and my family generally tolerates the way I read aloud intriguing passages from whatever book is currently captivating me. (Right now it’s Rob Dunn’s Never Home Alone.)

Even when my kids were small, none of them got much out of science kits. The only kit-like thing I saved from that time were several large, firm plastic molds meant to be snapped around immature squash in the garden. Presumably, once trapped in these molds, the poor squash would have no option but to grow into grimacing squashed faces. I could never bring myself to do that to any of nature’s perfect fruiting plants, yet for some reason still have those unused molds in a cupboard.

Instead, my family has a long history of doing whatever weird thing interests us. Our garage and front yard have hosted quite a few entirely youth-run projects such as building a hand-cranked forge, welding together a desk out of saw blades, carving runic greetings into stone, and assembling bones back into a skeleton. I guess things here may seem a bit odd. We’ve even scared our mail carrier.

The oldest evidence of the questing minds around here is a list of stats still posted on our frig. It started with a long-ago dinner table discussion about head size and ended when we measured each other’s head circumference. My daughter carefully wrote each person’s winning number. The list was updated as the youngest reached their late teen years, and the list has remained on our frig for nearly 20 years, proud reminder to all that my head is smaller than the heads of the man I married and the four children we spawned.

Because we’re a strange topic household, I wasn’t surprised this morning when my husband insisted his head had morphed. “These bumps weren’t here when I was younger,” he insisted, “and I swear my skull shrunk.”

I assured him that was unlikely. “I’m shorter than I used to be,” he reminded me, “so why can’t my skull shrink?”

I have no medical training at all, but am a whiz at speculation. I noted that spines and skulls are constructed differently, reminded him his height is surely affected by the spinal surgeries he’s had, and generally dismissed the possibility that one’s skull can shrink. He tends to be skeptical of my speculations.

So at 5:30 this morning I found myself measuring my husband’s head and letting him measure mine. Because we have that handy list of what our skulls measured nearly two decades years ago, we were horrified to find both our measurements were somewhat smaller. I tried to question the variables —- were we using the same measuring tape, was our hair substantially thinner, were we checking the exact same location on our heads?

He consulted his phone and quickly reported that, yes, as we get older bones in our faces slide and bones in our skulls shift. (Because life is vastly unfair, age-related changes happen much sooner in women than men.)

I insisted our skulls have to stay the same because they are the right size for our brains. “No,” he said sadly while continuing to Google. “Our brains shrink too, about five percent every decade after age 40.”

We texted each other bad jokes about our shrunken heads the rest of the day.

As my sliding skull bones and I slide through what’s left of my 50’s and beyond, I may take another look at those squash molds. Maybe if I wear one to bed each night, my shifting bony structure will take on the expression of a startled squash in yet another home science project.

Tips for Keeping One’s Brain From Shrinking

Avoid the blood sugar spikes common with processed food to avoid consequences of inflammation.

Avoid smoking, keep your blood pressure down, stay in a healthy weight range.

Keep alcohol consumption moderate and eat a diet rich in vegetables and fruits.

Get regular exercise, even increasing the daily distance walked helps (park farther away, take the stairs, etc).

Maintain strong, positive social ties with others.

My New Book!

The container of my life has been extra full these last few years — some startling lows but also some immense joys. As I said to a friend during these zigzags, I am practically a parasite on hope.

Still, I am downright startled when something amazing happens to me. And something amazing has indeed happened.

Last autumn I pulled together a manuscript of poems written since my first collection was published. I know it takes a long time to find a home for a book of poetry. And since I can’t afford to submit it to publishing houses that charge reading fees or contest entry fees, the list of publishing houses I might approach is smaller. But I pulled up my optimism socks and sent it to my first choice, Grayson Books. This is the publishing house that included one of my poems in their beautiful Poetry of Presence anthology last year.

Their submission guidelines warn they only publish a few books each year, so I expected to send the manuscript along to another publisher after I got the inevitable rejection. I didn’t even open their emailed response right away in order to postpone the disappointment.

Instead I got an acceptance! (I’m pretty sure I heard trumpets.)

I am strange about my own good news, suddenly more shy, and have only told a few people since signing the book contract back in October. Each step of the process —- editing, choosing a title, approving art commissioned for the cover — has been a testament to the professionalism and patience of Grayson Books publisher Ginny Connors. I still cannot believe my good fortune.

My good fortune doesn’t stop there. Four wonderful poets agreed to write back cover blurbs. Here they are, overflowing with the kindest words imaginable.

I admire and learn from Laura Grace Weldon’s writing. Her poems blossom from an inherent curiosity and grow strong under her compassionate treatment of the subject matter. Such fresh images and heartfelt insights move me to be a better writer.

Susan F. Glassmeyer, author of Invisible Fish and 2018 Ohio Poet of the Year

These poems touch me so deeply because they bring me home to the marvelous sacraments of the ordinary: a coyote howl at midnight, a bean in its fuzzy pod, water in a forest stream that “moves in patterns more ancient than philosophy.” When I take a few moments to read a Laura Grace Weldon poem, the sun comes out in my heart, and I know that the earth, for all its pain, is bathed in goodness.

Alfred K. LaMotte, author of Wounded Bud and Savor Eternity One Moment at a Time

Laura Grace Weldon invites us to engage our third eye, to truly examine “light in a window/ laundry flapping defiantly on the line.” Her words so intimate and lush, she guides us to spaces we pass by, take for granted, overlook in our super-charged lives. Without reprimand or judgment, Laura Grace ever so deftly reveals the secret: “it’s a matter of walking/ inside to out with someone capable of truly seeing… wakening skin and gut, summoning/ the long kinship we share with everything.”

Kari Gunter-Seymour, author of Serving and Poet Laureate of Athens, Ohio

On each surface our fingerprints linger.

They are too light to pack

too heavy to carry.

These lines from Laura Grace Weldon’s “Moving Day” remind us that the miraculous, the heartbreaking, the beautiful are always right in front of us, disguised as the daily messiness of our lives. I finished Blackbird and took a long winter walk through the park, seeing the world with fresher, keener eyes, and a feeling of gratitude.

George Bilgere, author of Blood Pages, Imperial, and The White Museum

I am endlessly grateful to these gracious poets, to my wonderful publisher, and to the dear writer friends who helped me workshop these poems: Laurie Kincer, Diane Kendig, Connie Gunn, Sarah Vradenburg, Margaret Swift, Patrick Davis, Roberta Jupin, Geoff Polk, and Virginia Douglas.

My book will be available at Cleveland’s Loganberry Books this spring or ask your local independent bookstore to order it. It can also be pre-ordered on Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Or you can get a copy from me at one of my upcoming readings (so far, Loganberry Books on 5/19 at one pm and the Wm. N. Skirball Writer’s Center on 6/2 at two pm).

A portion of all book royalties will be donated to the Medina Raptor Center, a non-profit center in Spencer, Ohio which rescues, rehabilitates, and releases injured and orphaned birds.

 

Golden Rule Here (and Hereafter?)

“Just like a sunbeam can’t separate itself from the sun, and a wave can’t separate itself from the ocean,  we can’t separate ourselves from one another. We are all part of a vast sea of love, one indivisible divine mind.”
Marianne Williamson

We’ve probably all had those brief moments when boundaries blur and it feels we’ve entered into another person’s experience. Maybe you’re furious at someone and, mid-rant, you sense the tension in the other person’s body and see flickers of conflicting emotion pass across the other face. Just like that, you feel what it is like to receive your anger. Or maybe you’re standing on a crowded bus and know, in a way that seems past knowing, that the person in front of you is in despair. You somehow draw the depth of their anguish into your own self, just for a second.

I suspect this is a relatively common experience because compassion is basic to humanity. We thrive on generosity, understanding, and mutual concern. In contrast, our own physical and mental health is imperiled by selfishness and materialism. Even a momentary act of kindness to a stranger tends to diminish previously self-centered behavior, leading people to pay it forward.

Our very biology tunes us to one another. Our hearts communicate with others at a level below our conscious awareness. According to research by the HeartMath Institute, the electrical field emitted by a human heart is 60 times greater in amplitude than brain activity. Its electromagnetic field is 5,000 greater. The heart’s field radiates through every cell in the body, extending well beyond the skin. In other words, we broadcast the electromagnetic signal of our own hearts. This can be measured several feet away from our bodies. Energy activity in the heart of one individual effects and can be measured in the brain waves of another person (or pet) in close proximity.  Whether we recognize it or not, we aren’t isolated individual lifeforms but are connected with one another in deep, interwoven ways.

Faith traditions around the world have long taught that we are one people. These moral admonitions are similar to what’s commonly known as the Golden Rule.

For more esoteric evidence of our oneness, we can listen to people who have been revived after a medical crisis and awaken with near-death experience (NDE) insights to share. I recently read Lessons From the Light by Kenneth Ring, a researcher who has devoted himself to the study of NDEs for decades. Dr. Ring writes about the phenomenon called “life review.” In it, newly (and in a NDE, temporarily) dead souls re-experience life in review, rapidly, and in a way that allows them to fully and compassionately understand themselves while simultaneously understanding their impact on every being in their lives. The illusion of isolation falls away and the essential interconnectedness of everything is revealed as a basic principle of life. Although NDErs tend to agree their experiences are too ineffable to fit into words, they try. One wrote,

One big thing I learned when I died was that we are all part of one big, living universe. If we think we can hurt another person or another living thing without hurting ourselves, we are sadly mistaken. I look at a forest or a flower or a bird now, and say, “That is me, part of me.”

We get so many hints of this from our bodies, our daily interactions, from the culture around us. We get hints from world’s spiritual and religious traditions. They tell us what a worthy, lifetime challenge it is to work toward living the Golden Rule. But oh, imagine what we bring into being as we try!

From Afghanistan to My Hand

Afghan embroidery called Khamak.

A new friend is a refugee from Afghanistan, warm and gracious despite all she and her young family have been through. On my most recent visit, Maryam shows me a rare package she received from back home. She takes out each thing slowly and with care — beautiful embroidered cloth, herbs and spices, plus packets of henna to create celebratory mehndi designs on women’s hands.

The language barrier between us is considerable. For example, I know her mother is still in Afghanistan and they talk on the phone, but I don’t know if her father is alive. When I ask, she pulls her hands over her eyes and makes an explosion sound. My eyes fill with tears in response, but I don’t know if she meant to convey he had been blinded or killed. She’s lost so much in her 29 years.

Maryam offers to paint my hand with her new henna. I want to acknowledge her kindness, but don’t want her to waste any of it on me. So with a smile I say, no, no thank you, along with the head shake and palms up signals indicating no across many cultures.

Our language barrier isn’t the problem now, she is simply determined to share what she has with me. In moments she mixes henna with water in a tea cup and takes my hand. It is too late, I realize, the potion is mixed for me. I’m not much for personal adornment but this is a meaningful juncture between us. Hospitality is ingrained in Afghan culture. Although a guest’s refusal is a sign of politeness, repeatedly insisting a guest take what is offered is what a good host does. Even if it leaves the host with nothing, generosity is paramount. I have a horror of accepting a favor when I think it might cause anyone a moment’s extra work or take something they might use, so Maryam is also teaching me an important lesson about receiving.

She carefully pulls each of my fingertips through a hole she bites into plastic, uses her finger to coat my fingertips with henna, then wraps and ties the plastic around each finger. Next she coats part of my palm with henna. Finally she gets out a toothpick to draw designs. Unfortunately the mixture is very wet and her designs keep blurring, making them blocky. She wraps my hand in plastic and tells me not to wash it until later that afternoon.

Other than ceremonially serving tea, often pouring it from one cup to another to cool it so it doesn’t burn her guest’s lips, she hasn’t found many opportunities to share her traditions with me. Henna gives her that. The whole time we sat close together on the rug as she held my hand in hers and coated my fingers. Her one-year-old and three-year-old, who normally wheel around like galaxies, stood watching quietly. The natural henna filled the room with an exquisite sweet aroma that smelled exotic to me and surely familiar to her,  likely reminding her of her mother, aunts, and friends back home. As the dark design on my hand fades, I hope our friendship deepens.

Additional notes:

Maryam’s husband speaks multiple languages and in Afghanistan was a bank manager in charge of five branches. As the war’s devastation worsened, however, he began working for the U.S. Army both as interpreter and language teacher. This was a necessary but dangerous way to support his family, as interpreters were being killed daily by the Taliban.  Eventually he and he family had to flee.

They spent several years in a refugee camp before qualifying through the  Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program for translators to come to the U.S.  (Now much harder to obtain under the current administration.) Refugees, who have endured horrifying violence and the loss of a homeland, bravely face settling into a new country. Everything is different: language, clothing, food, customs. They are expected to master the nuances of transportation, rent, taxes, employment, and language. And they owe the U.S. government for the airline tickets from the refugee camp to their new homes.

They also face prejudice, stoked by cruel falsehoods. In actuality, compared to native-born Americans, immigrants commit far fewer crimes, reach higher educational levels, are more than twice as likely to start new businesses and improve the economy.

I can’t imagine what Maryam and her family have been through, or how they are adjusting with such grace and dignity to their new lives here. Maryam’s husband works two jobs and tirelessly helps out others in their neighborhood. I’m glad to have people of their courage and character join us in this country.

Maybe This Is The Year

I have a new daily ledger, larger and far more inspiring than previous blank books I’ve used. The last day of 2018, rather than ruminate on what went on during the last year, I spent time writing lovely lists of what I want to focus on in 2019.

I’m not much for focus, but I am great at lists. I now have lists of art projects I want to do. Lists of musicians I want to host for house concerts. Lists of things I’d like to write, and as I prefaced in my tiny printing, to write with “flow first, data later.” Lists of ways I want to evolve, things I want to learn, pleasures I want to linger over.

But mostly I don’t want to make these lists into duty bound to-do lists. I want them to be about possibilities for eagerness and wonder.

And then I see I’ve already resolved to get past such lists. Back at the end of 2014 I posted a list of non-resolutions. I wrote,

Resolutions are traditionally meant to fix what we think is wrong with our lives, as if it’s necessary to hammer ourselves into someone society finds more attractive and more successful.

I say meh.

Seems to me the more significant challenges are to discover greater depths in ourselves and to cultivate more joy in our daily lives. Maybe we need to replace New Year’s resolutions with delight-enhancing non-resolutions.

I see I can’t argue with my non-resolutions from five years ago. I wanted more daydreaming, wanted to pursue whatever obscure things intrigued me, to relish sensory pleasure, to talk about my traumas as a stand-up comedian might, to adore every moment of the amazing mortal life I lead. (I’m enjoying at least eight of my 20 non-resolutions, so the trend is good. )

Still, I’m pretty excited about my new method of organization in a book that has daily writing prompts and pretty excited about the possibilities of this new year. PLEASE, let this be a year to bring in what has been in such short supply. Playfulness, awe, gratitude. The embrace of messy contradictions. A world where compassion and justice actually prevail. Arms open wide, I’m ready for you 2019.

Primary Experiences in Nature

When my mother was a little girl, a favorite aunt took her for a walk in the woods to spot wildflowers each spring. It was a tradition my mother upheld each year when she had her own children. She’d talk in whispered tones as she pointed out snowdrops, violets, jack-in-the-pulpit, trillium, and spring beauties. My father was a more avid nature lover and often took us for walks in the Cleveland Metroparks where he let us lead the way on hikes, climb on fallen trees, and skip stones in the river. These were pivotal experiences for me.

But time I spent in nature without adults left the biggest impression. I’ve written before about how the woods behind our house enlarged my imagination and sense of wonder. A more unlikely place I held dear was right next to the library parking lot. Many times after we picked out books, my mother let us go outside while she stood in line to check out. We’d go down a small incline where a tiny stream wiggled past. Most of the year it was just a trickle coming from the open mouth of a drainage pipe, but to us it was mesmerizing. We’d crouch at the edge looking for insects and tadpoles. We’d drop in leaves to see if they’d float away. We’d add a rock to watch water riffle around it. Most exhilarating was after a rainfall, when water poured from the pipe. We were careful not to get too close because we’d lose this privilege if we got our shoes wet. Each visit to the stream was brief, ending when our mother called us to get in the car.

Not long ago I drove back to look at that spot. I found a tiny ditch between two parking lots, something I wouldn’t even notice unless I was looking for it. But because my siblings and I were free to investigate it on our own, it was elevated. It was a Special Place.

Such places are around most of us, no matter where we live. And kids can find them! It might be a rampantly green area behind an apartment building where it’s hard for mowers to reach. Trees to climb and small hills to master on empty city lots.  A mini meadow or woods at the end of a cul-de-sac. A ravine or other backyard area left wild.

These places may seem inconsequential to adults, who tend to view nature as somewhere else, somewhere pristine and unspoiled. In reality nature is constantly around us and in us. Giving kids freedom to explore, observe, play, and get dirty allows them to make these tiny places a whole universe.

As Richard Louv reminds us in Last Child in the Woods, even small natural areas are better than playgrounds and manicured parks. They call up a more resilient and engaged way of being. When children spend time in natural areas their play is more creative and they self-manage risk more appropriately. They’re more likely to incorporate each other’s ideas into expressive make-believe scenarios using their dynamic surroundings—tall grasses become a savanna, tree roots become elf houses, boulders become a fort. Their games are more likely to incorporate peers of differing ages and abilities. Such outdoor experiences not only boost emotional health, memory, and problem solving, they also help children learn how to get along with each other in ever-changing circumstances.

And free play in nature helps children develop a kinship with the natural world. When researchers asked 2,000 adults about childhood nature experiences, they found those who participated in activities such as camping, playing in the woods, hiking, and fishing were more likely to care about the environment. Taking part in structured outdoor activities such as scouts and other education programs had no effect on later environmental attitudes or behaviors.  The lead researcher, environmental psychologist Nancy Wells, surmised that “participating in nature-related activities that are mandatory evidently do not have the same effects as free play in nature…”

Time in nature, even a small patch of it, lets kids center themselves in something greater. As John Muir wrote, “Wonderful how completely everything in wild nature fits into us, as if truly part and parent of us.  The sun shines not on us, but in us.  The rivers flow not past, but through us, thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing.”