What Time Is It?

Time lapse photography of stars during night time

“What time is it on the clock of the world?”   ~Grace Lee Boggs 

I am cleaning out a closet to make more space for kids’ art supplies when I come across a length of thick rope tied at intervals with colorful string.

I recognize it instantly.

Each time I taught the final session of Peace Grows workshops, we talked about how the practice of nonviolence applies on the global scale — between ethnic groups, religions, entire countries. We reviewed the many little-known ways nonviolence has impacted, even turned around national and international problems. No matter how eager participants might have been in earlier sessions as we learned about applying active nonviolence principles in our personal lives, people said they felt hopeless when it came to national and worldwide issues. That’s when I got out this rope.

I would ask for two volunteers to stand on either side of the room, each holding one end of the rope. One side represented the emergence of the first modern humans in Africa, sometime between 280,000 to 200,000 BC. That end of the rope had nothing tied to it until around 62,000 BC when bow and arrow were first used. By 18,000 the beginning of clay pottery was noted. Around 10,000 BC the Neolithic revolution began, when some hunter-gatherers took up agriculture, although it wasn’t until 4,500 BC that people begin to use the plow. At 4,000 BC the wheel was invented. Writing was developed around 2,600 BC. The strings got closer and closer together, entering A.D. centuries, and ever more thickly marked by discovery, scientific progress, and war. Lots of war. The farthest end, less than a hair’s width from the invention of the printing press, represented our current era. (The exact years marked on the rope may not be current with what we now know, but the distance between these advances is likely similar.)

Of course, if we look at earth’s entire timeline, the presence of modern humans is far punier.

Dinosaurs ruled the world for 165 million years. Homo sapiens showed up 200 to 300 thousand years ago. We humans are truly, in Earth time, a newly arrived species. As Tim Urban shows, over at Wait But Why, recorded history itself is a tiny blip of our time here.

By any measure, we are still engaged in the ongoing experiment of living differently than our hunter-gatherer roots. The hunter-gatherer era made up between 90 to 99 percent of our species’ time on earth and continues among some groups today. This way of life was and is much more interdependent, typically shaped as gift economies, and centered around craft, ritual, story, and arts with intimate knowledge of the land and its beings

We lived in small bands of nomadic people until the advent of agriculture, when communities grew to hundreds or thousands of people. Only then did our relationship to place and possessions change to one of ownership, gradually cleaving people into haves and have-nots. Not coincidentally, before this massive change there’s no convincing archeological evidence that we engaged in war.

About five thousand years ago we humans developed written language, currencies, and empires.

Around four to five hundred years ago we began more forcefully shaping our lives thanks to the printing press, industry, and the passionate pursuit of science. Modern capitalism emerged in the early nineteenth century, commodifying time in ways unknown until then.  

We are now in the Anthropocene, when human activities are having a massively detrimental impact on Earth’s ecosystems and climate.  

Yet biologically and emotionally, we are still hunter-gatherers. We evolved to be a compassionate and collaborative species. We are still learning how to live in populous cities rather than nomadic tribes of around 60 people. Our technological advancements and our weapons have developed more quickly than our ethics around their use. We have yet to grasp just how dangerous rigid economic and political systems can be, particularly when war, crisis, and division benefit the powerful.

The rope timeline I used in nonviolence workshops put our place here in a larger planetary frame of reference. Even from that distance, it seems both astonishing that we’re here at all and obvious we need to get some perspective, but it’s hard to put this into words, especially standing in front of a class. So I read a poem instead, this one by Denise Levertov.  

BEGINNERS


Dedicated to the memory of Karen Silkwood and Eliot Gralla
“From too much love of living,
Hope and desire set free,
Even the weariest river
Winds somewhere to the sea—“


But we have only begun
To love the earth.

We have only begun
To imagine the fullness of life.

How could we tire of hope?
— so much is in bud.

How can desire fail?
— we have only begun

to imagine justice and mercy,
only begun to envision

how it might be
to live as siblings with beast and flower,
not as oppressors.

Surely our river
cannot already be hastening
into the sea of nonbeing?

Surely it cannot
drag, in the silt,
all that is innocent?

Not yet, not yet—
there is too much broken
that must be mended,

too much hurt we have done to each other
that cannot yet be forgiven.

We have only begun to know
the power that is in us if we would join
our solitudes in the communion of struggle.

So much is unfolding that must
complete its gesture,

so much is in bud.

~ Denise Levertov

At What Price

“The truth is like poetry. And most people f**king hate poetry.”  The Big Short

An entirely minor political poem of mine from almost five years ago is beginning to sound more predictive than sarcastic. Any sort of “Final Economy-Boosting Solution” is not the future I want to see.

And yet…we are living in a time when influential people suggest, for real, that elders should sacrifice themselves–should die– for the sake of the economy. Those voices are getting louder and much more alarming.

Yusuke Narita, an economics professor at Yale, has repeatedly advocated for mass suicide of older people. Today the New York Times offered this evidence.

“I feel like the only solution is pretty clear,” he said during one online news program in late 2021. “In the end, isn’t it mass suicide and mass ‘seppuku’ of the elderly?” Seppuku is an act of ritual disembowelment that was a code among dishonored samurai in the 19th century.

It may seem like one professor isn’t likely to have an impact, but Dr. Narita has over 569 thousand followers on his mostly Japanese-language Twitter account. He is also a popular guest on television, and friendly with several wealthy young Japanese entrepreneurs.

Japan’s economic problems have been blamed on low birth rates and longer-lived adults, a situation increasingly common across the industrialized world. Kill-the-elderly opinions may boost shock-based ratings, but rapacious capitalism has increasingly burdened young people with untenable work hours, low pay, exploding housing costs, and unaffordable childcare.

Dr. Narita’s fantasy of matricide may go back to his mother’s brain injury when he was 19, which left him with the unwelcome financial burden of contributing to her care. Maybe counseling would be a better outlet for his bitterness. Or actually working toward sustainable solutions to invigorate a country’s workforce by advocating for paid training and education, workplace policies friendly to parents, and welcoming immigrants.  

Instead, on a recent show, he answered a schoolboy’s question about forced elder suicide by saying “If you think that’s good, then maybe you can work hard toward creating a society like that.” He has also speculated about making euthanasia mandatory.

How close are some in the U.S. to these views?  

In the pandemic’s early days of March 2020, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick suggested the demographic most endangered by Covid-19 should be willing to lose their lives for the sake of the economy. “Let’s get back to living,” he said in a Fox News interview, “…those of us who are 70-plus, we’ll take care of ourselves, but don’t sacrifice the country.” Conservative pundits agreed, including Tucker Carlson, Glenn Beck, and Brit Hume. Lt. Gov. Patrick doubled down in April, saying “I’m sorry to say that I was right on this.” At that time, 495 had lost their lives. As of today, 93,699 people have died in Texas from Covid. Across the U.S., the vast majority of Covid deaths have been among those 50 and up, with mortality increasing by age.

This doesn’t include those suffering with long Covid. The CDC says one out of every five people who tested positive for Covid experienced or continue to experience symptoms such as cognitive problems, dizziness, depression, heart palpitations, heart attacks, fatigue, pain, digestive issues, blood clots, strokes, shortness of breath, unexplained fevers, and more. As many as four million people are currently unable to work due to long Covid. The mean age of long Covid sufferers is 40.5 years old with the largest demographic hit aged 36 to 50. Sacrificing for the economy, at any age, doesn’t work here on a planet where all of us are inextricably interconnected.

Here’s the poem I mentioned. It was published by Tuck Magazine in April 2018 and recently reprinted in Mad As Hell: An Anthology of Angry Poetry. Please, let’s not get any closer to this being true.     

Final Economy-Boosting Solution  

Our privatized Congress really is making America great again. 

Who’d have thought the Productive Adult Initiative,

complete with elder joycamps, would work so well?

Consumer confidence is volcanic.

Health care costs, barely a budget blip.

For the first time trickle down works,

a fricking waterfall, old to young.

No more elderly folks shuffling through store aisles,

clogging the roads, saving for a rainy day.

No feel-good stories about some couple married 70 years.

And all those pricey assisted living complexes,

now the place to be for young creatives.

I mean come on, studio rent and chef-driven meals

with services galore. What’s not to like? 

Plus, you don’t have to go home for the holidays

or write thank you notes to your Great Aunt Irena.

Though you do miss her pastries, warm from the oven.

And your children can’t remember her accent,

or the handkerchief she used to wipe tears

from her soft crinkled face. Sometimes you think

answers to questions you forgot to ask

might be the greatest wealth.

But hey, nothing’s better than 

consumer spending power, am I right?

Laura Grace Weldon

What Story Do You Need Right Now?

Nearly every night I put a bookmark in whatever library book I’ve been reading before turning off my bedside lamp. Some nights when I can’t sleep I sit back up, turn on my light, and read another hour or two. Maybe that’s why libraries sometimes seep into my dreams.

The other night in that delicious not-completely-asleep state called hypnagogia, I found myself walking up the long front steps of my childhood library. I felt happy anticipation as I carried a stack of books to return, knowing I could bring home a freshly enticing stack. I set the books on the returns side of the tall circulation desk, which was as high as my shoulders, so in this make-believe state I was a child again.

I asked the clerk at the desk what story I needed. (I never did this as a kid, I simply found my own books.) She silently lifted a finger and pointed me in the direction of my home away from home — the children’s section. I don’t remember, in real life, ever talking to the children’s librarian or even if there was one. But in my dream the children’s librarian indicated I should sit in one of the miniature chairs at a miniature table. She sat across from me. She wore a white blouse, tucked in, and half-glasses that slid partway down her nose. (Sorry for that stereotype. Or was it more archetype?)

I asked her what story I needed. She didn’t speak either. Instead she reached up to the crown of her head and unzipped. Inside her human costume she flickered through a series of curiously aware creatures, morphing right there in front of me into wildly colorful birds, softly furred mammals, mysterious deep sea beings, until everything settled into one living body. I could see she was showing me herself as a glossy gray seal with large inquisitive eyes. This seal being was beautifully and perfectly who she was, really.  

I woke, as much as one wakes from this state, wondering what the heck this meant. What does a seal mean, symbolically? Do I identify with seals –adept in the water, awkward on shore? Maybe there’s some medium in which I’m more adept than my awkward shore self. Was this a reference to the Scottish folktale, The Selkie Bride? Are there animals hidden in me, in all of us? Why was I asking for a story?

What story do you need right now?

The Way We Teach Math Is All Wrong

“What children need is not new and better curricula but access to more and more of the real world; plenty of time and space to think over their experiences, and to use fantasy and play to make meaning out of them; and advice, road maps, guidebooks, to make it easier for them to get where they want to go (not where we think they ought to go), and to find out what they want to find out.” –John Holt

Miss Gribbon set up a new teaching prop at the front of our first grade classroom — three stick figures made of metal with round blank faces and oversized magnetic hands. Each figure was about the size of a toddler, although she referred to them as “men.” She said the first figure’s name was Ones. The next, to our right, she named Tens. The last in the row she named Hundreds. She added two bright red magnetic fingers to each figures’ hands. Then she announced that One’s fingers were worth two, Ten’s were worth 20, and Hundred’s were worth 200.

I could NOT understand how identical magnetic people could have fingers worth different amounts. The hundreds man wasn’t taller than the tens man or the ones man. Their fingers were the same size. So I watched carefully as she stood them up the next day, hoping to figure out what distinguished them. Nothing. The Ones man from yesterday might be today’s Hundreds man. Their value wasn’t intrinsic to who they were. I struggled mightily to understand how one man could be worth more than another. (Story of my political confusion, even now.)

Each time Miss Gribbon rearranged the characters’ fingers she asked a different student, “What number do you see?” If they got it wrong, she asked again in a louder voice before reluctantly providing the answer. To me, math lessons seemed very similar to playing an unfamiliar game with kids who owned the game. They’d always say, “You’ll figure out the rules as we play.” By the time I did, they always won.

We start out in life equipped to pick up mathematical concepts easily. Well-designed studies reveal even babies demonstrate strong understanding of certain mathematical principles.

We continue to advance in our comprehension almost entirely through hands-on experience. Math is implicit in play, music, art, dancing, make-believe, building and taking apart, cooking, and other everyday activities. Only after a child has a strong storehouse of direct experience, which includes the ability to visualize, can he or she readily grasp more abstract mathematical concepts. As Einstein said, “If I can’t picture it, I can’t understand it.”

Yet right around the time formal instruction starts, children increasingly report that they worry about and fear math. Math anxiety, even in first and second graders, disproportionally affects children who have the most working memory. These are the very children most likely to show the highest achievement in math. But stress can disrupt working memory and undermine performance. Otherwise successful children with high degrees of math anxiety fall about half a school year behind less anxious students. In a study of 154 young students, about half had medium to high math anxiety.

Early math anxiety can intensify, leading to increased math avoidance and lowered competence. Over 60 years of research show that positive attitudes toward math tend to deteriorate as students move through school. More than half the adult population in the U.S. is said to suffer from math anxiety, some with math avoidance so extreme that it has the potential to damage financial decisions and careers.

Is math instruction to blame?

Innovative math educator Maria Droujkova says, in an Atlantic article titled “5-Year-Olds Can Learn Calculus,” that math instruction typically follows a hierarchical progression starting with counting, then addition and subtraction, then multiplication and division, onward to fractions, algebra, and so on. Unfortunately, she says, this approach has “… nothing to do with how people think, how children grow and learn, or how mathematics is built.” She and other math educators around the world say the standard curriculum that begins with arithmetic is actually more difficult for children than play-based activities related to more advanced fields of mathematics. As Dr.Droujkova writes, “Calculations kids are forced to do are often so developmentally inappropriate, the experience amounts to torture.”

That torture is compounded by the way math is taught. Extensive research demonstrates that kids readily understand math when they develop the ability to use numbers flexibly, what’s called a “number sense.” Number sense is fundamental to all higher-level mathematics. This does not develop through memorization but instead from relaxed, enjoyable exploratory work with math concepts. In fact, math experts repeatedly point out that math education standbys — flash cards, repetitive worksheets, and timed tests — are not only unhelpful but actually damaging. These common methods discourage number sense, setting young people off in the wrong direction. In fact doing math under pressure impairs the working memory students need to access what they already know. Pressure also leads to math anxiety. There’s no educational reason to use these tactics in the classroom or at home. Greater math ability has nothing to do with working quickly nor does quick recall of math facts relate to fluency with numbers.

Add to this the burden of grades and test scores. Students today deal with a heavy load of standardized tests across all major subjects, plus tests in math class as often as every few days. They quickly learn math has to do with performance, not with usefulness and certainly not with beauty or mystery.

As mathematics educator Jo Boaler writes in Mathematical Mindsets, it’s well known that grades and test scores damage motivation and result in limiting self-labels in high, middle, and low-achieving students. Research consistently shows that alternatives to grading are far more beneficial. One study compared the way teachers responded to math homework in sixth grade. Half the students were graded, the other half were given diagnostic comments without a grade. Students who got only comments learned twice as fast as the graded group, attitudes improved, and any achievement gap between male and female students disappeared.

Dr. Boaler writes about another study in which fifth and sixth grade students were assessed three different ways. Some students received only grades, some only comments, and some both grades and comments. The students who achieved at significantly higher levels were those who were given comments only. Those who got any grade at all, with or without comments, did poorly. This was true for students across the spectrum of ability. Further research found that students only needed to believe they were being graded to lose motivation and achieve less.

Studies continue to show that students given positive feedback and no grades are more successful as they continue through school. There’s a strong relationship between teachers’ assessment practices and students’ attitude about their own potential. Unfortunately teachers give less constructive feedback as students get older and students’ belief in their own chance of improving also declines steadily from upper elementary grades through high school and beyond. Even at the university level, teaching and testing has a tendency to undermine sense-making. Students are likely to limit themselves to rigid sets of rules and procedures while lacking the relational understanding to correctly apply or adapt those algorithms to the problem at hand.

What happens when students aren’t assessed?

Dr. Boaler followed teenagers in England who worked on open-ended math projects for three years. These students were not graded or tested, and only given information about their own learning, even though they faced national standardized tests at the end of that period. A few weeks before the test they were given practice exams to work through. Although they were largely unfamiliar with exam questions or timed conditions, when tested these students scored at a significantly higher level than students who had gone through standard math classes with frequent tests similar to the national exam questions.

What happens when math instruction is even more limited?

Back in 1929, pioneering educator Louis P. Benezet, superintendent of the Manchester, New Hampshire schools, wrote, “The whole subject of arithmetic could be postponed until the seventh year of school, and it could be mastered in two years’ study by any normal child.” He began an experiment. In five classrooms, children were exposed only to naturally occurring math like telling time and playing games, while in other classrooms children received typical math lessons.

At the end of the first year differences were already apparent between students exposed to these two different approaches. When children were asked the same mathematical story problem, the traditionally taught students grabbed at numbers but came up with few correct results, while the experimental students reasoned out correct answers eagerly, despite having minimal exposure to formal math. Based on these successes, the experiment expanded. By 1932, half of the third- to fifth-grade classes in the city operated under the experimental program. After several years, the experiment ended due to pressure from some principals. Children in the experimental classrooms went back to learning from a math book in the second half of sixth grade. All sixth-grade children in the district were tested and in the spring of that year all the classes tested equally. When the final tests were given at the end of the school year, one of the experimental groups led the city. In other words, those children exposed to traditional math curricula for only part of the sixth-grade year had mastered the same skills as those who had spent years on drills, times tables, and exams. Even more remarkably, the students in the experimental classrooms were from the most poverty-stricken neighborhoods where poor school performance was common. The Journal of the National Education Association published the last of Mr.Benezet’s articles in 1936, calling on educators to replace formal math instruction with naturally occurring math.

What happens when there’s no math instruction by trained educators?

Homeschooling and unschooling families around the world devote much less, if any, time to formal mathematics instruction. There are significant limitations to research of homeschooled and unschooled youth for a variety of reasons, including a self-selecting population, so findings are interesting but inconclusive.

Multiple studies indicate homeschooling offers significant academic advantages, regardless of the parent’s educational attainment. Those tested in the last two years of homeschooling, what would be a schooled student’s junior and senior years, statistically score in the 86th to 92nd percentile. The percentage of homeschooled students who complete college far exceeds the rate of public school students.

Studies show homeschoolers taking the SAT tend to score significantly above average in all areas except math where their scores are still above average. The most recent College Board stats show mean scores for all college-bound seniors were 497 in critical reading, 487 in writing, and 513 in mathematics. For the 13,549 homeschooled seniors who took the test that year, means scores were 567 in critical reading, 535 in writing, and 521 in mathematics.

It’s hard to wade through research comparing math achievement of homeschooled versus conventionally schooled young people because much of the research includes as “homeschooled” those students who are educated using district or state sponsored programs which provide conventional-style math instruction to be done at home, which largely replicates the problems of conventional classroom instruction.

Still, several informal surveys show disproportionate number of homeschool and unschool adults working in STEM careers. And it seems that a significant number of today’s high-achievers in technology, science, and math have emerged from the homeschooling community. Their numbers include:

  • Erik Demain — professor of theoretical computer science at MIT and named “one of the most brilliant scientists in America” by Popular Science
  • Ruth Elke Lawrence-Naimark — researcher in knot theory and algebraic topology,
  • Francis Collins — geneticist and director of the National Institutes of Health, Samuel Chao Chung Ting — physicist and Nobel Prize recipient,
  • Phillip Streich — holder of numerous patents and co-founder of nanotechnology company making him a multimillionaire by the time he entered Harvard,
  • Arran Fernandez — youngest mathematician with sequences published in Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences,
  • Willard Boyle — physicist, co-inventor of charge-coupled device and Nobel Prize winner.

What happens when there’s no math instruction other than what young people request?

Democratic schools exist at the opposite end of the spectrum from conventional schooling. Students are not segregated by age and each student has one vote, just as staff members do, to democratically run the community. All young people are trusted to choose their own activities and no classes are mandatory, making these schools a collectively managed and open setting for self-directed learning.

Psychologist Peter Gray surveyed graduates of one such school, Sudbury Valley School (SVS) in Framingham Massachusetts. He found that young people who were not mandated to follow curricula, take tests, and receive grades “…have gone on to good colleges and good jobs…They are taking responsible positions in business, music and art, science and technology, social services, skilled crafts, and academia.” Dr. Gray notes that employers are rarely concerned about a prospective employee’s grades in algebra. Instead the traits for career success are those that graduates say were fostered by their time at SVS, such as “…a strong sense of responsibility, an ability to take initiative and solve problems, a desire and ability to learn on the job, an ability to communicate effectively, and perhaps most of all, a high interest in and commitment to the field..”

And there’s this anecdote, shared by teacher Daniel Greenberg in his book Free At Last. A group of students at the Sudbury Valley School approached him saying they wanted to learn arithmetic. He tried to dissuade them, explaining that they’d need to meet regularly and do homework. The students agreed to do so. In the school library, Greenberg found a math book written in 1898 that was perfect in its simplicity. Memorization, exercises, and quizzes were not ordinarily part of the school day for these students, but they arrived on time, did their homework, and took part eagerly. Greenberg reflects, “In twenty weeks, after twenty contact hours, they had covered it all. Six year’s worth. Every one of them knew the material cold.” A week later he described what he regarded as a miracle to a friend, Alan White, who worked as a math specialist in public schools. White wasn’t surprised. He said, “…everyone knows that the subject matter itself isn’t that hard. What’s hard, virtually impossible, is beating it into the heads of youngsters who hate every step. The only way we have a ghost of a chance is to hammer away at the stuff bit by bit every day for years. Even then it does not work. Most of the sixth graders are mathematical illiterates. Give me a kid who wants to learn the stuff — well, twenty hours or so makes sense.”

These examples aren’t meant to be anti-teaching, they are meant to broaden our understanding about when instruction is most useful and effective. That happens less often than we’d think — when the learner seeks guidance, demonstration, resources, or help. Learning that’s sought out sticks with the learner. It promotes curiosity, persistence, passion, and deep inquiry — exactly what’s needed to dig into the fathomless depths of mathematics or any other pursuit.

Math as it’s used by the vast majority of people around the world is actually applied math. It’s directly related to how we work and play in our everyday lives. In other words it’s useful, captivating, and often fun.

Interestingly, people who rely on mental computation every day demonstrate the sort of adroitness that doesn’t fit into conventional models of math competence. In a New York Times article titled “Why Do Americans Stink at Math,” author Elizabeth Green (who defines the term “unschooled” as people who have little formal education) writes,

Observing workers at a Baltimore dairy factory in the ’80s, the psychologist Sylvia Scribner noted that even basic tasks required an extensive amount of math. For instance, many of the workers charged with loading quarts and gallons of milk into crates had no more than a sixth-grade education. But they were able to do math, in order to assemble their loads efficiently, that was “equivalent to shifting between different base systems of numbers.” Throughout these mental calculations, errors were “virtually nonexistent.” And yet when these workers were out sick and the dairy’s better-educated office workers filled in for them, productivity declined.

The unschooled may have been more capable of complex math than people who were specifically taught it, but in the context of school, they were stymied by math they already knew. Studies of children in Brazil, who helped support their families by roaming the streets selling roasted peanuts and coconuts, showed that the children routinely solved complex problems in their heads to calculate a bill or make change. When cognitive scientists presented the children with the very same problem, however, this time with pen and paper, they stumbled. A 12-year-old boy who accurately computed the price of four coconuts at 35 cruzeiros each was later given the problem on paper. Incorrectly using the multiplication method he was taught in school, he came up with the wrong answer. Similarly, when Scribner gave her dairy workers tests using the language of math class, their scores averaged around 64 percent. The cognitive-science research suggested a startling cause of Americans’ innumeracy: school.

And Stanford mathematician Keith Devlin explains in The Math Gene that we’re schooled to express math in formal terms, but that’s not necessary for most of us — no matter what careers we choose. People who rely on mental math in their everyday lives are shown to have an accuracy rate around 98 percent, yet when they’re challenged to do the same math symbolically (as in standardized tests) their performance is closer to 37 percent.

Conventional math education may also limit our concept of what math can do. As Dr. Devlin notes in a post titled “Most Math Problems Do Not Have a Unique Right Answer:”

One of the most widely held misconceptions about mathematics is that a math problem has a unique correct answer…

Having earned my living as a mathematician for over 40 years, I can assure you that the belief is false. In addition to my university research, I have done mathematical work for the U. S. Intelligence Community, the U.S. Army, private defense contractors, and a number of for-profit companies. In not one of those projects was I paid to find ‘the right answer.’ No one thought for one moment that there could be such a thing.

So what is the origin of those false beliefs? It’s hardly a mystery. People form that misconception because of their experience at school. In school mathematics, students are only exposed to problems that

  • are well defined,
  • have a unique correct answer, and
  • whose answer can be obtained with a few lines of calculation.

How can we translate all these findings into math education? 

We not only need to drop flashcards, timed tests, and rote worksheets. We need to emphasize math as meaningful, useful, and connected.

A. The most statistically significant predictors of long-term math achievement, according to a study that tracked children from age three to age 10, had very little to do with instruction. Instead the top factors were the mother’s own educational achievements and a high quality home learning environment. That sort of home environment included activities like being read to, going to the library, playing with numbers, painting and drawing, learning letters and numbers, singing and chanting rhymes. These positive effects were as significant for low-income children as they were for high income children. Children who attended highly effective preschools (but not moderately effective programs) also benefited. Understanding numbers as meaningful and fun is important from the earliest years.

B. Technology innovator Conrad Wolfram says we need to go beyond computation. He suggests these four steps:

  • Pose the right question about an issue
  • Change that real world scenario into a math formulation
  • Compute
  • Turn the math formulation back into a real world scenario to verify it

C. Barnard College president Sian Beilock president says math is best learned as storytelling and done so by incorporating the body, the way children naturally absorb real world math. As neuroscientists map the brain, they find humanity evolved skills that overlaid onto areas of the brain that control the body. Math doesn’t sink in when confined to the intellect. It is drawn in through the body. We see this in studies showing babies who are able to move and explore more freely learn more quickly. “Math, Dr. Beilock says, “is a very recent cultural invention.” The part of the brain used for numerical representation is related to finger motion, demonstrating exactly why children best learn by counting on their fingers. Hand movement all the way up to full body engagement, such as walking while thinking, are actually more valuable than speech in comprehending everything from early computation to abstract concepts in physics. Dr. Beilock also emphasizes the benefits of time in nature to refresh one’s attention, leading to greater focus and comprehension.

D. Dr. Droujkova adds to this by emphasizing richly social math experiences that are both complex (able to go in a variety of directions) and simple (open to immediate play). She says any branch of mathematics offers both complex and simple ways in. It is best, she explains, to keep from chaining kids into formal equations early on. There’s an informal level where kids play with ideas and notice patterns. Then comes a more formal level where kids can use abstract words, graphs, and formulas. But it’s best if a playful attitude is kept alive, because what mathematicians do at the highest level is play with abstract ideas.

Dr. Droujkova notes that the community she founded called Natural Math is essentially a “freedom movement.” She explains: “We work toward freedom at many levels — the free play of little kids, the agency of families and local groups in organizing math activities, the autonomy of artists and makers, and even liberty for us curriculum designers…. No single piece of mathematics is right for everyone. People are different, and people need to approach mathematics differently.” Although we’ve been schooled to believe that math must be taught in a structured way by professionals, Dr. Droujkova continues to establish lively and engaging community-based, open-learning math circles that can be led by any adult. She and her colleagues make their materials open under Creative Commons license and offer online hubs with courses and resources for parents, teachers and teenagers who want to lead local groups. (See naturalmath.com) As Dr. Droujkova says in a recent interview, “math circles are magic circles.”

School-like instruction has been around less than a fraction of one percent of the time we humans have been on earth. Yet humanity has thrived. That’s because we evolved as free range learners gaining mastery as we explore, play, emulate role models, challenge ourselves, make mistakes and try again. That’s how everyone learns to walk and talk. That’s how young people have become capable adults throughout history. And that’s how innovation happens in the arts, sciences, and technology. In the long view, school is the experiment.

For many it’s hard to see beyond the school mindset because most of us went to school. So when we think of education, we view school as the standard even if we simultaneously realize that many parts of that model (also found in daycare, preschool, kids’ clubs, sports, and enrichment programs) aren’t necessarily beneficial. Narrowing the innate way we learn can unintentionally narrow enthusiasm, creativity, persistence, and the desire to dive deeply into any pursuit. It can interfere with the full development of our abilities.

My first grade math lessons taught me to equate math with fear. I went on to get good grades in the subject, but by high school my math anxiety led me to give up hopes of working in a science field. Math misery doesn’t have to be imposed on the next generation.

It’s time to free ourselves from the assumption that math instruction is a painful necessity. Approaching math in ways that are disconnected from a child’s life subtracts the meaning and the joy. It multiplies fear. Data shows and experience proves that real learning flows from the learner’s consent and the learner’s interest. We can offer math as an enlivening, beautiful tool to the next generation as soon as we free ourselves from the limitations of the school mindset.

For more information:

Math Instruction versus Natural Math: Benezet’s Example
Natural Math: 100 Plus Activities & Resources

Published in Tipping Points, originally adapted from the author’s book Free Range Learning.

Favorite 2022 Reads

It has been another long pandemic year with nearly every planned gathering, class, and adventure cancelled. Far far worse, this was also a year in which several friends died.

I am deeply grateful for wonderful people both irl and online, for the playful comfort of companion animals, for the mentors found in every one of nature’s inhabitants. And, as always, for the restorative pleasures of reading. Here’s a short look at some of the most memorable books I read this year.

FICTION

The Book of Form and Emptiness (indie link) by Ruth Ozeki
You know the feeling when you’re only a few pages in and recognize, through your whole body, you’ve stumbled on a magnificent book? One that is beautifully written by a person whose wisdom and insight will affirm what you haven’t ever been able to articulate? For me, The Book of Form and Emptiness is one such book. I adore the memory of Kenji, I understand Annabelle, I resonate with Benny, especially since we both recognize a soul in what others regard as “things.” I grieve the loss of Kenji, I am fascinated by The Aleph, I respect and admire Slavoj. And oh, the voice of Book, who speaks for all books, who knows and understands as I’ve always thought books did.

Here’s a glimpse of what Book has to tell us. ““Every person is trapped in their own particular bubble of delusion, and it’s every person’s task in life to break free. Books can help. We can make the past into the present, take you back in time and help you remember. We can show you things, shift your realities and widen your world, but the work of waking up is up to you.”

And another. “Is it odd to see a book within a book? It shouldn’t be. Books like each other. We understand each other. You could even say we are all related, enjoying a kinship that stretches like a rhizomatic network beneath human consciousness and knits the world of thought together. Think of us as a mycelium, a vast, subconscious fungal mat beneath a forest floor, and each book a fruiting body. Like mushrooms, we are a collectivity. Our pronouns are we, our, us.”

And, as a writer, I take this to heart. “The first words of a book are of utmost importance. The moment of encounter, when a reader turns to that first page and reads those opening words, it’s like locking eyes or touching someone’s hand for the first time, and we feel it, too. Books don’t have eyes or hands, it’s true, but when a book and a reader are meant for each other, both of them know it,”

Let yourself slide into this book while holding a book (or a tablet) believing it is also aware you are holding it…

Bewildermen (indie link) by Richard Powers   
I was completely enraptured by this book. Powers deftly lets the reader inhabit what might be called a “different” mind via the excruciating awareness of a gifted child who is grieving the loss of his mother while simultaneously grieving his species’ relentless assault on Earth’s lifeforms. I felt for this child while also identifying with the father, who is experiencing these same trials while trying to lift his son toward a hopeful future. As the father notes, “Life is something we need to stop correcting. My boy was a pocket universe I could never hope to fathom. Every one of us is an experiment, and we don’t even know what the experiment is testing.”

There’s so much brought into this masterful book – science, faith, dedication, sorrow, beauty, creativity, judgement’s cruelties, and transcendence found in unspoiled nature. It also speaks to how those we love are never really gone. “Life itself is a spectrum disorder, where each of us vibrated at some unique frequency in the continuous rainbow.”

Okay, one more quote: “Oddly enough, there’s no name in the DSM for the compulsion to diagnose people.”

Lessons in Chemistry (indie link)  by Bonnie Garmus
Triumph is not too strong a word for this debut novel. There’s so much intelligence and insight in this book — the main character, her young daughter, and the dog as notable examples. The author brings us directly into the unrelenting misogyny of the 1950s and 60s, doing so with respect for women who push back as well as empathy for women who do not.  “Whenever you feel afraid, just remember,” Garmus writes. “Courage is the root of change – and change is what we’re chemically designed to do. So when you wake up tomorrow, make this pledge. No more holding yourself back. No more subscribing to others’ opinions of what you can and cannot achieve. And no more allowing anyone to pigeonhole you into useless categories of sex, race, economic status, and religion. Do not allow your talents to lie dormant, ladies. Design your own future. When you go home today, ask yourself what YOU will change. And then get started.”                        

This is a wise, savvy story with a generous backbone. It’s particularly jarring to see the cartoonish cover the publisher chose for this top of the class book — perhaps unintentionally reinforcing the theme that women have a great deal more to overcome.

Here’s one more exhortation the author offers. “No surprise. Idiots make it into every company. They tend to interview well.”

Nothing To See Here (indie link)  by Kevin Wilson
Wildly improbable and incredibly engaging story about class division, hypocrisy, loneliness, responsibility, disability, and hope. You’ve definitely never read a novel about caring for fire-starting children while their politician father gets on with his career.  Here are two quotes to enjoy:  

“Who would judge you?” she asked. “Who do you know who’s done a good job? Name one parent that you think made it through without fucking their kid up in some specific way.”

“Timothy’s eyes kind of flashed with recognition, as if the seventeenth-century ghost who lived inside him had suddenly awakened.”

A Girl Called Rumi (indie link) by Ari Honarvar
Beauty, tragedy, and the lure of poetry carry us through back and forth between 1981 Shiraz, Iran and 2009 San Diego, as well as a realm beyond the physical world where mystical teachings of ancient Persia hold sway. “Tears pooled in my eyes as my mother’s recent poem came to mind, “ Honarvar writes. “It was about the four-thousand-year-old cypress that longed for the forest of her youth –before the insatiable darkness of winter devoured pleasant memories of blues skies and sunshine and before gardeners became lumberjacks.”

The Sentence (indie link) by Louise Erdrich
So much to savor from this prolific and deeply wise author. Here she writes about the power books (and tradition and love and fear) have over us. I love Louise Erdrich’s writing, including her wonderful Birchbark House children’s series. The Sentence absolutely flows, as if effortlessly served, and the characters stay with me. Here are a few quotes to give you a taste.

“You can’t get over things you do to other people as easily as you get over things they do to you.”     

“Small bookstores have the romance of doomed intimate spaces about to be erased by unfettered capitalism.”             

“Every world-destroying project disrupts something intimate, tangible, and Indigenous.”

Boy’s Life (indie link) by Robert McCammon    
This is a rousing adventure story, a perfect distraction from current events. The main character, who entertains his friends with preposterous stories, is also living in such a story. While it’s mostly a coming-of-age tale told by an author who sometimes can’t help but bemoan the changes “progress” brings, it has just enough danger, mystery, and otherworldly strangeness to keep the reader going for 625 pages.

Here’s a quote I savored and shared years before actually reading this novel. “We all start out knowing magic. We are born with whirlwinds, forest fires, and comets inside us. We are born able to sing to birds and read the clouds and see our destiny in grains of sand. But then we get the magic educated right out of our souls. We get it churched out, spanked out, washed out, and combed out. We get put on the straight and narrow and told to be responsible. Told to act our age. Told to grow up, for God’s sake. And you know why we were told that? Because the people doing the telling were afraid of our wildness and youth, and because the magic we knew made them ashamed and sad of what they’d allowed to wither in themselves.”                            

It felt, reading this, as if McCammon was speaking directly to my experience. He writes, “It seemed to me at an early age that all human communication — whether it’s TV, movies, or books — begins with somebody wanting to tell a story. That need to tell, to plug into a universal socket, is probably one of our grandest desires. And the need to hear stories, to live lives other than our own for even the briefest moment, is the key to the magic that was born in our bones.”      

And this. “When you look at something, don’t just look. See it. Really, really see it. See it so when you write it down, somebody else can see it, too.”

The Memoirs of Stockholm Sven (indie link) by Nathaniel Ian Miller    
Stories have a strange magic. We come to care about the characters, especially when they evoke that stirring sense of “same” with the reader.

By the end of the book, I felt I understood Sven. What an interesting character. Here’s a man whose choices bring him little in the way of creature comforts, although he works tirelessly to keep himself alive, but who also thrives best when reading or observing nature. A man whose self-abnegation and disregard for others’ feelings shifts into a profound ability to connect and care thanks to those who have reached out to him. A man who judges entire nationalities as lazy, boorish, or stupid yet nearly every other character breaks free of prejudicial ideas about women’s roles, sex work, teen pregnancy, and war itself.

I enjoyed Sven’s curmudgeonly insights. Like this one. “A life is substantially more curious, and mundane, than the reports would have it. And in truth, though I am known—within the tiny dewdrop circles of the unlikely few who know of me—as a solitary, unmatched Arctic hunter, I am no such thing, and I was seldom alone.”

And my common ground with Sven’s love of reading. “I had no interest in destiny. I knew I wasn’t on the earth to please anyone, let alone God. I was just restless. National pride, military service, ribald songs, the sound of grown men laughing, air exchanged between several people in a tight space—they are all among the variety of things I found repellent. I suppose I still do. But they are also cherished staples of Swedish society. In the rather trite throes of alienation and disaffection, I turned instead, as so many youths before me have, to books.”

Much as I appreciated the character of Sven, I utterly adored Charles MacIntyre, Taino, and Skuld. If only a book’s magic would allow us to absorb and take on the qualities we most admire in its characters.

Eve Green (indie link) by Susan Fletcher 
Fletcher is a rare writer. Her keen observations hold transcendent beauty, yet somehow she folds them into the story gently, without puffery. Her novel Corrag (released in the U.S. as The Highland Witch) is my favorite of hers but I’m holding back on reading all of her works, saving them the way one might save the good wine for a special occasion. Eve Green is her first novel, describing an orphaned girl growing up in her grandparent’s Welsh home surrounded by pastoral beauty as well as by painful lies.

“Love is blind, they say–but isn’t it more that love makes us see too much?” Fletcher writes. “Isn’t it more that love floods our brain with sights and sounds, so that everything looks bigger, brighter, more lovely than ever before?”

Unlikely Animals (indie link) by Annie Hartnett
A young woman returns home after dropping out of medical school, doing what she can to care for her father in this tragic yet witty story that somehow pulls together a missing person search, lost healing powers, a millionaire’s secret get-away, and a naturalist’s ghost in this story of intergenerational healing. Harnett writes, “Her father often said that a poet loves anything that better illuminates the daily horror of being alive.” This entertaining read seems too short, even at 368 pages.                 

Dancing in the Mosque: An Afghan Mother’s Letter to Her Son (indie link) by Homeira Quaderi
This is structured as a mother’s letter to the child she longs for. Her story asks us to consider the lives of Afghani women, their sacrifices, and what a mother will endure to protect the people she loves.

Quaderi writes, “My grandmother believed that one of the most difficult tasks that the Almighty can assign anyone is being a girl in Afghanistan. As a child, I didn’t want to be a girl. I didn’t want my dolls to be women.”

This Tender Land (indie link) by William Kent Krueger    
This beautiful, disturbing, and absorbing novel has a lot in common with The Lincoln Highway — four kids on the lam with resulting violence as well as insight— except Krueger published this before Towles wrote his bestseller. I’m still troubled by the ending of Towles’ book. This Tender Land, in contrast, ends on a truly redemptive note. Here are two glimpses of Krueger’s writing.

“Our former selves are never dead. We speak to them, arguing against decisions we know will bring only unhappiness, offering consolation and hope, even though they cannot hear.”     

“Me, I love this land, the work. Never was a churchgoer. God all penned up under a roof? I don’t think so. Ask me, God’s right here. In the dirt, the rain, the sky, the trees, the apples, the stars in the cottonwoods. In you and me, too. It’s all connected and it’s all God.”

 NONFICTION

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (indie link) by Jenny Odell
The author reminds us our attention as the most precious—and overdrawn—resource we have. As she writes, “If we have only so much attention to give, and only so much time on this earth, we might want to think about reinfusing our attention and our communication with the intention that both deserve.” This book doesn’t rail at us to renounce technology and get back to nature (or our own navels). Instead it asks us to look at nuance, balance, repair, restoration, and true belonging. She writes beautifully. Here’s a snippet.      

“In that sense, the creek is a reminder that we do not live in a simulation—a streamlined world of products, results, experiences, reviews—but rather on a giant rock whose other life-forms operate according to an ancient, oozing, almost chthonic logic. Snaking through the midst of the banal everyday is a deep weirdness, a world of flowerings, decompositions, and seepages, of a million crawling things, of spores and lacy fungal filaments, of minerals reacting and things being eaten away—all just on the other side of the chain-link fence.”        

The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times (indie link) by Jane Goodall and Douglas Abrams
I really needed this book when I read, or actually listened to it. I don’t think the back and forth interview style enhanced the content but I loved hearing Jane’s voice on the audiobook. She shared stories about her wartime childhood, the disappointments that serendipitously led her to her life’s work, and about what it means to be an ambassador for a sustainable world. I was glad to hear her respond to vital questions such as “How do we stay hopeful when everything seems hopeless?” and “How do we cultivate hope in our children?” She says, “Hope is often misunderstood. People tend to think that it is simply passive wishful thinking: I hope something will happen but I’m not going to do anything about it. This is indeed the opposite of real hope, which requires action and engagement.”

Walking in Wonder: Eternal Wisdom for a Modern World (indie link) by John O’Donohue This is a posthumous collection from the Irish poet-theologian. I listened to the audiobook narrated by the author’s brother Pat O’Donohue. I play library CDs in my elderly car, so I absorbed this in small doses, which felt like a perfect way to appreciate O’Donohue all over again. And there’s so much wisdom here to absorb. For example, “If you go out for several hours into a place that is wild, your mind begins to slow down, down, down. What is happening is that the clay of your body is retrieving its own sense of sisterhood with the great clay of the landscape.”

Here’s another. “One of the sad things today is that so many people are frightened by the wonder of their own presence. They are dying to tie themselves into a system, a role, or to an image, or to a predetermined identity that other people have actually settled on for them. This identity may be totally at variance with the wild energies that are rising inside in their souls. Many of us get very afraid and we eventually compromise. We settle for something that is safe, rather than engaging the danger and the wildness that is in our own hearts. We should never forget that death is waiting for us.” 

And one more, this from a man who died too young at the age of 52, “Walk around feeling like a leaf. Know you could tumble any second, then decide what to do with your time.”

Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice  (indie link) by Rupa Marya and Raj Patel    What the authors mean by “deep medicine” is health in the context of family, community, and interconnection with the web of life. As the authors observe, “the body is itself a kind of place—not a solid object but a terrain through which things pass, and in which they sometimes settle… To wonder why some things settle in some bodies and not in others is to begin to ask questions about power, injustice, and inequity.” This is an astute, illuminating, and necessary read.

Inciting Joy: Essays (indie link) by Ross Gay  
This is exactly the book I needed on a sad day. It is tender and informed wisdom. Each section brims with bittersweet awareness of why joy is so necessary, even life-giving, among all that’s broken. In the first few pages I thought about getting highlighters to mark up the most memorable passages, but realized I’d be rainbowing the whole book. I may love the way the author writes but love even more his warm, witty, fiercely furious footnotes. 

“Sharing what we love is dangerous,” Gay writes. “It is vulnerable, is like baring your neck, or your belly, and it reveals that, in some ways, we are all commonly tender.”     

“It seems to me that grief is not gotten over, it is gotten into. And the griever teaches us, or reminds us, there is no pulling it together. There are only degrees or expressions of falling apart. Because grieving, alert to connection, luminous with it, is never only one person’s experience. In fact, I think it is the case that grieving, or the griever, consciously or not, connects to all of grief, and to all grievers, and which is perhaps why there are some traditions in which the griever is held in constant vigil for a long time—those traditions understand the griever is entering the oceanic sorrow, is drifting into it. And those traditions know, connected as we are, we are obligated to keep an eye on each other as the waters of grief close behind us.”

Rooted: Life at the Crossroads of Science, Nature, and Spirit (indie link) by Lyanda Lynn Haupt   
This is an inspiring look at our inextricable connection to all of nature. Haupt winds threads of poetry, myth, and storytelling through the loom of multiple scientific disciplines in chapters with reader-focused titles such as “listen,” “wander,” “immerse,” “unsee,” and “create.” I’ve read a lot of similar works, yet truly appreciate the beautiful way this author pulls it together along with gently constructed reminders about what’s necessary and true. Here’s a glimpse of her work.

“We have come to an earthen moment wherein we must make all the connections we are able with the whole of life, no matter how at-risk that puts our public-facing façade of normality. Look at the vapid homogeneity of the wealth-based, earth-denuding, dominant culture: is this the approval we seek? When we turn to the sweet, ragged edges of society, we see the people carrying violins, mandolins, pens, microscopes, walking sticks. The ones with ink on their hands, paint on their faces, mosses in their hair, shirts on sideways because they have been awake all night in the thrall of a new idea. This is where the art of earth-saving lies. We are creating a new story –one of vitality, conviviality, feralness (escape!), wildness, nonduality, interconnectedness, generosity, sensuality, creativity, knowledge of the earth and all that dwells therein.”

Riding the Lightning: A Year in the Life of a New York City Paramedic (indie link) by Anthony Almojera
This straightforward and gripping memoir is by a first responder who had seen it all, until the pandemic hit. His account shares his own story as well as those of patients and coworkers. He writes, “I thought I could handle anything my job threw at me. That I could witness any amount of suffering. That I was someone people could lean on. After all, I was the senior paramedic, the man who could restart a person’s heart or detect a ruptured aneurysm… I was the union vice president, the one who blasted the higher-ups on Twitter and butted heads with them in person to defend my coworkers’ rights. I was also the guy who cooked a nine-course meal for his friends at Christmas and organized group vacations to Hong Kong and Dublin and Uganda. I thought I had all the answers.” This is quite a read.

Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative (indie link) by Melissa Febos.
Febos demonstrates the subversive power of self-reflection in a time when women’s narratives are still derided. The personal is indeed the political, not only for the benefit of the writer but for our culture.

The author writes, “Listen to me: It is not gauche to write about trauma. It is subversive. The stigma of victimhood is a timeworn tool of oppressive powers to gaslight the people they subjugate into believing that by naming their disempowerment they are being dramatic, whining, attention-grabbing, or else beating a dead horse. By convincing us to police our own and one another’s stories, they have enlisted us in the project of our own continued disempowerment.” 

And this, which really begs to be cross-stitched and hung on walls. “I asked the clinician, ‘Is there therapy for women with Patriarchy? I’m asking for every friend I have.'”

Lost & Found (indie link) by Kathryn Schulz
A memoir as well as extended exploration into the meaning of loss and  discovery. Schulz writes, “We live remarkable lives because life itself is remarkable, a fact that is impossible not to notice if only suffering leaves us alone for long enough.”  

The author takes a piercing look at the paradoxes perplexing her. She notes, “One of them, akin to the feeling of losing something, is that the universe is dauntingly large and we are terrifyingly insignificant. The other, akin to the feeling of finding, is that the universe is dauntingly large and yet here we are, unimaginably unlikely and therefore precious beyond measure. As with so many other contrasting feelings, most of us will experience both of these eventually.”

Time to Create: Hands-On Explorations in Process Art for Young Children (indie link) by Christie Burnett.
I have a thing for process-oriented approaches to creativity, especially for kids. There are lots of inspiring books out there which, like this one, emphasize open-ended exploration of drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpture, and more — pushing back against the early ed as well as craft kit-based focus on cookie-cutter projects.  

That Bird Has My Wings: The Autobiography of an Innocent Man on Death Row  (indie link) by Jarvis Jay Masters
The Adverse Childhood Experiences scale couldn’t possibly rate the traumas this author endured from infancy on. Masters and his three siblings were severely neglected by drug-addicted parents. The children ended up in the foster care system, worse, they were separated from each other. For the first few years Masters lived with an elderly couple who guided him with kindness and love. Too soon he was tossed into a series of foster homes and institutional settings.

He does not forget to highlight the positives he experienced, rare moments of peace in the midst of turmoil. Once, a teacher in a youth correctional facility asked students to help move desks and chairs to the edge of the classroom. “Then he sat us all down in a circle, brought out his guitar, and sang songs. We recognized the lyrics—the poems and stories we ourselves had written! After that I wrote more, searching dictionaries for new words to express myself. Every day we walked out of class believing that what we did mattered.”

But eventually he turned in the direction of violence. He writes, “I began to appreciate myself more by breaking the rules. I was putting myself in charge of why I was not going home, so having no home didn’t hurt the way pain does when you have no control.”

Masters opens up to the study and practice of Buddhism, which changes his life. He still remains on death row for a crime he did not commit.

Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? A Memoir (indie link) by Séamas O’Reilly
Witty yet tender account of how a family goes on after a mother of 11 dies. The author is five years old when it happens. He writes their home is decked out for the wake with “folded chairs, industrial quantities of tea, and [an] expanding population of desolate mourners.” Being so young, O’Reilly didn’t understand “the solemnity, not to mention the permanence” of his mother’s death. So he went around the wake “appalling each person on their entry to the room by thrusting my beaming, 3-ft. frame in front of them like a chipper little maître’d, with the cheerful enquiry: ‘Did ye hear Mammy died?'”

The author’s father is not a man who accepts pity, although he is a singular character described as “God’s one, true, perfect miser.” This is a charming, often laugh-aloud account of how O’Reilly continues to have a childhood. As he explains, “I’d laugh and cry and scream about borrowed jumpers, school fights, bomb scares, playing Zelda, teenage bands, primary-school crushes…I’d just be doing it without her.”  

The Angel and the Assassin: The Tiny Brain Cell That Changed the Course of Medicine (indie link) by Donna Jackson Nakazawa
Thanks to insomnia, I read a good pile of books each week. I stayed up nearly all night to finish Nakazawa’s revolutionary & relevant-to-everyone The Angel and the Assassin. Suggestion –you’ll want a highlighter and post-its. Here are two tidbits:

“The higher an individual’s levels of inflammatory biomarkers, the more prevalent their psychiatric symptoms tend to be… This turns out to be true even when no signs of physical illness or inflammation are detected.”

“Whatever term we use to refer to these brain changes, they all mean the same thing: Tiny microglia are engulfing and destroying synapses, and this is the catalyst that sets in motion hundreds of different disorders and diseases that have long remained the black box of psychiatry and neurology. This means that the long-held line in the sand between mental and physical health simply does not exist. When an individual’s immune system is overtaxed, for some, disease may show up in the brain, while for others it may show up in the body. It could inflame your joints, or your mind — or both.”

The author shares information about possible treatments to restore the activity of our brain’s immune reaction, moving from over or under-reaction to a healthy mean. This has profound implications for dementia, depression, and many other conditions resistant to treatment.

My only criticism is I wish the author had used a less gee-whiz tone when writing about these potential cures and had stepped well away from the proprietary side of the fast-mimicking diet, but these are minor issues for a huge wow of a book.

Slow Stitch: Mindful and Contemplative Textile Art  (indie link) Claire Wellesley-Smith
I love all kinds of art-making— street art, found art, textile art, outsider art, repurposed anything. Books like this one help me dream of doing more innovative sewing. The author wends her own thoughts along as she shares work from individual and community projects that beautifully transcend how-to’s, patterns, and rules.  

The Nature of Nature: Why We Need the Wild (indie link) by Enric Sala
The author, director of National Geographic’s Pristine Seas project (which has succeeded in protecting more than 5 million sq km of ocean), writes about his transition from academia to activism. He writes, “A degraded environment is a hotbed of all the problems affecting humanity” and clearly explains how saving nature saves us all, whether the topic is feeding the world, preventing the next pandemic, or halting climate change. As he says, “We are in the midst of an existential crisis, not only affecting the survival of our very society, but also about our place in the world.”

&&&

This is just a sample of favorite reads from 2022, a small-ish sample based on the 207 books read this year. I keep track of my reading diet on Goodreads, mostly to keep myself from starting a book I’ve already read but also to give stars to authors who always benefit from positive reader feedback. I’m not good at plugging my own books but they, too, are hungry for readers.

Here are my recent favorites lists:

Favorite 2021 Reads (if you can tolerate the unfixably bad format of this post)

Favorite 2020 Reads

I’d love to hear about your favorites in the comments. And happy reading!

Epic Eels

Fascinations have a way of capturing me and there’s no telling where they might take me. One topic that recently got its teeth into me is,  well, eels. It all started with a story.

In a Swedish village called Brantevik, an eight-year-old boy named Samuel tossed an eel into his grandparent’s well. This was in 1859, the same year that John Brown raided the Harpers Ferry Armory. The year Charles Darwin published On The Origin of Species. The year the horrific Battle of Solferino, in Italy, inspired the founding of the Red Cross. A long time ago.  

Eels were commonly put into wells to control vermin, so Samuel’s grandparents left the creature there. Little Samuel named the well-dwelling eel Åle, which is an appropriate name seeing as it’s the word for eel in Swedish. Åle turned out to be quite the eel…

I ran across this story in the marvelous book, Eloquence of the Sardine: Extraordinary Encounters Beneath the Sea (indie link) by Bill Francois. The author explains that all eels in Europe were born in the depths of the Caribbean, most likely the evocatively named Sargasso Sea. Newborn eel larvae are transparent and about a sixteenth of an inch long. (Image below from the Twitter feed of @DrEmilyFinch.)

Somehow these small toothed creatures swim thousands of miles, months on end, without stopping. Along the way they take on the characteristic serpentine shape. When they reach a river’s mouth they swim upstream. At this stage they are no longer considered glass eels, they are elvers, and transform from saltwater creatures to freshwater creatures.

This is already a lot to go through, but an eel’s determination is incredible. When it picks a river to traverse in search of a quiet stretch to live, it is undaunted. If the expected swamps and waterways have been replaced by farms or pavement, the eel will crawl over land for days. Or it will wiggle through a pipe, even subterranean water table, until it reaches a stream. When it has finally chosen a freshwater home it will remain there, some for a decade or so.

Eventually something beckons the eel back to the sea. Although it has been yellow-skinned while living in fresh water, once it’s ready to go back to the sea it transforms again. Its skin thickens, stomach shrivels, eyes enlarge, head streamlines, and its color changes to silver. It embarks on a many-month journey back to the place of its birth. According to The Book of Eels: Our Enduring Fascination with the Most Mysterious Creature in the Natural World (indie link) by Patrik Svensson, it navigates using olfactory sensitivity, perhaps also by sensing the Earth’s magnetic lines, and keeps to extreme ocean depths for safety. The journey back is brutal. Eels are weakened by pollution, eaten by many predators, prone to infection and infestation, and even at journey’s end can be blocked by damns and other constructions. If it arrives, here it will mate. Or presumably mate, as no one has seen mature eels in the Sargasso Sea. These final mysteries conclude the eel’s lifespan.

But if an eel, determined to make the final trip back to its birthplace, cannot make it to the sea it will switch back from silver to yellow and wait. And wait. This may serve many of them well. Branches blocking a waterway or pipes blocked by debris may eventually clear. Eels trapped in freshwater have epic patience.  

Åle, the eel left in the well, had no way to make this return journey. It simply waited for its pathway to the sea to reopen. It waited as Samuel grew up, then waited as generations of Samuel’s family were born, lived, and died. Occasionally the local papers wrote about Åle. Eventually another eel was tossed in the well as a companion. The long-lived Åle gained notoriety in Sweden. It was featured on television and in children’s books. It lived longer than Pute, an eel kept in a Swedish aquarium for 85 years. It lived longer than any eel on record.  

Duing that time, adult eels suffered from overfishing and eel larvae became a delicacy in some Asian countries. Waterway pollution and habitat destruction added even more pressure on the species. The population of these hardy creatures declined by 90 percent and they were put on the critically endangered list. Åle remained in the well, still waiting to swim back to the Sargasso Sea. That little creature waited as humanity went on into the space age and into a time of worsening climate change.

Åle might be living still, who knows, if not for an unfortunate incident when the well water got so hot that the elderly eel died at the purported age of 155. His eel companion, age 110, is said to still wait for its route the sea to open.  

I don’t know why I’m captivated by eels. Åle’s life, and much about these enigmatic and misunderstood creatures, seems like a mythic tale where one’s destiny is so vital that nothing can get in the way—not despair, not loneliness, not even mortality. It reminds me of those who wait a substantial part of their lives to let themselves be who they want to be. Or even to discover who they are becoming.

It reminds me, too, that transforming from youth to old age is anathema in our youth-obsessed culture. No one is clustering around elders for their stories and their wisdom as people did throughout nearly every era of human existence. It brings to mind the epic work being done by my friend, John C. Robinson, whose recent books include Mystical Activism: Transforming A World In Crisis (indie link) and Divine Human: The Final Transformation of Sacred Aging (indie link). John is engaged in what he calls his final works, writing mystical poetry shared weekly online and due out soon in book form. Surely our elders can help us begin to recognize what well traps us and how to transform ourselves for the journey home.

Freedom Of Giving Up

I’ve given up writing fiction. Well, I’m finally admitting to myself I gave up quite a while ago.

I had a number of short stories published many years ago, most in print publications which no longer exist. And I still have two partially written novels deep in the basement of my Word docs. The characters are no longer alive for me, although once they were so present that I could see through their eyes as well as my own.

All this time I hung on to a stack of notebooks filled with dialogue, character sketches, drawn and re-drawn place maps, plot development notes, and other fiction vitals which I never even got around to typing into my works-in-progress files. Or, more accurately, works no longer in progress. I flipped through those notebooks today while reorganizing (which I was doing to avoid an actual writing deadline) and admitted to myself my half-written novels are dead. They’ve been dead for a very long time.

I expected to feel sad. After all, my characters never got to dance through the dramas I invented for them or which, more accurately, it seemed they dictated to me. I expected to feel guilty too. In my busiest years I got up early or stayed up late to write hundreds of thousands of words, yet still didn’t have sufficient attention span or vision to finish writing those novels.

Instead I am simply relieved. The silent weight of these must-get-around-to manuscripts is gone. Once, the secret worlds of these novels accompanied me so closely I felt I was living several lives simultaneously. But no more. Time to let them go.

I dumped the books in the recycling bin without a farewell wave, not even a tang of nostalgia. Turns out the freedom to give up on projects feels liberating. I like to believe I’m making space for projects closer to my heart. I’m going to let those ideas stretch out into this new space and see what happens.

Anything you’re ready to let go?

Libraries = Freedom: Resist Book Censorship

“A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft ,and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination. On a cold, rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen, instead. A human with a brain and a heart and a desire to be uplifted, rather than a customer with a credit card and an inchoate “need” for “stuff.” A mall—the shops—are places where your money makes the wealthy wealthier. But a library is where the wealthy’s taxes pay for you to become a little more extraordinary, instead. A satisfying reversal. A balancing of the power.”  ~Caitlin Moran  

It’s downright magical to start reading a new library book and realize it’s a really good one. Like the magic of running errands and every traffic light is green, only a million times better. Lately, nearly every book I’ve brought home from the library has been one of those immersive delights. Good books are downright soul-saving for me in a time when the world’s news is so dire. The last few weeks I savored (among others) Richard Power’s Bewilderment, Javier Zamora’s Solito, Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life,  Dani Shapiro’s Signal Fires, Anthony Almojera’s Riding The Lightning, and Sharon Blackie’s Hagitude. Compelling, immersive, and entirely free to enjoy thanks to my local library.

Libraries have been a constant in my life from the time I learned to read. I’ve written about why I’m a library addict and the concept of library angels and how libraries changed lives. Libraries are unique public spaces, existing entirely for the common good.

As many have noted, if public libraries weren’t already part of our society, the concept would be considered an outrageous and dangerously liberal idea.

History tells us the first modern public library in the U.S. opened in 1833, in Peterborough New Hampshire, based on the radical notion that books should be made available to all classes. Before that time there were plenty of libraries run by social clubs or academic organizations, but available only to fee-paying members. Historian James Truslow Adams, who popularized the term “the American Dream” in his 1931 book The Epic of America, wrote that the public library is the “perfect concrete example” of the American Dream in action.

But of course, that’s not the whole story. During the Reconstruction Era and beyond, Black Americans established more than 50 literary and library societies in Northern cities. One example is the Philadelphia Library Company of Colored Persons, founded in 1833. Another is the Louisville Western Branch Library in Louisville, Kentucky — the first public library in the U.S. run by and serving Black patrons. At that time, and well after, nearly all public libraries excluded Black people from borrowing books, oftentimes even from entering the building. Full access to public libraries came about through brave desegregation efforts (often by students) although whites-only libraries weren’t abolished by federal law until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The U.S. also has an ugly history of book banning. The first book banned here was by Thomas Morton, who arrived in Massachusetts with the Puritans, but didn’t appreciate their strict rules. In 1637 he published a volume so critical of the Puritans that he compared them to crustaceans. They banned his book.  

In the centuries since, all sorts of books have been banned, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe to comic books. Pen America reports that in the eleven months between July 2021 to June 2022, there were 2,532 instances of individual books being banned in school libraries and classrooms across 32 states. This is the result of concerted effort by 50 groups pushing for book bans, the majority of these groups formed in the last year. These “parents’ rights” groups seem like grassroots efforts, but are actually instigated and funded by wealthy conservative donors.

Books are the most challenged library material at a frightening 73%, with 43% of challenges taking place at public libraries.

These deeply undemocratic efforts are part of a larger effort to control what students learn as well as what teachers can discuss. There are, in many places, new “soft censorship” rules requiring young people to get parental permission to read certain books or get parental signatures for new opt-in policies. Some schools are forming committees or hiring consultants to “review” every book for “appropriateness.” In other places, books are quietly removed from shelves to avoid vehement anti-book activists.

This is a crisis. As the Prindle Post (a publication examining ethical issues) reports,

Throughout the summer, armed Idaho citizens showed up at library board meetings at a small library in Bonners Ferry to demand that a list of 400 books be taken off of the shelves. The books in question were not, in fact, books that this particular library carried. In response to the ongoing threats against the library, its insurance company declined to continue to cover them, citing increased risk of violence or harm that might take place in the building. The director of the library, Kimber Glidden, resigned her position in response to the situation, citing personal threats and angry armed protestors showing up at her private home demanding that she remove the “pornography” from the shelves of her library.

This behavior is far from limited to the state of Idaho. In Oklahoma, Summer Boismier, an English teacher at Norman High School was put on leave because she told her students about UnBanned — a program out of the Brooklyn Country Library which allows people from anywhere in the country to access e-book versions of books that have been banned. The program was designed to fight back against censorship and to advocate for the “rights of teens nationwide to read what they like, discover themselves, and form their own opinions.” Boismier was put on leave after a parent protested that she had violated state law HB1775 which, among other things, prohibits the teaching of books or other material that might make one race feel that they are worse than another race…

Many states have passed laws banning books with certain content, and that content often involves race, feminism, sexual orientation, and gender identity. And prosecutors in states like Wyoming have considered bringing criminal charges against librarians who continue to carry books that their legislatures have outlawed.

BUT this isn’t what most of us want. An EveryLibrary Institute survey completed in September of this year, before the recent election, tells us:

  • Voters love librarians and rank librarians as twice as favorable as their governors, the Democratic Party, the Republican Party, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden.
  • 95% of Democrats, 80% of independents, and 53% of Republicans are against book bans.
  • Just 8% of voters believe “there are many books that are inappropriate and should be banned.”
  • More than 90% of voters are against banning the hundreds of classic novels and children’s books that extremist groups have targeted for banning.
  • More than 50% of voters are concerned about legislation being created to regulate Americans’ access to books.

Interestingly, the vast majority of parents do NOT want to restrict their children’s access to books.

What can we do?

The American Library Association notes that 82 to 97 percent of book challenges go unreported. Their site offers a form to report book bans.

Book Riot suggests all sorts of ways to stand up to book banners. One is to form anti-censorship alliances. This can be as casual as agreeing to take regular action with friend who also cares about access to book.

Support your local libraries — patronize your library and vote to approve library levies. Consider joining a friends of the library group or putting your name in to serve on the library board.

Let your local press know this is a topic you want investigated and reported.

Post about your book access concerns on social media.

Support students’ right to read in school by making your views known to the school board and reviewing any new district policies relating to book “appropriateness.” Join the PTA or other school parent organizations and keep the book access topic open.

Create and/or support a banned book club for adults and/or kids. Here’s more on such groups.

Encourage young people in your life to read.

Talk about books you love!

More resources available via

Access to books is already increasingly limited for today’s young people. The high school “library” serving my rural community is used as a study hall as well as to charge tablets. The shelves offer a paltry selection of books, with new volumes rarely purchased. There are 20 percent fewer school librarians compared to ten years ago with three in ten school districts lacking even a single librarian. School libraries and public libraries were a lifeline for me in my growing-up years. It’s hard to imagine that simple freedom restricted for today’s youth.

“Libraries matter for the same reason parks matter. Because to blossom, human beings need public spaces that enable play, freedom and social contact without any ties to consumption. Think about it for a moment: there aren’t that many left. All we see in the street is for sale, pushing us to measure ourselves by how much we can own instead of how much we can feel and think and imagine. A library is a contem­porary haven in that sense. A place that holds a million doors into a million worlds, and they’re all at your reach. For free.”  ~Laia Jufresa   

Fan The Common Good

“Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” ~Desmond Tutu

It’s heartening to see people pulling together, even if many recognize they have few other choices right now. Parents, students, healthcare workers, and community groups are building DIY portable air filtering units to help prevent transmission of the devastating airborne pathogen Covid-19 as well as the colds and flu that spread so easily in indoor spaces.

These units also filter particulate matter, particularly relevant in a time when wildfire smoke and other sources of particulate pollution are so dangerous. These often unavoidable exposures are linked to asthma, bronchitis, heart failure, stroke, lung disease, and premature birth. Indoor air pollution has been found to affect the developing fetus and young child, altering brain structure in ways that damage motor function, learning processes, and mental health into adolescence and beyond.  

Plus, filtration helps to mitigate the damaging health effects of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) present in common products such as carpet/furniture/flooring, cleaners, room deodorizers, disinfectants, personal care products, solvents, paints, pesticides, dry-cleaned clothing, copiers, aerosol sprays, and other materials present in the home, school, stores, and elsewhere. VOCs can cause eye, nose, and throat problems; headaches; impaired coordination; nausea; damage to liver, kidneys, and central nervous system; and many are suspected carcinogens.

One way of assessing indoor ventilation is by ‘air changes per hour’ (ACH) — the number of times that all the air in the room has been replaced (ideally, by outdoor air). CDC and ASHRAE guidelines note typical ACH rates.

  • Hospital operating rooms are expected to stay at 20 or better ACH. 
  • Hospital airborne isolation rooms are kept at 12 ACH or greater.
  • Hospital patient rooms are often around 6 ACH.
  • Classrooms are typically well under 2 ACH.
  • Home ventilation is often less than 1 ACH.

A recent study found indoor space with air exchanged five times per hour can cut the risk of Covid transmission by 50 percent. Another study compared classrooms without ventilation to those with controlled mechanical ventilation. It found better ventilation could reduce the risk of Covid infection in schools by 40 percent with two to four air changes per hour, and nearly 83 percent with six air changes per hour. And this study shows that 12 air changes per hour from air filtration may approximate N95 protection.

In active response to this data, people are putting together inexpensive filters to better equip their communities to ward off infection and other effects of trapped indoor air. Many are building inexpensive Corsi-Rosenthal box fan filters (C-R Box) which arose from an online collaboration between Richard Corsi, dean of engineering at University of California, Davis and Jim Rosenthal, owner of an air filtration company in Texas.

Fortune interviewed Joseph Fox, chair of the indoor air quality advisory group with the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers. Dr. Fox said, “These Corsi-Rosenthal units use MERV-13 filters, which can only remove 60% to 80% of those particles, (but) the fan on the C-R box is much bigger and can clean more air. All you care about in the end is the total rate at which the air is cleaned. So, what the C-R box lacks in efficiency, it makes up for in airflow.” A peer-reviewed study found the C-R Box performed better than standard HEPA air cleaning units.

These models are about ten times cheaper than commercial air purifiers. There are many resources online, including what air filter brands to avoid and how to use a round fan when square models aren’t an option. Here’s more science plus additional how-to’s from the collaborative Edge Collective.

Better air filtration shouldn’t be left to community members. It should be a priority in new builds and renovations, guided by more stringent building codes to protect public health. It should be part of a robustly-funded countrywide initiative for schools, daycare centers, public buildings, senior facilities, libraries, shelters for unhoused people, and other gathering places. But right now, the DIY filtration movement is led by students, teachers, parents, and other concerned community members.

A group in Philadelphia is building units for classrooms and speaking up at school board meetings to spread awareness.

Arizona State University students are building boxes to donate to area K through 12 schools. They’re also teaching younger students how to build the boxes themselves.

These box fan filters are a project elementary school-age students can do together. In Kansas, the Wyandotte County Health Equity Task Force offers guidance for doing this with groups of children (school classes, scout groups, 4H, and others) including how to incorporate it into STEM curricula.

Alex LeVine designs similar filtration boxes using inexpensive illuminated computer fans lively enough to feature in many businesses.

And we’re beginning to see them in public spaces.


Notice how dirty the filters are? After a short time, the build-up shows just how much particulate matter is commonly in the air.

The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health offer more guidance on measuring outdoor air ventilation rates and strategies to improve air quality in these detailed links: How To Assess Classroom Ventilation and ASHRAE Reopening Schools and Universities Guidance. Here’s how you can use a carbon-dioxide monitor to assess Covid risk from indoor spaces

Andrew Noymer, an associate professor of population health and disease prevention at UC Irvine, said in an interview with the LA Times, “When cholera ravaged Europe and North America in the 19th century, people ‘revolutionized sewage’ by creating the modern sewage system. They could have just said, ‘Boil your water.’ But they didn’t do that. They gave people clean drinking water.” He went on to say, “Ensuring clean air indoors is the 21st century equivalent.”

“Breathe deep today, and continue walking toward that which will enlighten, no matter what burdens you are carrying of shame, grief, or fear. No one can buy their way or push their way ahead of everyone else. We are all in this together.”     ~Joy Harjo    

Which Voice Is Loudest?

I was on my way home after a medical appointment, wrapped the quiet sort of reverie that comes from driving a long-familiar route. The car ahead of me applied its brakes and went around a slow-moving obstacle just over a rise in the road. I expected a farm tractor, bicyclist, or carcass of an unfortunate deer but couldn’t confirm till I made it over that hill. When I did, I saw what I could only describe as a contraption. It looked like the square hood of an Amish buggy (common site around here) stretched over a small metal frame. Attached to the back was a hand-lettered sign with words nearly too faded to read.

Blinkers on, I passed carefully on the 55-mph road, trying to decipher the sign. It said something like “Walking To California.” And there, pulling the cart, was a man. I didn’t get a good glimpse, but enough to see he looked dusty and road-weary. He had at least another 45 minutes of walking before he’d get to a place where he might buy food or drink. If he stayed on this route he’d have many days of walking a two lane road passing little more than farms, struggling businesses, and homes built on former farmland.  

“Pull over,” my heart told me.

There wasn’t any place to pull over. I drove on slowly, waiting for a turnoff where I might wait for him to catch up. But then what? I wanted to ask if he’d like a homecooked meal and a shower. Surely his cart could fit in my trunk. My husband was home, so I didn’t pause to worry about the lone woman and strange man thing, instead I thought about what I had in the refrigerator.   

As I looked for a place to stop, half of me argued with the other half. My heart told me it takes rare courage to do what this man is trying to do. I wondered what fueled his quest. Maybe a pilgrimage of sorts, or an outgrowth of loss, or a creative venture, or a personal challenge. Maybe a quest to answer for himself what Einstein called the most important question facing humanity, “Is the universe a friendly place?”

“Pull over!” my heart kept saying.

But my mind’s voice reminded me this traveler might also be carrying Covid-19.

My husband and I have medical conditions that make us more vulnerable to the virus. We continue to be careful during a pandemic that has not gone away. Although media and government sources assure us it’s safe to get back to normal, stats show the last seven days there were nearly three thousand Covid deaths in the U.S., a 911-level loss of life per week. As of September 18th, there are now 464 deaths per day, which will move the weekly toll even higher. These numbers can’t possibly hint at the suffering and grief on a planet that has lost 6.53 million souls to this disease since early 2020.

In the last two and a half years, my husband and I have lost irreplaceable time with family members. We have not hosted our beloved house concerts here, or eaten once inside a restaurant together, or gone into any building without a mask. That is, until last week. All this time I’ve been completing editing jobs at home and teaching writing classes via Zoom. But my newest series of classes are, per the regulations of the institution offering them, in person. I walked in the first day wearing my KN95 mask. I set up the room and greeted the first few students. But about ten minutes before class started, two older students told me they couldn’t hear me with my mask on. I dithered for a moment (dithering is one of my most practiced abilities), then took off my mask. I reasoned I could leave the doors open for ventilation and the classroom, posted as large enough to hold 100 people while we were only 20, was roomy enough to confer extra protection. I’d also gotten the most recent bivalent booster. We’ll all be safe, I told myself. I’m still not sure about that.

Now I was considering this additional risk.

I thought of pulling over to offer this man help that didn’t involve an invitation to our home. I could offer him whatever I had in my wallet, although a quick assessment showed I had only two dollars. Okay, I could ask him if he’d share his story and a cell number so I could offer to call local media to help him get coverage. And contact area churches to see if they might want to alert congregations along the way who might host him. Heck, I could simply say hello, welcome him to this part of Ohio, and listen to what he had to say. By this time I was nearly home. I decided to brainstorm solutions with my husband, then drive back along the same route until I spotted the man.

I was convinced at this point that I had a soul-deep need to respond to this traveler. This urge, as I understand it, is deeply embedded in who we are as a species. I mean, come on, it’s there in belief systems around the world.  

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

“The husband and wife of the house should not turn away any who comes at eating time and asks for food. If food is not available, a place to rest, water for refreshing one’s self, a reed mat to lay one’s self on, and pleasing words entertaining the guest–these at least never fail in the houses of the good.” Hinduism. Apastamba Dharma Sutra 8.2

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

“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress them, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” Judaism, Exodus 22:20

“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

“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

 “The heavenly food is needed successively; be thou a server of the food and direct thou the people of the world to present themselves at that table and guide them to partake thereof.” Baha’I  (Abdu’l-Baha)

“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.” Nelson Mandela, discussing the southern Africa tradition of Ubuntu.

But, despite my strong conviction, my husband informed me I was nuts. He made rather pointed arguments to support his contention that one does not stop to talk to strangers on the side of the road, let alone bring them home, pandemic or no pandemic. I briefly wondered if I’d married the wrong man, although our differences make our lasting partnership work. Maybe he was right. Maybe it was foolhardy hubris for me to think I should do anything other than let a stranger live his life while I live mine. I didn’t get in the car and head back to greet the traveler.

I believe there are essential friendships never made and significant soul promptings never answered because we don’t make time, or don’t feel ready, or harbor fear, or simply let life’s everydayness block us from what might be. We never find out how these unexplored connections might answer one another’s deepest questions. I still regret not listening to my heart.