Foretold

Foretold During A Sleepover With 12-Year-Old Girls

 

Ghost stories and gossip, forgotten

when she showed us the Ouija board

filched from her older sister’s room.

Outside, dry leaves scraped fingertips

across pavement as wind swirled them

in patterns that may, too, have been messages,

but we clustered over the board’s dark formal script,

giggling, nervous, accusing each other

of willfully steering the plastic indicator,

denying we steered it ourselves, calling out

letters forming words forming prophecies.

 

I asked my future husband’s name

and was given the letter M

followed by A, then R, finally C.

No one by the name Marc in our classes,

so I wasn’t teased like girls who got

Tim or Michael or Kyle.

 

When I met you two years later

your name ended in a K.

Teasing, I nicknamed you Marcus,

sometimes call you that still.

After all these years,

I see what I couldn’t then.

Mark, my love, your name

was already spelled

by every letter on that board.

Laura Grace Weldon

Originally published in Verse-Virtual.  Find more poems in my collection, Tending.

 

Boredom vs Free Play


boredom cures

“The cure for boredom is curiosity.  There is no cure for curiosity.”  ~Dorothy Parker

Eight-year-old twins Caleb and Ella used to complain of boredom on a daily basis. “There’s nothing to do,” they’d whine. “I’m bored!”

Their father Mateo didn’t remember being bored when he was growing up. Back in the early 90’s he rode his bike wherever he needed to go. A favorite place he and other kids played was a small creek behind an apartment building. At home he liked to read comics or tinker with projects of his own devising (including a phase of making anti-burglar projects after watching Home Alone). He says he honed his daydreaming skills when he was bored in school. Being an inattentive student didn’t bring him the best grades, but he’s now an aspiring cartoonist who relies on daydreaming for ideas.

Their mother Camila said her childhood wasn’t boring either. She remembered lots of imaginative play with her sister while their mother worked a full-time job at home. The girls played for hours as spies, queens, and magicians. They also liked to play office, mimicking their mother’s phone calls and typing. Camila says her friends preferred playing at her house because they were allowed to hang sheets off a tree branch for an impromptu theater, bake cupcakes, even paint and repaint their old wooden play structure in the back yard.

“If I moped around my mother would say, ‘Go out and play.’ It wasn’t a suggestion, it was a command,” Mateo said.  “Maybe that’s what made me so self-reliant.”

When Caleb and Ella complained of boredom their parents gestured to all the toys they owned and reminded their kids about sports practice and other activities. They urged their kids to go outside. But the kids tended to say, “There’s nothing I want to do!” and off they’d go to play a game on the tablet, watch the same movie again, or look for a snack.

Mateo and Camila wondered if they were unwittingly raising their kids to be bored. They worried the kids weren’t getting enough of that all-important free play.  Let’s consider these possibilities.

Excessive Distractions

This may start early on. There are so many mobiles, play gyms, bouncy seats, swings, and toys marketed to new parents that we’re led to believe they’re necessary, even though babies need little more than loving connections with caregivers and a safe place to explore. Nature insures that the newest humans are perfectly cued to observe and interact with the world around them. A three-month-old lying near a window can amuse herself looking at patterns of sunlight, work on rolling over, and chew on a simple toy. She’s already busy learning exactly as she needs to learn. Few of us are raising infants in some tranquil Eden by any means.  But we can avoid overstimulating them, distracting them, and breaking their concentration as they play.

Within a child’s first few years many of us accumulate a staggering overload of items, each one meant to amuse and educate our kids. Camila, who repeatedly tried to reorganize her kids’ toys, reported they had bins and shelves packed with toys but everything was always a mess. “Just to see how bad it was, I thought I’d count all their stuffed animals, large and small,” she said. “I gave up when I got to 100.”

Like so many other purchasing choices we make, quality matters more than quantity. For example, when toys are tied to specific movies or shows, kids are likely to reenact storylines but less likely to play creatively. They also play more passively with toys that make sounds, move, or otherwise perform. ” In contrast, open-ended playthings like blocks, dolls, a wagon, a ball, art supplies, and yes, a few generic stuffed animals, are far more likely to inspire imagination. Engaging fun happens when kids create their own projects, come up with their own games, and drift into their own make-believe worlds. (Check out Little World’s post on ways to encourage loose parts play.)

Parents (well, those who can afford it) know it’s easy to placate bored kids with a treat, toy, or digital playtime. But we don’t need to overdo it. We don’t want to teach them to depend on external stimulation instead of building strength essential for resilience and happiness at any stage in life — the ability to amuse themselves.  Sure, every parent is going to distract and placate at times, but we need to keep from letting this become the go-to solution. We can build on a child’s capacity for self-directed play just by getting out of their way. This starts early on, in babyhood, as Janet Lansbury explains in “7 Myths That Discourage Independent Play”  and there are all sorts of ways to encourage self-directed play as kids get older.

Top-Down Activities

The more we structure children’s time, the more we interfere with their own drive to learn, explore, imagine, and simply be. The inner motivation we want for our kids can be supplanted by external rewards like constant validation, a fix for every frustration, and bribes for good behavior. It’s possible to focus so intently on what we believe will make our children happy and successful that we forget children look to us as guides. They feel most secure when adults are grounded, consistent, and caring authority figures who trust that kids they’re growing up just fine as they are.

Many adults seem determined to keep kids busy. Unintentionally, this teaches children that fallow time is undesirable. Yet daydreaming, contemplation, even the uncomfortable condition we call “boredom” are necessary to incorporate higher level learning and to generate new ideas.

As psychologists Dorothy Singer and Jerome Singer write in The House of Make-Believe, children who have plenty of time for free play are more imaginative and creative, have more advanced social skills, and are actually happier as they play. The Singers contrast two children who are given free-form playthings like dolls or building blocks. The child who has had plenty of experience with daydreaming and make-believe is comfortable coming up with pretend scenarios, and can easily find inventive ways to play with these toys. The child who has not had much experience with make-believe or daydreaming may find little engaging about the toys after a short time —- in other words, he gets bored quickly.  The imaginative “muscles” built by daydreaming, make-believe, and downtime simply haven’t developed.

Default Screens

Here we get to the dreaded “actions speak louder than words” thing. Kids see how we handle boredom. What are our go-to solutions? When we’re waiting in line do we take the opportunity to observe what’s around us, think our own thoughts, talk to each other? When we have a free evening do we do something that actually aligns with our interests —- test out a new recipe, read a book, practice the guitar, shoot hoops, relax on the porch doing nothing but relaxing? Or do we default to scrolling through our feeds, checking email, watching videos? I’m just as engaged with screens as the next person (and hey, there are a lot of important reasons to check our phones) so I’m not pointing fingers, but it helps to recognize that this is the first generation to grow up around such immersive technology and our example matters.

According to their parents, many days Caleb played online games for hours and Ella liked to watch the same movies over and over. There’s a great deal of variability in how screen time affects different children and there are enormous positives to be found in the offerings of today’s technology, but apparently not in a child’s earliest years.

Preliminary research indicates that exposure to more than two hours a day of screen time (even background screens) during infancy and toddlerhood is associated with a shorter attention span  and more difficulty with self-regulation (the ability control one’s own behavior) as they get older. Pediatrician Dimitri Christakis believes that rapidly changing images on the screen precondition a young child’s mind to expect high levels of stimulation, making lower levels of stimulation such as those found in everyday life somewhat boring. (Dr. Christakis’ viewpoint is, at this point, remains largely conjecture.)

Older kids often use screens in more challenging and stimulating ways. Today’s electronics are far from the passive entertainment Ella and Caleb’s parents and grandparents grew up with. It is, however, a problem when sitting for hours on end replaces other more active, hands-on ways of being. Sometimes kids simply get out of the habit of doing other things. One study even found that older kids are bored during screen time but feel they don’t have other play options. Perhaps that’s because kids don’t have permission to do a variety of other things like make a mess, make noise, and get out of sight of adults —- sure signs that fun is happening.

Makers of toys, games, and movies expect boredom. They counteract this by ramping up conflict and violence to more effectively sustain attention. Makers of children’s programming, even children’s building sets, have resorted to increasingly violent themes to boost sales.  Marketers certainly know how to use brain science to keep our kids’ dopamine levels surging.

We definitely get those dopamine hits when we play a video game or watch a movie. Nothing wrong with that. Our brains get the same rush of pleasure when we create, challenge ourselves, get active, socialize, figure out a problem.  Remember that role model thing? Let’s remember to demonstrate to our kids that we enjoy our screens and get a kick out of non-screen living too. Maybe learn some new dance movies, fix something broken, make up a story, invent a new sandwich, ask Grandma to teach you something, wave to garbage collectors, or whatever playful idea strikes your fancy. Playfulness is contagious.

Two Kinds of Boredom

There’s a difference between a shut-down, numb mind and a fertile, constructively bored mind. Numbing boredom can set in when kids are stuck in a situation where they have very little control over their own activities. This is common in structured, physically restrictive settings — think school, religious services, long trips in the car, sitting through a sibling’s sports event. When numbing boredom happens too often or goes on too long, kids may learn passivity or learn to make trouble.

Constructive boredom is something else entirely. It’s a fertile state all its own. When kids sit on their nothing-to-do frustrations for a while, boredom can hatch into all sorts of possibilities. What kids invent when making their own fun invariably challenges them in myriad ways, often right to the edge of their next developmental milestones. What we don’t want to do is take over or supervise too closely, squashing boredom’s marvelous potential.

Boredom may feel uncomfortable, but it’s actually the tingle of imagination signaling of possibilities to explore. We can tell kids to say “yes” to boredom, letting it tug at them until they come up with an idea. When they do, we need to remember to say “yes” to as many of their ideas as we can, to accept the mess and uncertainty and noise that often accompanies kid-generated fun.

~~~~~

Camila and Mateo were frustrated by their children’s chronic boredom until a radical change was imposed on them. Mateo, who worked in building maintenance, lost his job when the company closed. His only income was a small cash flow from drawing comics and some side jobs as an illustrator. Camila taught several courses as an adjunct at a local college for low pay. Faced with a drastically reduced income, they talked to the kids and together prioritized holding on to their house and maintaining a close family.

This meant taking big steps to simplify. They stopped the kids’ lessons and sports. They dropped cable, leaving internet service with a data cap — which cut into Caleb’s gaming time and Ella’s movie time. They held a series of tag sales to raise money. The kids chose what toys to sell and kept the proceeds. (They turned their nearly empty closets into hideouts.)

Next they embarked on a project to bring in some income by converting their walk-out basement into a compact apartment to rent out. It was hard work, even harder to adjust to having another person living in their house at first, but the rent effectively paid most of their mortgage.

Mateo found another job three months later, yet they’re sticking with the changes made during the upheaval of unemployment. “No one wants to minimize because they’re forced to,” Mateo says, “but what we cut out helped.”

He sees all sorts of benefits. There’s no nagging about getting out the door for sports practice and games.  Honing down their possessions cooled the pressure on everyone to clean up clutter and almost magically made their home feel more welcoming.  Rehabbing the basement, Mateo believes, was the best thing of all. The kids felt good about helping out and still incorporate “fixing things” into their play. It’s like this was a reboot,” he says, “reminding us the four of us are in this together.”

Camila reports the kids are thriving. “They’re not perfect,” she says, “but there’s a lot less whining. I’m really impressed that they’re able to amuse themselves for hours on end.” That day while she graded papers, Caleb and Ella colored, pretended the stairs were a volcano, and made paper airplanes they threw off the porch. Then they conducted an ill-fated experiment to see if they could balance the recycling bin on their dad’s old skateboard. They could not, but they got an idea for another project as they cleaned up the spilled contents.  Painful as simplifying was, it helped bored kids find ways to make their own fun.

The big takeaway from Caleb and Ella’s story, to me, doesn’t center on fewer structured activities,  minimizing toys, or helping out around the house. It has to do with having time and freedom to play. Time? Hours each day. Freedom? Noise, mess, arguments, mistakes, space to play away from constant adult supervision.  As Robert Coles said, “We all need empty hours in our lives or we will have no time to create or dream.”

Resources

“The Play Deficit”

“6 Ways to Encourage Free Play, Create Stronger Communities, & Raise Safer Kids”

“How Kids Benefit From Real Responsibilities”

“Playful Cures for a Toy Overload” 

“Innovation Doesn’t Come in a Kit”

“The Boy With No Toys” 

bored kids,

 

 

Civil Discourse

civil discourse

Civil Discourse

 

This magnificent bridge crosses every distance,

arches over silt-clogged drainage ditches,

past bulldozed acres where owls once called,

across a city loveliest when morning light

streaks orange over the Exxon station.

 

It spans acres farmed by lumbering machines

so heavy they crush the soil’s hidden universe.

Reaches over oceans and mountains.

Stretches back and forward through time.

 

Entrance ramp are infinite.

 

Angry trolls use nets strung together

with logical fallacies and Super Pac money

to knock people off their feet

and drag them so far under

they can’t see the bridge,

can’t remember it exists.

 

Still, the bridge is there.

Squint down the length of it,

you’ll see it leads everywhere.

Laura Grace Weldon

Originally published in Mobius: The Journal of Social Change.  Find more poems in my collection, Tending.

Our Aural History

aural historyWhen two of my newborn babies spent time in the hospital due to serious medical problems, one of the many things that distressed me was all the noise surrounding them.  I wanted them to be introduced to the world differently. I wanted to wrap them in the sounds of home — voices of people who loved them, clatter of dishes at dinnertime, wind in the trees, lullabies sung, books read aloud. Instead there were loud beeping devices, intrusive announcements, squeaking wheels on equipment carts. They heard all sorts of strangers’ voices too, often while those strangers (for the very best reasons) imposed discomfort or pain. When they came home, both times, I noticed the sounds around them more than I normally would just because it was such a blessed relief.

My concern wasn’t overblown. In utero, a baby hears a symphony of prenatal sound that includes the mother’s heartbeat, breathing, and movement.  The baby’s auditory system is fully developed by the sixth month of pregnancy and what sounds it hears is a particularly big deal from that time until it reaches six months of age. Here’s what one medical journal has to say:

The period from 25 weeks’ gestation to 5 to 6 months of age is most critical to the development of the neurosensory part of the auditory system. This is the time when the hair cells of the cochlea, the axons of the auditory nerve, and the neurons of the temporal lobe auditory cortex are tuned to receive signals of specific frequencies and intensities. Unlike the visual system, the auditory system requires outside auditory stimulation. This needs to include speech, music, and meaningful sounds from the environment.

The preterm as well as the term infant cannot recognize or discriminate meaningful sounds with background noise levels greater than 60 dB. The more intense the background noise, especially low frequency, the fewer specific frequencies (pitch) can be heard and used to tune the hair cells of the cochlea. Continuous exposure to loud background noise in the NICU or home will interfere with auditory development and especially frequency discrimination. The initial stimulation of the auditory system (speech and music) needs to occur in utero or in the NICU to develop tonotopic columns in the auditory cortex and to have the critical tuning of the hair cells of the cochlea occur. The control of outside noise, the exposure to meaningful speech sounds and music, and the protection of sleep and sleep cycles, especially rapid eye movement sleep, are essential for healthy auditory development.

Hearing is also said to be the last sense to leave us at the end of life, as indicated by electroencephalograms of people in their last hours. (Oftentimes music can reach unconscious and dying people when other stimuli cannot.)

Sound has a way of sinking into us, linking with sensation and emotion to form lasting memories. When I read about refugees forced from their homes by war or famine or rising seas,  my sorrow for them (and my admiration for their courage) leads me to think about what sensory experiences they can never fully recapture from their homelands. Keeping one’s own language, foods, and faith alive is vital but I wonder if hunger for the unique sounds left behind ever goes away.

We carry aural memories with us forever. I suspect sounds from early childhood are rooted the most deeply. Here are some of the happiest I can remember. A summer of locusts, the sound cresting and falling like waves. The screen door’s awwaak as it opened and my mother’s voice from somewhere in the house calling “don’t slam it!” The shriek of a swing hung on chains as I swung on my belly watching ants scurry below.  My father whistling as he tinkered with some project. News on the radio my mother listened to for a few minutes each morning, all of it inane chatter to me except for ads that lodged in my memory like this one.  Planes taking off from nearby Cleveland Hopkins Airport,  curving overhead like toys even though adults insisted they were big enough to hold actual people inside (pffft!) Music my father listened to as he graded papers — classical, pop, big band. The creak of our old rocking chair. The indescribable security of lying in bed hearing my parent’s muffled voices. 

Imagine sounds from 100 years ago in the place you are now. Perhaps horses on stone-paved streets, vendors hawking their wares from open carts as they traveled through town, afternoon paperboys calling out the latest headlines, church bells tolling the hours, the whistle of steam engines passing in the distance, children playing outdoors everywhere.

Or maybe imagine sounds 100 years in the future, if you can.

What sounds surrounded you as a baby? Your children in infancy? What aural memories make up who you are today?

Ask For Rejection Letters

ask for rejection letters

As a writer, I get my share of rejection letters. (As an editor, I write my share of rejection letters too.) I’m occasionally heartened by a kind word or two, indicating a publication would like to see more of my work or letting me know a piece of mine made it to the final round. It’s not the same as an acceptance, but it helps.

There’s actually a bit of relief in rejection. It usually comes after waiting months, when likelihood of acceptance already seems nil, and I can say to myself, Okay, I no longer have to pin my hopes in this direction. This frees a little unpopped kernel of aspiration to go back on another burner. (Because you must always, always try again.)

Sometimes, however, it takes much longer than a publication claims is necessary for them to review queries or submissions.  When there’s no response I assume their editors are working long hours for low pay and preoccupied by other pressing matters. (At least that’s what being an editor is like for me.)  But over a year? That’s ghosting. So I ask for a rejection letter. At this stage there’s not much to lose. I simply want to know. And maybe have some fun asking.

Here’s one such message I sent a while back.

Greetings *unnamed little literary print magazine,*

I can take rejection, really. But it’s nice to finally get rejected. I sent a creative non-fiction piece titled _____ on _____. I know, I know, I should have given up by now but hope is a feisty creature, not easily strangled by silence.

In case the clarity and understated wit of my piece knocked an editor to the floor, unintentionally hurtling my submission under a desk, I’ve included my cover letter and submission again.  Less dusty this way.

ever optimistically,
Laura Weldon

Turns out they were in the process of going out of business and wouldn’t even be publishing  previously accepted pieces. Their website said nary a word about this.

Here’s another such message, sent after a longer wait.

Ahem, Under the Slush Pile, You There!

Enclosed are copies of a cover letter and book proposal sent to you over 16 months ago. I received acknowledgement that you were in receipt of these materials on ________.

I am a busy writer and editor involved in a number of projects and only recently noticed just how long the interval has been. Now I’m concerned. Even at the rate of a single word per day, surely you would have completed reading my one-page book proposal quite some time ago. Something must be amiss.

Should I offer my editing services, as it’s apparent _______ Press is completely bogged down by unread manuscripts?

Should I consider a rescue effort, breaking down the doors blocked by stacks of paper in order to liberate your staff?

Or am I to assume that you are in the business of collecting SASEs while never intending to use them? I’m enclosing yet another in hopes of getting a response. This time, do tell.

most sincerely,   Laura Weldon

They sent me a form rejection.

My absolutely favorite rejection letter was one I got after applying for a job around the time I graduated from college. I had volunteered and interned, doing my best to enter the professional world with relevant experience, and it appeared I met the job requirements. The rejection letter I got back was so short and to-the-point that I still remember it verbatim:

We do not now, nor do we ever anticipate, having a position for which you are qualified. 

I wish I’d framed it!

But the best rejection letter I’ve ever seen is one sent to a New Zealand writer nearly 90 years ago. It was shared recently by Letters of Note.

Did this poet give up? No.  The fervent F. C. Meyer went on to publish this volume.

It’s a testament to his ambition that he persisted, since his poetry appears to have been as bad as that rejection letter indicated. His verse was quoted in a Scoop article about candidates for“Poet Nauseate.”

I think – I understand thee well,
Rub my nose now for a spell!

couplet from”Maori Maiden”

 

Pluto! come here my dearest little dog,
Don’t get mixed up with every rogue,
And do not run into a fog…

from “My Pet Dog”

If you’re a writer, keep pressing on. The publications rejecting you aren’t where you’re meant to be right now. Let each rejection motivate you to send out three more submissions. To inspire you, here are some authors who kept going despite rejection.

 “[Your poems] are quite as remarkable for defects as for beauties and are generally devoid of true poetical qualities.”   Rejection received by Emily Dickinson.

“An irresponsible holiday story that will never sell.” Rejection of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind In The Willows, which went  on to sell 25 million copies.

“Too different from other juveniles on the market to warrant its selling.”  Rejection letter sent to Theodor Geisel, whose rhyming books went on to sell 300 million copies under the pen name Dr. Seuss.

“We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.”  Stephen King ignored this rejection letter and found another publisher for Carrie, which sold 1 million copies the first year.

“Hopelessly bogged down and unreadable.” Rejection letter to Ursula K. Le Guin. That book, The Left Hand of Darkness , went on to become the first of her many award-winning books.

“We suggest you get rid of all that Indian stuff.” Rejection letter advice to Tony Hillerman, about work that later became his series of best-selling Navajo Tribal Police mystery novels.

“Too radical of a departure from traditional juvenile literature.”  Rejection sent to L. Frank Baum. The author persisted,  finally getting a publishing house to take on the book only when the Chicago Grand Opera House manager committed to making The Wonderful Wizard of Oz into a musical stage play to publicize the novel.

“He hasn’t got any future.” Rejection of the first novel by David Cornwell, retired spy from the British Security Service, MI5.  Yet, the author kept submitting. Publication of that novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, under the pen name John le Carré, launched his second career as writer of international best-sellers.

“I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say. Apparently the author intends it to be funny.” One of 21 rejections for Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, which is said to have gotten its title at a “yes” by the 22nd publisher. The book has sold over 10 million copies.

“Stick to teaching.” Louise May Alcott was told by a dismissive publisher, who said she should give up writing. She went on to see Little Women published. It is still in print 150 years later.

“The girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the ‘curiosity’ level.”   One of the 15 publishers who didn’t think The Diary of Anne Frank had literary merit.

 

9 Questions To Launch The New Year

  • How do I enrich other lives and how do other lives enrich me?
  • What are the most meaningful things I do? Do I want to expand my time doing them?
  • What centers me and me helps me feel whole? How can I offer myself more time for wholeness?
  • How can I let myself be guided by what delights me?
  • In what ways can I pay more attention to my intuition, especially the promptings of my body, and how can I allow my inner wisdom to more fully emerge?
  • Where do I connect with people dissimilar from myself? How can I reach out to build a wider, more inclusive community? What can I do to better understand and be understood?
  • What do I want to remember long after the experience is over? (Maybe create a personal version Life List?)
  • What gets me in the flow, lets me lose track of time and feel energized by what I’m doing? Can I free up more flow time for myself and others?
  • What’s holding me back? How can I step into the future with greater hope and enthusiasm? How can we help each other step into the future with greater hope and enthusiasm?

You might meditate on these questions. Write with them. Draw or collage or paint with them. Walk with them. Talk them over with someone else. Discuss them at a gathering. Use them to prompt a letter to yourself. Let a single question capture your attention and let it accompany you into the new year. Or contemplate your own questions as you dance into the future we share on this lovely, complicated planet.

 

Just Pluck the Day

Horatius Reading His Satires To Maecenas by Fedor Andreevich BronnikovWay back in 23 BCE, the Roman poet Horace exhorted people to carpe diem. Those two words have been translated by schoolchildren and repeated in pop culture for so long that we all know carpe diem means “seize the day.” Except, it doesn’t. Not exactly.

Seizing is much more sudden and forceful than my days appreciate. I don’t feel called upon to fling myself from bed and stomp through the day taking giant bites of ever more amazing experiences.  Yet we live in a culture that admires people who grab what they can, chew it up, and reach for more.  As Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society tells his students, “Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

Many of us aren’t quite that driven.

Thankfully, what Horace more likely meant by the word carpe is “pick or pluck.” Those words come across quite differently to me. To pick the day, I’d reach for it as I would a peach on a tree, knowing the ripest fruit nearly falls off at the touch. To pluck the day I’d grasp it gently as I would a daisy, nipping it off low on the stem to keep the flower fresh. This approach has to do with paying attention and carefully harvesting what’s ready. It has to do with cherishing the fullness of the day itself.

This makes more sense in the context of Horace’s poem as well. He was writing, in this passage, about each of us facing an unforeseen future. We may plan for tomorrow but cannot count on tomorrow.  As he writes, “In the moment of our talking, envious time has ebb’d away.

Tu ne quaesieris, scire nefas, quem mihi, quem tibi
finem di dederint, Leuconoe, nec Babylonios
temptaris numeros. ut melius, quidquid erit, pati.
seu pluris hiemes seu tribuit Iuppiter ultimam,
quae nunc oppositis debilitat pumicibus mare
Tyrrhenum. Sapias, vina liques et spatio brevi
spem longam reseces. dum loquimur, fugerit invida
aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.

Ask not (’tis forbidden knowledge), what our destined term of years,
Mine and yours; nor scan the tables of your Babylonish seers.
Better far to bear the future, my Leuconoe, like the past,
Whether Jove has many winters yet to give, or this our last;
This, that makes the Tyrrhene billows spend their strength against the shore.
Strain your wine and prove your wisdom; life is short; should hope be more?
In the moment of our talking, envious time has ebb’d away.
Pick the present; trust tomorrow e’en as little as you may. 

Time is a mystery contemplated in every era. It’s also a simple wealth we can enjoy right now. Don’t pressure yourself. Just pluck the day, my friend.

Peaches by Elizabeth Jaynes Borglum

(Translation from Odes 1.11 by John Conington, 1882)

Space Any Can Soften Into

out of body

Out of Body

 

Before I knew how to make my eyes march

in rows following shapes called words,

before I could cross the street

without a taller hand to hold,

I worked to stay in the small body

my being was given.

 

If not for careful attention I drifted.

Became a squirrel on the branch

muscles ready to leap,

nose a nervous twitter, ever wary

though I only wanted

to see furry playfulness.

Became J.P. down the street

licking lips already chapped and bleeding

jeering smaller children loudly

to silence a chest ribbed with sorrow.

This made it harder to hate

the bully he seemed.

 

At night I kept blankets pulled tight

but still, the room grew so large

my bed became a tiny speck

and me, a traveler.

From a vantage point I didn’t seek

I saw dark houses hunker on endless streets,

cars pull like magnets along lines of light.

Within them people carrying their lives

with so much effort when all around them

was this space any could soften into.

 

I pulled back and back and back,

searching for and sharpening

my own edges.

Even though I stay in this body

sometimes I drift

sliding through as we all can

from me into you.

Laura Grace Weldon

Find more poems in my collection, Tending.

Secret to Longevity

secret to long lifeWe humans, along with several other higher species, need elders and elders need us. From our early ancestors to today, this need is coded into our biology and shapes how we survive.

Take elephants as an example. They live in family groups led by the oldest females and walk long distances as they search for food. When the group encounters potential danger such as possible predators or unfamiliar elephants, the matriarch signals if they should continue grazing or gather into a defensive huddle. Researchers say families with the oldest matriarchs are best able to determine genuine threat.  The older the matriarch, the less energy wasted on false threats and the more calves  survive, a clear connection between wisdom of elders and success of the community.

Or take orcas. Female orcas stop reproducing around the ago of 50 and can live another 40 years. (Male orcas tend to die much sooner.)  Older females take on a leadership role. When hunting, the matriarch generally swims at the head of the pod and directs its movements, using decades of hunting experience to find elusive prey. Researcher Lauren Brent is quoted in a Smithsonian article saying,  “One way post-reproductive females may boost the survival of their kin is through the transfer of ecological knowledge. The value gained from the wisdom of elders can help explain why female killer whales and humans continue to live long after they have stopped reproducing.”

(I wonder if one of the many reasons elephants and orcas die many decades younger in captivity than they do in the wild has to do with being robbed of their essential roles as providers and wisdom-bearers.)

Which leads us to the evolutionary benefit of human grandmothers. Decades ago, anthropologist Kristen Hawkes developed what she called the “Grandmother Hypothesis.” Dr, Hawkes demonstrated (now with an updated mathematical model) that women historically live so far into their elder years because  there’s a significant survival advantage to the family when grandmothers pitch in. From the earliest roots of humanity, grandmothers gathered food, helped raise the young, and reinforced social cohesion. Children whose grandmothers helped nurture them were more likely to survive, perpetuating genes that selected for women who experience mid-life menopause and vigorous old age.  Dr. Hawkes argues that grandmothers, in our evolutionary past, helped bring about bigger brains, pair bonding, even a doubling of the human lifespan. Grandmothers, she contends, make us human.

But what about grandfathers, aunts, uncles, other elders who live nearby? It seems the Grandmother Hypothesis doesn’t go far enough.  Evolutionary anthropologist Michael Gurven says increased survival and group cohesion has to do with “embodied capital” — the kind of knowledge that is acquired by experience and transmitted to others.  More effective hunting strategies and more skilled foraging is passed on by example, helping one’s people thrive.

Our very biology is rooted in and stirred by the need to protect our community. Even the sleep patterns of elders may stem from what benefits our tribe.  The dark hours have, throughout time, been the most dangerous for humans. But if we look at variations in sleep patterns across a spectrum of ages, we see why it wasn’t necessary to post sentinels at the campfire or at the doorway of the hut. Healthy old people tend to go to sleep earlier, don’t sleep as deeply, wake more easily, get up earlier, and may need less overall sleep.  Teens and young adults stay up later, sleep more deeply, and wake later.

As evidence, consider a recent study of members of a Hadza tribe living on the Tanzanian savanna. It was found that sleep variability meant at any point during the night, 40 percent of adults were wakeful and able to call an alarm if they perceived danger. Researchers call this the “poorly sleeping grandparent hypothesis.”

Today we consider the sleep habits of teens and elders aberrant compared to adults,  pathologizing variations that came to us as a legacy of ancestral strength built by diversity.

Elders need to live as long as possible in order to pass along their earned experience  to the youngest generations. But elders are valuable to a community for another evolutionary reason— essentially living on or sacrificing themselves to benefit the young. At least that’s what  theoretical biologist Josh Mittledorf  speculates in Cracking the Age CodeHe says our species long ago passed out of individual Darwinism into a sort of collective evolution as a way of protecting our communities from collapse.

According to Dr. Mittledorf, elders live longer or die younger based on biological responses to different community conditions.  Here’s how.  When times are very hard the population is at risk, particularly because it takes a great deal of exertion to get enough food to raise the young.  Elders feel the imperative to work hard and eat less for the good of their community. In many cases, they are also vitally needed to care for children.

In contrast, when times are easy the population is not at risk. Abundant food gained with less exertion means the young are likely to live to adulthood. Elders don’t feel compelled to do taxing work and they have plenty to eat. The community’s overall need is for more space to make room for an expanding population.

Let’s look at the messages an elder’s mind and body perceives in these two very different circumstances.

When times are hard, elders are needed by their families and communities. They sense they must thrive to keep their people going.  As research on aging tells us,  humans live longer in response to strenuous exertion, restricted calories, strong social connections, and a deep sense of purpose — precisely like these conditions.

But the imperative for survival may not be as strong when times are easy, food is abundant, and an elder perceives he or she isn’t essential to the family. Again, research on aging tells us that abundant food and minimal exertion, and perhaps a sense that we’re unnecessary or even in the way, leads to an earlier death.

We humans thrive when we are needed. That starts in our earliest years. Watch any toddler beam when he’s allowed to turn on the coffee grinder or run the hose over the car —- children yearn to take on real responsibility and to make a real difference to others. Strong social connections throughout life are so important that research affirms loneliness is as great a health risk as substance abuse, injury, and violence. In fact, chronic loneliness increases the chance of developing dementia by 64 percent and the risk of early death by 45 percent.  Our survival is linked to having an essential and valued role in the lives of others. 

Our whole beings know at the deepest levels that we live for one another. Time to embrace that, for the sake of our own lives and the sake of our collective lives.

“Your life and my life flow into each other as wave flows into wave, and unless there is peace and joy and freedom for you, there can be no real peace or joy or freedom for me. To see reality–not as we expect it to be but as it is–is to see that unless we live for each other and in and through each other, we do not really live very satisfactorily; that there can really be life only where there really is, in just this sense, love.”

~Frederick Buechner

Rescuing a Desperate Creature

empath humor

Early mornings are dark and quiet in November. I put on my boots, coat, and hat to walk out with a bucket of kitchen scraps in hand. I pause to appreciate mist rising from the pond and autumn’s complex scents. Some mornings I chat quietly with birds and trees as I head back to the barn. Other mornings I sing.

This particular morning I’m wearing a heavier coat against the cold, a bright orange hat, and carrying a bigger pail than usual. As I walk I notice a muted squeaking sound. Immediately, I picture it coming from some small creature. I imagine its dark desperate eyes. Maybe it is trapped or injured.

I slow. Already the squeaks have become harder to hear.

I stop. The squeaks stop too.

Poor wary little thing, I must be close.

I walk slowly toward tall grasses lining the creek. A few distressed squeaks can be heard. I pause, hoping intuition might tell me where this little animal is hiding. There’s probably nothing I can do, but if it’s trapped I can free it. If it’s injured I might be able to move it to a place safer than the side of a flood-prone creek.

I stand still, listening.

Nothing.

Okay, I say to myself. It’s your imagination.

I head back toward the barn.

The squeaking starts up again, rhythmic and anguished.

Logic is late to this adventure, but it finally clicks in. I’m carrying a large bucket, one we left out on the cold porch overnight. The squeaking noise I hear is the frozen handle rubbing against the sides. I stop to confirm. The squeaking stops. I feel silly. I also feel, against all reason, enormously relieved for the imaginary creature that’s no longer in distress.

I take a deep breath and continue on toward the barn, ever more grateful for the peace of the day.

I hope your morning is less emotionally fraught.

Only imaginary animals were imperiled.

This post shared from our farm site, Bit of Earth Farm