Primary Experiences in Nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s Give Each Other Literary Prescriptions

During a hard time in my life, when I was really struggling with despair over the state of the world, I found myself dragging through the nearly 800 pages of historian Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century.  Her book began by describing weather changes that limited the growing season across Europe for four hundred years and went on to explore the effect on average people when elites took every opportunity to expand their wealth and power. Willful ignorance and greed gave rise to invasions, revolts, and pograms. Atrocities in daily life abounded. It was common, for example, to leave unwanted babies outside to die of exposure, to abuse animals, to attend public executions for their entertainment value. Somehow this grim book helped me lift my head from what had me so downcast and see, no matter how dire things seemed, we humans have improved. A look back at history shows, despite current evidence, we are indeed evolving into more compassionate beings.

A few years later I ran across a far more directly life-enhancing book, Pronoia Is the Antidote for Paranoia: How the Whole World Is Conspiring to Shower You With Blessings by the imitable Rob Brezsny, whose bio describes him as an “aspiring master of curiosity, perpetrator of sacred uproar, and founder of the Beauty and Truth Lab.” I bought as many copies as I could afford, giving one to anyone whose spirit seemed weighted or who suffered from a chronic Eeyore-itis. I hoped the book’s magically reverent yet irreverent tone might heal them too.

Unexpectedly necessary books of all kinds have often shown up exactly when I needed them, a phenomenon sometimes called the work of library angels. More often, books have been suggested to me by people who were sure I’d love the same book they just finished reading. They are usually right. It’s no exaggeration to say that a day hasn’t passed since I learned to read that I haven’t spent at least some time with a volume of fiction or nonfiction.  To me, books are more than escape. They are a journey beyond myself. They lift me into wonder. When I close the pages I return to my life gratefully expanded for the view.

What have you been reading that elevates you? That makes you laugh? That helps you see things in a new way? That completely takes you into a new world? I’d love to hear what you’ve enjoyed lately. Here are a few of my literary prescriptions.

Virgil Wander by Leif Enger. I have adored this author’s work ever since Peace Like a River.  Enger loves words and the way they can be layered. This is evident everywhere including in many of his character’s delicious names — Rune, Adam Leer, Shad Pea, Fergus Flint. And oh my, the main character’s name — an epic poet paired with threads from his poem. I was right there in this town, traveling through Virgil’s days with him. I could smell the old movie theater and see the films playing, could sense the raven’s claws on my shoulder and feel the kite string play out through my fingers. Enger deftly tells a story with nuanced emotion and quiet wit. Here’s a small dose:

“The old man had tears in his eyes. He touched my shoulder as the men rode in on their Harleys and Indians and Hondas. They were led by a graybeard on an olive-drab Triumph. In they rolled, gloves on, black helmets squeezing faces red from the wind, a pack of paunchy old centaurs come to bury their own.”

This book gives us a small town with wide open skies where people’s lives are touched by what is unknowable. Best of all, it ends on a note of redemption.

~~~

Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory tells of a family in which each member possesses a psychic gift that may also seem like a curse. One of the characters in this entertaining book is truly an original in today’s literature. Buddy Telemachus has, since early childhood, seen the future. An observer might assume he suffers from a severe obsessive disorder or worse, but his behavior is that of a man desperate to avoid altering the future he sees and at the same time to save his family, even though he’s convinced his own timeline is running down to an early oblivion. I love (and weirdly understand) this character. Gregory’s story is addictive. Here’s a brief rumination by one of the main characters, (the obviously fuddy-duddy) Teddy Telemachus:

“The problem with getting old was that each day had to compete with the thousands of others gone by. How wonderful would a day have to be to win such a beauty contest? To even make it into the finals? Never mind that memory rigged the game, airbrushed the flaws from its contestants, while the present had to shuffle into the spotlight unaided, all pockmarked with mundanities and baggy with annoyances: traffic fumes and blaring radios and fast-food containers tumbling along the sidewalk. Even an afternoon such as this, spent cooling his heels in a well-appointed park, under a sky as clear as a nun’s conscience, was chock-full of imperfections that disqualified it from top ten status.”

~~~

Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood is simultaneously hilarious and clever. It’s also strangely familiar, as if odd families wherever they may be still run on the same current. The author is a poet and precise writer. On nearly every page are passages so perfect they linger like chewy literary caramel.

“I sometimes wish my childhood had been less obsessed with the question of why we are here. But that must be the question of any childhood. To write about your mother and father is to tell the story of your own close call, to count all the ways you never should have existed. To write about home is to write about how you dropped from space, dragging ellipses behind you like a comet, and how you entered your country and state and city, and finally your four-cornered house, and finally your mother’s body and finally your own. From the galaxy to the grain and back again. From the fingerprint to the grand design. Despite all the conspiracies of the universe, we are here; every moment we are here we arrive.”

~~~

Jewelweed by David Rhodes is a multifaceted and marvelously written book. It’s told from many viewpoints—a chronically ill child, a wary young mother, a minister, an ex-con, a long-distance trucker, and many more. Each character reveals him or herself in quietly brilliant observations. For example, here’s a thought shared by Winnie, the minister.

“Winnie cherished Jacob’s need for passion from her, and sometimes imagined that his consciousness consisted primarily of an awareness of his own sexual instinct–his own gateway to rapture. Thankfully God had created this vital opportunity for bliss, yet Winnie remained convinced there were many more avenues that could be followed to divine pleasure. People could become hyperconscious in countless ways. It was possible. The sight of a hummingbird–along with the sound of its thrumming wings–once revealed to her how she had long ago lived with tiny black feet and a nectar-searching tongue. Her shoulders remembered the thrilled rhythms. On another occasion, the taste of a strawberry related its entire history of self-propelled spirit into matter. All human sensations could, she believed, provide paths to the same state of ecstatic worship. The principalities of civilization had hidden most of these gateways to heightened awareness, however, and for most people now, the only way back to the blessed original state involved a spectacular sexual event. And while Winnie rejoiced as much as anyone else in extraordinary sexual events, she sometimes feared that keeping the species alive had nearly replaced being alive, as if the entire galaxy of spontaneous felt-unity threatened to become perversely focused on one narrow impulse.”

~~~

A Path Appears: Transforming Lives, Creating Opportunity by Nicholas Kristof and  Sheryl WuDunn is, like their equally compelling book Half The Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity For Women Worldwide, simply remarkable. The authors write about social ills and social progress, but in both books they do so through the stories of people who are making positive changes. These books carefully analyze the evidence  to help us understand how any of us can make a difference. Truly heartening and important reads, both. 

“Let’s recognize that success in life is a reflection not only of enterprise and willpower but also of chance and early upbringing, and that compassion isn’t a sign of weakness but a mark of civilization.”

~~~

The Wet Engine: Exploring the Mad Wild Miracle of Heart by Brian Doyle, who passed away last year at age 60, leaving 20-some books. Too few from such a gifted, gentle soul. The impetus for this book began when Doyle’s infant son needed several heart surgeries. The boy grew up healthy, yet the author writes,

“Not a day goes by, not one, that I do not think of my son, tiny and round and naked and torn open and heart-chilled and swimming somewhere between death and life; and every day I think of the young grinning intense mysterious heart doctor who saved his life; and for years now I have wanted to try to write that most unwriteable man, to tell a handful of the thousands of stories that whirl around him like brilliant birds, to report a tiny percentage of the people he has saved and salved, and so thank him in some way I don’t fully understand, and also thank the Music that made him and me and my son and all of us; and somehow it seems to me that the writing down of a handful of those stories will matter in the world, be a sort of crucial chant or connective tissue between writer and readers, all of us huddled singing under the falling bombs and stars; and more and more over the years I have become absorbed and amazed at the heart itself, the wet engine of us all…”

This book meanders, as the passage above meanders, into faith and science and healing. I found myself reading parts of it aloud to my husband because they were just so beautiful. It’s a perfect read for anyone, at any age, who has had heart trouble. Also perfect for the rest of us because we have hearts too.

~~~

Reincarnation Blues by Michael Poore centers on Milo, who hasn’t yet reached perfection and is nearing the cosmic limit of 10,000 incarnations. An added complication —Milo is in love with Death (who prefers to be known as Suzie). It’s a clever plot, allowing author Michael Poore to change voice and tone as he shows us dozens of these lifetimes. Some, including Milo’s life as a meatpacker, offer an insightful view of human motivation. The book is packed with tiny delights, like the occasional homage to Where The Wild Things Are. It’s also illuminated by passages like this one when Milo is trying, but failing to meditate:

“But it can’t be helped, because it’s not just your head, is it? It’s the head and soul of all the voices of all your ten thousand lives and eight thousand years and all their pasts and futures, all the cavemen and race-car drivers and milkmaids with pale cheeks, all the spacemen, crickets, economists, and witches. The voices are full of the things people are full of, the things they will carry with them into whatever future takes shape, things like waffles and hard work and things you hope no one finds out.”

At times I found the whole pretense of perfection a bit of an overreach. The between-life portions of the book felt frustrating, especially when Milo had just done something damn useful or deeply compassionate in his past life, but it still wasn’t perfect enough. If, as Reincarnation Blues insists, each soul is charged with achieving something amazingly transformative before ending the cycle of rebirth, Earth itself would be Nirvana. Or maybe that’s the point.

~~~

There are so many more books I want to talk about, but let’s hear what books are captivating you lately. It may be just the thing someone else needs to read.

Organized Sports Aren’t Play

“When the fun goes out of play, most often so does the learning” –Joanne E. Oppenheim

I recently had coffee with a child psychologist friend. She told me her practice is packed with parents desperate to find solutions for their unhappy children. She sees six-year-olds who are anxious and withdrawn. Eight-year-olds who are angry and cynical. Preteens who suffer from perfectionism, from depression, from self-harming behaviors.

I nodded sorrowfully.

We discussed today’s childhood stressors, from too much homework to too little family time. We agreed kids need more opportunities for play. But I couldn’t hide my surprise when she said she often advised parents to get their kids into sports.

My eyebrows went up and I probably ranted a little. I sputtered that organized sports aren’t really play. Play is self-directed fun that exists for its own sake. While organized sports can be and often are fun, they’re still highly structured programs run by adults. I asked my friend if she prescribed play, why not free play?

She agreed in principle. “But there are no kids running around outside any more,” she said gently, “We have to funnel them into sports so at least they get a semblance of play.”

That may be the status quo in many areas, but it doesn’t have to be.

Sports, like play, used to belong entirely to kids. Just a few generations ago there weren’t many organized sports programs, especially for kids younger than teens. Kids loved sports with just as much fervor as they do today, but to engage in them they simply went outside, found a few other kids, and played.

Organized competitions for boys began to rise in the 19th century following the emergence of compulsory education. The school day itself restructured children’s lives, separating educational time from free time. Adults began to more seriously consider how kids used those out-of-school hours. By the early part of the 20th century, increasing numbers of immigrant children playing on city streets got the attention of reformers. Along with an extraordinary new movement to create urban playgrounds, and organizations that took poor children to the country for nature experiences, came the idea that play should be supervised, particularly for boys from the poorest families. As historian Robert Halpern explains, the physical challenges of sports were thought to prepare the poorest classes to be physical laborers in the emerging industrial society.

According to Until It Hurts by Mark Hyman, the forerunners of today’s supervised youth teams were originally made up of mostly poor and lower-middle-class children, and were intended to ameliorate social conditions. Leagues were started by organizations such as the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) which used sports to promote religion more than to advance athletics as well as groups advocating organized sports as way to save boys from vice. Little League took hold during the Depression, slotting youthful energy toward sports in a time when the job outlook wasn’t good.

Until a few generations ago most middle-class children in the U.S. didn’t engage in organized sports outside of the school day until they were in their early teens, and then usually in school sponsored teams. A middle-class emphasis on adult-run sports ratcheted up right around the time that salaries for professional teams began to skyrocket. Parents and coaches promoted the idea that talented kids had a shot at professional sports if they started early, worked hard, and were sprinkled with enough “believe in yourself” magic. Sports bulged beyond traditional seasons with training camps, private coaching, and travel games.

Parents also began to equate success in athletics with a better chance of admission to choice colleges and universities. This motivated parents to start their kids in organized sports at younger and younger ages, hoping to give them a competitive edge over other kids.

Now, organized sports have become standard for children as young as four years old, sometimes younger. A distinguishing factor in early entry into competitive sports is monetary—kids are most likely to start young when annual household income is over $100,000. Already in the U.S., 60 percent of boys and 47 percent of girls are on a team by age six.

Sports participation dominates in the suburbs where boys are likely to play on three or more teams. Parents are expected to buy specialized gear, drive children to practices, attend games, participate in fundraisers, plus pay for skill clinics and off-season camps. Enthusiastic participants can find extraordinary positives in sports, particularly in the preteen and teen years, but is it worth starting so young and becoming so heavily committed? Childhood time for free play is sacrificed. So is family time. Is all this necessary?

Apparently not. Here are some reasons why.

  1. Starting kids as early as possible does not give them an advantage over other kids. In fact, notes Brooke de Lench in Home Team Advantage, it has been found to diminish their eagerness to participate.
  2. De Lench also finds that preschoolers who take part in sports programs are not more likely to be high school athletes than kids who don’t.
  3. Correctly identifying who is genuinely talented at a young age is extremely complicated. Studies reported by the National Institutes of Health show the earlier a child is identified as having talent, the more uncertain is the prediction of his or her future success.
  4. Sports, even in the early elementary years, can be intense. Hours devoted to practice sessions, clinics, games, and tournaments chew up children’s free time. But pressure doesn’t create champions. When educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom interviewed world-class tennis players about their early years, they talked about not being any better than other players. They remembered their parents supported them without taking over and their coaches made tennis fun. Their own enthusiasm drove them forward. And sports psychologists remind parents that young children aren’t able to differentiate performance from who they are as people.
  5. The bullying coach isn’t just a meme. It’s all too often a reality, one that’s harmful not only for young children but older athletes as well. Laurence Steinberg, an expert on adolescent psychology, explains in The Atlantic that the pressure on kids causes serious performance anxiety. Critical, sometimes demeaning language directed at kids is far more powerful than adults realize, particularly during the teen years when the brain is more highly attuned to emotional arousal. “When an adult is delivering a message to an adolescent, if it’s in an emotional way,” Steinberg says, “the kids will pay more attention to the way the message is delivered than to what is in the message.”
  6. Negative, high pressure coaching doesn’t improve young athletes’ performances. A study of coaching techniques published in the journal Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology concluded, “…abusive coaching behaviors can bring out the worst in their team by fostering an atmosphere where student-athletes are more willing to cheat, less inclusive toward others, and less satisfied…”
  7. study of over 1,600 high school athletes published in the Journal of Adolescent Health noted that teenage boys who participate in football and/or basketball are almost twice as likely to have acted abusively to their dating partners. Researchers found that high school athletics can reinforce “hyper-masculine attitudes,” and boys who hold such attitudes were up to three times more likely to abuse their girlfriends. Another study of nearly 100,000 high school students, published in American Sociological Review, found that players of contact-heavy sports, particularly football, were nearly 40 percent more likely to act aggressively off the field than non-athletes.These aren’t necessarily causative factors but are a reason for concern.
  8. As young athletes get older, they’re increasingly likely to drop out. Almost 75 percent of kids who play organized sports quit by age 13, according to Steven Henson on the blog The Post Game. Their reasons? Nearly 40 percent list as their top reason, “I was not having fun.” Even more young people drop out in their freshman year, when stats show there’s another 26 percent drop in the number of students who play.
  9. The odds, overall, of a high school athlete landing a college scholarship at an NCAA school stands at two percent. That’s true even for youth whose parents have spent heavily on high-level youth sport for years.
  10. The cost of competing is increasingly likely to consume up to 10.5 percent of gross family income. Parents on average pay per player, per year (in 2015 dollars): $2,200 to $4,000 to participate in travel soccer, $2,600 in hockey, $5,000 to more than $10,000 for gymnastics. “
  11. All this spending ratchets up the pressure on young athletes. When college players were asked to talk about their worst memory from playing youth sports, overwhelmingly they answered, “The ride home from games with my parents.” Apparently even the most well-intentioned parents weigh in with their opinions rather than allowing the child to own his or her own experience. It’s significant to note that the same survey of players found the best comment by parents was very simply, “I love to watch you play.”
  12. Then there are the health consequences. Reports of injuries are up, with 2.6 million emergency room visits a year, and there’s evidence that concussions and other head trauma cause lasting damage. In soccer alone, kids are playing more competitively more months of the year, leading to a 74 percent increase in injuries severe enough to be treated in a hospital ER. Some of that may be an increased awareness of head injuries, but removing such injuries from the data still reveals a 60 percent increase in ER visits due to youth soccer. Imaging studies published in the journal Radiologyshows football players younger than 13, with no concussion symptoms, still show signs associated with traumatic brain injury. A large-scale study in Sweden found teen concussions appear to increase the risk of developing multiple sclerosis later in life. Another study found children who started playing football before the age of 12 manifested mental health problems later in life at much higher rates than people who took up the sport later. They were twice as likely to have issues with initiative, problem solving, and apathy and three times more likely to have symptoms of depression. The results were not related to total number of years in football or number of concussions reported, but specifically related to early experience playing football. Although it’s rarely studied, there is some evidence that children are much more likely to suffer serious harm in adult-run sports than in pick-up games.
  13. One reason parents encourage sports is to boost a child’s health, yet obesity is on the increase. From the early 1970s to now, the prevalence of obesity in children ages 6 to 11 has quadrupled; for those ages 12 to 19 years it has tripled. There are certainly many causes, including more processed foods in the diet and more estrogen-mimicking hormones in the environment, but organized sports may be a factor. If you compare kids running and climbing freely on a playground with kids the same age running laps to warm up for soccer practice, you see eager full body movement reduced to an obligation. Children are normally full of energy. They play energetically for the sheer joy of movement. But when that activity is channeled into practices and games, kids may be turned off from engaging in physical activity outside of sports, instead slumping into a chair like workers after a busy factory shift. We know that external rewards diminish intrinsic motivation. For example, rewarding kids for reading severely diminishes their motivation to read for pleasure. It’s worth considering that sports might have a similar effect on some young people’s desire to engage in other forms of physical play.
  14. Participation in organized youth sports is correlated with lower overall creativity while playing informal games is significantly related to overall creativity. One study compared the sort of childhood leisure activities students engaged in with their levels of creativity as assessed on the Abbreviated Torrance Test for Adults. The most highly creative students spent only about two hours a week in structured sports throughout their school-age years.

It’s not an all or nothing proposition. Sports brim with benefits. They promote fitness. They can provide extraordinary lessons in teamwork, persistence, and handling disappointment. That’s true of organized sports, but it’s also true of informal sports. The issue is really about what adults have done to co-opt and overrun the games kids once organized on their own to play with each other, and how we can leave more time in children’s lives to play as they choose.

Are You a Courtly or Carnal Book Lover?

 

I am that monster.

But hear me out. Or rather, hear Anne Fadiman who frames the monster dichotomy differently. In Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, she divides bookworms into two types: courtly and carnal lovers. In her view, those who approach books as courtly lovers treat its physical form as “inseparable from its contents” and do everything possible to keep it in as virginal state as when it was first published, believing any wear or damage to the book’s body is less than the contents deserve.

Carnal book lovers, in contrast, regard a book’s words as inviolable, “…but the paper, cloth, cardboard, glue, thread, and ink that contained them…” are no more than a vessel to be treated “…as wantonly as desire and pragmatism dictated.”

Courtly book lovers use the thinnest bookmarks or avoid them entirely to avoid leaving any vestigial marks. That way when they’ve finished, they have honored the book by leaving it in pristine quality to keep or pass along.

Carnal lovers mark their places with whatever is at hand. That’s me. Among other things, I’ve used pens, other books, feathers, leaves, postcards, torn-out book reviews, and to-do lists. After I’m done I have often intentionally left in my books as small mementos —- a child’s drawing, a recipe, a cartoon. (I dog-ear the pages I want to return to, I use bookmarks to keep my place. Other monsters’ habits may vary.)

Courtly book lovers somehow keep their pages pristine despite the very human dew of sneezes, tears, and baby drool.

Those of us who are carnal book lovers love more messily.  We read in bathtubs and under leaky umbrellas, on sandy beaches and in leaf-spattered tents. We barely look up from the text while drinking coffee, slurping soup, or slopping curry into our mouths. A few unintentional spatters add to the history we have with that page— a sort of personal “Kilroy was here” marking what else we were taking into our bodies as we were taking those words into ourselves.

A courtly book lover is careful to never, ever crack a book’s spine. Some of us in the carnal lover category splay open a book’s spine as we read so that light leans into every inch. Some of us turn open books over to hold our places or set something on an open book to hold it as far open as possible. To us, the cracked spine is a sure sign of a well-loved, much-consulted volume.

Possibly most offensive to courtly lovers is marking a book’s pages. Underlining starring, sketching, and writing margin notes seems downright abominable to them. But to carnal book lovers like me this represents a personal conversation with the author and the author’s ideas. When my friend Diane passes a book along, I enjoy what she’s underlined and written, as if she’s reading it along with me. When I read a book my father once owned I enjoy his penciled margin notes, many of them addressed first-person to himself. Back when I bought used textbooks, all those highlighted portions and margin notes helped me pay more attention. Sometimes that was because I wouldn’t have underlined what previous readers found important, other times because those scrawled comments were more interesting than the book’s text.

The carnal book lover’s approach can and often does result in loving a book to shreds. Heck, that means we have to buy another copy to share, which is a great way to support authors we love. Courtly lovers tend to buy copies to share as well, because they’d rather not expose their beloved books to the ravages of another reader. Win/win for authors!

What we all have in common is love of books. Books sink into us, transport us, allow us to live hundreds of lives. When and where we’ve read them is often forever locked into what we’ve read.

What sort of reader are you?

 

Loose Parts: What You Need To Know

“A child’s greatest achievements are possible in play, achievements that tomorrow will become her basic level of real action and morality.” ~Lev Vygotsky

You probably know the old cliché about kids playing longer with the box a toy came in then the toy itself? It’s true. Child development experts in the UK asked 2,000 parents to compare their children’s interactions when they used devices, toys, and free play items like cardboard boxes. Almost twice as many parents said their children preferred playing with boxes than gadgets and 46 percent of children enjoyed playing with boxes instead of other toys and games.

Plain cardboard boxes are enticing because they’re free-form playthings. Beyond classic toys like wooden blocks, many best-selling toys don’t spark much open-ended fun. That’s because children play in less creative ways with toys based on popular movies or shows and play more passively with toys that make sounds, move, or otherwise perform. On the other hand, a wrapping paper tube can become nearly anything — a cane, magic wand, snake, lightsaber, boundary marker, whatever imagination chooses.

The natural world is full of playthings. Sand, sticks, dirt, water, pinecones, leaves, logs, flowers, and rocks have inspired children’s imaginations for ages.

So can pretty much anything kids are able to lift, drag, climb on, line up, dig with, join together, pour, dump out, take apart, swing around, push, or otherwise use as curiosity leads them. That is, as long as they have two key elements in their favor:

  • children are given permission
  • children are afforded the time.

Playground designers Vicki Stoecklin and Randy White write,

“The world once offered thousands of delights of free play to children. Children used to have access to the world at large, whether it was the sidewalks, streets, alleys, vacant lots and parks of the inner city or the fields, forests, streams and yards of suburbia and the rural countryside. Children could play, explore and interact with the natural world with little or no restriction or supervision.

Research on children’s preferences shows that if children had the design skills to do so, their creations would be completely different from the areas called playgrounds that most adults design for them. Outdoor spaces designed by children would not only be fully naturalized with plants, trees, flowers, water, dirt, sand, mud, animals and insects, but also would be rich with a wide variety of play opportunities of every imaginable type. If children could design their outdoor play spaces, they would be rich developmentally appropriate learning environments where children would want to stay all day.”

Back in 1971, architect Simon Nicholson wrote an article in Landscape Architect titled “How Not to Cheat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts.” He contended that most of us grow up, are educated, and live the rest of our lives in environments that stymie the imagination. He describes them as “static and impossible to play around with.” Instead of taking part in real planning and using real materials, “…children and adults and the community have been grossly cheated and the educational-cultural system makes sure that they hold the belief that this is ‘right.'”

For most of us the problem starts with tight restrictions in childhood.

  • As kids, we’re not allowed to build or make things except within certain tight parameters (following instructions for a craft project is permitted, upending chairs to make an obstacle course is not).
  • We can’t experiment with variables in unexpected ways (“Don’t make a mess!”).
  • And we have limited experiences with exploration and discovery (“Stay on the playground, no climbing the trees.”). This inhibits creativity and inventiveness early on.

Sand belongs in the sandbox?

Mr. Nicholson’s theory of loose parts is this,

“In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.” In other words, kids have nearly infinite ways to play when they have access to materials that can be used beyond a specific purpose.

Young children often use playthings as if they’re loose parts. A child combines a toy dinosaur, plastic teacup, dress-up scarf, and a few blocks into vivid and fully realized play on his own. Rules like keeping the tea cups with the tea set and putting away all the blocks before getting out another toy may keep the room neater but it also cuts down on much wider possibilities for play.

Kids (all of us, really) are more inventive and playful when our environments offer lots of variables. Open-ended materials let us transform simple materials into complex ideas. We play at what we’re most drawn to understand, right at the tantalizing edge of challenge, in ways unique to each of us. Recognizing this, more and more day care centers, museums, and playgrounds are starting to soften restrictions and offer loose parts for play.

Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh has a loose parts playground

At one day care center, children spend a large part of every day in a large fenced outdoor area, even when it’s raining. There’s no play structure with swings and slides, and few toys other than small wagons and plastic figures. There are, however, all sorts of loose parts for kids to use.

Two girl have made a bridge over a muddy area with a row of milk crates. They pound twigs with rocks until the wood crumbles into fibers, mix it with mud they scoop up with spoons, then arrange it on tree branch slices. A group of four-year-olds drag a few planks over some bicycle tires, running and jumping on the tippy boards in a game that seems to be about danger and rescue. Many kids are playing in little enclosures they’ve made from tarps hung over low tree branches or within a circle of logs. These child-made places are nearly empty some days, other days they’re brimming with activity. The most popular spot seems to be a large pile of dirt in a far corner, left there when a utility line had to be dug up and repaired. Some kids pour rivulets of water from the top of the pile, watching it snake down the uneven surface. Others put sticks in the dirt, arrange rocks on it, roll balls down it, and make ramps leading up to it. One little boy ran up and down the pile, but stopped when he saw he’d nearly stepped on another boy’s plastic figure. He crouched down next to him and they both buried, discovered, and reburied the toy a few times before flattening a path in the dirt with a measuring cup and letting the figure drive a measuring cup car on this de-facto road.

Here, children seem to require minimal involvement from their teachers. Instead they’re learning to play cooperatively — disputing and solving disputes, sorting and building, and mostly pretending. They’re also growing more physically adept while teaching themselves hands-on lessons about math and science. There’s no need for adults to keep loose parts organized, no need to step in and instruct, no need for a full day of pre-planned activities.

Similar to the center where Teacher Tom works. Visit his wise and instructive site for more.

Loose parts evoke more inventive play in older children as well. A two-year Australian study of primary school children found that adding objects like crates, buckets, pool noodles, and hay bales to their schoolyard caused sedentary behavior to drop by half while kids played with more enjoyment, imagination, and vigor.

Other studies have found that creativity and problem-solving soar when children use naturally occurring outdoor materials in their play, a contrast to adult-provided props so common in children’s lives. As researcher Dana Miller writes in an education journal article titled “The Seeds of Learning,

“Our research presents compelling evidence that providing children with open-ended natural materials fosters imagination, creativity, and symbolic (abstract) thinking. When they are working with open-ended materials children get to decide what those materials will become, explore interesting ways to manipulate the materials, and how their use of those materials may change during a dramatic play scenario. Children get to search for just the right material or object to represent something in their minds, and through that use and the functions they assign to those materials, children display their brilliance.”

It’s easy to incorporate loose parts into children’s days. There’s no need to buy specialized loose parts and carefully sort them into containers after play. Along with some classic open-ended toys like blocks, construction sets, dress-up, and art supplies we can say yes to all sorts of other free-form materials. Many are probably already at hand.

And pay attention to temporary circumstances that crop up, giving kids in your family and in the neighborhood the opportunity to play around a tree that fell in a storm, a pile of dirt left after construction, or the rainfall that turned your neighborhood park into a puddle-rich haven for imagination.

Transmuted

Compost Happens

Nature teaches nothing is lost.
It’s transmuted.

Spread between rows of beans,
last year’s rusty leaves tamp down weeds.
Coffee grounds and banana peels
foster rose blooms. Bread crumbs
scattered for birds become song.
Leftovers offered to chickens come back
as eggs, yolks sunrise orange.
Broccoli stems and bruised apples
fed to cows return as milk steaming in the pail,
as patties steaming in the pasture.

Surely our shame and sorrow
also return,
composted by years
into something generative as wisdom.

Laura Grace Weldon

Originally published in Canary: A Literary Journal of the Environmental Crisis.  Find more poems in my collection, Tending.

Internal Monologue

At a monthly writers’ workshop, our lone male poet advised the 50-something and older women poets, “You don’t need periods.”

I kept quiet, although my inner voice made a few silly comebacks. Heck, I didn’t even smirk despite my tendency to alarm the people around me with sudden braying laughter that continues far too long. This man is a wonderful poet and was, of course, talking about punctuation.

Experts say we all have an inner monologue going on, at least some of the time. Imaging studies show a region of the brain called Broca’s area is active as we speak aloud and also active during our inner speech. In fact, our inner voice stimulates minuscule muscle movements in the larynx as if tempted to make our thoughts audible. Our inner monologues aren’t confined to words. They show up in pictures, imagined actions, visualizations, reflections, emotions, and much more. My inner monologue leans toward the emotionally intense. I often feel simultaneously in love with and touched by a tenuous fragility in everything around me. At the edge of that is a tickly inclination to take mildly funny oddities as absurdly amusing. I like to believe none of this shows up on my face.

After the writers’ workshop I stop to do an errand. As I approach a check-out line at the store I notice with pleasure that a lovely young woman in front of me, her hair done up in mathematically perfect braids, has turned to smile. It’s a genuine, glad-to-see-you smile. This stranger’s smile feels, to me, like a moment of oneness in our chaotic world. Until her smile fades.

“Oh,” she says as I get in line behind her, “I thought you were someone else.”

She explains that I look like her middle school counselor, a person who was a help to her when she most needed it. I wished I had been such a help.

“This,” I say, making an exaggerated circle around my very ordinary face, “is often mistaken for someone else.” We laugh and discuss being misidentified. I tell her someone once insisted we’d gone to college together in Wisconsin, another person told me I was the living image of her sister-in-law.

“There’s a word for that,” she says, looking up and to the right for a long pause. “Oh, generic! That’s it, you have a generic face!” We both grin uncomfortably, then she faces forward to complete her purchase.

And there it was again, my chronic inner monologue. I felt simultaneously in love with and touched by a tenuous fragility in this whole experience. I wanted to hug her as her middle school guidance counselor might have done at finding a former student doing so well, with tears in my eyes. I also felt a sense of celebration at being an age where I’m largely able to float along unnoticed, my inner self chatting along, sometimes making it all the way back to the car before my inner and outer selves contort my generic face with glorious braying laughter.

 

Poets & Sages Behind Closed Doors

Sunlight flashes across the nursing home lobby when I enter. By degrees the brightness dims as the door swings shut. My eyes adjust to a line of wheelchairs, their occupants so still they might be in deep meditation. One woman rouses, her brown eyes searching me out. “Feet don’t work a’tall,” she says politely. “Not a lick of good.”

I walk down the hall past living koans. A man is held in a chair with padded restraints resembling a life jacket. His arms extend forward as if he is about to swim, but he doesn’t move. He repeats over and over, “I, I, I, I.”

An aide explains in a loud, cheerful tones to a woman hunched over a walker, “There is no upstairs, Dorothy. See? No elevator. We only have one floor.”

Dorothy ignores her and pushes the walker ahead. “Let’s go upstairs now,” she says.

“Show me how to get there.”

When I get to the room where my husband’s grandmother lives, she says, “There you are!” She knows me even if she can’t remember my name. Today I get her talking about childhood memories. She recalls that as the youngest of an immigrant family she had to be tough even as a little girl. “They’d beat you like they wanted salt,” she says, “but I wouldn’t cry.”

“Who beat you Grandma?”

“I’m never hungry,” she answers. “Never.”

Her roommate, who leaves the television on all day, calls out over the noise of a game show, “Ned, come over here.”

There’s no one by that name in the room. Not that I can see.

This whole nursing home feels like a living poem. But I don’t want to write about the people here. I want to write with them.

When I graduated from college I found no openings in my field. Instead I eventually found a job as a nursing home activities director. There I read the newspaper aloud every morning to a lively group of elders, soliciting their opinions and making sure to find the articles they loved to cluck over — tales of human failings. I played songs on the piano like “Bye Bye Blackbird” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” for sing-alongs. I got a group of rabble-rousers together each month, named them the Residents’ Council, and helped them advocate for positive change with the administration. And I developed a local network of activity directors. We shared closely guarded secrets such as contact information for puppeteers, barbershop quartets, amateur magicians, and others willing to perform in nursing homes.

My fellow activity directors and I had the best jobs in these places. We had time to listen to the people who lived there. When I listened, really listened, I knew myself to be in the presence of poets and sages. I developed a writing program to let others hear them too. When I took the job, the facility’s monthly newsletter contained only a schedule of events, a list of birthdays, and generic health tips. But the building was home to 100 people with voices of their own. I needed to expand that publication.

I started with a column called “Tip of the Month.” Some residents didn’t know what day of the week it was or where they were, but if asked for suggestions on getting a child to behave or living within one’s means, they bubbled with advice. That column usually featured comments by dozens of residents. Many times their opinions contradicted each other, making for a livelier feature. Better yet, staff members and families implemented some of the suggestions in their own lives. When they came back and told the residents about ways they had benefited, it helped put these seniors back in their rightful position as elders with wisdom to offer.

For example:

Home Cold Remedies

“My mother used to put dry onions on my chest like a poultice. She browned them in a frying pan and put them on hot as I could take.” — Harry Pierce

“We took hot milk with ginger.” — Carmen Morales

  “My mother would rub goose grease and turpentine on our chests and put us to bed after a drink of whiskey, hot water, and sugar. Boy did we smell after that!” — Lillian Edwards

 Once I got beyond the typical “how are you feeling today?” conversational dead-end so common in nursing homes, I discovered residents whose suggestions were too long and complex to fit in Tip of the Month.” If asked to give advice for high school graduates their answers covered psychology, religion, and culture. If the question dealt with handling bullies, some people brought up international affairs, others disclosed wild personal incidents.

So I added another section to the periodical. This one centered on a different theme each month. Harvest time, first day of school, best friends, what made a good neighbor, lifelong dreams, a mother’s touch, fatherly advice, vacations. Some people brought up fragments of memories, others shared powerful insights. Nearly all of their answers illuminated a bygone era.

Preparing for Winter

“My grandfather from Hungary never drank water…Hungary had been at war and both sides poisoned the water. He never took up drinking the water again… Each year he bought a truckload of grapes and had them dumped through the basement window. We helped him make barrels of wine.” — Bill Dobscha

“Back in Ireland we’d dig up the potatoes, pick the apples, and store them away…Close to winter the pig was butchered and the meat smoked. The wheat was ground for bread and we made sure there was enough oatmeal to feed us 21 kids all winter.”  — Catherine Monally

“Only rich kids had skates, but you could slide on ice by smashing tin cans on your heels and use garbage can lids for sleds. We had fun in any weather.”  — Freda Tesar

Sometimes new staff members had difficulty telling residents apart, frustrated that stooped posture and thin white hair made the very old look alike. But stories in print gave unique perspectives on residents who spent day after day in nearly identical rooms. It also gave us more to talk about with them.

Although some people understandably found it difficult to adjust when they had to move to a nursing home, many adapted with astonishing ease to the losses represented by institutionalization—loss of identity, health, possessions, and freedom. Their contributions to the newsletter made it apparent they did so because they’d already endured great difficulty in their lives, hard lessons in impermanence.

Residents also blasted apart the sweet oldster stereotype. Some were eager to talk about their indulgences, shenanigans, even crimes. Oftentimes pain or dementia loosened the sense of propriety that had a greater lock on their generation, other times mischievousness seemed to linger right under the surface. Their willingness to reveal an edgier side accorded them new respect from the youngest people on staff.

As residents talked of the past I was struck by how dispassionate many of their accounts were. It seemed they no longer suffered over prejudice, judgment, and injustice imposed on them or that they had imposed on others. They talked with a distant tone, as if simply telling parables.

Soon I added a “Resident of the Month” feature. This gave me the luxury of listening to much lengthier oral histories. Some people told me details they didn’t want in print and we worked together to craft the material they did want published. I usually had to corroborate the facts with their files and was often surprised to find significant information they didn’t bother to mention, further evidence that stories aren’t in the data of where one lived and worked. They are in the details. Union busters coming to rough up a little girl’s coal-mining daddy and her pride in hiding his supper dishes that were on the table so no one would suspect he’d taken refuge under the front porch. A sibling dying in the night of diphtheria, and later honoring the lost child by giving one’s firstborn baby the same name. There were also tales of accomplishments, hardships, and sacrifices dismissed with the wave of a hand–“No, I never saw Mama again after I left the Old Country. That’s how it was.”

Then I started regular poetry workshops. I read poems aloud, passed around objects with relevant smells and textures, shared observations. (And served cookies. Sweets inspired many a reluctant participant.) Then I scribbled rapidly as they talked. Later I combined their words into a group poem crediting each author with his or her own line. Residents and their families seemed to prefer traditional verse so I encouraged workshop participants to work with rhyming phrases whenever possible. Some were diagnosed with dementia or suffered speech impairment due to a stroke. Though they couldn’t make coherent contributions to our other writing projects, their abilities shone in poetry.

Phrases from a resident who said the same thing over and over took on a new tenor when made into a refrain. The man who dryly commented on a topic with only three words in an hour had his contribution included. So did the woman who kept interrupting with more ideas. After our workshops I would visit other residents’ rooms to seek their input, searching out those who couldn’t attend the poetry sessions but whose impressions could make a difference. Occasionally I transcribed the words of a single resident to create an entire poem.

When residents’ words were invited, taken seriously, and written down, when I nodded and looked them in the eye, they had more to say. A lingering silence, in fact, seemed to bring ideas from a place of deep contemplation. Many times I watched someone’s gaze turn to the window, past the ubiquitous geranium. I waited. When it seemed that they’d forgotten completely they would speak gracefully, forcefully, in ways that juxtaposed symbols with objects, meaning with abstraction. Poetry.

“I’ll see you next week Grandma,” I say, leaning down to give her a hug. She seems present yet detached, like so many of my greatest teachers. I brush the hair away from her face, pat her hand, adjust her lap robe. She smiles distantly. I stand for a moment. She rouses briefly, looks at me. “Listen,” she says urgently, “the wind! The wind!”

There are no open windows, no breeze on the soundtrack of the blaring TV. So often she speaks from a place beyond logic. I want to know if it’s possible to trace her words back to meaning, but her eyes are already closed.

As I walk outside the sunlight is intense. I fumble for my sunglasses. Only then does my attention turn to my breath. The wind. The wind.

 

Originally published in The MOON Magazine.

How Do You Stay Hopeful?

We are living in times that can overwhelm even the sturdiest among us. Each day’s news seems increasingly hard to bear. As the months drag by it wears us down in different ways. Outrage and anguish can fray our bodies. Addressing too many issues can fracture our effectiveness. Cynicism or complacency can hide our hearts, even from ourselves.

I reached out to friends on Facebook and Twitter seeking to find what others are doing to hold themselves up.  My question:

Please tell me what you are doing to remain hopeful in these times. If you are doing something, anything, to help turn the tide toward ethics and common sense please share that too.

A welcome tide of hope rushed back at me. I found it interesting that nearly all of it had to do with nurturing — nurturing relationships, creativity, possibilities, balance, and compassion. Here are some of the hope-inducing insights friends shared with me.

Find balance

Strengthening myself with compassionate activities like gardening, yoga and reading books by great minds. Really trying to be a better listener without feeling the need to always respond. Trying my best to raise empathetic kids who in turn will carry the torch on their own.

I kind of feel like light shines twice as bright in so much darkness.   ~Tobias Whitaker

Almost every Monday morning since the inauguration a small group of us meet at a local coffee shop and write postcards to our legislators. We also make phone calls and send faxes. Being with like-minded people helps. This week I am spending time with a great group of women in a cottage at a lake, eating, drinking, discussing books and authors and recharging my batteries.   ~Betty Kramer

I’ve never done anything that fills me with more hope than raising my little boy. The equation seems so clear. I put in love, reasonable limits, and real time in the moment and he grows up curious and kind. I reach out to  make our apartment a gathering place for other mothers too. We have a lot of hope that our generation can make a difference.   ~Rosie

I have planted seeds and trees, and I’ve spent time with the littles in the family. I’m doing some stuff in the studio, making things I love. I’ve registered young people to vote, and stood on a street corner on a cold winter morning honoring the kids who are organizing for change. I walk and/or hike almost daily. I drink good coffee. I send wee gifties to folks I care about, and leave things in public places to be found by strangers.

I rarely read the news, knowing that there is a lot of tough stuff going on. I am selective in what I listen to on the radio. I just, as my English mother-in-law used to say, keep chunking along.   ~Debra Bures

I keep working on getting people to vote. Two new voters yesterday! They previously did not vote because they did not like any of the options, but now see their responsibility…  Also, I get out in nature, with grandchildren, garden, sing, throw pots (but not against the wall). I’m involved with an amazing herbal healing group and love the alternative focus. I joined and participate in the Crooked River Timebank and that is a strong community building, for Mama Earth and her people, positive fun thing to be part of.    ~Carolyn Rames

 

Build connections

I talk to the person checking out my groceries. I ask the guy panhandling at the corner how he’s doing every single day and wait to hear what he’s got to say. I sit down with the maintenance guy in my building for a beer if he comes by. Clicking in with people does me good. The more people ignore each other the worse they make it.     ~Elgin

I find hope (lots and lots of hope) in the work of a group called Better Angels – here’s why. While attending our first convention I enjoyed three days of stimulating conversation with folks who politically are polar opposites and yet, because of a common desire to depolarize our country, we approached each other with positive intent and listened to one another with love. The goal? To learn to listen to understand how people think and believe – period. Not to debate to win or change another person’s mind. Just listen with love to hear and understand.  It was inspiring to say the least and, a universally positive experience for those who attended. As a result, my husband and I as well as many others both left and right leaning are committed to being trained to facilitate the peaceful exchange of ideas. We need to depolarize our country and we know that we can.   ~Leslie Boomer

Hone down to what you can do

I am working on getting my backyard certified as a backyard habitat for the National Wildlife Federation. I am also working at a glacial pace on 7 personal goals. I am trying to control a small portion of the world and make it better.   ~Katherine Clark

I am raising money to provide legal representation for immigrant children separated from their parents.   ~Brett

I decided to focus any activist leanings I have this year towards getting people to vote. I joined the local League of Women Voters and am trying to help with their events when I can.   ~Kathy

I stay involved in my community….serving on the board of directors and being active in my local community theatre, serving as President of the Friends of the Library and volunteering for the county parks. Being the change I want to see in the world starts with my neighborhood, imo. And I am raising daughters who are following my example.   ~Lissa

Look for what’s good

Focus on the world around and closest to you, those you love and touch and see and hear in your everyday life. We live in a time when choosing to separate yourself from the noisy, chaotic, distractions in the world is more difficult than ever, but even more essential. Essential for your own individual well-being, but I believe critical to humanity.

…Focus on the good. I guarantee if you look carefully at the world within your sphere of influence, those close to you, you will find goodness, strength and hope. You will be able to contribute to that. You will, in a very real sense, help to create peace in this world. I believe we can all do that. And if we did, can you imagine the impact?   ~Cheryl

Amplify beauty and meaning

My job as a music programmer for Crazy Wisdom in Ann Arbor is a huge help — booking musicians, hosting the shows and just being alongside people as they take a weekly break from all the craziness around us is a positive high point in every week. In a similar vein, hosting our house concert series keeps me grounded in my home, neighborhood and local community and gives me yet another opportunity to serve musicians, friends and family–all of whom are creative, vibrant, caring people doing their bit, every day, to “get us all back to the garden” which is my aim and goal as well. I post poetry on FB and I’ve been doing a “poetry post card” project with a friend of mine–we write a poem a day—or try to–on a postcard, sometimes adding a bit of art or whimsy to the cards–and we pop them in the post to each other. This also necessitates a walk into town to the PO (our postal carriers often neglect to pick up mail so I take it directly to the post office instead) and the walk takes me into my neighborhood–I get to see people, say “Hi” and maybe stop for a chat–I get some exercise and clear my head. I’m committed to doing everything I can to keep the world around me sane, centered and peaceful so I try to be deliberate in my choices, to choose, always, “the things that make for peace.”

I do experience discouragement–I sometimes feel that I’m not doing enough but I know that what I am doing is true to who I am–to my temperament, gifts and abilities and part of my effort is tuned to encouraging others who don’t feel as though they quite fit into the “activist” personality that they are still needed and that their gifts–their poetry, essays, music, food, presence–is “enough” because the last thing we need is a lot of people feeling helpless or getting the idea that there’s only one, right way to be “active” in making the world a better place.   ~Michelle Wilbert

Art, art, art (which includes writing). All forms of creative play. NOT watching or reading (so much of) the news. Meditation/chant/quiet time. And I’m a big subscriber to this way of thinking, as Cinelle Barnes said, “Sometimes, I think, laughing is a form of resistance. There’s nothing more annoying for an oppressor than to see the oppressed thriving in the midst of struggle. Joy is resistance, and so is hope.”   ~Paula Lambert

Do work that makes a difference

What brings me hope is how uncommonly simple it is to make peace person-to-person. This is my daily practice. I work front office for a high volume tire company dealing with customers, reps, employees, whatnot all day long. I do what needs to be done and at the same time consciously choose to see the person I’m dealing with as a Child of God (or soul or stillpoint or whatever you want to call it). It doesn’t take a second longer to pay attention with my eyes AND my spirit.  This changes everything for the better, believe me.   ~name withheld

The interviews I do for The MOON almost always inspire me. This morning I spoke with Earth Guardian Xiuhtezcatl, who has been a vocal champion for the Earth since he was six. He’s also a hip-hop artist and published author. His new book is “We rise.” Thank God.     ~Leslee Goodman

I am working with a local school to create a racially inclusive and safe community as well as advocate for youth.   ~Malaka

I find my job as a family therapist incredibly meaningful. I work with people who are greatly impacted by the political and economic realities, but who are also very resilient. For their sake I am able to rise above apathy. The personal relationship I develop with struggling clients fuels me to take greater steps in advocacy. By walking with them, just a little bit, I learn about the network of social services that is available. It seems that this network is fragile and not enough, but I meet incredible unsung professionals (social workers, teachers, therapists) who are good stewards of resources. There is energy in numbers. Oh, and I also don’t work more than my agency job description calls for. I go home and enjoy people I love.   ~Jennifer Olin-Hitt

My job is poorly paid and gets little respect, but I bring my all to it. I’m an aide in the 3 to 4-year-old section in one of St. Louis daycare companies. These little people are learning to express themselves, validate emotion, share, care, and analyze everything around them. No price can be put on their enthusiasm and love. I don’t know why today little kids don’t matter (or the people who watch them), but this is the future. After work I go home knowing I did my best.  ~Tiff

I signed six children up for Summer Reading today. And I accepted a donation of five hundred books from a woman’s mother’s estate; they will be sold to support educational programs for Cleveland youth at The Reading Room CLE.

I try to do what I can, and not spend energy on things I can’t control. So when the news went out that ICE was operating a checkpoint at 150th and Lorain, I shared the information, hoping to help people avoid the intersection. I don’t know what to do about this technically legal but horrifying behavior. Do we go take pictures? Protest? Knock over the ICE truck? I don’t know. I don’t know. But instead of spending the next three hours grieving into Facebook, I put down my computer, went out in my garage, and boxed books for the Reading Room. After three hours, I was exhausted, sweaty, and dirty. But those three hours will help children learn to read. I feel like that’s better than weeping into my laptop, alone, for an evening.

One more thing: all that weird, oddball stuff I do? My art, my performance poetry, my quirky fashion choices? People ask me where I get the ideas for these hobbies, what motivates me to spend my time on this stuff. But those are coping skills. They build my strength so I can stay healthy and help others. Our culture and economy depends on people using entertainment and pleasure-seeking to cope with the everyday brokenness of our lives. It works better, for me to be kind and creative. It works better than mani-pedis and salt baths and chocolate cake.    ~L.S. Quinn 

Take care of yourself

I’m immersed in news all day long. When I get home from work I ignore my phone. I go for a run with music in my ears and space between, have some dinner with my partner, then let the body tell me what it wants to do.  ~Jaxxon:

Spend as much time outside in the sunshine as humanly possible. (I can weep for humanity and get vitamin D at the same time!)   ~Kris Bordessa

I find that I have to continually pull myself back into the present moment to avoid being sucked into the maelstrom – to instead see from a more level-headed perspective. I try to remember to recenter and refrain from letting my body be impacted. I take care of refreshing my body, which is so closely connected to where the mind goes, and I get out into nature to keep an even bigger perspective.   ~Lillian Jones

I am cooking at home more. I’m growing pots on my balcony with peppers, tomatoes, and beans. When I make something homemade my senses are busy and I don’t think about how bad everything is getting, you know?  ~Franco

I’ve quit watching TV. And I’ve ramped up showing kindness to strangers and every person I meet at the library. Also, sending unspoken blessings to people on the highway as I commute. Finally, I’m donating food and money to the Sandusky immigrant cause. Just trying to turn up the light.   ~Laurie

As a friend of mine always says, “Read more poetry, eat more chocolate!”   ~Virginia Douglas

What about you? How do you stay hopeful?

 

 

 

 

 

How We Shortchange Gifted Kids

One of my four beloved and gifted children (a son I won’t mention by name here) didn’t care much for proving himself in school. This is the boy who, at two years of age, maintained an interest in styles and brands of vacuums, even requesting a trip to Sears for his birthday to linger as long he liked in the vacuum section. He commonly asked me questions I didn’t have answers for, like “Do bees have intestines?” and “Do trees feel cold in winter?” When he was three he discovered that bones have Latin names. Then he pestered us to find out those names so he could memorize them. Before he was four he used grown-up tools to build things and take things apart.

He was unfailingly warm-hearted, eager to help, highly creative, and endlessly curious. Family, friends, even acquaintances told us his obvious giftedness meant he needed experts to guide his education.

Gifted kids may not show their abilities early 

When Lewis Terman’s Genetic Studies of Genius followed nearly 1,500 young people with high IQ scores, he missed two future Nobel prize winners —William Shockley and Luis Alvarez, whose scores were too low to qualify for the study.  In fact, many Nobel laureates did not show exceptional ability in childhood, and some actively disliked school.

  • Albert Einstein (Nobel Prize in Physics, 1921) did well in subjects he liked, but refused assignments that bored him, preferring to read and tinker with building sets. He wrote, “It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreck and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty.”
  • George Bernard Shaw (Nobel Prize in Literature, 1925) attended only a few years of school. He wrote, “…there is, on the whole, nothing on earth intended for innocent people so horrible as a school. To begin with, it is a prison. But it is in some respects more cruel than a prison.”
  • Richard Feynman (Nobel Prize in Physics, 1965) was a late talker and by his third birthday he still hadn’t spoken a single word. He read avidly on his own but described his grammar school as stultifying, “an intellectual desert.”
  • John B. Gurdon  (Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, 2012) labored on despite what his teacher wrote about him after his first semester of biology when he was 15 years old. “I believe Gurdon has ideas about becoming a scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous; if he can’t learn simple biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a specialist, and it would be a sheer waste of time, both on his part and of those who would have to teach him.”

My son’s kindergarten teacher seemed unwilling to acknowledge that he was already reading. The only child in his class whose reading ability was championed was a girl whose parents were both physicians. She was brought to the front of the class so she could read to her peers from picture books in a regular display of her precocity. My child, son of a blue collar father, was expected to complete rote pre-reading worksheets reinforcing words like “run” and “jump” along with the rest of the class.

We miss most gifted kids 

Students are typically tested for giftedness when they’re nominated by teachers. For a variety of reasons, including unconscious racial and class bias plus a tendency to mistake compliance for potential, research shows teacher nominations miss over 60 percent of gifted kids. This is a shocking number.

Researchers concluded their 2016 article in Gifted Child Quarterly with a strongly worded statement.

“The authors of this article are on record in opposition to a model of gifted education which begins with an attempt to “identify the gifted,” because we believe that the usual conception of giftedness as a trait of individuals, with stable manifestation across academic domains, lifespan, and educational arrangements (cf., Peters et al., 2014), is not educationally useful though it is scientifically interesting.”

From kindergarten on, my son was not all that interested in school. He drifted along, easily able to ace tests but not all that interested in getting through assignments that didn’t interest him. Now I see that as integrity — like so many other young people who remain true to themselves within larger institutions. At the time I was told this was nothing but laziness.

Gifted kids may not easily fit in the school setting

They may be labeled as difficult, even medicated to make them easier to manage. Psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski’s research links five types of “overexcitability” to giftedness, each one hard to accommodate in a typical classroom setting.

  • Intellectual overexcitability: Relentless questions and a drive to go deep into concepts.
  • Imaginal overexcitability: Doodling, daydreaming, unable to let the imaginary world go.
  • Sensual overexcitability: Strong reactions to sound, texture, taste, touch, sights.
  • Psychomotor overexcitability: Rapid talking or fidgety behavior, urge to expend energy.
  • Emotional overexcitability: Sensitivity to and difficulty “getting over” emotions.

Studies consistently show that personality traits associated with creativity are hard to manage and therefore discouraged in the classroom. One study found the second grade children who scored highest on tests of creativity were also identified as those who were disciplined the most.

There are various estimates, but it’s thought that a quarter of gifted students are considered underachievers and as many as 18 percent drop out of high school.

Through the years my son got mostly A’s and B’s in school. Although teachers appreciated that he was polite and quiet, they told us he was “underachieving” and “poorly organized” and “wasn’t applying himself.”  When we asked to have him tested for the district’s gifted program we were told he didn’t qualify because his teacher didn’t recommend him. The teacher said she didn’t recommend him because his work was unfinished or hastily done too often. It didn’t matter that he was reading high school level books in second grade (at home), it mattered that he followed the rules. When they finally agreed to pull him out of class for an IQ test his score came in at 118. Bright, not gifted. I knew that wasn’t an accurate assessment.

We rely too much on tests

The Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, the longest-running longitudinal study of gifted kids, tracked 5,000 high-potential individuals — some for over 45 years. It demonstrated the pitfalls of standardized tests and talent searches because these approaches miss many gifted kids in poor and rural areas. It also found the types of tests used were too limited. Teens who excelled in spatial ability were among those most likely to go on to produce more patents and professional publications than their peers, meaning students who simply test well in mathematics or verbal ability but high in spatial ability have exceptional potential in STEM fields.

As Tom Clynes explains in “How to Raise A Genius: Lessons from a 45 year Study of Super-Smart Children,” published in the journal Nature,  spatial ability is largely built, from infancy on, through hands-on exploration such as helping with varied tasks, playing with loose parts, using maps, doing puzzles, having questions answered by demonstration, using tools — building potential by doing. Not doing assignments on paper or screen.

So we took our son to Case Western Reserve University for more professional testing. He was there for hours. He was found to be profoundly gifted in all sorts of areas. Overall IQ score came in at 151.

Even with those results our award-winning school district said that he didn’t meet the performance standards necessary for the gifted program. Nonetheless, they grudgingly admitted him. This was a good program with highly qualified teachers, and it increased his enthusiasm somewhat, but he still didn’t see the point of schoolwork.  Teachers still told us he was “underachieving” and “poorly organized” and “wasn’t applying himself.”

Gifted kids don’t fit mainstream assumptions 

Andrew Solomon writes in Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity that being exceptional is actually the core of the human condition because difference is what unites us. He asks to what extent parents should push children to become what they believe is their best selves.

Dr. Solomon says raising exceptionally gifted children is complicated in an age and ability-segregated educational world. “You can damage prodigies by nurturing their talent at the expense of personal growth,” Solomon writes, “or by cultivating general development at the expense of the special skill that might have given them the deepest fulfillment.” This puts heavy pressure on parents and teachers. The education system is constructed for an average that doesn’t, in any one individual, exist. The farther from that norm, the more a child is a misfit. Dr. Solomon speculates that “being gifted and being disabled are surprisingly similar: isolating, mystifying, petrifying.”

To my lasting regret, we followed the advice of teachers and guidance counselors to take away things our son loved to do until his schoolwork was done. Over the next few years he was too often deprived of his delightfully nerdy interests in things like ham radio, model trains, and small engine repair because he just couldn’t get around to finishing a report. I know now that this was the exact wrong advice, that he was building knowledge and capabilities far more necessary for his whole being and far more relevant to a lasting acquisition of math, science, history, and language skills in the pursuit of his own interests than he ever could in by regurgitating facts on a test.

Giftedness appears to be, in large part, a developmental process 

A decade and a half of the Human Genome Project failed to find genes that explain differences in intelligence. Hundreds of studies affirm what a Bowlby Centre report sums up as “virtually no genes explaining significant amounts of variance in traits.” Genetically, genetic variance explains less than five percent of traits such as intelligence or psychological differences. In other words, smarts are not “fixed” in the genes.

Families of gifted children tend to provide an enriching environment, have high expectations, be child-centered, and offer a great deal of independence but these characteristics don’t necessarily “cause” giftedness either.

The 30-plus year Fullerton Longitudinal Study took a different approach to understanding how giftedness evolves. Instead of following kids identified as gifted, it started in 1979 by following healthy one-year-old children, regularly assessing them until the age of 17. One interesting result was identifying a second form of giftedness —motivational. Motivationally gifted kids remain intrinsically drawn to challenging and novel tasks, show persistent curiosity and a drive toward mastery. The more conventional category, intellectually gifted kids, showed advanced capabilities early and performed at a higher level across various subject areas. But their intrinsic motivation didn’t necessarily survive through adolescence. Researchers said there was very little overlap. Intellectually gifted kids may persist in curiosity and achievement, but motivationally gifted kids were distinctly more likely to work harder, learn more, and succeed. Researchers urge educators to nurture motivation in all students. They remind teachers that students do best when given greater autonomy and freedom to question assumptions, when they’re exposed to complex and novel ideas, and when they can work toward mastery rather than be judged by testing.

Scott Barry Kaufman, in an article for The Atlantic titled “Schools Are Missing What Matters About Learning,” sums up this research by writing, “All in all, the Fullerton study is proof that giftedness is not something an individual is either born with or without—giftedness is clearly a developmental process.  It’s also proof that giftedness can be caused by various factors. As the Gottfrieds write in their book Gifted IQ: Early Developmental Aspects, “giftedness is not a chance event … giftedness will blossom when children’s cognitive ability, motivation and enriched environments coexist and meld together to foster its growth.”

In fact, children’s belief in their own ability to be successful learners —particularly children who are considered at-risk in the school environment — may be a key factor in expanding intellectual mastery.

One day my 14-year-old son and I had an appointment with the guidance counselor. This man started in on a lecture about how smart kids made a school look good. He told my son most students had little choice, that they were essentially doomed to drive the brain equivalent of a Volkswagen, but my son was born with a Maserati race car brain. That did not have the desired impact on either of us. I sat there thinking this was an offensive analogy, my son later told me he was thinking this guy didn’t know much about race cars.

The appointment got worse.

The counselor, a man with a master’s degree and three decades of experience suddenly stood up, loomed over me, pulled back his fist and started to throw a punch at me. My son leaped out of his chair just as the punch halted a foot from my face. “See,” the counselor said, “you’d do anything to keep your mom from being hurt. But you’re hurting her every day by not doing your best.”

My son’s education wasn’t about me, or that school’s test scores, or what anyone wanted my him to prove. Although we’d been told from the time he was a toddler that we needed experts to deal with such a gifted child, the counselor’s heavy-handed manipulation helped me see, imperfectly, that experts had been getting it wrong. He’d been showing us all along how he learned best and the adults in his life did their very best to ignore that.

Full use of their gifts may be squelched

Even the most promising child prodigies rarely grow up to use their genius in profoundly creative ways. They excel early on at music, math, or science, but when that excellence is aimed at gaining approval of adults through extraordinary performances or test scores it may not nurture more creative, unconventional approaches. Original compositions don’t necessarily arise from Rachmaninoff played to perfection and new innovations don’t necessarily arise from impressive grasp of facts. Interestingly, when 500 top scientists were asked to identify the core traits of exemplary scientists, they put curiosity at the top. And we’ve known for a long time that high test scores don’t necessarily correlate with adult happiness, career success, good relationships, or mental and physical health.

My son is doing well as a  young adult, which is all any mother can ask. But I would like to apologize to him for believing experts when all along he was right there showing us that he needed to learn in his own way.