Time For LovingKindness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Magic Circles

Last year I had the pleasure of interviewing innovative math educator and founder of Natural Math, Maria Droujkova, in “Math is Child’s Play” where she talks about learning math through free play in the context of families and communities. More recently, she and I were talking via social media when she mentioned magic circles. I was instantly intrigued and asked her to explain. She wrote:

One of my consulting topics is game/experience design. One of my favorite design concepts is magic circle: a playspace co-created by the participants, where they suspend their disbelief and behave as if they inhabit another world. I’ve been collecting tools for building cool magic circles from all creative fields, from writing to engineering. Tools like pretend-play, problem-posing, or name-giving. Math circles are magic circles. The maker goal: learn to pop up constructive, emotionally secure, creative spaces wherever we go.

I had to know more. My questions to her turned into this interview.

 

What was your first experience with a magic circle?

That feeling when an activity is the thing and the whole of the thing? When the rest of the world and the rest of me pretty much disappears? I’ve been experiencing that for as long as I remember. Early on, at three or four, I rearranged stones to make tiny spring snowmelt creeks gurgle merrier. I made canals, dams, and waterfalls till my hands grew red and numb. I remember long pretend-play with my mom, dad, and my imaginary friends, like the red velvet bow that was a fire-butterfly who’d gently land on my hand to play with me. Or the friend called Reflection who could escape its mirror, turning invisible. In another couple of years, there were elaborate handicrafts, hours in the making, while my grandpa was meticulously arranging his stamp collection in hand-crafted albums. He worked at the same table, and my crafts only happened if he started his. There was a very different energy, but some of the same timeless feeling, when me and other rough neighbor kids let go of our constant low-key fighting for living as action heroes in one of the traditional games, also rough, like “Cossacks and robbers.”

Once again, it was a different energy and a very recognizable feeling when I started to spend long hours solving delicious problems before my first Math Olympiad.

I don’t think I can live for long without the magic circle experience. It’s somewhere between water and food on the hierarchy of needs. Yet when I first read Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience I felt uneasy about the authors’ claims that there are people of the flow, and communities of the flow, maybe even nations of the flow, while other people and groups are not.

Am I doing enough of immersive, productive, joyful work? Are my communities? I’d had none of these worries between building elaborate snowmelt waterworks and making up fantastic worlds for fire butterflies.

How did you imagine its benefits might be useful in other situations?

For the task in hand, a magic circle gives us immersive, focused, joyful motivation. We feel less tired while accomplishing more. Isn’t that dreamy? And also, we feel balanced and peaceful. That’s dreamy too, especially in troubled times. These feelings, in turn, can increase well-being, productivity, and teamwork.

But these feelings can also run amok or be co-opted. They can make us workaholics, media addicts, or viciously competitive. The weekend I played World of Warcraft so long I lost the sight in one eye for a few scary hours? The magic circle had been real! Gamers’ farewell: “It’s been real.” The weekend when I told my husband I’d be there for breakfast after a few minutes of writing? I resurfaced when the manuscript was finished. It was nearly dark by then, and I’d fasted through the day, though my husband kept bringing me water, which I drank but failed to notice. It’s been real, it’s been magic, I still like what I wrote back then, but if I keep doing something like that for several days in a row I get sick.

Some people of the flow have bad health statistics, such as computer coders with their famously long, immersive work-hours.

What “tools” do you use to build magic circles?

I have been collecting toolsets far and wide. One of my favorites is pretend-play: be a character in a different world. Instant immersion! Characters also provide emotional security: if something goes wrong, it’s not me, it’s some other persona who messed up. Sometimes clothes or accessories help to get into character: dress for the job you want, right? I have a collection of math t-shirts that set the mood when I give a talk or run an event. GMs (game masters) of Dungeons and Dragons have a lot of casual roleplay tools to quickly transport the group into the world of play, from evocative sound effects in their phones to action figurines in their pockets.

What does an orchestra, an improv group, and a math circle have in common? They do a warm-up before the main play. Tune the instruments, do a quick skit, solve a puzzle: these are threshold activities for when a group is liminal between our world and its magic circle.

There are many jokes, not always kind, about the stereotypical scientist, mathematician, and engineer clueless about the bigger picture. In reality, magic circles can break from context-switching. A programmer who says, “Hi, how are you?” to a colleague might remain measurably distracted from coding for the next quarter hour or so. As such, STEM professions have developed big toolsets for keeping focus.

Some of these STEM tools for tuning out the world backfire in funny or sad ways. Archimedes running naked through the city shouting his “Eureka!” is still cute to us. Social threats, such as being reminded that you are an oppressed minority or that your job is in jeopardy (or that your clothes or lack of them matter), tend to break magic circles. Yet the habit of tuning out all social issues causes systematic problems in STEM fields. “Oops, this AI is sexist because we never gave gender a single thought while designing it.” That’s one of the forces behind many cultural troubles exemplified by the Silicon Valley.

I like magic circle tools from professions and serious hobbies. Each profession has its way for creating magic circles, but most professionals don’t realize that’s what they are doing. Like speaking a native language, we don’t think about its grammar. Writers talk about their process a lot, because notice-wonder-describe is a part of their trade. Some managers reflect on how they manage. In general, when I want to explore a new field, I go straight for teacher materials. Doctors, mathematicians, or car mechanics may not reflect on their process, but their teachers surely do.

Most recently, I’ve been exploring storytelling communities. Some of those focus on speech games, such as Toastmasters, One Million Cups, or Pechakucha. They have a common toolset, such as format-based stories. For example, One Million Cups has a 5-7 minute story about a startup that must contain certain elements, such as an elevator speech intro and a particular ask of what others can do for the company. The time-tested format helps newbies learn from similarly structured examples. It also gives a checklist for what’s important in business and in business presentations. Checklists and canvases are magic circle tools.

Pechakucha is a rhythm game: a presentation where 20 slides advance automatically every 20 seconds. That deceptively simple storytelling device makes people mindful of their phrases, because they have to write and practice speeches, because it’s impossible to improvise that precisely! The prep provides many hours of a solo magic circle. When the group event comes, the fast Pechakucha rhythm generates high energy in the room, keeping the group magic circle going.

Fanfiction networks gather storytellers who focus on written stories in particular imaginary worlds. The non-profit Organization for Transformative Works has a good amount of peer-reviewed articles and essays published about fanfiction. One of my favorite fanfic tools is a prompt or gift exchange. Imagine a little creative task, a quest if you will, given to the author by someone who shares the author’s love of a particular imaginary world. That person is eagerly awaiting whatever the author makes, and then cheers the gift, gives thanks, and provides content feedback. And maybe there are other peers who admire the creation as well, and leave comments. In any case, the author is guaranteed at least one eager receiver of that gift. Now imagine a homework exercise designed that way: personally requested, anticipated, and loved by at least one like-minded person. Wouldn’t that be a magic circle experience?

Where did this concept originate?

The term “magic circle” as I use it comes from game design. It is also used in gamification and experience design. In a good game, players suspend their disbelief and quit their daily grind to be immersed in the game’s world. They enter the magic circle to start playing, then leave it behind to return to the regular world.

There used to be social stigma against adult play and adult gamers. Talk about work as a game, and you are immature, or else scheming, even Machiavellian. About ten years ago, the average age of a computer gamer grew over thirty. As gamers grow up, gaming is normalized. Now we see a lot of game design tools in the workplace. Naturally, some are used in scary ways, such as workers being nudged to skip breaks by tracking their relative progress on a public display. Magic circles can mutate into harsh competitive prisons. We have to be aware of that.

Where can magic circles happen?

Magic circles happen in the mind. Our actions can help to focus the mind. The activity that invites a magic circle can be shared, creating the sense of oneness with other participants.

A related question: are there places or situations where magic circles cannot happen? What prevents them, what stops them? Can we have magic circles while tired, sick, or scared? What social or mental conditions hinder us, like having a new baby or having ADHD?

I didn’t use the term back then, but I found my first systematic descriptions of creating magic circles with and for children in Janusz Korczak’s books. I’ve read and re-read them as a kid, teen, and adult. “The Child’s Right to Respect” became a motto. “Playful Pedagogy” is still relevant after eighty years in publication. Doctor by calling, Korczak was the founder of one of the first Democratic schools in the world, in a poor Jewish children’s orphanage. It had a children’s parliament and a child-run newspaper. His magic circle tools are based on helping troubled kids find their voice, grow in agency and autonomy, build equality, and care for one another in kindness.

The orphanage was in Warsaw. It was ended by force in 1942. Yet this story is about light, inspiration, and hope. Korczak and his children kept up their classes, their play, their newspaper and their democratic meetings. In troubled times, they had the power to maintain their magic circles.

korczakusa.com

Do you have any resources you’ve written that people can access on this? 

I write about a specific type of magic circles, called math circles. The company I direct, Natural Math  publishes books for math circle leaders. These circles are designed with the purpose of every participant saying enthusiastic “Yes!” to mathematics.  [Laura’s note: Maria’s Natural Math  site also offers a newsletter, blog, courses, and FB group 1001 Math Circles.]

The term “math circle” in its modern sense originated in the Eastern Europe in 1960s. I loved math circles as a child, and they helped to define my career. A few years ago, I interviewed some Western math circle leaders to edit and expand the Wikipedia article on math circles. Now it has a more inclusive definition and a big list of math circle types, such as project-centered clubs and guided exploration circles.

The latest book I co-authored, called Avoid Hard Work, is about kind, accessible, and deep problem-solving. It has ten chapters for ten problem-solving principles. They are tools for creating the math magic, such as the tongue-in-cheek titular slogan: to replace the mindless grind with attentive search for patterns. The book starts with a sample of what hundreds of parents and teachers say when asked, “When it comes to children and mathematics, what are your dreams?” For example, some people dream of math that is friendly, that invites curiosity, that makes sense. These math dreams can be used for value affirmation, for remembering who you are and what you want. Value affirmation is an emotional tool: it combats anxieties, puts us in the right mood for creativity, and makes our circles more robust. There is also a list of teaching techniques, such as moving beyond snap judgment of right-wrong answers to explore the “Why?” behind student reasoning.

(I am attaching these lists from the book, which is published with the Creative Commons open license, so people are welcome to share with attribution.)

Do you have some very basic suggestions about creating circumstances conducive to magic circles happening naturally, such as in the home and community? 

Love this question! Balance is the key. Here is what I mean.

  1. The first balance: self with adventure.You do you – a step aside from your normal routines.  A circle becomes magical if it takes you away from the daily. Choose to make something you don’t normally make: a paper snowflake, a stacked rock sculpture, or a diamante poem. Look up how others make those, try their way, then do it your way. Add a bit of your style. What if you fold the paper differently before you cut the snowflake? What if you stack rocks three by three instead of one by one? What if you shape your poem like a pear rather than a diamond? Seek more and more of these interesting choices to try. Since your project is outside of your life, making a mess of it will impact nothing serious. You can be a bit braver, a bit stronger, a bit more adventurous than your daily self. Yet it’s still you.  
  2. The second balance: inspiration with ease. Do something special – while staying casual. What if it’s hard to feel brave and strong, to shift your focus away from the daily concerns? Children put on cat ears or superhero capes when they have their special play. Adults can also try play-acting and special clothes. Think of a ritual to set the mood. Strike a gavel, play a favorite theme song, or pass treats around. Add something quirky, spicy, or charming as you prepare. Go beyond the bare necessities. Yet keep your prep light so that your circle is easy to start. The feeling of magic is in trying new actions, not in blockbuster-quality props. It’s okay to use a curtain for your cape and pillows for your fort.
  3. The third balance: invitation with consent.One of the main difference between a circle and the ordinary life is agreement. There is a whole lot of have-to in life. Obligations and needs, rules and laws dictate what must be done and how, whether we like it or not. Do establish basic safety and well-being rules for your circle. And then, make the magic. Aim for enthusiastic “Yes!” to every choice, big and small. You can invite, entice, and advertise. But don’t force, dictate, or coerce, neither other participants nor yourself. It’s lovely to point out that you are making amazing seven-sided snowflakes. It’s okay to invite children to count the sides – but only for pleasure. To keep the magic in, leave your worries about math tests out of your circle. This is not the kind of story where a reluctant hero can’t refuse a call to action. Everything’s optional. Don’t push.

What are your favorite tools for building magic circles? I’d love to hear stories and compare notes.

 

Resources

Maria offers a list of teaching techniques, such as moving beyond snap judgment of right-wrong answers to explore the “Why?” behind student reasoning.  (She offers these lists from the book in a free download here: Avoid Hard Work, which is published with a Creative Commons open license, so people are welcome to share with attribution.)

 

1001 Math Circles: Facebook group to share and discuss math circle activities

Natural Math site

Natural Math books to spark enthusiasm and deeper learning. They include Moebius Noodles, with math explorations for children as young as three, Playing with Math: Stories from Math Circles, Homeschoolers, and Passionate Teachers for young people eight and older.

Avoid Hard Work    free excerpt

“Natural Math: 100 Activities & Resources” 

“Kids Build Together: Math Readiness in Early Childhood” 

“Playing With Math: How Math Circles Bring Learners Together For Fun”

“The Benefits of Natural Math” 

“Math Instruction vs Natural Math: Benezet’s Example” 

“Math is Child’s Play”  Previous interview with Dr.  Droujkova

National Association of Math Circles

Julia Robinson Mathematics Festival

Broken Glasses

The nose pad on my glasses snapped off as I left Loganberry Books. I was vastly grateful they didn’t break while I was standing there reading from my new book. Now my glasses sat at a crooked angle and the world took on a sickening migraine-ish skew. I’m unable see much without them, although I’ve given that a try in the past.

When I was around 10 years old, I started getting answers marked wrong on my math homework. “Careless” the teacher would scrawl in red ink. Even when my parents checked and found every calculation correct, the next day many were marked wrong. No one seemed to notice I was incorrectly copying problems from the board. To the nearsighted, 7 looks quite a bit like 1, 4 looks quite a bit like 9, most numbers waver in a fog.

One awful afternoon I was demoted from the top math group to the middle math group. This meant walking across the hall from Mrs. Simoni’s class to Mrs. Goodrich’s class. The hall was quiet. Our janitor swirled a long shaggy dust mop across the floor. I wanted to take over floor swiping. Let him walk into the classroom where every face would turn to look, let him figure out how right answers became wrong.

Thankfully, Mrs. Goodrich figured out my vision was the issue and my mother took me to get glasses. The process was new to me. Drops blurring my vision. A doctor clicking neat circular lenses over my eyes, asking “this one or this one” as he hurried through a sequence to make the eye chart come into focus. Trying on the inexpensive plastic frames my mother steered me to, their price still making me gulp in discomfort at costing my parents so much.

I wore those glasses for the first time as we drove home. I was astonished. I could see expressions on people’s faces in the street! I had no idea that was possible except when up close. I could see individual leaves on trees! The whole ride I sat transfixed, watching miracles scroll past the window.

Those glasses fixed my visual problems. But by sixth grade, the plastic frames became a severe social liability. I was outgrowing them and needed new lenses anyway, but asking for something expensive like stylish frames was Not Done in our family. I asked anyway. I wanted wire rimmed glasses, the ones everyone even remotely cool wore in 1972. My mother said only hippies wore those frames and she wasn’t paying extra to make other people think differently about me. I wheedled. I begged. Finally she said if I could find a picture of even one respectable person wearing wire rimmed glasses she’d consider it. I found a picture of presidential candidate George McGovern wearing them. She said that didn’t count, she didn’t consider him respectable.

I prevailed, eventually getting new glasses. I felt cool in them for a whole day, maybe two. Then my skin reacted to the metal. Red bumps formed everywhere the metal touched —- over my nose and along my cheeks. The bumps swelled, itched, and burst like gooey blisters. Putting the glasses on over my broken skin burned. I tried all sorts of remedies — coating the metal with clear nail polish and coating my skin with various concoctions, from Vaseline to cortisone cream. Nothing helped. So at home I folded toilet paper strips to make a barrier between my skin and the metal. My family got used to seeing me with paper along my nose. I got so used to it that I often forgot how strange I looked, only to be reminded when my siblings had friends over or when I answered the door for a delivery. Sometimes, if I didn’t have to go anywhere for a few days, the red oozy bumps on my face nearly healed. But the world doesn’t allow kids to retreat, even bookish hermits who don’t mind being hermits

13 and not wearing glasses…

By the time I was 13, I’d largely stopped wearing my glasses in public, even though I could barely see much more than a foot in front of me. A metal allergy surely wasn’t my only reason. I was insecure and probably hoped I’d be faintly more popular without glasses. I can only imagine how stuck up I must have actually seemed, ignoring peers because I couldn’t see them… And the year I turned 13 was also the year I was assaulted by a friend’s father. Maybe I didn’t want to see men seeing me.

But without vision correction, I was legally blind.

This created all sorts of complications, mostly in the social realm. For example, I kept a vaguely friendly expression on my face as I walked to and from school, because the blobs in front of me might resolve into street signs and fire hydrants, or they might resolve into people. I had to get close enough to find out.

The cute high school guy I started dating when I was 14 surely must have thought I didn’t have much brainpower. One of the first times we went out to eat I picked up a piece of lettuce that had fallen from my salad. He stopped me before I put it in my mouth. It was his crumpled up straw paper. Another time we went to his house. Across the room was a new frame with three ovals inside. I assumed they were portraits of the family’s three offspring. “Oh,” I said cheerfully to his mother, “new family pictures!” Nope, it was a barometer.

I couldn’t see, he overlooked a lot. I ended up marrying that cute guy. (By then I was back to wearing non-allergenic glasses.)

All these years later that guy, after my poetry reading, carefully fashioned something out of medical tape and gauze to hold my glasses level so I could read. (Because he knows I must read.)

And the next morning he hurried my broken frames to The Eyeglass Hospital, the only place in the Cleveland area that welds tiny titanium eyeglass pieces back together.  When he returned and handed over my glasses, I could see! Leaves on trees, words on pages, and my dear husband’s facial expression.  He was smiling.

The Clothes She Wore

My mom, graduating with a degree in registered nursing.

Years ago I interviewed for the chance to ghostwrite a book about the history of a textile factory that had recently closed. The opportunity initially appealed to me  because it was a local story, and because the pictures of the abandoned manufacturing facility were so compelling. But the owners who closed the mill and design studio didn’t have the heart I believed necessary for the story. They saw it as a book about business. A book about staying on trend or what global competition can do to an entire industry.

“It’s not like the clothes themselves mean anything,” one of them said to me. I had just spent weeks clearing out closets and drawers after my mother died, so I disagreed.

I tried to explain that new clothes are only possibilities, but when they’re worn they become part of our experiences, our memories. “Clothes hold the bodies we love,” I told them. Their eyes showed no lift of recognition.

When I was in elementary school, my mother went away on a 10 day trip. She’d never been gone more than a night or two before. We kids stayed home with our father, reveling in greater freedom to pick out what we wanted at the grocery store and to stay up a little later. Those freedoms quickly lost their appeal. I missed my mother’s hugs, her voice, her scent, everything about her. Sometimes I needed her so badly I snuck off to her closet. I’d lean in until it felt as if her clothes were hugging me and breathe deeply, as if I might catch her scent there among clothes slack with her absence.

Thankfully we had her back for many decades, but it didn’t make cleaning out her clothes any easier. I wasn’t able to fold a dress or scarf without thinking of where my mother wore it and what this garment must have witnessed. No surprise, the items most fully imbued with memory were those she wore most often. A favorite dress, its floral cotton soft and faded. A navy cardigan she put on only at home,  the one with a hole at the elbow she’d patched many times. Her closet held dresses she kept for special occasions and outfits she hoped to wear again. In drawers and boxes were packed away things she considered “too good.” They held no memories at all.

My sister and I tried on a few things our mother saved from her younger days, marveling at how much thinner she once was. (Size 12 from the sixties was much smaller than that size today.)  We kept some things to cherish. I took a stack of handkerchiefs; some beautifully embroidered and some the utilitarian ones she used to give me when childhood allergies made my nose too tender for paper tissues.

I still use those handkerchiefs, in part to be environmentally conscious but also because they are kinder to my nose. Each time I reach for one I can’t help but wish they still held my mother’s scent, the way her clothes once held her.

How Not To Make Book Swag

Jeannine Hall Gailey’s terrifyingly useful PR For Poets is packed with ideas completely new to me, even though this is my third book. (Or fifth, depending on how such things are counted.)

Notice how many pages I dog-eared.

Like nearly every other writer I know, I’m a friendly hermit with a serious allergy* to self-promotion. So I didn’t follow most of Jeannine’s good advice, like developing a PR kit or getting a headshot. But her book did foster another idea. “Hide in the house,” I said to myself. “Make something fun to help sell the new book.”

Book swag can include postcards, magnets, bookmarks, t-shirts, mugs, tote bags, pens, custom-decorated cookies, toys, and more. All the stuff most writers, let alone most publishers, can’t possibly afford. Jeannine calmly explains postcards and business cards are the most useful, and how to produce them at a reasonable cost. Of course I wanted to do something complicated.

I am particularly fortunate, because my wonderful publisher, Ginny Connors, of Grayson Books, commissioned artist Bethany Bash to create a simple, evocative cover.  I figured if I rummaged around the web for ideas I’d come up with a neat give-away as a perk for folks who bought two or more books at a reading.

Initially I hoped to create tiny replica book necklaces that could open to a poetry sample, somewhat like this project on Buttons & Paint. The time required, however, was too daunting, especially with time constraints like my actual editing job.

Then I decided to make book pendants that could be worn or used to mark one’s place. It seemed simple. Reproduce the cover image in tiny rectangles to fit pendant tray blanks. Adhere them to the trays. Cover with a layer of clear epoxy or glaze, let dry, and thread with a sheer ribbon. I got the images made at Staples. I read comparisons of adhesives and glazes, finding out more about Judikins Diamond Glaze and Mod Podge Dimensional Magic than I ever imagined. And with my husband’s help, got started.

It did not work out well. I got so frustrated that my more patient spouse took over the project. He tried adhering the images with glaze, applying a layer over the top when it dried. The paper buckled and colors bled. He tried spraying clear coat on both sides of the image to seal it before adhering to the tray. It didn’t buckle, but the colors bled with the top coat of glaze. No matter what he tried, the image bled or the top layer (of glaze or Mod Podge) turned cloudy. (Actual photos of the cover probably would have worked better, but we had tiny images copied at Staples.)

So, with readings coming up, he gave up on the dimensional top layer. Instead he used white glue to adhere the image to the tray, then sprayed it with several layers of clear coat, letting it dry well each time. It’s not as professional as I’d imagined, but still cute enough to be my main swag.

Despite my hermit-y ways, I have four events lined up, three readings and an Epic Art Sale!
May 4th and 5th from 10 am to 5 pm. This weekend I get to hang out with actual artists for two days.
Friday, May 10th at 7:30.  Lara Lillibridge is launching her sparkling new memoir Mama, Mama, Only Mama at Visible Voice Books in Cleveland. Marsha McGregor and I get to open for Lara.
Sunday, May 19th at 1 pm. I’ve got a shared reading at Loganberry Books in Shaker Heights with Kim Langley whose book, Send My Roots Rain,  uses poetry and reflection to address grief.
Sunday, June 2nd at 2 pm. My solo reading at the Wm. Skirball Writing Center at South Euclid’s CCPL.
And I have the incredible good fortune to have received two amazing book reviews.
Michelle Wilbert writes in Mom Egg Review, “There is nothing static in these poems–they move with a dynamism that holds the center of each poem without shaking the structure and or offering a summation…”
Kathleen Mickelson writes in Gyroscope Review,  “This is the very glue of this book. Oneness with everything – our families, our neighbors, the prisoners and children and battered women, the cow who lays down to die after 17 years of offerings, the coyotes and birds and beech trees, the oracles that come to us through everyday objects, the bee that leaves her stinger in the bottom of our foot. These poems draw an ever-expanding circle of life that includes even the smallest organisms.”

*Talk about a mindbody connection. You know that “serious allergy” to self-promotion I mentioned? I was in the ER for sudden food allergies just days before my first book promotion… I am going to be fine.

Finding Ourselves In Biographies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Author Photo Angst

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

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

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

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

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

Susan Sontag wears a costume and peeved expression.

Tom Pickard augments architecture.

Gwendolyn Brooks is ornamented by the treasure of her family.

Astrid Lindgren shows what she thinks of the pretense.

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

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

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

 

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

On Shrinking Skulls, Squash Shaping, & Science at Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tips for Keeping One’s Brain From Shrinking

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

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

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

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

Maintain strong, positive social ties with others.