Author Photo Angst

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

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

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

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

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

Susan Sontag wears a costume and peeved expression.

Tom Pickard augments architecture.

Gwendolyn Brooks is ornamented by the treasure of her family.

Astrid Lindgren shows what she thinks of the pretense.

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

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

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

 

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

On Shrinking Skulls, Squash Shaping, & Science at Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tips for Keeping One’s Brain From Shrinking

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

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

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

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

Maintain strong, positive social ties with others.

My New Book!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On each surface our fingerprints linger.

They are too light to pack

too heavy to carry.

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

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

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

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

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

 

Golden Rule Here (and Hereafter?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Afghanistan to My Hand

Afghan embroidery called Khamak.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Additional notes:

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

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

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

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

Maybe This Is The Year

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

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

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

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

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

I say meh.

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

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

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

Primary Experiences in Nature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.

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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.