Benevolent Childhood Experiences

Back in my social worker days, I served as support group facilitator for adults who were abused as children. Participants ranged from early 20’s to late 60’s, each one haunted by neglect or abuse in their formative years, each one dealing with the after effects. We sat together week after week in a circle of folding chairs while people explored confusion, loss, despair, pain, vulnerability, fear, anger. We talked about what it took them to shape a life beyond early suffering. The stories told there  will stay with me forever.

We also explored stories of when they felt supported or understood.  One man remembered a coach who put a hand on his shoulder. The sensation of an adult’s hand touching him without malice was so unfamiliar that the man, as a boy, had trouble concentrating on his coach’s words. When he did, he realized the coach was saying something kind. This happened one time, and yet the man cherished the memory for decades. He said he could still summon the feeling of that hand on his shoulder. Other people talked about teachers who noticed something special about them.  They talked about a friend’s mother who would let them stay for supper or join in on family outings, about an aunt who would hug them, about neighbors who let them stick around, about grandparents who took them in when things got out of control at home.

These seem like small gestures, the sort of kindnesses adults should quite naturally extend to young people, although some in our group could recall only one or two such instances. Yet these memories sustained them for decades. Many people spoke of intentionally recalling these memories to shore up their spirits, break self-destructive habits, even keep from attempting suicide. That coach, that friend’s mother had no idea what light they’d lit in another life.

We know chronic stress or traumatic events in childhood have cumulative long-term effects on the mind and body.  The more Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), the greater the damage is likely to be.  But that support group taught me more than I expected about Benevolent Childhood Experiences (BCEs). One group of researchers refers to these experiences as “angels in the nursery” serving as “protective factors that buffer adolescents, adults, and parents with histories of adversity.”

Here’s a glimpse of questions on the BCE scale currently in use.

Did you have at least one caregiver with whom you felt safe?
Did you have at least one good friend?
Did you have beliefs that gave you comfort?
Did you like school?
Did you have at least one teacher who cared about you?
Did you have good neighbors?
Was there an adult (not a parent/caregiver or the person from #1) who could provide you with support or advice?
Did you have opportunities to have a good time?
Did you like yourself or feel comfortable with yourself?
Did you have a predictable home routine, like regular meals and a regular bedtime?

I’d argue these questions are simultaneously too broad and too limited. Still, studies based on the scale show young people with caring adults in their lives are less likely to suffer the physical and mental health ravages of ACEs. In fact, “favorable childhood experiences may counteract long-term effects of childhood adversity.

Perhaps a scale of beneficial experiences helps to reinforce that each child needs and deserves consistent, committed, caring adults in their lives. It can help us remember to BE that benevolent person to children in our lives, even those we might know only briefly.  And it helps to remind us of benevolent adults in our own formative years.

Who in your childhood and teen years made you feel safe, worthy, understood?

Thank Eustress

I am sitting on the ground weeding our tomato plants. I gratefully take refuge in useful tasks like gardening and cooking. Busy hands almost always un-busy my mind. But that’s not working for me right now.

Instead I’m thinking about several editing projects nearly due. I also need to plan a class, complete a volunteer training program, deal with a health insurance hassle, and prepare because we have nine people coming over for a meal tomorrow. Mental fuss is erasing me from the garden.

I take a deep breath, choosing to put myself right back where I am. That works. I hear birdsong, hear the plop of a frog in the pond. Soon I’m complimenting our plants on their sturdy stems and reveling in the breeze.

I learned the word eustress while researching my first book.  The term was created by adding the Greek prefix “eu” — meaning “good, healthy” to the word “stress,” It’s defined as a positive stress response, often generated by a demanding but worthwhile effort. Stress is inherent in growth-producing situations. We stress our bodies to reach greater levels of physical ability, breaking down muscle to build it stronger. We tear down old limitations when challenging ourselves to do something hard for us like taking on a public speaking role, mastering a new job, or asserting ourselves in a tough situation. Stressors like these, even if we haven’t exactly welcomed them, help to strengthen us.

We’ve long been told stress is bad for us. Maybe that perception is bad for us too. A few years ago a study was done to determine if our beliefs about stress affect our health. Nearly 30,000 adults were asked how much stress they’d experienced over the previous year and if they thought stress was harmful to their health. Then their health records were tracked for the next eight years. The results were surprising. People who most strongly believed that stress impacted their health, and then went on to experience a great deal of stress, exhibited a 43% increased risk of premature death over that time.

Research psychologist Kelly McGonigal cites this study at the start of her TED talk, How To Make Stress Your Friend. When we’re in a stressful situation our pulse rate  increases, we breathe faster, often sweat. Most of us interpret those physical changes as signs we aren’t coping well under pressure. But what if we saw those as indicators our bodies are energizing to meet the challenge?

Participants in another study at Harvard University were told to interpret these symptoms as helpful. They learned to recognize that a pounding heart prepares us to take action. Faster breathing brings more oxygen to our brains. People taught to view stress responses as promoting performance were less anxious, more confident, even showed fewer physical signs of stress.  And although blood vessels typically constrict during stress (making chronic stress damaging to our hearts), people who viewed the stress response as helpful exhibited more relaxed blood vessels, the sort of reaction typically seen in moments of positive emotion.

Dr. McGonigal goes on to explain something even more remarkable. She reminds us that we think of oxytocin as a love hormone. It prompts us to strengthen close relationships, especially the mother-child bond. It’s released when we snuggle with someone we love and when we play with a pet. As she says in her TED talk,

But here’s what most people don’t understand about oxytocin. It’s a stress hormone. Your pituitary gland pumps this stuff out as part of the stress response. It’s as much a part of your stress response as the adrenaline that makes your heart pound. And when oxytocin is released in the stress response, it is motivating you to seek support. Your biological stress response is nudging you to tell someone how you feel instead of bottling it up. Your stress response wants to make sure you notice when someone else in your life is struggling so that you can support each other. When life is difficult, your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you….

Oxytocin doesn’t only act on your brain. It also acts on your body, and one of its main roles in your body is to protect your cardiovascular system from the effects of stress. It’s a natural anti-inflammatory. It also helps your blood vessels stay relaxed during stress. But my favorite effect on the body is actually on the heart. Your heart has receptors for this hormone, and oxytocin helps heart cells regenerate and heal from any stress-induced damage. This stress hormone strengthens your heart, and the cool thing is that all of these physical benefits of oxytocin are enhanced by social contact and social support, so when you reach out to others under stress, either to seek support or to help someone else, you release more of this hormone. Your stress response becomes healthier, and you actually recover faster from stress. I find this amazing, that your stress response has a built-in mechanism for stress resilience, and that mechanism is human connection.

A final note by Dr. McGonigal. Even people who are dealing with a great deal of stress have no increase in mortality if they also reach out to help others.

I don’t mean for a moment to minimize dangerously depleting forms of stress, especially long-term stress. I’ve had some miseries the last few years that include having to cancel a book contract, getting a difficult diagnosis, and someone I love removing me from her life. My family’s crisis hamster wheel has included financial problems, health complication, and my husband being life-flighted from one hospital to another last month. (He’s going to be okay.)

I acknowledge there are much larger stress-related issues undermining people. Some of us are temperamentally more sensitive to stress,  many of us are permanently affected by adverse childhood experiences, and many deal every day with the crushing effects of poverty, prejudice, and violence.

Right now I am bringing in an armload of fresh tomatoes. There’s dirt under my fingernails and a remnants of the straw we use for mulch falling from my knees. I affirm to myself that my obligations stem from work I love. That I’m eager to volunteer in a new program. That our insurance bills result from positive medical interventions. That I am grateful to the core for every loved one coming here tomorrow. Reframing these small stresses into blessings it makes all the difference.

There’s Something About Stacking Stones

I’ve always loved stones. Not gemstones; I’m not a swayed-by-shiny-baubles sort of girl. I mean the wonderfully rough-shouldered stones found heaving up in the garden, pasture, and woods. I’m drawn to their geologically long view of things. Their solid gray patience with scurrying life forms. And their reassuringly substantial form in a world preoccupied with ephemeral concepts like wealth, fame, and power.

Maybe that’s why I’ve got a thing for stacking them.

It’s intriguing to pivot one stone on another, finding the spot where they rest in pleasing balance. Then to place another stone on top, then another, and another. I need to be careful. I don’t want stones to drop on my loved ones or my dogs or other innocent being happening by. What’s interesting is that they don’t. Sometimes stacked stones slump sideways a bit, almost as if establishing a balance they find more pleasing. Or maybe the Earth’s rotation is felt more honestly by stones as they lean in accord with the great whirling Mother stone.

The stack on the left is leaning off in its own direction.

A few seasons ago, what looked like a stone forehead emerged from our lawn. Every time the tractor passed over it the mower blades shrieked. So my guys got out a shovel, crowbar, and wheelbarrow to fully liberate it from the earth it was trying to exit. Now it’s above ground again, nestled with companion rocks by our garage door, safe from the mower. Being a stone, it’ll sink back into the ground eventually, waiting for Earth’s tides to heave it back up again.

Here’s that stone, waiting for a taller and more artful stack.

Actually, quite a few of my stone stacks have rocks piled nearby, waiting until I’m hit by stacking inspiration.  Like this one,

and this one.

These are sister stacks, seen from the side,

a

My current favorite is this gravity-defying stack.

a

I also stack stones indoors, although I’ve kept myself to one spot, the little dresser that served as our Waldorf-y nature table for years. (By the time my kids were teens that mostly meant animal skulls, fossils, and strangely shaped sticks.) These are three of the seven stone stacks there. Now, seeing this picture, I realize the one on the left has lost the pyramid-shaped stone that used to perch there. I’m off to search for it!

” The observer, when he seems to himself to be observing a stone, is really, if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of the stone upon himself.”  ~ Bertrand Russell

This post is shared from our homestead-y site, Bit of Earth Farm

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?