Stories: Now More Than Ever

“I believe with all my hoary heart that stories save lives, and the telling and hearing of them is a holy thing, powerful far beyond our ken, sacramental, crucial, nutritious; without the sea of stories in which we swim we would wither and die; we are here for each other, to touch and be touched, to lose our tempers and beg forgiveness, to listen and to tell, to hail and farewell, to laugh and to snarl, to use words as knives and caresses, to puncture lies and to heal what is broken.”    ~Brian Doyle   

In this surreal, frightening time we are pulling together in profound ways. Although so-called differences are trumpeted by those who profit by dividing us, a magnet of connection guides us toward one another. Even now when we can’t hug, can’t even gather together, we are moved by one another’s stories.

By now, you likely know of people affected by Covid-19. I’m starting to. A friend’s wedding is cancelled and they plan to marry in front of a justice of the peace, sparing their friends from contact. Another friend’s new restaurant may go out of business. Each day he cleans the smooth black counters he had installed, hoping customers might again stand there to order before his creditors call in their loans. Many friends are out of work, scrambling to figure out how to pay for food and housing. An ER nurse friend is sleeping in her sister’s basement to stay away from her own son, who is receiving chemotherapy treatment. She does Facetime chats with him every evening. He holds up drawings he’s done, graphs he’s made of his temperature, lists of things he hopes to do in the next few days. She keeps her voice cheery till they’re done, only afterwards letting herself cry. One of my writing students is at home struggling with a cough and high fever, unable to get a test for the virus. She endured a difficult childhood, and in the last few years has started to write her memoir in light of what she now knows about trauma, epigenetics, and narrative history. Every person affected by Covid-19 has a story much larger than these few lines can tell.

Nearly every day I share stories with a stranger thanks to Quarantine Chat. Recently I talked to an older gentleman in Canada who is staying at his fishing cabin. When we talked he’d just come in from what he said would be the last ice fishing of the season. He reported that, once again, he didn’t catch anything. I asked how often his ice fishing was successful. “It’s always successful, in that I get outside for a few hours of peace. But it’s 100 percent unsuccessful if you mean catching anything after decades of trying,” he said. His good cheer couldn’t help but cheer me. I’ve talked to people in Spain,  Russia, Israel, and many U.S. states — a graduate student, business owner, graphic artist, stay-at-home dad, insurance broker, teenaged musician, police officer. We talk about what we can see out our windows, how our plans have changed, what worries us most, what we’re having for supper. It’s like any conversation, except it’s easier to get past the superficial.

Yesterday’s call was with a retired veteran who said he was really struggling with anxiety, especially for his two daughters. I asked if he had a family story, maybe even from generations ago, that made him feel he and his kids would get through this. He told me about his grandmother, who was the first Black woman in their city to become a bus driver. He called her a “little powerhouse of a lady.” He said she was a woman of faith who also took  “no guff” from anybody. Once, he said, she was robbed as she was walking to the side entrance of her apartment building. She never carried a purse, but pulled a worn Bible out of her coat pocket and told the desperate young man holding a knife, “Take this, it has all my treasure inside.” He grabbed it and ran off, assuming she had money stuffed in its pages. She turned and hurried after him. When he threw it down after rifling it through, she picked it up moments later. The police declined her offer to dust it for finger prints. The veteran said he had lots of stories about his grandmother and realized he hadn’t told them to his daughters. “I see her in my girls,” he said. “They’ve got her fight and her big heart.”

Stories press the doorbells that open us to the meaning inside tragedy, courage, and compassion. The prickle of tears you feel at the story of another person’s sorrow is your empathy. The  rise of something larger than pride when hearing a story of kindness is your willingness to give of yourself. And laughter at someone’s funny story, well, that’s as human as it gets.

Share some stories going on around you. Every story helps.

Mutual Aid In The Time Of Covid-19

“Hope has never trickled down, it has always sprung up.”    ~Naomi Klein     

Last night, after reading frightening coverage about this country’s abysmal preparation for Covid-19, with potential death tolls estimated to reach 1 to 1.5 million Americans, I dreamed about a family member just outside my window who couldn’t hear or see me calling him. Even in my dream I wondered which one of us wasn’t alive. I also dreamed about rotting food that grew into a malevolent presence. (And I dreamed about pastel-colored baby llamas…)

I woke up to cancel and respond to cancellation notices for all sorts of workshops, events, and get-togethers. Tentatively my classes for April are still a go-status, but I realize that may change. So much is changing.

Like nearly everyone else, I’m taking in more news than I normally do. I’ve heard experts say this pandemic is the event of a century. I’ve heard experts say this will be generation-defining. And of course there are people like conservative columnist David Brooks whose piece in the NYT is titled “Pandemics Kill Compassion, Too” with the subtitle “You may not like who you’re about to become.”  He writes about the ugly history of epidemics, where people blame and refuse to help one another. Of course there aren’t many accounts of how neighbors and faith communities actually helped one another in those times; history rarely tracks the experiences of ordinary people. Rebecca Solnit’s book, A Paradise Built in Hell, describes how ordinary people DO react. Here’s part of my post about this.

Author Rebecca Solnit takes a close look at disasters including earthquakes, floods, and explosions. She finds tragedy and grief, but something else too, something rarely noticed. During and after these horrific crises there shines from the wreckage something extraordinary.

People rise up as if liberated, regardless of their differences, to act out of deep regard for one another. They improvise, coordinate, create new social ties, and pour themselves into work that has no personal gain other than a sense of meaning. Such people express strangely transcendent feelings of joy, envisioning a greater and more altruistic community in the making. Even those suffering the most horrific misfortune often turn around to aid others and later remember it as the defining moment of their lives. This is a testament to the human spirit, as if disaster cracks us open to our better selves. As Solnit says, “The possibility of paradise is already within us as a default setting.”

Solnit wasn’t writing specifically about global pandemics, but already this greater human spirit is happening all around us. In my own networks I know of:

  • employees offering to handle a heavier workload so that co-workers with health problems can stay at home
  • healthcare workers taking on more shifts to deal with a massively increased workload
  • families looking after other people’s children due to school and daycare closures
  • nursing mothers vowing to share breastmilk if fellow mothers are too sick to nurse
  • neighbors offering to do errands and yard chores for elderly and/or sick neighbors
  • faith communities matching volunteers with people requesting help

And community members are getting together online to organize all sorts of mutual aid well beyond their own close networks. Here’s what my friend Mark, activist and generally awesome person, posted yesterday.

And here’s an example from an apartment dweller:

The next few months will likely test us, maybe test us severely.  Through whatever we suffer, this pandemic may help us see we are interconnected beyond our own fingertips, beyond our own borders.  May we rise to our best selves, creative and caring, no matter what. May we keep up one another’s spirits as the people of  Siena, Italy do — singing from their homes and apartments during the mandated quarantine. 

 “To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand Utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”   ~Howard Zinn

Kiva

In the long chill of our worst financial times I used a permanent marker to write affirming words inside our checkbook cover.

           abundance   ease   hope   purpose   prosperity   gratitude   plenty   

I also started a tradition of making a donation each time I paid our bills.  I figured we weren’t truly in trouble until we couldn’t help someone else. Sometimes it was for a local fund-raiser, but mostly it was one of many carefully vetted charities aligned with our ecological and social concerns. Each donation wasn’t much, but I made them.

I’ve kept up with that tradition and started another a few years ago thanks to a non-profit which offers a way of making the same donation do a world of good, over and over again.  It’s based on microlending. Muhammad Yunus, who won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for his work, popularized microloans worldwide.  These are tiny loans to the very poor, often in combination with other services such as healthcare, savings accounts, networking, and peer support. For decades, such loans have made a difference to people with limited access to financial services, particularly for women.  Initially hyped as the solution to severe poverty, research shows the economic effects are more modest — resulting in the start-up or expansion of small businesses, more reliable sources of food and transportation, better educational opportunities, and higher overall wages. The improvement in individual lives is significant when nearly half the world lives on less than $5.50 a day,  with a quarter living on less than $3.20 a day.

Anyone can get started making microloans as small as $25 through Kiva,  lending money to people a state away or continents away. When they pay the money back, you can loan it over and over again. You might loan based on what means the most to you; perhaps to women in agriculture or refugees establishing businesses or people working in the arts. Each loan request is accompanied by a snapshot and information. For example right now Tuli, from Samoa, makes elei printed materials and needs a loan to buy more supplies. Lidia, from Uganda, runs a restaurant and needs a loan to help her buy more plates, saucepans, and staples like maize flour. Safarahmad, from Tajakistan (who paid back a previous Kiva loan) is applying for support to begin a beekeeping business. Norma, from the U.S., seeks a loan to buy equipment to expand her housecleaning services.

Kiva loans, overall, have a 96.7 percent repayment rate of loans to people in 77 countries. Since 2005, Kiva has crowdfunded more than 1.6 million loans. A billion dollars alone have been loaned to women.

I got started with $25 and, adding what I could over time, I’ve built up my Kiva account to the point where I’ve made 52 loans (and counting).  It’s astonishing to be able to offer others a portion the abundance I realize I’ve always truly had.

 

Overwhelmed

Overwhelmed. This is the word I’ve been using lately when I can’t get together with friends or make it to meetings. Instead I’m stuck here at my desk. Working for myself means I don’t have an employer paying half my Social Security taxes or any of my health insurance. It means I say yes when opportunities arise, crazily rowing from work drought to work flood. It also means time management is up to me and my skittering mind.

My oh my does it skitter. My attention-deficit brain thrives on starting multiple things, then branching out in more and more directions as the day goes on. I rarely make linear progress through one project, instead coming up with new angles on other projects while also jumping up to make coffee, get mail, walk dogs. I’ve thrived this way for years but it’s no longer serving me well. I get to the end of the day unable to check much off my to-do lists. Instead I make longer lists for the next day.

As I posted recently on Twitter, Can’t. Accomplish. Anything. Time is glue stuck in the jar of me.

I am profoundly lucky to do work I enjoy. It’s been a long haul to get here and I’m grateful to write, edit, and teach for a living. I don’t have much time for my own projects but know if I possessed greater focus I’d be making some progress on them.

I meant to write a paragraph or two here about getting beyond self-criticism and telling myself a more positive story. But you know that skittering mind I mentioned? Yeah, it’s skittering off in another direction.

Because it seems time has gotten more slippery of late. Morning somehow slides into afternoon’s lap or what feels like Thursday is actually Tuesday. A week takes forever but suddenly a month is gone. Time falls into a jumbled stew of our own crises heated up by the shock of each day’s news. It’s not just me. Friends and colleagues complain about this same problem.

On top of work and home pressures, I suspect the era we’re living in is so unexpected that it’s just too hard to concentrate on our own daily minutiae. Things like getting the laundry folded or the next big project done make less sense when each day overflows with startling political changes and new environmental outrages. Perhaps this swings our sense of time toward an altered trajectory.

Are you overwhelmed? Is time getting away from you? How do you cope?

 

 

Undivided

“Respect, I think, always implies imagination—the ability to see one another, across our inevitable differences, as living souls.”   ~ Wendell Berry

I’m afraid I’ve forgotten how to write non-political poems and some recent essays I turned in were just a few degrees shy of ranting. Over the last few years my usual peace/love/humor social media feed on Facebook and Twitter has started to read more like a women trying to jump higher than despair. Every morning it takes strength just to face the news. This isn’t who I want to be. Isn’t who I think we are.

Remember the bundle of sticks story, said to come from the enslaved storyteller Aesop over 2500 years ago?

A father is distressed by the constant quarreling among his sons. Nothing he says eases the discord. When their arguments became fierce, he asks one of his sons to bring him a bundle of sticks. He hands it in turn to each son, asking them to try to break it. None of them can. Then he unties the bundle and hands out individual sticks, which they break easily. “My sons,” says the father, “do you not see how certain it is that if you help each other, it will impossible for your enemies to injure you? But if you are divided among yourselves, you are no stronger than a single stick in that bundle.”

History tells us when ordinary people are pitted against one another, those divisions are fostered by people who benefit. Divisions keep the majority preoccupied while a tiny minority amasses ever more wealth and power. So-called divides are used to keep people tussling over religion, race, ethnicity, social issues, politics — all amped up by fear of change, fear of losing what little you’ve got to someone who isn’t just like you. Meanwhile, what little power and wealth ordinary people have is usurped easily as individual sticks are broken. When we don’t stand up for each other, we lose.

But we are not hopelessly divided. In fact, across so-called political divides we are growing closer on pivotal issues.

Climate Change

Results from a 2019 poll byThe Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation show a strong majority of Americans — about 8 in 10 — say that human activity is fueling climate change.

There’s plenty of shared fear. Forty percent overall believe action to combat climate change must come in the next decade to ward off the worst consequences while 12% believe it’s already too late. These concerns cross party lines and are a significant change from a few years ago, when a 2014 Gallup poll found people ranked climate change among their lowest concerns, with a majority caring little or not at all about the issue.

How to tackle the problem? Nearly two-thirds of people polled support stricter fuel-efficiency standards for the country’s cars and trucks. While many are willing to pay more in taxes and utilities, a majority agree on two methods for funding climate action. Seven out of 10 say the money should come from increasing taxes on wealthy households. And six out of 10 favor raising taxes on companies that burn fossil fuels, even when told companies may pass costs along in the form of higher prices.

 

Immigrants 

A Pew Research Center fact sheet from early 2019 shows a strong majority of Americans (62%) say immigrants strengthen our country thanks to their hard work and talents. A total of 28% believe, instead, that immigrants burden the country by taking jobs, housing, and health care. This is a major reversal from attitudes prevalent 25 years ago, when a 1994 poll indicated 63% of Americans believed immigrants burdened the country while 31% said they strengthened it.

There are differences in opinion. Democrats overwhelmingly agree immigrants strengthen the nation (83%) while nearly half of Republicans saying they burden the nation (49%). But views among younger Republicans challenge older party views, with a majority (58%) of those under 39 years of age agreeing that immigrants strengthen the country. Notice again an increasing convergence of viewpoints.

 

Healthcare

The Commonwealth Fund’s 2019 survey found than two-thirds of people (68%) in states that have not expanded Medicaid favored expanding the program. A majority of Democrats (91%) and independents (74%) were in favor. Only 42% of Republicans overall approved, but 57% of Republicans most likely to be affected (making less than $30,350 annually) approved of expansion.

Despite confusion around this complicated issue, Americans are increasingly interested in some form of universal healthcare. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll found 58% of people approved when asked about  “a national health plan, sometimes called Medicare for All, in which all Americans would get their insurance from a single government plan.” In a CNN poll, over half (54%) said the government should provide a national health insurance program funded by taxes, although only 20% agreed it should entirely replace private health insurance. While there are strong differences of opinion a survey by RealClear Politics found healthcare was the top concern of voters, even Republicans were evenly split on supporting or not supporting Medicare for all.

Overall a significant majority of Americans believe workers should receive paid medical leave (85%) as well as parental leave (82%) following birth/adoption.

 

Economy and Money’s Influence    

 A 2020 Pew Research Center study on economic inequality found seven out of ten adults agree the U.S. economic system unfairly favors powerful interests.

Americans overall agree which groups have too much power over the economy. Eighty-four percent say politicians, 82% corporations, and 82% say the wealthy. Three-quarters agree health insurance companies have too much power, 64% say banks and other financial institutions, 61% say technology companies. There are differences of opinion within these categories, for example Republicans are more likely to say labor unions have too much power while Democrats believe corporate power is a greater concern, but there’s still plenty of common ground.

Americans in general also tend to dislike special interests interfering with elections. Eighty-four percent think money has too much influence in elections. Nearly 8 in 10 favor limits on both raising and spending money in congressional campaigns. Meanwhile, 78 percent of Americans, including 80 percent of Republicans, want to overturn the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that further opened the floodgates to corporate campaign spending, including spending from undisclosed sources.

What will it take to revive hope and work together for the common good?

My friend John Robinson, author of Mystical Activism: Transforming A World In Crisis, spoke in a recent interview about Earth’s sacredness and the peril our planet is in. He compared it to driving down the road and seeing a two-year-old wander into the street.  As he says, “You don’t keep driving and think to yourself, ‘that’s interesting, I wonder what’s going to happen.’ You jump out of the car, you stop all the other cars, and you grab that child to save him. That’s the kind of response that happens when we suddenly get how much in danger we are in and start responding to the world.”

It’s an apt analogy, not only because our instinctual response is to save the child no matter if leaping into the road endangers us, but also because it is an unconscious act of love. That’s where we are now. Life on earth is that child and the politics of the drivers going by don’t matter, the child is in peril.

That word “love” may be key. It’s found in what we are lacking, including a sense of community and shared purpose.  Across all so-called divides, we truly want the same things. Things like safety, freedom, meaning, a sense of belonging, hope for the future, a say in decisions that affect us. We may believe there are different routes to achieve these goals, but the goals are darn similar. That’s common ground.

We’ve been led to believe a brighter, more collaborative future is unrealistic, even impossible, but that’s a narrative that divides and breaks us just as effectively as tearing apart Aesop’s bundle of sticks. Howard Zinn reminded us in this article written a few years before his death,

There is a tendency to think that what we see in the present moment will continue. We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people’s thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible….

I keep encountering people who, in spite of all the evidence of terrible things happening everywhere, give me hope. Especially young people, in whom the future rests.

Positive change takes place when people work together regardless of naysayers, regardless of divisions fostered by those who seek to consolidate ever greater wealth and power. We’re here for more than short-term satisfactions. Leap up, save the baby from the road.

2019: What A Year

2019 seems to have stomped by in adjective-defying ways, with giant lows and highs. And that’s just my own life.

I don’t make resolutions or choose a word for the coming year, valuable as those traditions may be for others. But I do have a ritual for the end of the year. I take down my old wall calendar (where a Luddite like me keeps track of life) and refer to it as I enter birthdays and anniversaries into the new calendar. There are plenty of digital solutions that would relieve me of this task, but I like going back over the last 12 months. Each day is scribbled with names, places, and events. As I write important dates in next year’s calendar, here are some of  my 2019’s most memorable contents, randomly ordered.

~~~~~~~~~~

Long walks with people dear to me, including one recent wintry stroll when I mimicked a fake fall on ice right before actually falling on it. Living example of the old “pride goeth” thing.

Shorter walks with small dogs. On our street we’re likely to hear braying donkeys, yelling goats, and neighing horses. We’re likely to be passed by pickup trucks, school buses, tractors, and the occasional Amish buggy. Occasionally our walks are entirely quiet except for wind in the trees.

Teaching creative writing classes for Cuyahoga County Public Library, Literary Cleveland, and other community-based organizations. I never imagined I’d get to do something I love SO MUCH.

 

Grayson Books publishing my poetry collection Blackbird. I am forever grateful for publisher Ginny Connors.

 

Watching my husband lift off in a helicopter from our small town hospital, headed for a big city hospital’s neuro ICU. The 50 minutes it took me to drive there, unsure if he would be alive when I arrived, was the longest trip of my life. Affirmations and prayer couldn’t staunch my full scale weeping, and I needed to see in order to drive. What really propped me up was talking directly to him as if he could hear me. “You’re fine,” I told him over and over. “You are fine. Everything is going to be fine.” He was. It was.

Doing art with little kids. A recent project was painting trees. Not painting representations of trees on paper, I mean using paintbrushes and washable tempera to paint on sycamore, maple, and ash tree bark.

 

A group of six intrepid poet friends who gather monthly.  They tell me how screwed up my poems are and I tell them how screwed up their poems are. Essential. We go by the name 811s, named for where in the Dewey Decimal system poetry books are shelved. (Name suggested by brilliant poet librarian Laurie.)

My longstanding book group, full of smart interesting people who make me read books I’d normally ignore.

Cooking weird things. These are stuffed enchilada skulls, with the filling showing through just enough to look thrillingly like decomposition. The most recent birthday cake I made featured gummy teeth. I cannot be stopped.

The utter delight of seeing out-of-town friends and family.

Books! With insomnia like mine, I get through a lot of books in a week. Some of my nonfiction favorites this year have been Nature, Love, Medicine: Essays on Wildness and Wellness edited by Thomas Lowe Fleischner, The Mystery of the Exploding Teeth by Thomas Morris (more medical history than you wanted to know, amusingly told), The Wisdom Way of Knowing by Cynthia Bourgeault, It Didn’t Start With You by Mark Wolynn,  A God In the House: Poets Talk About Faith edited by Ilya Kaminsky and Katherine Towler, The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth, and Lynne McTaggart’s The Power of Eight, which inspired several of us to start a focused intention group. I was also lucky enough to get an advance copy of Mystical Activism by my friend John C. Robinson, who is a contemporary of Robert Bly,  Michael Meade, and James Hillman. I’m talking real wisdom in usable form. Read this!

 

The newest kitchen wench in training.

 

Hosting house concerts. Excellent live music in an intimate venue, a true delight.

Being interviewed by Dan Poletta. My squawky voice on NPR!

Vigils, rallies, marches. Fewer this year than last because I simply feel broken by all that’s going on, although what needs to change is ever more urgent. And I am ever more likely to cry at these things. Tears are not a useful measure because I also tear up at musical performances, fire trucks hurtling by, and any act of kindness.

Wonderful opportunities to read poetry at Loganberry Books, Wm. Skirball Writing Center, Lit Youngstown, Visible Voice Books, Wick Poetry Center, Ohio Poetry Day Association, Second Sunday Poets, and Literary Cleveland.

The incredible honor of having an excerpt from one of my poems stamped in a public sidewalk, thanks to Lit Youngstown.

 

Audiobooks, which turn a long drive into an enchanted journey. My favorite this year was The Highland Witch by Susan Fletcher (originally carrying the much better title, Corrag). There’s unforgettably pure vision in this historic story, made real by  narrator Rosalyn Landor.  Other gems include Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier, Never Home Alone by Rob Dunn, and Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield.

Podcasts. I used to listen to NPR while cooking and doing projects, but the last few years I’ve had to limit my news intake to an early morning deep read of the NYT and Washington Post lest I fall into ever deeper weltschmerz. The rest of the day its music, podcasts, or sweet sweet silence. I mostly listen to science podcasts but my newest delight is Emerging Form, a podcast about the creative process with poet  Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer and science writer Christie Aschwanden.

 

The amazing garden bells my husband makes. He kept this one for us.

 

A poetry appreciation group called Flat Tire Poetry Society, so-named because the idea for the group came about when four of us were stranded late at night somewhere in Cleveland on our way home from a poetry workshop. In the hour it took for a tow truck to arrive we talked about poetry that had changed our lives and decided we wanted to do this more often. Not the stranded part but the poetry discussion part. Now we meet seasonally with whoever of 20-some members can make it.

Two different women’s spirituality groups, one that digs deep into study and practice and another that dives deep into support. Both are lifeblood.

Dear friends who tell me when my work isn’t working and who support my writing no matter what.

 

Indulging in puddle delight.

 

Apollo’s Fire which enlivens even my pores. Alan Choo doesn’t plan violin so much as radiate music from his whole being and Amanda Powell’s voice makes any space sacred. We manage to afford two concerts a year and they tide us over.

Violating basic gardeners’ rules by planting seeds directly into hot compost, nearly all of it chicken coop bedding. Result? The most massive heirloom squash plants and fruits we’ve ever seen.

Putting up food from our gardens. This year we canned somewhat less than usual, but still put up well over 100 jars of salsa, sauces, jam, and syrups. This melange was photographed in our five gallon pot.

Binge-watching, because retreating from reality restores me enough to face it again the next day. We don’t have cable, so our binges are limited to Netflix and series we can order from the library. This year our binges included The Kominsky Method,  Occupied, One Strange Rock, Happy Valley, Grand Designs (our favorite episode was the handcrafted timber house in Herefordshire, from the 2017 season), the requisite Great British Baking Show, and the simple comfort of Father Brown.

Going through volunteer training so I can run writing workshops at a local domestic violence shelter. A lot of training…

Three Pushcart nominations this year thanks to Grayson Books, Gyroscope Review, and Typehouse Magazine.

Being named Ohio Poet of the Year 2019. I am still astonished.

 

 

Teaching one of my favorite small people the most important word.

A Different Kind of Genius: Standardized Learning vs Beautiful Diversity

What society seems to favor in young people — obedience, popularity, good school behavior, robust mental health, plus good grades and test scores — doesn’t necessarily build on their inborn strengths. In fact the very things we define as problems are vital aspects of human diversity. Suppressing them hinders a young person’s full development into who they are.

Here’s some of the science behind kids who go their own way.

image: youtube

Eleven-year-old Bill was defiant and got into heated shouting matches with his parents. By the time he was 12 years old, things had gotten so bad he was in counseling for his behavior. He told his counselor, “I’m at war with my parents over who is in control.”

Plenty of us broke the rules growing up and didn’t go on to earn billions as Bill Gates did, but there may be something to defiance. In 2008, researchers got in touch with nearly 750 participants from a 1968 study. In the original study these participants had been sixth graders who’d had their intelligence, attitudes, and behavior assessed. Now the participants were in their 50’s. The researchers looked for personality traits correlated with success. They controlled for IQ, household income, level of education, and other factors. They found one particular childhood characteristic predictive of those who went on to become high achievers in adulthood — rule-breaking and defiance of parental authority.

Other studies amplify these findings, showing that teens who were truant from school, who cheated, shoplifted, or displayed other anti-social behaviors (although not serious crimes) were more likely to go on to found their own companies.

We don’t know for sure why there’s such a strong correlation between youthful defiance and adult success, but it we do know traits that make strong-willed kids seem “difficult” — things like persistence, non-conformity, boldness, confidence, intense interests, and independence- —  are the same traits that in adulthood characterize leaders in business, governance, athletics, and entertainment. Strong-willed kids want to find out for themselves rather than be told, and this not only helps them resist peer pressure, it can help them think beyond conventional thinking to new ways of doing things. Like Bill Gates.

image: YouTube

Stefani wasn’t popular. According to the book Doable, she was teased, called “ugly” and “weird,” and could barely face going to school. Stefani was so desperate to transform herself from a “voluptuous little Italian girl” to a “skinny little ballerina” that she became bulimic in high school, stopping only when her vocal chords started to become damaged.

Lady Gaga is now one of the best-selling musicians of all time. Unpopularity doesn’t mean we’re likely to top the charts in 20 countries, but popular kids with loads of friends aren’t actually happier than those with just a single really close friend. Kids with larger, less intimate social networks worry, even obsess about their status, influence, and power. Instead of having close relationships, they often have many people to manage. Popularity, especially in girls’ high pressure online lives, can feel more like managing one’s self-image than being truly known to one’s friends. Studies indicate kids with few, but close friends, even one best friend, grow up to have less depression, less anxiety, and higher self-worth.

How popularity may be gained is another concern. Research shows teens (especially young teens) often try to look and act more mature than they are in order to gain peer approval, what researchers call pseudomature behavior. This can include early use of drugs and alcohol, smoking, sex, and late partying. This often works short-term to boost their popularity. Long-term pseudomature behavior is linked to a greater likelihood of serious problems in adulthood including difficulties with close relationships, substance abuse issues, and criminal behavior. And overall, it turns out those who aren’t the “cool” kids in school are more likely to be personally and professionally competent as adults.

image: Erik van Leeuwen

Michelle was a handful in grade school. “I could not sit down long enough to study and to learn,” she says. She was diagnosed with dyslexia and ADHD. Although she still struggled, she learned to work harder and work differently. Michelle Carter is now an Olympic champion holding the American record in women’s shot put.

Sally Shaywitz, co-director of the Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity, says there’s a strong connection between dyslexia and success. Although fewer than 10 percent of the U.S. population is believed to have the disorder, a study found more than a third of entrepreneurs identified themselves as dyslexic. It’s thought struggling to get by in a reading world helps people develop skills like problem-solving and perseverance. It also gives them experience with failure early on, teaching them to take more calculated risks and see opportunities where others don’t.

Dyslexics may have other strengths as well. Dr. Gail Saltz, author of The Power of Different, explains in a CNN interview that there’s a good probability people with dyslexia are more likely to have an enhanced aptitude for visual-spatial relations. “It has to do with the wiring that makes it difficult for (a person) to read and do things in a very particular way. That same wiring permits a certain kind of ability in (a person’s) peripheral vision and processing and visual-spatial processing and pattern recognition.”

Many studies have found a link between dyslexia and creativity. Comparing scores on Torrance’s Tests of Creative Thinking (TTCT) between young students with dyslexia to those of normative TTCT samples indicated children with dyslexia were significantly better at generating many ideas and more original ideas.

Comparing scores on the WCR (widening, connecting and reorganizing) Creativity Test between middle school students with and without dyslexia showed students with dyslexia were better able to carry out unusual combinations of ideas. (What researchers strangely called “the peculiar cognitive functioning of people with learning disabilities.”)

And after years of seeing an association between dyslexia and remarkable artistic creativity, a school of art and design funded research to study the link. Admission to the school was extremely demanding, meaning student vocation choice relied on talent and not compensation for failure in conventional academics. Lead researcher Beverley Steffart found the student body intellectually at the top 10 percent of the population, yet three-quarters of students overall were found to have some form of dyslexia. In an interview with the Independent she said, “My research so far seems to show that there does seem to be a `trade- off’ between being able to see the world in this wonderfully vivid and three-dimensional way, and an inability to cope with the written word either through reading or writing.” “

Thomas G. West points out in his book In The Mind’s Eye that dyslexic people often have the gift of thinking in three dimensions, easily able to rotate an image in their minds or visualize every detail of a completed project. He write, “historically, some of the most original thinkers in fields ranging from physical science and mathematics to politics and poetry have relieved heavily on visual modes of thought. Some of these same thinkers, however, have shown evidence of a striking range of difficulties in their early schooling including problems with reading, speaking, spelling, calculation, and memory.” He notes such early learning difficulties plagued Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Auguste Rodin, Leonardo da Vinci, William James, William Butler Yeats, and many others. “Many of these individuals may have achieved success or even greatness not in spite of but because of their apparent disabilities. They may have been so much in touch with their visual-spatial, nonverbal, right-hemisphere modes of thought that they have had difficulty in doing orderly, sequential, verbal-mathematical, left-hemisphere tasks in a culture where left-hemisphere capabilities are so highly valued.”

image: Britannica.com

At 14, David was bored and reclusive. He spent most of his free time in his bedroom on the computer. His mother, a science teacher, didn’t push him to pay more attention to his classes at the Bronx High School of Science. Instead she suggested he drop out to homeschool so he could learn what he wanted to learn. After that, David didn’t pursue traditional academic subjects or go on to college. By the time he was 17 he was living alone in Tokyo, writing software, and providing tech help for a parenting blog.

He didn’t like writing as much as the blog required, so when he had a two-week gap in contracts he worked with a friend to set up a tumblelogging platform. In 2013, David Karp sold Tumblr to Yahoo for 1.1 billion. Many of us homeschool and haven’t come up with a lucrative innovation, but we do know the emphasis on high grades and test scores isn’t a formula for success.

As education reformer Alfie Kohn explains, “Research has repeatedly classified kids on the basis of whether they tend to be deep or shallow thinkers, and, for elementary, middle, and high school students, a positive correlation has been found between shallow thinking and how well kids do on standardized tests. So an individual student’s high test scores are not usually a good sign.”

Research also links higher grade point averages to less innovative or creative work overall. What’s being tested is has so little to do with the adaptable, creative, critical thinking necessary for today’s world that employers like Google, Apple, IBM, Bank of America don’t emphasize grades, test scores, even college degrees the most important criteria in the hiring process.  Actually, studies show that high test scores in school don’t necessarily predict any of several hundred measures of adult maturity and competence. Increasing test scores, however, were found to be directly related to interpersonal immaturity.

We’ve known this for a long time. Back in 1985, the research seeking to link academic success with later success was examined. It was appropriated titled, “Do grades and tests predict adult accomplishment?” The conclusion? Not really. Grades and test scores only do a good job of forecasting a student’s future grades and scores. They do not necessarily correlate with later accomplishment in such areas as social leadership, the arts, or sciences. And they are not good predictors of success in career advancement, handling real life problems, or maintaining positive relationships.

That’s true in other parts of the world as well. Students in China who achieve the highest scores on college entrance exams have been found to achieve less in life after school than those who scored lower. All this test pressure, to decrease a child’s chances of success!

 

 

image: Britannica.com

Another boy named David struggled with anxiety and compulsions. His repertoire of tics included rocking, counting his steps, and hitting himself on the head. Teachers were particularly frustrated by his urge to lick light switches. David was also witty and a close observer of people. He dropped out of college, did odd jobs, and dabbled in art throughout his 20’s, finally finishing an art degree in his early 30’s. When he was invited to read one of his humorous essays on NPR, David Sedaris’ career took off. He’s now the author of nine bestselling books and his speaking tours sell out each time he travels.

In an article titled “Misdiagnosis of the Gifted,” Lynne Azpeitia and Mary Rocamora explain that gifted, talented, and creative people “… exhibit greater intensity and increased levels of emotional, imaginational, intellectual, sensual and psychomotor excitability and that this is a normal pattern of development.” These attributes, however, are often misunderstood and mislabeled by teachers, parents, and therapists as mental health disorders. They may try all sorts of interventions in hopes of normalizing what are essentially symptoms of an exceptional individual.

As Ms. Azpeitia and Ms. Rocamora go on to explain, “For the gifted, inner conflict is a developmental rather than a degenerative sign, because it drives the gifted person forward to replace current ways of thinking and being with those of higher level development. This type of positive disintegration is characterized by an intensified inner tension between what one is and what one could be. This dynamic tension is what fuels the creative person’s complex inner life and provides the impetus for growth and development.”

All sorts of studies have found links between creativity and mood disorders like anxiety, depression, and compulsions. One such study followed participants in the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop. For ten years researchers tracked 30 participants in the program along with 30 people matched in age and IQ who didn’t work in creative fields.  Close to 30 percent of the control group reported some form of mental illness. In contrast, 80 percent of the writers suffered from some form of mental illness.

According to neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen, author of The Creating Brain, creative people are often skeptical of authority and prefer to make up their own minds. They are more drawn to questions than answers, and may find rituals help them cope with ambiguity. Feelings of alienation, fear, and depression are common and can themselves drive even greater creativity.

We talking about a different kind of genius.

Mathematician Eric Weinstein says conventional educational gets in the way of genius. Genius is associated with high-variance, and such variance is often found in people who are diagnosed with dyslexia, ADHD, and other differences. Dr. Weinstein says they aren’t suited to conventional educational systems, and explains,

“If you look at the learning disabled population they very often are the most intellectual, accomplished members of society… These are the individuals who are going to cure cancer. These are the people who are going to create new multi-billion dollar industries… How much genius is squandered by muting the strengths of these populations?”

Standardized expectations don’t allow us to see that our differences are a necessary part of who we are. That isn’t to minimize the difficulties people experience as they struggle to grow up and find their way, but it can help us to accept each person as a unique constellation of traits, abilities, and inclinations. Instead of emphasizing what we perceive as a young person’s weaknesses, we can build on their strengths. Instead of forcing them to “make up” for what we think they’re missing we can let them explore what enchants them. Instead of insisting on one narrow path to adult success we can throw the definition of success open to what each person makes of it.

House Concerts

Big LIttle Lions here September 2018.

Our home seems made for house concerts. This place is open in an unassuming way. Plenty of space for people eat and talk, then find a spot to sit when musicians begin to play. I feels to me as if a glow hovers around everyone at these events, intensifying as the evening goes on.

It doesn’t matter that our carpet is three decades old, that portions of the kitchen floor are in ruins, that there are several different colors of siding on our house. What matters is making very real connections in an era when we’re ever more likely to be distracted and rushed.

Two years ago my husband wanted to cancel our scheduled house concert. He insisted it would be too much for me. I’d recently gotten several frightening diagnoses and he was worried. I told him every crisis reminds us how radiant our lives already are and we were absolutely going ahead with the concert.

Our performer that autumn was veteran singer-songwriter Doug MacLeod. Doug had long performed the blues as a story-teller and won many  national Blues Music Awards. When he showed up we were all in his thrall. Can you remember the hippest guy in school, exploring the best music and coolest haunts but too laid back to brag? Doug was that guy, all the more awesome for each of his years. Doug sat down to play, man and guitar, his sandpaper-y voice wearing off our sharp edges. His stories and songs held us . Late in the evening he told us about his son Jesse’s cancer diagnosis and how they had begun composing together.  Quite a few of us were madly in love with him by evening’s end. Maybe, from sheer proximity, a little more hip too.

Our most recent house concert happened this weekend. We are honored to host amazing musicians from around the country, around the world (many found through the Concerts in Your Home network). I send out invitations well in advance, ask for RSVPs, try to have a houseful of around 30 people all donating a decent amount (100% to the musicians) to make it worth the musicians’ while. Many musicians stay here overnight, our breakfast conversations a rich new element to this experience. I tend to stress over RSVPs, probably because so many musicians performing in our rural home travel long distances to get here.

Maybe it’s a symptom of our times, but increasingly the 70 or so people on our invite list do not respond. Or they say they can come but cancel a few days before the performance. Recently a friend who cancelled actually paid for the two seats she and a friend would have occupied. Otherwise people don’t seem to understand that this is opportunity to engage with live music on the most direct terms —- literally feet away — with established, talented, extraordinary artists. The audience for this weekend’s concert, including family members, came to only 14 people in attendance.

My spouse says that our house concert experiment has run its course after nearly four years. I disagree. I did my share of active worrying when I got cancellation after cancellation for this weekend’s show, many of them less than 24 hours before performance time, but those who came told me it would be perfect exactly as it was.

They were right.

Artist Noah Derksen and his accompanist Abby Wales made it an all acoustic show to accommodate our small audience and it was perfect. Nothing will stop me from continuing after the marvelous energy of this show.

The community we all need is  in front of us. Miss your village? Maybe it’s right here, waiting for you to show up.

 

Yellow Dress Woman

“Enter each day with the expectation that the happenings of the day may contain a clandestine message addressed to you personally. Expect omens, epiphanies, casual blessings, and teachers who unknowingly speak to your condition.” ~ Sam Keen

I never forgot her. The young woman wore a yellow dress and her smile seemed to glow in the sunshine. I’m pretty sure she was with a young man, but as a child that didn’t interest me. I was on another of our family’s summer trips. These were starkly frugal, multi-week affairs meant to educate us at every free historical site possible. Our days were spent in a hot car, our nights in our tiny travel trailer. Much of the time I was carsick or asthmatic, or both. I longed for my library books, my pink bike, and all the other comforts of home.

On this day I stood in a crowd of tourists watching a demonstration of colonial candle-dipping or blacksmithing. Trapped at armpit height behind people holding cameras, I couldn’t see a thing. That’s when I noticed Yellow Dress Woman strolling on the grass nearby. I squinted at the aliveness she radiated.

It occurred to me that she wanted to be there and I realized with a sudden full-body shiver that growing up wasn’t an abstraction. This was a revelation — that a time would come when I too could make my own choices. Her image stayed with me like a beacon through the rest of my growing up years.

I shared that story with my regular Wednesday class as I asked them to think of an image that made a deep impression on them, then write about it. A lengthy pause. No pens hit paper, no fingers tapped keys. Oh no, I thought. I came up with a writing exercise that’s not working. This has happened a few other times over the years. I usually jump in to expand the concept. But heads began to bend over their stories and I relaxed.

It’s strange how fleeting images manage to plug into a waiting receptor. A man stopping to help an elder or a woman unselfconsciously nursing her baby may expand your awareness, give you new resolve, or offer clarity. We gather and hold these moments, none of us knowing what moments from our lives are carried by others.

Fifteen minutes later it was time for class members to read aloud. As always, powerful original stories were shared to rapt attention. Then on to discussion, finding insight in each other’s words. I’ve seen stories connect and uplift us so many times that I’m convinced listening to one another’s stories is the most healing thing we can do for each other, and for the times we live in.

What images do you carry that have changed you?

What Not To Do While Being Interviewed

I have done all sorts of phone and online interviews since my first book was published nine years ago. Such interviews neatly fit into two imperatives for me:

  1. Make myself do hard things.
  2. Honor my hermit impulse to stay home.

Because I never, ever listen to the resulting podcast or online discussion I don’t have to count my digressions, annoying laughs, interruptions, or “um’s.” I’m pretty sure if I had to hear my voice I’d curl up in a nice comfy corner and avoid hard things forevermore.

But I recently told students in a writing class about my worst interview, so I guess I can tell the story here.

I prepare myself for the phone call as usual. I go into my home office and shut the door to keep out dogs and visitors. I say nice things to myself like you can do this while looking at the clock. I remind myself the interviewer’s name is Julian* and the call will be coming in at 7 pm my time from California. It rings at 7 with a local number, a number that looks like my friend Andre’s number, but I can’t hear the caller. Just static. The call ends. A minute later my phone rings again. Frustrated, I say “Andre?” into the phone. No response. The phone rings again and this time it is indeed Julian, the podcast host, who explains he is trying to work out some equipment problems. As we talk he says, “Whoa, it’s really loud from your end.” I hope he can dial it down so his listeners didn’t have to listen to me at max amplification, but he’s not sure he’s able to equalize my voice and his.

Julian plays the opening music, introduces me, and I promptly say, “Thank you for inviting me, Andre.” Apparently I still have Andre’s name in my head due to those glitchy calls. I laugh, apologize, and we start over. But making a mistake in the first minute isn’t the best thing for my confidence.

I have two tactics to deal with my nervous energy during interviews. I stand looking out the window at trees, which is calming. I also play with Thinking Putty, a gift from my much-missed friend Bernie DeKoven. The putty keeps my hands busy while I try to avoid what I consider some of my common interview failings:

  • telling the same stories I’ve told in previous interviews
  • making unequivocal statements
  • leaving air space while I ponder
  • giving in to my urge to talk about research (exciting to me, deadly to most listeners)

As the interview proceeds I roll the putty into an ever-lengthening strand, twirl it around into a tiny coiled pot, then squish it and start over again. Pot after pot is created and destroyed until a bubble forms in the putty. As I squish it a loud slow sputter noise is emitted. It sounds rather like a human emphatically passing gas. I am so startled that I pause what I am saying long enough to remember that my side of the conversation is over-amplified. Michael pauses too. I prattle on again in the eager high tone of someone trying to cover up a mistake, the badly behaved putty now back in its tin. But a few minutes later my nervous energy gets the better of me and I’m back to rolling it into strands, then coiled pots, then back into lumps to start over. And yes, before the end of the call the damn putty makes yet another resounding fart noise.

It may be a coincidence, but I haven’t been asked to do a single podcast since then. So here’s my advice — avoid playing with putty while being interviewed unless you really want to go with that hermit impulse.

*Julian and Andre’s names have, of course, been changed.