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. 

Ohio Poet of the Year 2019

 

I got a suspicious email back in August. It alleged I’d won a statewide contest. I am not so easily fooled. I wrote back:

“In case you are a wealthy foreign prince, I have nothing to extort. I’m a friendly hermit who drives a  rusty 2004 Honda and wears worn out shoes.”

The emailer responded with contact info for the Ohio Poetry Day Association (OPD), which has awarded Ohio Poet of the Year since 1938.  He said he wasn’t affiliated with the organization, but was helping out since they had trouble getting in touch with me. He asked me to call Amy Jo Zook, contest chairperson for Ohio Poetry Day and coordinator for Poet of the Year. He explained the organization is run by such a venerable board that they only operate by phone and mail.

Suspicious indeed. But I investigated.

I googled Amy Jo Zook and discovered she has a doctorate in English, won the Ohio Poet of the Year award herself back in 1988, and has volunteered for literary causes for decades. I reverse-searched the number I was given and it matched up with her name.

Hmm. Could this be a real thing? My publisher had sent my book off for several awards…

A Nigerian prince  seemed a more likely possibility than my winning anything. Rather than think about it, I went back to editing manuscripts. When that distraction didn’t work, I took a bucket of kitchen scraps out to the chickens, picked some green beans, and watered our mulberry saplings. I still couldn’t muster up the courage to make the phone call. Maybe it was the memory of my mother listing among a woman’s sins the attitude, “she certainly thinks highly of herself.”

That evening, bolstered by two substantial glasses of Merlot, I finally called Dr. Zook. She explained that books are nominated by publishers, literary groups, libraries, and other independent sources — self-nominations are not accepted. No list of nominees is released. The choices are narrowed down to eight or fewer books, which the OPD judges then compare individually before voting.

She told me about the history of the award.

Back in 1938, the State of Ohio set the third Friday of every October as Ohio Poetry Day. This was the first poetry day established by a state government in the United States, thanks to Tessa Sweazy Webb who spent thirteen months lobbying the Ohio General Assembly. She argued, ‘For each living reader a living poet, for each living poet a living reader.’

And Dr. Zook told me about her years handling the details of Ohio Poetry Day and its publications, all proudly done without email or internet. She said the annual OPD event takes place the weekend of October 18-19th at the Troy Hayner Cultural Center in Troy, Ohio with workshops, readings, and all OPD awards.  (She mentioned Mary Oliver was Ohio Poet of the Year in 1980!)

All this to say, I was indeed voted Ohio Poet of the Year on the strength of my newest collection, Blackbird

My impostor syndrome is now in full flare. Vast appreciation for Tessa Sweazy Webb, Ohio Poetry Day board and judges, and my wonderful publisher at Grayson Books, Ginny Connors. Also, vast shock at finding myself in any category that includes luminaries such as these recent Ohio Poet of the Year winners: Susan Glassmeyer, Kathy Fagan, and Maggie Smith. Sometimes good news IS real.

Pinch me when you see me.

“Poetry is more a threshold than a path.” Seamus Heaney

 

 

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.