Waking the Spirit

Waking the Spirit, Andrew Schulman

“Music is the universal language of mankind.”  ~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Andrew Schulman was born so ugly that his grandmother refused to believe he belonged to their family. She insisted the hospital investigate to make sure there wasn’t a baby mix-up.  Many years later, his cousin Miriam told him the nurses felt sorry for that disputed lone baby in the nursery, so they held him and sang to him all day. “Show tunes,” she said. “I heard them when I was there. It was so lovely.”

He writes in his new book, Waking the Spirit, “I like to think that my brain was wired in the nursery by the healing power of music.”

Andrew grew up to become a successful musician. He plays Carnegie Hall, the White House, and throughout Europe. He has three CD’s, an active performance schedule, and an enjoyable life with his wife in NYC.  His life, however, changed when he went in for surgery.

The operation was a success but on the way to recovery he suffered a rare reaction and was clinically dead by the time they rushed his gurney out of the elevator. Although they managed to resuscitate him in surgical intensive care, they couldn’t stabilize him. Doctors put him in a medically induced coma for several days, but his organs began to fail. He was not expected to live. His wife, desperate, asked permission to play music for him. His favorite piece, Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion” popped up on his iPod. After a half hour, still apparently unresponsive, his vital signs began to stabilize. Confounding doctors, he recovered quickly over the next few days.

As Oliver Sacks once said, “Nothing activates the brain so extensively as music.” Andrew explains in his book, “Music reaches neural networks, including some of the most primary…. such as the brain stem, the cerebellum, and the amygdala. Music then initiates brain stem responses that, in turn, regulate heart rate, pulse, blood pressure, body temperature, and muscle tension…. ”

We know that music chosen by parents and performed for premature babies for a few minutes at a time helps to calm them, resulting in longer quiet-alert states and easing pain.  Music sung by parents has a beneficial effect throughout infancy. Babies respond to music, even regular drumbeats, with increased smiling. In fact research shows that babies correlate their movements with the tempo and rhythm. They dance! And music gets a much greater response than spoken words. No wonder adults all over the world naturally engage babies in a sort of singsong-like call and response. We’re translating our language into one that is more evocative to mind and body.

Music makes a difference at the other end of life too. Studies of music in hospice care show  it can reduce anxiety, pain, and fatigue while enhancing mood, energy, and sense of spiritual comfort.

After Andrew fully recovered he made his way back to the same surgical intensive care ward at the same hospital. This time as a musician. Three times a week, every week, he enters the SICU, walks through the ward guided by intuition as much as beeping monitors, then sits at a bedside and begins to play.

People on this ward are very ill. They’re likely in pain and afraid. They may be in and out of consciousness, even comatose as he was. He plays all sorts of music for them, happy to honor requests by patients, family members, and staff. But he’s found music by certain composers has the greatest healing effect — Bach, Gershwin, the Beatles, along with Franz Schubert’s “Ständchen” and, strangely enough, “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Freddy Mercury.

In his experience, Bach’s music is the gold standard.  It almost magically seems to increase alertness, reduce pain, and stabilize vital signs. Neuromusicologist Arthur W. Harvey agrees. Andrew quotes Dr. Harvey, “Of all the music we tested in medical school with patients, colleagues, and others, Bach’s music consistently made the brain work in a balanced way better than any other genre.”

Dr. Harvey and students studied the effect of music on the body using brain scans, focusing on seven genres: chant, Baroque, classical, gospel, new age, jazz, and folk. After two years they concluded Baroque era music most effectively “…stabilized the different rhythms of the body and mind — mental, physical, and emotional — which allowed for greater concentration and focus. Bach’s music consistently showed the best results in this regard.”

Andrew tries to unlock what it is about Bach.  “…Bach’s music utilizes both chordal music (music characterized by harmony) and contrapuntal textures (the interweaving melodies) somewhat equally, which provides for music processing in both left and right hemispheres of the human brain. A descriptive characteristic of his music and music of his time is the significance of balance… You hear sounds that are soft and loud, high and low, short and long. Rhythms that are slow and fast, simple and complex. Melodies and harmonies that have enormous stylistic variety.”  Such music stimulates brain functions without overload.

Andrew goes on to note that healing music often comes from composers who themselves suffered from depression and other forms of mental illness. Perhaps despair transmuted into beauty more profoundly eases other people’s suffering.

I can’t help but consider all that troubles our beautiful world. When music helps to lift the individual mind from unconsciousness to consciousness, surely music helps to lift our collective awareness as well.

After all, music is used to lull small ones to sleep, rouse teams to victory, woo lovers, deepen worship, commemorate solemn occasions, and celebrate joy. Throughout history, music has been a traditional way  to bring peace and justice. Through music we more fully grasp that all of us feel grief, love, fear, injustice, delight, and moments of transcendence. Let’s play one another into a more loving world.

“This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” ~Leonard Bernstein

The Queen’s Gift

beginning beekeeping

This is a throwback post, first published in the winter 2009 edition of Farming Magazine. 

It’s human nature to look for signs. Easy success appears to be a portent of even better things to come. Too much bad luck seems to tell us to change direction. Give up. Run away.

My husband, Mark, and I have had plenty of practice warding off naysayers who think we’re foolhardy to hang on to our small farm. A few years ago Mark’s neck was broken in a car accident and he’s still dealing with some chronic health problems. Then we lost our home business and were left with heavy debt.  After that, Mark was downsized from several jobs due to the floundering economy.

Although bills mount as we repair ancient tractors and pay vet bills, living here keeps our spirits up. Tending the land with our four children bonds our family together in ways we couldn’t have imagined before we moved here. Baling hay, stacking firewood, learning about animal husbandry —these are living memories for us all. And the beauty of living closer to nature provides spiritual depth beyond measure.

We enjoy simple pleasures,  all the while hoping the next farm venture will turn our fortunes around. Our newest project has been beekeeping.

Mark, and our 13-year-old, Sam, took beekeeping classes last winter.  After each session they came home excited about the intricate world of these insects.  Mark and the kids built hives together. I copied poems on the wooden boxes. We read about the science, mythology, and practical keeping of bees.

On the first warm day of spring we chose a clearing near wild blackberry bushes and clover-filled pastures to set the hives.  We hauled them there under the inquiring gaze of our cows. I couldn’t help think of our land as one flowing with milk and honey.

The project became expensive as costs for equipment and the price of bees exceeded our estimates. The week before the bees were due to arrive both our vehicles broke down.  A dozen chickens were killed by a marauding dog. The bridge over our creek washed out in a storm. The omens didn’t seem promising.

Finally boxes teeming with thousands of insects arrived. Prepared as any novices could be, we walked out back carrying these humming packages over the creek, past chickens and cows, blessed by blue skies.

There’s a careful procedure to follow when ‘hiving’ bees. Each queen, along with a few insect attendants, is enclosed in a tiny lightweight wooden box called a queen chamber. This is sealed two ways. Inside there’s an edible barrier called a candy plug and outside of that is a cork.  The beekeeper pulls the cork, puts the whole queen chamber into the new hive, shakes the bees loose around the queen chamber, then puts the hive lid on.  The bees become acquainted with the queen’s pheromones and accept her as their own.  In a few days’ time the attendants have eaten through the candy plug and the queen is loose in the hive but at home enough to stay.

There we were, ready at our lovingly constructed new beehives. We started on the first hive. Mark followed the procedure— easing out the cork plug on the queen chamber as planned and lowering it into the hive.

Without warning, the queen flew out.

Apparently the wooden chamber wasn’t sealed with a candy plug. Now we had several thousand bees for that hive but no queen. After months of preparation, our sparse funds pulled together for this project, our very first hiving had failed. Mark, Sam and I stood in silent disbelief.

Then we realized we could see the queen circling around us, a dot against the bright spring sun.  I talked aloud to her, saying we needed her to stay near her new home. Sam tried to gently trap her in some spare netting. All to no avail. What’s the chance an insect will do what we want her to? Characteristically, Mark started working on another hive, focusing on what needed to be done next.

Right then, unbelievably, the queen landed next to Mark’s hand. And there she stayed, offering her presence like a gift. He reached out and covered her with his other hand as if it were the most natural thing in the world.  I put the wooden chamber near his fingers and improbably the queen crawled back into the tiny opening. He placed the chamber in the hive, then Sam shook in the bees and closed the lid. All of us felt goodness and mercy descend on us in that clearing.

Later Mark asked several apiary experts about the likelihood of new beekeepers recapturing an escaped queen.  They all said there was no chance at all.  But we know better.  Hope is always within reach, even when you least expect it. On our farm we savor that sweetness every day.

This article is old, but we’re still here and it’s still sweet. 

Beauty. Danger. Confusion.

Look where you're going.

One of my favorite ways to start the day is an hour-long walk with my friend Christie. We meet up a little after sunrise. It is quiet then, just birdsong and our conversation. We may start out discussing work or family but tend to veer off in all sorts of directions, typically on to the Deeper Meaning of things. Okay, we talk about aging too. We’re both in our 50’s and more than a tad annoyed at various body systems that aren’t in great operating order. We usually manage to verbally rummage around until we find a jot of wisdom we can gain from these problems.

A few weeks ago on a misty morning, we were walking and talking full tilt when I suddenly spotted something ahead of us. I gasped. I flung my arm out to stop Christie. I suspect we came to such an abrupt halt that we both wavered like cartoon characters.

“A buck!” I whispered.

There, beyond a rise in the road, was a huge deer. Christie and I looked at it for what may have been a full minute. She saw its white chest. I saw its upright posture, unmoving and alert. We both wondered if it would even be safe to continue in that direction.

That is, until we simultaneously realized we were not looking at a magnificent animal. There was no deer in the road. There never had been a deer in the road. What we were looking at was a mailbox.

Yes, we laughed ourselves silly. One more step and the dark silhouette ahead easily resolved into the outline of a simple roadside mailbox. We laughed some more.

Normally I’d go on to write about some insight I gained from this experience. And I’d probably tuck in some piece of research to demonstrate how easily we humans believe what isn’t verified. But I’m not going to pretend for a moment that I gained even a molecule of wisdom. That’s because my most recent walk with Christie took place on a similarly foggy morning. We approached the same rise in the road. And just for a moment, I gasped aloud again when I spotted the same buck-impersonating-mailbox.

Clearly I have no insight to share. Just a warning if you might ever find yourself taking a walk with me. My delusions are so contagious that Christie gasped that second time too.

Little Suns Everywhere

Let’s Turn Off the Porch Light

 

Dappled brown moths

wooly as Grammy’s needlepoint

whirl around the bulb,

winged pilgrims desperate

for union with the Holy.

 

Little suns everywhere

lure us to the surface of things

where we burn for lack of shadows,

mistaking the blaze of want

for a larger love.

Laura Grace Weldon

Originally published in Shot Glass Journal.  Find more poems in my collection, Tending.

Born to Love Music

music in uteroAll around the world, mothers gently murmur some version of “hush, hush,” or “shhhh, shhhh” to crying newborns. It’s said this calms babies because it mimics the sound they heard in utero — her heartbeat.

Babies actually hear a whole symphony of sound before they’re born.  Physicist Robert Chuckrow describes what makes up this orchestra in a paper he wrote back in the 1960’s, titled “Music: A Synthesis of Prenatal Stimuli.

Walking: As a pregnant woman walks or climbs stairs, Dr. Chuckrow writes, her steps send “a thud-like vibration through her body, similar in sound and periodicity to that of the beat of a drum. ”

Breathing: Each inhale and exhale, according to Dr. Chuckrow, makes a “…recurring sound rich in high frequencies and is similar to the sound of cymbals in music. In popular music especially, the sound of cymbals ‘crashing’ is very suggestive of the sound of the pregnant mother breathing.”

Heartbeat.  Complex patterns are formed by varying rates of two heartbeats. A mother’s heart rate changes depending on her activity level and emotions, usually ranging somewhere between 60 and 100 beats per minute. In contrast, her baby’s heart rate fluctuates between 120 to 160 beats per minute, making for an ongoing jazz-like improvisation.

Speech: A mother’s conversations are another acoustic pattern. Research shows newborns not only recognize their mother’s voices, they also show a preference for sounds from the language their mother speaks.

Other input: A fetus is surrounded by the internal hubbub of its mother chewing, swallowing, and the rest of the digestive processes. Her laughing, crying, coughing, yawning, sneezing, and scratching are also part of its moment-to-moment soundtrack. Add to that sounds heard from outside her body — whoosh of a shower, vibration from riding on a bus, clatter in a restaurant, drama of a movie she’s watching.

These aren’t just sounds. They come into the baby’s awareness accompanied by fluctuations in movement, pressure, and chemical signals. Sound pairs with sensation, over and over, throughout the pregnancy.  It is the earliest form of meaning, long before words make sense.

Take, for example, the effect when a mother experiences stress (even positive emotion). Her heart rate goes up while her baby’s heart rate doesn’t immediately increase. Instead, the uptick of her heartbeat would  “…produce in the fetus a state that is the prenatal analog of emotional tension.”  Dr. Chuckrow likens this to the way music creates emotional tension, especially when an “…increase in tempo or changes in rhythm produce such tension in the listener, and the rhythmic effect is increased by an increase in dynamic intensity.”

Or another example; the unborn baby’s experience of its mother’s laughter. As she laughs, her abdominal muscles contract around the uterus. Her larynx closes somewhat, making air intake irregular. And the noises she makes range from low giggles to shrieking cries.  Dr. Chuckrow writes, “For the mother, laughter would be accompanied by an exultant state and changes in her heart rate, breathing, and blood concentrations of oxygen and hormones. These changes would be expected to affect the fetus. The associated patterns involve a climactic change of acoustic, tactile, and chemical stimuli associated with a state of maternal well-being.”

Maybe these truly formative responses help to explain why music enters a place in us that’s deeper than words, beyond the limitations of thought. We’re shaped by an essential mother-specific melody.

“Many say that life entered the human body by the help of music, but the truth is that life itself is music.”  ~Hafiz

 

 

Proverbs: Twitter-Sized Bites of Wisdom

 

Do a good deed and throw it into the sea. – Egyptian proverb“Do a good deed and throw it into the sea.” – Egyptian

“The death of an elder is like a burning library.” Ivorian

“A book is like a garden carried in the pocket.” Arabic

“A thief believes everybody steals.” unknown origin

“A clear conscience is a soft pillow.”  German

“A lie travels round the world while truth is putting her boots on.” French

“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” Greek

“The big thieves hang the little ones.” Czech

“What you see in yourself is what you see in the world.” Afghan

“If you sit in a hot bath, you think the whole town is warm.”  Yiddish

“Keep a green tree in your heart and perhaps a singing bird will come.” Chinese

“What you give you get, ten times over.” Yoruban

“Sometimes I go about pitying myself, and all the time I am being carried on great wings across the sky.” Ojibway

 

A long-forgotten adage can rise into our awareness at an opportune moment and we hear it as if for the first time. Please share sayings that have stuck with you in the comments.

 

What Did Your Mother Give You?

what mom gave meWhat our mothers give us is too complicated to fit on a greeting card.  It’s too essential to fit into a perfunctory holiday one day out of the year.

Your mom is unlike anyone else’s (even your siblings’ experience of the same mom).  And what she gave you has a great deal to do with what you have accepted as a gift.

I asked a few friends to share a glimpse of what they got from their mothers. I’m eager to read your stories in the comment section.

Susan:

I am strong and determined, as was my mother and my mother’s mother. All three of us were the first-born and blessed with considerable energy.  I once stumbled upon my 76-year-old grandmother on scaffolding as she painted the exterior of her house.  My mother worked day and night to paint murals in her grandchild’s bedroom, determined to finish before she drove three hours back to Cleveland late into the night.  I also throw myself into projects with great energy, and I believe that one day I will have something lasting to show for all of the effort as it is in my blood.

Damien:

Brains, toughness, and no tolerance for excuses. She’s a single mom still raising my two younger brothers and a superhero as far as I’m concerned.

Laurie Kincer: 

The assurance that, whatever the issue, there was always one person on my side

Leo:
Her drug problems and lockup blistered what time I might have had with her.  Now I see the fire she was putting out all the while. She kept me from burning in it by leaving me with her sister. Her gifts to me are staying clean seven years now and being one hell of a fun 53-year-old grandma to my kids.

Ginny Douglas:

My Mom turns 96 in a couple of weeks. Here’s something of what I’ve learned from her – so far.

Trust God. Things will get better, or they won’t. Either way, trust God.

Tithe; in other words, give away 10% of your income to church and/or charities.

 The way to get through today, is to do what worked yesterday. Get up, get dressed, say a prayer, eat breakfast; assume you can do what you did yesterday unless there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Of course, she also passed along her excessive fear of thunderstorms and tornadoes. But even at that, all of the above still applies.
Now with her failing memory and frustrating limitations, Mom is showing me how to age with grace.  I’m grateful we still have her with us.

A love of talking: to her babies, to her children, to every stranger in the grocery store. My New England husband is just amazed at this in me. (Not in a good way, when we are in Maine.)

A love of her family’s stories and songs: her grandparents’, her parents’, her children’s and grandchildren’s. Welsh folk sayings, train engineer tunes and lullabies. I know them all.

A love of preparing a simple meal with great joy. Her last journal records making macaroni and cheese and setting out flowers to go with it. Me too. We sit down together for every meal.

A love of taking in the stranger. She didn’t love to travel so much, but every missionary visiting our church and many foreign doctors at the hospital ended up at our table. She was raised in a neighborhood of immigrants– mostly Eastern European– and from the age of 10, helped them learn English and study for the citizenship test, then remembered all their stories and songs and passed those and the love of immigrants on to me. She would be so sad at the immigrant conversation plaguing our country just now. It makes me want to weep.

She hated injustice, prejudice, and the Republican party (though many of her friends were Republican). She loved, loved, loved unions, social organizations, and the Democratic party. I have to say, she handed all those down to me, too. And she got them all from her mother, who was once challenged by a son-in-law, “Mom, if Jesus Christ were running as a Republican, you’d still vote Democrat,” to which she replied, “Why would Jesus change parties now?”

 Bill Boomer:
Here is a thought communicated often to us  from my mom (Clementine – everyone called her Clem ). “The Bible  says you have to love your neighbor. It doesn’t say you have to like them!  Some  people are  just not like-able. Treat ’em with respect but keep them at a distance.”
Wise mom!  And that’s the way she acted too!
 Leslie Boomer:
An appreciation of home gardening and the joy it  brings into our lives. From early spring blooms to the changing beauty of the flowers and vines we plant in the spring and appreciate all summer –  I share this love of life-giving planting and tending. It’s one of life’s little pleasures to walk slowly and look at what’s growing with my Mom.
Jason:
A passion for reading. She read aloud to us in the strangest places when we were little, like on the bus and while we were taking baths. Her favorite books always leaned towards horror like Christopher Pike and Stephen King. She didn’t know I had so many bad dreams because I’d stay up late reading her books after she’d finished them.
 Beth Whitson:

Love of family.  She would do anything for her children or her grandchildren.  Anything. Every sacrifice was worth it to her.  I can remember something as silly as maybe something we had for dinner.  My dad would get the choice piece, then it was split up between us kids.  IF there was anything left she got it and if we said anything, she’d say she wasn’t all that hungry.  I feel like I do the same thing.  And the funny thing I learned is that it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice at all.  It just “is.”

Hard work and doing a job to the best of your ability.  My mom didn’t believe in doing a job halfway.  You put your heart and soul into it. When you were done, you could be proud of it, even if no one else noticed.  I may not do some things as good as professionals, but I’ve learned to do my very best, even in the little things.

And my mom taught me never, ever, EVER to use her good fabric scissors on anything but fabric!  If I did, I somehow ruined the scissors for eternity and I also learned that I would hear about it that long as well.

My mom, who had a high school education but was second in her class, was very smart although completely untrained psychologically. She anticipated the 50 years of research on positive psychology and was always saying to me when I would talk myself down, Honey you have to gear your thinking.

I’m not even sure what that meant because gear isn’t really a verb but she said it with such conviction that I was totally persuaded. And of course the gist was what you’re telling yourself is not going to get you where you want to go so pick another frame for this event, tell yourself a different thing. In other words gear your thinking and you have a better chance of coming through this in a growth-full way. Since she became a single parent in 1955, supported me, and got me through Catholic high school and college on a secretary’s salary I’m guessing she had a lot of practice at gearing her thinking. Probably part of the force behind it was I knew she was walking the talk.

That phrase became kind of an in-joke with my own children who also needed that advice, as we all do from time to time, but I chose not to put it in any more sophisticated language because hers was so powerful and we still all say it to each other half-laughing/half-serious to this very day. And I’m sure we’re all still trying to practice it.

 

 Mateo:
My mom sang in clubs when I was growing up.  In the mornings she was tired and her hair smelled like cigarette smoke. After a long night of singing covers she sang whatever she liked at home, mostly traditional Mexican songs and her own music. She made sure I took lessons and stayed in school music programs. She used to say she’d be singing till her last day. That turned out to be true. Every time I think of her, I hear her singing in my mind.
 Lori Scelina:

I’ve always felt that I have an amazing mom.  She always seemed tireless and always had time for us.  My goal has always been to try and just come close to the example she set.

One thing I got from her is my love of all things Christmas.  She always made the season so special, starting the day after Thanksgiving when we would brave the crowds and shop with my aunt and cousins to the traditional family cookie baking, to the beautiful huge Christmas tree that we would all decorate together.

When my two kids were young she would take off work every Wednesday in the summer.  We called them “Grandma’s Days” and we would go on adventures.  Some days we would start at 10 in the morning and not get home until 10 or 11 at night.  It was exhausting but fun.  I had trouble keeping up with her!

When my mother was in the ICU, shortly before she died, she told me she learned a lot about being a mom by watching me with my kids.  She had been comatose, and I had been there daily My kids were six  and nine, and I didn’t know where I should be: I was a mom, a daughter, a wife, a sister. She woke up, looked at me, and said, “Go home, with my blessing.”
Gifts come in all kinds of packages, and only some of them are tied with a ribbon and a bow.​
 Laura Grace Weldon:
I knew that my mother cared about my perspective even if she disagreed with me, because she always listened. When I attempted comic impersonations of my teachers she laughed. When I disputed her edicts she gave credence to my protests. And when I listened back she often surprised me. Yes, she gave me her straight hair, weak knees, and fear of heights. She also gave my voice a reason to exist.
What did your mother give you?

Coyote Voices

coyote poem

Feral

 

Moonlight leaks through the curtains.

I lie awake, listen to coyote songs

circle and connect, stitching together

the night’s raw edges.

 

Each time I hear their howls

my bone marrow sings.

What’s muzzled in me lifts.

I seem silent and still,

yet my pulse races through the trees.

Laura Grace Weldon

 

Originally written for the Peace Postcard Project, published in Shot Glass Journal.  Find more poems in my collection, Tending.

 

Play Hints At Who We Are

 

play reveals who we are

“In our play we reveal what kind of people we are.” ~Ovid

What is play? It has nothing to do with structure imposed by adults. Psychiatrist Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, describes play as most basically “purposeless, repetitive, pleasurable, spontaneous actions.” Sometimes this is driven by curiosity and the urge to discover. Sometimes it is imaginative play. Sometimes it’s  rough and tumble play, the kind that necessarily puts the player at risk and involves anti-gravity moves such as jumping. This description is true whether we’re talking about puppies, otters, crows, or people.

The “higher” a species ranks in intelligence, the more they play.

A research team led by ethologists Robert and Johanna Fagan spent 15 years, many of them sitting in trees, studying how bears play in the wild. Of the bears they observed, the individuals that played more often as cubs and through adulthood lived longer and healthier lives. They also left behind more offspring.

A study of ground squirrels found those that played were more coordinated (a big deal for squirrels) and grew up to be more successful parents.

And we know a lot about the importance of play for rats. They even laugh (a rat version of laughter) when tickled.  Compelling research shows the more young rats actively played, the more rapidly their brains grew and their learning abilities increased. (The same correlations seem to be true for children’s play as well.)

Young creatures, including humans, play  has to do with movement and excitement. It’s a highly sensory way to experience socially important peaks and lows, winning and losing, threat and relief from threat. It helps participants learn to understand the intentions of others. It also lets them learn to handle stressors and practice different reactions,  gradually teaching them through experience to respond appropriately when they face much more demanding emotional and physical challenges later in life.

This is helpful to remember when kids are wrestling, climbing, chasing, running, giggling, tumbling, and making a mess. It’s even more helpful to remember when they’re arguing, grabbing, yelling, complaining, shrieking, and otherwise demonstrating that melodrama is inseparable from play. All of that physical and emotional energy is important practice for becoming reasonable, responsible adults.

why kids play fight

Play can also tell us a great deal about what’s forefront in children’s lives.

When my oldest child started kindergarten his play reflected the more authoritarian structure he was adjusting to and interactions with the different people he encountered each morning. He balanced that by seeking out more time in the garage hammering nails into scrap wood, more time riding his bike, and more time playing Legos than before he’d started school —- all reassuringly favorite activities to discharge the day’s emotions. And he and his best friend Sara started playing “school bus.” They sat in chairs or on the ground behind each other while acting out what they observed on their daily bus rides. They took turns quite politely repeating some pretty awful slurs they heard from kids on the bus, and then repeating back the driver’s rather belligerent responses. Their play not only helped them work through their experiences, it helped us alert the school to what was happening.

Play can also inform us about temperament, innate abilities, and about where different individuals find joy.   Here are two examples, taken from Free Range Learning of children expressing who they are through play.

A little girl creates chaos with her toys. She won’t put blocks away with other blocks nor put socks in her dresser drawer. As a preschooler she creates groupings that go together with logic only she understands. One such collection is made up of red blocks, a striped sock, spoons, and marbles. She sings to herself while she rearranges these items over and over. The girl is punished when she refuses to put her puzzles away in the correct box or her tea set dishes back together. She continues making and playing with these strangely ordered sets but hides them to avoid getting in trouble. This phase passes when she is about nine years old. Now an adult, she is conducting post-doctoral studies relating to string theory. She explains her work as a physicist has to do with finding common equations among disparate natural forces.

A young boy’s high energy frustrates his parents. As a preschooler he climbs on furniture and curtain rods, even repeatedly tries to scale the kitchen cabinets. When he becomes a preteen he breaks his collarbone skateboarding. He is caught shoplifting at 13. His parents are frightened when he says he “only feels alive on the edge.” Around the age of 15 he becomes fascinated with rock-climbing. His fellow climbers, mostly in their 20’s, also love the adrenaline rush that comes from adventure sports but help him gain perspective about his responsibility to himself and other climbers. His ability to focus on the cliff face boosts his confidence on the ground. At 19 he is already certified as a mountain search and rescue volunteer. He is thinking of going to school to become an emergency medical technician.

Stuart Brown says that looking back at our own unique “play history” can tell us a great deal about ourselves. He asks us to let ourselves drift back to our earliest and most resonant play memories. He suggests asking older family members about what we played when we were very young.  He goes on to say,

Explore backwards as far as you can go to the most clear, joyful, playful image that you have whether it’s with a toy, on a birthday, or on a vacation. And begin to build to build from the emotion of that into how that connects with your life now. ..

How to rediscover play if you’ve let it slide? Move your body. Dig up your memories of what brought you pleasure as a child. Take cues from “the experts” — the children in your life today. Do what makes you happy, and what transports you beyond a sense of the clock, your schedule, that deadline — beyond time.

As my dear friend and mentor Bernie DeKoven reminds us,

Playfulness is a practice that shapes our souls. It connects us. It is an act of belief in ourselves, a vehicle whose wheels are powered by our faith in life, bringing us to places of wonder, moments of joy. It is almost the last thing to leave us before we leave all together forever.

Flapping My Wings

body awareness when recovering

“Wing” by Skia

Some mornings when I get up, I walk to the front door to let the dogs out while flapping my wings.  I waft them up and down as if they’re moving me through thermals high in the air, then when I get to the hall I pull them in and flap a bit more fervently as if my bird-self is flying through a narrow pass. By the time I open the door for the dogs I’m just a regular frowsy-haired morning person staring out at the dawn. My wings are arms again.

I act pretty normal most of the time, although I do have moments. I sing made-up songs, balance silly things on my head, quietly misbehave to keep myself amused in restaurants, laugh at the inopportune times, and am chronically too curious for my own good. I’m not sure this qualifies me as officially eccentric but it has been known to tax the patience of people who love me.

My family hasn’t bothered to ask me why, in the privacy of our home, my arms occasionally turn into wings. I haven’t wondered why either until I thought about it this morning while in that Realm of Insight, the shower.

Two thoughts occurred to me. One is a faint memory of an adult telling me to put my arms down and behave myself.  I recall this as happening in a cinder block room that smelled faintly musty, so probably Sunday school. I may have been happily twirling in my Sunday dress with my arms up like a ballerina or been a fairy sprinkling magic dust or been, as now, a bird. I’m guessing I was probably four or five years old since the adult in this memory is visible only as legs and hips. That memory is colored by vast shame. (I must have been a ridiculously sensitive child.) A thousand similar reminders to be a good girl left me with my arms down, flying nowhere. I can assure you, that’s no fun. I’m still in recovery from excessive politeness. I’m progressing well, thank you.

The other thought is how darn good it feels to move this way. My arms and hands move, of course. They reach upper kitchen shelves, lift eggs from nest boxes, greedily stack up library books, hug dear people —- but much of the day my arms and hands are in pretty static positions typing or reading or driving. Basic body boredom. Biomechanist Katy Bowman, author of Move Your DNA, says our bodies crave natural movement. Instead of regimented exercise, she advocates moving throughout the day in lively ways that feel nourishing to us. She calls this nutritious movement. Try flapping your arms like wings. Does it feels wonderful to you too?

Our bodies are internal guidance systems with immeasurable storehouses of wisdom to share with us, as long as we actually take the time to pay attention. I understood my baby’s world better when I let his movements choreograph my own. Mirroring my children’s actions took me back to what it was like to be a child.  I even got some surprising insight into my own poor posture when I gave myself a few minutes to go fully into a slumped position, ready to find out what that slump had to tell me.

Maybe bodies are on my mind because I’ve had a bit of a health setback and spent a few days in the hospital recently. I still feel like someone hit me with a shovel, although thankfully now it doesn’t feel like as big a hit with as large a shovel as it did before.

We may think we’ve already learned the lessons difficult times have to teach, but there’s always more to learn. Here are some lessons I’ve revisited lately:

  • The bright light of gratitude has a way of shining fear away (even in the terrifying confines of a closed MRI) and it’s possible to be grateful for the dark stuff too.
  • It always helps to pay attention to where in our bodies we feel good —  right now for me it feels marvelous to breathe deeply, to stretch, to laugh, to sleep.
  • What feels healing is different for different people. For me it’s time in nature, hugs, time to create, stories other people share, good books, new ideas, playfulness, and more hugs. (Pretty much the same joys I’d list any time.)
  • When our arms want to be wings, let them be wings.