Mathematical Improbabilities

 

Welcome

 

Eyes, fingertips, tongues

form one from two.

Yield three.

 

You.

 

Snowflake fingerprints,

tiny palms creased with foreknowledge,

DNA whirling proteins

into the plot of a new story.

 

Despite vast mathematical improbabilities

here you are.

Your mother’s hundred thousand eggs

your father’s five trillion sperm,

a one-in-five-hundred-million-million-million

chance of your existence.

 

Our gladness is incalculable.

 

Laura Grace Weldon

 

Find more poetry in my collection, Tending. 

The Cage of Habituation

not seeing life's wonders

The first time you saw a butterfly you were probably only a year old—still rather new to the planet. You were undoubtedly astonished. This fluttering petal of color didn’t conform to categories you were beginning to understand like “bird” or “bug.”  Your brain and body were surely enchanted.

Science tells us awe expands our perception of time.  Perhaps our early years take up so much more space in our memories because of all those firsts — jumping in a puddle, leaping from a diving board, riding a bike, driving a car, falling in love.

This has to do with habituation. The term simply means we respond very little or not at all to what we become accustomed to. For example, if you move to an apartment near an airport you’ll notice the loud, intrusive sound as each plane passes over. Eventually you’ll habituate and barely notice, if at all. We habituate to minor annoyances like noise pollution (although it can still affect our health). We also habituate to far more serious problems  — unhappy relationships, difficult working conditions, fractious politics.

Our minds habituate in order to make things easy for us. Heck, we can read right through misspellings because we’ve gotten accustomed to letter groupings that form words.

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae.

Our eyes march through such sentences and our brains make sense of them, even if they’re nonsense.

Habituation is also what drains clichés of meaning. When phrases like “out of the box”  or”caught red-handed” were first uttered they were ingenious, but repetition means we’re so inured that don’t pause for a moment to consider boxes or red hands.

Our brains gloss over what’s commonplace to such an extent that we’re not really looking as we walk through our homes or offices, not thinking as we open a drawer to take out a spoon, barely aware of the route as we drive the same streets to the same stores.

Patterned behaviors ease our progress through the day. But they make our lives so automatic that they don’t feel lived, either. Sipping coffee after 4,000 cups isn’t the same as sipping it the first few times. Tucking your child into bed becomes routine as putting on your shoes. The more familiar an experience is, the less fully we experience it. That’s true of ice cream, friendships, changing seasons, and marriages. The marvel of a single leaf that feeds on sunlight, breathing out what we need to breathe in, rarely registers as more than an object making up the word “tree.”

We have to allow our minds to habituate, at least much of the time. If we didn’t, if we truly perceived the wonders around us, we’d fall to our knees in astonishment every moment.

But let’s enjoy as much awe-drenched living as we can.  To that end, here are two quick suggestions to get past habituation, when we choose.

The first is developing a gratitude practice. Pause several times a day, breathe in deeply and exhale fully, then let yourself appreciate something right there in the moment. The chewy texture of the bagel you’re eating, the excited chatter of children tussling over a toy, the bliss of a headache gone, the relief of enough money to pay your utility bills, the lovely relaxed feeling of a yawn.  As John Milton wrote,  “Gratitude bestows reverence, allowing us to encounter everyday epiphanies, those transcendent moments of awe that change forever how we experience life and the world. ”

The second is noticing moments of wonder. Many of us happen upon moments of wonderment in nature. (Nature isn’t somewhere else, it’s everywhere around us.) But the experience of awe isn’t limited to the natural world. It’s wherever you find it —the riff of a hilarious conversation, skiing on unbroken snow, opening to a spiritual insight, collaborating closely with a team, listening to music that transports you, reading an extraordinary writer’s work, coming across unexpected beauty. Part of this has to do with simply paying attention, but also to leaving more room in our lives for awe-inspiring experiences.

Let’s be as alive to our moments as we can. That way every butterfly still seems new.

 

 

The Language We Speak Shapes Us

interesting words in other languages

When I was in elementary school, my cool cousin Arlene attended high school in Germany as a foreign exchange student. The whole concept of leaving one’s home and one’s language was inconceivable to an anxious little kid like me. Arlene’s coolness factor instantly became far vaster.

I saw her when she came home that summer. It was one of those extended family get-togethers where younger kids eat at separate tables, but I did my best to stare at her from afar. It was obvious to me her time in Europe had already made her more sophisticated than our not-well-traveled adult relatives. I’d always wanted to be like her (and like her older sister Laura and our second cousin Linda) but that jig was up. I could never hope to be as confident and poised as she was after her time abroad. I listened carefully when she answered a question about polishing her language skills. I’ve never forgotten what she said.

“You know you’ve got it when you start to dream in another language.”

To speak another language seemed amazing . To dream in it was, to me, unimaginable.

Our thoughts, or at least our perspectives, may very well be shaped by the language(s) we speak. The structure of language matters because of the way it categorizes and labels —shaping our view of reality.

One recent study looked at people who spoke both German and English, as well as those who spoke only one of those languages. Research subjects were shown video clips of people walking towards their cars, cycling towards stores, and so on. Because of the way the separate languages work, German monolingual speakers tended to describe the entirety of the scene, including the person’s action as well as their apparent goal. English monolingual speakers tended to describe only the person’s actions. When it came to people fluent in both languages, Germans who spoke English were goal-focused when tested in their home countries unless they were primed to speak and think in English, in which case they were action-focused. And English speakers who spoke German were more action-focused unless they were primed to speak and think in German, in which case they were more goal-focused. So the language they were using to both think and speak affected they way they described a scene. Okay, maybe that’s just semantics.

But there are enormous benefits to thinking in another language. For example, people who are bilingual appear to make better choices when they think them through in a non-native language. Researcher Boaz Keysar who studies decision bias, writes,  “A foreign language provides a distancing mechanism that moves people from the immediate intuitive system to a more deliberate mode of thinking.”

And there are drawbacks. The language we speak may affect how we think about and see other people. Even people of our own ethnicityResearch shows that Israeli Arabs who speak both Arabic and Hebrew show weaker positive associations with common Arabic names when tested in the Hebrew language. This research says a great deal about culture as well as language.

Our words come not only from our mouths, they come from our worldview. In the Mohawk language, for example, the individual doesn’t stand alone but is in spoken of in relationship to a larger whole.  While in English we’d say “to bury,” in Mohawk it is said as “to wrap his body with the blanket of our Mother Earth.” And when one is ill, it’s not said, “I am sick” but instead, “the sickness has come to me.”

I am sadly monolingual now that my Spanish lessons from middle school have faded from memory. But I am fascinated by language, especially terms for which there are no equivalents in English. We’ve all experienced ideas too large to explain and feelings inexpressible through mere words. Surely every language contains words that convey something crucial yet untranslatable, concepts that are perfectly clear in one tongue yet come out as awkwardly clumped phrases in other languages. They are unique to the geography and culture, yet globally relevant. Here are a few examples.

The Turkish word huzur literally means “presence” but takes on larger connotations having to do with serenity, particularly the inner peace that comes from living in a routine.

The Indonesian word jayus refers to a joke told so poorly that others cannot help but laugh.

The Irish word leaspáin describes those illusory flickering lights that dance before one’s eyes, caused by exhaustion or a knock on the head.

The  Yup’ik word name Ellam Yua is not only the name for the deity considered “person of the universe” but also has to do with one’s spiritual debt to the nature, an outlook of generosity or grace, and awareness of the soul inherent in all beings and things.

The Italian word commuovere often translates as “heartwarming,” but is typically used to refer to a story that moved you to tears.

The Welsh word hiraeth is translated as “homesickness” but means much more. It implies a sense of belonging to the land itself and, when away, an emptiness that can only be filled by returning to Wales. Even then, it’s a yearning that can’t entirely be met, a wistfulness for something that no longer exists.

The Japanese word tsundoku is leaving a book unread after purchasing it.

The Greek word μεράκι (meraki) means enthusiasm and attention to aesthetic outcome when performing a task, however ordinary.

The Iroquois or Haudenosaunee word ondinnonk can refer to the innermost aspect of one’s nature as well as to a soul wish as expressed in dreams.

The Swedish word gökotta means to wake up early specifically to go outside and hear the first birds sing.

The Thai word nam jai translates literally as ‘water heart,’ and refers to the selfless nature of a person who gives without any expectation of anything in return.

The Korean word hwabyung describes the stress-induced illness of repressed anger, particularly related to unfairness that cannot be addressed.

The Russian word poshlost means what is trashy and vulgar but pretends to be profound or beautiful. To apply the deadly label of poshlism to something is not only an aesthetic judgment but also a moral indictment.

The Italian word vendemmia simply translates to “grape harvest,” but means much more — the sense of community and celebration that comes with the harvest.

The Yiddish word trepverter means a witty retort you think of only when it’s too late to use.

The Tamil word kindal is to praise a person so much that the praise turns into a insult or teasing.

The German word torschlusspanik translates as “gate-closing panic” and is used to describe the fear of diminishing opportunities as one ages.

The Hokkien (Chinese dialect) word lau hong translates as “leaked air” and describes food that’s meant to be crispy or hard, such as crackers, turned soft.

The German word kummerspeck refers to excess weight gained from emotional overeating. Literally, grief bacon.

The Portuguese word saudade refers to an intense, overwhelming longing for something that may never exist, such as an impossibly perfect soulmate.

The Japanese word yūgen names the sense that nature possesses a mysterious beauty that can be seen but not understood.

The Yup’ik term ataucimek umyuarluteng means being of one mind. It refers to the the way people in relationship, whether a couple or a village, flourishes when they function in agreement rather than pushing one’s own purpose ahead of others.

Sex in the Ditty

Steamy songs work.

Researchers tell us that romantic songs nearly double the likelihood that single women will agree to give men their phone numbers.

And music works for those of us in relationships too. Music does a pretty good job of expressing affection, amorous intention, and other feelings that can be screwed up by mere words.

Why?

Obviously we react to music we like and to lyrics that make us feel. Music engages our bodies, often helping us move out of our heads to a more sensory level. It gets to us in ways we aren’t consciously aware of as well. In This Is Your Brain on Music Daniel Levitin describes what happens as we listen. Imaging studies show that activated nerves signal from the auditory system to activate expectation and reward centers in the brain.  In fact the pleasure we take in music causes our dopamine levels to rise, and we all want more of that feel-good neurochemical.

I asked friends to tell me their favorite sexy tunes. We noted there’s a significant crossover with love songs, because adoration is definitely a turn on. And it was surprising how many we had to weed out to eliminate exceedingly creepy, depressing, and misogynistic lyrics.

A more basic question remains. What music sounds sexy to you? Is it the beat, the lyrics, the overall tone? Or does it have more to do with memories you attach to the piece?

Offer your suggestions.

Here are a few of ours. Not in order and not by any means comprehensive.

1. What Kind Of Woman Is This? by Buddy Guy

I heard a blind man screaming, say

There goes a sight for my sore eyes.

2. Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover by Sophie B. Hawkins

I’ll rock you till the daylight comes

Make sure you are smilin’ and warm

3. You Look Like Rain by Morphine

I want to know what you got to say

I can tell you taste like the sky ’cause you look like rain

4. I Just Want To Make Love To You by Muddy Waters

I don’t want you to be true

I just want to make love to you

5. Lay Lady Lay by Bob Dylan

Lay lady lay, lay across my big brass bed.

Stay lady stay, stay with your man awhile.

6. Wicked Game by Chris Isaak

What a wicked thing to do

To let me dream of you

7. Love Me Like A Man by Bonnie Raitt

I want a man to rock me

Like my… backbone was his own

8. I’m Wild About That Thing by Bessie Smith

If you want so satisfy my soul,

Come on and rock me with a steady roll

9. Fade Into You by Mazzy Star

I want to hold the hand inside you

I want to take a breath that’s true

10. In The Midnight Hour by Wilson Pickett

I’m gonna take you girl and hold you

And do all the things I told you

11. Bang A Gong (Get It On) by T. Rex

You dance when you walk so let’s dance, take a chance, understand me

You’re dirty sweet and you’re my girl.

12. Try A Little Tenderness by Otis Redding

But while she’s there waiting

Try just a little bit of tenderness

13. Need You Tonight by INXS

So slide over here, and give me a moment

Your moves are so raw

14. Insatiable by Darren Hayes

The candy sweetness scent of you

It bathes my skin I’m stained by you

15. Dance Me To the End of Love by Leonard Cohen

Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon

Show me slowly what I only know the limits of

16. Fever by Peggy Lee (and every cover ever)

Never know how much I love you, never know how much I care

When you put your arms around me, I get a fever that’s so hard to bear

17. Arms Of A Woman by Amos Lee

Ya, when she wakes me

She takes me back home

18. My One and Only Love by Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane

You fill my eager heart with such desire

Every kiss you give sets my soul on fire

19. You Shook Me by Led Zeppelin

You know you shook me

You shook me all night long

20. Love Me Unique by Michael Franti

Mmmm, exhale

Touch me like the blind read Braille

21. Powerful Stuff by Sean Hayes

Alright now let’s turn it up

Every day do like a flower does

22.  Je T’aime,…Moi Non Plus by Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg

Comme la vague irrésolu

Je vais je vais et je viens

23. Ready For Love by Bad Company

I want you to stay

Ooh, I want you today

24. Banana Pancakes by Jack Johnson

When the whole world fits inside of your arms

Don’t really need to pay attention to the alarm

25. Unchained Melody by The Righteous Brothers

Oh my love, my darling

I’ve hungered for your touch

26. Father Figure by George Michael

Just for one moment

To be warm and naked at my side

27. Business Time by Flight of the Conchords

You know when I’m down to my socks it’s time for business

That’s why they call them business socks

Collective Intelligence in Action

taking kids out of school

School systems often point to families like mine as examples. We prioritized outdoor play, read aloud daily, took our kids to museums, did chores together, and had a family dinner every night. Still, school didn’t really work for my kids. Our five-year-old could read well but still had to complete endless pre-reading worksheets along with his kindergarten class; our eight-year-old’s teacher kept insisting he be medicated for ADHD symptoms we never saw at home; our eleven-year-old was expected to do grade-level busywork although she tested at high school and college levels; our teen was bored by AP classes and hassled by bullies at school.

I dug in, unwilling to give up. How else, I reasoned, can institutions evolve without people pressing for changes from within? Ever since my first child entered school I’d headed PTA committees, volunteered in classrooms, and participated in fund-raisers hoping to effect some of those changes.

Sure, there were a few parents who weren’t fond of my gentle rabble rousing. I never quite shook the negative impression some people had of me as that mom who changed the yearly ritual of first grade hot dog night to first grade popcorn night, or as the one who turned down free Sea World field trips for my kids because I didn’t want them to learn about marine mammals as captive performers.

But all of us parents grumbled in solidarity; united in misery over so many tests, so much homework, so little play. It wasn’t lost on us that we were railing against the very structures that we also “had” to enforce if our kids were to succeed in school. These were overwhelming constraints indeed, many tied to big money.

Corporate influence was present everywhere. Free nutritional posters sent by candy manufacturers on cafeteria walls; software offered by petrochemical companies for science classes; math materials provided by credit card companies. Channel One beamed commercials along with daily snippets of news wrapped in PR-speak.

Parents felt helpless to stem this tide. So did teachers and administrators, who insisted they couldn’t turn down free resources when budgets were so tight. (They’re right. Overall funding for schools nationwide has dropped from 2008 to today due to state and local austerity measures.)

For several years I volunteered as the parent liaison with the district’s food service contractor, but this private company was so focused on profits that fresh produce meant little more than mealy apples, shredded lettuce, and tasteless baby carrots. All my efforts simply resulted in a wider variety of similarly unappealing offerings. When parents demanded that the school stop allowing the sale of chips, ice cream bars, and candy at lunch time the company threatened to back out of their contract altogether. And our offer to develop a school vegetable garden? Turned down. No extra time in the academic calendar for kids to get involved.

Add to that the effect of big money on local schools:

  • Over 20 million dollars are spent on lobbying by the world’s four largest education corporations to sway policies toward ever more student assessment, effectively trapping students and teachers in a testing mill that steers several billion taxpayer dollars back into those companies.
  • Extraordinary profits are made on grading software, data tracking, e-schooling, for-profit charter schools, even GED testing and teacher licensing exams. That’s pretty much how we’ve gotten to our current test-crazed educational system.
  • Decades of standardizing and testing has demoralized teachers, stressed students and families, and dropped public opinion of schools so low that it’s easy for hedge fund managers, education corporations, and other private interests to steer ever more taxpayer dollars into for-profit charters and cyber schools,

But my kids attended a good elementary school with highly motivated parents and positive changes did happen. For example, parent volunteers instituted and ran an annual Art Day, a glorious new tradition. One full school day each year we parents arranged to put artists in every classroom. They demonstrated their work and gave kids hands-on experience. Teachers took students from room to room to learn from sculptors, potters, cartoonists, printmakers, wood carvers, calligraphers, weavers, painters, and others. The whole building was alive with creative enthusiasm. Even then, with so much educational richness available, some teachers didn’t allow children to participate in this all-school program until they’d finished their homework or written “I will keep my hands to myself” 20 times — these kids left in the hallway were, not coincidentally, often minority students.

Although my optimism had waned, I still held on to a shred of hope that there was value in working from within the system to change it. That ended the day my oldest son was threatened by a gun-carrying student in the school hallway. The next day we became homeschoolers.

I may have been slow to react, but that’s often the way collective intelligence looks on an individual level.

We humans form institutions for the value they offer to society. Collectively these structures function with an intelligence based on what works. Ideally, whatever works persists and whatever doesn’t work fades away. But sometimes institutions become resistant to change or change in ways that make them more rigid and therefore less responsive. When that happens, people who work for or are served by that institution tend to suffer. It usually takes a certain amount of irritation, unfairness, or real misery before people step back and take a look at the institution itself. Suffering has a way of making us more fully aware and more authentically invested in change. So we react. We resist, compete, struggle, debate, discuss, break away, collaborate, and reinvent.

More and more we see people resisting the structure of institutional education in its current form.

We are choosing to integrate learning into our daily lives and our communities. Our choices show the sort of fluid responsiveness that shifts ingrained beliefs about what education is and what it can be.

This is collective intelligence in action.

Whether we intend to impact the larger civic good or not, the collective intelligence of our culture is continually refined as we seek out more conscious and life-enhancing ways to live. It takes a small percentage of people to change a cultural mindset. Often it seems that this kind of wider awareness can’t come soon enough. But as philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer observed, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

changing education is collective intelligence in action

Portions of this post excerpted from Free Range Learning.

Article originally published in Tipping Points, a publication by the Alliance for Self-Directed Education.

Peace Postcard Project

Handmade card by Mimi Shapiro, sent for 2016 Peace Postcard Project

Handmade card by Mimi Shapiro, sent for 2016 Peace Postcard Project

“Peace poems can lead to peace-filled conversations and guide our thoughts and efforts in the months ahead.”  What a delight to open my email and find Carla Shafer’s message. Carla is a poet, founder of the Chuckanut Sandstone Writers Theater, and originating collaborator of Bellingham Repertory Dance Company of Phrasings: In Word and Dance, an annual event combining poetry and modern dance.

Last year she was inspired  to launch Peace Postcard Project after participating in World Poetry Canada’s poetathon. A peace enthusiast and mail exchange fan, I signed up as soon as I heard about it.

The concept was simple. I was put into a group of 28 writers who pledged to send one another an original poem each day in February. The practice was a lovely way to slow down, focus on peace, and send out the result. I didn’t think much about writers doing the same until lovely, soul-stirring postcards starting arriving. I’ve saved every one. I want to share them all here but will try to restrain myself.

Peace Postcard Project

An array of postcards from all over.

And oh, these words!

And oh, these words!

If you’re interested in taking part, you’ve got only a few days to register.

Peace Poetry Postcard Month   February 2017

JOIN poets from around the world (28 to a group) and send one of your original peace poems on a postcard for the 28 days of February.  Sign-up by January 30! 

To SIGN UP, send an email to worldpeacepoets@gmail.com 

Use the subject line: Peace Postcards

In the body of the e-mail provide:

Your Name, Street Address, City, State, Country and Postal Code.

For every 28 poets who sign up, a group is formed. You will receive an e-mail with your list as soon as your group reaches 28 names and addresses.

Process:

  1. On the first day of February (or before) write an original poem on a post card of your choice and send it to the person whose name is listed below your name.
  2. Proceed down the list sending a new post card every day.
  3. Circle back to the top of the list until you come back to your own name.
  4. It’s that easy!

Postage:

  • From the U.S. International postage is 1.20 per card or 4 first class forever stamps.
  • Within the US, postcard stamps at 0.35 (cents)

Prompts:

Original poems about peace in these anxious times. You may also be inspired by a postcard you have received or by a prompt listed at World Peace Poets Facebook page. (Feel welcome to post your peace poem and comments on the World Peace Poets FB page if you wish.)

You might want to write poems with a child or a neighbor. You might want to post poems you’ve received on your fridge, on social media, on a community bulletin board.  As Carla said in an interview with the Bellingham Herald,  “Every time people speak their hopes, address their losses and fears and listen to each other, we are taking a step toward peace.”

Innovation Doesn’t Come in a Kit (8 Better Options)

There are all sorts of companies selling STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) kits and Maker kits these days, often as pricey subscription services.  They promise adventure! inspiration! empowerment! They claim to “teach” creativity and innovative thinking, as if such things can be prepackaged.

My kids didn’t like to do kits of any kind with a parent or without a parent. They didn’t like to do them alone or with friends, on a rainy day or when they were sick. They’d occasionally fiddle around with a kit I’d bought just to appease me, but a kit never lit the gleam that real investigation and real building does.

Why would it? You open the box, follow a set of instructions using pre-measured supplies and get the predicted outcome. Or, sometimes, don’t get it. Plus, there’s an extra layer of pressure involved because an adult paid for that kit and hopes their kids get the advertised benefits.

It’s entirely different when children seek out an interesting endeavor and, once they have the general concept, riff on the idea in new ways. That’s how my kids, left to their own devices, would build and create, referring to YouTube or books or Instructables or their dad for instruction as needed. Then, if inspired, they’d ramp it up, try something more challenging, until that lovely tantalizing hunger we call curiosity was sated, at least for the moment.

It’s not just my own children. When I led enrichment classes and summer camps for kids I brought in all sorts of supplies and issued open-ended challenges. I’d say, “Here’s some equipment, go ahead and make a movie” or I’d haul in boxes of junk and say, “You’ve got x number of days, go ahead and invent something.” They’d brainstorm, work hard to persuade other kids their own ideas were the best,  compromise, make mistakes, add or subtract ideas, get confused, get clarity, refer to how-to books, and somewhere along the way each project transformed into something greater than anyone had imagined. The kids grew to love what it meant and how it made them feel. They’d beg to continue when our sessions were up and once, when a summer program was ending, no one could agree who’d get to keep the articulated dragon they’d made as part of a larger project. They fashioned a cape out of a tarp and in a solemn ceremony, each child took a turn wearing the cape to hack off part of the dragon. They walked out that last day into the sunshine proudly carrying a snout, a leg, or brightly colored swath of scales.

Adults tend to cast a holy light around the value of following specific instructions. They insist it is important for small things, like every project ever, and for big things, like getting good grades and great test scores as if the future is a board game won by the right moves. (It’s not.) Kids have plenty of opportunities to follow step-by-step instructions, heck, life is full of unavoidably necessary rules everyone has to follow. Mutually agreed upon rules are a cornerstone of civilization.

Too much specific instruction may actually give kids too little experience with uncertain steps and ambiguous outcomes. To consider this further, let’s take a look at the difference between well-defined and ill-defined problems.

  • A jigsaw puzzle, multiplication problem, and Lego kit are well-defined problems. That means they have a goal solved by following exacting procedures to reach that goal, with no real ambiguity involved.
  • Starting a business, maintaining a relationship, and building with random Legos are ill-defined problems. That means there are many possible, equally plausible ways to reach goals that may not be initially clear-cut but tend to clarify as time goes on. Life’s biggest challenges (and satisfactions) tend to be ill-defined problems.

Speaking of Legos, let’s take a closer look at what science says about step-by-step directions as a means of fostering creativity and innovation, as so many kits say they do. There’s been a longstanding debate about whether kids get more out of building with a giant pile of random Lego pieces or building boxed Lego sets using instructions. Obviously there can be a place for building kits and free-building in every child’s life, but what if these two approaches lead to different outcomes?

Researchers compared people building Lego kits to those who free-built with Legos. They found, in several studies, that participants who’d built kits scored lower when asked to do projects immediately afterwards that required creativity, originality, divergent thinking, and abstractness. They also were more likely to avoid free-build Legos to choose well-defined problems. Those who’d been free-building were, in contrast, as adept at well-defined problems as ill-defined problems, and didn’t lean away from future ill-defined problems. Science writer Garth Sundem provides an excellent review of this research, including its limitations, and sums it up this way.

If you take these experiments at face value, the “better understanding” of this research is that the more we are confronted by and complete well-defined problems like Lego kits or word finds or color-in-the-lines pictures, the less we choose to engage in and the worse we are at solving ill-defined problems: create something beautiful, discover something meaningful, find someone to love.

Again, that doesn’t mean there’s no place for step-by-step instructions. Detailed, exacting instructions are vital to all sorts of endeavors from making pastry to launching satellites. And building Lego models certainly is not the route to any child’s ruination. These studies are simply more evidence that filling up a child’s free time with adult-designed instructional endeavors isn’t the best way to foster creativity or innovation, despite what companies selling kits might tell us.

 

Here are some cheap, easy, playful ways to raise Makers.

Emphasize loose parts play. Pretty much any free-form materials kids are able to lift, drag, climb on, line up, dig with, join together, pour, dump out, take apart, swing around, push, or otherwise use as they choose inspire wildly creative loose parts play. Outdoors that might be twigs, stones, pails, water, rope, sand, and pine cones. Indoors that might be pillows and blankets to build a fort, dress-up clothes and cardboard to make props, and  the freedom to use disparate items for divergent uses.

Save broken things for kids to take apart.  The more moving parts they can disassemble, the better. For safety: cut off any cords and plugs, avoid items with glass, remove blades and batteries. Insist on safety glasses, then get out pliers, screwdrivers, and other tools and let them get to work.  A glorious mess is likely. One way to contain it is to put the item in a shallow cardboard box. That way all the little bits and pieces won’t roll off on the floor indoors or the grass outdoors. My kids have taken apart old clocks, computers, a typewriter, cassette players, a lawn tractor, weed trimmers, and a number of toys (including a Furby that had been broken for years but spoke a few final creepy words as my sons and their friends reduced it to parts.)

Start inventing. Save cardboard boxes and cardboard tubes of all sizes, along with string, rubber bands, lids, paper clips, yogurt cups, straws, corks, plastic utensils, twist ties, and so on.  Kids can use them to build whatever they choose —- like a junk marble run or wall ball drop. We’ve had lots of fun when kids form teams, get equal amounts of this “junk” and try a  specific challenge, similar to the old TV series Junkyard Wars, such ainventing sorters that send pennies down one chute and dimes down another, bridges that hold weight, catapults that toss ping-pong balls, or building as inspiration leads.

Create your own board games. Amy from MamaScout suggests getting out cardboard suitable for a game board, paper to make cards, dice, a cast off spinner from an old game, and some tiny toys to serve as game pieces. Then get out of the way. As she says of her kids, “backing off is the important part, because their ideas for this game were so much more open-ended than I could understand. They were playing the game and playing in the world of the game at the same time.” Science documentary-maker Steven Johnson prefers more parent involvement. He advocates creating a board game in partnership with a child in an article titled “The Game Worlds We Make.” He writes,  “It’s one of those magical parent-child activities where the two of you occupy shared ground in terms of both comprehension and engagement. Even simple games present intellectually interesting puzzles for an adult brain in their design phase, and children are incredibly adept at picking up on the nuances of gameplay.”

Honor flow.  When we see kids deeply engaged, lets do our best to let them stay engaged whether they’re off in a make-believe world, building with blocks, drawing, or tinkering. Psychologish Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes what they’re doing in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. These are not “passive, receptive, relaxing times,” he writes. Instead they are times when “the body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” Avoid interruptions! (Here’s more about fostering the state of flow for kids.)

Say yes. As I write in Getting Science on Everything, “We found keeping scientific curiosity alive isn’t hard.  It’s about an attitude of ‘yes.’ Projects that are messy, time-consuming, and have uncertain outcomes are a form of experimentation. They are real science in action. When a kid wants to know, they want to find out. Not later, not next week, right away. Finding out is engaging. It leads to ever-widening curiosity.” This starts in infancy, which we learned from the baby who wanted to play in driveway gravel and the baby who was afraid of the vacuum. It’s never to early to experiment!

Weave math explorations into everyday life. Investigate yourself, measure your world, make math toys, devise your own codes, and more. Here’s how.

Be an example. Take an active role in building, fixing, and finding out what you want to know in your own life. As you do, let your kids get involved as far as their interests lead them. Chances are if you’re designing a better closet shelf,  teaching your dog new tricks, rebuilding a carburetor, experimenting with bread making,  or learning to make chainmail, your kids will see firsthand what it takes to pursue a hands-on interest.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

Sidenote: There’s a lot of energy put into getting kids into STEM and STEAM fields. We need to rethink funding priorities so that these fields move ahead. Here’s research scientist Hope Jahren’s perspective, from her recent book Lab Girl.

“You may have heard that America doesn’t have enough scientists and is in danger of ‘falling behind’ … Tell this to an academic scientist and watch her laugh. For the last thirty years, the amount of the U.S. annual budget that goes to non-defense-related research has been frozen. From a purely budgetary perspective, we don’t have too few scientists, we’ve got far too many and we keep graduating more each year. America may say that it values science, but it sure as hell doesn’t want to pay for it.”

Doorknobs

 

betting on religion, choosing faith when dying,

When I ring the bell Denise has to pull her three dogs away from the door to let me in. We’re at an awkward juncture. She’s actually my husband’s friend but I’m here alone. I come bearing gifts although she is more comfortable giving.

“I’m glad you called,” she says over the barking. “It gave me the first reason to get dressed in a week.”

“I hear PJs are a fashion statement,” I say.

She pulls the largest dog off my leg. Her face is puffy and she’s breathing heavily from the exertion.

“He’s not bothering me at all,” I protest. “Maybe he’s trying to protect you from my cooking. Let me just put this stuff away.”

She follows me to the kitchen. She is older and taller, yet around her I feel as if I lead. Her counter is full of supplements with names that sound like a bottled meadow —sorrel, motherwort, red clover. When I put down the dishes she pulls back lids and sniffs the contents deeply. She wants to hear about each one.

“Everything smells so good,” she says. “Mark tells me your recipes are never the same twice. What’s in this pan?”

“Oh, it’s just some curry. Brown basmati rice with cauliflower, peas, paneer, onions, spinach, raisins, almonds—you want me to go on? I just keep adding things till it seems done,” I laugh. “Drives the kids nuts. They long for boxed macaroni and cheese like everyone else makes.”

She scoops up a fingerful and slides it in her mouth. Her eyes briefly fill with tears. “This tastes like love.”

I’ve never heard Denise speak this way. Her shtick is sharp humor and witty complaints. She and her husband Greg have a somewhat difficult relationship, but they both find pleasure in spending. Greg lavishes money on cars. Denise adores buying riding tack, clothes, and gifts. We have been the recipients of her largess many times. She not only gives lavishly, she also offers her time. The week we moved to our new home, she and Greg helped with the last U-haul load, took the truck back, and surprised us by cleaning our empty house so we wouldn’t have to return the next day. It must have taken them hours.

No matter how kind her actions, Denise is uncomfortable being thanked. Brusque even. Usually she goes right on complaining about her job, her expenses, her marriage, even her beloved horse. With four kids and precarious finances, I’m perpetually behind when it comes to reciprocating. Sometimes I send along produce from our garden or homemade goods when my husband Mark meets Denise and Greg for their weekly breakfast.

Today she shows me things she has ordered online, some still unopened. At least a dozen hats, several specially made for cancer patients. When her dogs start to play with the boxes, she ushers them out to the back yard.

“Let’s go sit outside,” I venture. “It’s a beautiful day.”

“The landscaping is a mess,” she says, “I don’t even want to look at it.”

“Have you been out much at all since you started treatment? There’s something to be said for the restorative power of nature.”

“Not in this yard.”

Birdsong, sunshine, growing things, and fresh air all wait right beyond her patio doors. It is difficult to imagine healing in her house. The curtains are closed. Every surface is congested. Couches and chairs are crowded with pillows. The walls are jammed with prints, tables are laden with objects, bags with new purchases are stacked against the walls. But she wants to stay inside.

I notice piles of new books. I tell her they are the same things I like to read; spiritual examinations across many cultures and faiths. Denise says she has read a few and is drawn to their open-hearted messages, but she is afraid.

I’m not sure what she means.

“I hope there’s some kind of eternity,” she says with sudden candor, “but how do I know which religion will get me there? I can’t just suddenly decide to be a Baptist or a Buddhist and  …  believe.”

“I think there are truths bigger than anything religions squabble over.” I say.

“True, but now isn’t the time for me to piss off God,” she says dryly. Then adds, “If there is a God.”

I nod, “I’ve gotten hung up on the ‘G’ word too.”

“Well I started going to a church. I just picked one. I figure it’s like an insurance policy,” she says. “That way if there’s life after death, maybe I’m in.”

We sit on the couch crossed-legged and talk about approaching faith as a stranger might visit a new land, eyes open for wonders. Denise keeps the tone light but her anxiety hangs right on the surface until she finds a familiar groove and gets back to complaining about her husband. Greg only cares about his cars, Greg wants her to go back to work, Greg doesn’t understand.

Soon she looks tired. We say our goodbyes and I give her an awkward hug. My intention was to be fully in that room with her, sending love from my heart to hers like a soothing balm, yet as I walk out to my car I feel an ache somewhere in my chest. I realize her quandaries with religion grieve her almost much as her cancer does.

~

A few months after that visit, complications from her final round of chemo leave Denise in a hospital room too sick return home. The doctor tells her she needs to go directly to hospice care. Mark and I sit near her bed.

Greg says from farther back in the room, “Yeah, but how expensive is that?”

“You and your wife both have health insurance.” the doctor replies. “There shouldn’t be significant extra costs.”

“There have been a lot of costs with this whole thing,” he says, waving his hand at the hospital bed, intravenous lines, and monitors. Mark stands and walks Greg out of the room so Denise can talk to the doctor. A month later she waits until Greg goes on an errand, then dies with Mark at the side of her bed.

~

Greg has a beautiful photograph of Denise posing with her horse and dogs printed for the funeral program. I see he does understand what was important to her. When the new minister she chose gives the eulogy it’s clear he didn’t know her at all. As a bagpiper walks over the hills at the close of her memorial service, I pray that Denise has found a more loving Beyond than she ever imagined.

A few nights later I have a dream that seems to go on and on. In it I am surrounded by doorknobs. I examine them with fascination. Faceted crystal doorknobs cut in geometric perfection, each reflecting different shapes and colors. Polished wooden doorknobs darkened with age. Intricately patterned cloisonné knobs rich in lapis, green, and violet. Simple white porcelain doorknobs mapped with tiny cracks.

I understand, while still asleep, that I’m dreaming. It occurs to me to look up from this vast field of doorknobs. There I see a door. It’s huge and gleams with holy light.

Denise is nearby, more vibrant and confident than I’ve ever seen her in life. She’s looking with amusement at the array of doorknobs.

“The doorknob we choose doesn’t matter,” she says. “Each. One. Opens. The. Door.”

~

This is her final gift. Once again, I can’t reciprocate. Unless, I realize, I share her story with others.

 

Originally published by First Day Press.

 

 

Take a Picture

We’re walking the dogs near dusk. The sky is darkening, the sun slanting in a way that casts everything around us in a luminous glow. “Let’s take a picture,” I say. I don’t mean capturing an image on a device. Instead we pause, breathe deeply, let ourselves appreciate this particular moment as fully as possible.

I used to do this more often when our children were small. They’d tumble in happy and tired from play, bringing outdoor freshness with them, clamoring at the sink to wash their hands for dinner. The house was filled by their voices and the scent of food in the oven, and I’d ask them to pause so we could cherish it. A thousand such pictures are stored somewhere in our minds’ eyes from moments when we stopped, breathed in, and nourished ourselves on the beauty happening right then.

Sometimes life calls us to do this. A baby’s first steps, a lost cat found, a brother returning safely from military service,  a scholarship awarded, a friend’s biopsy coming back clear.  Studies show our lives feel more packed with meaning when we stop to savor such turning points. (Other milestones happen as well, except we don’t see them until they’re past. The last time you’ll hold a child’s hand to cross a street, last time you’ll talk to a neighbor, last time you’ll visit an elderly relative….)

Savoring doesn’t have to be limited to our best moments.  Stop to really take it all in when you’re grieving, furious, exhausted, lonely,  bewildered. Pausing to let yourself feel what you feel throughout your whole body, anchored in a painful moment, is also a way of honoring your life.

Our lives are stitched together by what we notice and remember. Look back at any particular phase of your life. What you recall is constructed from what you fully noticed. Each moment there are sights, sounds, tastes, thoughts, and feelings unique to your experience. The way you pay attention to those elements forms your memories. The shocking part? Looking back and realizing how few rich and full memories we really form.

Let’s form them intentionally.  Whenever possible, pause to take a mental picture. Let everything flood your being until the moment you’re in fills your very marrow. It’s a way of wakening.

 

“I am your friend, and my love for you goes deep.”

“Portrait of a Young Woman Reading a Letter” unsigned

A Letter to the Most Illustrious the Contessina Allagia degli Aldobrandeschi
written Christmas Eve
Anno Domini 1513

I salute you.  I am your friend, and my love for you goes deep.  There is nothing I can give you which you have not. But there is much, very much, that, while I cannot give it, you can take. No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take heaven! No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present little instant.

Take peace! The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy. There is radiance and glory in darkness, could we but see.  And to see, we have only to look. I beseech you to look!

Life is so generous a giver. But we, judging its gifts by their covering, cast them away as ugly or heavy or hard. Remove the covering, and you will find beneath it a living splendor, woven of love by wisdom, with power. Welcome it, grasp it, and you touch the angel’s hand that brings it to you. Everything we call a trial, a sorrow or a duty, believe me, that angel’s hand is there. The gift is there and the wonder of an overshadowing presence. Your joys, too, be not content with them as joys. They, too, conceal diviner gifts.

Life is so full of meaning and purpose, so full of beauty beneath its covering, that you will find earth but cloaks your heaven. Courage then to claim it; that is all! But courage you have, and the knowledge that we are pilgrims together, wending through unknown country home.

And so, at this time, I greet you, not quite as the world sends greetings, but with profound esteem and with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and shadows flee away.

Fra Giovanni Giocondo

Over 500 years ago, Giovanni Giocondo wrote this letter to a dear friend. He was 80 years old at the time and had already lived a full life as a teacher of Latin and Greek, a Franciscan priest, archaeologist, translator of ancient manuscripts,  architect, and engineer. Many of his designs still stand including Loggia del Consiglio in Verona, Fondaco dei Tedeschi in Venice, and the Pont Notre-Dame bridge in Paris. Works he translated went on to advance architecture, medicine, and theology. Yet these sentiments shared with a friend are his most personal legacy. Although authorship can’t be verified with complete certainty, it doesn’t really matter. What does matter how touched the Contessina must have been to receive it 503 years ago. We have no way of knowing what cast shadows in her life, but it’s easy to imagine her unfolding the page to read again and again, until each word was committed to memory. All these centuries later, the letter still has the power to nourish hope in our hearts. May it do so for you too, my friend.