Transmuted

Compost Happens

Nature teaches nothing is lost.
It’s transmuted.

Spread between rows of beans,
last year’s rusty leaves tamp down weeds.
Coffee grounds and banana peels
foster rose blooms. Bread crumbs
scattered for birds become song.
Leftovers offered to chickens come back
as eggs, yolks sunrise orange.
Broccoli stems and bruised apples
fed to cows return as milk steaming in the pail,
as patties steaming in the pasture.

Surely our shame and sorrow
also return,
composted by years
into something generative as wisdom.

Laura Grace Weldon

Originally published in Canary: A Literary Journal of the Environmental Crisis.  Find more poems in my collection, Tending.

Internal Monologue

At a monthly writers’ workshop, our lone male poet advised the 50-something and older women poets, “You don’t need periods.”

I kept quiet, although my inner voice made a few silly comebacks. Heck, I didn’t even smirk despite my tendency to alarm the people around me with sudden braying laughter that continues far too long. This man is a wonderful poet and was, of course, talking about punctuation.

Experts say we all have an inner monologue going on, at least some of the time. Imaging studies show a region of the brain called Broca’s area is active as we speak aloud and also active during our inner speech. In fact, our inner voice stimulates minuscule muscle movements in the larynx as if tempted to make our thoughts audible. Our inner monologues aren’t confined to words. They show up in pictures, imagined actions, visualizations, reflections, emotions, and much more. My inner monologue leans toward the emotionally intense. I often feel simultaneously in love with and touched by a tenuous fragility in everything around me. At the edge of that is a tickly inclination to take mildly funny oddities as absurdly amusing. I like to believe none of this shows up on my face.

After the writers’ workshop I stop to do an errand. As I approach a check-out line at the store I notice with pleasure that a lovely young woman in front of me, her hair done up in mathematically perfect braids, has turned to smile. It’s a genuine, glad-to-see-you smile. This stranger’s smile feels, to me, like a moment of oneness in our chaotic world. Until her smile fades.

“Oh,” she says as I get in line behind her, “I thought you were someone else.”

She explains that I look like her middle school counselor, a person who was a help to her when she most needed it. I wished I had been such a help.

“This,” I say, making an exaggerated circle around my very ordinary face, “is often mistaken for someone else.” We laugh and discuss being misidentified. I tell her someone once insisted we’d gone to college together in Wisconsin, another person told me I was the living image of her sister-in-law.

“There’s a word for that,” she says, looking up and to the right for a long pause. “Oh, generic! That’s it, you have a generic face!” We both grin uncomfortably, then she faces forward to complete her purchase.

And there it was again, my chronic inner monologue. I felt simultaneously in love with and touched by a tenuous fragility in this whole experience. I wanted to hug her as her middle school guidance counselor might have done at finding a former student doing so well, with tears in my eyes. I also felt a sense of celebration at being an age where I’m largely able to float along unnoticed, my inner self chatting along, sometimes making it all the way back to the car before my inner and outer selves contort my generic face with glorious braying laughter.

 

Poets & Sages Behind Closed Doors

Sunlight flashes across the nursing home lobby when I enter. By degrees the brightness dims as the door swings shut. My eyes adjust to a line of wheelchairs, their occupants so still they might be in deep meditation. One woman rouses, her brown eyes searching me out. “Feet don’t work a’tall,” she says politely. “Not a lick of good.”

I walk down the hall past living koans. A man is held in a chair with padded restraints resembling a life jacket. His arms extend forward as if he is about to swim, but he doesn’t move. He repeats over and over, “I, I, I, I.”

An aide explains in a loud, cheerful tones to a woman hunched over a walker, “There is no upstairs, Dorothy. See? No elevator. We only have one floor.”

Dorothy ignores her and pushes the walker ahead. “Let’s go upstairs now,” she says.

“Show me how to get there.”

When I get to the room where my husband’s grandmother lives, she says, “There you are!” She knows me even if she can’t remember my name. Today I get her talking about childhood memories. She recalls that as the youngest of an immigrant family she had to be tough even as a little girl. “They’d beat you like they wanted salt,” she says, “but I wouldn’t cry.”

“Who beat you Grandma?”

“I’m never hungry,” she answers. “Never.”

Her roommate, who leaves the television on all day, calls out over the noise of a game show, “Ned, come over here.”

There’s no one by that name in the room. Not that I can see.

This whole nursing home feels like a living poem. But I don’t want to write about the people here. I want to write with them.

When I graduated from college I found no openings in my field. Instead I eventually found a job as a nursing home activities director. There I read the newspaper aloud every morning to a lively group of elders, soliciting their opinions and making sure to find the articles they loved to cluck over — tales of human failings. I played songs on the piano like “Bye Bye Blackbird” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” for sing-alongs. I got a group of rabble-rousers together each month, named them the Residents’ Council, and helped them advocate for positive change with the administration. And I developed a local network of activity directors. We shared closely guarded secrets such as contact information for puppeteers, barbershop quartets, amateur magicians, and others willing to perform in nursing homes.

My fellow activity directors and I had the best jobs in these places. We had time to listen to the people who lived there. When I listened, really listened, I knew myself to be in the presence of poets and sages. I developed a writing program to let others hear them too. When I took the job, the facility’s monthly newsletter contained only a schedule of events, a list of birthdays, and generic health tips. But the building was home to 100 people with voices of their own. I needed to expand that publication.

I started with a column called “Tip of the Month.” Some residents didn’t know what day of the week it was or where they were, but if asked for suggestions on getting a child to behave or living within one’s means, they bubbled with advice. That column usually featured comments by dozens of residents. Many times their opinions contradicted each other, making for a livelier feature. Better yet, staff members and families implemented some of the suggestions in their own lives. When they came back and told the residents about ways they had benefited, it helped put these seniors back in their rightful position as elders with wisdom to offer.

For example:

Home Cold Remedies

“My mother used to put dry onions on my chest like a poultice. She browned them in a frying pan and put them on hot as I could take.” — Harry Pierce

“We took hot milk with ginger.” — Carmen Morales

  “My mother would rub goose grease and turpentine on our chests and put us to bed after a drink of whiskey, hot water, and sugar. Boy did we smell after that!” — Lillian Edwards

 Once I got beyond the typical “how are you feeling today?” conversational dead-end so common in nursing homes, I discovered residents whose suggestions were too long and complex to fit in Tip of the Month.” If asked to give advice for high school graduates their answers covered psychology, religion, and culture. If the question dealt with handling bullies, some people brought up international affairs, others disclosed wild personal incidents.

So I added another section to the periodical. This one centered on a different theme each month. Harvest time, first day of school, best friends, what made a good neighbor, lifelong dreams, a mother’s touch, fatherly advice, vacations. Some people brought up fragments of memories, others shared powerful insights. Nearly all of their answers illuminated a bygone era.

Preparing for Winter

“My grandfather from Hungary never drank water…Hungary had been at war and both sides poisoned the water. He never took up drinking the water again… Each year he bought a truckload of grapes and had them dumped through the basement window. We helped him make barrels of wine.” — Bill Dobscha

“Back in Ireland we’d dig up the potatoes, pick the apples, and store them away…Close to winter the pig was butchered and the meat smoked. The wheat was ground for bread and we made sure there was enough oatmeal to feed us 21 kids all winter.”  — Catherine Monally

“Only rich kids had skates, but you could slide on ice by smashing tin cans on your heels and use garbage can lids for sleds. We had fun in any weather.”  — Freda Tesar

Sometimes new staff members had difficulty telling residents apart, frustrated that stooped posture and thin white hair made the very old look alike. But stories in print gave unique perspectives on residents who spent day after day in nearly identical rooms. It also gave us more to talk about with them.

Although some people understandably found it difficult to adjust when they had to move to a nursing home, many adapted with astonishing ease to the losses represented by institutionalization—loss of identity, health, possessions, and freedom. Their contributions to the newsletter made it apparent they did so because they’d already endured great difficulty in their lives, hard lessons in impermanence.

Residents also blasted apart the sweet oldster stereotype. Some were eager to talk about their indulgences, shenanigans, even crimes. Oftentimes pain or dementia loosened the sense of propriety that had a greater lock on their generation, other times mischievousness seemed to linger right under the surface. Their willingness to reveal an edgier side accorded them new respect from the youngest people on staff.

As residents talked of the past I was struck by how dispassionate many of their accounts were. It seemed they no longer suffered over prejudice, judgment, and injustice imposed on them or that they had imposed on others. They talked with a distant tone, as if simply telling parables.

Soon I added a “Resident of the Month” feature. This gave me the luxury of listening to much lengthier oral histories. Some people told me details they didn’t want in print and we worked together to craft the material they did want published. I usually had to corroborate the facts with their files and was often surprised to find significant information they didn’t bother to mention, further evidence that stories aren’t in the data of where one lived and worked. They are in the details. Union busters coming to rough up a little girl’s coal-mining daddy and her pride in hiding his supper dishes that were on the table so no one would suspect he’d taken refuge under the front porch. A sibling dying in the night of diphtheria, and later honoring the lost child by giving one’s firstborn baby the same name. There were also tales of accomplishments, hardships, and sacrifices dismissed with the wave of a hand–“No, I never saw Mama again after I left the Old Country. That’s how it was.”

Then I started regular poetry workshops. I read poems aloud, passed around objects with relevant smells and textures, shared observations. (And served cookies. Sweets inspired many a reluctant participant.) Then I scribbled rapidly as they talked. Later I combined their words into a group poem crediting each author with his or her own line. Residents and their families seemed to prefer traditional verse so I encouraged workshop participants to work with rhyming phrases whenever possible. Some were diagnosed with dementia or suffered speech impairment due to a stroke. Though they couldn’t make coherent contributions to our other writing projects, their abilities shone in poetry.

Phrases from a resident who said the same thing over and over took on a new tenor when made into a refrain. The man who dryly commented on a topic with only three words in an hour had his contribution included. So did the woman who kept interrupting with more ideas. After our workshops I would visit other residents’ rooms to seek their input, searching out those who couldn’t attend the poetry sessions but whose impressions could make a difference. Occasionally I transcribed the words of a single resident to create an entire poem.

When residents’ words were invited, taken seriously, and written down, when I nodded and looked them in the eye, they had more to say. A lingering silence, in fact, seemed to bring ideas from a place of deep contemplation. Many times I watched someone’s gaze turn to the window, past the ubiquitous geranium. I waited. When it seemed that they’d forgotten completely they would speak gracefully, forcefully, in ways that juxtaposed symbols with objects, meaning with abstraction. Poetry.

“I’ll see you next week Grandma,” I say, leaning down to give her a hug. She seems present yet detached, like so many of my greatest teachers. I brush the hair away from her face, pat her hand, adjust her lap robe. She smiles distantly. I stand for a moment. She rouses briefly, looks at me. “Listen,” she says urgently, “the wind! The wind!”

There are no open windows, no breeze on the soundtrack of the blaring TV. So often she speaks from a place beyond logic. I want to know if it’s possible to trace her words back to meaning, but her eyes are already closed.

As I walk outside the sunlight is intense. I fumble for my sunglasses. Only then does my attention turn to my breath. The wind. The wind.

 

Originally published by The MOON Magazine and DailyGood.org

How Do You Stay Hopeful?

We are living in times that can overwhelm even the sturdiest among us. Each day’s news seems increasingly hard to bear. As the months drag by it wears us down in different ways. Outrage and anguish can fray our bodies. Addressing too many issues can fracture our effectiveness. Cynicism or complacency can hide our hearts, even from ourselves.

I reached out to friends on Facebook and Twitter seeking to find what others are doing to hold themselves up.  My question:

Please tell me what you are doing to remain hopeful in these times. If you are doing something, anything, to help turn the tide toward ethics and common sense please share that too.

A welcome tide of hope rushed back at me. I found it interesting that nearly all of it had to do with nurturing — nurturing relationships, creativity, possibilities, balance, and compassion. Here are some of the hope-inducing insights friends shared with me.

Find balance

Strengthening myself with compassionate activities like gardening, yoga and reading books by great minds. Really trying to be a better listener without feeling the need to always respond. Trying my best to raise empathetic kids who in turn will carry the torch on their own.

I kind of feel like light shines twice as bright in so much darkness.   ~Tobias Whitaker

Almost every Monday morning since the inauguration a small group of us meet at a local coffee shop and write postcards to our legislators. We also make phone calls and send faxes. Being with like-minded people helps. This week I am spending time with a great group of women in a cottage at a lake, eating, drinking, discussing books and authors and recharging my batteries.   ~Betty Kramer

I’ve never done anything that fills me with more hope than raising my little boy. The equation seems so clear. I put in love, reasonable limits, and real time in the moment and he grows up curious and kind. I reach out to  make our apartment a gathering place for other mothers too. We have a lot of hope that our generation can make a difference.   ~Rosie

I have planted seeds and trees, and I’ve spent time with the littles in the family. I’m doing some stuff in the studio, making things I love. I’ve registered young people to vote, and stood on a street corner on a cold winter morning honoring the kids who are organizing for change. I walk and/or hike almost daily. I drink good coffee. I send wee gifties to folks I care about, and leave things in public places to be found by strangers.

I rarely read the news, knowing that there is a lot of tough stuff going on. I am selective in what I listen to on the radio. I just, as my English mother-in-law used to say, keep chunking along.   ~Debra Bures

I keep working on getting people to vote. Two new voters yesterday! They previously did not vote because they did not like any of the options, but now see their responsibility…  Also, I get out in nature, with grandchildren, garden, sing, throw pots (but not against the wall). I’m involved with an amazing herbal healing group and love the alternative focus. I joined and participate in the Crooked River Timebank and that is a strong community building, for Mama Earth and her people, positive fun thing to be part of.    ~Carolyn Rames

 

Build connections

I talk to the person checking out my groceries. I ask the guy panhandling at the corner how he’s doing every single day and wait to hear what he’s got to say. I sit down with the maintenance guy in my building for a beer if he comes by. Clicking in with people does me good. The more people ignore each other the worse they make it.     ~Elgin

I find hope (lots and lots of hope) in the work of a group called Better Angels – here’s why. While attending our first convention I enjoyed three days of stimulating conversation with folks who politically are polar opposites and yet, because of a common desire to depolarize our country, we approached each other with positive intent and listened to one another with love. The goal? To learn to listen to understand how people think and believe – period. Not to debate to win or change another person’s mind. Just listen with love to hear and understand.  It was inspiring to say the least and, a universally positive experience for those who attended. As a result, my husband and I as well as many others both left and right leaning are committed to being trained to facilitate the peaceful exchange of ideas. We need to depolarize our country and we know that we can.   ~Leslie Boomer

Hone down to what you can do

I am working on getting my backyard certified as a backyard habitat for the National Wildlife Federation. I am also working at a glacial pace on 7 personal goals. I am trying to control a small portion of the world and make it better.   ~Katherine Clark

I am raising money to provide legal representation for immigrant children separated from their parents.   ~Brett

I decided to focus any activist leanings I have this year towards getting people to vote. I joined the local League of Women Voters and am trying to help with their events when I can.   ~Kathy

I stay involved in my community….serving on the board of directors and being active in my local community theatre, serving as President of the Friends of the Library and volunteering for the county parks. Being the change I want to see in the world starts with my neighborhood, imo. And I am raising daughters who are following my example.   ~Lissa

Look for what’s good

Focus on the world around and closest to you, those you love and touch and see and hear in your everyday life. We live in a time when choosing to separate yourself from the noisy, chaotic, distractions in the world is more difficult than ever, but even more essential. Essential for your own individual well-being, but I believe critical to humanity.

…Focus on the good. I guarantee if you look carefully at the world within your sphere of influence, those close to you, you will find goodness, strength and hope. You will be able to contribute to that. You will, in a very real sense, help to create peace in this world. I believe we can all do that. And if we did, can you imagine the impact?   ~Cheryl

Amplify beauty and meaning

My job as a music programmer for Crazy Wisdom in Ann Arbor is a huge help — booking musicians, hosting the shows and just being alongside people as they take a weekly break from all the craziness around us is a positive high point in every week. In a similar vein, hosting our house concert series keeps me grounded in my home, neighborhood and local community and gives me yet another opportunity to serve musicians, friends and family–all of whom are creative, vibrant, caring people doing their bit, every day, to “get us all back to the garden” which is my aim and goal as well. I post poetry on FB and I’ve been doing a “poetry post card” project with a friend of mine–we write a poem a day—or try to–on a postcard, sometimes adding a bit of art or whimsy to the cards–and we pop them in the post to each other. This also necessitates a walk into town to the PO (our postal carriers often neglect to pick up mail so I take it directly to the post office instead) and the walk takes me into my neighborhood–I get to see people, say “Hi” and maybe stop for a chat–I get some exercise and clear my head. I’m committed to doing everything I can to keep the world around me sane, centered and peaceful so I try to be deliberate in my choices, to choose, always, “the things that make for peace.”

I do experience discouragement–I sometimes feel that I’m not doing enough but I know that what I am doing is true to who I am–to my temperament, gifts and abilities and part of my effort is tuned to encouraging others who don’t feel as though they quite fit into the “activist” personality that they are still needed and that their gifts–their poetry, essays, music, food, presence–is “enough” because the last thing we need is a lot of people feeling helpless or getting the idea that there’s only one, right way to be “active” in making the world a better place.   ~Michelle Wilbert

Art, art, art (which includes writing). All forms of creative play. NOT watching or reading (so much of) the news. Meditation/chant/quiet time. And I’m a big subscriber to this way of thinking, as Cinelle Barnes said, “Sometimes, I think, laughing is a form of resistance. There’s nothing more annoying for an oppressor than to see the oppressed thriving in the midst of struggle. Joy is resistance, and so is hope.”   ~Paula Lambert

Do work that makes a difference

What brings me hope is how uncommonly simple it is to make peace person-to-person. This is my daily practice. I work front office for a high volume tire company dealing with customers, reps, employees, whatnot all day long. I do what needs to be done and at the same time consciously choose to see the person I’m dealing with as a Child of God (or soul or stillpoint or whatever you want to call it). It doesn’t take a second longer to pay attention with my eyes AND my spirit.  This changes everything for the better, believe me.   ~name withheld

The interviews I do for The MOON almost always inspire me. This morning I spoke with Earth Guardian Xiuhtezcatl, who has been a vocal champion for the Earth since he was six. He’s also a hip-hop artist and published author. His new book is “We rise.” Thank God.     ~Leslee Goodman

I am working with a local school to create a racially inclusive and safe community as well as advocate for youth.   ~Malaka

I find my job as a family therapist incredibly meaningful. I work with people who are greatly impacted by the political and economic realities, but who are also very resilient. For their sake I am able to rise above apathy. The personal relationship I develop with struggling clients fuels me to take greater steps in advocacy. By walking with them, just a little bit, I learn about the network of social services that is available. It seems that this network is fragile and not enough, but I meet incredible unsung professionals (social workers, teachers, therapists) who are good stewards of resources. There is energy in numbers. Oh, and I also don’t work more than my agency job description calls for. I go home and enjoy people I love.   ~Jennifer Olin-Hitt

My job is poorly paid and gets little respect, but I bring my all to it. I’m an aide in the 3 to 4-year-old section in one of St. Louis daycare companies. These little people are learning to express themselves, validate emotion, share, care, and analyze everything around them. No price can be put on their enthusiasm and love. I don’t know why today little kids don’t matter (or the people who watch them), but this is the future. After work I go home knowing I did my best.  ~Tiff

I signed six children up for Summer Reading today. And I accepted a donation of five hundred books from a woman’s mother’s estate; they will be sold to support educational programs for Cleveland youth at The Reading Room CLE.

I try to do what I can, and not spend energy on things I can’t control. So when the news went out that ICE was operating a checkpoint at 150th and Lorain, I shared the information, hoping to help people avoid the intersection. I don’t know what to do about this technically legal but horrifying behavior. Do we go take pictures? Protest? Knock over the ICE truck? I don’t know. I don’t know. But instead of spending the next three hours grieving into Facebook, I put down my computer, went out in my garage, and boxed books for the Reading Room. After three hours, I was exhausted, sweaty, and dirty. But those three hours will help children learn to read. I feel like that’s better than weeping into my laptop, alone, for an evening.

One more thing: all that weird, oddball stuff I do? My art, my performance poetry, my quirky fashion choices? People ask me where I get the ideas for these hobbies, what motivates me to spend my time on this stuff. But those are coping skills. They build my strength so I can stay healthy and help others. Our culture and economy depends on people using entertainment and pleasure-seeking to cope with the everyday brokenness of our lives. It works better, for me to be kind and creative. It works better than mani-pedis and salt baths and chocolate cake.    ~L.S. Quinn 

Take care of yourself

I’m immersed in news all day long. When I get home from work I ignore my phone. I go for a run with music in my ears and space between, have some dinner with my partner, then let the body tell me what it wants to do.  ~Jaxxon:

Spend as much time outside in the sunshine as humanly possible. (I can weep for humanity and get vitamin D at the same time!)   ~Kris Bordessa

I find that I have to continually pull myself back into the present moment to avoid being sucked into the maelstrom – to instead see from a more level-headed perspective. I try to remember to recenter and refrain from letting my body be impacted. I take care of refreshing my body, which is so closely connected to where the mind goes, and I get out into nature to keep an even bigger perspective.   ~Lillian Jones

I am cooking at home more. I’m growing pots on my balcony with peppers, tomatoes, and beans. When I make something homemade my senses are busy and I don’t think about how bad everything is getting, you know?  ~Franco

I’ve quit watching TV. And I’ve ramped up showing kindness to strangers and every person I meet at the library. Also, sending unspoken blessings to people on the highway as I commute. Finally, I’m donating food and money to the Sandusky immigrant cause. Just trying to turn up the light.   ~Laurie

As a friend of mine always says, “Read more poetry, eat more chocolate!”   ~Virginia Douglas

What about you? How do you stay hopeful?

 

 

 

 

 

How We Shortchange Gifted Kids

One of my four beloved and gifted children (a son I won’t mention by name here) didn’t care much for proving himself in school. This is the boy who, at two years of age, maintained an interest in styles and brands of vacuums, even requesting a trip to Sears for his birthday to linger as long he liked in the vacuum section. He commonly asked me questions I didn’t have answers for, like “Do bees have intestines?” and “Do trees feel cold in winter?” When he was three he discovered that bones have Latin names. Then he pestered us to find out those names so he could memorize them. Before he was four he used grown-up tools to build things and take things apart.

He was unfailingly warm-hearted, eager to help, highly creative, and endlessly curious. Family, friends, even acquaintances told us his obvious giftedness meant he needed experts to guide his education.

Gifted kids may not show their abilities early 

When Lewis Terman’s Genetic Studies of Genius followed nearly 1,500 young people with high IQ scores, he missed two future Nobel prize winners —William Shockley and Luis Alvarez, whose scores were too low to qualify for the study.  In fact, many Nobel laureates did not show exceptional ability in childhood, and some actively disliked school.

  • Albert Einstein (Nobel Prize in Physics, 1921) did well in subjects he liked, but refused assignments that bored him, preferring to read and tinker with building sets. He wrote, “It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreck and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty.”
  • George Bernard Shaw (Nobel Prize in Literature, 1925) attended only a few years of school. He wrote, “…there is, on the whole, nothing on earth intended for innocent people so horrible as a school. To begin with, it is a prison. But it is in some respects more cruel than a prison.”
  • Richard Feynman (Nobel Prize in Physics, 1965) was a late talker and by his third birthday he still hadn’t spoken a single word. He read avidly on his own but described his grammar school as stultifying, “an intellectual desert.”
  • John B. Gurdon  (Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, 2012) labored on despite what his teacher wrote about him after his first semester of biology when he was 15 years old. “I believe Gurdon has ideas about becoming a scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous; if he can’t learn simple biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a specialist, and it would be a sheer waste of time, both on his part and of those who would have to teach him.”

My son’s kindergarten teacher seemed unwilling to acknowledge that he was already reading. The only child in his class whose reading ability was championed was a girl whose parents were both physicians. She was brought to the front of the class so she could read to her peers from picture books in a regular display of her precocity. My child, son of a blue collar father, was expected to complete rote pre-reading worksheets reinforcing words like “run” and “jump” along with the rest of the class.

We miss most gifted kids 

Students are typically tested for giftedness when they’re nominated by teachers. For a variety of reasons, including unconscious racial and class bias plus a tendency to mistake compliance for potential, research shows teacher nominations miss over 60 percent of gifted kids. This is a shocking number.

Researchers concluded their 2016 article in Gifted Child Quarterly with a strongly worded statement.

“The authors of this article are on record in opposition to a model of gifted education which begins with an attempt to “identify the gifted,” because we believe that the usual conception of giftedness as a trait of individuals, with stable manifestation across academic domains, lifespan, and educational arrangements (cf., Peters et al., 2014), is not educationally useful though it is scientifically interesting.”

From kindergarten on, my son was not all that interested in school. He drifted along, easily able to ace tests but not all that interested in getting through assignments that didn’t interest him. Now I see that as integrity — like so many other young people who remain true to themselves within larger institutions. At the time I was told this was nothing but laziness.

Gifted kids may not easily fit in the school setting

They may be labeled as difficult, even medicated to make them easier to manage. Psychiatrist Kazimierz Dabrowski’s research links five types of “overexcitability” to giftedness, each one hard to accommodate in a typical classroom setting.

  • Intellectual overexcitability: Relentless questions and a drive to go deep into concepts.
  • Imaginal overexcitability: Doodling, daydreaming, unable to let the imaginary world go.
  • Sensual overexcitability: Strong reactions to sound, texture, taste, touch, sights.
  • Psychomotor overexcitability: Rapid talking or fidgety behavior, urge to expend energy.
  • Emotional overexcitability: Sensitivity to and difficulty “getting over” emotions.

Studies consistently show that personality traits associated with creativity are hard to manage and therefore discouraged in the classroom. One study found the second grade children who scored highest on tests of creativity were also identified as those who were disciplined the most.

There are various estimates, but it’s thought that a quarter of gifted students are considered underachievers and as many as 18 percent drop out of high school.

Through the years my son got mostly A’s and B’s in school. Although teachers appreciated that he was polite and quiet, they told us he was “underachieving” and “poorly organized” and “wasn’t applying himself.”  When we asked to have him tested for the district’s gifted program we were told he didn’t qualify because his teacher didn’t recommend him. The teacher said she didn’t recommend him because his work was unfinished or hastily done too often. It didn’t matter that he was reading high school level books in second grade (at home), it mattered that he followed the rules. When they finally agreed to pull him out of class for an IQ test his score came in at 118. Bright, not gifted. I knew that wasn’t an accurate assessment.

We rely too much on tests

The Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth, the longest-running longitudinal study of gifted kids, tracked 5,000 high-potential individuals — some for over 45 years. It demonstrated the pitfalls of standardized tests and talent searches because these approaches miss many gifted kids in poor and rural areas. It also found the types of tests used were too limited. Teens who excelled in spatial ability were among those most likely to go on to produce more patents and professional publications than their peers, meaning students who simply test well in mathematics or verbal ability but high in spatial ability have exceptional potential in STEM fields.

As Tom Clynes explains in “How to Raise A Genius: Lessons from a 45 year Study of Super-Smart Children,” published in the journal Nature,  spatial ability is largely built, from infancy on, through hands-on exploration such as helping with varied tasks, playing with loose parts, using maps, doing puzzles, having questions answered by demonstration, using tools — building potential by doing. Not doing assignments on paper or screen.

So we took our son to Case Western Reserve University for more professional testing. He was there for hours. He was found to be profoundly gifted in all sorts of areas. Overall IQ score came in at 151.

Even with those results our award-winning school district said that he didn’t meet the performance standards necessary for the gifted program. Nonetheless, they grudgingly admitted him. This was a good program with highly qualified teachers, and it increased his enthusiasm somewhat, but he still didn’t see the point of schoolwork.  Teachers still told us he was “underachieving” and “poorly organized” and “wasn’t applying himself.”

Gifted kids don’t fit mainstream assumptions 

Andrew Solomon writes in Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity that being exceptional is actually the core of the human condition because difference is what unites us. He asks to what extent parents should push children to become what they believe is their best selves.

Dr. Solomon says raising exceptionally gifted children is complicated in an age and ability-segregated educational world. “You can damage prodigies by nurturing their talent at the expense of personal growth,” Solomon writes, “or by cultivating general development at the expense of the special skill that might have given them the deepest fulfillment.” This puts heavy pressure on parents and teachers. The education system is constructed for an average that doesn’t, in any one individual, exist. The farther from that norm, the more a child is a misfit. Dr. Solomon speculates that “being gifted and being disabled are surprisingly similar: isolating, mystifying, petrifying.”

To my lasting regret, we followed the advice of teachers and guidance counselors to take away things our son loved to do until his schoolwork was done. Over the next few years he was too often deprived of his delightfully nerdy interests in things like ham radio, model trains, and small engine repair because he just couldn’t get around to finishing a report. I know now that this was the exact wrong advice, that he was building knowledge and capabilities far more necessary for his whole being and far more relevant to a lasting acquisition of math, science, history, and language skills in the pursuit of his own interests than he ever could in by regurgitating facts on a test.

Giftedness appears to be, in large part, a developmental process 

A decade and a half of the Human Genome Project failed to find genes that explain differences in intelligence. Hundreds of studies affirm what a Bowlby Centre report sums up as “virtually no genes explaining significant amounts of variance in traits.” Genetically, genetic variance explains less than five percent of traits such as intelligence or psychological differences. In other words, smarts are not “fixed” in the genes.

Families of gifted children tend to provide an enriching environment, have high expectations, be child-centered, and offer a great deal of independence but these characteristics don’t necessarily “cause” giftedness either.

The 30-plus year Fullerton Longitudinal Study took a different approach to understanding how giftedness evolves. Instead of following kids identified as gifted, it started in 1979 by following healthy one-year-old children, regularly assessing them until the age of 17. One interesting result was identifying a second form of giftedness —motivational. Motivationally gifted kids remain intrinsically drawn to challenging and novel tasks, show persistent curiosity and a drive toward mastery. The more conventional category, intellectually gifted kids, showed advanced capabilities early and performed at a higher level across various subject areas. But their intrinsic motivation didn’t necessarily survive through adolescence. Researchers said there was very little overlap. Intellectually gifted kids may persist in curiosity and achievement, but motivationally gifted kids were distinctly more likely to work harder, learn more, and succeed. Researchers urge educators to nurture motivation in all students. They remind teachers that students do best when given greater autonomy and freedom to question assumptions, when they’re exposed to complex and novel ideas, and when they can work toward mastery rather than be judged by testing.

Scott Barry Kaufman, in an article for The Atlantic titled “Schools Are Missing What Matters About Learning,” sums up this research by writing, “All in all, the Fullerton study is proof that giftedness is not something an individual is either born with or without—giftedness is clearly a developmental process.  It’s also proof that giftedness can be caused by various factors. As the Gottfrieds write in their book Gifted IQ: Early Developmental Aspects, “giftedness is not a chance event … giftedness will blossom when children’s cognitive ability, motivation and enriched environments coexist and meld together to foster its growth.”

In fact, children’s belief in their own ability to be successful learners —particularly children who are considered at-risk in the school environment — may be a key factor in expanding intellectual mastery.

One day my 14-year-old son and I had an appointment with the guidance counselor. This man started in on a lecture about how smart kids made a school look good. He told my son most students had little choice, that they were essentially doomed to drive the brain equivalent of a Volkswagen, but my son was born with a Maserati race car brain. That did not have the desired impact on either of us. I sat there thinking this was an offensive analogy, my son later told me he was thinking this guy didn’t know much about race cars.

The appointment got worse.

The counselor, a man with a master’s degree and three decades of experience suddenly stood up, loomed over me, pulled back his fist and started to throw a punch at me. My son leaped out of his chair just as the punch halted a foot from my face. “See,” the counselor said, “you’d do anything to keep your mom from being hurt. But you’re hurting her every day by not doing your best.”

My son’s education wasn’t about me, or that school’s test scores, or what anyone wanted my him to prove. Although we’d been told from the time he was a toddler that we needed experts to deal with such a gifted child, the counselor’s heavy-handed manipulation helped me see, imperfectly, that experts had been getting it wrong. He’d been showing us all along how he learned best and the adults in his life did their very best to ignore that.

Full use of their gifts may be squelched

Even the most promising child prodigies rarely grow up to use their genius in profoundly creative ways. They excel early on at music, math, or science, but when that excellence is aimed at gaining approval of adults through extraordinary performances or test scores it may not nurture more creative, unconventional approaches. Original compositions don’t necessarily arise from Rachmaninoff played to perfection and new innovations don’t necessarily arise from impressive grasp of facts. Interestingly, when 500 top scientists were asked to identify the core traits of exemplary scientists, they put curiosity at the top. And we’ve known for a long time that high test scores don’t necessarily correlate with adult happiness, career success, good relationships, or mental and physical health.

My son is doing well as a  young adult, which is all any mother can ask. But I would like to apologize to him for believing experts when all along he was right there showing us that he needed to learn in his own way.

Battered Blue Wheelbarrow

What It Carries, Still

Your father, whose voice scared me,
whose head loomed a full 14 inches over my mine,
bought us our only housewarming gift;
a bright blue, six cubic foot wheelbarrow.
We laughed at its size, laughed as you gave me
a bumpy ride over the first lawn
we giddily called our own.

He seemed to believe our future
would be one of Paul Bunyan-sized loads.
It was.

In it we hauled firewood, dirt, rocks,
crinkled leaves topped with squealing toddlers.
It held a big block Dodge engine.
It toted rolls of fencing, chicken feed, cow manure.
It carried trays of tender seedlings
out to the garden, waiting
as I blessed each one into soft earthen beds.

Today you mend the rusted body
of our battered blue wheelbarrow.
I wish your father lived to see
its wooden handles smoothed from use
and what it carries, still
on that one sure wheel.

Laura Grace Weldon

Originally published in The Moon Magazine. Find more poems in my collection, Tending.

Listening To People Without Voices

communicate with dementia patients, reading another person,

Image courtesy of polveredigrafite.deviantart.com

I got my first summer job when I was 13 years old.  My official title was “feeder.” This was my first exposure to time clocks and posted schedules. Also my first exposure to quite a bit more.

My grandparents had died a few years earlier after protracted illnesses, and like many others, I associated the sounds and smells of the unhealthy elderly with my own grief.

Before I started all I knew was that was supposed to wear a white uniform to work. On my first day I was informed my only task was to spoon-feed patients unable to feed themselves. The head nurse handed me a list of names with room numbers and told me I had to be done in two hours. “It doesn’t matter if you clock out late,” she said, “We aren’t paying you more than your allotted two hours.” Her swiftly delivered instructions were entirely lacking in useful information.

As I walked down the hall I discovered every resident there thought I was a nurse. Me, a girl who fell over her own feet. Me, a girl who could barely endure the sorrow of driving past a puppy chained to a tree, an unknown puppy whose imagined plight kept me upset for hours. Now I was surrounded by real plight.

Perilously frail people lined the hallway. Nearly every one of them sought my attention. They asked me to get them something urgent like a bedpan or a pill. They asked why they couldn’t go home or lie down or find something missing. They asked to simply to engage in a little conversation. I was overwhelmed.

One woman cried as she begged me to hold her hand. I smiled and nodded. As I listened to her cry I couldn’t help but steal glances at her hand’s bumpy joints and raised purple veins. I realized it had once been as strong and soft as mine. Time’s appetite made me feel as if the walls, floors, and ceiling were already collapsing.  But I had a job to perform. Surely hungry people were waiting for me. She wouldn’t let go. Not knowing what else to do, I crouched by her wheelchair there in the hallway and smiled weakly as I carefully uncurled her fingers from mine.

heart-based communication, transcending speech, speaking with people who can't speak,

Image courtesy of colinharbut.deviantart.com

The patients I was expected to feed lay hostage on narrow beds in identical rooms. Each person’s eyes stared, some directly at me and some at a place well beyond me. Trays of pureed food waited at each bedside. I had to figure out how to lower the metal bed rails in order to reach patients. I held out wavering spoonfuls of meat, potatoes, and vegetables pureed into of a nauseating mush of pale browns and olive greens. After the first patient gagged, I realized it was possible to raise a person’s head and shoulders using a crank at the foot of the bed. Like every other surface, those crank handles seemed to bristle with germs.

I was repulsed by almost everything there except for the people. I found their faces especially compelling. One of the few men on my list was hunched and fierce like a hawk, giving the impression he was ready to fly at any moment. One woman’s deep-set brown eyes were beseeching although she could say only a few garbled words. She looked at me as if she could see much more than those who walk and talk so casually could do. Another woman, whose powdery thin skin and soft clouds of white hair made her look angelic, rarely opened her eyes. When she did I felt strangely blessed. Her awake moments, although silent, felt like moments of expansive awareness.

Maybe it was a 13-year-old’s sense of drama, but I loved these people in a way I couldn’t explain. I wanted them to feel comfort and peace in the minutes we had together. I didn’t know how to accomplish that. But I started, from my first day, to ask them a question. I told them my name each time, that I was there with dinner, and then I asked them what they’d like me to know or asked what it was like to be them. And then I was quiet while I listened to whatever their silence could tell me. I knew most couldn’t hear me or answer me. But I was sure there was a reason I felt something different in the presence of each person. I felt it strongly.

Sometimes an aide would hustle into the room and sharply tell me to hurry. “No use talking to someone stone deaf” or “Ain’t nobody home in there.” But somehow these people, not fully in the stream of life and yet not departed, seemed imbued with more instead of less. They were my elders, far ahead of me in every way, and I hoped for a hint of what they knew. I wished to make my attention into an antennae to pick up whatever they might be sending.

mystical communication with the elderly, speaking to those near death, communicating with the dying,

Image courtesy of carts.deviantart.com

This is a way of communication I have continued to explore. We humans are connected by much more than language and social norms. We understand each other in far less overt ways. We entrain to one another’s heartbeats, synchronize our moods, react to the light each living cell emits, and pick up energy that some call intuition and others call morphic resonance.

It wasn’t anything I talked about then and even now it’s hard to explain. This is hardly a process unique to me, just something I am still trying learn. If I had to put it in steps, here they are.

1. Pay close attention to the other person. You may choose to look at them for as long as is comfortable, or simply to sit quietly nearby.

2. Be aware of your bodily sensations. Recognize them without making a mental effort to interpret them, at least right away. They are significant.

3. Be aware of seemingly irrelevant things that occur to you—song lyrics, flickering memories, a rush of emotion. Recognize these without making an effort to interpret them. These too are significant.

4. Slow down, staying with your awareness of the present moment. You are allowing your heart’s wisdom to enter your consciousness. Opening to understanding with your most vulnerable self, unguarded by the analytical mind, can be a way to receive such wisdom.

5. Send kindness to the other person in whatever way you can. perhaps as a quiet blanket of compassion or as waves of love. Your heart’s electrical impulse emanates several feet from your body, affecting the electrical impulse of another person’s heart within that distance. A loving heart actually transmits that sensation to people nearby. The kindness you send is received. Trust that.

6. After following this procedure through several visits you may choose to send a request from the deepest part of yourself to the other person. Then pay attention to the sensations in your own body, to whatever images and emotions arise, and to the quiet sense of knowing that seems to come from nowhere. These are a response. You may have to work hard to refrain from inserting what you think into the situation. Stay centered.

7. Honor the other person. Choose to close with a prayer, a kiss, a few minutes to rub lotion on his or her hands, or some other direct contact.

 

mystical communication, silent understanding, heart-to-heart communion, speak to the dying,

Image courtesy of kdustyk.deviantart.com

My summer as a Feeder seemed endless. I wasn’t good at my job. I realize now how badly informed I was in my position. Not only was I not instructed to raise the head of the bed, I also wasn’t told how much to feed each person or how important it was to get them to drink. I remember feeding very little to the people who looked away, closing their mouths against nourishment. I didn’t know what else to do for people who were trapped in small sweltering rooms inside barely functioning bodies. I could hardly eat that summer either. The smell of the nursing home—old urine and cooked cabbage—seemed to reappear in my nostrils at odd moments, leaving me with no appetite.

After my work was finished each afternoon I spent time listening to the patients parked in wheelchairs and those walking along the hallway handrails. They told me of tragedies. Not the wars and poverty they’d experienced but more recent sorrows— children who didn’t visit, pets gone, choices taken away. They begged me to help them in dozens of ways, every one beyond my ability. They cried. Several women there were healthy in body and mind, but had lost their homes and possessions when they recovered from supposedly terminal conditions, leaving them in institutionalized for years. One man, Joe, told me every day that he was afraid of burning in hell. He insisted he was doomed for eternity unless he could confess to a priest. With the hubris of a non-Catholic, I thought I could easily fix the problem. I told him I’d get someone to come from the Catholic church a half mile away. When I called I was told no priest would come, as a layperson conducted all required nursing home ministry tasks. The next day I asked Joe if he would confess to a layperson. He shook his head with sorrow so profound I could barely breathe.

My job was over when school started. I promised myself I would go back to visit. The faces of the people I fed rose up in my idle moments and in my dreams, but I didn’t go back. The silences I held for them became my own silence.

alzheimer's sufferers still communicate, communicate with the dying, listening to silent people,

Image courtesy of jangmai.deviantart.com

What if a man cannot be made to say anything?

How do you learn his hidden nature?

…I sit in front of him in silence,

and set up a ladder made of patience,

and if in his presence a language from beyond joy

and beyond grief begins to pour from my chest,

I know that his soul is as deep and bright

as the start Canopus rising over Yemen.

…there’s a window open between us,

mixing the night air of our beings.

Rumi 

The Land Remembers

There was a small forest behind our house when I was growing up. Stepping from lawn to woods felt like stepping into another world, one teeming with mystery. I couldn’t articulate, but fervently believed, that everything — plants, rocks, water, and creatures —spoke in a language just beyond my understanding. I liked to go alone to a special place, a small rise between two trees next to a tiny stream. I’d sit there silently, hoping creatures of the forest might get used to me, might even come to accept the wilted iceberg lettuce and carrot peelings I was allowed to bring. My offerings were always there the next day where I’d left them, like an answer to a question.

I liked to imagine living in those woods, although I didn’t know how to weave baskets from reeds, how to make a shelter, or what plants might ease illness. I certainly couldn’t imagine eating the creatures I hoped might be my friends. (I was also afraid of the dark and entirely unable to go a single day without library books…)

Of course I returned to the world of mowed lawns and  store-bought food. I’d walk back as if I were part of the forest, trying to keep my footfalls from making a sound despite twigs and dry leaves because I imagined that’s how Native people walked,  when they lived in the same place, when the largest trees might have been saplings.

Every place I stepped then and step now is a place walked by people before me. As Chelsey Luger writes in YES Magazine, “You cannot find a corner of this continent that does not hold ancient history, Indigenous value, and pre-colonial place names and stories. And every place we occupy was once the homeland for other people, most of whom didn’t leave willingly.”

Now, thanks to collaborative mapmaker Victor Temprano’s efforts we can easily find out more about who lived where we now call home. Mr. Temprano is mapping Indigenous languages, treaties, and territories across North America on the website and app Native Land. Simply enter the name of your town or its ZIP code. An interactive map will color-code your inquiry, showing hyperlinked data on the area’s Indigenous history, original language, and tribal ties.

According to the map, I currently live on the land of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (called the Iroquois Confederacy by the French, the League of Five Nations by the English) and the land of the Potawatomi Nation. These peoples were uprooted by Indian Land Cessions from 1784-1894, and beyond. (See a time lapse map of how 1.5 billion acres were taken from Native inhabitants.)

I don’t know much about the people whose land I occupy. I don’t understand the language of plants, rocks, water, and creatures. I am still trying to listen.

“I keep having these recurring dreams where I’m on a plane or train and all the people around me, Native and non-Native, are speaking different Indigenous languages. I hear Paiute, Lashootseed, Diné, Catawba, and they’re feeding their babies wild rice and smoked fish. I’m dreaming about a modern world that doesn’t erase its Indigenous intelligence, but rather embraces the rich complexity of Indigenous culture.

This can be actualized if we all bring our hearts and minds together. The land we walk on is Indian Land, whether it be suburban cul-de-sacs or city streets. Echoes of Indian existence are all around us. It’s up to us to listen.” Matika Wilbur

Adults Close To Their Own Parents Is Actually The Ideal

So glad my family likes to hang out together.

When I was a teenager, a rumor spread through our high school. It was said on a senior’s birthday he went home after school to find his belongings stacked in the driveway and house locks changed. His parents had threatened many times over the years that he’d be on his own at 18, even though his birthday was a few months before graduation.

The rumor was true.

This freshly minted adult moved in with my boyfriend’s family for a few weeks,  then stayed with other families as he could. We lost track of him over the years but I’ve thought of him as my own kids moved out of the house on their uniquely necessary timetables.

In every culture around the world, closely connected families are the norm. Grandparents and older children help out with younger children. As young people grow up they move out at ages that vary not only according to tradition  but also by the state of the economy and overall needs of their families. Ideally, adult children stay close — not always geographically but close in spirit, welcoming new members who arrive by love or by birth and, as years go by, helping the oldest members as their needs increase.

Yet today, closeness between adults and their parents is treated as a joke or regarded with disdain. Take just about any holiday movie made in the last 40 years (at least those not geared to young children). Invariably the plot is some variation on the stifling misery of “going back home.” Or consider pundits spewing toxic opinions meant to pit generations against one another. The takeaway? Adult kids and their parents reside in two separate  worlds where real understanding cannot co-exist.

Pshaw.

A survey of 2,263 young adults (ages 21 to 26) and their parents found 60 percent of today’s young adults get together with their parents at least once a week and 79 percent feel comfortable talking about emotional events. Nearly a third stay in contact on a daily basis. Karen Fingerman, professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, confirms that grown children do better when they are emotionally close to their parents, and believes today’s parent-offspring bonds are improving. She regards the “generation gap” of the 1960’s and 70’s as cultural oddity. “Most cultures have maintained closeness between parents and children,” Dr. Fingerman says. “In America, the middle 20th century was an anomaly — in some way the baby boomers are the odd ones.”

Although stereotypes persistently portray young adults who are close to their parents as less independent, studies show the opposite to be true. Researcher Dr. Irit Yanir conducted in-depth interviews with parents, young adults, and psychologists. She defined a close relationship between adult children and their parents as one in which there is regular communication and time regularly spent together, and in which adult children feel comfortable sharing thoughts and experiences with parents while still comfortably making their own decisions.

Dr. Yanir’s research concluded that young adults who have distant relationships with parents tend to be less independent into their late 20s. In contrast, young adults who have close relationships with their parents are more independent in their daily lives, more financially self-sufficient, more professionally secure, more likely to be involved in a stable intimate relationship, and felt more mature.

“The research found that following adolescence, the familial connection is an important factor in forming one’s identity and living an independent life,” Dr. Yanir explains. “It seems that not only can independence and closeness exist together, but they actually flourish together.”

I know it’s not possible or beneficial in all families, but let’s dispel stereotypes about friction between adults and their parents. Let’s laugh together more often too. Someday our grown kids will need some decent quips to share at our funerals.

 “There’s nothing that makes you more insane than family. Or more happy. Or more exasperated. Or more secure.” ~Jim Butcher

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photoautotrophic Wisdom

Weed I Won’t Pull

 

Some hardship curved it into

a green ampersand. Tendrils sprout

along a resolute stem.

I want to lean close, ask

for some photoautotrophic wisdom.

Listen to the soil’s bacterial choir.

Convert to the worship

plants have practiced since the Beginning.

Laura Grace Weldon

Originally published in The Moon Magazine. Find more poems in my collection, Tending.