Waking the Spirit

Waking the Spirit, Andrew Schulman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Library Angels

library angels, or how the right book just appears

“Coincidence is the word we use when we can’t see the levers and pulleys.”  ~Emma Bull

Sometimes the book you need just appears. You never imagined it exists and then suddenly bam, it’s right there in your hand.

Maybe that book sets you off on a new quest, or lightens your weighted heart, or snaps on a mental light switch. You’re never quite the same afterwards.

This happens to me pretty often.

Most commonly, the book I need drops from the shelf or persistently gets in my way when I’m looking for another book at the library. This occurred more frequently back in those golden-hued days when my favorite library was tightly packed with tall stacks of books.  It required some wandering and often some teetering on a wooden stool to find a particular book. That gave a book that needed to find me a chance to fling itself in my direction.

The right book for me also once appeared in a used book inside the wrong dust cover and another time was left on a dirty seat next to me in a muffler repair shop.

Such delightful happenstance isn’t confined to books. Utterly necessary articles, quotes, interviews, and poems appear as if by magic in my life as well. In The Roots of Coincidence, Arthur Koestler calls this literary synchronicity the work of “library angels.” 

British author Rebecca West told Koestler about her experience with a library angel back in 1972. She had been researching a specific episode of the Nuremberg war crimes trials.

I looked up the trials in the library and was horrified to find they are published in a form almost useless to the researcher. They are abstracts, and are cataloged under arbitrary headings. After hours of search I went along the line of shelves to an assistant librarian and said, “I can’t find it, there’s no clue, it may be in any of these volumes.” I put my hand on one volume and took it out and carelessly looked at it, and it was not only the right volume, but I had opened it at the right page.

Aleksandr  Solzhenitsyn writes about another such strange coincidence in The Gulag Archipelago. While he was incarcerated in Leningrad, a new prisoner was brought in. The man was a renown physicist who happened to be obsessed with working through a technical problem, but it required certain mathematical tables. There was no chance of getting those tables, since the only books permitted in the prison were works of Party propaganda distributed to the cells at random. One week a library worker came around and passed out the very book the physicist needed. The scientist memorized the necessary tables before the mistake was noticed and the book confiscated.

My library angel experiences aren’t as gobsmackingly surreal as these two examples by any means, but I’ll take all the positive coincidences I can even if I don’t know what mysterious force to credit. Library angels? A benevolent God who speaks to the bookish among us on our own wavelength? The universal consciousness at work? (They’re all names for Mystery well beyond our understanding anyway…) It doesn’t matter, when a book shows up unexpectedly I have learned to pay attention.

I’d love to hear your stories of coincidence, word-related or otherwise.

I Want You To Meet Kathy Ceceri

 

Kathy with one of her newest books.  Photo provided by Kathy Ceceri.

Educator and author Kathy Ceceri  and I have been colleagues on and off for nearly 15 years, writing for some of the same publications and collaborating on projects. Kathy has always been an inspiration to me — focused and innovative with a powerful can-do approach. It’s not just me. Her work inspires kids, parents, and educators every day.

Kathy has written nearly a dozen books and kids in her hands-on workshops make fascinating things. Really fascinating — like a hydraulic Lego 3D food printer, solar baked oatmeal cookies, a light-up paper cat, or a swarm of gliding vibrobots. Better yet, her goal is getting them to come up with their own creations.

I suspect all of us would like to know more about Kathy. I was thrilled when she agreed to an interview.

Tell us a little bit about your background.

My background is in journalism, although my training was all “on-the-job,” writing news reports, lifestyle and art features, and investigative pieces for newspapers, magazines, and websites.

My training in education was all “on-the-job” as well — I homeschooled my two sons from kindergarten up until college. I have written about kid-friendly hands-on learning projects for Family Fun and Wired.com, and as the “Homeschooling Expert” (yes, that was really my title) for About.com. I currently produce books and articles for Make Magazine and other publishers and lead workshops for kids, families, and educators.

How does starting out as a writer and artist lead to a quest to advance STEAM and Maker learning?

STEAM stands for “Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math,” and the Maker Movement is about building, inventing, and exploring in the physical realm (as opposed to creating software). Both these educational trends excite me because as a kid I was always creating homes, environments, and accessories for my dolls and recycling materials into playthings. I was also very crafty, trying a little bit of everything that came along from stained glass to candlemaking to macrame. And my favorite type of reading was fantasy and science fiction.

I studied some art in college but never really applied it until I discovered ways to incorporate it into projects that involved engineering and science. Today design and technology is an area of concentration in many art programs, but not when I was in school! Making robotic systems out of cardboard and duct tape is a perfect expression of everything I enjoy. And it seems to appeal to an audience of teachers and students who want to get started but don’t know where to dive in (or don’t have the resources to start big).

Can you share a project or two in depth? (including a link to instructions?)

Sure! This Tin Can Cooker project from my latest book Edible Inventions dates back to my days at Girl Scout camp.

And these recipes for Refrigerator PIckles and Yogurt in a Mug are family standards.

You can find links to more projects from my books at my website Crafts for Learning.

Are your projects do-able for people who don’t have much in the way of DIY experience.

Definitely. I describe my projects as “low tech/no tech” and I design them to draw on skills and materials that most people already have. As I always say, “If I can do it, you can do it.”

Can you share a story of how hands-on projects can empower kids?

My favorite stories are the parents who come back and say, “He spent the whole weekend working on making his robot better,” or “She went home and taught her sister how to make that project.”  If nothing else, kids who try my books and workshops come away knowing how to troubleshoot, and have a little more confidence about trying something to see where it leads. The nice thing about Maker projects is there’s no one right answer. Unlike math worksheets, there are many ways to set out, and many different directions you can go in. That’s something kids don’t get enough of nowadays.

You are making a difference. Can you give us some encouragement to follow our own passions? 

That’s very nice of you to say! If I’ve followed my passion, it’s because it was the path that best fit the life I had at that moment. I guess my advice is don’t be afraid to promote yourself and your particular strengths and talents. If you’re passionate, sooner or later you’ll find someone who responds to that energy and will open up new ways to channel it that you might not have imagined.

Kathy’s book titles include:

And her newest, due out in March 2017.

Check out Kathy’s site Crafts for Learning for low-tech projects, her workshop schedule, and Makerspace suggestions. Thanks Kathy!

Photo permission by Kathy Ceceri.

Photo permission by Kathy Ceceri.

Fiction Worth Fawning Over

fiction worth reading

My desk is littered with what from a distance might look like irregular paper snowflakes. They work their way into stacks of books, unfinished to-do lists, and other desk detritus.  As you might imagine, they aren’t snowflakes. They’re book titles torn from magazine and newspaper reviews.

As an insomniac, I have plenty of time to read. A few nights ago I gave up trying to sleep a little before 2 am. I got up, snuggled in a blanket on the couch, and read until it was time to make coffee and start the day at six. That probably explains how I get through so many books in the average week.

I wouldn’t be able to support my reading habits if I bought most of what I read. Instead, I order them from one of civilizations best inventions, the library. I don’t know about you, but when I own a book it languishes because I’ve got all the time in the world to read it. Yet I’m motivated to zip through library books since they’re mine for only a few weeks.

Although I review books and read book reviews, I know reviews aren’t even close to a sure thing. (As my daughter says when I’m once again disappointed in a much-anticipated volume, “What have we learned about reviews?”) Instead, I’ve found that recommendations from friends are the best way to find the titles  I’ll fall in love with next.

So, as a friendly gesture, I’m sharing some books I love in hopes that you will too.

 

 State of Wonderby Ann Patchett takes us into the Amazon jungle where the competing aims of pharmaceutical researchers and indigenous people unfold in prose so vivid you can feel the humidity and hear the insects.  This is a tale of lies, poison arrows, reluctant heroes, and strange miracles. The last few chapters offer an entirely satisfying conclusion without a trace of the cloying sentiment so common in lesser books.

 

 

aAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr has won many (richly deserved) awards including the Pulitzer.  I read this book soon after it came out and actually grabbed people’s wrists as I implored them to read it. The main characters are a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy growing up as war irrevocably alters their destinies. Their stories swoop through the lives of many characters, even the minor ones so clearly rendered that they’re real as the person sitting next to you. There are few novels by any author as perfectly executed as this one

 

 

The Signature of All Thingsby Elizabeth Gilbert is one of those rare books which manages to combine science and history into a captivating story.  In it, a brilliant young woman defies her era’s conventions to pursue science, eventually leaving behind her quiet life to explore the larger world.  The book manages to be cerebral and carnal, large in scope yet about the miniature cosmos of moss. Although there were a few pages that jangled off-key, it is an amazing book. I gave it as a gift to one friend along with terrarium I’d planted with mosses. (A trip to Tahiti would be just as relevant, but moss is a bit more affordable.)

 

aPeace Like a River by Leif Enger is, I daresay, is as timeless a masterpiece as To Kill A Mockingbird.  The plot seems ordinary enough: a family from rural Minnesota goes on a quest to save the eldest son who has escaped from jail during his trial for murder. The telling,  however, illuminates the ordinary to gleaming transcendence. The fully drawn characters of Peace Like a River are people you want to invite to dinner so you can thank them for offering such sustenance. Enger makes every line worth savoring in this story of justice, faith, and enduring loyalty.

 

Euphoria by Lily King is very loosely based on episodes in the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead.  I’ve been quietly obsessed with (and often appalled by) anthropology since discovering it was a thing back in high school.  Euphoria has that and much more: revelation, rivalry, lust, despair, and a recognition that what we see says more about us than who we’re observing. Reading it, I was so immersed that I was surprised to look up and find I wasn’t climbing a ladder to a treehouse in the wilds of New Guinea.

 

 

The History of Love by Nicole Kraus is artful, complex, and beautifully written. There are books within this book, including a book written about a Polish girl named Alma and decades later,  another Alma, named after a character in a Chilean book that her mother is translating.  Kraus pulls together disparate strings including Holocaust survival, plagiarism, and a ten-year-old lamed vovnik — knotting them into a hauntingly lovely story about overcoming the greatest cruelty of all, loneliness.

 

 

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is a stark look at a world we take for granted — where small rectangles hold the power to connect us with people around the world, where metal cylinders transport passengers across the sky, where something magical called the Internet answers every question — although that world is gone in Station Eleven. After nearly all of humanity has been wiped out by a plague the future is a dangerous place, but we see it come alive through a troupe of artists who travel from settlement to settlement playing Beethoven and performing Shakespeare. Their motto is lifted from Star Trek: “Survival is insufficient.” This book brings that motto come alive.

 

Speak by Louisa Hall offers us five very different voices, each emerging from different times and places. They include Alan Turing, a Puritan girl, and a doomed babybot. These characters act within ever-tightening strictures that, together, make up a larger pattern. Hall asks us to consider what it means to understand each other in this thought-provoking and entirely original novel.

 

 

 

Jewelweed by David Rhodes is a book of quiet insight told from many viewpoints—an ex-con, chronically ill child, wary young mother, minister, long-distance trucker, and others. Although it takes place in rural Wisconsin, the humble epiphanies Rhodes shares are relevant in any setting. At 464 pages this is a long novel, but you may find yourself wishing for a sequel. I do.

 

 

The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You by Dorothy Bryant was written in 1971, yet it’s ever more necessary in our time. The novel centers on a successful yet desperate man who finds himself transported to an unknown place, one that seems primitive to him. He finds he’s landed in a kind of Eden where the inhabitants uphold and maintain the “real” world through their dreams. I was reminded of Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael as I read Bryant’s book, but Quinn’s book left me in despair while this one imparted a sense of delight and wonder.

 

 

Bel Canto (P.S.) by Ann Patchett. Yes, another Patchett book! Music forms the spine of this unlikely story. Wealthy international businessmen, a world-famous singer, and desperate terrorists move the storyline along with pacing that speeds up and slows down like the plot of an opera, coming to a sudden ending with nary a curtain call. Even if opera isn’t your thing, you may find yourself searching out pieces integral to the narrative. I suspect this novel, all on its own, created many new opera lovers.

 

 

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman. I’ve never encountered a book quite as imaginatively intelligent.  Written by a neuroscientist, this intriguing volume offers wildly divergent speculative tales. Each is only a few pages, but Eagleman packs them with such fresh ideas that it’s best to read only one at a time in order to fully savor them.  This book makes a great gift. I’ve given it to a teen, to one of those people who have everything, and to someone who insisted he wasn’t much of a reader. They all adored it.

 

Okay, if my motive still isn’t apparent, I want you to tell me what fiction YOU are fawning over!

17 Ways to Show Authors Your Love

image: vjcx.com

We know how to love celebrities and athletes in our culture. We hashtag them, go to their performances/games, read about them, imitate them, talk about them, and in many other ways make these people an ongoing presence in our lives. (Note: there may be a strange reason we’re so obsessed with celebrities.)

It’s less common to love writers, far less common to show it.

Today’s publishing houses expect authors (other than the most commercially promising ones) to do their own book marketing. We’re expected to blog, tweet, arrange book signings and readings, do interviews, and otherwise connect with potential readers as if there’s nothing awkward about begging people to buy our words.

But we know that books, articles, essays, poems, blog posts, (actually, all forms of writing) live on only when they’re read. It’s even better if they’re discussed, shared, and remembered. My writer friends and I do our best to promote one another’s work to a wider audience. Most writers do this for each other. If you’re inspired, take a tip or two from us and show some authors your love.

Share a great author interview or book review. Share a passage from a book, article, blog post, or poem. Toss it out there on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Tumblr, whatever social media you use.

Quote. If you’re writing a report or giving a presentation, sprinkle in a relevant quote or line of poetry. It’ll add another dimension to your work.

Review books you love on Amazon.com, Goodreads.com, LibraryThing.com, BarnesandNoble.com, wherever you go to check reader reviews. You can make it easy on yourself by simply leaving a bunch of stars. Take it up a notch with a glowing one-line opinion. On Amazon, you only need to click “like” to boost a book or other people’s reviews of the book. Your viewpoint really does help potential readers find what to read next.

Contact local authors. Ask an author to answer questions for an interview you’ll publish online or in print. Invite an author to do a reading or lead a discussion for your organization, club, or business either in-person or via Skype.

Advocate for writing that has changed your outlook, expanded your interests, led you in entirely new directions. A few months ago Facebook bristled with personal lists of 10 Life Changing Books. I love hearing what books impact other people and I’m often inspired to read those titles too. (Here are 10 that occur to me at the moment: The Secret GardenOriginal Wisdom, The Continuum Concept,  Nature and the Human Soul,  A Paradise Built in Hell Pronoia Is the Antidote for ParanoiaMan’s Search for MeaningBeyond WarSpontaneous Evolutionanything by Charles Eisenstein.)

Give books as gifts. They make wonderful presents for birthday, holidays, and milestone celebrations. They’re great to give simply when it occurs to you that a specific book and a specific person might go well together. Give books to children for special occasions but also for fun. Don’t forget to leave an inscription even for the youngest. If you like, pair a book with a small related present. Tea, coffee, or something more spirited is a perfect accompaniment to any book gift.

Try something different. Indulge in your favorite genres and let yourself branch out from there. A fan of historical novels set in a certain era? Try poetry from that time period, non-fiction books about the art or science of the era, biographies of people from that time, as well as history magazines and related sites. I’ve come across writing I normally wouldn’t read only to discover a passion for science-y novels, tomes on evolutionary biology, sites offering vintage maps, work by outsider artists, and other fascinations.

Request. I couldn’t possibly afford to buy a fraction of the books I read. Instead, I’m a unrepentant library addict. If there’s a book you’d like, order it from your local library. They’ll call or email you when it’s available. If they don’t own a copy, ask them to purchase it. Some library systems put request forms online, other systems prefer you go directly to a librarian to request a book acquisition.

Hang out with other book lovers. Our boys’ book club lasted till they all went off to college, over 9 years of lively bookish gatherings. And I’m a long-time member of an adult book club. It prompts me to read books I wouldn’t normally read and our wide-ranging discussions are a delight. You can start up a book club with friends or join an existing group. Check out nearby clubs through Reader’s Circle, your local library, or Meetup.

Offer books for sale through your business. If you have a bike repair shop, offer guides to bike trails along with some bike-riding memoirs. If you run a stand at a farmer’s market, offer a few cookbooks and urban farming volumes. If you own an art gallery, sprinkle a few poetry and art books among your offerings. (I am endlessly grateful that Elements Gallery  in Peninsula, Ohio sells copies of my poetry collection.)

Give magazine subscriptions as gifts. There are a wealth of options, from boat-building magazines to literary journals to kids’ science publications.

Recommend. Create your own list of favorites on a topic via Amazon’s Listmania. Perhaps “Little-Known Poetry Books You Should Read…” or “Alternative Education Books We Use….” While you’re at it, search all the Listmania lists of interest to you.

Link. An insight or idea sticking with you? Link to (or at least attribute) books or author sites when you write about ideas they’ve prompted in you.

Talk about writing you love. I tend to go on and on with vast enthusiasm about what I’m reading. I adore memoirs from the sublime to the hilarious: A Private History of Awe by Scott Russell Sanders, A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel, and Kick Me by Paul Feig. Beautifully written, unforgettable novels such as All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr,  The History of Love by Nicole Kraus, State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, and Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. Animal books, a worthy indulgence, including The Good Good Pig by Sy Montgomery and A Small Furry Prayer: Dog Rescue and the Meaning of Life by Steven Kotler. Sci-fi like The Kin of Ata Are Waiting for You by Dorothy Bryant and Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi. And  books that don’t fit in any category like Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman. Really, read these books!

Promote. The Southern Independent Booksellers Association started a YouTube channel called Parapalooza! Submit a video of yourself reading a passage from a favorite book to parapalooza@sibaweb.com. If you live in the UK, contact Steve Wasserman of Read Me Something You Love. He’ll come out to record your reading of a passage you choose, along with some conversation. If it’s poetry you adore, read one you love aloud for Record-a-Poem. You can also reach out to others in your community who’d like to share a favorite poem through the Favorite Poem Project or start up a poetry-sharing group on Meetup.

Read already. Titles piling up on your Kindle, overdue library books, a teetering stack of magazines next to the couch are all evidence that you want to read. But you’ve got more to do than you’ve got time. Admit it to yourself, you’ll never defeat your in-box. Might as well go lie on the grass or in the tub or on your couch and read!

Connect. Follow authors on Facebook or follow their tweets. Write to them care of their publishers. You might send a brief note about how much you enjoyed a book or how it or improved your life. You might send suggestions, questions, a cheerful aside. Writing is a solitary occupation. When an author hears that his or her work made a difference, I guarantee it’ll have an impact. On a few rare occasions readers of my first book let me know it changed the way they parent or educate and how that’s impacted their lives. These communications are the sort of wealth I’d never believed possible. Utterly priceless.

Some days I like to imagine a world where we love our writers and artists and scientists and volunteers with the same passion we show celebrities. A girl can dream.

Alejandro Mallea's flickr photostream

Alejandro Mallea’s flickr photostream

“The writer’s way is rough and lonely, and who would choose it while there are vacancies in more gracious professions, such as, say, cleaning out ferryboats.”

Dorothy Parker

A Free Guide to Being Human

fun expert, make life fun, fun at work,

This volume should really be titled A Guide to Being Human. I recommend you read only a page or two at a time. Let it sink in. Apply it. Revel in it.

It’s authored by game designer and deep fun theorist Bernie DeKoven. I got the chance to interview Bernie last year and immediately found myself wishing he were my next door neighbor. (I still do.) For 40-something years Bernie has been promoting playfulness. He was instrumental in the New Games movement and a pioneer in computer game design. He’s developed games for the likes of Lego, Ideal Toy Company, Mattel Toys, and Children’s Television Workshop. He’s collected little-known games, created new ones, researched the value of fun, and organized all sorts of play events.

The book is actually titled A Playful Path and it’s jam-packed with awesomeness. It’s made up of tools and ideas to inspire the possibility-building, wide-open glory of playfulness. DeKoven writes,

Fun is at the heart of things—of things like family, marriage, happiness, peace, community, health; things like science and art, math and literature; like thinking and imagining, inventing and pretending.

Sure, the playful path can enhance relationships, advance careers, and  promote health. It can also help us deepen into who we truly are, beyond the limits of rules and score-keeping. As DeKoven calls it, becoming “embiggened.”

For adults, following a playful path is a practice, something you put into practice, and then practice some more. When you were a kid, it wasn’t a practice. It was what you did, always. You had to be reminded not to be playful. And you were. O, yes, you were. But now that you have become what you, as a kid, called “an adult,” you find that play is something you have to remind yourself to do, playful is something you have to allow yourself to be.

And once you again take up that playful path you knew so well, you discover that it’s different, you’re different. You can play much more deeply than you could before. You are stronger, you understand more, you have more power, better toys. You discover that you, as a playful being, can choose a different way of being. A way of being as large as life. A way of being you, infinitely.

Written in short one to two page segments, A Playful Path is perfect to read on an as-needed basis, sort of an antidote to all the not-fun that drags us down.  A Playful Path is an entertaining book. It’s also wise, true, and entirely useful. Just like play. Get your copy in paperback or as a free e-book.

For more Bernie in your life you can keep up with him on G+ and Facebook, stay current with his blog. and read MIT Press’ re-release of his groundbreaking book, The Well-Played Game: A Player’s Philosophy. Oh, and be sure to bookmark his collection of games!

Bernie DeKoven, A Playful Path,

Play is how we have learned to learn. Instructions? We don’t need no stinkin’ instructions.  Bernie DeKoven

It’s About Reading For Pleasure

One week during the summer I was twelve, I had a crisis.

I ran out of library books.

Sure I rode my bike, went swimming with friends, and listened to music trying to figure out what the lyrics meant but I also indulged in hours of reading every day. Books transported me. My mother would call me to dinner and I’d look up, astonished to find I wasn’t a wolf on the tundra but a girl in shorts lying on the carpet. Or someone would knock on the bathroom door and I’d remember that I was soaking in the tub, not eluding soldiers in a medieval battle.

My parents supported reading, but they had no problem saying “get your nose out of that book and go outside.” They didn’t take us to the library more than two or three times a month, so the stack of books each of us brought home had to last.

When I realized I was bookless, I turned in desperation to a volume my older sister read as a class requirement. It had tiny print and a not-too-inspiring title, The Scarlet Letter. “It’s too hard,” she told me. “It’s a classic.”

I didn’t know “classic” meant it was good for me, like a bitter vitamin tablet. I insisted I was out of other options.

I promptly fell into Nathaniel Hawthorne’s words. They were exquisite in a way I’d never experienced, centered on the inner life and all its convolutions, something I already knew well but didn’t have the sophistication to express. I wasn’t aware such books existed. Instead of racing through it, as I did with every other book, I savored it. It felt as if I could run my fingers over the page and feel the texture of shame and longing. When I finished I was newly in love with the idea of classics, so I got books by Charles Dickens out of the library. I worked my way through two of them that summer although they didn’t live up to my great expectations. I thought Dickens droned and was nothing like Hawthorne.

Several years later I had to read The Scarlet Letter for English class. Everyone grumbled when assigned more pages to read. Those piercing insights, when listed in bullet points on the board, didn’t sink into my heart. Lectures and assignments obscured the book’s beauty. I didn’t read it with a cloak thrown over my head or the prick of a rose thorn in my skin. It lay dead, like a victim on the autopsy table.

Then I realized that my love of books had developed entirely outside of the classroom. I’d never really fallen in love with any of the books assigned in school, although the ones our teachers read aloud after recess, a few pages a day or an entire chapter on special days, still stood out in my mind. Reading, for me, was about pleasure. It was more than a habit, it was an integral part of my being. The books I read helped form my outlook and character. I dare say that many of us, if we look back, will find that favorite books from childhood have a surprising link to who we are today.

If I could, I’d reclaim reading for all of us, from earliest childhood on, as pleasure first and foremost. Turning to the written word for information and edification then becomes a pleasure too.

Why Write Poetry

write poetry, why poetry, becoming a poet,

Image: karrr.deviantart.com

I started to write poetry when I was eight or nine years old and continued until I was 13. The highlight? Winning a poetry contest in Mrs. Barker’s third grade class. The prize was a large chocolate bar.

The few scraps of writing I’ve found from those years consist of a child’s earnest questions and the comfort sought in a forest that once stood behind my parent’s home. Most lines are drenched with early existential dread. I’m not sure why I stopped writing. It could have been the surprisingly arduous trials of growing up or simple self-consciousness.

A moment from my 12th year comes to mind. I was in sixth grade, trying very hard to be like the other girls, never discussing the concerns that kept me awake most of the night. During the day, sleep-deprived into silliness, it often seemed to me that the conventions people took for granted were absurd. I did lots of laughing. One afternoon, walking out of class toward the playground for recess, I was telling a funny anecdote. A cluster of friends not only walked with me but jockeyed to be closest to me. The sun was shining on gumdrop green grass and I felt completely alive as I reached the best part of my story. I thought for a blindingly self-absorbed instant that this was what it was like to be popular. The next second I walked straight into a tall pole.

I hit it so hard I was thrown back. Dizzy, I made a joke about not seeing what had been there all along. My friends acted concerned but that was it, my brief encounter with popularity. Maybe I lost the secret habit of writing poetry because it seemed too much like an unseen pole, the sort of fullness that can erupt into a poem but might also raise a welt.

I never walked entirely away from poetry. As an adult I created poems from the phrases given to me by nursing home residents, crediting them separately for each line that eventually appeared in a book titled Gathering Our Thoughts. I led support groups for victims of abuse, hearing poetry as they shared their anguish in grace-laden detail. I taught non-violence workshops using poetry to emphasize the message of each session. I sent the work of my favorite poets to dear ones as a way of celebrating their joys and sharing their sorrows.

Yet I rarely encountered people living nearby who talked about, read, or wrote poetry. Far from our little farm I’m aware that poetry speaks for itself in slam festivals and readings, that it takes up residence in MFA programs and literary journals. Those worlds seem distant.

Poetry still feels like an indulgence. It hear it rustle in my head, trying to shuffle impressions into form, but I focus on my usual work of writing articles, editing, gardening, bringing in firewood, feeding cows, and other ordinary tasks. Besides, those impressions never entirely fit into words. I usually hush them till they are quiet. The ones that continue to pester I allow to fall onto paper although they don’t fully capture what’s just beyond language. When I took my manuscript to the post office to be weighed, addressed to “Poetry Editor,” I felt faintly ashamed, as if publicly admitting I squander time that could be devoted to more useful pursuits. The Puritan ethic dies slowly.

But the articles I write and the books I’m working on center around letting each person’s unique radiance shine. I believe this has to do, in part, with claiming both the light and dark in our lives so we can move toward a world of deeper mutuality. I know I’m not true to my ideals unless I live them. So I’m learning to treat the poetry writing impulse more gently. It feels starkly revealing, as liberation does.

The pieces in this collection have to do with beginning, uprooting, gathering, and abundance. They rise from the simple daily rituals that nourish me and from the loved ones who shape my life. They’re a way of walking into something hard without falling backwards.

publish poetry, why write poems,

Image: xxju.deviantart.com

Endless thanks to the intrepid souls who helped shape this book. The first ms readers: my beloved siblings Dale Piper and Cynthia Piper. My merry writing group: Connie Gunn, Margaret Swift, and Sarah Vradenburg. Those discerning individuals who commented on later drafts: Laurie Kincer, Leslie Nielson, Katherine Clark, and Mark Hersmann. I’m endlessly grateful. 

My New Book is Out!

Tending rises from my life on the farm and my fascination with the world at large. Informed by quietly ordinary days, these poems look into the nature of things with questions that circle the stars. I’m thrilled that the cover photo is by talented artist (and my sister) Cynthia Piper.

 

“Laura Grace Weldon employs radical empathy to enter into the hidden lives of rutabaga, cows, the neighborhood bully, and the beating heart of life itself.  Playful, curious, sensual, she aims to open the reader’s eyes and heart.”

Alison Luterman, author of See How We Almost Fly  and The Largest Possible Life.

 

“Laura Grace Weldon’s poems remind us that our world’s necessary brushes between nature and technology, human and animal, are not necessarily ones of friction. Instead, Weldon sees these moments as truly wondrous ones, available to us not only on the farm, but also in the back pocket of a window washer, swinging among the skyscrapers.”

Brad Ricca, author of American Mastodon and Super Boys.

 

“Memory, faith, and the natural world as both witness to the cycle of human life and healer to a questioning heart are at the core of this lovely and lyrical collection of poems. The weather changes, people come and go from cities and towns, babies are born, grow up and depart from their parents’ arms, but still, the countryside and its rituals sustain the people and creatures who know how to read the signs of the seasons. In these pages, Laura Grace Weldon shares those signs with us; her poems are the fruit of a wonderful harvest.”

Eleanor Lerman, author of The Sensual World Re-emerges: Poems and Mystery of Meteors.

 

“Laura Grace Weldon’s poems are concrete, allusive, and rich.”

 Diane Kendig, author of The Places We Find Ourselves.

 

“These are calming poems, set deep in the specifics of this life.”

David Budbill, author of Moment to Moment: Poems of a Mountain Recluse
and Happy Life.

 

Published by Aldrich Press. Order HERE.

(My friend Penny, from Dubai, suggests I share a sample. Here’s a poem from the first section, one no journal accepted although there are so few odes to root vegetables…)

Rutabaga

You darken as my knife slices

blushing at what you become.

I save your thick leaves

and purple skin

to feed the cows. 

 

A peasant guest at any meal

you agree to hide in fragrant stew

or gleam nakedly

in butter and chives.

 

Though your seeds are tiny

you grow with fierce will

grateful for poor soil and dry days,

heave up from the ground

under sheltering stalks

to sweeten with the frost.

 

Tonight we take you into our bodies

as if we do you a favor—

letting your molecules

become a higher being,

one that knows music and art.

 

But you share with us

what makes you a rutabaga.

Through you we eat sunlight,

taste the soil’s clamoring mysteries,

gain your seed’s perfect might. 

Laura Grace Weldon 

peace in tragedy, energy fingerprint, what we leave behind, act in crisis,

Image:andrewpoison.deviantart.com

10 Reasons To Become A Library Addict

library addiction, book zombie, build a library habit,

Image: CC by 2.0 ricardo266)

My name is Laura. I have a chronic library habit.

Sure, I have other, less socially acceptable habits. We can talk about those another day. Right now I’m trying to convince you to become a fellow library fanatic.

I’ve already been successful with my kids. The stacks of books my family brings home may be pushing up the state average. Now that my kids are older they are surprised most of their peers don’t bother with libraries, in person or online. And I’m surprised to see how many of my friends don’t use libraries either. Some haven’t been since high school. For those of you who don’t bliss out over libraries, or worse, dismiss libraries as dim places with a distinctive old book smell, here are the ten best reasons to get hooked on libraries.

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1. Magic water.

magic water, As a small child I was convinced there was something magical about drinking fountain water at our local library. It tasted better than water anywhere else. I wondered if it had to do with enviable proximity to all those books.

When I had kids I  rhapsodized about the water at libraries. And they’ve always been able to taste the difference. Even though I realize there’s no factual basis for this belief, library water still seems more deeply refreshing than ordinary water. Try it and see for yourself.

 

2. Awe.

library addict, library love, A much more vital magic is evident in libraries around the world.

It has to do with a sense of history, of freely shared knowledge, and awe-inspiring architecture. When traveling I make sure to hang out in libraries. Most recently I found time to soak up the atmosphere of one of NYC’s awesome libraries.

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3. Librarians.

love librarians, librarian stereotypes,

ala.org

Surely you celebrate the annual Hug Your Librarian Day. These folks are amazing. As  Erica Firment writes on Librarian Avengers,

People become librarians because they know too much. Their knowledge extends beyond mere categories. They cannot be confined to disciplines. Librarians are all-knowing and all-seeing. They bring order to chaos. They bring wisdom and culture to the masses. They preserve every aspect of human knowledge. Librarians rule. And they will kick the crap out of anyone who says otherwise.

Librarian stereotypes aren’t relevant or cute. Don’t believe me? Check out The Bellydancing LibrarianThe Steampunk Librarian, and Miss Information. Still think of them as chronic shsser’s? Then read Your Librarian Hates You.

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4. Library materials are free!

new library services, Our taxes pay for them whether you use them or not. Only suckers don’t get in there to scoop up books, magazines, movies, digital downloads, recorded books, electronic readers, programs, classes, performances, and more. My kids and I have strolled out after a library visit with well over 100 items checked out on a card or two.

Today’s libraries offer much more than well worn books and a chaotic Story Hour. Click over to your library’s website. You’ll find an amazing array of offerings well beyond the newest bestsellers. There are probably programs to get you started in fencing or felting or fraternizing with fellow foodies, just this week alone.

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5. Ordering.

order library materials, library request, OMG, I love ordering materials. In my area library systems are linked, so holdings can be sent from libraries in quite a few counties right to my own little branch. I can read a review of a book before it’s released, then go to the library site to pre-order it. I can order special book group offerings for our book group (up to 20 of the same book) that come organized by some saintly librarian with supplemental materials. I order obscure specialty books that were published back in the 1920’s and earlier.

We’ve homeschooled on the cheap thanks to our library system and the wonders of ordering materials. No way could I afford to expose my kids to the depth of information and range of experiences they’ve gained via libraries.

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6. Online renewal.

library perks, I don’t know about your library system, but mine permits renewals up to five times. Online. That gives me several months to adore most materials. Those months are necessary. I use books in my work, take them with me lest I have a dull moment, and leave them around for my family members to pick up when their eyeballs are unoccupied.

Sometimes I find books so precious that when they are finally and irrevocably due I end up buying a copy. But let me point out, I only buy books after proving their worth to myself. No regrettable book purchases here. Yay savings.

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7. Library privileges.

I’ve been in a steady human relationship for a loooong time, but I’m a non-monogamous library user. Judging by the number of library cards in my name, I’m a pushover for the sweet allure of any library’s New Acquisitions section.

It’s hard to unearn library privileges. Late fees are usually minimal and in many systems there are no late fees for seniors, teachers, and homeschoolers. Even when my account is labeled “delinquent” due to a late book or two I’m still able to check out and reserve materials. I don’t mind a few dollars here and there to make up for my late return crimes. Totally worth it. Unlike most human relationships, my library is always buying me something new, forgiving me when I atone, and consistently planning unexpected ways to lure me.

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8. Research databases.

library search functions,Library systems subscribe to pricey online database services that none of us could afford on our own. I access most of them from my home computer, simply logging in with my library card number. These databases include genealogy, academic research, news archives, digital images, health, and much more. I relied almost entirely on the resources of my award-winning Medina County Library for the research necessary to write my book.

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9. Book Zombie Fuel

book diet, reading addict,

sundaykofax via Flickr, CC by 2.0

A wealth of materials is essential for those of us who are Book Zombies. We absolutely must gorge on fresh brains books, feeding an insatiable hunger for that oblivious-to-the-world swoon we call reading. We don’t hear or see what’s happening in our “real” lives when lost in a book.

Libraries feed that hunger, gladly buying books for us and storing them until we’re ready for more.

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10. That smell.

foreign language library, Children of Chernobyl, Libraries don’t smell like someone’s musty basement. The odor is something entirely different. I’ll tell you what it reminds me of, right after I tell you about how much I appreciate Russian language library materials.

For five summers we hosted a little girl from Belarus  through the Children of Chernobyl project. And every summer before she arrived I called the librarian in charge of the foreign language collection at the Cleveland Public Library. We talked over Tatiana’s age and interests, then every few weeks through her three month stay this librarian sent to our rural library branch a wonderful selection of Russian materials including Harry Potter books, children’s magazines, recorded children’s books, popular music, and much more. When my kids curled up with books or went to bed listening to CD’s, Tanya was able to do so as well. I hoped it eased the hunger she must have felt to hear her own language. Beyond that, it built connections between us almost immediately.

The first day she arrived, exhausted from long flights and weak from some medical problems, there was no way we could really communicate. It became obvious that our efforts to learn Russian had been laughable and as a seven-year-old her grasp of English was limited to “yes” and “thank you.” Then I remembered those blessed library materials. In a few minutes all of us were dancing to the Russian version of “Hokey Pokey” and laughing before collapsing in a heap on the couch together to giggle as we paged through a Russian/English picture book, challenging each other to pronounce the words. That stack of Russian library materials smelled, more than anything, like home. To me, every library smells like my place. Bet they smell like your place too.