Be Pollyanna

Image by Healzo

“We can only be said to be alive in those moments

when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”  ~Thornton Wilde

 

The word “pollyanna” is defined as:

  1. an excessively or blindly optimistic person
  2. unreasonably or illogically optimistic

but the character by that name, in the 1913 book by Eleanor H. Porter (and in the 1960 movie version), is far wiser than this.

Pollyanna was the daughter of an idealistic missionary who, in his dying days, taught his daughter the “glad game.”  The game is simple. In a situation that seems unpleasant, even dire, find a reason to feel glad. It’s a courageous way to face overwhelming circumstances.

Pollyanna certainly faced tragedies. She lived in poverty with her parents and relied on the mercy of donated goods. When her parents died, Pollyanna was sent to live with her wealthy, disapproving aunt. The aunt decided her niece should reside in the stifling attic rather than be allowed to use any of the comfortable bedrooms that were available. When the girl opened an attic window to find relief from the unrelenting heat she was punished. But Pollyanna shared the glad game with anyone willing to listen. She explained to her aunt’s servant, Nancy, how her father started the game back when she’d hoped to find a doll in the missionary barrel.

“Why, we began it on some crutches that came in a missionary barrel.”

“CRUTCHES!”

“Yes. You see I’d wanted a doll, and father had written them so; but when the barrel came the lady wrote that there hadn’t any dolls come in, but the little crutches had. So she sent ‘em along as they might come in handy for some child, sometime. And that’s when we began it….The game was to just find something about everything to be glad about—no matter what ‘twas,” rejoined Pollyanna, earnestly. “And we began right then—on the crutches.”

“Well, goodness me! I can’t see anythin’ ter be glad about—getting’ a pair of crutches when you wanted a doll!”

Pollyanna clapped her hands.

“There is—there is,” she crowed. “But I couldn’t see it, either, Nancy, at first,” she added, with a quick honesty. “Father had to tell it to me.”

“Well, then suppose YOU tell ME,” almost snapped Nancy.

“Goosey! Why, just be glad because you don’t—NEED—‘EM!” exulted Pollyanna, triumphantly.

According to neuroscience, Pollyanna was on to something.

Being mindful of what we’re grateful for helps us pay closer attention to what’s beautiful and meaningful in our daily lives. There’s peace to be found in ripples of rain on a puddle, a neighbor’s smile, birdsong,  the smell of coffee brewing, a child’s hug.

According to research, the practice of writing a daily gratitude list boosts our sense of well-being and gives us a brighter outlook on life while also increasing our pro-social behaviors. An attitude of gratitude makes for happier kids and more satisfying relationships. Gratitude is correlated with more empathy, greater generosity, and less materialistic attitudes. It also helps us handle stress better, sleep better, reduces inflammation, and benefits our hearts.

The power of gratitude is so vast that it persists over time. One study asked participants to write down three things that went well each day, along with what caused them to go well, for one full week. They were only two percent happier that week, but follow-up tests showed their happiness continued to increase for six months afterwards. Symptoms of depression decreased even more, declining by 28 percent in that week and continuing to improve slightly over the next six months.

Even when going through overwhelming difficulties, being mindful of our blessings can retrain our brains to be more positive. Gratitude causes the brain to produce dopamine and serotonin, neurotransmitters related to pleasure and balanced mood. Focusing on appreciation tunes our minds to feel appreciative more often. As neuroscientist Alex Korb writes in The Upward Spiral

“It’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place. Remembering to be grateful is a form of emotional intelligence. One study found that it actually affected neuron density in both the ventromedial and lateral prefrontal cortex. These density changes suggest that as emotional intelligence increases, the neurons in these areas become more efficient. With higher emotional intelligence, it simply takes less effort to be grateful.”

Unlike Pollyanna, we shouldn’t gloss over or ignore our difficulties. Research shows that consciously recognizing and naming our negative feelings actually lessens their impact on us, reducing our emotional reactivity to worry, fear, and despair. And there’s power in letting others know they’ve had a negative effect on us, even after significant time has passed.

Before things got better for Pollyanna, they got worse. A car accident left her in need of those very crutches and even her glad game didn’t save her from despair. But by then, her kindly ways had earned love from many people and the love they returned made the difference.

This week I am grateful beyond words. My oldest son had emergency brain surgery last week and after five days in ICU his prognosis is excellent. I’m grateful to live in a time and place when saving him is possible; grateful for skilled and caring medical people at Medina Hospital and Fairview Hospital; grateful for so many wonderful people offering their love, prayers, and help. Every single thing in our lives takes on a sort of luminous glow through the lens of gratitude.  As the mystic Meister Eckhart said back in the 13th century, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, that would suffice.”

Lost But Not Astray

value of getting lost,

“In a quarter mile, stay right at the fork to exit. Turn right.”

There’s no angst in the GPS lady’s modulated voice. No panic.  Her calm is particularly soothing to someone like me, someone with a long history of getting lost.

At four years old, I got separated from my mother nearly every time we went to the grocery store. Sure, I kept her worriedly in sight, my eyes carefully trained on her navy blue coat, until somehow she’d disappear.  Adrift in a sea of carts and legs, I’d tremble in silent terror, afraid I might never see her again. Even then, I adhered to the Good Girl code —not crying or calling out while I searched. It seemed like hours, though it was likely never more than a few minutes, until finally there she was, her face a welcome beacon. Relief would rush through me and I’d grab her hand like the lifeline it was. She’d pause and say distractedly, “Honey, you need to stay with me.”

At nine I rode my horse (which looked to everyone else like a pink bike) everywhere, letting curiosity overcome my usual anxiety. Just one more turn in the road, just one new street, and then bam, I was disoriented again. Once, a kindly-looking woman out watering her flowers asked if I was lost. I lied profusely to assure her I was not, then got even more lost trying to avoid going past her house again. After that I kept a cheerful expression on my face, even the time I was convinced the wail of sirens going by surely meant my house was dissolving in flames.

I didn’t grow out of my geographic confusion. Heck, I had to drop a class in my first quarter of college because, I’m chagrined to admit, I couldn’t find the room.

Another time, coming home from a day of volunteering, I got lost in Akron’s swirl of one-way streets. It was dark, I had no map, and I began to fear I would never see the welcome faces of my family again. I literally decided to use the steering wheel as a dowsing rod. I’d approach an intersection and ask the wheel which way it wanted to turn. It took me, quite handily, to Akron General Hospital where recognizable interstate highways signs were visible. I was downright giddy with relief as I merged on a road that would take me home.

The roots of the word lost are dire. From Old English losian “be lost, perish” and from Old High German firliosan “to loosen, divide, cut apart, untie, separate.”

Loss, losing, lost. These are hard teachers.

When lost, you look more closely at everything. Even a familiar route, upon scrutiny, reveals detail you’ve never noticed before. “I don’t remember an apartment above that store,” you say to yourself, “especially one with leopard print curtains.” But that’s what paying attention feels like.

When lost, you learn to handle panic, perhaps swearing, taking deep breaths, or imploring relevant saints and angels to show you the way. These tactics come in handy later, because life is eventful and will offer us many other, far more panic-worthy situations.

When you’re lost it feels a bit like wandering into a foreign country. All around you people go about their ordinary activities and there you are, unable to translate, an outsider. And yet it’s when you’re an outsider that you gain ever deeper perspective.

Maybe getting lost is a valuable, even necessary tool to navigate life.

Today, as my GPS lady calmly tells me how to get where I’m going, I see getting lost a new way. Back when I was twenty-one years old, degree in my head, map at my side, I was taking I-71 to a job interview. I’d written directions and, as I headed out, noted the odometer so I could remind myself to start looking for my exit in 13 miles.  Thirteen miles later, I suddenly became aware I was headed south. Not north.  By then I should have been parking in a Cleveland lot, taking an elevator to the 6th floor, turning in my resume, and expounding on my suitability for the job with as much confident sparkle as I could muster.

An illegal U-turn and excess speed delivered me to that parking lot 11 minutes late. Knowing no one hires the tardy candidate, I gave up and turned for home, lost in remorse.

In a parallel universe I went the right direction, got that job, tipped every subsequent moment sideways. If that had happened I wouldn’t be here right now, in a life so blessed that I’m stuffed to the brim with gratitude.  In a quarter-mile I stay right at the fork to exit, turn right, and head exactly where I’m going.

I Live in Dichotomy House

bull steer

I’m standing at the kitchen counter rolling out crust to make an entrée my son wants for his birthday. Beef pies. They won’t be filled with just any beef, but the tender flesh of a two-year-old steer named Clovis who spent his whole life on our little farm. It’s hard to reconcile my feelings with the facts. Right now I’m dicing the brisket, a place where Clovis liked to be scratched.

Years ago my daughter made an excellent case for raising a dairy cow as a learning experience for her and homegrown way for us to procure healthy grassfed milk we could turn into yogurt, kefir, and cheese. On her birthday we gave her a red halter and soon after we got a lovely Guernsey. Isabelle changed her life. All our lives

The spring that Isabelle gave birth to her first bull calf was another game-changer. Initially I tried to delude myself that little Dobby  could be trained to work as an ox or that we could find him a place in some farm animal sanctuary. Delusions they were indeed. Our only option was to raise him for a year or two, knowing all our hand-fed carrots and apples couldn’t forestall his eventual fate.

When he was small my daughter halter-trained him, leading him out the pasture gate to fresh grass. Even later, at 1,600 pounds, he followed her just as future steers would do. Long before they had to leave, she wisely insured they’d be calm and unafraid for the day they’d be led to the truck taking them away.

It’s a hard truth indeed to realize that calves who love to be brushed, calves who cavort in exultation when the gate to a fresh pasture is opened, calves who are clearly attached to the mother who birthed them and continues to care for them, cannot live out their natural lifespans. We consoled ourselves knowing that at least here our steers lived every day of their lives with their mother, grazing and nursing in peace until the last day they breathed. And that Isabelle could live out her natural lifespan, more than three times longer than dairy cows are typically permitted in the U.S. This is rare, almost unheard of, on today’s farms.

But I veer from my point. (This veering is a chronic problem of mine.)

My scruples once ruled. My children were raised on vegetarian food made from scratch. I used to be pretty darn strident about this. Heck, I used to be pretty strident about all sorts of things, from education to politics. My scruples haven’t changed, at least I think they haven’t, but my ability to live with dichotomy has.

Maybe it was precipitated by that not-so-great dinner of bean patties with buckwheat groats and mushroom gravy, but at this point three out of four of my offspring now include meat in their diets. (Yes friends, it’s true, our dictates don’t inform our kids’ choices. ) My husband once ate meat only at restaurants and other people’s houses because I couldn’t bear to have the flesh of once-living creatures in our home. Then he became a hunter. People dear to me quite happily flourish on the opposite end of the political spectrum and I do my (sometimes faltering) best to establish common ground, because really, every one of us wants the same things —-among them the freedom to live in safety, do what enhances our lives, and find meaning in our everyday activities. People dear to me also raise their children very differently than I’ve chosen, from sleep training to stringently academic schooling to tough love.

Every year I’ve learned more about accepting, even embracing, differing viewpoints. It’s not easy. There’s plenty of kvetching, from me and surely from the people who do their best to put up with me. This is a very big deal. It’s the foundation of peace, the only possible way forward for our species.

I slice up the very flesh I once lavished with rubs and scratches,  then I roll out dough (yes, with whole grain flour) because my son hopes I’ll try the Cornish Pasty recipe he showed me. (For vegetarian family members, I make spinach pies that are refreshingly free of contradictions.)

I have no philosophy that fully explains this contradiction. But I try to stay awake and aware as I make food for someone I love out of the flesh of an animal I once loved. I reflect sorrowfully that, since last spring, we have no cattle at all on our back pasture. I’m sure I miss those mindful beings far less than my daughter must.

I wash the wooden cutting board, wipe the counters, and consider how complicated and paradoxical life is. We live on life, pass from life, and life goes on. I don’t know what to make of it except to rationalize a second glass of wine.

When Children See a Parent as a Person

 

parents are people, kids recognizing parents as people,

Every evening at church camp was the same. We tidied up our cabins and then met back at the lodge. There we were taught songs and led in quiet games. Ours was a reserved sort of Christianity. The Presbyterian church  I was raised in proffered no talk of hell or being saved, no witnessing. The congregation was friendly in a formal sort of way. (Even so, I don’t think they entirely deserved the denomination’s nickname—“God’s Frozen Chosen.”)

I was nine years old that summer. My father had volunteered to serve as one of the camp counselors and bunked halfway up the hill in a cabin with the older boys. I was assigned a cabin at the bottom of the hill with the younger girls.

On our last evening of the week-long camp we were called out of the lodge after the final song. There stood our recently ordained young minister. He held flaming torches in his upraised hands like some illustration from a storybook. He passed them out to the counselors and told us to follow.

This was highly irregular. Fire? Hiking after dark? Staying up past bedtime? Our speculative whispers were unsuccessfully hushed by the grown-ups. We arrived at the clearing where morning worship services were held. It looked different at night. Shadowy trees loomed over the ring of log seats. Adults leaned their torches toward a dark stack of wood until a bonfire flared.

The minister offered a prayer and then talked about faith. I was so caught up in this out-of-the-ordinary moment that I didn’t pay close attention to his words. Who would? Kids know grown-ups like to go on and on about things. It’s best to let them. Meanwhile, I was mesmerized by the flames and how different our faces looked in the firelight.

Then the minister asked a question, something about how we knew God in our hearts. Silence settled over our group. None of us were familiar with faith discussed in such personal terms. The pastor looked around the circle with an expression kids know all too well. It’s the look teachers get when they are going to call on someone.

I was so timid that I tended to blush even for other people. One day in school, after his family had vacationed in Hawaii, Doug Bloomfield brought a grass skirt to Show & Tell. He cheerfully clicked on a cassette of exotic music, pulled the skirt over his pants, and demonstrated a hula dance. He didn’t seem at all embarrassed. In my third row seat I blushed a red so deep that kids actually looked away from the hula spectacle to stare at me.

Until now I’d liked this strange after-dark event. The cool night air scented with burning wood felt magical. But I was pretty sure asking people to talk about their own religious experiences was rude. Already I felt flustered on behalf of whoever might have to answer. The minister stopped waiting for one of us to volunteer. He chose someone.

The person he asked was my father.

My dad, a quiet and low-key man, wasn’t one to speak up in front of others. There was a long pause. I was sure I could feel his distress. Then my father spoke. He talked a little about growing up in the country where he spent time in the woods and fields. He said he still felt closest to God not in church, but when he was out in nature. He finished by saying he liked silence and that was a way of praying too.

A moment comes when a child begins to see a parent as a separate person. This was such a moment. I knew my father was drawn to the outdoors. He took us hiking, showed us how to skip stones across the water, let us get muddy. But this was a larger context. I saw he had his own reasons to spend time outside. I recognized my father as a man whose life was bigger than I’d imagined.

Although this was my first glimpse of him as a person in his own right, I also I felt closer to him. That’s because what he spoke my truth too. In the little forest behind our house I liked to go to a particular spot by myself. I didn’t have the words for it, but when I sat quietly there I had a sense of being in a sacred place. I looked across the circle at my father and loved him more than ever. He looked back at me. His face was luminous in the firelight.

seeing parent as a person, church camp,

Say Yes to Your Weirdness

We tend to suppress certain aspects of ourselves in order to fit in. (Although when we display whatever weirdness is ‘in” I think that’s also a sort of conformity too.)

When I was growing up I did everything I could to hide what was odd and different in myself, letting out the funnier aspects in measured doses with my friends but keeping most tucked tightly in some inner compartment of my being. (To some extent I still do. You probably do too.)

I hope my kids have felt freer to express their own weirdness whether an early fascination with vacuum cleaners, a passion for forensic pathology, or unstoppable investigations of science-related oddities but I know for sure they are far more complex beings than their mother imagines.

Looking up the word “weird,” I see that its original meanings have to do with living out our uniqueness.

  • wyrd (fate or personal destiny)
  • wurđízwurd, wurt, urðr, worden (to become)
  •  wert (to turn, rotate)
  • wirþ, weorþan (to come to pass, to become)
  • weorþ (origin, worth)

Mythologist Michael Meade, founder of Mosaic Voices, says has plenty to say about that in an interview,

When I work with youth, I try to assist them in discovering their own unique essence. The sad fact is that everything in this culture is working against that essence. Mass culture is opposed to the uniqueness of individuals. Young people, whose job it is to become themselves, are walking into a culture whose goal is to turn them into everybody else. What I try to do is help young people realize who they already are inside. American culture says that you must make something of yourself, but the mythological understanding is that everybody already is someone. They have a seeded self at birth. As soon as young people are aware of the uniqueness inside them, they can begin to manifest the stories they’re carrying.

Meade’s comments echo a remarkable book, The Soul’s Codeby the late James Hillman. Hillman described each of us as coming into the world with a uniqueness that asks to be lived out, a sort of individual destiny which he termed an “acorn.” It’s a remarkable lens to view who we are. A child’s destiny may show itself in all sorts of ways: in behaviors we call disobedience, in obsession with certain topics or activities, in a constant pull toward or away from something. Rather than steering a child to a particular outcome, Hillman asks parents to pay closer attention to who the child is and how the child shows his or her calling. He also asks each of us, at any age, to listen to our weirdness. It’s integral to who we are on this moment-to-moment path of becoming.

What makes YOU weird?

Here are a few more thoughts on the matter.

“Whatever makes you weird, is probably your greatest asset.” Joss Whedon

There’s a whole category of people who miss out by not allowing themselves to be weird enough. ~ Alain de Botton

If you think people in your life are normal, then you undoubtedly have not spent any time getting to know the abnormal side of them. ~Shannon L. Alde

It ‘s weird not to be weird. ~ John Lennon

Blessed are the weird people – poets, misfits, writers, mystics, painters & troubadours – for they teach us to see the world through different eyes. ~ Jacob Nordb

 “Be daring, be different, be impractical, be anything that will assert integrity of purpose and imaginative vision…” ~Cecil Beaton
“There is no such thing as a weird human being. It’s just that some people require more understanding than others.” ~Tom Robbins
“It’s not so much what you have to learn if you accept weird theories, it’s what you have to unlearn.” ~ Issac Asimov

“Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” ~Martin Luther King, Jr

All images courtesy of pixabay.com.

Who Are You When The Power Goes Out?

contemplation time, power outage, technology dependence,

Over a decade ago a power outage started in Ohio, rapidly spreading to four other states and parts of Canada. In some places power wasn’t restored for days. For a time, systems with backup generators continued working but only as long as those generators had fuel. ATM machines couldn’t be accessed, gas stations couldn’t pump gas, phone service was disrupted, and water systems lost pressure.

When it started, my parents checked in with a neighbor who was home alone next door. My mother told the 14-year-old girl if she needed something she only had to ask. “I’m fine,” the girl assured her.

About an hour later the (now distraught) girl rang my parent’s doorbell. “I don’t know what to do!” she said.

“What’s wrong?” my alarmed mother asked her, “Are you okay?”

It turned out no particular thing was wrong, exactly. But this girl was close to panic. She couldn’t get online. She couldn’t recharge her phone. She couldn’t turn on the TV.  Tired of her iPod and without other familiar diversions she was left to her own devices.

She. Didn’t. Know. What. To. Do.

Maybe we’ve unlearned how to be with ourselves, perhaps for the first time in history. Our ancestors, whether hunting or hoeing, had hours each day to think their own thoughts. They had time to notice nuances in the natural world. They had time to know themselves. Those previous eras weren’t all golden by any means, but our ancestors probably couldn’t have imagined a future generation populated by people who would suffer when left without moment-to-moment diversions.

What are we diverting ourselves from, exactly?

My friend Urmila, who lives in India, tells me that we most fully inhabit our lives when we’re not doing but being. She says there’s a big different between her culture and ours. In the West believe a good day is spent getting a lot accomplished. Our spare minutes are filled with distractions, our vacations are way to check items off our bucket lists, and family time needs to be fit into a schedule.

To her a good day is one of daydreams, contemplation, meditation, a quiet walk—simply experiencing the flow of time.

(Urmila has motivated me to stop uttering what I think is the curse word of our time.)

Which brings me to a relevant study. Researchers performed brain scans on rats as they went through a maze and again afterwards. They found rats, given a chance to relax, showed enhanced learning and memory retention compared rats who were not. The scientists noted that human experiences also require periods of quiet wakeful introspection to make sense of them.

What we experience is just raw data until we feel it, think about it, and weave it into our personally tapestry. Relaxing and reflecting lets us find meaning in our experiences. That sounds like a life more fully lived, whether the power is on or not.

technology addiction, introspection, studies of memory,

Making Memories Through Music

image: pixabay.com

image: pixabay.com

Do you attach any significance to songs that start playing in your mind? I do. Maybe that’s because they often get stuck, becoming earworms that loop around for what seem like hours. Sometimes they even wake me in the middle of the night.

I can’t help but wonder why the underpinning of my consciousness loads a particular piece of music. Sometimes it’s easy to figure out because my husband was whistling it or it was playing at a restaurant or I heard a slice of it when a car stopped next to me at a traffic light. Most of the time it seems too random to be chance. So I try to figure out what the song tells me in lyric or mood or memory.

Today, simply walking into a room, my mind’s playlist came up with a tender song I haven’t heard in decades, “Never My Love.”

It took me right back to my childhood home. Most evenings my schoolteacher father sat in an armchair grading papers. I liked to sit on the floor with my back against his chair reading a book in the same warm circle of lamplight. On those nights he played music like  “Only You” by The Platters, “Happy Together” by the Turtles, “Cherish” by The Association, “Both Sides Now” by Judy Collins, “So Far Away” by Carole King, “Close to You” by the Carpenters, and just about anything by Burt Bacharach.

My father loved all kinds of music. In college he was nicknamed “Pitch Pipe” – a play on his surname Piper and an homage to his perfect pitch. When my siblings and I were tiny he’d turn the stereo up so we could dance to big band music, the score from a musical, or a classical standard. He’d sing along, harmonizing against the melody. Without a shred of self-consciousness he’d lift up his arms to conduct a particularly tantalizing portion of Bach or Mozart. And sometimes after dinner a song would come on the radio and he’d dance with my mother, both of them smiling as they swooped around the kitchen linoleum.

My father’s father died when my dad was only five years old. The only thing my dad owned of his father’s was a guitar, which he taught himself to play. Supervising little kids’ baths was one of his chores in the parental division of duties, so he’d sit on the toilet lid singing and strumming that guitar while we played in the tub. My splashy siblings and I sang right along with him to tunes like “You Are My Sunshine” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart.” We also sang songs he remembered from his college days, lyrics edited for little ears.

I don’t know what it means that I’m hearing “Never My Love.” Most likely something below the surface of my awareness triggered a childhood memory. But I prefer to think it’s a form of connection that lasts even when death separates us.

I’m singing it aloud Dad. I’m singing it for you.

Sprouting Plant Advocates

Every growing season our four children choose which crop will be theirs to plant and tend in our vegetable garden. It doesn’t make my work easier. But this tradition helps them understand how intrinsically connected we all are to sunlight, soil, and the lives of growing things.

Claire always insists on sugar snap peas. They grow quickly enough to gratify her restless nature and besides, they’re fun to eat fresh from the vine. Her three brothers aren’t as opinionated. They choose something different each year. Last year Benjamin had a great crop of sweet corn, buzzing with honeybees and taller than his pre-teen shoulders. Little Samuel’s green peppers struggled—perhaps too close to the shadowing tomato plants, but still they produced a gratifying harvest, heavy and large in his preschooler’s hands. Only Kirby’s chosen crop, watermelons, disappointed. He’d picked them out of the seed catalog based on claims of huge size and juicy red flesh. He took personal pride in the resulting vines stretching vigorously across the garden. Yet the flowers never fruited. Instead they turned brown and curled up.

This winter, before we’ve even ordered our spring seeds, Kirby’s second-grade class begins a unit on botany. He comes home and tells us that everyone got to write his or her name on a Styrofoam cup. Then they filled the cups with potting soil and each planted one white bean. Although he’s seen this miracle happen over and over at home he’s excited about the project at school. Daily he supplies progress reports while unloading his book bag containing carefully drawn worksheets with terms like root, stem, leaves, pistol, and stamen.

For nearly a week the cups show only dirt. Then one day Kirby eagerly hurries from the bus with wonderful news. A bean has sprouted! Emily’s cup is the first to show life. “It’s like a little bent green rubber band,” he exclaims.

Every day he reports whose cups are bursting with growth. It has become a competition. Emily’s plant, at first the class wonder, is now no longer the tallest. For a few days Jason’s plant is the tallest, then Kerri’s, then Christoper’s plant takes the lead. Only a few cups show no visible progress. Kirby’s cup is one of those. His enthusiasm is not diminished. He’s seen what happens when a seed awakens, splits its shell, pushes through the dirt, and stands upright. He trusts in the life force of each seed.

That Friday there’s a teacher study day. A three-day weekend with no one at school to water those little cups. I find myself wondering about the tender green beans lined up in the cold window, dry and struggling to live. I’m almost afraid to send my trusting son off to school on Monday.

But Kirby returns home with a shy grin, as if he can hardly believe a long-awaited hope has come true. “It’s this big!” he says, stretching his thumb and forefinger apart. Apparently his little plant mustered up some courage during the long weekend alone. Not only has it burst through the soil, it’s already competing with older seedlings in height.

A few days later I volunteer in the classroom and notice the progress of the seedlings. Standing up from cups – children’s names scrawled proudly across the front – they appear to have identities of their own. But they’re getting gangly, leaning on the window or neighboring plants. They need to be put into bigger pots or, if only they’d been planted at the right time, into a garden. It seems an ill-timed project.

The next day, coming in from errands, I’m disconcerted by a terse phone message from Kirby’s teacher. Something about non-compliance. The teacher wants me to call back to help her determine an appropriate punishment. I can’t imagine what might have gone wrong. I start to call her back, but then I hear the school bus rounding the corner. I’ll wait to hear what Kirby has to say first.

There’s a look children get that’s hard to describe. They appear so full they may burst, but they don’t know if they can let out what has them so overwhelmed. The adult world has them confounded. That’s the look Kirby wears. Misery, anger, guilt, petulance, and defiance as well.  There’s so much emotion on his face that I can only give him a big hug and ask him to tell me.

He can’t sit. He paces as he starts to explain. Today in class his teacher had each pupil take his or her plant, sit at their desks and…. for a minute he can’t go on. He tries again. Finally I understand. The ultimate purpose of the seedling is to serve as an example of plant anatomy. “She wanted me to kill it Mom!” he said, wide-eyed at the injustice of it.

It seems Kirby took the plastic knife he was given but just sat there. He wouldn’t take his plant out of the dirt, he wouldn’t cut it apart. While the other children followed instructions on their worksheets the teacher scolded Kirby.  Then took his plant and put it back on the windowsill where it sat alone, nearly tipping over without other seedlings to lean on. My son waited, knowing he’d done something wrong.

It’s too soon to plant the bean plant in the garden. Repotting might not give it a strong chance either. I have to tell him the truth about his plant’s chances. But I explain that I’m proud of him for doing what he thought was right. The world needs more people who listen to their hearts.

I call his teacher. I try to explain that my kindhearted son felt he was sticking up for a friend of his, that sometimes following the rules doesn’t always serve the higher good. The teacher doesn’t agree. The next day Kirby is punished. He is learning that rules, even the ones we feel are wrong, bear consequences.

Although his bright green plant isn’t likely to survive, I suspect that, this year, Kirby will decide to plant green beans in our garden. He’ll grow them in memory of his friend and of the fallen green comrades who gave their lives for second-grade science.

First published in Green Prints, a loooong time ago!

Are You An Anthropocentrist?

 

animal intelligence, anthropocentrism,

Paradise, by Gillis d’Hondecoeter circa 1575

When I was growing up we were taught humans were at the top of every chart, far superior to all other living beings. Our textbooks, illustrated with stereotypical images of “cave men,” proved the assertion with a long list of what our species could do that others could not. The list was so smug that I was a bit embarrassed on behalf of my fellow homo sapiens. A skeptic even then, I thought the list was somewhat prejudicial. Worse, it didn’t acknowledge what feels obvious to young children, that we are all things and all things are us.

I don’t for a moment dismiss our many human accomplishments—among them language, science, the arts, and shared rules meant to advance mutual compassion. I simply mean to point out that we’re not better, we’re different.

Besides, what I was taught as a kid doesn’t really hold up. Here are some reasons why.

Tool use was a biggie on that list. It’s true, animals haven’t developed the smart phone (thus are spared walking into traffic while texting) but they naturally incorporate tool use when it makes sense for them.

  1. Crows make tools like hooks and rakes out of twigs, leaves, even their own feathers to obtain items just out of reach and can use three tools in sequence.  They also will drop pebbles into a container in order to raise the level of water, understanding cause and effect as well as a seven to 10-year-old child. Other examples of tool use by crows? They’re known to drop nuts on a roadway so cars will crack the shells, then wait for a break in traffic to retrieve the nutmeat. Interestingly, they’re more proficient when they grow up watching adult crows fashion tools. (Crows might wonder why we segregate human kids away from the interesting work-a-day world of adults.)
  2. Naked mole rats dig with their teeth, but to keep from inhaling dust and dirt they’re known to position wood shavings in their mouths as rudimentary face masks.
  3. The octopus is more closely related to clams than to people, yet these invertebrates plan ahead, tool-wise. For example they’ve been seen carrying coconut shell halves they can hide under later in order to grab unsuspecting prey as it passes.
  4. Orangutans fold leaves into a usable “musical instrument” that modifies their calls, making them sound lower and therefore more threatening to large predators.

Math was another obvious difference. We were taught that numerical sense is evidence of higher order thinking. Yet the animal kingdom uses math when necessary.

  1. Bears can count. Although they don’t benefit from the intelligence-boosting effect of living in social groups, research shows bears can estimate quantities just as well as primates. One particular study taught bears to discriminate between dots on a touchscreen computer, a situation about as far removed from relevant bear smarts as possible. Their abilities in natural habitat are likely to be far more impressive.
  2. Elephants have substantial numerical skills, outperforming primates and even human children when tested for their ability to find the difference between two quantities. A study found elephants can discriminate between one and two as well as between larger numbers.
  3. Baby chicks can not only count, they can even can add up numbers based on groups of objects they can’t see at the moment.  And that’s when they’re a few days old!  By two weeks of age, chickens can take into account the sun’s height and position to navigate. Plus they’re able to draw inferences and plan ahead, for example choosing to delay gratification in order to reap a greater reward. And who’d have guessed, but chickens prefer to count from left to right.
  4. Pigeons are able to learn abstract rules about numbers and order pairs. Aside from humans, only rhesus monkeys have been able to perform at this level.
  5. Insects also use math. Honeybees can distinguish between and remember quantities up to four. They can also match patterns. Ants operate with a collective form of intelligence, able to use complex problem-solving strategies to optimize time and energy spent feeding the colony.

People, we were told, communicate in complex ways while animals are, well, just animals. Again, not true.

  1. Elephants communicate sophisticated ideas in a variety of ways including low-frequency sounds from 1 and 20 Hz that can travel over miles. So far, researchers have identified nearly 200 expressions and gestures, along with nearly 100 vocalizations. Elephants can recognize at least 100 other unseen elephants by voice alone.  Their remarkable ability to understand communication isn’t limited to their own species. African elephants can differentiate between languages, gender, and age of human speakers.
  2. Dolphins remember one another, without contact, for at least 20 years. In fact, researchers have found that dolphins call each other by name (in this case, distinctive signature whistles).
  3. Koko, a western lowland gorilla, has been taught American Sign Language and, according to her trainer, understands about 1,000 signs along with nearly 2,000 words of spoken English. Sometimes, when there’s not a relevant sign, Koko invents her own signs. For example, she “compounded the sign for scratch with the sign for comb to mean, “brush” (scratch-comb).”
  4. Alex, an African gray parrot, learned well over 100 words that he used appropriately in unique contexts, demonstrating the intelligence of a five year old human child. He died suddenly in 2007. The last thing he said to his trainer upon going to his cage for the night was, “You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.”

Which brings us to emotion and personality. Yup, non-human types are brimming with it.

  1. Chimps not only create social traditions, they’re interested in what’s trendy. Researchers are just now catching on (academic types are not known for fashion forwardness) to the latest thing, chimps wearing grass in their ears.
  2. Stressed-out honeybees show an increased expectation of bad outcomes. In other words, they become pessimists. The bees also showed altered levels of neurochemicals associated with depression. Other invertebrates, such as crayfish, can exhibit anxiety and respond well to medications that relieve anxiety in humans.
  3. Dogs traumatized by military service or abuse exhibit signs of canine Post Traumatic Stress Disorder 
  4. Rats feel regret after making poor choices.
  5. Crows will eat nearly anything, but prefer French fries from a McDonalds bag to the same fries in a plain brown sack. They not only hold grudges against specific humans who have done them wrong, but will teach other crows to react badly upon seeing them as well.
  6. And play? There’s plenty of it. Crows like to ski down icy rooftops and snow-covered slopes holding sticks or boards in their talons. River otters, elephants, and whales are known for playful behavior.

 

Let me push it one step farther, to compassion and even spirituality. We’ve been told that only humans have evolved beyond survival-based selfishness to establish ethics and morality. We’ve been taught we’re the only species to perform rituals as we mourn the passing of our departed, the only ones to meditate in silence, the only ones to experience a sense of awe akin to reverence. Apparently not true either.

  1. Altruism? There’s plenty of evidence. A dolphin saving a beached whale and its calf. Gorillas working together to dismantle dangerous poachers’ traps. A pod of sperm whales adopting a disabled dolphin. Rats gnawing through cages to help other imprisoned rats. A bear assisting an injured crowLions chasing away an Ethiopian child’s kidnappers and guarding her until human help arrived.
  2. How about awe? Chimps are known to ritualistically dance at the advent of thunderstorms and dance at waterfalls. They’ve also been observed dancing (rather than fleeing instinctively) in the face of wild grass fires.
  3. Meditation? Baboons have been observed performing a sangha, sitting in silence for over a half hour gazing at a stream of water, even the juveniles remaining quiet.
  4. Love? Probably yes according to research with cats and dogs who seem to be tapping into fields beyond our conscious awareness to know when their owners are coming home.
  5. Funerals, those too. Elephants weep in sorrow and grieve their dead. They’ve also been known to sense the death of humans important to them, even from great distances, as two tribes of African elephants did when they walked for hours to mourn at the home of a conservationist who’d once rescued them. Ritualized behavior to mourn death is common in animals including foxes,  magpieswolves, dolphins, and gorillas.
  6. Maybe even religion. Cetologist Hal Whitehead‘s research indicates that sperm whales not only transmit culture to their young, they may have have evolved a form of religion to make sense of their purpose.

 

Even these terribly incomplete examples have probably taxed your patience although there are thousands of other fascinating proofs out there. Let’s remember, all these observations are human-centric, further evidence that we judge animals against one species—-us.

We wouldn’t have particularly good scores if tested according to the abilities of our fellow creatures. It’s not as if we can age in reverse as a jellyfish named Turritopsis dohrnii does, possess a snake’s infrared vision able to assess the difference in temperature between moving prey and surrounding area on the scale of milliKelvins, emit a protein that neutralizes nearly every poison as an opossum does, regrow limbs and organs as the salamander can, or are able to hear as well as the wax moth Galleria mellonella which is capable of detecting frequencies of up to 300kHz, (we humans at best hear to about 20kHz).

According to evolutionary biologists, we humans aren’t better than animals, just different. Researchers in fields like comparative psychology and language study, say there’s an “emerging consensus among scientists that animals share functional parallels with humans’ conscious metacognition — that is, our ability to reflect on our own mental processes and guide and optimize them.”

As naturalist Henry Beston wrote in The Outermost House,

We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.

 

animal capacities, Eden,

“Paradijs met dieren” by Jan Brueghel the Elder, 1620

Stock Photo Bias: Youth Version

bias against kids, child stereotypes,

Search for “kids learning” stock photos. Image: bigstockphoto.com.

Female images typically found in stock photos are airbrushed models posing in starkly stereotypical scenes: sexy domestic, sexy business, and sexy-wearing-a-hardhat. These images have a great deal to say about societal perceptions of women and girls.

That’s why it’s good news that Getty Images is releasing the Lean In Collection. Their library of more than 2,500 images shows women and girls in real and powerful roles.

However, there’s another stock photo bias. Back in 2010 while layout for my book Free Range Learning was being finalized, the editors allowed me to choose the photos that would appear every few pages. I delved into the stock photo world expecting to find a whole range of relevant images, such as kids exploring nature, engaged in make-believe, being silly, spending time with people of all ages, you know, being kids. Because the book’s topic is homeschooling and alternative education, I also wanted to avoid images of young people in instructional settings (indoors or out).

No matter what search terms I tried, I kept coming up with the same limiting choices. Any variation of “learning” produced classroom-type results as well as endless photos of kids facing computer screens. It was extremely difficult to find representations of kids volunteering, doing chores, or engaged in any other purposeful work. It was even more impossible to find kids in mixed age groups (babies to elders) doing anything other than staring right at the camera with the fake merriment that seems to infest stock photos.

And gender bias was blatant. For example, any search term including “boys” showed many more active images than the same search term including “girls.” When I tried to find photos specifically of teenaged girls, the results  were downright alarming. Page after page showed two categories: grimly pensive faces or, more often, coy come-on faces.

Is this how our young people are seen?

Of course, there are many ways to measure limitations and bias. (I’m particularly fond of the way Sociological Images juxtaposes images with analysis.) And there are many filters through which the world is shown us. The filters themselves don’t just affect our perception, they affect the very people they intend to portray. Stock photo images and other portrayals of youth in our culture don’t come close to showing the vibrantly whole lives around us.

As for my efforts, I gave up after several days of bleary-eyed searching. I didn’t pick any stock photos for my book. Instead, I asked people from around the country to contribute pictures of their kids doing all sorts of things. The images are small and low res, but they’re a far more valid representation of today’s young people.