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.”


“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.”

Stories of Hope

aI asked people to share an experience they’ve had this year that’s brought them hope. Here’s what they had to say.

Emma Durand: It seems like a simple thing, but I planted pots of herbs, tomatoes, and flowers on our apartment balcony. It surprised me how actually attached I got to those plants. I got excited by new tendrils and buds!

Mark Wilson:  I work with high school and college-aged kids in a community program. They’re  good at dismissing bs and thinking for themselves. I can assure you, this upcoming generation of young men and women are making this world a more connected and accepting place already.

Niki Weldon: My mom’s group gives me hope and strength. We relate, share, grieve, love, care, help, and generally create a village.

I hope we as a parenting society we can return to a time where we can watch out not only for our own kids but for each others’ kids in a way that lets us get to know our neighbors again. We all are going through life and can do something as simple as helping a stranger carry bags to their car since you only have one bag and they are about to drop their milk.  I think maybe that is what is missing in our immediate society now. It is very much I, I, I, and not enough community. But my mommy group gives me hope that maybe we (as a society ) are coming full circle back to that.  (She also shared a link.)

Bernie DeKoven:  People playing playfully. Games, maybe, or rolling downhill or naming clouds or skipping. Whenever I see people playing – families, kids, adults of any age – I feel something very much like hope for humanity. 

Loving, too. It does very much the same for me, restoring hope. Loving their pets, their kids, their world.

Kimerly Wagstaff:  Every time I hear a child’s laughter; the words ‘thank-you,”I love you,’  ‘I’m sorry.’  Every sunrise and sunset…all these give me hope.

Charles Rogers:  My daughter-in-law and son’s Christmas gift was a sonogram of a 9 week fetus! 

Tobias WhitakerI think it is all around. It is easy to find yourself sidetracked by a very small but vocal minority that has dictated the American (global) consciousness because of the narrow scope of the media. But I have found that I get along very well with my neighbors even though we may have some very different views politically and philosophically. I think that when you talk face to face about what you have in common all the other nonsense drifts away. You may be surprised, or maybe you wouldn’t, how many people in my neighborhood stop by to chat with my children while they are walking their dogs or out for a stroll. How many people want to talk gardening or engage in friendly chatter when we both know that if we compared notes on religion or government we would be on opposite ends of one another. But we respect one another and that gives me hope.

With that said I find hope and inspiration in my children’s laughter, they remind me to be present, that this particular moment is what matters most. I find it in the resurgence of wildlife around my home, for example in the 40+ years I have lived in my town I only began seeing bald eagles about 5 years ago, somewhat regularly. I find it in the people (right-wing and left-wing) embracing traditional agriculture in a hot zone for natural gas extraction. There is hope in the endless opportunity of the internet to communicate with and influence people of good intention. There is hope simply in the fact that conversations such as this exist!

Though I am very realistic about the urgency of some issues I do believe truth has awakened. I believe, personally, that is why the toxic members of our global society have gotten so vocal. They see their ability to manipulate slipping away.

Martha Eaton: The fact that the Ohio state board of education is rethinking the number of standardized tests given to children attending public schools. While the early changes are far from substantial, this discussion gives me hope that teachers will be allowed to make instructional decisions based on developmental characteristics instead of what is going to be on the test.

Kevin VincentOne refugee child was safe somewhere in our world.  My hope is that our hearts will have empathy for the little ones. 

Ali Baylor: I am an ecotherapist/nature educator in Florida. Our farm is closed over the holidays, so our weekly homeschool kids have to miss out on a few weeks of nature classes. One mom told me what her child said a few days before Christmas, “Mom, I can’t wait for the holidays to be over so we can go back to Ms. Ali’s farm!” Wow. Nature (1); Santa (0)! There ARE families rearing their children to be conscious.

Ann Krier:  Watching my son attempting to diaper his one year old. I almost did not give birth to him, but that’s a story for another day.

Katherine Clark:

The FBI has made animal abuse a federal offense.

Because of cell phones (which I usually hate) police abuse has been filmed and, slowly, I truly believe the system will change.

A socialist is running for the Democratic nomination and doing really well. He might get it. Who would have thought? 

Lauren Seaver:  Gathering with a tribe of other unschooling families for a weekly potluck always feeds my soul. In addition, spending every morning with an amazing group of 3, 4 & 5 year olds at our pre-k co-op is the most heart-lifting part of my day. 

Amy Chan  I’ve been having a rough time this year due to losing my job on top of getting a divorce. You know what brings me hope? A two-year-old mixed breed dog I adopted from the shelter this year. He gets me out to the dog park in just about any weather, gives me a reason to talk to people, and teaches me to live with enthusiasm. Now I see what unconditional love really is.

Leslie Boomer:  Because we have a Savior I have hope. Every day.

Bob Montgomery: Life without hope is death, a living death. Living a life of service as inspired by Jesus cements that hope.

Saraswati Namaste:  My trip to India where I was shown/taught the oneness of all & to actively love the world despite (assorted dreadfulnesses go here). And learning the lightness of simplicity. And biggest of all, that there are millions of souls around the world doing wondrous things for others in big and small ways, leading quiet but wholly dedicated lives of profound service. Every day 24/7 for decades. The pebble in the pond inspiring others to emulate them. As that desire to serve, to make love manifest in the world, continues its relentless, outward expansion love will triumph.

Bill and Kathy Johnston: We have never, ever been more hopeful. Here’s why. This autumn we, along with several other people, started an interfaith dialogue group. We sent invitations to every single house of faith in our city (and followed up with phone calls to a mosque, synagogue, and Zen center in hopes of real diversity). The invitations basically explained that each month we’d be reading a work that could help us more deeply understand different faith traditions, then we’d be getting together to discuss it. The local paper picked up the story before our first meeting in September and the response has been exceptional.  So far we have read passages by Christian theologian Frederick Buechner, Sufi mystic Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, and Buddhist nun Pema Chodron.

We urge you to give this a go where you live. Here are the basics. Arrange to have monthly meetings in a library room (a safe, non-denominational place that’s also, at least where we live, free). Set up ground rules about respectful discussions. Email an article by the author (solicit suggestions from the group for upcoming reads). We also send around a sign-up sheet asking people to bring snacks and we provide coffee, tea, and water. There’s a reason for the food; it gets people to stand around talking to one another and those developing friendships are, in essence, one of the biggest reasons for doing this.

Amalie K.:  In March I was pushing a shopping cart full of stuff out of Target when I fell in the parking lot. I was in excruciating pain, but the worst thing was that my three-year-old was sitting in the cart panicking because her mama was writhing on the ground.

Instantly, and I mean instantly, people rushed over to help me. A man took off his coat and laid it over me to keep me from going into shock, then he knelt on the slushy cement holding my hand. A woman held my daughter, reassuring me she would stay right there and keep her safe. Someone called an ambulance. Another person loaded my shopping bags in my car. The medics made sure they didn’t alarm my daughter with anything they were doing and were kind enough to wait to leave for the hospital until my mother got there to pick her up. My hip may have broken but my fears about strangers healed that day.

Michelle Wilbert:  My hope is always maintained and often increased by the sheer beauty and goodness that prevails in spite of all that seems to work against both. In some respects, it isn’t surprising that humans are sometimes bent towards evil. What is remarkable and stunning to contemplate is the fact of goodness; we, who can get away with everything from a poor showing in every human interaction or the most insipid mediocrity do, on a regular basis, conform to the highest reaches of goodness and light, giving to, sharing with, doing for our fellows great good out of a simple, human sense of kindness and fair play–we perform the everyday miracles of generosity of spirit that allows for continued hope–“the thing with feathers” to quote Emily Dickinson– to live in our hearts and animate our actions, giving us the strength to press on.

It’s Getting Better









Pay attention to the news and it’s nearly impossible to be optimistic.  Lives shattered by terrorism, poverty, conflict, and prejudice. The Earth herself endangered by greed and ignorance. It’s enough to stomp out hope altogether.

Don’t let it.

There’s no denying we have work to do to heal one another and our lovely planet, but let’s pause to consider where we’re already improving.


We’re overcoming diseases at extraordinary rates.

  1. AIDs related deaths have continued to drop for the last 15 years in a row and new HIV infections among children have dropped by 58% since 2000.
  2. Malaria, one of the world’s top killers, is on the decline. Last year 16 countries reported zero indigenous cases of malaria. Globally, mortality rates from the disease have fallen from an estimated 839 000 in 2000 to 438 000 in 2015. In other words, an estimated 6.2 million people have been saved from malaria-related deaths over the last 15 years .
  3. The incidence of polio, which once crippled over a thousand children every day, has now been reduced by 99 percent. Only two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan, continue to experience wild polio cases.
  4. The painful parasitic disease, Guinea Worm, has effectively been eradicated.


Many more children are surviving childhood. 

Mortality rates for children younger than five have been cut in half since 1990 in virtually every country around the world. That’s about 19,000 fewer children dying every day this year compared to 25 years ago.


More people than ever have access to safe water and bathroom facilities. 

Over the last 25 years, an average of 47,000 more people per day were able to rely on a source of clean drinking water. Now 91 percent of the world’s population has safe water. This saves countless people from suffering or dying from water-borne illnesses.

Over two billion people have gained access in the last 25 years to what the World Health Organization politely calls “improved sanitation facilities.” In other words, 68% of the global population has access to a toilet — critical for health and improved living standards.


Fewer people are hungry.

The number of chronically undernourished people has dropped by 200 million in the last 25 years. That’s particularly impressive considering the world’s population increased by 1.9 billion people during that time. (The world produces enough food to feed everyone, but poverty, conflict, and harmful economic systems perpetuate hunger.)


More people can read than ever before

Today, four out of five people are able to read. In many regions of the world the majority of children and young adults are more literate than their elders, demonstrating that global literacy is rapidly increasing. At this point, nine out of ten children are learning to read.

Female literacy rates haven’t risen as quickly due to inequality and poverty, but in some areas, particularly East Asia, 90 percent more girls are able to read than 10 years ago. As female literacy goes up, other overall positive indicators tend to follow including decreased domestic violence, improved public health, and greater financial stability.

In the U.S., twice as many people are reading books for pleasure than they were in the mid-1950’s.


Internet access is spreading across the world. 

There’s been an eight fold increase in the number of people with access to the net in the last 15 years. Right now, there are two Internet users in the developing world for every user in the developed world. With this access comes better opportunities to network, build knowledge, create jobs, and stay connected with others.


The average person’s standard of living has gone up. 

Twenty-five years ago, nearly half the world’s population in the developing world lived on less than $1.25 a day. Today, that proportion has declined to 14 percent. Around the world, the number of people living in extreme poverty has dropped by half.

In the U.S., homelessness continues to decline. Over the past five years the number of people without shelter has dropped by 26 percent.


Right of indigenous people around the world to protect their land and their identity are, in many cases, beginning to be upheld.

For example, the Makuna, Tanimuka, Letuama, Barasano, Cabiyari, Yahuna and Yujup-Maku peoples of Columbia have won the right to preserve a million hectares of Amazonian forest where they will continue to act as guardians of the land.


Sustainability is accelerating. 

The U.S. and Europe, over the last two years, have added more power capacity from renewables than from gas, coal, and nuclear combined. Renewable energy jobs more than doubled in ten years, from three million jobs in 2004 to 6.5 million in 2013, and continue to grow.  Dramatic improvements in renewable energy technology have lowered costs while improving performance for hydropower, geothermal, solar, and onshore wind power.

Wind energy prices in the U.S. have reached an all-time low and there’s enough wind power installed in the U.S. to meet the total electricity demands of Colorado, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, and Wyoming. Investments in wind power are becoming mainstream, including projects being built for, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, and Wal-Mart.

Protected areas of land and water have substantially increased in the last 25 years. For example, protected lands in Latin America and the Caribbean have risen from 8.8 percent in 1990 to 23.4 percent in 2014.

In fact, more of the planet found protection in 2015 than ever before.  In the U.S., President Obama has designated 260 million acres as protected public lands and waters – more than any previous president.

This year nations are setting aside one million square miles of “highly protected ocean,” more than any prior year.  This area is larger than Texas and Alaska combined. These fully protected marine reserves are off-limits to drilling, fishing, and other uses incompatible with preservation.


Much more needs to be done to raise these standards and to deal with the political extremism, economic inequality, and environmental destruction that causes so much suffering. Much, much more. But taking a moment to consider these and other positive changes can empower us to accomplish even more.


Make a List of Non-Resolutions

no resolutions, non-resolutions, no New Year's resolutions,

image: unsplash

Resolutions are traditionally meant to fix what we think is wrong with our lives, as if it’s necessary to hammer ourselves into someone society finds more attractive and more successful.

I say meh.

Seems to me the more significant challenges are to discover greater depths in ourselves and to cultivate more joy in our daily lives. Maybe we need to replace New Year’s resolutions with delight-enhancing non-resolutions. If you need ideas for your own list, here are some things I hope to nurture in my life, .

Prioritize time for daydreaming.

Sigh loudly whenever you want to. It stimulates the vagus nerve.

Pursue the urge to know more, no matter how obscure your fascinations.

Tune in to sensory pleasure: birdsong, soft blankets, wind in the trees, warm soup.

Accept all apologies as you wish those you apologize to might accept yours.

Give your machines names,  especially your car.

Send oddities via snail mail, it’s ridiculously fun.

Eat something different, often.

Talk about your traumas as a stand-up comedian might.

Greet the same tree every day.

Each time you take a first sip of ice water, pay attention as it slides down your throat.

Allow yourself to become a library addict.

Lie on the grass whenever you can. Also sand. And snow. It’s like accepting a hug from Ma Nature.

Try sketching for fun.


Collect poems that speak to you.

When you take a walk, just walk. No phone, no earbuds, simply let your legs move you forward.

Talk to insects.

Look at yourself tenderly, as an angelic being might see you, adoring every moment of the amazing mortal life you lead.


Worst Christmas Became Most Memorable Christmas

kindness turns around misery, heartwarming family Christmas, poor family Christmas gets better,

Photo by doortoriver via Flickr, CC by 2.0

One year it seemed we were having the worst Christmas ever. That autumn my husband had been in a car accident. His broken neck was healing, but it left him with severe migraines and what doctors thought might be a seizure disorder. Because he wasn’t medically cleared to return to work, we had to pay for health insurance through COBRA (which cost more than our mortgage) while not receiving a paycheck. In addition, my mother was fighting cancer, my brother-in-law was recovering from open heart surgery, and my son was struggling with asthma so severe that his oxygen intake regularly hovered at the “go to emergency room” level.

We were broke and worried. But I insisted on a normal Christmas. I put up our usual decorations, baked the same goodies, and managed to wrap plenty of inexpensive gifts for our kids. Everyone else on my list would be getting something homemade.

Each night after getting my four children tucked in, I sat at the sewing machine making gifts for friends and family. The evening of December 23rd as I was finishing up the last few sewing projects I realized I didn’t have a single item for the kid’s stockings and absolutely no funds to buy even a pack of gum. I put my head down, too tired to cry. I was so overwhelmed by the bigger issues going on that the stocking problem pushed me right to the edge. I don’t know how long I sat there unable to get back to sewing, but when I lifted my head my eleven-year-old daughter stood next to me. When she asked what was wrong I admitted that I had nothing for any of their stockings. Her response lightened up my mood then and still does every time I think of it.

“All that matters is we’re a family,” she said. “ I don’t care if you squat over my stocking and poop in it.”

I laughed so loudly and for so long that something cleared out in me. I felt better than I had in months. She and I stayed up at least another hour together, restarting the giggles with just a look or more hilariously, a squatting motion.

When I woke up the next morning I still felt good. Until the phone rang. It was Katy* who said she needed to talk to someone. The mother of one of my children’s friends, she always seemed like a super women who did everything with panache. It was hard to imagine her with anything but a big smile. She said she didn’t want to tell anyone who might feel obligated to help her but, oddly, said she felt free to talk to me because she knew of my family’s dire financial straits. “We’re in the same boat I guess,” she said, “sinking.”

Katy revealed that her husband had been abusive and she’d finally worked up the courage to ask him to leave. He did, but not before emptying their bank accounts, turning off their utilities, disabling her car, and taking every single Christmas gift for their four children. Utility companies had promised to restore power to their cold, dark home but she was left with no money for groceries and no gifts for her kids. Katy said she was going to talk to her priest, hoping he’d find someone willing to drive her family to the Christmas service. She said her problems would be public knowledge soon enough. The neighbors would notice that her husband had punched a hole in the door on his way out.

Heartsick at her situation, my husband and I agreed we had to do something. I spent that day in eager anticipation of the plan we hatched. I went through the gifts I’d wrapped for our kids and took out about a third, putting on new gift tags for Katy’s children. I rewrapped gifts that friends and relatives had sent for me, putting Katy’s name on them. While I was happily engaged, my friend Rachel* called, someone who didn’t know Katy. I told her about the situation without revealing Katy’s identity. A few hours later Rachel showed up at my door with a tin of homemade cookies and a card with $100 tucked inside. She said she’d told her mother about the situation, and her mother insisted on supplying grocery bags full of holiday treats including a large ham.

Close to midnight my husband and I loaded up our car and drove quietly to Katy’s street. Snow was falling and the moon was full, like a movie set Christmas Eve. He turned off the headlights and cut the engine as we coasted into her drive. We quietly stacked groceries and piles of gifts on her porch, then pounded on her door yelling “Merry Christmas!” before dashing to make our getaway. By the time our car was a few houses down I could see that Katy had opened the door. Her hands were up in the air in a classic gesture of surprise and delight.

Katy called the next day. She told me there’d been a late night interruption. She thought to herself, what now, but when she got to her door her porch was full of gifts and groceries.

“You wouldn’t believe it,” she said. “The gifts had the kids’ names on them and were just right for their ages and there were even gifts for me. We can’t figure out who might have done that. I know it couldn’t have been you but why wouldn’t someone leave their name so I could thank them?”

I could only tell her that whoever left her porch that night must have wanted the gesture to remain a simple gift of love. She said her kids were calling it their Christmas miracle.

A small gesture of kindness hardly makes up for what Katy’s family endured that Christmas. But as we drove away, my husband and I felt a lift of euphoria that our own circumstances couldn’t diminish. That feeling stuck with us. It held us through problems that got worse before they got better. Even when our situation seemed intractable my husband and I could easily summon the sense of complete peace we felt in those moments at Katy’s door. I’m not sure if a word has been coined that encompasses that feeling: a mix of peace, and possibility, and complete happiness. But it’s far more precious than any wrapped package.

Oh, and that Christmas my brother gave my daughter, who at that time was an aspiring paleontologist, the perfect gift. Coprolite. Basically a hunk of fossilized poop. He thought it was a funny present but never understood why seeing it made me laugh until tears came to my eyes.

*Names changed to protect privacy.

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Photo by andrewmalone via Flickr, CC by 2.0

Recognizing Each Child’s Particular Genius


Free Range Learning, children's gifts,

A child’s gifts can be difficult to recognize, perhaps because they tend to unfold in mysterious ways. What we might consider idiosyncrasies or problems may very well indicate a child’s strengths. Oftentimes we can’t see the whole picture until long after the child has grown into adulthood. It’s worth remembering we can’t easily see our own gifts either, even though they have whispered to us of destiny or wounded us where they were denied.

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

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

James Hillman explains in his book, The Soul’s Code,

I want us to envision that what children go through has to do with finding a place in the world for their specific calling. They are trying to live two lives at once, the one they were born with and the one of the place and among the people they were born into. The entire image of a destiny is packed into a tiny acorn, the seed of a huge oak on small shoulders. And its call rings loud and persistent and is as demanding as any scolding voice from the surroundings. The call shows in the tantrums and obstinacies, in the shyness and retreats, that seem to set the child against our world but that may be protections of the world it comes with and comes from.

Yehudi Menuhin, one of the preeminent violinists of the 20th century, became fascinated when he heard classical music on the radio as a three year old. He wanted to feel the same rich notes coming out of a violin in his hands. His parents lovingly presented him with a toy fiddle. He drew the bow across the strings and was horrified at the cheap squawk the toy made. Enraged, he threw the instrument across the room and broke it. His imagination had already taken him to the place in himself where beautiful music was made and he was unable to bear that awful sound. We normally call that behavior a “tantrum.”

Then there’s R. Buckminster Fuller, whose young adult years were marked with struggle. As a college student he hired an entire dance troupe to entertain a party, and in that one night of excess he squandered all the tuition money his family saved to send him to school. In his 20’s he was a mechanic, meat-packer, and Navy commander before starting a business that left him bankrupt. After his daughter died of polio he began drinking heavily. By conventional wisdom he’d be considered a total failure at this point. But while contemplating suicide, Fuller decided instead to live his life as an experiment to find out if one penniless individual could benefit humanity. He called himself Guinea Pig B. Without credentials or training Fuller worked as an engineer and architect, inventing such designs as the geodesic dome and advancing the concept of sustainable development. He wrote more than 30 books and registered dozens of patents. Fuller once said, “Everybody is born a genius. Society de-geniuses them.”

Few young people have clear indications of their gifts. Most have multiple abilities. A single true calling is rarely anyone’s lot in life as it is for a legendary artist or inventor. Instead, a mix of ready potential waits, offering a life of balance among many options. When we emphasize a child’s particular strengths we help that child to flourish, no matter if those gifts fall within mainstream academic subjects or broader personal capacities. Traits such as a highly developed sense of justice, a way with animals, a love of organization, a contemplative nature, the knack for getting others to cooperate—-these are of inestimable value, far more important skills than good grades on a spelling test.

Free Range Learning, all kids geniuses,

Although society confuses genius with IQ scores, such scores don’t determine what an individual will do with his or her intelligence. In fact, studies have shown that specific personality traits are better predictors of success than I.Q. scores. Genius has more to do with using one’s gifts. In Roman mythology each man was seen as having a genius within (and each woman its corollary, a juno) which functioned like a guardian of intellectual powers or ancestral talent.

What today’s innovators bring to any discipline, whether history or art or technology, is a sort of persistent childlike wonder. They are able to see with fresh eyes. They can’t be dissuaded from what they want to do and often what they do is highly original. Sometimes these people have a difficult personal journey before using their gifts. Their paths are not easy or risk-free, but the lessons learned from making mistakes can lead to strength of character.

We must leave ample space for these gifts to unfold. This takes time and understanding. The alternative deprives not only the child, it also deprives our world of what that child might become.

Acknowledging that each person is born with innate abilities waiting to manifest doesn’t imply our children are destined for greatness in the popular sense of power or wealth. It means that children are cued to develop their own personal greatness. This unfolding is a lifelong process for each of us as we work toward our capabilities for fulfillment, joy, health, meaning, and that intangible sense of well-being that comes of using one’s gifts.


This article is an excerpt from the book Free Range Learning. It was also published in Life Learning Magazine

April’s Energy Fingerprint

April tragedy, energy fingerprint, life energy,


April is a month for blooms unfurling and songbirds hatching. A month when gray skies turn blue. It’s a changeable month that promises new life.

Or not. A friend recently asked, “What is it about mid-April that brings so much tragedy?” She offered plenty of evidence. Even looking at tragedy specifically affecting the U.S., there’s a lot of it.

April 15

– Abraham Lincoln assassinated

– Titanic sank

– Great Mississippi Flood (1927, worst flood in US history)

-Boston Marathon bombing

April 16

– VA Tech shooting

April 17

-USS Iowa Explosion

-West Fertilizer Plant explosion

April 18

– 1906 earthquake in San Francisco

-US Embassy bombing in Lebanon

April 19

– Lethal end of the Branch Davidian standoff

– Oklahoma City bombing

April 20

– Columbine school shooting

– Deepwater Horizon explosion

Horrific events, every one. It’s entirely natural that our attention is drawn to such disasters, especially as they’re happening. Way back in prehistory, those who paid close attention when others were injured or killed were more likely to avoid the same fate. Their bodies and minds were primed with vividly awful but useful information, helping them to survive and pass along disaster-attentive genes. These days our attention is pulled toward all sorts of disasters, although the information isn’t useful in the same way. Too much attention to what’s wrong in the world, and we’re likely to end up with Mean World Syndrome.

Threat also compels us to engage our full potential, to “rise to the occasion” whatever it might be. No wonder that those who want us to marshal our resources for their own purposes try to convince us there’s a grave threat. This is done by football coaches trying to motivate teams right up to political pundits spewing angry conspiracy theories, because it works.

But rising to our full potential actually means we humans pull together in a crisis. Author Rebecca Solnit takes a close look at large-scale disasters including earthquakes, floods, and explosions in her book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. She finds tragedy and grief, but something else too, something rarely noticed. During and after horrific crises there shines from the wreckage something extraordinary. People rise up as if liberated, regardless of their differences, to act out of deep regard for one another. They improvise, coordinate, create new social ties, and pour themselves into work that has no personal gain other than a sense of meaning. Such people express strangely transcendent feelings of joy, envisioning a greater and more altruistic community in the making. Even those suffering the greatest misfortune often turn around to aid others and later remember it as the defining moment of their lives. This is a testament to the human spirit, as if disaster cracks us open to our better selves. Solnit says, “The possibility of paradise is already within us as a default setting.”

By some counts, mid-April leans closer to tragedy than many other times of the year. But let’s remember, this month is isn’t defined by disaster. Instead, like every moment on Earth, it’s packed with constant, unsung acts of cooperation and beauty.

I dreamed once that what each of us contribute to this world, maybe to worlds beyond, is an energy fingerprint. All our striving and accomplishments are wisps, quickly lost to time, but this fingerprint of energy remains and affects all other energy. It’s the overall attitude that matters—grateful or bitter, loving or hateful, aware or dismissive.

Whether my dream has any truth or not, I do believe that even in the midst of tragedy we can choose an attitude of hope and compassion. Anger, fear, and vindictiveness isn’t the fingerprint I want to leave.

April tragedy, April curse, energy imprint,

This is a repost from our farm blog

I Heckle, You Heckle, Let’s All Heckle

heckle, roots of word heckle, change the world,

I just got back from a workshop teaching us how to research injection wells for a citizen’s audit project. It’s boring and difficult. I’m appalled when I look closely at the data. I don’t want to do it, although I will because we’re currently mired in a struggle over fracking.

That may not be your issue but of course there are plenty of others that jab at our consciences. Drone strikes, refugees, melting polar regions and burning rainforests, poisons in our food, toxic tactics wielded by the powerful. The list goes on and on. We feel like screaming in the streets, but there are bills to pay and meals to make.

I haven’t thrown open my window to yell, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.” But I want to affirm the heckling all of us do. These days the word “heckle” has entirely negative connotations. It conjures up images of rude people who interrupt performers and ruin the experience for everyone. Instead, lets hop on a wagon to the past where this word meant much more (as explained by Mark Forsyth in The Etymologicon).

Heckling originally referred to the process of combing sticks, burrs, and knots from sheep’s wool so it could be spun into usable fibers. Sheep tend to ramble around without any concern for fleece-related loveliness, so this is quite a task.  People who did the combing were naturally called hecklers.

Back in the eighteenth century, the wool trade flourished in the town of Dundee, Scotland. Hecklers worked long hours together. In the morning as they set to work heckling, one of their fellow hecklers read aloud from the day’s news.  There was plenty to read, since this was an era when all sorts of publishers put out lots of newspapers, broadsheets, and handbills. The hecklers were thus well-informed in many subjects.

When politicians and power brokers of the day addressed the public, the hecklers combed over their speeches as thoroughly as they combed wool. They raised objections, pointed out contradictory facts, called people to account for their behavior. In other words, they heckled. These hecklers formed what would now be called trade unions, using their collective efforts to bargain for better pay and perks. They also stirred up awareness of worker’s rights while empowering ordinary people to speak up against injustice.

Hecklers were people who were knowledgeable and alert to hypocrisy. They were aware how easily something nasty can snag what’s useful into uselessness until it’s pulled free, no matter how arduous and smelly the process.

Heckling is a potent way to question the powerful. Over the centuries the term implied thoughtful questions from the audience which a speaker would answer before going on. In parliamentary proceedings it remains a method of engaging in open discourse with a speaker by someone who isn’t entitled to the floor.

Nearly everyone I know is actually a heckler. We’re well-informed. We care. We lean toward positive change, willing it into being by our words and thoughts as well as our actions.

The poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti joins other writers and thinkers who claim the masses are sheep, as he does in this evocative poem.

(After Khalil Gibran)

Pity the nation whose people are sheep
and whose shepherds mislead them.
Pity the nation whose leaders are liars,
whose sages are silenced
and whose bigots haunt the airwaves.
Pity the nation that raises not its voice
except  to praise conquerors
and acclaim the bully as hero
and aims to rule the world
by force and by torture.
Pity the nation that knows
no other language but its own
and no other culture but its own.
Pity the nation whose breath is money
and sleeps the sleep of the too well fed.
Pity the nation—oh pity the people
who allow their rights to  erode
and their freedoms to be washed away.
My country, tears of thee
Sweet land of liberty!

With respect to Mr. Ferlinghetti, I disagree. His poem is packed with truth but it doesn’t acknowledge how these exact circumstances also propel people to deeper understanding and stronger commitment to change.

I see eyes opening. I see loving hearts broken by Earth’s sorrows, knitted back together with hope. I see the sort of consciousness rising that wakens more and more people.

We aren’t the sheep. We’re the hecklers.

social change, heckler,

Heckling combs. Image:

Lale Labuko: Cultural Superhero

Omo children, Lale Labuko, infanticide,


An ancient tribal practice has killed tens of thousands of children over the centuries. I’m working to make sure my generation brings an end to it forever. —Lale Labuko

Lale Labuko was the first person from the Omo Valley to attend school. Each time he left his village for boarding school he walked 65 miles through desert wilderness, leaving a culture without written language in order to fulfill his father’s wish that he learn to read and write.

When Labuko was 15 years old, on a visit home, he witnessed an elder grab a two-year-old girl from her weeping mother’s arms. The elder hurried away toward the river and returned alone. Labuko asked his mother to explain. It was the first time he heard the word mingi. It was also the first time he learned that he had two sisters, both deemed mingi, who were killed before he was born.

Mingi is a term used by many tribes of the Omo River Valley in southwestern Ethiopia. It labels certain young children carriers of a curse. Babies can be deemed mingi for one of several reasons: they’re born out of wedlock, their married parents have not received the necessary three blessings by elders, or their top teeth come in before their bottom teeth.

Ancient traditions dictate that grievous harm will come to the village unless the mingi dies.

Labuko pledged to end this tradition. He’s doing so with respect for tribal culture while also changing ingrained fears. Several years ago he convinced elders to “Let me be the bush” as an alternative to leaving little ones in the bush, where they die of starvation and exposure.

Although a number of tribes continue to carry out the practice, Labuko’s tribe, the Kara, officially banned mingi in a 2012 ceremony. It’s said that if rains fall after any ceremony, the gods have bestowed their blessings. After this ceremony the rains were bountiful. And when the sun came out a rainbow appeared over the Kara village.

Labuko is now co-founder of Omo Child which works to end the horrific practice of mingi. His organization also rescues and cares for mingi children. So far they have saved 37 babies from death.  These children are being raised in a safe home and receiving an education.

National Geographic bio of Lale Labuko

Images of Omo children by photographer Steve McCurry

Get involved in the work of Omo Child

Build Community Using Bookish Goodwill

sharing economy, free books, little libraries,

You can’t have too much of a good thing, unless you’re averse to bliss. One of life’s Very Good Things, in my book (pun!) is the library. There’s a movement afoot to augment our public libraries with other ways of spreading bookish goodwill. This doesn’t just get books into more hands, it actually builds positive networks between people and strengthens our communities.

Roaming Libraries

One unique venture is BookCrossings.  Started in 2001, it’s a read and release method of sharing books. Once you’ve read and enjoyed a book, simply go online to print out a label, then leave your book in a public place like a coffee shop, hair salon, playground, or doctor’s office. The label assures others the book is free to anyone interested. The label also contains a code so readers can track and follow books as they are read, discussed, and released again elsewhere in the world. Currently over 8 million books are traveling through 132 countries.

Handmade Book Libraries

In the art world, hand crafted books of all kinds have long traveled on round robin circuits allowing artists to collaborate in making and appreciating these unique creations.

Handmade books are also released in limited runs to appreciative readers who share the works through lending programs such as the Underground Library in Brooklyn. Here experimental literature is bound using labor intensive traditional methods, then distributed to members who pass the book along to a dozen other people before it’s returned to the library.

Banned Book Libraries

Surely people have been sharing what authorities don’t want them to know long before information was stored on papyrus scrolls. Remember the parochial school student who stocked her locker with banned books, using a check out system and due dates to keep track? This may be an urban myth but we know full well when reading material is banned it attracts even more dedicated readers.

This is true even when real danger is involved. As Azar Nafisi described in her memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, after Ayatollah Khomeini banned Western influences she gathered students in her home to read and discuss books, some photocopied page by page, despite the risk.

Micro Libraries

Tiny libraries are appearing in all sorts of places. For example in San Jose four new libraries don’t have funding to hire staff.  Instead, volunteers run a Friends of the Library book lending program out of a small room in a community center.

In San Francisco, a few shelves in the Viracocha antique store have become a tiny library called Ourshelves which is “curated by local authors and readers eager to share their favorite works with fellow book lovers.”

Free-standing libraries, called Corner Libraries are popping up in NYC. These tiny buildings evade zoning requirements by remaining on hand trucks, usually chained to a stationery object. One is a four foot tall clapboard structure offering books, maps, even a CD featuring baby photos of world dictators. Another Corner Library, named the East Harlem Seed & Recipe Library, looks like a planter but has a drawer with seed packets and recipe cards.

Stranger Exchange boxes are also appearing, asking people to take or leave items of interest. In Boston the first such library, a repurposed newspaper box, has featured such items as CD mixes, hand drawn maps, batteries, party invitations, and artwork.

These free-standing libraries have a precedent in the UK, where a phone booth was turned into a 24 hour library,recently followed by a phone booth library in New York.

And a non-profit called Little Free Library aims to establish thousands of new libraries (no bigger than large bird feeders) all over the world.  It has inspired people everywhere, like 82-year-old Bob Cheshier, whose goal was to get little libraries outside of all 71 elementary schools in the Cleveland district. Teachers and kids loved him. He died recently, only partway to that goal, but the community is carrying on his vision.

The process is simple.

  • Figure out where you’d like to place a Little Free Library. A community garden, bike path, civic center, or your front yard?
  • Determine who will be the steward of the Little Free Library.
  • Decide if you’ll build it or order it pre-made to decorate as you choose. You may choose to endow it for someone else (tax deductible) or set it up to honor a certain person, place, or organization.
  • Build support. You may want to find business or civic sponsorship, host a design contest, and in other ways spread the word about your Little Free Library.
  • Contact Little Free Library to register your library on the map, get updates, and more
  • Enjoy. Encourage people to visit, keep it stocked, and watch how sharing affects your neighborhood.

I hope traditional libraries as we know and love them will always exist. They are vital, vibrant institutions ready to be an important part of every person’s life.

But these smaller exchanges actually enlarge our potential. They foster connections between us each time we share, lend, and collaborate. They’re another way of making our communities work.

More Community-Building Inspiration

Engage the Window Box Effect

Bring Kids Back to the Commons

Front Porch Forum


Better Together: Restoring the American Community

The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods

All That We Share

community building through books, neighbor to neighbor, micro library, book sharing, birdhouse library,