Waking the Spirit

Waking the Spirit, Andrew Schulman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Born to Love Music

music in uteroAll around the world, mothers gently murmur some version of “hush, hush,” or “shhhh, shhhh” to crying newborns. It’s said this calms babies because it mimics the sound they heard in utero — her heartbeat.

Babies actually hear a whole symphony of sound before they’re born.  Physicist Robert Chuckrow describes what makes up this orchestra in a paper he wrote back in the 1960’s, titled “Music: A Synthesis of Prenatal Stimuli.

Walking: As a pregnant woman walks or climbs stairs, Dr. Chuckrow writes, her steps send “a thud-like vibration through her body, similar in sound and periodicity to that of the beat of a drum. ”

Breathing: Each inhale and exhale, according to Dr. Chuckrow, makes a “…recurring sound rich in high frequencies and is similar to the sound of cymbals in music. In popular music especially, the sound of cymbals ‘crashing’ is very suggestive of the sound of the pregnant mother breathing.”

Heartbeat.  Complex patterns are formed by varying rates of two heartbeats. A mother’s heart rate changes depending on her activity level and emotions, usually ranging somewhere between 60 and 100 beats per minute. In contrast, her baby’s heart rate fluctuates between 120 to 160 beats per minute, making for an ongoing jazz-like improvisation.

Speech: A mother’s conversations are another acoustic pattern. Research shows newborns not only recognize their mother’s voices, they also show a preference for sounds from the language their mother speaks.

Other input: A fetus is surrounded by the internal hubbub of its mother chewing, swallowing, and the rest of the digestive processes. Her laughing, crying, coughing, yawning, sneezing, and scratching are also part of its moment-to-moment soundtrack. Add to that sounds heard from outside her body — whoosh of a shower, vibration from riding on a bus, clatter in a restaurant, drama of a movie she’s watching.

These aren’t just sounds. They come into the baby’s awareness accompanied by fluctuations in movement, pressure, and chemical signals. Sound pairs with sensation, over and over, throughout the pregnancy.  It is the earliest form of meaning, long before words make sense.

Take, for example, the effect when a mother experiences stress (even positive emotion). Her heart rate goes up while her baby’s heart rate doesn’t immediately increase. Instead, the uptick of her heartbeat would  “…produce in the fetus a state that is the prenatal analog of emotional tension.”  Dr. Chuckrow likens this to the way music creates emotional tension, especially when an “…increase in tempo or changes in rhythm produce such tension in the listener, and the rhythmic effect is increased by an increase in dynamic intensity.”

Or another example; the unborn baby’s experience of its mother’s laughter. As she laughs, her abdominal muscles contract around the uterus. Her larynx closes somewhat, making air intake irregular. And the noises she makes range from low giggles to shrieking cries.  Dr. Chuckrow writes, “For the mother, laughter would be accompanied by an exultant state and changes in her heart rate, breathing, and blood concentrations of oxygen and hormones. These changes would be expected to affect the fetus. The associated patterns involve a climactic change of acoustic, tactile, and chemical stimuli associated with a state of maternal well-being.”

Maybe these truly formative responses help to explain why music enters a place in us that’s deeper than words, beyond the limitations of thought. We’re shaped by an essential mother-specific melody.

“Many say that life entered the human body by the help of music, but the truth is that life itself is music.”  ~Hafiz

 

 

Baby Choreography

infant choreography, imitate your baby

This is hard to admit because it sounds entirely weird, but it was such a powerful experience that I now look back at it as a sort of ceremony.  Give baby choreography a try if you too want to step into an infant’s world.

Let me explain.

First time motherhood confounded me in a way I could not, still cannot, put into words. The new life in my arms astonished me. I’d never before looked so many hours at one face, day after day. I’d certainly never been simultaneously exhausted, enthralled, and overwrought for weeks on end. All the ways I knew to understand another human being were muddled, beyond what the heart knows and the eyes show. So I asked my body to teach me how brand new Benjamin perceived his world.

When just the two of us were alone, I set him on the carpet and lay down next to him. Then I imitated every single movement and sound my seven-week-old baby made.

  • Pursed lips.
  • Open lips.
  • Wrinkled brow.
  • Wide-eyed gaze.
  • Arms sweeping across the air.
  • Arms held tight to the body.
  • Feet and toes turning, flexing, flailing.
  • Arms and legs jerking.
  • Coos and bubbles.
  • Hands in fists.
  • Hands open, waving,
  • Side-to-side wiggles.
  • Long pauses of full-body stillness, with a wondrously calm facial expression.

I thought I’d indulge in this for only a minute or two, but I kept it up longer. Something about it transported me to my own bodily memory of infancy. I felt, from the inside, a sort of freedom from the physical template created by years of upright posture and acceptable facial expressions. I felt helpless, yes, but also expansively connected — as if my being didn’t end at the boundaries of my skin.

I got a message clear as spoken words that our bodies, mine older and his brand new, were temporal gifts. Our souls were the same size.

I got up from the floor humbled.

 

Originally published by Mothering.com. 

Toes Making A Fist

Toddler shoes so classic they're now on eBay. (image: JuneeMoonVintage)

Toddler shoes so classic they’re now on eBay. (image: JuneeMoonVintage)

There was an era when stiff white baby shoes were de rigur. Parents were assured their children’s feet wouldn’t develop properly without them. This was before the Internet, so it wasn’t easy to disprove industry lobbyists’ advertising campaigns, women’s magazine articles, and mainstream doctors repeating all the same falsehoods.

But my husband and I, being freethinkers, believed barefoot must surely be nature’s perfect design, so we didn’t get our first child shoes until he was nearly two. Grandparents on both sides muttered about our poor unshod child wearing hand-knit socks in the winter. When we finally broke down, we broke down completely, and ended up buying those same little white shoes.  (Freethinkers? Not so much.)

We knew we’d made a mistake. The shoes cost approximately the same as our weekly grocery budget. They seemed to cause our child to fall more often and made his gait somewhat awkward, so we put them on him infrequently.  The sound of those shoes clumping on the floor brought back memories, I swear, of wearing similar shoes when I was small except that mine had maddening little bells attached. <shakes fist on behalf of toddler selfhood>

We were determined to get more flexible footwear when we took our child to get his second pair a few months later. We eased his little feet out of the white baby shoes and the shoe salesman checked sizing on one of those metal measurers unique to shoe stores. (The term is Brannock Device, I looked it up.)

This time, we insisted on a soft pair of sneakers. The salesman knelt, put the shoes on, laced them up, and asked our little boy to walk in them. Our sweetie did as he was told. I don’t know if he he’d been wearing shoes he’d outgrown or if the new shoes finally fit his wide feet, but he took a few tentative steps and a big smile slid across his face. He said clearly, with the wonder of the newly liberated, “My toes don’t have to make a fist any more!”

The phrase has remained a family joke even though that toddler is now a young man (still with feet so wide they’re hard to fit). Each time I hear it I cringe to think of the pain his poor crunched up toes must have been in. And it continues to remind me that children, especially young children, can’t always tell us something is wrong. They accommodate as best they can to a tight fit, to falls, to an awkward gait, even to !#*! bells that jingle at every step.

Children accommodate to all sorts of things. That’s why we’re not aware they’re suffering from chronic headaches (as my daughter did) or meekly compliant around a babysitter who hits (as my friend’s son was) or have to battle rats that get in their bedrooms at night (as a child in our neighborhood did). We have no idea why it seems they’ve become clingy, whiny, or unreasonable.  Sometimes we can’t see any change in their behavior at all.

It’s a blessed relief when we’re finally able to figure out what’s wrong. Only then can we make it better.

Let’s remember to be on the lookout out for anything in our children’s lives that forces them to accommodate  to misery.  Let’s keep a look out for constriction and pain in our own lives too.

kids can't tell us what's wrong

I’d love to hear your own “toes making a fist” stories.

 

A Sandwich Made of Kindness

how to help a parent whose child is hospitalized

CC by 2.0 Kyle Simourd

Waiting for medical test results is itself a stress test. I play mental games, especially the one where I won’t let myself check the time even though I’m also cheating by checking the time. I keep busy with small tasks. Mostly I try to smother dread by piling on layer after layer of positive thoughts.

This is what I was doing the day we took our firstborn baby for an upper GI. Benjamin was a bright-eyed delight, so enthralling to his new parents that we’d watch him sleep while commenting like giddy sportscasters at his every facial expression.  But as weeks went by, we realized he was sick and getting sicker. He’d nurse contentedly but the milk didn’t stay down. Sometimes immediately, sometimes not for almost an hour, he’d struggle as if in pain until he vomited the milk back up in forceful plumes. By the time he was two and a half weeks old he was nursing almost continually, desperate to keep something in his stomach.

Doctors, nurses, friends who were parents, and our own parents all said he was fine. We were told we were overreacting as first-time parents tend to do. We were assured that he was allergic to breastmilk or that he wasn’t being burped correctly or that he needed rice cereal to settle his stomach.  We were told he had reflux or colic. The usual refrain was, “He’ll grow out of it.”

Being me, I researched every possibility for our baby’s symptoms. One that stood out was pyloric stenosis. This is a narrowing of the pylorus, the lower part of the stomach through which food passes to enter the small intestine. The opening continues to narrow as the disease progresses, eventually preventing the baby from getting any nutrition at all. Our doctor said that diagnosis was unlikely with a “big, strapping boy” like ours, and not to worry. My mother, an RN, showed me pictures of babies diagnosed with the disease. They looked like famine victims, not at all like my baby.

By the time he was four weeks old Benjamin’s weight had stalled. The doctor said if we insisted, he could schedule an upper GI, but he was sure the baby was just fine. I ordered John Gofman’s Radiation and Human Health from the library and was horrified to read that the earlier a child is exposed to x-rays, the greater his lifetime risk of cancer. That didn’t make the decision easier.

I also read more about pyloric stenosis. Like some kind of Biblical plague, it’s most likely to occur in firstborn male babies. It also runs in families. I remembered hearing that the first son in my father’s family had died in infancy.  (My grandmother blamed herself and refused to nurse her subsequent children. The formula she used caused my poor father to have eczema so severe that the doctor ordered her to spare his skin the pressure of being picked up, that instead he should have his arms tied to his crib all day so he couldn’t scratch. I’d like to reach through time and throttle that doctor.)

After putting it off for a few days, my husband and I were sure we saw desperation in our nearly five week old son’s eyes. We took him for the test. Then we waited. And waited.

Finally the doctor called with the results. He told us to take our baby directly to the hospital for emergency surgery. Benjamin had the blocked digestive tract indicative of advanced pyloric stenosis.

When we got there our baby was deemed so severely dehydrated that it was too dangerous to take him to surgery right away. After many attempts to insert an IV, each second a screaming misery for our child, Benjamin ended up with a line running into his head. Worse, I wasn’t allowed to nurse him in case surgery was scheduled soon, so he screamed with hunger as well. Hours passed and the surgeon didn’t show up to examine him or talk to us.

I was frantic, knowing that my baby had been starving and yet I wasn’t able to feed him. One nurse assured me that the glucose drip was as good for the baby as mother’s milk. Another nurse, seeing that we were holding him rather than letting him wail in the crib, told us “I don’t have much use for pick-me-up-shut-me-up kids.” That explained the largely ignored toddler in the next crib who cried mournfully, so traumatized that he barely paused his crying when we tried talking to him and playing with him.

Hours dragged by and the surgeon still hadn’t arrived.  I went to the nurses’ desk and said as politely as I could that if the surgeon didn’t speak to us in the next half hour I would nurse my inconsolable baby on the way to another hospital.

That did it. A sleepy-voiced surgeon roused himself to call, saying with annoyance that he’d operate in the morning.  And he did. The stenosis was repaired and our baby faced a few more days of hospitalization  to recover.

My husband and I, first time parents at 22 and 24 years old, were so focused on our baby’s health that we were barely aware of our own stress. We had already decided to live on one salary. Our budget had space for homemade meals and quiet pleasures like taking a walk. It didn’t have space for my husband to take off more than the day before and day of our baby’s surgery. It didn’t have space for parking fees in the hospital lot. It didn’t have space for meals in the hospital cafeteria.

I stayed at the hospital with Benjamin as he recovered. Nurses snuck me cans of apple juice and crackers. They brought me pillows so I could lie back in the chair holding my baby. They looked at my bedraggled state and hinted that I could go home to shower. I was still not allowed to nurse until my baby had healed, a source of misery for both of us.  And I suffered over every procedure I could hear being performed on crying children up and down the halls.  Every beeping monitor and rattling cart jangled at what was left of my nerves.

Plenty of people offered to help. I was entrenched in such moment-to-moment care that had no idea what help I needed. My husband was there every spare hour, other than that no one came to visit.

Then one afternoon my husband’s Aunt Grace showed up.  Despite our affection for her we rarely got to see her. She was and still is a private person who is a busy volunteer and active grandmother. Just seeing her familiar face was a blessed relief. She said she wasn’t going to stay long, she just wanted to hold the baby for a bit to give me a break. I hadn’t imagined such a break, but passing him over let me take what felt like the first deep breath in a long while.

Then she gave me a white bag. When I smelled it I realized I’d been hungry for days. Ravenous, actually.  I pulled out a warm foil-wrapped sandwich with deep gratitude. As I unwrapped it my hope flagged. I’d been a whole food vegetarian for years, yet here was a white roll with roast beef and mayonnaise  — a trifecta of What Laura Doesn’t Eat.

I didn’t want to seem unappreciative. Maybe I could wrap it back in the foil and pretend I’d eat it later. I looked at her holding my baby on her shoulder, her cheek against his cheek.  She looked back with such deep kindness that I bit into that sandwich, wiped the goo from my lips, and took another bite.

I could practically feel every cell in my body embrace those nutrients.  Never before or since have I eaten something so powerful. That sandwich tasted like love.

~

Life is full of tests that have no assured results. A big one is how to help someone in crisis. If you’re not sure what to do, take it from Aunt Grace. Show up. Hold whoever needs holding. And bring a sandwich.

Pregnancy Loss to Newborn Wonder

pregnancy loss, ectopic pregnancy, birth story,

“Do you know what day this is?” Dr. Hasan asked me as I held my newborn son. He stood by my hospital bed looking at both of us with an odd expression. My doctor and I had been through a lot together, but I’d never seen that expression before. I wasn’t sure what he was asking.

“My son’s birthday,” I answered cheerfully, then turned back to gaze in fierce adoration at the baby in my arms.

He looked again at the chart in his hand and said, “Exactly one year ago to the day I performed the surgery on you. Exactly.” Then my face, I’m sure, reflected back a similarly odd expression, the sort of look that can’t fully convey how odd  synchronicity can be.

A year and a few weeks before my son’s birth something painful began to happen to my body, something I didn’t understand nor did the doctors I consulted until it was almost too late. That night I nursed my toddler to sleep, tucked my other two little ones in bed, and settled down to relax with a big bowl of popcorn and a new library book. I stayed up much later than usual and when I climbed into bed next to my husband I began to think I shouldn’t have eaten so much popcorn. The discomfort got worse. I told myself that I was dealing with indigestion, maybe even a gall bladder attack, although I’d never felt such shooting pain. I spent much of the night on the floor next to the bed in various yoga positions trying to find a way to rest. But each time my husband woke up to ask if I was okay I told him I’d just eaten too much popcorn and I’d be fine. He threatened, at some point near dawn, to call an ambulance. By then the stabbing pain had ebbed to a tolerable dullness and my toddler was up, so I started another busy day.

I made it though that day and the next before I realized the pain, although it came and went, wasn’t improving. I was barely able to get through preparations for a Memorial Day picnic. So I got visiting family members to babysit and drove myself to the ER. I almost didn’t stay. Hospitals bulge with extra patients on holiday weekends and no one took a young person with abdominal pain very seriously. I kept thinking of my children and how soon I could get back to them. When I was finally seen by a doctor, he couldn’t find any signs of appendicitis or infection. I was sent for an x-ray. In the hallway waiting for the test I had to sign a form attesting that I wasn’t pregnant. I figured there was always a chance. So they jabbed me for a quick pregnancy test. That caused another delay and again I wondered if I should just get up and go home. I found out in that crowded hallway that I was indeed pregnant.

Suddenly they took the pain more seriously and admitted me for overnight observation. I was preoccupied with worried about the separation from my nursing toddler and my two older children. A friend of ours, an internist, came by and told me I was a “pregnant blooming rose.” I didn’t feel like one. The doctors were taking every precaution to protect the new pregnancy. I was examined by several doctors. Each one wanted to know exactly how much pain I was in. I tried to explain that most of the time it was tolerable, like walking around with a headache, except in my belly.

The resident, a man with beautiful brown eyes and long dreads, told me that women with small children are the most difficult to diagnose. He said they diminish their symptoms, without even realizing it, in order to be present for their children. He asked me to close my eyes and try thinking only of my body as I described what I was feeling. I tried to be fully aware of my abdomen and when I did, I saw a horrible darkness. I was suddenly afraid that the baby was there to warn me that I was dying of some terrible disease. I opened my eyes, looked at this kind man, and couldn’t think of a way to explain that fearful darkness to him.

I was sent home with instructions to come back every three days for a blood test to determine pregnancy hormone levels, which would insure that the pregnancy was proceeding. For nearly a week the levels were within normal limits. Although I feigned good spirits for the sake of my kids, I was barely hanging on. Normally I research everything but I couldn’t muster the energy to read let alone explore the possible reason for my symptoms. In fact, I could no longer eat. Whatever I’d eaten days before felt stuck in my body like a boulder. The pains came and went with sharp intensity. While pushing a cart through the grocery store the pain bent me double. I pretended I was picking something off the floor so my children didn’t worry. One afternoon, as a friend and I sat in her backyard watching our kids play together I curled up on a lawn chair in the blazing summer sun shivering and asked for a blanket. My mind kept drifting to the darkness I’d seen. The next blood test found my levels were dropping. I was told the pregnancy was no longer viable. I would need exploratory surgery.

I had no idea what Dr. Hasan was concerned about until I went to pre-admission testing the day before my surgery. I was examined by the first female doctor I’d seen throughout this crisis. She was outraged on my behalf. She told me it was possible I had an ectopic pregnancy which could burst and threaten my life with internal bleeding. I hadn’t considered that nearly two weeks of pain could be related to something so acute. I still remembered when a friend’s mother went through an ectopic pregnancy years before. She’d felt unbearable pain, nearly died in the ambulance, and her blood loss was so severe that one of the paramedics lay on a gurney next to her at the hospital to provide a direct transfusion. She survived but was never able to have children again. This doctor told me the shoulder pain I was also experiencing was an ominous sign, signaling that I may already be hemorrhaging. She didn’t want to let me stand and walk out of her office, literally to move at all. She made a few phone calls and then angrily told me that it had been decided I would be fine until I came back for surgery the following morning. It was the only time a doctor ever walked me to the elevator and watched me until the doors closed.

Dr. Hasan came out to talk to my husband during the surgery the next day. He said I was so packed with old blood that he had to “unload” the contents of my abdominal cavity and pick apart clots that were strangling my intestines and compressing my organs. He explained that he’d sent several masses to the lab for tests and prepared my husband for a possible diagnosis of cancer. The surgery dragged on most of the day. By the time I was wheeled to recovery the doctor had determined that I’d suffered an ovarian pregnancy that had burst some time ago. The blood had limited the function of my pancreas and several other organs and I already had a serious infection. He wasn’t going to rule out cancer until all possible lab tests were in by the next day. My husband wisely kept these details and his fears from my parents, only giving them the good news when the lab tests came back clear.

I wasn’t aware of any of this. My health insurance company wanted me discharged after three days even though I couldn’t sit up or remain conscious for long. My doctor battled for an extension and lost, so they discharged me in paperwork only and readmitted me. I was aware of none of this. Going home after six days was still extremely difficult. Despite all I’d been through, I recovered quickly in the next few weeks. When I walked in Dr. Hasan’s office for a one month post-surgical check up he couldn’t believe how fit and energetic I looked. He cautioned me when I asked about trying for another baby. He said my chances were very slim. I had only one ovary left and he wasn’t sure how much function it had due to damage from internal bleeding.

Amazingly I was pregnant only three months after my surgery. Science tells us the cells of babies we’ve carried even for a short time, will be with their mothers into old age, and I thought of the child I lost. That baby taught me so much about healing and hope and giving voice to my pain.

My labor with this fourth child was unlike my first three. For hours my hands radiated so much heat that I was given ice packs to hold. They melted quickly, so nurses kept giving me new ice packs. One nurse in the birthing room said she could see waves of heat around my hands. It felt too strange for words. I wondered what energy I’d contained that was now manifesting.

Finally our son Samuel arrived. His birth came exactly a year after my husband sat all day in the waiting room afraid I might die, the day the darkness was taken out of me so life could flourish again.

ectopic pregnancy, birth story,

Start a Playgroup in a Retirement Home

seniors and kids, retirement home preschool,

Image: bjwebbiz

I started a playgroup, years ago, that met in a nursing home. Later, when I wrote an article offering six ways we can bypass today’s age-segregation to more fully involve children in their communities, I started the article with the tale of that playgroup. Readers keep asking for more details so they can organize something similar. Here’s my tale again, this time with some helpful hints. 

Surely my baby was as good as a dog.

I’d read that nursing home residents benefited enormously from contact with therapy dogs. During and after dog visits these elders were more alert and happier. So I figured, why not bring my baby to a nursing home?

Initially I’d thought about going room to room with my baby for one-on-one visits. But as I sat at a LeLeche meeting, it occurred to me that more babies might offer a bigger boost.

So I contacted a nursing home around the corner to ask. The administrator had never heard of such an idea but she was wildly enthusiastic. She referred me to the home’s activity director to start planning. That was the easiest part.

Then I starting talking friends with babies into forming a nursing home-based playgroup for our infants and toddlers. It took a LOT of convincing on my part to get them to agree. They were afraid of germs, smells, and their baby’s reactions to people with obvious disabilities.

I wondered about those problems too, particularly the germs. I know that some pretty virulent infections can get passed around in such facilities. So I talked a local store into donating a large carpet remnant for our little ones to crawl and play on. Between visits, the nursing home could roll it up for storage. It was a sort of “safe zone’ so parents felt their kids wouldn’t be exposed to germs or unwanted touching by the seniors.

I also told the staff that I’d call each day before a scheduled playgroup to ensure there weren’t any colds, flu, or other infections going around. And of course, asked that any individual residents who seemed ill would not attend. Parents also agreed to skip a session if they or their little ones seemed at all ill.

The first few playgroup sessions tested us. Not the nursing home residents, but the parents. There were, quite honestly, some seniors whose disabilities seemed a bit scary to us at first. But the babies didn’t care. Safely in a mom’s arms or in her lap they smiled, cooed, and waved to the residents with complete acceptance.

Parents brought a few toys each time and we all sat on the carpet with our babies. At first we felt a little like a zoo exhibit with a ring of wheelchairs around us, but that feeling went away. The elders were clearly delighted simply to see and hear babies.

There were certainly problems getting our group established. We started off with three mothers, one grandmother, and four babies. That’s actually a good number, although to keep the playgroup going we’d need enough people so that absences by one or two members wouldn’t whittle the session down too far.

Quite a few of the parents who initially said they’d attend just couldn’t bring themselves to show up. Only after they heard some glowing reports did a few of them give it a try. Honestly, such a playgroup isn’t for everyone. There’s a distinct pleasure in a playgroup itself, but parents who stayed committed also looked at our sessions as volunteer work.

We met regularly at that nursing home for several years. We held up picture books and read aloud to an audience old and young. We sang songs, played clapping games, and built block towers. Our babies grew into toddlers, elders and staff became our friends. Residents’ families and staff members often told us that our visits stimulated memories, generated activity, even inspired people who were mostly mute to say a few words. One woman who had refused to eat, doing little more than cry since her stroke, started eating again after spending the morning with our playgroup.

We were awed that the simple presence of babies made a difference. Just sitting on the carpet playing with our children helped people whose once full lives were now constricted. We benefited too. We learned the value of advice given by people older than our grandparents. We noticed how completely our toddlers accepted the physical and mental differences around them with natural grace. And we gained a sense of connection across the generations, a sense that’s far too rare in a a disengaged culture.

Tips

I had a ready pool of potential parents in my Le Leche group, but you can post information about the idea to all sorts of places, from your food co-op to house of worship. Try a local parent group, start a playgroup Meetup, find a chapter of the Holistic Moms Network or Moms Club.

Don’t be afraid to start a playgroup with only a friend or two. It’ll grow. Once you’re comfortable and have established a routine, start sharing your experiences on social media. And don’t forget traditional media. Our local paper wrote a short piece about our nursing home-based playgroup and ran a great picture of a profoundly wrinkled lady smiling at a baby. After that ran we had up to 12 parents who came to our sessions (the carpet piece was barely big enough).

You may prefer to organize a playgroup at an assisted living facility or senior center rather than a nursing home. These elders are healthier and much more able to engage in conversation with the kids.

Don’t limit yourself to the concept of a baby/toddler playgroup. A nearby senior center or assisted living facility may agree to set up any number of programs. Here are a few ideas.

  • I write in Free Range Learning about several initiatives such as a skills clinic where seniors offer workshops to kids, and Girlfriend Circle where a girls attend a monthly tea party with seniors.
  • Set up co-learning events, where kids and seniors together learn something new to them like whittling, cartooning, or pot throwing.
  • You might also start a program for preteens and teens to teach their elders tech skills, from downloading music to mastering a new smart phone.
  • Right now a documentary about a preschool housed in a retirement home is in the works. Present Perfect is still raising funds on Kickstarter for post production.
  • A senior retirement community not far from me offers a free apartment to music students who agree to offer concerts. It’s working beautifully.
start nursing home playgroup, preschool in retirement home,

Image: bjwebbiz

Carter, Mason, Hunter: Vocation Names for Boys

vocation names for boys, baby boy name trends,

I’m fascinated by connections between disparate things. It’s the curse of a strange mind and has gotten me into many improbable discussions. So I may not be on to anything here. But it strikes me that increasingly popular names for baby boys are vocation names. Nearly all these occupations are obscure or long gone, so we don’t associate them with the work they once described.

Names have a powerful effect on a child’s future. I wonder about our current naming trend. Maybe we’re unconsciously hearkening back to a time when a man was identified by the work he did—often the occupation passed down from grandfather to father to son—when a man was known for his expertise and good reputation. In a time of warp speed change and uncertainty, these are indeed strong names to send our boys into manhood.

Here’s a partial list of the names I’ve noticed, along with definition and popularity rank. (Keep in mind, even names without current rankings may be trending.)

How many names are becoming more common among kids you know?

Archer: huntsman

Banner: flag bearer
Bard or Baird: poet
Barker: lumberjack, carnival announcer
Baxter: bread baker
Booker: book binder
Brenner: distiller, charcoal burner
Brewster: brewer

Carter: transporter of goods (32)
Carver: one who carves
Chandler: candle maker (429)
Cooper: barrel maker (84)
Currier: leather worker

Deacon: church official (441)

Ferris: iron worker
Fletcher: arrow maker, arrowsmith (790)
Fisher: angler
Foster: woodsman (937)

Gardener: gardener
Granger: farmer, overseer of farm laborers

Harper: harp musician (660)
Hunter: huntsman (36)

Jagger: wheel maker (698)

Marshall: groomsman, farrier, high military rank (328)
Mason: brick layer, stone worker (4)
Mercer: merchant
Miller: miller, mill owner (943)
Major: military rank, mayor (366)

Palmer: palm bearer, pilgrim
Parker: park guard, gamekeeper (74)
Porter: carrier of loads, gatekeeper (385)
Prentice: apprentice to tradesman
Proctor: official
Pryor: a prior, leader of monastery

Reeve: bailiff, senior official, manager
Rex: king (632)

Sadler: saddle maker
Sawyer: wood cutter (120)
Sayer: woodcutter
Shepherd: folk tender
Spencer: steward, shop keeper (251)
Stewart/Stuart: steward, estate manager
Sumner: officer who summons people to court

Taylor: tailor (371)
Tanner: leather worker (197)
Thatcher: roof builder (992)
Tinker: traveling repair person
Tucker: clothing maker (180)
Turner: wood turner, wood worker (886)
Tyler: tile maker (63)

Vance: thresher (866)

Warner: warden, guard
Webster: weaver
Weaver: weaver
Wheeler: wheel maker
Wilder: woodsman

The Magic of Fresh Air for Babies & Other Beings

fresh air for kids, outdoors every day, babies sleep better in cold,


CC by 2.0 Abigail Batchelder’s flickr photostream

For centuries it was common wisdom that a few hours of fresh air each day was an absolute necessity. Children from infancy on up were bundled in warm clothes and taken out in all seasons. The practice stemmed from a longstanding belief that time outdoors promoted strength and robust health. It was also believed that it kept various character weaknesses at bay. That is, until the practice was poo-poo’ed as nonsense. Nothing but old wives’ tales.

Fortunately, my parents thought otherwise. My mother knew childish energy is best expended outdoors. It never occurred to her that we required her participation as she sent us out every day. When we were small she told us to stay in the yard, checking every now and then from the window. Soon our range expanded to a few acres of woods behind our house plus pretty much anywhere we could go on our bikes while still making it back in time for dinner.

I learned even more about the importance of being outside from my father. He set a quiet example by paying attention to birds, the weather, the garden. If we went somewhere with him other than a hardware store, it was to go hiking in the Cleveland Metroparks.

It wasn’t until I had my first baby that my father showed me a deeper power of nature, again simply by example. When he held babies he almost always walked outdoors with them, particularly if they were fussy.

“Here’s the sky,” he’d point. “That’s a tree over there, you’ll be running on this grass in no time,” he’d gently tell an infant.

Their eyes would get big and they’d look around, more calm and focused than they were indoors.

I started to follow his example. If I couldn’t figure out my baby’s troubles, I’d go out to lie on the grass during the day, or wrap up warmly to look at the stars in the middle of the night. It nearly always settled a crying baby.

It worked even better for toddlers. They’d get cranky in the house, far crankier in the car. They wanted out in the largest sense possible. They’d stay outdoors as long as I’d let them, on our most glorious days this lasted for hours. When she was a year old my daughter liked to pick up little stones, hold them briefly, then place them in little piles. She’d look at me, shaking her head to remind herself they couldn’t go in her mouth. My little children helped me garden and sweep and rake. They dug in the dirt, made fairy houses out of sticks and leaves, filled their little wagons with the hickory nuts that littered our yard in autumn, stomped in puddles, squatted to watch bugs, climbed on logs, and asked endless questions. All these richly sensory experiences happened simply because we were outdoors. I had no idea at the time that all of this movement helped build essential brainpower.

As Gill Connell and Cheryl McCarthy explain in the wonderful book, A Moving Child Is a Learning Child,

A young child can learn only what her brain is primed and ready for. And in the early years, that’s everything the body has to teach—the tangible, physical, and sensory qualities of the world around her. It’s no wonder preschool learning rarely happens sitting down.

Influential 19th century British educator, Charlotte Mason, suggested children should spend four to six hours a day outdoors. She wrote in Home Education,

…every hour spent in the open is a clear gain, tending to the increase of brain power and bodily vigour, and to the lengthening of life itself. They who know what it is to have fevered skin and throbbing brain deliciously soothed by the cool touch of the air are inclined to make a new rule of life, Never be within doors when you can rightly be without.

Besides, the gain of an hour or two in the open air, there is this to be considered: meals taken al fresco are usually joyous, and there is nothing like gladness for converting meat and drink into healthy blood and tissue. All the time, too, the children are storing up memories of a happy childhood.

In Scandinavian countries, parents believe it’s healthier for babies and children to be outside for a few hours a day in all but the most extreme temperatures (and they mean extreme, as in 0 degrees Fahrenheit). It’s a common practice to dress babies warmly and tuck them in a stroller in the yard, balcony, or outside a shop to nap on a snowy day.

In fact, the Finnish Ministry of Labour specifically recommends it (see page 24 under “naps”).  Does it help babies sleep better? One study showed children took longer naps outdoors compared with naps taken indoors.

Pediatrician Harvey Karp points out, in The Happiest Toddler on the Block, how staying indoors is overstimulating while at the same time boring for children.

Our homes are boring because they replace the exciting sensations of nature (the feeling of the wind on their skin, the brilliant sun, the soft grass, etc.) with an immense stillness (flat walls, flat floors, no wind).

Yet at the same time, he writes, being indoors is overstimulating.

It bombards them with jolting experiences that kids in the past never had to deal with: crazy cartoons, slick videos, clanging computer games, noisy toys, and bright colors everywhere…which can make many little children feel stressed.

There are exhaustive studies showing that time outdoors, particularly in nature, benefit us in myriad ways—from better health to peace of mind.  I think there’s something intangible too, something to do with keeping alive the awe and wonder that is our birthright. That’s something the youngest children can help us relearn.

“Live in the sunshine, swim the sea, drink the wild air.”  ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

fresh air benefits, outdoors every day, cold air good for sleep, babies sleep better outside,

CC by 2.0 pixydust8605’s flickr photostream

Understanding Children Through Imitation

follow your child's example, what it feels like to be a child, child's experience,

Mirror a child’s movements. (morguefile)

So much of a child’s experience, from infancy on, is constantly being shaped by adults. Their behavior, posture, movement, and sound are restricted by structured activities, confining seats, and grown-up expectations . If we allow ourselves, we can drop into a child’s world for few moments by replicating his or her movements. It’s a form of listening at the bodily level that can be instructive as well as enlightening.

I’ve admitted to trying this the very first time as a new mother, imitating my newborn’s movements in an experience so profound it felt like a ceremony.

I didn’t try it again until I was the mother of three kids under six. I’d dashed over to a friend’s house to drop something off, feeling rushed to get back to my nursing baby. My friend’s children weren’t home. I stood in her quiet kitchen telling her how much I wanted to sit down and chat, but couldn’t spare the time. She answered my complaint with mock outrage, “Don’t you dare relax! What were you thinking?”

In my best imitation toddler voice I said, “WANT TO!”

She wagged her finger. “That’s enough out of you. Do what you’re told right this minute.”

Then I dropped to the floor in a full-on act of defiance; lying on my back, kicking my legs, and squalling, “You can’t maaaaaake me!”

By this time our hilarity was well out of proportion to this brief moment of improv. When I got up I felt different—wonderfully de-stressed and energized.

I insisted my friend give it a try. She resisted, until I admonished her with the same phrases I’d heard her use on her kids. I even flung out her full name accompanied by finger wagging. That did it. She twirled around whining “Noooooo. No no no!” till she was out of breath, with hair in her mouth and a smile on her face.

We both agreed we felt incredible.

I don’t for a minute suggest you do this, ever, in front of any child. Self-expression should never be ridiculed. But if they’re not home, give it a try. What this did, for me as well as my friend, was let us fully express strong emotions through our bodies as our children do, as we used to do when we were children. We may have been well-educated, reasonably sophisticated women but the need to indulge in some primal venting hadn’t left us. A little method acting gave us both new insight into what our children experience.

After that, I looked for ways to learn from my children through imitation. We adults do this all the time when we play with our kids. We chase and let them chase us. When they pretend to be an animal or make-believe character we join in. We’re the big bad wolf blowing down a child’s fort made of cushions. We’re the sotto-voiced doll talking to another doll or the train engine struggling up an imaginary hill. Playing is a window into a child’s experience, and remarkably restorative for us as well.

But what truly let me honor my children’s world was letting them choreograph my movements. Sometimes we’d play what we called “mirror”— standard actor training done face to face. The child is the leader, the parent the “mirror.” As the child makes gestures, facial expressions, and hand movements the parent tries to duplicate the movements exactly. Then we ‘d switch so the child got a turn being the mirror. I always ended up laughing first.

Sometimes we played a variant of this, making each other into emotion mirrors. One would call out a feeling like “surprised” or “angry” or “wild” and the other would try to convey the word through facial expression. (This is also a great way to advance emotional intelligence.)

My favorite imitation was through dance. We’d turn on some lively music and I’d try to copy my child’s dance moves. This is much more difficult than it sounds. It’s nearly impossible to keep up with a child’s energy level for long!

My kids are past the stage where they want me to imitate their dance moves. But I haven’t forgotten how much letting my kids choreograph my movements taught me. Even now, they’ll catch my eye across a crowded room for a brief moment of mirroring. It’s funny, warm, and lets us both feel understood.

Don’t miss this wonderfully expressive choreography by Zaya, imitated by real dancers.