First Time You Felt Brave*

 

I am fifteen. I do my best to avoid being noticed. I don’t dress provocatively or wear makeup other than mascara, barely even see other faces because I don’t wear my glasses. I do my schoolwork, work an afterschool job, date a boy who makes me feel safe. But inside I have large, loud opinions about social conditions, politics, religion. I don’t know anyone who talks about such things. My boyfriend wisely listens and agrees with the fervent opinions I share only with him.

I don’t know how to get along with my boyfriend’s family so I smile and stay quiet. I’m pretty sure something about me disgusts his older brother because he won’t even look at me. If I call and he answers, he drops the phone on the counter to yell for his brother. He’s never once said my name. My boyfriend’s father is 6 foot 5 inches, towering 14 inches over me. I’m not familiar with adult sarcasm so I wilt around him. I don’t like that my wilting makes me seem like my boyfriend’s mother, who expresses no opinions, not even on her face, making herself small and subservient.

One afternoon my boyfriend and I are out together. We stop at his house for a brief interlude with his proudly Irish great uncle who is visiting from out of state for the first time in decades. He is thin and whiskery as a stalk of wheat. I smile at him whenever he looks my way. He brings up a work-related incident that still angers him, quickly devolving into racist comments  He is the first person I’ve ever heard deride Black people. In the next sentence he uses the n-word. I bristle. My boyfriend looks at me with an expression I interpret as let it go. The great uncle continues, his mouth in a strange smirk. I have been taught to be polite. I’ve kept quiet to my detriment many times and will do so many more times. But this time I speak up.

My boyfriend’s family looks shocked as the quiet little blonde girl, the one who obsessively reads history, spews out all the Irish slurs she can think of. I say Mick and Paddy and drunken Irish, asking if he wants his people spoken about that way.  I ask if he knows what prejudice his ancestors endured when signs were posted outside buildings reading No Irish need apply or No Irish, no dogs, or, more commonly, No Irish, no dogs, no Blacks just a few generations ago.

There’s an awful pause.

I want to run out of the room but, unexpectedly, he agrees such terms are unfair. Then starts to justify his biases. I say it’s the exact same thing. He says no it’s not, I say yes it is. Prejudice is prejudice.

A longer pause.

Neither one of us knows how to extricate ourselves from the situation. Right about then, my boyfriend invents a reason we have to leave. We hustle out of the house. Once we get in the car, I laugh although I’m shaking. I say I have no delusion I’ve made any difference. I have no idea how to make a difference. The real me wants very much to know what can.

~

Now I live in a world where young people, everywhere, advocate loudly and persistently for a sustainable, equitable, compassionate future. They’re not standing up to one racist man, they are standing up to an entrenched history of brutality and greed. They are reshaping the future. I can feel it happening. I hope you can too.

*I’ve worked on an exhaustively hyperlinked post about ways to reimagine education during the pandemic but just can’t seem to muster up what it takes to finish it. So I’m posting this response to the writing prompt “the first time you felt brave.” I think our world needs a great deal more bravery (and love) than it ever has in my lifetime. Please respond with a story of when YOU felt brave. 

 

Mutual Aid In The Time Of Covid-19

“Hope has never trickled down, it has always sprung up.”    ~Naomi Klein     

Last night, after reading frightening coverage about this country’s abysmal preparation for Covid-19, with potential death tolls estimated to reach 1 to 1.5 million Americans, I dreamed about a family member just outside my window who couldn’t hear or see me calling him. Even in my dream I wondered which one of us wasn’t alive. I also dreamed about rotting food that grew into a malevolent presence. (And I dreamed about pastel-colored baby llamas…)

I woke up to cancel and respond to cancellation notices for all sorts of workshops, events, and get-togethers. Tentatively my classes for April are still a go-status, but I realize that may change. So much is changing.

Like nearly everyone else, I’m taking in more news than I normally do. I’ve heard experts say this pandemic is the event of a century. I’ve heard experts say this will be generation-defining. And of course there are people like conservative columnist David Brooks whose piece in the NYT is titled “Pandemics Kill Compassion, Too” with the subtitle “You may not like who you’re about to become.”  He writes about the ugly history of epidemics, where people blame and refuse to help one another. Of course there aren’t many accounts of how neighbors and faith communities actually helped one another in those times; history rarely tracks the experiences of ordinary people. Rebecca Solnit’s book, A Paradise Built in Hell, describes how ordinary people DO react. Here’s part of my post about this.

Author Rebecca Solnit takes a close look at disasters including earthquakes, floods, and explosions. She finds tragedy and grief, but something else too, something rarely noticed. During and after these 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 most horrific 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. As Solnit says, “The possibility of paradise is already within us as a default setting.”

Solnit wasn’t writing specifically about global pandemics, but already this greater human spirit is happening all around us. In my own networks I know of:

  • employees offering to handle a heavier workload so that co-workers with health problems can stay at home
  • healthcare workers taking on more shifts to deal with a massively increased workload
  • families looking after other people’s children due to school and daycare closures
  • nursing mothers vowing to share breastmilk if fellow mothers are too sick to nurse
  • neighbors offering to do errands and yard chores for elderly and/or sick neighbors
  • faith communities matching volunteers with people requesting help

And community members are getting together online to organize all sorts of mutual aid well beyond their own close networks. Here’s what my friend Mark, activist and generally awesome person, posted yesterday.

And here’s an example from an apartment dweller:

The next few months will likely test us, maybe test us severely.  Through whatever we suffer, this pandemic may help us see we are interconnected beyond our own fingertips, beyond our own borders.  May we rise to our best selves, creative and caring, no matter what. May we keep up one another’s spirits as the people of  Siena, Italy do — singing from their homes and apartments during the mandated quarantine. 

 “To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand Utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.”   ~Howard Zinn

Undivided

“Respect, I think, always implies imagination—the ability to see one another, across our inevitable differences, as living souls.”   ~ Wendell Berry

I’m afraid I’ve forgotten how to write non-political poems and some recent essays I turned in were just a few degrees shy of ranting. Over the last few years my usual peace/love/humor social media feed on Facebook and Twitter has started to read more like a women trying to jump higher than despair. Every morning it takes strength just to face the news. This isn’t who I want to be. Isn’t who I think we are.

Remember the bundle of sticks story, said to come from the enslaved storyteller Aesop over 2500 years ago?

A father is distressed by the constant quarreling among his sons. Nothing he says eases the discord. When their arguments became fierce, he asks one of his sons to bring him a bundle of sticks. He hands it in turn to each son, asking them to try to break it. None of them can. Then he unties the bundle and hands out individual sticks, which they break easily. “My sons,” says the father, “do you not see how certain it is that if you help each other, it will impossible for your enemies to injure you? But if you are divided among yourselves, you are no stronger than a single stick in that bundle.”

History tells us when ordinary people are pitted against one another, those divisions are fostered by people who benefit. Divisions keep the majority preoccupied while a tiny minority amasses ever more wealth and power. So-called divides are used to keep people tussling over religion, race, ethnicity, social issues, politics — all amped up by fear of change, fear of losing what little you’ve got to someone who isn’t just like you. Meanwhile, what little power and wealth ordinary people have is usurped easily as individual sticks are broken. When we don’t stand up for each other, we lose.

But we are not hopelessly divided. In fact, across so-called political divides we are growing closer on pivotal issues.

Climate Change

Results from a 2019 poll byThe Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation show a strong majority of Americans — about 8 in 10 — say that human activity is fueling climate change.

There’s plenty of shared fear. Forty percent overall believe action to combat climate change must come in the next decade to ward off the worst consequences while 12% believe it’s already too late. These concerns cross party lines and are a significant change from a few years ago, when a 2014 Gallup poll found people ranked climate change among their lowest concerns, with a majority caring little or not at all about the issue.

How to tackle the problem? Nearly two-thirds of people polled support stricter fuel-efficiency standards for the country’s cars and trucks. While many are willing to pay more in taxes and utilities, a majority agree on two methods for funding climate action. Seven out of 10 say the money should come from increasing taxes on wealthy households. And six out of 10 favor raising taxes on companies that burn fossil fuels, even when told companies may pass costs along in the form of higher prices.

 

Immigrants 

A Pew Research Center fact sheet from early 2019 shows a strong majority of Americans (62%) say immigrants strengthen our country thanks to their hard work and talents. A total of 28% believe, instead, that immigrants burden the country by taking jobs, housing, and health care. This is a major reversal from attitudes prevalent 25 years ago, when a 1994 poll indicated 63% of Americans believed immigrants burdened the country while 31% said they strengthened it.

There are differences in opinion. Democrats overwhelmingly agree immigrants strengthen the nation (83%) while nearly half of Republicans saying they burden the nation (49%). But views among younger Republicans challenge older party views, with a majority (58%) of those under 39 years of age agreeing that immigrants strengthen the country. Notice again an increasing convergence of viewpoints.

 

Healthcare

The Commonwealth Fund’s 2019 survey found than two-thirds of people (68%) in states that have not expanded Medicaid favored expanding the program. A majority of Democrats (91%) and independents (74%) were in favor. Only 42% of Republicans overall approved, but 57% of Republicans most likely to be affected (making less than $30,350 annually) approved of expansion.

Despite confusion around this complicated issue, Americans are increasingly interested in some form of universal healthcare. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll found 58% of people approved when asked about  “a national health plan, sometimes called Medicare for All, in which all Americans would get their insurance from a single government plan.” In a CNN poll, over half (54%) said the government should provide a national health insurance program funded by taxes, although only 20% agreed it should entirely replace private health insurance. While there are strong differences of opinion a survey by RealClear Politics found healthcare was the top concern of voters, even Republicans were evenly split on supporting or not supporting Medicare for all.

Overall a significant majority of Americans believe workers should receive paid medical leave (85%) as well as parental leave (82%) following birth/adoption.

 

Economy and Money’s Influence    

 A 2020 Pew Research Center study on economic inequality found seven out of ten adults agree the U.S. economic system unfairly favors powerful interests.

Americans overall agree which groups have too much power over the economy. Eighty-four percent say politicians, 82% corporations, and 82% say the wealthy. Three-quarters agree health insurance companies have too much power, 64% say banks and other financial institutions, 61% say technology companies. There are differences of opinion within these categories, for example Republicans are more likely to say labor unions have too much power while Democrats believe corporate power is a greater concern, but there’s still plenty of common ground.

Americans in general also tend to dislike special interests interfering with elections. Eighty-four percent think money has too much influence in elections. Nearly 8 in 10 favor limits on both raising and spending money in congressional campaigns. Meanwhile, 78 percent of Americans, including 80 percent of Republicans, want to overturn the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that further opened the floodgates to corporate campaign spending, including spending from undisclosed sources.

What will it take to revive hope and work together for the common good?

My friend John Robinson, author of Mystical Activism: Transforming A World In Crisis, spoke in a recent interview about Earth’s sacredness and the peril our planet is in. He compared it to driving down the road and seeing a two-year-old wander into the street.  As he says, “You don’t keep driving and think to yourself, ‘that’s interesting, I wonder what’s going to happen.’ You jump out of the car, you stop all the other cars, and you grab that child to save him. That’s the kind of response that happens when we suddenly get how much in danger we are in and start responding to the world.”

It’s an apt analogy, not only because our instinctual response is to save the child no matter if leaping into the road endangers us, but also because it is an unconscious act of love. That’s where we are now. Life on earth is that child and the politics of the drivers going by don’t matter, the child is in peril.

That word “love” may be key. It’s found in what we are lacking, including a sense of community and shared purpose.  Across all so-called divides, we truly want the same things. Things like safety, freedom, meaning, a sense of belonging, hope for the future, a say in decisions that affect us. We may believe there are different routes to achieve these goals, but the goals are darn similar. That’s common ground.

We’ve been led to believe a brighter, more collaborative future is unrealistic, even impossible, but that’s a narrative that divides and breaks us just as effectively as tearing apart Aesop’s bundle of sticks. Howard Zinn reminded us in this article written a few years before his death,

There is a tendency to think that what we see in the present moment will continue. We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people’s thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible….

I keep encountering people who, in spite of all the evidence of terrible things happening everywhere, give me hope. Especially young people, in whom the future rests.

Positive change takes place when people work together regardless of naysayers, regardless of divisions fostered by those who seek to consolidate ever greater wealth and power. We’re here for more than short-term satisfactions. Leap up, save the baby from the road.

The Great Turning

I’m thrilled to offer a guest post by Ellen Rowland. This essay is adapted from her recently published book, Everything I Thought I Knew: An Exploration of Living and Learning. 

I sat at the small table by the kitchen window this morning thinking about hope. The news was bad. Again. Acres of majestic trees destroyed by fire, hurricane devastation, floods and loss, missiles and political misfires. So many people in need of each other, divided by both real and imagined borders. Yet in that quiet moment as my children still slept, I felt a strong pull to lean into the beauty around me, the calm, to focus on the small acts of kindness that don’t always get talked about and believe in their power. Did I have a right to be hopeful when the world was so clearly hurting?

If you’re deep ecologist Joanna Macy, and others like her, the answer is yes. Not only do you have a right to be optimistic, but an obligation to unearth that hope, spread it around like topsoil, and help something infinitesimal or resplendent grow. I stumbled upon an article recently by Macy about the book, Stories of the Great Turning, which helped validate my stubborn penchant for hope. It celebrates the ever-growing movement of individual action through a collection of stories about grassroots activism taking place around the world.

A few days later, my family and I watched the French documentary Demain (available with English subtitles as Tomorrow) by Cyril Dion and actress Mélanie Laurent. It takes us all over the world to introduce us to people who are finding creative solutions to the world’s problems and putting them into action on an individual and community level. The film shows us the positive global strides that are being made in the areas of agriculture, energy, economy, democracy, and education. The examples convey the idea that, while we cannot deny the global problems we’re facing, we can choose to focus on the change that is already in motion.

These aren’t merely messages of hope. Neither are they a call to action. Both Stories of the Great Turning and Demain are telling us something we deeply suspect but desperately need to know — that all over the world, in hidden corners and small enclaves, people from all walks of life are already creating lasting positive change.

Because these thinkers and doers of seemingly small acts are not celebrities, politicians, or industry giants; we may not hear about them in the mainstream media. In fact the gentle propagation of these tales usually gets done the old-fashioned way — by word of mouth, or as my daughter says, “on the wings of dragonflies” — which is testament itself to what Macy calls the “remarkable expansion of allegiance beyond personal or group advantage.”

In other words, we lead, or participate, or engage, or invent, or inspire without caring if we ever get recognition or reward. We do it because we feel in our very souls that it’s the right thing to do. Even if our efforts ultimately fail, the lesson lies in the attempt.

Joanna Macy writes in her introduction,

“This wider sense of identity is a moral capacity more often associated with heroes and saints; but it now manifests everywhere on a practical and workaday plane. From children restoring streams for salmon spawning, to inner-city neighbors planting community gardens, from forest defenders perched high in trees marked for illegal logging, to countless climate actions to limit greenhouse-gas emissions, an undreamt-of wave of human endeavor is under way . . . (The Great Turning’s) three main dimensions include actions to slow down the destruction wrought by our political economy and its wars against humanity and Nature; new structures and ways of doing things, from holding land to growing food to generating energy; and a shift in consciousness to new ways of knowing, a new paradigm of our relation to each other and to the sacred living body of Earth.”

All this just makes me want to run outside and whoot with joy! But for most of us it’s hard to dig our teeth into the potential collective outcome of all these scattered individual efforts. Especially when we are bombarded on a daily basis with mindless listicles on one hand and horrific world news on the other. At any moment the global bubble of doom and fear might pop right over our heads. Can we really make a difference?

Well, yes, especially when “we” becomes “WE,” which happens quite naturally when individuals come together to provide support, collaborate, share resources, and work as a unit while maintaining individuality.

The paradigm of positive change taking place isn’t just about the environment. It’s about accepting the notion that in anything in life that’s worthwhile, there exists polarity. It’s about accepting and embracing each other’s differences. It’s about mutual respect and compassion. It’s about taking risks and daring to think differently. And it’s about learning differently. I can’t help making this leap because it’s really only a small stepping stone from one to the other. How can we distinguish between the consciousness we hope to awaken on behalf of a suffering planet and the world we want to open up for our children? They are the same.

Which is why those of us who foster interest-led learning, who have lived through learning and learned through living, need to keep sharing our individual and collective tales as part of this Great Turning. And we don’t need to shout. As it is, many of these stories naturally intertwine children’s exploration with a love and respect for Nature. They demonstrate the innate consciousness that children have toward creatures and the compassion they hold for others. Many homeschooling families are already living with “our sacred living body of Earth” in mind through lifestyle choices. Sharing these tales is not about bashing the institution of school or judging parents and children who choose to attend, and it’s not about imposing or insisting on change.

If I understand it correctly, this movement, which Macy calls “the essential adventure of our time,” is about individuals inspiring change through positive action and example. And sharing our stories of gratitude and hope. The shift may come about slowly. But it’s coming. I can hear the wings beating.

 

Ellen Rowland Ellen Rowland is the author of Everything I Thought I Knew, a collection of essays about living, learning, and parenting outside the status quo.

Her writing has appeared in Life Learning Magazine, The Homeschooler Post, Otherways Magazine, The Washington Post online, More Magazine, and Natural Life Magazine.

After spending 15 years in New York City, where she built a career in art and design and met her French-born husband, she and her family moved to Senegal, West Africa when her children were three and four years old. They built an earth house, lived off-the-grid, grew their own vegetables, and began the journey of learning through living. She and her family currently reside on a small island in Greece where they plan to restore a goat barn and call it home.

14 Ways to Give Kids the Confidence They Need to Shape the Future

Raising confident kids who will shape the future.

As each generation does, our children will grow up to shape the world. They need plenty of creativity and enthusiasm for the task ahead. Nurturing them in loving relationships with plenty of freedom to play is wonderful preparation. Here are some other positive ways to foster their confidence as they grow.

1. Encourage make-believe worlds. Give kids plenty of unscheduled time where they’re free to daydream and play. Sometimes their make-believe is constructed of nothing you can see, sometimes with blocks or dress-up clothes, sometimes it’s under a blanket thrown over a table. Make-believe builds a connection from the world that is to the world that can be.

2. Tell family stories. Share funny, silly, and hopeful stories of long-gone relatives. Tell stories of your childhood and young adult years, especially the mistakes and hard lessons kids can identify with. Tell them about their own earliest days including what they were like as babies and toddlers. Kids who  know such stories develop a strong sense of belonging, which researchers call best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”

3. Read stories. Through fiction, children imagine themselves living the lives of characters and begin to grasp what it’s like in different places and different circumstances.  This practice of recognizing other worldviews helps to develop tolerance and empathy.

4. Point out what people are doing every day to bring about a brighter future, both in good times and times of great difficulty. Note your own positive choices — perhaps contacting your legislators, planting a garden, walking instead of driving. When a sudden crisis arises in your area, a house fire or flood, point out how quickly people work together to care for one another. We humans tend to show the best of ourselves in the worst of times.

5. Let current events become a regular topic. Just as you’d bring up any other subject that interests you, talk about topical issues in front of your kids. This is easy to do informally while driving or sitting around the dinner table. In addition to being more aware of issues, studies show that kids develop better reasoning skills when they grow up in families where social and political issues are common topics.

6. Welcome young people’s opinions without overemphasizing your point of view. Dissent equips kids to think for themselves. As they get older, help them see that using facts and approaching discussions logically can help convince others. (Here are some logic resources.)

7. Hang a laminated world map on the wall. Notice where news happens, where friends travel, where their favorite movies and music comes from. Mark places you’d like to go. Whiteboard markers wipe off this surface, so it’s easy to write directly on oceans and continents. (This is also a subversive way to advance geographical knowledge.)

8. Embrace kids’ interests and let them see you pursue your own. Many of us are raising young people whose passions aren’t remotely similar to our own, yet these very passions help advance the possibilities we bring to the future.

9. Get kids to predict the future. This not only provides insight into their hopes and fears, it’s a way of talking about the kind of future they want to live in and what steps can be taken to make it happen.

10. Stay tuned to what’s positive. Avoid a heavy media diet of news or crime shows. Even as little as a few hours a day can result in drastically increased cynicism, fear, and lack of trust in others — what’s been called mean world syndrome

11. Bring quality media into your kids’ lives with magazines such as MuseSkipping StonesOdyssey, New Moon Girls, and Kazoo. Get updates from KarmaTube and Good News Network. Talk about what kids have seen or heard that makes them feel optimistic. For age-appropriate news sources try Scholastic NewsDoGo News, and the similarly named GoGo NewsKid’s Post (offered by The Washington Post), National Geographic KidsNews-o-Matic, and Time for Kids. Teens are likely to enjoy the news-based wit of The Daily Show  and Last Week Tonight.

12. Think globally. Notice where toys, clothing and other household purchases come from, perhaps locating the place of origin on a map. Focus your attention on a specific area in the world that interests you, paying attention to the news, weather, and celebrations taking place there. If at all possible, host an international visitor.

13. Travel and immerse yourselves in local communities as much as possible. Get off the main roads, eat where the locals eat, walk or bike as much as possible. Skip hotels, instead staying in homes through Airbnb, Home Exchange,  or other such programs. According to The New Global Student by Maya Frost, travel provides extraordinary benefits, especially as preteens and teens are forming their identity and sense of agency in the world.

14. Volunteer. This  is a pivotal way to shows kids we can make a better world, right now, directly in our own communities. There are all sorts of ways kids can volunteer, from toddlers to teens.

How do you help kids become world builders?

 

Portions of this post are excerpted from Free Range Learning.

House Undivided

political opposites get along

This isn’t an accurate representation of the house I’m describing! CC by 2.0, photo by Michal Osmenda

When I drive into town, I go past a house that never fails to interest me. The house itself is entirely ordinary. I’ve never met the inhabitants. What’s fascinating is the dichotomy on display out front.

Take the driveway. Most evenings a pickup truck with mud streaks from off-roading is neatly parked next to a fuel-efficient hybrid.

Or take the landscaping. For over a decade and a half, the garden bed under the front window has sported a perennial planting — two equally large logos for rival teams Ohio State Buckeyes and University of Michigan Wolverines. This is a brave statement here in Ohio.

But the lawn is my favorite. Each presidential election season a competition is waged right there on the grass. A regular-sized Gore/Lieberman sign appeared close to the street in early autumn of 2000. The next time I drove by, a Bush/Cheney sign was placed directly in front of that sign. As weeks went by the signs were moved like two parrying chess pieces until a much larger Bush/Cheney sign appeared. That was followed by a larger Gore/Lieberman sign. A similar dance of political signs took place for the Kerry vs Bush race, the Obama vs McCain race, and the Obama vs Romney race. (This year, two very small signs….)

The couple in this house surely eat at the same table, sit on the same couch, flush the same toilet, and sleep in the same bed. They’ve managed to live together all these years while holding widely differing opinions. I thought I lived in a household of contradictions but these two are an inspiring example of publicly embracing their differences.

We’re told we live in an ever more divisive country. We tend to choose news sources that amplify our own worldviews. We tend to delete social media friends who don’t share our opinions. We tend to live in areas and move in social circles with people very similar to us. Yet insulating ourselves from those who are different just strengthens the perception that we’re irreconcilably different.

Research shows us that diversity sparks more innovative and energizing approaches to building strong communities and successful businesses.  Diversity can lead to some invigorating soul-searching  and growth on a personal level too. One of the main principles of nonviolence is finding common ground with each other. Across all so-called divides, we truly want the same things. Things like safety, freedom, individual purpose, a sense of belonging, hope for the future, a say in decisions that affect us. We may believe there are different routes to achieve these goals, but the goals are darn similar. That’s common ground.

This house reminds me we can express our differences and still laugh.  We can challenge each other and in doing so, learn from each other. We can get beyond the urge to assert the superiority of our viewpoints by respecting each other, helping each other, and collaborating with each other. This house is who we really are as a nation. May it be so.

“Society evolves not by shouting each other down, but by the unique capacity of unique, individual human beings to comprehend each other.” ~Lewis Thomas

Be Pollyanna

Image by Healzo

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

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

 

The word “pollyanna” is defined as:

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

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

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

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

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

“CRUTCHES!”

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

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

Pollyanna clapped her hands.

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

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

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

According to neuroscience, Pollyanna was on to something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grateful For The Dark Stuff Too

A handmade Gratitude Tree has hung in our hallway for years. We keep the tree lively by writing on leaves made of brightly colored paper, then tape them to the tree. It’s usually filled with life affirming reminders like hugs from Daddy, going to the library, bike rides, playing cards with Grammy, and yes, winning arguments.  The year my youngest son Sam was six, he got so inspired that he said he was grateful for a hundred things. A bit dubiously I offered to type the list while he dictated. I was astonished as he kept going until the list numbered 117.

Listing what we’re grateful for is increasingly popular. Studies show that those who practice gratitude are healthier, happier, more helpful to others, and even more likely to reach their goals. People post gratitude lists on Facebook and on their blogs, keep gratitude journals, and pray in gratitude each morning. This is undeniably wonderful. Orienting ourselves toward what works in our lives is perpetually rejuvenating.

But perhaps we’re limiting ourselves to a childlike version of gratitude. Are we grateful only for what we deem good and ungrateful for all the rest?

I’m all about emphasizing the positive—heck, I’m pretty sure we amplify what we pay attention to. But that doesn’t mean that the darker sides of our lives aren’t a source of blessings as well. It’s one thing to be grateful for a disease in remission, a distant friend’s visit, or a new job, but there’s much to be grateful for right in the heart of what we consider the worst of times, the worst in ourselves. Maybe mining these experiences for gratitude can get us past the need to separate our lives into good and bad, putting us right into the seamless whole of a fully lived life. Here are a few to consider:

Mistakes

I’m not talking about the little mistakes we make each day, but those big, honking mistakes all of us who are honest with ourselves can admit we’ve made—errors that damaged relationships or changed the future we anticipated. Some of these mistakes were well-intended, while others were careless or downright stupid. 

It’s quite possible to be grateful for what we call mistakes. If nothing else, our fallibility demonstrates the foolishness of being self-righteous about others. Hopefully we learn even more. Our mistakes give us a depth of experience, a dose of humility, and the beginnings of wisdom.

Beware people who claim they have not made significant mistakes—either they haven’t stepped out the door yet, or what they hide from themselves is too dark to be claimed.  Our mistakes are a wonderful part of who we are. Thank goodness for our mistakes in all their falling down, awkward, forgiveness-hungry glory.

Doubt

While doubt seems ruinous, it can actually be a gift. We may doubt choices we’ve made, relationships we’re in, or the faith we have practiced all our lives. Doubt is a powerful motivator. When we look at doubt, using our heads and our hearts, we may not like what we see. It may take us years to find answers. This forces us to tell the truth to ourselves, and that process makes us stronger. Sure it’s painful, but it also leaves us much to be grateful for.

The harsh light cast by doubt can lead, after a time, to a much brighter path. We may find ourselves in stronger relationships and making more conscious choices. We may end up with deeper faith or accept that we don’t know the answers, but that we love the search all thanks to our friend, doubt.

Crisis

I don’t mean to minimize the impact of crisis. Like almost everyone, I’ve been at the mercy of crime, grief, and pain. But no matter the crisis, we have a choice. We can choose which attitude to take, and that alone is worthy of some gratitude.

Beyond that, many people find blessings of all sorts hidden in experiences that, on the surface, seem starkly horrible. They say that cancer woke them up to truly living, or they say that losing everything in a fire helped them choose more authentic priorities. Some people dedicate their energy to helping those who have suffered as they once suffered, thereby transforming their own crisis into a blessing for others.

Throughout history, cultures around the world have told folk tales that not only entertain, but also teach values while offering lessons on growing through difficulty. Too often, we’ve replaced these stories with weaker parables found in popular entertainment. Consider the following:

A man was given a strong horse. Many came to admire it, telling him he was the luckiest man around. He replied, “We’ll see.” A few days later the horse ran away and the neighbors came to console him. “How terrible!” they said. The man replied, “We’ll see.” The next week the horse returned. Following him were six wild horses. The neighbors congratulated him, saying, “You are richer than any of us now.” The man replied, “We’ll see.” When his son tried to train one of the wild horses, it threw him and the young man broke his leg. “Oh, what bad luck,” his neighbors said. The man only replied, “We’ll see.” Then an army swept through the village and conscripted all able-bodied young men, leaving only the man’s son with the broken leg. The neighbors told him how fortunate he was. The man only replied, “We’ll see.”

The next time crisis looms chances are you will stumble, get up, cry, laugh, protest, and argue. But you may also be aware just how grateful you are to be here and living life with all it has to offer. And, as the farmer in the story did, you may step back from your predicament and say to yourself, “We’ll see.”

We don’t bother to give thanks for many aspects of our lives, from the face in the mirror each morning to the minor frustrations of the day. Look again at your mistakes, your doubts, and your crises to see the richness that lies waiting to be discovered. I’ll be doing the same.

It’s not my practice to make gratitude lists, especially one as long as six-year-old Sam’s list of 117 items. If I did, I admit it would include many more of the “easy” ones—birdsong, a bountiful garden, finding a lost book. But I’m inclined to see gratitude as a tree—it not only grows upward with bright leaves, it also grows deep roots in dark soil.

Originally published in Lilipoh.

Links & Updates 3-3-15

great linksEven the date is wrong on this post, because I clicked “publish” before changing the date from two months ago when I thought I’d publish it.

I thought I’d do an update every other month, but I tend to be fueled by many delusions. One is that I’ll magically become more organized and productive any day now. So far this has not happened, as the teetering stacks of Very Important Papers on my desk attests. Heck, I’ve been on the planet quite awhile now and I still don’t manage to behave. Here are a few recent examples.

My hand is on the door to let the dogs out. I just so happen to be belting out Ode to Joy with spontaneous lyrics lauding joys of peeing in the snow. This was meant to encourage canines to go out (perhaps to escape my singing). Unbeknownst to me, an innocent FexEd guy is on the other side of the door, finger poised to ring the doorbell.
I hope this qualifies him for trauma-related workman’s comp.
Learning never ends. I just learned that one should not, when needing an extra hand, grab a corner of packing tape in one’s mouth. That is, unless you’re seeking traumatic lip exfoliation.
We’re trying to teach the dogs to stop barking when someone’s at the door. To do that we brandish a squirt bottle. (No need to actually spray the water, they get the idea.)
Yesterday the doorbell rings. I grab the squirt bottle on my way to answer it. Immediately it starts slipping out of my grasp. I tighten my grip and, in doing so, squirt myself right in the eye. Yes, I was holding it backwards. Yes, I did one of my hyena laughs.
I pity the poor innocents who don’t realize they’re ringing the bell at Awkward House.
 

And then there’s this.

My loved ones and I are enjoying the blue skies and longer days that hint at spring. I’ve been planting seeds in little pots under grow lights with vegetable garden-sized enthusiasm. It’s all fun and games till I’m yanking out weeds on muggy 95 degree August days. On to some links!

A Few Writerly Updates

My short story “Everywhere Stars” was included in Cleveland Scene Magazine’s fiction issue: full text.

My poem “Survivors of Child Abuse Support Group” was published in Literary Mama: full text.

My poem “Fog as Visible Dreams” was published (full text )in the recent edition of Shot Glass Journal  along with a second poem, “What the Onion Teaches:” full text.

My poem “2:37 am” was published in Mothering:  full text.

My poem “Failure Too” was published this month in the print journal Mom Egg Review, issue 13.

I had the pleasure of being featured on Coffee with a Canine, a site for dog-loving writers. Here’s the recent interview and my last one, five years ago when our German shepherd was still with us.

And I had the honor of talking about the books I’ve been reading on Campaign for the American Reader, which was also published on America Reads.

Amusements

If you haven’t seen the way Mallory Ortberg of The Toast re-captions art, you should. See if you don’t smirk at Women Having A Terrible Time At Parties In Western Art History and Women Listening To Men Play Music At Them In Western Art History. Here’s a taste:

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the-toast.net/2014/10/28/women-terrible-time-parties-western-art-history

get up
it’s weird to lie down when nobody else is lying down
sit up
i’ll sit up when I see something worth sitting up for

If you write, try out the Rejection Generator.  As the folks at The Stoneslide Corrective explain,

The Rejection Generator has helped thousands of established, emerging, and aspiring writers by preemptively exposing them to the pain of rejection, making all subsequent rejection less painful. Now, for the first time, The Generator has been tuned to provide highly personalized pain. Answer a few questions about your writing, and get a rejection letter tailored just for you—instilling maximum healthful preemptive suffering.

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Day Brighteners

How people are stepping up to undo environmental damage in the YES! magazine article, “Depaving Cities, Undamming Rivers.”

A way to purchase bookish delights while helping to build libraries in Ethiopia, made possible by a wonderful volunteer-run site.

What to do when you’re having a crappy day.

Ethical investors around the world are shifting their money out of fossil fuel. Divestment is happening at colleges, churches, pension funds, and other organizations–effectively rerouting more than 50 billion away from the coal, oil, and gas industry.

Science-y Fascinations

Researcher and intrepid person Jeff Leach is spending a year trying to acquire the healthiest possible gut microbiome. Pretty fascinating and entirely relevant for all of us.

A new documentary on how birth “seeds” us with essential bacteria, and how we can assure every baby benefits whether naturally or surgically born. Here’s more about the film Microbirth.

Information is passed from plant to seed using memory of seasonal fluctuations. Find out more in the (not very scientifically titled) article “How Mom Plants Teach Seeds When to Grow.”

And how great is this? The risk of coming down with the common cold is reduced by hugs.

Learning

A Thousand Rivers: What the modern world has forgotten about children and learning” is, without a doubt, the best essay I’ve ever read about learning. Long, insightful, and worth reading every word. It’s by Carol Black, maker of the must-see documentary film Schooling the World

The Importance of Ancestral Knowledge in the Modern World” is a wonderful article by Neal Ritter in the recent Holistic Parenting Magazine.

What do you do all day? is a question faced by many homeschooling families. Here are all sorts of ways to answer that question.

In what’s now a classic, The Book of Learning and Forgetting, Frank Smith explains how our culture systematically obstructs the powerful inherent learning abilities of children, creating handicaps that often persist through life. The author eloquently contrasts a false and fabricated “official theory” that learning is work (used to justify excessive regulation and massive testing) with a correct but officially suppressed “classic view” that learning is a social process that can occur naturally and continually through collaborative activities. Here’s a chart from the book.

child 2

Visual & Auditory Yes

Ophir Kutiel, who goes by Kutiman, is a musician and editor who took lots of YouTube clips of amateur music performances, from different people, different years, different places, and different songs, and edited them together into a new song. The vocals are by KarMaRedd, singing a cappella. Kutiman listed the source videos at the YouTube page.

Tony Orrico has been called a “human spirograph” but his work is much more. He is a visual artist and performer who uses his own body to inscribe geometries on paper. Through physically exhausting performances involving highly choreographed motions, Orrico creates works of visual art that record his own motion.

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This poem was featured at the opening of the Climate 2014 summit in NYC. The poem was written and read by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a 26-year-old native of the Marshall Islands. It was spoken as a promise to her new baby, a commitment to create a just and sustainable world. After her recitation in front of 120 heads of state, her daughter and husband joined her on stage, to a standing ovation. An official U.N. Twitter account said many world leaders were moved to tears.

And here’s a new piece by Michael Franti.

Superstupiditis, philosophies that divide us.
Keep us in fear from one another
so we can’t recognize a brother from another mother.
No way, we can’t live this way,
that’s why so many people stand up and say:
One love, one blood, one heart, one soul and
one drum and only one rhythm,
One tribe and all of us singing.

 

 

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.

Listen.

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.

Play!