A Letter to the Most Illustrious the Contessina Allagia degli Aldobrandeschiwritten Christmas EveAnno Domini 1513
I salute you. I am your friend, and my love for you goes deep. There is nothing I can give you which you have not. But there is much, very much, that, while I cannot give it, you can take. No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take heaven! No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present little instant.
Take peace! The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach, is joy. There is radiance and glory in darkness, could we but see. And to see, we have only to look. I beseech you to look!
Life is so generous a giver. But we, judging its gifts by their covering, cast them away as ugly or heavy or hard. Remove the covering, and you will find beneath it a living splendor, woven of love by wisdom, with power. Welcome it, grasp it, and you touch the angel’s hand that brings it to you. Everything we call a trial, a sorrow or a duty, believe me, that angel’s hand is there. The gift is there and the wonder of an overshadowing presence. Your joys, too, be not content with them as joys. They, too, conceal diviner gifts.
Life is so full of meaning and purpose, so full of beauty beneath its covering, that you will find earth but cloaks your heaven. Courage then to claim it; that is all! But courage you have, and the knowledge that we are pilgrims together, wending through unknown country home.
And so, at this time, I greet you, not quite as the world sends greetings, but with profound esteem and with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks and shadows flee away.
Fra Giovanni Giocondo
I’m standing at the kitchen counter rolling out crust to make an entrée my son wants for his birthday. Beef pies. They won’t be filled with just any beef, but the tender flesh of a two-year-old steer named Clovis who spent his whole life on our little farm. It’s hard to reconcile my feelings with the facts. Right now I’m dicing the brisket, a place where Clovis liked to be scratched.
Years ago my daughter made an excellent case for raising a dairy cow as a learning experience for her and homegrown way for us to procure healthy grassfed milk we could turn into yogurt, kefir, and cheese. On her birthday we gave her a red halter and soon after we got a lovely Guernsey. Isabelle changed her life. All our lives
The spring that Isabelle gave birth to her first bull calf was another game-changer. Initially I tried to delude myself that little Dobby could be trained to work as an ox or that we could find him a place in some farm animal sanctuary. Delusions they were indeed. Our only option was to raise him for a year or two, knowing all our hand-fed carrots and apples couldn’t forestall his eventual fate.
When he was small my daughter halter-trained him, leading him out the pasture gate to fresh grass. Even later, at 1,600 pounds, he followed her just as future steers would do. Long before they had to leave, she wisely insured they’d be calm and unafraid for the day they’d be led to the truck taking them away.
It’s a hard truth indeed to realize that calves who love to be brushed, calves who cavort in exultation when the gate to a fresh pasture is opened, calves who are clearly attached to the mother who birthed them and continues to care for them, cannot live out their natural lifespans. We consoled ourselves knowing that at least here our steers lived every day of their lives with their mother, grazing and nursing in peace until the last day they breathed. And that Isabelle could live out her natural lifespan, more than three times longer than dairy cows are typically permitted in the U.S. This is rare, almost unheard of, on today’s farms.
But I veer from my point. (This veering is a chronic problem of mine.)
My scruples once ruled. My children were raised on vegetarian food made from scratch. I used to be pretty darn strident about this. Heck, I used to be pretty strident about all sorts of things, from education to politics. My scruples haven’t changed, at least I think they haven’t, but my ability to live with dichotomy has.
Maybe it was precipitated by that not-so-great dinner of bean patties with buckwheat groats and mushroom gravy, but at this point three out of four of my offspring now include meat in their diets. (Yes friends, it’s true, our dictates don’t inform our kids’ choices. ) My husband once ate meat only at restaurants and other people’s houses because I couldn’t bear to have the flesh of once-living creatures in our home. Then he became a hunter. People dear to me quite happily flourish on the opposite end of the political spectrum and I do my (sometimes faltering) best to establish common ground, because really, every one of us wants the same things —-among them the freedom to live in safety, do what enhances our lives, and find meaning in our everyday activities. People dear to me also raise their children very differently than I’ve chosen, from sleep training to stringently academic schooling to tough love.
Every year I’ve learned more about accepting, even embracing, differing viewpoints. It’s not easy. There’s plenty of kvetching, from me and surely from the people who do their best to put up with me. This is a very big deal. It’s the foundation of peace, the only possible way forward for our species.
I slice up the very flesh I once lavished with rubs and scratches, then I roll out dough (yes, with whole grain flour) because my son hopes I’ll try the Cornish Pasty recipe he showed me. (For vegetarian family members, I make spinach pies that are refreshingly free of contradictions.)
I have no philosophy that fully explains this contradiction. But I try to stay awake and aware as I make food for someone I love out of the flesh of an animal I once loved. I reflect sorrowfully that, since last spring, we have no cattle at all on our back pasture. I’m sure I miss those mindful beings far less than my daughter must.
I wash the wooden cutting board, wipe the counters, and consider how complicated and paradoxical life is. We live on life, pass from life, and life goes on. I don’t know what to make of it except to rationalize a second glass of wine.
Several very large deadlines lurk on my horizon. Instead of clicking into high gear to get going I’m barely pedaling fast enough to keep from tipping over. The more I excoriate myself for falling behind, the farther I fall behind. I could easily blame this on chronic insomnia or existential angst or a nasty case of what-the-hell-did-I-get-myself-into. Blame, however, is useless for motivation purposes.
I was raised with the Puritan ethic: work hard, be polite at all costs, and avoid the unspeakably vile sin of laziness. Yet I’ve come to believe it’s in our do-nothing moments, like lying in the grass watching the clouds stroll by, that we most truly inhabit our lives. This probably explains why two tigers, named Full Tilt and Full Stop, tend to snarl at each other in my mind. I compromise to keep those tigers at bay.
I do this by letting myself be lured by the call of other things I want to do, things that suddenly seem delightful in comparison to the things I have to do. Here are a few examples.
- When I agreed to help a non-profit streamline their mission statement, I stalled by reorganizing kitchen cupboards.
- When I committed to editing a dissertation on organizational differences in international companies, I put it off by planting a few dozen strawberry plants and weeding the asparagus bed.
- Heck, a few years ago when I was supposed to be editing an anthology, I dawdled by writing poetry. That turned into a whole poetry collection!
This, my friends, is what I call Sideways Procrastination.
The practice is weirdly energizing. For rationalization purposes, I tell myself that by doing something amusingly unrelated I’ll return to the task I’m avoiding with a fresh outlook and enhanced enthusiasm. I’m not sure it works that way, but it’s my operating excuse.
Here are three of my recent Sideways Procrastination endeavors.
My dear friend and filmmaker Susan took me along on her latest adventure, filming Artocade in Trinidad Colorado.
To send her a small token of my thanks, I turned a toy truck into a toy art truck. Gluing baubles and beads was play to me, and play, as we all know, rejuvenates the spirit.
I dug around in the sewing supplies left to me by my mother and grandmother for a project. I turned an unused piece of red satin, an old white sheet, and lots of vintage notions into a Red Riding Hood costume for Liv. It was challenging (especially turning a tiny scrap of quilted fabric into a vest) and it was fun.
My daughter and I invited a few arty friends over for a Day of the Dead art party complete with skull painting, Barbie head alterations, finger cookies, and shrunken head punch. Preparations were a blast, the event was even blastier. ((I know “blastier isn’t a word but it should be.)
Many people seem to be great at focusing, but I’m not. I’ve got to sidle up to a task, peek around, and then break in burglar-style. Sometimes that approach works and the marvelous state of flow settles over me. Often it doesn’t and I find myself escaping into more Sideways Procrastination.
Chances are good that right now I’m in the kitchen concocting something fussy for dinner, or outside hauling something around in our old blue wheelbarrow, or curled on the couch reading a book I promised to review. I’m doing this even though I should be at my desk clattering away on the keyboard. What can I say? It’s just what Sideways Procrastinators do.
When people tell me their largest stories I am helpless as a page under pen.
A woman told me how, as a child of 11, she struck out when her grandparents were ignored rather than served at a restaurant in the deep South. Her anger was so heated that she used the restaurant’s complementary matches to start the place on fire.
It wasn’t entirely the content of the memory or the force in her voice. It was the way she strung words together; spare yet detailed. She talked about her grandmother’s arthritic hands picking up and putting down a salt shaker. She described her grandmother’s dark green dress and sensible heels, the patient smile she wore even though no one came to take their order. Before this raised-up-North granddaughter could utter a word of complaint she was shushed by her grandmother’s stern look. As her grandparents stood to go the girl ducked into the cloakroom and in seconds set to smoldering the hair oil soaked fedoras left there by white gentlemen. Of the fire she said little, except that the restaurant was forced to turn everyone away that day.
A teen described how, when he was a small child, his mother got so strung out that she’d leave him alone for days at a time.
He ended most sentences with “you hear me” and “wasn’t nothing” as he talked about licking his fingers before running them along the insides of drawers and cupboards to find crumbs. He said his mother got angry if she caught him sleeping curled next to the apartment door. She’d yell “I didn’t raise no dog.” When his story ended a refrain continued. He said “wasn’t nothing” four times, each repetition softer until his moving lips made no sound at all.
An elderly woman recounted the story of union busters coming by their cabin at supper time to beat up her father, who’d been organizing his fellow coal miners.
She didn’t recognize her own family any longer but vividly remembered this tale from her earliest years. Her words were impressions. I saw her mother standing fearfully at the door insisting her husband wasn’t home, children clustered behind her wide-mouthed with alarm. I envisioned this little girl with the presence of mind to hide her father’s dinner dishes. “Just laid em in the stove with a cloth over,” she said. When the men barged in they found only enough place settings for mother and children on the table. They left, never looking under the porch where her father hid. She had no other stories left to tell. This one was large enough for a lifetime.
Not only do I feel what they’re saying, I’m awestruck by how they say it.
When people talk about extremes they’ve experienced they speak as poets do. They rely on verbal shorthand made up of sensory description and metaphor. They drift from past to present, change viewpoints, dip into myth and scripture. Often they end abruptly, as if what they’re trying to say can’t truly be said. Their stories, powerful already, gain a sort of beauty that sends ordinary language aloft. It’s truth that trembles. To me, it’s poetry.
This essay first published in Poet’s Quarterly.
When I was growing up we were taught humans were at the top of every chart, far superior to all other living beings. Our textbooks, illustrated with stereotypical images of “cave men,” proved the assertion with a long list of what our species could do that others could not. The list was so smug that I was a bit embarrassed on behalf of my fellow homo sapiens. A skeptic even then, I thought the list was somewhat prejudicial. Worse, it didn’t acknowledge what feels obvious to young children, that we are all things and all things are us.
I don’t for a moment dismiss our many human accomplishments—among them language, science, the arts, and shared rules meant to advance mutual compassion. I simply mean to point out that we’re not better, we’re different.
Besides, what I was taught as a kid doesn’t really hold up. Here are some reasons why.
Tool use was a biggie on that list. It’s true, animals haven’t developed the smart phone (thus are spared walking into traffic while texting) but they naturally incorporate tool use when it makes sense for them.
- Crows make tools like hooks and rakes out of twigs, leaves, even their own feathers to obtain items just out of reach and can use three tools in sequence. They also will drop pebbles into a container in order to raise the level of water, understanding cause and effect as well as a seven to 10-year-old child. Other examples of tool use by crows? They’re known to drop nuts on a roadway so cars will crack the shells, then wait for a break in traffic to retrieve the nutmeat. Interestingly, they’re more proficient when they grow up watching adult crows fashion tools. (Crows might wonder why we segregate human kids away from the interesting work-a-day world of adults.)
- Naked mole rats dig with their teeth, but to keep from inhaling dust and dirt they’re known to position wood shavings in their mouths as rudimentary face masks.
- The octopus is more closely related to clams than to people, yet these invertebrates plan ahead, tool-wise. For example they’ve been seen carrying coconut shell halves they can hide under later in order to grab unsuspecting prey as it passes.
- Orangutans fold leaves into a usable “musical instrument” that modifies their calls, making them sound lower and therefore more threatening to large predators.
Math was another obvious difference. We were taught that numerical sense is evidence of higher order thinking. Yet the animal kingdom uses math when necessary.
- Bears can count. Although they don’t benefit from the intelligence-boosting effect of living in social groups, research shows bears can estimate quantities just as well as primates. One particular study taught bears to discriminate between dots on a touchscreen computer, a situation about as far removed from relevant bear smarts as possible. Their abilities in natural habitat are likely to be far more impressive.
- Elephants have substantial numerical skills, outperforming primates and even human children when tested for their ability to find the difference between two quantities. A study found elephants can discriminate between one and two as well as between larger numbers.
- Baby chicks can not only count, they can even can add up numbers based on groups of objects they can’t see at the moment. And that’s when they’re a few days old! By two weeks of age, chickens can take into account the sun’s height and position to navigate. Plus they’re able to draw inferences and plan ahead, for example choosing to delay gratification in order to reap a greater reward. And who’d have guessed, but chickens prefer to count from left to right.
- Pigeons are able to learn abstract rules about numbers and order pairs. Aside from humans, only rhesus monkeys have been able to perform at this level.
- Insects also use math. Honeybees can distinguish between and remember quantities up to four. They can also match patterns. Ants operate with a collective form of intelligence, able to use complex problem-solving strategies to optimize time and energy spent feeding the colony.
People, we were told, communicate in complex ways while animals are, well, just animals. Again, not true.
- Elephants communicate sophisticated ideas in a variety of ways including low-frequency sounds from 1 and 20 Hz that can travel over miles. So far, researchers have identified nearly 200 expressions and gestures, along with nearly 100 vocalizations. Elephants can recognize at least 100 other unseen elephants by voice alone. Their remarkable ability to understand communication isn’t limited to their own species. African elephants can differentiate between languages, gender, and age of human speakers.
- Dolphins remember one another, without contact, for at least 20 years. In fact, researchers have found that dolphins call each other by name (in this case, distinctive signature whistles).
- Koko, a western lowland gorilla, has been taught American Sign Language and, according to her trainer, understands about 1,000 signs along with nearly 2,000 words of spoken English. Sometimes, when there’s not a relevant sign, Koko invents her own signs. For example, she “compounded the sign for scratch with the sign for comb to mean, “brush” (scratch-comb).”
- Alex, an African gray parrot, learned well over 100 words that he used appropriately in unique contexts, demonstrating the intelligence of a five year old human child. He died suddenly in 2007. The last thing he said to his trainer upon going to his cage for the night was, “You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.”
Which brings us to emotion and personality. Yup, non-human types are brimming with it.
- Chimps not only create social traditions, they’re interested in what’s trendy. Researchers are just now catching on (academic types are not known for fashion forwardness) to the latest thing, chimps wearing grass in their ears.
- Stressed-out honeybees show an increased expectation of bad outcomes. In other words, they become pessimists. The bees also showed altered levels of neurochemicals associated with depression. Other invertebrates, such as crayfish, can exhibit anxiety and respond well to medications that relieve anxiety in humans.
- Dogs traumatized by military service or abuse exhibit signs of canine Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
- Rats feel regret after making poor choices.
- Crows will eat nearly anything, but prefer French fries from a McDonalds bag to the same fries in a plain brown sack. They not only hold grudges against specific humans who have done them wrong, but will teach other crows to react badly upon seeing them as well.
- And play? There’s plenty of it. Crows like to ski down icy rooftops and snow-covered slopes holding sticks or boards in their talons. River otters, elephants, and whales are known for playful behavior.
Let me push it one step farther, to compassion and even spirituality. We’ve been told that only humans have evolved beyond survival-based selfishness to establish ethics and morality. We’ve been taught we’re the only species to perform rituals as we mourn the passing of our departed, the only ones to meditate in silence, the only ones to experience a sense of awe akin to reverence. Apparently not true either.
- Altruism? There’s plenty of evidence. A dolphin saving a beached whale and its calf. Gorillas working together to dismantle dangerous poachers’ traps. A pod of sperm whales adopting a disabled dolphin. Rats gnawing through cages to help other imprisoned rats. A bear assisting an injured crow. Lions chasing away an Ethiopian child’s kidnappers and guarding her until human help arrived.
- How about awe? Chimps are known to ritualistically dance at the advent of thunderstorms and dance at waterfalls. They’ve also been observed dancing (rather than fleeing instinctively) in the face of wild grass fires.
- Meditation? Baboons have been observed performing a sangha, sitting in silence for over a half hour gazing at a stream of water, even the juveniles remaining quiet.
- Love? Probably yes according to research with cats and dogs who seem to be tapping into fields beyond our conscious awareness to know when their owners are coming home.
- Funerals, those too. Elephants weep in sorrow and grieve their dead. They’ve also been known to sense the death of humans important to them, even from great distances, as two tribes of African elephants did when they walked for hours to mourn at the home of a conservationist who’d once rescued them. Ritualized behavior to mourn death is common in animals including foxes, magpies, wolves, dolphins, and gorillas.
- Maybe even religion. Cetologist Hal Whitehead‘s research indicates that sperm whales not only transmit culture to their young, they may have have evolved a form of religion to make sense of their purpose.
Even these terribly incomplete examples have probably taxed your patience although there are thousands of other fascinating proofs out there. Let’s remember, all these observations are human-centric, further evidence that we judge animals against one species—-us.
We wouldn’t have particularly good scores if tested according to the abilities of our fellow creatures. It’s not as if we can age in reverse as a jellyfish named Turritopsis dohrnii does, possess a snake’s infrared vision able to assess the difference in temperature between moving prey and surrounding area on the scale of milliKelvins, emit a protein that neutralizes nearly every poison as an opossum does, regrow limbs and organs as the salamander can, or are able to hear as well as the wax moth Galleria mellonella which is capable of detecting frequencies of up to 300kHz, (we humans at best hear to about 20kHz).
According to evolutionary biologists, we humans aren’t better than animals, just different. Researchers in fields like comparative psychology and language study, say there’s an “emerging consensus among scientists that animals share functional parallels with humans’ conscious metacognition — that is, our ability to reflect on our own mental processes and guide and optimize them.”
As naturalist Henry Beston wrote in The Outermost House,
We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.
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 were asleep. 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.
“It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love, is well done.”
“Poetry surrounds us everywhere, but putting it on paper is, alas, not so easy as looking at it.”
“Even as a boy I would often look up with infinite sympathy, indeed with respect, at a woman’s face past its prime, inscribed as it were with the words: here life and reality have left their mark.”
“If you hear a voice within you say you cannot paint, then by all means paint and that voice will be silenced.”
“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.”
“Normality is a paved road: It’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it.”
“That God of the clergymen, He is for me as dead as a doornail. But am I an atheist for all that? The clergymen consider me as such — be it so; but I love, and how could I feel love if I did not live, and if others did not live, and then, if we live, there is something mysterious in that. Now call that God, or human nature, or whatever you like, but there is something which I cannot define systematically though it is very much alive and very real, and see, that is God, or as good as God. To believe in God for me is to feel that there is a God, not a dead one, or a stuffed one, but a living one, who with irresistible force urges us toward aimer encore; that is my opinion.”
“I cannot help thinking that the best way of knowing God is to love many things. Love this friend, this person, this thing, whatever you like, and you will be on the right road to understanding Him better, that is what I keep telling myself. But you must love with a sublime, genuine, profound sympathy, with devotion, with intelligence, and you must try all the time to understand Him more, better and yet more.”
“I dream my painting, and then I paint my dream.”
“I am always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it.”
“It is with the reading of books the same as with looking at pictures; one must, without doubt, without hesitations, with assurance, admire what is beautiful.”
“If only we try to live sincerely, it will go well with us, even though we are certain to experience real sorrow, and great disappointments, and also will probably commit great faults and do wrong things, but it certainly is true, that it is better to be high-spirited, even though one makes more mistakes, than to be narrow-minded and all too prudent.”
“Well, right now it seems that things are going very badly for me, have been doing so for some considerable time, and may continue to do so well into the future. But it is possible that everything will get better after it has all seemed to go wrong. I am not counting on it, it may never happen, but if there should be a change for the better I should regard that as a gain, I should rejoice, I should say, at last! So there was something after all! “
“People are often unable to do anything, imprisoned as they are in I don’t know what kind of terrible, terrible, oh such terrible cage.I do know that there is a release, the belated release. A justly or unjustly ruined reputation, poverty, disastrous circumstances, misfortune, they all turn you into a prisoner. You cannot always tell what keeps you confined, what immures you, what seems to bury you, and yet you can feel those elusive bars, railings, walls.
Is all this illusion, imagination? I don’t think so. And then one asks: My God! will it be for long, will it be for ever, will it be for eternity?
Do you know what makes the prison disappear? Every deep, genuine affection. Being friends, being brothers, loving, that is what opens the prison, with supreme power, by some magic force. Without these one stays dead. But whenever affection is revived, there life revives.”
“What preys on my mind is simply this one question: what am I good for, could I not be of service or use in some way, how can I become more knowledgeable and study some subject or other in depth?
“One must not be afraid of going wrong, one must not be afraid of making mistakes now and then. Many people think that they will become good just by doing no harm — but that’s a lie, and you yourself used to call it that. That way lies stagnation, mediocrity.”
“Be clearly aware of the stars and infinity on high. Then life seems almost enchanted after all.”
“When I have a terrible need of — shall I say the word — religion. Then I go out and paint the stars.”
“Love is eternal — the aspect may change, but not the essence. There is the same difference in a person before and after he is in love as there is in an unlighted lamp and one that is burning. The lamp was there and was a good lamp, but now it is shedding light too, and that is its real function.”
“The more I think it over, the more I feel that there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people.”
Unable to find a job in my field after college, I ended up working as a nursing home activity director. It was the best job in the place. Unlike overworked staff in other departments, I had time to form real relationships with the residents. This was 25-some years ago (yes, I’m that old). Our 100 bed unit was brimming with people too frail to care for themselves but most were otherwise mentally acute. (Not one patient with today’s unnecessary plague, Alzheimer’s disease.)
These elders were in their 80’s and 90’s, born around the 1900’s or slightly before, and always happily reminisced with someone willing to listen. They were extraordinary teachers and gave me perspectives I could have encountered nowhere else. One angle new to me was how differently childhood was viewed by adults back when they were growing up.
Kids worked hard then. They were expected to do heavy chores at home as well as work on the family farm or family business. Some even held jobs in factories. But when their obligations were over they were entirely free. They roamed the streets or woods with their peers, improvised games, put on their own skits and plays, made playthings like twig whistles and soapbox cars, built forts, swung from vines into swimming holes, and indulged in make-believe well into their early teens. They skirted around the adult world in a realm of their own, as children have done throughout human history.
I’m not implying that childhood was remotely easy back then. Aside from hard work there seemed to be very little recognition of a child’s emotional needs. Worse, it was a time of blatant racial, gender, ethnic, and class discrimination. But I’d like to point out that when these elders were kids back in 1910’s and 1920’s many of them caused real trouble. Here are a few of the more extreme stories they told me.
Halloween was a holiday with no real adult involvement or interest. That night kids of all ages went out trick-or-treating, knowing they weren’t likely to get a treat (cookie or apple) from most neighbors. Preteens or teens often played tricks to retaliate. Soaping windows was the mildest trick they described. Most were much worse. Wooden steps were pulled away from doors, gravestones left in yards, pigs let out of pens, fires set in dry cornfields ready for harvest, water pumped into basements. One man told me he and his friends put an elderly widow’s buggy on top of her back porch roof. It wasn’t till a few days later that her plight was noticed and someone strong enough to help could get it down. A common Halloween prank was lifting an outhouse a foot or so to the side. In the dark, an unsuspecting person heading out to use it was likely to fall into the hole.
A 14-year-old stole whiskey from a bootlegger and got shot at as he ran off. Another bootlegger was blamed and never seen again.
A 15-year-old took her older sister’s papers booking passage on a ship to the U.S., saying her sister could better look after their family back home. Once she arrived, she worked as a cook for a family that paid for the ticket, answered to her sisters name, married under that name, and gained citizenship under that name. Her sister used the same name back in Ireland all that time.
There were plenty of other stories. Public drunkenness, fist fights that turned into brawls, runaways who rode the rails and runaways who got married against their parents’ wishes, shoplifting, breaking into school offices to change grades and steal tests, and one story of a school riot over a change in dismissal time.
These people suffered no appreciable consequences from authorities.
Not. One. Of. Them.
Their parents were certainly angry if they found out. The usual punishment? More chores. If police were informed they gave the kids a talking to, in the most extreme cases put them in the back of a squad car for a more serious talking to at the police station. No charges. No jail time. No record of their misdeeds beyond a local cop’s memory. Back then, it was assumed that kids would grow out of it.
All of these people grew up to work stable jobs and own homes. Most were married until death parted them from their spouses. One was a judge, one a career military officer, several were in the skilled trades, several others were business owners, many were homemakers and tireless volunteers, nearly all were proud parents of highly accomplished children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
Yet today’s kids are being criminalized.
I’m not for a moment defending any young person’s impulse to wreak mayhem at home or in the community. I am saying that today’s response to (far less drastic) behaviors common during any child’s growing up years is appalling.
These days armed officers roam schools in thousands of districts. Studies show their presence doesn’t actually improve safety. Instead, children are often treated like criminals for common disciplinary issues such as yelling, swearing, or pushing. Here are a few of the more extreme examples.
A seventeen-year-old girl spent 24 hours in jail for truancy. This honors student works two jobs to help support her family and can’t always get to school.
A six-year old boy and avid Cub Scout was suspended for five days after bringing to school his Cub Scout eating utensil containing a fork, spoon, and knife. Due to public pressure, the school board voted to spare him the other punishment he’d received: 45 days in reform school.
A thirteen-year-old boy was handcuffed, arrested, and transported from school to a Juvenile Detention Center although his parents weren’t notified. His crime? He “burped audibly” in gym class.
A twelve-year-old girl was arrested for doodling on a desk with a green marker.
A seventeen-year-old boy who broke up a fight between two girls was shot with a taser by a deputy on duty at the school. The young man suffered a brain hemorrhage, spent 67 days in intensive care, and remains brain injured. The officer wasn’t charged due to lack of evidence.
The Guardian interviewed Deborah Fowler, who authored a 200-page study of the consequences of policing in Texas schools. They report,
…most schools do not face any serious threat of violence and police officers patrolling the corridors and canteens are largely confronted with little more than boisterous or disrespectful childhood behavior.
What we see often is a real overreaction to behavior that others would generally think of as just childish misbehavior rather than law breaking,” said Fowler. Tickets are most frequently issued by school police for “disruption of class,” which can mean causing problems during lessons but is also defined as disruptive behavior within 500 ft of school property such as shouting, which is classified as “making an unreasonable noise.”
Minority students are much more likely to be disciplined, fined, or arrested than white students in what’s being called the school-to-prison pipeline. Huge corporations like Corrections Corporation of America and smaller companies like AIM Truancy Solutions lobby for get-tough policies that bring them big profits in tax-payer money.
In some states tickets are issued, even in primary grades. These citations may compel the student to appear in court to face sentences including fines, court costs, and mandatory participation in remedial programs. This means the child is now entered into the judicial system, with police or court records that may or may not be sealed. If students don’t appear or their families can’t afford the fines, an arrest warrant may automatically be issued when they turn 17. This means childish misbehavior can follow young people into their adult lives. There’s a common question on applications for college, the military, and employment “Have you ever been charged with a crime?” The answer, for these kids, is “yes.”
Heavy-handed tactics used against children may get worse very soon. School districts in 22 states including Texas, California, Florida, Kansas, and Utah are participating in a federal program which provides military surplus to local law enforcement organizations. We’re talking gear like assault rifles, extended magazines, military vehicles, and other weapons intended for combat.
What happened to free range childhood? Why do we act as if every choice a child makes must be the correct one? That risks are always too risky? That freedom of any kind equals danger?
The goal of creating high-achieving young people through unremitting scrutiny, at times backed up by force, is wrong. But today’s treatment of young people isn’t even based on evidence. Ask any high-achieving adult about their youthful high jinks. Better yet, ask the oldest people still left to us. A long look back may be the cure we need.
“We live in a decaying age. Young people no longer respect their parents. They are rude and impatient. They frequently inhabit taverns and have no self-control.” inscription in an Ancient Egyptian tomb
“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless… When I was young we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly unwise and impatient.” -Hesiod, 8th century BC
“The world is passing through troublous times. The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for the girls, they are forward, immodest, and unladylike in speech, behavior, and dress.” -Peter the Hermit, sermon preached 1274 AD
Years ago I waited in a convenience store line in complete desperation. I was still bleeding after giving birth to my daughter and needed pads. The customer ahead of me was working her way into a snit because the store was out of an item she wanted. She refused to buy similar products the clerk offered. I stood behind this customer trying to keep from judging her (and failing). She was middle-aged or older, wearing expensive clothes and fussily styled hair, but what really defined her was the kind of self-absorption that turns a minor inconvenience into a personal offense. She demanded someone check the back room where she was sure the product languished due to employee laziness. She demanded to see the manager, who wasn’t there. She. Wouldn’t. Leave.
I was so exhausted that I simply wanted to curl up on the floor. It was the first time I’d left my baby’s hospital bed for more than a few minutes. My newborn suffered from a serious malady that hadn’t yet been diagnosed. She was increasingly losing weight and vigor. All the while I missed my three-year-old fiercely. I hadn’t seen him for days aside from brief hugs in the parking lot. I spent all my time by my baby’s side. It was a triumph when I could get her to nurse for a few moments. Sleep deprived and terrified for my baby girl, I clung onto hope like a parasite.
The customer ahead of me was now yelling. I assumed she’d had no greater trouble in her life than being deprived of a convenience store product. I realized that she may have been older than my own mother, but she had less maturity than my firstborn who knew enough to respect other people and more importantly, to care about them.
I’d been in the hospital environment for so many days that simply driving to the store was a sensory overload. Bright sunlight, traffic, people engaged in daily activities were all so overwhelming that I felt like a tourist visiting for the first time. Maybe that’s why I felt a sudden tenderness for the customer ahead of me. It was as if some surface reality melted away to expose this woman’s beautiful soul. I didn’t know if she was going through a difficulty that left her frantic to have her needs, any needs, recognized. Or if she had experienced so few difficulties that she hadn’t developed any tolerance for disappointment. It didn’t matter. I saw her as utterly perfect. In that moment I felt nothing less than love.
Just then she whirled around and left. I exchanged a look of solidarity with the clerk, made my purchase, and drove back to the hospital. That encounter not only gave me a powerful surge of energy, it also boosted my spirits in a way I can’t explain. It was a boost that lasted. All these years later I remain grateful.
This doesn’t bode well. I’ve been talked into a day-long workshop and I don’t know where to go.
There are two large conference rooms at the Cleveland Marriott. Their doors open across the hall from each other. There are also two different groups convening today, but someone has neglected to post signs at either one.
Now, to figure out which group is mine.
On one side waiters roll in carts of muffins, fresh fruit, and coffee. A tray of bright red strawberries passes tantalizingly close to me. I long to taste just one from the tray, but show uncharacteristic restraint due to the press of people entering that conference. Through those doors walk people who are impeccably dressed. Not only suits on the men but shined shoes, not only dresses on the women but elaborate hats. The attendees are all African-American. I spy a few Bibles. Seems to be an evangelical gathering of some sort.
On the other side there’s a lone table with water pitchers and glasses. Folks are moseying in slowly. Their clothing is more diverse than their skin tone. I spot Indonesian, African, and Japanese prints. In front of me a man with long gray hair in a pony tail is saying something to a companion about “passing through a portal of enhanced energy.” I assume he is making an ironic comment about walking through such a blandly generic doorway, but he goes on to remark that this was the name of a workshop he’d attended in Phoenix recently. Yup, this is my side of the hallway.
I find the friends who invited me and silently promise myself to sit still. (I’m not much for staying put.) Music starts, we sing, and I’m ready to have my consciousness raised.
I’ll give her this, the speaker is interesting. She sets off my “Oh sheesh” meter a few times thanks to her quasi-scientific quantum physics references, but I already agree with what she’s saying. Each of us can be light workers who spread hope, and ultimately greater peace, through our daily words and actions. We participate in group meditations, activating ourselves to take on greater responsibilities for uplifting others. While not new, her message is certainly valuable.
But all that time we’re stuck in a meeting room. I don’t know how anyone can sit that long. I tend to wiggle and my mind wanders when my body is uncomfortable. I wonder how our brethren across the way are faring. When the fidgets get the best of me I excuse myself for a hallway ramble. I notice through open doors on the other side of the hall that those participants are also chair-bound, staring straight ahead with the glazed look that comes from hours of immobility. Likely we are gathered in both conferences for similar purposes—-to enliven our spiritual lives and bring greater harmony to our bit of the planet. And surely the experience is enriching. But both meetings could be so much more if only we weren’t locked into a school-like format.
We humans learn as we make discoveries and face challenges. We learn by translating our experiences into story, song, art, into something created. We learn through the wisdom of our bodies. We don’t learn as fully when passively sitting still and shutting up for long periods of time indoors. Opening conferences (and any educational venture) to more direct involvement lets the lessons sink in deeper, making whatever we’ve learned more easily applied in our real lives.
I’ve worked for years teaching non-violence techniques to teachers and community groups (and I hope making the workshop experience a lively one). A key ingredient is finding common ground with those you perceive as dissimilar to yourself. Connecting with others leads to rich possibilities. The new combinations can be awesome.
Returning to my chair I can’t help but remember an old 80’s advertisement for candy. Chocolate and peanut butter collide and find that together they are more delicious, creating a whole new confection that the world loves.
I imagine the doors to both conference rooms bursting wide open and the participants merging. Meditations combining with prayers. Affirmations mixing with hymns. Our mutual dislike of sitting too long in these chairs turning into a joyous celebration that dances beyond the doors. How much we all have to share with each other.
And yes, maybe I do imagine tasting those strawberries at last.