Friday, December 23, 2016

“Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”

Tis the season—Happy New Year Understandably people are preoccupied with happiness— how to be happy, how to stay happy, how to increase the amount of happiness you have in your life. A word that leaps out of any conversation or writing about happiness is gratitude. What place does gratitude play in a person’s happiness quotient?

It’s not so difficult to be grateful when everything is going well. But the challenge of being grateful, when times are difficult, is indeed a challenge. When life throws you a curve ball, which it undoubtedly will, how does one hold on to gratitude?

I am grateful for the people I have in my life, for experiences that enrich my life, and of course for the authors and their books which have always been my life companions. I want to take this time to speak of my gratitude for Natalie Babbitt, one of the most gifted writers who was able to speak the hard truths, but always with a degree of joy and gratitude. Babbitt practiced what Wendell Barry said “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”

The world has been diminished with the death of Natalie Babbitt, the author of many books written for children and probably best remembered for her most popular book, Tuck Everlasting.

I had the good fortune to participate at a conference where Babbitt was an inspiration in how she was so willing, in her books and in person, to speak her mind, though it often caused a stir. One memory that stands out is when she was asked, why she writes about death in a book for children. Her answer was quintessential Babbitt: if children do not know that life is finite, how will they ever come to appreciate it?  How will they learn to make good choices? Can anyone be grateful for something that is unlimited?

One of my favorite souvenirs from Tuck Everlasting—
“Don't be afraid of death; be afraid of an unlived life.
You don't have to live forever, you just have to live.”

Parents often worry that books about death, loss, sadness, illness—the difficult moments in life—will frighten children. The reality is that these subjects are often difficult to discuss and parents shy away from the very conversations children need, so as not to be frightened. I say, let a book do the heavy lifting—let a book ask its own questions and the conversation your child is ready for will come forth. The very best of books about death and loss are usually more about the affirming nature of life.

Tuck is a character every parent and child should know—he has a big heart and a gentle wisdom he is eager to share.

 “Everything's a wheel, turning and turning, never stopping. The frogs is part of it, and the bugs, and the fish, and the wood thrush, too. And people. But never the same ones. Always coming in new, always growing and changing, and always moving on. That's the way it's supposed to be. That's the way it is.”

Thank You Natalie Babbitt for giving us so many stories and characters that are the very best life companions anyone could ask for.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

“I like good strong words that mean something.”

Louisa  May Alcott would be 184 years old toady. Little Women is the evergreen book many young girls cut their teeth on. I most identified with Jo, who said, “I like good strong words that mean something.” I have not changed. And who did you most identify with?  This might be an example of how one good question can start a conversation.

Monday, November 14, 2016

"There is a crack in everything . That's how the light gets in."

I would like to think Leonard Cohen is singing ‘Hallelujah’ today in honor of William Steig’s 107th birthday.
The world is diminished with the loss of Leonard Cohen. Leon Wieseltier’s memorable words (NYT) captured his essence, which is no small feat. Cohen managed to combine a sense of absurdity with a sense of the significance.

It might seem strange to place Steig and Cohen in the same arena, but both had a gift— they seemed to breathe in and out a different oxygen than the rest of us. Their words combined a beauty with a glimpse of eternity. They wrote about the cracks in everything and also about the light that comes from those cracks. Cohen said this was his credo and more than likely, this is the one line that many associate with Cohen.

If you are not familiar with William Steig’s books, you have a wonderful experience ahead and for those of you who know and love Steig, its time, it’s always time, to revisit some of your favorites. I share one of my favorite souvenirs from his book, The Amazing Bone

“Later she sat on the ground in the forest between school and home, and spring was so bright and beautiful, the warm air touched her so tenderly, she could almost feel herself changing into a flower. Her light dress felt like petals.
“I love everything,” she heard herself say.
“So do I,” a voice answered.
Pearl straightened up and looked around. No one was there.” 

We miss Leonard Cohen and William Steig, but their words live on.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Story fires the imagination and stirs the soul

Neuroeconomist Paul Zak has found that hearing a story—a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end—causes our brains to release cortisol and oxytocin. These chemicals trigger the uniquely human ability to connect, empathize, and understand. Story is literally in our DNA.

People are attracted to stories, we’re social creatures and we relate to other people, says Keith Quesenberry in the Harvard Review. It’s no surprise. We humans have been communicating through stories for upwards of 20,000 years, back when our flat screens were cave walls.

Storytelling evokes a strong neurological response. Zak’s research indicates that our brains produce the stress hormone cortisol during the tense moments in a story, which allows us to focus, while the cute factor of the animals releases oxytocin, the feel-good chemical that promotes connection and empathy. Other neurological research tells us that a happy ending to a story triggers the limbic system, our brain’s reward center, to release dopamine, which makes us feel more hopeful and optimistic.

Life happens in the narratives we tell one another. A story can go where quantitative analysis is denied admission: our hearts. Data can persuade people, but it doesn’t inspire them to act; to do that, you need to wrap your vision in a story that fires the imagination and stirs the soul.

Science tells us the reasons why stories are essential in a person’s life. In the story Crow and Weasel by Barry Lopez, Crow says— The stories people tell have a way of taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive. That is why we put these stories in each other’s memory. This is how people care for themselves.

My work has brought me the gift of witnessing and being part of how stories repair a spirit in disarray.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The power of a dinner table

I don’t think anyone can help but feel saturated with all the politics coming our way with just a few weeks left before the presidential election. But every once in a while, something catches my eye. Though it touches on the current election, it is about something more important and far reaching. David Brooks, a columnist for the New Your Times, wrote about a weekly experience he began about 2 years ago that he has maintained. He has dinner with Santi and his parents and whoever else who happens to be around the dinner table on any particular night. Santi goes to a public school in Washington DC and had a friend who often went to school hungry so Santi invited him to eat and sleep at his home occasionally. The friend had a friend who had a friend, who had a friend.

On any given Thursday night there might be 15-20 teens crammed around the table. Brooks refers to these teens as charismatic flowers, though they come from hostile soil.
At each meal, something happens that satisfies more than a person’s hunger. A commitment to care for one another is palpable. Each teen has to say something nobody else knows about them—giving them the chance to present their gifts. There is food to satisfy their appetites, and there is the all-important listening heart that every kid needs.

Programs don’t turn around kids’ lives. What changes people is relationships.
Souls are not saved in bundles. Love is the necessary life force.

Pass this story on and, if you are one of the fortunate ones, give thanks for the dinner table you sit at with your family and take note.

Friday, September 2, 2016

What personality traits do you want your child to have?

The beginning of the school year has parents focused on how they can best support their children’s success in school. But what exactly are the skills parents can help their children acquire that will help them grow into independent, capable and kind individuals?
Strong reading and comprehension skills are certainly essential but so is the emotional support parents can give to help their children grow into mature and self reliant adults, ready to go off into the world to leave their mark.

There is a barrage of advice not to treat children as hothouse tomatoes who must be shielded from anything unpleasant, upsetting, disappointing et al. It is hard to let your child fail but how else does one learn to be resilient and tenacious? In reality, kids need failure to become strong, healthy and capable adults.

The emphasis on developing a child’s self esteem was the mantra for so long and it did not serve parents or children well. It created a generation of entitled children who were emotionally fragile, dependent on constant praise and affirmation.

It only takes one good question to begin a conversation. I would bet the conversation would be lively and thought provoking to ask, what personality traits do you most admire? For starters, I would say, independence, capable of being vulnerable, willing to be wrong, open minded, tenacious and kind. What would you say?

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Parents often resort to bribery to get their children to read, but studies show rewards backfire. “If you pay kids to read you’ll get them to read,” said Edward Deci, the author of “Why We Do What We Do” and a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester. “They’ll continue to read until you end the experiment, and then they’ll stop.” Rewards encourage children to think of reading as something you have to be paid to do, not something that brings pleasure in itself, he says.

Timing is important when it comes to developing reading fluency.
Fumiko Hoeft, a cognitive neuroscientist and psychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco, has found that the growth of particular neural pathways when children are young is critical to reading success.

If parents do want to offer rewards for reading, Dr. Briggs said, they don’t necessarily have to be money, treats or toys: “It could be that it’s a special thing to go to the library with Dad, and that the alone time is part of what’s rewarding about it.” Such nonmaterial rewards may be the most effective.

The “bribe” of an excursion with a parent, or of special time reading together or discussing a book, conveys the importance of reading, said Dr. Ryan. “When we set aside time for reading, or set limits on other activities, we’re showing our children that we support them in developing an important skill.”

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Every child's inalienable right

If only I could— I would ask that every child who comes into the world be granted their personal fairy godmother who will make sure children have loving parents and caregivers read to them. Simply stated, it should be every child’s inalienable right, but all too often the reality is something different. The nurturing and love that is transmitted when parents read to their children is not something you can put a price tag on and those who have that experience know what I am speaking about.

A recent finding from Read To Grow, an organization dedicated to building literacy from birth, shows that reading difficult is linked to later trouble with the law. The following statistics tell a chilling story.

57% of incarcerated youth ages 16-24 had only rudimentary reading skills

56% of the adult prison populating had only rudimentary reading skills

"The literature shows a clear correlation between a grade-level reading problem and, later on, incarceration in the juvenile justice system," said Ralph Smith, managing director of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, a national collaboration of foundations, nonprofits, business leaders, and communities focusing on school success for children in low-income families.

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Sunday, July 17, 2016

Give your children a solid launch—grounded in safety and love—into the world

No matter how old or young your children are, I hope they never outgrow the desire and need to be read to.  They will leave the world of a safe and loving childhood, but the experiencing of being read to is a felt memory that will anchor them in life. When they have children of their own and they begin the journey of reading and talking about the day with their children,
all the books and conversations with you will come flooding back.

As always, a poem, Talking About the Day  by Jim Daniels, says it best.
Each night after reading three books to my two children—
we each picked one—to unwind them into dreamland,
I’d turn off the light and sit between their beds
in the wide junk shop rocker I’d reupholstered blue,
still feeling the close-reading warmth of their bodies beside me,
and ask them to talk about the day—we did this,
we did that, sometimes leading somewhere, sometimes
not, but always ending up at the happy ending of now.
Now, in still darkness, listening to their breath slow and ease
into sleep’s regular rhythm.

                                          They are grown, you might've guessed.
The past tense solid, unyielding, against the dropped bombs
of recent years. But how it calmed us then, rewinding
the gentle loop, and in the trusting darkness, pressing play.

p.s. A dad who wanted to read to his 2 children, built this rocking chair for 3. An inspiration for a summer project...