June 02nd, 2016
I almost lost one of my dearest friends at the end of last year. She jumped out of a plane. On purpose. My heart stopped when a picture of her falling through the sky popped up on my Facebook feed, gravitational forces pushing her face into a half-crazed smile as she plunged to the earth strapped to a handsome guide just putting in another day at the office. Yes, she’s that friend – the friend you didn’t dare to dare because she would ALWAYS do it, the friend (you might have by now surmised) who joined me in my table dancing escapade (see opening blog post). She has written a beautiful blog post – “There is No Such Thing As Fearless” – about this experience and I highly recommend her wonderful blog found here: http://middlecinnamonroll.com.
As I pondered my friend’s counterphobia and why I would never in a million years jump out of a plane that wasn’t heading for a fiery crash, I realized that, in fact, I had recently taken my own plunge of sorts. Last fall, I agreed to teach … wait for it … middle school. Now, I know this is not nearly as life-threatening as jumping out of a plane, but I have to say it does require a certain effort to screw my courage to the sticking place every time I walk into the classroom. Thus far, it has been an exhilarating journey that sometimes leaves me flying and sometimes flat, sometimes with my faith in middle schoolers restored, sometimes not really so much. (Spoiler alert #1: I will say that the more time I spend with these young people the more my faith is restored, and I recently came across a wonderful short essay by Elizabeth Gilbert on her FB page entitled "Kids These Days" which I hope to have time to read to my students.)
By way of background, I am friends with the principal of our middle school. I have known and admired this man for many years. Last spring, he discovered that I was running a mindful meditation group at my house and asked if I would be willing to teach his middle schoolers. Sounded like a good idea to me, so I took some courses with an organization called Mindful Schools to train myself to teach kids how to sit still and meditate (you can find them and their wonderful work in schools across the country at www.mindfulschools.org). I started teaching middle school mindfulness in December, just before the winter holiday, and since several of my dear readers have asked for reports, here is Installment One of my personal plane jump.
Crash & Burn
Because this is a pilot program and due to the vagaries of squeezing it into the schedule, I've been given 3 groups of roughly 25 kids each – two groups of all boys (the soccer teams and the basketball teams) and one group of girls (who are in PE for the term). I was anxious about having all boy groups, I’ll admit, especially groups so big. Would these 7th and 8th grade boys ever be willing to sit quietly amidst their peers with their eyes closed and think only about their breathing? Seemed about as likely as flying swine.
So on my first day, I decided to start with the girls. I’m a girl. I have a daughter. This would be a gentle way to ease myself into it, right? Um, wrong. I forgot the modifier “middle school” before the noun “girls.” Boy, did they give me the once-over (making me so glad I let my daughter dress me for the first day). As I worked to get them excited about mindfulness, at a certain point I realized that I was having to work too hard and I became aware of an inordinate amount of fear in the room -- fear that was not mine. These girls refused to participate, their facial expressions changed only microscopically when I told them Miranda Kerr and Katy Perry meditate, and they glared at me as if they would die if I asked them to talk. They were as frozen as statues. Were we that self-conscious in middle school? I suppose so, and maybe that's why connecting with their fear made me deeply sad. Needless to say, I walked out somewhat deflated and shaken and had to count a few deep breaths to re-center myself. It’s probably a good thing that my demanding trick-or-treaters didn’t show up in the class – that might have been adolescent overload.
Thank God for the boys! Yes, they were loud; yes, they were rowdy; and yes, I had to work for their attention. But they played! They listened. These 7th and 8th grade boys were like puppies – I threw them a bone and they tossed it around a bit, but it came back to me. They answered questions. They flopped all over the room. They loved my sports analogies. They were spellbound as I told them about the Seahawks and LeBron and Barry Zito. They hoisted my confidence back into the air and I literally left them flying.
Obviously, Lesson 1 was about buy-in. Here’s the hook that even got a miniscule blink of recognition from the girls: How many times in your life have you heard an adult tell you to pay attention? And how many times have you heard an adult tell you how to pay attention? Most adults will assume that if a child is looking at them they have that child’s attention, while in fact this could be the furthest thing from the truth. As humans (or rather, as primates), we are often at the mercy of what Buddhists call our “monkey minds” – minds that constantly strive to distract and entertain us with visions of horror, speculation, worry and regret. How do we wrest control of the movie projector and maintain focus when there are so many fascinating films our brain is ready to play? So this, then, is mindfulness: The practice of paying attention on purpose to what is happening now. It is full-sensory living.
How many of us live moment to moment fully present in our present? If you’re interested in giving it a shot, play along with my students. Here’s the practice from Lesson 1: Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the ground and your spine straight but not overly erect. Let your muscles hang loosely from your back. You should find that you’re in a comfortable but attentive posture. This is your mindful body. Now slump down into your chair. Spend 30 seconds or so there. What just happened to your mind? Did you just get a bit sleepy, a bit fuzzy? Now sit back up in your mindful posture. Notice how your mind feels now. A bit more alert? When we sit up, we naturally take more air into our lungs which gives our brains a greater oxygen flow to work with, making us feel more awake. It’s not rocket science, but when my students came back and reported on their week of practicing this, you’d have thought I’d just given them the keys to the kingdom. Play with your mindful posture this week. See if it helps your brain to be a little more alert and focused. Maybe you can save a few bucks on all those late afternoon lattes.
I promise not to record every lesson here, but I will continue to share the nuggets. Spoiler alert: I’ve now taught about 6 lessons and am well into teaching the kids how to meditate and, shockingly they are doing it. At least most of them are and really, what teacher can ask for anything more?
A Christmas Story
It's official. I'm getting old. I noticed this year a decided lack of post-Christmas depression, apparently a state of malaise reserved only for the young at heart. I attribute my minimal nostalgia to the fact that, as we all know, time has accelerated. I don't feel particularly sad that Christmas is over because I know that if I close my eyes for 5 minutes it will be Christmas again! As a child, it felt like eons between Christmases; now it feels like nanoseconds. Each year as we lug the decorations out of the rafters of the garage, my husband says, "Didn't we just put these away?"
Don't misunderstand me -- I LOVE Christmas. Unlike Halloween, I am anything but a Scrooge this time of year. I love the trees and the lights and playing Santa and even the incessant shopping and the holiday traffic. I love the carols and the church services far from home with a bunch of strangers gathered to be witness to the holiness of the longest night of the year and the birth of their collective story. I love the snow that inevitably blankets Tahoe on a Christmas Eve and the excitement of my children as they rip into their precious Christmas booty.
But what I love most are the stories that are shared when family gathers. There is always someone in the group who hasn't heard or has forgotten a treasured story, giving the teller the excuse to tell it again, play it again, let us laugh together again. Funny Daddy stories. Mommy's secret girlhood stories. Family history from long ago. This year's favorites included Daddy's bicycle ride across the Queensborough Bridge in the freezing, blowing snow, and Mommy's first period, when Grandaddy went out and bought an ice cream cake at Carvel so that the whole family could celebrate this big achievement (yes, mortifying, but it makes a great story). One that always brings down the house is the story of Daddy being spun like pizza dough by a tiny Japanese masseuse in Tokyo. And, of course, there are meaningful stories too, meant to guide and soothe and lend perspective -- stories about grandparents and great-grandparents and poverty and illness and overcoming. And some that do double duty -- like the Queensborough Bridge story, where Daddy was forced into that bitter bike ride only because he literally did not have the change for a subway token.
So, as I was ruminating upon these many stories that fill the air each time we squeeze ourselves back into perhaps outdated roles for family reunions, what should we go and see but the new film release of "Into the Woods." As you may remember, I became a fan of this musical over the summer when we took the kids to see it at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and I wrote some about that experience in my opening post. I highly recommend the movie which, although losing some of my favorite songs to the vagaries of the editing bay, is still a beautiful film. One of the best things about the film is that you don't miss a word of Sondheim's miraculous lyrics, and almost every line is a punch to the gut. So bear with me, please, as I share some of these lyrics about the stories we tell our children:
How do you say to your child in the night
Nothing's all black, but then nothing's all white?
How do you say it will be all right
When you know that it might not be true?
Careful the things you say
Children will listen.
How do you say to a child who's in flight
"Don't slip away and I won't hold so tight"?
What can you say that no matter how slight
Won't be misunderstood?
What do you leave your child when you're dead?
Only whatever you put in his head
Things that your mother and father had said
Which were left to them too.
Careful the things you say
Children will listen....
Guide them, but step away
Children will glisten.
Is it just me, or is this remarkable poetry? I cry when I hear it, when I type it, and when I re-read it for typos. I have felt this holiday as never before that our words sink deep into the tissue of our kids. I suppose any priest or rabbi could have told me this long ago ... why else do we repeat the same prayers, the same stories, the same liturgies? Thanks to Linus, we can probably all recite the Christmas story of the Angel's announcement to the shepherds. Because hearing stories told and retold reinforces those lovely neural connections and ensures that we remember not only the story, but the warm fire and the love of family and laughter or tears that surrounded us when we heard it. I will never forget the sight of my mom looking like she was about to pee her pants as my husband told his Japanese masseuse story at the sushi restaurant last night. I have always loved it when my mom gets tickled ... she gives into it so fully that she inevitably cries. As her mother did before her. As I do. And as, I have no doubt, my children will as well. We are all of us engaged in passing on -- passing on memory and intention and love through our stories. So take an hour or two this holiday to be intentional about telling stories -- your children care. And yes, they will listen.
I’m a Halloween Scrooge. My mother was a Halloween Scrooge, and I’m afraid I’m in the process of creating two more. For years I did my best to pretend to enjoy this celebration of … what? Gory costumes? Jack-O-Lanterns? Ghost stories? I think that’s part of the problem for me – there’s no clear object of celebration. I need it spelled out. American Independence. St. Patrick. Love. Veterans. Baby Jesus. I get All Saints Day, that lovely and solemn day on the liturgical calendar when we gather to pay our respects to those who’ve gone before us, but I just don’t understand how this has become a sugar-laden free-for-all. And watching the procession of kids and adults without kids (yes, without kids) filing past my door asking for candy, has not helped to improve my view of this holiday.
I spent $100 on Halloween candy this year. That’s six, enormous, fun-sized bags from Costco. Our neighborhood loves Halloween. The big street adjacent to ours closes to traffic, the police come to supervise, and kids come from all over town. It’s mostly pleasant (except for the adults looking for a sugar high), but there are always some hiccups in the night. This year, there was indigestion. I was sitting on the front porch with a girlfriend handing out candy from two big bowls spilling onto the steps beside us. A trio of middle school girls came prancing up dressed like identical hookers and clearly feeling that they were in charge of the world. One girl leaned over and peered into my candy bowl and huffed, “What? You don’t have the FULL-sized candy bars? Really?” Really. She really said this. After recovering from the shock, I looked at her hard and said, “If you don’t like the merchandise, you can shop elsewhere.” What was truly remarkable is that she plowed ahead, completely unconscious of the spoiled rudeness of her remark. She went on: “Why don’t you have the big bars? They’re only 99 cents at the dollar store.” And yes, she really said that too.
Now, I don’t want to make myself sound old by engaging in a diatribe about manners, so instead I’ll make myself sound old by making the following observation: For a generation that grew up hearing the mantra “You get what you get and you don’t get upset,” it strikes me that they are singularly unable to handle the defeat of their expectations. Who do we blame for this? Steve Jobs? Larry Page? Walt Disney? How about ourselves? It is interesting that in the three years between the births of my daughter (2000) and my son (2003), technology had changed so drastically that we had replaced CDs of Baby Einstein with DVDs of Little Einsteins. Who supplied my son with the DVDs? I did, of course. Not that he had unlimited access to entertainment or even watched these shows often, but even a glancing familiarity with The Disney Channel seems to create an insatiable demand impulse in the most mellow of children. It seems impossible to be a parent today and not notice that our consumption of television and movies about bratty, spoiled teens has spilled over into our families, that our corporate fascination with our devices has created a culture of instant gratification. I was a strict monitor of television, and yet friends arrived wanting to play Hannah Montana (definitely on the “no-watch” list at my house). Then iPhones and iPads arrived with the capacity for unlimited entertainment. Now it’s SnapChat and Instagram, and I see Twitter rising across the horizon. I feel like I’m standing with my finger in a dam trying to hold back a tsunami.
Obviously, no woman can stop the tide, so I’m having to learn to go with the flow. I do see that these new technologies have enhanced our lives and our children’s learning in many ways. But since the consumption of media is a two-way street – we are influenced as we influence – our presence in the virtual world becomes a reflection of our real world mind and vice versa. We have to learn to be mindful about what we allow in, understanding that humans are natural imitators. Our mirror neurons have been developing for tens of thousands of years. I could have made a list of the top 10 media consumed by my prissy Halloween guest based solely on her behavior and the two sentences she gifted me with. Next month, I begin teaching a mindfulness class for middle schoolers. It is my great hope that by teaching these kids how to direct their attention, they will become better able to moderate both their behavior and the ways in which they allow themselves to be influenced by culture and media. That’s a big dream, I know, but one that I think is achievable in the long run if we parents become mindful too. In the short run, it’s my much more modest hope that Miss Halloween is in my class.
A few weeks back, my husband and I hosted a reunion. It was a small gathering of friends from a mostly unhappy time that feels foggy and long ago. An inauspicious gathering like so many others around the globe that summer Saturday night, and yet ... I think it may have fundamentally altered my personality.
I'm not really a Facebook, reconnect-with-all-your-childhood-friends-and-tell-them-everything-about-your-life, kind of gal. I'm more of a live-in-the-present-and-forget-the-past kind of gal. My family moved around the country a good deal when I was a child and my coping mechanism was to simply move on. I'm a lousy correspondent, as the few (count them, two) friends I've managed to hold on to from high school will tell you. I'm not sure what forces led to my reaching back and grabbing a piece of my past, and I take no credit for it. The location of the reunion at my home was simply a matter of convenience for all more than it was vehemence on my part. Not that I wasn't happy to be reconnecting with these friends from a finished life chapter -- I loved these people and carried a nagging sense of regret when I thought of them and our thinning ties -- but I just didn't understand how deeply I needed this reconnection, how deeply I needed them.
It hit me suddenly, as these things do. I was sharing a laugh in the kitchen with one of my girlfriends who said (just as my 14 year-old daughter approached), "Do you remember that time you were dancing on the table at Tokyo Delves?!!" Let me just interject right here that I'm not exactly the dancing-on-the-table kind of gal either. My jaw dropped because, no -- frankly, I didn't remember dancing on the tables at Tokyo Delves ... at least not clearly. Predictably, my daughter's eyes shot open and she exclaimed with delight, "Mom! YOU were dancing on a table??!" I said, no I was sure I was NOT dancing on a table, at which point another girlfriend walked up and said, "Oh yes you were! It was the night you passed the Bar Exam!" ... And it all came rushing back. I laughed and honestly, almost cried, absolutely thrilled to have this story back, this moment of shared joy with people who loved me once, this legacy of exuberance to pass on to my daughter. I knew in that moment that despite the time and distance that had grown up between my old friends and me, despite the difficult stage of life I passed through with them at my side, that I would not let them drift away again. Our stories, our time together, had been too precious to surrender to the busyness of life ... and just because the chapter was over didn't mean the characters had to vanish.
We traveled to Ashland, Oregon this summer, our family of four, to take in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. It was a wonderful week of fabulous theatre in a beautiful town. We saw a terrific production of Sondheim's "Into the Woods" that has stayed with me in the way that only marvelous theatre does. If you haven't seen this musical, it's quite dark in a hopeful sort of way. Fairytale characters die and lose children and all sorts of horrors are confronted as Jack and Little Red and The Baker and his Wife dare to journey into the woods.
Though it's dark,
There are always wolves,
There are always spells,
There are always beans,
Or a giant dwells there.
So into the woods you go again,
You have to every now and then.
Into the woods, no telling when,
Be ready for the journey. ...
Into the woods--you have to grope,
But that's the way you learn to cope.
Into the woods to find there's hope
Of getting through the journey.
Into the woods, each time you go,
There's more to learn of what you know....
As I put my kids to bed that night, my 11 year-old son asked, "Mommy, there are really happy endings, though, aren't there?" My daughter, with all the worldly wisdom of a teenager, snapped, "No, there aren't." Quickly shoving my "Mommy" hat back in place, I tried to hang onto the lesson of the night for them for another few minutes: "Of course there are happy endings, but we have to earn them, don't we? There will first be challenges and trouble, and it's how we deal with our journey into the woods that determines who we are when we get out, don't you think?" And maybe, now that I think about it, it's also a bit of how we remember and honor our trip into the darkness once we emerge.
So now I have reconnected, at last, with friends I made on one of my own journeys into the woods. We were friends during a time when many of us didn't know yet who we were going to be, when relationships and marriages were ending and new ones just forming, when we were confronting the onslaught of time and trying to run from it as fast as we could... I have survived other journeys into the woods since that time, but what I learned that lovely summer evening was not to leave everything and everyone behind as I leave the forest. These friends who were friends of a sometimes dark time, look much better in the daylight, and to hold onto them is to hold onto the stories of my growing that connect me to my past and enrich my present. l see now that the family you choose while in the woods is the family that means the most to you once you're back on steady ground. They are the keepers of your stories.