Chickens, Children and Capitalism

There she sat 6 years old, randomly playing the keyboard, enjoying the faces of the crowd seated on the ampitheather like lawn, taking in the dozens of smiling faces encouraging her on. Her variety show “act” was more about her awareness of others awareness of her…and she owned it. She smiled at the audience, she clinked on the keys, she scanned the view, then her fingers, then the view, she smiled at the audience and again for herself.  In those few and precious minutes I recognized and appreciated her experience as being deeply connected with her community, her teachers, her school mates and herself.

And on this beautiful evening I looked out across the horizon to see the beauty of the newly green Green Mountains. The blue sky and heaping white clouds. I breathed in fresh crisp slightly cooler air than what I was dressed for. I glanced at the chicken pen to see 3 large beautiful hens who have supplied eggs all year, which my kids have been sure to have collected.  I gazed out into the field, passed the climbing trees to the large black bat box the upper elementary aged kids had worked to build all year long and almost floating above the amazing garden that they had spent the last several months preparing and planting before the school year comes to a close. I connected to the daily experience my kids have at their school, one where they are known, and cared for intellectually, physically, spiritually and emotionally. And in those moments I again recognized that I had no such  similar experience in my k-12 education, and I was so happy to know that their educational experience is and will be vastly different.

 •  •  •

After I sent my kids out the door for school this morning, and after some breakfast I watched two talks, one on marketing in the food industry, the other… well let’s just say it was essentially about marketing in the education industry. Both of these talks were stunning, smart and powerful with ultimately the  same message. Neither of the topics are new to me, they are both infact part of the concerns that I fill my time pondering or studying. The first was likely less a talk really and more of a humane treatment for animals campaign… but the presentation was certainly unique and powerful, the second was a TEDx talk by a passionate school teacher peeling away skin exposing the reality of teaching and learning and corruption in our American public education system.

I frequently say “hamstrung teachers create hamstrung students” wondering how a system of education that is primarily concerned with data points and testing, one that is concerned with what kids should know verses what they do know or want to know can ever really be that effective at growing people. And part of growing people is also about how we nourish them in mind, body and spirit. What we feed on culturally creates our civic climate and our citizens, and what we have been feeding on is mostly compliance or at best a preferred state of heuristic ignore-ance. This is the way it is, this is the way it will be. “Suffer along until you get the right to make up your own mind…..I did”

At her  request my youngest daughter and I went to go see Rodger Hodgson of Supertramp fame in concert last fall. I was thrilled, my little girl connecting with the music of my youth, and in ways I had also connected with the lyrics. The Logical song and Dreamer… and her favorite Take the Long Way Home all about how we systematically dehumanize ourselves through living up to expectations that are prescribed for us. Expectations that frequently have little to do with who we are individually, our own personal proclivities and strengths, but more to do with what we believe will make us a stronger more profitable national at the cost of our personal and individual freedom and happiness. Our education system is appropriating the labor of not just our students, but the teachers and families as well.  And this, this is the breeding ground for the rat race mentality, our rising rates of depression for  younger and younger children, power stress for our teachers, and chronic stress for families.And to me this sound dangerously close the how Karl Marx describes the situation in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844:

In what, then, consists the alienation of labor? First, in the fact that labor is external to the worker, i.e., that it does not belong to his nature, that therefore he does not realize himself in his work, that he denies himself in it, that he does not feel at ease in it, but rather unhappy, that he does not develop any free physical or mental energy, but rather mortifies his flesh and ruins his spirit. The worker, therefore, is only himself when he does not work, and in his work he feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labor, therefore, is not voluntary, but forced–forced labor. It is not the gratification of a need, but only a means to gratify needs outside itself. Its alien nature shows itself clearly by the fact that work is shunned like the plague as soon as no physical or other kind of coercion exists.

It wasn’t until graduate school that I truly understood what education could be. What is should be. A student centered experience facilitated and coached by individuals impassioned by their own curiosities. A field of play where instructor and student impacted the knowledge of the other. And why had it taken so long for me to return to the love of learning, to authentic curiosity, to an insatiable need to know that I experienced as kid in summer? After  I had completed  a year looking at Modernity and Feminist Marxist Alienation theory trying to understand the evolution of culture, the evolution of my personal experience in society and as a woman, a brilliant advisor of mine, Miwon Kwon, said to me “having an experience is not enough, you must understand the nature and history of the experience” It was like a pearl that dropped out of her mouth, a valuable gift that continues to remind me to question the status quo, to look at the history of something, deconstruct it for understanding rather than take it as a given or at face value. It is the experience of my own unique graduate experience that propels me away for this standardized, dehumanizing, systematic learning system for not only myself but also for my children.

Dr. Jorn Barmann writes:

Under the conditions of modern factory production, by contrast, the average worker is not much more than a replaceable cog in a gigantic and impersonal production apparatus. Where armies of hired operatives perform monotonous and closely supervised tasks, workers have essentially lost control over the process of production, over the products which they produce, and over the relationships they have with each other. As a consequence they have become estranged from their very human nature, which Marx understood to be free and productive activity. Human beings cannot be human under these conditions, and for this reason the implication was obvious for Marx: Capitalism has to be abolished as much as any political oppression if a society’s emancipation is to be complete. Capitalism is just as incompatible with self-determination as absolute monarchy or any other autocratic system. But while an absolute monarchy limits people’s autonomy by controlling them in the sphere of politics, Capitalism does so by controlling their workplaces and their economic life. A society of truly free citizens, according to Marx, must therefor not only be a political, but also an economic and social democracy.

Could we apply this theory to the current state of public education? Could we suggest that we have armies of hired teachers and indoctrinated students both performing monotonous and closely supervised tasks? Or that teachers and students have lost control over the process of education, over their “products” and over the relationships they have with each other?  Can we live in a capitalist society and have a education system that is compatible with self determination for all its participants? Can we have a publicly funded democratic education system? Is it even possible?

Can we stop treating children and teachers like industrialized farmed chickens? Can we come to terms with the fact that our capitalistic culture has marketed itself so well that we are conditioned and encouraged to choose to ignore the realities of alternatives, like knowing our authentic place in the world, by being connected to each other in the love of learning, discovery and meaning in our lives and work no matter how young…..

•  •  •

She smiled at the audience, she clinked on the keys, she scanned the view, then her fingers, then the view, she smiled at the audience and again for herself.




Morticia, Sherlock and Maya

Normal is an illusion.

What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly

~Morticia Adams

I used to come home from school, boil campbell’s chicken soup, get out the saltine crackers and butter, carry it all to the coffee table, sit cross-legged on the floor and watch a completely unhealthy amount of TV.  I loved anything black and white in the era of technicolor. The Addams family was completely up my alley. Odd, quirky, certainly off base with the general character of my family… and I loved it.  Morticia and Gomez, Wednesday and Pugsly, Lurch and Cousin It, Grandmama… the hand…. It was weird and funny, smarter than I realized at the time and totally nonconformist in the most palatable made for network TV kind of way. I loved the macabre “lite” and in a weird way I identified with them way more than I did with “real” people.

Several months ago I read an article written by Dr. Richard Boyatsiz “Competencies as a behavioral approach to emotional intelligence” It was  assigned during a MOOC course I was taking called Inspiring Leadership Through Emotional Intelligence. I was taking this course just after finishing a year long study in the science of wellness which culminated in a Certificate in Positive Psychology. During this CiPP program I had been introduced to the science behind many things I intuitively understood but could never really quantify in a meaningful way.  Connections to behavior and belief clarified and solidified, ideas that were seeded years before began to germinate, and I finally had the evidence I needed to back up theories and concepts that were considered questionable to people who did not share my particular curiosity in psychology, behavior, neuro science and general possibility.

I guess you could say I have always been perhaps a bit out in left field, independent, optimistic, creative, thoughtful, observant, and inquisitive.  I have also been a bit of a loner, not much of a collaborator, always a fabricator and non-conformist. People have tended to see me as cool, aloof, off-putting and confident. I am conservative in some ways and in other ways most certainly not. So within the Boyatzis article was new information I realized that I had been introduced to a kind of clarity around social and emotional intelligence that I had never quite clearly understood before. It was and is a kind of blue print for me.  Like the witches brew, the detectives notebook, the prophet words.

 To let the brain work without sufficient material is like racing an engine.

It racks itself to pieces.

~Sherlock Holmes

I was having a unique conversation the other day , involving attachment theory and it’s possible relationship to personality typing… MBTI and the like.  Someone asked me about why I wanted to make attachment corrolations to a not very robust or even particularly reliable personality assessment….. to which I responded:

attachment is how, in some relationship theories, we learn memetic behavior.. so early attachment influences all of the relationships we build throughout life. the brain is plastic which means we can in fact change our predispositions even to the genetic level… environment and how we choose or don’t choose behavior + genes = epigenetics. Who we are, we are discovering is both genetic and environmental and the impact is quite significant. I am also very interested in how we qualify ourselves… how we make meaning for ourselves in the world. We all ascribe to some labels, particularly when we find that we are some how connected to the descriptions, in those labels we feel both known to ourselves and to other people. And this is another area where attachment comes in, we are biologically predisposed to attachment…. being known is an important step on the path to living authentically…

I have spent the better part of my life trying to understand people, I want them to make sense to me. I want to know why people do what they do. I want to be able to make order out of my experiences… and yet I find myself perplexed… almost with the challenge of a great mystery to solve. Before being introduced to emotional and social intelligence  I could never really locate my self in the world. I am always just a little out of sync with most people, and I am practicing  being just that much more observant of my emotional awareness and regulation, I am practicing just that much more awareness of other people in a responsive vs reactive way….and that much more mindfulness of my place in it all. And as it turns out solving the mystery of understanding other people is inherently linked to knowing oneself… and part of that process can sometimes be finding where and how we fit.

I really like the BBC show Sherlock… I love the wacky, analytical, far fetched, cerebral and emotionally cool (yet somehow warm and vulnerable)  distant character of Sherlock himself. In some very odd way I find that I identify with his character, his experience with people…. their apparent awe of him and also their palpable distaste for his type of know-it-all… ness.  I think he is funny and apropos, honest and authentic, he is brilliant and lives in it. He observes people, their specifics and nuances, their presentation and interactions and he too is occupied by making meaning out of his experiences.

After having streamed an episode during an escape from an extended family weekend, I took the PBS “what Sherlock character are you” quiz…. “YES!…. I’m Sherlock…. hmmm I wonder what his personality type would be…… YES! we match….” and by having little concrete understandings, small connections and a theoretical peer… am I better known? Somehow convincingly I am to myself. Do I recognize self perception theory here? … Well when I see certain behaviors in others, I make assumptions about them and when I see those same behaviors within myself I make the same assumptions about my self. Do I aspire to be Sherlock Holmes?… is some strange way yes…mostly to be unabashedly authentic.

I would like to be known as an intelligent woman,

a courageous woman,

a loving woman,

a woman who teaches by being.

~Maya Angelou

As I heard the news about her death and her life it occurred to me that though I knew of her I did not really know much about her, or her writing. As I learned more, read more, heard more I realized that if she had ascribed to the labels others would have chosen for her she would not be known today. If she had not self identified and worked and created herself as she saw herself to be, she would not have been known to herself or any of us . If she had ascribed too much to a group or person that she identified with or at least not made her affiliation her own she would not have been the Maya Angelou that is so revered for tenacity and authenticity and self efficacy, courage, brilliance and presence.  She may have just been Black. Woman. Victim. Mute.

And it is with her death that I review my thoughts in the last few months… and forever. And as it turns out finding where you “fit” is perhaps  a bit of an illusion, a bit of a facade, maybe even contrived. Finding ourselves in others certainly helps us to become more familiar with ourselves. It may help us  feel less lonely in the world.  But finding ourselves within ourselves, instead of ascribing too intensely to finding the “fit”, might just be exactly what we need to experience to become comfortable and self assured.  Like Morticia, Sherlock and Maya, unless we are truly present, and courageous about being alone, singular and mindful of our unique and specific place in the world, we will never be able to completely embrace our own personal authenticity and integrity. We, each of us, has to embrace perhaps even make up our most personal, individual and most authentic  identifiers, qualifiers, labels. We must each live out our integrity to the best of our ability… and when we live there, then we will have truly found our place in the world.

From dust bunnies to neuroplasticity and renewal

I walked in the room, sat on the freshly made bed, leaned back and heard an audible sigh of relief emerge from my mouth followed by “oh my god, this feels so nice!” As I looked out beyond the end of my bed the piles of laundry had disappeared, the chair only had a throw draped over the back, the dust bunnies had been sucked away and the floor gleamed from being freshly dry mopped. I realized in that moment that this was the exact feeling I get every time I arrive at a hotel, or spa, or retreat center. In the minute I put down the luggage and relax on the freshly made bed, taking a moment to let all tension melt away and anticipating the opportunity for renewal… I feel this very same way.

nothing. left.  to. do.

Immediately my mind dashed from experiencing the feeling of pleasure and relief to sorting it out intellectually. Priming, my thoughts landed on priming. Setting ones self up to have a particular kind of experience based on the antecedents of the experience. I understand this conceptually and when I find myself in the throws of the experience I am always caught off guard. It seems like no big deal really for people who consistently prepare themselves in a ritualized way to come to the ease of an experience. But for my entire life that has escaped me. I find this particularly ironic due to the fact that I have for years worked as an organizer and coach teaching people about creating home and work environments that support their unique lifestyles and needs. And yet when it comes to my own life I am like the cobblers daughter…..  Setting up ones self for ease in life is really in my mind all about planning, ritual  and mindfulness. Three of the more challenging endeavors in my own experience.

Someone once told me that when you have kids you either get hyper organized or you fall apart… I don’t have to tell you which way I went. I expected however the opposite, I had dreams of being the perfect mom with tidy neat children, clean starched clothes, cutely cut hair and never messy when eating. I thought of perfectly mannered quiet and polite children who were socially and emotionally intelligent, never had a tantrum in the grocery store and we would all just float through family-hood beautifully. But it became very clear very early on that having children was everything I expected and nothing I expected all at the same time. What made it even harder was the distance between any family of any kind…. mothers, brothers, aunts, cousins… half the country away. Our little family was an island, with no actual support, no built in baby sitters, no sunday mornings at grandmas for brunch, no family gatherings where we could let down for a few hours knowing that our kids were loved and safe no matter what they pulled over or messed up, or broke, or puked on. We were on our own… and I was responsible for the survival of my kids 24/7…no real breaks, no vacations, no date nights or deliberate self care for years.

I sometimes hear parents with older kids bemoan the intensity of first time parents or parents with really young kids, they laugh at the crazy rigamarole they put themselves through for nap time and bed time and eating on schedule. I hear them say “Oh my god she just needs to lighten up”, or rolling their eyes they say “she’s a little nuts with the schedule” or best of all ” Oh my god she’s a stay at home  mom… whats she so uptight about, she’s just needs to relax!” And to this I empathetically say “Well first there is a protective neurological wiring that is going on in the biochemical structure of that womans’ brain that is driven by the requirement of making sure her children survive and thrive. Second, she is desperately trying to manage and find meaning in the nonsense of experience thrown at her as a new mother. Third she is trying in no small way to find and plan for some microscopic moments in her day where she can have the feeling of sitting on a freshly made bed in relief, hopeful that all the mothering tension will slip away.” But the problem for many of these mothers, especially the stay at home parents who are geographically disconnected for any family of origin,  is that those moments never really come.

The study of neuroplasticity, that is how the brain changes, wires and rewires itself from cradle to grave is hugely applicable here in this discussion of parenting, geographic dislocation and survival. When stay at home parents are the sole providers of emotional and social intelligence for their children, when the economy of our time is one of scarcity in financial, relational, emotional, spiritual and intellectual realms our behavior wires our brains to those particular experiences.  I remember vividly a rare opportunity after my family had moved to a bigger house of having what then felt like the luxury to take a nap. My mother in law was in town visiting, she was happy to play with and occupy my 4 year old and 6 month old children.  I went up the stairs, closed the door climbed on to rumpled heap of a bed, closed my eyes and could not for the life of me come down from the edge of being on call for my children. I had not spent the last 4 years training my brain with behavior that would indicate that  a nap during the time my children needed to be attended to was even remotely safe. And in that moment I had to grapple with all kinds of voices everything from “oh my god you just need to lighten up” to its “ok everything is just fine… the kids are fine” to  “you can’t take a nap… what about the laundry, what about the dishes, and the toys and snack and dinner and getting more diapers and and and…. ” I had to reassure and let myself off the hook. I had talk myself into letting it be ok to take a nap.  I was exhausted, anxious, responsible, loving and neurotic.  Having help in that moment didn’t feel like relief if felt like neglect. I had a brain wired for mothering alone.

Recovery time proves to be hugely important in wellbeing and horribly under valued in our culture, particularly mothering culture. The time taken by an individual to engage in renewing activities, like reading a book, taking a nap, looking at photographs of fun times, meditation, an awesome cup of tea with a warm scone, anything that brings a sense of refreshment to ones day, hour or moment are actually an acts of practicing mental health.  Recovery time in retrospect is really what I  neglected by lack of prioritizing planning, ritual and mindfulness  in my own self care.  And in reality its hard to have time to consider that when you are in the throws of managing a tiny little island family. The age old advice, “sleep when your children sleep”, “the children are more important than the dishes”, ” take care of yourself first”, “when mommy is happy everyone is happy” all seem a bit trite when the survival of ones kids, the expectations of well fed, well mannered, well attended to, well educated, well loved, well cared for ,well well well well….. does not include any recovery time for well being of the primary care providing parent.

My kids are older now, they are more self sufficient, I actually have some down time, I take naps, and read books of my own choosing. I am beginning to rediscover and prioritize the practices of self care and planning, ritual and mindfulness.  Being aware of my own personal needs with enough time to plan for the ease of an experience is still a challenge. And while I know the theory on an intellectual level through the study of systems thinking  and organizational, environmental and positive psychology applying those principles of priming to my own life still regularly escapes my capacity.  I prove to myself on a daily basis that we teach what we need to learn, because apparently I am an excellent coach, teacher and organizer.. I have the credentials and testimonials to prove it… and yet I am my own most difficult client.  The amazing thing is change is possible, neurological rewiring happens everyday and planning, ritual and mindfulness make recovery time easier. Sitting on my own freshly made bed, feeling the opportunities for renewal without being in a hotel, a spas or retreat center…. that’s progress.

Floating through family-hood beautifully…. well thats still a bit tricky but I’m working on it!

Horoscopes and tea bags

There are 2 things that always inspire me. One is Free Will Astrology written be Rob Brezsny and the other is the paper tags on Yogi tea bags. It is not unusual for me to save them, tape them to the pages of my working journals so that I can linger in the space between their sentences and take as much time as I care to take pondering the kooky and insightful messages. Free Will Astrology, if you have never encountered it is a wonderful combination of humor and thoughtfulness connected by the intimacy of feeling like someone deeply cares about your birthday enough to write about it weekly… and I have to say there is an unusual pleasure it that.  The tags on Yogi tea bags too, are precious little moments when the universe poignantly reminds me to remember the important things.

I take deep pleasure in my interactions with these two experiences, they are wonderful little happiness boosters. And yesterday I found that someone else appreciates at least one of them as well. During a FB check in I found the Libra post from this week at the top of my news feed, a friend with a big decision on her mind had posted it… Its message was very much about remembering to let yourself break out of living what Annie Dillard called an itsy bitsy life. My friend’s horoscope was so relevant to her current situation and it was also a reminder to me about showing up in the world and in ones life. It was just another confirmation of the fact that life is to be appreciated and lived as fully as possible.

I’m thinking about this a lot lately, and it again occurred to me the other day while I was working on a book talk I’m doing at the local library on Brainstorm written by Dr. Daniel Siegel a psychiatrist who studies interpersonal neurobiology (how neurologically and  biochemically we respond during human interactions or a medical way of saying attachment theory).  One of the points made in the book is that the adolescent brain is wired for novelty. Adoloesence is a time for risk taking and innovation and creativity and exploring ones place in the world. It is also a time when relationships are challenging between adults and kids. Siegel makes a very interesting point about adults needing to mindful of and reconnect with their own spirit of playfulness and novelty seeking. In many ways growing up makes us less receptive to creativity and less open to our own needs and desires for spontaneity and to try new and goofy things. He points out that by reconnecting to our own kid like selves we are able to maintain better relationships and practice empathy with our kids and develop appreciation and tolerance for the period of life that is unfairly and stereotypically considered awful and challenging. Contemplating these points reminded me of an amazing study I discovered  in my year long study of Positive Psychology. One which and I find myself coming back to it again and again.

In 1979  Ellen Langer a mindfulness researcher did an unusual and brilliant study called the Counterclockwise study. In it she had aged men live in an environment that replicated their young and vibrant lives and she asked that they spend their time behaving as though they were currently living at the age appropriate to the environment, that is as if they were 20 years younger. They were interviewed before and after their study experience, as were their friends and family. They were given physicals and had other various measurements taken which were recorded and compared. Remarkably at the end of this study amazing things emerged. The participants looked, acted, felt and were “medically” younger than before they had entered the study. These study participants had reconnected with themselves as younger more vibrant individuals… and it showed.

After my morning bus run and  returning to the car with a mocha from the Starbucks near the kids bus stop I heard Ira Glass from This American Life interviewing David Saderis.   It was a rerun from several years ago just after Mr Saderis had written Me Talk Pretty One Day. Listening in while they chatted at a street side cafe in Paris  I felt right at home while I sipped my own extravagantly luxurious coffee. The conversation was very compelling.  Mr Sederis was commenting on seeing Paris in a uniquely novel and inquisitive way. As usual he was hilarious and poignant. As I drove home it occurred to me that as we age many of us become more and more closed up in our itsy bitsy lives, less spontaneous and less open to seeing the novelty and potential in our own everyday experiences. And many many of us think it is due to the environments we feel confined to.. the job, the town, the spouse, the kids, the social expectations, the school… but its not. In fact research by positive psychologist  Sonja Lyubomirsky indicates that only 10% of our well being is determined by our environment and circumstances (as long as all of our basic needs have been met) 50% is genetic predisposition and the other 40% of our experience of wellbeing is determined by our conscious and intentional behavior….. or the behavior that isn’t particularly conscious or intentional. 40% of our well being is determined by where we mindfully focus our attention. So reconnecting to the playful self, engaging in seeking novelty, getting out in the world and experiencing it in new and fun ways makes a difference in our lives in both our mental and physical health. As I continued driving I considered the more lively periods of my life, I thought about when I felt I had been at my best… and what was happening then that hasn’t been happening lately. What was I engaging in then that had since slipped away?

A confluence of thoughts, ideas and memories flooded my mind. “Behavior in one environment does not necessarily predict behavior in another environment” Ken Danford said as I sat in a replication workshop presented in 2011 at North Star self directed learning for teens.  What an idea, of course why had I never thought of that before.  And there in the car thinking about the counterclockwise study, and living in Paris and the adolescent brain, Sonja L and North Star,  it occurred to me that the new age cliche “you create your own reality” is pretty spot on. The internal environment we create for ourselves by what we think and what be believe about who we are and how we allow ourselves or feel allowed to behave in the world determines the itsy bitsy-ness of our lives. And how that internal environment is supported and reinforced by cultural expectations or other people’s ideas of the itsy bitsy-ness effects how we show up in the world. The external environment with its 10% has some impact on informing our experience but the combination of those 2 environments the internal and external has a compounding effect.

That day in 2011 Ken Danford was specifically speaking about adolescence when he made the statement ….”Behavior in one environment does not necessarily predict behavior in another environment”. He was speaking about exactly what Sonja L. talks about in the How of Happiness and what Dan Siegel  refers to in Brainstorm. When we pigeon hole our ourselves and our kids we get stuck in the smallness of living. When we allow for an environment that encourages the bigness of self discovery in our adult lives and during adolescence, we acknowledge that the brain always has significant growth opportunity.  When we encourage instead of limit this, when we listen to the opportunity instead of shutting down … considerably different behaviors emerge. Our relationships thrive, our awareness expands our receptivity to new information increases, our knowledge acquisition and retention improves and the receptivity to living our best lives exists in all of us no matter our developmental stage.  When the internal and external environments allow for and encourages mindfulness and free, playful exploration of what is truly interesting in our lives, the world opens up. We open up and we allow others to open up as well. We create our own reality and our world no longer feels like it has to be itsy bitsy.

After reflecting on my cascading thoughts , my most lively self and the immense possibilities in life,  I contacted several friends that afternoon and in a half serious way I told them that my day had “made me think about wanderlust and friends and investing in curiosity! Let’s go…. a week in Paris with friends in a big house… having fun and exploring life”  I can tell you in that moment life didn’t seem itsy bitsy to any of us…. we sounded like a bunch of giddy middle schoolers dreaming about possibilities.

So here’s to horoscopes and tea bags, big decisions, tumbled together thoughts, Paris and acting like a kid again!








Cultivating playfulness and the not so elusive sparkle

Over the last several weeks I have been thinking a lot about the idea of play and I keep coming back to something I read several years ago in the book Art of Possibility co written by Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra. I have a very vague memory of Mr. Zander highlighting his discovery in importance of paying attention to the sparkle in the eyes of his students.  He emphasized the idea that when they lose their sparkle you’ve lost them.

A few mornings ago at breakfast  I watched my kids play with their dad… it unfolded for me like a movie. This play was very subtle and easy… nothing overt or boisterous,  small gestures, hands on hands, giggles, eye rolling, tender teasing….. and with great appreciation I seemed to understand the nuances of positive family interaction in a new and simple way. Affectionate faces, little giggles, moments of goofy guffaws. I saw a family interacting in extended moments of love and affection. I was taking it all in, scanning the information banks of my mind looking for the resources that would help me understand and piece together the interactions in an intellectually meaningful way. So distracted and preoccupied by my thoughts about what I was witnessing, I didn’t even hear my youngest ask me a question…. All I could think about was how could I interpret and express these epic moments when I had time to scribble down my thoughts.

So I guess I don’t need to say that being playful does not come naturally for me. Oh I have my own independent and solitary kind of play, but being playful with other people just kind of escapes me.  In fact most of the time other people’s playfulness is off putting or confusing to me. I have a hard time understanding why they won’t focus, get down to business or just get serious about what is at hand.  This has been particularly challenging as a parent considering that both of my kids and husband all have playfulness in their top signature strengths profile according to the VIA (Values in Action)  character strengths survey…. and for me it is dead last.   As I watched the antics that morning  and thought about what was happening at my kitchen counter I realized playfulness is an essential element of healthy relationships. It is an experience of attachment that helps us to feel safe while we create strong bonds that help us learn resilience.  The giggles and the little connective laughter it turns out is a biological behavior that helps us engage in what is called by Dr. Richard Boyatzis the positive emotional attractor, it triggers the default mode network of our brain or what is considered the social brain. It is associated with being open to new experiences, being creative and being receptive to new information and innovation. It is the activity of the brain that is connected to engaging our parasympathetic nerve system…. thats the system that promotes a healthy immune system, happiness and wellbeing.  And right there at the University of My Kitchen Counter where I have spent countless hours studying positive psychology, relationships and change theory I also experienced in a few epic moments the field work that brought it all home…. playing with their dad… my kids sparkled.

The other night I sat with my youngest daughter on her bed and told her I’d been thinking a lot about how I’ve realized that she and I need to play more. She looked at me with surprise and in an exasperated, relieved and playful tone fell forward saying “Yes…. finally…… you understand!” While this dramatic display of her overwhelmedness from my statement was humorous and made us both laugh, it also was also supremely tragic in its message of  “what the hell took you so long  lady?”  And in those few moments I realized my own overwhelmingly desperate desire as a young girl  to play with my own family, to have the kind of playful attention and attachment with my parents and sibling. I longed for connection, PLAY, and recognition within my family of origin. With in about 3 minutes of conversation with my own child I understood deeply and personally the concepts presented in the work of  Dr. Edward Hallowell ‘s book “Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness.  So every night since our bedtime conversation she has asked me to play with her in someway… be it kickball, catch, swinging on the swing set, doing cartwheels… whatever…. and every night I have said YES!. I am becoming a bit more willing to engage in play and she sparkles just a bit more than usual.

Even before the breakfast play and before the bedtime conversation, this kind of new play engagement started without my  realization. I actually started with the suggestion that every night we would engage in family story time beginning with reading the Mysterious Benedict Society. Everyone was up for it, everyone wanted this kind of familial play, everyone scrambled onto my bed that night eyes sparkling, excited and ready to play with each other and the characters in the book…  Now this  story is about 4 children each having unique strengths, each feeling alone in the world and each establishing connection and attachment to the others throughout their adventures together.  As the four of us listened we giggled at the similarities that some characters had to our own family members, we shared knowing glances and we identified with funny little things that if we had not heard them described in the book, would have sworn were our own inside jokes. That night we started an evening ritual of play, of coming together for storytelling for connection and as it turns out, to find that not so elusive spark in each others eyes.

The more mindful I have become about play the more I see it throughout the day. Its there walking through the parking lot, driving in the car, avoiding the dull task of cleaning the room and doing homework. The more I recognize it the more I am willing to feed it and encourage it and accept it as a necessary, and imperative part of healthy and attached relationships.

So More Play I say… More Play!