Living Consciously

Fearless Kids and the Woman Behind the Piano

“Kids are fearless.” So says one of my friends, who apparently remembers childhood a lot differently than I do.

I doubt very much that human infants are born to be fearless. If we were, predators with sharper teeth and claws than ours would have hunted humanity into extinction long before we evolved survival skills like using fire, writing, or inventing the internet.

There are certainly times when kids seem to be fearless. You know what I’m talking about if you’ve ever grabbed a climbing one-year-old off of the kitchen counter, watched a toddler launch gleefully off the side into the swimming pool, or seen a novice six-year-old skier who has no clue how to stop go zooming straight down the middle of the slope.

Or if you’ve ever attended an elementary school music program—something I missed during the pandemic and have been delighted to do again this school year. So far, I’ve seen two Christmas programs and a talent show.

Where I saw a lot of brave behavior. Like the dozen or so young piano players who, one by one, walked out in front of the audience bleachers to play their solos. Some had their pieces memorized, some had music. Some were quite skilled, some were one-finger-at-a-time beginners. Most of them perched on the edge of the bench with their feet dangling because their legs weren’t long enough to reach the floor.

There were kids who recited their own poetry. A tiny first-grader who stood up straight behind a microphone and sang an acapella solo. Rope-jumpers and dancers who skipped and spun and whirled, missed steps, faltered for only a second, and started again with big smiles. Two gymnasts, brothers in kindergarten and third grade, did an amazing routine, flipping frontward and backward and sideways all over a surface of gym mats overlaid with—I kid you not—couch cushions.

All of this might have looked like fearlessness. But from the second row, I was close enough to see it for what it was. I could see the determined little shoulders, the fidgety feet, the nervous eyes—and the huge sighs of relief when they were finished and took their bows. I didn’t see fearlessness. I saw courage.

Courage with something behind it, something that became clear as I watched the final piano soloist. She walked to the piano, had a brief whispered conversation with the music teacher, sat down on the bench, paused, played a few notes, and stopped. She sat and thought, played the same notes again, looked at the teacher, shook her head, and stood up.

At which point the music teacher told us what was going on. This little girl had forgotten her music book. She thought maybe she could play the song from memory. In front of the audience, she sat down and gave it a try. She couldn’t remember it. The applause was tremendous; we were clapping for her courage.

Courage that was supported by the music teacher, that woman behind the piano. She was there for every small performer: Sitting on her chair just where they could see her. Jumping up if she needed to move the bench or hold a music book or turn a page. Smiling with pride as each student walked to the piano. Leading the applause when they were done. En-couraging every child in the most literal and powerful sense of the word.

Which, as parents or grandparents or teachers or plain old random adults, is something for all of us to do.

If kids were really fearless, childhood would be a whole lot easier. Life for a child is mostly a matter of being shoved into one situation after another that you’ve never experienced before. You have no control. You have no idea what to expect. You don’t know the people, the surroundings, the rules, or the necessary skills.

If you think about it, that actually describes a lot of life for adults, too. But let’s not tell that to the kids; they have enough to deal with. Being a child already takes all the courage they can muster.

Courage that needs to be fostered by us, the grownups. Because every toddler who leaps fearlessly into the swimming pool does so knowing mom or dad is there to catch them. The flipping gymnast brothers almost certainly have parents with a high tolerance for jumping off the furniture and wearing out the couch cushions. Every child athlete, musician, or other performer does what they do with the support of parents, teachers, and coaches. Every bullied or abused child who speaks up can only do so if an adult will listen and believe them.

Kids are not fearless. What kids are—with a little help from us—is brave.

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Sugar Cubes, Syringes, and Sweet Relief

Mary Poppins was right: a spoonful of sugar does help the medicine go down. Even when it’s a sugar cube, decorated with a bright pink splotch of some suspicious substance.

I remember those sugar cubes in tiny paper cups, arrayed on tables in the Winner, South Dakota, city auditorium and handed out to a crowd of chattering children that included my sisters and me. It was the late 1950s or early 1960s, and we were among the many kids who received the much-welcome polio vaccine at immunization events all across the country.

I’m a little vague on the year, and I’m making an educated guess on the location. But I have no doubt about the bright pink color—or the awful taste. Even with the help of the sugar, it was bitter. Mary Poppins would have thought so, too.

In fact, without those vaccine-soaked sugar cubes, Julie Andrews might never have sung “A Spoonful of Sugar” in the 1964 Disney movie version of Mary Poppins. Robert Sherman, who with his brother Richard wrote the songs for the movie, came up with the lyrics for “A Spoonful of Sugar” after his son Jeffrey told him about getting the polio vaccine.

Back when I was dutifully crunching down my bittersweet pink cube, I didn’t know much about polio. I had seen photos of people in iron lungs. I knew of a handful of people in our community left handicapped by polio. I knew that my mother’s oldest brother, who died as a toddler decades before I was born, may have been a victim of polio. But as a child, I wasn’t really aware of the widespread fear of this disease or the deep relief that came with the polio vaccine.

Today, I know a lot more about our current pandemic. When, last week, I went to another vaccine clinic, it was with a feeling of relief that bordered on giddiness. This time, I wasn’t one of a crowd of fidgety children being herded into lines. I was one of a quiet group of adults, mostly over a certain age, respectfully masked and seated on folding chairs too far apart for chattering. If some of us felt fidgety during the brief wait for our turns, we kept it to our socially distanced selves.

There was no bright pink stuff on sugar cubes this time. Just a quick, painless jab in the arm from a nurse with beautiful warm eyes above her mask, who was friendly and gentle and clearly delighted with her pandemic-ending assignment.

I waited (patiently, since of course I had a book with me) in another folding chair for the required post-inoculation 15 minutes. During that time I developed a headache, which lasted for the rest of the day. It’s the only side effect I had, and it’s possible that part of it resulted from hearing Julie Andrews singing “A Spoonful of Sugar” in my head for several hours.

But this time, Mary Poppins notwithstanding, no sugar was needed to help the medicine go down. After this past year of isolation, fear, and sadness, the relief and joy of receiving a COVID vaccine was sweet enough all by itself.

Categories: Living Consciously, Remembering When | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

That’s Outrageous!

Several weeks ago, reading “just one more” article in my news feed, I had a shocking revelation. There I sat, hunched over my computer, with my jaws clenched, my shoulders up past my ears, my heart racing, and my stomach knotted. And it dawned on me—I had become addicted to outrage.

Given the chaos we’ve been surrounded with these past months—the pandemic, the protests, the bitter partisanship around the election—there is plenty to be outraged about. Feeling outraged isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At times it is an appropriate response to behavior that violates accepted standards of behavior.

What I had done, though, was get caught up in a cycle of outrage that had me feeling anger laced with a satisfying sense of self-righteousness and topped off by a burst of adrenaline. The more I sought out outrageous tidbits to feed those emotions, the more I was perpetuating an addictive loop.

I did not appreciate realizing this about myself.

But I did appreciate, just a few days later, being given an opportunity to understand it. On December 13, the subject of NPR’s program “The Hidden Brain” was outrage. Here’s what I learned:

Researchers have found that feeling outrage stimulates pleasure receptors in our brains. No wonder I was enjoying my self-righteous anger. But why would we evolve to take pleasure in outrage? What purpose would it serve?

The value in feeling outrage would be to encourage us to punish those whose behavior violated the accepted standards and rules of our group. Those violations could threaten the well-being or even the survival of individuals or the group.

At the same time, expressing outrage in person has a built-in controller to keep us from overdoing it. Let’s say you and I are part of an Ice Age family group, and I’ve seen you take and hide more than your share of the meat from our mammoth kill. That behavior harms the rest of us by taking food out of our mouths. I am outraged; I need to confront you. But if I get right in your face, screaming and threatening to bash your head in with my stone hammer, you just might hit me first. The ensuing melee wouldn’t do our group any good, either. To protect us from your bad behavior, I need to find a more useful way to turn my outrage into action. (I suspect this is why humans developed polite manners.)

Fast forward to the 21st Century. We don’t have mammoths. We do have social media, where we can be anonymous and our outrage has no external brakes. We can do exactly what I was doing—wallow in “Oh my God!” and “Did they really?” and “What an idiot!” until we send ourselves into a spiral of escalating outrage and response and more outrage. The feeling of outrage still stimulates those pleasure centers in our brains, but it doesn’t compel any useful action. It just floods our bodies with stress.

This does not mean there is no value in outrage that is stirred up in social media. It has great value—to the media itself. The hosting platforms, news outlets, “influencers” and “opinionators” love it. Because outrage gives them views, shares, and attention. 

For me, this last piece of information was the key to backing away from my addiction to outrage. I hate being manipulated even more than I enjoy indulging in a nice stressful bout of self-righteous outrage. So I’ve started paying attention to the headlines and images before I ever click on an article. Once you look for them, it’s easy to pick out the inflammatory, sensational words: “shocking” “backlash” “erupts” “rips” “unbelievable.” These are meant to incite outrage and get attention. It’s very satisfying to refuse to take the bait.

I also remember that our pervasive, 24-hour infotainment media is an insatiable monster. It always has to take more in so it can spit more out. There is not nearly enough solid information to keep it fed. So it recycles, rehashes, and stretches out the actual news with tons of opinion, speculation, reactions, and just plain junk. It’s like making meatloaf with eight cups of stale breadcrumbs, a couple of half-spoiled onions, and only three ounces of hamburger.

I don’t have to consume the junk. I can choose just to read one or two articles from a reputable news outlet to get the basics. I don’t need to read or watch the fifth iteration of a commentator’s speculation on somebody’s reaction to somebody else’s response to a possible event hinted at by the assistant to somebody-or-other’s PR person.

When I do react with outrage, I can ask myself two questions. First: “Is this outrage artificially amped up, or is it my own?” Second: “Is there anything I can or should  do about it?”

Sometimes the answer is that my outrage is nothing more than a self-indulgent wallow in my own feelings. If so, the energy it creates just feeds toxic stress. It’s time to close my browser, back slowly away from the computer, and do something healthy like take a brisk walk.

Sometimes, though, the answer is “speak up.” Outrage is meant to energize us to take action to confront a threat, right a wrong, or solve a problem. Sometimes, if we fail to act, we are complicit in someone else’s outrageous behavior.

Originally, I intended this piece to end here. I thought I could discuss outrage in a general and explanatory way without mentioning anything that might actually be controversial. I planned to be careful, to not risk offending anyone. I meant to keep strong brakes on my own outrage.

But a few days ago, one especially outrageous act caused me to change my mind. The sitting president of the United States, in a recorded phone call, asked and urged Georgia’s secretary of state to falsify election results. I have read the transcript of this phone call. His own words show President Trump abusing the power of the presidency, violating his own oath of office, and violating the law by urging another elected official to do the same.

And today, as I’m writing this, the members of Congress who should be peacefully and ceremonially certifying the results of the presidential election are being evacuated from their chambers because of violent protests. Protests urged on by a dangerously petulant president.

Is my outrage over this my own? Absolutely. Is there anything I can or should do about it? Absolutely. I have a responsibility to confront the president’s behavior because it threatens the well-being of our shared group—the American people. I can choose to speak up, even if others might take offense. I can choose to use my sense of outrage to take my own action.

Because if I do not, I become one of those “good people” who, by doing nothing, allow evil to triumph. And that is outrageous.

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Can 2021 Come Out To Stay?

At last! It’s gone! Finally, we’re seeing 2020 in the rearview mirror.

Or at least, we would see it there if we were actually doing any driving. I got a new car—a fun red one!—early in March. By December 31, I had a whopping 1556 miles on it.

I think I put more miles than that on my hiking boots. Because among the things I’ve been grateful for this past year are the bike path just a block from my house and the many Black Hills hiking trails that are so easily accessible. In a year when it’s been so easy to slide into depression and stay there, socially distanced outdoor exercise has been a sanity saver.

A few other insights from 2020:

Thank goodness a lot of those new bakers who thought sourdough was the best discovery since sliced bread got tired of kneading. That leaves enough flour and yeast on the shelves for those of us who were making homemade bread before Covid made it cool.

Online grocery ordering is an exercise in trust and letting go. It’s no small thing to rely on someone else to pick out your bananas.

Group grocery buying supports healthier eating. I give my list to my daughter, who places our joint order online, where some brave soul fills it, so my son-in-law can pick it up, separate out my groceries, and drop them off at my house. With that many witnesses, there’s no way I’m buying any junk food. (Note: thankfully, dark chocolate is not junk food.)

A good friend will tell you which store has a new stock of toilet paper. A best friend will share her stash.

Talking to yourself is a sign of mental health. After about the eighty-seventeenth day of pandemic isolation, however, you’ve pretty much heard everything you have to say.

If you trim your own hair, describing the result as “asymmetrical” rather than “uneven” will help you pretend you meant it to come out that way.

Unless you outgrow your clothes, it is possible to stay decent, if perhaps not precisely fashionable, for an entire year with what’s in your closet. The downside is it doesn’t do much for the local economy if your clothing purchases for 12 months consist of two shirts, one pair of walking shoes, and a package of underwear.

Our 21st century technology is incredible. Texting, phone calls, social media, Zoom, and all its cousins are amazing ways to stay in touch. The e-reader is the best invention since contact lenses, and downloadable books are a gift from the gods and the local library board.

Some people have used pandemic isolation to clean out all their closets, master new languages or musical instruments, participate in online yoga classes, remodel their houses, keep daily journals, or write deep and thoughtful books. Some of us have used pandemic isolation to think about starting big projects like those. While we’ve been thinking, we read a lot of books.

Of course, turning our calendars to 2021 doesn’t mean the pandemic is over. That little New Year critter isn’t rushing in; it’s cautiously peeking out to see whether it’s safe to show up. But at least the fears and frustrations and grief that have been weighing us down are leavened with some hope and optimism.

May your 2021 include good health, vaccinations, in-person conversations, gatherings, hugs, and reconnections with those you love. Blessings and best wishes for a brighter year ahead.

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Helping Heroes

In a patient room at the Cancer Care Institute is this sign: “You are stronger than you think and braver than you know.”

This is a truth we each discover for ourselves, during those hard, painful times that life eventually throws at all of us. The COVID-19 pandemic is certainly one of those times.Heroes Work Here

Last week I read an editorial written for the Los Angeles Times by Fran Chalin, a hospice chaplain. In short, strong sentences that have the power of poetry, she describes the death in ICU of a man with COVID-19, the anguish of his family unable to be with him as he takes his final breaths, and the exhaustion of his caregivers. Then  she writes this:

“Outside the hospital there is a billboard.
‘HEROES WORK HERE.’ I want to scream.
Hero is just another word for better you than me.”

Think about that for a minute: Hero is just another word for “better you than me.”

This statement, written out of exhaustion and heartache, is certainly not the whole truth. But it does hold a great deal of truth—a truth that went straight to my heart because I have felt it myself. Continue reading

Categories: Living Consciously, Loss and Healing | 1 Comment

Seeing Red and Feeling Green

One of the many consequences of COVID-19, medical precautions, and self-quarantining is a shortage of blood donations. Some regular donors, bless them, are still giving. Like the man who made our local news this week for giving 20 gallons of blood over the past 33 years. He is 89.

I’ve been donating blood for more than three decades, too—just not quite as successfully.

It isn’t that I’m squeamish about the sight of blood. Really. As a kid, I could eat fried chicken with great pleasure even after watching my mother kill that same bird by chopping off its head with a hatchet. As an adult, I’ve dealt at least adequately with kids’ cuts, scrapes, and nosebleeds.

But things do get shaky if I’m faced with a combination of blood and needles. Especially when it’s my own blood. Whenever someone, even a trained medical professional, needs to take some of it by piercing me with a sharp object, I feel—uncomfortable.

I cope with routine blood draws at the doctor’s office by averting my eyes from what the technician is doing, gazing at some object elsewhere in the room, humming to myself, and thinking beautiful thoughts. Even with this approach, the world sometimes gets a little fuzzy around the edges. Especially if it’s one of those fasting blood tests where you have to show up before breakfast.

In spite of this little weakness, I am also a public-spirited person who wants to do the right thing. Which is why, years ago, I decided I should donate blood. Continue reading

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Yes, We Have No (Control Over) Bananas

If you truly believe you are a well-balanced, serene, and sane adult who can take life as it comes, here’s a practical little exercise for you. Let somebody else pick out your bananas.

This is not theoretical. I’ve been practicing it myself for weeks now, and it’s a challenge.

I like to pretend that I am not a controlling, rigid person. Never mind that, watching a couple of my beloved grandkids put my good colored pencils back in the container with careless disregard for the precise way they—the pencils, not the children—were sorted by color, I had to sit on my hands and bite my tongue to keep from intervening. (Yes, that is the last time any grandchild has been allowed to use those particular pencils. Why would you ask?)

A few lovable little quirks like this aside, I really do consider myself to be flexible and accepting. Then along came COVID-19 and self-quarantining. Continue reading

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The Undocumented Auto and the Naked Refrigerator

Every time I move from one house to another, I remember why it’s so stressful. Moving is like childbirth—between one time and the next you forget that it’s an endeavor with long-term consequences, it takes longer than you hope it will, and it involves a lot of hard work and a certain amount of pain.

There are two approaches to moving, which are driven more by circumstances than by choice. One is the “get everything out of the old house and into the new house on the same day” method. You pack ahead of time everything you think you can do without, subsequently unpack the things you realize you can’t do without, at the last minute frantically throw everything remaining into whatever containers you can find, haul everything to the new house, and finish the day at the old house around 2:00 a.m., scrubbing floors and vanquishing dust bunnies.

The other method—which I used this time—is the “take things over a few at a time and unpack as you go” approach. You close on the new house, schedule the movers for a week or two later, paint a couple of rooms, and move smaller things a carload at a time. It sounds less stressful than the other style. It isn’t. It merely stretches out the stress. Continue reading

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Bunnies, Eggs, and Earth Day

Among the dozens of Easter eggs that were decorated this past weekend, one of my talented progeny painted the planet. Very well, too. It was an instantly recognizable, if slightly pointy at the North and South Poles, miniature version of the Earth.

This, of course, is not a bad metaphor on Earth Day. One could point out all sorts of appropriate comparisons about this planet’s fragility and the superficial (to it, if not to those of us who populate it) political and racial divisions we overlay on its surface. Feel free to come up with your own; I’m not going to belabor the point.

All I really have the energy for is paying minimal attention to my own little portion of the planet. After a cold and bitter winter, the yard is looking ragged. Last year’s stalks still cover the flower beds. Scatters of gravel—collateral damage from shoveling the driveway—litter the grass. It all looks neglected and unkempt.

But that’s not all. Tulips and daffodils are not blooming yet, but the plants are several inches tall and growing fast. Irregular spikes of bright green grass are prompting me to wonder whether the lawn mower will start. The buffalo grass is beginning to show a dignified soft green beneath last year’s dried curls. I saw two blooming dandelions yesterday. I suspect the thistles are limbering their muscles and polishing their brass knuckles, preparing for another season of bullying their way in where they aren’t wanted. And in the warren under the bushes, where one stout cottontail rabbit spent the winter, now there are three. This morning, after yesterday’s rain, the outdoors smells like growing things and earthworms.

Speaking of growing things, yesterday I got to help a couple of grandchildren color eggs. They took this task quite seriously, and we managed to accomplish it with minimal conflict and no spilled bowls of dye. When we were done, we had several hands full of blue and purple fingers, but there were no stains on the new shirt I unwisely wore, and the dog was the same color he was when we started.

We enjoyed the process. We admired the finished eggs in all their colorful glory. Then, in the spirit of spring, resurrection, and Earth Day (reduce, reuse, recycle), we peeled several and ate them for lunch. Because a boiled egg, no matter how beautifully decorated, is still an egg.

Categories: Family, Living Consciously | Tags: , | 2 Comments

Biohacking? Life is too short.

Dave Asprey, who apparently is another of those well-known people with a well-known company that I have never heard of, has a goal. He is passionate about it, and he is working hard and spending a fortune to achieve it. His aspiration? To live to be 180.

According to a January article by Rachel Munroe in Men’s Health, this is what he’s doing to reach that goal:

  • He eats a diet that includes no gluten and is 50 to 70 percent fat.
  • He takes 100 supplements a day.
  • He regularly uses a hyperbaric oxygen chamber or immerses himself in ice water.
  • He exercises, but not by going to an ordinary gym. His home office includes an array of high-tech exercise machines, one of which “promises to deliver two and a half hours of exercise in 21 minutes.”
  • Every six months, he has half a liter of his own bone marrow harvested, then has the stem cells from it injected into various parts of his body, including his spinal cord.

All this is based on something called “biohacking.” Continue reading

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