Life Lessons From Street Signs: Slow Children At Play

slow children

My rabbi growing up once gave a sermon in which he said that he and a colleague, in a sort of rabbinical competition, would “compete” to see who could come up with the best sermon based on road signs. I have been thinking a lot about that lately as I drive past signs that say “Slow Children at Play.”

It is a command for drivers to take note and slow down. But it might also be a reminder to parents and teachers as well. Slow down- our children are at play. Or at least they should be. Sadly, what strikes me when I see the signs is the absolute absence of children playing.

In the afternoons neighborhoods that once echoed with the boisterous cries of children are now eerily silent. Children are at activities- from soccer, to dance, to football, to violin, to math Olympics, to tutoring in foreign languages. Our children are so busy being prepared to be talented adults (or excellent college applicants) that they are seldom allowed to be children.

And it’s funny- because I know a lot of unhappy adults who look back nostalgically on their own childhoods when they were carefree. But our children are not carefree. They are stressed and over-scheduled. They are tested and quantified. They are seldom at play.

Perhaps it is a result of our collective anxiety. The job market is tight and the world seems ever more competitive. We are anxious about our own futures, and are thus also anxious about our children’s. We want to give them that edge that we lack (maybe if we had been fluent in Chinese we would have gotten that promotion). Or maybe we are so miserable ourselves that we can’t stand seeing children happy. Maybe their carefree laughter is painful to us because we don’t make time for it in our own lives.

But play and downtime are necessary for children- especially as the common core pushes literature, and the arts, and recess out of our kids’ school day. Ironically play is also essential for global competition. Unstructured play gives children the opportunity to make (and break) their own rules which in turn fosters creativity and that ever sought after “outside the box” thinking.

Play helps children develop independence and self-reliance because children at play are entertaining themselves and do not need adult supervision (or help) to do it. Play encourages problem solving and develops a sense of internal locus of control- a measure of your belief in your own ability to control events in your life which psychologists find relates to happiness, well-being and lower levels of depression and anxiety.

We are moving so fast that our children never get to slow down- to be children at play. The result is that they lose the capacity to play. They become the zombies that haunt our popular culture– drones in the world- marching aimlessly and endlessly towards some elusive (and destructive) goal.

There are many reasons we do not allow our children to play as they used to; Dual career families (by choice and by necessity) seek out structured activities to keep them occupied during work hours, a culture of fear that makes us believe our neighborhoods are under siege (when in fact crime has been falling for the past 20 years), and a particularly corrosive culture of competition that permeates affluent communities. We may not even notice how little our children are playing, because we ourselves work so hard and play so little.

But children are the canaries in the coal mine. Rising rates of teen suicide and suicide attempts as well as high rates of childhood/teen depression and drug addiction should warn us that what we are doing is not good for them, and indeed, it is not good for us (adults have seen similar rises in suicide and drug use).

We need to the see the street sign as a command- Slow Children at Play. Slow down- let your children play. Slow down, let yourself play. Even if it does mean taking a Detour.
Detour

Rage Fatigue

anger2

I have an ambivalent relationship with social media sites (as I have discussed here). But I am on social media sites most days. Generally I use social media to keep up with friends, conduct business and keep apprised of developments in fields of interest. By and large I am impressed with the range of interests my friends have and the discussions they start and with which they are engaged. I love seeing photos of their vacations and children and enjoy humorous updates from their lives. I have also been known to enjoy the occasional cat video.

But lately I have noticed that my adrenal glands are fatigued- you know the ones that secrete hormones to respond to dangerous situations. The adrenal glands are activated to a greater or lesser extent by stress, fear, anger and rage. And this is where social media come into play. Because I have found that many of the feeds I follow are dedicated to creating anger and rage. Their teasing headlines inform me that I will be “shocked,” “horrified,” and “terrified” by the content of their links. Sometimes they promise me heartwarming links but these too stimulate the adrenal system by releasing dopamine, the neurotransmitter related to pleasure. Additionally, the heartwarming links are often stories of triumph over adversity, pain and injustice.

Social media, with their unending devotion to click-bait, are designed to keep me in a state of emotional agitation. (I should note that cable news outlets and talk radio are similarly designed). And I am no different than most social media participants in that my social circle tends to be comprised of people with similar social and political beliefs. The result is that my social media world is an echo chamber in which my friends and I supply one another with evidence supporting our pre-existing beliefs and fuel each other’s rage.

And my group, like most on the internet, is angry and scared. Our heightened adrenal states of anger and rage, designed for an age in which fight or flight were the only two responses, do not serve us well. On an individual basis, these states are physically and emotionally exhausting. The result is adrenal fatigue, in which the constantly stimulated adrenal system begins to shut down. (I do not mean to suggest that the internet alone is to blame for this condition, but our heightened stress levels are part of the problem and the internet creates and feeds off of that stress.)

On a social level- the results are equally as toxic. Listening to only those who agree with us, we become more strident and more polarized. We are more likely to see those who disagree with us as the enemy- insensitive, cold, irrational and monstrous. If all we read tells us we must resist tyranny, then seeing our political opponents as tyrants means that we are unable to compromise because compromise is immoral in such a view.

So, I am tired. I am tired from being angry and scared all the time. My options for real action as a result of what I read are often limited and so I am left with agitation and little way to dissipate it. The result is helplessness and fatigue which only feeds into the above cycle (it is easier to scare people who are already feeling helpless).

Because so much of my work and professional circle is online, unplugging is not a real option for me. However, I am making new rules for myself. I am deleting feeds that play on my fears. I am resisting the urge to click on links that I know will anger me. I cannot ignore all content that is upsetting, because we live in a world that frankly is often upsetting, but I will try and limit the quantity I consume.

I am also choosing certain areas with which I can engage and about which I am passionate. These areas will be my focus for now and I will take my activism off-line as well. Human contact and connection will hopefully mitigate some of the feelings of anger and helplessness.

We must be wary of business models that are predicated on rage and fear. We must understand that their effects are damaging to us personally and culturally. Whatever their motives are, cable news channels, viral web content providers or political groups are all engaged in the manufacturing of rage. And the world has enough problems without such agitation.

Good-Bye to a Phenomenal Woman

Maya Angelou

Today the world lost a phenomenal woman- and a phenomenal voice. Maya Angelou died today and the world is poorer for her leaving.

I have been thinking a lot lately of her poem- Phenomenal Woman. For years it has echoed in my head.

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

As we are inundated today with images of emaciated models and told to emulate an ideal of beauty that is profoundly damaging, Angelou’s vision of womanhood is nurturing and sustaining.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.

Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Womanhood is not stilted and stunted, contorted into unnatural poses as our fashion magazines display. Angelou rejoiced in the movement and sensuality of womanhood.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

There are so many ways to be a phenomenal woman, to be beautifully and wondrously alive. Angelou was unapologetically woman. She was unbroken and proud. She was beautiful in the fullness of womanhood.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Every girl, every woman, should read this poem. We are all phenomenal women. Maya Angelou is gone- but her phenomenal voice lives on. May she inspire us all to embrace our phenomenal selves.

We are women
Phenomenally
Phenomenal women,
That’s us.

Fighting the Zombie Apocalypse

http://lyricallywired.files.wordpress.com/2012/10/zombiesilhouettes.jpg

This weekend I went to the see the newest X-Men movie (X-Men: Days of Future Past) and after sitting through endless previews for depressing action movies and the dark vision of the film itself, I found myself feeling pretty hopeless. Our entertainment environment is filled right now with apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic imagery. We conjure flawed super heroes to fight cunning and powerful villains or watch the “everyman” fight off a zombie mob. You might say “it’s just the movies (or TV),” but the truth is that our entertainment feeds and expands upon our fears.

Our ultra-violent and dark popular culture speaks to and from our collective anxiety. A jobless economic recovery, a world overrun with war, shooting sprees that leave children and young people massacred, a government that spies on its enemies and citizens alike, corporate cultures that demand long hours with increasing job instability- all of these conspire to make us feel vulnerable. Our entertainment is filled with stories of heroes (either super or home-grown) who are able to survive and conquer these forces. We turn to fiction for heroes because they seem so elusive in our own lives.

There is no better distillation of this fear than the zombies who inhabit our entertainment- from The Walking Dead to World War Z to any number of video games. Zombies are people who have ceased to be human. They are unstoppable mindless drones who have the ability to turn healthy independent people into the shuffling undead.

Zombie movies are a fun house mirror of our fears- that our world has spun out of control and that we are being turned into zombies. Schools prepare our students to be good workers and work demands that we surrender our autonomy and creativity and become mindless drones. We fear that we and those around us are becoming zombies. We fear that we have become the shuffling undead.

In popular culture the only way to resist the zombie horde is to resort to hiding and violence. The siege mentality of zombie films is again a mirror of our own mentality- looking out only for ourselves, pitted against our neighbors and friends for scarce resources- fighting over the division of the pie and not attempting to make the pie bigger.

Our zombie entertainment reflects our fears. But we have choices. We can, of course, surrender and become zombies ourselves or we can resist. But we do not need to resist as our entertainment counterparts do- by building fortresses and stockpiling weapons. Rather the way that we can fight is by becoming more intensely human.

We can reach out to our neighbors and to strangers with kindness and not suspicion. We can seek out moments of connection with one another. We can stop and appreciate the arts- by listening to music, reading a book or creating something (paintings, sculptures, collages- whatever!). We can stroll calmly and slowly out in nature. We can turn off our cell phones when we come home and make the office wait until tomorrow. We can insist on our own humanity and we can resist fear.

It is not easy. Zombies have captured our imaginations because we live in dangerous and uncertain times. But if zombies are the undead, we must fight them and what they represent by becoming more fully alive.

A Virtual Memorial

Yesterday my inbox was overflowing with emails from people with whom I have not spoken in many years- we came together virtually to honor and remember a special person who died too young. Yesterday would have been the 39th birthday of a boy with whom we went to grade school. He died at 19 of cancer and twenty years later he still affects my life.

Every life is special. Every child beautiful. But Aaron’s light burned brighter than most. There was a gentleness and a kindness to his spirit as well as an exuberance and joy. In my memory Aaron is always lit by the sun- running and smiling. Golden. He was the boy that every boy wanted to be like and every girl had a crush on. Which wouldn’t matter if it had just been that he was popular. But Aaron was popular because he was kind and good. He treated people well whether they were popular or not. You always knew Aaron was your friend. In junior high, when kids are brutal and cruel, Aaron led by example, changing the tenor of our class and our interactions with one another.

Aaron died twenty years ago and yet he is still present in the lives of those who knew him. His spirit lives in each of us- pushing us to be better people and better friends. His love of life makes us want to enjoy our lives even more. Because he would have wanted it that way. Because, had he been given the chance, he would have lived his life beautifully and fully as well.

So often we are led to believe that to make an impact on the world we must do big and bold things. But there are smaller ways that are powerful as well. One way I know this is the virtual gathering that occurred yesterday- people who took the time to mark the birthday of someone who (unbelievably and tragically) has been gone now for twenty years. Aaron reminded me that we all have the ability to leave our mark on the world in a positive way- from the very young to the very old. Whether we are here for 19 years or 99.

In our capacity to touch and be touched by others – we have the ability to make the world a better place in small and very important ways. So this Memorial Day weekend- surround yourself with friends and family. Love them and cherish them. Laugh and enjoy them. Be kind and good to them.   That is one way to make an impact. It is one within all of our reach.

Just Begin Again

Meditation can be hard. Sitting still, focusing on your breathing… in and out, in and out. It’s easy for your mind to wander. Indeed, the practice of meditation is not really about having a blank mind, but about controlling the wandering of your mind when it inevitably strays. There are some mornings when my meditation practice (and there is a reason they call it practice) does not seem to be going well- when my mind is so crowded with lists and worries, and my allotted meditation time feels like an eternity that  I contemplate getting up and just getting on with my day.

At these moments, the voice of my teacher comes to me. “Just begin again” she tells me. No judgment, no recrimination, just begin again. And I return to my breathing. In and out. In and out.

Just begin again. Her words are powerful and grounding. And truly, they are important outside of the confines of meditation. Life is about trying and failing and trying again. When we fail, and we all do, we must begin again.

Psychologists refer to this ability as resilience. Some people are naturally resilient while others must work at it. Some people are able to rise over and over again and claim victory from defeat. But for others, through learned helplessness and difficult life circumstances, they get stuck.

We attach so much shame to failing that sometimes the process of beginning again feels like an admission of defeat and not a sign of resilience and triumph over circumstances. At these moments, it is important to find the strength to begin again. Just begin again- because that is what life is about. In my teacher’s suggestion is kindness and gentleness. Her voice in my mind urges self-forgiveness and quiet urging to continue.  We can train ourselves to become resilient, by getting up, and beginning again.

Just begin again. It is simple and difficult at the same time. We must begin again because there truthfully is little alternative.

Just begin again. When love withers, when a career falters, when health fails, just begin again. The rhythms of life tell us this is possible, from the sun rising every morning to the changes of seasons to the ebb and flow of the tides and the moon. Just begin again.

Just begin again, knowing that you will do so many times in your life. Meditation is the art of calming a busy mind- of starting over again and again. One of the reasons that meditation has such powerful effects on our lives is because if we practice the art of beginning again in meditation, it makes it easier (not easy) to begin again when life is tough.

So, just begin again. Without judgment. Without recrimination. With gentleness and kindness. With love. Just begin again.

What Was the Best Part of Your Terrible Day?

We’ve all had that day. The one that begins with the horrible realization that you have overslept, and then proceeds to the coffee machine malfunctioning, an angry email from the boss about a project that is running 6 months behind, progresses to your getting stuck in a 2 hour traffic jam (that you usually avoid because your alarm gets you up to be on the road before the chaos of rush hour), and results in spilling drive-through coffee down your shirt. This is the day when the local sewage main ruptures and begins spewing waste into your basement which you find upon your return home as you stand in a foot of filth, calculating the cost of this to your already tight budget.

If you haven’t had that day, you’ve had your version of it. So let me ask you, what was the best part of that day?

I know, you think I am insane. You think I am one of those happy, cheerful people with framed posters of inspirational quotes against a beautiful natural scene hanging on my wall. I assure you I am not. I like sarcasm and snark and have at times enjoyed the nectar of my own despair.

But several years ago while taking a class on positive psychology (an area of study that was in many ways contrary to my default settings), I decided to take one of the practical suggestions from the literature. Because I am a mother, and have the natural authority to do it, I brought my family along for the experiment.

Every night at dinner, we go around the table and say the best part about our day. There is no skipping. There is no qualifying. There is no using the best thing as an excuse to talk about what you didn’t like. You must find one positive thing to say about your day- even if it was a terrible day.

In the beginning it was hard. I mean really hard. There were some days I struggled. There were some days when my kids informed me that there was nothing good about their day. This is when I told them the beauty of the exercise.

You see, you do not need to find one great thing about your day, or even one good thing. You must identify the best thing about your day. Sometimes the best part of a bad day isn’t great in and of itself. Sometimes the best part of the foot of raw sewage in your basement is that you found it before it was two feet. Sometimes the best part of your day is the two quiet moments you had when you entered the house and you actually took a deep breath and relaxed (before venturing into the sewage filled basement).

Over the years this has become a beloved part of our family meals. Some days there are multiple “best” parts of our days (yes- I know grammatically there should only be one thing that is the best- but I am going with the spirit of the exercise here). The exercise causes us to stop and take stock of our days and take us off automatic pilot.

And the effect goes beyond the dinner table. I now often find myself throughout the day noticing when I am enjoying my day. I notice the people around me and the joy that is in my life. Indeed, this simple exercise was the first step that helped me make changes in my life.

It turns out that noticing daily what is good in your life, as the research in positive psychology tells us, leads to greater happiness. I started to notice what gave me pleasure and what made me unhappy. I decided to do more of the things that made me happy and fewer of the things that didn’t. I decided to spend more time with the people who made me laugh and less time with those who made me angry or sad. I decided to notice that even a terrible day has parts that are good. It allowed me to shift and make changes in my life. It helped me begin a journey into a more positive way of living and indeed, eventually led me to mindfulness, coaching and meditation.

So, ask yourself, “what was the best part of my day?” Even if you are standing in sewage.