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

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.

 

The Man in the Maze

necklace3

When I was twenty three, I went on a trip with my family to the Grand Canyon. While I was there I bought a necklace from a Native American woman from the Hopi tribe. The necklace depicts a man entering a maze. I was told that the maze and the man within it, are a metaphor for life. It is an image and idea that is common to many Native American tribes, each with a slightly different understanding of it.

The explanation given to me was that the maze represents life as journey. We spend our lives in the maze, through twists and turns we often feel lost. We want to get out of the maze- to reach the end. What we do not realize is that the end of the maze is actually death. Life is the maze.

At twenty three I loved the symbolism. I was embarking on a new journey, entering grad school, and I thought the metaphor of the life as a maze was fitting. At the time I bought the necklace, I think I thought of life as a journey and that I was entering a new phase of my life.

Years later, the symbolism is still important to me, but today it means something different. Today, I understand more fully the ways in which life truly is a maze. I am several iterations of my career beyond where I was at twenty-three. I have had two children, one of whom has had significant health issues and learning challenges. I have lost friends to illness and violence, seen friends’ marriages crumble and watched as life challenged those I love.

I have also known the extraordinary joy of motherhood, the love and support of a strong marriage, the resilience of my children. I have experienced the excitement of remaking myself and discovering new aspects of who I am. I have witnessed the incredible strength, determination and grace of those who have suffered losses and faced heartbreaking challenges. I have seen love bloom after the devastation of divorce. I have been awed by beauty, great and small, and the diversity of the human experience. Which is to say, I have traveled in the maze- with all of its variation.

I love the message of the man in the maze. Too often we spend our lives believing that if we can just get through this one thing, everything will be OK. If we can make it out of the maze, our lives will be wonderful. But for me (at this moment) the symbol means that there is no leaving the maze. If I make it through one part of the maze, if I turn the corner, I will simply arrive in another section of the maze. Perhaps it will have fewer twists and turns, but it is the maze nonetheless.

Life is the maze. It is the twists and turns; to borrow a phrase, it is the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. I will not spend my life waiting to exit the maze, waiting for things to get better. I will fully live and experience the journey, knowing that not all of it will be fun.

The maze is a journey, an adventure, a voyage into oneself and the unknown. You cannot escape the maze for a better life. It is your life. You can only choose the path you take and what you learn along the way.

I do not know what the symbolism of the maze will mean to me in twenty or thirty years. I only know that the accumulated wisdom of my time in the maze will have affected and altered me. My understanding will have been transformed by further living. I will not hope for an easy path- only the wisdom and courage to grow and evolve in the maze.

Life Lessons From Dr. Seuss: Helping Horton Hatch the Egg

hortonhatchestheegg
One of my favorite books is Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Suess. It is the story of Horton the Elephant who sits faithfully on a bird’s nest in a tree for fifty-one weeks after he promises the mother that he will babysit the egg. The egg, abandoned by its mother, eventually hatches into an “elephant bird” (read the book- I am not doing it justice!).

It is a book about the transformative power of love as well as loyalty and responsibility.
It is also a wish. After Horton hatches this amazing creature, the reader is told “and it should be, it should, it should be like that! Because Horton was faithful! He sat and he sat! He meant what he said…And he said what he meant…And they sent him home happy, One hundred per cent!”   We all want to believe that our hard work will be rewarded; That all the blood, sweat, and tears that we pour into our careers, our relationships, and our children will pay off and that we will be one hundred percent happy.

And perhaps it should be like that. But all too often it isn’t. Even the happiness from a great victory can be short lived. I often imagine that the elephant bird goes back home with Horton and is teased because he is different or that even if not teased by others, he himself feels isolated and alone. I imagine that Horton, the dedicated father he has become, stays up late at night worrying about his child’s future. I imagine that Horton’s happiness does not stay at 100% for very long.

What do we do when life does not reward us as we would like or even as we deserve? How do we rise to the next challenge? Part of the answer is actually the first part of Horton Hatches the Egg. Horton shows up. He takes on responsibilities and plugs away even when it is hard. As they say, 90% of success is just showing up.

But another part of the answer is sadly absent from Horton’s tale. Horton sits on the egg alone for 51 weeks. He never asks for help. Perhaps Horton fears that others will not be willing. Perhaps he feels that no one else could do it as well as he does. Perhaps he feels that he will not be living up to his word if he takes even a short break to stretch his legs and see his friends.

Horton makes the mistake that so many of us make- believing that there is only one right way to do things and that only he is capable of doing it. Sometimes the best way to show up is to know when you need a break. Sometimes it’s about delegating. Sometimes it’s about connecting with others who are dealing with similar issues and learning from them. Sometimes showing up means getting help to view things from a different perspective.

Through his love, devotion and dedication to being there, Horton helps to create something beautiful and special. We are all, in our own ways, capable of being Horton. But we shouldn’t have to do it alone.

A Voicemail Present

I am long since passed the age when birthdays bring parties and confetti. Nowadays, my cake has enough candles to set off the smoke alarm. Instead, birthdays now offer moments to reflect on my life and my journey.

But I still get presents. And like anyone, I enjoy a good present. This year, the best gift I received came in a surprising form. It arrived in the form of a voicemail.

I turned on my cell phone and saw a message from an old friend. He and I have been playing telephone tag for several weeks and it was nice to see his name. I pressed play and it began as a normal birthday message. “Happy Birthday, Rachel.” And then he continued “let me tell you what you mean to me.. the cool thing about you is..” He went on to enumerate the ways in which I have influenced and inspired him.

I had tears streaming down my face at the end of the message. It was such a beautiful gift. In a poignant one and half minute message, my friend made me feel loved and seen. He gave me the gift of seeing myself through his eyes.

And he has some incredible eyes. This is a friend who I admire and respect, who often serves as an inspiration to me. To know that he feels the same is deeply moving. It made me wonder if he how I feel about him.

How often do any of us take the time to tell our friends what they mean to us? How often do we thank the people in our lives for the way they shape and inspire us? How often do we acknowledge all the amazing individuals who have helped us become the people that we are today?

Research in positive psychology tells us that this giving act not only enhances the lives of those we tell, but enriches our own lives as well. The act of writing a letter of appreciation to someone who has been important to us, increases our own happiness. Gratitude breeds happiness which in turn breeds more happiness and more gratitude.

The simple act of reaching out to an old friend, a new friend, a teacher, a mentor, or a family member to tell them what they mean to you has the power to start a spiral of positivity. So sit down at the computer and write an email, or find that piece of stationary and fountain pen or simply pick up the phone. Give someone the gift of your appreciation.

Which reminds me, I have a phone call (and a favor) to return.

The Storms of Life

As another winter storm bears down on New England, I engage in my pre-storm ritual: obsessively reading weather reports and blogs.  I love weather.  I love storm watching. I feel (despite much evidence to the contrary) that if I read everything I will know what the future holds. I will be able to predict what will happen and where. I will be prepared.

Of course, I am not. Meteorology may be a science but it is clearly not an exact one. Every storm teaches me that the future is unknowable, and therefore uncontrollable. My constant reading aside, the weather will do what it plans to do. Rain/snow lines will shift, low pressure systems will unexpectedly move in and my day will be affected in ways I hadn’t planned.

In short, the weather is just another area of my life over which I have very little control. The career I planned in my twenties is very different than the one I have now. The marriage I imagined as a child bears little resemblance to the one in which I happily find myself. The beautiful children I have today are very different than the ones I daydreamed about as I held my hand over my swollen belly all those years ago. What happened? Life.

All the preparation in the world, all the good advice, all the self-help and parenting books, could not prepare me for the ways that life intervened. I could not have predicted the ways that love, economics, ambition, violence and illness would affect the trajectory of my life.  All the reading and planning could not have prepared me for the ways in which life would alter and change me- shifting priorities, values and beliefs.

Control is an illusion.What mattered more along the way was knowing myself and being open to learning more.When life challenged me, my willingness to adjust, go with the flow and when needed, set limits, allowed me to grow as a person- to not only survive, but thrive.

We focus a lot in our society on being prepared. And preparation is important. Too often though, we focus on the wrong kind of preparation. We prepare for life’s storms never realizing that forecasts change and that the storm we prepared for is seldom the storm that arrives. We cling to dogma and ideas about the way things should be instead of looking within to build strength to find our own truths.

What I have learned is that flexibility and humility are my lifelines; knowing what I can and cannot control and learning to ask for help when I am tossed in the waves of life’s hurricanes.

I suppose that I like to watch storms because it provides me with an illusion of control. But I know now it is an illusion. I know that I can no more control the storms of my life than the storms in the Gulf Stream. But with the weather I can pretend. So, today I’ll buy the loaf of bread and the gallon of milk and enjoy watching the storm, if and when it hits.

An Awakening

Something is happening.  It is percolating in our society- bubbling up in disparate and surprising places.  It is born out of a deep spiritual dissatisfaction with American society though its manifestations are profoundly positive.

We see it in education where parents, teachers and students are revolting against high stakes testing and common core standards. They do so because they love learning and they believe that an emphasis on scores and quantitative data obscures the meaning of education.  They are tired of a rat race that is so focused on future careers, that it loses sight of raising happy, healthy citizens.

We see it in the slow food movement, where people are joining together to promote local communities, traditions and farms.  They seek to restore pleasure to eating, asking people to sit down together for a meal- to savor both the taste of the food and each other’s company.

We see this in the NFL (of all places) where the Seattle Seahawks are including meditation and yoga in their training.  Even in the violent sport of football, this team has found the benefit of caring for the entire player- for his soul, his body and his mental well-being.  They believe they can excel in the game (and their record supports them on it) and take care of their players.

What do these things have in common? They are rejections of the status quo.  They are rejections of our society’s relentless pursuit of the end-result without any regard for the process or journey.  They are statements that the journey matters.  They are affirmations of the importance of being human; of all the different ways of being human.

There are others out there doing innovative things; resisting the march to conformity.  We should honor and encourage these movements (even if we personally might not choose them) because they broaden our definition of what it means to be human.   This broader definition opens up greater possibilities for all of us.