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On Authenticity

7 Aug

A while back I titled a blog post Deep and Deeper and my last post, Who Are We?, led me to return to the intention that motivated that earlier post. Death (along with individual identity) is certainly a subject that can be described as deep or yet deeper. So deep is the subject of death, in fact, that many, perhaps most people in our culture, do their best to avoid talking or even thinking about it altogether.

Back in 1992, when the five women who began the Columbus Group, gathered at my house in Columbus, Ohio to try to come up with a different definition of giftedness than was currently in vogue (a definition centered on academic achievement) one of the very first examples of the qualitative difference between highly or profoundly gifted children and other children of their age [the difference we would soon name Asynchronous Development], was the case of Jennie–and death. Four year old Jennie was traumatized when her grandfather died. Extrapolating a principle from one subject or event to another, as profoundly gifted children tend to begin doing even as toddlers, she began to worry that her mother or father might die as well. Her mother, doing her best to comfort this very little girl, told her that she didn’t need to worry. They were not going to die, she assured Jennie. “Grandpa died because he was old. I’m not old. Your father isn’t old.” Jennie was not in the least comforted by this story. She watched the news on television, after all. “Other people die,” she said. “Even children die!”

The problems very young children have with asynchronous development is that their minds outdistance their emotional maturity, so the simple cushioning stories that adults often give young children to soften the impact of painful truths don’t work well with them. Not only do such stories not provide the cushioning the children need, the stories’ simple platitudes, so obviously untrue, are likely to be taken as adult dishonesty. Jennie had not long been identified as profoundly gifted, and her mother didn’t yet realize that she needed to deal with such issues as the inevitability of death on a much more adult level with Jennie than she had expected.

The deep and deeper human issues need to be addressed with super bright kids both more honestly and earlier than we might be prepared for. Examples of these issues—our inhumanity to each other and other life forms, our predilection for violence and warfare, our failure to protect the planet that is our only home—the list is long and more and more “in our faces” these days. Which means, of course, that we have to face these issues ourselves on a deep enough level to address them honestly from our own perspective when we talk to these children (or even when they’re within earshot). As Stephen Sondheim reminds us in a song from “Into the Woods,” Children will listen!

Many of us got our first stories about such issues from the religions of our parents or grandparents or our ethnic culture. Or from other kids, or science text books or the “mass media.” Often, as we grow up, whatever we were told from whatever source, begins to feel wrong or untrue. For myself, I long ago rejected the version of reality that was provided by my religious education—some of what was labeled wrong no longer seemed wrong to me, and what was right sometimes had begun to seem distinctly the opposite. Even worse than the loss of religious certainties in some ways, was the realization that what I had learned in school as undisputed fact (history, for instance, or even science) had too often been either purposely distorted to support a kind of cultural propaganda, or just an error that had continued to be taught even after it had been superseded or at least challenged by new information and new theories.

For myself, various “truths” began to disintegrate when my own personal experiences contradicted them. As a fiction writer, I had always intended to write “realistic fiction,” until the line between imagination and reality or between what could be and what really was could no longer be firmly drawn. There were things I experienced that I didn’t talk about in public because, except when I was talking to children, my audiences didn’t seem to me ready to hear what I would have said.

But when I was speaking to an adult audience dealing with kids at the far right tail of the curve, where unusual experiences become more common, I began to stretch the boundaries a bit. Back in the days of the Hollingworth Conference for the Highly Gifted, I explained in a keynote, for instance, that becoming a Reiki practitioner—I wasn’t yet a Reiki Master, able to teach the method to others—had ended my problem with seasonal allergies. (Reiki is an energy healing modality that originated in Japan.) All these years later, I still don’t have those allergies! One year someone wrote on a conference evaluation form that I was “too far out.” (The next year I titled my keynote “On Being Too Far Out.”)

I had, of course, found those “far out” things well-supported in books written by leading edge scientists, some of whom I knew personally, though the ideas hadn’t yet shown up in school text books. What had once been labeled “New Age” and outside the realm of rationality, began to fill the shelves at book stores even before the internet had made them readily accessible to anyone with an interest. I still find it odd that after nearly 100 years of challenging the certainties of material science and Newtonian physics, quantum physics is apparently still not a standard offering in most high schools.

Between 1992 and today, my thinking about “deep and deeper” has moved from the need to be willing to honestly talk to super gifted kids about the difficult emotional issues of human life, to being willing to honestly address questions of consciousness, reality, values and spirituality (which may or may not include religion) with them. The most important word in that sentence is “honestly.” About these issues there are seldom certainties for us other than personal experience. Being honest with them, of course, means admitting that there is “mystery” involved—as with the orbs (mysterious and sometimes colored “balls of light” often with internal mandala patterns) that show up all over the place in photographs taken both indoors and outside at Camp Yunasa—so in talking to campers about them I make no effort to explain the phenomenon. This tends to drive the campers a little crazy. All I can say is that none of the “standard explanations” involving dust particles, moisture, or the closeness of lens to flash in digital cameras, explain them either. During my “orb slide show” last year kids got out their cameras and began taking photos and sure enough, a few orbs showed up at first, and the more photos they took the more orbs appeared. Photo above taken as two of Yunasa’s Fellows walk back to our bunks after Spirit Journey–August, 2017.

 

I don’t usually write—or talk—to persuade people any more (though I used to, for sure). I write to share my thoughts, and usually some of the reasons I think them—especially when they aren’t mainstream, or not mainstream in the gifted realm. Ernest Holmes, author of Science of Mind, said, “The child-like mind is more receptive to Truth than the over intellectual.” He suggests this, I think, because children tend to be more open to mystery than those of us proud of our very good intellects. We tend to have minds stuffed with facts we’ve learned and beliefs that we think of as true, but Ernest is after something larger (and deeper), something (Truth) that he dares to capitalize without defining. And since one of his principles was always to “stay open at the top,” I’m pretty sure he would have said that Truth for us changes as we and our perceptions change. And change we humans do, if we allow it.

When I started The Deep End Facebook page  back when I was new to social media, I hoped the page would encourage discussions of some of the nonrational capacities and experiences of the highly gifted that are quite common among this population (which those of us with long experience know, even though many parents are hesitant to talk about them, for fear of disbelief or ridicule). As soon as such discussions began on that page, however, some folks who limit their ideas about consciousness to the purely rational, and apparently about science to the purely material, launched attacks that closed those beginning discussions down. It can be psychologically dangerous to talk about nonrational experiences among hyper-rational gifted folk all too poised to attack. So okay, this is a blog instead, and I write it. I get to choose what I write about.

After I posted “Who Are We?” I heard from some folks that they appreciated my honesty. Maybe it’s because I’ve been in this “gifted biz” for a long time, or more likely it’s because I believe what Anita Moorjani (author of Dying to Be Me, a book about her amazing Near Death Experience) says about the need to be one’s essential self. It is that need that led me to share with Yunasa campers last year (my final year with the camp) the “evidence” I have that there is life after death. There, too, I didn’t ask them to share my interpretation of that evidence. They have to make up their own minds, as do we all. But unless we share what is deep and deeper in our own lives and experience, how will openings to new perceptions and awareness come about?

For me, it is easier to talk about death these days now that I am totally convinced by my own experiences and some astonishing evidence that it is illusion—transformation not ending. But I don’t try to convince people. I believe that honesty and authenticity have real and lasting value, no matter how others respond. (Also, I’m old enough not to care so much what people think of me as I used to.) But I must also add here that while taking the fear of death out of the picture is astonishingly liberating, it does not save us from the grief of such loss. Believe me, I know.

TolanMemorial 16

Tolan Memorial 2013

Celebrate Giftedness; Consider Success

18 May

New Zealand is choosing to celebrate giftedness in its annual Gifted Awareness Blog Tour, with the theme “Catalysts of Success.” So let me first celebrate celebration—remember this song? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3GwjfUFyY6M

Unusual intelligence can feel like more of a burden than a gift, but it’s all in how we choose to see it. We who are gifted and we who care for and work with gifted kids, have a very great deal to be grateful for and it is really important for our own well-being to remember that. The song in the above link says “celebrate good times,” and what many people don’t realize is how very important it is to first notice, and then celebrate the good times. If we focus always on what is not working and our ferocious (and admittedly sometimes unsuccessful) efforts to get those things “fixed,” we can get into the habit of seeing only negatives—only bad times—and ignoring or taking for granted the good ones. It is hugely important to recognize and remember that giftedness itself provides us with vast and out-of-the-ordinary internal resources. Celebration is a truly important positive attitude. And a positive attitude not only leads to success, but can become itself the very definition of success.

So that brings me to the theme:  “catalysts of success.” The first essential for me here is to define success. There are plenty of people who define it in terms of achievement, usually achievement in terms of money, power and fame. I would never suggest that money, power and fame are not worth having, but I do suggest that they are not the definition of success. When I began writing (and publishing) novels and they did not immediately shoot to the top of the best seller lists, did not get lucrative movie deals, in fact did not make me a living that could even measure up to the salary of a first year teacher almost anywhere in the states, it would never have occurred to me to consider the fact that I was able to write them (writing was, after all, what I had wanted to do since childhood) as success. More than that, publishers were willing to publish them, and children and young adults were reading them and writing letters to tell me so. However tricky it was to raise a family on the modest income provided by two adult human beings “doing art” in the U.S., my husband and I were both doing what we loved most to do. When I look back on those times, I wish I had understood then how important gratitude and celebration were. And how grateful we both should have been, no matter the difficulties, that we were “gifted” with the ability and the opportunity to do what we loved, what fed our souls.

Now for the definition of “catalyst”:  An agent that provokes or speeds significant change or action. We all know that things are not ideal for gifted kids in the educational world no matter what country or continent we represent, so since change is inevitable, we can be certain that “significant change” in a positive direction is always to be desired. Whether you are one of the gifted population, a teacher, a parent, an administrator—any or all of the above—I could suggest a whole list of catalysts you can cultivate to help provoke and/or speed significant change. Effort, determination, purpose, intentions, goals, preparation, willingness, persistence. I am sure you can add a few more of your own. But for me (some of you may remember an article of mine called “In Praise of Pollyanna,” which can be found in my book “Out of Sync”: https://www.rfwp.com/book/out-of-sync-essays-on-giftedness ) Pollyanna’s focus on looking for things that made her glad is worth adopting. The single most important catalyst is gratitude. Well—that and celebration!

 

Deep and Deeper

13 Apr

“All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. This we know: Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web he does to himself.”–Chief Seattle

“When we try to pick out something by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”–John Muir

It has been an absurdly long time since I wrote something for this blog. But today it’s time. Last month I did a workshop for the Caroline D. Bradley Scholarship program’s annual seminar, sponsored by IEA, the Institute for Educational Advancement. The theme of this year’s seminar was “Intersections” and my workshop was titled “From Indra’s Net to the Internet: Intersections, Reality and Consciousness.”

To prepare for the seminar it was suggested that the attendees watch this TED Talk about “multipotentialites”:

https://www.ted.com/talks/emilie_wapnick_why_some_of_us_don_t_have_one_true_callingIf you don’t have time to watch the talk (though I highly recommend it), let me explain that Wapnick uses the term multipotentialite to describe a person who can’t relate to the idea of finding “one true calling.” If they commit to a job or a subject matter, as soon as they have learned or mastered it they need to move on to something else; there are always lots of other paths (interests) pulling them to explore. Many of “our kids” will recognize themselves in this talk.

Watching it, I realized that I am an “elder multipotentialite.” My 6th grade teacher told my mother that I would never amount to anything because I was interested in “too many things.” Miss Shreve deeply believed in the saying “Jack of all trades, master of none.” She was not, you may be sure, one of my favorite teachers! I am lucky, though. I’ve managed to have the best of both worlds. I do have one true calling, but it is writing, a calling so broad and varied that there is no limit to my ability to follow it for a lifetime and yet avoid boredom.

Most of you who read this blog came to it because you share, for your own reasons, my personal passion for serving the needs of super bright kids and adults. This blog and much of the rest of my nonfiction, along with much of my public speaking, has been about extraordinary intelligence, and what I’ve written and talked about on this subject is best known in the gifted community.

But many of you also know some of my fiction for kids and young adults. Certainly Welcome to the Ark and Flight of the Raven, along with my much earlier novel A Time to Fly Free, are specifically related to highly gifted individuals, but I write other kinds of children’s books as well. And my plays, most of them written in collaboration with Katherine Paterson—author, among many other award-winning novels, of Bridge to Terabithia—are meant to appeal to a broad audience of kids.

Most recently my interests and my life experience (some of which I’ve written about here) have led (or pushed) me in a new direction, the first book from that path being my book Change Your Story, Change Your Life. Some of you may have found it through my websites http://www.stephanietolan.com or www.storyhealer.com.

I expect more nonfiction writing will come from the spiritual perspective that the losses in my life forced me to discover and that the current chaos in the world we all share continues to test and expand.

The theme and title of this blog refer to the metaphorical “deep end” environment that mermaids (unable to survive long on dry land) need to survive longterm. But since I created the blog, the term has taken on a new meaning for me—has become, if you will, even deeper. I will not lose interest in the subject that led me to begin it (how could one get bored in the realm of the gifted mind—as broad a territory as writing itself?) but the new depths that interest me may not appeal to everyone. The title of my CDB workshop refers to both the mystical image of Indra’s net and the material world reality of the internet, two very different ways of perceiving intersections, the connectedness of all things. What I will be doing here in future is exploring both kinds of “deep.”

And meanwhile I’ve begun the intense work of writing the third book of the “Ark Trilogy,” Within the Dark. Because, of course, fiction is a fundamental part of my “one true calling.”

 

On the Lighter Side

12 Feb

It’s been said that laughter is the best medicine. And right now we need as much of it as we can get.

So—this post is not a serious post about the world, or even about the needs of highly to profoundly gifted folks. It is a post to go with a “cover reveal” for the third book about the homeschooling Applewhites and their visiting “bad kid,” Jake Semple.

Back in 2002 I published the first one—Surviving the Applewhites. I had written it precisely because laughter is medicine, and the book of mine that had come out two weeks after 9/11 (Flight of the Raven—sequel to Welcome to the Ark) was set in a terrorist compound. I had therefore had to spend a year of my life while writing it, living in the minds of terrorists, and I really, truly needed to lighten up.

While laughter might be medicinal, funny books seldom win major literary awards, so it was a surprise to many that it won a Newbery Honor in 2003. After 29 years of writing for kids and young adults, I had become an “overnight success.” 

Meantime, I had also become a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Educational Advancement (IEA) and helped to create Yunasa, a camp for highly gifted kids, where I have worked every summer since. My son RJ, whom some of you may remember from the Open Letter in Guiding the Gifted Child (1982) told me I should write a sequel, and that in it the Applewhites should start a camp. Though I wasn’t eager to write a sequel (sequels are tricky and writing humor even trickier), my editor also encouraged me, so I did. Applewhites at Wit’s End, dedicated to the Yunasa campers, and including the disclaimer that “any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental,” came out ten years after the first book.

That, I thought, was that. Done! And then RJ (most of you know how persistent and sometimes maddening highly gifted offspring can be) said I should write a third, because it wouldn’t be “a series” until there were three books! I said no. My editor pushed a bit. I said no.

And then it dawned on me that it might be fun to do if RJ, who is a very funny guy and a very good writer, would collaborate. I hesitantly suggested this first to my editor and then to him. She said yes, he said yes, and I was actually at Yunasa when I got the word that we had a contract for the third book. Great! I thought. Now all we have to do is get an idea. And write it. A few weeks later RJ took care of the first part. And we began.

Long story short, it is done. Brett Helquist has created a splendid cover (as he did for Wit’s End and the new paperback of Surviving) and Applewhites Coast to Coast will be available from HarperCollins in the fall of 2017. One of my favorite parts about the whole project was when our editor said she couldn’t tell which one of us wrote what. Yay! (For some of it, we aren’t even quite sure.) This is the sort of thing that makes all those years of parenting not just worth it, but an amazing, splendid, delightful gift!applewhitescoast_final-s

And as I was posting this, I encountered a really great quote, from Bobby Sands, an Irish activist (1954-1981): “Our revenge will be the laughter of our children.”

 “The flowers and the candles are for protection.”

18 Nov

flowers-candlesI myself was protected last weekend by being out of touch with television and the social media at the NAGC convention in Phoenix.  I was lucky enough to see not a single image from Paris until I got home on Sunday night, by which time memorials had sprung up at every site of the violence.

The title of this post will be readily recognized as a quotation from a video interview that went viral—with more than 14 million views on social media. In case you haven’t seen it, a father and his very young son were being interviewed in Paris at one of the sites where those lost in a bombing on Friday were being memorialized with banks of flowers and hundreds of candles.  The boy was very much afraid of the “mean people with guns.”

“We have flowers,” his father told him. The boy began to protest about the effects of mere flowers, but the father assured him that they were protection. Flowers and candles. The boy looked for a time at the banks of flowers and candles, and gradually his face relaxed. “For protection,” he repeated. When the interviewer asked if that idea made him feel better, he nodded. “I feel better,” he said.

In a powerful way, that father was right. The purpose of the terrorists is to spread fear, and at first, for that child, as for so many others, they had succeeded in their mission. The little boy wanted to move to a new home, a place safe from mean people with guns. “Paris is our home,” his father told him, and said that there are mean people everywhere. But in telling him that the flowers were protection, he showed his son the absolute truth that there are many people—vastly more than the paltry number of terrorists on this planet—who care.

Fred Rogers (of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood) said that his mother told him when he was a child and upset (as so many sensitive kids are) about news from some disaster, that instead of paying attention to the disaster, he should “watch the people who come to help—there are always people who come to help.”

A great many of the children we work with and care about are deeply empathic, feeling the pain of others, and easily overwhelmed by news of man’s inhumanity to man, of images of what “mean people” do in the world. How do we help them (and ourselves) deal with the chaos we see around us? Far more dangerous to a child than the possibility of a terrorist attack is an ingrained fear of other humans and a world of random violence. How do we protect them from the terror that is being purposely unleashed in our world today by people who themselves are terrorized by what they perceive to be massive world powers ranged against them?

By seeing, really seeing, under, over, past and around the images of death and destruction that the media insist on pouring into the atmosphere of this interconnected world.  By focusing on the vast majority—on the helpers, on those who bring candles and flowers.  We can think of every candle as “the light of truth” and every flower as a symbol not just of love and caring, but of the beauty of life itself.

When fear is being ratcheted up around the world not just by the terrorists and their guns and bombs, but by the news media that continually push those images on us, warning us that this sort of horror could happen anywhere at any time we can focus differently, and use our very good minds to support us. The numbers are on our side!

There’s an Allstate ad that says, “Man-eating sharks live in every ocean, but we still swim. Lightning strikes somewhere in the world, but we still play in the rain. So many things can happen. However, bad things in life can’t stop us from making our lives good. People live for good…”

While we tend to think of insurance companies intentionally frightening us to get us to buy their product, consider for a moment the principle on which that industry was created in the first place—that there is more “daily life” than catastrophe.

At this time in the history of the world our countries still respond to guns with guns, to bombs with bombs, to killing with killing.  But that father, pointing his son’s attention toward the flowers and candles, was giving him more protection than any gun or bomb ever could, by showing him that there are more people who care than who kill.  More people who help than harm.  He is giving his son faith in the deep, natural tendency of humans to help each other, and softening his fear.  It is fear the terrorists want, fear that becomes a deadly viral infection if we can’t look away from the killing and focus on the caring.

When parents ask me how to protect their super sensitive children in a chaotic world, I tell them to focus their own and their children’s attention on what there is to be grateful for, to notice every sign of life, of love, of caring. The more we look for it, the more we see. We need to know that what we pay attention to expands in our world. Yesterday in an article written long before these most recent attacks, I encountered a quotation attributed to Plato:  “Even the God of War is no match for love.”

Notice the flowers and the candles.

Stepping into a New World

14 Oct

Those (possibly very few reading here) who know tarot will recognize the “Zero” card in traditional decks as The Fool.  The image for this card usually includes someone about to step off the cliff of the known world into empty air—carrying or wearing a pack.  He is shown as care free and smiling.  We consider it inherently foolish to step off solid high ground, oblivious to the fall that clearly seems so certain.  But there may be something other than foolishness involved.  There is an aphorism that says, “when you must move forward beyond the edge of the cliff one of two things will happen—firm support will appear under your feet, or you will sprout wings and fly. 

Stepping off the very edge of the known world takes radical trust.  Not just trust, but the ability to trust in trust itself.  When the solid ground you’ve been standing on begins to shake and crumble beneath your feet, it may be wise rather than foolish to grab a few tools and step off.

I think about this new world thing today because I just returned from the OAGC fall conference in Ohio where I gave a keynote on Monday about the definition of giftedness as asynchronous development that was contributed to the field by the Columbus Group (yes, in Columbus on Columbus Day!)  At that conference there were inevitably many people acutely aware of tremors in the ground beneath their feet. 

In my small sessions for teachers questions were raised about how those dedicated to “doing no harm” to their gifted asynchronous students (or any others in their classes, for that matter) can be effective in a system that allows little breathing room and punishes teachers if their students do poorly on the tests that have come to rule the academic calendar.  We spoke of good, even great, teachers leaving the field because of massive frustration.  “It should not be this way,” we agreed.  I reminded them that some states are beginning to change draconian testing policies and suggested that when things get bad enough, even massive systems have to change, a bit at a time.  Finally, I found myself telling them to do whatever they can manage, and keep up their own spirits and their willingness to stick with it by finding at least one thing to be grateful for in every school day.  Then I apologized for having only the tool to give them that Bernie Siegel offers to cancer patients facing uncertain outcomes.  Has teaching come to this?  But I don’t apologize for the tool, because it is a very powerful one.

New forms arise out of chaos, but it takes courage to hold on through the chaos.  What we pay attention to expands in our experience, so it is important to focus on what works, no matter what else is going on around that. 

For myself, what I noticed to be grateful for in the very large gathering at OAGC (as well as back in March at the NJ state conference) was the strongest sense of a shift in consciousness I have ever felt in such gatherings in this country.  There is a growing awareness that our old way of thinking about “mind” as referring solely to rational thought within a rational/material world, is insufficient.  No matter how good it is, the rational mind cannot predict what the world our children will face as adults will look like, what they will need to know, or what skills they will need to have to find a place in that world.  As the pace of change continues to accelerate, educational patterns based on ideas about the human mind from decades, even centuries ago, will fail.

I put up a slide asking the conference attendees to consider their own definition or “sense” of what mind is, using at first these three images:

braincogswispy

The first represents, of course, the traditional scientific belief that mind originates and resides in the physical brain, the second symbolizes the mechanistic cogwheels of intellectual/rational/logical  thought, and the third a kind of nebulous, wispy not quite physical “something,” hard to pin down or “understand.”

Then I added a fourth image from painter Alex Gray:

        energy body

This one acknowledges an energy basis of both mind and body.

The feel of a very big room full of educators, when offered these images, is more open these days.  There seems to be a growing willingness to consider new ideas about what mind, what consciousness, may be. 

This is deeply heartening to me, because the ground we’ve been standing on all these centuries (while we have been developing, using and relying on our quite splendid rational minds to understand and analyze and tame the material world) is demonstrably crumbling beneath our feet.  Materialism, with its emphasis on separation, on particles rather than waves, leaves out something absolutely essential—what might be called the “heart” of humanity.

Here is a slide I have used in several talks to try to help broaden the concept of what mind consists of:

 Aspects of Mind/Consciousness

Awareness                           Perception                     Emotion/Feeling

Intellect                                Imagination                    Memory

Will                                       Intuition                          Compassion                

Only a few of these aspects are addressed in most school curricula.  We need to consider the world our children might help create if we began to recognize and value more of what can be called the non-rational aspects of our consciousness.  The rational mind, focusing on analyzing, separating, labeling, categorizing and creating hierarchies, has brought us to where we are today, disconnected from each other and from the nature that supports us.  We see the effects of this disconnection all around us and in every evening news broadcast.

The Columbus Group focuses not solely on intellect and achievement, but on the “whole child” in the education and raising of gifted kids.  It is essential that we also begin to recognize “whole mind,” the “whole being” as we look to the human future.  According to Jack Kornfield Sanskrit has only a single word for “mind” and “heart.”  Imagine the difference it would make if we could heal the separation we now see between these two aspects of ourselves!  It shouldn’t be such a huge stretch now that the field of neurocardiology is showing that the heart both receives and processes information. 

The members of the Columbus Group who went to New Zealand in April for our Symposium on Asynchronous Development all felt something personally transforming happened there.  That symposium began with an indigenous ceremony specifically recognizing the connectedness of all peoples, all beings, all aspects of our universe.  Such a different way of beginning an educational gathering surely had a part to play in this noticeable sense of transformation. 

For me this week it was a lovely synchronicity that October 12th is not only Columbus Day, but is called Indigenous Peoples Day in some places.  The old world (that had long been inhabited when Columbus set sail to “discover” it) possessed valuable—non-rational—tools of consciousness most of Europe had forgotten, tools that are likely to be useful or even necessary for taking our own next step as the ground continues to shake beneath us all. 

No Less Than the Trees and the Stars

7 May

In the more than thirty years I have written and spoken about the needs of gifted children and adults, I have shared a lot of my personal life. But after the last piece I wrote for this blog (December 2012) that life began to disintegrate, as did my ability to turn it into anything that would seem helpful to other people. Between April and July of 2013 I lost my husband of 49 years and the oldest two of our four sons.

Shell-shocked, I withdrew from the world except for a few obligations: Yunasa, the Institute for Educational Advancement’s camp for highly gifted kids and speaking as a member of the Columbus Group about Asynchronous Development at the World Council’s Conference in Louisville.

At that conference the argument between those (like the Columbus Group) who focus on giftedness as a developmental process innate to out-of-the-ordinary individuals (the child-centered view) and those who perceive giftedness as achievement leading to success, fame, fortune or eminence (achievement that is at least theoretically possible to anyone willing and able to work hard enough to beat out the competition and collect the rewards) suddenly seemed both especially virulent and especially ludicrous.

As I drove the eight hours home from Louisville, the positions within that argument and my whole history of writing and speaking about the gifted began a kind of slow dance in my mind and heart with the three lives in my family that had just ended. Something fundamental in my way of looking at the culture within which we live, was changing—had changed. It has been many months since then, but it feels as if I may have grasped enough of the change now to share it—I’m still a writer, after all, and this is what I do.

Always before, as I thought and wrote about the needs of gifted children and adults, I envisioned, as maybe most of us do, life stretching out from birth to something akin to infinity. Never mind that all of us claim to know the certainty of death. We tend to be woefully unprepared for its visitation. It shocks us with the cessation of a process we cannot somehow grasp as “finished.” We are left picking up shattered fragments of some picture that there just wasn’t time to complete, trying to decide what its meaning can have been now that it is over—there are no more choices to be made, nothing to add, no new turning or opportunity to watch for. What meaning was there, and how much of that meaning had to do with racking up awards or recognition, financial success or lack of it, children to carry on a name or a family vision? Consider these three lives:

Life Number One

When we were married in 1964 my husband was a professor of theatre with three sons, ages 2, 3 and 4. He was in the process of completing his doctorate and we expected to build a nice, secure future in academia. Six years later, when the structure of the academic world began to constrain his creativity, he left college teaching for the uncertainties and risk of work in the professional theatre. It was amidst those uncertainties that our son, the fourth Tolan male, was born. Over time, through plenty of ups and downs, my husband became well known in the regional theatre world as a director, manager, producer and idea person, and he went on teaching from time to time. Actors tended to love working with him. Though he eventually retired from both directing and teaching, the young actors he had worked with in his early years still regularly appear—as senior citizens now, of course—in television, film and theatre. At his memorial service many people (both actors and former students) told of how his faith in them, his ability to spot, encourage and trust innate talent, and his passion for sharing his love of theatre had helped to shape their careers.

Life Number Two

The first born son was a clear example from early childhood of the gifted, hard-working, disciplined and organized achiever. With a clear view of what he wanted in life, he moved steadily and successfully through his many years of education, took on the financial burden of a superior medical school, studied abroad, and became an eminent pediatric infectious disease specialist, researcher and educator, widely known and steadily published in the major journals. He was brilliant, but also caring enough to give his cell phone number to the families of his patients and to his colleagues alike. His much sought-after advice was available 24/7. When he suffered a sudden cardiac arrest in July at the age of 52, he was working at three hospitals and well on his way to being nationally recognized as one of the clear leaders in his field. The often repeated message delivered at his memorial was that it would take many individual doctors now to fill the gap his death had left in his field.

Life Number Three

The second son (age 51 when he succumbed to esophageal cancer in April) was a caring “people person,” who seemed, from earliest childhood, “allergic” to competition. Always available to lend a hand to someone in need, or to rescue an animal and provide it a home, he majored in Religious Studies and Political Science at Indiana University. While working in food service during high school, he had discovered a love for cooking, and after college (following his father’s example of daring to follow a dream that did not guarantee either financial or job security) opened a restaurant—a time he often said was the happiest in his life, cooking good food for hungry and appreciative people. After an economic downturn that resulted in his restaurant’s closing, though he found a variety of ways to be of service, he never managed to get a handle on worldly success, let alone fame or fortune. A cousin, however, once called him the kindest person she had ever met. In the varied work he did over his lifetime he was loved and admired by the people whose lives he touched.

What would the argument about innate gifts vs. worldly accomplishment have to say about these three lives? All three showed the sort of asynchronous development typical of the gifted in the Columbus Group frame of reference. But which of them would the world have recognized as gifted? And which of them would claim the term for themselves?

I ask now, what, finally, does it matter? Life matters. Individuals, in all their complexity, matter.

As for whether a person, looking back on his life, would consider himself a “success,” no one else could possibly know. For everyone life is a series of peaks and valleys. What looks like a valley of failure from the outside might be felt as one of life’s greatest successes once survived and moved through. And some of the peaks of success as viewed from the outside might have felt barren and meaningless once achieved. Achieving “success” must finally have to do with the individual’s own goals, wishes, dreams, visions and passions.

I recently sent a message to Scott Barry Kaufman, author of UnGifted (a book with two subtitles: “Intelligence Redefined” and “The Truth about Talent, Practice, Creativity, and the Many Paths to Greatness”) to congratulate him on the book and tell him that I think his definition of intelligence, is the best and most inclusive I’ve ever seen. But that second subtitle takes me back to the cultural worldview that 2013 shattered for me irrevocably. “Paths to Greatness.” Hiding there is that cultural sense that an individual’s worth has to do with finding a path to recognizable achievement: greatness. It is not just that we think of ourselves as “human doings” rather than “human beings,” it is that we want or expect ourselves and those we care about to do something others would recognize as “great.”

We’ve all heard the saying that life is a journey, not a destination. And yet how many of us live each day of our own lives as if that were true, looking for meaning and joy in the steps of the journey, open to our own loves and passions, trusting that whatever someone else may say of us, however someone else judges us, we both know and value who we are in ourselves?

And which way of looking at life are we sharing with the children we live or work with?

When Guiding the Gifted Child was published way back in 1982, it included the poem “Desiderata” by Max Ehrmann. (I don’t remember for sure, but suspect it was Betty Meckstroth’s idea to include it.) A bit of that poem is what I want to share here: “You are a child of the Universe, no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.”

If we are to have something truly worthwhile to offer children, it seems to me it needs to be not just child-centered (yes, we need to see them as who they are, not who we expect them to be or become), but life-centered. We humans have vast individual differences, which is, arguably, how we have survived on this planet as long we have. As I said at the end of my cheetah piece all those years ago, life here operates on the principle of bio-diversity. Every difference has a place. Every life has meaning. Every life.

Will it be a meaning the children themselves will be able to recognize and value? Are we supporting them in that? Do we even know how to support them in that?

I suspect it has to start with the assurance that each of them has a right to be here, has a value to the larger story of humanity on Earth, no matter how like or unlike others they feel they are, whether they feel they fit or not, and no matter how long or short their time here may be. They surely need to see themselves as the hero of their own story. They have an innate right to make their own meaning of it, starting with who they are and what they love. What they do with that should grow from it, not be imposed from outside, or chosen to provide some external proof of their worth.

What can any other success or label, fame or fortune offer? If their story should end tomorrow, what will it have meant?