Archive | Social Issues RSS feed for this section

Who Are We?

2 Aug

Tomorrow is the one week anniversary of a sudden and unexpected death that has rocked the gifted community and has brought a deluge of memorial messages that the writers surely hope will assuage their own shock and grief, and comfort both Jim Webb’s family and all those who have benefited over the last 37 years from the work that he (and SENG) did to bring attention to the needs of gifted children and families. In addition, of course, there is the plethora of books that he published in the field, from the first days of Ohio Psychological Publishing (initial publisher—1982—of Guiding the Gifted Child) to the era of Great Potential Press.

As I have read those messages, I have been aware that the Jim Webb those writers describe is not the Jim Webb I met in 1981, nor the Jim Webb I knew during the approximately 20 years thereafter during which he and I and Elizabeth (Betty) Meckstroth discussed and sometimes attempted to write a second edition of Guiding. We never managed it because it turned out that she and I, by then both members of the Columbus Group, no longer were in agreement with what he wanted to say about giftedness. (When I was doing the writing part of Guiding, I found in his notes the statement that a gifted child was a child first and “gifted only secondarily.” so I called him up and explained that Betty and I did not agree with that statement. He acquiesced. The book’s theme became pretty much the opposite—giftedness, certainly extreme giftedness, is inborn.) Because our Guiding contract did not allow Jim to engage someone else to write the revision, the three of us finally gave up on revising it. After that his and my interactions dwindled to social events at various conferences, so I didn’t know him at all well in recent years.

But because I am among those in the gifted community who knew him “almost from the start,” I have been contacted to share for publication my thoughts about him and my feelings about his passing. I decided to write here instead. Of course, I was as shocked as anyone that he should leave the world so suddenly and so “young.” He was only 3 years older than I, so we are of the same “cohort” as it were. Too young, in other words! And I’m as aware as anyone of the enormous impact his work—his speaking and publishing, and the work of SENG—have had on the world’s understanding that the complex population of gifted kids, adults, elders and educators is of vital importance to humanity. I did post a couple of comments on the FB pages of others.

But the requests for comments, and the reading of what others have been posting in social media, got me to asking “who are we?”– we individual humans. The profile photo on my own personal Facebook page is not one anyone except my family would recognize as me—I was a blond, pigtailed child of eight at the time it was taken. Who I was then was an “annoying” kid (according to some of my teachers—and maybe my parents, and probably my older siblings). There was no such thing as a gifted, much less a highly gifted kid in my world at the time.

Back in the 70’s when Jane Piirto did her study of successful women writers, of which I was one by her study’s standards, as I was in the Directory of American Poets, and worked in the Poets in the Schools program, I actually claimed (because I believed) that I had “loved school.” I got good grades, after all. (psst: it’s called repression.)

It wasn’t until the conference in Nebraska to honor Leta Hollingworth (in 1989, seven years after the publication of Guiding!), when I heard Leta’s poem “The Lone Pine” in a documentary, that I confronted the very new truth that I had been a highly gifted child who loathed and despised school except for a very occasional teacher. (I think there were 5 or 6 between Kindergarten and college.) I could add that my teachers did not like me either, to put it sometimes mildly. I literally cried the whole second leg (Chicago to Albany) of my flight home from Nebraska and then wrote obsessively for six hours afterwards, uncovering a veritable dump truck load of painful memories. So it’s a tricky question.  Who was I before and after that conference?

I wrote a great deal about parenting gifted kids before I ever knew I had been one—though my husband’s extreme giftedness had been unmasked when our son was identified. My mother-in-law explained the shocking truth that the one year of elementary school he remembered—when he got to ride a trolley to a special school (a school he thought was for “difficult” kids) was actually a pilot program for the highly gifted. I remember all too well his horror that he hadn’t accomplished more as an adult—he was “only” a theatre director with a Ph.D. after all. Who was he before and after?

I interacted with Jim regularly for years. When SENG conferences began I spoke at them. But when a friend of mine who headed a national organization that had financially supported one of them took me to dinner at the conference and asked me about stories he had heard from other speakers about Jim lowering contracted speaker fees at the last minute with a threat to take them off the schedule if they didn’t sign the new contract, I told him that it hadn’t bothered me because I had just corrected the amount on the contract to the amount I’d been promised, initialed it, and signed. He asked me further questions, and I answered truthfully with whatever facts I knew. The organization never again supported SENG and I was never again asked to speak at Jim’s conferences.

I was born in 1942 and grew up in a world where most women stayed at home and few professions were open even to bright and accomplished women. And I spent some time (5 years) in higher education, where my male office mate, with precisely the same credentials as mine, made one fifth more than I in salary. I wasn’t happy about it, but it was “the way things were.” There was a huge power imbalance in our world, we knew it, and we pretty much put up with it. When Jim promoted Guiding as his book, Betty and I used to call each other “Et” and “Al,” which was the most common representation (when we got any) of our participation. Once I even saw myself listed as the author only of the “Open Letter” chapter, https://welcometothedeepend.com/an-open-letter-updated/ which I had copyrighted in my name so that I could use it elsewhere, as above and in Out of Sync https://www.rfwp.com/book/out-of-sync-essays-on-giftedness. But I long ago forgave him. The book gave me my work with the gifted, for which I am enduringly grateful.

In this era of “#Me, too” I’ve sometimes been bothered when men who have had long and successful careers, sometimes doing important work for the common good, can essentially lose everything when it is revealed that they previously used their power in ways that are now recognized as inappropriate, sometimes decades ago, at a time when the whole culture turned a blind eye to their behavior. Except for actual crimes (and even some crimes have statutes of limitation) I wonder, in spite of those who want to insist on truth, whether it is just or fair to judge a person for “who they were then,” when it is at least possible and maybe probable that they are not that person any more. I know, the culture needs to truly change, but still…

In the many comments I have read about Jim’s kindness, his caring, his deep friendships and unstinting emotional support, I recognize that these people, many of them friends and colleagues, knew a more recent and very different person than I ever did. I honor their experiences because it is very, very easy for me to remember myself treating other people when I was younger in a way that would pretty much horrify me now. I would not wish to be thought of as that person today! In a world where caring and kindness, inclusion, deep listening, and efforts to understand those who disagree with us or have less power than we do are getting vanishingly rare, and desperately needed, I remind myself that we never, genuinely never, fully know someone, perhaps even ourselves, the only one whose mind we inhabit. So today I mourn the Jim Webb those people are mourning.

And having survived some terrible losses myself, I send deep and heartfelt condolences to Janet and his family!

 

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.”

 

The Value of Challenge

15 Jul

 

Almost all parents of highly to profoundly gifted children know quite well that one of the major difficulties in their children’s education is a lack of appropriate intellectual challenge. When Leta Hollingworth suggested in the first half of the last century that highly gifted children waste most of their time in school and profoundly gifted children waste almost all of it, she was making it clear that the primary challenge for these kids in most school situations was boredom. There was little or nothing for their active, questing minds to engage with, little challenge from which to grow and develop their knowledge base, or discover new ideas and to evaluate them, or to learn how to come up with and best express their own important thoughts and judgments. No challenge.

In a blog post entitled “The Right to Struggle,” The Gifted Development Center’s Dr. Linda Silverman poses the situation as a matter of civil rights. “How are egalitarian beliefs served by teaching a student what he or she already knows? Effort is kindled when students wrestle with new concepts—when they have to struggle to learn. Gifted education specialist, Carol Morreale, said that when we give gifted students the same work as all the other students, we deprive them of the right to struggle to learn.” [italics mine]  http://www.gifteddevelopment.com/blogs/bobbie-and-lindas-blog/right-struggle

This lack of challenge or “struggle” is clearly shown in the answer a profoundly gifted teenage girl gave in 2012 when Patty Gatto-Walden and I asked Yunasa campers to respond to a speech made by the then President of NAGC, advocating a move away from the idea that “giftedness” is an innate difference.

“…I started ninth grade when I was twelve—and … there was another girl a couple months older than me who was also starting the ninth grade…the main difference between us is that she was working really, really hard to maintain good grades at the ninth grade level at age 12. She was having a real struggle, she was constantly having to do homework, she had to put a ton of effort in. Whereas, I was sitting in all my classes daydreaming because I still wasn’t being challenged—because the way traditional curriculum is taught doesn’t hold my attention, so I always thought there was an extreme difference between [us]. …seeing this girl’s experience compared to mine when we were the same age in the same grade, …I didn’t really understand much about giftedness, but even at that point I thought, ‘This doesn’t really seem like the same situation!’” (Gatto-Walden & Tolan, 2012 presentation at NAGC)

None of this will surprise parents of highly gifted children or the teachers who understand and work with them to provide either acceleration or intense levels of enrichment (or both) to give them worthwhile learning experiences in school. They need to encounter real challenge.

But today I want to take this idea of the value of challenge in a different, and maybe new-to-most readers, direction.

Bear with me. When I was a child we kids were sent out in good weather to “play outside” and told to be sure to come home by dinner time, or when the streetlights came on. My husband’s and my boys (the next generation kids) were also allowed to go out and play on their own. It was what kids did! They rode bikes or roller skated, played games, invented games, pogo-sticked, walked to parks, libraries, playgrounds. In my case the kids on my block explored the shores of Lake Michigan, across the street from my house. Kids without adults, just being kids.

But something changed in 1979 when our youngest had just turned seven. Six year old Etan Patz, walking the two blocks to his school bus stop in New York City by himself for the first time, disappeared. What followed across this country was the launching of the missing children movement, the practice of putting the faces of missing children on milk cartons, and the idea that all children must be taught about “stranger danger.” Even though we lived in a pleasant residential neighborhood in Cincinnati, Ohio I remember following the official advice to get our son “dog tags” to wear with his name, address and phone number. Of course, he knew that information himself and could perfectly well find his way home on his own, but news broadcasts reminded parents steadily that “something might happen” to children to keep them from being able to do that. That “something” that loomed over all of us was whatever had happened to Etan Patz. Eventually, of course, the world learned that he had been murdered by a mentally ill neighbor.

But something fundamental had changed in our culture. Over time parents came to think that whenever their children were outside their homes “unsupervised” by an adult they were actually in danger of being hurt or killed by a stranger. Though some (or many) parents knew how rare such events really were, they were still plagued by a fear that such an “almost-never-happens” catastrophe might happen to their child. And it would have been their fault…

Now, closing in on four decades later, parental fear has grown and spread from the possibility of kidnapping or murder to a huge variety of unpleasant experiences that children “need” to be protected from. The media (social and otherwise) bring us a steady diet of warnings, and examples of dangers children may face on a daily basis. And given that highly and profoundly gifted children are often unusually sensitive and different enough to be frequently bullied, they may seem to be especially vulnerable.

It is this constantly growing fear that has created the phenomenon known as the “helicopter parent.” The image this term conjures may seem extreme enough that most parents don’t see themselves this way, but it can be hard to avoid some of the over-protectiveness it suggests. That over-protectiveness has spread beyond individual parents to our society itself, so that neighbors and even strangers have been known to contact police to report children going to a park, a library, even sometimes on their way home by themselves, without an adult to watch over them. It is in response to this level of concern that the “free range children” movement was started to bring childhood at least a little closer to what it was when I was growing up. But the phenomenon of helicopter parenting does not appear to be greatly affected by this press for greater freedom. Usually starting when children are quite small, over-protection continues these days into high school and college.

Recently, my grandson (who starts high school this fall) was talking to my son about where he might like to go for college. Son told grandson that out of state tuition for his first choice university was wildly expensive. “That’s okay,” grandson said, “you and Mom can just rent an apartment there and I can take a gap year and live in the apartment so I can become a state resident.” There followed, of course, a brief and realistic financial discussion!

When I learned of this conversation, I pointed out that I’ve been hearing about helicopter parents who rent an apartment for themselves in the town or city where their child goes to school (in some cases may even buy a house!) so they can live close enough to help their son or daughter choose classes, to feed them, do their laundry, meet all their professors, and arrange regular conferences with any who fail to give the child acceptable grades, etc. My son just shook his head. “In this family we are all looking forward to the time this kid goes off on his own!”

So when I was recently talking to a young woman whose job it is to counsel students who are having difficulty adjusting to college (of which there are apparently an ever-increasing number), I asked if this issue of parents taking up residence in the same town was something this particular school had to deal with. “Not just in the same town! There are mothers who move in with their kids—sometimes even in the kid’s dorm room.” It was in that startling conversation that I first heard the new term, snow-plow parent. “These parents don’t just hover over their kids,” she said. “They go in front of them in everything they do to make sure the kid doesn’t encounter any obstacles of any kind. It’s practically an epidemic!”

These conversations got me to thinking about the whole issue of learning and challenge. For a number of years employers have been reporting that young men and women newly out of college (or even prestigious and challenging graduate programs) seem unable or unwilling to take responsibility and make decisions for themselves. When given a task typical of the job they’ve been hired for they need far more support in figuring out how to do it than earlier generations did. “They want and expect—in fact need—someone to lead them by the hand, tell them what to do and how to do it, and then keep an eye on them to be sure it gets done.” I’d like to think this doesn’t apply to highly or profoundly gifted kids, but given some of the top schools these young people graduated from, one wonders.

So I decided to write this blog in order to ask  parents the question “What, if anything, might you change in your parenting methods and strategies if you treated your children’s need for life challenges the same way you treat their need for intellectual challenges–as a valuable, even necessary aspect of their development as human beings?”

Years ago I gave a talk at NAGC called “The Problem of Pain,” which was later published in the CAG Newsletter in California and is included in my 2016 book Out of Sync. [https://www.rfwp.com/book/out-of-sync-essays-on-giftedness] The piece provides what I call a “Nifty Tool Kit” for helping one’s child cope with pain. It is difficult for any of us to watch our children suffer physical, emotional or psychological pain. We tend to want more than anything just to take it away. Fix it. Find a way to keep it from recurring. But no one gets through life without pain. Reaching adulthood without developing any strategies for coping with it is not a benefit.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating pain. I’m not a believer in the adage “no pain no gain.” There are many ways to learn important life lessons from positive experiences. And by life challenges, I don’t mean only those that bring pain. It is a challenge to choose a major, a challenge to fulfill an obligation one may have undertaken without fully understanding the work involved, a challenge to walk away from a relationship that is forcing one to camouflage one’s real self, and a challenge to stand up for oneself when one has been judged unfairly. And it is, of course, a challenge to begin accepting responsibility for one’s actions and choices. Those are all part of learning to be a fully functioning adult. And here’s one that highly to profoundly gifted adolescents often struggle with—a challenge to discover not just what one can do, but what gives one joy in the doing.

Life—for everyone—includes difficult challenges like loss, grief, loneliness, uncertainty, disappointment, mistakes and bad choices. If their parents constantly rush in to “fix” any uncomfortable situation, or remove any and every obstacle children or adolescents might encounter, how do they develop the kinds of coping strategies that will be essential in the rest of their lives? We insist that children need to learn at or near the top of their cognitive capacity so they’ll have the intellectual tools they’ll need to reach their potential. It’s equally important to let them stretch themselves to contend with the difficulties they encounter in their personal lives.

Parenting is difficult and scary, and parenting out of sync kids is no walk in the park. We don’t have “owner’s manuals.” We do the best we can. I’m certainly not suggesting you abandon your child in the face of difficult life experiences! I’m suggesting only that you consider that question I asked earlier:

“What, if anything, might you change in your parenting methods and strategies if you treated your children’s need for life challenges the same way you treat their need for intellectual challenges–as a valuable, even necessary aspect of their development as human beings?”

The Body of Humanity

9 Feb

Those of you who already know my writing know that I am fond of metaphors. So ever since I wrote the last post here, in answer to the questions parents were asking about how to help their children cope with the current political situation, I’ve been trying out metaphors in my mind.

This morning I settled on one. Many years ago I faced, on a personal level, an experience that changed the direction of my life and my spiritual priorities ever after. It came from something quite ordinary—a trip to my doctor for a sinus infection. Since I got those infections all the time, it was just business as usual until my doctor, feeling to see if I also had swollen glands, said “Uh-oh.”

A week or two later that “uh-oh” became a cancer diagnosis. Leaping ahead in time, I assure you that my treatment was successful and I’m fine today. But the pathway from there to here became radically different from the pathway I had been on. The “shock and awe” of the experience led to a confrontation with the meaning of life as a deeply spiritual investigation that would have been unlikely in any other way. It was very far outside my previous intellectual approach to such philosophical questions.

Not long after the diagnosis I encountered Dabrowski and began a correspondence with Michael Piechowski, his principal translator, who introduced me to Peace Pilgrim—a “moral exemplar” whose spiritual development had reached the highest level (Level Five) in Dabrowski’s theory of human developmental potential. I began to read all I could find by her and about her and found this quotation, which I have used often since:  “Your lower self sees you as the center of the universe. Your higher self sees you as a cell in the body of humanity.” The metaphor spoke volumes with a simple image and a few words.

In the U.S., and in the world, the Presidential election of 2016 (as apparently ordinary as a sinus infection) turned into a “shock and awe” experience as intense on the political level as my diagnosis was for me personally. It has essentially changed our nation’s path. November 8th/9th shook our complacency like that “Uh-Oh” and presaged something new, totally unexpected, and—for a numerical majority of Americans—extremely scary. In response there has been a sudden, intense marshalling of forces unlike anything (or at least on a scale unlike anything) we’ve seen before.

There has been a lot of rhetoric about all this that casts the “other” as the enemy, but for me that language is uncomfortable. I am all too aware that the words and images we use carry energy, and just now there is an extraordinary level of hostile energy circulating in our shared space, so without wishing to downplay the seriousness of the current situation, I would rather avoid adding to it if at all possible. We’re all human beings coping with circumstances that are new to all of us.

Considering Peace Pilgrim’s metaphor of the “body of humanity,” each of us represents a single cell in that body. We are not identical, and our differences are essential to its structure and function. I’ve been thinking about how cancer makes its destructive way in the body.

Every cell of our physical being focuses on getting what it needs to function, to thrive, to reproduce—in its own favor, and because of interdependency, at the same time in favor of the health of the whole organism. From time to time our bodies produce cancer cells that flourish briefly, but for the most part are dealt with by our immune system before they cause harm to the body’s structure and integrity. What makes cancer cells different is that they begin to act not as part of the whole, but as the “center of the universe,” for themselves alone. They gobble up nutrition, they reproduce, they take over whatever organ has been their origin and then begin to invade the rest of the body, continuing to expand.

cancer-cells

A dividing lung cancer cell. Credit: National Institutes of Health

Biologically, this strategy over time is a losing one. If the malfunctioning cells continue their expansion and takeover for too long, they kill the body that gave them birth and nourished their ascendancy. We can see that the cancer cell’s strategy is a malfunction in an organizational pattern that normally serves us well—that is, each cell acting for its own immediate survival, taking what it needs to fulfill its function, reproducing at an appropriate level to keep the larger system flexible, adaptable and working. Medical researchers are constantly looking for the reasons cancer cell malfunction occurs, in order to prevent the destruction it leads to, but the immediate need of the body once the cancer is detected is to stop the proliferation and growth, or to remove the offending cells from the system.

We all seem to be pointing fingers just now, blaming the “selfishness” of individuals who put their own needs first, when in fact, as with cancer, it isn’t that initial desire of each cell to get what it needs that has caused the threat to the system as a whole, but the distortion of cells taking more of the body’s resources than they need, expanding out of control, and interfering with the structures and functions of other cells, organs and systems.

For me, I’m thinking that the sudden sharp turn we’ve taken should not be seen as a war started by one “side” or another, drawing battle lines between them, but as a problem in the entire body system that has been there all along, but that we have failed to fully recognize as life-threatening.

Instead of seeing our differences as essential to the functioning of humanity, we have chosen to use the labels “us” and “them” and to compete with each other. Human beings have been doing this for most of recorded history and have managed not to destroy humanity in the process (though we’ve arguably come close from time to time). But there are vastly more of us now and we are interconnected in new ways that could (and often do) lead to greater levels of relationship and cooperation. But the same larger numbers and greater interconnectedness highlights and even concentrates our differences in new ways, too—creating more obvious divisions and greater, more intense competition and hostility.

We can’t deny right now that we are a “sick” society. The sickness is in our faces every day, so much so that it can be difficult to focus on the ordinary requirements of our personal lives, other than defensively—against “others” who would either force us to accept differences that scare us, or take away from us what we so obviously need.

So what do we do about it? The good news is that we are already past the initial “shock” stage of the diagnosis, and our immune system is beginning to function. We have seen its initial stirrings in the protests—the ones that have shown the massive level of resistance needed to combat intense danger to the system, without violence, protests that show an understanding that we are more than individual cells fighting each other. We are all part of a body that requires cooperation and interdependence. There is a greater value at stake than just “us” and “them.” We are a living, breathing system of individuals that make up the singular human species on a planet of interconnected living systems. 

We have seen humanity’s immune system responding, among people who say that we need to listen to each other across our differences, to at least try to find common threads that can benefit more than just one kind of cell, one organ, one structure.

To make this metaphor work as well as I would like it to, I have to go beyond the most common current medical approaches to cancer (radiation and chemotherapy), and into broader ways of restoring health to the body as a whole. Let us imagine using ordinary medical approaches to remove the most immediate danger from the proliferating cells [resistance], but also focusing on a deeper awareness that the body has its own innate intelligence that tends toward wholeness. That intelligence is supported by the incredible diversity of the cells of the body. We need to stop our age-old efforts to make people fit into some box with others “just like them,” and instead celebrate the gifts our differences have given us.

Yes, we have an instinct to cluster and protect—but we also have an instinct to reach out to others, even different others. In times of massive tragedy, people come out to help, and when they do there are always stories that show what appear to be miraculous synchronicities that suggest an unseen order evolving out of chaos. It’s a matter of changing focus.

I suggested in my last blog post that parents find local and immediate ways to involve their children in volunteer efforts to provide help for others–not just others like themselves, but any others whose suffering they may be able to alleviate in some way. We can also stand up and say we will not acquiesce to a system based on the cancer cell’s strategy of putting self ahead of the whole, because that is ultimately a death blow to the whole.

And here’s the hard part—we need to avoid the hatred, hostility, aggression, plus the utter and sole self-interest that is the tactic of the cancer we are addressing. Every individual person who can come to see the self not as the center of the universe, but as a cell in the body of humanity, contributes to the health of that body.

It’s possible to use this cultural shock to re-examine our own paths and so contribute to the shift in direction that can come from it. My cancer led me to a wholly different way of being in the world, and so was a blessing in a (very convincing) disguise. May this time in our history be the same.

Image

When the Going Gets Tough…

20 Nov

golden-ruleI would advise anyone feeling fear or desperation after this election to consider two contrasting works of art. One, this painting by Norman Rockwell that became the cover of an issue of Life Magazine in 1961, takes only a moment to consider. It beautifully illustrates humanity’s diversity with the reminder of the Golden Rule that, in one expression or another, is found in most of the World’s religions. Almost all of us learned the rule as children. But this image of the diversity of humanity frightens a significant portion of our population, even as it seems an obvious and positive truth to others of us.

The other work of art (film art) takes a commitment of a little more than two hours. It is “All the Way,” a movie made in 2016 about Lyndon Baines Johnson during a year in the life of our country, between the assassination of JFK in November 1963 and his own election in November of 1964. The movie (which synchronistically arrived in my mail box from Netflix yesterday) tells the tough story of the early civil rights movement and the political struggle to begin healing the racial divide that was built into this country’s foundation by the original political compromise that allowed slavery to stand. The Golden Rule did not figure in the way LBJ went about his mission to pass JFK’s Civil Rights bill! Johnson considered politics to be warfare, and he treated it (and his opponents and friends) accordingly. That form of warfare is how the Civil Rights Act was made law, and how the Voting Rights Act came into being.

I watched that movie this morning and it gave me the sense that anyone can surprise us, there is always hope, and the values that mean the most to some of us are not (and probably never will be) accepted by others of us. We can’t sit back, do nothing, and assume that they will be upheld inevitably. 

Immediately after the election I, like many of you, was in deep grief and mourning for the image in the Rockwell painting, the image of America that I believed was actually, step by step, becoming reality. That first day (11/9 in our way of representing dates, 9/11 in much of the rest of the world’s way) I was asked to write something to help parents of gifted children cope with the fear (and hatred) this election seemed to have unleashed. And I had to say I couldn’t do it. Not yet. Not while I was still trying to cope myself.

I’ve had eleven days now, roller coaster days that included a beautiful, love-and-light-filled candle-light vigil in Brooklyn and a “protest march” in Manhattan where I carried a sign that said “Feed the Good Wolf” (if you don’t recognize it, you can check out what my sign meant here: http://www.sapphyr.net/natam/two-wolves.htm ). There were also some sleepless nights where fear and negative imaginings took over. But watching the movie reminded me of who I am and what I know. And brought me, finally, to my keyboard.

I remember that year of 1963-64 very, very well, but had not realized how important those memories are. Of  that year and all the others I’ve lived.

Because I know the power of the stories we tell, and their effects on the lives we experience, I don’t buy into the cultural story that I am “elderly.” But I am an elder—a grandmother, both biologically and in the way indigenous people view “the Grandmothers.” I have lived through a lot. 

I was born into a world where Anne Frank was in a concentration camp, not long after America entered what became its last “good war”–a war that ended with the use of the atomic bomb on two cities. That choice changed our concept of war ever after. I was a child in an America where women had few “career” options and were expected to have an entire life of raising children and being a “helpmeet” to a man. I saw the newspaper images of black men hanging from trees at a time when lynching, the night time riding out of the KKK, firebombing, and burning crosses were “just how it was” in the American South. And I remember the marches and the fire hoses and the dogs. I remember the Life Magazine that came into my mail box with a cover photograph of the massacre at My Lai (an image I can never erase from my mind), and the night one of our sons thought a war movie on television was “the news” because his whole life had been lived during the war in Viet Nam.

And here is what I know. That our country now truly is less dreadful than it was. I was a privileged Midwestern white girl who never knew a single black child in all my growing up years, who knew diversity only as white Catholic or Protestant or Jew. And yet I deeply believe in the current existence of an America that shows the full range of diversity we see in the Rockwell painting, with the addition (which Rockwell did not include), of the LGBT community. I remember all too well my years in a university theatre department where most of the gay guys were married, in an effort to stay safe and hidden, and Lesbian women were “lucky” to be allowed to live together, viewed by society as “spinsters” who just hadn’t been able to find a husband.

We and our children must not lose heart! More people did NOT vote for this president (and what he vocally proclaimed he stood for) than did. And more people do NOT support his most heinous language, behavior and apparent intentions than celebrate them. Yes, it is true that we seem to be entering dangerous times, when darkness appears to be falling around us, threatening to blot out the light. But darkness has always been part of our lives. And light is a force. The only way darkness can conquer light is for light to quench itself. In human terms, quenching our light means giving up, hiding out, failing to stand up for the human values we believe in, letting fear rule us, and choosing hatred. 

In the midst of the sabre-rattling of the Cold War, Phil Donahue brought an audience of teenagers to his talk show, and one of the questions he asked them was how many of them expected a nuclear war during their lifetime. Almost all of them raised their hands. Some researchers found at that time that the children least anxious about the possibility of nuclear war were those in whose lives parents or other adults of importance to them were taking some kind of action against war. It didn’t have to be a very big thing—writing or calling their congressional representatives, marching in anti-war protests, communicating with colleagues in Iron Curtain countries. Children needed to see adults they depended upon doing something to protect them from their worst fears.

That was when I wrote Pride of the Peacock, about a child terrified of nuclear war, and Katherine Paterson and I created a poster with the signatures of many of the writers, illustrators, editors, agents, and others involved in creating literature for children in this country, vowing to always speak out against the first strike use of nuclear weapons that was our nation’s official policy. We took that poster with us to a bilateral symposium on children’s literature and art in the Soviet Union and let the makers of children’s literature there sign it as well. And we gave that poster away to schools and libraries to post where children could see that we did not agree with our country’s policy.

So when you wonder what you can do now, do something. Show your children that this representative democracy is a government of the people, by the people and for the people, and if the politicians in Washington (and their constituents who voted them into office) do not understand that and think they can take us back into the darkness of our history, we will not stand idly and quietly by. We do not have to join the hate speech, must not treat those who supported the president-elect the way some of them treat those they dislike and fear. It helps to remember that hatred almost always arises out of fear. If we can conquer our own fear and stand for the light, showing that example to our children, we can help them (and ourselves) through this dark time. Yes, it is a dark time. We need to hold onto what light we can.

Some of us (myself included) have to avoid the news just now because our sensitivities make us vulnerable to despair. We cannot afford despair. Kindle the light inside and keep it burning any way you can, standing as an example to the younger generation. Don’t freak about fascism and Nazi Germany or slavery and the KKK, or the worst of our country’s history–stand with the statement “never again!” Trust that we can—and will–move in a better direction even if it takes time and seems to be going the wrong way. Have courage, take heart, speak out. Donate what you can to those who need resources to carry on, and help your children find a cause to volunteer for or raise money for that will help themselves or someone else who is in danger of becoming a victim of the darkness.

We’ve made it through dark times before. That knowledge is what being a Grandmother gives me.  We can do it again. We will do it again. Each step, no matter how small, takes us forward, and however gradually, upward. And think of that FB meme I’ve seen a lot lately: “They tried to bury us; they didn’t know we were seeds.” Remember this: seeds are designed to germinate in darkness!

Uniqueness

19 May

Sometimes (maybe in some ways always) this blog gets personal even though I write it as an advocate. But today it becomes very personal. So skip it if that bothers you.

Today I write as a highly gifted, highly creative, highly sensitive kid currently living inside the body of a grandmother. Please understand that I am writing to the highly gifted kids in you adults who are reading here, as well as the highly gifted kids in your lives for whom you are advocates. Two days ago I went to see the new movie “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” based on the life of Srinivasa Ramanujan Iyengar, a profoundly mathematically gifted young Hindu man who gave the world mathematical formulas that are still, 100 years after his death at age 32, helping scientists to understand the universe we live in.

I happened to be alone in the theater when I saw it (though it was sold out when I tried to go on Sunday) and I had to sit in my seat all the way through the very long credits before getting up to leave because I didn’t want to be seen crying in the lobby. Since then I’ve read various reviews of the mpatel-ironsovie by film critics and mathematicians and they grump about various aspects of the movie, from Dev Patel being thin and gorgeous (well, truth be told, that’s my word—the words the reviewer used meant close to the same thing) when the real young man was chubby, to inaccuracies in the back story, to the fact that Jeremy Irons, who plays Ramanujan’s mentor, is “too old” for the part. This last is explained by the fact that it took 10 years to get funding for the film because it was clear that it wasn’t going to be mainstream and popular. Well, duh! It is about a young man who was one of the world’s most exceptional minds.

There are various reasons I cried at the end—the most obvious of which is that Ramanujan, though finally having had his mind and his work accepted, dies in the end. But more than that is the same reason I cried in “The Imitation Game” (about Turing) when the brilliant young woman tells Turing how much having found an intellectual equal means to her. Both movies show vividly how the world treats the profoundly gifted whose ideas, thoughts, and behaviors are very much outside of “the norms.”

The highly creative and highly sensitive parts of me are easily triggered. I live stories I encounter that touch on human emotional realities, and I feel them deeply. I always have. I cried on and off for two whole weeks after reading The Yearling when I was nine. I have not (and will not, it seems) outgrow that. It can be a challenge sometimes to live that way.

Also, recently, I posted on FB that I’ve been re-watching the first season of HBO’s dramatic series, “The Newsroom,” by Aaron Sorkin while riding my stationary bike. I suggested that everyone disturbed by the current political climate in this country might want to see those early episodes, where Sorkin pretty much predicted the state we’re in today and showed us how we were on our way to getting here. Today, again, watching the fifth episode, I found myself in tears. Emotional overexcitability causes that, plus the frustration of feeling myself (like the main characters in the show) far outside of popular culture and all too aware of and pained by the current chaos.

It is mostly for these reasons that I have become so great an advocate for finding a way to meet the spiritual needs of our gifted kids, for understanding that their hearts are in as great need of understanding and support as their heads. This is perhaps the greatest asynchrony of all, the need our cheetahs and mermaids/mermen have for heart-felt meaning in their lives. For some this is a need answered by religion. For many others it is a need almost totally unrecognized. As Viktor Frankl said, in Man’s Search for Meaning, if one has a “why” to live, one can bear with almost any “how.”

Neither “spirituality” nor “meaning” are mentioned in “The Newsroom,” but they are actually the driving force (presented as morality and ethics) behind the series itself. There is an emphasis on caring, on humanity, on connection, on—as the Dalai Lama would say—kindness. However short we humans fall in meeting our best intentions in these areas, the effort is essential.

As for “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” here is what Preston Wilder, reviewing it for the Cyprus Mail, said that captures what moved me the most about this movie:  “The film works best as a moral/mystical debate – process vs. intuition, Man vs. God. GH Hardy (Jeremy Irons) is the Cambridge professor who becomes Ramanujan’s mentor – and Hardy is a proud atheist (though it may be more accurate to say, as his protégé puts it, that ‘you do believe in God, you just don’t think He likes you’), trusting only in science. ‘It’s the only truth I know; it’s my church,’ he declares – but the film contrasts his insistence on supplying proofs for everything with Ramanujan’s trust in fully-formed truths emerging intuitively, and it also opens with Bertrand Russell’s dictum that ‘Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth but supreme beauty’. Maths is an artform (our hero says his equations are ‘like a painting’), possessed of beauty and quasi-mystical origins. ‘How do you know?’ asks a bewildered prof when Ramanujan solves a problem out of thin air. ‘I don’t know,’ comes the reply; ‘I just do’. Richard Dawkins [the “militant atheist”] can’t be very happy with this movie.”

For Ramanujan, a Hindu, his religion is the vessel for meaning, and for Hardy meaning comes through mathematics itself. But even Hardy’s atheism and insistence on proofs must finally allow for both mystery and meaning in the workings of Ramanujan’s extraordinary mind.

There are plenty of reviews out there about this movie with plenty of quibbles. But I wish all those people who suggest that the very idea of giftedness is elitist, that “all children are gifted” or that extraordinary contributions to human knowledge could be made by nearly anyone who “practices” 10,000 hours or more and has plenty of grit, would see it. Ramanujan had an inborn, unique–and let us remember that the meaning of unique is not just “different” but “one of a kind”–mind with a unique passion. There is deep, if deeply mysterious meaning in humanity’s infinite variety-within-oneness, in our individual differences.