Welcome to our world!

Welcome to my new blog - part of the world of sharing myself, exposing myself, putting myself "out there." I've been a singer and songwriter for 20 years and have never been able to come this far - to open myself to public display where I am the one generating the opening. Sitting and languishing, trying avenue after avenue to create a prosperous and healthy life, all the while ignoring what I believe I am on this planet to do - create! Create music, create connection, create understanding and healing and awareness and raise consciousness and open hearts and share dreams and... and... and.... So welcome to the beginning. Thanks for being here. Open your eyes, your ears and your heart and dive into these thoughts here. Go to my website and hear songs, see beauties, get inspired, feel something. I hope it has a positive impact. Let me know.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Duh... Which way do we go? Which way do we go?

Duh... Which way do we go? Which way do we go?

I just went for a walk this morning, that was all. Walked with my son and my fiance to the haircutting salon and looked through a large book with gorgeous pictures of South American rain forests. Took my son to Noah's for an egg-mit. Nothing spectacular. But mid-way through my bagel I was bombarded with the surreality of living in America right now.

Let me set the scene.

On the table, a discarded, leafed-through copy of the San Francisco Chronicle talked of a cafe, hysterically called the "Actual Cafe," that has a weekend prohibition on laptops in the hopes of making it's customers Actual-ly talk to each other. On the back page of today's chronicle: another story about the devastation in Haiti, the continuing struggle to slog through the remains of a hotel where just two weeks before a young woman had called her mother saying she'd "found her calling." Now she's counted among the more than 200,000 dead, and some might even consider her lucky compared to the millions more who are trying to haggle over too-small rations when and if they make it through to where survivors are. I suddenly was trying to hide my tears from my son as he started telling me why Tacky the Penguin was singing the wrong words to the song...

On the windows of the bagel shop, giant posters advertising drippy sugar-covered chocolate bagels dominated my view to the outside world, and people inside perused cases full of wheat-infested, sugar-infested non-nutritional madness to see which choice would fill their big bellies (oh no, I don't pretend to be apart from this non-spectacle spectacle, even though I did put the servers through the seemingly awfully burdensome task of loading our egg-mits into our to-go ware metal canisters to avoid using extra packaging). I guess since we've found out that bagels aren't so "good-for-you," companies are just going to outright go for the sugar addiction. Placate the masses, put their under-nourished bodies to sleep with corn syrup. Now, with a look at these posters, and the people at the table in front of me with their 2 Starbucks paper cups, 2 cardboard heat sleeves, 2 waxed paper bagel covers getting up to get more napkins, I hold back more tears for that rain forest I was looking at earlier, which is on the verge of destruction.

But I feel blessed in some ways, as I look around the shop. No one tried to bomb my neighborhood this morning because we mix the races so much, or because perhaps we practice different religions. As I sit at my table, I can see a Latino couple, a mother and son who look North African, some African-Americans, a Filipino couple, and some white guys all walking through the same store, at the same time. We've achieved something here, I think. But then I remember what people are still going through, how people get looked at sideways and still wonder - are they looking at me because I'm... Fill in the blank here with whichever disadvantaged population comes to mind first. Don't get me started about how our African-American president is getting torn down, bit by bit, in the media and then in the public opinion polls, as he tries (can you believe it) to create consensus. And again I'm tearing.

Holy crap! How am I going to make it through this day without falling under the weight of so much oppression, SO MUCH suffering? Each person with their own story, their own connection to our co-acted play of the world falling apart. Has it always been this way throughout time and history? Have we always been up against so many seemingly evil forces pushing us to extinction?

And how do we all sleep at night with the daily tales of corporate greed, terrorist death and destruction, war, environmental disaster, not to mention the petty things our one friend did to another?

I'm serious. Michael Moore has been making these movies about arms, health care, capitalism, and in each movie he basically says that all the information he's giving - all these outrageous examples of how the path we're on as a society is openly, flagrantly preaching profit over people again and again - is right there in the newspapers that we are all reading. We heard that the Supreme Court just approved the giant corporate funneling of money into political campaigns; we heard that Republicans in the Senate are blanket-voting "no" on every measure the president is trying to put through; we've read that politicians won't vote their consciences because the big corporations will fund them out of office in a second; we know that the health care system doesn't work - many of our friends and colleagues are getting screwed over daily - unable to get dental work, or get the biopsy they need; we've seen the movie about climate change - we even feel the crazy weather changes; we know the research is showing that if we do not take action now, our planet will be harmed irreversibly; we know there's a continent-sized plastic bag swirl in the middle of the Pacific; and we hear daily stories of bombings, beatings, struggle and injustice.

Is it just that we feel so over-whelmed and small? Is that what's making people stay asleep? Is it that we'd rather be eating our sugar-covered bagel-bites than cooking some brown rice at home or tending some greens in our gardens? Is it really that we'd rather be entertained than engaged?

Whatever it is, how do we combat it when it's coming at us on all fronts? How do we take a stand against forces so ubiquitous?

I don't have the answers. I've been reading a few books and perusing a few web-sites that have good ideas - "No Impact Man," by Colin Beavan, www.fouryearsgo.org. I've been using my to-go cup and hankies instead of paper napkins. I've been cooking more at home, trying not to buy packaged food and using my cloth grocery bags. I've been practicing kindness, going out of my way to get to know people from other cultures. I've been meditating and crying out my stress about this dire set of situations. I'm teaching classes to over-worked parents to help them raise healthier children. And even with all this, I need to do more. Perhaps with this little rant, I can convince some of you to consider consuming less, consider the places where you might watch tv instead of connecting with friends and make a change. What could you do TODAY? One change? Today is national take-your-own-cup day. Could you NOT buy a coffee if you didn't bring your own cup? If we all did, we could stop the destruction, and pretty quickly I think. If we all cried out for people to stop bombing - I mean all of us - what if we all (peacefully) rioted in the streets crying out for a stop to world violence - could we get people to stop for a minute? If we knew that it would really change things, would we all have the courage?

Just some things rattling around my brain this morning. Just a thought or two from the morning walk. May the rain cleanse away the sleepiness today. May someone (God? The Universe? The Great Spirit? Buddha? Just Little Old Me?) give me the strength to speak out again tomorrow.


Friday, September 11, 2009

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

In the Cocoon (it's a long one, but worth it)

A caterpillar basically has to die before it can become a butterfly, right? It has to shut itself down, wrap itself in it’s own excretions and withdraw deeply within. When it emerges, its whole being is new, never before seen or felt or experienced. I feel a bit like I’m in one of these life transitions, and I’ve no idea what being is going to break forth. A part of me is hopeful, but having never before seen or felt or experienced this new being I am hoping to become, there is another part of me (currently a stronger part I think) that is incredulous. Some might say cynical, but I really think fearful and lost are more accurate words to describe this brand of hopelessness I’m finding myself engulfed in these days.

Here’s the progression. My personal work of seeking truth and meaning in my life has always included much reflection, and in a meditation workshop I did in February I spent 6 days doing just that - reflecting, feeling, and opening parts of myself that have long been hidden, stifled by the traumas of my childhood. I had many profound insights, seeing how my opinions or concepts of “how things should be” actually keep me stuck in the way things are, rather than allowing me to create something new or move on. I also saw how much I depend on the feedback and direction of others to make things happen in my life. I often won’t do things just for myself – what I do must be in service to those around me.

Don’t get me wrong – being in service to those around you can be quite a noble pre-occupation, if taken up consciously with purpose. But I was not being conscious about it. Rather, I was being “in service” to protect myself from getting in trouble for doing something for myself, and to protect myself from the risks of failure and making “wrong” choices. I think the official word for it is “co-dependent.”

It may seem silly to you, to fear “trouble” like it’s certain doom just for doing something for yourself, but when I was a young girl, making wrong choices was devastating, often resulting in physical violence, humiliation, forced isolation. In that unpredictable, volatile environment, I learned not to make choices for myself. I learned to spend every waking moment watching my step-father, trying to pre-empt the strike by cleaning up, hiding out, doing my homework. At that age, I was trapped in my house, and had no clue that I could do anything to escape. And that trapped feeling has prevailed throughout my life, showing up as self-sabotage, people-pleasing, denial and shame.

It’s lead me here – where I’m 35 and once again at a turning point, once again trying to find my life’s purpose, once again feeling that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that tells me I can never really accomplish what I want to accomplish – I’ll just have to do something so I don’t financially implode. I am a singer and a songwriter, with deeply hidden aspirations of rock-stardom (don’t tell anyone). I am a jewelry designer, hoping to make millions with my one-of-a-kind designs. I am a teacher, facilitator and speaker, wanting to change the world by helping it feel and release its traumas and teaching it to communicate openly with itself and others. I am actually quite talented and damn creative when you look in from the outside.

But from here inside my fuzzy, prickly caterpillar skin, I cannot see my way through to the end of any of these dreams. I sit down to work on something and my mind splinters in a hundred directions, freezes, and then some old protection mechanism firmly directs me to FaceBook, or YouTube, or online video games that take my attention and numb the dread that arises when no one is telling me what I should do. At the end of a day like this, I feel worse than before. I don’t want to tell anyone what I did all day, being ashamed of it, and I feel further isolated and powerless. It’s a spiral downward, a place I’ve been stuck for so many years I can’t even
remember not being here. I hate it.

It’s no longer a place I can tolerate without committing suicide, and in the last ten years, I’ve finally made myself comfortable enough to start dissembling this place head on. So, starting sometime last August, I began tackling this particular tendency, this part of myself that keeps me from realizing my wants and goals. I am determined to understand it, heal it and move forward – with colorful butterfly wings.

The journey to the center of the black hole is heating up, and last week, in a healing session with my friend Scot MacInis, I slowed down enough to realize some very important points. We were talking on the phone, and he was directing me to notice what sensations were occurring in my body. I noticed some deep tension in my shoulders and neck, and in my gluts (that’s my tush, in case you were wondering). As he began talking me deeper into relaxation, I noticed some tension releasing, and for a moment I had a pinging sensation in my heart, like excitement or joy that I was moving. Immediately following that ping, I felt a crushing disappointment and started to cry. Scot kindly listened, instructing me to just let those feelings be there, with no judgment.

As I cried, I thought, “what is this?” and my mind responded, “It’s either grief or fear.”

“Which one?” I demanded.

“Fear. Fear that the second I have a moment of joy, you’re going to take it away from me, or I’m going to be in trouble.”

I told Scot what my mind was saying.

“How old is that fear?” he asked me, meaning, how old was I when I first felt it?

“Seven or Eight.” Actually I was 4 when I first felt traumatic fear, but 7 or 8 when I began to understand that no matter what I did, my joy would be fleeting, and in no time I’d be back, bent over my step-dad’s knee or feeling his hot disgusting windrush of breath yelling in my face, or his brick-like fingers poking me in the breast-plate, or his open iron hand across my cheeks. I think it was at that point that I became conscious that I was truly trapped. No exit. Destined to die here with no help. Better use all my energy to placate. Better not rock the boat with any of my own ideas.

"Okay, just let that feeling be there. Look at it like it's the coolest fear you've ever had" he said.

So I continued to sit there, and then another feeling gripped me. Rage. I saw this part of myself that was so intensely angry that I had suffered all this abuse. This was no surprise. I’ve seen this part before. She rears up all the time, actually. I’ve been intimately acquainted with my rage since moving out of my step-dad’s house at 13. But what was surprising was what she seemed to yell out inside my mind.

“I am so ineffective!” What? I’d never heard that before. Angry? Yes. Outraged! Yes. But ineffective? Hmmm.

“How old is that part?” Scot asked.

“I don’t know. Much more current. Could be 30. I mean, it could be 13 for all I know, but it’s definitely some part of me that arose after I moved out. “

And in that moment I saw something I had never seen before. This raging part of me, which, if you didn’t know, is like the shadow side of power and accomplishment – if you don’t allow them both to exist, you cannot fully have either - was frozen in ineffectiveness. None of my rage makes any difference. The damage is already done. I can’t go back and protect myself now. It’s over. I lost. I’d better just shut up and watch for what people want me to do so that I don’t get in trouble now. Better not show any of my power.

With this insight came the momentary triumph of self-discovery, inevitably followed by the flood of feelings about the amount of time I’ve spent locked up in this pattern of hating myself for being ineffective, but surrendering to the powerlessness anyway for fear of annihilation.
The next day in meditation I sank further into the hole. All the feelings of hopelessness, the desire for suicide or some kind of final relief from all this suffering, the feelings of powerlessness, fatigue, and dread that I’ve experienced so many times over the years consumed me. For three hours I wept, hid my face, and endeavored to let these feelings go. At the end of my meditation, when I usually feel some lightness, some sense that I’ve moved through something, I couldn’t pull myself together. Even after all the participants of the meditation got into a circle and shared their inspiring insights, I could not shake the darkness.

Even through the weekend till today, I am still feeling the fear, feeling the frozen dark nature of it, longing to escape.

Alas, I am in the cocoon.

I cannot just move through thirty years of patterns, emotions and loss in one three-hour meditation. One set of insights is not enough to release me and land me squarely in the middle of redemption. I am sitting here in the darkness, letting this part of myself be exposed, to slowly shed itself and reveal what’s underneath.

I do not like the cocoon.

But being in here is different than anything I’ve experienced before. You see, I know I’m in the cocoon. I know inside that something is transforming, developing, opening. Even though I still feel like a caterpillar, even though some small part of me still doesn’t believe that transformation is possible having never experienced it fully myself, yet I seem to have this consciousness of where I am, and that one day, hopefully soon, I’ll emerge as a new being.

And another thing that’s different – I’m not here alone. I’ve got people guiding me, like my partner Ben, who is also on this journey, my friend Scot, my meditation teachers and all the other healers in my life. I only know to make the cocoon in the first place because I have seen you do it, or felt your gentle hands guiding me there. So I beg of you butterflies, stay near. Let me feel the brush of your wings on my shell and whisper to me that I am emerging. Lend me your strength so I can continue this excruciating process in the darkness. Thank you for going before me.

To contact healers that work powerfully with this kind of spiritual, emotional development, e-mail me from the blogspot, or check out the following peeps:

Edward Scot MacInnis 303-.875.9446

Center for 21st Century Transformation (meditations) 800-454-1224 www.thecentersf.org

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A word or a thousand on love and parenting… Mostly love….

I like to believe that I lead a pretty spiritual, connected life. I meditate, do emotional discharge work, do therapy of many kinds, read spiritual masters, go to lectures and symposiums about uplifting ourselves, humanity and the planet. At the moment, I am also changing careers and moving into the world of teaching parents and other adults how to access their emotional intelligence. I’m catching up on all the latest brain/heart research, and reading many different approaches to parenting while also pursuing my own personal growth.

What’s striking me today, enough to want to sit down and say something about it, is how similar so many approaches are. Perhaps we like to think that we are different, or perhaps it’s just human nature to feel alone and isolated in how we do things, but the truth is, most of the paths to “freedom” and most of the approaches to parenting, to personal growth, even to spiritual enlightenment that I’ve seen all seem to lead in the same direction.

The most salient point on all these paths is that human beings are essentially good. We each have some kind of connection to a higher truth, call it God, The Universe, the Flow, The Truth, Consciousness, Spirit, whatever. We each have a true heart inside, a good heart that longs for connection, truth and love. When we get connection, truth and love, when we are listened to and helped, encouraged and understood, we act respectfully. When we get separated from one another (I hurt you, you annoy me, something causes us to separate), we feel pain. If we express the pain healthily and lovingly, we can move through it and move on. If we suppress the pain we become angry, depressed, self-loathing, or just plain don’t like people. We become judgmental to protect ourselves from having to experience that separation again, and off we go into a world of hurt, dislikes, isolation and lonliness.

In order to avoid this separation, we do our best to train our children to act respectfully. The problem is that we’ve been taught that our “moral compass” is not something innate, rather it is something that is trained in us over time. We must be good trainers, and must accept nothing less than respectful behavior from our children (not to mention our significant others and family members). Good training imposes structure, punishment for bad behavior and rewards for good behavior. Love and acceptance for behaving the way we should and shame or a time out (or god-forbid a breakup) when we are bad.

The problem is that this perception of people - that we require training to be decent - does not account for how our brains physically function, and does not lead us to solving our problems and becoming more connected. Actually, it is what leads us to brow-beating each other with our own opinions, to clinging fiercely or desperately to our position in a conflict, and to the general unease we experience in relation to our fellows.

The most current research out there on Brain Function shows that when we feel safe and cared for, we are more able to think and choose actions that benefit us, and those around us. When we feel bad, threatened, ashamed, or distressed, our pre-frontal cortex shuts down and we begin functioning from our brain stem – that area of our brain designed to protect us – to fight, freeze or flee.

I don’t know about you, but for me, trying to resolve arguments with my loved ones by fighting, fleeing or freezing has never really worked.

I need to feel loved. I need to be listened to. I need to have the people around me understand and believe that I am a basically good person, and that when I behave badly it’s less about maniacal selfishness and more about how hurt, angry or disconnected I feel. If people believed that about me, and chose to look at why I might be behaving some particularly baaaad way, instead of just judging me and reacting with their own negativity, perhaps we could de-escalate the problem. Perhaps we could share, understand each other, come closer, know one another better.

I also need to have the people around me have faith in my basic intelligence. Given conditions of love and acceptance, I will be courageous and will find solutions to my problems. Children are, believe it or not, the same way. Sure, they need training on how to communicate their feelings, but let’s not confuse punishment and shame with training. Punishment and shame shut down a person’s natural ability to problem solve. They may cause a person to suppress their feelings and look like they’re being “good,” but that ultimately leads to lying, depression, anger, mania, and finally that feeling that we are all alone in the world and no one will ever understand us.

If we could give each other that faith, if we could give each other the gift of listening, if we could be detectives and ask ourselves why people behave how they do, then we might be able to show enough compassion to liberate someone else, or ourselves, from the feelings that caused the behavior in the first place. We might be able to create lasting peace and connection. We might be able to create love.

If we could see for ourselves how hurt we really feel about how that thing that just happened separated us from someone, perhaps we could focus on getting connected again rather than condemning someone for the behavior.

Current scientific research shows that we act respectfully because we feel safe and loved, not the other way around. So today, when your child acts out and you desperately want to shut them in their room, or tell them how bad they’re being, or throw them out the window or whatever (don’t be shocked – you know you have that feeling now and then), try looking at why their behavior is off. Try figuring out what they might need in this moment to come back to being the loving caring person they truly are. Try it with your spouse, or with that problem sibling or co-worker. Address the need behind the behavior and see if you can create more love. Cuz don’tcha want more love? I do.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Too Many Faces!

I’m at a loss. Between calling my voice mail to get down the snippit of a song that comes to me on my drive to work, trying to advertise my jewelry on Facebook or YouTube or my own website, trying to get my own website up and managed (btw, should it be a jewelry site? A singing site? A parenting site?), putting up videos of my songs on YouTube, reading parenting books to try to build a foundation for a parent-coaching business, signing certificates for young students in my Elementary Peace Program, washing dishes and laundry and Sam’s hair and tomatoes for dinner, scheduling babysitting for school events, scheduling dinners with friends, making jewelry to have something to sell, and therapy, meditation, chiropractic and body work, I can’t barely sit still, let alone thing straight!

I sit down this morning at 9:30am to connect with someone over e-mail on a project I am managing, and there in my inbox is a message from an old high school friend on Facebook. I check it out (only for a second, I swear!), and see the photo album with my jewelry right there on my profile. I remember that I’ve got new jewelry photos (not professional – don’t get me started!), and should put them up in case people want to see them. I put them up, and think, oh yeah – I should check how many more people saw my videos on YouTube today. So I bounce over there (just one more second…). 91 people in 3 weeks with absolutely NO advertising. Not bad. Oh yeah, I should quickly check Statcounter.com to see if anyone’s seen my blog lately (it’s so fast, only takes a second). Nope, no one’s reading, not in the last three days. Bummer. Oh yeah, I really wanted to write a new piece on the books I’m reading right now - Pema Chodron’s book, “Practicing Peace in Times of War,” and Alfie Kohn’s book, “Unconditional Parenting” - at the same time. If I write a piece, maybe more people will read and then I can set up some kind of, you know, fan base, to get my parenting coaching business off the ground. Oh yeah, I should e-mail my contacts about that today. And read more of the book so I can keep adding to my credibility. And oh yeah, didn’t my hairdresser say she wanted to hire me to facilitate a Mothers and Daughters group talk on the topic of respect? I better write out a proposal and send it out. Oh, and make those two necklaces for Sam’s school auction. And call that therapist I have been phone-tagging for two months now. And contribute something meaningful to this world to help inspire us to save our struggling planet....

I could go on. Get the picture? WHO AM I? I am a creative woman, with lots of ideas, no real business sense and not a lot of cash on hand to support all my creativity. I am a mother, desperately trying to keep my son from getting a cold 5 days before my last big work-week of the school year. I am a partner, trying to hold a house together for my man so he can relax after HIS demanding days. And I work as a facilitator, teaching thousands of children in California how to recognize and express their feelings in a healthy way. I am a gardener, singer, songwriter, jewelry maker, councilor, tech team manager (?), wanna-be writer, political activist, social-change purporter, and give me five minutes, I’ll become something else too.

It’s too much! A big part of me wants to move to the mountains of India and turn my life into a simple subsistence existence. Drop out! No wonder it’s taking every ounce of will power I’ve got to keep me from just playing a mindless video game all day. A daunting mountain stands in front of me here, and I feel a cold coming on. What do I dooooooo?

Some would say I should just simplify. I've taken on too much. I should just settle down, get rid of those idealistic and naive dreams of creative expression and wealthy abundance, get a job as an office manager and be done with it. Which would solve some things. But I would also die slowly of missing my calling(s), suppressing my desires and my soul's energy. So I can't do that. But there must be something... Something I can do to keep going along these paths I've chosen, to make something happen here...

(hang with me here while I consult my many years of personal growth experience...)

Yes! I've got it! Folks, today I am going to take a step towards Peace. I’m going to take 15 minutes to write down everything (and I mean everything) that’s on my mind to do, think about, take action on or delegate. And after that, I’m going to prioritize it! Go Wild!! And after that, I’m going to do some things, one by one, until I am satisfied with what I’ve accomplished! And if I do not perish on the couch before 5pm, I’m going to go to a meeting tonight, report on my team’s performance, leave the meeting early and go to a meditation that also happens to be a birthday celebration.

Maybe I’ll even report back to you on how I’ve done. (Don’t spend too much time waiting for that). Good luck to all you multi-career-ists out there. Good luck to all you talented but cash-poor idealists trying to live your dreams. Good luck to me too.

It's now 10:27am. See, that whole thing, including writing this piece, took less than an hour. There's always more time than you think.... Breathe in. Breathe out. Peace out.

Monday, May 5, 2008

On Poor Babes in Toyland

My son just had his fifth birthday. He was born on the first of May – May Day – and is a meaty, feisty bull in more than just the astrological sense. Tall, blond and full-cheeked, he can be incredibly sweet, creative, verbal and perceptive. And, he can be SO BEASTY!!!

Let me explain what I mean by beasty (as if you parents don’t really know). His mind is like a speeding train. Getting it to stop while racing along mid-thought-stream is almost impossible. (Side-note – is this why it’s called a “train” of thought? So many compartments that spring one from another, careening along rapidly, too cumbersome to stop quickly?) Trying to have a conversation without forcefully shutting him down so we can get a word in edgewise has proven to be one of our greatest parenting challenges.

When he gets this mind of his set on something – some desire or supposed “need” – the wild beast WILL NOT be talked down. We try reasoning with him, but his reasoning skills far outlast my patience, and frankly, often, my intellect. We try negotiating, but feel totally exploited by the time we’re done as he’s usually negotiated 2 or 3 more pages, or minutes, or bites than we really were willing to concede. We’ve tried “tough-loving” him (“we said no, mommy and daddy know best right now. I’m sorry you feel sad about it, but you’ll be okay”), which sometimes works - after we sit through the long torturous tantrums that inevitably follow. We’ve even tried scaring him into obedience by yelling or grabbing him, this only in our worst moments when we can no longer handle his persistence and we’re out of our own minds. The consequences of that last tactic are that he feels terrible, we feel terrible, and our connection has been damaged – he has less trust in us – which usually leads to more acting out in the end.

His beastiness extends to all areas of his life. “Please use your fork!” “Can you say that in your inside voice?” “Walk please!” “Can you puh-leeeeze say excuse me!!!” “WATCH OUT for those people!!” “Do we live in a barn?” “Please stop. Stop! I SAID STOP!!”

Trying to tame him is our full time occupation, and we both have jobs, and the house, and a garden, and friends, and now my husband wants a dog. What are we to DO????

I have read and read, consulted, ruminated, trained and even begun teaching parenting skills and I still feel like I am swimming in water that’s just over my head.

The latest challenge where his beastiness is rearing its beasty head is the Birthday. We’ve always held his birthday as a time for our community to come together to celebrate him, themselves and the part they’ve all had in supporting our family. It’s been a lovely event, at a park every year, great food, lots of connection and fabulous cake. This year was no different, except that this year we invited his whole pre-school class – about 30 kids and their parents. Add that to our whole community and you have about 100 people. And 50 PRESENTS!

By the end of the party, high on sugar and completely over-stimulated, my son began opening his presents. It was a frenzy. Ripping and tearing and gnashing of teeth. I did get him to open the cards first and get someone to read them so I could write down the gifts for the thank you notes (which I’ve never been able to actually get in the mail, but I try each year by diligently writing down who gave what). I even got him to get up and hug a few people after slashing into their gifts. But I realized too late that opening all the presents right then and there - even allowing all the presents in the first place - was actually part of what’s been creating this beast.

When he’s faced with so many presents, my poor son cannot think. He cannot feel anything but the rush to get them all open. Sure, he pauses long enough to say, “wow! A tractor!” before he throws the next box into the pile, but the whole ritual becomes about what’s next, certainly not about celebrating him, or honoring those who care for him enough to bring gifts. It becomes a consumer driven nightmare played out in the worst of all ways – in the heart and mind and fantasy of a little boy.

It breeds disappointment in him and others – did he like it enough? He didn’t even really look at it! Is that all? That’s not the one I asked for!! The over-stimulation crowds his brain and causes him to “numb out” and become less present to his own emotional needs or to the feelings of his friends. He turns from my sweet little boy to the greedy little hoarder who doesn’t let his friends play with his new toys because they’re “too special” – so special that they’re lying discarded in a big pile. Over the years of Christmas and Birthday deluges he’s begun to lose interest in the things he has after about five minutes and always seems to want more, more, more.

Lately I’ve gotten so desperate about this that I’ve begun to tell him the stories of hungry children in China or kids with no toys in Africa, which doesn’t really make him more grateful, by the way. So today I am looking for answers. I’ve spent all morning on the Internet, seeking out information about children and consumerism, too many presents, how to instill values and all that.

What I’ve found is pretty sobering. By “pretty sobering,” I really mean crushing, heart-wrenching, gut twisting. Between the media, profit-driven companies, and, believe it or not, economists, who disregard the social and moral development of our people and our society when they champion the purely numerical belief that consumption is the best driver of our economy, how are we to get a break? I mean, my son doesn’t even watch TV, but other kids do, and media-related themes are so pervasive in our culture that we practically can’t buy a pair of shoes without a cartoon-character franchise attached to them. If I tell my son he can only have one cookie, I’ve had other moms look at me like I’m the Grinch who Stole Christmas. We’re being raised and indoctrinated to believe that the current typically American lifestyle of gluttony, consumerism, fast-paced action, entertainment, instant gratification, and “whatever sells” thinking is going to benefit us – make us rich, help us feel satisfied.

Meanwhile, depression, suicide, obesity, and bankruptcy are on the rise like never before.

Okay, you probably already know this, and you are probably beginning to feel depressed like I’ve been over this stuff, so let’s cut the nastiness and get to the gold. (How’s that for instant gratification?).

How do we raise our children to have a social conscience? How do we raise them to have strong values, to be generous and kind, to be patient and express themselves powerfully and respectfully?

One thing I knew, even before my Internet search, is that it all starts with us. Children learn from watching, and they are watching US!!! Whether we’re a parent or not, the children of this world are watching us. Do you swear at someone when they cut you off in traffic and gesticulate wildly or do you hold yourself back and think about how you make mistakes too? Do you listen to your own children as you would want them to listen to you? All the way through without interrupting (or saying excuse me if you have to interrupt)? Do you think before you say no? Modeling is first and foremost the most powerful tool for creating values-driven behavior.

But here’s the question I was looking to answer today: how do we counteract the cultural influences that turn our sweeties into beasties? I found a few things.

A recent article in the New York Times had these suggestions:

''Many parents communicate feelings by giving gifts rather than by direct communication of their feelings,'' said Dr. Kenneth Skodnek, a child psychiatrist at Nassau County Medical Center. ''It's almost as if materialism becomes the matrix of social relations -- our sense of self esteem and our relation to others.''

Adults, the experts say, should simply take a firm stand. ''Children need adults to tell them they've had too much candy,'' said Dr. Gail Saltz, a psychologist at New York Cornell Medical Center. ''And if the adult is the cause of too much candy, it's really a bad situation.''

Common sense, without shades of Ebenezer Scrooge, is the goal. One of Dr. Shanor's suggestions is to parcel gifts out over longer periods; she even suggests putting away all but a couple of gifts after they are opened.

Dr. Nancy Brush, a psychology professor at Fordham University, says Hanukkah with its eight days of gift-giving, or celebrating the 12 Days of Christmas, can be considerably more reasonable than a single gift-giving orgy.

Another idea is to give children more complicated toys that can engage them for longer periods of time. ''More complicated toys that are developmentally appropriate are better than multiple toys,'' Dr. Brush said.

Help our kids have self-esteem outside of what things they have. While we’re at it, how can we help ourselves with this same thing?

Take a firm stand – let our children know that too many presents (or too much candy for that matter) hurts our brains, and then comfort them while they let out their feelings of disappointment about it. You can comfort them simply by compassionately saying things like “I see you really wanted a lot of presents” over and over until they are done crying about it. It might take a while. Be encouraged. When you invest in your child’s character by sitting with them while they cry, your children will feel closer to you, more trusting, and eventually have less frustration and more capability to handle their own emotions.

There’s so much more about teaching our children to express themselves healthily. Try these websites:

www.handinhandparenting.com - Patty Wipfler’s articles are extraordinary and so insightful.

www.soulshoppe.com - a little self-promotion here. This is the company I work for, where we facilitate programs on building character for elementary school children. Check out the “resources” page for articles on preventing bullying and downloads with communication tools and character building exercises you can do with your kids.

Read the whole Ney York Times article I excerpted above here:

I also found book resources that would be too many to talk about here, so I’ll point you in the direction I’m going next. That’s right, the pinnacle of consumption at it’s best. Amazon.com. Check out the following titles. I’ll probably post more when I’ve read some of the books I’m about to order.

David Walsh: Selling Out America’s Children: How America Puts Profits Before Values and What Parents Can Do; Designer Kids

Alfie Kohn: Unconditional Parenting; The Homework Myth

Lawrence J. Cohen: Playful Parenting

One thing I’m going to do today is to talk to my son about the toys he got yesterday. We only have a certain amount of shelf space, I will show him, and then I'll ask him which toys would he like to keep out and which shall we put away for a while? We can trade them out every few months and it’ll be just like having new ones. Which toys is he not really playing with and would he like to help some less fortunate children by giving away? And, I’m going to play with him. I’m going to get into a new toy with him and help him stay focused on it for a while, help him use his imagination by dusting off mine.

And lastly, I’m going to give myself a little love. I’m going to step back and appreciate the work I did today, really take it in that I AM doing my best. I’m going to do that for at least five minutes before I go looking for more and better information on how to quickly get through this next challenge with fast and positive results! Love to you parents out there, and to you sons and daughters too.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Happily Ever After

I sat in the gymnasium at an Oakland elementary school this morning (btw, it’s now called a “multi-purpose room” – I said gymnasium to some kids last week and they looked at me like I was from Mars) and I listened to one hundred or so 3rd and 4th graders put on a play about their ancestors. Aside from two teachers, the project director and the theater director, I was the only white person in the room. The children walked on stage in groups of twenty and, three or four at a time, they acted out stories they had collected from their mothers, fathers, and grandparents, putting together a “Family Tree.”

The children were nervous and rambunctious and could hardly keep quiet for two minutes, but their stories were beautiful and heart-breaking, and showed me once again how powerful the human spirit truly is, and how bravely we all live our lives, though we show our courage in such different ways.

“I survived hurricanes and tornadoes.” “Crossing the American border – no food for six weeks.” “We loved our country, but had no money and no job. We had no shoes.” “Three hundred people in a truck with no ventilation or air conditioning and we immediately started to suffocate.” “You could smell the birds and the rain, and the wet ground and the sadness from leaving my country.” “I survived a gang shootout.” “I came to America because of war. I escaped from Laos to Thailand. I walked a long way to a refugee camp.” “I got caught by the cops and spent 8 days in jail, but I was in America. Thank God.” “My great-great-great grandma cleaned house for a white doctor in the South. This was in 1937 when whites and blacks were not equal. The doctor’s son knew that my great-great- grandmother was afraid of snakes, but he threw one on her. She got mad and beat the boy up. In those days blacks were killed for doing things like that. My great-great-great grandmother had to take her two children and catch a train to California at night to save her daughter’s life.”

Parents sat in the audience listening to these 8 and 9 year olds recount their traumas, their desperate experiences, their most challenging times. They sat proudly while their children wiggled and talked too fast and giggled at themselves and each other. As I watched, it struck me how little we often know about each other - how de-personalized our experience is in this country at this moment in time. We know what we see in our own community, sure, but beyond that, and even inside of that, we are often more familiar with what we see on TV, on the internet, on our Gameboys and PlayStations.

What would we do if we knew that our neighbor’s mother and father had spent six weeks without food, walking a thousand miles through coyote-infested deserts, raging rivers, crossing hostile borders just so they could have a 600 square foot house with running water for their family? What would we think about them then? What are we thinking about our own families? Have we lost sight of our own ancestors’ hardships?

I really want to forget the negative parts of our history. Our country is practically founded on forgetting. The Melting Pot. The American Dream. Come on over to the Promised Land where you can start anew, and anyone can become anything if they just work hard enough. I want to believe in the American ideal and focus on the future. But in forgetting those negative parts, many of which have not been gone that long (some would say they still aren’t gone at all), don’t we lose sight of each other’s courage? Don’t we miss out on huge parts of who we are, where we came from, how much valor exists in each one of us?

It’s hard to comprehend 6 billion stories of hardship and courage. It’s much easier to categorize people into several nice pat stereotypes and file them away in our internal warning systems – better watch out for those people –they’re dangerous! But maybe it’s not easier. I mean, it definitely is hard for us to imagine how brave people have to be, because it’s so overwhelming to the human spirit to think of how much pain we all live through. To feel that much empathy – well, it could drown us. It could make us feel hopeless about the odds of having a Happily Ever After, which after all, is what we secretly crave, isn’t it? So to not feel it – to deny the pain’s existence – feels easier.

But really – let’s look at that. To deny the existence of pain in the world, to deny the truth that every human heart is required to be brave at least some of the time, actually takes quite a bit of work. First we have to see the pain someone is experiencing and shut down our own feelings around it. This is a feat in and of itself. It takes emotional maneuvering – twisting what we see so we don’t have to bear the thought of such injustice or pain – it must be their fault, they must be lazy, they brought it on themselves. Once we’ve justified the story, and stuffed our feelings of sadness, outrage, and pain deep down inside, then we have to work constantly to keep the feelings from leaking out. So we overeat, we drink, we play video games and watch insane amounts of TV, we cruise the internet for hours. We argue over trivial little things so that the bigness of the world’s pain is kept at bay.

Wouldn’t it truly be easier to sigh a collective sad sigh, give each other a hug and move on? Wouldn’t it really honestly be easier to cry for a few minutes, an hour, whatever, and then help each other on down the road together?

It seems to me that hiding and denying and managing our feelings is far more work than just having them, as they are, in front of whoever’s watching, shame be damned. If we did, perhaps people would see our struggles and judge us less. Perhaps people would know the stories of our ancestors and ourselves for that matter because we wouldn’t need to keep such distance. Perhaps we’d be able to connect and honor each other and have world peace and all that good stuff. That’d be my Happily Ever After.