Lines less traveled

If you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to check out Logan Laplante’s TEDx talk about how he’s taken charge of his education, organizing his life around a commitment to being happy, healthy, and fostering creativity.

There’s just one small thing I wish Logan had taken a step further. He says that to follow a traditional educational trajectory is like skiing one well-worn line down a mountain, while designing a program for yourself is like heading off into the powder to blaze your own trail.  I’m with him up to the part where he says that the shared line is probably safer.  In the snow it may be, but when you’re building a life, I’m not so sure.

I think it may once have been, but it’s getting less and less safe to traverse the common route.  The competition is so great for the handful of spots there are to fill along the way (in the “best” colleges, “best” graduate schools, the “best” jobs) that it’s no longer a fail-safe way to build a life.  We just keep saying it is because the powder makes us nervous.  The powder’s unknown.  We’d rather take our chances on the thing that will almost certainly work out for some people, even if it’s only a very, very small percentage, than head off into the powder where everyone probably has an approximately equal chance of making it, because there are so many more routes possible and winning spots doesn’t matter so much, if it matters at all.

We’re not safer on the route we know.  We’re just more comfortable there.

I’m so grateful to Logan for the framework he offers, simply and frankly, in this talk. Logan lives in the kind of world I think we could build for everyone, where vitality is of the utmost value and importance and can, in fact, be the best possible guide.

Spiral

I opened my computer’s browser and saw this video caption: “It looks like this guy is just lugging around a 100 pound tire, but he’s about to do something pretty cool with it.” It turns out, as you can see from the video, that he’s going to use it as a hula-hoop.  If you’ve ever tried to hula-hoop, or lift a tractor tire, you can imagine that this feat would require a great deal of strength, coordination, practice, and patience to achieve.

It also looks very, very awkward at the outset, and like an odd choice of ways to waste time.

Kids are often doing things that look the way this looked – like a guy just lugging around a 100 pound tire.  They spend inordinate quantities of time and attention on things that appear to be nothing.  They run around and around and around things.  They pick things up and move them to other places.  (Or just put them back down.) They draw the same thing over and over.  They ask the same question again and again.  They stack things on top of each other and then knock them over.  It can seem pointless and unsophisticated. But if we’re paying attention in a particular kind of way, if we’re curious about what they’re up to, we often find out later that something else, something complicated or subtle or graceful, was in the works.  If we give kids room to do the things they’re doing that seem unproductive, that seem superfluous, that keep them from what we wish they were doing, we may facilitate accomplishment and contribution we can’t predict.

Anne Lamott wrote of her infant grandson: “Einstein would probably say that [my grandson] is already every age he will ever be, but in such super-slow motion relative to our limited perspective that we can’t see the full spiral of him yet…”

We forget, in our eagerness to make sure kids get by, that our perspective is limited.  We forget that we don’t know everything there is to know about how and where a new person will fit, what potential he or she possesses and is beginning to explore and develop, and how that potential might get expressed in his or her interaction with the rest of the world.  When we give ourselves room to be curious in our uncertainty, rather than just frightened into rigidity, we make it possible for the full spiral of each new person to be realized.

Seeing

I was on my bicycle the other morning and passed a row of parked cars in front of a restaurant.  One of these cars got my attention because, I eventually figured out, it had resting on its roof rack a small row boat with a pair of deflated pontoons slung over either side.  Fortunately, I figured this out before my puzzled gaze caused me to veer off course.  But for a few moments, I couldn’t quite understand what I was looking at.  Had a giant duffle bag full of wood dropped from the sky and landed on this vehicle?

In the course of any given day, we know what we’re seeing, most of the time.  Or at least we think we know.  Much of the time we see what we’ve already decided to see, or what we’re looking for.  The things that stand out are the ones we scan for.  I was in a workshop recently in which the leader asked us to say to ourselves “yellow, yellow, yellow” as we looked around the room and notice which objects stood out.  And then, “blue, blue, blue.”  If she’d have just told us that we “see what we’re looking for,” I’d have nodded in solemn agreement.  But to watch my mind pull the colors out away from everything else in view; this got my attention in a different way.

One thing we have grown very adept at looking for and seeing is disorder and disability in children.  We look at kids and see all sorts of problems – things that make them less easily compatible with existing expectations.  We name the problems and categorize them, create new interventions intended to eliminate them, build entire institutions around them.  For better or worse.

We’re less skilled at seeing the affinities and strengths that make kids unique and capable.  The problems are so shiny to us, so alluring with their fancy names and their carefully mapped-out recommended responses, that it’s difficult to see the other colors.  And to see what those other colors may lead to or turn into if we pay as much attention to them as we pay to the problems.

On my bike that day, approaching the odd-looking boat flopped over and configured in a way boats usually aren’t, I had to ask myself, with some impatience and force, “What am I looking at?  What the heck is that?  What am I not seeing that’s right in front of me?”  Since then, I’ve been trying to remember to ask similar questions of myself when I’m sitting across from a child.

Because there are the things I already know, the things that are easy to look for and notice, and then there’s everything else.  And the everything else – the things that don’t match up or seem to fit and insist we reach deeper into our ability to imagine and conceive of newness and alternative – is often where the richest, most promising parts of us live.

…what you wish for

I got a delightfully practical and irreverent little book about landscaping and gardening for my birthday.  (Here’s a link in case you’re in need or want of such a book.) In the section about hardiness, and which plants will grow in which zones, I came across this note of caution and wisdom from the author:

“Zone envy is natural, but each of us has good things that no one else can have.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

This could be said of many things, including us people, with our various proclivities and struggles.  Those children, for example, who frustrate their caretakers with what seems like excessive sensitivity often say and do astonishingly insightful, compassionate things that less sensitive children don’t.

If you could change that thing about your child (or yourself) that you wish were different, you might also have to give up something you couldn’t bear to live without.

The writing, the talking, the drawing

“I prefer drawing to talking.  Drawing is faster, and leaves less room for lies.”

I came across this quotation this morning from the architect Le Corbusier.  My sense is that this sentiment was issued somewhat cantankerously, and I know from firsthand experience that drawing is frequently not faster than talking, but it got me thinking about drawing, and writing, and people who are new to both. How common it is for a young person to crave time for drawing, and how attached we are to getting kids to write, and soon.

Several years ago I met with a mom and her seven year-old.  The seven year-old was fiercely committed to drawing at the time (two years later he took up painting and landed a local gallery showing).  Meanwhile, his mom was worried about his sloppy handwriting.  I watched him do a little of each, the drawing and the writing.  I suspected that he was indeed struggling a bit with the formation of letters, but he was also resistant to the act and it seemed that resistance was playing its own part.  When he was drawing, he had enormous patience with himself for getting a line or a mark just the way he wanted it.  If it didn’t come out right at first, he’d try again until he got it.

This child’s mom and I decided that it might be worth holding off on forced handwriting practice, because it seemed as though the motor function required to neaten up the writing and get it flowing more easily and less stressfully might well come as a side effect of her son’s drawing practice.

I saw these two again a year later. The now eight year-old still preferred drawing to writing (his temperament is such that I suspect he’d have agreed with old Le Corbusier about the talking) but the difficulty with the handwriting had settled itself out.  “I stopped bothering him about it,” the mom told me.  “It made sense that the drawing would help his hand get stronger and more used to forming the lines he intended.”  She smiled.  “I had to be patient, and trust him, and it worked.  Maybe I’ll learn my lesson from that.”

Vitality files

I was behind my house the other day, cleaning up twigs and other remnants of winter, when I heard from an adjacent yard a handful of intermittent exclamations.  At first I could only discern that these utterances were exclamatory in nature.  I couldn’t make out the words.  Then I heard a ball ricochet off the fence, and then another.  The next words were audible.  “Yes! I got it!” and then “Another one – amazing!” My five year-old neighbor was staging a baseball game, complete with opposing teams and umpires and commentators.  By himself.  He would toss the ball up in the air and then chase it down, pitch it to himself and then drive it with a bat across his makeshift field.  At one point his older brother overheard him from the driveway and called a mocking mimic through the other side of the fence, but the little one wasn’t fazed.  He snarled briefly back, and then carried on.

I’m always complaining that I can’t describe vitality, though I know it when I see it. And of course it can be audible too, so I also know it when I hear it.  What I heard in the yard reminded me of the video I posted awhile back of a young mountain biker, navigating a challenging trail for the first time.  He sounded just like my little neighbor did – breathing hard but unable to resist the delight of narration. And in both cases the narrator wasn’t visible, but the vitality was impossible to miss. Here it is again:

I think we believe, as a culture, that this quality of engagement with life is only possible for the very young, before it’s time for the serious work to begin, for the hard realities of life to take over.  We think it’s cute when kids are enthusiastic, and it’s nice for them that they’re that excited and engaged, but we know it won’t and can’t (and maybe even shouldn’t?) last.  Our attitude seems to be that kids are like that because being a kid is fun and carefree and eventually people just become less enthusiastic and animated. And they have to get to work on the serious stuff anyway, so it’s just as well.

But look how hard these kids are working at what they’re doing.  They’re not doing things because they’re easy.  They’re not shying away from challenge.  They’re choosing those challenges that compel them to participate in such a way that their hearts pound and their voices swell with excitement.

What if that kind of relationship to life and aliveness is actually more available to all of us, at any age, than we’ve allowed ourselves to believe?  What if it dies off not because of an inevitable deterioration of enthusiasm for life but because it’s not encouraged, because we don’t empower ourselves to go after what young people show is possible for humans?

I recently came across another such demonstration of vitality and skill (distinct from the solemn demonstrations of prowess one often sees in young performers):

Sometimes I worry because so many of my examples of vitality seem to involve sports or physical action.  Do I think that only athletes and others who are in physical motion experience and show vitality?  Not at all.  I’ve seen people invigorated and animated by the likes of data analysis and proofreading.  I do think it’s generally easier to find the athletic and physically animated examples because they tend to play better on video. Though, have a look at Paul Lockhart here, barely able to contain himself on the subject of serendipitous parallelograms:

Vitality is probably easiest to see when there’s a physical expression to it, and it does have a tendency to incite motion.  Lockhart is in a chair, but the farther he gets into his discussion of the parallelogram situation, the more he moves.  He leans forward, he gestures, he varies his facial expression, his eyes dance.  So maybe it’s just that the demonstrations of vitality that get shared (on the web, for instance) are the ones that have other appeal – as in Malcolm and Owen’s cases where the level of skill seems surprising.  And it’s more universally exciting, maybe, to watch someone zooming along or rocking out than it is to watch someone like Lockhart turning giddy at the sight of an unexpected pair of parallel lines.

But the essence is the same, and every one of us has something that brings us to life this way. What if we were to orient ourselves around that, and see what we could build from there, rather than looking first to those things we think we have to force ourselves to do in order to get by?

Growing limits

At the end of last summer we brought a little fuchsia inside with low hopes.  I picked up the diminutive plant early in the season expecting that it, like the one I bought the summer before, would thrive in the gentle morning sun where I hung it, spilling over the sides of the basket like fuchsia are wont.  Instead it grew about two inches in two months and produced a single tiny pale blossom. In the spirit of Arnold Lobel’s Toad, I spoke to it occasionally.  I may have been more insistent than Toad, but I’m sure at least once I said simply and perhaps ever so impatiently, as he did, “Now, plant, start growing.”

Once inside, the fuchsia maintained its low stature until December or so, at which point it finally started to grow.  Straight up.

I found this frustrating.  I wanted it to grow like I’ve come to believe and expect a fuchsia plant should, with graceful trailing symmetrical vines.  And to bloom.  It seemed to have no intention of that.

But then a few weeks ago, a pair of buds began to swell at the end of the tallest stalk, a precarious two feet above the surface of the soil. I was less encouraging this time. “No way can you handle the weight of blooming,” I said.

But as the flowers grew, so did the diameter of the stalk.  Soon there were two more pairs of blossoms. The stalk listed slightly but held up.  Other stalks followed suit, and soon the plant was an unlikely display of top-heavy splendor.

“Point taken,” I replied. Apparently it would succeed in pulling this off.

I’m sure there are all sorts of simple botanical reasons the fuchsia grew and bloomed this way, but when something like this happens in my house I have a hard time not taking it as metaphor. I’m constantly asking people to consider that this may be how growth works, when it comes to children who show their greatest potential in areas or directions that seem odd or unlikely to produce results or success. When they don’t read right away because they’re busy perfecting their climbing or they’d rather be on the phone with a grandparent than go to a birthday party with classmates or they don’t care about learning to throw accurately but they’ll pore for hours over architectural drawings.

Children, like plants, often don’t abide by our wishes for the timing or content of their development.  But if we make it our job only to offer the steadiest support we know how, and trust kids to find their way to whatever unique expression and contribution they may be capable of, we may well be surprised and delighted at how they turn out. We may find, for example, that the avid climber wasn’t trying to get out of learning to read but knew she did her best thinking when she was in motion.  Perhaps she later leads outdoor adventures, or restores ecosystems.  We may find that the party-avoider was not anti-social but simply preferred the quiet company of one person at a time. That the fascination with architectural drawing was the beginning of a capacity for visualizing and solving complicated technical problems.

Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote “Man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.” We can keep doing that, keep holding back the human organism with static hope and prediction, or we can watch each new person with the expectation that we have absolutely no idea how much is possible, and what the limits of the world, the limits of human potential and growth, might actually be.