Sparks

Earlier this year I posted a link to an excerpt from a 60 Minutes show featuring Jacob Barnett. When Jake was two, and was diagnosed with autism, he seemed to be retreating into an internal world where his parents felt they couldn’t reach him. He’s now a graduate student in theoretical physics.  In his mother’s new book, she tells the detailed version of the story that aired on 60 Minutes.  As the popular summary of Jake’s story goes, his parents refused to believe that he’d never learn to walk or read. They followed many of the prescribed therapy regimens, but they also let him explore the things that seemed to fascinate him, though they didn’t exactly understand what those things were or what they would come to.  His mom, Kristine, writes in the book:

One morning when I walked into the kitchen to refill my coffee cup, the scene before me took my breath away.  Jake had run different-colored yarn all around the kitchen – crisscrossing through the refrigerator handle and around the garbage pail, the table and chair legs, the cabinet pulls, and the knobs of the stove.  The result was a series of brilliantly colored, intricate, overlapping webs.  Using yards of yarn, he had created not a terrible, tangled mess, but a design of complexity, beauty, and sophistication. …It must have seemed a little crazy to let him take over the house in this way.  Some days it was even impossible to get into my kitchen.  But his intricate designs were spectacular to look at, and when the sun streamed through the windows, the shadows they threw moved and changed as the day progressed, involving the whole room in a complex play of light and dark.  These creations were evidence to me that my little boy was in there, busy working on something magnificent.  They gave me a way in, a glimpse into his private world and his extraordinary mind.

The Spark

Jake’s parents could have ignored his fascination with light and shadows as a passing attraction or whim – they could have shut down his access to yarn and insisted that he instead spend all of his time working on his therapies – but they didn’t.  Of the many parts to the Barnetts’ story that can offer inspiration and insight to families with children who are struggling, I think this one may be the most compelling.  Their child was enthralled with things (like this work he was doing with the yarn) that they didn’t at all understand, things that could easily be deemed superfluous, a waste of time, an obsession, little more than a mess.  (And in fact such things often are, by parents and other adults.) The Barnetts were tempted to believe what professionals were telling them about their child – that they couldn’t hope for much from him. But what they decided to believe instead was that whatever Jake was up to in his mind could be the key to reconnecting with him and to helping him find a way to be with them in the social world.

We tend to dismiss many child-chosen pursuits as frivolous, cute, or passing. What if instead we took these things seriously the way the Barnetts did, even when kids aren’t retreating the way Jake was?  We wouldn’t all end up with pint-sized physicists as this family did, but we’d make it possible for a much wider range of potential to emerge and for more kids to feel as though they’ve got something worthwhile to offer, from the very beginning.

Clean-up

I forwarded a notice to a friend about an upcoming volunteer clean-up event. It’ll be on a Saturday morning, on one of the local beaches.  My friend has two young sons who, whenever they have the chance, walk around their neighborhood picking up litter.  They learned these stewardly ways by watching their parents, but both of them seem, at the ages of 4 and 6, to have surpassed those parents in their dedication to tending the nearby earth.

Their mom responded to my email to let me know that the boys were very excited about the beach clean-up day.  “They have soccer on Saturday mornings,” she wrote, “but they may just have to miss a week for this; it’s more up their alley anyway.”

The boys like soccer, and they’ll probably keep playing at least for awhile because it’s a relatively fun way for them to spend a Saturday morning.  But their mom knows soccer doesn’t invigorate and inspire them the way cleaning up the beach will.  It’ll be lots more inconvenient, and to an uninformed onlooker it might appear as though she’s keeping her kids from playing, from being kids.

But the truth is, kids are more connected with the playfulness of work they take seriously than adults tend to be. For these two boys, there is more satisfaction and delight available in tidying up a patch of land than in running up and down the soccer field. For other kids it’s the opposite.  And no one’s right or wrong about how kids should be spending their time. People, including kids, are just different from each other, and when we’re given the chance to be who we are and care about what we care about, the lines between chores, work, fun, and play will blur all the way until we can’t see them anymore.

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.

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.

One child’s hockey is another child’s…

It’s been cold enough this winter that the pond in the park is frozen.  When I drove past on my way home the other day at sundown, several kids were playing hockey on the ice.  Practicing, actually.  They were taking turns shooting pucks at a makeshift goal, the way they would in an organized drill. They were studying, refining, mastering, though no coach was there to direct them.

It’s safe to assume that at least a few of those kids are not showing the same discipline and determination in their schoolwork that they were that night on the ice.  Many of them likely struggle through much of their days sitting still, reading, answering questions. Their best selves emerge late in the day, out there on the ice. We exclaim “That’s because hockey is fun!”  “It’s different! It’s a game.”  “They have to do schoolwork for their own good but it’s not fun so of course they resist it!”

But these explanations – the words we use to dismiss the variation in commitment we see in kids – don’t hold up when checked against what we know about the diversity of actual people, based on how each of us chooses to spend time when it’s up to us. There’s no list of inherently fun things and another of un-fun things for kids to consult when they’re choosing what to love and where to direct their resistance.  (Though there do seem to be ways in which turning something into an actual game can alter the experience of it.)

Hockey is something some people love, with all the zooming around, the crashing, the strategy, the repetition, the force.  And hockey is something other people wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot… stick – all that high speed and spilled blood and chaos and repetition and bruising. For some people, hockey is fun. For others, yikes.

So it doesn’t work to say hockey IS fun, just as it doesn’t work to say that schoolwork IS NOT fun.  I sat with a 14 year-old the other day who, when she arrived at my office, was exhausted and deflated from a week of racing around from class to activity to part-time job.  After a few minutes of reviewing practice SAT questions, she was invigorated and delighted.  She loves to think about words, about what they’re doing in sentences and paragraphs, how they can be interpreted in more than one way. Others would have wanted to poke their eyes out at the thought of spending time on this kind of thing.

Fun is not a fact, it’s a taste. It’s a specific and dynamic way of relating to an activity.  When a person is experiencing it, they’re often driven to push themselves toward deeper mastery.  Someone who under one set of circumstances appears lazy and indifferent can in the context of something that’s fun for them look like a patient and driven student, striving for excellence.

We can choose to roll our eyes and scowl when we see kids favoring the things that are fun for them, or we can get interested in what they’re choosing. If it’s future work and livelihood we’re worried about (when they show preference for things we think are distracting them from what’s important), we’ll be wise to notice that kids’ choices can actually tell us a lot about what kinds of work they may be suited to – what kinds of participation and contribution might be right for them.

If we can find the courage to open ourselves up to it, we’ll see that whatever is setting those fires of commitment and determination under kids can expertly inform the guidance we offer them.  What we learn from their choices and preferences can help make it possible for us to offer kids the chance to carve paths through life that make the best possible use of the capacities and commitments they’re already carrying around with them.