Saturday, December 21, 2013

Muses and musings

[Part 1 and part 2]

Fortunately, my daughter did not have to depend solely on her workaholic-inclined parents to provide inspiration and role models for the slower-paced life she craves. This contemplative sphere is densely populated with writers, and although the journalist subspecies to which her parents belong have a natural habitat in the busy portion of that world, we share some of the same feeding grounds with the creative writers who get to spend more time thinking, so we are fortunate to introduce our Matilda to empathetic role models.

We also are blessed in northern Michigan to be immersed in a local culture that celebrates and supports writing. Our small downtown has several (yes, several -- that is not a typo) thriving independent bookstores, two of which are a short walk from our house and regularly bring in authors for signings and lectures. The occupational hazards and joys of writing are well-known to our children.

Matilda's most treasured muse is Stephanie, an ecologist and writer of exceptional skill who is my valued friend and comrade in community activism. Stephanie has shown kindnesses to my daughter that I could never repay in a lifetime. She has written Matilda letters, loaned books from her vast library and offered her house as a country retreat. (Among the highlights of Matilda's 17 years was a week the two of us spent housesitting for Stephanie, who at the time had a cat with a talent for bringing in live prey through the cat door. The week's visitors included a bird, a mouse and a baby bunny, all of which Matilda deftly captured and restored to the wild.)

I suspect one big factor in Matilda's affection for Stephanie is that Stephanie has always conversed with her as a peer, soliciting and respecting Matilda's opinions, never disregarding the input of a child. The two also have an easy rapport, which may be attributed to their shared introversion, keen intelligence and love of the natural world, as well as their proclivity for a contemplative pace. If Matilda spends significant chunks of time staring into space in Stephanie's presence, she will be praised, not censured.

Occasionally, Matilda has received such affirmations from a sage on a stage. One of the amenities of our book-loving town is the National Writers Series, which draws well-known authors to discuss their work before an audience of several hundred (also not a typo). My daughter has attended several of these events with me, and the writer who most inspired her was Maggie Stiefvater, author of several best-selling young adult novels.

In her appearance at the City Opera House last spring, Ms. Stiefvater was asked where and how she works. She rose from her chair and stretched on the floor of the Opera House stage in yoga corpse pose, staring at the ceiling and telling the audience that is how she spends the bulk of her working time. Matilda was sold! This was all the evidence she needed that writing was the correct path for her. (I can't avoid pointing out to Matilda that eventually even the novelist must put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard.)

This brings me to the "well-rutted path" Ms. Stiefvater described in a TED Talk. [Really, I should link this video on the headline of this and the two previous blog posts to save you all the trouble of reading as Ms. Stiefvater captures this theme with eloquence and humor.] The achievement-focused path of Advanced Placement classes and extracurricular activities, so favored by striving families, is a reliable course for "success" defined as landing a respectable job that will afford consumer amenities. However, many of our artists, innovators, and creative agents of change did not find their way along this well-rutted path. I'm grateful for reminders that a C in high school physics does not foreshadow a future of crime or welfare dependency. It doesn't even preclude a career as a physicist! The results of any Google search combining bad high school grades and later success will provide solace to a parent with report card angst.

My crystal ball is fuzzy. I can't predict where the road less traveled will lead Matilda. In all likelihood, she will settle into an unremarkable adult existence, as most of us do, picking her way through the ordinary joys and disappointments of adulthood and defining happiness and success for herself. I know she will be guided by her own star; she insists on it.

But I won't be surprised if she does something extraordinary. Perhaps 30 years from now, I'll look back at this photo and wonder if she was sizing up the lawn of her future home.

Friday, December 20, 2013

A different beat

Among the many mixed messages our culture gives kids, the advice on conformity must be among the most confusing. Officially, we value individuality. We urge them to "think outside the box," "march to your own beat," "dare to be different," or in the words of Apple, "think different." When we seek to inspire, we praise non-conformity. But woe to the teen who takes this to heart!

In reality, the last thing many achievement-oriented parents want to encourage in their children is non-conformity, unless they define it as "getting a 4.0 when the rest of the class is below 3.8." Otherwise, parents are more likely to encourage their children to fit in by steering them to popular activities, clothing styles, entertainment choices and like-minded peer groups. 

she made her own Halloween costume
Even in my social circle, in which disdain of the "dominant culture" was a recurring theme back in the playgroup days, the acceptable box is only slightly more accommodating. Enlightened parents may celebrate some examples of coloring outside the lines, such as little boys in pink or a family's refusal to own a television set, but questions on academic attainment are usually confined to "how" or "where," rarely "if" or "why." Much debate may occur on whether little Zooby will fare better at Montessori, public, charter or home school, but the unquestioned assumption is that Zooby will go to college.

Let me be clear: I include myself among those parents. For most of the past two decades, I've approached my parenting role with the assumption that my two children would share similar views on how one should navigate life. While my favorite metaphor to describe my ideals was that I was a gardener nurturing seeds, not a potter shaping clay, in truth I behaved as if I were growing bonsai or topiary rather than wildflowers.

To escape my box, I needed a good teacher, and fortunately I had one in my daughter, the proverbial square peg who will not be pounded into a round hole. [I'll refer to her as "Matilda," in honor of her favorite childhood literary character.] Through strong non-violent resistance to most efforts to "school" her or train her to productivity, my Matilda has taught me to reassess my own notions of success and purpose in a more radical manner than I had previously experienced, even through my studies of voluntary simplicity.

I have learned that time spent staring at the ceiling may be the most valuable of all. This has been a difficult lesson to absorb after decades focused on perfecting my multitasking skills to the point that I almost can't read a book unless I'm simultaneously engaged in another activity. If I had been a student of the Harry Potter generation, I may have been nicknamed Hermione after J.K. Rowling's smarty-pants heroine who shifted time to take more classes. Watching my daughter sit for hours, doing nothing that I could detect, was puzzling, and for many years, a problem to fix. (I think I've read almost every advice site returned by a Google search on "gifted and unmotivated.")

The first clues that Matilda might be on to something emerged when I began to notice that some of my adult friends welcomed her company. Matilda has always, even as a toddler, generally preferred the society of adults and has accompanied me to activities and social engagements whenever permitted. My adult friends tolerated her society with equanimity, and as she grew into her teen years, their interactions evolved. No longer just a tagalong, she increasingly participated in the conversations, and I observed that adults seemed to enjoy and even elicit her contributions.

It finally dawned on me that Matilda's agile mind was far from idle during those countless hours spent staring at the ceiling. She was engaged in one of the activities most endangered in our crazy-busy culture: thinking. More specifically, sustained and critical thinking. Like Charles Darwin, my young naturalist needed time to sort and catalog her observations. I thought she was "doing nothing," but her mind was a hot oven, baking something new from the ingredients she had kneaded and left to rise. The result would much later be issued as a report, typically with a "did you notice" or "I figured something out" prologue, often to the astonishment of an adult unaware that teens thought about such things.

But most importantly, that "doing nothing" time was key to her well-being. When I let go of my beliefs of what should be happening and observed what was happening, I acknowledged that every single incident of discontent, meltdown or outright misery came on the heels of parental pressure to do something. If I just let her be, her inner butterfly emerged -- curious and ready to explore the world, vitally engaged with every interesting thing she encountered, and comfortable in her own beautifully unique skin.

Tomorrow: my muse's muses

Thursday, December 19, 2013


A busy friend shared a link recently to an essay by Tim Kreider about the tendency of many members of the U.S. middle class -- or, let's say more accurately, the "striver" class -- to exist in a state of frenetic activity, largely self-imposed. Being "crazy busy" at all times is a badge of honor and seems to represent the ideal for our culture, but the author makes a compelling case for the benefits of idleness.

the meditation cushion
I've been pondering his viewpoint and how I've been transitioning from a fill-every-waking-moment-productively mania to a slower rhythm where I can almost begin to imagine using the meditation cushion I purchased about 15 years ago but could never sit still quietly long enough to use.

Mr. Kreider's role as instigator of goof-off time has been filled in my life by my daughter. I suggested she also read his essay as I knew she would welcome an endorsement of the habits she has cultivated so diligently for herself. At 17, she is a paragon of the idle life and has quite forcefully resisted attempts from her parents or others to set her on anything resembling a striver path. No sports, no clubs, no summer classes or camps. She has exceptional academic ability, but high school classes leave her uninspired and she struggles just to complete each course, with little concern about her final grades. Consequently, the bus to Harvard will not be stopping here.

Incidentally, her favorite academic course of all time came from Harvard and may serve as an example of the benefits of idle time. A couple of summers ago, Harvard professor and author Michael Sandel appeared locally to promote his latest book. Disappointed at being unable to attend his seminar, I took to the internet to find out what I had missed and discovered his popular undergraduate course, Justice, was available for free online. I started watching his lectures, and my daughter, 15 at the time, peered over my shoulder. Soon, she was coming downstairs each morning asking, "Mom, can we watch another Harvard class?" Multiple choice tests may have left her cold, but she couldn't get enough of the ideas of Aristotle, Kant, Locke and Descartes.

See, when her active, agile, creative mind isn't burdened with the demands of school, my daughter is an intellectual sponge. She is drawn to ideas like a fruit fly to a glass of wine. I've become accustomed to her peering over my shoulder when I'm reading something novel or controversial, even if it's only anonymous internet users debating a local policy in the comments section of a media website. And, as she's a visual learner, if the information happens to be on something like YouTube, her antenna is keen enough that it will draw her out of her room and down the stairs to inquire, "what's that?"

[A brief note on the visual learning: her best year of "school" was 7th grade, when, as regular readers of this blog who are probably limited to my relatives will recall, we home schooled using a self-invented film-based curriculum.]

favorite activity for 17 years
When children are small, we cut them some slack on the productivity meters. That my three-year-old was content to spend hours arranging and rearranging her toy dinosaurs by size, type, color or texture instead of doing some Baby Einstein activity was of little concern. But once the high-stake high school years arrived and her peers were busy with theater productions, sports teams, debate club, violin lessons and volunteerism, I worried. What was to become of a child who spent so much time literally staring at the ceiling? What hope could she have of going to college without pages of extracurricular activities to include on her Common Application?

second favorite activity

I pushed. "You must participate in at least one activity at all times," I ordered as she began full-time high school. I enlisted my neighbors, and even the coach, to lobby her (unsuccessfully) to join the girls cross-country team. If I noticed her playing a game on her laptop in the evenings, I asked, "Don't you have homework?" I regularly checked her grades on the parent portal of the school website. "What's this? An A MINUS in Honors Biology? You can do better than that!"

Eventually, she pushed back, in a way that shifted my concern from her grades to her health. I had to acknowledge the parenting approach that worked so effectively with her older brother was not so good for her. I utilized my research skills, as well as some outside help, to learn what might best guide her to a motivated and productive adult life. But my greatest teacher turned out to be my daughter.

Tomorrow: Am I smarter than a slacker high school student? Short answer: no.