Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Parallel threads

The other day, while browsing through stationary at Papyrus, I came across a Chinese proverb that I was immediately drawn to.
With time and patience the mulberry leaf becomes a silk gown.
Wow, huh? Or, at least, I think so. But why is this so compelling to me?

This quote touches on two parallel but distinct story threads that have been calling to me more and more lately. I think of the first as the "Phoenix thread" and the second as the "Stranger Than Fiction thread".

Stories that belong to the first thread touch on the concept that the death of an old self must come before the new self can rise up. Typically these stories reiterate that you cannot tether yourself to some safe, known base; You have to let go of the bird in the hand for a shot at the two in the bush. Caterpillars transform into butterflies, victims bitten by dracula become vampires themselves, water is able to transport itself across the desert -- but only after a scary and sometimes painful transformation.

Stories that belong to the second thread touch on the concept that we can sometimes indirectly contribute to meaningful and substantial change in the world. These stories exemplify the fact that not everyone has to be in the spotlight to have an impact. Who taught the prince how to slay the dragon? Who forged his sword?

Noticing that this proverb struck a chord with me helped me realize that these two threads are running in the background. There are lessons in each that I am trying to learn, lessons I hope I am better poised to take in and absorb than I may have been during previous phases of my life.

But now I wonder. What other threads are back there? And, if I were to weave them all together, what kind of fabric would they make?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The gift of attention

When I was about 6 or 7, I was sent to a week-long, overnight camp along with my three sisters. Immediately upon our arrival to Camp Jo Jan Van, we were separated into our respective age groups. I'm guessing this was the first time we experienced that type of separation from our parents without our grandparents stepping in as surrogates.
There was a crack-of-dawn flag ceremony activity every morning. At lunch we were "encouraged" to eat at least 3 spoonfuls of everything on our plate. At night, we were told stories that involved creepy little girls and hatchets and we sung songs like "The Second Story Window" and "Shaving Cream".

There was a girl we all kept hearing about that was having a miserable time. It seemed that everyone's misfortune was consoled with a one-upper story about this poor girl. Chigger bite? She was covered in chigger bites AND it turned out she was allergic to them! Bug bite? She got stung by a scorpion! Hay fever? She has asthma and can't breath at night!

At the end of the week I learned this girl was not a story made up to make everyone feel better -- she was one of my sisters.
Many of these camp memories are likely based more on the stories my sisters and I told each other after we got back home than on direct recall, but there is one camp memory that is definitely my own. I had forgotten about it completely -- until something this last week dislodged it from the nook it had been hiding in.
A night or two before we were scheduled to go home, I lay in bed and cried; I just couldn't seem to stop myself. Since I was not the kind of girl that got homesick -- a fact I pointed out to my bunk mates through my non-stop sobs -- I clearly was not crying for that reason. But then why was I crying? The only explanation that made sense to me was that I was crying "for no reason at all". How remarkable! Note: this remarkable revelation didn't stop even a single tear.

Last Friday, I found myself explaining that I was feeling melancholy "for no reason at all". This happens sometimes -- hormones, sleep deprivation, low blood sugar, etc... can cause a temporary dip in ones mood.

I'd always considered it a strength to have the ability to recognize this type of mood dip and keep oneself from finding unhappy facts to slap these faux feelings onto. Yay me, right? Not really. It turns out that, this time at least, I was actually just being an out-of-touch idiot.
My sister Sonia was in town last week. (She had made a point of coordinating her trip to coincide with my birthday!) A friend she traveled with made deep fried pickles for my birthday dinner appetizer and Sonia made deep fried Oreos for my birthday dinner dessert. She got to meet some of my friends and we got to celebrate together. We hung out and laughed and laughed and talked and laughed. It was absolutely great to spend time with her.

She left Friday afternoon.

How could I have thought I was feeling sad for no reason? I was missing my sister. Clearly, I was homesick.


Have I been doing this my entire life?

Looking back to my time at camp, I think the possibilities offered did not jive with the image I had of myself. And perhaps what I was experiencing felt different than how I had imagined "homesick" would feel.

To give myself credit, I am often pretty on top of how I am feeling. But sometimes I get it wrong. Sometimes I am too invested in who I think I am to notice who I am today. Sometimes I am too proud to admit I have a petty side to me. Sometimes I am too self-critical to acknowledge I have an admiral side. Sometimes, in other words, I get in the way of my own seeing.


I'd like to make sure I am not leaving something overlooked out of laziness or worse, out of a fear of what that something would say about me (or how much work accounting for that something would require).

But how?

For one thing, I can drag my river of "unresolved issues" a bit more deeply and without predictions regarding what I will (or will not) find. If something is fished out, I can gently check its fit against my Cinderella foot of a feeling. And, if I come up empty-handed, I can go about my business but check the shore on occasion to see if anything new has come to the surface.

Sounds doable, right? Cross your fingers for me, I'm diving in.

If you want to then !

Writing_hand Today I went to see Jane Yolen speak at Porter Square books.

I was impressed with how she handled children's questions. She respectfully, playfully, and creatively re-stated each question until the child reflected satisfaction that she understood what they had asked. She augmented each question's answer with what the child most likely wanted to know.

She offered three pieces of advice for writers:
  1. Read!
  2. Write!
  3. Don't let critics keep you from writing.

I've been thinking about #2 a lot. It seems obvious, doesn't it? If you want to do something you have to actually do it. There's really no way around it. (Thank you Jane for reminding me out of my over 2 week writing hiatus!)

Jane Yolen has over 280 PUBLISHED books under her belt. Isn't that nuts? Isn't that great?! Although I feel a tinge of sadness that I was not exposed to her books as a child, I am delighted to have access to them now.




Monday, September 01, 2008


I admit it. Sometimes I take completely separate incidents and assume they are related due merely to their coincidence. The results are mixed.


A number of years ago, I worked at a company where the owner regularly brought her dog in to work. He was an adorable dachshund that was introduced to all new employees (and all visiting clients) with a warning -- "Keep your food out of reach!"

Like a little security guard, Cutter would make daily rounds. However, instead of patrolling the outside of the building, he scoured the inside perimeter along the walls and under desks. You could tell if someone had had yogurt that day if you saw Cutter walking around with a creamy ring around his yogurt-container-sized muzzle.

One morning, I brought in a homemade cinnamon roll wrapped in tin-foil. As I prepared to head out at noon I quickly glanced over my desk -- next to my keyboard was my much-anticipated after-lunch snack. Next to that was a document my manager had mentioned he wanted to borrow while I was at lunch.

When I returned to my office, I noticed two things. As expected, the document was gone. But strangely, the tin-foiled package had been unwrapped -- my cinnamon roll was gone as well. My first thought? "Why would my manager also take my cinnamon roll?"

It took me only a few more seconds to unwrap my faulty logic. But I was surprised by how my mind seemed to automatically look for a connection between those two incidents.


According to Josh Tenenbaum, an MIT cognitive scientist, our minds are wired to notice coincidence and for good reason. Quoted in a July/August issue of Psychology Today, he explains:
"Coincidences drive so many of the inferences our minds make. Our neural circuitry is set up to notice these anomalies and use them to drive new learning."
Co-authors Tom Griffith and Josh Tenenbaum begin the paper "From mere coincidence to meaningful discoveries" with two examples of individuals noticing a coincidence and assuming causality. In the first example, the assumption led to an important scientific discovery (cholera is spread via contaminated water). The assumption made in the second example was just plain incorrect.


This makes me feel better. At least a tiny, little bit.


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