A Walk in the Woods and a Poem

IMG_1211When I walk with my daughter Maya in the woods, I’m often torn between two competing impulses. The urge to discover together and to explain — to point out the wonders of a worm or seed or changing leaf — does battle with the need for silence, for soaking it all in.

Letting Maya lead the way is a solution of sorts — she darts about, looking and poking, asking questions or not. Unlike the Waldorf teacher I spoke with this week, I don’t think facts about nature are a burden to the mind, and try to answer her — or look up new information — as I can. She is a budding naturalist, at any rate, always wondering what different animals eat, where seeds live in the dirt, and which sprouts in the lawn are the onion grass she knows she can munch on.

Amidst the lessons, though, there is still the mysterious mystery, as she put it the other day. There is a quiet place where information is not the point. And ensuring that children get into the woods in an unmediated way — and have a direct confrontation with Life (and our relevance or irrelevance to its systems) — is essential.

Years back, I wrote a poetic response to Mary Oliver’s wonderful poem, Wild Geese, that hits upon these themes, and I thought of it again recently as the spring weather has brought us more time playing outdoors.

The argument from design

begins with meticulous veins in this mulberry leaf
and ends with God.  But I say it’s a long way from
lichen to leaf to omniscience, and in that journey one must account

for sea creatures that reproduce without sex, whatever sense that makes,
and for mass extinctions, the great blow-ups and die-offs,
and where does silliness come from in this telling?

It’s so serious to look at an oak and find the how
and why we’re here that I can’t bear to live in such a place,
under a heavy hand signing itself by virtue of its own complexity

mistaking a system which lives and dies with reasons
for living and dying — origins, organs knit together,
entangled like only tautologies are. Too easy lessons stolen

from the absent quiet of the woods, or unwitting peace
of geese and wind above a pond. I fail
to see how it explains the central flaw of us, our

pained self-consciousness.
A garden without us is no feat at all, yet there’s
no hint of plans for us inside

that vague, enormous mind. Instead, the delicate
web, reliant on knowing all reasons.
And why make something so delightful just to hand it,

thoughtlessly, to children,
with our violence, our near-total lack of knowing,
our terrible need to know.

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California Dreamin’

IMG_1659I spent last week in California, traveling for work. I was lucky enough to be staying in Aptos, on the coast. We saw dolphins swimming by the shore, and the weather was perfect.

I was talking about the surreality of California’s climate and the oddly filtered quality of the light there with a new friend, when I suddenly recalled a poem I wrote many years ago on the exact subject, right after moving to California to go to law school and finding the adjustment from the East Coast a bit more than I expected.

So here you are, a displacement poem. Let’s say it’s to note the pleasure of making a new friend, of the kind that instantly leads to candid, vulnerable conversation.

Living in California

Orion is not where I left him, wistfully boarding my plane to the West.
At dusk, the Palo Alto air surprises, dropping ten degrees,

erasing daylight with a chill. Winter brings green tendrils to these starving hills like some absurdist variant of spring.

Among the jagged palms and eucalyptus, sawdust tricks the air
with pine and musty rot.

I’ve lost some paper that explained all this to me — when and why to tilt my head, bring a sweater or wear shorts.

Visceral signs of my curious fit with the weather, drenching storms that have no rage, no crystal shocks of lightning, their flair and mortal flash.

Sun is leveraged here against a spotless sky. The clarity of things is no surprise, and few remark on gorgeous days.

This diffuse, democratic light induces generosity, but seldom edges, or a need for hats, for gloves, a million

useless things, my understanding of the permanence of stars, a spatial lesson that I did not know I knew,

that somehow still displaces me within this wider sky,
these well-intended, lovely days.

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The Resilience of Children, and All of Us

Photo of Maya by Jay Premack, www.jaypremack.com

Maya…in…space, photo by Jay Premack, http://www.jaypremack.com

From the time a child is born, there is the struggle: to know, to do, to become. As a parent, we spend a baby’s earliest days answering to their cry, becoming trained ourselves in an extraordinary responsiveness.

As infants become toddlers and then, far too quickly, young children, we watch, amazed, as they master new skills, as they alternate between the drive to autonomy that makes them insist on doing something themselves, and their quick collapse into tears and frustration when the button won’t slip through the tiny hole. A certain amount of retraining has to occur for parents, to still our impulse to help them through each small challenge, to step back and wait to see if they call us to act.

I’ve been reflecting recently on several articles, including one which detailed a self-confessed helicopter mom’s struggle to let her child take risks, and another which clarified a crucial question about happiness. In the first, with laudable honesty and self-reflection, the mom works with the author of Free Range Kids, a book about over-parenting in modern life, to recalibrate her family’s boundaries for her two kids.

She makes a list of risks she has disallowed, like using a hammer or playing in their front yard with access to the street, and works with the coach to address her own anxiety. She mentions the exhilaration in her son’s eyes as he tackles each new possibility, and how he perseveres with the hammer even after whacking his thumb.

Her candor provides a ready guide for parents who have gone overboard, as a means to re-introduce reasonable risks to children’s lives. As the research shows (for example, here), there is a widespread concern that some kids — read: children with an attentive family — are being coddled in ways that threaten their development, and even, over the longer term, diminish their feelings of self-worth. Perhaps it’s because we have fewer children per family, or because the 24-hour internet is always tripping our alarms, or perhaps even because so many of us work (indoors, in antiseptic environments) that we both view childhood as more precious and can judge risks with less accuracy.

But it was the second article, on the common confusion between the search for meaning and our quest for happiness, that really clarified my thoughts. The article recalls an important, ancient distinction: between “hedonic” happiness (i.e., satisfaction from acquiring status or stuff) and the more challenging terrain of doing work that is meaningful to you and the larger society. The medical research shows, amazingly, that people pursuing happiness without meaning are creating the same kinds of stressors in their bodies’ immune systems as people experiencing chronic adversity.

This is both an astonishing result and blindingly obvious. Who hasn’t looked at a paunchy investment banker and thought their pallid complexion belied their public success? This is physiological evidence of what creates resilience in our lives.

We know that people who serve others seem more vital and grounded — we admire them for their drive and their service, both. In movies and books, we celebrate them as heroes — as long-toiling, unheralded, creating meaning out of darkness. If so many people did not choose this path of simple respect for hard work and quiet dedication, nothing would work: our mail would never get delivered, scientific discoveries would not be made, and dinner would never get cooked.

This is necessary work, and life is work. Of course, the work of children is play, and exploration. And while they grow, we would like to protect them from harm. Some days, though, we would even like to shield them from fear or disappointment. Balancing our need to protect them with an understanding that resilience is a learned response, and trusting that they are active agents in the co-creation of their lives, both capable and aware, is the challenge.

Complicating the task, as yet a third prescient article pointed out, is the rarely acknowledged fact that living is inherently traumatic. Even now, at two, Maya will worry about Swiper, the most innocent of villains in her (idiotic) Dora books, or bring home concerns about whether the lions in the zoo can come to our house. I reassure her as best I can, but I know that one day relatively soon she will see through the facile surface of my soothing tones, and come to doubt my word if I over-promise. I can tell her today that the lions aren’t coming, but I can’t promise her much else.

Fear of loss is written into our lives, and figuring out what information is appropriate for which child at which age is a constant act of careful judgment and re-balancing. Of course, grief and loss interfere more often than we care to admit with the lives of children, most commonly when they must dealt with the death of a loved one or a beloved pet.

In these difficult conversations, our own apprehension can mean we just talk too much: interpreting their questions, which can turn out to be quite simple, as a need to understand the whole picture from an adult perspective. Slowing down to really hear what they are asking and assess what they need to know in response turns out to be essential, so that we don’t overshare inadvertently. Often what is required is the simple facts.

We also have to acknowledge that many children live in daily peril of experiencing more tragic events like abuse and violence. Leaving aside awful, sudden tragedies like Newtown, there are entire neighborhoods today that deal with constant trauma from gun violence, as This American Life showed in its stunning two-part investigation into a Chicago high school facing a local epidemic of violence. These kinds of events are, of course, unacceptable, and should be prevented with far more foresight and care than we bring to them currently. Among other needs, what happened with the failure to enact better gun control is shameful.

But if we can set these types of unbearable circumstances to one side, it seems important to allow far more ordinary risks and failures. Imbuing our children with a sense that hard work is essential to success, that some frustration is an inevitable part of pushing through, that even real disappointment is part of the package, strikes me as a key task for parents. To the extent that some philosophies of parenting are interpreted as requiring parents to prevent children from struggling in a healthy, natural way with things that require sustained effort to accomplish, they do a disservice to both parents and kids.

The teachers I have remembered most (Patrice, I mean you) are the ones that invested in me by expecting better of me, all the time. A generous appraisal and belief in one’s capacity is an intensely supportive and empowering form of care, involving as it must such a close assessment of what is enough, and what is too much. And a simple statement of the results following a failure and a discussion of what could change for future attempts is often of more service than cheerleading, brassy dismissiveness, soothing talk or otherwise diminishing the significance of the goals, because any of these provide false comfort and undermine ambition.

Of course, there is a fine line between a show of power and a show of genuine caring. As a guide then, I take a few lessons for my own parenting choices:

1) Fear: Although I will try to keep inappropriately frightening content away from my child, I will also try to address her fears with honesty as appropriate. I will calm myself first, listen carefully to what she is actually asking, and provide a simple, factual response.

2) Disappointment: Although I will never manufacture disappointment (lord knows, children are whimsical enough to do it themselves many times in a day), I will attempt to deal factually and directly with the disappointments that inevitably occur: “No, we don’t have x, you may have y or z.” I will have patience with the melt-down that occurs, and understand it as a lesson in the facts of life: as her new teacher says, “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.” In this way, I will hope to avoid late-night travels in search of a particular color of strawberry ice cream, as I heard from a friend she once ruefully did…

3) Risk: I will regularly update my assessment of my daughter’s capabilities, allow her real choices, and support my child in doing hard things, because this is where ingenuity can happen and self-confidence can be built. I will make space she needs as she gains independence, and support her ambitions tangibly, without overpraising and without being afraid for her of the always-present possibility of failure.

We should wish for our children that they try and fail at many hard things, to help them discover the things worth working for — and what they are truly good at — from within. As it turns out, sustaining a quest for authentic meaning in our lives, even if doesn’t always lead to happiness, is healthier for both bodies and hearts. If parenting means anything, surely it means this.

###

Below is an original poem, from an adult perspective, on the trials of this effort, and its many demands. It’s a bit darker than the above, of course, but I was re-reading it the other day and it struck me that it speaks to resilience as well as hardship.

Creatures of Appetite

There are many ways to be brave.

There is the small fortitude of refusing an invitation,
saying, tonight I will stay at home alone and
do something of no consequence.

There is the tiny  – almost imperceptible – act of not flinching at a threat to someone you love.

There is the courage of yielding gracefully to a moment of inevitability, when it finally fails.

There is this grieving, too much of the time.

There is the stirring of a small obstinacy in the face of incredible tedium,
the getting up, cleaning, the taking down.

There is the fortitude of trying to stay in love or even just
to be kind when love is the farthest
unreachable place.

There is the stubbornness of looking someone in the eye
who is about to hurt you and letting them,
though you will study that hurt like a bone with its secrets.

There is a tacit acknowledgement that what you hoped
is irrelevant, and in the face of such knowledge

there is the strange persistence of how it asks and keeps
asking whatever you have,

how it empties your hands, just to move on.

The End of Summer

Yesterday at the pool, the air had a bite to it, causing both Maya and me to keep as much of our bodies submerged as we could, to the point of bobbing awkwardly just below the water line, stretched out in the baby pool.

And today after the rain cleared, the warmth largely went with it. At the park, it was possible to think of a light sweater with distinct longing.

In my small world, this end of summer has a pronounced bitter-sweetness. Maya is starting preschool in two weeks. It is a particular kind of beginning, the first year in which there is no “back” in back to school.

Up to this point, she’s been cared for by us, by a nanny and relatives based out of our home, which I realize is a very sheltered life. She’s never been to the hurly-burly of daycare, and has spent relatively little time around other children, with the exception of the four close-by cousins with whom she’s officially obsessed.

Hence, this beginning maintains an edge. It is an actual beginning, which is a rare thing, since most are colored by similar events before them.

And while I doubt that her play-based Reggio, two-days-a-week, co-op preschool bears much resemblance to Lord of the Flies, it nonetheless is the first time in which social consciousness may begin to be a force in the formation of her personality. Until now, she has never been:

  • late;
  • laughed at by others or teased;
  • embarrassed;
  • called upon to perform a particular task at a particular time;
  • asked to conform her day to a predetermined schedule;
  • spent any considerable time in an unfamiliar place, with unfamiliar people;
  • been characterized as anything by other people within earshot of her, etc.

In short, for Maya this is the start of a social mode of being that is utterly novel, in a real sense. It comes with embedded expectations of her, and eventually, for her.

Of course, even without preschool, by age three, many of these things likely should have occurred, and would have occurred. But the advent of preschool marks them with clarity, and even allows us some attention and ceremony around them.

And it does feel like a loss of freedom, even for me as an instigator and second-hand observer. Today in the car, Nina Simone’s powerful anthem of unfettered naturalism, Feeling Good, came on, stirred up by the magic of shuffle:

Birds flying high you know how I feel
Sun in the sky you know how I feel
Breeze driftin’ on by you know how I feel

Fish in the sea you know how I feel
River running free you know how I feel
Blossom on the tree you know how I feel

It’s a new dawn
It’s a new day
It’s a new life
For me
And I’m feeling good

Contrast that with my much-beloved Adrienne Rich’s almost-clinical telling of the costs and benefits of a truly liminal moment:

Prospective Immigrants, Please Note

Either you will
go through this door
or you will not go through.

If you go through
there is always the risk
of remembering your name.

Things look at you doubly
and you must look back
and let them happen.

Of course, in the Rich poem, our courageous immigrant has a choice, and Maya has none. As parents, we hold all the choices still, and merely hope we’ve chosen well.

Then again, about growing up and, more tragically, starting to see ourselves with the double lens of how we are perceived by others, none of us have agency. I recall in high school, when we were encouraged to read a number of bildungsroman – novels about the passage from childhood or adolescence to the long twilight of adult life.

There is so much literary talent and attention spent on this moment, and so little on the earliest transition from a self-directed to a social being, perhaps because this initial stepping forth into the world happens alongside our meaningful first uses of language, and even prior to real memory. But if there is an “age of innocence,” surely this is it.

About school, I have as much ambivalence as most likely do. I remain deeply appreciative of certain teachers, and still have some friends from those faraway days. Yet when I think about it for any length of time, I also relive the harshness and bureaucracy of it: the way we watched those fundamentally humanitarian John Hughes films for clues about how to find, we hoped, our own comic forms of justice in all the petty mess.

Without learning and context, of course, we could never appreciate the transcendent. But still, as Maya enters the fray, stepping into the mundane of scheduling and schoolmates, I wonder to myself how to preserve her current intense presence in the world.

I once wrote a short poem, about an older girl tussling with these late-summer impulses and threats, poised in self-discovery. I was that girl, and the memory of bicycling up that steep incline is as clear as yesterday’s sunlight over the pool.

Gospel

Serious child, it is September.
You are bossing your bike up

this hill, and worried for school.
Summer has you in her long arms

still, and her permissiveness
seems natural. She goes on musing

in your ear of mushrooms, sprung
from sleepy lawns, demure

and shining in the late light, echoing
an early moon. Or of last Sunday,

foreign in a Baptist church,
when sudden angels trilled

their brilliant wings, and took you,
for the first time, from yourself.

Mt. Fugi, exactly 36 Times

Woodblock made ca. 1930 exactly the same way a...

In honor of the closing this weekend of the Sackler Gallery’s exhibition on Hokusai, I am posting a poem I wrote years ago about this exhibition after seeing it at a museum in Golden Gate Park.

Pictures of the floating world

What we read in nature is intention. Forgetful observers of
any mountain, appearing in our dreams, like thirty-six scenes
by Hokusai. Prussian blue water, tiny people
repairing the roof of their store, or celebrating blowsy

cherry blossoms. Their faces are smudged so as to make them
us. No one dancing at the picnic sees the fragile flowers,
or the mountain, that pale triangle marooned
in middle sky which forbodes nothing.

There is a storm. In two gravel-handed woodcuts
Mt. Fuji is angry, split by lava-red lightning, or wholly lit
with the passion of weather. It is possible to view the mountain
thirty-six times and never see it. There is the matter of

backdrop, some fish on the line, a hole in the roof again
this rainy Tuesday. There is the problem of distance, how we
look across and cannot comprehend. We stop to drink, the cup
is inexhaustible, then dry.