Brain, Parenting

Tell-Tale Art

I tell him learning anything new takes practice. I tell him he isn’t yet an expert at chess and if he wants to be as skilled as his friend, he’ll have to keep taking lessons. I tell him he’s not good at all kinds of stuff yet. I tell him he’ll become talented at just about anything he wants badly enough to practice like crazy.

“You’re being mean!” he yells. He stomps into his room and slams the door.

When I go in later, he is curled up under the covers. “All I want is to play basketball,” he mutters. “That’s the only thing.”

I start to tell him something else but it’s probably a waste of breath. What good is it to keep telling at him like this? I reach to stroke his head and he actually lets me. “Do you know why you’re good at basketball?” He doesn’t answer. I lean in close to him. “You’re good at it because you’ve been doing it over and over and over again for years. Guess what? When you were really little, you couldn’t make shots at all.”

“Yes I could. I was always really good.”

“Sweetie, you were a baby once. And a toddler. Like that girl at the park today. Remember?” His classmate’s sister was there, trying to hurl her neon pink soccer ball up, up at the basket. She chased it down the hill, over to the fence, around the field. She could barely keep it on the court let alone shoot it anywhere close to its intended target. “You were like that once. Guess what else? You don’t play as well as those college players your daddy takes you to see. Not yet, but you can if you keep at it. They’ve had a lot more years to practice.”

“Yes I am! I am as good as them!” He hmphs around and pulls the blanket over his head. I sigh. I’m clearly blowing this.

“Listen. Just about everything in the world that you like was built or made by someone who didn’t know how to do it once.” I’ve gone right back to telling. There’s no stopping me now. I tell him someone didn’t know how to make pizza. They learned. Someone didn’t know how to make giant water slides. They learned. “Baby, if people decided that the things they are good at when they are seven years old are the only things worth doing, we wouldn’t have a whole lot. We wouldn’t have video games or houses or running water or cars or legos or anything.”

“Yes we would. I could make video games.”

I should shut up. I really need to learn to shut up. This is futile. A frustrated person is as deaf as granite and about as yielding. He doesn’t want to sign up for chess. Or piano. Or soccer or swimming or art or Spanish. His reply to every suggestion? “I don’t like it. I’m not good at it.”

But I don’t shut up. I keep going. I explain that reading used to be hard. He didn’t like practicing. He still doesn’t like practicing. But the more he does it the better he gets, and now he can find his way into stories without my help. Once he couldn’t read. Now he can. The bridge between the two is practice.

He says, “I could always read. I was just pretending I couldn’t.”

Okay. Message received. I close my trap, hug my boy, and give him a giant kiss on the head. “I love you, buddy. Let’s go get breakfast ready.”

He’s grumpy eating waffles because there’s not enough syrup. He’s mad when I brush his hair because it’s tangled and it hurts. He doesn’t want to take the bus but it’s too late to make it to before-school care. I ask him how his morning is going on a scale of one to ten.

“Zero”

“Great!” I say. “It can only get better from here!”

It matters that I stand on an incremental idea of intelligence. I’ve had to tell myself I believe it often enough that now I actually do. As opposed to seeing intelligence as a fixed entity, the incremental approach holds that effort and practice can change not only how smart you are but the ways in which you are smart. You can’t measure intelligence and even talent may be an illusion. Training grows skill like a muscle. Where you focus is where you become strong and where you don’t is where you won’t. A brilliant physicist might be a monstrous manager and the world’s worst dancer. As an accumulation of behaviors, intelligence is a habit of mind rather than a meaure of it.

It matters here because this conception has been the ladder I’ve used to climb out of a lifetime of self-talk so defeating it borders on abuse. Only part of mental health is explained by physiology. Like talent, depression is as much a habit of mind as it is an expression of seratonin levels. Choosing to see intelligence as a verb helps me recognize that feelings of resistance have absolutely nothing to do with whether or not I am cut out for a particular endeavor. Stuff is hard and it is especially so when it’s new. Every beautiful or terrible thing our species has fashioned has required perseverence. It would always have been much easier to give up.

It matters too because trusting in this version of intelligence might keep me from passing on to my son this legacy of globalizing distortions. Belief in fixed capacity is fertilizer for depression. I want both of us to practice the art of speaking out loud all the ways a person can grow more proficient in any number of languages. I want Bug to learn early the vocabulary of self-efficacy. Sure, he’ll be awkward. He’ll hit walls. Some new skills will be much tougher to acquire than others. Maybe my parenting optimism is on steroids today, but if I know my son is perfectly capable of mastery and that he will learn how to chart his own course, I can be his touchstone as he does battle with his limits.

But let’s be real here: it also doesn’t matter. My kid isn’t buying it. If he believes intelligence is fixed, guess what? It is. For Bug, being good at something means it is supposed to be effortless. A person is naturally talented at some things and those are the things he should do. This idea baffles me.

“I hate this day,” he says as shrugs into his jacket. It is only 8:40 a.m.

When I walk Bug to the bus, other parents and kids are there waiting. Anxiety about my son’s attitude is a backpack full of wet concrete. I can talk up one side of Mt. Everest and down the other telling the world what I believe but my child is only going to want to learn new things if they are beguiling enough to make him want to trade in his ease for the effort required.

What is the currency for a seven-year-old? This: whatever other seven-year-olds decide has value.

But I am a loner of a mother. Where would I begin to plug my son into the allure of new activities if he’s already decided he isn’t interested? Which kids in my son’s school play saxophone or collect snakes? I don’t have a clue what the names of Bug’s classmates are, let alone their hobbies. What I know of their parents wouldn’t fill a teaspoon. My son has been in this school for nearly two years and I couldn’t identify his best friends if they rode up past our house on a St. Patrick’s Day float.

Besides, I’m not good building community.

Making new friends is scary. Remembering names is hard. I don’t like it. Why can’t I just stay inside my cozy house and write and dance and bake pumpkin bread with my son? I like doing that stuff. I’m good at that stuff.

Thanks, universe. Got it.

The dad at the bus stop nods a hello as he has on all the other mornings. My turn to endure the telling. It whispers, Every single amazing, effortless activity in the world was hard once. I take a deep breath and re-introduce myself. I say I’m looking forward to seeing his girls out now that it’s getting warmer. Maybe we could all go to the park? He mentions that his family goes to Nationals games and that they’d love for us to join them when the season starts. “You know what?” I say, pulling out my phone. “We’ll never make it happen if we don’t exchange numbers.” He texts me his name, his wife’s, his children’s.

I’m not good at it this. The vulnerability makes me squirm. On my way home, I run into another neighbor in the hallway. It would be so easy to pass her with a polite hello but all that telling is still clanging around. The degree of difficulty of an endeavor bears no relation to its suitability. I force myself to slow down long enough to have a conversation. After the requisite small talk, she confesses she’s been having a hard time getting to know neighbors since moving in last fall. Also, could she come by to see my bamboo floors? She and her husband are remodeling and want to replace the carpet with hardwood.

Baby, the telling whispers, if people decided that the things they are good at when they are forty are the only things worth doing, our world would be a dismal place indeed.

I tell her I’d love for her to come by.

As I head out to my car, I feel a bouyancy breathing under the anxiety of these new commitments. The telling whispers, There was a time before Thomas Edison knew how to work a telegraph machine. Before Langston Hughes could pen a verse.

Thanks, I tell it back. Nice work.
 

Mindfulness, Poetry

Mass x G x Height

Stillness is impossible.
Just try to stand
frozen. Ankles flex. Toes grip. Knees
hips spine skull
of course the brain, a multitude
of microscopic adjustments. It is not
stillness
that holds you firm
to the skin
of the earth
but motion. A taxidermist
would have to stuff your sack of flesh
with rebar and concrete to keep you
upright. And still
one gust could take you down. And still
you are not
even aware of the exertion
required
to stay exactly where you are, no less
or more
than what you might expend
by taking
that step.

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Happy 100 Days: 84

Some days, happy is not a feeling. It is taking a blowtorch to the invasive species. It is burning off the tangle that has choked off the native leaf. Remember those parasitic cuttings you pushed into your soil when you did not know better? Remember when the blossoms made you stupid and the fragrance made you swoon?
 
Remember the beautiful lie?
 
Those fine tendrils have twisted into steel coils. You see now, can’t you? How it happens?
 
Your folly then can be forgiven. Your devotion now cannot.
 
Some days, happy is not a bouquet. Some days, it is the making way.
 
It is the slash and burn.
 
And so, the purge.
 
(In the absence of a conflagration, an industrial shredder will do.)
 
Some days, happy is not a state of being. It is a trowel and a bucket of wet cement. It is an intention. A slog, even.
 
Some days, you are down below the frost line, down at the foundation only just dug, cramming blocks against the cold mud and plastering them into place. You are following the plumb line. You haven’t seen the sun in days.
 
You do not need to look up. It is still there. Trust me. It will be there again. But now, you are building a floor. You are making your shelter. You are climbing towards the sky.
 
Some days, happy is not.
 
And yet, you still find a box full of tools right there at your feet, and your hands are still at work, and the ground still holds.
 
Some days, the evidence suggests otherwise. But yes. The ground holds.
 

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Shift Happens

I was nearly twenty when I learned to ride a bike. As a kid, I had tooled around my neighborhood on my 3-speed, but these short trips never took me beyond the distance my feet could cover if a tire blew. It took the self-righteousness of young adulthood coupled with a bike-snob boyfriend to push me past the safe circumference of my known territory. Living in accordance with strict ideals about justice and simplicity meant a vegan diet, a cooperative house, anti-racist activism, and thumbing one’s nose at the auto industry. In Burlington, Vermont in 1993, a womyn had to learn how to ride.
 
The finely muscled boyfriend and I ventured into the country on our slick, matching Fat City Wickedlights. With shoes snapped into slim pedals and water bottles sloshing, we were so much who we aimed to be. In the span of a few months, I learned how to change a tire, true a wheel, adjust a derailleur, and repair a busted chain. Who needs AAA? On the side of the road with just a tiny cache of tools, I could handle anything short of an organ transplant. When the apocalypse came, I would be delivering the mail.
 
The only problem was that I could not ride. My personal drill sergeant would pedal alongside me, offering up corrections. He called it “help.” I had another name for it.
 
“Shift up,” he’d holler. “Lean down and just glance back.” I was too frightened to see if a car was gaining. Every time I did, my bike would sway like a drunken frat boy. The stress further constricted my peripheral vision, and I could only hope I would hear an engine coming before I had to make the next turn. Wildly swinging into traffic when I most needed to hug the shoulder, I was a two-wheeled terror on the Hinesburg-Shelburne road. I covered dozens of miles with the boyfriend drafting me as he shouted out warnings about approaching traffic.
 
After a few near misses and a lot of yelling, I figured it out. Just as a driver checks mirrors and blind spots before changing lanes, a cyclist has to look back while staying straight. I practiced leaning down, steadying the handlebars to keep the front wheel aimed in the forward, and taking a quick peek at the terrain behind. It is a bit of a mind game, turning the head without steering the body in the direction of the eyes. After a few tries, I could share the road.  The boyfriend got off my rear a few hollers short of a black eye.
 
Hills, on the other hand, refused to yield to either logic or determination. At the base of every incline, my well ran as dry as my mouth. Vermont is not flat country, so the Green Mountain cyclist has no escape from the ups. Every time the ground rose ahead of me, my gut contracted and my heart raced. I hated hills the way George Mallory must have hated gathering clouds. My legs were not strong enough. My lungs were too tight. Every bump on the landscape was my own personal Everest. The altitude, no matter how miniscule, conquered me every time.
 
I tried to hoodwink the topography by speeding down the previous descent as fast as I possibly could, shifting into the highest gear and spin spin spining to get up the other side. Pedaling like a maniac carried me about halfway up before I started to lose steam. Barking in pain and gritting my teeth, my momentum slowed to a wobble. The sight of Lance Armstrong up ahead, standing up on his pedals with his legs of bronze sinew glinting in the sun as he floated up to the summit, was enough to make me want to shove a tire lever up his axle. I walked my bike to the next flat stretch.
 
“You have to shift to a higher gear,” he explained.
 
A higher gear? You’ve got to be kidding me. “You mean the harder one?” That went against all logic. When a tough stretch approaches, why would a rider increase the difficulty? I was working as hard as I possibly could in the lowest gear, and still was not strong enough to get up the hill without teetering off. I was a lost cause, and he was a fool.
 
He went on explaining. “First you shift higher then you stand.”
 
My mind rebelled and my body followed suit. “I just stand?” I saw him doing it, but I could not make sense of it.
 
“Just stand up. Like this.”
 
He orbited around me, shifted up to the highest gear, and lifted his fine backside up off the seat. I had a hard time believing this thoroughbred was my companion. His claims of confidence in my cycling abilities were even more incredible than his affections. It all seemed like an elaborate ruse, and I was the one who would land on my ass.
 
He continued to draw smooth ellipses around me. “Then you can climb. It’s easy. Try it.”
 
Nothing is harder than the task someone else tells you is not.  I did try it, goddamn it, and it was anything but easy. Over and over again, I tried. My bike crossed that stretch of blacktop, and I willed myself to stand. I commanded my legs, “Climb!” I roared at my tush, “Up!” These intractable parts paid me no heed. My posterior remained planted on the seat. I rolled to a stop.
 
“Maybe it’s like the eyebrow thing,” I panted.
 
“The what?”
 
“You know how some people can raise one eyebrow, but other people can only do them both?” I lifted both mine to prove my physical deficiency. “It’s genetic.”
 
“You mean to tell me you are genetically incapable of standing up on a bike?”
 
I shrugged. “Maybe I am.”
 
“Yeah. Maybe you are. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. You can always just get off and walk up the hill.”
 
“Yeah. Thanks.”
 
My tolerance for his proximity quickly exhausted itself.  The ability to ride alone was too compelling.  I would have to be independent after I killed him, after all. He was too perfect, and even if he were not, any witness was a distraction. This was between me and my goddess. Or, more accurately, it was between me and my demons. The boyfriend, no matter how right or skilled or just plain gorgeous he happened to be, did not have a say in the matter.
 
A few days later, I made my way alone to a stretch of somewhere road with a shortage of cars but an abundance of contour lines. I walked to the top of the first hill and perched there like a sky diver at the open hatch. I swung my leg over, kicked the chain up to the highest gear, and let ‘er rip. Body and machine sped as one down towards a rising wall of blacktop. “Go girl, go girl, come on!” I hit the dip at the bottom and started the ascent. My speed dropped and my legs began to scream. The urge to downshift almost won. I shouted at the road and the sky and my own resistant butt. “Up! Come on, UP!”
 
Just like that, I stood. Off the saddle, legs push-pulling the pedals, I was up where I had no business being. My torso tipped slightly forward to keep the now careening handlebars even. I sat back down and promptly ground to a halt, tipping off the bike and onto my feet. “Woah,” I breathed. “Just stand.”
 
Back at the summit, I did it all over again. Leap, fly, grind. Then, right at the beginning of the ascent, I stood. I started to climb. Climbing was exactly what it was. Ascending a hill is like walking up a staircase, one foot in front of the other.  The bike felt alive in my grip, ready to lift right off the ground. The only way to hold it steady was to hover miles above the safe clutch of the frame. I willed my skeleton to stay upright, refused to succumb to the desire to cling, and pressed my mighty muscles into the climb. I trusted the laws of physics to pay me back in motion. In a blink, I crested the hill and went whirring down the other side. I hooped aloud, flushing grasshoppers from roadside brush.
 
It turns out that this is how it works. Plates make their tectonic shifts without so much as a warning tremor. Mountains appear where the land was once flat. The impulse is to pull back and creep along, gripping the earth and keeping to a familiar pace. It will not work. A greater effort is required, but that effort is unlike anything ever required before. Shifting into a lower gear may keep you feeling safe, but the wheels just spin twice as fast while covering only half the distance. Trying to stay grounded will wear you out long before you reach your destination. You will not make it over the hump.
 
No matter how counterintuitive this seems, the toughest transitions require a hefting of more weight, not less. Change has no mercy. It has no attention for resistance, cowardice, or the illusion of control. The starkest way is the only way forward: pure exertion. Crisis requires the courage to press pass the point of self-imposed incapacity.
 
Conquering the mountain is impossible, yet nothing could be simpler. Bear down. Engage the muscles. Brace yourself and rise up out of your protective posture. Allow momentum to carry you forward.  The extra effort is unavoidable, but the mind and body are stronger than gravity. They are mightier than the imagination’s most clever tricks.
 
Increase the tension, lift your body past the pull of gravity, and climb.


Stories have a way of moving towards their proper denouement. The aforementioned boyfriend found his way to a partner and a purpose perfectly suited to him. Read about their adventures at 2cycle2gether.