Winter Solstice

Today, on winter solstice, I realize that I have been less aware than usual of the encroaching darkness this year. True, I begin my walk home from work each day under glowing street lamps, but unlike other years, I have not minded the lengthening night. Unfortunately, I cannot say that I am happy with this development, because my lack of reaction stems from a lack of noticing. This story is one of preoccupation, not equanimity or acceptance.

Most winters, I have groaned at the loss of daylight. I’ve watched with a touch of melancholy as the darkness crept relentlessly forward and the sun retreated deep into the southern sky. I’ve long loved solstice, however, because it is a literal and figurative tipping point. I go joyfully to the wonderful and thoughtful celebration hosted by our dear friends, who offer an evening of community to reflect on night’s zenith and the beginning of daylight’s inexorable march forward. There, we are invited to let go of something within us that is unwanted, to put it into the past, and to welcome something new as we look ahead to increasing daylight.

I am particularly eager for the celebration tonight.

This past semester of teaching has been among my most difficult, though I am convinced that I offered my students an excellent experience in the legal clinics that I teach. Inside, though, I felt like I was careening along twisty roads at a breakneck pace, just barely hanging on. Week after week was filled with late nights, early mornings, weekend work, and certainty that my life was out of balance with no chance of change within the semester’s demanding confines. It all ended well, to be sure, and this post isn’t so much about work as it is about the importance of noticing and intentionality and balance.

I miss my moaning and groaning about the plunge into ever-longer darkness, because I miss being a person who notices things. For me, ignorance is not bliss. Rather, it signals that I am damped down, preoccupied, closed off. And my failure to notice the lengthening night raises questions of what else I’ve overlooked. What flew by unappreciated? Was I present enough for my family and friends (alas, I’m sure the answer is “no.”)?

This winter solstice is a chance to wake up.

I’ve found myself noticing again the past couple of weeks, probably because classes ended and some big projects came to fruition. Even as my mind was going a mile a minute for the last few months, portions of it fell into dormancy. The lead-up to solstice has been like an alarm clock, and the parts of my mind that have been sleeping are now throwing off the covers, sliding out of bed, and revving up to meet the day. I need these parts to be “on” in order to balance the more work-related parts, the parts that are forced into overdrive every semester, a trend that seems only to be increasing. One sign of my recent awakening is that this month I’ve turned my attention back to writing (more on that in a forthcoming post). For me, that means turning my attention back on, because I am at my most attentive and open when I am writing regularly.

So, what will I welcome into my life this solstice? A daily writing discipline and the increased sense of being present that this brings. Being more efficient during the work day (not that I’ve been lazy, but there’s room for improvement), so I can let go of my work in the evenings and on weekends. More time talking and corresponding with friends and distant family. Richer and more frequent connection with my wife and kids. In other words, as the hours of daylight increase bit by bit, I want to be more open to those things that bring joy and balance into my day to day life.

What do you hope for in your life on this solstice? If you’d like, share through a comment to this post.

I wish everyone reading this piece a contemplative solstice, happy holidays, and a healthy, joyful new year.

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Happy Industry

photo

My son whistles to himself as he bends his head over a piece of paper, colored pencil in hand. Alternately tuneless and melodic, always cheery, the whistling is the sound of a child doing what children love to do most: being creative, meeting the world with his own imagination, reflecting his discoveries in what he puts on the page. His cheerful bird call signals to the world that he is drawing at the table by the sunny window and enjoying the moment.

Children love to make stuff. They are industrious. It’s not the adult version of productivity, which is so often marred by anxiety and pressure, banality, repetition, performance metrics and high-stakes outcomes. Instead, children pursue happy industry. They eagerly seek ways to engage fully with the world. They turn a box into something to play with; create a small book of drawings; glue together sticks to make a little house; fall into a great book; play school with stuffed animals or dolls; create entire imaginary worlds – it’s all about making something, transforming one thing into something else, learning and engaging, pretending, and being active, not passive. A great deal of what they do most naturally is inherently creative. Unfortunately, our school systems, schedules, and expectations seem to be interfering more and more with the beautiful, happy industriousness that children bring to the world. When children’s version of productivity is devalued and forced to look more like that of adults – e.g., with an over-reliance on performance metrics, high-stakes outcomes (i.e., testing), repetition, banality, pressure – we are getting in the way of their healthy development.

The trailblazing psychologist Erik Erikson conceptualized psychosocial development as a set of stages, each framed as a contrast between a healthy developmental step and what happens if that stage is not completed successfully. His theory, unlike other psychoanalytic theories of the day, extended the concept of development across the lifespan and was concrete about what people are trying to accomplish at each stage. The fourth stage of psychosocial development, from ages 5 to 11, Erikson called “Industry vs. Inferiority.” Healthy development in this stage is marked by increasing pride in one’s accomplishments, active engagement with the world around oneself, and a blossoming sense of oneself as competent. In college and graduate school, studying child psychology, I was particularly taken with this view of children as industrious. Their form of industry is fun and creative and both inspiring and humbling to see.

As a parent, I’ve noticed that my children and their friends appear to be especially nourished emotionally, socially, and cognitively by being outside. They spontaneously create games in the yard – ball games, imaginative scenes, treasure hunts, “nature studies.” They explore the nearby ravine, sometimes for hours. They climb trees or squat together to see something small, perhaps an interesting bug or a brilliant fall leaf or a beautiful stone, their heads close together as they peer at whatever it is. I love to hear their high, clear voices outside expressing delight or wonder, solving problems, identifying something new, making guesses, trying out ideas, and I love the questions they sometimes have afterward about their discoveries, or how they run inside to get one of us to show us whatever they’ve found. There is nothing as potent as experiencing nature for stimulating children’s imaginations, and I hope that more parents and schools and organizations can facilitate just that. These experiences need not be in nature writ large, on nature’s grandest stages – though those are lovely and wonderful and I hope that more children can enjoy them. On a smaller scale, a neighborhood scale, experiences in what we might call “everyday” nature are important for children to have and should be made as accessible as possible.

Historic site: former fort

Historic site: former fort

Under the evergreen tree in the front yard, shadows move in the twilight. My kids and two of their friends are building a fort out of logs. They move about, staying low under the boughs, pausing and squatting and placing logs, spider-walking around their developing creation. Walls take shape; conflicts and compromises get worked out; gravity is reckoned with when some logs topple and have to be placed carefully anew. Plans are laid, attempted, and reworked. Their discussions are barely audible through the house window. My son occasionally whistles. I’m aware of all of these sounds as the hum of contented kids doing what they love to do most – it’s the hum of happy industry.

Making Stuff Up

Writing fiction and finding myself, or is it the other way round?

Indiana Jones: “I’m going after that truck.”
Sallah: “How?”
Indiana Jones: “I don’t know. I’m making this up as I go.”
Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

When I was a kid, up through middle school and into high school, I wrote a lot. Short pieces. Long pieces. Articles for the school paper. Stuff for classes. Stuff just for me. Some was fiction, some was not. Most of the fiction I wrote at the time was short stories, but when I was about fifteen I completed a sci-fi novel that went on for over 250 pages and took up at least five 5 1/4-inch floppy disks that I backed up obsessively, worried that my beloved documents would one day disappear — which, sadly, they have. That book was great fun to write. Back then, I was able to make stuff up, and it seemed like I didn’t have to do much to make that happen. Ideas came; stories came; I just wrote them down and tried to make what was written mirror what I was thinking as well as I could.

I was lucky to go to a middle and high school that taught writing in an inviting, conscientious, thorough manner, and I thrived there. In ninth grade English, we spent some time studying mystery novels, and I fell in love with noir classics like The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon. I loved the terse language, the grit, and the human mess of those stories. My teacher assigned us to write a short mystery story, and I cranked out a little noir piece of my own. I don’t remember anything more about it, but I do remember that my teacher wrote only one thing on my paper: “You should be a writer.” I glowed and thought to myself, “Yes! That is all I have ever wanted to be.” I felt understood and encouraged. Her words fit with who I thought I was.

In 10th and 11th grade, my English teacher drilled us in sentence structure and challenged us with literary analysis. She had written a book on grammar and usage, akin to Strunk and White, and she made absolutely sure we knew our way around a sentence. My writing improved. I loved that teacher, and I was lucky to have her for two years right before she left the school for new adventures. As a junior, I joined the student newspaper, which was a serious thing at my high school, and learned new ways of researching and telling and editing stories.

Yet even as I continued to write, my dream of writing professionally was slipping away. It was too unreliable. It wasn’t safe. What if I failed? Safety was valued in my family. Professionalism of a certain kind was valued — a safe, preferably prestigious professionalism. It’s not that the messages were so explicit. Rather, they spanned generations and were transmitted in life choices, family stories, and side remarks, and those beliefs became my own.

I have been in safe professions for a long time now, first as a psychologist and then as a lawyer. I have taught and practiced in both fields and currently teach in a law school clinical program. In the course of my education, teaching, research, and practice, I learned a great deal about technical writing, and I published academic articles. For many years, I wrote little else.

I’ve been privileged to do interesting, meaningful work that genuinely helps people, and I’ve been lucky to do that work with wonderful colleagues. What told me something was wrong was that I still felt stuck and unfulfilled. I was in danger of descending into the doldrums and losing the energy I needed to do my work well and to be happy. I felt irritable and, sometimes, depressed, even as my work went very well by any objective measure.

So I spent some time — well, a lot of time — listening to myself. I would sit in a quiet place, or walk in nature, or go for a bike ride, and listen. I would talk to my wife, and she and I would listen together. What I eventually heard, when I finally let myself hear it, was that I needed to write, that there was a yearning in me that hadn’t been fulfilled in a long time.

I started writing again. Yet for many months after I heeded this call, it didn’t seem that any stories would come, so I wrote short essays for my blog. In writing those, I sorted out some things about my family, my sense of the world, what I most love to do, and where I fit in. Eventually, a colleague and I started a writing group — it’s just we two, over beers, exchanging short stories and essays and fragments that we noodle around with. Every couple or few weeks, when we meet, I like to have something new for him to read. It’s driven me to put words to paper regularly.

In response, the floodgates opened, and stories started peeking around the corners of my mind. I’d spot them as distant, fleeting visions, like seeing someone skulking in an alley and slipping out of sight, but then some decided to come out into the open, inch closer to me, and stay awhile. Many started as fragments of scenes or dialogue or character, and then some of those grew beyond fragments. I started to write fiction again, and in doing so, I welcomed back a part of myself that I’ve missed.

As my stories have grown, I’ve been enjoying my job more, in no small part because it no longer bears the burden of my identity being built upon it. Instead, my sense of identity has become more about what I most enjoy doing and my values, which includes things like giving myself the space and time to be creative and being fully present for my wife and kids. My job, on the other hand, is what I do each day to help clients, teach students, and make a living. This letting go has made me better at my work. I haven’t let go of the need to work hard at it and do it to the best of my ability. Instead, I’ve sorted out what my job actually means to me. It has an important place in my life, but it’s not as prominent a place as it once had. And what I’ve found is a greater ability to focus in my work on what my students need from me in order to grow and achieve while helping our clients.

Meeting my better self, a younger, more creative, more free and loving and whimsical self, has been powerful and liberating. My wife has noticed. My kids have noticed. Friends and other family have noticed. I feel an ease and new sense of energy that shows. In those alleyways of my mind where the story ideas were hiding, I’ve found what is truest about myself, even though I’m making stuff up.

Happy industry

photoIt’s time for me to take a shower, so I tell my 8-year-old I’m heading upstairs. He says he’s going to stay downstairs at the little table he shares with his sister by the big sunny window, the table where they do art project after art project. He’s going to draw.

I climb the stairs and, before I shower, I check my email and get tangled up in some work-related stuff. As I’m trying to muddle through a problem, sending off emails and double-checking case notes, I hear whistling from downstairs. Sometimes tuneless, sometimes melodic, always cheery, it’s the sound of a child doing what children love to do most: being creative, making something, exploring the space between his own imagination and the world around, his discoveries reflected in what he puts on the page. I can hear my son drawing away happily, his cheerful bird call signaling to the world that he is drawing at the table by the sunny window and loving the moment. It’s the sound of happy industry.

My son and daughter are very different kids. My son wears contentment on his sleeve, humming and singing and whistling while drawing or painting or reading or building or even eating. Yes, he hums when he is eating something that he really loves – nice feedback for the cook. My daughter shows her contentment differently, by channeling her natural intensity into an activity, be it art or reading or writing or pretending. She just goes deeply into whatever it is, and it’s her involvement and concentration that tell me that she’s truly happy.

Both of my kids seem happiest when they are creating. Children love to make stuff. They are industrious. It’s not the adult version of productivity, which is so often marred by anxiety and pressure, banality, repetition, performance metrics and high-stakes outcomes. Instead, children pursue happy industry. They eagerly seek ways to interact with the world in a fully active, engaged manner. They turn a box into something to play with; create a small book of drawings; glue together sticks to make a little house; fall into a great book; play school with stuffed animals or dolls; create entire imaginary worlds – it’s all about making something, transforming one thing into something else, learning and engaging, pretending, being active, not passive. A great deal of what they do most naturally is inherently creative. When their version of productivity is devalued and forced to look more like that of adults – e.g., with an over-reliance on performance metrics, high-stakes outcomes (i.e., testing), repetition, banality, pressure – we are getting in the way of their healthy development.

The trailblazing psychologist Erik Erikson conceptualized psychosocial development as a set of stages, each stage framed as a conflict between a healthy developmental step and what happens if that stage is not completed successfully. His theory, unlike other psychoanalytic theories of the day, extended the concept of development across the lifespan and was concrete about what people are trying to accomplish at each stage. The fourth stage of psychosocial development, from ages 5 to 11, he called “Industry vs. Inferiority.” Healthy development in this stage is marked by increasing pride in one’s accomplishments, active engagement with the world around oneself, and a blossoming sense of oneself as competent. In college and graduate school, studying child psychology, I was particularly taken with the sense that children are industrious, and their form of industry is fun and creative and both inspiring and humbling to see.

Historic site: former fort

Historic site: former fort

Under the evergreen tree in the front yard, shadows move in the twilight. My kids and two friends are building a fort out of logs. They move about, staying low under the boughs, pausing and squatting and placing logs, spider-walking around their developing creation. Walls take shape; conflicts and compromises get worked out; gravity is reckoned with when some logs topple and have to be placed carefully anew. Plans are laid, attempted, and reworked. Their discussions are barely audible through the house window. My son occasionally whistles. I’m aware of all of these sounds as the hum of contented kids doing what kids love to do most – it’s the hum of happy industry.