We Were the First

Ginko tree

As I typed the final words of my manuscript last night and reflected on a year spent outdoors, I couldn't help but see the connections between my daughter and I. She too has loved a wooded place, albeit bigger than the tiny pretend-woods in my back yard. She too has grappled with the tension of life, how we gain and lose in the same breath. My girl is only twelve, but already she speaks a language that breaks my heart...


We were the first
in the cool green woods
into ravine and over crest

into forgotten days, the best
days, rainy, sunny, those days were good
we were the first

into fort like high bird's nest
looking over wonderful lake we stood
into ravine and over crest

those days like shining bubble now burst
shimmering sunlight down it glowed
we were the first

drizzly spring green onion grass,
with wonderful times we were imbued
into ravine and over crest

ford gravel drive to the old forest
imaginative things we always did
we were the first

not looking outward, ignoring the west,
failed attempts at making food
into ravine and over crest

years ago this people was birthed
finding a hidden land of gold
we were the first

to find the chest
wild woods the treasure showed
into ravine and over crest

in the woods, it seemed we were guests
time went on and on it flowed
we were the first

a place to play, a place to rest
icy wind with sun is mellowed
into ravine and over crest

a yellow song, a strange soft test
a time sped up and time of slowed
we were the first

shining gardens by nature are hoed
the years long gone, the years arrest
over ravine and over crest

see the wild roses lest
you miss them, time away has strode
over ravine and over crest,
but we were the first.

— by Sara

Ginko tree photo, Granada, Spain, by L.L. Barkat.

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Before it Was Gone

purple tree

I turn the paper over and find this... musings on coming-of-age, loss, change. Somehow the very things she writes of in her own little world are the things of my world too. I swallow hard and my soul says to this twelve-year-old, "Yes, daughter, yes."

Here is what she wrote, in answer to the question someone put to her: What's the most important thing you learned this year? The woods she refers to are a place she has played with a certain set of friends for five years. Next year, the woods will still be there, but the friends won't be...

I learned that sometimes there isn't one answer I can
think of for this question. And I learned that Michaela
and Noah and Eli are not coming back next year (and
the rest will never come), and I learned that someday

I might want to go across the log and I learned that
you can't sun-cook with aluminum foil and an empty
orange juice bottle, wild mustard leaves, in the woods
and I learned that I keep trying to write about the

woods and I can't and I know even if we can go back
there with them it won't be the same. And I learned
that gardens and bridges and water catchers for plants
and building ziplines don't actually work or happen but

we do them anyway and I don't know why. Well, I do
actually, sort of. We do it because it's something to
do, but after we knew they weren't coming back it was
as if we were trying to do everything before it was gone

and I learned to teach cello and write villanelles and I
learned that sometimes answers are right in front of
you already and you just have to find them and I
learned that there are some things you can't stop...

even if you really, really want to.

Purple flower tree photo by L.L. Barkat. Poem by Sara. Used with permission.

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Brains, Breathing, and Play: A New Kind of Counseling

Shadow Bridge

Counseling just might ruin your marriage. Or at least not salvage it.

That's the surprising implication of John Gottman's discoveries regarding love, as discussed in The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. I'm simplifying of course, but one of his basic ideas is that counseling can set a couple against each other, as each party works to explain what's wrong in the marriage (which, often, is actually a discussion of what's wrong with the other person). It can be more effective to focus on what's right and just plain have fun together (Gottman offers exercises in this regard, in case we get stumped on how to do this).

Thinking on this, and on the assertions of John Medina in Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, I wonder what a new kind of counseling might look like.

Medina's work isn't focused on relationships per se, but mentions how devastating stress, lack of sleep, lack of exercise, and multi-tasking can be for the individual in relationship. Also, I don't remember if he discusses the role of needing endorphins... our own "brain happy chemicals", but that's a factor in individual and relational well-being too.

Anyhow, Medina notes that marital satisfaction plunges deeply (something like 60% or more... the exact figure escapes me) in the first year of having kids. Kids, are we surprised, cause stress (the average toddler makes demands about three times a minute!!), lack of sleep, and often throw us into multi-tasking mode. We tend to ditch our exercise plans in the face of family life demands. It's a recipe for... all sorts of unhappy scenarios.

Lastly, and this relates to Medina's discussion of brain wiring and re-wiring, I'm reminded of a story I told in Stone Crossings: Finding Grace in Hard and Hidden Places. It's a sad story, about the day I slapped my little daughter. This was an absolute low point in my life. Really.

No one ever asks me why I did it or how I managed to never do it again (maybe they're afraid to ask?). I credit the Spirit, for guiding me into a simple, scientific, practical approach. For, as the dust settled and I grieved my failure, I was guided not to do something ethereal like pray, but rather to consider my physical state. I was asked to notice the symptoms of an adrenaline surge (racing heart, shortness of breath, increased temperature).

Adrenaline surges make us ready to fight or flee. That sorrowful day, I fought my child with a slap. And the regret was terribly deep. But I was also led to consider how my past had brought me to that place. I grew up in a situation of general escalation. Years and years of this had wired me to go from 0 to 60 in a matter of seconds, whenever conflict arose. Usually, the stress of this stayed inside but kids have a way of pushing us to our limits, and I had caved, to my great surprise and disappointment.

Which brings me back to my musing. What if, instead of packing off to the counselor (and maybe a little Valium too), we took a practical and scientific approach to our conflicts? (Don't misread me here; I'm not suggesting that counselors or medication are not an option... I'm just saying... what if? Also, counselors can help individuals and families to create brain-based health plans.)

Okay, so if I were going to apply this to myself, it might look something like this:

1. exercise daily, preferably outside, with my family when possible (increases endorphins, relieves stress, provides together-time, exposes us to healing power of nature as discussed in studies in Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder)

2. play daily, preferably outside, with my family when possible (increases endorphins, relieves stress, provides together-time; for more on the healing power of laughter, read here)

3. eat well (especially include essential fatty acids, which influence brain chemistry)

4. get adequate sleep, even if it means having to take an afternoon nap (20 minutes or 1 1/2 hours are the optimal lengths)

5. recognize the symptoms of an adrenaline surge and counter them with: deep breathing, an exercise timeout, talk to the problem ("I feel you, Adrenaline. You're preparing me to fight. But I don't want to hurt myself or anyone else. You need to leave me alone now.")

6. make a morning list of three Most Important Tasks and do them before getting on-line (relieves stress, reduces multi-tasking) (For more ideas on stress-relieving time management, try some of the ideas in Power of Less, The: The Fine Art of Limiting Yourself to the Essential...in Business and in Life)

7. on my morning list, jot one thing I love about each member of my family

8. and, of course, pray (what's good for the soul is good for the brain :)

I'm curious. What would your brain-based, practical plan to individual health and relationships look like?

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Getting There with Your Writing


People sometimes ask my advice about writing. Writing can feel like a mysterious and daunting process, especially if you're working on a longer project.

Recently, I found some unexpected wisdom, folded up in a sheet of yellow legal-pad paper. My eldest daughter was, perhaps, giving herself a writing pep talk. Or not. Regardless, I thought her poetic musings were encouraging...


All these little bits of colored fabric,
all these different stories, these stories.

You can't make a quilt without thread.
Put the stories together. If you have thread,
this connects the pieces. To connect the stories,
you need a thread. Connect the pieces, you can
make a quilt. Stories together make a book.

All these little bits of colored fabric
can make a quilt. You just need thread.
Stories just need thread to make a book.
To make a book, a quilt, you need thread.


Poem and photo by Sara.

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