A little over a year ago, my daughter and I were victims of a distracted driver who struck our car while when he checked his cell phone while trying to make a left hand turn. We were in a bright red Toyota Camry with the headlights on, driving at dusk at the end of a line of cars cruising slowly past Beaver Lake on our way back from Hobbs State Park. We saw the massive Dodge Ram truck turning into us without ever slowing.
When I opened my eyes, the sulfurous smell of deployed airbags filled the air and my right leg was burning from where an airbag under the steering column had kept my legs from going into the bottom of the dashboard.
As I tried to get my bearings, the first voice I heard was that of the driver of the other vehicle, hurrying over to me saying, “I just looked down at my cell phone for a minute.”
That’s all it takes. Just a minute to change everything.
We were very fortunate. While we were sore, cut and bruised for several weeks afterwards, we walked away. The windshield had cracked, the car was totaled. But we walked away.
The film, which Fast Company calls ” a brutal piece of documentary storytelling in which both the perpetrators and the victims of texting and driving open up about the ways that the collisions have changed their lives.” - will be distributed to more than 40,000 high schools around the United States. You can also find it on ItCanWait.com, where visitors “can take a pledge not to text and drive, share their own stories and see stats on the problem (including this troubling one: 75% of teens say texting and driving is common among their friends).”
Do me and everyone else on the road and in your life a favor.
Take the pledge.
Put the phone away.
It can Wait.
My GPS has this wonderful “Avoidances” feature that allows me to select any of several driving obstacles I’d like to avoid: U-turns, toll roads, traffic, carpool lanes, ferries (?). When I’m traveling -at least, after I reach my destination – I choose to avoid “Highways.”
Toodling around Baton Rouge for the last few days, “avoiding” highways has taken me to some great places in some interesting ways. I’ve seen sights and neighborhoods that I’d never have enjoyed had a I just hopped up on I-10 or I-12 and puddle jumped between exits.
Taking city streets to the Old Capitol area took me through some gritty areas of Baton Rouge, but also gave me an intimate sense of the history and layout of the city. Driving main roads to Bluebonnet Swamp richly illustrated the wonder of this fantastic urban greenway, bordered on all sides by homes and businesses and busy roads that give no clue to the wild lands they embrace, or the diversity of nature the park protects.
In the same way, entering the LSU Rural Life Museum and Ag Center grounds – an amazing 40 acre oasis of history and botanical beauty – along residential roads that give way to boundless fields and acres of forest made the experience of time travel offered by this unparalleled museum of folk architecture and culture even more powerful.
Baton Rouge, like all communities large and small, is more than the sum of its parts. It is powered by the energy, perseverance and creativity of its people, made manifest through that people’s architecture, industry and artistry. Exit hopping on the highway makes it convenient to forget and easy to miss everything in between those exits that makes it all possible and, more important, that makes it all meaningful.
Tomorrow, I have to disable my highway avoidance and make use of those high speed interstates, at least for some major stretches, if I’m to have any hope of getting back home in a day, which work and life necessitates. But I’ll be keenly aware of the lives and livelihoods, of the history and communities, that I’m passing by. And at the first opportunity, I’ll be taking the first available exit off the highway and getting back to the roads that really take you places.
Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.” Thomas Merton
I try to live my life in alignment with my core beliefs. My work, my faith, my art all aim to serve that bottom line. I love FIRST because of its focus on transforming culture in a way that elevates and empowers and celebrates youth for doing important, intelligent work. I love LI4E because I’ve been able to exercise nonprofit creativity with it, experimenting with intellectual performance art like TEDxYouth and Mini Maker Faire, and working to bring things I believe are good for communities – accessible learning, makerspace projects, free resources – to more people.
I love my church because it helps keep me centered, informed about and focused on the things that ultimately matter to me, and which all the other things I do ultimately serve. I love writing and photography because they’re vehicles for self-expression, and give me opportunities to turn ideas around and inside out, visually and verbally, and to look at things from different perspectives.
And yet I struggle continuously against myself: against the baser, less noble aspects of my being, against my short sightedness, my impatience, my foolishness, working to keep self-righteousness, expectations and judgment at bay. Sometimes I succeed. Often I don’t. Always I am aware that I could be a much better person than I am, that I could be a better wife, mother, aunt, daughter,co-worker, and friend.
In a wonderful class I took recently – Everyday Practical Buddhism, an introduction to the Rissho Kosei-kai school of Buddhism which is grounded in the real world – practical – aspects of the faith, the idea that we are always working to overcome ourselves and that these struggles are part of the journey, resonated with me. Rather than look at personal backsliding as failure, it becomes simply an opportunity to practice being better. If practice does indeed make perfect, then I’m going to need a lot of practice, so I can expect to have frequent set backs. The idea is to shorten each failure, to experience more time between them, to become more aware of each of our thoughts and actions, more intentional and less reactionary in our responses. There’s no reason to beat ourselves up over our failures, just acknowledge, move on and try to do better next time.
It’s not easy. People like Mother Teresa, Ghandi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. , Dr. Albert Schweitzer, and the every day good people we encounter who make serenity and compassion look so elegant, if not easy, are constant reminders to me of what I could be, of what we all could be, if we just put others before ourselves more routinely. If we – if I – had more patience. More compassion. More love. If I could really let go, un-attach, stop the cycle of self-imposed suffering caused by the expectations I have of the way life ought to be as opposed to the way life is.
And then today I encountered Thomas Merton, and pulled up short at the quote that presented itself:
“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.”
It’s not the “worthiness” part that galvanized me so much – I know better than that. When you get right down to it, I could say I’m not worthy of all the love and care I’ve received all my life. I’ve done nothing to do “deserve” it. It’s that third line – “What we are asked to do is love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy. “ It’s not that all of us deserve love, which makes it a need-based experience, but that all of us are called upon to love, which puts the idea and the practice wholly in our own hands and within our sphere of influence.
I’m not sure how I missed Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968) in the scope of my searching and learning. Perhaps I just wasn’t ready for him before. The son of artists, whose own journey of self-discovery in his short life took him from Catholicism to communism to monasticism, Merton’s body of work includes some of the earliest interfaith dialogues and studies in the U.S., encompassing some of the first Western conversations with the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, among other Eastern religious figures.
“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going, “ Merton believed. “ What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”
Well that’s a good thing! Especially since just when I think I’ve got it figured out, it becomes quite evident that I don’t.
“What we have to be,” he said, “is what we are.”
My life is a work in progress, but I’m increasingly aware that I tend to over complicate things, to over think the moment in which I would do better to simply be. I want to fix and help and improve, when all I really need is to be open, caring and accepting, of the moment, of those in my life at any given moment, of whatever experience envelops me at that moment.
“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to the violence of our times,” Merton observed.
Conversely, he said, “It is useless to try to make peace with ourselves by being pleased with everything we have done. In order to settle down in the quiet of our own being we must learn to be detached from the results of our own activity. We must withdraw ourselves, to some extent, from the effects that are beyond our control and be content with the good will and the work that are the quiet expression of our inner life. We must be content to live without watching ourselves live, to work without expecting any immediate reward, to love without an instantaneous satisfaction, and to exist without any special recognition.” (No Man is an Island)
Can I do that? I don’t know.
As my work with both FIRST and LI4E take me into new circles of relationships and influence, it can be easy to lose sight of the whole point of doing it all, to get caught up in the excitement of success and forget the bottom philanthropic line, the mission and goals at the heart of it all. As my adult children take their own paths through life, it’s natural to want to point out perceived hazards or errors of choice, to try to keep them safe and help them be successful, when all they need is the freedom to make their own mistakes and enjoy their own successes, my unconditional love and an open door. When I have to share my life with someone I find unpleasant, it’s easy to fall into resentment, when I could simply let go of expectations and judgment and exist side by side, making better use of my existence, and more joy in theirs.
I’m a work in progress. No promises. But if all I’m really called upon to do is love, I can certainly try.
Depending on who’s doing the talking, and what they’re talking about, either god or the devil is said to be in the details. The astounding and sometimes horrific nature of the insect world is one of those situations where both may be there at the same time.
This past summer, in particular, insects have had their share of headlines, from tick borne diseases to mosquito induced West Nile Virus,and flea driven Bubonic plague . Okay, technically ticks aren’t insects, they’re arachnids, but they’re arthropods of note and notoriety. Almost everyone’s heard of Lyme Disease now, which is caused by tick bites as are a number of other illnesses. But the tick bite illness in the news this summer – tick induced delayed anaphylaxis -is one I first heard about a couple of years ago when I was working on my book, the Florida Allergy Handbook .
I was actually in the middle of a draft review and was double checking some facts on tick allergy when I came across an article citing research about how the bite of certain seed ticks predisposed some victims to a severe allergy to meat.
I did a double take.
It got weirder. You only developed the meat allergy if your blood type is other than A or AB. The first
reports hailed from Australia but were eventually confirmed by University of Virginia researchers who found that some individuals bitten by “seed” ticks–the tiny larval young of adult ticks–experienced severe anaphylactic reactions three to six hours after eating beef, pork or lamb.
As I reported in my book, “Patients first experienced an increasingly intensifying itching that spread across the skin’s outer and deeper layers, and escalated to swelling, intestinal distress and finally symptoms of anaphylaxis. “
The culprit turns out to be an IgE antibody that binds to a sugar molecule known as alpha-gal, a finding that further disrupts what we thought about allergies, which are typically caused by proteins in food, pollen, dander and venom, not sugars .
Every time we think we’ve got a handle on things, it turns out we’re just holding a branch connected to a whole lot of other branches – and it’s full of bugs. We rarely really know what we’re talking about, and even when we do, the little things still rule.
West Nile Virus is nothing new, but this past summer the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, reported a record 2,118 ill and 92 dead of the disease, across 44 states. Mother Earth News is not alone in suggesting that climate change might be causing the increase in insect borne diseases.
“The best insecticide ,” says Mother Earth News.”… is cold weather. Nine of the 10 hottest years on record occurred between 2002 and 2011 with 2012 likely becoming the hottest year ever recorded! We are having earlier springs and hotter summers which mean mosquitos can breed earlier and longer.”
And that’s exactly what they’re doing. Throughout the Florida Allergy Handbook, I cite instances of climate change as a likely contributing factor to everything from larger, more virulent poison ivy to record size wasp nests. This summer in Florida alone, we’ve had nine inches of rain above normal, making for larger and longer areas of standing water that provide prime breeding ground for mosquitoes and other pests.
An intriguing article in Wired this month observed, “In the United States, Lyme disease is thought of as the major tickborne bad actor — but over the past two years, health authorities have been coming to grips with the unappreciated toll of other tick-related diseases, including erlichiosis, anaplasmosis, STARI, and babesiosis, which is moving into the blood supply. That’s not even to mention the toll of long-standing insect-borne diseases: malaria, one of the top five infectious killers in the world, along with rapidly rising dengue.
“When we indulge in cultural fascination with scary new diseases, we tend to look to the animal kingdom — bats in the movie Contagion, whose scenario was based on the discovery of Nipahvirus, or monkeys in just about any account of Ebola. Like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, we have difficulty believing we can be brought down by something we can barely see. (In some cases literally: The tick suspected of transmitting Heartland, Amblyoma americanum, is half the size of a sesame seed.)”
And yet arthropods continually fascinate me. The massive global, economic, social and health impact of things in such tiny packages is stunning in its unintended audacity. There is a wasp, for instance – a tiny fairy wasp with the ironically long name megaphragma mymaripenne - that is just 200 microns in size,; just twice the width of the average human hair, and smaller than a single celled amoeba. And yet this creature is replete with organs!
And on these creatures live other creatures in an almost infinite Whoville universe. Click the image below for a remarkable 1 milimeter to 500 nanometer inward zoom at the constellation of life in a humble amphipod.
“Nature will try anything once,” Annie Dillard wrote in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. “This is what the sign of the insects says. No form is too gruesome, no behavior too grotesque. If it works, if it quickens, set it clacking in the grass.”
All around me things are clacking in the grass. The abundance of summer rains have
produced an abundance of life everywhere you look – and sometimes it’s best not to look too closely. For days I watched a rather amusing little orange insect trundling placidly among the white pentas in my yard. I researched, and ran it past my usual expert sources – All Things Bugs, and IFAS . But because I’m nothing if not curious, I decided to run a “What Kind of Insect is That?” contest at Fine Art America while awaiting an answer, to see what other kinds of interesting critters might be out there.
Nearly 200 entries of amazing insect photos were submitted. It was there that I learned my cute little orange bug was a juvenile assassin bug that would grow up to do just what its name suggests – assassinate other insects.
The winning entries are remarkable things to behold – a yellow and black treehopper, by Craig Lapsley , with giraffe spots on a humped head and an opaque eye; a rainbow colored lantern bug, by Roy Foos, right out of a Dr. Seuss book, with a red elephantine protuberance covered in white spots and sporting green and yellow wings ; and a bulbous cicada, by Shane Bechler , with enormous cellophane wings.
These are in fact the little things that run the world, and will continue to do so long after we are gone. The cockroach repels us, yet because of us it thrives in the ecosystem of our leavings. We’re peripheral to the universe of ticks and mosquitoes, who largely exist on the blood of other animals, and yet they fell us by the thousands almost as an afterthought. Even the bubonic plaque has made a resurgence, contracted by a child in the Colorado this past summer, when she was bitten by fleas on a dead squirrel that she handled.
And yet insects are also beautiful , like butterflies, and successfully resourceful like ants, and vital to our existence like bees and other insect pollinators without whom our food crops would suffer and die. They also aerate the soil, are a critical food source for other animals, decompose dead materials,and fertilize the soil with the nutrients from their waste and remains.
It’s easy to fear and detest – and possibly be injured by – the things we don’t understand. E.O. Wilson said “More respect is due the little things that run the world.” Respect, born of knowledge and common sense conduct in and proper preparation for the outdoors, will protect us better than GMOs and indiscriminate eradication practices.
The god and the devil in these extraordinary details deserve both our reverence and some healthy caution, for they are both terrible and wonderful, like the Creation from which they hail.
Rest in Peace, Steve Jobs.
I’ve been thinking a lot about children, lately, particularly since I spent the day at the SPARC 2011 Conference last Saturday, hosted by the disabilities advocacy group, STAND. This morning, I’m heading out bright and early with a carload of young people to Learning is for Everyone‘s Knowledge Faire 2011 event. I founded Learning is for Everyone about ten years ago – about the same time I wrote the piece below, initially as a rebuttal to a newspaper article I read, and later as an article in Home Education Magazine. My then 12 year old is 23 now, her sister 21, their brother 18. And I still, more firmly than ever, believe all our children have extraordinary abilities.
From the March 2001 issue:
What are the odds your child is “gifted?” Probably slim, if you believe psychologist and author Ellen Winner, who says, “Extraordinary abilities are mostly innate and occur in perhaps one in 10,000 children.” But probably quite high if you believe in your child!
Winner argues that only “profoundly gifted students, with IQs over 160 or prodigious talents in art or music should receive special services.” The other 9,999 – including the just “plain old smart kids” can, for all intents and purposes, go take a homogenous hike in “high standards” classrooms (wherever those might be).
While that argument might make good fodder for public education policy, it’s a social setback of the most limiting kind. It’s a throwback to the days when IQs were (erroneously) considered the best measure of success and potential.
However great a blow it might be for the parents of the “profoundly gifted,” the fact is that the world is not run by the 1 in 10,000 Winner declares have “extraordinary abilities” or “prodigious talents.” The world is run by that neglected 9,999 who are being told they’re nothing special!
Those “plain old smart kids” who don’t qualify for accelerated learning programs or special science labs are the ones who will grow up to help out in soup kitchens, volunteer in nursing homes and homeless shelters. They will rally for clean water and healthy environments, read and appreciate good literature and often write it, work hard in jobs that strengthen our economy and raise new generations of ordinary, good people. They will be members of Doctors Without Borders and Green Peace and the Sierra Club. They will also probably be the ones with the surprising start up companies that wow Wall Street, who invent a new fuel source or rescue someone from a fire or an automobile accident.
I’m not the jaded parent of failed children saying this. I’m the mother of at least one gifted child, and probably three. When my oldest was six years old and her eccentric behavior was driving me nuts, and one of her grandmother’s was calling for a child psychologist to look into the matter, I took a chance and had her tested for giftedness. I figured she was probably no odder than Mozart as child, or Einstein, or Beatrix Potter boiling down fox carcasses in her backyard.
She scored one point shy of admission to the gifted student program at our local elementary school. Because she didn’t hurry through a timed portion of the test – indeed, has never hurried through anything – a score sheet said she wasn’t The “profoundly gifted,” but just a “plain old smart kid.” I was invited to bring her back in a year and have her tested again. The school was sure she would make it on the second round. I decided it wasn’t that important.
Of course she’s gifted. Her IQ measures in the 120 range. She’s twelve now, a magnificent artist, with a mature flair for cartooning and a deep and abiding love and understanding of nature. But she can’t do grade-level math to save her soul. Her sister, whom I never had tested, is also gifted. At ten, she shows “prodigious talent” at the piano and works well above grade level in math. But she gets confused with word problems on paper and her giftedness takes flight at the sight of any kind of “test.” The girls’ seven-year-old brother would probably be stuck in a learning disabled class. His giftedness is somewhat hidden behind a gregarious, fun-loving nature and an abhorrence of reading, although he loves to be read to and has the focus and maturity to enjoy listening to long novels with his sisters.
My friends’ kids are gifted, although not all of them notice their gifts. These children are wonderful skaters, artists, inventors, budding scientists, amateur filmmakers, young architects, and more. NThem have ever been formally tested for giftedness. As far as the public schools are concerned, these plain old smart kids have to tough it out in crowded classrooms with everyone else. Fortunately, many of these friends homeschool and they don’t have to worry about that.
I’m sure your children are gifted too. When my children were very little and we spent time with other friends who had children the same ages, I would watch in fascination and wonderment at the skills and talents they all showed at those tender ages. I couldn’t figure out why those other parents didn’t seem to see their children’s talents. Indeed, over time, a lot of those talents went unrealized because they were never recognized.
How many brilliant scientists have we lost? How many doctors, how many possible cures for cancer, how many magnificent compositions and great works of art, how many inventions and cosmological theoretical advances have never seen the light of day because throughout their youth, our possible saviors were told they were nothing special? Genius isn’t relegated to the domain of high I.Q. Genius, said Thomas Edison – who was considered “addled” in his youth and probably wouldn’t have qualified as GSP material today – is one tenth inspiration and nine tenths perspiration. It’s the result of the blue-collar work ethic, not white-collar elitism.
I am grateful that homeschooling allows me to nurture the unique genius and gifts of each of my children. I mourn the genius lost in public schools because a child hasn’t yet realized his or her potential at the age of 5. I believe we get what we expect from our children – and from one another. At least, I believe we do if our expectations consist in belief in one another’s highest potential. If we treated all our children as the geniuses they can be, and nurtured their innate gifts of kindness, charity, understanding, and compassion, as well as their hoped-for academic gifts, then 9,999 children out of 10,000 could brighten our future and theirs with their own “extraordinary abilities.”
What are the odds your child is gifted? Probably pretty good if you believe in your child!