Friday, March 8, 2013

i write by hand

not too long ago, at a small dinner party, i had the opportunity to articulate my position vis-a-vis teaching kids cursive handwriting.

the setting was this: in the high-tech saturated seattle corridor, most of my friends' husbands work for microsoft, google, or adobe. good at mathematics and robotics, not so good at arts and letters, humanities and social sciences. so we find ourselves in the seattle freeze, where they - the husbands - fit in quite perfectly, demographically, and the arts-and-letters, humanities-and-social-sciences wives organize coffee klatches and compare notes on the kind and amount of technological devices found in their homes due to their husbands' professions and interests. this technology, goes without saying, right?, is the milieu in which their children grow up. 4 open laptops and 7 cell phones permanently on the "dining room" table, pantries transformed into media & cable lockers, myriad connectors shoved into former catch-all drawers in kitchen. common setting.

and so, the dinner party. psychotherapist - female - at table, munching roasted almonds, alongside 2 or 3 informatics professionals, all male. school shopping for first grader, psychotherapist announces, with pronounced incredulity, "can you believe public schools now wait until 3rd grade to teach kids cursive? why do you suppose this is so?" question averted, IT guy poses question in retort, "why do kids need to learn cursive now when everything is digital?" i don't think i choked on the bit of almond, but did sit back in my chair, stumped, as though the man was speaking pig latin. slowly and thoughtfully regaining composure, i began articulating my position referred to above: "why do kids need to learn cursive?"

because the opposing argument was utilitiarian - what's the utility of learning cursive when everything is or will be done on a keypad or with a swipe of finger across a screen - the argument i constructed (for myself) that night was that cursive is not primarily or solely about usefulness.

it is about ... being human.

returning to a few posts back, where i inquired "what makes us human?" and which seems to be an au courant theme posed by social scientists (sherry turkle, jefferson singer, dan siegel, etc.), it's painfully obvious to me that subjectivity, finesse, the "correlates of consciousness," picasso, chopin, post-modernism, the existentialists, the lascaux cave paintings, gathering information through the senses (and the 3 brains) and processing, storing, interpreting, analyzing, cataloging, retrieving, and using that information are an oh-so-small portion of what makes us human.

decades ago, the precursor to this argument was this: a mathematician friend in NYC - one of my favorite places in the world because of its jumble of (perhaps you've guessed what i'm going to say) humanity - was intent on explaining to me why and how computer art can also be cataloged as art. paint-by-numbers, if you will, using a computer program. an art student at the time, but with burgeoning interests in the social sciences, my gut lurched even though my reasoning was inchoate: computer art cannot be art because art - Art, in the platonic sense of idea - is unprogrammable. art is intuitive and spontaneous and requires complexity of thought and feeling. computer programs cannot mimic human sensibility.

why learn cursive? well, the answer is, why learn to play the piano? why develop your own film, manipulating the chemical bath to obtain a suspected and desired result? why make art, for God's sake? this is why we should teach our children to write cursive! so that they have precursors for appreciating beauty. so that they can become complex, interesting and interested human beings. so that they can commune with other human beings about things which have no market value but which make life and the world rich, profound, and painfully beautiful. so that, being able to do these things, they stave off anxiety and depression, go toward meaningfulness and meaning-making, seek solace and plenitude in priceless gifts all around. stop and look at a stone; turn it over. pick up another one and compare it. act like a little scientist-artist. because you can. because you were born a human, not a robot or a dog.

during this recent dinner-party conversation, i also intuited that cursive has its utilitarian value, stimulating and strengthening neuronal networks that only the exercise of recognizing, reading, and writing cursive would activate and carve. brain architecture: every drop of knowledge or information finds a corresponding neuronal network in which to lodge itself, to deepen the brain's convolutions and add complexity to its structure.

but this strand of thought was for myself only, because that night i wanted to champion the idea that we teach our children to write cursive because it is part of the human endowment thus far and merits to be carried forward. like picasso and chopin, sartre and de beauvoir, kristeva and mahler, nirvana and the posies, frankenthaler and giacometti.

we teach our children to write cursive because we are beautiful and complex human beings.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

soulful: a friend's work

i believe in intersections, serendipity, and "no such thing as an accident." depending on who we are and what we pay attention to, we meet who we should meet, people we would want to meet anyways, fellows on paths similar to ours.

during a short stay in eastern washington in 2011, i met an artist who lives and creates in ellensburg.

at first, i met austin's aunt, who owns a flower shop and "trinket" store. i outfitted a good part of my office with finds from her shop. being in a small town, people act accordingly. and so inevitably, i would get a once-over and asked the requisite string of questions, prefaced with, "you're new here, aren't you?" she behaved the same. with her, because of her good taste, i willingly supplied information and made needs known, needs which mostly lay in the visual arts category. she said, "you should give my nephew a call. see if he's got some ideas for your office." and so i did. and henceforth, he's one of the people i've ... collected ... whom i think fondly of and wonder to myself, "what would austin have to say about this?"

my needs were these: business cards and a sculpture for my office. 

i bought cheap business cards from an online supplier. and a frame for 3 2-d pieces of art from austin. he helped me envision a different way to “hang pictures.” so he made me a frame which was like a sculpture. black and thin and simple. 3-d. and minimalist. stunning, but doesn’t detract from that which it’s framing.

the product is but also isn’t important. what remains is the dialogue and the essence of the person. when talking with austin about what i was thinking with respect to art in my office, he thought silently – he does this quite a bit in the presence of another, a comforting stance in a world of ceaseless cacophony – and said, “i think you should be different [than other shrinks] by filling your office with art. lots of it. everywhere. i can see it. it would represent you well.” he has an impish smile; he uses it to punctuate personal opinion.

while moving out of a moldy rental house, i slept in my cozy office, with austin's art sprawled out on the floor in front of the couch. i was considering it, to see how it could “fit” in my office. it was on loan and i would contemplate it and play with it when i needed to clear my head or rinse my eyes with a good visual image. the piece was so strong, visually, that i’ve stored it in my memory network. i can easily bring to mind the pieces of painted, distressed plywood, with large arcs sawed into the surface and burnished with a torch. playful little 12-inch by 12-inch square boxes, like puzzle pieces that could be re/arranged at will. the image they made, individually or together, so compelling, my eyes would steal away to the little squares. i’d squint my eyes and imagine different patterns, the off-white and dark-brown pieces scattered on my off-white-yellow-burgundy kilim. it soothed my ruffled feathers while i was recovering from mold and respiratory illness.

it reaffirmed what i knew: there are many interstitial people. we (eventually) find the connections.

the intersection is this: a visual artist, formally trained in visual arts and music, who makes art mostly by himself, who uses both raw as well as processed material, both natural as well as man-made materials, who makes both fine as well as functional art, who seeks solitude as well as dialogue, who likes working alone and in collaboration, who waits silently for truth and the right message to emerge, who sees beauty and potential in free resources like sunlight and shadow and in discarded or unwanted objects like a rusted metal coil. who expresses gratitude, simplicity, childish joy, evolved insight, possesses a robust visual repertoire, humility, integrity. and a love of connecting the dots. partial self-description: “love to discover new relationships.”

to see him, by way of his art, go look at 3 crescents, his winning entry for a sculpture commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Seattle World’s Fair.  

Extensions in the Garden
I created this space to exercise and embody movement, balance and meditation. I believe it's important to retreat and process our thoughts. As I walk upon these extensions from the earth, I connect and confirm my relationships with creative ideas. In movement I realize that God is moving and He loves us.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

pilfered springboard

"I don’t know that psychotherapy in its many schools would think of its goal as the liberation of love from a heart twisted in on itself by suffering. But I have found, in my self-work, and now for many years in my work with others, that as suffering retreats love enters; as self-pain diminishes, care and concern for others ripens. Maybe it is as natural to love as for a cherry seed to ripen into a cherry ... I once read about a seed that had been wrapped away for thousands of years in an Egyptian mummy. Unearthed, brought into the light and planted, it shot out its roots, sent forth its branches, unfurled its leaves. I can’t remember the name of the plant it became but perhaps, whatever it was, it will help us in our work to imagine that love is like that, a mighty seed, often hidden away and hard to reach, but ready to thrive given the right conditions."

Following on my recent acolyte-like experience with Dan Siegel, I stumble - unwittingly - across thoughts, ideas, opinions, expressions which return me to his work, which is, after all, human work, I like to think; it's not like it's branded-Dan-Siegel. When Siegel asserts that the "emotional" brain (love, affiliation, connection) trumps the "thinking" brain (good grades, memorization, historical events, trigonometry formulas) with respect to promoting overall health and well-being, I am reminded of a piece of information I retained verbatim from my Adlerian training program: Emotions motivate people to action. Not thoughts. Not behaviors (which catalyze other behaviors). No. We act (do, behave, speak, think) because of what we feel.

And the time continuum connects these two strands linearly to Kim Chernin's quote prefacing this post, pilfered from her blog earlier today about the alchemy of suffering (trauma), the human heart (feelings), and psychotherapy. Aside from my in-love-ness with "the liberation of love from a heart twisted in on itself by suffering," she makes the connection very explicit: 1. We are born (to love and connect); 2. We suffer (because our selves have been hurt, physically and/or emotionally); 3. Because we suffer, we (retreat and) cannot love (our selves or others); 4. We (re)connect (with a therapist; a guide; a mentor; a true friend) deeply, trustingly, heartfelt; 5. Suffering retreats; 6. The heart opens again (to ourselves and others); 6. We (can) love again, our selves and others.

Equally explicit is Siegel's connection between suffering, disconnectedness, and love, though he would likely call these existential states impaired integration, impaired relationships, and right-brain affiliation.

It's of great interest to me that scientists (albeit "soft scientists" in the social science domains) are spending a lot of resources lately on making love, affection, human contact and warmth, belonging, affiliation, feelings the focus of their musings and research. And they go forth in the public space and unabashedly cry, "Love victorious!" This reminds me of a favorite writer, George Vaillant, who said, "Why should the emphasis of AA on positive emotions work as well as or better than the exploration of negative emotions in which I engaged as a psychotherapist?"

While I take issue with the value valence of "positive" and "negative" emotions - both human, valuable, and inextricable from the totality of our lived experience - social science research is, lately and insistently and almost unanimously, making us recognize that love and affiliation, human connection, care, concern, pathos, deep feeling, empathy, warmth, touch, instinctive alignment with another, are the sine qua non building blocks of health and healing.

Lest mental health professionals decry these affirmations, challenging the recent temporality I'm assigning to this research with the fact that attachment and relational theorists have studied and published about this since the early 20th century, let me join you and say, "You are right. This is somewhat not new. And moreover, new brain research, translatable to 'bedside' therapist blogs, shows that even microscopic molecules proclaim love to be victorious. In the end."

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Optical Illusion of Our Separateness: A Workshop Brain Dump

I recently saw Dan Siegel in action, a brief, 3-hour workshop on the whole-brain child. What follows is my brain dump from this event, threads of which have been (and likely will continue to be) interspersed throughout my posts. Why? Because he is The Messenger. Well, one of them, in any case. He works at the intersection of physiology, neurology, evolutionary biology, psychology, psychiatry, physics, biochemistry, and probably a few others that escape me now (or seem far-fetched but likely plausible). Remarkably, this plurality of interests and abilities to inter/relate hasn't gone to his head and he is one of the true ones, you know, the ones who are so smart and interesting but ... warmly genuine. Nice... Rare.

I'll unpack the collection of bullets in subsequent posts, but I feel a need to disseminate this information now. Again, apologies for ... bulleted list; do hope you find it helpful.

(Oh, yeah, um, it's a long-ish post. Read when brain fresh and steamy coffee tickles nose hairs :)


Workshop: Raising the Whole-Brain Child
Academic discipline: Interpersonal Neurobiology
·         Book: Archaeology of the Mind by ; Subcortical processes and how they influence behavior
·         Book: The Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind, by Dan Siegel

·         - What is the mind? Definition?
·         - Q: What are you trying to develop in your students? A: A strong, healthy, creative mind
·        -  The model: Separate things (brain/CNS, body structures) working together as a functional whole; the “embodied brain”
·         - Mind     -              Brain      -              (Interpersonal) Relationship
·        -  Parents share information (energy flow) in such a way that children can self-regulate and learn
·       -   Energy, information flow – basic units; they are both relational and embodied
·         - Relationships shape your brain and mental experience
·         - Emergence – mind-regulatory process in a self-organized system;
-          - Emergence arises from within and returns to the system to regulate it
·        -  Interior of body     -         lamina I     -          Vagus nerve       -      limbic system  -         RT hemisphere
·        -  3 brains: stomach brain, heart brain, head brain
·         Book: Polyvagal Theory by ;
·         Think tank: Garrison Institute
·        -  Spectrum: chaos              -              integration          -              rigidity
·         - DSM is a book describing impaired integration
·        -   Integrative fibers of the brain can grow with mindfulness training
o   Integrative fibers connect neocortex with limbic system
o   Promoting generation of integrative fibers promotes self-regulation
·         SIFTing through the experience/mind with kids so as to help them reflect on the internal world
o   Sensations 
o   Images                
o   Feelings
o   Thoughts
·         Honoring differences     -              integration         -              promoting linkages
·         Book: Mindsight, Siegel, 9 domains of integration
·         Mindsight
o   Inside/insight/empathy
o   Develop this as a skill to help kids integrate
·         Book: The Master and His Emissary, Ian McGilchrist; the hemispheric difference is not so important vis-a-vis what they do as it is with respect to who they shape you be
·        -  Moments of challenge are the deepest opportunities to optimize integration
·         RT hemisphere is indicative of internal affective (emotional) state
o   Eye contact
o   Facial expression
o   Body posture
o   Gestures
o   Timing
o   Intensity
·         Strategy: When high emotion, connect (w/ RT brain), then redirect (w/ LT brain)
·         Strategy: When high emotion, the whole organism calms down when LT brain is used to name the feeling (Name it to tame it)
·         Strategy: Taking control of the images in our mind (Altering energy patterns in the brain to help the child control mental landscape)
·         To teach regulation, teach
o   Monitoring
o   Modification
·         - Implicit memory (dissociation, high adrenaline) vs. explicit memory
·         - Narrative integration
·         2 circuits in the brain
o   Observing circuit (witnessing and narrating)
o   Experiential circuit
·         Integration
o   Bi-lateral
o   Vertical
o   Narrative
o   State/consciousness integration
o   Integration made visible is kindness and compassion
·         State integration/consciousness
o   A state of knowing
o   That which is known
o   Ex: anger: 1) awareness of anger; 2) feeling of anger
·         Wheel of Awareness
o   Exercise to do with kids to structure and integrate consciousness
·         Strategy: Let the clouds of emotion roll by
·         - The science of how energy flows and is modulated by consciousness
·       -   Emotion – shifts in integration
·         Positive emotion              -       negative emotion (integration toward emotional regulation)
·         Book: Mothers and Others by Sarah Hrdy; alloparenting, which is “it takes a village” concept to raise a healthy child; nuclear family does not provide enough support to raise healthy children
·          Adolescence
o   Decrease in neurons (gray matter)
o   Increase in myelination of new circuits (white matter)
o   Increase in neuronal integration
o   Huge increase in dopamine
o   Future of planet is teenagers
o   Instead of contradicting and fighting teens, instead of encouraging competition amongst each other, task them to take on challenges together with support of adults, while they separate from parents
·         Strategy: Increase the family fun factor
o   Playfulness creates integration
·         Strategy: Connect through conflict
·         Book: Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives -- How Your Friends' Friends' Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do,
·       - What’s the new human story? The human being has evolved because of collaboration. Einstein, “The optical illusion of our separateness.”
·       -   3G, 2P: gratitude, generosity, giving to people and planet
·         Siegel’s brain in a fist
o   The prefrontal cortex touches the brain stem (autonomic processes: heartbeat, breathing, sleep regulation) and the limbic system (feeling, fight, flight, freeze, faint)
o   Secure attachment is made possible by integrative capacity of prefrontal cortex
§  Regulates the body
§  Calms fears
§  Self-insight                              
§  Empathy                                   
§  Morality
§  Intuition
·         A child’s 3 Ss lead to 4th S:  Secure
o   Seen
o   Soothed              
o   Safe