Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Counting Blessings

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. When I was a kid, it was the only major holiday we had away from home because, for pastor's families, Christmas and Easter are always spent at home. But every Thanksgiving, we would go to church on Wednesday night and then leave for the grandparents' immediately after the service. It seemed to take forever (Google maps says that it was only about 3 hours) and we inevitably fell asleep in the car and awoke in our familiar room at Grandma's house with wonderful smells wafting up from the kitchen on Thanksgiving morning. In my little girl memories it snowed every year; this is probably incorrect but it is how I remember it. We would leave home in cold, wet, brown fall and wake up to untouched winter white splendor.

Before we fell asleep we always played the Thanksgiving version of the Alphabet Game in the car. Instead of I'm going on a trip and I'm taking a ___________ we would scramble to find something to be thankful for starting with each letter of the alphabet. (I know - this was sooooo little house on the prairie!) Thirty years later I became the driver and we played the same game over many long Thanksgiving road trips. And this year, on the night before Thanksgiving, I plan to fall asleep chanting "I am thankful for Austin's weirdness, I am thankful for books, I am thankful for church, and dogs, and Emily, and friends, and Gracie, and holidays, and", well, you get the idea. I could repeat this litany many times, changing every item - I am blessed beyond any deserving.

Most of us are blessed beyond measure and, as we barrel toward the ultimate consumer holiday, it is fitting that we stop and count up what we already have. It is the season of Thanks, and it's immediately followed by the season of Giving. Giving, not Getting.

I think it's easier for children to turn their attention toward giving if they are mindful of what they already have. So, after you have given Thanks, eaten turkey and dressing and cranberries and watched some football, I have a suggestion. Count your blessings. Then consider joining the Advent Conspiracy. You can check it out here:

Let your kids help you figure out who really could use a gift. Then, let them help pick it out. Or let them help figure out what to skip so that you can give more away. The video says it all - $10 Billion could solve the world's water issues. I am thankful that I can walk into my kitchen, turn on the tap and find clean water flowing out of it. Hot or cold - whatever I want! Next year, wouldn't it be awesome if we could be thankful that people all over the world have clean water?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Salt Water Cure

When I was growing up the American Cancer Society had a compelling set of public service announcements about the seven warning signs of cancer. One of those signs was "a sore that does not heal". I remember thinking that that was a ridiculously obvious sign - because sores always healed and you would certainly notice one that didn't. A sore that wouldn't heal was just unimaginable. Healing was both miraculous and ordinary.

Fast forward a few decades and I look around and see people who have scars from incredible traumas and disease but acknowledge their healing as their greatest blessing. And I see people with open wounds, physical or psychic, doing everything they can to be healed. And then there are those who continually re-open their old wounds, pick the scabs, to use a gross analogy. They don't seem to look for healing, they appear to relive the hurt over and over again in their mind's eye. Their hurt becomes their identity: wounded one, victim, patient.

I wonder a lot about those people. What makes them want to re-open their wounds? What makes them so unable to move on from their trauma or illness? Why do some people get stuck in sickness while others rise above it and go on to the next thing. Why doesn't God heal them? Is it because they don't believe healing is possible? Disclaimer here: I know that a lot of people have been deeply wounded by someone telling them they aren't being healed because they don't have enough faith. It is not my intent to suggest this in any way.

Healing is God's way. Jesus walked among us and healed many people. Many sought him out - crying out as blind Bartimaeus - Jesus, Master, have mercy on me. Others were brought by their friends or family - remember the story of the young man let down through the roof? Sometimes, he saw people and had compassion for them, healing whatever ailed them - even to raising a child from death on the way to the tomb.

So why do some people continue to be sick, or to make themselves sick? I don't know, but I believe that God is still at work healing them. Perhaps the wound we see is merely a symptom of a much deeper hurt or disease. Perhaps they fear wellness. A wise woman, with a very sick child, once told me that she knows that God will ultimately heal her son, she just doesn't know on which side of heaven it will occur. Healing is God's work. It happens in God's time. And God's time is not necessarily the same as mine.

God's healing work is out and about in the world today. Just the other day there were news reports that the vast majority of the oil spilled in the gulf is gone, eaten by microbes. Who saw that coming? Definitely a God-given healing to a deeply wounded body of water, all ,in God's good time, which was far sooner than we dared to dream. We don't yet know the full story of the healing of the gulf, or of our own. That will only come to us on the other side. In the meantime, let's make sure our kids notice God's miraculous healing, whenever and where ever it pops up!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

It Gets Better

Last week people all over the place were posting videos and essays and other means of encouragement for high school kids, telling them that "it gets better". As you undoubtedly know, this began in response to the high number of suicides by gay youth but, gay or straight, high school can be a terrible part of life. Some of us look back on high school days as the most fun years of our lives. I'm not one of them. So I want to add my voice to everyone who says that it gets better.

"It gets better" is one of those incredibly simple facts of life that kids don't have the experience to recognize. And they often don't observe this as a phenomenon because we adults often work very hard at making life look easy. Why is that? I think there are definitely things that kids should be spared, but reality is probably not a good choice. Parents must decide what is appropriate to share, but every parent really ought to share with their kids when they find themselves in a tough spot. This is how kids learn that it does get better. And, when you share with them, it frees them to share when it's not good for them.

Maybe your worst days were in high school. Tell your kid about it. Maybe your worst year of work is this one because everyone at your company is waiting for the next layoff. You will probably make some changes in preparation for the worst, so explain to your kids why everyone's spending is curtailed. Then, when the crisis passes, you will have the chance to say "See! It gets better!" Maybe you have lost a beloved parent or friend - letting your kids see you grieve also lets them see that, over time, it gets better.

It gets better. Three little words of encouragement, a priceless gift. Somewhere, sometime in your life, someone has thrown you some much needed words of encouragement. Somebody said that you could do it; that you were improving; that they were glad to have you on their team. You smile as you think of it. It did get better! You've lived long enough to know this to be true.

There are people who believe that the easiest way to teach a child to swim is to throw them in the deep end of the pool. While struggling to swim enough to survive certainly motivates a kid to try hard, it's a dangerous practice. A kid can drown in the deep end of the pool. It makes more sense to me, to get in the water with your kid at the shallow end and work your way into the deep water, adding more skills as you go. Then, when you let go of your child and she swims to the side of the pool she has a sense of mastery, and a deep inner knowledge that she is getting better. And better.

Look for opportunities to teach this lesson. Your kids, your nieces and nephews or grandkids or neighbor kids all need to hear that it gets better. They don't know it, but you do. This little piece of knowledge can be the raft that holds them up when they are close to drowning. It really does get better. Pass it on!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

It's Child's Play

The group I work with is going on retreat this week and we have been making promises to the new members of the staff about how much fun we have playing Taboo™. This, our favorite bonding ritual, is followed closely by a game called Imaginiff™. With both of these games, what makes it fun is only partly the game itself. The primary ingredient of the fun is the particular group of players. A secondary ingredient is the memory of games past.

Playing is a vastly important component of life. I recently listened to an interview with Adele Diamond (one of the founders of the field of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience) and was struck by what she had to say about play and learning. While she was particularly interested in dramatic play, I couldn’t help but jump from there to my own experiences with playing games, period. In her research on the pre-frontal cortex (I’m giving you all this so you can read more yourself) she has found that play gives kids better “Executive Functions”. There are three executive functions: Inhibitory Control, Working Memory and Cognitive Flexibility. These are pretty much exactly what they sound like they might be and here’s how they “play out” in games.

Inhibitory Control is basically waiting your turn, or waiting for the right time. This is one of the first things that playing games teaches us. Can you wait until it’s your turn? Can you wait to show us what’s in your hand until it won’t hurt your strategy?

Working Memory is just what it sounds like too. What do you need to hold in your brain to play the game? If you are playing Taboo, you have to remember which words are forbidden until your team guesses the word or your turn is over. In Canasta you have to remember what your meld is for this turn, and so on.

Cognitive Flexibility is being able to create a new strategy when conditions change. If I’m playing Yahtzee™ and I hold two 2’s and roll three 4’s I am probably going to shift my plan to collect on the full house instead of going for the 2’s.

Did you have any idea that playing with your kids could build such important skills? I wouldn’t tell them, but I would definitely make a visit to the game cupboard over Thanksgiving weekend (or sooner) and give your kids the gift of Executive Function. Even if they come grudgingly they will mostly likely get involved to some degree – and if a board game won’t work, how about going bowling or playing with the Wii? The benefits will be the same - fun, learning and memories.

One last tale of Cognitive Flexibility: I recently heard a mother say “Marco” in a crowded room to which her child dutifully responded “Polo” and ended the mother’s search. Who knew it would work out of the water?