Rhythm & Respiration

Rhythm & Respiration
Reflecting on nature-based therapy, learning, well-being and value-added life ...

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Taglines as therapeutic touchstones

 

Medicine stones painted by Andrea Pratt, artist

Taglines as therapeutic touchstones

Taglines have become an expected element of our economic landscape, but can be valuable in therapeutic work, too. In this era of business branding, developing an effective tagline is a necessary step in marketing strategy. I have learned, however, that creating a personal tagline that speaks to your own essence and mission or life purpose can be a powerful therapeutic tool, especially useful during times of transition. There is something about a simple, clear statement that reminds others—and yourself—about what is important to you and what you bring to the world that can provide sudden clarity on a dark day. Personal taglines can act as touchstones when life tumbles around us like a chaotic whirlwind.

So, what is a tagline? A tagline is in effect a punch line: the zinger! It is that little statement following a business name that provides a quick understanding of the company’s personality and mission. Big ones we have heard umpteen zillion times are:

Verizon: “Can you hear me now?”

Microsoft: Be what’s next.

Apple: Think different.

Nike: Just do it.

McDonald's: I’m loving it.

The skillful use of taglines are that they often shift over time and size of the company. When the company is small and new, taglines are designed more to answer the question of what a company does, or why we need them, or how they intend to improve their customers’ lives. Over time and multiple uses, the company grows and gets more known and the tagline evolves to a simple snapshot of the company—one that conveys an emotion, aspiration, or the one-two punch that captures the companies essence in a tiny package of three to five words.


The tagline for Kindle Health, my ecotherapy practice, is: I help people rekindle their joy. That, in a nutshell, is what I aspire to do in my health and wellness counseling, coaching, and writing. The tagline for Fox Song Farm, the site and context of my ecotherapy and equine-guided work is, Come home to your herd. I like this tagline as it completely describes the calm welcome that the horses as a herd offer to clients. It also holds true of the goat family and chicken flock. All seem to have a notably kind curiosity toward visitors! And, I love hearing that contended sigh as clients look around and settle, leaning against a fence or sitting in a chair on the deck overlooking the field, watching the horses and goats.

I often work with student nurses who are nearing graduation and still concerned about how they answer questions of medical colleagues, patients, and even family and friends about who they are and what they do as a nurse. Yes, even in 2020 nurses still find it difficult to explain what makes them distinct from physicians and why they have chosen nursing rather than medicine. I find that having students write 2-minute elevator speeches help student nurses begin to truly define their distinctively unique nursing perspective. Often what comes out of the elevator speech is a lovely, succinct tagline that they can use to quickly sum up who they are as a person and what they bring to the nursing or healthcare table. I love to see their shoulders straighten and drop and that sparkle in their eyes when they launch those words that just feel right. Taglines can truly flash a picture of who we are and communicate our essentials to others. They are kind of a mental business card, I suppose! I’ve heard from students how their tagline provides them with a quick touchstone response when they are overwhelmed in a situation or feeling intimidated by those around them.

As I was idly watching the horses while cleaning the barn today, I realized that I have more than enough material to write taglines for each of the equine characters living on Fox Song Farm:

               Puck: “I help people question their fears.”

               Tivio: “Hay, I’m here. For you.”

               Arael: “I see you.”

               Penelope: “Size is a mental construct.”


Puck’s tagline came almost immediately. Puck has a huge, athletic body and is in constant motion. He loves to get close to people and connects graciously, but his big size can be intimidating. Puck does tend to push boundaries and cause people to confront fear and trust. Tivio, my puppy dog quarter horse, loves hugs and his food, and yes, often in that order. Enough said!  Beautiful Arael generally appears to be in the background, which is deceptive as she is the lead mare of the Fox Song herd. She notices everything, and I value her reactions to situations and people. I learn most from watching Arael with a new client. Penelope is our miniature appaloosa. Although she is physically the youngest and smallest horse in the herd, she has an old soul and I often call her my wise woman. When doing therapy work, Penelope is decisive and determined. When Penelope ‘speaks,’ we all listen.

Well, that was fun! Want to write your own tagline for yourself, your business or career, or your own pets? Here are some tips:

  1. Keep it simple and short. Taglines are stronger if they convey one idea that is understood easily. Don’t use more than 5-7 words at most.
  2. One simple way to begin is to distill into a word or two what it is you do, what is most important to you, or your essential purpose. A simple phrase to begin this is the word, “I ….” For example, “I help …” or “I can …” or “I will …” can lead into several directions, but the focus is on YOU and what YOU DO.
  3. If the first part of the tagline is about you and what you do, your essential purpose, the second half of the tagline is about what you do for others, community, clients, profession. This simple meaning can come from a phrase … “I can …,” “I provide …,” “I give …..” Or, for me, it was, “I help …” as in, “I help people rekindle their joy.”
  4. Think about the ‘feel’ of the words you choose. What emotion do you want to convey, or to produce in someone on the receiving end? For example, the blend of emotions I wanted for ‘I help people rekindle their joy,’ was a remembering, or nostalgia, for recalling when we have experienced personal passion and joy in our lives. The choice of the word ‘rekindle’ had a two fold reason: to give the feeling of relighting a flame inside us, as well as a nod to my practice name, Kindle Health. For ‘Come home to your herd,’ the emotion was a warm, homey feeling of belonging. After you have the content of what you are all about, you can choose language that conveys the feeling you want others to experience. Although this emotional stuff feels like it would be unimportant, the funny thing is that this step often produces that quintessential bit that turns out to be the biggest contributor to your tagline. Frequently, people rewrite their tagline completely when they discover the right emotion they want to convey. By choosing the words that best portray the feeling often comes a stronger message!
  5. Not sure where to start? Look for inspiration with power words that inspire you or move you in some way. Google a thesaurus and start word shopping! Write down the words that either feel like a match to your essential self, or that move you toward what you aspire to be or do. Then, with those self-identified power words, go back to tips two and three and begin to try these out in the short sentence linking who you are and what you bring to the world.

Elevator speeches and taglines can be powerful ways of bringing us back to the existential question of who am I? and what is my purpose, or mission on this earth? Especially during times of transition, deeply reflected upon phrases can be touchstones for us. They also can help remind us of why we do what we do, even when the world does not seem to notice our efforts.


For several years, I had to put my fiction writing on the back burner as I developed my nursing career and continued my education. Then, life happened, and bill-paying needed to take priority while we experienced medical challenges in the family. Through these years, I struggled often to understand a seemingly stymied life purpose. Many, many times I went back to the tagline that I had developed years earlier while working with Madeleine L’Engle as her teaching assistant in a creative writing course.


Although we didn’t call them elevator speeches or tag lines then, Madeleine had us all introduce ourselves with a short 'blurb' about who we were and what was important to us. I had just been accepted into nursing school and was struggling to understand this new path that, although felt right, would undoubtedly take me away from writing full time. I remember standing on the University lawn where we had assembled the class and clutching my brand-new stethoscope as a visual aid, giving my little talk and ending it with: “Although these two paths, writing and nursing seem unconnected, what I am realizing is that they are both about my intention to promote healing. I heal through my hands and my words.” That tagline truly has become my touchstone through the years, especially during times when I could not find time or energy to write fiction. The core of my essence, or life-mission, remained, healing; I was simply doing it a different way for a time. As well, I strove to have my academic writing be creative and inspiring and healing in its own way. I am sure that I haven’t always met my own bar for this, but the intention has been there, and my tagline-touchstone helped keep this in my line of sight.


This afternoon a big heavy box was delivered to our door. When I opened it up, I found copies of the newly published nursing reference text that was a three-year writing project. Although this academic writing project was not ‘fun’ in the same sense as writing stories and poems are stimulatingly mesmerizing for me, again, my tagline kept me on track. I kept my intention to heal through my words. In a very real way, this nursing text is a demonstration of healing with my hands and my words.

Taglines as touchstones. For me, they have for many years kept me joyfully moving on mission. Maybe for you, too?



Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Grief agendas

Grief agenda, noun:

The inevitable, seemingly relentless course of thought, action, behavior that follows deep loss.

In a profound way for me and my siblings, the world ended for us on March 24th, 2020. I was meeting with students by Zoom, holding virtual office hours discussing a nursing students’ math requirement for pharmacology, and I received a text, and then a phone call. First my sister texting: can you take a call? Second, my mother’s caregiver phoning with attending paramedics. My magnificent mom: singer, speaker, pianist, poet, international humanitarian agency director (Ukrainian Children’s Christian Fund) and girl-who-skipped-grade-four, was found unresponsive. Olga OliviaBalabanov Lapka had quietly slipped into eternity just at the beginning of the Covid pandemic lockdown, therefore foiling any attempts we could make to have a public Celebration of Life. It was perfectly done—as my mom would have graciously accepted the gathering of friends from across five or more nations, but, deep introvert that she was and hid so well, I think she probably preferred the simple family and close friends send-off we had, rich in prayers and steeped in love, in the spring sunlight, braced by a brisk breeze, gathered where her body would rest beside my dad’s.

Olga at homeWe are still reeling, as you can imagine. Although she was 93 years old and beginning to take more frequent cat naps throughout the day, our mom was still busy in her large home office on her computer, writing receipts for charitable donations to the mission she and my dad had founded, jotting down thoughts for bulletin items, and emailing UCCF workers in the Ukraine and Germany. In her off time, Mom avidly read, wrote notes, kept up on news (TV and her daily Vancouver Sun paper), cared for her two cats, Pepsi and Honey, and brought us kids all up to speed on both current events and the antics of the racoon family that routinely invaded her back yard. She had, only a very few months earlier, stopped independently driving to attend Sunday morning services at her beloved Gospel Hall in Richmond.


Olga with Honey and PepsiWe humans were not the only ones whose lives were instantly altered. Mom's cats were heart broken.  Mom had raised these two from tiny kittens, adopted them where they had been destined to live out notoriously short lives as near-feral barn cats.  Honey and Pepsi were brother and sister, both tabbies, but Honey was orange tabby and Pepsi was a dark grey tabby. They had both grown into stately, beautiful companions with a streak of mischievous fun. Both cats were highly bonded to my mom, but Honey in particular never left her side in the few months leading up to my mom’s passing. So much so, that my sister, another ‘cat lady,’ had a thought cross her mind that Honey might be signaling something that she did not want to acknowledge—that Mom was getting ready to leave this earth. Notoriously shy and disappearing when someone new entered the house, Honey remained firmly seated beside Mom while the paramedics worked on her and stayed beside her until the funeral home attendants carried her body away. Pepsi wailed the entire night we were there, in what can only be described as a deep grieving dirge.

Mom had asked me to be the cat’s ‘god mother,’ so, after our small service, Honey and Pepsi were loaded into their traveling crates and made the journey to Vancouver Island to our small farm in the Alberni Valley. We tucked them into our guest room turned cat room, filling it with their own familiar beds, dishes, toys, litter trays and even hung my mom’s wall clock with the bird song on the hour on the wall and placed a couple of pairs of my mom’s personal items in the room. Our own king-of-the-mountain Siamese cat, Gabe, peeked in with interest as we prepared the room for our two newcomers. We always described Gabe as a lover not a fighter as he always kept to himself and out of any neighborhood cat drama. He also, at an early age, made friends with a young street rat that he tried to convince us to allow in our home. We never saw him with any ‘trophies’ thereafter; indeed, we had never known Gabe to lift his paw to anything but friendly fun. I had high hopes that the cat ‘cousins’ would integrate peaceably. 

I did not count on the scope of Honey and Pepsi’s grief, nor on the depth of Gabe’s cherished identity as ‘only cat.’ Gabe had grown up in a household of pairs: two of us and two Dalmatian dog-sisters. The horses, goats, and chickens were family groups too, but Gabe stood alone. And he liked it that way.

After 10 days in isolation from the rest of the animals, we began to leave the guestroom door ajar in the evening to allow the cats an opportunity to explore the rest of the house while the other animals were confined to another part of the house. After a couple of weeks of this, we began allowing an opportunity for paths to cross in the evening when we were in the house. It didn’t go well. Maggie, our Dalmatian was fine—she had a vague interest in the new smells but was politely uninterested otherwise. Gabe and Pepsi did a weird air-boxing routine that ended up with Pepsi running up the living room drapes to perch on the curtain rod as if it were the crow’s nest of a pirate ship. And down he would not come, even after Gabe was hustled off to the other part of the house. After nearly three days, he was persuaded to come down, spitting and kicking, and he rushed to the guestroom to fill up on food and water and ‘unload’ as it were. Soon, we saw him sleeping on our bed and seemingly unconcerned, purring a greeting to me. The crow’s nest episode was a turning point for him. Pepsi, newly christened Parry from his habit of answering everything by parrying back a cat remark, was suddenly becoming one of the family.

Honey remained oblivious to everything and seemed only concerned with either hiding under the bed or seeking a way out of the house. Honey had never made any attempt to connect with us during those 10 days enclosed in the guestroom or the weeks of evenings in the house while we quietly sat by or slept in our bed, door open. She never looked at us even while eating her meals. She refused to join in and play or explore with a cat’s curiosity this new house with strange farm smells and clucking crowing chickens just outside the window.  She never ran from Gabe nor approached him. She simply avoided any contact. We would only see her in a relentless, silent search for an open door or window. Eventually, she would find one.

One morning, Honey was gone. Her grief agenda was to go. Never connect, never look back. Somehow, her brother Pepsi, had made a different choice. His grief agenda was to be family, be loved and connected to our household, the farm, us. The goodbye between this brother and sister was complete and soundless. Pepsi stayed; Honey left. We live in a rural area with neighbors that look out for each other and are in a small valley of animal lovers. We text and call each other if someone’s animal is out or possibly in trouble, and we’ve been known to leave our beds in the middle of the night to help corral someone’s cows or horses who have wandered out of the safety of their fields. No one has seen Honey. It is summer, and there is lots to eat and drink in the fields and barns and sheds to shelter within. She may travel, need time and space, and maybe we will see her again toward fall. Or, she may have found another older soul to move in with and companion; one whose essence is not as painfully similar to mine, but one who needs her. My sister prefers to think the latter.

Grief agendas are powerful forces. I’ve watched as my brother has become more connected to family, my older sister returning to essentials, sharing grace and gratitude, and my younger sister again embrace composing, singing and recording of music, so much a part of mom’s life. For myself, writing has demanded I give it more time; words and other worlds are another legacy-remembrance of my mom who encouraged and edited all my fiction from book one and before.

When we lose someone beloved, the indelible mark we feel is life-altering. Grief agendas are written from a place within us that is not necessarily connected to our pre-frontal cortex and executive function. Grief agendas do not seem to be a choice and have more in common with a drive or reaction, in that we find ourselves in a different place than we were before the split second of grief impacted us. Grief agendas are not decisions made to improve our lives to honor the passing of someone admired, rather they are the aftermath of lightning bolt-grief that has seemingly burned us to the ground-soul of who we were. What we are left with is the cobbling together of meaning and memory on the art board of this raw, razed self.  

In a way, a grief agenda is the final, terrible gift given to us upon the departure of our loved one. Perhaps that is why we want to hold onto grief so desperately. It is the last connection that has been physically drawn on the cognitive heart of our person. To lose grief is to lose that immediate last connection. We fear the loss of the loss, because we fear a void.

doorway to gardenIf we consciously allow ourselves to be carried by our grief agenda, we learn that we are not left with nothingness. Indeed, we are left with the germinating seeds of what will grow after our catastrophic loss. Like the green after a brush fire, saplings emerge. Painfully, perhaps; unplanned, certainly. And here is where, I think, our choice returns to us. Which saplings will we prune, bolster, nurture? I find, that as I write and speak, I am a bit braver, a bit clearer, and a whole lot more heart- and head-strong about what I will write about. I am also more ruthless about the time I have to accomplish what I must. Legacy work has become essential work.

Grief agendas ruthlessly pare out the nonessential. In grief lies the gift of clarity, of what is meaningful, what stands the test of time, is purpose-filled, core-honest, but not self-gratuitous.

Ruins of the city of Charn in Narnian ChroniclesI suppose, in writing the eulogy of others we learn to listen for the ring of truth, to recognize her, the core-gift of the person we loved. We need to uncover the nugget, reach the diamond depth of understanding her astonishing uniqueness. We are distressed when we hear a tribute that feels false, that piles platitudes like straw that obscures rather than clarifies this person-gift to us. Truth, like Charn’s time-waking end-of-days bell in the Narnian chronicles, really does bring to finality our loss, but in doing so, truth set us free to resonate with others and appreciate the bitter-sweet present moment where time flowed into eternity. In writing, and listening to our beloved’s life story, we learn what stands the test of time; purpose lived that may have appeared mundane but was foundational gold. We are given the choice to groom, bend, prune the saplings freshly rooted in our own lives.

Grief agendas are in one sense mysterious and in another sense blazingly obvious. It is easy in the normal slippage of days where workdays merge and weekends are either hectic or passed in stuporous recovery mode, to overlook even the blazingly obvious grief agenda. Reflecting, remembering, reminiscing, all help us to recognize our individual agenda, or direction, that our heart-core has written. When we succumb to and follow our own grief agenda, what we find is that a core-purpose of our beloved was in fact to birth, shape, and prepare us for our own life-work.

That is the agape, or God-like love that is shared between souls; love that is lived action rather than simply shared emotion. Rarely a huge event, rather it is the living side-by-side, sharing of time and stories, walking and working alongside, struggling through everyday fortunes and misadventures. Whether transparent exchanges of communication and love are remembered or obscure fits and starts of trying and failing are more readily recalled, as proverbs state, “iron sharpens iron” and “faithful are the wounds of a friend.”

I believe that there is a healing of the raw brokenness that grief imparts by faithfully following grief’s agenda. I think that it begins with accepting the legacy gift that is ourselves.

thistleI took a break from writing to go cut thistles that have come up in our garden yard with my scythe. (Yes, the odd mental image of the grim reaper did pop into my mind, as I ruminated over this piece!) Many of the thistles had reached that pretty stage of soft purple flowers just unfolding. My love of the natural beauty of wildflowers and support for honeybees and hummingbirds always compete with my pragmatic side in these moments. But, of course, the need to lop these picturesque blooms is so that they will not be pollinated and propagate more thistles. My scythe did its work and my garden has survived this season’s thistle invasion. I watched as the honeybees simply shifted their attention to the many squash, bean, and pea blossoms—a very good result! I suppose that our choice to cultivate or cut down ‘stuff’ that piles into our days is often as simple as scything the thistles was for me this morning;  legacy work and “iron sharpening iron” living is generally about the small choices we make that fill the minutes of our days.

Parry at Fox Song FarmAs I was gardening, I noticed that Mom’s Pepsi, now our Parry, had come out to meditatively watch as I worked. He was commenting every once in awhile as this cat is known to do. I’m guessing it was the first time he had seen someone scything thistles, but he was not shy about offering suggestions. I glanced at those big grey-green eyes and saw curiosity, connection, cautious concern regarding evading a swinging arc of thistle plants flying through the air. I also saw a calm trust that all would be well even in this unprovoked battle with foliage. All will be well. 

Grief agendas, painful as they are, hold a unique wisdom. Like an ocean tide, they will recede, leaving new insights and fresh outlooks and an open shore swept clean. To use my garden as an example, the removal of painful thistles allows my choice of seedlings to grow unfettered and my fingers and toes the ability to do their work ‘ouchlessly’ when I pick my favorite Scallopini squashes and sugar snap peas.

The loss of our mother means that the world is forever changed. My everyday routine somehow feels unfamiliar and I still mentally reach for the phone to share a moment with her several times a day. My footsteps seem to echo down a lonelier road when I realize that I can never bounce ideas off her again or get her editing input on any future draft manuscripts. My loss is real, and my grief agenda has spun me into deeper reflection, more concentrated writing times, and a more purposeful turning of pages to read stories and writing that feed my soul. I find myself pouring over small notes I find in her handwriting. Yes, there is loneliness, but not that of alone-ness, rather of recognizing and re-recognizing the cataclysmic void that is left by her leaving this plane of existence. In a truer sense, my siblings and I walk forward united in the host of gifts we have received from Mom, my dad, my aunts, uncles, cousins who have left us early. From all these precious ones, and Mom in particular, we have been gifted with a love of learning and a frank curiosity about life, an appreciation of sense and a delight in nonsense, abundant and easy laughter and the joyful sharing of each other, music and story.  These gifts, carefully tended and abundantly cultivated, may indeed grow into our own legacy gifts that flow to others on their respective journeys.

Not every grief agenda leads to the same place—at least within a similar timeline. Somewhere, an orange tabby cat makes her way along a solitary path while her brother rests curled up beside me. Grief agendas are rough and raw, painful and precious. Above all, they invoke a pause that allows us to have a forthright encounter with our own core-essentials. Yes, the beloved person-shaped void remains; but the beautiful and growing gifts sown over a lifetime of authentic living continue to shine and bless us daily.

 

Mom, Aunty Galina, Joy, Faith, Hope having lunch together

 

Mom and Hope at UCCF camp in the Ukraine

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Picking peaches and the Narnian chronicles

Picking peaches and the Narnian chronicles


Although picking peaches takes effort, to me it is not ‘work.’ Rather, each peach that makes its way into my bucket is a small, fragrant, sun-kissed miracle. A peach tree in my back yard seems almost a stolen pleasure from the warmer, drier climate where we, as a family, vacationed most summers. Most years we would bring back a big cardboard box of peaches that we would enjoy while helping my mom preserve them in large Mason jars. On the years we did not travel to the Okanagan, an extended family member or friend would be sure to share a few peaches with us from their trip to the Interior of BC. Now, in the rain forest of the garden niche of the Alberni Valley of Vancouver Island, our small peach tree flourishes and produces buckets of sweet and juicy seasonal treats. A little miracle growing against the south-east side of our home.

Every year I am in a race to ‘whiff’ the peachy aroma that allows me to recognize the moment the peaches are ready to harvest. Not just because I love peaches so much, but to pick them before we are visited by our resident black bear. He loves peaches and tasty miracles, too. I’m not sure if in the Island Black Bear great annals of history there are references to peaches, but if there were not, there are now, as our black bear is a meditative, reticent soul, who loves his food, appreciates nature, and in all likelihood is a poet and vegetarian. He has been known to rest in my neighbor’s plum tree, after a good long snack, and have a quiet snooze while my neighbor’s steers rest below him and chew their cud with contentment. It is not inconceivable that he holds small audiences of recitations of his newest work, which I’m sure comes after only the finest of forages.

As I type this, the peaches that are still waiting to be preserved into the gold-tinged, shining nectar-treat unstunningly known as ‘canned peaches’ are in two buckets on the counter, giving off that peach perfume that truly is a signature scent of summer. I almost feel sorry for our bear. But seeing how in one night he nearly picked clean the Damson plum tree this year, I remain hard-hearted.

Peaches, to me, are one of those deep childhood connections

to summer. Another closely aligned summer ritual is the reading of the Narnian chronicles. For years, I reread C.S. Lewis’s stories every summer, lying on a blanket under the nut trees, or sitting in a deck chair under the apple trees, or lying on the grass and clover carpet of our horse field beside my grazing ponies. When the rainy days came, and they often did on Canada’s Pacific coast, there was more time to read and many places in our sprawling farmhouse to get lost in another world between pages. I read the stories of Narnia in chronological rather than publication order. The origin of Narnia, those shining green and yellow rings worn by Digory and Polly, the quiet pools in the woods between the worlds, dull red sun of Charn, that was how I began my Narnian journey every summer. And every summer I dreaded the Last Battle when Narnia flamed out of existence; but in a bracing, clear, vision that was panoramic in scope, I saw how time was a small reflection of the True Eternal that flowed, unquenchable, constant, Real. That Love and Truth were much more than ideas and aspirations, and that we what we see now is not much more than we can by peeking through a keyhole on a dark night.

Much from the Narnian Chronicles has echoed for me this summer of Covid and chaos. But one image in particular arises for me again and again. It is from the Last Battle, that final story Lewis wrote about Narnia. Throughout the stories of Narnia, the Dwarfs are a stalwart group. They are called ‘sons of Earth’ and are known for their common sense, faithfulness, bravery, hard-working nature, and kind ‘salt of the earth’ hearts towards others. In the Last Battle, they are manipulated by a false king who has enslaved the land and they become bewildered, angry, disillusioned and lose their faith in Aslan and in goodness. They begin to draw away from their fellow Narnians and become cynical about anyone trying to help rally a response to stand up to protect the creatures of Narnia and free the country from its Calormene oppressors. In the final battle, they take up arms, but instead of fighting to free Narnia, they fight against everyone: the Calormene army as well as the Narnian freedom-fighters. Their battle chant is: “the Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs.”

The sentiment doesn’t last long, though, because they also begin to squabble with each other. But, misery loves company and while they are nursing their own bumps and bruises, they say, “Well, at any rate there’s no Humbug here. We haven’t let anyone take us in. The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs.” After trying numerous ways to wake them to the realization that they are free and safe and in Aslan’s country, they remain unable to see or feel the sunlight, meadow, picnic-banquet of food and wine, warm and clean clothes that are given to them. Aslan’s response is a sorrowful, “They will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.”

I cannot help but see an echo in various groups of salt-of-the-earth good people who have become cynical and are entangled and mired in one conspiracy theory after another. Facebook memes, Twitter retweets, Youtube video shares have become modern assault weapons battering at common sense and straightforward simplicity. The casualties are not the right or left, conservative or liberal, rather they are our careful processes of learning, such as scientific method, unbiased ethics committees, and peer review. These ‘humbug’ bombs are aimed at our own hard work to enlarge our thinking to hear others and recognize where are structures have minimized the voices of others. They batter our actions and stymie our work to tear down and rebuild systems that have doors recognizable as open to everyone. They distort measures of considerate care of neighbor and cast doubt on earnest attempts to promote health and wellbeing. They have normal, hard-working and loving people questioning if their leaders are poisoning children with vaccines, or if a virus was constructed with alien DNA to ‘take out’ a segment of the population. Or that a bit of cotton in front of our noses and mouths causes hypoxia.

Conspiracy theories are so damaging to our thinking that even contradictory beliefs do not trigger normal curiosity and rigorous thought. For example, in ‘Plandemic,’ there are two origins of the current Covid virus: that it was recently created in Wuhan, and also that it is from previous vaccines, so we all have it already and that ‘mask wearing’ activates it. Both cannot be true: vaccines were saving lives from polio and small pox long before Wuhan had a lab. Following the random spiraling of conspiracy theory is a deeply distracting and crazy-making. The only rational end to conspiracy thinking is that no one is trustworthy. Better you than me type thinking; “the Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs.”

These conspiracy assault weapons do not discriminate; their casualties are collectively all of us. Distrust and suspicion always hurt everyone. We are meant to stand together and figure things out side by side, voice by voice, thought by thought, vigorously and whole-mindedly. Sharing passionately in conferences, papers, and in discussions with leaders who have earned their stripes with unabashed openness and through making mistakes and publishing studies that contradict their own earlier studies. That is the way learning happens. That is the way mature leadership develops. As Maya Angelou said, “I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.” That’s science. We do better with the humility that comes with knowing your own study will likely, at some point, give way to a better study down the road. That the road to knowing is honest toil and unhesitating transparency in peer review under the watchful eye of stringent ethics boards. That better studies are designed from the vantage point of previous studies.

I want to live in the simple sublime summer of peach-picking and recognize that when it comes down to it, I choose to stand by the simple sanity of science and trust simple hearted folk who want to build up instead of tearing down. Who refuse to lob conspiracy theories like Molotov Cocktails through the instant Internet world. Who don’t have time to fear mask-wearing because they are busy living, laughing, loving, and learning. Who pull people out of burning buildings, patch people up in ERs, hold people’s hands when they are dying, laugh a little and restock that toilet paper shelf again, who are in their gardens and fields growing food, and designing lessons at midnight for their students. Who are doing the quiet good neighbor things, who say sorry a lot and mean it, who stare at the stars, eat peaches, read books, and who vote for a leader who is a listener and a learner.

How about you? Are you with me, Narnians? 


References

Lewis, C.S (1950-1956). The Chronicles of Narnia, currently published by Harper Collins


Thursday, July 30, 2020

Popsicles and Numeracy


Popsicles and number sense

One of my projects this summer has been to put together a short course on calculating medications for care givers. This on-line course is meant to help prepare pre-nursing students and others to safely prepare medication doses based on prescribed amounts and drug labels. Why is this needed? I hear repeatedly how anxious nursing  students are about the math  component of pharmacology and medication administration. I also hear from parents, adult-children, and other family care givers that there are often moments of confusion and concern when preparing doses for their family members. Many very capable people experience moments of anxiety or self-doubt when required to use math. 

I have had my own angst about math that began during those dreaded classroom drills in grade six and seven pushing mental calculations and memorized times tables. All done from a well-meaning teaching perspective, but to me, mentally paralyzing!  By high school, I was identifying myself to others as ‘hating math,’ or, ‘not a math person,’ but to myself as, ‘not smart enough to do math.’

Reflecting on earlier moments with math, I did not have that dread or negative reaction as a kid. I remember how amazing Arithmetic was in grade one. How the ‘aha’ light bulb went on while playing with Popsicle sticks at the big Arithmetic table. Heaps of single Popsicle sticks, rubber-banded bundles of ten Popsicle sticks, counting ten of those bundles out and stacking them in a pile: 100 Popsicle sticks!
One bundle of ten and three singles: 13 Popsicle sticks! Okay, so I admit to this very day that I love Popsicle. Especially the orange ones. Maybe that is because of the big, round, orange sticker I got from Miss Mudry for my good work at the Arithmetic table.


It is true though, that after the dreaded mental math drills, it took a while until I had another math-related Popsicle moment. One lazy summer afternoon, eating Popsicle, I was idly throwing dice up in the air and catching them after playing a table game on a blanket in the backyard with my brother and sisters. A lovely breeze played through the hazel nut trees and the dappled sun through branches sifted and shifted light as leaves fluttered. My mind went back to
those dreaded mental math drills and before the walls of shame had time to rise, the light and shadow, playing on those dice showed me how the whole was made up of parts … how 5 was made up of 2 and 3 and if I recognized the patterns of the dots—each dot a part of the whole—I could more quickly arrive at an answer. Simply by visualizing patterns in the parts making up a whole I could visualize the whole. Extrapolating from that popsicle moment, I realized that I could ‘think in 10’s.’  I could move parts in and out to add in fives and tens to estimate and calculate bigger numbers that were more difficult to add, such as 27 and 58. I realized by adding 30 and 60, which was easy, and then taking away 3 and 2, or five, was easy too. Suddenly grouping, or what I recognized as seeing patterns of the parts making up the whole, made sense. Number sense! Yeah for Arithmetic! Miss Mudry would have given me another orange sticker.

Preparing to write the Calculations for Care givers course, I went on a hunt and scanned educational studies on developing number sense, or numeracy, in the era of math anxiety. I came across Dorothea Steinke’s work. Steinke understands the foundation of numeracy to "be part-whole thinking, which she defines as the ability to deconstruct quantities, keep track of the parts, put the parts back together in a different way to solve a math problem, and know that the answer makes sense" (Steinke, 3). Whatever numeracy was, I seemed to at least have an A, B, C understanding of it, thanks to a lazy afternoon throwing dice on a blanket in a nut orchard.

Numeracy, I learned, was a different way of looking at numbers from the math my high school and college profs represented. Their approach was to do their utmost to prepare me to understand higher levels of math thinking—abstract conceptual math. Utterly beautiful but requiring a discipline and passion that I was not able to give to it. Instead, numeracy is the ability to work with numbers in the context of their purpose and use. Numeracy focuses on a working relationship with numbers that are allies and colleagues in providing what you need to know to do your job or live your life successfully. For nurses, this would be the ability to calculate dosing safely and accurately. For my other life with the horses and goats on Fox Song Farm, it is the ability to figure out how much hay I need to get through the winter and determine if my barn has space enough to hold that number of bales. It is also figuring out if I can find
the money in my skinny bank account to pay for it. By the way, the magic hay number is 10 tons, and yes, full up to the top, we have just enough room to store the equivalent amount of  small bales that make up 10 tons of breakfast and dinner for our horses and goats (for 120 lb bales: 167 bales, rounded to 170 bales because I like round numbers). I'm still working on the bank account numbers.

Although I admire the mental athletics of mathematicians, I am a lazy-pants math person and prefer playing in the shallow end of the pool, yes, with popsicle sticks at the Arithmetic table. Numeracy—number sense—is how I approach problems requiring calculation. And, instead of seeing numbers as alien species with inscrutable habits, I now greet them as representatives of a specific quantity of something tangible. Counters. Containers of the ‘thing’ I am trying to calculate.

A light-bulb moment I have witnessed in students is when they recognize the simple truth that ‘1’ is made up of all the points on the ruler from 0 to 1. ‘One’ becomes substance, not mere label. For in numeracy, we are concerned with the amount of something very real and meaningful. If I can reframe a person’s understanding of number from an abstract non-entity to the thing being measured itself, that person’s math anxiety greatly diminishes.

For example, I met with a student who was having difficulty recognizing when a calculation in pharmacology (medication dosage) was incorrect. The usual teachings about estimating an answer first and comparing this to the solution, or double-checking her answer by using the ‘is this reasonable?’ question, or backwards solving the question was not working for her. Without thinking, I said, “Okay, from the label know that you have 4000 mg in the bottle total. Let’s say instead that it’s 4000 beans you have in
there. Given the drug prescription you have been given, how many beans are you going to administer to your patient?” 
This time, she was able to recognize that with her wrong answer, she was going to be giving WAY too many beans! That student later soared through her calculations final, getting the required 100% of questions right in record time. “It’s all about the beans,” she said to me. “When I begin to get anxious, I ask myself, ‘how many beans!’”

Many of us with math-terror need a new way of visualizing numbers. If thinking of beans helps, so be it. In Stanislas Dehaene’s book, The Number Sense, he mentions that many
people often attribute a sense of personality, or identity, to specific numbers, especially the integers. For example, many people see a specific color when thinking about a specific number. Dehaene cites studies demonstrating associations between numbers and colors: “most people associate black and white with either 0 and 1, or 8and 9; yellow, red, and blue with small numbers such as 2, 3, 4; and brown, purple, and gray with larger numbers such as 6, 7, and 8” (Dehaene, loc 1646). What a rainbow an intricate calculus problem would be! 

Other than ‘4’, which I do see as a pale red rather shy fellow beside the flashier ‘5’ who wears a herringbone suit with a wide tie, I don’t see colors when I work with numbers. I do, however, in solidarity with many primary school children, see the shape of numbers as demonstrating a sense of personality. For example, ‘8’ is clearly googly-eyes set sidewise, an obvious snoop who is trying to be sneaky about it, and ‘0’ definitely looks like the Kool-Aid man who similarly intrudes into most large numbers that are just standing there minding their own business.


I think I may include time in the course for students to air their feelings about numbers. It will probably therapeutic for me, too. I might have some unspoken animosity toward ‘O.’ On the other hand, I quite like ‘3,’ who is peaceable and always open to things.

When it comes down to it, although math can be intimidating to many, numeracy—numbers—are etched in the gray matter of our fingertips. They are a part of how we order our daily lives, but more, they are intimately connected with the way we think. We are, ultimately, bean counters in the nicest possible way. We measure things: with our tools, our hands, our eyes. We count on our fingers and on each other. We weigh broccoli in the grocery store as well as the worth of a politician’s words. Number sense lies in uncovering the reason behind our search for the representative set of numerals, reasoning out what we need to know, and allowing our words and numbers to slide together.

I guess that is the starting point—as well as the final anticipated outcome—of my little course. For students to uncover their own natural number sense so they recognize what makes sense number-wise, and are thus safe, safe, safe when calculating medication doses.

Beans. Popsicles. Dice. The Kool-Aid man. Here’s to our collective movement from math terrors to visualizing a rainbow of happy integers.




References

Dehaene, S. (2011) The Number Sense: How the mind creates mathematics, 2nd ed. 

Steinke, D. (May, 2008) Part-Whole thinking. World Education. http://www.ncsall.net/fileadmin/resources/fob/2008/fob_9a.pdf


Thursday, July 23, 2020

Milestones and wellbeing


There’s nothing like a school-age kid daydreaming in class to the droning of a teacher, seeing in her dreams sun-drenched beach days, or snow-deep toboggan days, or lazy sleep-in mornings. We learn, from early on to measure our work time with fun time; that the cycle of days includes periods where fortitude means constrained effort toward goals that aren’t necessarily our own, as well as cycles of days where our inner and outer beings are more aligned to the whim and whisper of our own heart-minds. Summer vacation, Christmas holidays, Spring break: don’t they still strike a feeling of bliss in you when you say them? Each one like an island sanctuary beckoning to us during those long school days when the effort of structured learning seemed interminable. They functioned as milestones all along our 12-year journey. “The summer I first went to camp and had a huge fight with my best friend.” “The spring break we went to Disneyland.” “The Christmas we were snowed in and I broke up with my first boyfriend.”  School: our first community journey that culminated 12 years later in that final milestone recorded by family photos of you in a gown with a funny hat.

Our first ‘real’ jobs that paid by the hour or that first pitiful
salary perhaps did not have the length and breadth of those school-year vacations, but they did have a rhythm that marked work and rest, too. Coffee breaks, lunch breaks, birthday celebrations, all helped to create a pattern demarking the periods of time that belonged to another and that belonged to ourselves. Throughout the year, springing up like jewels released only by time, stat holidays and vacation days gleamed on our calendar. Although many of us greedily grasped stat holidays to work and earn double-pay, and vacations days were meager, they still stood as days that were different and distinct from the days making up the weeks that marched on in uniform consistency. Milestones, perhaps smaller than our school year events, rippled the surface on that stream of days giving us a sense of cycle and a turning of seasons.

College-years had their own distinct pattern. Milestones were not only winter and spring breaks and semester or year ends, rather they were midterms and finals and summer jobs and internships and clinicals with specific start and end dates. They were research projects tied into budget funding that began with proposals that included deadlines. And, of course, there was that final graduation week that culminated in more family photos of you in a
gown with yet another funny hat.

Our first career jobs began the process, for many of us, that eroded the healthy, refreshing cycle of milestones as cyclical seasons signifying a beginning and an end. Career jobs demanded that sacrifices be made. If our careers were in an office, coffee breaks and lunches were often taken at desks while work went on with a minor interruption for chewing and swallowing. If our careers were in retail or service industries, coffee breaks and lunches meant quickly attending your own shopping or banking or dashing out to ferry kids. For healthcare providers, breaks were skipped altogether on short-staffed shifts, or became time to catch up on charting, collaborate quickly with colleagues, or, on night shifts, to catch a few Zzz. And not in a relaxing way but a grim “Must sleep as I only have 20 minutes” kind of desperation.  During 12-hour nights that were, likely, about to be stretched into 16-hour shifts, a 20-minute nap became a dead-serious task to be accomplished.


Career jobs, including self-employment, blur the landscape of milestones and as a result these rarely become moments of pause, reflection, change of pace or refreshment. Instead they are seen as tiny islands that can be plundered for extra time to catch up on the many tasks that the river of enterprise continues to demand. Vacations become stolen time that must, somehow, be made up on your return. The frantic efforts to clear tasks away before vacations, knowing the pile of work that will continue to grow when you are away can make any plans for vacation a herculean effort. We say we do it for the family, for the
kids to experience the pause, refreshment, change of pace. But we are exhausted. It is not unusual to witness eager rising stars turn into cynics and energetic care givers burn out and exit their profession.


Milestones are important to well-being. Not simply those event-moments of graduation, big birthdays and anniversaries and christenings. Rather, the rhythm of events that break up our flow of work; that separates for us time-that-belongs-to-others and time where our bodies, minds, hearts can listen, align, become coherent again. Where purpose and personal mission can bubble up once again to provide us with a lifeboat on the relentless river of industry and career. Sometimes we need to stop; more often, we need to re-establish a synergy with nature and ourselves that follow seasonal change, beginnings and endings, fall deluge and spring run-off, times of surge and times of withdrawal. We need cycles with milestones that signal to us that the pause button is on its way as reliable as summer vacation was to us sitting in the February classroom in Grade three.