Do We Ever Really Leave THE NEST?

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“Growing up is losing some illusions, in order to acquire others.” — Virginia Woolf

Is that why so many people write memoirs—to hang on to the illusions of childhood? Oh so wonderful, lost childhood! Despite my father’s death when I was 3, I think my childhood was just about perfect. And I fiercely hold on to memories that delight me, make me feel loved and secure. But now and again that time in my life must rise inside me or tug me backwards or make things fly out of my mouth. Like when I remind people that I did not have a father. Why do I do that? Am I still in some pain? So I am asking you—do we ever really leave the nest?

Writers like Jonathan Safran Foer struggle with this question. A female character must be revealing his experience when she says: When I was a girl, my life was music that was always getting louder. Everything moved me… A calendar that showed the wrong month. I could have cried over it. I did… I spent my life learning to feel less. Every day I felt less. Is that growing old? Or is it something worse? You cannot protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness.

These are eternal questions that we all ask, though every person’s childhood is unique to them—some having incredible struggles, some having very few.

If my little world became confusing and distorted because one day my father was there, and then the next he was not—I blocked it out. I have little to no memory of him. Oddly, what I do remember was clinging to the world of my house—the nest.

At three, I started straightening throw rugs. Before I hit ten, I had insulted the cleaning woman by telling her that after dusting, she didn’t put stuff back right. The paperwork my mother did to support us drove me crazy, as it often littered our dining room. In college, I even cleaned up after my roommate. And whenever possible to this day the first thing I do on arising is make the bed I’ve slept in, even in hotels. And over the years I have gotten in trouble with various family members by tidying up and putting away something that then becomes undiscoverable.

All of this is part of the 3-year-old child that still lives inside me—a shy person who got over her shyness and became a teacher and a nurse, a person who loves to travel, but also really likes being home. A person who still wants order in her world and who firmly believes in monitoring and gradually exposing children to the harsh aspects of living.

J.D. Salinger thinks the same way. Here is Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the RyeI saw something that drove me crazy. Somebody’d written ‘fuck you’ on the wall. It drove me damn near crazy. I thought how Phoebe and all the other little kids would see it, and how they’d wonder what the hell it meant, and then finally some dirty kid would tell them— all cockeyed naturally—what it meant, and how they’d all think about it and maybe even worry about it for a couple of days. I kept wanting to kill whoever’d written it.

Holden has a real concern. Some children are exposed to awful things at a very young age—right in their home environment. Do they remember? Do those events contribute to the development of the child later on? Did my father’s death make me crave order? Did I block it out because it was so horrible or because I was only 3 and I had childhood amnesia?

The latter is explained in a few ways: Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud believed childhood amnesia was a response to sexual repression, but another theory points to our lack of language skills before the age of three. It may be that our memories need to be stored conceptually and associated with the kinds of words and meanings that we don’t really get to grips with until we’re about three-years-old. Perhaps all of your childhood memories are still intact but in a form you can’t access anymore. Yet another view is that young childrens’ brains simply don’t have the tools to store memory properly. Babies are born with billions of brain cells but relatively few connections between them and so the areas of the brain responsible for processing memories are immature. In our brains, connections are everything and brain imaging studies on babies and toddlers suggest that between 8-24 months is when their brains are most active at growing more connections. 

Okay, so there is no definitive answer, but in my case, and maybe in yours, things that occurred in my childhood have definitely formed me. And I feel that most of them are positive. Gary Zukav, author of The Seat of the Soul, would probably tell me that I am not “in pain” when I bring up my father. He would say that certainly there are dynamics and experiences in my life that will make me remember the loss, but that I have the power to control my response, to not feel hurt or pain when thinking of my loss. He is saying it is my choice.

Zukav writes: This is good news. Each time the dynamic is activated, for example, anger, abandonment, humiliation, you will have another opportunity to look inside. You will again feel the magnetic attraction of fear, the powerful pull of judgment, the need to prove that another person is causing your pain. But you can choose to experience the interior source of your pain—instead of blaming it on others. (Or as in my case blaming it on a circumstance beyond my control).

So I believe we finally do leave the nest and grow up, but I think we bring a lot of its remnants with us. If we are fortunate to have experienced good parenting, the remnants we bring can help us deal with the twists and turns of living. But sometimes not. Then we might block the memories or as Zukav warns, we might do more damage to ourselves by allowing them to hurt us again and again throughout our lives. “Only you can do damage to yourself,” he writes. Do you agree? It certainly means coming to grips with the past that has a way of entwining itself with the present. Better to not be angry and want to kill someone like Holden Caulfield. Better to accept the bad stuff and focus really really hard on the good. Please share your thoughts.

I walked over to the hill where we used to go and sled. There were a lot of little kids there. I watched them flying. Doing jumps and having races. And I thought that all those little kids are going to grow up someday. And all of those little kids are going to do the things that we do. And they will all kiss someone someday. But for now, sledding is enough. I think it would be great if sledding were always enough, but it isn’t. — Stephen Chbosky

Thanks to Thought Catalogue  Thanks to Google Images

And to end on a humorous note: maybe this is why I loved Snow White as a kid. She really knew how to clean up a mess!!!!

Do We Ever Really Leave THE NEST?



What Is Liminal Space and Why It’s Our New Normal

What Is Liminal Space and Why It's Our New Normal

We stand on the threshold, under the cloud of unknowing.

After 9-11 life was totally altered, for all of us. As a writer, I sat and stared at my manuscript wondering if anyone would ever read a novel again. Should I even bother. My husband had been traveling—not to New York, but to Connecticut. When he finally got home late on Friday, there was relief. But normality escaped us. It escaped everyone.

Then in those next few days, a friend offered me some insight. It came in the words of Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest whose teaching is like that of the first St. Francis: empty yourself, be compassionate of others, especially those that are socially marginalized. Okay. How do I do that when I am angry and confused.

Rohr spoke of liminal space—and despite my many years of study and reading, those were words I had never heard. He defined it as: a unique spiritual position where human beings hate to be… It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else… It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run…anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing. 
- Richard Rohr

Now I had a label for what I was feeling, what millions were feeling: liminal space—this terrible cloud of unknowing.

It was a terrible time—but ever so slowly we went back to work, children back to school and life haltingly proceeded. My husband had lost a co-worker who had been at the hotel attached to one of the towers. His body was never found. More and more images of that day were released and they stuck us all in this new and frightening liminal space. It was some horrible new norm, but all we could do was go on. For many—even that did not happen. There was too much pain and sorrow to allow for moving forward. Adjustments were indescribable and unlivable.

When I finally sat at the keyboard and worked again on my novel, I injected the concept of liminal space. It felt right. My character was truly living there.

But you know what? Often—we all are. Because we are always waiting for something: a job, a pregnancy, a graduation, a diagnosis, an acceptance letter, even a death; or a yes from someone who is holding what feels like the rest of our lives over our heads until the yes comes through. Until then, we are under that cloud of unknowing.

Regardless, there is often good news also, just as there was post-9-11. We saw, heard and felt the warmth, love, understanding and giving of many Americans who did whatever they could to help those who had lost someone. Later it was young men and women who joined our volunteer army, feeling that was the best way to give.

Certainly liminal space always challenges us humans. We are rarely free of the unknowing—because ah, yes, we are mortal and have no knowledge of the date of our demise. That’s a given. But it can be used to power our love of self (taking care of our bodies) and love of those we live and work with. For how much better to offer understanding, honesty and friendship on a daily basis—because who really knows what the next hours will bring.

Pain, trouble, even threatened violence can provide all of us with teachable moments. Though we find ourselves in liminal space, on the threshold of something unknowable, we forge ahead: the cancer patient who goes into remission and dedicates her time to helping other patients; the teacher who takes extra time to work with the very student who upsets his classroom; the doctor or nurse who enters the clinic despite life-threats; the cop on the beat who does all he can to make certain-sure before using deadly force; the mother, father, neighbor, citizen who listens and evaluates any situation before making a judgment or rising to anger.

After 9-11 Rohr reminded us that both Christian and Muslim mystics preferred the language of darkness. That is: they were most at home in the realm of not-knowing. In such darkness, Rohr writes, things are more spacious and open to creative response. We are more open to letting in God or blessed, positive thoughts–just like the cancer patient who is grateful for every day and turns darkness into light. This from the Persian mystic Hafiz:

Don’t surrender your loneliness so quickly.

Let it cut more deep.

Let it ferment and season you

As few human or even divine ingredients can.

Something missing in my heart tonight has made my eyes so soft.

My voice so tender, my need of God, absolutely clear.

Finally, in this time of questioning, where we find ourselves often divided, even from friends and loved ones who feel and think differently than we do, try to accept and live in the cloud of unknowing. Try to move a bit closer to the other side or try to find something they share with you. It can be very challenging and just downright hard. But remember, you are both in liminal space, not truly knowing all.

Literature–inspirational books, poetry, memoirs, reflections–can serve as guides. There is actually a website devoted to liminal space that can help lift that cloud.

Music allows cultures to come together sharing dance, songs and just the joy of listening. And recently I saw the new film The Hundred-Foot Journey which underlines that people and cultures that are vastly different can cross the threshold and come to a place were there is not only knowing, but sharing and love. Because we have no choice but to often live on the threshold, uncertain of which path to take. We exist in this liminal space, a new normal that we must accept and work with so the cloud of unknowing will be transformed into one of understanding.

Thanks always to Father Richard Rohr

Thanks to Google Images

What Is Liminal Space and Why It's Our New Normal

Travel: The Magic Carpet of Self-Discovery

Travel: The Magic Carpet of Self-Discovery

Here is the Magic Carpet.
photo by John Havey

Traveling is about discovery. But along with seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time or realizing that the glaciers are truly melting is the process of self-discovery. Travel takes a person out of routine and in many cases away from comfort. Travel can teach about humanity and open fascinating and different worlds for questioning. Travel can challenge a person’s beliefs and change their understanding of how life is lived. The sheer variety travel can provide is a kind of magic carpet.

Travel and Comfort

As an over-fifty person, travel for me works really well if sameness is attached to newness. What do I mean by that? I like traveling on cruise ships because my hotel room goes along with me—it becomes my home away from home and I feel comfort and a sense of belonging when I go back to it. But in the very same vein, I liked camping in my thirties with my family. We would establish that comfort zone in our tent and then go off to explore and hike and exhaust ourselves. Then the tent awaited.

I have friends that currently are traveling across the country in an RV after selling their home. I think that’s amazing considering weather, long trips between gas stations and the necessity of finding the right spot to hook up their traveling home for electricity and a hot shower.

Where Are You on the Adventure Scale?

Of course there are people on this planet that are totally adventurous. We could put them on an adventure scale that might look like this:

Risky, total adventuring    looking for a few thrills    no thrills, just simple viewing    watching travel videos at home!

I’m still looking for a few thrills. When we went whitewater rafting, some persuasion was needed after I read the release form. But the guy who ran the ride at the Kicking Horse River in Canada rode with me in the back of the raft and there’s only one word for the experience–AWESOME.

Travel takes you away from your familiar life and activities, but never from responsibility. As a member of humanity living on this planet, travel should open our hearts and minds to things we need to know, people we need to care about. Traveling is the portable classroom that teaches us about the world and OURSELVES. Examples–

  • I like meeting people and discovering what they do, how they live
  • I am willing to try new things–new foods, methods of transportation
  • I can hold back at times and be uncertain
  • I am always eager to purchase the art and crafts of different countries, but practice self-restraint
  • I like imaging what it would be like to live on the canals of Venice or in the rainy city of Juneau, Alaska

Place Is Memory

This last idea relates to the act of living. Because wherever you dwell, place becomes memory. I’ve lived in 3 U.S. cities and recently traveled back to Chicago, where I was born, where we raised our children. Wow. For me, that city has a memory on every block. It bears the weight of my history–it opens up my early life, once caught in the passage of time. Example: “Remember? On my 21st birthday, you and I sat in that corner of the pizzeria and you bought me my first alcoholic drink. But a 7 And 7. Ugh.”

Thoughts on Recent Travel

So on a recent visit to Chicago, it came down to not just reliving the old and familiar in that city, but to reveling in the new. Many changes have occured along the lakeshore. Walking through Chicago’s Museum Campus reveals restructuring of roads and gardens so that bikers and strollers can access the Planetarium, Field Museum and Aquarium with no car and parking stress needed. It’s wonderful.

And on Michigan Avenue we spent a purposeful period of time viewing a work of art, a  metaphor for the power of difference and possibly the shame of finding fault with the spectrum of those differences.

It is AGORA, the work of Magdalena Abakanawitz, the Polish sculptor who has explained her work saying: “They must be like one body that represents so many different meanings. It’s the self against the whole world.”

Travel: The Magic Carpet of Self-Discovery

The name Agora refers to the urban meeting places of the Ancient Greek city-states. The artist portrays these figures as  visibly hollow, suggesting that despite their strong physical presence, they might be shells of people who have become lost. They are genderless and ageless. They invoke humanity on a very affecting level. You walk through them and wonder about their connectedness and disconnectedness–they move as one yet they move apart. Isn’t that similar to how you feel walking down a busy metropolitan street? Isn’t that how you feel when watching the current news and seeing scores of displaced peoples moving down miles of road? Abakanowitz compares this work to nature, where herds of animals or leaves on trees are a metaphor for an overwhelming number of objects being the same and yet different. Like people.

The artist, who was a youth during World War II, has said that her art draws on her fear of crowds, which she once described as “brainless organisms acting on command, worshiping on command and hating on command.” Some critics have said that if you give the figures the right intent, and if you think of them as whole with brains and hearts, then maybe you are looking at an emblem of democracy instead of the emblem of her memories fraught with real fears.

Concluding Thoughts

But again, through video and the internet, through reading and awareness–we all are traveling every day. We all can become vessels of self-discovery. And I have one last powerful suggestion.  It comes from knowing that when many of us who constantly know comfort–when we discuss traveling, we are talking about vacations, suitcases and airplane tickets. We are not talking about what is happening at this very moment to millions of people on our planet. They are also traveling because they are escaping governments or environmental conditions that predict death or suffering for their families. They seek the comfort of sameness, of home. If each one of us could do something through donations, volunteering or CHANGING THE WAY WE THINK about those who have less than we have, we can make life more positive for the people of AGORA, the people of the communities and city states on our earth.

Travel: The Magic Carpet of Self-Discovery

A glacier near Juneau, Alaska      John Havey photo










Travel: The Magic Carpet of Self-Discovery


Thanks to Google Images

The Grimke’ Sisters: Freedom and Wings for Everyone

The Grimke' Sisters: Freedom and Wings for Everyone

Note the images of wings in some of the squares.


The Grimke' Sisters: Freedom and Wings for Everyone

This quilt reveals the dangers of flight.

Sue Monk Kidd, author of the well-received novel, THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES (2002) was in New York City in 2007 to view Judy Chicago’s “The Dinner Party.” Kidd says that while there, she was thinking about a new novel about two sisters. Reading the names of women Judy Chicago wished to celebrate, Kidd saw the names Sarah and Angelina Grimke’, sisters from Charleston South Carolina. Being from Charleston, Kidd was amazed that she had not heard of them. Back home, she began researching the women’s lives, only to discover that she’d been driving by the Grimke’ sisters unmarked home for over ten years. Subsequent research revealed that both were feminist thinkers and the first female abolitionists whose pamphlets were published by William Lloyd Garrison.

Women’s History Erased 

Kidd writes: “My ignorance of them felt like both a personal failing and a confirmation of Judy Chicago’s view that women’s achievements had been repeatedly erased through history.” Kidd stated that Sarah and Angelina’s pamphlet, AMERICAN SLAVERY AS IT ISwas written 15 years before Harriet Beecher Stowe’s UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, and that the Grimke’ sisters were out crusading for the immediate emancipation of slaves and for racial equality, an idea that was radical even among abolitionists. Their desire for freedom also extended to women’s rights, ten years before the Seneca Falls Convention.  

Those Scapular Bones 

What followed from her research was Kidd’s fictionalized story of the history of the Grimke’ sisters in her current novel, THE INVENTION OF WINGS, a New York Times bestseller. I smiled at the title, remembering that one of my short stories, “Back Problems” had a scene in which the protagonist, Kate, has overcome back pain which was both physical and related to her life choices. The final scene read: As Kate runs, she thinks about her physical therapist, remembers that he told her that she had large scapular bones, larger than most people’s. “You know about evolution,” he had said, “well the scapular bones are you wings and you’d just be able to fly farther than the others.”

At the very beginning of Kidd’s book, we meet Hetty, whose Mauma calls her Handful. Mauma explains to Handful that in Africa her grandmother flew over trees and clouds, flew like a blackbird. But she says: “When we came here, we left that magic behind.” When Handful is skeptical Mauma says: “You don’t believe me? Where you think these shoulder blades of your come from, girl?…This is all what left of your wings. They nothing but these flat bones now, but one day you gon get ‘em back.”

Hetty Is Sarah’s Birthday Gift

And so begins the story of Hetty who is an amazing Handful, because she learns to fight, knowing that she deserves her freedom, that she deserves to get her wings back. If there is a shred of good fortune in Hetty’s life, it’s that though she is a slave, she lives in Sarah Grimke’s house. Sarah begins to abhor slavery and everything connected to it, starting with her 11th birthday when Hetty is given to her as a gift.

Sarah Grimke’s writings relate that she was eager to teach her personal slave to read when the girl showed an interest. She was also eager to set up a Sunday school program for other slave children to teach them the Bible. But she met resistance, her parents disallowing literacy for their slaves, probably fearing a natural movement toward dissatisfaction and rebellion. Their approach: Mental exertion would make the slaves unable to perform their physical labors. A law initiated in South Carolina in 1740 supported such a decision as it forbid the teaching of slaves. Sarah’s father threatened to whip her  slave when he heard Sarah was teaching the girl to read.

Sarah herself had to struggle to be educated. Though her brothers were sent to Yale, being female, she was not. It is recorded that her father remarked that if Sarah had been a boy, “she would have made the greatest jurist in the country.” These words stayed with Sarah and she taught herself elements of the law from the books she could find and by questioning her brothers when they were home from university. But the inequality she lived with in the slave-oriented culture of the South, fed her desire for change—change for women, change for slaves.

The Power of Sue Monk Kidd’s Insight

Though Kidd’s book is fiction, she stays loyal to the history of the Grimke’ sisters and their efforts in both the abolitionist and feminist movements. But it is Kidd’s writing power that shines when her fiction gets into the mind of a woman she has only read about and imagines what thoughts might have affected her heart and mind so that she dedicated her life to change. Kidd writes these thoughts of Sarah: “I saw then what I hadn’t seen before, that I was very good at despising slavery in the abstract, in the removed and anonymous masses, but in the concrete, intimate flesh of the girl beside me (Hetty) I’d lost the ability to be repulsed by it. I’d grown comfortable with the particulars of evil. There’s a frightful muteness that dwells at the center of all unspeakable things, and I had found my way into it.”

This is not only the essence of Kidd’s book, it is the essence of the eternal dance of racism, the tricks of thought that we use now and again to excuse ourselves, that allows us to allow things that should not be allowed.

Gone with the Wind–Sugar Anyone?

My mother loved the book and the film GONE WITH THE WIND, but that story does exactly what Kidd is talking about–it allows the reader and the viewer to grow comfortable with the particulars of evil. Not even Prissy’s admission:”I don’t know nothin’ ’bout birthin’ babies!” isn’t really humorous. She’s a slave–and slaves were uneducated and treated like a potted plant if they were house slaves, treated like much worse if they worked on the plantation under the whip of the overseer. GONE WITH THE WIND is fiction and so is Kidd’s book, but she’s done her homework–there is no sugar-coating here.

Slave Quilts “Hidden in Plain View”

The novel includes the fascinating art of quilting which served slaves in more ways than one. Hetty’s mama, Charlotte, is the house seamstress–her job is to make clothing for the Grimke’ family and for all the slaves. Even in that position, things don’t go well for Charlotte because she fights daily for her freedom and part of that fight is the quilt squares that she makes late into the night. They depict her life–her mother’s slave ship, Hetty’s birth and separation from her father, the grandmother’s death. Slaves quilted not only to cover their children and themselves in their unheated cabins, but also to tell stories and to provide secret codes that helped slaves know when and how to safely escape. Blackbirds were a frequent symbol of flight. Quilt squares “hidden in plain view” revealed pathways for fugitives to follow on the underground railroad.

Thus Kidd’s book teaches history that is fascinating and important and allows the reader to ponder the hard choices of that life and time. If you’ve read THE INVENTION OF WINGS, please share your thoughts. Freedom and wings for everyone.

Thanks to Google Images


The Grimke' Sisters: Freedom and Wings for Everyone

Want to Wake Up Happy? Rewire Your Brain

Want to Wake Up Happy? Rewire Your Brain

That’s what neuropsychologist Rick Hanson is suggesting and he has some amazing theories to back up the process and explain why it works. Founder of Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, Hanson has written a bunch of books: Hardwiring Happiness, Buddha’s Brain, and Mother Nurture. And he’s tested and explored the concept that happiness in our lives can be the result of certain habits which when performed regularly can become part of the very tissue of our brains.


Another word for this is rewiring. And it’s possible because our brains have the ability to change in structure as we respond to thoughts, feelings and life experiences. This is called neuroplasticity. Hanson writes: “All mental activity is based on the underlying actions of billions of nerve cells that continually signal each other through vast networks of connections. This complex activity is constantly changing your brain…intense, prolonged or repeated mental activity leaves a lasting imprint, while less active connections wither away.”


And I am so guilty! How many times have I indulged in a bad mood, worked the same negative thoughts over and over (stinking thinking) and failed to focus on something positive and uplifting??  And why do we do that?? Hanson says that the human brain has a negativity bias and he uses the example of ten encounters with a person in the workplace. Five are positive, four are neutral and one is negative. Which one will we think about on the way home from work or when falling asleep? You guessed it, the negative one. And he stresses that research shows that a good long-term relationship needs a 5-1 ratio of positive to negative interactions. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? One negative interaction is as powerful as five good ones. Wow.


The negative bias is part of evolution. Our ancestors knew about the bad things—predators, falling off a cliff, freezing, not finding that animal which meant dinner—but their needs were more immediate than ours. Bad things meant death, and they knew it best to remember that. Thus the bias or awareness of the negative meant that good feelings and experiences bounced off the brain and the scary bad stuff was firmly implanted.


Hanson writes about the rewiring process in his book. Here are some basics to follow. Start the process on awakening and continue it throughout the day–possibly six times for a total of 3 minutes a day. And the change won’t happen overnight, but gradually you will find yourself gravitating toward a happy thought on awakening and keeping to this pattern throughout the day.

  • Process: relax, exhale, and focus on something beautiful or think of someone in your life who loves you and makes you feel good. You’ve activated a positive mental state.
  • Now realize that this makes you happy or that it is a positive thought and install this active state into the neural structure of your brain.
  • How? Stay aware of the positive experience or thought for 10-12 seconds. You can also enrich the thought by attaching more of your senses to that thought.

Hanson: “If you’re remembering …how your boss responded to your big presentation six months ago, recall the pleasant details—how your boss praised you afterward. By prolonging and enriching the experience or the memory, you’re aiming to get as many neurons as possible firing together so they start wiring together.” Morning is best because the brain is like a sponge ready to take in the first thought. So make it a good one–peace, happiness, good fortune, love and compassion. Hanson also suggests that as you continue to do this you will be more aware of the positive and cared-for feelings that you have. You will be able to make these positive thoughts stronger so that they won’t be overcome by the negative thoughts that come along. He writes: “Over time, the positive will gradually soothe and ease the negative and eventually even replace it.”


As you awaken, maybe you’ll hear a bird sing, or you’ll focus on the sunlight at your window, or the gentle pattern of rain, or quiet music on the radio–anything that is positive and makes you happy. Then try to repeat the process throughout the day. Hanson stresses six times, 10-12 seconds a time, and all you have had to devote to this process is 3 minutes a day. Now that’s a habit that beats joining a gym or buying expensive equipment or cooking up a storm. Wishing you positive thoughts and happiness. 

Want to Wake Up Happy? Rewire Your Brain

Thanks to Google Images

Why We Get More Creative as We Age


Why We Get More Creative as We Age

Marilee Shapiro, 101, poses for a portrait next to one of her sculptures that is titled “The Way” at her home in Washington.

Why We Get More Creative as We Age

Grandma Moses is a symbol for creativity sparking in one’s elder years.

As we age, we just might become more creative. Really? Yes. Would you believe that when we were five, we used 80% of our creative ability and that by the age of twelve, our creativity had fallen to about 2% of our potential. Because schools work to make us good members of society and that means conformity, we began to just accept ideas instead of using our brains to create them.


Let’s examine the anatomy and physiology of the brain. Myelination, the growth of fatty insulation on our neurons, keeps brain circuits running smoothly. That process isn’t completed until young adulthood when the prefrontal cortex is fully matured. But magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has revealed that in some parts of the brain, including the temporal lobe (visual memory, language, meaning and emotions), myelination is still going on into a person’s 50s and 60s. That’s good news for the prospect of being creative during the third stage of life. 


Now think back to your middle or working years. Remember how important it was to be an expert in your field of endeavor? It was essential to have a brain that knew the context of one’s work sphere, a brain that focused on one area and often didn’t have the time or the inclination to consider new ideas. In fact during those years we argued for our formed ideas and pushed aside new ones. Maybe we only read a certain kind of book or watched a certain sport or shared solidly formed beliefs that we were not willing to challenge. Our brains were or may still be ossifying. 


But we can all stop the ossifying process, age actually helping us, because the brain changes. First, certain brain skills are affected by aging—mathematicians, physicists and chess players will tell you this, acknowledging that brain speed slows down. But the brain compensates by enhancing creativity! Neuroscientist Roberto Cabeza of Duke University says that there is a reorganization in brain function and that the two hemispheres of the brain begin to cross talk to one another as part of this compensation. The left brain reaches to the right for help and voila! insightful, creative ideas are the result. Howard Gardner, professor of cognition and education at Harvard, relates that in fields like law, psychoanalysis and perhaps history and philosophy, “you need a much longer lead time, and so your best work is likely to occur in the latter years.” Good news for thinkers and writers in those fields.


Neurosurgeon Rex Jung states: “That’s where artistic expression perhaps benefits from demyelinization.” He notes that less efficient connectivity (that slowing down of brain speed) can mean a loosening of associations that allows ideas to flow more freely. “You have lots of data at your hands, and you have . . . fewer brakes on your frontal inhibitors, and you’re able to put things together in more novel and useful ways. When you see an increase in people’s creative undertakings in retirement, it may not be just because they’re retired and have more time on their hands; it may be because the brain organization is different.”


Guy Claxton, in his book Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind, writes of the benefits of slower and more exploratory thinking. A psychologist, Claxton argues that our brains work best when we allow what he calls the “undermind” or unconscious to chart the way. He champions being less analytical and more creative. He acknowledges that most humans learn from society to solve problems under pressure and to use thinking as a means to achieve results. But he believes that patience and even confusion–rather than rigor and certainty–are the essential precursors of wisdom.


Here are some well known creative people, their occupations and their ages. Novelist Doris Lessing, productive till 89; Marilee Shapiro, 101, still sculpting in D.C.; Paul Bocuse 87, chef and Michelin winner still oversees his restaurants; Igor Stravinsky, first worked with 12-tone music creation in his 70s; Grandma Moses, started the paintings that made her famous at 76; Frank Lloyd Wright died at 91, just before the opening of his 532nd work, the Guggenheim Museum; Valerie Trueblood 69, Seattle writer who published her novel, “Seven Loves,” and two short story collections in her 60s. And there are many more in many other fields still working and creating. So—don’t sell yourself short; yes you are no longer in your 20s and looking ahead, but the brevity of the years left can energize and make you work harder. You will use your time well. And there is so much out there to discover and learn and enjoy. Let’s all get creative and get going.


“Enhanced creativity is associated with greater satisfaction.” NEA research director Sunil Iyengar “One-trick artists become automatized, they become very habit-borne. They’re not continually challenging themselves to look at life from a new angle.” Michael Merzenich, professor emeritus of neuroscience at the University of California at San Francisco. “Those people who have from the beginning developed complex lives with multiple interests and multiple talents, and continued to develop psychological complexity and tolerance for ambiguity, those people continue to do very well in later adulthood,” said Gary Gute, professor and director of the Creative Life Research Center at the University of Northern Iowa.

  • Engage in learning
  • Expose yourself to knew things
  • Think outside the box
  • Break through older beliefs.

And if you have any ideas as to how you sparked your creativity, please share. It’s never too late to enjoy the rush of good feelings when the painting, photograph, poem, gardening project, sculpture, collage, textile project, article or novel is a reality. Let’s hear it for aging and creativity!!

Thanks to Google Images

Why We Get More Creative as We Age More information here:

Invest in the Future? Read to a Child

Invest in the Future? Read to a Child

Don’t be surprised if during you next appointment with your child or grandchild’s pediatrician, the doc gives your child a book and asks her to read. The American Academy of Pediatrics is recommending that their providers counsel parents of young children about the benefits of reading stories aloud and talking about the accompanying illustrations. Evidence-based research shows that this practice: strengthens language skills, literacy development and the relationship between child and parent. It’s a win-win and an investment in the futures of all children.

HAVE A CHILD CLIMB ONTO YOUR LAP AND READ TO THEM Perri Klass MD, professor of Pediatrics, mother of three and author of fiction and nonfiction states:”…the bigger picture now is to help parents build interactions with their children into their everyday lives because this can create nurturing relationships, which promote early brain development, early literacy, language development and school readiness.” Sandy Banks writes in the LA TIMES:  I hope (this campaign) jumpstarts a public conversation about the value of parenting basics often overlooked in a world of high-teach tools where schools hand out tablets …before children learn to turn the pages of a book. Though Banks mentions the negative reactions from some: will parents feel like failures in front of their kids’ doctors? Will it shame parents who are themselves poor readers? She praises the basics of the process: The snuggling and bonding, the shared delight in a toddler’s discovery of textures, ideas, sights and sounds can be the building blocks of a strong foundation between parent and child. 

START THE CONVERSATION RIGHT AWAY  Making your child your conversational partner will boost that child’s literacy. Here’s an excerpt from my older post, New Moms: Talk to Your Child: This advice could be mom advice or grandmother advice. Or it could just be another plank in the platform of communication. But I have found that children who are talked to from the moment they breathe on this planet are smarter and better communicators than those treated like a piece of furniture that happens to be in the room. As they slip from the birth canal, children are alert to what’s happening around them. They sense calm and peaceful loving voices, disinterested voices and of course will be affected by shouting and angry voices. Because they cannot immediately see, we create their beginning world with our voices. Anne Fernald, a Stanford psychologist, agrees with me and her research underlines that the NUMBER OF WORDS a child is exposed to has a profound effect on how they process language. Why is that important? Because it helps them become part of their environment which is their ability to follow directions, label items, make choices and eventually read. But all stats aside, parents can’t just shower children with words–it’s the quality of the interaction Fernald says. “It’s about changing how you interact with a child–whether you perceive a question as a threat to your authority or the leading edge of curiosity that will serve this child well in school.” We should always encourage more than we scold.

WHY IS THIS RESEARCH NECESSARY? What do you think, Boomer parents and grandparents? The research confirms intuitive knowledge that many of us had raising our children and caring for our grandchildren. But sometimes that knowledge gets pushed aside by changes in our culture. Though I am all for women having careers and breaking through ceilings, glass or whatever, that cultural shift might have meant that a child didn’t have the cuddling, reading time, didn’t hear the mother’s voice on a constant basis, was often in a situation where speech was not directed just to him or her. Interactive toys powered by batteries or computer games on tablets can help build vocabulary and stimulate the desire for knowledge. But the point of the pediatrician campaign may just help the parents more than the child. Children grow fast. They leave us, fly away. Interaction, physical attention, loving advice, shared laughter, warm kisses and hugs, game playing — every bit of it helps to build a human being and a human connection. It’s for life. Parents shouldn’t fear this responsibility, but they should jump into it with eagerness and not decide that the television or a computer tablet is any kind of substitute.

AND BOOMERS, IT’S NEVER TOO LATE I had two aunts who never married and what they gave me and my brothers in terms of helping us become good citizens of the world was amazing. They read to us, played with us, encouraged our love of literature and music. It’s never too late to reach out and help a child. My friend Susan volunteers in the NICU at her local hospital. She holds infants, talks to them, sometimes feeds them. They are so lucky to have that soft voice and encouragement in addition to what they receive from nurses, doctors and their own parents when the parents can be there. My husband’s volunteer work is helping teens set future objectives. He guides them in discovering their skill set, writing a resume and finding employment or the right college path. Some Boomers start athletic programs for children or volunteer in daycare centers or teach art in elementary schools. And many Boomers are helping to raise their grandchildren by babysitting the entire work week or maybe a few days a week or on weekends. No matter what the time frame, every interaction is important.

WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE ACTIVITIES WITH YOUR GRANDCHILDREN? HERE ARE MINE: Puzzles, drawing, Connect Four, Matching Card Games, Chutes and Ladders and Candy Land, imaginative play–especially cooking/kitchen–gardening and reading. Some favorite books: GOODNIGHT MOON, STUART LITTLE, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, CHARLOTTE’S WEB, FROG AND TOAD, JUST LIKE HEAVEN, and THE GIFT OF NOTHING. Here is a list of Scholastics Top 100 Books for Children, a pdf you can print out and refer to.

Please share the books or activities you use when reading to a child or grandchild. After all, you are investing in that child’s future.

Invest in the Future? Read to a Child

The world lies before them, in a book.

Invest in the Future? Read to a Child

Invest in the Future? Read to a Child

Discover the world through a child’s eyes.

“The Divided Life” and How to Fix It

"The Divided Life" and How to Fix It

I love hearing stories about people who leave a job, a city or a career to grow lavender and make candles, build a tiny cabin and craft boats, get rid of the trappings of competition to write poetry; or who are fired because they told the truth at the board meeting, said what the corporation needed to do to change. It takes courage and guts. But one thing these actions shout out—I know who I am—this is me. I am not living a divided life, but my dream. Finally.

And of course if there are struggles while achieving this new life, there will always be someone who will say I told you so. But at some point in our lives, we all have to tear off the masks that we created to become accepted in society. We all need to reveal who we really want to be, who we really are. Parker J. Palmer is a writer and activist passionate about helping people escape from what he calls “the divided life.” He stresses that as children we are an integral whole, our emotions governed by our deep and real feelings. We hide nothing. We are authentic beings. But as we enter society and school, we learn to hide those feelings, alter our behaviors. We do this because we discover the world is not safe. We might be mocked, ignored, picked on. A minor example: I was mocked when I used vocabulary words that I heard in my home. A few of my peers didn’t like “sophisticated” language and so I avoided it, learned to dumb things down, skip the highfalutin words. As a kid in junior high it’s called preservation. But it’s damaging because we are pulling away from who we really are. We are beginning to live “the divided life.” Maybe that’s one of the reasons I became an English teacher—I could use those words in my classroom to my advantage and with no hesitation. Parker J. Palmer provides these very real and true examples as to how “the divided life” begins:

  1. At work we don’t truly invest ourselves, diminishing the quality of our work and distancing ourselves from those whose work is truly service
  2. We take jobs that violate our basic values, even when our survival doesn’t absolutely demand this of us
  3. We make or remain in relationships or locations that little by little kill our true spirit
  4. We hold secrets that help us achieve personal goals at the expense of others
  5. We hide our beliefs from those who don’t agree with us so as to avoid any conflict, challenge or change
  6. We basically conceal who we truly are for fear of being criticized, shunned or attacked.

One of the arguments that might be raised is how can I tear off my mask, or reclaim my true goals when I have a family to support? Tough question. But Palmer relates story after story of people he has worked with who woke up to realize that the need to drink, or gamble or take drugs for depression—were overt symbols that they weren’t living the life they wanted to live—the life that was meant to be theirs. Palmer writes: No one wants to suffer the penalties that come from choosing to live divided no more. But there can be no greater suffering than living a lifelong lie. As we move closer to the truth that lives within us—aware that in the end what will matter most is knowing that we stayed true to ourselves—institutions start losing their sway over our lives…This does not mean we must abandon institutions. In fact, when we live by the soul’s imperatives, we gain the courage to serve institutions more faithfully, to help them resist their tendency to default on their own missions. He acknowledges that this road won’t always be easy. Sacrifice might be necessary and certainly change and adjustment. “Our deepest calling is to grow into our own authentic self-hood, whether or not it conforms to some image of who we ought to be. As we do so, we will not only find the joy that every human being seeks–we will also find our path of authentic service in the world.” Parker J. Palmer

I think Parker’s ideas are truly important and that as we age, more and more we are face to face with all the decisions we have made. We have either firmly covered our souls with a mask or we have enhanced our true selves. Sacrifice might be necessary–but as we give some things up and take others into our lives–as we fix our own basic self, we are at the center of the goal. And isn’t it  wiser to become a whole person, than a face in the mirror that feels more like a stranger? Have you made significant changes in your life to be your true self?

For more from this writer and thinker go here. Listen to what he says about THE DIVIDED LIFE. "The Divided Life" and How to Fix It   I think it would be lovely to raise lavender, but I know that’s not my true calling. Thanks to Google Images

My Father: The Day of Magical Thinking

My Father: The Day of Magical Thinking

I notice his gold ring, gold watchband and a maroon tie peaking out from the shirt under his white coat.

It happened when my dentist went on vacation. A much needed one, but a little excessive for the amount of time he would be gone, 22 days. Because during that time I needed to see him for a checkup and cleaning. The office had called asking if I’d see someone else while he was gone. I was overdue for a cleaning, and said yes.

So this morning I was awakened from a very vivid dream about my father by the phone ringing and Helen, my dentist’s receptionist, telling me that they could see me in one hour. They had a replacement dentist. I move fast and I’m in great shape at sixty, but they were a little abrupt with the allotted time and I was not happy about having to hurry. One hour to shower and dress and drive there. (I didn’t get my hair blow-dried to my satisfaction.) But I made it, and they set me up in the dental chair.

As usual, first I saw Christy. She’s my hygienist, has the same name as my second daughter, though she spells it differently. Her husband has been in Iraq, it seems forever, and I’m always nervous about asking her how he’s doing. My mother is a widow, Christy has a son, and I’m just sensitive to that stuff. I guess I would immediately know if something horrible had happened.

She’s always cheerful and does an excellent job on my teeth. Obviously you can’t talk when someone is probing inside your mouth, but I get a question out now and again just after she finishes suctioning, and then she’ll talk about her husband and what he’s doing while my mouth is full again.

This morning, something strange happened. She had cleaned some of my top teeth and told me it was time to rinse. When she removed the buzzing brush, I automatically turned my head to the left to spit. An old reflex. There was no bowl there with the tiny metal spigot of water running in a half-circle. They don’t have those anymore. We laughed about it and she handed me a small paper cup filled with a cinnamon tasting liquid—the rinse.

A few moments later Helen comes in and they are talking quietly. I learn that Christy’s mother has arrived—an emergency situation. She is having lots of pain in one of her teeth and naturally would come right over and see her daughter who is in the business. Christy apologizes. She’s got to go check on her mother and then she’ll come back to finish my cleaning.

I’m fine about it. I’m a nurse. If my mother or one of my children needed me, I’d be right there.

I lie back in the chair and close my eyes for a while. I didn’t get my coffee—it’s decafe every morning—but still the aroma and the routine gets me moving. This dental chair is recumbent so my feet are up; I’m comfy. I have a book in my lap. I always have something to read with me, but I close my eyes. I doze off and on.

Once I open my eyes and look into the hallway. There are no doors on the examining rooms which all open onto this hallway. People flow in and out with x-rays and lab reports, bringing appointment cards and those tiny tubes of tooth paste that you always get to take home with you.

The replacement dentist is standing there. He has his back to me. He’s wearing a very starched white jacket, well not exactly a jacket, it falls to his knees and has a slit up the back. It’s more like a lab coat. The sleeves are three quarter length so that the fabric won’t get in his way. If he were closer I might even make the crack about didn’t he get the dress code email today? This dental practice does a color coded thing. All the hygienists and receptionists, even the dentists, wear the same color scrubs—but it alternates—maroon on Tuesdays, beige on Fridays. There’s a pale blue.

The replacement dentist turns a bit in the hallway—I can’t hear him talking, but he’s standing there like he’s conversing with someone, his hands held together at his waist. His hair is a soft brown, longer than I’m used to seeing. He has it combed back along the side and neatly trimmed around his ear. I notice his gold ring, gold watchband and a maroon tie peaking out from the shirt under his white coat. Is that his nod to the dress code? Are the rest of them wearing maroon today? I didn’t notice, but I know it’s not Tuesday. Maybe when he comes in later to look at my teeth I’ll ask him about his glasses. They look to be those new flexor type—all plastic lenses with no frame, very lightweight. I’ve been thinking about getting a pair. I doze.

After a while Christy is back. She finishes my cleaning, gives me my new appointment card and new toothbrush and tubes of paste and leaves. I know in any given amount of time, depending on how busy he is, the dentist will be in to see me. He’ll look at my teeth using that probe with the mirror on it. He’ll ask me if I have any discomfort, comment about when the next set of mouth x-rays will be done and then I can go.

I close my eyes for a while. And then I hear him walk in. He’s already behind my chair when I open my eyes. I can hear him open the chart which Christy has left on the table at the back of the room.

“Havey,” he says. “I know the Haveys.” His voice is deep, but has tenor qualities to it. It’s a lovely voice and I’m a little annoyed with myself that I am drawn to it suddenly. His coat makes a crispy, starchy sound as he moves and when he does my skin tingles. Now I’m arguing with myself. It’s the same sound my husband’s stiff white shirts make when I hug him.

“These Haveys were back in Chicago.” He flips a page in the chart.

I sit up straighter in the chair, which is hard to do because the very nature of these apparatuses is to have you lie back. “I’m from Chicago,” I say. “My husband is the son of Ed Havey.”

“That’s right. I knew that.” The voice pulls at something in me.

“You did?”

He doesn’t answer me. He continues to read the chart. I want to turn around and look at him, but that wouldn’t be proper. He’ll get to me and check my teeth soon enough.

And then he says, “So do they still call you Beth.”

Now something moves in me. My heart jumps, quivers. The way he asks it—it’s not really a question. And the word Beth in his mouth—it feels different, to hear it, a resonance or some other context that I’ve never heard before with the sound of my name.

I hurry to answer. “Yes. I love my given name, Elizabeth, like in the chart, but yes, everyone calls me Beth.” My other dentist must have it written down somewhere. Nickname, Beth.

“And I see you’re a nurse. I’m so happy to see that. I would have thought you would be influenced by your mother’s sisters—be a teacher or at least write.”

His voice is leading me. It demands that I answer even though these are not the questions that a replacement dentist would ask. Maybe I briefly decide he knew my people back in Chicago. Maybe I don’t. “I’m not practicing nursing right now. I actually am writing. And I was a teacher. That was my first job. But I taught English. Like they did. Like my oldest brother, John. He teaches at Georgetown. He’s a PhD. A published author.”

“That’s a wonderful thing. You both have done so well. And Bill?”

“You knew Bill, back in Chicago?” I’m thinking that maybe if he finally comes around and I can see his face I will know that he’s closer in age to Bill. Maybe he even went to school with Bill, my younger brother.

“I didn’t know Bill. Not as well. So he’s–”

“Oh, in the music business. Out in LA. He’s been there forever. Except for a job in New York for a number of years. We are very close.”

“And then there’s your amazing mother.” My mother is 92. Now how would he know her. Now I have to turn around. I struggle in this recumbent chair to twist my body and look at him. He has his back to me, sitting on a stool in front of the desk, still bent over the chart, one elbow resting, the right hand turning the pages. I turn back. The chart. He’s so into the chart.

“I know I’ve had way too many cavities,” I say abruptly, apologizing. “I had to have four of my molars capped. I’m sure it’s all there. I’m better about my teeth now. I am. But my father would not be very happy with me.” I always say this.

“Why not?”

“My father was a dentist. That’s why. I should have perfect teeth and I don’t.”

“Your father is very happy with you.” And then he gets up and comes around, wheeling the stool with his foot. He stops it at the side of the chair, near my feet. He sits and looks at me. The first thing my eyes focus on is his tie, bold in color against his white clothing, but soft real silk. And the glasses are real glass, highly polished with gold wire side pieces. His trousers are wool with a very fine grey stripe in them and his shoes are leather and highly polished. My other dentist wears tennis shoes. This replacement dentist is about 45 years old. He has my chart in his hands.

“I was making a sandbox for you. Or did I finish it,” he says.

“You finished it.”

My heart is pounding in my ears. I’m not sure I am hearing him correctly, hearing myself.

“You kids wanted a dog.”

I rush on. “I was way too young to remember. But this woman called me when I published an article about becoming a nurse and feeling closer to—to you. Because of the medicine connection. She was one of your patients and she said you were going to get me a puppy.”

There are tears in my eyes, they are running down my cheeks now. I brush them away hurriedly because I don’t want my vision blurred. I want to be able to look into his eyes and hold them there, watch how he moves his head, what he does with his hands, hear again the crispness of his starched coat and every word intoned with his amazing voice. I want to ask him questions, but I’m afraid to move, to say a word; I’m terrified that Christy or Helen or someone will walk in and he will just disappear.

“I would have gotten you anything you wanted.”

“In a scrapbook, I have the pumpkin you drew me,” I say. A stupid comment. There are so many more important things to talk about.

“Your mother is doing okay.”

“She talks about you more and more. She says she knows she’s getting ready to see you. Oh, but she’s so old.” My voice cracks and the tears are worse now. He is so young, 45, his skin clear and unwrinkled, his body straight. He left us when Bill was just 3 months. John was six. I was three. My mother has osteoporosis. She is shorter than he would remember her, wrinkled and grey. And then I say, “But her hair stayed red for longer than anyone there ever was.”

He smiles. It’s the same smile from the photograph—the one that sat on the drum table in our living room when we three children were growing up without him. He’s got this very soft smile and he’s wearing a maroon tie and his wire-rimmed glasses. The photo was taken not long before he crashed over in a chair in that same room, dead from a massive MI—heat attack. Now I’m shaking, my hands, my legs still outstretched in the recumbent chair. He’s just the photo on the damn table. He’s going to disappear.

“Your teeth are fine today. You are fine today. And you have three wonderful children.”

“Your grandchildren. They didn’t get to–”

“It’s okay, Beth. Really. You have to see that. I’m just here to reassure you.”

“May I touch you?” I finally ask him. I’ve been afraid to ask him.

He smiles and shakes his head as if to say don’t ask too much. Then he says, “I see you like to read.”

And then it happens. “Dr. Pfordresher, can you check on Christy’s mother again. Her pain is worse.” Helen, damn her, is standing in the doorway.

“He can’t leave. He hasn’t looked at my teeth yet,” I say boldly.

“Your teeth are fine today. You are fine.” He’s repeating himself. People in dreams sometimes repeat themselves.

“Don’t go.” I say it loudly, boldly. I’ll cry out if I have to.

Helen has walked away down the hall.

“Tell your mother, I’ll be there.”

I am sobbing now. I cannot help it. I fight to make it stop so that I can watch him, how he rises from the stool, gently pushes it back against the wall, how he walks behind my chair again, setting the chart on the desk. I am up on my knees now, turning my body to watch him. He’s moving toward the doorway.

“Dad!” It’s not a cry for help, not an angry cry. It’s more a pleasant, joyful escape of sound, something that I cannot ever remember doing as I was so young when he died. Three-year-olds don’t remember. Now I have said his name.

He turns back to look at me, a sixty-year-old woman holding him in my heart.

“Beth,” he says again and lifts his hand as I have seen him do thousands of times in my dreams. And he walks away, down that hallway.

I gather my purse, my book and stumble out of the chair. I forget my appointment card, my toothbrush, those little tubes of paste. I wander down the hall looking for him, questions for him pouring through my mind like water. Why did you die on us? Do you know everything about our lives? What do you think of this country now? Did you know that now medicine could have saved you? You could have lived to be my age or older.

Everyone is wearing pink today. They smile at me strangely and I know they are wondering why I am wandering around looking in all the exam rooms. He’s not in any of the rooms. I even check the break room, but he’s not there. Of course he wouldn’t be.

I had to go to the dentist today. And it was just my day of magical thinking.

Dr. Albert George Pfordresher DDS of Chicago, Illinois died of a massive coronary in his living room on June 4, 1950. He left a widow, my mother Virginia Pfordresher, and three children—John C. Pfordresher, a professor at Georgetown University, William F. Pfordresher, a song writer and music producer, and Beth—who wrote this piece. She thanks Joan Didion for the phrase “magical thinking.

This is a repost in honor of my father and Father’s Day. You might also like: FINDING MY FATHER Even though we never had the opportunity to talk about careers, my father influenced my career choices.

“Big Boys Don’t Cry” and Other Verbal Blunders

"Big Boys Don't Cry" and Other Verbal Blunders

Scenario: you’ve been to a business gathering, party, or dinner with people you’ve never met or don’t know well. Now it’s midnight and you’re staring at the ceiling, going over some verbal blunder. You regret the words you said or the response you received. Maybe you come to some conclusions—what to say next time you meet this person. Maybe you even compose an email or a phone message in your mind. Finally, you just pound your pillow and give up. The words were said. Get some sleep.


Why do we attach importance to this? The person is probably oblivious to our concerns. Does the fact that this was said to an adult color our reaction? And yet there are exchanges we should be monitoring, considering and being very concerned about.

Those are the words, the statements, the things we say when we are angry, tired or stressed—TO OUR CHILDREN and our GRANDCHILDREN.


Lauren Murphy Payne, M.S.W., is a psychotherapist in family practice. In her book, Just Because I Am, A Child’s Book of Affirmation, she offers examples of poor responses that many of us will have to own. The good news: she also cites alternatives which again many of us can say we use. Because we all want to be good parents and grandparents and to never exacerbate a situation. We all want to be healers, not hurters. Check out the following examples.

The child makes a mistake. Adult responses: What’s wrong with you?   Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?   Don’t you know anything?   Why can’t you do it right? 

Alternative responses: What can you learn from that? How can you do that differently the next time? What else can you try? How can I help you? And probably the best response: Don’t worry, I make mistakes too. 

The grandchild is angry. Adult responses: You shouldn’t feel that way.   You have nothing to be angry about.   You don’t know what real problems are.   What are you getting so upset about? 

Alternative responses as the child has a right to feel what they feel: I’m so glad you can tell me how you feel. Everyone gets angry some time. Wow, you are feeling really frustrated. 

The child is sad or crying. Adult responses: Stop or I’ll give you something to cry about. You’ve got nothing to cry about.   Now be a good girl and stop crying.   Big boys don’t cry. 

Alternative responses: You’re feeling really sad right now.   It’s okay to cry.   I know how sadness feels.   It’s important to listen to your sadness.   I get sad too sometimes.

Payne’s book also offers ideas for making your grandchildren feel safe and secure and for finding ways to say “yes” to children when they need a positive response after being told “no.” Because sometimes we should and need to say “no.”


But there is a scenario where what we say to an adult can be even more confusing and complicated. It happens when a friend or acquaintance is sick, hospitalized, dealing with a serious illness. What to say? How to avoid those verbal blunders???

In a recent article in Blue prepared by Wellmark Blue Cross, six statements to avoid are examined. Though these words might easily fall from our lips, it’s how the sick person receives them and interprets them that really matters.

1. You suggest to this person that you know about a supplement that might help. Though this is thoughtful, he might hear that you don’t think he’s making the right decisions regarding treatment. He also might hear you are challenging his medical team–and that’s challenging his trust.

2. “You look great.” She probably feels awful. Are you saying that she’s really not that sick?

3. “Bad things happen to everyone…You’ll be okay…” He might think you are saying his illness isn’t that serious or that he’s complaining as we all have challenges.

4. “Don’t give up. You have to stay positive.” Does she think you feel she isn’t trying hard enough? Maybe it’s his time and you are challenging that.

5. “My friend (co-worker etc) had this illness and he tried this treatment…” She might think you feel this illness is no big deal and that she’s not doing everything she can to beat it.

6. “Look on the bright side–at least you don’t have to go to work every day.” You are actually saying that his or her worries about pain and medication and medical bills and life or death are not valid or important. When people are really sick, they crave going back to a normal, boring life.

Here are some words to keep in mind when you are in this situation:

I’m not sure what to say, but I care about you and I’m here to support you.

I’m sorry this is happening to you. I care about you.

Do you want to talk about this? I’m here to listen.

If you need to cry, count on me to be there for you. I’ll bring the tissues.

I love you and I’ll help you through all of this the best I can. 

Words are powerful things. Sometimes we just need to be very careful when we choose them. I know I’ve had my share of verbal blunders. Have you?

Thanks to Google Images