Category Archives: Empathy

Walls

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©donnaesgro

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Long before the pink cinder block wall went up, and the balconies of the apartment house next door looked down into the squalor of our backyard, there was what had once been a bright blue picket fence, so weather beaten that when brushed against, its paint burst into plumes of powder. The fence did its best to separate our back yard from our neighbor, Mrs. Crawford, a pearly headed old woman who tended an abundant rhubarb garden that grew against the fence on her side. Every year, at Christmas, she brought us six jars of rhubarb preserves… magenta and green chunks aglow in a row of Mason jars on the window sill.

How quietly she tended her purple veined garden, never greeting us except with a silent nod, and never complaining about the wanton children that we were. Just as silently she died, and her still little house was sold. We never thought about her when we’d sneak over the fence to the sawdust scented construction site to steal the golden oak planed planks to make see-saws. My brothers collected the long heavy nails just for the joy of having such a forbidden thing in the pockets of their corduroy school uniform pants.

Then, one day, the picket fence was gone, replaced by the spindly, metal, Giacometti like girders of what would soon become a massive concrete wall between our two properties. As the workmen mixed the thick cement paste, I remembered the long roots of the rhubarb plants when Mrs. Crawford used to pull them up in the sunlight. My father seemed to like the wall, seeming almost proud of it…it was new and sturdy, like nothing else on our property, but, to me, it was an affront; an effort to keep us out – a high high wall, without any foot holds to climb.

Mrs. Brown, our neighbor on the other side, and owner of the neatly groomed courtyard apartments with the pansies all in a row, often complained about us, once even warning my mother that if she didn’t stop letting her children run wild, she would report her to the police for child neglect. And so we played, squabbled, accumulated scars, celebrated birthdays, ran through sprinklers, stepped on the occasional bee, sprained our wrists, made forts, and did the dirty job of growing up in our back yard, squeezed between two impenetrable forces: the thick cold wall and the glare of Mrs. Brown from behind the pretty lace curtains of her upstairs apartment.

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“I will build a great wall-and nobody builds walls better than me-and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”  Donald Trump

“Sometimes you put walls up not to keep people out, but to see who cares enough to break them down.”  Socrates

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One of the best children’s stories about tolerance and coexistence is “The Sneetches” by Dr. Seuss. In a way that only Dr. Seuss can, this book points out the absurdity of intolerance in an allegorical style that children can easily understand, “Ronald, remember, when you are out walking, you walk past a Sneetch of that kind without talking.” (Dr. Seuss – The Sneetches)

 

Walls, whether they be brick and mortar or metaphorical are designed to keep out the other. It’s time to break down these walls that degrade, deride, and segregate us. It is time to build inclusivity, compassion, and understanding. It begins with the children.

Namaste

Happy New Year

Walking in a Winter Wonderland

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Courtesy of: “The Snow Tree”

(and Avelena, age four)

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This year, as always, and like thousands of other educators, I dust off my winter holiday books –   “Frosty the Snowman”, “The Polar Express”, “The  Penguin Who Wanted To Sparkle”. I speak to children of the magic of sleigh rides or the science of snow crystals. Many of the illustrations in my books are glittery and shimmery, snow drifts in the moonlight and candles aglow.

But last week, as I read “The Snow Tree”, a story of a cub’s astonishment at experiencing his first snowfall, my mind was not on the beautifully illustrated pages but on the graphic images captured by Paul Nicklen, Marine Biologist and National Geographic Photographer, of a  Polar Bear in the Baffin Islands:

https://tinyurl.com/yc5pz2w9

Is this horrifying and shameful spectacle of the neglect and abuse of our power as humans what we stand for? How do those whose hearts are shattered by this legacy protect, cradle, and nurture our sacred earth? As the current leaders of our country not only actively deny climate change, but champion the corporate interests that have caused it, we must resist in every way we can.

https://tinyurl.com/y6w6llpo

Being an activist is a noble cause. But it doesn’t just mean marching, signing petitions and voting – vital endeavors as we have seen –  but also the thousand small choices that we make throughout our days. Mindfulness has become a common concept. But, in the tossing about of the word, has the meaning escaped us? To be mindful is to be alert and aware. “Life is not a problem to be resolved but a reality to be experienced.” Kierkegaard

It has become so easy in the modern world to be careless. Releasing balloons into the air is celebratory and metaphorically beautiful. But what happens to those balloons? Most end up in our waterways and are often ingested by sea creatures who, fatally, mistake them for food. Juice boxes are cute and convenient, but each one takes about 300 years to degrade. The largest accumulation of garbage (twice the size of Texas and growing) floats in our very own ocean off the coast of California. Plastic is one of our planet’s most crucial enemies…And it is an enemy that we can all fight.

Take your children outside and express your love of the trees, the birds, the ocean-each mottled leaf and speckled shell.  Let them know that, just as we protect our family from danger, it is our sacred duty to protect nature. Get them away from the addictive call of their devices and get their hands in the dirt. Teach compassion for all who are hungry, homeless and hopeless, whether they be men, polar bears, or coral reefs…let your children know that all of these are one. One heart that beats. One soul that suffers.

Remember, your carbon footprint has little feet behind it, so when you choose to refill your water bottles, say no to a plastic straw, or bring your own bags to the grocery store, let your children know why you are doing so. We can all be guardians of the earth in our own way. Together our matchstick flares can bring light to the darkness and inspire hope…. hope, the ephemeral, invisible and intangible “thing with feathers” that our future depends on.

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Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul

And sings the tune without the words

And never stops at all

Emily Dickinson

One million sea birds are killed annually from plastics in our oceans.

 

https://www.nrdc.org/experts/nrdc/senate-just-opened-door-drilling-arctic-national-wildlife-refuge

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The Symbiosis of Writer & Illustrator

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One of the earliest books ever read to me was Honey Bear by Dixie Wilson (1923), illustrated by Maginel Wright Barney. As a very young child I was mesmerized, both with the rhyming story and the exquisite illustrations-the dusky velvet sky, the deep lavender shadows, Honey Bear in his rumpled rose colored jacket…

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Once upon a summer in the hills by the river

Was a deep green forest where the wild things grew

There were caves as dark as midnight

There were tangled trees and thickets

And a thousand little places where the sky looked through

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Later, as an adult, I read Algonquin Publishing’s introduction to their series of books for children:

“The makers of Sunny Books believe that books for children should be not only entertaining, but conform to the highest ideals of beauty in book-making, so that the fortunate child who owns them will develop good taste in reading and in art.”

Fortunate, indeed, I was, to fall so completely and sweetly in star dusted love with literature long before I could read.

When choosing first books for your child, be aware of the quality of both writer and illustrator. There is deeper enchantment in the reading of a story when both artists work in harmony with respect and passion for their material.

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The Mad Hatter: “Have I gone mad?”

Alice: “I’m afraid so. You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.”

Alice in Wonderland has been illustrated by many artists over the years. But, the original black and white John Tenniel drawings reflect best the oddness and dreaminess of Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece. Carroll was a visual artist as well as a writer and knew the importance of the illustrator’s contribution to the integrity of the story. He could have chosen among dozens of children’s book illustrators adept at depicting whimsical fairylands. Instead he chose the acerbic Tenniel, known for his wicked sense of humor and grotesque political cartooning. The choice is intriguing and telling.

My mother often told me the story about how, when she was a little girl, she would sneak down into her grandfather’s library after everyone was asleep and read. Late at night, in the shadows of the dark room, she was both spellbound by Alice’s adventures and terrified by Tenniel’s drawings. A fact that, I’m sure, both gentlemen would have appreciated.

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Piglet: “How do you spell ‘love’?”

Pooh: “You don’t spell it…you feel it.”

In a similar close relationship, A.A.Milne worked with Ernest H. Shepherd to create the charming Winnie the Pooh books. Together they capture the elusive innocence of a young child’s long golden days at play…the simple drawings a metaphor for the zen like simplicity of the characters. Disney’s much commercialized renditions, with their artificial cuteness that have turned Pooh from a humble sage to a bumbling clown, are loud, garish, and awkward when compared to the delicate and sensitive drawings of the original illustrator.

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Charlotte’s Web would still be a classic without E.B.White’s collaborator Garth Williams’ illustrations, but has anyone else ever drawn Wilbur, Charlotte, Fern, or the well meaning Mr. & Mrs. Arable with greater humor, compassion, gentleness, and love? This is a difficult book emotionally as its principal theme is suffering and death. Yet Charlotte’s story shimmers with hope. Williams’ tender black and white illustrations attend to the sacredness with which the author sees life and death.

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But Charlotte,” said Wilbur, “I’m not terrific.”

“That doesn’t make a particle of difference,” replied Charlotte. “Not a particle. People believe almost anything they see in print. Does anybody here know how to spell ‘terrific’?”

In cases in which a wonderful writer is also an accomplished illustrator, such as the works of Maurice Sendak, Rudyard Kipling, or William Blake, the reader is twice blessed with this deeper plunge into the original story creator’s mind. The fantastical fracas of Sendak, the exotica of Kipling, and the metaphysicality of Blake are omnipresent; as much in each brushstroke as in each word.

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“It is such a mysterious place, the land of tears.”

Although Antoine de Saint-Exupery never considered himself a visual artist, who can help but fall in love with the earnest Little Prince? The spareness of Exupery’s watercolors perfectly express the underlying message of his simple yet profoundly wise moral tale. And although I agree with The Little Prince that “What is essential is invisible to the eye”, it is often through, not only our reading and uses of imagination, but through our contemplative gaze that the invisible is revealed to us, clear, in all its squalor and glory.

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“Let The wild rumpus start!”

Maurice Sendak

Where the Wild Things Are

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The Way of the Reader

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©donnaesgro

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“The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.”
Thich Nhat Hanh

 

We live in a distracting world, but we fool ourselves when we think that, by doing more than one thing at a time we are being efficient. To be mindful, fully present in the moments of our lives, sounds deceptively simple, but, especially in this electronic age, is a decided discipline.

Reading, because it slows one down and encourages uses of imagination and focus, can be a gentle bridge to serenity.

As more and more children abandon reading for electronics, neuroimaging research shows that excessive screen time damages the developing brain by creating structural and functional changes in the regions that control emotional processing and cognitive control.

Of particular concern are findings that show damage to areas of the brain that equate physical attributes, such as facial expressions and body language, with emotion. This kind of damage, combined with the rapidly growing trend to spend more time socializing online than face to face, are a cocktail that severely impacts healthy social emotional development.

Conversely, reading develops brain connectivity, particularly in the left temporal cortex, the area of the brain associated with language and in the the sensorimotor region, the region of the brain responsible for something called embodied cognition, the ability to empathize.

Studies show that daily reading also increases connections between the brain’s hemispheres.  These neural pathways aide in the growth of a multitude of complex cognitive functions.

Undoubtedly, reading makes you smart. But does it also make you wise?

When we read to our children we encourage them to be still in body and mind, to listen attentively, and to focus intently. We offer a refuge from the jangle of the modern world and give them our full attention in a joyful and quiet way.

Reading develops Theory of Mind (ToM), the ability to understand that others have needs, desires, thoughts, and feelings that may be different than one’s own. These early stirrings of compassion are the foundation on which tolerance is built.
Reading, by its very nature, takes us outside ourselves. We become emotionally and intellectually sympathetic to characters who often are quite unlike us. This creates, in the child, an attitude of acceptance in which he or she is not threatened by foreign ideas…the seeds of a peaceful world.

Like a spiritual practice, reading offers a time to reflect, to ask questions and to examine one’s own life. It helps to foster what Albert Einstein called “holy curiosity.”
It makes us receptive, open to new concepts that inspire wonder, creativity and clarity…Deep reading allows us a singular meditation even in the midst of chaos and confusion.

In an often dark world, books illuminate.
Statistics show that, after their schooling is completed, almost half of the population of the United States never reads a book again.

So, if you ever find your children reading under the covers with a flashlight, quietly close the door and let them stay up late, their growing minds and hearts filled with vivid imagery and emotion as they follow their own singular bumpy twisty  roads to enlightenment.

 

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Be Inspired

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©donnaesgro

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“Sometimes you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.” John Green – The Fault in Our Stars

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The first story I remember being read to me was Honey Bear, by Dixie Wilson. The cadence of my mother’s voice, the enchantment of the illustrations…I couldn’t get enough of this little book…its Belle Epoque watercolors and rhyming verses like the bells of fairies. It took me to a place I never knew existed, a wondrous place. I was inspired, in the true sense of the word, filled with the spirit of literature.

Yet the feelings this story aroused were not simply of joy, but also, like all epiphanies, laced with longing. I traced my fingers over the delicate illustrations…the glowing cottage in the dark woods…the garden blooming with anthropomorphic flowers. I yearned to be there, a part of this loving family in their rapturous world.

The next book that hit me like a thunderbolt was E.B.White’s Charlotte’s Web. I was seven and longed with all my heart to be Fern…raising a baby pig, sitting silent in the barn privy to the conversations of animals…brave and tender Fern, who stood up to her father to save a helpless runt…reckless Fern, swinging out from the high loft of the barn on an old rope…circumspect Fern, who deeply listened before she spoke.

As an awkward ungainly preteen, the intelligence and independence of Nancy Drew seemed out of reach. Yet, I collected, read and re-read the dozens of blue cloth covered editions…her ordinary world so extraordinary to me, the wide tree lined streets, the stately homes with their generous porches, her stalwart convictions, her steadfast fight for justice while speeding around jauntily in her roadster without a blonde hair out of place.

I abandoned Nancy when I discovered Jane. Austen’s heroines were women I could imagine myself becoming…snubbing high society’s mores while strolling through formal English gardens…exposing hypocrisy while dancing in gilded ceilinged ballrooms.

The spiritual journey that books set me on is a never ending one..sometimes an Autobahn, sometimes a labyrinth, but mostly a twisting path that splits into many side roads…from Anna Karenina to Chekov, Turgenev, and my first true love, Dostoevsky…from a short story by Guy de Maupassant to Flaubert, Victor Hugo, and Proust. Today the books on my nightstand spill into stacks on the floor.

“So many books, so little time.” Frank Zappa

Although it is important to allow a child in a library or bookstore free reign to explore, it is also a good idea for the parent to be aware, just as he or she is aware of what foods are nutritious for the body, what books develop a child’s mind in healthy ways. Publishing for children is, after all, a business, one which is heavily researched and marketed to be delivered in bright shiny packaging designed to lure your child. So be aware, there are books that exploit rather than respect the child. The next time you take your child to pick out books, be involved in the process, find stories you loved as a child and point them out. Don’t forget to get a book for yourself, too. Your example, by way of the value you place on reading, is truly inspirational.

Of course, great children’s literature doesn’t have to be fiction, wonderful nonfiction books such as those by Gail Gibbons, Charlotte Zolotow, and Tana Hoban broaden the child’s knowledge of their immediate environment and answer many of the child’s unasked questions about how the world works.

Below is a link with a list of some outstanding children’s books:

http://www.readingrockets.org/article/75-authorsillustrators-everyone-shouldknow

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Books provide escape and comfort, but they also introduce the eternal questions, Why am I here?, ponder good vs. evil, and inspire us to wonder. My daughter, in her devotion to one of literature’s greatest female role models, Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, would not take off her ruby slippers for weeks, even to go to bed.

Whether you find your inspiration in Candy Fairies or Candide, whether you are reading from a rare first edition or a Kindle, books will always be a journey of egalitarian enlightenment. Follow your heart. The world today needs inspiration.

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So please, oh please, we beg, we pray

Go throw your TV set away

And in its place you can install

A lovely bookshelf on the wall

Roald Dahl – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

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What books have inspired you or your children? I’d love to hear from you.

Reduce Reuse Recycle Resist

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Treat the earth well

It was not given to you by your parents

It was loaned to you by your children

We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors

We borrow it from our children.

Ancient Indian Proverb

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Earth Day 2017 took on greater meaning than ever before. Since Trump took office his administration has systematically undermined and dismissed scientific facts such as global warming as liberal hysteria.

In a mere 100 days he and Congress have implemented unprecedented easing of environmental protections beginning with the Orwellian act of excising all mention of climate change from the White House website. This draconian editing process was followed by the appointment of the fossil fuel shill, Scott Pruitt, to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

Pruitt, outspoken in his opposition to the very values that the agency upholds, has stated that “carbon dioxide is not a primary contributor to climate change.”  He sued the EPA for supporting President Obama’s Clean Power Act – an important piece of legislation that for the first time set Federal limits on carbon pollution. Pruitt is a man who Trump praises highly, stating that his new head of the EPA “will reverse an out-of-control anti-energy agenda.”

Appointing Scott Pruitt to head the EPA is akin to placing someone who believes that the earth is the center of the universe to head NASA. We will not let the current GOP lead our nation down a perilous path with their “Roadmap to Repeal” (An actual document compiled by The Freedom Partners – a group of wealthy political donors organized by the Koch brothers).

Scientists are accustomed to thinking of things in terms of hundreds of thousands of years (or light years). But, as seen by the massive worldwide turn out for the Science March on Earth Day, the boundary between politics and science is now an illusion.

When Trump repeals environmental safeguards such as the Clean Water Act, which protected the fragile eco-system of our streams and rivers from becoming dumping grounds for toxic waste, and when agencies such as NOAA (National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration) are being treated dismissively as extraneous, scientists have been forced to become activists.

Trump’s careless tweets, his mendacity, his toying with the grave issues of global warming and nuclear war, reveal the vulnerability of our dreams for our children and the world they will inherit. Dreams that are worth fighting for – that have always been worth fighting for…a world that is cleaner, safer, more compassionate, with liberty and justice for all.

Gather your friends and family and lace up your boots. We have seen in the last 100 days that our voices are powerful. We are all connected, just as all waterways are connected as they flow to the sea. Hear the call to action. There is no time to lose.

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“What used to be a wish list of the oil, coal, and gas industries has become the to do list for Congress and the White House.”

Michael Brune – Executive Director-Sierra Club

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ttwP02WXB0I

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The Vital Importance of Diversity

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“The colors of the rainbow so pretty in the sky

Are also on the faces of people going by.”

What a Wonderful World – Thiele & Weiss

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If we care about mankind and its future, if we care that the most powerful nation on earth has a leader who does not believe in science and who puts immediate gratification above concern for future generations, then it is time that we make a radical shift in how we view education within a global society. The mill of school grinds along, and we are glad that it does, but changes in how we teach at the fundamental level have now become critically important.

“Most of what we teach children today is going to be completely irrelevant to the job market in 2040 or 2050.”

Yuval Noah Harari – Sapiens

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 We cannot survive, much less thrive, if we build walls and keep people out. It is through the permeable sharing of ideas and cultural nuances that we build on our own reservoirs of knowledge, compassion, and the ability to live in harmony.

No one would dispute that teaching our children to share is a good thing, one of the basic elements of social-emotional relationships. When we share, we learn. We show others our good intentions, and they show us theirs. Bridges are built and alliances are formed.

The concept of respecting one another begins at the earliest levels of education. Even preschoolers can understand that their blue marble of a world spins in a beautifully complex solar system. They can grasp the idea that there are lands across the seas where people speak differently and go about their day in different ways, yet share the same joys and sorrows that we do.

We cannot coexist in any kind of peace if we fear each other, and we cannot imagine anything better if we don’t begin to encourage critical thinking skills and the uses of imagination in our schools.

Children feel a close affinity with the creatures of air, sea, mountains, and forests that share the world with us. Have you, lately, looked at a picture book of animals as closely as they do? They have an innate curiosity and empathy that, rather than dismissing as ingenuous, we need to recognize for the wisdom that it holds.

The question “Why?” is asked primarily by children less than seven years old and the greatest philosophers and scientists of all time. Think about that.

Yet we proceed, beginning in elementary school, to encourage students not to ask,  but to answer questions- to memorize facts, figures, and formulas. It is no wonder, then, that the trajectory of education becomes a long distance race to get into a good college, secure a high paying job, and then, finally, get down to the business of living.

The way our competitive education system works is that children learn early on that it is better not to think outside of the box. That imaginative thinking, flights of fancy, and creativity, at best lowers their grade point average and at worse, gets them labeled “weird.”

We are, grade by grade, inadvertently teaching our children not to think more deeply than a test requires.

Worldwide-scholars, tech companies, scientists, educators, politicians, medical researchers, and thousands of others share knowledge; effectively creating networks of ideas that often lead to radical breakthroughs in their fields. When we think and feel and work together at the global level, we nurture compassion for the hungry, the suffering, the refugees of war, all those in need, because the faces and the voices of humanity become real to us. We cannot understand others without interacting with them, any more than we can understand what water is just from knowing its chemical formula. When we  foster bonds with different nations we all benefit. Our minds expand in many different ways as we share thoughts and our hearts grow in equal measure as we become more viscerally aware of others.

Without making a definitive change in both our education system and our budding nationalistic and isolationist politics we are in serious danger of losing our ability to engage innovatively and diplomatically. It is unwise, if not foolish, to be unaware that our entire planet is an eco-system, not only from the standpoint of biology, but on deeper levels of cognitive connectivity. We need clean air and water and we need to believe in and take responsibility for climate change, but we must also believe in mutual respect and tolerance despite different skin colors, religions, or ideologies. It is vital that we begin to teach, starting at the earliest levels of education, that we are the caretakers of our world, not its rulers.

 

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/mar/09/epa-scott-pruitt-carbon-dioxide-global-warming-climate-change

Resist

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“A machine that, when you touch the button, it makes the ocean clean for the whales and dolphins and even the sharks.”  Ava – Age 6

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