“No Man Is An Island” is the title of John Donne’s famous poem and inspiration for the exhibition at one of Stockholm’s premiere museums, Artipelag.
No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s
Or of thine own were:
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
Artipelag opened two years ago, designed by Johan Nyren, and is fast becoming a “must see” attraction. It’s aim: a vision of art, music, furniture and sculpture inspired by the archipelago. The creators behind it…Bjorn and Lilemor Jakobson, the couple famous for creating the company BabyBjorn–(baby carriers and other innovative baby gear…are we surprised?)
Remarkably, they took on this project while in their seventies! Their mission: to bring the extraordinary beauty of Sweden’s countryside to the public’s attention. Its location is in Halludden, just 20 minutes outside of Stockholm, and I can tell you, (because I went there this week), it’s a little piece of wilderness heaven. I still can’t decide what the coolest thing about it is, the architectural structure itself or the gigantic open windows giving you a view to nature outside (with the artwork), or the combination of acoustical inspired jazz and artwork…or maybe the lunch buffet (seriously), everything is prepared from scratch (oven baked turbot with prawns and butter fired sourdough bread!?!?).
The buffet getting set up…
This stone, worn smooth by inland ice, was preserved in the building–a special request from Bjorn.
Here’s what Bjorn had to say about his vision: “I want people to come here and experience the nature. There are so many beautiful trees, ant-hills and moss-covered stones to look at–and rocks to sit on with views of Baggensfjarden bay. I think I could talk about this place until the cows come home.”
I agree. I don’t even know where to begin (or stop), the archipelago in Sweden consists of 30,000 large and small islands wrapping around the country, some rocky, some lush, some relatively abandoned, some teeming with tourists. Take your pick. Ferry there, fly, canoe, make a raft–like the youth group at my church did out of recycled bottles–and row from island to island, (I’ll pass, but okay, it’s possible).
Pictured below: the large artwork by Evert Lundquist and the smaller pieces by Ebba Reutercrona (husband and wife). Notice how much care goes into the hanging of each piece to create the right visual effect and feeling.
Another artist included in the collection is Prince Eugen (1861-1947). Born to a Duke who later became King Oscar II, he was fourth in line to the throne, however, he was much more interested in landscape painting than reigning and devoted his life to art.
These next two paintings are by Bruno Lilejefors (1860-1939), one of the most influential Swedish wildlife painters of the late 19th century.
The sculpture below is outside, near the entry. Vegetal elements and bones in a kind of bronzed collage make up this unique piece. We viewed it while listening to the jazz improvisation of Madeline Jensen–a sometimes melodic, sometimes hiccupping scream of a caterwaul interpretation (to put it nicely). Her archipelago is obviously one of extremes.
But that’s just it, that’s what Donne is trying to say, what this exhibit is trying to show…it’s everyone’s archipelago. Nature is a mirror in which to see ourselves, our connections, our relationships. While we may feel like an island, no person ever is, because no matter how small we feel, our life ripples outward, creating the currents that move all of us along. It’s kind of remarkable to think about. And why on the back steps of the museum, leading out to the promenade, the Milky Way is depicted on the steps–not only are we not an island, we’re not even a universe, we’re a multiverse, 1 of 10 to the 500th!! (That’s a 1 with 500 zeros). It’s hard to grasp. That’s why it’s a good idea, every now and then, to turn off the lights, drive out of the city and stare up at the heavens. It’s all there, we just sometimes forget we’re a part of it. But no man is an island.
I realize it’s been a little quiet over here at Spare Change…not because I don’t have a lot to say, but because I’m just saying it in another place–working on a project (that with a little luck and a bit more work), will be finished by next year. The gist of it is “unpacking the expat life,” a bit of light-hearted practical advice for the global “hauler,” (it’s hauling, not traveling, when you’re bringing along everything plus your suitcase).
Meanwhile, I’ve been busy with the end of year school stuff, the usual suspects: dance recital, rugby and basketball tournaments, choir concerts, a 6th grade camp to Åland (an island off the Finnish coast)—okay, so not the usual 6th grade experience, but yes, Jonah is enjoying the perks of growing up where insurance companies don’t limit the fun you can have in school. I’ve yet to see a “waiver,” I mean for anything, not at my gym not at the doctor…I don’t think they have waivers in Sweden because everything is covered by state health care…you don’t need to be concerned about personal injury or whose going to pay. That’s pretty darn nice.
But I’m not going to debate the merits of healthcare, not yet anyway, because today is a holiday, Ascension Day. Swedes may not be all that religious, but they do observe religious holidays that give time off work. And today I’m going on my (almost) daily walk with Cooper and Maggie and bringing you along for the show–Sweden puts on a spectacular performance each spring, nature strutting all her best stuff. Grab a jacket, it’s still a bit windy…let’s go.
It begins here, by the water just down from our house. Sometimes I forget how marvelous it really is, but not today, today I feel it…it’s glorious.
A little further down you’ll see this sign pointing the way to a bridge to Bockholmen island…it’s a small mound, really, without roads, just a trail that wraps around to wonderful Swedish restaurant. It’s a nice little stop off if you want to linger by the water.
This road leads you through a neighborhood and as you can see, the bushes are heavy with lilacs all along the way…the scent is euphoric.
Here’s one of my favorite traditional Swedish homes. Whoever lives there keeps a lovely garden. What you don’t see from this angle, are the potted plants in front.
Once you enter the forest, there’s any number of trails you can take. I’m always mesmerized by the shapes of shadows cast by the leaves.
Once through the forest, you emerge by the university housing for students. For some reason these buildings are quite famous. There’s a lot of these tenement “blocks.”
Around the bend you’ll discover this little village of summer cottages in quintessential Swedish red.
Through a tunnel and here’s where you come out–right by the lake.
I never get tired of walking by this incredible view.
Maggie stops to admire the wild flowers and make mischief (of one kind or another).
It’s sunny and we’ve walked for about an hour, so we deserve to stop at our favorite Kafe Sjostugan for a slice of rhubarb pie–it’s open everyday now until fall. Don’t you love how they decorate? Hang a stick and some paper cut-outs and voila!, you’ve got style…there’s always something creative draped from the ceiling.
We sit outside. Because we can.
Maggie said it was her lucky day when this little feller landed on her jacket. We now have a caterpillar in residence.
This orchard used to be filled with sheep. Come late summer the apples are going to be amazing.
The Swedes have a great tradition, dating back to WWII, (when people moved out of the city to grow their own vegetables because produce was scarce), of living in these summer cottages. I keep thinking I’m going to spot the Seven dwarfs.
The poppy is a symbol forever bound to WWI because of a poem, In Flanders Fields, written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae—a Canadian medic and soldier. McCrae witnessed the horrors of the front line while battling in Flanders, Belgium—seventeen days and seventeen nights his battalion held their position against the German attack.
Later, when burying a friend, he noticed how the poppies flourish on barren fields around the soldier’s graves, the seeds having been disturbed in the soil and watered by the blood of those laid to rest. He penned the poem the very next day while riding in the back of an ambulance. Unsatisfied with the words, he’s said to have discarded the poem. However, thanks to fellow soldiers, the poem was retrieved and eventually published in a London-based magazine
Today the British International School in Sweden, along with the British Embassy and schools throughout the UK, and around the world, commemorated the 100 Year Anniversary of the First World War. In honor of the soldiers who gave their lives, the children planted poppy seeds–hoping that come August 4th, the day in 1914 when Great Britain declared war on Germany, the flowers will bloom.
The children also wrote poems for the occasion and my 11-year old son Jonah was selected to read his poem entitled, Fallen Soldiers, during the ceremony. It expresses more feeling and understanding of the events of that day than a book report could have captured (that’s why I love poetry for children) and is a stirring account of how a young man in battle might have felt that fateful day. (You could say I’m pretty darn proud of him.)
Fallen Hero by Jonah Wimmer
I shivered as the wind whipped my face,
I wrinkled my nose at the smell,
I wished I could pluck out mine eyes.
I saw thousands of young men sprinkled across the battlefield.
There was no time for mourning
Our enemies didn’t wait,
The bombardments kept us sharp as knives.
I was weary and scared–my heart pumping out of my chest,
I was dreading the moment I would be sent over the top.
I was proud of the soldiers, who bravely conquered their fear,
But I was no soldier.
How could I perform such a heroic deed?
I couldn’t take it anymore; the pressure was just too much.
But I thought of my fallen brothers, the tunnelers who suffocated,
The men who had been so brutally murdered,
Then I thought to myself,
I’d rather die fighting than betraying my country and living.
I sat up and got ready,
I cried as I prayed for my family’s safety.
I walked over to the captain who was a gatekeeper to hell,
I stood at the gate waiting for him to say one dreadful word…
I sprinted into no man’s land
Embracing my inevitable death.
I was a bird with no wings lying on the forest floor.
There was no cover, no crack nor crevice to hide in,
I watched the men fall one by one.
The blue sky came out and the wind died down.
The stench didn’t bother me.
As I lay on the mutilated field, I saw my friends and family carved into the mountainous clouds,
The dead soldiers who died fighting this war would be remembered as heroes…
And so will I.
Time must not diminish our history, our mistakes, our sacrifices, nor our humanity. Remembering is a conscious act to hold in the present the events and people who have shaped our past. Our world wouldn’t be the same without them. We can each choose how we want to remember…a moment of silence, reading a poem or watching a documentary or some other meaningful ritual to honor those who make freedom ring. This Memorial day, as you make it a point to do something to remember, you’ll feel just how much we have to be grateful for today.
THE GREAT thing about a road trip is you can travel almost anywhere, five hours (or less), and find yourself in a completely different landscape, different country, different world. Denmark is considered part of Scandinavia, but when we drove there it felt less like Sweden and more like Nebraska in the middle of The Netherlands. Flat as a postage stamp, Denmark’s countryside is quilted with swaths of phosphorescent green fields, dotted here and there with quaint thatched homes reminiscent of Frodo and the Shire.
Farms cover 63% of Denmark’s peninsula—the kind of dry arable land made for agriculture. No surprise their soils have been cultivated since 3,900 B.C.!! (Denmark has been inhabited since 12,500 B.C., somewhere around the end of the Paleolithic Period but who’s counting right?).
Denmark stays ‘green’ another way, giant wind turbines, on land and sea. They make the most of their natural resource—wind. Twenty-eight percent of electricity runs on the stuff of kite’s dreams—clean and efficient and free. Denmark has installed more than 90% of the world’s offshore wind turbines. (In case it ever comes up in Quiz Cross.)
Denmark is also home to Lego. The word comes from leg godt, meaning ‘play well.’ The toys are innovative, efficient, cubic and well…a lot like Denmark. Lego is still a privately held company and has been since 1949. Ole Kirk Christiansen, a carpenter and the inventor of Lego, made his motto, det bedste er ikke for godt, meaning, “The best is never too good.” (And anyone who has bought Mega Bloks knows he’s right!!)
We spent a day at Legoland in Billund, the original theme park for Lego. “Everything is awesome” there, (but not quite as awesome as the San Diego Legoland.)
We also spent a day at nearby Lalandia, Northern Europe’s largest indoor water park. I thought I was used to the Euro way of doing things, but the locker rooms were a shocker. The lockers were stacked three narrow rectangles high, hundreds of them. At six o’clock when everyone with a tattoo and bikini was told to exit the pool (that was everyone), we were stuffed like cannoli into the space of single floor tile to dry and dress. I was trying to pull on underwear and jeans over my still damp skin, sweating from the heat, while one woman’s hair kept dripping down my back. Ewww! (The way Jimmy Fallon says it.)
Lalandia thankfully had other family friendly attractions. Maggie loved the cable trampoline jump. And ice-skating was nice, until we froze like popsicles in the minus 5 degree indoor rink–we had dressed for a water park, not the Arctic! After twenty minutes we exited and bought their overpriced hot chocolate. I think they were onto something.
The free indoor playroom was big fun–a jungle gym filled with balls and climbing equipment. We let Maggie play until we were sure she was ready to conk out for the night then drove home to our rented cabin close to the parks.
Seeing as the hotel options were limited in Billund (pop. 6,000), I felt the much-advertised cabins were the way to go. They weren’t bad actually…three bedrooms, one bath, kitchen, free internet. It just didn’t include towels or bedding or toilet paper. We rented linens and made our own beds (and bought toilet paper) and for three days took out the trash and recycling. Somewhere written in the small print (in Danish) must have been the extra charge for heat, water and electricity. The charge was shown courtesy of our TV screen the day of departure, in English. If we ‘disagreed’ with the charges all we had to do was track down whomever at somewhere and make a big point of nothing. We paid the charge.
Our high-roller weekend (with more skin than a show in Vegas), ended in the capital city of Copenhagen at the Marriott. Ahhh…I love you Marriott!! We used our points for a free night and slept on fluffy pillows, bathed with full-sized towels, ate a delicious breakfast and had toilet paper—it’s the little things.
Located in the heart of down town Copenhagen, right on the water, we felt somewhere between a dream and a Hans Christian Anderson tale—Denmark’s most celebrated author. Copenhagen’s stunning cityscape is reflected on the water—neoclassical architecture mixing with modern high-rises, surrounded by promenades. We strolled past Tivoli Gardens down to the famous Little Mermaid Statue, enjoying every second of every sight along the three-mile stretch. I fell in love with the colorful homes built along waterways with brick sidewalks and bridges stretching past regal houseboats.
We also made it a point to visit the Christus statue in the Church of Our Lady, located in a not so nice area of downtown. The statue by Bertel Thorvaldsen is something of a shrine to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since it’s replica (made in 1838), stands prominently overlooking the grounds of Temple Square in Salt Lake City Utah. Seeing the original up close was a treasured moment for us and for our dear friends The Strauss family, who joined us during our Spring Break excursion.
About an hour outside Copenhagen is this 14th century castle gem…Egeskov Slot. Moat and all, it’s said to be Europe’s best preserved Renaissance water castle.Denmark is an incredible country filled with much more to do than time to experience. I’m glad we drove, not because we ate at McDonalds three times, but because we got to see more than flying would have afforded and we got to experience the Øresund bridge—a 5-mile expanse of steel and miracle engineering. The bridge is the longest combined road and rail bridge in Europe!
“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.” ~Epicurus
I get overly ambitious and buy too many vegetables, thinking ‘I’m going to juice something,’ and then I remember…I’ll have to clean the juicer. (What…and give myself extra chores?) Or I’ll buy a cart full of zucchini and think ‘I’ll make puree to add to the kids mac and cheese,’ (you know Sneaky Chef stuff). But let’s be honest, 30 minutes to cook dinner does not include time for stealth nutrition.
I have good intentions. I serve my kids cut raw veggies. Sometimes I even make faces out of the peppers, broccoli, and tomatoes and when I do, Maggie eats a whole plateful, (so long as there’s Ranch dressing).
But making stock is ingenious, it’s the best way to add nutrition and use up all those extra vegetables…the ones you thought you were going to cook. Stock is a flavor base concocted from almost anything you have in the veggie bin: pristine organic carrots, a turnip past it’s prime, a couple of white onions (doesn’t matter if they’re sprouted), celery (just fine if it’s as flexible as a bendy straw). Stock is about taking what’s salvageable and putting it to good use.
All you need is a pot of water, some less than perfect veggies, a couple of bay leaves, a tablespoon of whole peppercorns, maybe some chicken or beef, and fresh thyme, if you’ve got it, and dried thyme if you don’t, (I improvised with fresh chives in the above photo). Here’s a recipe from Allrecipes to get you started.
Okay, get it together and let the whole thing simmer for a couple of hours while you go organize the garage, sew buttons on dress shirts or clean your kid’s bedroom. You know I’m kidding right? This is cooking time. Tell everyone you were busy ALL DAY MAKING STOCK. They won’t know you were reading a book. Any shirts with missing buttons, donate. I’m all about doing good deeds like that.
Shhh…let the stock do the work for you. No need to stir, hover or stress. How many meals can you say that about? Let the magic happen then after a couple of hours, strain out the chunks and behold, a liquid gold that has the power to conjure almost anything. Add shredded chicken and ramen, infuse with a stalk of lemongrass, lime juice and coconut milk, plus a few extras, and you’ve got Thai coconut chicken soup. (Here’s a recipe from Tyler Florence that is entertaining worthy.)
Not feeling that energetic? I get it. Go heavy with the salt and pepper and you’ve got a tasty broth to eat with a crusty loaf of bread and Gouda cheese. Add some fruit on the side and you’re Super-mom.
Making stock is an apt metaphor for making stock of another kind…life. Because life can be made out of anything too, happiness can come from the magnificent and the mundane. We just have to take stock of what we have to appreciate it.
This week I made stock of another kind, searching for reasons to be grateful, reasons I already had on hand, I just had to put them to use. Here’s a short list…
~ Maggie was heartbroken. She’d been up all night coughing and was about to miss her class Easter Party in lieu of a doctor’s visit. It was my task to convince her that we were going to have more fun than her classmates at the “bunny hop” on the egg hunt. Really? As we waited for our appointment, Maggie found her shoes made a lovely tapping sound on the office tile. Soon she was tap-dancing her way around sick patients, delivering a performance and getting smiles in return. I’m grateful for her spunk and spirit.
~ As the room “mum” at The British School for Jonah’s 6th grade class, I received a text three hours before the class Easter party: “Did you know the party is at 1:30?” Now normally, Jonah’s teacher is very on top of things, but this had slipped his mind and now it was ‘go time’. It just so happened, I’d opened a box from my parents that morning. It looked as though they’d robbed Wal-Mart and sent me the loot. I had Peeps, Jelly Belly’s, Cadbury Eggs, gigantic York Peppermint Patty bunnies, (I never told the kids about those). I’m grateful for moms and dads who come to the rescue.
~ After returning from yoga one morning I found my normally studious 15-year-old skipping school. In all fairness, he wasn’t as much skipping, as sleeping. Too many late nights doing homework and a killer basketball tourney had left him exhausted. I gave him a “pass,” and he volunteered to help me vacuum and clean out the car. (I think he would have rather gone to class.) I’m grateful for his sense of duty.
~ During circle time at Maggie’s pre-school, four-year-old Wilhelmina volunteered my name as someone deserving of recognition for The Good Friendship Award. I’d helped her put on her winter mittens. Talk about being grateful for the little things. I’m grateful to Wilhelmina for giving me an award I’ll never forget.
~ I drive the same stretch of road so often–to school, to piano lessons, to the store–I don’t even notice it anymore. That was until an amazing sight captured my attention, a tree decorated like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. Suddenly everything felt new again. Curiosity sparked in my heart as I imagine a Stockholmer, tired of winter, creating this “spring gift.” I’m grateful for the seasonal boost.
Dieter F. Uchtdorf said, “It is easy to be grateful for things when life seems to be going well. Could I suggest that we see gratitude as a disposition, a way of life that stands independent of our current situation? In other words, I’m suggesting that instead of being ‘thankful for things’ we focus on being ‘thankful in our circumstances’—whatever they may be.”
I’m not always grateful. I complain when the heater breaks (happened six times this winter), and when there’s a mouse subletting the storage room in our basement (five traps to catch the bugger), or when there’s too much cold or too much heat, or the Subway Sandwiches they sell in Sweden don’t taste as good as they do in America. But I try to remember to take stock of the little things in life.
John F. Kennedy said we should all “stop and thank the people who make a difference in our lives.” There’s so much to be grateful for. It’s amazing how much good we see, how much good there is, right in front of us, how much we already have to make our stock.
“Life has many ways of testing a person’s will, either by having nothing happen at all or by having everything happen all at once.” – Paulo Coelho
Balance in life is what I strive for, but struggle to attain. Sometimes I get close to just the right mix of work and play (those days feel great), but they’re rare. Most of the time I feel like my To-Do list is a deluge of things I’ve committed to, stuff I’ve promised someone, and laundry.
When I first arrived in Sweden, I knew no one, I had no phone, no one to call, no car, nowhere to go. It was a strange kind of silence, an isolation both freeing and frightening at the same time. Without commitments I designed my day from scratch. My mantra:
Wake up and eat something.
A few days of that and I promise, the excitement wears off. Not to worry, the unfettered life is not that of a mother’s. Little by little my life got busy again, not just busy but hectic. Between volunteering at school and church, working on writing projects, entertaining guests, scheduling lunches with girlfriends (because that’s what I do to stay sane), and all the stuff in between with kids, housework and activities, my days are now chock full to the brim.
Some people cope by under committing, I cope by saying “yes” to everything and complaining about it later. I like to think I can do it all, but the truth is I can’t and if I try, no one has clean underwear. The laundry needs me.
I’m lucky because I get to be home. But sometimes I’ll admit, that feels hard too, not Gwyneth Paltrow hard, mind you, but hard. Like I wonder if my brain cells aren’t suffering just a tad in the absence of a career challenging workplace? Yesterday my 11-year old son asked for my help with a word problem on the “co-efficient of friction” and tyre tread (spelled the British way) in Formula One race cars. When I googled the question he asked: “Don’t you know this stuff? Why do you have to Google EVERYTHING?” Yes, I still feed him dinner, but seriously???
I’m not in the baby stage anymore. Many women my age are looking to get back into a career or start a new one (and when I have to help my son with homework I start thinking about those options), but even though my youngest is five and can work the DVD player (her brother taught her), I still feel like there’s a lot for me to do at home.
Motherhood has become my career. It wasn’t what I planned, entirely; I intended to have a career and motherhood, the two things fitting together. The details were always fuzzy, but it went something like this…me in a corner office, wearing nice power suits, carrying a designer bag, a chef cooking all organic meals at home, my personal trainer coaching me through Pilates, while in between it all I could hug and kiss my angel children.
In reality, that’s not how it all went down. I’ve got four kids and a resume that might get me a job as a greeter at Wal-Mart, (I’m friendly). As it turned out though, what I’ve got is even better, not in a I-have-a-great-wardrobe-sort-of-better, but a I-have-something-that-will-last-from-now-and-through-eternity-an-awesome family better.
Motherhood pays dividends. I didn’t know this when I first invested, back when I couldn’t get a decent night sleep and by body felt overtaken by aliens. But later, years later, I’ve come to appreciate this vital truth: you can’t outsource motherhood. Maybe if I had, you could argue the kids would have had better nutrition (I’ve been known to serve cereal for dinner), or had their needs met in a more capable way (had there been several paid individuals on the job), but I would have missed out. Yes me. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be in the thick of it all, the day in and day out, learning, growing, reaching my fullest potential as a human being raising another human being. There’s nothing quite like it.
This past week my son came home from boarding school with an injured knee. His winning try on the rugby field, while being tackled from behind, left him with the glory and damaged cartilage. I was there to take him to the doctor and out to lunch. The next day, as he recovered on the couch watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine, I made his favorite lumberjack breakfast and baked snicker doodle cookies. He’s back at school now and his bed is made and his room is clean (it’s the only time it ever is), and I miss him. I was happy for the time we had together because I realize, as he’s about to leave home, it doesn’t last.
Home is a launch pad, not a landing dock. These years that feel like they’ll never end, eventually do.
This fall he’ll be submitting his paperwork to serve a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Before long he’ll be in another part of the world, handing out Books of Mormon, wearing a name tag and riding a bicycle, experiencing rejection as he tries to tell people God loves them. It’s not a small thing. Thinking about it makes me consider long and hard the years that have gone by and how I’ve prepared him. Did I do enough? I don’t know, but I’m glad I was there.
I admit there are occasions when I wish I had a career. It would make conversations smoother, being able to pull out my list of accomplishments without relying on the fact that I make really good homemade tortillas. But if I’m honest with people, the best parts of me are because of my children and the years I’ve spent supporting my husband to fulfill his dreams. It’s not politically correct, but in my case, it’s the truth.
Life isn’t over yet. Yes, there’s still time for my career and Ph.D. and that book deal, but I no longer need it to feel okay. I’m enough as I am, even it if doesn’t say so on paper. My life isn’t what I dreamed it would be, but I’m confident now it’s turning out even better.
“I forgot to get the pictures I painted,” says my 5-year old Maggie, leaving me to wait at the preschool pick-up as she races back inside the building. My eyes scan the parking lot now filling up with cars. I glance at my watch. Another few minutes and it will be packed with moms and dads. When Maggie returns she’s carrying a stack of papers.
“What’s this?” The top sheet is still damp. A white paper coated with blue and green wavy streaks.
“I painted a lake.”
“I can see that.” My patronizing tone does little to disguise my real concern–the cars pulling in behind me, filling up the lot—we need to go before we get parked in. “Come on, let’s hurry,” I say taking the pile of papers.
She inhales sharply. “No. I forgot one. I’ve got to go back inside.” Her voice is as stoic as a soldier’s. Unwilling to leave one of her own behind, she takes off running.
“Hurry back,” I call after her.
I wait, gazing at her drying lake, the paint still glossy in patches. The shades blend together in dark marine hues, the colors the middle-deep of the ocean. For a moment I forget the cars, the traffic, the whatever-I’m-doing-after-school and look at her artwork. Really look. I’m astounded.
Each drawing, collage and picture means something. They’re expressions of her growing personality, her style—whimsical and thought provoking, her views of the world.
Days before I’d read a sign on the wall of the coatroom. This is what it said about children’s art…
“Through making, looking at, and talking about their own artwork and the art of others, three-, four-, and five-year-old children are doing the following…”
Expressing their feelings and emotions in a safe way.
Practicing and gaining fine muscle control and strengthening eye-hand motor coordination.
Developing perceptual abilities.
Being given the opportunity to make choices and solve problems.
Seeing that others have differing points of view and ways of expressing these than they do.
Becoming aware of the idea that, through art, culture is transmitted.
Making connections between the visual arts and other disciplines.
As a child, I was lucky to be the subject of a study by two well-known Penn State art professors, Brent and Marjorie Wilson, co-authors of the book Teaching Children How to Draw. (Now in its second edition, the book is the definitive work on the subject.)
I spent several weekends and evenings in their Soho-esque home art studio, engaged in conversations as I drew. Sometimes they’d want me to draw an object. Other times we’d play creative art games starting with something like…me drawing a fish, Brent adding to it, then me drawing, then him, back and forth, telling a story with our pictures until the page was filled with wild details. The portraits I drew of him, five different expressions, is included in the book. It never occurred to me I was learning about emotions or what it meant to be fearful, silly, angry, sad or surprised, it was just plain fun.
I also gained self-confidence; adults were listening to me, even encouraging my thoughts! Brent and Marjorie were vocal proponents of the children’s art movement–nothing radical for their times…these were the 70’s. Nobody was none too worried about art education back then. Every school had an art teacher, every classroom a stash of Elmer’s glue, markers, crayons, and scissors. We even got a free pad of paper and a pencil on the first day of class. Who could have imagined a future without art?
Fast forward to post 2000…
Our family moved to California just as the housing meltdown was turning volcanic. Schwarzenegger was governor (still married to Maria) and educational budgets for public schools had tanked. There was zero to zippo money for art. (And these were the good schools.) Worried my kids were missing out, I volunteered as an “art helper” in my eight-year old’s classroom. What I discovered both amazed and disturbed me.
These young elementary kids were hungry for art yet, without much previous experience, many felt uncomfortable drawing or creating something of their own. I’ll never forget one little boy who cried tears of frustration because I asked him to draw a simple picture of his choice on a blank sheet of paper. That white sheet might have been the most frightening experience of his young academic career. The children lacked confidence. They’d sit patiently, waiting for me to come around to help them. In some instances, I had to put my hand over theirs and guide them to begin.
During the course of that year we painted like Michelangelo, lying on our backs, coloring papers we taped to the bottom of their desks. We cut paper like Matisse. We made paintings consisting of only dots like Seurat. While they came to enjoy the lessons, I never felt it was enough to make a real impact. There were always the few who agonized over the creation process, upset if their project didn’t turn out as planned. I tried to make this part of the lesson too. We all fail sometimes, but we learn in the process. This was perhaps the toughest art lesson of all.
To create is to risk. Art is the best medium for children to test the outer most boundaries of their limits. To fail is to learn how to succeed the next time.
As human beings we must create or lose the part of ourselves that feels and interacts with the world at large. Art is universal and ageless. Art requires nothing but imagination.
Bob Bryant has written, “Today’s students are inundated with data but are starving for meaningful learning…. an effective education in the fine arts helps students to see what they look at, hear what they listen to, and feel what they touch.” Kids need art, as much as they need math, science and reading. Brent and Marjorie Wilson had no idea how radical they really were.
I’ve got Maggie’s lake on display in the kitchen, along with her fairies, fish and other creations. Degas said, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” When I look at Maggie’s artwork I see her world, a child’s world, something better than my own. She reminds me of what is good and beautiful and possible. If nothing else we need children’s art to remind us how to dream.
It was the first day of ski school and I watched from a distance as my 5-year old daughter, Maggie, lined up with the other girls and boys her age, wearing skis (some for the first time). From my bird’s-eye view on a sunny balcony, the training hill appeared as an island of manmade snow surrounded by green grass. Marooned adults and children stood tightly packed for their first day of lessons.
There was a good deal of confusion, kids crying, adults looking anxious and awkward. It didn’t seem like Maggie was learning much of anything. I wondered if I should have paid the extra money and hired a private teacher?
I waited, watching the herd of children sidestep their way to a rubber mat leading to the towrope. They looked like newly born calves on still wobbly knees. It was a slow procession. One step forward and whoosh a long slide back.
Maggie lifted her skis, left then right, making little progress when whoosh she too slid backwards, only she continued down the hill, landing in shallow gully, feet and arms flaying overhead. She remained like a pill bug turned upside down, no way of getting upright, until several minutes later when the instructor rescued her. This time he carried her straight to the towrope (no more sidestepping) and showed her how to grab hold. She whizzed up the hill, miraculously staying on her feet. What was she going to do when she got to the top?
There was another instructor waiting who plucked her off the line. She positioned Maggie facing downhill—a good start. Her legs were straight and wide, her arms out like airplane wings. She began her descent, picking up speed and was soon careening into a large group of skiers who luckily saw her coming and parted like the Red Sea. She passed unscathed then seconds later landed in a spectacular crash. I wanted to rush down, be a ‘Snowplow’ parent that smooths the way, pick her up, give her a hug, brush off the snow and cheer, “Good try,” but I didn’t. I knew I’d send the wrong message.
I didn’t want her to think she always needs me or that she couldn’t fall and get up on her own. This was a chance to learn independence.
While I’d imagined a kinder, gentler approach to skiing, this “tough love” approach to ski school did have it’s merits. A few more crashes like those and I assumed Maggie would find a way to stay upright. At least she wasn’t crying. Plenty of other kids were and by now the instructors had the gigantic vinyl “ice cream bench” sitting on the ice, a cone shaped foam chair for kids. I wondered if Maggie might take a seat following her crash landing, but she didn’t. She got back up and sidestepped it to towrope. I even saw a smile.
After five hours on the slopes, the fun was long gone. When I picked her up from class Maggie clung to me like a bear cub to its mother, saying, “I don’t want to go back there tomorrow.” She was exhausted from the physical exertion at the higher altitude. I couldn’t blame her. I knew how she felt. Hadn’t there been things in my life I never wanted to do again? Should I make her continue?
The problem was, I knew ONE day of ski school wasn’t enough. All she’d learned was that ski boots are uncomfortable and it’s miserable being out in the cold for five hours. She had to go back. She had to figure out this was going to be okay.
The next morning we went to breakfast sans ski gear. I figured it was better to wait until she had something to eat before announcing where she was going. On the plus side, she’d met a couple of girls her age in class and really liked them. (They weren’t whiners or criers.) When I mentioned after breakfast how nice it would be to see them again, she immediately picked up on the clues. “I don’t want to see them again,” she countered. It wasn’t personal. Seeing them again, meant she was going back to class.
“Okay,” I said. I didn’t push. Rather I distracted her with other things (any things) as we strode to the car and headed to the lodge. It wasn’t far and we didn’t talk about skiing along the way. When we arrived, however, she demanded answers. “Are you taking me to ski class?”
“Let’s just go inside and check and make sure they’re still having class,” I said, leading her from the car to the lodge without too much protest. Once past the front desk and up the stairs I said, “Yep, everyone’s here, looks like they’re still having class.” She frowned and glared at me, her legs going stiff so it was slow going that last 5 yards to the locker room. By now other ski schoolers were gathering and I used that to my advantage. “Oh look, there’s Olivia. Don’t you love her pink scarf?” I could see Maggie trying to keep a good face in front of her peers.
I helped her on with her gear: boots, gloves, helmet, and bib number and we funneled into a room filled with other anxious kids and parents, waiting for class. A movie was playing and Maggie stared at the screen. A few minutes later, it was time to leave and she turned to me with a look of panic. Just then the instructor announced, “We’ll be riding the cable car up to the big mountain. We won’t be eating at the lodge so everyone will need to bring their own lunch money.” I tucked a 10 Euro bill into Maggie’s front pocket. She beamed. The prospect of having her own REAL money, as it turned out, was more important than being scared.
She kissed me goodbye and with a prayer in my heart I waved her off. I spent the next several hours trying not to think of my baby falling down the slopes. I tried to relax and ended up in the gym working out then sitting in the hot tub. I didn’t want to hover, but it was hard. I especially didn’t want to show up prematurely and have her see me and ask to go home. A little before the 2:00 pick-up, I rode the cable car up the mountain and hiked to where I knew they were skiing. I tucked myself behind a massive pine and spied on her as she rode the seated towrope up the 50-meter slope. It was surreal. Not only did she make it all the way up, but as she skied down, her legs were in a more natural position, and her arms by her side (no longer wings). Her face was red with exhaustion, but she looked confident. She was doing it! She was actually skiing.
For the rest of the week things only got better. By day three she was taking the chair lift and running the Blue Courses. In less than a week Maggie had become a better skier than me (okay, maybe that’s not saying much, but still). She earned her medal and took first place (along with everyone else) as the fastest skier.
What I learned is that it’s hard stepping back and watching your kids fall (or fail) but it builds confidence. In my eighteen plus years of parenting, I’ve adopted what psychologists in Europe call, “The Blessings of a Skinned Knee” philosophy. The basic idea is we should let our kids take risks when they’re young so they learn how to handle both physical and emotional risks when they’re older. According to Dr. Tim Elmore, we can hinder our children’s leadership abilities if we “rescue too quickly” or “rave too easily.”
Learning to ski or learning to overcome adversity, it’s pretty much the same in my opinion. If you can get up from a fall, brush yourself off and keep making your way up the mountain then you’ve got a formula for success not only on the slopes, but in life too. Perseverance is a skill you learn by failing. Once you have that lesson down, it’s a whole lot easier to keep getting up.
Click here to see video from ski school
If you read my last post, about Memory, you’ll appreciate what I’m about to share next…about making memories. In the book, “Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering,” Josh Foer (the 2006 USA Memory Champion), relates the extraordinary story of Michel Siffre, a French chronobiologist (someone who studies the relationship of time to living organisms). In 1962, Siffre did something radical for research; he locked himself in a subterranean cave for two months. No calendar, no clock, no contact with sunlight or the outside world, total isolation. He slept and ate only when he felt the need, seeking, in this state of isolation, to understand the natural rhythms of the body.
The result: Siffre’s memory rapidly started to whither. Days morphed together. He couldn’t keep track of time. There was nothing novel to do and nothing to impress upon his memory. His sleep patterns turned erratic. He would stay awake for thirty-six hours straight while at other times he’d stay awake for only eight hours, but it felt the same.
When his support team called to him two months later from the cave entrance, he’d written the date in his journal as August 20th. He’d thought only one month had gone by. The date was September 14th.
Here’s what Foer says:
“Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it. You can exercise daily and eat healthily and live a long life, while experiencing a short one. If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next – and disappear. That’s why it’s important to change routines regularly…take vacations…have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor [your] memories. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time and lengthens our perception of our lives.”
People can live long lives, without living long lives. The converse is true. Short lives can be long in comparison if there are experiences to “impress upon the memory.”
When I look at the sum of my memories, it’s interesting to note what I remember. I’ve forgotten a lot. But if the memory is embedded, what I recall isn’t just the person or what was happening, but the whole mental picture: the weather that day, what I was wearing or eating, the smells around me. This makes sense, knowing what we do about our memories. We recall best when we create multi-sensory visuals. It’s that whole idea of the Memory Palace, using your senses to store information.
Ironically, reading this book while in the midst of creating a memory drew the point even closer. It occurred to me that the Zugspitze, the highest point in Germany, and the most stunning glacial feature I’d ever beheld, was a vision that would blaze into my mind forever, and with it the conversations and people I was with while on the top of world, (or so it seemed).
The day we went to Zugspitze with the boys, we left the kids to ski, while a few of us went to eat lunch at the restaurant on the peak. It was Cooper, Maggie, my dear friend Aisa, myself, and a stranger (who’d offered to let us sit at her table when she noticed there were no other tables left.) As the five of us sat eating, enjoying plates of venison stew and pretzel bread, we discussed the odds and ends of life: our children, Aisa’s son on a mission in Japan, her new Zumba class, my book project and the Winter Olympics. We discovered the stranger seated with us was an American woman, single, living and teaching at an International School in Norway. She’d grown up abroad, her father had been in the Foreign Service. Her plan was to live and teach on every continent. She was hoping to move to South America next. I couldn’t help but think: Could this be my child someday, wondering the globe believing everywhere was home? It was a moment I won’t forget.
Several years ago, when living in Virginia, feeling very routine about my life following the year Cooper had worked in Pakistan, leaving me solo to handle the household affairs and four kids–including a teenager and a newborn (no I wasn’t bitter), I decided to take a mental health break and venture to Seattle to meet up with my best friend from college. It’d been 15 years since we’d seen each other but, of course, it felt like yesterday.
During this time we explored Seattle, took the Ferry to Friday’s Harbor, and did things I would never NORMALLY do in my life. For example, we each selected a book of poetry at a local bookstore to read and take home, promising to share the best poems with each other later. We dined at restaurants with great atmospheres–or as she would say, “great vibes.” We spent time talking and relaxing on the pier with our feet dangling above the still cold water. I took pictures of the ancient ferns that grew wild because they made me feel exotic. And not least of all, the unforgettable evening spent with all of her family, parents, siblings, meeting beloved nieces and nephews. Those memories have stayed with me because they were out of the ordinary, not my usual MO: feeding kids, doing laundry, bath time, bedtime, repeat.
As moms we’re high-risk candidates for feeling stuck in our lives, one day unmemorably blending into the next. It’s not because our work is boring, or drudgery (Okay, sometimes it feels that way), or unimportant, it’s just very very routine and the brain gets tired of the same old, same old. You know you’re getting dangerously close to monotony when nothing makes you happy anymore. Those are the moments when you need a change. Go for an outing, serve ice cream for breakfast (with fruit, the kids will ALWAYS remember it), take a hike in nature. If time allows, plan a trip. A weekend at a hotel by yourself can be better than Prozac.
It’s easy to forget. If you want to have a long happy life, then don’t just eat right and exercise, get out of your routine and make it memorable.
On our way to Germany for ski week, on board Norwegian Air, I thumbed through the In-Flight magazine, annoyed by the absence of leg room, the teenager bumping my chair playing his handheld and the nuisance of not having a TV in (HELLO!) the 21st century. It was then that I came across an article that made me forget all of that; it was about the 2013 World Memory Champion, Jonas von Essen – a Swede who outperformed 120 mental athletes from 32 different countries. Okay, so not the Olympics, but still, I was hooked.
Thanks to a lagging delay on the tarmac, I had time to download the book referenced in the article, “Moonwalking with Einstein.” I was intrigued. Not only had Jonas von Essen memorized thousands of binary numbers in 15 minutes and 132 dates in 5 minutes and the order of 28 decks of cards in 1 hour, he was also normal. No photographic memory, no extraordinary IQ, not even a touch of autism. Not a savant, normal.
What’s more, brain studies show that most of these memory champions are like you and me: they lose their keys, forget where their car is parked and open the fridge and can’t remember what they wanted…that kind of normal.
So how does a normal person go from not remembering their kid’s cell phone number (guilty as charged), to remembering pi up to the 32,000th digit?
It does take some mental effort, but not the kind you’d imagine. It’s actually more about creativity than memory. According to the article, it’s about creating mental pictures and associations for numbers to give the brain something more colorful and exciting to hold onto as opposed to something…well, forgettable.
Josh Foer, the US Memory Champion in 2006, chronicles his experience, and that of others training for the competition in his book, “Moonwalking with Einstein.” It’s a fascinating read and while I don’t aspire to memorizing the order of poker cards or hundreds of faces and names and birth dates of people I don’t know, I would like to remember the names of people I do know and the important dates in history on the off chance I ever happen into the Cash Cab in New York.
More importantly, memory is about embracing life more fully. It’s about having a “well-stocked shelf” of knowledge, stories, poems and facts you can bring into conversation or use to make connections between ideas.
As a species we’ve gone from passing down our history orally, to storing our memories externally on things like hard drives, clouds, and iPhones. It’s nice not to have to remember all of our events marked on the calendar or birth dates or favorite quotes, but Foer makes the case that the externalization of memory misses out on an important function, connections.
Computers can’t make connections between ideas, that is what thinking is for. If we no longer have a foundation of memories to connect between, we lose the rich context of life, living as it were, in the moment, more “cheaply,” multitasking our existence.
Having lived with a grandmother who died of Alzheimer’s, I’m keenly aware of what is lost when one forgets everything. In a matter of months I went from being a beloved granddaughter to becoming a forgotten face, a girl, a stranger, not a loved one. As memory goes blank, so do our lives. Memory, it seems, is the sum total of who we are. If that’s true, then why not invest a little in making the best memory you can possibly make?
Tony Buzan, founder of the World Memory Championship, and author of 120 books on the brain and memory, promotes, Mind Mapping. It’s an ingenious little technique (even if he is a rich eccentric), that anyone can use to map out what they want to recall. A Mind Map looks similar to a spider, or a tree. It starts with a circle in the center of a piece of paper, a key word inside, and from there ideas radiate outward like spokes on a wheel, only curvy spokes. Buzan is opposed to lines of any kind, or lists. He says, “The brain is attracted to curves,” what we see in nature. Also the more colorful the better.
Buzan’s idea is not exactly a new one. Making vivid image associations is as old as language and story. The ancient orators, renowned for their story telling abilities, used “Memory Palaces,” to store images in their minds, pictures within spatial rooms, thereby retelling the story as they moved through their minds using their locations to remember the words. It’s not unlike how we physically store items in locations throughout our home, only in this case, the home exists in the mind and becomes a visual storehouse.
To explain this another way, Foer shares the following experiment. A group of people were shown a picture of a man and told to remember his name was Baker. Another group was shown the same photograph and told to remember the man was a baker. The second group recalled the word “baker” 2:1. It’s because baker is filled with associations: smells, tastes, feelings linked to bakeries. Our brain forms deeper attachments to memories that have multiple links to our senses.
Putting some of this to the test, I wondered if during my week in Germany, I could, in a matter of a few minutes each day, memorize a poem. What if instead of needing to look up online, The Road Not Taken, by Robert Frost, I could find it already in my memory?
I began, like my brilliant friend and actress Bethany suggested, “Snow-balling.” She memorized hundreds of lines for her one-woman, two-act play using this technique. Starting with the first line, I’d say it aloud, then add the second line, and so on, repeating from the beginning, adding as I went. If I made a mistake, I’d start over from the first line.
In addition, I made vivid pictures in my mind of the poem’s forest, the smell of the woods, the yellow leaves crunching beneath my steps, the anxiety of looking down two roads, not knowing which to take. I brought associations to life, linking words to pictures, and in effect, creating a story.
It took some time, but at the end of the week, I’d accomplished my goal. Before we left the hotel to board the plane back to Sweden I made my four kids sit on the hotel bed and listen to me recite my poem from memory. (They probably wished I’d have skied instead of reading in the hot tub, but they kept their strange looks to themselves—bless them.)
What took me a week, takes a memory champ only a few minutes. Memory champions are remarkably adept at conjuring images and storing them in spatial “palaces.” They train 4-5 hours a day, like any other athlete, only their training is generally at a desk wearing hearing protection and sometimes blinders, to minimize distractions.
Nelson Dellis, the 2011 USA Memory Championship winner, continues to train but also uses his notoriety to promote his non-profit charity “Climb for Memory,” dedicated to his grandmother who died of Alzheimer’s. Whether he’s climbing Mt. Everest or ascending the challenge of another memory tournament, to me it’s equally remarkable.
While I’ve got a few more poems on my mental list to memorize, along with some history dates and other trivia I’d like to remember, what I care about most is creating a lasting mental picture of the here and now: what it feels like to be in Sweden, my son at the age of eighteen before he leaves home in the fall, the color of the water outside my window on a summer’s day, the sound of Maggie’s laughter, and all of the ordinary moments that get lost in between the To Do List. If I can put aside distractions and really focus with intensity on my family, maybe I can remember more, experience more, and forget less. A memory is a great thing to have. Making the effort to fill it with the people and things you love most is what remembering is all about.