Breaking the Double-Binds of Our Times: A Conversation with George Ewald

What is the pattern that connects the crab to the lobster and the primrose to the orchid, and all of them to me, and me to you?

Gregory Bateson

“All my life, it’s been weird,” George Ewald says before taking us back in time.

He is twelve again, sitting in the backseat of his dad’s car, driving over the George Washington Bridge. 

“What are those ships?” he points at the big, slow machines roving the Hudson River. 

“Those are barges taking the garbage to be dumped into the ocean.”

“Don’t they know that the ocean is a big bathtub?” he thinks. 

Later, George is at his uncle’s house. The garage door is closed when the car starts up. Fumes billowing out everywhere. His uncle fumbles to open up the garage door. As soon as it opens, and the smoke escapes into the open sky, his uncle breathes a sigh of relief. George is horrified. 

“Don’t they realize the earth is one big garage?” 

His observations lead to a final conclusion: Shit. The adults don’t know what they’re doing, and we are all in deep, deep trouble. What can we do? George Ewald decided to spend the rest of his life trying to answer this question. 

The major problems in the world are the result of the difference between how nature works and the way people think.

Gregory Bateson

George graduated with a degree in history, attempting to understand the human condition. Instead, he was confronted with the human record of wars. In 1966, George spent a summer on the Tel Gezer archeological site at the foothill of the Judaean Mountains. Occupied by humans for over five thousand years, the walls of the excavation pits contained layers of ash, a testimony to when the city was burned to the ground. The violent history was folded into the land.

While he was there, the Arab-Israeli conflict was smoldering, to become the Six Day War the following year. What compels humans to destroy each other? What compels them to destroy what they’ve built? Why is this part of the human condition? Holding these questions close, George returned to the United States. 

Facing the Vietnam War, and being opposed to it, George still felt he “had to serve” his country in some way. He wanted to learn more about the military mind, and the concept of nuclear deterrence, the idea that the United States could have such a powerful capacity to destroy, that no one would dare strike first. If this concept was truly effective in creating peace, he thought, then he would support it. 

As a nuclear combat crew commander, he realized quickly that deterrence made no sense. The people on deck with him, he felt, were the ones keeping the whole world together. At the press of a button, the whole world could be destroyed. For what? For whom? How will this end? 

From the time he questioned his father on the trash barges in the Hudson, George persisted in his concern for the environment. When he entered the military, he was worried about the environmental dangers of nuclear power. After four years, he left his position with an ever deepening concern for humanity. The environment would go on, in its own way. We are the ones who will suffer. “This is totally crazy,” he thought, “why do we keep screwing things up?”

George went on to experience these same paradoxical conundrums as a pediatric charge nurse, psychiatric nurse, computer technologist, berry-picker, a construction worker, salesperson, and family man. He had more than sixty addresses to his name, and many moments without an address at all. He believes that his soul is that of a tree, which is why human behavior is so confounding to him, and why, perhaps, he has to spend his whole life trying to unravel the absurdity of  our human ways.

By the time I met him, he had resolved to immerse himself in the call of his inner tree-being: rooting in one place. He tentatively started living with Ruth and Derek Owen on their homestead farm in New Hampshire, becoming a farmer of sorts. It would be more accurate to say that he was a botanist, studying the intricate processes of plants, experimenting and observing their behaviors meticulously. Five summers ago, when he was seventy and I was twenty-two, we bent over the raspberries, pruning. He told me, under a four o’clock August sun, that all systems, ecological and social, operate on the interdependencies of all things. Humans can’t see those interdependencies. Without this understanding, we destroy everything we try to save.

George Teaching Me About Dirt; 8/10/2015

We live in a world that is only made of relationships.

Gregory Bateson

There is a traditional Zen Buddist story in which a Zen master presents his pupils with a “koan”— an unsolvable problem or riddle intended to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical thinking. The master holds out a stick and says: if you say this stick is real, I will beat you. If you say this stick is not real, I will beat you. If you say nothing, I will beat you. It’s hopeless. There’s no way out. 

Welcome to the double-bind. Coined by anthropologist Gregory Bateson in the 1950’s, a double-bind is a dilemma in communication that comes from two or more conflicting messages. The problem isn’t only that we are presented with paradoxes. It is that we can’t actually define the nature of the paradox in which we are caught. It’s impossible to fulfill any demand because the broader context—be it an authority figure or an unspoken rule (the master)—does not allow it. No matter what you do, you get beaten with a stick. What’s more is that double-binds are often accompanied by a deep sense of distrust in oneself and in one’s surroundings. 

Originally, Bateson articulated the double-bind in relation to defining schizophrenia not as an inherent mental illness but as a learned confusion in thinking and communication. Eighteen years before post-traumatic stress disorder was defined, he began studying the “schizophrenic” behaviors of WWII veterans who were hospitalized. He observed how the “nonsense” of patients’s behaviors made sense in the context of their war experiences. In addition to being traumatized in the field, the veterans were expected to live within the American delusion of the heroism of war while carrying a profound pain from their experience. What is the impact of not being able to comment or point out perceived discrepancies? Is it even possible to learn to trust part of your experience while denying another part of it? The internalized confusion itself, observed by Bateson and his team, became a pillar of the double-bind theory and modern therapy. 

The double-bind then expanded to family therapy, being used to address the dynamics between couples, parental figures, and children as webs of miscommunication, and often manipulation. It spilled over into developmental psychology, interpersonal abuse recovery, substance abuse recovery. 

Eventually, Bateson and his collaborators extended the concept of double-binds to the environment and the economy. We are confronted with our own existential threat: a bathtub full of trash and a garage full of smoke. We can also call this “climate change.” On one hand, we want to preserve the environment and maintain clean air and forests and save endangered species. On the other, everything we do to grow our economy and preserve our “standard of living” disrupts the natural environment and our relationship with it. It is an inevitable double-bind that haunts us and leaves us paralyzed. But the pressure is on. As comedian George Carlin puts it, “the planet isn’t going anywhere—we are!” 

Bateson concluded that we need to get out of the double bind of linear thinking in order to conceive of the interconnectedness in things. Without that, we’re stuck. Our limited knowledge, our media, our systems leave us in double binds because we can’t actually define the situation we’re in. We have information coming at us from a million different sources saying different sources dictating what we must do to “protect” the environment, and then we also hear that it’s not a real phenomenon. We hear the planet will be uninhabitable in X years and then we hear that that statement isn’t true.

We create systems, like those that support nuclear deterrence, that become dangerous to themselves. We are unable to hold all of this information and make sense of it. It’s as if the rules of the game are impossible to understand, and yet we have to keep playing. But if we keep playing, it will lead to war and our own destruction. We end up becoming what George saw at Tel Gezer: layers of ash.

Our ability to conceive of alternatives is diminished by the acceptance and reinforcement of the “rules” and limits of the game which has no clear process. It is a paradox in which we aren’t only given opposing options, we are also confused about the terms. That is the double-bind.

They are playing a game. They are playing at not playing a game. If I show them I see they are, I shall break the rules and they will punish me. I must play their game, of not seeing I see the game.

R.D. Laing

According to Bateson, the first step in tackling a double-bind is to recognize it as such. Similarly, the purpose of a koan in Zen Buddhism is to unravel the greater truths that exist beyond the double-binds which are figments of our logical reasoning. These “positive” double-binds, little riddles to chew on, force the pupils to move beyond perceived impossibilities and into enlightenment.  

In the Zen story, one pupil walks up to the teacher, grabs the stick and breaks it, destroying the illusion of the double bind.

George in the Greenhouse; 10/12/2020

George was in his mid-thirties and ready for a new experience again. He shuffled off to North Carolina where he decided to live out in a primitive cabin without heat, stove, or bathroom. He didn’t have a lot of money and thought it would be fun (which it was, until it got cold). He found his way to a big maple tree, sitting by it,  asking himself the age-old question, “what do we do?” when he heard an answer: 

Fewer people, more forests.

The big maple tree

“I know it sounds crazy, but this is my experience,” George shared, as he bit into a Cortland apple. The answer the tree whispered to him was quite simple. All the younger trees around the big tree laughed saying “they can never do it, they can never do it!” 

From that moment on, George wanted to see if those saplings were right. He changed his question from “what can we do?” to “can we do it?”

Fifty years, a deep dive into so-called sustainable agriculture, and many technologies later, George finds that there are no answers anymore. We are all facing this gloom, whether we like it or not. He notes the reality of our values:

“We value our own family before we value the community. We value our own community before we value other communities. We value our own nation before we value other nations and our own color before other colors. It’s not about the wider community in any way. In no way is it about the community. It’s about each individual and then the ring of associations beyond the individual.”

If we challenged those values, and placed the “community” or the “environment” above the individual, what would that look like? The moment we think we have clarity on the new, more evolved, direction, we will hit a wall with a new set of double-binds. 

“Fewer people”—as the trees suggested to George—means decreasing the population. We either have to collectively agree to stop reproducing, or, more likely, it would have to be enforced. A mission like this could push humanity to the murderous ideology of ecofascism, which would require individuals to sacrifice their own interests for the sake of “nature”. Ecofascism leans on eugenics, nationalism, and violence to impose environmental protections.

The idea of ecofascism itself was synthesized by Nazism, convincing the nation to protect its mystical connection to the land. Reducing the population does not guarantee conservation in any meaningful way. The concept has been used, like many other dogmas and religions, as a way to justify ideological goals with a seemingly “simple” solution. Does the questionable outcome (conserving the environment) justify the means (brutal eugenic population control)?

The added challenge of having “more forests” means coming to a collective agreement to allow huge expanses of land to develop their life over two hundred years with no human contact. 

Perhaps humans can try to find other ways to mitigate ecological disasters without population control or tanking the economy: new technologies and new policies. But these also come to a head with their own double-binds, their slow progressions, their resources, and their environmental and socioeconomic risks. 

“Almost everything that makes us who we are is also part of the problem. We would have to change so much, and we would each have to sacrifice so much for the community’s sake. We’d have to sacrifice everything that we think and hold dear, which is to say the part about valuing family before someone who is not family. Even valuing the individual life that we think is so precious to save. It gets you totally crazy if you think about it. We are so used to valuing each individual.”

As George recounted his life as a series of double-binds to us in Derek Owen’s greenhouse in October, he gave me the gift of articulating my own confusion. Every day, we are confronted with realities that feel big: the pandemic, the climate crisis, the government, the caste system, violence, food. We are confronted with realities that are interpersonal: deciding to hug someone, wanting to feel a sense of belonging, seeking comfort, difficult conversations with family members, a creepy interaction at the grocery store. 

Each of these realities is woven into another with such intricacy, that the moment we try to take one away from the whole, the whole quilt shrivels. And yet, we can’t look at the full mass because it’s too interconnected and complex. When there are a million conflicting messages milling about, it’s unclear what actions to take, what should be prioritized, what is “right”. 

So, who is the master and what is the stick? 

We, as a human society, are our own masters and we make our own sticks. 

We, as a collective, need to approach this moment as an opportunity to think creatively, not about our material technology, but about our communication with each other

The pathology of our times lies in the systems which we are all privy to, in which we recognize “wrong”, blame others, expect them to change, and think that that is enough. It’s also not enough for our own individual selves to change—this is a fallacy that has been weaved into our thinking. It has allowed us to be content with small changes that in reality perpetuate the greater confusion (recycling, for example). 

The way we build communities, define them, communicate within them and beyond them, identify ourselves with them has all led to this moment. As Gregory Bateson has said, the way nature works is paradoxical to the way people think. We can’t get out of these double-binds with the same level of consciousness that made them. To break the stick, we have to break everything we think we know. We have to be willing to learn from each other, horizontally, in new ways. 

The reality is that there are no simple solutions. If anyone claims a simple solution, it is most likely a gigantic oversight or a manipulation. At this juncture where we are most desperate for answers, it is important to recognize how intertwined our situation is, and to be observant and critical of what appears to be “simple.”  

As the doom and gloom washed over our faces, George told us that he has “begun to have compassion for those things that are creating the catastrophe.” Maybe doom and gloom is where we have to be in order to really be pushed to revolutionize communication, to reprogram our thinking, to learn the interconnectedness that we can’t interpret in this moment.

“All we have control of is what we have control of, which is our spirit. I mean, we can be gloomy about what’s going to happen. But in the present time, why would we not want to share love?”

A mammoth thank you to George Ewald for your conversation, all the follow up emails, the beautiful photos, and openness to sharing your life experiences. Thank you to Jason Kimball for taking part in the interview and freezing your tush off while also being hungry when we went longer than expected. An excerpt of George’s interview will be present on Jason and my upcoming album “Old Growth”, which is set to come out in early 2021. Many of you have asked why I’ve stopped writing for a time during the pandemic. The truth is in the double-bind: I honestly couldn’t get anything out. I was so confused and sort of in limbic mode. I’m still there, but speaking with George got me thinking about why I felt so confused. I strongly recommend reading up on Gregory Bateson, as his thinking has helped me through the last month immensely. I would love to hear any/all feedback in the truest sense of the word: a two-sided, continuing conversation in which we both grow! 

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“Life is One Big Improvisation”: A Conversation with Saxophonist, Music Educator, and Master Improviser Tom Hall

One of the beautiful paradoxes of improvisation is that every individual choice is simultaneously of the greatest importance and not important at all. At every moment you must be both completely committed to what you are playing, and completely willing to let go of it if the music demands it.

Tom Hall, Free Improvisation: A Practical Guide, Chapter 5

When I first interviewed Tom Hall for this post in early January, the coronavirus was still hushed and hooded. Since then, and at quite a viral pace, our understanding of reality has become ectopic. Our routines are hardly recognizable, our plans left waiting and uncertain, our relationships expanding and contracting. It feels like macro-scale gory re-birth.

I’ve been sitting on this interview for months, trying to find the right moment to grapple with the weight of the gift that Tom teaches: the art of improvisation. Improvisation is traditionally associated with music and theater. At its root, the word improvise comes from the Latin improviso, meaning “unforeseen” or “unexpected” or “not prepared beforehand.” In this historical moment, we are encountering a gaping “unforeseen” future. There was something almost prophetic about meeting with Tom right before the coronavirus crisis. 

“Sometimes, we need to reject the dominant structures of how we’re supposed to be together,” Tom explained before we knew what would hit us, “right now, we are at a crisis point in our history where we need to figure out ways for people to improvise together.” 

Replaying his words in my head over and over this week soothes me. At its core, improvisation is the exploration of right-now’s infinite possibilities. It sounds so simple, and yet so overwhelming. How can we learn to carve out new spaces both alone and with each other? Even more, what can we discover when we open ourselves to the unforeseen? 

First, we make sounds with our bodies. We stand clapping in a circle.

In February, when students were still scurrying to class and eating Einstein’s bagels by library windows, I asked Tom if my friend-bandmate Jason and I could observe “Improv Collective”, one of the most cherished courses at Brandeis. “No need to bring anything, just yourself, if you are comfortable using your voice to do stuff…” Tom encouraged. We’ve never done any “formal” improv before, if that is a thing to ever be formal about. On the drive to campus, Jason and I munched on apples, taking turns asking each other what if we sound like bumbling idiots? We didn’t know what to expect. When we shyly settled in with the twelve other students in the classroom, Tom opened the evening’s class with lively hand gestures, riding the inflections in his voice:

“If you’re on a train, and you hear a rhythm, what makes you identify it as rhythm?”

Patterns! Motion! the students call out from their chairs.

“If you’re in the bathtub and you hear the drip-drop-drip-drop, why do you hear that as rhythm?”

Repetition! Beats over time! Assumptions! the students call.

“Right, right! But also, when you hear things as rhythm, you are constructing a reality based on what your senses experience,” Tom offers, “no two people experience things the same way. And no two places or moments have the same sound. Every beach has a different sound, every city, every conversation. Everything has its own sonic signature.” 

And so, we stood clapping in a circle and made sounds with our bodies. Each student would have a turn in the middle of the circle, releasing sound and movement from their mouth or skin or shoe or pencil, and the blob of the circle would mimic it. This went on for a half hour or so. Perhaps we did all look like bumbling idiots with quite distinct sonic signatures. With each passing minute, my self-consciousness began to dissolve. Not fully- but enough that my old friend Judgment was thrown to the backburner for an hour. I let myself laugh and play. Before even interacting with our instruments, we had to become human to each other. We had to connect. This is one way that Tom Hall teaches improvisation: listening to the sonic signature of who you are and who you’re with. 

The more intimate a relationship is, the more important it is to have more improvisation and less structure because that’s when you get to offer and accept who you are.

Tom Hall

Just like we tend to construct rhythm in the even rumble of trains and the drip-drop of the bath, we also tend to slip into patterns in our relationships. We slip into what we expect of them and what they expect of us, often automatically. The rhythm of relationships is essential for society and civilization. Structure is how we have codified right and wrong and how we measure value and how we agree upon what behaviors are acceptable. These predetermined rhythms come at us from all sides: our family, our media, our work, our education, our friends. The structure is what allows you to know how to interact with a random person in the cheese aisle of the grocery store without freaking them out. It allows you to recognize that it’s not okay to pick your nose and wipe it on your co-worker’s desk. And you expect that no one will wipe their boogers on your desk either. Seems reasonable. It allows you to believe, perhaps, that your career must be the most important thing in your life. These same structures could have also told your grandmother that she must dedicate herself to cooking for her husband, having five babies, and being buried under a gravestone that says “WIFE, MOTHER”.

You may notice some of these structures breaking down in quarantine and new ones being built all the time. The deconstruction of established structures is just as important for keeping our relationships strong and sensical. What if we didn’t live in those structures, if even for a moment? How would we engage with our partner? How would we engage our bodies? How would we engage with the person in the cheese aisle? What if we gave ourselves the freedom to play?

We’re not the only ones who have asked ourselves this question. If we look at the history of music or art or literature, the drive to challenge the status quo is obvious. When we challenge what is said to be “valuable,” when we move toward the unexpected, and give ourselves permission to believe in that movement, we open up a space for freedom. Improvisation is the seed of creation, the moment where something connects and transforms, Tom says. This creative human impulse is at the root of social movements as well. 

At crisis moments in history, people begin to question the structures that have governed their decisions and identities. Free improvisation itself is said to be a direct outgrowth of the Civil Rights movement in the United States. The free jazz experiments emerging in the 1960s were a purposeful rebellion of pre-established jazz conventions. This was the time of Rosa Parks and Little Rock Nine and the Freedom Riders. This was when man walked on the moon. By the 1970s, it was all about freedom.

Free improvisation, unbound from even the few pre-established, ambiguous musical elements of free jazz, can be anything at all. It can be about digging into or out of the womb of unconscious history and bringing it to light with no commitment to style or sound. It can be about rejecting the elite, flattening the hierarchies. It can be about creating music together outside the confines of tradition. It can be about feeling a groove in your body. Whatever it may be, and whatever it may sound like, each player brings both their identity and their liberation from identity to the table. 

At its conception, a dominant idea was that improvisation cannot be taught. It had to be felt and done. Any parameters or restrictions or definitions would ruin its creative essence. Forty years ago, during his education at New England Conservatory, Tom recognized that engagement in music and theater and relationships and life were all parallel experiences. “What’s the stuff that is the same?” he wondered. 

“On stage, what happens is what’s true.” The expectation of what is supposed to happen becomes less important than what is already happening. In his early life, Tom remembers how high stakes human interactions felt. There were all these social codes of conduct, all these structures, that didn’t make natural sense to him. “I’m a terrible improviser,” he easily admits, even today, “maybe it’s a neurodiversity thing, but I just have a difficult time improvising with people”.

Off stage, he would get in his head, torture himself with judgments. How do you know the “right thing” to say? How do you know what is worth  saying? How can you say the most true thing? But on stage, improvising, the most true thing was happening already. In these moments of presence, Tom, the young saxophonist, gave himself permission to play. He could be whoever he wanted to be. Play allows for freedom, even within limits. “It’s the improvising,” he realized, and then he recognized that everything is improvisation. 

When you’re actually creating an interaction rather than mimicking one, or riffing off the one you think you should have, that’s when you actually discover things about yourself and the other person. The only way you can freely improvise with someone is if you’re showing yourself and being yourself. Anytime that’s happening, you’re going to be in a more intimate kind of relationship.

Tom Hall

Everything Tom knows about improvisation off-stage, he learned from April, his wife of twenty-five years. She can walk into a room and know instinctively what little dramas were playing out: how people felt, how to communicate, how to make people feel at ease. For him, social improvisation felt impossible. In the bloom of their young relationship, she would help him notice useful social cues. They would practice having candid conversations. They would work on his fear of judgment. If you’re not comfortable, she would tell him, you don’t have to say anything about yourself. Just ask people about themselves and listen! 

Music and relationships expanded upon each other as he learned to apply improvisation everywhere. When he and April had a child, the time he spent practicing saxophone got smaller, “but my ability to make music got bigger,” he says. Before then, he had convinced himself to be dedicated tooth and nail to the saxophone, to be the best saxophonist in the universe. “I was never that person and I will never be that person,” Tom smiles, “I’ve learned that I’m something else.” He owes much of his vitality in life to the creative nature of his relationship with April. “We compliment each other as a dyad,” he said matter-of-factly, “we are really good, really powerful. We are able to do a lot of stuff together that we can’t do alone because of how we intersect.”

Photo by April Hall

In the classroom, Tom teaches exactly this: how to connect. Six students volunteer to try the next exercise. Tom Hall dashes to the front of the room and kills the lights. Less light, less noise. There is an eeriness to the silence now because we notice it’s really not so silent at all. The exercise begins with listening.

The “silence” is broken with the smooth, deep tone of electric bass. Within seconds, the bass finds a tentative groove with itself.

Tom Hall interjects, waving his long arms up in the air. 

Free yourself from rhythmic structure! 

The bass stops with a clank. 

Last class we focused on rhythm. This exercise is for finding yourself outside of any rhythm.

The silence starts again. Inside this nighttime veil, everything is one thing. Contours of faces and instruments and legs and tables. We grow uneasy with our confused senses.

First, there is a shuffling of feet upon carpet. Always an electromagnetic buzz from the amp. Then, a soft “shhh” comes from a body standing in front of the window. One by one, new textures come. A resonant flick of a tuba, some sharp shimmers from where we know the drums are, something like nails on wood near the piano, a deep voice from the bass amplifier, maybe. Within half a minute, the landscape of the air vibrates. The sonic landscape of this moment.

Something shifts in the room that none of us can name.

Let it come to a natural end, you’ll know when it’s time. And it does.

“You can’t improvise and not show who you are,” he says, “and when you do it with other people, you can’t do it without accepting who everyone is. That’s what makes it work.” He teaches improvisation as a philosophy, a meditation, and a way of life. The “stuff that is the same” that Tom was searching for since his younger years intersects at intimacy.

A friend staying with her partner’s parents complains they only eat meat and potatoes. Her stomach hurts all the time. Another friend accidentally joined a digital “love yourself” cult. It’s expensive, she says, but it’s helping. Friends who never post shirtless pictures take up kettle bells and post shirtless pictures. In the cheese aisle of the supermarket, we no longer mess around. Everything is grab and go. Friends quarantine with men they met four months ago. My mom texts me “I read that divorce rates are so high now!” She sends statistics from different cities. Back from his father’s for the weekend, a five year old boy is forced to strip in the driveway before entering his mother’s house. A grandmother sews a cloth mask for her only grandchild. It is sky blue with yellow dragonflies. My dad and I translate our family stories from Russian to English. His Zoom background, since Passover, has been the Great Pyramids of Giza. On the rim of the Housatonic, a friend and I watch an eagle hack a fish open. A small crowd of five people gather in masks, transfixed. 

Life under quarantine is the epitome of limitation. Intimacy must be re-imagined. “Like playing a tune,” Tom says, “improvisation occurs between limitations.” The old rhythms of our days are different now. The expectations of our attachments have shifted. If we boil it down, we have two choices: to upkeep old dynamics or break free from them. Sometimes in the hardest moments, it’s time to play. It’s time to stand in a circle together, make sounds with our bodies, and listen. 

Check out Tom’s amazing book!
Cover designed Lennie Peterson

~~~

A huge thank you to Tom Hall for being who you are and letting Jason and I sit in on some of the classes you teach at Brandeis. Thanks to the amazing students in the class who made us feel so welcome! Thank you to Moira Applebaum, one of Tom’s former students, for sharing your memories of Tom’s class. Shout out to Jason, Sam, and Ethan who shared their thoughts and feelings with me and listened to my incessant processing of this subject. And thank you thank you to Sam, Ethan, and Clay, my quarantine roommates, for making each day an improvisation in these strange times! I would love to hear about your quarantine experience and how improvisation plays a role in your every day life now!  

How Relationships Shape Everything: A Conversation with Entomologist and Educator, Eric Olson

I’m totally convinced that everything tastes better outside, and that the things you learn outside stick.

Prof. Eric Olson

Rumor had it that the Field Biology elective was the best class to take as an undergraduate at Brandeis because you got to hike, fish in the Charles, and, most importantly, avoid fluorescently lit lecture halls for six hours a week. 

Rumor had it, there were no mind-numbing exams, no long taxonomies to memorize, no unfair grades. 

As a stressed biology major, I and a whole waitlist of other students were 100% in. 

On the first day of class, Prof. Olson trots into the classroom sporting khakis and muddy hiking boots, balancing various nets, sticks, and packets of paper on his person. He hands us an article about Bagheera kiplingi, the first vegetarian spider which he happened to discover in Costa Rica, and informs us that we will each be responsible for nursing a promethea silkmoth for the bulk of the semester in our dorm rooms. A burning question nudges at me that first day – why in the world would someone study bugs?

My little friend, the promethea silkmoth, 2015

Meeting someone who really loves bugs is a good thing for the world.

 Prof. Eric Olson

For one, grasshoppers existed long before dinosaurs (1). 

For two, moths hear sound through their wings and navigate with the light of the moon and stars or geomagnetic cues (2). 

For three, insects are the dominant lifeforms on Earth. One fun estimation shows that for every one pound of humans, there are 300 pounds of insects (3). 

If that fact doesn’t quite land with us, another way to think of the sheer abundance is that there are an estimated 10 quintillion individual insects on Earth, and even this estimation is probably inaccurate because we’ve only discovered one fourth of their diverse forms (4). 

Basically, insects are indispensable. 

Not only are they the critical backbone of most food chains on the planet, but they are also incredibly inspiring to observe. In learning even a little bit about their diverse means of survival, defense mechanisms, and artful bodies, it’s impossible not to develop reverence for these underrated heroes. 

One of Pro. Olsen’s favorite books on the subject

As the abundance of insects diminishes, in some places up to 75% in the last thirty years, it becomes increasingly urgent for us to explore and, dare I say, fall in love with, the critters who stitch our world together. 

As an entomologist by training and generalist by practice, Prof Olson devotes his life to studying bugs.  He is especially fond of the giant silk moths (of which there are over 2000 species!) and explores how ecosystems weave together, and how to best bring the bounty of knowledge to unsuspecting students of all ages. 

In writing this post, I had the privilege to sit down with Prof. Olson, share tangerines, pick his brain about ecology, and get a “sense of how people get obsessed” with bugs. 

Uncertain of where our conversation would meander, I was pleasantly surprised when the common thread emerged: relationships shape everything.  

Prof Olson’s study of evolutionary relationships between insects and other beings (plants, animals, soils) is inextricably linked to our own relationships, our understanding of transformation, and the sheer awe that comes from recognizing beauty when we see it. 

When my son was 12, he asked me: Dad, why are there so many naked people in the pictures at the art museum?  

I said: Because the human body is so beautiful. 

…Silence. 

Prof. Eric Olson

As a young lad, Olson went hunting for bugs with his father, who was a busy doctor with a fierce passion for the outdoors. In their few but memorable bonding moments, they were often crouching in a patch of Michigan woods, identifying bugs and capturing them for collection. 

His curiosity quickly sprouted when he found a book called “The Moth Book: A Guide to Moths of North America” by W.J. Holland in a bookstore on his way home from middle school.

“I was so excited. I biked home and got money from my mom to bike back to buy this book. And this is the actual copy [photo below]! You have to look back and say, ‘what a nerd, what a cute little nerd!’ I guess it was my calling”.

Published in 1903, The Moth Book flaunts that classic Victorian naturalist quality with poems sprinkled throughout, and snippets from Shakespeare and the bible. Unlike most textbooks I had to read for my biology classes, this one integrates taxonomy with the intangible, poetic experience of awe of evolutionary diversity. 

Olson was so captivated by his first foray into moth mystery, that after studying geology and forestry, becoming a naturalist in Minnesota, and teaching in private schools, he pursued his doctorate work focusing on a moth named for a famous patron of British Victorian era butterfly collectors, Lord Rothschild. The detailed ecology of the picture wing moth, Rothschildia lebeau, formed his PhD. Then for his post-doc Olson spent six summers “stud[ying] insect poop”, conducting abundance surveys in Costa Rica with Earthwatch volunteer groups to help him. He would collect insect droppings, weigh them, and do the math. When I asked what the energy was like during those collections, he exclaimed:

It wasn’t quiet, it wasn’t like being a hermit. I was never really alone. I was surrounded by people, and it was fun!

In studying the three-dimensional world of the jungle through insect poop, he was contributing to the very few exhaustive baseline surveys of insect populations. These are important to see what kinds of changes are happening in the insect world in terms of sheer abundance. 

In studying the picture wing moth specifically, he learned that out of the hundreds of eggs the female lays, only about two moths survive to adulthood. Predators swoop up the tasty caterpillars, wasps infiltrate their cocoons, and “it’s a total slaughter”. Olson admits, “it’s a terrible gamble and I would not want to be a bug”. 

The flipside of the “slaughter” is that it allows for so many other animals, like birds, to have enough nutrients to flourish. Entire systems depend on caterpillars, for example, as a main source of food for their young. “The reason we have the diversity that we have, of songbirds like warblers and chickadees, is because of caterpillars mostly,” Olson reflects, “and most creatures up the food chain just wouldn’t exist without bugs in the picture”. 

Darwin landed on Madagascar on his trip on the Beagle, and somebody brought him an orchid that had a big white face and this narrow tube to get to the nectar that was something like 18 inches long. He said “somewhere on this island, there shall be a pollinating moth found that has a matching tongue”.  And sure enough, that moth was eventually found.

Prof. Eric Olson

Not only do insects fuel the food chain, but they also play a role in the arms race of plant diversity. Much of this diversity bleeds into our own prospects of medicine. Plants need creative defense mechanisms to protect against insects who would use them as food and breeding grounds. 

This counter-evolution results in plants having a “unique cornucopia of chemical profiles”. With 40% of our prescription drugs (including aspirin!) coming from plant extracts or compounds (5), not to mention the myriads of herbal traditional medicines used in most cultures, our human bodies and economies profit significantly from the diversity instigated by insects! 

The reality is, I still can’t tell a moth from a butterfly most of the time. Last August, I found a strange insect face with a bent wing in the grass near my bus stop and was shocked when the iNaturalist app identified it as a cicada. I guess I had only ever heard them, but never even seen one! 

Dog day cicada!

The Grand Canyon is like a monument. It’s this enormous gash of rock and vistas,  a sense of volume of air. If you walk to the edge of the Grand Canyon and you look out, you just go: I get it now. But instead of a cathedral or monument, what we’re making when we go to the woods in a place like suburban Boston, or to the Charles River — it’s more like weaving a tapestry, or a quilt, or a painting. Each point in the whole is just this little thing, but over the course of the course, you hope that something of the richness clicks and the connections of the pieces come into view.

Prof. Eric Olson

How do we really learn to distinguish the fact that we live in a world full of diversity? 

Prof Olson’s mission is to facilitate experiences that lay the groundwork for curiosity. 

He notes that plants are a great place to start, since they “just stand there” and can’t run off to a nest, or burrow under the ground, or attack us. 

“You can learn about the colors, patterns, textures, smells, the life cycles, seeds, fruits, dispersal, and plant chemistry” by looking at trees rather than trying to track down insects and birds with big groups of students. 

“The concern about our modern training of young people is that for a lot of people, driving through the world or walking through the world, it’s just ‘green’. There’s no distinctiveness to it! It’s just green! That phenomenon is called plant blindness.” (6)

With botany in the modern day being viewed as “archaic”, most biology programs at universities don’t even offer courses in plant science. What’s more, the exposure to plants that does exist feels stiff and technical, with little room for poetry and spirituality as resources like The Moth Book flaunted. 

As a passionate educator and lover of the natural world, Prof Olson breathes life and wonder into the classroom. He designs his Field Biology class at Brandeis to be experiential, focused on the stories and surprises abundant in nature. When asked about what he hopes students take away from his class, he responds with a little memory:

“I remember one time I was walking around campus with this entourage of twenty students behind me, we were carrying nets and stuff, and this visitor to campus was coming up our way and he said “is this a field bio class?” He’s like, in his 50s. And I go, “yeah, why?” and he goes, “that was my favorite class in college!” and then he just walked on. And that’s what I want. I want these kids to look back on this and say ‘boy, that was fun’.”

It was definitely fun for me back in 2014. The experience shaped much of how I examine relationships today. Learning even a little bit about insects, their complexity, and their mysterious abundance, challenges us to distinguish subtle systems of connectedness between all things. 

With the insect world diminishing at alarming rates, we can’t help but mourn the loss of both biodiversity and abundance on this planet. 

This loss is ours too – it is held by the weight of networks that drive infinite reactions, evolutions, and feedback loops. When our world falls out of balance and into monoculture, so do we, not just in terms of bugs and forests, but also spiritually. The more loss of life, the more “extinction of human experience” (7). 

What we understand about the natural world comes from years of research and collaboration between observers, teachers, philosophers, mystics, and scientists. 

The more we experience this vastness, the more we can recognize our humble, but integrated place in it all. The more we love and protect the vastness, the more medicine we have to heal ourselves of loneliness. 

Prof. Olson is retiring this year and launching a reforestation project in Nicaragua. 

To learn more about the reforestation project check out this video. Follow, donate, and learn about it if this interests you!

Thank you so much to Prof. Olson for making the time to hang out, share moth books, and chat at length about so many intimate aspects of his life. I’d also like to extend a huge thank you to my dad for encouraging me to attend Brandeis, a decision I grow more and more grateful for each year. Thank you so much to my friends who have dealt with me throwing moth facts at them. I would love to see any cool photos and identification of bugs around you, any moments that you had with insects that stick in your mind! Love you all ❤  

A Tale of Two Nurses: An Ode to Friendship

Like all the sweetest stories, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. The year is 1990. An ice storm slams the streets, just like the forecast had predicted. Four dialysis nurses plan to meet at Paparazzi’s, right off of the highway in Burlington, Mass. A perfect halfway point between all their hospitals, they decided while strategizing this parley weeks earlier. They had to get cracking on organizing the annual regional dialysis conference. As nursing managers, time is always of the essence. 

Diane calls Rhonda. 

Do you still think it’s worth meeting up today? 

Diane and Rhonda call the other two nurses to ask the same question. 

The question is almost rhetorical. 

Let’s try, each one affirms.

On the South Shore, Diane scrapes ice off her small sports car and hops in, revving the engine. Inland from the west, Rhonda climbs into her ice-caked rickety Camry. A little fishtailing never scares them. Both have an extra bag packed in the backseat, always prepared to stay overnight at their respective hospitals in a snowstorm. 

What could have been a thirty minute drive any other day spans into three hours of perilous tire-skating in the ice storm. 

Diane is the first to make it to Paparazzi’s. One by one, the three other dialysis nurses stomp in, covered in white mottle. Each orders food and alcohol. They eat and chat and laugh. I can’t believe we’re here, they keep echoing, chewing on fries and plastic straws. They don’t quite get to organizing the dialysis conference. Meanwhile, the snow piles up and up and up. But they don’t worry about the weather. As a nurse, you have to follow through, no matter what. The line between life and death is thin as ice. It demands commitment and preparation and good luck. 

Thirty years later, Diane and Rhonda comfortably share an office on the 10th floor of Dana-Farber where they work side by side as nurses. Their friend’s twelve year old plant spirals out over the cabinets, brushing up against family portraits and colorful knickknacks. In terms of commitment, preparation, and good luck, they hit the jackpot.  

Rhonda (left) and Diane (right) at Dana-Farber, February 2020

Diane and Rhonda have been close friends for forty years. They’ve shared this office for four. This March, Diane is retiring. Though they don’t harp on it often at work, Diane and Rhonda have been each other’s rocks throughout. Their journeys have been winding, wild, and intertwined. 

Diane grew up in a small town in New England and moved to Boston, the “big city”, to go to nursing school. She and her best friend applied and enrolled together, helping each other study and survive the trials of clinical rotations. Nursing was a natural choice for her; she always wanted to “make life easier for people, get them through difficult times.” 

Rhonda, on the other hand, never quite knew what her career would look like. She went to college for a semester, and got married at eighteen. At nineteen, she gave birth to her daughter and got a divorce. She realized quickly that she needed a job. She became a nurse’s aid, went to licensed practical nursing (LPN) school when her daughter was 18 months old, and worked in a nursing home. Then, one fateful day, she saw an ad in the newspaper for an open dialysis nurse position. She got the job and Diane became her boss. The year was 1980. At this point, her daughter was four years old.  

When the time came for Rhonda’s first evaluation, she walked into Diane’s office and burst into tears. Surely, she thought, she had messed something up, and she would get a strict talking-to. “That’s not what an evaluation is at all!” Diane exclaimed. This is how their friendship began.

From that point, Rhonda decided to go back to school to become a registered nurse. She told Diane, “this is what I’m doing. Give me the hours I need.” Diane thought, “Dear, I don’t know how she’s going to do it. She’s got a little one at home, she’s running a household, working, and now, school?” But Diane obliged. 

Rhonda enrolled in the same program Diane had graduated from years earlier – the New England Deaconess Hospital School of Nursing, which has since closed. Her schedule was the epitome of hectic – juggling time as an olympic sport. Diane and Rhonda juggled time side by side for four years. Outside of work, on bright summer days, they would convene at another nurse friend’s house and enjoy the poolside. Rhonda’s daughter and Diane’s niece played in swimming pools together. 

Rhonda’s graduation from Emmanuel College, 2009
Rhonda (first on the left) and Diane (third from the left)

Eventually, they separated ways, growing into their nursing scrubs as managers of dialysis in different units. They would call each other and organize conferences, projects, and chat about their families. 

As nurses, they witnessed the horrors and surprises of the human spirit. They felt their patients cower in pain, and fight through it. They nurtured hundreds of families through mournings and miracles. When their close friend, a fellow nurse, fell gravely ill, Diane and Rhonda held each other and tended to their friend together. When their friend died, they grieved together. 

They went on to keep each other up to date in the nursing world. Diane would write glowing references for Rhonda- so glowing in fact, that her interviewees would ask “Do you also walk on water?”. Rhonda often felt restless, itching for new experiences. Diane would pull through, even when it meant Rhonda would be leaving the nest of Diane’s wing. Rhonda listens to Diane “go on and on” about her family; Diane has supported Rhonda through “every stupid decision” she has made. We all make stupid decisions, Diane laughs. 

“Hard at work” at the Kraft Donor Center ~2008/2009
Rhonda (Top, second from the left)
Diane (Bottom, second from the right)

Four years ago, Rhonda called up Diane when a new nurse position opened up at the Dana-Farber. I watch them stroll in the halls together with ease, like sisters. I hear them chatting about patients, sharing heartwarming stories and stressful encounters. With Diane retiring, Rhonda recognizes the end of an era. She will miss Diane’s calm presence balming their office. 

Diane is looking forward to finally cleaning out her home, starting fresh, spending time with her nieces and her husband. “Our friendship will still be there, our friendship will go on,” says Rhonda. 

Nothing can stop these two nurses from their auspicious devotion to each other. Not a hard day at work, not a snowstorm, and definitely not retirement.  

“As nurses, you have to go in no matter what. It could be a giant snow storm, but there were always patients. If patients on dialysis don’t get their treatments they die,” Diane declares.

Rhonda adds matter-of-factly, “That carries over into other things we did. Bad weather? Whatever. That’s why we’re friends. Whatever we need to get done, we get it done”. 

As for retirement, it will be a new and significant  journey for both Diane and Rhonda. As Charles Dickens wrote to top off the Tale of Two Cities, “It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

Happy retirement Diane! 

They often wear matching outfits by accident

A huge thank you to Diane and Rhonda for sharing their stories and photos with us, and for being incredible people to work alongside! Thank you Audrey D. for sharing this ode to friendship with our genetics team at DFCI!

The 12-year-old plant in Diane & Rhonda’s office!

The Healing Power of Noticing: Tending to the Deep Stories of Plants

From that time forth he believed that the wise man is one who never sets himself apart from other living things, whether they have speech or not, and in later years he strove long to learn what can be learned, in silence, from the eyes of animals, the flight of birds, the great slow gestures of trees.

Ursula Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea

The morning glory unravels her colorful petals at dawn, inviting her face to receive the life-giving nourishment of sunlight. At nightfall, she twists her petals, fashioning a protected envelope ensuring a soft slumber. 

Deep into the rapture of the season’s blooms, Liam Kelly finds morning glories curled around wooden posts and native plants, strewn about his new neighborhood in Jamaica Plain.

He collects their seeds and spreads them around wherever he goes: dark South Boston alleyways, Egleston square front yards, shady woodland areas. The following summer, he notices the myriad of morning glories sprouting up in the places he had scattered them.

He and his friends in Brooklyn, NY start to swap varieties of morning glories and plant each other’s in and around their homes. The erupting glories tie him to this moment of change, to places where he explores and struggles with the growing pains of self-expansion.

The recognition of those flowers around town, the burst of life that comes from just one seed, is not only a memory, but a lesson to be learned. 

It has been said that people of the modern world suffer a great sadness, a “species loneliness” – estrangement from the rest of Creation. We have built this isolation with our fear, with our arrogance, and with our homes brightly lit against the night. For a moment as we walked this road, those barriers dissolved and we began to relieve the loneliness and know each other once again.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

I’ve noticed that many of my own conversations about “nature” often make me feel even more separate from nature. It’s funny given that nature, however we cut it, is inseparable from being a human on Earth.

And yet for many of us, nature remains a foreign and “outdoor” concept: a jungle, a coral reef, a rocky trek, a blue-skied view. “Nature” evokes guilt – our inevitable and hopeless participation in pervasive systems and economies that run on maniacally consuming the world’s resources. 

But it also feels true- we are separate, in a way. Nature can be terrifying and deadly to us. Nature is unpredictable, unfathomable, uncontrollable. 

I have felt ashamed deep down to realize that no matter how much I love hiking and seem to love birches, I am afraid of being in the woods alone come sundown. Deep down, I feel that nature and humanity are incompatible, an abusive pairing that I am unable to reform.

The fear comes from a human place of needing to stay away from danger in order to survive. Fear also comes from dodging the unknown, the not-yet-understood. It is the immense gap in knowledge and relationship with the powerful world beyond (and within) human invention that many of us struggle to welcome. 

We can’t talk about nature in this century without “climate change” blaring in our minds; most observations and discussions about nature centralize on the existential threat and uncertainty of our future. Many people are asking: how do we repair the world? 

I’m asking us to consider another question today: How do we repair our relationship (little by little) to the home that gives us life? Maybe the only way is through the weeds.

I drop to my knees in the grass and I can hear the sadness, as if the land itself was crying for its people: Come home. Come home.

-Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

How do we gaze at the beings that share this sky and earth, the ones that toss acorns on the sidewalk, the ones that pile up and decay in our gutters?

It’s hard to perceive plants as memories, as capsules of 700 million years of evolutionary wisdom. But they, like us, experience migrations, invasions, vibrant communities, hopeful births, and lonesome deaths.

In my experience, storytelling is the best bridge for understanding. In this post, we meet Liam, who picks me up on Commonwealth Ave in a big green landscaping truck on a sweltering day in June and leads me through his memory of  the deep stories of plants in Larz Anderson Park.

Liam

Can you imagine, for example, what trees do…whenever we’re not looking?

Mary Oliver

When I met Liam the first time last year, we quickly fell into a conversation about seeds. He invited me to the community gardens he tends to in Somerville, introducing by name tens of varieties of basil, all from different places, all associated with different memories and people.

Every seedling had a story, every plant a memory, spanning continents and centuries. This was the first time I realized the depth of stories and life that is constantly murmuring around us. Once the veil is lifted ever so slightly, a torrent of wonder and meaning rolls in.

To top it off, he gifted me a white jasmine flower that swelled my room with her sweet aroma for a week. 

Sprouting up in a rural part of New England, little Liam hopped from interest to interest: volcanoes, gemstones, airplanes, military history, flowers. When people asked him, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” his answer was always “a farmer”.

At a tender age, Liam recalls his father often tending to a vegetable garden by their home.

“I remember being in that garden and feeling a connection with him,” he reflects. 

In these first experiences with gardening, Liam started paying attention to how plants live- what they do, what they need, how they grow, and how it relates to him.

Liam

His first exploration was touching a Serrano chili pepper, then touching his face and balling his eyes out. He spent much of his time immersed in the woodlands, noticing trees, “seeing things happen”. He reflects, 

“At some point, there came a threshold where I was aware of so many things happening in plants – it continues to blow my mind. They started raising more questions, which was groundbreaking for me – being asked a question back by something I am observing. It clicked – this is a being that I am communicating with and having a relationship with.”

When Liam stumbled upon the story of chestnut trees in New England, he had a “visceral feeling of connection”. He told me this story while smiling affectionately at a tall chestnut in Larz Anderson Park: 

“It was one of the first instances where I was made aware of the massive changes that have happened in our ecosystems over the past couple centuries. There’s this tree that is a behemoth, that rivals the Redwoods but lives on the east coast making nuts- the sweetest chestnuts out there. There were an estimated 4 billion trees growing between Maine and Georgia. But then, within a couple of decades, they were all gone from this blight fungus. This was so catastrophic. So much life depended on them. But they are still around. I remember being so taken with that story – fortunately they grow everywhere where I grew up. What’s cool about these trees is that even when the huge trunks die, the root collar stays alive indefinitely. Today, you walk around and see chestnut trees in the woods – a lot of times they are growing in a rough circular shape and you can see the diameter of the old trunk. On the soccer field where my little sibling played, the field had a bunch of chestnut trees growing around it and for some reason, I’m not sure, maybe just luck, the trees there got big enough to flower often. There was one summer that I went around and pollinated the flowers to try to see if I could grow some and redistribute them. I was reading obsessively about how to propagate these trees, how to graft them, how to pollinate them. I got to eat a couple chestnuts. It was like carroty-sweet, like carrot cake. I finally got some American chestnut seedlings – and then my cat Monty ate them. Every single one.” 

Liam found truffles!

Wild plants have changed to stand in well-behaved rows and wild humans have changed to settle alongside the fields and care for the plants—a kind of mutual taming.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

Thinking of plants as living creatures with histories and families is one way to feel connection. Another dimension involves recognizing how humans and plants have been intertwined for centuries.

Our journey as humans depends on plants for food, medicine, and protection. The plants we have ‘tamed’ have shaken hands with us too. Liam uses the evolution of crop plants as an example: 

“Something that I learned about wheat versus the wild grasses: once their seeds are ripe, they need to disperse them. The wild ones usually just fall right off the plant. But wheat holds on to the seeds because they can’t be dropping on the ground when we’re trying to harvest it. If wheat was growing like that in nature, it would have a really tough time. It wouldn’t be able to disperse itself – it’s fitness would be poor. But people cultivate it. That’s not just a coincidence that that is the case. It’s trust. It’s completely two way, too. It’s not just that we are taking advantage of that plant when we eat it.”

Digging deeper into the inner lives of plants, Liam explains what we can learn from plants not only about trust and evolution, but what trust they have in their own families and homes.

Discussing the harsh realities of American capitalism, Liam brought the conversation back to asking questions about what it means to exist in a system:  

“The individual is important to the masses. There are trees that fuse their roots together and add nutrients to one another so that when one is disadvantaged and another is thriving- it’s like social welfare. Looking at the questions that are asked of me: looking at how a tree lives, how they see the world and think and understanding things. Invariably there are lessons I can learn. There are a lot of lessons based on equity and reciprocity.”

“Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

Mary Oliver, Upstream: Selected Essays

As a gardener, Liam is often tending to plants both indoors and outdoors. The indoor plants require constant attention, watering by hand and repotting. He reflects that the practice of paying attention to something and caring for it is a lesson that can be transposed to other places.

To aid a plant in its growth, you need to have a relationship with it – to watch for how much sunlight and water it needs, when it flowers, how it bends, what insects and animals flock to it.

He loves to grow plants for other people and gift them. He loves when he receives a plant as a gift. “Transfer and capacity, a plant holds more and more,” he says. 

I buzz with life’s questions, questions that perhaps the plants have mastered in their evolution.

How do we reanimate what is lost or broken?

How do we help each other grow?

How do we as individuals persist?

How do we practice patience?

What is the root of devotion and trust?

What does it mean to belong? 

Walking through Franklin Park, we came across a few little Oak saplings. Liam gingerly touches their fresh leaves and muses, 

“These have a long way to go before they become the big Oaks they hope to be. Maybe they’ll still be young long after I’m gone. They teach me patience.”

A mammoth-sized Thank You to Liam Kelly for taking long walks and sharing his passions with us, and for re-introducing me to Mary Oliver, the poet who is known to wander and be inspired by the deep woods. Thank you so much to Jason Kimball for letting me read your copy of “The Overstory” by Richard Powers, which has also shifted the way I connect with plants (highly recommend!). “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants” by Robin Wall Kimmerer was also super influential as inspiration for this post. Please share any thoughts, stories, and questions you may have (about the universe). Love you all ❤

Opening the Portal: The Secret World of Imaginary Friends

We all have forests on our minds. Forests unexplored, unending. Each one of us gets lost in the forest, every night, alone.

Ursula Le Guin

Lights off and windows shut, a tear rolls down my cheek as I tell my dear friend Rachel I think it’s time that we part ways.

For years we whispered into each others ears. We laughed together in the bathroom at some juicy middle-school drama. We hugged on icy nights when the gas heat wasn’t on, and falling asleep was hard. We asked each other questions about the day’s happenings: what was your favorite part of that song you just heard on the radio? Did you see grandma get tense when the bank teller couldn’t understand her accent? What if Shane never loves me back?

I would get upset at my dad and she would offer a different perspective, “maybe he was just stressed today because of work; tomorrow will be better,” she would posit. And it always was better.

Rachel was my compass. I trusted her with all my heart, especially in the moment of saying our goodbyes. I was in high school and feeling ready to take it on alone. Keeping up our friendship would make us emotionally dependent each other, I realized. She would become an appendage, a vestige of a relationship that we could no longer learn from. We assured each other that night that we would both be safe; she would go on to love another human being and I would go on living and building new, meaningful friendships.

Storm King, Maryland by Jason Kimball

As great scientists have said, and as all children know, it is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception, and compassion, and hope.

Ursula Le Guin

Rachel didn’t have a face, nor a body. She floated as an invisible, twin-soul above me. I understood that she was my invention, yet she would still come and go as she pleased, independent in body and mind.

A surprising 37% of children develop imaginary friends at some point (1). In my younger years, I thought people would judge me if they knew about Rachel. In contemplating imaginary friends, I asked my in-the-flesh friends about their childhood experiences. It’s a whole different sensation to dive into the intricate, varied, and wildly imaginative worlds of friends’ invisible, sometimes secret relationships.

Considering how common imaginary friends are, it’s poignant that as adults we often forget about them or feel shame about them. It’s easy to make fun of ourselves for having made-up beings to talk to. We may even wince at the thought. But for some of us, these imaginary friends have guided us.

Imaginary friends have helped us make sense of our world. These inventions can help certain humans find comfort in times of loneliness or boredom, difficult transitions, and moments of low self-esteem.

The Eastern eyed click beetle (Alaus oculatus), Silver Springs, Maryland by Jason Kimball

Some of the most well-known fiction writers, such as Ursula Le Guin, converse with their characters in vast, fantastic worlds steeped in deep history. What better way to practice relationships and storytelling than with a universe that you invented yourself?

In contemplating imaginary friends, I asked my in-the-flesh friends about their childhood experiences. It’s a whole different sensation to dive into the intricate, varied, and wildly imaginative worlds of people’s invisible, sometimes secret relationships. I heard about an invented family of a hundred cats, a best friend twin-soul (similar to my own), fairy adventures, little beings living in the walls, superheroes, and the list goes on and on. 

Reflecting on the experience of having imaginary friends also reveals something deeper — an intimate window into someone’s inner world. By tapping into memories of our forgotten imaginary friends, we can learn a lot about our own and each other’s journeys through life.  

In this post, we will meet some of the characters that became companions and platforms for experimentation for real humans. We will explore reflections from two different A Window In readers!

I doubt that the imagination can be suppressed. If you truly eradicated it in a child, [s]he would grow up to be an eggplant.

Ursula Le Guin

First, we meet Sarah and her two high-school aged (invisible) brothers, Dave and Charles. In juxtaposition to their mischievous company, Sarah was “the only level-headed one”. In reality, she was an only child of an aerospace engineer and a stay-at-home mom living in the hustle and bustle of LA. Sarah didn’t keep her brothers a secret from the adults in her life. She would go on and on about them to her parents, and they played along, shaking their heads, oh those boys!

When it came to the kids on the block, however, Sarah kept it secret. She felt like the odd one out, the solitary girl with no siblings.

“When I was growing up, a lot of people had siblings and I was like, “what’s wrong with my parents that they can’t have another kid? Why did they give me this weird lifestyle of being alone by myself?”’

She felt “weird” and isolated, and was afraid that kids her age would think she was “pathetic for wanting siblings so badly”.

As Sarah started socializing more and being involved in dance at age seven, she started interacting with humans outside her own head. She suddenly stopped talking about Dave and Charles. Her mom asked once what happened to them and Sarah, a clever little chap, explained, “they went away to college”.

She doesn’t think about her big brothers now that she’s in her mid-twenties. She reflects:

“It set me up for creating a reality in my head for what I could consider as normal, comfortable, and protected.”

Now, she uses listening to music and dancing as portals to fantastical worlds where she can explore, be comfortable, and be free.

There’s people all over these parts, and maybe beyond, who think, as you said, that nobody can be wise alone. So these people try to hold to each other.

Ursula Le Guin

After initiating this topic with another friend, Liam, our discussion flowed in a totally different direction.

Exposed to Irish folklore as a child, Liam and his (real life) siblings fashioned miniature homes, completing them with waterproof roofs, little plants in little gardens, including windows, making the designs stylish and complex. Despite never befriending a fairy in real life, he wanted to make make sure they had a place to sojourn.

The imaginative story became a family affair. His sister, Grace, joined him in the construction. His mom would put marzipan potatoes in the huts as gifts from the leprechauns on St. Patrick’s Day. 

A tiny fairy home by Liam Kelly

“It felt good and right making them homes, even when we didn’t get to hang out together”.

Though he never met these fairies, they left coins, bits of thread, and acorns for him to enjoy and cherish.

We dove deep into memories of how we learned lessons in generosity from roots of tradition. Listening to Liam remember the magic of giving homes to silent creatures, sparked my own forgotten moments of cradling a butterfly with a broken wing.

Nowadays, you can find Liam hopping around Indiana, working on land restoration projects, identifying plants, creating seed libraries, and building communities that prioritize sustainable agriculture.

Silver Springs, Maryland by Jason Kimball

There’s a point, around age twenty,” Bedap said, “when you have to choose whether to be like everybody else the rest of your life, or to make a virtue of your peculiarities.

Ursula Le Guin

How can we use our powerful experiences with imaginary friends to summon such magic now? 

Yesterday (November 23, 2019), at my friend Eva’s memorial service, her twenty three year old brother stood bravely in front of an overflowing church of grievers and began to deliver a eulogy about none other than their beanie baby collection, the political dramas in the beanie universe, and how much this play had helped them bond and understand the world beyond their own.

This moment of intimacy that he shared with the rest of us, who didn’t know Eva’s earliest creations, lands in a tender place in my heart. Her brother summoned this magic by honoring and integrating these stories into our memory of Eva.

What if we asked each other, “Did you have imaginary friends growing up? What were some worlds that you invented?” The people I thought I knew so well sometimes bare unexpected sagas of adventure, longing, loneliness, and kinship. 

It is such a joy to remember these invisible beings who got some of us through lonely and experiential moments in our lives. These conversations elicit surprising intimacy that we can tap into by calling on our childhood imaginations. Our invisible companions not only cradled and shaped some of us, but still do in how we reflect and connect over their existence. 

Having a relationship with ourselves means not trying to confine the galaxies inside our bodies that are too vast to map out and predict. Instead, it could be about finding ways to connect, to make our own diverse realities intersect, to learn, and witness, and listen, and imagine the world beyond what we perceive to be true. After all, the most magical forces are the invisible ones. 

Thank you all for reading and sharing your heartwarming stories! Special thanks to Sarah Estrada and Liam Kelly for letting me interview you for this post! Thank you to Jason Kimball for contributing beautiful photographs to color this post! If you have any thoughts or memories, I’d love love love to discuss! ❤

Sources:

(1) https://www.journalofplay.org/sites/www.journalofplay.org/files/pdf-articles/1-1-article-taylor-imaginary-companions.pdf (this is actually a really cool paper, if you’re interested!)

A Place Where Lost Souls Gather

“Songs build little rooms in time
And housed within the song’s design
Is the ghost the host has left behind
To greet and sweep the guest inside
Stoke the fire and sing his lines.”


David Berman, excerpt from “Snow Is Falling In Manhattan”

When a song is born, where does it live?

Music is ephemeral and fluid in its nature. We can’t hold it, we can’t see it, we can’t possess it. 

But when a certain song touches us, we witness its power: we can see the strings vibrate, we can feel the bass in our chest, we can absorb the lyrics in our mind, we can press “repeat” on Spotify twenty times.

We can memorize it, record it, sing it, dance with it, forget it.

Songs can move us through time and space, deeper inside our true body – the one that extends beyond our skin. And still, we can never possess a song. 

Connecting to life through songwriting and music, I often find myself wondering what it is about some songs that sweeps me into a place of safety and surrender.

After all, music is just sound and organized time. I’ve often thought of songs as friends or family – companions to cry and sway with. 

One of David Berman’s obituaries described a song as “a place where lost souls might gather” (1). When I read that, I had this Aha! moment: what if a song is a place! A place where we may find connection and warmth. A place where memories hang on the walls. 

What if we can return to songs like returning to lost homes, or rest in songs like resting in a cabin in the woods. What if we think of songs as a place to experience community? A place where many of us can go all at once and feel what we feel privately and together. 

Imagine going to a concert for your favorite band and seeing hundreds of strangers in the audience singing the same words and melody together. How many times had each person listened to this song to commit it to memory? What about this song called to all these individuals who otherwise would not connect? It’s magical that songs can bring bodies together in such a resonant way. 

Sometimes, we don’t even notice the way atmospheres change as a result of music. Think of that smooth jazz band creating a mood in a loud bar, elevator music when you’re anxiously getting all your luggage to your hotel room, or pump-up music when you’re jogging.

If music doesn’t quite do it for you, that’s okay too! Everyone has their own way of connecting to people through space-time. Because most of us are either consciously or subconsciously immersed in music daily, it is an important aspect of the human experience to consider. 

In this entry, we meet Mariam Dahbi, an incredible singer and songwriter whose songs have made my heart weep with relief. The first time I listened to her at an open mic in Cambridge, the air in the room shifted.

Her song “Solace” (featured in this post) lulled me into her inner universe, a rare moment to share with a stranger. In our conversation, she gives us a window into her journey and reflections as a singer, songwriter, and educator. 

Mariam Dahbi

Some songs come all at once, when my heart wants to empty something.


Mariam Dahbi

Mariam knew she wanted to be a singer since middle school. “I don’t remember myself not singing,” she reflects. 

“I would go to school, come home, go to my room, and sing my heart out. I would sing in English, and I didn’t even know English! I couldn’t understand the lyrics but I could understand the emotion behind them.”

As a middle schooler, she soaked in every second of the French version of “America’s Got Talent” and then ran to her room, bawling her eyes out afterward, desperately longing for a future she knew was out of reach. 

Growing up in an academically-focused environment in Morocco, Mariam often felt torn between her intrinsic dream of being a singer and the “practical”, safe approach to life (i.e. education, work, marriage, kids, die). And she knew which road she would have to take – the practical one. This flavor of compromise tastes familiar to many of us, I’m sure.

She went on her academic track in education, abandoning singing as she entered into a deep relationship with a man who said music was  “not a serious” form of “entertainment”. He may have felt threatened by the possibility that Mariam’s passion for music may eventually outweigh her love for him. 

Upon uprooting from Morocco and plopping down in Boston to pursue her PhD in education, Mariam’s relationship crumbled and the loneliness started to tease her tongue. She realized she had been forfeiting her true self in order to keep her relationship afloat. 

Feeling worlds away from her cheerful, sociable, singing self, Mariam returned to her consolations, the songwriters she listened to in high school: Norah Jones, Sarah Bareilles, Damien Rice.

She bought a guitar.

She swam with the shame of it all, the loss and the relearning of the self. In the process, after years of invisible gestation, she wrote her first song, “Solace” at age twenty-five (which is featured below).

She briefly (and heartbrokenly) had a “fling” with an artist who “saw the artist” in her. With an encouraging witness for her creative spirit, she pushed herself into the public eye by attending her first open mic. 

When you write a song, you learn to hear yourself.

Mariam Dahbi

Mariam’s songwriting process often involves solitude, repetition, and lots of “crying through stuff”.

After the song is born, it is a whole different process to expose it to the public eye where it can live in a new way. Almost every day, Mariam finds herself fighting mental blocks about sharing her songs. 

Her family members have expressed confusion about her desire to perform. Do you just want people clapping for you? Isn’t that narcissistic?, they ask her.

“They just don’t want me to be an entertainer,” she considers. But the main motivation for her has little to do with validation or approval. It has more to do with authenticity. 

“It feels like getting naked. Performing was a way for me to get out of the zone of hiding from the world, hiding from myself, and joining a community that I knew I was meant to be part of.” 

Mariam wades through the nerves and shakes on stage until she comes to a place of peace inside the song. She keeps her eyes closed and tries not to worry about the people listening. 

Life has a way of bringing you to what you were meant to do.

Mariam Dahbi

The irony of Mariam’s story is that she thought she had to forgo singing in order to have security in an academic track. But she has found herself writing her PhD dissertation on the potential links between songwriting and learning in the classroom. 

“Songwriting is a literacy activity,” Mariam describes. Songwriting with children in school settings helps with language, communication, and memory retention. 

She conducts research on how to integrate songwriting into curricula to give voices to students who come from different cultures, speak a different language at home, or who have different learning styles.

“What you really want out of a student,” Mariam notes passionately, “is to connect, interact, and co-construct knowledge. Not just passively memorize.”

If you’re complaining about being lonely, in a way you’re seeking help. If you’re ready to not be lonely, then you have to put some kind of work in. That work isn’t songwriting for everybody. That work is vulnerability.

Mariam Dahbi

When I met Mariam, I was bopping around open mic nights because I was in a transition phase in my life. I was feeling lonely and isolated, fresh out of college and lost in a job search. 

Attending intimate musical nights exposed me to communities of people who valued sharing and openness. If you’re feeling any kind of tug like that, I strongly recommend hanging out at an open mic night. It can be a space where it is socially acceptable for people to get up in front of you and tell their story through music and poetry. Here is an environment where people cry, laugh, and support each other. 

Let’s transform the question of where does a song live? into where do we live inside a song? 

Thank you so much to Mariam who spoke so openly about her experiences and her intimate songwriting process. A humongous thank you to Jason Kimball for filming and editing Mariam’s beautiful original song “Solace” with such grace and love. Thank you to my living room (featured in the video) for embracing 13 intimate house concerts hosting over seventy singers/songwriters/bands over the last 4 years. And thank you to Kayla Popik and Marc Yaffee for sharing David Berman’s influential obituary from Jewish Currents with me. 

1- https://jewishcurrents.org/kaddish-for-david-berman/

Beyond the Motherhood Monolith: Reflections from a Mom

The older I get, the more I see the power of that young woman, my mother.

Sharon Olds

Sometimes, it’s hard to see past the monolith of motherhood. We often find ourselves reflecting on the classic pillars of the “motherhood experience”: obstetrics, child development, mother-child bonding, unconditional love, chicken pox. Our culture tends to focus on the development of women as mothers, but not on their development as an individual, complex person. Meanwhile, every person raising a baby out there has a wildly distinct experience that is generally kept hush-hush in public conversations. By sharing our stories and listening to each other, we can crack some of the tropes of motherhood.

In this entry, we meet Rebecca*, who gifts us with candid, thoughtful reflections about how her relationships have shifted since she became a mother. While she navigates the straits of having three young daughters, she is also balancing a full-time job, her marriage, her friendships, and her own identity.

I want to put out there that it’s possible and/or totally inevitable that her story doesn’t parallel your own experience of motherhood, marriage, or friendships. The landscape of relationships out there is as vast and mysterious as the deep sea. It’s impossible to generalize “motherhood”, despite all its monolithic glory. If any thoughts come to you during this reading, I would love to hear them if you are willing to share!

By Sam Bavelock (beets on paper)

As a mom, there’s no space for you to be vulnerable or weak when you’re with your children because they need so much. So much of just your role as a mother, at least in my experience so far, is just security. It’s just: I’m here. I’m steadfast. I’m not angry. I am your rock. Period. Stable as hell. Because everything in a kid’s life changes every single second.

Rebecca

Rebecca describes herself as a “cisgender woman in a heterosexual relationship”. She married her high school sweetheart when she was twenty six and loves him to the moon. Growing up in a small town in the Midwest, Rebecca was one of the only women in her friend group to wait and have children later. When she moved to the East Coast for graduate school, she had to build a new support system from scratch. The shifts in friendships really became apparent once she “reluctantly stumbled into motherhood” when she turned thirty. When asked about friendships today, Rebecca easily slices her friends into two separate categories: mom-friends and nighttime-friends.

She defines mom-friends as friends she made when she became a mom, but “not because they’re mothers necessarily”. She says it “just marks a time in [her] life in which they became [her] friends”.

“Mom-friends have become so essential,” Rebecca describes. She admits that a huge part of why motherhood has been fulfilling so far was because of the opportunity to bond (and “commiserate”) with new friends who are also going through these challenging transitions. An important part of the mom-friend bond for Rebecca is the opportunity to vent, to be vulnerable, to break down the motherhood tropes with someone who can empathize.

“If they’re close enough, you can be like, “this is really hard”, and “you know what? I didn’t love my child for the first 10 weeks of their life”. You can say, “I don’t want to have a second child because I can’t wait for the time where I don’t have to be a mom anymore”. Those are the things that I have heard said, and things that I’ve said that make it really vulnerable.”

Vulnerability can be really hard for a mother because of societal expectations. A mother carries on her back the tropes of unconditional maternal love – the “instinctual”, the “selfless”, the “sacrificial” woman whose ultimate mission is inseparable from being a mother. The emphasis on these tropes diminishes the actual experience and humanity of the person within the mother.

“You as a mom are not allowed to say, “today my kids suck”.  You as a mom are not allowed to say that; you as a woman are not allowed to say that. Not that long ago, before women were allowed to be in the workplace, all they had that was theirs and theirs only was kids, kid-rearing, and motherhood. Your power came from your ability to bring that life into the world. If you say, “this is not always great,” you are sort of giving up the only power that women have only ever had to themselves.”

Rebecca argues that “communal therapy” with mom-friends helps normalize some of the feelings of isolation and frustration. She argues that it helps to keep her marriage stronger.

“I decided at some point: you’re the person I’m going to be with forever and ever and we’re going to figure shit out and I’m going to commit to that every morning I wake up.”

“On the surface of things, he is somebody who stands right there with you,” Rebecca describes her husband. Everything had always felt equal between them since they were 15; they stood by each other while moving across the country and changing jobs. “And then we had the girls,” she states.

“You don’t realize how much you learn as a woman just through being a woman in society that men really miss out on. I don’t know a single woman who made it into her 30’s who has not bottle fed either a real person, a baby animal, or a doll. These are the things. We are still raising our little girls to be mothers, and not raising our little boys to be fathers.

Suddenly, she is the only one who could pump and breastfeed the girls. She needs to take more time off of work. She needs to stitch her “body back together”. She stays home more so she knows what the girls’ cries sound like. She knows when they’re hungry. The pediatricians call her instead of him. When the diapers run low, she is the one who notices.

“It’s these little things that we’re all, myself included, contributing to that make motherhood in some ways harder than fatherhood. And my husband is 100% there. He is all in when it comes to being a dad. Even if the work that we are doing day to day is 50/50, I’m still doing all the management.”

Rebecca’s frustration with the blatant imbalance that flooded her marriage came as a shock. She expresses that she feels incredibly lucky that the foundation of their relationship is strong, and they are able to discuss the problems as they arise. “We need to stop saying that everything should be equal,” she retorts, “instead we should think about fair.”  She reflects that the inequality isn’t only biological – it’s how we’ve been conditioned in ways we didn’t choose. She looks at the new challenge in her marriage as “covering each other’s weaknesses”- learning and developing ways to find balance as a parental unit and as individuals.

Rebecca also sensed that it was difficult for her husband to get to know his children and what role he played in their lives.

“I knew my girls way before he knew them. To some extent, their personalities now are similar to what they were in the womb. If I had described to you the children that I was carrying, to some degree it would be these children. I got to know them so well.”

Benjamin*, her husband, was able to take a chunk of time-off at work to spend one-on-one time with their oldest daughter  in their first summer as a family. With the younger daughter, he wasn’t able to do that. Rebecca noticed that “it really changed their relationship. It took a lot longer for him to get to know her. He misses it. It made becoming a parent harder for him”.

Beyond the logistical balancing act that marriage may encounter with children, there is also an emotional balancing that needs to be addressed. Rebecca jokingly referenced a book called “How to Have Children Without Hating Your Husband”, which helped her name some of the shifts.

“There are so many things that tell you how to have a good marriage, but there aren’t many things that tell you how to balance this physical, immediate love that you have for your children with this esoteric, very brain driven love that you have for your spouse. One you choose, one you don’t choose. How do you balance those two loves? How do you not get consumed by one or the other?”

Some of what we learn about partnership and parenting is through observation and experience. Rebecca notes that her own parents had a difficult relationship with each other and got a divorce. Her becoming a mother has also prompted profound reflection of her relationship with her own mother.

I was like – holy shit, the only other person I feel this way about is my mom!

Rebecca

Rebecca followed in the footsteps of a long line of women who worked in education. Her mother, grandmother, and great grandmother all worked full-time most of their lives, a historic rarity. She didn’t “identify with motherhood” at first, and found it difficult to imagine herself sacrificing her independence to take care of a bunch of drooling babies. When asked about what she may have learned about motherhood from her upbringing, she shared, “hearing my mom and the older generation’s experiences of motherhood, both good and bad, led me to make a lot of choices within defining my own sense of who I am as a mom”.

The intergenerational trauma and learning regarding motherhood directly impacts how women slip into their roles as mothers. Rebecca’s mother’s story is totally different than her own. Her mother had married “late” (in her 30’s) after “sowing a lot of wild oats first”. Rebecca speculates that one of the only reasons she was married was because she “was ready to have kids”. She never really had a partner in raising children, and got divorced when Rebecca was a teenager. She and her own mother’s relationship was one where the “two women broken by circumstance loved and hurt each other in equal measure”. Rebecca’s mother often felt isolated and alone.

Rebecca reflects that she and her mom are “close friends”, but sharing her challenges can be difficult because of her mother’s trauma. She says:

“In some ways, it’s hard to talk to her about my experiences. She says, “well you have it so much better than I had it”. But I’m sure she never really had a voice to say “I had this bad experience”’.

On the other hand, she’s grateful for the powerful and foundational relationship with her mother. She can share her developing identity as a mother with the woman who carried and raised her from birth.

“I don’t know that I appreciated my mother. I don’t think I appreciated the connection that we had and the physical love behind it. Now we’re connecting as adults over a bond that we’ve had your whole lives, even when she were an adult but I wasn’t. To realize, I’ve been completely obsessed and in love with this person and never, ever realized it until I had my own person that I was insanely in love and obsessed with.”

Despite all the difficulty, Rebecca finds wonder and gratitude in watching her young daughters discover the world.

“My oldest just started this new thing where she says “It’s a mysteryyyyy” and she’s just really cool – she’s just a cool human being. I am cultivating this person who didn’t choose to be here. That’s a lot of responsibility.”

Thank you to Rebecca who shared these intimate details of her life with us! Thank you Sam Bavelock for the cover art made from beet juice. Thank you to all the humans willing to converse about motherhood in the interim to help me write this in a semi-cohesive way. This entry may not reflect your own experiences, and of course there is a lot of nuance here with various family structures, gender roles, culture, and the list goes on forever. Motherhood is such a monolith to tackle, so this really just represents a morsel of one person’s reflections.

*Names are changed for some semblance of privacy!

From Margins to Masterpieces: Reflections on Doodling


…I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool
For love, for your dream,
For the adventure of being alive.

Oriah Mountain Dreamer (excerpt from “The Invitation”)

If you look around you right now (even if you’re on woodsy trail!), you will find both functional and aesthetic representations of some human’s vision. Airplanes, roads, state houses, cartoons, wine bottles, maps – all manmade inventions are inevitably a product of the natural force pouring out of us: imagination.

When we think of “art”, many of us imagine the Sistine Chapel with its biblical frescos or the Mona Lisa hanging solemnly in a high-security museum. We may think of art as an expensive object that sits on a table or lives behind glass. We may think of its creation as reserved for the trained eye or the lonely romantic. In short, art can feel inaccessible and exclusive.

I’ve heard many a friend remark “oh, I’m not an artist, I can’t paint a human body to save my life!”. Then, in chemistry class, I catch them drawing peculiar aliens or zig-zagged hats.  

A doodle by high-school Sam Bavelock

A doodle is defined as an absent-minded scribble. Even though it usually has a frivolous connotation, the absence of the mind may be exactly when the walls of self-consciousness come down. It’s not so frivolous at all! Given how ubiquitous doodling is, it is important to consider that it can be a window into someone’s inner world. If doodling is born from a mind right on the edge of daydream, meditation, and awareness, there is a vulnerability in creating and even sharing the fabric of one’s inner wonderings.

To call some attention to the improvisation in processing our daily lives, this post will explore the experience of doodling. We meet Sam Bavelock, who regularly experiments with visual art. Sam bridges two (often overlapping) worlds: that of the “artist” who shares with the public and that of the human who creates purely for the sake of expression, processing, and fun. Over the past decade, Sam has created pieces using all kinds of mediums – some for commission, some for gifts, some purely for herself, some without a destination in mind. She has graciously shared some of her doodles with us for this post!

“One of my favorite companions”, a doodle by high-school Sam Bavelock


I barely ever put pen to paper with a plan.  A plan is exactly what I try to avoid!

Sam

Sam started doodling in high school. When she found herself weighed down by expectations or longing to be outside during class, she would open up her notebook and let her imagination run. The margins “were a secret asylum for doodles”, a portal into one of the only spaces she felt she could “expand into without consequence”. In short, doodling was a refuge.

Today, when asked if she shares the contents of her sketchbooks, Sam quickly says “no”. Swiftly, she adds, “I’ll show a doodle once in a while or I’ll be drawing in public. But rarely do I intentionally present it to an audience”. The privacy of the sketchbook struck me as akin to a journal. It made me realize that doodles are similar to words, and just as powerful. Sam’s sketchbook contains what she describes as “lots of processing and dreams” – illustrations of difficult conversations she has experienced, visual representations of fears and desires. Where do the visuals come from? From where are our doodles born?

There are all kinds of handwriting experts and psychologists who claim they can decipher your personality through analyzing doodles. Online, I found some interesting (but probably reductive) interpretations of swirls, triangles, faces, buildings. But basically, the nature of doodling is an exploration of your personal imagination. That is why it can be such an intimate experience to catch a glimpse of someone’s doodle.

“This guy is a creep. I like him.”, more high school doodles from Sam Bavelock

Sam reflects on the experience seeing two of her favorite artists’ sketchbooks on display in New York’s Brooklyn Museum and the Guggenheim:


“To see the sketches and doodles of well-known artists is provocatively imposing. When I went to see Frida Kahlo and Hilma af Klint’s sketchbooks, it was amazing how different the two were. Hilma’s were methodical, very geometric. Her drawings were plans, documented processes for her large scale paintings. Frida’s were more loose and didn’t feel like plans for other pieces. They were pieces by themselves.”

She also recounts a story that gave her a possible peek into the subconscious of a stranger:

“One time when I was sitting in a cafe, there was someone drawing an image of a girl. The image had the word “hello”.  When I complimented her, she seemed very open to engage. The consistency of her inviting demeanor on the page and in our interaction was noticeable. It’s interesting to see what imagery comes up for people in relationship to how they are feeling.”

A doodle by Sam Bavelock; a cursory photo captured on New Years 2018 by me

Doodling is not just a way to heal, improvise, or keep your hands busy in a meeting. It can also be a way to communicate and share the experience of a feeling. I have a vivid memory of the first doodle Sam gifted to me. On New Years Day (2018), Sam invited me to leaf through some old notebooks in her room. A little circular cut-out fell out (pictured above). For some reason, I was immediately in love with this head-planet. To our soft, hushed pondering “how do we keep from feeling alone?”, the calm saturn-face provides a resolution without a word. This cut-out now hangs above my desk. When I’m feeling gloomy, lonely, meditative, or just spacing out and staring at my wall, I remember the feeling of the gift and the moment Sam said “keep it”. Knowing that this creation sprouted from the spirit of my dear friend, that it resonated so deeply with me, and that she trusted me enough to hold onto it, I feel a surge of closeness and love every time it catches my gaze.


Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that, yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.

Frida Kahlo

As someone who practices “art” regularly, Sam encounters different phases of her creative process. Though she admits that developing technical skills can be an important component for understanding the limits of creation, she is a strong proponent for improvisation and experimentation. Coming to the page with no agenda is liberating! But that approach can be pretty hard to do for all of us, even those of us who consider ourselves artistically inclined.

Inspired by the Gorillaz & Castle in the Sky, “anything floating, anything magic”. A doodle by high school Sam

There always seems to be judgment, a voice in our heads that says “this isn’t good enough” or “why bother trying” or “naked mermaid sketches are inappropriate for work meetings”. We all have loved ones who hide their doodles in fear of being judged, or for worries of not being a “real artist”. Making doodles and sharing them is a really vulnerable experience that we often overlook or shy away from. Within that thread, Sam notes one of the reasons that she shares her doodles from time to time:

“When I do share my doodles, there’s a hope that seeing my weird, crazy, nonsensical drawings may inspire someone to realize that making art doesn’t mean they have to know how to draw perfectly. They can just goof around and have fun with it.”

We can all tap in to our natural imaginative forces. Many of us doodle, or love someone who does. This art is free, uninhibited, and abundantly available to create, appreciate, and enjoy!

A huge thank you to Sam for letting me interrogate her about her artistic process & for being open to sharing her private doodles with us. If you are interested in checking out any of her other creations, visit her Instagram at @r.e.m_ember.

Thank you as well to the lovely, brave humans who donated their doodles (below) for this post! Please join in celebrating them! Thank you for reading!

Doodles by Maria Terentieva:

Doodles by Travis Yee:

Doodles by Sarah Estrella:

Doodles by Hailey Magee:

Doodles by Alex Belkin:

Doodles by yours truly ❤

…. and some more free-form by Sam Bavelock:

Beyond the Nucleus: Reflections from a Child Caretaker


…Today I see it is there to be learned from you:
to love what I do not own.

Sharon Olds, excerpt from “Exclusive (for my daughter)”

There was a babysitter with jetblack curly hair who spoke Italian. We made a homemade pizza once. Once, she opened the freezer, the light of the window highlighting her fly-away frizzles.

There was another babysitter who carried around a ziplock bag of carrots in a fo-leather purse. She stood by the white steps of Temple Ner Tamid on a baby-blue skied day in white pants.

A few years ago, my dad pointed out her obituary in the newspaper. I had long forgotten her name – I could only recall the half-bitten carrots and a feeling of warm safety.

Trying to access the amorphic consciousness of our childhood mind is a tender experience. These women, who were in no way blood-related to me, who were paid by my blood-related parents to make sure my little human needs were met, kept me safe and clean. The fact that I seriously can’t remember any other shared moments makes me wonder about the energy that truly did pass between our beings during this time of care.

I’m curious about which influences of theirs stuck to me; which securities did they provided to make me develop into who I am now? I’m curious about their emotional and spiritual landscape at the time when they pledged under the role of my “babysitter” or “nanny”. What were they looking for in life? What did they observe from the outside about my family? What were their fears, their dreams?  What small wisdoms did we exchange with each other?


Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.


Oscar Wilde

The role of a non-blood related caretaker becomes quite a nuanced one in the context of the nuclear family.

A nuclear family is defined as a family structure containing a pair of adults and their socially recognized children. Much of the way we perceive family has to do with our experience within the paradigm of the nuclear model. Historically, many individuals in the West have spent the majority of their lives immersed in two nuclear families: the one they were born into, and the one they created upon marriage.

We’ve all heard the statistics: that family structures in the US have started to shift. Divorce rates are high, reproduction rates are low, people are prioritizing different kinds of lifestyles. Though the change may be representative of a slow social revolution, many of us still judge ourselves and our values based on traditional roles that we play in our (often fragmented) nuclear families. Many of us experience a heavy sense of failure, loss, and isolation when the nuclear families we recognize cease to function, and cease to foster safety and fulfillment. I think that part of this is due to the isolation of the nuclear structure. And so, I think it’s really important to open the tight fist of the nuclear family to the open arms of more people we love. In other words: expanding our definition of family, we would be able to integrate more creativity and fluidity into our “inner circles”.

The “nanny” must be a creative artist. She often finds herself on foreign nuclear turf, facing the temporary joys and struggles of parenthood. In the midst of gauging alien family dynamics, values, and childcare, she also has her own expectations and triggers to engage with. And then, at the end of the day, she goes home to her bed, knowing she is paid for her time. In this entry, we meet Amanda*, who fell into nannying by accident but the impact of the experience left its mark on her.


When they were nine months old, one wanted a toy the other had. She grabbed her sister by the shirt, threw her to the floor, and took the toy! Humans are shit. From the beginning.

Amanda

Amanda grew up in New Hampshire, surrounded by a vast landscape of pines, winding roads, and silence. Her parents got divorced when she was fourteen and chose to live on the same street. With a sweet-but-quick-tempered father, and tough-but-socially-isolated mother, Amanda found herself straddling two very intense worlds – walking from one’s house to the other daily.

After studying English and Composition in college, and then working in a “horrible food service job”, Amanda was itching to get out of there and jump into something new, something that made her feel less alone, used, and exhausted. Amanda’s acquaintance Stephanie* announced that she had given birth to twin girls and invited her to come play. Eventually, she offered her a job as a nanny despite her fearful inexperience. And so Amanda’s journey began. Over the next two and a half years, she became “like a third parent. Or a third child. It was a weird in-between thing.”

When asked about her experience of bonding with the children and getting a window into the family dynamics, Amanda reflected:

“I was just alone with the girls for nine hours a day and sometimes they cried the whole time. I carried them up and down the hallway and sang. Sometimes I cried while singing, because I swear – the sound of crying babies makes you nuts. The mom would come home and see us all crying. I’d think “please don’t fire me”, and she’d say “please don’t quit”. I’d see her argue with her husband. I saw the inside of their marriage.”

The strenuousness of the childcare brought out Amanda’s inner anger – her anger that “humans are shit”. That humans take things without asking, and throw things, and hurt people – even when they grow up to be adults. As a result, she recognized her need to change her attitude toward both the baby girls, and toward life. She started going to therapy and meditating – which she continues to do now to help with everyday life stressors! She remarks “with the girls I had to be an even better self”.


If intimacy is sharing all the dirty little bits of life, then it isn’t all about love.

Amanda

As a woman in her late-thirties, Amanda herself had considered if she wanted children. Her mother would “pester” her, even when she wasn’t in a romantic partnership. But monogamous structures seldom appealed to Amanda. She dreamed of developing her own family with friends – it would be like having an non-blood related extended family with some couples, some children, some caretakers. The pressure of care and money would be distributed across a group of people who could focus on both their individual desires, and their children’s needs. But as she and her friends who daydreamed of this grew into their thirties, they started moving in with partners, bought houses with a couple-signed mortgage, and slipped into isolation. She is still craving the community of a non-nuclear family to grow with. When asked about how she felt nannying had impacted her perspective of parenting and relationships, she reflected on how much like “family” this experience felt to her:

“The kids would eat bites off of my lunch. I would eat what they dropped on the floor. If we are sick we’ll be sick together. And we were! All five of us had this horrible cold for like all of December in 2016 and got pneumonia and everything.”

To Amanda, the confusing dance of attachment came harshly when the girls had to start pre-school. When I asked her about her how it felt to leave, she exclaimed:

“Oh my gosh. The day they told me it was going to end I thought someone had ripped out my ovaries and hit me with them. I thought to myself, “you moron, they’re not your babies.’”  

Talking to Amanda, I felt the complexity of the dance of her nannydom. The process of being responsible for the children in a family for a time that isn’t technically considered to be “your own” is outside any experience I’ve had. Amanda “took a million pictures of them that last summer” intending to make a huge photo collage of their faces “but is that weird to do with someone else’s babies?”.  She visited them every few weeks after it ended and asked them about pre-school.

“At first they did ask for me. They would say “I don’t wanna go to school! I wanna go to the playground with ‘Manda!”. But I think if I asked them now if they remembered going to the playground with me all the time, they wouldn’t remember.”

This post is sort of an ode to and contemplation of people who cared for us when we were children who we may not remember much about. It’s a reminder (to myself at least) that the human family is much larger than it seems, and our circles of love are complex and integrated.

Thank you for reading, friends! ❤

*Changed the names to keep some semblance of privacy!