Sunday, April 25, 2010

Hardening the Heartwood with Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Ever watch the spring flowers bloom really closely? I think they are a lesson in overcoming fear and demonstrating resilience. Think of those bulbs -- sitting dormant for nine or 10 months, crushed under rock hard earth and icy cold snow.

Yet, somehow, the urge to grow is too powerful, Mother Nature's call too pervasive, and up they come. It doesn't matter if there is an occasional frost, hail storm, snow squall or arctic breeze. Somehow they grow strong enough to withstand and survive. Those tiny little flowers are strong indeed.

As I wrote in a previous post, life is like that. The warm weather of Spring often heats up our inner desire to burst forth with new color and growth, and overcome obstacles. But, how do we access that inner call, and how do we protect ourselves from the harsh elements of rejection, pain, suffering and change?

I have been listening to a wonderful series by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, who wrote Women Who Run With the Wolves in 1992, which was a best seller for 145 weeks, and has essentially been hidden under the covers of life for quite some time. Estes is an American poet, psychoanalyst and post-trauma specialist who was raised in a now nearly vanished oral and ethnic tradition. She grew up in a rural village, population 600, near the Great Lakes. Three decades in the making, The Dangerous Old Woman is offered by Sounds True, and presents her masterwork in a series of six interactive online sessions filled with her signature stories, myths, and poetry--many told for the first time. Estes calls her group of listeners, "the Tribe of the Sacred Heart."

There is something special about feeling transported by an amazing story. The art of complex storytelling is nearly lost in our society. We are used to such pre-packaged entertainment, that the ability to simply sit and be catapulted away by a lyrical, lilting and provocative voice is deeply nourishing. Listening to her stories rather than reading them is rather sublime. In her first storytelling session, Estes described what it takes to grow and gather wisdom, in spite of life's obstacles. She spoke of many archetypes and stories, but an image that has stayed with me is the growth process of a young sapling tree as a metaphor for our own process of moving through innocence to wisdom.

When a young tree grows, it has a lot of moisture around the center of its trunk, or the 'heartwood.' This makes the new tree very flexible. It can bend in the wind and twist every which way without breaking. I can easily see my young children as toddlers bending both their minds and bodies every which way in the same manner, and I remember the idealism I had in my youth.

However, if the tree does not harden itself on the outside, the moisture will freeze the inner heartwood, and the tree will die. Does that sound familiar? If we remain ultra-sensitive to the whims of life, and do not harden off a part of ourselves, we will become vulnerable to every gust of wind, snow squall and bump in the road. Hardening is never easy. As parents, we want so much to protect our children -- to keep them pliable and innocent and free of trauma or hardship. Yet are we doing them any favors keeping them so soft?

My husband is the child of Holocaust survivors. His life growing up in post-war Europe was filled with anti-Semitism and violence. His parents fled Poland under duress and immigrated to the United States in 1960 with a total of $20. His young sapling tree was hardened early, and despite the horror stories and nightmares he has to live with he grew strong, driven and successful in the world.

His dear friend and colleague is also very successful, but grew up in a very different world of comfort and luxury. His father tried to artificially harden his son -- by forcing him to work as a teenager in a dingy restaurant kitchen, washing dishes until the wee hours of the morning. One day the parents decided to visit their hardworking son, and drove up to the greasy spoon in a Bentley. Word soon flew around the staff as busboys and waiters went outside to admire the car, and the jig was up.

I see my husband struggle watching our children grow up. They have everything. They have never seen a war, never gone without a meal and have essentially wanted for nothing. He worries: will they be able to effectively harden their exterior, so they don't die in the winter? How do we balance the desire to make life comfortable and yet also instill a will to survive and a layer of protection? Taking away their laptop is not necessarily going to cut it.

Regardless if your heartwood is protected early or late in life, eventually, the tree does grow, and those who are very lucky become wise elders like ancient Redwoods: fierce, strong, fiery, soft and resilient all at once. The Dangerous Old Woman archetype is like an ancient tree who has gathered years, has many branches, bears fruit, shows off her flowers in the Spring, and sheds her leaves in the Fall. The rings of her trunk bear the marks of years of fighting to survive, and the texture of her bark is rough yet comforting.

How have you learned to harden yourself off so you can grow and survive? How do you find ways to remain flexible in the wind and not break under pressure? I hope to continue sharing installments of this series, and hope you will join us in the Tribe of the Sacred Heart.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Parents Missing the Boat on Health Risks of Teens & Sleep

Modern parents are crazy. Clearly. We obsess about all the strangest things, fret over each phase of development, consult with others about the ongoing changes in behavior, and lie awake at night worried about our children's emotional angst. Maybe it has always been this way -- but in a 24/7 society, life is a bit of a pressure cooker for kids to perform academically, and physically and socially to navigate through the increasingly vicious world of bullying.

Trouble is, often we spend our time and energy obsessing over things we cannot control, that don't really matter, or can't be helped, and miss out on the really BIG stuff. Take sleep for instance. Parents in the United States are obsessed with sleep -- for their babies. There must be hundreds of books about how to get an infant to sleep! Granted, much of this comes from our own exhaustion and desperation, insecurities as new parents, and naive gullibility to commercialism. Getting an infant to sleep is important, of course.

However, our interest in monitoring and controlling their sleep dramatically drops off after they are fully walking and talking. Why is that? If you are pretty "chillax" about the sleep thing when they are kids, you are in big trouble by the time they are teenagers. After undergoing extensive research into issues of sleep and teens, I would venture to say that lack of sleep can be the hidden root underneath a majority of adolescent and young adult challenges: irritable kids slinging insults that get out of line, slipping grades, obesity, depression, and yes, even increased suicides as we have seen recently in Boston and Cornell.

Somehow getting an adequate amount of sleep has ceased to be a priority in all of our lives. Parents are up late stressing out about unfinished work, clearing out the email box before bed, or just unwinding with some Facebook time. And kids are following along -- staying up much later than previous generations. Trouble is, their bodies are paying a much higher price, and one that can never be taken back.

I have seen untold numbers of parents allowing their elementary aged kids to stay up until 10 p.m. to watch American Idol. Kids start going to bed later than they should at a much younger age, and somehow we have developed a blind eye to its affects. Kids are allowed to go to sleep later and later as youngsters, and naturally believe it is okay to push the bedtime out further as they grow older. If a six-year-old is going to bed at 9 p.m., they are going to feel entitled to go to bed at 10 p.m. by age nine, and then 11 p.m. by the age of 12, etc. And the crazy part is we let them! It is a mystery to me, as so many other aspects of modern parenting life are overly monitored and controlled.

I often get the image of carpenter ants racing from one pile to the other when I think of modern parenting mania; doing all this busy work for very little gain. We heave around these heavy loads, and frantically dump them on our kids. 'Here honey! You need some exercise, so I signed you up for lacrosse, swimming and basketball for this year, and of course you will just love it!" Or "Uh Oh! You got a C in math this quarter, and that means you won't be tracked at the highest level going into middle school, which means you won't get into the honors courses for junior high and high school! I decided to hire a tutor twice a week to squeeze in right after dinner, ok sweetie?"

According to the National Sleep Foundation, if you are like 90 percent of parents, you may think your child is getting enough sleep or not really give the amount of sleep they are getting much thought or concern. Ask a high school kid, and you will get a different answer. Sixty percent of high school kids report feeling "extreme daytime sleepiness" and many admit their grades have dropped because of it. A full third of kids report falling asleep in class at least once a week, and only five percent of high school senior average even eight hours of sleep, which is still less than they need.

Our lackadaisical attitude about getting our youth to sleep is systematically damaging their bodies. It can't be made up once it is gone, and make-up sleep on the weekend doesn't help. You may as well feed your kids nothing but Coke 'n' fries all day, and teach them English in pig Latin. Think being tired doesn't really impact their grades? Think again. Studies have shown that "A" students get more sleep than "B" students, and "B" students get more sleep than "C" students. Turns out Rip Van Winkle is your child's best tutor, mentor and therapist.

Even an extra 15 minutes of sleep shows a marked improvement in academic ability. (Think of the teenage girls who get up an extra hour early to wash their hair and put on make up when that dismal report card comes home). According to recent studies, children who miss even one hour of sleep as a sixth grader will perform at a fourth grade level that day in school.

"Lack of sleep make a challenging time in life much harder to cope with by robbing teens of what their bodies need to refresh, fight off damaging physical and emotional conditions, and grow," wrote Helene Emsellem, MD, author of "Snooze or Lose 10 No-War Ways to Improve Your Teens Sleep Habits."


Dr. Frederick Danner at the University of Kentucky conducted some of the seminal research that shows the adolescent brain requires 9.5 hours of sleep on average for optimum development -- and no one is getting it. Only five percent of high school senior sleep even eight hours these days. In fact, compared to thirty years ago, each grade level of children is getting at least one hour less of sleep than they used to. Roseanne Armitage conducted a historical study and found that in 1987, twenty-four percent of college students felt constantly tired. In 2002 the number had soared to seventy-one percent.

Bottom line, we simply cannot live without sleep. Rats that were completely deprived of sleep died in three short weeks, when they normally live three to five years! Another study with college students showed those who slept for only eight hours functioned well, but those allowed to sleep four to six hours had the same performance as the group that was not allowed to sleep at all for three days straight.

In the modern world of bouncy house play dates, iPods, texting in elementary school and endless activities, we bounce our kids here and there and scrutinize their every interaction. Yet somehow have developed a complete and utter blind spot when it comes to being "hyper vigilant" about their sleep, and recognizing it is truly one of the most important jobs we have as parents. Start a dialogue with your kids and teens about sleep. Explain to them why going to sleep earlier will make them feel better, and help unwind the household a little earlier -- for everyone's sake!

How much sleep does your teenager or college student get these days, and do you recognize it to be a major health issue? Let's start a dialogue, and I am collecting stories from parents and youth alike for a new book; "Walking Zombies- America's Exhausted Youth

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Why Does the Easter Bunny Bring Eggs?

Happy Spring and Happy Easter everyone! After surviving the floods of the East Coast, I have decided to "re-gift" an abbreviated version of a blog I wrote last Easter Sunday. I enjoyed poking fun at our holiday rituals, and it remains one of my favorites. Enjoy!

* Ever stopped to wonder how bunnies, eggs and scavenger hunts are related to Easter's religious celebration of Jesus dying on the cross and rising again? Strange bedfellows they are. I never had any idea as a kid. No one seemed to question the whole odd mix: why would a rabbit have a basket of eggs in the first place, and how that tied in to crucifixion and resurrection was another matter. Let's explore some Easter myths while popping a few chocolate Cadbury treats, shall we?

I grew up in a vaguely Christian family, and today, I am a bit of a floating generalist. Our kids celebrate Jewish and Christian holidays, and are exposed to Buddhism, Hinduism and Native American practices. God has many names to us and we are not members of a church.

It seems I am not alone in that vague religious category. According to John Meacham- in his Newsweek article, "The Decline of Christian America" :
"the percentage of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith has doubled in recent years, to 16 percent. Meanwhile, the number of people willing to describe themselves as atheist or agnostic has increased about fourfold from 1990 to 2009 -- from 1 million to about 3.6 million."


In graduate school I studied the historical progression of religion, starting with the first Sumerian myths over 3,000 years ago, and explored the impact the stories have on our collective psyche. It is interesting to note many Christian holidays blend together with more ancient or "pagan" holidays celebrated for thousands of years prior. Before Moses was around to have the first Seder, or Jesus walked the Earth, we celebrated the rites of Spring at this time of year, with the perfect balance of light and darkness, called the Vernal Equinox.

I love learning about these ancient celebrations, and exposing them to my children. They do not interfere with any specific religious faith, but add a broader context and history to the occasion. The Vernal Equinox is on March 21st and on that day, there is an equal amount of light and darkness. As an adult, thinking about balance during the Spring is highly appealing to me. What a wonderful excuse to quiet down, toss out what is stressful and become more aware of the rising energy of Spring. It is such a thrill to know from that day forward -- there will be a little more light outside than the day before. Regardless of your faith, this is a practice of worthy note.

Why does the Easter bunny distribute eggs? It turns out the egg-toting Easter bunny evolves from a mythic German goddess named Ostara, (Oestre / Eastre) who was the Germanic Goddess of Springtime. According to the Encycolopedia Mythica:
"In ancient Anglo-Saxon myth, Ostara is the personification of the rising sun. In that capacity she is associated with the spring and is considered to be a fertility goddess. She is the friend of all children and to amuse then she changed her pet bird into a rabbit. This rabbit brought forth brightly colored eggs, which the goddess gave to the children as gifts. From her name and rites the festival of Easter is derived."


All other European words for "Easter" derive from the Hebrew word "pasah," to pass over, thus reflecting the Christian holiday's Biblical connection with the Jewish Passover. According to www.godchecker.com: Ostara was very popular with the Anglo-Saxon people, who worshiped her under the name Eostre.

Yet there is something odd about how little there is written about Eostre/Ostara; the myth only resides in one area, and is recorded to exist for a fairly short period of time. Most Sumerian, Greek and Egyptian figures, including Isis, Kali, and Demeter, were widely worshiped for thousands of years, and many of the stories had moral components or attributes to emulate. What's the moral element of the Easter bunny? Something about it just doesn't fit with other myths.

Was it all a joke?

Recent research suggests that the Ostara myth was potentially invented during a mischievous moment by the Venerable Bede. This well-known monk mentioned her in connection with the pagan festival Eosturmonath in a book written in 750 A.D. -- but extensive research has failed to find a trace of her prior to that. Talk about the "stickiness factor" of Malcom Gladwell's book The Tipping Point. Imagine: a famous monk makes up a weird story about a goddess who never existed - who turns a bird into a rabbit that lays colored eggs -- and it morphs into a mega-watt holiday celebrated the modern world over.

Wow. Bet that gets your bonnet in a tizzy. Imagine the irony in making up a goddess myth, which becomes linked with the "greatest story ever told," and simultaneously serves as a mecca of commerce for Hershey's, hat makers and basket weavers. For those who are devoted Christians: does this affect the power of His word and His teachings? No, but come on, it is a pretty darn good story.

A little food for thought this holiday weekend! Whatever you celebrate: Happy Passover, Happy Spring and Happy Easter to everyone. Enjoy the sweet balance you find with your family, friends and the emergence of Light. And please save some of those marshmallow chicks for me!

Love to hear your comments of how you celebrate the coming of Spring, Easter or Passover, and how you find deeper meaning in the holidays. To receive notices of each weekly column, click on 'Become a Fan' above.

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