Crafting a Trilogy: Origins

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In figuring out what I wanted to be when I grew up, the journey took many twists and sharp turns. In addition to merely considering many different fields, I worked more jobs than anyone I know at my age. At the tender age of 34, I’ve crossed more occupations off the list as “attempted, not quite right” than other people will attempt in a lifetime. (And more power to them. I sincerely believe it’s possible to graduate high school, know exactly who you are and what you’re good at, and find success in that career for a lifetime. In my experience though, it’s not possible to do that and also be me.) I’ve been great at a lot of things, I’ve done a lot of introspection and reflection, but I’ve never felt sure-footed on my career journey until recently.

Other people seemed to know my path long before I did. It’s a consensus I’ve heard since I was literally 5 years old, back when I thought I’d grow up to be an Egyptologist, or an architect, or a dancer. Many people pointed to me and screamed “You’re a Writer!” I was chosen to write and speak for groups, chosen to receive writing awards, pointed at by veritable strangers who heard me talk for a few minutes and declared, “You should write a book.” Many teachers requested acknowledgment when the then-imaginary book was published. On any number of subjects, people indicated, “If you wrote the book, I’d read it.” The constancy of their collective belief made it impossible for me, rebel with 1,000 causes, to agree and declare “I am a writer. I will write a book.” It seemed ludicrous that I should admit that everyone else, strangers even, knew me better than I knew myself.

So I finally did it. I wrote a children’s book, a picture book, about starting something new, setting a goal, and working to achieve it. I turned a poem I’d written about crafting into a story about a girl with a dream. I hired an illustrator to see my vision through. I self-published and advertised. Instantly, I had big dreams for the book and for the universe it insinuates. I created a brand, I set up at festivals and fairs, and I talked about my motives and what I know to be true with everyone I encountered.

The resounding, unanimous response was “This is the book? Is this all you have?” Disappointment and confusion were evident in their incredulity.

I do indeed have other kids’ narratives ready to go, stories that need editing, illustrating, and querying, stories that I still hope to air out and share with the world.

Amidst the constant inner turmoil of “Finding Myself” in my late 20’s, I conceded. I thought back on the words, wise and otherwise. I remembered the picture book series I’d invented when I was a kid, the many hours I spent running my fingers down spines in the library stacks, and how I’d often pass the time by improvising radio plays starring multiple people and a Foley artist, all played by me and my indeterminate accents.

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Unfortunately though, this first book left me, and my readers, unfulfilled. I demonstrated my way with rhythmic meter, rhyme scheme, and teaching empowerment – a lifelong pursuit – but it did little to encompass the creative waterfall crashing down in my brain. I was getting more out of talking about my values with adults than I was out of creating books and resources for kids. I began to wonder if I had a novel in me, a novel to be enjoyed by the adults saying “I would have loved this picture book when I was kid.” Rather than writing for the next generation in a wistful way to make up for lost time, perhaps I could write to their parents instead – give them the love letter to our existence that encompasses my thoughts and feelings about life itself.

A lofty goal, to be sure.

The Scientist and I, searching for ways to pass the quaran-time together, began to talk about writing a book – but the subjects varied. He’s more comfortable in the realm of (who’d have guessed it?) academic nonfiction, and we may have a joint project in us yet about neurodiversity and the natural world. Neither of us was very motivated to write it, though, and the idea was shelved.

Then, one day, we started with the What Ifs of fiction – what sorts of books do we love? What sorts of stories do we crave? What hasn’t been done? A speculative, fantasy world which existed within and expanded upon our own called to us- a story of one man, that evolved into an epic battle, that began to cross time and existential planes. We stuck post-its to a posterboard and drew circles, connected by arrows, which became webs. I doodled in the margins of our collective, creative brain and he drew more tethers across environments and ecologies. We tried to explain to mutual friends but it wasn’t something that could lend itself to a this-then-that narration. They needed more. They wanted more. We had based our idea in our mutually shared interests and dedicated the themes to our values and suddenly we knew we had a trilogy on our hands.

A year passed and the idea stagnated. It would come up when we were hiking or on a road trip, but the actual process was mysterious and elusive.

I’d sit down to write a scene from the trilogy and feel overwhelmed by the scope of it.

I’d start on page one – I must have written 12 different page ones.

I’d bounce ideas off the Scientist who would look at me dumbfounded for reaching the story further and further outside our original scope. Was it fantasy or science fiction? Was it comedic, horror, speculative or historical? Was it intended for young adults or more mature readers? Was it a novel, a graphic novel, or something else entirely?

I’d awaken in the middle of the night (or somesuch) and think – it’s not THIS kind of story, it’s actually a parody of THIS kind of story, and I’d scrap every short piece and description, and start it all over again. Maybe it wasn’t a trilogy – it was a series of short stories. Maybe it was scifi, not fantasy. Maybe it was 2 separate ideas that don’t actually work together.

And so, as I’ve done with every bit of spiraling doubt that surrounds every project or interest I undertake, I researched process. How-to’s and what-for’s. For nearly another year, I took notes on saving the cat and creating a screenplay, looking for tropes in every movie and series, learning about arc, plot, and character development, and revisiting some of my favorite fictional works for clues as to how they were put together.

One answer kept coming up: There is no right way. There are no right answers.

There’s no one way to get a story of this magnitude down on paper. It won’t be written from start to finish. It can’t be outlined like an academic work or written in a single draft. Much of what is written first won’t be included in the final edit at all.

It isn’t like building a house – get the pieces, put them together in a reasonable order, stand back and admire the work. I could watch and read all the house building tutorials I wanted, but no one had ever built THIS HOUSE before.

Writing a story like this one is more like growing a garden of wildflowers. Start with the idea – I want to grow flowers – sculpt out the general flower bed-fertilize and aerate the soil, plant seeds and nourish them – then see what grows from there. What thrives and what outcompetes the others. What attracts the right insects and meshes well with the natural ecology. What would do better transplanted into another garden patch.

To paraphrase the great Neil Gaiman who was paraphrasing someone else he considers great, You never learn how to write a book, you only learn how to write THIS book. And to paraphrase Neil Gaiman again, you write the story to find out how you feel about the story.

And with that final burst of confident steam, I know, I’m writing this fantasy trilogy. It may take years. It may look and feel entirely different from where it is currently. But the more I write, the more I confer with the Scientist, and the more I speak about it, the more confidently I feel that I have something here. I am writing a story that needs to be told, a story that feels important, a story that keeps me going back every day, to take notes, to read research, to create settings and scenescapes and tonalities.

I’ll keep track of my journey here under the subheading: Writer, Meet the Internet.

Hey look Mom (and all the others out there who said so) – I’m a writer!

Everything Fashion:

Our Autistic Expression

In this installment, I recap all I’ve discovered about myself and the Scientist in all our preferred, fashionable glory.

Your Fashion is Not Our Fashion

We are nonjudgmental and do not hold anyone to the standards to which we hold ourselves. It’s critical you understand this if you read on.

Photo by Tamara Bellis on Unsplash

A Time and a Place

The destination, setting, and intended mood dramatically affects the choice of attire. The Scientist and I have both been accused of being somewhat cartoonish in our outfit choices, but only because we have a deep-seated desire to match the environment — a desire that ironically makes us stand out. I wish to fit in, he wishes to blend in (I think these are different.)

Where most people have something of a capsule wardrobe or a set style that they wear for most things, or a seasonal approach, or an affection for neturals, our wardrobe is entirely contingent on the expectation, the setting, the mood, the location, the crowd, etc. Each of these factors holds weight.

I’ve never owned, and never will own, an LBD.

Before the Event

Before a job interview, party, hang-out, family visit, date night, etc., I don’t worry over the directions, the people, the food, or anything else. I consider what the outfit should communicate.

It’s a function of my anxiety, insecurity, preparation, and self-control — my autistic expression. I can’t control most variables, but I can doll myself up to look the part.

If I’ve never been to a place before and can’t see pictures ahead of time, or if I’ll be with people I don’t know, I fret about wardrobe.

Standing Out by Trying to Fit In

It may be hard to imagine this from outside the spectrum. Imagine if everywhere was actually a movie set — a location designed intentionally a certain way for a certain reason. There’s lighting, style, texture, energy, etc.

Then, the actors are dressed specifically to match the tone. Muted colors or bright, matching or contrasting, symbolic in one way or another — patterns appropriate to the architecture, time period or set by the lighting — cuts and styles seeming to originate from the era, blending seamlessly to create an illusion for the audience… All things the clothing designer considers when dressing the actors for full effect.

I’m not acting. This is me, for real. I’m becoming the most appropriate part of the scenery as I expect it to be. The Scientist too, to a lesser extent. His wardrobe has been cultivated to be timeless, unique and memorable — much like his personality. He’s not concerned with fitting in to the background so much as being himself, inspiring his own mood for the day, and matching the tone I’m setting.

I attribute my fashion obsession to many factors. I was singled out for my clothing in elementary school. I wasn’t allowed to wear dresses because of how I boyishly sat and played. I wore hand-me-downs from my brother’s closet and was forced into oversized, stiff tees. My body developed early, well ahead of my peers. I was obsessed with fitting in with others, with everyone, through my first 25 years. I felt insecure and detached and craved fitting in. I’m bored over the blandness and unoriginality with what the stores are offering. I need to inspire my own mood to want to socialize. Everything I do stems from an intentional choice.

To feel remotely comfortable, I need to look like I belong, by my own standard. I am a chameleon with thousands of skins.

Photo by Ekaterina Grosheva on Unsplash

On Being Different, Extra

I never want to be the center of attention. I take very few pictures and no videos of myself because I’m ironically not very attached to the way I look. I check the mirror once or twice a day, and not always before I leave the house in the morning. I always wanted to be more than just a pretty face and took a lot of umbrage whenever anyone said “it’s a good thing you’re pretty.” Beauty is irrelevant. It’s luck of the genetic draw. I’d love to blend in, to appear less striking, to be taken seriously as a mind not a face.

But since I intentionally choose my outfits based on an endless wardrobe, I end up standing out. Grudgingly.

It’s gotten me into embarrassing situations in the past. Moments or evenings I’ll regret forever because I overplayed my outfit. I’ve lost friends over it. I’ve ruined days being too…me.

Fabrics, Brands, Patterns, and Prints

I won’t wear leather or fur, because it seems silly and cruel to me in a world where the fakes have become as good if not better than the reals.

I don’t wear realistic animal prints for much the same reason, but I never pass up a green zebra print or a colorful feather pattern if it’s right.

Keep your name brands. I don’t want to pay exorbitant prices to be a walking billboard for a corporation. The brands that most people pay the most money for seem less valuable to me, lower quality, poorer construction. For that matter, I’m happily thrifty and incorporate vintage pieces often.

I don’t have too many fabrics I won’t wear, but I know the textures I don’t find comfortable. By feel, not by name. I have a few items in my closet that I love the look of, but can’t wear because of fit or feel — and eventually I’ll weed them out when I’m tired of trying to love them and the disappointment has faded.

The Scientist has an encyclopedic knowledge of fabrics, patterning, and construction. He can touch a fabric or see it on a hanger and identify the percentage of the blend. He also dabbles in sewing and clothing design. He wears a lot of birds, flowers, and natural textures. His retirement dream is to design a clothing line.

Colors

The Scientist and I are both able to see more colors than the average person. Although tetrachromacy is typically considered a female trait, we both identified many more color variants than the average when tested. It likely makes us even more attentive and discerning.

I know what goes together. For me. It would be impossible for me to verbalize these rules. They vary by decade or inspiration, cut and mood, all sorts of variables.

I nearly never wear red, blush, or beige. I firmly believe navy and purple can go with anything if you’re using them correctly. There are 100+ versions of each color. Anything can be a neutral. I love using contrasting colors from the wheel, watching for pastel/bright/primary/jewel combinations, and switching up options seasonally. I tend to be a year or two ahead of where the trends are, but I attribute this more to my growing boredom, not because of some insider fashion knowledge.

The Scientist is adept at monochromatics, moreso than I. I’ve never met anyone who can wear shades of red that work together. He also finds ways to match neighboring colors on the color wheel- something I never attempt but something I find so compelling. Usually he prefers blue or lavender.

Photo by Darling Arias on Unsplash

Head to Toe Fit and Style

I know it when I’m comfortable, which varies greatly based on my anxiety. Despite a fairly static body type, my anxiety will dictate how comfortable I feel in tighter fitting clothing or revealing more skin day to day. Sometimes I really need to show off this or that to feel feminine. Sometimes I need to cover up entirely in billowing fabrics.

My choice is predictive, though. The Scientist can predict an upcoming meltdown if I’ve chosen one of a few “I give up” pieces of clothing in combination. Usually, this is an ill-fitting black shirt with brightly colored rainbow leggings and something that just doesn’t match the rest.

(He’s helped me see my patterns in so many wonderful ways. I highly recommend finding an empathetic neurodivergent partner, if you have an empathetic neurodivergent mind.)

I prefer sneakers — Vans or Cons — which the Scientist has explained is because of my metatarsal arch, which requires a flatter, more protected surface. I toe-walk (common with neurodivergence), and my weight leans toward the outstep of my foot, not the ball. I’m working on fixing my gait and soon I’ll wear corrective braces. It’s not all bad though — I have highly developed musculature in my toes (finger-toes, I call them), and I have pointy, dainty dancer feet for them being size 10 hairless mammoths.

The Scientist is more predictable in fit and style. He likes a tighter fitting pant, a looser fitting button-down, and a seasonally appropriate sleeve. A suit whenever it is appropriate. No pants in the summer, shorts. Always socks. Palladium boots. Tommy Bahama casuals.

Mood

How do I want to feel today? What am I trying to convey? How can I inspire myself to create or focus or embody the nuanced part of myself I deem important right now? Is there a fashion era that will assist me in getting there? A color palette? An attitude? For as much as I want my style to match the environment, I’m also thinking how my style can alter my mood for the moment.

Feeling sluggish? Definitely wear the career casuals associated with office work. Feeling relaxed and free? The artsy throws and pastels will do nicely. Let me layer up the knits for the fun of fall. Break out linen for the freedom of summer nights.

Photo by Atikh Bana on Unsplash

Memory

Recently, I realized how my outfits function as a touchstone for memory. I don’t know why — perhaps because of the care with which I select them, their uniqueness or weighted importance, or just seeing them in my periphery each day.

Always, automatically, what I wore is a shortcut to the coded file. “Remember that day?” you might ask. Do I? I remember, I was wearing — oh the weather — the scenery — the people — the conversations — and then yes, I do remember that day.

I didn’t realize it was so important to me until the Scientist and I became nostalgic about our own experiences together. “Remember when…” he’d ask. “What was I wearing?” was always my reply. Knowing I have a tendency to encode memories differently, he never took offense when I didn’t remember right away. He can usually recount at least some of the outfit on the day in question and the memory floods back.

The regularity with which I asked him about my clothing drew my attention to my memory’s predilection. And because he and I spend a lot of time together, and because he dresses deliberately as well, his outfits have helped me encode experiences I otherwise would have forgotten. He’s my favorite sight in every scene.

I have trouble remembering the stuff people usually remember , in favor of things people typically don’t notice. I don’t remember the plot of the movie, or who was at the birthday, or what year the party was — my memory might be the strange thought I had when I walked in the room, the fact that I’d seen that poster before, that I got stuck in traffic on the way, or the faded color of the carpeting. I’m me everywhere, and my brain never stops analyzing and formulating — it has no sense for what to prioritize in memory, and certainly no accurate sense of day or year.

But…I can remember…I am this outfit on this day at this time for this reason — so Easter 2019 — the sage green, knee-length, modest dress with delicate lavender flowers that I wore under the lilac denim jacket I’d bought for the occasion with my olive green high-top Vans— meeting the Scientist’s extended family, wearing spring colors and wanting to be me, a casual-yet-romantic-inspired me — and I’ll never forget that day. It’s the intentionality with which it was chosen, the specificity of the clothing, that jogs the day back.

An Unbelievable but Totally True Addendum

The Scientist and I met on a dating site a few years ago. Actually, I’d seen him many times in various contexts before, but didn’t put together that all of these cute guys I’d seen and been too shy to talk to over the years were the same guy. He was the guy that tutored at the library where I worked years earlier. He was the guitarist in that concert I’d been drooling over before that. He was the guy on Myspace that all the girls somehow struck up conversations with before that.

He was the 8-year-old sort-of-Goth kid in the Marilyn Manson shirt that I met at the picnic when I was the 12-year-old wearing the multi-colored striped baby tee and gray parachute pants with butterfly clips who played violin. We’d exchanged a few words. We’d gone our separate ways. We realized it decades later based on the clothing we each wore and what we remembered of the other.

It’s sort of like an autistic fairy tale, wouldn’t you say?

What do your clothes say about you?

I’d never expect my structure to fit around anyone else. And I know that many neurodivergent people consider color, texture, etc in choosing outfits. What else matters about your clothes? Are they communicating something? Are they standing you out or fading you in? Please tell me your autistic expression — I would love to know more.

Photo by Sarah Brown on Unsplash

About the Series

I am neurodivergent. Neurodivergent is more appropriate terminology than autistic, a term which derives from the Greek word autos meaning self, a term intended to imply isolation from social interaction. While the definition of autism has expanded over time, I feel it is more flawed and divisive than not (as labels typically are). While I do still refer to myself as autistic on occasion, I’m much more likely to label my notable traits as autistic, as in “this skill or tendency sets me apart”, and to describe myself generally as divergent.

My partner, also neurodivergent, feels similarly. We were both diagnosed later in life, in our mid-late 20s, after running the gauntlet of other health and human service concerns and crossing the eventual “must be autism if it isn’t these other things” finish line. I wouldn’t wish either of our journeys toward diagnosis for anyone, years rife with stress, mislabeling, depression, psychosis, serious medical ailments, and general social othering. The medical and psychiatric communities have already begun to recognize neurodivergence earlier, and with more sincere gender blindness, to provide individuals with the tools, resources, and assistance they require. To “make it” in our society as a person who falls many standard deviations outside the expected average on related scales relies on an individualized approach to education and healthcare. (A much larger conversation for another day.)

Sincerely,

Sunshine

Of Www.sunshineandthescientist.com

Creator of Kid Lit Motivates: a fledgling business on Long Island providing customized educational resources from a unique perspective of education

Author of Maddie Steiner, Fashion Designer

Picture Book Spotlight: A STORY ABOUT AFIYA

Some picture books are too good to pass up.

A STORY ABOUT AFIYA, written by James Berry and illustrated by Anna Cunha, is a magical trip into the world of a young girl. We follow Afiya, whose name means “physical, mental, and spiritual health” in Swahili, as she encounters the beauty and excitement of the natural world. She takes each experience home with her on her plain, white dress, which stands out brilliantly against her beautiful black skin. The next day, the dress is clean and plain white again, ready for the next journey – to the sea, the field, the zoo – everywhere children go to experience nature’s full effect.

The breathtaking illustrations only enhance the poem’s world, drawing you into Afiya’s world as she dances and smiles amid nature’s bounty.

About the Author

James Berry was born in Jamaica in 1924. When he was 17, the United States entered WWII and began recruiting farmhands in the Caribbean, to fill vacancies left by young men who had been drafted. Berry and a few of his friends were excited at the possibilities of work in America. They headed to the States as soon as possible, but it wasn’t what they thought. They were disheartened by the inequality and mistreatment of black people and only stayed in the US a short time. According to Berry, “There was a colour problem in the United States that we were not familiar with in the Caribbean. America was not a free place for black people.” He returned to the Caribbean for a short time in 1948, before moving to Great Britain to work as a telegrapher, while attending night school and writing.

Author and Poet, James Berry, Wikipedia

Berry wrote prolifically, releasing several books of poetry and many children’s stories. In 1981, he was the first West Indian poet to win Britain’s National Poetry Competition. He became known for his work examining the relationship between the black and white communities, particularly the relationship between British citizens and Caribbean immigrants. He was awarded an OBE, the highest honor a poet can attain in Britain, as well as many other awards and recognitions. Berry died in 2017 at age 92, and his work is still beloved by many around the world for its depth and beauty.

Kid Lit Motivates

It’s no wonder A STORY ABOUT AFIYA made the NY Times List of Children’s Picture Books in 2020. It’s suitable as a stand-alone read-aloud, at storytime circle or bedtime. It also opens the door to a lot of activities and conversations. If diversifying your picture book collection and gently opening a conversation about the history of racial injustice in America is important to you (I hope it is), Afiya is a girl we can relate to and Berry’s biography shows us a contrasting experience. The story lends itself to discussing Berry’s work as a poet and many of his poems are for children explicitly. It’s also a beautiful way to discuss Jamaica, even though there’s no way of knowing where Afiya lives because her world is the ubiquitous world of childhood joy.

As with all great picture books, once I finished reading it, I was flush with ideas of how to use the story as an anchor for so many topics and how to extend the story for group storytime activities. I’ve put together a resource pack, available for download on TpT, to go alongside these activities, with the caveat that buying the book is essential – supporting the illustrator, the publisher, and the estate of the author is incredibly important. Please, buy the book.

First and foremost, I can see using the story as a way of discussing James Berry, his life and work, Jamaica, his home country, and Swahili, the language from which the name Afiya comes. I confess that I am not an expert nor an important voice in the conversation about racial injustice and racial equality, specifically how to educate children about it, and I recommend everyone seek out qualified speakers, educators, and authors on this topic. Admitting that, I’ve included a short biography of James Berry, a fact sheet about Jamaica, and some beginner information and phrases in Swahili. Hopefully, this is a respectful start.

Make the plot tangible by having kids draw some of the things Afiya collected on her skirt and matching those things to the places she visited. Stoke the fires of their imagination by asking them to imagine what their clothes might catch if they were like Afiya’s, and have them discuss and draw on their choice of a tee-shirt or dress template. What if their clothing was magical but with different powers than Afiya’s? What powers could their clothing have? (I think my magical clothes would be self-washing, but I’m sure kids will be more imaginative than that!) What memory would they most want to walk around wearing? It’s such a great story for talking about memory and imagination and I’ve designed a simple, effective worksheet as a guide for each of these questions.

The story opens with a title page that explains Afiya (pronounced A-fee-ya) means health and wellness in Swahili. I see this as a great opportunity to talk about names, how important they are, where they come from, and even brainstorming new names or nicknames. This leads into self-esteem activities – drawing their names in large letters with their favorite things surrounding it, or collaging all the things that make them unique, and then sharing this information with the group if preferred.

Since Afiya’s name means health and wellness, use the story as an anchor for health and wellness topics. Lead a conversation on what it means to be healthy, both in body and mind, and how to make healthy choices for whole health. Talk about coping with strong emotions, and have kids think about times a friend (or teacher or parent) helped them with a feeling, and/or a time when a friend could not. Using the experiences I had while working as a therapist, I’ve simplified these conversations for you and provided basic activities to coincide.

As memory and thoughts are part of our health and wellness, talk about how to keep a memory. The conversation goes something like this:

Unlike Afiya’s dress, we don’t get to carry it home on our clothing, but there are ways to make a memory stick.

And what about memories we want to forget? We can’t wash our minds clean and return them to the start like Afiya’s dress when something bad happens, so we must talk to an adult about these kinds of thoughts and have them guide us into changing our thought processes or reframing the experience for us.

There are even things we forget but want to remember! We might want to forget losing a soccer game and remember to bring our lunchbox to school every day.

Simple ways of approaching these conversations as well as worksheets have been created for this purpose.

Finally, talking about memory and thoughts leads me into self-awareness and mindfulness. Learning to unstick distracting thoughts is an important skill that can be learned with practice. Use the scripts and 3 mindfulness exercises I’ve included in the packet to assist with this. A STORY ABOUT AFIYA never mentions mindfulness (or memory for that matter), but there are clearly tie-ins to be made.

We carry our experiences with us and we start fresh in the morning. Sometimes it’s important to stop and smell the flowers, or dance among the butterflies, or wade into the water to look for fish. Sometimes we see a tiger, and perhaps that’s scary and something we want to forget. These are all important ideas that have to do with our health and wellness. Every kid deserves the chance to play freely in nature. We are all Afiya in some way.

For Storytime

I’m a firm believer in having tangible, large-scale, hand-made manipulatives when I lead story time, as they always help to draw in even the most distracted or antsy kid. To that end, Afiya’s journey inspired me to make a poster-size painting of her in her white dress, with dress attachments drawn up like each of the things Afiya experiences. (I’m by no means as talented as Anna Cunha, but I hope that I’ve done her work justice.) Listen for the birds and attach the bird dress (over the static white dress.) Watch for the roses and attach the rose dress. Finally, using sticky dry erase contact paper, I made a dress that can be drawn upon and erased, to give each kid a turn to share their favorite memory with the group or even play a version of Pictionary with their special memory while other kids guess.

To view the companion resource, please visit our TpT store:

Guided, Educational Activities for A STORY ABOUT AFIYA by Kid Lit Motivates (teacherspayteachers.com)

Custom Educational Resource for A STORY ABOUT AFIYA by James Berry and Anna Cunha, img credit: Kid Lit Motivates

For more information or to commission a customized educational resource like the ones described above, please email us at kidlitmotivates@gmail.com.

For Them to Listen, You Need to Be Listening

A Plea for Child Carers, Rearers, and Engagers

Photo by Gustavo Fring on Pexels.com

Scenario 1

I’m on the self-check-out line at the grocery store, waiting for a free machine. It’s busier than usual and a few of us wait our turn. A woman looks up from scanning a cartful of items and sees the line of customers backing up — she seems stressed, a bit frazzled, perhaps even a bit guilty for having so many items on a self-serve line. I maintain a placid look and browse the cookie display to my left.

I’m empathetic and I have no desire to rush her. She’s checking herself out, requiring her to scan and bag everything alone, all while keeping tabs on an imaginative 4-yr-old who is holding the cart with one hand and playing with a toy dinosaur with the other. He’s keeping himself occupied while she has a lot going on. No one else on the line behind me seems concerned either — there are two other machines that could free up at any moment. The other customers seems patient and unconcerned.

The dinosaur gallops across the register, across the scanner, and falls onto the weighted bagging surface. A robotic voice sounds: Please remove the unscanned item. And then the woman, with an actual finger pointed several inches from the kid’s face, grunts, “You’re not being a good listener!” He recoils in fear, eyes wide, silent, then snatches the dinosaur back and slides himself to the other side of the cart without ever losing contact.

I’m taken aback. In this scenario, what is a Good Listener? I’m an adult, and I have no idea what she’s talking about. Should he? 

Scenario 2

I’m at the shoe store, hoping to return a pair of $80 sandals I’d bought thinking they’d only cost $25. Ahead of me, next on line for the register, is a grandmother and a young boy, maybe five or six. The boy is asking questions about the sock display — Why do they have cats and no dogs? Nana, where are the kid socks? What are these for (pointing at the barely-there nylon toe covers)? 

All good questions. I’m wondering how I’d answer them as if he’d asked me. Maybe cats are more popular sellers, or dog socks have all sold out. Kid socks are probably over by kid shoes, or near the socks section — the register is just a sampling of the sock stock. And I have no idea what those stretchy nylon toe traps are for — they’ve never done anything for me except been annoying the for 10 minutes they were on my feet before I threw them across the room.

Nana is not answering any of his questions. She’s patently ignoring him, despite him being polite, deferential, and attentive. When she gets called to the register, she steps up, turns, and barks, “Get over here” and then not two seconds later, lunging and grabbing his wrist, “You’re not listening, come here, don’t move.” 

When was he supposed to move those three feet from the line to the register? How was he supposed to know he should be listening for her commands while she was ignoring his questions? How quickly was he supposed to “get” before being branded “not listening”?

Mind-boggled, I continue to watch as his affect falls from chipper and curious to dejected and sad. His arms have fallen lifelessly to his sides. His chin is on his chest. Still, a woman with a stack of shoe boxes brushes by him and he attentively steps backward to move out of the way. Nana, not seeing the woman, looks down, “That’s it, I said don’t move. You’re not listening, so no ice cream now.” His face wells up and he hurries to wipe away the tears, holding his breath and turning red. “Oh grow up,” says Nana, as she grabs his wrist to guide him out of the store. 

I fear for his potentially stunted emotional development and the tattered shards of a relationship he has with Nana. I hope there are other adults in his life who will answer questions, acknowledge his attentiveness, and support him.

Real Stories, Not Exaggerations

In my experience, those of us who are professionally trained and experienced working with kids are one of two ways: 

  1. Overly empathetic, attuned to all kids around us at all times, struggling not to butt in to parent-child interactions unless the most dire circumstances call for it, quick to make goofy eye contact or wave at toddlers, and quick to compliment a kid’s hat or shoes to put a smile on their face. It takes every ounce of strength for us in these scenarios to keep our mouths shut and mind our own business, only interjecting if something is clearly putting a child in harm’s way.
  2. Exhausted, overworked, and short-tempered, incapable of dealing with one more kid for one more minute especially when we’re off-the-clock, running scripts on autopilot and expecting more of our own kids than they could possibly perform. From a glance, the women from these scenarios seem to exist here. 

The grocery store and shoe store stories are true — happening just as I’ve described them. 

Both of those women were also educators — one wearing a shirt from a local school indicating such, the other brandishing a school ID for a discounted rate. This means they’ve been trained, presumably, to be on the lookout for these types of missteps. I find this the most appalling part of their stories — that they’ve entirely lost perspective, with their own children, and possibly with all children. 

They’re Doing Their Best

The women I’ve described may be the most patient, loving, attentive women most of the time — maybe just having off days. Maybe they were stressed, overworked, underpaid, receiving awful news, and having difficulty coping with the world we all inhabit. Maybe, after a long, dark, tense day full of harsh realities, they were really doing their best. Maybe they went home, apologized, and openly explained to their children that being an adult is challenging and that emotions, while a personal responsibility to control, are sometimes difficult to understand, even for adults who love their kids very much.

Maybe I’m being too generous. But maybe they really were doing their best.

To them, and others like them, I plead, the most important thing to remember, the kids were doing their best too. Neither kid was being malevolent, harmful, or intentionally troublesome. (Most kids aren’t.) They both seemed timid, not testing, after explosive commands. They both were minding themselves, attending, listening when they were chastised. 

Even on the worst day, it is the adult’s responsibility to retain, or regain, control — of themselves — first. If a child is not responding in the ‘proper’ way, the adult needs to reconsider exactly how appropriate ‘proper’ is, and how intentional ‘proper’ has been communicated. 

If something an adult is doing makes a child cry, shrink in terror, or freeze up, it is the adult’s responsibility to change the narrative. If they don’t, they’re the ones not listening.

Photo by Kamaji Ogino on Pexels.com

Listen, We’re Not Listening

As a culture, we need to get back to basics.

First off, what outward physical sign are we expecting to see when we tell a kid to Listen? Listening is an active event, but it’s mostly unobservable. 

To know for certain if a kid is listening, we see them follow directions or change their facial expression. Can a kid be listening without reacting? Listening without responding? Listening without changing their expression or action? Listening while playing, moving, looking away? Yes, absolutely, yes.

“Listen!” They are. They’re listening more than we know. Unless we tell them exactly what we want them to do, they can’t possibly show us they’re listening. They hear is all of the things that go unsaid. And they’re learning how to interact with people when they grow up, how to cope, how to communicate, and how to be an adult — from all the things we say and don’t say, and all the ways we say and don’t say them.

LISTEN! We’re building little humans here, one interaction at a time. 

Reaction Time and Space

In both scenarios, there was less than 2-seconds allotted for the child’s reaction, even when a direct command was given. “Behave, you’re not behaving, you’re punished for not behaving,” is a common trope among short-tempered caretakers. 

Under the age of 10–12, children are still learning to process language. This means, even if we speak slowly, kindly, and directly, it may take a literal minute for them to be able to fully understand that we’re asking them to react and what that reaction should be. 

If we’re speaking quickly, angrily, with complexity or with nuance, it takes even more time to process and react. Contrary to the beliefs of some, aggressively yelled commands are LESS LIKELY to be followed.

What does ‘behave’ mean to a child? What does ‘listen’ mean? What do we mean, ‘stand quietly next to me, don’t touch anything and when we get back to the car you can play with your toy?’ That’s a lot to process. What are they supposed to do immediately? What are we actually asking and why? Even if the child can follow, is there even a reason to command?

The first child NEVER took his hand off the shopping cart. That child was clearly following instructions that had been given earlier in the day or trained on previous shopping trips. He listened. If he had been instructed to keep his hands at his sides, touch nothing, be still, be invisible, he’d likely try his best at that too. He’s listening, but nothing is actually being asked.

The second child NEVER had a chance to act. He wasn’t listening for the cashier to call them forward, but why should he be? He wasn’t misbehaving by adult standards. He was standing still and not moving as directed. The assumption that he should grow up, or that he’s done something wrong — it’s damaging. He’s listening, and he had no way to succeed in this scenario. 

The more aggressively we respond to children, the more reserved they become in their reactions. It isn’t their responsibility to change the cycle.

Emotions Speak Louder than Words

While empathy is cognitively developing, for most kids, absorbing emotional affect is automatic. (For neurodiverse kids, this skill may develop later if at all.) 

So for most kids, no matter what WORDS they’re hearing, the accompanying EMOTION is translating more quickly. This is why reacting to a baby’s fall can bring tears or laughter — they respond to our affect in real time, before their own pain or pressure signals. Our reaction shows them how to interpret their internal signaling.

Until kids develop a clear sense of self in their preteen to teen years, they pick up and emote whatever the strongest influence in their current sphere is emoting — stress or elation, negativity or positivity. The assumption is often that once a kid can talk about how he feels, he’s capable of operating and interpreting his feelings independently all the time. Kids with verbal skills haven’t lost the tendency that babies have, to pair internal signals with an adults’ affect, but adults forget how powerful their affect can be.

If we are angry, upset, stressed, or otherwise not in a good way, kids are predisposed to mirroring that emotion. If we ignore them, kids are more likely to ignore us. If we approach with kindness and attentiveness, however, kids quickly turn it around. They’re natural mirrors. They can be expected to be as engaged or disengaged as the people who have the strongest influence over them. 

Photo by Ksenia Chernaya on Pexels.com

What are we actually asking?

Stand here. Don’t touch anything. Walk this line. Don’t speak. Answer questions when I ask them. Move when I move. Keep your eyes forward. Stop asking questions. Stop your childlike sense of wonder and curiosity. Stop your imagination. Don’t play. Be a human doll until I ask you to respond, and then do as you’re trained, like a pet. 

This is what I hear when I hear adults say “You’re not listening.” 

Because “not listening” seems to entail a boatload of directions that kids are meant to intuit, deduce from the environment, or otherwise KNOW. 

For a kid to respond the way we’re hoping, we need to be clear, concise, calm, and compassionate. They haven’t learned the rules yet, but they are mostly hoping we’ll teach them. They WANT to do well. They just can’t intuit what you mean when you tell them they’re failing.

Realistic Expectations

We also need to get back to basics on what we expect from children at various ages and stages.

Can this kid ever stand totally still? Is that developmentally appropriate for a kid his age? 

Do we really want this kid to stop asking us questions? For how long? 

Is this kid, for the most part, being self-guided and following the expected rules? 

What do we really need this kid to do, right now? If they continue to play with their toy without causing too much of a stir, is that enough? 

Are we accounting for how loud, how bright, how distracting, how bustling, how much is going on at this store? Do we remember how fun or how stressful it was to be in a new place when we spent most of your time inside the same 3 places? Is it fair to request more of a kid who is striving to understand, interpret, interact, behave, and take it all in?

We need to choose our battles and maintain realistic expectations based on past behavior, developmental ability, and the environment we’re in. 

Path to Success

The best that we can do for kids is to set them up to succeed more often than we chastise them for failing. A confident, happy kid is more attentive and capable than a sad, self-conscious one. If setting them up for success is not viable, distracting them is better than getting upset. Here are some examples of things that could have been said in the given scenarios:

“Please play with your toy on the shopping cart. The scanner needs to be left alone.”

“I need your help counting all of the items that I put into this bag.

“You’ve kept your hands on the cart the whole time — that’s great! Can you keep your dinosaur on the cart too?” 

“I’m having a stressful day. Please keep listening for my directions. Thank you for helping me shop.”

“Please stay by my side and hold onto my shirt. You’ve been pretty close to me, but it would be better if you would stay closer.” 

“I love when you ask me questions, but I have a headache and can’t answer your questions now. If you remember, ask me later on.”

“When we’re in a store like this one, we need to pay really close attention to each other. Please follow my directions and stay close enough to touch me. I know I can depend on you to follow my directions. You are a great listener.”

“Can you count how many pieces of candy you can see? How many shoes? How many bottles of water? 

“Can you say the ABCs for me while I finish this transaction?” 

“When we leave the store, I’m going to ask you to name three of your favorite movies. Think about them now, and when I ask later, you can tell me about them.” 

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

Every Interaction Guides Them

Kids learn and adapt quickly. The exceedingly neuroplastic nature of their brains makes rapid development possible, and also makes them sponges for change. 

If we find ourselves setting a poor tone, we are only an interaction or two away from fixing it, especially with very young ones. They look to us for guidance. We show them how to be. Should they communicate their needs or bark commands? Should they ask for help or demand it? Should they expect the impossible of those around them? They’ll only know how to do as we do.

If we’re able to objectively view ourselves and alter our own behavior, we help them develop in the ways we intend. We create a brighter world full of more empathetic, communicative, attentive individuals with self-awareness and emotional range. Isn’t that what we’re all striving for? 

The Wolf of the Workplace

On Expecting the Expected when Dealing with a Wolf

As a former teacher and therapist, I often found myself in need of a relatable allegory to teach complex aspects of humanity, and the complicated ways we interact, to children. Fables are a natural starting place, but the imagery and animalistic parallels are not as easily understood as they once were. The Modern Retellings series is attempting to change that.

Adapted from Aesop’s The Wolf and the Lamb may this retelling, in 2 minutes or less, enable a conversation to explain that wolves will be wolves, despite what they may say. After the story, read the moral of Aesop’s fable as I interpret it, use the discussion questions to lead a conversation about the symbolic parallels, make connections to daily life, and get a glimpse of the inspiration behind the Modern Retellings series.

Modern Retellings for Everyday Life

[4] Aesop’s Fable: The Wolf and the Lamb

For a hardworking and caring person, the hardest lesson is learning that others may not be.

The Wolf of the Workplace

(in 2 minutes or less)

T was hired to work as a graphic designer for a big company and was excited to do whatever was necessary to succeed. T worked long hours in the office cubicle, submitting work files by email to M, the floor supervisor. T had never spoken to M, and that was okay because M was quick to anger and known to fire new employees for no reason at all.

After 4 weeks of handing in designs and following client briefs, M stormed into T’s cubicle. M was angry because T hadn’t asked for help completing any project and deemed T too new at graphic design to be working alone. M cautioned T that the job was at-will, meaning anyone could be fired anytime for any reason. T heard the message loud and clear.

T was fearful about losing the job, and nervous about being yelled at again, so they changed their approach to suit M. Every time a new client project was assigned, T immediately asked an experienced coworker how to complete the project. Each project took twice as long to complete, but T doing what M asked.

Two weeks after the first visit, M returned to T’s desk. Now, M was angry about T being away from the cubicle too often, bothering coworkers, and relying too heavily on the assistance of others. M said the completed work looked like the copied work of other designers, and that if T did not change tactics, they would be fired.

T was determined to get it right and to please M. In the next week, T balanced artistic vision with help from others. T took each client project, created a first draft, and then emailed coworkers to ask for feedback if they had time and were willing. This way, T couldn’t be accused of stealing work from others or accused of being too new to work alone. T felt the clients and M would be happy with the new strategy.

On the following Monday, T was summoned to M’s office. M angrily explained that no designer should be as flexible as T, that the company didn’t want a designer who was easy to push around. It made no sense to T, because they had done exactly what was asked and they were a skilled graphic designer. T was told to clean out their cubicle and go home. They were fired. M was a terrible supervisor with a mean streak and a bad attitude, and T was glad to be leaving.

A hungry, trickster wolf may appear to be trying to save the lamb from being eaten, but expect that wolf to eat that lamb, no matter what they say or do.

Photo by Steve on Pexels.com

Family Discussion Questions

Use these questions to help lead a conversation about the fable and its intended meaning.

  1. In the story of T and M, who is the lamb and who is the wolf? How do you know?
  2. What did “the wolf” want, before “the lamb” even began to work at the company?
  3. What does “eating the lamb” actually symbolize in the workplace?
  4. Could “the lamb” have done anything to keep working there?
  5. If you were “the lamb”, how would you feel after dealing with “the wolf” boss?
Suggested Answers:
  1. T is the lamb. M is the wolf. M is in control and threatening T’s job, and T is trying to please their boss M.
  2. “The Wolf” is known to get angry and fire employees for no reason. M creates a fearful office environment. M wants employees to be afraid and doesn’t seem to care about the design work at all.
  3. “Eating the lamb” symbolizes “firing a new employee, T” in this story.
  4. T could not have done anything to change M’s actions, and likely no change to T’s work would have been acceptable to M. But, in the modern workplace, there are other ways to deal with a difficult boss, and depending on the level of comprehension, the conversation can lead in this direction.
  5. There are no wrong answers. Examples might be: Sad or happy to be fired. Scared or nervous of the boss’ anger. Angry at being yelled at for no good reason or for not having hard work recognized.

Wolves in Our Daily Lives

It has taken me nearly three decades to learn that my choices are my own, and I cannot choose for another what they will not choose for themselves. As a child, I was eager to please every person with whom I connected, and that led to a lot of difficult situations surrounding the expectations of others and the expectations I had for myself. Not everyone would be a friend. Not everyone would be acting rationally, morally, or in a justifiable way. No amount of helping, teaching, explaining, or placating could mollify the wolfish way.

Sometimes people will ask the impossible to test boundaries or cause damage. Sometimes people will ask others to bend over backwards just to watch them break in half. Sometimes people sense a person’s weakness and immediately wish to exploit it, rather than adapt to it. Sometimes people choose cruelty over kindness.

For some, this went without saying. For do-gooder, people-pleaser, rationalizing logicians like me, the question of why people act badly towards others was constantly on my mind. I, and others like me, have trouble accepting that we cannot always understand the actions of others, and that people may act irrationally, cruelly, aggressively, and immorally for no reason at all, or for reasons we simply can’t know. If we have done our best, striven to be good, and are still faced with difficulty, we must move forward as best we can, ask for help if we need it, and leave the search for answers behind.

Photo by Kat Jayne on Pexels.com

What are your thoughts on Aesop’s The Wolf and The Lamb? 

Do you know any lambs or wolves in your life? What qualities do they have? How would you describe them?

Comment below, and with your permission, I may incorporate your thoughts into the next installment of the Modern Retellings series.

This is the 4th part in the Modern Retellings series. Catch up with the series:

Part 1 The Fox and the Briefcase
Part 2 The Snapchat Gnat
Part 3 Friendly, Feathered Competition

The 8 Guardians of Mill Pond Park- Bellmore, NY

For a leisurely, Sunday afternoon stroll, we set out for Mill Pond Park as the sky richly turned to sherbet shades. It was mid-May and we knew the park would be vibrant and reverberating with song. By this time in the season, the red-winged blackbirds, catbirds, and red-breasted woodpeckers had returned, noisy neighbors with whom the many mallards, swans, and geese would contend in the reedy marshes and open water. I spotted a Baltimore Oriole, a rare sight in my experience, and I marked it as a lucky day. Little did I know what I would find a short while later.

 In the springtime, it was always lively at Mill Pond, which hosted a 1.1-mile paved trail loop around a 100+-year-old body of water, plus a few off-shooting, wandering woodland trails.  On days like that one, I expected the park to be busy. Long Islanders, especially in the surrounding area, love to stretch their legs on something other than their suburban streets. Mill Pond Park, and the dedicated Adam D. Rand Memorial Trail, offered a brief respite from the daily bustle, and the opportunity to commune with nature.

On this day, visitors were throwing bread crumbs for the chance to bring the geese closer, and I reached out to caution them how unhealthy this practice was. Normally I wouldn’t say anything, just tsk tsk  to myself, but I felt truly compelled to inform. They had to know and I had to tell them.

Rather than bread, it would be much safer to throw lettuce, vegetable scraps, wheat, or oats. Bread, aka junk food for fowls, would have minimal nutritious value compared to the vegetation geese and ducks would normally eat.  After eating the bread, geese could easily stop foraging from their natural habitat altogether, creating a kind of selective starvation, impotent dependence on humans, and a serious nutrient imbalance. Then, hungry, seeking out human assistance and eating too much sugar, they were at risk for developing angel wing, a debilitating condition rendering geese flightless. The heavy carbohydrate diet could cause their stomachs to heavily stretch and their wings to grow faster than their bones, which would lead to severe, irreversible deformity. A goose with a twisted wing would not be able to migrate, evade predators, or fly to food or shelter. The same could be said for swans and ducks.

Photo by Brandon Montrone on Pexels.com

If you love feeding the geese, you would be wise to treat them with care, and with the scientific knowledge our human privilege affords us.

I told the couple as succinctly as possible what I knew to be true.  My brief word of caution received naught but a head turn, a callous shrug, and an unceremonious dumping of an entire bag of bread into the awaiting feeding frenzy. The unknowing birds clawed and combatted one another for bites of the poisonous lot. It made my heart ache.

We had expected the park to be busy before we arrived, but after the sorrowful interaction, I longed for solitude. We doubled pace and dove for the more isolated paths, the western acreage. In moments, we found ourselves alone on well-marked trails, crossing small creeks and rediscovering an old, brightly colored, graffitied building previously belonging to Brooklyn City Water Works, before the park was acquired by Nassau County in 1967. The pond was known as Jones Pond then, another name from another era. I allowed myself to be transported, pushing the geese endangerers aside.  

It has always amazed me to find separation from the bustle of humanity while being in the middle of a densely populated suburb, near the busy Mill Pond path, and at times merely 25 meters from the Wantagh State Parkway.  The Long Island developers, intensely flawed (and worse) in their philosophies, gave us all the gift of nature and the presence of so many pocket parks like this one. Everything in balance, the natural world corrects. I breathed a sigh of relief as we crossed back onto the main loop and made our way back to the car.

The day was not to end just yet, however.

As we made our way back to the seating area near the park entrance, where a waterfall kept a steady current flowing, I gazed across the expanse of skunk cabbage for a last look and one final word of gratitude. And I could not believe the sight.

Seven white herons stood distantly across the pond, each on one leg in the hunter’s stance.

It was a rare joy to see even a single heron on Long Island, and as herons prefer hunting in isolation, they were typically sighted alone. (Occasionally, at the height of mating season, they might be seen in pairs.) A handful of herons appeared yearly at various ponds and lakes across the island. Each time, to see one, I could hardly believe my luck. I’ve perched lakeside and watched them hunt while they’ve stood statuesque in shallow waters. Holding still for hours if necessary, on one, skinny leg, they appeared like a twig to an unsuspecting fish. Then, at the perfect moment, they used their free talons to grab and feed.

The experience was magical. They are beautiful, slender, and graceful creatures. They are cautious and clever predators.

Photo by Diego Madrigal on Pexels.com

From this distance, I couldn’t identify if they were snowy egrets (a type of heron) or great blue herons – only the color of the legs or beaks would have differentiated the species. I was gawking, bumbling, then noticing no other park patrons noticing this unbelievably rare sight. Normally, one heron at this lake would turn a few heads. How was no one seeing this?

I stood in awe, deeply moved by the seven figures.

In the Wildwood, the heron is the King of Vessels, a patient, lone hunter defending knowledge. He symbolizes self-awareness at the early breaking of dawn. Herons guard the Celtic otherworld, and can be interpreted as guardians, guides, teachers, or supporters. They are associated with problem solving and self-control, but also an overbearing rigidness or dependence on structure.

My thoughts went rampant while my body remained still. Should I interpret these herons as a sign of some kind from the grand universe? Support for my confident strength and instructional abilities which challenged me to confront and educate the strangers? Maybe. Acknowledgment of the guardianship over and empathy for the flock? Maybe. Approval of my self-awareness at the compulsion to separate myself when I became too emotional for the community? Maybe. Admonition for my rigidity and self-control, which frequently led me to personalize something random as perhaps nature’s secret communique? Maybe, noted, and with that, I snapped from my reverie. Whenever, wherever, I found myself seeking symbolic associations, I’ve usually overstayed my visit.

Mill Pond Park offered a brief respite from the daily rush and the opportunity to relax in its healing bounds. It had an experience waiting for walkers, hikers, sitters, observers, travelers, and even the birders like me.

When I arrived home, however, I was startled, wrenched back into those symbolic overtones I’d tried to escape. My reflection greeted me in the hall mirror. It was displaying the proud heron tee I’d donned much earlier that morning. At the park, the connection hadn’t occurred to me.

There were actually eight herons at the pond that day. Seven white herons and one creative, confident, self-aware protector.

I really was wearing this shirt:

(I’m a huge supporter of Curbside Clothing, and I literally own near 20 items from their collection. This is not a sponsored post or tall tale by any means, just a true post from a woman who is profoundly moved by nature and the work of these commissioned artists.)

Fact Checked and Supported using the following sites:

Great Blue Heron (White)

Angel Wing in Birds

Mill Pond Park | Bellmore, NY Patch

Mill Pond Park | Nassau County, NY – Official Website

King of Vessels Wildwood Tarot Card Meanings

Blue Heron – Dolman T Shirt – Curbside Clothing

Why We Play Pool Every Week

My partner and I are busy working professionals, working nine to five while cultivating side hustles, keeping house, landscaping, staying fit, eating healthfully, and raising cats. We’re Busy. And yet, just about every week, we make time to head down to the local pool hall and play a few games. It keeps our relationship strong.

Basic Rules

[Skip to the next heading if you’re familiar with the basics. Or read on to read as I summarize a rule book in a couple of paragraphs. ]

If you’ve never played pool before, I’m going to give an amateur description of the game play and rules. One person racks, which means sets up the balls. The rack is a triangle formation of 10 balls, the 8 ball being the most important to keep in the center position. The other person will break using a cue stick, meaning attempt to hit the white cue ball into this formation, hard enough break up the balls, but not so hard the cue ball flies off the table. If the breaker gets one in, they’re entitled to aim the cue ball toward any other ball other than the 8 toward any pocket (that’s the cup or hole where the ball falls.) If the breaker doesn’t get one in on the break, or if they do and miss their second shot, the table is Open.

The racking person now has a chance to hit the cue ball into any (not the 8) ball they like. Once either person makes a shot in after the break, they will either be stripes or solids (or high ball/low ball based on the numbers on the ball), depending on which they got in. The players take turns, shooting until they miss, until all of their solids or stripes are in. Once the colored balls are in, the player can shoot on the 8.

If one accidently moves a ball, accidently sinks the cue ball, or does a number of other things, that’s a scratch. Other person can put the cue where ever they want behind the starting line to start their turn. If the 8 ball goes in out of order, as in before all of the solids or all of the stripes are in, game over, that player loses. My partner and I also call our shots, so if the ball goes into a pocket we made by mistake or didn’t announce ahead of time, lose a turn. And if the 8 ball goes into a pocket we didn’t call, game over, that’s losing. And if a player sinks the cue while missing the shot on the 8, that’s ball-in-hand, meaning the other person can set up the cue anywhere they like. If the first player scratches while sinking the 8, that’s game over, and how statistically I beat my partner most nights.

That’s probably good enough for background.

Partners & Competitors

It’s a game you can play alone, but it strengthens the partnership.

One thing we have consistently found is that we are excellent partners in life. We divide the chores. We plan with consideration. He help and trust each other without question. We are able to support one another through nearly every difficulty, and one of us is always able to take the lead in difficult moments to get us to where we need to be.

But we’re also incredibly competitive, and that’s not something that goes well with partnership typically. If we didn’t play pool, we would get overly supportive of one another, sappy, sweet, take each other too seriously, and generally miss out on the fun of competition. We love to compete, and pool gives us a way of doing it in a confined and specific way where no one is taking themselves too seriously.

In the past, we’ve also played in weekly leagues in doubles rounds. This is a different way of channeling both our partnership instinct and our need for competition. We’ve learned how to set each other up while defending against the other pair, how to support one another with the right praise at the right time, and we’re pretty unstoppable in most local doubles matches.

Trash Talk Motivates

On the off chance that either of us decides to trash talk the other in the fun spirit of competition, typically the receiver of the trashing rises to prove the other wrong. I’ve trashed my partner’s play many times with the idea of motivating him to shoot better- and I always regret it because of how quickly he proves me wrong.

Clearing the Mind

Meditation in Precision

No matter what has happened during the work day, we leave it at the door. (We’ve sat in the car outside the hall a number of times to vent before the play.) We have an unspoken agreement that we do not discuss work or other stressors during the game. First, it’s a game best played quietly and in a focused manner. The chatterer could throw either person off. Second, I have no desire to ruin my partner’s mood when I’ve had a bad workday and we’re in a relaxed setting. We need time to decompress away from the stressors, not around them.. Third, the simple act of lining up the cue, focusing the energy, creating a delicate force, and choosing the proper angles is meditative. During our most skilled games, we’re likely not talking much at all. The silence is sweet. We’re meditating in precise movements.

Geometry is Wild

It’s hard to deny how cool math and physics can be.

Those angles I mentioned? At first, as an amateur player, I saw the balls straight on. But I’ve never played a game with a clear straightaway shot on every turn. In the beginning, it was all defense. How can I hide this cue ball or make it more difficult at the very least? Then, as I developed skills, I started to see banks (hitting the ball against the side or rail of the table) and combinations (hitting one ball into another ball to knock it in.) My growing comfort and increasing finesse has led me to learning about how spin (English) on the cue can move the ball in otherwise seemingly impossible ways. My partner is working on Masse’ — curving the cue around something to his what he’s aiming at. The more we play, the more we see see the options, angles, and possibilities. We’re developing a kind of second sight. Geometry (seeing the angles) and physics (understanding force) are undeniably necessary and totally cool in this setting. And often, it is the lightest of touch that is needed- a lesson my partner and I both have absorbed over time.

Progress is Possible

The act of playing is practice enough to get comfortable.

Like with other things, the more we play, the better we get. And even if I’m having an off-night, not able to see straight or find the force I need, e.g., there is still the growing sensation that practice makes progress. Not every hobby has perceivable levels of difficulty on which to measure ability. In this game, the way we play, it’s not about winning and losing, it’s about shooting the shot.

Also Winning and Losing

We don’t keep an ongoing record, but it’s nice to win the night.

Despite what I said above, it’s also about winning and losing. Of course it is. My partner and I look at the game one shot at a time, and then a series of games at a time. We give praise freely for the great shots, but we don’t suffer the loss of the individual games. (My first game is always a practice game, unless I win, then it counts.) We play best of 5 or 7, and whoever loses buys dinner or drives home. The reward is irrelevant, but it adds a fun twist to our night. Then the next time we get to the table, usually the one who won will be sure to mention their greatest shot from the previous game. And it makes the one who lost all the more fired up to win this time around.

A Uniquely Individual Sport

How you play is how You play.

My bridge (how I balance the cue on my left hand to aim with my right) is strange. Most people balance their cue in between their thumb and forefinger, but me — I feel more comfortable shooting between my index and middle finger. I have long hands, and I feel I have more stability if I use my spidery fingers to this end. And at the pool hall, no one will ever give me any stress about not doing it “right”, whatever that means. Whether its how you stand, how you approach the table, your hand positions, your aim, the way you see the game, the kinds of shots you take or any other facet of the game — no one is ever going to stop you unless you’re breaking a specific rule. There’s no right or wrong way to play, at least not at this level, and there’s a freedom in developing style and technique in an expectation vacuum. It’s cathartic in a world that is typically full of people telling other people what to do and not to do. (Professionals have thoroughly developed techniques and thoughtfully considered approaches, but we’re just a couple of weeknight players.)

Help is Fine Too

If the game isn’t that serious, ask the question.

How many times have I asked my partner — not as a competitor but as a friend — what do you think I should do here? I respect the way he plays and his eye for the game, and sometimes, if I’m in a pickle between two options, I’ll ask him to step outside the game and look with me, as a teammate. Sometimes he’ll tell me that I don’t have a clear shot, because of how he left the table. Sometimes, he’ll weigh in specifically based on what he sees. And I don’t always take his advice. Sometimes, after he weighs in, I realize (like calling the coin flip in the air) that I’ve already made my decision. And since we play different games, different styles, different techniques — the respect is mutual. I don’t have to take his advice, but I’m free to ask it.

10 Lessons Learned

  1. Always shoot your shot and aim to shoot well.
  2. Respect your opponent as if they were yourself.
  3. Silence is golden.
  4. Meditation can be active.
  5. Try and see all the angles.
  6. A delicate hand beats a heavy hand most of the time.
  7. Practice makes progress.
  8. Mistakes are not setbacks.
  9. Schedule play dates, especially as an adult and leave your troubles at the door.
  10. Respect the rules and earn respect.

Find Your Table

It might not be pool.

The healthiest thing we’ve done as partners is add a competitive outlet to an otherwise supportive set-up. I can’t recommend enough that all partners do the same. Your thing might not be pool (we also love a few challenging board games for similar reasons) but whatever it is, your partnership outlet should be the following things:

  1. A medium where you feel both competitive and supportive of one another
  2. A forum that requires concentration, focus, or the honing of a skill
  3. An activity that can connect to other enjoyable aspects of life
  4. A hobby with delineated progress and achievement levels
  5. A fun, playful, enjoyable, not-too-serious time
  6. An equal balance of procedure and free choice
  7. A place either person can ask for or provide assistance
  8. Something you can laugh about together
  9. Something that can sweep you up in the moment
  10. Something that feels right for you both

How do you and your partner destress as a team and strengthen your skills?

How does game play enhance your life

Transported in the Cold, April Rain

Stepping out to fetch the paper (really, to feed the clowder–there is no paper, nostalgia and porch-papers go hand-in-hand), I felt the cold, spring rain about to break from its accumulated mist around me. It’s happened this way before.

(I believe the cats are grateful for porches, as umbrellas for paws are late to the patent office.)

It was late afternoon in San Francisco, April, 4 years ago, as I left the Botanical Garden, when I sensed the fragile clouds.

April 2017, San Francisco

(There were fewer cats then and a great many more flowers.)

The air was cold, crisp, yet sticky with pollen.

On my solo excursion in a new city, as I am inclined, I typically avoid public transportation, traveling lightly in well-worn sneakers. I make a point of living locally, seeing the world from vacation’s sidewalks.

Feeling imminent rain, however, I jumped on a bus to take me back to my hostel, a bus which brought me a few miles in the wrong direction before I knew to dismount.

My phone was dead and my pockets bare, and so, with the threat of rain in a thick April smog, I started the arduous trek back.

The Sky Opens

After 2 miles, the fissure erupted and rain poured, and clothed in only a rainbow-dyed sweatshirt and a pair of cheap, stiff jeans, I felt the call of adventure. The drench was only beginning.

After an hour, my jeans chaffed and the rainbow dye ran down my face and wrists. Somehow I was miles from base. A true, independent sojourn, then! I’d save myself and see the city from an unexpected point of view.

I’d studied a city map before taking off, and was surprised to find myself near San Francisco State University. Truly, miles, hours, off course. The hills make foot travel more tenuous than any other scape I’d encountered. Having only my wits, my obviously unreliable sense of direction, and my appearance as a sopping circus clown, I asked directions and was turned around.

I could only chuckle at the ridiculous nature of my situation. I never have the adventure I hope for, only the one I haven’t planned for.

And turned around again when I reached the Shopping District. My feet squished in my sneakers and my body began to ache. Doormen were shielding ladies in expensive shoes from the downpour as I hustled between, through, the drops.

I nearly lost my joviality and any hope I’d find my way back. Perhaps I’d fallen through a portal and was doomed to loop through these neighborhoods in perpetuity, damp, cold, and hungry.

I had stopped to rest beneath an overpass, where a few had gathered to wait for a bus, when I first noticed the joy. San Francisco is an upbeat city, to be sure, especially in comparison to my native New York, but this… This was happiness exhaling from an entire population.

Divine Intervention

It rains so infrequently in San Francisco that for residents, a downpour is a blessing.

A woman in a blue skirt suit wheeled a cart of Bibles and pamphlets up to me. She’d been recruiting congregants at the bus stop when she must have noticed my plight.

“Can the Lord be of any service?” She asked.

Pithy, I chuckled to myself, grateful for any assistance, divine or otherwise.

I explained the unfurling of my day and she mapped out directions, being extra careful to avoid the steeper hills. I was about an hour’s walk from salvation.

I thanked her, profusely, and she offered me her umbrella. But what good is umbrella when one is already saturated? No, she would need the umbrella so as not to sully her beautiful suit. She had the Lord’s work to do, after all, giving directions to sidewalk-stuck, hostel-bound rainbow fish. It was best she maintain appearances.

I set off, emboldened by the hour remaining (less, 40 mins in stride, despite my burning hips) and the knowing it was impossible to get even more soaked than I already was.

When I was three blocks away from my hostel, the sun came out and slowly the rain tapered off.

People emerged from storefronts grinning. Rainfall is precious here. Also, check out that colorful mermaid girl, just emerged from the sea. Our city is a magical place. They were all infectious jolly. Several called out to say hello, and more than a few waved. I felt like the San Francisco rainy day mascot. I thought they might write a book about me and my follied, drenched trek through their streets.

Arriving at the hostel, avoiding the stares, I hurried to my room, peeled off the layers, wrapped myself in my warmest attire, and slept for 14 hours.

I was changed that day.

I had walked 17 miles, many of them in an unexpected direction.

I had seen the city in an unusual and excitable way.

I learned I could survive anything, that I only need put one foot in front of the other, and keep doing so, and that eventually I would find a way to rest. And that, no matter how resistant I might be, someone’s Lord would reach out to help when I needed help the most.

***

It was only 20 minutes today before the light emerged. The cats who had run for cover all repositioned in their sunning spots.

How fortunate I am to smell the rain and remember, as a woman of this world, I am as free as my feet will allow me, I need only take the first steps.