Love the Life You Lead. Fall 2013 DAY EIGHT. Camille Dohrn

This is a piece I wrote last fall for what I thought was a Facebook page only. I found it tonight purely by accident. Writing it was a very difficult thing at that time. In rereading this tonight, I see how it was also instrumental in a healing process that means looking “death” or any (significant) loss, straight on and refusing to give it the power to stop me from living.

Love the Life You Lead. Fall 2013 DAY EIGHT. Camille Sheppard

This is a piece I wrote last fall for what I thought was a Facebook page only. I found it tonight purely by accident. Writing it was a very difficult thing at that time. In rereading this tonight, I see how it was also instrumental in a healing process that means looking “death” or any (significant) loss, straight on and refusing to give it the power to stop me from living.

Love the Life You Lead. Fall 2013
DAY EIGHT. Camille Dohrn

The first time death came along and knocked me to my knees, I was 28. My father died suddenly while I was far away, on a bicycle in France. Life as I knew it seemed to swirl around me, all the familiar patterns morphing and changing until I didn’t recognize it any more. It was still there, but it seemed unfamiliar. I didn’t know my place in it anymore. I felt like I was outside, looking in, wondering what the rules of the game were. It didn’t occur to me that it was me who had changed, and that because I had changed, I needed to find a new way to engage. I couldn’t simply get back on the merry go round in the place I had left vacant.

It took a while, but I slowly picked myself up. Sunshine and ripening fruit caught my attention. I made hundreds of jars of jam and preserves and ran miles and miles in the sunshine remembering runs with my father. This was the beginning of finding my way back into life.

A little over four years ago, I took my oldest daughter to college. As I grappled with this good-bye, I was plunged back into the conversation death had begun with me, 20 years earlier, after my dad died.

Next, my best friend from college died, a young cousin, my first boss after college, who had been a father figure, my uncle, who had been my mentor and teacher, then my stepfather and a college roommate and two more dear friends. Each loss sent me reeling.

In the middle of all this, I sent my son off to college and helped him move in. I thought I’d be ok. I’d done this college thing before, but ok was not to be. I grieved his departure no less than I had his sister’s.

Last winter I was in a traumatic car accident that could easily have been fatal. Again, I found myself flattened. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t just pick up where I left off. Life was asking something different of me.

After each of these losses, I found myself in the swirl, feeling like I’d been hit and not sure how to get back on my feet and re-engage. Each time, I somehow did, but from a new place.

Three weeks ago, my dog Cody, my dearest companion on countless hiking and wilderness adventures, died suddenly and unexpectedly. Near me, as I type this, a candle is burning next to a photo of him, framed with a lock of his curly white hair.

This time I didn’t fight it. I abandoned myself to the swirling. I didn’t tell myself to be strong or that I shouldn’t be so devastated because he was only a dog. I had nothing left to fight with. I yelled at death. I told him (yes, it’s a him) that it wasn’t fair, and that he couldn’t have Cody. I told him that I’d had enough and that he wasn’t allowed to touch my life for a while. I was furious, and then I collapsed. Losing Cody knocked me down harder than any loss since my father.

This time however, I see the pattern. I didn’t at first. It was the usual spinning and losing my orientation feeling. Its now familiar because its happened so many times. What I am finally recognizing is that this period of being “knocked down”, when I feel like I’ve been taken out of the flow of life, is the time that my whole being is reorganizing and gathering resources to re-engage, that it comes in waves, and that it can’t be rushed.

Fully embracing the depth of this last loss, of allowing it to rock me, has, instead of sinking me deeper, actually accelerated the regrouping process. The composting of my old life is spawning new growth almost faster than I’m ready for it. The period of creativity that usually comes on the heels of the grieving seems to be overlapping with it. I’m still sad. I still miss him all the time. But I still miss my dad too… and its been 24 years. It doesn’t end, it gets incorporated into the new.

The cycles of nature, of death, decay and rebirth, are familiar to all of us. We live with them all around us, yet our culture does not have a comfortable conversation with death. Over the last several years, I’ve had to develop that conversation. I’m not happy when death arrives in my life, but the very fact of his arrival lends context to everything that comes after. I only have whatever time I’m granted, and I have no way of knowing how long that might be. It felt good to embrace the loss this time, to let go and fall into it. And it feels good to let something new grow from that. It honors the cycle.

I’m not qualified to tell anyone how to be open to the learning that comes through grieving the losses that punctuate life, but as I’ve felt the accompanying pain wash over me, I’ve gained courage by reading and rereading a certain poem by David Whyte:

The Well of Grief:

Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief

turning downward through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe

will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear,

nor find in the darkness glimmering
the small round coins
thrown by those who wished for something else.

By David Whyte – Where Many Rivers Meet

Open Letter to College Admissions Departments

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.” — Ken Robinson

I just returned from a week of touring colleges with my youngest daughter. Its been a few years since the last go round and while it seems the world is changing faster than ever, not much has changed about the tours and the information sessions since I first did this six years ago. The students who lead the tours are poised and charismatic, they have impressive memories and long lists of achievements to their credit. The admissions counselors give pretty much the same spiel with different sets of statistics as are relevant to the institution. They want us, the parents and prospective students sitting in front of them, to know that their student body is full of confident creative leaders who will change the world. They tell us that they choose students who by the age of 17, have demonstrated that they are this type of person. From one college admissions counselor I heard, “We’re looking for students who, when you read their application, you think, “When did he/she have time to sleep?”

My oldest daughter tried that routine. She fell asleep on a Friday afternoon while driving home from a swim meet because she was trying to live on about five hours of sleep a night. She was lucky and only hit a parked car a few blocks from home, but it was a good lesson that sleep has to trump “activities” or “bad things” happen.

When we, the adults, send the message to the next generation that the way they will succeed in life is to fill their lives with so much activity that they don’t have time to sleep, we send a very dangerous message. I’m not talking simply about falling asleep while driving, although that’s a pretty quick way to eliminate a creative mind. What I’m talking about is that if we take the brightest of our children, the ones who are already inclined to push their minds beyond the limits of what they already know, and we teach them to numb their creativity with incessant doing, their minds will not be open to the wildly creative ideas which we desperately need to solve the problems of a world at a tipping point in many arenas.

Wildly creative ideas do not happen when our brains are working overtime on multiple projects which are all directed at some goal we are working toward. Wildly creative ideas “happen”. They arrive unbidden when our minds are meandering in the garden inspecting the peony buds, or wondering when the leaves on the Japanese maple, which are indeed apricot colored as they begin to unfurl, change to the remembered bronze of their maturity.

Sometimes they descend upon us from the shower nozzle, or in a cascade of cherry blossoms blown from a nearby tree. Flashes of brilliance happen when we’re standing still. Perhaps we’re staring at the sky after watching a pair of young eagles seemingly tumble from a nearby tree, looking for sure as though they’re about to crash into the surface of the lake, cavorting like a couple of preteen boys wrestling over some random object, completely unaware of their environment. Transfixed, we marvel as they narrowly avoid disaster and somehow disentangle themselves just in time, rising above the level of the highest trees before we can catch our breath.

This is when the ideas “happen”, not when a student is blinded by all-nighters and dosed up on caffeine and/or Aderall which may or may not have been prescribed for them. This so that they can eek a little more focus out of their overly focused minds… So that they can get a little bit higher score on a standardized test, because they’ve been told that that’s what its going to take to get into the colleges they most want to attend.

While my oldest daughter was swimming in college, a former teammate of hers posted a world record at the world championships in a fancy racing suit. Shortly afterward, the powers that be of the swimming world banned that type of suit. Four years later her record still stands, as do a host of others from that time period. The style of suit literally allowed the athletes to swim faster than they could have without them.

I’ve heard reports from my college kids about the widespread use of Aderall before tests. I now hear the same from my high school junior. In general the students they’re referring to do not have Aderall prescriptions. They simply want the improved focus reportedly offered by the drug in order to rack up higher scores where they think they need them. The drugs are simply an external aid allowing them to achieve at a higher level than they could have without, like a now banned high tech swim suit, or the performance enhancing drugs that have spelled the downfall of high profile athletes.

If, dear college admissions staff, you take those SAT test scores and post them all over the internet, or tout them to prospective applicants, so that anyone who looks at your website sees that your average SAT Math scores range up to 760, there’s no way of arguing that this doesn’t promote an environment excessively focused on achievement as opposed to creativity.

We parents and prospective students need to hear the admissions counselors leading those information sessions say:

“We’re looking for well-rounded students who know how to think creatively and demonstrate that they have the maturity and resilience to handle setbacks; who get a lousy grade every once in a while and bounce back from it.”

“We’re looking for students who excel in the classes where they have a high aptitude and manage well in the classes where they may not be so gifted.”

“We’re looking for students who’ve had time in their lives for friends and family, not students who’ve received letters in several varsity sports, had part time jobs and volunteer jobs, been invited to join multiple different honors societies, are student body president and valedictorian.”

What message would it send if you said:

“We want to read essays about babysitting and mowing the lawn and family dinners. We want to read about the favorite book you’ve read 12 times or growing a vegetable garden or fighting with your brothers. We want to read about how much you hated folding the laundry and the creative ways you got out of it. We want to know what you haven’t done yet that gets you out of bed in the morning. We want to know what you’ve always dreamed of, or are deathly afraid of, or afraid to hope for, because then we know who you really are.”

Or if you said:

“If you have too many activities, we will throw your application in the trash because that means you didn’t take the time to lay in the grass and dream, to imagine a different kind of world and how you might play a part in creating that dream.”

Because we need a different kind of world right now and we need it fast…

The students who will graduate high school in 2015 can have a different kind of experience if you decide to do it differently.

The institutions of higher learning hold enormous power. By changing your expectations, you can ask our children to show you who they are, not what they have done.

You must start asking your applicants to share with you their dreams rather than list their achievements. Ask them to finish the question, “what if…?” and then answer it with whatever they can dream up. Challenge them to ask a question you haven’t been asked and don’t know the answer to…

Asking students to demonstrate their literacy is expected before they attend college, what about asking them to share their creative ideas?

Thank you for listening.

P.S. My children (young adults) have been involved with some wildly creative shenanigans in college. I’m not making the point that colleges are inhabited by robotic automatons, simply that the message I hear from admissions staff is by and large one that promotes over achievement and over doing, that the application process itself further emphasizes those values, and that in general, the process that faces a 17 year old asks them to present a resume that provides little room for creative exploration, and that its past time for this to change.