Consider yourselves hugged.

hugbirdsA hug.
We usually combine those two words with the concept of giving. “Give me a hug.” “Let me give you a hug.” “Need a hug?” Hugs are valued as a way in which we connect with other creatures to such a degree that we’ve had to invent the emoticon version of hugging: ((( ))). We do it in cyberspace and we do it face to face. Even over the phone, we try to hug. As a friend of mine says as we sign off from a phone call, “Consider yourself hugged.”
Traditions about hugging vary from person to person, family to family, culture to culture, but (in my life, anyway) hugging as greeting or farewell, or when deeply touched by the lives of others, is the usual. Hugs happen when we feel connected emotionally to another being and we are moved to act out the connection physically. Side by side hugs, full frontal hugs, neck hugs—we have a style for any occasion.
There are times when a hug is a perfect fit for me. The arms of another person, another shoulder to lean into, is like a womb where I can drop my shoulders, set my deep sigh free, and emerge refreshed. It may be a smidgen of me, but there is an ineffable energy within me that is reborn when I am given a hug.
But, there is a reluctant truth I grew into about this hugging business.
There are times when hugs aren’t given to us, but taken from us.
Nope, I’m not talking about an unwelcome grope, though that’s inappropriate, for sure. Ick. It’s clear with that slimy hug that a boundary has been crossed. The reluctant truth of the taken hugs to which I’m referring is more subtle. It’s emotionally slimy, though the person who’s purportedly giving the hug is probably unaware of it.
When hugs are taken, the action is more about the needs of the hugger than the huggee.
To know the difference, we have to tune in to our own emotional states and operate from a place of curiosity and openness. Otherwise, we’re liable to keep operating on automatic, doing what good little girls and boys do, too often at our own expense. Because we don’t want to hurt the feelings of the other person, out of habit, we let others into our close space and possibly tap into our energy. Our emotional boundaries, as well as our physical ones, are crossed before we realize what is happening.
I know, I know, this is indefinable stuff I’m talking about. We learn the difference only by experience.
My personal bullet points about boundaries and hugging:
• If the idea of wanting a hug from the other person hasn’t even crossed my mind, and I feel that person warming up to hug me, I can be pretty sure the need for touch isn’t mine.
• Hugs that feel nurturing and energizing are hugs of the giving sort; hugs that leave me feeling like I lost energy are about the other person. Without my permission, energy was leeched out of me.
• Others may want to hug me when they want tacit reassurance that things are okay between us, instead of bringing concerns into the open and talking about them. I am not The Queen of Tacit Reassurance.
• Some try to relieve their own anxiety by “giving” a hug. They need to do something, anything, to alleviate intense feelings that have come up inside them, so they reach for another human being, in the unconscious guise of giving a hug. When this happens to me, I feel as if the hugger tried to give me her feelings, instead of dealing with them herself. I cannot do her job for her.
• I don’t have to hug anybody or everybody. Neither do you. It is not an obligation. Only I know how much emotional energy I have and where I want to use it. I don’t have to allow myself to be touched so that another person can temporarily feel better.
• Physical and emotional boundaries are fluid and overlap. A hug that was welcome last week might feel invasive this week.
• I work to read the other person’s body language when I consider hugging another. Usually I go ahead and ask, even if I know the person extremely well. “Would a hug help?”
• I do not know the other person’s experience with touch, so I don’t touch from behind or unexpectedly. Has she been abused? Does he have PTSD? Is touch threatening, for any reason?
• There is nothing inappropriate about not accepting a hug from another person. It may feel awkward to sidestep a hug, but it may feel even yuckier to step into a hug that I don’t want. My body, my energy, my responsibility to manage it.
• BIG BULLET POINT: I ask a child before I hug him/her and I accept their yes or no, without question or judgment. I may be the only one in my grandchild’s life who asks, but I want her and every child to have the opportunity to safely say NO to an adult when it comes to boundaries about the body. Children cannot develop the role of saying NO to possible abusers if we’ve shamed them when they didn’t want to hug (and even kiss) others. They cannot grow into human beings who can say NO if we’ve pushed them into saying YES.
During this season of rebirth and nurturing, I’m especially thankful for those who can truly GIVE hugs, who provide nurture and emotional safe havens during times of transition. They are the Lights in dark times that bring me home.
Consider yourselves hugged. Every single one of you.
~~~Jaylene Whitehurst, the Ragged Phoenix

Kindergarten: Little Eyes Need Resting Spaces

This column was in today’s Daily Corinthian newspaper. With their permission, I share it here.

When I sat down to begin fumbling round with words this morning, I was certain about where this column would begin, if not exactly sure what direction it would take.
Before I settled in with my coffee and key board, though, I took a minute for a quick Facebook check. Maybe you know how that goes? So much for my planned column. My dear friend Donna, a middle school librarian with a passion for all things educational, had shared a link to a New York Times blog that snagged me and completely derailed my plans.
You might want to check out Jan Hoffman’s blog for yourself. Here’s the link to her entry, Rethinking the Colorful Kindergarten Classroom. You read that right. Is it possible that the colorful room is not the best option for learning? Maybe it’s not, especially for children who already have trouble focusing. It’s a thought provoking read for teachers, parents, and anyone interested in early childhood: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/06/09/rethinking-the-colorful-kindergarten-classroom/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

When I realized that I’d high jacked Donna’s Facebook thread with three lengthy comments, I knew I had the beginning of an unexpected column, one that I was hesitant to dive into because education is not my background. I’ve never been a classroom teacher.
What I am, however, is an artist and counselor, an explorer of the differing ways in which we process this experience of being human. I’m curious about and attuned to the impact of our surroundings on how we function in the world. Most significantly, I’m the parent of a former student who struggled throughout his school years with staying focused and completing tasks.
The blog snagged me because I’ve thought about the very questions raised in the studies Ms. Hoffman references. I wondered about them when my son was in school, but I never raised them. I lacked the confidence to bring this up to the professionals and, I suppose, I felt it wouldn’t make any difference.
As if it were today, I can still hear my young son saying, “Mama, I don’t mean to but I see everything. I can’t help it. There’s so much going on.” It’s no wonder this gripped me.
Ms. Hoffman discusses a study of whether the colorful and highly decorated classrooms that have become typical of kindergarten could, in reality, be hindering learning due to the visual distraction, rather than encouraging it. Many classrooms are brightly colored, some decorated with commercially produced posters and educational material, frequently changing bulletin boards, and colorful borders (you know the ones that are corrugated and scalloped and have been around forever). Lots of color, lots of pattern, lots of texture.
It’s a big business. Design-wise, it’s also a lot of busy-ness.
There’s pressure on teachers about how classrooms should look. Parents may walk in with expectations about the ideal learning environment. Fellow educators may not understand the teacher who opts to provide a less intense atmosphere for students. I’ve thought about what it would be like to be that teacher whose room was more sedate. How is that teacher perceived by colleagues and parents?
This is from the blog entry Rethinking the Colorful Kindergarten Classroom:
In the early years of school, children must learn to direct their attention and concentrate on a task. As they grow older, their focus improves. Sixth graders, for example, can tune out extraneous stimuli far more readily than preschoolers, the study’s authors noted.
But could information-dense kindergarten classroom walls, intended to inspire children, instead be overwhelming? Could all that elaborate décor impede learning? Some experts think so.
“I want to throw myself over those scalloped borders and cute cartoon stuff and scream to teachers, ‘Don’t buy this, it’s visually damaging for children!’ ” said Patricia Tarr, an associate professor at the University of Calgary who researches early childhood education and art education, and was not involved in the study.
Dr. Tarr has long railed against the notion of “decorating” a classroom. In a 2004 paper called “Consider the Walls,” published in Young Children, the journal for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, she argued that classrooms could become so cluttered with commercial posters and mobiles that they obscured the children’s own drawings and writings, posing special challenges to any child with attention deficits.
Over the years, as a parent and with various jobs I’ve had, I have walked into classrooms that had so much visual activity that it set me, an adult, on edge. Bright primary colors dominated. Complementary colors (those that are opposite on the color wheel) naturally make each other “pop” more intensely, so they compete for attention. My eyes felt the strain.
Admittedly, I’m a bit distractible myself, given my quick shift of column topic this morning, but my ability to regulate my response to the stimuli is more mature than a five or six year old. If the visual energy made me edgy, I wondered how a little person could possibly concentrate.
No one wants totally colorless classrooms, though. That would be trading one extreme for another; it’s not even realistic.
From my perspective as an artist, the key consideration is simply the fact that the eye seeks out spaces to rest. In design, whether in a painting or a classroom, the negative space (the open area) provides this necessary visual rest. When there is pattern and color everywhere, it actually becomes more chaotic and less visible. A design stands out precisely because of the space around it. We can see it more easily when resting space sets it apart.
Thinking back to the classrooms I was in at West Corinth Elementary, I pulled out my class pictures to be sure my memory was accurate. There were bulletin boards, pictures of presidents, writing guides, flip charts, and the like. Most rooms had at least a couple of potted plants. The pictures and charts were few but good quality; there was a sense of continuity and a lack of clutter, especially as the year began. I knew that kids before me had sat under that same portrait of George Washington, and that in three years my little brother would too. I wouldn’t have thought of any of my classrooms as austere. Maybe they were or maybe they simply had enough resting space. I called what they had a sturdy warmth.
One of my earliest art experiences was getting to help put up bulletin boards and then later being allowed to design and post them by myself. Our drawings and class projects were proudly displayed and visible. As the year progressed, more of our work accumulated. Our progress was in view, easily seen. By the time I left each room at year’s end, it had become partly mine. I carry my investment in those early learning spaces with me still.
Natural light flooded our space from windows that rose almost to the ceiling. Those windows opened onto a naturally shifting scene. Seasonal and subtle. They’re the display I remember most.
That was another time. A time before lamination and die cuts, back when the mimeograph ruled and stomachs knotted up on test day.
There have been changes to how classrooms look since the 1960s, but stomachs still knot up. Children still take with them beyond their school years the images from their classrooms; they carry the emotions that they felt as they succeeded or didn’t, as they belonged or didn’t. Teachers still put more into the sacred task of teaching than seems humanly possible.
May our young children and grandchildren learn in surroundings with enough to interest them and not so much as to distract them. May they have space where their unique contributions to the classroom are seen and celebrated, where they feel valuable, and where the unfolding process of learning is the liveliest decoration.
May each classroom be a living work of art.
______________
To the teachers in our community, may you have an enjoyable summer break. You’ve earned it.

Mothers on My Heart

Mothers are much on my heart this weekend: young mothers holding their babies for the first time; mothers of children with chronic care issues; mothers of children who feel different, who feel lost; mothers who are watching their children struggle; mothers who are rejoicing in their children’s successes; elder mothers who are less active and still a presence to their family; mothers who nurture the differing natures of each of their children.

I have been privileged to work with mothers who look deeply into the Big Picture of family, saints and skeletons; mothers who are letting their children be exactly where they are, though it breaks their hearts.

I know mothers who are dying; mothers in the sandwich years, pressed between care of older parents and the desire to be there for their children and grandchildren; mothers who are burying children; mothers who are caring for grandchildren; mothers who mother whatever is available, plants, animals, abandoned whatevers, because nurture is their nature.

Opening to all the ways that mothering can look, I am touched to the heart. I am in awe.

Blessing on all who mother.

And travel lightly,

Jaylene

It’s all a What-ness.

Dear Fellow Travellers,

The scent of honeysuckle and coffee whirl around me this morning. Seems a tad early in the season for honeysuckle in my corner of Mississippi, but there it is, unexpected and a bit out of time, and undeniably real, nonetheless, evidence of our mild winter.

My heart is full of …of….of…..I don’t have any words for what all is in there. Yet.

And my head is full of unformed sentences that haven’t gelled yet either. Threads hanging free on one end, yet on the other end they’re attached to a “something” that matters to me. They flutter loosely —questions and wonderings and ponderings about grief, complexity of relationships, gray areas, brokenness, co-creating, legacy, addiction,grand-parenting, death, intimacy, breaking rules, the outsider/rebel role, shadows, attachment to what doesn’t work (and to what does….hmmmm, what’s that about?), sorrow, bliss, the ineffable…..all those open ends flutter on the honeysuckle-scented breeze.

Yet, all those flapping threads come from the same place and, I am pretty sure, are intertwined into a whole. I hear my grandmother’s voice speak in my own voice: It’s all a “what-ness” she’d say, with that pragmatic shake of her head, and a barely there wry grin.

A What-ness. A What-ness???? It seemed to be an entity, the way she said it. My younger self always meant to ask her, “Mama Hazel, what in the world is a ‘what-ness’?”

But, if I’d asked, I couldn’t have understood then. Even if she’d wrapped up a “what-ness” up in gift paper and tied a bow on it, it was beyond me.

This NOW is a WHAT-NESS. Reality. The whole paradoxical agony/bliss of Life that defies explaining and asks simply to be Lived into.

And Living into it, the mere act of writing this blog this morning, fills in the blank:
My heart is full of …of….of…..A What-ness. It’s a reality as real as the lightness of honeysuckle and the depth of death coming out of their expected season.

Thanks for the wisdom, Mama Hazel. It’s all a What-ness.

There it is.

Travel lightly,

Jaylene