Monthly Archives: September 2011

Making Soup

When K. arrived here from Ethiopia at 8 years old, I felt she was more than old enough to help cook. (The fact that we had quite a few bumpy months of adjusting to American food is a separate story!) Our first Christmas together, I gave her her own kitchen knife, a short, sharp orange blade with an orange scabbard. Who wouldn’t want to cut vegetables with that?! Sharp knives are the safest knives, and I never felt nervous about letting her cut potatoes or carrots or apples. We are a vegetarian family, so vegetables are the bulk of what we cut. I taught her how to use the peeler and the grater, and the first time she made the dinner salad on her own she was as proud as could be.

In the third grade in Waldorf education, children cook in school and spend a week on a farm, milking cows, harvesting vegetables, pressing cider, baking bread, cooking soup. At this age children begin to recognize that they won’t always live in the family nest; learning to cook assures them that they will be able to feed themselves. K. and I started a vegetarian cooking club in third grade, and we had many wonderful meals cooked entirely by the kids. Now in 6 th grade, K. and her friends often cook weekend lunches on their own. I generally keep out of the way, knowing that the best cooks learn by experimenting for themselves.
 An ideal story to tell in the kitchen is Stone Soup, a story so well known it hardly seems necessary to retell it. But on the chance that there are readers who don’t know it, here it is. This story, as with so many traditional tales, has many variations in the details; each teller adds her own seasoning, as I have.

A war had ended after many years, and a soldier who had served for a long time was finally making his way home. He spent all his severance pay before he got there, however, and had many hungry days of walking still ahead of him.
One evening he arrived at a village and knocked at a door. “May I ask for dinner? I served the king for many years, and now I have nothing.”
The old woman who answered the door had grown mistrustful of soldiers, and she shook her head and shut the door. This was the same response at the next door, and the next, and the soldier despaired of filling his belly that night. Years of keeping himself alive during wartime had made him a quick thinker, however, and he went back to the first door. “Ma’am, may I borrow a cooking pot? I plan to make a fire just there on the green, and cook some soup, and then I will return the pot to you. I promise, on the honor of the king’s regiment.”
She didn’t like it, but she grudgingly agreed. She handed him her second-best cooking pot, and then watched from the window. 
The soldier made a fire, filled the pot from the town pump, and set it over the flames. Then he searched along the roadside, picking up one stone, then another, picking and choosing until he seemed to find one stone he liked the best. Then he went back to his fire and put the stone in the pot. The woman couldn’t believe her eyes, and of course she thought his wits were wandering. At last her curiosity pushed her out the door. 
“What in heaven’s name are you doing?” she asked, peering into her pot. 
“Making stone soup,” the soldier replied, stirring the water with a stick. He breathed in the steam. “Mm, this is going to be good, I know it.”
The woman sniffed the steam. “It is?”
“Oh yes, this is an excellent stone, one of the best. Of course, onion brings out the flavor even more.” He glanced at her. “Do you happen to have an onion? It doesn’t have to be a big one.”
“Oh, plenty,” the woman replied without thinking. She immediately regretted her words, but remembering Sunday sermons, she went back to her house and returned with a small onion. In no time, the soup was, indeed, smelling nice.
More people were watching this from their windows, and before long another villager came out, curious about this activity. “Stone soup,” the first woman said while the soldier stirred. “See the stone? This soldier learned some fine skills in the army.”
“A carrot adds sweetness, you know,” the soldier added. He looked at the second villager. “It doesn’t need a carrot, but it’s a nice addition. Do you have any carrots?”
Intrigued, the second villager agreed to add some carrots to the soup. Before long there were a dozen cooks around the pot, each bringing something small to add – a potato, a handful of oats, a chicken neck, some herbs. The aroma from the pot was mouth-watering, and the villagers were amazed that a stone could produce such fine-smelling soup. They were chatting and laughing among themselves, looking forward to the fine meal they all would share. At last the soldier pronounced the soup ready. Bowls and cups and spoons were quickly passed around, and a fresh loaf of bread torn into chunks. The soldier had two bowls of fine stone soup, and when the pot was wiped clean with bread, everyone agreed that it was the best soup they’d ever had – and made from a stone, of all things!

Birbal Shortens the Road

The emperor, Akbar, was on a journey surrounded by advisors and servants. As it was a hot day and the road was long, he grew impatient and annoyed.
“This road is so long,” he complained, as petulant and cranky as only an emperor can be. “Can’t anybody shorten it?”
By his side, wise Birbal said, “I can.”
Everyone who heard him rolled their eyes. “This is the only road – there is no other way,” one man said in a know-it-all tone.

“If he can do it, let him do it,” said the emperor. 
Birbal lowered his voice so only the emperor could hear. “I can do it, but first I want to tell you a story – it’s important.”
“Fine, fine, go ahead, but be sure to shorten the road as soon as you can.”
With that, Birbal started a long and complicated story with many twists and turns and dramatic surprises, keeping the emperor as focused and attentive as a cat watching a mouse hole. In no time at all, it seemed, they reached their destination.
“What? So soon?” the emperor marveled. “I can’t believe we are here already.”
Birbal smiled. “I told you I could shorten the road.”

About Stories

“Life and growing involve meeting one’s own fears and doubts, so children should be nurtured to have a belief in themselves. The traditional quest-myth story in which they can identify with its hero or heroine in all the difficulties, dangers, and triumphs of the quest has still much to offer. Myths are primal acts of imagination that allow children to experience realities without being demoralized by them. Myths give children the courage to handle trauma and pain and difficulty and to retain their sense of wonder and value, and, even more, to find their lives significant.”

~ Pat O’Shea

I’m Not Scared, I’m EXCITED!

Like many of you reading Lion’s Whiskers, both my kids started new schools this week.  At my house, surprisingly little drama occurred in the days prior to the first day of school.  Unlike years previous, we had actually completed all the school shopping, the kids had cleaned their rooms, and I knew the exact bus schedule.  I’m wise enough now as a parent, however, to not assume anything about how my kids might react the night before school starts.  The same goes for the night before Halloween and all the costume changes that entails.  The countdown began.

By mid-afternoon, my daughter started to hyperventilate about starting middle school.  I immediately started taking the kind of deep breaths I’d needed to when birthing her.  I did my best to calm my own anxiety about my girl entering the potential minefield that middle school can sometimes be for girls.  I’ve counseled enough girls previously who’ve been bullied to know about those often angst-filled years when identity, cliques, and class structure collide.  Middle school for me was all about being in the “Top Three Girls” club.  I kid you not.  It was pretty much all about making friends with either Anne or Trina, they were consistently #1 and #2 most popular. One fine spring day, I finally clawed my way to #3, as was decreed on a crumpled note passed around the entire 6th grade classroom.  I thought “Wow, I’ve finally made it!”  I didn’t know then how precarious such social games can be, and how fragile one’s self-esteem when you roll the dice and decide to play.  I’ve also learned as a parent/therapist of adolescent children to not make assumptions about what my kids’ experience is or will be.  And to ask if they want my advice before offering it—which has taken some serious restraint on my part!  So, I asked my daughter, “Do you want my advice about how to think about tomorrow?”  “No, thanks!” was her polite response. 
At dinner, exhausted and at a loss, I decided to delegate the parenting to my husband.  He’s way less high strung and was never a preteen girl.  “You’ll be fine,” was his advice to our daughter.  I next turned to our son, who had most recently navigated the same middle school hallways and social scene.  His advice was brilliant.  Much better than anything I could have come up with, short of reminding her to reframe her worry as excitement about what lay ahead.  (You may want to read my last post A Hurricane is Coming! about cognitive reframing to understand what I mean.)  He said, “You shouldn’t hold your books too tight to your body.  The kids who are relaxed do better in middle school.  Try holding them at your side loosely.  Like you look like you know what you’re doing and where you’re going. Life’s a lot better when you’re relaxed.”  Without the benefit of a doctorate in psychology, he knows through life experience that when we relax our bodies, our minds often follow (and vice versa).  He also added, “You are going to meet a lot of nice people.  The hall monitors, especially, are always really kind and willing to redirect you in the direction you need to go.”  He’s learned that what you expect, you get.  Fortunately, he believes that the world is still a friendly place.  He isn’t expecting people to be mean.  I watched my daughter relax her shoulders, smile, and finally take the deep breath I’d advised her to take earlier in the day (when I hadn’t asked if she wanted my advice).  It may have been less in what he said than in how he approached her.  He wasn’t worried for her.  He told her “Expect it will take about two weeks until you feel comfortable.  It will probably be less than that even. Just enjoy it.”  He didn’t have any story about mean girls, rejection, peer pressure, or bullying.  He expects that she will be okay.  Coming from her big brother, his advice was much more potent than any therapeutic intervention I could offer. 

Sitting together before heading to bed, my girl poured out a few last-minute worries. I decided to push aside my own worry and practice the first rule of thumb for any good therapist:  join with the person you’re listening to.  Don’t try to make them feel or think anything that they aren’t in that moment.  Just hear where they are at, without judgment or agenda.  It’s part of building trust and rapport.  Joining can also allow feelings to transform in healthy, sometimes unexpected, ways.  So, I said simply “You know, it’s okay to be scared when starting something new.” After a few moments, with her permission to offer a bit of advice, I reiterated what I’ve taught both my kids: “Being scared and being excited can feel the same.  Both are meant to help you be alert, pay attention, do your best, and not get lost in the hallways on your first day. Before going to bed, focus on just one thing about tomorrow that you are most excited about. Paint a picture in your mind of what you are looking forward to about tomorrow, like seeing a good friend in the hallway between classess or inviting you to sit together at lunch. The more details you can imagine, the better.  Like what you are wearing, how good and relaxed you feel wearing your favorite new clothes, etc.”  Then, I just held her and adopted my son’s belief: all will be well. 

The next morning, I got up and made crepes for breakfast.  This, too, is highly uncharacteristic of me to do given that I’m not much of a morning person.  While mixing together the crepes, I heard my daughter ask her brother: “Are you excited about today?  ‘Cause I am!”  I felt immediate relief.  The same kind of relief, followed by a deep belly sigh, that I felt the day she was born and she was handed to me in one perfect pink bundle.  I knew in that moment: she’s going to be okay. 

On their way out the door that morning, I asked my kids “Do you guys want me to walk with you to the bus stop given it’s your first day?”  “No! We’re fine!” was their mutually adamant response.  Turns out it’s me who now needs the courage to let go, to trust in their resilience and the kindness of others, and do some cognitive reframing myself: “It’s not scary, it’s exciting that my kids are growing up!” 

Courage Challenge of the Day

Lion’s Whiskers offers this courage challenge: Consider a small-as-a-mouse or large-as-an-elephant obstacle in your or your child’s life blocking the way to personal or professional success. 

Today, September 9, 2011 is the Indian festival Ganesh Chaturthi!  It is a celebration of the birth of Lord Ganesha, the Hindu God of wisdom.  Lord Ganesha is traditionally referred to as “the remover of obstacles” and representative of prosperity, prudence, and success. 

What is the elephant in the room?  Perhaps removing your personal obstacle will require the social courage to invite a new friend over for a playdate or out for coffee, or to say “Hello!” to passersby on the street today.  This challenge may also require the physical courage to overcome entrenched habits by trying some new foods, flavors, or fitness activity. Or, it could require removing emotional stressors by saying “No” to particular activities, people, or habits that no longer inspire but instead exhaust you.

What’s a true story from your life about an elephant in the room or on your path that you’ve successfully removed? 

Are You the Ant or the Grasshopper? And Which Are You Raising?

A fable from Aesop that has seen a lot of play over the centuries is the Ant and the Grasshopper. The story extols the industrious ant who spends the summer working and storing food, and also points out the improvidence of the grasshopper who fiddles and sings all summer long, ends up starving through the winter and knocking on the ant’s door for a hand-out.

Chances are, (if you are American) you’re a grasshopper. The U.S. personal savings rate is the lowest among developed nations. Why is that? And what’s it got to do with Lion’s Whiskers?

Here’s some information that may require some intellectual courage to process. 85% of Americans expect their kids to go to college, but 47% of American parents can’t afford that education for their kids. Many families do save for college (although not enough); many parents raid their retirement savings to pay for college (considered a bad idea indeed); and a great many expect to take financial aid and student loans when the time comes. Yet according to the College Savings Foundation, the cost of borrowing money for college v. the cost of saving for college is 7:1. Let me put that in another way. Let’s say you spend $10 per week now on saving for college. If you wait and borrow the money instead, it will cost you $70 per week to pay off. That’s a pretty impressive difference. $10 per week now or $10 per day later?

We know from psychology research that our cognitive biases (e.g. the tendency to discount information that contradicts our wishes or shows our previous decision-making to have been flawed) really mess up our ability to make decisions, especially decisions having to do with the long-range future. And when it comes to parenting, many of us live in “putting out the fire” mode instead of “fire prevention” mode. It’s hard to make long-term plans when you need to know how to get a colicky baby to sleep tonight, or you need to make decisions about which parental control software to install on the computer today so the kids don’t start downloading crazy stuff on Saturday night while the baby-sitter is busy texting friends. But the parenting industry thrives because of the “putting out the fire” mentality that so many parents live with. Fear is used as a marketing crowbar to pry money from our hands to throw on the fire. And yet the fact is, much of the time there really is no fire; we’re just conditioned to believe without question all the messages that tell us there is. If we don’t do this, buy that, register here NOW we’ll thwart our children’s hopes and dreams, damage their self-esteem, poison them, put them in mortal danger, expose them to creepy people and also maybe make them fat and stupid. Spending money to quiet those fears gives us a false sense of security, and allows us to to go back to the fun stuff, like spending the summer fiddling and singing. (Grasshopper).

Instead of being reactive to the fear messages, we can be proactive about real challenges that lie ahead. (Winter). We can walk out of the store (or the on-line mall) with our credit cards unswiped. Instead we can save those dollars for the long-term so that our children don’t leave college buried in loans. If we really want the best for our kids, it seems to me, we’d do better foregoing the latest, newest everything now, and give them the gift of education without crushing debt. (Ant).

For many people, spending money can be related to a lack of emotional courage, if buying something is motivated by boredom, escapism or loneliness; spending money may be related to a lack of social courage, if buying something is motivated by a desire to be trendy or ahead of the wave; spending money may be related to a lack of spiritual courage, if buying something is motivated by feelings of purposelessness and the need to fill a spiritual hole; it may be motivated by a lack of moral courage, if buying something is inspired by feelings of entitlement or egocentricity; it may be motivated by a lack of physical courage, if it is inspired by a false belief that buying something will make one look better, live longer, or lose belly fat fast.

According to statistics available on the National Financial Educators Council website, teens and young adults report feeling woefully unprepared to manage money – the mysteries of checkbook balancing, credit card interest rates, debt payments and budgeting are scary, confusing and intimidating. But children as young as five can start learning about money – if someone will teach them. It may be more convenient to go to the bank when the kids are at school, but for the most part they aren’t learning anything about money at school. They must learn it from us. They must see us actively making financial decisions and setting financial goals; they must see us basing our spending, our savings, and our charitable giving on those goals instead of on impulsiveness. Yes, itchy as it sounds, we must model being ants for them.

It’s way more fun to be the grasshopper. And it’s okay to be the grasshopper some of the time, but we must have the courage to be ants as well. Whether our children grow up as grasshoppers or ants may mean the difference between them moving back home after college or going out into the world as courageous and independent young people who know how to get through the winter.

The Good Samaritan

There are a few ethical principles that have appeared throughout world cultures and religions, and the ethic of reciprocity, or the Golden Rule (do unto others as you would have them do to you) is one of them. I suppose we can infer that the universality of this ethic suggests that it really is part of what it means to be human. The parable of the Good Samaritan is among the most popular in Christianity. It’s a story (very very short!) told by Jesus in a conversation about the admonishment to “love your neighbor as yourself.” “But who is my neighbor?” asked his listener.
A man was on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, a mountain road so steep and dangerous and infested with bandits that it was known as the Bloody Way. This day it matched its reputation. The traveler was attacked and robbed by highwaymen, and left bleeding and unconscious on the side of the road.
Some time later, a priest was traveling the same road, and although he saw the wounded man he did not stop – maybe he thought the victim was beyond help, or maybe he feared it was a trap – whatever he thought, he hurried past. Shortly after that, another man passed as well, but kept to the far side of the road and didn’t even check for signs of life. Sad to say, these two men were of the same nationality as the victim, as they knew from their clothing. A man from Samaria, a stranger in these parts, came along the Bloody Way next. Without caring for nationality, without caring if the wounded man was an innocent victim or an evil man done in by his evil comrades, this Samaritan lifted the unconscious traveler onto his own donkey, bound his wounds, and took him to the nearest inn. Leaving money with the innkeeper, the Samaritan promised to be back with more for the care and tending of the victim.
Who is my neighbor? Everyone, according to this story. Humanity calls us act humanely, yet we so often need courage to follow this universal human requirement. It does raise the question: what fears stop us from treating others as we wish to be treated?