Inner Child

I’m celebrating another milestone today — I have been blogging for 5 whole years! What initially was a rather daunting commitment to myself has become a source of great joy. I have reawakened my love of creative writing through a blog that I started as a means to hold myself accountable to personal growth.

I’ve written 81 posts over the course of the past five years and admittedly I am proud of that. I’d set myself a goal of one a month and I have met and slightly exceeded that. While I once was a determined over-achiever, the old me would probably have dutifully cranked them out driven solely by that initial goal.

The “evolving” me has come to appreciate that it is far better to be fully committed and stay the course using the goal as a guideline, but not letting it rob me of the joy of the creative process. My approach to writing each of my blog posts has shifted rather remarkably over the course of five years. What initially felt like work and a public confessional, has become a source of pure joy for me. I love writing and I forgot that. I became disconnected from my love of writing and my own creativity that I naturally possessed as a young child. Blogging about my personal growth journey has reconnected me to my “inner child” in ways that I never would have imagined. Trust me when I tell you that I possess a wild imagination….I’ve come to realize that I was not using that gift wisely.

Personal growth work requires a solo walk down memory lane, hand in hand with that very young child we once were, and being courageous enough to revisit the places and events that impacted us in ways we were far too young and too innocent to comprehend. If you are a fan of This is Us, you probably are beginning to see through this current season’s episodes how our childhood experiences and our young child’s perspectives can entangle us and our relationships all throughout our adult lives. It is the perfect real life example of why this personal growth work is so necessary. We carry all those childhood perspectives, immature coping mechanisms, and emotional roadblocks into our adult lives and wonder why we keep treading water as we try to build our own futures. We are bogged down by that baggage and it tethers us to the past. Personal growth work untangles us from that labyrinth and frees us up to embrace the flexibility of being our most authentic selves, making better choices and living with grace and compassion for ourselves and for others, in the present moment.

Over the past five years, one blog post and one emotional layer at a time, that is what I have come to see so clearly.

The reward for all that hard work is feeling at age 69 like the 5 year old I once was — back in touch with the wonderment of an innocent child who marveled at the intricacy of a delicate spiderweb in the morning dew and thought it was the fanciest doily she’d ever seen. I was too young to be afraid of spiders. I saw only the beauty. Today I embrace the paradox of life — and I can see both the beauty of the spider’s craft and his painful bite.

Father Richard Rohr writes about this transformation into maturity and the inherent gift of paradox that comes through learned wisdom in his book Falling Upward. When I first read it, I was intrigued and desired that kind of wisdom. I am now realizing that I am given those opportunities to grow into that maturity more naturally almost every day. The key is to be “aware” and then to be childlike in my “exploration and observation”. Honestly, I am delighting in this fresh approach to life and especially how I show up for others. A small child can touch our hearts in the most simple yet most profound ways. A small child lives in a healthy state of paradox.

Just the other day, my 4 year old grandson was watching his beloved mom struggle with a massive to do list and more than a few things going wrong. He looked at her so tenderly and said “Go ahead and cry mom. It’s okay.” My heart melted into a puddle. He was holding space for her, acknowledging that a good cry will release the tension, is often soothed with a hug, and will pass. This is the very gift she offers to him every day when he is overtired, frustrated, overwhelmed. He mirrored it back to her with a wisdom that comes from the heart. A heart that is not entangled with all the armor we adults accumulate.

If you want to examine this real life example from an unaware adult perspective, think about a spouse that is also juggling a similar overflowing plate and the natural response “We all have a lot to do, get it together.” Or the well intentioned grandmother who says “Oh honey, look at all the good things you have and the stuff that is going right”. Both responses seem benign on the surface. The wisest is the innocent four year old who sees the situation for what it is — the present moment with honest feelings. That’s love and understanding that comes from an open heart, not an armored heart. It also comes from truly living in the present moment and being aware of it. Do you know that my little grandson remained calm through it all. He’s only 4, yet he didn’t let his mom’s emotions override his own. He’s too young to realize what a superpower that is. He just operates that way naturally.

This is the inner child I am reconnecting with myself. I will be completely honest and tell you that it was incredibly hard work and very painful at times. Yet each time I took my younger self back to revisit the past, I accompanied that innocent version of me as a caring, supportive, trusting adult. The one that was missing in my young life experiences. At times I even discovered that there were rather remarkable adults who did show up in my earlier years and offered me guardrails, a beacon of hope and some cliff notes about life. My appreciation for what those guardian angels did for me has deepened exponentially.

These childhood revisits have illuminated the ways I began to sabotage myself with an armored heart and protective but ineffective coping skills as I moved through my adult life. Oddly enough that concept of paradox has proved to be the rarest of clear lenses to view the past. I can now see where my blind spots were and how I contributed to things not going as smoothly as I’d hoped. I can see where I got in my own way often and where I let others take advantage of me. And I learned (with more practice than you can imagine) to let it go. The more I shed the old layers of self-doubt, armor and triggers, the lighter I felt and the more in touch with my true nature.

I’ve often used the phrase “freeing up the real estate” to describe that internal space I’ve gained in my mind, my heart and energy, when I let go of the past, of how others operate and of hoping that reality could be different than it is. What I happily discovered was that when I freed up that real estate, better things began to move in. And that is where I re-discovered my own tap root of creativity.

As a young child, I was quite naturally creative. I made the most elaborate sand castles at the beach and my beloved aunt would marvel at them. They were complex in structure and decorated with the most unusual treasures I could salvage from my beach hunts. I learned to make forests by creating layered sand trees, letting sopping wet sand dribble from my loose palms into the landscape around my castles. Sand and water, shells, driftwood and a feather. Simple raw materials turned into magical kingdoms of castles, gardens, forests, tunnels, and moats. I’d forgotten just how much I thrill to create all kinds of mixed media art from things I find in nature. I’m playfully reconnecting with that now and sharing it with my grandchildren.

Just like my young grandchildren, I loved to sing and I often made up songs as I played. But I only recently remembered how much I did that as a child and I even recalled a song I wrote as a teenager. That song is lighthearted and playful, full of hope that love would always be exciting and fun. I still recall every word and the catchy melody. Today I am infusing my daily life with more music. I cherish the memories that are evoked from favorite songs and I relish in the discovery of new artists and songs. And rarely a day goes by that I am not making up some whimsical little song for my grandchildren as they tidy up a room or wash up for dinner.

All throughout elementary school, I sang in the choir at church and for a long while, I used to sing solos on Sunday mornings at various churches throughout Lancaster and Lebanon Counties in Pennsylvania. I recall the highlight of my singing career happening in middle school when I was named the lead mezzo soprano for the school choir. It was a short lived moment of joy and accomplishment since that was also the very day my mom left my dad and we moved. I stopped singing for quite a while after that. Today that memory serves as a reminder to pay close attention to when I stop doing something I love, when I feel my joy or creativity waning. While another’s actions or a life circumstance may be the intial cause, what can I do to return to those parts of me and my joys? That is where my agency lies. It is also an anchor to my true nature — if I give up the very things that fill my heart I won’t be living in the joyful, playful part of me. The reality is that I won’t be able to be my best self. I have doused my inner light when I stop being creative and appreciative of life’s little marvels.

I wrote poetry when I was in elementary school and my grandmother was my biggest fan. She’d read everything I wrote and then she would read it out loud to me. Hearing her voice place emphasis in different places than I did made me aware of how personal writing is to both the writer and the reader. Art in any form is a creative wonder for both the artist and those that are drawn to it — and often it speaks to us in the most profound ways. A painting, a book, a song or a play — all land in our individual hearts where we have space for them. Space to heal, space to feel. I recently decided that I would try my hand at poetry again. The inspiration for this came from a gauzy-feeling idea that came to me as I woke up one morning. I jotted it down in my bedside journal and found myself giggling. It felt amazing to be so aware of the joy coursing through me simply by writing an inspirational short poem. I now have a pretty pale blue notebook dedicated for my poems. As I have expanded my awareness of ideas coming to me, I jot down these fleeting moments as they happen if I can. Sometimes I will write a whole poem, and other times I will just have a framework for something that requires deeper reflection. I imagine that I am feeling the way an aspiring cook feels when she creates a new recipe and delights in savory tastes that linger in her mouth.

My teen years were really hard because of choices my mother made and responsibilities that I assumed. I wish I had journaled then or kept up with writing poetry. I think it would have been therapeutic for me. Looking back, I think I lost my creativity due to the multi-levels of darkness in my family. I turned my creativity toward resourcefulness and resiliency for the pragmatic things in life. So I read instead, escaping from my circumstances and living vicariously through empowering stories.

After hearing the podcast with Brene Brown and Dr. Angus Fletcher about the marvels of literature, I became very aware that the books I read filled the places in my life where I was not getting, but truly needed, some aspiration and a clear path for building a better life for myself. I also realize that my love of “self help” books probably originated from the realization that my family was a Petri dish for unhealthy issues. Even in my early 20’s that’s the section of the library or book store I was often drawn to visit first. That remains unchanged almost 50 years later — I am still a work in progress. What’s changed is my perspective about it. I am not trying to “fix” my imperfections anymore. I am embracing them and learning from them. I am excited that at this late stage in life, I still have room to grow.

To celebrate my 5 year blogging milestone, I decided to reflect on the places where my reconnection with my inner child’s creativity merge with that child-like sense of curiosity. On purpose, I work very hard to replace judgment with curiosity. We learn to be judgmental — of ourselves and others. We can unlearn it and replace it with curiosity. Picture an iceberg and realize that most of us go through life showing only what we want to project out into the world. It is the parts of us that are hidden under the surface that are often guiding our life trajectory and the birthplace of blind spots. Now that I have spent so much time getting to know myself, I have a much greater appreciation and awareness of what others may have under their own surface. There is no doubt that it has organically expanded my empathy and compassion for others.

I now have that beautiful example of my young grandson offering the gift of space, compassion and present moment awareness to use as a poignant reminder to stay in the present moment, to remain grounded and calm, to honor what others are truly feeling, and to hold space for others.

My childhood life experiences created a lot of layers of armor that I brought into my adult life. The armor tethered me to a past in ways that went unexamined for far too long. I somehow got the message that I was on this earth to fix things for others. I am not here to fix things for others. I needed some serious pruning shears to get all those brambles and entanglement cleared away to find that truth. Yet letting go of striving to fix and wanting to fix things for others allowed me to clearly see that the best gift I can give to others in their time of struggle is that of truly being seen, heard and valued. This I learned though over five years of hard personal growth work and over 80 blog posts I have shared with all of you. My 4 year old grandson reminded me that we are born with it. “Out of the mouth of babes,” comes the greatest wisdom — and they live in a constant state of present moments.

Today I am grateful to have rediscovered my inner child and to be delighting in exploring the many ways creativity is beginning to show up in the real estate I have cleared in my approach to life. Let’s just say that the new tenants are so much more fun, energetic and inspiring!

The Transformational Wonders of Story

Imagine being able to find just what you need to build courage, heal from grief, or excite your curiosity from literature. What if the elements of story could unlock our imaginations, emotions and even our psyche to improve our quality of life and mental health? Dr. Angus Fletcher will rock your world with his research and insights on the power of story — steeped in both the mystery of human emotion and the logic of science. He was a recent guest on Brene Brown’s Unlocking Us podcast and his dynamic enthusiasm is contagious. He takes a deep dive into the inventions in literature, the technologies that were created to help us understand, unravel — and grow — from the human experience in his recently released book — Wonderworks: the 25 Most Powerful Inventions in the History of Literature:

A brilliant examination of literary inventions through the ages, from ancient Mesopotamia to Elena Ferrante, that shows how writers have created technical breakthroughs—rivaling any scientific inventions—and engineering enhancements to the human heart and mind. Literature is a technology like any other. –from Amazon.com

Dr, Angus Fletcher takes the blueprints for 25 literary inventions throughout history and explains how each can be viewed as both a narrative and scientific breakthrough. The result is a completely original deep dive through literary history—from Greek tragedy and Shakespeare to Virginia Woolf and Dr. Seuss—examining how each innovation provides us with distinct psychological benefits such as increasing creativity, alleviating trauma, boosting intelligence and elevating happiness. –– excerpted from the Show Notes, Brene Brown.com

As Dr. Fletcher so deftly explained to Brene, stories and especially memoirs, pull us into an intimate and safe space to explore our own complex emotions, perceptions and possibilities. He freely shared the books that had a meaningful impact in his own life and the transformational growth he tapped into as a result. Writers like Maya Angelou and Jane Austen offered insights and wisdoms that gave him agency to explore his own power to evolve in creative, engaging and entertaining ways.

Although I had never consciously thought about this, I found myself recalling the books, plays, movies and songs that made indelible impressions on me throughout my life. I can still vividly remember reading Shakespeare in my early teens, sitting cross-legged on my bed in a shabby second floor apartment we were living in temporarily. Sunlight was trying its best to peek through the dirty windows while downstairs neighbors were arguing. Yet I was oblivious to it all, having been transported far away to another space in time, captivated by the images those written words created in my mind and the characters who came to life page by page. Looking back, I can most definitely see how the books I read in my teen years informed me about life in ways that I otherwise would have never known. Without a healthy, solid family framework, books probably played a more meaningful role that I could have ever imagined.

As a young mother years later, another story touched me so profoundly that I named my middle son based on the main character of a heartwarming TV mini-series. I loved the core values and the affable, grounded demeanor of the lead male character who was always referred to by his last name, Damon. I could almost picture my infant son as a grown man possessing the same virtues. That is how my middle son got his first name, Damon.

There are countless other memories that I have been revisiting, looking for clues as to how stories told through music, plays, books, movies and TV shows contributed to my life now that Dr. Fletcher has illuminated these incredible transformational literary inventions.

Dr. Fletcher is a practitioner on story science with dual degrees in literature (PhD, Yale) and neuroscience (BS, University of Michigan). As you might imagine, my interest was really piqued when he and Brene discussed the neurobiological effects that literature can have on us because of my ongoing fascination with neuroscience. Dr. Fletcher’s research is devoted to exploring the psychological effects (cognitive, behavioral and therapeutic) of different narrative technologies.

The initial discovery of the psychological benefits of literature was made by the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, in 335 B.C The following excerpt from Smithsonian Magazine (March, 2021) succinctly captures Aristotle’s remarkable assessment:

Shortly after 335 B.C., within a newly built library tucked just east of Athens’ limestone city walls, a free-thinking Greek polymath by the name of Aristotle gathered up an armful of old theater scripts. As he pored over their delicate papyrus in the amber flicker of a sesame lamp, he was struck by a revolutionary idea: What if literature was an invention for making us happier and healthier? The idea made intuitive sense; when people felt bored, or unhappy, or at a loss for meaning, they frequently turned to plays or poetry. And afterwards, they often reported feeling better. But what could be the secret to literature’s feel-better power? What hidden nuts-and-bolts conveyed its psychological benefits?

After carefully investigating the matter, Aristotle inked a short treatise that became known as the Poetics. In it, he proposed that literature was more than a single invention; it was many inventions, each constructed from an innovative use of story. Story includes the countless varieties of plot and character—and it also includes the equally various narrators that give each literary work its distinct style or voice. Those story elements, Aristotle hypothesized, could plug into our imagination, our emotions, and other parts of our psyche, troubleshooting and even improving our mental function. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/eight-literatures-most-powerful-inventions-and-neuroscience-behind-how-they-work-180977168/

I have been so captivated by the revelations that Dr. Fletcher enthusiastically shared in the podcast with Brene, that I have listened to it three times. I also bought the book Wonderworks and am currently savoring every page, while simultaneously reading some really good fiction. Now I have a sort of three-D awareness of the connections I am making with the story and the characters. I’d describe it as an Imax theatre experience for books.

Each of the unique endorsements in Wonderworks will whet your appetite for the many intriguing aspects about to be revealed in this remarkable book. The one that really caught my attention was from Dr. Martin Seligman, the internationally esteemed psychologist. It was Dr. Seligman’s book, Flourish, that started me on my journey of mindfulness and self discovery in 2014. Dr. Seligman’s game changing work in positive psychology focused on raising the bar for the human condition through optimism, motivation and character. It was almost like reconnecting with an old trusted friend who was as excited as me about these new discoveries.

“Find one polymath. Take a profound knowledge of world literature. Add a deep knowledge of modern psychology and of neuroscience. Add a cupful of worldly wisdom. Stir in an enchanting prose style. Heat until bubbling. You have just baked unique, marvelous treat: Angus Fletcher’s Wonderworks.”Dr. Martin Seligman, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Positive Psychology Center, University of Delaware.

I will confess that the reason I just had to buy this book as soon as I heard this podcast was the fact that I was totally enchanted with the names that Dr. Fletcher had for these inventions. Here are just a few to tickle your imagination:

  • the invention of the sorrow resolver
  • the invention of the mind/eye opener
  • the invention of the butterfly immerser
  • the invention of the Valentine armor

Just to marinate your imagination in what each invention might offer, consider this. Dr. Fletcher shares that “valentine armor” was the technology invented by Jane Austen to help you bounce back from heartbreak and to also empower you to have friends that are different from yourself. If you find this tidbit fascinating, just wait til you listen to the podcast or dive into the book — or both! Prepare to be amazed. (If you just can’t wait, fast forward to about 48 minutes into the podcast and listen to Dr. Fletcher blow your mind with his fascinating learnings from Jane Austen.)

For all the modalities that are available to us for personal growth, how incredible to know that literature should most definitely be added to that list. Literature is such a unique teacher for both the experience and the emotion of it — a treasured opportunity to explore our own humanity in a rich and safe space. Dr. Fletcher uses Maya Angelou’s book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as an extraordinary example of how it encourages us to align with our own core values, and find the agency to help ourselves do the work we need to grow, to give ourselves self-care. This makes us more flexible and resilient. By getting stronger in yourself, you unearth the gift that keeps on giving — because you in turn can offer meaningful, empathic help to others.

Dr. Fletcher offers this quote as the heart of his whole book: “For whatever the power of truth may be, literature’s own special power has always lain in fiction. That wonder we construct. It is the invention that unbreaks the heart and brings us into hope and peace and love.

I am thoroughly enjoying Wonderworks, reading it slowly and soaking in the history, the creativity and the sheer wonderment of all that can be learned, healed and transformed through literature, theatre, music. Brew some tea or pour some wine….treat yourself to some upbeat, uplifting inspiration from Dr. Angus Fletcher. Oh and by the way, if you aren’t already enamored with him, just know that his favorite TV show as a young man was Gilmore Girls and he is currently reading Nancy Drew to his daughter for bedtime stories.

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