Default Matters (Reading Notes)

I am in the early chapters of a book called Shadow Syndromes, and currently am fascinated by the concept the authors put forward that they label Noise.

In the same way, they say, as all sick people are going to have a baseline of feeling cruddy (tired, confused, unmotivated, general yuck) all brain issues also have a baseline of some general, indeterminate but distinctly distracting busy-ness that gets in the way of our brains doing exactly what we want them to do.

Just as literal noise (the neighbor’s music, nearby traffic, baby crying can be alternately ignorable and maddening, so can this brain-noise. It’s something extra to process, and so an additional draw on our physical/intellectual resources.


There’s this (thank God, happily married) researcher named Gottman who’s been studying relationships and marriage for decades. This book describes Gottman’s observation of the direct correlation between heart rate and the capacity to argue like adults.

Before Gottman puts his study-subjects “under glass,” and tells them to pick a subject of conflict, he hooks up monitors to measure a variety of physical markers– including “general somatic activity” (how active is the nervous system).

The correlation is consistent with what we’ve all experienced: the more active all these markers get, the less functional the communication becomes. Gottman calls it “diffuse physiological arousal,” and it’s a reasonable summary of what Shadow Syndrome‘s authors call noise.

“Gottman actually advises troubled couples to take their pulses in the midst of battle. In his experience, when a man’s pulse reaches eighty beats per minute, on average, and a woman’s pulse ninety, there is little point in going on.”


“To put it bluntly, once in a noisy state, people are simply not as smart as they are when calm.”

The heart rate is just the at-home check anybody can do: the fact is the entire body of a combative individual is getting worked up.

Intensifying the noise.

It is a collection of extra demands on the brain, diverting energy from the “higher processes” of reasoning, empathy, the reading of body language, and subtext.

What warring partners are left with is the dubiously termed, overlearned behaviors.

These are the patterns we have repeated so many times we have burned their processes into our neural pathways. They were learned and practiced in childhood, and so have had the most time to entrench themselves as the default position.

You don’t have to think about them and that is the point.

When you are too tired (or busy) to think, these are your go-to behaviors.

Which, really, explains a lot for me. In real-life and in writing.

I’m an over-thinker already, so when I’m mapping out a scene, I really have a hard time, in good conscience, making a character do something stupid.

I mean, I know people do stupid things all the time and in a story that’s often how you get interesting things to happen. Character-A does something stupid, and we get to spend a chapter (or half the book) getting him out of it.

Other than writing by the seat of my pants (and not seeing the trouble myself, so I’ll believe the character wouldn’t) the best advice I ever got about getting characters to act stupid was Have them make decisions in a hurry.

Another option, according to this research, is to have them act in anger, or some other intense emotion, or while there’s enough other stuff going on that the decision-maker is not functioning at full capacity.

The point is– well, two points.

a) We really do deteriorate as an argument stresses us. So if progress (or relationship improvement) is our goal, taking breaks really is the best policy.

This might even be why discussing the issue in front of someone you both respect (even if s/he offers no direct input) can have value: it might be easier to maintain self-control with an audience, and you could get farther before hitting critical mass.

Maybe this is even the point of talk-therapy: the counselee is “forced” to move linearly and may be less-likely to perseverate or deteriorate to “overlearned processes” like anxiety.

b) What you were like as a kid still affects who you are now.

The subset of this being: teach your kids processing/communication skills NOW. And take every opportunity to practice with them.

Talking About Feelings

I spent my young adulthood in a master’s course on parenting.

That is, at age 16 (I believe it was) our family began hosting foster kids.

Our first placement was a set of three sisters. We were prepared for one, but they asked if it were possible not to split them up.

So I ended up sharing my room with a 6-year-old while the other two bunked in the next room.

Can I just say (and it’s all I’ll say) that going from 3 to 6 kids overnight was stressful.


After them we had a string of boys, one at a time, and I got to watch my parents deal with the vast variety these kids brought to the table. I even had to be one of those skilled adults at times (thankfully some training was provided).

There have been several times when I will tell a story (from my childhood) to, or in front of, my mom. And it’s not about her or to guilt her. In my mind she’s incidental to the point of the story.

And she will say, “I’m so. sorry. I had no idea. I was so young.

And then I feel really nervous, because I’m currently (or my kids are currently) our respective ages.

Gets me wondering what I’ll be apologizing for in 30 years.

But by the time we were bringing extra kids in, my parents had worked through three kids of their own. Kinda ironed out the major wrinkles it seemed to me, and I just took it all in.

When I had my own kids, I didn’t feel overwhelmed or “completely unprepared” like the sympathetic MOPS speakers always talked about. Yeah, the ever-present daily-ness of things wore me out, but it was a while before I really felt out of my depth.

All that to say that I know the “right way” to do most things.

Whether I have the energy to do those things is frequently in question, but I’ve always got this You should/could be doing *this* in my head.

And I know from months and years of watching and working with parents and children that (for example) it’s a good thing to talk about your feelings, rather than letting them explode all over your environment and the people you love.

So I’m really good at not-exploding.

But I’d had so much on the “emotions” side of things in the last week, that I should have been doing *some* talking at least, and I think I was doing less. Of the meaningful kind.

By yesterday I was so stretched (I was back on the wagon after a weekend of too much sugar and grains, working too hard, and that other, emotional, stuff) that I was pretty minimal on the parenting side of things.

I normally redirect and (try to) teach negotiating skills during after-school conflict, but I was just burned out and laid down a lot more ultimatums than usual.

Image courtesy of Ned Horton via stock.xchng

Anyway, there was yet another sizzling confrontation in the living room, and I walked in on Melody trying to explain something to a concertedly disinterested Elisha.

She was escalating; I ordered her off her brother’s case and she turned to me with her copious tears.

“I just want him to understand!” she said.

“But it’s his project,” I said, slipping into default mode (my default is pretty much autonomy). “Unless he wants to include you in his project, you’re stuck. You can feel what you feel, and ask God to help you with that, but you can’t push in where you’re not welcome.”

I remembered an earlier mom-intervention from that afternoon.

“Not long ago Natasha tried to help you with your spelling, but you didn’t find it helpful. I told her to back off, because that was your project, and it wasn’t her place to tell you what should work for you.”

Melody’s face was now troubled.  She was beginning to see both sides, and even for grown-ups, simultaneously holding both sides of a conflict gets heavy.

“But– but–!”

“It happens to me to!”

I wanted to shout, but said it carefully. Melody looked interested now, through her pout.


“I want to help another grown-up, I think I’ve got great ideas, just like you do for Elisha, or Natasha does for you. But it’s not. my. project. If this person doesn’t want to let me in there’s nothing I can do about that except pray, and give my feelings to God. There’s too much in life we just can’t. control.”

And at that moment I felt something in me relax.

I was still so tired my skin ached, and annoyed at how long it takes my system to level out after eating wrong, but I’d said something I needed to say.

And it didn’t hurt that my little girl seemed to learn from it too.


It’s all… Just Enough

I’ve been making a valiant effort in the preceding months to do everything.

And that made blogging easy to drop.

I read novels (!!!)

Galvanized by my disappointing failure in April to read a book in two weeks (I’m still sorry Mary!), I leaned into reading in May.

Image courtesy of Sanja Gjenero via stock.xchng

Then something clicked– a visit to the used book store, the right thing being on my kindle, and a delicious chemistry of calm in the household.

Before the Fourth of July I had read The Healer’s Apprentice, The Fairy Path, Silence of the Lambs, By Darkness Hid, To Darkness Fled, From Darkness Won, The Iron King, The Short Straw Bride and Clockwiser.

Thoroughly enjoyed all of them. Showed me all sorts of storytelling elements I’ve been studying and digging toward. Absolutely delightful blend of work.

It was just beginning to feel like a binge, and life was getting fuller, so I set aside fiction (which demands sustained reading) in favor of a nutritional, non-fiction season.

Trouble was, I felt suddenly guilty that I was no longer a reader. A fiction reader. A reader of what I wanted to write.

Because, look at me, I’m. not. reading! {fiction.}

Ridiculous, right? {please say yes.}

I made me think how I really don’t understand Grace.

No, really, it does.

And don’t give me that ‘None of us understand grace,’ bit. I didn’t understand digestion for years, either. There are some things that kinda just work on their own, but that doesn’t mean your relationship to them is unchanging.

Let’s try a healthy-food analogy (since that’s what I’ve been reading like crazy the last two or three weeks). Turns out Food is like the the code someone writes to create software. Only, the software in this case is the DNA regeneration in your body with normal cell production.

What you eat tells your body which elements (nearly endless, it seems) to activate or hibernate. Very like binary code.

Now, I don’t have to know any of this for my body to do what it does, but if I want my body to end up in the right place (physically/mentally/emotionally sound), I need to feed in the right code.

And that will take some awareness. A remembering. Continue reading »

What you CAN do

This is what I wrote on the side of our fridge Saturday afternoon:

Focus on what you CAN do,
Rather than what you don’t know.

It came out of an interaction with Elisha that morning, where he *PANICKING!* was running out of time to finish emptying the dishwasher.

“Where does this go?” he’d gasp, running from the kitchen. “What about this?”

And I kept telling him, with increasing irritation, “There’s a whole dishwasher of things you do know what to do with. Save what you don’t know for later.”

It was weird because I always put away the esoteric stuff anyway, like canning funnels or flour sifters.

But it was that fridge line that became the mantra, to the point that I wrote it where we’ll all see it 16-times each day.

It’s a funny (odd) line to think on, as there’s not the parallelism you’d expect.

Image courtesy of Sue Byford via stock.xchng

But is wasn’t until the kids were down for the night, and I was alone in the house (Jay was gone for the weekend, catching salmon to stock our freezer.) that I saw that morning conversation as foreshadowing.

Have you ever seen foreshadowing in your own life? I’d love to hear about it.

Alone with my thoughts is not always a safe place to be, because (like my darling children) I have the ability to escalate.

And as a fairly intelligent adult, my escalations have the terrifying ability to be plausible.

Over the last two years (maybe I’ll tell that story someday) I’ve discovered the tar pit of anxiety, along with depression. It’s a tricky place for me, because my understanding of intellectual honesty is that you don’t pull back from an idea just because it gets uncomfortable.

So I’ve assumed for years that being uncomfortable is part of the process of being honest.

I ran into trouble when there were so many variables that a specific, concrete truth was not knowable.

That’s something I saw Saturday night.

A new data point entered my world, with a kaleidoscope of refracting possibilities. I could actually feel the tension in my chest preparing for take-off. Then I walked by

Focus on what you CAN do,
Rather than what you don’t know.

For the tiniest instant it felt like lying to myself. It felt like sticking my head in the sand.

But no “truth-telling” or looking closer at the problem would have resolved it. Continue reading »

Storytelling Resources for Kids

Today I’m participating in the Ultimate Blog Swap. You’ll find me posting over at Oak Bay Drive about Living my Dream.

Dream-life is not what I expected, but then, I didn’t know what to expect.

At the same time, I’m pleased to welcome focused mama-of-three, Erin, from Royal Baloo to Untangling Tales. I’m excited about her visit because Erin is one of those moms who thinks about specific means to reach her parenting and teaching goals. She’s sharing some of those ideas today, specifically related to my heart-mission of storytelling.

Reading aloud to our children is a very important task – something we are told over and over again!  But did you know that storytelling is also a very important skill to learn?  It teaches kids to be creative and spontaneous.  Stories made up on-the-fly can teach kids about the world around them.  And it’s so much fun!

I have 3 boys (5, 3, and 1) and I’ve found that they love being told stories, but they don’t enjoy the process of making up stories nearly as much.  So I try to tell them stories often.  I tell them about my childhood, my dreams, stories from history that I can remember, and their personal favorite, very silly and completely made-up stories.

However, I really want them to participate in the creative part!  I’ve started trying out a few new methods to encourage them.

1.  Story Dice.
I’ve found a nice set on Amazon, but there are plenty of free printable options as well.  Roll the dice and turn the pictures into a story!  I find these kinds of activities particularly fun because I can’t rely on my standard set of characters or locations.  Many of my stories start off with “Once upon a time a little boy ran into the forest” but with the story cubes I am forced to be a bit more creative.

2. Story starters.
Who doesn’t love a good story starter to help them out of a slump, or just any old time?  I always liked the idea of having a story idea worked out and just filling in all the details.

3.  Create new endings to your favorite stories.
I think the is the most fun because it’s kind of like breaking the rules.  Try to get your kids to think of a different ending for one of their favorite books.  What if the main character didn’t apologize, or what if they didn’t get caught?

4.  Silly sentences.
Being as young as they are, my boys love silly things.  Elephants with mice on their heads and people who walk upside down are just hilarious!  So I love to indulge them with silly sentences.  Sometimes we fill in mad-libs, sometimes they shout out words, and sometimes we just deliberately make silly sentences.  Either way, a silly sentence can turn into quite a fun (and silly) made-up story!

Erin is a stay-at-home, homeschooling mother to her three crazy and energetic sons.  In her spare time she loves to create and be crafty, whether it be sewing, knitting, or photography.  She shares her homeschooling adventures and ideas at Royal Baloo.

Visit Life Your Way to see all of the Ultimate Blog Swap participants!

Including the Kids

I read a wide variety of topics, some pretty esoteric stuff.  And it’s tricky sometimes because I want to talk about what I’m processing (and Natasha in particular wants to do grown-up talk) but there’s always the question about how much is appropriate for the kids, and how much they would even understand.

Currently I am reading three books:

  • The Midnight Disease by Alice Flaherty (a book about the way the human brain works related to the various aspects of application and frustration reflected in writing and not-writing)
  • Deep Nutrition by Catherine Shanahan (a book– so far– about epigenetics and how food functions very like programming code being written for the DNA/genes to run.)
  • You’re Already Amazing by Holley Gerth (a book with a very ‘girlfriend’ tone that urges the reader to look very closely at herself and at life in the light of scripture).

Can I just say right here how much I love synergy?

I might (I doubt it) have finished one of these books already if it was the only one I was working on, but then I would have missed all sorts of interconnected gems.

Tonight I used something from the Midnight book with Natasha.

There are times she gets really *tight* about something and she can’t let it go. Just tonight for example.

“It’s happening again Mommy!” (I can guess she’s a bit regressed when I hear Mommy. My least-favorite title.)
“What’s happening?”
“I’m scared KNIDS are going to come and eat Elisha!”

And I have to try not to roll my eyes if the lights are on.

I really wonder if this started out as a game, or sleep-delay tactic, but whatever the origin these fears are now full-on terrifying to her, and just plain irritate me.

As anyone with fearful children will tell you, reassurances and discussions (or lectures) of reality are no use in these situations.

So I did an extemporaneous mini-lecture about perseveration.

I explained how a person whose brain has been damaged in a particular way will perceive something accurately, but then see only that. You show him a fork, ask him to name it, and he’ll say fork.

But then you show him a spoon, a knife, a toy truck, and each of those will also be called a fork.

The way to break this cycle is to draw his attention away from the idea for a moment:

A loud noise outside, or a family member walking into the room, will let the fork leave the center of his focus long enough for him to correctly name the new object.


But this merely shifts the problem, as everything now is identified as a stapler.

The point is, I told Natasha, You can use the same idea to shift your thoughts. If you let them go.

*Too* many times, she has come out to us in the living room sweating with anxiety. I’m convinced she rehearses the fear all her steps out to where we are, so whatever it is is only amplified, not relieved, by travel.

“Imagine your thoughts are a bouncy ball,” I suggested. “Right now, your ball is on the purple elephants step [She laughs]. If you want to quit thinking about purple elephants, you should try a shift of some kind. Go get a drink. Use the bathroom. Climbing down the ladder will give your brain a chance to bump the ball off the purple elephants step. AS LONG AS you don’t keep it there.”

I made a cage with the fingers of one hand over the palm of my other hand.

“If you don’t let it move, it won’t. Give it a chance.”

All these words were delivered with my end-of-the-day, how-much-of-this-is-useful-and-how-much-is-just-delay-? pseudo-conviction.

Jay took the kid-calls that came in the next half-hour, till Natasha bright-eyed and grinning tumbled into the living room.

“It worked! See, I was smoothing my hair, then thought, I bet I could make a pony tail–“

This is a morning-story,” I interrupted. “You belong in bed.”

She backed away, grinning. “And it worked, Mama,” she finished. “Your idea of getting down worked!

And she took herself back off to bed, tear-free.