Susan Craig

Live, Love, Learn……Every story is a journey

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It’s never been done before–Novelty is good for your brain

When was the last time you did something that you’ve never done before? That is the pursuit of novelty, and it’s good for your brain. Children do this all the time. I remember one particular time when my son amazed me with his enthusiasm for doing something new..

gravel
Photo by Stephen Walker on Unsplash

Diamonds in his hand

The sliding glass door behind me opened and my eight year son raced eagerly to the kitchen table where I sat, paying bills. He waved a hand in my face .“Mom, look! Are they diamonds?”

I caught the scent of sweet green grass mixed with the earthy smell of dirt and the tang of sweat from his damp head. It was summer in Houston, Texas, and the jumble of odors could have been a signature cologne named Boy. I threw an arm around his shoulders and pulled him close for a hug, but he wiggled away and again thrust his grimy fist in front of my face.

“Mom, look!” He’d been poking through a pile of marble-sized gravel in the backyard. In his hand were three translucent stones. Their split surfaces gleamed in the sunlight from the window.

I smiled. “No, honey, those aren’t diamonds, they’re quartz. Aren’t they pretty?”

Nodding, he left the stones on the table next to me and went back outdoors. A few minutes later, he returned. “Is this one a diamond?”

“No, this one is quartz too.” I suspected what he was up to and thought I’d share some pertinent information with him. “You know, honey, diamonds are really, really rare.”

“Uh huh, I know.” He set the stone gently on the table, next to the first three and quietly walked to the door. I returned to my work. It was a while before I heard the sliding door move again.

“Hey, Mom, what about this one?” This time, he’d found a tumbled piece of clear crystal quartz and the split surface had a glass-like sparkle.

“This is beautiful. But it’s still quartz. You know son,” I said gently, “I don’t think anyone has ever found a diamond in Texas.”

He looked over his shoulder and beamed at me as he headed out the door. “That’s okay. I want to be the first!”

Be the first

The first. When was the last time you decided to do what had never been done before? Does the notion seem impossible? How could one even approach such a task?

It isn’t so far-fetched as you might think, when you bring it down to a personal level. When was the last time you did something you had never done before?

Still daunting? Children do brand new things all the time. They learn to walk. They learn to talk, and read, and write. We can do new things, too. And we should.

Build more brain connections

In a very real sense, we get old because we cease pursuing novelty. We stop learning. Ever wonder why children can keep you young (when they’re not wearing you out)? Because so much of life is new to them. Newness generates enthusiasm, sharpens the mind, and is good for the body. It builds connections in your brain.

By conservative estimate, there are 100 billion neurons in your brain, each with tens of thousands of synaptic connections. With so many connections there already, why should you care about building more?

It’s a fair question. Try this: According to brain experts, the more connections your brain has, the more resource you have for recovery should some of those connections be injured. The more connections you can lose before functional impairment occurs. The more connections you have, and the more new connections you grow, the easier it is to grow still more connections. The more you learn, the easier it is to learn more.

No one has ever managed to fill a brain with as much knowledge as it can hold. The more we learn, the more we can learn. Does everything you learn stay forever? No, but who cares? It never did. Does your child remember all the fun, wonderful things you did with them when they were two years old? No. Were those things important and worth doing? Of course they were. Those experiences helped mold their brains, helped connections form and strengthen. It doesn’t matter that they are not remembered; the positive effects of good experiences remain.

And so it is with us. There are limitless possibilities for new things to do, to learn, to try. Do you want to learn a foreign language, develop a new skill, take up a hobby? Do you need to break a habit you have never successfully broken before?

No excuses

The “reasons” not to are legion. “I’ll make a fool of myself” and “I don’t have the time” are the most frequently heard. But these excuses pale beside the advantages.

Research supports the idea that “active learning” pursued throughout life will help minimize or prevent loss of functional brain power as we age. What do the experts mean by active learning? The key is novelty. Doing the crossword every day is good; working a type of puzzle that is new to you is better. Look for tasks that require both mental and physical agility. The very best experience you can give your brain is something that engages mind and body in a novel way. Learning a new dance, a new sport, how to play an instrument, how to speak a foreign language are all better than merely reading or listening to new information.

Someone has said insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Don’t get caught in that trap.
Do something new.

Go for a first.

Until next time…
–Susan.

(Data source: The Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, www.dana.org )

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Remember Hallowe’en? – Happy Times and Traditions

A Happy Scary Time

Happy times are always worth remembering. Today let’s celebrate the changing traditions of Hallowe’en with a memory of how it used to be.

Children dressed for Halloween

Hallowe’en? What’s with the apostrophe?

Halloween originated as the Eve of All Saints Day, which used to be All Hallows Day. That accounts for the ‘hallow’ part of Halloween. Lots of you already know that. So did I.
But I recently learned the rest of the story. The Eve of All Hallows Day, or Hallows Eve, should have given us Halloweve. But, back in the past, instead of using Eve as an abbreviation for Evening (meaning the night before the big day), Evening was shortened to Even. So you had Hallows Even, which eventually became Hallowe’en, and still later… Halloween.
Now you know.

Halloween used to have October all to itself.

When I was a child, there was no competition from other October holidays, and every free moment of the elementary school day for the entire month of October was devoted to drawing detailed pictures of haunted houses populated by skeletons, ghosts and black cats who hissed as witches rode brooms across the face of the moon.
When we tired of haunted houses, we drew graveyards with tombstones carved to read R.I.P., I. M. Dead and U. R. Too. 
Instead of reading about Harry Potter’s Halloween feast, we walked with Ichabod Crane as the teacher read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
There wasn’t a pilgrim or Thanksgiving turkey in sight. And Christmas? That was far, far away. No candy canes, no ads for Christmas toys, no Hallmark channel movies.
Only Halloween enlivened October.

Halloween has always been scary.

At first, people believed that the dead and/or their spirits walked the earth on the night before All Hallows Day. 
Much later children disguised themselves and used the evening as an occasion to play tricks on their neighbors—think of Tootie and the flour sack in the old musical,“Meet Me In St. Louis.”

Tootie in "Meet Me In St. Louis"
Tootie

Still later came the notion of providing treats to avoid the children’s tricks. By the time I was a child, the custom had evolved to chanting “Trick or Treat!’ at the door. In that more trusting time, we children would often be invited into the home and asked, “What are you going to do?” You had to have something to offer to get a treat—a joke to tell, a song to sing, a little dance—but the treats were great! Candy apples rolled in crushed nuts, popcorn balls gooey with caramel, rich sugary fudge, and homemade cookies. Instead of a ransom to avoid mischief, the treat had become a reward for performing some trick to amuse the household.
And when we hauled the loot hime, no one checked our candy, and with no lectures about nutrition or tooth decay, we ate until we could hold no more.
Scary!

Glowing in the dark.

Costumes have changed, too. We wore costumes made at home. One year, my brother and I wore paper sacks from the dry cleaner (apparently it was the pre-plastic wrap era) on which our father had painted skeletons with white bones highlighted in a pale glowing green. We were probably more laden with radium than a wristwatch dial—but who knew? Happily we traipsed from house to house, mob after mob of children, with nary an adult in sight: Hobos, Ghosts, Gypsies, Pirates, Witches, Princesses and Clowns. If there was a Superman costume, it was homemade and clearly ahead of its time. The nights I remember were cool and crisp, with air that held the nutmeg scent of dried leaves and often a tang of woodsmoke.

Children in halloween costumes

 Parties and hayrides

In high school, a classmate might throw a Halloween party. We’d carve Jack o Lanterns, with a prize for the best one. There would be apples floating in a tank of water. You had to bob to get one—that meant putting your face in the tank and grabbing the apple with your teeth—no hands allowed. And for snacks we had caramel or even chocolate popcorn balls with apple cider in punch bowls smoking with dry ice.
Sometimes there would be hayrides under clear cold skies lit by full, harvest moons. Back then, a hayride didn’t mean square hay bales on a flatbed trailer, but slippery, crunchy, resilient mounds of straw in wagons built to hold hay, not people, and pulled by massive, patient draft horses, instead of tractors.
We sang songs from our parents’ day—Shine on Harvest Moon, You Are My Sunshine, and Clementine. We laughed ridiculously hard at ancient knock-knock jokes, so hard that some of us fell off the wagon and had to run to catch up. The horses were never stopped to wait for stragglers, so jumping back on required the help of friends who would pull you to safety, or failing that, tumble off themselves.
When the night ended, we’d walk home, under a black sky pierced with white-hot, quivering stars, kicking through drifts of leaves, and smelling the cold, the ripeness, the anticipation that was autumn.

Live every day. Make a memory.

Until next time,
Susan.