Lucky Apple

I’ll say it again: I love the directness of children.

Sometimes it provides comic relief, as when, one September not too long ago, the school principal visited the kindergarten classroom where I used to volunteer, to greet the matriculating pupils. A little blond boy, who would become a favorite of mine, studied him quizzically—head cocked, hand on his chin—musing as if half to himself, “I wonder what happened to all of your hair…” The principal’s shiny pate flushed, and he seemed to choke on his words, but gamely he replied that he didn’t know, either.

Often a child’s candor is a refreshing change from the subterfuge of adults, with our emotional trench coats and back alleys, to say nothing of political doublespeak. Tikes playing with trains are the real conductors on the so-called Straight-Talk Express. (There are exceptions, of course, as I’ve acknowledged before.)

Last year I worked with a boy who’d been held back for issues that had been labeled “ADHD.” His family life was chaotic* from morning till night and undermined our therapeutic work during in-home visits in the same way, I’m guessing, that it limited his ability to do homework and engage in his own development. A meeting with faculty and staff at his locally notorious school demonstrated nothing so much as their lack of comprehension for his circumstances.

He and I had one precious office visit—our first visit, before transportation became a problem for his mom. I learned so much! We did one of my favorite focusing activities: I asked him to close his eyes while I struck my singing bowl, then raise his hand when he couldn’t hear its fading resonance anymore.** Then, I asked him to do the same thing, except this time when he could no longer hear the bell, he was to listen for anything else he could hear around him, and raise his hand when he was ready to report back.

I’m not taking authorial license to say that I’ve rarely seen such a look of concentration as on that boy’s face in the sanctuary of the office.

I was surprised and impressed to learn from him that there was more than one clock in the room; I had never noticed. (It wasn’t my space.) He was perfectly still and observant, without evincing the slightest self-consciousness. After, he spoke offhandedly of his excellent hearing. I exclaimed over his ability, in a different exercise, to shift his awareness from the top of his head to his right baby toe, such that both parts grew tingly in turn in response to being noticed; I called it a feat. After I’d defined the word for him, his response was, “Why?” What was so extraordinary? Graciously he seemed to give me the benefit of the doubt.

It’s a feat because it involves executive function. Because that’s an important way to use the brain. Because that’s the very area in which he was considered weak. Because, in fact, many of us barely notice our creaturely existence in this world, except in the most obvious ways. Because, because, because—so many possible answers. But really—why, indeed? It was a good question.

Speaking of feats, the apple pictured above was plucked from the orchard equivalent of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. And it was good—tannic and tart. A worthy reminder of many life lessons: a spindly trunk, and branches just laden with fruit.


*This is a capsule version of his situation, written from my outsider’s perspective, and should—in fairness to his mom especially—be read and understood as such. No piece of writing, however careful, ever tells or ever can tell the full tale. Not that I was endeavoring to, clearly; but I’m conscious of taking a liberty when writing about anyone but myself, and it matters to me to note that, as a caveat.

**I can’t claim to have invented this awesome activity. I think it’s fairly common in the world of mindfulness, but I know that Susan Kaiser Greenland describes it nicely in her book, The Mindful Child.


I was once in a band of two. Having no ear for music, I was the frustrated lyricist, dependent on my bandmate’s gift for composition. There was one song we sang together, however, that was wholly mine. It had but four lyrics, repeated: Clemency. Softness. Sweetness. Mercy. I see that now as an inadvertent loving-kindness meditation.

The tradition of loving-kindness meditation is a long one and takes many forms. The one I use, said to be Tibetan, looks like this: “May I be filled with loving-kindness. May I be well. May I be peaceful and at ease. May I be happy.” Susan Kaiser-Greenland, in her good work, uses the term “friendly wishes” and encourages children to invent their own; she writes about that in her book The Mindful Child.

Loving-kindness as a practice involves directing positive intentions first toward ourselves, then toward those we care about, followed by those for whom our feelings are relatively neutral, and finally toward those against whom we harbor ill will.

This can be a slow progression; words like “first,” “then,” and “followed by” misleadingly elide the steps, which are meant not only to be sequential but to represent increasing mastery, gained over time. For myself, I tend to think the practice is lifelong and nonlinear. Love of self isn’t necessarily the easiest step, despite being the first.

In my mindfulness groups at the county jail, I chose not to introduce the whole concept of loving-kindness at the start, wanting to establish purity of focus and prevent bias or resistance. (The notion of wishing that good fortune might befall an enemy is easier to swallow when one’s own life has been sweetened.) As I was explaining the first phase—sitting mostly with addicts, who tend to struggle with self-esteem—a picture flashed into my mind. I described it thus:

Imagine that you’re looking into a well, and the water in this well is pure and sweet, but there’s no bucket or ladder to help you access it. There are stones on the ground, however—smooth, clean stones that you can drop in one by one to raise the level. At last, you can bend, cup your hands, and drink. Loving-kindness is like that. Each intention is a smooth stone that, eventually, can help you quench your thirst. May you be filled with loving-kindness. May you be well. May you be peaceful and at ease. May you be happy.


I was walking back from the farmers’ market, on a recent Saturday, when I came upon a front-yard lemonade stand and its four young proprietors. Their refined sales approach caused me to pause in admiration: they let the tall, cool glasses and low, low price of 25 cents speak for themselves.

Only after I’d paused did one of the girls ask politely if I’d like some. “I don’t drink sweet things,” I said, but not wanting to disappoint them, “I’ll donate the 25 cents.” I dropped a quarter into their jar. As I turned to walk away, a wee lad of three or four piped up, “I like your blue eyes!”

He was looking at my green sunglasses: green lenses, green frames. I didn’t seize the opportunity to explain that statistically boys are more likely to be color-blind than girls; I did, however, proceed to argue with him about the nature of reality.

“My eyes aren’t blue!” I exclaimed, pushing up my glasses for him to see. “They’re green and brown! I like your blue eyes, though!” “My eyes aren’t blue!” he retorted winningly, all evidence to the contrary.

Did a satisfying conclusion exist for this friendly dispute? Standing there with four kids looking at me, I realized that I had betrayed the principles of mindfulness as espoused by Susan Kaiser Greenland. In her book The Mindful Child, she suggests a classroom exercise in which children take turns pairing off to tell each other how their eyes look, as opposed to what color they are, in acknowledgment both of individual perception and of the possibility of change. If I’d had my wits about me, I could have asked the boy, “Oh, do my eyes look blue to you?” and had an exchange that didn’t negate his very dear opening remark. Facts may (or may not) be facts, but regardless, they don’t necessarily need to come first.

“Possibility” has been a key component in the work of Dr. Ellen Langer, which I was excited to discover early this summer; her books represent decades of inspired and inspiring research. In The Power of Mindful Learning, she describes experiments in which material to be learned is presented conditionally—in essence, “This is one way it could be” vs. the more common “This is how it is”—with positive results.

In one study, free piano lessons were offered to participants randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group was asked to memorize through repetition, as is typical, while members of the second group were encouraged to vary their style as much as possible while doing preliminary fingering exercises, and to pay attention to the influence of thoughts, sensations, and feelings. Each group was given the same specific lesson, and the piano playing was taped and rated by two experienced observers (presumably not privy to the grouping, although that’s not explicitly stated in the summary). The mindful players were seen as demonstrating greater competence and creativity—and also enjoyed the activity more.

In the first chapter alone, a number of other examples echo that theme: that more exceptional performances, as well as greater satisfaction, arise from the invitation to engage mindfully, which Dr. Langer describes in slightly different terms than the definition popularized by Jon Kabat Zinn. She identifies three traits of mindful learning as “the continuous creation of new categories; openness to new information; and an implicit awareness of more than one perspective.”

Having recently begun The Power of Mindful Learning at the time of my walk, its insights flashed through my mind as I was ruing my poor conversational choices, and I realized I could at least plant a different seed of possibility, before moving on. “Now you can decide,” I said, “whether you want to just keep that quarter as a bonus, or donate a free cup of lemonade to the next person who walks past.” Maybe they gave some thought to that; maybe it will stay with them.


A seed is, itself, a possibility. A small, good thing.



The Mindful Child (2010) by Susan Kaiser Greenland, from Atria Paperback, New York.

The Power of Mindful Learning (1997) by Ellen J. Langer, from Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Reading, Massachusetts. Quoted with permission from the author, from p. 4 of this edition.