I learned about Occam’s razor in a college philosophy course and it made a strong impression on me. At the time, I was strictly a science major – biology and chemistry – and the idea appealed to me.

According to Wikipedia, Occam’s razor is

“a principle of parsimony, economy, orsuccinctness used in problem-solving devised by William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347). It states that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Other, more complicated solutions may ultimately prove correct, but—in the absence of certainty—the fewer assumptions that are made, the better.”

In other words, the simplest solution is generally the best.  We humans tend to make things more complicated than they need to be and often, when I am feeling particularly perplexed, this bit of wisdom reminds me to step back, breathe deeply, and think about a simpler way to get to the result I am seeking.

Yesterday, when I read a story about some newly genetically modified bananas that are set to be tested on human beings, the full force of this theory slapped me upside the head.  You can read the entire story here, but the gist of it is this:  For the last nine years, researchers in Australia, backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have been attempting to enrich bananas with Vitamin A in an effort to combat the lack of this vital nutrient in the diets of many African children. Vitamin A deficiency can lead to blindness, immune deficiencies, abnormal brain development, and death.  And so, these researchers have spent years and years and untold millions of dollars attempting to engineer a better banana and they think they have finally done it.  They will begin feeding it to human beings soon (the article does not say which human beings where) and hope that by 2020, (a mere six years from now), they can begin planting it in African countries and harvesting it.

Beyond the obvious issues I have with GMO foods and human trials whose effects we cannot possibly predict, I am speechless.  I know that Bill Gates’ life was founded and built on technology, and I know that he has seen it do amazing things. I understand that he is completely besotted with the idea of technological solutions for nearly every problem he sees, and I know that his foundation has long been in bed with the likes of Monsanto, but this entire endeavor is so wasteful and misguided I can barely breathe.  I cannot claim to ever have worked with the man, so I don’t know what his managerial style is, but I can’t imagine being a part of his organization and not pointing out the fact that a potential solution to Vitamin A deficiency and malnutrition ALREADY EXISTS. 


Those of us humans who know a little about nutrition and real food call them sweet potatoes.  They grow quite well in many African climates and have boatloads of beta-carotene – the form of Vitamin A that has been engineered into these bananas – and have already been tested on humans for tens of thousands of years.  In the absence of massive amounts of fertilizers and pesticides, they are quite healthy for people of all ages and easily consumed and digested by infants and toddlers.  And they didn’t require a massive investment of money or time to develop.

Of course, you can’t patent sweet potatoes, so perhaps therein lies the rub. But if a non-profit organization like The Gates Foundation is truly interested in solving the problems of world hunger, they ought to stop wasting millions of dollars on R&D and look to the solutions that already exist.  Helping African communities get access to a healthy, well-balanced diet is surely simpler than they think. There is no reason to engineer food in order to feed people unless you are blinded by your love of technology. Just because you can engineer it doesn’t mean you should, especially if it will cost more in time and money than a solution that is already available and you can’t be sure the outcome will be good for the people you say you’re interested in serving.

This banjo is sitting in the corner of my living room. For the first few weeks it was here, it sat inside its case because I wanted to make sure my head and heart were clear when I finally opened it up.  It belonged to my dad, and even though he died nearly six years ago, his wife only recently began packing up his things and figuring out what to do with them. She knew I wanted the banjo, but she couldn’t find it in any of the places she expected it to be and then one day, as she lie on her bedroom floor fishing underneath the bed for a roll of Christmas wrap, her fingers bumped up against the black faux-leather case.

I brought it home, having only unzipped the case once or twice to peek inside and marvel at its pristine condition (although I shouldn’t have, my dad was a Marine in every sense and took impeccable care of his things).  When I finally sat down in the living room to take it out all the way – Bubba off on a business trip and the girls away at school for the day, weak February sunshine filtering through the leaded glass windows – time stopped.  I don’t remember hearing anything from inside or outside the house; no dogs barking or airplanes soaring by, no hum of the refrigerator or the dryer. Of course, that is impossible, but I felt weighty and deliberate as I gently lifted it out by the neck and the body, careful not to smear fingerprints on the shiny chrome or twang one of the strings and break the spell.  Nestled beneath the banjo itself was a songbook and instructional manual by Pete Seeger and I nearly cried out when I saw it. Dad was a huge folk music fan. We grew up listening to the Kingston Trio and The Mamas and the Papas and Dad, while he couldn’t read a note of music, could hear a song once or twice and pick it out on the banjo or the guitar or the piano.  I don’t recall how often it happened, but I have fond memories of sitting cross-legged in the living room in a small circle with my sister and brothers while Dad taught us “Froggie Went-A-Courtin'” and “Greensleeves” and we had sing-a-longs.  I remember his long freckled fingers with the ridged nails and knobby knuckles picking and bending the strings in perfect time as our little troupe swayed back and forth singing with great gusto.

Laying the banjo across the couch cushions, I picked up the songbook and flipped through, hoping for some handwritten evidence of Dad somewhere within. His distinctive scrawl, always in pencil, shaped by the tremor in his hands, didn’t show up anywhere.  I was deflated.  I think I was looking for some message from beyond.

In the months since that day, I have walked by the banjo many times as it sits propped up in a box in the corner, neglected. I would love to learn how to play and have often thought about picking up that instruction book to give it a shot, but I’m both afraid and intrigued by what the music would do to me, what doors it might open if I do, indeed, figure out how to strum that banjo to play the folk songs of my childhood.  Occasionally as I walk past, I can smell the scent of cherry tobacco that came from Dad’s pipe and I am suddenly in the middle of that living room with the green shag carpet and the gold velour couch and swivel chair, Dad leaning back with the newspaper and the pipe smoke wafting gently to the flecked ceiling. My thoughts drift to the brother we lost during that time and I quickly shut the door of my mind.

Last Friday, Bubba and I took the girls out for dinner to a place in our neighborhood we’ve never been before. As we sat and waited to order, I became aware of the music playing and my heart swelled.  Throughout our fantastic meal, an entire Jim Croce album played, each song in the order I remember: Time in a Bottle, Operator (That’s Not the Way it Feels), Rapid Roy (The Stock Car Boy), Bad Bad Leroy Brown, You Don’t Mess Around With Jim, One Less Set of Footsteps, I’ll Have to Say I Love You in a Song.  The girls kept getting annoyed with me, alternately because I was singing along with the songs and because I got lost in my reverie and dropped the thread of our conversation.  I know they don’t understand the pull of this music for me and the melancholy memories, but it was such a lovely warm feeling to be surrounded by Dad, laughing at the absurdity and playfulness of some of the lyrics as well as the innocence and sweetness.

Even though Dad was not a musician by trade, nor would he ever have considered that a possible career, one of his purest joys was music and it was often the one thing that we could all agree on.  The soundtrack to our summer road trips featured folk artists as well as popular music from The Doobie Brothers and The Little River Band (Dad was not a Beatles fan at all). More often than not, we would pop in an 8-track, roll all the windows down and sing together in what we thought was perfect harmony. And it turns out, it was.

I consider myself to be a pretty compassionate person. I try hard to not react too strongly to anything without giving myself time to let intense emotions pass, and I work hard to put myself in the shoes of other people.  If I hear myself making some judgment about another human being, I can often stop myself in my tracks and try to identify what it is that I’m feeling, what might be driving that need to distance myself or put someone in a box.

Unfortunately, my compassion sometimes has limits and what I’ve recently discovered is that they lie pretty close to home.  There are a few people in my life that I tend to treat much differently than others and that realization stings.  For years, my dad was one of those people, but somehow I was able to move past that and develop a bottomless sense of understanding and love for him. (I wrote a little about the beginning of this process here.)

What I came to understand this morning, as I thought about the folks I have trouble having compassion for, is that they all have something pretty profound in common.  They are all people for whom I have felt responsible at one time or another, very, very responsible.  It occurred to me (well, actually, hit me in the chest like a punching bag) that my inability to have a pure sense of compassion for them was more likely the result of me not being able to have compassion for myself. Because on some level, I feel as though many of the things they have done that I have trouble with came about because of me, that I am somehow to blame for the way they are, and by distancing myself from these aspects of them, I am really distancing myself from the things I don’t like about what I may have done to them (or prevented them from becoming).

You see, for me, not being able to relate to another person enough to have empathy for them is a direct result of my walling off in order to protect myself.  If I can look at someone and judge that they are “Wrong” or that they “deserve” what is happening to them, I am basically telling myself that what they are going through is nothing I will ever have to deal with. I am using my intellect to craft some imaginary world in which I get to be in control of all circumstances and contingencies and determining that this Other Person’s life is so different from my own that I will never have diabetes or a child in prison or a husband who leaves me for another woman.  I am not that person.

But in this case, my ultimate fear is that I may have created “that person,” perhaps by not saying enough or by saying too much, by not saying the right things or doing the right things or simply by not being who I Ought To Have Been at some pivotal moment.  And of course, none of this means that I don’t dearly, deeply love each of these individuals because they are some of the most beloved people in my life. And, it turns out, I am not actually struggling with having compassion for them at all. I am simply struggling with the idea that they are individuals that don’t belong to me in any way, shape, or form. Once I can begin to see them as human beings whose actions and beliefs are their own, whose lives do not reflect on my self-worth, I will be free to offer them as much compassion as I do anyone else. And then the work can begin wherein I turn it back on to myself.

Spring Break. That’s why it’s been a while since I wrote anything.  It is this particular week that both strikes fear in to my heart for the coming summer (and having the girls around all day every day) and thrills me because I get to hang out with my girls and do things like walk the dog and read books in the sunshine and bake cookies.  This week has been a perfect window in to just that. And now that it’s Thursday, I’m ready for them to go back to school. And I have no idea how I’m going to survive summer.  None.  I will certainly have to be more diligent about carving out time to write (and read) if I am to preserve what little portion of sanity I have left.

One incredibly bright beacon this week came thanks to Kris Prochaska and her talents.  Kris is a counselor by training who has built a practice around helping people decipher what she calls their “human design,” in an effort to optimize the way they work and live in the world.  I wrote about one session with her last November where I had a multitude of “a-ha” moments and, following that, I became interested in seeing if she could help my girls navigate the treacherous waters of adolescence.  I pulled up our Human Design Charts (a mixture of information based on chakras and the zodiac and the I-Ching, among other things) and asked Kris to work with Lola first.  On Tuesday, she spent a little more than two hours with us helping Lola understand what Kris calls the blueprint of her personality in order to better understand how she can most effectively make good decisions that are in alignment with her design.  Kris explains it better on her site:

“In every case, when I am talking with my clients about miscommunication with their family, stress around money and marketing, and feeling overwhelmed around their calendar it boils down to the initial decision and commitment they made.  Invariably they say something like “how did I get in this AGAIN?” And we look at the energy and emotion behind the decision and realize they were making the decision and commitment from their little voices of fear, doubt, shame and lots of guilt.  Ugh.  No wonder stress and overwhelm is there.

Sometimes it’s not so much the little voices that are pulling us this way or that, but rather living out of alignment with how we are uniquely designed as individuals to manage our energy, communicate our message, or commit to the next business venture.All of your results stem from the moment you choose a course of action and how you approach that choice emotionally and energetically.  Wouldn’t it be prudent (and totally freakin’ powerful!) to know exactly what voices are making those choices, and how you best listen to the only voice that you need ever heed: your Inner Voice?”

We all have different ways of listening to (and finding) our inner authority and after talking with Kris, Lola has a much better shot at honoring hers. I am convinced that, armed with this information, she will be able to make her way through the challenges of teenagerhood with more clarity.  Eve is already bugging me to schedule her session with Kris, but my brain is so full from Lola’s I feel like I need to go sit in a dark cave for a week to process it all.

I was looking forward to a few hours free today while the girls head to school for an exciting opportunity, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to stay away.  Their school was one of four in the nation chosen by The Clinton Foundation to engage in a Skype discussion about empowering girls to change the world.  I am fairly certain that neither Eve nor Lola truly understands the significance (I know I wouldn’t have when I was their age – hang out with a former Secretary of State on video? Who cares?), but I’m happy that the sun has gone away for today so they won’t be resenting me for intruding upon their Spring Break by making them participate. Of course, because I understand the significance of it, I will likely be sitting on my hands in the back of the room, clamping my lips together to force myself to stay quiet and let the girls speak, so my “few hours free” won’t be.

It will all definitely give me more to write about, although that isn’t a challenge right now. I have so many half-begun essays and poems, so many pieces sent out for submission to different publications (some hanging out there for weeks, waiting, and others simply rejected), that I hardly know how to tell them apart anymore. It would take the entire summer of writing in a vacuum to complete them all, and that’s only if nothing else occurred to me while I was writing.  There is a constant buzzing in my head from all the ideas and thoughts, both disparate and connected, and it’s all I can do to remember what Kris told me about my particular cycles of activity and how this happens every Spring.  I will wait for the bees to settle in and be still so that I can take the time I need with each one and it will all get done – or at least the stuff that needs to get done will get done. The rest can just buzz on away like so much background noise.

How do you survive Spring Break?

I don’t compartmentalize. Anything. Ever. I’ve heard it said that women don’t, or at least that men do it better and more often. I don’t know if that’s true or not.  In my personal experience, I have observed that Bubba seems to be very adept at putting aside certain things that may be difficult emotionally so that he can go on with his work day and revisit them later.  I don’t know if that means he simply doesn’t think about those things at work, or if it’s easier to think about them later when his emotions have died down or if he’s even self-aware enough to ask those questions and answer them. He has told me that when he’s at work, he isn’t worried about the house or the dog’s cancer or the kids or me. He trusts that we are all just fine – he has to, or he wouldn’t be able to function.

A friend told me once that she believes that the reason fathers have an easier time shutting off their “father” persona at work than mothers is because they were never physically attached to their children via an umbilical cord.  I remember thinking at the time that I hoped one day someone would do a study of adoptive mothers to see if there was any truth in that supposition.  It is certainly true for me that I am never not a mother, that at any given time no matter what I am doing I am aware of my children somewhere making their way in the world, that I am always ready to answer a phone call from the school or a friend’s mother in case one of my girls needs me.

But that could be because I don’t compartmentalize.  My life is like a watercolor painting on some coarse, linen-like canvas, where any stroke of color you put down is likely to bleed in several directions to blend with what is already there.  Every conversation I have with a close friend is held up to the light and examined within the context of what I already know. Every time I have a fight with one of the kids or discover someone’s massive screw-up, I question my entire parenting philosophy and make Bubba crazy with my self-investigation.

It wasn’t always like this.  As a kid, I was an expert at keeping things separate.  What happened at home stayed at home. I didn’t talk to anyone at school about the things that went on behind the front door of our house and, frankly, I didn’t think about it at school, either.  Upon walking out the door into the world, I simply became someone else, someone confident and competent, someone who didn’t have a personal life beyond school and sports and my job waiting tables.  I didn’t allow myself to think about anything but what I was doing in that skin and even when I got home, I tried desperately to inhabit that other person’s body.  Needless to say, my worlds eventually collided. I cracked the compartment wide open and began letting light in and the things stuffed inside all tumbled out and left footprints all over everything else in their haste.  Somehow, after years of talking and writing and thinking and figuring out who I am, I have managed to integrate all of my selves: daughter, mother, wife, sister, friend, writer. I don’t know how to go back and, frankly, I don’t want to, but it does mean that when something painful happens, I am likely to ruminate on it for a while as it slowly spreads out into places I can’t predict, changing the landscape of me. That also means that when I’m feeling particularly happy and optimistic, I have a different perspective on everything. Occasionally, I am able to step back and take a look at this multilayered, crazy textured work of art and see how rich and amazing it is with the overlapping bits of dark and light and feel a deep gratitude for this life.  Occasionally, I am prompted to reach out and stroke a particularly awful piece of memory to see if it has maintained its power to sting after many many years even as I marvel at the way it mingles with its beautiful surroundings.  Honestly, I think it is this knowledge that keeps me moving forward when I am skewered through with pain, the belief that it will thin out and become part of something wonderful in the end.

Elizabeth highlighted this op-ed on her Facebook page on Sunday and, as it is fairly short, I urge you to go read it before you continue reading this post.  It makes me sad that the author is so spot-on as he calls out the responses of so many of his readers.  I agree with him that there is a lack of compassion in general in this country (and maybe in others – I don’t honestly know because I’m only here), but more specifically online. I think that it is much easier to assert our opinions in sound bite form with respect to challenging issues when they are stereotypical or beside the point.  I can cite several examples of nasty comments I’ve seen upon reading a news article or blog post that have nothing to do with the issue at hand, and serve only to attack either the writer or one of the main people in the story for superficial, usually physical, attributes or knee-jerk reactions to one minor point of the story.

We are all so conditioned to have an opinion and share it that we rarely stop to consider nuances and details of a story that may have eluded us. We are conditioned to talk instead of listen, and make up our minds but not change them.  Compassion requires a willingness to walk in someone else’s shoes, or at least acknowledge that their shoes are different from yours in a fundamental way. Compassion requires curiosity about the circumstances of another person’s life and it implores us to suspend (or altogether eliminate) judgment. In order to be compassionate, we have to take the time to build a bridge from the parts of us that are most human to the parts of others that are most human and that takes courage.

I struggle most with compassion when I am trying the hardest to keep fear at bay. When I see a parent grieving for their child, my mind races to find all of the reasons why that could never happen to me and often, that manifests itself as judgment. If that mom/dad hadn’t made the choice to ______________, this wouldn’t have happened. The more I convince myself that someone else is Wrong and my decisions are Right, the easier it is to feel safe, to believe that whatever horrible thing this person is suffering won’t visit itself on me and my loved ones.  Finding my way to compassion means that I have to step off of that righteous path and into the soft muck on the side of the trail, facing my fears and acknowledging that I am just as human as anyone else and I can’t know the details of someone else’s story. It requires me to open up and let fear and sadness move through me, to take up the mantle of shared humanity and responsibility and bear the weight of another person’s struggle along with them. It asks me to sit firmly in the knowledge that we are not ‘other,’ we are not separate, we all deserve love and acceptance and when we give it freely to one another we are stronger and happier for it.

It takes time and energy to be compassionate, much more time than is required to dash off a pithy, snarky remark about someone’s weight or tattoos or sexual proclivities. We have to be willing to consider, to listen, to really pay attention, and many of us don’t want to do that. We also have to be willing to forego the opportunity to see our own opinions in print or hear our own voices. One draw of the internet is that it allows us to all have our say. Our words can reach audiences we could never have dreamed of before and we don’t have to write an entire op-ed or letter to the editor of our hometown newspaper. But if “our say” is a twitter-length rant on how inferior someone else is or how they deserved whatever they got, it showcases our inability to understand the deeper connections and the vital points of any story.  Last week in our region an elementary teacher was convicted of having a sexual relationship with one of her students. The photograph of the teacher that ran on the news outlet’s Facebook page was of a mixed-race woman with facial hair. I cringed as I saw it, knowing what most of the comments would be like. Sure enough, there were hundreds of people questioning her gender, saying that of course she was a “child molester” given her physical appearance, and suggesting hateful things ought to happen to her, not because of her crime, but “because she needs to shave.” There were a few token comments from people outraged that the conversation was about her appearance instead of her crime, and a couple explaining the symptoms of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome which causes some women to grow facial hair, but the vast majority were hateful, even violent comments based solely on the photograph the media ran.

I asked Lola what compassion means to her and if she thought it was something that can be taught. She wasn’t very articulate about her definition of it, but she did say that she doesn’t think you can teach compassion. She said, “I think it’s individual for everyone. They need to come to it on their own and they can’t do it all the time. But you can put people in situations where they might think about it more – like volunteering at a homeless shelter or something – and then they might come to it faster on their own.”

I hope she’s right, or maybe I don’t. I’d like to think that compassion is something we can teach, but even if we can only plant the seeds and hope it spreads, that’s at least something I’m willing to put a lot of time and effort into, at least in my own household.