The Trouble with Passing for “Normal”: Especially for our Gifted Girls, Part I

Part of a series on truth-telling in life and art. See the first post, Dare to Be Yourself, here.

“Passing” is a term from the history of racial discrimination in the post Civil-War United States. At the end of this post is a little more information about that context. I apologize in advance to anyone who thinks I am being insensitive to the history of the word in using it in the context of this post. 

Gifted girls face enormous pressure to be more average than they are. Because giftedness is not a visible difference from the norm, they have the option to do this.

“Because of their enhanced ability to perceive social cues and their early conditioning about the critical importance of social acceptance, gifted girls are much more adept than gifted boys at imitation….They fit in by pretending to be less capable than they really are, disappearing into the crowd.” – Linda Silverman, Counseling the Gifted and Talented

This leads to under-identification of the giftedness in girls:

“By the age of 9, highly gifted children may hit the ceiling of the tests, and gifted girls may be socialized to hide their abilities.  Unless they are absolutely certain they are right, gifted girls are often unwilling to guess, which lowers their IQ scores.”Linda Silverman, What We have Learned About Gifted Children

Highly gifted teens who suffer existential depression are at an unacceptably high risk for suicide and are adept at hiding their troubles from everybody. Because these teens often present as highly successful, they are very hard to help once they have started suffering. They have also generally learned to distrust adults and are suspicious of proffered help. Prevention is key in helping these children. And that means identifying them early and helping them see their own true colours. And, we must listen to them and take them seriously.

“Gifted people often adjust whatthey say so that they will be accepted. They sometimes feelthat other people do not take them seriously. This can lead tonot trusting themselves. Careful listening can also be a lifeline. It canconvince children that there is someone whothinks that theyare valuable and worth understanding.” Betty Meckstroth

**A Note About Passing

In American usage, “passing” without further reference to what one is passing as refers specifically to light-skinned black people assimilating into the white community to avoid racial discrimination. When explicit discrimination was law, any traceable mixed-ancestry qualified a person as coloured. This meant that a sizable portion of people legally identified as coloured could “pass” for white if they left the communities where their family history was known. What I know of the psychological experience of passing in this context comes from literature, in particular two books I read in my law school class on the legal regulation of intimate interracial relationships, Passing, by Nella Larson and Life on the Color Line: The True Story of a White Boy who Discovered He was Black, by Gregory Howard Williams.

Passing involved isolating oneself from one’s family, denying one’s ancestry, and constantly living in fear of being found out. For some people, it was the better of two evils, but it was an awful way to live.

Sneaky-Deep: Easing Into Truth

Part of a series on truth-telling in life and art. See the first post, Dare to Be Yourself, here.

My experience of InterPlay went a little like this:

  • InterPlay is fun, a little weird, maybe, but definitely fun.
  • Oh, shit. I didn’t mean to talk about that. InterPlay is scary.
  • Oh, boy, I really needed to talk about that. InterPlay changed my life.

See how the deep work slipped in there surrounded by a lot of fun. Phil Porter and Cynthia Winton-Henry, the founders of InterPlay, talk of the practice of InterPlay as sneaky-deep. What they have developed is a body-wisdom system that eases people into connecting with their whole selves, including the parts of themselves that they shove back into the recesses of their psyches. It is a very gentle practice, and because it is so gentle, it can seduce people into touching deep material. It is not therapy, but it can be very therapeutic. And, because of the way it is taught and led, workshop participants can choose how deeply they want to play.

But, if you want to play deeply, the opportunity is always there.

My entire life has been a journey to understand myself. When I found InterPlay, I immediately started using it to consciously explore myself and the nature of my experience as a physical being. I have conditioned myself to play deeply.

Here’s a little story.

Once upon a time, my husband and I decided we would move our family to a foreign country, away from all our friends and family. We would give up on giving our only son a sibling and start a new life for the three of us without regrets. My husband got a job in the new land. We sold our house and made arrangements to rent a temporary place in the new country while we looked for a new house. We had not only a dream, but a plan and a budget. My husband started the new job from afar and we sold our house.

And then, before we moved, but after we were committed, plans changed. I was pregnant. Ok, that had been part of the old plan. We could adjust. With twins. Okay, this is tough, but we’ll get through. Oops, sorry we missed a baby, that would be triplets.

If you imagine that I flipped out at this point, you would be wrong. I went into shock.

6 months later, I was living in a foreign country and had three babies in the hospital and a traumatized older child at home. Still in shock.

6 months later, I was still in shock.

But, somewhere in there I had enough sense to know that I needed to pull myself into my new reality. So, I took advantage of the fact that I had completely failed to get any of the babies to breastfeed and left them with my husband, my mother, and the nanny for a weekend of InterPlay.

I swore going into the weekend that I was sick of my whole life being about the babies and I wasn’t going to bring them up while I was gone. Which shows how deeply detached from myself I was.

The first thing we did was completely non-verbal. I danced, letting my body move without words or thought according to my impulses. I felt great.

The second thing was a little exercise called babbling. People pair off and take turns talking for 30 seconds or so about or in response to a word provided by the leader. In one of the rounds of babbling with my first partner, we were asked to talk about our kitchens. Now, having done the leadership training, I know that this is a sneaky-deep topic. It sounds innocuous, but it gets to the heart of a lot of people’s lives.

In my case, my kitchen was a literal representation of everything that was wrong with my life. I hated that kitchen until we moved out of that house last month. We had left a gourmet kitchen and moved into a house that although otherwise well suited to infant triplets had a crappy kitchen. Until the trio gave up bottles, the counter-space was entirely covered with bottles drying and slow cookers with warm water ready to heat bottles. The table was displaced from any sensible place because there needed to be room for three high chairs, and the entire space was heavily gated in preparation for triplets on the move.

When I was asked to describe my kitchen, I could have described the kitchen underneath all the baby stuff, but the truth was I had never really talked about the baby stuff with any depth and my body knew it needed to let some of those stories out. So, I spoke about the bottles. Not about the rest of it, I only had 30 seconds after all. And, having that limited framework made it okay to talk about. I wasn’t going to be overwhelmed by everything that had happened over the previous year because there wasn’t time to bring it up. But, 30 seconds of cracking open the door of my experience and seeing what was in there was safe.

Eventually, the focus of my weekend became about me embracing my new life. I had already been doing everything I needed to do to make sure the children were cared for, but InterPlay helped me start caring for myself as well.

Sneaky-deep stuff.

I just went to have fun. I came back more whole.

InterPlay is like that.

Returning to My Literary Roots, Part II

Shakespeare was my first literary love.

I was 8 when my grandmother and I read Macbeth aloud together, sitting at the dining-room table of the house that holds my most vivid childhood memories, bright sunlight streaming through the window as I encountered that grim but glorious material for the first time.

This is the very book from which we read, my grandmother and I, this book bedecked with working designs, such as this image, drawn by Michael Ayrton and John Minton, from which a costume would be fashioned that Lady MacDuff might clothed be.

I was hooked.

After that, I sought out the Bard at every opportunity. By high school, I had absorbed Shakespeare’s sentence structure deeply; I was more comfortable with a sentence containing four or five clauses than my teachers.

As I proceeded through my academic career and especially during my time as a lawyer, my writing changed. I retreated from my literary use of language. By the time I left legal practice, I had developed a dry and unambiguous style, a style that was working against me as I struggled to write a fantastical novel.

This fall, I started working through a dvd-based course entitled Building Great Sentences. The instructor loves and encourages long, cumulative sentences. As I started working with the materials, it was as if a flood gate had been opened. Complex, flowing sentences of greater than average length started appearing throughout my work. The early influence of Shakespeare and my grandmother had been sleeping, but no longer.

Several of Shakespeare's plays in the Folio Society edition from the 1950s. There were several complete collections of Shakespeare's plays and poetry in my parent's house, but this edition was my favourite because of the heavy paper, elegant type, and evocative production design drawings.

Returning to My Literary Roots, Part I

I’m at my parents’ house for a few days. The books of my childhood surround me. Browsing the shelves, deciding which books to bring to my children’s attention, I am deep in my own literary memories.

Yesterday, I found this book.


I don’t remember anything about the story, but I remember a creative project inspired by it, or at least by the cover. I had forgotten this book was the inspiration until I saw it again. But, the project itself is one of those half-finished projects from my past that still haunts me.

For class (fourth grade, Mrs. Voake, one of my most inspirational teachers), I made a map of an island country, Gingericana, where every geographic feature was named after a spice. In my imagination, stories about the peoples of this land were writing themselves, but I never made time to get them down on paper. Over the past few years, I have considered revisiting this world to write stories for my children.

I don’t know if I will.

In the meantime, however, I plan to reread the book. I am curious to see whether I recognize the story within the cover.

Leaving the Realm of the Average

I am in-between houses.

The kitchen at the new place is missing a few important things.

We have started moving things into the new place, but we are still living in the old place.

I am in-between in a deeper sense as well.

In the language of social anthropology, I am in a liminal phase, a transitional period between outward personas, an inner transformation reflected in the move from a modern suburban development with matching neighbors to an older, quirky, custom-built house.

I spent my young adult life struggling to fit into a model of the world I had absorbed through my years of schooling. That model involved a lot of applying myself to other people’s goals and working hard to appear normal, getting a good job and putting in the hours behind a desk to earn the paycheck that would allow me to become a useful consumer.

But, those goals were never mine.

Since leaving legal practice in 2000, I have been on a quest to rediscover my values and build a life that reflects me in my full glory. My return to writing and a life centered in creativity and play was part of this quest.

Parenting my challenging children has forced me to confront the pressures I yielded to as a child that I should have avoided. By choosing to homeschool at least some of my children, I have created an opportunity to pass different messages on to my children. The literature that is helping me understand my extremely bright children is helping me understand myself.

Last year, the demands of my novel and the self-awareness triggered by learning how to help my children came together and cracked my persona, and I haven’t put things back together yet. I don’t know what I am growing into; I only know some of the elements my next persona must acknowledge.

The new house is part of my growth. We rationalize the move by saying we need an additional bedroom and that the kids need more outdoor space, but a deeper truth is that my soul cries out for the quirks of a custom-built house.

After hiding in plain sight for years, I am standing up and saying to the world, “I am an outlier.”

Light breaking through

I don’t remember ever not being aware that I was out of the range of normal. In Kindergarten, I spent most of the year reading by the coat cubbies while my classmates learned the alphabet. That was also the year I gave up my English accent so I didn’t sound strange to my American classmates.

I learned about bell-curves when my class-mates accused me of “breaking the curve.” I learned about percentiles in 3rd grade when the doctor referred to my height as 105th percentile; my mother gave me a math lesson during the drive home. By 6th grade, I was taller than most of my teachers. And the stories of my struggles against gender-stereotypes deserve a blog post of their very own – or maybe a series of posts.

For too many years, I saw being different as being bad. But it isn’t. It  is just different.

I’m not sure where all this is going. I’m sure it will show up in my writing.

I hope you’ll come along with me for the ride.

Self-Care for Creatives

Do what the dice say.

Whether we are paid for our creative work or not, creative people have stressors that are directly related to our work: the need to be productive and avoid procrastination, solving the problem at hand, self-doubt, finding time for subconscious creativity and for experiences that introduce new ideas and images to our thinking, etc.

There is a certain level of stress that helps prod us into action. Deadlines, for example, can be useful for some people. And other levels of stress push us into a state of overwhelm and meltdown. We must have tools to pull us back from the brink if our stress threatens to overwhelm us.

A Thought Experiment

What makes you feel the opposite of stressed?

If you don’t have an easy answer to that question, try this exercise: Take a few moments to imagine how your body feels when it is stressed. Then take a few moments to imagine what the opposite of that feeling is. Really feel it in your body. And then, try to recall the things that you have been doing when you have felt that way before.

So What?

What animal are you when you do them together?

There isn’t a particularly good word in English to describe how our bodies feel when we feel the opposite of stressed. Some people use flow or openness to describe the feeling. In InterPlay, we call that feeling grace. Notice that we are using grace to name a physical sensation.

We can choose grace for ourselves. We can notice the specific things that create grace in our bodies. And, choosing to do things that give our bodies that experience of grace is a powerful practice of self-care.

An Example

I was in a big rut this week.

I haven’t been writing. NaNoWriMo has started and my kids are moving forward at good paces, but I haven’t written anything beyond a few emails and now this blog post. I have been cranky about this.

My husband and I are preparing our house for sale, an interesting challenge with 4-year old triplets underfoot and while homeschooling our eldest child. We are buying a charming house about a mile away that has more land for the kids to play outside. And, despite the fact that this is an entirely voluntary move, the work involved is substantial. So, it is not surprising that I was tired and stressed.

Unfortunately, I was also losing my cool with my kids. Which was not cool.

I knew I needed to change things up.

When I waddle, I giggle.

Under normal circumstances, changing the dynamics with my kids is often as simple as playing with iMuseCubes, an iPhone app that shakes virtual dice and provides a movement and a sound for you to create simultaneously. 3 rounds of that usually shakes me out of a bad place. If the kids join me, it can go on for some time and become hysterical.

But this week, I knew iMuseCubes wasn’t going to be enough. I needed something that would create a deeper feeling of grace within my body. Something that was specific to my needs to loosen my stress associated with the house and to be more compassionate with my kids.

And, reflecting on my need, I found a tool. It was a song, On The Line by Cris Williamson and Tret Fure. This song always has a profound effect on me. In the lyrics, the changes in a family as children grow up and leave home and elders die are reflected in the laundry Mama hangs on the washing line. And, although I usually cry during the final verse when Mama has died and Daddy hangs his own clothes on the line for the first time, the rhythm and melody of the song are upbeat and get me dancing. Dancing and singing along, I remembered with my whole bodyspirit that my time with my children is short and that my love for them and my joy in their being is bigger than my frustration at any given moment. And I was able to reconnect with them from that place.

Sometimes, words alone can be a salve in our wounded times. Sometimes, creative movement can help us through the rough spots. But sometimes, we need both.

And our bodies know.

If we notice what happens in our bodies and make note of what makes us feel grace, we can use that knowledge to take care of ourselves. We can choose to give ourselves experiences of grace. And we should. Our bodyspirits will thank us for it.

How can you make a moment of grace for yourself today?

Responding to a Blogging Award

Friday morning, I woke early, and after reviewing the blog post that was scheduled to go live that day, a post that had given me trouble the previous evening and I correctly suspected needed additional editing, and making a few revisions to my novel, I had time before making breakfast for the kids to check my email, where I discovered that Stan Stewart of Muz4Now had given me a “One Lovely Blog” award, one of those blogging awards that are structured like a chain letter but serve the positive purpose of both giving a momentary emotional boost to the recipient and of encouraging bloggers to read each other’s work which left me, after I enjoyed the immediate surge of inflated ego, with a dilemma: accept the award in the traditional manner or generate a more creative response?

I have been working through a self-study sentence structure course focused on teaching writers how to lengthen their sentences, not merely for the purpose of writing longer sentences, but to create a reading experience different from the experience of reading short, direct sentences, the favoured sentences of the modern writer, and this sentence-lengthening class pushes me to create sentences like those generated during Three-Sentence-Stories, an InterPlay form which limits each storyteller to only three sentences, leading many InterPlayers to construct very long sentences in order to tell complex stories within the confines of the form, and it struck me that I should be able to combine the exercises I have been doing for the course with the task of revealing 7 random things about myself. And the following is what I wrote.

Standing by the schoolyard fence, engaging in idle chatter with the other suburban stay-at-home moms waiting to pick up their kids, Kate felt the sharp sting of regret as she failed once again to reconcile the ordinariness of her days with her more-interesting memories of herself: as a teenager with pink bangs teased 4 inches high, a college student enhancing her natural six-foot stature with 4-inch heels, a law student with swirls of eyeliner cascading down her cheek in a tribute to Neil Gaiman’s Death, even a law school dropout drifting with all her belongings in the blue Mazda hatchback she named after the grandmother whose untimely death had provided the inheritance to pay for the car.

But, when the children poured on to the playground with whoops and shrieks, free from the confines of the classroom, and she saw her three among the crowd, romping and frolicking, the sting was gone, replaced by the deep warmth of her motherly affection.

After all those long sentences, I will refrain from discussing other blogs until a later post.

Time to Eat My Words?

Remember back at the beginning of May when I wrote about how I managed to write last year even though my life exploded. Bad idea. The universe being the ironic place I have come to know and love, my life proceeded to explode even further. And this time, my writing suffered substantially.

I just became a full-time home-schooling mama to two of my four kids.  Suffice it to say, I would never have planned to start homeschooling my kids two months before school lets out for the summer, but sometimes the things our children need come out of left field and we just have to yield.  So, like many mothers before me, I did what my children needed when they needed it, and I will be pulling my life out of the rubble when the dust settles.

Since then, I have been using most of my writing time for curriculum planning. I know this is a temporary period in our lives and I will have more time for my writing soon. (Hey, look, I’m working on a blog post – that’s something). In the meantime, I am jotting down notes in odd moments, outlining chapters during swim lessons, and keeping my eye on the long-term goals.

My website on play stalled on take-off, a depressing, but unavoidable situation.  As soon as I have a more solid grasp of this home-schooling thing, that is the first project I will be picking up seriously.

In the meantime, I am still writing. Just less. For now

An Ideal Audience or Why I′m Not Writing For My Son Anymore

My current work in progress is the second long narrative I have started by thinking ″I would love to write a book my eldest son would like to read.″ And it is the second one that is not turning out that way after all. Although I might write short stories that he would choose to read, when I spend the time to write a novel length story, my need to tell a story that is meaningful for me wins out every time. And, in fact, the audience I am writing for is the daughter of a friend of mine in California.

One challenge is that my son is an ever shifting audience. Because I live with him, I see all the daily changes in what interest him and the development of his reading interests and I cannot keep up with him in the process of writing a novel. His whims come fast and go faster. My writing continues to plod through revision. If I have a shifting target, I will never hit it with anything as massive as even a short novel.

Another challenge is that my son doesn′t love the same stories that I love. He is 7, but he wants a book written with the depth of thought and complexity of language of a well-written novel aimed at 9-12 year olds. He reads a mix of science fiction and fantasy, loves comic books, and has a small boy′s fascination with all things sticky, icky and gross. And he has become anti-girls. He has a definite preference for books written by people who are more in touch with their inner small boy than I am.

As I have delved into my story, I have become more aware of how the person I am is shaping the story that is in me for the telling. For example, I found myself realizing that the emotional story I wanted to tell would fit more easily on a female protagonist, and so I have changed the gender of my protagonist. And with that change come a wealth of changes, each of which makes the story less likely to appeal to my son.

Luckily, I have an Ideal audience to write for. Her name is Lydia and she is a real girl. She reminds me of me when I was her age and she is right in the middle of the 9-12 reading world. I have not seen her in ages so, for me, she exists as much in my memory as she does in reality. And, my memory of her hardly changes. But, she is also a real person. At the moment, in the early revision process, I am writing for my image of Lydia. And that image gives me direction and focus. But, I also hope that eventually she will read the manuscript and give me feedback on it. Because she really is the sort of audience I am writing for: girls who are kind of like I was. Girls who want to find themselves reflected by a book while at the same time being transported to an imaginary world.

Maybe some day I will write a book for my son. But it won′t be this one. And it may not be the next one either. And that′s okay.

Playing Our Way From Rage to Giggles

ragetogiggles

Do you ever play with the angry beast inside you?  I’m trying to teach my kids to do just that.

I live with three three-year-olds (and their older brother).  If you have spent much time around three-year-olds, then you know this is an age of emotional intensity.  These children understand the world well enough to think that they understand it completely, and they can do enough for themselves that they often want to do everything for themselves.  Unless things are going badly, in which case they are bundles of  massive emotion without any capacity to reason themselves out of a situation.  And, by this age, they are self-aware enough to experience extreme frustration when their wish to control the world conflicts with the nature of reality, parental instructions, or a sibling’s wishes.  The result: frustration, often arising in a flash.

One of my kids reacts to frustration by lashing out:  he throws things, stamps his feet, screeches, etc. I understand the way he feels, but I need to help him do something else with his energy.

One of the most effective tools I have is a Pushing game. I kneel in front of him and bring my hands up in front of me, palms out, like the beginning of Pat-a-Cake and ask him to push my hands.

  • If he doesn’t want to push me or pushes lightly, I urge him to push me over.  And, I let him.  Even when he pushes me with the full force of his anger, I can control my fall to protect my body. But, and this is important, I let him think he is pushing me over.  I then get up and see if he does it again.  He is usually giggling after one push-Mummy-over moment, but sometimes it takes two or three.
  • If he pushes me hard from the starting position, we push each other’s hands as long as it feels right and then I ask him to grab my hands and we pull away from each other.  And then, we play with pushing and pulling as long as it is fun.

Sometimes, one or more of the other kids wants to join the game, and I work on finding a way to make it happen.  Since the end of the game is often a pile of giggling children on Mummy, more really is merrier as long as we can get there safely.

The game is the beginning of an InterPlay form:  Hand-to-Hand Contact.  They don’t know that.  They think it’s just a silly game they play with Mummy.  I think it’s a life skill: using play to turn the anger and frustration into giggles.  It’s a physical form of the aphorism, “Sometimes, you just have to laugh about it.”