Rainforest Minds in Academia

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I’ve been working in academia for 12 years now – longer, if you count my four years as a graduate student. My goal in this post is to explore whether rainforest minds flourish in academia – and why or why not. I’ll begin by providing context for my own journey in this space.

As an undergraduate majoring in literature, I got good enough at theorizing and writing academic papers that I was told I should/could consider a career in academia. However, writing detailed analyses of novels, plays, and poetry – while satisfying as an abstract skill-set – didn’t strike me as particularly useful for the world. I was eager to get out and make things better, by teaching kids.

With that said, as I wrote about in a previous post, teaching elementary school only lasted so long as a novel learning sphere to explore. Earning my doctorate degree and taking my education studies to the “next level” felt like a logical next step once I had a few years of practical teaching experience under my belt.

I was naive enough to only apply to one institution: the local public R1 university in the major metropolitan city where I lived and worked. I crossed my fingers that things would work out okay (not knowing the slightest thing about how fickle graduate school admissions really are), and was lucky enough to be accepted for both a masters and a doctoral degree in one fell swoop. Whew.

I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted out of academia other than the ability to “teach teachers”, but I was surprisingly clear in my focus on the end goal of earning a Ph.D.  (This bears mentioning because of how often I’ve read about other RFMs starting degrees and not finishing them; for whatever reason, this wasn’t an issue for me. I’m actually a pretty hardcore “completist” about certain projects or goals in life, and this gets me through.)

I did worry, however, about how a career in academia would mesh with my goals of having a family. I wasn’t getting any younger (I was 29 when I started my four-year program), and knew I would need to make some high-stakes decisions pretty soon. I decided not to worry about it for the time being, and simply finish up – which I did.

When I got pregnant during my first year after graduation, I still wondered how it was all going to work out – but went ahead and applied for tenure line positions anyway. And, I got one. I gave birth to my daughter C. a couple of weeks before the start of the fall quarter at my new institution.

The position I accepted was at a local liberal arts college, with high expectations for teaching and community service, and low expectations for research output. This seemed in alignment with my goal of simultaneously being a new parent, but it meant I suddenly shifted into a radically different type of academic space than the one I’d been studying in for four years.  It was a stark difference, to say the least – and while I adored being back “on the ground” with teachers, I missed the intellectual stimulation of being around so many top-notch researchers.

Within a few years, my husband and I decided we wanted to relocate to another state where raising our growing family would be both easier and cheaper – so, I bid adieu to my tenure-line position and sank into existential depression over what would come next for me work-wise. Thankfully, an inquiry email led to a meeting with someone at the major R1 university in my new city, who happened to be looking for a qualified instructor for a specific course, which turned into a part-time directorship of a masters program, then a full-time directorship, and eventually back to part-time once I realized I couldn’t actually stay healthy and parent my three kids effectively while working that much.

I’ve been on a 0.6 lecturer contract in academia for quite a few years now, and it’s been a nearly perfect balance in terms of workload and flexibility. I don’t really conduct much research of my own anymore; instead, I work with masters students on their “action research” projects, teach and construct plenty of classes, serve on doctoral committees, and generally stay immersed in academia without the pressures of “publish or perish” (though also without any of the job security or prestige associated with tenure-line work).

I mention all this as a backdrop to, and context for, the original topic of my post: rainforest minds in academia. Would one expect to find lots of rainforest minded-folks at the highest levels of study, or not – and why?

At first, the answer seems like an intuitive – yes, of course. Wouldn’t the world’s smartest, most curious people end up getting the most rigorous degrees possible and spending their lives surrounded by learning?

Well, yes and no. It’s likely that most people who’ve gotten doctorate degrees and landed jobs in academia were designated “gifted” as kids – meaning, they had “the capability to perform at higher levels compared to others of the same age, experience, and environment in one or more domains.” 

But are they now rainforest minded adults? Not necessarily. Professors are not all “excessively curious, creative, smart and sensitive.”

Rather, many are single-mindedly focused on a specific area of inquiry, working long hours plugging away at incremental work that takes years of dedication. Conducting research, writing academic papers, submitting and resubmitting papers for publication, and seeking grant money can be grueling work that isn’t for the faint of heart – or for the fickle of interests.

Indeed, I’ve struggled over the years to stay sufficiently interested in any specific facet of my work (research-wise) for long enough to really make a dent in “the literature”, or make a name for myself. Each time I think I have an inkling of what I want to say, I find there’s more to explore and reflect on, and I’m off on another tangent. I just don’t quite have the type of relentless focus on singular projects required of highly productive academics.

However, there are some exceptions to the trope of what “highly productive” means in academia. The type of academics who can (and do) write articles and books for the broader public tend to take a more holistic approach to their work, looking not only deeply but broadly at any given problem. They make unusual connections, seek out new perspectives, and aren’t afraid to admit that their thinking has changed on a topic when provided with new evidence.

I believe these are rainforest minded academics.

Sadly, they’re all too rare. Most academics I’ve either known or know of tend to “stay in their lane” for the good of their own careers. There’s a fear of speaking with any semblance of authority (or even curiosity) about something one isn’t sufficiently grounded in with deep expertise as a scholar – which means oh-so-many potential “a ha” moments are lost in the noise of safety and specialization.

Speaking of safety, academia is a notoriously unsafe space to speak up about challenging topics. This is ironic, since you’d think scholars would be the first to throw out new and innovative ideas – but there’s an in-group tendency that can quite literally be stifling.

This primarily has to do with the peer-driven structure of academia, as colleagues rate your work and determine whether your contributions are sufficient to merit a promotion (and eventually tenure). It also has to do with what “counts” as useful contributions to one’s field. Community service at R1 institutions is lauded through lip service, but not given anything close to the same weight as publishing yet another paper in a peer-reviewed journal (which leads to plenty of “dead weight” recycling of similar ideas in slightly different guises).

It’s a tricky, sticky situation – one that’s ultimately led me to determine that academia isn’t really the ideal space for me. I’m far too interested in making a direct difference in the world, and speaking “the truth” as I know it. I don’t want to follow the “rules of the game” simply to get ahead. What would be the point of that?

So, I follow my conscience and my passions rather than a prescribed set of “guidelines for success”. While I managed to make it through the strictures of a doctoral degree and four years on the tenure line, apparently that was it for me.

And here I am with my rainforest mind, formally anchored to a specific field for the purposes of my job, but feeling like a permanent imposter (because if you don’t buckle down and focus in academia, you’re not really “the best”).

However, I’m not sure I have any other choice, given the way my brain works – and I’m also not sure I would necessarily be happier (or more content, or less questioning) if I were wired differently.

Life itself – huge, messy, complicated, untethered by institutional mandates –  continues to beckon to me as a much more intriguing option.

Coming Out as an RFM

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Ever since starting this blog, I’ve wanted to talk about what it’s like to “come out” as a Rainforest Mind (a.k.a. “gifted adult”).

I’ve thought quite a bit (naturally – RFMs are “overthinkers”!) about using the term “coming out”, and it continues to feel like the right one to me.

My giftedness as a child was a source of isolation, frustration, and bullying. As an adult, my giftedness has been a source of – well, isolation, frustration, and social loneliness. It’s certainly not something I ever talk about openly with other adults, who tend to get uncomfortable at the mere mention of the G word, especially related to adults.

Hence: “coming out”. Attempting to normalize. Attempting to feel publicly okay about “being a certain way”. I’m on the road, but not there yet.

In previous years, as I sought out therapy for ongoing challenges and depression (ever-present, though thankfully managed well these days), my last two counselors both pointed out that being a “gifted adult” was something I might want to consider as an integral and exploration-worthy part of my identity. I pushed back by saying I wasn’t interested in joining Mensa (I have very little interest in IQ per se), and that I really wasn’t quite sure how this related to much of anything.

My first “formal” introduction (on my own) to the idea of giftedness in adulthood was stumbling upon Marylou Kelly Streznewski’s  (1999) Gifted grownups: The mixed blessings of extraordinary potential. (If a book has been written about something, then surely it’s a “thing” – right?) I knew all about being designated “gifted” as a child and navigating those schooling waters – but what did it mean, exactly, to use this term later in life? As Streznewski writes in her Preface:

“If you think that gifted children are a misunderstood minority in American society, try looking up ‘gifted adult’ in a good library; but do so only if you enjoy watching librarians twirl” (p. v).

In discussing her motivation for writing this book (which involved first conducting in-depth interviews with 100 participants), she describes being a high school Advanced Placement English teacher seeing students who “needed special help”:

“Year after year, a significant number of them arrived in my class at the end of a long road fogged with what they called boredom. They complained of inability to concentrate, lack of motivation, feelings of failure, and were obviously wasting a great deal of talent” (p. vi).

I haven’t written yet about my experiences as a gifted teenager (that’s a whole other set of blog posts), but the brief story is – I didn’t cope well; I dropped out of middle school, then out of high school, then out of college (the first time around).

In other words, I am yet another example of Streznewski’s findings that “managing a high-powered brain/mind can create difficulties in school, work, and society, and can make finding friends and partners a challenge” – and that “the problems and pleasures of being gifted do not change, only the context in which they are experienced as one grows older” (p. viii).

Looking back at the notes I took while reading Streznewski’s book, I see so many sections underlined, circled, check-marked, and/or annotated with “me” in the margins. Here are just a few from various chapters:

Chapter 3 (In Hiding): “I’m careful so my girlfriends won’t think I’m showing off. I guess I just don’t want to make other people feel bad” … “I have to be careful about dates. The last person was angry with me for using big words” (p. 42).

Chapter 4 (The Gifted Family):“You get so tired of trying, looking, hoping, every party you go to, every new house you move into, that you will find someone who is compatible” (p. 60).

Chapter 6 (Young Adults: The Extra Mile): “I hate Tupperware parties! I’d rather stay home and read” (p. 117).

Chapter 7 (Bored, Bored, Bored: The Quest for Challenging Work): “What may be viewed by others as restlessness or discontent is the norm for a gifted person” (p. 135).

Chapter 8 (Finding the Others: Friends and Lovers): “I can create unusual responses to situations which are interesting and catch me by surprise. When I am emotionally threatened, I become hyper-intellectual” (p. 192).

Okay – all of this (and much, much more) really resonated with me. So, I would say that reading Streznewski’s book was part of my “coming out” – though once again, there weren’t many people I could converse with about it. I did try recommending it to one friend/colleague who never responded, then gave up.

The next time I intentionally brought up giftedness was when I joined a SENG (Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted) parent support group. I couldn’t help reading our parenting textbook through the lens of my own experiences, and continually said to my group of parent-peers: “It’s super-hard to separate the parenting of my own kids from what I went through myself as a gifted kid, not receiving adequate support. I think I need to process that first.” Indeed, parenting my own “designated-gifted” kids has given me permission to talk more openly about “the G word” – and to think more deeply about what it means.

Attending a SENG conference also brought me face-to-face with a fellow gifted-adult traveler, Aurora Remember Holtzman, who told me about her podcast, Embracing Intensity. Aurora was one of the first people I spoke with personally (albeit briefly) about accepting, exploring, and embracing adult giftedness – with all its intensities. (I will return to more ideas from her podcast interviews in future blog posts.) 

Meanwhile, Paula Prober’s more recent work around Rainforest Minds (a more palatable phrase than “gifted adult”) has also gained a bit of a following. With her books and blog, Prober seems to be intentionally cultivating a sense of community and “normalcy” around rainforest mindedness (a.k.a. adult giftedness).

I hope the stigma of giftedness will lessen with time. I really do believe that diversity of all types is critical to human flourishing (and indeed, that we can’t avoid it). Now we “just” need to overcome avoidance of discussions around intellectual diversity.

I hope that for me, “coming out” as gifted can eventually shift to “reaching out” to like-minded souls instead.

References: 

Streznewski, M.K. (1999). Gifted grownups: The mixed blessings of extraordinary potential. John Wiley & Sons.

 

Solfege and Chisanbop

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In my last post, I talked about the challenges associated with keeping my rainforest mind sufficiently busy as a child.  I shared that one thing I would do if I didn’t have a book or other form of writing around me to read was to hum a tune in solfege – defined by MusicTheoryTutor.org as:

… a system where every note of a scale is given its own unique syllable, which is used to sing that note every time it appears. A major or a minor scale (the most common scales in Western classical music) has seven notes, and so the solfege system has seven basic syllables: do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, and ti.

Americans will probably be most familiar with solfege from Maria von Trapp (a.k.a. Julie Andrews) singing “Do-Re-Mi” around the streets of Salzburg with her wards in The Sound of Music (1965) (one of my all-time favorite movies). The song teaches solfege through the following homophones:

Doe, a deer, a female deer

Ray, a drop of golden sun

Me, a name I call myself

Fa, a long long way to go

Sew, a needle pulling thread

La, a note that follows Sol

Tea, a drink with jam and bread

That will bring us back to Doe

Once the solfege “alphabet” is acquired and rehearsed, it serves as a magical key to the musical universe. Every single melody (at least in Western music – other scales and systems have their own unique entryways) can be “solfeged” – and since I was also studying piano as a child (my choice – I insisted on lessons), I would often combine solfege with moving my fingers in the air or on my legs as though playing over a keyboard.

In addition to solfege, I engaged my fingers and mind with chisanbop, a Korean-developed method of counting to one hundred on one’s two hands (right hand = ones, left hand = tens). Chisanbop came to America at just the right time for me to learn it as a first grader, at which point I very quickly become ultra-proficient, spending my recess time experimenting with ways to multiply by various numbers. (Sadly, none of my friends seemed particularly interested in watching or participating, so I recall simply doing this on my own.) 

Chisanbop went out of style in schools shortly after this, for reasons I’ve never understood – but I never lost it, and have continued to use my hands to count (and subtract, multiply, and divide) to this day.

As a fun side-story, I ended up being given the nickname “Chisanbop” during a volunteer teaching gig a couple of years ago at a minimum security men’s prison. My co-instructor and I were offering a series of modules on learning and leadership, and I used chisanbop as a literally hands-on example of how one might learn and teach something new. The guys were super-intrigued, and many took to it quickly – though one in particular, D., struggled quite a bit. Each time D. came to follow-up classes, he greeted me with a smile, said, “Hey, Chisanbop”, and gave me an update on how he was proceeding with his practice – which included trying to teach it to other men in the prison to get better at it himself.

I mention both solfege and chisanbop together in this post to highlight just two of the ways I kept my brain creatively engaged as a sensory-minded, twice-exceptional kiddo – without realizing at the time that this was what I was doing (or why). In hindsight, I can see how integrally connected these both were with embodied cognition: that is, I was desperate to make a connection between what my brain was cycling through (knowing/learning math and music), and how this might manifest bodily in the world (through my fingers).

I use the term “desperate” because as fun as these activities were, they sometimes felt almost like addictive and/or compulsive tendencies. I consider them a form of “coping OCD” that eventually went away. (I’ll write more about this in another post, since there’s a lot more to say about OCD and gifted kids.)

But most of the time, solfege and chisanbop served me well. Chisanbop gave me an always-available way to quickly count points during games, for instance, while solfege became the foundation for a much more extensive understanding of musical theory – which proved surprisingly useful in college.

As I wrote about in a previous post, I went to college because I knew I needed a bachelor’s degree of some kind to go on and get a teaching credential – but I wasn’t clear on what to study, or why. I ended up majoring in literature and minoring in music simply because I liked them both, despite not really understanding (at first) what either of these specializations entailed.

It turns out that studying music at the college level meant not just performing but really getting into the weeds of how music is constructed – i.e., the  nuts and bolts of its existence, which includes taking solfege to a whole other level. In one of my beginning music theory classes, we had an infamous “64 Intervals Test” that was conducted orally in front of everybody. One at a time, we were given 64 different intervals, both ascending and descending, and asked to name each one. I completed my test perfectly on the first try – probably in no small part because I’d spent my childhood solfegging non-stop inside my brain. In future quarters of more advanced music theory, we were given portions of simple Bach  chorales and asked to dictate the chords we heard; this was harder, but I still did well.

Since I was minoring rather than majoring in music, I wasn’t required to give a performance in the “big concert hall” – a good thing, since I was just barely getting myself up to performance-speed and didn’t feel nearly confident enough to pull something like this off. While I’d spent years loving music in the abstract, I knew I wasn’t cut out for a career in performance.

With that said, my interest in unusual music intrigued my piano instructor, who had never before worked with someone fascinated by early twentieth century American composers like Samuel Barber and George Antheil. My instructor encouraged me to put on a “Fridays at Four” concert in the music building, which was much lower-stakes, and allowed me to share the stage with a fellow student.

I performed part of Antheil’s “Airplane Sonata” and several of Barber’s “Excursions”, practicing just enough to  prove I could put on a reasonable show, but knowing this would be my “last hurrah” with both piano concerts and getting anywhere close to “perfection” – which it was. A handful of my good friends came to watch me and took me out to lunch afterwards. I still remember this fondly, and regret not having a recording of it to watch. (This was a different era in technology.) 

I spent a good many years after this wondering why, exactly, I’d chosen to study music, since I never planned on making a career of it. Many moons later – after lengthy deliberation and reading about the value of liberal arts degrees more broadly –  I’ve come to realize that there was nothing at all “wrong” about choosing to study music for awhile, as opposed to anything else. Something about its innate structure and beauty struck me as worthwhile – and that hasn’t gone away. Music continues to be almost like magic to me: it’s so powerful I almost can’t bear it at times. I actually have to stay away unless or until I’m ready to engage and get lost in it. (I need to write another post about music, since there’s so clearly so much more here to process and explore.)  

As for chisanbop – while I love having 100 digits available to manipulate on just two hands, I didn’t end up pursing mathematics beyond Pre-Calculus. I spent one hour in a college-level calculus class, found it less intuitive than I wanted, and gave up, never to return. I went in a liberal arts direction instead, and figured if I ever needed or wanted calculus in my life for some reason, I could come back to it.

As a parent now, I watch my three kids with deep curiosity, checking to see how math and music are playing out in their lives. They all take lessons on various instruments, but I don’t push anything too far, and they don’t seem driven. Meanwhile, none have taken up chisanbop, either, so I guess that really does remain my own unique bailiwick.

Obsessions take on different forms, and my kids’ interests are so clearly different from my own. They code and world-create like nobody’s business, making my mind spin with the quickness and intensity of it all – and so it goes with generational evolution; life (and parenting) are never not fascinating and ever-shifting.

 

Having To Do… Absolutely Nothing

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Seeing this humorous (but real) article a couple of weeks ago – in which the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg, Germany is “offering scholarships to three people who would have to do… ‘absolutely nothing'” – made me grin AND reflect on my own tendency as an RFM to always want to do “too much”.

Questions on the application form for this very-unique scholarship include:

What do you want not to do? How long do you want not to do it for? Why is it important not to do this particular thing? Why are you the right person not to do it?

According to Dr. Friedrich von Borries (the project’s creator – born the same year as me, I might add – though I have no idea why this fact is on his professional website), this experiment is driven by a desire to understand more about how our current societal “belief in success, in growth, in money” has led us “into the ecological crisis – and social injustice – we are living in”.

Von Borries adds:

“I think that doing nothing is not that easy. You can fail. Your surroundings can become aggressive… And we would love to learn from the experience of those who will receive the grant.”

Years ago, when I shared with one of my beloved aunts how much I had going on – my work, my hobbies, the books I was reading, the writing I was doing, and all my other plans – she listened, paused, then asked me, out of genuine curiosity (and likely concern):

“Do you ever just stop and … do nothing? Perhaps, look around for a little bit?”

I had to admit that I didn’t, really. There was simply too much to do: too many interesting things to explore, too many books to read, too many languages to learn…

I sincerely feared (and still fear) the abyss of “nothingness”. My idea of hell – one of them, anyway is intellectual boredom. As a child, I ALWAYS had a book with me wherever I went (smart phones have now obviated that need, though they bring other challenges to the table). In college, while sitting and listening to lengthy lectures, I either took voracious notes and/or experimented with things like trying to write with my left hand (not easy, and not really possible – I’m a rightie, not an ambidextrie). 

For as long as I can remember, as soon as I’m in a space without any writing in it, I start to mildly panic. I’ve been driven to interrogating my (analog) watch for signs of any letters at all to read (there are some tiny ones engraved on the back…), or checking the backs of bottles or other items in (for instance) a public bathroom for words. If absolutely no writing is available, and I can’t talk to someone else, I’ll turn to humming or tapping tunes on my fingers and engaging in solfege – musical language – to keep my mind engaged in some way. (I’ll write more about solfege in another post.)  

Back to the “Not Doing” project: almost certainly, von Borries won’t select people already experienced in mindful meditation and living peacefully with “not doing”. Individuals who are lucky – and skilled, and persistent – enough to engage with that kind of practice regularly already have a leg up on the rest of us too-busy, overly-doing folks. And speaking of luck, to a certain extent this project is inextricably bound in class privileges as well; only those who can afford to “do nothing” for the sum of $1900 will apply.

(Then again, that amount would actually go a really long way for people in certain contexts… But which individuals will be likely to read this call for participation, anyway?)

Regardless, I agree with von Borries that we need to interrogate our compulsions – to slow down and consider how our actions impact the world around us, and whether doing LESS of whatever it is we’re doing would be beneficial (and in what way, and for whom).

Yuval Noah Harari reflects on this tension in his fascinating book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2015). In Chapter 5, entitled “History’s Biggest Fraud”, Harari talks about how humans were “conned” about 10,000 years ago into the Agricultural Revolution, which has led to greater human flourishing overall, but worse outcomes for individuals. He writes:

“Rather than heralding a new era of easy living, the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease. The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure. Rather, it translated into population explosions and pampered elites” (p. 79).

He goes on to describe how our desire to domesticate animals for our own use led to their extreme and unnatural suffering – just one among many reasons to slow down and consider what we’re doing (and why). (I’m not a vegetarian, though I do believe that the world needs to shift towards a form of conscious omnivory or carnivory. And yes, this is absolutely a topic for another post.)   

In closing, I’m curious to hear about von Borries’ culminating art installation once it occurs. Who will he pick for this project, and why? What, exactly, will he learn from them about intentionally “NOT doing” things? How can a sample size of just three yield meaningful results? Ultimately, however,  it’s the impulse to explore this corner of existence that has me most intrigued. And as always, I’ll stay tuned.

Burning Out Too Soon: The Dark Side of RFMs

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While recently watching and reviewing a documentary about Janis Joplin, I learned she’s a member of the infamous “27 Club” – that is, artists and musicians who died at the age of 27.

The existence of this “group” was sad but not surprising to me, given that so many gifted artists have died incredibly young – whether at 27 or somewhere in that range.

British filmmaker Michael Reeves, for instance, made his first feature-length movie at the age of 23, his second at the age of 24, and his third (and final) movie – the brilliant Witchfinder General (1968) – at 25. He died of a drug overdose.

I bring this up not to be morbid, but instead to highlight once again that being gifted (with all the intensities this inevitably brings) can be just as challenging as it is rewarding. Many RFMs deal with existential angst that leads to tremendous psychological pain, anguish, and occasionally early death. (SENG was founded because of this).

I personally nearly died at age 12 from an eating disorder, dropped out of school countless times, and have struggled my entire life to varying degrees with depression and anxiety in one form or another (now thankfully being managed quite well). 

RFMs may be so eager from such a young age to make a difference, to utilize our talents, to “do the right thing” – and so intolerant of a world that doesn’t generally live up to our expectations – that we get mired in the hopelessness of it all. Indeed, the third chapter of Prober’s (2016) Your Rainforest Mind is entitled “If You’re So Smart, Why Aren’t You Saving the World?”

Not knowing other people who share our feelings and passions can make thing even lonelier. As Prober (2016) writes:

“Loneliness may be the number one challenge for the RFM. And it often starts early” (p. 105).

RFMs may reach out time and again, hoping desperately for a connection that shows us we’re not crazy for wanting MORE – and mostly being disappointed. Before meeting my RFM husband, the only people I dated (not many, and not for long; I was mostly single and lonely) were musicians. Their passion for their craft resembled what I felt about the world more broadly – and being an (amateur) musician myself, we had this love in common.  However, the challenge inevitably became that they were SO invested in their music, they didn’t really have space for a long-term partner – or kids, which I wanted.

Meanwhile, my list of “good friends” has always been small and selective. I search for people who understand and accept my complexity and gifts rather than judging them.

To that end, I remain immensely grateful for Prober’s proffering of the alternative term “rainforest mind”, given how super-loaded “gifted” still is – for good reason, due to ongoing societal inequities and injustices which lead to under-representation of kids of color and other marginalized groups in formal programs for gifted children. Indeed, gifted individuals are often highly attuned to these unacceptable facts – and I will be writing more about them. 

As Prober reminds us again and again, our troubled world actually needs RFMs more than ever – “overthinkers” who dwell on society’s challenges and strive for justice at every turn. After all, we don’t settle for good enough – ever – unless forced to.

All that being said, as hard as it may be, we have to get comfortable talking about ourselves:

  • We need to talk about what it’s like have uniquely wired brains, heightened emotions, and a kind of intensity that can be “too much” for many (including sometimes ourselves).
  • We need to share what it’s like to experience the world at a different pace, often with differently calibrated senses.
  • We need acknowledgement that our gifts cause us both great joy AND tremendous suffering.

I’m committed to keeping myself – and like-minded RFMS – healthy and well-tended so we can turn right back around and use our gifts for others. There’s too much at stake otherwise.

“Overthinking” Parenting

Parenting is an interesting craft.

Like all hands-on skill-sets,  you can only read so much about it before you need to jump in and do it – at which point you instantly realize how ill-prepared you are.*

I wrote in my last blog post about how incredibly challenging it was on a sensory level to become a new parent. The physical discomfort of months of pregnancy – combined with the pain of childbirth, chronic sleep-deprivation, and an infant who constantly  threw up all her food – had me despairing over how little of this I’d actually read about or understood ahead of time.

It was supposed to all be relatively intuitive, but it didn’t feel that way. I knew that my over-active (read = “overly intellectualizing”) brain wasn’t helping me – but ragging on myself for this was equally unhelpful. As Paula Prober (2019) writes:

“Thinking has gotten a bad rap. If you do a lot of it, which you know you do, you’re called an overthinker, and that’s something you’re told you’re supposed to avoid” (p. 57).

Yep. Prober goes on to write:

“Too much thinking can become a problem… [but] it’s how your brain works… [For] you, it’s not overthinking. It’s just thinking. Or being. It’s curiosity. Analysis. Wondering. Creating… It’s you being you…” (p. 58).

I’m incredibly grateful for this vote of confidence, and hope all “over-thinking” RFM parents will read Prober’s words and stop guilt-tripping. (And I will now officially stop censuring myself for purchasing a sociology textbook on child-rearing practices around the world when my oldest daughter was only a few days old, as part of my desperate search for reassurance that it’s “normal” to want and need help during those challenging first weeks.)  

With all that said, it’s been interesting over the past 12+ years to reflect on how doing parenting intersects with reading and learning about parenting. As with so many aspects of life, they’re deeply intertwined: parenting doesn’t stop while you’re taking a “break” to talk to a friend or family member about a challenge you’re having with one of your kids, or while you’re reading a book on how to help siblings get along, or while you’re attending a class on using “love and logic” as a disciplinary approach.

When my kids were super-little, I recall reading a number of books and website articles on developmental stages. However, I was so overwhelmed by work and parenting my (eventually) three kids under five – even with plenty of support from my husband and mom and babysitters and preschool teachers – that I didn’t write down a lot of my kids’ milestones; I just checked to verify they were basically on track.

(I mention this because it turns out with twice-exceptional kids, it’s pretty important to know a lot of “when” moments with your little ones. A bunch of the paperwork you fill out for evaluations asks you when, for instance, they said their first word… or took their first step… You know, reasonable things parents should probably remember and keep track of. Whoops.) 

One book I do remember reading and really enjoying about their early years was Alison Gopnick’s The Philosophical Baby (2010).

But most of the books I’ve read on parenting have come later in their still-young lives (ages 12, 10, and 7), especially as I’ve explored what I now understand to be their twice-exceptionalism. It turns out they all have rainforest minds AND they live with anxiety, ADHD (inattentive type), and/or neurodiversity.

To that end, attending a SENG (Supporting the Emotional Needs of the Gifted) parent support group and reading the core text for this organization – A Parent’s Guide to Gifted Children (2007) – was life-changing in terms of providing a space where I finally (FINALLY!) felt like I could safely open up not only about my kids, but my own experiences as a gifted child.

After this group ended, I got my three children formally evaluated by a neuropsychiatrist and continued looking for books and websites to support my learning-as-a-parent. Debbie Reber’s Tilt Parenting podcast was a godsend in terms of collating expertise from dozens of specialists in one convenient space, and I spent a full summer working my way through nearly all of her prior episodes. My shelves and Kindle library are now loaded with books on anxiety, ADHD, giftedness, neurodiversity, sensory processing disorder, and so much more. I haven’t read them all (yet) but just knowing they’re there makes a difference.

Given that one of my many goals with this blog is to eventually offer thoughts on various books related to parenting and/or giftedness, perhaps this will be my excuse to embrace my “overthinking” mind and geek out as I head over to my bookshelf…

Stay tuned.

* My experience with teaching went much the same way: I studied a ton, took many classes, did student-teaching, got certified, and yet – there was still nothing to compare with actually standing in front of my own classroom of 28 kids for the first time, with no other adults around. Who said I was qualified to do this, again? 

References:

  • Gopnick, A. (2010). The philosophical  baby: What children’s minds tell us about truth, love, and the meaning of life. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
  • Prober, P. (2019). Journey into your rainforest mind: A field guide for gifted adults and teens, book lovers, overthinkers, geeks, sensitives, brainiacs, intuitives, procrastinators, and perfectionists. Luminare Press.
  • Webb, J.T., & Gore, J. (2007). A parent’s guide to gifted children. Great Potential Press, Inc.

 

 

Sensory Savvy: Bodily Sensitivity as a 2E Parent

The very first chapter of Paula Prober’s (2016) Your Rainforest Mind is entitled “Too Much: Intensity, Sensitivity, Empathy”.

There are a ton of important ideas here to explore, but for now I’ll focus on the issue of heightened bodily sensitivity, and connect it back to what it’s been like learning to parent for the last 12+ years.

First, an explanation. As Prober writes of Rain Forest Minds  (RFMs):

“… your perception, awareness, and sensitivities are turned up high. This can apply to sounds, textures, smells, chemicals, tastes, colors, images, and air quality. You may hear sounds that others miss or not be able to wear particular clothes due to their texture” (p. 18).

In her follow-up “field guild” for RFMs, Prober (2019) adds:

“Your sensitivities may be criticized or pathologized by family members, teachers, and therapists. Not knowing that a finely tuned nervous system and a body-mind that perceives more on multiple levels is part of your rainforest mind might lead you to believe that something is seriously wrong with you” (p. 36).

Yes, exactly, Paula. That’s what happened.

I had read Elaine Aron’s (1997) The Highly Sensitive Person years earlier, so fortunately already knew about this concept – but it was nice to see it reiterated so boldly in Prober’s book.

Okay – where to begin?

In hindsight, life was definitely too much (sensorily speaking) for me as a kid, though I didn’t realize this at the time. I wasn’t shy or socially anxious, yet I struggled with feeling the “too muchness” of being with people for too long. I remember needing to sneak away to read a book on my own during sleep-overs with friends; escaping into the bathroom during play-dates to decompress; and occasionally choosing to simply stay at home rather than go out to social and/or high sensory events.

I cried “too much” in elementary school, to the point where I was chastised by two of my less-tolerant teachers and made to feel ashamed of myself for this tendency. I slept with a stuffie (an old Norwegian “teddy duck” I called bamse) for years.

I (secretly, only at home) sucked my thumb until I was 12 – but this deeply entrenched habit suddenly went away when it was no longer soothing, and I turned instead to the lure of dieting, which provided temporarily bodily control but very quickly spiraled into an eating disorder I dealt with for my entire teenage-hood. (That topic merits additional blog posts, and was FILLED with sensory challenges of its own.) 

Suffice it to say I simply didn’t feel okay in my body as a child or teen, unless I was escaping into my mind or engaged in very carefully selected exercise. (For instance, I loved bicycling out on city streets in the fresh air early in the morning – like, at 5:30 a.m., before many people were out.)

I didn’t realize until I became a parent and started reading about Sensory Processing Disorder (actually, listening to a podcast about it on Debbie Reber’s awesome Tilt Parenting site) that I realized I may be able to retroactively diagnose myself in this way, too.

When I became pregnant with my first child at the age of 33, I experienced heightened sensory sensitivity – primarily persistent nausea (I ended up taking medication for this) and deep exhaustion. I resisted getting an epidural while giving birth, which led to a physical experience more painful than anything I’d ever dealt with before in my life.

(I say this not to state the obvious, but rather to say that I’ll bet highly-sensitive people have a harder time with childbirth in general. Many moms I’ve spoken with acknowledge how painful it is – yes, of course – but don’t seem to have experienced the physical pain as acutely or in the same way as I did.)

Having a newborn – as miraculous as this was! – brought with it an entirely new set of sensory challenges, ones I couldn’t really share openly given the taboo of complaining about being lucky enough to have a child.

With that said, the biggest challenges I faced were the following:

1) Suddenly being denied anything close to consistent sleep (WTF??!!);

2) Becoming overly vigilant (naturally enough) to the potential sound of a baby crying or fussing; and

3) Feeling every second of milk filling up my breasts. (I eventually got mastitis, which became perhaps the second-most painful thing I could imagine at that time.) 

Meanwhile, my oldest child C suffered the most out of all three of my kids as an infant: she was diagnosed with GERD within a couple of weeks of being born (she threw up everything she ate until we got her medication), and was very clearly physically uncomfortable a lot of the time, no matter how much comfort we tried to give her. That didn’t make life easier for any of us, poor thing.

I ended up stopping breastfeeding far sooner than I anticipated or wanted, simply to stop “feeling so much” in my body and get some sleep. My husband and I decided this was more important to our collective sanity than the potential benefits of breast-milk. Thankfully, C absolutely loved being fed from a bottle; she took to it as naturally as you could hope. (You could say she was gifted at it – ha.) 

Meanwhile, I began struggling with insomnia challenges that persist to this day. (I was lucky enough not to deal with this as a child, so I know it’s a remnant of parenting.) With the birth of each new child, I became more familiarized with the physical sensations, but it never became less exhausting.

(Again, I have many parent-friends who simply didn’t feel the same way when caring for newborns, so I’m comfortable attributing this perception to my hyper-sensitivity. They were all “new-mom tired”, of course – but not bone-achingly exhausted and unable to get to sleep the way I was.) 

Now that I’m parenting three kids who also have strong “sensory needs” (both avoidant and seeking), I’m able to look back at my own childhood, teenage, and parenting experiences from a new lens of compassion. As Prober (2019) recommends in her field guild for RFMS:

“If you have lived for years thinking something was wrong with you because of your sensitivities and intensities, it may take time for a new, positive identity to sink in and take hold” (p. 34).

That’s definitely been the case for me – but I’m happy to say I’m slowly making peace, finding acceptance, and learning effective ways to cope.

References:

  • Aron, E. (1997). The highly sensitive person: How to thrive when the world overwhelms you. Random House.
  • Prober, P. (2016). Your rainforest mind: A guide to the well-being of gifted adults and youth. Luminare Press.
  • Prober, P. (2019). Journey into your rainforest mind: A field guide for gifted adults and teens, book lovers, overthinkers, geeks, sensitives, brainiacs, intuitives, procrastinators, and perfectionists. Luminare Press.

Gifted Characters in Film: An Unexpected Glimpse

Still from “Wild in the Country” (1961), Jerry Wald Productions

As I wrote about in my last post, I write reviews of nearly every type of film possible (at least those made between 1912 and 1987) for a different blog site. That includes silent films, westerns, romances, foreign films, classics, cult favorites, sci-fi, concert films, experimental movies, and so much more.

I never know what I’ll stumble onto as I check off new titles on my list from that book. Some are deadly boring and make me despair for the time I’m wasting; others are interesting glimpses into cultural and racial tensions from a (fairly recent) historical perspective; and some simply surprise me by including dialogue that seems to come out of nowhere.

Like Wild in the Country, an Elvis Presley flick made in 1961.

I’ve watched nearly every other Elvis Presley title listed in Guide for the Film Fanatic, and am not particularly a Presley fan, so I wasn’t expecting much from this one. It’s about a misunderstood, troubled “country boy” named Glenn who goes to work for his scheming uncle rather than to the penitentiary after being goaded into fighting (and nearly killing) his bullying brother. Part of his “treatment” is seeing a beautiful therapist named Mrs. Sperry (played by Hope Lange), who sees the hope and promise in Glenn that he’d rather not acknowledge.

All of a sudden I heard this dialogue being exchanged:

Mrs. Sperry: “Surely, Glenn, you realize you’re gifted.”
Glenn: “I don’t care to be gifted. It’s too hard. It’s too much work. A person who’s gifted gets knocked around, and I’ve been knocked around enough.”
Mrs. Sperry: “If we were all afraid to be knocked around, there’d be no great men. We’d have no scholars, no scientists, no artists, no movers and shakers – those who overcome handicaps, who live to move and shake the world, shake it out of its alligator sleep and move people up and out of the swamps!”

Well, what do you know? The movie (scripted by Clifford Odets) is based on the debut novel of J.R. Salamanca, and one imagines he probably knew a thing or two about this subject. Even if the gendered language is exclusionary (“great men“? so 1950s!), it’s easy enough to simply see this as a product of its time, and feel gratitude for yet another source of confirmation that the “problem” of giftedness has been around for awhile.

In fact, this sequence made me think about my work related to education in prison – a project close to my heart, but one that’s mostly on hold right now given COVID-19 and lack of access to incarcerated populations.

For now, I’ll just say that I’ve been astonished how many “rainforest minds” I’ve encountered when working in the local men’s facilities. In fact, I even recommended Prober’s book to one student (SO clearly a gifted – if deeply troubled – man) who was close to release; my hope was that he would find solace in it as he navigates his way out in the Free World, with all its complications.

(I’ll write more about the topic of education in prison in another post.)

Until then… I need to see what happens to Glenn:

  • Will he acknowledge and embrace his rainforest mind, and publish the short story he’s shared with his therapist?
  • Or will he stay mired in guilt over his mother’s early death, and the fact he couldn’t rescue her from an abusive marriage?

I’ll check back in with my review once it’s done.

UPDATE: After falling in love with Mrs. Sperry (a no-no for therapists and their clients) and then accidentally killing someone during a drunken fight (it turns out the victim had chronic heart problems and Glenn wasn’t responsible for his death), Glenn finally realizes that going to college is his best path forward. Interesting how life often does play out that way.

Film Reviews for the Rainforest Mind

This blog post title is a bit of a misnomer; I’m not going to list films I think rainforest minds would enjoy seeing.

That list would probably be too huge. 

Instead, I’ll write about how watching and reviewing films has been an incredibly useful outlet for my creativity over the last 14 years.

As I’ve written about on here before, I’ve been (obsessively) writing posts on a film review blog for quite awhile. It started as a way to productively procrastinate on writing my dissertation, and ended up becoming a sanity-saver during years of new parenting, a new career, and other life changes.

(No, writing a film review blog doesn’t solve all of life’s problems, or provide any income or fame. I only have one dedicated contributor – plus a few more who pop in every now and then to comment – but that’s actually enough for me.) 

The goal with my blog is really straightforward; as I state on the “What is This Site About?” page:

In 1988 [when I was 14], I bought a copy of Danny Peary’s Guide for the Film Fanatic and since then, I’ve steadily been trying to see each of the titles listed.

In 2006, I decided to create a website where devotees of this book — and other hardcore film fanatics — could debate Peary’s selections and discuss whether or not all the titles he lists are really “must see”. I also wanted a forum for posting my own reviews for each of Peary’s listed titles, and I’m adding new ones continuously.

As someone who struggles with the challenge of too many choices, writing about every single  one of the 4300 titles listed in Peary’s book at least seemed like a way to “narrow down” my focus (!). (In a big-gulp, rainforest-mind kind of way.)

I’m ~61% of the way through the book, and if I continue at my current average rate, this project will take me another 9-10 years to finish. (We calculated this with the kids at dinner the other night.) 

Getting back to why I write film reviews – it’s taken me many years to “come out” in this way. The fact that I write reviews as a hobby has been surprisingly tough to share; admitting that I do this on top of my “job-job” and parenting has had me convinced that people might think I was using up valuable time I could/should have been spending with my kids on something as “frivolous” as movies. (Many of them bad movies – oh, so bad.)

Over the years, however – as I’ve gone to therapy and continued to make peace with my own complex self – I’ve come to understand what so many parenting experts have said for years: parents must take care of themselves to be any good for their kids.

In spite of this advice, there’s a pervasive sense of self-sacrifice and overwhelm in most parenting circles I’ve seen, with a seemingly endless list of ideas one could be trying out.  The irony – really, it is ironic – is that if you try TOO hard to “focus on parenting’, you end up doing your kids (and yourself) a disservice.

In contrast, being a reasonably happy, sane, creatively fulfilled mom goes a long way towards helping me stay an effective parent for the long haul. I’ve seen evidence of that.

So, while my kids do their online gaming or schooling or whatever else they’re involved in, I take care of the many details of our lives, AND I write reviews. (Which means watching films. That’s a side benefit of this hobby.)  I keep a massive checklist (of course), categorize the films I’ve seen or have yet to see by multiple different variables (?!?!), and feel a little bit better each time I check one more off.

Whenever I need a grounding reminder of something NOT RELATED TO REAL LIFE, I head over to my site and read my own reviews, or scroll through my lists.

It’s soothing. It’s self-regulating.

And even if I don’t completely understand why I enjoy this so much, I do – that’s reason enough.

 

 

 

Rainforest Partner: Sharing the Wealth

My partner R (my husband) is a Rainforest Mind, too.

I actually knew that before I even met him in person, given that R’s online dating profile nickname was “Many Hobbies”, and in his self-description he talked quite a bit about how much he loves learning new things hands-on.

In my diary, shortly after meeting him, I wrote:

He’s science-y by nature… but seems totally capable of carrying on conversations about plenty of other things, and actually seems really well-rounded… He likes to learn more about himself and life all the time.

There were a bunch more things about R that I liked and resonated with too (of course!) – but the fact that he was interested in many things was a huge bonus, and has continued to work in our favor as a couple.

The photo at the top of this post is from our front office/library. (Yes, it has a rolling ladder – my dream come true!) I’m a book hoarder and tend to dominate  the shelves, but R has a few near the top dedicated to his own hobbies. (Important side note: he designed and put together the entire wall-covering shelving unit in this room, using IKEA modular pieces. He’s a “builder” on the side.) 

Because R’s hobbies and interests tend to lean towards requiring more “gear” and/or being more expensive (think=large machinery and tools), we have a happily mutual agreement that he can only be actively involved in so many at one time, BUT he can buy books and learn about topics to his heart’s content (and much of that is online these days).

A quick skim of the titles in the random photo above show me just a few of R’s many hobbies over the years – and these are from awhile ago:

  • software architecture
  • robots
  • astronomy
  • woodworking
  • bookbinding
  • four-wheel driving
  • Legos
  • plywood design
  • gears and gear cutting
  • soldering
  • water gardens
  • SketchUp
  • emergency food storage and survival
  • making pure corn whiskey

And let’s not leave out the massive tomes on display here entitled simply “Handbook of Chemistry and Physics, 67th Edition” and “How Things Work” (I and II).

The nice thing is that my own book collections – scattered around the house – cover entirely different types of subjects. I’m much more into film, art, photography, languages, literature, etc.

So, together, you could say we make a collective rainforest household that encompasses a truly enormous range of topics. (With some gaps. Neither of us is into team sports at all, for instance. Go figure.) 

As I mentioned, learning about R’s rainforest mind early on (I didn’t know to call it this way-back-when, of course) was a major point in his favor. I’ve often said – only half-jokingly – that my idea of hell is intellectual boredom. Thankfully, with R as a partner, that just doesn’t happen.

I should add, though, that our desire for variety has some really important limits. We established early on, for instance, that we were interested in finding a life partner, not multiple or shifting partners. (We want comfort and security in that area, not variety.) We don’t especially want to move every year, or even every few years.

And, some of our hobbies manifest differently. He has certain movies he likes watching again… and again… and again, while I love to mix things up and will rarely watch the same film twice. He prefers to revisit relaxing vacation destinations, while I will ALWAYS choose a new spot to explore. Etc.

When it comes to parenting, we split things up and I very happily outsource science “instruction” (both formal and informal) to him, since he’s way more intuitive with it all. (I learn a lot from him myself when I take the time to listen and absorb.)

Meanwhile, we obviously understand our kids’ rapidly shifting and all-encompassing interests, as well as their obsessions, since we’re wired the same way (albeit – differently).

In sum, as challenging as it can often be to have a rainforest mind, it is a LOT nicer – and, I think, easier – sharing my life with someone who not only “gets” it but can match me.

Game on. (Well, not team sports-wise… )