The Magical World of Children



Children’s literature and films are rife with stories about magic: from ancient fairy tales to the 1,001 Nights to modern day blockbusters such as the Harry Potter series. A world in which magical things can happen appeals to the imagination of children in part because of their natural wonder at a world that seems big and mystifying.

Thus the appeal of the magical worlds described in such works as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, A Wrinkle in Time, The Chronicles of Narnia, and the Magic Treehouse series, to name just a few. Although these fantasy worlds can be scary at times, they are also filled with such wonders as a chocolate river, talking animals, caves filled with gold and the like. It’s no surprise that in Alice in Wonderland, the titular character is nodding off with boredom during a history lesson when she spies a mysterious white rabbit and follows him down a hole into Wonderland. Charlie Bucket of Chocolate Factory fame also longs to escape a rather poor and dreary existence by entering the wondrous world of Willy Wonka.


Indeed, magic in children’s stories serves as a form of wish fulfillment. For instance, in Edward Eager’s Half Magic, a group of siblings discover a magic coin that they use to make wishes, to both comical and disastrous effect when they realize the coin will only grant half of their wish. Their adventures serve as a diversion from their life with a strict nanny and absent parents. Similarly, in the stories of “Aladdin” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” the main characters are poor young men who find riches beyond their wildest dreams.

Many characters in children’s literature use magic to escape terrible childhoods. In Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach, James is an orphan being raised by a pair of abusive aunts when he discovers said peach, climbs aboard, and escapes his tormentors. The same is true for young Harry Potter, who is forced to live with his cruel aunt and uncle after his own parents are killed. When dozens of owls bombard Harry with invitations to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, it’s a dream come true. In C.S. Lewis’s iconic Narnia series, the children are escaping the fears of a world at war and the loneliness of being separated from their parents. For the children of A Wrinkle in Time, magic is a way to save and bring home their missing father. All these works speak to the normal fears and anxieties of children, for whom the world is often a scary and confusing place. And they give children something that may be missing in their own childhoods: hope.

Children especially seem to love books that take the whole magic story line one step further: that is, the children themselves discover their own magical powers. Matilda, another Roald Dahl classic, features a young girl whose powers help her overcome negligent parents, nightmare teachers, and schoolyard bullies. In Escape to Witch Mountain, two orphaned children with extraordinary powers discover their origins and the place where they truly belong.


And, of course, there is Harry Potter, the main character in one of the most beloved series of books ever written. Harry discovers that he is a wizard and that there are many other children who have the same types of powers he has puzzled over for years. Over seven books, Harry Potter enters the world of Hogwarts, faces unimaginable perils, and learns to use his powers for good.

The success of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series comes from her keen awareness of the tribulations of childhood. For children, whose world is largely beyond their own control, the idea that they may have it within themselves to escape their fears, shortcomings, and circumstances is a powerful one indeed. As Percy Jackson, a boy who discovers his father is Poseidon in The Lightning Thief, puts its, “The real world is where the monsters are.”





Early Riser



There are two types of people: those who get up at the crack of dawn and those who don’t. I have always been in the former category. Even as a teenager, that notorious somnolent period of life, my idea of sleeping in was rising around 8 am. And in college, I hated that all the bar-hopping and party action began well after 10 pm. I wanted to go out at 7:30 and be home and tucked in before midnight.

One of my problems is that I do not nap. As a little girl, I remember lying on my bed in the bright afternoons and trying to will myself to sleep. But I would toss and turn and get incredibly bored until my mom decided it was okay for my sister and me to get up. The only time I can recall longing for a nap was when I had small children whose sleep schedules kept me up half the night.


“The early bird catches the worm” is a famous aphorism. I don’t know about the worm, but I do feel more productive when I wake up early and get a few things done. I like to write in the morning, and morning is when I am most likely to go for a walk, do chores around the house, pay bills, make phone calls.

There’s something lovely about being awake when most of the world around you is asleep. I love rising at dawn and watching the vague outlines of nature come into focus as the sun makes its way into the sky, trailing orange and pink hues. The stillness of morning is a quiet and prayerful time for me. Being a naturally ruminative person, I find the stillness and freshness of a new day inspiring.

As I write this, the sun is brightening the world around me. Some vestiges of snow sprinkle the lawn. They will be gone by late afternoon as temperatures improbably climb into the 50s on a January day. On mornings like this, I notice the sleeping buds on the magnolia tree outside my window, waiting for spring. A gentle breeze stirs the stalks of dry and brittle flowers.

Amid all the tensions and drama of my life and the world outside, it’s heartening to see the sun’s reliable trajectory in the sky. It’s a new day, and I’m happy to be awake and alive.


Hug It Out



I’m thinking of setting up a “Free Hugs” booth somewhere in downtown Chicago – a busy train station, say, or Daley Plaza (once the weather gets nicer). I recently read the about the physical and emotional benefits of hugging.

Hugging stimulates the production of oxytocin, a hormone that promotes well-being and reduces feelings of anxiety and stress. Oxytocin is the hormone that helps mothers and infants bond, for instance. And studies have shown that hugging can help the heart and the immune system, making it not only a pleasurable activity but a potentially life-saving one.

I’ve noticed that as I get older, my opportunities for hugs have diminished. When you have little ones at home, you are constantly holding and hugging them, and being hugged in return. As they get older, kids often attempt to individuate by keeping their physical distance. And while I hug my husband on a fairly regular basis, I think I’d like to become more demonstrative with friends, even ones I see on a daily basis.

Amid the current divisiveness in America, I think it would behoove us to hug each other more. I’m reminded of a protestor approaching riot police in Charlottesville last year and offering hugs. There was also an instance of a black man hugging a white supremacist outside a Richard Spencer event. The black man kept asking the white man, “Why don’t you like me?” The white man had nothing to say until the black man hugged him and whispered the question again. The white man admitted, “I don’t know.”

Americans are much less physically demonstrative than many other cultures. Decades ago, psychologist Sidney Jourard studied how often friends from different countries touched each other. He found that Americans touched each other about twice an hour whereas the French touched each other an average of 110 times an hour. Puerto Ricans touched more than 180 times an hour. (“How Hugs Heal – Have You Had a Hug Today?,”, May 20, 2017)

In doing some web research, I found out that I’ve just missed #NationalHuggingDay, which was January 21. It’s interesting that this year the date happened to correspond to the Women’s March and followed on the heels of the March for Life, both events where like-minded people gathered in large groups for a common cause. No doubt there was plenty of hugging to go around.

What I’d like to see, however, are more healing hugs, where people take the risk to reach out and connect heart to heart with someone different from themselves, whether racially, politically, religiously, or ideologically. So maybe my Free Hugs booth is not such a bad idea. Or how about a social media phenomenon akin to the Ice Bucket Challenge from a few years ago. People could gather donations for every random hug they gave and posted.

Hugs are warm and life-giving acts, and I plan to start giving out more of them. How about you?



Stormy Weather


im-1368There is a deep irony at the heart of the story alleging that Donald Trump had an affair with an adult film star shortly after his son Barron was born. Recently, The Wall Street Journal reported that a woman named Stormy Daniels was offered $130,000 in 2016 to keep quiet about her affair with Trump. It turns out that several news organizations already had information about the alleged affair during the presidential  campaign. So why are we only learning about it now?

The mainstream media, the very institution that Donald Trump likes to vilify on a daily basis, did not have enough corroboration and therefore declined to publish what would surely have been a lurid and game-changing scoop. In other words, they were responsibly upholding journalistic standards, despite what Trump and his apologists like to claim in their near daily attacks on the press.

Just a few days ago, Trump said he would be announcing the “2017 Fake News Awards” to continue his campaign of discrediting the media. This from a man who has uttered more than 2,000 false or misleading statements in the past 355 days. (Washington Post, January 10, 2018) Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain, both Republicans, have pointed out that dictators across the globe are using Trump’s term “fake news” to justify stifling the media in their repressive regimes. (Chicago Tribune, January 18, 2018)

Revelations that Donald Trump committed adultery yet again are hardly surprising. The man has shown himself to have few moral qualms or principles. But the president owes the mainstream media a debt of gratitude for their measured, responsible journalism. Without it, his “locker room” talk with Billy Bush that was broadcast during the campaign might have been looked upon differently. And voters might have abandoned him at the polls.

Donald Trump’s image of himself and his exaggerations about support from the American people are beginning to crumble like a week-old cake. Or to use another metaphor, his White House is a house of cards that is getting wobbly. Even his chief of staff called his Mexican border wall idea “uninformed.” I’d say he’s in for Stormy weather regardless of how this latest salacious tale plays out.





While on a recent family vacation, I rediscovered the joys of writing in my personal journal. I had been given the lovely book by a friend years ago and had made entries into it very sporadically over the years. But on my trip, I started getting up early, tiptoeing out of my hotel room, grabbing a cup of coffee and a chair facing the sunrise, and chronicling our vacation adventures in my journal.

It was surprisingly difficult – physically – to write in my journal. My thoughts tumbled forth, but my muscles began cramping up with the unaccustomed exertion of writing by hand. Such has been the fate of handwriting in the age of computers. I am, at this moment, typing this post on my laptop while waiting for my daughter at the dentist’s office. Convenient, right? And what’s more, I am using an online publishing website so that with the tap of a few keys, I can post it for Facebook friends and other blog followers to read.

But I think we’ve lost something through the decline in handwriting. Nowadays most college students type their lecture notes on their computers. And increasingly, elementary schools are phasing out lessons in cursive writing, citing its lack of use in modern communication. Yet studies are finding that students retain information better when they hand write their notes in class. And because cursive writing has been de-emphasized, my own children can’t even read it. What will happen in a generation or two when no one can read old documents because they’re written in cursive?

Writing by hand in my journal makes the process more meditative and connected to me. My documentation of our vacation led to more thoughtful examinations of my life, my family, and what might be coming down the road for us. Writing in my journal can be cathartic after an emotional episode. And there’s something quite beautiful about rereading my words in my own very personal and individual handwriting.

Computers are wonderful tools that make it easy to write and edit one’s work. Email makes it convenient to stay in touch in a timely fashion. But the art of writing by hand is one that I think should be resurrected in this age of internet. Imagine getting a handwritten letter by a loved one from far away. Sure, the information might not be up to the minute. But the personal nature of a letter and its relative permanence compared to email, text, or phone call make it an ideal way to make a personal and lasting connection.

I plan to fill up my journal quickly as the days and months go on. No doubt my hand muscles will adjust to the practice. I may get a little callous on my left hand ring finger the way I used to in my teaching days from grading papers. And who knows? If you’re my friend or family member, you just might be receiving a missive from me on some pretty stationery one of these days.

60 Years Young


IMG_1530Yesterday I celebrated the milestone of turning 60. In honor of the birthday I share with the great Martin Luther King, Jr., it snowed about six inches in Chicago. As I shoveled the cold, fluffy stuff in my driveway, I felt grateful that I am still fit and healthy enough to do so as I head into my seventh decade of life. Yikes!

The thing is, I still feel young. I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling a sense of disconnect between my inner self and the aging face I see in the mirror. For one thing, I can vividly remember things from my childhood, such as playing running bases in the backyard, buying lemon jungles from the Good Humor man, and doing third grade phonics with Mrs. Walsh. Milestones such as high school graduation and my first job don’t seem that far in the past.

Emotionally, of course I’ve changed. I’m a little wiser and less susceptible to peer pressure. But I still have my insecurities, my need to be liked, and my fear of change. And while it’s true that my idea of fun nowadays is a night in with a good movie or book, I’ve never exactly been a party animal. I think that, as they age, people don’t so much change as they become a more mellow version of themselves.

The best thing about getting older has been the deepening of my relationships with my family and friends. My kids are almost all adults now, and it is so gratifying to have meaningful conversations with them. My husband and I have a comfort level with each other that was not there in the early years. I have close relationships with my mom and siblings. And I am surrounded by good friends who make me laugh and let me know I am loved just the way I am.

Just yesterday, a group of friends surprised me at a birthday lunch organized by my beloved older daughter. It gave me such a warm feeling on a cold and snowy day to share a glass of wine, a meal, and great conversation with some of my favorite women in the world.

If this is what turning 60 feels like, I’m glad to say that as of yesterday, I’m 60 years young!


Music or Lyrics?

Standard kids thought it was hilarious one day when they heard me singing the pop song “I Can’t Feel My Face.” My son informed me, “You know that song is about taking drugs, don’t you, Mom?” Honestly, I didn’t. To me it was just an upbeat, bouncy tune that I liked. Now it’s tainted by my knowledge that it’s about cocaine-induced numbness.

So many popular songs today have dubious subject matter and language. Rap is an obvious example. But what about more light-hearted sounding tunes? Back in the Sixties, much was made of the “hidden” drug references in such songs as “Along Comes Mary,” “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” “White Rabbit,” and yes, “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” Songs were routinely censored, and the Rolling Stones were forced to amend the lyrics “Let’s spend the night together” in order to perform the song on the Ed Sullivan Show.

With the advent of rap in the 1990s, Tipper Gore led the charge against profanity and violence in song lyrics and was successful in getting record producers to put warning labels on albums deemed offensive. When I hear some of today’s pop songs, my old favorite “Please Go All the Way” sounds positively tame by comparison.

The question is, which is more important, the music or the lyrics? I tend to go by the standard of the old pop music TV show American Bandstand: whether it has a good beat and I can dance to it. If so, it’s good enough for me. I’m reminded of a funny Chris Rock stand-up bit in which he describes young women gyrating happily to sexist and offensive hip hop songs. For the purposes of dancing or even getting from point A to point B in my car, the lyrics to a song are beside the point.

Yet meaningful lyrics can also bring so much depth to a song. Sometimes I take to a song with a monotonous tune because I love the meaning behind the song. A good example for me is “Man in the Mirror” by Michael Jackson. Another is John Lennon’s “Imagine,” which, let’s face it, is something of a dirge. But what lifts these songs for me are the words and meanings behind them. In fact, as a high school English teacher, I enjoyed using popular song lyrics as poetry in my classes.

In any event, musical taste is an individual thing, and I will continue to enjoy my bouncy pop or rowdy rock music, whether I like the lyrics or not. Just don’t tell me what “Cake By the Ocean” refers to. I don’t want to know; I just want to enjoy it.