The Perfect Carpool: Drive Carefully and Carry a Big Stick

09/20/2011 09:06 am ET | Updated Nov 20, 2011

I recently spent five days at a silent meditation retreat, bringing home with me many reflections, insights, peace of mind -- and a stick.

This stick -- smooth from wear on the outside, yet solid and unbreakable -- was my only concrete reminder of the time I spent away from family, friends and the myriad details of day-to-day "stuff" -- instead focusing on my inner life.

The next Monday I was back into real life: carpooling for my son and his 6th grade friends. Somehow after the retreat the stick ended up remaining in my car so that my four wonderful passengers noted its presence.

"Hey what's up with the stick?" my son asked. Rather then go into a longwinded discourse ("It's a symbolic reminder to hold sacred one's mindful existence...") I fumffered a bit and replied "Er... um... it's a Talking Stick." There was quiet, then a chorus of "huh?"s in the car.

Now let me stop for a moment to confess that I love my carpooling mornings. I feel an inordinate sense of privilege when I get to drive these interesting, smart, funny and LOUD children to school a few times a week. My son in fact may be the loudest of the group. (Perhaps of any group.) It's early in the morning, everyone wants to talk and I really want to hear each of them. Did I mention IT CAN BE LOUD!!!! How is anyone that loud at 7:45 a.m.?

So I explained that if they wanted to (and they really did), we could play a game passing around the stick. Whoever held the stick got to talk while the others listened. As soon as a person finished talking, someone else could hold out their hand for the stick and have their turn talking, and so on.

To my happy surprise this was the most delightful car ride ever. The content of the talk was not altered -- it was still silly, it was still profound at times, there were still fake-fart noises being proffered -- but it was clear that each of my young passengers felt listened to in a very different way, and each liked practicing listening to the others.

American Indian children, from the age of three on, are taught using the "talking stick" to practice the art of listening and respecting another's viewpoint. This is not to say that they may not disagree, but rather that they are bound by their personal honor to allow everyone their Sacred Point of View.

Since that first "Big Stick" experience in my car, I have heard from other parents that they also liked the talking stick idea and would like to try the ritual in their cars. I'm glad to have their support and not just be the school's designated weird, hippie, meditating, shrink-mom.

But I don't think you have to be an American Indian, a psychologist or a carpool driver to know how important it is to cultivate the skill of listening. We'd all be a little more pleasant to live with (and drive with) if our thoughts could be heard and our words respected.

This morning when we got into the car, one of the kids asked for the stick, but it had vanished. I searched in vain but only came up with a tiny ceramic pomegranate filled with sweet juice that a friend had brought me from her trip to the Ukraine. (Don't ask! Some things find their way into my car and never make it out again.) Anyway, the kids ended up passing around a ceramic pomegranate. I think I might actually like the pomegranate better since it's less sharp and thus less likely to end up in someone's eye. The point is - you can use whatever you have as long as it's imbued with the powers of "the stick." It's a concrete reminder to be mindful in relationships, to pay attention and care about one another.

Eventually, the stick disappears. Even the pomegranate disappears, and what remains is a smooth, sweet residue and a well-practiced knowledge of how to communicate.