Thursday, August 15, 2019

Yes You Should Take Your Kids to Pride

When I was about 18 my Dad told me under no uncertain terms that although he accepted gay people and had "even" gone to and enjoyed a gay pride parade, he would not want any of his daughters to "choose" to be gay. It's a hard life, he said, and God doesn't condone it.

As a straight atheist girl whose two closest friends at that time were gay, I was pissed, and reprimanded him for assuming it was a choice at all. Later it sunk in that should I discover that I was gay (or in any way unconventional), I might lose my family. I swore to myself that my own children would never face that fear.

So from the moment I became a parent, I tried to ensure that my kids never felt judged by me for their choice of play or clothing, and I provided what I thought was a broad selection of toys and clothes that were diverse in their gender-associations. (Of course now my kids tell me they wish they'd had choices that were less "hippy"... ooops...)

My son wore tutus and my daughter wore overalls. My daughter learned to use an axe before her older brother did, and he, well... despite me providing him with many alternatives, he just liked anything with wheels or motors. We didn't actually attend Pride until my kids were nearly teens, simply because it always seemed so far to travel to the city for it, but once we started, we kept going.

And as time went by, it became we parents who were educated by our children. As our kids have made many LGBT2Q+ friends, they have learned a great deal more than we ever did, and have explained not only the meaning of all those letters (and various alternatives) to us, but also called out our unconsciously discriminatory actions, and helped us to open our minds.

We keep going to Pride because it's fun, but also because, as our kids come perilously close to leaving our arms and hearth for the great world of adulthood, we want to make sure they know they can come back. Giving our kids a wholesome upbringing means accepting the whole of them - whoever they are, and whoever they become. They need to know that even if their identity becomes something totally foreign to their straight cis-gender parents, we'll keep loving and supporting them.

We still live in a world where people who identify as LGBT2Q+ are at risk for discrimination, bullying, violence, and even death, so the best we can do as parents is to provide a safe and loving home. It isn't enough to just say "hey, I'll love you no matter what", because if our kids don't see us supporting all those "no matter whats" out there, they won't know for sure. They need to see us put on our rainbows and get out there celebrating the diversity of our population. They need to see that we aren't prejudiced or afraid, so that when they discover they're not the kid we thought they were, or when they bring home their first partner, no matter how unexpected they may be, we'll welcome them with open arms. This is how we create a safer world for our children, and a better future for all of us.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Happy Birthday Daddy

Pat Gallaher  --  1949-2015
It's my Dad's 70th birthday today.

He's been gone five years and I still miss him every single day. Sometimes I go sit at his father's plaque in the graveyard where I know my family scattered some of his ashes, and I have lunch with him, without him. It's pretty lonely, but it's better than having my lunch somewhere else. Sometimes I still briefly think I'll call him when something interesting happens, or when I just feel like I haven't heard from him in a while. I imagine we'll have one of our epic chats.

My Daddy was an epic chatter and so was his mother and so am I. They called it the gift of the gab, but really we're story-tellers. And all bull-headed which made it interesting - in the best way possible. He was one of the few people in the world I wasn't afraid to speak my mind to. He had a lot of stories and he was happy to hear my stories too. He genuinely wanted to know me. I miss having someone to talk to about just everything. I miss you, Daddy. Happy birthday.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

How to Unschool Graduation

For a number of years in our household, there's been discussion about whether or not to graduate - to get the diploma - to take a bunch of required courses and jump a hoop of our culture's pre-determined life-trajectory. The debate has mostly been among the parents, because neither of our children has been very willing to consider non-graduation. We know that it's possible to apply to university as a "homeschooler", and enter without a high school diploma, but I think our kids want to prove to themselves that they can achieve what the mainstream offers. Still maybe not in a wholly mainstream way. So I'm delighted to announce that our son just unschooled graduation!

Taliesin in the crowd of graduates.
Maybe it's a bit of an oxymoron to say one can graduate from unschooling, because it is, after all, a philosophy of self-directed life-long learning. But you sure can self-direct your grad celebration and the way you choose to create and cross a threshold, and these fabulous humans did so!

Taliesin receiving a joyful hug from his principal.

Our kids have attended Windsor House School these past three years. Windsor House is a democratic public school that was founded, run, and then held in integrity for nearly fifty years by Helen Hughes. The school's slogan is "room to grow and be yourself", and the school's staff and community lives up to this in every action they take or choose not to take. They accept all students as they are without condition. They don't give grades. They encourage creativity. They don't discriminate. They respect students' identities and choices, whatever they may be. They don't coerce. Ever. So Windsor House is a school full of unschoolers.

Helen Hughes, founder of Windsor House, receiving a standing ovation.
At Windsor House students are empowered to make their own choices, and to be accepted no matter what those choices are. At Windsor House you can spend all day every day drawing pictures, gaming, or playing basketball, and instead of trying to diversify your activities, teachers will celebrate you and encourage you, including when you finally move on to a new pursuit. If you come to school only twice a week or don't come to school for months at a time that's OK too. When you don't do any provincially-mandated academics for years at a time and then decide you want to earn a graduation diploma, teachers will help you make up all those academics you need for credit. At Windsor House there is no dress-code, and no gender grouping. All toilets are always for all genders. There's nobody going to tell you what to do, and there's a culture of non-violent communication that lives organically between staff and students, held up by respect and a practice of good, deep, thoughtful conversation. It's not unusual for people to stay or return to Windsor House as adults. The principal is the daughter of the founder, who attended Windsor House herself, and now runs it with an abundance of passion, love, integrity and creativity, being connected with, loving and supportive of every single human from Kindergarten to adulthood. At Windsor House you can choose or create your own pathway, and you will be celebrated for doing so. Including for graduation.

Our son Taliesin wasn't originally going to graduate this year, since it was technically his grade eleven year, but he had nearly all the required credits already, so when he heard in late March that Windsor House is closing, he decided to add a couple of courses to his roster and finish early. He wanted to get his high school diploma, but didn't want to attend a large mainstream high school for just one year. So since making this decision in early April, he worked tirelessly - many hours nearly every single day - to finish the courses he needed for credit. It was definitely hard work, exhausting, and at times felt like meaningless drudgery, but I think it was nice for him to discover that he can, in fact, pull off the kind of school-work that his mainstream friends do.

Taliesin enjoying grad his way - outside, hanging with a good friend.
There were just over twenty Windsor House graduates this year, and they each had unique stories. Some students have completed our province's graduation requirements and some haven't. Some were graduating as "adult grads" and at least one graduated "early". Some took the grad stage for the first time; some had been there before, but chosen to come back, do more school, grow a little more, and graduate again. And again! This is what graduation looks like when you self-direct it. It's a celebration of the achievements you determined for yourself were important, and a threshold on to the next stage of your self-determined journey.

"...has successfully completed their self-directed education at Windsor House..."
Those receiving actual high school graduation diplomas will receive them by post once all the grades are received by the Ministry of Education, but this certificate may be the most meaningful one to many.
 And let's talk about grad traditions: the caps and gowns and diplomas and cap-throwing; the prom and the speeches and all. the. excitement. This class self-directed those, as well. The group of kids who organized this event sourced the venue, the attire, the decorations, food and even advice from their community. They rented a hall that isn't normally rented for such occasions but was perfect for the event, with a stage, gorgeous sound and party lights, disco ball and chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. And in their neighbourhood. My mother and a couple of friends provided the enormous number of fabulous flowers for the event, cut fresh from their gardens. The grads got mortarboard caps from a local university's recent 50th anniversary celebration, and we redecorated them with purple ribbon, because purple is, fittingly, Windsor House's school colour. They found gowns for everyone who wanted to wear them - some were borrowed, some where home-made, and some were the death-eater costumes from the school's recent Very Potter Musical performance. The food was potluck, and some generous soul ordered in pizza late in the night! The graduation speech was not given by an elected valedictorian, but by a student who felt she wanted to speak. The kids announced at the end of the ceremonies that they would now flip their tassels to the other side, and throw their caps - and they did! Most kids didn't arrive with corsages and boutonnieres, but at the end of the night they dismantled the flower arrangements and flowed out the doors holding gorgeous bouquets and bedecked in various creative ways with the flowers from their prom. Not every Windsor House class has chosen to carry on these cultural traditions, but this one did. And when you choose it, you own it. They did everything in their own, gorgeous, unique styles! And it was fabulous.

These wonderful humans will continue going on to the rest of their lives; some to work and travel and explore, some to continue being involved with Windsor House activities, and some to post-secondary education. Every single day is, of course, a threshold to the rest of our lives. Every day we wake up and choose how we're going to engage; how we're going to move in one direction or another. There truly is no right or wrong way; no right or wrong speed at which to reach any milestones. And there are no mandatory milestones. We are who we were born to be, and unschooling allows us to live in that truth.

*graduation ceremony photos by Adrian van Lidth de Jeude
More photos on our Instagram feed:

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Ridiculously Important Family Traditions

Elisabeth van Lidth de Jeude - van Wely
When I think about family togetherness, I often think about my Groodmoeder. Technically she was my step-grandmother, and she put an enormous effort into holding our family together. Despite living on a different continent, it was Grootmoeder who always called on my birthday, no matter where I lived and as long as she was alive; who sent me countless letters in three different languages to connect and encourage my language learning; who came to visit us frequently even into her eighties, despite the long flight from the Netherlands to Canada's west coast. It was she who, for her own birthday, used to go around to visit all her friends, and for her eightieth birthday, sold a valuable painting and used the money to import all of her offspring from around the world to a Chateau in Switzerland to spend days celebrating with her and eating fondue and playing games. It was Grootmoeder who told me stories of meeting me when I was a "fat baby" and explained that she loved me even though she didn't know I was going to be her granddaughter yet. She never said she loved me gently, only with emphasis and sometimes a poke to the arm or a blast of her loud, determined laughter. She meant it every time.

Grootmoeder was unflinching and unbending, and fought to teach me the stupidity of washing my hair too often almost as hard as she worked to promote accessibility and housing for disabled people in her community. It was Grootmoeder who, in a restaurant, encouraged my cousin to line her pocket with a plastic bag, stuff souvlaki on skewers into it, and then discreetly pour the leftover sauce into the pocket (it dribbled out on the way home). It was Grootmoeder who told me not to steal pieces of brick from a monument before stuffing a couple in her pockets to bring home for me. It was Grootmoeder who got up in the middle of the night to prepare tomato soup so that when I awoke with jet-lag it would be ready for me. It was she who made sure I came to visit when the quinces were ripe so she could teach me how to make my father's favourite quince jam and jelly, and to eat quince mush on toast while the rest was cooking, because... it's tradition.

Grootmoeder was the keeper of my family's tradition, and in some cases she was the creator of it. She practically made a tradition of everything, including grilling us about the names of the rivers around her home, and facts like which river comes from Germany, and which do we cross with the ferry, and which of those did she swim in as a girl because it's the only clean one. (The Waal, the Lek, the Linge.) Now we have added to that mental list which one she drowned in, nearly fourteen years ago when she accidentally drove her car backwards off the ferry and into the Lek.

Pit spitting in a previous year.
Grootmoeder's hometown was in the orchard-rich province of Gelderland, and eating cherries is a family tradition as well. As is wearing cherries as earrings, and most especially, cherry pit spitting competitions, which all of her grandchildren were taught to do from the first time we could eat cherries, or visited her in cherry season. And you can't let tradition die, because it's tradition! So after Grootmoeder died, we all became a little more fanatical about cherry pit spitting, and now we have a worldwide tournament, among the siblings and cousins of this strange cherry-pit-spitting family. We gather up whomever is available in our various locations, and measure our spit distances, and then we share them by email across the world. Everybody wins, as we say... but some people (the men who carry Grootmoeder's genes) can spit unfathomably far!

Measuring the over-shot spit distance.
This year we in Canada used an insufficient tape measure, which my father overshot by nearly a meter, and we had to get a longer one to measure what turned out to be an 8.23m spit! I'm quite sure he and others have out-spit that in the past, but really, who's counting? It was a beautifully wet day here in BC where we've been having a drought. Grootmoeder would have been happy for the rain. She would have turned one hundred years old today. And I think she can be proud of the traditions she has instilled. I think we can all rejoice in carrying on her legacy of love and fun and togetherness.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Everything is More Tender

We become hardened, as parents. I tell you the good stories first, and if I share the struggles I finish with something hopeful or I say it's no big deal. When my kids excel I play it down so as not to seem too proud, and when they fail I heartlessly tell them it's a great learning opportunity while giving only small recognition to their grief. I don't do this for you; I do it to keep my own face brave. I keep telling myself every day that we're doing fabulously, until I believe it. I do it to keep the fear at bay.

Remember when our babies were tiny and we thought we might asphyxiate them if we rolled over in the night and smothered them with the blankets or with our own enormous breasts? We woke terrified that they'd stopped breathing or fallen out of the bed. Or we walked extra carefully to ensure we didn't drop them, or when they were toddlers to ensure their little feet didn't trip as they became accustomed to the rhythm of walking.   

When they got older we gave them more freedoms and slowly our fears abated until we learned to let them go. They rode bicycles. They gallivanted in the city and they trekked through the woods. They climbed too high and they crashed - sometimes hard - and they recovered and we saw that they were OK. We let go and we forgot they were still our babies. We forgot that they were fragile.

Taliesin sleeping off his concussion with his cat, Blackberry.
Today I heard a very simple piano melody on the radio and I broke down crying in my car, because now that sound is the sound of my son's fragility. Two weeks ago, and just two weeks before his graduation ceremony, my seventeen-year-old fell out of his bed. It's a loft bed, and his floor is wooden. He remembers falling into the alleyway of his dream, and then woke on his floor with a nosebleed. He is now recovering very slowly from his first serious concussion. I've never had to deal with this before, and didn't know what to expect, so when the doctor told him he'd have to stop attending classes, stop using computers, stay away from bright lights and generally rest his brain, I worried about his graduation, but figured he'd be fine. I hardened myself. 

I figured he'd wake up feeling better the next morning, and within a few days he'd return to school. But the next morning he went to play piano, and found that he couldn't remember how. I gave him a smoothie and in a blur he knocked it over with his elbow. I acted like nothing had happened, and I hardened myself more. His cat slept on him for two days, and didn't leave his side for at least one more.

He went back to the piano and tried again. His fingers couldn't find the notes. He was frustrated but remembered a few of the tunes he normally plays for leisure, and tried haltingly to pick them out, until he wandered away looking defeated. He lay back in the darkness of his room and closed his eyes. I watched him laying there, wondering who my son would become; how this would change him. I never realized how much it meant to me just to see him enjoying himself making music, and suddenly it was gone. 
The next day, out of sheer boredom, he sat down at the piano again and found that he could pick out a few notes of one of the songs he likes to play. By evening he could play a few melodies, and after about five days of dedicated practice, he not only regained the ability to play two parts at once, but composed a new piece, that apparently "just came to him"
This piece is now the sound of my son healing himself. He's not finished healing, yet. He can't yet use screens for more than a few minutes every day; he can't go out in the sunshine or read for very long, or practice parkour in the forest as he liked to do, before. But he can play piano. This song is the sound of dedication and hope and the promise that my son will come back from this concussion, and that even if his life is changed, his spirit is still thriving. Thank goodness for that, and for my grandmother's piano. He lets me hug him more, now. He cracked open my hardened heart and everything is more tender, now.

Community as a Way of Life

When I was 26, bewildered and a bit in shock with the reality of new motherhood, I took my baby to our local Family Place, and sat around the edges of the activity, watching. Whining lines of Suzanne Vega ran through my head: "in the outskirts, and in the fringes, on the edge and off the avenue"... as my baby nursed his way through the stress of a new situation. Out of the fray of mothers and toddlers and snack foods and plastic dishes came the most welcoming smile. This woman actually held out her arm to me, beckoning me to join the group. And Mara became my friend.

Years later, as we sat around her trailer home together, watching our kids play and leap from the furniture, I complained about my back issues, and Mara deftly used the opportunity to attempt to convince me to take the adults' ballet class that she taught in the evenings. I told her 'no way'. I explained that ballet left me behind when I was nine and had a pot belly and knees that didn't straighten all the way. She convinced me anyway, and next term I cautiously and inelegantly stepped into her class. 

Mara Brenner with students of Gabriola Dance, 2019. Photo by Inspired Spirits Photography.
Mara doesn't just teach ballet. She's an accredited Pilates instructor, and a passionate life-long-learner of human anatomy and movement. She looked at me while I attempted the ballet moves and explained exactly what my muscles and bones were doing and how I could optimize for my personal development. When she didn't have an answer, she went away and researched or thought about it until she figured it out (yes - that's the definition of being a life-long-learner, and an expert!) She sees people not only as moving, learning bodies, but as humans with struggles and opportunities. I soon became one of Mara's 'Tequilarinas' - the group of adults who danced until 9pm and then went for a tequila at the pub, together. After a year, my back was healed. I started wearing superhero costumes to ballet.

Through her friendship, clear strong vision, and unflinching determination, Mara gave me more confidence and opportunity than any other teacher I've had.

Gabriola Dance year end showcase, 2019: The Giving Tree. Photo by Inspired Spirits Photography.
Mara Brenner taught our island's children and adults ballet, and also used her company MaraGold Productions to bring world class artists to perform not only on our small island, but at various Canadian venues. She worked her dancing feet off one hundred percent of the time, not just giving to her community, but building it. She exemplified a kind of character strength and courage that's hard to maintain, but essential in a thriving community. Eventually her community turned its back on Mara and her family.

Our land use bylaw only allows trailer-living for a brief period of time while landowners are building a permanent dwelling. As you can imagine, building a home on the wages of a ballet teacher and a glazier, while also raising two young children, takes longer than it otherwise might. Mara and her partner, Stu, lived in a trailer on land they owned, while slowly building their permanent home. At the point they were forced to leave, they had only built the foundation. Theirs was almost an idealist story of dreamy island living, until our snooty bylaws pushed them out.

Gabriola Dance year end showcase, 2019: The Giving Tree. Photo by Inspired Spirits Photography.
So they left! Mara and her family found their new home on Gabriola Island, and quickly turned the small outbuilding into a dance studio. Around the same time she was gifted her own ballet teacher's extensive collection of ballet school costumes, and she threw all her extensive skill and passion into Gabriola Dance. Last weekend I went to see her year-end showcase, and I was moved to write this article.

Gabriola Dance year end showcase, 2019: The Giving Tree. Photo by Inspired Spirits Photography.
Finally with a permanent roof over her head on Gabriola, Mara pulled everything out of her heart and poured it into ten years of parenting and teaching in her new community. This 10th showcase felt to me like watching my friend stitch up all her passions and skills into one beautiful, powerful package. It was in many ways her gift to the world. 

Gabriola Dance year end showcase, 2019: The Giving Tree. Photo by Inspired Spirits Photography.
I think we all hope we can make a difference in the world - at least leave it a slightly better place than we found it. These days many of us are just hoping we save enough of the world that our children will grow old before it's gone. So Mara developed a dance performance of Shel Silverstein's 'The Giving Tree'. The piece brings together students of many diverse ages and training levels. It's profound and moving, but Mara didn't leave it at that. Working on this project brought up a great deal of conversation among students about climate change, and it became clear that she needed to deal with the prevalent angst and anxiety that today's children harbour around this topic. So she had all the conversations with them, and at the end of the dance showcase, she hosted a talk back with biologist Melanie Mamoser and registered clinical counsellor Caitlin Kopperson, to discuss the affects of climate change on childhood anxiety. One of the most urgent questions, of course, is 'what can we do?', and although there's no clear answer to that, there were some good ideas, and the conversation at least left me feeling hopeful that people were talking about it, and that children's voices are being heard in this discussion.

Gabriola Dance year end showcase, 2019: The Giving Tree. Photo by Inspired Spirits Photography.
With The Giving Tree, Mara does something I hope we all manage to do in our lives: She orchestrates her many gifts into one grand oeuvre, showcasing not only the work of her students and other community members, but pulling them all together in a kind of hopeful community invocation. May we all have the courage to live our hearts' dreams and create a better world in doing so, each in our own ways, and all within community.

Gabriola Dance year end showcase, 2019: The Giving Tree. Photo by Inspired Spirits Photography.

Gabriola Pilates and Dance:
Inspired Spirits Photography:

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Fathers Looking at People They Love

Jim looking at his niece.
Relationships with fathers are rarely idealistic. I choose the word idealistic purposefully, because there is no such thing as perfection, and relationships that don't live up to our idealist expectations make us grow. There have been many fathers in my life - those who fathered me and those whom I have observed fathering others. I appreciate them all.

Hans looking at his granddaughter.
Dear fathers - my own fathers and grandfathers and uncles and my partner and brother and extra brothers and in-laws and cousins and dear cherished friends...
I Love You.

Everhard looking at his daughter.
To the fathers who go to work every day, missing out on many of their children's milestones, feeling sometimes detached or unneeded, but making an effort to fit in when they're home, you are not unneeded. I used to sleep with my Pappa's smelly shirt when he was away. You teach your children that sometimes love takes sacrifice; you teach them about surviving loneliness. And when you do come home you are the superhero - sometimes the unsung superhero. It was a party every time my Pappa came home from the bush. You teach your children about elation and overwhelming joy. You teach them that love persists through absence and struggle.

Wout looking at his niece.

To the fathers who have given every shred of their being to raise children on their own, or, as my partner does, to provide, and literally build a roof over our heads, out of sheer sacrifice and determination, you are teaching your children that they can. You empower them to persevere and to have faith in their emergent skills.

Markus looking at his son.

To the fathers who become their boyish adventurous selves in the presence of their children; who take them on crazy funny bike adventures, who take them climbing around in shipwrecks and wandering aimfully over high mountains and through deep valleys: Sometimes you are expressing your love through adventure and your children know it. You teach them to explore. You teach us that it is important to be happy.

John looking at his niece.
To fathers who have lost children and grandchildren, sometimes to unspeakable tragedy, but pulled themselves out of despair to continue parenting their other children, to be strong so that others could be strong, too. You have held the world up when others couldn't do it alone. You have held the world together.

Adrian looking at his nephew.
To the men who don't have their own children, but whom children flock to, for the wonder and generosity in their personalities. These men like my brother, who takes the job of uncle-ing very seriously, as much to his own niece and nephew as to a gaggle of other adoring children. You teach us all that parenting is everybody's place in society. And you give children a safe place to be.

Gerhard looking at his niece.
To the men who are terrified of holding their friends' children or even their own newborn babies, confronted with the fragility of life and love, you have discovered and expressed the tenderness of your hearts. You have given children a promise of gentleness, and empowered them to be gentle, too.

Pat looking at his daughter.
To the fathers who have been vulnerable, telling me about their fears and struggles either with raising me or raising children I have loved, you have been brave, in your efforts to grow and evolve and to do the best you could for your children. To the father, even, whose children I have housed while he was struggling, you are raising children who know that they can change; you have empowered them to become their best selves.

Ernest looking at his granddaughter.
To the fathers who, in addition to fathering their own children, reach out to father others, as well, sending care packages of Kraft Dinner for newly-independent grandchildren (yes that was my Grandpa!), taking children who are not their own on marvellous adventures, giving advice that wasn't wanted, but sometimes greatly valued, and just plain being there for the kids who need them. It was my uncle who rented and furnished my first apartment for me. You empower all of us to be generous with our time, our resources, and our love.

To the fathers who have loved through pain, heartbreak, struggle, drudgery, and apathy, thank you. To the fathers who have brought hope and trust and joy and adventure to each generation, thank you! We look at you and we see that we are loved. We see that your face shines when you look at us and we know that's what love is.
Thank you for finding your way. 
Thank you for showing us the way. 
Thank you for your gift to humanity.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Love Against the Machine: The Enormous Joy of Discovering that Unschooling Works

Me in my garden - photo by my son Taliesin River.
I started unschooling my kids rather out of a place of despair, when my son's learning style (his way or no way at all!) didn't mesh with the system. I quickly realized how similar unschooling was to the way I already taught other children, using explorative creative play and art-making to teach them about the workings of the world and their own hearts and minds. So on pure blind faith and a good chunk of sheer determination, my husband and I just let our kids go, free-range for the most part, trying to follow their interests and our own, and cobble together some sort of symphony of it all.

And there's the machine, of course - the socio-political one. I've never been someone to follow the masses, myself, so unschooling suits my personality. It wasn't until recently that I realized (thanks to my mother) that everything in my life is a rebellion against the machine - even gardening. I grow food to prove to myself that I don't fully depend on the agriculture industry. I grow it to prove to my children that we're skilled and capable of looking after ourselves. I grow it to teach myself how - to feel less frightened about the looming possibility of social collapse, and to know that I'll be able to feed us, if need be. And I grow it because it's an interesting challenge. I garden exploratively. I unschool gardening. And recently - at long last - I'm having a bit of success with it.

My son, now seventeen, unschools photography. I'd love to say I taught him that, because I love photography too, but I didn't. I just gave him the freedom to teach himself. And I let him use my cameras. He explores photography. He breathes photography. He leaps around the city and wilderness, seeing it all in his unique way, and using whichever camera he has as a natural extension of his own eyes. He mastered the technology on his own, through exploration, as a child masters the use of a crayon, or his fingers. He mastered it intuitively, because he has freedom to explore.

He has a volunteer job, now, exploring beaches and documenting his discoveries in image and words for a forthcoming marine atlas. Yesterday he let me join him on one of his explorative adventures, and he told me that he was off to look for the anemones that he knew lived on the other side of the lighthouse. I realized with total delight that we were on the same sort of adventure we did almost every day of his younger childhood, but this time, with camera in hand and the confidence of a great strong wind, my son was leading me.

There was a day many years ago, when I led a wilderness exploration group (including my own kids) into the meadow, and somebody asked my daughter if she ever gets sick of being with her mother. I was offended, and then worried, and really questioned our decision to live so closely with our kids, especially because my daughter has always been looking for ways to engage separately from the family. There have been SO many days like this. So many doubts and fears and blaring warning signs cast up by others and by my own fearful mind telling me to turn and run back to the norm. But we didn't. My daughter is fiercely independent, and she taught me how to let go of her so she could go gallivanting in the city with her much-older friends. Unschooling demands of both of us to live bravely and trust. Our deep connection built over so many years of living life in close proximity makes her independence possible. I know I can trust her to look after herself, and to reach for us when we're actually needed.

And yesterday I looked into my son's lens, as he towered above me on the rocky beach, and realized he was taking a photo of my smile - his smile - the smile that exists because of him. Whatever he explores in this world, with or without me, I am reassured that he loves me and is happy in his life and in himself. Whatever more could I have wished for in the world? This is the enormous joy of discovering that unschooling works.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Exploring to Learn About Diversity, and Why It Matters

Found: A decomposing, rat-chewed deer vertebra.
This morning my fabulous group of Wild Art kids and I lay on the forest floor with our heads in the dried leaves, looking up at the canopy of deep, dark, low-branched cedars and verdant freshly-leaved maples, their moss and fern-covered trunks reaching down to the ground beside us. The diversity of greens was shocking. Even the leaves of one maple were a very different green than those of the next. We talked about the diversity of bird sounds we could hear, the sounds of the different sorts of leaves rustling both under us and in the distance. We talked about the dark brown, cone-covered branch hung up in the cedar above us, and one of the kids waxed nearly poetic about the balance of dead and decomposing things with the fresh and living things, the balance of different shapes all around, and even the balance of humans in nature, since mostly we now find ourselves not there.

We agreed that balance is pretty important. And the more diversity we have, the more balance. Diversity and balance are essential for all communities, human and wilderness. And the understanding of this diversity is essential for engaging with the world.

This past weekend I attended a rhododendron symposium in Washington, where a majority of attendees were grey-haired, and one of the burning questions was how to engage younger people in the study and love of rhododendrons. Well, of course it's not just rhododendrons, as various people pointed out - it's wilderness in general. But rhodos are one way to look at the wilderness, and humans need to be connecting more with the wilderness. Rhododendrons, mostly recognized as those car-sized, shiny-leaved, blossom-covered shrubs often lining suburban driveways, don't exactly scream wilderness as they beckon weakly from the garden aisles of Costco and Walmart. But did you know that plants of the rhododendron genus occur in the wild on nearly every continent, from cold alpine climates to temperate lowlands to tropical forests? They grow in swamps, on rocks, on stumps and even in the tree canopy. Did you know that these shrubs can be as big as castles or as small as a football? They include species with leaves as big as serving platters, and as small as your thumbnail, blossoms of all colours and many different shapes, and some are evergreen while others are deciduous. We have a few wild species here in my own ecosystem, and one of those, Labrador Tea, is harvested from the swamps for human consumption. I drink Labrador Tea. It's delicious.

There is quite possibly some kind of rhododendron participating in your ecosystem too, just as there are likely many species of grass, trees, moss, lichen, fungi, mammals, and insects. If you go out in the woods, today, you will find diversity.

My point is this: The great diverse world of rhododendrons is one of millions of interconnected pieces of our complex world that thrives because it is complex. Each individual rhodo species or plant, in its own natural community, is an integral participant in the livelihood of everyone. The diversity of human culture is important, too. Each of us contributes in a unique way to our greater community, creating a balance that keeps us more generally prosperous. It is not enough to write this in textbooks for biology students, or to depend on a few grey-haired plant-enthusiasts to champion the diversity of each species. We all need to champion diversity in general, and to celebrate and nurture it in every part of our lives.

If we don't take our children into the wilderness and allow them to play, how will they know - I mean innately, deeply know - that diversity is essential for life? In the wilderness, diversity is what ensures the cycle of life. A rat chewed the deer vertebra in the photo above, nourishing itself with essential minerals and introducing those and others back into the available substrate when it pooped, so that tasty maple cotyledons now shoot up all over the place, are eaten by a nursing doe, passed to its offspring by lactation, and thus the minerals of that bone become part of the next generation of deer. Nobody told me this; I surmised it from a lifetime of exploring and asking questions and being engaged. You don't have to tell your children this. They don't need to read about this cycle in a text book to understand it. They need to crawl around in the underbrush of the forest and find the bones with their own grubby hands, feeling the marks made by the rat's incisors all along the edges. They need to get curious and go looking for the rest of the bones.

As the earth's biodiversity succumbs to climate and habitat destruction, there are people trying to preserve the diversity of rhododendrons for the world. These hardy explorers traverse mountain ridges and river valleys, picking their way through a still-surprising diversity of life and weather conditions, to discover wild rhodos and bring a few seeds back to raise, at home. They observe and document the diversity of life that exists where the seeds came from, and create similar diversity in urban gardens, so that one day when we stop razing the world's forests, perhaps some of this diversity will be retrievable. There are people doing similar preservation work for thousands of genuses and ecosystems all over the world. The reason the room full of grey-haired rhododendron enthusiasts is so eager to engage future generations is because they know the importance of the preservation of diversity for all species.

This is why exploration is important - because in exploring, we discover real diversity, on a scale that no textbook, biology professor, or nature documentary can show us. We know by the dirt under our fingernails that we are a part of this. In a time when the earth's biodiversity is severely threatened, we can immerse ourselves in it, engage with it and know it, literally from the ground up. Then when we get on a city bus we can look at the great diversity of people around us, the great diversity of ideas and emotions and physical attributes, smells and even microbiomes, and we can feel comfortable in knowing that these are important parts of our ecosystem, too.

No matter where we look in the world, diversity means innovation from diverse sources and evolution in many directions, and therefore more likelihood of success and survival, overall. Diversity matters in wilderness ecosystems as well as in our intestinal bacterial populations, boardrooms, classrooms, and human technological progress. Let's give our kids the opportunity to be and value and preserve that diversity.

Further Reading:
May 21 is World Cultural Diversity Day!
Rhododendron Species Foundation (largest collection in the world)
The Catalogue of Life!
Monoculture vs. Diversity in Farming

Monday, April 22, 2019

Why the Best Learning Looks Like Play

My fourteen-year-old daughter is spending today doing and creating crossword puzzles, playing Sims, and rehearsing for her current role as Ginny in A Very Potter Musical. I asked her to tell me about a time she remembers play that was especially wonderful, or meaningful to her.

"What do you mean?" She asked me. "I'm always playing!"

Far from being the useful answer I hoped for that would help me frame this article, her answer helped me rewrite it. My fourteen-year-old unschooler is an accomplished writer, actor, and student, as well as one of the most diligent workers I know. She always keeps her goals and commitments in mind, runs her social and academic lives like tight ships, and yet feels like she has spent her life always playing.

My daughter is living the dream I dreamed for her, and yet the simplicity of it took me by surprise.

“This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.”                           ~Alan Watts

I've been writing about the beautiful learning that my own kids and the kids I work with stumble upon while playing for a very long time, but every day I still run into my own judgments about what comprises valuable activity. This is the way with most of us, I think, who unwittingly (or otherwise) subscribe to the notion that drudgery makes us valuable. But it doesn't. It just makes us drudge.

Play is the word we use for something that we joyfully engage in. Work is often used to represent the opposite. What happens when, instead of teaching our children that hard work pays off with more time for play, we teach them that play is the way to engage with life. We teach them that they have to do some chores, and they have the power to make the chores fun. We join them in the chores because it's a happy way to engage socially. We teach them by example that we are constantly learning. We allow them to see our fascination at whatever we observe happening during the day, we talk to them openly about our wonderings and explorations and the things we've discovered by simply looking up that new word we heard or researching whether we can eat that berry growing in the park. Not only does this demonstrate a healthy way to learn through play, but it turns the job of parenting into joyful engagement... and that's play.

photo by my fabulous brother and teacher, Adrian van Lidth de Jeude, who knows the value of play
"But", says my own father, "at some point you have to stop playing and get to work." As a culture we've convinced ourselves that in order to be of value we have to struggle. I'm going to suggest we throw that away. Just chuck it out. Life has enough inherent struggles, and we're going to learn from every one of them. We don't need to set ourselves (or our children!) up for planned struggling. It doesn't make us more valuable; it just makes us less willing. Nobody went into a parenting or marital or personal crisis on purpose, and yet those crises happen and they make us who we are. They give us the passion we need to pick up and go again - only wiser.

Passion. That's what we need. There's passion in having a fun idea in the middle of the night and getting up to make it happen. There's passion to be found in discovering a new recipe or a new unsolved mystery or a new insect on the wall. There's passion to be had in taking any of the hundreds of experiences of our day and allowing it to inspire us. And that's what some of the best learning looks like: Passionate play.

Maybe it sounds pompous of me to call anything the best learning, but I'm not backing down, there. For decades, now, research has been showing the massive value of play-based learning for people of all ages but especially for children and youth. Some excellent schools have been putting it into practice for a long time, and many businesses are following suit, as companies encourage their employees to both explore their own passions and share their pursuits with the team. In these cases students and employees are encouraged to play; encouraged to explore, and the result is empowered, passionate learners. The result is better teams; better learning; better work.

I live in British Columbia, where the Ministry of Education has rejigged the provincial curriculum to focus on core competencies and other broad ideas that create opportunities for empowered, self-directed, explorative learning. It is taking a while to reach the goals of the new curriculum, but we're on our way. Maybe in twenty years we'll have a whole generation of young adults who have learned through playing all their lives, and go on to build inspired, engaging careers based on curiosity, learning, and enthusiasm. No matter what we're doing, may we always be playing.
Some resources for further reading:

Monday, April 8, 2019

Unschooling, Defiance and Motivation

"No one is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them."                ~Assata Shakur

Our family didn't originally discover unschooling because it aligned with our beliefs. We discovered it during a desperate-feeling time when my five-year-old son was so defiant that school seemed an impossibility. He was only interested in pursuing the things he'd thought of himself, and even then would lose interest as soon as somebody tried to push or even encourage him. Many days he flatly refused to leave the house. Unschooling seemed at the time like the only way, and I can say now that he's on the brink of graduation that although it has been extremely difficult, I think it was the best way.

I'm a bossy person, my controlling nature fueled by the fear drilled into me at school that any wrong action could lead to failure, or even death. So I make decisions that feel right to me, and I expect people to see reason and follow my lead. My son has defied me every day of his life, to the extreme frustration and benefit of both of us. So unschooling, which challenges me to allow him complete autonomy, and challenges him to take responsibility for his actions, has been our solution over these past twelve years.

This road has never been without struggle. I watch him every day like a mother owl whose fluffy chick is teetering on the edge of the nest, knowing that if he falls out he'll be prey for the wolves. At every turn I feel like he's making grave miscalculations of safety and feasibility. At every turn I attempt to warn him, coax him, steer him to safety or provide him with advice. All of my efforts are unwanted, and many, I admit with shame, lead to arguments and threats. Worst of all, my controlling behaviour causes my son to lose faith in himself, and then I know I have truly failed him.

I pick up the baton again and again, setting myself back on the unschooling track I chose, and he makes some gains of confidence and autonomy before I fall of the rails again. It has never, ever been easy. But it has been right.

In their 2009 article for the Journal of Educational Psychology, Maarten van Steenkiste et al. revealed that "to foster good quality motivation, teachers and school principals need to create a school and class environment that allows students to satisfy their basic needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness." This is what unschooling does for us. And if we've truly given our children autonomy, they are bound to defy us when we try to control them.

Defiance is necessary for autonomy. A wholly obedient person can never go very far along a path of inspiration before being led astray by somebody else's advice or admonishments. How will our children learn to make safe decisions if they aren't given an open testing ground for experimenting with decision-making? They need the freedom to tell us no when we're interfering with their autonomous motivation. We need the courage to watch them make mistakes.

My son, after all this unschooling, is now considering getting his highschool diploma, and may graduate in a couple of months. This very short timeline has meant a lot of work and stress for him, and a correlational rise in my level of parenting fears. I find myself constantly checking in on him, begging him to stop playing video games, get working on whatever is most urgent for his courses, or just get some exercise and eat a proper meal. He is learning to deflect my concerns with less bitterness than he once did, and I am learning to keep my mouth closed more often. I find cooking him a healthy meal is a better use of my energy than standing in his door lecturing him about time management.

Respecting our children's interests, decisions, and independence means that they don't want to be compliant when we ask them to. It's hard for us as parents, but in the end it gives them the experience and confidence to succeed. Our kids' defiance is an essential part of the desired outcome, whether we like it or not.

It is not lost on me that parents of unschoolers are by default defying the current school system, and it's not likely that many of us have relinquished control to our children without a struggle. After all, our children began life nearly helpless in our arms, but the measure of our success as parents will be when they overthrow us, making their world far better than we imagined. So keep going, brave parents - the terrifying struggle to empower our children is worth it.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Our Kids are Protesting: How Can We Help?

Vancouver Youth Climate Strike, March 15, 2019. Photo by Eva Uguen-Csenge/CBC reposted from CBC.
My kids are in the middle.
In the very small wake of Friday's global youth climate strike, I feel we adults need to remind ourselves what it's all about. At 1pm our time, 2000 people - mostly youth - gathered in Vancouver to beg the rest of us to see this climate crisis for what it is. Around the world, organizers estimate about 1 million children participated. Children spoke up about the desperate need to convert to a green economy immediately - to save their own lives. They call it "time to panic". An entire generation of humans sees no future unless we change our ways. Many parents joined to support their children, but in social media, countless members of older generations complained that their own protesting had failed; that government didn't listen; that it's a good thing the children are speaking up because it's their turn to act, now, and maybe people will listen to them.

No. It was never the government that might have listened. Protesting does little to change policy. Protesting is how we reach each other. Protesting is how we let our fellow citizens see that there is a very great injustice and how we demand change. But the change won't come unless we also make the change. Government isn't going to do it for us. Our children are talking to us.

This is the time to support our children's efforts by changing ourselves. We can stop using plastics. We can stop consuming electricity and processed food and oil and gas and clothing and paper and disposable goods of every sort like these things will keep on coming because they won't. They can't. We can't do this. Yes, our whole lives revolve around these - and we can't participate in contemporary societies without them. So we have to change our societies.

We have to give our kids enough time in their schedule to cook their own real food instead of buying them packaged processed foods. We have to set up their lives in such a way that they don't require being driven all over the place simply to participate in their communities. We have to find work that doesn't require us to drive all over the place, as well. We have to find local things to do with the people we love, instead of using school vacations to fly our kids off to exotic places. We have to create family engagement that doesn't rely on electricity or fuel, packaged plastic goods, shopping, and more consumption. We have to, also, stop having children. Not only because our growing population is compounding the problem of consumerism, but because we have condemned our children to a future of devastation instead of abundance.

Consumerism does not equal abundance. 

Abundance is still out there, but it doesn't come from stores and store-bought activities. It doesn't come from elsewhere. We can find it on the beaches in the summer with nothing but a bag of fruits and water jugs, a few swimsuits and towels. We can find it in the forests, where plants and animals live a life of abundance that is ours for sharing and for rejoicing in. We can find it in gatherings of friends and family, where love and laughter, dancing and singing and storytelling have kept us together for many thousands of years. We have to make these things happen. We have to show our children that there is a future in these things. In fact, the only future is in these things.

The government isn't listening to our kids, and they wouldn't make the necessary changes, even if they were. They are listening to the large corporations like Nestle and Chevron and Exxon/Mobil, and all the corporate lobbyists who change government policy to keep us spending money. We can't stop them. But we can stop buying into the lie of consumerism.

It's spring break. Cancel your vacation plans. Have a party. Respond to our children's desperate plea with real action and love. That is the only way all of us are going to survive the next few decades.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Our School in Crisis

My son took this for his media arts class at school.
Twelve and a half years ago my son entered Kindergarten and became resentful of school. He hated not being able to sit with the grade threes who he felt particularly drawn to, and he hated the kitchen because that was where he was supposed to do the alphabet rap, and nobody listened when he said he didn’t want to do it. He didn't even like art, because he wanted to use the materials in a different way than he was told to. And he dictated the words "I do not like it" for his book report, about a book he had never been interested in reading. He only loved lunch time, when he would commune with his grade three friends until I came to get him from his half-day program. So we took him out of school at the end of that year and threw ourselves into the world of unschooling.

Academically, unschooling was exactly what he needed. It enabled him, and later his sister, to self-direct, to listen to their own hearts’ desires and act accordingly. The separation from traditional school programs meant my sensitive kids were protected from the often viciously competitive and degrading social scene of public schools, and they grew up with a real self-respect and respect for others. The ability to follow their own passions meant that by grades three and five they were following online university courses in child development, nutrition, and physics and astronomy. They had a small group of peers, and friends in every school in our community.

Unschooling was growing in popularity. We connected with various homeschool groups on our island and on the mainland, and I even ran a program that offered science and art education through unschooling principles of self-direction and explorative learning. Even the mainstream began to take notice of the simple truth that giving kids room to play with broad overarching ideas and respectfully allowing them to direct their own learning is hugely beneficial. A few years ago, our provincial curriculum was overhauled to focus on core competencies such as critical and creative thinking – a broader view to nurturing humans who will grow to feel competent instead of competitive. It’s beautiful, but too late for my kids who, at twelve and fourteen, had been learning this way all along, while the school system in our province is just beginning its first halting steps towards this way of thinking.

Around this same time, teens in our community became increasingly more swept up in the school system, or moved away entirely, and my kids became very lonely. Academically, unschooling still suited them well, but the isolation became a social disaster. So we tried out some schools, very carefully chosen to most adequately serve our kids’ distinct social and academic needs. But despite many good and well-meaning teachers, the inflexible nature of those schools meant a kind of academic stifling that left my kids disinterested and disempowered.

Enter Windsor House School. Three years ago, when we thought we’d hit the end of the road in terms of finding a community for our children, we discovered Windsor House. This school, one of only a handful of democratic programs in our very large province, has been operating for longer than I’ve been alive, offering a truly open-minded education for those brave enough to give it a try. When we walked in the doors to our first orientation day, we discovered that the bathrooms were all non-gendered. The classrooms and activities were open to all ages. The meetings, such as the judicial council meeting, were chaired by student volunteers of many ages, and attended by students and teachers alike. The entire school operated on the basis of mutual respect. Period. And it worked.

In short, Windsor House is the public school that offers “room to grow, and be yourself”. There are kids of all ages here, from kindergarten to grade twelve, studying and socializing and creating the community they need to grow in, for themselves. My daughter has grown out of her early obsession with writing stories and studying child development, and now is fully immersed in Windsor House’s theatre program, where she has discovered her love of musical theatre. She still writes (musicals, now!) and Windsor House supports her in that, allowing her to use her work towards English credits. My son was allowed to fulfill part of his grade ten science credit by attending an adults’ robotics club and physics lectures at the university, and reporting back to his teacher… while still going to the farm with school just to feed the goats. As a rule, Windsor House listens to students, and follows their lead. That results in a school community that is both empowered and respectful.

As I write this, the students of Windsor House are having an important meeting. Some of them had already planned a meeting for today, where they intended to discuss the distinct culture of the school, and how to keep it strong. But that topic has been put on hold, because yesterday we learned that the district intends to close the school at the end of this year. This is an emergency.

We understand that it was a financial decision made by a cash-strapped school board on the heels of a devastating audit fine. (As an aside, what kind of forward thinking provincial education ministry believes that impoverishing a school district with fines could promote improvement?) We also understand that closing schools is a good way to save money, and surely the least harmful schools to close are the smallest – easy enough for those children to be absorbed into the remaining schools.

But not us. The two hundred students of Windsor House School are here because they’re different. They have worked hard to create a democratic community that will feed their present and their future. They can’t just filter out into regular schools and blend in. These are kids who are used to having their ideas heard and respected. These are kids who, because of this culture of respect, have the integrity to make our entire school system better. Windsor House is an example of the best of schools. It’s a beacon to where we can go as a society when the new curriculum is fully implemented in our province. It’s a haven for parents and educators who have struggled and persevered both inside and outside the system to give students a truly empowering foundation. These people – and the school itself – are one of our province’s greatest resources.

It is my hope and conviction that that group of students meeting today will find the strength required to pull their community out of the ashes and rise. Windsor House has rallied to blows like this before, and we can do it again. It is my hope that the district and the province find a way to support and nurture this wonderful small school so that it can continue to be both an asset to our province as well as a demonstration of successful democratic education. Today also happens to be the global youth climate walk-out. Our children face a kind of global devastation we adults never imagined, and they’re taking it, head-on. In times as turbulent as these, we need all the forward-thinking strength we can muster. Let our children rise.

Despite many efforts by Windsor House staff and parents, the school board will definitely be closing the school, as well as various special programs within the district. It's a tragedy that our government tries to improve education by impoverishing school districts, and this is why.

Windsor House, however, cannot vanish. We and a large group of dedicated parents will continue gathering for the same child-respecting self-directed activities as we did before, and although Windsor House School may no longer be an entity, it will henceforth become a verb. We plan to do Windsor House - with all the glory and freedom that that entails, and in the same beautiful community. Our children will still gather, and self-direct their lives and education. They will still thrive.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

On Being a Colossal Failure - and Growth

Every great story has a crisis in the middle. Well, maybe many crises, actually: a rising crescendo of trips and falls and failures and flat-out terrifying leaps of insanity that land the protagonist smack in the middle of chaos or terror or hilarity, and then they learn something, and there is a conclusion, and we finish the story wiser than we began it. Hopefully.

Let me tell you one of my stories. This one began in 1993 when, at 17,  I went to the Netherlands, heart full of love and head full of dreams, hoping to become an artist. With the encouragement and guidance of my uncle, I took my portfolio and Canadian grad transcripts into the Royal Academy of Visual Arts in the Hague, the Netherlands, and walked out with a hearty invitation into the second year program. They loved me so much they put me into second year!! Never look a gift horse in the mouth.

My parents dug deeply and funded my great adventure, and I moved to the Hague in September, 1994. I was 18, and had rarely lived outside of the rural island I grew up on, apart from a year in the rural Shuswap, and short trips to the suburbs of Vancouver for family visits. My uncle picked me up from the airport near Amsterdam and brought me to the room he had arranged for me in a small flat in the Hague. Nobody else was home. The room was tiny. About eight by ten feet, with one enormous ten-foot-wide window on the side that faced the street. There were blinds, but the street-lights, the tram-lights, the sounds of trams and cars and scooters and sirens and drunken wee-hour partyers, the many neighbours all sliced upwards through those blinds and reflected off the ceiling to where I lay on the floor, huddled in a blanket on the folding mattress my uncle had given me. I cried so long I couldn't sleep.

At midnight on that first night my first room-mate walked into my room, introduced herself as Margriet, but said I could call her Daisy, if I wanted to, and I could use her dishes until I got my own. I was alarmed, but she became my first friend in that new and terrifying city. The first piece of news I read there described various female body pieces found in a garbage can in the park just a few blocks south of my new home. In the two years I lived there, I never went to that park.

I picked myself up in the morning, shopped with my cousin for essentials, as we were both setting up our new residences in neighbouring cities, and argued lengthily over who would buy the few white and orange cups, and whether each would look better with wine, beer, water, tea, and milk in them. My parents funded this shopping trip.

My tenure in the Netherlands was wonderful and terrible; I made some dear and treasured friends, and connected with my Dutch family in a way I never would have managed had I not lived there. I learned to speak Dutch, to cook and clean for myself, to live on very little income, and to find and create work for myself in a complex city that, at first, was completely foreign to me. I fought off a rapist in the middle of the night and then used my wits to force him to walk me to safety. I became courageous. I became an adult. It was perhaps the most powerful time of my life, and I have my parents' open minds and generosity to thank for it.

Me at the Royal Academy, 1996 - photo by A. van der Vlist
Art school, though? Well, I learned a few things, among them some basic printmaking skills that have stayed with me throughout my career, and the basics of oil painting. But mostly, after one and a half years, I learned about failure.

I majored in drawing and painting, and that department was set up like an open studio, where each student had a personal work area, and we gathered in some common spaces for lectures, lunches, and hashing out our ideas. As a working group it was great, but there was little support from professors. They wandered around and gave critiques irregularly, but basically in third year we were expected to self-direct and develop a practice. At the time I was working on womb-like forest paintings and abstractions of the same. I was working through feelings of homesickness for my forested island home, while living in the most urban environment I could imagine. While I lived in the Netherlands, a news story came out about a homeowner accidentally cutting down the last bit of indigenous forest. It was not the home I knew and longed for, and art is always a form of therapy.

So in early 1996, as I was deeply entrenched in this visual exploration of my heart's home and longing, the professors came around for the quarterly review, and requested that I come to the back room. But why? Don't we need to be in the vicinity of my work? Nope. They had only one pertinent question: Who were my influences?

Well, that was easy enough, I thought. I told them that probably my greatest influences were Georgia O'Keeffe, Emily Carr, and West Coast indigenous art.

They looked at each other knowingly, and flatly explained that while Georgia O'Keeffe is marginally acceptable, Emily Carr is "kitch", and "Indians don't make art". I can't remember anything I said after that - I'm sure it was useless. My mind was numb. They told me that since I was painting landscapes I should learn to paint like real landscape painters. They told me to get a print of a particular city landscape by Camille Corot and replicate it, stroke-for-stroke, until I had learned what a landscape should look like. I tried. I really tried. I laboured for weeks on this painting of two damn monks standing on a pale terrace overlooking a washed-out Italian cityscape. But the glowing ball of fire in my chest that brings me to paint had died. I was an empty shell pushing meaningless lines of paint onto a barren panel, and nobody - not even the professors - came to talk with me anymore. Until they did.

Sometime that spring the professors returned, ominously as a group, again, to give me an ultimatum: My work was going nowhere. They were going to give me a "Fail" for the year. My only alternative was to leave the school early and they would give me an "Incomplete", instead. With a newly blossoming relationship, a desperate homesickness, and a ticket home to Canada waiting to be used, I left. I went home knowing I had let my parents down, wasted their money, and caused them and my whole family irreparable shame. I soon discovered when I tried to continue my studies in Canada that an "Incomplete" is essentially the same as a "Fail", and I was unable to enter a Canadian university until I'd raised my grades by attending college. I was, truly and wholly, a failure.

Obviously, passion is a short-lived endeavour, as living generally requires a more moderate approach, and my passionate self-loathing waned over the years I attended school in Canada, married and learned to keep house, and eventually raised two children. This is the denouement of my story - the slow tumbling resolution to the crisis of my great failure. There was never a moment where I became un-failed or wildly successful. Never any particular redemption, although installing one of my works in Amsterdam last year did feel like a healing salve. The visceral memory of my firm kick out the door of the Royal Academy of Visual Arts gave me a whole lot more self-reflection, upon which to build a fire. I have now returned to my art career with a great but less fragile ball of fire in my chest. If I hadn't failed so colossally and grown to discover the beauty of it, I never would have arrived here. And perhaps I never would have laughed when my son sadly announced to us that he had received 38% on his math test.

My son Taliesin failed his math test. Colossally. So badly, in fact, that the online school he took it with is allowing him to rewrite it. It was nothing like the 15% I vividly remember receiving on a math-test, myself, but he, having held off telling us out of shame, was surprised that we just smiled and laughed about it. I imagine this single test failure to be just one small but positive experience in Taliesin's journey into academia. Go forward with courage, my love. May you live many adventurous stories, and may you overcome much greater failures than this one!