Monday, March 30, 2020

Instead of helping us cling to the pre-covid reality, can technology help us evolve a new one?

This morning I read a great article by Paul Mason, who states boldly that the end of capitalism has begun, partly because technology has given us the tools to move into a new way of living. Fabulous, and the more I read, the more I could see a vision for the future of humanity that's already developing. Mason talks about a rise in collaborative production, mentioning Wikipedia as a good example, because it's "made by volunteers for free, abolishing the encyclopedia business and depriving the advertising industry of an estimated $3bn a year in revenue." As I was reading this article, my daughter came in to get the huge contour map of our island off of the wall behind me. She says she needs it for creating our little corner of the The Earth in Minecraft. Wha--?

Apparently somebody has made the foundation for a Minecraft version of our home planet, which is being completed by Minecraft users - volunteers - over the internet. This is a bit of how my daughter is spending her time in isolation. Other than this, she's going for a run every day with my parents' dog, helping us in the garden and to set up our new chicken flock, writing, gaming and filming for her various online presences, wearing animal onesies all day and using her trapeze, working on her current novel, cooking and baking for herself and the family... basically she's living a rich unschooling life, as she did before.

The school system, however, is struggling to keep up with the changes. Mainstream school parents are worried about all the screen-time, and how to entertain kids at home who are used to being in a classroom and on a playground. Kids I know are worried about how they'll learn when the classes are all online, with little or no student-teacher interaction. I'm more worried about the lack of student-student interaction. My son's college classes are already online or out-of-book-only with tests sent over internet. My daughter's previously 2-day-a-week democratic musical theatre troupe will become a 2-day-a-week screen-based program organized by their teacher. There will be a lunch break, but previously lunch-break meant social time. What will it mean now that the players aren't playing together, laughing, buying food, and scheming together over lunch? The social gathering that is conducive to their democratic co-creation of musical theatre productions might be no more.

I have tried, in the past, to encourage my daughter to make a YouTube channel where she reads children's book for kids to watch, and she said no. No, because she wouldn't even know who she's reading to. No, because reading to kids means kids sit close and you turn the pages when they want you to. No, because kids need the opportunity to flip backwards, mid-story, and No because reading to kids is about connection, and YouTube removes the connection. She's right. How in hell is our school system going to work, online? When my son's chemistry professor gives a lecture, few people engage to ask questions. My son doesn't even wear his headset. The social, community-feeling of the classroom is gone, and at the end of the class he has nothing to report.

We're trying to use technological innovation to cling to our old ways of doing things, but the current method of disseminating information via internet is suddenly failing us. We're all stuck looking for information and help to come from the top of a hierarchical pyramid, while dispensing of an essential component of education: our peers. When we look back to see how our education influenced us, it's rarely the lectures that stand out. More often we remember amazing (or amazingly horrible) experiences with our friends, choices we made personally for better or for worse, the days things went colossally not to plan, and the days we skipped school and got creative or destructive with our friends. With our friends! Like I asked before, how in hell is this going to work online??

There's going to have to be an evolution in education, as in everything else. By necessity, we're already evolving other systems, using social engagement (from a distance) and authentic sharing. People are ordering groceries online, and friends are picking up group orders, to deliver to those in isolation. Parents strapped for time and unable to fully dedicate their days to their children's needs are discovering free-range parenting and unschooling to be a solution. Small groups of people are going hiking in the wilderness - not gathering as we once did, to tromp all over one specific spot with a thousand footsteps until the spot becomes barren, but to disperse in the untraversed areas and see with new eyes, sharing discoveries from a distance of six-feet-plus. We're sharing newly discovered recipes on facebook. We're reaching out to our neighbours because the hierarchical system of caregiving that we previously depended upon is failing us, now.

We are more resilient than we realize, and coronavirus is helping us see that. It's bringing us together, even as it tears our system apart. We can depend on each other - on the goodwill and good ideas of our neighbours. We can start to put faith in our own strength and our own wits, and where will that bring us tomorrow? Maybe to a world where low-wage jobs are obsolete, and we respect each other for our expertise and creativity.

Automation and new technology is carrying us forward like this, as the Internet has enabled Wikipedia and other collaborative enterprises, self-checkouts have enabled a more democratic, people-based system of grocery shopping, as we're empowered to self-organize, and often help our neighbouring shoppers sort out their orders. In my community, the woman who manages our local grocery store has become a hero, as she regularly posts social media updates on how the store is organizing, and how people can make the new systems work. Yes, she works at the cash register, and that part of her job could one day be replaced by machine-labour, but she's respected for her community engagement and social awareness - made possibly by social media and our present need for her ingenuity and compassion. I like to imagine a world where we can all contribute our innate skills and nobody will be slaving away at low-wage jobs for mere survival. Low-wage jobs will disappear, for sure, but as our respect for each other and for the necessity of our neighbourliness grows, we'll value each other more, and make space for everyone to be valuable. Instead of being the link between us and our old systems, technology already is the link between us and our totally new future.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Has COVID-19 Already Changed Humanity?


Everhard van Lidth de Jeude stands looking over his pond after feeding the trout. 2014

There's a beaver on our property these days, gleefully chewing up my father's prized rhododendrons, his willow, and other plants, and using them to plug up the outlet from the pond. Nearly every day my father pulls the sticks and mud out of the end of the pond, removing branch after branch of the shrubs he's been nurturing for years and hauling them away to dump at the edge of the forest. My kids and their father just went out to wrap some special trees with wire, hoping to spare them the wrath of the beaver. They're improvising with whatever supplies they can scavenge from the yard and recent chicken-coop build. We hope it's only one beaver. We don't actually know. Beavers have the capacity to wipe out and completely transform a landscape, creating wetlands out of parched slopes and grassy meadows out of rainforests -- and this property is like a craft supply shop for beavers. So we persevere with the pond-unplugging and tree-protecting. It's like repeatedly washing hands in an effort to save us from coronavirus. Just a month ago, all of these precautions had never entered our minds. Now they're routine. We've changed.

Reading this interesting piece from Fahd Humayun this morning, I am thinking about how our family's life might change; how our culture might change, and especially how our interconnected social structure might change, following this pandemic. As a parent of two teens hurrying into adulthood, I think constantly about my children's future. Will their education programs thrive or falter in the sudden age of digital engagement during pandemic? Will the fact that I unschooled them help or hinder them in this new world? Will their formal education even matter in the future we can't predict? Will my love have been enough?

It was only a year ago that my son fully embraced the educational norm of our society and decided to motor through the system, earn his highschool diploma, and work towards a university degree in science. He's part-way there, having completed the highschool grad requirements, and now at college upgrading his science and calculus education in order to make himself part of that teeny weeny cream of the crop that makes it into his chosen field. My daughter is slogging through the highschool requirements mostly on her own time and in a 2-day-a-week alternative program while putting the larger part of her spirit and time into a musical theatre program. Social isolation and the threat of this pandemic has put most of these activities on the backburner, while some attempt haltingly to carry on via video chat. So what now?

As unschoolers, we might seem to have been eminently prepared for this, and in some ways we were. The four of us are getting along reasonably well, considering the stress of the teens' social isolation, and we're not worried about the future, academically, because we dispensed of that fear many years ago. But what about the future of humanity? How will kids of the future grow and learn, in a post-pandemic world? There are so many questions we can't answer, and that alone is frightening.

Post-corona, I think humanity may go in one of two general directions: either we tumble further into capitalism, relieved to regain access to quick fixes and cheap thrills, and falling in line as obedient citizens, having learned to follow instructions during the pandemic, and having let go of many of our personal freedoms, or we discover the fallacy of our current system, and build a new one -- one that works less like a monoculture and more like a wilderness. A monoculture is very susceptible to attack from a single predator, weather event, or disease. Without the balance of diversity, a monoculture becomes less resilient as it continuously sucks nutrient from the earth, unable to replenish what has been taken. In this weak state of being, one serious disease can wipe out a whole landscape, leaving the land barren and unable to recover. A diversified wilderness (or true permaculture wilderness farm, if you want to look at it that way) loses some inhabitants to predation and other adverse events, but works well as a whole, because the nature of diversity means that there is always something left to persevere, fill in the gaps, and heal the whole. Capitalism and human dominance of Earth's landscape has led us to live like a monoculture, and it's killing us.

So can we escape this fate? We're used to the way things are, and nobody really wants to take the hard road. My family has just finished consuming our store-bought fresh produce, and now we're carefully whittling away at our remaining frozen and canned goods, while simultaneously harvesting wild greens, setting up a flock of chickens, and getting this year's veggie garden going. We're trying to strengthen ourselves as a family in the absence of our friends and community; in the absence of fresh groceries and trips to town. And it's HARD! We feel scared and heartbroken to be without the arms of those we normally turn to for support. This is a change for us - a deeper isolation than the one caused by our choice to unschool in a community that largely followed the mainstream. But for the first time in a long time, we're not doing it alone! We and all our loved ones have been chucked out onto this hard road in our separate little bubbles and we're fumbling along together, sharing advice and support over social media.

The question of what education will look like when or if this pandemic is all over is huge for me. My brother is sorting out how he and his colleagues will support a previously active and outdoor-engaged middle school over the internet; I had to simply cancel all the courses I teach, and will likely offer some online; my son is persevering through a newly lab-less chemistry class led by a teacher who struggles with the technology, and my daughter is about to meet her theatre cohort on Zoom to create some semblance of the togetherness that used to happen with physical movement and contact. Nothing is what it used to be; we can't know how these experiments will work out, and I feel certain that entirely new forms of human connection and development are now nascent. But these things are evolving in a largely democratic, wilderness-like way: Millions of people trying things out and breaking them here and there and repairing them here and there with scavenged and improvised solutions, some casualties and some surprise successes -- just like the process of evolution. Education, like the rest of our societal norms, is evolving in front of our eyes.


And despite the isolation, we are not in this alone!

Charles Eisenstein puts into words what I and likely so many others are feeling:
Covid-19 is like a rehab intervention that breaks the addictive hold of normality. To interrupt a habit is to make it visible; it is to turn it from a compulsion to a choice. When the crisis subsides, we might have occasion to ask whether we want to return to normal, or whether there might be something we’ve seen during this break in the routines that we want to bring into the future. We might ask, after so many have lost their jobs, whether all of them are the jobs the world most needs, and whether our labor and creativity would be better applied elsewhere. We might ask, having done without it for a while, whether we really need so much air travel, Disneyworld vacations, or trade shows. What parts of the economy will we want to restore, and what parts might we choose to let go of? And on a darker note, what among the things that are being taken away right now – civil liberties, freedom of assembly, sovereignty over our bodies, in-person gatherings, hugs, handshakes, and public life – might we need to exert intentional political and personal will to restore?
Last night my father came home from a surgery to remove some melanoma. It has been three weeks since I came close to him, because the risks of this pandemic are high for a man in his seventies who is embarking on a cancer journey, and also for me, who has an auto-immune condition that tends to inflame my lungs. We protected each other by keeping apart. But the last time one of my parents went for surgery, he died unexpectedly. I lost my other father in a wilderness of confusion, just as we thought he was almost ready to come home. My fear of losing my second father was so great that I was sick all day with worry, and when my mother finally brought him home on the last ferry, I waited at their gate to let them in. My father showed a rare vulnerability as he let me walk him and his hospital-provided vacuum-pack machine to their house, and when he got inside, he hugged me. My pandemic-induced fear of closeness vanished, and my hope returned.

In the piece I linked to at the beginning, Fahd Humayun states that "the pandemic will likely demonstrate that a world without safety nets, cooperation and deep cross-border engagement is no longer tenable." If we want to thrive as a species, we're going to have to become a wilderness instead of a monoculture. We're going to have to take all the best changes this pandemic has brought us and keep them alive in human culture: finding ways to utilize the neglected foods in the back of our freezers; finding ways to help the loved ones we can't come close to, noticing and supporting those who are at risk and may have been invisible to us, before; supporting those who risk their own lives to save ours, and seeing the value in every single one of our diverse community members. We have all learned so much already in the past month. Let's keep expanding our minds and hearts and learn to run nimbly on our toes in the landscape of our wilderness, sharing skills and ingenuity and love. Certainly it is our love that will make this wilderness possible.

Friday, March 20, 2020

COVID-19: How to Unschool During Isolation

Here we all are (hopefully) busy flattening the curve by staying home for a few months... and keeping our kids home from school, which causes some legitimate concerns for parents who either can't stay home or worry about finances, their children's welfare, or academic success. For some people this is an opportunity to unschool, as evidenced by the handful of people who have already asked me about how to jump onto this path, during isolation. We're all trying to figure out how we can support each other while keeping isolated, so I'm very happy to provide coaching for free during this time (as much as I can manage, time-wise). I'm also happy to provide a supportive ear, if you just need to talk. But here, to get you started, are some basic guidelines that answer the questions people most commonly ask me. This is going to be an interesting time, and if we work through it thoughtfully we may emerge a much more successful civilization than we were when we entered it.

With thanks to my auntie Lidia Patriasz for this poignant piece of art.
What is Unschooling?
"Unschooling is a generic term for a form of homeschooling in which, loosely speaking, education happens without the use of a schedule, curriculum, testing and grades. It's an approach which is used in varying degrees by different families. Unschooling is child-led education, so if the child chooses to go to school, they are still unschooled, as they were not coerced or persuaded to go there, but chose to do so of their own free will. Unschooling is the rejection of an imposed education. Other synonyms are natural or non-coercive learning, auto-didactic, self-learning, free range organic education."


Why Unschool?
Each of us has our own unique set of reasons for unschooling. We went into unschooling for different reasons than we continued it over the years. I can say that for me and my own circumstances (and personal ways of thinking), unschooling was less stressful than homeschooling or schooling. It was like improvising a meal with the ingredients at hand rather than shopping for the ingredients to a specific recipe. It gave me the emotional freedom to do what I and my children thought was right, and to problem-solve along the way, instead of sticking to somebody else's plan that may not always have been right for us. It also gave me and my children the flexibility to identify and solve issues for ourselves, thus becoming more adept at doing so. It makes us stronger, more self-reliant and confident people.

De-schooling
The first thing that happens when we stop going to school is de-schooling. In fact, any children who don't continue with tutoring and summer courses do this every summer, so it's not as alien a concept as it might seem. De-schooling is simply the transition period between schooling and not schooling. It's the time where our minds slowly release themselves from the constraints of one system and begin to sort out the constraints of another. It can be an incredibly difficult time, as we're accustomed to the way things were, and usually uncertain about the way things are becoming. Many unschoolers report a euphoric time of peace and contentment with life after an arduous, tumultuous period of de-schooling.

The difference between school and un-school is all about determination (control) and responsibility. At school, children are set on a path that is largely out of their control. There's a defined set of goals for them to achieve, and a defined set of methods for achieving it. This lack of self-determination drives some kids crazy, but for others it's comforting. For all kids, it can be terrifying to be suddenly handed the reins to their own destiny - every moment and for the long haul. But that's unschooling.

De-schooling will probably take longer than you expect. For some families it takes years. I think the shortest de-schooling periods we've had were those in which I didn't push. I remained patient and expected nothing, and usually just ignored my kids and got busy with my own things. The times when I nagged them to get active or start projects have always been the longest-lasting, most fraught times.

I've gone through periods of de-schooling a few times with my kids, as they tried out school programs and then de-schooled over the breaks, or when they returned to full-time home-based unschooling. It was never easy. But some support and encouragement goes a long way to helping us get through. The best advice I can give other parents on this front is to find an unschooling community (online, during the pandemic) and get involved. Share your experiences and ask all your questions. Listen to others. Unschoolers are here for each other and there are thousands of other parents out there who will understand your trials and offer support.

What to do While De-schooling?
Like everything else about unschooling, that's up to you and your kids! Some people just sit back and do nothing. Let the kids play video games until they're blue in the face. Let them read the same book over and over and over until you think you've lost them. Let them really just do nothing. There's nothing wrong with that; their brains are doing something. They are processing. De-schooling is a process, leading both kids and parents to discover their own boredom. Boredom is like a swear word to so many of us; we're accustomed to filling every spare second of our time with activity. But space of time and mind is needed to embark on a new adventure, and boredom is that space. Silence is a good space too. Let it be.

De-schooling isn't about what you're doing as much as it's about what you're not doing. Make a lot of big bored silent space, just asking to be filled. This will cultivate the desire to do something, later. And unschooling is all about finding and following our hearts' desires.

Wait -- Who Makes the Rules?! What About Safety?
I don't see unschooling as mayhem with the kids ruling the roost. I see it has a contract between all the household members to work for the happiness of everyone. We're all responsible. This means lots of conversation; lots of vulnerability. Total honesty. If I made the food too spicy just because I like it that way, but one of the kids is suffering, then maybe I need to serve the spices separately. If you don't like the way I do your laundry, you can learn to do it yourself. This isn't a punishment; it's a fabulous learning opportunity and a pathway to self-reliance. If you don't want me to show you how to do the laundry, figure it out yourself. If I, as a parent, am hiding in my room because my kid is watching horribly violent movies and it's too much for me, then maybe it's too much for the whole family. My needs matter too. If my kid is hanging off a cliff and it terrifies me, perhaps I need to explain the reasons for my fear. Kids can handle the truth better than they usually navigate a blurry field of unexplained rules.

Safety in our family means lots of talking, and sometimes taking risks that I don't approve of. However frightening it is, I know that my children learn how to be safe from risk-taking, and I have to stand back, cover my eyes, and let it happen. I try to model calculated risk-taking, myself. My hope is that if they follow my lead, the accidents will be fewer and smaller, and so far this has proven to be true. Children learn far more from what we do than from what we tell them.

But Screens!!!
It turns out most kids will eventually grow bored of sitting in front of their screens and find something else to do. And it seems that almost always takes more time than we parents have patience for. It's really hard to watch our kids drowning in activities we see as useless or detrimental. Many of my family's struggles have been related to screen-time, and I almost always lose an argument when trying to convince them to cut back their screen-time. I've laid down the law quite a few times, and this kind of coercion has been detrimental to their own feelings of taking responsibility. The times I've been more successful, I've had more patience. Reminding ourselves that more time is needed, and seeking encouragement from other parents is helpful in this regard.

What to Do; What to Learn
One of the wonderful things about unschooling is the opportunity for kids and parents to learn life skills that otherwise may have gone by the wayside, in lieu of time spent doing homework or extra-curricular activities. Unschooling is about living life to the fullest, and this includes taking care of ourselves, along the way. In doing so we're bound to learn how life works, how our bodies work, how our home and family works, how to live well in community. These are the essentials of life. All the facts and figures learned in school make their way into what we learn from life, but in real and tangible ways. It astounded me that when my son finally went to school in grade seven, he not only understood math at grade level, but understood why it worked. His twelve years of exploring the workings of the world without formal math instruction had fully prepared him to understand the functions and relationships of numbers.

Unschooling is about exploration and experimentation, so what to do is anything that you find engaging!

Maybe you need some inspiration. Here are some things we love to do:
  • Go on family adventures (mostly brief, local, and low-cost, as these usually seem to be the least stressful and most rewarding). 
  • Make some new recipes - experiment in the kitchen! In times of isolation we may have to get creative with fewer ingredients, anyway. Try old recipes with new ingredients or try making things you may have purchased ready-made before.
  • Start reading those books that have been beckoning from the shelf for years. 
  • Sign up and follow one of the many free online courses available from universities around the world. 
  • Learn a new language with Duolingo
  • Wilderness camping or hikes are probably a fairly safe activity for virus-isolated families, as long as you stick to the less-travelled wilderness areas. If nobody else has been there for at least a week, you're probably safe. And bonus: it's a welcome distraction from screens, as well as being one of the best possible activities for health, happiness, and education. 
  • Those fortunate enough to own a vehicle can go on road-trips (as long as you stay in your car through towns and villages; don't go into shops or other populated areas). 
  • If you have access to land, or even a balcony, plant a garden! I once had a three-foot-wide balcony in the city, where I grew beans for shade and privacy, a pumpkin that failed to make fruit, a bunch of lettuce and basil, spinach, and a tiny two-by-two-foot lawn!
Do you hear the excitement in my typing? That's because I'm listing the things I love doing, myself. Even if our kids don't want to be involved, modelling fun, healthy activities is the best possible education we can give them. My kids get up to all kinds of other things like fort-building (both with lumber and with sticks in the forest), geocaching, making videos to share online, performing with their self-taught instruments, and just simply hanging out with friends (online during coronavirus). I'm sure your kids will have their own ideas. Mine frequently surprise me, as they did with this cardboard vending machine which they built and spent two days entertaining our community with! But don't follow my ideas. Your own and your children's will be far more interesting. Obviously, during isolation season, geocaching, busking, cardboard vending machine operation, and any other activity that involves touching things that are also touched by other people, are out of the question. This definitely poses some problems, but sometimes the internet solves these problems. Get creative!

What About Academics?
Our kids will be fine. They learned to crawl and to walk and eventually to speak without formal instruction, and when they're similarly inspired they'll learn to read, write, and calculate. They may not do these things at the times school-going children do, but they'll do it at the time that is right for them. I've known a few unschoolers who didn't take an interest in reading until they were ten or more years old, and within a year or two of developing an interest, they were reading at or beyond what many would call "grade-level".

Of course there's always a chance that kids will struggle with academics at some point, but in my experience it's no more likely for unschoolers than for kids who've spent a lifetime in the school system. In fact, unschooling often gives struggling kids a chance to succeed on their own terms, while not being compared to classmates. Just don't worry. Children sense their parents' fears and then they battle those fears too. The best thing you can do to support your children is support yourself, so that your fears don't become theirs.

Structure
Some kids just love structure. All of us can benefit from it in some ways. I have no problem with structure, but I've usually tried to let my kids define it for themselves. My daughter seemed to be born passionate about planning, and has often had schedules and other plans for herself, even when I wasn't so organized. She had lists in books before she could write (only she knew what they said, but they were very important to her). My son didn't find planning very important at all until he decided to quickly earn his graduation diploma, and suddenly found himself scheduling all his time down to the minute, as he raced to finish an impossible-seeming number of courses he wasn't quite prepared for. He made it by some miracle, and now has an appreciation and aptitude for planning.

So let them create the structure they need, and create your own. In our family, it's me who generally has a master plan, and my challenge is to learn to adapt when it doesn't suit the needs of others.

Loneliness and Support
Skype charades
Lastly, and most importantly, build a support network. Social interaction really can be difficult for families staying at home without a wider community. We struggled quite a bit with this during times when there were few other homeschoolers, and all our children's friends were busy with school and extra-curriculars. We had some lonely times, which were always the reasons my kids tried out school programs. During this pandemic, isolation will be an even greater challenge, despite our great efforts to achieve it. We'll have to find ways to connect, and the Internet is likely to be our best friend. Skype, Zoom, and other visual platforms can be great for kids. When they were much younger, mine had a few Skype visits with their friends who were living aboard a sailboat. It was amazing to me to watch them have costume parties, make crafts, play music jams, and sword-fight each other over Skype.

I personally prefer my old-fashioned phone, and am happy to make myself a cup of tea, snuggle in with my rotary, and have a long-distance tea-date with a friend. I get my parent-support by participating in online unschooling forums. Facebook has quite a few, often linked with other homeschooling groups, and also often local.
~
I wish you well in your unschooling and life explorations. It's an adventurous path to take, and I've never regretted our personal journey. I hope yours is fabulous! I'll leave you with a quote from one of my favourite radio shows: Stay calm, be brave; wait for the signs!



Sunday, March 15, 2020

COVID-19: Holding Our Children's Hearts as Their World Changes

What a rough few days in my house. Meltdowns everywhere, and some of them have been my own. We took a mini vacation to a neighbouring island with my partner's mother, and it did provide a much needed reprieve from the stress, but we came back home to more stress; more cancellations; more sadness. It's hard.

Kids everywhere are suffering as the seriousness of the corona virus pandemic becomes apparent, and their worlds begin to crumble around them. Maybe their parents are fighting over pandemic measures. Maybe there's no toilet paper because the neighbours literally had every last roll delivered to their door but the shop shelves are empty. Maybe they're out of ramen. Maybe their vacation got cancelled. Maybe they just feel the existential threat of Disneyland closing. Or maybe, as in my daughter's case, the musical she's been obsessing about performing in all year is in grave danger of not going ahead, and even if it does, it's unlikely she can perform, because both she and her mother have autoimmune issues and just can't risk her participation. Maybe she feels the existential despair of knowing that her friends are getting together without her. Maybe our older kids, like my son, feel a deep fear of failure, as college courses may not be completed and academic next-steps may falter. Maybe it feels like their parents are being way over-dramatic about all this, and destroying their lives for nothing, or maybe they see our fear and ill-advised panic-shopping as a true existential threat. Maybe they just see our helpless feelings and now struggle to contain their own. And we all melt down.

A few days ago I thought this pandemic presented a really great opportunity to bond with my children, to grow a better garden and get to some long-ignored projects. Now I just see stress everywhere I look, and I worry that we won't make it through.

I ask myself what matters most to me and, as always, the answer is my children's welfare - both physical and psychological. And I see that both are now threatened. At the moment, ensuring their physical welfare means isolation, and isolation is deeply psychologically harmful, especially to a couple of teens who are just learning to make their way in the world, without me. And let's not forget: It's a world full of people who are currently stressed over a pandemic, running the gamut from panic shopping to selling off their stocks, to running for the hills, to mocking anybody who uses hand sanitizer. That's a hard landscape to navigate even for me, never mind for a kid whose existence seems to revolve around people and activities that are suddenly all threatened.

We can't change this terrible feeling, but we can hold our children's hearts close to our own. We can continue to remind ourselves that our meltdowns come from fear, and that love can't cure corona virus or bring back all the things that have suddenly been cancelled, but love is a poultice. We can take comfort in our children's heads resting on our shoulders, in knowing that our love is helpful, if not always accepted, and we can enjoy the brief moments of happiness we find in distraction. We can hold our own hearts gently. We can inch forward with discovery and invention as we find new ways of living in our quickly changing world, knowing that our children will grow from being a part of the change. We didn't ask for this pandemic, but we can ride it. Maybe right now it feels like hanging on for dear life, but let's hold our loved ones' hearts close, as we do.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Why Art is Essential for Learning


Have you ever seen Saturn's rings? I mean in person? I have. Once when my science-obsessed son was passionate about astronomy (and the technology for studying it!), we went out to share the moment of Saturn's proximity to the earth with some other enthusiasts and an enormous telescope. It took what felt like far too long to set that telescope up - over an hour, as I recall - as I stood with my young kids in the freezing winter field, assuring them over and over again that that one particular bright point of light we could see was, in fact, Saturn. I knew it was. My research on the Internet and some of the other people gathered that night had confirmed it. And I had faith in science to be right. I knew this was an exciting event because everybody told me so. But it was also cold, frustrating, and as the time dragged on, and the thing they said was Saturn kept marching across the sky, ever out of the continually readjusted telescope, I was losing my faith. 

Finally the telescope was properly set up, and we awaited our turns to look. By the time my turn arrived, Saturn had drifted out of view again and the telescope had to be adjusted. Again. Then I looked. It was like someone was showing me a cartoon. There was Saturn with it's rings (I could even see the dark gap between them), and three of its moons clearly visible. I struggled to link the tiny white image I was seeing, which looked so rudimentary, with the immaculate photos and renderings I'd seen in colour in movies and books, and with reality. I looked from the eyepiece of the telescope back up to the point of light in the sky. I looked along the length of the telescope and confirmed that it was, in fact, pointed at that same point of light, and that by all reason I was truly seeing the same point, magnified by a series of lenses. I gazed into the eyepiece, and after a few moments realized that I could see the three-dimensionality of it. I could see a slight shadow from the planet on its own rings. the little logo-like image drifted to the edge of my view again, and I realized that, not only was I looking at a real planet dancing unfathomably far away from our own, but also that our own was slowly turning away in its own different but intrinsically connected part of the dance of our solar system.

I would have said Mind. Blown. But that wasn't a thing yet back then, or my kids weren't old enough to have taught it to me. My previously-limited mind opened in that freezing cold moment, and the solar system became interesting to me. Gravity became interesting to me. Telescopes and people who use them became interesting to me. So much that I had never even wondered about who we are as humans in this beyond-huge infinity of the universe began to preoccupy my thoughts, until I found I looked at earth, and humanity, and my children, and me, differently than I had, before.

Then we all began to freeze in earnest, and we went home to our fires.

Art is like that telescope, that night. It's what brings us to the world and helps us understand it. Art is about learning to see. So often this basic truth goes unnoticed as we imagine that art is for artists; that art is a frivolous pass-time, or that art should take a backseat to more essential activities like learning to read, solving equations, and developing the ability to recite stories from human history. Many of us have heard, by now, that music enhances math education, and that children who learn through music and dance retain information better than those who only learn through verbal instruction. But how often do schools offer visual art as an essential learning tool for all students? We all suffer the consequences of blindness as a result of not learning to see. 

As someone who sees breakthroughs of discovery and understanding on a regular basis when I teach art, I want to take some space to explain, a little. The examples I'm going to talk about aren't the end of the equation; there are so many ways we can learn to see. These are just a few of an infinite variety of ways that our species opens our minds through visual art. I believe very strongly that gaining visual and creative literacy is an essential part of learning and retaining all that information that our culture values so deeply.


Line Drawing
Fundamentally, line-drawing requires a mental translation from an understood three-dimensional concept to a two-dimensional surface. We know what we know more than we are conscious of what we see. Line drawing requires and promotes development of conscious observation. Have you ever seen a child draw a picture of a house with all four sides visible, as if the four walls were unfolded onto the plane? We can't see the back of the house, but the child knows it's there, so draws it. Similarly, they often draw the sky as a blue line, because they understand the concept of there being a sky above, but they don't conceptualize the idea that it's unending, and therefore, in a line-drawing, invisible. All of these things require observation to discover, and training and practice of observation and line-drawing promotes this discovery.

There are so many ways to translate observation into line, from the rather mathematical calculation of perspective to the deep inquiry needed to document tiny things we might otherwise not examine (like the texture of a leaf), to the intuitive, emotional research needed for blind contour drawing of people we know. All of these things allow us to look and see in new ways, and then we take these new ways of seeing into other activities. Learning to draw a street with linear perspective, for example, not only helps us understand observation, relative size, and laws of physics, but also helps us understand the vastness of our world, and opens our eyes to see more consciously when we're out in the world. So in the end it gives us a deeper understanding of everything.

Technical and Psychological Colour Theory
My daughter still talks about the time she learned from her very clever friend at preschool that mixing red and white would make pink. So she tried it, but used red and yellow... and it turned out orange! She was painting a sculpture of broccoli, and decided that while pink would have been an acceptable colour for her broccoli, orange was definitely not. She was three at the time, and at fifteen this memory still comes back to her at regular intervals, because it had a huge impact on her. Not only did she make some discoveries about colour-mixing (technical colour theory), but she also discovered something about which colours jive with the concept of broccoli in her mind (psychological colour theory).

Tie-dyeing is a great experimental colour theory activity.
We are influenced by colour every second of our lives, from the clothing we choose, to the hues emitted by our light bulbs, to the design and advertising of commercial entities. We can grow up blind to this, or we can learn to recognize how we respond to colour and, using this knowledge, make wiser choices. For example, turning on the night screen mode of your devices can have a noticeable impact on your mental and physical health, since the blue light emitted by our screens changes our brain chemistry, affecting our sleep and various body systems. I also just recently discovered that blue light actually triggers our retinas to kill off photoreceptor cells, eventually leading to macular degeneration. Literally, blindness. Light really does have a physical effect on our bodies, and colour is light. Having an understanding of not only how we are affected by colour, but how we can manage it, mix it, and use it in our worlds gives us agency in our own lives and health.

An understanding of colour can open our eyes to the rest of the world, as well. If we start noticing colour in all its capacities in our lives, we notice things we didn't before. As with all of these visual discoveries, we learn to see, consciously.

Three-Dimensional Form
How often do you look at the wall of your house and wonder how it was put together? All the layers, all the varied materials and their unique functions -- do you wonder what kind of insulation is in there, and why? Do you look at a couch or an upholstered chair and wonder what's under the fabric? Do you flip through a hardcover book and then peek down inside the spine to see how it's constructed? I teach bookmaking because it opens our minds to three-dimensional form and material use. Building a hand-bound hardcover book requires a slightly complex series of construction steps, including folding and tearing or cutting pages, sewing them together, creating a sturdy, flexible spine for them with starched cheesecloth and glue, then building a hard cover out of board and paper or fabric, then embellishments, then attaching the book to its cover with perfectly-fitted endpapers. And then suddenly there you are holding a real, honest-to-goodness book, and understanding not only what all the parts are, but why they're there.

Our world is full of constructed objects, and understanding how and why things are built the way they are allows us to see everything more deeply, and also gives us the insight needed to repair and build things, ourselves. Learning how to knit a sweater, construct a pie or a complex cake, fix a bike or cobble a fix on a broken backpack are all essential in the same way: Instead of replacing broken goods, we can repair them; instead of relying on others to provide for us, we can be self-reliant. Understanding how things are made gives us confidence and courage to take charge of our own lives.

Experimentation
I can't write about learning without mentioning how important it is that experimentation is a part of the process. Remember that orange broccoli? My daughter's experimentation in grabbing yellow instead of white, and the consequential discovery that different parts make a different whole, is probably the reason she remembers the incident at all. When somebody tells us something, we may take it or leave it, but there's not much emotional pay-off in just following instructions. There's a huge emotional pay-off in discovering something ourselves!

The other day I took my son's snowboard in to a local ski and board shop, hoping to replace a lost toe ramp. Apparently the bindings are an older model, and the toe ramp is not something we can just order and replace. And no way on earth can I afford new bindings. So this amazing person at North Shore Ski and Board examined the remaining toe ramp on the other binding, disappeared for a few minutes, and came back with some handfuls of padding, boot inserts, and double-sided tape paper. He gleefully experimented for a few minutes with different materials and placements, until he came up with a solution that most closely matched the other toe ramp. Then he started measuring, cutting and gluing, and in less than an hour, total, he had repaired my son's snowboard. He charged me for the parts and time, which was far less than any binding replacement part would have cost, if I had been able to buy one. And then he posted about his awesome customer service on social media, and showed off his handiwork to his boss. His pride was glorious for me to witness.

Like Icarus' experiment, this one didn't go as expected, either. He learned many things, that day!
Art leads to experimentation, and humans need to experiment. It's how we learn and evolve. Trying new things, failing, and trying again is how we learn to keep trying; how we develop resilience and courage and grit. All of the important skills that art gives us are made more accessible through experimentation. It's not enough to teach someone how to draw a street scene with accurate perspective; we need to allow children to make perspective drawing part of their personal experimentation, without criticism, direction, or correction, so that they make discoveries and carry that learning on into the next things they play. We need to give them time and space to make a big mess; to scratch up clay from the creek and see if they can build something of it; to take apart their toys because what's inside is more interesting than what's outside. We need to give them resources and time and encouragement, and then stand back and just allow them to experiment. That is how they will grow up to see the world around them as a great big fascinating opportunity for growth. That is how our children will grow.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Respect Yourself: Unschooling Reading


On our journey as an unschooling family, the very first struggle we had was with our own presumptions about reading. It seemed like one of the most important parenting tasks we had was to make sure our kids were reading-ready before Kindergarten. According to things I'd read at the time, this amounted to my kid having a firm grasp of the alphabet, and a strong love of looking through books and being read to. This was the bare minimum, since other parents we talked to already had their preschoolers reading short sentences, and studying phonics. The stakes were high.

From age two to four, our son was passionate about reading and language. He spoke clearly and carefully, expressing his feelings and ponderings and discoveries, and when he didn't know how to put these things into words, he drew or described, and requested the correct words for his needs. He trusted us to supply him with whatever new words he needed when he needed them. Without reading a word, in the conventional sense, he "read" to his baby sister every day, as he enthusiastically entertained her with great stories and descriptions of the books he presented her. He sang, too - long story-songs full of angst and emotion. He drew diagrams of his complex inventions, and instructed me to label them for him so I would understand all the important details. Sometimes he tried labeling, himself.

By the time my son was four, I began to worry that all this expression wasn't enough for Kindergarten, and I began tracing my finger along as I read to him, to let him see which words I was reading. My hand got in the way of not only the pictures in the books, but even of the words he was looking at. So I began reading more slowly, and giving him time to look at the picture after. He complained that I was ruining the story. Do you see what's happening, here? Because I didn't. But I do now. This was the long series of moments I stopped respecting my son. I listened to the voice of my own fears instead of his voice. This was the moment that our beautiful story times stopped being about enjoyment of stories and words and togetherness, and began to be a kind of manipulation. He stopped reading to his sister, and read only silently to himself, on the bedroom floor. I knew he was capable of figuring out the words, so I tried to get him to read me some. He refused, so I bought a new book. Jake Bakes a Cake. My son is 17 now and as far as I know he's never read that book. You know why? Because that innocent book was the last straw. After I sat him down with Jake Bakes a Cake, he didn't read another book for nine months.

Nine months later, he was in Kindergarten, fighting his own rebellion against the teacher who wanted him to respond to stories in his journal. I had finally given up completely and decided I'd trust the system to teach him, since I had clearly failed. Then we went on a road trip. Somewhere along the drive from Victoria to Nanaimo, we stopped at an intersection, and our boy whispered tentatively from the back seat: "S -- TA -- AW -- PUH". We waited. "S -- TAW-P". I remember being afraid to carry on driving, but we did. The sign was gone, and in a moment he said, "did that sign say 'stop'?" Well if I know one thing about my son it's that my enthusiasm about his discovery would kill it for him, so I put my hand on my husband's leg, and said "yes", like it didn't matter at all.

By the time we got home he had read a handful of signs, quietly to himself. And then, as we parked outside the bank: "Mama, what does 'par-kinje' mean?" It might sound like I learned to respect him at that point, but I didn't. I still thought we were on the right track to learning to read. I still thought he was measuring up. I failed to see his innate curiosity for what it was, and to nurture it without judgment. I told him that i-n-g makes the sound 'ing', and celebrated quietly when he carefully pronounced 'parking'. I failed to see soon enough that my kid had his own interests, needs and life-path, separate from those arranged for him by me and the school system. But this idea began to grow on me, and we pulled him out of school the next spring. The world of unschooling opened our minds. I began to explore the idea of respecting my kids, in order to foster self-respect in them. My son did grow to love reading again, but I will never know what might have been his life if we'd been a little wiser to begin with.

So I also need to stop judging myself. Self-respect is learned partly by modelling, and unfortunately I'm not a terribly good model for my children. Like every other parent, I am fumbling along, making mistakes and trying to learn from them. Who knows what kind of life we'd have if I'd sent my kids to school? Or if I'd been unschooled, myself? Who knows what would have happened if I had pushed Jake Bakes a Cake on my son, or had shown too much enthusiasm when he read the word 'stop'.

My son now likes to read fiction: sci-fi and a little fantasy. Exciting but not cruel. His spelling is not always accurate, but he uses spell-check when he feels it matters. His writing reads like speech; he uses punctuation so that I hear his voice in it. He's not much into poetry or song lyrics, and although at age nine he read an incredible amount of advanced physics research, he now reads more how-to manuals and science humour. He drops in to read over my shoulder if he hears me laughing. My daughter, who benefited from and earlier start to unschooling, is a voracious and passionate reader and reviewer of youth and historical fiction, and has memorized the scripts of countless musical theatre productions. Interestingly, she was also into advanced books at age nine, reading as much as she could from Charles Eisenstein's Sacred Economics because she fervently wanted to create a free economy. But eventually that interest waned, and now she spends almost as much time reading and writing SIMS manuals as she does writing her first novel. Her spelling is usually immaculate, but she hates ending sentences, and often forgets to put a period at the end of a paragraph. My kids are individuals, like we all are, using reading like the simple tool it is in whatever way suits their needs.

Reading is as individual a pursuit as wearing clothes. Society expects us to do it most of the time, and there will be people critical of our choices no matter what we do, but how we enjoy it is entirely up to us. Today I am respecting myself by wearing pajama bottoms and my partner's sweater. Tomorrow I'll dress up fancy for going to town. Sometimes I like to wear black with band t-shirts and sometimes I like to wear multiple big flowery skirts. Sometimes I wear those things together, and I really really hate blazers. Some days I'm a novelist and some days I'm a poet. Some days I write about parenting.

Reading is something that happens to us, because it's all around us. As long as our kids live in a world full of written words, they'll learn to read. The more we can foster self-respect in them, the more they will be empowered to make sound choices about what, when, and how they want to use this tool. The more we respect those choices, the better they will become at making them.
(A little something to remind us of summer.....)
The Novelist and the Poet go for lunch
Novelist : ​I want them to turn the pages.
Poet : ​I want them to linger.
Novelist: ​That’s not a good plot.
Poet: ​There is no plot.
Novelist: ​How interesting is that?
Poet: ​ It's all about what's happening now.
Novelist ​: But where does it go?
Poet​: Here.
Novelist:​ What is here?
Poet:​ Everything.
Novelist: ​ I can't follow.
Poet: ​ Just be here and listen
Novelist :​ To what?
Poet : ​ The stone in the rain. The walls of the house. The bridge in the dark.
Everything has something to say.
Novelist: ​What does the bridge say?
Poet : ​Don't jump.
Novelist:​ The bridge has no voice. The readers don't want fairy tales.
Poet : ​The bridge has many disguises.
Novelist :​ There was a bridge and thousands of cars drove over it and once in awhile someone jumped from it and died. An old story.
Poet: ​Some bridges transport cars. Some connect souls. Others fill in the gaps. Some rise out of the mist.
Novelist: ​ Why mention the mist?
Poet: ​Because visibility was limited.
Novelist: ​Is that why she jumped?
Poet: ​That's why she waited.
Novelist: ​ This is too slow.
Poet: ​I want them to know her.
Novelist: ​All they want to know is whether she jumped or not.
Poet:​ Maybe they want the real story.
Novelist: ​ That's what I have been saying. They want to know if she jumped. They don't want to hear her musings on the mist.
Poet : ​ Maybe they want to know what stopped her from jumping.
Novelist :​ Someone comes along and saves her?
Poet: ​Maybe she remembers something.
Novelist: ​That it's a long way down and the water is cold?
Poet: ​She remembers summer
Novelist: ​ This isn’t going anywhere.
Poet: ​ Butterflies, dragonflies, fireflies, hummingbirds, robins' eggs,
bare feet on fresh cut grass, sweet corn, peaches, plums.
Novelist: ​All those things might make the reader just close the book and go outside and play in the sun and not bother reading to the end
Poet: Yes.

used with permission from:
lisa shatzky
from The Bells that Ring,
published by Black Moss Press, 2017
 ~ ~ ~
 *Hello! If you're new here, this is my unschooling blog. Eighteen years ago, just before my first baby was born, I'd never heard of unschooling, and hadn't given my kids' education any thought. Now that we've traveled a few meandering paths, and have two children who have made very different life and education choices, I'm writing a little series about some of the things we've worried about, struggled with and overcome, on this journey. This isn't intended as advice because, as we've learned most assuredly, one person's experience cannot ever be another's. But if you're a new unschooler or unschooling parent, I hope to reassure you. In many ways, unschooling is just like schooling: We're all different, and most of us manage to find our ways through whichever systems we choose, especially when we listen to our (or our kids') hearts, and respect ourselves. This series is called Respect Yourself - it's as much about respecting ourselves as parents as it is about giving our children the space to respect themselves.*

Monday, December 30, 2019

New Decade: How Connection Will Save Us

As we round the corner on a new decade, I find myself contemplative about the evolution of our species. What have we changed? Where are we going? What changes are to come? And, as so many ask these days, how can we save ourselves? How can we "be the change"?
“We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.” – Mahatma Gandhi
This morning I read that two firefighters have died fighting Australia's massive bush fires. That's 10 people so far this year in a fire season that's only half over, according to Victoria emergency services minister Lisa Neville. Over 1000 homes have burned so far, but it's not a shock, anymore. It's the news we're accustomed to hearing. I was, however, surprised to read that the prime minister apologized for having been on vacation at the time. His compassion is news; in our current human state of trauma and overwhelming feelings of helplessness, many of us have become dispirited, numbed by the constant reports of tragedy. We are accustomed to looking away. My children know that in every season people around the world die of heat, floods, storms, wildfires and other climate-related disasters. Sometimes we watch the smoke on the news; sometimes we're battling to keep it out of our own lungs. It's the end of the decade, the end of my children's childhood, and the beginning of a new epoch for humanity. And what can we do to save ourselves?

In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about her university students' inability to imagine a healthy relationship between humans and nature:
"As the land becomes impoverished, so too does the scope of their vision. I realized that they could not even imagine what beneficial relations between their species and others might look like. How can we begin to move toward ecological and cultural sustainability if we cannot even imagine what the path feels like? If we can't imagine the generosity of geese? These students were not raised on the story of Skywoman."
I would like to suggest that connection is how we will save ourselves.

The other day I drove my kids past the recreation centre in Burnaby where I first kindled my desire to connect children with nature. Around two decades ago, before I had children of my own, I took my eight-to-ten-year-old art group out to the small planting of conifers and rhododendrons beside the parking lot at that rec centre. It was the only forest-like area between the mall, the skytrain and the office buildings. Beside the smooth concrete pathway, I and this group of kids dug our fingers into the grass and needles and found worms coming skyward after recent rainfall. We saved one from a puddle. We gathered cones and twigs, and the children discovered that cones actually contain seeds of the trees they fell from. Although I tried valiantly to connect our indoor art adventures to this one outing, it was plainly evident to me that the greatest learning we'd had by far was the short fifteen minutes we spent out poking fingers into the earth. This was the moment of connection - of discovering a sense of home and belonging in nature. I have spent the last two decades bringing people into the wilderness, welcoming them to these spaces where nature still displays its fabulous and curious habits, and beckoning them to feel at home. Because this is our home.

In the last decade forest schools have become increasingly popular; as have explorative and self-directed learning. These things, I think, are beacons of hope for our civilization. As we reintegrate with nature in a curious and explorative way, we become, as a species, attuned to our own existence, and better able to understand our own nature. As we discover the amazing interactions between other species in the wild, we discover our own interactions with them, as well. We discover our mutual needs and gifts. We discover our sameness.

But how will this help us survive the climate emergency? In very practical terms, explorative wilderness play helps people of all ages become more resilient and resourceful; both qualities needed to survive any time, but especially in the unpredictable time we're entering now. A few years ago, during the worst smoke-season we've had yet on Canada's west coast, I bought an air purifier that barely managed to keep the smoke out of one room of my home. But I took my Wild Art groups into the forest nearby, to discover the clear green-filtered air and relatively smoke-free play areas. During the hot smoky season we found respite under the shelter of cedars and hemlocks, leaning our bodies against the cool logs and reaching fingers into the mud that remained from the previous winter's flood. The children learned resourcefulness as they wrote, developed and performed a play about consumerism (their own idea, but not surprising given the climate of fear in the forest fire season). They connected with our local recycling centre and second-hand store for props, and created other props and a set from objects found in the forest.

In addition to resilience and resourcefulness, the deeply-felt connection that nature exploration develops between humans, and between humans and other species, helps us to see the bigger picture. We discover the trees' need for moss, holding water like a sponge, as we discover our own need for the damp cool that that moss provides, and the shelter of the trees' leaves. Symbiotic relationships are everywhere, and the more of them we discover, the greater our perception grows; the bigger our picture becomes. Climate change is a very big picture. If we want to solve it, we need to understand the interconnectedness of all things. We need to know that we matter.

And mostly, in this world where happiness is sold on in-game-advertising and the price-tags on our brand-name merchandise, we can discover happiness in nature. The pursuit of happiness continues to be a ubiquitous aim of the human spirit, and we're not going to save our home and future by denying ourselves joy. Our salvation will not come from starvation and asceticism. It will come from abundance. We just need to start seeing abundance - happiness - in the things we need to save, and then we'll find ourselves ever more willing to save them. Saving the trees is much easier when the trees are our children's playthings; when we know their scent and the feeling of their cool skin on ours in the summer; when we have experienced their canopy protecting us from the heat and the smoke. Saving frogs and beetles and worms and slugs is much more delightful when we're not envisioning some far-away ecosystem we've never walked in, but noticing the appearance of worms after rain in our own neighbourhood puddles.

Wilderness isn't far away. Wilderness is happening in the city puddle under our feet, or, as we once discovered with the help of our trusty microscope, in the surface of an old moldy piece of cat food! Wilderness is, yes, in the Australian bush, burning up with its koalas heading ever closer to extinction. And it is also in the weeds along the edge of a forgotten urban alley. It is in the heart of the little girl playing there, digging her fingers in past plastic wrappers and grasshoppers to find the treasure she buried there last winter: A fir cone full of now-sprouting seeds, which she carefully pulls out, and plants again.

In the last decade we have become, as a species, accustomed to watching our home burn from the other side of the street, then turning our back on it and looking towards our cell phones for a quick emotional fix. We've become accustomed to blinding ourselves to our own feelings of despair and helplessness; using capitalist promises and lies to soothe our broken hearts. Now it's time to get back over there and put out the flames. I think about Robin Wall Kimmerer's despair at her students' lack of connection with wilderness and I think to myself that if we allow our children to find joy in the discovery of small things, the next generation will be the first to return to nature. When they reach university, the scope of their vision will be greater, because they have seen and known the wilderness beneath their feet. They will integrate the great technological systems of their day with the great system of the wilderness and those of us who follow them will, finally, be the change we already know ourselves to be.

Happy new decade. May we connect with each other and with our wilderness.

*image: copyright Emily van Lidth de Jeude

Monday, December 23, 2019

The Great Gingerbread House Building Tradition

In the early days of my partnership with Markus, he described to me his family's tradition of building gingerbread houses. He spoke about it with such joy that I had to make it happen. I got a wonderful Finnish gingerbread recipe from my friend Miki, which we've carried along with us all these years, through our children's childhoods and now, nearly, into their adulthood. Most years we make time and space for this all-consuming multi-day activity, and most years it's a wonderful creative experience. I documented a little of the action this year as my kids and their cousin Evan designed and built this wonky house-on-a-spoon creation.

Sometimes the kids make their own dough, but this year they were busy hunting the wild tree so I made the dough ahead of time. When they returned, they sat around planning their build, and then making paper templates. They cut the many pieces they needed into the rolled dough, and spent the evening putting trays of cookies in and out of the oven. This thickly-rolled, gluten- and sugar-free, molasses-rich dough takes ages to bake, so they even had to finish some baking in the morning.

Next morning: gluing it all together with royal icing (our version is vegan-keto - egg replacer and powdered erythritol).

Building and decorating...

Ta da! A wonky house on a teaspoon!

They used maltitol-based diabetic candies to melt in for windows on the upper level of the house, and lit it from the inside with bicycle lights.

And then, because these are 21st century kids, they all hopped on their phones to Instagram their creation.
Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 16, 2019

The Ridiculous Joy of Unschooling


Here we are, today, working on the thirty-page document for our current distributed learning program in which this fifteen-year-old unschooler has to evaluate herself. We can hardly stop laughing to get the job done! Is it exhaustion? Delirium? The sometimes bizarre and meaningless expectations of our school system? No - it's just the ridiculous joy of unschooling!

We look at this document and, as my daughter plods through question after question, evaluating her interpersonal skills, her communication skills, her ability to remember various mathematical, theatre, and language concepts, we feel her freedom. Because she was raised without being evaluated by teachers or parents, she has an innate understanding of her own value. She can go through this list of prescribed learning outcomes and joke incessantly about it, because despite understanding that it's a useful hoop to jump through in order to attain her current goals, she doesn't feel threatened by it. At fifteen, she's confident in who she is.

Right on!

Friday, November 8, 2019

The Hardest Choice We've Ever Had to Make

Sometimes I share the happy news and sweep the hard stuff under the carpet, imagining you don't need or want to hear about it; sometimes I think I have to be real with you. My readers are a combination of friends, family, and strangers, and it's just weird. So today you get to read about my dog. And my heart is torn to pieces, so that's just the way it's going to be. A broken post. Today was the end of the hardest choice we've ever had to make.


We got Thuja because Markus' heart needed a dog. So we chose this one, the one who we found sleeping on her sister, who was curious about us; interesting and interested. He named her Thuja (two-ya), which is the Latin name for the family of trees that includes cedar. She was a Labrador Shepherd cross, and in the 16 months she lived with us, she grew enormous.






She reminded me of my first dog. I felt deeply loved and respected by our Thuja.
Thuja's first friend was our cat, Blackberry, who very purposefully taught her to play chase-the-cat and bravely instigated all sorts of  other fun games with her.
She loved Blackberry so much that she tried to share her favourite toy with her on a few occasions. The chewed, wet, slobbery Gordon was brought over to Blackberry and shoveled into her, as Blackberry sat patiently waiting for the disgusting thing to be removed again.

Gordon Lightfoot was Tali's toy horse from childhood, which he gifted to Thuja when we first brought her home. And Gordon was very dear to her. She loved to play what we called "soccer" with Gordon. Almost always with a blue ball, too. She kicked the ball with her own foot, and then held Gordon by the head and whacked it around with his legs.

Gordon didn't mind being whacked around. He was just a stuffed horse. And she cleaned his head and bum many times every day. So he was well looked after, even if he became very shabby and had a few surgeries.

Thuja was the smartest dog I've ever known. Yes, that really is Rhiannon teaching our puppy to draw. Our puppy wasn't just chewing the pen. Within one morning, Rhiannon taught Thuja to hold the pen properly in her mouth and drag it around the paper to make marks. Soon she could pick up a pen herself with the felt tip pointing down. She chose to hold her paws on the paper, herself, and once in a while she would look up and wait, and Rhiannon would exchange the pen in her mouth for one of a different colour. Then Thuja would draw again.

We have no idea what Thuja thought she was doing, but we have some drawings by our dog, now.
She could learn new skills like heeling, rolling over, fetch, drop the ball, and even drawing in just about three repetitions, but it took her many weeks to learn to let us hug her, or pick her up. She always growled when we picked her up, even from the moment we got her, and we didn't realize at the time that it was actually a sign of her deep and pervasive fear. As time went by, her fear-based aggression became more and more of a problem. We came to see that she was always on guard, always alert, and always ready to lunge or snap at whatever seemed out of place to her. This included everything from toddlers to seniors to other dogs, to us, even, when we didn't do what she wanted or expected.

She was terrified of many things. She never swam once in her life, even though she had webbed feet and was a member of a swimming family, including her dog-auntie, Kalea, who came to visit her every day and often tried to entice her for a swim in the pond.

Thuja loved Kalea, but she bit her so often and with such ferocity that Kalea, of her own choice, stopped coming to visit.



Thuja also had physical problems. She had allergies to all proteins other than fish, and at 10 months old broke and partially tore three ligaments in her knees, all at once while playing leisurely in the yard. She endured two surgeries in her short life, and each one made her more afraid. We took her to various trainers, including one of Vancouver's most highly regarded reactive dog specialists. He gave us many skills for working with our dominant aggressive dog, and we became much more confident about taking her out in public.

But the aggression continued to worsen - specifically the unpredictable aggression. After the very complex knee surgery and long recovery period, she needed to wear a muzzle to vet appointments, and became so dangerous that we were advised repeatedly to put our baby down, and/or buy liability insurance.

But we loved her. It's hard to reconcile the beautiful, thoughtful, loving friend who made our days feel so whole with the fearsome, shocking attacks that would happen periodically. During these incidents she didn't feel like the same dog, and as soon as they happened she was remorseful. After she snapped at people she loved, she would sulk for hours and sometimes days. I know that feeling. It's like the gut-wrenching guilt that hits me when I've yelled at my children and see them cringe. How could I fault her for something she regretted so deeply?

Sometimes we thought it was her intelligence that made her both so wonderful and so dangerous. Sometimes we wondered if her first few weeks had been traumatic for her, or if she had some kind of brain injury. We will never know. We did everything we could to keep her. We maxed our credit on veterinary and behavioural interventions. We lost friends and connection to our community in our efforts to help and keep this beloved member of our family, but when too many of our immediate family members were endangered by her, we had to concede that it was time to let her go. Finally, and with a really untellable amount of pain, we chose to put her down, and today we lost her.

Thuja is buried at the edge of the woods, deep in the ground with cedar boughs, her blue dinosaur, and Gordon. The children stayed home today, to say goodbye and help us dig, to lay the boughs on her and for Tali to tuck his old shabby Gordon up under Thuja's chin and between her limp paws, just where she liked him to be.

I'm writing this because I'm too sad to go to sleep. Today is still a day that I nuzzled my puppy's soft cheeks and felt her love for me. Today is still the day I heard her whimpering as we held her down and the last powerful sedative flooded her circulatory system. Today is still the day I told her I loved her and she gazed into my eyes with her own. Today is the last day I had this friend in my life. Tomorrow I have to begin the process of cleaning her hairs from the carpets, washing her many toys, and packing away what remains of her very short, traumatic, but loving life.