Wednesday, October 18, 2017

What to Do in the Wild: Ideas for Creative Wilderness Play with Children


One of the biggest obstacles to getting engaged with the wilderness is a lack of inspiration. Kids - especially urban kids - simply don't have the experience to generate fun ideas when they arrive in the wild to play. Teachers and parents, having perhaps not much experience themselves, or otherwise having left wilderness play behind in their childhood, may not know how to help this situation. I'd like to offer some ideas about both preparing to take kids into the wild, and then inspiring them to engage there.

There are some general preparations we can make, as adults, to ensure that our wilderness adventures will be safe and fun. If we are confident ourselves, the kids we bring with us into the wild will be much more confident also, and then we're all likely to get more out of the experience. Most importantly, although I'm going to give some cautionary notes, don't let these things scare you; just get used to looking for them. There are far more hazards in the city, but because most of us are accustomed to these hazards, and automatically keep an eye out for them, they don't pose much of a threat. I promise you that with enough time spent in the wilderness, a similar sense of confidence and ease will develop.

Preparation: 
Get to know the plants: Take a camera or a notebook or whatever you need to help yourself engage with what you encounter, and get to know the opportunities and hazards in your area. I recommend a high-quality, photo-rich plant identification book, so that you can familiarize yourself with what you'll find, locally. Spend some time every day identifying plants, until you feel confident. If you discover dangerous plants in your area, don't avoid them; learn about them so you can pass this knowledge onto the kids. It's always better to be informed than sheltered. You never know where or when these plants will be found again.

Get to know the terrain: Try clambering through some rough areas so you get a feel for what you are personally able to tackle, and what the terrain is like, in general. Try out some of the wilderness activities listed below! Keep hazards in mind, so that you become more attuned to them in general. This skill will keep you safer, but more importantly keep your mind at ease, when you're out with your children or class. Some general hazards to watch for:
  • Look up for things that can fall (rotten or dead trees, branches broken off but hung up overhead, large dangerous cones, wasp nests, overhanging loose rocks, etc.)
  • Look down for ankle-breakers and sink-holes (quick-sand, deep holes that may be hidden by ferns, wasp nests and biting ant hills, deep mud, sharp garbage or barnacles, etc.)
Getting to know the terrain doesn't just mean identifying hazards. It also means falling in love with it - inspire yourself! Look to see what you can discover that's amazing about someplace seemingly mundane. Even a relatively featureless muddy bank holds not only a plethora of life-forms, but also opportunities for play. Get down on the ground and explore with your eyes and nose and fingers. See what wonders you can find and let yourself fall in love. The children you eventually bring back to this place will catch your enthusiasm like a steady wind and carry it on.
Get to know the weather: Certain weather patterns can present certain challenges, so checking the forecast and being prepared is always important. Obviously, storms can present hazards (falling trees, flooding, extreme cold, lightning, etc.) that you may want to avoid entirely. But in addition to those extreme situations, unprepared people often run into trouble. Here are some useful preparations:
  • If it's hot, bring sunscreen, water, and plan to be in the shade. Sunhats are essential for programs I run in hot weather.
  • If it's cold, keep active, and keep dry. Even with mittens, hands tend to get cold, especially when building things, so some sort of hand-warmers are a great idea. (Learn how to make reusable hand-warmers here.)
  • If it's cold and wet, don't plan to be out all day, and dress appropriately. If there is any water available (rain, creek, puddles, mud, ocean, etc.) kids will get wet. So waterproof rain gear and good tall boots are important to have over top of warm garments, mittens and hats. Fleece or sheep's wool is best because it dries faster than cotton.
  • If it's wet but temperatures are mild, kids can still get quite cold, as the the damp saps the heat out of their bodies. Bring rain gear and a change of clothes.
  • Let kids regulate their own temperature. Make sure they have warm/dry clothes with them, but allow them to wear what they feel is best. They will usually reach for warmth when they need it, and learn from mistakes when they get cold. Keeping kids bundled when they resist can also be a hazard, since overheating is also a problem (and for some kids happens quickly when they're active), sweat eventually also becomes cold, and mostly they just feel disrespected and miserable.
So you're comfortable in the wilderness. You'd probably be just fine sitting there with a book or your phone, or simply taking some much-needed rest from the busy world. But I think we all hope the kids will get more engaged than that. Let me offer a few creative and explorative activities for you to try. I don't recommend taking kids out with the intention of doing any of these specifically, but keeping your mind open to the nature of exploration, and having these up your sleeve for those 'what to do next' moments.

Things to Do:
Water Play: If you can get to water (or if you can't escape it), use it! It's not only a fabulous resource for learning about physics (I'm not suggesting formal lessons; just freely playing with flow and permeability is highly educational), but is also a wonderful way to bring people together. Maybe you all get together with a common goal of diverting a creek, or of creating a little pond. Maybe one person is delivering water for another's sand or mud-construction. Maybe the rain just soaked everyone and now you're huddled in a grotto eating lunch. Or maybe you're all just jumping and rolling in a flooded meadow. Whatever it is, take precautions (watch for strong current in creeks or signs of kids becoming too cold), and have fun!! Once you get used to the idea of being wet, you can play and explore with abandon.

Climbing Trees: A tree can be a wonderful vantage point, as well as a unique ecosystem to explore. It also provides a great opportunity for muscle and skill development. So educate yourself about safe climbing practice. Good climbing trees are reasonably open near the trunk (not too bushy), while having enough branches to easily climb. They are flexible, strong, healthy trees, with branches generally at least as big around as your upper arm. Always test branches before putting weight on them; always make sure you're hanging on in multiple places, so that if you begin to fall, you'll still be holding onto something. Always keep your weight near the tree's trunk. And don't panic. In our area (the Pacific Northwest), some excellent climbing trees are young healthy cedar, Douglas fir, and alder. Some brittle trees to avoid climbing are maple, hemlock, and anything dead or dying.

Generally, I think it's important for kids to get themselves into trees. If I have to help them up, they haven't gained the confidence to climb safely, or to come back down safely. So I may give advice about technique or suggest good-looking foot-holds or climbing-routes, but I don't lift. And yes, I do also climb trees myself, while making sure that when I'm with young kids, I can still easily and quickly get to them if needed.

Digging: Using hands, sticks, flat rocks, or even shovels, digging can be a fabulous activity. There are wonderful creative and explorative opportunities in the holes excavated, the pile of dirt created, and whatever may be found in the dirt, while digging. Digging might be towards a specific goal, like harvesting clay, creating a sand-castle, or play-mining, but it might just be for the joy of discovery. Some dangers around digging are harming the roots of trees, or creating instability in a slope. Keep these things in mind, but otherwise have fun!

Building: Build whatever your imagination can dream up, using whatever materials are available (without killing plants or disturbing too much habitat). Sticks and branches are familiar materials for forts, walls, and bridges, but try some other things too: Mobiles (using rope, string, or vines), sculptures (sticks lend themselves very well to making forest fairies or tall human-like sculptures, and improvised handmade tools and musical instruments. Rocks can be wonderful for building dams, rock-houses, rock-stacks, and inuksiuk. They can be used to line fire pits for real fires or play, to support structures, and to divert water-flow. Both sticks and rocks can be used in conjunction with all manner of mud, dirt, moss, and clay to create sturdy structures. One word of advice for the well-being of the environment you're using: It's important not to take more than can quickly regenerate. Pulling out lots of ferns, branches, or moss can be tempting, especially when they seem abundant, but too much taken causes serious harm to the environment. For example, too much moss removed from the trunk of a tree or the forest floor will prevent water retention in that area and may cause the tree to weaken or die. Pay attention to the ecosystem you're working in, and respect it.

Pretend Play: Any imaginative game you can play in the house can be easily moved to the wild. You don't need to bring any supplies; costumes can be made of wilderness materials (leaves, grass, bark from dead trees, and face-paint of crushed grass, mud or clay), and props and tools will similarly be improvised. Take any inspiration and see how you can make it work in the wild. Alternatively, let the wilderness itself inspire you! Look around and imagine something fantastic. A couple of weeks ago one of the boys in the group I was leading found a big crumbling rotten stump, spilling its orange and brown powdery remains onto the forest floor. Instantly it seemed to him like the mother-load of cheese, and he began "mining" for cheese. Soon he was delivering all sorts of different types of "cheese" to his friend, who opened a "restaurant", serving amazing-sounding meals (mostly of cheeses) upon fancy bark-plates. This particular pretend play lasted for two afternoons, and we are all now a little more knowledgeable about cheeses, restaurant entrepreneurship, and decomposing forest materials.

Music and Drama: Whether you start a random beat-box on an echo-ey mountainside, a drum-circle around a hollow-log, a puppet-show with leaf-and-twig people, or theatre sports in a sunny glade, the wilderness is your stage. Take advantage of the wide open spaces you find to get loud and exuberant. Sometimes I also use performance as a way to bring divergent groups together, to bridge social difficulties, or to refocus when kids are getting tired. Have a few great stories in mind for moments like these, or allow the wilderness to inspire a new story. Some of the older groups I've worked with took a whole week or season to create a play and movie entirely in the wild, even sometimes bringing a projector, multiple extension cords, and a large flat sheet (screen) into the woods for a film-showing. Anything you can do inside can be approximated in the wild, usually with great discoveries made in the process.

~~*~~

Thanks for reading through this article! You now have some ideas for kids to do in the wilderness. But remember these are ideas for YOU. No child is going to be naturally engaged with something new that their parent or teacher is clearly not engaged with. I can't tell you how many times I've taken groups of people out in the wilderness and seen the kids look up at their parents or teachers, often woefully under-dressed, standing around on their phones or assuming an aloof stance at the edge of the play area. Don't be that grown-up. Tell yourself to let go of your adult inhibitions.

You're going to get dirty. You're going to get wet and tired, with splinters in your hands and tears in your eyes. You are going to haul your grown-up body to places it hasn't been in years, and lie it down on the ground. You'll go home with twigs in your hair and mud or moss or sand in places you never imagined. Take pride, because then you will be an accomplished, trustworthy mentor and explorer.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Patience with Democracy



We recently brought a kitten into our home, on the advice that this would help our three-year-old cat's loneliness. Well, it's not the kitten who's afraid and reluctant to connect; it's the older cat. This sweet, careful, and exceedingly tiny kitten takes every opportunity she gets to come close to the older cat and introduce herself. Sometimes she goes up and sniffs the older cat's nose, which generally leads to growling. Mostly, the little one approaches quietly to a safe distance, assumes a small, still position... and waits.

This has been going on for about a week, and the little one's patience seems to be endless. We humans (and probably she herself) know there is a potential friendship, but as long as the older cat is not open to it, it's not going to happen, so the little one sits and waits.

My human little one has been going through a similar process. She spent about a year and a half turning one of her favourite books into a script for a musical, then presented it to her theatre group and had it approved. After nearly two years of intense work, she had just finished the casting process, and was digging into the big job of co-directing her first play... when issues of race and representation came up. She's a girl of European descent adapting and directing a very Chinese play with mostly white children, on unceded Coast Salish territory. As settler parents, we thought this was wonderful! I was so proud of my girl for taking an interest in other cultures. But not all parents in our daughter's community felt this way, and the theatre group has tumbled over and over trying to grapple with the issues, to resolve racist connotations, to take white privilege into consideration, to make sure that the play is deeply rooted in an understanding of Chinese mythology and history, and that the lead roles are not primarily white. Everyone concerned with this issue thinks s/he knows what's right. Everyone thinks that if everyone else would just see clearly, all would be sorted out. Everyone is also open to change, to consideration and to keep coming back to the table until the issues are resolved. And of course the play is on hold until that happens.

It's a serious disappointment for a child who has put so much heart and effort into a project, only to find that she has a lot more work to do. Even for an adult this would be upsetting. But despite this setback, my daughter pointedly attends every meeting, considers every point of view, and is in this thing for the long haul. Seeing her bravely take on this challenging process, I am now far more proud of my girl than I was when all she had done was write a fabulous script.

And of course a number of people have told me that our choice to unschool, or our daughter's specific theatre program are the problems. People suggest we quit - find something better. And you know what? That's enticing! It's always easier to turn and run away, and I have certainly done that in situations where I felt I could make no headway, or simply was too immature to stay. But we are working hard for democracy in education as well as in the world, and that requires us to stay the course.

Democracy isn't an easy thing to achieve; it's not a set of standards or a system one just steps into. It requires work and acceptance and patience and most of all compassion. It requires listening to others even when we think what they're saying is stupid.

Democracy is part of every day for all of us. The issues can be small, or overwhelmingly huge, and we often make great sacrifices in waiting for others to come to the table, but until they do, no progress will be made. No matter the differences and apparent insurmountable odds, nothing gets anywhere healthy unless all parties come together, of their own volition, with a desire to move forward. This is why we unschool, why we parent openly and honestly, and why we keep reaching for democracy.

Look at those cats' faces. While admitting I surely don't know what's going through feline minds, it seems I see the little one expressing calm, curiosity, and a little fear. The older one is expressing indifference and rejection. The little one is just waiting for a sign of hope. Every time she gets one, she takes a step forward, and if the older one growls, she steps back. Literally: baby steps.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Forest Therapy

You may have heard of Forest Bathing, or Shinrin Yoku. The miraculous power of the forest to calm and to heal seems to be gaining popularity. From Japan to Europe to North America, there are various guides, retreats, and programs available to help you connect with the forest, and make use of these wonderful healing powers.

In case you are skeptical about this, do check out some of the documented evidence. A  Chiba University study found that “Forest environments promote lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments.” (Pubmed)


Children in the Wild Art program are just like all people in all communities: sometimes they have difficult days. Whether the problem stems from physical illness or injury, social/emotional struggles at home or at school, new and awkward situations, or just a plain old unexplained malaise, kids arrive with an assortment of attitudes. Today when I arrived to pick them up after lunch, one was running and jumping across the table-tops, one was quiet and removed, two more were sliding gleefully across the wet porch, unconcerned about the group's desire to get going, and two were patiently (and then less-patiently) waiting to go.


Enter the forest. Or, to be more precise, we entered the forest. It took about ten minutes for the group to settle into an exciting, engaging, and creative couple of hours. They built little clay houses, harvested clay and mud from the creek banks, built three impressive dams and various other creek and creek-side creations, and sorted out all manner of social stumbles ably and compassionately. In the calm, productive atmosphere of their forest play, they were able not only to take into consideration the needs and ideas of their peers and the technical constraints of their creations, but also the needs of the forest. In the video below you'll hear one of the kids call out across the creek to others who were collecting moss for plugging a dam: "You're wasting all the moss from it. You can't take that much, or the whole tree will die." He was referring to something these kids learned from me last year: that the moss on our trees and rocks is part of the trees' water-retention system, as well as a vital substrate for many other living things, and that taking too much from one area will deprive the tree of too much water, before that quantity of moss is able to regenerate. You'll hear the kids agree, and move on. I loved that this sharing of advice and information was going on without judgment or shame, between a few kids who are quite new to sharing this space with each other.


Ahhh... the healing power of the forest. What a gift.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

When Teens Take Over

I am currently wearing a pink ribbon on my wrist. It is intended to humble me. More on that later.

My teens are now participating in an intentionally democratic group educational experience. That sounds rather vague, but the vaguery comes more out of the complexity and open-endedness of the arrangements than from lack of determination. Let me try to explain!

The other day I arrived early to pick up my kids, and ended up sitting in on the sidelines of their meeting. They would have preferred I wasn't there, but I was glad to have witnessed part of this special event. About thirty teens shared their plans and dreams for the coming year, and attempted to create a schedule of activities. It's a deeply complex process, as each participant has different long-term goals, and somehow they have to design their schedule, meeting spaces, social groups and activities in a way that works for everyone. The most inspiring part of all of this was to see the teens take over the process. There were a handful of adults helping, but their openness to guidance from the teens meant that the teens truly did control the process, and came out of the whole thing not just feeling empowered, but legitimately in power of their education.

notes from the teen meeting
Some of the teens in this group have solid life plans; some of them have vague intentions, and some couldn't care less what lies over the horizon. Some of them are trying to achieve a high school diploma; some are working towards non-diploma career pursuits, some are just ignoring formalities entirely, and at least one of them is hoping to go to University without ever checking off the highschool diploma boxes (yes--this is possible, though not always easy). All of them were focused on setting up a year-plan that would make them happy both in the moment and in the long run. Among the many activities suggested by the teens were the following:
  • photography class
  • food safe class
  • beekeeping workshop at a farm
  • general adulting class
  • rock climbing
  • first aid certification
  • biology 11 class
  • attending university lectures
  • building movie props
  • creative writing feedback group
  • heckling bad movies
Listening to the sixty or so suggestions and the many kids signing up for each one truly made me feel joyful. As a group, these teens not only bravely put forward challenging and sometimes unconventional ideas, but supported each other in making them happen. Most of them engaged effectively in the conversation, and as a mother I felt honoured to watch my two children reaching this precipice of independence.

Teens need to take control of their own lives for a number of reasons. Biologically, that is what they are naturally doing: moving on to a life independent of their parents, and participating in all the activities that adults do. It might take them a while to get the hang of it all (hence, I suppose, their desire for a general adulting class!), but that's just another reason for them to get on with it and take their independence - by force, if necessary. Most of our teens' souls are crying out "let me go! I don't need you! Let me do it myself or die trying!", while a deep ache in their hearts cries "Wrap me up and rock me to sleep, Mummy!" or "Look after me!" or "Look at me!!!" And the drama caused by this tension is part of it all. Some teens embrace this drama; some don't, but it's going to happen, regardless. The drama helps them gain the independence they need. Our teens need our praise and support and advice and they need us to help them pick up the pieces when things fall apart. But they also need to feel like they're capable of doing it, themselves, and they can only become capable by trying.

Back to the pink ribbon I now have tied around my wrist. I've been fighting a lot with my kids, recently, about the messes left behind, and their often-dramatic way of refusing to clean up. With pop music and/or accordion-playing filling my ears, with the flow of friends and food-messes and project refuse all over the place, I often feel besieged in my own home, and I have not been the serene and accepting parent I wish I was. Still, I want them to do these things! I want their lives to be rich and loud and boisterously busy and inspired, and that's exactly what they're doing! But four people with different needs under one smallish roof is always a challenge. Because I'm their parent, I've been trying to corral them, and I've been unschooling now long enough to know that's counter-productive. Watching my kids gamely manage their own education and social lives has reminded me that not only are the successfully doing everything I hoped they would, but I can't force them to clean up. They'll have to get there on their own. It's what I wanted, but it's hard to let go. Parenting is humbling.

The pink ribbon is to remind me that peace is more important than a clean home, or than keeping control. I look at it and remember when they were infants and I hoped with all my heart they'd be who they are today. In this mess, we are arriving at our destiny. I can only hold on for the ride, hold on to my heart, and hold on to my babies when, inevitably, they drape their giant bodies over me for comfort.

And sometimes when I need a break I bring a cup of tea over to my parents' house and chat with my mother. Her house is much quieter than ours, and her temper rather less volatile. But it wasn't always this way. Once she parented teens, too. And we all survived.

Monday, September 11, 2017

9-11: Have We Learned Anything?


Do you remember where you were sixteen years ago, today?

I was at home. My husband, who was working from home, was told by a colleague to turn on the news, and we did. I remember standing there staring at the TV. I remember watching people run through dust and smoke, and wondering whether my cousin was in that New York mess (she was; but escaped before knowing what was happening). I remember feeling a visceral panic in my body; my veins pumping and my hands on my belly. I was pregnant with our first child.

The one clear thought I remember having - repeatedly - was 'what world have I brought you into'? It was a boundless, undefined fear.

My husband remembers not really believing the twin towers collapsing was real, and, once we accepted it had happened, he still didn't feel that it would have any direct impact on our lives. It did, as it turned out, probably contribute to the collapse of the company he worked for. He appeared home one day with a cardboard box of his office supplies, and job-free. And yet we moved on.

As time goes by we rehash and relive and re-imagine such traumas. It was the government. It was the terrorists. It was poor sad people jumping out of windows. It was heroes. America is awesome! We get used to such traumas, like old wounds whose scars are hardly noticeable but always there for looking at when we need a reason to grieve or to fear or to get angry. We wrap the traumas in layers of love and delight and forgiveness because if we didn't we couldn't carry on. Our children get older and come home telling us about nuclear proliferation and corporatocracy and desertification and we tell them Pink Fluffy Unicorns Dancing on Rainbows! Everything is Awesome! We usher our babies back out into the world with joy and hope because it would be horrible to do anything else.

And our children grow. And the scientists are projecting doom. And the climate changes just like they said it would do, so we write them off and find alternative science. And forests burn and earthquakes increase and storms like never before decimate our civilization. And war.

And the artists are projecting doom; even Hollywood is warning us at every turn, and Warner Bros plants fear in our hearts: Our whole civilization will go down if we don't break from the status quo and see past the shiny facade. And we and our kids go home in our SUV eating popcorn and singing Everything is Awesome!!!

We find leaders who wrap themselves in gold and shout Everything is AwesomeGreat!!! Trauma after trauma after trauma falls upon us, and our stomachs drop, and our dreams are pocked with terror, but we wrap it up in glitter and birthday parties and fun trips to the dollar store and fun family vacations because if we didn't we couldn't carry on.

Pink Fluffy Unicorns Dancing on Rainbows!! It would be horrible to do anything else.

Our children grow, until they're teens, and we pack their schedules and keep them locked up and safe, but at night they sit on their many devices scrolling past the news about shootings and election fraud and hurricanes and drought and thousands dying in flooding in ~*Pink Fluffy Unicorns Dancing on Rainbows*~ Where is Bangladesh? They share videos of themselves talking to their cats. Everything is Awesome!!!!

It has been sixteen years since the day that I held my tiny son in my womb and feared for his future. I've done everything I can imagine to raise my kids to be strong in the face of the world I brought them into, but every day I see the old scar and I poke at it, and I wonder if I did the right thing, and I don't know where we're going, at all. And I look into my children's eyes and I feel helpless. My mind has only so much capacity for grief and fear. At my house this morning, rain has cleared the smoke of this year's devastating wildfires, and through the screen of sun-speckled leaves outside my door I hear the neighbours getting on with their business.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

When You Smell Smoke...

Isn't it odd how things creep up on us? We've been seeing the signs for all of my life: climate change (then called global warming) was something we 80's kids knew was coming, but we were waiting for more "signs". We were told that as it progressed, as fear and eventually drought and sea-level-rise and food shortages happened, humanity would fall into civil strife. Eventually there would be an even bigger gap between the rich and the poor. Eventually there would be slow but widespread panic, as people noticed the signs and began competing for resources, power, and land, and eventually it would all devolve into collapse, and we'd either fall into war or climb out via revolution. Maybe both.

Smoky red sunset as the wildfire smoke blanketed our island this summer.
The trouble is that every time we see the signs, every time these predictions work their way slowly into reality, they're like these wildfires that keep popping up all over the place this summer. We here on the coast hear the news, see it coming in bit by bit. We see the odd person bravely go north to help with the fires, and eventually the smoke drifts down to wrap us in its embrace, until our eyes sting and our throats tense, and we complain about the smoke and share sad stories of friends of friends whose livestock died or whose houses burned. But it's so much easier to go back to our beach dinners and festivals and family road trips, to lean on all our many privileges or blinders and just keep going, because we don't know how we'd fix it all anyway. Somebody else is doing that for us. We keep seeing the smoke drift in, but we're accustomed to it now. It's hardly different than last week.

The war or revolution will happen this way too: creeping and drifting until we're accustomed to it, like the smoke. Yes: Timbuktu, Quetta, Charlottesville, Ouagadougou, Konduga and stupid prejudiced quips by ignorant little men are acts of war. Each of these is a blanket of smoke billowing down through the valleys to tell you something is happening out there. When you sit down with your kids to help them understand white or financial or gender privilege, or when you make an effort to shop at the native-run lumber yard just because it's native-run, or when you choose not to buy that thing you don't really need... these are acts of revolution. Each of these is you looking up to the smoke and blowing some of it away.

Revolt. We can do it. We are doing it. We *must* look back in twenty years and know that we each individually did everything we could. Because when billions of us are doing that, we will BE the change.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Unschooling on a Budget

Have you seen those articles proclaiming that unschooling is a privilege of the wealthy? In some respects I agree with them. The way our culture works right now means that in order to get ahead (or just break even) financially, a family must have at least two full-time working parents, and send their children to school. I know plenty of parents who openly call their children's school "babysitting". We are pressuring our governments for more affordable childcare, because, frankly, many of us can't afford to live without it. The privilege of staying home with our children is increasingly only for wealthy people, and homeschooling or unschooling requires a parent or other caregiver at home during the first ten-to-twelve years, or so. Add to that the fact that a great unschooling lifestyle includes a lot of exploration, which is often interpreted as travel and other such expensive experiences, and you have a very, very expensive proposition.

But I don't believe it has to be this way. If we want to change the way things are, somebody's got to take the first steps. It's not only the landscape of education that's changing, but the landscape of employment, shelter, and community - and there are some things about these changes that benefit each other.

Working from home: With the rise of huge corporations, working from home has become more difficult to imagine. For the past hundred or so years, entrepreneurship has dwindled, and schools raised children to fit into the "work force". But things are beginning to swing back again, as more of us want to work with our own passions, and to develop careers from our own hearts and minds and homes. Sometimes this means working for an employer remotely, as my husband does twice a week. Last time he went job-hunting he began his letter with the preface that his children were his priority, so he would always be home for dinner, and he would work from home at least twice a week. A few employers scoffed at him, but he quickly found someone who admired his integrity and openness, and he's been with them for ten years, now - home for dinner and working from home twice a week. Now that the children are older, I am managing to work a couple of days a week, and between the two of us we juggle the rides and meals and attention that our children need.

But there's also the option of quitting the corporate agenda entirely: Some people have in-home businesses, such as daycare, music teaching and production, graphic design, tutoring or farming, and these allow them not only to stay home with their children, but also to involve their children in these businesses... and after all... that's just another great experience to grow from! My children often join in or volunteer with the programs I teach, and they've also had some great experiences helping me with gallery shows and tours. I know kids who help at their parents' retail shops, and who accompany their parents to gardening job sites. All of these are worthwhile experiences that blur the lines of education, home, and employment.

Living frugally: Obviously, saving money is as important as earning it. My family is managing to save money in various ways, from owning one very used vehicle, to growing some of our own food and dispensing of expensive things like the dryer and single-pane windows. We are fortunate to rent a small house from my parents (which means that in the current horrifying rental squeeze we haven't lost our home or even had an increase), but I know of other families who have kept accommodations affordable by renting very tiny apartments in the city, moving to (cheaper) rural areas, home-sharing, or spending part of the year road-tripping while sub-letting their apartments. We also get most of our electronics from the free section at the recycling depot. Sure - they're not always great, but we've managed to supply our growing computer needs this way.

You might wonder how we afford all the wonderful adventures that are the supposed perks of unschooling. We don't! And we're OK with that. We attend mostly free events like festivals and wilderness outings, concerts put on by family and friends, and free (or by-donation) museum days. We also look for unconventional experiences like tours of industrial or education complexes, and sometimes we just walk into shops and look around. Explorative learning is everywhere - from the back of the pebble under your foot to the bottom of the receipt you find in the ditch. Keeping an open mind about what constitutes a 'learning experience' will make all kinds of free experiences absolutely valuable.

Less travel: While we know that some unschoolers afford fabulous journeys all over the world, we gave up on the idea of travel, with exceptions: I once managed to work one of my art projects into a road-trip, with free accommodations, which allowed us not only to visit all kinds of lovely places along the west coast, but also to attend our first and only unschooling conference... which was amazing. (Again, work, family-life and learning are one.) We have also been saving up since the children were babies to take them to Europe and meet their family, there. It's a long time coming, but it will be worth it when we finally go! And in between, we make a couple of small camping trips in our own area every year, and many fabulous day outings. There are so many wonderful things to discover in our own backyard, that we are a long way from having seen everything, and we haven't missed traveling at all!

Supplies and resources: As our kids explore and get interested in various things, it can be tempting to provide them with heaps of resources to support those interests. When my son spent years trying to teach himself parkour and rock-climbing, I looked into some lessons, or membership at a climbing gym. But we couldn't afford them, and that was just something we had to give up. These things happen, and we have to accept that not everything is within our reach. Going to school wouldn't have helped that, anyway, since we may have had more money, but less time.

We have made some larger purchases, like a microscope, accordion, and guitar, as well as music lessons and a (used) mountain bike. We've also found great ways of supplying ourselves through thrift shops, the recycling depot, and our local facebook exchange group. We have used many free programs for academic study online, from university courses to language learning programs to coding, math, writing and science programs. Joining online groups is a great way both to connect with others and to discover these resources. But amazing things often come from our own community. One kind local resident donated his telescope to our physics-impassioned son, and a neighbour with serious electrical skills made Tesla-coils with our kids and some friends. You never know what opportunities will pop up if you just look around and keep an open mind. What you find may not always be exactly what you thought you wanted, but sometimes it'll be better!

Yes - Unschooling requires sacrifice. But so does having children. And we assume that the rewards far outweigh the sacrifices. I gave up my career and a good chunk of future income in order to unschool. My husband and I committed to renting indefinitely, with no plans to purchase a home. But look at the big picture: here we are, happy with the way things are going, and without a regret in the world. It's just a matter of shifting priorities and learning to see the glistening rewards in the kaleidoscope of every day.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Setting Up an Unschooling Room

Not.

No you're not. If you are, you're not unschooling. So... no.

Unschooling Supplies? Also no.

Because of the way so many of us were raised, with the notion that learning happens at school, and school happens at a school (or in some other designated time and place, like a class field trip or the dining room table), we parents often still long to provide such a wonderful nurturing space for our kids to grow. Remember supply-lists? And new clothes shopping for September? I do!!!! Because of the scripted and often gorgeously new and shiny way our school year begun, we want to offer such delights to our children. We want the shopping sprees! The shiny packages of all matching pencils and erasers and pretty binders and pencil cases!! And new shoes. I want these things.

So we find ourselves drawn away by the ads in our mailboxes, the back-to-school manic glee; the big eyes of our little ones (and not-so-little-ones) as they pass displays of 'supplies' they actually don't need. We see our homeschool friends posting smooth bright photos of their homeschool rooms, all sparkly and colour-coordinated, with books full of information lined up on the tidy shelves, above little woven cubbies with their children's names, and we long for such orderly wholesomeness.

I am here to remind you that this is what we are escaping!

Remember why we unschooled in the first place? Unschooling means unscripted learning. It means unfettered learning in every place, all the time, without boundaries of any kind. Unschooling means learning happens everywhere, and with every thing. In fact... that's not really unique to unschooling; that's just the way people learn: always. The difference with unschooling is that we encourage and trust that process instead of trying to corral or direct it. We break down the walls of traditional schools. Which means, both figuratively and literally, no walls. No boundaries.

Boundaries defining the space for learning? Nope! Boundaries defining the tools used for learning? Of course not. Boundaries defining age-appropriateness? Nope! Subject areas? No way!

Your children will learn like you do: by finding some interest and following it - be it sewing or horticulture or minecraft or script-writing or peanut butter sandwich making. They will explore and discover and learn, and they may even benefit from some of the traditional "school" supplies... but you won't know ahead of time how those things will most helpfully be arranged on a shelf, and you won't be able to predict what to bring home until the things are needed, anyway. Unschooling means a lot of jumping around and learning from what happens to be in front of you, as well as learning to navigate the big wide exciting world of resources that is everywhere. This is what will give our children the skills to navigate the rest of their lives, anyway.

This is not my children's, but my own book shelf. These things matter to me because I have gathered them along the way as I needed them. And I'm willing to share... but mostly nobody uses them except me.

So next time you walk past the school supplies display and stretch your neck out to take a whiff of that binder-plastic, or run your fingers along the spiral-binding on the notebooks, just keep on going. When and if your kid needs that stuff, they'll have it. When they need a quiet corner for reading, they'll find or create that space, too. There is nothing in human physiology that requires these things for learning, and nothing in the Earth's rotation that requires such purchases to usher in September.

Back in the days when there were more unschoolers in our community, we used to have not-back-to-school parties. That was a pretty awesome way to sidestep the back-to-school frenzy and celebrate our choice to unschool. I guess I'm recommending some good old rebellious partying to soothe the tingly longing caused by those pretty social media postings of our schooling friends.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Why Dolls Matter


Dolls. I have so many stories. I still have my first dolls, hand-made, two-foot-tall cotton ladies with the most lovely dresses, whom I named Dorfy and Cinnamon-Rose. Dorfy, being the biggest and strongest of my dolls, eventually sat under the growing pile of her little charges, and kept them safe while I was away from the house. Cinnamon-Rose eventually went to my younger brother, who renamed her Friend.

Paulus, the baby-doll which my mother apparently bought at a discount because he'd been accidentally stained with permanent marker in the store, was my favourite. He slept with me every night, and travelled with me to visit my Dad until I was a teenager. This is a secret I kept safely hidden until some other teens discovered him in my bag and pulled his head off. In one of multiple such emergency surgeries, my mother sewed it back on. It never mattered to me that he had a line on his back, or that his neck had a bit of hard plastic and a stitch-line around it. Didn't matter that his cheek was scraped by a bit of too-abrasive scrubbing on my part, or his toe chewed off by my beloved dog. He was my baby.

My Dad owned a toy store for most of his life, and through him I learned quite a bit about what he considered "wholesome dolls". He never sold Barbies, American Girl Dolls, He-Man or Cabbage Patch Kids, but instead stuck close to Waldorf and other more "playable" baby dolls. He explained that "playable" meant children could connect with the dolls on their own level, with their own emotions, and their own narrative. Dolls shouldn't come with a pre-ordained backstory or emotions; they should have a neutral personality, so that they can assume the roles dictated by children's imaginative play.

Children's imaginative play is not always nurturing, as I learned from my friends who dismembered their Barbies and incinerated G.I. Joe dolls. And it wasn't until I had my own children that I discovered how important children's experience of dolls can be.

my son nursing Aslakay and Paulus
I bought my son his first doll when he was almost two, and I was soon-to-be pregnant with his sister. I took him to the department store baby-doll section, and said he could have a look and tell me if he liked any of them. He considered a very cheaply-made Cherokee collector doll, until his eyes landed on a lovely little black baby doll, with which he was smitten. "OK", I said, wanting to be sure he was certain of his choice, "let's check out another store and we'll come back if this is still your favourite". He perused the babies in the next store disinterestedly, until he once again discovered the same little black baby doll, and begged me to buy it for him. Well of course I did! His choice was clear. He named his baby Aslakay - also something he was unwaveringly certain of, although to this day I have no idea how he came up with it. Other dolls came and went, but Aslakay was the only doll he ever really loved. He changed him and nursed him, told him very exciting stories, taught him to play trucks and to roller-blade and to dance ballet, took him for wonderful backyard adventures, and fathered him very carefully.

My daughter never had dolls. She only had babies. She cuddled and talked to them before she could stand. She dressed them, fed them, counseled them, sang to them, took them everywhere with her, and even put on a years-long series of dramatic events such as rock-concerts, baby-circuses, and baby-coronation-ceremonies with her closest friends and their babies, who were 'cousins' of her own babies. The social scene between those babies was quite complicated! One day during a baby-circus training session (three 9-year-old girls and their acrobatic cotton/plastic babies turning flips and flying trapeze under the magnolia tree), my mother heard the lyrics to their show-music from her front porch:
Hey girl, open the walls, play with your dolls
We'll be a perfect family
When you walk away, it's when we really play
You don't hear me when I say,
Mom, please wake up
Dad's with a slut, and your son is smoking cannabis

No one never listens, this wallpaper glistens
Don't let them see what goes down in the kitchen

~from Dollhouse, by Melanie Martinez

It was alarming, to be sure, but those girls' play was allowing them to work out their questions in the world, to see themselves as caregivers and to question their own experiences, development, and opinions. Because dolls are people. And a human's constant work is learning to engage with and understand other people.

baby circus training session
"Me" - self-portrait by my three-year-old son
That's the thing we have to remember about dolls: As humans we are drawn to engage with other humans, and dolls represent humans. Vincent Reid recently proved that the human fetus preferentially engages with face-like visual stimuli. That's right: in the womb - even before we are conditioned to receive love and nourishment from humans with faces - we already seek to engage with them.
Humans have been making tiny humans for our children for millennia. We see faces and bipedal figures in everything from pancakes to tree-trunks to constellations. We want to look at other humans, and we want to bond with them. Children's early figurative drawings often look like big faces with arms and legs.

So shouldn't it matter what sort of humans we're bonding with - and how? Do an internet search for 'doll', and you will discover a myriad of options. Wait... first let's refine the search to exclude sex dolls, zombie dolls, and fragile porcelain artworks. You won't find soldier dolls immediately, but they're readily available, if that's the kind of role-model you want for your children. And they're no less personable than that $375 Bamboletta Forever Friend you've been eyeballing. In 1989, Hasbro tried to declassify G.I. Joe action figures as dolls, in order to avoid trade tariffs, but it was a no-go:
"... the individual personality of each of these figures, as evidenced by his biographical file cards and physical characteristics inviting "intimate and manipulative" play, 703 F.Supp. at 946, indicates that these figures are not comparable to the identical, immobile faceless toy soldiers of yesteryear that were sold in groups of a dozen or so in bags." 
~US Court of Appeals Federal Circuit, 1989. http://openjurist.org/879/f2d/838/hasbro-industries-inc-v-united-states
While I don't like soldier-dolls, I can see that for some children they would be appealing. Just like my daughter and her friends were exploring ideas of domestic crises in their Dollhouse Baby Circus, children need to deal with experiences of war. We have a choice of how we facilitate those sorts of engagement. Dolls not only allow our children to explore and work through their own experiences with dramatic play; but the sorts of dolls we choose for them can influence the way they deal with those experiences.

As soon as my son could speak in partial sentences, he began telling us about his life as an "old man" before he "died", "lying on the side of a road", as he claims to remember. He talked about what we now think is somewhere around Lake Chad, where he was "a man with brown skin and black hair". At first these stories seemed absurd, then terrifyingly plausible, as he detailed a life that, when I Googled, became a perfect description of a place and time he had never experienced in the two years since he exited my womb. So I decided to just believe him - whether the stories are his own memories or some sort of quantum memory-exchange I'll never know, but it was my job to just listen and respect. For years, he talked lovingly about the house he and his wife lived in; how she made mats out of big grasses and he put those on the house for walls; how they had a fence to keep crocodiles out. And he told us that the soldiers came to his island with sticks and killed his wife and everybody else in his town. He escaped on a boat with his daughter Imapa, and he missed her very much. He talked about Imapa most of all. Having no experiences like those he shared with me, I was of little help to him in his quest for connection about these memories. Is it any wonder, then, that the doll he chose in the department store was the only baby doll with brown skin? He needed to play out his memories; he needed another opportunity to love the child he lost. Or so I imagine, and it doesn't matter whether I'm correct, or not.

my son changing Aslakay at his baby sister's change-table
Aslakay is a brown doll with a cloth body and plastic feet, hands and head. His body has been stained from the baby-wipe and washcloth cleanings performed by his two-year-old father. He's not the fanciest doll; not made with the kind of love that is tangible in some of the handmade dolls. But he's real. His face is the face of love that my tiny son needed in his life, and that is what matters.

When my daughter's dearest baby, Mimi, was lost on an outing with her plastic cousins, my daughter grieved. She grieved for over a year, losing interest in her other babies, and crying inconsolably at night. This event gradually led her and her friends to grow into other forms of play: board-games, theatre, art-making and magazine production, and an increasing amount of teenager conversation that is frankly as mysterious to me now as it was when I was a teen. But even without dolls, the bonds these children formed over their babies are still tight.

If you were hoping for a list of recommended dolls, you're not going to find one, here. I can only suggest that, if you're considering buying a doll for a child, it would be nice if the child can be involved in the choice. The doll your child needs will be as unique as your child, and as loved. The doll you give your child will represent his past and his future; his loved ones and himself, and only he can know what doll that is. It will be treated the way your child is treated by those in his family and community, and it will be the face of his dreams and fears and joys and sorrows.

my six-month-old daughter talking to her brother's baby
"The doll is symbolic homunculi, little life. It is the symbol of what lies buried in humans that is numinous. It is a small and glowing facsimile of the original Self. Superficially, it is just a doll. But inversely, it represents a little piece of soul that carries all the knowledge of the larger Soul-Self. In the doll is the voice, in diminutive, of old La Que Sabe, The One Who Knows. In this way the doll represents the inner spirit of us as women; the voice of inner reason, inner knowing and inner consciousness."
~ Dr. Clarissa Pinkola, Women Who Run with Wolves


 

Friday, July 28, 2017

Are Homeschoolers and Unschoolers Too Attached?

Long ago, when my daughter was somewhere in the range of five to eight years old, she came to me during a wilderness outing I was leading and said that a stranger had asked her if she gets tired of always being with her mother. She came to me because the question was absurd to her, and at the time I thought it was absurd, too - especially when asked of such a young child who was happily participating in her mother's program.

But that experience has stuck with me over the years, because in some ways it's a valid concern. Homeschoolers are often seen as too-attached, unworldly, homebodies, and inexperienced. Unschoolers are often less so, since the philosophy usually includes giving children a lot of freedom, and exposing them to a wide range of experiences... but we still carry the burden of that stereotype. Some people may shrug it off, but I am one of those parents who is always questioning myself and the many decisions I make in parenting, so I have worried about this often. Am I too close to my children?

Today this is on my mind again. Although my kids now attend various programs and events in the city, and leave the house three to five days every week, without me, I am still a stay-at-home parent, trying to develop a career while also managing school and home details. There are a LOT of such details, and I am never caught up. Even when the kids are out for the day, I never seem to get a good day's work in, always distracted by pending meals, telephone contacts, or kids coming home. So this weekend they're away visiting my husband's family for three days in a row... and I'm getting stuff done! In just thirty-six hours, the tally is seven loads of laundry (washed, hung outside, taken down, and folded), taxes and other such awful ordeals completed and filed, various messes tidied, three enormous stacks of papers sorted and filed, a nice little garden visit with my Mum, a good night's sleep... and this blog post. This gives me a hint at what I might accomplish if I wasn't so involved with my kids, and I admit to longing for a little more of it.

At a recent festival goofing off with their Pappa. Photo by Linda Wilke.
So why are we still unschooling? Here's the thing. Being a stay-at-home parent and unschooling are choices I made with my partner that I don't regret. There are trade-offs, and one of those is my own independence and time for a career. My kids are twelve and fifteen. They help around the house, make more than half of their own meals, get themselves where they're going without demanding rides, and generally only need my engagement to help them manage their growing and changing lives, and to share their many wonderful activities. They share with me because they want to, and I am enormously grateful to still have this connection. They still snuggle me every day - even if we've been fighting. They still share with me their deepest longings and fears, whether through late-night whispers or quiet hints dropped in innocuous-seeming creative writing sent to my inbox. They still trust me and want to be with me, and that allows me to sleep at night, trusting that they are safe, and that when trouble comes their way, they'll be able to come to me.

How many years do I have left of this chaotic, manic bliss? Five? Maybe? I'll take it!

Monday, July 10, 2017

Please Help Me: An open letter to doctors who help and hinder.


Well holy that was an epic day! So epic that I'm going to share this story as a totally crazy yet serious tale of how our medical system sometimes fails us, and how it also sometimes saves us.

As background to this story, you need to know that my son suffered what we and his doctor assume to be a vaccine injury at nine months of age (his third tetanus/diptheria/pertussis and second MMR vaccine), and has suffered nearly fifteen years of inflammatory reactions to food, and a frustrating inability to gain weight as a result. (Details in a separate post here.) We have a wonderful doctor who is on board with our decision to stop vaccinating after this occurred, and while unable to find any solutions, has at least been kind and thoughtful, helping us to discover some coping strategies along the way.

Unfortunately, our doctor wasn't in, today, when I took my fifteen year old son in to consult after he stepped on a nail. For obvious reasons, I was worried about tetanus, but also worried about another possible vaccine reaction, should we choose to give him a tetanus booster. And here is where my crazy story begins.

The doctor we saw was highly reactive as soon as I mentioned my concern about the vaccine. I hadn't yet managed to tell him my son's history, because he cut me off, and said "Well if you don't want my advice, why do you come in?" This is the third time I've heard that particular bit of arrogance from a doctor, and I want to bring it up here, because it's SO harmful. I felt crushed, and said quite honestly, "The reason I am here is because I DO want your advice. I'm worried about my..." He cut me off again. In fact he cut me off a whole bunch of times, until finally I told him that I was having difficulty explaining our situation because he kept cutting me off.

I was near tears by this point, with the frustration of this and all the other times a doctor hadn't listened, bursting in my heart at once. So when he stopped talking, I took a breath, and told him very clearly, my voice breaking, that my son had had a reaction to his early vaccines, so we were concerned about repeating one of them, and that I was there seeking his advice on how to manage this situation. He chuckled and waved his hand at me, and said "I don't know why you're behaving like this" - by 'like this' I assume he meant verging on tears, since other than that I was sitting calmly trying to explain our situation. I told him "this is my child, and I'm worried for him". He then proceeded to question whether my son had indeed ever been vaccinated, since he didn't have the records, or if we'd even been at that practice very long, until he realized that he was just looking in the wrong place. When he finally found the records and my story was corroborated by our own doctor's notes, he simply referred us for the tetanus antibody blood test I had requested, and also for an immune globulin shot, and a tetanus shot.

I left his office with my son, and got in the car. I felt broken. Just broken. I felt unheard, and unhelped, and uncared for. But because I had my beautiful child limping into the other side of the car, I collected myself up and said we'd go get some tasty lunch at the grocery store before going for the blood test.

Remember how his vaccine reaction caused serious food intolerances? He can't eat gluten, soy, eggs, or beans. Not too bad, except that gluten and soy are dumped liberally everywhere. There are few options other than fruits and veggies that we can buy, but I wanted to get him a treat, after that doctor ordeal. The grocery store didn't have the one type of bread he can eat. So I checked out sushi: all of it contained "soybean spread" - whatever that is. So I asked about the homecut fries in the deli department. I know they come from a bag. "Could you tell me the ingredients", I asked her. She looked at me like I was crazy, so I repeated, "could you please tell me the ingredients in the fries?"

"Potatoes."

"Well, yes. But I wonder what's on them. It will say on the packaging."

"Probably spices, for sure." She said.

"Yes, I'm sure. But could you check the packaging for the specifics?"

She rolled her eyes and said, "What - you have allergies?"

"Yes", I said.

"Don't buy it," she said, and she turned away.

I bought some popcorn, cheese, and a soy-free chocolate bar and returned to the car, deflated again.

So off we went for a quick and nearly-painless blood-test, and then I parked the car in a two-hour spot and began my search for a doctor who might discuss some possible solutions for our dilemma. I phoned or walked into four offices, and in each was met with the same thing: We have vaccines on site. We won't discuss another option. Finally I managed to get an appointment for later in the day with a doctor I knew nothing about, but at least I hadn't already been turned away by his receptionist.

So I went back to the car, to tell my boy we'd have an hour to wait until the next appointment. He looked a little nervous, and said, "but you can't drive. You got this ticket. You didn't renew the insurance. A policeman came by and you can't drive anywhere." CRAP! So not only did we forget to renew, but the car and insurance are in my husband's name, and he was on the island.

This is when my day turned around. I asked a nearby bank employee who helpfully found me the closest insurance office. I walked a few blocks to that insurance office, and explained my dilemma. I called home to the island but my husband had recently left the house. I phoned my brother, who then drove to the building centre to find my phone-free husband and have him call the insurance office. Then the insurance broker in the city wrangled the ICBC workings with the broker on the island, and between the two of them, they resolved the issue. Except the printer wasn't working, and I was due for that final doctor's appointment.

Off I ran to the doctor. He sat down nonchalantly and looked straight at me. He listened to my whole story. It took me at least a minute to describe my son's situation, but he just ... listened. Then he asked some questions, and he listened some more! Then he made some wonderfully helpful suggestions, and also reassured me that while tetanus is a very serious disease, it isn't very common. I had very little time to thank him for his wonderful supportive and helpful manner, because the insurance office was closing imminently, and without my insurance I would have had to leave the car in that two-hour parking spot overnight. Of course... I'd already been parked there for three hours at that point. So I started running.

Half way to the insurance office, a woman motioned for me to slow down. It was the insurance broker! She smiled, and said she figured I was definitely over the two-hour parking limit, and thought she would just try to find me with the new insurance papers. She handed them to me and I nearly hugged her.

Here's the thing. Vaccines are a wonderful invention. For most people they are, anyway. And it's definitely prudent to do the thing that works for most people. Like you treat your garden in the way that will work for most plants, even though you know you'll lose some along the way. But what if one of those little seedlings came to you and said "hey - I need something slightly different." Maybe you'd call it collateral damage. Or maybe you'd stop and ask it to explain.

Please, doctors, listen to your patients. If we are in your office at all, it's because we respect you and hope your knowledge and experience can help us. But you can't help us if you can't even hear what we're asking. We feel so alone when you shut us up. We feel thrown to the gutter. We feel uncared for. If it takes an extra two minutes of each visit to just listen, please do it. Today I had a really terrible day, and it was saved in the end by people who took a moment to really listen to my problem, and help me find a solution, even when it wasn't the same one that everybody else needed. As doctors, you have the opportunity to change and save lives. Whether or not you do depends partly on how well you listen, and demonstrate compassion.

It turns out even insurance brokers, bylaw officers, and grocers have the ability to make or break someone's day. All of us do. Can we, please?

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Parenting in Community

Last year when my daughter fell and injured her knee, two members of our community, who happened to be passing by and notice her, helped contact us and look after her until I arrived. One of them also took her bike and kept it until we returned from the hospital.

My kids live a gloriously free-range life, and we are often glad for the ways they are parented in community. Just the other day they went busking in town by themselves, and when they got home I asked them how it went. They both reported their successes, how much money they made, and compliments they received. And my son told me about the guy who kindly suggested he should increase his accordion repertoire. He has balked many times at the same advice from me, but hearing it from a stranger had a bigger impact, and now he is happily taking that advice. I've noticed him sitting around practicing some tunes in the past couple of days.

Coming back from busking with some great successes and some great advice from a stranger.

Advice isn't always what I'm hoping to hear, of course. Once when my kids were younger they went to the library - a 2km walk from our home which they did quite regularly at the time - and then phoned me to report that they were not allowed to go home without a parent, because the librarian was worried about them. I spoke to her, and reassured her that they had my permission - then and in future - to hike themselves around the island. I didn't go pick them up, but I was glad for her concern. It's wonderful to know that my children are seen and heard. I've also received a call from a friend, letting me know that my kids were arguing incessantly and disruptively when she met them at the library... once again I was glad to know, and to be able to have a talk with my kids, sort out what was going wrong, and help them resolve it.

It can be difficult, when receiving advice or hearing concerns from community members, to take others' words in stride, and not react defensively. I've been told that my kids rudely entered a house without knocking, and didn't say hello to the rest of the family when they arrived, and my defensive reaction meant the end of a very dear friendship. I wish I had reacted differently. Even though I disagreed about the severity of my kids' infraction, it is my place as a parent to recognize that another community-member's advice is almost always well-intended. The way I take that advice will influence the way my children take advice, themselves, so it's very important that I respond maturely and confidently. Of course it's not always nice to hear negative feedback, so we can be gentle in our suggestions, and gentle in the way we receive them.

Wherever we go, we are a part of the bigger picture. If you see my kids, I am glad you noticed them - even when they're causing problems. If I see some kids (known to me or not) needing help or causing harm, I will absolutely step in if no parents are around. I don't know what their family rules are; I don't know what's expected of them, so I will ask. And if I'm really concerned I'll try to convey that to them. I'll try to be supportive whether I'm worried for their safety or for the pigeons they're tormenting, because I hope that others will do the same for my kids. That's what community does.

As my kids grow older and further out into the world, I am more and more aware of both the risks they face and the help and guidance they receive from others. They are moving out of the circle of my arms and into the wider circle of their community. People trust them and hire them for babysitting, pet-sitting and yard work, and when things go awry, those people support them too. I will never forget the day I accidentally smashed the mirror on the back of the door at the home where I was babysitting - for the second time in two weeks. When the parents came home I was devastated. I cried, and told them I would pay for the mirror. They insisted I take my babysitting fee, they hugged away my tears, and they drove me home without a single word of reprimand, and only support. And they hired me back again.

These are the interactions that make us a part of our community - that remind us we are seen and valued, that our actions matter and that we matter. And in the end the vast web of support and connections our children carry is what makes our communities strong safe places to grow, together.

Monday, June 5, 2017

No Limits

Or no boundaries.
No rules.

Nobody telling you your beard is too long. OK, so sometimes people you love tell you your beard is too long, but you love them and you love yourself anyway - and your beard. Because it's just the way it is. And you quietly tell your wife you might always have had a beard except in the beginning you just felt you *had* to cut it. Then you grew up and discovered such rules were not for you.

No limits is nobody saying you can't take your kids out of school to help you at work. Or your kids never had the obligation to go to school in the first place. In fact you've become increasingly uncertain where the line is between work and play and school and projects and love and rest. And that's OK because you've also become increasingly likely to find similar-minded people whose boundaries have gotten so fuzzy there may be no boundaries at all.

No limits on life and love. Like when you think you might play accordion out on the boardwalk and earn a few dollars, and you just play whatever the hell comes out of your growing fingertips (yes seriously - at 15 his fingertips are growing!) and behold there's nobody stopping to suggest you stop making stuff up and play a song everybody knows. Anyway even though you're improvising, some people seem to sing along... with no hesitation. More people with no boundaries. They're everywhere!

Because you're so obviously that open-minded kind of soul who accepts people in all their stripes and colours, because you've been brought up to believe that everyone deserves freedom. And there are no limits on freedom.

That is unschooling, to me.

No limits means that even little kids, like the youngest I'm currently teaching in the Wild Art program, have to learn to set their own limits, because I don't do it for them. This can be a very challenging prospect, both for me as a teacher to kids who aren't all unschooled, and to those kids who find themselves lost without imposed limits. But it's going to have to happen sooner or later, so why not now?


No limits means more danger, more risks, more problems, and... more solving problems. It means more discovery, more tears, and more compassion. It means feral children doing mysterious things in the woods with no recorded outcome, and no expectations. It means freedom. It means these kids aren't going to have to wait until they're in their thirties to discover that shaving was optional; that what they do with their own minds and bodies always was theirs to decide. And the responsibility for creating this beautiful world individually and with their peers is also theirs.

I am always overjoyed to discover how quickly people of all ages step up to the plate, given the simple and terrifying gift of no limits.



Sunday, May 7, 2017

Resting Space



It's about 30 hours before installation day for my show, and the first properly sunny weekend of the year, which means we all worked very hard all day with art and gardening. And then we got word that Markus' grandmother has died.

I only met Omi twice, but she welcomed me warmly, even making sure I tried handkase, which I will never do again! And Markus adored her. As I learned recently from my cousin, the egg that became him developed in Omi's body. It's hard for Markus also to know his mother is grieving and to feel so helpless.

So today when we were all worn out from work and feeling, we went to the beach and had a fire, played with sparks and water and sang a bunch of songs to the fire and the night air, and a goose who happened along. Other than the goose, we had the beach to ourselves and it felt nourishing. Markus says it feels like the end of a chapter of his life.

It's good to have a space of time and place to just be, and to mark the time passing with those we love.

Friday, April 21, 2017

too much

Today I spent hours trying to make sense of the snarl of information pertaining to my son's science pursuits. Between the many university options, the many routes to get there, and the many ways of getting to those routes, there are thousands of options. And I became overwhelmed. When my brain felt like it was the size of a pea, and I couldn't continue, I found myself near tears, and closed my eyes. When I opened them again I made a list of my current five jobs:
  • homemaking (cooking, cleaning, organizing, shopping, book-keeping, etc.)
  • the yard and garden (it's soil-preparation and sprouting season!)
  • managing the kids' education (a complicated assortment of activities and prospects)
  • my art career (currently 3 weeks out from an installation and performance in the city)
  • my wilderness/art teaching career (a busy spring as usual)

What the hell?!

How did I get so many jobs?!

It suddenly hit me that my time, body and mind is stretched in so many directions that I can barely breathe. And yet... there isn't a single one of them I'm not passionate about. So, instead of falling asleep, which my body seemed to be heading for, and without any apparent solution to my situation, I made myself a cup of green tea, opened a tab to Youtube, and clicked something that looked distracting. This is what I watched:



OK... So actually I watched four videos of this beautiful woman cooking for her family. I couldn't stop watching her hands slowly squishing the food; her grand-children slowly cutting and peeling ingredients on the upright knife. Her food slowly cooking. Her great-grandchildren lazily enjoying the food she made. It was the slowness that captivated me. I am craving slowness.

What has happened to us? How is it that every hour of every day is packed full of plans and activity, so that, although the sun is shining on the bursting spring, we sit inside answering emails and planning our next moves, or, when necessary, rush out to use machines to turn the earth and fill it with food-production as quickly as possible? Why am I afraid to sit in the sun and watch the pond, for fear that someone will see me and think I'm lazy? Why, when I make dal, do I get the work done with the end of a big spoon in less than 1/2 an hour, and then rush off to accomplish other tasks while it cooks? Why do I plop it on my children's plates, consume my own, and find things to fill the time with if they don't finish quickly enough? How did I become afraid to enjoy the time spent cooking and eating?

And what am I doing to my children in leading them in this manic race? The lyrics to the 21 Pilots song my son often sings around the house these days are:

Wish we could turn back time
to the good old days
when our mama sang us to sleep
but now we're stressed out

What does that tell you about his generation and the life we're living?

I want to feel my food with my hands; I want to take a whole hour for dinner and not feel pressured to get moving. I want to spend twenty minutes just feeling the warm dirt and not worrying that the time is passing. I want to think more about life than about productivity. I want to think more about the present than about the future.

I don't know how to move forward to the life I imagine; none of the five jobs I have is something I can give up. This isn't a have-answers-will-share sort of post, it's just a yearning. I'm posting to my blog to help me think. Somehow something has to change, not just with me but with all of us and the way we've come to measure our worth by busy-ness.