Sunday, October 26, 2014

Autumn food

Risotto: simple with butter, rice, leeks, onion, sea salt and our fresh-picked chanterelles.
Risotto too hot to eat.
And for dessert? Grapes my father planted in the Shuswap, and went to harvest this week. Maybe the most delicious grapes ever in existence.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Unschooling to School: Reporting and Evaluation

Do you remember your childhood report cards? I do. The manila envelope with the special school-paper-smell, and inside a folded piece of yellow card stock with rows and columns: P for proficient. N for needs improvement. Later the report cards were computer-printed and green or orange striped, and came with letter grades. And all of them - always, through 13 years of school - declared somewhere that I was capable of better work. I remember the sickly feeling of knowing - just knowing - that others' report cards surely didn't say that; that my teachers clearly didn't know me because I really wasn't capable of better work. As I grew older I learned to calculate as each term progressed what percentage I was achieving, and to gauge how hard I studied by the number of percent I needed to gain for a particular letter grade. I was never afraid of showing my report cards to my parents, because they, inexplicably to me at the time, were never angry about my grades.

So here's the thing. We have been homeschooling our kids for seven years. Unschooling, actually, with no curriculum or academic expectations of our children. We expect them to follow their hearts and dreams and to make choices thoughtfully. That's it. We chose the unschooling path mostly because we believe that grading, testing, and directed learning in general lead to coercion and competition. These in turn often lead to self-criticism, dispassionate obedience, a lack of ingenuity and a lack of love for learning in general. We wanted our kids to stay the hell away from those things. And for the most part, they have. They still walk out in the world and see endless opportunity. They still feel they can grow up to be anything they want to be, and they still feel the joy of discovery, constantly. They have retained a deep sense of self, without fear or limitations.

But this year our son started school - a small local IB World School, which is the closest we can get to perfect, as far as school goes in our community. But it's still school, with pretty much all that entails, and I am obviously worried about our son losing that treasured sense of opportunity and wonder we've been nurturing all these years. After only a month, he already comes home uninspired, most days. But he has committed to the year, puts in an effort to make the best of it, and we're all doing our best to keep him positive about it. We make sure he still finds a bit of time for the things he has always held to be important: reading, playing with his sister, and scientific exploration. And it seems, so far, that his essential nature is intact. This is how he recently answered some of the questions on his school's "Personal Educational Goals" form:
By the end of this year, I hope to have answered the following question:
"Should I really go to school, or be unschooled?"

Most interesting thing I've ever learned:
The fact that I exist.

At this point my plan for after IPS includes:
To learn cool stuff, and have fun.

As his mother, I was overjoyed when I read that. Those words are confirmation to me that we have chosen the right path.

That confirmation is so meaningful to me because for unschoolers there really isn't much feedback about our kids' welfare, and we have to trust our guts for pretty much every decision we make. Reassurance, in this world of people apt to criticize unschoolers, is rather hard to come by. I would love to get some feedback on how others perceive my children, but of course reports have been non-existent for us, other than those I am obliged to send in to our school district, ostensibly evaluating my own kids' activities and accomplishments. Those reports feel more like jumping through hoops than anything else, and have little or no meaning to us. We send them off. We don't receive them. There isn't really any non-familial professional who even knows our children well enough to make that kind of evaluation.

The last time we received a report for our son was when he was in preschool. It was wonderful. The report discussed his social/emotional development and the challenges he was overcoming as he branched out in his world. The report (and the parent-teacher meeting) helped us find ways to support him on his self-directed journey. It had nothing to do with literacy, numeracy, or test scores. Since then we've been blissfully rolling along without ever testing, but also without feedback about our kids.

Today that changed. My son received his first ever school report. I have been anticipating this for weeks, ever since I noticed "mid-term report" noted on the school calendar! I've been anticipating it so much, in fact, that I started writing this last week, in anticipation. I wanted to know what the world thinks of my child!!! And here is what they think:

It's only a "quick check", as they call it, to briefly rate the child on a scale of "exemplary" through "good" to "very limited" in his achievement and classroom engagement for each of his nine classes. Apparently he ranks lowest in French, which he has neglected entirely until now, moderate in math, english, physical education and practical reasoning, and high in science, humanities, art, and design tech. 

*Further information will come at parent meetings and at the first term report, next month.

And now that I'm nicely reassured that I do know my son after all, I realize that I just don't care. This isn't nearly as important as I expected it to be! I thought I would be excited to see him get high ranking in some subjects - or any at all, since he's never studied before. But this report is to some degree comparative to others of his age and social environment; to culturally-held expectations of 12-year-old achievement in Canada, and I realize that it doesn't matter a bit to me how he measures up. It matters that the people he spends time with notice his welfare and interests (in other ways I know they have, they're just not discussed in this particular report). It matters that they engage him in the thinking that goes into this report. But that's about it. Most of all, I'm thrilled to pieces that my son is still true to his comically existential self, and is just happy to watch his journey unfold. I couldn't have asked for anything more wonderful.

I asked him how he feels about having only a "developing" achievement in French. He looked at me as if he hadn't really thought about it. And he pointed out that the teacher had given him an "almost always" engagement rating for that class. Then he proceeded to rattle off some French phrases at me. It was the perfect answer.

The school is a school. The report is a great bit of feedback for me to engage with his experience there, but is nowhere near the frightening and exciting document I remember my own school report cards to have been. The report only has to be comparative if you let it be. I'm glad he's having this experience, and I'm glad that we've come through our first report card completely unscathed.

I understand, now, why my parents were never angry about low grades. They understood what I have only now discovered: Grades and academic achievement are not a measure of greatness; only of a little bit of activity a child has participated in during a very short time in his life. They are a means for the child to gauge his work and make decisions about what he'd like to do next - if he wants to. And eventually they will be a tool for him to reach certain goals. But none of that is my business. It's only my business to support him on the journey he chooses.

Six Hours in the West Coast Wild

So here's how it works: You pack up some tasty foods and a bunch of water; maybe an extra sweater or a hat, and you put on all your toughest rain gear.

And you go:
From the canopy to the forest floor there is SO much to discover.

Like testing the depth of the mud on the edges of a rainforest sphagnum fen. The moss in the mud at the bottom of this fen releases methane bubbles when poked, and the water draining out the other side smells decidedly of sulfur. These kinds of things you notice when you have endless time to explore. Moss farts.

If you journey further downstream, you might find evidence of a century past, when people logged this place. They left grooves in the hillside, springboard notches in the many many giant stumps (far bigger than the base of any trees here now), and even a corduroy road like this one, used for hauling those ancient giants down to the ocean to be floated away.

After all this adventure, poking around the bog and fen, playing horse and teeter-totter on the fallen trees, and exploring the creeks and vegetation, you might find yourself hungry for lunch. Where better to go than straight up the steepest, greenest bluff, rising a hundred feet right to the top of the shorter trees and out into the brilliant sunshine? It's only a five minute climb, but you will be sweaty and hungry when you get to the top.

At the top of that big bluff, sitting in the yarrow, reindeer lichen and the salty ocean wind, looking down at the forest canopy and glimpses of the creek you just came from, you could talk about the deep and not-so-deep meanings of life. Because, after all, today you are really living.

And anyway life is beautiful.
It's amazing to look at.

Amazing to touch.

And amazing in its variety and cycles.

It's just amazing to be a part of it.

This outing was part of the Wild Art Program. More information on the Wild Art page.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Nature of Belonging

Yesterday my son's school hosted a public talk with renowned ethnographer, Wade Davis. He seems to have been just about everywhere, met so many remote peoples and lived so many amazing experiences and his stories tumble like little avalanches, one setting off another. He told the rapt group of kids that he once lit himself on fire and shook the hand of a voodoo priest. He made the priest laugh. Middle-school mouths were agape as he talked about an Innu man who made himself a shit-knife, butchered a dog to make a sled, and rode away into the night, and the time he brought back through customs a suitcase made of African pop cans and containing all the strange ingredients to make a powder that would turn people into zombies. He talked about Polynesian sailors who know when land is beyond the horizon by the way the waves hit their boat - and they know which islands are making those variations, too. His favourite food? Well he's had lemon-flavoured sauce that was actually ant sauce, but he had a French girlfriend once who was a really good cook... He spoke about the diversity of humanity; the great tapestry of unique answers to the question who are we?, and a deep connection to place.

He touched a few times on the assumption that our western technology makes us more advanced than others; that we consider it a thing to strive for, but that perhaps it just happens to be the world we're immersed in, and ours is simply different than the technology of others. This led me to think more deeply about why I feel so good about taking people out in the wilderness, here. It's because it's my culture. The trees and the moss and the weather and the way the water flows are the bowl that holds my life, and the sharing of that connection is our culture. I feel a deep sense of belonging here, and I enjoy feeling my community in our unique place; remarking on the tiniest discoveries and the changes that happen through the seasons, the living and dying and rotting and growing of this place that we are a part of.

Interestingly, it seems that our culture equates a connection to the land with lower class, lower sophistication, or "quaintness". We hold humanity to some different yard stick than the rest of earth's animals, imagining that intelligence includes a separation from the land and our earthly nature. We revere people who practice modern medicine more than we do biologists, despite the obvious fact that both professions are inextricably linked. Those of our society who actually work with the land are usually among the lowest-paid. We put a lot of value in education that steers us toward urban life. In urban landscapes, rivers are diverted, buried, and forgotten. Forests are razed. It matters more whether we remove our body hair and apply lipstick than it does that we feel the frost coming. The dance of the sunlight filtering through the natural canopy is lost to us. Even the wind and weather patterns have been changed by our "progress", and for many of us are no more than a nuisance, now.

There is such a thing as Nature Deficit Disorder.

We're having a municipal election in my community, and my main concern in thinking about who to vote for is who understands the land we live on. Luckily, there are a few candidates who I regularly run into in the woods, here. There are people among us who hear the differences in rainfall, feel slight temperature changes, and know by the smell of the woods when the mushrooms are coming. There are children who can climb 100-foot trees without fear because they know the ways different species of branches grow, flex, and snap well enough to navigate them. There are children and adults out every day, going off-trail and into the woods, and being a part of our home.

We do have a land-connection, still. We are finding ourselves again. Having invented cars doesn't mean we have to use them. We are finding our walking feet again. We are finding our connections to the place we live on, live in, live under and live because of. In an age of germicides, pesticides, herbicides and antibiotics, we are discovering that were it not for the microbes that make up our bodies we would not live at all. With discoveries like the epigenome and entanglement, we are realizing that what we do truly does define us, and truly does effect every other particle in the universe. We matter. We are finally beginning to understand the significance of what Carl Sagan so famously wrote:
All of the rocky and metallic material we stand on, the iron in our blood, the calcium in our teeth, the carbon in our genes were produced billions of years ago in the interior of a red giant star. We are made of star-stuff. 
~Carl Sagan, The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective, 1973.

The post-oil age is going to be an age of redefining our culture, rewiring our minds, and reawakening our hearts to the essence of our own home and being (because they are the same thing), and to the enormous potential and responsibility that comes of living with instead of upon.

Following is a talk given by Wade Davis in 2007. It's quite similar to the one I saw yesterday. Enjoy! (If for some reason this YouTube video does not appear, you can also see it here:

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


Well we couldn't last long as a home with no cats. Lughnasa joined our family this week. The shelter estimates she was born about 10 weeks ago, which means she was born around the festival of Lughnasa, which we celebrate as a time of gratitude for early harvest and community. Right now we are also grateful for this kitten in our lives.

She was very frightened when we went to meet her at the animal shelter, but she liked to stand around on our shoulders, and when we went to put her back in the cage, she hunkered down and didn't want to go. So we took her home. Amazingly, we discovered today that Lughnasa has precisely the same markings as our beloved cat Moonshadow used to have (a little swoosh of white hairs on her chest, and a few white hairs under each arm). She also makes the same funny face (above). But she is her own cat. Her favourite places to be are in my sweater, just below my neck, or curled on the soft plush blanket on our bed, kneading and mouthing as if it's her mother. She was clearly taken away from her mother far too young, and has also already been spayed, tattooed, and transferred from the Shuswap to Vancouver. What a traumatic beginning for such a tiny and gentle baby. We hope we can give her a lifetime of security and love. She has already brought us so much.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Loss: The Art of Feeling

There has been some loss in my family, recently: pets, friends, and now the death of an uncle. As I write this, I know my mother is still in a state of deep shock, as her brother's death yesterday was unexpected. Her dog feels the change and walks carefully with her head and tail down, mostly keeping an eye on my mother. I know that feeling of shock: it's like walking through a thick haze - you certainly go about your life, but it seems that reaction times are slower; things rumble past and you can't quite turn around in time to catch them. When there's too much to take in, our minds pick and choose what matters. It's an enforced time of feeling and not feeling. Everything is heightened; we remember our dreams, we hear faint sounds that previously eluded us, the air temperature affects us more. I remember a time when this feeling frightened me, but now it's comforting. Loss - and even the shock of it - is part of life.

As an art teacher and mentor, I am often asked to teach people how to 'see'. There are so many exercises that purport to teach this, but none of them are as intense or as deeply changing as experiencing life changes, and the shock that often accompanies those experiences. Today I went out to look for the dog. I saw the yard in a way I don't usually: It was moving. In our little pocket of the land, the wind doesn't flow straight through; it gets caught up in little eddies, and swoops around in a seemingly haphazard way. Today I saw the flow. As the wind left the rose and cauliflower plants, I could see it catch up in the aspen, and then the oak, beyond. I felt the temperature change as a gently warmer current swept over the porch I was standing on and shifted the remaining wisteria leaves, beside me. I could feel the dew evaporating into the damp air. I called the dog and felt the enormity of my voice as it traveled through that air. I saw the many many greens and browns of the autumn yard, decomposing and growing at the same time.

Autumn is generally a time of letting go, and it's a time of pulling up close to loved ones in preparation for the winter, in expectation of the spring, and in celebration that after all, we have each other. We love.

To deeply love, in my opinion, is to love through everything. And everything sure comes up when we experience loss! Maybe the state of shock - the push to carry on despite the tingling of feeling and numbness all around - is what helps us accept each other during this time. I remember the day, year ago, that my aunt called to tell me my grandmother had driven backwards off the ferry and drowned. She said, "Grootmoeder has died." "That's not true!", I snapped. And she calmly said "It is," as waves of comprehension and confusion came over me. Her understanding, calm, and acceptance of my reaction as she was navigating the aftermath of the death of her own mother may be testament to her great wisdom, but may also have been borne of a state of shock. Shock helps us see the relative insignificance of things that may have once seemed to matter more. The waves of shock helped me to recover, too, and I said, "I'm so sorry. I will phone Pappa."

In the days that follow the death of a loved one, there is communicating that needs to be done among family. This communication pushes us together, in a shared state of mind, so that even when we don't want to turn our faces to the sun, we are often compelled to accept the embrace of our family and community. It is our great privilege when life allows us time to be with our emotions, to open ourselves to those heightened perceptions and to the encircling of community, and just feel.

For those interested, I found this helpful list of bereavement emotions:

Friday, October 10, 2014

Testing the Water

This autumn our friend Michael called us to see if we or any other home learners would like to come out and help him test the local sea water for radiation. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's Center for Marine and Environmental Radioactivity has people out test our ocean all over the coast of North America, and some further west, as well.

So Michael Chapman, a friend with a lifetime of connection to our local waters, took us out on his boat with his wonderful partner Sue, and showed us not only how to sample the water, but also how to read the charts, locate ourselves by sight-lines, and record the data for the sample.

Sampling is the easy part. We chose our spot on the ocean, scooped buckets of water from beside the boat, and funneled them into the provided container. The container came with a small device inside that will keep a record of the water's temperature and salinity from retrieval time until it arrives at the CMER. Not much to look at, but we found it interesting!

Then we plotted ourselves on the map using sight-lines, and recorded wind direction and other such things for the documentation that must accompany the sample to CMER. Upon arrival back at the dock, we packed up the sample in the CMER-provided crate and shipped it off for analysis. You can see a map of test results, here: Results

Participating in scientific research, especially in our own community, is one of the most rewarding things we do, as unschoolers. It allows us not only to learn about various workings of the world, but to be directly involved with our home and the things we care about. It allows us to understand and to care about more. I think there is an unfortunate disconnect between our increasingly urbanized culture and the environment we live in. The environment is not only our home, but it is a part of us, and we are a part of it. Unschooling has allowed us to delve deeply into that connection and to live not just in but as a part of the world we are.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Girl Stories

This is one of the things I've been doing creatively, this past year:

And now, finally, after all these months of editing and trial-run printing, my book is available to purchase! This book is definitely not intended for children. Some of it is pretty bleak, but not all of it. And there's a nod to unschooling, too. :-)

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Rhiannon is Ten

Last day of being nine - we went for a walk around the lake. Rhiannon has known this lake all her life. I think it's a wonderful thing to grow up with a solid sense of place and a deep knowledge of and connection to that place. It seems like a good foundation for a lifetime of exploration.

Rhiannon's birth tree (where we buried her placenta after she was born) is a quince. Every year she harvests the fruit and makes a batch of her great grandmother's delicious quince jam.

Another tradition in our family is that children receive crowns on their tenth birthdays. I made Rhiannon's out of gold fill wire, peridot and pink opal (her birth stone).

Her request this year was for a chocolate cake bottom with a cheesecake on top. It took a bit of experimentation to make it work but it was certainly interesting! If I were to do it again I would add rosemary to the chocolate cake.

We had a bit of candle-blowing event: On her first attempt, she managed to blow out exactly 0 of her ten candles! Luckily Auntie Ginger caught the whole event on film, and she aced the second attempt with 10 for 10.

We played Carcassonne after dinner, and went to bed full of tasty foods and joy... but not for long! Luck and coincidence gifted Rhiannon with a full lunar eclipse on the night of her tenth birthday, so of course we set our alarm and all went outside at 3 AM to watch it. It was foggy, but the four of us cuddled up on cushions on the porch and watched the foggy moon drift into Earth's shadow, before the sky became completely overcast. Life is beautiful!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Can You Stomach This?

"So she told the cop that he had broken three rules: He pulled off my [clothes], slapped my [donkey], and shaved my [cat] when he got its hair in his mouth."

Can you stomach that, coming out of your child's mouth? That's the punchline of a joke that is going around in some kids' social circles right now. It's not much different from those I heard when I was 10. How does that inform our sons' social and emotional judgments? What does a little girl feel about herself when she hears that? How does that validate her as a human being? Does she laugh? It's funny, right?

My daughter watches the Voice. It's just a singing competition, right? And unlike in some other talent shows, the judges are not cruel to the contestants. And one of the judges is the Sexiest Man Alive!! Have you seen Maroon 5's new video, Animals? Yeah it's just that one where the blood-covered Sexiest Man Alive, Adam Levine, chases his wife around in a butchershop, trying to "prey on" her, "hunt [her] down and eat [her] alive" (link to article here because I would never link to the video). Yeah... Adam is one of the main coaches on the Voice. Let's talk about some of the others: How about the always-drinking Blake Shelton (cue endless jokes about his Special Lattes and inebriation), who characterizes himself as father and uncle to the little girls he tries to woo onto his team? Or Cee-lo Green, who was charged with rape after he slipped a woman ecstasy and had sex with her. After his court appearance he tweeted "if someone is passed out they're not even WITH you consciously, so WITH Implies consent." and "People who have really been raped REMEMBER!!!" Wait... but he's not on the Voice anymore, right? He's been replaced with another black guy (because you know it's always important to show gender and racial variety: 1 sleazy masochistic white pop star, 1 blond lady, 1 black guy, and 1 older drunk country guy). So the new black guy is Pharrell Williams. He's not sexist - oh no. On the contrary, in response to criticism of the song he wrote called Blurred Lines, which smarms "I'll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two", and displays men in suits being served by near-naked women, he says, “I want to support women, but that doesn’t mean I won’t make another song where girls’ behinds are everywhere.” 

Don't worry. The Voice always has a woman coach. She's not one of the two main coaches, because women just simply don't have dominant positions like that in most cases. Who is it this year? Gwen Stefani. She tours with 4 diminutive Japanese girls, and has made a perfume line of their caricatures. Lisa Wade, Phd. says on her blog post, "I think that Stefani’s use of Asian women as props (they may or may not be Japanese) fetishizes Asian women and reinforces white privilege. The Harajuku (sic) Girls serve as contrast to Stefani’s performance of ideal white femininity." We don't hear much debate about Gwen Stefani, because in comparison with other popular female role models she's actually top-of-the-line. That's just desperately sad.

"Our findings indicate that about 20 million out of 112 million women (18.0%) in the United States have ever been raped during their lifetime." (2007 National Study) But is this issue only about reported rape? These statistics alone don't include the multitude of relationships (both sexual and otherwise) that we as women seek out and involve ourselves in, where we willingly submit to social, emotional, intellectual, financial, sexual and physical abuse. We can blame men all we want, but that's not going to get us anywhere, and we know it as well as the woman who has just been slammed against her own bathroom floor knows that she willingly walked into that relationship. We are raising our children in an environment where gender inequality is normalized in our homes, in the media, and in our children's lives outside of our homes. Our boys - those same angels who curl into their mothers' arms and dream about finding true love and caring for baby kittens - are learning to laugh at jokes like the one I opened with. Our girls are learning too.

At first I just watched the Voice with my daughter, talked to her about all the issues I noticed, encouraged her to watch critically, and when I felt that the ideals and inequality of the show were still twisting her mind, I tried to limit the show... but now I have banned it. She'll watch other things - I know that. These sick and harmful ideals will work their way into her mind. But I'm going to take both of my children as far as I possibly can, without them, first. Inequality harms us all.

At the moment I have a daughter who still thinks her body is beautiful; who still thinks she's valuable as a human being, and I have a son who not only trusts his own value and judgments, but is also genuinely deeply offended when other boys joke about non-consensual sex. Over twenty years of marriage, my husband and I are learning to see the inequalities in our marriage and lead a lifestyle of equality. I feel valued and respected, and I hope so does he. But we're still growing. There is cause for hope. There is enormous cause for hope. Let's find that hope, as a species, together.