Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Earth Day Every Day: 1

Earth Day Every Day is a bi-monthly series of essays I write for the Bowen Bulletin, re-published here for fun!

My son wants our family to stop using electricity for Earth Day – all day.

I want to tell him that's too difficult; I have computer work to do; so does his father. What if it's cold and we light the wood stove? That's surely worse than electricity consumption? And he'll be at school most of the day – he can't expect them to just throw the main breaker. But in his expression I don't see enthusiasm, I see concern. Maybe fear, even. He isn't suggesting this because it makes him happy; he's suggesting this because his entire generation has grown up afraid. It's an act of desperation.

Earth Day is forty-five years old, this year. It's only been global for twenty-five. When I was young, we thought it was about recycling, and maybe about saving trees. Those were doable. Those changes were within our means. We felt empowered by special plastic bins marked 'paper' and 'cans'. It's not like that anymore. Various surveys over the past few years have indicated that climate change is one of the biggest fears of our youth. They don't feel empowered; they feel helpless. Our children watch hurricane after drought after tsunami after blizzard, tearing people's lives apart; turning our beautiful world to a wasteland. They're not fooled by our blinders. They watch unfathomably large companies exploit the land, waste and pollute the water, and leave their futures barren. They watch desperate people campaigning and protesting to stop it all, and they watch those people vilified; arrested; beaten. We offer our kids treats to soothe the pain; toys and vacations to distract them. But they can't stick their heads in the sand as we do, while we truck our refuse away to be recycled, and feel good about driving a little less than would be convenient. We turn off the news when the climate disasters come on, and they chastise us for being so weak. Our children are not weak. They see our hypocrisy. They want us to shut off the power for the whole day.

What if Earth Day wasn't about cutting back? What if, instead of self-denial and negative emotion, we instead made Earth Day about abundance? I'd much rather celebrate and promote an abundance of Earth than squeeze myself into a little corner of abstinence and fear. Because you know, even if I did that, it wouldn't exactly be easy to convince other people to join me. I want to do something that makes me feel good and moreover, that makes my children feel good.

Let's be extravagant about that. I'd like for my whole life to be about celebration. I do some such things, already; I help survey for forage fish eggs as part of Ramona de Graaf's conservation work, all over our coast. It's a relatively small act that nevertheless connects me with the beach in a very purposeful way, every few weeks.

Connection is a big deal, I think. How can we protect the local ecosystem if we don't understand it? We might introduce invasive species in an attempt to help out, and create ecological havoc, as has happened frequently and on quite massive scale, worldwide. But if we really connect with the ecosystem – from the animals and insects to the plants and moss and fungi, to the bacteria, soil, weather and seasons, to our own biological and emotional place in this system – imagine what we could understand, then.

I never realized, before learning to sample for forage fish with Ramona, how populated the seemingly barren gravel is, just below the high tide line. In years of leading outdoor exploration programs, I used to head only for the logs, plant-life, and rock crevices, where I knew I could find life. I never thought about my footsteps on the beach, until I started sampling bits of it for forage fish eggs.

Imagine if every day was an opportunity to experience our own ecosystems.

It is.

This year for Earth Day I'm not going to cut the power and give my husband a forced vacation day. I'm going to make a renewed effort to connect with my ecosystem – not just for the programs I lead, either. I'm going to do it for me. Every day.

Years ago, when I had free time, I walked out every morning and photographed my surroundings. I harvested wild foods not just once in a while, but weekly. Somehow, in the meantime, I've allowed myself to get lost in a less connected life, mostly in an effort to keep up with the societal demands of my kids' lives. And I've failed my kids, in doing so. Now they come to me pleading to just not use electricity for a day. I need to listen to those needs. This year for Earth Day, I'm hitting the main breaker on the busy life. I'm going to make time to go out every single day and connect. I'll share some discoveries about our island ecosystem every couple of months. Watch for them! And while I'm out, I won't be using my car, I won't be using electricity, and I will be actively participating in my own ecosystem. Happy Earth Day!

Monday, April 20, 2015

10 Ways to Encourage Explorative Learning

It's raining as I come home. I walk in the door to encounter muddy boots and wet raincoats, bits of leaf-litter strewn about the tiles. The house looks like a tornado passed through. There are drifts of paper-clippings littering the livingroom floor, somebody's messy chemical concoction on the table, a heap of magazines barely covered by a giant blanket-fort between the couches, upon the walls of which my children and various guests are playing shadow games. I want to snap at them to clean up the mess, and I confess it's really only the presence of their friends that helps me twitter, instead, in a sing-songy voice, "Hi lovelies! Would you like a snack?" I know intrinsically that this is evidence of a few hours very-well spent, but sometimes it's just hard. Sometimes I secretly wish they went to school. I have to remind myself, during moments like these, that this is the paradise we aimed for, and I need to appreciate it!

Some days aren't as idyllic as this one. Some days my impatience and frustration gets the better of me, and some days I forget my commitment to explorative learning. Sometimes I'm afraid, and sometimes I resort to workbooks, coercion, and distraction. I have to remind myself of the good days, and of the fact that eventually the house does (sort of) return to normal, and we do (sort of) have some order in our lives. That's when we seek out the chaos again. Alix Spiegel tells us that Old Fashioned Play Builds Serious Skills, but sometimes I need to make a list to remind myself that what I'm aiming for is good and possible. Here's that list.

10 Ways to Encourage Explorative Learning
(complete with lots of excellent links you really should check out!)

Explore. As adults we often forget to explore. So it's good to be purposeful about it. We are some of our children's greatest role models, so if they don't see us exploring, why would they explore, themselves? When my son was very young, he told me that he would grow up to work on a computer. "Why?" I asked him. "Do you like computers?" At that point, he rarely was in contact with a computer. "Because I will be a Pappa, and work on the computer like Pappa does!" He didn't see any other direction for himself, and it's hard to stray from our own expectations. This was a good reminder to us of the necessity not just to explore, ourselves, but to be seen exploring. And of course, we benefit, too, since being curious not only improves our social lives and neural function, but also makes us happy.

Get creative. Dance, sing, paint, build forts, play drums on hollow logs, and tell stories. The key here is not to learn a craft, but to explore avenues of self-expression. These activities not only help us achieve psychological and physical health, but also help us reflect and develop deeper understanding of all other activities. Creativity serves to connect and integrate our cognitive, emotional, and physical selves, so that whatever we learn through exploration can be assimilated wholly. It's important, too, not to just give our children opportunities for creativity, but to be creative, ourselves. My husband makes time to play his accordion every day, and sometimes the kids join him. None of them have had lessons; they're just exploring, and in their own unique ways, they're all growing remarkably in the process.

Be approachable. Whether your kids want to know about sex, drugs, divorce, or the details of your bodily functions, try to find it within you to share. Obviously we all have our boundaries, but exploration includes a lot of mental processing of the taboo topics that come up in life, and if there's nobody trustworthy to ask about these things, where will our kids turn? I try very hard to be open with my kids, even to their embarrassment, I confess. But in return, they seem to trust me enough to ask the big questions.

Play. Have some supplies for open-ended exploration, but be willing not to use them, too. Sometimes even the greatest microscope can take away from the experience of just watching the insects live in their natural environment, and perhaps expanding on that experience with place-based creativity and play. And yes, of course older kids can play! There seems to be a misconception that play is essential for young children, but as we grow older we need it less and less. Play is slowly replaced by didactic instruction, goal-based curriculum requirements, and eventually a conformist adult life from which many of us struggle to free ourselves with workshops and activities that seek to help us rediscover our ability to play. Our children's lives don't have to be arranged according to curriculum; there are alternatives, and alternative ways to look at it all. Some schools are dispensing with subject-areas altogether.

Be willing to go the extra mile; be extravagant. Be your own, weird self. While things like healthy meals and good sleep are indeed essential, so is a bit of crazy wild freedom. Sometimes my son reads until after midnight on school nights, and I've found that it's better to let him be than to nag him. Sometimes we suddenly pack up and go for an adventure. Sometimes it's just a good idea to do something unusual. Sometimes we make mistakes and have accidents. Sometimes we get hurt, but limits are there to be tested; rules to be broken. That's how we learn to know ourselves and to self-regulate. In a world where children's freedom has declined, we need to provide every opportunity for our children to regain that freedom, along with our trust, and their own natural abilities to explore, learn, and self-direct.

Oops! This fall left Uncle Adrian muddy for the next few hours!
Get out in the wilderness. The recent popularity of Nature Schools is no fluke -- as our entanglement with technology increases we're becoming more and more aware of our psychological and cognitive need to explore the wilderness, as Richard Louv elaborates on, frequently. The wilderness does present some of the most basic threats and fears we face as humans. It is the place of woodcutters and witches, and more realistically, predators and precipices and ...epically deep mud. But these are just the most extreme of the many small challenges the wilderness presents to us, and each one of them is an opportunity for growth and discovery. Further, as we explore and learn to understand our wilderness, we develop an understanding of the interconnectedness of the ecosystem we're a part of, of our own bodies, and of our own intellect. We develop instinct, skills, confidence, and roots.

Develop roots. Carol Black says that "Every ecosystem in the world at one time had a people who knew it with the knowledge that only comes with thousands of years of living in place." And that knowledge takes time. It takes boredom. It takes getting out in the same old bit of forest that you got out in last week and the week before, and taking time just to climb a new tree; look at a new branch; hear a new character in the voice of the wind. This is how we develop deep connection and understanding. Obviously, frequent moving during childhood can not only cause significant health problems, but would also disrupt the process of developing a deep connection with a particular place.

Make time. A study out of the Universities of Boulder and Denver, Colorado has concluded that less-structured time in children's daily lives predicts self-directed executive functioning. I know many people who speak delightedly of their annual summer cottage adventures; the little fish that swam off the dock just outside the camp they attended every year. Summer seems to be the time we allow our children to explore, and for many it is the time of greatest connection; greatest memory-building. As kids, we were given time to explore, during the summer, and often taken to wilderness locations to do so, unlimited, and unguided. This was the time of building forts and escaping wild animals. This was the time of falling in love, deepening friendships, and writing in journals. During most of the rest of the year, school and extra-curriculars are so taxing on our free time, that summer becomes a beacon of hope for explorative learning. How can we expand on that, then? Wouldn't it be wonderful to explore all year? For my family, this means unschooling, and also limiting the activities we enroll the kids in, to ensure that at least a couple of days every week are free for completely free-range exploration time. It also means letting go of our own parental fears of missing out.

Give freedom. Let go of fear, and fear-based control! It's so important. Not much can be accomplished as long as we're harnessed by the fear of not-measuring-up, or of ((gulp!)) failing as parents. Most of us have ingrained in us a litany of must-haves and musn't-do's, not to mention the ever-present threat of losing our children to any number of academic, social or physical disasters. But if life wasn't full of danger, we'd have little need to learn. I would rather my children climb trees and fall a few times, than that they never learned to climb or to fall safely. We all fall. Let's do it well!

Accept. And learn to appreciate. Our kids are not going to embody the perfection we might have hoped they would. We won't create little geniuses by showing them Baby Einstein or even by following suggestions like those in this article; we won't have stress-free relationships with our teens no matter how hard we try, and we can't even protect them enough to save their lives, when it really comes down to it. Of course we should try - because we want them to know that we will always be there for them. That's the kind of security they need in order to flexibly explore their environments. But then, when they back off of the interests we thought we were nurturing; when they go to school and come back with seemingly new personalities attached... we have to accept them. After all, that is part of the security they need, too. Every day when my teenage son comes home from school I snuggle him. I find a time during the afternoon or evening to cuddle up close and listen to his stories. Sometimes he creates those times, himself. And he tells me things I didn't want to know. Sometimes I think he's testing me, so I'm careful to pass the acceptance test. Sometimes I think he just genuinely needs a sounding board, and I'm exceedingly grateful to still be that person, after all these years. That gratitude gives me the security I need to accept his developing personality, and for him to accept mine.

Let go of fear. The more we experience, the more precautions we learn to take; the more fear we develop and the more our actions are defined by potential unwanted outcomes instead of by curiosity. Kids don't have that safety net, but they also don't have that inhibition, and it allows them to explore more deeply, and in directions we adults may not otherwise go. Encouraging explorative learning is about getting down and dirty (often literally!) with whatever situation is at hand. Whether it's an unknowably deep muddy bog, a disturbingly dark cave, or a terribly upsetting subject of conversation, I try to be the safety net for my children and for the children I teach. I keep reminding myself that it's most likely going to be OK. I let go of my own fear on a continual basis, and try to keep the level of danger to what I feel in the moment is an acceptable level, knowing that they might fall, but that the experience will have been worth the fall. 

Stephen Harper's Birthday

This coming April 30th will be Beltane (Yes! Party time!) And incredibly, we have just discovered that it will also be Stephen Harper's birthday... huh.

Rhiannon just asked "How old is Stephen Harper?"

"I don't know", I said. "Maybe fifty-something?"

"Great!!" She exclaimed, with abundant joy. "Then we'll have a new Prime Minister within my lifetime!!!"


"Because he'll retire!"

I was kind of a flabbergasted. Does she seriously understand so little about politics? "But Annie! We have elections! Hopefully he'll be replaced by somebody better this year, already!"

"But everyone always elects him. But if he gets too old he'll have to retire."

"We don't always elect him! I sure don't! Hopefully we'll have someone different, this time."

"But he's always been the Prime Minister."

"No, we've had lots..." And then I realized: Stephen Harper has been our Prime Minister since Rhiannon was 2. Poor Rhiannon, she's lived most of her life in a climate of political bullying and idiocy. She doesn't even know it can be different. Please let's make it different, this time! I am hoping for a Green-NDP coalition. Wouldn't that be something?

Happy Birthday, Mr. Harper. I hope it's so miraculously fabulous that you feel inclined to retire.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Easter Eggs!

It started with blowing and painting eggs. And enough of the fancy dye jobs - this year the kids went for straight up acrylics!

Lucky me, this year Rhiannon made an egg hunt for the adults, too! She melted down chocolate chips with orange and peppermint essential oils, and molded the concoction into my steel measuring spoons to cool. Then she wrapped the little half-eggs each in a layer of tinfoil and an outer layer of paper that she had coloured with wax crayons (so the colours wouldn't run while they were hidden in the dewey garden). They are delicious!!

The usual foiled eggs appeared in the yard, too, of course.

...and a couple of not-so-usual cardboard eggs.

Then we had our friend Cheryl's completely delicious homegrown green and brown eggs for breakfast. Soft-boiled, of course, to get the most opportunity to appreciate the eggs' lovely flavour. We only eat eggs a couple of times a year, so this is always a great treat.

Since Tali is allergic to eggs, I made him his own filled bacon eggs for breakfast. (Yes: Egg-free eggs!)
Tali approved.

To make the filled bacon eggs, I chopped and boiled potatoes, then fried those pieces with some sausage, and mixed that with some freshly-chopped apple pieces (about equal parts of each). Then I packed the mixture into egg-shapes by hand, and set them aside. I wove 6 very narrow slices of raw bacon into a small mat, lay the potato-sausage-apple shape on top of it, and continued weaving the bacon around until the whole thing was wrapped. I used butcher's string to wrap and tie up each egg, and baked them on a rack in a pan at 450F. I had to turn them a couple of times in the process, to make sure they browned evenly. Then of course I cut off the string, put lovely ribbons on them, and set them on my mother's lovely silver napkin rings to serve. :-)
Flowers are a little like eggs, right? Well I think so. And anyway they were beautiful at the table.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

West Coast Accommodation Reviews

My current artistic- and life-pursuit is the MAMA Project, and for this I need to travel, both to interview mothers, and to present various aspects of the project. Because life-learning means learning in everything we do, I bring the kids with me on most trips; my husband telecommutes (usually) from the road, and we allow the MAMA Project to lead us into some wonderful life-learning experiences. In this way, the kids learn not only about their parents' jobs, but also the lives and employment of the many many diverse people we meet along the way. All of us enrich our lives, this way, and learn, together.

We have traveled down the US West Coast, all the way to San Diego, interviewing mothers in many diverse communities. Interviewing for and setting up the MAMA Project can be exhausting work, and we have been blessed by the support of various people, along the way. These people have welcomed us into their restaurants, hotels, and inns, in support of the work I'm doing, and in return I will review those who want to be reviewed on this blog.

I know quite a few unschoolers are also travelers, so... should your travels bring you in the direction of these places, do keep these establishments in mind:

Wild Shores Guest House (Ucluelet, BC)Grade: B+ -- beauty, health, wilderness, and authenticity!
We spent three nights at this lovely self-check-in guest house. We found it to be quiet and cosy, especially after we explored the small cove and island it's situated beside. The rooms are clean and spacious, the bath and electric fireplace are warm, the shelves are stocked with hot drink options, and everything is decorated with beach finds. The views from the rooms aren't amazing, but in my opinion are entirely made up for by the delights outside the door. The house we've been calling Mary's House, AKA the Wild Shores Guest House, is a perfect retreat for adventurers who want a clean, cosy space to curl up in after a day of exploring. And it appears to be one of the most affordable waterfront options in Ucluelet, too.I posted a full review to my blog: link here.

The Requa Inn (Klamath, CA)Grade: A -- beauty, health, culture, and authenticity!
We actually didn't stay in the rooms, but were accommodated by the host family, in their own home. So I can't comment on the rooms of the Inn, but I can certainly tell you about the food! We had breakfast and dinner in the dining room, and it was fabulous! This place was a delight for locavores like ourselves, and we were even privy to some of the preparation. As the kids were sitting outside they watched the chef smoking chicken ("an experimental recipe", he said), which he then served for dinner, that evening, as well as fresh-caught salmon from the river below the Inn, homegrown and wild salad, acorn cakes made with acorns that the Yurok trade with the people further up the river for their own sought-after seaweeds, and wild-indian-tea sorbet. Wow. For breakfast we had homegrown green smoothies, granola with home-made yogurt, local eggs, and various baked goods. In the afternoon, the Inn sets out a tray of warm, fresh-baked cookies for guests to enjoy.

We had totally beautiful walks in the area, as I mentioned in my blog-post at the time: link here.

The Requa Inn is certainly expensive, but absolutely worth it if you're interested in learning a bit about the place you're staying.

The Inn at Schoolhouse Creek (near Mendocino, CA)
Grade: B+ -- nice location (though a long, winding road to get there!), great food, and kind hosts
This place was lovely. The property was spacious, which really helped us relax when we arrived exhausted and a little car-sick. The cabin was laid out beautifully, and our particular cabin was also fully wheelchair-accessible. We loved the in-room jaccuzzi tub, especially, since the weather was cold and rainy when we arrived. Our cabin also had a little gas-stove, which had some trouble starting up, but the owner quickly came to fix the problem, when we reported it.

The food was great. We only ate breakfast in the restaurant, but we were impressed with the options. Guests can choose from a small buffet of baked goods, and can also order hot foods from the daily menu. Tea and coffee are always available for self-service, and guests are welcome to take their breakfast to their cabins on a tray, if they wish. We didn't, however, because it was so lovely to sit in the dining room and watch the birds and chipmunks eating outside the windows (they feed them, to promote this lovely view).

More photos and details, here: link.

The Mill Valley Inn (Mill Valley, CA)
Grade: B -- great location, and the rooms are luxurious. Breakfast buffet is huge and varied.
The rooms manage a lovely character feel, with very high ceilings, long drapes, and a tall comfy bed. They also have tiny balconies; just enough to lean out and see what is suburban San Francisco: a quiet side-street of Mill Valley. I can't say the rooms are spacious, but it hardly matters; there's enough room, and the height of the ceilings makes them feel quite open.

The dining room has plenty of space, as well as a lovely dining patio facing the forest, which we did not make use of simply because the frigid spring had still not let up! Every morning a generous spread of fruits, baked goods, make-your-own waffles, and granolas was available, along with teas and coffees, and espresso drinks from the kitchen. The atmosphere was calm and friendly.

The Mill Valley Inn is a converted building; interesting in that the rooms and dining room all connect via a suspended walkway the surrounds... the parking lot, below! It would be totally romantic if this area was actually a courtyard garden, or even the dining room, but as it is covered from the top, it serves as an exhaust-trap for the vehicles of guests. Thankfully it's a small Inn, and the vehicular comings and goings are few, so it's not really a problem. But strange!

More info and photos, here: link.

The Monterey Plaza Hotel and Spa (Montery, CA)
Grade: B -- it's absolutely high-class and beautiful; they treated us like royalty. But I missed the authenticity of the smaller places.
Well, this place was amazingly high-class. We've never experienced anything like it before. I'm not sure if it was just the manager's enthusiasm for the MAMA Project (which was plentiful and gracious), or whether all guests are treated to such opulence, but, well... we stayed in a 5-star hotel and felt like rockstars. Here's the story: link.

The Days Inn (Portland, OR)
Grade: C-. Convenient to the Unschooling Conference, but not preferable!
This isn't the most glamourous hotel, but it's conveniently close to the Washington border (and the Unschooling Conference in Vancouver, Washington!) The room we were given was on the ground floor, and had a nearly-empty liquor bottle in it when we got there; the windows were graffiti'd from the outside, where it was clear people sleep, at night (between the window and the shrubs outside), and there was an unidentified white substance caked on the blanket and TV-schedule. Thankfully, we brought our own bedding for later use, stripped the beds and slept in our own bedding. The kitchenette was functional, but rather old and worn. We used our own cooking supplies. I gave the suite a once-over with soap and dish-towels, and after a day or two we felt much more comfortable, there.

Is it dangerous? Maybe. It didn't feel that way to us, but we're quite comfortable in some potentially dodgy situations. I have a hard time getting over filth, but not humanity. People are just people, whether their lifestyle is like ours or not. We were warned by a trucker in the hallway that this hotel is not a safe place to leave one's door or window open while in the suite, or to allow children out unattended. I did find my son waving goodbye out the window one morning, and when I questioned him he responded "I'm just waving to that guy who was outside the window. I think he lives there." Not a problem. We weren't worried, but I can see how some families might be.

The breakfasts were a buffet of pre-prepared foods (dry cereals with milk, hard-boiled eggs on ice, trucked-in pastries and bread-slices, as well as fresh-baked biscuits and gravy kept warm in slow-cookers). They weren't horrible; we managed to find something for the adults in the family (the kids are gluten/egg-free), and found it interesting to sit around listening to the conversation of the many different types of people who were staying there.

The hotel staff were gracious and polite, and the housekeeping staff seemed to set up the children's stuffies with care, each day.

The Howard Johnson Inn (Tacoma, WA)
Grade: C- --  It was reasonably clean, but we didn't feel safe.
I didn't post about this hotel at the time, because I'm not happy about having to share such negative reviews, but in the interest of honesty, here is my review:

Without being ungrateful for their sponsorship of the MAMA Project, I can't say I would ever stay here again, and I certainly wouldn't recommend it to others. We walked in past a very angry-looking patron who was watching TV at top-volume in the lobby by the front-door, and glared at us. The front desk girls did not stop their conversation to check us in; they simply continued, while we waited. And what they were talking about was rather worrisome: The apparently more experienced of the two was explaining to the newer one that having the police called to the hotel was not at all unusual, and that a few times a week wasn't a big deal; usually they didn't even ribbon anything off, unlike at "the hotel down the road", where having a police incident was pretty much a nightly event. I can tell you we began to feel uncertain right about then. Then we got our keys and proceeded up the outside staircase, past a few smoking truckers on the balcony, and into our room. The room was reasonably clean, with the exception of some big dirty handprints on the wall by the door, and the towels were folded in the shape of a swan, which we found to be pretty comical, given the overall feeling of the place.

Anyway, once I made sure that the windows were locked and the beds were clean (we brought our own sleeping bags up, just in case), we did manage to sleep just fine. I believe that there was some breakfast available in the lobby, but we were in a hurry to be on our way, and didn't wish to try it.