Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Living Well in the Apocalypse

Recently our dinner time conversation was about how we should live, going into the apocalypse: admit defeat and carry on as usual, or fight for our lives. This, apparently, is parenting in 2018. And I believe in having all the hard discussions, because I want to raise thoughtful, well-prepared humans. Our discussion wasn't easy; we didn't all agree, but there seemed to be a current of unity: We don't know what to do. We've never been a family to give up easily, but in this case it's hard to get our heads around how we would survive the enormity of the horrors we see on the horizon.

In the past few years we've seen a sudden increase in climate-related disasters: countless thousands dead from fires, storms, heatwaves and drought. Millions displaced. And it's not just nameless faceless people; it's people we know. We're already accustomed to seeing social media posts of our friends fleeing and documenting disaster. We're already accustomed to living in the smoke and ash of burned lives every summer.

The reality of climate apocalypse has finally begun to hit mainstream news in the form of brazen apocalyptic declarations. Chris Hedges and others are warning of an imminent economic collapse.  The elite of our world (and even my own community) are buying up acreage in remote tropical places and hiring consultants to help them stockpile and guard their wealth in the form of food. Even the middle class is now beginning to stockpile emergency food for the disaster we know is coming (yes there are some great Black Friday deals out there if you fancy a decades-long-diet of freeze-dried foods). But it isn't packaged food or armed bunkers that will save us, people! It's each other.

Apparently the UN says climate genocide is coming. New York Magazine says it's actually worse than that: "To avoid warming of the kind the IPCC now calls catastrophic requires a complete rebuilding of the entire energy infrastructure of the world, a thorough reworking of agricultural practices and diet to entirely eliminate carbon emissions from farming, and a battery of cultural changes to the way those of us in the wealthy West, at least, conduct our lives." Yes, we're going to have to stop consuming like the credit-fueled fiends that we are.

We sure love to consume stuff. Never mind the usual purchases at online and brick and mortar stores; we've even found ways to consume after the money is gone. We pick up goods marked 'free' from the side of the road; we peruse the collection of working and broken electronics at the recycling depot. We choose foods and other essentials that come with freebies even when we know we'll never use them. When people in my house are bored or momentarily unoccupied, we often stroll through the kitchen for a snack - literally consuming just to fill the void of downtime. Sometimes I check Facebook. Or Instagram and email and phone messages. I turn on the radio. I try to reach for another cup of tea instead of food, but I'm still reaching for a fix. I hate downtime. We have trained ourselves to consume - whether media, food, entertainment, or manufactured goods - just to fix the downtime; to fill the void that might otherwise have been filled with love.

It isn't that we don't have love. In my family we are blessed with plenty of it. But we've become so accustomed to the fast pace of our world - to the constant intake of information and product - that we feel lost as soon as the hubbub lets up. Love is a quiet thing. It takes downtime: space and time and an uncluttered closeness to allow ourselves to be filled by only love. Still, we can.

So I decided to make a change. Downtime. No more TV, I said. No more hooking up the Netflix in our living room in the evening. And we spent our first evening listening to records, together, sitting around our delightfully peaceful living room in the warmth of the fire, reading and drawing and hearing some music we hadn't bothered to listen to in years. For just a few hours, we had our family back. If we want to live well in the apocalypse, we're going to have to re-learn how to love being together, instead of just residing under the same roof.

We're also going to have to learn to live with less. Less food, less convenience, and probably far less purchasing of goods than we think is possible. And it's Christmas time! Black Friday sales have been in full swing for days and it's not even Wednesday yet! Who doesn't love showering our loved ones with gifts (and really - just buying things in general?!) But we can't anymore. And that reality is starting to hit home, even for my kids. We tried going gift-free a few years ago, and while some supported the idea, we also faced some serious anger from friends and family, who, above all else, called us selfish and ungrateful. The gift-free Christmas idea ended up being just within our own household. But here's the thing: We're happy! My children are not feeling deprived; they don't feel unloved. In fact I think they feel empowered! This year they got together to write and illustrate a children's book about giving intangible gifts. My kids' favourite memories are of the adventures we've taken together, and the traditions we hold dear, like particular songs we sing at particular times, the way we set the table for each other's birthdays, and the customary foods we bake for certain holidays. The memories we cherish have everything to do with time spent in loving connection, and that's something that the end of consumerism will only mean more of.

This year our family's gift to each other is a snow adventure with my partner's sister and her family! We're going to spend a weekend playing together, cooking up good local foods, playing in the snow, and enjoying each other's company in the winter nights. So all three cousins in this little family will share this beautiful gift, making space in our traditions and in our hearts for the "battery of cultural changes" that now seem imminent. This Christmas can be a last kick at the consumerism can, or it can be a great platter of opportunity for new ways of giving. We don't intend to go into this darkness kicking and screaming, nor even with a cache of survival foods. We're going in with a burning light of hope and love: family who sees that being together is the only gift we need.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Supplies and Practice of Open-Ended Art Exploration


When I was in high school there was a poster on the door of my art classroom that displayed the then-ubiquitous 3 R's (Reading, wRiting, and 'Rithmatic) along with a 4th: aRt. I think Mrs Sunday never knew how much that poster influenced my life. In grade twelve I spent nearly every lunch hour in the corner of the art room, using up her acrylic supply for finger-painting, and paint-squirting. To her enormous credit, she let me do it. I still do it, and I encourage everyone to do it - to get as messy and unexpectedly creative as possible with whatever supplies they're given.

I've spent a lot of time on this blog talking about explorative wilderness play, but am often asked about "real" art supplies, and what kinds of simple art projects are good for various situations, and I feel like it's time I give a nice solid answer to that.

First, let me be clear: The best way to learn art is by exploration. Art is also a wonderful explorative activity for learning everything else. The Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (2012) states the following:
"The benefits of play are recognized by the scientific community. There is now evidence that neural pathways in children’s brains are influenced and advanced in their development through exploration, thinking skills, problem solving, and language expression that occur during play.

"Research also demonstrates that play-based learning leads to greater social, emotional, and academic success. Based on such evidence, ministers of education endorse a sustainable pedagogy for the future that does not separate play from learning but brings them together to promote creativity in future generations. In fact, play is considered to be so essential to healthy development that the United Nations has recognized it as a specific right for all children."
So all those wonderful prescriptive art projects where you know the outcome before you begin, and the process of creation means following instructions? Those awesome craft kits that come with the pictures of what it will look like when you're done? They're junk. Throw them away. Or at the very least, get rid of the packaging and present the included materials with no expectations or directions and let the kids do whatever they want with them. Yes little ones might eat the crayons. So make sure they're non-toxic. Older kids might also melt them to make candles or wax prints or just to see how cool the melted colours are when pouring them around. Awesome! All of these things are actually done by professional artists all the time, so it's not even a stretch of the imagination to see their value. In fact, a stretch of the imagination is exactly where the value is to be found - because that is where the learning is. When I apply for an art grant for my own artistic practice, it always includes funding for "research"... which in the art world means experimentation and playing with material, form, and method.

It's important to think about how the presentation of the materials influences the way we use them. My father used to own a toy store, and supplied the Waldorf school in North Vancouver with the wonderful beeswax block crayons they use. He always had a lot of blacks left over, because they don't use those in their program. How does a child's thought-process change if they are never presented with the option to colour with black? We can't know for sure, but I am positive there are some interesting associations, there. I give me children all the colours. But do I always present them in rainbow-gradient? No. And amazingly, the kids end up sorting them themselves, into a myriad of different patterns, either because the sorting itself is fun, or because it's useful for whatever they're doing with the crayons. This, too, is an important part of their learning. It's how they familiarize themselves with the materials they're using, and with the colours they're working with.

Now for some material suggestions. I'm going to go most often with the cheapest alternatives, because we live in a disastrously consumerist society, and none of us needs to be buying new materials when they're not essential. Even on a tight budget you can get a load of materials at huge stores, but you don't need to. Going with unexpected chance finds from the local thrift shop, recycling depot, or other people's refuse not only saves money but also opens all sorts of new avenues for experimentation and problem-solving that will teach your kids more than a pristine new package from a store will.

Art-making space: Whatever your circumstances, just make sure you provide a large area where mess-making is acceptable and clean-up is easy. A large table is great but if you don't have one, or don't have suitable chairs, a corner of washable floor can be great too. Outside, a sheet of plywood on the ground suffices. I've done this often. Cover the space with a heavy paper that can be used for mess-making, drawing, or notes, and replaced when necessary. You can also cover it with a heavy plastic table-cloth, but glues and acrylics will eventually make the plastic lumpy, so I still recommend the paper-cover on top to make cleanup easier. 

But... don't keep art confined to this space. Take it to the kitchen. Bake cookies and cakes and decorate those; fill the sink with water and drip paints in or use the surface for oil-resist prints. Take art outside. Do tie-dyeing or papier mache there. Paint the lawn; paint your car or bicycle or front door. My uncle once gave his young children house paints and had them hand- and foot-print the front entry room. Decades later, their beautiful creative creation is still the welcome that guests first receive. Make everywhere art space.

An Easel: Not only does it give a new perspective to have your workspace upright, but dripping paint is wonderful, and should be encouraged. However, you don't have to go get an expensive easel. A stable propped board will do, as will an old sandwich board on a table. The best accessory for your easel, though, is a pair (or more) of large bulldog clips to hold paper in place.

Storage: If you want to have a beautiful art corner, you still can, even if it's not colour-coordinated or tidy. A bunch of large bins and a very few smaller ones will do well, or similarly a chest of drawers. We do have a great art-storage carousel that has been in use in our house for many years, holding an assortment of whatever the currently-most-used supplies are. This makes a greater number of supplies more easily accessible to various people seated at a table, and a handy place to put them away quickly. But it's not essential. A bunch of materials rolling around the table can actually inspire new ideas.

Some kind of drying rack is a great idea. We never had space for one, but the end of our dining room table was usually used for drying. Still, if you have space, old oven racks or baking racks can be a great thing to have in your art area. A permanent set of wire-rack shelves is amazing.

Paper: It really doesn't matter what you have - just have some. Preferably lots. We commonly have whatever papers people have passed on to us, including old letterheads, those old perforated printer-papers, construction and manila papers, some old used sketchbooks that people threw away with 80% of their pages still unused, and various types of white and coloured printer papers. I also supply my kids with the seemingly endless supply of graph-paper which they love. No papers have specific intentions. It's OK with me if fancy sketchbook papers get used for note-taking or construction or torn-up little shreds of I-don't-know-what, or even crumpling into balls and called 'cat toys'. Getting the paper second-hand helps me let go of my own hang-ups about 'intended use' and 'value', which gives the kids a broader explorative environment, and greater learning opportunities.

Cardboard: You could go all out and have some gigantic boxes for construction experimentation (my kids have built cars, rocket-ships, stores and villages, and most recently, as teens, a vending machine which they took into public for entertainment). But at the very least you should have some old boxes or scraps around in case construction starts happening. I hope it does!

Cutting Devices: Good scissors, appropriately sized for the people using them. An exacto knife. Obviously not for young ones, but you might have one handy to help out with big cuts. And a serrated bread knife! This has been very helpful to us for cutting cardboard, especially. Also never underestimate the usefulness of a good hole-pucher, and things like skewers for poking holes in cardboard.

String, ribbon, and other tying materials: Especially for constructing with cardboard, but also comes in handy for making books and all manner of other things. You never know when this will be just the thing you need in the moment!

If you're going to get a stapler, get a fabulous one like this that can reach into very big projects. 
And take a look at this Stockmar box from my childhood. The box has been replenished piece by piece over the years, and the crayons have been chewed and used by multiple generations.

Mark-Making: It's important not to narrow our kids' ideas of what constitutes a proper mark. So much is lost to a narrow mind! So provide lots of different options, and let the kids mix them up. You might want to keep some expensive felt-pens out of the acrylics, just to keep them in working condition, but experimental mixing of media in general is a highly educational activity, so do it! You don't need all of these but at least have many.
  • chisel-tipped pens - for older kids sharpies are awesome.
  • a great assortment of colourful felt-pens. Those cute stubby pens are a huge waste of plastic, though, since they run out frustratingly quickly and have to be thrown away. Tip: Store felt and ink pens tip-down, which means they last longer before drying out.
  • pencil crayons (as they are worn down they make many different types of marks)
  • wax crayons. Lots - and be prepared to see them very, very broken.
  • those Stockmar beeswax block crayons I mentioned earlier.
  • paint pucks that fit into a plastic tray - when you don't have time to get out the bottled paints, or just for watery experimentation, these are a wonderful thing to have available.
  • bottles of tempera or acrylic paints that you can squirt out small amounts of for open-ended free painting (tempera is great for younger kids who might ingest it, but acrylic is great for the ability to paint on many surfaces).
  • brushes! The best in my experience are natural stiff-bristle brushes, flat or chisel-shaped, because they give more opportunity for a variety of marks than round ones do, but others can be fun too.
  • pencils, erasers, and fine black markers. 
  • something smudgy like chalk or oil pastels. Sidewalk chalk can be used inside and chalkboard chalk can be used outside.
Glue sticks: Glue gets two sections because you need both. We always have a few glue sticks around, as they're the best way to stick papers together without soaking or wrinkling them. I recommend acid-free strong-hold glue-sticks. Don't bother with those silly school-glue types. They often don't hold.

White glue: While basic white glue will work for many applications, such as stiffening fabrics, gluing together cardboards, fabrics and layers of paper, we keep a bottle of Weldbond universal adhesive around because it glues almost everything! That's a great advantage when you're mixing up sometimes unexpected materials.

Fabric scraps and found materials: Without getting into the wonderful worlds of sewing and yarn arts, fabric itself is indispensable as an explorative material. With a bin of such materials for free creativity and exploration, you can create costumes, forts, decorations for those cardboard constructions, head-dresses, jewelry, dolls, doll-clothes, and really an endless list of delights. Have a bin of scrap fabric! And to this add found materials like plastic, corks, sticks, wires, etc. You never know what random things will be fabulous. Discarded CD's and cutlery for example. You just never know.

Something to squish and build with: A great block of clay and a big clay board to work on is awesome. That would be my favourite, although to be honest I didn't often have it on hand for my kids. We mostly used natural clay from the creek outside, and mud. Of course there are plenty of polymer clays available and while they're fun for building with, I don't personally like the environmental burden they bear (wanton use of plastics that end up in the garbage). I'm not really suggesting slime, either, because while slime-making and playing is a fine explorative activity, and fun, I think we get so much more mileage out of materials that stay put when shaped. A biodegradable glue mixed with sawdust or ground/shredded newspaper, by the way, is a pretty cool modelling material. So is salt dough, and gingerbread, if you want to eat your creation. One brand name product my kids did love and use for a long time was Stockmar modelling beeswax (no I'm not paid by Stockmar; they just make a few really fabulous products!).


So you see, the main thing is to have a fabulously free space and some stuff to play with there. Get messy. Play with the kids (or teens or adults!). They will learn a huge amount from watching what you do, so make sure you're exploring and have no idea what your outcome will be. This will help them learn to do the same, and together you'll make wonderful discoveries.

Talking about Periods with Daughters and Sons

Yay! It's time to talk about periods! 
Or, depending on your situation, it may have been time a loooong, long while ago. It seems I made an (unusual) good parenting call and dealt with this topic years before it was needed, because the kids were much more interested in such things when they weren't eminently personal to them. Now that they're actually teens, the conversations seem to be more needs-based. And things don't always go my way. Like that incident I had with the really fancy expensive teen puberty book that I handed over with misty eyes and a loving smile, but was thrown in the garbage without ever being read. Gulp. Lesson learned.

Talking to your daughter: First, remember that periods are a big hairy scary deal, and approach it with the understanding that you might not succeed in reaching her. I don't remember much about my own journey into puberty, except for the event of my first period. It happened while I was visiting my Grandma, and I secretly rummaged in her bathroom drawers to find pads. When my mother picked me up from the ferry the next day, I broke down in tears of shame as I confessed that I'd "got my period". She reassured me, and congratulated me, and took me to a department store to buy jeans. JEANS!!! To the 80's girl who had been mostly stuck in cords and other unfashionable pants until that point, the prospect of brand new jeans was a dream come true! I remember that my first cramps descended on me between the tables of Calvin Klein, Guess, and B.U.M. Equipment, and I doubled over in agony, unable to take my choices into the changing room. We left without any jeans, and at home my Mum made me tea and advised me to take a hot bath. While I was in the bath, my father came home and, on hearing the happy news (ack), came to congratulate me. He declared that we would have a traditional First Period Party to celebrate!!! Of course I was mortified, and his humour fell rather flat. That's all I remember. So as far as going off my own experience, I couldn't, and as a parent I've been flying blind the whole way.

Fortunately or not, your daughter's experience may not be anything like your own. The way her body works may be entirely different; she may menstruate at different times, and she may require an entirely different set of supplies and arrangements to effectively manage her cycle. So it's a good idea to listen to your daughter's advice and questions at least as much as you share your own. A couple of years ago, my daughter suggested we make our own pads, and I was fascinated that it had never occurred to me before! We did a lot of research and experimenting with various materials, and concluded that we couldn't easily make anything as leak-proof as the store-bought (cloth) variety. Imagine us at the dining room table, pouring water onto various materials and testing "wet feeling" and leakage on blue paper towels. It reminded me of a very bad maxi pad commercial from my childhood. And we failed. So we gave up. But it was a wonderful bonding opportunity that never would have happened if I had suggested it. And now I wear cloth pads... something that reminds me every month how proud and grateful I am to have listened to my daughter's advice!

Talking to your son: Sons need to talk about these things too! I will never forget my father telling me that he knew nothing about menstruation until he lived with my mother. Can you imagine going through life as a little boy and later teen, wondering forever about the mysterious toilet behaviours of your mother and later school-mates, and never feeling able to ask? No wonder there's so much fear of women! Explain these things to your sons. Let them in on the convoluted systems you have in place to manage your period (and everything else about life) in this sometimes unforgiving world. They'll grow up with a deeper understanding, a greater compassion, and a greater respect for women.

Keep talking, be askable, and be willing to go outside of your comfort zone to discuss or research whatever comes up. I googled beachtails with my kids today. Ew. Luckily for me, they thought so too! 

Now for the products. We've been experimenting with these, in our house, and I thought I'd give some reviews of some of the more popular options available to us. What works for you depends on the shape of your body as well as your daily activities and circumstances. Girls just starting puberty will likely try many options before settling on what works for them individually. At 43, I'm still trying out new options and my needs are always changing!

Home-made cloth pads: If you have lots of time and a good assortment of fabric options, go for it! It's a great project, although from our experience will involve a lot of trial and error. Maybe in the early stages of this experimental process, stick to some tried-and-true options for school and other public outings.

Lunapads: This is our main brand, but only because they're Canadian, and offer free shipping to Canada. The greatest feature of Lunapads is the soft cotton fabric they use (organic available too), and the cute lined pouches of various styles, intended for holding used pads while on the go. They make a huge range of different shapes and sizes of both pads and period panties, so it's likely you'll find the arrangement that's right for you. The drawbacks are thick bulky pads that don't actually stay in place very well (resolved by using period panties instead), and a very short lined area on their period panties. They have recently released a line of boxer-briefs with a longer lining, but it's still too narrow for me! Also, they are REALLY expensive. On the bright side, though, every Lunapad you buy means one Afripad donated to a girl in need. Lunapads also sells a waterproof blanket for sleeping on. This gives a feeling of security for those who are worried about night-time leaks. It's pretty expensive, so we haven't splurged on this, but it looks like a nice product.

Thinx: If you like shiny slippery underwear, Thinx period panties are actually pretty great. The liner coverage on some of them far outpaces Lunapads, and for those of us who don't like that weird shiny slippery fabric, they now offer organic cotton styles, too. The fit is a little bit smaller than Lunapads' panties, but still pretty great. The major drawback is the cost of shipping to Canada. It makes them financially inaccessible for many Canadians, at this point. Hopefully that changes soon.

Menstrual Cup: Diva Cup. Fleurcup. Lena Cup. Kind of daunting for new menstruators, but if you can handle a tampon, you can handle a menstrual cup... and they keep things very tidy, which is appealing to some of us! We use them with a light pad or period panties in case of leaks, but to be honest, I've never had a leak! And of course which brand and size you buy depends on your vagina: smaller for girls and women who haven't yet birthed babies, and larger for those who have.

Natural disposable pads: We use Natracare. It's great, but doesn't offer any super heavy protection for us perimenopausal types. For anything less, though, they do offer a range of styles and sizes, they look fresh and clean, and are quieter to open in public washrooms, which is a big plus for girls who are still worried about being heard while changing pads. You can also pre-tear the sides of the pad wrappers to avoid some of the ripping sounds in public washrooms.

Unnatural disposable pads: They can be handy for very heavy flow days, or in social/public situations where rinsing a pad in a sink is not an option (or there's no privacy to do so). Some brands (like Stayfree) simply reek, and basically announce to the world that you're menstruating (and that you use Stayfree... weird advertising gimmick?) Others, like Always and Exact, are blissfully unscented, but can cause a lot of sweat or sometimes rashes due to their lack of natural fibres. But if your skin can handle them, they're definitely an option.

Tampons: due to concerns about toxic shock and cervical cancer, we don't use these. If you really do want them, go for the unbleached type sold by companies like Natracare, Organyc, and Seventh Generation.

Free Bleeding: Yeah... this is not popular among young teens. But an interesting topic to talk about!

So that's it - talk to your kids and keep your mind open to all the great options we have for menstruating. Really this topic doesn't need to be treated any differently than the topic of a runny nose, flu-care, immunity and handkerchief or tissue options. It's just a part of our bodies' function, and through talking to our kids, we can let go of some our own inhibitions and grow a stronger, wiser community.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Unschooling Burning Stuff: Forging

The other day my son wandered past where I was working, and said in passing, "I made a little alloy". I admit I wasn't fully attending, so he tried a little harder: "Mama. I made a little alloy of tin, zinc and bismuth."

I still wasn't really paying attention. "Oh that's cool."


I realized I needed to be more present, and tried to get there: "So how did you do it?"

"I melted them together."

"Oh yeah. That's cool."

This kind of thing isn't unusual for him, and my mind was on whatever I was doing at the time. So my daughter piped in - loudly: "Mama he used his blow-torch!"

"Wait---WHAT!? There's a fire-ban!!!"

"Oh no, it's OK", he said. "I did it in my bedroom."


This announcement, during the hottest week of the year, when our whole province is plagued by forest fires and evacuations and SMOKE to blot out the blazing sun... oh yeah... and a complete FIRE BAN... was followed with: "it was very safe. My blow-torch is small. It's the one I found at the recycling depot."

Welcome to my life, unschooling a kid who likes to burn stuff.

Unschooling has always been a struggle for me. I believe whole-heartedly that experimentation and exploration are the key to development in every aspect of our lives, but to just sit back and blithely watch as my kids make choices that terrify me? This is not my strong suit. There are times I have left the house because I can't bear to watch anymore. There are days I get none of my own work done because I'm constantly running around checking that nobody needs medical attention. And yet - most of the accidents and injuries we've experienced came from the most innocuous-seeming activities. I'm trying to remember that. So here, in forest fire season, I'm posting a little celebration of my kid's penchant for burning stuff. In the past couple of years this has leaned towards forging.

He began with materials he could find around the house and yard: First the fire pit, then some cinder blocks to create a hotter fire, and eventually his father's ventilator fan, re-purposed with a metal dryer vent to feed air into the fire. He ended up covering the fire with a fine mesh screen to keep sparks from flying out, and eventually he upgraded from burning wood to burning store-bought briquettes. He used his father's little anvil, and some hammers from around the house, until he decided that the anvil was bouncing around too much, taking most of the force into the ground instead of into flattening his metal. Then he found a much heavier salvaged piece of railroad and began using that, instead.

For blanks he initially used nails, and created a series of hooks and other useful things, but as his ability to burn hotter grew, so did the size of the metal he worked with. Eventually he moved on to huge nails, using them to make a chisel and then a small knife, and then further onto pieces of rebar. Recently he found a bunch of discarded files, and has begun experimenting with various cutting and shaping techniques, including the saw-blade you can see on the bottom knife in this photo.

I am coming around to this whole thing, as I see his safety precautions developing. I told him he had to stop forging this summer, as our poor province is up in flames again, so he revamped his fire-pit forge and sent photos to the local fire-chief, asking for permission to proceed. And he got it! I figure if he has the wherewithal to create a forge out of salvaged materials and get official permission to use it during a fire-ban, I can probably stop worrying, now.

Here's a video he created about some of his process:

Forge ahead, young man! Or forge a head. Or something. (Ha ha ha.)

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Unschooling Highschool

photo by Taliesin River
To some of us, the concept of unschooling highschool is an absolute contradiction of terms. I confess my heart still feels that way, even though my son is attempting to do just that. But I am beginning to catch the joy of it, too.

The imposed series of hoops and hurdles that comprise a child's journey through the education system is most of what turned me against it in the first place. The competitive nature of our system means that by the end of primary school children are scrambling and scrapping for a place on the social and academic ladder. The top-down power structure of the schools and the school districts and even the government ministry responsible for them is so deeply harmful to kids' sense of personal worth and real accomplishment that by highschool they walk mostly blind in the lines we have trained them for, following the trails they were put upon to the outcomes we had for them. As unschoolers we have been very happy eschewing this for the past 11 years. Even when my kids tried out schools, we were horrified at the uselessness and heart-crushing condescension of learning to follow instructions and to tailor themselves to suit a system that did not suit them. So we returned again and again to the philosophy we trust - the deeply personalized collection of activities that is unschooling: We do nothing more than encourage our kids to look with open hearts and minds, and follow their own dreams.

But sometimes the dream lies square in the middle of the nightmare you've been skirting, and that is the case with my son. He wants to be a scientist - with other scientists. He wants to use labs and other resources that exist mainly in universities, and he has been waiting most of his life to get to that place: University. He goes now to listen to lectures, but never to attend classes; never to work on exciting projects with others; never to push his pursuit further in a true cohort of aspiring scientists. So he finally decided that the easiest way to get to that dream is to go through the system. We checked out some schools, and they all want him to join (of course; their funding relies on him becoming a full-time student), but he knows going to school will just take up time he doesn't have, so he declined. The principal who looked him in the eyes and said he won't have any spares because kids like him get up to mischief if given spare time really clinched that decision for him. Through slightly eclectic means, he plans to get his highschool graduation diploma and apply to university the traditional way.

And suddenly, with my own kid's graduation on the horizon, I see the beautiful thing about having a child graduate: it really is an accomplishment of their own. My son made this choice on his own. My son who feels insecure about math decided on his own to do a traditional math class, and blew it out of the water, apparently. He texted me yesterday, after his last test, to tell me he was finished! By a few hours later and after a science test, he was finished school for the year, and came home delightedly. At first I thought it was relief that I saw in his eyes, until I realized it was pride. He did it! He accomplished some personal goals! He has proven to himself that he, too, can trudge into the system and harvest some accomplishment. And his heart is prepared for next year.

Now I see so many friends posting their kids' graduation photos on social media, and I finally understand. Congratulations to you all for the road you travelled! Congratulations to you, beautiful grads, for the work you've done in finding and attaining your goals!! And congratulations to you parents for raising your children with the confidence to do so.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Travelling Around the World for Family, Love and Belonging

We finally did it! After planning for fifteen years to take our kids to Europe to meet their extended family, we just bit the bullet and went for it. And it was perfect.

But how can I possibly sum up the thirty-one cities, four languages, sixty beloved friends and family, and what seemed like ten years' worth of experiences in a little blog post with just a handful of photos? I can't. I can't possibly. So I'm just going to drop some photos here. I have left out the countless churches, castles, cities, landmarks, and amazing wilderness areas we saw and leave you with what really matters:

There is nothing in the world better or more important than love and a feeling of belonging.

At the airport getting ready to take our kids on their first airliner ever. We were pretty much giddy with the excitement.
WHOAH. Those first three are some amazing numbers to contemplate.

Some family you are born into and some you choose. Our Swiss family picked wild bear-leeks for our dinner!
When the kids discovered that their father's childhood home in Germany is actually quite similar to their own and their grandparents'. And they felt comfortable, there.

Accompanying their Pappa to his favourite tree in the whole wide world.

Everybody we visited took time to show us the things they care about. It was a time of really connecting to our roots, both new and old. Markus' uncle and aunt harvest about 600kg of organic honey every year, which they sell locally.

This trip included a bit of a pilgrimage to the graves of our three European grandmothers who died since the last time we came to Europe. Tending the graves of those we love was a very important part of our journey.

Grocery shopping was a whole new experience!

Speaking of people we love - we did not forget to send a few postcards!

We were fortunate to be able to bring flowers from the homes of our grandmothers to their graves. This particular grandmother financed half of our trip, before she died. We saved all the money she sent us for birthdays over the past 15 years and put it towards our plane tickets. We were sorry we didn't make it over before she was gone.

Our family took us to so many amazing places - often many places in a single day. Sometimes it was exhausting, but as I look back I know that this gave us a chance to connect with them; to see their world as they wanted us to, and to give them an opportunity to see us in their world.

We pulled up an audio of my Grandmother's laughter on my cell phone, and listened to it beside her grave. Then we sat around "having lunch with her", for all that that is worth. It's everything. Grieving the loss of someone can be a weird and complicated adventure, but I'm glad we've found ways to do it as a family.

Our family cottage in the Netherlands is near some bronze-age grave mounds. That was a long-awaited destination and we reveled in being there.

Some regular old cottage maintenance was needed, too. Nice to be able to be involved.

And then the cousins descended on this beloved cottage.

This family is very dour.


The amazing but unsurprising thing is that no matter where in the world you live, or what your personal history is, family is family is family. My kids had never met most of these people before, and we came from Canada and all over Europe to convene at our beloved cottage... and just feel like we belong together.

And belonging was easy.

Even when the French and Canadian cousins found each other out wandering among the heather and grave mounds in the foggy midnight and sang together in the darkness.

I haven't always belonged. I got kicked out of art school here over 20 years ago, so this time I took my kids to see the place I used to ride to every day, bike laden with supplies and hopes and dreams. We found this gilded sculpture there, which I thought was apt. I'm glad I got kicked out. Those teachers weren't my people anyway.
My friend and former neighbour took us to meet her horse and we had tea with the farmers - what a wonderful opportunity for my kids to meet some locals and to be accepted casually at their table.
I was thrilled that my kids had to learn to hand-wash their laundry as many Dutch people do, and as I did when I used to live there.

One of the greatest joys for me was that my parents also came to Europe, and met up with us for a day to visit the rather boring neighbourhood where I used to live. Living and studying in the Netherlands was a wonderful time for me - the place where I learned to fight for myself and to fail and get up again; the place where I gained my independence, and the whole time I lived there I wished that my family could know something of my life. Now, at last, they have.
Speaking of independence, my kids found theirs, too. They had amazing experiences on this trip, including many grand adventures (even a day-trip to Paris with my aunt!) and a new bond forged with many cousins. But they tell me this was their favourite day: The day they made a long bike journey to the North Sea together - just the two of them. They bought themselves fries there, found some shells, and returned. This was the day they found their independence.

Yeah that's my kid - just walking on the edge of the North Sea after a nice bike ride with her brother. Because when we give our kids freedom (no matter how scared we parents are about it!) they find their dreams.
While my kids were off gallivanting in their newfound freedom, I spent a week installing my current large art project, what.home, in Amsterdam. My friend Igor (whom I met at that art school I got kicked out of - see? Not all losses are losses after all!) and my dear husband helped me hugely to do this first installation. What a joy to spend some time being creative with some wonderful people; to reassure myself that despite leaving the Netherlands as a disgraced art student in the 90's, I still belong in the art world here, too.

Home. We flew home. For all the amazingness of finding ourselves at home in the people we love in Europe, this land and water and the air we know the smell of is the place our bodies belong.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

What Happened When My Kids Grew Out of the Easter Bunny

It's midnight, the night before Easter breakfast. Our annual nettle picking is done; half of the nettles already put up in the freezer and dehydrator. The special home-made, paleo, sugar-free eggs my kids require are waiting in the pantry. The paleo version of our Easter morning bread and various other goodies are waiting in various stages of preparedness for me to finish them tomorrow morning. I'll have all the time in the world, then, since no adults will be hiding eggs tomorrow, for the first time in fifteen years. And I prepared very little of this loveliness, myself.

We're a secular family, and these special foods, the family togetherness, and watching the children delight in their egg-hunt are the ways we celebrate this time of new life and the warmth returning. I used to spend days running myself ragged trying to get it all ready - without regret, but definitely with a certain amount of stress.

But my kids are teens, now. They declared they don't want to hunt for eggs, while all the grownups stand around and watch. It feels contrived, and I can see their point. Still, I ignored them at first, because I couldn't fathom that kind of overhaul of my tradition! But they persisted. They've known for years that the Easter Bunny wasn't out there, and that I was just keeping up the charade for my own entertainment. Just like with Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, I always suggested that it was better not to look for faults, lest the magic disappear. Eventually I let them in on the secret: that there is as much joy in being the magic as there is in receiving it. I said one day they could become the magic too. I guess that day has come.

So I told my kids some hard but beautiful truths, today: I told them that I have a secret stash of egg-wrapping foils, that I am very sad about not getting to watch them hunt for eggs this year, and lastly, that it's as often their doting Opa who hides the eggs as it is me. They slurped up this information with excitement, and began planning their Easter. They spent all day inventing various flavours of paleo Easter eggs, and cleaning up after themselves! Then they spent all evening helping to clean the dining room in preparation for the big family gathering we'll have there, in the morning. They went to bed at eleven and excitedly coordinated their alarm-setting to facilitate their decorating plans for the morning. My kids have taken over Easter! And it's wonderful. I can't wait to see what the morning brings.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Importance of Saying Goodbye

My children’s last great-grandparent has died. I wasn’t sure what to say about it for some time, since I am dealing with my own emotions around losing my grandmother, but it seems like a good time to write about how we teach our children to say goodbye, and how important it is.

I was terrified of death throughout most of my life, until two retrospectively wonderful things happened to me. First, my maternal grandmother died, and I had an opportunity to visit with her in her final weeks, chatting the small amount that she was able, and being upfront with her, which she was good at. As I left her for the last time, I told her I loved her, and said, frankly, “Grandma, I’m scared”. She blinked her eyelids at me and I remember the softness of her hand on my arm. She said, “Me too, honey, but it’ll be all right.” Then I left. Two years later, I was fortunate to be with my family at my paternal grandfather’s bedside as he died. We knew his departure was imminent, and stood around holding his hands and talking to him. My grandmother asked him if he could hear us and he said yes. Then in a moment he gently exclaimed, “Well how ‘bout that!”, exhaled a slow last breath, and I watched as the colour drained from his face and then his hands. His hand slowly grew cold in mine, and he was gone.

Despite their morbid nature, these events were some of the most important of my life, as I was able not only to say goodbye, but to witness the surprisingly non-threatening simplicity of non-violent death.

My children’s experience of death really began with the loss of their various pets and livestock-pets, some shockingly and unexpectedly of heart-failure and by mink-attack, and some by euthanasia. All of these happened in my kids’ presence, and our son took upon himself the enormously brave and sad task of euthanizing his own beloved rat, who was dying of cancer. Mourning is a natural thing for humans to do, and seemed to require no guidance from us. I will never forget the beautifully long death-song sung by my preschooler-daughter as she instinctively picked flowers and laid them round and round the grave of her dog. Just shortly after helping to pile the dirt onto the body of her beloved Juniper, still red in her eyes from sorrow, she dealt with her feelings in her own perfect way. When humans die, there are often so many family members to consider that memorial services and goodbyes can be strange or inaccessible to children, but the death of pets is a somewhat easier way to involve them in the actual death and burial or cremation process.

Of course, it’s important to make our own personal goodbyes with humans, too. Three years ago my father died unexpectedly, and my first instinct was to rush my kids in to the hospital with me. They didn’t want to look at him, and neither did I – he looked like he had suffered, and his face was strained with what seemed to have been a traumatic death. To be honest, it was very hard. But my kids did look. It’s a big deal to see a real dead person and to discover that, while utterly heartbreaking to consider the loss of that person, it’s not actually scary. So when my grandmother died in January, I brought my son with me, and he had an opportunity to sit with her and to hold her hand, to see how small she had become, and to say goodbye. He remarked that it’s weird to say goodbye to someone who’s not there anymore, and in that alone he grew that day.

Death is an opportunity for growth. It’s important that we say goodbye when the person we’re talking to is gone, so that we feel the weight and the lightness of their absence, and begin to accept it. It’s important that we embrace these difficult moments so that we can live without fear of them. It’s important that we welcome death and loss and grieving as part of our every day, so that they don’t become burdensome. I still grieve for the loss of many people I love – some dead and some living. But that grief has to be a part of my living journey; not a curse to fear or hide from. I am glad my children are learning to say goodbye.

I was also able to arrange a special goodbye for our family, after my grandmother’s death. We spent many hours in her house – just the four of us. We played her favourite game and talked about her, my grandfather, and my father, who are all gone, now. We explored the house and looked at the many photos, the family tree, and some things and places that have memories attached to them. But we also did mundane things, like cook our lunch and do some studying at the kitchen table. We lounged around on the floor, adjusting our minds to the idea of our shifted family. We said goodbye in so many ways, and we pulled each other in, too, closing the gap left by her absence.

Mourning is a natural thing to do. So we make time and space for it, have patience for each other to do it in our own unique ways, and know we’ll find each other back again in love and dream and memory.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Cardboard Box Vending Machine!

Before I could get rid of this giant cardboard box, my kids hatched a plan to turn it into a vending machine. And over the weekend, with this unexpected device, they proceeded to make many many customers and bystanders exceedingly happy. So happy, in fact, that they had telephone interviews with the local paper, and created video compilations of their work.

The odd thing is that everybody seems to want to know how much money they made... and they don't know! They didn't bother to count. The net cash haul is somewhere around $20 for a couple of days of hard work, but that was never the goal. They just wanted to be creative, have fun, and make people happy. They frequently delivered cash to penniless customers, in fact, because it wouldn't be nice for people to feel left out. Quarters and dollars and fake plastic coins would appear in the mouth of the puppet, along with a surprise in the delivery hopper, or might even shoot right out of the coin-slots!

I would never have thought of creating a vending machine, never mind one operated by a generous seal (and sometimes dog) puppet, and definitely wouldn't have imagined it to be non-financially motivated. I loved their idea, and love to see my kids growing up and out in the world with their own ingenuity and making a difference, there.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

We're Destroying Our Kids' Ability to Learn

I sit down with a new group of kids, their wide eyes looking up at me, waiting to see what we'll be doing for the day. It sounds idyllic, but it's not. As a teacher, this is my greatest challenge: to spark genuine curiosity in kids and adults who have lost theirs.

The first thing I'm going to do with these kids will shake them up entirely. I'm going to ask them what they'd like to do. "Well what is there to do?" They'll ask me. And I'll tell them there is everything. I'll tell them about all the fun resources we have, that we can go anywhere we can get to, do anything we would like to do, and that I'll support their adventures with materials, enthusiasm, and information as well as I can, as long as everybody remains safe and happy. They will look at me blankly. They won't even get up and look around. They won't know what to do with this information, and will start exploring the boundaries of the new idea. "But teacher, I thought we're going to learn about the environment." "My Mom said don't get my raincoat dirty." Etcetera. It's going to take a few days of freedom for these kids to simply understand that they have free will. It will take many more days of experimenting, boundary-pushing, accidents and tentative steps outside of their comfort zones for these kids to start doing the most natural thing for children to do: explore.

Exploration is how learning happens. It's how a baby learns to take its first steps, to eat, and to speak. It's how an artist, scientist or inventor develops anything new. Even when we've been taught the facts, we don't truly understand them until we've tested them. Exploration is how we develop as individuals and as a species, and we literally can't live without it. And so much of the way we're teaching, parenting, and entertaining our children is killing their ability to explore. We're crippling our children.

As Neil deGrasse Tyson points out in this fabulous lecture, kids are born scientists, and the first thing we do as they start wreaking havoc with their scientific exploration is to stop them, because the chaos is inconvenient for us. He also says "we don't have enough parents who understand or know how to value the inquisitive nature of their own kids, because they want to keep order in their households."

Well we parents were kids once, too. We were kids whose parents told us not to get our clothes dirty and frowned on us destroying the crayons, whose teachers reprimanded us for drawing in our workbooks, re-configuring the scissors, or for staring out the window at the leaves falling. We were kids whose curiosity was crushed and crushed and crumpled into tiny boxes so that now we find it satisfying to see things work the way they are supposed to work. And we haul our kids off the playgrounds and stuff them into cute little chairs with perfectly ordered science experiments just waiting for them, so we hope they'll excel at physics although we just denied them the greatest physics and social experiment of the day: the playground.

Our kids will grow up to watch flat earth conspiracy videos on YouTube because they learned really early that science is for people who sit in chairs and follow instructions and intrinsically they knew that was wrong, so they lost faith in science. They lost faith in themselves as scientists, because we did. We didn't celebrate their efforts to run so fast they disappeared; we told them it was impossible. We told them scientists could prove them wrong. We held science up as an impenetrable wall to stop their exploration, and we killed science in our children. Then, because their learning wasn't recognized, they lost faith in themselves as learners; as explorers; as intelligent. They lost faith in themselves. This has been going on for generations, and when are we going to wake up?

Our job as parents and teachers isn't to provide facts and order and schooling. Our job is to not have all the answers, but to just be busy exploring, ourselves. Our job is to let our kids find the answers we didn't even know existed. Our job, as Neil deGrasse Tyson also says, is to get out of our kids' way. We can, in fact, follow our children's curiosity and begin to break this terrible downward spiral our society is careening along.

It's going to take some patience, because exploration takes time. It's going to take patience, because exploration is messy. There won't be any time for classes and tutors and homework. Only life. And it's going to be one hell of a disorderly life. But an interesting one. And a rewarding one.

My eight year old daughter eating a bowl of cornflakes, pepperoni, snap peas, milk and lemon juice. It apparently tasted too awful for a second bite. A waste of food, which I would have attempted to avert, had I realized what she was concocting, but a self-directed experiment she learned a lot from, and never forgot. She is a wonderful cook!
Unschoolers, life-learners, de-schoolers and democratic educators are going there. Not fast enough, but it's happening. I can't wait to see where we go from here!

Monday, February 26, 2018

Unschooling Music

unschooling music by playing his own way
I come from music, through my mother. When I was little, music was how we lived. I knew how she was feeling by what song she was singing, or what record was in the player. We had to sing on road trips to keep her awake, and some of my earliest memories are of sitting on the floor surrounded by her and other musicians. She gave me music in everything.

So there was never any question my kids would have music. But how they had music has changed many times over the years and, like so many things, I've failed them many times along the way. Unschooling (like parenting; life) is a journey of failures and discoveries that ultimately lead to the rest of our lives. I thought I would share some of our music journey, in case it is encouraging to someone just hovering on a precipice of this crazy trip.

When my kids were little they were surrounded with music all the time, through recordings, through my constant playtime singing, through the songs I sang while I worked in the house and they were busy in another room, and through the many parties and group music events we attended with other folk musicians. Playing, dancing, or drawing in a room full of music was their happy place. This was our life and, although it isn't anymore, it was a wonderful foundation. No lessons, no expectations, just music, everywhere. We weren't even doing it for the kids - it was just our life, which meant, most importantly, that their everyday lives included watching their own parents engaging with music, and they learned how to do it. For that handful of years, I think we got it right.

There's plenty of evidence for the benefits of singing with babies. We even acknowledge the benefits of song and dance for young children, but sometime after our kids leave preschool, many of us begin to lose sight of the importance of music. As our kids get older and we become more and more concerned with their academic futures, music often becomes a skill to be taught in a regimented way, with little or no value given to the actual playing of music. After all, we say we play music; we don't work it. Music is meant to be played, and play is fun. Worse still, music sometimes becomes a leisure activity, and given little value in our school and life-plans. The older our kids get, the more music becomes either a leisure-only activity, or a structured academic pursuit. I destroyed music by allowing this to happen in my home.

My son loved violin. I mean he LOVED violin. He seemed to arrive in the world pre-programmed to desire a violin and to make beautiful sounds come out of it. So, his loving grandmother (the one who brought music into our family) bought him a violin, and also tried to teach him - with all the adoring love of a grandmother giving her own greatest love to her first grandchild. Somebody putting tape markers on his violin was the first offense - no matter how well-intentioned and lovingly it was done. The series of amazingly thoughtful and ridiculously talented and inspiring teachers he then had for violin and cello were the last straw. And I have to say - we chose teachers who truly taught to our son's wild and stringent standards of freedom and inspired genius. He adored them. He thought they were the coolest people in the world. However, he lost interest in stringed instruments.

Our daughter decided she wanted to become a singer, and took up the guitar. She took voice and guitar lessons with teachers who similarly listened to her desires and tailored their lessons to her own measured and regimented but highly alternative style. She had excellent teachers, and she learned a lot from them. But she also eventually declared her own independence, and quit her voice lessons. The thing about unschooling is, kids always have the right to quit. And mine take this very seriously.

Amazingly, although we apparently failed at providing music instruction, both of our kids still make music. My son plays accordion (the one instrument nobody tried to teach him), and has on occasion gone busking in the city. My daughter is still working on her dream of becoming a singer, performing in musicals regularly, and developing a fledgling YouTube presence. But it's not these public pursuits that give me hope. It's the quiet moments while they're working on puzzles and humming to themselves, or cleaning the kitchen while singing an extremely loud improv session, together. It's the way that when they play, music seems to work its way in. It's the way that their very best friends are happy to sit down and make music with them; that when we drive in the car, they sing. We sometimes speak in lyrics. It's not because I know these experiences are beneficial that I encourage them, it's because they make me happy. I was raised in a home where music was the expression of our lives. I hope my grandchildren will say the same thing.