Saturday, October 12, 2019

Ethical, Sustainable, Healthy Solutions for Halloween Fun

Tali and Rhiannon, 16 and 14, carving pumpkins together while I prepare our family's traditional roasted pumpkin seeds.
Here we are approaching Halloween again, and the stores are filled with cheap bags of candy, disposable plastic pumpkin-carving kits, cheap fall-apart costumes so our kids can wear the same thing their friends do, and all kinds of other commercialized junk to relieve us of our money painlessly. But as so many people say these days, cheap only means cheap for us - it also means somebody somewhere else is paying the price. If it's not the enslaved children in developing countries paying the price for our cheap chocolate, or the nameless, voiceless workers in factories producing costumes for western children while their own children languish in squalor, then it's our own children, in their own future, losing hope and life to a world destroyed by plastic and the "growth economy" that left us fallen.

Yeah it's bleak. And it's reality. So we can either fall into depression and carry on our miserable way, or we can change it. Here are my suggestions. These are mine, based on my own experiences, needs, and desires. But you'll have your own, and I hope you'll tell your friends about them, so that they too can be inspired to get creative and make Halloween (and every day) a beautiful, creative, hopeful one.

Tali (age 9) in his self-made astronaut costume.
Treats: There are lots of companies selling ethical chocolate, healthier candies, and little non-food trinkets to give out at Halloween. While these are certainly better than the over-packaged, slave-produced variety, they can be quite expensive. Some of my kids' favourite treats have been personal, given by neighbours who don't see many trick-or-treaters: giant fruits (a pineapple!!), special, fancy chocolates bought at our local artisan chocolatier, a pair of autumn gloves, and a horoscope forecast given by our neighbour who happens to be an astrologer.

I always love best when personal connection like this is possible, so I encourage more of us to get out and trick-or-treat locally. But I know that's not always possible, as kids want to get to the Halloween hot-spots with their friends. If you live in one of these hot-spots, or as we do, donate candy to your local hot-spot, there are still other options. These days there are so many kids who either can't eat candy for health reasons, or whose parents take the candy away in exchange for money, gifts, or fun activities, that it seems even more of a waste to buy these slave-produced crappy candies and then send them to the landfill. So how about something that is less likely to get thrown out? Fair-trade (or home-made) cotton friendship bracelets are still popular among some groups of kids. So are those little beaded safety-pins in some areas. Fun Halloween pencils or erasers are less likely to be thrown out, though often still made of plastic. And if we must go with candy, at least lets get something that's less packaged and fair-trade. It may take some extra shopping time to find our options, but I'm pretty sure it's worth it.

Costumes: This is a big one for me. I truly feel that all kids should be given supplies and creative freedom to create their own costumes, as soon as they're able to put on clothes. And these fabulous costumes need to be met with your admiration and good humour. For your entertainment, here is an ancient video of my then-two-year-old, who still hadn't figured out why I called him "you" but he should call himself "I". He was dressing up as the Dutch Sinterklaas, or (interchangeably) as "Uncle Ralph". Family members are of course the most natural thing for two year olds to choose to emulate!

Creativity is in sharp decline in our kids' culture, and we need to change this. Allowing kids to play with their clothing, including costuming, allows them to experiment with their identity, and this, along with encouragement and acceptance from teachers and parents, is of utmost importance in growing a healthy self-image. So instead of presenting our kids with the costume options from the local grocery or Halloween store, I suggest having a conversation over dinner about how we'd all dress up, and then how we can make those plans happen... using what we already have at our disposal, as much as possible. The process of figuring out how to create a costume ourselves is not only a creative opportunity, but also one for problem-solving, which we all know is an important skill. And fun! Recently during a family hike, our kids suggested my husband and I dress as Hagrid and Mme Maxime!! It was one of the funniest and most memorable outings we've had this month, due to the entertaining conversation. Now we just have to figure out how to make this happen.

Pumpkins: They're available for very little cash everywhere you go, as are the cheap little carving kits. Obviously I think growing our own pumpkins is awesome, not only because it gives our kids an understanding of how the pumpkins came to be, but also because it makes the whole experience so much more meaningful. I once managed to grow a pumpkin on my teeny tiny city balcony, but for some reason can't make a pumpkin plant grow in my big garden, these days, so I do recognise that growing-our-own isn't always an option. Still, if we're going to buy pumpkins, we can choose from good local farms, and (for our kids' sake) go pick our own pumpkins too. And for carving them, the best tools we've had are a regular kitchen paring knife (if the little plastic knife from the kit is sharp enough to cut the pumpkin, it's sharp enough to cut our kids' skin, too), a steel serving spoon (for scooping out), and an apple-corer and skewers for poking holes. Some of the greatest pumpkin carving experiences we've had have been communal - either with the family or with a group of friends. What a glorious thing to be elbow deep in pumpkin guts -- in community! ;-)

Happy Halloween, everybody. I'll be having our traditional Halloween pizza and then out gallivanting with my family... apparently including Hagrid.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

What Children Need Us to Know

Building Blocks:
What would you like the adults in your life to know and respect about you?
My current exhibit includes, as its central installation, this piece about children's rights. It's made of plastic clothing storage boxes, which I've covered in portraits of children, holding signs that state various answers to the question, What would you like the adults in your life to know and respect about you?

The children who contributed the answers for this sculpture range in age from 5 to 17, and the sculpture is interactive. Visitors to the installation are encouraged to put on white gloves and play with the cubes, rearranging again and again to make a vast assortment of different children.

The installation includes a small tray of black paper, where young visitors can write their own answers to the question. I've been hanging these answers around the installation as they appear.

These are the voices of our children - mostly anonymous children, and therefore everychild. These are the things that all children need us to know. They need us to shed our busy-ness, our righteousness and our preoccupations and hear their voices. And their voices keep coming. Let's be good listeners.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Things I Learned From Travelling with my Children

Our trip to Europe last year taught me a lot that I needed to know about parenting. It's never too late to learn these things, and I've been able to put them into practice a little since we returned. Here they are, to help me remember, and to encourage anybody contemplating travelling with children. Going to Europe, of course, is not the point - that's just what we did because we have family there. I now see retrospectively that some cheap local camping trips we've done with my brother or parents have been just as important. Nevertheless, here is the list compiled from our trip to Europe:

We need more unimpeded family time away from home. No technology, no house to look after, no employment or community functions. Just time to remember why we love each other. This is the best and most important, and it's really that simple.

Our kids have talents we might not see. Maybe we need to give them space or opportunity to shine; maybe we need to get our own eyes away from the static of home just to look at our dear ones from another angle. Travelling has allowed me to see amazing things about my children that I didn't fully appreciate before. My daughter sees my heart when I don't even notice she's looking. Away from the frustrations of daily life I saw through the sheen of teenage angst and recognised the delightful, deeply compassionate daughter I have always known. My son is also a ridiculously amazing photographer. Here we were with two cameras, mine a fancy one and his a cheap rugged fully automatic thing, and he usually made more amazing photos than I did, by sheer instinct, as well as lots of practice while I apparently haven't been looking. Maybe at home we don't look at our children enough.

It's easier to learn new things while travelling than in our own backyard. I am pretty sure I've said the opposite, before, so let me explain. It takes skill and practice to keep seeing new and more deeply into the things we are familiar with. It takes a deep commitment to finding new angles and seeing through the known to discover the unknown. We do practice this, and I still think it's incredibly important to do so. However travel just makes it so easy. Every single day of our trip was filled with new experiences, from discovering religion through great cathedrals and family members' beliefs and practices, to the intricacies of European urban norms like learning to hand-wash laundry, identify unfamiliar plants and use all kinds of unfamiliar tools and appliances. Never mind language. We experienced so much in these four weeks of travel that I believe it will take years to process it all.

Family is really important. Our own nuclear family had time to renew our bond, but we also had time to visit no less than 60 family members from Switzerland through Germany to the Netherlands, and to see the things that we share. My kids got to spend time with cousins they've never met before and discover that amazing feeling of knowing someone intrinsically.

Graves. Family history. It matters. When I was a teenager my grandmother took me to see her father's grave. I thought it was weird. I never knew him. I remember more about the many strange gravestones in the ancient graveyard she took me to than I do about his actual grave. Since then I have grown up, had various deaths of close family members, and gained a new understanding of the importance of memorials. Even when the person we grieve the loss of is not buried in a particular place, a grave or other memorial gives us a place to ground our hearts. Three of our grandmothers have died since the last time I went to Europe. Two of my husband's and one of my own. So we made certain to visit each of their graves while we were there, knowing that our children might find it odd. This time, though, it was a wholly different experience for me than it was when I was a teenager. My own grandmother's ashes are now buried in the ancient graveyard she once showed me, nestled under the stone beside the remains of her father. I felt very strange and comforted to know that I had been there before; that I have known this place since I was a teenager, and that she has come to rest somewhere familiar to me. So we sat around that old grave, eating lunch and listening to my grandmother's laughter, since I happened to have a recording of it available via my phone.

We need to go home again. After all the wonder and intensity of travelling, there is truly no place like home: the arms of friends and family (and pets!) who are still here when we return, the garden needing our attention, and even the ever-failing house and the lumpy bed that has nevertheless held so many of our dreams and that now waits to gather us up again. We need a place to come home to. We need a refuge in which to process all those other wonderful things we learned while travelling.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Download our house for your Sims!

The frustrating, demented sounds of the nearly-intelligible Sim-language have been drifting through my house for ages. If your kids play Sims, you know what I'm talking about: "Ah, van vesua! Cummuns nala." They're so expressive I sometimes think my kids are having a conversation, and it turns out just to be the passionate voices of their Sim-world counterparts. "Benzi chibna looble bazebni gweb."

Sims irritates me because I'd rather kids were outside playing in the wilderness, building forts, exploring the (real) world, or communicating with (real) friends than playing a video game. But I can see the appeal. It's basically a weird life-simulator, where players can create and grow families and communities, as well as their personality traits, wardrobes, pets, careers, homes and yards. There's a pretty wide variety of options, including a huge range of body types, skin colours, and family make-up. A same-sex couple can have a baby as easily as any other. I was happy to discover that they can even paint murals and grow veggies. So as far as video games go, I can accept this one.

Long long ago I discovered the wide world of parents joining kids in their video games. It's a strange but good way to connect, and sometimes one of the few worlds we're welcome in as parents. So, you know what they say to do when you can't beat 'em... 

In case you wanted to try living in our house, here's the closest proximity we could create in the world of Sims 4. Of course, it's kind of the best-case scenario for our home; flooring done, window trim done, most of the pervasive mess cleared away, a grand piano where we have my grandmother's broken upright, and all the rooms seem to be a lot bigger than our actual rooms... you get the idea. It's the way our home looks in our best dreams.

Rhiannon explains how to download our house: In your Sims 4 game, go to the gallery and search for "The Phantom Rickshaw". Voila! Live a while in our house! Or, you know... maybe go out in your own (real) wilderness and build something better. 

"Harva sol labaga along with hava so lawnumg!"

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Yes You Should Take Your Kids to Pride

When I was about 18 my Dad told me under no uncertain terms that although he accepted gay people and had "even" gone to and enjoyed a gay pride parade, he would not want any of his daughters to "choose" to be gay. It's a hard life, he said, and God doesn't condone it.

As a straight atheist girl whose two closest friends at that time were gay, I was pissed, and reprimanded him for assuming it was a choice at all. Later it sunk in that should I discover that I was gay (or in any way unconventional), I might lose my family. I swore to myself that my own children would never face that fear.

So from the moment I became a parent, I tried to ensure that my kids never felt judged by me for their choice of play or clothing, and I provided what I thought was a broad selection of toys and clothes that were diverse in their gender-associations. (Of course now my kids tell me they wish they'd had choices that were less "hippy"... ooops...)

My son wore tutus and my daughter wore overalls. My daughter learned to use an axe before her older brother did, and he, well... despite me providing him with many alternatives, he just liked anything with wheels or motors. We didn't actually attend Pride until my kids were nearly teens, simply because it always seemed so far to travel to the city for it, but once we started, we kept going.

And as time went by, it became we parents who were educated by our children. As our kids have made many LGBT2Q+ friends, they have learned a great deal more than we ever did, and have explained not only the meaning of all those letters (and various alternatives) to us, but also called out our unconsciously discriminatory actions, and helped us to open our minds.

We keep going to Pride because it's fun, but also because, as our kids come perilously close to leaving our arms and hearth for the great world of adulthood, we want to make sure they know they can come back. Giving our kids a wholesome upbringing means accepting the whole of them - whoever they are, and whoever they become. They need to know that even if their identity becomes something totally foreign to their straight cis-gender parents, we'll keep loving and supporting them.

We still live in a world where people who identify as LGBT2Q+ are at risk for discrimination, bullying, violence, and even death, so the best we can do as parents is to provide a safe and loving home. It isn't enough to just say "hey, I'll love you no matter what", because if our kids don't see us supporting all those "no matter whats" out there, they won't know for sure. They need to see us put on our rainbows and get out there celebrating the diversity of our population. They need to see that we aren't prejudiced or afraid, so that when they discover they're not the kid we thought they were, or when they bring home their first partner, no matter how unexpected they may be, we'll welcome them with open arms. This is how we create a safer world for our children, and a better future for all of us.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Happy Birthday Daddy

Pat Gallaher  --  1949-2015
It's my Dad's 70th birthday today.

He's been gone five years and I still miss him every single day. Sometimes I go sit at his father's plaque in the graveyard where I know my family scattered some of his ashes, and I have lunch with him, without him. It's pretty lonely, but it's better than having my lunch somewhere else. Sometimes I still briefly think I'll call him when something interesting happens, or when I just feel like I haven't heard from him in a while. I imagine we'll have one of our epic chats.

My Daddy was an epic chatter and so was his mother and so am I. They called it the gift of the gab, but really we're story-tellers. And all bull-headed which made it interesting - in the best way possible. He was one of the few people in the world I wasn't afraid to speak my mind to. He had a lot of stories and he was happy to hear my stories too. He genuinely wanted to know me. I miss having someone to talk to about just everything. I miss you, Daddy. Happy birthday.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

How to Unschool Graduation

For a number of years in our household, there's been discussion about whether or not to graduate - to get the diploma - to take a bunch of required courses and jump a hoop of our culture's pre-determined life-trajectory. The debate has mostly been among the parents, because neither of our children has been very willing to consider non-graduation. We know that it's possible to apply to university as a "homeschooler", and enter without a high school diploma, but I think our kids want to prove to themselves that they can achieve what the mainstream offers. Still maybe not in a wholly mainstream way. So I'm delighted to announce that our son just unschooled graduation!

Taliesin in the crowd of graduates.
Maybe it's a bit of an oxymoron to say one can graduate from unschooling, because it is, after all, a philosophy of self-directed life-long learning. But you sure can self-direct your grad celebration and the way you choose to create and cross a threshold, and these fabulous humans did so!

Taliesin receiving a joyful hug from his principal.

Our kids have attended Windsor House School these past three years. Windsor House is a democratic public school that was founded, run, and then held in integrity for nearly fifty years by Helen Hughes. The school's slogan is "room to grow and be yourself", and the school's staff and community lives up to this in every action they take or choose not to take. They accept all students as they are without condition. They don't give grades. They encourage creativity. They don't discriminate. They respect students' identities and choices, whatever they may be. They don't coerce. Ever. So Windsor House is a school full of unschoolers.

Helen Hughes, founder of Windsor House, receiving a standing ovation.
At Windsor House students are empowered to make their own choices, and to be accepted no matter what those choices are. At Windsor House you can spend all day every day drawing pictures, gaming, or playing basketball, and instead of trying to diversify your activities, teachers will celebrate you and encourage you, including when you finally move on to a new pursuit. If you come to school only twice a week or don't come to school for months at a time that's OK too. When you don't do any provincially-mandated academics for years at a time and then decide you want to earn a graduation diploma, teachers will help you make up all those academics you need for credit. At Windsor House there is no dress-code, and no gender grouping. All toilets are always for all genders. There's nobody going to tell you what to do, and there's a culture of non-violent communication that lives organically between staff and students, held up by respect and a practice of good, deep, thoughtful conversation. It's not unusual for people to stay or return to Windsor House as adults. The principal is the daughter of the founder, who attended Windsor House herself, and now runs it with an abundance of passion, love, integrity and creativity, being connected with, loving and supportive of every single human from Kindergarten to adulthood. At Windsor House you can choose or create your own pathway, and you will be celebrated for doing so. Including for graduation.

Our son Taliesin wasn't originally going to graduate this year, since it was technically his grade eleven year, but he had nearly all the required credits already, so when he heard in late March that Windsor House is closing, he decided to add a couple of courses to his roster and finish early. He wanted to get his high school diploma, but didn't want to attend a large mainstream high school for just one year. So since making this decision in early April, he worked tirelessly - many hours nearly every single day - to finish the courses he needed for credit. It was definitely hard work, exhausting, and at times felt like meaningless drudgery, but I think it was nice for him to discover that he can, in fact, pull off the kind of school-work that his mainstream friends do.

Taliesin enjoying grad his way - outside, hanging with a good friend.
There were just over twenty Windsor House graduates this year, and they each had unique stories. Some students have completed our province's graduation requirements and some haven't. Some were graduating as "adult grads" and at least one graduated "early". Some took the grad stage for the first time; some had been there before, but chosen to come back, do more school, grow a little more, and graduate again. And again! This is what graduation looks like when you self-direct it. It's a celebration of the achievements you determined for yourself were important, and a threshold on to the next stage of your self-determined journey.

"...has successfully completed their self-directed education at Windsor House..."
Those receiving actual high school graduation diplomas will receive them by post once all the grades are received by the Ministry of Education, but this certificate may be the most meaningful one to many.
 And let's talk about grad traditions: the caps and gowns and diplomas and cap-throwing; the prom and the speeches and all. the. excitement. This class self-directed those, as well. The group of kids who organized this event sourced the venue, the attire, the decorations, food and even advice from their community. They rented a hall that isn't normally rented for such occasions but was perfect for the event, with a stage, gorgeous sound and party lights, disco ball and chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. And in their neighbourhood. My mother and a couple of friends provided the enormous number of fabulous flowers for the event, cut fresh from their gardens. The grads got mortarboard caps from a local university's recent 50th anniversary celebration, and we redecorated them with purple ribbon, because purple is, fittingly, Windsor House's school colour. They found gowns for everyone who wanted to wear them - some were borrowed, some where home-made, and some were the death-eater costumes from the school's recent Very Potter Musical performance. The food was potluck, and some generous soul ordered in pizza late in the night! The graduation speech was not given by an elected valedictorian, but by a student who felt she wanted to speak. The kids announced at the end of the ceremonies that they would now flip their tassels to the other side, and throw their caps - and they did! Most kids didn't arrive with corsages and boutonnieres, but at the end of the night they dismantled the flower arrangements and flowed out the doors holding gorgeous bouquets and bedecked in various creative ways with the flowers from their prom. Not every Windsor House class has chosen to carry on these cultural traditions, but this one did. And when you choose it, you own it. They did everything in their own, gorgeous, unique styles! And it was fabulous.

These wonderful humans will continue going on to the rest of their lives; some to work and travel and explore, some to continue being involved with Windsor House activities, and some to post-secondary education. Every single day is, of course, a threshold to the rest of our lives. Every day we wake up and choose how we're going to engage; how we're going to move in one direction or another. There truly is no right or wrong way; no right or wrong speed at which to reach any milestones. And there are no mandatory milestones. We are who we were born to be, and unschooling allows us to live in that truth.

*graduation ceremony photos by Adrian van Lidth de Jeude
More photos on our Instagram feed:

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Ridiculously Important Family Traditions

Elisabeth van Lidth de Jeude - van Wely
When I think about family togetherness, I often think about my Groodmoeder. Technically she was my step-grandmother, and she put an enormous effort into holding our family together. Despite living on a different continent, it was Grootmoeder who always called on my birthday, no matter where I lived and as long as she was alive; who sent me countless letters in three different languages to connect and encourage my language learning; who came to visit us frequently even into her eighties, despite the long flight from the Netherlands to Canada's west coast. It was she who, for her own birthday, used to go around to visit all her friends, and for her eightieth birthday, sold a valuable painting and used the money to import all of her offspring from around the world to a Chateau in Switzerland to spend days celebrating with her and eating fondue and playing games. It was Grootmoeder who told me stories of meeting me when I was a "fat baby" and explained that she loved me even though she didn't know I was going to be her granddaughter yet. She never said she loved me gently, only with emphasis and sometimes a poke to the arm or a blast of her loud, determined laughter. She meant it every time.

Grootmoeder was unflinching and unbending, and fought to teach me the stupidity of washing my hair too often almost as hard as she worked to promote accessibility and housing for disabled people in her community. It was Grootmoeder who, in a restaurant, encouraged my cousin to line her pocket with a plastic bag, stuff souvlaki on skewers into it, and then discreetly pour the leftover sauce into the pocket (it dribbled out on the way home). It was Grootmoeder who told me not to steal pieces of brick from a monument before stuffing a couple in her pockets to bring home for me. It was Grootmoeder who got up in the middle of the night to prepare tomato soup so that when I awoke with jet-lag it would be ready for me. It was she who made sure I came to visit when the quinces were ripe so she could teach me how to make my father's favourite quince jam and jelly, and to eat quince mush on toast while the rest was cooking, because... it's tradition.

Grootmoeder was the keeper of my family's tradition, and in some cases she was the creator of it. She practically made a tradition of everything, including grilling us about the names of the rivers around her home, and facts like which river comes from Germany, and which do we cross with the ferry, and which of those did she swim in as a girl because it's the only clean one. (The Waal, the Lek, the Linge.) Now we have added to that mental list which one she drowned in, nearly fourteen years ago when she accidentally drove her car backwards off the ferry and into the Lek.

Pit spitting in a previous year.
Grootmoeder's hometown was in the orchard-rich province of Gelderland, and eating cherries is a family tradition as well. As is wearing cherries as earrings, and most especially, cherry pit spitting competitions, which all of her grandchildren were taught to do from the first time we could eat cherries, or visited her in cherry season. And you can't let tradition die, because it's tradition! So after Grootmoeder died, we all became a little more fanatical about cherry pit spitting, and now we have a worldwide tournament, among the siblings and cousins of this strange cherry-pit-spitting family. We gather up whomever is available in our various locations, and measure our spit distances, and then we share them by email across the world. Everybody wins, as we say... but some people (the men who carry Grootmoeder's genes) can spit unfathomably far!

Measuring the over-shot spit distance.
This year we in Canada used an insufficient tape measure, which my father overshot by nearly a meter, and we had to get a longer one to measure what turned out to be an 8.23m spit! I'm quite sure he and others have out-spit that in the past, but really, who's counting? It was a beautifully wet day here in BC where we've been having a drought. Grootmoeder would have been happy for the rain. She would have turned one hundred years old today. And I think she can be proud of the traditions she has instilled. I think we can all rejoice in carrying on her legacy of love and fun and togetherness.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Everything is More Tender

We become hardened, as parents. I tell you the good stories first, and if I share the struggles I finish with something hopeful or I say it's no big deal. When my kids excel I play it down so as not to seem too proud, and when they fail I heartlessly tell them it's a great learning opportunity while giving only small recognition to their grief. I don't do this for you; I do it to keep my own face brave. I keep telling myself every day that we're doing fabulously, until I believe it. I do it to keep the fear at bay.

Remember when our babies were tiny and we thought we might asphyxiate them if we rolled over in the night and smothered them with the blankets or with our own enormous breasts? We woke terrified that they'd stopped breathing or fallen out of the bed. Or we walked extra carefully to ensure we didn't drop them, or when they were toddlers to ensure their little feet didn't trip as they became accustomed to the rhythm of walking.   

When they got older we gave them more freedoms and slowly our fears abated until we learned to let them go. They rode bicycles. They gallivanted in the city and they trekked through the woods. They climbed too high and they crashed - sometimes hard - and they recovered and we saw that they were OK. We let go and we forgot they were still our babies. We forgot that they were fragile.

Taliesin sleeping off his concussion with his cat, Blackberry.
Today I heard a very simple piano melody on the radio and I broke down crying in my car, because now that sound is the sound of my son's fragility. Two weeks ago, and just two weeks before his graduation ceremony, my seventeen-year-old fell out of his bed. It's a loft bed, and his floor is wooden. He remembers falling into the alleyway of his dream, and then woke on his floor with a nosebleed. He is now recovering very slowly from his first serious concussion. I've never had to deal with this before, and didn't know what to expect, so when the doctor told him he'd have to stop attending classes, stop using computers, stay away from bright lights and generally rest his brain, I worried about his graduation, but figured he'd be fine. I hardened myself. 

I figured he'd wake up feeling better the next morning, and within a few days he'd return to school. But the next morning he went to play piano, and found that he couldn't remember how. I gave him a smoothie and in a blur he knocked it over with his elbow. I acted like nothing had happened, and I hardened myself more. His cat slept on him for two days, and didn't leave his side for at least one more.

He went back to the piano and tried again. His fingers couldn't find the notes. He was frustrated but remembered a few of the tunes he normally plays for leisure, and tried haltingly to pick them out, until he wandered away looking defeated. He lay back in the darkness of his room and closed his eyes. I watched him laying there, wondering who my son would become; how this would change him. I never realized how much it meant to me just to see him enjoying himself making music, and suddenly it was gone. 
The next day, out of sheer boredom, he sat down at the piano again and found that he could pick out a few notes of one of the songs he likes to play. By evening he could play a few melodies, and after about five days of dedicated practice, he not only regained the ability to play two parts at once, but composed a new piece, that apparently "just came to him"
This piece is now the sound of my son healing himself. He's not finished healing, yet. He can't yet use screens for more than a few minutes every day; he can't go out in the sunshine or read for very long, or practice parkour in the forest as he liked to do, before. But he can play piano. This song is the sound of dedication and hope and the promise that my son will come back from this concussion, and that even if his life is changed, his spirit is still thriving. Thank goodness for that, and for my grandmother's piano. He lets me hug him more, now. He cracked open my hardened heart and everything is more tender, now.

Community as a Way of Life

When I was 26, bewildered and a bit in shock with the reality of new motherhood, I took my baby to our local Family Place, and sat around the edges of the activity, watching. Whining lines of Suzanne Vega ran through my head: "in the outskirts, and in the fringes, on the edge and off the avenue"... as my baby nursed his way through the stress of a new situation. Out of the fray of mothers and toddlers and snack foods and plastic dishes came the most welcoming smile. This woman actually held out her arm to me, beckoning me to join the group. And Mara became my friend.

Years later, as we sat around her trailer home together, watching our kids play and leap from the furniture, I complained about my back issues, and Mara deftly used the opportunity to attempt to convince me to take the adults' ballet class that she taught in the evenings. I told her 'no way'. I explained that ballet left me behind when I was nine and had a pot belly and knees that didn't straighten all the way. She convinced me anyway, and next term I cautiously and inelegantly stepped into her class. 

Mara Brenner with students of Gabriola Dance, 2019. Photo by Inspired Spirits Photography.
Mara doesn't just teach ballet. She's an accredited Pilates instructor, and a passionate life-long-learner of human anatomy and movement. She looked at me while I attempted the ballet moves and explained exactly what my muscles and bones were doing and how I could optimize for my personal development. When she didn't have an answer, she went away and researched or thought about it until she figured it out (yes - that's the definition of being a life-long-learner, and an expert!) She sees people not only as moving, learning bodies, but as humans with struggles and opportunities. I soon became one of Mara's 'Tequilarinas' - the group of adults who danced until 9pm and then went for a tequila at the pub, together. After a year, my back was healed. I started wearing superhero costumes to ballet.

Through her friendship, clear strong vision, and unflinching determination, Mara gave me more confidence and opportunity than any other teacher I've had.

Gabriola Dance year end showcase, 2019: The Giving Tree. Photo by Inspired Spirits Photography.
Mara Brenner taught our island's children and adults ballet, and also used her company MaraGold Productions to bring world class artists to perform not only on our small island, but at various Canadian venues. She worked her dancing feet off one hundred percent of the time, not just giving to her community, but building it. She exemplified a kind of character strength and courage that's hard to maintain, but essential in a thriving community. Eventually her community turned its back on Mara and her family.

Our land use bylaw only allows trailer-living for a brief period of time while landowners are building a permanent dwelling. As you can imagine, building a home on the wages of a ballet teacher and a glazier, while also raising two young children, takes longer than it otherwise might. Mara and her partner, Stu, lived in a trailer on land they owned, while slowly building their permanent home. At the point they were forced to leave, they had only built the foundation. Theirs was almost an idealist story of dreamy island living, until our snooty bylaws pushed them out.

Gabriola Dance year end showcase, 2019: The Giving Tree. Photo by Inspired Spirits Photography.
So they left! Mara and her family found their new home on Gabriola Island, and quickly turned the small outbuilding into a dance studio. Around the same time she was gifted her own ballet teacher's extensive collection of ballet school costumes, and she threw all her extensive skill and passion into Gabriola Dance. Last weekend I went to see her year-end showcase, and I was moved to write this article.

Gabriola Dance year end showcase, 2019: The Giving Tree. Photo by Inspired Spirits Photography.
Finally with a permanent roof over her head on Gabriola, Mara pulled everything out of her heart and poured it into ten years of parenting and teaching in her new community. This 10th showcase felt to me like watching my friend stitch up all her passions and skills into one beautiful, powerful package. It was in many ways her gift to the world. 

Gabriola Dance year end showcase, 2019: The Giving Tree. Photo by Inspired Spirits Photography.
I think we all hope we can make a difference in the world - at least leave it a slightly better place than we found it. These days many of us are just hoping we save enough of the world that our children will grow old before it's gone. So Mara developed a dance performance of Shel Silverstein's 'The Giving Tree'. The piece brings together students of many diverse ages and training levels. It's profound and moving, but Mara didn't leave it at that. Working on this project brought up a great deal of conversation among students about climate change, and it became clear that she needed to deal with the prevalent angst and anxiety that today's children harbour around this topic. So she had all the conversations with them, and at the end of the dance showcase, she hosted a talk back with biologist Melanie Mamoser and registered clinical counsellor Caitlin Kopperson, to discuss the affects of climate change on childhood anxiety. One of the most urgent questions, of course, is 'what can we do?', and although there's no clear answer to that, there were some good ideas, and the conversation at least left me feeling hopeful that people were talking about it, and that children's voices are being heard in this discussion.

Gabriola Dance year end showcase, 2019: The Giving Tree. Photo by Inspired Spirits Photography.
With The Giving Tree, Mara does something I hope we all manage to do in our lives: She orchestrates her many gifts into one grand oeuvre, showcasing not only the work of her students and other community members, but pulling them all together in a kind of hopeful community invocation. May we all have the courage to live our hearts' dreams and create a better world in doing so, each in our own ways, and all within community.

Gabriola Dance year end showcase, 2019: The Giving Tree. Photo by Inspired Spirits Photography.

Gabriola Pilates and Dance:
Inspired Spirits Photography: