Friday, October 21, 2022

More than Just Food: Why I Love My Veggie Garden

Last night my partner, daughter and I sat around pulling freshly-washed kale leaves off their stems, inspecting each one for aphids, and giving the odd stem to our kale-loving dog, Clara. My partner arranged them in the dehydrator, and this morning I took them out and poked them carefully through a funnel into a jar, using a wooden spoon that's entirely the wrong shape for the job, but manages. I thought to myself how much more efficient the job would be if I had a giant funnel! I could dump the whole bowl of leaves on and just press it in with a perfectly-sized dowel--or something. And immediately I knew that was wrong. Hastening the job would mean taking the love out of it. I'd lose all the time for happy thoughts about warm winter potatoes and casseroles full of our homegrown kale, and all the culinary experiments to come. In these somewhat inefficient chores, I find time for creative thinking, and, more importantly, appreciation of my life and the choices I've made.

We started growing vegetables in earnest at the beginning of the pandemic, imagining that it might be a good idea, in case supply chains were disrupted. Well they sure were disrupted, although more by climate and political disasters than by covid, in the end. And then the inflation. Now, as we slowly learn what we can grow in our yard, and how to make the most of our climate and opportunities, we save probably over a thousand dollars a year growing our own veggies, and on top of that we have a kind of food security that was unavailable to us, before. This benefit grows every year as we improve our skills and methods. If we really just *can't* buy food anymore, we're reasonably confident that we can grow enough to survive, as long as we find a space to plant more grains and potatoes. We've developed an understanding of feeding ourselves that we sorely lacked, before.

But what kind of life would ours be if the job of feeding ourselves was a burden? I don't want to live through hard times in misery and desperation! I want to find the positives in whatever our capitalist decline throws at us. And gardening is a huge positive, if I choose for it!! Do I like the endless weeding? No! Do I like watering again and again, watching things die fruitless after I nurtured them for months, and running the well dry just trying to save it all? NO! The stress and the worry? NO! But ... I'm saving myself a different stress and worry, and I'm learning to live with these ups and downs that are and have always been a part of farming... just rather more extreme now with climate change. I'm learning to make use of the monotonous tasks of farming as space for creativity and mindfulness.

So this year we had an extremely late and cold spring. There was a bitter cold snap just as the apples flowered, and very few were pollinated, since the bees were in hiding. When summer finally arrived in late July, the bees hid again during a heat-wave just as the beans flowered, so we had very few beans in the end, too. Heat waves also killed off the summer lettuces and two of our hens, and scorched our peppers so they rotted before they ripened. The very late summer burned on into mid-October, with a deepening drought that threatens to kill all kinds of things, across our province. This sounds like a disaster movie. Or the Grapes of Wrath. But some things, like the brassicas, did thrive, and yesterday--the last sunny day before the much-prayed-for-rains--we harvested what needs to stay dry, and were reminded of the goodness in this life we chose.

Apples, quinces, kale, tomatoes, herbs, celery, cauliflower, broccoli, and seeds for planting next year all were gathered and carried in to our kitchen table. Even three last zucchinis! As I mentioned, we spent the evening processing kale, and we'll likely process the apples and quinces this weekend, while revelling in the glorious, glorious rain. We're planning to just sit under our covered porch and watch the rain fall, this afternoon. There is SO MUCH to be grateful for. I'm so incredibly glad we chose to grow our food together, to learn what we need to know in order to do so, and to develop an appreciation for all the things that make life possible: the seasons, the rain and sun, the persistence of life and good spirits, and loved ones with whom to relish it all.

Saturday, August 20, 2022

Raising Disciplined Adults without Punishment

my 20-year-old son with one of his current devices
I was hauling on my son's laptop so hard I wrenched my shoulder. I heard myself blaming him for the injury over the grunting of his determined self, gripping and salvaging the one device he owned from my attempted theft. I have no idea what reprehensible act he'd committed. It may not have been related to the laptop, even. I just remember that I thought his behaviour was absolutely inexcusable, and the only power I had to change him was the threat of taking away something important to him. So when the threat didn't work, I felt obliged to act on it. And obviously he felt obliged to save his laptop. And that's how I ended up having a physical altercation with my beloved son. I didn't recognize the harm I'd done until I had the laptop, and looked back into his anguished face to realize that the important thing I'd taken from him wasn't the laptop--it was his faith in me. The look was betrayal. It took us a long time to repair our bond, and a lot of personal growth for me to forgive myself for that. And in that time I really cemented my belief that the only way to raise responsible adults with a sense of self-esteem and self-discipline is to do so without imposed discipline.

I feel like it's important to tease apart our culture's complex understanding of the word "discipline".

Merriam Webster says that discipline is:

1    a : control gained by enforcing obedience or order
      b : orderly or prescribed conduct or pattern of behavior
      c : self-control
2 : punishment
3 : training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character
4 : a field of study
 
Some of those are straightforward, but there's an impossible contradiction in there, too: The opposing natures of self-control vs. control gained by external enforcement. They're not just different; they're mutually destructive. We all want our kids to develop self-control, but our conviction that they can develop it by being forced, coerced, bribed, and threatened is simply wrong. And we're busy raising consecutive generations of people who have to tumble through adult life on a constant painful roller-coaster of building, breaking, fighting, and rebuilding self-control. 
 
Really? Am I out to lunch? No, I'm not. Study after study (after study after study) shows that punishment (call it "imposed negative consequences" if you like) leads not to better behaviour in the long term, and often to a lack of responsibility for one's actions. "We showed that acting under coercion deeply modifies the sense of being responsible for outcomes of one’s actions. It also attenuates the neural processing of outcomes. Both results can be interpreted as a cognitive operation of “distancing,” or reducing the linkage between one’s own decision-making, action, and outcome." (*Caspar, Christensen, Cleeremans, Haggard.)
 
To put that in tangible terms for us parents and educators of kids, teens, and young adults, the more we make the rules and enforce them, the more our kids learn to follow blindly, without taking real, thought-out responsibility for their choices and actions. Obviously, that's not what we want. But in the moment it's so hard to change the behaviour our whole culture has lived with for so long, that we were generally raised with ourselves, and that produces the behavioural results we want, instantly. If I really need my kid to get the chores done, I can just bribe him with extra TV time, and he does the job! If I really need him to get his homework done; to obey my rules, etc. etc. I can threaten to take away his devices or even just hint at the threat of my pending anger and he'll obey, right? 

Yeah. I've been down that road--as a kid and as a parent. And I did not like the place it led to, which in the short term was generally discord or all-out rebellion, and in the long term was apathy. 
 
I could write another few thousand words about the harm done to our psyches and our culture at large by imposed "discipline" getting in the way of self-discipline. But none of us has to look further than our own memories and parenting experiences (or just school, policing, or public space experiences) to find examples of times we or our kids surrendered agency to just follow blindly, and might have done better if we'd retained our agency. I want this article to be about solutions, so here goes. This is pretty much a list of things I keep in mind, regarding how my children will develop self-discipline. I'm not a psychologist; not any kind of "expert", but I'm a parent and educator who was once a child, and has put a great deal of thought, research, and practice into this topic. These are the things I think about, especially in my own family, and I encourage anyone to explore these ideas for themselves and their families.

Respect
I think one of the deepest, most foundational concepts that leads to self-regulation, self-discipline, independent thinking, and a sense of self-worth is respect. As parents, we often demand respect, but respect is mutual. It's built into the word: re:spect. Looking back at. It goes two ways. So how are we respecting our children? How are we seeing them looking at us, and looking back at them with open hearts and minds?
 
Respect is so basic that the exchange of it begins when our kids are infants. Instead of respecting their needs for sleep, food and connection, we often try to coerce their needs into our schedule. I mean, it's obviously better for our own physical and emotional health, and that of the rest of the family, but is it better for them? It means that in the first days of their lives, they have already lost determination of meeting their most basic needs. And it continues from there: We want to talk to them when we have time; we want them to learn the things that we think they should learn at the times we think they should learn them, and we often don't see the value of their play. In fact, we use the word "play" to devalue the work they are doing to grow.

How can we change this? Obviously, in a world that still expects children to conform and be unobtrusive, it's nearly impossible. But our homes are (hopefully) our domains, so that's where we can start. It begins with attachment parenting practices: listening and learning from our children, and reminding ourselves every single day that their needs are genuine, and should be respected. Even when we don't see the value in what our children are doing (or we don't understand why they're hungry again, or why they need more time than we have to give), this concept is paramount. 

When we respect our kids' needs, even if we don't understand them, we give our kids the idea that their needs matter, and that they are responsible for communicating them (and later, for meeting them). If my little one says he needs to pee, and I take him a dozen times but he never pees, it doesn't mean he didn't need to pee--it may just be that he's learning how to perceive his bodily needs; how to determine the proper time to go to the toilet, and how to regulate his body and needs. It may take him months of false-attempts to get it right, and the more we interfere, the longer he'll take to truly know his body and his need to use the toilet. Similarly, if we hold back dessert, or use it as a bribe to get our kids to eat vegetables, we've set up an artificial consequence that interferes with our kids' own bodily determination and regulation. Sometimes we fail to recognize that children are making choices because of experiences we aren't aware of. A University of Granada study suggests "that the bitter taste of calcium, present in vegetables such as spinach, collard greens, cabbage, onions, chard or broccoli, can be a factor negatively influencing children's consumption of vegetables." (**Dominguez, University of Grenada.) So all that time we called them "picky eaters", our kids were just tasting something we had learned to ignore.
 
Part of respect is consent. Of course we all want to normalize asking for and giving consent, but I personally have sometimes forgotten that this normalization begins with me. So I've created psychological reminders for myself to, for example, ask my kids' permission before posting anecdotes or photos of them. They don't always give it, and that's mine to deal with, not theirs. Another challenge for me is accepting their non-consent and not nagging or trying to convince them. I'm working on it. This article is published with my son's consent.
 
How is respect (or, as I've described, re:seeing our children's needs) related to discipline? Much of the disciplinary action taken against children is in an effort to force them to conform. Maybe, instead of expecting them to conform to our needs, we need to conform to theirs. Or, at least, recognize and provide for them.
 
Honesty/Trust
How can our children safely state their needs to us if they risk punishment for doing so? Most of us probably lost our kids' trust a very long time before we even considered trusting them. And how are we earning their trust? Obviously, an absence of punitive actions in their lives would provide that safe place for them, as would a community of adults who are open and honest, engendering trust and trustworthy behaviour in the whole family. Like respect, trust is mutual.
"Our goals, aspirations and outcomes are dependent on the collaborative effort of those around us. In environments with higher trust levels people are more willing to take the risks necessary for truly significant advances."  ~Trust Unlimited
Kids know when we're dishonest; when we're uncomfortable sharing, and they learn to mediate their own behaviour both to avoid danger, and to mimic ours. They learn to stop asking questions when they can't trust the answers they're receiving. They learn to lie when honesty is met with disapproval or even anger. They learn not to trust themselves, when we don't trust them. I envision a future (and I know plenty of families who are living this reality already) where children are heard, respected, and trusted automatically, from the moment they're born. The children of these families are honest and take great responsibility for their own actions. Because when we gave them our trust, they understood that we trusted them to be responsible, and they rose to the challenge.
 
Agency and Empowerment
Humans of every age are really good at rising to challenges. It makes us feel fabulous to succeed, so we work for it with abandon, when given the opportunity. The unschooling movement has shown that children who are given agency with their own education become empowered, determined, and responsible young adults. Universities are welcoming them with open arms--even without highschool displomas--because self-motivated people like that are a benefit to them. What happens when we empower our kids emotionally, in the same way?

My son is twenty, now, and I asked him to talk a bit about self-discipline--for this article, but also because I'm curious how my attempts at parenting towards agency and empowerment have worked out for him, in this regard. His response was, "In some ways I have good self-discipline, and I think I'm getting better at figuring out what methods work. I often struggle with keeping good habits and getting rid of bad ones, and over time I've found that willpower alone doesn't usually work, and leaves me feeling defeated when nothing changes. Instead I now prefer to find ways to make the goals I want to achieve easier." (Taliesin)
 
Life is never easy. Self-discipline, empowerment, lifestyle, personal values, and questions of identity are always going to be a complex journey for each of us, but I'm happy my son is able to feel in charge of his journey, as well as able to articulate and share it.

Attachment
The reason my son is willing to share his thoughts here is that our relationship is built on attachment. Yes, it goes without saying that there's also his hard-won confidence, our mutual trust and respect, and his maturity. But it's our attachment that laid the foundation for all of this, and my admittedly frequent efforts to salvage our attachment when my parenting choices and personal mistakes broke it. 
 
I broke our attachment often. In times of weakness I criticized, yelled at, and generally set a terrible example for my kids. I even purposely tried to Ferberize him as a baby, when I hadn't yet understood his nightly agony for what it was and just wanted to get some sleep (I sobbed at his bedroom door until I gave up, thankfully before he did). I bribed him to learn to use the toilet as a toddler, and when he was older I took away his computer. None of it served my purposes, and every single time I had to rebuild our attachment. Any punitive measure breaks the trust and attachment between adult and child, and further impedes the child's ability to grow and self-regulate. Here's a description of how that happens, specifically with time-outs:
"In most cases, the primary experience a time-out offers a child is isolation. Even when presented in a patient and loving manner, time-outs teach them that when they make a mistake, or when they are having a hard time, they will be forced to be by themselves—a lesson that is often experienced, particularly by young children, as rejection. Further, it communicates to kids, “I’m only interested in being with you and being there for you when you’ve got it all together.” The problem is, children have a profound need for connection. Decades of research in attachment demonstrate that particularly in times of distress, we need to be near and be soothed by the people who care for us." 
 
"When children concentrate on their horrible luck to have such a mean, unfair mom or dad, they miss out on an opportunity to build insight, empathy, and problem-solving skills. Putting them in time-out deprives them of an opportunity to build skills that other types of discipline could focus on."  (***Siegel and Payne Bryson)
We know it's essential for our kids to experience attachment, compassion, and opportunities for growth. It's essential that we don't isolate or otherwise punish them. So how can we lead? How can we ensure they don't make harmful choices? It's terrifying to just let go of the reins and have faith in a child who is only just beginning life's journey! It's terrifying to imagine that just my undying love will be enough. But it has to be. And some consideration of the following...

Modelling
I haven't been a great model for my kids in many ways, but it has not escaped me how important this is. My first boyfriend's mother once told me, as she butted out her cigarette at the dining room table, "I always tell my kids to do what I say, not what I do". I was sixteen at the time, and remember thinking that was a great thing to say, for a mother who couldn't stop smoking herself, but hoped her kids wouldn't follow suit. 
 
A few decades later I still hold a special place in my heart for that woman who welcomed me into her home and heart and life so generously. And it occurs to me that I, at least, did learn quite a bit from her modelling. I have never smoked, but she was one of the adults who spoke to me with respect and honesty, and I not only admired that, but have emulated it without even thinking. In that moment of saying something that utterly goes against conventional wisdom (there are plenty of studies showing that kids are in fact very likely to carry the same traits, habits, and viewpoints as their parents, regardless of attempted countermeasures). My boyfriend's mother was just being herself: open, honest, caring, hopeful, and determined. And I followed. It isn't always the things we think we're modelling that we pass on. Thank you, Sherrie.
 
Patience/Acceptance
But sometimes we do see ourselves passing on undesired habits to our children. Then, I think, it's time for patience and compassion with ourselves; acceptance that we can't climb every mountain at once. Neither can our kids. Sometimes we make change so easily; sometimes it takes us generations, and sometimes we take many steps backwards along the way. We really don't get further by beating ourselves up over our failures, so what's the point? Just like imposed punishment (call it external discipline), guilt over our failures is more likely to be a stumbling point than an inspiration to grow. We can be gentle with ourselves, remind ourselves that this is where we are in our journey, and empower ourselves to carry on forward.

Similarly, we can empower our children, not only by having patience with them and accepting that their journey may not be what we expected, but by modelling patience with ourselves. I'm really terrible at this. I learned in school that failure is not acceptable, and I learned from many adults' modelling to feel sorry. But as a parent I discovered how harmful my guilt and shame is to my children, and the last thing I want is for them to live under the burden of shame that I bear. So this is something I'm adamantly trying to change. It's probably the hardest change I've made in all my life. Sometimes it looks like me creeping out of my room after running away, and forcing my mouth to say "I shouldn't have run away". Sometimes it's simply a matter of gently stating my needs, before denying them becomes a problem. This is how I'm trying to develop self-acceptance, but it's deeply rooted in the kind of honesty that is essential for my kids' empowerment.

Communication
Lastly, in my quest to raise empowered kids (they're really adults, now), I try to remind myself to check in on our communication. I've done a lot of thinking on this subject, since it comes up a lot as a stumbling point in our family. (I suspect we're not unusual in this regard!) And recently I've had a real enlightenment from getting to know our dog. Yep! 
 
So our daughter adopted Clara a couple of years ago, and soon began telling us about dog communication buttons. Soon enough, she had some buttons, and was training the dog to use them to speak to us. After about six months, Clara can now tell us about her bodily needs (pee, poo, outside, etc.), can ask specific people for cuddles, toys, or outside time, and has even put together a few complex communications. After panicking when thunder struck and she was in the yard, Clara ran in, and looked around frantically, before pressing "Blackberry" (our cat's name) and "Something Outside" (her button for an unknown worrisome thing outside). Sure enough, Blackberry was sitting outside the door, and after I let her in to safety from the storm, Clara settled. Her compassionate need to protect her friend had been met, thanks to her ability to tell me about it.
 
This experience with Clara has of course led me to thinking about all the previous pets in my life, and how much I probably misunderstood them; how often their needs likely went unmet, and ultimately to the power-imbalance that exists between owners and pets. And children. I remember thinking something like this as our kids learned baby sign language, and I wondered how many kids can't communicate their needs at that early age. Indeed, how many humans in general live our whole lives without clear and open, honest communication? And how many times are our basic needs unmet because we aren't communicating? 
 
Our kids need to be heard. They need to know they're heard, by having their communications reflected back to them (respected). And they need freedom to develop, learn, and change on their own terms, so that they can be empowered to keep on growing. In fact, those of us raised without this empowerment can learn and gain so much by just letting them lead.

~~~

*Caspar EA, Christensen JF, Cleeremans A, Haggard P.  "Coercion Changes the Sense of Agency in the Human Brain." Curr Biol. 2016 Mar 7;26(5):585-92. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2015.12.067. Epub 2016 Feb 18. PMID: 26898470; PMCID: PMC4791480. 
 
**Dominguez PR. University of Granada. "Children eat more vegetables when allowed to choose, Spanish study finds." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 2 June 2011.
 
***Siegel DJ, Payne Bryson T.  "No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind."  Courtesy Random House  2014, September 23

Saturday, July 30, 2022

First It Was Reusable Pads and Period Panties; Now the Reusable Pee Wipes!

A few years ago I wrote Talking about Periods with Daughters and Sons. A good part of that was dedicated to my daughter's and my choice to find sustainable menstruation solutions. But I never imagined we'd one day arrive at...

PEE WIPES!!!

Yeah. Those are also our pee wipes hanging on that laundry rack. Here's a prettier photo of them folded and ready for use. I'll spare you a photo of them after being used...

OK so here's what happened: Quite a few years ago I visited a home where my sister was house-sitting, and discovered a box of little tiny washcloths beside the toilet, and a bucket underneath. Huh? There was also toilet paper, so I used it, and asked my sister about this oddity. "They're for wiping your pee", she said. Like it was nothing. Heh?? Gross?? "No. No poo. Just pee. I think. You can just use the toilet paper."   

I took that experience with me and thought about it for a few years.

Well, in these few years, our world has started burning, people. Our forests and oceans are our greatest hope for saving ourselves from climate change, and the forests are burning away before our eyes, taking a little town, a few hundred cattle, or a bit of a city here and there along with them. And like we're just hacking blindly at our own feet, we're cutting them down to make paper to wipe our butts. Insult to injury?!?! Being one of the blind and selfish masses, myself, I mulled on this thought for a few years, until the wastefulness hit my finances. It was time to have the septic tank pumped.

I mean, it's not that expensive, but anyone who lives rurally, as we do, likely has some kind of septic tank that needs pumping, periodically. The liquid runs off the tank into the septic field, feeding the environment like any good pee and poop should do. The solids stay behind in the tank and get pumped out every year or two or three and hauled off to a sewage treatment plant where they are no better than your average city waste. Except they required a gas-powered poop truck to take them there. 

Think about it, though: "solids". That means poop and toilet paper (nobody with a septic tank would dare flush anything else). And although it's a noticeable bit of money to be spending to have ours taken away, I'm more troubled by the environmental ramifications.

So, we decided to try pee wipes. To be more precise, I decided to try pee wipes, and a couple of my family members thought it was a good idea. My son, however, doesn't want them washed with his laundry. That's OK. We all have our boundaries, and a few years ago I might have said the same.

So, like we did with the period panties, we've tried out a few different types of wipes, now, and figured out a few tips and pitfalls, and now we can share them! 

What type?
We all have different preferences. Some of us like those big colourful two-layer cushy 8x8-inch organic cotton cloths that make sure no pee will touch my hand (oops--OK fine I confess it's me). Some are happy with the smaller wipes, and use those little baby washcloths. We have some mixed fibre/polyester ones, and some organic bamboo that frankly are no more absorbent than the cheap ones. Some of us just think it's really disturbing to wipe with teddy-bear prints.

Washing
You need to wash the wipes every few days, and we're using washing soda with a bit of dry laundry soap. It's not a big deal. I just throw them in for a pre-wash small load, and then after the first cycle I add some more laundry. They're so small they dry easily on the line, too--especially those cheapo little teddy bear wipes...

The Bucket
I am really not a big fan of grossness. It was essential to me that our pee-wipe-bucket not only looks good in the bathroom, but hides the used wipes in it, keeps them from smelling, and is easily washable. So I opted for this lidded glass jar, and painted it with glass paint to hide what's inside it. I glued a felt pad on the bottom, and it lives on the floor beside the toilet. Putting a used wipe in is very easy: fold the wipe so the pee is inside it, open the lid with the other hand, and put the wipe in. Close the lid. When I take the wipes out to wash, I get a clean wipe, dampen it in the sink, and give the jar a quick wipe before throwing that wipe in the washing machine with the others. The jar never holds any smell, but every week or two I give it a proper wash, anyway. 

Poop!
And periods. We just use toilet paper instead. Nobody wants stained and awful-looking pee wipes.

The Pitfalls
Well... there's the literal pitfall, where at some point most or all of us forgot we were using washable wipes and dropped or nearly dropped the wipe into the toilet. But we learned quickly. There was the trial-and-error phase, where we weren't sure which fabrics would work best. And honestly that's all I can think of. Even the one of us who doesn't use the wipes seems to have grown accustomed to having them around, and we're happy with the change we've made!

Try the pee wipes, people, if your life and circumstances allow. It's one more small change we can make to save our future.

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Watching You Father Our Children

I am ever so grateful to live with this man who exemplifies gentle, heart-full parenting. I stuck today's One Solar Year poem into this post as well, since it was mainly about him. I'm grateful for all the fathers I've had in my life: my own two fathers, and others'. 

Markus was once the tallest member of our household!

no longer dwarfed by his children, Markus reminisces about the taller old days

 Here is the poem I wrote for today, in two parts. They're intended to be seen on a large screen. :-)


Happy father's day!

Monday, May 23, 2022

Do You Really Want Your Kid to Be an Artist?

Me at 7, trying to be an artist.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be an artist. Or a botanist, or a hair-dresser. My parents and grandparents gave me wonderful art supplies, and my father even made me a palette with a hole in it for my thumb, and positioned the kitchen stool in front of the wall of our trailer for me to use as a painting stool. That’s me in the photo, in the early nineteen-eighties, feeling wonderful and accomplished, but with absolutely no idea of what it meant to “be an artist”.

So What, Exactly, Is an Artist?

I'm an artist, now. Twenty-five years and two kids after I got my degree in visual arts, my career is built on helping people reach beyond societal expectations to un-silence themselves, and connect genuinely with the world we inhabit. I do paint, and I do have gallery exhibitions, but I also tromp in the forests, use materials I never imagined would one day be called “materials”, and make art I never imagined would be called “art.” The focus of my work is to connect people with our own deeply-held stories; as an explorative learning consultant I also encourage parents and teachers to do the same with their children. It turns out art was just a vehicle for something more important to me. And I’m still an artist.

The stereotype of the famous artist making masterpieces in his (he's almost always male, white and powerful) studio has almost nothing to do with a successful art career. I wish somebody had explained this to me when I was a kid. Picasso was an abusive, deceitful creep, and we don't have to appreciate his work to be artists. There’s SO much more wonderfulness in being an artist than I had imagined! So much more diversity!

Artists are responsible for not only the beauty we see in our human-made world, but also for the connection we make with neighbours, for the realizations we make about our own lives and feelings when we watch movies, listen to music, or read books. Artists determine how easy it is to use the devices we buy. Through media, artists determine which devices and foods and colours will be more popular. They understand the influence of shapes, colours, sound, movement and texture on our emotions, and... like it or not, our emotions govern much of what we do. Artists are powerful. A “career in the arts” is a massively open-ended term, but also, having a grounding in artistic practice and theory means a deeper foundation or influence in any career we choose. Moreover, having the ability to express ourselves is an important foundation of meaningful connection.

I like to imagine a world full of people who were encouraged in this way. How happy, satisfied, and valuable could we all be? How would our chosen paths be enhanced by a facility with self-expression and material, sound, or movement exploration? Do you really want your kid to be an artist? And if so, how can you support them?

What NOT to do: Unsolicited "Help"

It's incredibly easy to break kids' confidence in art (or anything) and less easy to build it. As with so much in life, the first thing we can do to "help" our kids succeed is to get out of their way. It's not easy, especially when we're watching them struggle with something we know there's an easy solution for. But we zip our mouths, find something else to occupy our attention, and trust that they'll get where they need to go. And never, ever critique.

Criticism is more likely to break our confidence than to teach us something, and a shattered confidence is a massive barrier to success. My daughter is a writer, and was recently working on her second novel. I edited her first novel for her, judiciously reporting back on only glaring typos and missing punctuation. It was an amazing realistic fiction coming-of-age story, written from the bold heart of a young girl whose grandfather had recently died. I love it so much I heartily recommend it to readers of all ages. Her next novel, though, was a departure from the world she knew and understood so well, and required a steep learning curve. It was an epic fantasy, full of people from different cultures and a massively complex magical world... all of which she dutifully researched and developed before writing. But then she was challenged by trying to fit this enormous complexity into a single story. And when it came time for me to edit her book, I didn't hold back with the criticisms and suggestions. Some chapters were confusing, some events seemed out of place, and mostly I was confused by the timeline. Sure, she was only fourteen, but I just knew she was capable, so I critiqued! Despite my attempts at being gentle with my criticism, it all seemed insurmountable to her, and after a few attempts at editing, she abandoned the book. To her credit, she's keeping an open mind about the possibility of writing it in the future, but unfortunately I feel I threw a hammer at a beautiful glass sculpture she was creating, that actually she just needed more time with, alone. Without my critiquing.

So that's how not to build confidence. Just think of all the ways we're doing that, in every part of our kids' lives, and even our own. So many of us have an overachieving inner critic. And a culturally-supported fear that that critic is what's keeping us on the straight-and-narrow. But you know what? It's not. What would happen if we just didn't correct our kids? Well I have some experience with that, now, both in teaching and parenting. It's ridiculously hard to shut up my inner critic sometimes, but when I do, the kids thrive.

My daughter is truly an excellent writer--so much so, that in her frantic enthusiasm she charges ahead, forgetting to put periods at the ends of sentences, capitals on names, or sometimes misspelling words. She edits herself, and (as we all are prone to doing) sees right through her mistakes to read what she intended to write. What if she asks me to edit and I just ignore those mistakes? I've experimented with that. Sometimes she looks over her work later and discovers her mistakes. Sometimes she puts it aside for a few months, grows and learns, and comes back to it to realize she would now write it differently. Sometimes, even, she submits or publishes something with mistakes. And you know what? That's just fine! I frequently go back to my own work from years earlier, and see how much I've learned and grown since my thirties--and yet my work was appreciated then, as well. Have you any idea how many typos I still find in my writing? Tons. I'm especially accomplished at missing words and totally redundant examples. Sometimes I don't even bother to correct them. Because they're part of my humanity. Our kids deserve that space to be human, too.

Honouring Growth

Rhiannon, age 5, experimenting with paints.
As a visual artist, I love to look back and see all my mistakes. I look at portraits I painted years ago, and wonder why I did them the way I did; sometimes I also notice things I thought were problems at the time, that now inform new directions in my work. Growth is where it's at, people! Otherwise what are we living for? In some deep place, children know this, as from the moment they're born they challenge themselves to grow by exploring different tastes, movements, and expressions.

Children, like my daughter in the photo, above, want to represent their world. But it isn't always as we might expect! As parents, we have a choice about whether to show our children how to draw things the way we think it should be done, or to allow them to discover their own ways, through experimentation. My son was once drawing a whole page full of lines, and I asked him what he was drawing (something I've since learned not to do), and he told me it was a drum. I was totally perplexed, and asked him where the parts of the drum were. This was a boy who had no problem drawing a circle--why would he choose to represent a drum with a whole lot of unconnected lines? "It's the sound of the drum." He said. Boom.

He didn't need my assumptions. He needed my appreciation, and the freedom to keep exploring. As long as we respond to our kids' experiments with curiosity and loving encouragement, they'll continue to know that where they are on their journey of growth is perfect. And that will be the impetus they need to keep growing with enthusiasm. I have no idea how my son's drawings of sound influenced his life, but considering he now is employed as a visual artist and makes music to accompany his personal visual projects, I'm relieved I didn't get in the way of that particular growth pattern by showing him "how to draw a drum."

Asking Helpful Questions

I realized during my children's earliest years that questions like "what are you drawing?" are extremely limiting. In that question I have determined that my child must be trying to represent a specific thing, and the assumption is usually that it's a visual representation of something we know. But what if it's not? What if it's our children's experimentation with colours, shapes or lines? Or sound, as in the drum example? That kind of experimentation--without intent to satisfy outside demands--is essential for learning to use materials. Professional artists actually bill for material experimentation; it's called "research". We even sometimes mount gallery exhibitions composed entirely of experimental output--often to great acclaim. So why would I limit the possibilities of my own child's artistic output?

But we want to ask questions! We know it's important to engage and encourage! So how can we ask questions that promote growth-dialogue about art (or anything), without limiting our children's growth or expression?

Think about the words in the question "What are you drawing?" The word 'what' carries the assumption they're trying to represent an object. The word 'drawing' means we assume they're focused on the output of the material in their hands, as opposed to the feeling, taste, smell, or movement of it. How are these assumptions limiting the range of acceptable answers?

Drawing by Taliesin, age 3.

Maybe we have a kid who is happy to contradict us, and says, "I'm not drawing anything. I'm dancing the pen," or, as in my son’s drawing, above, “Nothing. I didn’t tell you.” (I learned a lot about parenting from that bold rejection.) But more likely, our kid wants to please us; to learn from our example, and will find a suitable answer, like, "some lines," or as my daughter used to do, look at a bunch of lines she was experimenting with and come up with a wild explanation like, "it's a dog on a house with the family having dinner." It's tragically very common that kids learn to minimize themselves to match what they perceive coming from adults. I've seen plenty of kids who were making successful attempts at depicting what might have been people or animals declare that they were “just scribbling.” Why? Because maybe they feared hearing our criticisms, or maybe we've previously defined their drawings of animals as 'scribbling', or maybe, because their own inner critic is already developed enough to silence their voice.

Adults are notoriously bad at asking kids questions, and kids generally have rote answers ready to respond to each of them: How old are you? How is school? What are you making? What is your favourite colour/subject/sport/etc.? How are we so uninspired?! These questions aren't about engaging with kids or developing rapport; they're expected. What if, instead of asking what they're drawing, we invite them to tell about what they're doing? This is an open invitation to consider what they're doing and talk about it. It's up to us to be open to hearing their response, no matter how long, unexpected, or confusing it may be. Not all questions will be helpful for all kids in all situations, but through practice we can become better at asking good questions. Here's a list of interesting open-ended questions to use in engaging kids to talk about their art:
  • Interesting! Can you tell me about this?
  • Does this have a story or feeling?
  • How do you feel about what you're doing?
  • Show me how you like to use [material]...
  • What do you think about the materials you're using?
  • Are there any other materials you'd like to use?

Materials

Ah how I love shopping for materials!! And hoarding them!! Don't we all?! How much of our parenting waste is comprised of once-used adorable kits that were soon replaced by something newer and more exciting? I won't go on at length about this, because I've previously written a whole article about Materials for Open-Ended Art Exploration. But suffice it to say that well-chosen art materials are the foundation of good artistic experience. And I don't mean the expensive stuff. I mean well-chosen. Materials can be anything from kitchen supplies to mud and sticks outside, to a mish-mash of mark-making, gluing, cutting and melting tools. The important feature of all of these things is that they do not come with instructions or intended uses. How we present and use materials is much more important than what they are.

Modelling

From the moment they were born, and possibly earlier, our kids have looked to us to lead them. The important thing to remember about modelling to our children is that it's happening all the time; not just when we do it intentionally. Our kids see our hesitation and fear with art as much as they see our enthusiasm. They see us avoid trying new things, and they see us when we courageously do them, and when we have small successes and failures. They emulate not only our actions but also the way we emotionally deal with these things.

With this in mind, the absolute best thing we can do for our children is to use any and all materials available to us to explore creatively, for our own happiness. That last bit is important. Kids can smell a fraud from a mile away, so we have to be creative in the way that we want to be. Otherwise we're just teaching our kids to put on a show for someone else's benefit, and that's nothing about authenticity.

And we should stretch ourselves. If we're accustomed to buying craft kits and following the instructions, we should absolutely try to break that habit (more on why in the materials article, above) and try experimenting with new materials. We can also stretch our definition of art-making. Try experimental baking! Try sewing or crocheting! Try putting on your favourite music, getting dressed up in fancy dress or costumes and dancing your heart out! Try painting your whole self and rolling around on an old sheet, outside. In the rain! It doesn't matter what or how you engage in art, just as long as you do it. And if your output isn't what you expect? Even better. Keep experimenting. You're modelling growth to your children.

Living a life full of joyful exploration and learning, ourselves, is the best way we can teach our children.
 

Nurturing Important Skills

Me at 4, being an artist.

We’re culturally trained to associate specific skills and attributes with art: dancers should be thin and flexible, visual artists should be able to draw realistic depictions with technical skills like shading, perspective, and colour theory; musicians should first learn to read music and do scales. Unless we’re born talented, of course.

Oh hell, I hate the word ‘talent’! It's such a harmful concept. I wasn't born talented; I developed some skills in accurate rendering of my observations by having a keen interest in observing how things are put together; how the light plays on them, and being given room to experiment with materials throughout my life. It was easy for me because I loved it, just like my daughter loves telling stories, so writing is easy for her to learn. We develop the skills we need when we realize we need them, and as long as we're not discouraged from exploring them.

As parents and teachers, we need to help build foundational skills for life, and trust that those material skills will come when needed. As an artist, I owe a huge amount of my career satisfaction to some less-concrete skills and passions:

  • seeing the big picture in life, art, etc.
  • a keen interest in social phenomena
  • a passion for exploration and discovery


We really can't know what skills will be foundational for each of the unique kids we work with. Neither can we know the cultural landscape our kids will grow into, nor what careers will be common, when they’re grown. Who knew, when I was in art school twenty-five years ago that people would be making virtual and even invisible art to sell online, one day? Who knew I’d raise a son who gets paid to make thousands of geographically plausible planet renderings by using procedural generation techniques? His art process looks like a bunch of visual programming. I could never have predicted this, never mind taught him these skills. So when trying to support kids I parent and teach, I try to encourage growth of all sorts of skills. Life is not divided by subject. Careers are not determined by skill-acquisition. It's all interconnected. The more we learn, the more we can learn.

So Do You? Really?

Yes. I guess I really do want my kids to be artists--however that looks for them, and however it looks in the future we can only dream of. I want them to explore all the materials and develop all the skills I can’t even fathom right now. I want them to change the definition of the word “artist” to mean new and wonderful things, and I want them to keep on growing as the world grows, around them.

Monday, May 9, 2022

Parenting and Gardening with Climate Change: The Aesthetic of Allowing Diversity

This morning we put the tomato and pepper seedlings out on the porch again. They've been waiting for the ground to warm up enough to be transplanted, for weeks. It was nearly freezing last night, just above ground, in early May. And now weather forecasters are predicting that La NiƱa might stick around all summer. Bad news for the Atlantic hurricane season, great news for our Pacific fire season, and... sad prospects for my warmer-weather food crops. Climate change is one thing for sure: unpredictable. And along with the weather, our food, finances, and children's futures are all unpredictable, too.

Diversity in the Garden
Our strategy for dealing with this unpredictability has been to become more independent. I guess psychologically it's about keeping control of our own actions, when so much else is now reeling out of control. But practically speaking, it's also very helpful: The more we learn about the way we and our needs work, the more capable we are of supporting ourselves, of creatively solving problems that arise, and of adapting to our rapidly-changing world. So we're growing many of our own foods now, unschooling our kids, and diversifying our own skillsets. Put simply, we're diversifying how we live, just like financial investors diversify assets. Thrivent says "the idea is to avoid putting all of your eggs in one basket—because something bad could happen to that basket."  We don't have any financial investments, but the same strategy applies to living, eating, educating ourselves, and planning our future, in general. So we grow warm weather crops, cool weather crops, fruit trees of various types, summer crops and winter crops, and root, leaf, flower and fruit crops. It looks like this year we'll have a lot of potatoes, celery, spinach, kale, broccoli and cauliflower... and apples, if the bees do well, which is still in question.

There are a lot of questions, these days. Among them, how to save seeds. I received a newsletter from our local seed supplier recently, in which he explained the importance of diversity in seed-saving: 

        "We’ve all experienced accelerated climate change and it’s important to prepare for more of the same if we are to have successful harvests. The best strategy can be summed up in one word: Diversify!
        "We can be hit by extreme cold, heat, wind or rain at anytime during the growing season. If we can, we should not trust all our seeds to one sowing. We should stagger and expand our plantings as well as planting our crops in both shade and sun. We can also think about working with friends and neighbours to mutually maximize our locations."
                            ~ Dan Jason, Saltspring Seeds

See that? This is a seed supplier encouraging his customers to grow and save our own seeds, to share with neighbours, and basically to evolve away from supporting his seed-growing business. Why? Because obviously, he and his business will do better if we all do. He's diversifying his own network of seed-growers and customers, as well as his output. He also wrote a small book about seed saving, and frequently writes blogs, articles, newsletters and other things about how to grow plants and seeds in these changeable times. A greedier businessperson might not encourage seed-saving, when they can make more money upfront if their customers remain ignorant about this practice. Dan Jason is looking at our mutual future, and diversifying all of our prospects, in community. There will always be a place for that.

Diversity in Life and Education
Which brings me to the human side of this picture: How do we diversify our own human community; our own skill-sets, to ensure our adaptability as the world changes around us? I threw out the word unschooling back there, like it was nothing, and for our family it really is nothing these days, but I know it's rather out-of-left-field for some people. Here's what I'm going on about: Unschooling is the practice of allowing our kids (and ourselves) to explore any and all of their interests, on their own time, in their own ways, and just seeing what comes out of it all! Without going too far into our own experiences (read more about our unschooled young adult children at our blog, if you like), our family is now reassured that unschooling was an excellent choice for our kids' future. After many years of determining and following their own interests, they have become agile thinkers, able to check in with their own needs, fulfill those needs successfully, and change course when the need arises. What more can one ask for, in a future where no career choice is guaranteed, nor even the ground we stand upon?

But that's our kids--what about us? We're a couple of middle-aged adults, one dependent on a satisfactory job that doesn't meet our evolving ethical standards, and the other now disabled by long-covid. Can we still unschool? The answer is yes, and we've been doing it with our kids these past many years. Our skill-sets have grown as our needs changed, and we find ourselves becoming reasonably adept at growing food, raising and processing chickens, building needed devices, implements and home-improvements, and also learning to live together, twenty-four-seven, peacefully. We're also becoming very good at living more simply, and finding joy in a life far less cluttered by activities and must-haves than it once was. Life is always about unending personal growth--it's just that climate change and related social change have caused us to appreciate that more.

The Aesthetic of Natural Diversity
What I sometimes struggle to appreciate is the absolute chaos of natural diversity. I mean when you just let things grow however they're going to. It's a mess. Truly. My garden, my kids' educational careers, my own career and even my living room is just truly an absolute mess. But I've learned to see its beauty.

See this lovely mess of a garden bed? We had an open garden here a week ago, and I heard a few people comment on the number of "weeds" we have. And they're not wrong! But the tone of their comments was. Now that I am coming to understand the importance of diversity in my regenerative garden, this picture is pure joy, to me! 

one of the diverse salad-green beds in our garden

What you're looking at here is a few indoor-started heads of lettuce, now ravaged by our salad-needs, along with some dark green kale on the right, flowering out as it does every spring and fall. On the left there's a tiny pink flower--that's a Robert Geranium, considered a weed by most people, but it's antiviral and edible, so I put it in salads and smoothies. Along with this there is a whole plethora of edible asters: dandelions, wild lettuces (and some seeded from our previous years' crops), lambs' quarters, and others. There are teeny tiny bittercress plants everywhere, their leaves and tiny white flowers delicious in salads and sandwiches. There's some chickweed coming up, which will brighten my summer smoothies and delight our chickens, and in the woodchip-covered pathway at my feet, there's a lively mat of winecap mycelium, that pushes up big tasty mushrooms at totally unpredictable times. This garden feeds us. And when I see the diversity of flavours and promise, it's absolutely gorgeous to me.

Parenting can be like that, too. When my kids were young, I used to feel irritated by the drifts of toys, costumes, and craft materials that seemed to cover everything. But I also saw how it mirrored the creative mess of my own art studio, and how my kids dug in their mess, explored and improvised, and eventually also desired to tidy it themselves. Now they're older, their social lives are also somewhat of a primordial stew. I look at my own young-adult memories and how different my social life is now than what I thought I was building, at twenty. I have a few of the same friends, but our interests and priorities have changed many times. My children, of course, are no different, even though right now it's hard for them to imagine how life will change them. Their activities are an eclectic chaos of experimental successes and left-behinds. At twenty, our son is paid as a 3D modeller, but also practices music, concept design, drawing, and is a life-long physics and engineering enthusiast. Our seventeen-year-old daughter runs programs for kids, organizes an alternative education festival, publishes a magazine by and for kids, and has recently also begun a side-career as a dog-trainer. Three or four years ago I could not have predicted many of these directions, but our kids found them and followed them with enthusiasm, and that has set them up for success in our unpredictable world. They're accustomed to wrangling interests and commitments in multiple different directions. They're accustomed to changing course when needs demand it. Our kids' comfort and ease with this chaotic, changeable lifestyle is the gift that unschooling gave them. As our social climate becomes more chaotic, they will fit right in.

The Struggle of Allowing
Then there's the concept of allowing. I'm not really as comfortable with all this as I make it sound. Excited by the prospects; reassured by preliminary observations--yes! But I fight change like the devil, and I am not good at just going with the flow. I'm a child of the eighties. I thought I would pick a career and stick to it forever; have kids who went to school, grew up through birthday parties and grocery shopping and family holidays, and I'd always live a typical low-to-middle-class family life. I also thought Caesar salad would always be easy to buy. Now lettuce is too expensive, eggs for the dressing are even more expensive, chickens are dying by the hundreds of thousands in their barns from flooding and bird flu, and I'm allergic to croutons. Damn. I had to allow my palate to change with the times. 

Sometimes allowing my kids to make choices I don't understand or necessarily agree with feels like gluing my back to the wall; peeling my eyes from the view and willing my voice to fall back into my throat. I pound down my own fears to let my kids thrive or fall flat on their faces. It's like letting the weeds and lettuce seedlings stay under the dominating squash leaves, knowing they'll just die there, but that their failed lives will feed the squash. And then discovering that one of them grew and fed my family, anyway. Allowing is when I know for sure I could make things better in the short term if I just take control, but I also know that I can't see all the variables, so any control I think I have is just a sham, anyway. As our world becomes ever less predictable, I can't predict how my controlling actions will play out in my garden, my life, my kids' education, or even this article. So I force myself to quit trying.

Luckily I've diversified my needs and the seeds I plant, and am learning to cooperate with the changing climate.

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

A Letter to the Boy Who Was Bullied with Me

This is a hard topic for me, and one that I rarely bring up, because, even after forty years, it's too raw to talk about. I was one of four kids on the bottom rung of my grade, throughout elementary school. I don't have to tell you what that means. The story is ubiquitous all over the world. And Pink Shirt Day seemed kind of like a slap in the face to me, sometimes, because the isolation caused by being bullied means that I never feel welcome in cultural events like that. Especially that.


This year is different. I connected with one of the kids who was my bullying-mate. I say mate because the other kids used us against each other. We were never friends--precisely because of that. Now we are, I guess, and I have his permission to publish this poem that came out of our conversation, and my recent walk to the overgrown forest site where the cottage he grew up in once stood. This is where the photos come from.

I'm publishing the poem and images as part of my current project, One Solar Year (@onesolaryear on Instagram, and then possibly a book, at a later date). This project lies at the intersection of ecology and humanity, with thoughts and observations on changing human experience through one of our planet's cycles, trailing behind our sun... and during our interesting journey through climate change and social change. I'll add an in-line text version of the poem at the bottom, for those reading on phones.








I still walk the trail that led to your house
often, where the ivy is taking over
the woods that took over
      your home      
I remember the day you came to school and said you’d dropped your homework
                         in the mud
lame excuse, like the dog ate it
they laughed
but I knew you slogged that muddy
trail to school every morning
shoulders bent to confront
the wind and rain
mind washed empty to confront
                    our classmates
now I walk the trail without you
and remember us

              they laughed
because they couldn’t kick you
while the teacher was standing
they kicked us when she looked away
shoving my face into spilled little sausages
on the floor, splotched with mud from the trails we came in on
Keds in my ribs, gravel-studded
gumboots caught in my hair

he pushed my head down again, when I pulled to standing
I couldn’t look at you

we lived parallel lives, we knew the same
      knuckles
the same jeers
we knew the pain of watching teachers
watching us
and not helping
              us
telling us we could do better; we could stand
    up
move out of the way of the dodgeballs
the basketballs that found our heads
before the  hoops

but our shoulders bent to our teachers’
                 demands
just stand tall, they said
what did they know?

we already stood
like pale beaten trunks on a    
       muddy trail
yeah, we were bent!
backs folded against the wind of our classmates’
words, we knew

we couldn’t even
speak to each other
though we lived the same torment; we knew

how impossible it is
to stand up
when every part of us is
frozen
with rejection

already standing
              invisible

in our isolation

forty years later, you
asked me whether they   
          intended
    to isolate
us
   or was it just
    a byproduct?
I said they’re just climbing
        the social ladder
                like ivy

you and I were the trees,
  my friend
pale-barked trees
growing skyward
       free-ward
get the hell out of
                there-ward
       words can sure
hurt us, to the bone
so we learned
not to hear
to forget
to stand cold
and alone, self-
isolate

you said
you wished you could say
you came away with
your heart fully intact
but that too, was
not offered to us so we drank
the shards of our hearts into oblivion
raised kids and tried to protect them
from our own childhoods; you left this town
and the mud and the ivy and the
rain falling down on our paths        I stayed here
and beat the memories into words        rejected the school
                                       where shit happened
where you and I         were never friends           and I said we
               all       climbed      our ladders       to wherever we went
to drink in the sunshine of life that was denied to us
by the soles and rubberized toes of runners

and with our branches we tell the sky
we plan to be whole, again
I tell you you’re my friend
now
in the mud of our adulthood
and memories and forgets

it’s my commitment
my friend
to grow despite the ivy
to the sky