Wednesday, March 20, 2024

Adult Unschoolers: An update on our kids' lives! (And the Careers Situation)


This morning my daughter sent me a photo of her dog, Clara, sulking on the couch. She's not a morning-dog, apparently, and I guess sometimes she just doesn't feel like going for a walk, even if it is to review a new dog park for Rhiannon's work. Whatever "work" is. Clara gets treats no matter what, so should it matter whether she's helping with a reel, going on a doggy field trip with her hiking buddies, or just sitting at home waiting for Rhiannon while she's at her other work? Clara has adapted well to city-living, since leaving her island home with my two unschooled kids, just over a year ago. I'm told she likes to walk up to automatic doors to make them open, and she knows where her favourite treat-dispensing doggy store is, and will pull Annie towards it from many blocks away. Thankfully, my kids have adapted to city-living, too.

About eighteen months ago, my 17 and 20 year-old children started planning to move out, as soon as they could get jobs and a place to rent on the mainland. I encouraged them but carried on as if nothing was happening, because I wasn't prepared to live without my kids. At all. They, however, were absolutely prepared to live without their parents, quickly arranged jobs and a rental for themselves, and moved out on January 2, 2023. 

In the month between them finding a rental and actually moving into it, my heart was crushed. I was terrified for their safety in the city (they'd spent most of their childhood on a small rural island), but mostly I was just bereft. What does a mother do when the greatest joys of her life just up and go elsewhere? Well she uses a phone, that's what. And it turns out I'm OK after all. In large part because the bond that began with pregnancy and was nurtured through attachment parenting and unschooling is secure, so no matter where my children are, we know our hearts are connected, and by whatever means necessary, we're there for each other. Whether that means sending photos of their sulking dog, phoning for advice on banking or tenancy rights, or gleefully texting us photos of the steam clock at midnight on New Year's Eve. It's been an amazing year of growth and discovery for each and all of us, and my heart is just fine!

So last year I wrote something about unschoolers building careers, and people have asked for an update! Here it is. ☺ I won't pretend it's been completely smooth for them, but I do feel that both kids' struggles have been needed challenges that led them to important personal discovery.

“Photo of Rhiannon and Taliesin (not photoshopped)”
I asked the kids for a photo of them and the dog
for the article and this is what I got. I love that our relationship is silly.

At the outset, Rhiannon's plan seemed to be the most sound: Following her passions for childcare and dog training, she had arranged a 4-day/week nanny-share job that would cover her cost of living for the first year, while she planned to attain her dog-trainer certificate, work evenings and weekends as a trainer, and build a base of private training clients that would enable her, eventually, to only nanny sometimes. She still held some interest in pursuing her Early Childhood Education certificate, but maybe later. She's a remarkable organizer, and things went pretty close to her plan.

Rhiannon (or Rhi, as she is known) at Raintown Dog Training

Rhiannon lucked out massively (or perhaps she's just very socially astute) with her employers. The owner and staff of Raintown Dog Training not only took her under their wings as a very young new trainer, but continue to treat her as an equal, respect her decisions and values, help her to advance her skills, and to employ her as much as possible, even in slower seasons. Her nanny-share families paid her as promised, including sick-days and paid vacation, provided whatever was necessary for her to care for their children, and shared her values of inclusiveness and diversity exposure for their children. It was, in fact, important to them that she uphold these values, which made her feel she really had something to give. 

What I think she didn't expect was how physically and mentally draining and isolating it is to care for other people's children every day, and the barrage of viruses she'd fall victim to. When we raise our own children we make choices that suit our needs, our routines, and the simple practicality of living. But when we hand our children over to a caregiver, those same choices may not be as convenient, and when that caregiver has two children from different families with different choices, things can get a bit complicated. Rhiannon took this all in stride, and never complained, but quite frequently she and the children were sick, and in those (many) weeks, the complexity became exhausting. Then throughout the autumn, as she transitioned to working full-time as a dog trainer, she was frequently working six or seven days a week--common for young adults now--and she was absolutely drained. 

I think by the end of the year she was grateful to be moving on to a career that would involve more engagement with the public, and really just looking forward to a little free time. She now has a deeper appreciation for the physical challenges faced by early childhood educators, and no longer wants to work in that field. That's not to say she's lost interest in working with children! She's still taking on a few shifts with the kids she's cared for in the past, and is glad to be able to maintain those connections.

Because my Annie seems intent on filling every spare second of her time, she also now volunteers at the SPCA. I get the best deal, here, as she sends me photos and updates of all the adorable dogs she works with, how they're recovering from their various issues, and the great news when one of them finds a home. I'm amazed she finds the energy for this, and am also extremely proud. Not just because she's such a values-driven, generous person, but because she is somehow managing to continue seeing the positives, even when working in a place that often sees so much tragedy. That is a gift I'm constantly impressed by.

And then there are the books... BOOKS!!! If you've followed my kids' story for some time, you will know how important books are to Rhiannon. Maybe you already follow Rhiannon's Reading Corner, where she reviews books with an eye for authenticity, inclusiveness and diversity. So this year, finding herself in the glorious land of thrift stores (the city), she began thrifting children's books, and putting them into the hands of grateful young readers through her Loved Books program. She is intensely morally-guided, so when she feels that she won't have a use for the books she's thrifted, she donates them to free libraries around the city. Financially, this program is still costing her money, but she feels great about it, and that's the important part. She has also recently arranged to read to children at a local kids' and parents' café. You can take the ECE career out of the mind, but you can't take the mind out of ECE...


OK, Let's talk about Taliesin. He saved up quite a bit of money while working from home on various contracts as a digital artist, so when he moved out the plan was to fund the first few weeks out of his savings, until he could find a 9-5 job at a Vancouver office. Well... that didn't go exactly as planned!

Tali wanted to work in games or film, so continued developing his modelling and art skills from home, while diligently applying to every company he could find. As the weeks became months, and a few people told him that nobody in the industry was hiring, he began applying to remote jobs, even as the situation of building his portfolio at home, alone while his sister was out working, became more and more isolating. The last thing he wanted was to be stuck behind his computer, working from home. But he persisted. As the months dragged on, despite fears of his savings running out (and the worst-case-scenario of having to return home loomed) he kept himself sane by going out daily for walks and photography inspiration. He got to know his city, and began experimenting with all the great food and entertainment options he now has around him. If I caught him at home while applying for jobs, he sounded unhappy, but if I happened to call while he was out jaunting around his city, he sounded the happiest I've heard him in years. He sent us photos of sunsets from the bridges, and kilometer-counts from his increasingly frequent runs. He bought himself a new tripod and proper running shoes. He made new friends and in a very non-career way, I think he found a piece of himself that had been missing during his recent isolated years at home on the island.

And then he got a writing job. Yes, this once-upon-a-time kid who used to abhor writing assignments (but who has a wonderful grasp of communication and language), got a job writing Blender tutorials! I think he was more surprised than we were, but there he was, financially limping along through last summer, employed as a writer! It didn't surprise me at all that this was so easy for him, but it was completely delightful to watch him gain confidence in an activity that I had, unfortunately, accidentally turned into a childhood misery for him with the likes of the "Painless Junior: Writing" workbook (yeah... that was never going to go over well with my wildly creative son, despite and because of the book's front cover declaring "Don't be a chicken, it's fun to learn!" 🙄) Well, he overcame that particular learning-injury, and became a paid writer! ROCK ON, Taliesin!!

But writing is what he uses to communicate, and his heart is in science and art. So all this time he continued applying for modelling and other digital art jobs, exploring his city with a camera, and making unabashedly science-related art for his portfolio

And then... He got my dream job!!! You know how sometimes you look at a kid and you think: "Wow--I can see his career written all over him!!" And for my son the career I saw was science educator... but then that little person grew up and did other things, and lost his passion for science, and I thought... wait... what? Where did that little boy go who I was convinced would be an interpreter at the planetarium?! I thought he would become one of those tall gawky long-haired science geeks doing explosion shows!!

And then last fall my son video-called me to practice his interview performance for the Space Centre, where he demonstrated Newton's laws and how they apply to space travel, using a little flashlight with some "fire" taped onto the end... And my heart exploded because that kernel of inspired joy that I remembered so well was growing right out of my son into the world around him!!

Tali's first-day selfie at the Space Centre.
Of COURSE he got the job, even though his confidence has taken a big hit through his teen years, and last December I found myself sitting in the audience watching him demonstrate explosions and rocket propulsion on the stage at the planetarium, and tears were running down my cheeks. I watched my son up on that stage and I saw that he shares the gift of every gawky science geek I looked up to as a kid. He has the spark of childish excitement of my first science teacher, Mr. McAllister. He has the gentleness of his beautifully geeky father in the way he acknowledges and responds to kids in the audience. And he has back his own confidence in the astounding base of knowledge he holds about physics. It was a joy to watch him.

So, what many of us don't realize (I certainly didn't) is that our non-profit agencies are always in financial crisis. Those inspired science interpreters can't earn enough to live on, and despite their vast knowledge and serious dedication to educating our children, they can't afford to do their jobs. After my son leaves a day of running physics and astronomy workshops for school-groups, shows in the Star Theatre or Ground-Station, telescope nights, or long sleepless overnights with a hundred Girl Guides, he comes home and has to make money. So, like most of the interpreters, Taliesin will shortly only be able to work one day a week at the Space Centre, as he's finally landed a full-time job as a digital artist. He's creating car accessory advertising for a company called Protex. It's maybe not the most inspiring job, but it allows him to use his art skills, and he'll finally stop using up the dregs of his savings! What a relief!

How did unschooling play into all this?
I asked Tali and Annie about this. 

Taliesin says, "[I have] a wide variety of interests that keeps me learning things even if I’m not in university or at work, and I’m used to having to figure things out myself so I’m able to adapt to new situations." He also credits unschooling with enabling him to maintain a "great relationship" with his sister, but feels that it also made it very challenging for him to find friends.

Annie says, "I like what I’m doing right now and what ended up happening in my life, so if I had the chance to go back and change stuff, I wouldn’t. But I don’t know what specifically causes the things I’m doing right now to happen; it could have been benefited by unschooling or not... I don’t know. I feel like sometimes it’s harder for me to relate to other people, or to feel like I know what to do in different situations because I just haven’t been in them before, but I wouldn’t want to change anything, because I like my life right now!"

I think it's totally fair to say that unschooling as we did in a small community without other unschoolers set my kids up for some social hurdles. In their teen years they missed out on a lot of social events and rites-of-passage that their peers enjoyed, from school to birthday parties, to sharing the drudgery with a cohort of same-aged kids. We tell ourselves they also missed out on all the things we don't like about school (bullying, competitive education, coerced learning, lack of time to follow passions, etc.) and we don't regret our choice to unschool them at all. In fact, I believe their success in living independently at 18 and 20 is largely due to the lifelong-learning, agile thinking, and self-motivation that unschooling instilled in them. But the fact remains that they're quite unique in this. Most of their peers are off at universities now, or still living with their parents. It can be hard to relate, and my kids are among the youngest of the young professionals, so they don't easily fit into any of the major groups in our society. Still, unschooling also provided them resilience, and they are finding their way: managing not only to make new friends, but also to continue developing their very solid sibling relationship, now living as room-mates. They're finding themselves in the city and within the context of their society, and they meet challenges with courage and a solution-seeking mindset. I can't hope for anything more.

I always said that the only important thing I wished for my children was that they would be happy. I now know that happiness is not a goal but a mindset. My kids are learning to find satisfaction in the diverse activities they've occupied themselves with while simultaneously holding multiple jobs to afford Vancouver's increasingly unaffordable rent. They're unschooling adulthood. They're becoming emotionally and financially resilient, and when things are just too hard, they have each other, their parents on the phone, and a big fluffy dog who will snuggle the love back into them. Even when she's lazy in the morning.

Clara hogging the blankets.

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Playgrounds, Gaza, and a Forest: How Competition Impedes Prosperity

One damp autumn day, I crossed the dirt and wood-chip playground to the swings, where I saw a girl a couple of years younger than I was, and also the bottom of her grade's social heap, swinging on the best swing. You know the best swing? It's the one that is for some reason not spun up out of reach by the older kids, and the most visible to the playground supervisor, so other kids don't bother trying to haul you out of it. During those years, I spent all recesses and lunch hours either hiding on the bluffs, up in a tree, or firmly glued to that swing and swinging fiercely back-and-forth, back-and-forth, daring people to come near me with a glare they never noticed. But this day, this younger girl's thick brown hair flew back-and-forth, back-and-forth over her raincoated shoulders. I stood at the pole of the swing-set and ground my boots into the dirt. When nobody was looking, I told her passing face that I was magic and would turn her into a rock if she didn't get off and give me the swing.

When I was a kid I was near the bottom of the social heap. The kids who hurt me the most were also hurt the most by their parents, or by other kids at the school. It's normalized, in our culture, to turn and dish out to someone else a cruelty that was served to us. School, career-building, politics, capitalism--they're all just games of getting ahead of others, and put us in a position where we feel that "getting ahead" is the same as "prosperity". It's an illusion, but our longstanding capitalist social structure leads us to believe in it at the cost of vision and community. 

Israel is flexing its playground seniority in Gaza. It feels heartless to compare genocide to playground bullying, but I want to point out that in accepting what we see as insignificant cruelty in our privileged day-to-day as a necessary cost of getting ahead, we also pave the way to accept greater and greater atrocities. I understand from my playground experience how easy it feels to commit some lesser act of cruelty against another person when I've been hurt. So by extrapolation, I get that maybe if your people has been persecuted for thousands of years, and even in living memory was the pointed victim of horrific acts of genocide, it might seem less than horrible for (some members) of that people to commit genocide against the next victim down the chain. I mean, aren't we all just making gains by stepping up upon the backs of those just below us in rank, privilege, or esteem?

Well no--not everybody is doing that. Some of us from every race, religion, and social ranking in the world are in fact trying very hard not to be that kind of monster. Some of those in my circles who are most vocally supporting freedom for Palestinians are my Jewish friends. Because fighting to get or stay on top of a social pyramid does not equal prosperity! Because some of us learned this important lesson in childhood.  

Back in my elementary school playground... I have never forgotten the look of horror on that girl's face, and my triumph at seeing her run away, so I could get to safety on that swing. My triumph was the worst. I remember the sick feeling in my stomach, after she left. I didn't know where she had run to, or who might be kicking her, feeding her dirt, or holding her down and whispering the most vile threats in her ears. I remember thinking we looked rather similar and maybe she could have been my friend if I hadn't been so desperate to get that swing. I felt that getting the swing gave me safety, but it also took away hers. I remember that my triumph came with a horrible cost to my feeling of righteousness, and that year I became one of those people who knows better than to pass the bullying on to the next rung down the ladder. Sometime after that I bravely spoke a few words to my bullied-mate in the classroom. We had a breath-holding competition. So for a couple of minutes we found common ground in an environment of terror and ladder-climbing, and I think in some small way we both learned to transcend the hierarchy of our class.

We can ALL learn from our mistakes. We can all look at our leaders and our cultural and personal privileges and refuse to make progress at the cost of others. Sure, we're trying to survive in what is, at its root, a culture of competition, and to some degree we have to participate in the status quo to survive. But we can also work to change it. Those of us with more privilege have more ability to effect change. We can change the ways we look at others; we can choose to befriend the people who make less money than we do, the people whose lashes lower when we speak to them; the people who seem least likely to improve our social status. We can look critically at our privilege and resources and belongings and ask ourselves what we actually need, and how we can change our lives and share the excess to achieve a social balance in our community. We can remind ourselves that a balanced community means prosperity for all. 

Does prosperity mean a lack of suffering? Of course not. We're all going to die. We're all going to hurt. We're all going to lose loved ones, and health, and hope. But a balanced community is exactly the only thing that will sustain us through these challenges. And we can look to the ecology just outside our city limits for inspiration in achieving prosperity through social balance. 

A tree in a forest. If a maple drops ten thousand seeds on the forest floor, all but a few hundred of those are likely to be eaten by insects, rodents and birds before they ever sprout, and of those that do sprout, most will be eaten as spring greens by the likes of deer, and others. And maybe five will grow to be saplings, and maybe zero will live to become trees, most years. Until one day the mother tree has crumbled under the weight of some winter snow and in the mess of her fallen limbs, one of last year's saplings will grow sheltered and become a tree, itself. But you know what? In all those years where not a single one of those seeds grew to maturity, that original tree fed the ecosystem around her, and reached her roots through the landscape to share nutrients with the neighbouring trees. All the other plants and animals' droppings and dead bodies fed the soil, and now that soil is rich with microbial life and nutrients, and that new maple tree will grow strong--not on the backs of all those it conquered, but in an ecology of giving and dying and growing. The maple tree has no fear of falling behind. She is a sanctuary for mosses, ferns and all kinds of insect, microbial and animal life--she is part of that life. She's just growing and giving and crumbling and feeding her ecology. And that is why she prospers. I want to learn some of that wisdom.

What if there was no fear of falling behind in human society? Would we carry, feed, and connect with each other; with our ecology? Would we relish those connections instead of conquering others? I feel like I've experienced this when I sing in community. When my own voice drowns away among the voices of others, but together we're a beautiful sound. I experience it when I play with children in the wilderness. We're each so insignificant in the big forest, but our play changes the landscape and we see the impact of our being there; we learn to play carefully. We learn that if we destroy the stream-bank, then the water downstream will be muddy, and then we'll have no clean water for drinking, anywhere. We learn that affecting anything (anybody) will have impacts on ourselves.

If my life depends on privilege gained through competition, and supported by people who aren't being supported by me, then when those people's lives falter, so do I. We can't build a pyramid to stand on, then rip out the stability of the base, and expect to keep standing on the top.

And from another perspective, when we've prospered exponentially at the cost of the ecosystem that supports us without honouring it, giving back to it, and living in harmony with it, the ecology we depend on is faltering underneath our ridiculous pyramid, and we're all beginning to discover what happens, then.

Our system of pyramid-climbing is not a strong one. A strong system is lateral. Like a forest, or a group of people singing. A strong system loses a limb and regrows to heal the wound. A strong system has no leaders, but many trusted and equal members, all giving instead of taking. Giving is not sacrifice, it's prosperity.

It's scary to think of not having enough (food, money, land, power, achievement, influence, etc.) In a hierarchical culture, "not enough" equals failure, threat; fear. For those near the bottom of the cultural pyramid in my community it means no shelter; no food. For those on the bottom in Gaza it means abject trauma every day. It means death. Is this an acceptable cost for my "getting ahead"? I don't want this kind of unstable throne. I don't want to support a global society that prospers on hierarchical oppression, because in that kind of culture, everybody is a potential pawn, or enemy. Everybody is unstable. 

I want to transcend capitalism and find joy in uplifting others instead of uplifting myself at a cost to others. I want to stop prospering as an individual, and when I fall, I want to fall down in community, knowing that others will grow into my wounds. I want to be worth more than what I own or who bends under my feet. In a lateral community I will be worth the whole of us. I want the mirage of hierarchy to disappear and I want us all to be free.

Free Palestine.

Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Death and Grace

My reflection in the vase of flowers I had just set on my grandmother's grave, Geldermalsen, the Netherlands.

I think the first death of my memory was my cat Katykins, who arrived dead in the trunk of our green VW beetle. My friend and I looked at his little stiff body and I wondered at how similar and still utterly different it was from the rabbits my family routinely slaughtered for food. He was soft and black on the outside, but not like food or rabbitskins, and also not at all like the weak, leukemia-ravaged friend who had left for the vet that morning. More like a stuffy, not that we called them that, at the time. And my mother was inexplicably upset, and I'm sorry now that I didn't understand why.

Then there were relatives like Uncle Joe. All I knew of his death was that I had to have a TB test. And my aunts who I was supposed to visit in France and South Dakota, but both died just before I was to leave. When people we rarely see disappear, it's like a traffic-light in the distance that turns yellow, then red, and then green again before we ever even arrive. And we're young and life just keeps keeping on.

When my dog was shot, more compassionately than the pigs, I ran away and hid. I never saw her buried, and today I remember my father's agony more than my own. I still look for her in the brown-eyebrowed faces of living dogs, and the softness of their ears and paws that gently pad my legs and say "save me from the thunder", and the eyes that recall the innocence of that time before all the most confusing deaths began.

Then there were the car-crashes. The friend crushed on his motorcycle under a semi. Cancers. Children left motherless and the one who drank himself away before the cancer could get him. And those whose lives turned out to be more painful than death, so they left us lost and bewildered and guilty and frantically watching for signs, like maybe next time we could save someone. Be the net or the soil or the held hand at the last moment, or preferably the whole life long, so that life might have been preferable, after all.

Those deaths left me knowing I was powerless. 

In the days before my grandmother died, I said "Grandma I'm scared", and she looked at me through half-open eyes said "me too, honey, but it'll be all right" and I struggled to believe her, as I held her unbelievably soft hand and nursed my tiny son, and then walked away from her for the last time.

I was terrified of death all my life, until the day I watched my grandfather die, on a hospital gurney in a supply closet. He said, "well how 'bout that!" and the pinkness slowly slid off his face, and neck, and hands, and he was gone. In that stunned moment our whole family was graced by his positive outlook and gentleness. I miss him, but in his final act, he transcended fear by giving us a window to gratitude.

I've lost so many people since then. My Dutch grandmother was the first. She drowned so suddenly and so far away that it took me years to accept she was gone. I lost my father like a great explosion that impacted every aspect of my body, being, and life. I lost people violently and sometimes gently and even gratefully. I've taught myself to kill for food and for mercy; I've become accustomed to recognising that sudden but graceful draining of life my grandfather introduced me to in a chicken's head in my hand, in a deer who hit the fence, or in my dog on my lap. I know how quickly the flies come. I know the suddenly-odd vacant smell of dead animals and dead people and the pain and the relief and the sheer terror of things not being as we expected. And I've taught myself to imagine that feeling onto the people lost from afar.

The horrors of war and climate change and all the other capitalism-induced crises are not horrible because of death, but because that death is founded on greed. I am teaching myself to accept death as a part of life, but never as a symptom of greed.

Nearly nine years after my father died, I still long to phone him--like he's just a short distance across the water and I haven't been to visit in too long. But I've stopped reaching for the phone, and instead I caress the memory of his voice asking for news. I hear some aspect of his voice when my nephew speaks, and his cultivated patience in my daughter. Like in my garden the dead plants become feed for the compost, and resurrect from seeds and water and sunlight, next year, to bloom, and die. I now see the continuity of love and life that transcends the deaths of our bodies. I see my father's toes on my own feet; his funny little wry smile between my son's cheeks, and I see his own and his father's quiet gentleness in my partner's manner. Sometimes we choose people who carry forward the things we need to hang on to from those we've lost. 

Death is not just a part of life, but an opportunity to savour it. It's an opportunity to question how we live in and of the world; how we create the world, and how we build futures for ourselves and our children. It's an opportunity to hold our loved ones dear, and to let them go. To hold the hearts of those who are grieving, and hold our own grief with respect and compassion.

Tonight, as so many cultures celebrate the thinning of the veil between the worlds of living and dead, I'll stand with my partner in the darkness and think of those people we've lost and loved and of how we might carry their goodness forward with grace.

Thursday, September 14, 2023

10 Ways to Save Humanity, Even If You Can't March on Sept 15th

As the death-toll from Libya’s storm floods surpasses eleven thousand, and various hurricanes march their ways across the oceans, people all over the world are gearing up to March to End Fossil Fuels, tomorrow. (Find your city’s event on this map.)

painting of person standing on a log in a lake with apocalyptic fire in the distance
Not a Thing Between Me and You (detail) … Recent painting by Emily van Lidth de Jeude, in response to Neil Young’s song, “Overhead”. This painting deals with our compulsion to just keep going into an unknown future, together, even when we don’t know we’re not alone. It’s about courage.

But what if we can’t march? And even if we can, how are we going to propel this impetus into action? How are we going to actually save our future on this planet? (Let’s face it, we’re not going to another planet, and instead of talking about “our children’s future” now, we’re talking about our own.) We’ve got months or a couple of years to turn this around, and even if we do, storms like this are now here to stay. So what can we do about it?

  1. Become resilient.
    We can stop following the status quo, and learn to live differently than our youths and the media told us to. Learn to cook our own food. Learn to pivot our careers and plans and housing situations as needed, and without being traumatized. Adaptable creatures survive.
  2. Make our kids resilient. 
    So you might know I usually write about unschooling. That was (and still is) my effort to raise resilient, independent, capable adults. And it worked! At 18 and 21, my kids are now living independently (together), paying their own way, and making changes for a better world. 
    Unschooling isn’t the only way to make our kids resilient. Any kind of freedom to explore and develop their own skills will help. As will encouraging schools to opt for explorative learning, wilderness education, and all the things that will help our kids be connected, creative, courageous, and resourceful. Those are the skills our kids will need to survive our new world.
  3. Grow food.
    Whatever we can do, whether it’s growing sprouts on our kitchen counters to save $10/week in veggies, or escaping the rat race to go whole-hog on a homestead — just do it. We can all (and yes I mean all) grow at least some of our food. This not only saves money (if we learn from someone else who’s doing it effectively and don’t fall for sales tactics for all the gadgets we don’t need), it also brings us closer to our food, giving us a deeper understanding of life, our bodies, our connection to the ecology we live in, and nutrition. It’s healthier for us (fresher food), and it’s also healthier for the environment, since everything we grow (sustainably) ourselves is something we don’t buy from the unsustainable agricultural industry.
  4. Buy local.
    For all those foods and other things we can’t grow or make, ourselves, we can buy local! I guarantee you there is somebody out there trying to get rid of a bunch of homegrown zucchinis or apples right about now. What if we paid them instead of a big supermarket chain? What if we bought from local farmers, builders, and creators instead of from the capitalist industries that are the root of climate change? This is a shift we can make.
  5. Don’t buy! Boycott capitalism.
    Buying local is one way of sidestepping the corporations who are doing the most damage, but buying less is an even better way. A big part of our problem is overpopulation, and then there’s overconsumption. We really don’t need all the stuff. We don’t need big houses. We don’t need big cars, we don’t need lots of clothing or school supplies or travel or household items. We don’t even need as much food as we currently consume, and we especially don’t need to be wasting as much food as we do through restaurant and supermarket refuse, and simple neglect at home. How many times do people go on a fabulous vacation and then declare they need a vacation from their vacation? What if we just took a local vacation in the first place — one that doesn’t displace people from rental accommodation, and that connects us with our homes in ways we hadn’t experienced, before? In the space that’s left without the things that we don’t *actually* need, we will learn to find convenience, fulfillment and joy. We will have space to keep building that resilience and resourcefulness I mentioned earlier.
  6. Be happy with less.
    Along with resilience and resourcefulness comes happiness. It is just plain so rewarding to grow my own food! I go out every day now and tend my chickens, weed a bit of veggie garden, eat some food right off the plants, and just generally revel in a lifestyle that I once found daunting. I feel empowered by my mended clothing in a way I don’t feel empowered by something brand new. I now have some serious disabilities, and learning to be resilient and resourceful has made me happy, similarly to how my job working with kids used to make me feel.
  7. Love our local ecology.
    Partly the joy I get is from being active in my local ecology (also similarly to when I worked with kids on wilderness exploration)! I have learned so much about how connected we are; am currently fascinated with the many types of wild bees and other insects that frequent my small yard, and with their life’s work and activities that all contribute to the diversity we depend on. How does this love save our world? By connecting us with it. If we love our ecology, we’ll know it better, and the more we know and love, the greater ability we’ll have to protect it. We need our ecology. If only for the simple reason that it feeds us and protects us from storms. That in its diversity it will recover when we finally do turn the trend of climate change around.
  8. Love our neighbours.
    We’ve got a couple of new neighbours recently. We’re making an effort to connect with them. You know why? Because when the power goes out, when a tree falls across the road, when someone’s pipes freeze or someone needs any kind of help at all — or just a hug, we will be there for each other. When the storms come, we’ll need each other.
  9. Love our children.
    Obviously. Because the hell that we’re going to experience pales deeply against the hell that our kids will know. If we love them, we need to save them.
  10. Just love.
    And when it’s all too much, when we’re succumbing to doubt and fear and a feeling that nothing we do could possibly be enough, we can love. If I’m going to die, I want to do it in the arms of someone who loves me. And more importantly, I’m far less likely to die early if I share a deep love. Our future and neighbours and children and the whole global population is more likely to thrive if we live a life of love instead of material acquisition. 

Love is actually a hard thing to do. So I’ll tumble out of my list now, just to write a little about love. Love is a challenge. It’s like a great wave piling up behind us, saying …RUN! And can we do it? Can we keep going even when the wave is catching our ankles? Can we slog through the wash around our waists, grasping at the ungraspable wind, to haul ourselves out when the wave peters out, and get up and run again before the next wave comes? That’s love. It’s work. Neverending, challenging, heartbreaking impossible work. But it’s also the only thing that’s worth working for. Love is, in many ways, survival. When love (of a person, planet, dream, or future) compels us, we can access the resilience, courage, creativity, and resourcefulness needed to meet all the challenges. Climate change included. 

So whether or not you can join a climate march tomorrow, do something. Something that will make you feel empowered and resilient. Something that will save us, tomorrow. And tomorrow? Do something again!

With love,

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Unschooling Myths Debunked! (Sort Of)

If you're a new parent just now hearing about the term "unschooling", or a long-time unschooler just wanting some validation; if you're a parent whose kids' friends are unschoolers, or a teacher who has just quit working to unschool their kids (surprisingly common!), or a teacher who just welcomed former unschoolers to a classroom, this is for you. If you're an educator, a parent, a grandparent or a friend with concerns about some unschooled kids you know, this is for you, too.

This list includes many misconceptions that I held, myself, before unschooling and in the first few years of it. Unschooling is a learning curve for the whole family (and community!), and there is no shame in discovering that some beliefs we held were wrong. I'm proud of my growth in understanding, and know I still have plenty to learn. 

And to be perfectly clear, I KNOW that if you're reading this with concerns for kids, those concerns are rooted in love. You adore those kids and you feel they deserve the best. Unschooling isn't always the best, but for many, it is. And I hope this article will not only set your mind at ease, but also inspire some further research, because the foundational concepts of unschooling are valuable for everyone, in every community, in every educational philosophy. 

First, a brief primer: 

What is Unschooling?

"Unschooling is an informal learning method that prioritizes learner-chosen activities as a primary means for learning. Unschoolers learn through their natural life experiences including play, household responsibilities, personal interests and curiosity, internships and work experience, travel, books, elective classes, family, mentors, and social interaction. Often considered a lesson- and curriculum-free implementation of homeschooling, unschooling encourages exploration of activities initiated by the children themselves, under the belief that the more personal learning is, the more meaningful, well-understood, and therefore useful it is to the child. While unschooled students may occasionally take courses, unschooling questions the usefulness of standard curricula, fixed times at which learning should take place, conventional grading methods in standardized tests, forced contact with children in their own age group, the compulsion to do homework regardless of whether it helps the learner in their individual situation, the effectiveness of listening to and obeying the orders of one authority figure for several hours each day, and other features of traditional schooling.

"The term unschooling was coined in the 1970s and used by educator John Holt, who is widely regarded as the father of unschooling. Unschooling is often seen as a subset of homeschooling, but while homeschooling has been the subject of broad public debate, unschooling received relatively little media attention and has only become popular in recent[may be outdated as of April 2023] years."      

Wikipedia, May 26, 2023

diagram of rhubarb, by Rhiannon, age 10
If you haven't read about unschooling before, and find this perplexing or fascinating, you may want to click through to Wikipedia and read the whole article. It's great! Or read books and articles by John Holt. And consider how each of those many ideas applies to our lives and upbringing as humans on this earth. Or as animals. Or as plants. My daughter, at age ten, wrote a blog about gift economies, which was her passion at the time, and she noticed that rhubarb plants were funnelling rain water for themselves, while also redirecting a certain percentage to the ground (and other plants) around them--they were sharing! Because it was good for their shared ecology and future! I am still amazed by the connection she made, and by the extrapolation from humans to plants. The basic concepts of unschooling are like this, too: we can extrapolate these ideas to every aspect of our lives, communities, and ecologies and benefit.

So what are the myths?

Oh, there are plenty... here's my non-exhaustive list of top myths and misconceptions. Some are harmful to our kids' growth and lives in community, some prevent our kids from participating in activities with their friends, and some prevent non-unschooled kids from accessing the same benefits as unschooled kids do. Let's debunk these things so we all can thrive! 💚

Unschooled Kids Are Disadvantaged, Can't Compete in the Real World, or Won't Thrive as Adults

In the last decade, academic research has finally begun to take stock of this issue, thanks hugely to Gina Riley and Peter Gray, and here's a list of papers for you:  And especially, this:

"A sample of 75 adults, who had been unschooled for at least the years that would have been their last two years of high school, answered questions about their subsequent pursuits of higher education and careers. Eighty-three percent of them had gone on to some form of formal higher education and 44 percent had either completed or were currently in a bachelor's degree program. Overall, they reported little difficulty getting into colleges and universities of their choice and adapting to the academic requirements there, despite not having the usual admissions credentials. Those who had been unschooled throughout what would have been their K-12 years were more likely to go on to a bachelor's program than were those who had some schooling or curriculum-based homeschooling during those years. Concerning careers, despite their young median age, most were gainfully employed and financially independent. A high proportion of them-especially of those in the always-unschooled group-had chosen careers in the creative arts; a high proportion were self-employed entrepreneurs; and a relatively high proportion, especially of the men, were in STEM careers. Most felt that their unschooling benefited them for higher education and careers by promoting their sense of personal responsibility, self-motivation, and desire to learn."                

For perspective, the tertiary education enrollment percentage in 2020 was 80% for Canada in 88% for the USA. (Worldbank data) So unschoolers fare about the same as conventionally-schooled kids as far as higher-education enrolment goes--possibly better, in fact, since this data came from 2015, and the World Bank data (from five years later), shows that enrolment has been increasing. It's also becoming much easier for unschoolers to be accepted to colleges and universities without the usual prerequisites, like highschool diplomas. What would the data tell us if it was all current? 

But is tertiary education even necessary for success in adulthood? Unschoolers are questioning this, too. In his article, Survey of Grown Unschoolers III: Pursuing Careers, Peter Gray states that his study "found that most [surveyed unschooled adults] have gone on to careers that are extensions of interests and passions they developed in childhood play; most have chosen careers that are meaningful, exciting, and joyful to them over careers that are potentially more lucrative; a high percentage have pursued careers in the creative arts; and quite a few (including 50% of the men) have pursued STEM careers." 

Of course Gray's article considers both those who attained tertiary education and those who did not, but nearly twenty years of unschooling has shown me that unschooling makes kids particularly skilled at creating meaningful careers via non-traditional avenues, as well as resourceful, in living within their means, finding growth, discovery, and income in unexpected places. The mechanism that promotes this resourcefulness is exploration. Kids who grow up with not only freedom but also the necessity of finding their own paths learn experientially how to make the best of all situations. Most situations aren't managed or directed for them, so they learn to do these things for themselves, often at an earlier age than schooled kids, for whom the path was determined by someone else, and groomed by the thousands or millions of students who walked it, before. 

Kids Need to Learn That Not Everything Is Going to Be Easy

There's an idea that school struggles (failure, bullying, unkind teachers, exhaustion, having to learn things when we don't want to) are helpful for growth. Yes, kids do grow from these experiences, but they're not real-world, and when we leave school we usually find ourselves in very different circumstances. Let's look at a couple of these things individually:

Social issues like unkind teachers and schoolyard (or in-class) bullying can be opportunities for learning to manage difficult situations--especially if there's support to do so. But in larger schools there is rarely support--if adults are even aware of the situation. Part of the reason my partner and I avoided sending our kids to school was that we were both relentlessly bullied throughout school, even sometimes while teachers were watching, and we were never helped. We didn't learn positive social skills from our many years of this experience. We learned not to trust figures of authority, or our peers. My partner learned to hide, and I learned to hate myself. This is not growth. We wanted something different for our kids, and we felt that giving them smaller groups with thoughtful adult oversight (as appropriate) gave them more opportunity to experience varied social situations and grow, without being permanently harmed. For the record, I'm not saying schools can't provide the support needed, but currently, by and large, schools are strapped for human and other resources, and not able to do so.

Having to learn when we don't want to might seem like a normal part of life, but after a couple of decades discovering explorative learning, I've seen that it's not helpful. Sometimes the obscure facts we had to learn in school become cemented later on, when the information becomes relevant, but if kids learn the things to begin with when it's relevant, it's cemented then. So there's nothing lost in not teaching things earlier. Sometimes, in fact, teaching things before children are developmentally ready to learn them, or when it's not yet relevant to their experience, we waste valuable time and energy that might have been used in more directly meaningful activities.

Also, unschooling is not easy. Unschooled kids encounter most of the same challenges that schooled kids do, but are encouraged to work out solutions for themselves, in their own ways, at their own pace. Life is still life, we still live, develop and learn to thrive in the same society, and learning is still learning. It's never easy.

Unschooling Is Only for People Who Can Afford to Stay Home with Their Kids

It breaks my heart to say this, but yes--it's partly true. Definitely in the early years, unschooling can be financially out-of-reach for single and/or low income parents. Also for parents without community support. School (and after-school programs) are a daycare system for many parents. In fact, 

"John Foster (2011, p. 3) asserts that schooling ...tends to evolve in the direction of capitalist-class imperatives, which subordinate it to the needs of production and accumulation. He goes on to claim that public schools are more concerned with compliance and adherence to rules – skills needed for unskilled factory labor – and that a high quality education that focuses on leadership skills is reserved for children of America’s ‘governing class’ in private schools like Phillips Andover Academy (Bush’s alma mater) or Punahou School (Obama’s alma mater)."

~Schneller, Capitalism and Public Education in the United States

I don't have a handy quotation or data source for this, but am acutely aware that for our capitalist economy to function, most adults need to be working outside the home, consuming goods and paying, for most of their lives. The corporations (and elite) who own most of the wealth depend on the majority of the population to be working, in order to continue amassing that wealth. And from an individual middle- or lower-class perspective, the more this continues, the more we'll have to have two incomes just to afford food and shelter, so... schools that function as childcare are a necessity for survival. And survival is increasingly difficult for single parents.

If you're struggling just for food and shelter, you don't have time for stay-at-home-parenting, which is generally required for unschooling in the early years. There are, of course, quite a few families, who out of determination, desperation or luck, manage to work (and unschool) from home. Or who live in community or family situations that enable them to have free, exploration-friendly childcare, while they work. So it's not impossible, but you will never hear me say it's easy.

Unschoolers Are Privileged

Yes, my family is very privileged, not only financially, because my partner makes enough money to support us on his income alone, but also because we have the support of my parents, and because we're resourceful and happy to live with less than many. We did make sacrifices of time, experiences, and money in order to unschool. I also sacrificed what might have been the best years of my career. But I chose to have kids, and raising them to the absolute best of my ability was part of that, so these sacrifices are nothing in comparison to what we've gained. In fact, I don't think of them as sacrifices at all. That--the ability to see and value my privilege--is the greatest privilege I have.

But are we blind to our privilege? Are we greedy? I don't think so. Like many unschoolers, we work to help make unschooling an option for others, to bring the values of it into the community and into the public school systems, as much as possible. We work to promote the idea that freedom in learning and development can create wonderful communities and a prosperous future for humanity (especially in this time where many former careers are being handed over to machines, but that's another story). I think the greatest gift of having privilege is spreading it about. Like those rhubarb plants in my daughter's diagram: You take what you need, and share the rest around, because it's better for everyone in the end.

Unschooled Kids Are Smart. Most Couldn't Teach Themselves.

My kids are no smarter than other kids. They've just been given opportunities (freedom in life and education; time to explore) that many kids don't have, so they do things that seem impressive. They don't do these things because they're smart; they do these things because they had time and energy, while other kids were too busy. 

I've often been told my kids have success because they learned things easily or "so early". No they didn't. They're about average. There's a lot that schooled kids will have been taught that mine never chose to learn. Like how to play football, or the plot synopses of hundred-year-old novels. Like calculus (my daughter) or mental math (my son, though despite this he studied calculus in college). Actually that's a great representation of the way unschooling looks, on paper: scattered. But in truth, while schooled kids often go through the expected routes to complete each step before moving on to the next, they also forget many of the things they were taught on those steps, and still end up in college calculus without being able to easily calculate thirteen minus five in their heads. That's why we have calculators. We access and use and forget and regain the tools we need as we need them. Unschooled kids are no different. Maybe they still learned about plot synopses, but it was because they were going through book reviews online, trying to find their next great read. Actually that might be how schooled kids ended up learning the same thing.

Also, all kids teach themselves. Or they "end up learning". Because learning is about discovery, and discovery comes from exploration, and it's in our nature to explore. From the moment babies discovered their first sensations in the womb, to the first time they discovered they could put their tiny premature thumbs in their mouths, to the moment they took their first steps and later made their first independent purchases, or partnerships... our kids have been exploring and learning all the time. The only difference with unschoolers is that they're encouraged to do so. (And in schools, the best teachers are facilitators of exploration.) The more opportunity kids have to explore and discover, the more they learn.

Unschooled Kids are Weird. And Antisocial.

I've heard this one so many times. Even from my kids' friends' parents. Maybe sometimes unschoolers are weird, but only because we're still in the minority. I'm the first person to admit that unschooling comes at a social cost. Not only because there are very few kids (especially in small communities like mine) who are available for social interaction on school days, but because we're often not welcomed by community programs, or other parents who are worried about exposing their own kids to unschoolers. Want to help? Welcome our kids! You'll get to know us and we'll all get more social interaction (and learning experiences!) It's that easy. 🙂

Unschoolers Are Radical Leftists, Communists, Conspiracy Theorists, Right-Wingers, Etc.

Nope. Well not more than in any community, anyway. We're just people trying to do the best we can for our kids. Unschooling is a radical choice in this stage of our culture's development, but that doesn't mean we're radical in other ways. Well actually... my regenerative garden is seen as radical, too, but I digress. And I suggest there are a lot of radical parents at every public school, as well, including unschoolers. 

Unschoolers Don't Go to School!

Most unschoolers I know went to school at some point for a myriad of reasons. Mostly in lower grades because parents found it necessary for social or childcare reasons, and often in higher grades because the kids wanted to challenge themselves, to hang out with school-going friends, or to obtain some kind of diploma or degree. And unsurprisingly, there is a lot of crossover between education professionals (teachers, aides, tutors, mentors, advisors, and curriculum developers) and unschooling parents. What happens is that when you really learn a lot about how the education system works (and doesn't), and you're really committed to creating a better future for our society's children, you often end up looking into unschooling. If not for your own children, then for how you can implement its benefits in your classroom. As an unschooling parent and explorative learning educator, I've mentored various teachers on how to bring aspects of explorative learning (unschooling) into classrooms (and how to bring classes out of rooms--ha!) Unschoolers most definitely do go to school.

Unschoolers Miss Out on All the Classic Childhood Experiences

This one breaks my heart because in one very important way, it's true. Of course unschoolers usually miss out on classic childhood experiences, like high school grad (and elementary school grad, and kindergarten grad...), and that mean teacher that everybody loved to complain about, and the amazing school trips, and the sports they learned in gym class that most unschoolers don't ever learn. 

I told myself that's OK because lots of kids miss out on expected traditions. As a parent wanting to have made the right choices for my kids, I reminded myself that millions of high-schoolers missed their grads because of COVID restrictions. Kids miss birthday parties because they're bullied and never invited. Kids miss out on sports because they were more interested in arts. Kids miss out on arts because schools aren't funded well enough to offer them... The list of things kids miss out on is endless. But that doesn't make the things unschoolers miss out on any easier on them.

The main thing unschoolers miss out on is a solid peer group. Especially in small communities like mine. No, it doesn't really matter that they missed out on the mean teacher or certain events. What does matter is that they weren't a part of the peer groups that experienced those. They lack the lexicon of all the mainstream kids; the inside jokes, the shared experience. In a big unschooling community this may not be an issue, but for my kids it was.

Of course, despite this, my kids chose to continue unschooling, for the benefits it afforded them. They did soften the social impact some by attending a democratic school for a few years, but it was in the big city, and we lived on an island, so on the whole their unschooled life still came at the cost of peers. I don't regret giving them the option of unschooling, but this is the only cost that has made me question my choices. The only solution I can see is time. Hopefully the increasing trends of explorative learning in schools as well as of unschooling in general will mean that in another twenty years unschoolers will have a big cohort with whom to share experiences and memories. That will be the way we heal this.


I think that's enough of my list. I hope this was enlightening, or comforting, or challenging, or whatever it is you need in your personal journey. I hope if you want to unschool your kids, this set some of your fears to rest. And I hope, like all of us, you keep exploring, discovering, learning, and enjoying the ride.

Thursday, January 26, 2023

How Unschoolers (and all of us) Build Careers

High priority interest for my kids right now: experimental cooking!
My unschooled kids moved out recently, and now I'm processing all the choices we made! It's not so much the unschooling; there is no doubt in my mind that it served us all well. But the smaller choices we made on our twenty-one-year (so far) parenting journey have had huge impacts on our kids' career options; their confidence and courage, and even the way their interests have filtered into their careers. How DO people follow their interests into satisfying lives and careers, and what if they don't? I'm watching my kids' changing lives with fascination, remembering my own early adulthood, and discovering so much about how we grow and build our lives. So I thought I'd write a bit about this, from what is now my contemplation couch in my newly-empty, way-too-quiet nest.

Unschooling in the First Place: Why It Serves Us Well

The root premise of unschooling is freedom to grow along one's own path, following ones own interests. It means not being confined by the needs of classrooms, social expectations, or parents' expectations. Of course, unschooling parents raised in a schooled society (which is most of us) struggle very hard not to reproduce those constraints, so our kids rarely have pure freedom, but with our eyes on the unschooling prize we're supposedly holding that freedom of mind and growth in our hearts, and working towards it. I titled this section in the present tense and with 'us' very intentionally: It doesn't just serve our children well, and it didn't just do so while they lived at home. The freedom and responsibility of making and following all of our own expectations has served each of us well, and it continues to do so, now that the kids have moved out.

Unschooling isn't easy for anybody. That's because it's all about taking life at face value and being responsible for our own actions. It's actually what everyone everywhere is doing every day, but unschoolers do it intentionally--and life is just not ever easy. But it's good. It's good to have to make hard decisions. It's good to be disappointed or hurt and have to become resilient. It's good to learn to honour one's own needs; to put them before conformity, while always keeping the needs of others in mind as well. It's good to learn balance and responsibility and independence. All of these things are values that my various schools attempted to teach me, but I didn't learn them there. I learned them after I left, lived on my own, and began (slowly) taking responsibility for my own life. This is what unschooling does for children (and the caregivers who raise them): It gives them the responsibility as soon as they want it, so they can learn to handle and navigate life as it comes to them, instead of after they get out of school. 

The schooled mindset relies on following a plan laid out by staff and administrators--or by parents and curriculum writers, in the case of homeschooling. The point of unschooling is to step out of that mindset, set our own paths, and fumble along until we meet our own expectations. Or not, as the case may be.

Confidence and Courage

Fumbling and failing is a huge part of unschooling--and life, of course. My partner went to all the schools his parents chose for him, took some courses he liked and some he didn't, had lots of great experiences, and then went to university to study engineering. The first thing he did when he got there was to leave his religion behind. He was called to the university chapel after they got news of his arrival from his parents' church, and he gently told them he wasn't interested. I believe this, and a permanent change from short to long hair were some of the first steps he took towards making his own life-choices. Then he meandered over to a focus on physics and astronomy. It was around this time that I became Wiccan, and started dating conventionally-unacceptable people. Lots of them. I had to find my path! By the time I met my partner, I was no longer Wiccan, having re-embraced my atheist roots, and he was working in a Chinese convenience store and studying computer science. He was deeply interested in philosophy, which he processed muchly through conversations with the people who sat drinking concealed bottles-of-something at his corner-store-coffee-bar during his night-shifts. None of this was where we thought we'd end up when we left high school. It's just the fumbling that adults do, once we are handed the reins to our life and have no actual idea where we're going!
Back to my own (adult) kids: Right now they're experimenting a lot with food. Having moved out of our rural home and into the city, they've discovered all kinds of options for foods that didn't exist when I was doing the shopping. They've already had Door-Dash deliveries, signed up for a local Too-Good-to-Go discount grocery program (through which they've had some successes and some --ew-- failures), and explored all kinds of local grocery stores for the best deals on new and interesting and familiar foods. They sometimes tell us about the meals they invent, or send photos. The biggest deal of the photo up above, for me, is those beautiful smiles. My kids are quite obviously proud of themselves, and what more could I possibly want, as a parent? That pride will buoy them over all the fumbles and tumbles of life.

This fumbling--and the chunks of pride that carry our resilience--is how we build confidence. We experiment and meet failure after disappointment after unexpected adventure, and at every turn in the path we find a little more resilience; a little more determination and courage to make the next decision. To experiment more and learn more. Unschooling is all about facilitating that growth throughout childhood instead of afterwards. (Not that the growth ends with adulthood, as we and my kids are demonstrating!)

How We Follow Interests

As parents, caregivers and educators, we're often focused on identifying our kids' interests so we can support them. Oh--you like circus? Let's find a circus program! and Oh, you're interested in science? Here's a microscope. Sometimes these 'supports' are just the ticket our kids needed to the railroad of their dreams. Sometimes they couldn't care less, and even worse, sometimes our enthusiasm tethers them to fleeting interests that weren't empowered by or even embodied in the supports we offered. 

As a parent I've often felt disappointed when my kids didn't use the fancy tools we got for their supposed interests. I know I passed that disappointment onto them, and it turned into self-doubt, shame, and confusion about the paths they were on. How could my music-loving daughter possibly not want to play the Appalachian dulcimer that my mother bought for her? It's a tradition among the women of our family, for goodness sake, and she already plays guitar! It took me quite a while to leave my disappointment behind and accept that her journey might not include dulcimer. Or even music. She's now nannying and working as an assistant dog-trainer, while studying to become a certified positive reinforcement trainer. None of this was what I expected when she was ten and dressing up as Melanie Martinez. But she's happy. Likely happier, in fact, than she might have been trying to climb the ladder to pop stardom. And in the end, isn't that all we actually wanted for our children? 
Oh, and the dulcimer? She took it with her to the city, where it's hanging on her wall, and enjoys being played there by her and her friends. What looks like rejection to us parents is sometimes actually just reinvention.

Having an interest-driven career isn't even necessarily important. Or a single career. I often think my partner may have gotten more personal growth out of his needs-based night-shift convenience store job than he's ever gotten since out of his programming career. Now he follows his personal interests on YouTube, raising his children, building his home, and down at the docks talking to some boat guys. He likes his job as a software developer because it's stable, the people he works with are generally friendly, and he doesn't have to take it home with him. I guess for some people that's what matters in a career!

I'm not like that. I can only concentrate on an absolute passion. Too bad for math class and social studies in high school. I became an artist and then an art teacher, and then as I passionately unschooled my kids I drifted on to become a wilderness and explorative learning educator. Now they've moved out and I'm taking my art career more seriously. And it doesn't seem odd at all to me that all my installations are about social change. I guess what didn't interest me in high school does now. (What looks like rejection might just be reinvention...) Because I found out through fumbling how social science matters in my world. But most of my time is spent gardening or raising chickens. And I like that too.

What About Skill-Building?

What if my kid actually wants to become a concert violinist, and I allowed him to skip out on lessons just because his heart felt like digging a "mine" beside our driveway?? Sure. It could happen. (That was my son.) And what if we destroyed their passion for violin by pushing lessons when they just weren't into that? (Speaking from experience, here...) What if we destroyed their confidence in making choices for themselves by telling them we knew better, and that one day they would WANT to have learned to play violin? (Also us...) So my son never did pick up his violin again. He taught himself piano, instead, and digital music, and now sometimes he uses his music in videos. His career focus at the moment is digital art, but self-taught music makes him happy. We can't know what skills our kids will need, and we certainly can't know when or why they'll need them.

The amazing thing is, they WILL build them when they need them, if we can keep our fears and convictions out of their way. Once I finally stepped out of my kids' way, they taught themselves all kinds of skills they really needed: Math, piano, cooking, social skills, and even job-seeking and career-building. Once in a while they came to me for help, like when they wanted me to read over their resumes, and it felt like all the sparkles of joy got dumped on my head!!! Sometimes our kids do need us, but they need to be on their own for both skill-building AND deciding what skills to build. No matter how painful the process is for us parents to watch.

Building Careers

What career? What goal? What if "having an interest" is not the goal? What if instead we spend our kids' lives encouraging flexible navigation of any and all interests? We don't all have a single interest, and in fact most of us are always navigating a few. And they change. Maybe our kids were going to be concert pianists yesterday and today they're going to be magicians or farmers. Tomorrow they just want to bake cookies. Not for a career. Just because YUM. Maybe we work at our dream job, and focus all life around it. Or maybe we volunteer at what we're passionate about, and work to make ends meet. Or maybe we just work at a place where our friends work because it makes us happy; maybe friends are the current passion. Or cooking new foods each night, or reading, or parenting...
I have no clue who my children will be in another ten or twenty years. I have no clue who I'll be! But we keep on unschooling through life--reminding ourselves of the importance of recognising and following our hearts' needs--and we trust that we'll build the courage and resilience we need to stay upright around the unexpected turns. Or to right ourselves after we fall. We don't know where we're going, and we're learning to love the journey.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Big Changes at the Phantom Rickshaw

Big change is afoot at the Phantom Rickshaw house. It's been the nest of this family unit for over twenty two years now, and the space where I figured out attachment parenting, then unschooling, and made explorative learning theory my main occupation. As of next week it will be officially an "empty nest". Both kids are moving to the city, which brings up so much for me around parenting, personal growth, my relationship with my partner, Markus, and also life-choices in general. 

For the curious: The not-so-kids have rented a sweet little basement suite in an ideal spot, right between beaches and dog-parks, and Rhiannon's various city jobs. They and Rhiannon's dog Clara are sharing a two-bedroom, which they were extremely lucky to find in these housing crisis times. Taliesin is a digital artist, and though he's been contracting from home during the pandemic, is looking forward to finding an office job where he can get out of the house more, now that he's in the city. Rhiannon works as a nanny and dog trainer, while also still studying with the Karen Pryor Academy. It's amazing to me that my kids are such good friends that they look forward to starting their adult life together. And it's hugely reassuring, of course, to know that for the first year, at least, they'll have each other to come home to. That sibling connection is partly due to attachment parenting and unschooling, I think, since it's not too uncommon amongst the unschooling families we know.

I hadn't anticipated what a huge deal this move would be until I gave my glowing reference to my kids' new landlord. Then it hit me: This is it! Every triumph and mistake I've made over the course of the past couple of decades is going to play out now, and I can't fix the mistakes. Markus and I put together a first aid kit for the kids, and we're in the process of writing down all the recipes we anticipate they might want, in boxes that Markus made. He also took them to Value Village for some home essentials, and we bought them mattresses from IKEA. But that's all just stuff. How do we give them the courage and resilience they'll need in the wide open world? As an unschooling family, we tried to expose them to a variety of experiences all along, encouraging and leading them to explore. All we can do now is hope the seeds we've tried to plant in them will grow as they continue to experience life (mostly) without us.

I recently watched this poignant short documentary on APTN, where Harry Schooner says "the elders blessed me to be a thunder mask carver. They did a ceremony for me when I was about seven years old." I've heard so many times of such hereditary blessings, but today, as my kids are both packing for their exit from the family nest, I find myself reaching back to the lives we've built, trying to cobble some idea of how we might have given them any such thing: What are our kids carrying with their hearts into their new lives? If I look at my kids I can see their strengths and passions, all nurtured through our unschooling lifestyle. Is unschooling (the freedom and experience of choosing their own paths) the blessing we gave them? I don't know. It doesn't seem the same. I've wondered if perhaps their knowledge of the land, the local ecology, and animal husbandry is a kind of blessing that they will carry with them. I certainly carried that on from my childhood. We have chicks hatching tomorrow, and my kids know the sound of the hen singing them into the world. I hope these memories will stay with them.

So in my somewhat despaired wondering, I read this to my kids, and I'm happy to report that they feel respected for the roles they've built for themselves in their family and community--even if they're eager to leave for the bustle and friendships of the city. Rhiannon tells me she was recently asked to work again for the daycare program she worked with when she was younger. Taliesin is frequently called upon for cooking fabulous meals, taking photos, or helping solve problems. I'm feeling a little more positive about this, now we've talked about it.

It's been hard for me to face the loss of my kids in my space. All the things we've shared that we'll do mostly separately, now. Like toothbrushing, even! I like that we talk to each other through our toothpaste before running off to spit! I like all the unique-to-us things that we do and say, and I wonder how these things will carry over into our new lives. We have traditions of celebrating the food we grew, of going to see and relish natural phenomena like phosphorescence in the late summer (we laugh and call them 'flossers'), the frozen lake in the winter, and the young nettles in spring. Will my kids look for spring greens in the city? Or maybe come home for the harvest? Will they phone me while brushing their teeth?

Most of the time I feel like all I have is questions, and I guess that's a huge part of this transition. Anticipation and a wide-open future is a pretty great thing. I feel that way about my relationship with Markus, too. We sure aren't the people we were before we had kids, and we're starting to put out little experimental tendrils to the future we're going to share. For the first time, the kids declined to make Christmas decorations this year, and Markus and I ended up making them together in the night, just the two of us. It was strange and strangely beautiful. I discovered he likes sparkly blue ribbons.

After the question of how my kids will fare and grow, 'out there', the personal growth bit is probably the biggest deal and mystery for me. I lived parenting with every cell of my body, and now what?? People tell me I'm still a parent--well yes, obviously--but it's not going to be my every day, anymore. I built a life out of volunteering, teaching, and more recently explorative learning consulting with other parents and educators, and this blog was in many ways the face of that life. Parenting and teaching was the inspiration for what I wrote here, and all the progress I made in explorative learning theory. Now that long covid has made most teaching impossible for me, and my kids are increasingly less connected to my daily life, I find I have very little to write. People have also stopped contacting me for consulting. It's like the universe is preparing me for the shift but I don't know where I'm shifting to! I guess I'll drift into the art career I've always kept percolating on the back burner. Even my art has been largely parenting-focused, though. More questions. 

I guess I probably feel like most parents of kids moving out: Like I'm standing on the edge of a very tall cliff, in a cool, fresh, unpredictable wind, arms spread with little kites attached, and no idea where or how I'll land. It's terrifying, thrilling, and deeply strange.

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.