Monday, October 4, 2021

Climate Catastrophe: How an Unschooling Mindset Will Help Us Persevere

My brother, Adrian, paddling in wildfire smoke at Tum Tum Lake, British Columbia, Canada
photo by Kristina Calli

Last summer, amid smoke and fire, drought and various ecological die-offs, came the news about the UN "code red" climate change report, which is likely to be the last such report written before we go beyond the 1.5° of warming that will put an end to life as we know it, if we don't take drastic action, NOW. At the end of the report, CBC played a clip of Greta Thunberg saying, "Today, it will probably be quite popular to talk about the climate crisis; tomorrow it will not be popular anymore." I knew she was right, and I can't let that happen. The day after that report came out, I had to do a text search on the CBC website just to find the report from the day before. It had been eclipsed by reports of covid, bitcoin, defamation lawsuits, and the health status of movie stars.

And why not? It's easier to care about individuals than our vague and vast communal future. Easier to care that one local person lost their dog in a fire than the millions of animals currently burning just inland from us; people losing their homes and farms and futures. Unless we know them personally, their stories are just part of the mesh of disaster that we look away from. Because we're overwhelmed.

Overwhelm is reasonable. It's acceptable to look away; to protect our mental health. But it's not acceptable to ignore the crisis. So what can we do? I've been asking myself. The answers are also so vast and vague: We know we need to consume less. We know we need to divest from fossil fuel industries, or for those of us who can't afford investments, to simply question the ways we support those industries in our daily lives. Can we live more locally? Can we consume more locally? Can we eliminate foods and products and activities that depend on fossil fuels or other ecologically devastating industries? Those things are easy, compared to the big things--big things like the medical system and school system; our centralized cities and global industries; all the huge systems that are interdependent with not only the fossil fuel industry, but our rampant capitalism that feeds it. We have to move towards a post-capitalist, decentralized society, and that is not at all easy. Just the thought makes me feel overwhelmed and powerless. I'm only one lady with a crippling disability. I have one hard-working partner, and two kids, and I care most about my own little household. How am I going to save the world?

Then I realized that as parents we DO have power in how we educate our children. In places like where I live, we have legal options to home-school--with an unschooling philosophy if we choose--which helps move us away from the centralized society we currently have that supports the status quo. That moving away from the status quo is exactly what we need to do, and not only does home- or unschooling physically remove us from the status quo of mainstream brick-and-mortar schools, but it prepares our minds for a new paradigm. In fact, many of the concepts integral to unschooling will help us move in sustainable directions, even when used in schools. Unschooling is more of a lifestyle or mindset than it is a pedagogy. It's the mindset that we gain through this kind of living that will help us build and thrive in the new, post-capitalist society. Let me explain:

What Is an Unschooling Mindset?
Unschooling is the practice of allowing our children (or ourselves) to move, grow and learn exploratively, independently from the capitalist notion of "school". Sometimes this looks like bucking the school system altogether, and living a free-range life, engaged in whatever interests us; developing similar skills and understanding as school-going people, but organically. Sometimes, unschooling involves various parts of the school system, as they benefit the learner or the wider community. My unschooled children both attended school programs for a few years, when those programs (or social situations) served their needs. But we accessed them with an unschooling mindset: to use what works for us, in whatever way best serves us, and to skip the rest.

Wait--skip the rest? Isn't that kind of arrogant? Or isn't that missing out on all those things that our kids need? After all, the people who built the school's curriculum know better than our kids do what's important to do and learn, right? Amazingly, generations of unschooling families have discovered that, while unschooled kids may learn and grow on their own schedule, they generally meet the same milestones as the school-going population at similar times. The reason is that those milestones (and curricula) were indeed made thoughtfully, based on the natural progression of learning, and age-appropriate activities. Not all kids will be inspired by all of these things at the same time, but on the whole, there's a predictable progression of skill acquisition, throughout childhood. So, unschooling kids who follow their own innate interests tend to choose and acquire the same skills at similar times. As an parent of unschoolers who has often been teaching my kids' peers in classrooms, I've frequently been amazed to witness this phenomenon.

What Does An Unschooling Mindset Have to Do With Post-Capitalism?
Moving to a new way of living, societally, will require us to have flexible minds. It will require us to be agile in our thinking; to creatively solve problems we never expected, and to move forward courageously in situations we're unprepared for. All of those things are habit to the unschooled mind.

Unschooling, whether at home or at school, means taking each experience as it comes, with a deep awareness of personal and community needs. At home, we look at the options the day has presented to us, and follow our instincts and current assessment of needs to determine what will best feed us on this day. We learn organically, in a needs-based prioritization, and hence develop the skills that will best serve us, in the moment. Maybe we don't learn to read when we're five, but when the need to read arises, maybe at nine or ten or twelve, it's easier to pick up the skill, because our current needs and prior experiences have prepared us. 

In a school that supports an unschooling (or self-determined) mindset, the teacher presents an activity--the one they feel will best serve the majority of students--and the students who are unschooling through school will assess the activity and determine independently whether it merits their participation or whether they might better benefit from working independently on something else. There are democratic schools all over the world that function very well in a scenario just like this. Students in these schools are empowered to work towards their own best purposes, and in doing so, empower each other to do the same. Students in unschooling groups, democratic schools and other similar programs are accustomed to assessing and providing for their own needs, as well as to determining their own engagement in the greater community. Hence they're also accustomed to keeping cognizant of the community's needs. Fast forward to a post-capitalist society, and these same students will find it easier to assess their own needs and meaningfully engage with their communities. When we are no longer told how to engage by schools, corporations, and capitalist-funded media, we're going to need to figure those things out for ourselves.

That takes courage now, and as climate disasters become an increasingly large part of our lives, our need for courage and ingenuity will only grow. I think about the man I heard interviewed on the radio after he watched his parents burned alive, while they hid in a ditch and a wildfire burned through the town of Lytton, British Columbia. Now he has to pick up and carry on; to find meaning and purpose in a world that will never, ever be status quo for him again. I think about the (now former) principal of the Stein Valley Nlakapamux School who fled her home at the onset of that same fire. She and dozens of other evacuees ran for the school, and her first thought was to make sandwiches for incoming people, because it was dinner time. Before she could finish preparing the food, the fire had jumped the river and they all fled north again, to settle in Lilloet. The people of Lilloet, themselves on evacuation alert due to a different massive wildfire, took the Lytton evacuees and housed and fed them. With courage and agile-thinking, everybody in this horrible situation stepped up as needed, in the moment. Interestingly, the Stein Valley Nlakapamux School is one of those forward-thinking schools, working to equip students with courage, community values, and self-reliance. It didn't surprise me that the first thing their principal did when arriving at the school as an evacuee--her home burning down just a few miles away--was to make sandwiches. Thankfully, the school was one of the few buildings spared in that horrible fire, and it also doesn't surprise me that now, with the town still under a state of emergency, they have begun the year with online learning, and offered up their building as a relief and gathering centre for those working to rebuild. That is agility, courage, and creativity in action.

We don't have a choice about becoming a post-capitalist society. Either we change voluntarily right now, or the now-commonplace storms, floods, fires and pandemics will drive our capitalist society into the ground. You know what will be left after that? People. Maybe with few habitable areas or resources to speak of, but there will be people. And if those people are prepared with an unschooling mindset, we will persevere.

Saturday, September 4, 2021

Growing up without Grad: How It’s Going One Year in to This Epic Life-Choice

Rhiannon baking keto pecan shortbread, today.
It's a rainy day, eighteen months into covid isolation. My daughter just put a tray of cookies into the oven. Rain is falling thick and heavy, and through the dining room window I see the beans and luffa streaming fresh cool water onto the porch. It's been a long, dry summer. The well has run dry twice, already, and today I am just filled to bursting with gratitude for the rain, but also, on this labour day weekend, for having my family safe and close, and for my daughter's brave decision, last year, to drop out of school. It turns out that dropping out of the system was even better for our daughter than we expected. Finally, she is thriving.

Last year, around this time, Rhiannon faced the uncertainty of returning to her part-time school program during the pandemic, and opted to register as a homeschooler, instead, following her own interest in a self-determined path to adulthood. She'd been unschooling all her life, in and out of alternative school programs and musical theatre, voice and acting programs. But always, she thought she would eventually fulfill graduation requirements, attend university, and end up teaching preschool or--even more to her liking--open a school for self-determined learners. When covid hit, the school she attended went online, and she discovered two things: First, commuting to school had been sucking the life out of her, quite literally. And secondly, online school just sucks in general. 

Over the course of the lonely summer, she made peace with the reality of not seeing friends, and reassessed her needs. She contacted the university where she intends to study early childhood education, and formulated a plan for getting in as a homeschooler, which in our province means no graduation diploma. To her delight, they were very encouraging. And with that reassurance, she declared her decision not to graduate. What did she do with this first year of ultimate (but isolated) freedom? Well let me tell you about that.

Isolation
Looking back on those first few months of online pandemic schooling (all the school with none of the face-to-face contact), I can see why it was so awful. The greatest thing about school for my young socialite daughter was the friends. From her earliest days of unschooling, when she nearly decided to attend Kindergarten with her friends, it was about the friends. Now here she is, at the beginning of what would have been her grad year, with no grad to attend, no friend-group to plan with, no dress to buy, and not even classes, tests, and teachers to complain about. I offered to buy her a dress and host a prom for her but she declined. To say this is a loss would be a massive understatement. It's a cold miserable metallic wall between my girl and some of the major life experiences we are conditioned to look forward to. It's an equally massive achievement that she has surmounted this disappointment, and a great relief to me that she seems to appreciate the benefits of the other side of the grad-no-grad coin.

She's free.

She's free, and do you know what that means? Well, that's the thing--it could mean anything to anyone, and she's had the freedom of defining that totally for herself. I can't speak for her, and most certainly not for her future, but I do see her with the perspective of a mother who's watched her grow. I see her with uncertainty and fear for her future, as most mothers would, but also with a great respect as she's shown me again and again that she is capable of achieving goals I couldn't even wrap my head around, myself. I see her, also, with the eye of someone who used to have to describe her activities in a convincingly schooly way to satisfy ministry requirements, and worried grandparents. 

Evaluating Learning
Yep, there was a period of about six years, when we unschooled at home while enrolled in a ministry program that required me to report regularly how my kids' activities met the "prescribed learning outcomes" for their respective grades. I know now that unschooling would have been much easier if we'd just pulled out of the system entirely, but that experience really taught me to see the culturally-defined "value" in my kids' activities. So guess what? I'm going to do it again! But this time I'm describing the skills that I've seen my daughter develop during the first whole year of completely unschooling herself outside the system... including those activities that I have struggled to see the value of. Yeah. She's free. And here's what that's done for her.

Clara and Kalea waiting for their birthday pupcakes!
Raising a Puppy
Rhiannon began planning for a new puppy months before we agreed to it. Our previous dog had died quite tragically, so we adults were just not emotionally prepared to welcome a new puppy. But when the pandemic arrived and we watched our girl grow increasingly lonely, we began to see the value in it. The one requirement we had was that she would take this dog on, herself: poops, walks, vet bills and all. It would have to be her dog, and that meant a very big commitment. Years. Yes, she said. And she got her dog. Clara Snowberry Leftwie is now a year old. Rhiannon has trained her, walked her faithfully every day, taken on veterinary and other care decisions entirely on her own but with a great amount of research, and (mostly) kept our yard poop-free. When Clara ate something awful and needed to vomit every half-hour in the night, Rhiannon cleaned her bed and took her out. When Clara peed on the carpet, Rhiannon cleaned it up. When we ran out of dog treats, Rhiannon learned to bake some. When Clara's first birthday arrived, Rhiannon made pupcakes for Clara and her best doggy friend, Kalea. Rhiannon has not only shown herself to be responsible and a very capable dog owner, but also to be flexible, committed, and cautious in her decision-making.

Baking
Like many people during this pandemic, our family has done a lot of baking. Rhiannon eats a mostly ketogenic diet, due to her ongoing thyroid and autoimmune issues. So when she wants bread, sweets or, well... almost anything... she has to make it from scratch. In the past year she's become quite adept at baking cookies, cakes and quick breads without a recipe, as well as all sorts of interesting potato and veggie dishes, depending what's available in the garden. To my mind, the "without a recipe" part is the best part, because it means she's experimenting, and learning heaps about the properties of the ingredients and processes she's using. Above all, she's learning to take calculated risks; to have faith in her choices and to problem-solve along the way.

Once, when Rhiannon was much, much younger, I found her miserably hanging over a bowl of what looked like cereal, her spoon dripping thick-looking milk into the bowl. She looked near tears. When I asked what was wrong, she looked bleakly at me and said that she had made herself an invention of cornflakes, pepperoni, frozen peas, milk and lemon juice, and now that she had made it, she felt she had to eat it. But it was bad. Well... she's come a long way!! Plus, we now have chickens to help us deal with the accidents.

Our rooster, the Splash, helping to construct his new coop.
Farming
Yep--chickens!!! I saw a t-shirt the other day that said "I might look like I'm listening to you, but in my head I'm thinking about getting more chickens..." Well, that would be us, I guess. Before we agreed to the dog, we agreed to the chickens. We also agreed to visit a farm, where Rhiannon sat for hours (and more hours) watching the cattle, just waiting to see if one of the pregnant cows would go into labour. Was that a labour moo? I think that one's been pacing a bit. Do you think that one is standing especially still? ... So just over a year ago we brought home thirty chicks and built them a really fabulous coop and run. Over time, they needed all sorts of unexpected care, as well as a new coop to be built. Rhiannon and her brother, Tali built that second coop themselves, out of scrap lumber, which is infinitely more work than using new materials. It requires not only a good amount of construction know-how (which they learned from helping with the first coop) but also a huge amount of engineering problem-solving, since there really never is an appropriately-sized piece for the job. Learning improvised construction on the fly is something we didn't expect from farming, but it sure is happening!

In addition to the more tangible skills like construction, coop and run maintenance, and chicken husbandry, we've all had to confront our own ethical choices. We're raising chickens as part of a general rewilding of our home. We slaughter and eat our chickens, and Rhiannon has chosen to keep at a distance from that activity. Every time we gleefully give one of our broody hens some eggs and then count down days until hatching, we fall in love, and every time we do, we accept the eventuality that most of those chicks will end up on our plates. Some of them may die before that even happens, and a couple of times it's been Rhiannon who finds the corpses or ailing birds. Coming to terms with the reality of consciously farming and eating meat, as well as how much of our vegetable garden we need to sacrifice to the chickens while still retaining enough to feed ourselves, involves some deep emotional growth. Rhiannon may not always eat meat, but this farming journey, with its extreme elation (babies!!) and deep reckoning on slaughter days is, I feel, a very important part of what it is to be human.

Another lesson we're all learning from this process is to eat seasonally. Rhiannon (and all of us) have become much more adept at designing a meal around what's available in the garden today than we were a couple of years ago. No eggs today? No macaroons. No lettuce? Make salad out of kale, or pick wild greens. No pickles? I guess we should have grown more cucumbers. It forces all of us to plan for the future; to be aware of what we have now, and to consume as if our consumption matters. Because it does, and farming makes that more evident.

Playing The Sims
You might have noticed me mentioning babies quite a bit. The puppy, the chicks, watching cows hoping to see them calve... Rhiannon has loved babies since she was a baby herself. That's not going to change. So she's been playing The Sims for years now: Basically making homes for cartoon people to grow and raise babies in. Sure you can play without babies, but I'm not sure she does that much, if ever. I can't say I love the amount of time or the money (all her own) that she spends on this game, but if I'm going to write about the benefits of The Sims, I'll have to find some. 

Sims is all hers. That's one thing. She paid for it, and that means I can't complain, even though I want to. Independence is always good. And it turns out there's a massive community around this game, like so many others. She and an apparently huge number of other people livestream their gameplay and chat together about their experiences. In a time of very little in-person social interaction, I can see the benefit of this. And to be fair, she's learned a great deal about video game politics and self-regulation through her playing of this game.

Watching TV with Clara and a rooster.
Watching Youtube and TV
Erm. This is a hard one for me. She watches some things I really appreciate, and some that horrify me. I could say we're always learning from whatever we watch, and that's true, but actually, the shows the kids watch have led to some epic conversations (and arguments) about social and political issues in our house. And that's definitely always a good thing!

Writing Her Second Novel
Rhiannon actually somehow managed to write her first novel while also attending programs many days per week, but one thing we've all learned this year is that second novels are sometimes much harder to write. First novels often come from such a deep place of self-knowledge and personal experience that they can't help but be deeply moving and engaging. With a second novel, a writer wants, perhaps, to break the mould and create something new. That might require not only a whole lot more research than a more personal novel, but also a kind of deep personal introspection, as the writer makes infinite ethical, narrative, imaginative and descriptive decisions. In Rhiannon's case, this second novel has a much more complex narrative, so has required quite a bit more editing and rewriting than her first novel did. Learning to navigate criticism from editors as well as quite a substantial amount of redrafting is an intense lesson in self-regulation, resilience, and tenacity. Not to mention mastery of language, obviously. She's not ready to publish her second novel yet, but you can be sure I'll write about it, when she does.

Publishing a Youth Magazine
The whole idea behind this magazine thrills me. In a world where many people are looking for fame, my writer daughter decided to publish a magazine solely for the purpose of publishing other people's work. The Youth Voice Magazine publishes kids' work, of course, because... well... if you haven't noticed yet... Rhiannon's whole life is about supporting kids of all species. The number of interesting things she's learning from the process of promoting, collecting submissions for, curating, editing and publishing a magazine has been wonderful for me to watch. She figured it out all on her own, promoted largely through social media, and after a few months has a list of contributors from around the world, and another teen volunteering as an editor. She's been invited to speak about the magazine, and with every issue that comes out she learns more about editing, publishing, supporting contributors, and generally working with kids.

Babysitting, Mentoring, and Running Community Programs
Working with kids. You didn't think a measly pandemic could stop her, did you? She still babysits, outside and with masks on. But that wasn't enough for her, so she organized and ran some kids' book clubs over the past spring and summer, and has now moved on to mentoring young(er) writers, and will soon be running two programs for kids at our local school. The process of developing her career during a pandemic has taught her all the more obvious things, like networking, management skills, professional engagement with parents and the kids she's teaching, but it has also given her opportunity to grow, emotionally. She has had to learn to engage over Zoom, as so many of us have (but it's so much more difficult with young children!), and to stick to her values when presented with job opportunities that she doesn't agree with, from an educational standpoint.

Organizing and Facilitating an Un/Learning Festival
What is her educational standpoint? Well... it's basically unschooling. (Yeah, I'm proud and not going to hide it.) My daughter and some other young people organized an online Un/Learning Festival this past summer. It was amazing. They had attendance and speakers from some very well-respected self-determined learning organizations, as well as many interested parents and learners. They produced this festival on their own terms and were so successful that they're now deep in planning for an in-person festival, next year. Imagine families and educators all with dreams of creating deep self-determined learning opportunities for everyone, all getting together for one fabulous weekend of creative engagement. And it's likely going to happen on a farm. (A farm! See where I’m going, here?)

The Future
In one year of fully unschooling herself outside the system, my daughter has brought together everything she loves about life and is pursuing her dreams with abandon. Her rather large dog sits on her lap as she runs Zoom book clubs for kids, or runs out to protect the chickens when ravens fly through the yard. My girl can cook up a really delicious chicken dinner from a bird she watched hatch from an egg, but she knows herself well enough to stay in the house on slaughter day. She has maintained friendships with those closest to her, and broadened her circle to include people who share her values about nurturing healthy childhoods and providing freedom in education. She gets together nearly every day with either the Un/Learning Festival organizing committee, the kids she mentors in person or online, her young writer's group, Sims players from around the world, or other people out walking their dogs. Today she and one of her oldest friends had a puppy play date. They watched as the friend's slightly younger dog observed the signs of Rhiannon's Clara going into heat. She is hoping to go on an epic post-grad trip with friends. 

Oh yeah. It's her friends' grad; not hers. She's not graduating. But maybe there will be a formal un-grad ceremony and dance at the Un/Learning Festival next year. Because opting out of high school doesn't mean opting out of life. It means creating your own best life. And apparently, that's what Rhiannon is busy doing.

~~~

*For those wondering about our son, Taliesin, he's working as a freelance 3D artist, now. I wrote about him recently, here: Why My Son Quit Science and How to Raise a Scientist

Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Parenting from Authenticity When Everything Is Not OK

Taliesin, age five.

When I was a teenager, hammering and whining at the bathroom door where my mother was retreating from my rage, she called out from inside our small bathroom, "Emily, if you keep this up, the shit will really hit the fan".

Whoah. She actually swore. And what an expression! I pictured poop from our toilet, flying up to the fan and getting chopped; scattered in all directions. I imagined how awful that would be, and knew this was a big hairy deal. I would have to badger my mother another time. I had no concept, back then, of SHTF, go-bags, memes or fake news. I had no concept of Internet, or the rising tide of terror that my own kids would grow up in. You know: actual crisis. Like in 2021. Or is this just mini-crisis on the way? When do we get to authentically declare SHTF?

I long for the days when I worried that my kids would be traumatized because their birthday party was cancelled, or their great-grandparent died. I mean--that was traumatic, for sure, but these days the trauma is next-level. It's existential. I don't even know where to turn, sometimes, as a parent. It's like a video game that everybody else is winning but the more we play, the more we realize we won't make it. We just keep losing hearts. When my kids' grandfather died, and my son was hauled out of school in a crazed panic just to look at the pallid empty face of a man he loved, that must have been the BIG boss of childhood trauma. Right? Was it? Then the family fell apart and the kids lost their aunties, their cousins; their grandmother. Maybe losing Grandpa was just the mini-boss. Such personal loss is huge for kids; it's huge for us parents, and then... there's the Bigger Boss.

We rounded the corner and suddenly wildfires are burning entire towns (again) and there's evidence of thousands of children's graves on the grounds of supposed "schools". That would be the MEGA Boss for sure (or Boss Rush?), but we're battling it on top of severely depleted emotional strength and health stats, as our kids carry ongoing covid fears, pervasive stress around housing and food security, unending news of climate-change disasters around the world, and social/political crises increasing, everywhere. It's not going to get any better. This is the Battle Royale for our kids' hearts, and we need to ask ourselves whether we're going to exit the game or persevere.

Oh wait. It's not a game. We've been fooling ourselves. All this shit is real.

I often feel like it's my job to explain the hardship away; to help my kids navigate these experiences with documented evidence that Everything's Going to Be OK. I personally tend to catastrophize, so when I catch myself doing that, I try to turn it around and provide evidence of hope. Like I'm the one with the knowledge and can heal all the world's ills by just explaining them away. Or just by buying stuff or experiences to temporarily distract and blind us from the apocalyptic fire coming down around us. Whoops there I go again. It's just that I didn't know it would be this bad! Even in my direst catastrophizing moments I didn't quite expect things to be this extreme, this quickly. I was blinded by others trying to minimize the horror. I blinded myself, in constant efforts just to persevere to the NEXT Big Boss, and I have tried to blind my children.

Well that was a bad idea. My children are not blind! They weren't sold on life-as-a-video-game. They were begging us to stop war and climate change since they were very little, and we didn't. Just like our parents, back in the eighties and nineties, we kept buying them stuff and more stuff like somehow it could bury the fears. We kept sending them to schools and camps and socially-condoned experiences of childhood like if we just pretended it was all still OK, then it would be. We dragged them head-first into the very consumerism that's killing us just to hide us all from the truth. And all that time our kids were watching us. They grew in that reality. Some have knitted soft fluffy blinders to their eyes and walked right into the mirage we gave them; others have rebelled and are now leading marches without us. Most are just somewhere in the hazy smoke of youth trying to figure out which way to turn. And watching us turn away. Just like our own parents did, we have given up on our children. Like we could just Exit Game.

How many times have I been angry with my own parents for not making the changes necessary to save my world when I was young? Because honestly, we knew what the problems were back then, and they were still buying bigger cars, right? Now we're the parents. And how many times have I said, "we're doing all we can," or "the problem is too big to be solved by consumers" or how many times did we just buy our kids new clothes instead of fixing the old ones because their social lives mattered more than the climate--just today? That's me, sitting in my privilege, because I hope to be one of the lucky ones when the shit hits the fan.

So the shit has been hitting the fan for years now, and we regularly talk about packing a "go-bag" in case of social collapse or fire. I look in my kids' faces and calmly explain how, because we live on an island, our go-bag for wildfire will include life jackets for us and the dog, a floaty for the cats in their carrier, a whistle and sunscreen. Should we pack masks for the smoke, or flippers so we can paddle away from our home more quickly? My kids look at me with half-rolled eyeballs, because all of us know this isn't much of a plan. Because there can't be a plan. No video game prepared us for this. Our kids know we're feeding them a sham of security. They know. It's time for us to stop the charade and look this life in the eye.

But HOW?! 

We've been parenting from a place of fear; of deep insincerity. We've been downplaying the catastrophe of climate change for generations, now, because as each of us grows into adulthood, we become swept into the delusion our parents clung to; shackled to the same false hope that if we just climb a little higher, we'll come out on top--maybe get a ride on a spaceship--and survive the coming hardships. Maybe our kids will grow up to befriend Elon Musk and it will all be OK. We know that's a pile of shit, and even SHTF doesn't describe the sewer we've walked ourselves into. If we want to parent from a place of authenticity, we need to stop this fantasy, now. We've hidden this truth from our children, because we assume they can't handle it, burying it in toys and games and TV until we end up raising them into the same delusion we carry, ourselves. Our children are already handling the truth, and it's time we did, too. Let's face this truth now:

If we want our children to survive until old age, we all have to stop consuming, now. Jobs will disappear, money will disappear, entire industries and things we're accustomed to having in our lives will disappear. People will die. Our plans and dreams will die. And our delusion will disappear. It's going to be bloody hard. But easier than SHTF. We have no choice. And that is real.

I want to live in real. No more hiding. I mean to make some changes in the way I live, and thus make it easier for my children to follow suit. We know that living globally is part of the problem. Even when we're not traveling, our food and consumer products are produced using cheap labour and resources that always mean someone else is paying the price. Global capitalism is a foundational concept behind colonialism, consumerism, and carbon emission. It exists because of our privilege, and the more we live and consume globally, the more privilege we gain. But we don't need it--not the privilege or all the stuff it affords us. 

I'm sitting here today in the pale blue haze that is the remnant of inland fires, drinking tea. I know those are particles of people, houses, animals, forests and whole ecosystems drifting by outside my window. I know that remediation of the catastrophic time we're living in means staying home, and simple, even when it means sacrifice. I am trying to see my way through this very real circumstance not like a video game, but like a slow meditation of simplicity, connection, and hope. I'm thinking that this cup of chamomile tea, grown right outside my front door, might be a more suitable pleasure than store-bought distractions. I'm thinking that the gentle curve of my children's faces should be the thing I look to for positive distraction from crisis. This feeling of living in the moment--this deep appreciation of what is real--is, to me, what being in a place of authenticity feels like. I feel some of the heat of my own anger dissipating, and I want to do better for my children than the status quo.

Dear children, I will no longer behave like everything is OK. I see your open eyes, and I will keep mine open, with you, because I am learning courage from you. I will become comfortable not having all the answers. I will say "I don't know", in all honesty, and I will learn to be OK with that. I will no longer buy things to soothe your fears or take morally ambiguous jobs just to fund our morally ambiguous purchases. I will no longer drive or fly you out of our community for life-experiences. I will build this community into everything we need, just here. I will cry with you when we all feel hopeless, and I'll work every day to laugh, as well; to build and grow reasons to be hopeful. I will look at this world, my place in it, and your growing faces with hope, resilience and humility. Because those are the gifts you have given me, and I want to give them to you, as well.

Monday, July 5, 2021

Creating Hope as an Exit from Existential Fear

This has been a hard, hard month in my province. We're reckoning with our responsibility regarding both climate change and colonialism (which are inextricably linked). Our province is beginning to locate the remains of thousands of murdered indigenous children, at the same time as our towns, farms, wildlife and even humans burn, in the climate-change-fueled fires we're now accustomed to. And all the while we're trying to save the last remaining stands of old-growth forest on this land... with very little success, so far. Colonialism, capitalism, consumerism and industrial terrorism are huge foes and how can we not feel small and weak? Terror and hopelessness abound. Two generations of kids are growing up without hope. And now they're looking at their parents and seeing no reassurance, because we adults are scared, too. We have no idea how we're going to pull out of this one. I think the only way out is through. 

Yes, to some degree, it's necessary to recognize the fire and just run like hell. It's necessary to make sure our neighbours know about the fire. It's necessary to point out that the torch and gas are in our own hands. But then... where do we run to? Through the fire and out the other side? Where's the other side? And why even bother? The concept of "through" requires us to see an exit on the other side, and we have to want that exit.

The exit we want is joy. Harmony. Peace. Love. Those are things worth running to. So we have to find joy, again--or create it. We have to create hope. We have to find reasons to stop fighting and instead start working for change, and, even more importantly, we have to make that change joyful. We have to know that the place we're headed is the place we want to be going.

You get back what you put into the world. Most of us know that, at some level. And yet many, including myself, are feeling and putting out a lot of fear. I think I put joy into the world wherever I can, but maybe I can do more! Maybe instead of dwelling in the anger that my friends' missing siblings might be among those buried children, or instead of raging against the industries and "isms" that are creating climate change, I can make an exit door.

I know it's hard. Sometimes I just want to hide--bury my face in the pillow, or in the tear-soaked sweater of my partner, and wallow in my hopelessness. Sometimes I want to spend money I don't have on something I don't need and just pretend the whole scary world doesn't exist. That's OK for a minute, but then I have to look up again from my sorrow or my distraction and be real. 

I guess for all of us, the ways we "look up" and get busy creating our exit doors will vary. For me, it's working with other parents and teachers to find positive ways of encouraging exploration and discovery in learning. In helping others overcome challenges and find hope, I feel more hopeful, myself. But it's also the small things.

This is a picture of my salad. My family grew it in our garden, and picked it for dinner last night. We gobbled it up with a huge amount of joy. The diversity of colour, scents, flavours and ideas contained in this bowl looks to me like a visual story of hope for the people of our world. Despite all odds, and because of diversity, this abundance of life persists! And I eat it and am a part of my own ecosystem. And my wild and unkempt garden not only provides food for me, but shelter from the heat; shelter from the storm; shelter from the fear. 

My salad isn't enough to change the world. I know that. But in every small way that we cultivate hope in our own hearts, we bring more hope to all of our actions, and to the world. Maybe the small things we do at home give us courage or hope enough to make bigger changes in the world, like supporting those neighbours who suffer directly from colonialism, forest fires, and loss of hope. Having hope, too, is a great privilege, and once we've accessed it, we need to share it--by both small and large means. And when we all have hope, we can tackle the really big problems, like colonialism, capitalism, and consumerism. Or maybe those "isms", which thrive on a population devoid of hope, will just starve when we stop feeding them, and start feeding hope, instead.

So how do you create hope? What is your joyful exit door? What is your vision for a workable, hopeful future? How can we make positive change in our own lives and work towards change for our whole community; our whole world? How can we change our lives, our employment; our communications so that everything we do is working towards the future we want? And how can we be generous; how can we hold each other up, make joyful, hopeful futures for each other to run to? 

I want to be running toward something.

Friday, June 11, 2021

Why My Son Quit Science and How to Raise a Scientist

My son out exploring with his botanist grandfather.
 

We're systematically destroying our culture's love of and faith in science through the way we're teaching and parenting. When I was a kid I knew I couldn't do science, because I wasn't smart enough. Also I didn't have glasses. And when I finally did get glasses at about fourteen I'd realized that science was uncool anyway. Like my shameful glasses. Except for geeks. Geeks who were actually good at science were super-cool, and beyond my league. I could barely bring myself to speak to them, even when we were paired in biology class. Until I married one of those guys (they're almost always guys, right?) and raised some kids, one of whom, from the age of about seven, wanted nothing more than to attend university NOW to study theoretical physics. That wasn't an option for a young kid, so we unschooled our way into his adulthood, and everything about my understanding of science changed. I learned a LOT from watching how my science-passionate kid explored the world, how he was encouraged and discouraged and, ultimately, how our system fails both our kids and science. I'm going to lay it all out here, including, at the end, the list of resources I think are essential and nice-to-have for encouraging a love of science in all of us.

Dictionary.com says that science is "systematic knowledge of the physical or material world gained through observation and experimentation." Look at that. Observation and experimentation are literally enshrined in the definition of science. Nowhere does that definition say "following instructions" or "memorizing facts". It definitely doesn't say "knowledge gained through performing boring pre-determined exercises where the outcome is already known". Of course, we like to call those boring, pre-determined exercises "experiments", but they're not experimental in any way, and I'm not going to pretend, here.
 

What We're Doing Wrong

Neil deGrasse Tyson points out in this fabulous lecture that kids are born scientists, and the first thing we do as they start wreaking havoc with their scientific exploration is to stop them, because the chaos is inconvenient for us. He also says "we don't have enough parents who understand or know how to value the inquisitive nature of their own kids, because they want to keep order in their households."
 
Taking the Exploration and Experimentation out of Science
Back to my son's experience, here's what happened. At nine years old, unschooling from home, he designed an interstellar space station, complete with a plan for the human population, sustainable onboard environment, and calculations to simulate gravity for that onboard environment. At thirteen, he took an admission test for an early-entrance program at the local university. He was younger than most kids there, and wasn't admitted to the program, but was encouraged to return the following year to try again. He declined. Over the next few years he became more and more adamant that the usual highschool graduation would have to be his route to studying physics, and so he pursued it, graduating a year early, and then attending a local college to beef up his collection of science and math courses. At the end of that year of study, he received his rejection notice from the university. Despite a couple of awards, excellent grades, and an honours graduation, he was rejected again from the university he'd longed to attend for most of his life. And shockingly, he was relieved!

Wait--what?! His whole family was ready to console him, and he blithely told us he didn't really want to become a scientist anymore anyway. How did this happen? Well... school happened to him. When he was a kid, science was about questions, exploration, and discovery. School made it about rote memorization and regurgitation. "Experiments" became a process of proving someone else's billion-times-already-proven theories. It was academic theatre. There was no inspiration or passion at all. He realized and explained to us that his creative exploration was more suited to a career in design.

How many of us have had our inquisitive nature killed or redirected by the school system that took the inquiry out of science? What would science be like today if we'd all been encouraged to participate? How would our social and technological evolution be different? Would we still stereotype scientists as elite, affable, or socially inept geeks with oversized glasses?
 
Stereotyping and Persecution
Why are science geeks almost always guys? Why geeks? Why glasses? Why is science uncool? These stereotypes seem to be as old as time, just like misogyny, religion, mob mentality and a thirst for power. 
 
Science is power. It means discovering new things; understanding how things work and developing methods for working with them and harnessing more power. That's why so many scientists have been persecuted. If you want to discover who's shaking things up, look for the guy on the stake, whether proverbial or real. People whose knowledge threatens to change the status quo (or unseat those in power) are silenced by whatever means necessary, from Hypatia to Galileo to many more modern scientists currently jailed, humiliated or disappeared following their work on controversial subjects.
 
But it's not only those in power who reject science. At the level of the lower classes (far from positions of power), scientific discovery heralds change, and that's pretty scary to those who walk the precarious line between starvation and survival. All the what-ifs of progress and change can be terrifying. And in the extreme, desperate people seek comfort and community in rejecting the norm, entirely, championing ideas like flat-earth and other conspiracy theories. These are people who've had their personal agency crushed by a system that told them science was for those at the top. Those uncool smart people with glasses. They were told they weren't smart enough for science. So they made their own "science." And I think not many of us wants to go down that road.

From perspectives of power and powerlessness, it's easy to see how science education for the masses has become the dry, uninspired wreck that it is in most public schools. The public school system was created over a hundred years ago to build a population of obedient, follow-the-rules workers. It was created to feed a growing consumerist society that needed cheap, dependable labour. People at the top don't want their positions of power threatened by the lower classes getting too inquisitive, and those at the bottom know that the food on their tables depends on keeping their noses down. 
 
Science Tied to Capitalism and Consumerism
The irony is that the technology developed in the rise of industrial consumerism has now displaced the need for that obedient work-force, and it's likely that the majority of jobs in the coming decades will require inquisitive, creative thinking--not obedient task-completion. This presents a way forward out of the educational quagmire we're now living in. It's time to shift the focus of education in general towards creative thinking, free exploration, and delightful discovery.
 
Besides, as the lower classes are no longer needed for the jobs now done by machines, the social pyramid is crumbling, and those on the bottom would like a new kind of geometry. So there's the question of justice. I think the only way to achieve a just society is for knowledge and discovery to be shared. Open-source technology is becoming more and more expected as the pitfalls of capitalism become undeniable; as capitalism-caused climate change makes technological advancement not just wonderful but urgently needed. And the sharing of knowledge makes global technological advancement even faster. I think the stereotypes and fear of science will fade away as our culture experiences change at an exponentially faster rate, and we become accustomed to a life centred more on agility than on stability. Then, with flexible minds, we can embrace science.
 
School Constructs: Facts vs. Questions 
Childhood is a big romp of explorative learning. Whether our kids attend a brick and mortar school, study at home as homeschoolers, or lead an unschooling lifestyle, they're exploring to learn, and learning to explore. Playing with baking ingredients, construction tools and materials, personal care products and even fire are exciting for kids because they inspire explorative play. Kids mix products and see what happens, they burn things and see what happens; they build and break and experiment and... see what happens. It's that exploration and discovery that creates learning, and even more importantly a desire to keep learning. That desire is the spark that my son lost in his journey into high school science.
 
When we, as parents or teachers, present things as already-known facts, we remove the need for our kids to explore, themselves. In doing so, we teach them that exploration is unnecessary or, at worst, unacceptable. We take all the spark out of science.
 
The most disastrous thing parents and teachers do to science is pretend that it's about facts--things that are already known. It's not! It's about questions! Sure there are answers to the questions, and thousands of years of other people's discoveries to explore, but it's the questions that are interesting; and discovering the answers... whether or not the questions or answers have ever been discovered, before. It's curiosity and the excitement of discovery that leads to science. Some questions are answered by researching other people's answers, and that's OK, but only if the initial curiosity came from the researcher. And curiosity comes from freedom to explore and experiment. As soon as we take away freedom to experiment, we take away the spark of science.
 
Pre-Determined Kits and Activities
Seriously. I can hardly even discuss this topic it makes me so frustrated. Cross wanton capitalist consumerism with the strangling of scientific exploration and you have pre-determined "science kits". Yuck. These are shiny, polished, packaged activities for which the method and outcome are already determined--usually described or illustrated right on the box. Kids look at them and know exactly what they are expected to do. And so often they know they'll face the disappointment of their teachers or parents if they veer off into actual experimentation with the components of the kit. 
 
These kits feed our consumerist desire to look like the saturated, tidy, smiling family in the photos and post something similar to our kids' Instagram accounts, but they also take the science out of "science." They're disastrous. And the instructions on how to use the components are disastrous, too. When presented with activities where the outcome is already known, we lose our desire to explore. 

So what is a well-meaning teacher or parent supposed to do? I have good news. There's a LOT we can do, and some of it even can include shiny store-bought kits. But the good ones.

My fifteen-year-old son's chaotic desktop: Collection vials, yeast experiments, and parts of various electrical and biological experiments.

How to Do Right

Free Exploration
It's hard to let go of our adult desire to guide kids' exploration, but actually that's the best work we can do, ourselves. Generations of unschoolers as well as a few democratic schools have provided ample anecdotal evidence (though I've never seen any rigorous formal inquiry into this) that kids who are allowed to explore freely, unhindered by adults' expectations and demands, end up having not only a similar academic ability to schooled children, but also a greater ability to work independently, more success finding meaningful employment, and a greater love of learning. That was enough reason for me to do the work of de-schooling myself, and making way for this kind of learning for my kids and students.

Let Them Be Bored
But how?! What do we give them to do? Well, that question--especially when backed up by little faces whining "I'm boooored" in the background of our Zoom meetings--is actually one of our greatest hurdles. The answer? We give them nothing to do. Boredom isn't a problem for us to solve. That's up to them. And when they learn to solve it for themselves, they'll have already set themselves ahead of the kids with the pre-determined science-kits.

Respect
Of course, our kids' boredom might cause too much interruption for us to carry on our own activities. Maybe we have to set our boundaries, and make sure our kids have a rich environment to explore. Partly, that means accepting danger, chaos and mess as part of our lives, and--importantly--also keeping boundaries around our own need for clean spaces. Maybe this means there's an experimenting/play/rumpus room, and a tidy, peaceful room. Maybe it means we agree as a family or class to do a big clean-up every day at a certain time, just because some of us have a need for a peaceful space. 
 
And by "we agree" I don't mean that we adults decide what will be done without consultation, or with a sham of consultation that actually amounts to coercion. I mean we discuss our needs in an equitable way that allows each of us to present our needs and our ideas for resolution. All of us have needs that can be presented and discussed as a whole, respectfully. That's how it works in a democratic school, and it can work that way in a home or school classroom, as well. Though I will admit as a teacher and parent, that it's far easier to do with with a classroom of not-my-own kids than with my own family late at night when I'm tired and grumpy and have let my guard down. Overcoming that is part of the work I have to do as a parent.

Natural Consequences
My needs aren't more important than my kids' needs just because I pay the bills or have a greater understanding of consequence. My kids have very important needs, too, and are developing their understanding of consequence through discussing our needs, together, and through having their own needs voiced and respected. Kids' sense of personal worth is reinforced through having their needs heard and considered. But what happens when we come up with solutions that fail? Natural consequences!

Natural consequences are teachers to us all. When we experiment with fire we may discover all kinds of interesting things. We may get burned. And guess what? That's science! We all experiment with our behaviour as much as we do with our physical surroundings, and through observing the consequences of our experimental behaviour (maybe a friend decided to go home early; maybe we ran out of time to make dinner; maybe our partner no longer trusts us) we make discoveries. We learn! That's science! 

My son and his friend experimenting with their homemade forge.

Materials for Scientific Exploration from Toddlerhood to Adulthood

So how can we encourage scientific exploration without those dreaded kits? More important than the specific materials we have is how we present them. 
 
Strewing
The concept of "strewing" is often talked about among homeschooling and unschooling parents, and even used in many classrooms. Generally speaking, strewing means to scatter items of potential interest around the house for kids to discover: books, games, toys, craft or construction materials, etc. This can be great or awful, depending how it's done. 
 
I've seen plenty of Instagrammable "strewing" photos in homeschool groups: A perfectly clean natural wood table with a curated selection of art supplies and a brand new "activity book" laid out with a special treat, for example. That's not an invitation to explore; it's an invitation to tell Mama what a beautiful set-up she made, and then work tidily in the book with the provided materials while enjoying the treat. A more productive way to "strew" the same activity would be to simply add the (hopefully open-ended) activity book to the heap of books already in use, and go to the kitchen to bake the treat--experimentally. Maybe the kid will find the book. Maybe they'll play Lego. Maybe they'll join the parent in the kitchen to experiment with baking, or maybe they'll lie on the floor painting their arms with flour and water they took off the counter. Maybe three years later they'll pick up the strewed book and use it in some unexpected way. We cannot possibly know or direct the learning that will come out of good strewing, and that's just as it should be. As parents and teachers we need to open our minds to the natural consequences of strewing.

Are You Still Waiting for the Materials List?
I hope by now I've made it clear that our homes are already full of wonderful explorative materials; that there is no "right way" to teach science, and that the best of all worlds is an open-minded parent or teacher and time to explore. But we do live in a material world, and I'm going to give you a shopping list, just to make us all feel more satisfied.

I'm making different lists for different age-groups, not because they're not absolutely interchangeable, but because it's a bit easier to get our heads around, and, to be honest, people in specific life-stages do gravitate towards specific things. 
 
Please keep in mind with every single one of these suggestions, that it's only useful if we maintain total freedom of use: how, when and where to use it should be totally open for experimentation. It should always be OK to mix materials in new ways. That's often where creativity and novel discovery come from! Of course, sometimes some family discussions on safety and respect for others' property are warranted.
 
Early Childhood:
  • trips to the library, and an unending supply of ALL KINDS of books
  • musical instruments and sound-makers of any and all types with no attached expectations. Some libraries lend instruments, and parents of young kids are often trading around an assortment of interesting instruments as well.
  • an always-available assortment of art and craft materials (see my separate post on this)
  • cardboard boxes, ramps, large paper brochures, blankets, cushions and other materials for building in the house
  • shovels, rakes, buckets, and water for playing outside in the dirt, forest floor, or sand
  • freedom to cook and bake in the kitchen with appropriate supervision but as much freedom as possible for experimentation--be prepared for creations to be inedible! 
  • Duplo, Lego, Keva blocks, Zome, marble runs, or other similar open-ended building toys. Instead of keeping the sets together as they came, dispense of the instructions and create a mixed box for free-play.
  • dolls, stuffies, and materials for house or care-giving play. "Real" tools like brooms, rags, kitchen tools and baby supplies are great for playing, too!
  • fabrics and sewing supplies
  • endless outdoor explorative play (see separate article, here)
  • time spent with a diverse range of different people
 
Middle Years:
All of the above, plus:
  • a good quality dissecting microscope (we got ours from Westlab.com)
  • a good quality telescope for astronomy or wildlife viewing
  • a little pocket jeweler's microscope that can be brought outside
  • a bunch of exciting chemicals: sulfur, stump remover, matches and books by Theodore Gray (especially Mad Science and Elements)
  • a fire pit
  • materials for electrical and electronic experimentation: discarded electronics from local recycling centres to take apart, some basic breadboards, wiring, and related components; perhaps a big transformer and some guidance on related dangers
  • petri dishes, measuring glasses or beakers, agar powder for growing molds and bacteria (again, with some guidance)
  • an inexpensive waterproof camera
  • access to wood and metal shops
  • Internet access. I'm not a big fan of screen time, but it's the world our kids live in, so the sooner they're able to have unfettered access (with lots of family discussion and good role-modeling by parents) the sooner they'll be able to master it and use it safely. Some of my kids' greatest self-determined learning has been through exploring and publishing on online platforms.
Teens Into Adulthood:
I always wondered how my son would manage in university, without having gone to school. And although it happened that school caused him to lose interest in studying science at university, we know of quite a few unschooled kids who went on to excel in university studies, including in sciences. We also know that many accomplished modern scientists were homeschooled or unschooled, and that Elon Musk educates his many children by encouraging open exploration, as well. So by now I've abandoned my fears about university and am witnessing my son develop a nascent career in 3D rendering, using many of the resources listed, here. 
 
The trick to learning exploratively through these resources is to allow inquiry and discovery to lead our progress, instead of the expectations of others. The same can be done through university, by allowing ourselves to change course when the need or desire arises, or to use resources in ways for which they may not have been intended. 

As with strewing, the point with these activities is not to provide a pathway, but to provide a rich matrix in which our open minds can explore and grow. I unexpectedly learned to cook Pakistani foods while doing respite care! You just never know what may materialize in a rich, explorative life.
  • open university courses either online or through brick and mortar schools
  • university or trade programs
  • interesting and unexpected jobs
  • online exploration through YouTube and other platforms
  • experimenting with tools (software, woodworking/metal/automotive shop, camera, etc.)
  • clubs or discussion groups
  • volunteerism
  • homemaking/home-building
  • pet care
  • farming
  • building relationships
  • raising children

 

To Conclude with a Neat and Tidy Package

Back to my son. His life is nothing like I thought it would be when he was a gregarious nine-year-old trying to get to university and I was a proud but ignorant parent. But I think it's a good life. After he quit college and declared the end of his pursuit of a physics and engineering degree, he reverted back to free-form explorative learning. He taught himself to play and compose on piano, and then eventually with synth and computer. He veered into the world of 3D rendering, and after two years of intense exploration and some online courses he sourced for himself, he's now developing a career as a digital artist. His most popular pieces? Spaceships. You can take the boy out of science, but...
 
As parents and educators we want to see our children succeed, and the way we measure success is set by our own experiences. But the limitations of our own experiences are roadblocks to our children's advancement. We have to let go of our own supposed knowledge and certainly our expectations in order to allow our children to succeed on their own terms. 
 
In the bigger picture, our children are the next generation on the trajectory of humankind's evolution, and we can't predict what tools or skills they'll need on that journey. Human advancement has always followed the path of ingenuity rather than the staid and unchanging path of what-we-already-know, or who-wants-to-stay-in-power. It's always the explorers, the inventors, and the heretics who advance science. Science needs these people. The way to raise a scientist is to encourage exploration, invention, and breaking all the rules.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Our Privilege: Getting Vaccinated

It's big happy news for us this week, since
Rhiannon has received her second ever vaccine and had no ill effects! 
 
We had to stop vaccinating our kids after our son had a life-changing reaction to some of his early vaccines, and suffered many years of health-issues, after that, along with severe reactions to gluten, soy, beans and eggs. We also struggled as a family as over the years, a few doctors refused us service when they discovered our daughter was unvaccinated, some people in our community were afraid of us, and the kids' special diets often caused frustration for family and friends. Later we learned that both Rhiannon and I have myalgic encephalomyelitis and other issues, making both covid-19 AND the vaccine potentially dangerous for us. So the four of us have been isolated throughout the whole pandemic, and have researched long and hard, weighing all our options. 
 
I'm so proud of my kids. During this time of extremely limited interaction with anybody (a distanced walk or bike-ride here or there; a video-call or text-chat once every few weeks), my kids have watched on social media as the majority of their former peer-groups continued to gather and socialize, building memories and friendships that left them behind. But my kids overcame this struggle with zeal! Rhiannon has developed a new job for herself, leading online book clubs for kids, as well as continuing to review books on her Reading Corner website. Taliesin has committed to building a career in 3D rendering, unschooling his way through to his first accolades. In the absence of the usual commuting stress and onslaught of seasonal flus, both kids have been in excellent health. Tali has managed to reintroduce both eggs and beans to his diet! And both have spent a good deal of time raising chickens and building my dream garden. Could I ask for anything more? 

Well yes, I'm asking for their social lives to return!!! So, obviously, the vaccine option far outweighs the option of staying home in isolation, continuing to fear a virus that could wipe us out. None of us wants that! So, one by one, as our age-groups became eligible for the vaccine, we each went in and got it--Rhiannon last of all. And she's fine! She came home from the clinic, beaming, with her sticker proudly stuck to her vaccine site.

We are one family who, though we encountered some health challenges along the way, and haven't always been served well by the medical community, are extremely grateful for the people who have invented and made these vaccines, as well as our privilege in receiving them. Thank you.

Should I turn this into a call for open-source vaccines? Sure I will! We got this vaccine because we're Canadian, and as the People's Vaccine website states, "rich countries continue to cut bilateral supply deals with pharmaceutical companies which undermine this global effort and limit supply to poorer nations." So while people in India are burning so many bodies that the death-count is no longer trustworthy, billionaires with ties to big pharma are getting richer and richer, and I'm sitting here at home having my tea and typing on my laptop, feeling safe and sound. That's nothing to be proud of. 
 
The COVAX program (90-something wealthy countries providing financial aid to a similar number of underprivileged countries for the procurement of vaccines) has run into an issue with supply. Why?? Because most of the vaccine produced went to Europe and North America. That's us. Thanks, India! Thanks Brazil! Thanks billions of people all over the world waiting for vaccines that came to us, instead! I'm glad we're vaccinated! 
 
We can't just depend on charity, because just like with blankets on cold nights, we'll only give the extra blankets to the poor. We rich people will always keep more than enough for ourselves. The only solution is to produce more. To produce enough. Sadly, scarcity makes things more valuable, and those profiting want to keep profiting! Open-sourcing our technology means sharing the wealth, and, well... greed trumps compassion.
 
Enough. We need a people's vaccine. All technology, all science, and all progress should be open-source. Open-source means fair. The time for capitalism is over.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

To My Children: Things I Didn't Know to Tell You When You Were Born


It's been twenty years since I became a mother; since I went to the spring outside my house full of loss and lost for hope, thinking I must be barren after months of trying to conceive, and I poured my heart into my reflection on the surface of the water. I begged for you. Then, under my face looking back at me, a pregnant stickleback swam by. It was a descendant of the fish I'd put there as a child, brought from a lake where I'd been camping with my parents. I didn't know those little fish had survived all those years until that one dear mama fish swam under my reflection and gave me hope. A few days later, I found out I was pregnant with you, Taliesin. You were born the following spring, by emergency c-section, surrounded by your family and desperately hungry for life.

It was a hectic couple of years, as I learned to nurse you, to watch you, to care for you without smothering--you always wanted to play alone, and I had to learn that allowing you your needs was not abandonment. And I learned to be loved by you. I learned to trust--for the first time in my life--that you would always, always love me; that my love for you was acceptable. In your babyhood you taught me that I was lovable, capable, and for twenty years, now, that the ways I will be needed in the world will be ever-changing, but also ever-present.

Then came Rhiannon. You begged me to be born. You felt like a heavy rope, hauling at me with every step I took, until, exasperated, I said, "we're getting pregnant now or we're not having another baby at all!" And your Pappa and I lit candles and laid out the rabbit-skin blanket I'd already made for my second baby, and we made love with the heartfelt intention of making a body for somebody we already loved. 

Four hours later I woke up overwhelmed by the powerful feeling that you had arrived. It was like the heavy rope became a thick cloud, lifting me, all dizzy and drifty, and full of my new baby. I called the midwife that very morning, and she took me on before I could even do a pregnancy test, because she understood that "sometimes mothers just know". You grew so fast and so strong that all of us--even the midwife--thought it was possible you were twins. But no. It was just you. Your great, powerful self was just that: powerful. And in your really profound determination, you taught me, too, to stand in my power. Later you would tell me that you had a twin before you were born, but you ate her.

Babies are surprising. Children are surprising, too, and awe-inspiring in the terror and wonder they allow us to confront; bewildering in the ways they force us to confront ourselves; our own pasts and presents and choices we didn't realize were choices, before. 

Taliesin; Rhiannon, you both changed me like nothing else ever has, and I'm a far better person for having mothered you. I wish I had known when you were born how great my learning from you would be, but I didn't, and I now know enough just to know that I still don't really know. I know that your Pappa and I are on the journey of learning to love, and that you brought us here. This is what I know now:

We love you more for your smiles and rage; we love you more when you look at us in awe or bliss, when your sleeping lashes brush against our shoulders, and when you scream your wrath in our faces and tell us we did everything wrong. We love you more because you have helped us to see the importance of expressing feelings, and we appreciate learning, together with you, how to deal with our own emotions, too. 

We love you more every day you hide in your room and keep your pain hidden, and more again when it comes out by accident or when you curl into our arms. We love you because now we know that variability and flexibility are part of humanity, and witnessing your humanity has made us more human. 

We love you more because you're bigger than we are, now, and we loved you more when you were so tiny we tucked you into our coats. Whoever you are, whatever you look like, and whatever clothing you dress yourself in, you are always perfection to us. 

We love you more for seeing you live with open eyes, hearts, and hands. We love you more for teaching us about gender, sexuality, race, privilege, and rebellion. OK fine I personally love you more for accepting my constant rebellion, and for helping me to legitimize that part of my nature. We love you for being at home in and accepting of every new situation in which you find yourselves. You've helped us confront our privilege and become better people.

We love you more when you take risks and we stand looking terrified at the speck of our child's body against the cliff-face, or the shifty-eyes of our child taking on new social/emotional adventures, in secret. We love you more when you end up concussed or infected in the hospital; when we're completely terrified of losing you, and when we watch you struggle to pull through, on your own terms. We have learned courage and resilience from you.

We love you more when you accomplish things that were difficult for you, and we love you more again when you give up. Because now we know that boundaries and silence and time to heal and regroup are important, and we're glad you teach us about those. You've made it OK for us to regroup and become better parents.

We love you more when you have to spend the entire pandemic cooped up with us twenty-four hours a day for over a year, and we try to make the best of it, and find that it's the best time of our lives, so far, and at the same time one of the hardest. We love you for the times you choose to spend with us, and for the loveliness of your independence and all the reasons you don't have time for us. We love that you're busy with other things. We love you more because you're here, and more still because we know one day you'll move away. And all of those things are right.

We will still, always, love you more for making us question ourselves. 

We love you for just existing, and for allowing us to love you, even when you don't want to hear about our love. We love you for helping us to realize how much our parents love us, too.

Taliesin; Rhiannon: We love you. 

At our wedding, your Auntie Chloe said, "Love is not love which alters when it alteration finds." It sounded nice, but it didn't mean a whole lot to us at the time. You taught us the meaning of that poem. We didn't know how to love each other, until you taught us to love you. Shakespeare's words mean so much more, now that we have faced alteration, and know that all of it just makes us love you more.

We love you. And that will never, ever change. We were truly wandering barks before we found you. Now, wherever you go, you are our stars.