Monday, December 29, 2014

The Fun is in the Finding

That's a line from one of my very favourite children's books, The Finding Princess, by Sue-Ann Alderson. The princess makes increasingly impossible demands of her parents and grandparents until, in a fit of frustration, she tromps off into the wilderness to find for herself what she needs. She finds joy. She finds a life full of adventure and discovery, and certainly more intrinsic value than the life she had in the castle. It's a simplistic children's book with a very important life-learning message.

When I was a kid, my parents had the whole Encyclopedia Britannica as well as at least a decade's-worth of National Geographic magazines upon our bookshelf, which I referred to for many of my perplexing questions. I have great memories of researching ear-shapes by examining the ears in various portraits I found in those many books. I don't expect that the person who chose the portraits had any idea how useful they would be to my grade eight ear research, but I have never forgotten that particular exploration. Sometime during high school it was impressed upon me by a teacher that the reason for the work we were doing was to transfer the information from those books and others into my mind, so that I wouldn't have to look it up anymore. What?! And that was the end? No way. The books - I knew for certain - existed to preclude the need for memorization! Now we have the Internet, and it's more evident than ever how pointless it would be to begin memorizing. The task, clearly, is to learn to explore, to learn to navigate, and to learn to process information critically, with an astute awareness that there is no one correct outcome. The joy and the value is in the journey.

If I present my kids with a desired outcome, they generally balk, unless they perceive the outcome to be of immediate use. If I present my kids with a question, they usually get intrigued. If I present them with a question that is designed to lead them to a particular outcome, they usually follow along for a bit, until we all get side-tracked and end up somewhere else entirely. Interestingly, though, when I work with a group of mixed schoolers and unschoolers, I see some very obvious distinctions: The kids who have no intentional unschooling experiences (usually those who have always attended full-time school programs) look for the hidden lesson or goal in everything I present. Instead of exploring the question, they wait to find out the answer. Many also grow uncomfortable when it becomes clear that there is no predetermined answer or outcome. After a day or two with the group, they learn to navigate, usually by trying out some hitherto 'unacceptable' behaviours, until they realize that they truly are in control of their own experiences, and adjust to the group. It's an amazing transformation to see, and I consider it one of the greatest personal gains from teaching: watching kids discover their own innate value. One of the most difficult things for me, as an unschooling parent and teacher, is to always answer questions in a way that inspires investigation instead of in a way that points to an answer. Needless to say, I read The Finding Princess often.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Watching the Choir

The moon isn't out, the Christmas tree hasn't been put up yet in this hall, but decorations are hung around the walls of the church and risers stand empty at one end. The rest of the hall is filled with those uncomfortable hard plastic chairs that our whole community is accustomed to sitting in and stacking. Today coats are draped over numerous chairs for the many people who will arrive at the last minute; cups of tea nestle close by the steel legs, and a few children hop around the room. It's just before the annual community choir Christmas concert, and the hall bustles with - well - bustle.

Finally Graeme, our humble joke-cracking MC, gently intones from the front of the hall that the choir is ready, and a portion of the room quiets. The choir of nearly forty parades in, dressed in black, with wonky-looking piano-printed sashes swinging this way and that about their necks. Some of them look nervous, and many smile and wave at family as they make their way through the clapping audience to the risers at the front. More bustling, especially on stage. Announcements are made, and the choir begins to sing.

After a few songs it occurs to me that I'm not listening. I'm watching. Oh my mother would be so disappointed!! I try to tune into the various layers of sound, but in doing so I see the faces of the various choir sections; the individuals. I only know about two thirds of them, and of those only two I know well. Mostly I watch my mother. I see her flip too many pages in her choir book and giggle with a slight alarm in her eyes as she flips back again, never losing her place in the song, apparently. I see her brow furrow with the intensity of some parts, and see her grow taller with others. Sometimes I see her stage smile, and often I see the joyful smile that means she loves this moment of singing. I see how sometimes she looks so young and in herself, that she appears to be the way I imagine she looked as a girl. The singing does that to her. I see her look for me in the audience and I hope she knows I have always loved to see her sing. She stands beside the mother of a friend of mine, and I realize these things are maybe going through my friend's mind, where he sits on the other side of the hall. I think about my friend's mother, for the wonderful gift she has given to come to Canada to live near her children, and fill their community with song on this night. My mother also stands beside a woman I don't know, and I realize that every person in this choir has a lifetime of memories, emotions, trials and triumphs; that each of them has a different experience of this moment, and that all of these experiences are coming together in this moment of community. Each of them has people in the audience or out in the world who are filled with joy at the sight and sound of them.

The joy isn't because of the specific songs chosen, although in each of the three choir concerts I've seen this week I heard songs that brought me to tears. It is about the pleasure we gain from watching people share their moment of communion with us.

This is the first year my daughter has performed with a choir. As she sang, I watched her emotions flutter up and down, her mouth held stiff sometimes to control a smile, and her eyes searching, sometimes, to make sure we were still there. Afterwards she told me I'm a slow smiler, and she related the stories of the audience she watched as she sang.

I'm not a church-going person, but my daughter's second choir concert was held in a Catholic church, this week. There was a sign at the front that said, 'If you would like to receive communion, please place a host in the...' - and because of the bustle of families arranging themselves I couldn't read the end. And I thought, in sitting all squished together, in sharing this song, in sharing an opportunity to watch and hear our loved ones on both sides of the group, in sharing this moment with my community, I have had communion. And I am grateful.

This is my daughter's first ever choir performance:

Saturday, November 29, 2014

What Unschoolers think of Learning

A friend currently writing his phd recently asked me to interview the kids on their ideas about learning. So I did! Here is the result:

Monday, November 24, 2014

Parent Date

There's something that happens to a relationship when babies come along. Suddenly all that care and attention that once the parents showered on each other goes to the children - and truly, it's such a beautiful thing to watch a partner fall in love with that same beautiful being you're falling in love with yourself, that the parental relationship just seems to be blossoming, too.

That is, until one day you find yourself alone with your partner, and you discover you have nothing to say. It isn't that too-tired-to-utter-a-word kind of speechlessness that so many of us parents suffer from on a nightly basis. It isn't even the lovely wordless communication that happens between laundry-folding and dropping into bed, where the brush of my husband's hand on my arm reminds me that I am loved, and the mere pressure of his fingers is all I need to feel the thousand thoughts I know he has. Yes, we have been together for almost twenty years, now, and our relationship has certainly developed in many ways. But it has developed an emptiness, too. The speechlessness we are confronted with now is borne of loss.

Somewhere during the past fifteen years of money-earning, home-making and child-rearing, we forgot how to just be, together. I mean be, in the way we once did, silently, upon a log at the beach watching people go by, feeling the temperature of the wind shift and leaning in to each other. I mean be, in the way he used to catch my flood of words and I didn't demand an answer. I mean be, in the way that I used to have the patience to wait for his words. I mean be, in the way that time wasn't an issue, but just something trailing out the open air behind us. I mean be, like we could fly.

We got caught in the rat race and lost our wings.

This year for my birthday, my dear one gave me a night on the town. He booked tickets to a play, and a night at a B&B, and he told me we would spend as long as I wanted just hanging around my favourite neighbourhood eating whatever food I wanted and exploring the shops I don't usually visit. As we got ready to go, he held up my coat for me. Chivalry is lovely, but this gesture means more to us. When I met him nineteen years ago, he held up my coat for me to put on, and I said "how gentlemanly!" And he said "My mother said I should always help a girl into her coat." I'm not a girl anymore, and this gesture is a rarity, now, in our hectic lives as the parents of pre-teens. This gesture meant we were taking time for us.

I said, "I'm starving but it's only four",
and my dear one grew an I'm-so-proud-of-myself smile,
reached into his bag and pulled out snacks.
When I told people we were going out, there were many references to sex; winks and nudges. But really, our own bedroom has a door. I don't need a night at a B&B to make love with my husband. What we went for - and found - was so much more needed than that. A sweet friend who said hello on our way into town commented on the steamy windows of our car. Well those windows got steamy from our talking. Yes. We talked. We talked about the children, and the house, and arsenic in rice. We talked about parenting choices, murals, fabrics and architecture. We talked about herbs and eye-glass cleaning technologies and memory loss, and the many animals we've shared our home with in the two decades we been together. We didn't talk about our relationship. We lived our relationship.

After a delicious tea service, and wandering in and out of shops all afternoon, we checked into our B&B and lay silent on the bed, together, exhausted. I felt the tickly tangle of his beard on my face and took my glasses off to nuzzle in and enjoy it. I might have fallen asleep - we had nothing to do, but be.

I can't say we were very wise in leaving our relationship for so many years untended, but we have committed to find our wings again.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Dinner with Lughnasa

In recent kitten news...

Lughnasa has been eating dinner with us. When she sees the kids setting the table at about 7PM, she comes and meows until we pull up a chair for her. Last week we started giving her her wet food to eat with us at dinner time, and she seems to enjoy the routine.

So apparently she also has an internal alarm clock, because today at 7PM on the dot, she got up on her chair and shouted for my attention. Here she is enjoying the meal with us:

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Autumn food

Risotto: simple with butter, rice, leeks, onion, sea salt and our fresh-picked chanterelles.
Risotto too hot to eat.
And for dessert? Grapes my father planted in the Shuswap, and went to harvest this week. Maybe the most delicious grapes ever in existence.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Unschooling to School: Reporting and Evaluation

Do you remember your childhood report cards? I do. The manila envelope with the special school-paper-smell, and inside a folded piece of yellow card stock with rows and columns: P for proficient. N for needs improvement. Later the report cards were computer-printed and green or orange striped, and came with letter grades. And all of them - always, through 13 years of school - declared somewhere that I was capable of better work. I remember the sickly feeling of knowing - just knowing - that others' report cards surely didn't say that; that my teachers clearly didn't know me because I really wasn't capable of better work. As I grew older I learned to calculate as each term progressed what percentage I was achieving, and to gauge how hard I studied by the number of percent I needed to gain for a particular letter grade. I was never afraid of showing my report cards to my parents, because they, inexplicably to me at the time, were never angry about my grades.

So here's the thing. We have been homeschooling our kids for seven years. Unschooling, actually, with no curriculum or academic expectations of our children. We expect them to follow their hearts and dreams and to make choices thoughtfully. That's it. We chose the unschooling path mostly because we believe that grading, testing, and directed learning in general lead to coercion and competition. These in turn often lead to self-criticism, dispassionate obedience, a lack of ingenuity and a lack of love for learning in general. We wanted our kids to stay the hell away from those things. And for the most part, they have. They still walk out in the world and see endless opportunity. They still feel they can grow up to be anything they want to be, and they still feel the joy of discovery, constantly. They have retained a deep sense of self, without fear or limitations.

But this year our son started school - a small local IB World School, which is the closest we can get to perfect, as far as school goes in our community. But it's still school, with pretty much all that entails, and I am obviously worried about our son losing that treasured sense of opportunity and wonder we've been nurturing all these years. After only a month, he already comes home uninspired, most days. But he has committed to the year, puts in an effort to make the best of it, and we're all doing our best to keep him positive about it. We make sure he still finds a bit of time for the things he has always held to be important: reading, playing with his sister, and scientific exploration. And it seems, so far, that his essential nature is intact. This is how he recently answered some of the questions on his school's "Personal Educational Goals" form:
By the end of this year, I hope to have answered the following question:
"Should I really go to school, or be unschooled?"

Most interesting thing I've ever learned:
The fact that I exist.

At this point my plan for after IPS includes:
To learn cool stuff, and have fun.

As his mother, I was overjoyed when I read that. Those words are confirmation to me that we have chosen the right path.

That confirmation is so meaningful to me because for unschoolers there really isn't much feedback about our kids' welfare, and we have to trust our guts for pretty much every decision we make. Reassurance, in this world of people apt to criticize unschoolers, is rather hard to come by. I would love to get some feedback on how others perceive my children, but of course reports have been non-existent for us, other than those I am obliged to send in to our school district, ostensibly evaluating my own kids' activities and accomplishments. Those reports feel more like jumping through hoops than anything else, and have little or no meaning to us. We send them off. We don't receive them. There isn't really any non-familial professional who even knows our children well enough to make that kind of evaluation.

The last time we received a report for our son was when he was in preschool. It was wonderful. The report discussed his social/emotional development and the challenges he was overcoming as he branched out in his world. The report (and the parent-teacher meeting) helped us find ways to support him on his self-directed journey. It had nothing to do with literacy, numeracy, or test scores. Since then we've been blissfully rolling along without ever testing, but also without feedback about our kids.

Today that changed. My son received his first ever school report. I have been anticipating this for weeks, ever since I noticed "mid-term report" noted on the school calendar! I've been anticipating it so much, in fact, that I started writing this last week, in anticipation. I wanted to know what the world thinks of my child!!! And here is what they think:

It's only a "quick check", as they call it, to briefly rate the child on a scale of "exemplary" through "good" to "very limited" in his achievement and classroom engagement for each of his nine classes. Apparently he ranks lowest in French, which he has neglected entirely until now, moderate in math, english, physical education and practical reasoning, and high in science, humanities, art, and design tech. 

*Further information will come at parent meetings and at the first term report, next month.

And now that I'm nicely reassured that I do know my son after all, I realize that I just don't care. This isn't nearly as important as I expected it to be! I thought I would be excited to see him get high ranking in some subjects - or any at all, since he's never studied before. But this report is to some degree comparative to others of his age and social environment; to culturally-held expectations of 12-year-old achievement in Canada, and I realize that it doesn't matter a bit to me how he measures up. It matters that the people he spends time with notice his welfare and interests (in other ways I know they have, they're just not discussed in this particular report). It matters that they engage him in the thinking that goes into this report. But that's about it. Most of all, I'm thrilled to pieces that my son is still true to his comically existential self, and is just happy to watch his journey unfold. I couldn't have asked for anything more wonderful.

I asked him how he feels about having only a "developing" achievement in French. He looked at me as if he hadn't really thought about it. And he pointed out that the teacher had given him an "almost always" engagement rating for that class. Then he proceeded to rattle off some French phrases at me. It was the perfect answer.

The school is a school. The report is a great bit of feedback for me to engage with his experience there, but is nowhere near the frightening and exciting document I remember my own school report cards to have been. The report only has to be comparative if you let it be. I'm glad he's having this experience, and I'm glad that we've come through our first report card completely unscathed.

I understand, now, why my parents were never angry about low grades. They understood what I have only now discovered: Grades and academic achievement are not a measure of greatness; only of a little bit of activity a child has participated in during a very short time in his life. They are a means for the child to gauge his work and make decisions about what he'd like to do next - if he wants to. And eventually they will be a tool for him to reach certain goals. But none of that is my business. It's only my business to support him on the journey he chooses.

Six Hours in the West Coast Wild

So here's how it works: You pack up some tasty foods and a bunch of water; maybe an extra sweater or a hat, and you put on all your toughest rain gear.

And you go:
From the canopy to the forest floor there is SO much to discover.

Like testing the depth of the mud on the edges of a rainforest sphagnum fen. The moss in the mud at the bottom of this fen releases methane bubbles when poked, and the water draining out the other side smells decidedly of sulfur. These kinds of things you notice when you have endless time to explore. Moss farts.

If you journey further downstream, you might find evidence of a century past, when people logged this place. They left grooves in the hillside, springboard notches in the many many giant stumps (far bigger than the base of any trees here now), and even a corduroy road like this one, used for hauling those ancient giants down to the ocean to be floated away.

After all this adventure, poking around the bog and fen, playing horse and teeter-totter on the fallen trees, and exploring the creeks and vegetation, you might find yourself hungry for lunch. Where better to go than straight up the steepest, greenest bluff, rising a hundred feet right to the top of the shorter trees and out into the brilliant sunshine? It's only a five minute climb, but you will be sweaty and hungry when you get to the top.

At the top of that big bluff, sitting in the yarrow, reindeer lichen and the salty ocean wind, looking down at the forest canopy and glimpses of the creek you just came from, you could talk about the deep and not-so-deep meanings of life. Because, after all, today you are really living.

And anyway life is beautiful.
It's amazing to look at.

Amazing to touch.

And amazing in its variety and cycles.

It's just amazing to be a part of it.

This outing was part of the Wild Art Program. More information on the Wild Art page.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Nature of Belonging

Yesterday my son's school hosted a public talk with renowned ethnographer, Wade Davis. He seems to have been just about everywhere, met so many remote peoples and lived so many amazing experiences and his stories tumble like little avalanches, one setting off another. He told the rapt group of kids that he once lit himself on fire and shook the hand of a voodoo priest. He made the priest laugh. Middle-school mouths were agape as he talked about an Innu man who made himself a shit-knife, butchered a dog to make a sled, and rode away into the night, and the time he brought back through customs a suitcase made of African pop cans and containing all the strange ingredients to make a powder that would turn people into zombies. He talked about Polynesian sailors who know when land is beyond the horizon by the way the waves hit their boat - and they know which islands are making those variations, too. His favourite food? Well he's had lemon-flavoured sauce that was actually ant sauce, but he had a French girlfriend once who was a really good cook... He spoke about the diversity of humanity; the great tapestry of unique answers to the question who are we?, and a deep connection to place.

He touched a few times on the assumption that our western technology makes us more advanced than others; that we consider it a thing to strive for, but that perhaps it just happens to be the world we're immersed in, and ours is simply different than the technology of others. This led me to think more deeply about why I feel so good about taking people out in the wilderness, here. It's because it's my culture. The trees and the moss and the weather and the way the water flows are the bowl that holds my life, and the sharing of that connection is our culture. I feel a deep sense of belonging here, and I enjoy feeling my community in our unique place; remarking on the tiniest discoveries and the changes that happen through the seasons, the living and dying and rotting and growing of this place that we are a part of.

Interestingly, it seems that our culture equates a connection to the land with lower class, lower sophistication, or "quaintness". We hold humanity to some different yard stick than the rest of earth's animals, imagining that intelligence includes a separation from the land and our earthly nature. We revere people who practice modern medicine more than we do biologists, despite the obvious fact that both professions are inextricably linked. Those of our society who actually work with the land are usually among the lowest-paid. We put a lot of value in education that steers us toward urban life. In urban landscapes, rivers are diverted, buried, and forgotten. Forests are razed. It matters more whether we remove our body hair and apply lipstick than it does that we feel the frost coming. The dance of the sunlight filtering through the natural canopy is lost to us. Even the wind and weather patterns have been changed by our "progress", and for many of us are no more than a nuisance, now.

There is such a thing as Nature Deficit Disorder.

We're having a municipal election in my community, and my main concern in thinking about who to vote for is who understands the land we live on. Luckily, there are a few candidates who I regularly run into in the woods, here. There are people among us who hear the differences in rainfall, feel slight temperature changes, and know by the smell of the woods when the mushrooms are coming. There are children who can climb 100-foot trees without fear because they know the ways different species of branches grow, flex, and snap well enough to navigate them. There are children and adults out every day, going off-trail and into the woods, and being a part of our home.

We do have a land-connection, still. We are finding ourselves again. Having invented cars doesn't mean we have to use them. We are finding our walking feet again. We are finding our connections to the place we live on, live in, live under and live because of. In an age of germicides, pesticides, herbicides and antibiotics, we are discovering that were it not for the microbes that make up our bodies we would not live at all. With discoveries like the epigenome and entanglement, we are realizing that what we do truly does define us, and truly does effect every other particle in the universe. We matter. We are finally beginning to understand the significance of what Carl Sagan so famously wrote:
All of the rocky and metallic material we stand on, the iron in our blood, the calcium in our teeth, the carbon in our genes were produced billions of years ago in the interior of a red giant star. We are made of star-stuff. 
~Carl Sagan, The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective, 1973.

The post-oil age is going to be an age of redefining our culture, rewiring our minds, and reawakening our hearts to the essence of our own home and being (because they are the same thing), and to the enormous potential and responsibility that comes of living with instead of upon.

Following is a talk given by Wade Davis in 2007. It's quite similar to the one I saw yesterday. Enjoy! (If for some reason this YouTube video does not appear, you can also see it here:

Wednesday, October 22, 2014


Well we couldn't last long as a home with no cats. Lughnasa joined our family this week. The shelter estimates she was born about 10 weeks ago, which means she was born around the festival of Lughnasa, which we celebrate as a time of gratitude for early harvest and community. Right now we are also grateful for this kitten in our lives.

She was very frightened when we went to meet her at the animal shelter, but she liked to stand around on our shoulders, and when we went to put her back in the cage, she hunkered down and didn't want to go. So we took her home. Amazingly, we discovered today that Lughnasa has precisely the same markings as our beloved cat Moonshadow used to have (a little swoosh of white hairs on her chest, and a few white hairs under each arm). She also makes the same funny face (above). But she is her own cat. Her favourite places to be are in my sweater, just below my neck, or curled on the soft plush blanket on our bed, kneading and mouthing as if it's her mother. She was clearly taken away from her mother far too young, and has also already been spayed, tattooed, and transferred from the Shuswap to Vancouver. What a traumatic beginning for such a tiny and gentle baby. We hope we can give her a lifetime of security and love. She has already brought us so much.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Loss: The Art of Feeling

There has been some loss in my family, recently: pets, friends, and now the death of an uncle. As I write this, I know my mother is still in a state of deep shock, as her brother's death yesterday was unexpected. Her dog feels the change and walks carefully with her head and tail down, mostly keeping an eye on my mother. I know that feeling of shock: it's like walking through a thick haze - you certainly go about your life, but it seems that reaction times are slower; things rumble past and you can't quite turn around in time to catch them. When there's too much to take in, our minds pick and choose what matters. It's an enforced time of feeling and not feeling. Everything is heightened; we remember our dreams, we hear faint sounds that previously eluded us, the air temperature affects us more. I remember a time when this feeling frightened me, but now it's comforting. Loss - and even the shock of it - is part of life.

As an art teacher and mentor, I am often asked to teach people how to 'see'. There are so many exercises that purport to teach this, but none of them are as intense or as deeply changing as experiencing life changes, and the shock that often accompanies those experiences. Today I went out to look for the dog. I saw the yard in a way I don't usually: It was moving. In our little pocket of the land, the wind doesn't flow straight through; it gets caught up in little eddies, and swoops around in a seemingly haphazard way. Today I saw the flow. As the wind left the rose and cauliflower plants, I could see it catch up in the aspen, and then the oak, beyond. I felt the temperature change as a gently warmer current swept over the porch I was standing on and shifted the remaining wisteria leaves, beside me. I could feel the dew evaporating into the damp air. I called the dog and felt the enormity of my voice as it traveled through that air. I saw the many many greens and browns of the autumn yard, decomposing and growing at the same time.

Autumn is generally a time of letting go, and it's a time of pulling up close to loved ones in preparation for the winter, in expectation of the spring, and in celebration that after all, we have each other. We love.

To deeply love, in my opinion, is to love through everything. And everything sure comes up when we experience loss! Maybe the state of shock - the push to carry on despite the tingling of feeling and numbness all around - is what helps us accept each other during this time. I remember the day, year ago, that my aunt called to tell me my grandmother had driven backwards off the ferry and drowned. She said, "Grootmoeder has died." "That's not true!", I snapped. And she calmly said "It is," as waves of comprehension and confusion came over me. Her understanding, calm, and acceptance of my reaction as she was navigating the aftermath of the death of her own mother may be testament to her great wisdom, but may also have been borne of a state of shock. Shock helps us see the relative insignificance of things that may have once seemed to matter more. The waves of shock helped me to recover, too, and I said, "I'm so sorry. I will phone Pappa."

In the days that follow the death of a loved one, there is communicating that needs to be done among family. This communication pushes us together, in a shared state of mind, so that even when we don't want to turn our faces to the sun, we are often compelled to accept the embrace of our family and community. It is our great privilege when life allows us time to be with our emotions, to open ourselves to those heightened perceptions and to the encircling of community, and just feel.

For those interested, I found this helpful list of bereavement emotions:

Friday, October 10, 2014

Testing the Water

This autumn our friend Michael called us to see if we or any other home learners would like to come out and help him test the local sea water for radiation. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's Center for Marine and Environmental Radioactivity has people out test our ocean all over the coast of North America, and some further west, as well.

So Michael Chapman, a friend with a lifetime of connection to our local waters, took us out on his boat with his wonderful partner Sue, and showed us not only how to sample the water, but also how to read the charts, locate ourselves by sight-lines, and record the data for the sample.

Sampling is the easy part. We chose our spot on the ocean, scooped buckets of water from beside the boat, and funneled them into the provided container. The container came with a small device inside that will keep a record of the water's temperature and salinity from retrieval time until it arrives at the CMER. Not much to look at, but we found it interesting!

Then we plotted ourselves on the map using sight-lines, and recorded wind direction and other such things for the documentation that must accompany the sample to CMER. Upon arrival back at the dock, we packed up the sample in the CMER-provided crate and shipped it off for analysis. You can see a map of test results, here: Results

Participating in scientific research, especially in our own community, is one of the most rewarding things we do, as unschoolers. It allows us not only to learn about various workings of the world, but to be directly involved with our home and the things we care about. It allows us to understand and to care about more. I think there is an unfortunate disconnect between our increasingly urbanized culture and the environment we live in. The environment is not only our home, but it is a part of us, and we are a part of it. Unschooling has allowed us to delve deeply into that connection and to live not just in but as a part of the world we are.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Girl Stories

This is one of the things I've been doing creatively, this past year:

And now, finally, after all these months of editing and trial-run printing, my book is available to purchase! This book is definitely not intended for children. Some of it is pretty bleak, but not all of it. And there's a nod to unschooling, too. :-)

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Rhiannon is Ten

Last day of being nine - we went for a walk around the lake. Rhiannon has known this lake all her life. I think it's a wonderful thing to grow up with a solid sense of place and a deep knowledge of and connection to that place. It seems like a good foundation for a lifetime of exploration.

Rhiannon's birth tree (where we buried her placenta after she was born) is a quince. Every year she harvests the fruit and makes a batch of her great grandmother's delicious quince jam.

Another tradition in our family is that children receive crowns on their tenth birthdays. I made Rhiannon's out of gold fill wire, peridot and pink opal (her birth stone).

Her request this year was for a chocolate cake bottom with a cheesecake on top. It took a bit of experimentation to make it work but it was certainly interesting! If I were to do it again I would add rosemary to the chocolate cake.

We had a bit of candle-blowing event: On her first attempt, she managed to blow out exactly 0 of her ten candles! Luckily Auntie Ginger caught the whole event on film, and she aced the second attempt with 10 for 10.

We played Carcassonne after dinner, and went to bed full of tasty foods and joy... but not for long! Luck and coincidence gifted Rhiannon with a full lunar eclipse on the night of her tenth birthday, so of course we set our alarm and all went outside at 3 AM to watch it. It was foggy, but the four of us cuddled up on cushions on the porch and watched the foggy moon drift into Earth's shadow, before the sky became completely overcast. Life is beautiful!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Can You Stomach This?

"So she told the cop that he had broken three rules: He pulled off my [clothes], slapped my [donkey], and shaved my [cat] when he got its hair in his mouth."

Can you stomach that, coming out of your child's mouth? That's the punchline of a joke that is going around in some kids' social circles right now. It's not much different from those I heard when I was 10. How does that inform our sons' social and emotional judgments? What does a little girl feel about herself when she hears that? How does that validate her as a human being? Does she laugh? It's funny, right?

My daughter watches the Voice. It's just a singing competition, right? And unlike in some other talent shows, the judges are not cruel to the contestants. And one of the judges is the Sexiest Man Alive!! Have you seen Maroon 5's new video, Animals? Yeah it's just that one where the blood-covered Sexiest Man Alive, Adam Levine, chases his wife around in a butchershop, trying to "prey on" her, "hunt [her] down and eat [her] alive" (link to article here because I would never link to the video). Yeah... Adam is one of the main coaches on the Voice. Let's talk about some of the others: How about the always-drinking Blake Shelton (cue endless jokes about his Special Lattes and inebriation), who characterizes himself as father and uncle to the little girls he tries to woo onto his team? Or Cee-lo Green, who was charged with rape after he slipped a woman ecstasy and had sex with her. After his court appearance he tweeted "if someone is passed out they're not even WITH you consciously, so WITH Implies consent." and "People who have really been raped REMEMBER!!!" Wait... but he's not on the Voice anymore, right? He's been replaced with another black guy (because you know it's always important to show gender and racial variety: 1 sleazy masochistic white pop star, 1 blond lady, 1 black guy, and 1 older drunk country guy). So the new black guy is Pharrell Williams. He's not sexist - oh no. On the contrary, in response to criticism of the song he wrote called Blurred Lines, which smarms "I'll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two", and displays men in suits being served by near-naked women, he says, “I want to support women, but that doesn’t mean I won’t make another song where girls’ behinds are everywhere.” 

Don't worry. The Voice always has a woman coach. She's not one of the two main coaches, because women just simply don't have dominant positions like that in most cases. Who is it this year? Gwen Stefani. She tours with 4 diminutive Japanese girls, and has made a perfume line of their caricatures. Lisa Wade, Phd. says on her blog post, "I think that Stefani’s use of Asian women as props (they may or may not be Japanese) fetishizes Asian women and reinforces white privilege. The Harajuku (sic) Girls serve as contrast to Stefani’s performance of ideal white femininity." We don't hear much debate about Gwen Stefani, because in comparison with other popular female role models she's actually top-of-the-line. That's just desperately sad.

"Our findings indicate that about 20 million out of 112 million women (18.0%) in the United States have ever been raped during their lifetime." (2007 National Study) But is this issue only about reported rape? These statistics alone don't include the multitude of relationships (both sexual and otherwise) that we as women seek out and involve ourselves in, where we willingly submit to social, emotional, intellectual, financial, sexual and physical abuse. We can blame men all we want, but that's not going to get us anywhere, and we know it as well as the woman who has just been slammed against her own bathroom floor knows that she willingly walked into that relationship. We are raising our children in an environment where gender inequality is normalized in our homes, in the media, and in our children's lives outside of our homes. Our boys - those same angels who curl into their mothers' arms and dream about finding true love and caring for baby kittens - are learning to laugh at jokes like the one I opened with. Our girls are learning too.

At first I just watched the Voice with my daughter, talked to her about all the issues I noticed, encouraged her to watch critically, and when I felt that the ideals and inequality of the show were still twisting her mind, I tried to limit the show... but now I have banned it. She'll watch other things - I know that. These sick and harmful ideals will work their way into her mind. But I'm going to take both of my children as far as I possibly can, without them, first. Inequality harms us all.

At the moment I have a daughter who still thinks her body is beautiful; who still thinks she's valuable as a human being, and I have a son who not only trusts his own value and judgments, but is also genuinely deeply offended when other boys joke about non-consensual sex. Over twenty years of marriage, my husband and I are learning to see the inequalities in our marriage and lead a lifestyle of equality. I feel valued and respected, and I hope so does he. But we're still growing. There is cause for hope. There is enormous cause for hope. Let's find that hope, as a species, together.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Unschooling to School: Collecting

This morning in my t-shirt I stood and shivered in the pink sunrise, the blue light of dawn still behind me, to the west. The porch was dry but the air was heavy. The languishing tomato vines hung limp with dew and decaying leaves. The first drops began to fall, and an hour later I was wrapped in two sweaters, cleaning house under a cacophony of slamming water on our metal roof. The autumn rain has come swooping back in, and I am relieved.

We've been picking the tomatoes just as they begin to turn yellow and ripening them in the house. The quinces on my daughter's tree are turning a rich glorious yellow, and the potatoes, quinoa and oats are all inside, in various stages of progression toward the pantry. The heavy rain is beating the aphids off the kale and pulling the leaves off the trees. This is how autumn often comes on the west coast: leaves fall heavy to the ground and rot before making any fluffy picturesque leaf-piles. Sometimes I can't tell the difference between the leaf-litter and the mud. Sometimes there is no difference. Things like gardens begin rotting right under our noses in the summer, and in the autumn rain they get hammered to the ground. Now we're entering the six month long period of rubber-boot-wearing. I love this season. I am glad for the opportunity to take stock.

This is a time for collecting: seeds, fruits, tubers; collecting my body into warmer clothing; collecting my family. Every day when my son comes home from school I pull him into my arms. Maybe I curl up in a blanket with him and hear about his new friends, maybe I collect up his lanky body to sit beside me on the couch and show me what he's doing, and maybe he bitterly stomps into his room and shuts the door behind him, so I sit down among the clothing, electronic parts and lego pieces and I listen. I worry about the big changes in his life - starting school for the first time in 7th grade is kind of like jumping off a cliff into a black frothy ocean current. I am sad to see the summer go. He puts his arm around me and says it's O.K. It's just raining. I know he's right. It's harvest time. And in every harvest are infinite beautiful new beginnings.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Pie for Parkinson's

Here's my Pie for Parkinson's challenge video.

I'm supposed to tag people to carry on the challenge and donate to Parkinson's.

I hereby tag everybody who feels so inclined to think about the people you love; think about the challenges those people face, and think about how we can all be accepting, supportive and kind, in everything we do.

We all have challenges, and our strength and resilience comes from love and community. I am blessed to live among many such accepting, kind, supportive people.

Pie for Parkinsons from Emily van Lidth de Jeude on Vimeo.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Unschooling to School: Measuring Up

First ever math homework!
Recently my son did an assessment test before his first school experience. He entered grade seven having spent no more than about 20 hours each year completing math questions and writing assignments, so they needed to see how he would fit into the group. Apparently his computation and spelling barely attain "grade level", while his math and reading comprehension are above. To discover that our son is miraculously working at grade level, despite having never completed a "grade" or test in his life was certainly reassuring. For parents traveling a largely uncharted path with our kids' education, that felt like a huge pat on the back. But I am wary of being caught in the trap of "measuring up". The whole reason we're doing this is to instil in our children a desire to live fulfilled, rich lives, independent from societal and social expectations.

Most miraculous, to me at least, was the fact that he enjoyed the test. "It was interesting!" He exclaimed upon coming out of the room. "I liked that I got to write about what I like to do. The teacher was very nice, also." And it occurred to me that these are the things that deeply matter in life: that we are engaged in what we do, and that we are held with respect and compassion by others.

I admit that I have a lot of trepidation about this schooling adventure. I had a terrible time at school. I was the last person chosen for teams in gym class (people actually fought over who had to have me on their team), I achieved mostly minimal grades, and was bored all the time. I felt invisible, and worse, it seemed that when people did see me they wanted to hurt me. I never measured up. Now I've put so much faith in holding my children close, in allowing them to venture out into the world without the measuring sticks of school applied to them, with the hope of keeping their spirits in tact. I'm so scared this year of school will break my boy's spirit; maybe my own. But life is not for the faint of heart, right? So off we go. I will do everything in my ability to keep his fire stoked and his dreams his own; to remind him that every day is his to determine, and I will judge him always only by how much I love him.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Amber Sunshine

Don't worry little kitten - it's a herbivore. I hope.
In 1998 Markus and I stopped to camp in a little campsite next to the Rosebud River, in Rosedale, Alberta. When we pulled into our little spot by the riverbank, 3 tiny kittens were scratching and scrabbling around in the dust. They were clearly starved, so we took out a can of tuna, and as I opened it a little black and white one climbed from my foot to my shoulder to get the fish. The three finished it in less than 30 seconds, as I remember. Then we left to visit the Drumheller museum, and when we returned, an RV had pulled up beside us and the kittens were occupied by the RV owners' two children. We went to bed in our little tent, and fell asleep to the sound of the wind picking up.

Eventually we woke again, deep in the night, to a raging pelting rain and thunder storm. We could hear the river raging beside us, and felt briefly awed by experiencing what was clearly a flash flood in Alberta's badlands. Then we heard mewing. Tiny, faint, and frail sounding, and then louder as she pushed her face against the zipper-closing of the tent, the little yellow tabby kitten had come for refuge.

Amber and Markus adored each other.
I got up and let her in. She was like a small wet rag. I towelled her off with my shirt and went back to sleep. When we woke the next morning she was a puff of white and yellow fluff, sprawled on her back between our heads. She has always had the softest fur I've ever felt. I will miss that about her.

Her brothers were gone from the campground, and so was the RV. We hope they went home with those kids. We tried to look for her home, but nobody had heard of kittens being born, and when we turned down one of the driveways she screamed, just before large aggressive dogs came running out at our car. We decided to keep her, and drove her back home to Vancouver with us.

I wanted to name her Alberta Rose; Markus chose Amber Sunshine, instead. Both were fitting.

Amber was so frightened when she saw our older cat, Moonshadow, that she peed on the bed where she was sitting. Moonshadow took great care and patience to move just a few inches closer to Amber every day, until finally Amber welcomed her and began sleeping under Moony's arm. They began sharing a small basket.

Amber was temperamental - she had an eating disorder that cost us thousands of dollars in the first couple of years, and became a ferocious hunter when we moved to Bowen. It cured her eating disorder, but was not always a pleasant habit. She was also fiercely territorial, and expressed frequently her disapproval when things weren't going her way.

Amber meeting our new puppy, Juniper. 2000.

She hated snow and rain, and reminded us so every time the weather changed by peeing on Markus and my clothing (even crawling into our drawers when possible). She peed on the baby laundry after Tali was born. We understood her frustration, but luckily she grew to love him, and she became a loving, tolerant (and very fat) kids' cat.

Baby Tali had no fear about pulling and mouthing her ears, because despite her ferocity, she never hurt him.

After Moonshadow died, a few years ago, Amber gloriously ruled our house, dominating dogs and even us when she felt like it. In recent years she guarded over the children in their beds, and developed a nice routine for spending quality time with each of us, every day.

In her senior years she cared less about making friends with newcomers!

She made a fuss every time we came home from the city, walking around the yard yelling at us in the most unpleasant tone she could muster, until we'd sufficiently snuggled her dismay away. I will miss that about her, too.

Amber died, today. We found out last week that she had a tumour in her face, and it grew very fast. This afternoon we had to let her go. She fell asleep in my arms, before being euthanized by candlelight with gentleness and care by our Bowen vet. We were very grateful for him, today. And very sad to lose our dear friend of 16 years.