Thursday, December 17, 2015

Earth Day Every Day 5: Dark

Earth Day Every Day is a bi-monthly series of essays I write for the Bowen Bulletin, re-published here for fun!

At the community choir concert this past stormy weekend, every choir member carried a flash light. If the power had gone out (which, unfortunately, it didn't), they would have continued by flash light, as they did briefly at one of their rehearsals, last month. So in one of our quirky Bowen moments, the choir left the stage with headlamps and flash lights in hand, and three headlamps still dangling from the rungs of a stool, on stage. And during intermission we hung around in the foyer of the Chapel, and some of us out in the windy dark night.

This is the time of darkness, when life and community brings us out to walk around carolling or shopping or visiting with friends, and an increasing amount of that time is spent in the dark. There's something about the lack of light that makes us appreciate the gift of it, and everything else we often take for granted. As the sun drops off our horizon, we begin to see in different ways.

Dusk is confusing to me; my mind still believes I can see, but my eyes struggle to resolve the vast array of patterned greys. It's like being lost in the half-tones of a rich intaglio print, and eventually I lose visual focus, reverting to other senses, as recourse. Have you ever noticed the sound of bats' wings as they turn in flight, or the buzz of a nighthawk's dive? It's a sound that strikes me at the top of my spine, as the world falls into dark.

I like to walk through the woods without a flash light. During my many walks throughout the year I have come to know these woods, so that darkness brings new experiences, but not often new footing. Still I have to feel my way along, and go much more slowly than I would during the day. The moon is a welcome lamp, but on moonless nights, like the one last week between the storms, even the stars give light. It takes a certain amount of darkness to be able to notice the stars' light falling between the boughs of hemlock and cedar. I enjoy the softness of soggy needles underfoot, and the cool refreshing damp of the air on my cheeks. This is the joy of living in a rural place where we choose wilderness over concrete; sensual exploration over street lights and expediency. Especially at this time of year.

This is the time of darkness – not just because of the number of daylight hours, but because of the power outages, throwing our families into impromptu candlelight dinners and wood-stove-cooked meals, necessitating neighbourly helping-out, caretaking and community. We chose this island; we chose this lifestyle, and many of us delight in the inconvenience. This is the time we celebrate the darkness by lighting our cove and our homes, and by singing to our trees. Yes, my family sings to our trees.

On Midwinter morning we go out to get a Christmas tree. It's always a tree that is slated or fated to come down anyway, and we bring it inside to decorate. As we hang up the cherished ornaments, some of them generations old, we sing, and share memories of years past. As the longest night of the year falls around us, we hit the main breaker for the house, light lanterns from the fire in the wood stove, and parade out into the dark, weaving a stream of firelight through the yard. We sing the Tree Wassail to all the fruit trees and to many other cherished trees, as well. As we walk around singing, tripping, laughing, holding hands and trekking through swampy areas, we feel the world around us. In rainy years, the rain slips in around our necks and soaks our heads as we go. When it's frosty the grass crunches under our feet and sometimes the sky opens up to reflect our fire with starlight.

When we've sung to the trees, we return inside, where we take the fire from our lanterns and light the candles on the Christmas tree, symbolically bringing the light we originally took from the wood stove back in to light our home. And then of course we sit around singing together all evening. That's how we spend our Midwinter, singing to the trees.

May winter's cold to you be kind
May you blossom in the spring sunshine
May gentle rain in its season fall
May you be loved by one and all
~ From the Tree Wassail, by Starhawk

Photo by Adrian van Lidth de Jeude

Sunday, November 1, 2015

I Believe in Santa Because I Believe in Science

If you had never been diving, you might assume that islands float. Then you might learn that islands are, in fact, just mountains poking up from the sea floor. And you would be told that islands don't float. So what if you then found yourself on a floating island? Would you even recognize it as an island?

What if you learned to recognize life by our current earthly definitions, and then you went exploring on some distant planet and came home empty-handed, only because you were unable to recognize life in a different form?

What if you lost your beloved baby - the one who was real to you, even though your parents kept telling you it was plastic - and you cried every night and found no joy in your days for months, and nobody understood your pain because your definition of 'real' was not in their dictionary? Then what if you pinned all your hopes for finding your beloved lost baby on Santa Claus, and you wrote him a letter, but they told you Santa Claus couldn't find your baby, and sometimes real life just hurts, and then your Auntie and Nana colluded to replace your baby as a Christmas present from Nana, and she wasn't the same baby, and you gave her a new name, and the hole in your heart wasn't filled but you felt joy again, and you discovered that Santa Claus is real, and that Nana and Auntie are a part of him, and you lost a little faith in the world, but you gained a little, too? And what if you spent the rest of your life searching for answers and discovering all sorts of new ways of looking at things, because somebody let you make your own definitions instead of boxing you into their own?
These are the caribou that my daughter saw on Grouse Mountain. They were supposedly Santa's reindeer, and I told her that Grouse Mountain just wanted to attract more visitors by pretending they were Santa's reindeer. She went into the little hut there to visit the man dressed as Santa, and told me afterwards that she knew he was the real Santa because he was so nice to her, and he loved his wife, Jessica. And because Jessica was friendly, too. I told her maybe they were just nice people. It was shortly after this that she wrote a letter to Santa asking him to help her find her missing baby. To Santa and Jessica, and the two bored caribou on Grouse Mountain, thank you for giving my daughter hope.

Some people think science is about definitions and categories; rules and laws and putting things into boxes. I think it's about breaking open all the boxes.

Science is about opening our minds.

So what about "magical thinking"? I've been told many times that magical thinking harms our children, either because it sets them up for a huge disappointment, or because it leads them to believe things that are just not true. In allowing them to believe in things we have no empirical evidence of, we are lying to our children; leading them into a life of blind compliance. Further, magical thinking allows us to be taken advantage of due to the inherent innocence and vulnerability of belief in unproven ideas. Nobody wants that for their children.

But I believe that a lack of magical thinking does the same. It hobbles us to the chain of somebody else's empirical evidence or, even worse, as scientists it closes our minds and limits us to the ideas of our predecessors, unable to make advancements or explore new possibilities.

We've probably all heard Arthur C. Clarke's statement that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic", and many renowned scientists who were once considered lunatics have experience with that. Of course many theories are eventually proven false, just as many supposed facts are also eventually proven false, and then many falsehoods are eventually discovered to be true. How can we navigate this confusing landscape of understanding with our minds firmly latched onto empirical evidence? We need a broad imagination and acceptance of our own lack of knowledge to learn anything at all.

The Critical Thinking Association states that 'magical thinking is the opposite of logical thinking'. I feel, in fact, that they are inextricably linked. Reason allows us to consider all alternatives for a given question and to choose those potential solutions that merit more exploration. Logical and critical thinking give us the tools to explore those ideas. Without any faith in the plausibility of those ideas, what reason do we have to explore them?

I've been exploring the idea of Santa Claus with my children since my son was three. That's when he told me that Santa Claus was coming. Not wanting to shatter his little heart too quickly, I asked him why he thought so. Apparently he "just knew". I told him that Santa Claus had never visited me (or him, for that matter), so I doubted that he would begin, then. I said I wasn't even sure Santa was real, and if he existed at all, he surely wasn't sitting in every mall in the country, and my son agreed. But some of those men might be very very kind and wanting to make children happy, so doesn't that mean they're doing Santa's work? Maybe. But what if there's no real Santa? I told him that the North Pole is nothing but water and ice, and he replied that there must be something at the bottom of the sea, or that people could live in the ice. And I thought, Who am I to tell him that's impossible? So I didn't. And Santa came. Because it's not my place to determine for my son what's real and not real, or to define the idea of Santa Claus based on my own upbringing or the popular standards. That year there were things in the stockings from me, and some from Santa.

I don't want to lie to my children, so I tell them the truth, which is that I don't know.

In the abstract from his research paper, Magical Thinking and Children's Cognitive Development, Eugene Subbotsky states that "...despite the fact that multinational industries (such as toy production and entertainment) exploit and support magical beliefs in children and many TV programs for children show magical characters, surprisingly little is known about the effects of magical thinking and magical beliefs on children's cognitive and social development. Is involvement in magical thinking confined to the department of entertainment, or has it also to do with more practical aspects of children's lives, such as learning and social communication? It is hypothesized that magical thinking does indeed positively affect children's cognitive development, by enhancing creative divergent thinking in children."

So what kind of world do we want to live in? A world where everything is untrue until proven true, or a world full of possibility, exploration and growth? I never believed in Santa Claus because I thought he was impossible. Now, as I explore the many aspects of him with my growing children, I am open to the possibility of him. I also partake of his magic, by participating. I and my children absolutely adore our sneaky little stocking-filling expeditions in the night, and we are all a part of Santa Claus. That joy is one of the gifts of keeping possibility open. Another is the knowledge that my children's minds are open, too.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Wild Art: Exploring Local History

I had the great fortune of exploring some of our local natural and historical sites with some 8-13-year-olds this week. Our home was previously logged and explored for mining, so there are artifacts from this time scattered all over the second-growth forests, here. We had six hours to explore, some useful and rugged gear, and enough food and warm drinks to keep us nourished.

The first stop was the lower Mt. Gardner mine adit. There are four such adits on the western side of Mt. Gardner, and this one is the most accessible, so it's where we began our day. Apparently the Bonanza adit was after gold, but obviously they gave up before getting very far. The entrance to the adit is full of a very deep and long puddle, which makes a great home for frogs and salamanders, both of which we managed to catch a glimpse of, as we entered the dark. Just a little further in we found a harvester (photo), and two pairs of giant mating crickets!

Eventually the rock floor emerged from the puddle, and we explored both forks of the adit with our flashlights. We found some interesting numbers spray-painted on the walls, and wondered about their meaning, and we found both ends of the tunnel had old broken chairs and wet fabric dumped in them. There were also used tea-light candles stashed all over the place, the remains of a cardboard beer box, and some other bits of garbage. The kids decided that people like to hang out in the mines, or possibly store their belongings there so nobody takes them.

Then we turned off our lights. This was a big achievement for those kids who had required two attempts to enter the mine in the first place, but they chose to stay and challenge themselves to brave the dark - and they did it! With the lights out at the end of the mine, it's so dark that we can't see our own hands in front of our faces. We can't tell the difference between eyes closed and eyes open. And when we're quiet we hear every movement of our bodies inside the rock mountain.

But when we sing? Well that's amazing. We began just testing out single sounds and single notes and ended by singing the Hard Rock Miner, together, before returning to the light. Being enrobed in the reverberating sound is an experience you'd have to try out yourself to imagine.

Then we headed into the forest!

This part of the forest is richly carpeted with moss, making it feel not just welcoming but also very peaceful and enchanting. Somebody who obviously feels the same way has built a stone circle in this area, and we found it a perfect spot for an earth meditation.

Earth meditation is something I like to do with people as a way of connecting with the environment we're exploring. We begin by stretching and relaxing into the ground, then closing our eyes and calmly observing what we feel and hear. Of interest is not just what we observe, but what about it. Where does the sound appear to come from? Is it near or far? Is it moving - where? What are the different feelings in and around our bodies? How are those feelings different from each other?

Then we open our eyes, and this is what we see. Well... of course it's a lot richer than this photo can illustrate. We look at the texture of the bark closer to us, and the difference between the needles up close and those that are farther away.

We compare the colour of the sky directly above with the colour of the sky all around the edges of our view. We look at small details and we look at the big picture. This photo can't do it justice, because really it looks circular, like a dome. Sometimes we see raindrops or bits of debris falling towards us and can observe perspective in real time. When we're finished observing and talking about what we discover, we simply get up and move on.

Near the stone circle is a fort that a previous group of kids began building a few months ago, so this group continued it. They also built secret caches for treasures they were finding, and began a large game of invasion and reconstruction between what turned out to be two distinct fort areas. Weapons such as this spear and hammer (right) were built and traded, and various forms of defense were invented as well. One that was new to me was a system of defensive lasers that could only be turned off by singing a very precise series of notes. If the "password" was sung correctly, the lasers would turn off; if not, the singer would encounter booby traps.

As the game evolved, it necessitated a couple of brief conversations about comfort levels for attacks, and the time needed to develop and repair, between attacks. Eventually this game petered out, and we went down the mountain in search of the old steam donkey.

During lunch time I was informed that all of these kids have learned the song Donkey Riding in school, but that all of them thought it was about a donkey (animal). Of course it's not, and we of the pacific rainforests are accustomed to finding the remains of steam donkeys in our wilderness, so we had a great opportunity to talk about that song! When you're "stowing timber on the deck" you're certainly not riding on a small equine, but rather a great honking steam-powered engine!!

Riding on a donkey!

A few meters away from this main boiler, we found the rusty old top of the donkey, as well as some old cable, and other metal parts. Eventually, over the rest of the day, we found many stumps with spring-board notches cut into them, and also one with spikes in it. We wondered whether perhaps that was close to the spar tree, as we also found a huge pulley, there. If you're interested to see all this gear in action, here is some old silent footage of Vancouver Island logging. Watch for the man cutting and preparing the spar tree, then installing the giant pulley, then you will see a clip of the loggers "riding the donkey" (this is what they're talking about in the song!), and finally you see them start to use it:

Of course all this excitement wouldn't be nearly enough. There is a great creek running through the area we were in, and it had to be explored! This creek offers a mini canyon, as well as a great tumbling section of rounded rocks and precarious logs for climbing on. We had many near-soakings and a couple of near boot-fillings.

The day wrapped up with a great game of witch's potions, cache-building, dam-building and water play.

We came out of the woods completely exhausted, but all having made discoveries that were unexpected, inspiring and engaging. I have no idea what parts of this day will stick in the hearts and minds of the kids I shared it with, but for me, it will be yet another day where I opened myself to experience and came home rich. What a perfect day!


Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Earth Day Every Day: 4

Earth Day Every Day is a bi-monthly series of essays I write for the Bowen Bulletin, re-published here for fun!

Here we are, waking up to a new red dawn. Apparently our prime minister designate is a rockstar. Now let me tell you about crawling through the mud in the woods. Priorities.

A couple of weeks ago, one of the kids I work with climbed up onto a leaning tree. It was a soft green moss- and licorice fern-covered maple, reaching out between great black crystal-like crags of old burnt cedars. He climbed up and back down three times, and when he satisfied his skill-building needs, he just sat up there for a while. That seat in itself was pretty amazing, but from where he sat, there was something far better. “Hey guys! I see a swamp!” He shouted. Some of the other kids looked up from their boat racing and bridge building, and one declared “no more swamps”. She was the one wearing running shoes. But I followed his gaze, and within a minute or so, he was down from the tree, and everyone had joined the quest for the swamp.

Just around a cedar shell we found what looked like the beginnings of a house – raw posts sunk deep into a grassy clearing just beside the creek, a shovel, some roofing, and a creeping carpet of moss. Our leader ducked under some salmonberry bushes, crossed the creek, and crawled through the mud to a group of trees and logs, beyond. “Holy!” He shouted! “It's a cave! I found a cave with a river in it, and a waterfall, too!” I struggled through under the salmonberries while some of the older teens picked their way around to the other side, where we found the small creek streaming into a loamy under-tree cavern, and winding its way between small sand bars, about two meters below our feet.

I checked the time, and felt pressured to hurry them back to the school for lunch. But I squatted down and checked out the soft sand under the tree, instead. As time marched on, I became worried about their parents' reactions if we arrived late, and encouraged them to leave. But they were busy. Some kids climbed into the cave; some harvested licorice fern, and one sang a song before accidentally slipping between some roots and nearly into the deepest part of the 'cavern'. As his friends helped him out of the tight space, I worried about the kids injuring themselves. But I waited quietly. These kids helped me to discover new delights in an area I've visited far more often than they have, and I was grateful for their perspective.

It's so easy to become wrapped up in our adult lives, and to feel the urgent present moment more important than the building of our future. It's so easy to find ourselves more important than the discoveries of children crawling through the mud. Obviously we understand so much more than they do. But then again, somehow we don't.

Here we are, waking up to a new red dawn, and on Monday I watched a few of my teenaged friends posting “voting in the only way I can” updates to social media, and witnessed the infectious joy as the mock school polls managed to overthrow the conservatives. The IPS outcome was apparently (in this order) Liberal, Green, Marijuana, Conservative, NDP, and Marxist-Leninist. What would happen if we placed more value in the thoughts and intentions of our youth? What would happen if we listened to their hopes and fears with the same sincerity they afford to ours, as they're listening to our grave adult conversations from neighbouring rooms, and wondering if their world will fall apart?

The stream that flows so perfectly into the waterfall of an amazing under-tree cavern does not care which party won the election. The great community of plants and fungi and animals that depend upon the stream do not know that over at the community school we put X's on bits of converted tree pulp to determine their future. But our children know. They know that we are their voices and that our every move will determine their future. The freedom to explore and to build a deep connection with and understanding of our environment is part of the way we keep our future viable. Our children know this.

Our children are not just our future, but the future of humanity, and when we value their contributions we give them the agency to form brave opinions. We give them the wherewithal to act on those opinions, instead of being swallowed up in the present moment fears that occupy us in our busy adult lives. Here we are, waking up to a new red dawn, and our work has just begun. Let's climb through the mud and swamps to find hidden treasures. I challenge all of us to reach into the unknown and to hold our new government to task for the things that matter to our children.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Eleven years ago this very moment.

Eleven years ago this very moment, at 10:55 in the morning, my powerful child came swooshing out into the world and I caught her with my own hands. I lifted her up and shouted "It's mine! She's mine! She's my girl!!!"

We have a tradition in our family of telling the kids about their births during the days that surround their birthdays. The little stories all begin with something like this: "Eleven years ago this very moment..." and end with the details: "...Tali and Nana were making applesauce in the kitchen", or "...we decided to go get on the ferry and head for the hospital," or "...I was sitting in the bath at the hospital, leaning on Pappa," or "...I told the nurse I felt you moving down", etc. The story goes on for days, and we all delight in remembering.

Hurried rice porridge and Tali's flowers and card on her birthday school morning.
But this year my beautiful daughter isn't home! For the first time ever, she's attending a part-time school program, and has gleefully brought cupcakes to share with her class. She loves her independence there, and didn't even want me to drop her off at school. So at this moment, I can't tell her "...and I lifted your little purple body up onto my chest, while Nana and Pappa came running in the door". I can't describe to her how it was to snuggle her little sticky self all up in my arms as all the doctors and nurses came hurrying into the room in a panic and we were just fine. I can't tell her how they wiped her face and how dark reddish brown it became - and stayed - and how I smooshed my lips against her beautiful soft head and cried for the joy of holding her, or how Pappa and Nana kissed us so lovingly, and Pappa declared that her name would be Rhiannon. Rhiannon Raven. And that was that, and I smiled and said "Annie" and it was all perfect.

Parenting isn't always perfect. How could we ever grow and develop if there weren't a hundred thousand hurdles to keep us leaping all the way? My daughter is a force to be reckoned with, and also sometimes like the softness of a warm wind that keeps me steady and sure as she wraps her arms around me and reminds me that there is always love.

I can't tell her these things right now, but I will. Today as I bake her birthday quince pie, I will re-live the memories myself, and tonight when I tuck her in I will sing her the song her Nana wrote for her, and tell her about my day: The day she was born and the present day that I spent thinking about the wonderful gift of her presence in my life.

Thank you, Annie, for being mine.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Eyes on the Prize

This weekend I've been holding a video camera for my son, to help him with a video tutorial contest he wants to enter. I've tried to give him video advice, but he won't take it. The biggest advice he'll take from me is to turn so that he's not hidden by his own shadow. I've tried to explain that I'm not usurping his creativity; that this is only something I can see from behind the camera. But I see that he's unhappy about my input. He's always been this way: fiercely independent, to the extent that if he accepts any advice or help with what he does, he usually disowns the project. It's extremely frustrating to me.

I want him to do well in this contest! I want him to win the two-hundred-and-fifty-thousand-dollar scholarship!! And I know he's competing against kids with both years of experience and teams of expert help and advisers. I want him to succeed. And I'm afraid he'll be demoralized if he doesn't even make the first cut, as judged by the other contestants.

He's just happy he gets to judge some of his peers.

This is where I have to step back and remind myself how we got here, and what the true prize really is. I wrought this situation myself.

Since my son was born I've been encouraging him to trust his own devices; to find his own answers. I've rejected any program or arrangement where outcomes were predetermined, or where the method or journey was prescribed. When a child learns that the correct drawing is the one that looks like something we already recognize, or (worse) that looks like an example they've been asked to copy, he learns that his worth is dependent upon somebody else's expectations. That's a child who now sees no value in his own ideas. When he learns that the parent's or teacher's word is the final word, he learns that his own judgement is not valued. He learns not to trust himself. When he learns that his own video isn't good enough without input from somebody more experienced, he learns that innovation is never as important as measuring up. He learns that his own agency is worthless.

Ironically, the video my son is making is an explanation of his own personal take on some physics theories. And I wanted to give him advice. Oops.

My son is very interested in photography. Until this past weekend (when his camera died!) he had the freedom to photograph completely without interference from anybody else, and I have always appreciated the perspective he presents in his photos. He is slowly evolving his own style and techniques because of the lack of interference from well-meaning tutors like me. It's a joy to watch. You can check out his photography blog here:

He may not win this contest - he may not even score highly enough with his peers that the contest judges will even look at his video. But he gets to make a video and share it with other teens who care about physics. If I can just manage to stop my own competitive and fear-driven interference, he will retain the feeling that his creative product is his own. He will retain the feeling that his ideas matter. He will know that he is worth something, and that is the true prize.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

How I nearly destroyed my marriage

When I first courted my husband, he told me the only thing he had ever cooked was chocolate mousse. So, in an effort to honour his cooking skills, and hopefully to inspire some deliciousness for the two of us, I bought cream and chocolate - that's what I use to make chocolate mousse, so obviously that's all he would need - and a bowl, a pot, and a whisk, of course, which I laid out at the ready. When he came to my home, I gleefully presented the supplies, and declared, "you said you could make chocolate mousse!" His face fell.

He squirmed and looked at the walls. "Well that was with a package from Dr. Oetker", he mumbled.

My reply wasn't perhaps the most kind. I think I told him that wasn't chocolate mousse, and I proceeded to instruct him. I soon discovered that he had not only no cooking experience, but also not much attachment to food. I mocked him. And I decided to fix him. I taught him how to cook rice and steam broccoli. For the next few years, when he cooked, he made rice and broccoli. Eventually he expanded to carrots, and by the time ten years had passed, we had children, and his dinner repertoire also included fried sausages and onions, plain pasta (he doesn't see the need for flavourings) as well as salad without dressing. By that point the children had learned to mock their father, and while we appreciated the meals he made, "Pappa-cooked onions" became a frequent table joke. Pappa-cooked onions, while edible, are always on the verge of being black.

I thought I was generous in my efforts to help. I told him how I made our meals, and I bought him a book called "Cooking for Geeks", hoping to inspire that quirky side of him. He dutifully read it, but never cooked from it. And I told my friends he couldn't cook. I told them about that chocolate mousse incident. I laughed at him.

Our daughter learning to cut onions from the inventor of "Pappa-cooked onions".
Then one evening I looked at our daughter laughing hysterically at her onions, and beside her my husband silently eating the meal he had made. He was so alone. The effort he had made for us was utterly unappreciated. And then I saw what I had done to him. "I think the onions are fine," I said. "Thank you for this food", I said. "I was grateful for not having to cook, today." He barely answered. It had been over fifteen years, at that point, of quietly cooking food he felt uneasy about for a family who belittled him. And that was the day I stopped.

Things didn't change very quickly. The kids kept mocking him, and I kept reminding them that their Pappa had put his love into the food, and I kept thanking him, and he kept serving us the same food, and sitting quietly to eat it with us. Until recently, when I realized that the onions weren't overcooked. In fact they haven't been overcooked for quite a long time. And sometimes he makes steak. And sometimes he makes zucchini. Sometimes he makes mashed potatoes with sausage and kale from the garden. Sometimes he makes oven-roasted veggies and potatoes, and sometimes he makes yam fries. Actually he's quite a good cook, and I think I haven't reminded the kids to be kind to him for a long time. I've just been modeling kindness, instead, and for the most part it has been genuine, because actually my husband can cook. And I truly am grateful for the meals he makes.

We know that children grow to meet expectations, and that's no different for the rest of us. We're all growing all the time, so we're all parenting each other, all the time. We blossom into the spaces opened by others' kindness.

I've heard many times that women can't be sexist because we're oppressed. I'm not going to pretend we're not still oppressed, but as humans who also happen to wield a fair amount of power as mothers, wives, cooks, accountants, counselors, and all the jobs formerly reserved for men, maybe we can do better than to take that power and abuse it - maybe we can model compassion and gratitude. And in doing so, we can help the men in our lives to grow into this new world as bravely as we intend to, ourselves.

I have committed to a partnership. I have committed to equality, and I want to hold myself to the same standards I do everyone else. That means not saying my husband is "babysitting" when in fact he's parenting. It means not assuming that my son does something because he's a boy, or that my daughter should have certain tastes because she's a girl, or the daughter of a feminist. That means that when I am more experienced than my husband or children are in some aspect of our lives, I don't hold it over their heads, but rather understand that we are all learning all the time. It means that I am grateful my husband doesn't laugh at me when I fail to sort out computer issues, or when I make nonsensical suggestions about the wiring of our house. Or when the meal I prepare is a disaster. He is honest, but he is kind.

It's time we treated boys and men the way we'd like to be treated, ourselves.

*Out of respect for my husband, I obtained his permission before posting this.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Earth Day Every Day: 3

Earth Day Every Day is a bi-monthly series of essays I write for the Bowen Bulletin, re-published here for fun!


The aphids, having sensed the weakening plants on a cool evening, have arrived. You might not notice them at first, as you pick a few beautifully green leaves of kale out of the garden, but turn the leaves over or peek between the deep green folds and you may find little pockets of grey and white: aphids gathering en masse. They will stretch their hair-thin legs and stand tall before becoming motionless on the spot, to live or die with the group, according to your whim. It's gathering time.

Brush the aphids off or cast the leaf aside and choose another. Bring in that beautiful verdant bouquet to chop up with freshly-dug potatoes, toss with lemon and chives, or blend into your smoothie. It's gathering time for all of us.

Now that the nights are cooler I find myself more often sitting with friends enjoying a hot cup of tea and a sweater in the evening. My husband's warm embrace is comforting instead of stifling, and I feel like making stew, collecting up my friends for a chat, and my children for evening snuggles.

In the grocery store lineup I see people pile small mountains of vegetables on the counter, and I realize how lucky I am. For most of the summer, I eat from my garden. Having space and time and desire to grow our own food is not just a great gift, but a privilege. The ability to wander into the woods, pick salal, oregon grape or mushrooms, and sit silently listening only to the rustle of wind in the leaves is almost unheard of for many people.

This week I'll begin teaching in the city. The program I run happens mostly in the open wilderness here at home, but city bylaws and necessity for urban convenience mean that it will happen in a small forested park, there. Most of the forest floor in this park is bare, and littered with dog and horse poop, along with human refuse. We can't go into the creek because of course in such a small but densely populated location, our impact would cause damage to the bit of remaining natural creek. This is perhaps the downside of gathering: There are just too many of us, and when we get together we overwhelm the earth's ability to renew.

This year we reached Earth Overshoot Day on August 13th. states that “Global overshoot occurs when humanity’s annual demand for the goods and services that our land and seas can provide—fruits and vegetables, meat, fish, wood, cotton for clothing, and carbon dioxide absorption—exceeds what Earth’s ecosystems can renew in a year. Overshoot means we are drawing down the planet’s principal rather than living off its annual interest. This overshoot leads to a depletion of Earth’s life-supporting natural capital and a buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.” So we've been going further into resource debt each year for the past forty, and where are we going to turn when the well runs dry?

Our well ran dry this year – in the way wells do on these rainforest hillsides: it's a shallow well dug into a small underground stream and the water level dropped below what we need to sustain our household's daily usage. So when I say it ran dry, that means one day the pump hit air, and our family panicked a little. At the end of the day the well fills up again, but to a lower-than-average level. We can still use water, but one load of laundry means no more toilet-flushing for 8 hours; we haul water around to fill the small pots we've planted beside some shrubs and veggies and a new pump was bought and put into the pond to water the vegetable gardens; we save laundry and bathing for later, and save even the hand-washing water to feed to our garden. This extreme attention to water usage has meant an adjustment in our thinking, and although it was certainly easier when the water flowed carelessly, I'm glad for having to learn this lesson.

I think the solution to our global over-consumption lies in awareness. Not the kind of arms-length awareness we get from reading the news or signing petitions, but the kind of awareness we get from having our own little wells run dry; from having to shake the aphids off of our own home-grown kale, and feeling remorse at seeing the ravens take our prized blueberries. It's those small, but sometimes desperately important details that we become aware of when we trade some city conveniences for the great privilege of connecting with the land. This recognition may enable us to enjoy consuming less; to live for what we do have instead of what we can have, and to gather in our hearts and community, for everything that we hold is dear.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

over half my life

That is a long time. Or a big fraction. To take that point down a bit:

In the first 19.7 years of my life, I did a lot of things. Then there was August 17, 1995, the day my beloved friend Chloe introduced me to Markus (bravely pushing the issue, because I had refused to meet him). And now twenty more years have gone by. I am almost forty. I have now lived longer with Markus in my heart than without.

That feels like something.

So we spent our twentieth anniversary in the house with some teens we had just met and their Dr. Who party. People we told about this looked slightly pitying, but I loved it. It was poignant. Life isn't always about extravagance, or celebrating great events or achievements. Sometimes it's about finding the satisfaction in perfectly mundane activities. Like loving. Loving is mundane, in the end. It's the constant that makes every other part of life more tolerable, more joyful, more safe. Love is delight, but it's also the warmth of a familiar and safe hand at my back when I feel cold in the night.

Thank you for your dependable love, Markus. It is more than I knew to hope for.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Babysitters: Are your kids safe?

This article began after a few strangers asked my daughter to babysit, she was unavailable and suggested her more experienced older brother, and they declined. So I intended to focus on the "boy problem" - in other words, the challenges boys face in finding work as babysitters. I have two babysitters: One ten-year-old girl who could easily be employed most days of the week if she accepted all the requests, and one thirteen-year-old boy who, despite absolutely glowing references and advertising his services, rarely manages to find work more than once a month. Why?!

So I decided to do some research. I put together a casual poll, asking parents about their experiences, fears, and preferences for hiring babysitters, and asking teen babysitters about their experiences on the job. Here's what I learned:

Parents were generally at least twice as likely to hire female babysitters as to have no preference, and not a single parent claimed to be more likely to hire a boy. Among the most common reasons for preferring female babysitters to male were:

It's easier to find qualified female babysitters in my area.33.33%
I have personal connections with female babysitters.13.61%
My child(ren) are female and I feel they will relate better to a girl.17.69%
Girls are generally more responsible than boys.20.41%
Boys are more likely to neglect my children.2.04%
Boys are more likely to physically or psychologically harm my children.2.72%
Boys are more likely to sexually harm my children.10.20%

I also asked about the problems people actually encountered with their babysitters, and the highest ranking issues were female babysitters arriving late and not being attentive. Only two people reported that a female babysitter had harmed their children, and none reported that their children were harmed by a male (which is unsurprising considering the infrequency of boys being hired).

So why don't people feel safe hiring boys? A quick Google led me to this Oh The Joys post, the comment section of which is quite enlightening. So then I went to find the statistics (albeit 20 years old). Yeah. Just click that link. You might cry like I did.

"Overall, among babysitters, male offenders outnumbered female offenders (63 to 37 percent) in police reports. However, this percentage masks the true disproportion in the risk of male offending, in that most children are exposed to more female than male babysitters, both in terms of numbers and the amount of time spent in their care. No reliable information is available about the overall gender ratio of babysitters, but one teen survey found that females were twice as likely as males to have had babysitting experience (Kourany, Martin, and LaBarbera, 1980). Among adult babysitters, the ratio is considerably higher (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2001). Therefore, the true risk of a male babysitter offending is likely much greater than the two-to-one ratio of male to female offenders found in the data.

"Males were disproportionately involved in sex offenses (77 percent of offenders known to police). Females committed the majority of the physical assaults (64 per-cent of offenders)."

Those numbers are distressing. So cold. So heartless. So not what I think of when I look at my beautiful son who rescues insects from our feet and escaped rose bushes from high-traffic areas to plant in his own little garden. This is the boy who took a job of looking after two young children he'd never met before for seven hours, and without any time to meet them or get instructions from their parents. His biggest concern was that they were arguing over whether or not they were allowed to eat the yogurt, and that he might not be strong enough to push the stroller. This male babysitter is my child. And I have a daughter too. I am afraid for their safety when they're out and about, and I can't blame any parent for being afraid of my son's maleness, when even the statistics seem to shun him.

But where does he turn, then? Does he just turn away from the job he studied and trained for, and accept that he's not trustworthy enough to be with children? How will he learn to trust himself; to feel trustworthy and good if we can't trust him already just because of his gender? There is some hope for boys, according to this article and my experience in our community. But I feel like it's not happening fast enough. My son wants to be trustworthy. He wants to have children one day, and I want to support him in those nurturing feelings. This is my child I'm talking about.

Which brings me to the other part of the survey. I was a babysitter, too, and while I had a successful career, I also had some run-ins, including being hurt by children I looked after, carrying people's endlessly growing tabs which never seemed to be paid off, and being driven home by drunk parents. Those were rare, but they happened. Once I called my parents from a babysitting job to describe a ghost who was haunting me. I was in tears. And once, I almost hit a child. I was probably thirteen or fourteen, and that day has haunted me ever since. Yes, that's me: the statistic that says girls are more likely to physically assault children. I would like to give excuses about how awful I felt; how young and helpless I felt, and how difficult those children were; I'd like to also say that of course nobody has an excuse to even pretend to hit a child, no matter how difficult they are... but all of that seems so meaningless. That was a child and so was I. I was a child, left to look after other children.

So in my survey I asked what kinds of problems babysitters encountered. While 18% stated they'd never had a problem with a babysitting job, another 18% had had issues with the parents returning later than expected, and 15% had not been paid according to their agreements. Among the many other issues were parents returning home drunk, being harmed by the children and by another person or animal, being blamed for things they felt were not their fault, and not having instructions or resources they needed to do their jobs. Of those two babysitters who reported being harmed, only one had reported the event.

To drive this point home, I encourage you to do a Google image search for the word "babysitters". Actually no - don't. Especially not with your kids around. Because you will find porn - peppered in among the images of very young children. Apparently for some people, the word "babysitter" equates to "teenaged girl available for sex".

Babysitters are children. At some point this year, my ten-year-old daughter called me in tears from a babysitting job, because the parents were forty minutes late and she was scared. Scared in the dramatic way that a ten-year-old can be, that maybe something happened and the parents were never coming home (!!). It's such a simple thing to us adults, but maybe we forget that the prepubescent human giving their all to look after our dearest treasures for less than minimum wage is in fact a child her (or him!) self. Maybe we forget that the maturity they appear to show is a sign of them reaching for adulthood but that they're not quite adults yet; they may be taller, their voices changing, their disposition maturing daily... but they're still children. They come home after babysitting sometimes shaken and frightened, sometimes realizing they forgot to offer a snack to the children, or they forgot their money on the seat of someone's car, or they weren't sure whether the parents were drunk or not, or whether they would be rude if they called and asked their own parents to come pick them up. These problems are HUGE to children. The babysitters, as much as the children they care for, need to feel safe and supported.

Once, at a babysitting job, I opened the bathroom door too fast and a mirror on the back of the door fell off and a corner of its plastic frame broke. In my horror, I apologized sincerely to the parents, and they told me not to worry about it. So I put it behind me. The next time I was babysitting there, I opened the bathroom door too fast again, and the mirror fell, this time breaking into multiple shards of plastic and glass. I cleaned it up and pulled it together for the girls, one of whom explained just how much trouble I was going to be in when her parents came home. And then they were home. And I had to tell them. I cried, and offered to pay for the mirror, which would surely be worth many babysitting jobs. They told me it couldn't possibly be worth the value of me looking after their daughters, insisted that I take my full payment anyway, and the mother gave me a hug. These were family friends, and they understood my needs in that moment.

Some babysitting jobs are great - some babysitters are great. But obviously, any time we're allowing our children to go out and work for strangers, for very low pay, in a situation where they are often driven home by impaired drivers, it's not OK. I love that my children enjoy babysitting. I love that it gives them the independence both to feel responsible and to make their own money. I love that they are learning about childcare and entrepreneurship. I love that they feel proud when they're out in the community and young kids come running to say hello to their babysitters. I love when it all goes well, and the children on both sides of the equation feel enriched and happy. But I now understand where the fear comes from, and while I try not to instil fear in my own children, I now insist that I know where they are babysitting, that I meet the parents, and that I know what time to expect them home. I always ask them about their work, how it went and how they felt about it. And I always make sure someone is home, should they need to call for help.

We can keep our children safe by insulating them, or we can keep our children safe by communicating and by consciously developing our own communities.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Can Kids Learn Without Direction?

As an unschooling parent and a teacher I am often confronted with this question. People tell me they'd love to unschool their kids, or they'd love to sign them up for the programs I lead, but either they're afraid their children aren't capable of self-direction, or they're afraid their children won't learn the most important things.

Most Important
Let's talk about that. What are the most important things? Yes, the government has decreed a set of prescribed learning outcomes for each age group, but if you move to another jurisdiction, that prescription is likely to change, and yet the children on the other side of the country, the continent, and the world are learning valuable things, too. They're learning the things that make sense for them to learn in their own cultures and communities - the things that will get them where they want to go. And if it turns out they want to go somewhere they haven't prepared for? Well then they'll prepare. And all the learning they've done along the way will help them in that preparation.

So this week we read some Cree (Thank you Tomson Highway!). Not, perhaps, the most imminently useful language for this group of mostly white kids living in Skwxwú7mesh territory to be trying to get their tongues around, but useful? Yes! Learning any language at all is useful for learning others; learning to move our mouths in new ways not only helps with linguistic and physiological patterning, but also creates new neurological pathways. Growing our minds is what learning is. The next day we read in Dutch.

The Rule
Helping a friend to retrieve a dropped lunch bag.
Self directed learning means that kids determine for themselves what they do. Every few weeks I hear someone tell me that kids will get into trouble without rules. But in over twenty years of teaching, I have never had kids get into trouble.

The first thing I tell the kids I work with is that we have only one rule: You can do whatever you want, but please consider the effects of your actions and words, and help maintain a space where we all feel safe and valued. I underlined the 'please', because that's a very important part of the rule. That is the place where I hand over the reins. This rule is up to them; not me. I respect and value them as responsible individuals. I don't enforce. I only suggest.

Sometimes, when I hear things going awry, I gently ask if everyone is feeling heard, or if everyone feels safe. Mostly I say nothing, because the groups are small enough that the kids are quite aware of the dynamic, themselves, and able to mediate their actions as a matter of course.

Whatever You Want
One of the most challenging aspects of this rule is the 'you can do whatever you want' part. Kids who are new to this philosophy feel at best liberated, but at worst, terrified. It's a big thing to be expected to think for themselves. Those kids who feel challenged in this regard usually respond by testing my limits, throwing things, asking me a litany of questions like "so can I break this pencil?" or by feeling absolutely uncertain about everything, and often stifled by the uncertainty. But it does get better! Usually after a day to a day and a half of participation, those kids see the others getting creative, and begin to open up, as well.

And my response to those limit-testing questions? Yes of course you can break the pencil. Think about whether you'll be happy with the outcome of that, and whether that makes everybody else feel safe and valued, but maybe you're going to do something especially great with a broken pencil that you can't do with an unbroken one, in which case I encourage you to do it! I have broken pencils, myself! Usually they decide against such things; sometimes we make especially great things with broken pencils. And that truly is OK. I can't even imagine the many ways that particular lesson will benefit them - only that it will.

Opting Out
And when kids are especially comfortable with the rule, they do begin to opt out of things. This photo illustrates four of the nine participants in a recent camp I ran, working on the program for the play they were making, as well as two others drawing independently. The group decided to make a program for their play, decided how to go about it, sorted out who would create which parts of it, and got to work. The other five opted out, and either drew independently or played in the forest. Was one of these activities more valuable than the others? Not at all! We live in a diverse society; some of us choose to work in factories, and some choose to work behind computers. Some of us choose to work out on the land, and some in high rises. Some choose to work with our hands, some with our feet, and some with our voices. Some of these kids chose to make programs, and some to work on drama and social interaction. All of those are valuable.

Keeping Up Academically
Just after making an arrangement to rent costumes and props from a local thrift shop.
I know many people who are afraid their children will opt out of everything important, and be left behind. But what is 'behind'? How can we trust our own path if we don't know how to find it? Giving kids the responsibility of self-directing means giving them the ability to find and follow their own paths. It means giving them our trust and support as they venture into the world. They begin this journey at birth, and we cannot know where it will lead them, or what skills they'll need to discover for themselves along the way.

The kids I worked with this week didn't keep up academically, because there was no expectation to keep up with. During five days they met and learned to socialize and work with new people, they explored various wilderness locations, learned about local ecology and ecosystems, garbage facilities and local history, mining and silicosis, time-management, budgeting, creating and printing programs, conceptualizing, creating, and bringing to fruition a play, supporting others and themselves, utilizing community services and giving back to their community, meditation, religious variance and tolerance, many other things I can't remember... and Cree language. Maybe some of those things they can't remember now either, but the neural pathways have been laid. Some of these kids may go on to explore certain things more deeply, and some may flit over to the next week for a whole new set of unrelated engaging experiences. But deep within them has been nourished the idea that their own journeys have value.

Maybe kids don't actually need direction to keep up academically. Maybe they just need a space where they are valued and trusted, where their ideas are heard and respected, and where everything they do or don't do matters. Maybe they need to lie down on the surface of the earth and feel in their souls that the feeling of the ground supporting them, the wind above them, the thoughts running through their minds and choices they make for themselves are most important.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Wild Art Forest Theatre Camp

This week's Wild Art Forest Theatre camp is off to a fabulous start! Two days in, the 9 participants have played out all kinds of interesting and creative scenarios, as well as adventured to find good play spots in the wild.

We explored slowly and carefully (because in the early heat the wasps seem to be nesting everywhere!) over a few kilometers, visited the old dump, the enchanted forest and the cedar forest. We saw quite a few frogs in the last trickling remains of Everhard Creek, and countless insects and spiders.

The kids had to get creative in the woods, too. This first photo is a few of them entering the enchanted forest.

The photo below is a shot of some planning and rehearsal time, spread out among the ferns, in the shade of the maple, cedar and alder that shelter the enchanted forest.

Humour abounded, of course! This was a classic drama about a protest to save the grass.

The world is rarely without a bullying theme, these days. This play was about a mime who was bullied.

Musical Theatre! Pollution Confusion!!

And here we have a puppet show: Sticks for puppets and ferns to camouflage the puppeteers!

And this is some working out of the big deal: A 20-minute (or so) performance that the group is creating over the course of the week.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The pits!

It was Grootmoeder's birthday, so the Canadians also participated in the annual cherry pit spitting contest! Adrian won, with a distance of 9.4m! And everybody won!
Markus taking his turn. We think distance achieved correlates with height, so Mum suggests that tall people should have to dig holes to stand in while spitting!

Shorter people can also tie knots with stems.

The ocean was sparkly.

The heron pretended a massive dock hadn't been installed at his home.

The kids swam all evening.

And the sun set. Happy birthday, Grootmoeder!

Friday, June 26, 2015


It all started so innocently. So sweetly. I asked my daughter what she felt about the lovely classroom program I'm hoping she'll join this coming year, and she showed me an image of a baby swaddled in a colourful patchwork quilt, nestled in a beautifully ornate little wooden chest, and attended by sparkling and joyful fairies - fairies!! The baby's blonde hair and round pink cheeks reminded me of my own sweet one when she was a baby, and even though she's ten, now, it warmed my heart to see her holding that image. I felt so full of love: that cosy, cooing kind of love that comes from holding my children's dear faces close to my own. "Oh that's adorable!" I exclaimed, and that's where the dream broke.

You see, the program I want her to join is built around attachment parenting ideals. It's the community she's grown up in, and she's participated in some of the activities at this place with her friends. Parents are deeply involved in the centre's operation, whether through duty days, parent jobs, organizing outings or activities, involvement with the council or just by participating with the children in whatever interests them. On the face of it, this is ideal to me. The photo my daughter showed me epitomized the cherishing, swaddling, adoring feeling I associate with the school. In my heart it's a community of loving parents, creating a nest of support and safety for our children to grow in, and from that support out into the beautiful world. I saw my own darling daughter's beautiful whisps of hair, her sweet baby lips, and the colourful blanket of love surrounding her. All in a gorgeous wooden chest, keeping her safe but still open with a view to the fairies and the outside world. And I opened my eyes and heart and mouth and exclaimed "Oh that's adorable!" And she scowled.

"No it's not!" She retorted, in the most shockingly discordant tone.

"What?!" My idealism hit the sullen brick wall of a ten-year-old's indignation.

"It's exactly the problem!" She said. "The parents are always around. Everything is the parents' idea! You always have the parents helping and you never just get to do anything that you want!"

"Well you have more say in your activities than you would at a regular school, where the teachers are still in charge," I said, confused.

"Right but they're not your parents."

(How did we come from 'Mama I always want to do everything with you and never anything away', to this??)

The girl herself, 10 years ago, when swaddling was appropriate.
There is a great difference between having ideals and idealism. Having ideals is where we act with a view toward some beautiful thing that we understand not to be absolutely certain or attainable. Idealism is the unrealistic pursuit of those things, without regard for change. Change is essential. Change is what makes life worth living - what makes everything possible at all. Idealism locks in ideals so they can't shift and grow.

That beautiful ornate chest and patchwork quilt were not keeping the baby safe any more; they were keeping her imprisoned. My baby has grown up. Well... she is growing up. Hopefully she, like all of us, will never stop growing up. And I needed to grow up, too. I needed to shift my understanding to keep pace with the changes in my daughter's heart.

The next time she and I went to participate in her homelearner's group, I happily followed along with the other parent. I don't usually involve myself in her activities, but at that place I felt so welcome. She seemed to be happy I was there. She was comfortable. Then I remembered the photo of the baby, and I asked her if she'd like me to go. "Yes!" She said, delightedly, and I did.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Earth Day Every Day: 2

Earth Day Every Day is a bi-monthly series of essays I write for the Bowen Bulletin, re-published here for fun!

A couple of sixteen-year-old sweethearts out for a late-evening walk around the lake. They had all the summer ahead of them, and no time to keep. They stopped for a long kiss on the boardwalk. Maybe it was a very long kiss, because somehow night fell, just then, and as they carried on along the trail, the forest closed around them and they were enveloped in darkness. He reached for her hand and she felt responsible – after all, this island was her home, and she should know the way back even with her eyes closed. Which they may as well have been, for all that she could see. She slowed the pace. She felt her boyfriend's arm on one side, the springy root trail beneath her, and to her left, a small log.

Oh! Wait! The trail builders had recently put these logs here, and she was sure they were all on the uphill side of the trail! She must have led him to the wrong side of the log! Thankful for the night concealing her blush of embarrassment, she said, “Just step over this little log, here...” and she did – into mid-air. Well, the mid-air part was a fraction of a second long, before she crumpled down past roots and stones and salal, came to rest on the ground and clambered quickly to stand again – this time aware of his knee in front of her face, as he stood there on the path, confused.

“Um. Actually not that way.” He helped her back up, never laughing at her, and thankfully never noticing the scrapes on her legs that she felt swelling up as they walked, this time much more slowly, along the trail. She closed her eyes. Given the fresh opportunity to be lost in her own environment, she used her free hand to navigate, feeling about at the warm summer air, the leaves, branches, and trunks as they went by. She discovered that she recognized some of the trees. She discovered that she knew by the change in slope that they were closer to the road, and by the smell of water that they were nearing the gravel spit. She became attuned to her senses in a way to which she wasn't accustomed, and delighted in the sound of her boyfriend's feet on the ground, the feeling of the breeze passing between their arms, and the glimpses of light as they neared the open alder forest. She loved the smell of the forest floor.

That was me, twenty-three years ago. I remember this often, and now try to make a habit of falling – at least metaphorically – off the beaten path. After all, falling lacks purpose, so the places I find myself are so much more surprising.

Last week, walking on the south side of the island, I picked my way carefully between thigh-deep snarls of blackberries toward the parched and crumbling moss deserts of the dry hillside. Even the blackberries were drying up, their vines like desperate brittle arms, reaching out to grab my clothing. I was so focused on the area immediately around my ankles, that I came unexpectedly upon a stand of cattails – a little marsh tucked into the rocks. What? I looked around: Pines, Douglas Fir, yellowing grass, moss and bracken, some cedars approaching death as their roots sought water in the dusty ground; insects resting on the brown-stemmed flowers. And the little stand of cattail. Their roots found some hidden source of water in the fold of the bedrock.

I looked up and discovered I was so far off the trail as to have to follow my senses back through the blazing white sun. So I stood and listened. Crowned sparrows called from various perches and the wind whipped the foxgloves so that they flopped against each other now and then. The grass whispered and my feet crunched the dried plants on my way home. I felt the stinging heat of the sun. Each of these experiences was a gift, like falling off a trail on a dark night. It is a gift just to give ourselves opportunities to discover.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Grown-up Play

Recently my sister Bree delightedly shared that she'd been at the beach building forts with our brother in law. Most of us realize, I think, how essential play is for children's physical, cognitive and social development, but what about for adults? Do we assume that once we reach a certain shoe size we stop developing? I certainly haven't. I feel like I grow every time I have a conversation; every time I cook or paint; every time I have to sit waiting in a line up and have a moment to tread in my own thoughts, and quietly observe the things around me.

Play is a time for processing prior information and experience, and it's also a chance for putting that cognitive processing into action. It's a time to experiment! We adults need that as much as our children do.

My brother is one of the most playful people I know. There's nothing contrived about it for him. It's just is who he is: always exploring; always growing.
So how can we encourage play in our lives? I am not naturally a very playful person, and am also very self-critical, especially when what I'm doing doesn't seem productive, in the classical western sense. So I need to remind myself that playing is acceptable. I also need to make space in my life and mind for play to happen. These are some of the things that help me:

Allowing: This is the most challenging, for me. Despite many years of practising this with children, and even in groups of adults, I find it incredibly difficult to just allow the ship of my intentions or expectations to go adrift, on my own activities. But when I do manage to let go, the world welcomes me with enthusiasm. Many of the best adventures I've had were those that happened when I stopped the car at a random spot and went exploring. My lack of knowledge or expectation about the place I was in allowed me to see with fresh eyes, to wander to new discoveries, to run with abandon into the water or the mud or the wind, and to look back on the adventure with delight.

Taking time: While it's absolutely possible to play on the go, to take small opportunities for delight, discovery, and exploration throughout a busy "work" day, I really treasure the experiences I've had that were unbounded by time. A whole day or a weekend is fabulous. But even just an afternoon is wonderful, too. The best way to find time on a budget, for me, is to pack up a simple dinner in the afternoon, and just go. So I'm only carrying one meal, and there are absolutely no obligations hanging over my head until the next day. I can go home and sleep whenever I want, so my time exploring is limited only by my own energy level. A group of friends and I used to go out to the pub after our adult ballet class and have a tequila. We called ourselves the tequilerinas. More often recently I seem to find myself at the beach with the family, usually some friends, and truly meagre dinner and fire supplies - and endless time. Sometimes I swim, talk, draw or sculpt in the sand or pebbles. Sometimes I find myself lying still on the darkening beach, taking time to absorb and contemplate the sounds and smells and feelings that surround me. And I don't deal with the wet towels until the next morning.

Redefining: The language we use really does make a difference to our ability to incorporate play in our lives. If we call something "work", we are less likely to relax into it; maybe less likely to enjoy it. Then again, if we call something "play", we may be less likely to value it. So for me there is a necessary balance of finding play in work - in allowing work to be fun, and in valuing play, everywhere I can find it. My friend Dave Pollard suggests calling intentional adult gatherings "Playshops" instead of "Workshops". I like it! I think I may try that terminology out this summer! After all, even when the gathering is intended to solve real world problems or develop very structured plans, the act of playing together helps us explore and find creative solutions, as well as helping us to relate to each other and the topic at hand.

Being intentional: Especially when redefining is difficult, I find that taking dedicated time for intentional play helps. It sounds like an oxymoron, to use a schedule or structure in order to go astray from patterns and expectations... but hey, sometimes I need that just to break out in the first place! Other people are the easiest way to lead myself away from my expectations: If I can get a friend to meet me at the beach I'm much more likely to stay! Taking a workshop (Playshop!) where play has an integral role (or is the entire purpose!) also is wonderful. Even taking time for individual exploration can be intentional. I used to take a few hours once a week to go out and photograph the vegetation throughout the seasons. This was different than the time I took for creative pursuits like writing and painting, because unguided exploration of the wilderness was essential to discovering new subjects to photograph. I probably spent about 5 minutes photographing for every hour exploring. And I climbed trees.

Now goodbye. I'm going out to play.