Sunday, July 30, 2017

Why Dolls Matter

Dolls. I have so many stories. I still have my first dolls, hand-made, two-foot-tall cotton ladies with the most lovely dresses, whom I named Dorfy and Cinnamon-Rose. Dorfy, being the biggest and strongest of my dolls, eventually sat under the growing pile of her little charges, and kept them safe while I was away from the house. Cinnamon-Rose eventually went to my younger brother, who renamed her Friend.

Paulus, the baby-doll which my mother apparently bought at a discount because he'd been accidentally stained with permanent marker in the store, was my favourite. He slept with me every night, and travelled with me to visit my Dad until I was a teenager. This is a secret I kept safely hidden until some other teens discovered him in my bag and pulled his head off. In one of multiple such emergency surgeries, my mother sewed it back on. It never mattered to me that he had a line on his back, or that his neck had a bit of hard plastic and a stitch-line around it. Didn't matter that his cheek was scraped by a bit of too-abrasive scrubbing on my part, or his toe chewed off by my beloved dog. He was my baby.

My Dad owned a toy store for most of his life, and through him I learned quite a bit about what he considered "wholesome dolls". He never sold Barbies, American Girl Dolls, He-Man or Cabbage Patch Kids, but instead stuck close to Waldorf and other more "playable" baby dolls. He explained that "playable" meant children could connect with the dolls on their own level, with their own emotions, and their own narrative. Dolls shouldn't come with a pre-ordained backstory or emotions; they should have a neutral personality, so that they can assume the roles dictated by children's imaginative play.

Children's imaginative play is not always nurturing, as I learned from my friends who dismembered their Barbies and incinerated G.I. Joe dolls. And it wasn't until I had my own children that I discovered how important children's experience of dolls can be.

my son nursing Aslakay and Paulus
I bought my son his first doll when he was almost two, and I was soon-to-be pregnant with his sister. I took him to the department store baby-doll section, and said he could have a look and tell me if he liked any of them. He considered a very cheaply-made Cherokee collector doll, until his eyes landed on a lovely little black baby doll, with which he was smitten. "OK", I said, wanting to be sure he was certain of his choice, "let's check out another store and we'll come back if this is still your favourite". He perused the babies in the next store disinterestedly, until he once again discovered the same little black baby doll, and begged me to buy it for him. Well of course I did! His choice was clear. He named his baby Aslakay - also something he was unwaveringly certain of, although to this day I have no idea how he came up with it. Other dolls came and went, but Aslakay was the only doll he ever really loved. He changed him and nursed him, told him very exciting stories, taught him to play trucks and to roller-blade and to dance ballet, took him for wonderful backyard adventures, and fathered him very carefully.

My daughter never had dolls. She only had babies. She cuddled and talked to them before she could stand. She dressed them, fed them, counseled them, sang to them, took them everywhere with her, and even put on a years-long series of dramatic events such as rock-concerts, baby-circuses, and baby-coronation-ceremonies with her closest friends and their babies, who were 'cousins' of her own babies. The social scene between those babies was quite complicated! One day during a baby-circus training session (three 9-year-old girls and their acrobatic cotton/plastic babies turning flips and flying trapeze under the magnolia tree), my mother heard the lyrics to their show-music from her front porch:
Hey girl, open the walls, play with your dolls
We'll be a perfect family
When you walk away, it's when we really play
You don't hear me when I say,
Mom, please wake up
Dad's with a slut, and your son is smoking cannabis

No one never listens, this wallpaper glistens
Don't let them see what goes down in the kitchen

~from Dollhouse, by Melanie Martinez

It was alarming, to be sure, but those girls' play was allowing them to work out their questions in the world, to see themselves as caregivers and to question their own experiences, development, and opinions. Because dolls are people. And a human's constant work is learning to engage with and understand other people.

baby circus training session
"Me" - self-portrait by my three-year-old son
That's the thing we have to remember about dolls: As humans we are drawn to engage with other humans, and dolls represent humans. Vincent Reid recently proved that the human fetus preferentially engages with face-like visual stimuli. That's right: in the womb - even before we are conditioned to receive love and nourishment from humans with faces - we already seek to engage with them.
Humans have been making tiny humans for our children for millennia. We see faces and bipedal figures in everything from pancakes to tree-trunks to constellations. We want to look at other humans, and we want to bond with them. Children's early figurative drawings often look like big faces with arms and legs.

So shouldn't it matter what sort of humans we're bonding with - and how? Do an internet search for 'doll', and you will discover a myriad of options. Wait... first let's refine the search to exclude sex dolls, zombie dolls, and fragile porcelain artworks. You won't find soldier dolls immediately, but they're readily available, if that's the kind of role-model you want for your children. And they're no less personable than that $375 Bamboletta Forever Friend you've been eyeballing. In 1989, Hasbro tried to declassify G.I. Joe action figures as dolls, in order to avoid trade tariffs, but it was a no-go:
"... the individual personality of each of these figures, as evidenced by his biographical file cards and physical characteristics inviting "intimate and manipulative" play, 703 F.Supp. at 946, indicates that these figures are not comparable to the identical, immobile faceless toy soldiers of yesteryear that were sold in groups of a dozen or so in bags." 
~US Court of Appeals Federal Circuit, 1989.
While I don't like soldier-dolls, I can see that for some children they would be appealing. Just like my daughter and her friends were exploring ideas of domestic crises in their Dollhouse Baby Circus, children need to deal with experiences of war. We have a choice of how we facilitate those sorts of engagement. Dolls not only allow our children to explore and work through their own experiences with dramatic play; but the sorts of dolls we choose for them can influence the way they deal with those experiences.

As soon as my son could speak in partial sentences, he began telling us about his life as an "old man" before he "died", "lying on the side of a road", as he claims to remember. He talked about what we now think is somewhere around Lake Chad, where he was "a man with brown skin and black hair". At first these stories seemed absurd, then terrifyingly plausible, as he detailed a life that, when I Googled, became a perfect description of a place and time he had never experienced in the two years since he exited my womb. So I decided to just believe him - whether the stories are his own memories or some sort of quantum memory-exchange I'll never know, but it was my job to just listen and respect. For years, he talked lovingly about the house he and his wife lived in; how she made mats out of big grasses and he put those on the house for walls; how they had a fence to keep crocodiles out. And he told us that the soldiers came to his island with sticks and killed his wife and everybody else in his town. He escaped on a boat with his daughter Imapa, and he missed her very much. He talked about Imapa most of all. Having no experiences like those he shared with me, I was of little help to him in his quest for connection about these memories. Is it any wonder, then, that the doll he chose in the department store was the only baby doll with brown skin? He needed to play out his memories; he needed another opportunity to love the child he lost. Or so I imagine, and it doesn't matter whether I'm correct, or not.

my son changing Aslakay at his baby sister's change-table
Aslakay is a brown doll with a cloth body and plastic feet, hands and head. His body has been stained from the baby-wipe and washcloth cleanings performed by his two-year-old father. He's not the fanciest doll; not made with the kind of love that is tangible in some of the handmade dolls. But he's real. His face is the face of love that my tiny son needed in his life, and that is what matters.

When my daughter's dearest baby, Mimi, was lost on an outing with her plastic cousins, my daughter grieved. She grieved for over a year, losing interest in her other babies, and crying inconsolably at night. This event gradually led her and her friends to grow into other forms of play: board-games, theatre, art-making and magazine production, and an increasing amount of teenager conversation that is frankly as mysterious to me now as it was when I was a teen. But even without dolls, the bonds these children formed over their babies are still tight.

If you were hoping for a list of recommended dolls, you're not going to find one, here. I can only suggest that, if you're considering buying a doll for a child, it would be nice if the child can be involved in the choice. The doll your child needs will be as unique as your child, and as loved. The doll you give your child will represent his past and his future; his loved ones and himself, and only he can know what doll that is. It will be treated the way your child is treated by those in his family and community, and it will be the face of his dreams and fears and joys and sorrows.

my six-month-old daughter talking to her brother's baby
"The doll is symbolic homunculi, little life. It is the symbol of what lies buried in humans that is numinous. It is a small and glowing facsimile of the original Self. Superficially, it is just a doll. But inversely, it represents a little piece of soul that carries all the knowledge of the larger Soul-Self. In the doll is the voice, in diminutive, of old La Que Sabe, The One Who Knows. In this way the doll represents the inner spirit of us as women; the voice of inner reason, inner knowing and inner consciousness."
~ Dr. Clarissa Pinkola, Women Who Run with Wolves


Friday, July 28, 2017

Are Homeschoolers and Unschoolers Too Attached?

Long ago, when my daughter was somewhere in the range of five to eight years old, she came to me during a wilderness outing I was leading and said that a stranger had asked her if she gets tired of always being with her mother. She came to me because the question was absurd to her, and at the time I thought it was absurd, too - especially when asked of such a young child who was happily participating in her mother's program.

But that experience has stuck with me over the years, because in some ways it's a valid concern. Homeschoolers are often seen as too-attached, unworldly, homebodies, and inexperienced. Unschoolers are often less so, since the philosophy usually includes giving children a lot of freedom, and exposing them to a wide range of experiences... but we still carry the burden of that stereotype. Some people may shrug it off, but I am one of those parents who is always questioning myself and the many decisions I make in parenting, so I have worried about this often. Am I too close to my children?

Today this is on my mind again. Although my kids now attend various programs and events in the city, and leave the house three to five days every week, without me, I am still a stay-at-home parent, trying to develop a career while also managing school and home details. There are a LOT of such details, and I am never caught up. Even when the kids are out for the day, I never seem to get a good day's work in, always distracted by pending meals, telephone contacts, or kids coming home. So this weekend they're away visiting my husband's family for three days in a row... and I'm getting stuff done! In just thirty-six hours, the tally is seven loads of laundry (washed, hung outside, taken down, and folded), taxes and other such awful ordeals completed and filed, various messes tidied, three enormous stacks of papers sorted and filed, a nice little garden visit with my Mum, a good night's sleep... and this blog post. This gives me a hint at what I might accomplish if I wasn't so involved with my kids, and I admit to longing for a little more of it.

At a recent festival goofing off with their Pappa. Photo by Linda Wilke.
So why are we still unschooling? Here's the thing. Being a stay-at-home parent and unschooling are choices I made with my partner that I don't regret. There are trade-offs, and one of those is my own independence and time for a career. My kids are twelve and fifteen. They help around the house, make more than half of their own meals, get themselves where they're going without demanding rides, and generally only need my engagement to help them manage their growing and changing lives, and to share their many wonderful activities. They share with me because they want to, and I am enormously grateful to still have this connection. They still snuggle me every day - even if we've been fighting. They still share with me their deepest longings and fears, whether through late-night whispers or quiet hints dropped in innocuous-seeming creative writing sent to my inbox. They still trust me and want to be with me, and that allows me to sleep at night, trusting that they are safe, and that when trouble comes their way, they'll be able to come to me.

How many years do I have left of this chaotic, manic bliss? Five? Maybe? I'll take it!

Monday, July 10, 2017

Please Help Me: An open letter to doctors who help and hinder.

Well holy that was an epic day! So epic that I'm going to share this story as a totally crazy yet serious tale of how our medical system sometimes fails us, and how it also sometimes saves us.

As background to this story, you need to know that my son suffered what we and his doctor assume to be a vaccine injury at nine months of age (his third tetanus/diptheria/pertussis and second MMR vaccine), and has suffered nearly fifteen years of inflammatory reactions to food, and a frustrating inability to gain weight as a result. (Details in a separate post here.) We have a wonderful doctor who is on board with our decision to stop vaccinating after this occurred, and while unable to find any solutions, has at least been kind and thoughtful, helping us to discover some coping strategies along the way.

Unfortunately, our doctor wasn't in, today, when I took my fifteen year old son in to consult after he stepped on a nail. For obvious reasons, I was worried about tetanus, but also worried about another possible vaccine reaction, should we choose to give him a tetanus booster. And here is where my crazy story begins.

The doctor we saw was highly reactive as soon as I mentioned my concern about the vaccine. I hadn't yet managed to tell him my son's history, because he cut me off, and said "Well if you don't want my advice, why do you come in?" This is the third time I've heard that particular bit of arrogance from a doctor, and I want to bring it up here, because it's SO harmful. I felt crushed, and said quite honestly, "The reason I am here is because I DO want your advice. I'm worried about my..." He cut me off again. In fact he cut me off a whole bunch of times, until finally I told him that I was having difficulty explaining our situation because he kept cutting me off.

I was near tears by this point, with the frustration of this and all the other times a doctor hadn't listened, bursting in my heart at once. So when he stopped talking, I took a breath, and told him very clearly, my voice breaking, that my son had had a reaction to his early vaccines, so we were concerned about repeating one of them, and that I was there seeking his advice on how to manage this situation. He chuckled and waved his hand at me, and said "I don't know why you're behaving like this" - by 'like this' I assume he meant verging on tears, since other than that I was sitting calmly trying to explain our situation. I told him "this is my child, and I'm worried for him". He then proceeded to question whether my son had indeed ever been vaccinated, since he didn't have the records, or if we'd even been at that practice very long, until he realized that he was just looking in the wrong place. When he finally found the records and my story was corroborated by our own doctor's notes, he simply referred us for the tetanus antibody blood test I had requested, and also for an immune globulin shot, and a tetanus shot.

I left his office with my son, and got in the car. I felt broken. Just broken. I felt unheard, and unhelped, and uncared for. But because I had my beautiful child limping into the other side of the car, I collected myself up and said we'd go get some tasty lunch at the grocery store before going for the blood test.

Remember how his vaccine reaction caused serious food intolerances? He can't eat gluten, soy, eggs, or beans. Not too bad, except that gluten and soy are dumped liberally everywhere. There are few options other than fruits and veggies that we can buy, but I wanted to get him a treat, after that doctor ordeal. The grocery store didn't have the one type of bread he can eat. So I checked out sushi: all of it contained "soybean spread" - whatever that is. So I asked about the homecut fries in the deli department. I know they come from a bag. "Could you tell me the ingredients", I asked her. She looked at me like I was crazy, so I repeated, "could you please tell me the ingredients in the fries?"


"Well, yes. But I wonder what's on them. It will say on the packaging."

"Probably spices, for sure." She said.

"Yes, I'm sure. But could you check the packaging for the specifics?"

She rolled her eyes and said, "What - you have allergies?"

"Yes", I said.

"Don't buy it," she said, and she turned away.

I bought some popcorn, cheese, and a soy-free chocolate bar and returned to the car, deflated again.

So off we went for a quick and nearly-painless blood-test, and then I parked the car in a two-hour spot and began my search for a doctor who might discuss some possible solutions for our dilemma. I phoned or walked into four offices, and in each was met with the same thing: We have vaccines on site. We won't discuss another option. Finally I managed to get an appointment for later in the day with a doctor I knew nothing about, but at least I hadn't already been turned away by his receptionist.

So I went back to the car, to tell my boy we'd have an hour to wait until the next appointment. He looked a little nervous, and said, "but you can't drive. You got this ticket. You didn't renew the insurance. A policeman came by and you can't drive anywhere." CRAP! So not only did we forget to renew, but the car and insurance are in my husband's name, and he was on the island.

This is when my day turned around. I asked a nearby bank employee who helpfully found me the closest insurance office. I walked a few blocks to that insurance office, and explained my dilemma. I called home to the island but my husband had recently left the house. I phoned my brother, who then drove to the building centre to find my phone-free husband and have him call the insurance office. Then the insurance broker in the city wrangled the ICBC workings with the broker on the island, and between the two of them, they resolved the issue. Except the printer wasn't working, and I was due for that final doctor's appointment.

Off I ran to the doctor. He sat down nonchalantly and looked straight at me. He listened to my whole story. It took me at least a minute to describe my son's situation, but he just ... listened. Then he asked some questions, and he listened some more! Then he made some wonderfully helpful suggestions, and also reassured me that while tetanus is a very serious disease, it isn't very common. I had very little time to thank him for his wonderful supportive and helpful manner, because the insurance office was closing imminently, and without my insurance I would have had to leave the car in that two-hour parking spot overnight. Of course... I'd already been parked there for three hours at that point. So I started running.

Half way to the insurance office, a woman motioned for me to slow down. It was the insurance broker! She smiled, and said she figured I was definitely over the two-hour parking limit, and thought she would just try to find me with the new insurance papers. She handed them to me and I nearly hugged her.

Here's the thing. Vaccines are a wonderful invention. For most people they are, anyway. And it's definitely prudent to do the thing that works for most people. Like you treat your garden in the way that will work for most plants, even though you know you'll lose some along the way. But what if one of those little seedlings came to you and said "hey - I need something slightly different." Maybe you'd call it collateral damage. Or maybe you'd stop and ask it to explain.

Please, doctors, listen to your patients. If we are in your office at all, it's because we respect you and hope your knowledge and experience can help us. But you can't help us if you can't even hear what we're asking. We feel so alone when you shut us up. We feel thrown to the gutter. We feel uncared for. If it takes an extra two minutes of each visit to just listen, please do it. Today I had a really terrible day, and it was saved in the end by people who took a moment to really listen to my problem, and help me find a solution, even when it wasn't the same one that everybody else needed. As doctors, you have the opportunity to change and save lives. Whether or not you do depends partly on how well you listen, and demonstrate compassion.

It turns out even insurance brokers, bylaw officers, and grocers have the ability to make or break someone's day. All of us do. Can we, please?

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Parenting in Community

Last year when my daughter fell and injured her knee, two members of our community, who happened to be passing by and notice her, helped contact us and look after her until I arrived. One of them also took her bike and kept it until we returned from the hospital.

My kids live a gloriously free-range life, and we are often glad for the ways they are parented in community. Just the other day they went busking in town by themselves, and when they got home I asked them how it went. They both reported their successes, how much money they made, and compliments they received. And my son told me about the guy who kindly suggested he should increase his accordion repertoire. He has balked many times at the same advice from me, but hearing it from a stranger had a bigger impact, and now he is happily taking that advice. I've noticed him sitting around practicing some tunes in the past couple of days.

Coming back from busking with some great successes and some great advice from a stranger.

Advice isn't always what I'm hoping to hear, of course. Once when my kids were younger they went to the library - a 2km walk from our home which they did quite regularly at the time - and then phoned me to report that they were not allowed to go home without a parent, because the librarian was worried about them. I spoke to her, and reassured her that they had my permission - then and in future - to hike themselves around the island. I didn't go pick them up, but I was glad for her concern. It's wonderful to know that my children are seen and heard. I've also received a call from a friend, letting me know that my kids were arguing incessantly and disruptively when she met them at the library... once again I was glad to know, and to be able to have a talk with my kids, sort out what was going wrong, and help them resolve it.

It can be difficult, when receiving advice or hearing concerns from community members, to take others' words in stride, and not react defensively. I've been told that my kids rudely entered a house without knocking, and didn't say hello to the rest of the family when they arrived, and my defensive reaction meant the end of a very dear friendship. I wish I had reacted differently. Even though I disagreed about the severity of my kids' infraction, it is my place as a parent to recognize that another community-member's advice is almost always well-intended. The way I take that advice will influence the way my children take advice, themselves, so it's very important that I respond maturely and confidently. Of course it's not always nice to hear negative feedback, so we can be gentle in our suggestions, and gentle in the way we receive them.

Wherever we go, we are a part of the bigger picture. If you see my kids, I am glad you noticed them - even when they're causing problems. If I see some kids (known to me or not) needing help or causing harm, I will absolutely step in if no parents are around. I don't know what their family rules are; I don't know what's expected of them, so I will ask. And if I'm really concerned I'll try to convey that to them. I'll try to be supportive whether I'm worried for their safety or for the pigeons they're tormenting, because I hope that others will do the same for my kids. That's what community does.

As my kids grow older and further out into the world, I am more and more aware of both the risks they face and the help and guidance they receive from others. They are moving out of the circle of my arms and into the wider circle of their community. People trust them and hire them for babysitting, pet-sitting and yard work, and when things go awry, those people support them too. I will never forget the day I accidentally smashed the mirror on the back of the door at the home where I was babysitting - for the second time in two weeks. When the parents came home I was devastated. I cried, and told them I would pay for the mirror. They insisted I take my babysitting fee, they hugged away my tears, and they drove me home without a single word of reprimand, and only support. And they hired me back again.

These are the interactions that make us a part of our community - that remind us we are seen and valued, that our actions matter and that we matter. And in the end the vast web of support and connections our children carry is what makes our communities strong safe places to grow, together.

Monday, June 5, 2017

No Limits

Or no boundaries.
No rules.

Nobody telling you your beard is too long. OK, so sometimes people you love tell you your beard is too long, but you love them and you love yourself anyway - and your beard. Because it's just the way it is. And you quietly tell your wife you might always have had a beard except in the beginning you just felt you *had* to cut it. Then you grew up and discovered such rules were not for you.

No limits is nobody saying you can't take your kids out of school to help you at work. Or your kids never had the obligation to go to school in the first place. In fact you've become increasingly uncertain where the line is between work and play and school and projects and love and rest. And that's OK because you've also become increasingly likely to find similar-minded people whose boundaries have gotten so fuzzy there may be no boundaries at all.

No limits on life and love. Like when you think you might play accordion out on the boardwalk and earn a few dollars, and you just play whatever the hell comes out of your growing fingertips (yes seriously - at 15 his fingertips are growing!) and behold there's nobody stopping to suggest you stop making stuff up and play a song everybody knows. Anyway even though you're improvising, some people seem to sing along... with no hesitation. More people with no boundaries. They're everywhere!

Because you're so obviously that open-minded kind of soul who accepts people in all their stripes and colours, because you've been brought up to believe that everyone deserves freedom. And there are no limits on freedom.

That is unschooling, to me.

No limits means that even little kids, like the youngest I'm currently teaching in the Wild Art program, have to learn to set their own limits, because I don't do it for them. This can be a very challenging prospect, both for me as a teacher to kids who aren't all unschooled, and to those kids who find themselves lost without imposed limits. But it's going to have to happen sooner or later, so why not now?

No limits means more danger, more risks, more problems, and... more solving problems. It means more discovery, more tears, and more compassion. It means feral children doing mysterious things in the woods with no recorded outcome, and no expectations. It means freedom. It means these kids aren't going to have to wait until they're in their thirties to discover that shaving was optional; that what they do with their own minds and bodies always was theirs to decide. And the responsibility for creating this beautiful world individually and with their peers is also theirs.

I am always overjoyed to discover how quickly people of all ages step up to the plate, given the simple and terrifying gift of no limits.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Resting Space

It's about 30 hours before installation day for my show, and the first properly sunny weekend of the year, which means we all worked very hard all day with art and gardening. And then we got word that Markus' grandmother has died.

I only met Omi twice, but she welcomed me warmly, even making sure I tried handkase, which I will never do again! And Markus adored her. As I learned recently from my cousin, the egg that became him developed in Omi's body. It's hard for Markus also to know his mother is grieving and to feel so helpless.

So today when we were all worn out from work and feeling, we went to the beach and had a fire, played with sparks and water and sang a bunch of songs to the fire and the night air, and a goose who happened along. Other than the goose, we had the beach to ourselves and it felt nourishing. Markus says it feels like the end of a chapter of his life.

It's good to have a space of time and place to just be, and to mark the time passing with those we love.

Friday, April 21, 2017

too much

Today I spent hours trying to make sense of the snarl of information pertaining to my son's science pursuits. Between the many university options, the many routes to get there, and the many ways of getting to those routes, there are thousands of options. And I became overwhelmed. When my brain felt like it was the size of a pea, and I couldn't continue, I found myself near tears, and closed my eyes. When I opened them again I made a list of my current five jobs:
  • homemaking (cooking, cleaning, organizing, shopping, book-keeping, etc.)
  • the yard and garden (it's soil-preparation and sprouting season!)
  • managing the kids' education (a complicated assortment of activities and prospects)
  • my art career (currently 3 weeks out from an installation and performance in the city)
  • my wilderness/art teaching career (a busy spring as usual)

What the hell?!

How did I get so many jobs?!

It suddenly hit me that my time, body and mind is stretched in so many directions that I can barely breathe. And yet... there isn't a single one of them I'm not passionate about. So, instead of falling asleep, which my body seemed to be heading for, and without any apparent solution to my situation, I made myself a cup of green tea, opened a tab to Youtube, and clicked something that looked distracting. This is what I watched:

OK... So actually I watched four videos of this beautiful woman cooking for her family. I couldn't stop watching her hands slowly squishing the food; her grand-children slowly cutting and peeling ingredients on the upright knife. Her food slowly cooking. Her great-grandchildren lazily enjoying the food she made. It was the slowness that captivated me. I am craving slowness.

What has happened to us? How is it that every hour of every day is packed full of plans and activity, so that, although the sun is shining on the bursting spring, we sit inside answering emails and planning our next moves, or, when necessary, rush out to use machines to turn the earth and fill it with food-production as quickly as possible? Why am I afraid to sit in the sun and watch the pond, for fear that someone will see me and think I'm lazy? Why, when I make dal, do I get the work done with the end of a big spoon in less than 1/2 an hour, and then rush off to accomplish other tasks while it cooks? Why do I plop it on my children's plates, consume my own, and find things to fill the time with if they don't finish quickly enough? How did I become afraid to enjoy the time spent cooking and eating?

And what am I doing to my children in leading them in this manic race? The lyrics to the 21 Pilots song my son often sings around the house these days are:

Wish we could turn back time
to the good old days
when our mama sang us to sleep
but now we're stressed out

What does that tell you about his generation and the life we're living?

I want to feel my food with my hands; I want to take a whole hour for dinner and not feel pressured to get moving. I want to spend twenty minutes just feeling the warm dirt and not worrying that the time is passing. I want to think more about life than about productivity. I want to think more about the present than about the future.

I don't know how to move forward to the life I imagine; none of the five jobs I have is something I can give up. This isn't a have-answers-will-share sort of post, it's just a yearning. I'm posting to my blog to help me think. Somehow something has to change, not just with me but with all of us and the way we've come to measure our worth by busy-ness.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

beach life

Just some fun hanging out at the beach this fine rainy April!
Markus has been testing various logs to see if there's anything he can use on the house or on his boat. He's especially hoping to find some yellow cedar, but no luck yet.

Tali also played us some kelp-didg.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Wild Food Spotlight 7: Spring Greens

This is the seventh (and final) in a series of foraging-related articles I'm writing for our local bulletin. Re-posted from the Artisan Office Bulletin.
~  ~  ~

western bitter cress
Spring is here! The ice has broken up the soil and the rain is soaking it, and now it's a rich nursery for fresh spring greens.Wild greens are one of the easiest foods to forage during this time of year, and it's possible to create quite a variety of wild salads from around our community.

Where to harvest: Wild greens, growing mostly in clearings and along roads and trails as they like to do, are very susceptible to contamination from boots and our local bounty of dog poop. I like to harvest from areas that are either remote (like bluffs, deep forest clearings, etc.) or from yards that are relatively clean. Vertical surfaces like rocks and moss-covered logs are also a little safer. Just inspect the area you're harvesting from and be cautious.

How to harvest: We are now a culture of excess. But the wilderness doesn't work that way. Harvesting wild greens should be a frugal endeavour: just take enough to satisfy your need, and make sure you leave plenty to grow. In fact, if you try to leave enough of the youngest leaves on any single plant, that plant will hopefully continue to produce for you.

field mustard (rape seed)
What to harvest: The best way to become familiar with wild greens is to spend a lot of time exploring wild areas. Go out at least once a week and try to identify things. A good guide book that focuses on our specific area can be very helpful, as well. And when you're feeling comfortable, start eating! These are some of the easier local wild greens to spot and identify:

Mustards are very common here - especially Western Bitter Cress and Penny Cress. These begin as a radial of delicate-looking leaves, and eventually send up a stalk of flowers which, as they finish blooming, become conspicuous seed pods along the stalk. I used to think that the seeds would be wonderful, being in the mustard family, but alas they have nearly no flavour at all. The leaves, however, and to some extent the flowers, are delicious. I like them best in salads or chopped up with cream cheese and cucumber in sandwiches.

Next you should try Siberian Miner's Lettuce. Yum! Being a purslane, its stems and leaves are fleshy and juicy, and really very satisfying as a salad. The pink and white flowers are also edible, so it's easy to snip quite a bit in a hurry.

siberian miner's lettuce
Another delicious treat is sheep sorrel, which grows all over, especially in pastures, open bluffs, and ditches. It's sour and slightly fleshy, like the larger garden sorrels we grow, but being so much smaller you'll have to gather more of it to build your salad.

Blossoms: flowering currant, salmonberry blossoms, oregon grape blossoms, and dandelions are wonderful salad additions. In the case of salmonberries, pinch only a couple of petals from each blossom, to ensure that the pollinators still find it so you can have berries, later. Dandelions are not only wonderful in salad, but also make a great addition to baked goods like scones, biscuits, and bread. Just pick a basketful of dandelion blossoms, then pull out the petals and fill a clean bowl. Then mix them into the flour for your recipe. Experiment with how many petals to use - it will likely be more than you expect!

I began this foraging series last year at the end of maple blossom season, so I think it's just great to end the series with another maple food: Cotyledons!

oregon grape blossoms
Cotyledons are the pair of embryonic leaves that first appear out of a seed. Think of bean sprouts. Those are cotyledons, too. The second set of leaves to appear on a bean seedling are much tougher and differently-shaped than those first little round leaves, and not something you'd generally eat. But the sprouts are tender and delicious. And the same goes for maple sprouts!

These are some of the earliest and most bountiful spring greens we have here. Just head out in the early spring and look under or near maple trees. You'll likely find hundreds or thousands of them speckling the forest floor. Snip them off near the ground, collect them up and enjoy them fresh as a salad or tossed into a stir-fry.

sheep sorrel
This will be my last bulletin article for now. I've enjoyed sharing some of the island's natural treasures with my community, and will continue to do so in the workshops I lead through Thank you, Margaret, for the opportunity, and I hope we'll all find time to enjoy our wilderness.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Our Big Skookum Adventure

Our kids love Minecraft, much to my constant annoyance, and they also love surprises. Sooo... we concocted a little (OK - EPIC) surprise for them. I've been spending a couple of hours a week, on average, since December, creating a "quest" in their Minecraft world. They like the idea because it gets me involved in their life, so they carefully stayed away from the area I was working in these whole long months I spent working on it. They had no idea how fabulous this quest was...

I'm proud of myself, so here's a little montage of some of the quest:

The quest led through all kinds of places, a sunken city, a secret squid cult, a dog island with vet and doggie spa, a love triangle, a swampy maze and a human board game. And in most places there seemed to be odd references to a place called Skookumchuck? Or was that Skooky Chunk? Kookum's Chunky? It depended who you talked to...

But eventually they came to a place called A Dream Come True Cottage, where they found a cake on the table (rather similar to our usual cake: nut cake with cream and berries), a hot tub, and... a little guide book to Skookumchuck Narrows.

Then out behind the cottage was a trail to "Skookumchuck Narrows", where boats were available to hurl themselves down the flow. At the end was a little dock on a small island, with final instructions asking the finder to pack various things in their real backpack, turn off Minecraft and get ready to go. Waiting in the kids' real-world backpacks was some information Markus had printed about the real-world Dream Come True Cottage we had rented, and the real-world Skookumchuck Narrows.


Bag packing.

We brought the book we're currently reading as a family...

...and sailed over to the Sunshine Coast in the early evening.

The words Skookum and Chuck come from a local trade-language (Chinook). Skookum means 'great', and chuck is pretty much the sea (I always thought it was waves). So the Skookumchuck Narrows is the narrow passage where the tides hurry through from the Jervis Inlet to the Sechelt Inlet and back again. This isn't the time of year for the 9ft waves, but it was pretty skookum anyway.

The hour-long walk out through the mossy forest is beautiful already.

And then the actual narrows is a lovely place to sit and watch the (aquatic) world go by. There was some sealife to photograph, so the kids did:

...barnacles feeding in the tidal wash.

On the way back up the trail we experienced a great crashing hailstorm that sounded like a waterfall hitting a tin ocean. Markus says hail stings your head if you don't have any hair to protect you!

Rhiannon enjoys geocaching, and we found this one outside the historic graveyard in Gibsons.

It's chilly up there, and once the weather took a turn for rainier times, we treated ourselves to a cup of tea, stopped to find a geocache, and went home to our own dear little house and warm woodstove.

Now I get to take a little break from Minecrafting. (Maybe for a couple of years or indefinitely!!) But the work (and my steep learning curve) was so worth it to see the kids' pleasure and excitement. I guess it mattered to them that I met them in their space on their terms. But mostly it was just great to get away, hike around, have some silly fun, and remember our bond as a family.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Wild Clay Harvesting and Separating

Recently one of my teen groups took an interest in harvesting wild clay, and decided to try refining it.

When we dig up the clay, it's not only quite crumbly, but also full of rocks, dirt, forest detritus and sand.

So over a period of a few weeks, these teens processed some of our local clay into a lovely smooth sculpting medium, and I thought I'd share the simple method they used.

We have easily-accessible clay all over our island, appearing in creeks and gullies, and dumped in shiny blue mountains when we excavate for wells and the like. This clay came from a very small creek. The group found mostly green clay, with a few pockets of a gorgeous pale blue-grey clay that was quite pure already. They used spoons, stones, a trowel and shovels to scrape their harvest from just above the water level, and found various benefits to each. It seems that the best way to collect the clay is to scrape it gently, dragging the side of a spoon, rock, or shovel along as you might drag your hand across bed linens to smooth them. The reason for this is that any digging into the clay removes chunks of crumbly clay that are quite difficult to grind or squish into a smooth lump. Scraping not only pushes water into the top layer, but pulls off such a small wet layer at a time that the resulting clay is much softer and doesn't require grinding or squishing to render it moldable.

Much of what the group collected was in fact crumbling and needed grinding, so once they had nearly half a bucket full, they used hands, a potato masher, and a shovel to grind it up until it was a nice heavy sludge. Some rocks and twigs were already coming out of it, and they removed those right away.

Then they left the clay slop in the bucket, undisturbed, where it settled out. After a week, we returned to find the rocks settled to the bottom, the sandiest clay above that, the smoother clay slip above that, and the water on top. At this point the group poured the water off the top, and the cleanest slip (about forty or fifty pounds worth) they poured into an old pillow case and hung up over the creek to settle again, and dry.

When we returned after another week, the clay hadn't dried as much as we hoped it would in the pillow case, but had settled nicely again, a layer of heavy sandy clay on the bottom, smooth sloppy clay in the middle, and slip on top. We easily scooped the best quality clay from the top of that in the bag and divided it among us.

Most of the group chose to use their sloppy clay to paint with, but some of us brought some home, where it will dry a little more (on a cloth-covered board) until it's a good working consistency.

Although this activity was, as usual, conceived by the group, I delighted in facilitating, and in seeing so many positive learning outcomes of the process. Most obviously, group working skills were developed, but so too were skills of problem-solving, improvisation, and process development. Working hands-on promotes a deeper understanding of the nature of this ecosystem, its constituents, and its changeability. When you separate out the layers of the forest floor you become familiar with it in a way that is deeper than mere description and images can convey. History, ecology, and engineering are integrated. And of course, when you're doing this exploratively, you are engaged through the process of genuine discovery. This activity was also a great opportunity to change a material that we regularly walk over without concern through a process of very simple refinement into a material that many people purchase in plastic bags. I think this not only strengthens our connection to wilderness, but also to our own ingenuity. Together these are part of what makes us human.

Tools for Improvisational Play

Sometimes I bring tools into the wilderness for play. Sometimes the tools are conventional, like a shovel and buckets for harvesting clay, but sometimes they're strange. And invariably, it seems that the strangest tools bring out the most creativity!

Yesterday, during a free-range exploration that ended up in a creek with a wonderful sandbar, I offered the following:
  • a whisk
  • a pillowcase
  • a tin can (opened in such a way that it had no sharp edges)
  • a steak knife
  • string
The whisk, knife and string, despite being initially the most enticing tools, were actually abandoned in the first few minutes. Using mostly the pillowcase and tin can, along with whatever they found in the wild, the group of six pre-teens worked collaboratively to conceive and create a very functional bridge over moving water, and to separate the sandbar into two islands.

The sandbar cleft was hard work, and they improvised fantastically, using the pillowcase (with various combinations of sand, mud and water) as a bucket, battering ram, and scraper-shovel. The can was useful for digging, prying, scooping, and throwing water.

The bridge-building was very challenging, since the flow of the creek washed out most of the sand, mud, and wood they threw in. But after much experimentation, the group succeeded in securing a large rotten log with sticks, so that the water could easily flow underneath while not disturbing the positioning of the log. They stabilized both ends of the log using bark, mud, sticks, and pillowcase-fulls of sand. After many crossings, the bridge became increasingly stable, and the kids were mightily proud of their work.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Romance for the Whole Family

These beautiful bulbs from my friend gave us weeks of joy.
I come from a family where Valentines day was all about the family. Some of my earliest treasured memories were a heart-shaped box full of chocolate almond bark and a white rose from my Pappa (and a red one for my Mum), beautiful Valentines dinners and loving messages in cards from my Mum, the funniest valentine ever from my brother, the comedy of which has lasted into our adulthood, and special heart-shaped cards from my Dad, who saved them for as long as it took for me to visit him again after Valentines. Except when he mailed them.

Due to some losses in our family, as well as big life-changes and living in a construction site, my household has lost its romance in the last few years, and it's been easy to slip out of the habits that once kept us tight and together. I woke up a couple of weeks ago and realized the only music we'd been hearing for a year or so was our daughter's pop music. The only candles we lit were during power outages, and the only time we celebrated each other was in the presence of others. A special evening with just the four of us was often more riddled with frustration and bickering than with joy. Is it because my kids are teens now? Is it because I've lost the ability to hold the family in love? Have we all just lost our joie de vivre?

So we began reading to each other again. My pair of teens loved the idea of sharing their favourite books with us, and it's been pleasant. We all climb in the big bed and take turns reading (except when tired parents fall asleep... apparently this doesn't change as the kids get older). But the beauty of that evening commune hasn't spread into the rest of our days. So one day I asked my husband to put on some nice music. His music. He put on the soundtrack to the Mission. The kids were perplexed, but they did seem happier. I put a candle on the table and my son lit it joyfully. It took so little to bring our dinnertime back to a loving place. But there it was. Four of us sitting in a shared romantic moment again. Bickering begone!

Sometimes the romance comes in a shared cup of tea; a little outing in the wind or rain or snow or sunshine, or some roasted campfire potatoes and simply laughing at the silliness of life.

It's not a permanent solution. The emotional lives of teens are turbulent, regardless, and we're still living in a constant state of upheaval. But the injection of a little romance into our daily lives does seem to be helping. Even just lighting a candle and having a bath by myself has helped. It allows me to emerge from the tub feeling much more pleasant than when I entered it, and most importantly, that pleasantness is reflected back from my children.

I used to be happier, and my children remember that time. They nostalgically remind me of the times I used to wear skirts and dance and sing in the house. They long for candlelit dinners and beach fires. Despite being teens now, with their own agendas and busy lives, they are longing for the romance we have lost.

Romance is part of what keeps us engaged in our relationships. And it's like a water wheel. The water falls in from the top, pushing the thing to keep going and to power everything else. But you have to keep dropping a little in from the top, or it will slow to a stop, and everything that's powered by that wheel will stop too.

Here are some of the little things that used to keep the romance going for our family, and which we'll try to get back into again:

Walks in the wilderness: Obviously this is the most life-giving treat you can give to yourself and your loved-ones. Even if you can't find time to do it as a family, just going with a friend or alone is so nourishing. I have been joining my Mum on her dog-walks sometimes recently, and no matter what I have given up to spend that time with her, I have always returned feeling the shared walk was worth it.

Flowers in the house: For the inevitable times when you can't be in the wilderness, bring some inside! Whether beautiful bulbs like those my friend gave me (photo above), some fresh-cut budding branches from outside, or a fortuitously-blossoming houseplant, flowers bring both colour and a feeling of life into our living space.

Music: Play it, sing it, listen to it, or go out and experience it in a group. Just let it feed your family's soul. Music allows us to open our hearts even when they have been closed for years.

Fire: Candles on the table, a lantern in the bathroom, a bonfire in the back yard or a late night beach fire with friends; in the middle of winter roast treats on skewers in front of an open wood stove or over a candle! Fire has a way of warming our hearts and making it easier to give and accept love.

Decorate! Similar to bringing flowers inside, having small visual treats in the house (or car or yard or even your child's lunch) infuses joy into our minds' wandering as we notice them. And, like the water wheel, it's important to keep feeding it. Some people have a seasonal table or a shelf or wall whose decorations get refreshed. All romance needs refreshing once in a while!

Food: I'm not always up for making a fancy meal, but I try to make our meal beautiful at least once a week. I figure if we're happy just looking at the food, we'll be more open to its nourishment, and to enjoy the time we spend eating it together.

Happy Valentines Day! May every day of the year be infused with some romance, may your waterwheel keep spinning and the love you give keep coming back to you.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Mystery by the Creek - Solved!

On a nearly-sunny January afternoon, I and a group of Wild Art kids stumbled upon something we'd never seen before: About twenty little round calciferous half-spheres, deposited a few meters away from a creek. Not exactly uniform but almost, the little things were approximately 8mm diameter, and seemed similar to sand dollar skeletons. They looked a little like covered buttons. However, when we broke one open, the inside appeared to be solid, comprised of pinkish calcium carbonate. As for other clues in the area, the half-spheres were found on a bit of pristine forest floor, surrounded by needles and cones, about a meter or so above the flood-level of the creek. The only other item of note in the area was the claw of a signal crayfish. We puzzled about it for quite a while, and took a few home to research.

The most obvious thing to do was to consult Sue Ellen Fast and Will Husby of Ecoleaders, who are extremely knowledgeable about freshwater ecosystems. In addition to being some of the kindest people I know, they are also my neighbours, so I took some of the little half-spheres by their house and Will had a good look. Will has easily cleared up some previous Wild Art mysteries, such as the identification of our local signal crayfish, freshwater sponges and freshwater fingernail clams. However, on examining these little half-spheres, he was stumped.

So off to our local facebook forum, where I could easily post a photo of our mysterious find, and get some responses. I also personally emailed the photo to a few other knowledgeable locals and the curator of marine invertebrates at the Beaty Biodiversity Museum. Understandably, most people looking at the photo thought they looked like mushrooms or seeds, however Sue Ellen had done a vinegar test and confirmed they were indeed calcium carbonate, so mushrooms or seeds seemed out of the question. Other suggestions ranged from urchins to discarded candies or drugs, fossilized berries, concretions from garbage left in the park, or tiny geodes. We all see through the lens of our own experience!

And then, unexpectedly, the answer appeared in my email. Will had come through, after all, having followed a hunch, based on my finding of a crayfish claw, nearby. What we have found are gastroliths! Will says “they are found in freshwater crayfish (and) are part of a system for conserving calcium used in making their exoskeletons.” He speculates that they were part of an otter's poop, which was left on the creek bank before being eroded by rain and leaving only the gastroliths behind.

Andrew Hosie of the Western Australian Museum explains on his blog that “the calcium provides strength to the exoskeleton so that it can support the animal’s body, give the claws their pinching power and to protect it from predators. As crayfish (indeed all crustaceans) grow bigger, they must periodically shed the exoskeleton and form a new one. To start a new exoskeleton from scratch would require large amounts of new calcium. The hormones that drive moulting (referred to as ecdysis) trigger calcium carbonate to be removed from the exoskeleton and starts forming a pair of these gastroliths in the stomach. After the crayfish has moulted, the gastroliths are reabsorbed and used in the strengthening of the new exoskeleton. Only freshwater crustaceans form gastroliths because unlike seawater, freshwater has very little dissolved calcium salts, so in an effort to retain calcium, crayfish form these little gastroliths, or even eat the old exoskeleton.” He also tells us that “pharmaceutical companies are actively researching the use of gastroliths to treat osteoporosis related conditions.”

Isn't it wonderful how one mysterious discovery can bring people together and open our minds?

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Wild Food Spotlight 6: Licorice Fern

This is the sixth in a series of foraging-related articles I'm writing for our local bulletin.
Re-posted from the Artisan Office Bulletin.
~  ~  ~
The ice is retreating from the shores of our lakes; the sky pelts us with droplets instead of crystalline flakes. And as we creep out into the nascent spring, recovering from the viruses of winter, the skin of the maple trees is coming back to life, as well. The many things that make their home in and on this fertile skin, long withered from the summer's drought and winter's frigid wind, are soaking up the rains and growing, again.

If you look up on almost any bigleaf maple around here, you'll discover haphazard forests of ferns, growing from the moss, there. These are licorice ferns. Find some you can reach, dig your fingers into the soft moss, and feel along the root until you find the end. You can feel where the root is hard and dry, and where the newer growth begins, all smooth and round and fresh. Break off a couple of inches or so of this newer root – it will be enough for a snack or a couple of cups of tea – but be sure not to rip off the moss. This moss is part of our rich ecosystem, and benefits both the tree and the many things that live on it. If you leave most of the fern growing in the moss, you can come back again to harvest later.

Sometimes you can find licorice ferns growing on mossy bluffs or logs, as well. They're still fine to eat, and easy to identify. It's OK to take a fern frond once in a while, too, especially if this is your first time harvesting and you want to examine it!

Now look at the fern. You'll notice it has a stem, leaflets, and spores like other ferns do, but the leaflets are fully attached to the stem. If you compare it to a sword fern frond, you'll see that each sword fern leaflet is attached by a tiny point of a stem. Not so with the licorice fern! Another obvious difference between the two is the taste and smell of the root. It's called licorice fern for a reason, and no other fern in our area has a root that smells like that of licorice fern.

So what to do with this tasty root now? Actually, tasty is a matter of opinion. I've seen more than one person spit it out in disgust. But licorice is not for everyone, and some of us love it. Also, the bitter taste it has when freshly picked pretty much disappears when it's brewed into tea.

Tea is probably the easiest and most effective way to use licorice fern. If you like it you can harvest a lot of it in the early- to mid-spring, chop it up and simply dry it in a basket or sieve on your counter. Keep the dried roots in a jar and use it like you would any other tea. If you want your harvest to go further, crush the dried roots before steeping to help release the oils.

Licorice fern tea has some well-known medicinal properties. It's used to calm a sore throat and cough, to relieve gas and to aid recovery from chest infections.

Most importantly, I feel like licorice fern is a reminder of our integrated ecosystem. All over this island you can find maples, and most of them carry a garden of moss and licorice ferns. This garden is home to a host of other species, and every time we see it we can remember how complex our world is, how important each member of our community is to the well-being of us all, and how we depend upon each other for life.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Wild Art Exploration: One Clear Day

Such a rich and wonderful day with two groups of Wild Art kids today, that I thought I'd share it as a photo montage.

The teen group went to check out the old dump site along the Dump Road, and we saw a shimmering orange puddle where rust and oil leaches out from the dump pile.

From there we headed up to Everhard Creek, where we used spoons to harvest some clay. That was about all we had time for today, but we've hatched a plan to return next week with a bucket, and try filtering the clay.

The younger group returned to the forest village they'd begun making the week before, and carried on creating things to sell at their shops and restaurants. One group led a tour to a beaver lodge, and later became petty criminals, robbing the shops and calling the 'police' on each other. We discovered some as-yet-unidentified little calciferous things (photo included), and returned very wet and muddy - the perfect ending to a great adventure!

That's the robber escaping on the left, and his 'boss' sitting carving a stick in the shop the two of them created.
These are the unidentified little calciferous semi-spheres we found on the forest floor.

A 'fire pit'.
An abandoned cedar crown.

Cedar crowns for sale at one of the shops.
Unidentified (maybe heron?) prints.

The beaver lodge! Entrances are barely visible on the left and centre-right, behind a few large sticks.