Friday, February 1, 2019

Working Class Heroes: It's Up to Us to End Capitalism

Markus aged 18
First there was the Universe. Then there was Markus. From then on this planet (Earth) was one of the most important things in life (his life). Then he went to SMU. This in and of itself was not very important - but while going there, he noticed many things about life which he did not like. These were mainly small things, such as holes in the ozone layer of the atmosphere, acid rain and projected populations for Earth. Having decided to change all this, he found that he already had the solution; the only problem was that he would have to become a V.V.I.P. (very, very important person) in the scientific field to implement it - and to know just about everything there is to know about this world. He is planning to start by learning everything about engineering or computers, and continue from there.

That's an excerpt from my partner's grad write-up in his 1988 school yearbook. He tells me he must have just finished reading the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and adapted his writing-style, accordingly. He also tells me it sounds pompous. My partner is anything but pompous. He's just lost all the confidence he had in highschool; he doesn't think he can save the world, anymore. 

The list of devastating global circumstances facing humanity has played out even faster than we 80's kids could have imagined, and we feel helpless. My partner did go on to study physics and engineering, eventually getting his degree in Computer Science. He now goes to work every day, finds, fixes and creates bugs in software that is used all over the world for resource management. Some of this 'resource management' is towards protecting the ecological welfare of the planet; a lot of it is simply management for destructive capitalist ventures. My partner does whatever he is told to do. Then he comes home exhausted, eats dinner, pets the dog, plays accordion, and goes to sleep, only to get up in the morning and start again. On weekends and vacations he sometimes makes adventures to soothe his tired soul; mostly he works at replacing our old house with less mouldy materials, hoping that at least his efforts will provide shelter for his family. Dreams of saving the world went away a long, long time ago. Shelter and survival in the capitalist world is his current goal.

Does it sound like drudgery? He would say no. Because he's living the dream we were all fed as children, and in fact he's doing better than that: He's raising free-thinking unschooled children in a park-like setting, hoping they'll have the guts and wherewithal to follow their own dreams in a way he never managed to do.

But wait - that's what his parents were doing too! They sent him to the best school they could find, where he learned to fly airplanes, wear a suit, and feel confident that he really could grow up to be a very, very important person in a scientific field and change the world. But he didn't. Why not? 

No Time Instead of It All (Markus aged 49)
Why do all of us hope that our children will grow up to change the world, and not change it ourselves? Somehow we seem to feel that we can trudge into the capitalist system that requires our compliance and still raise kids who will magically end up elsewhere. Why on earth would they? We ask our children to follow their hearts and at the same time we tell them to follow our culture's mandated path to adulthood. We expect them to be different and brave and to change the world and save us from the disaster that capitalism has caused (seriously - if you haven't already, go read that article and watch the video), but we're too afraid to get out of the system, ourselves. They will be, too.

John Lennon wrote in his song Working Class Hero: (full lyrics and song video here)
When they've tortured and scared you for twenty-odd years
Then they expect you to pick a career
When you can't really function you're so full of fear
A working class hero is something to be
A working class hero is something to be

Keep you doped with religion and sex and TV
And you think you're so clever and classless and free
But you're still fucking peasants as far as I can see
A working class hero is something to be
A working class hero is something to be

Our kids follow our lead. Unless we break this cycle, our children, like us, will reach adulthood and discover that the only feasible path is the one their parents took, and they will have children themselves, and they will hope that their children will save them. And with every generation the outlook is bleaker, and with every generation we hope the next will save us. 

Capitalism is killing us. Our school system is part of it. Our work ethic and career paths are part of it. Our diet and housing and everything that we consider to be essential is part of it. These things need to change, and we need to change them. Not our children or our children's children. There is no more time for us to live in fear. And there is no point hoping that the few brave souls who unschool their kids or drop out of the system or attend rallies will do the work for us. There will be no new reality until we all jump on board. We are killing ourselves with capitalism and we have to stop, now.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Unschooling = Respect = Adults with Integrity

It's January, people are committing to new goals, busy having adventures and navigating their lives, but you wouldn't know it if you read my blog. I don't write a whole lot about my children anymore. Mostly it's because my kids are drifting from mid-teens towards adulthood, and are a little more careful about what they want shared about them. Whether or not I post the articles I write is their choice. It has always been their choice. Because I respect them, and I am counting on that respect to bring them safely into adulthood.

It works like this: respect means listening to my kids with genuine interest; with the understanding that even though I think I know better, I might be wrong. Respect means that what they want matters as much as what I want, and in situations that effect them deeply, it matters more. Respect means to them that I trust them to make decisions, and that means that they are responsible for those decisions. 

Think of it this way: The recipe tells you to turn up the heat under your custard, and it curdles and breaks and your homemade pie filling is ruined. You probably wish you'd found a better recipe, but it's not your fault. Stupid recipe. 

Now what if the recipe said to watch and gauge the temperature carefully, making your own judgements about the speed of heating and the thickness of the custard. It tells you to watch it drip off the back of a spoon and decide for yourself when it's ready. Scary, right? How will you know when thick enough is thick enough? The recipe expects you to use your own judgement! And you might get it wrong. But you'll learn, and eventually you'll be able to make custard without a recipe. And you'll be proud and confident, because you took on the responsibility of learning to make custard and you succeeded. It's your journey, it's your responsibility, and it's your custard. 

Unschooling is the recipe that tells us to follow our instincts. Both parents and kids. We basically cut the kids free from a scripted childhood and help them navigate the scary but empowering world of self-determination. And as parents we cut ourselves free from the parenting script of our particular region and take on the entire responsibility of raising whole, empowered children. And it's terrifying.

From a parenting perspective (especially those of us who were raised in the system we've now eschewed), unschooling is a constant clambering struggle up a crumbling rocky slope. Over and over again we get scared and turn around, afraid to trust that our kids will truly lead the way. We put restrictions on them or we berate them or we tell them they'll never succeed if they don't follow some rules, and then we slip back down the slope and find ourselves groping in the dark, trying to restore the trust we just vanquished in our children.

Trust is huge. We need to trust that our children will heal and persist after the many bad choices they will inevitably make. They need to trust that we will be there with open arms and no judgment to hear their stories and mop up the tears when they fall. And as the Dutch proverb goes, trust arrives on foot and departs on horseback. There is no such thing as repairing the bridge with a swift apology when we make the mistake of disrespecting our children. We've broken their trust, and it's going to take a long long slow journey on foot - days or months or years of small, respectful footsteps - to entice the trust back into our relationships.

So how do we disrespect our kids? We do so in telling them we know better than they do. Sometimes we truly do, and sometimes it's imperative for their own safety that we step in and make decisions for them, or simply pull them off the road as a car approaches. It's our responsibility to know which situations merit that force, and which don't. It's also our responsibility to help them take time to navigate huge responsibilities well, so that they can learn to make decisions carefully.

I stalled my daughter going to school for a few months when she was four, even though all of her best friends from preschool were going. The extra time gave her an opportunity to really consider her choice and she began to see the lack of freedom her school-going friends had. In the end she chose not to go, but we made huge efforts to create opportunities for her and her closest friends to keep close. This is a child who struggles with making decisions, and would very much rather somebody else make choices for her, but as time went by, she did try out some school and other programs, and is learning to make her choices carefully, given her own needs and values. As a fourteen-year-old now, she's quite adept at not only evaluating possible outcomes of her choices, but at accepting and owning the outcomes. She doesn't always want to talk about her experiences, but I try to be an eager and compassionate ear whenever she's willing. 

Respecting kids isn't about wantonly abandoning parental guidance, it's about giving them as much guidance as possible, while ensuring that we're really listening to their needs and allowing them to make their own choices. Hopefully this enables them to gain some confidence and become adults with integrity.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The Positive Language of Evolution

Look all over the news today. Or any day during the past many years. You are likely to come away with a sense of dread, if not fear. Sure, there will be some positive stories, but words like 'decline', 'collapse', 'fear', 'threat' and 'extinction' seem to be everywhere. I personally spend a lot of my time in fight or flight mode: fight the devastation of our civilization's demise, or bake cookies and tell myself (and my kids) we're going to be just fine, while inside telling myself I'm a liar. Maybe I'm not.

What if, instead of reminding myself at every turn that we are doomed, I shift the tone towards something more positive? OK, some of you might wonder why this never occurred to me before, and of course it has (hence the cookie-baking), but changing our minds is a slow process, and maybe this is another step on my journey.

I was just listening to CBC's Unreserved, where Candace Kaleimamoowahinekapu Galla, of the Department of Language and Literacy Education at UBC, discussed the words we use to discuss aboriginal languages, and how those words affect the way the language thrives or declines. She mentions words like "dying", "extinction" and "declining", which put negative expectations in our minds, and words like "revival", "reclamation", and "revitalization", which are empowering to speakers of the languages and to the languages' own vitality. This made me think about my last blog post, which I dramatically titled "Living Well in the Apocalypse". I did have second thoughts about that title, thinking maybe that "Post-Consumerist Age" would have been better than "Apocalypse", but I told myself it wasn't as catchy. I think I'm too concerned with catching my readers' attention. Sure, "Apocalypse" will get me lots of Google results, but will it help me achieve my goal? My goal is to see a positive future, despite current global threats.

A threat creates fear, and fear can definitely lead us to take action, but is it the action that we want? Or more specifically, is it the action that will best serve us in the long term? Studies show us that conservatives are fearful, that we can make liberals more conservative by heightening their fear, and that we can make conservatives more liberal by helping them to feel safe. This blows my mind. I suddenly see this in play everywhere. I heard of a girl in our city who was sexually assaulted after getting off her bus, and I immediately went to my daughter's room to warn her and declare tighter restrictions on her freedom. How does this keep her safe? I know in my rational mind that what we need to do is educate, love, and support our children so that they will become neither the victims nor the perpetrators of this sort of crime, but in the face of sudden fear, I acted on the impulses of my amygdala. By the way, the right amygdalas of conservatives are bigger and more active.

If fear is what is keeping us from stopping climate change, from developing a fair and egalitarian society, and generally from saving our species from extinction, shouldn't we let it go? Obviously it's not that easy, but I intend to try my best, and I'm beginning by looking at my successes. Unschooling is one of them. I admit that I leaned towards unschooling my children because my own school experience was so terrible that I wanted to protect them from it. However, within a couple of years, I saw such amazing positive results that I continued unschooling (and blogging and teaching from an unschooling perspective) because I loved it. And it's been wildly successful. My kids, husband and I spend close to zero time bemoaning the school system, and a lot of time looking joyfully at our many opportunities and engaging in them. The result of this is that we have two engaged, confident learners, and have also managed to bring some of this fabulous learning theory into a few schools. And above all, we feel great about it!

If education and child-rearing can be such a joyful innovative adventure, so can the rest of the societal changes we need. Maybe we'll figure out how to properly convert to solar energy. Maybe cutting back on plastics, instead of meaning sacrifice, can mean growing, developing and purchasing amazing new foods and products! Maybe living without big corporations can mean a blossoming of new, locally-developed community resources! This can be beautiful.

So my personal challenge now is to do this for the seemingly insurmountable problems facing our species' future. Wait. Not problems -- opportunities! Language matters. Let's try that again.

I hereby challenge myself to find positive, exciting opportunities for growth! Evolution. I would like for human evolution to be progressive rather than reactionary. I don't want to be cutting out the things I love; to sacrifice joy and abundance out of fear. We have more than enough resources to live very well without decimating our planet and each other. I would like for those I love to feel safe in this societal progress, and for all of us to evolve, finding wonderful new ways to thrive, together. I want to run out into the sunshine of our new and fabulous future.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

The Evolution of our Advent Calendar

My brother and I received this hand-made Advent calendar as a gift from my Tante Joelle when we were very young. It was filled with tiny gifts and treats, if I remember correctly, each individually wrapped. My mother continued filling it for us every year, and as we got older the gifts leaned progressively more towards candy and eventually to fabulous chocolate delights. One year she included Kirsch-filled chocolate sticks from the wonderful Swiss P in Kamloops, and since the calendar hung rather close to the wood stove, they melted, soaking the paper of my Mum's delicate wrapping work with crystallized Kirsch. We ate them with glee, anyway.

When I became a mother, I delightedly retrieved the advent calendar from my parents' home, and began filling it for my own kids. In an effort to be less wasteful with wrapping paper, I made brightly-coloured bags to hold the tiny gifts, which we have reused every year since. My kids received various little toy collections through this calendar, and as they grew older we followed the trend of giving activities. The challenge, I have found with these, is to come up with quick but rewarding activities that can easily happen within twenty minutes on a week night. And often we don't even have twenty minutes, so there is also an assortment of chocolate treats (and we don't hang the calendar too close to the wood stove, anymore!)

Sometimes I fall prey to my consumerist urges and put little toys or knickknacks in the calendar. One of my favourites was an assortment of Lego people that looked just like our family! But the kids have been recently reminding me that little useless toys are really not their favourite calendar gifts. That Lego family was cute for a couple of days but now it's just plastic in their drawers. My kids tell me that their favourite calendar gift last year was the family painting night, where we spent a couple of hours making teeny tiny acrylic paintings, and then trading them back and forth to change, decorate, and subvert.

But times, they are most definitely a-changing, and as noted in my previous post about living well in an eminently post-consumerist world, we felt it was time for changes with the advent calendar. In addition to a smattering of home-made chocolates and family activities, we have made donations in their names to organizations we think they support. In preparing this, we had to consider carefully which organizations they seem to have shown support for in the past, and how we could present this in an authentic way. So in the end we made four donations - one for every Saturday in the calendar - and a few philanthropic activities for some of the family activity days. Really I feel that in-person giving should just be done in person and from the heart, so none of these activities are personal. They include choosing food from our shelves to bring the food bank, and donating to a local Women's Shelter.

I was a little worried and very curious to see what my kids thought about this change. Thankfully after opening their first donation-note, today, they both declared their approval. Keep in mind they're 14 and 16, so definitely old enough to grasp the concept that they have traded a treat on the advent calendar for their parents' contribution to a cause they care about. I'm not sure they would have appreciated this at a much younger age. Although my eldest tells me he would still rather just make donations, himself, so that is something to consider for next year.

So with a little uncertainty we move into both a more mature phase of parenting and a different way of giving during the holidays. I really don't feel we're making enough progress, yet, but it's something: A way to keep a long-standing family tradition alive while trying to be sensitive to our changing world.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Living Well in the Apocalypse

Recently our dinner time conversation was about how we should live, going into the apocalypse: admit defeat and carry on as usual, or fight for our lives. This, apparently, is parenting in 2018. And I believe in having all the hard discussions, because I want to raise thoughtful, well-prepared humans. Our discussion wasn't easy; we didn't all agree, but there seemed to be a current of unity: We don't know what to do. We've never been a family to give up easily, but in this case it's hard to get our heads around how we would survive the enormity of the horrors we see on the horizon.

In the past few years we've seen a sudden increase in climate-related disasters: countless thousands dead from fires, storms, heatwaves and drought. Millions displaced. And it's not just nameless faceless people; it's people we know. We're already accustomed to seeing social media posts of our friends fleeing and documenting disaster. We're already accustomed to living in the smoke and ash of burned lives every summer.

The reality of climate apocalypse has finally begun to hit mainstream news in the form of brazen apocalyptic declarations. Chris Hedges and others are warning of an imminent economic collapse.  The elite of our world (and even my own community) are buying up acreage in remote tropical places and hiring consultants to help them stockpile and guard their wealth in the form of food. Even the middle class is now beginning to stockpile emergency food for the disaster we know is coming (yes there are some great Black Friday deals out there if you fancy a decades-long-diet of freeze-dried foods). But it isn't packaged food or armed bunkers that will save us, people! It's each other.

Apparently the UN says climate genocide is coming. New York Magazine says it's actually worse than that: "To avoid warming of the kind the IPCC now calls catastrophic requires a complete rebuilding of the entire energy infrastructure of the world, a thorough reworking of agricultural practices and diet to entirely eliminate carbon emissions from farming, and a battery of cultural changes to the way those of us in the wealthy West, at least, conduct our lives." Yes, we're going to have to stop consuming like the credit-fueled fiends that we are.

We sure love to consume stuff. Never mind the usual purchases at online and brick and mortar stores; we've even found ways to consume after the money is gone. We pick up goods marked 'free' from the side of the road; we peruse the collection of working and broken electronics at the recycling depot. We choose foods and other essentials that come with freebies even when we know we'll never use them. When people in my house are bored or momentarily unoccupied, we often stroll through the kitchen for a snack - literally consuming just to fill the void of downtime. Sometimes I check Facebook. Or Instagram and email and phone messages. I turn on the radio. I try to reach for another cup of tea instead of food, but I'm still reaching for a fix. I hate downtime. We have trained ourselves to consume - whether media, food, entertainment, or manufactured goods - just to fix the downtime; to fill the void that might otherwise have been filled with love.

It isn't that we don't have love. In my family we are blessed with plenty of it. But we've become so accustomed to the fast pace of our world - to the constant intake of information and product - that we feel lost as soon as the hubbub lets up. Love is a quiet thing. It takes downtime: space and time and an uncluttered closeness to allow ourselves to be filled by only love. Still, we can.

So I decided to make a change. Downtime. No more TV, I said. No more hooking up the Netflix in our living room in the evening. And we spent our first evening listening to records, together, sitting around our delightfully peaceful living room in the warmth of the fire, reading and drawing and hearing some music we hadn't bothered to listen to in years. For just a few hours, we had our family back. If we want to live well in the apocalypse, we're going to have to re-learn how to love being together, instead of just residing under the same roof.

We're also going to have to learn to live with less. Less food, less convenience, and probably far less purchasing of goods than we think is possible. And it's Christmas time! Black Friday sales have been in full swing for days and it's not even Wednesday yet! Who doesn't love showering our loved ones with gifts (and really - just buying things in general?!) But we can't anymore. And that reality is starting to hit home, even for my kids. We tried going gift-free a few years ago, and while some supported the idea, we also faced some serious anger from friends and family, who, above all else, called us selfish and ungrateful. The gift-free Christmas idea ended up being just within our own household. But here's the thing: We're happy! My children are not feeling deprived; they don't feel unloved. In fact I think they feel empowered! This year they got together to write and illustrate a children's book about giving intangible gifts. My kids' favourite memories are of the adventures we've taken together, and the traditions we hold dear, like particular songs we sing at particular times, the way we set the table for each other's birthdays, and the customary foods we bake for certain holidays. The memories we cherish have everything to do with time spent in loving connection, and that's something that the end of consumerism will only mean more of.

This year our family's gift to each other is a snow adventure with my partner's sister and her family! We're going to spend a weekend playing together, cooking up good local foods, playing in the snow, and enjoying each other's company in the winter nights. So all three cousins in this little family will share this beautiful gift, making space in our traditions and in our hearts for the "battery of cultural changes" that now seem imminent. This Christmas can be a last kick at the consumerism can, or it can be a great platter of opportunity for new ways of giving. We don't intend to go into this darkness kicking and screaming, nor even with a cache of survival foods. We're going in with a burning light of hope and love: family who sees that being together is the only gift we need.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Supplies and Practice of Open-Ended Art Exploration


When I was in high school there was a poster on the door of my art classroom that displayed the then-ubiquitous 3 R's (Reading, wRiting, and 'Rithmatic) along with a 4th: aRt. I think Mrs Sunday never knew how much that poster influenced my life. In grade twelve I spent nearly every lunch hour in the corner of the art room, using up her acrylic supply for finger-painting, and paint-squirting. To her enormous credit, she let me do it. I still do it, and I encourage everyone to do it - to get as messy and unexpectedly creative as possible with whatever supplies they're given.

I've spent a lot of time on this blog talking about explorative wilderness play, but am often asked about "real" art supplies, and what kinds of simple art projects are good for various situations, and I feel like it's time I give a nice solid answer to that.

First, let me be clear: The best way to learn art is by exploration. Art is also a wonderful explorative activity for learning everything else. The Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (2012) states the following:
"The benefits of play are recognized by the scientific community. There is now evidence that neural pathways in children’s brains are influenced and advanced in their development through exploration, thinking skills, problem solving, and language expression that occur during play.

"Research also demonstrates that play-based learning leads to greater social, emotional, and academic success. Based on such evidence, ministers of education endorse a sustainable pedagogy for the future that does not separate play from learning but brings them together to promote creativity in future generations. In fact, play is considered to be so essential to healthy development that the United Nations has recognized it as a specific right for all children."
So all those wonderful prescriptive art projects where you know the outcome before you begin, and the process of creation means following instructions? Those awesome craft kits that come with the pictures of what it will look like when you're done? They're junk. Throw them away. Or at the very least, get rid of the packaging and present the included materials with no expectations or directions and let the kids do whatever they want with them. Yes little ones might eat the crayons. So make sure they're non-toxic. Older kids might also melt them to make candles or wax prints or just to see how cool the melted colours are when pouring them around. Awesome! All of these things are actually done by professional artists all the time, so it's not even a stretch of the imagination to see their value. In fact, a stretch of the imagination is exactly where the value is to be found - because that is where the learning is. When I apply for an art grant for my own artistic practice, it always includes funding for "research"... which in the art world means experimentation and playing with material, form, and method.

It's important to think about how the presentation of the materials influences the way we use them. My father used to own a toy store, and supplied the Waldorf school in North Vancouver with the wonderful beeswax block crayons they use. He always had a lot of blacks left over, because they don't use those in their program. How does a child's thought-process change if they are never presented with the option to colour with black? We can't know for sure, but I am positive there are some interesting associations, there. I give me children all the colours. But do I always present them in rainbow-gradient? No. And amazingly, the kids end up sorting them themselves, into a myriad of different patterns, either because the sorting itself is fun, or because it's useful for whatever they're doing with the crayons. This, too, is an important part of their learning. It's how they familiarize themselves with the materials they're using, and with the colours they're working with.

Now for some material suggestions. I'm going to go most often with the cheapest alternatives, because we live in a disastrously consumerist society, and none of us needs to be buying new materials when they're not essential. Even on a tight budget you can get a load of materials at huge stores, but you don't need to. Going with unexpected chance finds from the local thrift shop, recycling depot, or other people's refuse not only saves money but also opens all sorts of new avenues for experimentation and problem-solving that will teach your kids more than a pristine new package from a store will.

Art-making space: Whatever your circumstances, just make sure you provide a large area where mess-making is acceptable and clean-up is easy. A large table is great but if you don't have one, or don't have suitable chairs, a corner of washable floor can be great too. Outside, a sheet of plywood on the ground suffices. I've done this often. Cover the space with a heavy paper that can be used for mess-making, drawing, or notes, and replaced when necessary. You can also cover it with a heavy plastic table-cloth, but glues and acrylics will eventually make the plastic lumpy, so I still recommend the paper-cover on top to make cleanup easier. 

But... don't keep art confined to this space. Take it to the kitchen. Bake cookies and cakes and decorate those; fill the sink with water and drip paints in or use the surface for oil-resist prints. Take art outside. Do tie-dyeing or papier mache there. Paint the lawn; paint your car or bicycle or front door. My uncle once gave his young children house paints and had them hand- and foot-print the front entry room. Decades later, their beautiful creative creation is still the welcome that guests first receive. Make everywhere art space.

An Easel: Not only does it give a new perspective to have your workspace upright, but dripping paint is wonderful, and should be encouraged. However, you don't have to go get an expensive easel. A stable propped board will do, as will an old sandwich board on a table. The best accessory for your easel, though, is a pair (or more) of large bulldog clips to hold paper in place.

Storage: If you want to have a beautiful art corner, you still can, even if it's not colour-coordinated or tidy. A bunch of large bins and a very few smaller ones will do well, or similarly a chest of drawers. We do have a great art-storage carousel that has been in use in our house for many years, holding an assortment of whatever the currently-most-used supplies are. This makes a greater number of supplies more easily accessible to various people seated at a table, and a handy place to put them away quickly. But it's not essential. A bunch of materials rolling around the table can actually inspire new ideas.

Some kind of drying rack is a great idea. We never had space for one, but the end of our dining room table was usually used for drying. Still, if you have space, old oven racks or baking racks can be a great thing to have in your art area. A permanent set of wire-rack shelves is amazing.

Paper: It really doesn't matter what you have - just have some. Preferably lots. We commonly have whatever papers people have passed on to us, including old letterheads, those old perforated printer-papers, construction and manila papers, some old used sketchbooks that people threw away with 80% of their pages still unused, and various types of white and coloured printer papers. I also supply my kids with the seemingly endless supply of graph-paper which they love. No papers have specific intentions. It's OK with me if fancy sketchbook papers get used for note-taking or construction or torn-up little shreds of I-don't-know-what, or even crumpling into balls and called 'cat toys'. Getting the paper second-hand helps me let go of my own hang-ups about 'intended use' and 'value', which gives the kids a broader explorative environment, and greater learning opportunities.

Cardboard: You could go all out and have some gigantic boxes for construction experimentation (my kids have built cars, rocket-ships, stores and villages, and most recently, as teens, a vending machine which they took into public for entertainment). But at the very least you should have some old boxes or scraps around in case construction starts happening. I hope it does!

Cutting Devices: Good scissors, appropriately sized for the people using them. An exacto knife. Obviously not for young ones, but you might have one handy to help out with big cuts. And a serrated bread knife! This has been very helpful to us for cutting cardboard, especially. Also never underestimate the usefulness of a good hole-pucher, and things like skewers for poking holes in cardboard.

String, ribbon, and other tying materials: Especially for constructing with cardboard, but also comes in handy for making books and all manner of other things. You never know when this will be just the thing you need in the moment!

If you're going to get a stapler, get a fabulous one like this that can reach into very big projects. 
And take a look at this Stockmar box from my childhood. The box has been replenished piece by piece over the years, and the crayons have been chewed and used by multiple generations.

Mark-Making: It's important not to narrow our kids' ideas of what constitutes a proper mark. So much is lost to a narrow mind! So provide lots of different options, and let the kids mix them up. You might want to keep some expensive felt-pens out of the acrylics, just to keep them in working condition, but experimental mixing of media in general is a highly educational activity, so do it! You don't need all of these but at least have many.
  • chisel-tipped pens - for older kids sharpies are awesome.
  • a great assortment of colourful felt-pens. Those cute stubby pens are a huge waste of plastic, though, since they run out frustratingly quickly and have to be thrown away. Tip: Store felt and ink pens tip-down, which means they last longer before drying out.
  • pencil crayons (as they are worn down they make many different types of marks)
  • wax crayons. Lots - and be prepared to see them very, very broken.
  • those Stockmar beeswax block crayons I mentioned earlier.
  • paint pucks that fit into a plastic tray - when you don't have time to get out the bottled paints, or just for watery experimentation, these are a wonderful thing to have available.
  • bottles of tempera or acrylic paints that you can squirt out small amounts of for open-ended free painting (tempera is great for younger kids who might ingest it, but acrylic is great for the ability to paint on many surfaces).
  • brushes! The best in my experience are natural stiff-bristle brushes, flat or chisel-shaped, because they give more opportunity for a variety of marks than round ones do, but others can be fun too.
  • pencils, erasers, and fine black markers. 
  • something smudgy like chalk or oil pastels. Sidewalk chalk can be used inside and chalkboard chalk can be used outside.
Glue sticks: Glue gets two sections because you need both. We always have a few glue sticks around, as they're the best way to stick papers together without soaking or wrinkling them. I recommend acid-free strong-hold glue-sticks. Don't bother with those silly school-glue types. They often don't hold.

White glue: While basic white glue will work for many applications, such as stiffening fabrics, gluing together cardboards, fabrics and layers of paper, we keep a bottle of Weldbond universal adhesive around because it glues almost everything! That's a great advantage when you're mixing up sometimes unexpected materials.

Fabric scraps and found materials: Without getting into the wonderful worlds of sewing and yarn arts, fabric itself is indispensable as an explorative material. With a bin of such materials for free creativity and exploration, you can create costumes, forts, decorations for those cardboard constructions, head-dresses, jewelry, dolls, doll-clothes, and really an endless list of delights. Have a bin of scrap fabric! And to this add found materials like plastic, corks, sticks, wires, etc. You never know what random things will be fabulous. Discarded CD's and cutlery for example. You just never know.

Something to squish and build with: A great block of clay and a big clay board to work on is awesome. That would be my favourite, although to be honest I didn't often have it on hand for my kids. We mostly used natural clay from the creek outside, and mud. Of course there are plenty of polymer clays available and while they're fun for building with, I don't personally like the environmental burden they bear (wanton use of plastics that end up in the garbage). I'm not really suggesting slime, either, because while slime-making and playing is a fine explorative activity, and fun, I think we get so much more mileage out of materials that stay put when shaped. A biodegradable glue mixed with sawdust or ground/shredded newspaper, by the way, is a pretty cool modelling material. So is salt dough, and gingerbread, if you want to eat your creation. One brand name product my kids did love and use for a long time was Stockmar modelling beeswax (no I'm not paid by Stockmar; they just make a few really fabulous products!).


So you see, the main thing is to have a fabulously free space and some stuff to play with there. Get messy. Play with the kids (or teens or adults!). They will learn a huge amount from watching what you do, so make sure you're exploring and have no idea what your outcome will be. This will help them learn to do the same, and together you'll make wonderful discoveries.

Talking about Periods with Daughters and Sons

Yay! It's time to talk about periods! 
Or, depending on your situation, it may have been time a loooong, long while ago. It seems I made an (unusual) good parenting call and dealt with this topic years before it was needed, because the kids were much more interested in such things when they weren't eminently personal to them. Now that they're actually teens, the conversations seem to be more needs-based. And things don't always go my way. Like that incident I had with the really fancy expensive teen puberty book that I handed over with misty eyes and a loving smile, but was thrown in the garbage without ever being read. Gulp. Lesson learned.

Talking to your daughter: First, remember that periods are a big hairy scary deal, and approach it with the understanding that you might not succeed in reaching her. I don't remember much about my own journey into puberty, except for the event of my first period. It happened while I was visiting my Grandma, and I secretly rummaged in her bathroom drawers to find pads. When my mother picked me up from the ferry the next day, I broke down in tears of shame as I confessed that I'd "got my period". She reassured me, and congratulated me, and took me to a department store to buy jeans. JEANS!!! To the 80's girl who had been mostly stuck in cords and other unfashionable pants until that point, the prospect of brand new jeans was a dream come true! I remember that my first cramps descended on me between the tables of Calvin Klein, Guess, and B.U.M. Equipment, and I doubled over in agony, unable to take my choices into the changing room. We left without any jeans, and at home my Mum made me tea and advised me to take a hot bath. While I was in the bath, my father came home and, on hearing the happy news (ack), came to congratulate me. He declared that we would have a traditional First Period Party to celebrate!!! Of course I was mortified, and his humour fell rather flat. That's all I remember. So as far as going off my own experience, I couldn't, and as a parent I've been flying blind the whole way.

Fortunately or not, your daughter's experience may not be anything like your own. The way her body works may be entirely different; she may menstruate at different times, and she may require an entirely different set of supplies and arrangements to effectively manage her cycle. So it's a good idea to listen to your daughter's advice and questions at least as much as you share your own. A couple of years ago, my daughter suggested we make our own pads, and I was fascinated that it had never occurred to me before! We did a lot of research and experimenting with various materials, and concluded that we couldn't easily make anything as leak-proof as the store-bought (cloth) variety. Imagine us at the dining room table, pouring water onto various materials and testing "wet feeling" and leakage on blue paper towels. It reminded me of a very bad maxi pad commercial from my childhood. And we failed. So we gave up. But it was a wonderful bonding opportunity that never would have happened if I had suggested it. And now I wear cloth pads... something that reminds me every month how proud and grateful I am to have listened to my daughter's advice!

Talking to your son: Sons need to talk about these things too! I will never forget my father telling me that he knew nothing about menstruation until he lived with my mother. Can you imagine going through life as a little boy and later teen, wondering forever about the mysterious toilet behaviours of your mother and later school-mates, and never feeling able to ask? No wonder there's so much fear of women! Explain these things to your sons. Let them in on the convoluted systems you have in place to manage your period (and everything else about life) in this sometimes unforgiving world. They'll grow up with a deeper understanding, a greater compassion, and a greater respect for women.

Keep talking, be askable, and be willing to go outside of your comfort zone to discuss or research whatever comes up. I googled beachtails with my kids today. Ew. Luckily for me, they thought so too! 

Now for the products. We've been experimenting with these, in our house, and I thought I'd give some reviews of some of the more popular options available to us. What works for you depends on the shape of your body as well as your daily activities and circumstances. Girls just starting puberty will likely try many options before settling on what works for them individually. At 43, I'm still trying out new options and my needs are always changing!

Home-made cloth pads: If you have lots of time and a good assortment of fabric options, go for it! It's a great project, although from our experience will involve a lot of trial and error. Maybe in the early stages of this experimental process, stick to some tried-and-true options for school and other public outings.

Aisle (previously called Lunapads): Lunapads was our main brand, because they were (and still are) Canadian, and offered free shipping to Canada, as well as being cotton. I can't recommend them anymore because, although they've become wonderfully body-positive, they have begun including a huge amount of polyester in their products, and have discontinued many of the best products. Also, the period panties NEVER had enough coverage, at the front. I wrote to them on a couple of occasions to ask them to create a panty with more coverage at the front, and they actually answered that that was a common request but they had no intention of doing it! This was before they brought out the all-new boxer style, which also has a short and narrow front coverage. Really sorry to see such a great company lose all their quality standards.

Thinx: Thinx period panties are actually pretty great! The liner coverage on some of them far outpaces Aisle, and for those of us who don't like that weird shiny slippery fabric, they now offer organic cotton styles, too. The fit is a little bit smaller than Aisle panties, so check their sizing chart carefully. The major drawback is the fact that they're not Canadian, and the cost. At nearly $50/pair (and calculating that you need quite a few pairs to get through a cycle), they're really not accessible to many people.

Menstrual Cup: Diva Cup. Fleurcup. Lena Cup. Kind of daunting for new menstruators, but if you can handle a tampon, you can handle a menstrual cup... and they keep things very tidy, which is appealing to some of us! We use them with a light pad or period panties in case of leaks, but to be honest, I've never had a leak! And of course which brand and size you buy depends on your vagina: smaller for girls and women who haven't yet birthed babies, and larger for those who have.

Natural disposable pads: We use Natracare, and sometimes Organyc. They're great, but don't offer any super heavy protection for us perimenopausal types. For anything less, though, they do offer a range of styles and sizes, they look fresh and clean, and are quieter to open in public washrooms, which is a big plus for girls who are still worried about being heard while changing pads. You can also pre-tear the sides of the pad wrappers to avoid some of the ripping sounds in public washrooms.

Unnatural disposable pads: They can be handy for very heavy flow days, or in social/public situations where rinsing a pad in a sink is not an option (or there's no privacy to do so). Some brands (like Stayfree) simply reek, and basically announce to the world that you're menstruating (and that you use Stayfree... weird advertising gimmick?) Others, like Always and Exact, are blissfully unscented, but can cause a lot of sweat or sometimes rashes due to their lack of natural fibres. But if your skin can handle them, they're definitely an option.

Tampons: due to concerns about toxic shock and cervical cancer, we don't use these. If you really do want them, go for the unbleached type sold by companies like Natracare, Organyc, and Seventh Generation.

Free Bleeding: Yeah... this is not popular among young teens. But an interesting topic to talk about!

So that's it - talk to your kids and keep your mind open to all the great options we have for menstruating. Really this topic doesn't need to be treated any differently than the topic of a runny nose, flu-care, immunity and handkerchief or tissue options. It's just a part of our bodies' function, and through talking to our kids, we can let go of some our own inhibitions and grow a stronger, wiser community.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Unschooling Burning Stuff: Forging

The other day my son wandered past where I was working, and said in passing, "I made a little alloy". I admit I wasn't fully attending, so he tried a little harder: "Mama. I made a little alloy of tin, zinc and bismuth."

I still wasn't really paying attention. "Oh that's cool."


I realized I needed to be more present, and tried to get there: "So how did you do it?"

"I melted them together."

"Oh yeah. That's cool."

This kind of thing isn't unusual for him, and my mind was on whatever I was doing at the time. So my daughter piped in - loudly: "Mama he used his blow-torch!"

"Wait---WHAT!? There's a fire-ban!!!"

"Oh no, it's OK", he said. "I did it in my bedroom."


This announcement, during the hottest week of the year, when our whole province is plagued by forest fires and evacuations and SMOKE to blot out the blazing sun... oh yeah... and a complete FIRE BAN... was followed with: "it was very safe. My blow-torch is small. It's the one I found at the recycling depot."

Welcome to my life, unschooling a kid who likes to burn stuff.

Unschooling has always been a struggle for me. I believe whole-heartedly that experimentation and exploration are the key to development in every aspect of our lives, but to just sit back and blithely watch as my kids make choices that terrify me? This is not my strong suit. There are times I have left the house because I can't bear to watch anymore. There are days I get none of my own work done because I'm constantly running around checking that nobody needs medical attention. And yet - most of the accidents and injuries we've experienced came from the most innocuous-seeming activities. I'm trying to remember that. So here, in forest fire season, I'm posting a little celebration of my kid's penchant for burning stuff. In the past couple of years this has leaned towards forging.

He began with materials he could find around the house and yard: First the fire pit, then some cinder blocks to create a hotter fire, and eventually his father's ventilator fan, re-purposed with a metal dryer vent to feed air into the fire. He ended up covering the fire with a fine mesh screen to keep sparks from flying out, and eventually he upgraded from burning wood to burning store-bought briquettes. He used his father's little anvil, and some hammers from around the house, until he decided that the anvil was bouncing around too much, taking most of the force into the ground instead of into flattening his metal. Then he found a much heavier salvaged piece of railroad and began using that, instead.

For blanks he initially used nails, and created a series of hooks and other useful things, but as his ability to burn hotter grew, so did the size of the metal he worked with. Eventually he moved on to huge nails, using them to make a chisel and then a small knife, and then further onto pieces of rebar. Recently he found a bunch of discarded files, and has begun experimenting with various cutting and shaping techniques, including the saw-blade you can see on the bottom knife in this photo.

I am coming around to this whole thing, as I see his safety precautions developing. I told him he had to stop forging this summer, as our poor province is up in flames again, so he revamped his fire-pit forge and sent photos to the local fire-chief, asking for permission to proceed. And he got it! I figure if he has the wherewithal to create a forge out of salvaged materials and get official permission to use it during a fire-ban, I can probably stop worrying, now.

Here's a video he created about some of his process:

Forge ahead, young man! Or forge a head. Or something. (Ha ha ha.)

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Unschooling Highschool

photo by Taliesin River
To some of us, the concept of unschooling highschool is an absolute contradiction of terms. I confess my heart still feels that way, even though my son is attempting to do just that. But I am beginning to catch the joy of it, too.

The imposed series of hoops and hurdles that comprise a child's journey through the education system is most of what turned me against it in the first place. The competitive nature of our system means that by the end of primary school children are scrambling and scrapping for a place on the social and academic ladder. The top-down power structure of the schools and the school districts and even the government ministry responsible for them is so deeply harmful to kids' sense of personal worth and real accomplishment that by highschool they walk mostly blind in the lines we have trained them for, following the trails they were put upon to the outcomes we had for them. As unschoolers we have been very happy eschewing this for the past 11 years. Even when my kids tried out schools, we were horrified at the uselessness and heart-crushing condescension of learning to follow instructions and to tailor themselves to suit a system that did not suit them. So we returned again and again to the philosophy we trust - the deeply personalized collection of activities that is unschooling: We do nothing more than encourage our kids to look with open hearts and minds, and follow their own dreams.

But sometimes the dream lies square in the middle of the nightmare you've been skirting, and that is the case with my son. He wants to be a scientist - with other scientists. He wants to use labs and other resources that exist mainly in universities, and he has been waiting most of his life to get to that place: University. He goes now to listen to lectures, but never to attend classes; never to work on exciting projects with others; never to push his pursuit further in a true cohort of aspiring scientists. So he finally decided that the easiest way to get to that dream is to go through the system. We checked out some schools, and they all want him to join (of course; their funding relies on him becoming a full-time student), but he knows going to school will just take up time he doesn't have, so he declined. The principal who looked him in the eyes and said he won't have any spares because kids like him get up to mischief if given spare time really clinched that decision for him. Through slightly eclectic means, he plans to get his highschool graduation diploma and apply to university the traditional way.

And suddenly, with my own kid's graduation on the horizon, I see the beautiful thing about having a child graduate: it really is an accomplishment of their own. My son made this choice on his own. My son who feels insecure about math decided on his own to do a traditional math class, and blew it out of the water, apparently. He texted me yesterday, after his last test, to tell me he was finished! By a few hours later and after a science test, he was finished school for the year, and came home delightedly. At first I thought it was relief that I saw in his eyes, until I realized it was pride. He did it! He accomplished some personal goals! He has proven to himself that he, too, can trudge into the system and harvest some accomplishment. And his heart is prepared for next year.

Now I see so many friends posting their kids' graduation photos on social media, and I finally understand. Congratulations to you all for the road you travelled! Congratulations to you, beautiful grads, for the work you've done in finding and attaining your goals!! And congratulations to you parents for raising your children with the confidence to do so.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

Travelling Around the World for Family, Love and Belonging

We finally did it! After planning for fifteen years to take our kids to Europe to meet their extended family, we just bit the bullet and went for it. And it was perfect.

But how can I possibly sum up the thirty-one cities, four languages, sixty beloved friends and family, and what seemed like ten years' worth of experiences in a little blog post with just a handful of photos? I can't. I can't possibly. So I'm just going to drop some photos here. I have left out the countless churches, castles, cities, landmarks, and amazing wilderness areas we saw and leave you with what really matters:

There is nothing in the world better or more important than love and a feeling of belonging.

At the airport getting ready to take our kids on their first airliner ever. We were pretty much giddy with the excitement.
WHOAH. Those first three are some amazing numbers to contemplate.

Some family you are born into and some you choose. Our Swiss family picked wild bear-leeks for our dinner!
When the kids discovered that their father's childhood home in Germany is actually quite similar to their own and their grandparents'. And they felt comfortable, there.

Accompanying their Pappa to his favourite tree in the whole wide world.

Everybody we visited took time to show us the things they care about. It was a time of really connecting to our roots, both new and old. Markus' uncle and aunt harvest about 600kg of organic honey every year, which they sell locally.

This trip included a bit of a pilgrimage to the graves of our three European grandmothers who died since the last time we came to Europe. Tending the graves of those we love was a very important part of our journey.

Grocery shopping was a whole new experience!

Speaking of people we love - we did not forget to send a few postcards!

We were fortunate to be able to bring flowers from the homes of our grandmothers to their graves. This particular grandmother financed half of our trip, before she died. We saved all the money she sent us for birthdays over the past 15 years and put it towards our plane tickets. We were sorry we didn't make it over before she was gone.

Our family took us to so many amazing places - often many places in a single day. Sometimes it was exhausting, but as I look back I know that this gave us a chance to connect with them; to see their world as they wanted us to, and to give them an opportunity to see us in their world.

We pulled up an audio of my Grandmother's laughter on my cell phone, and listened to it beside her grave. Then we sat around "having lunch with her", for all that that is worth. It's everything. Grieving the loss of someone can be a weird and complicated adventure, but I'm glad we've found ways to do it as a family.

Our family cottage in the Netherlands is near some bronze-age grave mounds. That was a long-awaited destination and we reveled in being there.

Some regular old cottage maintenance was needed, too. Nice to be able to be involved.

And then the cousins descended on this beloved cottage.

This family is very dour.


The amazing but unsurprising thing is that no matter where in the world you live, or what your personal history is, family is family is family. My kids had never met most of these people before, and we came from Canada and all over Europe to convene at our beloved cottage... and just feel like we belong together.

And belonging was easy.

Even when the French and Canadian cousins found each other out wandering among the heather and grave mounds in the foggy midnight and sang together in the darkness.

I haven't always belonged. I got kicked out of art school here over 20 years ago, so this time I took my kids to see the place I used to ride to every day, bike laden with supplies and hopes and dreams. We found this gilded sculpture there, which I thought was apt. I'm glad I got kicked out. Those teachers weren't my people anyway.
My friend and former neighbour took us to meet her horse and we had tea with the farmers - what a wonderful opportunity for my kids to meet some locals and to be accepted casually at their table.
I was thrilled that my kids had to learn to hand-wash their laundry as many Dutch people do, and as I did when I used to live there.

One of the greatest joys for me was that my parents also came to Europe, and met up with us for a day to visit the rather boring neighbourhood where I used to live. Living and studying in the Netherlands was a wonderful time for me - the place where I learned to fight for myself and to fail and get up again; the place where I gained my independence, and the whole time I lived there I wished that my family could know something of my life. Now, at last, they have.
Speaking of independence, my kids found theirs, too. They had amazing experiences on this trip, including many grand adventures (even a day-trip to Paris with my aunt!) and a new bond forged with many cousins. But they tell me this was their favourite day: The day they made a long bike journey to the North Sea together - just the two of them. They bought themselves fries there, found some shells, and returned. This was the day they found their independence.

Yeah that's my kid - just walking on the edge of the North Sea after a nice bike ride with her brother. Because when we give our kids freedom (no matter how scared we parents are about it!) they find their dreams.
While my kids were off gallivanting in their newfound freedom, I spent a week installing my current large art project, what.home, in Amsterdam. My friend Igor (whom I met at that art school I got kicked out of - see? Not all losses are losses after all!) and my dear husband helped me hugely to do this first installation. What a joy to spend some time being creative with some wonderful people; to reassure myself that despite leaving the Netherlands as a disgraced art student in the 90's, I still belong in the art world here, too.

Home. We flew home. For all the amazingness of finding ourselves at home in the people we love in Europe, this land and water and the air we know the smell of is the place our bodies belong.