Here’s something…..

This happened. And my life is totally, completely changed. More on that another day.

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My Struggle to Not Struggle

IMG_8271     Somewhere along the line, I learned that a significant life is full of struggle. Did it start with the story of the exile from the Garden? The toil? The pain of labor? Did it start with my own father, who worked the night shift at the post office; and, around the dinner table, never made it sound like any fun? (Did he, as I do now, struggle with the guilt of having a job he secretly loved?) Did it start with my stay-at-home-mom, who I swear must have slept through the day, eaten her way through the afternoon, only to greet us at the door after school and begin cleaning the house and cooking? Did it start with the job I loved to hate as a Subway “Sandwich Artist,” scrubbing floors until 2am, so I could afford car insurance, college, clothes? Or did it start in AmeriCorps, where only those crazy-asses who worked 70 hours a week were promoted, and any expectation of decent pay was taboo? I was one of those crazy-asses, and it was less than a conscious choice- I somehow deeply believed that my ability to save the world must be directly proportional to my stress level.

     Thankfully, I got pregnant, and when that happened, I realized that my ability to save anyone or anything was actually inversely proportional to my stress level; I had to calm down and raise this kid. I put everything else away. All of my work was him. And then it was her, when she came along. And I’ll admit, while fostering my own sense of contentment and love as the only truly important things in life, I’ve at times (consciously or subconsciously) made myself appear super-busy. Maybe so people would stop bugging me. Or maybe so I wouldn’t feel weird, or guilty.
     For the past 5 years, I’ve been “contracting” my services. Or, more often, volunteering, and then sometimes- surprise!- I get paid for what I just volunteered to do. The only jobs I’ve taken are jobs I really care about- teaching conflict resolution, peace studies, yoga, nutrition, organizing events to build community and awareness…I do this on my terms. Because I want to.
     My partner works a full time job he really loves. He doesn’t make much. We are not rich. In fact, we are definitely eligible for some community support ourselves. We don’t take it, but it’s not because I don’t think we deserve or need it. It’s because it’s fucking annoying to fill out all that paperwork, give every detail of your income and expenses, bank accounts, changes to your situation, over and over and over again, only to have them lose your paperwork, balk at your fluctuating changes in pay (as though people piece-mealing together an existence generally have one steady income), and take 2 hours to answer the damn phone. It’s not work I want to get paid for- not in food stamps, not in medical care- so I don’t take it. I find other ways. For other people, that may not be a choice, or maybe, it’s just less of a burden for them to work with the government in this way. I guarantee you, though, that most people on food stamps, even those “working the system” are actually doing quite a bit of work to make that happen. If you haven’t tried it, don’t judge. You seriously have no idea what it is like to navigate the system. I’ve managed entire service programs, directed camps, managed boards and commissions and parks and recreation on behalf of a councilman, set up service days for 500-1000 volunteers, and seriously, the System is harder. There is nothing I would less rather “work” at.
     I spent the morning snuggling with my daughter, then learning guitar chords to a few songs. For an hour or two, I created a parent packet for a camp I’ll be directing this summer. I turned the dishwasher on. I am now writing this very thing at 2PM. Later, I guess I’ll grill some meat and make some salad. Take my niece and nephew to an appointment. Go work on an urban farm for an hour. This is my life. I am not stressed. I am not busy. Even with four kids in our home, 2 side jobs, and tedious foster care processes. I am forcing myself to admit it- life is just good. What I am busy with is being with my kids. I am busy creating peace in my own life, trying to make conscious choices. I’m busy staring off into space and thinking about things- philosophical things, sexual things, lunch things…I’m thinking about guitars with the finish worn off from the intensity of playing. Thinking about fiddle strings shredding under the bow, only to be speedily restrung before the next chorus. I am thinking about what I could do to make life more interesting, have some more fun.
     Why is everyone so busy? Why is everyone working their ass off? Why do I feel guilty that I’m not?
     And then I think to myself: Have I been taught to think they support us? Those people who run around so busy, so legitimate? Those people who struggle? Who sweat? Do I think they support me? Do I think they make the world turn, like some sort of hamster on an exercise wheel, while I just hang on to one of the rungs by my slack fist? Well, yes, that thought does lay underneath the surface. Yes, sometimes I guess I do feel a little guilty- that I like my life so much. That it’s not- more hard. That even though we’re in debt and don’t have much to our name, it doesn’t matter to me. That I like to play music more than I like to create excel documents. That I’d rather write a poem than a research paper. That my kids make their own breakfast and lunch, because I don’t think I should have to do that for them, and it’s not killing them. That I’m not even considering- gasp!- saving for their college education.
     But I don’t feel entitled. I don’t think anyone should give us anything they don’t want to. I just believe that things will roll out alright. That life comes, and life ends, and we are here to take the ride. And it’s better if we try to like it, whatever it is. I believe that we all have a thing to do- maybe just one thing- and that we are all legitimate, significant people. And maybe most importantly, I believe we are not to let anyone convince us that we should be ashamed of living the life we love.

Scheduling Nothingness

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Oh, this sickness- it’s lasting a lifetime. I watch my kids suffer through it with relative optimism, however. We hunker down today, cancel all FOUR of the things that were supposed to happen, and get some “rest.”

Here are the things we cancelled:

1. haircuts for the kids by my wonderful friend from high school: drinking coffee and catching up, and receiving a hand-me-down electric guitar with amplifier.

2. meeting new friends at the park

3. playing Magic at S.W. Randall

4. meeting to discuss and work on a new children’s curriculum at church

Here is what has happened spontaneously so far on our Wellness Day:

1. Me doing laundry

2. Boy picking up Geometry workbook and completing a chapter

3. Children listening to/practicing choir songs for memorization

4. Children cooperatively working on a 100 piece arctic puzzle

5. All of us harvesting and drying the herbs and marigolds from the garden.

6. Learning what to do with marigold flowers (7 things!)

7. Learning how to harvest Marigold seeds from the flower

8. Baking gluten-free bread

9. Girl squeezing watermelon juice into a shot glass and adding lemon, drinking it down happily

10. Yoga

11. Blog entry

12. Making models of atoms with marshmallows

All of these things will have happened before lunch. We woke up at 8. It’s kind of amazing that on “do nothing” days, we actually get FAR more accomplished than we might have on the days where we are trying to accomplish so much.

Well days like this used to be on our calendar, scheduled weeks in advance, no sickness required. The day would have scrawled across half of it’s page: “Do Nothing.” Yet another idea inspired by The Artist’s Way.

Time and time again I find that when we leave empty space for the air to fill our lungs, empty space for time to invade our minds and fingers, we are finally full. We can appreciate what we have, not worry about what we don’t have, and sit in radical contentedness. We find what is natural for us to do, work out our priorities, shake out our laundry lists, and putz around the house calmly doing what we love.

I find my husband to be amazing at this; he has taught me a great deal about Do Nothing Day. It used to really annoy me when I would see him perched in front of his computer screen, surfing the web or watching an episode of God-knows-what when there was work to do or kids to attend to; but now I can accept that his putzing around looks a lot different than mine, and that is okay. If he didn’t get it, he wouldn’t have energy for the amazing amount of giving he does each week. Maybe more importantly, I’ve come to accept that my putzing around often does mean doing the dishes by hand while daydreaming out the window, making beds, harvesting or weeding, folding laundry…stuff that looks an awful lot like…well, work. And that’s okay too. I can’t help it that I actually enjoy those solitary moments of quiet (everyone seems to leave me alone when I’m “working”); but if I start to feel resentful, it is time to leave the house and take a walk or grab a magazine and tea.

I am going to get back to putting the Do Nothing days on our calendar. They keep a girl honest about living and loving. Everyone needs a day to fill their cup.

Personal Goals

Goal-making around unschooling is a natural and delightful process for us. And, yes, we do it in September, right after Labor Day. Swimming days are over. Neighborhood kids are boarding buses. The weather is chillier (sometimes). Back-to-school advertisements are in every newspaper, magazine, and storefront window. Outgrown clothes are sorted and taken to Goodwill, arms and legs are measured for “new” clothes. Vegetables are harvested. Excitement is in the air. We celebrate, too.

“What do you want to learn this fall?” is the big question at our family meeting. The question is for all of us. Last year, when I said, “I want to learn to make gluten-free bakery,” it took me 3 days to start, after a year of shying away from the daunting task. By November, I was happily baking every other day. Impressive, what saying our goals aloud can do for us.

Here are my 5 year old Fire Girl’s goals for this fall. She came up with every one of them on her own:

1. Listen to a lot of fairy tales

2. Learn some rhymes and clap-games

3. Learn to read

4. Learn to jump rope

5. Sing in choir

6. Go to library

7. Take art and dance classes

8. Learn how to make fairy crowns

 

And here are my 9 year old Water Boy’s:

1. Finish chemistry curriculum

2. Finish Story of the World 1 and start 2

3. Learn more about food science (this is the third year he has made this a goal, and he is beyond what I can teach him; we had to make a list of resources this year)

4. Take robotics classes

5. Play 30 games of Magic: The Gathering with people who are really good

6. Complete requirements for Webelos year

7. Sing in choir

8. Read science fiction

9. “I wish for a steel drum and steel drum lessons.”

Every morning, we dedicate time to working toward these goals. We don’t always look at the list, but usually we end up in the direction of one or two of the goals, anyway.

The other day, getting ready to do some work, Water Boy surprised me by becoming sad and expressing anxiety that he was perhaps not “on level” with other kids his age. In reality, according to last year’s standardized testing results, he is far above (up to college) grade level in some areas, and slightly behind (up to 6 months) in others, and right on target in yet others. If you want to measure intelligence this way, there you are. We don’t measure intelligence that way, and rarely talk about standardized tests or grade levels.

Anyway, I didn’t try to squash his fears. I just asked him what he wanted to do to help relieve that anxiety. He said that he wanted more structure to his learning; he wanted me to “make sure” he was covering 4 subjects a day. We already utilize our morning hours to learn in whichever way my children choose, but he was asking for more. This is who he is- responsibility and conscientiousness are just parts of his personality. He was noticeably relieved when I told him that of course we could do that if he wanted.

Here is a brief intermission to break some things down: Water Boy has Pervasive Developmental Delays and some sensory needs. He struggles in school-like environments. His body and mind start to “crash down” when he feels overwhelmed by work, too many expectations thrown at him at once, or when he is in high-stimulus environments. When he was younger, preschool settings- even very low pressure ones- were not working for him. He was melting down frequently; yet at home, he was happy, calm and content to do hard work. He likes to put extreme focus into whatever he is thinking about, and has a hard time with the stop/go routines of school, and all the interruptions to his work. This is one major reason we homeschool.

In cyber school, Water Boy still resisted the busywork he didn’t want to do. I didn’t blame him, as the work was mundane and unchallenging. I tried to make him do it anyway, but I didn’t like who I was or who he was in those forcing scenarios. We decided we could do better without the cyber school, and we have. Since then, I have seen more and more that- given freedom and support- both my children can be in charge of their education, as evidenced by their goals above.

So, now, when Water Boy asked me to help him be more disciplined about his structure, he was in fact having a crisis. The crisis he went through at the age of 9 is one that I went through at the age of 22: am I willing to work toward my goals even when there are distractions, so I can end up with the result I want? He is choosing yes. He is also asking me to make sure that when he chooses yes, I back that up.

I am proud of him, but also have a bit of a conflict with this, because it means that “unschooling” is now, “hey remember you said you wanted me to make SURE you did this every day…please do it.” But if we see unschooling as honoring our children’s choices, this is what I am doing. If we pay attention, we will find our children are “telling us” whatever it is they need: more or less structure, less ambiguity, more choices, more attention, or whatever. We will know by their goals what they want, and by their willingness to work how badly they want it.

For a few days after this conversation, my son needed no reminders. Then, he needed a reminder. And my feelings were hurt when he sulked about it. I said, “hey you can do whatever you want. I’m just asking you to remember what you said you wanted.” He went upstairs for about 4 minutes, and then came back to finish his subject work, with no attitude or resentment. I hadn’t really expected him to come back so quickly, but then I realized that this was something I had never really experienced as a kid, this level of choice. He had remembered he was free, and responsible for his outcomes. He chose to complete his personal commitment for the day.

That was a hard day all around for me, for a variety of reasons. I ended it not feeling great about it at all. There were many things I would literally have liked to quit right then, because of a sense of overwhelm and exasperation. I was reminded however, of my son’s predicament earlier that morning. I had to ask myself, “is it worth it in the end?”  I went to my room for a bit longer than 4 minutes, and cried a lot. I resolved to not quit anything just then. The next day, I put my whole free self into the work ahead of me, and I enjoyed it immensely. It was indeed worth the frustration of the day before. I offered a prayer of thanks, that even though I may be a late bloomer in the arena of Choice and Freedom, my kids are already figuring out how to make these decisions for themselves, and follow through.

Magic Math

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This is a picture of my son. His eyes are bright. There is a half-smile on his face. He’s thinking about math. This didn’t used to happen.

I was playing a game of Magic: The Gathering with him tonight, when I started to become perturbed and pout like an angry 10 year old that he hadn’t put enough Mana in the deck I was using. (In Magic, you can build your own decks, which is a whole other lesson I may talk about in another post.) Mana are land cards you need to be able to DO ANYTHING in the game. I had pulled 2 Mana in 14 turns. I had a handful of destruction, and no means to use any of it. BRAHHH, frustration. Then, I calmed down and asked him, “how many Mana are in this deck?”

“Twenty-four,” he answered promptly. The experts suggest 25 Mana in a deck of 60. But this deck looked bigger.

“How many cards are in this deck, altogether?” I asked.

He hesitated. I counted. Seventy.

I honestly had to do the math myself to try to think of how many Mana should go into a deck of 70, if 25 go into a deck of 60. Maybe that is silly of me, but I don’t know exactly the number off the top of my head. So I showed my Water Boy how to do the math to figure out the answer.

It wasn’t easy math. There were algebraic functions, fractions, decimals and multiplication, division, subtraction…on and on the lesson seemed to go because every time I got to a new step of this (sort of) simple algebraic problem, I had to show him what I was doing and why. A lot of the work he had never seen before. He was intrigued. He did some of it for me. We ended up with the answer 28. We were 4 Mana short. He went upstairs to retrieve 4 Mana to make his pout-faced mother happy.

The game went on, and he eventually kicked my butt. As we were cleaning up, he had his own question. The card protectors are sold in packs of 50. Decks are supposed to be about 60. He said, “why don’t they just sell packs of 60 card protectors?” Then he grabbed the pencil and scratch paper and began to figure out, one step at a time, how much money a pack of 60 would cost, if a pack of 50 was $3.00. And he did it.

He asked me for reminders of the steps of short division (because there are a lot of steps!) and what to do when he got the answer of approximately $0.16 per card protector, but other than that, he did great figuring out (with no formal algebraic lesson) how to get to answer x.

All this about 10 minutes before his usual sleeping hour, and after a long day.

From now on, when people say to me, “but if you let them do what they want, wouldn’t they just play games all day?” I think I am just going to say, “yes.”

Free the People

 

 

IF WE HAVE A FOUNDATION for learning in our home, it is being awake to truth and freedom. That may sound really flaky, a little abstract, maybe, but I guarantee you it is based on the principles and philosophy of the same people who first participated in formal education.

Being awake to truth and freedom ultimately gives way to the reality of human choice. Human choice is basic in concept, but I talk to a lot of people every week who don’t believe in it. They say things like, “I have to….” or “Children have to…” or something really absurd like, “I can’t.”

We animals of habit tend to walk around acting as though our lives have been put upon us by some unseen universal force, failing to recognize that we ourselves are also a force in the universe. Action. Reaction. It’s all Choice. Once we begin to peel away the layers of societal expectations, our God of Money, and the modern mythology of what life is “supposed” to look like, we begin to understand that we get to write our own stories. Every breath is a choice.

I just read a short essay by Tienchi Martin-Liao called “Ineducable, Even in Reeducation Camp.” She writes about Wang Xiaoning, who is being released from prison after a 10 years sentence for standing up for democracy, political reform, and human rights in China. Here is a quote from her I find quite moving:

“If you break the will of the people and tread down their dignity, then they become a kind of dough that you can form as you like.

“This is the secret of the Chinese Communist Party. With this tactic they have ruined generations of intellectuals. Yet there are still enough individuals made of special material who are irrepressible. In Chinese terms, these people would be called “ineducable” even when they are thrown into the “reeducation camp” and brainwashed for years. Wang Xiaoning is this kind of person. He has refused to show any regret or admit that he committed a crime. Had he bowed to the pressure his sentence would have been reduced to three years, but Wang stayed firm and served the full ten year sentence.”

I would like very much to speak with Wang Xiaoning. I don’t imagine him coming out of prison and complaining about his lack of freedom. He continues to exercise his human freedom by speaking out for what he believes. Maybe one day he will be killed for this. I sincerely hope not. But if he dies, he will die free. More importantly, he will have lived free. Wang Xiaoning is an example of a free human, even if he stood for a decade behind prison bars.

I remember the feeling of not thinking I could homeschool. Then not thinking I could unschool, even though it made so much sense to me. It was a feeling of bondage- to society, to expectations, to the rolling of eyes and clicks of tongues.

The strange thing is, Freedom is the river we all swim in, we only have to wake up to realize we’re in it. Waking up to that river is a daily practice for me. Sometimes I have to practice it several times a day. It sounds like this: I’m free. I don’t have to get angry about this. I do not have to make this appointment. I do not have to answer my phone. I do not have to agree. I do not have to be distracted right now. I do not have to hurry my children. Or it can sound like this: I am free to write poetry no one will read, just because I want to. I am free to be late to- or cancel- this appointment. I am free to be happy and smile. I am free to say “I’m tired and need a rest.” I am free to give a hug, hold a hand, reassure someone. I am free to say what I mean.

We all get to write our own story. More than anything, this is the foundation for learning I want in my home. Allowing our children to write their own stories means that we also have faith in ourselves to write our own. It means that we first exercise Choice. To deny ourselves that is to shut ourselves up in a prison of fear and doubt, of complaining about what life has brought us, of ultimate self-pity and frustration.

Look in the mirror. Remind yourself about Choice. Free the People.