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.

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.