Homeschooling: ditching the routines

Someone I know recently posted on how short spring is in Canada, and how much he wants to appreciate it while it’s here. On one level, I get that. And yet, it reminded me that in my own psyche, I tend to favour the approach of the ancient Celts: there are only two seasons, winter and summer. November to May, and May to November. Not only two seasons, but two separate worlds, two ways of living, two ways of being in relation to myself and other people and the world. My lowest energy point always comes before the winter solstice, and the highest comes before the summer solstice. Midwinter and midsummer, as they were once sensibly called.

When our calendar says winter, my soul is already priming for the upswing of spring. On the longest day of the year, I start to see the bittersweet end of summer on the horizon.

Sometimes I resent the dark days, but I need those two parts of myself, and those two seasons, and those edges in between.

And so now, in the land of summer, we have been living a different life than we did a few months ago. Homeschooling makes this obvious. In winter, there is restlessness and not quite enough structure; the days are too short; going out takes a lot of energy, staying in is draining in its own way; socializing happens in crowded urban houses or in bursts of cold active outdoor time; everything seems to take a lot of effort. There are long dark evenings to fill.

Something switches in May. And this year, after trying to impose structure all through the fall and winter, I knew when it was time to throw it away. It started on our trip to England, after which I had two weeks of fighting with my kids about going back to this year’s homeschooling routines. Sometimes I make myself do things that don’t work for a while to prove to myself that they’re not working. School-at-home, even in a modified form, does not work for us. I see people for whom it does work. I’m realizing that I’m probably not going to be one of them.

So instead, we’re back to living on faith: that needing to communicate and co-exist with other humans; having books lying around every surface of our house; having regular access to great museums and art galleries and libraries; and most of all, having the whole REAL LIVING WORLD to explore is enough. Learning happens because humans are primed to learn, because they are curious and engaged and passionate, because they want to master things that they’re excited about or that they want to apply in real life. And even more so when there are supportive people, supportive mentors around – parents and others – to give a push when needed, but also to go along for the ride.

Which doesn’t mean we’ll throw our workbooks away forever. Maybe next fall the time will be right again for that kind of focus. Structured learning is a tool we can use again. Heck, actual school is always a potential option. But for the past two months we have been exploring the city; we have been camping with friends; we have been climbing trees and wading in rivers; we have been reading good books both together and separately; we have been designing games; we have been copying out favourite poems; we have been experimenting with culinary and art projects. And now we are looking forward to the full immersion of a couple of summer day camps.

As a homeschooling parent, or a parent in general, or simply as a person, I need to keep reminding myself to play to my strengths: curiosity and insatiable love of learning, openness to possibilities, creativity, good judgment, attunement to my kids’ needs, a certain kind of patience.

Yes, we also need to push against type, stretch our boundaries, challenge ourselves to do things that are hard. But equally, we need be ruthless about letting go of things that aren’t working, or aren’t working right now.

As I child I took piano lessons for many years. Three decades later, I guess I’m glad I did. But certainly, when I was allowed to quit, I happily quit. I didn’t regret not pushing myself to keep doing something I wasn’t at all passionate about at the time. Maybe if music had been taught in a way that inspired my creativity and enthusiasm. Maybe. And it’s not impossible that I’ll return to it some day. But right now I have no regrets.

When my children want try something new, something that I need to pay for – or when I convince them to – I generally require that they finish the initial commitment: the week of camp, one season of a class or program. This is usually enough to get through the hard parts. Sometimes after telling me that they never want to do it again, by the end they are begging to sign up again next season, or next year. Other times, they have no interest in going back, and I am learning to accept that. My role is to know when to coax them through the setbacks and when to let things go.

This also goes for relationships with other humans. We are all learning these lessons together.

There are a few things I regret not following through on in earlier years, but now I see that I will I pick them back up again when I’m ready. I will never be a specialist: there are too many things that I love, following every skill and subject that intrigues me being one of them. So I model learning to my children; I model curiosity; I model engagement.

I once read a long article about teachers working in the most challenging schools. The point that stuck with me from that piece is that the best teachers keep changing their strategy. They keep trying new things. They are ruthless about changing what doesn’t work. When I feel like I am a dilettante who can’t stick to any plan for long, I try to keep that in mind.

Trust versus fear. There is a lot of trust involved in homeschooling, or in raising kids under any circumstances. There are a lot of cultural messages telling me that I should choose fear instead, that whatever I do, my kids won’t be enough, won’t know enough, won’t be competitive, won’t be prepared. But I am going to trust: trust my intuition and my judgment, my children’s enthusiasm and their limits. Trust that they will find their way in the world when it is time.

Lachlan in Rouge river

Grieving the things we expected but didn’t receive: building and rebuilding the village

I love leaving and returning. I can see why people develop a habit of it, or of moving from place to place and floating on the emotional highs of goodbyes and hellos. Staying in place is hard work. In the past, even when I stayed in place, life was divided into periods of time that seldom overlapped. Now I can imagine all of my relationships stretching back into the past and forward into the future, ebbing and flowing, moving in cycles. It is a very different experience, the bird’s eye view of life – the lines moving away and back again, crisscrossing, narrowing, widening, crossing rivers and mountains and dark valleys, then returning. And me, tracing those paths over and over again, trying to understand where I belong.

We recently returned from a trip to England. I say I love returning, but on some level I didn’t want to return. After any amount of time where I have other adults around all day (or even one other adult, my husband, who often manages to make himself count as several people), I feel how impossible daily community feels in the culture I live in. I am permanently wavering between two extremes: what I am doing now, which is sometimes spending a lot of hours alone with two children (especially in the colder months); and the other alternative, which is putting the children into an age segregated group of thirty kids and one adult for many hours of each day, with all of the implications and expectations of that system.

I will keep choosing the first option, because I can’t currently reconcile myself to the second, but I am learning that homeschooling will always be a work in progress for us: building, deconstructing, and rebuilding; ebb and flow; love and fear; one foot in, one foot out; periods of connection, inspiration and flow and periods of confusion.

Shortly after we came back from England, I read Francis Weller’s The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief. He talks about five gates of grief, five ways of entering the sacred spaces that grief moves us through: grief at losing someone we love (generally the only grief acknowledged, even if inadequately, in our culture); sorrow for the world; ancestral grief; grief at the parts of ourselves that weren’t loved; and grief at the things we expected but didn’t receive. There is a lot to look at in each of them, but at this moment in my life, it was the last one that hit me hard.

The things we expected and didn’t receive, the things that are somewhere encoded deep in our genes and psyche as our birthright, are the elements of a village in its most ancient, most holistic sense: many hands to share the work; many arms to hold our children, to hold us; a deeply-rooted, unshakeable sense of belonging and trust; our gifts sought out, named, and celebrated; our passages honoured, from birth to death.

Our parents expected these things, and likely didn’t get them, and our grandparents too, and a long way back.

And I see how impossible it feels – despite knowing that I want these things for my children too – to provide them, because our community is never going to be intact and whole like a village; it will always be scattered, fragmented, compartmentalized, shifting; separated by distances, conflicting responsibilities and conflicting narratives. It will always be composed of people who also weren’t nurtured in the villages they expected, who – despite their best efforts – are also wounded, wary, unsure of where and how they belong, who are pulled by competing priorities and needs and the overwhelming daily demands of “making a living”.

It may seem strange to say that grief is a beautiful relief when contemplating what always seems to be out of reach. And this is a hard thing to articulate clearly, because at the same time that I speak of grief, I am also aware and grateful of how much richer and more honest and more passionate and more numerous the relationships that I am woven into now are then they have ever been in my life. And yet, as they become richer, it is like a doorway is opened to these deeply-hidden, deeply-encoded expectations, buried for so long, and they burst out with insatiable demands, impatiently wanting to be fed, howling out because they’ve had to wait for so long, wanting to live everything to the fullest now.

Or maybe I’ve reached a point in my life where a sense of urgency sometimes overwhelms me. And so gratitude and grief are entwined again, as they so often are: acknowledging both the beauty and the brevity of life; recognizing with tenderness that people are doing the best they can, that I am doing the best I can, that I need to be patient, that I can only take responsibility for myself.

Patience, my love, patience, I whisper to myself.

Grief is an antidote to cynicism and blame and disengagement. It is a necessary, ongoing ritual of clearing, of making space for reweaving the threads, of keeping my heart open to whatever comes next, of celebrating what is here.

When I said that I didn’t want to return, it is also because it seemed for a moment that it would be easier to be the one leaving than one of the people staying behind and trying to keep holding things together. Easier than committing long-term to creating community where I am. Easier than trying to understand what my role is, what I am meant to give. Easier than staying present and open to relationships that sometimes confuse me and sometimes break my heart. Easier than showing up and engaging.

Easier for a little while anyway. But if there is ever a time in my life for building, this is it. And so I return and re-engage. Passionately re-engage.

I meditate on an interview I recently read with Martin Prechtel, where he refers to the Mayan spiritual tradition of making  things (“our houses, our language, our relationships”) fragile enough that the need for constant repair and rebuilding creates an urgent condition for community to keep renewing itself:

It’s a fine balance, making something that is not so flimsy that it falls apart too soon, yet not so solid that it is permanent. It requires a sort of grace. We all want to make something that’s going to live beyond us, but that thing shouldn’t be a house, or some other physical object. It should be a village that can continue to maintain itself. That sort of constant renewal is the only permanence we should wish to attain.

Connection, disconnection, renewal; building, disintegration, rebuilding: it is taking things apart and putting them back together that makes us strong.

Since we’ve returned, I’ve found myself in tension with all the good habits I had been trying to create in the past year – around homeschooling, around writing on this blog, about making art – but this has also been a relief. Maybe that was what I needed in the fall and winter, to create structure as a way to anchor the introspection and drifting away that I feel in the colder months, as a way to anchor the restlessness that I felt last summer.

But structure and I have always been had an uneasy relationship. And now, as I start to slip already into my summer self, structure again feels oppressive, and I need most of all to get out of the house, be with people, spend hours of each day outdoors, celebrate and grieve, take off for small adventures, follow my children’s lead, follow my heart.

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March is time for roaming

March is the month in which I was born, and March is always the month when I feel I am fully coming back to life after the darkness and inwardness of winter. It is an ongoing puzzle to me how much my perception of the world changes with the seasons, although I am learning to accept these shifts, if not always to embrace them.

And perhaps  there were things that were troubling me over the fall and winter that have lifted away or dissolved or eased, or that I have finally accepted and absorbed into myself. It was a winter of sinking deep down and peeling some layers away; consciously questioning and tearing up a few old beliefs about myself and the world; and engaging in some “radical self care” – as I’ve recently heard it called – which is quite a powerful thing when it involves treating oneself with tenderness at both the body and the soul level.

Now I feel a buzzing and humming and unfolding of limbs as the days get longer and the birds sing all the old love songs made new again. I feel a surge of energy and excitement about new possibilities and connections and creativity. I feel a new electricity in my body and heart.

Oh, it is almost truly spring! And before the spring-time fully sweeps us up in its magic, we are off on a small family adventure.

When we had two incomes and no kids, my husband and I used to travel somewhere together every year. Since we transitioned to one income and two kids, I have been immersing myself in nurturing a deeper connection to the place we live in, and we have mostly stayed close to home. A trip to Poland, my birthplace, two years ago was organized and financed by my parents. But now, finally, we have felt a surge of inspiration, saved up a bit of cash, and are heading overseas again for a holiday.

There are many places in the world to go, and yet we keep going to Europe. My husband and I were both born there, and those roots keep pulling us back. So this time we are heading to England for a few weeks, earlier in the spring than we had originally planned because of the availability of some free accommodation in London until the Easter weekend – and how could we pass that up?

We are heading into a holiday of “patchy rain” and “fleeting showers,” as described in a recent London forecast, in the vaguely poetic English way of distinguishing all the constant – but slightly different – ways water can fall from the sky. A holiday of daytime temperatures hovering around 10°C. A holiday of rubber boots and raincoats, wool sweaters, and windy walks along the coast.

But that is as we like it, both having a taste for a slightly rugged climate. I’m excited to be in the bustle of London again, to glut myself on museums and art and history and theatre. I’m excited to roam around Devon by foot and car, looking for links to my husband’s family history, tracking down stories and myths, staying open to unexpected discoveries. I’m excited to look for hedgehogs, and badgers, and red deer, and those urbane London foxes I keep hearing about. I’m excited to stay within the same cycle of seasons, but get a little jump start on spring. I’m excited to wander around on moors, climb on cliffs, sit in a cottage by a wood stove in an unfamiliar countryside, and be inspired for a little while by all the big and small differences of being away from home.

After a slightly wild and anxious week of kids who were healthy all winter coming down with flu, we are all recovered (I sincerely hope), packed, and heading off to the airport early tomorrow morning!

 

 

 

Homeschooling: attempting to answer the “why” question

I have been homeschooling my kids for almost five years now. Someone asked me the other week why we’re homeschooling. “Because I’m too lazy to rush them to school every morning,” was my first, flippant response.

Of course, that’s not really it, especially now that they could walk to more than one local school on their own. But answering the question feels like diving into the cold water to take a look at the hugeness of the iceberg beneath the tip. Or like pulling on the end of string, and finding myself unraveling the whole garment of my life story. Or like a vague joke I remember from high school about the causes of the French Revolution, which requires moving backwards somewhere to the beginnings of time to find the starts of threads that later come together to create a historical event.

Why does anyone do anything? It’s always much more complicated than it seems. And so to tell a story, even to oneself, requires many false starts and mis-directions, and perhaps, even when the plot seems to come together, the conclusion will be false, because aren’t we all somewhat unreliable narrators when it comes to the motives that direct our lives?

School was a big deal in my family of origin. And so there is the story before the story, the prologue, which is the story of my grandparents, who were more-or-less subsistence farmers on one side, and a butcher and shop clerk on the other side. But my father’s family valued education: his mother had finished high school and so was qualified to be the village school-teacher, and his father made it most of the way through, and liked to recite Polish epic poetry as he baled hay in the fields. It is easy for me to romanticize their lives, and so I do, and yet they lived through world wars and through the absurdity and deprivations of Communist Poland; they raised five children in tight quarters without plumbing or running water; and there is no real way for me to step inside their shoes. But they had access to a largely free education system, and they wanted their children’s lives to be materially easier than their own, and so all of their children left home and completed some form of post-secondary education. And had the distinction of being the first people in their village to do so.

And so I fast-forward to my parents, who, through a window of coincidences that opened for a brief moment, made a sudden and spontaneous decision to take a job opportunity in far-off Canada, and then a more-drawn out decision to leave their families and histories behind and stay. There are things that often come with being an immigrant or a child of immigrants, without the safety net of extended family and social ties, and one of those things is a determined focus on education. Education and frugality and hard work.

School was always the most important thing when I was growing up. Not in a high pressure way, simply as an unshakeable baseline expectation. It was assumed that we would do well in school and we all did, although I had my moments of rebellion. But there was a clear script laid out for me that didn’t leave a lot of room for exploration or mistakes. And so after many years of preschool, school, university, graduate school and full-time work – and a growing dissatisfaction with the lack of creativity of my day-to-day life – having kids opened up some kind of release valve for me. Suddenly, I could see that all the things that seemed mandatory were in fact optional. I could step out of the boxes.

I am still reveling in – gleefully celebrating – being outside of the institutions that so fully shaped most of the first thirty years of my life.

But perhaps that had nothing to do with it. Perhaps I would have done exactly the same things with a completely different history behind me. Many people do. Maybe homeschooling simply suits my personality.

When it was time for my older son to go to school, we sent him to a local alternative school within walking distance of our house. I would hang out somewhere in the neighbourhood with his younger brother, who was then a toddler, waiting to pick him up at the end of the half day. At the end of the first week of kindergarten he asked “How long do I have to do this?”, and I couldn’t at the time bring myself to say “Probably at least another 14 years,” so I answered “Until June.”

And, it was okay. It wasn’t a terrible experience. But each day for the next two years he asked me, in his rational way, “Why do I have to go there every day?” and none of my answers ever satisfied him or myself. The whole school thing began to feel a bit surreal. And when it was time to start first grade, I imagined all the interesting real-world things I would be up to with his younger brother while he hung out in the same room all day, and at the end of August we decided not to go back.

It was an easy choice in some ways because we already knew so many people in the city who homeschooled who we could immediately slip into some form of community with. I had been drawn to the idea for a long time, and had done some reading and was already convinced it was a pretty awesome educational option. I didn’t really know where I was heading career-wise, having quit my job after two years of leave, and having no desire to go back to anything similar. And my husband had found work that he was committed to and that could financially sustain us.

Also, somewhat ironically, my graduate degree in adult education had convinced me – if I wasn’t convinced already – that the best learning is self-directed and self-motivated, based on passions and life experiences, and completely possible outside of formal educational structures. And possibly my many years of learning had made me very aware of how much of learning comes from within.

And so now we are in our fifth year of homeschooling. My younger son has never been to school.

Homeschooling has meant time to really get to know how my kids learn, what they are passionate about, and what their challenges are. It has meant time to work out conflicts slowly and with patience, sitting and talking in circles, asking each person what they need to feel better and how they could approach the situation differently next time. It has meant finding a balance that suits us between keeping up with the basics and doing whatever we are excited about. It has meant going tobogganing when the snow is fresh, snuggling at home reading in the rain, spending hours outside with friends in the spring and fall. It has meant much time spent outside the city, visiting my parents, camping with friends, going on field trips, travelling. It has meant that the kids get to spend one afternoon a week with their grandparents; it has meant that they are also very close with each other, and with me. It has meant that I have been able to go away for many weekends for my own learning and adventures and not worry about losing out on time with my kids. It has given us a huge amount of flexibility and freedom.

It has also meant being out of step with most of the culture around us. It has meant going against everything that I was taught about the importance of formal education. It has meant trying to find non-teacher mentors and non-classroom social opportunities for my kids out in the world. It has meant trying to figure out how to keep up my motivation about guiding my kids through things that are hard for them. Because while I love to facilitate, discuss, explore, and question, I have a decided aversion to transmitting information and a loathing for artificial “learning activities.”

Homeschooling has looked like fighting with myself each day to try to create the bones of daily and weekly structures that will hold us up and also reflect our own values. It has looked like questioning all of my preconceptions about what productivity and success look like, for myself and for my kids. It has looked like squeezing all my own activities and projects into small bits of time. It has looked like me sometimes feeling lonely, disconnected, not fully a grown-up. It has looked like weeks where I desperately miss having adult colleagues to talk to every day, to solve problems with, to collaborate with, to validate the reality of my existence. It has looked like moments of wondering whether we are doing the right thing. It has meant being open to the possibility of changing our minds.

It has meant imagining the world as we would like it to be, while keeping a foot in the world as it is now.

It has been very much about taking the long view. And having the perspective to recognize that none of us really know what the hell we’re doing.

People make choices based on their own experiences and needs, and based on how much access to choice they have at all. A lot of unrelated things fell in line for us – personally, financially, socially – to be able to make the choice to homeschool and to want to make it at the moment that we did. And the foundation of all of that earlier stability certainly helped.

In everything we do, even when we have chosen it, there are parts that are hard. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. You follow your instincts, do your research, and then jump. You keep checking in regularly to make sure you are still satisfied with where you are. You go through moments of doubt and moments of certainty. You keep your eyes open as new possibilities emerge. You don’t argue with anyone else about whether what you are doing is better or worse than what they are doing. You steer your own ship and let them steer theirs. That’s the best any of us can do.

Six intentions for 2016

This is a time for setting and sharing intentions for the year, and I’ve got some that have been brewing that I want to put down in writing. Not for the sake of strictly adhering to them, but so I can look back a year from now with curiosity about where my path has led: my inner path as much, if not more, than my outer path.

Intentions are in no way resolutions; they are not even goals that are measurable, or timely, or particularly specific. I think of them as shifts in perspective, in attention, that allow us a frame of reference to steer ourselves towards. Or simply to keep with us in the back of our minds as we follow the current of life.

I think it is something like I learned when I was taking driving lessons more than two decades ago: “Eyes before wheels.” Whether you plan it or not, the direction that your attention is set is the direction that your body will steer towards, the direction that your vehicle will move into.

Intentions are so much the opposite of the kinds of goals we are normally told to make, but I love them. They fit me much better. They help me ask the intimate and big-picture questions: what do I want my life to look like? How do I want to feel within this life? What do I want to spend my time doing each day to feel this way as much as I can? I’m not interested in this context in imposing end results on my intentions, or in stating concrete goals out loud – instead, I want to focus on the processes I need to put in place in my daily life to feel grounded, engaged, and connected.

This year, I want to make more internal commitments, fewer external ones. And set up loose agreements with core anchoring people, who can help keep me accountable to those commitments. Not only because I need a bit of outside help to keep me accountable, but also because of my ongoing tension between introversion and extroversion. Between needing a lot of time within my own inner world, and also regular opportunities for processing and dialogue and collaboration and voicing.

I commit to continuing to work on creating good daily and weekly habits for myself and my family, better internal structures and rhythms that eliminate time wasted and small daily decisions, so that there is more room for creativity and freedom within the time that is open.

I commit to refocusing more of my attention this year to tending my home: de-cluttering, reconfiguring, repainting, tending the garden. I like homes to be very personal – fully of books, pictures, projects. And as a family that homeschools and does many daily hands-on things in a small space, minimalism is not even a goal. But my attention has been on so many external things the past few years, and I have spend so many weekends away from home, that I have much less of a handle on the objects and spaces within my home than I would like to. My children are older; we have been homeschooling for a few years now; we have different goals for the spaces in our house than we once did; and our house is feeling small. This is a big project that will take many hours of sorting and many months to reach any sort of completion.

I commit to making more space in my life for creativity. For writing and art and making beautiful things, for producing instead of consuming. For all of those things that so much defined who I was as a child that didn’t always make the cut as I navigated becoming an adult and then becoming a parent. This year, I want to choose creative practice over external commitments, both alone and with my family, and integrate these into other areas of my life. I want to inspire my family to do the same. As my kids get older, it is easier and easier to integrate my own projects into our weekly homeschooling rhythms.

I commit myself to regular movement, the kind of movement I need to nourish my body and bring my soul into presence. In recent months, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to grounding myself, and have been recognizing how much that entails living fully in my body and bringing every physical and emotional sensation back to my body. Really deeply listening to what it tells me. Scanning where things are stuck and where they are hurting, and bringing love and compassion to those places, so that I can move out into the world with more ease.

And so, I want more room for movement that is intentional, disciplined and strong; but also movement that is celebratory, playful and sensuous. Not movement that feels like pushing (although cycling and walking will never drop off the radar!), but movement that feels like listening. In practical terms this means more yoga and more dancing. And specifically, right now it means Iyengar yoga, which with all of its props and meticulousness drove me crazy when I was engaged in a more vigorous yoga practice in my twenties, but now is exactly what my body needs. And it means any dancing that is ecstatic and unstructured enough to allow full self-expression. Two completely different manifestations of the need for deep listening to my body, and for the embodied practice that comes out of it.

I commit to honouring and celebrating more fully the relationships with the women in my life. Those reciprocal relationships that sustain me, that allow me both to cry and to comfort, that allow me to be fully honest about my shadows and processes, that are both gentle and powerful, that inspire and nurture me and hold me accountable. I want to integrate my love of feminine archetypes with feminist action. And again that means listening to inner knowledge and inner authority and being truthful about my needs and boundaries. It means speaking when it is time to speak and acting when it is time to act, but also waiting when it is time to wait.

I commit to more nature time alone and with my family and friends. This means fewer structured programs, and more personal application of skills and knowledge learned over the past few years. I want more family adventures, more family exploration, more family trips; more spontaneous camping and evenings around fires with my dearest friends; more long walks with my husband whenever and wherever we can manage it. I want more solo time in the wild, both days and overnights. This all means being creative on a limited budget; and celebrating the resources of flexibility and freedom that we have instead.

Yesterday, I convinced my husband to hang out all afternoon cutting up magazines and making vision board-type collages. I was curious about what would come out of it. I approached mine in an intuitive way, choosing images and words that spoke to what I want to focus my energy on right now. It will remind me of things I want to keep my eyes and heart on this year. I also love the one my husband made, and I am curious to see how he recalibrates his life to keep this vision in mind.

It’s time to fully integrate the things I’ve learned over the past half-decade of my life. Time to bring them home. Time to celebrate where I am right now.

I want the calligraphied quote – another by Thich Nhat Hanh – which I stuck prominently in my collage, to remind me of this every day: “I have arrived. I am home.”

 

Wandering

I’m doing it again: losing track of time. It’s been a month since I posted, despite my more-than-daily writing for myself, despite waking up and writing first thing every morning, despite never going anywhere without a notebook. I am in awe of people who share their writing regularly, weekly, daily, but I don’t think that is where I’m heading.

There is an ever-shifting balance that I am noting in my life between being accountable and being accepting of my own patterns and needs. Between setting goals and moving towards them, and living fully in the sensory and emotional experiences of my daily life. Between recognizing the truth that showing up and doing the work is what creates the road to move forward on, and constantly being tempted to go off-trail and explore the woods all around and simply forgetting about the road altogether in the joy of wandering.

This fall there was a lot of (figurative) wandering. I finished up a second-year plants apprenticeship with Earth Tracks  – the fourth year in which I have been learning and working with this organization – and spent a weekend wrapping up by making salves, balms, tinctures, teas and other goodies with our group. I made some beautiful snowshoe moccasins in a weekend workshop with Lure of the North, which I am planning to use on future winter tracking adventures. I participated in a peacemaking workshop in Peterborough with some amazing people, and absorbed tools and stories which I am using in my family and community. I did some bird drawing classes with Alan Li and remembered once again how drawing something is such a beautiful form of close attention. I knit myself another sweater, a red one.

I cleared as much space as I could to simply be and to delve into some inner patterns and habits. I spent lots of time alone. I read and wrote and walked. I had many hours of conversation with friends, around fires, in cars, on the phone, on walks, drinking tea, drinking wine.

I made a personal altar in my home as a space for grounding and meditation. I claimed a work area, a “room of my own”, and piled it high with my books and notebooks and pictures, my sewing machine, my yarns and fabrics, my sketchbooks: the essentials. Then I started clearing away the clutter, editing the rest of my house and my life.

(But not excessively, because my life is full of small beautiful things that I love, both tangible and intangible.)

Most of all, I stayed present in my daily life. The kids and I spent way more time actually at home than we have in the past few years of homeschooling, more time sitting at the dining room table doing focused work – writing, math – more time drawing and making art, more time working on random projects, more time writing letters and drawing pictures to send to friends, more time having those enlightening and entertaining conversations one has with kids. Also more time walking and biking around our urban neighbourhood.

Our rhythms are slow, and right now everyone seems the happier for it.  I’m aiming for a quiet winter, a pause, time for integration.

Last spring I broke down at a weekend gathering about “all the things I need to work on.” Looking back, I see that the thing I most needed to work on was letting go of that critical voice that told me I was never doing enough, that there was always an external standard that I was failing to meet. And by extension, that other people often weren’t meeting this standard either. I’m seeing the truth that the more patience and compassion I have for myself, the more I have for others.

Since the summer I’ve started to get up early to journal and write down my dreams. It’s the first morning practice ever that I’ve held fast to and know that I will continue. Yoga, meditation, exercise, morning walks – none of those things can consistently drag me out of bed before my family on a cold winter morning. Writing can. Because it feels like a gift; because it feels like play; because it feels like my soul is being listened to in the most beautiful way; because it feels like how I want to spend every morning of my life. That’s what matters.

The spell of loneliness

Recently, I have needed to pause a little, to pare things down. In part that is the archetypal energy of the fall: after the abundance of the harvest comes the shedding of what we don’t need. But more so, I am realizing that although I have been in a long transition for the past ten years, I have never given myself the time to just be in transition, without goals or expectations, or internal pressure to prove my productivity and worth. And so I find myself right now in a process that is intense and sometimes scary, to simply allow myself be in that space of waiting and uncertainty, to deliberately make room for it: I say no, I turn off my phone, I ignore all of the things I have promised to other people, and I simply listen and watch, reflect and wait. I honour a commitment to myself.

But sometimes, when I take this time in the periphery of other people’s productive lives, I feel a dark cloud of loneliness descending over me. Sometimes it creeps in slowly; sometimes it descends rapidly and takes me fully by surprise. My internal weather system is tumultuous and unpredictable in these moments.

I have been thinking of something I read a while ago about emotions. How one emotion often triggers another, and how as we map them, we can see that our entire world-view can shift when we are in the midst of a particular feeling: “that when we’re sad, for example, it’s hard to remember that the world itself hasn’t become a sad place, even though that’s exactly what it feels like.”

I have been mapping the clouds of emotion in myself, and I am learning that sometimes when I choose to be alone – particularly when I choose to be alone among other people – dark feelings begin to creep in through the associations my brain and heart and body have with that experience. I can feel everything around me turning to shadow, and if I restrain the urge to numb or fix it, I have to pass through that shadow to get to where my true self waits.

And I feel myself separate into two parts in those moments, one that is overcome with intense loneliness and disconnection, and the other part that is aware that I am in the middle of a storm, and that I need to hold on tight until it passes.

A dark cloud descended on me the other day. Several hours intentionally alone in the woods, a disconnecting communication with a friend, my mind and heart holding on to another interaction that I couldn’t seem to unravel, and the darkness started to fall. And as it crept upon me – and I was aware of it creeping – I could feel a cloud of disconnection and mistrust threatening to spread. The darkness infected me; it reframed everything; it distorted my thoughts and my perceptions of the human connections in my life.

The watcher part of myself, which I have worked hard to nurture over the years, tried to keep the cloud at bay, to keep space around myself where it couldn’t get in, to know with my rational mind that I couldn’t trust what I was feeling.

Several hours later, as the internal storm continued to rage, I found myself at home reading aloud a book to my younger son, a novel in the fantasy tradition where good and evil are in battle. I read of a young boy – not yet aware of his supernatural powers – who is left alone in a small mountain cabin, waiting for a friend to return with a magical item that will help ward off the Dark that is all around them in that place. He is warned that the spot he is waiting in is a stronghold of the Dark, and that he will need to fight off that evil until help comes.

And the attack, when it happens, takes no physical form. It takes the form of thoughts, cast into his mind, that threaten to turn him against those he loves. Thoughts that are suspicious, cynical, mistrusting, guided by fear. And in his mind he fights back, holding on to his reason and the truth he knows of love.

It felt strikingly familiar.

Disconnection, in that moment, was like a spell that had been cast upon me, like a test that had been waiting for me on my journey. And all I could to do was stand fast and ward it off.

A couple of hours later, I had succeeded in pushing the darkness aside. Or perhaps the storm had just taken its course, and I had weathered it. I was in peace. I hadn’t said anything hurtful to anyone, or even to myself. My internal relationships were intact. I had come back to myself and come back to trust.

When it’s over, I can hardly remember what the storm felt like.

I remind myself that the shadow moments are an integral part of my life. If I choose calm presence and steady rhythms, loneliness is one of the specters that comes to haunt. The shadows are a consequence of the choices that I have made; an occupational hazard of moving parts of my life outside of the mainstream structures that I grew up expecting to mold myself to. They are the side-effect of a web of relationships that are not geographically bound. They are my grief at not living in a village with all those I love.

They are my payment for swimming in Georgian Bay on a Friday in September, for last-minute camping with friends mid-week in October, for all the rainy mornings spent curled up on the couch reading with my kids instead of rushing to be somewhere else.

They are the shadow side of the freedom I have carved out to choose what to do with my own time; the shadow side of following internal rather than external rhythms and motivations. They are the shadow that emerges when I clear away busyness and aspiration and look at what is underneath, when I ask “what do I – what do we – really need in this moment?”

They are also the residue of having judged myself so long through accomplishment, through doing instead of being. Judged my life through the cultural belief in scarcity that so quickly bring me –bring all of us – to ask “what is missing?” instead of “what can I celebrate?”

And they are a reminder of what I once learned from Joanna Macy: “Everybody’s lonely.” Whatever form it takes, however we learn to handle it, whether it’s in solitude or in a crowd, loneliness will come. And we need to remember that loneliness isn’t real. It’s an illusion, a shadow, a spell.