Midlife, fairy tales, and the mentoring of books

I’ve taken a long hiatus from this blog again, and why? I’m not any busier than I have been since I started writing here. In truth, I am probably less busy. Perhaps I feel less able or simply less willing to juggle many balls at once, albeit many of them having been visible only to myself. I think that overall this is a good thing. In recent months I find myself consistently and unexpectedly getting eight hours of sleep every night. I find myself delighting in my own company. I even find myself saying no to many things that could bring me joy, because once there are too many things piled upon each other, the joy slips away.

The word that has been sitting with me recently is discernment. Discernment is often challenging for an enthusiast. Everything that approaches me seems equally exciting, equally possible, equally worthy of my attention. But if I spend my life responding to external invitations, however enticing, when do I sit still and listen for the quiet inner voice, the whisper of intuition, my internal truth?

Recently, I find myself asking these questions of everything that asks to find its way into my life: Is this necessary? Does this feed me? Is this truly using my gifts? Is this the best way to be of service? Is it wise to say yes to this? What do I need to give up in order to make this possible?

Because there is always something that I will need to give up.

I read recently that midlife starts when one begins counting down until the end of life instead of counting up from the beginning. The parts of life that seemed impossibly far away and perhaps not very interesting when I was in my twenties and thirties now loom huge and close and fascinating. Age has become more interesting than youth.

And it feels like time to worry much less about what to do and much more about who to be.

As I look towards the elders in my life for maps of the route ahead, I’m also recognizing how much I am soaking up the mentoring I find in books. Reading has often been a baseline for me, sometimes it’s been an escape, often it’s been an anchor, and sometimes it’s been pushed to the side for more active pursuits. But now I find myself reading voraciously again, in a way that feels like deep nourishment for my soul. I am ravenously hungry for wisdom.

A couple of years ago, I felt a bit unhinged. I found myself facing parts of myself that had long been lonely, self-critical, armoured, afraid. It was time to face them. I spilled a lot to a few people, spent a lot of time writing, re-established some good grounding and creative practices, learned to be much kinder to myself. But for some time I also found myself grabbing hold of certain books and carrying them around with me, feeling reassured by their physical presence, by what felt like the voices and stories of people wiser and kinder than myself reaching out to hold me.

That year, I spent a lot of time with Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance, Sue Monk Kidd’s Dance of the Dissident Daughter, Francis Weller’s The Wild Edge of Sorrow, David Whyte’s Consolations, anything by Brené Brown and Pema Chödrön.

After that I read everything I could find by Martin Shaw, Stephen Jenkinson’s Die Wise, Sharon Blackie’s If Women Rose Rooted, and finally and slowly – after looking at its thick spine sitting on my desk for several years – Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ Women Who Run With the Wolves. I’m still working on that one.

In the midst of these – along with much poetry and some fiction – I’ve read many other books: on writing, art, love, community, spirituality, psychology, mythology. But only some of them stay with me as elders and mentors.

Right now, inspired by the Clarissa Pinkola Estés and by an online course with Sharon Blackie, The Mythic Imagination, I’m reading a lot of fairy tales and folk tales. I love this deceptively simple form, the richness of it, the symbolic motifs, the universal questions. It brings out the scholar in me, the long-ago English student, taking delight in finding patterns in puzzling places.

Looking to folk tales for mentoring, I’ve come across two books by Allen B. Chinen, one of stories for midlife, one for elderhood. It is both unsettling and reassuring to find that everything that has preoccupied me in recent years is a developmental stage of this moment of my life. I may have known this in theory, but reading the same themes repeated again and again in folk tales from around the world brings it into my heart: I am a small piece of the puzzle, an ordinary human with ordinary human problems, “a small detail on the landscape” as I heard someone recently say, a phrase that I continue to find oddly reassuring.

Henry Miller wrote: “You observe your children or your children’s children, making the same absurd mistakes, heart-rending mistakes often, which you made at their age. And there is nothing you can say or do to prevent it. It’s by observing the young, indeed, that you eventually understand the sort of idiot you yourself were once upon a time — and perhaps still are.” I can see where I would like get to as a human, but I can’t get there any faster than my human capacity will allow.

Now, at midlife I have one foot in the ambition of youth and one in the generosity of the elder, stuck between expecting always to be rescued by magic and knowing enough to rely on my own practical wisdom, caught in between believing that the treasure and the prince are always mine to win and learning that, eventually, everything precious is meant to be given away.

desk june 2017

Building ships into the future, or thinking like a tree

Last week, I read this line in a New Yorker essay by Alan Burdick, maybe one of the most beautiful and accurate images of parenting I have come across: “As I grew into the role of a parent, I sometimes felt as if I were taking apart a ship and using the planks to build a ship for someone else. I was building a ship across time, out of my time”.

I’ve been thinking about how much I’ve taken myself apart in my eleven years as a parent. Certainly other things could have triggered that in my life, will continue to trigger it. I think in a healthy culture we would all take ourselves apart, consciously and carefully, or sometimes wildly and impetuously, to build those ships to the future. The ships I feel my planks building are not only my children, not only for my children. But it reassured me in some way, to know that the deconstruction of self I’ve felt over the past ten years, my questions of “What am I doing? What is it for?” might have this answer: I’m taking myself apart to build ships to the future. It’s as it should be. It means I can’t give up on the world, no matter how chaotic and scary it seems.

Earlier this week I went out of town for a few days to visit a dear friend in the country. She and her family have recently moved into a house that they are renting from another friend. The owner grew up in it and lived there for many decades and has now moved into a smaller cottage on the same property. Outside the back door are a more than a hundred acres of woods and trails, with a clean, beautiful creek winding through and mature forests of mixed hardwood and conifers – beech, maple, birch, hemlock, pine.

On the second morning of our visit, I went snowshoeing with my friend and her partner, leaving the kids together at home for a bit. The previous day, as we had driven up, my kids and I had listened to the seventh CD (the North-West shield) of the Seeing Through Native Eyes series. In it Jon Young talks about that moment of finding a spring in the forest and knowing through it that some time in the past someone had loved you, because of this spring that had been tended and kept healthy for the future.

And as my friends and I tromped along through the woods on our snowshoes that morning, we came across a little flowing stream, and above it hung a hand-painted sign: “The Well Spring.” On a branch hung a little plastic cup. There it was: a coincidence, a sign. A sign that someone in the past had loved us, had loved me! My friend bent down and drew some water in the cup for us, and we passed it around, drinking in its icy cleanness, feeling in some way blessed.

The next day my friend and I went for a longer snowshoe hike with the woman whose parents had built the house and who had grown up on this land. She pointed out huge mature trees that she remembered first meeting in her early childhood as spindly saplings. She pointed out a huge dead tree with many thick branches that – when it was very much alive – had been a favourite childhood climbing tree. She commented on how disorienting it sometimes was, to see time passing in such a concrete way, in the growth of trees. I thought about something Jon says in the talk we’d listened to on our drive, about showing that you trust in the future by planting an oak tree, knowing you will never swing from its branches.

We moved along quickly on our snowshoes against the brisk wind, warming up fast, and when we reached a clearing we all threw ourselves on the ground, looking up at the clouds, with the dog running circles around us and shaking snow onto our faces. I closed my eyes for a few minutes and when I opened them the clouds had whisked away and the sky was blue. I closed them again, and when I opened them, the sky was gray again. Time passing. So quickly.

Several times as we walked, we noticed huge trees that had partially fallen, propped up by other tall trees, stoically supporting the weight of the dying until they were ready to fall. I thought about dead fallen trees that catch seeds blowing in the wind, creating nurseries for other trees to grow tiny seedlings stretching to the sun, the nurse log slowly decomposing and feeding the future. I thought about trees and their communities, about tree nurseries, about bridges, about building ships into the future. I thought about composting our sorrows – and our joys – to create healthy soil for those who will come after.

Last year I had a realization about freedom, that freedom could just as well look like a tree as like a bird. I looked at a tree and asked: “Because this tree is rooted, does that mean it isn’t free?” and I found I could not doubt that a tree was free, even though it was rooted. And so I try to think like a tree, digging my roots deep into the soil and my branches high into the sky.

Rootedness has been on my mind a lot in the past year, but even before that, and maybe I am coming to some conclusions. Rootedness can mean many things: it can mean place, it can mean relationship, it can mean community, it can mean vocation. But it means sacrificing some variety of choice for the challenge and the privilege of tending something deeply and for a long time.

Sometimes I like to pick up random books off of bookshelves and ask them questions, in a kind of divination by the wisdom of written words. At my friend’s house, the first title that drew me was by Jean Vanier: Community and Growth. And as I flipped through its pages, one of the things it told me was this:

“Some people flee from commitment because they are frightened that if they put down roots in one soil they will curtail their freedom and never be able to look elsewhere… But freedom doesn’t grow in the abstract; it grows in a particular soil with particular people. Inner growth is only possible when we commit ourselves with and to others.  We all have to pass through a certain death and time of grief when we make choices and become rooted.”

So there’s that. There is also the clearing in the woods. Thinking about what I am trying to tend in myself in the midst of deconstruction and fear for the world and the ordinary gradual decays of life, I often meditate on spaciousness. If I can just find a space inside myself, a space that is clear and warm and secluded, but also connected to all beings, then I can find the peace I need to draw on to be the way I want to be in the world. That is the clearing in the tangled forest, where I tend the fire within my heart. It is a place I can find refuge when I am in a bigger time of retreat, but also a place I can find refuge in brief moments on a windy day, when the clouds in my mind are busy skittering across the sky, and I am too rattled, too taken up by the urgency of things.

snowshoeing-with-ulrike

Tracking the language of the wild

Lake Sasajewun

On a late August Friday afternoon I find myself with two friends on a journey north from the city I live in: driving through a series of highways that become progressively narrower, less busy and more winding; watching tall buildings gradually replaced by huge rocks and tall trees; then finally turning left off Highway 60 on to a secluded gravel road into the Wildlife Research Station (WRS) in Algonquin Park.

It’s a place I’ve been getting to know in the past four years or so, mostly in twice-a-year visits which swing wildly between the extremes of deep Ontario winter and its hot summer. Slipping out of the car among the tall pines and small wooden cabins brings all those memories back.

A half hour after we get out of our car we are sliding two canoes into the water of Lake Sasajewun, which I last crossed on snowshoes, and setting off into the late summer dusk.

We watch for wildlife along the edges, skirt around the deadfalls and rocks, alternate between boisterous laughter and silence. We cautiously navigate through the narrow channel in the lake and spend some time stilling our canoes together in the marshes on the northern end, breathing deeply, taking it all in, swatting the occasional mosquito, keeping our eyes open for the moose that Sue saw here last summer. As we turn back south to get through the rocks before darkness falls, I start to see the first stars appear in the still blue-gray sky. This is not like the city.

We’re here for a tracking weekend with Earth Tracks. Many of us – and others who join us that evening and later in the weekend – have completed an apprenticeship program (or two, or more…) with Alexis Burnett.

I’m here because although I love many things about my life in the city, there is this pull also to be out in the wild, to understand how the bigger pieces of my ecosystem work and how I fit into them, and also how I can help keep them as healthy as possible. And I’m here because tracking is something I have come to love intensely and want to keep cultivating, keep practicing myself and introducing to others.

I stumbled upon tracking in a one-thing-leading-to-another kind of way about four years ago, and I fell in love. I fell in love with many things about it, but mostly with the experience of paying attention. Alexis says a mentor once told him, “Tracking and awareness are the same thing.” There is a vocabulary to learn, but in many ways it’s not much more complicated than giving my attention fully. I used to walk through the woods simply enjoying the feeling of being there, and I often still do, but now I also know how to notice the little things that tell big stories.

There is that saying about not judging a person before walking a mile in their shoes. Walking following the trail of an animal, or even picking up a few of the clues it left behind, is similar. This is daily life that is unfolding before you: eating, sleeping, elimination, reproduction, play, fear. And death. Death is often spelled out very clearly. Giving our attention to all of it hones empathy and connection – with the creatures around us, with each other, and within ourselves – and brings our human lives into context.

The next morning, when we each talk about our intentions for the weekend, keeping eyes and ears open and paying attention to the little things is a common theme. There are also some shared questions about bear tracks and sign, and about learning how to find faint tracks in debris (pine duff, leaf litter). I am feeling drawn to bears this weekend, after having spent other visits here paying more attention to moose, wolves, and some of the mustelids: martens, fishers, otters. At this moment, I want to understand more about the life of black bears: their feeding strategies, their reproductive cycles, the ways they raise their cubs.

As we move out along the grounds of the WRS, Alexis points to broken branches, indentations where bear feet landed, scratches and bites on hydro poles, a few hairs caught in the wood. Some of us take turns acting out the bear turning its back on the pole and biting over its shoulder, each trying to figure out the placement of its teeth and claws. Acting things out is often the only way to really see them with our minds and feel them in our bodies. I’ve examined these particular hydro poles before – bears come back and mark the same spots year after year. But now I am starting to see how the pieces fit together. We talk about what the bears eat at each time of year; the huge number of calories they need per day, especially as they prepare for their winter sleep (not a “true” hibernation, as I’ve learned); how constantly they need to eat to make up those calorie needs. Right now they will be moving between berry season and mast season (acorns, beech nuts). We’re not seeing a lot of recent bear sign here, and we talk about the large range they need to move through to find their food, and where else they might have moved to in the park to find late crops of berries.

In the same area we find moose tracks, and branches pulled down by moose to get closer access to tasty foliage. We have a discussion about the identity of a particular shrub. I know it as hobblebush, but Christina tells me it’s viburnum. Later on we realize that we are both right – score! We look at miniscule incisor marks on an old plywood shed and wonder about what is in the plywood (salt, glue?) that appeals to rodents of various sizes.

We ask a LOT of questions, many of which we may not ever find answers to in books, even though later in the evening we’ll spend some time excitedly reading out loud to each other from field guides Alexis brought.

The afternoon brings another paddle across the lake, where some of our group elects to follow a moose trail for a short while. Our canoes lie overturned amidst sweet gale, leatherleaf, steeplebush, wintergreen, mint, and some stunning indigo-blue gentian flowers. I nibble on a wintergreen leaf as Kaleigh searches through a plant guide to identify the gentian. Moving into the trees, I spot an ideal giant rock to sit on for an after-lunch meditation: watching for birds and being watched by a curious red squirrel, smelling the air around me, listening to mysterious splashes in the lake. An hour later we paddle back – my canoe still smells like mint – and make time for a pre-dinner swim and some research on pressing questions from the day. Dinner is delicious and also rather riotous.

There is a lot of teasing and banter that happens when tracking. Maybe it’s all the time spent looking at animal scats and talking about mating strategies, trying to viscerally understand the ways animals move. People get a bit goofy at times. That evening we read technical terms in a glossary and try to figure out how to incorporate them into our vocabularies, with varying degrees of seriousness. “Crepuscular” seems to win out in its usefulness – not nocturnal, not diurnal, but active at dawn and dusk, a word applying to many creatures we track. Victor repeats it over and over again, planning to introduce the word to the primary school students he will be teaching in the fall.

After dinner, we get further wound up in silliness and debate, until Alexis gracefully shifts our energy to a walk out to the swim spot on the lake to try out some owl and wolf calls. Sending these sounds out onto the darkening lake is a powerful thing, and while we don’t get any responses this time, we can feel the change in the movement and sound of the birds around us, responding to the threat of a potential predator (the barred owl). We sit silently by the lake for a while. I feel a quiet intimacy between us growing in the falling darkness and silence here. When we get up, we can barely see the slope behind us. We challenge ourselves to walk back up the hill and along the paths without artificial light, feeling how easily our other senses kick in when our dominant sense is hampered. As we reach our cabins again, I break into a run, feeling the exhilaration of the dark night around me, celebrating how good I feel at that moment

The next day we compare dog and fox tracks on the road on the way to the lake, we find a fox scat with an entire shed snakeskin within its twists (wow!), we find the remains of a turtle egg, we speculate on the identities of particular plants. Paddling again across the lake we see beaver scent mounds and muskrat latrines. We talk about castoreum, the beaver secretion once used in perfume manufacture. We put our canoes up in a new spot, and make our way along a long trail, stopping to look at trees drilled by pileated woodpeckers, giant bear scratches on conifers dripping with sticky sap, deer antler rubs, and moose tracks. Marten scats appear periodically along the trail. We take our rain jackets on and off as gentle rain alternates with bright sun.

Before we turn around to go back, we do an intuitive tracking exercise, trying to really feel the energy of an animal from a single track and predict with intuition, empathetic understanding, and maybe with experience, where it might have gone next and where we will find more tracks. As we gather up to dip our feet in a cool creek that crosses the trail, we talk about intuition, empathy, imagination, storytelling, vision. About why we care so much about what we are doing. About what it teaches us. We walk more quickly back along the trail to our canoes. I feel satiated and also inspired.

Tracking is like visiting a country where I can speak a different language. It takes practice, and the practice helps me build on what I already know, but in the practice is also the cultivation of relationships. My attention honours that which is around me; it honours both the reality of all the life that tells its own stories separately from mine, but also the connections between my self and all of these stories. It is a form of deep listening with all my senses. It is a form of empathy for all the creatures around me. I can practice this anywhere, but some experiences are more immersive than others. Here, I am on the land of these animals, the land of all of the humans that came here before me; I am this in my own city home as well, but here I aware of this in each moment.

I feel the grace and gratitude of being a visitor, a relation, a friend.

Thanks to Christina Yu, Sue Gulley and Lianna Vargas for photos!

 

 

 

 

 

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

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.

The language of birds

Recently I spent a weekend at a workshop on bird language led by Jon Young, a deeply inspiring naturalist, tracker, and mentor; and author of What the Robin Knows. The language of birds – I always love the way it sounds, secret and mysterious.

In practice, the format involves covering a piece of land with quiet listeners; each person individually recording the tone of the voices of the birds around them (relaxed song, alarm, companion calls to check in, etc.); bringing it all together in a series of expanding maps of the territory; and slowly watching a story emerge. And then doing it over and over again until you become fluent.

Songbirds comment on everything. They have to. It’s how they survive, and all of the other animals know how to interpret what they’re saying. The language of birds is the language of the forest, the field, the swamp, even of your backyard. Learning to listen in on this is an amazing naturalist skill. You start to anticipate what is going to happen – the hawk swooping in, the bobcat slowly walking through the forest, the erratic movements of the weasel. You know where the predators are. You read the forest as a constantly communicating organism. Seeing people interpret the subtleties of this blows my mind.

I have a long way to go on this. Really a very long way. But I am learning that tuning in to what the birds are saying is a form of meditation. Their constant vulnerability, their constant communication moves me; it teaches me to be present; it teaches me to listen; it teaches me empathy.

Companion Voices

I stood under the trees

Rain dripping

I swayed like a tree myself

Rustled my branches, my leaves

Shifted my weight gently

Rooted myself into that place

If only for a while.

I heard above me the small metallic sound

Of a bird speaking to its mate:

Red throat, white breast, black wings

Its mate a soft brown,

Holding each other

In this voiced embrace.

For a moment, a tiny tanager joined them,

A gift of red and black

My first

Then gone.

The pair persisted

Soft and insistent

Never letting go.

I wondered

How can we speak to those we love

As birds call to their mates, their flock?

This is the trust

Of reciprocity

Its even rhythm

Its intimacy

Its commitment.

This morning the forest voiced interdependence to me

In a pair of birds.

 

Living in the moment vs seizing your dreams: do I have to choose one or the other?

I find there are two prevailing strands of life advice that both seem to get me in the gut, and I can’t figure out how to reconcile them.

One is about living in the moment: being present to the beauty of the ordinary and every-day, ceding the illusion of control, and letting the future take care of itself.

The second is about seizing your dreams now: making the time to follow your passions, honour your gifts, and not let creative opportunities slip by. Not putting off until tomorrow what you can do today.

I’ve yet to figure out how to do both of these things at once, but, being a committed idealist, I’m trying.

At the moment, I swing my life on a pendulum: first one way, then the other. One month I’m a zen master, smug about how beautifully I’ve slowed down to enjoy the moment; the next month I’m frantic, feeling like I’ve dug myself into a hole and can’t find any way out. Then the tears flow.

The balance tips very quickly. There’s so little time cushion. My husband is away for work one weekend and out several evenings in a row, I give away my one child-free morning in the week to help a friend with a greater need, and suddenly between the amount of my own work I’d like to be doing and what I can actually accomplish yawns a huge gap of impossibility.

There’s a puzzle to be solved. And in my optimism, I want to believe there’s some way to solve it.

What I’m seeing, truly seeing and accepting right now, is that shutting down my own creative and intellectual processes, stalling them, putting them off for later is not an option I can live with. That was never my intention.

What I’m seeing is that not carving out focused work time for myself means that when I’m with my kids I’m always half thinking about something else. That is not going to go away.

The truth is that when I decided to homeschool my kids, when I talked my husband into agreeing, when I talked our extended family into accepting it, when I committed to sucking up the financial consequences of that choice, I never really thought I’d do it all on my own. In many ways I don’t – we spend lots of time with other families and other kids in both casual and organized ways; my kids take part in an outdoor program once a week; they do a weekly yoga class; they spend one morning a week with their grandparents. I often go away on weekends for the naturalist programs that I’ve been involved with for the past few years. A couple of times – when grandparents have taken the kids out of town – I’ve been away for a week at a time for more immersive experiences. And last summer, we had a few delightful weeks where each child pursued their interests at full-day summer camps while I worked on other things at home. And yet I want more.

So what am I looking for exactly? Regular, focused time alone that I can depend on. And not at an hour where I am fighting the need to sleep.

When I go away for a weekend of learning and get wildly inspired to follow up on my experiences, I come home and stop short. There’s no time to integrate, to work through the research and writing that are right on the tip of my mind and fingers, to let productive work take shape. I can pretend to relax and be in the moment, but my mind and heart are spinning. Not unproductive spinning, not worrying, not busy thoughts that I want to quiet down. Awesome, inspired spinning. Spinning that I don’t want to suppress or delay. Spinning that feels like flying, soaring above the world in great leaps.

I’ve been very fortunate to have had a lot of inspiration in my life in recent years. My dreams – sleeping and waking – are full of images, of stories I want to tell, of art projects I’m conjuring up. But so little of it is possible to do in small, infinitely interruptable moments with small people – no matter how dear – talking loudly in my ear. It all takes time and focus.

This fall has been intense. Yes, we had a fantastic family trip, where my husband, kids and I AND my parents all hung out together connecting, exploring and learning for three full weeks, and I’m supremely grateful for that. But the contrast between that and the return to regular life is always painful. Especially since for so many adults working a full-time professional job – including my husband – taking time away means a huge increase of pressure and creeping increase in working hours trying to catch up on the return. And three weeks of integration segue into three months of extreme imbalance.

Right now, we’re at my parents’ house for a week for the Christmas holidays. Intergenerational family life. People cooking meals, people reading, people chasing the kids around the backyard, my father working on bits of a building project. The kids bounce around between adults, playing, reading, helping with small tasks. Six adults available to do what I normally do on my own. I can sit in the middle of the living room all day ignoring the children and writing, and no one even notices me. It’s blissful.

When people present arguments against one parent being at home with the kids, or against homeschooling, the case is made is that one person can’t meet all of a child’s developmental and educational needs. Even the nuclear family is a fairly recent invention. Humans have always lived and worked and learned in groups, in communities. Mothers and fathers have always done productive work. So now, in this historical moment, the accepted answer to this dilemma is to have everyone go off to their separate silos – separate offices, separate institutions, separate classrooms segregated by age, for the majority of their waking hours. We claim that’s the only answer possible. We claim that the only possible alternative is isolation for children and martyrdom for parents. And I concede that those can be real dangers. And I concede that currently, for so many structural reasons, it can be almost impossible to conceive of any other option.

But neither of these things – separation or isolation – is what I want for my family or for myself. I want a village. I want people engaged in meaningful pursuits, with children, babies, teens, elders woven into the fabric of daily life. The perfect scenario would be if we were doing exactly what we’re doing now except with ten other families with kids of various ages living all around us and available to play and learn and work with us even on weekdays, and maybe – please, let me indulge my unrealistic dreams for a moment – a huge open field surrounded by woods all around our homes, where the kids would go off and roam for hours at a time.

But, okay, I’d settle for a few more homeschooling families within walking distance of our urban house, my husband working shorter hours and taking more of a stake in homeschooling as a family project, and maybe some time for my kids with a teen or adult mentor once a week.

When I see my friends who are homeschooling their kids, I don’t see martyrs. I see writers, artists, educators, activists, healers, culturally creative people, all of whom are trying to shape an alternative to the dominant world of silos and specialization, of outsourcing, of separation. All of whom are trying to find integration of head, heart and hands; integration of generations; integration of learning and work and creativity and domestic responsibilities. People who are trying to do something different, to take risks.

I see people who are trying to find balance in a system where it’s very difficult to create a family income out of two adults with part-time work. Even in a family who somehow find ways to live on one full-time income, the balance usually tips to one adult working long hours (because that’s the way most jobs work in our culture) and one adult crazily trying to hold down the fort alone.

So that’s the problem. There are bigger problems in the world. But I would argue that finding time and space to develop our own gifts is something each of us has a responsibility to address in our own way, in our own circumstances.

Thinking about this question almost every day recently, I’m still fairly sure that the easiest course – taking advantage of the free child-care provided by public school – is not the answer I’m looking for right now. I’m not ruling it out as a some-day possibility, but there’s still so much that tips the scales for me towards homeschooling, unschooling, real-life mentoring, learning in the eclectic and self-directed ways that adults are usually allowed to but children generally are not. I want to keep this experiment running. I’m looking for smaller changes, significant tweaking, not a total reversal of where we currently are.

I’m happy that I’ve been able to articulate what I need more clearly within the pressure of the last few weeks. Now that I’m taking myself more seriously, I’m slowly seeing more possibilities as to how these needs can be met.

And so I’m changing metaphors. Last year, my metaphor, my mantra, was the river. I had changed course so severely in the past decade and I saw that I was pushing too hard – paddling too hard – to figure out where I was going. I wanted to let myself follow the flow, without concern for destination, trusting that the current of the river would continue to move me forward. Because really, that is all any of us can ever do. Right now, I’m flowing; I’m no longer worried – for the most part – about where and when exactly I’ll land.

My current metaphor seems to have something to do with carving. The word keeps coming up when I speak of what I need. Intentionally carving out space and time for my own work. Carving out more clearly the shape I need my life to take right now. Not a final product, just the next best step, the next stroke. The little pieces of life that I might have within my control.

What’s that image I’ve heard described by so many sculptors and carvers? Carving is finding the pieces that need to fall away to uncover the shape that’s already underneath, waiting to be brought into the light.