Rock. Paint. Gratitude.

I’m looking at a stone my daughter, Sunny, painted for me. We’ve been painting them all week together, taking walks along the shore to find just the right shapes; laying the table with tubes of paint, small brushes, make-shift cardboard mixing palettes, pictures cut out of magazines for inspiration. I don’t even remember how the project was born. It was one of those spontaneous ideas that spoke to both of us and just like that, we were deep in it. That space where creativity rushes in and pushes out plans and routines and everyone else.

This particular stone is smallish, not quite round, smooth. Painted in black, separated in half by a fine, sinewy white line that forms two commas, two chambers of the heart. It sits on my writing desk as a reminder that life is full of opposing truths.

One side is decorated beautifully with swirls and splashes, intricate dots and tear-shaped, leaf-like forms. This side is busy and joyful and evokes music and movement and seeds of growth. For me, it represents the creative, child-like side of myself that is continually striving to bloom towards the light.

The other side is still and black with a full white moon suspended in the waiting space. A cocoon. It symbolizes the sacred, clean calm where time halts and obligations, shoulds, and judgements are banned. The room where my soul can rest and reflect, where inner quiet lives, the void, the source of self. It is also, at times, the raw space where the heart is cleaved, the tears run, the body turns into and leans against the curved wall, shaping to the pain.

Together, side by side, the two halves tell a story. My story. And also the story of life, continually changing. This stone reminds me to think paradoxically: I am fragile and I am strong; life is joyful, life is harrowing; emotions wane and wax; pain and joy come and go. Nothing is permanent. I welcome both sides with an open mind and open heart. Yin and Yang existing and inseparable.

My eye is often drawn to that white dot in the black space. It tells me that joy lies just on the other side, always within reach, just as the black sphere within the bliss informs the dark. In this way, the two sides hold each other, the way we do in difficult times.

I also have to tell you about the under side of the stone, the part you can’t see. It’s smudged with paint from where it was laid down on the palette too soon, before it was dry, where it picked up traces of colors mixed and melded together. I turn the stone over from time to time and run my thumb along the ridges of accident to remind myself that life is messy and bumpy and imperfect. Its weight tells me it is just a stone picked up on the beach, one of thousands. I don’t know that my daughter intended all the meaning I have assigned to it. In fact, she simply laid it in front of me and said, “Here mom, this is for you,” and moved on to decorate another stone. How I see it, the way it makes me feel, is all mine. That’s what makes it a gift.

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To My Unschooled Children: Thank You for the Gifts

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Today, there is comfort in this life we have chosen. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. It feels like a well-worn blanket, woven from yesterday’s yarn, unravelled in places but still holding together and still warm when we most need it. But it wasn’t always easy. Far from what I expected, this life of learning freedom was never just about you. How much I have changed, broadened, grown over the years. All thanks to your gifts.

When you couldn’t and wouldn’t read, I felt ashamed because the others were far ahead. So I pushed and bribed and broke all my promises to you and to myself. I worried what others would think. I worried what it meant about who I was as a parent. I worried that it would never happen or that it would happen too late. But then one day, in your own time and on your own terms, you read–one letter, one word, one sentence, one page, one book at a time. Now the shelves are full and never enough spines to choose from. So I learned that there is no such thing as “too late” when the original gift is trust.

When you didn’t seem interested in forming letters and spelling words (the things I treasure most), the lined pages with dotted traces and the sharpened pencils came out.  I tried to guide your hands in the shape of my own. I wasn’t capable then of seeing the innocence of your backward J’s, of appreciating the M that looked like an ocean wave, rolling on an on. Now your hands and minds are connected in extraordinary ways and what comes out is your story alone, on paper and in voice. And so I have learned not to edit when the original gift is individuality.

When you showed no interest in science or other subjects on the curriculum that was part and parcel of my own education, I searched for learning opportunities. I killed more than a few spontaneous adventures by trying to make a lesson out of them. The bees, those butterflies, the miracle of pollination. None of that lives in a science book. And so when I took your hands and led you from the garden to show you how it all worked in that book and even asked you to read aloud from it, of course you lost interest. You wanted to follow the bee, watch his feathery legs float gold from flower to flower. You wanted to follow the slimy snail. Slow, just let me slow. So I learned to slow, to let things unfold without direction, to let the weeds come up in the garden. I have learned not to structure when the original gift is time.

When you took all the buttons off your clothes, my little girl, to glue them on a burlap bag, I got angry. Why on earth would you do that? Now you are a creator, a chaotic, messy maker of unique and beautiful objects. And if I could go back in time, I would sit on the floor and help you pop off all the buttons, break open the zippers and most importantly, rip off all the labels.

When you put on a dress and make-up and pretended to be a girl, my little boy, I cringed just a little. Why on earth would you do that?  Now you are a comedian, an actor, an imitator, a smile-maker. And if I could go back in time, I would put your hair in small pig-tails and tell you it’s more than okay to wear pink, and most importantly, to rip off the labels. So I have learned not to impose my own impressions when the original gift is freedom of expression.

I still have much to learn, still have work to do. In those early days, when my own doubts and insecurities came to the surface, I looked to you to ease them, those stubborn remnants of a life I no longer wished to live but couldn’t seem to break free from. But that was never your job. It was always mine. I see that now. I see you.

Carpe Diem: Unschooling is All About Living in the Present

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Vase With Flowers by Sunny Rowland

It seems that everyone these days is in search of a way to reconnect: with ourselves, with those close to our hearts, and with what is essential in life. We read and hear a lot about getting back to center, stripping away the extraneous, silencing the noise. We are distracted by instant access to news and constantly solicited by ads, messages, click bait and forum debates. We find it hard to carve out time to do things that are meaningful to us; to garden, to paint, to write, to take a walk in nature. We are stressed and unfocused. Even young children in schools are being led in meditation and mindfulness practices. And yet young children are innately in tune with themselves and their surroundings.

In fact, no one lives more fully in the present, with all the attendant gifts and emotions that go along with it, than a child before he is made to attend school.

A newborn expresses immense gratitude the instant his needs are met, and conversely screams in frustration when they are not. An infant will while the day away, sleeping or studying her toes or the curve of her mother’s nose with intense concentration, without ever worrying that she should be doing something else.

A toddler expends limitless energy and stamina exploring his curiosity, the sounds he is able to make, the movements he masters. He fails repeatedly in his attempts to roll onto his stomach, crawl, stand, walk, put words to the many references he has already integrated into his understanding of the world. He tries again, fails again, but his determination is organic and powerful. He learns from his missteps, assimilates what he has learned, then dismisses the mistake. He attaches neither shame nor defeat to his inabilities; for they now belong to the past. Here and now, at this precise instant, is a renewed opportunity to learn. How exciting, how exhausting, how truly and utterly wonderful is this present moment !

We, as parents, happily encourage our babies and toddlers in their learning blitz. We offer guidance as role models and supporters of their knowledge and skill quest because we understand that we cannot teach them to talk, walk, eat or any of the other basic skills a child acquires by the age of two or so. They must learn these on their own, with our guidance and support. As we accompany our children on this day-to-day evolution, we too are asked to live in the present, to accommodate inevitable changes to our lives, naturally losing our sense of time. While many of us attempt to create a semblance of structure, our children continually show us the gift of now, asking us to let go of any semblance of a calendar or schedule.

And then one day, and increasingly too soon, our society willingly hands our children over to strangers who begin to “prepare” them for the future. The present they so wholly inhabited suddenly becomes a sterile box which they are no longer allowed to freely explore. Where not so long ago we encouraged them to walk and talk, they must now sit in silence. Where once we championed their leaps of learning and their boundless discoveries, we now begin to train them to be instructed. Where once we made great efforts to meet their physical and emotional needs, we somehow find it acceptable that those needs be controlled and stifled. Where once we championed our child’s individuality and autonomy, we now find it beneficial that they conform, obey and mold.

The messages they now receive are no longer anchored in the here and now, but instead focus on what is to be.

You may talk when called upon. You may use the bathroom after class. You must wait. Like everyone else. You can’t paint now, it’s not time. Geography isn’t taught this year. Play time is in an hour. Lunch is served at noon. The test you will take next week is important. Your future depends on it.

Is it any wonder we need meditation in schools? How can we expect our children to live in and derive joy from the present when our educational system continually sends the message that their value and purpose lie exclusively in who they will become? In asking a child, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” we are telling them that who they are now, what they already know, and why and how they have come to know it are irrelevant.
All meaningful learning experiences are layered, expansive, and enhanced by the accumulation of practical knowledge, the building of skills or the exposure to or observation of a mentor. Learning that stems from curiosity or interest remains an integral part of a voluntary quest that is fully owned and managed by the learner, implying a sense of sovereignty, self-awareness, intrinsic motivation and autonomy.

No learning that is ever mandatory, coerced, imposed or executed under threat of punishment, duress, or exclusion should ever be called “educational.” If learning serves only as the proverbial carrot before the donkey (the carrot being the promise of future success, popularity, and societal acceptance), only to be forgotten after it has been officially tested, then it should be considered superficial at best, and at worst, a damaging waste of childhood.

Life Learning is all about seizing the day

When we choose an unschooling lifestyle, we are giving our children dominion over their learning, their bodies, their imagination and how they spend their days. Since there is rarely an agenda, we are given the rare privilege to wake up and allow our days to unfold according to our interests, responsibilities and the unpredictable randomness that inevitably presents itself. In a free life, we allow ourselves to decide what is important in the here and now and how we want to approach our conundrums and revel in our discoveries .

Living in the present means we don’t worry too much about tomorrow, we seize the day. It doesn’t mean we don’t take our responsibilities seriously or plan for the future or weigh the consequences of putting something off until tomorrow. Being given this freedom allows children to discern what is most important to them without having those parameters judged or critiqued. Contrary to what most assume, this does not result in bad choices but instead tends to foster a strong sense of self-governance and responsibility in being in charge of their time.

What about their future? Remove the donkey, the cart, and the carrot and you remove an enormous source of weight and pressure representing a limiting notion of success. Children who are given the freedom to choose when and how to learn and at what pace are less likely to be deterred by failure or shamed for letting go of an activity, hobby, or pursuit that no longer brings them pleasure, joy, or contributes to their objective. They are allowed to try a multitude of interests if they choose.

My children, when asked what do you want to be/pursue/do when you grow up, have changed their minds a multitude of times. But I see and value them for what they are TODAY, now, in the present: an actor, a geopolitical fanatic, an entrepreneur, a stylist, a linguist, a comedian, an artist. Kids. People. Individuals. They are happy and expansive and awake. They have a healthy relationship with the past; they don’t fear or pretend to know the future. And neither do we as their parents. We let life and learning unfold one day at a time, weaving the ordinary and the memorable into the continuum of life.

Broken Glass

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“You Would Never Talk to an Adult the Way You Speak to Me”

Last night as I was making dinner, I heard a loud crash—broken glass—and a familiar wave of anger rushed over me. Something lost, another thing to sweep up and throw away. I stormed into the dining room. My son had tried to juggle three arms worth of things to bring to the table and everything ended up on the floor, including the new colored-glass water bottle I had just bought that morning, now in shards and slivers.

“How the #@*% did that happen?” I demanded when I saw the mess. “I can’t believe you did this!”

“I’m fine, thanks for asking” my son answered calmly. “It was an accident.”

Already on his knees picking through the mess, he glanced up at me. And there it was, hanging there. The mirror. And me before it, looking waspish and ugly and naked, armed only with sharp words that sting but never solve. Blame, that injured bird, flailing all around me looking for a hard place to settle down. Because we need to find the source of all the wrongness in the world. We need to nail the un-namable feeling to an easy target.

Of course, my son was right. There was glass everywhere. He could have been hurt. He had been trying to help by setting the table and now he was kneeling among the shards sweeping them up. Because he’s a great kid. An awkward, shy fourteen year old.

Deep breath, deep into me. “I’m sorry” I offered. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I shouldn’t have tried to carry so much. I’m sorry I broke your new bottle.”

I held the pail as he began to gather up the pieces.

My daughter, 11 months his junior, had been watching the scene in silence and was now scrutinizing me carefully from her chair, eyes squinted, head nodding slightly, as though she had me all figured out, and it wasn’t a pretty picture.

“What? I said I was sorry.” Me, the adult, feeling judged. I sat down on the floor with my legs splayed out. Wounds never grow up, especially the oldest. They hold us in victim, which I’ve come to think of as state—physical and emotional—like a yoga pose that we get into easily, we refuse to move beyond.

“I was just thinking,” she said, “that you would never have reacted that way with an adult. You would never talk to an adult the way you speak to us. What if we had Steve and Paula (friends and neighbors) over for dinner and Paula was carrying the wine glasses and one slipped from her hand and crashed to the floor. Let’s say it was an expensive glass, maybe crystal . . .”

“We don’t own any crystal” I reminded her.

“Mom, just stay with me, okay?”

“Right. Go ahead. But we will never own crystal. Exactly for that reason. I’m just saying.”

Two pairs of eyes roll towards the heavens.

“Anyway”, she continues, “just imagine Paula breaks a glass, maybe two or three. There’s glass everywhere. And you shout . . . ‘Paula, how the hell did that happen?”

We giggle. More examples are batted around and tossed out teasingly. Real things that I’ve said to my children. Things they remember. Things I would never, ever say to an adult.

“Yeah, Paola”, my son chimes in, “how can you be such a klutz?”
“Maybe next time you’ll use your brain.” my daughter offers.

In spite of myself, I add the clincher: “Steve, Paula! You get back here right now, the both of you! No one is leaving this house until the dishes are done! Do you HEAR me?”

We all laughed at the absurdity of it. Of course we did. Because the words are unthinkable, grotesque. We laughed so hard, our bellies ached. We laughed so hard, the tears streamed. For me, they transformed, as they often do, into the real thing. So I let them come. Because it helps. Sitting on the floor in the middle of the mess, it helped.

The things that mattered had survived the fall.

Silencing the Voice of Conformity

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My twelve year old unschooled daughter has been waking up late these days. Around 9 am, the sticky, stubborn residue of conformity whispers in my ear that perhaps I should wake her. There are things to do. It’s a beautiful day. The sun’s been up for hours. So has her brother.

At 10:15, the insistent inner voice of irritation (or perhaps jealousy?) quips that breakfast is still on the table and we’ve all got better things to do than wait for her to wake up. I was never allowed to sleep that late as a child. Why should she?

By 11:00, I am at my worst, convinced that she is wasting the day away. Misusing valuable learning time. It’s a weekday for heaven’s sake! We’re spoiling her. But then another thought sneaks in and suggests that maybe she’s depressed. Or sick. There’s definitely something wrong. Have I been available to her? Have I been listening? Why haven’t I noticed?

And then comes the crescendo of the cruelest inner voice:

I’m a horrible mother.

This internal dialogue is not something I can control, despite five years of unschooling and a great deal of self-work. It is a process that cycles back around and wallops me unawares. When neither of my children had learned to read when school said they should, the voice of conformity told me they were suffering from developmental delays. When they didn’t know their times tables or how to write in cursive, it convinced me they were lacking in essential skills. When they didn’t have an entire class of friends to invite to their birthday parties, it broke my heart and told me they must be lonely. And when others were critical or judgemental of the learning freedom my children are afforded, it shamed me into believing I should send them to school.

Sometimes, I can stand up to those voices and recognize them as vestiges of my upbringing and societal conditioning. They are recorded tapes, messages that have played so long on an ingrained loop that it’s difficult to silence them. But while I can’t stop them from having their say, I don’t have to listen anymore. And I certainly don’t have to act on them.

Other times, in weaker moments, I rail against the demons of self-doubt, fists of anger ready for the fight, tears of uncertainty pooling around the past. But I will not drown. In moments of self-care, I recognize them for what they are, sometimes going as far as gracefully accepting them as an integral part of my whole progressing self. I put them to paper. Invite them to a proper debate. And I try very hard not to impose them on my children.

My daughter owes me no explanation, no excuse, no justification, no proof. She needs sleep now and she listens to her body. So when she does wake up, rested and recharged, her smile and beauty take my breath away. I hug her and say good morning and the nagging voices skitter into the corner to be swept up with the dust and crumbs of our lives. She will certainly learn or create or ponder more in the next few hours than I did worrying about her sleeping too late.

I watch her eat breakfast with one hand while her heart paints with the other.  Another gentler voice slips in then, one I’ve cultivated and welcomed with time and experience. It never shouts or shames or insists. It simply says, “trust.”

 

*artwork by Sunny Rowland, created over breakfast, Posca pen on wood

 

On Seeking Unschooling Advice

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I love to write about and share how my children learn without school here on the blog. And I feel it’s important to share not just the abundance of good stuff and the leaps and bounds of learning, but also to show the underbelly: the doubts, insecurities and fears around taking risks or being judged.

But if I could give one piece of advice to parents just setting out on their own unschooling journey with their children it would be this:

Don’t seek too much advice.

I know that sounds paradoxical, but here’s the thing: you are unique. Your children are unique. Your life together is unique. And because of all that individuality and rich diversity,  the what, when, why, where and how you and your children live and learn will be innately different. If you trust yourself as a parent to offer gentle guidance and support without interference (and that’s a tall order in and of itself) and if you then extend that trust to your children to be curious and inquisitive, you’re half way there. The other half of the journey will unfold in glorious and magical layers and sometimes very ordinary ways, if we just let it happen naturally.

Insecurities and doubts about how our children will learn without someone teaching them are normal. We’ve been conditioned to believe it’s neither possible nor socially acceptable. We fear giving our children freedom because most of us have been well trained ourselves to stay within the confines of societal rules and regulations. We are led to believe that offering our children autonomy means giving up any sense of structure, or that we may even be putting them in harm’s way. Society tells us that following, obeying, and perpetuating rules and paradigms we don’t necessarily believe in are all part of being a good citizen, and dare I say, A Good Parent.

Those same parameters and restrictions are sometimes seen in online unschooling communities. Many believe if we follow certain rules and can check off certain criteria, we are being “good” unschoolers. Stray from those norms, and you’ve wandered off into a sub strait or separate faction that needs yet another label. These likenesses form out of a need to belong, to do things the “right” way, to fit in and yes, even to comform to expectations about how we parent, guide our children in their learning, and help them explore their world. It’s human nature to want to learn from others, to seek support when we feel uncertain, even to rely on those with more experience to guide us. There is often great comfort in knowing that we are not alone in our doubts, that others have trudged through the obstacles and survived. It’s affirming to be inspired by real examples of unschooled children who have conquered criticism and surmounted physical or developmental obstacles, to be bolstered by stories of children who come to reading and writing later in life, children who don’t seem interested in anything or anyone, until one day, when everyone seems to have given up on them, they are moved by interest or curiosity or some great unknown force within themselves and cannot, for any reason, be torn away from the object of their intent. There is always relief when we recognize our children or ourselves in these stories and we let out a sigh of relief. Phew! I feel so much better.

But there is a difference between asking for comfort, support, suggestions and reassurance and receiving it in a non-judgemental and constructive way, and taking too much advice from those we deem experts. Particularly if that advice goes against our instincts and better judgement. Many in the unschooling world would argue with me, but I am a firm believer that there is no such thing as an unschooling “how to.” Of course, we need to offer examples about what unschooling is and what it isn’t as a way to explain it. It needs to be called something so that we can refer to it, talk about it, write about it. But can we really assign it a global definition? And do we need to?

If we boil it down to it’s essence, unschooling is really just living, fully and freely. If the institution of school had never existed, society would not have collapsed. Learning would not have died off. And certainly, we would be more intriquitely woven together–as families, communities, as a society, and probably as a world filled with different and unique individuals, each contributing, each respected.

It’s wonderful to ask for and receive loving support. Ask for suggestions, but don’t follow anyone else’s path. Seek advice, but know that it’s okay to sift through it and toss out what doesn’t work. Look to those with more experience, but don’t try to replicate. Try things. Weigh them. Discard. Be inspired. Let in what resonates. Fail. Succeed. Try again. Follow your children, follow your instincts. And listen to yourself. Trust. And never let anyone tell you you’re doing it wrong. Your unschooling is not my unschooling. Or anybody else’s. And that’s exactly how it should be.

The Opening of Pandora’s Box: Honoring Ourselves in Menopause

 

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At some point in the last year, I ceased menstruation and officially entered menopause. On what day, at what time, and in what manner, I couldn’t say. Just a seminal phase of my woman-life ushered in with little fanfare. We don’t acknowledge this rite of passage like we do the others.  I wonder why that is? My child-bearing years are now behind me and I’m floating in a sea of hormonal and life-purpose confusion. I’m not asking for a party, but can’t we at least talk about it? Shouldn’t someone at least say something. But what would be appropriate under the circumstances? “Good luck in this last phase of your life.” “Don’t let those hot flashes get you down.” “Best of luck finishing your sentences.”

I am aging. In ways that are genetically predictable, I am transforming. My knees sound like castanets when I walk up stairs.  The ankle I sprained in July aches when the weather drops below 65. And my fingers are beginning to curve upward and inward in a way that would be sexy if it were my breasts. I can’t help but be reminded of my grandmother’s arthritic fingers and the rings she could never get off. I loved her for decorating those knotty hands with bangles and rings that drew attention to the leafy skin and the complicated root system of blue veins beneath. Maybe that’s what it’s all about. Decoration, despite. And yet, intuitively, I am leaning less towards embellishment and more towards revelation and rebellion. I’ve decided to celebrate my greys. No hair dyes, or hennas, or hats for me. In fact, I’m wearing my hair down more these days. Wild and coarse and threaded with silver.

Mysterious things are happening. I’m no longer afraid of bees, or spiders, or snakes. In fact I speak to them tenderly, as I do trees and bodies of water. I’m now leery of falling and terrified of forgetting. Vocabulary words, the names of beloved actors, musicians, movie titles–even childhood friends– float around out of reach, or just plain leave, and I often have to put on my coat and boots and go looking for them in the middle of the cold night. I always find them, but they seem to wander off more frequently these days and I resent them like hell when they come sauntering back in the door like nothing ever happened. Like finding a child whose been hiding for too long, I’m both relieved and super pissed off. But I smack my forehead with the heal of my hand and say “of course” just to let them know it’s no big deal. They came back. That’s all that matters.

I also seem to be regressing (or progressing) emotionally. As a child, I held negative emotions inside. I could feel them vibrating right behind my chest plate in a small coffer I was told never to open.  Now, there is the leaking of self in all it’s forms. Anger, sadness, grief.  And at the bottom, a soft lining of Hope and Forgiveness. Pandora’s box has sprung wide open. I drive along country lanes with the windows rolled up and scream until I have no voice.  Sometimes, I fight the urge to hurl myself down a couple of stairs just to get my family’s attention. But I must be reasonable. So I speak my mind. I’m sick of doing the dishes. What about dinner? Did anyone notice I made dinner, you know, that lovingly prepared stuff on your plate?

The other night after losing at Scrabble during family game night, I actually muttered “it’s a stupid game anyway” and went to pout alone in my room. I cried my eyes out for no particular reason and for this whole tender world and ended up in a fetal ball with my forehead on the mattress—a petulant child’s pose. When it was all over, I felt renewed and peaceful. I don’t pretend to know what it all means. Sometimes I don’t recognize myself. On a recent morning, as I searched desperately for my new hair clip, I spotted it in my daughter’s silky hair.

“Give it here! It’s mine!”, I shouted.

This is particularly disturbing behavior for someone who practices mindfulness and Buddhist principles. Even more so for a mother who prides herself on being a peaceful parent. And well, an adult, by many years. When I had my children at 39 and 40, I didn’t think to do the forward math. Which finds my children at 12 and 13 entering puberty as I cross the threshold of menopause. Generally speaking, this is not a good combination. But they seem to be handling it better than me, easing into it, being the better example. I ask for forgiveness and offer it to myself.

I am a champion of healthy foods. And yet I found myself on a recent trip to the grocery store staring at the vast selection of Pop Tarts in the breakfast aisle . “Ooh, Pop Tarts” I enthused as I held a box of brown sugar cinnamon toaster pastries in my hand. “Mom, put the box down,” my son spoke gently and slowly to me. “You can’t buy those. They’re not even food.” He is a wise thirteen year old. I put them back. We made apple pie instead. I am still learning to compromise.

Menopause also finds me suspended in the middle place of womanhood. I am mother. I am daughter. I am mother to a teenage daughter, daughter to an ageing mother. Her body, so fragile now, betrays her with a constant series of small losses and a denial that won’t allow her to get rid of the tripping heels and the clothes that will never be worn again. And I care for her, when I can, with patience and compassion, as she cared for me. She must show herself, vulnerable and exposed, and allow others to assist, additional arms and legs to carry and lift and wash her. Tuck her into bed. And although I am at times terrified by what her ageing looks like, I recognize my inclusion in the cycle as a priviledge.

My own daughter will begin menstruation soon, as mine has ceased. So I sit her down and tell her that one day soon she will begin to bleed, only a few teaspoons really, and that it means her body is working as it should. I try to make it sound like no big deal, and a miraculous splendor at the same time. I tell her we can celebrate somehow. And I tell her, I will be there, if she wants me. If she needs me.

Some day soon, I’m going to plan a small ceremony to honor my own transformation. Something private, just a still moment under a tree. Nothing to figure out, just a time to be. Maybe in the Spring, when the bees are around. I have so much to tell them.

The Essence of Pie

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“Mom, can you pass me the paring knife and the cutting board?”

I look up from my recipe box, the hand-inked index cards stained with sauce and spices and god knows what else. Crumbs have found their way into the corners. I’ve been thumbing through them and can’t find “the best apple pie you’ve ever tasted”, which has a couple of secret and unexpected ingredients. For the life of me, I can’t remember what they are.

I pass my daughter the sharp knife and watch her begin to peel an apple expertly in one long red ribbon. “Don’t worry, mom, we can wing it.” And so we do. My son approximates the flour and butter and chooses to cut the pastry together with his fingertips, pressing it into the glass pie dish and fluting it up the sides. The result is artisanal, but lovely. Certainly uneven, thicker in some places than others. Definitely homemade.

Next, my daughter lights the stove, and I pull down the non-stick sauté pan. We dump her apple slices in with some sugar and butter. Next she adds a sprinkle of cinnamon and goes to stand in front of the spice rack, studying them for possible inclusion. “Ooh, what about nutmeg and a little ginger?” she looks at me excitedly, but she’s not really asking. She trusts her instincts. “Go for it,” I encourage her. As she’s picking out the jars, she turns one around and grabs it enthusiastically. “Cardamom.”

“Are you sure about that?” My son is doubtful. He knows it as a spice we use in Indian dishes, but my daughter reassures him that “it’s super versatile. You’ll see.” She adds her spices and a generous glug of vanilla extract. Things are starting to smell wonderful at this point and the apples are softening, the sugar caramelizing, so we spoon them into the crust and pop the ad hoc pie into the oven.

While it’s baking, we sit at the counter and chat. We’re surrounded by bits of flour and salt and sugar and bowls smeared with creamed butter, wooden spoons, a sharp knife. The cat jumps up and dips her paw into the bowl with authority and begins to meticulously lick her paw. I have a strong urge to scat her away, point out the mess we’ve made, and ask for help cleaning it all up. But it doesn’t seem so important. The mess can wait. I let it go and tune back in to the moment.

My son is explaining something about a movie he wants to make, which takes place in Berlin, and is asking my daughter if she would like to star in it as an American spy who’s infiltrated a ring of German spies. “Ya, natürlich,” she responds. She’s been studying German and it suits her. Then they both giggle in a way that makes them seem so much younger than their twelve and thirteen years. I reach over and tuck a stray strand of hair behind my son’s ear. He lets me, even smiles, and I feel such a swelling of gratitude for them both, for this life, for all they’ve taught me.

The moment passes. But there is pie, bubbling and crusting in the oven and its essence is something we don’t need a recipe for.

 

Against a Xeroxed Education

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“Xerox” is a great metaphor for our educational system. It’s one of those brand names that has become synonymous with the product it represents due to successful marketing, longevity, and popularity—like Band-Aid, or Popsicle, or Q-tips. We identify strongly with the brand name because we’ve heard it, read it, seen it on TV, and bought it so often that it becomes a generic monopoly on the item itself—the copy machine, the adhesive bandage, the ice pop, the cotton swab.

As consumers, we tend to be fiercely loyal to these brands. We think of them as mainstream, reliable, even comforting. And we come to accept them over time as the product itself, the real deal, regardless of price or quality.

Because these products sell well, they are often given prime real estate in the supermarket, pharmacy, or appliance store. Displayed at eye level and at arm’s length, we easily forget that other choices are readily available. We simply don’t see them because they aren’t in our peripheral vision. This is the tipping point for the successful marketing of any brand. When we buy without thinking, they have us exactly where they want us.

In this same way, over time, School has become the generic brand for education; just as Student has become synonymous with the person being taught, when in fact “Student” could readily be replaced with “Consumer.” We continue to accept the School brand name without question despite an ever-growing dissatisfaction with compulsory education, making text book companies, the test-writing industry and the general business of school quite successful. At the same time, we have bought into and continue to support the corporatization of education through homogenized curricula, depersonalized learning, and standardized testing as acceptable defects.

Rather than turning to another choice, completely overhauling the product, (or taking it off the market altogether), we repeatedly try to “fix” school, throwing catchy slogans and billions of dollars at the education industry, clinging to the possibility of reform through repackaging, while teachers, who might hold more insight into the defects and possible remedies, remain consistently underpaid and stripped of any input into how we might improve upon the product.

Choosing a “xeroxed” brand of education for our children also means we are subjecting them to a mass, one-size-fits-all learning platform that doesn’t allow for individuality, creativity, or freedom of thought and expression. Supporting the school brand without considering alternative options is a blatant form of educational bias. Any time something becomes a packaged commodity with a marketing machine behind it (and a direct path to Big Finance)—whether it be seeds, clothes, wine, food, or education—the essence of the thing has lost its authenticity. Those who push for a globalized agenda are merely phantoms of progress who have highjacked the very idea of democratic learning.

School is not a brand holding a monopoly on learning, and we need to stop feeding it as such. It’s time to open our eyes and see that there are valid alternatives to the faulty wiring of compulsory schooling and corporatized testing. And they’re right there in front of us on the educational shelf in the form of homeschooling, self-directed learning, open source course platforms, democratic learning centers, nature/wilderness programs, community volunteer opportunities, and even your local library or art museum. In fact, they have been there for some time now. It’s time to dust them off and let them shine. We need to help our children forge their own path to a democratic future based on freedom of educational choice.

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This essay is an excerpt from the book, “Everything I Thought I Knew: An Exploration of Life and Learning” available here.

The Great Turning

This is a guest post I wrote on Laura Grace Weldon’s beautiful and inspiring site!

Laura Grace Weldon

I’m thrilled to offer a guest post by Ellen Rowland. This essay is adapted from her recently published book, Everything I Thought I Knew: An Exploration of Living and Learning. 

I sat at the small table by the kitchen window this morning thinking about hope. The news was bad. Again. Acres of majestic trees destroyed by fire, hurricane devastation, floods and loss, missiles and political misfires. So many people in need of each other, divided by both real and imagined borders. Yet in that quiet moment as my children still slept, I felt a strong pull to lean into the beauty around me, the calm, to focus on the small acts of kindness that don’t always get talked about and believe in their power. Did I have a right to be hopeful when the world was so clearly hurting?

If you’re deep ecologist Joanna Macy, and others like her, the…

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