Thursday, May 29, 2008

Now Where Did I Put That Internal Compass . . .

. . . because I feel deliciously lost.

Wednesday night, when I still thought I was going to be able to fall asleep at a reasonable (for me) hour, I sat with my notebook and pencil and scratched out my plan for June.

  • No rules
  • No shoulds
  • No guilt
  • No fear
  • No stress
I am easily inspired.  Inspired, not influenced.  Nothing is going to convince me that the 80s look of leggings and baggy tops deserves another go around, or that Fritos have suddenly become health food simply because they consist of only corn, corn oil, and salt (I like them though, and eat them about twice a year).  No, good ideas have to resonate with my own life philosophies before I take them on.

Or should I say, pile them on.  I attach myself to good causes like a velcro kid to his mommy's leg.  Independence Days? Check!  Riot 4 Austerity? Check!  Compacting?  Check!  Veganism? Check!  Traditional Foods?  Check!  Read an environmental book in May?  Check!  Buy Nothing in April?  Check!  Grow Your Own?  Check!  You get the idea.

There is nothing wrong with all of the challenges that float around in cyberspace, or come to us via books, newspapers, magazines, and public radio.  They are meant to be inspiring, and to bring about change.  They are, however, dangerous in the hands of a neurotic, guilt-ridden, anxious, empathetic, perfectionist (that would be me . . . I should note that I am especially kind to myself as well).

I have struggled with the desire to be perfect since I was a little, little girl.  I was the kind of child who was told not to touch, and never did again.  I was the straight-A honors student who played in the band, mentored Brownie Scouts, and babysat premature babies.  I never crossed out mistakes on my paper ~ I always started over.  By high school I was mildly anorexic.  (How can you be mildly anorexic?  You can shun food and at the same time know that it is stupid, thus never eating in front of other people but eating enough to avoid hospitalization ~ barely.) I boycotted McDonald's because the fish in their Filet-O-Fish sandwich had a by-catch that included seals.  In college I was a mess, unable to reconcile the effect of my existence on the planet and its inhabitants.  I became a feminist, a vegetarian, an environmentalist, an animal rights activist, a pacifist.

(Perfectionism isn't in itself a bad trait, or a good trait.  It simply is what it is, and is what you make of it.)

Tell me that animals have to live horrible lives and die terrible deaths to feed me, and I stop eating them.  Tell me that we're using more than our fair share of the planet,and I try to change my ways.  Tell me that conventional farming destroys the soil, and I go organic.  I have been one giant self-improvement project my entire life.

Caring is good.  Making changes is good.  Becoming despondent is not.  I can think about the recent deaths in Myanmar and China, and fall into the pits of despair.  I feel the pain of children starving in Haiti.  A friend's pain, physical or emotional, is mine (and J-Baby is the same way).

The issue, I think, is not that I feel things deeply (because I really think that is a positive thing), but that I have a deeply ingrained sense of guilt.  I want to make it all better, and when I can't, I feel terrible.  I count every misdeed, and hate myself for each one.  The problem is, there is no way to be perfect.  Perfection truly does not exist.

Guilt and challenges are external motivators.  Seen in simpler guise, such as fast food chains offering children rewards for behavior, grades, or reading, I reject them soundly.  But I keep jumping on the challenge bandwagon.  Oh, it seems fun at first.  Inspiring even, because I am going to make a difference and I have a built in support group to cheer me on and brag/confess to.  Except the first misstep sends me reeling: perhaps I am not worthy. Other people are getting by without refrigerators, why can't I?  Other people have huge gardens/homesteads and grow a significant part of their annual diet, why don't I?  Other people never buy jeans at Kmart, or buy new books, or succumb to the guilty pleasure of an In 'N Out Burger (protein-style ~ I still have to eat gluten free).  What the heck is wrong with me?

Several times in my life I have come to a place where nearly every decision is fraught with complications, and I freeze, the proverbial deer in the headlights.  I get stuck.  I stop enjoying life because it is too stressful and too hard.  We can need a quart of milk, and if I have to get into the car to drive the 4 miles to the store to buy what is acceptable to me in terms of ethics and health I will feel as guilty as hell because we didn't ride our bikes, and thus contributed to global warming.

I know this isn't a good way to live, and indeed that it is barely living at all.  So I shove it all out of my mind and that works for a little while.  I have cultivated the ability to be in the moment partially as a defense mechanism against the larger reality.  Lately I've been focusing on recognizing when I'm starting to fall into the quagmire, and I trying to stop the guilty thinking before it starts.

I have to accept that I am enough.   I can't do it all, I can't save the world, I can't stop the suffering that surrounds me, big and small.  But I do try to make a difference, and every little thing that I do is enough.

My internal compass is there, guiding me.  I ignore it often, and do get lost, going around in mental circles.  I need to pause, to find that space where I can let go of everything external and figure out what works for me in my very individual situation.  When I do that I come back to center, get my bearings, and set my feet to the spiral path once more.

I Might Just Give Up!

Trying to not label ourselves as unschoolers leaves us hemming and hawing and somehow people think we aren't owning up to what we do.  No matter how you phrase it ~ child-led, delight-driven, relaxed ~ people who homeschool are going to identify you as a unschooler. People who don't homeschool aren't going to get it at all, so why bother with the fancy words?

I really, really hate labels.  I hate being pigeon-holed or stereotyped.  I reserve the right to change my mind.  If we do unschool, we still limit TV and video games (note that this has moved to limiting, not elimination).  We still loosely uphold bed times, and there isn't a Dorito or Twinkie in sight.  (Before you hit me over the head, I know that unschooling doesn't mean that people are uninvolved with their children, or that their children watch TV 24/7 and eat nothing but junk food ~ It's the stereotype I rebel against!)  Still, I'm starting to see that while the unschooling label may conjure up negative connotations for some, it also creates solidarity with others.  Its like a secret ~ life with our kids is great ~ club.

And damn, I'm pretty radical.  I've always been radical, but now I am really listening to myself and how often I say no to the boys, and I'm asking myself why.  In fact, I'm now having this internal dialogue before I say no, and I'm saying yes.  I'm saying yes so often and so quickly that my boys are often surprised.  That means I must have been saying no too often before.  I think the no stifles learning.

They really are growing up and showing maturity, and I want them to make decisions.  In fact, I think I've been a bit of a control freak, and well, I want that to stop.  I want them to have the freedom I had as a child.  I see it as part of their growth, and part of mine.  And honestly, now that they are 8 and 9, I don't care what they have for a snack.  If it is in the house and isn't raw meat set aside for dinner, have at it.

Saying yes has positive effects right away.  A couple of months ago I started saying yes every time they asked to play in the front yard (we live on a somewhat busy street, so I needed to know that they were mature enough to look for cars before chasing a ball into the street). Within a week they stopped asking for permission, and just regarded it as part of their territory.  Since then we've had the opportunity to talk about strangers walking on our street, and the difference between being polite and being too friendly, and how they can develop and trust their intuition.

Is it possible that I am a radical unschooler?  Could it be that I have reconciled what it means to be radical about living and learning and to reject the idea that floats around out there that radical unschoolers are actually unparenting (I've always maintained that they are separate things, and that neither homeschooled nor away - from - home schooled children are immune to having parents who end up not doing much parenting, for whatever reasons.  But I think I've been afraid of the word, radical.

Maybe it is time to take back the words and wear them proudly.  It is certainly something to think about.

The Middle of the Night

My AmityMama friend, Meeshi, often uses a simple format to frame her blog posts, and I thought I'd give it a try.
  • I am feeling ~ calmer now that I got out of bed.  Underneath that I'm slightly stressed that tonight is an I can't sleep night.  Even worse, it is an I'm not tired, I can't sleep night.  My stomach is upset.  It's a bad night for it, as FIL is here and I need to be present in the morning (and I stayed in bed far too long tossing and turning because the family room isn't available to me).  But there's nothing I can do about it.  I'm so tempted to just stay awake and see if I can do a total sleep system reset, but I do have to drive FIL to the station tomorrow.  I guess I'll try to sleep again in a little while.
  • I am hearing ~ the constant hum of the highway, despite the late hour.  My computer fan. The tap of my fingers on the keyboard. Little else.
  • I am seeing ~ my computer screen, the glow of the little lamp, wood floors, wood chairs, wood table.  The neighbor's porch light, and the glow of light from inside their house. Perhaps someone is awake over there as well.
  • I am smelling ~ nothing.  The food smells have dissipated from the house or I have gotten used to them
  • I am thankful for ~ my newfound ability to find peace and calm in a situation that used to provoke severe anxiety.
  • I am planning ~ to be really gentle with myself tomorrow (uh, today).  I'm thinking about how I can be present for the boys when the exhaustion inevitably sets in.  I have to accept that my nerves will be a little raw, so there will need to be time for connection and time for rejuvenation.
  • I am hoping . . . that I will find an answer to the insomnia.  I am not worried that I need to figure it out today, after all, I have battled insomnia fairly regularly for more than a decade now, and even as a child I had an awareness of being unable to sleep at times.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Grandpa Comes to Visit

How exciting!

FIL arrived via train this morning.  Now, he doesn't live that far away, at least by the standards of our time period and culture.  The train is just more convenient, less stressful, and less expensive.  We, however, are train geeks, so an arrival by train is exceedingly fun.  We drove to the station, hit a road block, and had to drive all the way around to get to the platform.  This meant going over a bridge; T-Guy spotted the transfer equipment for the containers (trains to trucks/intermodal), and he was practically out of his seat with excitement.

Grandparents can be treasures in children's lives.  It sounds like a cliche, but the reality is that there is potential for a fantastic mentoring relationship with grandparents.  They love their grandchildren far more unconditionally than they loved us as children, or than we love our own children (oh, we try for unconditional, but it doesn't happen).  It helps if the parents have good relationships with the grandparents (be they their own parents or their ILs).

It also helps to step out of the way and let the kids direct the action.  Off and on today I have drifted in and out, sometimes participating and sometimes leaving FIL and the boys to their own activities.  They played the Game of Life; I sat with them but stayed out of the game until my help was requested at the end.  The listened to an audio book; J-Baby had insisted on going to the library last night to borrow Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing because "Grandpa likes it".  Then they had a snack (I cut up fruit) and asked to use the vintage Spirograph I bought at the thrift store.  I got them started, then FIL and I sat and chatted while the boys experimented.

Papa arrived home from work and now they are all off on a bike ride.  We'll have supper when they come home (beans and cornbread), and then it is family movie night.  I would have liked for us to walk after super, but movie night is inviolable around here.

I'm looking forward to the time after the boys go to bed, when the talk turns more adult, and when Papa and FIL are bound to bring out their guitars and sing together.  I kind of wish that tonight wasn't movie night so we could all make music, but I doubt the boys will go for it, and despite my growing relaxed parenting as the boy get older, Papa still likes bed times.  But we all sing together often, so I'll sink into it and take the evening as it comes.

Opening Up

I'm starting to feel more comfortable when people ask what the boys have been learning in that what have you been teaching them way.  I'm slowly letting family members know what I think about education, and why, and how it has changed and could change again.  I'm no longer rattling off a list of what the boys are reading of what curriculum we're using.

It's a little scary.  A year ago I would have felt more comfortable than I do now, but the situation is such in California that I worry about people sticking their noses in where they don't belong.  Not family, but other well-meaning people who are appalled that my children don't print well and can't recite their multiplication tables.

I did find a great course of study document for unschoolers in California, so I adapted that and put it in our private school file.  I know I'm not doing anything wrong; I just wish other people understood so that we wouldn't face the possibility of fighting for what we believe to be our fundamental right as parents.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Books and Movies

We went to see Prince Caspian last night.  I had Papa on one side of me, J-Baby on the other, and I was glad for moveable armrests that let us snuggle together as we took in the world of Narnia on the big screen.

Oh, we saw The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe when it came out.  We go to very few movies, and we choose them carefully.  Then we follow a very simple rule.  If the movie is adapted from a book, we read the book first.

All the way home the boys talked about the differences between the book and the movie, and decided that the book was better.

I understand.  I waited so eagerly for The Mists of Avalon to be made, and then I was beyond disappointed when it finally arrived.  I suppose there was no way for a 2 part miniseries to live up to the world I had created in my mind reading the book 10 - 15 times over 20 years.

I'm not anti-movie.  I even understand why changes need to be made, sometimes for length and very often to create a film that the movie-going public will want to see (rather than the book reading public).  I just find that I am more likely to enjoy a movie if I haven't read the book and don't plan to (common with recent fiction), or if the movie isn't based on a book.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Lesson Learned

(Or more precisely, being learned.  I still need practice.)

I am an overcommitter.  Okay, maybe that isn't a real word, but it fits.  I often, spontaneously, find myself taking on a task without thinking through what it means in terms of my time.  Usually I'm signing up to do something fun, like host a dinner or participate in a card swap.  I'm actually pretty good at saying no to things that I know I don't want to do.

So, I signed up for a card swap.  When I saw that the group was doing one I actually posted that I might like to do the next one, as the current one was already in full swing.  I got a message from the coordinator letting me know that there was still time to join the swap.  Uh oh.  I said yes because it felt good to be wanted, despite the fact that I don't actually know any of the crafters in real life, they don't know me, and my presence in the swap was pretty meaningless in the big scheme of things.

I didn't think about what I would have to do to participate in the swap, like come up with several original ideas for cards, make the cards, and go to the post office.  I didn't figure in for crafter's block, or agonizing over whether anyone would like what I made.  I procrastinated.  The deadline was extended (I didn't ask for that to happen), and I procrastinated longer.  I was waiting for last minute inspiration: it didn't come.

I realized that I didn't want to make the cards and that I wasn't that vested in receiving cards in trade.  I had stuck with the swap because I didn't want to look bad.  I didn't want to be a quitter.  Finally today, it struck me: I was trying to uphold a false image of myself to people that I don't know.  If I didn't want to make the cards, I didn't have to.

Now, some swaps are more particular than this, and someone dropping out might have consequences on everyone else.  I'm really glad I hadn't committed to something like that.  But I did learn another lesson, that who I am and what I want to do with my time is more important than pleasing people, and that I should think carefully before making commitments.  This time I could bow out, but sometimes I can't, and I end up doing something that I don't want to do.

Time is precious.  More important to me than not spending the time making cards is letting go of the agonizing and worrying, and clearing the mental clutter of having an unwanted, uncompleted task.

Over the years my lessons have changed.  12 years ago my lesson was to learn flexibility, to learn to bend and not break.  I spent more than a full year encountering the lesson over and over again, and certainly have had to practice it ever since.  Lately it seems that the lesson coming at me is to slow down, and to recognize that I have the power to remove stress from my life and to not create some of it myself.

Tag, You're It!

We all remember playing tag as children, right?  Some of us still play it, although I must admit that the children are a lot faster than I am.  It's fun though ~ it's hard to play tag and not laugh.

So I stopped by my friend Tammy Takahashi's blog, Just Enough, and Nothing More, this afternoon, and oops, I got tagged!  The task is to send a message to the world in 15o characters or less.  Characters, not words.  I'm guessing that includes spaces and punctuation.

What would I have to say?

Be real, be honest.  Never stop learning.  Love others fully and love yourself.  Find or create community.  Live in harmony with nature.  Never stop learning.  Enjoy life.

If you are reading this, tag, you're it!

Friday, May 16, 2008

Washing Dishes

Last night Papa and T-Guy bicycled off to the farmers market without J-Baby and me.  J-Baby was still working on finishing his meal (he was eating slowly, but not complaining about his dinner or attempting to get out of eating it), and the kitchen work needed to be done.  In other words, we were running late.

There were a lot of dishes that needed to be done by hand.  This is usually true in our house, where almost all food preparation involves bowls, pots, pans, and assorted items that don't fit (or shouldn't go) in the dishwasher.

I asked J-Baby if he wanted to help me in the kitchen, thinking I'd have him wipe the table.  Well yes, he did want to help ~ with the dishes.  Now, dishes aren't usually my domain (I cook, Papa usually cleans up), and I hadn't intended to have an impromptu lesson.  But my boy wanted to do this.  Think quick, how will this work?  The big stainless steel bowl came down from the cupboard and was put to use as as rinse basin.  We found a small step stool.  The boy rinsed every dish I washed and then put it in the dish rack.  He was pleased with himself.  We chatted while we worked.  It felt good.  When we finished we took his rinse water out and watered the small rose bush.

We may have just changed how we do dishes around here. 

Friday, May 09, 2008

Why We Aren't Unschoolers

We aren't "un" anything.  What does it mean, anyway?  Back in the '70s my family played a game called The Ungame.  It wasn't supposed to be like a game, except, well, it was a game.  It looked like a game, we kept it with the other games, and we sat around the table to play it.  The content was unique, but it was still a game.

Is unschooling supposed to mean that it is unlike schooling?  Is it not schooling?  I've met parents who say they are unschoolers who teach math from a math book, and unschooling parents who would say that using a math curriculum isn't unschooling.  No one can really agree.

Many homeschoolers who don't unschool think of unschooling as a lazy parent's way to homeschool (for the record, I don't think there's anything lazy about it ~ letting go of scripts and lesson plans requires engaged parents).  They envision children staying up until 3 am playing video games nonstop from waking to sleep, with nary a stop to eat (unless pizza is wafted under the gamer's nose).  I, however, have encountered many self-labelled unschooling families who don't own televisions or game consoles.

No, the label is too fraught with connotation.  It conjures up stereotypes, some derogatory and some fantastic.  Lazy parents, plugged-in kids, kids who can't get into college.  Or freedom, life experience, trust.

But we aren't willing to take on the unschooling label?  Why?  Because I jettisoned the schooling part of our education philosophy a long time ago.  We aren't schooling, we are learning.  Not just the boys ~ all of us, all of the time. I've tried a lot of methods and philosophies, and they all have pluses and minuses, but in the end, any attempt at homeschooling as an educational philosophy flopped.  To me, unschooling, in its attempt to be unlike schooling, still suggests that schooling is the major focus, even if the attempt is to turn it upside down and inside out.  Many unschoolers still feel the need to justify themselves by showing how unschooling measures up to schooling ~ at home or away from home.  I call it the why-my-method-is-better-than-yours-is mentality.

We live.  We're human, and learning is the human condition.  Our word is full of wonders, and we have more information than we've ever had before.  Fact gathering is easy, if one wants to gather facts.  Living and learning brings facts into experience and understanding.  No, we aren't unschooling, which in the end sounds more like a political statement to me than an educational philosophy.  We are pro-learning, really learning, through living and being human.

(I suppose I'll still have to keep the term homeschooling in my purse, ready to pull out whenever someone asks the boys why they aren't in school.)

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Who Are We?

Let's just get the labels out of the way, shall we?

We are (I hear the Jetson's theme running through my brain):

I/Me, the voice of the blog.  Partner, lover, friend, mama, daughter, writer, poet, artist, musician, crafter, environmentalist, feminist, cook, housekeeper, nature lover, seamstress, train geek, bookworm . . . human being.  (By the way, I don't claim to be especially proficient at all of the things I do.

Papa, my partner, lover, and friend.  Papa, son, programmer, friend, musician, nature lover, bookworm, cyclist, historian, Lakers fan, train geek (okay, we all are), foosball player, and probably 50 more things that I don't even know.

T-Guy, my oldest son.  Bookworm, musician, nature lover, basketball fiend, cyclist, crafter, brother, friend, grandchild, music lover, morning lark, Lego lunatic, Star Wars worshipper . . . my huggly, snuggly boy.

J-Baby, my youngest son.  Math whiz, artist, drummer, nature lover, cyclist, basketball fiend, skeptic, Lego lover, brother, friend, grandchild, night owl, keen observer, my sweet kisses and I love you boy.

Girl Dog, my baby before I had babies.  Beautiful, neurotic, and slightly geriatric canine with a medium-sized build and really big bark.

You've met us before, maybe at Sunshine Alternative Mama, Red Dirt Life, Holistic Learning, Sustainability in the Suburbs, or one of those blogs I mentioned that just didn't make it.

A New Journey

Every blog has to start somewhere.

After more than 500 blog posts on 10 different blogs, some that thrived, some that sputtered, and a couple that barely made it out of the gate, I'm starting over.

We're starting over.

Everything felt fragmented, and bits of the old would haunt me as I embraced the new.  I couldn't always remember where my posts were or decide where a post belonged.  I struggled for my voice and for focus.  I debated whether or not writing about our lives for a viewing public made any sense.  I was delighted when I received comments.  I was worried when I didn't.

For a person who espouses the simple life, blogging wasn't simple anymore.

I felt stifled by various causes I had joined, or by philosophies I held.  I had so many labels pasted on me that I felt more like the back of a '74 Pinto than a human being.

So here we are.  I'll probably do the writing, but I'll be writing about us.  What we're doing and learning.  How that happens, and why we choose to do it the way we do.  The lessons we learn as we live, love, laugh, and learn.