Search

Yurt in the Hollow

a handmade life

A Pocket Full of Leaves: Unschooling Science

Children are natural scientists. The same curiosity which drives the human child to IMG_4224acquire language and mobility in order to explore and connect with their environment, also drives them to learn everything they can about that environment.

All we have to do is keep up with their questions.

Children want to know everything. How big is a blue whale and where does it swim, and where do all the toads go in the winter, and where does the sun go when it sets, and where was I before I was in your belly? All we have to do is explore these questions with them. And to give them exposure so the questions have opportunity to arise.

Exposure to what? Everything. Anything. The local library. Lakes. Forests. Ponds. Rivers. The ocean. Cities. People. Museums. Planetariums. The stars. Science Centers. Ideas. Islands. Boats. Planes. Trains. People. Art. Language. Music. People. Books. The internet. Pop culture. Mountains. Religions. People. Animals. People. People. People.

The world is a puzzle and each piece of it we can give to the child is a gift. It doesn’t matter what pieces. Any pieces. All of the pieces we can, however we can. How the child puts them together is their job. Our only job is to provide access.

To say yes to the bug house living on the kitchen table because someone is raising caterpillars; yes to standing in front of the chrysalis display at the science center for 20 min, even though it is hot and crowded, because someone is captivated; yes to
having your pockets stuffed full of rocks and sticks and berries and leaves on every hike; yes to having your windowsill “decorated” with rocks and pinecones.

IMG_4199

And to be curious ourselves.

When a child is around adults who discuss politics and world issues, and ask questions, and read books, and listen to music, and plant seeds, and explore nature, and do meaningful work…they naturally do the same. What we wish the child to be doing always begins with ourselves, right? That’s what I’ve found.

We must do what is authentic to ourselves, and allow the child to do what is authentic to them.

And when we include the child in the conversation, he learns to see himself as capable of examining on his own. Or rather, he never stops doing so in the first place. All of the questions are never answered. And every question leads to another. The science is never ‘all in’, it is a dynamic process. A conversation. Talk with the child about new discoveries. And take joy in the child’s discoveries.

Be authentic. Be curious. And cultivate a sincere love for answering questions. No need to plan science. Just plan adventures. Plan opportunities. Allow experiments, even when it involves all of the couch cushions, or your sewing scissors, or a mess you know they’ll need assistance cleaning up.

A scientist is just a grownup who never lost their curiosity.

IMG_1700

Making Curiosity Your Curriculum: Unschooling Literacy

IMG_4278

He’s two. He plays with a copy of Goodnight Moon in the car, practicing turning the pages and finding the mouse in the pictures. The symbols on the pages mean nothing to him, yet, but someday he will make sense of them. Just two years ago, he was still inside of me, listening to my voice and not comprehending the words. Now he points at the page with a chubby finger: “Night-night moon! Where’s mouse?” He’ll make sense of the written word the same way he made sense of the spoken word. By soaking it up from the big people around him.

His sister is seven. She looks up from a copy of The Neverending Story that rests in her lap, and helps him find the mouse on the page.

“How long till we’re there, Mamma?”

I point out the next sign. More symbols. Reading is as useful as talking, if the world around you is full of words. I try to make sure my children’s world is full of words. I help them make sense of those words when they ask. That’s my curriculum.

It’s the same one my mother followed, back when “Unschooling” was barely a term. I learned to read leaning up against the soft cushion of her arm, scanning the words as she read them. I don’t remember many lessons. I do remember hours upon hours of adventuring through stories together. She read whether we were sitting still or not. She read as we rolled around on the floor, and hung upside-down on the sofa.

I learned to write because I had stories bursting out of my veins, and parents who took joy in them. The first time I decided I wanted to be published, I was nine. Instead of treating me like a child, as adults are prone to doing, she helped me write out an admission letter and send it off.

My daughter presses her nose against the window. She’s always been my early riser. When she was two I used to set her up a little “nest” next to the heater, with pillows and books and a cup of cereal, so that when she woke early she could sit quietly and look at the pictures. She’d make up the stories as she turned the pages.

At age four she enjoyed phonics workbooks, occassionally. Words were fascinating to her, and she desperately wanted to puzzle them out.

Never listen to someone who says an Unschooler can’t use a workbook. Learning by choice means using any tool you choose. Provide lots of tools. Let kids pick and choose the ones that work for them. Unschooling isn’t about “can’t”. About what you don’t do. It’s about following curiousity wherever it leads.

Make curiosity your curriculum.

And if the workbook doesn’t work, if the child doesn’t choose it, if it’s like a wet towel on their curiosity instead of fanning the flame…then toss it. Leave it on the shelf. Stick it in the burn bin. A tool is only helpful if it works.

Mostly she just looked at books alot. We used to joke that you could find her by the trail of books she left behind her. And I read to her a lot. I remember when suddenly around age three she made the connection that the symbols on the page were what I was deriving the story from, and wanting me to show her what each word said.

When she was almost six, her Farmor came to visit from Stockholm and brought her an abridged copy of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Nights Dream. The pictures of dancing faeries sent her over the edge. For weeks she carried that book everywhere she went, reading paragraphs over and over and over until she had them memorized. By the time she’d puzzled out that book, she could officially read. Her own strong desire to know the story had taken her from sounding out short, three letter words, to reading Shakespeare. Since then, she has gobbled up books like candy, bringing stacks home from the library every week.

Books are the resevior of human knowledge. Through the written word, we discover pieces of history and walk the trails of human ideas. To read is to be empowered to teach oneself anything one wants to know. To read is to join in the human conversation.

Spelling and grammar and punctuation and writing have all followed naturally. Mostly she picks it up from what she’s read, but she’ll also ask how to spell things. Usually in the car, when she’s writing in her journal about where we’re going. “Listen to this mama: ‘April 2, we are going to the greenhouse to get more seeds and some fruit trees.’ Is that how you spell fruit? F-R-O-O-T?”

This is my curriculum: Be available when questions are asked.

Sometimes we are the teachers, but usually we are the facilitators.

She likes to write letters to grandparents and cousins. I make sure she is stocked in stationary and stamps. I write down all of the addresses for her to copy. She likes to staple paper together and write stories. I sort through broken crayons and stacks of paper scraps.

Right now she is working on a story for her daddy’s birthday “Everything you have taught me about trees”. Her last pen runs out of ink on the third page. Pens is becoming a permanent item on my grocery list. Better teach this kid how to type so I’m not sending gazillions of plastic pens to land on a beach somewhere.

“Mommy, look! I got a high score!” This one is five. He holds up his iPad in the back seat for me to see. Playing games on the touch screen has really helped him develop his fine motor skills.

Screens are just tools. Use the tools that work.

Until recently this guy didn’t have much interest in letters. He preferred his sister reading to him. He could never seem to grip the pencil properly and make it cooperate, and his hand quickly became tired. As his motor skills have improved on the iPad, he has suddenly developed an intense desire to master letters. He asks me or his dad or his sister to write out the alphabet for him, and he copies it. He likes it when I quiz him on what the letters are, or what sounds they make. A couple of weeks ago he copied the word “toad” out of a book.

This boy is frog and toad crazy. There’s never a day in the spring that you won’t find some bucket or other on the porch, filled with pets that he’s collected. So it’s fitting that he’d choose “toad” as his first independently written word.

The second word he mastered was “butt”. Which you know is also fitting, if you’ve ever met a 5-yr-old boy.

He’s gone back to his game. There are symbols on the screen, too. I know it won’t be long before he puzzles these out, because they are relevant to him. Learning happens when there is context. Skills “taught” out of context can feel like a burden. Skills mastered, in context, are thrilling and joyful.

Do only what is joyful. That is my curriculum.

Look for where the learning is happening, and do more of that. Be present. Answer questions. And if you hope a child will develop a love of the written word, then pick up a book (or two, or ten), and read it where they can see.

TOMORROW’S CHILD

img_0193

“Mommy? Mommy?”
It’s nine o’clock. I’m trying to nurse the baby to sleep. Rain patters on the yurt roof.
“Mommy, I have some questions I need to ask you. Can we do some school tomorrow and I can ask you my questions?” My 6 yr old daughter snuggles closer.
“Mmm-Hmmm.”
“I have three. Three questions.”
“K.”
She is quiet for a couple of minutes. Firelight flickers across the walls. I think she is asleep, till a head pops over my shoulder again. “Here is one of them that I’ve been wondering FOREVER mom. It’s about the planet that is cold on one side and hot on the other.”
I’m exhausted. It would be so much easier to tell her to just go to sleep. But we have a rule in our house: never interrupt learning. “Venus?”
“Yeah, that one. So here’s my question: is there, like, a line dividing the hot side and the cold side, and if you cross the line then you’re on the other side, or is it more like, you know, you keep walking and then it slowly gets colder?”
I smile in the dark. “I’d say it’s gradual.” We talk for a bit about planetary rotation. My four year son joins in from his futon on the other side, and they move on to the fascinating discussion of other galaxies, and how long it would take to get there, and what you might find.

Learning. It happens at all hours of the day and night, if I allow it to. When I stop trying to control, and just follow their lead. This is the essence of Unschooling. It’s messy. And magical.

“Can you help me with my letters Mommy?” Is usually asked when I’m in the middle of cooking dinner. It’s so easy to say no, not right now, later. But we have a rule in our house: never interrupt learning. So he pulls a stool up to the bar counter and I help him while I chop onions. Soon the workbook is abandoned for a knife, and he helps me chop the potatoes. He chops them too small and misses half the skin, but this is learning too.

A young human, if all of the needs that thousands of years of evolution have programmed into them have been met, is so naturally curious that you could not stop their learning if you tried. We are wired this way. It is how we acquire information about the world around us. By exploring, by watching, by asking questions, by creating hypothesis and testing them out. A young human is full of a burning desire to know…everything.

They don’t need nor desire constant attention or intervention, but they do require us to be present in each moment. Willing to slow down and answer their questions. Young humans mimic everything. They want to do everything that we do, and will keep coming back to a task again and again until they have mastered it.

Watch a very young child attempting to move a heavy object from one place to another, and you will see the determination of the human being.

The other morning, my two oldest children were up and outside before I’d even gotten out of bed. I could hear their excited voices through the canvas walls, discussing the collection of slugs which they’d put in a bucket the night before. They were having such a good time outside, that an hour later they popped in, sweaty and muddy, and asked if they could have breakfast in their fort under the grapes.

Why not? We have a rule in our house: never interrupt learning. Even when it involves slugs.

As I was packing up their breakfast picnic, I could hear them attempting to move a table (quite a heavy metal table!) up the steep hill to the grape arbour. They tried one way, and then around to the other side of the hill. They tried pushing, and pulling, and got into an argument about how it should be done, and resolved the argument, and came up with a plan, and eventually succeeded in manuevering this heavy table up the hill.

Humans do not easily give up. Not if our instincts are intact. The natural drive of a species to continue to exist, pushes us to learn, to create, to problem-solve.

It is only if a human has their time and efforts controlled, regimented; is told the right way to do things at the expense of all creative thought; is manipulated by the carrot-and-stick game of punishments and rewards, that our intrinsic motivation is broken.

When all motivation becomes extrinsic, we cease to be human and become cogs in a wheel. Worker bees, whose only function is to serve the ecomony. Slaves to the bank and the corporations and the bottom line.

The goal of modern schooling is not only to impart knowledge, but to acclimatize children to our society. To take all of the wildness which resides in their very genetic makeup, and “civilize” it out of them, just as we thought to civilize the native “savages” of this land and so many others. To teach order, and obedience, and focus, and work ethic.

But as technology increasingly takes over the functional roles that humans once filled in our societies, I would argue that what we need, now more than ever, are our uniquely human capabilities. Intuition. Assessment. Creativity. Critical thinking.

A child in a first-grade classroom might be able to name the letters of the alphabet, perhaps to read, perhaps to work some simple sums. But how much of the precious moments of her childhood were squandered to be taught these simple skills? 2,400 hours. Was it worth that time? Was it necessary? Would she have gained these skills otherwise? And more importantly: what does she not know? Does she know where a frog will go if you follow it for an hour, or what the different calls of the raven mean? Can she show you which sprout will turn into broccoli, or carrots, or cabbage, or peas, and identify the weeds from among the vegetables? Can she tell you at what season you can find mushrooms in the forest, and where, and which ones are edible?

There’s so very, very much a child can do with 2,400 hours. And very little of it would they naturally choose to spend sitting at a desk. Or sitting at all. Hiking, swimming, jumping, rolling, climbing, running, bike-riding, yes. But rarely sitting.

And what happens to the child who cannot sit? The child who’s evolutionary drive screams at them to move, to explore, to create, to connect. The child who revolts at being subdued in a plastic chair, in a concrete room, behind a closed door. That child is labeled “disfunctional”, “ADHD”. Medicated. Put in therapy.

Today, 10 million school-age children in the US are being prescribed stimulants, antidepressants, and other phsychotropic (mild-altering) drugs for educational and behaviorial issues. Children 5 years old and younger are the fastest-growing segment of the non-adult population prescribed antidepressants in the U.S. Either a huge percentage of American children have serious disabilities, or they are normal kids having normal reactions to boredom. To lack of movement. To lack of connection. Why is it that we forever blame the child if they cannot focus on the material, rather than question whether the material is worth the child’s focus?

We cannot institutionalize our young from the moment they’re steady on their feet, keep them indoors or in front of screens for the majority of their waking hours, and then turn them lose on the world and expect them to care about our planet. About her oceans and her forests and her creatures.

And right now, as humanity hovers on the edge of the climate tipping point, we need humans who care deeply.

We’ve spent generations now pillaging the earth’s resources, disrupting her complex ecosystems, and destroying her rich biodiversity. We can be the generation who stops. In our schools and in our homes, we can raise people who are capable of rethinking the way we humans live on this precious planet.

While there is benefit to the brevity of our human lives in that we can acclimatize to vast changes rather quickly, these very acclimations become ingrained into our culture in such a way that we cease to question the validity of their existence. We need humans who are capable of questioning the validity of everything. Of the way we build our homes, and use our groundwater, and fish our oceans, and raise our food.

We are born concious beings. Empathy is our natural state. Because of our awareness of how our actions affect our people, other creatures, and the world around us, society has naturally evolved, in many ways, towards equality, fairness, and non-harm.

But in many ways, we are still in our infancy as a species. A brief blip in the history of our planet. We have so much farther to go if we wish to not only survive as a species, but create a society that is fair, just, and in balance with the ecology we depend on.

There are endless ways in which humans can expend their efforts towards this end, but nothing is so important as the way in which we raise our young. The way we care for our children directly affects the way in which they will care for the following generation. It affects the decisions they will make, and the society they will create.

Scientists have seen with lab rats that if a newborn is taken from it’s mother and raised in isolation, not receiving the constant licking from it’s parent, then it literally changes the biology of that rodents’ offspring. They become aggressive, and cease to care for their own young. Not that we need lab rats to tell us this. It’s evident in everything.

I had a goat once. A beautiful nubian doe who I brought to our place from another farm when she was already an adult, and bred. At her previous farm she had not been allowed to raise her kids. She had birthed a couple of sets of twins already, but they had been taken from her at birth and bottle-fed.

It was the middle of winter when it came time for her to kid. I had just had a baby of my own three weeks before, and was up to my neck in milk and exhaustion. I was expecting to be able to lend a watchful eye at the birth, and then leave the doe with her new babies and get back to my own newborn. I held the idealistic view that I would be giving this doe what she had missed out on previously: the chance to raise her own young. How naive I was.

Beatrix wanted nothing to do with her triplets. She blocked out the sensations of birth to the point that she didn’t even stop munching her alfalfa when her kids dropped to the barn floor, and then walked away from them without a lick or a second glance. This is not natural animal behavior. This only occurred because of human interference. Her natural instincts were broken.

This is the great responsibility of our human lives. Choice.

We humans choose, with each generation, whether we will break or nuture our natural instincts. Every time we mothers carry a child in our wombs, every time we feel those contractions blissfully opening us, we choose, not just for that child, but for all future generations, whether to nurture empathy and compassion. We choose it in the way we birth, we choose it in the way we handle them, the way we feed them, speak to them, and in the way we respond to their thousand questions.

The rain pounds harder on the yurt roof. The children next to me are snoring softly now. I think about the tilled rows and young trees outside, and wonder if my grandchildren will collect walnuts and apples from their branches. I wonder what kind of world they will be born into. And I am keenly aware that I am creating that world, with every choice I make.

Together, You and I

He plans to lift the restrictions on fracking, which uses approximately 5 million gallons of our precious water per well. He plans to lay that pipeline through Indigenous land, so we can continue to pump 20 million barrels of oil into the atmosphere a day. That’s 1/4 of the carbon emissions for the entire planet. He plans to reroute funds that were supposed to go to UN climate change programs and invest them in more US infrastructure for the same failing systems we should be running away from.

We were so close. The promises made at the Paris Climate Summit might, just might, have kept us from tipping over that 1.5C rise.

The world needs us. Without the cooperation and leadership of the US and China, the two biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, the efforts of the rest of the world’s nations will fail to produce the necessary change.

I have nothing against a Trump voter. Nothing. I do not believe theirs was a vote for racism and sexism. I believe it was a vote for change. A vote of frustration. They are right that the last thing we need is the Same ‘Ol Thing.

In a vote against the establishment and the anti-establishment, who could help but win? It is a perfect sign of our times. A natural reaction to a failing system.

But resurrecting that whose loss we mourn, will only keep us spinning our wheels. We have emotional attachment to an old way of life, which no longer serves us. What has always kept us evolving as a species is our ability to assimilate change, our ability to evaluate what is fair and just and right. This is our strength.

We must assimilate the fact that the way we are living on this planet is not working. And we must all, together, find new ways to meet our collective needs. Ways which do not involve destroying ecosystems. Or each other.

The point on which we all agree is that our democracy, and our planet, are screaming for change. To vote for a woman, was a vote for change. To vote for an outsider, was a vote for change.

Now it is up to us, all of us, to decide what that change should look like.

I   world hiding in a cormorant shell

it was naked, and bleeding and banished from hell.

The gods had renounced it

a plaything, gone mad

experiment over

‘FAILED’ stamped on the back.

So I draped it with diamonds

and I dressed it with glitter

and sold it away to the highest bidder…

Dance while can, my love

while there’s ground still left to dance on

for tomorrow the sun will be burning the ceiling

and the ocean caressing your door

For they’ve they dirtied its’ skies

and they’ve blackened its’ seas

and they’ve raped all its’ rivers

and cut off its’ trees

I’ve forgotten the moral,

but as evidence portrays

should you stumble upon them

leave worlds where they lay.

-Me

Stay-At-Home Activist…6 ways we can change the world from our own backyards

Have you read the report from the latest climate change summit? It’s frightening. Inspiring, that so many countries are coming together to recognize the reality and looming dangers of climate change, and come up with creative solutions to mitigate the issue. But frightening how overwhelming the evidence that we are doing too little. Too late. We are racing toward the edge of the ecological cliff. Entire countries are in danger from rising sea levels. Entire populations facing the threats of drought, desertification, and acidifying oceans.

And warming the globe by drilling up the earth’s life-blood to run our dishwashers and SUV’s isn’t the only way in which we humans are causing destruction. We dump massive amounts of toxic waste into our own water supply, abuse and murder other sentient beings, and kill off entire species that share this planet with us.

It has to stop.

It can stop.

According to NOAA: “The exact amount of warming that will occur in the coming century depends largely on the energy choices that we make now and in the next few decades”.

Humans are capable of far more than just destruction. We are natural-born creators. We have enormous capacity for compassion, for altruism, for ingenuity. Many, many groups of people across the world are searching for and experimenting with new ways of living. Ways which put us back in synch with the ecosystems we depend on. Ways which still give us the benefits of our incredible inventions, without their use causing harm.

There are things, simple things, that we can all do to contribute to the healing of our planet. The good thing about our short human lifespans, is that change can happen in a single generation. We become accustomed to new things so quickly. After all, we all grew up without iphones and GPS didn’t we? And now these technologies are the norm. This is so encouraging! If we utilize our enormous capacity for acclimation, we can create new norms quickly. And it is our responsibility, the responsibility of every human being, to create new norms of living so that the next generation will be prepared to function in the world they are inheriting. We can all be backyard warriors for a better earth!

img_2329

And these aren’t wild, crunchy, neo-hippie ideas. These are mainstream scientific ideas. These are things scientist worldwide are urging. These are things suggested even by our local radio station last week. We mustn’t fall into thinking “I’m only one person? What can I do? Why should I change?” Because if every one of the 6 billion of us on this planet changed just a little, that’s a lot of change.

Each of us can examine our own lives and figure out in what small ways we can contribute. Here are a few:

Get Conscious of Your Energy Usage…Embarrassingly, a year ago, when we lived in our farmhouse, I probably couldn’t have told you what our monthly energy usage was. Probably too much. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last year, living off grid, it’s how simple and easy it is to cut out superfluous energy consumption. Unplug your TV and appliances when you’re not using them, use less water, don’t turn lights on when you don’t have to. Better yet, install some solar panels on your roof. If you can’t afford to, build your own. A year ago we had the idea that it would cost us a good $20,000 to install a solar system to run our household. Now, through picking and choosing our energy usage and learning how to install our own system, we are doing so for under $3,000. If you can’t/don’t want to be off-grid, then educate yourself as to where your power company gets their energy and request more green choices. Some local power companies even offer incentives for customers to install their own solar, and feed that energy back to the grid.

Eat Less Meat…You hear it everywhere these days. The Western meat-centric diet is terrible both for our health and for the planet. A ridiculous amount of our arable land is being used to grow cereal grains to feed meat animals, rainforests which are the lungs of our planet are being cut down to make space to raise more beef and the corn that feeds them, waste from factory farms are polluting our rivers and groundwater, not to mention the destruction wrought on the lives of the animals living in terrible conditions. And it’s not just meat, it’s all factory farmed animal products. Your eggs and dairy products are just as environmentally destructive. Luckily, if you want to eat animal products, there are better ways to obtain them. Choose local, grass-fed, free range. Support small local farmers who are making an effort to move towards ethical and ecologically sound practices. Just be careful not to assume this is automatically the case. Just because it comes from down the road, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s sustainable or ethically raised.

My husband and I spent twelve years raising our own meat and dairy animals, and I know well how truly difficult it is to run a small farm in both an ethical and sustainable way. Farmers who are managing this deserve our support.

If we are smart about it, ruminant animals can be part of the solution to desertification. Their hooves aerate the ground, their manure spreads seeds from one place to another, and land that is not suitable to grow produce on can be used for grazing herds. If you choose to eat meat, try and make sure that you are contributing to a move towards a more sustainable way of raising it.

If you can’t, don’t eat it. For us, we’ve found we enjoy gardening much more, and so we’ve adapted our entire diet to be plant-based.

img_2109

Plant A Garden…Even if you eat no factory farmed animal products at all, simply buying food shipped halfway across the globe is a practice that should be avoided, as much as is possible. It’s sad how incredible difficult this is to do, but the more we all move towards purchasing products from our local food shed, the easier it will be for small farms to produce them. The way we eat is one of the simplest and most profound ways in which we can each contribute to changing the current flawed system. And it’s not just better for the earth, it’s better for our health too! Whenever possible, buy local. Even better, pull up that water-hogging lawn and plant your own vegetables. It takes no gardening skill at all to grow potatoes in a 5 gallon bucket on your balcony, or greens in your windowsill.

img_2117

Opt Out Of the Culture of Consumption…Our entire economy is built on the idea of consumption. Spend, spend, spend so the economy will grow, grow, grow. It’s not even hidden. Politicians shout it from the rooftops! It’s simply unsustainable. And the more we consume, the more is produced, the more is thrown away, and the more ends up in landfills. Instead, learn to fix what’s broken. Buy used. Donate. Craft. Or, here’s an idea…simply have less.

Downsize…The American idea of a big huge house for one family is in great contrast to how people live in other parts of the world. So let’s learn from other cultures and move away from the idea that we need a bedroom for every member of the family, a room just to eat in, etc. Huge houses equal huge heating bills, huge water consumption, and huge use of toxic building supplies. Small living spaces equal smaller bills, smaller debt, smaller environmental footprint, and more freedom.

Raise Conscious Humans…If you are a parent, or ever plan on becoming a parent, this is probably the single greatest way in which we can contribute to change. Children grow up in the blink of an eye. The three year old hanging on your leg right now will tomorrow be a man, deciding how best to live on the only planet we have. Involve your children in the changes you are making, and why. Brainstorm as to other ways in which you can live in harmony with your local eco-systems. Raise children who are deeply connected to the natural world around them. Children who have a relationship with the plants and animals around them. Children who know where their food comes from because they grew it themselves, or met the farmer who did.

img_2172

And most importantly, we must raise children who have never been told what to think, but rather taught how. How to assess, how to be critical, how to sort through contradicting information. Top-down education only perpetuates the same cycles over and over, it cannot create new ones. Don’t give your children all the answers…rather, teach them how to ask the right questions.

Because, in the words of Dr. Seuss: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

img_1572

Pet Slugs…What Children Have to Teach Us About Compassion

img_2192

The other day my daughter found a baby slug. So tiny. Just a little speck of a thing. She carried this little creature around on her finger half the day, made it a house in a jar with dirt and leaves. She was greatly concerned as to the whereabouts of its’ parents, and whether it would be eaten by a bird if it was all alone in the wide world. She came up with the solution that if she found an adult slug of the same species, who “spoke slug language”, then it could help the baby find its’ parents.

Children are naturally compassionate. If they are treated respectfully, and shown concern and empathy when they express sadness, fear, anger…then the roots of their compassion grow deep.

My youngest is only 17 months. But whenever another child cries, for any reason, he will stop whatever he is doing and run to them. He will pet and stroke and hug, and show the greatest concern.

Children are also still learning the rules of socially acceptable behavior, and are still developing the capacity for emotional regulation (heck, I’m 34 and I’m still developing that!). Sometimes they act like monkeys that drank a gallon of coffee. Sometimes they show kindness one moment and then clonk their brother on the head with a block the next. Sometimes they melt down on the floor of the grocery store because the free fruit bin didn’t have green apples today.

If we treat children with compassion when they behave appropriately, and withdraw our compassion whenever they act like drunk puppies, then we are modeling for them the very opposite of what we would wish for them to learn. Who wants their child to grow up to be an adult who treats other beings with conditional compassion? This is how we get racism, homophobia, gender discrimination, religious radicalism. As parents, of course we want our children to treat all people and all creatures with unconditional compassion.

So how are we supposed to model that, in our everyday interactions?

If you’ve ever read a book by Alfie Kohn (or met a 4 yr old), you know that punishments and rewards simply do not work.

They don’t work to elicit social behavior. They don’t work to teach empathy, or give any bearing to our children’s moral compass. And they definitely, most certainly do not work to foster a connected, trusting relationship.

I say punishments AND rewards, because they are simply two sides of the same coin. They are both methods of attempting to control a small human’s behavior by extrinsic pressure, either by doing (or threatening to do) unpleasant things to them if they “mis” behave, or by giving them something enjoyable (stickers, candy, screen time) if they behave. Our entire public education system bases its’ discipline on these strategies. The problem with both of these methods is that they rely on purely extrinsic motivation, and (as study after study continues to prove), kills intrinsic motivation in the process. I have much more to say about extrinsic/intrinsic motivation when it comes to education, but that’s another post.

So, who needs a study to tell us that? All we have to do is put ourselves in the child’s place. If we’re having a bad day…we’re on our cycle, the children are climbing up the walls, the composting toilet is having issues (oh wait, that’s me!)…and you’re having trouble “behaving” because of your mood, would it help if your hub walked in and said “now honey, if you use that tone of voice one more time I’m going to take away your car keys!” Probably not. Likely he’d get a soapy dish thrown at his head, am I right?! Why? Because he would be only focusing on whatever it is you’re doing that he deems inappropriate. Human beings almost uniformly chafe against being judged this way. It causes feelings of alienation, disconnection, and hopelessness. A human being “mis” behaving is almost always doing so because of feelings that they’re having difficulty regulating. What would we rather he did? Walk in, see that you’re obviously having a rough time, and instead come up behind you at the sink and give you a hug? Maybe a little “I love you. You’re beautiful.” Whispered in your ear? Which action would make you feel seen, supported, and connected? Which action would defuse your frustration and make it more likely that you could calm down and find your center again?

Kids are no different. The alternative to punishing (or threatening to punish) “bad” behavior is not just to reward “good” behavior. Neither is it to simply allow actions which harm people or property, disturb your peace or that of others, or are simply socially inappropriate. We can set limits-and indeed, must!-while still offering closeness and connection.

I’m still learning this every day. With my first child, I still had my head full of all the commonly accepted child-rearing rhetoric of the day. Like so many parents, I’d never questioned the socially accepted idea that time-outs were a gentle alternative to spanking or that it was an adults’ job to discipline a child. I firmly believed in peaceful parenting, and with twelve years as full-time nanny under my belt, I thought I knew what I was doing. Right! I cringe as I think of sitting in my living room, listening to my two year old cry as she sat on the stairs, where I’d put her for some transgression or other. I hated it. She hated it. It alienated us from one another. So I quickly abandoned such tactics. But then was left to discover…what now?

If coercing, manipulating, threatening, putting up a sticker chart, etc., doesn’t feel right…what does? What are we supposed to do when our children are causing harm, or disturbing our peace? I’ve seen so many parents (myself included!) simply do nothing, out of a desire to not control, and end up losing all authority with their children. Or else we try to reason with the child, which doesn’t necessarily work when a person is emotionally flooded. That would be like our husband walking into the room in the previous situation and saying “now honey, I hear you having a very negative tone. Do you see how this is hurting little Johnny’s feelings?” Yep, I’d say dishes would still be flying. I don’t know about you but my reaction would be instant overwhelm. Because of course I already know my tone is negative (duh!), and likely I’m already embarrassed about it. But in the moment, I’m probably emotionally flooded and having difficulty regulating. First we need reassurance, or help (“why don’t I finish the dishes and you take a walk honey?” My hub is good at this one. Sometimes he has to insist). Later, when I’m calm, is when I can assess how I could’ve done things differently. For an adult, sometimes we need to just walk away, right? So how do we help a child get back to a place of calm, without alienating?

For me, it helps to ask what I would need if I were in their shoes. Because c’mon, do you, as an adult, always manage your emotions perfectly? Do you never become angry, or frustrated, or lash out at your spouse? Never say something you regret? If you don’t, congratulations. You’ve either reached nirvana, or you’re in deep denial. HA! Some of us might be farther along the road to managing our emotions than others, but we all have our moments. We’re all still learning.

How wonderful would it be if another human offered you compassion in those moments? To know, without a doubt, that you were still loved and accepted without conditions.

We all love our children that way, right? Not because they always do what we say. Not because they behave perfectly in every situation. Not because they perform to our standards. But because they exist.

And you know the best part of setting limits with love? You don’t have to experience the guilt that inevitably comes with control. Because trying to control and manipulate another human being alienates you from them just as much as them from you. What parent hasn’t felt that? That horrible, nagging disconnection. Because every parent wants to be connected with their child. It’s the natural state of things. When we feel angry at their misbehavior, often it is due to a sense of hopelessness as to how we are supposed to react. We are afraid that their unsocial actions are a reflection on our parenting ability, instead of just seeing them as small humans, still learning emotional regulation.

So what does this look like? I’m still learning that every day.

Let me tell you a story.

The other night my four year old was losing it. This boy is a fire child, and feels things deeply. He is incredibly physical (could ride a two wheeler by the time he was three), and when he becomes emotionally overwhelmed, he expresses it with his body. Generally at any person or item within reach. It was the end of a long day, he hadn’t had any down time, and he had fixated on wanting to watch a movie. Obviously he was trying to express the fact that he needed to unwind, and in his mind he’d decided that watching a movie was the only way to fulfill his need.

He’d asked, screamed, cried, and threatened to get what he wanted. Now, I could’ve just given in. However, I know this boy of mine. I knew, in that moment, that watching said movie would just amp him up, not wind him down. I knew from experience that sitting in front of a flashing screen right before going to bed was going to mean a bedtime full of tears and lashing out and jumping on the mattresses. I knew that what would actually accomplish his winding down was some hot chamomile tea and a snuggle with a good story. So I said no.

I said no with love. I didn’t explain, or offer a bunch of words which would just overwhelm and frustrate him more. I just said no. But then I showed him (over and over again, as this lasted for a good twenty minutes), that I was not rejecting him because of his “misbehavior”. When he tried to land punches, I deflected. When he tried to throw blocks (and cars, and pillows), I scooped him up. When he shouted “I HATE you! The ONLY thing that will make me feel better is if you let me watch a movie! If you don’t let me watch a movie I’m going to never draw you a picture again EVER!” I offered back “I see, you’re angry. That’s ok. I love you even when you’re angry.” And went about my business.

Finally, I felt a hot, sweaty body barreling into the back of my legs. “I need you to HOLD me, Mama!” Of course. Of course I will hold you. Of course I will not leave you alone, sitting on a stair, isolating you for the sheer fault of being four and still learning to emotionally regulate. So I held him. And he buried his sweet, tear-stained face in my neck and I knew that he knew that he was loved. Unconditionally. That no matter how he felt, or how he acted, he would still be received back with love.

And then we made chamomile tea. We snuggled with a good story, and as we were falling asleep, him curled against my back, he whispered, “I love you Mamma, as much as the whole world and all the stars and all the planets and all the trees. Tomorrow I’ll draw you a hundred pictures.”

img_2435

 

Raising World-Changers…second-generation unschooling

When I think of doing school as a child, I think of sunny days spent hanging upside-down on the monkey bars while my mom sat on the grass reading to us. I think of cuddling next to her on the couch, watching the rain on the windows as she read. Always reading. I think of doing math at the grocery store as we shopped. I think of endless days spent in deep play with my brother, building forts, building robots, building mud villages in our backyard, building a rocket, building our imaginations. Neither of my parents had even graduated from college themselves, but they managed to give us what I now consider the most important facet of education: freedom. Freedom from clocks and rules and manipulation and control. Freedom to be ourselves. To learn, and discover, and BE, at our own pace and according to our own interests. And from this freedom the ability to teach oneself, to learn naturally from the world all around us, as every human is wired to do. The drive to learn, to discover, to pursue goals, to sort through information without outside control or pressure. My mother instilled in us the belief that this drive is present in every human being, and that learning is a lifelong pursuit.

Still…when my first child was born, I found myself conflicted. I had this romantic idea about “school” as this place where all knowledge lay at one’s fingertips. An idea born from those endless clips on Sesame Street of happy children dancing off to school to have adventures. A vague feeling that I had somehow missed those adventures. An anxious worry that perhaps I, who had spent most of my teenage years traipsing around the globe versus doing algebra, had somehow missed the important knowledge imbued in my public school counterparts. There was a part of me that wanted all of that for my children. Wanted it for myself maybe. To have that moment where I stood at the end of the driveway waving a cheerful goodbye to my backpack-laden child with her put-together outfit and neatly combed ponytails. I wanted to pack sweet little school lunches, and go shopping for all those neat packages of pencils and markers. Did I really want to raise my children “outside” of society, like I had been? I wasn’t sure.

So when my daughter was preschool age, we joined a mainstream co-op preschool. It’s just to socialize, I said. It’s a co-op, I can go with her to class if I want, it’s not “real” school. I needed to stick a toe in the door of normal and see if it felt right. See if those adventures were all they cracked up to be.

And in many ways, they were. She was only two at the time, and the program was entirely play-based. We spent a year with a wonderful group of people, many of whom are still close friends. Normal wasn’t so bad! True, there were things that annoyed me. Tiny red flags that I tucked in my back pocket. Like the daily coercion of the children to do the day’s art project, even though they were busy building a block tower. My “unschooled” mind said: wait! They’re busy! They’re cooperating with each other, testing balance, learning engineering! You’re going to interrupt their play to insist they glue some cotton balls on a piece of paper? Just so you can stick said cotton-ball creation in their cubby to prove they “did” something to the smiling parents who pick them up?

Still, we enrolled the next year. It was still just preschool. We hadn’t joined the Dark Side. Not yet. And then, I began to see changes in my daughter. Tiny, subtle changes that I might not have noticed had my brain not been unschooled. I noticed her mindlessly scribbling some color on paper at school, because that’s what the other children were doing, or because she didn’t feel like painting at that moment, when at home she would draw people with bodies and faces and expressions. I noticed her play and her attention becoming fragmented.

And one day I had an epiphany.

I was trying to get her out the door for school, anxiously watching the clock because we were running late. I walked into the living room with a put-together outfit in my hand and a coax on my tongue…and stopped. There she was, building a train track, warm and cozy in her footy jammies, deep in her play. One train was discussing with another train how to help a third train who was sad. She was learning. Really learning, not coerced, manipulated adult-agenda learning. Learning how to entertain herself. Acting out conflict resolution. And I was going to interrupt this…to what? Force her into clothes, drag her out in the rain, and take her to squish play dough somewhere else? So we didn’t go. And then we didn’t go the next day. Finally, I pulled her out.

It was just preschool, I said. No rush. Still, I wasn’t quite ready to pull my toe out of the door of normal. I still had romantic ideas of sending her to that sweet little building down the street where we went to ride our bikes, with it’s organized eraser-smelling classrooms. Surely wonderful adventures in learning happen there! But of course, being an unschooler, I had to find out myself. So I volunteered in the kindergarten class.

And in one day all of my romantic ideas of school melted into a puddle like sidewalk chalk in the rain. I did not see learning. I saw control. I saw manipulation. I saw children too young to sit still for five minutes being expected to keep their bottoms in a chair and focus, while their little bodies squrimed to be let loose. Until they finally were, for an appallingly short recess whereupon they ran like frenzied puppies around a too-small patch of concrete, before being lined back up and marched back to their desks, fed a sugar-filled snack, and expected to focus again on their “work”. And what boring, relentlessly repetetive work it was!

It happened to be Earth Day that day. I watched this group of children sitting, with bored, blank stares, watching a bored teacher reading a boring book about the ocean (“in honor of Earth Day!”)…while outside the sun was shining! And then came the real clincher: the sticker chart. As a final ending note to the day, the children were made to sit on the rug while the teacher placed a sticker (or didn’t) on a chart under the name of each child who had had “good behavior” that day. My goodness! Sesame Street never said anything about public shaming. My unschooled brain recoiled. And even worse was the bar by which the teacher was measuring “good behavior”: did you A) sit still, B) stay in your chair, and C) raise your hand instead of shouting out an answer. Really?? Not: were you kind, did you help a friend, did you learn something new? Wow, said my inner Unschooler. Not what I expected.

So I went home. And I sat on my couch with my sweet little girl and read, like my mother before me. I read as she hung upside-down next to me, in her underwear. And I didn’t tell her to sit still. We planted some seeds, for Earth Day. And the toe I’d been keeping in the door of normal slipped out for good. If that was normal, then we were very happy to stay outside, thankyou.

Now, that little girl is six. She reads Tolkien to her two little brothers, and does math two grades beyond her level…when she feels like it. Which is sometimes while eating pancakes, and sometimes outside under the grapes, and sometimes at night by candlelight. And I feel content, knowing that I’m giving her and her brothers the greatest gift I can: freedom.

What our earth needs is World-Changers. Free-Thinkers. More people who question the status quo, who are willing to live outside the box. Because the box is getting smaller. Our planet is on the edge of an ecological tipping point. And meanwhile our society is tossing up the likes of Donald Trump as the best option we have? There’s no time left to push things off on the next generation. WE ARE the generation who must change.

The very last thing we need is more automatons. More adults who just plug in the fridge, even though is cold outside; who drive the car, when they could ride a bike; who continue to purchase food from across the globe instead of their own neighborhood; who empty our precious groundwater onto green lawns instead of planting their dinner. Change is hard. It doesn’t happen in a day. But it can easily happen in a generation. However we choose to educate our children, it is the responsibility of us parents to raise children who will live differently. Children who do not just memorize facts to pass a test, but who have a deep relationship to the natural world around them, and a mind that is free enough to re-invent the way we humans live on this precious planet.

 

 

img_1968

Big Ways to Live Small

A cluttered home makes for a cluttered, scattered mind. You may not realize it until they’re gone, but all of those piles on your counters and in your closets? You end up carrying them around in your psyche. I’ve been asked more than once, usually by other mothers, how I went about downsizing all of our families’ “stuff”. Whether you are single, a couple, or have kids popping out at the seams; whether you have a big house, or need to squeeze into a tiny one, here are a few practical ideas for living small:

  • Clothes…

    Think of how much space all of the clothes for your whole family take up. In a “regular” house, there is traditionally a closet in every room, or at the very least you probably have a chest of drawers per person. Now ask yourself: how often do you do laundry? If you were to do all of your laundry on just one day a week, would all of the clothes you own (or even half?) be dirty and needing a wash? Very likely not. We all tend to have a few favorite outfits that we cycle between and endless other “choices”, things we don’t wear, pieces that are out of season, or sizes we hope we might fit back into one day.When I was trying to figure out how to squeeze our family of five into our Tiny House, the clothes were by far the biggest issue. Simple solutions I’ve found:

  • First, I downsized each of our wardrobes to one drawer. That one drawer is just about the amount of clothes it takes to get us through one week until the next laundry day. More than that and I find there are pieces we are not actually wearing. Think about it: how many outfits do you actually need? Wouldn’t it be far more freeing to own five to seven interchangeable outfits that you really love, than a bunch of stuff you never get around to wearing? For kids this works especially well, for a couple of reasons. One, kids tend to get stuck on a favorite outfit or two anyway, and never wear the hundred other cute outfits you’d love to dress them up in. Two, they grow out of their clothes faster than you can fold their laundry, so it’s far easier to constantly change out sizes when you only have a small amount of clothes. I’ve found when my kids have too much, they hardly get around to wearing stuff before they’ve outgrown it.

  • For the out-of-season stuff, keep one plastic bin for each person. Because obviously the outfits you’re going to wear in Dec aren’t going to work in Aug, and having them all in your drawer at once is a waste of space.

  • Set up a clothing exchange with other mothers. No one tells you when you have kids how constant the chore is of managing their clothes. You could easily spend a fortune keeping them in cute, in-season outfits. And what do you do with the never-ending pile of outgrown stuff? I swear I’ve probably spent less than $100 on clothes for either of my boys their entire lives, because I get hand-me-downs from friends, and then pass on their too-smalls to other friends. I keep too-big sizes in their bins, and simply go “shopping” in the shed whenever they outgrow stuff.

  • Buy used! Buying new clothes is a waste of money, especially for children. You can spend $20 on a brand-new onesie, which your baby will wear less than ten times before it’s too small, or you can go buy that same onesie used for $1.

  • Dishes…

    Another thing that takes up a lot of space is dishes and cooking equipment. But how much is really necessary? You generally wash dishes daily, right? So do you really need the dozens of extras that never end up getting dirty? Here is another place that sentimentality takes over. When I was going through our dishes, I found, for example, that we had tons of coffee mugs, most of them with sentimental value. But what do we really use? One favorite mug per person is plenty. I find I spend a lot less time washing dishes when I keep only enough for our daily use. For us, that’s one set per person, with a few extra water glasses, snack plates, and bowls; one set of glass storage containers; and for cooking, a few sizes of quality cast iron pots and pans. For the rare times that we have enough company over to need more dishes, I pull out the extra set I keep in the shed. This enables me to keep all of our families’ dishes on three small shelves—and that’s including the dish drainer!

 

IMG_1201
  • Food…

    How often do you shop? Once a week? Twice? When you go grocery shopping, are your cupboards empty (at least of all perishable items), or clogged with a lot of half-used boxes and unopened items? I find I use a lot less space, and, even more importantly, waste much less, when I plan a thorough menu for the week and make sure that everything has been used before shopping again. Every weekend I plan a dinner menu for the week, and shop accordingly. Some food for thought (pun intended):

  • plan multi-use ingredients. For example: today I have a big pot of black beans on the wood stove, which will be used tonight for our black bean burgers (can throw in the leftover quinoa from last nights’ dinner, and the half-eaten red pepper from lunch!), and tomorrow for black bean tacos. Any left over after that I can throw in a soup!

  • For breakfast, find your families’two or three favorites and simply cycle between them. Right now ours are oats with nuts/dried fruit, and vegan pancakes. Plus fresh fruit and tea. Makes shopping very easy! You don’t need six boxes of half-eaten cereal.

  • Re-use dinner leftovers for lunch the following day.

  • Toys…

    If you have kids, this is the biggest one, am I right parents?! Even if you don’t buy your kids a lot of stuff, it comes. Holidays, birthdays, etc, the accumulation never ends. And because we love and care about our children, and because every single item is “special” to them, we are loathe to make them part with anything. But are we really doing them a service? I would argue that we are in fact harming them. I won’t even bother quoting experts or studies, because they all agree: a few beloved, well-organized toys are far more valuable to a child’s imaginative play than loads and loads of “stuff”. A cacophony of over-stimulating noisy plastic can prevent a child from entering that developmentally all-important state of deep play. But where to start? How to organize? And how to keep it all from just accumulating again on the next holiday?

  • Keep toys imaginative. When evaluating a toy, ask yourself: must my child use their imagination to play with this, or does the toy play for them? This automatically rules out anything with batteries, buttons, etc (thanks heavens. Save yourself the migraine!). Keep it simple. Think wooden blocks, legos, trains and tracks, one or two special baby dolls or stuffed animals, and dress-up clothes. Avoid toys that don’t go with anything else.

  • Gifts for your kids is one place in life you might want to consider being controlling! It doesn’t have to come across as rude. Give a “wish list” to grandparents well before the holidays, and ask them to let you know what they want to be responsible for, so you don’t end up with doubles. Personally we do a lot of adding to sets we already have. For instance, my kids have a collection of animal figurines that they play with daily, and each Christmas they get a new figurine in their stocking. They get sets of wooden tracks to expand on what we already have, or maybe something for the dress-up basket. And gifts for a child don’t necessarily have to be a toy, either! This Christmas we got our five year old daughter a roll of yarn and some knitting needles. Our son, three, got a wheelbarrow. You can request non-material gifts like a membership to the zoo or a museum, or a contribution to a class your child wants to take. And of course books never go out of style! A word on books: keep only a few out at a time and all extras in a bin, so you can rotate them out.

  • Organization creates a calm space for kids to play. Once again, keep it simple. Baskets are fantastic for this. You can usually find baskets of various sizes at a second hand store for cheap, and they double as a plaything. Organizing toys in such a way that children can easily and quickly clean up after themselves creates less headache, and less wasted space. In our house, blocks go in the block baskets, trains in the train basket, costumes in the costume basket, etc., and everything gets put in it’s place by the end of the day.

IMG_1202
  • Make a habit of getting rid of toys before you get new ones. Prior to the holidays, I have my kids go through their toys and give something away before they get new ones. Be an example to them by doing the same with your own stuff. Kids don’t need a pile of toys to play! You’re not neglecting them if your house doesn’t look like Disneyland. You’re not abusing them by saying no. Kids play, whether they have toys or not. They play with each other. They play with sticks, and mud, and chairs, and pillows, and spiders, and the paper coffee cup you left sitting on the table. For an entire month, two of my kids played a daily game of “egg”, where one of them rolled in a blanket and pretended to be an egg, and the other sat on the egg until it hatched. As I type this they are attempting to learn how to fly by jumping off of chairs with blankets for capes, and feathers in their hands! If you find your child has difficulty playing independently for long amounts of time, try removing the vast majority of their toys and leaving only the most basic items until they re-learn how to focus. The greatest gift you we can give our children is the freedom to stretch their imaginations.

  • To give kids one place that is entirely under their control, you can make them each a “special box”. Kind of like a small treasure chest. In this, they can keep anything that is important to them, that they don’t wish to share. What a child keeps in their special box will change as they get older. The current contents of my sons’ is a perfect example of the fact that kids will play with anything: a plastic knife, a half-used pack of tissues, ten rocks, a pine cone, and a yo-yo.

  • Bedding…Not necessarily a problem in every home, but if you really need or want to save space, switching up your bedding solution is a great place to start! In many other cultures around the world, the bed is something that is laid out at night for sleeping, and put away during the day. This could be in the form of a fold-out futon, roll-away mats, etc. We opted for traditional japanese shikifutons, which we stack to make a sofa for daytime use. Our bedding we keep in a wardrobe. This solution means that the bedding for five people takes up precisely zero extra space during the day, versus “regular” beds, which would take up over 100 sq ft of space! That’s a lot of square footage just for sleeping. This solution was my husband’s idea, and I’ll be honest, it took a bit of convincing on my part at first. But now that we’ve made the switch, I find that I love the ritual of putting out and folding away our beds. It takes no more time than I would normally spend making beds, and there’s no underneath for random toys and dust bunnies to collect in! Not to mention that babies can’t roll out of beds that are on the floor.
  • Knick-knacks…
    Necessary? Hmmm. Personally I don’t like my space to look utilitarian, but beauty doesn’t have to be useless. Functionality can be gorgeous. Practicality can be sexy. In some cultures, empty spaces in your home are a sign of wealth. Find the beauty in emptiness. Make sure whatever decorations you choose really feed your soul.

IMG_1205

     

    • Sentimentality..
    Being emotionally attached to material objects just clogs up the creative pipes of your life, ending up owning you instead of you owning it. We give away our most valuable possession, time, just to obtain more stuff, which then clutters up the corners of our homes and our minds. Don’t hang onto stuff, just because it reminds you of something. The thing is not the memory. Snap a picture of your child’s artwork. Limit each family member to one “memory box”, and toss anything that doesn’t fit inside.
    IMG_1198 (2)

    Happy downsizing, beautiful beings!

    The Sounds of Yurt Life

    We are sitting down to dinner, and the frogs are singing a chorus outside the yurt: “spring is coming! Spring is coming!” The light still fades early in February, so we light the candles. We’ve been here in our 30′ yurt for over three months now, and love it a little more every day. Neither of us has ever felt more at home in a place before.

    We finally got it raised in early November, with the threat of winter moving in. It took my husband and two other guys two days to put up the frame and roof insulation/canvas, and me and him another day to hang the walls.

     

    It still gives me a thrill every time I walk back from the lake and see the white dome through the trees. So many months of envisioning our home, of drawing out designs on graph paper, of looking at photo after photo of yurts online…it’s almost like a dream to see it in reality!

    IMG_0588

    The frogs exemplify my favorite part of yurt living: the sounds. A canvas yurt is, after all, somewhat like an extravagant tent. You know those mornings when you’re camping and you wake up and hear all the noises of the forest through the walls? With not much of a sound barrier, it feels like you’re privy to the secret life of the forest.

    As we’re eating our dinner, we hear the ethereal hoot of an owl signal that dusk is falling. Then silence as it swoops from treetop to treetop, and another hoot from the other side of the Hollow. I hear the owl almost every night, and still it sends a thrill through my blood. Like listening to a choir of monks chant in unison. Spiritual.

    And the ravens! I love the ravens. They cock their black heads and watch you with their black eyes, and you feel that you are being appraised by a being of equal intelligence. They have so many different calls. We’re starting to understand some of them. Especially the one that means “A human! A human!”

    At first it was an adjustment, living all in one round room. Though 700 sq ft felt spacious compared to the Tiny House where we’d spent the fall, the lack of square angles threw me for a loop. I’ll be honest, for awhile I mourned for the “normalcy” of our farmhouse. It’s one thing to dream, but actually taking the leap away from what society considers normal can be frightening. However, the more we’ve gotten used to it, the more we adore life in the round. There hasn’t been one moment yet where we felt it was too small, even though we are five people, and it’s forced us to find many creative space-saving solutions (which I will share with you here in future posts!).

    Dinner is done and the kids have wandered off to continue construction on their train track, which currently stretches from one end of the yurt to the other.

    We linger by the fire with our tea, discussing what needs to be done the next day. Soon we will be doing the second round of excavation in preparation for starting our gardens and orchard.

    This is almost a bigger deal to us than getting the yurt up! Our second main goal, after squeezing ourselves out from under the banks and the weight of a mortgage, is to feed ourselves. Entirely. If not 100%, then as close to that as we can get. This is the main reason we chose this piece of property: the dirt. The beautiful, rich soil here. That, and the amazing system of rainwater catchment ponds. Not only is the cost of feeding a family a weighty load, but for years we’ve been pulling on the thread of what is moral and healthy to eat. In past years most of our efforts have gone towards raising animals. Producing our own milk, meat, and eggs, so that we didn’t have to buy into the mass torture that is factory farming.

    But we’ve found we don’t really enjoy that part of farming. It weighs heavy on the soul, raising other beings only to slaughter them. Even more than that, we’ve found that we just don’t like the chores of animal farming, for the most part. It’s not our niche. A milk goat is hard to leave when you want to travel, and so one’s freedom is limited in a way that we both find claustrophobic. In reaction, I’ve been attracted to Veganism as a viable option, but the truth is that you find pain and unsunstainability at the end of almost every thread in the industrial food chain that you pull. Whether the pain is that of a pig raised in confinement, or that of human women burning their hands shelling acidic cashews for less than $1 a day, there is no way to shop at the grocery store that does not somehow involve buying into a flawed system.

    And so our ethical search has led us back in time, back to when this peninsula was populated by small tribes of hunter-gatherers. In the end, the only ethical way to eat is from your own foodshed, whatever and wherever that is. It’s food at it’s most simple and basic. Eat what grows around you. Eat what nature offers in your own locale, whether you raise it yourself or support others who do. Here, where the forest is rich with life and the weather is mild enough that you can garden nearly year-round, the diet can be mostly plant-based, with some supplementation of seafood and lake fish. In, preparation, we’ve purchased a used aluminum fishing boat for use on the Puget Sound, and a wooden canoe to fish on our own lake. I also still have a few hens that came with us from the farm, and in turn for eating the bugs off of our lettuce, we use their eggs.

    We spread our lists and color-coded maps of what and where to plant over the table. My husband is the real horticulturist in the family. He’s been meticulously tracking the sunlight’s daily path across the Hollow and planning out our crop rotations and the amounts of each thing we need to grow. We want to include as much of a variety of native plant species as we can, starting with our basic outdoor crops and hopefully moving on to constructing a greenhouse next year to house the exotic foods we love, like avocados, coffee beans, and bananas, as well as our winter fresh crop. It’s a long-haul plan for sure, one that our children will probably benefit from more than us. Right now we are trying to design a system for pumping the water up from our rain-catchment ponds and into the irrigation canals.

    The owl hoots again and the conversation turns to sump pumps, and the inevitable conclusion: we should probably just give in and go on the grid. Neither of us wants to.

    We’ve lived off grid now ever since September, first in our “Tiny House” and now in the yurt. We never intended to be off-grid when we started this project, but if there’s one rule of construction it’s that everything takes much longer than anticipated. At first this bothered me. I wanted everything DONE. RIGHT. NOW. Patience is not my forte. But I’ve sure gained some this winter! I’ve learned the beauty and necessity of letting things unfold naturally. One comes up with much better solutions when you actually live in a space for a time. And starting from scratch has given us a very honest look at what resources we use, and what we really “need” and don’t need.

    And boy have we started from scratch! For months now we’ve been carrying all the water we use for dish washing and bathing in five gallon buckets up from our rainwater-catchment pond and heating it up on the woodstove. When you carry every drop of water you use, you see experientially what amount it takes to function. Our well is finally up and running, so we don’t have to buy drinking water. That was a big moment, the first time we drank a glass of our own water. It felt like a huge milestone. Afer all, water makes life sustainable. And my, is it beautiful, clear water! Not like the rotten-egg smelling wellwater at our farmhouse, which stained all of our appliances yellow.

    Soon we will excavate a trench from the well down the hill to the yurt, and lay a pipe to run water to the pressure tank. From there it will be heated by two small tankless water heaters for our shower and sink. Oh! To have running hot water! The first thing I’m going to do is fill the tub to the brim and have a good soak. We’ve been bathing for months in a small tin tub by the woodstove. Even so, I already feel nostalgia for the simple way of life we’ve managed this winter.

    And electricity: don’t get me started! We’ve gone back and forth a hundred times on whether to go on-grid. We’d like to do solar, but in reality, we don’t get enough daytime sun hours in this little wooded Hollow, and we’d end up spending a pretty penny on a solar system that would likely function poorly. We’ve also considered just sticking with the method we’re already using: a small inverter generator that we turn on for a couple of hours a day. Just like carrying water, using power in this way really narrows down your actual needs. For months now, all through the dark days of winter, we’ve been only using the generator to charge up the batteries on our cell phones and laptops, or sometimes to watch a movie during the long dark evenings. For heat, we have the woodstove (another huge learning curve!), which is also our always-on surface for cooking. For light we have candles. We’ve quite enjoyed the daily routine that lack of electric light forces one into. Every day, when dusk starts to fall, we all help clean up the yurt, to avoid stepping on legos in the dim light. Once it’s “candle time”, our world shrinks to the size of the warm glow around the table and woodstove.

    Giving in and going on-grid will mostly be so that we can install a geo-thermal heat pump to keep temperatures even. It’s amazing how the body can adjust physiologically to varying temperatures. In the first weeks of moving in here, we were dying at waking up to 50 degrees. Now, as long as it’s above 40 in the mornings nobody feels bothered. We just don a warm sweater and some slippers and hang out by the fire for awhile. However, during the occasional cold snaps, where temperatures dip into freezing, it can get a bit unbearable to let the fire go out. At one point over the holidays, when we’d been away for the night, we came home to find our boots frozen to the floor. Waking up to 30 degrees is not much fun, though it does wonders for expanding one’s sense of humor!

    IMG_0773

    We’re also resigned to the fact that a heat pump may also be the only reasonable method of keeping a stable temperature in our greenhouse. We could have a second woodstove in there, but that would require doubling the already-intense amount of wood we use, not to mention that tending a fire is a rather constant chore, even with so many helpers.

    IMG_0975

    Tropical plants would also never adjust to the temperature variations of the fire going out at night, like we have.

    So many decisions to make. We are not just building a home, but a dream. A dream of what a life of no compromise can look like. A dream of how a human family can live without causing harm to other beings and the earth we live on. A dream of a life without waste, where we give back to our surroundings more than we take. It’s easy to talk and speculate, but as our species tumbles in gleeful headlong abandon towards it’s own oil-guzzling, water-polluting destruction, what can we actually DO to live differently? The shackles of “convenience” are insidious. Some of you beautiful humans might join the sciences to study the melting arctic ice, or head off to save the white rhino. We are trying to prove, if only to ourselves, that it is possible to live with less. Less money. Less energy. Less water. Less space. Less harm. Which equals more time. More peace. More freedom. More health. More honesty.

    IMG_0575

    I am sharing our journey in order to inspire and inform anyone who wishes to begin their own journey towards simplification. It’s a way to pay it forward, as we were inspired by so many other bloggers.

    They are lofty goals. Right now they start with the minutia of pH testing our soil and trying to figure out how to wash cloth diapers by hand. Every great adventure is traversed by a thousand tiny steps.

    The frogs go silent and in the distance a coyote howls. It starts to rain. I love the sound of the rain on the yurt roof. It’s like a lullaby.

    Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

    Up ↑