Spanish: words in brief

Evenings around the woodstove at my parents’ house this holiday week have been accompanied by an electronic soundtrack of arbitrary phrases voiced in four languages – Polish, French, Spanish, Russian – punctuated by happy pings of reward and more occasional buzzings of error. My sister, amused, last night: “Am I the only person here who owns earphones?” My children and I are on a month-long Polish streak on Duolingo, me finally determined to teach them my first language after years of feeling tongue-tied trying to translate the English that colonized my brain more than 35 years ago. My dad and sisters, on hearing our lessons, each dive in too, and now we are all daily practicing every language that we know in this new and addictive format. I don’t know how much Polish my children will take away, but there are other truths they are starting to glean: that we must take care in our communication, but also take risks; that the way we construct our language shapes the way we construct our world; that some things, important things, will never be translated.

From 100 Words: The Beauty of Brevity. Word prompt: Spanish. Day 96 of 100. 

I’ve tried out various things with this daily writing practice over the past three months. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve challenged and entertained myself by finding my brief story within the day’s events. It has been surprisingly easy to find the connection points. As times goes on, however, I am increasingly lax with the word count.

Once-in-a-lifetime: words in brief

This morning we made more maps for our calendar, which late in the day was re-themed. More play with watercolour, ink, pen, pencil crayons. More strange geographical features labeled. “How do you spell ‘serpents’”? So many details to finish. Twelve is a detailed age, perhaps, but he’s always been a perfectionist. Nine on the other hand, apart from occasional wild bursts of tears, is convinced that most things he does are brilliant. Children are not born a blank slate. I drop them off with grandparents, take an out-of-the-way subway ride to fulfill a complicated arrangement with a car pick-up. For other complicated reasons, the car is not there. I pick up a tourtiere for dinner instead, decide that a brisk walk makes up for my annoyance, rush home to paint my one contribution to finish off our joint project, which I insist will be for March, my birthday month. The house smells like fir tree, beeswax candles, paints, and Sharpies. The shortest day, the longest night. Today, once it has passed, will never come again.

From 100 Words: The Beauty of Brevity. Word prompt: once-in-a-lifetime. From the day of the Winter Solstice, Day 87.

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Cry: words in brief

I’m losing steam. I’ve been working on an big art project with my kids: our annual calendar, a gift for their dad. I love the result, but the process is laborious. Too many hours spent indoors at a table, too much creative pressure, too much self-criticism, too much paper thrown away. Most days I love my life, the flexibility and freedom of it, my sense of resistance to the status quo, the pockets of time for my own creative projects. This evening my husband sang carols at a hospital, came home forty-five minutes later than promised, and I exploded into tears. Why am I the default parent? What if I’ve made all the wrong choices? What if I’m wasting my life? He told me gently about singing in the dementia ward, the man who sang loudly along, the nurse who couldn’t hold back her own tears. He said, I’m grateful that you made it possible for me to be there. That was all I needed to hear. The tears washed through. We will keep compromising. We will keep finding time for ourselves, for each other, for our small offerings to the world.

From 100 Words: The Beauty of Brevity. Word prompt: cry.

From yesterday, day 86 of 100. This week has been the hardest to keep up since I started this in September. For the first time, I missed two days in a row.

Three: words in brief

I told my kids the other day: “I should have had one more son. Then he could be the good youngest brother, who inherits everything, and you could be the two wicked older brothers who torment him until he leaves on his quest.” In fairy tales, there must be three or seven siblings, although only the youngest one counts. Fairy tales seem to prefer prime numbers. My younger son points out that two is also a prime number, and so perhaps it is magical enough, despite being prosaically even. We decide that two is perfect for our family. I tell them that after some thought, I have also decided that neither of them has to be all good or all wicked. They can both be regular mixed-up complex humans, sometimes tormented and sometimes tormenting, sometimes leaving and sometimes left behind.

From 100 Words: The Beauty of Brevity. Word prompt: three. 

Hurry: words in brief

This afternoon I sit by a fire in a Toronto ravine, drinking hot apple cider and watching red-tailed hawks soar overhead, talking with two dear friends. Our children roam the valley with the outdoor program that has been part of each of our lives since our kids were tiny. The trees around us are bare now, the creek low, November’s bold deer once again slipped under cover. The last few weeks we’ve circled up to sing at day’s end under the fiery pinks and oranges of the setting sun, last week with a nearly-full moon rising opposite. The kids return laughing, muddy, with stories of animal sightings, games, adventures, gratitude. I treasure these unhurried afternoons, these slow friendships. Each year there are changes in our lives, departures, losses of one kind or another. Community is a more porous, more fluid organism than I could have known. But it is a resilient one too, I am slowly and most gratefully learning, once I open the doors wide and let it breathe.

From 100 Words: The Beauty of Brevity. Word prompt: hurry.

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Homeschooling: ditching the routines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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