Friday, February 29, 2008

Save the World, Ride a Bike

I rode in my first Critical Mass ride this evening. It was a blast. Now that the kids and I have made our bikes our primary vehicles, I feel pretty strongly about the presence that bicycles and pedestrians have on our roads. It is intimidating to share the road with such powerful and potentially deadly machines. Seems to me, there's plenty of room for all. Unfortunately, there are quite a few drivers out there that are not at all happy to see us coming.

Twenty-nine cyclists (and one dog in a trailer) took to the streets tonight in our little town. We made a 3 or 4 mile loop and smiled and waved as we pedaled. We tried to hand out fliers at stop lights explaining Critical Mass, but too many motorists had their windows up. Last week, a pedestrian in our town died after being on life support for over a week. She was hit in a crosswalk in front of the university. We rode tonight in honor of her and to encourage folks to slow down and make room for alternatives to cars.

Since selling my car last November, I'm amazed at the change that has come over our family. We no longer think in terms of car-miles. A quick trip to the grocery now involves a brisk 1/2 mile walk, or a five minute bike ride. When we take the bus to the library, we know that the post office is only a few short blocks away. To think we used to do those errands in two separate trips!

Parking? Not an issue. Bike racks? We sure do know which businesses have them. Charley is becoming quite a bicycle mechanic, as well. Save the world, ride a bike.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Playing Hooky

We played hooky today and went skiing. You'd think that living life without school would mean that we play hooky everyday, but it was actually a push for me to cancel the various activities and commitments we had planned for today in order to ride up to the mountain with our neighbors.

When we were invited to go a few days ago, I actually said no at first. I had already committed to watching a friend's kids after Park Day, and Janey has a Latin Dance class on Thursday mornings. I have a Pilates class in the afternoon....blah, blah, blah. What could be more fun and spontaneous and energizing than to cancel it all (even Pilates!) and go skiing? Isn't that the whole reason we unschool? Freedom! Fun! Adventure!

I knew my friend would understand. There are others who could watch her kids. I do love Pilates, but really. I love skiing more. Initially, it was hard to make the decision to go. Even after years of living life this way, free from the schedules and commitments of "normal" school families, I can get just as attached to my calendar as any other PTA mom. Thank goodness I came to my senses quickly.

The weather was amazing. The kids were amazing. We hardly needed our jackets. We actually needed sunscreen!! Charley's hunger-inspired meltdown only lasted 30 minutes. It was a perfect day.

Charley has always wanted to learn to snowboard. Today, he traded gear with our neighbor for about 20 minutes, and I swear, he taught himself to snowboard. We may have a convert on our hands. I shouldn't be surprised, though. It's really just a big skateboard. He blows me away.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Motivating a Child to Read

I have a new post up today over at the Life Without School Community Blog . This one is in response to a question a reader posted about how to motivate her newly homeschooled son to read. I wrote it several weeks ago, and as I was re-reading it this morning, I was reminded of how grateful I am to be living and raising kids in this life without school.

Last night I wasn't feeling so hot (I'm fine, today) and I told the kids I would be going to bed early. We eventually ended up piling in my bed and reading to each other for the rest of the evening. Each one of us took turns. No need to clock the minutes or check anything off on our to-do list. Just sweet, uninterrupted, literate fun. No wonder I feel better already!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Bicycle Bonus

I'm doing a little victory dance right now. I've been looking for one of those old metal bike racks. You know, the kind you used to park your bike in when you rode to school? Well, I finally got myself one of those. Yippee!

Ever since we decided to live sans car, our bikes have lived in a heap in our former parking space. They always start out standing upright, all lined up in a neat, tidy row. But, inevitably, by the end of an afternoon of skateboarding and basketball and jump rope, or even just after a big gust of wind, they'd end up in a heap. When it was time to go somewhere, it could take us 15 minutes just to untangle pedals and spokes and chains. Locking them to each other worked most of the time, except when we forgot, and it didn't. Janey's bike got stolen for the second time in 4 months last week. But now we have a real, live bike rack to lock them to!!! Yippee!

Now all I've got to do is muster up the courage to design and build a shelter to keep them all warm and cozy. Well, dry actually. A tarp is all I've got at this point. And for now, it works just fine.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Red Lights and Wheelchairs

Since we live life without school, as well as without a car, we walk and bike and ride the bus to get around town. Being on time has always been a challenge for me, but I'm finding that bus schedules and the slow pace my kids prefer on foot, are making it easier for me to be on time and even early (gasp!). The buses in our town only run every 30 minutes. Although it would be convenient to have more frequent choices, I find that it slows us down a bit. It also means that we have more time to chat and hang out. Every once in a while, we are racing to make it to the bus stop, praying we won't miss it. Waiting 30 minutes for the next one can be a real drag if we've got somewhere else to be. Tonight, as we were walking to the bus stop after ballet class, Macy struggled to keep up. "We have to walk quickly, guys," I cautioned, "if we miss the last bus, we'll need to walk home."

"Let's hope for red lights and wheelchairs," Macy said cheerfully. It took me a minute, but then I caught on. The bus runs a few minutes late when it gets stopped at red lights and when the driver stops to assist handicapped riders. I smiled. Red lights and wheelchairs. Kids say the darndest things.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Hoards of Illiterate Children Running Around

I went on retreat this weekend (yes, I'm still floating) and had the opportunity to meet a number of women I had never met before. During meals and various group activities, I found myself explaining my family's choice to live life without school multiple times. At times I found it appropriate and fulfilling to really get into the juicy stuff: the reasons why I don't send my kids to school, what our life looks like on a daily basis, who inspires me, why I implicitly trust my children to learn without anyone telling them they have to. Other times I found myself answering the inevitable "What do you do for a living?" question more simply: "I work from home so that I can homeschool my kids." I often cringe when I answer that way. It just doesn't do justice to this rich and amazing life I am living. But there are times when it is the answer I choose.

Maybe I get a sense that the audience isn't quite ready to hear the real answer. Maybe I just don't have the energy to explain myself one more time. Or, maybe, there just isn't time and a simple answer is best. My roommate on the weekend and I had many in depth discussions about our kids and our lives as parents. She shared with me that although her daughter has a learning disability, she loves school and she can't imagine life any other way. As we went deeper and deeper, she admitted that they had tried homeschooling years ago and it just didn't work. The arguments and power struggles over getting assignments done and accomplishing specific tasks each day created stress in their lives that was making them both miserable.

I shared that things began in very much the same way for us. The year Janey turned 5, I was bound and determined to be the best darn homeschool teacher ever. I bought the sweetest little, nature-based, cutesy, colorful curriculum I could find and planned out the lessons we would be doing for the week every Sunday night. I gathered materials and mapped out our schedule on the calendar and was so excited to bring my former profession into our home. Little did I know, Janey had other plans.

The power struggles ensued and I pushed and pleaded and bargained for quite a while before I finally gave in and let Janey unschool us both. She just couldn't figure out why in the world I was asking her to bake bread in the shape of the letter A all of a sudden. She was horrified that on our daily walks through the vineyard, I was strongly suggesting that we gather sticks to paste together into the shape of the letter L when we got home. She was insulted that I was no longer allowing her to be in charge of her learning, as I had been every single day prior, for the past 5 years of her life.

As I explained to my friend the principles behind unschooling, her eyes got big and she shook her head a bit. "I don't know," she remarked. "I'm just afraid if we
all did that, we'd have hoards of illiterate children running around." I smiled at the visual, imagining our town overrun with crazed, wild children: barefoot, unwashed, mouths full of Laffy Taffy and french fries, looting the toy stores while we adults cowered in the corners. We laughed and she admitted that life without school just wasn't for her. "I really like my alone time," she mused. "I like knowing that when I have a day off of work, I have the house to myself until 3pm."

It's true. When my kids are not at their dad's house, it is a rare, rare thing to have the house to myself. Most days our house is full of busy, energetic, sometimes wild, often happy kids. It's pretty clear to me that our lifestyle is not for everyone, and I dropped the need to convince others that my way is the
right way long ago. There's room for all of us, with all of our various ways of being in this world, and the more I share with others my experience of life without school, the more others may come to realize that school should be a choice, not a requirement.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Park Day

We have a gathering with our homeschool group once a week. When the weather is nice, we meet outside at the park and when it's not, we meet in a meeting room at the public library. Kids of all ages play and hang out. Parents knit and chat and connect. It's one of the highlights of my week. Many of us are unschoolers, but not all. Conversation inevitably circles around each week to how grateful we all are to have settled on life without school.

Today we were finally able to meet at the park. For the past 6 weeks, or more, the weather has been too wet and cold, and frankly, we were all getting a bit stir crazy at the library. Mid-February often brings what I call the Spring Tease. After the snow and the wind and the rains of December and January, we usually get 10 or 12 days of glorious, sunshiny days when the thermometer creeps up into the 50s and the birds come out to play. I've spent the past week digging around in my garden, spreading fresh compost, and fantasizing about the spring starts I'll be planting in another 6 weeks. Today was another one of those sparkling days. I'm trying to soak it all up now because around here you can't count on great weather until June.

As our kids ran around and played on the jungle gym I reflected on "the socialization question" that homeschoolers so often defend. It's so ironic to me that homeschoolers are the ones targeted as potentially socially deprived. The 15 kids represented today are some of the most easy going, socially comfortable, well-adjusted kids I know. They interact seamlessly with kids and adults of all ages. Rarely is there a separation in play between younger and older children. They are simply kids, doing what kids do best: learning through play. I love park day!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


Charley is seven. Up until last Thursday, he had only lost 2 bottom teeth. His top two had been wiggly, but not too wiggly, for months. We were crossing the street on our way to Park Day, and like any self respecting, pesky, little brother, he pushed his big sister. For no reason. Irritated, Janey wheeled around and whacked him square in the face with her bag. The rest of us were halfway across the street when we heard the thud of her bag and the eerie silence that followed. I turned around to see Charley, white as a sheet, standing there on the corner with his little white tooth in his black gloved hand, blood dripping down his chin. After a very long pause, he burst into tears. Hysterics, actually.

We rushed to his side and held back our giggles as we wiped the tears and blood from his face. Man, there was a lot of blood. Janey was sweet, and felt terrible about the whole thing. She kept apologizing, checking in from time to time to see if Charley was ready to move past "injured victim", and on to "excited tooth fairy recipient". By the time we reached Park Day, he was skipping and smiling, and calculating the exponentially greater reward he was sure to receive tonight under his pillow for being the victim of such a heinous crime. Janey was elevated from assailant to accomplice, and the two of them hatched a partnership wherein Janey would receive 50% of the earnings, but only if the tooth fairy left more than 5 bucks.

In just a few days, Charley's remaining front tooth has migrated to the center of his upper gumline. It's astounding, really. It's hard to look at him without staring at his gaping mouth. That thing really is hangin' by a thread. He hates it when I call him Snaggle Tooth, but it's really hard not to. It's just so distracting. There are moments when I feel sure that the enormous gap must have been filled with at least 3 other teeth. How did that space get so big?

Tonight, Charley was so fed up with the remaining dangler, he ate an extra apple, just to encourage it to fall out. No dice. It's still there. Thank goodness, too, because the tooth fairy needs to get to the bank.

Monday, February 11, 2008

One Person's Trash

What'd ya put in your trash can today? This is a picture of mine this morning before the garbage truck came and emptied it.

Normally, I pride myself on how little actually ever makes it into our trash can. We recycle, we reuse, we buy in bulk. We go to great lengths on a daily basis to make sure our choices put as little crap into our landfill as possible. But when the television set broke yesterday, and the girls sheepishly 'fessed up about the acrobatics that caused the accident, I have to admit, I did a little victory dance. Our house is too small for a television set anyway.

The truth is, it played a very small role in our lives. We don't get TV reception. We watch DVDs a few times a week, at best. Now that we can watch movies on my computer, that poor little old TV screen hardly ever made it out of the closet anymore anyway. Closet space is precious, I just needed a reason to send that thing off to the dump. Janey helped me carry it to the garbage can, and as we hauled it to the curb, we laughed at the sight of it. What a statement!

I know, I should have done a bit of research to find out if there is a more sustainable way to dispose of electronics...I'm sure there is. But I just couldn't deal with those logistics yesterday. The thought of hauling that thing around in my bike trailer looking for an environmentally responsible place for it to go, it just wasn't going to happen. This was one of the few times I took the easy way out, and it felt great.

Make a statement. Liberate your mind. Liberate your closets! Toss out the TV!

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

How We Flunked Book Group

An article came out in Mothering Magazine not long ago about Mother-Daughter Book Clubs. Several friends have been talking about the idea and a few have even started their own. The girls and I were asked to join one. We love books, and read a lot. We often have several read-alouds going, in addition to the books we read on our own. We were excited about it, but at the time, we weren't available to meet on Sundays. We knew that our conflict would be shifting after the holidays, so we agreed to join in January for the second book. The email came with the name of the book and the next meeting date. We checked out the book and readied ourselves to join in the fun. Only it wasn't very fun.

The first time we sat down to read the book club book, I fained enthusiasm. The book was in the fantasy-mythical creature genre (which isn't my favorite) and I struggled through the first chapter. This is good for us, I thought. Stretching out of our comfort zone, pushing the limits a bit. The girls seemed interested and when I checked in with them, they wanted to continue. By chapter two, however, it was like pulling teeth. Everyone disappeared when I announced I was ready to sit down and read. Normally, they swarmed around me on the couch like flies. By the middle of the week, we were halfway through chapter two and had only one week to finish the book before the book club meeting. This was not fun. This felt an awful lot like homework.

The next time I suggested we read together, the girls groaned. This was not good. I suggested we sit down and talk instead. It took about 20 seconds to decide that this book was not a match for us. I agreed to contact the leader, and we decided to ask if we could hold off to see if the next book was a better fit. Now that a few weeks have passed, and we are back into books of our own choosing, I wonder if we ever will decide to join. Maybe assigned reading just doesn't fit with our unschooling ways.

Another friend is in the early stages of her book club planning and it seems to be going very well for her. Out of the 5 mother-daughter pairs in the group, only one has backed out for similar reasons. When I heard this, I was secretly relieved. Maybe I wasn't so crazy afterall. Someone else didn't like to be told what to read and when to be finished either! But chatting with my friend about the details of their group made me feel a bit envious as well. It sounded sweet and creative. They were even planning activities to do as a group after their discussions. I used to love that stuff! But then I had to remind myself that my ability to play teacher has been trumped by my firm belief in the principles of unschooling. As unschoolers, we decide what to read and when to read it. We decide if and when to create activities or play games or take classes. The beauty of our life without school is that, for the most part, nothing needs to happen in an imposed timetable. We may have flunked book group, but we're still reading!

Saturday, February 2, 2008

What's Mine?

I've been thinking lately about the challenge we have as parents in figuring out where to draw the line in responsibility for our children. I mean, on a basic level, we, as adults, are ultimately responsible for our children. Legally, we are responsible. But as unschoolers, many of us choose to take a very different view. I, as a human being, am not responsible for the actions of another human being. I can no more control another person's actions as hold back the tide. My children are individuals, they are autonomous, they are not me, and yet every single day, I struggle with this very reality.

So much of our society tells us that we are responsible for controlling our children. And in many circumstances, I buy into that: Don't run in the library. Look both ways before crossing the street. Keep your voice down! Don't touch that. Be careful. Whatever. But last night I heard something that really helped. "If it doesn't have my name on it, it's not my responsibility."

This is good for me. Slogans and simple phrases help me figure out in the moment what's right for me. My daughter Janey's bedroom? Not mine, she can keep it as messy as she likes. The carpet in Janey's room? Sorry, it's mine. The title to the house is in my name. If she spills nail polish on the carpet, it's a big hassle for me, that one's mine. My son Charley's tendency to go without socks in the middle of winter? Not mine. As long as I know I can put up with the whining several hours after we leave the house because his feet are cold, he's on his own. If I know I just won't be able to deal with it, I stick a pair of socks in my bag. It becomes mine when I know I won't be able to let it go. His teeth? Well, technically they're his, he should be able to choose whether or not to brush, right? Wrong. The dental bills come to me, in my name. Until he's old enough to pay for that, dental hygiene is mine, too.

I've had an issue in the past with feeling overly responsible. For other people, mostly. Are you okay? Comfortable? Happy? What do you need? It's been hard work to realize that taking care of me is a big enough job. But when it comes to parenting young children, it gets tricky. How much do I let go? How often do I intervene? When is it necessary and appropriate for me to control my children? My head spins just thinking about it. But the big lesson I'm getting these days, is that when I take care of myself first, it's good for all of us. My kids are learning first hand how to do that for themselves. I can already see Janey's tendencies to put others' needs before her own. She's the oldest, and like me, is very good at caring for others. Not a bad quality. As long as she's not sacrificing her own happiness in the meantime. Like Janey, I have to be careful not to stick my nose into places it doesn't belong.

My kids have already learned that they are very capable people. Years of making their own choices and figuring out what works for them on their own has taught them that they do know what's best for them. When I slip up though, and try to control when it's none of my business, they let me know. It's very uncomfortable all the way around. It's humbling, but important. Another opportunity for me to listen; really listen to my children. When I'm tired, or irritated, or frustrated, it's hard to listen. But I try. I try, every single day to give my children the same respect I would like to receive in return. And most days, it works. If it doesn't have my name on it, it's not my responsibility.

Friday, February 1, 2008

It Takes a Village to Heal

It has been snowing here for 5 days. It usually snows enough once or twice a winter for us to build a few snowmen and sled a bit, but it's usually gone in a few days. We got 12 inches last Sunday, and even with the rain yesterday, it's still here. Last year, the snow wasn't much fun for me.

This time last year, I was being prepped for surgery. I slipped and fell on the ice in front of my neighbor's house and broke my wrist. The x-rays revealed a rare type of bone tumor which had weakened the bone and ultimately caused the break, and one year ago today I had that tumor removed, and my left distal radius rebuilt.

I've been thinking a lot about what life was like for me one year ago. I came home from surgery in pretty bad shape. My mom had spent over a week with us before surgery, and completely took over for me. I was in pain and pretty much worthless. I had friends staying with me around the clock for 7 days post-surgery because I was unable to care for myself or for my children. Friends cooked and cleaned for me for weeks afterwards. Heidi was up all night with me one night when I was so sick, I couldn't even make it to the bathroom by myself. My friend Mary even came over one day to help me fill out the mountains of insurance paperwork I just couldn't seem to do on my own. Beth came over and scrubbed my toilets. Maud played with my kids. Khaliqa slept on my floor so I could leave at 4am for the hospital without waking the kids. Gabriella made CDs for me to calm me down and to listen to during surgery. Katie drove my kids everywhere. Jodi flew in from another state to be with me at the hospital. Lucinda spent the night and cared for me, even with a migraine. Ruby brought movies and cherry flavored lip balm. Cara brought my kids their favorite meal. Carrie looked in on me constantly, and countless others showed up in various ways. It was a humbling experience, for sure. I really, really needed help. And I got it.

The thing about it, for me, though, was that I literally had no other choice. I could not do it alone. I had to ask for help. In the past, I had often been the one to help others. I was the one cooking meals or watching my friends' kids. It was much more comfortable being the giver. There were moments, last year, when I was sick and tired of being so needy. My kids were sick of it, as well. I just wanted to be able to be a mom and an adult and take care of myself.

Eventually, of course, my arm healed and I no longer needed to be medicated, and slowly but surely, I got well. In the meantime, I felt so amazing grateful. I felt like the luckiest person in the world, to be surrounded by so many loving and generous people. When I worried that my kids would be scarred for life by my surgery, my worthlessness as a caregiver, and the strange metal contraption sticking out of my arm, my friends reminded me that I was giving them something else instead. I was teaching them what real friendship looks like. That friends show up. Friends do for us, when we can't do for ourselves. Friends cook, clean, care for our children, and sit with us throughout our most intense pain. Friends are there when we need them most. What a gift.