Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Come look at this!

First, a list of us, the short version of what we've been up to: Reading, book review writing, rollerskating, FlipNote drawing, pretend with friends, video game playing, GoogleSketchUp creating, candlemaking, food baking, comic book writing, movie watching, snow fort building, family visiting, new job settling, christmas music listening... and so forth.

It has always been difficult, for myself and for Cutter, to respond to the question of what we've been learning. Cutter, because he tends to go with what he's doing at the moment and blanks on the rest; everyone in the state of Michigan and my family is likely quite certain that the only activity Cutter engages in is video game playing from morning 'til night. For myself, the question is difficult because this life, this choice, is so much broader than the question of what information he's learned in any given day or week or year.

Some clarity has come in the form of a young writer, Idzie, who has lived an unschooled life, as well as in the form of a friend and mother, Pam, who unschools with her kids and is planning a book around the subject of her radical unschooling experiences. Their blogs are worth checking out.

It seems to me that what is most important in our daily living is how we have connected with each other and the world and most days, it is with intense interest and open communication. It is with a constant refrain of, "Come look at this!" Unschooling, for us, has meant inclusion of one another in the living. When Joe is working on a deal, we talk about it at the dinner table and we all ask questions. When I am dipping candles, I say to Cutter, "Hey, I'm going to dip candles. Want to help?" or when I find a new They Might Be Giants video on YouTube, I say, "Hey, this looks cool. Wanna watch with me?" When Cutter is playing a video game, he invites us to come see something that has excited him and before he goes to bed each night, he has a plethora of drawings, stories, action figures that he's sure we'll want to see. Oh, I've no doubt the learning is there, but it is there in the play and in the passion, and it is there for all of us. We are a family growing in the world, not two adults who know better than the youngest member and set out to prove it by filling him with our knowledge. Oftentimes, he knows better, and one gigantic bonus to this way of living is that he has the freedom to say so. Just this past week, Cutter and I were going for a walk in the winter wind. I tried to insist that he wear a coat, giving my many reasons why it was better than the sweatshirt he had chosen (though I've known for years that he rarely wears coats). I said something along the lines of fine, you can wear the sweatshirt and Cutter said quietly, "You sound disappointed in my choice." But what he really said was, "Come look at this, come look at what you are saying and help me understand it, understand you." I can not tell you how thankful for that boy, and this life, I was at that moment. I was able to step back, to say, "Huh, you're right. I did sound that way and I did slip into wanting control over your choice and I am so thankful that you help me to be a better person." But what I really said was, "Come look at this, look at me. I am imperfect and make mistakes, but this is how you say you're sorry, this is how you reveal need and gratitude. This is how you grow."

Friday, November 6, 2009

His own sense of justice

While we talk with Cutter about why we, Joe and I, believe certain ideas, hold certain values, donate to certain causes, we try to never assume that he will hold those same ideas, values and causes dear.

While I feel strongly that nature is essential to my well-being and that of the world, I have not said to Cutter, "You have to take care of the Earth or we'll all something-about-doom-and-gloom." Instead I have gone on walks with him, pointed out leaves I find beautiful, speculated about dead animals, pointed out hawks and herons galore and played out countless ninja/sword/spy battles in the woods.

While I think that growing our own organic foods is important to the health of body and soul, I have not forced him to garden with me, but have offered him the opportunity to choose seeds, plants that he would like to grow, with the promise that I would care for them. Even though I feel that healthy foods are key to a healthy life, I have let him choose what goes into his body, based on what his body needs.

None of these choices has come without much thinking and even struggle within myself, and much conversation between all three of us. All that to say, it has been interesting to see, with this freedom, where Cutter's sense of responsibility and justice have been popping up these past few months.

Recently, while hanging out at a backyard gathering, a squirrel began heading into the homeowner's garage in an attempt to stash nuts for the winter. Once he saw the squirrel, the homeowner began throwing a ball at the squirrel to try and stop it from entering the garage. Cutter turned to us, dismayed, and said quietly, "Why is he doing that?" I said that I didn't know but that he had every right to ask. So Cutter spoke up and asked his adult friend why he was throwing a ball at the squirrel, that the squirrel wasn't hurting anything. I can't recall what the response was, but Cutter had spoken up for what he saw as wrong and the ball throwing did stop in a karmic sort of way, after it was thrown one more time, and knocked over the owner's bike.

At the bagel shop recently, after we were done eating, Cutter looked at the bottom of his plastic cup, noted the number one and said, "Where do the recyclables go?" We looked around and saw that there was no recycling, so I said he could carry it home to recycle it if he wanted to- which he did.

Yesterday, while watching cartoons, Cutter saw a commercial for the new Lego Miners set and became very upset. He noted that the Lego humans were invading the land of the Rock people in order to mine for crystals, and that they were actually stealing the Rock people's food. He was upset and he said the commercial was lying by showing the Rock people as monsters who attacked the Lego people when really it was the other way around. We talked about justice and resources and the war in Iraq. We talked about how to respond to the commercial, and today, we'll be sending a letter to Lego, Inc. to let them know, in Cutter's words, what he thinks of their commercial.

It has been a fascinating journey with this boy, watching him form his own ideas about the world and his role in it and I am so glad that I'm traveling with him each day.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Where The Wild Things Are

Oh, my. I knew it would be lovely, I knew I would shed tears, but I could not say in advance why I knew. Even now, having seen the movie, I can not clearly say why; I know because I tried to explain my feelings about the movie to my Love and I don't think they quite came across as I felt them:

How Spike Jonze and Max Records got perfectly that look in a child's eye when they know they're not valued, that look that brings me deep sadness; that for reasons beyond their understanding, what they see as their work and joy is looked down upon so often, placed beneath the level of what we grown-ups have to do. You know the look, I'm sure- the one your child has when they ask you to play Legos or color with them and you say, "Oh, I'd love to, but I really have to -fill in the adult blank-." And the look says, "Yes, I knew you'd say that and my heart is broken, but I'll keep trying." They try politely, asking you to play each day or, like Max, demand their needs be met with wolfish antics and howls, which we punish or ignore, depending on how our adult day went. Until one day they stop trying and we can then lament how they're growing up so fast that they want nothing to do with us.

How each of the Wild Things was able to express parts of Max that he himself was not able, in words, to express, because kids don't have all the words we adults have just yet. So that when Judith is angry and growling at her king, and Max growls back, Judith says that he doesn't get to do that, that when she's upset he doesn't get to be upset back because he's supposed to make it better (that's a paraphrase). And I was taken to those times in my parenting history when a small child, one of my own, was upset and I, with more words and greater experience, "growled" back. I thought, Judith is right - I don't get to growl back.

How perfectly Spike captured the living of a nine-year old boy- and that it was familiar to me. Not in a Yes, my son's room is that messy, too sort of way but in a way that, to me, means I am deeply connected with my child. I have built the same snow igloo many winters over, times two, so that we both have stockpiles of snowballs to throw. I have sat and marveled at Lego creations more times than I can count. I have transcribed stories about aliens and knights and countless other wonderful beings. I have loved living this life with this boy who is now nine and when he has turned wolfish I have loved the work that has led me to understand him, and so many times, myself, better.

How the movie shows that children believe anything is possible and while it may turn out imperfect, it is still beautiful- and that letting them learn what is possible is the only way for them to come home, to who they are, to relationship, to so much more than my sleepy writing can contain.

Let it suffice to say that when I came home from the movie, I laid on the carpet and took turns steamrolling with my Love and my son, looking into his 9 year-old eyes and knowing that laying in a pile was the most important thing I could be doing at that moment in my life.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

One day

Our world has been very full the last four months and every time I consider writing, I become overwhelmed with the sheer amount of what I want to share. To avoid that altogether, I'm starting with just one day: yesterday.

Yesterday morning found Cutter a little groggy, as he said he'd stayed up until 2:00 a.m., finishing the first volume of Elfquest. He'd gone through the entire series over a year ago, but that was before he was reading, so he wanted to revisit the comic and his namesake, Cutter, to get a better understanding of the story.

We watched a Japanese/English sub-titled episode of Naruto Shippuden; it was Cutter's first experience with sub-titles and he found that the Japanese version uses different voice actors, so the characters felt unfamiliar and we decided to wait to watch the rest of the episodes in English. Because Naruto eats so much ramen, Cutter was sure that it must taste good, which led us to look up authentic ramen recipes.

While looking up ramen recipes, I came across a French-made cartoon maker, so Cutter spent a good amount of time making cartoons with captions and sending them to Joe at work. It was fun for me to use some of my French and we were able to translate the phrases into English.

After that, our first stop was the Halloween store, where Cutter found a costume, Shadow Ice Ninja, which he's pretty sure (and pretty excited that) he'll be able to wear two years in a row. From there, we went over to the home goods store, where we found chopsticks for our ramen as well as a Japanese knife so we could cut the ramen dough into noodles. Next stop, the bookstore for a book of pizza recipes. Cutter and I have been making homemade pizza dough and pizza lately and he's thinking it would be a good idea to start selling our homemade pizza. He's got it figured out that we would need 1/4 of the necessary pizza-making ingredients on hand at any given time and that our ingredients should be healthy. We're going to test out different pizza recipes until we find favorites and then go forward with our business plan.

When we got home, a new video game had come from Gamefly in the mail, "Destroy All Humans." Cutter had fun figuring out the rules of the new game, which makes me think of this article a friend posted on video games.

We began our ramen adventure by watching a few instructables and an instructive, yet strange video of a Japanese woman cooking with a poodle. We chose to make a shiitake mushroom broth. We then added bamboo shoots, mushrooms, green peppers, scallions, noodles and hard-boiled egg, accompanied by Sesame Chicken. It looked pretty cool and the boy who in recent years has said, "bleh" to most new foods declared it pretty good. This was not the 99 cent ramen Americans are used to eating.

After dinner, we headed to a local Ag Silver concert with Joe. It was Cutter's first rock/pop concert and while he was quiet and serious-looking throughout the concert, he could be spotted clapping, singing along and afterwards said it was a really cool concert. Other days are less active, to be sure, but most are at least as learning filled and joyful as this one.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

One more reader in the house

Interest-led life learning means that we have never offered or forced Cutter into using a prescribed reading/spelling/writing curriculum. Sometimes we lapsed in our trust that he would learn on his own schedule and we would slip into the "sound it out" regime. This only ever ended in frustration, because honestly, if he knew how to sound it out, he would've already done so, right? Cutter was happy to have us read for him, happy to gather the story from comic book pictures, happy to listen to books on CD every night.

Every now and then, he would blurt out a word on a sign or in his video game and say, "I just guessed," but he was pretty firm in answering questions about reading with, "I can't read." I pondered this response, because he was clearly reading some, if not all, words he came across. One day a few months ago, I asked him if he thought being able to read meant you could read every word you come across and he said yes. I explained that even I, his "typewriter eyes" reader of a mom, couldn't read every word I came across and that's why I looked to the dictionary, to the internet, to his dad for help.

This seemed to give him more confidence and in the next few weeks, he held aloft his DS while playing Drawn to Life and said, "This game is really helping me to read." A few weeks later, he was playing Zelda The Twilight Princess and I was reading the dialogue, doing my voices as I've done the past 8 1/2 years, and he said, "Mom, I already read that." I readjusted my framework, told him he could just let me know if he needs my help with words. In the following weeks, he's snuggled on the couch next to me while we both read, said it's cool how reading let's him do so many new things, read information to a friend and asked for a dictionary so he can look up how to say words. And while on our trip, he picked up a book we'd started reading together and said, "I think I'll just keep reading this on my own at night. But you can still read it to me, mom, because I like the voice you do for the mouse."

He doesn't often ask for word help and he doesn't read anything below his interest level and I think that he's able to read so fluently, so suddenly, because it wasn't sudden at all. He's been surrounded with the passion of words for 8.5 years so now that his brain is ready to process those words on its own, he has quite a vocabulary ready in there.

And still, just last night after he was away for the day with friends, he came home, laid his head on my shoulder and asked me to read Jon Scieszka's Squids Will Be Squids to him, complete with voices.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Cutter's Brand of Zen

Joe and I laugh because we know that each time Cutter sees a movie at the theater or on the t.v., he will come away from it saying, "That was the best movie EVER."
Cutter's joie de vivre extends far beyond the movie theatre, though. Before he eats his Saturday morning doughnut, he says, "This is going to be the best donut ever." And when he finishes, he says, "That was the best donut ever." Just today, we spent time with friends and he played for hours with his good friend Fisher. As soon as we pulled away in the car, he said, "That was the best play session with Fisher yet." Mind you, he never wants to stop playing with Fisher. Every day with Fisher is the best day ever with Fisher.
Explaining this aspect of Cutter to a friend, she said it was his Zen, his way of living in the moment. And I really have been considering that. How amazing to wake each day and not compare it to the last day, or the last 5,000 days. To look at a book or a game or the snow piling up outside and say, "This is going to be the best ..... EVER." And then it is. I hope I am learning from him.

More to come about our trip, for which I took few pictures before the camera broke. I'll try to make up for that in descriptive words.

I hope this moment is one of your best *EVER*.


Thursday, April 23, 2009

Child's Work

A scene from Cutter's baseball practice: The coach turns from helping a boy bat to find the 7 yr. old shortstop drawing in the sand. Coach yells, "Tommy, no playing in the dirt," to which Tommy responds seriously, "I wasn't playing. I was drawing a symbol."

This called to my mind a situation that occurred on a recent warm day. Joe and Cutter were out and I was seized with spring cleaning fever, the kitchen my target. I moved a heavy bookshelf from kitchen to writing space and took bins of utensils and dishes to the basement for donation.

The next morning after I woke, I entered the kitchen to find that everything, down to the last spatula, was back in its place, as though I'd done nothing the day before. I stood baffled for a moment before I turned to look at Cutter in the living room. He was sitting on the edge of the couch watching me closely. His eyes told me that he knew I had the power in that situation. That he knew I could undo the kitchen again, change it just as I had the day before, without consideration or consultation. What to do?

I went to that beautiful amazing boy and I hugged him and said, "Wow, you really did a lot of hard work this morning didn't you?" As Joe joked later, I could have just waited a few days and moved everything back a second time. Instead, I trusted that Cutter was doing his own work, different from mine but equally necessary. When I asked later that day why he had moved things back, he said he "didn't want anything changed that was the way it was when Isaiah was alive." Again, I could have just told him that things always change and re-arranged the kitchen again to prove just that point. Instead, we've been working together to honor the needs of each of our family members, my need for more space from clutter, Cutter's need for more space to hold onto Isaiah.

It came to me (with much practice) that when we set ourselves up as rulers of our children for their own good, we eradicate any honest work they may do. I am speaking of external work, but that necessarily requires internal work; the internal work of knowing and understanding and trusting one's judgement in relation to self and others in the world; the internal work that we, as adults, pay thousands of dollars in counseling fees and self-help books to learn; the work that children do naturally while they play, watch and live unencumbered by our own adult ideas of work, which frequently involve subverting your own voice beneath arbitrary rules that may apply to one situation or individual but not to every situation or individual. I consider food a prime example, especially in this country. If you force or coerce a child to eat when they are not hungry because, e.g. "9:00 a.m. is breakfast time" or to eat all the food off their plates though they've stated they feel full, you effectively, over the course of a childhood, teach a child that there is no wisdom inherent in their own body; that any wisdom or knowledge to be had must be given to or placed upon them by external forces. By the time they've grown to adulthood, they no longer recognize hungry or full, among multiple other things.

Consider the next time you find yourself in a struggle with a child: What work might my child be doing... are they trying to grow in experience, knowledge or power? Am I simply trying to control the situation because I can, because I have the power? And what do I lose if I allow my child to express their own wisdom, voice, needs?

Just some thoughts from my daily parenting practice. Wishing you peace in your practice, whatever it may be.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Cutter and I are trying to take frequent pics, to post one pic each a day. An idea from the lovely Ohman family.

From Cutter, a glimpse into the backyard life of Saint Francis. It's a snowy life.
From me, how I get my sunshine on a snowy day: carrot/orange/ginger juice.

The Passengers on the Bus

This pic has nothing to do with the bus. It's a tunnel Cutter and friends made in the deep snow. I like it.

Last spring, after a time in which I felt a lot of anger and confusion surrounding my world, I began talking with a wonderful woman. She has gifted me with many useful navigational tools, and one of my favorites is the symbolic bus. Each of us has a bus. We are, each of us, the drivers of our own bus. We cannot control the speed of the bus and there are no brakes, but we can control the direction in which the bus moves. The challenge is in how we interact with the passengers on the bus. The passengers are many and varied and frequently quite loud. They are your high school English teacher telling you you can't write or your grandma saying you're ill-mannered. You can sit in the back with your passengers, arguing with them, trying to cajole them to understand your point of view, or you can admit that they're there, they're not getting off and you can still direct the bus down the path you want to take. When I find myself feeling frustrated or angry, it helps to ask who's driving the bus. Is it me, and do I want to head in the direction of the frustration or is it one of the passengers directing me that this is how it's done, the right way?

This week Sunday we celebrate Isaiah's birthday. It doesn't come into my mind to think, He would have been seven, he would have been doing such and such because he will never be seven and I would rather hold the joy of who he was than the sadness of who he might have been. So we will eat pizza with special sauce and share the light blue napkin he loved and celebrate his joy.

Driving to the aquatic center last night, Cutter asked if I could park close (the temperature was near 0). I said I would, except all the close spots were reserved for cars with handicap tags. As we pulled into the last spot in the row, Cutter said, "I wish Isaiah were still alive." I turned to look at him and asked what made him feel that way just now. He passionately said, "Because he was my brother and he was fun and I loved him.... and we could still park in handicap." And then he burst out laughing, me along with him. He said the first part was true, the second part just a joke. I could have listened to that societal passenger just then, told him that death wasn't funny. Instead, I celebrated that he did not find death a fully depressing subject, that he has integrated the sadness and the joy of life.

Wishing you joy and laughter in the dance, especially when the steps are most complicated.