Monday, September 14, 2015

Unexceptionally Exceptional: A Gateway to Learning

This is the third and final installment of Unexceptionally Exceptional, which is the text from the talk I presented at the Northeast Unschooling Conference at the end of August. You might want to read part one and part two first: The Meaning of Success, and Time for Struggle, Time for Joy.

Downtime of all sorts can be valuable, and one of the way that manifests is in boredom.

I decided that me and my sister should sing a duet for the talent show because I was bored. I’ve been bored a lot in the past year, mainly because when things aren’t going great, I’m less likely to have a good routine going with regular activities, and more likely to feel restlessness.


So, in some ways the boredom I’ve felt has been a sign of things not going as well as they could be. But in other ways, boredom has always been a force of creativity in my life. As I wrote in a post on the Home School Life Magazine blog back in February:
“Boredom acts as a gateway, as the beginning of something new or different, or the introduction (or reintroduction) to a new hobby or passion, something that will go on to be an important part of our days. 
Or not. As important as the productivity that boredom can lead to, equally important is simply the space of boredom itself. The time for us to get past the initial restlessness or discomfort of not being busy, not doing, and settle into reflection, observation, stillness. We need the time to process and digest our learning, our experiences, and sometimes boredom can be a part of that.”
To struggle, to be bored, is part of the process of learning, and of healing.

I’ve never sung a duet in public before. I sung in a church choir and a homeschool choir when I was young, but my voice, when others are listening to me perform, has always been part of a crowd: a hopefully harmonious small part of the whole. I’ve sung in small groups, casually, where everyone is messing up and messing around, playing instruments they’re less familiar with and maybe trying out a new harmony. It hasn’t felt like much pressure.

But what I was suggesting to my sister when I turned to her and said “we should do a duet at NEUC” was scary. Everyone would be listening to my voice. They’d hear if I messed up.

But, I was bored that evening, and I wanted to sing with my sister, and once the thought crossed my mind and the words left my mouth, I became determined to follow through with it.

We sung Safe and Sound by Taylor Swift and the Civil Wars.

Sometimes, too, boredom is the impetus to actually work through emotional shit. Keeping busy, always talking and working and doing, can be a way to hide from difficult emotions, to avoid facing difficult experiences. Boredom, an absence of busy-ness, has forced me to process what’s been happening in my life, to reflect, accept, and work towards moving forward.

And as I move forward, I find myself asking again and again, what is success? It’s layered and multi-faceted, and my definition is constantly changing. I’m working on being at peace with my life, with where I am right now.

I’m learning to move forward. I may still be grieving the loss of two cats who meant the world to me, yet I have two different cats who have now come to mean an incredible amount to me as well. I’m still not living the dream life, there are still so many things I might want to change. Yet the garden still grows, and my family still loves me.

My darling Bea, of the no-tail and too-many-toes.

Success isn’t something you can attain in one grand swoop. I’m reminded of an Allie Brosh comic, where the author in scratchy comic form is shown gesturing sweepingly towards a purple ribbon wrapped trophy on the mantlepiece. “That right there is my ability to be responsible” she says. “I won it when I was 25.”

People my age, whether unschooled or not, have so many flawed and conflicting beliefs about what it means to be a successful adult, and how that can achieved. I guess we’re all floundering, at least some of the time, and just trying to figure out what we’re doing.

Unschooling, too, is a practice of learning and un-learning and re-learning, trying to find a path to respectful relationships, a peaceful home, and joyful learning.

Ah, the joy. Because the thing is, no matter how hard some times in our lives might be, no matter that our lives might not always look how we think they’re supposed to, there’s so much joy.

Pursuing an unschooling life is pursuing joy. It’s cultivating the excitement of discovery; the satisfaction of doing hard things on your own initiative; the companionship of strong relationships and time spent with people you not only love, but like.

Me and my mommy.

I spend as much time as I do talking and writing about unschooling because, despite none of this being new to me, it still fills me with so much excitement. My mind spirals into thoughts of what I’ve learned, with great pleasure, to do: bake pies and ferment kombucha and grow zucchinis. I think of all there is that I’m going to get to learn in the future. I think about how learning feels: the playful, relaxed, yet deeply focused intent of doing something I truly love, something that hits the perfect sweet spot of challenging yet attainable. It feels like freedom. And it’s one of the best feelings there is.

How can I not consider that joy, in and of itself, a form of success? I delight in learning, and in sharing, and in making the tenets of unschooling a continuing part of my adult life.

This past year may have tested me in a hundred different ways, but I’m proud that I managed, through everything, to find those joyful moments.

It takes a shift in focus to start seeing the success in your own life. It’s hard. Do I ever know how hard it is! I struggle every day to truly value my unique education, to recognize how much I’ve done and am doing in my life. To really feel my success.

But whenever I force myself to stop and really look, I can see it. I see the learning, and the growth, and the joy, and I know that I’ll be okay. I’ve got this. I’m busy building the life I want one messy, difficult, enthusiastic piece at a time.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Unexceptionally Exceptional: Time for Struggle, Time for Joy

This is part two of my talk Unexceptionally Exceptionally, which I presented at the Northeast Unschooling Conference a couple of weeks ago. I'd suggest reading part one, The Meaning of Success, first! Look for part three on Monday.

As much as I might often be seen as “successful” by unschoolers, this past year has not been one which looked very good from the outside, and one that often didn’t feel very good on the inside. This past year in my life has been rough. When I was writing the outline for this talk, I put down “the year of hell” as the heading for this section. For any Star Trek Voyager fans in the audience, you’ll remember the episode of that title, where in an alternate timeline, everything just keeps going wrong: aliens keep attacking; equipment breaks; people keep dying.

My own year of hell has been a time of great difficulty for my whole family. In December, a beloved cat who had been with my family for almost 14 years passed away unexpectedly. In January, my great aunt died. In february, my grandmother’s basement flooded, and shortly afterwards, she fell down the stairs, hitting her head on rough cement uncovered by flood repair work and getting a concussion. In March our other elderly cat, who had been with us just as long and been just as loved, got sick and died shortly after. In April, my father had surgery.


When I see people criticizing unschooling for its supposed sheltering of children from hard things, I laugh. My response to that concern, whenever it’s expressed to me, is that the world provides plenty of difficulty all on its own: no need for parents to artificially engineer misery in the lives of their children.

There’s a quote I really like by Alfie Kohn, who says:
“People don’t get better at coping with unhappiness because they were deliberately made unhappy when they were young. On the contrary, what best prepares children to deal with the challenges of the real world is to experience success and joy, to feel supported and respected, to receive loving guidance and unconditional care and the chance to have some say about what happens to them.”
I guess my parents did something right, because I seem to have ended up as an adult who can cope with adversity. This past year success has felt like being there for my mother when her aunt passed away. It’s meant rushing out of the house in record time to meet my grandmother at the hospital, and bringing my father in for his surgery along with my sister, hiding the terror we were both feeling so we could joke with him while he waited. Success meant bringing my cat’s body to the veterinarian's office to be cremated, even though I wanted to just curl up at home and grieve, because she was my cat and it was my responsibility.

Sometimes success means simply doing what you need to do.

And, through it all, learning keeps happening. Not even in a growing from adversity way, though that can’t help but be part of it, but just through everyday exploration. Books are still read, questions Googled, words written, Ninjutsu classes attended, skills honed and projects completed.

A large part of unschooling is seeking joy in learning: embracing learning as a playful, exciting process. But it seems that in all our discussion of that joy, some people seem to take to heart that that’s all unschooling should and can be. I see people concerned that their house isn’t constantly filled with light, or that life sometimes gets in the way of living in a way that looks how they think unschooling is supposed to look.

I think that cooperation and exploration and yes, joy, should always be the goal: of course we all want that. But there needs to be the recognition that circumstances will sometimes intervene in surprising and on occasion devastating ways, and what happens through that might not looks like the ideal of unschooling, but it will be real, and genuine, and the learning will still be happening, every step of the way.

My year of hell has included a whole lot of time spent not in crisis, but simply in living.

“When life is busy testing your endurance, it seems like the perfect time to bring a bit more magic into your days.”

I wrote that line back in January, and that thought, that idea has come to mean a lot to me in the past year. More than any other time in my life, I’ve been reminded over and over again of the importance of finding joy each day, in all it’s forms and in any way you can. Bringing little pieces of magic, of inspiration, into even the most difficult of days.

For one thing, I could spend hours picking berries. The only thing that generally drives me back indoors is when I’ve found every last ripe one in whatever patch of brambles I’m delicately working my way through. Sometimes I hum to myself. More often I’m silent, moving slowly, listening to the soft rustle of branches, hum of insects, and birdsong. Even the thorns on my favourite black raspberries seem more like a challenge than an inconvenience.

Black raspberries.

A lot of what bringing inspiration into my life has meant is self care rituals: picking berries; making myself and anyone else who’s around a fancy coffee; making a beautiful plate of food; cutting flowers from our yard and putting a bouquet on the table; baking a loaf of bread… Much of my self care involves food, because that’s what’s important to me, but everyone will have things that make them feel grounded and nourished.

And a lot of what “magic” has meant to me has been learning. I haven’t taken any classes since last fall: nothing has been formal, and little has been with other people. Even turned inwards, as I’ve been, towards family and healing, I’ve found myself still learning constantly, in countless simple ways.

Gardening has been a big thing for me and my sister this Spring and Summer. My sister Emilie has spearheaded things, at times dragging me along, short on motivation, behind her. Conversations on car rides have been about the ideal soil composition for beans versus tomatoes, and how best to treat powdery mildew on zucchinis. There have been sweaty days spent building a large trellis out of branches and reclaimed posts for our winter squash, building raised beds, and transplanting small growing things. In more recent days, time spent in the garden has waned, as more and more that’s left to do is simply harvest, take stock of what we did wrong and right, and discuss how we want to do things next year.

The tomatoes did especially well this year.

Besides the garden, bringing two new cats into our home, in a desperate attempt to fill the holes left by our recently deceased furry family members, has lead to plenty of breed research and new discoveries about cat behaviour, as each new animal always presents new challenges and new joys both. I canned some jelly semi-successfully for the first time this summer--the canning part was successful, though the “jelly” was more syrup than anything else. I’ve learned more about areas of history I previously knew little about; I’ve learned to cook new foods; I’ve learned that I can step up when needed even when I’m personally struggling.

A whole host of learning, from how to handle an overstimulated kitten and how to create an ingenious tomato watering system, to deep personal growth.

Remaining aware of all the learning that keeps happening, no matter what, can be encouraging and soothing. When it feels like you’re “doing nothing,” it might be a good idea to pay more attention to all the things that you, and your family, ARE doing.

We live in a culture obsessed with productivity. Whether you want to blame it on capitalism or on the puritanical work ethic, the fact remains that busy-ness, doing something, is generally considered good, and not doing anything “productive” is seen as laziness, as wasted time.

The idea that time can even be wasted, that every moment should somehow be accounted for seems like a deeply toxic idea. It’s definitely proved a harmful one in my own life. I’ve struggled with mental illness for years, and this year has been a particularly trying one with all that’s happened, and I struggle with the idea that I’ve “wasted” so much time in struggle.

In a culture that sees a lack of productivity as one of the seven deadly sins, people who are struggling are often seen as lazy. They just need to get over it, and pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

The reality is that big life struggles are sometimes inevitable, and there isn’t an exact recipe for how people are “supposed” to deal with adversity. Sometimes you just need time and space to heal, and to get back on your feet.

Our two new black cats, Silver and Bea.

Both children and adults need time to struggle with those big life events, to make sense of them.

One of the core tenets of unschooling is recognizing that everyone has their own timeline when it comes to learning. The same is true of emotional difficulties and growth. When we take constant productiveness as a measure of success, we’re doing a great disservice to ourselves and the people around us. Time is a great gift: time to figure things out, to grow, to process, to hibernate. Periods of downtime are essential, especially when life has been extra hard.

Part of learning to be kind to myself is learning not to beat myself up over a lack of productivity, not to punish myself for struggling. Sometimes picking a full container of raspberries is success enough.
As a grown unschooler, I might feel the pressure to excel in obvious ways especially keenly, but recognizing that the only timeline I’m on is my own allows me that space to breath, and when I’m kinder to myself, I’m more able to do and learn and grow.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Unexceptionally Exceptional: The Meaning of Success

This is the first of a three part series exploring what success is and means, unschooling when the going gets tough, and finding joy in the simple things. The text is from a talk I wrote for the Northeast Unschooling Conference, and I've broken it up here into more manageable post lengths. Look for parts two and three on Thursday and next Monday! 

As I was preparing for this talk, I found myself thinking a lot about what success means. What it means in this culture, what it means to unschoolers, and what it means to me, personally.

Culturally, the most common middle class narrative of success runs neatly from elementary school and high school, through college, and straight into a well-paying office job.

Unschoolers, obviously, have strayed from that path right near the beginning. And I think it’s fair to say that we’ve all questioned whether that’s really the best--or the only best--path to follow. After all, as soon as you start re-evaluating the place institutional education holds culturally and in each of our lives, it’s a pretty natural step to start wondering if that education is really seeking the right “results,” or if we want to be focusing on different goals.

But, I often wonder if we haven’t just replaced one set of expectations with another one, which, while less rigid, still falls far short of encompassing all the ways that humans can create their own versions of success in this world.

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It’s a day a couple of weeks ago. I’m curled up in the corner of the couch, knees tucked underneath me, the television playing something I’m not watching in the background. I’ve spent most of the day caught in a negative thought spiral of failed attempts and disappointments. In other words, it hasn’t been a good day. “I’m a loser.” I say. The words slip out without my thinking them through beforehand, but in that moment, I believe it. It doesn’t matter that I don’t want a degree: I’m supposed to have one, aren’t I? I don’t have a “real” job, and despite the fact I’m earning a small amount of money doing something I care deeply about, or that ongoing health problems have gotten in the way of outside work, it seems like something I should have. It doesn’t even matter that, at the core of all my beliefs about people and politics and everything else lies the belief in equality, and that there aren’t--or at least definitely shouldn’t be--any ranking of people based on how well they’re “winning” at capitalism or success or anything else.

But in that moment, I’m convinced that I’m a failure.

Those moments are just that: moments, and ones that pass. But I’m reminded of how strong cultural messages are by how easily I can get caught up in (and dragged down by) those narratives, especially in moments of emotional difficulty and uncertainty. Unschoolers or not, I think many of us can’t help but be affected.

In the unschooling community, ideas about success are different. I usually feel like people consider me pretty successful in unschooling spaces: popular blogger and speaker definitely falls under the range of well-thought-of unschooling endeavors, right alongside world travel and entrepreneurship.

Writing, writing, writing...

It’s nice to see other accomplishments beside the typical college to good career track being recognized for their validity. But, the things that are viewed as successful by some vague yet very much felt unschooling consensus are things that, well, look good. Things that are somewhat performative, public, and easily seen. It’s the public intellectuals, the travelling writers, the startup superstars whom it seems we’re most proud of.

I think it’s no coincidence that the word “performative” was the first one that came to mind for me. Unschooling is often faced with such harsh criticism from uninformed non-unschoolers, and even legal difficulties in some places. When people first learn about unschooling, they don’t usually get an image of the type of lifestyle many of us have lived and are living. Instead, they see one of chaos and ignorance and maybe even neglect, You mean you don’t teach the kids anything?? How will they ever become productive members of society??

With that type of outside reaction, I suppose it’s unsurprising that the lives of teenage and especially grown unschoolers can get turned into performances of success, most clearly seen in what and who we choose to talk about. Individuals become not just themselves: uniquely flawed and skilled people with their own lives to lead, but results. A product of a pedagogy, instead of simply people who’ve lead a different lifestyle. We broaden the definition of success, yes, to include more varied options. But we still want it to look damn good.

I don’t think it’s a deliberate choice, or a deliberate ranking of some pursuits as more important than others, yet regardless of intentions, it can sometimes feel, as a grown unschooler, that you’re caughts between a dance of sometimes conflicting, sometimes complementary pressures to prove unschooling success in one way or another, whether that means more mainstream or counter-cultural narratives. And when none of those paths looks like one you want to take, it can feel really difficult.
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My sister, Emilie is a musician, a martial artist, an amateur Arthurian scholar, and a writer of fantasy fiction. I think she’s pretty impressive, as does pretty much anyone who knows her. But unlike my own life and work, which I’ve chosen to share in a very public way, her pursuits are much quieter. She’s an excellent writer, but she only shares her writing with a select group of trusted friends. She’s very close to getting her black belt in Ninjutsu, and her teacher, who’s moving, wants Emilie to take over her class. Her accomplishments are real and important, but they’re not necessarily ones that receive much recognition outside of the specific groups in which she practices her skills.

She makes adorable plushies, too.

Many people, unschooled and not, lead quieter lives, with less outgoing passions. In holding up the unschoolers doing TED talks or getting into prestigious colleges as the pinnacle of unschooling success, I feel like we might just be missing an opportunity to discuss, and to truly embrace, a vision of truly unique life learning. If we mean it when we say that all interests are valid and important, then we must follow that belief through to it’s natural conclusion, which would be that all life paths, as long as they’re not harmful to others, are also equally valid, no matter how they might look to outsiders.

If we’re to do that, it seems that we need to be making a lot more space in discussions of success for people whose success doesn’t follow the most popular forms.
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