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Learning in Freedom

Welcome to Learning in Freedom, a blog all about the learning adventures (and mishaps) of the Allen family. My four children are unschooled, following their interests and passions every day and living the lives of their choosing. The purpose of this blog is to share our every day lives (and my not-so-humble opinons) with anyone interested in stopping by. We hope this will give a glimpse of how natural learning unfolds from day to day......

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

 I'm creating a new post with the hopes that blogger will then let me edit old posts. This has apparently been archived or something.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Hanging at the Nolichucky


A few snapshots of one of our favorite places on the planet, the Nolichucky River. We try to get out once a week, but lately it's been hard to find time.

Heading back there tomorrow and wanting to capture some of the essence of our time there with friends. The following are an assortment of days on the river shot with Sierra's little point-n-shoot camera....because all that darn pro-gear can be a bit much to lug!

Thursday, August 19, 2010


I'm sure most of you have read my post at Tea With Ren, about the fact that Bleu and I are in the process of separating our lives. There's so much to say, so much I want to write about, yet when things get difficult I tend to stop writing as much.

There were so many things I didn't write down when we went through our separation ten years ago...and I wish I had. So I'm determined to get back to writing regularly. Maybe not at my blogs, but at least for myself.

Anyhoo, in the cleaning and packing and trying to get this house ready to sell there is a lot of reflection going on. Tears and smiles both. I've been missing my family in Alaska like crazy all year, it's really hard to be this far from my roots.

My maternal Grandfather married us in Alaska, in my parents house. He has been a rock for my entire life and is now facing the end of his life. Parkinson's has ravaged his body and mind. I need to be there to hold his hand one more time.

I picked up a book from my childhood the other night. One of those books that your parents have on the shelf, that you always remember seeing and looking at. My Dad would sit and show me the pictures inside, but it was a non-fiction adult book so we mostly talked about the information within rather than reading large portions.

It is about a WW2 ship, the Queen Mary. My family has many adventurers in it's ranks. My Dad and Grandfather were the boat captains for our family trips out to the cabin in the Prince Williams Sound. They loved boats and everything to do with the ocean....that passion surrounded me from birth. That same Granddad was a pilot. He flew small planes and was on the board of directors for Wien Air Alaska. Flying and boating stories were part of the fabric of our family.

Back to the book; I picked it up the other night and sighed at the memory. Flipping it open, I noticed an inscription on the front page I had not noticed before. If I knew about it, that fact had been lost to my memory long ago. It was a note from my Grandfather to me:

Dear Karen,

Everyone should have "somethings to do someday". Dreams, you just keep them in your mind and quicker than you think they are not dreams, you are doing it. Put a visit to the "Queen Mary" on your list. To excite the dream, read this book when you're able. I guess you could share the book with your Dad. Love, Grandpa Harry

P.S. My dream to visit the "Queen Mary" just happened.


I sat weeping, so thankful for the adventuresome dreamers I was born into. So thankful for the fact that they wanted to nurture the imagination. And sad, that I probably won't make it to Long Beach California to visit the Queen Mary before he dies, so I can properly thank him for igniting so many things in a young soul.

Change is a constant in this life. I've learned to embrace most of it, to be with it and know that what it leads to will be cloaked for some time. There are great things around the next corner....I suppose it's that feeling of excitement and mystery that make me want to keep doing more in this life.

For now, packing and remembering the past are enough. Long Beach and the Queen Mary are on the bucket list! Practicalities should never get in the way of a dream. :)

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Inspired by the Good Morning America piece

So my friends Christine and Phil were on Good Morning America this week. It was a clearly biased bit of "reporting" in which the reporters should have been embarrassed to air the piece it was so poorly done. That's a risk I'm not willing to take anymore...to put ourselves out in the media spotlight and the piece was a good reminder why I won't do that any longer.

To GMA's credit, they brought Chris and Phil to their studio and allowed a true discussion to take place (short though it was) and cleared up some of the misconceptions about unschooling and in particular, about their children Kimi and Shaun. It was a much better look at unschooling even without video footage of children in action.

Two things are really sticking with me; 1) the whole notion that one must spend 13 years of drudgery in a classroom in order to be prepared for college or "real life". 2)That children need school to be "exposed" to lots of ideas/activities they would otherwise not have access to

First of all, I admit my bias against school when labeling it "drudgery". That's what it is for most kids. I love talking to parents who are convinced their children LOVE school and "it works for them" and on and on. But when you chat with the child they hate school, they want to leave, they wish they could have other options.

I'm not saying this is true of all children...no. But this has happened enough in my life to wonder how many parents are really in tune with their children's needs and desires enough to even notice how much they detest going to school each day....most of the time.

To address the college issue....I'm not sure I can anymore. I'm so over this assumption. I honestly don't see how school prepares you for college at all and if the typical college student is an example of a "well-prepared" adult then I hope my children are not prepared for college at all. I hope they're not prepared to hand over years and years of their lives for a thin sliver of hope at a job they'll despise. I hope they're not prepared to go into debt for that which does not feed their spirit, bring them joy and ignite their passion for learning. I hope they can't do mindless recitation of facts that mean nothing to them. I hope they're not prepared for anything less than exactly what they love.

I DO hope they can see many, many options for getting where they need to go in life. Options like apprenticeships and working part-time to fund travel adventures and self study and on and on the list goes. I hope they trust themselves enough to know that college isn't some mystical and fearful place, just another option in an endless list of options.

So far it's worked out pretty well. Trevor is 20 now and is choosing to study the CompTIA A+ certification material on his own, rather than pay big money to take the class. He's assisting a DJ part-time and looking forward to continuing that after he finds a computer tech job. If college became important to him, I have no doubt he could easily prepare for that (have you seen the material in the A+ book? Ouch....college prep should be EASY after that!!).

I could list the very real people I know who are attending college as adults, who have entered college after being unschooled all their lives and are successful, or unschoolers who are following other paths that are more fulfilling than college. I could, but I won't. Because no matter how many poster children there are for unschooling, closed minds won't get it. I don't want them to anymore...I just want to live my life.

On to #2....the notion that children need school in order to be MORE exposed to activities and ideas. In some families school may very well be a good option for that. Sure. If people homeschool in order to isolate and separate their children then school may very well be a better option for those kids. Not my choice to make.

I met Christine, Phil, Kimi and Shaun not long after they'd left school. In St. Louis to be exact, during an unschooling conference at which I spoke. Kimi and Sierra became friends and over the years we met up with them at various locations in the U.S. for gatherings or conferences. They travel in their RV a lot so they get around! Kimi and Shaun are engaging, bright and interesting young people to chat with. I've always enjoyed their perspective and time with the entire family. It's obvious their children are not sheltered and are being exposed to FAR more than the average child their age.

But how is it that children, who detested school, who watched that clock ticking away the minutes and hours of their lives, who prayed for the weekend to come so they could get out of school...just HOW do they become adults who believe it is the best option for their own children? How is it that a person leaves school and takes years to recover, to find their own passions again, to learn the things that are actually useful for their lives, look back and see school as a crucial part of that journey? I don't believe it IS for most people.

But I'm out of energy folks...I have no more defense for unschooling. I'm too busy living my own passions and trying to help my children follow theirs. I hope you find your passion too. Instead of describing what we do, what my children are exposed to precisely because they DON'T waste a bunch of time sitting in school all day, instead of using my energy in that manner, I offer you a few snapshots of our life. That's all I have any more. My camera and very few words.

I don't want to defend unschooling or cut down school. Even though I have strong opinions about it all. I know that children in school are loved and growing and learning just like the rest of us. The difference is that their lifestyle is accepted...they don't have to explain their choice over and over and over again to well-intentioned but ignorant people. They don't have to try and explain how they'll get into college (because they're in school and ALL schooled kids can get into college right?) or what they're being exposed to all day (because what happens in school is all so smarmy-marmy wonderful for children right?). No, they don't have to do that but neither do I.

I leave you with a few pictures of our recent explorations...because that's all I have left now. No more words, just images. And I hope that unschoolers will realize that they don't owe the world any explanations or defenses. That they don't need to convince the ignorant or close minded. That we just need to live our lives and get on with the joy of living and learning together.

It's what we do best you know. :)

Do these people look like they're missing out on "real life", on being "exposed" to choices? Would a classroom enhance our experiences? Perhaps, but I leave that choice to the individual. They're perfectly capable of making that choice....when and if it becomes important to them.

Sunday, January 03, 2010

So tell me your dreams: issue 6

Myself at around 6 years of age, with the baby Robin.

"Dreams are answers to questions we haven't yet figured out how
to ask."


"Dreaming is an act of pure imagination, attesting in all men a creative power, which if it were available in waking, would make every man a Dante or Shakespeare."

—H.F. Hedge

"Dreams are illustrations... from the book your soul is writing about you."

—Marsha Norman

So Tell Me About
Your Dreams

So tell me about your dreams...

Such a simple statement. Yet so profound. "So tell me about your dreams," she said. It was meant literally, a question for a friend that must have been seeking some dream interpretation. Yet it was so intimate, so caring, so open.
tell me about your dreams

She sat at another table, speaking to a stranger, but it felt as though it was meant for me. As I sat sipping my coffee that day, I pondered the impact of her question. Why was the question so probing, and why did I feel that it would feel so comforting to have a person ask me that same question?

Dreams are significant and forgettable at once. They are clues to our subconscious, symbols of things that only we can decipher. To share a dream with another person is an intimate sharing, a thing that only a compassionate and caring person would want to shoulder or learn about. We don't walk around talking about our sleeping dreams, nor our waking dreams to just any soul encountered. To have a person ask about our dreams is an act of caring, an act of listening deeply. It feels personal and safe in the right person's presence.

tell me about your dreams

I think back to my childhood and how rarely I shared my dreams. I learned early on that my dreams were silly things, not worth mentioning. There wasn't anyone asking that magical question, not really. The sleeping dreams were pointing towards great clues about me, yet even those weren't completely safe to share.

I remember the dream about cycling across America and how passionate I felt about it for weeks after waking from that particular dream. The dream got downsized to a bike ride from Fairbanks to Anchorage, then from my home out to Chena Hot Springs about 100 miles away. Eventually, it got buried under the fear of hearing how impractical my dreams were. But it was still there, bubbling under the surface.

What if someone had been able to share my dream? What if someone, just ONE someone had said, "tell me about your dreams"? What if that person, rather than scoffing at the impracticality of either a waking or sleeping dream had said, "how can we plan for this?" and showed me a path to making dreams a reality? What if......

I wonder often just where I'd be today had one adult in my life asked me that question and cared deeply about the answer. I wonder. It really doesn't matter at this point, the past is past, and I forge my own path today, with or without those chains. But it's worth thinking about how our questions, words, and attitudes affect our own children and the dreams they carry within themselves because they carry dreams today. They carry seeds of dreams for tomorrow. They carry greatness within them wherever they go—do we nourish it or before it can grow into its fullness, do we decapitate it with the cruel swipe of our uncaring words?

tell me about your dreams

When a person shares the gift of their dreams with us, we need to recognize just how personal and how precious that gift is. A dream can be a fragile thing in the early stages. A fragile, gossamer gift that can be shattered like spun sugar at too rough a touch. We can shatter it or fortify this small thing that sits before us. "Tell me about your dreams" can fortify the most fragile idea, the smallest whimper of a desire. This simple question lends strength because we are listening. It lends vision because we care.

When our children come to us with these desires, ideas, and schemes our words have impact. We must choose them carefully. Do we have enough vision to listen deeply? Do we have enough creativity to see it through? Do we share with them the knowledge of how to birth a dream into reality? Is it enough?

I am sharing my dreams with that inner child that wasn't heard. I care deeply about her ideas and visions that weren't taken seriously enough. I take these desires seriously and do what I can to bring them about. This healing journey of listening to my dreams (those urges and desires never go away.....we respond and live in joy, or ignore them and live in torment) has caused me to slow down and really listen to my children on a different level.

There are times that an idea is worked through on many levels just by being heard. Knowing that someone wants to hear us can be a gateway to more creativity, to bigger ideas, and the ability to work through a challenging idea. Building a support network for your own dreams begins with "tell me about your dreams." Helping our children stay in touch with those inner desires and the ability to trust themselves very often begins with "tell me about your dreams" or some version of it.

tell me about your dreams

The woman that spoke those words at the coffee shop last week will probably never know how her words affected me. She doesn't need to know that her ability to care and listen gave me words that are now like a mantra in my mind. Taking our dreams seriously is what we all need to do on this earth before we leave.

My children are a big part of my dreams. My ability to nourish and fortify their dreams is another important piece of that puzzle. There are other nudges and urgings under the surface...they call to me here and there. I listen to them now; I trust they are important parts of who-I-am and where my journey will take me. I cradle and nourish and plan with those pieces....for they are part of a calling, part of urges we can not explain. Some of them feel as though they were embedded deeply into the coding of our very cells at the beginning of time. Where they come from and how they become a part of us we may never know. Trusting that they are the clues to a life well-lived helps us take them seriously.

There is an old picture of me, around six years of age. In the picture I am cradling a baby bird in the palm of my hands, a Robin that had fallen from its nest. I remember how tiny and vulnerable that small life was, how strong the urge was to protect that life. I remember my mother commanding us to take the bird back into the forest because it was impractical to try and save it. I remember how crushing the weight of that burden was and recognize how it has affected me to this day. When I see that picture of my small self, trying so hard to protect that fragile thing, I see a child with dreams in her hands. A small creature trying to protect an even smaller creature amidst the cruelty of a world that wouldn't slow down to listen. This image reminds me to act as a protector of dreams, a bulwark against a world that would scoff at the desires of a small heart. Those small, fragile dreams can grow strong with time. They can become a life's journey.

What are the dreams that have laid quietly far too long in our hearts?

What are the urges and desires that seem impractical?

What steps are we taking today, to ensure the safety of those desires?

What are we doing to build upon those ideas and nourish them in our own children?

I imagine a world where children are taken seriously, where dreams are taken seriously. I imagine a world where everyone's dreams are seen as clues to a joyful life. I imagine that we can all listen more deeply and care more fully about our own dreams. I believe that we carry greatness within us and that our dreams are the clues to unlocking that greatness.

So.... tell me about YOUR dreams.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Learning at biltmore: issue 5

"A child's learning process is not thwarted by an honest parent openly sharing information any more than my own was in that moment, as long as there is no attachment to any particular outcome."

"A choice is another benign thing, just sitting there as a single option unless acted upon. Choice doesn't harm natural learning; it doesn't cause my children to have less trust in their own ability to learn. It's just another choice."

"Yes, I believe that our children guide us quite readily into that which interests them. Yes, I believe that natural learning happens all the time. At the same time I don't believe that a parent-initiated activities or information takes away from natural learning. In fact, I find that people with more experience, more years, and a wide array of experiences to pull from usually expand our own pool of information."

Cool Connections:

Biltmore Estate


Learning at Biltmore

There was a big discussion recently at one of the email lists about parent vs. child-initiated activities and whether anything parent-initiated was helpful. I cringe when I read these kind of posts because I think debating parent or child-initiated is setting up a false dichotomy. In a family where interests and ideas are freely shared, without coercion and without any agenda, in a family where trust is high and relationships are healthy, I don't think one needs even consider who "initiated" an idea, conversation, fun activity or outing. I don't believe WHERE the information started is nearly as important as how it's being tossed around.

In our family, ideas and thoughts begin with every one of us. Sometimes we take great pleasure in sharing those thoughts or ideas with other members and sometimes not. Most of the time, if something excites any one of us, we love sharing it. We enjoy hearing other perspectives or add-ons to things we've been mulling about. We seek out other family members for activities and talk as a natural by-product to our own interests and learning. Trying to figure out whether it was "child-initiated" or "parent-initiated" would be pointless except for the sake of theoretical discussion on an email list! Parents without any attachment to what and when their children learn can easily share information and be perfectly comfortable if that information is unwanted. Without an agenda of any kind, without any ideas of "should" or some time limit on our unique journeys, these parents aren't going to feel any sense of failure when a child isn't interested in something offered.

More often than not, anything I offer up is either welcomed or expanded upon. I think that comes from being in tune with where my children are at today, and what items, places, ideas and events interest each of them. I know that Trevor and Jared are probably not going to be terribly excited about "First Friday" where we peruse art galleries, listen to local music and enjoy the atmosphere of downtown, but I make sure to let them know I'm going anyway. The door is always open, whether it's their own idea that initiated an activity or one of the adults in the house.

This idea that parents shouldn't offer, shouldn't share information or activities seems to imply that the parents are far too clueless to offer anything of value. Yes, I believe that our children guide us quite readily into that which interests them. Yes, I believe that natural learning happens all the time. At the same time I don't believe that a parent-initiated activities or information takes away from natural learning. In fact, I find that people with more experience, more years, and a wide array of experiences to pull from usually expand our own pool of information.

My own experiences and information are valuable to me and occasionally valuable to other people that want to hear my point of view. My children are no different than other people I come into contact with. If parents worry that their own input is somehow detracting from the natural learning experience, are they withholding information or ideas their child might actually desire? Is there some feeling that children are so fragile that they would be inhibited by honest sharing, even if that sharing could comfortably be rejected by the child at any time?

I think back over our day-to-day interactions lately, and I see where all of us are "initiating" learning experiences. Because learning is happening in the mundane everyday tasks, in the games, in the driving and walking, in the day and night, in the travel and exploration, in the conversations and celebrations we all choose to embrace, each of us sparks some beginning to these activities as naturally as the ocean ebbs and flows. We all have worthy contributions; we all share excitement and information; we all share in each others interests to some degree small as it may be at times.

Just the other day, I came home from work and had two very excited children shouting, "Mom, come see this show with us, it's REALLY cool! It's talking about what the world might be like in 200 million years...." and on it went. They shared all about what they'd seen so far and practically dragged me into the room to watch with them. Was my own learning process somehow thwarted by having them share that information with me, rather than finding it on my own? Of course not. It expanded my world; it brought joy to share something that excited them so much and we all learned from it. A child's learning process is not thwarted by an honest parent openly sharing information any more than my own was in that moment, as long as there is no attachment to any particular outcome. In fact, sharing information and ideas freely enriches and expands our world.

I am thinking specifically of a day we all spent last month in which I initiated the entire activity, yet we all got something different and enjoyable out of that activity....each of us learning and sharing in our own way.

Let me back up a bit....

When we moved up here to Tennessee, there was a whole new range of activities, people, and places to choose from. I took it upon myself to research the local home/unschooling support group (something I knew my children valued and would appreciate), to find out a variety of resources that our family might enjoy. Being the parent that typically provides transportation to a variety of venues and typically gets the information for everyone (to do with exactly as they choose), I didn't question whether my initiating that information has some ill-effect on anyone. Information is just that, information.

Without coercion, "teacherly" agenda or other influencing factor, everyone in the household can do what they choose with information. I would personally like more choices rather than less. My children do too. A choice is another benign thing, just sitting there as a single option unless acted upon. Choice doesn't harm natural learning; it doesn't cause my children to have less trust in their own ability to learn. It's just another choice.

Another place I had wanted to visit after moving here was Biltmore Estate. I had taken the boys and Sierra when they were very little many years ago, but mostly they couldn't remember it at all. I told my kids about it, asked if they wanted to join me in a visit, and in the end I had not only my four children interested in spending the day at Biltmore, but an extra one as well. One of our close friends has a son that spends a lot of time at our house, and he was very excited about visiting Biltmore with us.

My children (at this point) didn't know anything about Biltmore, where it was, or that we lived within an hour of the estate. They wouldn't have thought to research about it yet, or ask if we could go. Should I have waited until they found it on their own? They may have been in their 20's before that happened (maybe not), and I'm not a big believer in waiting around for things to happen; I ENJOY swirling new things into our days as much as my kids do! If Biltmore hadn't interested them, I knew I'd get a very honest "no thanks Mom," and I would have been fine with that too.

But because they were interested, we picked a day, and over the mountains we drove, five kids and an adult eager to see Biltmore, excited about being together and traveling away from home for that day (with the promise that we'd be home by 6:30 for two World of Warcraft players to attend the evenings raids). The drive itself is always fun for me. Driving right through the mountains, taking in all the scenic beauty, hearing all the children proclaiming, "it's sooooo beautiful" each time we make the drive has its own magic and sweet connections. I couldn't even tell you all the topics we shared while driving, but I imagine that we touched on music and nature at the very least.

From the moment we stepped foot on Biltmore Estate, the children were all full of exclamations of awe. Each of them noticed different things, all of them were completely enchanted, from my 6'3" 17 year old right down to my 5 year old ball of energy that ran circles around us. They all wanted to go inside the house first, so a self-guided tour began our Biltmore experience. We traipsed through lavish room after lavish room (all of them decorated with live Christmas trees) with conversation spilling forth about turn of the century customs and style, excessive wealth, philanthropy, humanitarian efforts, architecture, ecology and conservation, environmental concerns and the fact that every one of us decided the servants rooms were FAR nicer than any of our own rooms! Each person had different ideas and thoughts, each person shared them freely. Nobody felt coerced or "taught" because someone else was thinking aloud or asking a question. The conversations weren't steered or guided; they were honest and natural....as conversations are around here.

When we got to the end, all of the kids were disappointed. They wanted to see MORE! I was more than done with the whole tour, but they were wishing we could go look at some of the off-limit areas. Unfortunately for them, they were truly off-limits. We headed over to the Carriage House and all the shops. Ice cream was first; discussions about flavors, making homemade ice cream and how to stay warm when eating cold items on a cold day quickly followed. I chose a cuppa hot coffee thank you.

Next stop was at the sweet shop where Sierra and I took great pleasure in selecting handmade truffles to share. It was a fine art, selecting exactly the perfect flavors and deciding how many of each would satisfy. After that, the old-fashioned toy shop sucked us in. A trip down nostalgia lane was in store, as I found toys that were replicas of many items I used to find in my grandparent's farmhouse attic. Items that would have been the childhood toys of my father and aunties who were children in the 40s and 50s. The kids thought it was pretty cool that I actually remembered playing with those old-style toys. We left with some miniature knights and a buzzing bumblebee.

The gardens are pretty bare this time of year, so we talked about how fun it would be to try and visit each month (something now possible thanks to a yearly membership I chose to purchase) and watch the seasonal changes. In the arboretum, Jared asked, "Wouldn't the air in here be really rich with oxygen?" Well yes, it would. And off we went into environmental changes, plants, and air quality. Jared happens to be fascinated with global warming and a variety of green issues.

Jalen, Sierra and Jared were especially fascinated with one plant that had "ginormous" (Jared's word) leaves. During the time they were checking out that particular plant, Jalen had happily skipped off ahead of us and was back outside balancing himself on brick walls. Trevor and John were comfortably esconced on a bench discussing World of Warcraft events and strategy. Everyone getting something different; everyone enjoying time together.

On we traveled to the winery. The boys weren't very interested in wine making as a whole, but decided to join us for the tour anyway. Sierra was the one pushing for the tour at this point as she wanted to know "how they got all that yucky taste into the bottle." After a brief movie on the Biltmore wine making experience, we walked through the equipment area. Suddenly everyone was interested again. Huge vats where the wine ferments sent off a yeasty, fruity fermenting smell. Jalen talked non-stop through the fermentation, extraction, and aging areas asking a million questions and wanting to get up higher to see it all. Sierra was SO excited about knowing how wine was made, and she found it magical how the grapes gather in the sun's energy then release it in the form of juice put through a lengthy process almost as ancient as the grape itself.

Jalen had opened one of the informational displays to discover a lightbulb beneath. He was more interested in the electronic set up and how the lightboxes worked for a while. Learning takes all forms, and it's often not about what the other members are absorbing. In the wine-tasting area, the kids got to sample some grape juice and demanded that we take some home because "it's the best grape juice ever." Once in the wine shop, the older boys had all gotten their fill and headed out for the van (giant jawbreakers in tow) while we made our selections and gawked at the lovely Christmas ornaments.

Upon stepping outside, we noticed a few delicate flakes of snow drifting gently down. Talk about excitement! By the time we'd situated ourselves in the van and began the drive towards the estate exit, snow was coming down in a dramatic flurry. All the way home, white surrounded us and began covering the ground to the side of the freeway. Driving over the mountain pass during a snowstorm was a bit unnerving, but beautiful and ethereal all the same. Our excitement was compounded by the fact that we knew friends were heading up over the mountains behind us, to come stay the night. Kelly and Duncan Lovejoy had visited the site for next year's Live and Learn (right outside of Asheville), and we talked them into heading over the mountains for one evening.

The gamers all got home in time, Kelly and Duncan arrived ("frozen Southern popsicles" in their words), and the day's adventures tumbled out as we ate hot lasagne and bread. It was a wonderful day. I have moments of the day stored in my mind: the image of the kids looking out the upper windows at the beautiful architecture spread below us, everyone laughing insanely and spitting over the edge of a pavillion because the wind was so strong it made everything fly sideways (no other people were around for that part, thankfully), the kids dancing in the first flurry of snow, watching them shiver as they ate ice cream in the cool winter air. There were so many perfect moments—one of those days we've all talked about and enjoyed on many different levels.

Did it have more value because a parent initiated it? Of course not. It WAS a most valuable day to all of us though, and by sharing something that interested me, we all gained something. I believe in bringing bits and pieces of the world to my children. I believe in taking them out into the world to make their own connections as much as they choose to join me.

My children have also brought bits and pieces of the world to me. They have made connections that took us to different places, events, and people than what I would have on my own. That's the flow of connections. That's the flow of natural learning in our home. All of us have unique and worthy bits to share. All of us learn from each other, from the world around us, and from other people. We learn from television, video games, books, cooking, talking, and a million other things we all enjoy. No man is an island. We are all connected. And in the world of unschooling, a family sharing those rich connections is going to expand their opportunties, learning, and joy.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Mindfulness matters: issue 3

"Connecting with places or things that help us go within is part of this parenting journey. When we are in touch with our own rhythm, with that river of ideas, thoughts and energy that flows throughout the universe, we feel whole and centered. Even amidst the chaos, we can be connected with that flow."

"Part of this journey has been to discover how I can fall, bruise myself and move forward without getting hung up. An ample dose of self-forgiveness is a healthy thing to model for my children while also letting them know I'm still learning and growing as a parent."

"How we embrace life's seasons and changes, how we honor these changes with ritual and awareness matters greatly. An unschooling lifestyle enables us to create truly meaningful rituals born of family connections and interests."

Cool Connections

Soulful Living

Wherever You Go,
There You Are

How to Bury a

Everyday Sacred

Everyday Zen


Mindfulness Matters

by Ren Allen

I've felt a bit loose at the edges lately. You know, one of those weeks where nothing seems to fit and words get interpreted differently than you meant? One of those weeks where no matter how hard you try, something has been forgotten or not finished or come out wrong. There are moments like this, and sometimes because there are so many moments, it seems to become the theme of your day or week. Staying in the moment always helps, but sometimes the moment is so intense or comes on the heels of so many other moments, that I just end up feeling frazzled.

These are the days that mindfulness matters even more. These are the days where we learn what true mindfulness means at the very core of our being. These are the days that sometimes we forget about our mindfulness practice and learn that trying too hard and doing too much isn't being mindful either. I'm relearning this tonight.

There has been a recurring theme throughout discussions online and in person this last year about how freedom without mindfulness is a recipe for disaster. I believe this fully. Children left to their own devices have a lot of freedom, but they don't have the mindful, guiding and loving presence of an adult that wants to help them navigate this world with its huge variety of challenges. Too much freedom without the aware adult leads to disaster every time.

Those of us on this path of whole-life learning and gentle parenting want our children to have the benefit of parents who are living life fully, who are awake and aware. We are also the children. We are all the ages we once were. We need to parent ourselves gently and mindfully too. I've written about our self-talk frequently, but it's good to remind myself not only to speak kindly to ME, but to give myself some space in which to breathe.

Space can be a five minute meditation; it can be a walk or writing or drawing. Space to breathe freely of our dreams, to look at what we have done, rather than what isn't done, and to give ourselves a hug. Space to sip tea, to look at the amazing gifts of the children alive and well in our presence, to thank the universe for our wealth (we are all wealthy) and to realize how fragile and amazing this day is.

Some mornings I sit and stare at the trees in my yard while breathing in the day. They are often my meditation. They change so much from season to season, and I love feeling the pulse of those changes. They are almost stripped naked right now, poking bare fingers at a bleak skyline. They are stripped of all obvious life, yet they live. Cells of life are behaving just as tree cells should, storing energy for the cold nights ahead. In the spring they will return with their haughty array of color, proving the life that flows this very moment. They remind me that there are seasons to life, not only for trees but for the creatures that share this planet with them. They remind me to go within, to strip away, to cloak myself in beauty and to trust the pulse of my own rhythm.

Connecting with places or things that help us go within is part of this parenting journey. When we are in touch with our own rhythm, with that river of ideas, thoughts and energy that flows throughout the universe, we feel whole and centered. Even amidst the chaos, we can be connected with that flow. It doesn't mean we don't feel despair at the thought of yet ANOTHER _____ mess (fill in the blank, poop, barf, food, dog, ...get creative!) or sigh at the mountain of laundry awaiting our hands. Mindfulness practice isn't about blocking or ignoring those feelings, it's exactly the opposite! Being truly aware means to NOTICE if nothing else. Noticing or paying attention to our own feelings and the thoughts surrounding our reactions actually furthers our mindfulness practice.

Jon Kabat-Zinn talks about it in Wherever You Go, There You Are, a book I love dearly. His feelings upon encountering a cat dish in the sink are interesting. Rather than reacting to his initial angst, he simply notices the feelings. In paying attention to the feelings, he finds that it's not the cat dish that's bothering him after all; it's the feeling of being ignored, disrespected and uncared for that triggers his initial emotional response. In the end, the reaction isn't based on the initial feeling. That "noticing" is an extremely helpful tool as we deepen our relationship with mindfulness.

I find myself speaking words that aren't mindful at times. That's the tough part. But the great thing about this is that I can often halt myself midstream and say "wow, that wasn't very helpful!" while the kids are looking at me strangely. I apologize, try a different angle and attempt to move gracefully forward. Part of this journey has been to discover how I can fall, bruise myself and move forward without getting hung up. An ample dose of self-forgiveness is a healthy thing to model for my children while also letting them know I'm still learning and growing as a parent. When something goes awry, I can ask myself, "what am I supposed to learn from this?"

I believe most of the ways we practice mindfulness are in the mundane, everyday tasks, in the way we think, the way we see and the way we act or react. Being aware is to live fully. I often use death as my litmus test for what is important. This helps me keep perspective on what this moment brings and how well I navigate.

Some of our mindfulness practice is about being proactive. Rituals can be a grounding, centering way to connect with each other and this earth. Rituals are a way to proactively seek these connections while honoring our family and personal needs. Creating rituals that are uniquely our own can bring a sense of of warmth and balance to our daily lives.

In How to Bury a Goldfish there are several interesting and easy-to-recreate rituals that get right to the heart of day-to-day life. I especially love the "blessing hunting" that is all about cultivating gratitude. The authors, Lang and Nayer, suggest having a list of "awesome things" to read for inspiration (everyone could create their own) and writing down five wonderful things about your life each day. I know of one unschooling family who focuses on the positive by having a "gratitude wall" in their house where each family member can write positive things about their lives or each other.

Choosing what aspects of our lives we will focus on is a huge part of mindfulness practice. Just realizing that I could choose my responses, choose how I felt was incredibly empowering as I journeyed forward into unschooling and gentle parenting.

Ritual can be as simple as nightly stories. It can be an elaborate breakfast for a birthday child or family stories being passed on. It can be morning exercise or a monthly celebration of the full moon. WHAT it is matters very little. How we embrace life's seasons and changes, how we honor these changes with ritual and awareness matters greatly. An unschooling lifestyle enables us to create truly meaningful rituals born of family connections and interests.

I had a good reminder of ritual creation recently. Our family hosted a Day of the Dead party, an evening full of food, laughter and sticky fingers. One highlight of the evening was a circle ritual. This particular ritual was about honoring a young child that had died earlier this year; Hannah Jenner is never far from my thoughts. We placed a scoop of dirt from around her weeping willow tree (planted earlier in the season for Hannah) into an envelope and mixed in a small portion of her ashes. As a fire burned behind us, we passed the envelope from person to person, each of us recounting what Hannah meant to us in life or death. As each person threw his or her handful onto the ground, we felt a wonderful connection and sharing, a hauntingly beautiful remembrance of life and the gift we have today.

Part of my journey on this path of gentle parenting is to remember that my children are here with me, healthy, learning and growing. Acknowledging what I DO have helps me navigate the areas where I feel a sense of lack because the only lack is within, and it's all perception. I have everything I need today to help my children learn. I have everything I need to be respectful and aware. I only need touch that river flowing, remember the fragility and grandness of this day in order to stay centered and balanced. When I forget these things in lesser moments, my children will bring me back to abundance if I continue to trust their unique brand of wisdom.

As I look at the child right before my eyes, as I fully align myself with her needs in this very moment, as I let go of what others think and what "should" be, I find myself acting mindfully. It sounds so simple, and it is. Yet most of us have had to learn how to be fully present in the moment, how truly to listen to our children and tune into what they need because we didn't have a model for this. All we need to do is listen and pay attention. Mindfulness really is that simple.

The children right in front of us are all that matters. The fascination or interest they are showing us is all that matters. What schooled kids are doing today is irrelevant. What the "experts" say is irrelevant. We have our own expert with us everyday, showing the way to natural learning and mindful parenting. If they're digging in the dirt, then digging in the dirt is exactly what they need right now. We can enjoy the activity with them, noticing the dirt, feeling it, smelling it and remembering how it feels to be fascinated and capture this moment forever.

If they're watching tv, we can find out what makes them laugh, we can BE there absorbing the joy of discovery. If they are screaming in frustration, we can be there with them in that moment and trust that navigating the difficult moments is equally valuable. It's all part of their learning.

Being present with my child is the greatest connection of all. Being fully present in each moment of our lives is the best way to live fully and embrace the life we've been given. Parenting itself offers all of us a journey to mindfulness.