The Treehouse

The treehouse was at first an idea preposed by a friend of my son’s. One of several boys who spent many days of summer with me. They started building it on our anniversary. By building I mean they put a bunch of random pieces of wood up on our mulberry tree. I told them upfront that we were having a vow renewal under the tree that evening, and I would be taking down the wood and they would need to rebuild their fort at a later date. They were agreeable to that. Yet, in the days after they didn’t get back to the idea idea and the tree sat empty.

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July 21, 2017

But Mark has not let go of this idea for a tree house. He’s been talking about it regularly and has created plans. He told me very clearly that this was a project only for kids to work on. “No one who is 15 or older is allowed to help!”

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Mark’s tree house plans. At the top is a picture of a hammer, a nail with 14 next to it to indicate he will need 14 nails, a tool box and a diagram showing where the major elements will go. 

Recently Mark (nearly 7) and Vincent (8) began work on the treehouse again with occasional help from Isaac (4).

Mark has his own set of real tools he is allowed to use whenever he wants, he can use my tools with explicit permission and supervision. He’s used his own tools enough I don’t feel the need to closely supervise him. I trust he will be mostly safe. We’ve had a lot of lessons, including a time he cut himself with his own saw and learned why we are careful with the saw.

I respected his request for no adult help as long as he followed a few rules.

  1. Be smart with your tools, especially the saw.
  2. Don’t leave tools or nails or screws laying on the ground.
  3. I’m allowed to veto any design that I believe is unsafe for people or the tree.

Mark agreed to these terms and set to work. Its been very slow going, but he and his cousin are very persistent. A six and an eight year old attempting to put screws and nails though solid wood into other prices of sold wood with only a screwdriver and a small hammer is a slow process. They have sawed a few of the steps for the ladder and halfway attached one.

 

This is self directed education in action. These kids had no adult say to them “Hey how about you go build a tree house!” This was entirely their idea, their plan and their effort. How sweet will finishing that tree house be when they know they did it with own hands? What might they learn if they don’t finish? What will they learn if they do eventually ask for adult help?

All of these possibilities are fantastic life lessons. Right now I’m glad they are becoming more confident using tools, learning what works and what doesn’t work. I see them experimenting with how to set up the wood to saw it, how to get a screw started though a peice of wood. I see them working together (one day even with a four year old helper.) one person holding the first run of the ladder while another attempts to drive a nail in. They have already spent at least 8 solid hours in the yard over the course of three days working on this, retiring to the swimming pool when the afternoons get unbearably hot. But the next opportunity they are out there again working hard.

Give kids the tools they need and the freedom to use them and they will do great things all on their own.

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Writing Practice Works

I want to share with you a piece I just wrote in my journal as an example of how powerful writing practice can be. I sat down thinking “I have no clue what I’m going to write about, so I’ll start with that.” Somehow it took me deep down to the depths of my soul and back up. I’ll let you read it for yourself.

Disclaimer: Dear “friends” that may read this, this is not about you specifically, it is about no one specifically. It is an exploration of my raw exhausted self. Feel free to PM me if you want to talk. 


I am still struggling deeply with knowing what to write and feeling like a failure for writing so little yesterday after setting such a lofty goal. Yet, I am determined to stretch and flex and build this writing muscle. It is an important exercise that I value. I believe it will help me be better and I value myself. I want to be better. I always feel behind on everything and why would it be any different here? I look around my yard, my house, my life, my business, my finances, nothing is where I want it to be. Everything is behind.

The laundry and dishes are chronically behind. I rarely meet my self-imposed goals and lately that crushing feeling of knowing I will always be behind has gotten me down. I’m tired before I begin. I have no idea what to do about it. I am merely observing it. I do know the part I value most though, life. When the apple tree was on the brink of falling I was there to prop it up. When the sequoias were brown and nearly dead I got the hose to them. When the “elm”, which we now know is a mulberry, was about to loose a massive branch, I got it fixed. I do whats needed in a crisis. But I don’t prevent those crises with daily care. I’m too busy caring for Mark, Ace, the dogs, and myself. Its a fucking lot. Then I have friends that constantly want to be social and thats draining. I feel like I’m not a good friend. I can’t fucking keep up. I have too many of them and my friendships feel shallow.

I feel shallow.

What depth do I have that makes me me? Why should someone want to be with me as opposed to any other clump of conscious cells? My good looks? My deep philosophies? My attitude? I just don’t understand who I am. I guess this is a classic dilemma. It is the thing that makes science so interesting to me. Just as it made theology once so irresistible. Maybe it can give me some insight into who I am and how to be better at being me.

I want to love harder, “friend” better, be more productive. I want my house and my yard to serve my life instead me feeling like a slave to all the stuff and responsibility. I feel like there is no way I can maintain my house without becoming a slave to that and having no time left to enjoy said house and yard. I guess thats why I’m so apathetic to its forever half finished state. I know. I know I want to enjoy it. If I make it what some part of my mind thinks of as perfect I won’t be able to do that [enjoy it] anymore. So I must live in the tension of done and not yet done so I can have those moments of enjoyment with my friends.

I really do love this place even with its constant rough around the edges unfinished look. I fucking love my yard. It is the perfect place for my son to grow up. Its so perfect it gives me hope that God is real and he game me this one thing. I’ve lost so much else and the struggle to pay bills is so fucking real, like I’ve never known. But I have this. I have [****] Ogden St. And even though I could rent out the yard or the garage for a decent amount of money I hope it never comes to that. I want this little escape in the city be for me, and for Mark, and for Ace. Not for money. Its too wonderful to be turned into a thing designed to extract a profit. I’ve buried two dogs here. I saw a solar eclipse here. I had my vow renewal here. This property chose us as much as we chose it. And its a perfect fit. I would be happy to stay here forever.


Again, I’m not sharing this for the content in and of itself, but as a personal example of how valuable writing practice can be. These thoughts were all just passing thoughts. I love my friends DEEPLY and appreciate my time with them. The point of sharing this is to say, just sit down and write. Even if you feel like you have nothing left to give. Even if you are so tired you should be in bed. You just might start your session feeling like failure and walk away crying in happiness because you love your yard so much, with maybe a little bit of nihilism in between.  You don’t know where you will go until you sit down and go. Just move the pen across the page. 

Writing Practice

I’ve been slacking off on writing the last few weeks, both here and in my various notebooks. In an effort to revive my writing practice I’ve committed to filling an entire notebook in one month. I found this challenge on reddit and it immediately resonated with me. It was presented as an alternative to NaNoRiMo (National Novel Writing Month) for those of us with no aspirations to write long form fiction.

I’m using my current journal as my notebook to fill, I’ve only been using it for a month and only have a handful of pages filled. I counted 133 remaining blank pages yesterday, which means if I shoot for 5 pages per day I will have a little wiggle room for the days I don’t quite meet this goal.

In order to meet the goal I’m starting up timed writings again. I set a timer for 10, 20, 30 minutes, and I go. No set idea about what I’m going to write about, I just move my pen and try my best to not stop moving until the time period is up. This has already generated some writing that is of a higher quality than I expected. A peice on some special times I shared with my Grandmother and a peice about the significance of my son turning seven.

I plan to take a few of my timed writings, type them up and edit them so I can share them here.

Writing really keeps me centered and sane like almost nothing else. Its the one habit I’ve returned to throughout my life in times of stress and times of happiness. So for the next month I’m really going to lean into it. I have until my my son’s birthday, September 18th, to fill a whole lot of pages!

My Complicated Relationship with My Grandmothers

Its hard being two generations apart. The world really changes generationally.

I grew up being told that its fine, even wonderful, to be gay. My grandparents, if they were told anything, were probably taught it was shameful, if not worse.

I was growing up in a time when we were pretty sure racism was mostly over, my grandparents were adults before the civil rights act was passed.

In our culture grandparents are these near mythical quality beings who swoop into our lives bringing unconditional love, treats, gifts, and the best cooking you’ve ever had. I certainly had some of that.

My Dad was the first of his six bothers to have a child. That child was me, and I was born female. My grandmother (who I called Grandma) was over the moon. She adored me. She had always hoped in having many children she would have both boys and girls. For whatever reason she didn’t get any girls, so I was her first.

Her and my parents seemed bent on doing every girly stereotype with me. In many of my earliest pictures I am wearing frilly pink dresses. The problem was as soon as I had any say in it I was adamant that I didn’t like them and didn’t want them. Luckily for my Grandma, I did love my long hair as a young child and loved having her give me braids and pigtails. But it wasn’t too long until I cut off my long hair too.

When I was young I had sensory issues. I didn’t know it then, I don’t think anyone knew it then. But I remember how clothes would hurt. I don’t mean irritate, I mean hurt. Dresses were scratchy to the point of pain, stiff pants were no better. I refused to wear much besides sweat pants and pajamas at a young age. I only wore one brand of socks until I was a teen! I refused (and still do) underwire bras. I refused almost everything that is stereo typically girly in favor of sports jerseys (later skate t-shirts), soft pants, and short hair.

This was so hard for my grandmother who loved me so much. And I loved her. After my Father (her son) passed away we were even closer. I spent a lot of time with her and Papa. They were some of the only consistent childcare my single mother could rely on. I seriously loved and still love them. I was incredibly close to my grandmother despite our constant battles over my appearance and habits.

She made amazing food and let us eat ice cream every night after dinner. Neapolitan. Mixing all the flavors together and watching the late night news while Papa fell asleep on the couch was a regular occurrence in my childhood. I would go lay down on the couch after finishing my ice cream and fall asleep. She would wake me up and make me go brush my teeth and go to bed. I miss her a lot.

My other grandmother (my mother’s mother). Was burnt out by the time I was born. Her husband has passed away long before I was born and I never knew him. She had eight children, three who still lived at home with varying special needs, and several grandchildren. She ran a businesses. I didn’t spend much time with her. I did love playing in her massive home on her massive property though. I have far more memories about the house and pool than anything else. Every Christmas Eve and 4th of July was another chance to play in that crazy old, huge, dark house.

This grandmother, who I wasn’t allowed to call grandma, or her name, only her nickname, was always busy when I was around. I remember her being stressed out and well dressed, always with a cigarette in her hand and often telling someone to do something. I don’t remember any conversations or tender moments. I do remember that she would give us twenty dollars plus our age in cash every christmas. That was a nice score.

Her house was always packed with people for every party. Our family alone was massive, then add friends, in-laws, and other people and things got crazy. The adults seemed happiest when the kids left them alone so thats what we did. We went off and did kid stuff like exploring every nook and cranny of the house, watching TV, making prank phone calls, using the vents as a “secret” way to communicate while we “spied” on the adults (spying was extremely frowned upon on my dad’s side, my mom’s family didn’t seem to mind much).

I remember my last memory of her before she died she was yelling at me not to play with the muddy farm dog. I loved dogs, probably more than people at that age. It hurt and I was sad. Why wouldn’t I pet that dog? All dogs needed kids to pet them right?

The one real point of connection I had with her was video games. She had an NES and played the crap out of it. She knew Super Mario Bros. 3 inside and out. She could complete the game fully, or speed run it (any%) in about 10 minutes. I was blown away by that. I loved video games (almost as much as dogs) and she was amazing at them. I think her obsession with Mario helped legitimize video games for my own mother and her siblings allowing my cousins and I a massive amount of freedom to play the games we liked.

When my mother’s mother died there was a lot of turmoil in the family. What would become of her farm, her three sons, her stuff (so much stuff), her animals? It was a rough time in my life (I think 12 is a bit rough for everyone). We spent a lot of time at her house, with a lot of sad people. I felt guilty that I wasn’t sad enough. I was still grieving the loss of my father, and didn’t particularly miss my grandmother.

I remember the huge garage sale where we sold her stuff particularly well. A lot of that stuff came home with us, including her desk, which eventually became my desk. I later found a list under a drawer in that desk that she had written. It was my own little secret connection to her. I didn’t find it until I was in my late teens, and by that point I was grieving what could have been. I wished I had been given the opportunity to know her better.

My father’s mother lived much longer. She was at my wedding, though she didn’t live long enough to meet any of her great-grandchildren. She had leukemia and a heart attack while I was in college. My school was right down the street from her house and the two hospitals she would spend her last months in. I would visit her and Papa three times a week or more. Watching her suffer was the hardest thing I’ve ever gone though. We grew even closer in that time, even though she couldn’t speak. Her and I were quite close for over two decades, even though she could never fully understand why I was the way I was and was often upset with me for taking risks, getting dirty, and not dressing up.

I felt like I was blessed growing up to be so close to my father’s parents when I lost him so young. It didn’t bother me too much that I wasn’t close to my mother’s mother and never met her father, becuase I had one set of grandparents who were at every single event. Every school play, every band concert, any time my mother was sick; Grandma and Papa were there. Presence can overcome a plethora of cultural and generational differences, and presence helped me to become very close to them.

Being two generations separated from each other is hard. Our world changes fast and our grandchildren’s world may not feel like our own. I don’t hold my grandparents differing cultural understanding against them. I love them in spite of it.

I can see the same struggle in my parents and in-laws with their grandchildren. But love and presence is overcoming that gap. I hope my own love and understanding can grow to overcome the generational gap I will have with my own grandchildren.

Ten Years.

Ten years. What can I say? To you my best friend of many more than 10 years. It was 2001 when I first met you. By 2003 we were best friends, and best friends trying hard to convince everyone that “A guy and a girl can JUST be friends.” We didn’t convince anyone. By 2004 finally decided to make things “official”. We were more than just best friends.

 

I still get butterflies in my stomach when I’m close to you, just like that first time I held your hand in my parents basement. We could have held hands all night.

 

Now I know that this isn’t ending. I don’t need to worry that you will leave, or that I’ll find a reason to leave. The trust we share is something that can only come with years of being vulnerable, and being vulnerable started a long time ago. Like when I had my wisdom teeth removed and you helped me change my shirt after I spilled my milkshake all over myself, and I kept crying.

I’m not good at handling drugs.

I still trust you to get me through every injury and illness. And there have been plenty. The hardest of which is what brought our most wonderful blessing into our lives. The unexpected c-section that left me with a scar 8 inches long and barely able to function for the first week of our precious son’s life. You were a rock star. My rock star. OUR rock star.

The amount we’ve grown since dating, becoming married, becoming parents, and moving 2000 miles away from our support system is immeasurable. We couldn’t have done that without each other to lean on daily, though every beautiful moment and every wretched one. We’ve seen a lot of low points together. The death of my grandma. The death of your grandpa. The betrayal of our community, and the ache of missing our families, so far away.

My struggles with anxiety took me to my lowest low, and you expressed nothing but real unconditional love. Like nothing I thought possible. When I was unable to function, you functioned twice as hard. There is no way to measure the amount of love you’ve give to me, and to Mark.

We’ve also seen so many amazing beautiful moments. We’ve adopted 6 dogs together! Who does that!? We started a community that was amazing and brought so much joy and hope to people who struggled to find it. We’ve traveled all around the midwest, down to the south, all over the northwest, and even once out of the country! We have made friends from all over the world though your tenacity and passion for music! We’ve built a new circle of amazing friends here in Portland. Our life is one steeped in beauty and love.

We are both people who are constantly questioning and researching, and what once were impassioned arguments, leaving us steaming at each other, are now respectful debates able to bring us both closer to understanding another view point. We’ve learned to communicate with each other and that has allowed our love to grow significantly more deep. This might be the greatest accomplishment of all.

If the next ten years are going to look anything like the last ten, I say bring it on! We will only become stronger together as we continue to grow and learn and love. I don’t know where the road ahead leads, but I know exactly who I want to travel down it with. Ace, I love you, you really are my best friend, and even my soul mate.

I Don’t Believe in God Today

I wrote that in my journal about a week ago. Its been true every day since.

I had a lot of panic at church Sunday evening. I felt like a fraud just being there. It was especially hard that there were some very churchy people there using language about God that I’ve mostly abandoned. My anxiety was high. I spent a lot of time in the bathroom. I couldn’t eat. I wanted to say something but I couldn’t. I hoped to be able to sit down with our pastor this week, but she’s busy. Such is life. I haven’t even talked to Ace about it. Maybe this will pass. Maybe it won’t.

I do know cognitively that my life is safe. I believe now that my friends are my friends regardless of my spiritual beliefs. I could tell them tomorrow that I’m hindu now and most of them would say “Tell me more about that” and that’s what I need. Thats what we all need. I believe the same thing about my spiritual community. I would still be welcomed no matter what I believed as long as I’m open to listening to everyone else at the table. My amygdala isn’t so sure though, its terrified. My brain remembers last time I shifted my faith, just a little bit, and I lost almost everyone. I didn’t just loose them, but they hurt me in the process.

Right now Christianity (even “good” Christianity) is making me uncomfortable. I just don’t believe in a God as personal as the Christian God. I don’t believe in a God that speaks real words directly to me.

Yet, I still believe in something. I believe in energy and oneness. I am solidly not an atheist. But yet, its hard to consider myself a theist, thats too concrete. If I had to peg myself down in the moment I could call myself a mystic. I feel comfortable with that. But tomorrow is a new day and tomorrow that may not fit quite right anymore. And I’m ok with that.

I also feel as if maybe I’ve finally completely deconstructed. Deconstruction is a popular term among progressive Christians. It is the disassembling of your former (often evangelical or fundamentalist) theology over time. I spent years studying and building that theology, but I started on a foundation handed to me by someone else. Heck, the whole house was handed to me and I just spent all that time replacing the windows and remodeling the kitchen. I kept the parts I liked and changed what I didn’t. It was an important part of my life. But I didn’t build that house and more recently I’ve been taking it apart and now there is really nothing left. Just the ground beneath my bare feet.

So here I am with my theology gone, dust in the wind, standing on the bare ground wondering what is next. Wondering if I even need a house at all. I’m not even sure how I got here. I didn’t consciously do this. I just looked around and noticed it was all gone. And honestly it scares me. I’m very used to having a theology. Yes, its changed drastically over the years from biblical fundamentalism in high school, to a slow shift to more progressive Christianity, but this is new territory. I’ve had times when I’ve doubted. This doesn’t feel the same, this is true and complete deconstruction. Its all torn down.

What’s left for me right now is seeing something more in all that is.

I love the night sky. I love learning the names of the planets and the stars. I love telling random people “See that bright star, its actually Jupiter!” Kids especially are receptive to this. They love watching the International Space Station pass over as much as I do. Many of my adult friends just don’t care what that speck of light is called or how far away it is. I do. And in those billions of tiny specks I see something bigger than myself. There is something more, something spiritual. Looking into the stars stirs it inside me. Every night I go outside and its cloudy, which is a lot, I live in Portland, I am disappointed that I don’t get to have that moment of true awe before I lay down to sleep. Even here in the city where I get to see two dozen stars half the night of the year I’m given an overwhelming sense of wonder each and every time. The moments I get to get out to a truly dark sky are utterly overwhelming for me.

I see something more in children as well they are the most amazing complicated fantastic people. They come out of the womb with a sense of wonder unlike anything they will experience again. Everything is new. I wish I could stand the loss of sleep that having a baby involves just to watch those first two years again. They are utterly beautiful. I see something more that just cells at work in children. There is a spark of something more, something spiritual. Every child I meet has that spark, even the ones who have needed to hide it to keep it safe. Its still down there and I still see it.

I love and study science and the more I do, the more I see something more, so no I’m not an atheist, but right now I don’t believe in God either.

Sure, My Kid is Starting First Grade This Year.

Its summer and it always seems that by the time we really get into the swing of summer everybody is already talking about the school year starting up again. They are already setting up the “Back to School” displays at the stores and I’m already getting asked “What grade will Mark be in this year?”

More often then not I straight up lie to this question, because I realize its not about the question. People really don’t care what grade your kid is in, unless they are going to the same school as their child. This question is the same as “What are you doing for Christmas?” It is a polite seasonal conversation maker. More than anything they are trying to relate to my child’s age.

There are times that I am close enough to someone to give them the long full version. It usually starts with, “There are no grade levels at my child’s school.” Then maybe I’ll explain how children are grouped based roughly on age into three “rooms” and how my son will probably stick with room A this year, but that will be up to him and his teachers.

Democratic schools do not arbitrarily divide students up based on birth year. We know from experience and studies that dividing children up this way isn’t even the best way to educate children and people really struggle grasp how radically different a democratic school is from any public school. Its harder to explain than unschooling most of the time. Its easy to tell you what there isn’t. Its much harder to communicate what there is and how magical the environment can be.

In a democratic school there are no grade levels, there are no grades. There are no tests. There are no report cards. There are no traditional classrooms. There is no age segregation. There is no ability segregation. The only times the kids are divided up is for a short morning meeting, and then for classes they choose to sign up for. There are no punishments or requirements.

In a democratic school there is community, and freedom, and respect in a way that just isn’t possible when teachers must coerce children to comply to state standards of learning and testing. At Village Free School there is extremely little the children must do and values that are held highest are taking care of yourself, taking care of others, and taking care of the school, and when it comes down to it there is always a community surrounding you ready to help you do those things so you are never alone in it.

One of the biggest daily challenges is getting the kids to eat (which falls under ‘take care of yourself’). With the youngest kids (room A) they put lunch on the whiteboard with the plans for the day (none of which are required, unless its an all-school trip). They talk about lunch and then give the kids reminders when 12:30 rolls around that they should maybe take some time to eat. I often check my son’s lunch box when I pick him to find it mostly full. No one makes him sit in a lunch room for 30 minutes, so he’s still learning to find the discipline to listen to his body and feed himself. Luckily the car ride home is a great time to catch up on some eating.

My son spends his days playing with people of literally all ages. There aren’t a ton of babies and toddlers around (becuase the school starts at age 5) but they are there. Younger siblings and teacher’s kids are welcome and there are at least two toddlers that are regulars and the kids adore them. The teachers are often right in the thick of things playing with the kids or are nearby for when the kids need help, usually when a conflict arises.Thats when things get really radical.

If there is a curriculum it is human relationships and learning how to be decent person though listening to others and solving problems together. Much of the day is spent solving conflicts or working out things in groups. What to play, where to play it, what will the rules be, will we let this late comer join in, how to we keep it fair for smaller kids? The kids spend a lot of time working though these questions. Justice and fairness is a high priority for most of the kids, and they will become very passionate when there is a real or perceived injustice towards themselves or one of their friends. This is where the amazing adults can step in and guide them though “challenges” using various peaceful techniques to solve the problem to the best of everyones ability and satisfaction.

That doesn’t mean that everyone is always happy. Sometimes kids walk away from challenges feeling like they didn’t get the outcome they wanted, sometimes kids cry or get angry, sometimes the adults don’t know exactly what to do. But the focus on respecting each other and letting everyone feel heard and cared for goes a long way all on its own. The lack of hard structure to the day allows lots of time to work though challenges with no rush and this is key. Real conflicts don’t get solved in five minutes and kids have real conflicts.

My son is not starting first grade this year. He is beginning his second year at the Village Free School. Where he will spend his days playing and learning though play. He will have time to read books and be read to, he will engage in art whenever he chooses and to whatever extent he choses, he will be surrounded by capable loving adults who are available to help him explore any questions he has. He will have the opportunity to participate  in “offerings” taught by teachers, fellow students, and outside instructors. Last year he choose no to sign up for any, and that was perfectly acceptable. He still occasionally jumped in and participated when he saw something fun going on as an offering. He will be part of a community that accepts him for who he is today and has no expectations or timelines for his growth. They understand that children grow all on their own when given the fertile environment to do so. Some flowers grow faster than others, some grow tall slowly, but they all are beautiful flowers deserving of sunshine, water, and fertilizer.

But sure, yeah, my kid is starting first grade this year.

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Village Free School!