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.
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!”
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.
Be smart with your tools, especially the saw.
Don’t leave tools or nails or screws laying on the ground.
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.
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.
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!
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 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.
The mind is a mind boggling thing. The fact that we use this tool in an attempt to understand itself shows how complex it is, and how far we are from understanding how it works.
I often hear we are in the days Galileo when it come to neuroscience. We finally have imaging devices, but they are crude and showing us things at a macro level, while the micro details still elude us. I’m a little obsessed with neuroscience right now, every other book that I’m reading has “brain” in the title. To the point my friends poke friends at it. (Angie, I’m lovingly looking at you!) I feel like this is both because of my intense curiosity, and becuase of my desire to understand myself. Maybe if I understand the biology at play I can better understand why I have the strengths and weakness I do, and maybe even work on the weaker parts.
Lately I am again being tormented by dreams. At least its not so bad that I am afraid to sleep, as its been in the past. I still vividly remember the period of nightmares I had in high school that left me sleepless at night and falling asleep in class. And more recently, about a year or two ago, I was having dreams of dying and waking up unable to breath. That was another time I was too scared to sleep. Both of those times I would read or watch TV until I was physically unable to stay awake.
This time is a little different. I’m having dreams about specific people in specific scenarios and it seems every time I dream it escalates in intensity. This is paired with waking up feeling not well rested and tension in my neck and head. I feel like its a window to some unresolved trauma from broken relationships, but what the fuck do I know? I really wish that part of me would speak more clearly to the rest of me so I would know if there is something I can do to resolve this. Until that happens I have writing, yoga, and meditation to try and keep me grounded.
Most of school came easy to me. Too easy. So easy it was incredibly boring. I would live in my head until recess and lunch came along and allowed me to talk with my friends without being chastised. I usually hung out with the other nerdy kids. We didn’t know we were nerds at the time. The few friends from the K-8 school I attended (starting in 2nd grade) that I’m connected with via facebook are pretty proud nerds posting about what Harry Potter houses they are their favorite Magic the Gathering cards. We aren’t all the same flavor of nerd, but we are nerds none the less.
Yet I struggled in two specific areas at school, early on it was writing. Putting my thoughts on a page was hard. I didn’t have great fine motor skills and even though grammar was something I had mostly mastered in speech translating that to periods and commas on a page didn’t make any sense. The confining rules of grammar and the obsession with correct spelling nearly destroyed the love of writing in me.
I remember being in second grade and being told I was spelling too many words wrong and being made to write the words I misspelled over and over on a page until I got them right. I remember my mom drilling me on spelling words at home. No matter how much I practiced I would only get about half correct on the spelling tests. I still don’t understand how to figure out how a new word is spelled at 31. All those spelling assignments and punishments did for me was make me HATE writing.
By 3rd grade my mom was spending me to a tutor over the summer who was teaching me spelling and grammar. I hated that I was going to school over the summer, but at least this teacher was nice. She let me write about things I cared about and was gentle in her corrections. I was so torn on those lessons. I loved and hated them all at once, but she helped remind me that writing could be a good thing. I started journaling not long after that.
In 4th grade I started my first journal, writing mostly about the boy at school I had a crush on. Turns out he’s really into guys, but in Catholic school that wasn’t really something he could be honest about. He was so nice to me, and his last name was next to mine alphabetically, so we were always next to each other in line and often had our desks next to each other. We got in trouble for talking a lot and became close friends for a few years. He thought my mom was cool, it was hard for me to see it.
At school writing continued to be a challenge while everything else (except math) came easily. I now believe I had an undiagnosed learning disability, probably stealth dyslexia, which contributed to most of my struggles. Even though I could never articulate them well the rules of grammar eventually came naturally to me. I’ve since learned that good writing bends those rules too its will and I don’t worry about them. Writing is a tool, like music, to make someone else feel a little bit of what I feel. The point of learning the rules is to learn how to break them.
In Jr. High we learned how to type properly on computers. I hated those lessons, but they opened up a new world for me. Having a word processor that spell checked for me changed my life. It freed me to simply write. Teachers still made big red marks for my run on sentences and missing commas, but spelling was much less of an issue and the struggle of poor fine motor skills was completely gone. By that time we had a computer at home on which I was writing for fun regularly. By age 12 I was writing for a now long defunct website called sk8radio. I wrote product reviews and contest recaps in exchange for free stuff. It was awesome! I was a kid featured right there on the site with all adults and no one made a big deal about it. I was a competent writer who knew skateboarding and thats all that mattered. There was an editor for the site who made very small changes to my work and gave me feedback. No big red marks from teachers.
In High School things were mixed. I was constantly forced to write papers on things I just didn’t give a shit about. It wore me down. I journaled a lot. Its hard to go back and read those journals becuase they talk about being bullied, being scared, and my weird hyper spirituality. Believing in an all present, very involved God got me though the hellish days of Woodstock High School. But there were bright points. Some teachers gave a lot of freedom in their assignments and I could find something I really loved to write about. Of course there were always the fun classes, music and the sciences, which both were oases in a long hellish day of boredom, bullying, and self-hatred over my inability to do any math competently.
One class in particular really set in stone my love of writing, and it wasn’t even one of the “fun” english classes I took. My guidance counselor pushed me hard to take “College Bound Composition” at the honors level my senior year. She noted my consistently high scores in english and wondered why I wasn’t already in honors classes. I reluctantly took the class and in it we wrote of mixture of fun and terribly boring assignments, all very practical.
One day a few weeks into the class my teacher, Mrs. Aavang, took me aside and told me I was a gifted writer. I thought she was nuts. She told me that she rarely saw people with such a natural writing voice, and that I was particularly good at writing my own story and that I should keep cultivating that voice. I didn’t really listen at the time. I just thought, “Is this going to get me into college? Probably not, lets work on that stuff.” But her encouragement stayed with me. It rung quietly in my mind and I continued to journal and eventually blog in various places.
It stayed with me back in my Xenga days when I would write long personal stories mostly about my youth group and spiritual experinces, throughout college in assignments that I cared deeply about. At that level most of the assignments were meaningful, and the teachers engaging. That encouragement is with me now and I’m expanding on how I share that voice publicly and more vulnerably.
I’ve now learned to really love writing and let those awful early memories be separated from the fulfillment it brings me now. I’m even working on my hand writing. I now own a fountain pen and practice my hand writing. Its finally improving a bit and doesn’t look like a six year olds anymore. It took till my thirties to be self-motivated in that regard. I believe it would have come much sooner had it not been forced upon me too early in my development.
Now my own son is six and learning to write. I’ve made the mistake of pushing him to practice his letters in the past. He pushed back, HARD. I backed off and eventually he started writing all on his own.
The other day he wrote a list of all the words he knows how to write, completely on his own, entirely self-motivated. Writing is a big motivation for me to stick with self-directed learning for my own son. He won’t be pushed to do spelling lists and writing exercises. He will find his writing voice in time, probably sooner than I did without the baggage of being forced to do something within confining rules too early in development. Six year olds should be writing what they love and not worrying about grammar. There is lots of time to learn that along the way, which frankly is how I learned most of it. The lessons about sentence structure never meant much to me. I learned to write mostly by reading and I’ve always loved to read. My son loves to read already and started reading at an earlier age than I did. I’m excited to watch him develop his love of writing as I continue to cultivate mine.