Alone in a boat.

A study of me, as a child:

I’m in a canoe.

Every summer I’m out here, on an island within an island. I’m alone with my grandmother who cannot swim, yet somehow gives me the ultimate freedom to disappear on the water every day for hours.  She doesn’t seem to worry or fret; she’s just this benign presence who makes me food when I appear.  We watch the same tv programmes together every evening, out there in the pitch black, where there is always the sound of water.  She scratches my back lightly while I fall asleep, and I am happy.

In this canoe, I go the places she probably expects I’ll go.  This place is full of endless canals, off a channel of water big enough to hold huge freighters and the occasional navy ship.  This water is the border between two countries, full of waves and depth and wind.

I learn the canals, intimately.  I know which bridges require me to actually lay down in the bottom on the boat, and which I can just squeak through by bending over as flat as I can. I know which banks have rusty, inexplicable metal sticking out of the sand far enough to scrape the canoe.  I go and I go and I go.  I make up stories in my head as I circle old houses, built long before I was born, and everything smells sort of green and fishy.

But I go places she doesn’t expect.  I go into the channel.  I’m alone, I’m eight years old, I’ve never worn a life jacket.  I think nothing of taking my canoe into the channel.  I stick near the sides, away from the racing speed boats, away from the sucking power of the freighters, but I don’t go too close to the breakwalls, because I know too well that a few big waves can make for a scary couple of minutes when you’re being pushed into a steel wall and no one knows where you are.

Sometimes I stay in the channel only long enough to break into the next series of canals.  Sometimes I go out there just for the exhilaration of it, paddling till I’ve had enough, then turning around to head back.  Sometimes I go out there to sit in the canoe that should be too large for a young child, rising and falling deliciously, boat rocking from side to side.

I know how to angle the canoe (and my grandfather’s motorboat, for that matter!) into the waves to minimise risk of being plunged into the rough, cold water.  I know how to turn, how to manoeuvre, how to get through tight spots without touching either side. No one taught me.

In that boat, the little me knew what it was to steer through a dark, aluminium tunnel and shout to hear the echo.  I took nothing.  No food, no toys.  And while the younger me was always glued to a book, I took no book with me.  It was hours alone, and I was never lonely, and it was perfect.  A shining memory that I can still feel, decades after all the other memories are clouded and tear filled.

Sometimes I worry about a child I know, who seems to struggle with friendships and self-identity and, quite simply, too many people.

But today I remembered me.  Me that was alone, that was so happy, that had that one woman back on the island.  That island, and my grandmother, both my safe harbours.  School playground me was alone, or verbally fighting with whoever my best friend was at the minute.  She was alone, and she was lonely.  She knew she was different, but she couldn’t figure out why. But island me? She was wild, and free. She trusted her body, she trusted the boat, she needed nothing other than a paddle and her own thoughts.

She grew up okay.  She’s got friends.  She is good with people.  She is funny and trusting and vulnerable.  Little me would be proud.  And I think this other child I know, they need a lot of alone time and me….I think I need to allow that space.  I’ll be there to provide food, to read books with, to be there when I am needed.  That kid reminds me of me, and I’ll tell you a secret I didn’t really understand until right this minute: little me was pretty fucking amazing. Just the way she was.

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Gazing outward.

I’ve always loved labyrinths, ever since I was little.

It was only as I grew older that I learned more about them, that I was able to ascribe deeper meaning to my own truth.  I remember a number of years ago reading that they can be symbolic of a journey inward, for deeper understanding of self, before using that knowledge to then return outward again.  I have the feeling I’ve written before about how I think this relates to motherhood.

It does.  Generic parenting, home educating, all of it.  When a baby is born, everything turns inward.  Your only focus is keeping this little being alive.  Changing shitty nappies, feeding, feeding, always feeding, cuddling and marvelling and sleeping.  That’s it.

When that baby is a toddler, it becomes so much more intense – or it did for me.  Two babies running in opposite directions, one falling on a plant pot and the other eating cat poop.  There was a lot of frantic blood wiping, comforting, but also a lot of getting out paints only to clean up and put them away ten minutes later.

And so it carried on.  But now, my babies are somehow nine years old.  And only now do I really feel the possibility of coming away from the centre of that labyrinth.  This blog doesn’t need to detail my children – while they don’t mind being online presences, I am starting to mind on their behalf.  But you know, I’m learning that so much of unschooling and parenting is actually about the parent, not the child. We are a part of the equation.

We have all the worries and wobbles.  In what specific and glorious ways am I messing my children up?  Should we be doing more math and less mess?  What life do I see for my children, am I doing enough to help that become reality? We have the anger, the assumptions, the awful second guessing and doubt.

But also, just lately, just now, I have something other than all those things.  Oh, they are still there, but my capacity to hold them seems to have widened and I’m left with the most precious gift of all: space.

I’ve done something right, I’ve made some good choices along the way.  My children know what to pack for each day and just get ready for that adventure without prompting or needing me to double check (though I still do). The house is a hideous mess of Lego and playmobil and endless things I don’t understand – bits of wire, rocks shoved under the couch, papers full of drawings and plans and sharks about to eat unsuspecting surfers.  But when I can’t take it, when I ask, they’ll tidy.

I’ve been brave and made friends.  A really good circle of friends who are also trying to create space or forgetting that they ever had space or are pretending they don’t need that space.  We’re in the same boat, even if we educate differently, even if we parent differently, even if we are just so exhausted it’s hard to see where we overlap or miss the boat entirely.

I’ve made a lot of bad decisions, too, but the good ones, the ones that are buying me this bit of safe space, means that I’m no longer in the middle of that labyrinth, stupidly hopeful but drowning in despair. I’m actually, sort of, kind of, thinking it’s time to start facing outward again.  Maybe taking a step or two in that direction.

There’s a lot I want for my children.  But you know what?  There’s a lot I want for myself, too. And that’s okay, even if it’s hard to imagine just what ‘myself’ might look like these days.

A love letter.

I see you.

I see that getting out of bed is a victory sometimes, how these small-yet-huge tasks you do make you into an isolated hero.  I see you making tough decisions between financially supporting your family and emotionally supporting them; you weigh things up, you are doing your best.

I see how you try to sort out your own complications without passing them onto your children; your smile is so beautiful and I wonder if you realise that.  I see you, brave enough to start a life across the world, and brave enough to start a new life within that country. Possibilities surround you because you are strong enough to create them, even when you cry alone in the night.

I see your questions, your doubts, your deep desire to do the right thing;  I see your questioning is so fierce because it matches the weight of your love.  I see how you fought to expand your family, and how you fight to make sure every member of your family is supported and thriving.  Even when it tears you apart.

I see you with your young child, struggling to fit the skin of your evolving identity; you will get there, you are getting there, things will change and expand. Your mind is a joy to get to know.

I see your patience and humour and gentleness, even when you might feel frustrated; you’re always there with quiet encouragement and ready laughter. I see you with your hands full of homemade food, children, and the books that help you be so thoughtful about the sort of person you are. The sort of person who teaches me a lot.

I see your anxiety, your struggle to do what’s best, all the while wondering what ‘best’ looks like and somehow getting it right even when you worry you are not. I see you juggling professional and personal and doing both so incredibly well, and still making time to give of yourself for others. I see you, hanging on in your marriage to me, even though there’s so little time to be us instead of loosely connected islands. I admire your growth and new green shoots, fresh after all this time.

I see you all; I love you all.  

I notice how it makes me feel when we circle around the one who needs it.  When we offer thumbs up messages when there’s no time for more, when we hug without being asked, when we hide notes of power and positivity.  I feel the privilege of being able to blurt out my hurts and triumphs, big and small, without worrying I’ll get anything but support – or kind and honest challenging, if I need it.

I love that the warmth of huddling together in a kitchen on a windy day stays with me long after the wind has stopped blowing. I know how it makes me feel to walk into a house filled to the brim with you all wearing silly hats, coming together with curry and questionable games to celebrate my birthday.

I am still feeling what it’s like to be driving, to hear a song, to think of all of you and how you bring richness to my life, how at times I’ve longed to hold one or two or all of you because sometimes words aren’t enough, and to park my car at the side of the road and get this laptop out.  To finally write again, after so long, and all because I see how powerful and brave and beautiful you all are. And I love you, and you love me, and we are always just one text away from tears or laughter.

For this night, that is enough.  That is everything.

Thank you.

The Starting Block.

My kids are writing their own books.  I’m talking full on chapter books, but also talking graphic novels, short sweary books, and the like.  One of them makes detailed animation based movies – he’s done stop motion claymation, strung together filmed segments, is gaining an amazing talent in sculpting and blocking scenes.  One of them is heavily immersed in the world of musical theatre, and they’ve written a script, drawn and labelled costumes, arranged songs. They are filled with joy both behind and in front of the camera, and have started drama school only to have realised there is a real possibility of working professionally doing the thing they love to do playfully.

Earlier this week, they had two friends over. One was specially coming over to work on a collaborative project with S – they’d had an idea for a novel, so of course they arranged a time to get together and work on it. M and the other child also joined in.

I stood in the kitchen, watching.  They were laughing, throwing ideas out, occasionally pausing to use spell check.  Their thoughts were thick and fast, their words were natural.

Did I feel proud? Yeah. But did I feel jealous? HELL YES.

I’m so pleased to give my children the opportunity to work on their creative ideas. I’m so relieved and grateful that this is a way of life for them.  There’s no crippling self doubt, no feeling they don’t deserve to pursue creative dreams, no thinking that they won’t succeed.  Their success, right now and from my point of view, is that they are simply doing it.  They are making.  They are creating, drawing, writing, singing, acting, exploring.

It’s no exaggeration to say I have a strong preference for the creative arts, that I wish I had realised at a much younger age it was a possibility for me.  That I’d been supported in that.  So something in my heart lightens and glows to see my children creating.  Something in my mind is deeply pleased when I read longitudinal studies stating that children who have been unschooled since the start are extremely likely to go into creative fields – artists, writers, actors, STEM fields.  In fact, four out of five kids grow up to work in those fields.

If M or S want to be that one in five who grows up to be an accountant, or a retail manager, or something not in the creative field – well.  All I really want is for them to be happy.  I want them to get joy from the life they create, I want them to do things to help make the world a better place, I want them to learn and grow and find peace.

I guess that’s still all I want for myself.  My kids just have a head start.