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.

Adventure day. 

We’ve been so busy lately. Busy with all sort of ‘enriching’ things. Classes, time with friends, busy busy busy. Even though during the summer most groups and classes are off, we have been alternating our normal ‘busy’ with total crushing downtime.

Last night I thought it was time to get back to what life has always looked like for us – at least before the busy bug struck.

Time to explore new places, with no constraints to rush back to anything else. A day with just the three of us (though Suzy was missed); no friends to consider when we decided what to do.

Last night I had a little google, looking at English Heritage, the National Trust, the CADW, and plain old ordinary maps. That’s how I discovered we don’t live that far from a big ass chalk horse carved into a hill in Wiltshire. I decided that could be a loose destination, a way for us to be pointed in.

This morning I told the kids it was Adventure Day. As we drove, if we saw anything cool we’d stop. We did – at a garden centre cum pet supply shop, with a cafe charmingly named after the camp where Suzy and I met. We marveled at cactus displays, venus fly traps, compasses and swiss army style cutlery. Then we got back in the car.

Oh, white horse on the hill, how I love you. We drove up a very narrow, winding road to the top of a hill. The whole carpark was chalk; it was so white. We pulled out a blanket and had a picnic on the flat grass expanse, looking at books, chatting, laying back in the sun.

Eventually we headed off to see what we could see of an Iron Age fort and a white horse.

There were grasshoppers singing, blue skies, a gentle breeze rippling the long grasses. We had pastels and oil crayons, scavenger hunt books and a kite, and all the time in the world.  With nowhere to be, we found we were in exactly the right place for exactly the right amount of time.

We stood on the hill and searched for the other two white horses visible from the peaks. We walked ages along a chalky path (which made me feel sick at points, so high and steep were we!). We saw a train pottering along in the distance and wondered if the people onboard would notice the horse.

And I felt happy. Happier than I’ve felt in ages. It was just me and the kids, just me and this wild, gorgeous place, just me and all the time in the world. Never have I felt so enriched.

As we move towards September, we are rethinking how our days and weeks will be ordered. We are leaving some things behind, trying one or two new things, but largely – we will hopefully be exploring, be adventuring without having a specific day set for that purpose, wandering and thinking and making art.

We’ll invite friends along, and gladly go along with others, but I think we’ll try to have more time just us. More time drinking in the beauty of wild spaces, time lazy and ripe. Because, really, what could be better?

Wednesday evening. 

Tuesday evening on the drive home from gymnastics, we saw a funfair being set up in a local spot. We decided to check if it was open the following evening. 


Wednesday evening, we checked. It was open and mostly deserted. 

You asked if we could go after dinner, and we said yes. 


The joy you both felt while there, in the summertime setting sun, was worth that yes….and a few pounds spent on rides. 

(And did we stay till they closed? And did you go back Thursday evening? *wink*)

All I can do is love. 

Here’s my understatement of the year:

Man, things have been politically and socially messed up lately.

Here in the UK, the vote for Brexit (for the UK to leave the European Union) has triggered a huge rise in xenophobic hate crimes. Muslims (including British born), Polish people – hell, any flavour of immigrant (except, perhaps, white and well educated) is experiencing violence, having vitriol spewed at them, living in fear and uncertainty for their futures.

Many companies are choosing to leave the UK, the pound dropped in value overnight to unbelievable new lows, and the strongly held opinions of the leave/remain camps have caused friendship and family breakups. Political leaders appear to have no plan, other than quitting their jobs and stomping their feet.

In the US, a spate of violence has occurred – and not your ‘usual’ mass shootings that seem to barely affect people anymore. I went to bed one night with the news of a black man being held down and shot point blank, and woke up to the news that yet another black man was shot in his car – with a four year old child in the back. I won’t go over the details of these horrific killings, but I will say that my facebook community has been heavily invested in these debates. The hashtag #blacklivesmatter (which I support, 1,000,000%) has people foaming at the mouths.

Most alarming to me aren’t the out and out racists, but the ordinary people left scratching their heads and saying, ‘But don’t all lives matter?’ These are the people who genuinely don’t see why the BLM movement is necessary, the people who say they are colourblind, the people who probably have good intentions but don’t realise the ramifications of what they are saying.

These are the people who went nuts when policemen were shot and killed in Dallas, following a peaceful protest on behalf of BLM. The sort of protest march that has happened twice in London in the past few days, with no violence attached. Of course no one is saying murdering police is a good payback for them murdering black Americans, but suddenly it’s turned into a big contest between ‘black lives’ and ‘blue lives.’

I straddle both worlds, having lived in America until I was about 21/22, then moving to the UK. My friends live across the globe, but most are in the UK and the US. So when shit goes down in either place, given the (shameful?) amount of time I spend on Facebook, I see all the posts and arguments and memes and misunderstandings. Many of my friends are very political, and most are very liberal.

One said this week, ‘Why are we all talking about this? Is there a point? We need to stop talking and start doing.’ She’s right, of course, but it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. What can I, a sole person with no wide political or social reach, actually do? I’m not going to be going into Parliament or Congress to fight for law changes – but I can help raise awareness, I can strongly support minority communities (ever mindful that I’m queer and an immigrant, which no doubt colours my thinking), I can try to participate in respectful discussions. I can STAND UP against racism.

Most importantly, I am someone who DOES have one area of strong influence – my children. They are the next generation, the next brave people who will rise up and make their voices heard.

My strongest way to be and do is to do just what I am doing. I talk about difference with my kids. We have lots of hard discussions in a way that doesn’t feel so hard, because I start from the base assumptions that these things are worth talking about, and that my children are capable of having these discussions.

I want them to never be colourblind – I want them to see the richness and diversity of all our fellow human beings, I want differences to be celebrated and acknowledged, I want them to understand why when one group of people is targeted with hatred or violence, it affects all people. Keeping quiet implies tacit support of the oppressor, and I hope my children grow and learn how to navigate the tricky waters of society. I hope that even if they don’t take the waters of xenophobia or racism by storm, that they make ripples felt the whole world wide.

It’s up to us, to all of us. We need to lead by example. Black lives do matter. Immigants do contribute to our society. We can’t hope or try to erase whole communities of people from the wider social experience just because they speak another language or have skin that’s black. These people matter.

And so do our voices, and our actions. Do the little things you can. I’ve written my MP, I openly support and campaign for minorities (and gun law reform in America, but that’s a whooooolllle different story), I tell my children that we are all different, and that is okay. It’s better than okay, it’s glorious.

I am me, and you are you, and if only we all joined together, how much more powerful and beautiful this world would be.

Jealous. 

 

I’m jealous of your childhood; I’m jealous of your life. How you spend so many days seeing new things, poking sticks in tidepools, running in joy with your friends.

I did not have many of the things you had. I still don’t. I tell myself, Alison, if their lives are so fantastic and rich and layered and varied….and you are with them every step of the way, isn’t your life that way, too?

Maybe.

I’m thankful for flying kites, for peregrine falcons, for soft toys that are part of our family. I thrill to explore new sand dunes, or old castles, or stick my feet in streams so cold my toes turn red almost instantly. I take comfort in relaxing into adulthood and parenthood and beinghood.

But still. I am jealous. I can hold that alongside my gratitude, but my own longing nudges me uncomfortably. I want to see more, to do more, to be more.

I try to remind myself: Alison, as you remember to value those children for who they are, remember to honour yourself, too. You are funny and wise and full of imagination. Do you know this, do you believe this? Alison, it’s hard to be subsumed by the constant wonder and joy of other people, even harder when those people don’t express what you consider to be enough gratitude.

But Alison, don’t do it for their gratitude. Do it because it’s important to raise a new generation who believe it is possible to create and imagine. Do it because they need to know how to stand up against injustice. Do it because it’s right, because you feel it to be true, because even though it reminds you constantly of all you wish you had and still need for yourself, even though that hurts sometimes, it is still needed. Valid. True.

Give them what you have wished for yourself, but remember that you’ve had these moments, too, and you’ll have them again. It’s time, soon, and you’ll need to be brave and to stretch and to be. And you know that’s possible, because you make it true for these lives in your hands, because you see it happening and unfolding every day.

It is all possible.

Reevaluating, cherishing. 

It’s easy enough to judge each other, but lately I’ve been feeling the need to take a closer look at myself. I started this parenting journey before I got pregnant, as we went to many fertility appointments, as I lay back on a table with two embryos freshly returned to my womb, as my belly grew tight and stretched over many months.

I started with a set of ideals. Some have slipped away, some haven’t. Some I don’t mind losing.

Sure, I wanted a life of only wooden toys, of minimalism. Can I live with, and even thrive, in our world of chaos, clutter, and toys of every conceivable variety? Sure. Gladly. Other things I thought were so instinctual, but they slipped away almost without me noticing. And for those things, those important things, I’m having conversations with friends, reading books, journalling (a lot!), and thinking.

It’s good to reevaluate.

Children are resilient, thank god. I find they are more resilient  than my own sense of well being, of guilt relating to choices I make (or don’t), of my ability to forgive myself and live in the moment. I’ve lost patience and peacefulness a lot – still nothing drastic, but much more than I wanted to, or expected to.

I remember when I was pregnant. I envisioned being huge and happy, frolicking through fields. The reality is that I was huge and happy – once the endless vomiting stopped and I became hydrated enough to remember I had a bladder. And for frolicking? I frolicking in a mofo wheeelchair, unable to walk, unable to stand while holding a baby…or two. Pregnancy was not what I expected, and that was difficult. But that being said, I couldn’t change pregnancy. It was what it was.

Parenting, now, that I have some control over.

In the last year we’ve met a group of people who have reminded me what I wanted to be, what I was. Standing around a campfire, I’ve had the honour of making friends with people who are who I want to be. More thoughtful, more deliberate, more considerate.

So many times I’ve found myself embarrassed, imagining that I am being judged for the tiny moments my children act like normal children. I’ve worried more about what people think than what my children feel – not always, but enough.

When the reality is that I’m so, so proud of my children for being exactly who they are. I cherish them.

And so, I enter a new season of remembering that my children are individuals, are kind, are funny. That they have freedom and choices, and it’s my job to respect that. All the things that came naturally to me when they were younger have silently begun to erode, and that doesn’t feel right.

Recently we walked on and among endless sand dunes. Some parts were sand, but they were largely supported and enriched by the stout, small grasses and plants that held the sand in place. We wandered in the sun and rain, not entirely sure which path to take but knowing the general direction we wanted to head in. We stopped when we needed, to eat or rest or examine flowers.

As I walk forward in this life, as myself and as a tremendously lucky mother of two amazing children, I gather stout grasses around me. People I trust, a well worn and loved notebook, the ideas and practices of those who have come before me. I have flowers and dandelion clocks and some well worn paths leading surprising places. I may not always know which is the right path to take in any given moment, but I remember the general direction I want to head.