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.

Building yourself, one world at a time.

She’s describing her newest Playmobil family to me.

‘This is the dad, he works at the hospital. The mum works at a restaurant. And this is the kid. She’s just….a free kid, because she’s home educated.’

Can we pause for a moment, just for the collective joy swelling of our hearts when we hear our kids say something like this?

I find parenthood is interwoven with guilt and second guessing myself, much of the time. The top 10% of my brain is telling me I’m doing a great job, to trust myself and the kids. The other 90% is like, ‘Really? You think that’s a good idea? Have you thought about the 83920438 ways this decision (whatever it may be) might screw your kids up?’

I hope I’m not alone in feeling that way.

I do find that I’m better at propping other people up than telling them I need support. I like reaching out to people when they might need a boost. I like inspiring others. But in reality, sometimes, especially during gloomy months full of clouds, ear infections, and sad news, I’m just trying my best to get through every day.

And so it rolls on. Am I doing my best, as a home educating parent?

It’s a fine line, a high and dizzying tightrope, along the border of feeling you aren’t doing enough and feeling you need to leave plenty of free time for small miracles to happen.

My miracle today is right now. It’s 1:26 pm. I can hear the kids; they are in a very involved game of Playmobil that’s been going on awhile. They are building worlds, they are living in them.

I’m upstairs in the office, alone, writing. A lot of stuff elsewhere, a bit in this blog. I find my old anonymous blogs that grew so popular were probably that way because they were anonymous. I’ve never written an inauthentic word, but a great many words haven’t been written because they were too scary, too painful, too much for me to share.

So this little period – be it ten minutes or thirty – is my miracle. I’m thinking and writing and feeling instead of all the other ways I use to numb myself on days when things all feel a bit too much. I’m here, I’m trying. …And downstairs?

Downstairs are just two kids who are free, because they are home educated. Because they follow their interests, because they explore their joy, because they trust themselves to find their way. And really, who am I to second guess that?

They are building worlds downstairs, I’m building worlds upstairs. We’ve put a money tree leaf on soil, to help it take root and grow. Sheet music has been read, youtube videos have been watched, I actually did the breakfast dishes. This day isn’t yet over, but we’ve done enough. Building a world, building yourself, is work enough.

Amended titles. 

My daughter changed the title of this book. I’m so sad that she needed to. Who said girls can’t love pirates?

This particular book company are notorious for the ‘girls’ book of this’ and the ‘boys book of that’, but stories? Good stories are good stories. They aren’t aimed at a person’s genitals, but at their minds and hearts.

I ordered this book for my seven year old daughter, I’m proud she changed the title, she loves the stories. But never a sighting of this book goes by that she doesn’t rail against the idiocy of the title. Maybe I should be grateful that it gives us scope for conversation and feminism, but instead I’m sad these conversations need to happen from such a young age.

I hope my children never say shit like, ‘But some of my best friends are black!’*

Driving home today, we heard the news on the radio. It was discussing the American football player who refused to stand for the national anthem; it was discussing black people being killed by police in America.

And so the questions came.

‘Mama, what did that say about the police hurting black people?’

‘Mama, why are police hurting black people?’

So we spoke. I told them if a white person and a black person committed the same crime, the black person was likely to be more harshly sentenced, to spend longer in prison. S started to cry – she said we need to speak out and get these people released.

I told them how people of colour are more likely to be treated unfairly in daily life. How they might be denied the same opportunities white people had.

What a hard thing to say to my children, but how easy it was to say it. If we are allies of the human race, we cannot deny racism. It exists. My children could quickly grasp the idea of racism on an institutional and individual level. It was easy to have this discussion (don’t be afraid), but so hard that we had to have this talk.

I said, I hope the two of you grow up to be people who stand up against this sort of behaviour. You might be able to challenge racism in your future jobs, you might be able to reach out and include people that might be left out. But don’t wait till you are grown up. You can make a difference now.

And they talked about how they could help make things better. They spoke as children do, ignorant of the centuries of enslavement and oppression, but so sweet and pure and ideal.

‘Mama, _______ is kind of sort of black and he’s so nice! Mama, ______ is black and she’s very, very kind.’ They went on, naming names of children they knew. Using these children as examples of wonderful people of colour – but not yet realising their friends might be hurt now or in future because of their colour. Not understanding they themselves might be hurt one day because they are raised by two mothers.

But they named names*.

And I sit here, home after a morning walking through thunder and lightning, thinking that the most important thing is connection. Putting names and faces and stories to real people instead of buying into stereotypes.

I’ve had emails from people saying they’ve used our family, me, to discuss with their children about queer families. I don’t mind. I come out, I am who I am (trying to have) no hesitations because I know it’s important to the world to be a real person. Not just a label.

So, my sweet children, go on naming those names. Go on questioning the system. Go on planning how you can make a difference.

And, my sweet friends, go on thinking about this stuff. Consider discussing it with your children. They are capable enough to handle the hard stuff, and really, aren’t we all responsible for challenging racism? One way to do that is to teach the next generation that inequality exists. It’s real. But diversity is wonderful; cultures are deep and rich and powerful. They are worth defending, worth learning about.

These conversations are worth having.

 

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*)