"He who cannot draw on three thousand years is living hand to mouth."
~ Goethe

Monday, November 29, 2010

A Free Range Family ~ "...To Pay Attention, this is our endless and proper work." Mary Oliver

by Mary Oliver

How necessary it is to have opinions! I think the spotted trout
lilies are satisfied, standing a few inches above the earth.
I think serenity is not something you just find in the world,
like a plum tree, holding up its white petals.

The violets, along the river, are opening their blue faces, like
small, dark, lanterns.

The green mosses, being so many, are as good as brawny.

How important it is to walk along, not in haste but slowly,
looking at everything and calling out


The swan, for all his pomp, his robes of glass and petals, wants
only to be allowed to live on the nameless pond. The catbrier
is without fault. The water thrushes, down among the sloppy
rocks, are going crazy with happiness. Imagination is better
than a sharp instrument. To pay attention, this is our endless
and proper work.

Long before I ever got serious about having children, I made the decision not to send them to school.  I had never heard of 'Homeschooling' nor did I know anyone who had done it.   I was truly surprised, delightedly so, when I discovered, in the mid-1980's, that there were other people around who were also keeping their kids out of institutions, having a decided preference to hand-rear their own young and I recall being rather amused that doing so had become a rarity.  Between early day-care and school, most parents seemed destined to hardly ever see their kids, ending up relegated to the role of material provider while the dominant cultural paradigm (whatever it happened to be of a given year, or week)  took over and considering all I knew, as a midwife and woman, about what went into pregnancy and childbirth, it seemed like an awful lot of investment just to turn it all over to someone else but I admit, at this late date, that my point of view quite selfishly failed to take issues of social justice into consideration--were I to consider the question again, I would reach the same decision, I am sure, but I would also work far harder to ensure that every family could make the same choices--I'd be far less willing to unthinkingly embrace a lifestyle option that was far too easy for me to make within the context of being a white, middle class, relatively affluent woman.  And therein ends my disclaimer.

To be a "Free Range Family"was most certainly motivated by a set of what turned out to be false beliefs about the nature of parenting, and of children. I wanted to be with my kids and I didn't want to have to allot any of the responsibility for "how they turned out" to anyone else.  I had a construct about parenting that I now understand to have been woefully inadequate but it remains almost universal in its continued belief and application:   I (and most parents)  believed that I would have an influence on my children and,  if done right, my perfect parenting would ensure that they would turn out to be remarkable and brilliant individuals.   They would escape any of the family dysfunction I had inherited. There would be no risk of serious problems as long as I birthed at home, breastfed them for several years, kept a family bed and homeschooled/unschooled them.  I believed this because I bought into most of the lies of the parenting literature available at the time--the same stuff is available now with different titles, but the storyline is as misleading as it ever was.  The pernicious untruth at the core of it is that our children are "products"--Of our parenting; of their environment; of the school system; of the peer group. They are a product of everything that goes into them and all that happens around them and like any product, you get what you pay for!  No one will tell you the deeper truth which is that there are hidden variables inherent to the individual soul of every child, every person, that might have more to do with manifesting a destiny than we can ever know and we interfere with those potentialities at their, and our, peril.  We cling, as parents, to the illusion of control and that illusion, as any parent of teenagers will tell you, shrinks to a very thin veneer as time goes on.  Eventually, if you, and your children, are very, very fortunate, it disappears altogether.   In any case, I went into my parenting believing all of this tommyrot and I was prepared, from conception to birth and on into their childhoods, to pay the price. Any price. Because the parallel track that runs alongside the idea that we can control how are kids turn out is that how they turn out means something about us, as parents; as people.   All of that is just peachy so long as the kids "turn out well".   Everyone knows, everyone believes, that there is nothing worse or more shameful than having kids that don't "turn out"--kids aren't like pie crust; you can't just crimp a little around the edges where the cracks are and fill in the gaps with a little extra dough and no one will be the wiser.  The expectation that people be, and have,   "Facebook Perfect" individuals, marriages and families is corrosive and lends itself to an interior sense of disconnect and confusion about just what really does matter and why.  Those who seek balance, sanity and a life centered on a more coherent, human-scale life of meaning and purpose will inevitably run up against these issues, as I did. As I began to question I found, to my delighted relief, the truth of what I hoped to express and live out with my children--the  answers living quietly, unheard, directly alongside the questions, as they always are. 

  I have always lived a "free range" life and at nearly 50 years old, I don't expect that to change ( I hope no one was holding their breath ) and I have no complaints about having done so.  I rarely, if ever, settle for anyone's status quo, even my own.  I never follow the pack, even within the communities with whom I am closely aligned, much to their understandable irritation.  Why? Because I am a rebel and a radical, believing in, drawing from, the essence of things  distilling everything into what is "Close To The Root"...
 More central to the question, though, is the fact that I am trusting of other people, including children.  It takes an awful lot for me to lose trust, or faith, in someone; I can count on one hand the number of times it has happened. I trust people. I believe in them. I believe that other people, including kids, mine and everyone else's, are perfectly capable of knowing themselves and of learning and growing and changing and struggling and falling down and getting up again.  I trust them to do all those things and so, when I had kids, I just decided to ignore all the books and advice, even all the stuff I learned from "alternative" and "crunchy" sources and live my life with my kids the way I wanted to. I wasn't going to send them to school. I believed then, and I believe now, in the "Curriculum of Family and Community Life" as former public school educator John Taylor Gatto calls it  (named New York State Teacher of the Year after 30 years of teaching, he is now a homeschooling/unschooling advocate and author) and I came to believe in a related idea offered up here by writer, farmer and teacher, Wendell Berry from his book 'The Art of the Commonplace':

"I know that I am in dangerous territory, and so I had better be plain: what I have to say about marriage and household I mean to apply to men as much as to women. I do not believe that there is anything better to do than to make one's marriage and household, whether one is a man or a woman. I do not believe that "employment outside the home" is as valuable or satisfying as employment at home, for either men or women. It is clear to me from my experience as a teacher, for example, that children need an ordinary daily association with both parents. They need to see their parents at work; they need, at first, to play at the work they see their parents doing, and then they need to work with their parents. It does not matter so much this working together should be what is called "quality time," but it matters a great deal that the work done should have the dignity of economic value."

So, I came to believe that what children needed most was to be at home and out in the world supported by parents who were doing real work that mattered to them and that contributed to the needs and values of the household and larger community. I wanted my children alongside me while I worked with the "quotidian mysteries" at hand and I wanted them to learn the discipline and rewards of work for its own sake. I wanted them to absorb the values of both parents not by being actively taught but by a kind of loving osmosis. We did not teach our children anything; we allowed them to learn through daily interaction with us, and with other loving and interested adults and children wherever we happened upon them; they learned by living real lives in community with others. We have been an active family, involved in many areas including a very liberal, urban spiritual community committed to social justice work and we have been, and continue to be, active volunteers for causes we believe in.  Our whole family has volunteered yearly at a homeless shelter, and at the Gleaners food bank. For many years, my oldest two children were weekly volunteers at a local Nature Center. We have lived in the same diverse "inner ring" neighborhood for more than 20 years; our kids have grown up in the same old house they were born into and we have avoided making changes in "place" because we value stability and wanted our kids to have real roots in a community and a commitment to a sense of home.

We don't "start" homeschool every Fall. We don't "end" it in the late Spring or early Summer. We are always learning and growing. We are always reading, writing, working with numbers, planting something, watching changes in the seasons, traveling, spending time with our large extended "Tribe". We make art and music and we watch films and cable news. We all read the New York Times every day and we talk about what's going on in the world. Our kids have never been kept out of  so-called adult conversations and they've had the freedom to explore the neighborhood and our small downtown where they know, and are known by, every shopkeeper, coffeehouse college kid, baker and candlestick maker around. We've gone to the Farmer's Market every Saturday morning for over a decade, rarely missing the opportunity to chat with Peter, our favorite farmer, and with Jan, the antique lady, and all the other vendors, friends and neighbors we almost always run into while we're there.

If there is one thing I hoped to pass on to them it is the discipline of paying attention. I wanted to model, and encourage, the idea that paying close attention to what is happening at any given moment facilitates learning and growth. If I wanted my kids to learn how to behave appropriately in all situations, I had to first get their attention; I had to show them, by doing it myself, how to pay attention when someone else is talking and how to respond respectfully. I had to listen to them, and to other people, to model for  them how important it is to be attentive to others.   I had to help them stick with the projects they chose to do, even when bored, even when the project wasn't going well, so that they would know that it's important to pay attention to detail and to ignore impulsive actions based on the emotion of the moment while also teaching them that not everything is worth doing for a variety of reasons--and how to make that determination for themselves.  I couldn't "teach" them these things, I had to show them in my own life and behavior. And showing them how to pay attention, and ensuring that they understood that this was key to everything else, and this, then,  is the "endless and proper work" of parenting, and of living.

I trust myself and I trust my kids. When we are trusting and trusted, learning is unimpeded. We are able to stay out of our kids way and let them travel their own path to the "true self" or, even better, never lose it to begin with.  Living a 'Free Range' life requires self-discipline and a commitment to building relationships of integrity and wholeness.  I'm going to return to this topic of a "Free Range" life with children a couple more times and I hope my exploration of all the implications of making a choice for freedom will come into better focus for everyone, including me, for even as we live something out, being able to detach, from time to time, and reflect on what we're doing and why keeps everything balanced beneath our own "north star". Until next time then.

Peace and Courage ~


Schwerpunkt International said...

As an adult unschooled, I have been crashing about various blogs as I consider the results of such a life and long-term impacts. I have both positive and negative thoughts on the "experiment" - myself shaped by being there 1970s and early 1980s. Your writing is very nice and paints a good image of your experience for others to share. Keep updating and thinking out loud.

Michelle said...

Thank you! I hope you'll keep reading and giving me your feedback. I actually wrote and published this piece last year and then updated/edited it a few days ago to republish because I'm getting ready to write a follow up to this piece so, stay tuned and thanks again.

Housefairy said...

*Standing O!*

SO glad youre writing again, here. Working this all out in my head as we try to rediscover exactly it is that we TRULY want and need for our own Home-School-Life and trusting life and wildness and each other seems to be helping us brush off all those thorny pesky notions of how we should be and what we should do and through all of this I often think of you and well...you know all this but welcome back, I am trying to blog more too!

Angie Goodloe LMT, Herbalist said...

Loved this post! I can so relate to your thoughts and insights, I had a so many 'plans' when my kids were infants, as time went on I realized a lot of this 'planning' was based out of insecurity and the need to control (or think I was in control). I have learned to loosen up as time goes on ~trust~ help my kids to be the best version of themselves they can be, mother by intuition, focus on being authentic, changing and growing. I am also a rebel:)

LisaZ said...

Lovely post! I came over after seeing your Facebook comment to Shannon Hayes. I love what you're doing. It is rare to find liberal Christians online, so I'm happy to have tht kinship with you. We are also urban "homesteaders", radical homemakers, and sometimes unschoolers. .

Lisa Z
www.lisazahnwrites.word press.com

Michelle said...

Thank you Lisa! Feel free to "friend" me on FB if you feel so inclined. I've not been blogging very actively for much of this last year but I have some new posts ready to go and hope to have them up soon. I am, indeed, a liberal Christian; I'm Episcopalian but really resonate deeply with Quakerism and Tolstoy so, one doesn't get much more liberal than that combo I suppose. Thanks for reading and do come on back.

Jessica said...

Hi! I just became a follower; I like what you wrote on Shannon's "Antidote to Overwhelm". :)

laura grace weldon said...

Oh Michelle, this post has so much truth packed in it. As I read I felt a YES rise up in me. Thank you.