Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Unschoolers are Coming

My emailbox has been unusually full this past week, not so much because I’m suddenly popular, but because I’m on an email list of unschoolers who are planning to attend the Live & Learn Unschoolers Conference that gets underway this Wednesday in Black Mountain, North Carolina.

Several hundred of us are about to converge on the Blue Ridge Assembly in the mountains above Asheville, moms and dads and babies and teens and grandparents and life partners and all manner of folk in between. Many are seasoned unschoolers. Others will be new to the whole idea. Some will leave baffled. Others will leave as new members of a joyful tribe.

My daughter has always been an unschooler. I was conventionally schooled. As she learns, I unlearn, relearn. The longer we do it, the greater its implications in our lives, and the greater our influence on those around us. We have changed minds, just by being who we are and doing what we do. And our lives have changed, just by being among other unschoolers.

In the early days, I carried a lot of schooly thoughts in my head. I embraced the essence of natural learning – that we learn what we learn in our own time, in our own way – but I didn’t know at first what would replace the workbooks and curriculum and schooly stuff. I still thought in the language of school: subjects, semesters, “What Every x-Grader Should Know.”

So for a while I measured our lives against the artificial construct of institutionalized schooling, and tried to find ways to wedge our activities into their appropriate “subject” categories. Even though we were quite free of school in many ways, in the beginning I thought in terms of the world as our classroom. Dragonstar -- and other unschoolers -- taught me that, as Grace Llewellyn writes, the world is not a classroom, the world is the world.

What replaces the workbooks and curriculum? Absolutely nothing. And absolutely everything. The world is the world.

At the conference there will be lectures and roundtable discussions. There will be (somewhat) organized activities known as funshops. There will be a picnic. There will be a masquerade ball. There will be kids with painted hair and faces and grandmoms with tattoos. There will be trails to walk and a creek to wade in.There will be five sweet days of letting someone else do the cooking.

The unschoolers are coming to Black Mountain. Dragonstar and I head out on Tuesday.

credit: "Embryo" original pen & ink by ps pirro

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Living on Purpose

Social networking sites on the internet are worlds beyond my ken. And yet in the past several weeks I’ve joined three. What’s up with that?

I’m still not participating very much on any of them, having barely gone beyond introductions and posting a suitable photo. I find them a wee bit daunting, and I’m not sure why I’m there. Yet there I am.

Is that not the question of our time -- why we're doing what we do?

Last week on How to Save the World Dave Pollard had a great list of seventeen questions to consider when pondering one’s life purpose. I love this kind of exercise. And over at Steve Pavlina’s site I found a similar tool in the archives. So many of us are looking for answers, for insight, for guidance, all of which suggest still another question: why do we puzzle so much over why we’re here?

Why is our purpose such a mystery?

I once told a friend that you know you’re living on purpose when time disappears. I no longer completely trust that answer. Yes, time disappears when I’m writing, when I’m making art, when I’m wandering in the woods, when I’m engrossed in conversation, whenever I’m fully present and paying attention. Alas, time also disappears when I sit in front of the television and watch episode after episode of the West Wing. Or play yet another round of whatever computer game has captured my fancy.

It could be that Kurt Vonnegut was right when he said we’re here to fart around. Yet for all his farting around he published fourteen novels and nine collections of stories and essays. That sounds to me like a life lived on purpose.

After all the exercises and all the contemplation, I remain a little baffled by the whole subject. And I’m beginning to think that maybe purpose is like happiness. Like love. Maybe my real task is to become fully at home in my skin and porous to my surroundings, staying attentive and curious and open, so that purpose can reveal itself as I go, and so that I might recognize it when it does. Maybe the recognition isn’t even important. I’m here to Be Here. Could it be that simple?

I spend a lot of time pondering. I wonder as much as anyone about the meaning of life, mine in particular. But I also know that too much thinking about life -- the point, the purpose -- interferes with the living of it.

I suspect that discovering our purpose – if indeed we have one, or even many– is less a matter of figuring it out than of letting it find us. And maybe that's why I’m wandering around in three new social networking sites, and saying yes to new work, and to new opportunities. I’m making myself a little more visible, so purpose will at least have an easier time of it.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Everyday Influence

Sometimes the doomsday prognostications of peak oil and climate change and the end of civilization as we know it make me crazy, not because I don’t believe them, but because I do, and I don’t know how to act in light of so many seemingly intractable problems.

So I’m grateful to Chris Corrigan at Parking Lot for posting a thoughtful what-to-do list for those of us who are sometimes unsure of our relevance – let alone our influence – in the world beyond our doorstep. And for reminding me that how I respond to everyday things is at least as important as any other single influence I might have.

Do I freak out when the power goes out (to use Chris's example)? I don’t. I'm actually good in a crisis, and I handle most inconveniences pretty well. But when the grass keeps growing and I have to mow yet again, when the food gets eaten and I have to grocery shop and cook once more, when the house won’t stay clean and the laundry won’t stay done, I can get a little testy. Yes, I can. And getting testy does me no good and doesn’t get the mowing, the cleaning, or the laundry any closer to done. Plus it makes those around me testy, and that’s no fun.

So I guess there are a few things I need to work on.

I’m grateful, too, for the link in Chris’s post to an essay by George Monbiot that just about sums up the arc of my entire life as a working girl: do what you love, but don’t expect the money – or the power, or the prestige – to follow. Because it probably won’t. And you have to be okay with that.

If your dreams are leading you down an unconventional path, by all means pursue them. They are leading you toward what makes you come alive, and as Howard Thurman famously said, the world needs people who have come alive. Ignore the advice of those who try to steer you along a more acceptable path. Most of all, beware the velvet handcuffs of the corporate job. Never forget that no matter how loyal you may be to a corporation, a corporation can never be loyal to you in return. It exists to serve its shareholders, and if you work for it, so do you.

So follow your heart. Just be prepared to live frugally. Our society desperately needs radicals and activists and artists and dreamers – it always has – but it doesn’t reward them, financially or otherwise – and it never did. Those of us who are devoted to doing what makes us come alive have to find our rewards elsewhere. We have to recognize our “nested spheres of influence and connection,” to use Corrigan’s lovely phrase, and serve those connections, and draw our strength, and our rewards, from them.

There is great and good work to be done. Yours, mine, and ours. I'll do what's in front of me. And whatever it may be -- writing this essay, folding the clothes -- I have to trust that it will be enough, at least for today.

Credit: Dragonstar in a t-shirt from our old coffeehouse.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

(Not) Back to School

School began this week in our southern Indiana town, the yellow bus rolling down our street at 7:45, the kids pulling their wobbly wheeled packs down the alley.

Dragonstar and I wave at the bus, and continue with our summer. We're not smug (really, we're not) but we truly do love not going back to school.

About a month ago we met some other local unschoolers, which was a godsend for us. For the ten or so years we’ve lived in this area, we’ve known only one other unschooling family, though we know lots of homeschoolers. Now we have the makings of a tribe of our own, a small group of honest-to-goodness radical unschoolers who live as if school doesn’t exist. We don’t use curricula. We don’t follow grades. We don’t break the world down into subjects for study. We don’t want a broken world; we want a whole one, a holy one: intact, interconnected, complex, mysterious, miraculous.

For many years Dragonstar and I have sought communion with unschoolers online, via email lists and web forums. Last year we went to the Live & Learn Conference in North Carolina, the largest gathering of unschoolers and prospective unschoolers in the country. We’re going again this year, in less than a month, and we’re looking forward to being among so many like-minded people once again.

But here at home, finding others like us has been a lean search. And that takes a toll. When you don’t see much of yourself reflected in the world, it’s easy to pick up doubt, to question your path, to second-guess your decisions. And every year, as we see the first yellow school bus roll by, I do question, and I do second-guess.

But I no longer doubt.

Unschooling is a lot like faith – any faith, religious, metaphysical, political. (And if you don’t think politics is based on faith and a belief in things unseen, you probably haven’t thought much about politics, let alone about faith.) If we never probe our beliefs, if we never look deeper into the what and why and how come and who says, our convictions will be thin and brittle, dogmatic, received wisdom at best. Our faith – not to mention our lives – will not be our own. We will not grow. We will not thrive. It isn’t a betrayal of faith to question it; it’s essential.

Dragonstar and I have been unschoolers for many years, and we think differently today than we did a year ago, five years ago, ten. Don’t you? And while we answer criticism and queries about our lives with confidence born of experience, we can’t be afraid to reconsider our path from time to time, to check in with our hearts and hold some open space for new and different choices to emerge. Very little in life is ever really decided “once and for all.” Few truths are whole truths. The world is still big, and we know a lot less than we think we do.

We’re always learning. And we love not going back to school.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

You Know You Have Friends in High Places

…when the owner of John Brown Melons, fourth generation (since 1876) melon growers from Carmi, Illinois, personally delivers a watermelon the size of a suckling pig to the BBPiT on a gig.

You know you have a good man when he hauls the giant thing home to share, cuts it open with a knife the size of a machete and cleans up the whole delicious mess afterward. Sweet sweet sweet.