There was a time when back to school shopping meant purchasing a fair number of notebooks – one for each subject ideally, pencils, pens (a fountain pen too, but that was back then!) and, if the kids grew an inch or two over the summer, which they tend to do, new clothes and shoes. A backpack too, if last year’s was not holding up anymore.
A few years ago, when my sons were still in public school (now homeschooled), we would get a lunch program to peruse and choose from if we wanted to. We chose nothing, not because we’re fussy, but because the options were deplorable.
One of the options was called taco salad. ‘It’s a salad made of tortilla chips, Mom,’ my oldest announced a couple of weeks later, rather bemused, when he got to see the very dish. No matter how you turn it, that is not food.
Feeding children can be a wild adventure at times, given occasional pickiness and all, but that’s no excuse feeding them junk food or low-quality ingredients as part of the school lunches. Not when we live in the middle of a farm-rich country and there is an abundance of fresh, wholesome foods that could be worked into school lunches.
I am willing to say that more parents would sign up for the program if there were healthy options, and would welcome the break from figuring out next day’s lunch. There is a high chance that many kids would learn about healthy food and be better for it. Which could be amplified if students would have a garden to tend to right on school grounds. You see, gardening invites to more than planting and picking, with the occasional weeding in between.
Gardening means learning about soil and all its wondrous components, from chemical compounds to bugs of all sizes that keep it healthy; it opens the door to learning about how liquids travel through soil and how they get absorbed through the roots. It involves delving into the biochemistry of the cell and if you add a microscope to the mix, you can get hours of intense studying, which will be followed by more curiosity. From there, you get to how fruit and veggies grow, and from there on, it moves into the realm of eating good-for-you foods.
Which isn’t anything that I saw in the school district’s lunch program I happened to come across. Chicken bites, chicken burger, chicken nuggets, all served cold, followed by some fruit slices and either juice or chocolate milk or plain milk. Fruit juice is empty calories that do not benefit children or anyone else for that reason. Eating the whole fruit is where it’s at.
Again, this is happening right here where we see ripe fruit that falls on the ground all summer and fall too, from cherries to apricots to plums, apples, and pears. On top of it, we have a farmer’s market so plentiful this time a year, that it would only make sense to use some of that to provide good food for children. Just imagine connecting local farmers to the department that organizes school lunches in the district.
That being said, there will be a chorus telling me that many kids prefer junk food and they would scoff at healthy (deemed boring by some) food options. Be it so, it should be part of a school mandate to educate about healthy food options. In an age where child obesity and chronic health issues starting in childhood are on the rise, that would be a moral duty, to say the least. That’s one of the reasons why I never refer to junk or processed foods as ‘treats’, but call them by their name.
Living a long, healthy life involves no magic. Eat wholesome meals, mostly veggies, and never until full, get outside, get moving, and connect with people. In a nutshell. To keep with the scope of this piece, I will ask this: how many kids nowadays are doing all or some of the above?
There are too many processed food options (with attractive advertisements), there are devices that make them sit in one place for hours on end, there is the culture of fear where parents do not want/dare to let their kids play outside on their own, and there is, at society level, for the most part, a growing and deeply worrying trend of living life in an isolated, often self-centered way.
Many of our children are anxious, depressed, obese, or plagued by other eating disorders; some are bullied, others are bullying, at war with the world around them. They all start out eager to learn about the world around (healthy foods included,) and then somewhere down the road they become self-conscious, bored, tired, fearful, addicted to screens and drugs. Reclaiming them becomes the hardest task.
The thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way. Fixing a generation (or more) is no easy thing. As always, one step at a time is where we can start. No drugs can ever fix what healthy food, free play, and time spent together can.
Hippocrates once said, ‘Let food be thy medicine.’ Let’s start with that. Make every bite, treats included, count. As for the rest of the issues, perhaps we should go back to forming the village needed to raise a child. A connected community is where better things happen. When it comes to our children, no effort is too big to make that happen.
I never had a bird land on my shoulder. Until today that is, during the morning walk with the dog and while stopping for a chat with an elderly gentleman we often see around the neighbourhood.
Of all people, the bird singled me out, even though I had a puppy connected to me. Go figure. Brave little soul you could say. Clingy too, since it would not respond to the usual ‘shoo’ that all birds find unappealing and scary enough to take off.
Nope, not this one.
It hopped on my hand and at that moment I suggested the open spaces around us. Again, most birds would go, right? Not this one.
So I gave it a gentle shake and said go. The bird claimed deafness. What next? For the record, I have always been an animal lover and collector at times. Many a fallen baby bird went through the streamlined rehabilitation program I had running as a kid. Stray cats and dogs too. Even a hedgehog, though that one thought he could do better without. We parted with no hard feelings as my hands were full at that time with other critters.
My parents were patient, yes, and mighty understanding of their daughter’s propensity to bring home animals of all kinds. That was then. Now I thought things were pretty clear: we own a beta fish, red and lively, and a puppy, also lively but not red, and my quota is full. My days are filled to the brim with boys learning at home, puppy love and care, writing, gardening and all the other things that happen during a day that allows you but short breaks to sigh and be grateful. Because I am, really.
I do not need a bird though. The where and how have to be figured out and though thjis qualifies as a homeschooling experience alright, I cannot show up for meetings, on Skype or otherwise, with a bird on my shoulder. I am no pirate, though the shoulder-loving bird thinks otherwise.
Sasha’s teacher kindly identified it as a starling. They are an invasive species; very smart and able to learn to talk. Right. Who would not want a talk-back bird when they have two kids already doing that at times and a dog too (barking back)? Well… me, that’s who.
So to review: bird lands on shoulder during morning walk, does not want to rejoin its wild world but sticks with the newly found parental figure, comes home and promptly tries its wings in the kitchen landing on heads, shoulders, and everything else that is not a wall.
Puppy becomes extremely well-behaved sensing that a new baby may be taking the much-coveted place in my heart. Console puppy, reassure puppy, secretly and totally enjoying the sudden sweet demeanour. Acquaint dog with bird and realize that friendship may be possible after all. Emphasis on ‘may’.
Where are we now bird-wise: the high density of crows in the back yard plus the occasional cat prevent us from releasing Star (little boy’s suggestion) out for now, so we are using Poppy’s crate as bird safe space until we return from Forest School. We hop on bus, follow a trail to Peterson Creek Park where school takes place today. I binge on Saskatoon berries, my comfort food.
Today’s task (on top of the many others): figure out the animal shelter situation.
For now I am hiding in a coffee shop, working on a couple of articles and pretending that I am just an ordinary human with nothing extraordinary to report… except for the bird landing on my shoulder, the dog begging me to reconsider bird adoption, and the boys shielding their breakfast from Star, the new addition who might or might not leave us. I know, most birds would. Not this one though.
My family and I went to Victoria for a few days. It was quite a treat. The breath of early spring was present in purple crocus patches, red tulips and yellow daffodils spread along sidewalks, even a cherry tree shyly showing its tiny pink blossoms much to the delight of passersby in the heart of the harbour.
It was warm enough, sunny enough and the bit of rain was a good reminder that we were on the Coast after all. Our province really does have one charming capital.
As the boys are now homeschooled, we took our learning with us. And, as a friend aptly pointed out, one good thing about them learning at home is that there is no tuning in and out of the process.
No boundaries to separate learning hours from the rest of the day, and that learning comes with is simply the unavoidable reality that life and its lessons happen every step of the way. Deductions are our own, they come with lots of reading, and they complement the process.
You never know enough, I tell the boys. That’s the measure of humbleness that adds quality to your learning; realizing that what you learn adds pieces to a puzzle that keeps on growing, providing you with the bird’s eye view that we need to understand our path and the purpose of being here.
In the four days we had in Victoria we visited the Royal BC Museum, the Miniature Museum and the Bug Zoo. We visited the BC Forest Discovery Centre in Duncan and we were lucky to have a family friend take us to a forest research facility nearby where we learned about the pine beetle and other troubles that our majestic woods encounter, as well as the hard work involved in finding sustainable solutions to them thriving.
And just like that, as we headed to the BC Legislature two days later, we happened upon a peaceful protest. The Wilderness Committee volunteers were on the front steps holding unrolled banners with big letters: ‘Save Walbran Valley’. Media was there and there were people carrying small tree cardboard cut-outs. The Walbran Valley has magnificent old-growth trees, Sitka spruce and red cedar groves. It makes sense that it should be saved.
Who would want to cut those and why? Surely not someone who knows about the amazing old trees and their presence among us and in our forests. Being aware and willing to fight for them matters. Speaking up and standing up matters, but you have to know your reasons. Learning why forests are needed, and how to stand up for the tallest old giants among us and more, that is what learning helps with.
We were impressed to discover that we happened to be at the BC Legislature on the same day when the very buildings opened 118 years ago on February 10.
And we were also impressed to realize that Steve Thomson, the BC Minister of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations, who would have the power to reverse the controversial (detrimental to our province) logging permits, was likely just a few steps away at the time we visited.
Learning helps us all gather facts and understanding why we need to preserve rather than consume or downright destroy, reuse rather than make new, and recycle rather than add to the waste pile. The plethora of facts, past and present, may seem daunting but what’s the future going to look like if we don’t, and if we do not encourage our children to open their eyes and minds to see and learn?
We saw biking lanes lining the side of each road downtown and many people cycling every which way. A good thing to strive for in every city. Sure, temperature in Kamloops drops lower than theirs, but we have enough warm weather to make the most of it, cycling-wise. Or walking. All we need is to ask (and ask again) for lanes that make cycling safe.
Then we have to be diligent enough to help our children learn (by example ideally), that exercise is the best way to deal with stress, chronic health problems and to make a community tighter and healthier in all aspects. It takes learning but that is what carries us forth and makes us mind the miracle of being alive and keeping the world alive too.
We befriended two harbour seals who were so immensely curious and cute, willing to play and hang out with us humans. They danced gracefully underwater, they surfaced and dove again, they peeked at us from underwater and they almost spoke, or at least that is what it felt like. Then they left to return to their watery abode, wherever that might be. Theirs to choose and rightfully so.
All of that prompted a conversation about animals living in freedom, as opposed to those we imprison so that we can be entertained as we see them up-close. We know better by now. Conservation and rehabilitation aside, there should be no zoos but instead shelters and sanctuaries for animals and birds who cannot return to the wild.
It truly never stops: Learning and then learning some more. It’s a gift to ourselves, our children and to those with whom we share our world. Which is all of us.
‘I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become.’ Carl Jung
We need to fail. Not to be failures, but fail at. Dot dot dot. Failing at (fill in the gap) defines the very thing that happens occasionally (yes it does, to everyone, whether we admit it openly or not, or at all), but failing at does not define a person. It should not, unless we let it do that. Sadly, it does sometimes, because some of us learn to define our worthiness through our deeds. Being a parent gives me the freedom to say that parents a behind that one, most of the time anyway.
‘You are worth it because you do things and you do them well’ is what I do not what to tell my boys. You are worth it. No buts or ifs.
Hopefully that will allow them the freedom to fail at times and admit it too, knowing their worthiness is just the same or more if they do. Hopefully they will take a deep breath and say ‘well, that didn’t work’ rather than ‘I failed.’ The latter is not constructive, nor true. If stabbing oneself in the back would be possible, that’d be it. Or rather stabbing your soul, flat out cold. Telling it to look for a better residence.
Making mistakes does not make one a failure. In fact, you can fail at many things, we all do. At being human at times, which is in fact a terrible sin if you ask me, but I’ll leave that for a later chat.
We fail at keeping up with our schedules, with our plans, with our resolution to smile more, to not raise our voices at our children (OK, I am the only one, right?), to do the workout routine or finish that long pushed-aside story which you’re almost afraid of because it seems to have developed a life of its own and you almost feel it pushing you out of its way (again, that’s just me perhaps) because you’re not good enough. Well, you get the idea. We fail at things.
We fail at making things happens or making them happen the right way, but that is what it takes to figure things out. So that’s one thing I want to teach my boys in our school at home. Feel free to fail. With a mention: when you do, do it right. Which means that once you make the realization that things did not work out, you face it with dignity but not by identifying yourself with it, then you sit down (or go for a run, whichever allows for the inspiration flow to surface) and do some brainstorming. Why didn’t it work? What can be changed to make it work? What have I learned by failing at? What holds me back from believing I can succeed?
Failure without the after steps makes for a lost opportunity. So if I am to follow logic in that thicket of thoughts that just grew out of seeds of life on this page, well, I get to a simple truth: each failure is an opportunity. To learn to do better, to let go if necessary, to change something (self attributes included), to stay alive.
For as long as you fail at things, you know for a fact that you are alive and daring. Which is a good starting point for the next adventure. That’s what I want the boys to learn. That is what I hope to remember next time when my knees are bruised and self-worth is ready to take a plunge.
Keep learning. Through everything. That is all. For now…
Originally published as a column in NewsKamloops on January 8, 2016.
Soon after we arrived in Transylvania my youngest had set up shop in a corner of my sister’s yard to do one of the things he likes the most: forging. It’s not quite what you’d imagine a 9-year-old doing and yet he loves the concept, enjoys the time spent learning about fires no matter how cold it is outside and every step adds a new layer of appreciation for manual work and for the things people can make if only they take the time.
He learns about durability in a world that becomes more disposable by the day. It’s a valuable lesson often packed with a blister here and there, sweat and time; lots of time spent learning and making things. Also, researching the next step in learning.
I remember the first time we went to Fort Langley during the time we still lived in Vancouver, the boys were four and nine at the time. The blacksmith’s shop was the main attraction for them. And why not? To see a piece of metal being transformed through the sheer power of heat and by the hard work of a strong arm into a unique candle holder was fascinating.
And yes, we still have the candleholder. It’s a beautiful reminder.
That day opened the topic that has become a mainstay: blacksmithing and forging. Who does it, where can you learn about it and where can one find people who carry on the trade?
Well, we found a couple in Barkerville. Our trip last May saw the boys perched on the blacksmith’s workshop fence, sun and all, just to hear stories about the trade and observe the process of how each piece comes to be. They saw pieces of bar stock curled into pendants and hooks and tools that the people of then needed for everyday life.
Trades are something of a lost art for the most part. We live in the days of 3D printers and cheap offshore labour (unethical often but then again ethics often gets in the way of money making so the issue is conveniently obscured by justification) and that means that trades that create cradle-to-grave products to be sold at fair prices may be slowly disappearing unless we make sure they don’t. And we cannot allow that to happen because we have too much to lose.
Our recent trip to Europe added more to the argument. I read about an elderly man up north who recently passed away. He was known for the beautiful traditional wooden gates he made all his life. I listened to him saying that he leaves but a handful of people who will carry on the trade.
He also talked about the gates and other unique woodwork he made. Far from being ‘just a…’, the things him and others make in the area are stories. Of times past, stories of centuries-old faith and values, joy and sorrow, stories of life unfolding.
That’s when it hit me. People tell stories with their craft. That is some of the magic of it. The solid root of a trade is the tradition incorporated in it by generations of people who believed it should continue, by communities showing they need the craft and those who make it happen.
Such realizations only point to a simple truth: no culture is too far from another. We are united in how we aim to carry further our traditions, and for those who get to see the same craft and trades in various countries, they get to see how trades become the bridge that tells of universal values and gifts carried throughout time by each of us. If we choose to see the treasure held in hand-made pieces of this and that, whether they are for decoration or everyday use.
Trades and crafts can be a common denominator of the non-imposed kind if you will… the kind that reminds us of a thing we often forget. That cultures around the world have so much in common, and their old stories tell of the same way of developing crafts that see solid things made and also see stories told to generations coming. For survival.
We cannot trade the old ways that taught us to value work for the sea of disposable things we’re surrounded by nowadays. No one has anything to gain from it. In fact we all lose.
Progress is not forgetting old ways and making everything fast and disposable, but rather incorporating old trades into new technologies that maintain good standards and see the world better not by the number of things we see sprouting every day, but by the way they hold their own as time goes by.
There is something to be said about that and I think kids learning about it may well be what saves us from ourselves in the long run. And just like that, there is something to be said about a child lifting a piece of raw material, whatever that may be, and saying ‘Mom, you know what I could make of this?…’
That’s how stories are written. And that’s how old stories continue; because they must.
But I do. I see a tuft of wild hair, I see the smile sparkling like a golden butterfly from behind stalks of bunchgrass. Little boy is at it again. Peter Pan indeed.
We’ve read the books, abridged and unabridged, yet again, and we will do it one more time, and two, and three times more until little boy will say ‘now let’s read about Ivanhoe.’
We take Peter Pan from books to the hills where boys get lost among dry grasses and hide behind scraggly ponderosa pines that are still standing… Playing. There is a mystery to it all. Grass speaks to boys in wild ways. ‘Do it!’ it says to them… Run to catch the sun! Can you balance on the see-saw stump? Do it!…
To us it says the same but we’re grownups now and the sounds come out distorted. We say ‘Stop! Go slow, don’t run so fast…’. Boys snicker, throw silly looks over their shoulders as they do it anyway…
Be it so… Their feet and bodies listen to the tall grass only. As they should. The mystery itself.
It is midday Sunday and the sun is stingy with its warmth but we’re clad in wool sweaters and touques. We’re on the hiking trail we often take in the morning. It is no longer just a path snaking on the side of the hill. It is where we discover woodpeckers and blue jays and snow berries and yellow mushroom caps and talk about what makes smoke go up and how math is everywhere on any given morning before we head inside to learn more.
A trail that has become ‘the trail’ and then it has become ‘our trail’. We pin, as if with sticky notes, memories of us, of the mornings that see us hike here and talk about the things the boys learn in our school at home.
Soon we will know every turn and bush and stump.
Little boy pleas with his brother to be pirate Cecco. Say yes? He does. Taunting as the big brother words and gestures can be towards little boy at times, there’s a lot of love pouring out when he’s eagerly agreeing to play. He hops, runs, jumps and rolls as any pirate worth his salt would. Delight lives on both sides.
There’s barely any space around us that’s left unfilled with laughter – sounds so round you’d think it’s raining plump giggling droplets. I like it when that happens. Sun showers of sorts. Like silly weather, boys’ moods go from sunshine to snow to sun again in a merry-go-round grownups so inelegantly and harshly judge at times.
Boys can turn playful tumbles into war-like matches. The world of boys is a magic one. Sweet smiles and twinkling eyes one second, darts and fists flying wild the next. Like now. We stop and listen.
Peace again. ‘It’s OK, mom, we’re going to play some more.’
Max and I walk slowly behind them, gazing at shreds of clouds scattered over cinnamon hills. Quiet meets quiet, eyes meet, and the air feels warmer.
There are giggles and rustling noises coming from behind Saskatoon berry bushes. Peter Pan’s wooden knife plunges next to Cecco’s feet and the next seconds become a tumble of two bodies down a sandy slope. Laughter so loud it makes dogs bark. Just like in the book with Nana the dog on the night of the great adventure.
Too much sand fills Pan’s boots so they come off. Little boy runs barefoot with big brother in hot pursuit. What? No, put them on, it’s cold.
‘I’ll keep the socks on!’ Pitter patter, feet get away from being questioned. Play is what they want to do.
More tumbles, more screams. I don’t know why Max and I are laughing but how else can this become a memory? An imprint of this and now? Faces get dirty and hair turns wispy after the sand tumbles and wild lost boys they are, lost from anything but playing. Lost and found, up and down, a world of their own which we have the privilege to see.
Exhaustion comes in like a nagging aunt. They lean against us as we walk home. You walk on your own, pirate, let those legs carry you home. Peter can fly…
They laugh and walk alongside grabbing crab apples off the trees and picking brown leaves off the ground.
‘Can I sew leaves onto my shirt like Peter Pan’s?’
Perhaps use fabric? He did. The dining table is now a sea of green with leaf-shaped bits of fabric peeking from just about everywhere. This is learning. They both learn by touching and doing and daring. They learn by living.
Little boy cuts and prepares, he will sew them on one by one. He’ll wear the shirt and pants for a day, or two or three, bury them under new ideas and dig them out on a sunny morning when the sunshine will remind him of Peter Pan.
Let’s read some Peter Pan he’ll say, and I will say yes, and we’ll read once, twice, three times… and time will stay still. Lost boys will resurface, pirates too, and the tall grass will call to them again. Whispers and songs they’ll still hear for many moons to come, for childhood will still be here, sewn to their smiles and mischief still stuck to their hair like glittering sand and dandelion seeds are today.
We’ll follow them boys as they’ll run and tumble, we’ll be quiet and hopeful that the whispers of the tall grass will be loud enough for us to hear too…
We’ll follow them to the edge of reason and back, again and again, we’ll walk a few steps behind, and when all silliness is done for the day we’ll all breathe in the sunset and keep that breath in long enough to remember.
Everything. The steps to here. The leap from here…
The journey of raising boys has been one of joy, wonder, humbleness and ever-growing curiosity for what comes next. Which is why I thoroughly enjoyed Amy Herbst's book 'Boys will be boys.' Click here to view more details It's got what boys' parents need.