Feb 27, 2011

Pushing my kids

When the Mama's away, the boys will Work. And cry, and get hurt, and complain and complain and complain. And hopefully learn.

Over the weekend we prepped the chicken coop for new chicks (25 meat birds coming Tues), cleaned out the barn to dry the lumber we've had milled on our land, built a cow shed for the pregnant heifer coming next week, rolled coins, cleaned the house, put away laundry. We also baked brownies, played cards, practised piano, read The Borrowers, and enjoyed the school Barn Dance. A productive and fun weekend - those two adjectives should more often go together.

Yesterday I had the boys carry a heavy 12-foot plank through the falling snow to the cow pasture. The first time they cried and said it was too heavy, my Dad's ethic and my own gentler voice came out of me and said, "I believe you can do it." The next time they gave up I suggested they figure out a different way, and gave a few suggestions. The third time they cried I said I was going in for lunch and sure hoped they figured it out soon so they could join me.

I could pretend that when they did come in a bit later that they had beaming "We Did It!" smiles and had learned a lesson about work ethic and their own strength. In reality they were still tired and sore and a bit annoyed. But they had done it, and that has to lodge somewhere in their self-understanding - that they are boys who can do a hard job and finish it.

The slab they carried today was a bit heavier, and the rain had turned the snowy hill into a slush slide. It only took about 10 seconds for G to drop it on his thigh and erupt in painful tears. I came over, put my hand on his shoulder and said, "Ya, that hurts doesn't it," the left them to continue. A bit further down the path it was Z's turn to have it drop in his foot. This time my comfort included a bit of helpful lesson, something wise about figuring out how to work Together or they'd keep getting hurt. Another lesson I hope lodges deep.

The "ah-ha!" moment for me was while G was screaming, "You're so mean! You're the meaning person in the world!" I suddenly could see him at 15 yelling or muttering, "My dad's such an asshole." The words will be different, but the feeling of frustration and painful growth being expressed will be the same. I hope I can be as steady and gently loving in the face of profanity as I was at being called Mean.

I remember so clearly hauling wood with my brother until my arms ached, not allowed to stop till dad had finished with the chainsaw. I never would have dared to call him names, but the injustice of having to help haul wood or set up camp while my friends got to play right away was acute. But I did learn something about working, about my own strength, about working together with my brother, and about having a valued role in the work life of my family. If through the tears and hurts my boys are slowly absorbing these lessons that will make them better men, then we moved more than a couple pieces of lumber today.

Feb 18, 2011

Our children aren't ready to know Tyeshia Jones

Tonight I will join hundreds of fellow community members in honouring Tyeshia Jones. But my safe, sleeping children won't know about it.

I will not use the tragic death of this young woman to educate my children about the senseless dangers of the world. The sharpness of our community's pain will not pierce the bubble of their innocence.

At 7 and 9, they do not need to know the dark side. They need to know that they are safe to grow into themselves and the world. They need the strength of collective laughter and full-lung family renditions of Annie, not the constricted breath of sobbing and fear.

One of G's classmates learned of Tyeshia's murder and has been in bed with a fever since then - the only terror response her little soul could muster. She's too emotionally and intellectually immature to be able to understand such an act; not that any of us understand it, but we can at least hold it and process it in a broader perspective.

Yes we teach our children not to help strangers find their lost puppies. But the intensity and proximity of a young woman's body found in the forest within miles of our house is too real, too strong at this age. There will come a time when they do have to learn about abduction and peak oil and the DR Congo and the Tea Party and all the real world things that scare or motivate me; when that time comes, they will have been given the chance to develop the emotional and intellectual capacity to deal with it. And by then they will have a deep faith in the goodness and community that can overcome the challenges.

We've asked our community not to speak of this to or in front of our children. Not even her name, which has been on the school playground enough that their antennae are up. This is not to dishonour Tyeshia, but to live up to our collective job to protect our children. The same tears that will cleanse and heal us as adults could wash away the layers of innocence that protect our children.

We adults can and must speak her name amongst ourselves, rally together to share our strength. We must speak her name and keep her memory alive. I hope we can join together tonight at the candlelight vigil, or light your own candle and join us in your own way.

Tonight we adults will find strength and hope together in the candlelight. And our sleeping children will grow up in the warm glow of those candles without ever having to know it in their heads, just feeling deep in their souls that they are held by a community of love.

Feb 17, 2011

Creamy butter

After 5 years of proudly making my own butter, I discover I've been doing it wrong. And yogurt too. How amusedly humbling.

It's so easy, I've been preaching. Just skim the cream off the top of your raw milk jar - or buy those lovely jars of organic Avalon whipping cream for you lucky Vancouverites - put it in the big mixer you got for your wedding and whirl away. Or have the kids shake it in jars. It slowly thickens, becomes whipped cream, then in 5-20 minutes it will suddenly, miraculously separates into thick clumps of butter and thin white splashes of buttermilk (usually all over the wall if you didn't turn down the mixer speed in time).

That's right, buttermilk is just the leftover white milk left over from making butter. Great in pancakes, muffins, all those recipes that call for that mysterious substance. Little things we've lost our traditional knowledge of.

Now suddenly I've learned from my multi-wonderful friend Justin that it's best to first turn the cream into yogurt. Fortunately that's a skill I think I've mastered over the past few years. So I heat the cream up to just below boiling, let it cool until a finger can be put in without scalding, then pour it back into a jar with a bit of old yogurt (starter) and put it in a huge canning pot filled 1/4 with hot water and a lid - that keeps it warm enough over night for the yogurt bacteria to do its work. In the morning it's yogurt, and into the mixer it goes.

But then super-Justin gently informs me that I've also been doing my yogurt wrong for the past two years also. Bringing it to an almost-boil is pasteurizing it, taking away many of the benefits that I've been buying raw milk for. Turns out it works just fine to just bring it to finger-hot temperature, skipping another whole step, reducing the frequency of milk boiling over onto the stove top and scalding the pot bottom, and increasing the health benefits.

Three years into our maple syrup making and we finally got one small batch that's the thick consistency of Aunt Jemima. Year three of raising organic free range chickens and we've now discovered soy-free feed that's even better for us and them.

Every time I think I've mastered something, I need to just look around to find out how it could be done better, or easier, or with less impact, or with more grace. Life is a fantastic learning curve leading to ever new and fresh vistas; death is (hopefully) when we no longer want to climb it.

Feb 13, 2011

The Price of Skiing

Can I afford skiing? Can the world afford skiing?

Nine years into this family thing and we finally had our first ski vacation. A beautiful 3-day gala with 4 other beautiful families at a beautiful cabin on 5 metres (that's 195 inches!) of snow at the beautiful Mt Washington. Before I analyze it to death, let me be clear that we loved it. We had delicious family time, the kids enjoyed a sense of mastery with snow and gravity, I worked muscle memory from 14 years ago, and we bonded with old and new friends like only a ski chalet can allow.

BUT... it warn't cheap. Rentals, lift tickets and kids lessons cost over $300, for one day. Add in a 250 mile drive, 2-night cabin rental and a lot more store-bought food than normal and voila!, we've spent our entire profit from last year's garlic field. A couple hundred hours of hoeing, weeding, harvesting, processing and selling time translated into 6 hours of skiing.

Yes it would be cheaper with our own equipment and season pass, but when it comes to selecting what pastimes we're going to indulge in, why choose one that would require me to cultivate another couple acres of garlic, or work that many more days away from my family? My definition of simplicity isn't to never spend money, but it is a call to consider the life energy that money represents. Two hundred hours of garlic farming, or 30-hours of working a paid job, exchanged for 6 hours of family fun is not for me the best bang for my labour.

In addition to weighing the life energy input, I of course need to analyze the global impact of my choices. Environmentally, skiing ain't friendly - carbon footprint (mostly from the drive to get there and snow-making machines), soil erosion, watershed damage, construction, roads... And the money that just our five families spent for just one weekend could have paid for the entire 4-year college education of about 6 ACCES Kenyan students. I was riding that chair lift high above the natural world I was harming and out of sight of the majority of global citizens who pay the real price for my little bit of fun.

Wow, that was dramatic! Doesn't really make me sound like someone you want to sit with on the chairlift or even share an ice cream with. Ask my friends and family - I was having a blast out there, not carrying this all around like an albatross. We make our decisions then accept them, and I decided beforehand that this was going to be OK, and it was. I don't regret our ski vacation, don't apologize for it, and don't even swear it won't happen again. But I do want to think about what it was I was truly enjoying out there, and if there are ways of re-creating that experience with a lower impact.

The most fun aspects of the adventure were being together as a family, being together with the other families, and a fun outdoor activity. Sounds an awful lot like camping, or snowshoeing up to an alpine cabin, or a sleepover birthday bonfire party. There are many ways to create the fun, social and physical Joy we're seeking. As much fun as I had on that snowboard, the day hike and picnic with another family the week before was equally (and differently) satisfying and rich.

But what about the incredible rush of skiing? That rush that I was addicted to as a youth - going almost every weekend, subscribing to Ski magazine, dreaming of Vail and Swiss ski resorts? There is an undeniable thrill to the sport that a hike or group curling night can't match. How do I balance the true passion I once held for the sport with these other considerations of environment, social justice and life energy that now also guide my life?

My own answer - for myself (probably not even for my children, certainly not for anyone else) - is that I have the power to choose my thrills. And I choose pursuits that bring Joy and excitement and social bonding at a minimum cost to my life energy and global impact. Skiing, for me, is no longer important enough to me to justify the cost. Or perhaps more accurately, I am choosing not to value skiing that highly.

We deserve fun. We owe it to ourselves and our families to create daily Joy and memorable special outings. It's absolutely OK to spend some money on ourselves instead of sending it all to Africa. But it is never OK to use those resources without considering the greater impact we are having; to justify harm by simply saying "we deserve it." It's when we make our life choices in full honesty and consideration of all factors that we are living a life of integrity, and out of that integrity flows true Joy and meaning.

Can I and the world afford skiing? I guess there's no single answer to that question, just a call to be true to our values. Usually for me that will mean choosing to say no to skiing and scuba diving and Nascar races (oh darn!). And sometimes, like the ski weekend our family fully enjoyed, it will mean saying Yes to something surprising.

Feb 3, 2011

Let them believe

Of course they're real. Santa, Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, St.Nicholas, even the Hallowe'en Switch Witch in our household. They'll be real for as long as our family chooses to let them bring magic in.

No, the kids won't be bitter or betrayed when they learn the truth. Galen's already figuring it out, and enjoying playing with the line between belief and reality. He talks of MommieClaus and DaddyClaus, but still rushes with baited breath to see what the old man put in his stocking. When he's fully ready to let go of the kiddie role, we'll do what our friend did with her older child - bring him in on the conspiracy, let him help preserve the magic for his little brother.

His little brother, now 7, still loves to believe. Christmas Eve he was busy clearing the living room so the elves wouldn't trip, and made me solemly swear to put the fire out so Santa wouldn't get burnt. All this in the face of big brother talking about the reality side - doesn't phase him a bit.

What truly makes me write with such authority is that Zekiah continues this full-on belief despite me being busted twice. Christmas morning he said that he'd heard Santa during the night. I said "Ya, I thought I heard him in the living room." He matter-of-factly put me in my place saying, "No Papa, that was just you. I know because you usually stay and kiss me after putting me back to bed, but last night you went into the living room and pretended to be Santa. But I heard him later on the roof."

I helped him patch up his belief system by laughing and saying that I was trying to trick Mama. But the other day was harder to swallow. The tooth fairy printed up her note a little too late at night, and didn't notice that Sarah had put used paper in the printer. The boys burst into the room with Galen joyously shouting, "I KNEW it! I knew you were the tooth fairy!" We tried to cover up by extolling the tooth fairy's environmental consciousness to break into mama's office and re-use paper, but Galen could see right through that.

Then the big moment came in class the other day. Talk about the veracity of the tooth fairy surfaced, and Zekiah loudly announced that he knew exactly who the tooth fairy is. As the teacher listened anxiously, he explained, "I have seen her. She is about one inch tall..." and continued with a detailed and fully believable description of the fairy. The tooth fairy is definitely female, in case you ever wondered.

Our children want magic, and deserve to live in that beautiful enchanted land as long as they will let themselves. Reality will come soon enough - for now my job is to help them keep those imaginary castle walls high and strong, so they are free to wander inside and create worlds of their choosing.