on reading wendell berry:
i have been reading what are people for? for about a month now. on and off. in and out. over and over. the quotes below comfort me in ways that i will try and convey. i continue to reread them much for the same reasons wendell berry reads and defends edward abbey – “for consolation, for the comfort of being told the truth.”
“no expert knows everything about every place, not even everything about any place. if one’s knowledge about one’s whereabouts is insufficient, if one’s judgment is unsound, then expert advice is of little use.” – from damage I
this speaks to my belief that we all need to trust ourselves and our experience thus far and know we are capable of making good decisions or at the very least, learning from a not so good decision. continue to move and learn from action and thought. reflect. believe you will know if and when an expert would be helpful and learn to take what you can use from that expert into your own practice. when i experience despair, i find the most comfort in the words of others. the sense of community i feel when someone else’s words compliment my experience is often just the boost i need to reflect and maybe move forward.
“it used to be that i could think of art as a refuge from such troubles – from the imperfections of life one could take refuge in the perfections of art. one could read a good poem – or better, write one. art was what was truly permanent, therefor what truly mattered. the rest was “but a spume that plays / upon a ghostly paradigm of things.” i am no longer able to think that way. that is because i now live in my subject. my subject is my place in the world, and i live in my place. there is a sense in which i no longer “go to work.” if i live in my place, which is my subject, then i am “at” work even when i am not working. it is “my” work because i cannot escape it. if i live in my subject, then writing about it cannot “free” me of it or “get it out of my system.” when i am finished writing, i can only return to what i have been writing about. while i have been writing about it, time will have changed it. over longer stretches of time, i will change it. ultimately, it will be changed by what i write, in as much as i, who change my subject, am changed by what i write about it.” (from damage III)
this speaks to my experience of motherhood in relation to how i lived my life immediately before i became a mother. a seven year project thus far – as my friend sarah said the other day on her son’s seventh birthday – “i now have a PhD in liam…and i will now have to start my post-doc.” there will not be a vacation in between the two.
because jason and i have chosen to not send our kids to school, this intimate endeavor has become my subject matter, my work. at times i feel “lost” in it. the truth is however, i am not lost. i am just continuing to grow and change. letting go of old definitions of myself has not been easy. my ‘thirties’ was an important decade for me. i felt like i came into understanding and accepting myself in a very grounding way. this current experience of learning alongside my kids, propelling that further – is something i could not have predicted. though maybe i should have – ha?! i see it as not only getting to know their desires and interests intensely, but an equally intensive continuing education about myself – my desires and interests. what i decide to focus on. wendell’s words help me to see myself more clearly. they also remind me that as long as i am engaged with my work, i will continue to grow and change – it is this space that i hope to feel more comfortable in. a definition-less inquiry into myself. an inquiry fueled by curiosity.
“…(he) passingly gooses one of my own sacred cows: poetry. …am i a defender of “poetry”? the answer, inevitably, is no; i am a defender of some poems. any human product or activity that humans defend as a category becomes, by that very fact, a sacred cow – in need, by the same fact, of an occasional goosing.” (from a few words in favor of edward abbey)
i hope that those who know me, realize that we do not see “unschooling” as a sacred cow. we continually hesitate to use the word, but find ourselves doing so when asked what it is we are “doing.” people like to have something to look up, to pursue for their own understanding – just as i do. the looseness of the definition of unschooling is what works for us. the idea that it is a lifestyle, not school at home – it is a creative act with no limits. it is a challenge. in looking for community i searched and searched the world wide web for comrades – i found many folks doing some things i liked, and several doing some version of what it was i thought i might like, though i grew continually frustrated by a lot of the language around keeping kids out of school. so in talking to people about what it is we were doing, i had to ask myself a similar question as mr. berry….am i defender of homeschooling? i am a defender of a much looser definition, i am a defender of the individual’s right to pursue what interests them. there are many different types of homeschoolers, just as there are many different types of schools or types of poetry. i am a defender of our choice to keep our kids out of school, and i defend everyone’s right to do so. and i am also trying to be more receptive to all the goosing that comes with such an act.
“i read him, that is to say, for consolation, for the comfort of being told the truth. there is no longer any honest way to deny that a way of living that our leaders continue to praise is destroying all that our country is and the best that it means. we are living now among punishment and ruins. for those who know this, edward abbey’s books will remain an indispensable solace. his essays, and his novels too, are “antidotes to despair.” for those who think that a few more laws will enable us to go on safely as we are going, he will remain – and good for him! – a pain in the neck.” (from a few words in favor of edward abbey)
i feel the same about reading wendell berry. while i do not see him as a pain in the neck, i do see him as someone whose thought process has me looking intensely at my own – who i spend my time with, how i spend my time, where i spend it and how i feel as a result of my time spent. there is so much wrong with the world and for anyone that likes to look that tiger in the eyes, they would no doubt enjoy wendell berry’s continual comment on the state of the nation, the state of the world.
on reading wallace stegner: “and so (he) became my teacher before i ever laid eyes on him, and he was already teaching me in a way that i have come to see as characteristic of him: by bestowing kindness that implied expectation, and by setting an example. …our teacher was a writer. he too was at work on what he had chosen to do; he would help us if he could.” (from wallace stegner and the great community)
i believe this reflection on his teacher, wallace stegner, could serve as the emblematic statement for unschooling. or at the very least the role i would like to play in my children’s lives.
“much protest is naive; it expects quick, visible improvement and despairs and gives up when such improvement does not come. protestors who hold out longer have perhaps understood that success is not the proper goal. if protest depended on success, there would be little protest of any durability or significance. history simply affords too little evidence that anyone’s individual protest is of any use. protest that endures, i think, is moved by a hope more modest than that of public success: namely, the hope of preserving qualities in one’s own heart and spirit that would be destroyed by acquiescence.” (from a poem of difficult hope)
when i feel weary and wonder why we are doing something so counter-cultural, something that most witnesses find hard to understand or relate with, i am forced to look inside myself. it is there that i find the desire, hope and strength referred to in that last sentence. i have no choice but to offer this to my children – it is what i believe in, deep inside – it just feels right. when i was adjusting our life to meet the framework of school, i felt resentment and a lament welling inside. jason and i have continually challenged in our own lives the culture which school prepares you for. we hope that our children will learn to think for themselves and chose to continue the challenge of questioning everything put in front of them. we hope that putting this power in their hands, the power to direct their own learning, informs their sense of self and self-efficacy. we see this type of freedom as elemental in the foundation of their hearts and spirits – even if they eventually chose to go to school.
“works of art participate in our lives; we are not just distant observers of their lives. they are in conversation among themselves and with us. this is a part of the description of human life; we do the way we do partly because of things that have been said to us by works of art, and because of things that we have said in reply.” (from style and grace)
“it is an art not like that of the bullfighter, which is public, all to be observed, but instead is modest, solitary, somewhat secretive – used, like fishing, to catch what cannot be seen.” (from style and grace)
the child who spends his time at home instead of school has an opportunity to spend many hours alone without expectation. i compare this with the studio time of a working artist or the lab hours of the scientist or the time spent staring at a blank page for a writer. i believe this kind of time is invaluable, even if the child reaches “boredom”. hopefully they do! this is where they learn to propel themselves forward. sometimes i like to suggest a next step, but often i place the decision in their hands. for me it is a reaffirming moment when i see them move from being “bored” into being “engrossed” – for me the two are essential to each other. learning how to be with oneself in moments of directionless time is essential to personal stability. “bored” is such a loaded word and sadly has been tagged as a negative thing. it is always challenging not knowing, but it is important to continue to try and recognize it as possibility instead of feeling defeated by the enigma. what we have to say as a result of what we have seen and heard takes periods of solitary reflection – this still remains a personal challenge of my own, and i don’t see it disappearing any time soon. propelling oneself out of such a state is immensely rewarding – even if simply taking a walk is what works, whatever gets your brain “unstuck”. this is the rich stuff of interior experience, it cannot necessarily be viewed from the outside, though there might be some product or observable behavior that confirms or displays this power from within.
on reading huckleberry finn: “from early in my childhood i was not what was known as a good boy. my badness was that i was headstrong and did not respond positively to institutions. school and sunday school and church were prisons to me. i loved being out of them, and i did not behave well in them. huckleberry finn gave me a comforting sense of precedent, and it refined my awareness of the open, outdoor world that my “badness” tended toward.” (from writer and region)
this statement of course has me loving wendell again, however it leaves me asking a question. yes, clearly a boy like wendell did not belong in these institutions and learned much more outside of them. i am left contemplating the “good” children – those that follow direction well and enjoy doing so. these are the kids that might benefit even more from unstructured time. pleasing others is easy – you could do so all your life and do just fine. that said, for me it seems like the background noise will always be, “what is it that i want?” – perhaps a recipe for midlife crisis? that might be too sweeping of a conclusion, but i cannot help but fantasize about giving such a kid more freedom and seeing what happened….
“memory, for instance, must be a pattern upon the actual country, not a cluster of relics in a museum or a written history. what barry lopez speaks of as a sort of invisible landscape of communal association and usage must serve the visible as a guide and as a protector; the visible landscape must verify and correct the invisible. alone, the invisible landscape becomes false, sentimental, and useless, just as the visible landscape, alone, becomes a strange land, threatening to humans and vulnerable to human abuse.” (from writer and region)
for me, this one needs to be read many times to grab ahold of. it speaks to that place inside where the heart and spirit reside and how that experience connects with the experience of life outside of this interior. for me it also touches on the isolation one can feel when they are not surrounded by a community of like minded, similarly occupied folk. meaning one can do what they think is right, follow others who have challenged mindsets before them, but if the landscape is not affected by their living in a tangible/visible way, it can feel like why? why do i continue to place myself outside what i see around me as the norm? and for me, right now, i believe it is because i still have hope….hope that maybe a few more will join in and change the landscape, even if the ripple is only slight.