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Top 10 Permaculture Parenting Tips

When I think about what it means to me to be a ‘Permaculture Parent’ I feel that it really is defined by my approach to life.  Looking for ways to live more in line with the Permaculture principles is a way of approaching life.  When I change, those around me change.  When I learn, those around me learn.  Permaculture is a design process by which you observe nature and try to learn as much as possible about natural systems.  I see my family as a natural system.  I, as part of the system influence all other parts of the system.  When I change, the system changes because part of it is new, and it must adapt.

Permaculture is more than a design system for me.  It is a way of thinking about and approaching the world.  We consider as much as possible in our lives how to live by nature’s patterns.  I am constantly self-reflective in order to observe and interact with my own behaviour patterns.  The beauty (and most difficult part) of having children is that they allow your dark side to surface so easily.  Despite the deep love and reverence I have for my children, the day to day living with three little beings that all need help from me pushes me into my edges of human capacity.  Of course it is in these edges that the most growth will occur.  In these moments of being stretched, the tiny cracks in my psyche expand and allow for patterns from my past to emerge.  There is often no time to ‘catch myself’ before reacting.  But these unsavoury moments become fodder for where to turn my attention next.  I try to view each challenge as a guild project, one that needs careful attention in order to discover a way to make the many different levels of the situation work together to support each other rather than out-compete.

When I read other people’s articles about parenting, I love succinct lists of practical changes I can make, things I can do right away!  The difficulty with Permaculture, and parenting, is that neither one offers clear cut answers.  The approach is just that…a set of guidelines by which to structure your actions.  They both take thought, engagement, careful observation and response.  But in the interest of providing something useful that helps to bring focus to a sea of grey areas, I have put together this list of 10 ways I try to be a better Permaculture Parent:

  1. Slow down the pace of life, remove the excess, simplify: physically, emotionally and mentally.  We constantly ask ourselves if things are ‘necessary,’ because if they’re not, the outcome also isn’t worth it.  In the spaces we create, creativity blossoms.  We try to disengage with the ‘overculture’ of consumerism, technology, fear, control, apathy, etc., as much as possible, carefully considering where to place our engagement.  We try to be present and mindful to the situation at hand, knowing that everything else will wait.
  2. Respond rather than react – I try to take a deep breath to reconnect with the Earth before responding to any given situation, there are very few situations that cannot withstand a 10 second delay in response.  This is also modelling a great skill for my children to learn that will serve them.  Taking pause allows me to observe before interacting, by this I mean mainly observing my own inner landscape!
  3. Get outside.  Spend loads of unstructured time in nature.  It’s hard to recognize ourselves as part of nature if we are separating ourselves from it.
  4. Accept feedback in all its forms.  As difficult as it is to take a critical look at my role in my children’s behaviour (especially those rough times), usually the root cause of the turbulence is that I’ve inadvertently created a climate of ‘control.’  If I can find a way to release my ‘old paradigm’ approach to controlling my children and look for creative and less obvious solutions to work cooperatively, I can usually turn things around in a hurry.  The trust required for this took  several months to build.  I had to learn to trust that there was another way that would work, and my children needed to trust that I could change my way of engaging with them indefinitely.  It takes radical trust to allow our children to receive their own feedback and respond to it, but when I am able to step back and observe (with the help of sportscasting or non-judgmentally verbalizing the events of a conflict), it is amazing what solutions the children reach for their own problems – ones that wouldn’t have been obvious or fair in the eyes of an adult.  In treating problems between my children this way, we are also allowing them to learn fundamental Permaculture skills.   Aside from behavioural conflicts, we try to communicate clearly, about everything.  If my children ask a question, I try to give as complete an answer as possible while still being age appropriate.  Our children want feedback about their world and experiences too!
  5. Enjoy time together as a family as much as possible – I have learned to find joy and gratitude in tiny spaces to combat the illusion of drudgery…most of the time.
  6. Practice and teach extreme empathy.  “The Golden Rule” is prevalent in our home.  Not just applied to others in our home, but to all beings, plants, and Mother Nature herself.  My hope is to help my children know and feel the impact they are having on everything around them, since everything in this living system called Earth, is connected.  I hope to help them understand that they are only in control of their own actions, but that their participation in the system will ripple out in positive and/or negative ways.  When my children are upset, the first thing I do is empathize with them, despite my gut reaction to apply logic or quell their emotional response.
  7. We find small solutions to big problems.  I have started to focus on one small thing at a time to try and make change happen and sustain.  For example, I wanted to have a moment of gratitude before sharing our meals, so we started saying a family blessing.  It has taken a while for it to become routine, but now the children remind us if we forget.  We were also having difficulty with tidy up time (a time rife with the temptation to control!).  I started having a tidy up time every day before dinner.  Once dinner was ready to serve, we’d tidy until the house was clean, then eat.  It has also become a pattern we’ve been able to stick to.  I’ve taken to tackling one thing at a time, until it’s established.  Related to this, I have made many mistakes along the way.  When something doesn’t work, or fails to flourish, I try another approach to the same problem.  Being willing to take chances and make (many) mistakes in the process of trial and error is part of the learning process.
  8. We carefully consider the foundation of our children’s days.  Their basic needs are an essential way for my children to catch and store energy.  In our house, sleep is treated as sacred.  We try to work our activities around sleep routines so that my children have enough rest to participate fully in life and with their best selves.  We also make food a priority by consuming nourishing sustenance.  My children help with planting, tending, harvesting, preserving, and preparing food where possible.  We engage with food on as many levels as possible. If you consider other mammals, they spend most of their time eating, drinking and sleeping.  We should also afford these things as much value as possible.
  9. Set clear limits, and allow things to run a bit wild within the defined boundaries.  Our top concern when setting boundaries is safety.  Apart from that, we have certain things which are not tolerated in our home: violence, disrespect of people or destruction of property.  These are hard and fast.  We debate about the best ways to ensure these expectations are met, and have tried many things!  Luckily, since there are few of them, and we always follow through with some method of dealing with the problem, we don’t have to address this issue too often.  Where possible we try to use relevant meaningful consequences.  For example, if you colour on the desk, you clean it up with guidance.  If you upset someone, find some way to make it right (apologise, give the toy back, do something to make the person feel better).  If you throw your food, you clean it up and you can can choose to eat what was thrown or be finished eating (make no waste!).  Our philosophy is similar to that of good design principles.  If we put the time in up front, at the messy design stage of planning, the long term yields will be much higher.  All that being said, we do give time outs for physical violence, as we feel strongly that this is not acceptable in our home and sometimes a timeout is warranted for the safety of all involved.  Most of the behavioural guidance we offer our children comes in the form of asking questions to provoke extreme empathy or by having them predict what might happen if they carry through with an action (for example what might happen if we ran across the street without looking?).  As far as what is and is not acceptable in our home, it is family choice based on our own comfort levels.  We set many smaller limits, but these are situational.  A great tip I follow from Janet Lansbury is that if something is making you feel uncomfortable, set a clear limit and if you have lost your temper, you waited too long to set that limit.  After I set limits, I refer back to the question ‘is it necessary,’ since sometimes these limits are not genuinely serving a need, but come from the overculture, and require a more scrutinous look at a later time.  I am often trying to push my edge as to what ways I can continue to offer my children more freedom.  In the moment where I am dealing with the child, I will set the limit, because it can always be changed, with a new clearly defined boundary in the future.
  10. Awaken curiosity.  There is so much humans don’t understand.  Invite surprise.  Discover together.  Learn together.  Grow together.  Accept growth as a messy process that doesn’t always look pretty.
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Missing Out

The downside of a digitized culture is that it makes it so easy to feel like we’re ‘missing out’ on things.  Here I find another place where I’m unlearning what has been bestowed upon me.  I will on occasion experience feelings of loss because of the choices we’re making as a family to diverge from mainstream culture.  I often have the feeling that I don’t ‘fit in’ anywhere and that ‘everyone else’ enjoying themselves doing carefree things that are, by choice, no longer part of my landscape.  Those ‘fun’ things no longer seem fun to me.  What I really crave is the ‘easiness’ of it all, the ability to be impulsive and joyful.  But the contentment I seek does not come from the outside world, making it more difficult to seek and find it in a culture obsessed with consuming.

Social media allows us to see what everyone else is up to through our online lens, creating the illusion that things are so much better for someone else than in our own day to day routines.  Consumption of the lives of others has become a new outlet for gluttony.  Wanting more, wanting the best, having what everyone else has.  The reality is that what we see flash across our screens is but a small portion of life, one that has been constructed, edited, and shared with intent.  Carefully selected highlights.

Parents feel pressured to expose their children to a multitude of extra curricular activities in an effort to provide them with a ‘perfect’ childhood.  In my eyes, the shuffle of activities leaves the childhood part out of the equation.  I don’t want my children to miss out on the opportunities to muck about and learn by engaging in what they’re interested in at their own pace.  This is one of the reasons I have come to form new opinons about schooling and education.  Are my children missing out on a traditional education because I’m choosing to home school them?  Of course they are.  They will not be in a class of 30+ children all of the same age.  They will not spend their days sitting indoors at desks.   They will miss out on being told in no uncertain terms how ‘smart,’ ‘athletic,’ or ‘popular’ they are, since they’ll not have a group of people constantly measuring them against others.  They will not be denied their passion for a topic because it’s not the curriculum being taught.  Their engagement of a topic will not be cut short because it’s time for science/lunch/recess/the next unit of study.  They will miss out on being the centre of attention during snack and lunchtime for our lack of consumption of sugar, wheat, corn, and processed food.  They will not have the opportunity to be able to defend our family’s choice to buy used where possible.  They will not spend their leisure time at school talking to other children about the violent video games they’re playing all night long or media they’ve watched. Yes, indeed they will miss out.

Sarcasm aside, it is hard to avoid the inevitable fear of the unknown.  Pushing edges means leaving comfort behind.  And there are of course things that I greatly enjoyed growing up in a school setting that create a reason for me to pause.  I would love for them to be involved in choir or band.  I wish for them to learn another language.  I want for them to find a group of friends where they feel belonging and trust.  I want them to discover knowledge and skills that I don’t have.  But these things seemingly offered by an institutional setting are not best suited to a classroom either.  They are available to my children without the social structure that fails to mimic natural systems.  Creativity, passion, and determination cannot be underestimated.

We can’t do it all.  We can’t have it all.  We don’t need it all.  We just want to be happy.

Offensively Defensive

I started using the phrase ‘offensively defensive’  to describe some of my interactions with other people.  I’m describing the times where I feel like I may be under scrutiny for not living up to societal expectations.  I have fallen into the trap of trying to be defensive of my choices and the state of my life by ‘heading comments off at the pass’ if you will, so that I can make an excuse for something before someone has a chance to pass judgement.  Playing offense with defensive tactics.  In reality I’m being offensive to myself because of my defensiveness.  All this strategy does is opens a conversation that never needed to happen in the first place.  It is so rare for people to actually be disturbed enough by something I’m doing to make a comment.  Being unnecessarily explanatory for inadequacies also makes me appear insecure about what it is that I’m defending.  Looking in on myself, I see a disconnect in how I’m presenting myself to the world.  I carefully wind my way through life, checking my integrity at every pass.  So why am I coming to my own defense before it is called for?  If I were as confident as I think I am in my choices, then there should be no need to defend them.

I have so many examples of times where I use this strategy.  The easiest to spot are when people come over.  I feel the need to excuse the state of my house.  Rather than just letting it be what it is (cluttered because I spend time with my children and writing and reading instead of tidying).  I make excuses for the dishes near the sink or the mountain of clean but yet to be folded laundry.  Rather than allowing the energy to remain clear, it draws attention and my own negative energies to these misgivings, and measures them up as such by my own admission. Other examples include our food choices.  Rather than just stating facts (I don’t eat…) I feel the need to justify everything.  Unless a reason is asked for, people don’t really care.  And it’s not like I explain myself well in these situations, I usually give a partial answer, the one I think people want to hear.  Rather than clarifying things, it’s more like voluntarily putting myself into a fight or flight situation, one which only makes the issue more convoluted!

So…why do I do this to myself?

Because I feel there is some sort of standard that I should be living up to – but there is none, because we are not machines, we are not all alike, and we all have our own priorities.  Because I feel that I am being judged unfairly – but I cannot know that since I am only anticipating and projecting judgments, ones conjured in my own mind and thus a reflection of myself.  Because I feel like I should be better at something than I am – which I don’t need to be, I am what I am, I am enough.

So then, what instead?  I’d like to stop offending myself now.  Could I accept that people may judge my home, me, my children?  Could I accept that their judgement is not mine?  Could I exercise some self-compassion?  Could I choose to be happy?  Grateful for how I do spend my time?  Lose the fear?  Love?  Love it all?  I choose that.  And if I can’t be that yet, I’ll fake it until I can.

Writing with Courage

Last week, I started going to a writer’s circle.  It’s the first time I’ve done such a thing.  I went to school for art, and didn’t really enjoy writing while in school.  I am married to a poet and never considered myself a writer.  Attending the writer’s circle was a big step out into my edge or  perhaps past it.

I have happened into blogging.  I have a couple of friends who write blogs (on the road to free and how wee learn) and was inspired.  Once I started writing, things just seemed to ‘happen.’  I started to look forward to my writing time, and look for ways to do more of it.  I loved the idea of being able to share my inner journeys with the outer world…so I thought.

Stepping into the writer’s circle peeled back that falsehood very quickly.  It went something like this…we were asked to think on the word ‘courage’ and write for approximately 20 minutes.  I had no problem conjuring up something anecdotal from my day.  We were to go around the circle and share what we had written…aloud…while everyone listened and looked. Then we were to make positive comments about the writing.  When my turn came, my heart was thumping as I began to read.  My mouth went dry.  I tried so hard to maintain composure.  I think I succeeded.

Then came round two.  The second writing exercise began with a meditation.  We were to clear our minds of all things…but inevitably there is something within us that does not part from us, even when we ask to ‘just be.’  For me this ever-presence was motherhood.  Upon finding this ‘thing,’ we were asked to ‘look to the edge’ of it, and find what is hiding in the shadows just beyond it.  We were then asked to write for 40 minutes.  I had trouble starting the second time.  It wasn’t as easy to pour out my rambling reflections of the day.  I started into a deeper self-reflective piece.  I wrote, then stopped.  I re-read my work, feeling trepidation over what I’d come up with.  I knew this time what it would be like to share it aloud…with an audience.  As others shared their fictional writing, my nervousness grew.  I am not (yet) a fiction writer.  I have learned in my adult years that I don’t enjoy reading fiction either, which is why I always thought I wasn’t a ‘good reader.’  So as I heard the beautiful words creatively spun by the others in the group, I started to shrink inside myself.  I worried my writing was too raw, too revealing, too personal.  My time came to read.  After a deep breath of preparation, I went for it.  It was like what I imagine jumping out of an airplane might feel like.  I reflected on our earlier pondering of ‘courage.’  We had been aptly guided by our writing coach.  I confirmed that true courage is doing something despite feeling terrified. I read.  I kept reading, despite my body urging me to stop.  I finished.  I was asked to re-read it!  I took a pause, and another deep breath.  I started again.

On my drive home at the end of the evening, I reflected on just how difficult the events of the circle had been for me.  I think I had a good time.  Why was it so difficult for me to share my work with people?  And nice people, accepting people who were not judging my work?  Isn’t sharing my writing what I do when I put my writing out online?  Shouldn’t blogging in fact be more daring, since my thinking is out on the internet available for anyone to scrutinize?

I came to the realization that it is much more comfortable for me to sit at my computer, with my own thoughts, in quiet, in order for me to feel like I’m alone with my words.  I know people are reading my writing, but the disconnect is real.  The humanness is not there.  The visceral emotional conversation is missing.  This experience has inspired me to think beyond my writing.  For starters, I  would like to try harder to pick up the telephone over sending an email.

I am still re-working the pieces I wrote last week, hoping to post them when I’ve had enough distance from the writing and experience of the circle to bring clarity.  What I can say for sure is that I’m growing confidence in stepping out into my edges.  I’m growing more comfortable in the feeling of discomfort.   I’m excited for the yields that pressing into this new edge might bring…

Spinning and Whirring

On my recent photography foray, I drove out to the country to find some interesting subject material.  As I was taking photos, I couldn’t help but be drawn to the giant turbines dotting the industrial agricultural landscape.  The way they rise up from the barren land is quite something.  As I snapped unrelated photos, I was stricken by the whirring vortex of their blades, pulling me in.  Even with my back turned, they still had an impact as I could hear the noise of their spin even at a distance of a kilometer or so.  It was a strange grinding pulsation of sorts.  I got back in my car and headed for the next subject.  I passed a long plowed drive, leading to the base of a turbine.  I drove past.  Feeling compelled for some reason to investigate further, I pulled over to the side of the road, and turned the car around.

Heading down the narrow corridor of a driveway carved in the snow, I stopped at this puddle.  I had the feeling that I shouldn’t be there.  Not only that, but I surely did not want to get stuck out here by myself.  I got out of the car and took the above photograph.  The whir of curiosity was now beckoning stronger.  I stuck a toe in the puddle, and deemed it only a few inches deep, thereby passable by car.  I drove on, around a bend, and stopped where other vehicles had before, based on visible tire marks in the mud.

I grabbed my camera and stepped out of the car.  I looked up.  I gulped.  I really had not expected this.  The turbine TOWERED above my head.  I felt so very small.  The visceral power generated by this structure was intense.  The blades were pulsing down toward my car and I.  I was afraid.  Not that, ‘I think something bad might happen’ type of mental fear, but a guttural fear.  A feeling of ‘get me out of here, NOW!’  The whirring was intense, vibrating my innards.   I took a deep breath, put the camera to my eye and pointed it up.  I captured the following shot.

With my heart racing, and my hands shaking, I clambered back into my car.  I didn’t want to back up down the long driveway and through the puddle.  In my ‘fight or flight’ state, I didn’t take time to think before acting.  I pulled forward onto what looked like fresh dirt and gravel.  Being that we’re in the middle of a thaw, I thought all tire tracks had dissipated with the snow.  I pulled forward and to the right to turn the vehicle around.  As I wheeled it around, now quite close to the base of the turbine, I felt the tires relax against the gravel.  My panic started to thicken.  I reassured myself.  Thoughts of ‘I’m going to be stuck here, under this turbine’ still took hold.  My tires were spinning like the turbine blades.  I backed the car up slightly, turned the wheel hard left and gave a few good thrusts on the gas pedal, easing my car out of the deeper gravel.  With focused intensity I got myself heading in the direction of home.  I shook, inside and out the whole way.

Rob and the children were at the end of the driveway when I got home, having just picked up the mail.  Upon parking up the car, Rob asked what had happened to the car.  Thinking he was perhaps referring to the mud I had sprayed up the side in my efforts to free myself from the turbine’s grip, I claimed to know.  After getting out of the car, I realized I had dislodged part of the wheel well in my efforts to plow through the gravel pit.  In my effort to hurry home, I drove despite the grinding whir of my own vehicle.  The plastic wheel casing is now damaged, and will need to be replaced since Rob had to cut half of it off this morning in order to get himself to work.

I wanted to have shared the experience with someone, to have my experience fully understood by another, because I will never go back to the base of a turbine.  Human efforts to harness the power of nature are just plain scary.

Nature Knows No Perfect

Reductionism.  Rob and I have been commenting a lot during discussions in our home about this phenomenon.  It is one we come up against again and again.  One which permaculture seeks to override with its tenet of ‘integrate don’t segregate.’  Our culture often tries to reduce things to their very essences in an attempt to understand them.  Examples would be in our diet (‘fats are bad for you’), healthcare (‘high cholesterol causes heart disease’), consumerism (‘it’s the cheapest price’), or any other number of other approaches to justifying our choices.   But what is lost when we have this ‘tunnel vision’ is that life cannot be reduced to its ingredients.  Just as bread is bread once baked (and even once mixed into dough)  It is only when something is in its wholeness that it can be fully understood.

Our calendar of days must be adjusted for leap year every five years because nature doesn’t operate on mathematical schedules.  Even in music, as you go up by octaves, the notes become slightly ‘off-pitch.’  Modern instruments have been adjusted to accommodate this natural phenomenon, so now when we hear a ‘natural’ scale, it sounds out of tune.  Our minds can’t seem to handle nature, uncertainty, and the possibility that we can’t get it just right.

I have veins of perfectionism that run deep…ingrained from years of engaging with the traditional education system.  I am afraid of messing up, and this fear comes up more than I would like.  I am trying to accept this emotion, by acknowledging it but not investing in it.  If I can embrace the fear, it won’t have to shout quite so loud to be heard above the clatter of my life.  I am trying to understand it as part of my wholeness and to have compassion for its presence in my life.

Nature is not perfect.  It can’t be.  If it were, it would not perpetuate itself.  It is through diversity that species survive and growth is able to happen.  A few weeks back during one of our many discussions about my fears, Rob said to me, “There is no perfect, there is only nature.’

Truth and Grace

I have been struggling lately with the idea of ‘speaking my truth.’  I have come to many conclusions about the way I am choosing to live my life that differ greatly from what conventional culture is doing.  Venturing out into the world has become increasingly difficult, as avoiding discussion of my life choices in is next to impossible.  So this leaves me in a place where I am feeling unsure.  A place where I don’t really know how to respond.  When I am questioned about something, like the food I eat, or try to gracefully decline the boxed cookies that have been offered, I am usually met with an inquisitive mind wanting to understand my reasoning.  The problem is that I am not able to give people the full back story or even a taste of all the thought and feeling that has gone into a decision.  I can only provide some reduced version of my conviction which generally doesn’t even address the heart of the issue for me.  This is because usually, the heart of the issue is just that…it is part of me.  I consider my acts of transition to be a spiritual practice; one that I live out on a daily basis.

It is hard work to live radically.  Not only is my family different, which is becoming increasingly apparent when we venture out into the world, but we are often met with defensiveness.  People often perceive our life choices as judgements on what they are doing.  This reaction is often unprovoked, and seems to bubble up when I explain a bit about why I live a certain way.  While my thought processes often involve judgement of ideas, I do not find any reward in comparing myself to others.  In fact, the act of judging myself against others is what often leads me to feelings of fear.  My life goal is to live in line with Gandhi’s ideal to ‘be the change you want to see in the world.’  My judgement of issues is solely for the purpose of living out my own truth.  I do not claim to have the answers for others, never mind the fact that I just plain do not have the capacity to think through transition issues beyond the scope of myself and my family.

So I am left feeling at a loss for how to integrate with integrity.  I often feel that it would be much easier to just not integrate, but this goes against my very belief in community.  For a long time I have just kept quiet, not wanting to make waves with others.  But more recently I have found it too difficult to carry on this way as we push further toward being outliers.  I now find myself trying to navigate my way of being in the world as a radical.  I never wanted to be a radical.  So now that I am living as one, how do I proceed?  How do I live my life in accordance with the spiritual path I’ve chosen, yet have the grace to meet the world where it is.  I want to show compassion and live with (com) passion.  But I am struggling to live out my passion without pushing those around me away in the process.  I am working up the courage to ride the waves of my truth, but for now I’m floating in the shallow water, waiting for the day I can cut the tether.