“letting our children say ‘No'”

At my brother’s wedding reception the table is full of glasses, candles, and stacks of plates piled with delicious food. In this venue, then, one of the other guests brightly asks me, “So how long have you been homeschooling?” I point my fork at my son, sitting at the end of the table snuggling his father – “That one,” I say, “has never been to school. And he’s nine years old. My daughter,” (leaning against me, listening like a pert little wildlife creature), “she went to one year of public kindergarten. What I saw there while I volunteered twice weekly inspired me to think about something different for our family.”

This answer seems to satisfy my new acquaintance. But then my mother pipes up, leaning forward to gush, “And it’s not homeschooling, it’s unschooling!” A pause, as those listening react in confusion at the term. My mom leans over to me. “Tell her, tell them,” she says with the kind of peevish enthusiasm she gets when ordering me around (Yes. I know. I’m 36.) She presses me further: “They want to hear about unschooling!” I roll my eyes. “No, you want me to tell them about unschooling,” I retort. I’m cranky, and I just want to eat my vegetarian spring rolls in peace. It’s been a long day!

On Forcing Myself On Strangers

These days I don’t get too fired up about “the unschooling conversation“, or at least not near as much as I used to. To use a phrase whose time has probably passed, I am much more chillax about the whole business. Why? Many reasons. Because ignorance is rampant, harmful systems are both prevalent and entrenched, and child-as-second-class is the norm. It’s simply the norm. Most people think children should be ordered about for most their waking hours (even though most people don’t want to own up to this), and if there was any way my educational theories or my passionate communication skills or my words-upon-words written could force people to try things differently, I probably would still be forcing people today.

And this brings me to another reason I am (usually) less ardent in these conversations, probably my most grounded reason. Because frankly, I’ve the same impulses as everyone else, attempting to impose my sense of justice, order, or intelligence on other human beings. Shocker: I am not always right, I am not always making intelligent decisions, and I myself am plenty-ignorant. While today I am willing to share our experiences and especially to help those who seek help, I am no longer willing to argue. Why set myself on one side of a table lecturing or complaining or feeling persecuted or expressing despair at the state of child-raising in our country? Instead, I can practice gratitude for having the family I do, and I can try to be helpful to other families who ask for my help.

Today I don’t have to live by force – although I should call it the attempt to force, and the illusion of control by “winning” an argument (I include those arguments in the mind that we continue, when we’ve long left the conversation with another human being!). At the wedding party dinner I was more than happy to talk a bit about unschooling and, specifically, to answer the questions that ended up being put to me (“How will your kids get into college?” and some other typical fare). See today I don’t have to “prove” unschooling and today – blessed miracle! – I don’t even have to get upset and frustrated by other people’s ignorances. I don’t mean anything or anyone in particular, I just mean that maybe my entire life I will have that little blip of annoyance when I see how people Other and belittle children and talk about them like they’re property or chattel. Perhaps I will never move past feeling irritated and angry. But today I don’t have to rise to a state of panic and anger. I don’t have to rehearse negative thoughts and negative emotions, and I don’t have to let these emotions dictate my reality. I can take up the line of conversation, in this case, pick it up, participate, then put it down.

Then, enjoy my spring rolls.

Who gets to say “No”?

A little while back my partner and I got into a lively conversation with a parent who was also an educator. This parent became increasingly interested in dissecting our philosophies of non-coercive parenting, anti-authoritarianism, and life learning as opposed to compulsory schooling. The conversation became quite lively (I was not especially chillax) but it remained respectful. I remember very little about the content of our discussion except the tail end of the conversation. The parent kind of pushed back from the table, shook their head, and said, very slowly: “I think you and I have the same ideas… except… I don’t let my kids say ‘No’.”

At the time, I was aghast. “Not letting your kid say ‘No'” is firstly the very definition of typical American parenting – and there is no “sameness” to this parent, and Ralph and I, at all! In fact, this parent was articulating the exact root disagreement that fostered our lengthy and lively argument in the first place!

Still, I was impressed this parent was honest. Many parents, carers, and teachers I know act as if they are letting their kids exercise their agency (i.e. say “No”) when really they are only providing them the slimmest margins of freedom. These adults often align themselves with or seek out methodologies of parenting or child stewardship (some of which employ special words and more humane – to outward appearances – behaviors) to, in part, obfuscate what this particular parent stated so eloquently – “I don’t let my kids say ‘No'”. Many parents can’t admit, “I don’t let my kids say ‘No'”, because they don’t want to believe this about their parent-child relationship. This is very sad, because among other things this means they cannot get to the bottom of the parent-child relationship, and they thus block their own path to healing and deep peace.

And this can be expanded further, because it isn’t a parent thing. It is an adult thing. Somewhere along the way we all internalized the concept, so deeply ingrained that even years of active processes of unlearning by a committed individual do not remove it quickly or entirely, that one day it would be “our turn” and we would no longer be the second-class citizens of the world (at least in the sense of child/adult), but could then demand obedience and obeisance (“respect”) from the children who were to come after us. We became deeply invested in this fantasy, in part because it contains an illusion of safety, of Self-as-demonstrated, that ego-soothing “I’ve earned my place!” experience we often grasp at.

So I understand why many adults don’t want to own up to what this parent, albeit begrudgingly, spoke aloud. But looking deeper still, I see that this parent has even another lesson for me.

The Gifts of This Parent’s Honesty

What a gift this conversation was! Because the deeper truth is, we can never not let someone say “No”. They can always say No. What we can do is make consequences or environments so unpleasant – perhaps extremely so – that they choose not to say No. They are temporarily and/or outwardly cowed. We are really quite industrious and imaginative in the ways we attempt to control, to manage the outcome, to get our way. We may scream, hit, beat, remove pleasures or material goods, and employ all sorts of psychological and emotional “carrot/stick” strictures to these children’s lives. Harshada Wagner’s talk on how we create emotional pain for the world’s children will always be written on my heart, because what he says is true regardless of whether we are parent, educator, or a civilian interacting with the children of this world.

We inflict emotional pain in an attempt to control or an attempt to maintain the illusion of control. Now, why we do this is the subject of another piece. But isn’t it freeing, to finally admit we are doing this? Isn’t their some small part of you, in that space of devastation and sadness at the smallness of our attempts to control, and the uselessness of these attempts, that feels a little excited, that breathes fresh air? When we confront the truth, as it is said, it sets us free.

Our children will always be able to say No to us; if they don’t do so outwardly for fear of our reprisal, they do so inwardly. The phrase “cognitive dissonance” comes to mind, although it falls short in describing the holistic and endemic nature of the harm done when we insist we will not “let” our kids, or any kids, say No. Some children grow to hate their carers and most will continue to respond to much of life from a place of woundedness. Some grow to emulate the abuse. Many do not outgrow their fears and do not heal from their hurts. The human impulse to control, to seek security where there is none, is magnified further still and their lives become filled with suffering, with grasping and revulsion and with complexity and over-work.

When we adults present a lie in rebuttal to something the child, deep down, knows in her gut, we commit the worst kind of betrayal. Entire lives have been corrupted and wounded, and this can carry on for generations in family legacies of hurt feelings, abuse, drinking and drugging, fears, over-indulgences or pathological self-denial in otherwise-healthy activities (like eating or not-eating, or working, sleeping, and sex). I see these fallouts every day.

Therefore I submit it is the greatest responsibility of any adult to commit to honesty – not just cash-register honesty, but emotional and spiritual honesty, when we are dealing with the rest of the world, and especially with children and with the child class. If you cannot admit here, or to me, or to your counselor or spouse the ways you are not letting your child say No, it is at least a start to admit it to yourself.

The wonderful news is it is never too early nor too late. We have only to set foot on the path, today.

When I was a child the things that hurt me most are easy to identify, today. It was not the physical abuse, the scoffing at the hands of peers, illness, death of a pet or of family, or hunger or sleep deprivation. What hurt me the most was when the adults I depended on would tell me lies and insist I believe them. They told me I was Selfish (setting themselves apart as Virtuous), and they told me this often, instead of admitting the larger, breathtaking truth that selfishness is something within all of us, that all of us can make peace with and transform. They told me they were strong when really they were weak. They told me they were not dependent on anything, when really they had many dependencies (as we are all wont to have). I had the opportunity to grow and learn they did these things not out of avarice or cruelty but merely because they knew no better, and had likely been done to similarly. Today I am so grateful to see deeply into these things, and to perhaps provide a different experience for my own children, inasmuch as I can.

quick and personal: my Recovery story, at least as of today

Today is my father’s 70th birthday; or would be, if he were alive. I miss him very much, and I will likely write about him later today. For now, here is a piece I penned for another site. I’m trying to keep to a writing schedule to assist with our scholarship fund. If you feel so inclined, please donate.

Otherwise, I hope what you read here in any way helps, or gives you hope.

Me, April 16, 2013

I am a thirty-six year old mother to two, wife, daughter, sister, friend – and I am an alcoholic. I’ve been sober almost two years which makes me a statistical anomaly and a medical miracle. That said, like many of us with lasting and happy Recovery, I give credit where credit is due. I have had a great deal of support, practical advice, a spiritual community, and wonderful friendships every step of the way. I have those things today, and I am so grateful for them all. I would sicken and die without them.

I knew I was an alcoholic a few years before I even thought about trying to get and stay sober. I was ashamed to be an alcoholic because of experiences from my childhood, so for several years I minded my drinking. For an alcoholic, this means I attempted to control my drinking – even though I didn’t see it that way at the time. I didn’t do half-bad at this, either. I avoided some of the more unpleasant episodes I’d later find out my fellow alcoholics had fallen prey to. Of course those could all be mine, if I ever get curious or as is more likely, if I ever forget where I came from.

I owe my life to countless friends in Recovery who have helped me, but the first person along this path was a physician who correctly identified my primary ailment as alcoholism (needless to say, I was seeing him for a different complaint). He asked me a few questions about the medicine he’d prescribed me, and when I admitted I was still drinking a little while taking it (I was actually drinking just about every night) he said, “I think you’re an alcoholic.”

I usually laugh when I tell this story – now – but this was the worst moment in my life. (Today, it’s a fond memory!) I can remember so much about that conversation – on my first day sober. At one point in our brief, direct, and raw (for me) conversation, he asked me, “Have you ever tried to quit drinking?” I answered him I had, but my life hadn’t improved (so, quod erat demonstrandum, alcoholism must not be my problem) – and I’d given up trying to “quit”. Then he said a few words I will never forget. He told me, “You don’t quit drinking for your life to improve. You quit because you have a disease, and it is your responsibility.” Those words gave me the courage to try sobriety, no matter what came of it – although at the time I thought I was hopeless and that only people very, very tough could get and stay sober.

That day I came home and told my husband I was an alcoholic. We’ve known eachother since we were 17, yet he didn’t know! He was confused, but he accepted what I said. He rid the house of wine glasses in a very touching demonstration of support (the first of many). Later, he told me he didn’t believe I was an alcoholic for quite some time in my early sobriety. We are both very grateful there is a program of Recovery for those friends and family who love or are in relationship with an alcoholic. He understands a great deal more about this illness, today.

My second day sober I sat with a small group of people knowing, knowing I couldn’t live with drinking, nor without it. I might be able to not drink now, or the next few hours, or even tonight. But someday I would have to drink again. Not only that, but if I was very honest to myself and not worried about managing others’ perception of me, I believed a life without drinking was not going to be a happy one. I really thought if I got sober, I’d be boring!

These first few days – without treatment or detox, in the home and in the relationships I’d had for years – were frightening and painful. I suffered a great deal physically and I didn’t know how to reach out nor treat myself like the ill individual I was. I was sick and frightened, but more than anything else I was confused. I heard people saying getting sober was the easy part, staying sober is hard. This used to drive me mad with fear, as I was suffering so much and I didn’t want to suffer more. Despite my fear, I did follow the suggestions of those I met in Recovery, and I quickly realized I wouldn’t have to suffer like that again. My journal reveals that even in these early days, I had periods of clarity and even bliss. Soon, I stopped wanting other people’s “time” in Recovery, and I became happy with my own. Another beautiful moment of many in my Recovery.

My life improved quickly, but getting over my guilt and shame did not happen overnight – especially when it came to my mistakes as a mother. However, I didn’t let these feelings of inadequacy, fear, remorse, and (self-)blame stop me from seeking out Recovery on a daily basis. Over time, I began to learn to be kind to myself. One thing I have not yet seen in the thousands of alcoholics and addicts I’ve worked with, is the ability, in early Recovery, to be kind to oneself. It comes in time for many, but it drives many more back out to suffer and die.

Today I live a joyful sobriety. I am a better wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, and citizen than I was while drinking. The anger and fear I used to have over the ways I’ve been abused and mistreated is no longer with me; I have also accepted my own role in mistreating others and I make amends today. I practice Buddhism, the faith tradition that has appealed to me my whole life. The other day I read, If you die to the past, you enter into the greatest adventure there is. “Dying to the past” is how I can practice kindness today. My past is factual information I can use to help others – it is no longer Judge, Jury, & Executioner. My past is one of my greatest assets, especially when I work on a daily basis to help other alcoholics who think they are hopeless – the way I used to think I was hopeless.

I have always enjoyed films or television shows that depict, with some degree of emotional or spiritual acuity, what it’s like to be an active alcoholic. It seems so many cultural and media edifices characterize and cartoonify the disease, making a maudlin spectacle of what I’ve come to think of as a beautiful, complex spiritual illness. Funny thing – I enjoyed films about alcoholics long before I ever got sober, and I still enjoy them today. The Long Weekend, “Prime Suspect”, Magnolia. I know what it’s like to hit “bottom” and I love when I see this articulated in film or a song. It is a beautiful, amazing, heartrending, wonderful thing. I treasure this memory as it was necessary for me to have what I have today.

a tightrope or a feather bed: recovering from addiction

As promised, as part of my writer’s hustle to support a family scholarship, here is another article in a series. 


We run carelessly to the precipice, after we have put something before us to prevent us seeing it. – Blaise Pascal

This piece is dedicated to a friend who marks one year clean and sober, today. – Ed


It might be a minute before I tire of talking about addiction, and recovery from addiction. Many consider the matter as being either Not Personally Relevant (to their lives), or, in another version of the same, intensely compartmentalized (you know, my cousin has a problem, but No One Else in my life and certainly not Me!). There is a widespread misconception that addiction involves substance abuse, and that process addictions are not real. There is also a great deal of stigma and ignorance imbued in the subject. Rehab television, fictionalized and maudlin plotlines in film and books, and celebrity-stalking internet edifices have reduced addiction, Recovery, and treatment to a cynical joke. Still others think it an unseemly landscape – a graphic, bloody, war-torn one populated with skid-row drunks, avid-eyed pillheads, nodding-off junkies, and jittery tweakers staggering about – a world one should not talk about at all. One of modern-day society’s leper colonies.

It is a good thing most people are thinking, compassionate creatures who know a little better, even if they don’t understand a great deal about the subject.

Addiction is everywhere, hidden in plain sight and amongst all walks of people – which is why those movies and those Othering depictions of addicts and alcoholics are so inaccurate. More incredible still, those in affliction are often those most deeply invested in denial – and denial is not a willful act. If that sentence doesn’t scare you the way it scares me, you should drop me a line and tell me how it is you comprehend and move through the Universe.

Since I got sober, I’ve often wondered: how on earth can I possibly reach even one soul who might be suffering right now, deep in their own muffled Self – consumed with hatred, self-obsession, non-forgiveness, obsession and compulsion – while putting out that brave face to the world, while her own suffering is all but completely hidden from her or blamed on other people, life’s circumstances? I cringe when I think of writing openly about addiction, to have the individual who needs to hear this glazing over my words thinking, Not Me (even though deep deep in his gut he knows – there is that little bit of awareness: Yes, Me), then going on to more years of a type of walking death and unconsciousness that addiction always, fast or slow, spirals into. Everything Is Fine, I Don’t Have A Problem – this is what kills so many people and causes so much suffering – not the drugs and alcohol themselves.

I have been clean and sober almost two years now, and I am only starting to settle down over this matter of the still-practicing addict – especially the fellow I think about most, the one ramping up into the life, for whom drugs, alcohol, and process addictions are still working. I know a little bit about how many years of Hell he is stepping happily into. It is hard for me not to panic. But these individuals remind me that things happen on a timeline not my own, and not mine to dictate or control. These individuals instruct me in the disciplines of compassion and humility.


This morning, while I moved through my home doing housework and while my children slept, I gave myself a break for still finding so much rich experience to pore over in addiction and recovery. After all, it is a very phenomenal process I am going through. As I recover, my brain and body continue to change. I have experienced in this period of sobriety more peace, serenity, humor, and expansiveness than I previously would have thought was possible for an individual to experience.

Recovery can feel so personal, and I do have a faith tradition I practice which has helped me a great deal. I often think, “No one wants to hear about that!” I realized today though, that many probably don’t consider this a spiritual issue at all, and I could consider speaking to people in non-spiritual terms. The doctor who first suggested I get help, for instance, considers abstinence from narcotics coupled with a peer-supported treatment plan, to be literally re-training the brain. I don’t know if he also believes there is something spiritual going on in active addiction and in recovery (as I do), or if he is a science-only man. In any case; progress (or deterioration) regarding substance abuse or process addiction can be measured scientifically, if only in part. I remember as I write this that my pulse used to be thirty points higher – that’s thirty – when I was drinking, than it is, consistently, today. The incredible thing is, I was not consciously aware of the strain – body, mind, heart and soul – this illness was subjecting me to.

Many people in active addiction are aware they are addicts, and have some knowledge of what addiction is doing to them. Sometimes they have severe complications and life circumstances. And yet they continue. They aren’t immoral, uncaring, and they certainly don’t lack intelligence. Given this, why aren’t more people interested in this field?

If there was anything I’d like to leave my readers with today, it is this: the individual who has realized she has a problem, and who is considering a life of recovery, sobriety, and complete abstinence from mind-altering substances and compulsive process is facing a fear so grave I believe you must yourself face it, to understand. It is the fear of annihilation; the fear of an entirely joyless life. She stands at a great, yawning abyss, and a tightrope stretches out before her, swaying in a chill wind. There is no net. There is no assurance of anything on the other side, Heaven or Hell. Perhaps there are people shouting behind her in a great clamor and perhaps those voices have been distracting, but at a certain point the crowd doesn’t matter; nor do the muffled voices of those on the other side calling out, It’s worth it, you’ll live, it’s amazing, trust us! We crossed over, you can do it too! She is alone with the God or godlessness of her own making, and that doesn’t have anything to do with your conception of God. They are in a quiet congress you will never be entirely privy to no matter should she try to relay it or write it all out or speak volumes of prose later. Should she step out on the tightrope today, it will leave an indelible mark on her. This moment of terror will become a most treasured memory. This is why so many recovering addicts often honor their first day sober, whether they call it a birthday or anniversary or something else. It was the day they met their Maker, and that is exactly as scary as it sounds.

If you are looking at someone who is committed to Recovery, you are looking at someone who has put their head in the jaws of a tiger and still remembers its hot breath and the feel of a fang against the cheek.

So: yeah, it might be a minute before I tire of talking about addiction and recovery from addiction. And for a little while there I was thinking perhaps my fervor and excitement might be a getting tiresome. But then I realized: that’s what I sometimes worry other people might think. Is their (imagined) judgment and opinion deserving of much weight and reflection, on this subject?

Nah, not really.

me, april 1 2013

what you could stand to learn about addiction

As promised, as part of my writer’s hustle to support a family scholarship, here is another article in a series. 


First, a bit about who I am, and a bit about who I am not. I am a sober alcoholic, clean and sober two years this coming May if I don’t fuck it up. I have a good life today. I come from a large family who drank and drugged throughout my childhood, and I share my writings about this, and about my life today, trusting it will help you to read a bit – and hoping my personal and public information won’t be used for exploitive or hurtful purposes. One of my passions is working with and helping other alcoholics and addicts, as well as their families and friends, and to that end I pen this piece.

I am not a therapist, doctor, social expert, or chemical dependency counselor. I am merely an addict who works daily in the field with many other addicts. I don’t earn money or a professional reputation, and I’m not trying to sell you anything. So: there. Those are my qualifications, or lack thereof.

As I see it today, here are some things I wish more people knew about addiction.

Everyone has an addiction – or several. YOU are addicted.

One of the most interesting things about substance abuse is how quickly people want to be on one side of the fence with this. “We” aren’t as bad as “They” are.  “Poor so-and-so, her father was a such-and-such.” “I like a drink – but I’m not an alcoholic.” Even the most honest of those who admit they might indulge a little too much are very loathe to have their behaviors pathologized or even remotely subject to criticism (as the refrigerator magnet says, “I’m not an alcoholic, I’m a drunk. Alcoholics go to meetings. Drunks go to parties.”)

Addiction is not relegated to narcotics we might put into our body. Gambling, eating disorders, codependency, rage, self-harm are all examples of process addictions and behavioral illnesses that can be as deadly as a heroin habit (and not just to the individual with the behaviors; I have a close friend who ran over someone while driving and in the throes of food-binging). When you become willing to see similarities instead of differences, and when you become curious about your own addictions (rather than frightened of or ashamed of them or actively resisting the label No Matter The Evidence), you are beginning a wonderful journey of self-discovery and healing. So very many people never get to this place at all!

Finally: addiction is a continuum. The things we do compulsively and obsessively rarely start off with a bang, but instead creep up on us, progressing quickly or very slowly. They are as personal as a snowflake and to my mind, as beautiful too! Recognizing our compulsions and obsessions with great kindness and curiosity is a wonderful way to ensure they do not metastasize into something incredibly harmful.

Another person’s addiction has nothing to do with you.

When we think “addiction” we usually think of another person, or persons. At this moment I invite you to realize you will never, ever, wrest control of another person’s addiction and their pathway to healing, if they ever find one. Addiction is one of the most personal experiences I can attempt to describe; it is as personal as sex, as parenthood, as childhood, as our deeply-held moral or spiritual convictions – and it encompasses all those things, as well. When you meet someone in addiction who tells you they are in addiction, recognize they are handing you a gift, almost as if they offered to let you paint them in the nude. You can be confused, terrified, or repulsed – but remember, it is not all about you and if you act like it is, you are missing a tremendous opportunity.

Your addiction has everything to do with you.

No one can diagnose you an addict in any meaningful, lasting way; even if they did, you could continue to resist this as much as you like. I have seen people resist the awareness and admission of addiction to the most astonishing lengths; conversely, I have seen those who’ve only felt “the first nip of the wringer” demonstrate profound awareness of their addiction. Addiction is personal; you are an addict when, and only when, you say it and know it for yourself. As the phrase goes, when you “fully concede to [y]our innermost [self]” (and I’m going to add, when you admit it to another human being). In my story so far, one such moment of concession was both the worst in my life, and my most sublime.

This profound necessity of self-diagnosis is, to reiterate, true of other people, even those you might lie awake wishing they would only wake up and see. They will see when they are ready. The question is, are you ready to see what you need to see?

If you’re not getting help, you can’t be much help.

There are plenty of resources for discovering the nature of one’s own addictions and taking that first step in learning to care for them; there are plenty of resources for learning how we can help the addicted in our lives. To name a few: yoga, a variety of forms of spirituality or religion, meditation, counseling, reading, behavioral therapy, and avocational peer-work. Personally, I caution against relying wholeheartedly on anything that involves you paying a professional. I also believe altruistic peer-work to be the most effective strategy (although I have utilized all others listed here). With regards to substance abuse, or imbedded troubling familial patterns, 12 Step groups and Al-Anon (which is a 12-Step group for the families and friends of the addicted) are often regarded as one of the most effective and widely available peer resources to help – not to mention, participation is free. My husband and I are both members of Al-Anon which thrives even in our relatively small community.

Remember, it is more difficult to ask for help if you are invested in the self-soothing act of arrogance.


Here are a few practical tips if you’re having trouble with the whole Existential, “we are all addicted” stuff. This is kind of the section of, “please don’t make life Shit for other people unnecessarily, while you’re bumbling about with the rest of us trying to find the way”:

Stop stigmatizing.

Please, stop calling people tweakers, junkies, crack-whores, drunks, whatever – even in jest. How individuals refer to themselves is their own business – not yours (although if you’re curious feel free, if the relationship is appropriate to do so, to ask why they use the terminology they do). Even in cases where you do not have a pet name for someone suffering an addiction – perhaps someone with an eating disorder or who compulsively works out, or who has a gambling addiction – please hold this person very gently in your mind and heart and quit setting them aside as an Other. The moment you start pretending their suffering is elementally different than yours or their plight is one they “deserve”, is the moment you lose Consciousness and you cannot help them or yourself.

Addiction is an illness; it is a disease. If you would not call someone with a physical disability a “cripple”, then stop saying “dusthead”, or “tweaker” or whatever. If you keep using these terms myself and others will likely identify you as ignorant, lacking compassion, and part of the cultural problem that helps facilitate addiction at the unprecedented levels we see today.

Stop trying to “get it”.

I work every day with many addicts and it seems the more I do this work, the less I know. Addiction is one of the most fascinating, cunning, baffling, and simply amazing phenomena I’ve seen. In addiction – mine and those I work with – I have experienced the most genuine Buddha-belly laughs, the most heartwrenching tears, the most terrifying rages, the most sublime highs (while actually high, or while clean and sober!), and the deepest quietudes.

I’ve long enjoyed the term “spiritual malady”, as it puts its finger on the Unknowable that medical science still – still – has not been able to define, let alone cure; this phrase sums up the endemic nature of the illness. If you don’t understand addiction – your own, or anyone else’s – that’s okay. That means you might be able to do something intelligent from here on out.

Stop being a buffoon.

Since becoming clean and sober I have been treated with almost universal kindness and consideration by my friends and family – those who are clean and sober, and those who are not. However, there are a notable and very small population of people who’ve been most unskillful or even rude. Since I understand the topic of addiction, especially substance abuse, can be a very confusing, embarrassing, or frightening one, I offer some practical advice.

To wit: do not offer someone in Recovery a drug or alcohol, nor offer someone close in their family a drug or alcohol. If they want drugs or alcohol they’ll find it somewhere, trust me. The same logic extends to someone with an eating disorder. Put food out at a gathering like you normally might, but do not harass or cajole your friend into eating or drinking.

If you know someone in Recovery, do not point out their addiction unduly and do not joke about it (sorry! You get to joke about this shit only if you’re in Recovery, and even then, please do commit to sensitivity and tact). Do not gossip about it, and by gossip I mean, use their life’s experiences to get that juicy ZING in a conversation. You know if you’re doing this; I don’t need to describe it to you.

Conversely, don’t make a big show to alter your own social behavior, or whatever, out of fear you will trigger a relapse in the addicted. I am not going to get drunk because you’re drinking; your friend is not going to go on a gambling spree because you bought a scratch ticket. Obviously. Remember: the addicted friend or family member has trusted you with something very special, something very personal and amazing. So if, say, he has told you he has an eating disorder, to make self-effacing comments about your own food habits is the height of unskillfulness.

Educate yourself.

I am convinced some addictions are more stigmatized than others; some are downright tacitly encouraged. It is the process of a lifetime, weeding through information and mis-information, but there are plenty of passionate, humane people out there who are bringing great awareness, sensitivity, and intelligence to the field of addiction and healing. As we educate ourselves we learn more and more that the power of our speech and the import of our actions both have the ability to help heal; conversely, the ability to further harm.

Which path shall we choose?


I will close this piece with a little anecdote. From the beginning of my sobriety I was “out” about being an alcoholic in Recovery, which is a pretty brave thing (I add, however, that many people view these kinds of things as medical and/or private, as is their right). For the most part, my friends and family rallied around me and were incredibly supportive and loving.

A month sober, I was invited to our friends’ house for a barbecue. As we walked across the grass, one of my friends turned and asked if it was okay they served beer at the gathering. Let me tell you, that was a beautiful moment in my life. Not just because of the vulnerable uncertainty and care my friends were showing me in that moment, but because of the intense relief of being able to be Out and honest about my illness. These days, when I’m at social gatherings hardly anyone knows or notices I don’t drink; when offered, the times I’m with people who do not know me, I simply say “No thanks,” and that’s it.

However, I have also excused myself early from social engagements, not because the drugs and/or alcohol distressed me, but because I have spent enough time in the company of maudlin, sentimental, violent, self-pitying, drunk people being asses. Because, you know, sometimes that’s how people who drink and drug act. When I was a child I didn’t have a choice to excuse myself; today, I do. I can always treat myself with the same courtesy as my friends did on the night of that barbecue.

Living in Recovery is one of the most amazing things; it is a true freedom I thank the Universe for on a daily basis. I hope in any way this little piece extends some of that exciting, breathtaking world from my heart to yours.

quick hit: pro-tips from a cranky craftivist

Tattooed and Ready For Action

(just in case you all forgot my main sources of inspiration)

My sewing acumen is brought to my attention profoundly every now and then – like today, as I assisted a woman in making a dress and watched her attempt incredibly counter-intuitive methodologies. I am not a classically-trained professional, but I do have experience, and I have it to offer others. I’m reminded of this body of work (often hard-earned through much trial and error) when I’m helping someone who is new.

Now of course, the “mistakes” my student made weren’t really mistakes, as she was a beginner. Indeed, watching a student for a few minutes is the best way to gauge where they’re at and how to best help them. I’ve had students who took to sewing near-immediately, and ones who couldn’t, despite repetition and several different methods of explanation, easily grasp even rudimentary concepts. When someone sits down at the sewing machine I can always tell if they sewed as a child, or if they’ve sewn at all. I remember a young woman I helped in my dining room; her husband had wound the sewing machine bobbin for her – poorly, and all by hand. Very sweet, and the kind of thing that never would have occurred to me since I’ve “always” known how to correctly wind a bobbin.

My craft – garment sewing, although I get up to all sorts of other stuff too – is not a popular one around these parts. It is very odd but at least where I live there is a simultaneous lust for, and devaluation of, the artisan craft – the homemade, homesewn, tailored, and bespoke. I’ve spoken about these issues before, but today I want to write on practicalities. To wit, how to not make an ass of yourself around those who knit, sew, sculpt, build things that are amazing. To wit: if you really admire someone’s work, stop making it about you. To wit:

How To Be Friends With The Super-Crafty*

1. Don’t call them “crafty”. “Talented” works fine. Or “skilled”. Or “impressive”. Stop saying “crafty”.

2. Ask them about their process; but. But, if they don’t seem to want to talk about it, drop it. Most artisans have something they’re really into, or a latest-thing they’re geeking out about. They probably do want to talk about it. This is a great opportunity for you to learn a bit more about what goes into what they do. You’ll learn a bit, and also be poised to help your crafty friend, and your other friend desirous of craft (or instruction), meet up and make a beautiful craft-partnership. Isn’t that peachy?

3. If they do any work for pay, feel free not to comment on their pricing. I earned my first sewing dime, probably fifteen years ago. I’ve tried all sorts of pricing and not-pricing and sliding scale and low-balling and I’m just now coming up with what works for me. You’d be surprised (or maybe not?) how many people try to tell me what I should be doing.

When it comes to an artisan’s prices, just: don’t (that includes gossiping about it behind their back, by the way). Now, if they open this discussion, it’s probably fair game. But ask questions rather than giving advice.  What are their goals? What has their experience been? And here’s an idea. If you really really feel you have some advice? Ask, “Would you like my suggestions?” and then literally pause and wait and see if they do or not. Their body language and mannerisms are going to tell you a lot about whether this field of discussion is helpful or interesting to them.

It is unlikely you have thought about this as much as they have. You also don’t know their resources. I knew a gal who wasn’t particularly technically gifted, but was able to sell her simple items – made of high-quality materials – for a very good price. She had independent source of means, and connections in a few high-circulation publications (whether her connections were through privilege or doing footwork, I have no idea). It is inappropriate to guess at or tell someone how much they should charge because you don’t know what their craft means to them, why they do it, how much support or resources they have, the market they’re aiming to – or if indeed they think of their work like a business at all (many don’t).

4. Don’t ever ever tell them “You could sell those!” There is likely not a single soul out there, who is any good at making something, or even marginally okay at it, who hasn’t had this thought flit across their mind. And it is far more likely, especially if they’ve been an artisan for some time, they’ve imagined ways they could sell, or sell better, or earn more, or reach more people. Et cetera. “You could sell those” can be replaced by a lot more interesting conversation. And for all you know, they are profoundly uninterested in selling, and likely have valid and interesting reasons why they’re not.

In short:

Please. Please. Please quit commoditizing their craft. Please quit telling them to charge less, or charge more, or market this way, or make this, or make that. Just: stop.

You know what? This might be a time in your life you get to walk away not having told someone what they should do with their beloved work. This is actually a good exercise for all sorts of situations, maybe I’ll write an article on that at some point.

5. Ask for favors and freebies. Why not? This is not going to be a popular suggestion with some people. But I say, it’s on the craftivist to say, “I’m flattered, but no thanks.” I have sewn and helped others for free (or the cost of materials), and through both missteps and slam-dunks I’ve learned what I can comfortably say No or Yes to. Coming to mind, the time I made a jacket and offered it up to help a friend’s blog – as a give-away. You know, I never heard word one from the person who got the jacket gratis – gift-wrapped and all – but I did enjoy making that jacket, and I also enjoyed learning: fuck giveaways. For me, personally.

6. Give feedback. This is going to vary from artisan to artisan, but I absolutely want to know how fabrics and garments held up under performance conditions. Often people buy my pieces and never tell me if they were happy or not. I haven’t had to issue any refunds (and I offer a 100% refund policy), so either people are happy, or too reticent to be honest.

7. Don’t tell people what to make. This happens to me often. People tell me to sew clothes, if I comment on ill-fitting ones. People tell me to sew curtains, if they see I don’t have any yet (I hate sewing curtains! And it is cheaper to buy them than sew them!). A better bet: ask someone. “Do you sew clothes for yourself?” “Do you sew home dec stuff?” (or for different crafts: “How many different cheeses do you make?”, “Would you ever make an ashtray?”, et cetera). Again, a better conversation for everyone.

8. Ask for help. Do you want to learn how to do something? Look online first (after all, we often make tutorials and we usually answer emails!), but then, if you can’t find it or if you’re lost or need details or even hands-on assistance: ask! I’m not too grumpy to love teaching. I spent a handful of hours today helping not one, but two women. It’s not only an opportunity to learn skills, it can be an opportunity for the artisan to let their imagination fly. And, curmudgeon-y tone I am writing with aside, I obviously like to help people.

9. Want a requisitioned piece? Do your homework. Most artisans have a body of work. Investigate and figure out if you like their style. If you don’t, look elsewhere. Avoid unnecessary dissatisfaction.

10. Don’t compliment gifts if you don’t mean it. When I’m making a gift, I really do try to make the “perfect” gift for the intended recipient. But in general, I do not need someone to like my pieces or my style. I like my work, and that’s enough for me.

So this whole, you-don’t-like-my-stuff thing doesn’t have to be awkward. If I or some other craftivist gives you a gift you don’t care for, you can say “Thank you,” and leave it at that.

11. Tell your friends. If the crafter makes pieces for sale or barter, tell your friends who seem like they might like the artisan’s stuff.

12. If you’re able & willing, send them money, buy them yardage, give them supplies. I have had so many friends pick up something at the thrift store, or out their closet, and give these items to me as a gift or loan. Sometimes the materials aren’t to my taste, or something I can use. But very often I can use these things, and I’ve had wonderful projects come alive from these gifts! One woman mailed me a quilting ruler stand. One woman gave me an old sewing machine – that I love dearly and use regularly! I’ve sewn with yards and yards of gifted fabric – and the items I haven’t used, I’ve assiduously donated to the appropriate artisans/shops. Cash donations are wonderful and have helped me make wonderful clothes for my children (that then get passed to other children). Think of it this way: most artisans are creative and want to splash out goodness to the world. Give them something to work with!


Tomorrow: pro-tips TO the cranky craftivists.

handsewing & bitchy

Handsewing & bitchy

* YMMV of course; just a list of my preferences and many others’ I’ve spoken with.

putting children in their place

Unschooling Beach
Unschooling Beach
Unschooling Beach

My children Phoenix & Nels – having a typical “school day”

“I have used the words “home schooling” to describe the process by which children grow and learn in the world without going, or going very much, to schools, because those words are familiar and quickly understood. But in one very important sense they are misleading. What is most important and valuable about the home as a base for children’s growth in the world is not that it is a better school than the schools but that it isn’t a school at all. ” – John Holt, Teach Your Own

It’s that time of year again. At a meeting recently a few acquaintances of mine caught up and compared notes as to how much their schedule is uprooted when their children are out on summer vacation, and how the new school year restores order. I (innocently enough, I swear!) shared aloud, “Our lives don’t change that much, because our kids don’t go to school.”

Immediately: one of those awkward record-scratch-at-a-party moments. The atmosphere in the room abruptly shifted and the talk suddenly fell silent. Then one woman sternly corrected me, literally giving me side-eye as she admonished: “Your kids go to school. They just do school at home.” Everything in her demeanor and tone was one of chastisement, likely (I know today) originating from fear. Quick, immediately assure me of The Order of Things so we can go back to pleasantly talking again. Or something like that.

This would be kind of funny, except it happens to me almost without fail now that I no longer let people off the hook by offering them their own perceptions – that is, by using the word “homeschooling”. The cumulative effect of so many acquaintances and strangers repeatedly correcting me about our family life is surreal. That is, people are more or less constantly telling me we’re living our lives in a way we are decidedly not.

When we first removed our children from forced institutionalism, I was nervous – as anyone might be – about departing from the mainstream. Like most parents and guardians, I wanted to do the right thing for our family. I personally had been a “success” in public school and then at a state university – yet now in untrodden ground I allowed others to put me in the extraordinary position of homeschool apologetics (a position I am underqualified for). And for a number of years when casual conversation brought up home education, or unschooling, or life learning, I thought the adults we were talking to had honest and founded doubts about how children learn. That is, I thought these adults’ objections, questions, assumptions, biases, and cynical commentary stemmed from their honest desire that children be given the best educational opportunity possible (“The Conversation That Never Happens”Life Learning Magazine July/August 2010).

However as years have passed and I’ve had hundreds of these conversations, I have come to a much more unsettling conclusion. Simply put, many adults believe with every fiber of their being that children belong in school. Full stop. Whether school is that great a place or not is not really the main issue on the table. Most adults simply don’t have better ideas for kids. It’s not that they don’t care. It’s that they’re overwhelmed. It is precisely because it is so daunting to face our responsibilities of caring for vulnerable citizens – draining emotionally, mentally, and physically – that many adults don’t want the job (be it children, older, frail or sick people, or anyone marginalized or oppressed). When it comes to the child class, we find comfort in our cultural arrangement that children are second-class citizens for us to herd like cattle (although few grownups will want to own up to this bleak strategy in such a direct manner). If you threaten the correctness of this arrangement – by say, merely living as a radical unschooler and not closeting – many people become quite upset. True story.

If they’re honest with themselves, many adults simply equate compulsory schooling as a type of cultural hazing, a necessary evil, and in a weird way justified simply because it exists. School isn’t too great, or sensible, or effective – and every one I’ve met can elucidate on long lists of the ways they personally found it dissatisfying – but it’s just How Things Are. They had to go through it, so today’s kids should too. As an operating strategy, many adults don’t want children to have much better than what they themselves had (but again, good luck getting a grownup to admit this!).

This makes it sound like I think these people, or even most people, are terrible. I used to think that, kinda, but I was incorrect. I now believe these people are merely frightened and overwhelmed. I used to be one of those people, so I can relate.

Most adults believe we should do the best by children that we can reasonable manage. However this desire – be it altruism, spiritual principles, or evolutionary strategy – has been consumed to skeletal remains by a lifetime of cultural indoctrination and in many cases, deep-seated shame and resentment. Rare indeed is the adult who, upon listening to our family’s experiences (or those of other life learners) and after observing our children – thriving, vibrant human beings who regularly get praised and commented upon regarding their maturity, intelligence, and inner strength – suddenly says, “Well then kids don’t need to go to school at all!” It happens now and then, and at that point our conversation immediately gets about four thousand times more interesting than, “But what about math?” – or, when speaking to my children – “How old are you?” and “What grade are you in?” (and those latter questions reflect the typical patter of grownups who actually think kids are worth talking to – many don’t!)

I wish these conversations, the ones where we imagine better opportunities for children, happened more often.

But instead, I am met with the same objections day after day, and the days pile into years, until now there is a general sameness to people’s objections and self-labeled “skepticism” (read: cynicism – also, some commentary at “Unschooling for Haters […]”). As this adult begins to tell me why we can’t let kids A, B, or C because X, Y, or Z would surely result, they are on a predictable quest within their own deep country – that of their ingrained social conditioning and heretofore unexamined biases. While they voice aloud their predictions on how unschooling won’t or can’t work, their mind simultaneously closes to what is before their very eyes: a family with many years’ experience unschooling, two children who’ve not been forced into institutionalism – and who can speak up for themselves – and our collective experience knowing many, many other unschoolers.

It’s been pointed out to me that in moving from childhood to adulthood we experience one of the only, if not the only, instances where we are nearly guaranteed to move from a position of oppression to a position of privilege. The truth of this is worth contemplating. Unless we are very careful and very wise and very dedicated, we reify what was so heavily imposed on our own little bodies and our own terrific minds. A sobering thought: I can tell you I have worked very hard over the past decade to actively strip adultist framings from my consciousness. And yet to this day if I’m feeling cranky I will command my child(ren) in a completely terse tone, expecting in some part of me their obedience, apparently believing in these moments that such demands are my right and responsibility. (Tangentially, my children know they can say, “No” without reprisal – most children cannot.)

If I have worked harder on this UNlearning, harder than anything else in my life, and yet the irresistible oppressive reflex still remains indelible within – where does that leave your average adult who has examined the implications of childhood oppression only a little – or not at all?

“We who believe that children want to learn about the world, are good at it, and can be trusted to do it with very little adult coercion or interference, are probably no more than one percent of the population, if that. And we are not likely to become the majority in my lifetime. This doesn’t trouble me much anymore, as long as this minority keeps on growing. My work is to help it grow. ” – John Holt, ibid

I have to leave behind my sorrow that so many cannot, or will not see things for how they are, built upon pessimism and fear; let alone try the work of living a different way. It’s not so much hard work as it requires, like all honest effort, a continued return to the work. Faithfully. Daily. Each day I return to my desire to do no harm. I return to my practice of allowing my fears to inform me instead of driving me recklessly. I return to knowing I have a responsibility to help my children – not an edict to [try to] control them. Days of that effort accumulate; over time I have a body of work and a new way of living. It’s not magic – but then, having a few years under my belt – it kind of feels like it is.

I see today that from the moment my children were born I was not willing to subject them to what I was subjected to. Out of that willingness grew action, and out of that action grew not only love and stewardship as I’d not experienced as a child, but another gift: forgiveness for those who raised me in the ways they did. I am truly grateful for the practice, as it keeps me from despairing when our deep commitment to humane family life is often labeled “fringe”, radical, and strange.

quick hit: I write elsewhere too!

Elizabeth from My Milk Spilt was kind enough to publish me at her site; my piece “Missing the Mark” went live today. If nothing else, Michelle Allison’s linked-to piece is a go-to for some sense and sensibility regarding the USian (and AUian, at very least) “War on obesity”, etc.

Meanwhile, here’s a picture of a BLT with homemade bread and lovely summer tomatoes.


part 2 (.Tenderness.)

Nels, Pensive

Few insights gained in the last twenty years are so securely established as the realization that what we do to children when they are small – good things and bad things – will later form part of their behavioral repertoire. Battered children will batter others, punished children will act punitively, children lied to will become liars themselves, protected children will learn to be protective, and respected children will learn to respect others weaker than themselves.

– from Isa Helfield’s paper “Poisonous Pedagogy”, International Conference on Women and Literacy, January, 20011


About three weeks ago I wrote about the limitations of the Good Parent model – the Good Parentâ„¢ who raises the Good Childâ„¢ – and the suffering these concepts necessarily inflict (briefly, on everyone – but especially women, children, babies, families with disabilities, those living in poverty, and any marginalized group or minority).2

I’ve thought a lot about how I needed to see the subject through. I want to edify, instruct, and help – not merely deconstruct and analyze – so a follow-up seemed necessary. The task is not simple. See, I’ve been elaborating on better models for parenting and better village practices, from the general to the specific, for some time now. I can say with authority the ideas I express, now matter how clearly and circumspectly and appropriately I put them forth, upset a lot of people. Our culture is so built on the necessity of child-as-second-class there is an immediate and vitriolic response to those of us who challenge these edifices. I’m reminded of a quotation I recently read by Dresden James, British novelist and scriptwriter: “A truth’s initial commotion is directly proportional to how deeply the lie was believed.” This, in short, is why people get so angry if you identify “spanking” as merely a special word for the practice of hitting children. This is why if one writes about the abstention of domination in parenting strategy, people trot out very old, unimaginative, and tired-out examples of “What if a child tries to run into the street?” and “Why don’t parents control their children in restaurants?” This is why so many try to frame any discussion of best practices for children as a cultural war between parent vs. non-parent, even though it is absolutely not (many parents enforce unhelpful and authoritarian – and failing – models of child-stewardship while many without children have some of the best and most creative ideas for a better society), which inevitably creates a rather terrifying and depressing cultural concept of “every man for himself” – an ethos singularly toxic and horrifying to thrust on our young ones as we wholly do.

I’m tired of some of  these rather predictable conversations, and I’m disappointed in individuals and groups that should be doing better. This site was started as a social justice project within the blogosphere, but the current grassroots activist field therein has been an utter disappointment – and that’s an understatement – in discussing the rights of children and our responsibilities toward and treatment of the child class. Children are not “choices” (as so many other normally-astute activists frame them) but are a part of all of us; furthermore our commitment to bettering the world means recognizing they are our most vulnerable, most exploited, and suffering populations, across all racial and socioeconomic groupings, faith models and belief systems, class strata, and community models. I’ve discovered many social activists if not most are not willing or able to commit to a greater intersectionality in their efforts (probably because they don’t want to examine their own adult privilege).

So today I’m going to speak to a rather small group, I think. Those who already know we’re failing – who already see the “boiled frog”3, the troubling results of our practices invested on children. I’m speaking to those who know we need to do better but aren’t sure exactly how. I’m speaking, mostly, to parents/carers who feel haunted and amiss – and to compassionate and intelligent adults who care about our future. I’m speaking to those who want to parent their hopes, not their fears, and the non-parents who are ready and willing to be a part of this.

I’m going to talk about Tenderness.

We don’t much value tenderness in our world. It’s one of those optional and circumstantial things, an occasional indulgence rather than a commitment to a way of life. We think of tenderness as a feeling, not a practice – something akin to the experience of affection. But tenderness is an exercise, a way of life, and functioning in our larger communities I might call it a discipline. It only improves with practice and wisdom.

When it comes to children many like to talk about the Real World (whilst they work at creating or supporting singularly artificial institutional environs for said children, like compulsory schooling). And of those who invoke the looming spectre of this Real World, many are ready with talons out to dash apart an enthusiastic practice or promotion of tenderness. You see, in their worldview “soft” or “permissive” parenting will result in a Failure in the Real World (or Spoiled Children). Usually those quick to criticize don’t even bother reading, with any critical or considered analysis, the most humane and deeply rugged practices put forth by stellar authors, thinkers, and spiritual teachers. Critics of more humane treatment of children create strawmen (sometimes straw-hippies, ha!) as fast as they can to tear them down. Their words are filled with deep-seated cynicism, pain, anger, and fear.

Of course, in the longest view, how we raise our children – and we are all raising the children around us, whether we admit it or not – is instrumental in creating the Real World. We have been doing a fairly poor job, as shown by our failing educational system, the endemicity of youth anxiety disorders, eating disorders, depression and suicide (the recent bullycides4 have called attention to some of these very serious problems) – and just the garden-variety symptoms of misery I see in so many children today: duplicity, unhappiness, suppressed authenticity, and fear.

Besides, even if we were to pretend this rather dismal “hard guy” view of You Need To Learn To Cope in the Real World wasn’t a perpetuating cycle of dominator culture5, poisonous pedagogy6, and a rationalization of sadism7, “tough love” parenting strictures actually countermand healthy functioning and growth in children – in other words, we end up seeing more aggressive, angry, fear-based behaviors and children who learn very quickly to behave differently depending on who’s watching or Who’s In Charge (as opposed to growing their intrinsic moral center)8. We are, in short, growing Bullies and those who will be hurt by them – not compassionate citizens and heroes.

Most parents/carers/adults want children to survive. Whatever my differences from USian mainstream parenting practices, we have this in common. It’s my view and experience that treating children with tenderness and protecting them while they are under our care prepares them supremely for the nasty aspects of this Real World (that is, if you believe Nature didn’t screw up when she built us, the most successful ape on the planet) and in fact positions them best to be the change we need in this world.

Many parents, carers, teachers, and adults without children intuit the need for better models for child-caring than our recent history affords; there are swelling movements, sometimes fragmented, to reclaim humane parenting and save not only our children but ourselves. You can see this burgeoning awareness in communities that align themselves with principles of Consensual Living, Non-Violent Communication, Natural or Authentic Parenting, Attachment Parenting, Attraction Parenting, Radical Unschooling, Life Learning, and Autodidacticism, etc. Still, even well-intentioned adults have a hard time releasing models of coercion and control with regard to children: hence you see discussions of “positive discipline” and “gentle discipline” (in other words, for example, a rejection of hitting alongside laboriously-crafted defenses of “time-outs”). These concepts of “gentle” discipline make no sense or at least are only cosmetically or by-degree different from those who use more loaded or violent words, strategies, and physical responses. Discipline is discipline and there’s nothing gentle or positive about it; that is, an authority big and strong and (to most children) scary who will Have Their Way whether they sugar-coat it with words like “bummer” or enforce by a systemic removal  of “privileges” and loved possessions or time spent doing the things they want to. “Discipline” has nothing to do with safety – keeping our children safe and occasionally keeping others safe from our children – but it is an almost universally-accepted lie that it does.

Authoritarian and authoritative parenting (more hair-splitting of dominator culture) are exhausting battlefields we lay out. The skirmishes are grim or heated and brief moments of triumph are soon eclipsed in bouts of fear and shame and anger and confusion. Eventually our children move across town or the country or the world. Walls are set up. Parents are left lonely and uncertain and brittle. Children are left wounded and have cut themselves off from their parents; children, now grown, carry childhood injuries. They have lost even the desire to repair the lost connection with their parents.

Authoritative/authoritarian parenting propagates suffering.

But tenderness is life-changing.

From here on in this piece I’m going to refer to parenting, but really the concepts can be applied to any adult in relationship with a child.

What is tenderness? Tenderness is a spiritual practice: for those few individuals who do not believe we have souls, I suppose one could call it a logical one as well as it generally serves our health and herd relationships. It’s hard to articulate the practice of tenderness in a thorough, quantified way here in a short article; spiritual and humanist teachers have written entire tomes on similar concepts. I identify with concepts learned through studies of Christian and Buddhist works so my practice and concepts around tenderness are thus informed.

Briefly and significantly with regards to caring for other human beings, in the pursuit of the practice of tenderness I first must acknowledge my own suffering. I must – at least temporarily – abandon my scripts of blame and rehearsed anger and recrimination (note I am not offering a judgment on the validity or invalidity of such scripts) and instead simply see my suffering for a moment, with clarity, feel the shape of it – observe it and see it is not Me (“I” am who is doing the observing). This is the beginning.

Now for many if not most of us, our suffering is often such we cannot simply wish it away or banish it. Yet our suffering is at root of why we cling to worldviews and behaviors that are dysfunctional – and harm others. This is deeply relevant to the practice of parenting as the relative helplessness (enforced legally and socially in almost every way) of our world’s children puts us in power positions; we inflict deep damage. This is both an awesome and a scary responsibility, and one reason many are fearful at the thought of having children or even disgusted by the idea (such individuals also often want to believe they can just “opt out”, that they aren’t in fact participating in the larger village of child-rearing by their silent support of the status quo). On the other hand, this mission can be incredibly transformative; it is why, for some, having the care of another human being, a dependent – often their own child, but not always – can be the catalyst to a spiritual awakening unlike any they’ve yet experienced.

When we have the presence and space from our mind’s rehearsals of suffering and anxieties – that’s when we are best equipped to care for another human being (and not just children, either). That space is the fertile ground for the beginnings of the practice of tenderness.

When we parent from this place we respond to our children’s needs while having a longer view of our job as parents. This is such a tremendous gift, and I wonder how many parents and carers experience it. Instead I believe, most are familiar with the tension-wire feeling we have at all times or that can be activated at any moment (sitting in a restaurant, we haven’t eaten all day, our two year old begins making happy noises, the table over shoots the very familiar toxic glares, our stomach knots, “not again”, our acute awareness of how unwelcome we are here and in the entire public sphere until our children sit still enough and are quiet enough for everyone else). Ugh. I’ve been there. It sucks, and as I’ve said before, ultimately it is our children that pay the price as we lash out, restrict them, suppress them, require Obedience and Submission, hit and shout when “no one’s looking”, work ourselves ragged in the culturally-supported ritual of performing Good Parentâ„¢… and so on.

Yet parenting from a place of tenderness and Presence has the ability to lift these experiences, as incredible as this may sound, to transform them. Parenting with tenderness involves a deep-seated sense of unshakable joy; it involves my awareness it is my child I am with and the world around us in its chaos and coarseness and anger and fear, is just another presence in our day, nothing personal, not a boot to crush me (try as it occasionally might), powerful – is it? Time and time again my smile, which begins deep inside me, in my stomach, and emerges from my Being, I smile at the next table and I smile at my child (and I help my child) and I smile at my hunger (which may go unsated, for now) and I smile (with sadness) at how many adults react with such anger and fear to small children – and my calmness has soothed everyone – myself, my child, sometimes even, but not always, the angry customer at the next table. The trick is, you can’t fake it. But when obtained, it’s real.

Parenting from a place of tenderness keeps me strong for the times my children suffer or make mistakes and the times these events surprise or hurt me – or others. It is not “turning off” my instincts or alacrity or my loyalty to the rest of the human race, it is going deeper within myself where I find an indomitable ground, a strong woman, not her first rodeo, a person I like very much indeed as it turns out. Therefore some of the old fretting worries surface like they always have – Why is he/she doing this?  Have I failed as a parent (mother)? What’s wrong with him/her/me? – but instead of the anxiety, fear, anger, and confusion I’ve typically experienced in the past I often feel calm, alive, aware – even amused. As author Eckhart Tolle relates after a disturbing event at his then-workplace long ago, “There was a brief shifting from thinking to awareness. I was still in the men’s room, but alone now, looking at my face in the mirror. At that moment of detachment from my mind, I laughed out loud. It may have sounded insane, but it was the laughter of sanity, the laughter of the big-bellied Buddha. ‘Life isn’t as serious as my mind makes it out to be.’ That was what the laughter seemed to be saying…”

Parenting with tenderness means trusting the process of growth; it means giving love and support and assistance instead of withholding it or provisionally doling it out in order to coerce children into “better” behavior, like the Operant Conditioning experiments performed on rats (sadly, many, many adults do this by rote to children). It means folding a crying child into your arms and not believing the thought (formed out of fear and narrowness) that their emotional display is “babyish” (over time, this thought coupled with negative judgment will not come at all… and what a beautiful experience for me to have left it behind!). It means over time seeing your child and their suffering with deep compassion and intelligence and depths and calm, not identifying with the phrases “throwing a fit” or “having a tantrum” (imagine my surprise and delight when this awareness began to evidence itself in my experience with other grownups!), nor identifying with the fear that would have you rush to “fix” their pain. Parenting this way, or beginning to anyway, has resulted in more peace and happiness in my home – and “better behaved” children – than I would have thought possible.

Parenting with tenderness means not looking over our kids’ shoulders for the accolades of others (or the label of Good Parent) as we hustle them to the Accomplishment – reading, writing, riding a bike, “please and thank yous”, multiplication tables, straight As, Miss Congeniality – but being with them as they set their own goals and helping them in every way we can and watching with amazement what they can do (not watching what we can make them do).

Children have or develop, when nurtured and not exposed repeatedly to the trammels of adult privilege – or exposed as little as possible anyway, innate reserves of intuition, wisdom, compassion, righteous outrage, brilliant humor, fair-mindedness, and a capacity for forgiveness and love that rivals any bodhisattva. Tenderness and responsive, considered stewardship of our children will not only raise wonderfully-adapted and “well-behaved” children (promise!) but will also promote our own healing. Tenderness and nurture assist our children (because much as a doctor does not heal our body, rather our body does the work – children grow themselves) more than any artificially-prescribed “boot camps” parents/adults convince themselves are necessary9. To paraphrase author Naomi Aldort (and I wish I had her exact words here) – adversity is good for children, but not when organized by those whose job is to nurture and protect the child. I have seen this bourne out in our own family life countless times – countless.

Tenderness is meeting a child at their expressed need; tenderness is rejecting our arrogance when we attempt to direct what our children need, or what they need to be rescued from (the oft-maligned “helicopter parenting”), rather developing the extraordinary presence and observation and longer, more spiritually-centered awareness so many children find incredibly nurturing (my own father had this gift, despite much idiosyncratic coarseness). When we are in tune with our children, they will ask us with clarity (or we will be able to see with clarity) when they need our help. To my surprise, it’s been less often than I’d have imagined.

Tenderness is the only thing that has given me a compassionate awareness of my previous mistakes; after all, I could have heard all the well-reasoned and logical arguments in the world for more humane parenting but my mind could have dismissed them (as inconvenient or only for the “privileged few” or as naive or simplistic) – had I not been open and seen the suffering I was inflicting on these beloved children. Tenderness is the part of me that has, over the years, acknowledged the personhood of my child at the soul-level (or whatever you’d call it) – not merely a foil for my own ego and Expert status10.  Acknowledging my mistakes – instead of clinging to my dung pile11  – I have gained humility and wisdom (and hope to gain more). Our children will experience our improvements as healing, if they are not too far hardened to us. And on that account, it’s never too late to attempt to restore harmony between us.

And here, I would like to say a few more things about my own family.

The other day I heard my son Nels set up a cry and he came into the living room. His face was flushed and his eyes were full of hurt. His sister had bit him. Their skirmishes are increasingly rare; thus for one to proceed to such a level was surprising. Even as I opened my arms I knew something was wrong for my daughter, for her to hurt him thusly (not that long ago, before my husband and I began a deeper awareness of gentleness, a fight between my children that escalated to this level would be more commonplace and we’d have Laid Down The Law on them, more shame clouding up her own inner sense of justice and betrayal, obfuscating her integrity in a scary and humilating lecture…).

But now, in this moment, my son buries himself in my open arms. His bite is angry-looking indeed. But in less time than it takes to settle on the couch together he has stopped crying. My mind is calm and I am sad for his pain; I empathize without anxiety. Untainted by the fear and anger his sister’s behavior would have triggered in me only a short time ago, I have an awareness I must talk to her and we must try to discover what is wrong (which I later do). I have another moment of clarity: the wrongs the two commit against one another along with any redress will ultimately have to be navigated within their own relationship (in other words, I will not seek to force insincere apologies). My son soon hops down, his body language and spirit calm, fully recovered. He kisses me, his face tear-streaked and warm, he tells me he loves me.

Tenderness is making the time, later, to speak to my daughter Phoenix. She and I are sitting in her closet. She is silent and suffering (sadness, not anger), out of the reach of my loving hands, but she is stoic. I ask her if she wants to know what I think. She tells me Yes. I say, “I think you feel bad about yourself as a person.” “Yes,” she whispers. I say, “Part of this, maybe a lot of this, is my fault. I’m sorry.” After a beat I say, “I’d like to help you feel better about yourself. Would you like my help?” “Yes,” she says, again, and then slides into my arms. We sit for quite some time in calmness and I stroke her hair. I am sorry for my mistakes in the past but I am here with her now instead of there. After a while she makes a joke about her father, cooking dinner in the kitchen, his efforts coupled with much noise and clamor. We laugh.

Tenderness is my son in the car last night. “This is my golden apple. It is precious,” he says, as he smells its fragrance and holds it in his hand for along while. Later, he carefully eats it to the core and set it aside on a napkin so as not to mess the car upholstery. Later still, he tells my husband and I he wants to tell us something something. He says, “I know I always change my mind, and I’m sorry for that. But I regret coming on this car trip. I wish I’d stayed home and played.” (He is six years old.)

Tenderness is my daughter, as I type, from the living room: “Mom, can you please help me?” She asks. I come into the living room. She directs me clearly and with confidence (she is setting up a huge, messy living room fort for herself and two friends). “Thank you,” she tells me when I have finished assisting her, and I return to my writing.

Tenderness is a bit later as the house full of kids gets a bit rowdier. My daughter pops her head through the door and asks, “I’m sorry, are we being too loud for your writing?”

Tenderness is in our mistakes; tenderness is me seeing the children have poured too much milk and the half-full bowl sits on the counter and I am troubled as my mind goes to grim realities of grocery monies and I, exasperated, tell them to please try not to waste food. The kids smile and share the rest of the bowl of milk, drinking it up, standing in the kitchen, laughing. I apologize (which is accepted) and I ruffle their warm sleepy hair and I think how much smarter they are than I.

Tenderness is in our mistakes: tenderness is later at night when my husband, at the end of his ability to cope, very tired, snaps at our son and our son cries; our daughter puts his arms around him immediately and comforts him. A few minutes later my husband puts his arms around our (now calm) son and says he’s sorry.

Tenderness is my son sliding into bed with me this morning. I whisper, “Are you okay?” and he says, “Yes,” his entire Being infused with the knowledge of Self, security, and love provided for him. Tenderness is holding him in my arms while he falls back asleep.

Tenderness is the root – the only solution that will save our children, and will help them save others. It can help save us, too.

You are free to join us.

“You don”‘t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” Martin Luther King

  1. You can read the whole piece here.
  2. “Hi. My name is Kelly. I’m a recovering “good parent. (part one)” at underbellie.
  3. “Boiling Frog”, Wikipedia entry
  4. “Bullycide”, Wikipedia entry, with references
  5. “Dominator culture”, Wikipedia entry
  6. Poisonous Pedagogy on Wikipediamore cultural implications
  7. See Study – half of high school students admit to bullying at CNN
  8. See “Spanking Makes Kids More Aggressive: The Research Is Clear” at psychologytoday.com; followed by “Spanking in the U.S.A.: a sad state of affairs and why spanking is never okay” at child-psyche.org and the typical backlash against anyone who speaks out against hitting children, followed by the tired-out “but I turned out fine!” single data-point anecdotal refuting and unwillingness to make the conversation about something larger than Oneself
  9. See Love and Logic, a well-intentioned mess with many levels of Fail, built almost entirely on the (false) principles that parents MAKE children, not that children grow themselves despite our attempts, for good or ill, to help or hinder
  10. “On Seeing Children as ‘Cute'” by John Holt at The Natural Child Project
  11. “The Worm”, an allegory

quick hit: compassion and critical thinking ≠ Big Brother

“History is written by the winners” – non-attributed

Growing up in America we are taught to believe in the Rightness and Goodness of the Meritocracy – that people who have good things and a life of comfort earned it all on their own efforts. Please note, people that have things relatively good tend to trumpet this loudest.  People who have things harder, well, sometimes they have a different perspective. We the privileged often don’t like to hear that perspective.

I believe one’s gut reaction to the “winners” quote above depends on one’s worldview.  Some people might see the quote as purely observational shorthand – that is, recorded historical accounts are told and reified by certain groups while others’ equally valid experiences are suppressed. Some believe the quote to be morally prescriptive in a Darwinian fashion: that is, a “winner” is someone who’s dominated others for their own goals, and – yay, the world is their oyster as it should be (this is sort of the sports analogy interpretation)!

Here’s what I believe: in being a “winner” one is essentially in a position of privilege (no matter how we got there); when I find I am a “winner” I must then look carefully around at how I have prevailed – and who hasn’t, and how to help them if they should want it.  It should go without saying to any who read here that I believe it is my responsibility – given I have relative privilege, good fortune, and personal success – to take steps to care for the “losers”, the down-trodden, those who are being marginalized, eclipsed, abused, oppressed. There are many, many paths of responsibility and stewardship; imagination and exposure continue to illuminate more still.

Some measures are small.  Today in a Yahoo group I made the tangential request those in the discussion pool refrain from using the words “crazy” or “lame”. Here is my clarification post (after I asked and was granted permission to post links):*

My intention wasn’t to police anyone and obviously I don’t have that power anyway (I’m not a mod). I am active in reading blogs authored by people with disabilities and the topic of abelist conversation comes up quite a bit.

For those who are interested, here are a few readings that convinced me to stop using those terms as pejoratives (“adult” language in the links):

“The Transcontinental Disability Choir: What is Ableist Language and Why Should You Care?” at bitchmagazine

“Guest Post from RMJ: Ableist Word Profile: Crazy” from Feminists With Disabilities/FWD

“Why Not to Use the Word Lame: I Think I”‘m Starting to Get It” at Alas! A Blog

I still accidentally say “lame” and “crazy” myself but am working hard to use other effective and less offensive words. Fortunately the English language has many!

This is also a fun read that comes up usually when someone calls out language as being problematic, and the resultant typical objections that often ensue: http://www.derailingfordummies.com/

The moderator immediately accused me of – guess what? Censorship. Yes – the moderator accused me of this. Very rich indeed.

Now of all the toothless arguments people knee-jerk with when their behavior is identified as being aligned with oppressive tactics, cries of “censorship”, accusations of being “the thought police”, and sneers of “PC” probably bother me the most; like an unholy Trinity of Ass they share the same roots of fear and an immediate assumption of bad faith.

I mean really, Censorship? “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” (Here is some 101: “online interaction and free speech” at finally feminism101). “Thought police” is particularly fartsy-bloated with the same tooting self-important drama-horn as the C-word; as if by maintaining a moderated blog or objecting to a word, phrase, or worldview that is offensive or incorrect or bigoted the blog author/objector is suddenly in the POSITION OF ALLTIME INTERNETTY POWER and now has CONTROL OVER ALL TEH BRAINWAYVES / ORWELLIAN TELESCREENS.

PC? Please. I teenaged through Bill Clinton’s Presidential tenancy and the attendant revival of sensitivity/PC language and I can tell you the backlash started so quickly it almost preceded it (which to me is a barometer that people loooooove their bigotries). There hasn’t been a whiff of PC that hasn’t been, like El Niño (this paragraph is very USian 90s), simultaneously and fervently blamed for Everything Bad including Ruining America and also, Now We Can’t Have Jokes.

Back to the Yahoo group response: at current count there have been five responses to my request – very familiar responses to those versed in corners of the social justice online sphere. On the positive side, the original poster who’d used the term “crazy” apologized for using it and said she understood why the word was problematic (classy! and – more later). The remaining four responses have been skeptical and/or hostile and for their brevity have still nailed a surprising number of the squares in Bingo for Derailing – including “You’re being oversensitive”, “You’re being overly-intellectual”, and “Words have power only if you give them power”/the reclamation argument (the “power” sentence is an actual quote from one of today’s Yahoo messages – this person also said, “words hold no inherant ability to hurt”). If the discussion doesn’t die quickly I predict soon I will get, “you’re nitpicking a minor/trivial issue” / “Don’t you have more important things to think about?” But hey, I hope I’m wrong.

The most commonly iterated response was the token/backup trot-out, or what I sometimes think of as the “black friend” defense meant to entirely shut down conversation: “I have a friend / brother / such-and-such in this marginalized group and they don’t find this offensive” etc etc. So therefore: I will not read the articles or listen openly to your points. Therefore: I will ignore the fact that marginalized groups sometimes internalize oppressive and damaging narratives and strategies (reading the above link re: “reclamation” helps explain the so-called “double-standard” on who is “allowed” to use what language). Therefore: I do not care how many other people/scholars/researchers/writers/bloggers have objections and have worked to elucidate others on why they do – my tokenized example puts me above any reproach. This would be a laughable defense if it wasn’t also a very typical response to anti-oppression work and therefore, a bit sobering if not frustrating.

I have no evidence whatsoever a single soul who responded on Yahoo read my provided links, and that’s a shame. I posted them precisely because they were good, well-written, and better formed than anything I could have done. I’ve been exposed many times to the defense of pejorative use of words associated with marginalized groups: “retard”, “gay” (Wanda Sykes – I love it!), “crazy”, “lame”, “pansy”, “spaz”, “moron”, “pussy”,”woman” (yes! This is often used as an insult!), “faggot”, and “idiot” (um, I really could go on and on); objecting to these words and offering up arguments against their casual use is my prerogative and is not done for fun nor whimsy. I further add nor is it my contention those who use these words are Monsters and I am A Thoroughly Enlightened One (please; I only recently got right re: “crazy”; if you search my near decade-long blog you’re sure to see my ass in many minorly humiliating ways). To those who are uncomfortable with being challenged and/or embarrassed, I feel you. I’d offer this tasty tidbit from the Shapely Prose comment policy:

If someone gets pissy at you for using the word “retarded” for instance, that doesn”‘t mean they think you”‘re an evil person who hates developmentally disabled people OR that they”‘re hysterical, overreacting thought police. It means there are people around here who find that word hurtful, and we”‘re a lot more interested in protecting their feelings than your god-given right not to think of a better word.

Believe me; I’ve made my share of comments and been called out; it stings, I know, and I fully expect it to happen again! Being allowed to say anything I want without being challenged is not an inalienable human right; in the glass-half-full analysis of this I would posit that listening openly and self-educating are some of the more breathtaking and beautiful aspects of human responsibilities if we are in the position to do so.

Speaking up is hard. It often isn’t welcome, as any of my dedicated readers will know by now. This isn’t because the world is full of assholes (or at least I refuse to believe this); it’s because many people don’t like having their worldviews challenged; they often respond with a counter-offense (no matter how respectfully, I’ve discovered, one puts forth an objection).

But there are good reasons and positive results from objecting to a harmful status quo; a few touching anecdotes came my way from a father who tweets me today in recognition of these problematic words. “The one that makes me cringe the most is ‘that’s retarded’ and this was before I had a son with a mental disability.” He continues: “Now that I do have a son with autism I hear the ‘R’word and it sounds like it’s coming out of megaphone.”

Yeah. And thank you for sharing. He sends me the link to his blog where he writes about his son; I put it in my feed reader.

And then there’s this: some people truly can pick themselves up, brush themselves off, and thank you for the assistance. The very first comment in response to the FWD ableist word profile linked above is from Sarah, who simply writes, “I”‘ve been guilty of this. How embarrassing! Thank you so much for posting.”

Now that? That gives me hope.

* Incidentally? I would appreciate it if you do not re-tweet, IM, email, or share this article unless you first read through the four links provided in my cited Yahoo message; I typically do not write using linked articles (hence “quick hit”) and these are good ones.

Mentioned/Further Reading:

Meritocracy at en.wikipedia.org

The quote, “History is written by the winners” discussed at the snopes message board.

“Teaspoons 101: I Am Not the Thought Police” at Shakesville.

“Ableist Word Profile: Why I write about ableist language” A great 101 on a way to think about abelist language and the study therein at FWD.

“Being White” by Louis C.K. (trigger warning: rape metaphor)

“Touching Strangers: Making Friends of ‘Others'” at humaneeducation.org, sponsored and authored by Zoe Weil

“What ‘So Ghetto’ Really Means” by Tami Harris at change.org; those who’ve used “ghetto” against white neighborhoods might want to zap to my comment re: growing up in then-largely-white-but-working-class Hoquiam.

Tangentially and finally, because I had nowhere else to post this – someone in rebuttal to my points in the Yahoo discussion offered up this page: “Your guide to living life in the U.S.”. I kind of don’t have words as this does not seem to be a parody.