Vibrant

The most frequent question I get these days is, “How is homeschooling going?” It used to be, “How is your novel going?” or, more recently, “How is your Year of Yoga going?”

Lately, though, it’s all about the homeschooling.

So, I’ll tell you how it’s going.

My son loves homeschooling. He was pretty much made for it. He’s not the kind of kid who sits around complaining that he’s bored (unless he’s in school). He reads, researches, creates, invents, (destroys), writes, sets himself goals, comes up with projects, and constantly challenges his homeroom teacher (me). Neither one of us is bored.

Experimenthomeschool

We had a debate the other day about the best adjective to describe his relationship to knowledge. I said he was a “curator” of knowledge; he preferred the term “hoarder.” I suppose if you saw all the books in and under and beside his bed, you might agree with him. But I told him a hoarder doesn’t use or even value the things he hoards, he just keeps them. “You use and value your knowledge,” I said, “so I can’t really agree that you’re a hoarder of knowledge.”

“Well,” he said, “I still like ‘hoarder of knowledge,’ because sometimes I have all this knowledge and I don’t even know what to do with it, but I still want more.”

See? Perfect kid for homeschooling.

Homeschool isn’t always perfect for me, though.

For one thing, I don’t always know what I’m doing. I’ve never trained to be a teacher. Yes, I taught creative writing to undergraduates, but how hard was that? They were all busy making up their lives anyway, so to pull a little fiction out of them wasn’t such a stretch. Plus, they were in college. Already they had a huge advantage.

Anyhow, for some silly reason, the stakes just feel higher with this current teaching gig.

To make matters worse, I’m sometimes – ha! always – overwhelmed by the choices of curriculum, classes, and styles available for homeschooling. As soon as I settle on one course of study, I inevitably find another I prefer more. It’s a bit like being at an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet. So little stomach room! So much food! And if I stuff too much in at once, my kid will barf. Or something like that.

Also, no matter what I want to do, there’s never enough time. Not for all the classes and curriculum and projects and field trips, and certainly not for me. Yes, I would like more time to write my novel, or to work on this blog, but the kind of time I really need is more in the range of 40 hours/week so that I can bring in some bucks.

Unfortunately, that’s the real catch of homeschooling: It’s expensive.

“What? Why? Aren’t you just sitting in your dining room over some library books?” (Yes, I do know what you are thinking.)

Well, first of all, there are all the way-too-great-too-miss classes out there. They Are Not Cheap. (See the “all-you-can-eat” part above.)

But there’s also the opportunity cost. For example, let’s say you make $50,ooo. If you have five kids and you quit your job to homeschool them, then that’s a $10,000 per kid investment each year. If you have one, well, it’s a $50,000 investment. I know for a fact the most expensive Bay Area private school is not that costly.

But none of this – not the worry that I don’t know what I’m doing, not the constant feelings of being overwhelmed, and not the lack of time and money – are nearly as hard as my final confession about homeschooling:

My house is always messy. It has not been this messy in years.

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Water Experiments (photo: E.Maupin)

Seriously. It’s like having a toddler again. Remember how you could never keep your house clean? How you’d tell yourself that as soon as you cleaned the living room, you’d head out to the park? But how by then the bedrooms were all a disaster because your son had been building a fort with all the pillows in the entire house, and now it was time for lunch, but then there were the dishes to do and also you needed to go to the grocery store?

Yes, that kind of messy.

The real benefit of sending your kids to traditional schools? Your house stays clean for one day.

But you know what? I’m okay with it. Not just the mess, but all of it – the lack of time and money, the feeling that I have no idea what I’m doing or where I’m going. All of it. And here’s why:

Before my son went off to kindergarten, he had such a radiantly curious energy to him, such a joy of being in this world. His was an eager and open-minded approach to life; he was always game to try new things, to explore. He believed in himself. He liked himself.

Taz
(photo: E. Maupin)

Then he went to school. Of course he had teachers he adored. The two schools he attended, one public and one private, I hold in high regard.

But school seemed to dim his very existence. He was always tired, allergic, and sick. He didn’t want to try new things. He was overwhelmed and down on himself. He apologized constantly. He certainly didn’t seem to like himself very much. He’d lost his confidence, and he also seemed to have lost himself. It was as if the little pilot light of his soul had been snuffed out.

You would think that I saw all this as it was happening. I did, but I also didn’t. In other words, I saw that school wasn’t the right choice for him. But it was only recently, after five months of homeschooling, that I understood how completely lost he’d been while he was in school.

What made me finally see this?

The other day he played his fiddle at the farmer’s market, something he hasn’t done in almost four years. When he first put down his case and took up his fiddle, the area around him was in a lull. There was a wide empty space, not many folks stopping at the vendors there. As he played, however, people began to gather. Children pulled on their parents’ hands so that they might stop to watch. The farmers on either side of him began to do a more brisk business. Within a few minutes, the area was alive and bustling, transformed by his presence and his music.

Busking2016

Watching him fiddle, I realized that he, too, has been transformed. He was connected to his music in a way he hasn’t been for years. He played with energy and confidence, smiled at folks, enjoyed himself. I felt like I’d suddenly come upon an old friend, one I hadn’t seen in a long while. That got me thinking about who he was in school, and how he’s changed in these past few months of homeschooling.

He’s no longer constantly allergic or sick. Yes, he’s sometimes tired, but that’s because he reads too late (no matter, he can also sleep in now). He’s eager and excited to take on new challenges. He comes up with new projects to do every day. He’s rediscovered the joy of learning for learning’s sake. He laughs a lot. He’s confident again. Most importantly, he likes himself.

Vibrant would be the best adjective to describe him.

So, yep. Homeschooling is going great.

happyboy

The Trigonometry of Life

The other morning began normally, meaning that I was doing the relatively simple geometry problem of:

 

  1. Calculating just how long I could let my daughter sleep (line AB),
  2. while also leaving enough time to feed her a good breakfast (line BC),
  3. before rushing off to get her to school on time (line AC),
  4. so that she can have a good day at school (equilateral triangle ABC).

 

 

gooddaytriangle

After a combined total of seven years of elementary school mornings, I’ve gotten pretty good at this kind of equation. We even made it to school early!

Then I went back home. That’s when things got hard.

Coming home to a day of home-schooling with my son is a bit like coming home to a Labrador puppy who hasn’t been walked in several hours. As soon as we walk into the kitchen, he says, “What are we going to do today?”

The calculations of a home-school day are never easy. Even if I have a plan in place (line AB), he is certain to come up with his own very pressing agenda (line BC). This might involve testing out his recently constructed gold-panning sluice in the backyard, building a trebuchet, or making a map of the world.

While these activities may start at point B, I can never predict exactly how far they will extend into our day. Therefore point C is unknown, which of course makes it almost impossible to determine when we’ll get back to my plan (hypotenuse of line AC). Just how long this hypotenuse will be depends partly on the angle of my patience on that particular morning, whether it be acute, obtuse, or just right, so to speak.

tazwelltriangle

 

This week we’ve been studying explorers. I had readings for him to do, and writing, and of course some math. But he said, “I’d like to build my own sextant and figure out how it works.”

Master&Commander
Master & Commander, “Sextant Lesson”

 

Huh.

It is at just these times that I feel profoundly under-qualified for my job. It is also at just these times that I feel exceptionally grateful for the internet.

I quickly found this very handy bit of curriculum, and we set to work on the sextant, which in this lesson is technically a quadrant, Tazwell pointed out.

Horary-quadrant
Whether Acceffible or InAcceffible, it makes no difference.

A ruler, a protractor, a washer, a string, some tape… and we had our quadrant. Easy-peasy.

No, not easy-peasy, because then Tazwell wanted to to learn how to use his quadrant to figure out the height of a mountain. “One that you can’t climb,” he clarified.

Now, folks, I have not studied trigonometry for 30 years. Even back when I was in trigonometry, I wasn’t a great student. So I felt very ill-prepared to figure out the height of an mountain, be it “acceffible” or “inacceffible.”

Still, I pulled out the math books. Because the truth is, I’ve been wondering a lot lately about how to take the height of an inaccessible mountain, though my mountains are of the more figurative sort. They include:

  1. Finishing my novel
  2. Starting a new career
  3. Homeschooling
  4. Living on one salary in the Bay Area

Well, again thanks to the internet, I found this helpful formula, and using this wonderful home resource, we proceeded to walk through the calculations, using measurements my son had taken with his quadrant:

InaccessibleMountain
Determining the height of an inaccessible mountain.

 

The only problem was that he didn’t really care about plugging numbers into the formula. He cared about the steps behind the formula. In other words, he cared about the process.

So he re-wrote it:

tazwell's notes
Don’t worry if you can’t understand it. He does. He’ll explain it to you.

Now, what motivated him to determine the height of an inaccessible mountain is beyond me. Perhaps it was that we’d recently been in Yosemite to see the snow. Perhaps it was just that he likes to know things.

YosemiteSnow.jpg

Anyhow, we spent three hours on this project. Three hours. And it was great, because my son simply LIT UP when he understood the process. This is part of the beauty of homeschooling.  And perhaps as a result of traveling that three hours with my son simply in the pursuit of knowledge, I suddenly felt as if my own inaccessible mountains might not be so terribly insurmountable.

So I wrote down my process for dealing with inaccessible mountains. See what you think:

MyNotes

I tried it out. I thought back to when I first started this Year of Yoga project, about four months ago. I know how I felt: Totally terrified. This was going to be yet another of those great ideas that never went anywhere, one of those projects that I started and never finished.

Well, just the other day I got a report from WordPress on my stats for 2015. I’d written 15 posts in four months! Not so bad. And already I’m a third of the way home!

This whole thing is starting to feel way more acceffible.

 

 

 

 

“Find Your Spot”

This is the instruction teachers often begin with in a yoga class at Innerstellar, my very favorite yoga studio. By “find your spot” they mean search for that one place inside yourself that most needs attention. Maybe it’s physical, like a knot between the shoulders, a crick in the neck, or a tightness in the hips. Or maybe your spot is something to do with your emotional well-being, like a very small, particular sadness that seems to have no other home, or a frustration that only grows more annoying if you try to slap it away.

Once you’ve identified your spot, you are to direct your breath there all through class. The teacher will remind you to “breath into your spot” and “pay attention to your spot.” At the end of class, she’ll ask you to check in and compare how your spot feels now to how it felt at the start of class. Often all that breathing and attention makes a remarkable difference!

Usually I pick the same place every class: the left side of my neck. I’ve come to believe all bad things in my life must dwell there, sort of like centipedes and spiders and slugs dwell under rocks – you know, just hanging out, being generally icky and gross, all the while waiting to bite you. Just thinking about it is giving me the willies.

I love to choose my neck as my spot, because when I was sixteen I was in a car accident and broke the windshield with my head. My neck still blames me for not wearing a seat belt. I think it always will. I have often heard that necks are not very forgiving. Mine certainly is not. Though when I choose my neck as my spot, and breath into it, I swear it’s almost as satisfying as having strong, oiled, warm, wise hands rub and work away at the knots and pain. My neck (almost) forgets to complain.

Today, however, my neck was not my spot. Today my spot was my brain.

Lately my brain has been scattered all over the place, like the pile of leaves I raked together the other day, but which the chickens found before I could bag it up, and the pile was soon sent hither and yon again with swift and certain busy little scratchings. That is the true state of my brain – the raking together, the brief but ephemeral sense of togetherness, the sudden and violent dispersal.

Electro-Brain

It almost feels as if my brain is being electrocuted. You might think my problem is too much caffeine, or not enough sleep, but I’ve actually been doing okay on those two fronts. Could it be the windy weather or the upcoming holidays or too much computer time? Perhaps I’m trying to do too many things at once, like wishing that bald eagle had ripped Donald Trump’s hair right off, and following the climate talks in Paris this week, and wondering about whether the California Public Utilities Commission will do the right thing when it comes to solar “subsidies”?  Not to mention all the parenting worries and wonders and concerns. Don’t even get me started.

Maybe my brain is finally just starting to explode, bit by bit, here and there, like popcorn in hot oil. I hope not. Suffice it to say, today in class I really needed my brain to be my spot.

The thing is, when I chose my brain today, I wasn’t even sure whether I was allowed to have my brain as my spot. It wasn’t exactly physical, per se, in that it didn’t hurt, not the way my neck often does (unless you count the excruciating psychic pain of not being able to focus on anything but Facebook lately). And it wasn’t really a particular emotional pain, either. I really wanted to raise my hand and ask, “Can I choose my brain?”

Then Kiki mentioned that we might choose an area that needed more grounding, and I thought, “Well, that’s okay then, because my brain needs grounding more urgently than a breakaway dirigible.”

So I breathed into my brain. Well, first I wondered if I would be able breathe into my brain, but that only lasted for a split second, because then the breath just washed over my brain, the way a broken wave will sweep up over the sand in a clearing caress, in that beautiful liquid motion. The breath came up from my neck and washed forward into both hemispheres. I know it sounds crazy, but I could feel each separate hemisphere as the breath washed through it. Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever felt my brain feel physical pleasure – pain, sure, but not pleasure.

For the next 90 minutes I breathed into my brain. Obviously. It was a tremendously good spot to choose. If you haven’t tried it lately, I highly recommend it!

 

 

 

The Yoga of Writing, Part 1

Lately I keep hearing how yoga is practiced more off the mat than on, that the “real yoga” takes place in our daily lives. This has got me wondering how and where I might bring yoga into my daily life (there are so many places  – parenting, relationships, work – that would benefit!). But the area where I most need yoga, where I most want yoga, is in my writing.

So I’ve started to compile a few lessons learned “on the mat” to see whether they might also apply “to the page.” Here are the first three:

Big Rocks First.

My husband told me about Dr. Stephen Covey’s “Big Rocks” story, which illustrates the importance of putting the most important things, the big rocks, into your day, week, and life first. If you start off with the little things, the sand and gravel (a.k.a. Facebook and email), there won’t be space for the big rocks (writing and yoga, in my case).

Big Rocks
Big Rocks.

When I plan in advance which yoga classes I’m going to attend each week, I’m much more likely to go. Here’s why planning ahead for yoga works:

1. I’m able to coordinate with my husband on childcare and/or dinner-making.

2. I wear my yoga clothes and take my mat when I drop the kids at school. Or I pack my clothes and mat so I can head there after a meeting. In other words, with a plan, I’m able to get myself ready each morning, not just everyone else.

3. I say no to any invitations that might interfere with the class. Little things will pop up, but with yoga already on the calendar, those things have to find another space, or wait for another time.

The same is also true of my writing: when I set aside chunks of time to write, I actually write!

The funny thing is that I don’t set aside those chunks of time to write as often as I should (every week! every day!). This is probably because a class is a class; you have to go right then or you miss it. When I used to walk for exercise, and my husband took yoga classes, he exercised more than I did. We quarreled about this pretty often, actually. I argued that he didn’t make time for my exercise, and he argued that I was the one not making time. We were both right, but the fault lay mostly with the fact that my walk wasn’t scheduled at a set time. Which led to this type thinking: If I don’t go now, I can always go later. And that’s a dangerous mentality, especially when you’re trying to fit in the big rocks.

So how to calendar writing time when there is no class? Partly, I suppose, it’s simply a matter of sitting in the chair, turning on Freedom (the best app ever invented, btw), and getting down to work. If you have any other suggestions, please let me (and thousands of other writers) know. A.S.A.P. On Facebook, preferably. (heh).

A regular practice yields better results. 

I started this Year of Yoga project with the commitment to attend three classes a week. Most weeks I’ve met that goal. In the few weeks that I haven’t, I’ve noticed a huge difference both in how I feel (less strong, less focused, less balanced) and also in my level of motivation to keep going. More classes keeps up the momentum, plain and simple.

Lately I’ve also noticed myself making notes about what I’d like to be able to do in yoga, and what I don’t understand about my own practice. For example, I’d like to strengthen the muscles around my knees. I’d like to open up in my chest and shoulder area. I’d like to build more upper body strength.

These kind of observations are only possible with a regular practice. If I went only once a week or every couple weeks, my experience would all be about feeling weak and inflexible and out of sorts. I couldn’t recognize what I wanted to improve, because every week would be starting from the same place: Feeling like an imposter on the mat.

Writing also demands a regular practice. If I work on my novel five times a week, it zooms right along. I know where I am, what I need to fix, where I need to add a scene. But if I only write once a week, I get stuck in a rut, always back working on the same scene or chapter, always a tiny bit lost, always feeling flabby and ill-at-ease with my writing process.

If I gave myself as a writer the same level of commitment that I’ve given to myself as a yogi these past three months, not only would I write more, but my writing would be better. I’d also feel less like a giant faker when I tell people that I’m a writer.

So why don’t I write more consistently?

The more you look around, the less focus you will have.

The other day in class the yoga instructor said, “I see a lot of you looking around. Stop it! The most important thing happening right now is what is happening with your body, on your mat.”

How easy it is to look around to see what others are doing. But when that happens it’s so hard to keep focused on what I’m doing. My mind just goes freewheeling off… into curiosity, judgment, self-criticism… no place good, honestly. I’ll see someone who can do an advanced pose that I can’t, or who looks better in her yoga pants, or whatever, and suddenly all focus on my own experience is gone. Try looking around while in a balance pose… you’ll topple right over!

The thing is, there’s really no point to being in class if I’m only going to focus on other people. I can do that out on the street, in the grocery store, on Facebook (sorry Facebook, I know I’m calling you out a lot, but you kind of deserve it).

So more and more I’ve started to close my eyes while in class, or lower my gaze. This has helped me stay in the here and now with my breath, to bring focus to small adjustments I need to make to keep my body safe, and to build toward a fuller practice for myself.

As easy as it is to freewheel off when looking around in yoga, it’s even easier to do so with writing. If I’m not focused on my writing, I’ll compare myself to anyone, published or not, seventy-five or five, respected or not, and still manage to feel less-than. For example, it’s wonderful to see (on Facebook, of course) when one of my fellow M.F.A. graduates has a reading scheduled, or perhaps a new book coming out. At the same time, honestly, it can also be demoralizing and depressing, because I don’t have a reading scheduled, or an imminent book release. Sometimes, when I haven’t turned on Freedom, I just randomly abuse myself by looking at articles about other writers, like “Ten Under Thirty,” and compare all that I haven’t done in my many years to all that they have done in their few. And I’ll tell you what… That’s a great way to topple my writing right over!

My challenge, then, is to close my eyes while writing. Or at least lower my gaze to my own page…  after I’ve scheduled regular time for my writing.

Facebook, you just gotta wait your turn!

 

 

 

 

 

Do No Harm

I have been writing my novel for years. Seven years, to be honest. On and off.

I’ve also been raising young kids (with all that that entails… volunteering, scheduling, sick days, vacation, summer, parent conferences, etc., etc.,), and holding down the homefront from 6am to 8pm while my husband commutes four hours a day (!) and/or juggles two jobs. I, too, have worked (out of the home, yes, actually) – sometimes part-time, sometimes way more than full-time.

In an exceptionally good week, I find 20 hours to write. In a normal week, it’s probably more like six. For over a year, while I worked full-time, I didn’t write at all. Or even read much. Unless you count work emails.

Here are three things I’ve learned about writing – or not writing – these past seven years:

  1. Writing without a regular schedule is tough. Every extended break means you have to rewind. It’s like trying to watch a movie while you’re falling asleep. Your spouse keeps waking you up, but nothing in the movie makes sense. Not even when you rewind.
  2. Speaking of sleep… If you don’t get enough, you will write crap. You might as well just write down your weird dreams for all the sense it will make. Plus, falling asleep over your own words is demoralizing. If you can’t stay awake for your own story, who else will?
  3. If you’ve got money worries, it’s almost impossible to write. (Tip: Do NOT move to the Bay Area if you want to be a writer). Maybe a single person with no offspring can write even when they’re worried about money, or maybe someone farther away from retirement, but not me. I need to feel like everyone in this reality is going to be financially okay before I can start contemplating a fictional reality (oddly enough my characters have no money either).

Anyhow, after a year of so much work and no writing, I thought I’d lost my novel. I really didn’t know how or where to start again. It just seemed completely overwhelming. Sort of like getting halfway up Everest but an avalanche wipes out the trail, kills several of your hiking buddies, and breaks both your legs… and now it’s a year later and you have to start at the bottom all over again.

I could have stood at the bottom of that mountain and thought of all the many ways I’d failed, of how I’d never be able to get back to where I’d been before, much less go further. I could have criticized myself to no end.

Instead, I chose another mountain to climb. Well, hill, really.

I picked up a paintbrush and tackled my fireplace. It had been an ugly mess for years, and I just wanted some color. For a few weeks I’d pick up the brush and paint when I had a few minutes, and fill in another color. It was like putting all the pieces back together again. (It makes me happy every time I see it).

newfireplace
Color!

Then, while I had paintbrush in hand, I somehow found the gumption to do this blogging project.

Guess what happened next? After a few weeks of blog posts, I got excited about my novel again!

In Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest book, Big Magic, she writes “Call attention to yourself with some sort of creative action, and – most of all – trust that if you make enough of a glorious commotion, eventually inspiration will find its way home to you again.” So very true.

The past month or so my struggle has not been starting up the mountain again, but finding time to do both my novel and this blog. A much better struggle, by far, than standing there at the bottom of the mountain feeling defeated and demoralized and beating myself up.

And you know what? Lots of other fun and creative projects have been coming my way, too! Here are a just a few:

Coco&Taz1
Tazwell as Edmund and Coco as Regan.

I got to help my kids prepare for their roles in King Lear, put on by SF Shakes this past weekend. Wow! What a remarkable experience to see those two just rock it! Such poise and so grounded, both of them. They are amazing people and I am lucky to know them.

I’ve also been helping to promote the upcoming yoga teacher training, put on by the Yoga Well Institute, that will take place here in Berkeley in February. Last week I spent a few hours reviewing and logging video footage of Chase talking about his own training and all that the teacher training will entail. Not only was it a really fun job to do, but I came away thinking, “We are lucky to have people like Chase around in this world.”

LogoYellow
Fantastic logo for Matt’s campaign done by the talented artist, Miriam Klein Stahl: http://www.miriamkleinstahl.com/

Finally, I’ve had the incredible experience of collaborating with Matt, my wonderfully talented husband, to launch his Indiegogo campaign for his new album. His lyrics are poetic, philosophical, and courageous. I’m so excited that he’s finally going to record his new songs and share them with everyone!  Check it out!

All the while, I’ve been working my way steadily up the mountainside of my novel. I’ve been able to write some scenes that before seemed just impossible to even approach, and I’ve also figured out some crucial plot points.

I’m not saying writing has all of a sudden become easy. There still isn’t enough time or money to write as much as I’d like. I still struggle to get good sleep.

And terrible, terrible things happen in the world that just seem to halt all forward momentum of creativity.

Saturday morning, I was halfway through this post when I learned of the Paris attacks. I didn’t know how to keep writing. Then, in yoga class, Marisha (one of my favorite instructors), spoke of dedicating our practice to ahimsa, or nonviolence and compassion. And I realized that to allow the violence done in Paris to defeat creativity would be to throw another victim on the pile, and to give himsa, injury or harm, another victory.

Every time we pick up a paintbrush, sing a song, plant a garden, see a play, or even cook a good meal, we are bringing inspiration and beauty and love to the world. We are practicing ahimsa.

So today I am dedicating this post, and all the creativity that has come my way these past few months, to ahimsa, and to the people of Paris and Beirut. And I am going to keep hiking up my mountain.