In Defense of Minimalism: Some Responses to Criticism

felted crocheted hearts

Author’s note: I wrote this post about a year ago, but never published it because I couldn’t wrap it up tidily with a neat conclusion. Buuuut considering the sudden and recent renewed interest in decluttering thanks to Netflix’s new Tidying Up series, I thought I’d go ahead and publish it as it is. Let me know what you think!

I’ve been coming across a bit of criticism of minimalism lately.

I’ve written a fair amount on the subject in the past, so I always perk up when I hear it mentioned.

And almost every time I hear it criticized, one of the first thoughts I have is, “That’s not my understanding of minimalism.”

So I thought I’d take a look at some of these critiques and offer some counterpoints.

But first off, a definition and some clarifications.

“Minimalism” can be used to define a certain kind of aesthetic as well as a lifestyle. They do not necessarily overlap.

Minimalism as an aesthetic is generally recognized by pared down design elements. Most people conjure up mental images of monochromatic colour schemes, clean lines, bare walls, and a perfectly-matching “capsule wardrobe.” Lots of neutral colours, white paint, and sparse decor. Simplicity.

Minimalism as a lifestyle (at least as far I understand it) means intentionally choosing to own fewer possessions. It means paring down to what is essential in life, and getting rid of excess. It’s about letting go of whatever isn’t serving you. This can look different ways for different people.

Like I said, I don’t think these two forms of minimalism necessarily go hand-in-hand. I think you can practice minimalism while still adorning your house and body with lots of colour and flourish.

I don’t have much to say about minimalism as an aesthetic. Some people find it boring. Some people find it calming and refreshing. My response is, That’s totally subjective, and You do you. I like certain things about it, but you definitely wouldn’t walk into my house and immediately say, “Ahhh — you guys are minimalists!”

I’ve written before about what I think are the merits of a minimalist lifestyle, so I won’t go much into it here. In short, I think minimalism can bring freedom, and is generally good for our (mental, physical, and spiritual) health, as well as the planet.

Below are a couple of critiques I’ve recently heard regarding minimalism, and some of my thoughts on them.

October leaves

“Minimalists think they’re better than everyone else.”

I found this complaint in an article entitled, “Minimalism: another boring product wealthy people can buy.” The author writes,

There are a million variations [of minimalism] – fitting all your belongings into a single box, small-house or van living, radical de-cluttering, extreme purges of technology or social activity, etc – but they all hold the same vague, usually unspoken level of superiority.

She later elaborates,

They all imply that they are in some way a moral upgrade from the life of ‘mindless consumerism’… This spiritual minimalism has essentially become yet another competition for who can be the best at whatever you’ve chosen, even if that ‘whatever’ is literally ‘having less shit.’

Okay. So: do minimalists think they’re morally superior? Well, sure, some of them probably do. Maybe even lots of them. But isn’t every subculture susceptible to this kind of snobbery? Even ones that are supposedly based in humility, like Christianity? I’ve heard people complain about the same kind of thing from vegans, democrats, globetrotters, health/fitness fanatics, academics, and artists.

And they’re probably right — to a degree. It’s a problem you’ll find within just about any group, whether it’s centered around a certain philosophy, career path, political affiliation, lifestyle, or religion. We choose these paths because we think they have merit. We think they’re good. And within any subculture, some people are going to be snobs about it.

You can be pretentious about your lifestyle choices or you can be humble about them, whatever they may be.

I’ve heard people be smug and moralistic about their literary tastes. I’ve heard people humblebrag about where they choose to live (i.e. rural vs urban setting). I’ve heard them speak paternalistically about how they spend their money (“Ahem… We value experiences over things”). I’ve even heard people argue haughtily about whose income is further below the poverty line.

I’ve also known some truly humble minimalists, who just don’t want to be caught up in materialism, and are using minimalist principles to make ends meet.

There’s nothing inherently pompous about choosing minimalism — no more than anything else.

And have I ever been douchey about minimalism? Yeah… probably. Sorry about that. I’m a human, and was born desperate for love and validation. I’m trying to do better.

felted wool bowl

“Minimalism is just for rich people.”

I’ve been hearing this one a lot lately. In the article I quoted above, the author argues that “the only people who can ‘practice’ minimalism in any meaningful way are people upon whom it isn’t forced by financial or logistical circumstances.” In other words, poor people don’t have the freedom to choose minimalism. They already don’t have enough. Therefore minimalism is only for the privileged.

She further points out that

Being minimalist in this way […] really just means having enough upfront disposable money to “invest” in your wardrobe and surroundings. Reducing a wardrobe down to a few painfully elegant cashmere-cotton blend tops is only really possible if you can put down at least $1,000 in one go for the creation of your “capsule wardrobe.”

She concludes that “Minimalism is just another form of conspicuous consumption, a way of saying to the world: ‘Look at me! Look at all of the things I have refused to buy!’”

There is definitely some merit to this argument.

Yes, minimalism requires a certain amount of privilege. Truly impoverished and marginalized people don’t have to resources or social capital to “konmari” their homes.

As this article, entitled “The Problem with Minimalism,” explains: “Minimalism is largely something only well-off people can afford to pursue, because their wealth provides a cushion of safety. If they get rid of something, and then need it later, they’ll just buy it again. They don’t need to carry much else besides a wallet when they’re out and about; if they need something, they’ll just buy it on the fly. No sweat. If you’re not so well-off, however, having duplicates of your possessions can be necessary, even if such back-ups ruin the aesthetics of owning just 100 possessions. “

These are great points.

But you don’t have to be wealthy to choose to pare down your possessions or to choose to live with less than your neighbours.

You don’t have to buy one pair of $200 jeans so you can turn up your nose at the rest.

You can totally be a minimalist who shops at thrift stores.

In fact, I’ve found that minimalism has made it easier to live on a budget.

And part of the reason I know this is because I’ve heard so many lower-middle-income people say that minimalism has actually helped them live on a budget. Striving to own fewer possessions makes it easier to get by on less.

My own family lives on an income below the poverty line, and minimalism helps make that possible.

It’s partly because I don’t have a huge wardrobe, or buy the kids a ton of toys, or own a lot of electronic devices, that we can afford to survive on one small income.

tulips

“Minimalism isn’t Christian because it’s focused on the self.”

I heard this criticism come up on a podcast that I actually really love, called The Upside Down Podcast. The hosts attempt to differentiate between minimalism and “downward mobility.” “Downward mobility,” they argue, is a lifestyle choice focused on the well-being of others. Minimalism, by contrast, is just about improving your own life and your own well-being, so it’s not inherently Christian.

However, I think this contrast is based on a false dichotomy between helping yourself and helping others. I don’t think these two things are necessarily mutually exclusive. Sometimes, helping yourself is also good for the people around you.

Choosing minimalism for your own benefit is not like greed, wherein your help yourself at the expense of someone else.

I think practicing minimalism can be mutually beneficial, to you and the people around you. Of course, minimalism is not automatically or inherently helpful to the people around you; but I think if done well and with the right spirit, it can benefit others beyond yourself.

If you pare down your possessions to the things you actually need and use, you can give the excess to people who could make use of those things. Instead of hanging onto things that will just gather dust in your basement, you can share them with people who might actually use and appreciate them.

Less clutter in your own life can also bring you more peace, time and energy, that you can then share with others.

So do I think minimalism inherently Christian? Well, no, of course not. You can be a minimalist and a totally self-centered douchecanoe. And you can totally be a Christian without practicing minimalism.

But greed, by contrast, definitely is NOT Christian, and I think minimalism can be a very useful tool to fight against greed.

Some of the central tenets of Jesus’ message include generosity, sacrifice, sharing, and equity. His gospel is about lowering yourself and lifting others up.

I personally think minimalism aligns with that message, if it is done with a spirit of generosity and love.

* * *

So these are just a few of my thoughts when it comes to criticism of minimalism.

What do you think?

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What’s Saving My Life Right Now

frost

Hi, friends! I thought I’d pop in today to share some positivity: here are six things that are making life better for me these days.

1. Antidepressants for my preschooler.

This past October we hit a wall with Felix’s sleep. He was nearing four years old and still not sleeping through the night — in fact, it was just getting worse. he was up 3-5 hours every night and it was taking its toll on the whole family. We were all miserable and barely functioning. So I finally took him to his pediatrician and said, “HELP.”

She looked into my bloodshot eyes and decided to prescribe him an antidepressant that causes drowsiness as a side effect. I’m about as anti-drug as you can get but I was desperate and willing to try anything. We started giving it to him every night before bed.

His sleep has improved immensely since then. He almost always sleeps until at least 4:30 am; and when he does wake up at night, he usually falls back asleep within an hour.

Everyone is happier, including Felix.

2. Respite care for my preschooler.

felix and me

In my mid-October desperation I also reached out to our family coordinator who had helped us apply for funding for respite care for Felix earlier in the year. The application had been accepted months earlier, but we’d been informed that there was an unusually long waiting period for the funding to actually kick in. Like, up to a year’s wait.

The coordinator sensed the desperation in my voice and applied for some temporary, private funding to hold us over until the government funding could take over.

So now we have funding for six hours of respite care a week. His worker picks him up to go to her house, and for six hours a week I can spend time focusing on Lydia’s homeschooling, or housecleaning, or even on myself. When he comes home I am refreshed and happy to see him. It’s been pretty glorious.

3. Crafting.

You guys have seen me take up crocheting and then knitting and then watercolour painting. And over the last year I’ve also become obsessed with calligraphy.

A week or two ago my mom asked me if I would do some hand-lettering on some wood discs she’d cut up in my dad’s shop and I happily obliged. And I was so pleased with the results I started making some for friends and then I started to offer them for sale on social media to local friends.

Before I knew it, I was getting Ben to slice up branch after branch and drill and spray my little creations as I pumped out more hand-lettered ornaments. It was kind of taking over my life. And I LOVED every minute.

I really don’t have time for this nonsense. And I only made enough money to cover costs plus a little extra so I could buy even more to my craft supplies, but it was so satisfying to be creative. Crafting just makes my life better.

I feel most like myself when I’m making beautiful things.

4. Walter Geoffrey the Frenchie.

walter

Guys, I’m not really into pet Instagram accounts. But a few months ago I stumbled upon WalterGeoffreytheFrenchie and . . . just . . . WOW. Have you seen this guy?? Oh my goodness. He gives me life. He’s an adorable but opinionated French bulldog with an incredibly unique . . . I’m gonna say, voice? Nothing perks me up like Walter’s bizarre, one-of-a-kind screaming.

Watch this video to get a taste of his personality if you haven’t already met Walter. And then follow his Instagram. If you’re feeling down in the dumps, I promise he will cheer you up.

5. Pentatonix Christmas music.

To add to the list of things I’m not really into: Christmas music. I’m generally just not a fan.

But I love Pentatonix Christmas music. I love a cappella in general, and I specifically love the way they infuse new energy into old Christmas songs. And they have like seven Christmas albums. I will happily listen to Pentatonix all December. (I just listen to them on Spotify.) Give them a listen if you haven’t already!

6. The new local shawarma place.

shawarma

Our small, rural, mostly-white town isn’t known for its cuisine. Nobody drives to our town to get dinner (although our Vietnamese restaurant has the best pho in the county). We’ve had a hard time finding a place to get takeout when we want to get dinner on a short notice, and have basically only patronized the local Vietnamese restaurant for the last decade.

But our town recently got a new shawarma place and it is the best. Since we discovered it a month ago we have been getting takeout from there on almost a weekly basis. For $15 we can get a huge shawarma plate containing enough food for both me and Ben — we each get one wrap, plus three delicious sides. It is making me so happy.

That’s about it for now! What’s been saving your life these days?

PS follow me on Instagram to see what I’m up to on a day-to-day basis!

4 Things I Learned This Fall {2018}

Once again, I’m joining Emily Freeman and sharing a few things I learned over the last three months. Wheeee!

1. Puffball mushrooms are edible.

puffball mushroom

Have you ever found one of these quirky mushrooms growing in your back yard or maybe the park? They looks like balls of white bread dough rising at random on your lawn. They have no real stem, they’re just irregular spheres of fungus that grow right out of the ground. They pop up in our back yard every so often, and we always thought they were funny but didn’t think much of them.

Until I stumbled on a Facebook post where people were talking about eating them. I was intrigued and did some googling, and lo and behold: they’re edible! So the next time a bunch of puffball mushrooms appeared in our back yard, we gave them a try!

puffball mushroom chopped

puffball cooked

We picked the biggest ones, and I peeled them, sliced them up (they look like giant marshmallows from the inside!), and fried them in a bunch of butter. They’re really good! They have a very mild mushroom flavour, with a very soft texture — like soft tofu. I liked them best in my red curry. I love eating free food out of my back yard!

2. Red+green=yellow??? A.k.a. Mixing coloured light is completely different from mixing paint.

mixing coloured light

Did you guys know this? I did not know this, and I’m embarrassed that it took me 33 years to learn in.

Growing up, I was taught that there are three primary colours: red, blue, and yellow. You cannot make these colours from any other other colours. All other colours come from these colours. The end. Right?

I was vaguely aware that computers used RBG (red, blue and green) pixels, but that didn’t make any sense because where does yellow come from? Everyone knows you can’t make yellow. Right? It’s a primary colour. EVERYONE KNOWS THAT.

WELL GUESS WHAT. Mixing paint and mixing light are not the same at all. RBY are the primary colours when it comes to solids/liquids, like paint, but light is a different story.

I learned this from Lydia’s second Kiwi Crate, which was all about light. It came with lots of cool things, including little finger lights in red, blue and green. Because when it comes to light, the three primary colours are in fact red, blue and green, and you can create yellow by mixing red and green.

WHAT. I could not believe it until I saw it with my own eyes.

red geen yellow

Mind = blown.

A few weeks later Lydia noticed the same phenomenon in Felix’s new bubble tube, which we got him for his birthday. The LED lights at the bottom change colours to change the colours of the bubbles; and she noticed that yellow bubbles were created with red and green lights:

bubble tube yellowI still can’t believe it. My whole life has been a lie.

3. A Cozy Cabin Getaway in Fall is Quite Nice.

cabin vacation

If you know me at all, you know that I love summer and hate winter, and resent fall just for being the traitor that leads from one to the other. My idea of the perfect vacation involves sunshine and beaches. I want to be barefoot and sipping a cold beer or iced coffee.

But this year, we didn’t manage to plan an anniversary trip until late October. Ben and I ended up renting a cabin a few hours north of where we live, right on the Georgian Bay.

And guys: it was delectable.

The forests were ablaze with amber and orange. Our daily hikes were made more magical by the presence of falling snowflakes. And I thoroughly enjoyed snuggling up on the cabin couch with my knitting and murder mystery novel.

Maybe fall isn’t so bad after all.

4. You can make ink out of black walnuts and dye with weeds (and beans).

I wrote full posts about both of these things, so I won’t go into detail here. But this year I happened to learn a lot about the pigments available to me in my own neighbourhood for creating my own natural inks and dyes.

If you haven’t already read them, here are my posts:

How to make your own black walnut ink:

black walnut ink calligraphyHow to dye wool with plants:

dyeing wool with plants

I never wrote about this, but I also dyed some yarn using black beans! I followed these instructions.

black bean dye

I was going for a blue, but ended up with this lovely lilac colour:

dye wool with black beansStill cool.

All right, that’s it for now! Hope you’ve been having a good autumn! What did you learn this season?

KiwiCrate Review: Our Experience After Three Months

kiwicrate review

Hi friends! When I shared a few pictures of my daughter enjoying her Kiwi Crate on Instagram a few months back, a few of you expressed interest in a review. So here it is! I am not being paid to share, and I bought a subscription out of my own pocket. I just know that I would have appreciated an unbiased review when I was first considering the product. (Note: if you make a purchase through my link, I do get referral credit! You and I each get $10 off.)

For those who are unfamiliar: KiwiCo is a monthly subscription service, which provides children with a box of STEM-related activities that includes all the materials, instructions, and supplementary information for a hands-on learning experience. They do ALL the brain-work for you, so you don’t have to plan or gather materials. You can just open it up and get to work! They offer boxes for several different age groups, from 0-16 (e.g. ages 0-2 is called the Tadpole Crate; ages 9-16 is called the Tinker Crate). We got the Kiwi Crate, for ages 5-8. Lydia is seven, and it was perfect for her.

I initially bought a three-month subscription to try it out. I’ll be up-front: Kiwi Crate is rather expensive, and I was nervous to make too big a commitment in case Lydia didn’t like it. However, of course, the bigger the subscription you buy, the better the value. (I’ll go into detail about price later.)

I decided to make the leap because we don’t spend any money on curriculum (we unschool), so I felt I could splurge on this. Science/technology/engineering/math are NOT my strong points, so I was happy to let someone else do the work for me here. Especially if these subjects could be introduced in a fun, engaging way without evaluation or pressure of any kind. I wanted something that might inspire her to dig deeper into STEM without external prodding.

I’m glad I didn’t just buy a single box, because our first one was the least impressive one we got, and wasn’t the best representation of what’s available. I mean, it was still good; but if I would have had to make my decision to continue based on that box alone, it would have been a tough one. The next two were completely fabulous and totally won me over, though. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Okay. Let’s cover some of the details.

What does Kiwi Crate cost?

kiwi crate activities

Kiwi Crates are more affordable if you live in the US, because shipping is free there. We live in Canada, and so the shoddy current exchange rate, plus the additional $5.95/month shipping fee, make it more expensive. (Note: Kiwi Crates can be shipped all over the world, with varying shipping costs attached.)

You can check the website for all the details on cost. As for me in Canada, I got the 3-month subscription, and it had a “50% off the first crate” special going at the time. I ended up paying $89 after taxes and shipping, which worked out to about $30CAD per crate. It’s a little spendy.

If I was in the US, it would have cost about $17.29USD/crate for the same subscription, which is a lot more affordable. It would be even less per crate if you got, say, a full year subscription.

There are regular sales on the site. At the moment of this writing, you can get 60% off your first month when you use the code EARLY, but this is always changing. Check the site to see what the current deal is.

What’s inside a Kiwi Crate?

The best way to explain what’s inside a Kiwi Crate is to show you exactly what was in ours!

First Crate: Arcade

The theme of the first crate was “arcade.” It had more of an engineering emphasis.

It contained all the tools and materials to put together a wooden claw. It contained extremely detailed instructions, with pictures, so that she could do all the steps with very little guidance from me. (She probably would have needed almost none if she could read.) It also contained everything she needed to make two little pompom creatures to grab with her claw (including googly eyes!).

kiwi crate arcade 1

kiwi crate arcade 2(Here you can get a glimpse of how beautiful the design is.)

kiwi crate arcade 3(Completely unrelated: Look at those flexible feet. Katy Bowman would be proud!)

Each box also comes with a small magazine, containing a short comic, some activities (games, mazes, etc), ideas for additional projects, and suggestions to extend the use of the crate contents.

kiwi crate magazine

kiwi crate comic

Crate #2: Rainbow Optics

This was the first crate to really dazzle us. In it, we learned all about light! It contained:

Everything needed to make a beautiful colour-changing lamp:

rainbow optics 2Everything needed to make this shadow projection box, including finger lights:

rainbow optics 1

mixing coloured light

And a pair of glasses that breaks white light into coloured light. Here’s a shot of what it looked like to look at our kitchen pot lights through them:

Just so awesome. Even I learned a lot about mixing coloured light!

Box #3: Secret Agent

This box was the absolute coolest, and was the most fun. (But also maybe the least science-y. I don’t know if we learned anything beyond “UV lights are so cool!”) It included…

Everything you need to make a periscope, for spying around corners:

kiwi crate periscope

Everything you need to make a briefcase full of materials for writing secret messages:

kiwi crate secret agent

There were two ways to share secret messages: either by writing with the included markers on red squiggly “spy paper,” which you can decipher if you wear the red “spy glasses”:

secret message(Through the glasses you can see the message “I LOVE YOU MOM” — awwwww)

Or by writing on white paper with the invisible pen, and then shining the included UV light onto it:

kiwi crate UV light(Lydia decided to use it to practice math equations. I did not dissuade her.)

The included magazine gave us lots of ideas for additional spy activities the next day, including taking fingerprints and writing secret messages with lemon juice, which can be revealed with a hot iron (not pictured).

Final Verdict

Well. After our first three month subscription ran out, I went ahead and got another six-month subscription. I decided it was worth it!

The cost is a bit more than I would prefer, but Lydia just had so much fun putting them together, and the magazines sparked lots of interesting experiments and learning opportunities for us to bond over that I really appreciated. Plus, it’s really fun for Lydia to get stuff in the mail with her own name on it!

I would especially recommend them for US residents, for whom they are more affordable.

I think a Kiwi Crate subscription would make a great gift, especially for kids who already have all the toys they need. Remember, there are different boxes for different ages! If you order now, you can probably get the first box in time for Christmas!

Again, if you make a purchase through my referral link, you get $10 off your first crate.

What do you think? Does Kiwi Crate look worth it to you?

 

Make Your Own Black Walnut Ink

homemade black walnut ink2Hi friends! In my last post, I talked about my recent adventures in dyeing wool with plants. Today, I want to share another really fun experiment I tried: making my own blank walnut ink! It was incredibly rewarding.

I followed the instructions offered by You Grow Girl, but honestly, it’s so easy you hardly need instructions.

First, my daughter and I collected about 20 black walnuts off the ground from a local park. We did this in late September. They were still green, but we wanted to grab them before the squirrels got them all. The pigment comes from the skin, so you need them to have the skin still intact.

black walnuts

Then I threw them in an enameled stock pot, covered them with water, and left them outside to let them blacken and ferment for about three weeks. (Note: by the end, there was a tiny bit of mould floating on top. I just scooped it off with a slotted spoon. It didn’t harm the finished ink.)

Then I put it on an outdoor burner and let it simmer for a couple of hours. (It has a strong, woodsy smell, so I preferred to do it outside). Then I just turned it off and let it cool overnight.

boiling

The next morning, I strained out the walnuts (I left them outside for the squirrels to help themselves to) and moved the ink to a smaller pot. I let it simmer a little longer on the stove inside to increase the intensity of the pigment.

Annnnd… that’s it! I ended up with about two cups of liquid. I was amazed to discover that the very first time I dipped my pen into the still-warm liquid, I had a gorgeous, brown-black ink that flowed perfectly and dried with a slight sheen. It worked beautifully with my inexpensive pointed nib pen. (I have this set of nibs with this holder — the ink works great with the 512 — the total ensemble costs less than $10.)

I added a few tablespoons of rubbing alcohol as a preservative.

I transferred a small amount into a tiny glass jar I’d saved, to make dipping easier.

black walnut ink

After testing the ink out on different papers, I found that it worked best on my Strathmore Calligraphy paper. (It doesn’t bleed, and it doesn’t snag on the nib.) It was so fun, Lydia couldn’t stop playing with it.

drawing with walnut ink

black walnut ink drawinglady knight, done in black walnut ink

I was amazed how well the ink and pen worked together: I could write up to three sentences out with a single dip. And it’s so fun! You feel like Shakespeare! (Note: I realize he probably used oak gall ink.)

black walut ink test

It works great in calligraphy…

black walnut ink calligraphy(Full disclosure: I practised about 20 times before creating what you see here)

A few days later I learned how to make a folded pen and gave it a whirl with my new ink. I LOVED the results.

homemade folded pen and black walnut ink

All in all, the whole experience was just so fun and satisfying, and didn’t take much time or effort.

I honestly prefer my homemade ink to the India ink and calligraphy ink I’ve purchased! It looks deeper and richer when it dries. It does take a long time to dry, though, which is especially challenging as a leftie.

If you’ve got access to a black walnut tree dropping nuts onto the ground (and, you know, I desire to use a dip pen), I highly recommend giving it a try!

Experiments in Dyeing Wool With Plants

dyeing wool with plants

Hi friends! Since I can’t seem to decide what this blog is about, I thought it would be fun to share my recent adventures in natural dyeing!

As regular readers know, I’ve been knitting and crocheting for four years now. That’s what got me interested in fibre arts. When I stumbled upon a blog post where someone used goldenrod (which grows plentifully in our neighbourhood) to dye fabric, I thought it would be fun to try dyeing some wool yarn with plants. I already had some undyed wool in my stash I could try it on.

So I did what I always do in such situations: I took a book on the subject out of the library.

harvesting color book

This is Harvesting Color: How to Find Plants and Make Natural Dye by Rebecca Burgess, and it is perfect. I learned all about mordants and afterbaths. She has recipes for all kinds of wild plant dyes from all over North America, organized by season.

Flipping through the book, I was thrilled to discover that you can make natural dyes from a number of plants that grow naturally in the waste spaces around our neighbourhood, and that I was currently in the perfect season (September) to harvest several of them. I decided to try three of them: goldenrod, staghorn sumac, and pokeberry (pokeweed).

Going for walks to harvest plants with Lydia was a lot of fun: she felt so proud as she tried to find the best flowers and berries for the job. And what could possibly feel more wholesome than taking a barefoot walk down a nature trail and filling a woven basket with local wildflowers to dye your own wool? Nothing, that’s what.

Note: I won’t go into too much detail about how exactly I did all this. I highly recommend checking out the above book. I just wanted to share briefly, with the hopes that it might inspire you to try something interesting and new, too!

(I did all of these very slowly, one at a time, over the course of several weeks. They often involved soaking overnight. But I’m cramming them all together in this post.)

So first, we gathered:

Goldenrod:

goldenrod

Staghorn sumac cones:

sumac

pokeberries:

pokeberries

Then I made the dyes!

All of these plants required slightly different treatments, though they all involved simmering the plant matter in water for a few hours, straining, and then simmering the yarn in the dye for an hour or two. Most, I allowed to cool and soak overnight as well.

goldenrod dye(goldenrod dye)

pokeberry dye(pokeberry dye)

Then I squeezed out the liquid, rinsed, and hung them out to dry.

goldenrod hanging

In every case, I was surprised by the final colour: none of them quite matched the colour of the original plant matter.

natural plant dyes - goldenrod, sumac, pokeberry

Here’s a closer look at each:

The bright goldenrod flowers produced a soft, buttery yellow:

natural goldenrod dye

The red sumac berries/cones produced a golden-bronzy colour:

natural sumac dye

And most surprising of all, the purple pokeberries — which turn bright fushia when crushed — produced a deep scarlet:

homemade pokeberry dye

All in all, I was quite happy with the results. It was a fun learning experience! Next year I would use more goldenrod flowers, with the hopes that I could get a brighter colour.

Have you ever tried dyeing with plants? What should I try next?

Why We’re Opting Out of School, Part Two: Problems with Mainstream Schooling

classroomImage credit

Yesterday I started to talk about why we’re choosing to homeschool (well, unschool) our daughter, acknowledging that there are some weaknesses, and that I’m coming from a place of privilege to be able to make this choice. Today I wanted to explore some of the concerns I have with mainstream education, and the reasons we are choosing to opt out. (Note: most of the following was lifted from a post I wrote several years ago.)

Coerced/Non-Consensual Learning

I’ll come out of the gate with perhaps my most controversial claim: I believe that an adult deciding what a child should learn, and coercing the child to engage with certain material in a prescribed way, is inherently disrespectful to the child. I believe in what John Holt calls “The right of curiosity.” As Holt puts it:

A person’s freedom of learning is part of his freedom of thought, even more basic than his freedom of speech. If we take from someone his right to decide what he will be curious about, we destroy his freedom of thought. We say, in effect, you must think not about what interests and concerns you, but about what interests and concerns us.

And not only is coerced learning morally problematic, it’s not very effective. Humans don’t learn well when they find the subject irrelevant or uninteresting. Learning happens best when the topic is freely chosen by the child, guided by curiosity; learning sticks when the child pursues it willingly, because she can see how the subject is inherently meaningful, useful and/or interesting. Anything that a child is forced to learn is unlikely to be retained long-term.

Grades

Grades serve two main functions: (a) they’re a reward/punishment system to motivate children to perform in a certain way; and (b) to sort children – i.e. to determine who’s smart and who’s not, and where they should go in life.

I’ve discussed the problems with rewards and punishments before: they distract from the real issue at hand; and they discourage intrinsic motivation (i.e. doing things for their own sake) in favor of extrinsic motivation (i.e. doing things for the sake of the reward); and to make matters worse, they’re actually remarkably ineffective at getting children to do what you want them to do.

I believe that children are naturally curious and want to learn. There is no need to use reward and punishment to coerce children into learning – they will learn things on their own if given the resources, time, space, and encouragement.

By contrast, I believe grades can – and do – dampen a child’s natural love of learning, turning the focus towards getting approval.

And you can already guess that I’m uncomfortable with using grades to label and classify human beings.

Competition

Related to grades is the way that school is designed to pit children against one another in a grand, twelve-year contest, to determine who is the smartest and who is… not. Children instinctively understand that they are in competition with one another, that not everyone can be at the top of the class; and they tend to know exactly where they land within the classroom hierarchy. (I, for one, always knew I was at the top; my husband always knew he was near the bottom. This awareness affects the way we see ourselves to this day.)

The competitive nature of school erodes social bonding and discourages collaboration. I’m not a fan.

Tests

Written tests are perhaps the worst way to assess how much children know, how intelligent they are, and how successful they’ll be at performing important daily tasks. Tests cannot accurately gauge intelligence, emotional maturity, or problem-solving skills. (I, for one, am a spectacular test-taker, but not much a problem-solver.) They mostly demonstrate how well a child can memorize material. Yet written tests remain one of the dominant methods for assessing student knowledge.

Irrelevant Curriculum

My experience is that much of what is taught in the classroom is largely irrelevant to real life. Moreover, school privileges certain subjects (math, language, and science) over others (dance, art, music, practical life skills), assuming that these are more useful and will better prepare young people for the work force. This is becoming less and less true, however. Teachers today have very little idea what will be important in 20 years.

(More valuable than a pre-determined curriculum, then, would be working to instill a passionate curiosity and a love of learning, so children can learn what’s important when the time comes.)

Crowd Control

Due to the nature of the classroom setting (i.e. one adult to thirty kids), teachers have to expend enormous amounts of their time and energy on crowd control. So much time is spent getting kids to line up, moving kids from one classroom to another, getting everyone to quiet down and focus on the task at hand, etc., which I feel could be better spent doing more interesting, meaningful things. Like sleeping, for example. (I’m not even joking.)

Age Segregation

In order to make teaching more efficient, and because we want everyone to learn and develop at the exact same rate, we segregate children into classes based on age (or “date of manufacture,” as Ken Robinson puts it). As a consequence, children don’t learn how to interact with people of different ages. We have generations of teenagers who feel uncomfortable around babies and old people, children who are scared to talk to adults, and parents who feel disconnected from their kids. Older kids don’t get to experience the joy of sharing their knowledge with younger kids.

Sedentarism

Large groups of children are easiest to control when they are seated at desks, so children spend much of their time in school in a sedentary state. This is bad for their bodies, and fosters sedentary habits that carry into adulthood.

* * *

So these are a few of the reasons I consider mainstream schooling to be a sub-optimal way for children to learn, and why we’re currently opting out.

If I have the time and inclination, I’m hoping to write a post exploring some of the positive sides of homeschooling/unschooling (e.g. it’s fun! The food at home is better! We don’t have to wear foot-coffins!), besides avoiding the pitfalls I’ve explored here. But that one might come a bit later.

Why We’re Opting Out of School: Introduction

unschooling kids

Note: In this post, I’m only talking about the choices we’re currently making in regards to our typically-abled seven-year-old daughter. We’re still not sure what route we’ll take with our disabled three-year-old son, who has complicated needs. From what I can tell, the Ontario public school system offers some great programs for disabled children which we are currently exploring.

I was going to title this post “Why We Homeschool,” but for some reason that didn’t feel quite right. As I pondered the reason for this feeling, I decided that the title placed the emphasis on the wrong thing. We didn’t so much “choose to homeschool” as “reject the whole notion of schooling.” We decided against disrupting normal life with this strange thing called “school,” and decided to just keep living life with our children.

The thing is, in my opinion, school is the strange, modern invention that begs justification more than homeschooling. Young people have been informally learning how to become capable adults by living alongside their parents, older relatives, and mentors since the beginning of history; education has only been institutionalized within the last two centuries, and the effectiveness of that model has been questionable. (I’ll be exploring that last claim in my next post.)

So far, we simply haven’t found a compelling reason to opt in.

I want to be clear from the start that I am in support of good public schools being available to all, as they provide valuable childcare services to working parents. The way our society is currently set up, many parents need or benefit hugely from being able to send their kids to publicly-funded schools, and I honour and respect that. I support high-quality, tax-funded babysitting to be available for all parents who need to to or want to work outside the home. It’s great that kids learn a few things along the way, too!

The current model of mainstream schooling is a perfectly decent option for those who can’t or don’t want to stay home with their kids. No judgment to those who take advantage of it. Who knows — we may even take advantage of it someday, too.

The fact of the matter is simply that school doesn’t offer anything of much value to us right now.

We don’t currently need or want all-day-every-day childcare. (Though I’ll admit I’d love one or two days of childcare a week to get things done; but unfortunately the current system only offers an all-or-nothing model).

And I can indisputably provide a superior education for my child than a school can, with little effort: not because I’m a better teacher than most teachers are — I’m sure that’s not true — but simply because I only have one pupil. I can provide one-on-one support, a flexible schedule, and an immersive, hands-on, tailor-made learning experience. There’s no way a single teacher can provide an education of equal value to 30 children, all stored in a single building for six hours a day, simultaneously.

I also recognize that it takes a certain amount of privilege to be able to make this decision. My husband and I don’t make a lot of money, but we have access to a number of other resources to make staying home with the kids full-time possible. I acknowledge my privilege within this conversation as a white, married, abled, educated, English-speaking citizen.

I also acknowledge that homeschooling — even unschooling — is far from perfect.

It can be a little lonely/isolating. I would love for my daughter to have more ready access to other children (and adults, for that matter). The way our society is currently organized, I have to put a lot of effort into making sure she interacts with people outside our family. That sucks. (But this is mostly just because so many kids go to school and are unavailable to play most of the day. If more kids homeschooled we wouldn’t have this problem!)

Homeschooling also tends to be an inefficient way to use resources, because in most cases each nuclear family must purchase their own equipment, materials, tools, etc, for individual use. I wish it was easier to share resources among families.

But so far, it seems to be the best option available to us.

I initially tried to tackle the entire subject of homeschooling in an entire post, but it quickly got too long, so I decided to break it up into two (or maybe three).

In the next post, I want to explore some of the concerns I have with mainstream education, and the more complex reasons we are choosing to opt out.

How Having a Disabled Child Has Made Me Closer to Jesus

If you’ve ever read the Gospels, you will probably agree that Jesus is one confusing dude.

(If you disagree, and think his message is actually quite simple . . . then you and I must not be reading the same book.)

The guy speaks in riddles, answers questions with questions, and tells bizarre parables. At times he seems to contradict himself, the Old Testament, and other authors of the New Testament. You can read the same words twelve times over twelve years and get something different every time. Folks have been debating the meaning of his words for centuries.

But to me, one thing seems clear about Jesus: he really loves losers and is not a fan of winners.

Think about it. Think about the people he chose as disciples, the people he chose to hang out with. Think of the people he healed. And then think about who he criticized.

It is clear to me that Jesus loves outcasts and weirdos, sinners and sick people. His favourite people appear to be the weak, the vulnerable, the poor, and the desperate. He hung out with snot-nosed children and actual prostitutes, and showed compassion to the disabled and the chronically ill.

And he was downright vicious to the wealthy religious elites.

As he famously said, the first shall be last and the last shall be first (Matt 20:16).

He tells his followers that the Kingdom belongs to children, the most vulnerable class of humans (Matt 19:14). He told a rich man to become poor in order to follow him (Matt 19:21). In his most famous sermon, he said: “Blessed are the poor in spirit… Blessed are those who mourn… the meek… those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…  the merciful… the pure in heart… the peacemakers… those who are persecuted because of righteousness.”

Watching and listening to Jesus, I get the sense that the gospel is good news for the marginalized and it is bad news for the rich and powerful.

In Jesus’s crazy, backwards world, the losers are already on top, and the winners have a lot to learn.

And guys, here’s where Jesus gets complicated for me: I have been a winner all my life.

I’ve lived my life covered and surrounded by privilege. I’m white, I’m straight, I’m abled, I’m educated . . . the list goes on. My family is privileged. My friends are all privileged. My church is all privileged.

So it’s no wonder to me now that the gospel has never really clicked in my life. How could I — a member of the privileged class — really understand a gospel that was meant for the desperately poor, oppressed and broken?

It only really started to make sense to me when I gave birth to a medically fragile/disabled child. The experience slowly opened up my eyes and ears to the experiences of the marginalized, and I’m only now feeling like I’m starting to connect with Jesus.

I was given responsibility for a child who was completely vulnerable and dependent on others simply to survive.

This little person who required tubes in his stomach and IV’s in his body to survive? Who would never learn to articulate his needs verbally, or use a bathroom independently, or or even feed himself without help? This was the kind of person I knew Jesus was drawn to. This little boy was counted among the blessed. He was the kind of person Jesus died for, who was already first in line for blessings.

Jesus tells us we ought to become poor, becoming vulnerable like children, if we want to be blessed. And here was a person who already was those things.

And I began to realize that the reason I had never really understood the gospel before was because I’d never really been in a position to receive it. I always already had everything I needed — love, health, security, esteem. Jesus is the King of Losers. He didn’t really have anything to offer someone like me.

But here in my arms was a child who had almost none of the things I was born with.

Jesus came into the world bearing gifts for those who have nothing.  For the rich and powerful, Jesus mostly has severe warnings.

That’s why he famously said that it’s harder for a rope to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom.*

Caring for my disabled son has forced me to recognize my own privilege, which in turn is forcing me to acknowledge the lack of privilege many others experience. I have had to take some long, painful looks in the mirror, and face the fact that I am among those for whom Jesus mostly had scathing words of condemnation.

By contrast, I have had to come to terms with the belovedness of those whom I’ve ignored, judged, or scorned — people who seemed weak, pathetic, or uninteresting. I realized I was overlooking Jesus’s absolute favourite people. It’s a hard thing to admit.

Again: Jesus. Loves. Losers. So if I want to get to know and understand Jesus, I need to get to know the folks most deemed losers by the powerful.

I have been discovering, over the last four years, that I need to learn from my son and others like him. The people Jesus called “the least of these.” The people we might call “the marginalized.” The poor, the neglected, the devalued and dehumanized. The sick, the dying, the lonely, the outcast.

In our society, this tends to include:

  • sex workers
  • people of colour
  • LGBTQ+ folks
  • disabled folks
  • people with chronic and/or mental illness
  • incarcerated people
  • folks experiencing homelessness
  • folks struggling with addiction
  • single mothers
  • children.

They are already favoured by God. They hold the key to Jesus’ Kingdom.

So for those of us who are privileged? We need to get closer to the marginalized. We need to listen to them and learn from them. We need to elevate and emulate them. I need to sit at the feet of these people and just soak in their wisdom.

I may be a mother to a disabled child, but I’m still totally privileged; so I still don’t think I can really grasp Jesus’ Good News. But I’m starting to look to Jesus’ favourite people to see what I can learn from them.

I would like to invite you to join me.

If you are privileged, you need to listen to marginalized people. If you’re only learning about God from other privileged (*ahem* — white, male, straight, middle-class, abled people), you are not getting at the heart of Jesus.

If that seems like an overwhelmingly huge task to take on, start here: commit to following one or two people who belong to marginalized groups on social media. Someone from the LGBTQ+ community, maybe, or a disabled person. Seek a few out and just start listening to their stories. (They absolutely do not have to be Christian.)

Or if you don’t really do social media, commit to reading at least one book by an author who belongs to a marginalized group. Like an immigrant, perhaps, or a Muslim.

(Of course, befriend these people in real life, too. I’m just wary of making a concerted effort to befriend a marginalized person as you risk tokenizing them. Perhaps start by listening so that you will know how to be a good friend when the opportunity arises.)

I have just begun to do this in the last two years and it has been utterly transformative. I finally feel like I’m starting to see the face of Jesus. (In ways I never did going to white Evangelical church.)

I know I have lots of work to do. The first person I am going to look to is one who is already in my life: my son.

He already belongs to Jesus, wholly and fully. I need to become more like him.

* (Yeah, I know you’ve heard it translated “camel” rather than “rope.” That’s probably wrong.)

playing in pool

8 Things I Learned This Summer

I’m taking a cue from Emily P. Freeman and sharing what I learned over the last season.

(I’m increasingly a fan of this type of post. Join me in reflecting on what I’ve learned over the last three months!)

1. I am AMAZING when I’m able to sleep.

20180813_143916_resizedJust taking a nap at 7am, like a normal person

During the month of July, Felix beat his all-time record by sleeping through about 80% of the nights. And I couldn’t believe the difference in myself. For the first time in almost four years I was

  • productive!
  • creative!
  • patient!
  • optimistic!
  • efficient!

By August he’d gone back to his old shenanigans of sleeping through about 0% of the nights, and I hate everyone and everything. It’s a struggle to keep everyone fed and clothed. It makes me wonder how much more I would accomplish in life if I was consistently able to sleep at night. We may never know.

(I wrote almost this whole post in July.)

2. All about broody hens and hatching chicks.
broody hen

In late May we noticed that one of our four laying hens wouldn’t leave her nest. We were worried she was sick. But when we went to take a look at her, she growled and pecked at us. Since I grew up around chickens, I was pretty sure I knew what was going on: we had our first broody hen.

(For those not familiar with chicken husbandry, “going broody” is what a hen does when she wants to hatch chicks. Normally, she’ll just lay her daily egg in one of the nests and then go on with her day, scratching and pecking the ground with her gal pals. Many hens go their whole lives satisfied with this arrangement. But sometimes a hen will decide she wants babies. She will stop eating and drinking and just stay in her nest, growing her clutch of eggs and acting aggressive towards intruders, with the intent to hatch out a little flock of chicks.)

Since we don’t have any roosters in our flock, our girl was unfortunately wasting her time with infertile eggs. We could have tried to “break” her of her broodiness, but we decided to try to set her up with some fertile eggs and see if she could hatch some.

We created a safe, comfortable nest for her and put a dozen eggs from my parents’ co-ed flock in it, setting her on top. (We did this at night, when chickens basically let you do anything you want to them.)

sitting hen

She sat there for 22 days, only leaving her nest once a day to eat, drink, and take a quick dust bath.

Just when we thought we weren’t going to see any chicks, we heard some peeping. Over the next 24 hours, we got six baby chicks! (Of the remaining eggs, two died in the process of hatching. The rest were duds.)

chicks(If you look closely, you can see two chicks peeking out from under her.)

It was a wonderful experience. It has been so fun watching our hen turn into a mama, protectively guiding her chicks all over the run, showing them where to find food. It’s been a treat!

mother hen and chicks

3. I guess I prefer loose and flowy clothes now?

clothes collage

For the last number of years, my “uniform” has been skinny jeans and a button-down shirt. My closet was almost exclusively filled with these items. Lots of navy blue, kelly green, and stripes. It made things easy. I could look put-together with minimal effort. (I don’t do layers and I don’t do accessories. I am truly a minimalist when it comes to getting dressed.)

But this year I got money from both sets of parents for my birthday, and I decided to go on a shopping trip for clothes — my old jeans and shirts were all several years old, and looked worn out. And I came back with soft pants and loose, flowy tops. Florals and neutrals and deep reds. (Still lots of stripes).

Wait, when did that happen? I wondered. I hadn’t made a conscious decision to recreate my wardrobe. These were just the things that felt “me” right now.

4. That Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is considered the first science fiction novel.

I read and studied this book three times during my undergraduate in literature, and I don’t think anyone ever told me this tidbit. It took watching this short history of sci-fi to realize it.

I was a bit embarrassed to realize I hadn’t known this fact, as I consider myself a fan of sci-fi and fantasy literature. I decided I needed to brush up on my sci-fi history, and watched this whole fascinating series.

5. A backyard sandbox is a pretty zen place even for an adult.

sandbox

We recently designed and built a sandbox in the back yard for Felix, who looooves the sensory experience of sand. We’ve been spending a lot more time in our back yard as a family as a result.

And you know what? Sitting in and playing with sand is actually quite soothing, even for me. It’s very grounding. Just digging and raking around the sand absent-mindedly is a great way to unwind at the end of a busy day. I highly recommend it.

6. What a Snoezelen Room is.

snoezelen

snoezelen room 2

The children’s center Felix attends for therapy recently added a Snoezelen room, and his OT has taken him in there for a few sessions. I’d never heard of one before, so in addition to experiencing it firsthand, I did some research online.

It’s pretty great, and Felix adores it. It’s pronounced “snooze-lin” (it was developed in the Netherlands), and it’s a controlled multisensory environment for people with autism and other developmental disabilities. Its use is meant to be self-directed, and is used both to stimulate and soothe, using lighting effects, color, sounds, music, scents, etc.

From my experience, they’re generally padded and darkened, with different sources of soothing lights, music, and other sensory tools. The room Felix enjoys has a ball pit filled with transparent balls and glowing lights; a sensory board; a tall bubble tube; and fiber optic lights. There are vibrating pads to lay on, and you can turn on classical music and calming projector scenes. He absolutely loves it. I’m considering recreating a similar environment in our own basement.

7. How to do fair isle knitting!

This one is just a brag. I’m very proud to have added this skill to my repertoire. I can now do literally anything in knitting.

fair isle

8. All about monarch butterflies.

monarch life cycle collageWe got some monarch eggs and caterpillars from my sister, and got to watch the whole life cycle several times over. It was an incredible experience! I feel like a monarch expert now! (I wrote a whole post about this.)

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That’s probably more than you wanted to read! Thanks for sticking through it! What did you learn this season?

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