PAM: Welcome. I’m Pam Laricchia from Livingjoyfully.ca. And today I’m here with Shan Burton. Hi, Shan.
PAM: I have been connected with Shane online for many years. So, when I got up the courage to reach out and ask her about coming on the podcast, I was thrilled when she said yes. So to get us started:
Can you share with us a bit about you and your family and what everybody’s up to right now?
SHAN: OK. Well, right now, Miah, who is 18, is walking the dogs.
PAM: Literally right now. (laughing)
SHAN: Literally right now, Lise is making me coffee in my favourite cup because she said she would and she is awesome. But basically Miah’s 18. He just did his first house sitting and dog sitting gig, which grew out of a family dog sitting thing that we have been doing for a couple of clients.
A while back, we needed someone for our dogs when we went to an unschooling camp out and it occurred to me, ‘Hey, I really love dogs, maybe I could do this.’ So, the kids started coming along with me. And it’s become kind of a family project where we have all these new dogs and cats that come along and with them, horses and chickens to watch. And it’s really kind of cool.
He’s also very interested in gaming. We just got us a Switch, which I think will be delivered tomorrow. So, that’ll be a new thing for us. And he’s into tech. He recently learned how to solder so he could fix gaming consoles. He’s still working through what he wants to do, but he’s pretty sure that he’d like to do a trade. He’s thought about apprenticing as a locksmith because he’s been interested in that since he was quite little. He’s figuring things out. Reading a lot of Friendship is Magic fanfiction. And just learned how to play Magic. So, that’s a new thing. Building a great deck.
Lise is 15, almost 15 and a half and she is into furrydom. And she’s very artistic and has been her whole life really. She’s been involved in an over two yearlong fanfiction writing collaboration with her girlfriend. That’s a really cool thing, she will tell me about the plots and the subplots and when they decide to shift the whole thing back because it’s gotten too much. They often both draw art that goes with the characters that they’re doing, which is really kind of cool to see. If I’ve heard about a character, then to see what they look like.
She’s been trying to decide whether she wants to save up for a fur suit or make components of a fur suit. And she’s been doing a lot of research around that and a lot of artistic creativity involved with creating characters. She goes through spurts of doing more or less drawing. But that’s her thing.
Oh, Miah has also been rereading the First Warrior Series recently because he had some time where he was house sitting where he couldn’t game. So, he decided that he’d go back and then he decided to get a library card, which he’d had years ago and hadn’t used for a while, long enough that we weren’t in the system anymore. So, he got a new card and then inquired about making a donation because he would like to see the local library get the second series of warrior’s books online because he doesn’t like to read paper books.
So, I’m 50. I write and deal in chaos. And I have been doing some freelance journaling, covering local government meetings, board meetings, which was really very interesting. However, unfortunately, my editor’s husband passed away rather suddenly and she decided that it wasn’t something she was going to continue doing.
I have had a friend for a few years who has been virtual assisting, and I was very fascinated to talk about what she was doing, but she did a lot of design stuff, which I’m not really good at. So, I thought this isn’t really for me. But then I realized that you can do a lot of writing related stuff, which I’m very good at. And every job I’ve ever had has been a direct service job. So, I really like helping people and knowing I’m helping them. So, I have started taking an online course to launch a virtual assistant career, figuring that I can start small now. And as Lise grows to adulthood, I can ramp up as I like and do something that I can do on my schedule, which is often freakishly late at night and help people and use the skills that I have wherever I happen to be, because I don’t always want to be in one place. I certainly don’t want to be in an office somewhere.
It will allow the spontaneity while I still have people living home who want to do things to be able to do it when they want to.
PAM: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. That’s why I love this first question, finding out what people are up to. Because it’s fascinating all the different things and not only the different things, but how they mesh well with where they are in their life in the moment. Moving to unschooling weaves into our life more doesn’t it. We are not looking for a 30 year corporate career, not necessarily a forever thing. It’s how it meshes with our family in the moment and how it may change over time. So, it’s really interesting to hear about it.
SHAN: I’m going to clean my glasses. I have dog drool on them. (laughing)
PAM: Well, while you do that, I’m going to go to the next question, which was.
I’d love to hear how you discovered unschooling and what your family’s move to unschooling looked like.
SHAN: It found us over and over again, as it turns out. I always knew before I even met my husband, I knew since my early 20s that I wanted to homeschool. I’d never heard about unschooling. I had this idea that I would kind of create what we were going to do and we’d sit at the table and we’d have a lot of free time.
That grew from the fact that I’ve always loved watching children learning, particularly as they were learning to walk and talk. They were becoming, moving from being acted upon to being able to act in their world and show you who they were. I always loved that. So, it occurred to me, if I was going to raise a child for five years, then why would I want to let a teacher have all the fun of seeing their learning evolve? I would miss out and the teacher wouldn’t even enjoy it as much because they have all these other kids. I didn’t want to give that up, so I decided I would do it myself.
Fortunately, I married somebody who was willing to go along with that. Unfortunately for my homeschooling plans… hello Miss Pitbull. (dog enters the room) This is a pit bull. She just goes through doors. Girls, don’t play on the bed. That’s not what it’s for. OK.
So, I happen to have a first born who can smell an agenda 10 miles away. And will go the other direction and backwards. So, I made lessons as interesting as I could. We did things like we would burn a piece of wood in the wood burning stove and I would ask him to draw a picture of Abe Lincoln’s log cabin, which I thought was awesomely cool because he got to use a charred stick. But it was an agenda. It wasn’t his idea. And even at 18, Jeremiah did not like other people’s ideas being imposed on him. So, he resisted, as was his way.
And I would get insistent. I would start yelling because I came from a very abusive home life and didn’t have a lot of the tools for dealing with that. He would cry. Our relationship was being affected. And it was just miserable. During my research on homeschooling, I had happened upon Sandra Dodd’s “Moving a Puddle” essay, which had been my favourite essay in the entire book. I just loved the essay and what it was saying. Well, it didn’t really click until I was on a local homeschool group online and found a meetup for local people who were either radically unschooling or thinking about it. And there was some recommended research before you could attend. It was going to be at a really nice local state park. We were going to go do a hike along the creek. And I wanted to do the hike. So, I did the reading and I was really OK. Right from the start with all the academic stuff. Yes, yes, yes. And then I got to no chores. No bedtimes. Don’t control what they eat and thought, ‘These people are nuts.’
PAM: I remember that moment.
SHAN: But I wanted to go on the hike. I went on the hike and I met the most self-possessed four-year-old child I have met in my entire life and had this fantastic conversation with her. And I thought my kids were at the time 6 and 3. And I thought, I want this for them.
I want them to feel like they can just meet an adult’s eyes and not feel like they are less than or they need to look to or be afraid or anything. I just want them to be able to be who they are.
And in addition to my no agenda kid, I happen to have a spitfire kid who is just big and expansive and I call her a TARDIS because it’s like she’s more than one person packed into that body.
When she was little, she would be doing all these crazy things. And she was tiny when she was little. And people would look at her and say, look at that little girl doing that. And she’d say, “It’s OK. I’m a daredevil.” I wanted to put it on a shirt because she said it so much. And so, she was just bigger than everything.
And Miah was resisting all the agendas. And so, it took about another year before I really committed to it. But from that point on, I kind of was moving toward it. Unfortunately, starting it was a very unwelcome chaos because I let go of all the control and told the kids at great length what I was doing and ended up with situations like 30 pieces of gum on the floor next to the TV where Miah fell asleep.
The pendulum that had been very controlling just went wildly in the other direction. And it probably took about two years before it started to settle out. And those were not the easiest of two years. And really, if I could go back, I would have worked on learning how to manage my own emotions, which I could not do when we started.
That would have been much better because then I would have had at least some ability to manage myself, which I did not. And so, dealing with a 7 and 4year old’s big emotions while trying to deal with my own and the chaos and me needing more order than anyone else in my house needed was not a good recipe. So, I really wish I had taken more to heart the Sandra Dodd’s “read a little, try a little, wait awhile, watch,” Because that would have been so much better. But we did eventually mellow out.
PAM: Thank you so much for sharing that and for sharing the time line as well, because so often people worry and feel like they need to do things quickly. They think, “I need to get there now.’ But it takes the time that it takes. It took you about a year before you were ready and comfortable enough to dive in and then the pendulum swung and then trying to get that back was another couple of years. So, I think that is awesome. That bit of information for people to see that this is a commitment. You’re making a commitment to this. And I love that piece, too, about how looking back you realized that and a lot of guests talk about that, how so much is our work. Work for ourselves. And to that self-awareness piece to get ourselves that the tools that we need or that can be helpful to live this this kind of lifestyle. As you said, you didn’t live this way growing up. So, those weren’t the tools that you had.
No, I did not live at all this way. And I think I actually did more harm than good, in those first few months. And there was a lot of the kids saying, you remember when you were a mean mommy and I had never thought I was mean mommy. So, that was very hard for me to deal with that phase of that. Fortunately, Lise was 4. She barely remembers now. And Miah doesn’t remember at all. And that’s good because there were abusive incidents in his life, more than Lise’s. And I was very afraid that I had broken him. In some of the ways I was broken. So, one of the hugest things unschooling has done for us is it gave me a way not to keep breaking my children. And I can just see that every day.
PAM: I love that. I have goose bumps. It really is a choice to live a different kind of life, isn’t it? At first when you come across it, it’s like homeschooling, unschooling is a kind of homeschooling. We’re looking at their schooling and their learning. But as you learn more about it and I think that’s the important piece when you decide that’s a direction you’d like to take, is to continue learning. Continue learning more about it, about unschooling, how it works, the whole gamut, because it really becomes a full lifestyle, doesn’t it?
SHAN: Oh, yeah. It’s so much more than, the learning and people say it. And I think if people aren’t doing it, they don’t really understand and they think you’re just being lazy about it.
But the learning takes care of itself. That is so little a component of what we’re doing because I’ve got bright and curious kids. I had a bright and curious husband. I’m a bright and curious person. We’re always learning things. All of us, because we like it. It doesn’t have to be a chore or any kind of an effort. It’s really just a matter of allowing there to be resources so people can learn the things they want to learn and time for them to do it and the willingness to go places when needed.
We’re kind of introverts, so there’s not a tremendous amount of going places, but being able to do that when that’s what it needs. Those are really the things that matter. But really what’s so much more important is just knowing each other and respecting each other and making room for each other.
Because the learning, that just happened.
PAM: That just it. That’s another great point that ties into continuing to learn about unschooling, because when someone first comes to unschooling, they’re curious.
They’re wondering, “Well, how are they going to learn math? How are they going to learn history?” Those are their first questions. It isn’t helpful at that point for those of us who are more experienced to say, “Oh, don’t worry about the learning. It just happens.” Because it doesn’t make sense yet. Until they keep learning about how unschooling works, how humans are curious, how humans naturally learn when they start watching their kids without putting the agenda on top of it and watching them over time to see that they’re always learning, that they’re learning every moment. That’s all a part of that first year.
SHAN: I have a great story about early on. We decided to take the kids to a local water park that was having a winter midweek special. Jim found it and it was a decent price. We could go for half a day for twenty dollars apiece. And so, we bought the tickets. We told the kids we were taking them swimming at the Y and we snuck a few extra changes, clothes and everything into bags and loaded them in the car. And at some point, Miah’s like, “This isn’t the way to the Y. We’ve gone too far.”
And so in the car Jim is talking about how he’s OK with this home schooling thing, but he’s a little worried about how are they going to know what four times two is and not five minutes later, Miah asks (They had already realized this point where we were going and we had fessed up.) “So how much is this going to cost?” And I said, “Oh, the passes are $20 dollars apiece.” And he said, “Oh, so $80”. And I said, “OK. There’s your 4×2 question, are you OK with this?” He was like, “OK, I’m good.”
And at another point, Lise was playing with her model horses and she had four horses and she said, “I have four horses and they all have 4 legs, that’s 16 legs.” And, you know, it’s just that easy. How it works out and you don’t really think about it, about them learning it because you don’t see it because it’s internal. And then it pops out.
PAM: When we talk about paying attention to our kids and I talk about observing them, I mean, not just observing what they do all the time, but noticing and paying attention, because that’s when you really see because the learning is happening inside them. As you say, you have to notice when they say, hey, 16 legs or, oh, 80 bucks total. And you need that little moment of awareness to take that in and say, see, they’re putting this stuff together.
SHAN: Particularly with some kids. Jeremiah is a very private kind of guy. He’s not secretive. He’s just private. He doesn’t think to mention what’s going on inside of him at any given time, because he just doesn’t and his dad was the same way.
PAM: It’s important all the time, because you know what? I think it’s a skill we have to learn at first, as parents to pay attention and process and bring in what our kids are interested in, what they’re talking about, because then we know where their mind is at, we can bring the most interesting little pieces in for them, not something that we think they should know, but stuff that’s actually meeting them where they are. That makes a world of difference, doesn’t it?
SHAN: Yeah, it’s lucky for me. It’s the one lucky thing about living where I live. New York has a lot of homeschool regulations. It’s how the law is written. So, if you’re not sending your kids to school, you must be doing something criminal and we’re going to make sure you’re not. So, there’s a lot of reporting requirements. And the good thing about it, although I curse it every time I have to do it and I have one coming up and I’m going to have to do it. I’ve been putting it off and I’ll grumble and groan when it’s time to do it, because it’s most boring writing I ever do. And life is so interesting and writing about it is so dull.
But because I have to continually, five times or more a year, translate what we’re doing into school speak, I find that I’m routinely having to look at what was learned. And keep my eyes open. But what was particularly interesting, as the kids get older, you know, as Miah was entering his last year, they finished the requirements. So, his last year I called independent study, which was kind of hysterical because it was all independent study. But they didn’t know that. But I think Lise is on target to do the same thing. That would be her sophomore year. And she’s pretty much taking care of half of her high school requirements and will probably finish them up this year and have next year to do what she likes to do. But because I have to continually look at what they were doing and put it into categories as they’re older. I think it’s a little trickier because what you’re doing in their room or at the computer in the living room and strangely, they don’t like it if I stand there and look over their shoulders. I don’t know what that’s about! (laughing)
So I’ve actually had to ask “Hey would you send me a note every now and then about what you’re doing so that I kind of have an idea?”
So, one day I came home and I learned some things I had never learned, like buttercups are poisonous. I didn’t know buttercups were poisonous. I also didn’t know why they’re shiny. But apparently, they’re shiny because of their cell structure, which I did not know. But she knew because she was researching it for her fanfiction. And so, I really like it. They naturally will go research something if they’re writing something and they want a good line because they’ve seen me doing that their whole lives.
PAM: Exactly. That’s great. It’s just taking your lives and putting it into educationese, into the right words and into the right sections.
SHAN: School speak. I’m lucky now, though, because the school superintendent that I have to report to now graduated with me. So, I’ve known her since kindergarten. It translates pretty well because she knew that I was reasonably smart in school. So, yeah, she probably is not assuming that I’m going to be neglectful of my kids learning.
So, she accepts everything where the previous one was very tyrannical. And that led to a lot of me quoting the regs back at him because he was trying to force us to do things that were not required in the law. It just became a kind of nightmare. Without that, we got the new one and I’m very happy with her.
PAM: And that’s another great piece to remind people as you’re coming to unschooling is to read the law for wherever you are so that you understand what the requirements are so that you can meet them. And also, so that you’re not getting pushed around and doing more than is needed as well.
SHAN: I started reading them on my own when Lise was two years old. Now I read them at least once a year, usually again, at least in part while I’m doing the recording so I can keep track of where we are in relation to compliance.
And Miah, of course, is done. That doesn’t mean he stops learning of course. It just means I don’t have to record it and I don’t have to ask. I can wait for him to volunteer things, instead of asking.
PAM: I know that’s a great point because his life didn’t change at all from one day to the next. You just stopped having to translate it.
SHAN: Yeah, that’s the thing he’s been saying about turning 18 too. He’s like, “Oh, so I’m magically more responsible now than I was yesterday?” I think a lot of these conversations are like, “You know, I could just get up and leave and you could do nothing about it.” Like, well, except get my bank card back from you. That would be a thing I could do. I’m like, look I’m feeding you but there’s no law that says I have to do that. And it’s just very weird to us because, you know, it’s not a question of whether I’m going to stop feeding him or him walking away. When he decides that it’s time to go, he is, of course, going to have full support to do that.
But it’s just a very weird thing. The external, this age and Lise and I were talking last night about the idea of a couple, if one member of the couple is older as they’re teenagers and becomes the legal age of consent, and the other one is not, there are some states where that can be a real problem. Where the day before it wouldn’t be a problem, which is a very strange thing to both of us. I think consent should be more tied to whether you’re developmentally ready to make a decision like that and where a 15 and a 16-year-old or a 15 and 18-year-old maybe could consent, but a 15-year-old and a 30-year-old. You’ve got to think there’s probably a lot more ability for a 30-year-old to coerce and groom and kind of talk someone into something or manipulate.
And that would be a little more worrisome where if it’s somebody they had known who just suddenly became an arbitrary age. Those things are weird to me.
PAM: Yeah. Yeah. And those are the kinds of conversations that come up in unschooling homes, aren’t they? That’s part of the relationships that we’re choosing to develop and the connection and the trust. That level of trust to be able to have those kinds of conversations without anyone feeling judged.
SHAN: I’m sorry. She sounds like she’s trying to kill the other dog.
PAM: But they’re having fun, right?
SHAN: I bet they’ll fall asleep together. It’s funny because the lab is much more talkative. But normally the pit bull is very quiet, normally. But when they play, she sounds like a stereotypical pit bull, like she’s just going to try to kill. We’ve had the puppies since she was 5 weeks old. This lab is 10 pounds heavier than her, she’s grabbing her by the legs in the back of the neck and dragging her around. And she never even puts her teeth on it, but she makes a lot of noise.
PAM: This probably is a great lead into the next question.
I love that your online presences is totally woven around the idea of “lovely chaos.” I would love to hear how that came about and what that means to you.
SHAN: Well, it’s a funny story how it came about. It’s totally not an unschooling story. But I was taking a course on blogging and branding for writers. And one of the assignments was to create a word cloud with words about you and your life or whatever. The person running the course would take these and put them into a generator, which would pop out some potential taglines for your blog. And I don’t even remember what the other choices were, but the second I saw “Lovely Chaos,” I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s not just the tagline. That is my life. Has been my life. That is my life. I can’t imagine that wouldn’t be my life.’ And so I ran with it.
I made it not the tag line, I made it the title of my blog. I made it the title of my Web site. And I basically just started embracing it in my life wherever. Wherever it might happen to be, it actually made life easier. I had a moment some years ago, like I said, I need more order than the people I live with, and Jim, I’ve come to realize going through things after his death, if he wasn’t a hoarder, he was one step below a hoarder. He was a wonderful man, but neat he was not he. So, the house would often be just in total disarray when the kids were young and moving from this thing to that thing and combining this thing with that thing.
And as I mentioned, I have an expansive child. So, if she was going to do watercolour, she wasn’t going to do one watercolour. She was going to do 25 watercolours in a row and then maybe line them up on the living room floor. In the meantime, Miah would be making a machine over here and the machine would get all expansive.
And it was just chaos, most of the time. But I went up into our garage where we kept our firewood and came back in with the firewood and saw the living room from the angle at the other end, our living room is long and narrow. So, it just was a whole different view on it. And I looked and I’m like, ‘This isn’t a mess. It’s a yes!” It was me being able to say yes to the things that they wanted to do.
And then I realized that it took like nine minutes. I think I talked about this years and years back that it took nine minutes to clean up the living room to a point where I could live with it. And I had gone through years and years and years of angst and sometimes still do for nine minutes. And so, these things kind of worked together with the whole “lovely chaos” thing. And now I think I’m more likely to be able to take things as they come and laugh at them, like dogs wrestling on the bed when they shouldn’t be wrestling on the bed. But they know that my back is turned on them and so they can get away with it.
Just being able to accept the chaos that happens and celebrate it as, yeah, this is life. And life can get crazy and messy and weird, but isn’t it cool?
PAM: I just love the juxtaposition of lovely and chaos because so often when you hear the word chaos, nobody thinks about it positively. And that story you shared is just a beautiful description of that. That little shift when I see lovely chaos, it just reminds me to take that moment to shift and say, oh, hey, look, look at this from another perspective and see what else you can see.
It’s not about faking yourself into it or anything like that, but it’s about really opening your eyes and seeing it from another perspective. I often talk about seeing things through our kid’s eyes. And how different it looks to them. It’s not about the mess but it’s about the watercolour exploration or figuring out the motor and then the realization about the nine minutes. It really doesn’t take long but it doesn’t mean ignoring ourselves either. You can tidy it up enough when they’re finished or are happy with it to shift it such that it also meets your needs.
SHAN: They slept sometimes, when they were little. It was hard for a long time because I had been so horrible about cleaning up that for a long time there was no willingness to help me do that. That was me, I shot myself in the foot and had to live with it for a long time. But the funny thing is that now. I see that Jim was not tidy. And that was something we would argue about. Things are tidier now than they were when there were two adults around to do things. And there are two adults. But, you know, Miah is not you know, I don’t …That was a thing. He was already a large guy. When Jim got sick. So, I had to work very hard not to put him in an adult role because he was 16. And I wanted to be sure he got to have the rest of his childhood. Even though he had already told me that he hadn’t felt like a kid for about a year at that point. But I wanted to honour his freedom. But he really kind of step up into a lot of things.
Now he has started to notice when things need to be taken care of and is more willing to help take care of them. And I think we all gravitate towards liking things tidier than Jim did. So, there’s still like Lovely Chaos. I’ve got my room, in the middle of my room. It’s pretty nice. I got my workstation here, my bed is really pretty. I’ve got furniture I like. I’ve changed things around in my room to make them more personal, but my ceiling and my floor are not great.
And so I was like, OK, I have plans. But there’s other things that have to happen first. And the other things like we have ceilings that have collapsed in a couple of places because our roof leaks for years and we couldn’t afford to get it fixed. And Jim would go up and patch the roof. And it was a whole cycle. He actually patched the roof one time after he was diagnosed and was just up on the roof, working on the roof. We were finally able to use some of the life insurance money to get a new roof, but the ceilings. And so, the ceilings had wait until the roof was done because you can’t fix your ceiling before the roof. There’s no point for that.
So, it became a waiting game. And now there have been other things that have taken precedence. And eventually we’ll get all of these things done. But you have to decide what you’re going to do. You have to decide how you’re going to do it. If you’re going to do it yourself or have somebody else do it, what it’s going to look like when you’re going to put it in. And so, I’m just kind of look at it as, OK, Lovely Chaos is the ceiling in my room, not a big deal. The floor is not a big deal. There are other places that need more attention. So, I’ll focus on the part I can do and let the chaos part be and try to make some loveliness in the middle of the space, literally, in this case, in the middle of the space.
PAM: That’s so true. And that’s the whole thing about priorities, right? Just talking. Just thinking to ourselves, talking with our kids, spouse, whoever. Whoever’s in our family mix. My dad lives with us as well. It’s just figuring out, and the priorities change over time, can change over time as different things come up. But the lovely piece is knowing that in the moment it’s all good, right? I mean, you’re there. You’re doing your things not to take it on as weight that you have to carry with you every moment.
PAM: Now, you mentioned Jim already, and I was very sorry to hear of his passing last year. And I can only imagine how much that shook your family’s world and how that continues to weave through your days.
You’ve been speaking about that and you mentioned before our call how you found that unschooling principles were really helpful during that time when he was sick. And I’d love to hear more about your experience with that.
SHAN: Yes, there is so much. I don’t think I could possibly put into language all the ways I think unschooling has helped, but one of the big ones for me is that:
Because of unschooling, I was able to understand the difference between pain, which is the thing that happens that you don’t want to happen and it’s gonna hurt and suffering, which is killing yourself with stories about how it’s not fair, it’s not right. This is so horrible. This has shattered my entire world.
So, I made a decision that I was and I made this decision a long time ago, but I applied it here too. That I wasn’t going to live in suffering that I had over 20 years to be married to my very best friend. We promised each other when we got married to be one another’s accomplice in mischief. And we totally did.
He was from Oregon. I was from upstate New York. And we met at the Grand Canyon. And we lived in the Everglades. We lived in Yellowstone. Jeremiah was born in Montana. And we lived in Oregon where he was from. We drove across the country three times the last time with a nursing newborn. Don’t do that. It’s horrible. Don’t do that to yourself. Don’t do that to them. It’s terrible.
We had four years of adventure before we had children. We had so, so much fun as a family. He was a connected dad. He gave me these, two amazing living children and another child who lived twelve days. We had things that we were going to fight about forever. If he had lived. And I’m sure that’s probably true in every long lasting relationship. But there’s going to be the things. So, one of the things that I’ve done is by trying to look for possibilities and positives rather than the negatives. I don’t have to have those arguments anymore. That’s nice. It’s nice to be able to remember him with love and not have to argue.
So, another aspect of that was. It was very, very difficult because Jim was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer on November 13th and wanted to die at home and died on January 12th. That’s a really short window of time during which on his first day of chemo, he had a heart attack. Spent ten days in the hospital. And that was his last day of chemo. He came home on hospice after that declined very, very quickly after the end of that visit in December.
So, it was a very strong balancing act for me as I became more of a caretaker and he became less lucid and taking care of two children. Lis was close to her dad her entire life. Miah and Jim had kind of guy relationship. They’d watch a show. They’d talk in monosyllables. They didn’t get deep. They got along great, but they got along great in a guy way. Lise and Jim were different. Miah and I have a similar temperament. Lise and Jim have a similar temperament. And from the day she was born, they were tight. She got along better with him than she does with me. They were fishing buddies. They were cooking buddies. They were just buddies. They watch shark movies together. They often would get up earlier in the morning than Miah or I would and they’d hang out. They watched shows, they watched movies. They’d do whatever and hang out together. He brought her home a set of tools with lavender handles and a lavender bag because she liked fixing things. And they were real tools. But they were in her favourite colour because he knew she liked pretty things. He bought her this unicorn dress she wore for years and years and years because they were out together somewhere and she saw it and it was eight dollars. And so, he bought it for her and she wore it first as a long dress and then a shorter dress and then a tunic and then just a shirt. And then she finally just couldn’t get into it anymore and was heartbroken.
But they had this great lifelong history. And she was 13 and he died. That’s a hard age for a girl anyway. And she had recently identified as bisexual, which makes it even a little harder because it adds a whole other layer with what the worlds might think about that.
And so that was difficult for her and she started withdrawing from Jim and I noticed this. And so, where a traditional parent might have said, “Look, you better spend time with him now because you’re going to run out of it.” I just said to her, “My concern is that you’re going to maybe regret after and you won’t be able to go back and do anything about it.”
And what she said to me was very profound. And I think if I had been a more traditional parent, I would have probably argued with her. But she was so right. She said, “Dad is stopping being human and I hang out with him, but he doesn’t even notice I’m there. And that’s just too sad.” And so, she was pulling away to protect herself as best she could from seeing her buddy, her pal, this very important person in her life declining. And another thing that that I did, we’d have these horribly weird conversations where we kind of became in a limbo state where we were home. Jim had fallen at one point. And then I didn’t want to leave him. So, we were kind of staying home or very close to home or leaving somebody home with him so that he would be all by himself.
And the kids both asked me, when can we go see our friends? Lise’s closest friend lived about 45 minutes away. Miah’s two closest friends live in Pennsylvania. We’re in upstate New York, so that’s about a five hour drive to get to his buddies. And it happen to be while Jim was in the room. And I said, “Honestly, not until dad dies.” And that is such a weird sentence to say. I mean, that is incredibly weird. I just immediately turned to him and said, “I’m so sorry.” And he said, “But it’s true.” And so, he made it easier, probably because of unschooling, because he was very aware. And I think it helped him to know we were going to go on and be OK after him. And it helped me because he wasn’t. “How dare you say something like that?” And it helped the kids when the answer was not until dad dies. And we can’t give you a definitive time on that. To know that I had been on their side helping them do the things they wanted to do and get the things they wanted to have for so many years at that point.
But they knew that I wasn’t putting them off by saying that. It was just the honest truth of that moment. And that was all it could be. And honestly, within two weeks of the time he died. They had both gotten the chance to see their friends, because I really meant it when I said that. Even the trip to Pennsylvania, we worked out so that could happen for him. But it also surrounded the way Jim died. You know that the hospice, he died in our bed because that’s what he always said he wanted to do. So, we honoured his wishes. I asked the kids if they would want to have time with him after he died. And Miah said that, yes, he would. So, he had a few private minutes to spend.
Lise said she would not. And again, she said, “I’m too young to have my innocence ruined by seeing a dead body, especially when it’s my dad. I want to remember him the way he used to be. I don’t want to remember this.” So, she didn’t. And by mutual consent, all four of us, we decided that there wasn’t going to be a funeral or a memorial service because we didn’t want that.
So, he died about 10:40, somewhere between 10:15 and 10:45 on a Friday night. And the kids and I just sat on the big bed where he had died and hung out for several hours just talking and trying to get our lives in order.
And I think not having the funeral or the memorial really helped with that. I mean, Miah went with me to the funeral home the next day to make the arrangements for the cremation. And that helped because I’m not sure how much I would’ve remembered if there hadn’t been somebody else there to back me up.
But we just worked it through that way, did what we felt was right for us.
We sent most of his ashes back to Oregon for his family to bury on his dad’s property, which he had always loved and dreamed of living on. Lise and I found these turtle earrings, Jim had an ear pierced, and he bought turtle earrings because he used to walk through the house saying “Turtle.” We don’t know why he just did. And so, he bought these old turtle earrings and he never got around to wearing them. So, we thought that eventually we will have those turned into one our little lockets with a bit of his ashes for her and for me. And we also have a tree in our front yard where our middle child’s ashes are buried.
And we thought we would put some of the ashes there with Elijah so that they could kind of be together that way. But we haven’t done that yet. We just, I don’t know. I’m not sure it’s particularly meaningful right now to us to do that.
And right now, there’s 18 inches of snow out there. So, it would be kind of difficult. But anyway. So, not doing the funeral seems to help us kind of recenter.
And Jim was a chef. He worked weekends. He worked late at night. So, most of the events, activities that we did, I took the kids to. We travelled together. So, we became really good at the three of us travelling around. We’re in the Northeast. Most of the unschoolers are kind of far flung. So, we would travel to Massachusetts or Pennsylvania to go hang out with other unschoolers. And we kind of got good at doing so. That helped a lot, too, because we were already a cohesive unit of three where Jim came and went and was the person who brought home the money and the food.
But we were able, the three of us were able to quickly form that cohesive unit. Still every minute for the past two years, almost every minute I come up against something that I have to figure out that I wouldn’t have had to figure out, like on Monday, we got 18 and a half inches of snow over the two days. We got a ton of snow. It was ridiculous.
It was the first really big snowstorm I had been in charge of figuring out how we were going to get dug out. And we had to get out for one of our clients on Tuesday. So, we had to get dug out now. So, it was three people, two shovels, two and a half hours where Jim probably would have just taken it over. I wouldn’t have had to go out and do any of it, but it was kind of fun. We laughed. We fell in the snow. It was a ridiculous amount. It was just laughable how much snow there was. What can you do but laugh at it because there’s that much snow. We have been thinking about getting a snow blower, but we just haven’t found the funds to do it.
We decided to look at one. And Miah was like, “Man, I could really have used that snow blower.” And I’m like, yeah, well, maybe by next year. So, the other thing that has come of it is that, is seeing possibilities, but choosing to see the things that have been gained, like I didn’t ask and I wouldn’t have chosen this life, but I’m single and I don’t have to answer to anyone as a partner or what I choose to do in my life.
It’s a very interesting feeling not to have to do that, to feel like I already knew I was on a threshold where the kids were growing up and they were going to become adults and they were going to be responsible for themselves and move into their own lives. And unlike a lot of people, I’ve never really felt a need that I wanted to keep them young. I feel like the point is that you raised them and I’ve enjoyed every age they’ve been. And I really love the revelation of these adult people they are becoming or have become. It’s very cool to me. And I love that the way our friendship has evolved as they get older.
But at the same time, I knew there was that threshold. So, another threshold just kind of came into my life. And so, I feel like I’m in this really interesting, and at first it was very weird middle ground where I suddenly became a widow, which is still a word I have a hard time applying to myself. But it’s you know, that’s the reality. And I’m not really looking for any kind of a relationship, certainly not before Lise is 18, because I don’t think that’s the focus of the shift.
So, I have this this time to kind of figure out where I am. And because Lise’s almost 16 and Miah is 18. They don’t need me the way they did need me. They need me to get them places. He still needs me in the car and Lise needs me as a driver. But other than that, and to provide the money stuff and just, you know, me as a person and their backup, they don’t need me the way they did when they were young. So, I have a lot of time now to do things and figure things out. And then I will have a lot more in a few years. And it’s been kind of this magical time to figure out what I want to do. Which is where the virtual assisting and freelance writing came in. Miah would go to the meetings with me when I went to the meetings, which was really cool because he went only because he enjoyed them. Which, you know, that’s not something you hear a lot.
PAM: Oh, yeah. That’s right. Thank you very much for sharing. It’s a really wonderful look at the family dynamics that come through unschooling, right.
That focus on self-awareness, on understanding ourselves. Like that Lis could say what she needed and even explain what she needed in those moments is awesome. And that you were supportive and totally respectful of that. Those stories are wonderful examples of the kind of lives that we’re building through unschooling.
SHAN: The dogs came as a result of Jim dying. Lise wanted a puppy for years because our previous dog had passed away a couple of years before Jim did. And he was such a good dog. We just didn’t want to rush to get another dog. And Jim had asked me, when he was sick, “Are you going to get another dog after I die?” And I said, “Oh, no, no, no.”
The liberation of not having a dog, not having to worry about a dog when we travel, it’s just amazing. And I don’t want to do that. But Lis had wanting a puppy for a long time. And it became obvious that she would need something to kind of cushion that void in her life and that’s not to say that a puppy is ever going to replace her father. But we found a puppy and got the puppy.
At the same time, I kept finding myself turning around in bed to say something to somebody who wasn’t there. And Charlotte Rae was actually the reason. Charlotte Rae from ‘The Facts of Life.’ I found out she’d been on “Car 54 Where are You?” as somebody’s wife. And that she had done stand-up comedy in the 50s when women really didn’t do that. She was hysterical. And I turned around to say that to Jim, because that was exactly the kind of thing we would’ve shared with one another and gotten a kick out of together. And he was not there. And I thought, ‘I need somebody in this bed with me.’ There has to be somebody. So, if I turn around to say something, I’m not saying it to air.
We had cats, but you know, cats are cats. They are not that interested in being there. If you want them there, they’re there if they want to be there. And the kids were both older and didn’t need to be in the bed with me or filling my emotional needs. It wasn’t going to be a person because I didn’t want that. There was no interest at all in bringing another person in. So, I decided I needed a dog too. So, I adopted an adult dog. I went to the shelter and asked for a pit bull because our previous dog had them part pit bull and a fantastic dog with the kids.
And I know there are tons of them at shelters because they have a bad rap. And so, I went and asked for one that could get along with cats. And within two minutes, we were in love with each other. She came home with me and that was the same week the puppy was born and she belonged to a friend. We spent a 13 hour day when we went to pick up that puppy because she was in a far away town. But she was the puppy of a cousin, of a good friend of mine, and Lis picked her out when she was two days old.
So, we brought her home in five weeks because she would have gone to the Humane Society the next day if we hadn’t brought her home at that age. So, we brought her home and she’s been with us ever since. And they had so much hilarity and they gave us, you know, we have to go walk them. We have to make sure they have food and water. They need a lot of affection because their dogs, not cats and they have added a lot of hilarity to our lives. They’ve added a lot of chaos. Smokey has eaten part of every room in the house, I think literally eaten floors and walls and things. I would say it’s a sign of who we are that not only do we still keep her, we truly love her and find her charming and endearing. Even though she’s eating our house. Not so much now, she doesn’t eat the house as much now.
She did dig a hole in my bedroom floor under my bed, and I thought she had a toy under there. And then it got very cold last winter. And I found that there was a hole in my floor that was not the loveliest of chaos.
But she said, you know, the name is Smokey. I like to say she should have been named Loki, that would have been a better name. But at any rate, adding the dogs was, that was a big thing and not something I expected to do, but it turned out to be exactly what we needed. Miah didn’t adopt a dog. He loves the dogs. And he and my dog in particular, have developed a strong bond with one another. So, she likes to go for a long walk with him most days. And so that turned out to be another kind of, gift, being able to see that taking that on would be a good thing. Maybe came from unschooling as well.
PAM: Yeah, that is another big piece. Being open to different things and being willing to take that step and not being judgmental of our selves previously. You know what I mean? Thinking, ‘No, I said I wasn’t going to get another dog, so I’m not going to do that.’
SHAN: I don’t really believe in an afterlife. Well, if there was one, I can just imagine Jim laughing at that. I mean, with the dog. You did it yourself. He would totally say that. You know, you did that to yourself.
PAM: That’s amazing.
Now, you mentioned Miah turning 18 and I saw a comment you made recently on your blog that I wanted to chat about, which was how one of your goals is to stop saying “the kids” when referencing your children as adults. And that struck me, too, because with my kids, they’re all in their 20s now. And I’ve been feeling a bit uncomfortable for a while about using that phrase. But it’s hard trying to come up with something else to use. Anyway, I’d love to hear your thoughts around that.
SHAN: Well, for what to use, it kind of came a little bit from Lise because several years ago she informed me I’m her spawn point, like in Minecraft.
So, I thought about a couple of subunits. Like the seven of nine dozen on Voyager, but I’m not quite comfortable with them being subs, so I decided to call them the offspring or the offsprung if I’m feeling more playful. I think that’s sprung from me. But they know it comes from that.
My parents, my mother passed away this summer. I’ve been estranged from my parents. They live very close to us. But I have been estranged from them for many years. Because of the way I was raised and because it was becoming toxic for my family. I did try to maintain a relationship between them and my children to the point they wanted it. Yeah, it wasn’t about what my parents wanted. It was about what Miah and Lis wanted and were comfortable. And as they got older, they kind of stopped interacting as much because Miah would say things like “I go and it’s an hour of me trying to have a conversation.” And that became just too much work to do.
My parents had a theory that adults were always superior to children and parents were always superior to their offspring. Which led to the abuses of my childhood continuing to a lesser degree into my adulthood, taking me until after I was 40 to really start to realize this dynamic that had always persisted, and that in my parent’s reality, it was my job to relate with them. It wasn’t really their job to give back. Any more than that, they chose to, they would give back in the way they chose. They would buy gifts for me that didn’t suit who I was. They would, want me to live in ways that suited them. For a quick example: My mother had always said she would never change my children if I didn’t put them in cloth diapers. So, when Miah was born, we had cloth diapers, but they had come out with the covers with the Velcro, and I didn’t like the idea of sticking pins near my child. I’m not that adept with my fingers. I don’t want to take a chance. So, I’d use those the rubber pants. And my mother said she would not change him because she didn’t want to figure out how to use the Velcro covers. Now, if you’ve ever seen those, they’re ridiculously easy. You know, you just pull it up and fasten it over and it’s not difficult. But she wouldn’t change it. And then Lis was born and Lis was born with really sensitive skin. She still has. And for some reason, every time we put her in cotton diaper, she would just develop a horrible rash. So, she wore disposable diapers because they didn’t give her a rash. And my mother had all kinds of judgments to make about the disposable diapers. So, in her mind, it would have been better to stick pins in my older child and give my younger child rashes so I could meet her needs.
And that was the kind of dynamic that existed always with my parents to the point where when I was 40, my father came up to me and put his finger against my tooth to make a point that he was yelling at me. And that was the moment where something clicked. I said, this is not right. This has never been right. This can’t happen. And I think from that idea of them thinking that they still had the right to do that when I was 40, because they were my parents came the idea that I don’t want to confuse my adult children as kids because that sets up a different dynamic, even if you’re unschooling.
If you’re the adult and you have kids, you are responsible for their well-being and their welfare. And you have legal obligations that you have to meet and moral obligations that you have to meet for them. But when they become adults, it’s a different relationship.
You’re kind of cohabiting. You’re more roommates. And I’m still mom as backup. I’m still mom when he needs me. I still feed him. I still do his laundry. And I still, you know, take care of making sure we have good Internet. And I don’t tell him he has to pay for his share of it or anything like that. But it’s now voluntary. And as I’ve said to both of them, they are adults. We can all continue. They can stay as long as they like, as long as we’re all happy. And of course, the parameters for what makes me happy, will be a little different when you’re 20, then they would be if you were 14.
If you’re sitting around waiting for me to do all of the things all of the time when you’re 20, I’m going to feel a little bit like this isn’t an equitable arrangement for everybody. But Miah carry things, he would go do the grocery shopping, I pay for the groceries, but he does the shopping because he says, “Honestly, mom, you’re not as good at it as I am.” And he’s right.
He’s a guy. He goes shopping. When he goes shopping, he goes to buy the things. When I go shopping, I’m always thinking, ‘Oh, this could be good for…’ And then my wide angle brain goes out and thinks about all the things that could be good for. And I end up, you know, even if I don’t come home with anything that wasn’t on the list, I have looked that at least a dozen things that were not on the list and considered them. And so, I can see his point. He’s also more analytical than I am. And he has a plan for getting through the store quickly, which I don’t have. So, we all make the list and then he often will go do the list and he’ll bring the groceries in because he’s 6 foot 3. It’s kind of easy for him to do lifting stuff. And I need to move things, if I’m rearranging my room or rearranging an area of the house. He not only has the big muscles and the brawn, but he has kind of a physics oriented brain where he can see the space, what will fit where, and he can figure out how, what angles you need to move things out and how much force to apply to them to get them where they need to go, which is really cool to me because I don’t have any of that.
I used to watch him when he was 8 play a game called Crayon Physics. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it, but basically there’s a ball and a star and you have to move the ball to the star by drawing things. And there is one particular challenge where the ball is on one side and there’s a ravine with a jeep overturned. And I’m looking at that and thinking I could spend all day and I would not know what to do. And as I’m thinking this literally, he draws a lever and he starts dropping rocks on it. And in 20 seconds, he’s flipped the jeep out of the ravine. I’m thinking, “How does he know how to do that?!” That is so amazing to me. But his brain can just see it.
He didn’t even need necessarily to understand the theories behind what he was doing. He just knew what he needed to do and he did it. And so, he’s very good that way. I think I lost track. Oh, sure the adult thing. I don’t think so. You know, calling him a kid when he’s legally an adult is kind of continuing to have that. ‘I’m the parent. You’re the kid. I’m responsible. You are less so.’ Rather than giving him the full agency now that he’s entitled to under the law for his own life where he settles. Yeah, he could just walk away and I say, yeah, that’s true. Just don’t take the bank card or the car keys.
So, it’s very ingrained. It’s very hard. I keep catching myself and it’s kind of like going way back. Learning not to say teach. It’s kind of the same issue when I was learning how not to think in terms of teaching and learning, but just learned.
The funny thing is, the other day I was telling him something. We were having a conversation. And I kept stumbling, trying not to say the kids or my kids or something. After the third stumble. He’s like, “Mom, why don’t you just say what you’re thinking instead of trying to come up with something different?” So, the funny thing is, it doesn’t bother him. It only bothers me.
PAM: That’s a great point to make because, you know, I haven’t actually asked them. But for me, that’s really what it is, is the dynamic. It just feels off because often when I use the term, it’s when I’m talking about them to other people. And then it feels a little disrespectful, especially when you’re talking to people with a more conventional mindset. When there is always that power dynamic in the parent child relationships. And when I was out there doing things with them and having conversations with parents and they were right there at Karate or Girl Guides or whatever it is what they were doing, it was easier to plant that seed of that more connected and respectful relationship. But by asking that, you know, what were the kids up to. Oh, he’s doing this or she’s doing that or, you know, do I do. Do they want to do this? And I would say, hey, Mike, is that something you want to do? I’d ask them, bring them in all the time of the conversation. But now they’re more out and about. And you’re talking about what are the kids up to and that kind of stuff. And it just feels like you still have that power dynamic in it. So, I am having a little more of a challenge. I’ll have to try offspring. That’s not a common word in my language, in my vocabulary. So, that might be a word that could bring up a whole conversation like “Why are you calling them that?”
SHAN: I’m fortunate in having a son and a daughter. That helps because with just one of each. Then if I say my son to anybody who knows me, they know who I’m talking about. I say my daughter and it’s the same. They know. So, I think it does get a little trickier in situations like yours where you have more than one.
PAM: Well, here we go. We’re at the last question now, and I would love to know what you love most about having chosen to embrace unschooling all those years ago.
What is it that you love most about unschooling?
SHAN: The peace and the joy. I grew up in a house where there was yelling and humiliation, intentional humiliation by parents and sibling rivalry that was encouraged and hitting every single day.
Every single day somebody was getting hit. Somebody was screaming, somebody was being humiliated. My mother had humiliating games for every one of her kids. My older brother was the scapegoat and she would literally get up and she’d say, “It’s picking on so-and-so, day.”
And basically, she was horribly abused as a child. And she just didn’t move beyond that. So, it was a very chaotic environment. And I didn’t realize how much I needed peace until I had it. And when I had it in my own life and got kind of an amount of mastery over my own emotional state and created an environment where it’s noisy, it’s often noisy, it’s usually messy, but it’s peaceful. We like each other here. I like you, you know that, right? (to Lise)
There are so many dogs, like 87 dogs right now or 87 dogs in our house right now and two bodies.
It’s even OK when we disagree with each other. I like to think of it as a single storm cloud. It comes through. It does its thing. We work through it. We figure out a better way. Of course, you know, Lise is 15, there’s a lot of angst that goes with being 15 anyway.
It’s kind of a weird in between. You can really see adulthood. Like when Miah turned 18, that freaked her out.
It’s like, oh, my God, I’m next. I’m not ready for this. And you have to be ready for this year 15. Well, you know, if you can’t go back and pretend. I think like at 14, you can still kind of pretend that it’s not coming up. But at 15, you can’t do that anymore. It’s right there and it’s in your face. And it’s scary. And so, there is a lot of angst. Then she and I having different temperaments. Sometimes we kind of get at each other a little bit, being able to back off and find a place of peace. We were picking the pictures for you to add to the transcript. We had so much fun doing that. We laughed for like two hours during the pictures. And I know we gave you probably way more than you can use but it was so fun.
PAM: I was just looking through them. They’re wonderful.
SHAN: We couldn’t whittle it down any more than that.
And we just had so much fun. I mean, I was remembering, Jim, the picture of her and Jim on the beach. She said, we have to include that. Yeah. I don’t even know what she was telling him. But the poses are just so fantastic. And that really absolutely encapsulates their relationship, the connection they always have. She has a skinny baby thing and he was this great big guy, just like paying attention to what she had to say, whatever that was.
And just looking through these pictures and all the other pictures that we didn’t pick, just laughing and what was I thinking? And then she looked at the house and the state of chaos, because there are so many pictures from the house.
And she’s like, “Oh, you’re amazing.” Gee, thanks. So, it’s never about what might pay off now for all of that, you know, dealing with.
And way back when, I realized that I could have relative sanity, peace or a clean house? But I could not have three. I could have two. I couldn’t have three. Was the best I could. And I chose to let the house go because the other two just mattered more and I don’t regret it.
The house is cleaner now. It’s still not as clean as maybe I would like it as often as I look like it, but I can see it’s evolving to a state of being cleaner and eventually it will be my house and I can kind of keep it to the extent I want to keep it. But right now, it’s not my house. It’s our house. So, we will all share it and as it is.
But the fact that we see each other, we really see each other and we get along with each other.
My kids—my offspring—they don’t just see me as mom. They know who I am. They know I’m kind of a freak for Enterprise and Vulcans and things like that. And they know that I need my coffee if I’m going to be okay in the morning. They know lots of different things about me and who I am and what I like. And I know things about them that are translating as they grow older. And I just see our friendships, shifting, real friendships, not the friendship where I’m trying to be their buddy buddy, but where if I say to them, hey, I don’t think that’s a good idea. They know there’s not an agenda behind it. That’s just me saying, hey, I’m looking out for you and or don’t do that, you know?
And if anybody thinks that unschooling means you can’t say, hey, cut that out, they’re wrong, because sometimes what you’re doing is getting in the way of what somebody else has the right to do and you need to stop doing. And so being able to say that and not have it be a power struggle with just that. Oh, yeah. Maybe I should be doing that.
PAM: It’s like you were saying that it’s not a judgment about the person. It’s about the thing. And you can just have a conversation about the thing, right?
SHAN: Exactly. And being able to do that and looking toward the future, that I can see it’s just so cool because like I said, I have been estranged from my parents for nine years.
When my sister called to tell me that my mother was dying, I didn’t go and I didn’t go because the last time I had seen her previously to that, she basically said two words to me, “Get off.”
Because I was standing at her back stairs to take some things Miah was trying to hand to me. And I kind of pretty much figured that was her attitude, that she wouldn’t want me there. If she didn’t want me there. It would be for a more emotionally manipulative reason. And also, I felt like if I went, I would be walking into an emotional ambush, which is very, very common with my family.
Being able to unschool has also given me a great understanding of the family dynamic I came from and that’s very useful because I had been able to step away. And it doesn’t really matter what others think about me because I know who I am and I know why I’ve made the choices that I’ve made. And I know I’ve made them because I am a better person when I don’t engage in those dynamics. I’m a better human. I was a better wife. I’m a better mother. It’s just better. I’m a better me for me when I’m not engaged in that.
So, being able to stand up and say, this is what I need. I see what you need. But try to work a situation where we can all get what we need and get what we want. You know that that’s a huge thing about unschoolers, just being able to see the possibilities and trying not to know, especially today, because how we’re living today with the administration, we’re living with the divisiveness that’s going on everywhere. I think there is a huge value to being able to say, I don’t agree with you, but I’m not going to call you a name. I’m not going to try to change your mind. But I am not going to accept being called names or being just labelled as something because I have my own opinion. I can respectfully accept that we’re not going to agree. And we can do that with civility.
The way we would do it in your own home and try to work out a situation where instead of there being us versus them or somebody has to win, somebody has to lose. How about trying to work it out so everybody can win as much as possible? And that is a huge thing for me that has come from unschooling and that is moving from that mindset because I was definitely raised with an us versus them. You know? Somebody is a winner, somebody is a loser kind of mindset, and I think I was kind of set up to be a loser.
A lot of the time, and that left me like that with my own kids, I needed to win and being able to make it so we all get to win. It’s kind of funny that every time they win, I win. You know, the little girl that I was wins something and I get to see it. My daughter looks remarkably like my mother. If my mother had been happy. There’s a few pictures where my mother was happy. She has so many of my mother’s expressions. And, you know, just little mannerisms. And she doesn’t like to hear that because she wasn’t especially fond of my mother. But I wrote a poem many years ago that if I could have been my mother’s mother, how I would have made things different for her, which would have made them different for me, which would have made them different for my children much earlier.
Being able to parent Lis has kind of been a little bit like being able to parent my mother symbolically. And I’m big about symbolism. It’s a big thing in my writing. It’s a big thing in my life. I really like symbolism so a generation removed, do feel that healing. I really like the healing. And I like knowing that I am going to be giving the world two adults who are reasonably whole.
I’ve made a huge point of helping them learn conflict resolution because I had none of that when I grew up. I mean, none. There was absolutely zero of that. And I grew into adulthood with no ability to resolve the conflict. And I still would much rather avoid any kind of conflict than I would rather face it head on myself.
But I wanted them to have those skills, because if you have two kids and they’re fighting with each other, it’s nice if they can learn how to get past that. And now I have a son and a daughter who are best friends. They are so close that I mean, they’ve always been close, but they have the skills now to be able to resolve issues and they hardly ever argue. But when they do, they have skills to deal with that and that becomes handy, too, because sometimes if Lise and I are having a moment where there are friction, Miah might step in and say, you know, I didn’t hear what you think you heard. And that’s really cool. That’s very useful. Because now you have somebody who can moderate if there’s a disagreement, the person who’s not in it can kind of help moderate it. And that’s a really neat thing.
So in so many ways, it’s all coalescing into, wow, this is just such a cool life. And I’m so looking forward to seeing where it’s going to go. And it’s been so much better, the hard times and some much more fun when it was fun and even the hard times have had fun moments in them. You know, when Jim was cremated, Miah and I were out shopping the day the funeral home brought his ashes. Lis was home alone because she didn’t really want to go anywhere right after. So, she was home and they came and they brought the ashes and they put them on the kitchen island. And so, I came home and she said, “Well, here they are.” And I was like, “What is dad doing on the kitchen island?” And Miah piped up, “Well, where else would he be?”
Because Jim had a habit of putting things on every flat surface. He was a chef and he would come home and on occasion drop his jacket on the stove. I have no idea what he was thinking when he did that, but he would do that. So, when Miah said that. Where else? My God, maybe the stove. He might have been on the stove. That could have been a place where he’d be. It was not the kind of humour that most people would have appreciated. They might have thought it was intensely disrespectful. But to us, it’s hysterical. And we have another running joke that years ago, before we had kids. Jim said to me one day as were walking into a grocery store and there were cars parked in the fire line. “When I’m God, all cars parked and fire lines will explode.” and I’m like, “When your God, am I going to be God’s wife? That would be a cool gig.”
And so we now have this running joke every time we see a car in a fire lane. But he must not be God yet because the cars have not exploded. And as he was dying, we had a life insurance policy, but he didn’t know where the paperwork was. So, it was a very big thing for me. I was very uncertain. I didn’t have an income and I had children that I needed to take care of. I was very worried about the paperwork and we were trying to find it. And one day we’re trying to find out and I have a drawer on the bed and he reaches to the side of the drawer. It’s not even in the drawer. And I’m like, you know what you’re looking for? And he said, “Yes. The papers from God.” And I said, “OK, you really can’t help me with this anymore.” And he’s like, “Yes, I can.” “No, really, you can’t.” But so now it’s kind of the running joke that he hasn’t been promoted to Godhood because he lost the papers from God. He does not have that. He doesn’t have the paperwork.
So, being able to make jokes about that and not, you know, anybody saying, well, that’s disrespectful and that’s horrible. And why are you doing that? Is another really cool thing for us, because that really helps us to cope. Humour is a really up for all of us. And for Jim to realize when our son died at 12 days old, Jim had made a comment when I was released from the hospital, he was brain injured at birth and he was at a stage above being brain dead. And so, it took several days to really know this. And it was twelve days before he passed away. When Jim came to pick me up, he was waiting for the doctors to give us a report on our baby. And he said, well, we need to see these doctors to find out whether, you know, he’s gonna be okay or whether we need to buy him some asparagus to hang out before we bring him home. And so that was kind of Jim’s humour, too. Was that, you know, and it might have been horrible if he hadn’t know me so well. But as it was, it was the first time I had laughed in the three days since I had had this baby. And that was really meaningful to me because it was an ability to start to come back to life and focus where we were. And that has been useful, too. After Jim’s death, to realize that, OK, you can continue to live. He would want us to be happy. There’s no doubt in my mind that every time we would laugh, that would be a happy thing for him to know that we were getting a kick out of life because his motto was eat dessert first.
When we were figuring out how to celebrate or memorialize his fifty fourth birthday that came just over a month after he died. And so, I asked the kids, do we want to do anything? If we do, what are we going to do? And they said, “We should go to Friendly’s and eat dessert first.” So, we went out to an ice cream place and we had our ice cream and then we had a meal. But our waiters know what we were going to do and why we were going to do it. And we did the same thing at a local diner that Jim wanted to take the kids to last year. And I suspect we’ll be doing the same thing this February, because it’s just you know, it’s a nice way to remember.
When the first anniversary of his death came on January 12th this year, I also asked the kids, should we do something? What should we do? And Lise decided that we should go out for pastries because Jim used to take them to doughnuts. So, we went to a local bakery that had opened that Jim and I had meant to go to and never got to. And we all ordered a pastry. And so, the picture of the pastry toast is the first anniversary of Jim’s death.
That is all of us just toasting with our pastries and a goofy kind of way to say, wow, we got through this first year. And it was it helpful because it wasn’t a big fancy thing. It was just a little thing. And so, we’ve liked incorporating him into our lives like little ways. Lis recently bought a Christmas ornament that is a worm on a hook that says Bite Me, which is very much her kind of attitude. But it’s also that she said, dad always used to bait my hook when we fish because it grossed me out. So, you know, it’s kind of it would be like a private thing.
And when she moves on in her life, she could you take that ornament with her and keep that for as long as she wants. And so, we’d like to incorporate him in little ways that are very lifelike and that fit into our lives rather than some big memorial that is there. And then over it’s you know, it’s an ongoing thing. So, yes, he’s always a part of our lives.
And I think unschooling makes that a lot more possible to be able to laugh and to be able to laugh and cry. Because as we’re looking through the pictures last night, you know, it wasn’t just laughter that was also, at one point, Lise is just like “I miss Dad.” At one point she showed me a picture I’d taken where he’s just kneeling, laying down on the grass, leaning on one of his arms. And I snap a picture of him smiling. And it was just such a beautiful moment when it happened. It’s such a beautiful picture. Every time I see that smile, I just want to reach in and grab him or pull them back out of that picture so I can have that smile and have him back. And so, she’s like, “I miss dad.” And we must have hugged about 15 times before she went to bed last night because she just kept coming back for another hug.
Being able to have both of those things and nobody feels bad if they’re sad, nobody feels bad if they’re happy. And I don’t know if without unschooling, that would be even remotely as easy. You know what I mean? To have both things at once and not because dualities are so accepted rather than either or it’s just, “What if what can we do?” And I think that just makes it easier to feel both things and be OK with those things.
PAM: Wow. I love that piece. I mean, I loved all that stories, but that really sums it up, doesn’t it, that duality. It’s not an either/or and it doesn’t need to be an either/or, it’s the things that are meaningful to you. And as you were talking about, like the things that you guys are doing to celebrate Jim’s life. And Jim, being in your lives are things that are meaningful to you vs how they look from the outside.
SHAN: Right. Oh, yeah. I don’t really care much about that issue because Jim has two sisters and they live in Oregon. And his father passed away over the summer. The day after my mother, ironically enough, he passed away. That’s very next day. And both of his sisters keep saying to me that they can’t believe it. They just can’t believe that they can’t accept it. And that’s very hard for me because when they do that. I live with it every second. There’s no way I can’t accept it. I got a tattoo on my leg for my 30th birthday. It wouldn’t surprise many people to know that it’s a both the word and in Vulcan script, it translates in English to what is is. Which is kind of how I try to live my life, that, you know, if it is, you can fight against it, but it doesn’t change it. It still is. And you’re just kind of wasting your energy rather than saying, it just is. He moved away from home in Oregon and went to the Grand Canyon when he was in his early twenties.
He lived at the Grand Canyon. He had been there twelve years when we met. We moved to Oregon for a few months and then we went to Yellowstone, which had been a dream of his. And we worked at Yellowstone for several seasons and stayed one winter in the Everglades and came back here after Miah was born. Because, as Jim said, it rains less in New York. I said, “But you shovel more.” And he hadn’t really ever lived with a bunch of snow, so he didn’t really get the feeling until he’d been here a while.
So, we ended up settling here because we felt like we should raise our children with at least one side of their heritage. Now, on the one hand, because his family was much saner than my family, it might have been better if we’d been in Oregon. But on the other hand, I might not have realized, what my family’s situation was like had we not been here. And now I’m here. Jim’s not here. I’m here. I live on the same road I grew up on from the time I was four and a half. And I’m very connected. I can look out my window and see the green mountains of Vermont just like I always did growing up. And that’s very cool to me. I walked. I had a crush on a guy a mile up the road and I was a teenager. So, I walked on this road a lot. I still I walk my dog. I’m still walking on the same road. We have a steep hill a bit up from us. And if you get to the top of that hill, you can just see this panorama that goes on forever, fields and mountains and trees and sky. And it is glorious. And there’s the city of Troy, you can see in the distance with its lights at night. And it’s just glorious and it’s totally free. And when we had some real money issues after Jim had died, before the life insurance settled, I would drive up there and I’d slow down when we got to that point in the road. And I’d say, this is abundance and this is ours and it costs us nothing.
And I don’t know without unschooling that I would be able to do that and I’ll be able to look at that and appreciate that and say no matter what is going wrong, this is still here. And I taught Miah the other day because he will slow down and stop there, too, because he enjoys it as well when he’s driving.
I said, you know, wherever you live, I plan on staying here, so wherever you live, if you want to come back and take that in, it’s yours. Anytime you want it. And I think that’s kind of a neat thing to know that there’s this whatever else is there. This is here.
PAM: Oh, I love that so much. And thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. I appreciate it.
SHAN: It made me very nervous and excited, but I’m very happy I did it.
PAM: Oh, it was really fun. And I really enjoyed. I just love hearing other people’s perspectives and their lives and the way unschooling weaves through it all. It really does. It really is a life changing thing, isn’t it?
SHAN: It becomes life. It is what that is. It’s kind of funny now that I often don’t even really think of it as unschooling. It’s just living. It’s living. It’s the way we live and it’s what is right for us. And if I had to explain it to somebody, I’d have to explain my entire life. Yeah, sure. I can define my life. I mean, I’ll try, but I’m not good at explaining the whole thing because it keeps happening while I’m trying to explain it!
PAM: Before we go, where can people find you online?
SHAN: OK. They find me. Well, it’s pretty simple. They can find me. ShanJeniah.com I haven’t been there too much lately. With the cold weather coming, I am hoping to be able to get back to it.
PAM: Yes. That’s it’s kind of a hibernating season now, isn’t it? That’s great. I think I will put the links in the show notes so anybody can connect with you through there. Thank you again very much. Have a great rest of the day. The dogs are tired now.
SHAN: They must be!
PAM: See you later. Bye bye.