A Riddle, Unschoolers R Us, and Some Commentary By My Mom
“This thing all things devours:
Birds, beasts, trees, flowers;
Gnaws iron, bites steel;
Grinds hard stones to meal;
Slays king, ruins town,
And beats high mountain down.”
--As recited by Gollum in “The Hobbit”
“I like that you had me.”
Contemplating the universe: “It's a good thing we're all still around.”
Trying to get into his pajamas after a bath: “Know why my foot is getting stuck [in my pants]? Because I'm soggy!”
“I wanna live with a GIRL. What do sisters look like?”
On our walk, Jem suddenly points to the bushes, looks at me, and whispers in an important and grown-up sort of way: “I heard something!” He considers the possibilities: “I think it was an elephant.”
“Can YOU do this cute face?”
Holding his hands up in front of himself, three centimeters apart: “I wish our house was THIS close to cousin Nick and Joseph's house!”
Jem can tell you the size of a deer: “Wider than I can stretch my arms on a slide.”
Concerning his shirt: “I like the color, but I _don't_ like the sleeves.”
After hiking four miles: “I'm too big to go in the Ergo [baby carrier] now.”
“I wasn't sleeping,” Jem told Ben recently, “I was just resting my eyes.” “I didn't close my eyes to sleep last night,” he further explains to me. “I _couldn't_ keep them closed so long!”
Watching some large machines at a construction site, Jem is completely quiet. How are you doing? I ask. “I LOVE it,” says Jem with absolute certainty. “I wanna stay till they're DONE.”
After he nearly stumbles on a rocky bit of trail, Jem regains his footing and says, “I didn't fall on my face, for _sure_.”
“'Run,' like 'run really fast,' has an 'R' in it.”
Jem questions my vernacular: “Why do you call them 'folks'? I like to call them 'people'.”
While bounding up the trail during a recent long hike: “I remember when I was so sick that I couldn't get off the couch [referring to how bad he was, pre-GAPS, in March 2010]. ...I mean, I could, but I didn't.”
Trying to find a spot to ford the river after getting just a teensy bit lost-off-the-trail: “This is the best adventure in the world!”
On a recent epic hike, I took some mental snapshots:
--Jem, wading through a sea of blooming trillium.
--Jem, wading in the water this time, suddenly looking back at me, his eyes twinkling with impudence and independence and how I imagine it must feel to be almost (but not quite) four years old.
--The boys and me, walking barefoot (for three out of four miles!). We do this until I am finally in pain and also want to get us walking a little more quickly. Jem and Ben agree to put their shoes back on, but Jem looks up and comments, “You should keep practicing barefoot, till you're as strong as us.”
--Ben, on a little bridge, framed by wooden railings on both sides, his cowboy hat tilted, blowing dandelion seeds away in a cloudy puff of breeze. In this “picture,” on this day, he possesses more physical energy than I can remember him ever having before in his life.
On this hike we took, the four-mile one, I was so thrilled because it felt like we weren't only in survival mode. I wasn't only thinking about what I was going to make for the next meal. I wasn't only putting my energy into spoonfeeding. I _was_ able to take a few trepidatious steps outside of healing gut flora, bodies, and brains--and notice with gratitude that if anybody had been peeking in on our family that afternoon, they might have even gotten a tiny illustration of how wonderful unschooling can be..
I always used to say, growing up (probably because Mom said it first): if you ask twelve different families what unschooling looks like, you'll get a dozen different answers. I probably annoyed a lot of people with my cockiness, though I still believe the statement is completely true. But my faith in the innate human ability/desire to learn is now slightly tempered by a new understanding that there's a caveat: humans _are_ constantly learning, and _always_ want to do so...._only_ if their bodies and brains possess a certain degree of health. And all the psychologizing in the world, nor all the best therapies and schools or unschools, are very effective at helping a child learn if he is slipping into a haze of mental illness.
So you see: our hike that day was just one adventurous afternoon for our particular little family, where one particular little boy is emerging back OUT of such a haze, INTO this unschooly adventure we call life. It's so clear, on Ben's good days, the ways he is finally continuing (and in some ways, just starting) to learn, after some brief and not-so-brief pauses in his development. It's so clear, the ways that learning just happens _easily_ on his good days; before (when all days were bad days), he was mostly stuck in his head, unable to peek out, let alone explore the rest of the world.
Dr. Natasha says that social skills come last for a GAPS kid who is beginning to “catch up” with her/his peers; Ben hasn't really even entered this stage of healing yet, and sometimes I get sad and annoyed and frustrated with this. But for now, I have to keep remembering that we are making progress, and that “good” means fewer days filled with screaming, anxiety, and obsessions - and more days when Ben is active and learning, and noticing and being _happier_. And if Ben's behavior and exploration sometimes mimic a toddler's...well, that's because that's where he left off when he started getting sicker, and that's where his brain sort of stayed “frozen” until right now, as it's slowly beginning to unfog.
It is heart-stopping to notice him taking an interest in things and events and even, preliminarily, emotions outside of himself, that he was too sick to notice Before. This may seem obvious to other people, but it's something that I am only realizing recently: my little boy wasn't dumb, or belligerent, or “tantruming for no reason” or “being manipulative” or trying on purpose to be Incredibly Difficult To Live With--he was so, so sick.
“Mental Health” and “Normality” are such slippery concepts, and maybe you only really know them when you see them. I have to keep reminding myself, at times when my patience wears thin, that we are dealing with our son's _symptoms_, which really aren't his “normal” at all. And I have to remember: he is only now becoming healthy enough to have many of the random, unpredictable epiphanies that normally occur for children when they are young and free and human and able to explore and think about their world...
On our hike, Ben was on the constant lookout for fossils. This meant that he found some, and loaded his pockets so full that his shorts were falling down. He was feeling GOOD--he was outside, not feeling pain and anxiety and obsessions, and the _lack_ of these symptoms alone must be so freeing. It meant that when we passed two hikers on the trail, Ben simply started talking to them: “I found some fossils!” he said loudly, actually looking at the people, and talking directly to them (rather than hiding his head behind me or talking in the third person).
“Wow,” said one of the hikers, “It looks like you did! Do you know what it is?”
No, said Ben, still looking at the strangers (this eye contact is a big deal!!).
“It's a brachiopod,” said the man.
Ben's eyes lit up, and he finally looked over at me with excitement (his eyes communicating, rather than rolling up and sideways to hide), as the hikers continued on down the trail. “That's so GOOD that we met them!” he said. “I've been _wanting_ to know the name of that fossil, and _now we know_!”
Walking back to the trail head, we talked about this happy chance encounter, which led to a discussion of dialects and speech patterns (the man had had a British accent, and pronounced the fossil name as “BRAHchiopod” instead of “BRAAchiopod”).
“Why did I used to be anxious,” Ben asked me then, “and not able to talk to people, and do stuff, and eat?”
“Well,” I said, using the shorthand kid-friendly terminology that Jeff and I have developed over the last year, “It was your Bad Bacteria, getting Really Bad. ...And isn't it awesome that we are able to heal your body by eating Really Yummy Food?”
These days, when simple activities are possible--grocery shopping, say, or going for a hike, or seeing our families--I tend to notice what's _missing_: Ben's screaming fits, anxiety, obsessions.
These aren't all gone, not by any means--and because of this, simple activities are often still completely impossible. But more and more frequently, they happen, and at these moments it hits me: how so rarely before in Ben's short life have we ever experienced a sense of ease. He has always needed to be entertained by somebody, distracted by somebody, talked-down-from-a-tantrum by somebody, dealt-with-during-a-tantrum by somebody, put to bed by somebody, fed by somebody. How incredibly exhausting it is, for the two Somebodies in our house who generally split up these tasks. How amazingly freeing it is when there are moments when our energies can be diverted toward other pursuits!
I imagine that Ben's agitation for so many years must be an exaggerated version of how the inside of my own head used to feel so often, pre-GAPS: when my brain used to go round in circles for hours, no matter how wonderful my life circumstances, always wanting to be distracted from its own, annoying, depressing thoughts. I am nearly as grateful for my own relative lack of perseveration these days, as I am for Ben's.
A short, incomplete list of events and accomplishments that happened over the past several weeks:
--We took a family scooter/bike ride along the new recreation trail at Stewart Park.
--Ben learned how to do monkey bars!
--I took an epic journey to Pennsylvania to pick up some raw, grassfed, Jersey cream. This stuff is precious, and so complicated to obtain in our current governmental-bureaucratic-food-nightmare, and full of so many good fat-soluble nutrients that it was worth the crazy-long drive, plus getting lost (missing the exit was my fault; the map sucking and Pennsylvania's horrible roads and lack of signage was _not_).
--Jem can write his own name! It is the cutest signature, with an upside-down curlicue J, a backwards E, and an upside-down M.
--I have a fantastic husband for many, many reasons. Also because he is a man with initiative, who recently cleaned our window screens for the first time since we moved into our house. I've been meaning to do this for years!
--On May 25th, my parents celebrated their 38th wedding anniversary. And Jeff and I celebrated 14 years since we first met, on a rainy afternoon in Carbondale, Illinois, while riding our bikes cross country... http://www.lifeisapalindrome.com/book/chapter-14-jeff-and-wyeth
--Our garden has some things planted in it! I want to make a lot of pickles and dilly beans this year, and I'm just hoping very much that some of our plants survive to bear fruit. (Except for the the actual fruit plants: in service to our family's health, I removed all the baby strawberries and raspberries from their stems, and this was one of the hardest gardening tasks I have ever done. Perhaps we'll be up to fruit-eating next year...but I am not planning to introduce any unnecessary sugars into our diet right now, even thought my sadness was very acute while removing such luscious potential. I keep reminding myself that a healthy family is just about infinitely more worth it than some sweetly addictive strawberries, gosh darn it!)
--Our chicken club's chicks arrived! In the mail, age one day old, very cute. They are growing enormously quickly, and Jem and Ben are enjoying them and it seems so Very Good for children to have these experiences with animals.
--We went to Jeff's dear Aunt's 80th birthday party, and visited with family for four days, and the boys got to play with their cousins. I really, really wish we lived next door to our families...
--I have determined that in our house, mealtime is a Sisyphean event.
--Jeff recently discovered, due to the annotations in the margins, that Lewis Carroll coined the terms “galumph” and “chortle.”
--Ben has just learned to play Rummy 500, and is rapidly on his way to being a Very Good Player.
--I have started an Ithaca GAPS networking group, because it's suddenly clear that there are more people eating this way than I had realized, and I'm hoping that a convenient way to share information will make it easier to source food locally and for each of us to feel less isolated from other folks who are healing their families with diet. http://health.groups.yahoo.com/group/IthacaGAPSNetwork/
--I got a dress for my sister's wedding!! This happened by dint of herculean effort, and three separate shopping trips (one including the whole family), and the upshot is: I now have the most beautiful and expensive dress that I have ever owned, and can hold my head up high in the bridesmaid line-up. :)
--Jeff and I watched Toy Story III. We are running out of ideas for Really Good, Lighthearted, Non-Crass, Not-Too-Chick-Flicky, Not-Very-Violent movies to watch. Please let us know if you have any ideas!
--Ben put himself to sleep for nine nights in a row, as in: we tucked him into bed, and _didn't_ lay down next to him. This is a HUGE, enormous deal. He had started falling asleep on his own when I was pregnant with Jem...and then the anxiety attacks started, and he couldn't fall asleep alone for the next four years. Sometimes he would be unable to fall asleep in under three hours even when I was in the bed, and he would lie there, obsessive and anxious and sad (but unable to accept hugs or comfort), and practically whine himself hoarse.
So...it was rather miraculous last week when Ben suddenly said (only after the umpteenth time we suggested it), “I can put myself to sleep tonight.” Three days after this amazing new development, he had a bout of amnesia: “Why did I used to need to go to sleep _with_ someone??” he asked me. Well, Honey, I told him, It has to do with the bizarre workings of the bad bacteria in your gut.
The non-linear nature of this healing journey means that improvements come in fits and starts--and pauses and backslides. Last night Ben had an anxiety attack again, and I lay there (trying to muster nonexistent stores of patience) while he cried and kicked and tossed and whined for an hour.
But who knows? Maybe tonight he will be able to put himself to sleep. My dear friend advised me to set my expectations “as high as the skies,” and at the same time expect the regressions, and at the same time attempt to quell the PTSD that grips my heart during these regressions, and at the same time know that Ben will bounce back better than ever, and at the same time enjoy the moments that illustrate the ways that healing is happening, and at the same time never let my guard down for a moment concerning the super-nutritious foods that need to enter his body with every single bite he takes. (Hey! Now that I know the secret to Life, The Universe, and Everything...it should be easy as (grain-free, fatty meat) pie...)
Lately it's been too sunny for many crafty activities or picture-book reading. But we still managed to finish:
“Alice and Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass,” by Lewis Caroll.
“Half Magic,” by Edward Eager
A couple of weeks ago, the NY Times published a very mainstream blog post about kids and picky eating, describing how children “naturally” just crave sugar and junk “food” products, and how parents need to loosen up with their silly attempts to get kids eating more nutritious foods. http://parenting.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/17/eat-your-french-fries/#mor... My very own mother wrote a really good (albeit understated) response, which I am reprinting below (it was response #19, and received a “highlighted” designation by Times editors):
“May 17th, 2011, 3:20 pm
“I realize this is supposed to be a post about how we all need to just relax, but this food thing isn't really all that funny. American middle class kids are nutritionally hurting and their demand for carbohydrates and starches may just be a symptom of a much bigger problem.
“When our kids were born we became lacto ovo vegetarians and we excluded sugar from our home. I didn't cook special meals -- When we went to pot lucks they could do what they wanted to do, but in our home the only options that existed were what we considered healthy options. We only ate in restaurants that served food we were comfortable with -- I mean why pay money for junk?
“Thirty years later my grandson became more picky than any child I'd ever met and my daughter, who believed in my philosophy, finally gave up and let him have what he wanted -- only thing is, as time went on he became more and more picky and stopped eating even the things he'd formerly liked. His behavior worsened and we finally all recognized the signs of autism.
“Now my daughter -- formerly a confirmed vegetarian -- has done a complete 180. She did some research, discovered the GAPS (Gut and Psychology Syndrome) diet and began introducing meat and fermented vegetables and bone broth to her family. If you read the GAPS information you come to realize that the philosophy is that imbalanced gut flora can lead to dysfunction in the brain and other parts of the body. This happens through use of antibiotics and malnourishment. And the more the gut is compromised the more the child demands carbohydrates and starches and the sicker the child becomes.
“At first my grandson point blank refused to eat. That went on for more days than I care to recount, but he finally got hungry enough and realized that his only choice was to eat what was put in front of him.
“A year later it is remarkable to see what this child will eat. And slowly but surely the autistic behaviors are reversing themselves.
“American middle class children are suffering from ADHD, Autism, Asthma, allergies -- in numbers that are alarming -- and I am convinced from my reading that our food habits are leading us as a nation down a twisted trail.”
Someone on the GAPS list, responding to the NY Times article's responses, wrote:
“What bothered me about most of those comments was the attitude that it is unrealistic to think you can have a kid that doesn't eat junk. [Almost every comment] reinforced this idea. Besides Sarabeth's mom's post, I liked the one that starts out [by noting how] children in India and China aren't born with the need to eat McDonald's fries... But so many people seem to feel this is innate and is just a normal part of childhood. They can't see that the 'once in a while' cookie is setting up the cravings for the 'all the time' cookies.
“...if you haven't seen this [fascinating look at sugar]: http://www.uctv.tv/search-details.aspx?showID=16717 , it is worth watching...”
I hope you had a lovely Memorial Day Weekend, if you personally celebrate this,
P.S. The answer is, “Time.”