I wrote a post back in the beginning of October about my weekly schedule here at ALC-NYC; now, at the halfway point of the year, it feels like a good time to check back in and see what’s changed and what’s stayed consistent.
Mondays still start with a protein-heavy breakfast, Set-the-Week, Spawn, and Acro, which remains one of my favorite offerings. In fact, I just passed the one-year Acro-versary, and I feel a deep gratitude to my last-year self, for accepting a kid’s invitation to playfully challenge myself. I’ve mastered my headstand over the course of these 12 months; now I’m working on my handstand (and I’m so close!).
The rest of Monday has changed a lot since October; for one, I’m not playing Pathfinders anymore. The crew – Iphy, Xander, Erez, Serena, Doug, and I – all started out really enthusiastic, but as the weeks wore on and we dealt with absences, general lack of focus, and a couple of key, in-character betrayals, we decided that we were more enthusiastic about creating our characters than we were about finishing the story we’d started. So, we decided to create NEW characters and start again, with a new DM… and then our DM was absent, or when she was present but they players hadn’t finished our character sheets, or someone was traveling and we decided to wait for them to get back before we started playing, or, or, or….
Sometimes this happens! Right now, I’m actively choosing not to shepherd the players back together. There’s a balance between supporting kids in following through on their commitments, and taking their autonomy away by deciding they must follow through on something. Because Pathfinders fell apart between games – after the group decided that the current dynamic wasn’t working for us, but before we’d settled into a new one – it doesn’t feel to me like a failure in follow-through. I’ve had reflective conversations with most of the players about this, but none of them have chosen to move back towards it; for now I’m waiting, and watching, to see if it will reemerge.
So, instead of Pathfinders, I’ve been spending my Monday afternoons running around playing Banana Slug Tag at Close Park (as we affectionately call the playground half-a-block away), followed by Werewolves!
Werewolves is a social-deductive game about a village beset by werewolves. The werewolves are trying to kill all the villagers during the night, while the villagers are trying to figure out the identities of and eliminate the werewolves during the day. A game requires at least 6 players and a Gamemaster, and takes about 30 minutes to play. There’s more nuance to it – some villagers have special powers, and some ALC humans have better poker faces than others – but that’s the general outline.
Many of the former Pathfinders players are part of the regular werewolves crew, which is interesting to me. It’s been a staple of ALC-NYC since I first arrived, but its popularity waxes and wanes. Right now, we’re playing a lot of werewolves – 2 games back-to-back most Monday afternoons, and 2-3 more games throughout the week – and I’ve been right in the thick of it. I even won a game this week as the Piper which, trust me, is extremely hard to do.
My Tuesdays, like my Mondays, start out the same as they did in October (with Magic School Bus – we’re on season 2 now) and end very differently; Cook n00b has returned! Nancy, our longest-serving volunteer and all-around delightful human, brings the supplies and we make a huge delicious mess in the back room. It’s a puzzle not just because of our many, sometimes conflicting, dietary restrictions, but because our space isn’t equipped with a real kitchen. We have a toaster oven, a hot plate, a griddle, a microwave, a grill (weather permitting), and a deep fryer (it was a gift). I appreciate the ingenuity our cooking situation inspires, the useful skill that is cobbling together a meal with what you have, considering all the needs of the humans you’re making it with. My favorite part, though, are the conversations we have while cooking and over the meal afterwards; it’s true in my life and in ALC-land too.
After cooking, I have free time; I’ll take a crew to the park for Banana Slug Tag (a delightfully chaotic version of freeze tag where everyone is it) or play a werewolves game or find a project. For a while, Timo and I were doing a grammar offering, but decided that we’d gotten everything that we needed from it, so we adjourned. Yesterday, I mentioned to a teen that I had a free half-hour and he replied, “Cool, do you want to talk about the death penalty?” Free time in ALC-land is always full of surprises…
Wednesdays begin with an hour of Writing Time, which is where I started this draft. For the first half of this semester I was hosting three half-hour long blocks of Writing Time, but I found that just as I started to get into the groove of it, the offering was over. I also found that it was easier for people to say “oh, I’ll come tomorrow,” and for tomorrow to never come. For more on Writing Time check out my recent “how I run it” post and this older “how it feels” one.
After this I’ll play another game of Werewolves (I told you, we’re on a kick) and then either join Board Game Time with Doug or maybe park trip, or crochet, or make some art – Wednesday afternoons are also unscheduled.
Thursdays are still field trip day; we’ve been Bouldering at the Cliffs in LIC consistently since October and some of the kids are getting really good! It’s also gotten cold enough to go ice skating again which, though the logistics of it are a bit trickier, remains one of my favorite things to do with kids. Both climbing and skating are about getting up when you fall down, trusting your body and your balance, about the stability you find in motion; topics we get to practice in ALC-land instead of just talking about them, like they do in conventional schools.
Like cooking, field trips always spawn interesting conversations; particularly the subway rides to-and-from our destination. The last time I went climbing, we got to talking about space on the subway platform and 8-year-old Demian asked “What keeps the universe spinning?” I’m still thinking about it.
Friday starts with Check-in and Change-up, our weekly culture-setting meetings. Over the week, we collect awarenesses on a board called the Community Mastery Board – anyone, at any time, can write an awareness on a sticky note and put it on the board for discussion. On Friday, we all gather together and read the stickies to check in (hence the name) about whatever’s on our collective mind. Check-in is mandatory, and our intention is to hold a space where all community members have the power to acknowledge the parts of our culture that are working and to shift the ones that aren’t. Several of our teens have been practicing facilitating this meeting, and it’s so exciting to hear them step into their voices.
We read out the awarenesses on sticky notes (which today included an announcement about an upcoming visiting week, a reflection that we’re not doing a good job cleaning after cooking, and a reminder that gator balls are expensive and if we keep ripping them we won’t have any left…) and write them on a different white board to make an agenda for Change-up; then we release anyone who isn’t interested in working through the agenda.
Most of the kids leave at this point, but we’ve had a really strong showing of culture-keepers, particularly among our teens, stay consistently for Change-up to talk through the awarenesses and make agreements based on them. Today, we made the agreement that committing to cooking means committing to cleaning up… we’re trying to practice keeping things simple in our agreement-making! There’s a lot more to say about these meetings, which are a cornerstone of ALC practices, but suffice to say they’re a dependable part of my weekly schedule.
After Check-in and Change-up I’m still doing portraits with Abby and Beth, and still loving it. Today, as I painted, I reflected that this time last year I wasn’t painting yet, hadn’t given myself permission. I often feel like working in the self-directed environment of ALC affords me the space to open the parts of myself that I closed in my own conventional schooling; art-making is one of those places. Here’s the finished portrait I started in October:
Post-Portraits is Anatomy and Physiology; Beth, Hugo, and I have been joined by Iphy, and we’ve switched form Crash Course to Kahn Academy for our content needs. Kahn is a lot more thorough, and their videos move at a slower pace so it’s much easier to take notes and retain information. It’s been really rad, and I’ve learned a lot (specifically about my circulatory system, because that’s the unit we just finished – did you know that, at any given time, 20% of your blood isn’t in your veins at all?).
After that is cleanup, then Focused Blogging, where I hold space in the office for anyone who needs a little more quiet to write. It often starts that way, at least….
Now that you’ve read all this, I must confess that this isn’t what my week feels like at all. 1500 words later I’ve captured the structure and none of the sense of it and this will just have to do. Three years in and I’m starting to feel comfortable sitting with the contradiction that documentation is necessary to track the spirals of growth and time, and that documentation is inevitably limited and imperfect. This is the impossibility of painting with broad brushstrokes a place where magic happens in the specifics. What can I say? This is just a schedule – time is another dimension.
I got into this work not quite by accident but certainly by intellect – I read my way into it. I haven’t posted in a few weeks and I know exactly why: I’ve been practicing instead. I’m trying to write this post, but we’re laughing too hard about Juice Mom and Milkshake PAPA. I certainly couldn’t explain it here without ruining the joke in explanation – I couldn’t capture the timing and tone of voice that set me off laughing. When I first started ALFing I pictured myself as a steadfast and diligent scribe, taking notes to share about what the experience is really like – notes that would convey it all. The volume of my note-making has increased exponentially (which has expanded from simply writing to also voice-memoing and cartooning and drawing and photographing and boomeranging and still doesn’t cover all the things that are happening….) and yet the more I write the more aware I am that I can’t capture this.
Anyway, highlights from the last few weeks include collaborating with Zoe on her forthcoming short story, The Skeletons on 36th Street (part of the reason I hadn’t blogged – we’d been spending focused blogging time together working on it); going to Philly to visit the Franklin Institute (where I’d never been before – I got to run through the heart and climb through a brain and explore the vikings exhibit and see how high we can jump and play with physics and…); and celebrating DANCEGIVING (thanks to Taasha, who donated yesterday’s incredible feast). Yesterday I got back to climbing for the first time in 3 weeks. Anatomy and Physiology with Beth and Hugo has been equal parts challenging and fascinating. Halloween was full of hilarious and delightful costumes (including the return of the MELICORN). Iphy went to Australia and returned. I returned to Werewolves after a long hiatus – Luca and Erez have been DMing some really creative and fun chaos-vector games. We’ve hosted visitors from Bejing and the Bronx. Banana Slug Tag has taken off as the park-crew-tag-of-choice (Anyia, Xander, Saylor and Savannah have all won games – a tricky feat). Plus there’s been drawing and dancing and legos and board games and poker and Japanese and movie-sharing and word silliness and crosswords and bed wars and koalas and worm composts and passive voice discussions and room painting and kpop video sharing and accountabilipals and acro lifts and magic school bus and the usual stuff that feels incomplete listed off like this but truer to the spirit of all-the-things-all-the-time….
This week, besides acknowledging that my narrative perspective is limited, I wanted to acknowledge the conversation I had on Monday night’s ALF call. Amber, Momo, Jeana, Anthony, Katherine, Abby and I discussed conflict resolution – specifically we found ourselves circling the question “How do we move from ALF (adult)-led conflict resolution to a kid-centered process?” I loved our conversation – I found myself reflecting on adrienne marie brown’s point that “there is one conversation that can only be had by the people in this room. Find it.” We really did. Reflecting on the places our various ALCs are at, we agreed that such a movement requires trust, practice, and time, in a culture that values creating a space that feels safe to those in it – that is clear about modeling boundaries and defining violence, that sees and acknowledges the larger cultural narratives that US society holds but doesn’t excuse behaviors shaped by them. At the very end, we found ourselves talking about gender-based violence in a way that echoed around my mind long after we’d hung up – I’ll write something that will exorcise it eventually (I hope…).
I’m learning to sense the school year’s rhythms, this go-around. The first 6 weeks are the block where I blog very diligently, where the questions of the year begin to arise and we all choose the roles we think we’ll be playing. The next 6 weeks (which we’re smack in the middle of right now) play out the dynamics of the first 6, and I find myself elbow deep in them and I lose track of my documenting in the doing of it. What’s next? We’ll see…
This week I did something really hard for me: I took a day off.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of constantly moving when the world tells us that our value comes from what we produce. I get caught up in it easily. I value hard work; I pride myself in being a dependable person. When I’m at my best I do my work well, cheerfully, and steadily – I get things done. But the flip side of it is resentment and burnout and, without taking a pause to reflect, it’s hard to tell which side of it I’m on.
Tuesday afternoon, I felt weird. I was in the middle of an offering (Boop: A Play! by Sterling…) when I suddenly felt dizzy – all the energy left my body. So I went and lay down in the library with some water hoping it would pass. Half an hour later, when it was time for cleanup, I was feeling much better physically but confused and concerned about what had happened – it’s unlike me to feel that way, especially after a good night’s sleep and a day of eating well and drinking water. Something was up, and I wasn’t sure what my body was trying to tell me.
When I mentioned it to the other facilitators at staff check-in, they encouraged me to take Wednesday off to rest, if I needed it; they would be fine holding down the fort. My initial reaction was a knee-jerk no, I’ll be fine. I felt like the suggestion that I rest was an implication that I wasn’t doing my job well, a backhanded way to say that I should be working harder.
But… that’s not what they were saying. They were saying what they meant – we see you’re tired. Rest, if you need to. We’ll hold you. Come back when you’re ready. It’s okay.
I thought about it all Tuesday night – as I went to therapy and went climbing with friends, on the train on the way home, all through my bedtime routine. I went to bed at 10, as usual, still in my must-keep-working spiral, still fully intending to get up in the morning and then do it all again.
And then Wednesday morning, as I was dragging myself out of bed in the dark at 6:30 in the morning, I finally paused to ask… why? I don’t need to drag myself anywhere – Abby and Chuck and Ryan all said explicitly yesterday that I should stay home if I’m tired. I don’t have to be sick or collapsing to deserve rest – I am allowed it if I need it. I can tend my body before I get to the point of catastrophe. I messaged them that I was taking the day after all.
As soon as I did, my brain offered up a zillion other things I should do – the freelance writing piece I need to complete for my side hustle, the budgeting I’ve been putting off, the editing I promised a friend I’d help out with, the laundry I’ve been meaning to fold, the appointment I need to schedule. My keep-working brain thinks that I can soothe my anxious by finishing all the things – that rest is the thing that I get to reward myself with when I’m done. But my day off was not for backlog catchup, it wasn’t for anxiety spiraling. It was for rest. I went back to sleep.
When I woke up at 9:30, the sun was streaming into my apartment. I reminded myself that I had nowhere to be, nothing I had to do. I pulled back the curtain to watch the leaves of the tree outside rustling in the October breeze, to admire the ways they’re turning. We’ve finished 6 weeks of school; the first stretch is behind us. I spent the day lounging around, crocheting, painting, watching tv, sitting in the sunshine, writing, reading the notebooks I’ve filled in the last few months. The moon was full on Wednesday, in Taurus, sitting opposite Venus (Taurus’ ruling planet) retrograde in Scorpio. I went back to Taurus season, sat with all the selves I’ve occupied since then, all the places we’ve been and things that we’ve done. It’s been a long time since I rested.
And that was it – yesterday I came back to school, feeling refreshed. I noticed all the little ways the day felt lighter, easier, than it did early this week. It was a long day; we had an Assembly meeting and I was here until almost 9, but it didn’t feel that way. I had the reserves I needed. This is a reminder for my future self: I’m grateful for the rest that carried me through.
Last spring, I wrote a blog post about practicing that I’ve been thinking about a lot this week. You can go read the original post if you want – in it, I talk a lot about how facilitation is a practice, and reflect on pulling a daily oracle/tarot card as a supportive practice/what it looks like for me/how I level up that practice. Since then, I’ve achieved keeping it up – posting a daily card online for almost 6 straight months! I’m really proud of myself for maintaining the streak (though, somewhat ironically, I did not post a card today).
Other daily practices I’ve kept up with: note-taking at staff check-in, and journaling before bed. Daily practices that have fallen by the wayside: personal kanban, and mosaic-making. Interestingly, I feel equally good about putting down the ones that aren’t serving me as I do with keeping up the ones that do. Doing something daily strengthens my (mental) muscles in a way that I’m only now beginning to appreciate. In putting down practices that aren’t serving me, I’m practicing being kind to myself as I figure out what’s working for me and what’s not – an equally powerful, though somewhat more ephemeral, set of skills.
Recently, I’ve added new daily practice: drawing! I’m participating in Inktober – which is essentially a challenge to draw something and post it online for every day of October. It’s been incredibly fun, and in the last few days I’ve realized my drawing has improved tremendously. In my school district, students had to choose art or music when we were 10 – I choose music and, subsequently, told myself the story that I couldn’t make art. It was a powerful story and it’s taken me a long time to unlearn it – even still, sometimes I find myself telling people that I’m not an artist despite all the evidence to the contrary. It’s particularly interesting to me right now, because I’ve had lots of people tell me that they could NEVER make art like that – the exactly story I’ve been telling myself until recently. Only daily practice has helped me change that story; I feel really trite when I tell people that, even if ti’s true.
Here are this month’s drawings so far (starting with day 1):
We’re back at it! It’s the first full week of school after a wild, adventurous summer of travel; I’m in the library hosting Writing Time and enjoying the magic of shared quiet writing together (it actually took me a week to write this blog post – it’s very long. Be warned). It’s my third year as an ALF here at ALC-NYC, and I’m excited to get to documenting that, but first I needed to get this post out of my head. I did so many magical things this summer that I want to share; I want to acknowledge all the ways that this summer challenged me, gifted me joy, shifted my perspective. I traveled for 7 weeks, all told – longer than I’d ever been away from New York in my whole life! Ready? (I wasn’t.)
First, I flew to Portland, where I stayed with a friend who I hadn’t seen in a long time and her two rad pooches. Portland was a really car-dependent city, which I didn’t love, but they have the largest bookstore I’d ever been to in my life, which I did! Powell’s books is so massive, it’s like 4 Strands put together! I wound up spending an entire day there, meandering through the children’s books and the science fiction section, spending hours picking through some dense astrology texts in the cafe with an excellent cup of tea.
I was grateful to get to start this journey off with some intense introvert time – basically 3 straight days where the only thing to do was whatever I wanted. Coming off of ALF Summer NYC and knowing that I would be spending the next 6 straight weeks with people, I took advantage of the solo time to process, reorient, recalibrate myself; what does it mean to take care of me? If I can do whatever I want, what is it that I want?
The answer was, obviously, read books but also: lots of nature stuff! Exploring the Hoyt Arboretum and International Rose Test Garden, specifically, drawing and painting and taking pictures and breathing in the good air. Swimming in the Williamette River. Eating ice cream made with locally foraged berries. (The last one is maybe a stretch but it was delicious…)
From Portland, I took a train intended for San Francisco. I love train travel; between the slow, steady motion, the scenery, and the other people on the train, I find it’s a really creative place for me. This trip, however, was not destined to be a smooth one. We left Portland at 2 in the afternoon and traveled steadily throughout the day, among the pines of the Cascades, along the river, through sunset and twilight and under the nearly-full red-faced moon. I fell asleep, looking forward to waking up the next morning at my destination, but a scant hour later I woke abruptly to the woman in the seat behind me yelling about FIRE!
Not only was there a wildfire up ahead (the Carr fire, which would go on to burn for 38 days across 358 square miles, destroying 1600 structures and claiming three lives) but it had jumped the Sacramento river and our next stop – the northern California city of Redding – was literally on fire.
The train hesitated there, on the border, overnight and I sat up and waited, stomach roiling, for confirmation of the rumor that we would be turning around and going back the way we came. Eventually it became clear confirmation wasn’t forthcoming that night, and I bought a plane ticket from Eugene, OR anyway, despite my gut uncertainty-discomfort. It would becoming a familiar feeling over the course of my travels; the discomfort decreased every time I chose to move in uncertainty.
Finally, I fell asleep, and woke up the next morning to the news we were, in fact, going back to where we’d come from. While I certainly wouldn’t be arriving in San Francisco when I had originally intended, there was nothing I could do about it. Mercury was in retrograde, after all, and at this point I’ve certainly had plenty of experience with travel trouble during Mercury retrograde. 5 hours later, 23 hours after I left Portland, I got off the train in Eugene.
From Eugene I got a flight to San Francisco, where I met up with Abby and Nahla in Oakland. We spent the next three days running around the bay – exploring murals, bookstores, and apothecaries, strolling across a bridge to Alameda island into a street fair, riding the ferris wheel, admiring the bougainvilleas, walking through a tunnel-portal, taking the ferry around the bay, laughing in a cloud, scrambling around the ruins of the Sutra Baths. I enjoyed San Francisco immensely, though I hadn’t quite packed for the weather…
From there we decided to take a day jaunt to Lake Tahoe before ALF Summer Sacramento – we rented a car and drove across the (increasingly hazy) state to the mountains. Nahla and Abby had been to Tahoe before, but I never had. We arrived at the Sierra Nevada just as the sun was setting, so we did most of the climb in the dark, through the pines. The smell of smoke grew thicker in the air the further east we drove – not because of the fire that had caused my earlier turnaround but because Yosemite was also on fire. I had hoped to see the stars, but no luck.
We spent the night in a motel and the next morning we went to a watersport rental place and rented jet skis! None of us had ever ridden them before and we had a blast – Nahla and I on one jet ski and Abby on the other. The visibility was low because of the smoke, and I’d like to go back sometime when I can see more – it was hard to get a sense of how giant the lake was (although we did spend a lot of time driving around it, so I do have some idea). After jet skiing, we swam in the water – clear and cool and so refreshing. I later learned that Tahoe was formed almost 2 million years ago, when the earth’s crust puckered and formed the mountains. It felt like that being there; I felt held by the water and the earth.
After Tahoe we drove to Sacramento for ALF Summer! It was a blast – in part because the program was a perfect mix of humans I knew and humans I got to meet for the first time. Our first night in Sacramento we got to stay with Mia, her dad and her sweet puppers, Ala and Bama. After a day of water sports and highway driving, we were quite frazzled and so, so grateful for Mia’s hospitality as we collapsed into human puddles.
After the night at Mia’s, Abby, Nahla, and I drove over to the AirBnb where we’d spend the rest of the week with a crew of rad people: Antonio (of Abrome, in Austin, TX), Mercer and Joe, who came for the first few days of the program, and then Lavonne and Binairbah, who flew all the way out from NYC just to attend bonus week! We had so much fun cooking, eating macaroon ice-cream sandwiches, watching Steven Universe, singing along to Hamilton, and playing Cards Against Humanity (which Mercer had never played before, and cracked me up by cracking herself up with her own jokes. Such a Leo). As an introvert, facilitating all day can be really draining, and facilitating with adults doubly so; I’m grateful that I got to stay in this particular houseful of people, both because they were supportive and joyful company, and because they were super understanding when I needed to retreat into my room and close the door to recharge.
ALF Summer itself was an inspirational, productive, fun, creative, challenging whirlwind. I’m particularly grateful to Beth, Mia, and Emily, Spence, and all the Free to Learn kiddos for their enthusiasm, playful groundedness, and support facilitating the program. Listing to Nahla talk about deschooling was definitely a highlight for me, as was doing Acro with Mia, Emily, and Jordan, swimming in the creek with the tinies and making self-portraits with 8-year-old Evie 🙂 Also shoutout to the puppers Checkers and Oreo, who brought a lot of levity to some heavy conversations. An ALF Summer is always a time of tremendous growth and change for me, and this one was no exception – for brevity’s sake, I’ll leave it there for now.
There was a new moon&solar eclipse the after the program in Sacramento ended, and I desperately needed some alone time. So I took the train by myself to San Francisco – trains, as I mentioned, being a restorative, creative space for me – and then cut off all my hair. It was an emotional day, but ultimately a relief. Haircuts and train time: the medicine I need.
From San Francisco I took another train out to meet a friend from NYC at a hostel at a place called Point Montara, which was on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean! As with Lake Tahoe, Abby and Nahla had been there the year previously, but Kirsten and I didn’t know what to expect – we got there and were totally floored by the beauty of the place. The cliffs, vivid with succulents and sandy, ocher soil, the grey-blue of the pacific, the susurration of waves, the gulls, the bands of clouds.
We ate Mexican food and watched the sunset together eventually Abby and Nahla joined us (having spend the day scrambling to help everyone else get home as Mercury Retrograde messed with their travel plans…). The next morning we woke up and climbed over the cliffs where the ocean broke on the shore, and I stood with my feet in the freezing water, and we marveled at it all.
We spent the rest of that day driving down the Pacific Coast Highway to LA – a muuuuuuuuch longer drive than any of us were anticipating. Since it runs literally along the coast (on a cliff, next to the roaring ocean and a bank of clouds…) it’s relatively slow going, and very windy. Luckily, Abby is a really great driver.
Then we were in LA! What we were planning to do there… we didn’t know! But we made it! We dropped off the rental car and trusted each other to be honest about what we wanted to do on this vacation week – we wound up spending a few days at Venice beach, exploring the California Science Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Griffith Observatory, and the Getty Museum, (I like museums…) hanging out in a gay coffeeshop and a super cool bookstore, and spending a LOT of time in ubers. Turns out, people are not exaggerating about LA traffic…
After a week, Abby and I dropped Nahla with her family and Kirsten at the airport and headed inland, where we rented another car and went on an unexpectedly surreal road trip. We drove up into the “sky island” of San Bernardino National Forest (which is classified as such because the flora and fauna that live at elevation are radically different from those in the surrounding lowlands) and hiked, tried to swim in a lake that had mostly evaporated, and then drove down the mountains and across a stunning desert as the sun was setting to go camping.
We car camped in Sequoia National forest and woke up the next morning to swim in the Kern River, which is remarkable for the ferocity with which it flows at 5,000 feet. We were looking for a hot springs and never found them; the river was cool and clear and fast-moving but not too deep or strong – a joy to swim in. I didn’t take any pictures of the river, because I was too busy being present. I regret nothing.
Going into camping, we were feeling very pleased with our route-planning; after our road trip, we were headed to Fresno, CA, where the crew at The Bungalow had invited us to stay (Manny and Miranda came to the training in Sacramento, and we’d met Jenny on several Monday evening ALF calls). But the Mercury retrograde/fire season combo struck again, and we discovered quickly that all of the roads ahead were closed because parts of Sequoia were on fire as well – all the parts between us and our intended destination. We wound up having to double back almost 2 hours of driving (and the beautiful deserts of the night before were somehow less exciting the second time around…).
We did eventually make it to Fresno, though, and (after stopping at an “underground garden” that was really weird and cool) were received by the generous company of Manny and Barbara, two of the Bungalow facilitators, and their family & dog Banjo. We spent two days with them and the whole Bungalow crew climbing trees, playing games, planting the garden, practicing headstands, drawing with kiddos and offering words of support in their first few days of school – they’ve got a really rad space and group of (creative, mess-making) humans to fill it, and I’m so excited to see how they grow!
After Fresno we took a detour to Yosemite (still on fire, but Mariposa grove, where the giant sequoias are, had recently been reopened to the public), where we took the most expensive photos of our trip (entry to the park is $35/car… and good for 7 days. We only had an hour. Whoops!) and then drove out to Santa Cruz. The next day was the first day of VIRGO SEASON, which I opened by pulling tarot cards at the beach and swimming in the freezing ocean; after, Abby and I explored the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary center, ate vegan food, and headed off to San Francisco.
It seems appropriate that our California adventure began and ended in San Francisco; closing that loop was deeply satisfying. We stayed with a friend, Nicole, who we’d met at the AERO conference in June – she’s a play master, and was so generous with her books and art supplies and musical instruments. Over the course of the week we built a blanket fort in the living room, talked art education and play, and saw the SF Neofuturists together. Besides hanging with Nicole, I went climbing with some friends who had just moved to Oakland from NYC; a comforting reminder that I have all kinds of community all over the country.
I also took a solo day and went to a Magritte exhibit at the SFMOMA, which was SO COOL – I knew the famous apple-in-front-of-the-bowler-hat painting, but seeing it in context really shifted how I saw it. Magritte is a surrealist, but his surrealism is primarily concerned with perception – how do we know that we’re seeing what is when we’re limited by our perspective? How does the naming of things shift what we see? What if something is magnified? What if it is a paradox? The best moment came when I turned a corner and came into a room full of his Night Street/Day Sky paintings; I hadn’t realized that my favorite painting in the MOMA here is part of a series!
SFMOMA also had a bunch of Calder sculptures, as well as a large exhibit on Sol LeWitt, whose abstractions are concerned with the intersection of process, instruction, language, and construction. All in all, it was a great museum experience and I highly recommend it.
After that we flew to Mexico City, via Guadalajara. We only got to spend 6 hours in CDMX (which is the local abbreviation for Cuidad de Mexico) but it was incredible there – the cool, humid air a welcome change from the hot, dry California desert, and the lushness and vivid color of the city, a delight. We visited the Frieda Kahlo museum at Casa Azul, where I was particularly struck by the exhibit on her clothing.
Frieda contracted polio as a young child and then, when she was 18, she was in a bus accident that left her in pain for the rest of her life – her famous dresses were, in part, a cover for the many braces, supports, and corsets that allowed her to move about independently despite the severity and extent of her injuries. As someone who has been struggling with my own body, I felt a real connection with her. I’m grateful we spent the one day we had in her city there, and I’d love to go back someday soon and explore more.
From Mexico City we took an (incredibly gorgeous, 5 hour long) bus to Xalapa, where we stayed with Rubén and Vivi! Xalapa is a city of about a million people – not orderly, like the grid here, but narrow and colorful and turning, full of surprises. Our ten days there were beyond delightful – Rubén, Vivi, Omar, y Moni were incredibly hospitable, the food was delicious, the city was bustling and the surrounding area was green and cool and alive with plants and rivers. We spent a day with the crew at Educambiando, which was so so fun (We played capture the flag! I learned to embroider! I taught Ruben and Vivi a counterbalancing pose!) and also so good-challenging for my translation skills – I speak baby spanish, only in the present tense. We drove out to Vivi’s house one day, which is like a beautiful dragon egg, and she made me tea from Yerba Buena from her windowsill garden and then we swam in a cold, fast, clear, shallow river while Ruben balanced stones. We went to a park and played on a slackline while Abby made friends with a beetle. We had a party and played a giant game of ninja and an absurd game of charades.
My favorite, most unexpected adventure in Xalapa was group singing! Leon, who is friends with the whole ALC crew in Xalapa, runs a music and arts program there, where every Wednesday night he leads a singing group. He’s a brilliant facilitator – he had a group of a dozen people of vastly divergent experience and musical knowledge singing together right away. He’d teach us a simple, repetitive, 3-part foundation – a blues baseline, or a chord – and then, once we got the hang of that, he’d point to a person in the group and have them sing, call-and-response, with him over that foundation. Every person sang each “song” – it was incredibly satisfying and brilliantly scaffolded so that even people who might otherwise be afraid to sing in front of a group felt comfortable, since we were all singing together. Afterwards, he kept saying “it’s so healthy for your soul” and that’s how it felt – like my soul was being watered. After, I sang with just Leon – he played the guitar and we worked our way through the jazz standards we both knew – and it was like I was discovering my voice for the first time.
It wasn’t all playing and exploring – there was work to do. Ruben, Vivi, Omar, Abby and Moni spent a lot of time working on/prepping for the Agile conference happening in San Luis in November (and seriously, props to them for the incredible amount of work they got done in a week. Abby is a programmer now!) while I painted, and read, and rested, and walked, and took myself out to breakfast, and admired the light, replenishing and renewing myself to be present for the school year. Xalapa was both an incredibly restful and productive place, and I’m so grateful to everyone I was with there – Ruben and Vivi in particular – for a beautiful final destination for my journey.
In the end, we took a bus back to Mexico City, and a plane to Chicago, where we spent the night with my rad cousin Elizabeth, who just started grad school there. The next morning we woke up and flew back, finally, home, and I cried in my plane seat when I finally saw the skyline…
That’s where I was! Phew! Thanks for sticking with me through this very long post!
On a final note, I want to thank everyone who read my last blog post. It was a very cathartic piece to write, and and I’m grateful for the feedback I got, and for the sense of relief I feel at being out as a non-binary person on this blog. This piece felt very different to write, but they are two sides of the same coin; as I traveled, as I practiced sitting in uncertainty and being present and not knowing, sometimes, where I would sleep tomorrow or how the next leg of the journey would feel, I was also traversing my subterranean landscape.
This summer was a long journey, in a season of upheaval, astrologically speaking – lots of planets in retrograde and three big eclipses. I changed a lot, and realized a lot about my self and my work and the ways I am growing – I filled 4 notebooks with drawings and watercolors and writing, writing, writing. I’m grateful that I left, and awed at the size of the world, and grateful to come home, to think about what home means for me.
As always, this has been an incomplete report. Thanks for witnessing.
When I came out to my mom as a non-binary trans person, she asked me, “What do you want?” and I struggled to answer. I’d spent the previous 6 weeks up and down the state of California, living out of a backpack, running ALF summers and traveling openly with my new pronouns; I’d been avoiding this conversation with her but was relieved to finally be having it. It’s such a simple question, yet so powerful. It’s a cornerstone of self-directed education.
“What do you want?” my mom asked me, her voice small and far away. The knot in my stomach was familiar. My fear, my avoidance, was familiar.
“I want a coffee,” I said, deferring. “I want world peace.”
“Really?” she asked. “That’s what you want?”
I got mispronouned a lot this summer. I’m making a distinction between misgendering and mispronouning because I want to acknowledge that it was, for the vast majority, an accidental slip of language and not a malicious erasure of my gender identity. It wasn’t surprising – from the beginning, when I started coming out to people as non-binary and asking them to use “they/them” instead of “she/her” pronouns when they spoke about me, the most common response I got was “I’m totally gonna try, just bear with me because it’s really hard.”
And I did – the conflict-averse part of myself, the bit that was ashamed and afraid of taking up too much space assured them that it was okay, that it just meant a lot to me that they were willing to try.
I made that assurance because I felt shame about having desires, about taking up space. I felt shame that what I wanted was not what white, western, capitalist, heteronormative US society told me that I wanted – that I forfeited some of my privileges as a middle-class, college-educated, english-speaking, white, cisgender female US citizen to be a radical transgender unschooler. I felt shame. I feel shame. The system wants me to feel it – requires me to feel it in order to maintain its coercive power over us. I was prepared to have grace for it to be hard for other people because it was hard for me.
The thing that started happening, though, was that people didn’t try. That people continued to breeze past pronouns with no concern for their power or the harm it might cause me. I got misprounouned with disappointing frequency by people I had been radically vulnerable with. Sometimes I would catch them – “they, not she,” I would say – and they wouldn’t even hear their mistake but would continue blithely on talking about me. Sometimes I would catch them and they would turn into an avalanche of apology – “oh my gosh, I’m so, so, so, so, so sorry, it’s just so hard for me, you just have to bear with me I’ve never encountered this before and it’s all so new” and in my head the shame siren would blare: you’re wrong you’re bad your body is wrong you’re too hard you’re wrong.
Sometimes I would just be quiet.
When I finally sat down with my mother’s question, days after she’d asked it, I realized my essential answer was tripart:
I want to feel comfortable, powerful and valid, in my body and my self expression.
I want to feel loved and supported by the people I love and support.
I want people to use “they/them” pronouns with fluidity and consistency when they talk about me.
This is the third place I’ve written these wants, and the most public. I feel them growing in power each time I articulate them. I feel myself growing in power each time I articulate what I want.
The thing about coming out is that you’re never done doing it. I know this, intellectually. I’d had some experience with it previously, when I came out as gay and spent several years navigating the world of “well what does your boyfriend think of your haircut” and other heteronormative nonsense — an alarming number of barbers feel emboldened to ask you this question as they hold a razor to your skull.
I have grace for the people who mispronoun me, I do, I swear. But I need us to do better. And not just because I’m tired of having the same conversation (though I am) but because I’m tired of having the same conversation in ALC-land, where we’re supposed to be liberated, empathetic, understanding, imaginative humans raising liberated, empathetic, understanding, imaginative children. If self-directed learning is about asking the question “what do you want?” and meaning it, we have to do better when the real answer to that question requires us to do a hard thing.
Yes, it’s hard to hear pronouns. Our brains are amazing – they are so efficient that they effectively edit out the the parts of speech that we use most commonly. It’s why you probably didn’t realize that the word “the” is doubled in the previous sentence: your brain skipped it. Amazing.
It’s hard to do things that require us to make new neural pathways or to see things that were previously invisibilized to us. Privilege, intersections, toxic whiteness or heteronormativity – it is work to see the places that we’re unconsciously holding poisons, without shame or defensiveness or our egos rearing up to say “I’m not a bad person, I’m trying!”
As facilitators, it’s our job to make spaces safe for children. Trans children and gender-variant children, yes, and children living at all kind of intersections of privilege that are outside of our experience. Some of those children will ask us to do hard things – they will offer the miraculous radical vulnerability of children – and it is our responsibility to get it right. It is not enough to say I’m trying.
Only I am living this. Only I get to say what it feels like. Only I get to answer the question “what do you want?”
the only way of living this is in relationship. I am in relationship with you. I want you to use they/them/theirs when you speak about me: They were traveling all summer. I talked to them the other day. Sounds like their trip was pretty wild.
California is on fire. Nearly everywhere I went in the state, I could smell smoke on the air. Some mornings, we would come outside and the car would be covered in ash. The locals were nonchalant about it, but it disturbed me deeply. I began to have nightmares about fire: rescuing children from it, needing to warn people who didn’t notice it was coming.
Our political system, our courts, our educational institutions, our state are on fire. They are actively destroying to everything in their path. It is not enough to notice a harmful thing and to walk away from it. It isn’t. Not if you’re not willing to shift your gaze to yourself and see the ways that the system has broken you. If not, you’re just carrying the spark of that flame with you, you’re going to set someone else ablaze. Probably someone with less privilege than you. Possibly a child you’re responsible to.
Children tend to be less attached to gender than adults are, and I think it’s important to note. If gender is constructed, like currency, on the mutual agreement of its value rather than something tangible, then it can be destabilized by our refusal to believe in it. As a person who occupies the spaces between genders – who was raised a girl and grew up to be something more complicated than “woman” and less certain than “man” – I dream of destabilizing the gender binary. I think raising free people means raising people who see the assigning of gender categories to be just that – a linguistic tic, a trope of our speech – rather than something essential. I like to think that my presence as an out and outspoken non-binary facilitator will be helpful to some children as they come into awareness of gender. I hope so.
What I really want is to break systems of oppression. What I really want is for children inherit a world that is better than this one. What I really want is for them to grow up comfortable in their most radical wantings, to believe their impossible dreams.
I want world peace, but first I have to get comfortable with wanting.
“You keep saying that,” David pointed out. I was talking about how valuable it is to be able to go back and read all the things I’ve written in the last two years – blog posts, yes, but journals and notebooks and sketchbook marginalia, too. The other night I went back and read through all the blog posts here all the way back to the very first one and so much has changed and also I am still the same person, somehow.
Part of the thing that is doing this work (facilitating? ALFing? deschooling?) well is realizing all the ways schooling and other coercive systems we live in (gender, capitalism, white supremacy…) have put shit on us that is real trauma, held in our bodies, and we need to find ways to put it down without putting it on the children we’re holding space for. Writing is one way I do that work – as adrienne marie brown says in Emergent Strategy, “I have to write, in some form, every day. It’s how I understand the world.” Recently, I spent a day in bed with a sprained ankle reading the notebooks I’ve filled this spring, “witnessing my selves, all the ways they were hurtling through our changes without stopping to process the shift in psyche. Going deep, spiritually, and finding a different well than expected.”
But I don’t exist in a vacuum – it’s not enough to go into myself, to write and read in reflection and call the work done. Sharing my learning – being in relationship with other humans is scarier, but no less vital. It is harder for me to trust other humans than to trust my past selves. I was just in a breakout offering about challenges of ALFing where we sat around in the library (my favorite room) and talked to each other like we’re people and I could feel the space we made together – Stef and Momo and Beckett and Chuck and I – and the sanctuary in it. We spent a lot of this week talking about tools, which are useful because they are supportive in holding the structures of the school but aren’t the thing. Tools free us up to do the hard, real, important work of being in relationship with each other. Being in relationship is the thing.
We need to free ourselves to raise free people but that work is neither linear nor is that process ever really done. There is no waiting for things to be done because to be alive is to be changing. Recently, I find my words take me through a slurry of time in a ways that’s frustratingly imprecise; what I’m trying to tell you is that in the two years since I wrote this list of intentions I have done all of them and also undergone a profound psychic reorganization to do so. I want to tell you all about it – maybe, one day in the space of our relationship, you’ll feel like you know my story and I will know yours. But I’m not here to hold my life out as an example to convince anyone that this is the “right” way to do ALFing, to get validation for my experiences, to sell it. Rather, I’m here attempting to perform radical vulnerability in a way I don’t really feel yet, in an attempt to connect to other people who want to do this work too – the painful transmutations and joyful play alike.
I recently learned that caterpillars turn themselves into soup and digest themselves in order to become butterflies. It feels like an apt metaphor. Yesterday, Beckett came over and laid on the table between us a post-it that said “ALFs – what is challenging about this job?” and I looked them in the eye and said “everything” and we both laughed because they know what I’m talking about. Tools are useful and writing is helpful and this work is deeply, beautifully challenging because being alive is deeply, beautifully challenging – I have learned so much about myself with the support of writing and other tools in the last two years and I am grateful for that. But a next cycle is beginning, (is always beginning and ending and…) and in this one I want to be in relationship with other facilitators who can play in these waters of strange radical alchemy – who want to play there with me.
We’re almost through with today, but nowhere close to done.