Friday, September 20, 2013

The Sling Diaries Volume III, Love & Adventure: Wisdom

This is my sixth and final entry in the Sakura Bloom Sling Diaries series.  To follow the Sling Diaries project, visit the Sling Diaries Facebook page or the Sakura Bloom Instagram feed.  To see my Sling Diary in Instagram format, visit my Instagram feed.

I've lived in Harlem since 2001, and I still don't know the half of it.  To fully learn it would probably take the rest of my life plus some.  But Harlem has opened to me little by little over the years, shared more and more of what guidebooks and real estate agents might call its "hidden gems."  Harlem's got history, but it's changing fast, too, and sometimes it seems like Harlem has the most of both sides - the most change and the least - the oldest gems and the newest - the most entrenched tradition and the blankest slate.

Neither my friend Tiffany nor I are originally from Harlem, but both of us take pride in having made it our adopted home.  We both like to explore its streets, meeting people and seeing things, taking the measure of its beauty and strangeness.  It's Tiffany who showed me that if you take the C to 163rd St, and then walk across the bizarrely perfectly-preserved Gilded Age enclave that is Sylvan Terrace (hidden gem), and then turn on Jumel Terrace and walk past the oldest house in Manhattan, Morris Jumel Mansion (hidden gem), and then turn again on 160th St and walk west on the south side of the street, you will encounter a small basement-level window filled with books and four big wooden letters: W-O-R-D.  This is Jumel Terrace Books, yet another hidden gem in Harlem.  (Some would say that this is not in Harlem but rather in Washington Heights.  Discussing what-is-where is a favorite New York pastime.  This particular little patch of Manhattan is a bit of a no-man's land, claimable by Harlem and the Heights both.  Few people in either neighborhood even know it exists, so really it mostly goes unclaimed.)

On a recent weekday morning in late August, Tiffany and I, together with my younger son Seiji and photographer Mike Nogami, made the trek to 426 W. 160th St.  We knocked on the basement door ("Open by appointment, invitation, or serendipity") and were admitted by the owner, Kurt Thometz.  Walking into Jumel Terrace Books is like walking into a small museum, or a large wunderkammerer.  There are all manner of tchotchkes, figurines, postcards, posters, paintings, Art.  And of course, books.  Packed into the shelves lining the walls, and stacked on every surface, books upon books upon books.  The store specializes in "Revolutionary & Colonial Washington Heights, Harlem, Africa, West Indies, Art, Myth, History & Literature: Slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Theology, Military, Labor, Civil Rights, Negritude, Black Power."  Look closely at that description.  What does it even mean?  It's hard to know.  All I can tell you for sure is that this place is full to the brim with books that you don't have.  (And maybe a few that you do, too.)  There are large, glossy photography books and yellowing, crumbling paperbacks; biographies, histories, polemics, potboilers.  The range of available knowledge is stunning, humbling.  What can one even say when faced with such an enormous repository of wisdom?

Actually, happily, Kurt has a lot to say.  He always has a lot to say.  He is a romantic, a rambler, a raconteur, and he doesn't really stop once he gets started.  Today, that's fine by me.  I sit with pen in hand, and I listen.

After moving to New York from Minnesota in 1974, Kurt became involved in the scrappy East Village art scene (think Basquiat and Haring) as well as the burgeoning hip hop and graffiti scene (think Wild Style).  He also began working as a private librarian to the wealthy, cultured classes - Diana Vreeland was one of his first clients.  After years of exile downtown and in Brooklyn, he finally moved with his wife, the couturier Camilla Huey, to his psychic home in the city, Harlem.  If you can come home to a place where you have never lived, well, that's what this was like.  Indeed, one of the first places in the city that Kurt visited back in 1974 was this very neighborhood - Sugar Hill - to see where Ellington had lived.  There were goats and chickens in the alleys and boogaloo coming out of the windows, and no one knew the name Ellington.

Of course plenty of native Harlemites know who Ellington is, especially these days, now that he's History, but we still suffer from certain lacunae around here.  Harlem has some of the lowest reading scores in the country, and whatever you think of reading tests and scores (as for me, NOT MUCH), we can probably all agree that this is not a sign of anything positive.  That's partly why Kurt decided to open a book store in the basement level of his new house.  "I wanted to take my own little stand," he explains. "I started by just filling the space with all of my own personal Black Studies books.  I had already read them anyway, and I wanted to contribute to my new neighborhood by creating an information-intense environment.  There's not much of that around here.  Even when you walk into the Schomburg [Center for Research in Black Culture, the NYC Public Library's flagship Harlem location], there are no actual books."

Kurt feels strongly that actual, physical books - words printed on bound paper - are irreplaceable keys to enlightenment in our modern world.  He is a true believer: he has seen the literally transformative power of books with his own eyes.  Kurt's son (by his previous marriage) was born severely autistic, with profound language and communication delays that were evident from almost the very beginning, and Kurt was for all practical purposes his sole caregiver.

"Reading," Kurt said, "is the most important thing a parent can do.  So many other parental responsibilities are merely custodial.  But when you read, you're sharing with your child what you know and how you came to know it.  Also, at the time, I was thinking a lot about Africa, and how the introduction of the written word there irrevocably changed people's consciousnesses.  And so I read books to my son as much as I possibly could.  Every single opportunity I got, I'd sit with my son in the crook of my arm, like you're holding your child now, and I'd read to him.  For years, there was no recognition.  But then one night, when he was five years old, I was reading him a Thomas the Tank Engine book, and I missed a word.  I read the phrase, 'Henry the engine,' and my son said 'GREEN' - as in 'Henry the GREEN engine.'  This was the first non-echolalic, non-gibberish utterance he had ever made in his life.  Soon, he was copying out his favorite books onto the computer, and by the end of that summer, we had written a poem together." Kurt's son has now fully emerged from the shell of autism, and Kurt credits the presence of books in their life together.

As important as books are to his personal life, Kurt feels that they are also of particular import here in Harlem.  "Digital media is not the same," he insists.  "Print on paper is tangible, real.  And that's crucial here - Harlem has always valued actuality and realness.  Harlem's reputation has always been for authenticity.  It's always been what people say about Harlem, and what Harlem says about itself: 'Harlem is really real.'"

Hearing Kurt say this, I realized that that is what I myself prize about Harlem - its realness.  I thought back to last year, when I texted my friend and fellow Harlemite Natasha to see how she was doing in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.  "I'm fine," she texted back.  "No damage.  Harlem is strong."  At the time, this struck me as not quite accurate.  We're just on higher ground and farther from the ocean, I thought, it's got nothing to do with being strong.  But now I see that she's right, she and Kurt are both right: Harlem is strong because it is real.  Hurricane readiness aside, Harlem is strong with its sense of self, its sense of history.  Harlem has an indelible knowledge of who it is.  Sometimes this is called Keeping it Real.  Sometimes it's called Wisdom.

I bought a copy of The Kidnapped Prince, Ann Cameron's adaptation of the Equiano narrative, for my older son Francisco.  Then Tiffany, Mike, Seiji, and I said our goodbyes to Kurt and walked around the corner to the Morris Jumel Mansion in order to see Kurt's wife Camilla's exhibit, The Loves of Aaron Burr: Portraits in Corsetry and Binding.  (The Mansion was ostensibly closed, but a staff member obligingly opened the door to our knock and offered to let us take a peek about.  Harlem sometimes behaves like a surprisingly provincial backwater, in the best way possible.)

Upon moving here, Kurt and Camilla began to research the Colonial history of the area, which was home to, among others, Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, as well as more than one important Revolutionary War battle.  They became fascinated by Aaron Burr in particular - there was so much more to his life and work than the duel by which he is most often remembered.  Of particular interest were Burr's relationships with women.  He chose to involve himself with strong, independent women, most of whom were avid writers, and Kurt and Camilla began to think of him as perhaps one of the first American feminists.  For The Loves of Aaron Burr, Camilla crafted a corset for each of seven women in Burr's life, as well as three thematic installations.  All of these pieces are carefully displayed in the rooms of the Mansion, which is itself a significant player in Colonial and Revolutionary history.

The exhibit is mysterious and enticing.  Like Jumel Terrace Books, the individual pieces spill over with printing and writing and paper; like Jumel Terrace Books, they feel familiar and intimate while also resonating with the enormous immeasurable reaches of wisdom and history.  None of us quite knew what to say, so we were mostly quiet, our footsteps echoing on the worn wood floors.

On the train home, my mind was tumbling with thoughts of books and writing, men and women, children and parents, history and revolution, wisdom and knowledge.  These things - the Big Ideas - had been on my mind a lot recently anyway.  In my previous Sling Diary, I outed our family as unschoolers, and the process of confession and justification forced me into thinking carefully about what I believe about life, about growth, about people, about what is really important.  I've had to think about teaching and learning, too.  How does knowledge happen?  How do we create it?  How do we help people become what we want them to be?  Is it even correct or useful to wish people to be anything in particular in the first place?

These questions are necessarily central for parents who make any sort of unusual choices for their children (as, incidentally, Tiffany, Mike, Kurt, and I have all done to one degree or another).  But really, these questions are at the heart of the project of all parents everywhere: What do I want my children to know and to do, and how shall I get them there?  Often, one takes oneself as the negative example.  Like: these are the things that I don't like about myself and/or my upbringing, so I will make it so that my kid doesn't have those things.  That was the basic model of thinking that I had been using myself, without quite seeing it.  On the train home, though, on the C train down through Harlem from Jumel Terrace Books and The Loves of Aaron Burr back to my apartment, I saw it clearly, and I saw that it was not quite right.

There are certainly innumerable aspects of my personality and my being that I do not wish to recreate in my children, but sitting on that Harlem train, I saw the reality that I am in a few important ways the precise type of person that I'd like my children to be.  I am questioning, independent, and individual, and I am faithful in my pursuit of a coherent personal vision.  I do not know how my parents came upon the wisdom that allowed this to occur, but somehow they did.  They made some mistakes, too, a few of which were significant and which I prefer not to repeat.  I'm sure that my children will say the same of me, and their children of them.  That said, given that I am myself, and that some of the central qualities of me are qualities that I value in other people, it must be that my parents got a lot of things - maybe even most things - right.

It seems, then, that the only way to keep it real here is to retroactively dedicate this entire cycle of Sling Diaries to both of my parents, who, for better or for worse, had the wisdom to make me into the woman who was able to write them.

All photographs by Mike Nogami.  Featuring the Sakura Bloom Single-Layer Luxe Silk Sling in Jade.

Here, at the end of this six-month journey, I need to offer my gratitude, as follows:
Many thanks to the other Sling Diarists and all of the Sling Diaries readers for their inspiration and encouragement.
Many thanks to Sakura Bloom, Lynne Banach, and Leigh Pennebaker for providing me with the opportunity to contribute to the Sling Diaries project.  
Many thanks to Bianca Fehn and Mike Nogami for taking so many beautiful pictures.  
Many thanks to Tiffany, HA, and ELF for their logistical, moral, and editorial support.  
And of course, many many many thanks to ELF, FCF, and SSF for putting me in the position to embark upon this project in the first place.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Sling Diaries Volume III, Love & Adventure: Kinship

This is my fifth entry in the Sakura Bloom Sling Diaries series.  To follow the Sling Diaries project, visit the Sling Diaries Facebook page or the Sakura Bloom Instagram feed.  To see my Sling Diary in Instagram format, visit my Instagram feed.

In the mid-morning, the Central Park Forest Nursery assembles slowly, its members moving ahead of and trailing after each other.  The families come from all boroughs, all points: Park Slope, Staten Island, Crown Heights, Chelsea, Harlem, Jackson Heights, Sunnyside, Williamsburg.  Parents and children carry random assemblages of things in their bags - toys, crayons, books, diapers, a tree guide, sequins, a single sock.  Some of us don't know how we even made it out of the house this morning.  We all bring weird hippie snacks, and we share our food.  Some days, none of us bring much food at all, each counting on eating everyone else's.  On those days, we all go a little hungry.

Early in the Fall of 2011, the poet Lisa Jarnot and her then 2-year-old daughter, Bea, found themselves invited out of a Waldorf-inspired forest kindergarten group because Bea refused to wear a sweater.  (Some strict Waldorfians feel that it is crucial that children wear a specific, non-negotiable number of layers of clothing.)  Lisa writes: "I was heartbroken, so two weeks later, we were back in the park with a new group that I had gathered through queries to local attachment parenting and homeschooling listservs."  That was the beginning of the Central Park Forest Nursery.  There are now more than 50 families participating, with a core of 10 or so families who attend regularly.  I first brought Francisco and Seiji to Forest Nursery in September 2012, after I saw a notice in an unschooling listserv.  We have met with the group almost every week since then. 

Forest Nursery is a homeschooling group - we meet during the day on weekdays.  It is also an unschooling group.*  To be an unschooler means rejecting not only compulsory schooling outside of the home, but also the regular imposition of any structured curriculum or lessons at all.  So, NO to the three Rs, Readin-Ritin-Rithmetic.  Indeed, to the unschooler, Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic don't even exist - not by themselves, anyway, not as independent "subjects" to be mastered at a predetermined pace in a predetermined order, for their own sake.  When Forest Nursery meets - sometimes up to five days a week - in Central Park and other places around the city, our learning is guided by the children, the environment, each other.

I stumbled into unschooling.  After weeks - months - of agonizing, I decided not to send my older son Francisco to the school at which he was registered to begin his kindergarten year.  And then, somewhat contrary to my original intentions, I found myself not replacing school with any meaningfully school-like activities - instead, I found that we were just kicking around the city, taking walks, going to the movies, eating at cafes, running errands, wandering around museums, grocery shopping, and otherwise living our lives according to our day-to-day needs and desires.  It came to me, eventually, that I needn’t do anything else.  I was unschooling my children, and it felt completely right.         

The unschooling life is, in many ways, a magical one.  I love the feeling of spilling out into the park - into the city, into the world - together with my children, with no goal or destination so fixed that it can’t be changed.  I love the feeling that we are actively shaping our own experiences, our own minds.  It’s radical and it’s romantic: We are dropouts, visionaries, free spirits, commie bastards, pink down to our underwear.  We are our own folk heroes.  We practice what we preach.  We are anti-authority, antinomian, anarchist.  We believe in love.  We are revolutionaries.  We are Hons.

To those who might say that it sounds like I’m doing this in service of my own aesthetic vision, rather than according to what is best for my children, allow me to suggest that that is what everyone does - the mechanism is just less visible when the path it leads to is less unusual.

In any case, I am not alone in this endeavor.  In the Forest Nursery, I am surrounded by fellow dreamers, and their voices inform mine, as follows.

“My son benefits from being outside a lot, which is something that school cannot provide.  Also, I think creativity, confidence, and self-reliance are hindered by the school model of teacher/student, authority figure/subject, expert/novice. I don't want my son to learn to value ‘experts’ over his own inner voice. I wish for him to be able to develop his own learning style so that he is confident that his is a good mind and so that his curiosity is nourished. I agree, for instance, with unschooling's take on learning reading, and I would love for my son to figure out how to read on his own without formal instruction.  If we can give him the space and time to do this, he will carry this sense of accomplishment with him in all areas of his life.” - Suzanne

“I don't want my daughter to think that the rat race is the best way - or ethical - and I feel like that starts in school with testing, schedules, curriculum, rules, etc. I'd like for her to learn what she desires to learn at her own pace. In my own experience, the things I know well are things I learned outside of or on the periphery of school settings.” - Lisa

“I want my children to play and be outside as much as possible. I want nature to define their early lives, and I want to keep them away from corporate, authoritarian environments for as long as I am able.”  - Alisa

“I think there's such a thing as 'the will to curiosity' - a will to know that can either be nourished or diminished. Unschooling is built around that, and schooling builds over it. If the basic will to know can be nourished, then one's likely to arrive at virtually every subject taught at school one way or another - and more likely to retain it, too. I want my daughter to have determined as much of her life course as possible - life itself will do enough to challenge that without adding school to the obstacles - and to do the things most suited to her.” - Thomas

Contrary to popular belief (“how will your kids be socialized?”), connection, kinship, and society are at the heart of the homeschooling project - and this is even more the case with unschooling. Homeschooling in general and unschooling in particular correct our myopic and often patronizing focus on “the child” in isolation, guiding us to instead think in terms of the family, in terms of interlocking families.  Without the prefabricated structures and relationships of conventional schooling (whether at school or at home), unschoolers have the imperative - and the freedom - to seek out and define their own tribes.  Unschoolers must create the world anew, forging the connections necessary to nourish and sustain exploration, the safety net for the deliberate daily free-fall.  In other words, unschooling demands active, creative kinship.  

“I've lived in New York for almost twenty years and had never formed deep friendships here.  After my daughter was born and during her first year, I felt even more certain that kinship was impossible. Most parenting networks I encountered were fairly traditional, and the parents were doing things a lot differently than we were. But when people started to come out to Forest Nursery, I suddenly found that I had not only deep friendships but actual kinships - if i think of ‘next of kin’ for my daughter it would have to be people in the group.  Coming to the park in four seasons is a real commitment - to one's kids, to the other families, to nature, etc.  What's come with it is a realization that those drawn to this approach and experience share an ethos regarding kindness to children and questioning of authority.  Our Forest Nursery has become a huge emotional and intellectual resource for my family - equal to a traditional tight-knit extended family or tribal community.” - Lisa

“I believe in autodidacticism, but I do also believe in learning arising from a deliberate context, a built thing such as Forest Nursery, from which arises knowledge, support, love, and a sense that that the world is lit up with real people.  As you know, the first thing non-unschoolers bring up is ‘socialization’ (whatever that is). The avenues of socialization offered by conventional schooling are, to my mind, stifling, pathetic, and narrow. Unschooling seems a much more desirable - and real, and mature - way to foster sympathy and negotiate the whole chaos of having relations with people in the world.” - Thomas

“Finding a community that is open to all kinds of ideas and ways of doing things is a very American ideal and a very real practice in Forest Nursery. It's liberating and inspiring to be around these families, and I feel lucky to be able to share our amazing young kids’ lives together.  Often in life, you have the friends you just come across, whether through jobs, school, neighborhood, or some other chance obligation. In contrast, with Forest Nursery, we have all chosen to meet and share this important time in our lives together.  We have chosen each other for our kids and for ourselves; our journey together is a conscious one.” - Suzanne 

Sometimes, Forest Nursery meetings are resplendent.  We make things, and the children make believe, and we have enough food, and everyone cooperates.  We could be photographs in a Waldorf catalogue.  Other times, though, our meetings don’t look like much.  Maybe only two families show.  Maybe we stand around and shiver while the children jump in puddles for an hour and then we all go home.  Maybe we sit on rocks and eat yogurt dispiritedly.  Maybe the children are at impossible, unbridgeable odds.  Either way, it doesn’t matter.  Rain or shine, pretty or ugly, rise or fall, our project remains the same. We are journeying, and we are together, and our journey together is a conscious one.    

*Not all Forest Nursery families unschool - the group warmly welcomes all comers.  But Forest Nursery is, by its nature, an unschooling project, and all of the parents interviewed for this piece are unschoolers.

All pictures by Bianca Fehn.  Featuring the Sakura Bloom Essential Linen Sling in Driftwood/Canyon.