We met up with old friends for a mountain camping trip last weekend. Old, as in, back when I was still contemplating—under pressure of relatives—the merits of signing up for an e-mail account. Old, as in when our health care plan was a shelf of steeping herbal brews. Old, as in, before having kids was even on the roster of discussion topics. The last time we saw Jen and Mike, in their last incarnation before they moved from Durango, our oldest kids were two, and our youngest, still cross-eyed newborns. Which is to say, we were in the trenches.
Kids on top of the world.
One of the strange things about being a grown-up (besides the fact that the very word makes me giggle-flinch) is how six years can pass like a thick novel, complete with joyous pairings, heartbreaking separations, every day imbued with the holy minutia of daily life; and yet six years later you can pick back up with your friends on page 839 without having missed much (besides the sprouting of a few sexy grey hairs).
Part of this is because I think every parent’s story reads something like this: First, the days were an endless cycle of nursing, pooping and small people affixed to my chest. Now, time zips by faster than I can comprehend. Parenting is the hardest best thing I’ve ever done. The end. So, they’re in Michigan, we’re here, but the book is basically the same.
I am coming to terms with the fact that I settled here 18 years ago (I know, I look young for 53!) because of the mountain plants. Is this crazy? I don’t know. Was I supposed to be considering job markets or something?
Elephant’s head: the Dr. Suessiest plant in the world. Guaranteed to make you smile.
Penstemon whippleanus. Smirky name, also the best color in the universe.
Pedicularis racemosa. Dan’s favorite. Also, a favorite of the elk and deer. Chomp chomp.
I love seeing Dan in his element. When the wind blows in the first drops of rain, lightning smacking a nearby ridge, I’m thinking gather up the kids, follow safety protocol for lightning. Wait, what is safety protocol for lightning? And Dan is cheering, here it comes!
This meadow is where the elk came out to play at night.
I realized on this trip that people love Dan and Col for similar reasons. While many of us (hi, self!) are clamouring to be seen, to be recognized and appreciated, Dan and Col go about the business of living with a quiet passion. They don’t need to tell you about their work, but if you ask, they’ll share, in their thoughtful, slow-metered way. They were both lucky to be born with the kind of mind people meditate for years trying to develop. They don’t waste a lot of time wishing for something else; they’re usually too busy making their current antler/lego/elk/dirt dreams come true. Dan and Col are both fundamentally kind and generous and the kind of guy you want to have around if say, you need a flawless shelter constructed out of tarps at 11,200 feet.
Col’s been wearing these silky red MC Hammer pants with his Elmer Fudd hat, looking a bit like a Mongolian goat herder, or as Mike Wolf said, his own brand of superhero.
Our friend Mike is an education consultant in Michigan, and thinks a lot about what constitues a successful educational experience. I am adopting his philosophy on the hierarchy of educational needs: Emotional Intelligence, Practical Life Skills, and Academics, in that order. My heart flipped a few times when I heard this, because it feels so right for my family, so right for this world. Academics will fall in place when kids are ready. I began teaching myself botany at age 23 because I was so ready, I couldn’t not learn about the plants I was surrounded by. (Had I been taught botany earlier, at a desk in a classroom, I’m not sure what I would have retained).
I know of a homeschooled boy who wasn’t interested in reading until he was ten. In six months he went from Cat in the Hat to Animal Farm. Emotional Intelligence—the articulation and management of feelings, empathetic response, conflict resolution, active listening, effective communication—feels like one of the core foundations for a satisfying life. Because relationships are at the heart of our happiness, building emotional intelligence as early as possible is a great human and collective societal strength. (Wow – that sounded pretty textbooky. What I mean to say, is that in a world full of numbers and words, I know my kids will learn to read and do math. Right now, I am more interested in them learning to feel).
Col, working on his practical life skills.
The kids busied themselves all weekend in their little kid-pack. And the multi-family baseball game (no actual teams, everyone rotating unorganizedly through positions) in the meadow was tops for all ages.
While we waited for Chris to make breakfast for ten people, I sent the kids on a scavenger hunt. They found 1) heart shaped rocks 2) sticks shaped like animals 3) spruce cones 4) osha leaves, and 5) a rainbow of flower petals.
After returning home, unpacking, showering, and lullabying kids, Dan and I lay together in bed, debriefing. We noted how independent and easy-going our kids were on the trip (Rose spent the first night sleeping, parent-less, in a tent with 8-year Jada, who she had met, oh, 3 days before). We laughed at how, even after all these years, our dream vacation is still camping with friends in the mountains. We felt recalibrated from the slower, saner pace, and heart-lifted by the way the possessive pronouns lose their punch, as another parent feeds my kids and I hold whatever little hand needs holding as we walk down the trail.
I love giving the kids a 3-day break from the noise of media and societal pressure, introducing them to a world in which every living thing has everything it needs. Also, these trips are an unschooling for me, rearranging those worn out neural pathways that get stuck traveling routes of “if only…” naturally returning to, “this, right now.”