The last time we posted on this blog was four months ago, at the end of our one year journey around the world, so you might be wondering what the heck happened to us.
“Are they depressed that their trip ended?”
“Did they fall right back into the busy life they said they were trying to escape?”
“Maybe their marriage couldn’t take it . . . “
I won’t leave you in suspense: we’re great! I’ve thought of a hundred blog posts since we’ve been back in Canada, but we’re having so much fun that I haven’t made the time to sit down and write. No excuses and no apologies. In fact, one of the things that changed in me over the last year is an appreciation for our greatest luxury: choice. I could have been writing every day, but I chose not to because there were other activities that were more appealing at the time. I am so lucky that I can choose to play a board game with the kids, go fishing, or build something in my workshop if it seems like the best decision in that moment.
But I’ve been bitten by the writing bug again and the timing is perfect: there is so much to catch you up on and it’s late-December – tis the season for our annual Christmas letter.
At this time last year . . .
It is somewhat surreal to recall that at this time last year we had just wrapped up our six weeks in Istanbul – oh, how we loved Istanbul! – and were starting our holiday rendezvous with extended family in Cyprus. We were only halfway through our journey, with three continents and thirteen countries as yet undiscovered by our little clan of vagabonds. Writing that, I am realizing that I haven’t posted anything about our amazing adventures in South America or Mexico, but I’m going to save those destinations for another day. This is about our return to Canada.
Best laid plans
When we decided to shelf our plans to buy a sailboat and return to Canada instead, we thought that Peterborough, Ontario would be home. We spent a ridiculous amount of time in Peru and Mexico house shopping online only to find ourselves underwhelmed when we actually drove around the area in person.
One of our many good fortunes is that we are not tied to any particular location. Many families have to go where the work is, but in our case there are fewer and fewer physicians doing ER work, so I would have no trouble getting shifts. We could decide where we wanted to live first, and figure out the rest later.
On a hunch, Lindsay called up her cousin, Paige, who moved from Toronto to Prince Edward County about four years ago to see whether “The County”, as it is affectionately known, might be an option. I sat on the couch beside her as Linds tilted the phone slightly in my direction so I could overhear the conversation – except that it was not so much a conversation as an animated monologue filled with passion, excitement and sincerity for her amazing community. “The County is filled with people like you guys – creative, entrepreneurial . . . people really make time for each other here. If someone says they want to have you over for dinner, they actually mean it. Just come out, look at a few houses. You’ll see.”
Welcome to The County
It didn’t take long to discover Paige was right. We spent one day looking at houses in and around Picton and ended up buying a well-maintained century home two blocks from Main Street. At about 1800 square feet, it’s the same size as our first house – the one that we had before four kids – and far smaller than the “dream” house we built in Collingwood about ten years ago, which was embarrassingly huge. But right now this home is perfect. Less stuff, more togetherness. We use every room every day and it even has a separate heated garage which has become the much-used family maker space.
Adjusting to life in Canada
If you’ve been reading this blog you will know that the kids adjusted surprisingly well to traveling (as they write about here here here and here), but what about the transition back to life in Canada? In hindsight, I think the transition from our old life to traveling was much more dramatic than the transition from traveling to our “reinvented” life in Canada. Our trip was amazing in itself, but even more importantly, it shed light on the long term changes we wanted to make in our family life.
Perhaps the biggest change is that the kids didn’t go back to school in September. The decision to home school (or “unschool”) during our travels was borne of necessity, but we found it worked so well for our boys that the idea of returning to a conventional classroom at this point would make us want to shove no. 2 pencils in our eyeballs.
From a parental point of view, the idea most of us have bought into that the best way to educate children is to design a curriculum, sit them down and shove it into their heads now seems completely ridiculous. We’ve seen that our kids learn from experiences, not textbooks; from having the time to investigate the thousands of questions they generate, not those on a test; and that our role is to surround them with new and interesting objects, information, and activities, then sit back and let them explore the possibilities.
The kids would tell you they’re happier: happy to have more time and freedom to explore the things they find interesting; happy they can whiz through the easy stuff and not be bored, and take as long as they need to on the hard stuff; and happy not to have to deal with the anxiety and stresses of cliques, rumours, and bullying. Unschooling might not work for everyone, but it’s working for us.
Now for some individual reporting . . .
Among Owen’s many talents is an incredible capacity for absent mindedness. Even though he is the oldest at thirteen (!), on our trip we were so worried that Owen might get distracted and wander off in some foreign metropolis that we forced the kids to wear bluetooth-enabled tracking tiles around their necks every time we went out. To his credit, Owen did a great job of keeping tabs on himself and his possessions during our year abroad, so it is ironic that on our very last flight back to Toronto he forgot his daypack and his treasured laptop on the plane. He called the airline himself to report the loss and we contacted the airport multiple times but after a month of effort we had to admit defeat and purchase a new laptop.
Since then, Owen has certainly justified the purchase. The prohibition of gaming and social media still applies to the population of minors in our house, but Owen’s laptop has been used extensively for all kinds of research from superconductors to advanced mathematics. Just the other day over lunch Owen explained the fundamentals of how neural networks recognize patterns. For Hallowe’en he made himself into a likeness of a 1950’s computer, complete with LED lights, and a month later programmed an Arduino micro-controller to make an ugly Christmas sweater play Christmas carols – that one won him a competition at Air Cadets.
Owen struggled within the confines of conventional schooling: when he is passionate about a topic his nature is to dive head first into it and not emerge for days; but the current system threw a blanket on that fire, forcing compliance to it’s agenda at the expense of his enthusiasm. The time and freedom Owen now has to explore the vast landscape of possibilities has taken him on all kinds of intellectual adventures. Although the mosaic of subject matter varies widely, one interest runs like a thread through all of them and that is an interest in teaching. Given the opportunity, Owen will drop everything to share what he has learned with another eager learner. This has obvious benefits for his brothers, but Owen’s outgoing personality has also forged relationships at our local library where he has started volunteering to help with a weekly Maker Lab for kids.
We never would have predicted any affiliation between our family and the military, but both Owen and Jake have joined our local Air Cadets squadron. Like so many other hidden gems of The County, we found out about cadets serendipitously by getting out, doing things, and talking to the locals. Jake, who just turned twelve in October, had to wait a few months for his uniform, but looks forward to every meeting and event as a chance to participate, learn, and meet other kids. Opportunities for public service are frequent and Jake is always happy to volunteer. There have also been two overnight field training exercises where Jake could assert his growing independence and, even better, his marksmanship. Target practice during hunting season paid off.
The other days of the week Jake spends his time doing all kinds of things like exploring more and more of the town on his bike, playing with his brothers, and helping me find the cold weather walleye that this area is famous for. Jake is strong and sensitive at the same time; silently enduring bitter cold for hours on end on our hunting and fishing expeditions, while observing everything that is happening around him. He doesn’t talk much, but it’s clear his mind is far from quiet; in fact, he can get quite preoccupied with his own internal monologue. Of all the boys, we think Jake might benefit the most from our small town life with an extra helping of family togetherness.
Before starting our trip, we expected at least one of the kids to struggle with the adjustment, and the most likely candidate was Ben. I’m happy to report we were wrong. Ben went from a shy – perhaps even timid – kid who clung to the security of structure and routine to one with friendly charm, a ready smile, and easy-going attitude. This change happened on our trip and it seems to be lasting. Although Ben was a little sad that our journeys were ending, he would tell you that life in Picton is awesome.
These days Ben’s interests have turned toward the arts. As you may remember, he was most looking forward to getting back to his Lego collection and I don’t think a day has gone by without the construction of one invention or another. Some projects last weeks. One of the ways we try to stimulate the boys’ learning is by giving them challenges. At the end of November, after seeing one on Pinterest, Linds challenged Ben to make an advent calendar out of Lego. By the end of the day he emerged from his room with the finished product: every compartment opened with a different mechanism, the faces of Santa, Rudolph and the Grinch adorned the centre, and other Christmas characters decorated the surroundings. Best not to let Ben see Pinterest – it would just bring him down.
Just off the kitchen of our new old house there is a tiny room that I use as an office. It is common for me sit down at the computer to find a document open called “Monstrom”. This is Ben’s new book. About a year ago, for another challenge, he wrote “The Lightning, The Fire, and The Water”, and had such positive reviews from family and friends that he is writing a companion novella. The contrast to writing for a school assignment is stark: Ben wants to write, and he emerges from the room lit up about a new character or plot twist. Writing a story is not a burden to be evaluated, it is a great adventure to be enjoyed.
His brothers have changed a lot over the past year, but none as much as Eli. Eli started the trip as a cute little kid and has rapidly grown into an eight year old boy complete with opinions and abilities. What hasn’t changed is Eli’s love of people; his effortless knack of establishing instant rapport with new people is nothing short of a superpower. This ability has certainly been useful in the last few months as we make new connections within The County.
One of the most worthwhile experiences Lindsay has been organizing for the kids is volunteering at a few small local farms. Not only do we get to meet some amazing people who are doing amazing things, but the learning opportunities for the kids are enormous. Eli jumps right into these new environments without hesitation, often leading the way for his brothers. Whether it’s harvesting honey at Jubilee Forest Farm, or planting four thousand cloves of garlic with Vicki of Vicki’s Veggies, he’s right in the action and making everyone smile.
But Eli’s not only about small talk and good times; it turns out he has an eye for business as well. One of the many crafts that Eli enjoys is knitting and soon after we returned to Canada he started making baby blankets. Turns out a few adults in Eli’s life were in the market to buy said blankets and before he knew it “Bingo Bango Bongo Baby Blankets” was in full swing. His brothers saw the action and wanted in. Not ones to let a learning opportunity slip by, Linds and I held a family meeting about business structures and basic accounting principles (because unschooling). Their interests have since migrated to other areas, but the experience of being an entrepreneur and making a little money has definitely left its mark on Eli.
As you may recall, it was my idea to come back to Canada, not Lindsay’s. She was apprehensive that we might fall back into some old habits of spending time on things that don’t really matter and money on things that don’t add meaning to our lives. Her concerns were valid and have helped us reinvent our life in Canada so that it aligns with our values. To me, nothing else would matter if Linds wasn’t content, so I’m happy to report that she is. Not that she’s hard to please – all she wanted was a kitchen she could cook in, a community conducive to our version of home schooling, and the ability to spend lots of time together as a family. That clarity of values is rare but it has guided us down the right path.
As you can see, Lindsay has been an incredible facilitator of learning opportunities for the boys. Besides Air Cadets and the farms, we have been on guided walks of local conservation areas, learned blacksmithing, and have been skating every week at the local arena. She even got me up on skates for the first time in over twenty years!
Linds’ greatest passion, however, is cooking and having her own kitchen again has been a great source of enjoyment. One thing she realized on the trip was how important it is to her that the boys know how to cook. She started teaching them while we were away and that has continued here. The boys now make their own breakfasts every day (not cereal), and are quickly acquiring more and more culinary knowledge.
Linds would say the most important thing, however, is our time together. We don’t always get along, and most of our days are not filled with big exciting events, but being together 24/7 for a whole year left us with the surprising realization that we want to be around each other. “Quality time” is no substitute for quantity of time. We are lucky that such a smart girl wants to spend her time with us 🙂
As Lindsay has written about before, our return to Canada is an experiment. The greatest unknown in this experiment: Will I find a renewed love of medicine after almost burning out a year and a half ago? For the past few months I’ve been working in two different ER’s part time. It didn’t take long to get back into the swing of things; like the computer that sat dormant for the past year, I plugged in, pressed power, and the circuits whirred back to life.
But the hardware (me) was the same and the applications (the system) were the same too. I wasn’t as overheated as I was a year and a half ago, but all the old crap was there and nothing new to ignite a passion for the job. I didn’t find a secret elixir in the jungles of Sri Lanka that would make me smile at wasteful bureaucracy, or a healing crystal in Peru that would take good care of patients as the system failed them.
“There is no such thing as a failed experiment, only experiments with unexpected outcomes.”– Richard Buckminster Fuller
And so, I am currently working once a week in Trenton’s relatively pleasant little ER, doing the job I was trained to do, enjoying a collegial staff atmosphere, but lacking the fulfillment I was hoping for. Not that I’m complaining – life is great, it’s just happening outside the hospital. I have an amazing workshop with room for everyone; I built a shed with lots of help from the family; I’ve taken a wood-bending class and life drawing classes; I learn Spanish every morning; I play squash several times a week; and I’ve had a great time learning how to fish for walleye in the Bay of Quinte.
We have, with intention and purpose, traded money for time. I could work more and we could have a bigger house, nicer cars, fancier trips – but time is more valuable: time to have a long conversation about astrophysics with the boys at the dinner table, time to play a whole game of Risk in one sitting, time to drive up to help out my father in law with one of his projects for a change.
Not everyone has the ability to make these kinds of choices – I get that. But thinking about the past year we have realized that we have more choices than we thought, and we’re maybe a little better at making those that open up possibilities rather than close them.
We are incredibly fortunate to have each other, all of you, and to call Canada home. We’d love it if you left a comment to let us know you’re still out there.