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the magic of totoro

Family and children’s films that deliver more than clichéd and tired good-versus-evil dichotomies laden with gender role stereotypes, gratuitous violence, and the subtle hypersexualization of young girls are hard to come by. If you are as fed up with the formulaic plot driven junk churned out for children by American cinema as I am, check out the 1988 classic My Neighbor Totoro by award-winning Japanese film maker Hayao Miyazaki. I watched this film with my family this evening and fell in love with it. This is what children’s cinema should be–a beautifully rendered, character-driven story of family, community, nature, and wonder.

David Pilling of the Financial Times described Totoro as “more genuinely loved than Mickey Mouse could hope to be in his wildest—not nearly so beautifully illustrated—fantasies.” I couldn’t agree more. Children and adults alike should see this film and imagine the wonder of it all.

rockin’ the inhome conference

Sometimes our fears get the best of us. But other times our desire to become more than we are today pushes us past those fears into risky territory–full of promise and peril. For adults this can be life shaking. For kids, it’s just growing up.

This past weekend, Aidan who is 7 now showed us just how much he’s growing up. We attended the 14th annual InHome conference in St. Charles, IL, which is always a good time. Over 400 homeschooling and unschooling families gather from around the country to learn together, have fun [singlepic=873,300,300] Aidan relaxing at hometogether, and celebrate life together for three packed days of dances, presentations, workshops, exhibits, talent shows, relaxation, and socializing. We’ve attended this conference for three years running now and each time it gets better. This year was by far the best as we ventured out to take full advantage of all the conference had to offer. (Aidan wouldn’t have had it any other way.) For days leading up to the conference, he was rearing to go–totally jazzed to do everything.

We arrived Thursday evening just in time for the “Meet and Greet” event. Aidan joined in right away, playing a series of hilarious cooperative games put together by Karen Ritter and her crew. (Thanks, Karen!) The kids had a blast crab-walking about the ballroom, swimming like fish, touring the resort via scavenger hunt, and chasing each other about in all sorts of fun ways. Aidan’s desire to join in the fun this time was 180-degree turnaround from last year when he spent most of the time cowering behind his mom–only venturing out toward the end through the gentle cajoling of Chris. This year, the moment we walked in the door, he darted out there in a flash leaving Chris and I standing dizzily in the doorway.

After all the fun the night before, Friday morning came pretty early. We started off the day by constructing a rubber-band car project, which, while pretty challenging, proved to be a lot of time. Aidan got a bit anxious when the facilitator stressed how important it would be to work efficiently as every minute of the workshop would be needed to complete the car. (AJ doesn’t like working under such time pressures. Can you blame him?) But he handled it really well, and in fact completed the car successfully. It’s a cool project.

From there, we headed over to the exhibit hall where Aidan and his Earth Scouts group were participating in a flea market sale. This was an opportunity for all the kids at the conference to peddle their wares; but Aidan’s Earth Scout group took the opportunity to sell handmade crafts and toys to raise money for Japan relief through UNICEF. Aidan talked with all sorts of people as they made their purchases; he solicited passers-by, collected money, and made change as needed. All in all, the kids raised $106 for their cause in just one hour. Not too shabby.

From there, Aidan took in an afternoon of workshops–learning about states of matter, magic, and physics. While he took in all that, I had the opportunity to hear some cool perspectives from some pretty well-known unschooling folks, starting with Pat Ferenga. Ferenga worked very closely with John Holt until his death in 1985 and is the president of Holt Associates, Inc. Ferenga is a big name in homeschooling/unschooling circles and has appeared in the national media many times as an expert in this field. So, it was pretty cool to hear him speak–and quite fun. The man is filled with energy and has a great deal to offer (even if he can’t quite keep to a one-hour time slot, but what unschooler can? :-) In addition to Ferenga, I heard Blake Boles talk on what he understands as the practical side of John Gatto’s work (while also plugging his unschool adventures program for teens, which is intriguing and kind of makes me want to be an unschooled teen). Then, I had the sincere pleasure of hearing Sandra Dodd along with her daughter Holly talk about parent/child unschooling relationships in an intimate small circle setting. I don’t know what to say–all very cool people indeed with great insights to share.

The heart of the day was really packed with fun activities and inspiring insights from some great minds for all of us. But this was nothing compared to what came next. Aidan had decided to participate in the evening talent show. He wanted to play his keyboard while singing two songs–“Love Me Tender” and “Humpty Dumpty.” Once again, it’s important here to remember that Aidan spent most of his first seven years hidden behind his mom’s leg (or most recently behind his long hair) to avoid being the center of attention in anyway, so when he told us that he wanted to do this, we were caught somewhere between joy, disbelief and real anxiety over it. Chris and I were both really worried about how it would go for him. Of course we supported his desire to do this and encouraged him, but we worried that anxiety might get the better of him and the whole thing might go south. (Picture head pounding on the keyboard, shouting at the audience from the stage, and kicking over amplifiers). In retrospect, I know that this fear was my own and not Aidan’s. At his age, I would never have had the courage to do what he did.

There we sat watching one act after the next take the stage. We watched. We clapped. Each kid was great. Then it was Aidan’s turn. I could tell he was nervous. (And I was really nervous.) He took the stage, as I helped him get his keyboard set to play. Aidan donned some special attire for the big show–complete with Elton-John-style big glittery glasses, a little bling bling, and streak of orange hairspray to punk out his hair. He was looking hip. We worked out the tech details with amplifiers, mics, keyboard settings, and the like while DJ Daddy G (aka Greg Callozzo, our emcee for the event) introduced him. Then he began. Check it out.

He did it! And he did it well. It was so amazing to see how far Aidan has come, but what was even cooler was to see the sense of pride and accomplishment he had in himself once he had done it. “I’m so proud of myself,” he later said, and I was proud of him too. From that point on, we were flying high. We celebrated that evening at the family dance–kicking-up our heels, limboing, doing the bunny-hop and the chicken dance, the electric slide, and freestyle dancing we shut the place down. And all of this was just the first full day of the conference.

The next day was filled with still more fun–great presentations, folk music, foam noodle tag, mythology, drawing, good food, and celebration. And Aidan had yet another chance show his growth over the last year as he took part in the Imaginarium Fair where the kids showcase some of the projects they’ve been working on and answer questions about them. Aidan brought a small collection of his favorite Lego projects along with a portfolio of his drawings and other artwork. Once the tables were set, the fair coordinators went around to talk with each child to see what they brought to showcase. When Bob Segall, one of the very nice coordinators, came to Aidan’s table, they talked at length for a good five minutes. Chris and I hung back and let Aidan have his moment. It was really great to see him engaging with another adult in this way. He’s getting so much more confident with each day that passes. It’s quite amazing.

It’s really funny to consider how these little moments that for me and Chris are some of the most precious of our lives–moments we will likely hold onto forever–are for Aidan just fun fleeting moments of another day. He’s just growing up after all. As I stand here with a lump in my throat marveling at the images of our lives, pondering parenthood and life’s greater meanings, he’s tugging at my arm pulling me toward the ice cream shop. God, I love him.

smiling mindfully

“A smile is the beginning of peace.”

Driving the other day I saw this saying on a sign of a local roofing company that always posts different quotes/sayings. I thought this to be a serendipitous sighting that fit nicely with my life lately. Many of the books that I’ve picked up to read recently focus on mediation and mindfulness, and many of the exercises within these books incorporate the act of smiling.

“A smile is the
beginning of peace.”

IIt is amazing how this act of a simple smile can help bring a sense of peacefulness inside yourself. I have found this especially useful when life’s stresses start seeping in or when my passionate and very spirited seven-year-old challenges me (yes, I’m trying to be positive here). FYI–this also works for situations with other individuals you may come across, such as judgmental, nay-sayer adults. While it is not always easy to “put on a happy face,” I have found that just breathing and thinking of this word “smile” can start a domino effect that brings you back to being more present and mindful, along with filling you with a positive sensation inside.

Try it. Stop. Take a breath in and as you exhale say to yourself the word “smile.” When you think of this word you find that the corners of your lips start moving upward and a smile slowly emerges on your face, and that your face, your muscles, and all your insides just start feeling soft and relaxed and, well, peaceful. It feels good.


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