Drawing the New Maps

It was good to take a minute and think back to just how far we’ve come.

“I think it’s time for us to get back to Chrissy,” said my 9-year-old son, referring to our 4-ton home we lovingly call “Chrissy,” short for Chrysalis, named after the pandemic-inspired song All Together Now by OK Go. “Why?” I asked. “The outdoors, the adventure, the exploration,” he responded.

These are words I never thought I’d hear him say.

I think back to Dolores, CO – a day we skipped going to nearby Mesa Verde National Park because moods were so foul and it seemed everyone would benefit more from searching for crawdads in the creek than squeezing in the day trip.  I was at my wit’s end.  There were tears, adult and child.  School was hard, mom was my teacher, and everyone was longing for “normal.”

In March 2020, Covid had upended our family’s “normal,” just as it had everyone’s.  Our four kids were sent home and the six of us all began to adapt, creating a variety of new habits from donning masks to spraying down Amazon boxes on the porch to monitoring grocery delivery slots.  We created new at-home school routines, trying to keep screen time to a minimum, something we had remained faithful to their whole lives yet felt was about to disappear instantly.  We took walks in creeks (storm drains), played kickball, fingerpainted, and measured lengths of sidewalks with dad’s shoes.  As dust settled and we identified what empowered us and what we had access to during this tricky time, one truth remained – nature remained our safe haven.

We had always found relief in nature.  We had four kids, seven and under, and two full-time jobs.  Nature was how we would change gears, decompress from the week’s juggle, protect our family time in the always-busy world we lived in, and find contentment in the simplicity of dirt, water, and sun.  We camped, we fished, we sought creeks and water holes from the heat of the Central Texas sun, we took our noise and our mess where there was freedom to be noisy and messy.  And now, faced with pandemic challenges, not wanting to sit around and wait for our ‘normal’ to return, we decided, through a series of micro-decisions, to embrace this haven further.  We would find an RV to purchase and take our lives deeper into this nature that so meaningfully represented the shreds of joy our family had maintained through the pandemic – nature and each other – rich, substantive, slow, quality time together.  We wouldn’t wait for things to get back to normal, we would make our own new normal.  

So, in July 2020, after a mere two months of prep, we set off.  The summer was rich; everything was novel.  The adults were busy solving all the problems of being first time RVers – a blown transmission in Santa Fe, failed air conditioning while in 113 degree heat of Moab, a second failed transmission somewhere between Durango and Salt Lake City, chasing sun for solar power, and otherwise learning how to drive, cook, operate, function, make friends, and occasionally shower in our new home.  Meanwhile, the kids, oblivious to the stress and doubt riddling their parents, embraced their various surroundings, exploring the forests surrounding our campground in Santa Fe, stripping down to their underwear at every creek we passed, scrambling over boulders, floating in the Great Salt Lake, identifying a myriad of animals (antelope, bison, coyotes) outside our home, and piling into one bed (out of a possible five) at the end of the day.  Some of their fondest memories still point back to those first three weeks.

We sputtered into Boise, Idaho on fumes and doubts.  We settled in for a bit of extended time with cousins and local adventures.  We also kicked off school, our first foray into homeschool.  By comparison to the Spring 2020 version of school, things started great.  We used the berries growing in the yard for math, studied the parts of an insect, researched Sacagawea of the Shoshone, a tribe local to Idaho, took breaks for yoga, read, and started our nature journals.  

As we settled into our lifestyle, we pushed further into the woods.  What may have initially felt like summer vacation, suddenly became apparent to the kids that it was a bit more permanent than initially understood.  School was going to be in the woods and on the road and my parents were going to be my teachers.  I began to better understand where my kids were academically and could therefore push them.  And they dished out their own pushback in response.  A toddler with a growing vocabulary and impossible opinions strengthened the push.  Lowercase Bs and Ds were easy to confuse.  There were exceptions to the rules about silent Es at the end of words.  Math was impossible, those dern place values.  I need your attention right now!  Frustrations abounded.  We were learning how to handle these frustrations within a family, where there was grace to blow up and scream, versus a classroom setting where things were bottled up and saved for later.  The emotional journey of 2-8 year-olds was added to the curriculum as we (adults included) breathed, sought peace corners, learned to voice hurt, learned to apologize, hugged, moved on, and some days, just searched for crawdads.  

Idaho turned into Oregon which turned into Colorado which became the coastal southeast which became a winter in Florida.

And in Florida we caught our stride.  Obviously bathing suit weather in January and February is healing in and of itself, but what seems to set this family’s mood is the abundance of fish and our ability to catch them.  Florida is where we caught all the fish that had been hiding from us in the first six months of the trip.  Every day we interacted with water, sand, and sun.  We found countless sand dollars, tracked the migrating birds, kayaked with alligators and crocodiles, distinguished bivalves from univalves, bathed in fresh clear springs, learned the variety of ecosystems represented in the Everglades, floated in calm salty gulf waters, and found family respite.

Florida became the Appalachian Mountains which became the nation’s capitol which turned into a spring across the midwest and then a summer in South Dakota, Wyoming, and Montana, back to Idaho followed by the coast of Washington, Oregon, and California, turning into the Desert Southwest of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico for fall.  

And in the meantime of multiplication and fractions, learning the use of a comma, color wheels, cursive and alliteration, all of which came with screams, tears, and whines (and occasional smiles and high fives), we were experiencing things together.  First and foremost, we were slowing down together.  We were going places without cell signals and finding joy in climbing trees, writing in the dirt, and identifying magpies and jays.  We were observing, noticing, and taking in the beauty around us.  And not just that, we were learning how to paddle a kayak, whittle wood, rappel, snow ski, jump off cliffs into frigid water, hike, start fires, navigate cities, fly fish, mountain bike, rock climb, cook the fish we caught, ride horses, and pitch a tent.  We were learning bird calls, animal scat, vegetation that thrives after a forest fire, food chains and life cycles, local native cultures, geography and maps. The kids were learning what temperatures felt like because we were outside in that temperature for 90% of the day.  We discussed seasons, weather, and ecosystems, simply because they were in front of us and unavoidable.  We discussed threats to our country’s wild places and truths surrounding our country’s complicated history, also because they were in front of us and unavoidable.  The two-year-old knew the difference between egrets and herons and knew to run away from man-o-wars.  The preschooler knew homophones and subtraction simply by virtue of proximity to big-kid school.  The first grader learned to read novels.  The third grader could identify woodpeckers by the pitch and cadence of the tapping.  We buried ourselves in books about nature or set in the given region where we were residing.  Requests were made to study latin, to better understand animal taxonomy.  Requests were made to wake up early and bird watch on the beach before it became crowded with people.  Requests were made to chase sunsets.  

This dichotomy of our learning, the frustrations alongside the ease, the worksheets alongside the experience of the world before us was best captured when one child was giving a tour of our RV to my uncle.  He opened our treasure trove of nature books and upon being asked “Oh, are these all your school books?” responded, “Nope, not those.”  Even then he could not associate his wealth of nature knowledge with what he understood to be the process of learning.  

It’s no surprise that it’s not a trend to make drastic lifestyle decisions such as this one, when your kids are young.  To me, it felt easy: they were small, portable, moldable, impressionable, and not yet with body odor.  But we are not veteran parents; this all still feels new.  We are full of self-doubt and don’t yet have the assurance that comes with knowing things turn out okay.  Parenting in stability is hard enough, navigating all the confusing turns our kids take us on.  Likely some of those whines, some of that anger, some of the frustrations of getting math problems wrong, wanting a different house, missing a friend; that might have happened if we had remained home, waiting for ‘normal’ to be given back to us rather than establishing our own sense of ‘normal,’ together, collectively.  How much of parenting is figured out after the fact, in hindsight, seeing it from the rear-view mirror as you suddenly understand that it was just a phase?  

And now, a year and a half later, as we debate the virtue of staying on the road or pausing to appease the desire for normal, the desire for some nostalgic version of school, the desire for grass that is certainly always greener on the other side, my son finally says the nugget about returning to Chrissy, indicating that the good has outweighed the bad, assuring me he was at home the whole time.    

Nothing changes, until one day it does, then there’s no going back

Our best selves and our worst selves live in that moment there

Sparring over who draws the new maps

And though their lines

May look the same

Everything depends on who wins that game

Damian Kulash and Timothy Nordwind

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