Standing on the shore, we looked about one last time. Pema, already wet from head to toe, stood in her life jacket, excited and a little cold in the wind. Silke walked about casually in sandals, protecting her from the hot sand burning my feet. The rest of our things – a few snacks, water bottle, my shoes – had been placed inside the tube, an inflatable river floaty given to us at the last minute by my mom.
We had said goodbye to her and the rest of my family a week ago, then hit the northern coast of California. Now we were in Utah, near the end of a month-long road trip, and the little tube, a cheap novelty with cup holders and a netting for one’s butt, had served well. This would be our boldest adventure yet – several miles down the Green River in Dinosaur National Park. The tube wouldn’t keep our things dry, but it would keep them from disappearing. But that meant no cell phones, which, along with the rest of our gear, was back at our campsite, where, god-willing, we’d end up safely in a few hours. So, there are no pictures of what came next, a fact which turned out to be auspicious.
“Does anyone want to go in?” I asked, meaning the tube, which now floated gently at the water’s edge.
“No, I’ll just hold onto the handle,” Pema answered.
Seeing that Pema didn’t want to go in, Silke said, “Sure, I’ll ride for a bit.”
I pushed the tube a little deeper into the water, eyeing a few rafters upriver. We were near a boat ramp, the end of a common route offered by various rafting outfits in the area. We had had the beach to ourselves for much of the morning, but just as we were about to set sail several boats came in from around the bend in the canyon. Several were now stacked up waiting to come ashore. Inside, everyone had on helmets and life vests and were perfectly dry. I wondered if they envied us, or thought we were reckless.
Silke leaned back and dropped into the tube, a motion that is rarely graceful. Pema, wiping the splash from her face, giggled and stepped closer. I was ecstatic. Slowly, I pushed the tube into deeper water, then said, “Okay, pup, grab a handle.” I gave one last shove with my feet and we were free.
A few years ago, I began writing stories about my adventures with my daughter. We were often in isolated canyons and rivers, discovering elk, snakes, salamanders and ourselves. Sometimes, we were with other children too, including Silke’s outdoor kindergarten, a school with no building, and one by one those kids crept into my stories too. At first it was just fun, a way to reflect on my life and my relationships with children, and to be in touch with family and friends. The time with the kids was primary, but the silent moments alone, recalling the events, crafting the story, somehow helped seal the preciousness in my heart.
I got positive responses and after some encouragement I decided to share my stories more broadly. For a couple-hundred bucks I was able to put together a tolerable website. Then I set myself the goal of a story a week. I called it Off Grid Kids because we had at times lived off-grid, but I mostly just meant to imply hands-in-the-dirt and a certain level of unplugged-ness from media. We were outside in rainstorms, building fairy houses in aspen groves, picking wild apples and rose hips.
Slowly, my email list grew. At some level, I wanted to become successful, but I remained steadfast about focusing on the immediate reward of writing itself. I had long used writing to reflect on life, but now I had an “audience” and a commitment to produce a story a week, a polished and complete essay, not just a page of wandering thoughts. It became one of the greatest moments in my week, and my rule was – success is great, but it has to be worth it right now.
After a year, I decided to promote my writing beyond just family and friends. That was met with some success, but well-short of instant fame. I persevered, eventually experimenting with videos, Facebook and the sort of content that appeals to complete strangers. My time with the kids didn’t change, my writing didn’t change, but I did find myself recording moments and photos in ways I never had before. I was no longer content merely to do incredible things with the kids. I tried to capture it too, and I often thought of how I could use it for my stories. I like to think I didn’t taint myself or the kids, but there’s no question that, standing upon the brink of some spectacular moment or scenery, I reached for my camera or made a mental note to revisit this later.
So, when Silke, Pema and I pushed off into the Green River, I felt a liberation. On one hand, I regretted not having the chance to photograph what I knew would be a memorable experience, but I also knew that I had an uncommon freedom to fully explore it in the moment, then let go. There is sometimes a deep presence in life that reveals itself only when we don’t try to keep it. My daughter is exactly the same way. She is hers, not mine.
Since returning from our trip, thirty days of exploring oceans, rivers, family, caves and ourselves, I’ve been feeling a little empty. Partly, it’s that I miss the excitement and intimacy of our trip, but there’s something more. I knew this trip would put things in perspective for me. I even chose that intentionally, fully expecting to break some of my old routines upon return.
But as I watched the organization of my life fade away to the exigencies of the road, and then re-constellate upon return, something unexpected happened. Something that had been merely a gnat in my worldview suddenly loomed large. I had often used pseudonyms for the children in my stories to protect their privacy. And I had learned to take photos that didn’t focus so directly on any one child. But there was a glaring exception – my own daughter.
I never set about with the intention to expose her childhood to the world, but slowly, as my work on Off Grid Kids expanded, I began to do just that. It wasn’t a conscious choice, but as I look through the stories and photos today it’s her more than anyone else that shows up. As a writer and a human being, I want to keep my subject, but as a parent and a soul it’s time for me to face the fact that Pema’s childhood belongs to her, not me. I have no right to give it away.
It has been roughly two years since I began writing Off Grid Kids. In that time, I have invested a lot of time and money (more than you might realize). I now have a modest following, and people appear to value what I’m putting out there. I value it too. There is reason to believe that I could use this momentum to publish a book, create a program, do some speaking, etc. That has never been my exclusive goal, and I’ve never been in a rush to do it, but it has been in the background. And now, just as I’m getting waist-deep, I’m coming face-to-face with the fact that the core of what I’m doing is not in keeping with my values. Ugh. I did not see that coming.
School starts in less than a month. Two years ago, my time with children led me to Silke Markowski, a Waldorf educator and all-around fabulous heart of a being. I assisted her in her outdoor kindergarten, a school with no building, and over the past two years she and I have collaborated on many projects and fallen deeply in love. This year, I am starting my own program for first-graders, whom I plan to take through eighth grade. I have three students, and several others looming in the future. We will be outdoors much of the time, but also using my apartment as a classroom. I’m literally setting it up right now, between writing and editing this essay.
Our class has a kitchen, the first and most ancient chemistry lab. We have wood-working tools, a garden, and chickens just outside the door. Within walking distance, we have hot springs, a cave, one of the most spectacular canyons on the planet, petroglyphs, a neighborhood of resourceful people and a world-famous river. I see bighorn sheep almost every day.
This feels a little radical, almost subversive, but on the other hand it feels ancient and right. For thousands of years, children received their education from their parents or a close community member – people they knew and could rely upon. We forget that school, and its subsequent peer-orientation, is a modern trend that dates back only a couple hundred years. Education is important, but it’s time we stopped experimenting with letting strangers raise our kids. Teachers shouldn’t be replaceable in the same way as the gas station clerk. Fact is, no one is replaceable, and our entire economy is slowly starting to wake up to that fact. And it starts here, with our kids. It’s time to take them back, not by going backwards, but by moving forward with humility and intention. I want to be a part of that.
Off Grid Kids was initially meant to satisfy my desire to write and reflect. In time, I had hoped it would also help support me financially, so that I could keep focused on the children in my life. I am conflicted about asking for money to teach, not because parents shouldn’t have to contribute, but because I want an altruistic relationship with my students. I would feel ashamed to say to one of them, “I can’t teach you anymore because your parents can’t pay.” At the same time, it’s clear that a public school setting does not allow me the kind of educational environment I want for my daughter, my students, or myself. In the meantime, my savings is draining. There is only so much time left.
At first, we floated very gently into the river. Silke was in the tube. Pema held on to one of the handles while I held the other and kicked with my legs. Eventually, we reached the central current and were carried downriver. We didn’t go far. There were caves on the other side of the river we had been eyeing all day. I pushed through the current and we soon found ourselves on the opposite shore in a gentle pool of water under the arch of the first cave.
The caves, though not very deep, were wide and long. The stone cliff in which they were set rose high above us. From our vantage point within the biggest cave, we could see the rafters now getting out of the river on the other side. They had taken their helmets and vests off, and several were now idling along the shore. Silke hopped off the tube and we swam around, exploring the walls with our hands and voices. It’s good to touch a rock.
After a while, we hopped back in and swam around to the next cave, and the next. It would take us hours to reach camp at this rate, which was our plan. “Whoa, what’s this?” Pema asked, squishing her feet into a bank of silt at the back end of one of the caves. In a deeply recessed hole she found a dead fish, then made a face.
A twisted tree trunk was lodged inside another cave, so that it arced from below the surface, came out of the water, then dropped back down. I shook it heartily to test its strength, then climbed out of the water and perched with two feet on the smooth wood. A mile away, there was a huge wall of petrified dinosaur bones, exposed when the stratified earth broke into tilted columns. It’s hard to comprehend the fact that dinosaurs are older than mountains, that rocks are often what remains of life.
“Daddy,” Pema said, floating below in her life-jacket. The water was smooth, like glass. She smiled, a question in her expression, then reached up to me. I took her by the hands and pulled her up. There would be much ahead of us that day, but for now we just sat on the log and listened to the sound of water dripping off our skin, plink, plunk, and echoing off the cave walls. “I wish I had my camera,” Silke said, “that would make a great picture.” She was right, it would have.
End Note: In the next few months, I will be exploring the future of Off Grid Kids. I enjoy it so much. There are many different directions I could take, and I’m in no rush. This alone I know – I will no longer write so directly about my daughter, or any child, such that it focuses on them. Photos will be the same.