Family Cohesion on the Ranch
WHEN Juniper reached the age when she would have started school, we were caretakers of a remote ranch in northeastern Oregon. Getting to school on the rambling rural bus, being in school all day, and then getting home would have taken 12 hours. We weren't willing to commit her to a day that long.We had already started her education ourselves. When she was six, my wife, Laura, helped her learn to read, and she launched into an avid reading career that has rarely since slowed down. Amanda was four and listened in on the reading lessons and learned enough so that she could read simple books. She expressed an intense desire to gain access to more difficult books. I worked with her, in between and during ranch and garden work, and within a year she could read almost anything she was interested in. Juniper and Amanda are 16 and 14 now. Tests required of home schoolers by the state show that our approach to education has been academically successful. It has also been a success in that it helped build a firm foundation for a cohesive family. Our interests center around the home, the family, and our creative pursuits. We have no television. There are many interests we pursue: writing (all of us), drawing and painting (some of us), music (all of us), reading (all of us), and a deep and active interest in the outdoors and wildlife (all of us). My jobs have not been full time, partly because I was severely injured in a highway accident, and it was many years before I was able to work full time. When the owner of the ranch we took care of in northeastern Oregon died, the crew was laid off. We found an ideal, part-time job caretaking the inlets of a water system for a central Oregon city. We were able to continue our home schooling and to have time together. I was able to complete a book about our ranch experience. After a year and a half at that job, we were offered a job as site managers of a Girl Scout ranch in Colorado. During our long time of working at jobs with low wages, more and more needs had come up that we had not been able to meet. We were ready for a full-time job. I was also ready physically, and we moved into the job with enthusiasm. Our only transportation, a pickup, could no longer comfortably contain the four of us and was more and more expensive to maintain. We sold the pickup and bought two older cars. We arranged for Juniper to continue with violin lessons in our new area. We helped Amanda buy a piano and get started on lessons. We caught up on clothing and other essentials. We were 21 months in that job. My hours were supposed to be 40 per week in the winter and 48 in the summer, but they were often more. Laura's were 20 per week in winter and 10 in summer. The higher wage was convenient and enjoyable. We could see, though, that the job cost us irretrievable time together and experiences that couldn't be replaced. Our supervisor, aware of our interests and priorities, offered us a position taking care of another ranch. We took the job and made the move, even though it cut our hours in half and our cash income by a third. IT has been seven months since we made the change, and some evaluations are possible. None of us regrets the change. Amanda said, "I feel like I have my parents back." Juniper agreed. Our home education is going very well. I've gone fishing with Juniper. We have all worked together in the garden. Some afternoons, Amanda, Juniper, and I get into the car and go for a drive, with Juniper driving, practicing for her driver's test. Amanda and I hiked up the ranch and found a dense area of wild columbines. Soon after, we took Laura up to show her the flowers. We have time for leisurely mornings, when all of us work together to prepare breakfast, clean up afterward, and linger to talk about what we've dreamed or what we're thinking about. Juniper and Amanda read to Laura as she works in the kitchen. We sit around the table after dinner and talk. Juniper, Amanda, and I take a volleyball out in the driveway and hit it back and forth, learning, so that next time they go to a gathering of teens at the local church, they can participate when everyone plays volleyball. Amanda and I have been working together with guitars. She's learning to play the instrument, and we sing together. We talk about going - Juniper with her violin and Laura with her voice - and singing in the old part of town in Fort Collins, with cases open on the sidewalk for coins. We are saying it lightly, and yet it is an experience we would like to try and not just for the possible coins. Juniper's and Amanda's creative efforts now receive audience in the family, and they didn't, much, when we worked full time. Laura has begun to work on a long-held ambition, writing, and has sold two essays since we moved. I've been able to continue writing essays and to sell some of them, to organize and send out a book of my short fiction, to revise the book about our northeastern Oregon experience, and to begin two other books. In shorter words, we are usually able to give the family and the individuals in it priority over the need to make money. Is it an ideal existence? No. Sometimes financial pressure can be intense. Part of what allowed us to make the move was that I had been selling enough writing regularly that we thought we could count on additional income from writing. My average went up for a while after we moved. Then our main car suffered a series of mechanical problems in less than two months. Then the washing machine quit. But we have what we really need. A house, with utilities paid for, is furnished with the job. Our income takes care of food needs, music lessons, and other essentials. We have not given our daughters a rich environment in material terms. Most of our clothing is from second-hand stores, and we are pleased with that. None of us is caught up in style. Amanda likes pretty dresses, but she would rather have them cost $4 from a second-hand store than $60 new, because she knows the difference in price can serve other needs better. When I think of enriching children's environment, I don't think of material items. I think of enriching their environment with love, with the parents' support, teaching, reverencing the children, and being there to help with their needs. We have not been able to give our children this environment plus a wealth of material goods, so we chose the former. Do we ever regret our choice? Was it too much of a sacrifice? No. Far from it. We love our children, and love becomes the environment. We, children and adults, love and grow in love. We teach our children, and we learn so much ourselves from what we must learn to teach and from what our children learn on their own. When we help our children get out into the mountains to experience the wildlife, the flowers, the forests, the freedom of movement, we also have the experiences, and we experience the joy of having them together. It increases the depth of our experience, the openness with which we receive. There is no guide as effective as a child for bringing one into experience with openness. Sacrifice? Far from it. It is not always the easiest way to live, but it is the most richly rewarding.