That was January

2023: One of Twelve

“Let’s live, Hannah! Where do you want to go? Anywhere in the world.” Mikael said.

Wow! And, of course, I went! Here I am in the village of Vilaflor on the Spanish island of Tenerife, running the steep village roads and the surrounding volcanic mountains with Mikael, the mysterious man who’s coming up a lot these days.

After only three months of online courtship, and meeting for a few days in Canada, Mikael scrambled together a dream trip in the perfect villa in the foothills of Teide Volcano where we hiked, beached, and lived fully. Our time lacked for nothing in terms of true relationship building. It was the return to his dad life in Sweden with his daughters that really ushered in a new level of connection, and revealed a dynamic of ease, fun, and remarkable love that is worth continuing despite the “elephant in the room,” as he says. We have two different, entangled lives on two continents.

Missing no irony, my husband’s name is also Michael. He is the loving and devoted father of my children, and the man who has adventured with me across the world for 16 years. The man who I’ll continue to raise our children with in some new fangled family assortment. While I stood taking this picture Michael and the kids were likely fast asleep on the other side of the ocean, in our home in Vermont. 

Michael knew and knows about Mikael. All of this has been a big undertaking of transparent, radical honesty. And the result has been the reckoning of our relationship and marriage, which has had challenges for years. The conclusion so far is that we need a new arrangement, but one that still maintains our dreams and my life’s vocation of “worldschooling” the kids.

And what is worldschooling anyways? I will explore that over the next decade or more on camera. My surprise 2023 re-invention includes the obvious next unfolding, a personal documentary.

I feel loved and supported by these two Michaels, so…

Why does it feel so hard?

Because it is hard. 

2023 is poised to be a remarkably unknown and vastly important year, and as such I’m going to take a portrait every month. 

That was January.


I don’t know WTF I’m doing. “Had I not met this particular tree…”

In Sweden, my lover’s daughter scoops candy into a bag for my own daughter, in America.

These Swedish home tacos and this American teen sex romp.

My American husband texts “I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.” from his new department in the hospital and then texts me that his lover advises him to “Stand there and look pretty.” I tell him what I’m doing in Sweden, which is essentially the same.

I am reading the ancient philosophy of Chaungzi under the covers.

“Had I not met this particular tree,

There would have been

No ______ at all.”

You can read “Wood Carver” by Chaungzi on my blog here. Wood Carver by Chuangzi

“The Wood Carver” from Chuangzi

Khing, the master carver, made a bell stand
Of precious wood. When it was finished,
All who saw it were astounded. They said it must be
The work of spirits.
The Prince of Lu said to the master carver:
“What is your secret?”

Khing replied: “I am only a workman:
I have no secret. There is only this:
When I began to think about the work you commanded
I guarded my spirit, did not expend it
On trifles, that were not to the point.
I fasted in order to set
My heart at rest.
After three days fasting,
I had forgotten gain and success.
After five days
I had forgotten praise or criticism.
After seven days
I had forgotten my body
With all its limbs.

“By this time all thought of your Highness
And of the court had faded away.
All that might distract me from the work
Had vanished.
I was collected in the single thought
Of the bell stand.

“Then I went to the forest
To see the trees in their own natural state.
When the right tree appeared before my eyes,
The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.
All I had to do was to put forth my hand
and begin.

“If I had not met this particular tree
There would have been
No bell stand at all.

“What happened?
My own collected thought
Encountered the hidden potential in the wood;
From this live encounter came the work
Which you ascribe to the spirits.”

Translated by Thomas Merton
The Way of Chuang Tzu, v1965

“The Dexterous Butcher” from Chuangzi

Prince Wen Hui’s cook
Was cutting up an ox.
Out went a hand,
Down went a shoulder,
He planted a foot,
He pressed with a knee,
The ox fell apart
With a whisper,
The bright cleaver murmured
Like a gentle wind.
Rhythm! Timing!
Like a sacred dance,
Like “The Mulberry Grove,”
Like ancient harmonies!

“Good work!” the Prince exclaimed,
“Your method is faultless!”
“Method?” said the cook
Laying aside his cleaver,
“What I follow is Tao
Beyond all methods!

“When I first began
To cut up oxen
I would see before me
The whole ox
All in one mass.

“After three years
I no longer saw this mass.
I saw the distinctions.

“But now, I see nothing
With the eye. My whole being
My senses are idle. The spirit
Free to work without plan
Follows its own instinct
Guided by natural line,
By the secrets opening, the hidden space,
My cleaver finds its own way.
I cut through no joint, chop no bone.

“A good cook needs a new chopper
Once a year — he cuts.
A poor cook needs a new one
Every month — he hacks!

“I have used this same cleaver
Nineteen years.
It has cut up
A thousand oxen.
Its edge is as keen
As if newly sharpened.

“There are spaces in the joints;
The blade is thin and keen:
When this thinness
Finds that space
There is all the room you need!
It goes like a breeze!
Hence I have this cleaver nineteen years
As if newly sharpened!

“True, there are sometimes
Tough joints. I feel them coming,
I slow down, I watch closely,
Hold back, barely moving the blade,
And whump! the part falls away
Landing like a clod of earth.

“Then I withdraw the blade,
I stand still
And let the joy of the work
Sink in. I clean the blade
And put it away.”

Prince Wan Hui said,
“This is it! My cook has shown me
How I ought to live
My own life!”

Translated by Thomas Merton
The Way of Chuang Tzu, 1965

Universe, figure this one out!

To live as we say “in the now” has been my aim for a while. 

I’m an exceedingly heady person, and it’s one of the reasons I’m so physically active. To trick myself out of my head, I’ve spent my life following open roads, mountains, never-ending travel, and daily doses of physical exertion. “Go feet go,” as it were.

I’ve sought out many teachers, too, in search of this allusive presence. Taoism. Abraham Hicks. Neville Goddard. Nick Breau. And yet no human teacher compares to life itself, as it unfolds so surprisingly. 

To fall in love amidst complex mid-life circumstances has been quite the test of this sprung-from-life-education. On paper, none of this is rational. I’m 41, he’s 60. We have four kids between us, we live on two different continents, and yes, we are both married, even. We have lives with people who we love and care about deeply. We want the best for all, and the way to make all this work is beyond brains.

My time with Mikael is beyond any doubt the lesson in presence that I need right now. Simply, everything can wait. Writing can wait, photos can wait, and the effluent self-expression I’m addicted to, can surely wait. What’s here is this rare thing, a person who needs no convincing of who I am and why I’m worthy of love. 

Last night, I awoke from sleep and I cried a good cry in the bathroom, sudden and overwhelming, and had to be released. I’ve been trying to show and tell for a long time of my worthiness to be seen and heard. Personal adventures, writings, travels, big dreams, and experimental actions, this is surely me, but none of it brings me closer to a self-acceptance that I’m learning from Mikael (a big time explorer, single father, successful at living differently) with 20 years more life to have grounded him. He needs the warmth I’m so capable of giving. Not what I do (though he’s enthralled by it), what I’ve made (our collaborative potential aside), but who I am, my ways, and how I love. And to be loved for something as automatic as that, is the gift of this relationship for me.

“We could be dead tomorrow,” he says. Though I’d say it with a bit more erudite philosophy, he’s not wrong. 

Universe, figure this one out!

Winter solstice summit with Loulynn

Loulynn sat in a heap of her own coat and gloves on the trail in the snowy forest singing and playing with the fluffy powder. I heard my Coach Mommy voice, the joy killer, say, “We have to make a choice to either go up or go down. But we can’t stop to play so much. It’s the shortest day of the year and we are racing the sun!”

It was 20-something degrees and we were perfectly dressed, but the mountain has its cold blue shadow, so why stand around with our boots in the snow letting it sink in. My dog was traipsing up trail through the snow-weighted boughs of alpine spruce, toward the warm light and crepuscular rays of the midday sun outlining every hard edge of ridge line and tree trunk in blue, silver, and gold.

After a four miles up the snow-graded mountain road (with friendly backcountry skiers stopping their swerve down to chat with us) and a decent segment of actual trail, all manner of edible motivations deployed, Loulynn made her final push up with a bit of help from my dog leash as our short rope. Through the half foot of powdery snow, she said “I never give up because I always want to see what is at the tippety top.”

One year ago, she brought me a sticker of snow-topped Mt. Fuji and announced she wants to climb it with me, sticking it to the top of my hand. And so I say now, when we head off on a trail or prepare our packs, “This is training for Mt Fuji.”

7 miles, 1300 ft elevation gain, let the record show that Solstice 2022 was her first proper winter hike to the tippety top.

Worldschooling Team in off season!

Eli, 8. Loulynn, 5. Hannah, 41

We are a ramshackle team but accomplish much; and we are in our off-season. Halloween through Christmas is a good time to slow down, stay put, and enjoy the festive, community offerings of small town life. 

2022, our first full year living in Vermont, was a whirlwind exploration of the Atlantic coast from Massachusetts to Maine, and on up and across Maritimes Canada and Quebec. There was lots of inland journeying as well: camping, hiking, playing with other adventure families across Vermont and Upstate New York.

Winter starts tomorrow, and we look forward to a full ski and ice skate season. True Vermont kids they will be and once ski season is over, when the ice turns mud, and the snow turns rain, we will set out further afield from the “homebase” again. 

Meanwhile, I’ve been traveling without kids, forging ahead in grown-up Adventureland. I’ve been off every other weekend since October, exploring African dance within the radius of 200 miles from my very non-African, Vermont community. And there’s been plenty else too: on trail, in a tent, housesit, hotel, or airbnb, it’s been a full fall for me! Soon I will head to the Spanish Canary Island of Tenerife with fellow adventurer, creative, and super parent, Mikael Strandberg, doing what? An unfolding of many things indeed!

Every year I start with a loose plan of some kind. On the docket for 2023 is an increasing ambition and focus in the mountains of the New England ranges with packs, and hitting the road with fully loaded bikes. Putting distance and skill in the body and hands, putting a taste of pack life in the back of the throat. Shall we backpack across Europe for their 5th time, and first since pandemic? I’ll need to ask the universe to help me whip it together. But yes, we shall. 

That taste of pack life is one that can’t be gargled or spat away. Maybe it’s just me that can’t swallow the nag. But I am captain and if we are to do life beyond school, Captain Mom is leading the way from the back.

As they piddle about and mess the house up every day, I do as Mikael calls “daydream and train hard.” I hit the gym, trail, or pavement, every day. Training for what? Adventure at the drop of a hat, it seems. This is indeed the recipe, attested to by my entire adult life of lands coursed with body and wheels. 

Practically too, I cook, clean, shop, launder, and chauffeur a lot, and we get them outdoors. I rest by writing, photo-editing, applying for housesits, reading up on places, or tapping away on the phone with my people, shopping for used gear, looking at maps, getting library books, and pulling it all out of thin air. In other words, Worldschooling Mom in high gear.

Like tomorrow, the Winter Solstice, what shall it bring? The shortest day should accompany a big a milestone for some of the team. We shall see!

Tessellations: the learning pathways of unschooling

I just kissed my son, Eli, goodnight as he nestled into a graphic novel about the invention of vaccines. Not sure I myself could muster the interest in such a bedtime read, and our kids impress us often like this, their innocent curiousness. He didn’t choose the library book I grabbed randomly this week (we do about 30 new books a week) but the kid will read anything related to science, geography, and math. We are unschoolers, and this means that my children are growing up outside the convention of school, its routines, expectations, timelines, praises, tracks, assessments, curriculums, standardized pathways, and focus on producing results/work for others.  

We don’t do curriculum and I don’t fuss too much about so-called subject content. They get books related to topics they’re interested in, I’m interested in, their dad is interested in, and more often completely random shelf grabs. Our library is small and I’m sure they will read everything there in a matter of years. We simply read widely and daily.

Once I gave Eli a book about the ancient and powerful Kingdom of Benin in modern day Nigeria. I told him, “No one gave me any African history when I was growing up.” He said, “Well, we are going to Africa, right?” He stayed up late into the night, like many nights, reading. I share because I want people to consider that kind of unproductive interest, with no history report to write by Friday, just “What is this and is this compelling?” Reading exactly like a curious adult.

My children assume they will go everywhere eventually, and I’d like to keep it that way. I told him I was going to Teneriffe in the Canary Islands soon, and we looked at the atlas. “Oh my god, actually you are going to Africa!” He exclaimed.

“Well, the island belongs to Spain,” I said. “No, Mom, look it’s clearly closer to Africa.” 

That’s right, my love, let’s talk about that. And so a moment of investigation emerges which we as parents love to lean into: a tension to explore between what I’m asserting and what he sees. Here we go: history, colonialism, power, land, human diaspora, language, resources. This is unschooling, we all do this, it’s just a patchwork of experience, discussion, and a lot of mutual discovery between parent and child. 

We do see where a lack of school reads loud on my children. Because though they are kind and sweet, they are definitely eager to share and often interrupt, command adult attention, and are rough around the edges in terms of adult-child etiquette. Despite my correction, they tend to engage head on with adults without assuming a particular hierarchy. To them, they are just engaging: blurting out answers, free associations, questions, and personal anecdotes.

Recently, in the library Eli sidled up to a one year-old baby and his caretaker as the librarian read them both a story. The librarian was mid-sentence, holding the book aloft the baby’s head when Eli interrupted, 

“You’re all staring at a tessellation!” he declared into the void of cleared silence. The adults turned to look at my son, who was staring rather absently into the tessellation. 

“Sweetheart,” I whispered, “Don’t interrupt their story, you can listen, too.” 

The baby, now staring exclusively up at Eli while the librarian begins to read again, “A tessellation!” Eli interjects for the second time, “…is a pattern of interconnecting polygons unbroken by any gaps.” 

Yes, it occurs to me that at age eight he should know better than to interrupt complete strangers, but my kids don’t have this particular social courtesy refined day in and day out. I correct them often, but with kids living outside the social training ground of school, some of these things take a little longer to master.

And speaking of gaps! Sometimes I hear this concern against unschooling that children aren’t getting a “well-rounded” exposure to all the subjects otherwise. a.) What exactly is a subject? and b.) Why do we have to separate them? How come math and music are not one in the same if they are constructed with same mechanics? Or art and biology, aren’t they mutually necessary when explored? When you watch a child learn a new intangible concept, its understanding is the product of tangible manipulations, through the deployment of many other subjects: felt by the fingers of play, solidified by a crayon. We can all see that nothing is as it seems, and so the categorical nature of knowledge doesn’t seem to create a convenience to us at home, it’s more a complication, a feeling that we need to stay within the lines.

“I’m glad I learned the quadratic equation, even if I never used it in real-life!” some schoolies argue and I completely agree! I say reading about the quadratic equation is real life enough, the exposure is always as important as the mastery. As unschoolers, with a family led by engaged and curious adults, we expose widely and let the children choose their path through it. School and Unschool are aligned here, what is not aligned is in the production of work and results that supposedly prove that a bite of knowledge has been chewed and swallowed. To then grade, assess, praise, and collate minds accordingly, forever forward to success or less than, that is the only part that is not aligned. 

Have you watched a child complete a self-assigned project to its end result? Do you see the pride and self-satisfaction? The question and the answer begin with them, through their hands, but with their intrinsic play nature to repeatedly investigate, apply trial and error, which ends in either self-determined sense of doneness, or conversely a frustrating dissatisfaction, tiredness, or hunger, and isn’t that the real life of work, too…to know when it must stop and to listen to those cues, rather than to ignore them?

Content gaps don’t exist because knowledge is not an actual thing, but rather a construct to understand one aspect of human consciousness. Knowledge is an imagined frontier that we all sit along and expand with each life lived. And besides, there is the internet, which is also a handy arm of human consciousness and knowledge. 

And when the internet is not there, my son is always right up in the front in a group, with his hand raised, perhaps, perched to interrupt. He’s never had to listen to a lecture against his will. Like books, live expert-led presentations are potential to him, special unique experiences. Can you imagine not taking that for granted? 

This tessellation of days. Life, too, is a pattern of unbroken, interconnecting polygons lessons without gaps. 

Photos by Hannah Pierce-Carlson

Archives to Now: How to love an artist, the odd-eyed cat

The Beijing winter was one that ground me along: the piles of indistinguishable black and brown winter coats, the exhausted-blackened snow heaps, the barrels of smoke, the smell of sickly, roasted sweet potatoes and cumin-seasoned lamb meat blending with the fumaroles coming out of the public toilets, and holding my breath falling out the door of a subway or bus, windows rolled up, of course, wondering which lung infection I just caught having bucketed about the bus crammed with exceedingly worn out humans. The only thing worse than a protracted Beijing winter, was the pollen-ridden, wind chaos of Spring, and the thick, polluted, humid summer, made dark by the winds trolling sand off the Gobi desert. Fall was lovely, and it lasted a week.

Here is an almost perfect Beijing mess. A beloved odd-eyed cat, loved you can tell by the way it’s leashed with a rope to the bike rack, but not so much loved that the eggshell is removed.

When you fall in love with an artist, and by that I mean, any kind of creator, you need to know this: The person who takes the closest look at what they’re making will win their heart. If you’re not prepared to read what they write, listen their song, analyze their strokes, guess at their intent, question their metaphor, breakdown the parts, get into lengthy conversations about the work and the vision, this is not the person for you. 

I’ve taken no poll, but if you’re a creator, tell me I’m wrong.

Know that to fall in love with a creative person it is to collaborate in the complexity of their process. It should be exhilarating to you, and not draining, because hopefully, you are a creator too, and they are loving you by reciprocating that close look.

You’ll need to become attuned to their insecurity on those days when they feel like they’re not making the work they want to, or conversely on those days when they feel like people aren’t getting the full impact of their vision.

Squint, make their edges and incompleteness soft, and see what they’re trying to make, and be the one true fan, possibly the only one in the world that believes in them. Look right at them.

That’s how to love an artist. Look close.

Arm’s Length Cottage

I kept a quiet, little blog in 2010 called “Arm’s Length Cottage” chronicling our year in agricultural area of Yunlin County, Taiwan.

From the archives:

January 3, 2010

a thousand moons on a thousand rivers

On our train to Taipei this weekend, I started reading Hsiao Li-Hung’s “A Thousand Moons on a Thousand Rivers.” So far its about a young exuberant Taiwanese girl who’s bad at school and longs to stay put in her home town in the Taiwanese countryside, around about where Michael and I are living now. The requisite pressure from her family to exceed in academics and find a well-paying career diverge with her desire to be filial and an attentive good family person, despite the circumstances taking her away from her family. In the slightest of stretches, I feel a little bit like her. There are the folks that stay put and near to their families, and they are the ones that keep the heritage ball bouncing, living true to something filial and embedded in local culture. From my far-flung outposts, I only experience family, rootedness, and community, in the abstract appreciation of other people’s culture. 

In the story, Zhenguan says, “How happy are those that never have to leave their home!” I think it’s true. If you never have an existential, egoistic, or otherwise psychic pull away from your home and family, or outside circumstances pushing you out, then I’d say that’s at least a good foundation for contentedness. 

I learned a little something about Daosim a few years ago on a night bus to a since forgotten southern Chinese town. Consider a green hilly and mountainous world, prehistoric “China,” a fog streaming, lush landscape of 500 B.C.E, whose valleys thrived with villages, whose residents rarely encountered one another, so much that over the centuries these isolated areas created a myriad of mutually unintelligible dialects. Such was the geographic context from which Lao Tzu’s ‘Tao Te Ching’ first emerged, and, of course, predating Lao Tzu himself. One may ask, from a Taoist perspective, if you hear a dog barking or a rooster crying over the next hill, what makes you curious and driven to cross the hill and enter the village, which is exactly like your own, simply to see what’s going on over there? We’ve got our own barking dogs and cryings roosters. What delusion are you following that you do not have enough where you stand, that you might need to seek something new? Despite it ringing true to me, as I stared out the window of the bus, cutting through the darkness of a place far remote from my home, my adult life at that point and to this day is either a challenge or a doggedly naive rebuke of that idea. I guess I will know which when I am 70.

I’ve put myself in the path of my interests and big dreams. I’ve been successful, but I’ve also achieved a great aloneness. Michael and I both feel this way, though we are not paralyzed by it, but driven by it. And we often justify it as such: We belong to a tradition of humans who don’t settle down. That’s our tradition. We’re led by curiosities and a tendency toward periodic change. Modern lives are characterized by this, and we’re no different. Our nomadic, mobile culture is our own unique offering to the human fabric. Those who stay close to home are sewing metaphoric threads that will stand the test of time, and they settlers and culture makers need us, the travelling storytellers to deliver the news of the world beyond. They’ll need to see how others live, they need us to show them something mundane from far away. They need us to tell them that those in the far-flung hills are just the same as us. It’s a fundamental lesson that must be continaully reminded.

In the story, Zhenguan, returns periodically for holidays from her big city college. Her family tip-toe around her as she “studies” by candle light under a mosquito net. Having gotten used to her isolation, she takes to reading in the crumbly quiet cottage in the back of her grandparents traditional-style country home. They do not bother her; they are satisfied by her seeming commitment to academics. They call it the “arm’s length” cottage.” And she stows away in there reading fantasy kung fu comic books, far enough away, but close.

From the blog “Arm’s Length Cottage”

Hannah Pierce-Carlson, 2010