Grace Llewellyn

Staff of NBTSC

NBTSC 2010 Oregon Staff

I’m in the woods of Vermont, preparing for the start of the east coast sessions of Not Back To School Camp. Today is staff orientation and the campers arrive tomorrow–over a hundred teenaged unschoolers. If I’m counting right, this will be my thirtieth session. I’ve only missed two since 1999.

In our first go-round of our first meeting, Grace asked us to say why we come to camp. This was my answer:

First, because this is where my people gather. The staff here are like family to me and for the rest of the year, they are dispersed. I can visit them one at a time or in clumps, by traveling. Camp is also where I am most likely to meet my future people. I’ve met almost all of my post-high school close friends at NBTSC.

Second, NBTSC provides the perfect supportive atmosphere to practice how I want to be and serve in the outside world: I want to be a space for love and inspiration to show up, strong and clear, for every person who crosses my path.

Third, since NBTSC happens once a year, every year, with the same basic mission, structure, and community, it provides a consistent backdrop to check myself against. My outside life continues to change, but here I am every year, back at camp. How am I showing up differently? How have I grown? Here that is quite clear.

Last, it’s super, super fun. The young people are beautiful, inspiring, and open. There’s lots of music, dancing and hilarity. I love it.

2010 Oregon session one group photo

NBTSC Oregon Campers (session 1) 2010

My good friend Grace has adopted a boy from Ethiopia, Rahmiel Yared Llewellyn. I got to meet him for the first time last week. He was immediately friendly with me and we had fun throwing a bouncy-ball around. It’s just wonderful to see how much he and Grace have bonded already. They seem just right for each other.

Yared and Grace, 2/20/2010

My friend Grace is flying to Ethiopia today to meet her adopted son, Yared, for the first time. What a journey to make! My thoughts are with her. Last Sunday I was at her baby shower, a moving ritual arranged by our friend, Kyla. There were lots of flowers and food, but instead of presents, we each brought a story–something we loved about how our parents were with us. We told them to Grace and wrote them down for a book for her to keep. It was lovely. I cried, off and on, hearing all of those beautiful, funny, endearing stories. Here’s what I wrote:

Hi Grace. Off the top of my head, I love how my parents sang a lot. My mom sang around the house, washing dishes or whatever, whatever song was in her head. I remember her singing the Oompaloompa song from the other room after we’d recently watched Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I remember thinking that she sounded so good–just right. My dad sang to us every night at bedtime. He’d come up  to me and Ely’s room after we were tucked in and sing us a few songs with his guitar. I had no idea how special that was–it was just something that happened, but it’s such a warm memory now. They were usually the same songs but I never got tired of them. One of them was Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Pony Man.” That was my favorite. One was “I Been Working on the Railroad.” He also sang an odd little song I’ve never heard anywhere else that went “What do you do in a case like that?/What do you do but stamp on your hat?/And your nail file and your toothbrush/And anything else that’s helpless.” Hilarious!

But writing about my bedtime made me think of a larger story about how I was parented. My days and weeks–my life–as a kid were punctuated with so many fun, comforting rituals. Bedtime was the best. My dad’s singing was the last part of a great time. My mom read to us from a chapter book every night. I could count on it. I could anticipate it with total safety. I loved it. And yes, sometimes I cried when she was ready to stop, because I wasn’t ready for her to stop, but I also looked forward to it the next night. We brushed our teeth together in our tiny bathroom, and my dad would call out the checklist of things we might need to do before bed, “OK, pee, poop, throw up, brush your teeth, go to bed,” and then, while brushing, the dental geography, “Bottoms of the tops, tops of the bottoms….” My mom would tuck us in, and gave us our choice of a back or head scratch.

That was just bedtime. We ate all of our meals together as a family. Each kind of meal had its own ritual. My dad’s dishes all had names that he announced with triumph: “Lentissimo Magnifico!” was one of his lentil dishes. He could be counted on (and still can, now that I think of it) to remind us that broccoli were miniature trees and that beans were miniature potatoes. On Saturday mornings we baked bread and Saturday nights we ate pizza on the homemade pizza crusts. On Sunday mornings we had pancakes. Every two weeks we’d all go out to the local dairy and watch the cows get milked. My parents bought the milk before they pasteurized it. We’d sit around the living room, shaking quart jars of fresh, whole milk until it separated. We made butter from the cream and (usually chocolate, s0metimes tapioca) pudding from the whey. We had regular nights with foot rides or crazy eights or The Muppet Show. There were great wrestling matches, the brothers against my dad. We’d apparently pin him every once in a while and he’d say “Now any normal person wouldn’t be able to move right now…” and that meant we were about to get (gently) tossed around the room.

I think I was an extra-sensitive kid, so maybe I was a special case–I mean, I don’t know that this will apply to Yared–but I’m so grateful to my parents for all of the regular, predictable, fun, comforting moments. They created structure for my days, gave me things to look forward to, cushioned the blows when things didn’t go my way. They also created a culture for the family: This is what life is like for us. This is what it feels like to be a Lester. There were exciting times, too, of course.  Like ice cream once a year or so. Or Disneyland, or relatives visiting. Or the couple times that we moved. That kind of stuff made vivid memories, being so rare, but it is the predictable stuff that I feel so warmly about.

As I’m thinking about all that, too, I’m reminded of the communication theory I’ve been learning in my Couples and Family Therapy program. In it, human communication exists on two levels. One is the obvious, content level–what the words mean. The other is a higher level communication, a non-verbal assertion about the nature of the relationship. The non-verbal sets the context for all of the other communication, colors it. One thing about non-verbal communication is that there’s no negative term. You can’t say, for example, “I will not hurt you” with non-verbal behavior. All you can do is put yourself in a position where you could hurt someone, and then not do it. One book, Pragmatics of Human Communication uses the image of an animal communicating to another that it will not hurt them by taking their throat in its jaws and not biting down. It seems like being a parent (and maybe part of any relationship) is to be constantly in that position. It seems to me that love is like that. The words “I love you” do not convey love by themselves. I appreciate so much how my parents showed me their love–rather than telling me about it–in all of these little, regular, predictable ways, making me feel comfortable and cared for, giving me a safe physical and emotional space to explore myself and the world in.



I have a bunch of papers due in the next couple weeks. About 50 pages worth, give or take a page or two.

Tonight I spent a little time with my friend Grace, watching Alseny Yansane drum and dance on campus, and catching up with each other on the drive there and back. I told her about the paper I’m working on right now, a critique of a journal article on some quantitative research. I said I was expecting some  late nights coming up. “I think I could get with a passing grade by turning in some crappy writing…”

She said, “That’s just not the Nathen Lester way,” and we laughed for a while. No, it isn’t. I just can’t bring myself to do it.

I am a few weeks past halfway through my 38th year, conveniently marked by my brother Damian’s birthday, and the start of my spring term. Here’s an update on how my intentions for the year are coming along.

1. Add new knowledge to the field of social psychology: I have just finished (I hope) crunching numbers for my honors thesis, and I can say that I have helped produce some new evidence, at least. It is not as sexy as I had hoped, but I have learned a whole lot about the process of psychology research, and that is the main point, as my advisor keeps reminding me.

2. Break my habit of scratching and picking my skin, including biting my lip: I have made some progress here, using a technique Reanna told me about: snapping myself with a hair band around my wrist whenever I had the urge to touch myself. My success varies clearly with my stress level. It requires mindfulness. Another insight/confusion: picking and lip biting, I can tell, are pure stress responses, but the scratching I think is more than that. I seem to be an itchier than normal person. A dermatologist told me that it was the “notoriously harsh” hand-made soap I have been using. I accepted that explanation until I realized on my ride home that he had been wrong. I only use soap on a few key areas. By his reasoning my armpits should be itchier than most of me, and they are not. Any ideas?

3. Celibacy: This has been no problem. I have not been tested, however; no one that I am aware of has wanted to have sex with me. When I first told Grace about this one, she said, “You are going to learn a lot from doing that, but you know, now that you are committed, you will immediately meet someone who will make it very challenging.” Well, not yet.

4. Dance every day, working on 1) musicality 2) vocabulary 3) style: This is going pretty well, though some days my dancing is just a token, so I could say I did. I had a big breakthrough in musicality on my fast dancing at Seattle Balboa Festival in February. The choreography I have been working on with Karly has been helping my working vocabulary. And the main reason I decided to take ballet is to improve my poise and lines. It is easy for me to get into an I-could-be-doing-so-much-more/better state. There is a guy who started in the same beginning class that I did in Eugene who really dove in and is now a rock-star dancer in Portland, winning national competitions. But I still give myself a thumbs up on this one.

5. Finish bachelor’s degree: Yes. I am on track to graduate with honors on June 13, 2009.

6. Get accepted into a couples and family therapy graduate program: Yes. I start in the University of Oregon’s CFT masters program on September 29 (happy birthday to me!), 2009. I’m very excited.

7. Maintain this blog: I have a lot more ideas for posts than actual posts, but I am pretty happy with NME so far. It has been a consistent source of inspiration for me. I get about 20 clicks a day, on average, which seems pretty respectable. The lowest I go is three (two of which are my ever-hopeful-for-a-post Mom, I just discovered), and my peak was 62 on March 31, the day after I posted the guide to my sidebar. I wonder who you all are.

8. Meditate every day: Yes. Sometimes just a few minutes, but yes.

9. Produce a record with David Waingarten: This is not going to happen this year, which I’m sad about. I love this guy’s voice and songwriting. He also makes movies, though, and that’s what he did with his time and money this year. The movie looks good, though. Here’s a preview: This Is Now

10. Record an EP with my band, Abandon Ship: This project is not on schedule, partly because of #12, below, and partly because of how much work an honors thesis is, on top of an internship and classes. I am working on it , but it will almost certainly not be done by my birthday.

11. See healthcare provider each month until all my body concerns are resolved: Yes, I have been doing this. I’ve seen a dermatologist, an orthopedist, a urologist, and two chiropractors. I’m disappointed with the results, so far. I seem to be collecting concerns faster than I am resolving them. Hmm… That makes it seem like I am on my last legs. I am quite healthy, overall, actually.

12. Set up a slick system of musical collaboration over the internet and use it regularly: This has come together much slower than I anticipated, but I have every reason to believe I will be up and running by early May. I can hardly wait.

13. Shift my schedule three hours earlier for at least one term: In bed by 11 pm: I’m very happy with this one, so far. I have not pulled it off perfectly for a term straight—my dance schedule conflicts somewhat with it—but I’d say 90% of the time I’m in bed by 11:30, at least, and that means I’m waking up naturally before my alarm 90% of the time. I love it!

14. Sing out every day: I have not been doing this as I had hoped. I am still inspired to sing out like my friend Zen Zenith, but I have not been working on it with any regularity.

15. Take African dance classes: Yes, I have taken two classes from master dancer Alseny Yansane, and they were awesome. Unfortunately, I have been having this low back pain that has kept me from dancing with that extreme athleticism. When my back stops hurting, I will go back.

16. Write at least one song per month: Nope. I have not written even one complete song. Ouch.

17. Make at least one of each item in Maya’s cookbook: Yummm. I have made four of 19 recipes: Fluffy Whole Wheat Pancakes, Super Hero Granola, Corn Chowder, and Maya’s Tomato soup. They were all excellent except I burned the granola.

About ten years ago, my mom had me write a list of qualities I wanted in a romantic partner. I think she wanted me be more conscious about choosing partners, aware of both the qualities that I value highly, and “red flags,” as she calls them. Lately I’ve been considering the possibility of another romantic relationship, so I rewrote the list (without referring to the old one) as part of my end-of-year brainstorming.

I’m also going to introduce the voice of my good friend and editor, Grace Llewellyn. I decided to include her in this post mostly because of her response to list #2—she wanted me to toot my own horn more than I was comfortable, even though I like to think she was right. I’ll put her in italics. Here was part of her initial response to these lists, in October: “I love your lists! Well, also I think in moments they are a little neurotic, and attempting to control life in a way we probably can’t, but they are pretty much like all my lists I’ve ever written of the same category, so when I pronounce my little judgment about neurotic and controlling it is with a light heart and a smile… And I also think, why not make lists? As long as they don’t block us from seeing some greater opportunity – if highly flawed and irregular – right in front of us.” In that spirit, she suggested the last item on this first list, which I agreed to with enthusiasm.

A few apology/explanations:

I’m embarrassed about some of what I’ve written here. I believe it and I’m embarrassed.

I use the word “confusion” in an unusual way, borrowed from co-counseling: When I say that I’m confused about myself or another person, I mean that I have been triggered emotionally in a way that makes me lose touch with how great I am or they are.

Items on the lists are more or less in the order they occurred to me, not in order of importance. Also, in response to criticism like Grace’s above, I don’t intend these to be demands on anyone or the universe. I understand that this stuff becomes a negotiation once I am in a relationship, and is a negotiation with reality even before that.

List #1—What I Need in a Relationship, as of Year 38

1) Smart enough to engage me fully and to love me for how I think—and how much I think—and not be afraid, disdainful, or confused by it.

2) Emotionally open and supportive. Her love and commitment are palpable. No guessing, no one-foot-out-the-door. None. Emotionally brave—shows me what’s going on, and can rely on my emotional strength for support. If I am having a hard time she can and wants to hear me, understand me, soothe me, in her arms.

3) I want to have babies with her. I have to think she’d be a great mother. We agree on childrearing stuff—attachment parenting, unschooling and the importance of the family in general. Also involvement of the grandparents. That last one probably means living in Joshua Tree a good part of the year once we have kids, with no sense of being put upon. Kinda begs the question—what about the other grandparents? Does she need to be an orphan? No, I’d love for her parents to be involved as well. I just don’t know them yet.

4) She has to love my family.

5) We are very attracted to each other, and sex is a source of joy and fun, not anxiety. No zoning out: present, joyful, intent on our bodies.

6) Athletic, healthy, eats well – and those things are just obvious, not a struggle. When we cook for each other we’re excited about it.

7) Not a fundamentalist. That includes true-believer atheists. Understands the difference between belief and truth.

8) Some form of creativity is a consistently big part of her life.

9) Happy. I don’t want to be a savior. (See List #3, Indications That I Am Not Ready For the Relationship I Want.)

10) Doesn’t have kids yet. (This one may belong on list #3 as well: It’s kept me out of a couple relationships in the past that probably would have been great. And as I get older it will get harder to pull off.) I want to have the whole experience with someone—being together without kids and then making them.

11) Does not rely on alcohol, or any other drugs, in any way.

12) Enthusiastically monogamous.

13) Money is not a big deal. Comfortable living a low-profile lifestyle.

14) Or something even better! (Thanks, Grace.)

When I wrote the original version of that list, ten years ago, my mom read it and her first reaction was something like, “Wow, this sounds like a great person. What do you have to offer her?” Meaning, I think, not that I didn’t deserve someone that cool, but that I should also consider my own development and how my qualities might line up with someone else’s list. Here’s my list of what I think my good qualities are, now:

List #2—What I Have to Offer to a Partner

1) A great community—close friends and family of really incredible, creative, loving people.

2) Really good listening attention and clear, responsive thinking.

3) Emotional and intellectual honesty and bravery.

4) Sensitivity. Say a little more? Hmm. That’s a good idea for a whole post sometime. I consider myself a highly sensitive person. What I mean by that here is mostly that I’m empathic and feel things deeply.

5) Strong, athletic body—healthy, good health habits.

6) I’m 37 and I haven’t peaked. My best is yet to come. Say a little more? Well, it seems like some people peak in a lot of ways in their 20s, or at least have this developmental plateau for the middle third of their lives. That’s not me. I can think of a couple ways that I seem to have peaked—brute strength, for example—but I continue to develop headlong in almost every other capacity. I’m smarter, more flexible, more open-minded, more compassionate, more creative, more self-confident, and more knowledgeable than I’ve ever been. I’m taking on more leadership. My ideas get more and more exciting.

7) I am loyal. I value long term connections.

8) I will be the best dad you have ever seen. Say more? What can I say? I was made to be a dad. I can feel it. I honestly don’t know if I will have kids, but I can say that it will be a too bad if I don’t, and not just for me.

9) Beautiful things make me cry.

10) I am not afraid of your emotions or thinking. And, when I am confused I can recognize and admit it.

11) Good conversations. You deserve a much punchier adjective than “good.” How about “Stimulating, exploratory conversations”? Sure!

12) Fun dancing. Ditto #11… “I’m a musical, connected, joyful, extremely fun dance partner…” That sounds good, too.

I totally concur with your list! Thanks, Grace!

List #3Indications That I Am Not Ready For the Relationship I Want

1) Financial—I’m in school, racking up debt, about $20,000, and that’s just for my Bachelor’s. And my career in the music industry has never made enough money to support a family. On the other hand … a few words about future financial possibilities... And on the other hand, if things go according to plan, I’ll have a Master’s in Couples and Family Therapy in two and a half years—not a huge money-maker (I didn’t choose the field because of the money), but respectable.

2) Everyone I’ve found myself interested in seems to fall into one of two categories: fully engaging to me but a heartbreaker, or true-loving and stable but somehow not fully engaging to me. “I am told I am not alone in this classic human dilemma.” I really think you can’t publish this one out without acknowledging that such is Life. For so many of us. You did not invent this little paradox.

3) I have two homes that I love. The idea of abandoning either is distasteful and adding a third is scary. That probably means that I need to find someone in Eugene who loves Joshua Tree or someone who lives in Joshua Tree who loves Eugene. Or someone who lives elsewhere but loves my towns more than theirs. Eh…. Not everybody is all attached to where they live. Honestly I don’t think this would get in the way of a lot of potential relationships… but, I’d still leave it on your list I suppose.

4) I think I’m not as happy as I’d like my partner to be. During my first mutual crush in years, before my birthday, I had this very nice but ultimately disturbing sense of being saved: “Ah, this makes everything OK!” That wasn’t a big part of the experience, but it was there. I don’t want to be a fixer-upper. I hope that you’re not too hard on yourself about this item… nor, either, about the level of your partner’s happiness pre-Nathen. I mean sure, it would be great if we were all nicely cooked before meeting each other and undertaking The Relationship, but I think we DO – and CAN – make each other happier. A lot happier. And I’m not sure there’s anything terribly wrong with that…. But that’s just me…. :)

List #4—Ways It Could Be Hard to Be In Relationship with Me

1) I tend to have a lot of projects going and I like to work on them. I think all of my past long-term girlfriends expressed some amount of dissatisfaction, a sense that they were having to fit into my schedule. The actual amount of time I spent with these women varied a lot between them. It may be that my tendency is to unconsciously figure out how much time would be completely satisfying to a partner, but then give just a little less than that.

2) I tend to take the things I’m involved in pretty seriously, and I get tense when I get the sense that they are not going well or I’m not doing a good job. I get confused about myself and I contract, especially in the period before I recognize that I’m confused. I have a pattern that makes me feel like the world is ending, and I can remember this pattern running me, from time to time, since I was pretty young—9 at least.

3) When I was 21, I swore with my four brothers that I would always be there with our parents on Christmas, and I always have. Thirty-eight times now. Partly as a result of that, our time in Joshua Tree around Christmas is great. It’s rich with traditions and reconnections—shows, jam sessions with old friends, hikes, Lester Family Entertainment Night, lounging by the fire late into the night, talking philosophy, sharing our new music…. It’s very close and affectionate and I love it. The only reason it’s on this list is that it would be really hard for me to miss it. Occasionally one of the brothers hasn’t been able to come and everyone feels them missing. It’s better when we’re all there. I know that my partner will very likely have a family with holiday traditions, too, and will want to share them with me, but it will be difficult to tear me away from the desert, that time of year.

4) If I have anything to say about it, my parents will never live in a convalescent hospital or old folks’ home of any kind, nor will they be taken care of by anyone who doesn’t love them like family. The understanding I have with my brothers is that we will take care of them, once they need it. It is also my strong preference that they are able to live and die comfortably in the home that they have made and love. I don’t know exactly how it will look, but I have 30 years to figure it out. I’m putting it on the list because I’m serious about it, and taking care of parents and grandparents seems like a radical idea these days. It doesn’t seem radical to me. It seems obvious.

Sing everyday: This is I did, minus maybe ten days. It was one or two songs a day, usually. This was enough to keep up my singing voice, but not enough to improve it, as I had hoped.

Dance everyday: This I did as well, minus a few sick days. I put the number of minutes I danced on my daily graphing-my-life/training chart, which shows that I danced an average of 54.41 minutes a day. My dancing really improved. I went to two Balboa camps, two Lindy Hop camps (“camps” are weekend-long dance marathons with classes all day and dances all night), one Lindy exchange (like a camp without the classes), took tap dancing classes all year, took a series class for Soul Motion, taught by Grace Llewellyn, and worked for hours at home on Balboa, Charleston, Melbourne Shuffle, clown walk, and just boogying.

Meditate every day: I think I might have missed once or twice. I kept track but lost my excitement for number crunching after analyzing my dance time. It looks like I averaged between 15 and 20 minutes. Meditation is not nearly as enjoyable as dancing for me but I’m glad to have sat every day. The benefits seem to come from regular practice.

Make a fourth Abandon Ship record: This I did not do. Abandon Ship is the band I have with two of my brothers, Damian and Gabriel. I did write arrangements for a couple of Damian’s new (and really good) songs and I wrote a bridge for another. I also spent a couple weeks in Joshua Tree this summer, writing and recording three more songs with him. It’s an ongoing project.

Continue to master being kind to myself: This is a project I started two years ago, with the help of my friend, Taber. It’s definitely worth a blog entry of its own, but simply put, I realized that there was a way that I am habitually not on my own side, and I began to practice continually realigning myself toward compassion and kindness for myself. It’s a major shift in my tectonic plates, as Taber says. This project is going really well.

Walk slowly: This has been great. This has been my favorite. I noticed that I walk as if I’m in a hurry, even if there’s no reason to hurry. I’d like to think I was emulating my fast-walking Grandpa Bob, but I think I just kept myself so busy for so long that I forgot about strolling. Walking slowly is wonderful. I love it.

Have a flexible back and hips: I did downward dog and plow poses plus a few other physical therapy exercises most nights between my birthday and the end of June. I improved my back and hip flexibility noticeably, though not as much as I’d hoped. I also stopped wearing a backpack after more than 15 years of schlepping, which I think helped. I started getting comments from friends that my posture had improved. Then I traveled all summer, basically camping in somewhat hectic circumstances: helping friends move and working at Not Back to School Camp, mostly. Traveling makes a nice, relaxing evening stretching routine a challenge. Anyway, I still have some of the flexibility I gained but I can’t say that I have a flexible back or hips right now. I’m not even sure that I could have said that in June, actually.

Overall I think I did well this year, both in setting good goals and in following through. I like the simplicity of the list. It’s got a nice compact aesthetic. I’m both inspired and daunted by my list for this coming year but it’s not as nice to look at.