The More You Give, the More You Get Back

Cross-posted from Today Parenting Team

In this season, I often remind my children of the important lessons we learned about giving and sharing when we lived in Alaska. In this photo, Kyra (5) and Ethan (2) are presenting their first harvest of petrushki (beach lovage) to Rita Blumenstein, a renowned traditional healer and member of the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers. Auntie Rita had spent Mother’s Day with us on the coast of Turnagain Arm, Alaska, where she taught my children not to take too much, so other people and animals can harvest too.

At Anchorage Museum’s Living Our Cultures, Sharing our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska exhibit, Elders and youth are interviewed among the Athabascan, Eyak, Haida, Iñupiaq, Tlingit, Tsimshian, Unangan, Sugpiaq, Yup’ik, and Saint Lawrence Island Yup’ik..

In the Yup’ik video, Alice Rearden (Cucuaq Aluskak) speaks about ella, or awareness. Growing up in Napakiak, her Elders taught her “that if you are out walking and see a piece of driftwood sticking out of the mud, you should pull it out and turn it over so that the muddy part can dry. That piece of wood is alive and aware, and it will feel gratitude for your kindness.”

Her features are delicate, but when she speaks, her voice is laced with the weight of more than 12 years of wisdom, gleaned from serving as lead translator for the Calista Elders Council. The video pans to a scene of fish hanging on a dry rack while Rearden says off screen: “We always grew up with that sense, of not putting yourself first or above others. Giving gifts to people, those kinds of, you know, unselfish gestures that you do for people—it will come back in turn.”

Yup’ik Elders explain that “those who are capable must help those less fortunate through sharing food and doing chores for them. We were admonished: ‘Even though an old woman wants to pay you, you do not receive it.’ When an elderly woman or man is given something or helped, she is extremely grateful and thanks you with enthusiasm. And they give the person who helped them something beneficial, thinking of something in their minds that will aid him positively in his life.

“Yup’ik discussions of the ethics of sharing describe its consequences in terms of its nonmaterial return—the grateful thoughts it elicits.…Today, sharing knowledge is as critical as sharing food in both the transfer and transformation of Yup’ik moral standards. Admonitions to act with compassion and restraint remain foundational not only in Yup’ik interpersonal interaction but in their relations with their environment.”

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Living in Alaska, it seemed easier to teach my children about sharing. While dip-netting, we always collected fresh fish heads discarded on the beaches and delivered them to Elders whom I worked with in town. They helped me clean, pack, freeze, and ship salmon to relatives in the Lower 48. Now as they get older and we move further away from Alaska, I hear them yelling “mine” at each other and slipping into that urban self-centered way of thinking.

As a mother of three, Kyle (13), Kayla (11), and Christopher (4), Rearden trades ideas with me on how to teach our kids tuvqakiyaraq, the custom of sharing, in an urban setting. Rearden grew up “feeling shame to get more than someone else. Whenever I was asked to share, I always gave the other person a bigger piece. I would cut a candy in half and be ashamed to take the bigger piece.”

She raises her children, who were all born in Anchorage, with these ideas: “The more you give, the more you get back. If we are stingy, like if you don’t share your toys, then [they] will break right away. When you give, it will come back to you. Your selfless act is always rewarded. They see that I don’t hold back when it comes to helping in any situation. I hope they [her kids] watch me and observe what I do.”

Because it is hard to keep traditions like tuvqakiyaraq in the city, Rearden goes out of her way to share food. She often hosts feasts where she cooks all day, serving her most precious subsistence foods, making sure her kids see that she is serving her last bag of salmonberries. She says, “it’s just enough for them to see. I am always talking to them and explaining the reasons behind sharing, the reason why it’s important to give to others and have compassion for others.”

Here’s something simple that I try with my kids. I take an apple and cut it in two. I present both pieces to my oldest. Sometimes she will try to stuff them into her mouth before her two younger siblings notice. Sometimes, she’ll bargain with them. “Okay, I’ll give you this apple, if you give me that Xbox controller.”

Always, I’m patient. Using these opportunities as teaching moments, I’ll remind her of the lessons we learned in Alaska. Always, she’ll give away the larger piece or press both pieces into the little hands of her brother and sister.

Parts of this post are excerpted from my original publication in First Alaskans Magazine.

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Three Tips for Taking Young Kids Fishing

Balancing our heavy five-foot-diameter dipnet on my right shoulder, I plunged one foot at a time into the gooey mudflat.  It was low tide at the mouth of the Kenai River and the mudflats had already killed Ethan’s talking Finn McMissile and petered out Thomas.

Every step was a gamble.  I could fall flat on my face or sink so deep that I got stuck.  As I plunged into the ocean with all my strength, the net whipped in the current and nearly knocked me over.  Licking my lips, I tasted the spray of saltwater, the thrill of not knowing what was going to happen next.

The icy waters cooled my feverish excitement of being an Alaskan as I fought my net and tried to tame it against my ribs.  To my right in one deft move, a neighbor knocked a salmon out with his club and hung it on a string tied to his waist.

It was our third year dipnetting and still I felt like a novice.  Here are three tips that made this year’s fishing easier.

  1. Bring the proper gear:  The shore is often littered with fish guts, seagull droppings, and puddles that kids can’t resist touching.  Last year, Kyra and Ethan were drenched and miserably cold five minutes after we started fishing.  So this year, I invested in waterproof jackets, pants, and gloves.  Check the label and make sure that it states the product is 100% waterproof and not just water-resistant.

    Bog boots or something comparable that stays warm down to -30° F keeps socks dry, toes warm, and shoes on! (My kids love any excuse to go barefoot.) Those easy-on pull handles also saved Ethan’s boot several times when it got stuck in the mudflats.

    Kid-sized camping chairs surprisingly act like an invisible leash.  Last year, Kyra and Ethan couldn’t climb into the adult-sized chairs easily, so they drifted and complained that they were tired, and eventually buried themselves in the wet sand.  We didn’t even bother bringing adult-sized chairs this year because we could squeeze our bottoms into their chairs if we really needed to rest.

    Finally, it’s all about the toys and snacks.  Supply them with easy snacks that they can open and dispose on their own and make sure they eat first before they start playing.  Check their pockets and make sure that they don’t sneak their favorite toy down to the beach.  They each have a set of waterproof beach safe toys that they only get to play with when we go fishing.

  2. Engage your sidekick:  There’s something about the title “sidekick” that my kids love.  Maybe, it’s because lately Batman and Robin are their favorite bad guy fighting pair.  Or maybe, at this age, they want to feel like a member of the team.

    Kyra and Ethan help me entangle two fish from the net.

    Ethan was frustrated that he couldn’t fish and I had to keep a close eye on him because he kept trying to walk into the ocean like Dad.  His hands would get caked with mud and he would start to wail.  I asked Kyra to get a bucket of water to wash his hands and this evolved into their job.  They never tired of lugging buckets of water to our side so that we could clean tools or fish.

    Although Kyra can’t wait to cut fish, I told her she could start by helping me to vacuum seal them.  She took this job very seriously and knocked aside my hands if I hovered.

  3. Create teachable moments:  The Alaska Sport Fishing Regulations guide came in handy when Thomas cleaned the salmon.   I taught Kyra about the five different salmon species found in Alaska and asked her to identify each salmon. She then tried to teach Ethan who was much more interested in swatting away the flies.

    With Ethan, I also played the “I spy with my little eye” game to review his numbers, colors, and alphabet.  But unlike his sister, Ethan runs away if he thinks he’s being tested or educated.

What lessons have you learned about fishing with young kids?

The Inside/Outside Wars

This summer, I insisted upon a mandatory daily routine of getting outside.  At first, Kyra and Ethan couldn’t wait to race their Cozy Coupe, bikes, and scooters in our yard.  I proudly noted gear-tester talents manifesting on days that it rained.  A big smile broke across their faces when they remained dry while the world around them soaked.

Gear testers in training.

Kyra usually collected sticks, gifted me dandelions, and took Ethan on adventures.  Ethan enjoyed sitting on my lap on the deck and playing our “What’s that Sound” game.  Closing his eyes, he can now name every sound he hears accurately, including discerning the difference between a squirrel and a bird.

Lately though, I noticed that it’s harder to keep them outside for more than a few minutes.  Dandelions began to strap down their bikes and scooters the way the Lilliputians felled Gulliver while Kyra bargained, “If I go outside, how about I get to play with your phone?”

“No.”

“Okay, how about we get juice?  Ice cream?  Marshmallows?”

Ethan tried, “How about watch Superman? Sesame Street? Something edu cation?”  And when that didn’t work, they would complain, “The bugs will bite me” or “It’s too cold.”

Recalling the plan I outlined in Dandelion Killer to explore what’s outside our doorstep, one day, I tossed onto the living room floor a bunch of guidebooks on flowers and plants.

“Kyra, I have a summer project for you.”

“Cool Mommee.  What is it? What is it?”

Measuring the amount of gleam in her eye, I found the right words to get the leader of the pack on board.  “How would you like to pick flowers in our yard and make your own book?”

She looked at me suspiciously, “I can make my own book?”

While she browsed the guidebooks, I found a handmade journal I had bought at Alyeska’s Blueberry Festival and never figured out what to use it for.   Dangling this journal and a box of art supplies in front of Kyra, I said, “You can start by decorating the title page.”

Two seconds later, she was done. In crayon, she had scribbled the words, “Mommy and Kyra.”  She slapped on some Spiderman stickers and then handed the journal to Ethan, who honestly was much more interested in tattooing himself with markers.

“Kyra, I can barely read this.  Do you want to make it darker?  Maybe, add some flowers?”

She already slipped on her shoes and was halfway out the door. “Let’s pick the flowers first!”

Delicately negotiating her “now that I’m done with Kindergarten, I’m in charge” attitude, I explained that once we put the flowers in the book, we couldn’t open it for at least 24 hours.

“Alright,” she said, kicking off her shoes, “Very quickly, okay?”

Now, the title page was exciting enough to entice Ethan’s attention.

 He insisted on carrying the journal and Kyra grabbed a guidebook.  Outside, they ran up to the first flower they saw, my one and only California poppy that had bloomed overnight, and picked it.  I made a note to myself that I had to read them Eric Carle’s The Tiny Seed at bedtime and show them how to be nice to plants.

Then, they started to fight over who could put the poppy in the book.  “Kyra, since you picked the flower, do you mind letting Ethan press it?”

“Fine,” she huffed and puffed.

“Look, there’s some purple stuff growing along the driveway.  But, before you pick it, Kyra, do you think we should find it in your guidebook?”

“That’s a good idea, Mommee.  Okay, you help Ethan and I will find this purple flower.”

I did have to teach Kyra how to use the guidebook, but she was very proud to name the Bluebell.

As the sun warmed my face, I recognized that this was one of those rare moments where I think I got my parenting right.

Here are some other ideas on nature journals:

A Secret Spot

With sprinkles of water from gray skies cooling my cheeks, I followed in Auntie Rita’s footsteps along the shore of what she called, “A secret spot.”

Kyra and Ethan’s giggles echoed in the wind whipping across the ocean.  At the moment, they had no interest in what Auntie Rita and I were doing.  Ethan sunk his fingers into the sand and massaged it into his hair.  Kyra tunneled her Zhu Zhu Pet Hamster.  And if they weren’t both marinated enough in the earth, Kyra shoveled it into their laps.  They simply couldn’t believe that they could play on a beach in Alaska.

I couldn’t believe that Auntie Rita wanted to spend Mother’s Day with us.  Some people call her Grandmother Rita of the International Council of Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers.  Others call her Dr. Blumenstein, Alaska’s first certified “tribal doctor.”

Over a decade of being part of her life, I am still in awe that this internationally renowned and revered woman, who has three kids, ten grandchildren and ten great grandchildren, loves me like one of her own.

Tightening her bright blue hood around her wizened face, she broke out into a mischievous smile and beckoned me close.  She stretched out both hands, leaned down towards a round low shrub, and closed her eyes.  Her lips moved and I wish I could have heard what she said to that plant.

She pulled out a plastic bag from her backpack and said to me, “Take just a little from each.”

Then, she snapped off several stems and whispered to the plant, “Thank you.”  She brushed the leaflets against my nose.  I inhaled a cilantro-like fragrance.  “Petrushki!” she announced and hurried off to the next shrub with the speed of a child collecting candy that scattered from a piñata.

As we harvested, Auntie Rita taught me about some of the other plants growing in the area.  She pointed out the ones to avoid.  She kept saying to me, “I just love you so much,” filling the emptiness that my mother’s death had left within.

We snacked on crisp petrushki and paused frequently to inhale the wind laced with the breath of the plants and sea animals and ocean.

When my kids tired of their hard labor on the beach, they each drifted towards me on their own time.  I repeated what Auntie Rita taught me.  To respect the plants.  Talk to them.  Say thank you.

ethan picks petrushki

Ethan gently stroked the shrubs and asked, “What’s that?”  He patted his belly and asked, “For me?”

I placed a petrushki leaflet on his tongue and he crinkled his nose and spit it out.  “Mommee, this is for Daddee.  I pick for Daddee.”

“Okay,” I laughed.  He was right.  Thomas loves cilantro, so I knew he would like petrushki sprinkled on his pasta and stews.

Kyra approached each shrub with all her masculine energy, which Auntie Rita had sensed when Kyra was still in my belly.  “This one is a boy,” Auntie Rita had said.  “I am never wrong.”  So the first time Auntie Rita met Kyra, she had bounced the lively four-month-old in her lap, shook her head, and laughed.  She said something in Yupik and explained that she gave Kyra her mother’s name.  It means something strong like penetrating rock.

Auntie Rita watched in the distance as I instructed Kyra not to grab fistfuls of petrushki but just a stem at a time.

“Like this Mommee?” she asked, waving three stems bristling with leaflets in my face.  Her cheeks flushed pink from the past hour on the beach.

“That’s better.  Now, what do you do?” I asked.

She shut her eyes and said, “Mommee, I have to go pee.”

“Can you hold it, please?” I whispered, glancing nervously at Auntie Rita who had her back turned to us.

“No,” Kyra howled and started to twist her legs together.

Hoping we weren’t contaminating any food source, I rushed off deep into the woods with my naughty daughter.  About a half an hour later after we resolved her business, we slipped quietly back to our harvesting spot.  Kyra grabbed the plastic bag out of my hands and stuffed some leaflets roughly in.  Then, she punctuated each stem-bending-pat on each shrub with “Thank You.”

Kyra harvests petrouhski

Auntie Rita thanked me many times too.  She said that she couldn’t have thought of a better Mother’s Day gift.

I told her the feeling was mutual.  Ever since I became pregnant with Kyra, I wanted to raise my kids with a traditional lifestyle and diet, which research proves has tremendous nutritional, spiritual, and physical benefits.

However, subsistence is not easy if you aren’t born into these traditions.  Hunting and fishing has been expensive and risky.   Even the simple act of harvesting plants can be potentially dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing.

Glancing to my left where Auntie Rita bent low over the ground and to the right where my kids rolled in the sand, the weight on my shoulders lightened as the task I set for myself about a month ago in Dandelion Killer  came into fruition.

It was not easy to arrange this day or find the right words to share this special moment with Auntie Rita but I hope this post resonates with KTDontheGo:  Alaska’s Very Own Secret Garden, Daddy Dynamic: The Classroom in the Backyard, and tomorrow’s show The Hunting and Fishing Family.

Dandelion Killer

When my daughter was two, she hunted for dandelions in our yard.  The bright yellow flowers delighted her and she would grab handfuls of them for me and insist that I place them in vases throughout the house.

At the end of a dandelion’s flowering days, Kyra played a mischievous game, where she raced to blow apart the seed-bearing parachutes before mom and dad could catch her.

“No,” I would yell from the porch.  “Daddy will be mad, Kyra.”

She would collapse into giggles as the wind picked up the parachutes and transformed them into dandelion snow.  Then, she would leap into the sky, hands grasping for the wispy seeds that danced above her long black hair.

I think when I was her age, I loved dandelions too.  My mother had plenty of photos of me blowing apart a dandelion clock.  But somehow, thirty years later, I had joined ranks with the dandelion killers.

Maybe, I even helped my husband buy weed killers and tools like the Dandelion Digger, the Weed Hound, or the Dandelion Terminator that would pluck them out at the roots.

Recently, during my interviews of local healers in the area for a forthcoming First Alaskans article, I learned that dandelions are edible, a nutritious source of calcium, iron, and vitamins A, B, and C.  The flowers thrown into a bath helps relieve muscle tension.  The roots made into decoctions and tinctures can lower cholesterol and high blood pressure, a condition that affects many in my family.

Kyra sticks a dandelion into the camera

How had I missed such a vital piece of information?  Were dandelions prolific in my garden because we needed their medicinal properties?  Had we poisoned the store right outside our doorstep?

What bothered me most was whether I was a hypocrite.  Subsistence and wildcrafting are traditions I encourage and try to practice in an urban environment, but clearly, I had a lot to learn.

My friend, Christina Salmon-Wassillie, who lives in Igiugig with her husband and three young kids, tells me that without subsistence her community will lose “just about everything we stand for.  If the world were to completely crumble tomorrow, we would be ok.  We have fresh water, fresh fish, animals and berries out our backdoor.  We can live without electricity, gas or propane.  We know how to take care of one another.  We know how to share and be supportive.”

With natural disasters like Japan’s recent earthquake and tsunami in mind, I worry that none of us knows how to survive without electricity, technology, and other modern conveniences.

As summer approaches, I am eager to encourage my children to explore what’s outside our doorstep.  Here’s what I plan to do:

  1. Hike with guidebooks like Janice Schofield’s Alaska’s Wild Plants: A Guide to Alaska’s Edible Harvest or Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium’s Traditional Food Guide for Alaska Native Cancer Survivors.
  2. Harvest plants with someone who knows what they’re doing.  Observe how they harvest, prepare, and store the plants and what they use them for.
  3. Consult with sources like the Alaska Community Action on Toxics to make sure we aren’t harvesting in areas that are polluted or sprayed.
  4. Teach my children to respect others by being nice to plants.
  5. Show them how to give freely and tell them stories about how when you give, it always comes back.  If we go berry picking, I will instruct them to take only what they need.  If they catch their first fish, they must give all of it away to an Elder or someone in need.

What do you teach your children about plants and animals in the Anchorage area?