Sandra's intro to Pam's intro:
This week on the podcast, we have part 1 of my conversation with Hema Bharadwaj, the illustrator of my new book, The Unschooling Journey: A Field Guide. Hema is an amazing artist and we talk about the inspiration behind the images she created specifically for the book, which is a look at Joseph Campbell's hero's journey framework through the lens of unschooling. She also shares some wonderful stories about her own unschooling journey. In the end, our conversation spanned almost two hours so I decided to break it into two parts.
Just as a bit of an intro, I have known Hema for many years now. First, online in unschooling groups, and then we met in person over the years at various conferences and gatherings. In 2016, I came across and connected deeply with her art. After that, I could not shake the idea of illustrating the unschooling journey book I was working on, so I reached out to her and we soon began a super fun side-quest to do just that in her beautifully whimsical and intricate style.
Hema and her husband Ravi have two children. Raghu is almost 15 and Zoya is almost 12. And because years ago Raghu wondered, “How come you are not asked your ages?”, she is now in the habit of adding her age as well when the kids are asked. So, she added that she is 43 and Ravi is 50 this year. And I turned 52 last month. :-)
Ravi was raised in India and Hema in the United Arab Emirates. They met in the US—Ravi had moved there and Hema was doing a masters program in New York City. After having Raghu and Zoya (around the ages of four and one), they moved to Singapore. And then to Pune, in India. And then four and a half years ago they moved back to the US. New Jersey. Both Hema and Ravi are multilingual, but their common language eventually became Hindi, so at home they speak mostly Hindi and English.
Then we dove into Hema's beautiful illustrations. I love how she described the beginning of the project:
"I want to say at the outset that when I read your book, I found it so rich and I was like, “Oh my goodness, she has visually made this book so rich, what am I going to bring to this? And short of illustrating the actual stories and my theological inspiration and the hero’s path itself, I was wondering what would come to me. I really wondered for a little while. And I would sketch and doodle and then, all of a sudden, it became clearer to me that I am a hero right here. So is Ravi, so are my kids; we are heroes of our path. What does that journey feel like to us? And so, it became my own, and then I was like, “Wait a second, this is becoming clearer.” So, I followed my feelings towards these illustrations and they came from that space. I was not sure whether it would match your vision and I was so thrilled when you felt the same."
1. Ordinary WorldThis first image is titled, Ordinary World, and it relates to the first stage of our journey, 'The Call to Unschooling.' When Raghu was born, Hema had not heard of homeschooling, let alone unschooling. She explained:
School was a given and I remember sitting on the counter as a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old and always arguing with my parents, always giving them these gigantic spiels on how school was wrong and how it should be “this” and “why can’t they listen?” and “what is the point of this historic lesson vs learning what is going on in the world now?” and all kinds of stuff and my mother would just listen and listen, and at the end of three hours of my tirade, she would say, “Alright, and now you have school tomorrow, Hema, you got to go get dressed,” and I would go right back.She started to hear the faint call of something new when Raghu was around two and a half years old. He was attending a little preschool, as Hema describes it, "the most delightful, beautiful little Montessori." Raghu played along for a while, but soon he asked to go only on Fridays, "because that is the day we get to make challah." Around the same time, a naturopath they were seeing for Raghu's severe seasonal allergies mentioned homeschooling. Hema's reply was, “What? Where has this been all my life?”
She continued: "So I began to see that little school, and in this image you can see this little child looking at the bird through the window and in the other window, you see a poster that depicts pretty much the same exact scene of the cliffs and what you see in this image is on a poster inside with children looking at the poster vs turned around and looking at the real world. I think that is how I felt growing up, and as I saw Raghu’s vision of this little school, he is understanding that yes, they are very nice people, but I do not want to be here. I want to be out there. ‘I built this beautiful bridge, but they do not want me to keep it up anymore and I want to look at it tomorrow.’"
She decided to answer the call to unschooling.
Hema's second illustration is titled, Dreams. Once we've chosen unschooling, it can feel like the world's opened up and you begin to immerse yourself in the possibilities; "You start thinking about a topic and the next thing you know, you bump into 50 reflections of it all over the place and I loved it. I could not stop reading. He would fall asleep and I would read. He would wake up and I would go to the library and find more books about it, and I immersed myself because it sang to me, is all I can say. For me it was a heart connect. It became this little mantra, because when he would ask something, I would imagine like, ‘Look at this little being, asking about the world.’ It was the most amazing journey for me to know that there were other families out there, that we could talk about anything under the sun now. We did not have to live our lives according to any external clock. So, the research at this stage, I started really thinking about, ‘What kind of environment am I building for this child? What is going on in my house? What does he like? What can we pursue?’"
At this point in the project, little "Easter egg" moments started to appear, adding another level of richness. Hema explained that Zoya is the mermaid, her reminder to have fun. "Every time I say that, I think of Zoya and her language play. She would say things like, “The road is so grumpy,” and I am like, “What? Oh...she means it’s bumpy.” But she was not saying the word wrong, she meant that the road was grumpy. Her play of words and her way of playfulness—so much playfulness!"
In later images you'll meet the parrot, Hema's reminder to stay light and fun. And the cloud people, as she mentioned, represent her intuition. In this image, "Find Adventure" is the name of the boat, a callback to Lissy's mantra and her first tattoo, which she got on her 18th birthday, on our adventurous trip to Las Vegas.
And Hema left room on the table for you to add your own reminders, memories, and embellishments.
I love this insight she shared: "The child in the tree, relaxing—as I immersed, he no longer had to be something I needed him to be, he could just be. And be himself and I could be his partner, his facilitator, his companion." So valuable as we contemplate releasing control.
The third illustration is titled, Transitions. It's also the illustration we ended up using on the cover—it's so powerful! Hema shared, "I think in my mind, when this illustration came about, I had to go back to that phase and I think in the book it is close to a part called, 'Embracing Beginner's Mind,' and I thought that was so perfect because I found myself doing this fun thing where I would get up in the morning and felt like it was a restarting all over again, like rebooting like a computer. It is a little scary some of the times—it was for me—to wake up and realize that, ‘Wait, we have nowhere to go? Don’t little kids go some place when they are about four? Aren’t they supposed to be somewhere and oh my gosh, am I screwing this up? Should I be doing something?’ And then, all of a sudden, I get all frantic."
Eventually, she'd realize something was not working and remind herself to go back to her centre. "So, it’s like a restart and this night of transitions that I feel emanated and this image of just taking that moment. It ties in so beautifully to saying embracing the beginner’s mind, restarting. My spirit got unschooling. I got it, I had wanted that all my life but all of the parts of me that had gone through school, that had been raised by parents who were doing their best and saying, “Hey, you know, we need you to learn this and this and this, only if you learn this will you be successful in life.” All of that was getting shaken up.”
I love the way she describes—and her illustration captures—that beautiful yet challenging dichotomy: our spirit gets it, but all those parts of us that absorbed those conventional messages around learning and parenting are being shaken to their core. And things almost always seem worse at night, don’t they? Our fears become scarier. More urgently in need of an answer. Yet even in the darkness, the beautiful possibilities of unschooling call to us.
Joseph Campbell calls this stage 'The Belly of the Whale.' That resonated with me as well because we practically cocooned in our basement for the first six months or so. It helped me to ignore and eventually move past those voices that make you want to compare, that knock you off your game, and to focus on my children’s voices. I called the stage 'Embracing Beginner's Mind' because that was where I had to be. I had to keep reminding myself that I was no longer comfortable with the things I thought I knew, yet I really had to focus on being open to all the wonderful new ideas and possibilities that I was discovering.
Hema's fourth illustration is titled, Learning, and relates to stage five, 'Challenging Our Beliefs about Learning.' You'll notice that we're at the same water-side cliff as in the first illustration, Ordinary World. Hema explains: "I loved that I went back to the cliff. I wondered why I was staying so close to the water all the time. As you will see in a couple of images, there is a reason for it, but, at this stage, I had to be in the same environment. It is not like I was taking my children and going away somewhere. I was still in the same environment and I wanted that to translate into this image by being on the same cliff, just playing and being right there, but outside doing whatever it is that we wanted in the same world."
Then she shared a story about one of her a-ha moments around learning:
"To Raghu, words mattered. I remember in a library once, he was running and I had to stop him and very often with Raghu, I had discovered a big word would stop him. At that point I think I had just learned it, and I said, “Hey Raghu, there is a book here,” and I just quietly kind of pulled him away and he said, “What?” and I said, “Hippopotamus, there is a book on Hippopotamus,” and he is like, “What is that?” And oh my gosh, ever since, his connection to vocabulary and words and what they mean and the nuances... So, that was an early start that today is what makes him who he is.
While Zoya’s learning was of a different kind, I also learned at that point that what I thought was important to be learned was still ingrained in me. I still felt like reading was important and writing was important and blah blah blah. Everything was getting shattered because my lovely, incredible Zoya pretty much looked at me and said, “No.” and I was like, “Ok, she does not like this. This is not going to work.”
Reading in bed was misery for her because Raghu loved to be read to every night without fail, even during the day sometimes, like, as soon as she fell asleep he would be waiting, “Read read read,” and to Zoya that was the most annoying thing ever. We always had a big box of toys on the floor and her learning was with her hands. Pulling things apart and making things work. Splashing in water and putting unusual things from the house in the tub to see what would happen. Figuring out that the taps worked both ways and you could get burnt with hot water. I do not know why she would keep trying, just to see. Is it going to be hot water? Is it still hot? Her learning was completely different and I was blown away. I am like, ‘Is this normal? Is this what happens when we do not force them to learn to read, write, put labels, blah blah blah, you know what I mean?’ It just blew my mind."
And finally for this week, we dove into Hema's fifth illustration, New Perspectives, which accompanies stage six on our journey, 'Shifting from Control to Connection.' I took Joseph Campbell's 'Road of Trials' stage and broke it into two stages because, with unschooling, we are asked to explore so much conventional wisdom around both learning and parenting. So, the last stage was focused on learning and this stage is focused on parenting.
Hema describes how this stage was all about shifting perspectives for her and how she brought that to her illustration: "I had to really look at life from my child’s perspective, and this image is just one child because that one perspective matters so much for me. I had a new perspective, new insights that there is a different vision of the world within my child and I am just being invited for the ride. And I had to go from controlling what that outcome was—with the grandparents or with the environment—to connecting with my child, for which I needed to see from their point of view. Which I did not always succeed at. I did not always get what they were trying to do; and then I learned a lot more."
I love that the child's t-shirt says, 'Me.' Watch me, my perspective, what I choose, what I am doing; this is valuable. And the perspective shift, us focused on the child, looking up from below—and from underwater even? It continues to amaze me how Hema manages to encapsulate so many aspects of a stage on the journey into one illustration. Just brilliant!
Which is why I have so enjoyed the opportunity to bring our work together. My art is words; Hema's art is pictures. And the unschooling journey is so rich that there is a lot of value in exploring it through both mediums. Between them, the connections and insights sparked create an understanding that is often bigger than the sum of its parts, as the saying goes.
Hema remarked that these last two stages fit the mental image of a 'road of trials' for her because the journey didn't always feel like she was in some beautiful garden. It was full of challenges and awakenings. And those challenges are going to be different for each of us, based on our own experiences, on our children's interests and needs and personalities—based on so many different things that no two journeys will be exactly alike. Which is why there are so many stories in the world. And why Joseph Campbell called his hero's journey book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Not just one. And you are the hero of your journey.
Isn't it fascinating how the overarching framework fits our unschooling journey so well, while still giving us the space to be uniquely ourselves?
And next week, Hema and I will be back to talk about the rest of the unschooling journey through the lens of her wonderful illustrations!
[ Leaving the Ordinary World Behind is an excerpt from Pam's new book, on her blog.]
Part 2 introduction
This week on the podcast, we have part 2 of my conversation with Hema Bharadwaj, the illustrator of my new book, The Unschooling Journey: A Field Guide. Hema is an amazing artist and we continue our talk about the inspiration behind the images she created specifically for the book, which is a look at Joseph Campbell's hero's journey framework through the lens of unschooling. She also shares more wonderful stories about her own unschooling journey.
Hema and I pick up our conversation with the sixth illustration, titled Joy. It's from the stage called, 'Accepting our Nature.' We've discovered that we learn and grow through all kinds of experiences, both "good" and "bad," and the need to judge our children's choices as good/bad or right/wrong has faded. Now, we're turning that expansive mindset inward and realize that judging ourselves is limiting as well.
Wrestling with fears and/or feeling tempted to step away from the unschooling journey do not mean we have failed. These are moments in our lives, moments of being human. And the quicker I recognized them for what they were—messages for me—the quicker I could do the work needed to move through them.
This was when the idea of living mindfully really took hold for me. It meant taking that moment, that pause, so that I could have choices instead of reactions. And so that when things were feeling uncomfortable I could sit with that for a while to discover and learn more about myself.
Hema said when she read about the section about sitting with discomfort to discover what to let go, a story about Raghu jumped right to mind. He had received a Nintendo DS and a couple of games from his uncle and had started playing one of them, Ben Ten. Soon, he got stuck and couldn't move on to the next level in the game. Hema explained:
I sat there with him, thinking, ‘That's it, our unschooling is not working for me because I know nothing. Oh my god, this is it, it is broken down, we should never have gone towards these things.’ All of these fears, because I could not help this child. He was in tears and I did not know where to turn because I had no friends who video gamed in India. Meanwhile I go online searching drastically, like ‘Oh my god, I have to do something, I have to fix this for my son,’ and I find cheat codes, so I am like, “Oh, cheat codes, yay!” I told Ravi, and it is late at night, it is 10 o’clock, Ravi comes home and is like, “Yeah, here are the cheat codes you asked me to print out.Raghu had fallen asleep and the next morning, I wake up and he was up already, he must have been awake at like six in the morning or something, and he was on the sofa, beaming with happiness and I looked at him and said, “My gosh, when did you wake up?” and he is like, “I did it! I did it!” and I am like, “What?” He said, “I did it, I got past to the next level, I know how to do this.”"
She said it took her right to that moment of saying, “Ahhhh.” In sitting with that discomfort, she discovered that even thought she may not always know where they're headed, especially with unfamiliar interests and passions, she can walk with them and learn alongside them.
Another valuable thing she learned was the importance of being available to talk. She shared, "Even today, like at night, he suddenly says, “Do you want to have a cup of tea?” And I go, “Okay.” That's my cue. It's like, ‘I'm going to have a chat. He's going to talk.’ I get so excited and I just change my plans immediately because it's incredible what comes up."
I love that, and it's about treating their needs as important as our own. When they reach out, we want to be there to connect. We miss so much if we try to put it on our own timetable. How often do people say, "Let's chat tomorrow," and tomorrow never seems to come? Of course, there will be times when we truly can't take time or rearrange things, but not as often as we first think.
And Hema tied it back to the illustration: "I want to connect it back to this beautiful image of this child in the hammock with his headphones and he is completely at ease with himself. The people building the boat have just started building this boat, and that is another part of this whole illustration process with this book, that I felt like we were the heroes of our own journey and the journey was now gaining momentum, it was getting more solid. There was this boat that we were building, this boat of trust, a foundation, something that we can swim safely in as we navigate new paths, new journeys. I was feeling more confidence at this stage for sure."
The next illustration is titled Compassion, and it relates to the stage 'Cultivating Kindness and Compassion.' At this stage our need to judge both ourselves and others has mostly faded and we're coming to appreciate the wholeness of things. For me, that's expressed beautifully through the idea of flow: the flow of life and our sense of ourselves as part of the wholeness of things. And from there, kindness and compassion for those around me blossomed!
Hema related this to her illustration: "I love knowing that there is tremendous flow in this picture, everybody is doing what they need to do and somehow the overall is that we are all together. We are all flowing together, and there was this beautiful sentence in your book, and I have to identify somewhere, I am sure we can put a little quote from it later that talks about the subterranean current of joy. I just loved that sentence. It fit beautifully into this image for me, just kind of segued in, because that water flows into the cave and there is a fish and the bird and then the water comes out and the idea of flow and water obviously do play well together."
Here's a quote Hema's talking about: "In this deeper acceptance of myself and the resulting freer flow of our days, I discovered an undercurrent of joy running through our lives. Like a subterranean river flowing beneath all of our experiences and through all my different states of mind."
The next stage of our journey is called 'Unschooling with Confidence and Grace,' and Hema's illustration is titled, Grace. Hema explains: "I love this image because it completed something for me. I think you had once asked me whether while drawing this, how were the illustrations helping my journey, you know? The act of drawing it out, it is a visual representation of much of what we have been experiencing. I had liked that idea of, ‘Yeah, how am I growing as I am drawing?’ I think it helped me take stock in a real way. It is like, ‘Oh yeah, this feels really good, you know.’ Like sometimes you forget because you are unschooling, you are just alive, and it is not a thing anymore, it is just what it is."
She shared a story from a couple of years ago, when her husband Ravi came home with an opportunity for the family to travel to London—travel being something they had enjoyed as a family—but the kids said they couldn't go because they didn't want to miss taekwondo.
Ravi looked at her, his expression saying, “Wait, we started this journey so that we would be free to roam the world, right? What happened here?” And Hema explained that this is the flip side of such freedom: they find something they love so much they don't want to miss it.
I love how Hema connected that experience to the illustration: "It really hit me and Ravi that day. Look at this incredible life, you know? Ravi was, of course, bummed and still remembers and says, “You guys stopped me from going to London.” But he was amazed that the passion takes you to these heights where you are on a journey. So anyways, I thought it was ironic that here the boat was built, we are ready for the journey, but we are not going anywhere, we have taekwondo. Stay. So, I thought it was funny.
Yes, this is the boat, sometimes you put an anchor in and you stay wherever it is. Sort of a metaphor and also, just a symbol, maybe, of the fact that we are in our boat, in our heads and we are always moving. It is not a physical thing, sometimes you do not see all of the pieces come together physically even, and you will find things connecting months later even, sometimes and say, “Oh, remember that phase where so and so was continuously watching these videos? Guess what? She is actually interested in this thing that segues into that,” and it's amazing."
It really is!
Then Hema shared a quote from the book, from the section, 'Grace in the Everyday': “The people in our lives continue to learn and grow and change, so we need to stay in tune with the rhythm of our relationships. ... When I am stymied, trying to figure out how to come up with a plan that meets the needs of everyone involved, it looks like me openly asking my children for their suggestions, knowing that they too will consider everyone’s needs. They are full members of the family and they often have a fresh perspective and some pretty great ideas.”
It reminded her of the London story because the kids looked at Ravi and said, “You’re welcome to go, you should have fun!” They wanted to stay home and go to taekwondo, and they wanted him to choose to do what he wanted.
The next illustration is titled, Gifts. Now that we've obtained our reward—unschooling with confidence and grace—next on our journey is the return to the ordinary world. For me, I became more comfortable out and about, bringing this perspective of kindness, compassion, and grace with me. These are the kinds of gifts that we are now bringing back with us to the rest of the world.
Hema shares, "So now we are sailing along, and enjoying the contact with the world in a new way. I love this image through the porthole window. It's a big image of gifts, of layered learning, of nuances, and connectedness. I love that Raghu helped me by adding that the bird cage should be with a wide-open door so the bird is free to play and roam around.
The little girl's spirit was Zoya's spirit, moving around, being engaged, near her mom. This image represents the inter-connectedness of everything in my mind. The inner world and outer world. Everything is connected."
She continued with a dojo story: "And the gifts! So, Raghu and Zoya have been going to taekwondo for 2.5 years and closing in on their pre-black belts. Often when I'm at that dojo, random parents whom I don't know personally, who have been watching Raghu and Zoya because they are there a lot, they will come to me and say, “What do you do with them? I've heard they are homeschooled. How are you getting them to be this attentive, or this committed and engaged in learning, and how are they so well behaved?”
They think I'm controlling my kids. Its very hard to explain that this journey from control to connection and beyond has been going on for years. I've been guilty of control, but my children teach me a lot. They are so good at catching me when I am off my game and this is really a wonderful thing to have as they grow older. Of course, most of it is just work I've done because I can sense that the way I'm being with them is not working for them.
So, a parent might ask me how is it that my children are so motivated? It’s hard to explain to them that my children are motivated internally, not because of some external prop or that I bribe them. They can choose to leave the dojo when they feel done. If another interest calls them, staying true to their inner voice, which they are always attuned to, means that they are always intrinsically motivated and passionate about enjoying their activities."
I have shared stories on the podcast about parents from Michael's dojo asking me those same kinds of questions. Our children are bringing these gifts to the world as well!
Now we've come to the last illustration, titled Flow, and it relates to the last stage of our unschooling journey, 'The Flow of Our Unschooling Lives.' We embrace the knowledge that we are always growing and changing, living and learning, being and becoming.
We've discovered that the one constant in our life is change. And while we don't expect things to go perfectly, we know we will find a way through them. In a recent Q&A Round Table episode (first question), we talked quite a bit about how it's not about balance, because balance is about trying to control things. As Anne said, the idea of trying to keep things balanced feels so precarious, while allowing life to flow feels like it can organically swirl and change as needed to accommodate everyone's needs. No control or coercion required.
I think Hema illustrates this beautifully in her drawing!
Then Hema shared another quote from the book that spoke to her: “But as we come to appreciate change as our lifelong bedfellow, we soon recognize it everywhere. It is the sparkle of possibilities; it feels like a weight has been lifted. And we are able to appreciate the moment.”
Change equals possibilities. Not fear.
She explained that there were so many moments when she was reading the book that she felt so much relief. She felt, "Oh, yes! I've got this!" She also mentioned that she was already feeling like a hero, and that's such an important insight!
You are the hero throughout your journey. It's not about you becoming a hero; it's your journey as a hero.
Joseph Campbell's encouragement to "follow your bliss," is right there too. Though I think so many people get that wrong. They think, “Once I find that one perfect thing, it will be so easy.” But I think what Campbell meant by that was finding something that is deeply meaningful to you so that you will tenaciously fight your way through the tricksters and the monsters and all the obstacles will that come up along your path to get to this place of kindness and compassion and grace. That's the journey. Follow your bliss.
And Hema shared one more important aspect to the illustrations: "I want to mention, in all the illustrations, I hope the readers notice that there are empty spaces. The globe, in number nine, in Gifts, is empty. The poster behind the child is empty. The boat does not have a name on it, purposefully—the big boat, the one the family builds. And the reason for that is so that people can fill in what they want.
Maybe the waves in Joy, which are not put in—I have not put in all the strokes for the ocean—could be people's words. They could be little words that people feel as they read your book, because, like you said, there are gazillions of combinations here: the kind of person reading the book, the kind of experiences that person has had, the children they have, their personalities. I love that you have made this book into this workbook/colouring book because it gives people the opportunity to play with their thoughts as they come up and put them into these illustrations, to doodle them out, draw them out, for whoever likes that kind of visual engagement."
Thanks again to Hema for agreeing to work with me on this book project! I think her illustrations are amazing; a fresh window into the unschooling journey that brings the whole experience to another level.
And we both hope you find the book—manuscript and illustrations—helpful as you navigate the twists and turns of your own unschooling journey. :-)
Pam Laricchia's website