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Mara Collins 4 February 2008

Mara Collins

Mother, Wife, Philosopher, Blogger

Mara Collins is the wife of Raven Zachary and the mother of four boys, ages 3, 5, 9, and 11, who writes long, rambling blog entries at  

She distinctly remembers having long conversations as a child sitting on a stool in her dad’s cabinetmaking shop about a host of questions from how we know things to why evil exists, and asking “Is there anyone who gets to think about these things for a living?” and being answered, “Philosophers, I guess.”  Shortly after getting a degree in philosophy she moved to Prague, in the Czech Republic, and began the philosophical adventure that is parenthood and is now entertaining the questions of her own sons here in Portland.  Though far from academia, her life has always been set up to allow time for reading, writing, thinking, and good conversations.

The last three years a good part of her parenting energy has gone to doing music lessons with her sons, the oldest of whom plays cello, the second of whom plays viola, and the third of whom plays violin.  She loves getting the one-on-one time with each one of them that has come with the Suzuki approach to music education.  She is refreshed by their non-competitive approach to music, and in practicing with them daily has re-discovered her own joy in making music on the violin and viola.

She is tempted sometimes to describe herself as “just a mom” but realizes that such a lame answer really belies the importance she places on getting to be the person raising her kids and forming them into complete people.

What are you up to?

The best parts of my day are probably practicing with and accompanying my three older sons, who play ‘cello, viola, and violin on my own violin and viola, and reading out loud to them every evening. I am inspired by all the people around who are trying to eat locally, but am capable of only baby steps, cutting back the processed foods, trying to eat at home more, trying to change how I feel about being in the kitchen…

What are you into?

Twitter. And blogging, And communities.  And social networking.  The realization that the internet is finally better than what I was dreaming of twelve years ago when I started getting excited about the possibilities of millions of people generating interesting content, now that it’s about more than online shopping.

Without being an expert on any aspect of it all, except how it’s been a thread through my life, I am moved to see somebody on Twitter mention any sort of difficulty in their lives and the flutter of messages of support, or on mention of a small victory the rush of congratulations, it’s a water cooler and a back fence, it’s a little validation that makes me feel not so isolated when I am at home alone with my kids.

What do you like most about Portland?

The first month we lived here a year and a half ago I couldn’t get over the feeling of not having to mask who I was anymore, of being accepted as who I was, not because I am just like everyone else here but because people are accepting. Those embarrassing moments when your kids melt down in public aren’t so bad when you feel like the people around you are more sympathetic and less judgmental.  It’s a small thing, but it’s everything.

Being married to an Ignite Portland founder and the proprietor of Portland on Fire, I’ve been lucky to fall in with the geek culture of Portland and have been impressed with how inclusive the community is (no one ever makes me feel an absence of geek cred), how well-rounded the people are, with broad and interesting interests, and how non-hierarchical it is — everybody gets treated with respect.

I am not saying I don’t love the mellow climate and the gorgeousness of the city wreathed in fog on a fall morning as you come across a bridge, or the perfectness of the mountains and trees that dwarf a New Mexican girl’s imagination, but it might not all make me so happy if I weren’t enjoying the culture here so much.

What is your parenting philosophy?

First and foremost, I think it’s about thinking for yourself.  At that critical stage in my development as a parent when I should have been being indoctrinated into attachment parenting or whatever else was trendy at the time, I was in Prague fending off old Czech women who were worried that exposing my baby to drafts (read: fresh air of any kind!) would make him ill, and that he must be lying flat on his back hours a day in order to prevent back problems in later life, while I was noticing that we were both happiest and most comfortable when I did many of the things attachment parenting calls for — strapping him to my chest and running all around the city.  But the experience made me aware of how many cultural expectations go into raising a child that aren’t necessarily about scientific fact, and strengthened me in my convictions that I was the expert on my child and that I could figure out what was best for him by trial and error or asking for help when I needed it.

I do read a lot and pick up tricks and ideas that are useful to me all over the place without necessarily committing to the whole philosophy.  I love Parenting with Love and Logic by Foster Cline and Jim Fay for the idea that making mistakes is how we learn, and that learning is the work of our lives, so we need to allow our kids to make mistakes and learn in low-stakes situations in order to grow.  I love Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards and Marshall Rosenberg’s Non-Violent Communication for suggesting you can trust your children to respond to the innate rewards and punishments that are natural consequences of their behavior instead of always bribing or threatening them.  I appreciate Linda Popov’s Family Virtues Guide for its emphasis on the positive side of my children’s behavior. I’ve even gotten a lot from my exposure to some Suzuki books in terms of how to turn the things I need the kids to do into a game, that in childhood there is no clear work between work and play.

All of this combines with a respect for my sons, and pretty strong recollection of what being a kid was like that makes me pause and try and understand what they’re experiencing before I jump in to solve their problems.  I make mistakes frequently and try to apologize and make it up to them when I do, but most of the time being with them is fun, and the people I see them emerging as seem like a confirmation that we’re getting more right than wrong.

DId you worry that people would think Raven is putting up a profile of you on Portland on Fire only because he is married to you?

I love Raven’s vision of Portland on Fire as a slow social network. And even though I am tempted to ask why we need social networks, if they aren’t just about professional self-promotion, I realize that we cannot help but form social networks.  People are interesting and they are interested in each other, and it’s nice to use the technology at our disposal to learn things about each other we might not pick up in uncomfortable small talk, and that the more we learn about each other, the more we want to know about each other. I am happy to be on Portland on Fire as proof you don’t have to have any particular qualifications to be part of a social network.


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