My notebook is full of the Delta variant, the wildfires, the worries. How is it possible I have so many unvaccinated friends?—none local, but scattered across the country in counties with spiking rates, and I’m wondering what losses the next ninety days will hold. I sent out a few Cassandra-like texts last week, and got back gentle rebuffs or silence. Don’t worry about us, one friend replied, and I groaned—it isn’t something you just turn off. I listen to the epidemiologists, and I know what’s rushing up on us.
I write this here because I don’t want to chronicle the celebrations and joys, the beautiful richness of life, without also acknowledging the dire state of the world outside my doors—the people in peril. The planet in peril.
Here, in this house, in this room? Not peril. Peace, sometimes. Contentment, often. Helpless laughter, frequently. A busy thrum of activity, constantly. I document all this, too, in various notebooks, and, when I can, here on the blog. I keep a ridiculous number of lists. Lists of work accomplished, housework done, books read, television watched, podcasts and audiobooks listened to; lists of small moments that sent gratitude or delight surging through me.
more light on the branch more light on the leaf than appears to fall on light or leaf
—Holly Wren Spaulding‘s posts like manna in my mailbox —my studio, the daily rush of appreciation I feel for this lovely space —a piece of aqua-colored linen in my hands, a vision for what it will become, a salamander in ferns, the meditative pleasure of handstitching the raw edges so they won’t fray —on green quilter’s cotton purchased long ago, a pink chrysanthemum blooming —my Aunt Genia’s recipe for inside-out chocolate cake, baked for no reason at all except that I was thinking of her —the new mop bucket, the satisfaction of gleaming floors —Rose’s long quest for an apartment, successful at last —the smell of morning, the expectant crows, the clatter of peanuts on the patio —dulce de leche ice cream —berry season —kids playing Zelda for hours —my friend Kyleen’s viola, Allen’s upright bass —”How fascinating!“ —my candy-colored socks —the Seam Finishing 101 class at Creativebug, a true gem —the free Bystander Intervention training at Hollaback —the Sister Act 2 finale, which will never get old
The celebration lists, and the Cassandra letters. That’s what I’ve got for the world right now.
I’m circling back to yesterday’s topic. The bird clock chirped before I got to the best kind of connections! A few hours later, laughing with Huck and Rilla over a math problem, I knew I’d want to revisit the subject today.
We’ve been doing the enrichment pages of Math-U-See’s Pre-Algebra book together, the three of us. Side by side on the old green couch—a housewarming gift from Scott’s parents in 1999 when we (then a family of four) moved from our little Queens apartment to a one-bedroom-bigger place on Long Island. That sofa has seen some life, let me tell you. Our first Christmas here in Portland, my parents gave us a nice new Ikea sectional—finally enough comfy seating for the whole family—but my entire crew refused to hear of the removal of the old sofa. It lives now under the windows in our dining area, a favorite place to flop and read or listen to music.
So: the green sofa, a page of puzzle problems on my lap, Huck and Rilla on either side. Huck had sharpened all the pencils right after breakfast, so I had a nice fresh point. The final problem on the page elicited a gasp from Rilla. That gasp—the inrush of breath that signals a connection has just been made—is my chief delight as a homeschooling mom. And in the connection of ideas, we connect with each other.
Huge chunks of this blog are devoted to chronicling those moments. My own notebooks are full of them—connections the kids have made between this book, that game, this show, that moment of hilarity in the kitchen; and my own connections too, the synthesis of ideas and images gathered on my greedy, plate-loaded-at-the-buffet, rabbit-trailing, metaphor-mixing lifelong learning adventure.
Our math problem had reminded her of a tidbit she’d puzzled over many times as a little girl. In the book, Scarecrow and friends are plotting an escape from a flock of jackdaws. They have a handful of wishing pills but not enough to go around—not, says the Tin Woodman, unless they can count to seventeen by twos. The sawhorse declares that’s easy to do, if you just start counting at “a half of one.”
Rilla remembered being extremely confused by the sawhorse’s logic. She could never figure out how he arrived at that solution. While we puzzled it out together (spoiler: he cheated), I absently doodled on the page. The kids laughed at me—this, too, is a longrunning point of connection for us and amusement for them. It’s extremely hard for me to focus on what anyone is saying if I can’t doodle or stitch or do something fiddly with my hands. (One reason I always encourage kids to draw, or play with Sculpey or beeswax, or crochet while I’m reading to them.)
And I guess the quiet pauses while kids work out math problems are another place I need the help of a pencil. The margins of their math books are full of nonsense drawings. I have a shelf full of elementary Math-U-See instruction books I can’t resell because I’ve scribbled all over them!
*”Every day” is more aspirational than practical. “Things to make time for over the course of a week” is more realistic. Or a shorter rolling time span, say two or three days. I’m not troubling myself with fastidiousness here. These ideas are more like recipes for a healthy diet. Reminders of nutrients I want to make sure I’m getting enough of.
Connection—you’d think it would be the hardest element to include right now, given the 13-months-and-counting we’ve been living in semi-isolation. Even though most of my family received the Pfizer vaccine in February, we’re continuing to be cautious because Huck and Rilla were too young to qualify. Until the 12-16yo version rolls out, we’ll keep playing it safe. As more of my local friends pass their second-dose-plus-two-weeks mark (oh hooray!), I’m beginning to anticipate some backyard hangouts. For now, though: I live quietly at home.
Zooma zooma zooma-Zoom
But I haven’t felt isolated—and I don’t just mean because I live in a very full house. 🙂 I know a lot of folks are completely Zoomed-out, but not me. I love the connections that platform has allowed to thrive all year. Four days a week, I open a coworking room for my Patreon subscribers. There are usually three or four of us in there, working with our mics off for 50 minutes, then unmuting for a ten-minute check-in chat. Over the course of the year, I’ve witnessed the creation of books, art, and all sorts of projects. I’ve written hundreds of pages of Brave Writer literature guides during these sessions, among other things. The work is easier in community, but it’s the check-ins I treasure: the laughter, the shared challenges, the warm support.
Singing in community
I’ve dearly missed singing shoulder to shoulder with my Low Bar Chorale community—when I think about a post-pandemic life, that’s where my thoughts go first—but I’m astonished and so proud of the way Low Bar has endured and even expanded during the past year. Our song leader, Ben Landsverk, began hosting weekly or twice-monthly livestreams where he sang—often accompanied by a video composite of our whole band—and we sang along from home. Not just our Portland singalong community, but people from around the world! Perhaps you’ve seen the videos I’ve shared here.
So—I can’t wait, CANNOT WAIT!, to be back in our space at Revolution Hall, singing in harmony with a crowd, but I’m thrilled that the community has remained connected during our year+ of isolation. Regular Zoom chats have allowed me to get to know a number of singalong pals better, and my social media work for the group keeps me in conversation with the rest of the team.
Unconventional (get it?)
This will be another summer without San Diego Comic-Con (there’s going to be a scaled-back version of the convention over Thanksgiving weekend, but LOL no, we’ll be sitting that one out). I miss that annual point of connection like crazy—a chance to catch up in person with artist and writer friends who are scattered around the globe. Here again it was Zoom to the rescue; occasional chats have kept us connected, and no one had to push through a sweaty crowd to get there.
Not the same as in person, but not negligible. Face to face conversation in a quiet room is, for me, a truly satisfying form of connection. It has its distinctive perks: I’m curled up in my favorite chair, in comfy yoga pants, perhaps with a bit of stitching in my hands. It’s a lot cheaper, too!
Turns out I was already living this way
But then I suppose I was already deeply engaged with Zoom-based conversation and connection before the pandemic. Helen McLaughlin’s wonderful Get-It-Done Days; Holly Wren Spaulding’s poetry workshops; regular update chats with small groups of friends working on their own creative projects. And of course I’ve been finding friendship and community in online spaces since, gosh, 1995, and here on the blog since 2005. I mean: hello friends!
But I get it: I don’t live alone; and I’m an extrovert who finds a Zoom conversation just as satisfying as an in-person visit, in its way. The year was a wholly different experience for my friends who live alone, or my introvert friends whose batteries are drained by video chats.
Funny how much time I spent in coffee shops, considering I don’t even like coffee
My big struggle with the isolation wasn’t so much about personal connection (except at a remove, aching for Huck who sorely misses his friends and his co-op classes), but with the inability to work in coffee shops and pubs. Until I couldn’t walk down Fremont to one of my favorite writing haunts, I didn’t know how much I relied on the low-key stimulation of a coffee shop to remain focused! And nope, the Youtube videos of ambient café sounds don’t work for me as a substitute. It was the people, the human connection, the just-right amount of visual stimulation and variety, that kept me focused and working. For a rabbit-trailing mind like mind, it’s key to find just the right kind of distraction.
I’ve focused here on the human-connection part of connection. There’s another part, of course—the connection of ideas that is so cherished by homeschoolers and creatives. That’s a whole different post, and I’m out of time!
How about you?
Instead, let me ask: what has your experience of social connection been like this past year? Have you struggled? Found yourself actually enjoying the excuse to stay home? Which half of the Holderness couple are you? (Scott and I laughed like crazy at this gender-swapped depiction of the two of us.)
Perhaps the easiest piece of my personal Rule to fulfill. I live in a house full of talkers, analyzers, discussers, ponderers. Online and and in the world, I gravitate toward friends of similar bent. I spend more time than I should following rabbit trails of research. (It feels almost heretical to say that!)
I should say: discussion is easy to come by. It’s the pondering piece that needs protection, because that takes time, silence, and closed tabs. It’s far too easy to gather stores of information, and then whisk on to a new topic of interest without taking time to sit with the accumulated horde of ideas.
Sensing this, I made a shift in my morning routine last month. Instead of struggling through (during the first year of the pandemic it had become a struggle) my longstanding pattern of writing almost immediately after waking, I decided to give myself the first hour—or however many minutes there are between waking and 7:30 (sometimes more than an hour, sometimes less)—for study.
Typing that, I get the same thrill of relief I felt upon making that decision. Time to read? To make notes in margins? To sit with an idea—a single thought—in a quiet room, with a notebook and a good pen? To breathe in (read, think) before I breathe out (write, speak)?
I made myself a little syllabus of sorts: a stack of books I knew would nourish, not derail, deep thought.
World Enough and Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down by Christian McEwen—an absolute gem of a book. When I read a few pages (I’ve been reading it slowly for probably a year), I often get a flash of the scene in Heidi, a book I read over and over as a child, when her aunt is taking her up the mountain to the Alm-Uncle for the first time, and Heidi, delighting in the fresh, scented air, keeps shedding layers of clothes as she goes. Coat, scarf, heavy woolen dress, stockings all strewn among the wildflowers. By the time they reach the grandfather’s hut, she’s down to her white cotton shift. That’s me at the top of each chapter.
The Muses Among Us by Kim Stafford. A book I inhaled last year and have returned to this year at a more contemplative pace. Keeping its essays company, a volume of Stafford’s poems called Wild Honey, Tough Salt. The essay I love best is the one in which Stafford maps out his process for collecting fragments of images and overheard conversation, storing them in pocket-sized notebooks made by folding a few sheets of paper, and later returning to the notebooks to harvest ideas for poems and essays. “When I write,” he says, “I am secretary to a wisdom the world has made available to me.” There’s an idea to sit with for a while.
In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden. I love Godden’s writing, especially The Kitchen Madonna, but I’ve never made it all the way through this novel of hers. It nudged me as I passed by its longtime home on a bedroom bookshelf. I know it’s many people’s favorite of her novels.
Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay. A joyful reread of this glorious collection of poems. Ross Gay has become one of my favorite writers; his Book of Delights is on its way to dog-eared Best-Loved Book status after less than a year in my hands.
Just these few. It was painfully hard for me to not load up the list, but slow reading and thinking is the point. There are other books on my Kindle, not to mention a new stack of future Dart titles waiting for me!, but the books in this small collection are the thought-stirrers I mean to spend these early mornings of spring with.
Reading, of course, is a way to collect and absorb ideas; to fully ponder them I must write. I hardly ever know what I think until I write it down. At 7:30am, birds chirp on my phone. I eat one square of mint chocolate (a ritual or habit to signal time to write), open my notebook or Scrivener, and let my fingers begin to think.
When I think of this category, I think of my kids in the backyard in San Diego, deeply immersed in the Warriors-inspired make-believe games that occupied so many hours when they were little. Or the long stretches of Sculpey play: elaborate scenes crafted and acted out. Epic adventures spanning hours and days. The Thomas the Tank engine set, the Playmobil stories, the blanket forts.
For myself, this category is a little harder to define. Rose and Beanie used to walk in circles (literally walk in circles!) on our back patio, making up stories for themselves. All the action was happening inside their heads. Here in the second year of the pandemic, my head is full, full, full—full of inputs, full of tasks to be done. I notice in myself a pattern of clearing a little time for my grownup version of play—or for white space, which has some crossover with this category, since it’s the soil from which imagination and creativity grow—and then immediately filling the space with yet another form of input, sometimes nourishing, sometimes fluff. An audiobook, a podcast, a show on Netflix, a screen game.
Funny as it sounds, holding space for imaginative play in my life takes more effort than almost anything else on my list of essential activities!
Where I find it is at my art table, or within the borders of an embroidery hoop. On the blank page of a notebook: a jumble of words arranging themselves into phrases, into poems.
It’s possible I’m not a minimalist
I know exactly where to find the doorway to imaginative play, but I have to make myself walk through it. To mess around with paint, not listening to a book or podcast. To doodle in my sketchbook while my mind roams. Not tuned into other voices. I find this challenging; I’m so accustomed to making the most of my minutes! Not enough time to read and exercise and make art and learn new things—better bundle them together.
Bundling is wonderful—in moderation! If every morsel of my sketchbook time, treadmill time, gardening time, has a soundtrack, I’ll never hear my own self. Even the time I spend in my poetry notebook several mornings a week can become a clamor of other voices. I’m impatient with the seed-time of my own thoughts.
Where I find the easiest ground for imaginative play is with embroidery. I think that’s because it combines a satisfying and meditative activity (stitching) with invention and beauty. You could say the same thing about painting, drawing, knitting, woodworking, but for me, a #7 Tulip needle is the key to the realm of imagination. Perhaps that’s because even after years of daily drawing and online art classes, I remain unsatisfied with my ability. When I picked up the embroidery habit, I gained skill with gratifying speed. And I found a blank round of fabric to be fertile ground for original thought and design, much more so than on a sheet of watercolor paper. Curious, no? I seldom like the original art I make on paper. (I say original to distinguish it from online course assignments, where I’m following steps and often do enjoy both the process and final outcome).
I hadn’t been stitching for long—using patterns purchased from my favorite Instagram designers—when I felt the itch to create my own designs. Ideas flooded in—but I could see that my they outstripped my ability. So I ignored the voice that kept urging me to be original. I gave myself time to practice and learn. I gave myself scraps of fabric to experiment on, reckoning that they were the embroidery equivalent of an artist’s sketchbook.
And eventually, after a long time, a project began to shape itself in my mind. It’s playful and inventive and combines elements and subject matter I care about intensely.
My challenge is holding space for it. I have an hour set aside after I tuck Huck into bed, but by that time of day I’m often too fried. This week I only picked up that hoop a couple of times.
I’m still stitching, though. I’ve found what works best for me is to have three projects at the ready, at all times: one for study (learning new stitches or techniques); one for thinking (a simple design purchased from creators like Cozyblue or Dropcloth, where the stitching is satisfying and meditative, and I don’t have to make decisions as I go); and the hoop containing my own project-in-progress.
The second type of hoop—I’ve written about this before—is an essential part of my writing practice. When I hit a point in a piece of writing where I need to stop and think, picking up that hoop quashes the urge to pop open a social media tab and “just” take a peek. Those peeks (which are never just a peek, are they) are the fastest route to utter derailment on a writing project. So I keep my “thinking hoop” handy and pick it up whenever I’m tempted to open a tab.
(I love the Momentum Dash browser extension for Chrome—it allows you to set a default New Tab that opens to a beautiful nature photo, different every day, with a blank for you to enter that day’s focus activity. Sometimes while I’m writing, I write PICK UP YOUR HOOP in that blank, so that if I do succumb to new-tab temptation, I’m smacked with a reminder before I can load another site. Other times, I write the day’s Highlight (a task or activity that I absolutely must attend to that day) or whatever piece of writing I’m working on at the moment in that blank. This has the same effect of redirecting my attention to my work. Probably one of my best workflow hacks! I also use Momentum’s built-in Pomodoro timer quite a lot.)
My time’s just about up for this morning, so I’ll close with a quick look back at the week’s imaginative play. I started, but didn’t finish, this fantastic Peggy Dean tutorial (free!) on how to draw canyons in Procreate. Except I just grabbed my notebook, not the iPad. I’d like to spend more time with that today. And Rilla and I are working on a pretty exciting art project together on Saturday nights. She’s done almost all the work so far, but last week we got to the painting stage and spent a happy hour testing our acrylic paints on a black canvas to see which colors show up best from a distance. I’m looking forward to putting in some more time on that project this weekend.
And writing this post reminds me to start my afternoon work session by threading some needles. I’m a big believer in always leaving thread in the needle—both literally for embroidery and figuratively for my writing (Hemingway’s trick). Never stop at the end of a scene! Break off mid-scene, mid-paragraph, even mid-sentence if you can. It’s much easier to pick the work back up next time.
This old photo popped up when I typed “work” into my blog’s media search bar. Original caption: what I look like while writing, according to Rilla
Early on in my parenting and homeschooling journeys (same journey: they were simultaneous), I recognized as a core value the importance of giving kids opportunities for real work that contributes to the household. As my babies became toddlers and then preschoolers, and I immersed myself in education theory and methods of homeschooling, I understood that this was an area where my thinking diverged from radical unschooling. It’s why I landed upon a style of homeschooling that was unschoolish but not, by the definition developed by the radical unschoolers of the late ’90s and early 2000s, unschooling.
Book idea: what it was like to watch homeschooling theory develop and spread in different directions. The Home Ed Mag discussion boards on AOL in 1995: moms speaking with authority, laying down definitions that over the next ten years became a kind of dogma. Amusing now to think back and realize how very young their children were at the time. As the years passed, I watched with interest as their ideas were tested, challenged, vehemently defended, splintered, refined—all the while testing, challenging, defending, splintering, and refining my own. Remembering moments like the time a famous unschooling/non-coercive parenting speaker wanted me to stay for an evening event at a conference, and I explained that one of my kids was ready to head home, and she said, “Can we bribe her to stay?” —How startled I was, having seen her blister hapless moms on her discussion forum for parenting with bribery. How crystal clear it was in that moment: the gulf between theory and practice. How that canyon snakes through nearly everything we attempt in adult life, and much of the work of adulthood is building bridges. /end tangent
Anyway! While I’ve experimented with different methods and materials over the years (the decades now!) of homeschooling, I held fast to certain core principles, and provide opportunities for meaningful work has been one of them. (My older children, however, will note that I applied that principle more consistently when they were small than with my two youngest. “When I was your age, I’d been ______ [fill in the blank with a household chore] for years already” is an occasional—and totally accurate—remark in my home. When you have competent teens handling the bathroom- and kitchen-cleaning, it’s easy to ride the status quo. I generally appreciate the reminders to make time for teaching important life skills to the younger set.)
The meaningful work concept has shaped our home education experience, too. If I assign something, I want it to matter, not be mere busywork. On a practical level, this means: if I can see after three or four math problems that you understand the concept, there’s no need to finish the page. You can do a few more problems on that page a couple of days later. Still remember the steps toward the solution? Cool, we can move on. If I observe a gap later, we’ll circle back and fill it in.
I know that my dogged adherence to this principle stems from the hours of boredom and frustration that filled my own school days—hours spent doing 40 problems, the first five of which were interesting puzzles and the rest, puzzle-key mastered, were excruciatingly bored and robbed me of sleep or precious reading time.
Eek, the timer’s about to go off. I was going to chronicle the past week’s meaningful work! My own, I mean.
• All tasks that make our home pleasanter are meaningful work, even the tedious kind. Of note this past week: I sorted through two boxes of paperwork from the filing cabinet, culling a whole boxful for shredding or recycling, and sorting the remaining files into grouped layers in the other box. Did I find the one piece of paper I was looking for—the document that prompted this activity? I did not.
• Homeschooling: I taught some math things, read lots of When You Reach Me (see yesterday’s post), discovered how fearfully dusty our globe is but spent a lot of time poking at sites on it anyway, and learned about the Haida Nation who lived off the coast of British Columbia thousands of years ago.
• I wrote a Brave Writer Arrow for Pam Muñoz Ryan’s lovely novel Mañanaland. Sent it off to my wonderful editor, Dawn Smith, with a few gaps that I’ll fill this afternoon. This is the May book for Arrow subscribers and will be my fifth Arrow from this academic year’s batch of ten titles. I wrote nine of the ten Darts, too! Writing these comprehensive guides is challenging and rewarding work—the reward being the delight I see on kids’ faces in the photos parents share on Instagram and elsewhere. We’re helping families make magic.
• I kept up with work for my social media clients, my coaching clients, my nonprofit client.
• I wrote posts for Patreon and for this blog.
• I worked on some extremely loose and fuzzy exploratory notes toward my next novel. Didn’t spend as much time in that notebook as I would have liked, due to the bullet points above. 😉
• I did some garden cleanup (the bees are awake at last, so it was safe to remove dead stems)—but that’s such a pleasure that I can hardly count it as work. Or: it’s meaningful work on the writing project, because gardening is when I do some of my best writing. I wrote the first draft of Fox and Crow Are Not Friends in my head while weeding the side yard, one San Diego day. Same with all three Inch and Roly stories, come to think of it.
• I got exactly nowhere on my secret stitching project. No wait, that’s not true. I made some notes about next steps.
And I burst out with a delighted laugh, because moments earlier, I had scrawled in my notebook: I need to Rule-of-Six myself.
Long ago and far away, I wrote a post here on Bonny Glen about the six elements I tried to make sure were a part of my children’s days.
• encounters with beauty (in art, music, nature);
• encounters with living books
• meaningful work (not busywork, but work that makes a real contribution to one’s mind, one’s home, or one’s community);
• imaginative play; and
• big ideas to ponder and discuss.
That’s five. The sixth was prayer, which I would frame differently now, fifteen years later, as meditation/contemplation/white space. Time outside the hustle of time. Time apart from the barrage of stimuli that has become 21st-century life. Time to sit (or walk, or stitch, or garden) in quiet thought.
After this past year, I think I’d add a seventh ingredient to my recipe for a good day: connection with others—something I certainly took for granted back then, in my years of lively inter-blog discourse, and daily breakfast phone calls with Alice, and nature club and Shakespeare Club and Journey North club and group piano classes. How different life is now, rolling into this pandemic’s second spring! Huck and Rilla take piano lessons via Zoom, the same platform on which most of my face-to-face connecting happens these days, in daily afternoon coworking sessions and occasional friend-group meetups.
Avoiding the temptation to overload
In the days when the Rule of Six post was traveling to other homes, it was often tweaked and adapted to fit a family’s individual priorities, which I loved to see. One oft-added item was “exercise,” which I hadn’t thought to include in my vision for my own kids because they were young enough that movement was as ubiquitous as breathing, no matter what they were doing. I see myself moving to add it to the list now, and I hesitate, hand hovering over the page, because I recognize the fine line between enough and overload. Even the urge expressed above to add connection with others risks opening the floodgates to a host of other daily aspirations and habits. I have always had a hard time not including All the Things on any list.
Containers, not habits
A helpful distinction is to understand the Rule as something separate from habits (a topic I also loved to explore in discussions on this blog, back in the day, and with which I remain fascinated and even professionally involved). This past year, I gave a lot of focus to cultivating certain habits—exercise being one of them. It’s perilously easy for me to overload myself with lists of habits I mean to develop, so that over and over I have to remind myself to return to core principles: one simple habit at a time, worked at faithfully for weeks until it becomes automatic. When my children were small, it was easy to allow habit-building a long and gentle timeline: they had their whole lives stretched out before them! With myself, it’s harder to be patient.
Embracing core principles
My old Rule developed out of core values. It began, of course, with Charlotte Mason’s notion that a child should have, every day, “something to think about, something to do, and something to love.” And so I find clarity when I view the items on my Rule list as principles that inform good habits, not habits themselves. The ways in which I (or my kids) encounter beauty shift and change over time; the kinds of meaningful work each of us engages in have changed many times over the years.
And I can see the ways I’ve worked to create habits that support the Rule’s principles, like coaching a child through the formation of a habit for a household chore like taking out the recycling (a kind of meaningful work: contributing to the pleasant atmosphere of the home). I have lots of habits and practices to support my own “meaningful work,” like take a walk between lunchtime and writing time; or write down my top three work priorities each morning. From time to time I have to re-establish good habits around reading (poetry before screens, or no phone in bed) to ensure that “encounters with living books” doesn’t disappear from my list.
And so, as I contemplate my growing sense that I need to Rule-of-Six my own self, I have to keep remembering to focus on the core principles, the containers, not the granular habits that support the principles.
Why this strong urge to revisit the Rule?
I think my old Rule leapt back into my notebook because the pandemic’s limitations and stressors have, inch by inch, shoved me into a space that feels alien and incompatible, like when Mrs. Which accidentally tessered Meg & co. to a two-dimensional planet for a moment, and their lungs couldn’t expand. Perhaps that’s overstating—the essential elements on my list are present in my life, say over the span of a week instead of a day—but still, I’ve been feeling restless, yearning, nostalgic.
I’m off balance: way too much work (meaningful though it may be) and not nearly enough white space. Encounters with beauty: easy, because Portland is a fairyland in spring, and spring lasts for months and months here. But “encounter” becomes too shallow a word when I put it in the context of “encounters with art”—to simply scroll Instagram is to encounter so much deeply beautiful art that I can’t take it in, can’t fully appreciate it. I think back to the time I spent two full afternoons in one Barcelona museum, even though it meant not visiting some other sites. I gave myself time to stand quietly in one room and taste the paintings, not brush past them like people on a subway platform.
And so I remind myself that “encounter” meant a close encounter, a slow one, a deep one.
Carrying my Rule into spring
I can see the ways my ideas have ripened, matured, since I first put it into practice. I can see ways that it has slipped right off my radar as a mother—things I came to take for granted, as givens, or as items on a checklist. Revisiting the Rule nourishes me and reminds me of the core values that inspired it in the first place.
• encounters with beauty
• encounters with living books
• meaningful work;
• imaginative play;
• big ideas to ponder and discuss; • white space; and, yes, I’ll add—
So, er, Rule of Seven?
I think connection is important for me to include because it reminds me to step outside myself and make sure I’m letting ideals become actions. And of course connection is a word of immense significance to so many of us who homeschool, whose understanding of education is centered on helping facilitate connections of all kinds for our kids. Jocelyn Glei urges us to actively schedule time for white space (thinking/contemplating/daydreaming/staring out a window/praying/meditating) immediately after a focused “deep work” session. It’s an intriguing notion! And a wise one. If I meander out to the garden after a writing session, roadblocks I hit in the day’s writing have a way of dissolving into the air. But too often, too often!, I rush directly from a writing session to some other kind of work. In my earlier Rule of Six days, I had an abundance of white space that was organic to life in a household of littles—nursing a baby, or sitting on a blanket at the park, physically tethered and mentally free to roam.
It’s funny to hear myself think: maybe try to be a little less efficient. Stay playful. Fritter more, but fritter well. (Scrolling isn’t frittering.)
If I apply the Rule to myself, it will spill over to my family
Core principles are infectious. If you’re making space for pondering and discussing big ideas, you’re going to be discussing them with other people—most especially the people you live with. If I’m having a close encounter with something beautiful, I can’t help but share it.
The practice of the Rule itself used to provide an opening for discussion, in the days when I would ask the questions at bedtime: where did we encounter beauty today? Or: tell me about the game you were playing in the back yard. At one point I had a side-blog where I recorded our answers and my own observations. At other points, I chronicled them in a Small Meadow Press notebook or on Listography. Just writing that sentence fills me with longing!
I love the feeling of longing because it spurs me to action. And no action could be simpler than returning to my old practice of spending a few minutes at the end of each day sifting through the day’s activities and seeing where they fit into my Rule.
Do you have a practice like this? I’d love to hear about it.
I love beginnings, fresh starts. I am very, very good at beginning things, less adept at finishing them. But I’ve finished some projects this long weekend, and am on the verge of finishing two others, and that feels great.
(But I still haven’t done the Christmas cards.)
I completely made over my bedroom this weekend. For the year-plus since we moved into this house, our bedroom has been more like a closet with a bed in it. Books and video tapes shoved willy-nilly onto the shelves during the first frantic days of unpacking remained there, unsightly and gathering dust, all year. Our dresser was piled high with laundry and books. One corner (and this is a tiny room; there is scarcely any corner space to spare) filled up with empty cardboard boxes, more laundry, and random mateless shoes. Really, it was quite disgraceful. But this is the first bedroom off the hall, the easiest place to stash clutter behind a closed door when company is coming.
This has become the room in which I write. In the evenings, after Scott is home and dinner is over, I slip in here to work for an hour or two. When we moved into this house, I thought I was going to do my writing at our big desk in Wonderboy’s room (the only place that had room for the desk), at the quiet end of the hall. Somehow that never happened. I work in here, and I sleep in here, and I needed the space to be pretty, not cluttered. So I worked for two days and cleaned from top to bottom. I moved the haphazard piles of old video tapes to a back closet, put all the laundry away (imagine!), and switched the books around. I have shelves and shelves of lovely old books about Scotland and early 18th-century New England, all the resources I’d collected while writing my Little House novels. They are beautiful books and good friends. I feel quite uplifted now, looking across the bed to the inviting rows of titles: A Naturalist in the Highlands; Old Landmarks of Boston; Weaving with Linen; Our Own Snug Fireside.
I made it a sort of game to make over the room without spending any money. I had bought new pillowcases last month (our old ones were threadbare), a cheerful assortment of lime greens and fresh, cool blues, and it’s amazing how much they brightened up our old blue comforter. For good measure I added a flowery bedspread that used to be on Jane’s bed, long ago. The flowers made me feel so happy, I went rummaging in the craft cabinets and found some faux peonies and daisies I’d bought to make an Easter wreath last spring. The wreath never got made, but the flowers look awfully pretty on my dresser. The green glass pitcher my sister-in-law gave me, gosh, seven or eight Christmases ago, looks quite stunning beneath the peonies.
Why were these things stashed away behind cabinet doors?
Two years ago my resolution (inspired by Robert Frost’s poem, “The Armful,” about juggling a pile of slipping parcels) was to “keep hold of the important things, stopping to restack the load as often as necessary,” and I think that pretty well describes what I did during these past two years. I had an armful indeed: new baby, cross-country move, work changes, all sorts of adventures. We’ve caught our breath now. This year my resolution, if I have one, is to look closer at the ‘beauty’ part of our family Rule of Six. My bedroom, though not fancy and decidedly low-budget, is really beautiful now. Now that I know we’ll be in this rental house another year, I’ll keep focusing on small corners to make more beautiful. The rooms I tackled during this past week have already brought much joy to our family. It’s an extremely gratifying project.
I like this idea of choosing one focus in particular out of our list of the things we want to be purposeful in making a part of our daily lives: meaningful work; imaginative play; living books; ideas to ponder and discuss; encounters with beauty through art, music, nature, and I would add to this the home arts as well; and prayer.
This year, then, beauty. I’m ready.
Here’s part of a post about where our family’s Rule of Six comes from:
It got its start, as so many helpful principles do, in the writings of Charlotte Mason. In A Charlotte Mason Companion, Karen Andreola wrote that Miss Mason believed children needed three things every day: something to love, something to think about, and something to do.
I remember it was shortly after we moved from New York to Virginia in 2002 that I looked at the bright faces of my three little girls in their big blue room and made a silent promise to myself to give them that good soul-food every day: something to love, to think about, to do. I thought about what that meant in practical terms, because a concept has to translate very clearly on a practical level if there is any hope of my pulling it off. It’s the logistics that get you, every time. Broad principles are like umbrellas, and you need a hand to hold the umbrella with.
And that’s how I got to our Rule of Five. (Yes, five. It was Five for the first two or three years. Item number Six didn’t join the list until later—which is why I’ve been tickled to see all these Rules of Six popping up, because ours was the Rule of Five for so long.) I thought of it as the five fingers of a hand, the five things that I strive to make a part of every day we spend together:
• Good books
• Imaginative play
• Encounters with beauty (through art, music, and the natural world—this includes our nature walks)
• Ideas to ponder and discuss (there’s Miss Mason’s “something to think about”)
When the girls were younger it worked so beautifully with a little fingerplay we would do at bedtime. We would hold up a finger for each thing on the list. “What did you play today?” I would ask, and eager stories would bubble forth. “Who remembers what books we read?” “Where did we meet beauty today?” It was such fun, at the end of the day, to listen to their reflections about what we’d done since breakfast. At the end of the list, we’d all be holding up the five fingers of a hand, and then we’d clap our hands together and that meant time to pray.
But what about the sixth item in my Rule of Six? You see, of course, what’s missing from my original list: work. That’s because when I first came up with the list, my oldest child was only six, and play WAS her work. A couple of years later, the list grew—like my children. I added “meaningful work” (as opposed to busywork) to express the importance of doing useful things cheerfully and well, with reverence and attention.
And the five-finger visual works even better now, because you can tally off the first five things on the list and then clasp your hands together for the sixth, prayer.
By observing how [my daughter] has been participating in household work over the
past little while, I have come to see that when there is no list of
"chores", the work itself can become meaningful. It produces something
that the worker desires — tasty bread, a tidy environment, etc. It
also produces a feeling of fully belonging to the household. That pride
that she can empty the dishwasher is at least partly about
recognizing an additional way that she is able to contribute, even if
she doesn’t empty the dishwasher every time. And household tasks do not
just produce goods (bread, dinner, clean laundry) and services (dinner
served to the table, maid service), they also produce relationships.
Doing these things for others as a member of a household is a way of
tangibly caring for people.
Jove, that is so beautifully put. Yes, yes, yes: household work cheerfully and reverently done builds warmth and cameraderie within the family. I use the word "reverently" deliberately; I really do mean it. If we approach tedious domestic tasks—or any task—with an attitude of reverence, a sense that this work, however mean, however mundane, can bless our loved ones (or even perfect strangers), the work itself is changed. Cleaning toilets need not be drudgery; it can be as loving an act as buying a gift for your spouse or reading a special book to a child.
There’s a lovely passage in Thyra Ferre Bjorn’s book, Papa’s Wife, in which Mama sits down to her favorite task of the week: polishing the shoes of her seven children. Seven pairs of shoes! Imagine! She spent all day each Saturday cleaning and scrubbing and baking and preparing her home for the Sabbath—"Papa" was a pastor—and at the end of that long, hard day, she had to face that pile of shoes. Except there was no "having to face" the task in her attitude. She took joy in the job. Each shoe called forth the image of the child who wore it, and as she worked, Mama would smile over the thought of a funny or endearing thing the child had done that week. (Last year, when I re-read this book for the dozenth time, I thought of Alice during the shoe-polishing scene—and months later, when I read her "Spring Soup" post, I thought of the warm-hearted Swedish mama.)
Jove’s post also describes her recent decision to begin baking bread with her daughter. She links to a recipe Wisteria uses daily. This is perfect timing for me. I’ve been hankering to bring breadmaking into our lives ever since Elizabeth shared her enthusiasm for the task on the CCM list years ago. All these years, I’ve been biding my time, which is to say, waiting for Jane to be old enough to be in charge of the job. And she IS old enough now. I have already promised her we’ll work more baking into our lives now that we’re sort of overhauling our daily rhythm.
I’d love your input on recipes for beginners, dear readers. I have to admit Wisteria’s recipe (which sounds wonderful) intimidated me a little with its use of the words "adjust accordingly." Jove DID adjust accordingly, and I’m mighty impressed. I can "adjust accordingly" with the best of them when it comes to, say, educational method and materials, but with baking? Not so much. I need the Baking for Dummies version.
And we can make do without a mixer and dough hook, right? For now? Since this is likely to be a once-a-week endeavor at best?