I have had a week of near-perfect days — not the kind of days in which I get to do exactly what I want. Those would be spent in reading, writing, and walking with Paul. I write of the days when I nearly accomplish all that I set out to do. Generally, I feel a sense of defeat, wondering
Which ball am I going to drop today?
Juggling so many different tasks, I feel that I am destined to overlook something. I might get homeschooling done, but no writing. I might exercise and get outside, but the house is a mess. I might get every task done, but a relationship has been damaged — I’ve lost my temper and hollered someone into submission. Task gets accomplished. Feelings get hurt.
But not this week. At least not for the second half.
We had a rough Monday. The girls woke up late. Paul and I had an unexpected meeting that required attendance. Many balls fell and rolled into corners. Tuesday began late as well. I started to lose my temper with the girls but then stopped myself. I took a deep breath and tried to figure what what would solve the problem.
I said to the girls, “I feel that, if I turn my head, you will lose your way. It seems that you are dragging your feet, dawdling at every possible loose moment, and leaning back against the way I want us to go. It is wearing me out.”
Greta complained, “There’s too much to do.”
I read through the lines. She was feeling overwhelmed.
“Look,” I said. “I can hear that we have a lot on our plate. But I’m not talking about accomplishing everything on the list. I’m talking about getting your basic education. This includes math, reading, and writing. Yet, not even these three are getting accomplished. Why? Because I won’t let you live like pigs. You must take care of yourself by washing your face, brushing your teeth, and getting properly dressed for the day. When you begin the day, your bed should be made and your room picked up. These are basic life skills. It is not too much to ask. Saying there is too much to do does not explain why school isn’t even really started until 11 a.m.”
I continued, “These basic life skills of getting yourself and your room ready are taking you more than half the day. Take a good look at yourself. Examine yourself. Would you not agree that you are taking far too much time in getting ready for the day?”
The girls all nodded.
I continued, “I’m okay if you don’t get to Spanish everyday. I’m okay if you miss a vocabulary lesson or don’t quite get all of your science done. But … it is not okay to skip basic life skills like taking care of yourself, your surroundings and possessions. And in regards to your education — these three cannot be skipped! You must do your math, you must read for an hour, and you must write.”
Elsa was getting defensive, “I don’t even like what I’m reading.”
“I don’t care,” I retorted. “Life is not about doing what you like. Life is about doing what needs to be done. Do you think that kids in school are getting a real education by half-heartedly catering to whatever interests them? An education requires some work. It requires concentration. It requires persistence. You must train your interests just as in regards to food. You must train your tastes to like what is good for you. This is not always easy. It is not always fun. But it is best, and that is what I want for you. The very, very best.”
She sat there, glaring.
So I flew into a “you-know-what” speech.
“You know what? Fine. Read what you like. This is your education. You can either trust my choice of how to educate you or don’t. You’re old enough to begin deciding for yourself. Read what you like. Don’t push yourself by reading great pieces of literature. Read what’s easy. Read what feels good. But at least read! You’ve been sitting at the table drawing maps for geography for two hours. That’s great and all, but it’s really productive stalling — doing something positive to avoid doing what you really need to be doing. It shouldn’t replace reading!”
Turning to the compliant one in the family, the one who loves to please, I said, “Greta, get upstairs and read what I told you. Your sister may be too old for my direction, but you’re not. You’ll read what I set out for you to read.”
She meekly obeyed. Everyone did. They scattered in the correct directions and got to work.
I folded laundry and did dishes, alternating between feeling guilty and mollified. I believed everything I said, but somehow, I didn’t like that it had to come down to a “you-know-what” speech.
Dagne sidled up to the table. “I think Elsa’s feelings are hurt,” she said.
“Why do you think that, love?”
“I don’t know. She just looks sad. You should talk to her.”
“Okay, darling. I will.”
But I wasn’t ready to apologize yet. I continued wiping down counters, cleaning off the stove, rinsing the cast iron pans and drying them. Finally, I no longer felt mollified. Just guilty.
I went upstairs. Elsa was dutifully reading Oedipus Rex.
“I’m sorry for losing my temper. For the sarcasm. I think all of this really represents my own failings and I’m blaming them on you,” I said.
Elsa said, “That hurts my feelings even more, Mom, when you say that you have failed.”
I thought to myself,
I want you to be eager participants in your education, not dead-weights.
But I decided not to say it. I’d said enough. Instead, I chose to pray about it, to make an effort to simplify things for them, to release some of my high expectations.
I said, simply, “I’m sorry about that too. I love you.”
The afternoon sun was shining in the window. I felt warm and cozy. I wrapped my arms around my big girl and smelled her hair. I thought of how proud I am — of her, of all of them. Then, I fell asleep in the patch of sunlight like a cat.
The next day was near-perfect. The girls showed up at the appointed time. They worked steadily through their work.
We didn’t accomplish everything, but we accomplished the basics. They were clean. Their rooms were clean. Their beds were made. They got math, reading, and writing done. They even got some other subjects like science and Spanish finished.We were still accomplishing subjects when the clock struck two.
“School’s done,” I declared. “Get outside!”
I finally decided that, no matter what, school will not go past 2 o’clock. I’m going to listen to Charlotte Mason who insists that their play is just as, if not more, important than their school. This freedom is essential.
The day was beautiful. Unusually warm and mellow. The girls needed no coaxing. Out they all went. I went about house business and then paused at the sliding glass door.
I’ve been saying that we can see seven mountain peaks from our window.
I was wrong. There are nine. Even Mt. Jefferson and Mt. Hood are in view.
In the foreground stood Elsa with a rake in her hand, looking like a sergeant inspecting her troops. Her three sisters had various hoes, shovels, and shears, and were standing in a relaxed attention as she directed them. They are building a fort in the back acreage, clearing away weeds under trees, creating beds for flowers, and cutting off unnecessary branches to create room.
I gazed at my girls, cheeks pink with health, faces intent on the business of children: play.
It was a supremely happy moment. A perfect moment. I threw on my coat and hat and went out to survey their work.
The fort was began by Paul, they told me. So that’s why you’re so excited, I thought. It often takes a grownup, especially their Daddy, to sanction an activity or event. With his participation, anything becomes “cool.” Mom’s ideas are always received with skepticism — maybe because she has so many ideas that have to do with the mundane realities of life.
Paul has a seat made from a Juniper trunk twisted sideways where he can watch birds and write his almanac. He and Elsa have been staying up late at nights, organizing their bird lists, poring over maps of where we should go this summer, and debating birding destinations. She’s a motivating force in his life. She’s the feet and hands, and the kick in the pants, to his ideas. Paul has wanted to write this almanac for awhile — describing a year in the place we live with words and sketches. I’ve encouraged him to do it. I’ve tried to motivate him. Again, it’s trying to get somewhere with deadweight.
But with Elsa involved, there is a whole new force to his work. He’s not a solitary worker like I am. He likes company. I’m always trying to get alone to where I can think. He’s been seeking the companion to help him work.
Another example where I’ve just sort of missed it. But yet, maybe it is all just as it’s meant to be.
Dagne was so excited to show me her little kitchen in the Juniper tree, her tilled bed ready for seeding, outlined with rocks. Elsa walked around, swinging a rake, supervising. A natural leader. People trust her implicitly. Ingrid clipped a branch from a tree. I would guess that if she weren’t using a sharp, dangerous tool, she’d be in the trees, swinging from the branches, in danger of breaking an arm or getting a tick. Greta is 13 now. A bona fide teenager. But her mascara’s eyes were intent upon hoeing under the trees. All grownups were banished from this time, this spot, even the grownups within themselves. I could sense that I was only welcome as a visitor, eyeing everything with a practical eye, my faith diminished by reality. If I couldn’t lose that adult sensibility, I should only stay for a minute or two and then get.
So I admired and smiled and fell in love with my children all over again. Then, I waved goodbye and went for a walk and allowed the deep, perfect happiness to fill my soul. Geese flew in formation in the distance, only be seen when they crossed in front of the snowy mountains.
Thursday was even better.
Somehow, in my imperfect attempts, my girls became participants in their own education. I realized that I cannot accomplish near-perfect days alone. I need their help. They willingly gave it. Their trust in my choices for them, their obedience, their desire to please me honor me so much.