The environment must be rich in motives which lend interest to activity and invite the child to conduct his own experiences. — Maria Montessori, The Absorbent Mind
I’ve always appreciated how our environments affect and impact us. As parents, our ideologies about childhood and family inform how we create our home–the toys and furniture we buy (or don’t buy) and the way we arrange them, the color palettes for the walls and, of course, how we un/organize different spaces. If we were to browse the world, we might notice the margins for “healthy” homes are broad and diverse. The same is true in home-education. Some families prefer individual desks and formal school rooms while other families leave “school” less defined, a mixture of the home and outdoors at large. Like our style, our own “school” area has varied over the years, evolving with different family needs and spaces within our home. We have used everything from our dining room table to an entire bedroom complete with open shelves, a child-sized table with chairs, and an indoor swing. Both worked well in different seasons.
Our new home is quaint and simple in layout, a rectangle divided into 6 sections: living room, dining room, kitchen, and 3 bedrooms (2 bathrooms in the mix). We love its simplicity and size, something that has required us to be intentional about every corner and wall in order to accommodate all six of us. Since we needed to use all three of our bedrooms for sleeping, we gave our boys the large master and then artificially divided the room with open bookshelves: one (larger) part for the boys’ room and one part shared learning space–cleverly right where the kitchen and two kids’ rooms meet–a natural hub for everyone.
Like the rest of our home, this space is organized with natural materials and colors (minus a few plastics from our math curriculum) and open shelving. The bedroom also has two closets, so we were able to build out one for the kids’ books, puzzles, and games, while the low-dividing bookshelves house the kids’ individual cubbies, art supplies, paper, teacher manuals, baskets of math manipulatives, and beginning readers. We painted the large (and only) wall in the space in chalkboard paint, where we write/draw everything and anything. Although the space is large enough for a kids’ table, my kids often prefer working and playing on the floor, so a nice rug, floor pillows, and a couple of lap desks work perfectly and easily tuck away when they’re finished. Generally, we have math and other group writing activities at the dining table. For independent reading or work, they go where ever–to their beds, the couch, or even the outdoors when the weather is nice. Inspired by Montessori, I try to leave as much as possible within their reach. This way they learn to initiate their own art projects or writing or play. If you have younger toddlers or infants, you’ll want to keep certain activities out of reach for safety purposes, but make sure to keep baskets of special toys/age-appropriate activities available for them, too. Like many other parts of our home, this area is still in process. I hope to add some lights along the ceiling since the windows are on the boys’ side of the room and intend to hang a few things on the wall eventually, but for now, this works. I hope it inspires your own!
I’m thrilled to finally announce here that I will be officially joining my sister, Kristen, working as a photographer at Fidelis Studio. For years, I’ve listened to Kristen and Tim share their ideas and vision and their love for their clients and artistic craft. As Tim moves on to different ventures, I’m grateful to now be working alongside Kristen, sharing in visual storytelling and blending our unique styles and perspectives. (Kristen and Tim, thank you so much for bringing me into to something so precious to you both. I’m flattered and thankful.) To read more, Kristen wrote a bit about their business transition yesterday, and if you’re interested in hiring me and Kristen for an event or portrait session, you can now contact us here.
As for this space, I will continue to write, photograph, and collaborate with other businesses and artists here. At times, I may share work or important announcements about the studio, but for the most part, this will remain a personal space dedicated to my journey through motherhood and marriage, home-education, design, relationship with Jesus, and the various and artful ways they all intersect. Thank you all for the heaps of courage-building words you share with me here or via email. I’m always so grateful for your support.
Earlier in the year, I began a style series exploring pieces from my closet I considered essential–clothing or accessories I go to regularly and tend to build around throughout the year. The goal, I hoped, would help cultivate gratitude for what I already have and a clearer vision for how to use my [quite tiny] personal clothing budget. This is the fifth in thisstyle essential series.
As we move into the second part of August, I realize most of the Northern hemisphere is beginning to think toward the fall, the onset of cooler weather and warmer clothes and colors. However, in the South, summer stretches through most of September, and sometimes even into October, meaning stylistic rules about color and season, don’t always apply here. Although I spend many summer days in dresses, I love white denim. White skinnies. White flared. White wide-legged. It doesn’t matter. For most of my early years of motherhood, I shied away from white because of potential messiness. But I quickly realized, throwing on a pair of white denim always felt fresh, regardless of what I was doing, and pairing it with a white top instantly felt chic, which any mother knows is a big deal. White denim quickly became a staple in my closet. I’ve never looked back. When going out for the evening or to work during the day, I might throw on heals or wedges (like here), but many days I throw them on with a pair of flat sandals and a summer hat. The best part? Since it’s August, most stores are beginning to clear out their white denim–and just in case you’re on the lookout,Madewell’s offering an extra 40% off their sale through midnight today and Gap’s offering 40% off until noon. (I’m wearingGap’s long and lean above.) What about you? How do you wear your white denim?
“a weekly portrait of each of my children in 2014″
liam // You decided this week you want to begin taking your own pictures and learning how to edit them. As we roll nearer to your 11th birthday, I see us also turning into new years with you, years where those small seedlings in your soul are beginning to sprout.
burke // You tried to smile at me while playing with your cousin and brother, but your eyes burned from the chlorine. You could only manage this wince before turning to play again. This weekend, you and Liam earned $28 doing yard-work for other families. This summer has been a turning point for the both of you to learn about business and how to earn and save money.
blythe // You still seem to be the first one up each morning. Sometimes you want to eat and other times you drag your favorite fuzzy throw out the living room and read until everyone else wakes up. I’ve been giving you some of our old CDs to listen to during rest time. You told me yesterday Regina Spektor’s Fidelity is your new favorite song.
olive // This week I found you in a basket in your room coloring in your art journal, as if it were the basket’s intended purpose. You always seek out tiny spots to cradle you, sometimes it’s a basket, other times it’s my arms.
Each year, August seems to be one of the harder months around here. The long days grow hotter, keeping us indoors more. I also tend to be more preoccupied with lists of projects to complete before our school year begins, meaning the kids are left to busy themselves more and arguing inevitably ensues. With news of the horrific violence in Iraq and Robin William’s tragic death, this week has felt even harder, a surreal–even hopeless– picture of the world at large. Today, as the kids and I, cleaned and tidied our home, I found myself humming the old hymn It Is Well, reminded of the truths “If dark hours about me shall roll, no pang shall be mine, for in death as in life Thou wilt whisper Thy peace to my soul.” I share this small thought with you, not to be heavy or dower, but to remind you of hope, to remind you in the darkest hours, on the hottest August days, in the hardest places of life, God wants to whisper His peace to your soul. Today, I’m breathing in every bit of it.
When I first began writing in this space in 2007, I was influenced by and quoted Thoreau’s Walden. Like so many before me, I treasured his imperative to suck the marrow out of life, to simplify, and in spite of the evolving context and circumstances of our life since then, these words still impact me now. As our children grow older and more independent, we’re taking them on larger outdoor adventures, hoping to encourage a mutual respect and love for creation and the Creator. Although we’ve always spent time with them outdoors, I enjoy watching them interact with nature in their own ways now, exploring, questioning, creating, storytelling. When we pack for our adventures, we each bring a notebook and books for the quieter periods while camping. Lately, I’ve been reading I AM COYOTE, an anthology of wilderness writings I recently stumbled upon, a collection so rich with story and song, I know it will always travel with us now. While the collected writings include big literary names like Emerson and Frost, Kerouac and Muir, the anthology is both approachable and neatly organized according to sections as one might experience nature: leaving civilization, the joy and romance of nature, the danger and hardship of the wilderness, where we fit with the natural world, and ending with a section on conservation and environmental writings. Filled with speeches, poems, essays, and selections from novels, this read is rhythmic, simple, and rich, reflecting the content itself. Eager to hear more about this book, I recently interviewed the anthologist, Jay Schoenberger, below. He’s generously giving a free copy away to one lucky reader here and offering free shipping over here to all Cloistered Away readers using the code: LOCAL415. A portion of each sale goes to the National Outdoor Leadership School. I hope you all enjoy.
In the introduction to I AM COYOTE, you describe what seems to be a pivotal life moment for you: an epiphany of “your life’s work” while reading Thoreau in the Wyoming Wind River Range. How would you briefly describe that work now?
One of the best parts of putting together I AM COYOTE was going back to the writings which, in several cases, I hadn’t read in years and seeing these masterful pieces of literature with fresh eyes. In the specific case of the excerpt from Walden, the words seem even more applicable to my life than they did when I first read them. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” My life often seems more complex and more harried as I age, and it’s easy to focus on trivialities. Thoreau’s words serve as a powerful reminder to slow down, consider what it’s important, and to living intentionally. More than ever before, I find the wilderness as a place to do just that.
Has your vision evolved more with this publication?
People often ask why I chose to create I AM COYOTE. I usually explain how the wilderness experience has positively impacted and influenced the direction of my life. I talk about the tranquility and rejuvenation I feel after spending time in the backcountry. I’ll mention the personal growth I’ve experienced in facing and overcoming the challenges and struggles that the wilderness tends to offer in heaping portions. Then, of course there is the sheer joy of spending time in some of the world’s most spectacular natural settings. If anything, explaining why I created the book has reaffirmed and clarified for me why I love backcountry travel.
Would you refer to yourself as an environmental activist?
I probably would not refer to myself as an environmental activist because it seems to be a fairly loaded term in today’s popular discourse. I would rather affirm my beliefs. I believe in helping orient society toward conservation and sustainability. I believe in stewarding the last remaining wild places. As Americans, we are fortunate to have had visionary leaders who set aside some extraordinary places as National Parks, Forests, and Wilderness Areas. I think it’s incumbent upon us to protect these sacred places for the present generation and generations to come.
I love that. Speaking of generations, what about your childhood: Did you spend much time in the outdoors as a family? How has this impacted your current love of wilderness?
Spending time in nature was always part of my childhood. I was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee and grew up hunting and fishing with my dad and brother. Many of our family vacations were to places like the Smoky Mountains, the Grand Canyon or the Colorado Rockies, the spot where I saw my first “big” mountains. These trips inspired in me a spirit of exploration and discovery that’s with me still. Then in 2000, I graduated high school and participated in a month-long wilderness skills course put on by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). In Wyoming’s Wind River Range, I learned how to climb, fly-fish, and travel in the backcountry. I encountered in Wyoming mountain landscapes of beauty and grandeur. I was struck by the simplicity and satisfaction of living with everything I needed strapped to my back. I spent my days completing, what seemed on the surface to be, the simplest of tasks: creating shelter, feeding myself, traveling on foot, and having meaningful, unabridged conversations. It was through NOLS that I really fell in love with the wilderness experience.
How did you choose these particular selections?
I AM COYOTE contains what I believe are some of the most important, powerful wilderness essays, poetry, and passages. After my NOLS course, I started collecting my favorite wilderness writings. I would stuff photocopied passages into my pack and share them with friends in the backcountry. In turn, my friends would share their favorites with me. Some outdoors compilations focus purely on male bravado and risk-taking in the backcountry. The wilderness presents a test to be passed. Mountains are an object to be conquered. Other compilations extol the beauty of nature but include writings that place the reader in the position of what Wendell Berry calls a “viewer of views.” The reader is a detached observer peering through the looking glass at the separate, the other: NATURE. The impression left is one wholly separate from the impressions of those who become immersed in a wilderness experience, in all its beauty, frightfulness, and curiosities. I chose writings that focus principally on the relationship between individuals and the wilderness they inhabit. From Emerson and Muir to Kerouac and Dillard, the writings discuss the wilderness’s transformative and transcendent power on humans living in ephemeral conditions. At its core, I AM COYOTE is the product of communal story telling in the wilderness.
Aside from Thoreau, are there any of these writings that have had personal significance more than others?
Wallace’s Stegner’s ”Wilderness Letter” was another writing that influenced my life’s direction, pointing me toward a career in the environmental space. He penned his “Wilderness Letter” in 1960, after a decade of breakneck economic growth in the U.S. He drafted the letter in support of federal legislation that would set aside some of America’s most spectacular landscapes as protected wilderness areas. Interestingly, he argues for conservation not for the typical reasons like recreation and biological and geological research but for a sacred notion he calls “the wilderness idea.” The legislation was passed into law as the 1964 Wilderness Act, making 2014 the 50th anniversary of this landmark legislative achievement. I can still vividly recall when I first heard the words of Stegner’s letter:
Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed; if we permit the last virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases; if we drive the few remaining members of the wild species into zoos or to extinction; if we pollute the last clear air and dirty the last clean streams and push our paved roads through the last of the silence…so that never again can we have the chance to see ourselves single, separate, vertical and individual in the world, part of the environment of trees and rocks and soil, brother to the other animals, part of the natural world and competent to belong in it…We need wilderness preserved—as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds—because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The remainder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest, into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simply because it is there—important, that is, simply as idea.
Do you hope the reader will experience or learn anything in particular through this collection?
I hope it serves as a source of inspiration to those with a latent interest in the wilderness and as a source of experiential enrichment for those already well versed with it. My goal is to capture the singularity and profundity of the wilderness experience and satisfy the thirsting for a connection to the backcountry. I hope it inspires action among its readers to help preserve the last remaining wild places.
I unpacked the last of the kitchen this week, ignoring the handful of small details around the space we’re still waiting to complete, grateful to be making food here again. Even the kids have welcomed this part of our home again, joining me in meal-making and dish washing. Although the dishwashing still solicits grumbling, they’re content to walk away without soaked shirts or stains where the old rusty sink used to leak on them. There’s space for them to cook alongside me or separately work on another part of a meal. It’s not a huge kitchen, but it’s enough for us. Huge has never been our style anyway. We’re postponing our marble countertops and dishwasher for a bit to leave room in our budget for other family expenses on the horizon, like graduate school classes, business taxes, and a new fridge to replace our dying Craigslist find. “If we buy a fridge, it will prolong the countertops. Do you want to buy a new fridge?” Mark asks me, his body gently leaned against the kitchen wall he had only weeks before textured and painted. After 13 years of marriage, he’s learned I more often choose beauty over practicality, warranting a question that might seem otherwise obvious to anyone else. “Well, I want the countertops. We need a fridge. This one is barely cooling.” I respond, tossing more kale around the pan. Liam grabs a jar from the shelf to fill with water, “I understand that, mom.” He’s referring to those words. Need. Want. We have them regularly with our children, as we help them learn about money, about things, about life. As parents I often think of the one-on-one conversations as being the primary teaching tool, connection point, while the rest of life fills in the gaps. Perhaps it’s the reverse: the everyday conversations, the transparent ways we as parents struggle through our own decisions and emotions that speak the clearest messages, that help our children arrive at the words I understand.
I think of the word home and a million colloquial phrases swirl it. Somehow in this space, full of rote and practicality, our family pieces the word together, bit by bit.
plant life / computer time / light after the dinner dishes / a simple mantle / an art journal / a game of hand strength / a dying fridge / a conversation