cloistered away | enjoying simplicity



August 2014



style essential no. 05 | white denim

Written by , Posted in STYLE + SOUNDS


white_on_white-3white_on_white-1Earlier 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 this style 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 wearing Gap’s long and lean above.)  What about you? How do you wear your white denim?

top (similar) | jeans | tote | hat

Images by Kristen Douglass 





August 2014




Written by , Posted in THE 52 PROJECT




“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.





August 2014



it is well

Written by , Posted in SOUL


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.



August 2014



I AM COYOTE | an interview

Written by , Posted in COLLABORATION



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 COYOTEan 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.

Thank you so much for sharing this with us, Jay.



August 2014



bits of home

Written by , Posted in MOTHERHOOD + MARRIAGE, OUR HOME



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





August 2014




Written by , Posted in THE 52 PROJECT




“a weekly portrait of each of my children in 2014″

liam // I found you inspecting a spider, studying the way it slowly moved along the garage door. You’re always so full of wonder.

burke // You all received a microscope and telescope from Jordan and Christa last Christmas. This week, you’ve taken particular interest in the microscope, observing the composition of everything from leg hair to Squeak’s food.

blythe // I bought a new laundry basket this week and twice found you playing hide-and-seek in it, your hair camouflaged by the woven grass.

olive // I find you jumping on my bed regularly, which I mind less now that our yard is bare of a playground or swing. This particular time, you needed sunglasses. And your layers of mis-matched stripes, too.



August 2014



choosing curriculum

Written by , Posted in HOMESCHOOL

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When I was pregnant with Liam over a decade ago, I walked into a local baby store planning to itemize a few things we would need. I had expected the process to be easy. I would enter the store, write down a few favorite items, and leave. Instead, I was paralyzed. In each category from breast pumps and bottles to monitors and carriers, I discovered several options, each touting some award they had won or the latest technology or the best safety ratings. Overwhelmed, I promptly turned and left the store. I had no idea what I needed.

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I felt similarly when I first entered the word of homeschooling and had to begin choosing curriculum. The vast variety of options and styles buried me. Really, I get it. Curriculum varies because homeschoolers vary. We all have different goals and styles, but when you’re first beginning, it can be too much, even enough to send you packing out door. It’s one of the reasons I have tried (sporadically) to share the resources I use here, to give you an idea of what we use and how we use it. Before I continue, let me first tell you: you don’t need to outfit a full classroom to begin homeschooling. Over the years, we have accumulated a library worth of books from used book stores and gifts, but we began with a very small cabinet containing art supplies, reading and math curriculum, handwriting paper, and a chalkboard wall. It can be that simple. What I share below is in the context of my own children who now run the breadth of grammar school–Olive (age five, Kindergarten) to Liam (age 10, 5th grade). To save money, I have bought several gently used curriculums via homeschool classifieds (craigslist for homeschoolers) and also keep my ears open for local book fairs, especially the ones where parents have tables to see curriculum they are finished using. I also try to keep a mental tab of supplies we need and list them on our chalkboard wall, so when family or friends ask about birthday or Christmas gifts, I can refer to it. These are helpful tips because if you haven’t noticed yet, the tab to homeschool can rise as quickly as baby necessities (which every parent knows you don’t always need anyway).

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With that said, using curriculum offered me a concrete point of reference, a stepping stone into confidence as a home-educator. Over the years, I have learned how to teach complex math and grammar concepts to my children, how to correctly pronounce letters or organize them to spell a word. I have learned about the elements of shape and the parallel histories of different religions and cultures. Although I leaned heavily on teacher guides with my oldest, I do less now for my younger ones, using what I have learned to lead or direct our days. I have a very eclectic approach to education. I began staunchly in the classical camp and have over time borrowed methodologies from Charlotte Mason, Maria Montessori, and even a bit of Waldorf. This is the glory of home-education: it will and can change shape in different seasons of life. We currently rely heavily on what Charlotte Mason referred to as ”living books,” books that teach you through interesting narration, like the Burgess Bird Book or the Story of the World (see more book ideas via Ambleside). Inspired by classical education, I memorize tons of facts, poetry, and Bible scripture alongside my children each year using Classical Conversations curriculum. We use several different types of manipulatives (concrete things that represent abstract concepts) whenever possible as Maria Montessori encouraged. We do limit our technology usage, which is becoming more and more difficult as my kids get older–let’s talk more about this another day–and try to spend as much time as possible outdoors when it’s not August in Texas. (wink.)

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Since I regularly get questions about the curriculums/books we use each year, I thought I mights share a few with you here. I hope you see this list in the context above. Honestly, there are several wonderful choices out there. This is currently where we are:

READING // When my boys were learning to read, I used Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. This reading program was both economical and easy to use without planning. The first 20 lessons or so are quite simple and give the child a sense of progression and accomplishment. Although it does teach phonetics, it’s not in the linear approach most reading lessons use. It trains the child to read with the phonetic symbols, which can sometimes be confusing for parents. It is a great program, and more importantly, it works! With my busy-bee daughters, I switched to All About Reading, which complemented the spelling program we were already using and gave them color sheet or cut-and-paste activities with each lesson. They love it. The program uses a mixture of memorization of phonograms, pre-made activities (your child can cut and paste), and leveled readers. The downside of AAR is it’s a tad expensive, as you have to buy each level as they progress (on average one level per year). Also, for children (or parents) who don’t enjoy pre-made activities, you may find this curriculum cumbersome.

MATH // Saxon (if you’re interested in Saxon curriculum and are new to it, here’s a brief Saxon placement test to know which level to begin with). Right now Saxon is 20%off here. We began with Saxon after it was recommended to us several times in the beginning. We switched to Teaching Textbooks for a year, which was easier for me (and a really fun curriculum), but I realized I didn’t keep as close an eye on where my son was, meaning I didn’t know how to review the concept in the same way TT did. We switched back to Saxon the next year. Other recommendations: MathUSee

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SPELLING // All About Spelling (Blythe). This program is multi-sensory and wonderful for younger spellers, but can become tedious for older children. I’m using Phoentic Zoo this year for both of my boys. It’s an auditory approach to spelling and begins with older elementary age students. They have a placement test also if you’re interested and unsure where to begin.

HISTORY // I have used the Story of the World for years and love it. More importantly, the kids love it. We have learned so much, even though we’ve progressed slowly through the four volumes. I love the curriculum’s flexibility for ages and time. You can easily adapt it to your family’s needs or just listen the audio. You can read more of how our family uses this curriculum over here.

Processed with VSCOcam with t1 presetSCIENCE // We have never used a formal science curriculum. Instead we read tons of library books, create occasional experiments, and take plenty of nature walks, especially in the cooler seasons. Several years ago, my in-laws gave our kids these Character Sketches, read-a-loud nature studies/stories that teach a Biblical principal and where that principal is illustrated in nature. This is fairly conservative curriculum and directs a lot of teacher direction to the father, which would be ideal but doesn’t always work in our family homeschool routine. Just so you know. (Wink.)

HANDWRITING + KEYBOARDING // I’ve used Handwriting Without Tears from the beginning at the advice of a dear friend who is also an Occupational Therapist, and I’m so grateful. I love it for so many reasons and have included it in several of my preschool posts. If you’re interested in HWT and want some ideas of where to begin, I wrote out what you’ll need here. Also, HWT introduced a new keyboarding program this year I plan to try. I’ll let you know how that goes.

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ENGLISH GRAMMAR // In the early elementary years, I have used First Language Lessons and at other time they have simply memorized parts of speech, lists of prepositions and irregular verbs via Classical Conversations’ curriculum. I’ve also led an English grammar and writing class, called Essentials, through a local chapter of Classical Conversations for the last four years. This year our family is taking a break to give some room in our budget and routine. I plan to use the grammar curriculum with both of my boys still this year because I’m so familiar with it. Unfortunately, it’s such an intense and differently structured program, so CC prefers you’re apart of a campus to use it. Alternatively, I recommend First Language Lessons  or Shirley Grammar.

WRITING // In the early elementary years, once they can easily write their letters, my children do tons of copywriting and dictation. Sometimes I have used a formal curriculum like Writing With Ease, but in recent years have leaned more toward pulling sentences out of our current read-a-loud or a recently read poem. The kids often practice dictation with their independent reading (having to summarize what they read in a chapter) or during our history reading. This year, the boys and I will use one of the Institute for Excellence in Writing‘s Theme-based writing, most likely this one.

THE ARTS // I’ve always admired artists and really try to encourage my children’s natural love to doodle and explore color and form. This is perhaps the hardest area to cover on a budget, since most art, music, dance lessons can be expensive. If you have something to barter I recommend trying to do so. If you want to introduce your children to these areas yourself, here are some of my favorite resources: Drawing With Children, The Story of the Orchestra, Can You Hear It? A Child’s Introduction to Ballet, A Child’s Introduction to Poetry, Discovering the Great Artists, and this series of piano books.

Now to go and organize our school area. Here’s a preview just above. More images coming soon. ;)