A young mother came to me for a bit of advice the other day. Without going into any detail, it is enough to say that she was feeling burnt out. This is a common problem for homeschoolers and usually hits hard in late Winter. Fortunately, it is Spring now, and I have a tried and true, surefire cure,* particularly for mothers of younger children:
When my first children were in the younger grades and we still had our row of stair steps (preschooler, toddler and baby), we had a beautiful routine. Every morning, I would throw their books in a bag along with a big volume of poetry, some field guides, and Anna Comstock's Handbook of Nature Study. I would pack some bread and butter and cheese, a handful of grape tomatoes and maybe a few strawberries, and we would be off. (Further advice: Don't forget to bring a knife!)
Most days, we would go to Old Westbury Gardens, a pristine Gold Coast mansion, with enormous grounds that included a pond and lake. We usually began our day at the picnic area with thick slices of bread and a formal lesson or two. Most parks and nature centers are practically empty during the week, so it was a simple thing to supervise the studies of the older children while nursing a baby and keeping an eye on the toddler. The moment math and reading were finished, we would begin our walk. First to the pond to visit our red winged blackbird, then to the lake to find out how the catfish were faring. Soon, we would sit down on a bench to read poetry. "When Daddy Fell into the Pond," "At the Garden Gate," "The Ant Village," "Baby Seed Song"--some poems are best read with clouds overhead and a bird or two chirping at intervals.
In my spare moments, I would read Anna Comstock's Handbook of Nature Study. This is not exactly a read aloud, but more of a preparation for Mother before going out into nature with young ones. Thanks to that simple, well-ordered little book, I learned enough about geese and leaf miners and weeds to astonish anyone under ten years old with my vast store of knowledge. The best teachers may well be the most prominent experts in their field, but do not discount the work of mothers who unite with their little ones in love of a common interest.
Everyone old enough to grip a crayon kept a little nature journal, and they would copy snatches of poems or whole passages in wobbly print. Like Suzuki musicians, children who live with poetry begin to compose it naturally, and many little poems were made up in those days. I am trying to think of one that Theresa wrote at age four, but all I can recall is the final line, "And the cherries fell down upon the dew." Somehow, I still hear it in her dear little voice, just as I will always hear the full text of Madeline and the Bad Hat in Agnes's.
The children worked with watercolors and pencils, labeled sketches, and set down maps. They told me their thoughts and observations, and I worked as a scribe to jot them down. Their journals were part diary, part field guide, part sketch book, part catechism, part collection storage, part history, part poetry book, part scribbles, and all distinctly and entirely representative of each child. We kept those journals for years. We were on our way out the door when 9/11 happened, and instead of piling the four children in the car (with one more on the way) as planned, we stayed close to home waiting for my husband to get out of New York City as our neighbors paced up and down the street on phones. The children watercolored flowers in the backyard, and each one narrated for me their understanding of what was going on that day. It felt important for me as a mother to know what they were thinking and understand how much of the grim news they had absorbed. The habit of nature journaling and narration let me find it out from them in a way they would consider second nature, without scaring them or confirming their anxieties.
As so often happens when a mother sets out to give advice, this post turned into more of a memoir. I look back with such love and fondness to those simple days--the early steps in life's path that may be trodden only once with no chance to turn around. Yet, we can look back and remember. We may use our past to inspire our present. Tradition gives us this--some blessed sameness skimming the crust of a world that is never for one moment truly the same.
We have been having a good time this Spring, heading out to a woody spot near the water for a little walk each morning. It isn't the all day affair of years past, but then again I didn't have students studying Chemistry and advanced maths back then. Still, those long neglected nature journals seem due for a dusting and it's about time I paid Anna Comstock a call.
Thank you, young mother who asked for advice--I needed that.
* Footnote: I lied when I promised the "surefire cure" to burnout. Each mother and family is different, with different needs, different temperaments, different joys, and different sorrows. I promise the only thing I can offer--that is to pray for you as a sister in Christ. Please, in your charity, do the same for me.