Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Well-Fed Mind

The Well-Fed Mind

There is never a time when I appreciate the sun through my windows more than in winter. Special notice is taken of where sunlight enters the house – at what window - at what hour.

Soft morning light enters the picture window over the kitchen sink while I make breakfast. By noon the sun shines directly through the little attic windows of my office/sewing room where I am writing to you now. It filters through the leafless trees and brightens the parlor in late afternoon. As it begins to set lazily, it lends its light to the blown glass at the front door.

Coming down the stairs this light always catches my notice with its strange distorted rays in the front hall. For one fleeting half-hour it illuminates the picture hanging there (which changes at a whim).

This month it is a print by Tasha Tudor. A mother is feeding her children. She wears a smile. We see the quiet joy she has in satisfying the appetites of those she loves. 

In chapter two of her Philosophy of Education Miss Charlotte Mason recognizes that mothers have an understanding of the baby.

“They know that his chief business is to grow and they feed him . . . They give free play to all the wrigglings and stretchings which give power to his feeble muscles. His parents know what he will come to, and feel that here is a new chance for the world. In the meantime, he needs food, sleep and shelter and a great deal of love.” 

Wholesome Nourishment
In her writings Charlotte Mason shows what parents and teachers owe to a child in his later years -  “those years in which he is engaged in self-education, taking his lessons from everything he sees and hears, and strengthening his powers by everything he does.” She repeats herself when she says that, “mind must come into contact with mind through the medium of ideas.”

“Education, like faith, is the evidence of things not seen,” is a curious saying of hers.

Education involves intangibles. Therefore Miss Mason offers an analogy. As the body is meant to grow upon food, which is composed of individual living cells - in like manner the only fit sustenance for the mind is ideas. Like the cells of the body an idea goes through stages of development. We receive an idea with an appetite and some stir of interest. Then, by association, another facet of an idea is added and like my grandson’s snowball, it grows and grows, layer by layer.* The more a child learns the more associations he automatically makes. Teachers who trust in the well-fed mind need not depend on elaborate lesson plans where all subjects are made to correlate in as many ways as possible.   

Mind Set in Motion
Ideas snowball in the mind of a child. They are not stationary, not stagnant. They come to children through various means; through observing nature, appreciating art, and melody; through the rhythmic movement of games, handicrafts, good conversation (not text-messaging), a Sunday sermon, etc. Most importantly they are found in living books. Through books of literary-quality a child gains knowledge mind-to-mind. Miss Mason recommends quality, variety and quantity.

A good remedy for boredom and inattention is a revitalizing presentation of ideas.
Intellectual vitality (something necessary for gaining knowledge “for keeps” – for making knowledge personal) is set in motion when ideas are present.

The Living Book Test
It is safe to say that a living book is authored by someone who takes an enthusiastic interest in his subject. If the book is for children the facts might be related in story form. But they are always clothed in literary language. The test of identifying a living book is like the test of good literature in general. It must be three things. It must bring truth, nobility, and beauty.

It is not dumbed-down but is somewhat intellectual and brings truth.
It is ethical so that we are well-nourished with noble ideas.
It is also artistic and makes its appeal through the emotions.

The Human Touch
Charlotte Mason reminds us that, “children are born persons.” As human beings the style of writing that appeals to them is that which includes the human touch. So we look for books with that touch of originality – books that warm up the imagination. This kind of writing will satisfy a child’s curiosity and foster a love of learning. For all its vivifying features a living book has the right to be called a schoolbook.

Lassie Come Home
One advantage of home teaching (and it is a big advantage) is that the parents are the ones who choose off the world’s menu of ideas. They pick the schoolbooks.            

Eric Knight’s, Lassie Come Home is one example of a book that passes the living book test. If you’d like your child to have an understanding of devotion, courage, hope, brotherly kindness and perseverance this story is a touching example of it. Published in 1940, this is the original story that made Lassie a legend. We made it a read-aloud in our family.

In a certain Yorkshire village there is no finer dog than Lassie. She is a well-trained, well-loved purebred collie – a dog admired by the whole village for her beauty and obedience. When a coalmine closes Joe’s father is out-of-work. Down cast he sells Lassie to put food on the table. Young Joe takes it hard. What makes it harder is that after she is sold to a wealthy duke, Lassie escapes from her kennel three times. Joe and his father must return her.

The duke has Lassie moved to his other estate way up in the north of Scotland so she will never escape again. But Lassie’s instinct is strong – especially her time-sense. It was her habit to meet Joe at exactly four o’clock at the schoolhouse every day. Therefore, near four o’clock when Lassie is restless, she slips through the gate and heads south to Yorkshire - to Joe and his family - with unwavering purpose.

It is a long, long way to Yorkshire. Lassie climbs hills and crosses streams. It is only when she collapses in utter exhaustion and is fed by gentle, caring persons that she stays awhile. With strength regained and a steady determination she sets off again. Parts of the story are somewhat grueling which might make it unsuitable at bedtime for your youngest listeners. It has a happy ending (even if imperfectly so.)

The classic 1943 MGM film starring young Elizabeth Taylor and Roddy McDowell closely follows the book and is the one I recommend. It will introduce you to the characters. This beautiful motion picture is one that brought a tear to my eye.  

*My son-in-law continued to push the snowball until it became enormous - to his son’s amazement. We were standing in the driveway when the clip-clop of a neighbor’s horse and buggy stole our attention. William was mesmerized. I snapped a photograph in the nick of time.

May you leave your visit here today with a little seed of an idea slipped into your pocket.
Karen Andreola  

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Mother Carey's Chickens

Mother Carey’s Chickens
A heart shaped winter bonnet for a toddler rests in Grandma’s Someday Box with a set of mittens and a pink-as-can-be cap with white hearts and a tassel. 

They are Grandma’s knitted tokens of love.

May I share some thoughts with you, too?

Pages That Glow in the Dark
“I like the mother in this story,” a friend wrote inside her gift-card. I unwrapped the parcel and beheld a copy of Mother Carey’s Chickens by Kate Douglas Wiggins. The book cover is as pretty as her card and the gesture of the gift so thoughtful, that I displayed the book in the parlor. When it needed to give place to Christmas greenery it joined the pile of books by my bedside.

The winter months are dark months. Never mind. The pages of this children’s novel glow in the dark. They chase away the winter blues. And yes, my friend is right. I do like the mother. She exemplifies what Mark Twain said about his mother.

"My mother had a slender, small body, but a large heart – a heart so large that everybody’s grief and everybody’s joy found welcome in it, and hospitable accommodation.”

At the end of a day all-a-whirl of activity light reading may be all a mother can digest. On such days a chapter of Mother Carey’s Chickens lends a friendly hand of calm. Fifteen minutes of silent reading bring a chapter to a close. And when the book and eyelids are closed, too, a peaceful repose will follow. This is surely a “feel-good” story. It demonstrates the love within a family circle – love that spills over to a widening circle of friends. The characters “consider one another.” It is something the young ones learn with just a touch of growing pains.  

The story was published in 1911 with a setting that takes place at the turn of 20th century in New England. The Carey family is a happy one although Father Carey is in the navy and must be away much of the time. His salary provides his wife with a chambermaid-nanny and cook. Early in the story Father becomes seriously ill and dies. Mother Carey’s chickens (her children) are thoughtful and obliging most of the time while enduring this trial. The memory of their father along with their affection and esteem for their mother, helps them to be so.

The story really is about the eldest daughter, Nancy who is coming-of-age. While Mother Carey quietly endures deep sorrow Nancy befriends her in practical and lighthearted ways. Reading a bio of author Kate Douglas Wiggins I quickly spotted a parallel of life circumstances in she and her characters.

A Token of Love
In the 19th century it wasn’t unusual to find the phrase “A Token of Love” stitched onto a sampler by girls enrolled in Quaker schools. During my reading I picked up a Quaker style sampler I had left untouched for many months. The perfect symmetry of the mysterious Quaker half-medallion motifs can be tricky. I remember how often I had to backtrack and pick out stitches gone astray. For this reason the sampler was left in a drawer – until I felt fit for it again. According to the chart, the last stitches are in the wreath, however I didn’t stop there. I sought to personalize it. I kept a lookout for some inspiring words. For days and days I waited until something pithy made its appeal.  

Then the following paragraph from chapter five of Mother Carey’s Chickens provided just that. The Careys must get used to the novelty of strict economizing. With their father gone the servants are dismissed. Chores are adopted as a way of life. But they rally. How?

"The only thing to do was to remember father’s pride and justify it, to recall his care for mother and take his place so far as might be; the only thing for all, as the months went on, was to be what mother called the three b’s – brave, bright, and busy."

Could you use a winter motto? The three b’s became a winter motto of mine. I can use the reminder.

One by one the three b's were stitched in cloth.

This Quaker sampler has random splashes of color. I carried the tiniest bit of splashing over to the lettering, too.

The birds in their golden feathers are chickens, of course. I might applique the sampler onto a pajama bag of gold fabric with blue rose buds. 

I’ve been blessed to know women who rally during lean times. Out of love for God and family they are brave, bright, and busy. These women are an encouragement to me.

 “A hero is no braver than any other man, but he is braver for five minutes longer." Ralph Waldo Emerson

Happy Valentine’s Day

Comments are welcome.

Karen Andreola