Monday, December 16, 2013

Traditions Take Time

Traditions Take Time

Taking Time to Create
     Gingerbread-brown is her new name for it – the color of the pullover. Even after spraying it with water and laying it flat the cables are still springy. The Lady-of-House made the neck roomy.

     Little children have large heads and some don’t like to be stuck in the dark, inside a tight pullover, even for a moment. “Help,” she could hear her two-year-old grandson whimper while trying to dress himself. He can be screech-volume-loud when kicking a ball around, or when his brother accidentally knocks his blocks over, but in asking for help he manages to lower his voice to a piteous, impish plea. It works like a charm when there are females present. Is he conscious of the power of his cuteness?

sweater, n. :  garment worn by child when its mother is feeling chilly.            Ambrose Bierce

knitted cable pullover

     Years back, at the culmination of a complicated Christmas, the Lady-of-the-House slouched on the sofa with a long sigh. Gifts were unwrapped that morning, stomachs were full with Christmas dinner, dishes were washed . . . and she was relaxing. It was a gray, foggy afternoon. Heavy raindrops had washed away all the pretty white snow. The woodstove heated the room to a drowsy-comfort.  “Now I can hook my sheep,” the Lady-of-the-House said. She opened the Harrisville kit, nestled the round-edged hook in the palm of her hand, and pulled her first piece of wool into a little loop. “I think I’m going to like this craft,” she prophesized.

rug hooked pillow

     It had been the busiest and most exuberant Christmas season ever. Children’s music rehearsals and recitals, church ministry, parties, shopping, caroling, cookie baking, hospitality, filled the schedule to the brim. Now a lull was welcome. She pulled loops all that week, adding extra yarn to the border of the design, hooking round and round as the canvas would allow.


     That tiny rug rested, here and there in closets - for an embarrassing amount of years. Only recently had it occurred to the Lady-of-the-House what to do with it. The notion entered her mind after inspecting her woven-in-American tablecloth which had covered many a holiday dinner table - and dinners in between. “This has seen better days. It’s in a permanent state of stains,” she pronounced. “I can’t give it away. But I can’t throw it away, either. Hmm, I’ll cut away its stain-free borders for fabric and make a pillow with my little sheep in the middle of it,” she recovered brightly. And so she did, this season.

tin chandelier

Taking Time to Wander
     This year Christmas is uncomplicated. The Lady-of-the-House chose to forego a tall tree. What a quiet joy to see so many of the family ornaments now decorating her married daughters’ homes. She also passed along a stack of Christmas books, saving a portion of for her own basket. She’s been told that similar reading-baskets bedeck the homes of other self-taught people. This tradition of enrichment places cheer, interest, and inspiration in easy reach.    

     “I remember this,” she exclaimed to her then already teenage children while sorting through dusty boxes in a ramshackle used-book-shop in Owl’s Head, Maine, some years back. Thus, Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree by Robert Barry published in 1963, was purchased for old-times-sake. It is a 5-minute story with black and white pen-drawings shaded only in green. This cheery fairytale has a Goldilocks-and-the-Three-Bears-feel-to-it in its theme of size and reads in rhyme like the poem, The Night Before Christmas.  

     Mr. Willowby is well-to-do as evidenced by his house fronted with stately columns. His ceilings are lofty but not quite high enough to fit the over-sized Christmas tree. Baxter, the butler, climbs up a ladder and chops off the top. He presents the piece to the upstairs maid. She sets it on a table in her attic room but to make it fit she snips off the top and throws it out. The story reduces down in scale to the size and circumstances of each owner as families of people and woodland creatures find one piece of Mr. Willowby’s tree smaller than the next and make it part of their Christmas festivities. The last page is the cutest.  

     In the Maine-days, her sister mailed the Lady-of-the-House this stylized St. Nicholas, obviously sympathizing with life in the back woods. His cross-country ski poles are tipped with a touch of glitter. The basket on his back is filled with fruit and gift boxes. Where had the Lady-of-the-House seen a similar St. Nicholas? “Ah, that’s right,” she thought, “in Efner Tudor Home’s The Christmas Cat, illustrated by Tasha Tudor.” 

a backwoodsman Santa

     In the story a tall man with a brown beard, dressed like a lumberjack, is cruising through the snow into a clearing in the woods, balancing on a large bobsled that is pulled by two heavy draft horses. The man has an owl on his shoulder. He is a friend to the forest creatures and stops to feed those that have followed the sound of the horses’ bells. Among them is a gray cat shivering in the cold. On Christmas morning the cat appears in the house of two little boys where it curls up on a pillow by the fireside. But who is the generous man? Shh, don’t tell anyone, but he looks a little like another bearded fellow in the story.
     Tasha Tudor’s watercolor scenes inside and outside the house, transport the nostalgic-prone to simpler times.

Taking Time to Wonder
     With the woods bare and white, a few brave Pennsylvania birds can be spotted now and again by those who are accustomed to peering out of windows at different times of the day. The Man-of-the-House and his Lady abruptly stopped their lunch preparations. They were startled by a bird’s song. It sounded so loud and clear that they momentarily wondered if the bird were inside the house. His Lady traced the source to the fireplace. “It must be perched on the chimney,” she said. Two verses were shouted from the housetop. That was all. But they were beautiful, sweet verses.

bird watching from the parlor

Taking Time to Worship
     The chimney-top bird affirmed their efforts toward hospitality and “friendship evangelism” this season, bringing the chorus of a Christmas song to mind.

Go tell it on the mountain
Over the hills and everywhere
Go tell it on the mountain
That Jesus Christ is born

     Wishing you traditions of enrichment,
Karen Andreola

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Learning by Heart

Learning by Heart

     Some of you know that I’ve been escaping into the Cotswold village of Fairacre periodically for nearly twenty years. I like reading about the British-schoolmistress-days of Miss Read during the 1950s. Ambling along a page in Changes in Fairacre I took note of her opinion and smiled.

throwing snowballs

     “After a short session of modeling [in clay] I embarked on two short poems by Robert Louis Stevenson. I am a great believer in stuffing young children’s heads with worthwhile verse which they will have safely stored away for the rest of their lives.”

vintage Christmas bulbs

     One of the lovely things about home education is the picking up of interesting ideas, beautiful thoughts, and sentiments that a teacher commits to memory while she is leading her children to do so. I followed Miss Charlotte Mason’s advice in Home Education in 1989 and chose some verses for memory work. Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses appealed to me and I thought they would appeal to my little girls, too. But it wasn’t work, really. I read a poem aloud one morning. Later, while I was preparing supper I read it again. And again when the baby was in his crib for the night and my little girls were in the bath. It only took a couple of minutes. It met their ears like a commercial jingle on the radio might, mingling into the atmosphere of the house.

     The next morning, between penmanship and arithmetic, I spoke the first four lines of the poem. I didn’t need to read it. Apparently, I had learned it by heart myself – effortlessly. I repeated it again at supper and again at bedtime. On the third day I recited it, then asked my girls to take turns reciting it. This they did with no trouble.

“Half a dozen repetitions should give children possession. . .” C.M.

     "It is possible that the disengaged mind of the child is free to take [in] . . . beautiful images clothed in beautiful words. . . . Let the child lie fallow till he is six, and then, in this matter of memorizing . . . attempt only a little, and let the poems the child learns be simple and within the range of his own thought and imagination. At the same time, when there is so much noble poetry within a child’s compass, [it is] a pity that she should be allowed to learn twaddle.” C.M.

     Following this plan we learned the twelve lines of the poem, “The Swing” by heart.

     Years later when I was sitting together with my son on the sofa (the baby reached age 6) reading “The Swing” out of our picture book, it dawned on me that the lines could have been written as if following the path of a long rope swing - one line of the poem swinging forward – the next line swinging backward, in rhythmic pendulum fashion. We were renting a house in Oregon that had a tall sturdy oak tree at the edge of the lawn. A rope swing was attached to a branch that was high off the ground. I don’t know how the previous residents (a retired couple) managed to attach the rope to such a high branch. It made a wonderfully long ride. The rider thrillingly soured through the air (almost dangerously so) with the breeze in her hair, once she “got into the swing of it.”  

     I’ll probably always be fond of the poems by Robert Louis Stevenson. More than twenty years later, with only a little prodding, I can still recall most of the verses we learned by heart. I savor their simple expression of joy – and made them a part of my Mother Culture. If it were not for home education I wonder if I would ever have had such a “child’s garden of verses” in my soul – if I hadn’t embarked upon “stuffing the heads” of my young children with “worthwhile verse,” as Miss Read puts it. 

     “It is a delightful thing to have the memory stored with beautiful, comforting, and inspiring passages,” says Charlotte Mason. Of the Bible we read that in place of the “memory verse” we are advised to learn a longer piece to absorb the surrounding context.

     If anyone asks, “What shall I learn?" the answer is, “Begin with what you sincerely like best, what you would most wish to remember." This time of year it could be the Christmas story in Scripture written by the apostle, physician and historian, St Luke – so treasured by many and most familiar to us in the King James - as spoken impromptu by Linus in the old TV special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” (Luke 2:8-14)

     In summer I took a series of breakfast times to refresh my memory and secure the Twenty-Third Psalm word-perfect before my scheduled lumbar puncture that the patient is wide-awake for. I anticipated the need for its security. When the day and hour arrived I clung to each line of precious truth like a toddler does a blanket, I can assure you.  
     On a more serious vein, men have taken verses and literary passages committed to memory with them onto the battlefields of the world wars to recall them while they wait in the muddy trenches. 

     In the 19th century, Vernon Lushington, stirs his fellow adults onto a plan of self-education. 

     “Till he has fairy tried it, I suspect the reader does not know how much he would gain from committing to memory passages of real excellence; precisely because he does not know how much he overlooks in merely reading. Learn one true poem by heart, and see if you do not find it so. Beauty after beauty will reveal itself, in chosen phrase, or happy music, or noble suggestion otherwise undreamed of. It is like looking at one of nature’s wonders through a microscope.
     Again, how much in such a poem that you really did feel admirable and lovely on a first reading, passes away if you do not give it a further and much better reading. It passes away utterly, like a sweet sound, or an image on the lake, which the first breath of wind dispels. If you could only fix that image, as the photographers do theirs, so beautifully, so perfectly! You can. . . Learn it by heart, and it is yours forever!”

Sharing thoughts across the years and across the miles with you, 
toward the "Gentle Art of Learning."
Karen Andreola

To hear Linus' impromptu recitation click play button.