Thursday, January 31, 2019

Minimalism and the world of Charlotte Mason (last of three)

"Guard the nursery; let nothing in that has not the true literary flavour; let the children grow up on a few books read over and over, and let them have none, the reading of which does not cost an appreciable mental effort." ~~ Charlotte Mason, Formation of Character
These three photographs show almost all the books I currently own. I used to have a lot more, although, to be fair, a large percentage of those were for the children, and we had more than the usual number of those because we homeschooled (Charlotte Mason's cautions notwithstanding). So it's easier to keep fewer books now. But to quite a few minimalists, this would be a ridiculous number of books. To some minimalists, any paper books, especially those you intend on keeping, are too many.
I, obviously, object profoundly to the idea that my reading life would be just as satisfying if I gave away every book when I'd "finished" it, or if I read only e-texts. As to the second, there are plenty of books that have never been digitized, or that just work better on paper. (Large art books, for instance.)

As for the first, Charlotte Mason said herself that the best books are never really finished.
As a thrift-store volunteer, I agree that, in some ways, there are too many books out there, or rather, too many that aren't of much value. As with any too-large pile of objects, the treasures get swamped by the dreck. I don't think everybody needs a personal forever-copy of every classic, any more than every woman needs a pair of black pumps. Good libraries are our friends! But I do think that minds are fed, imaginations are awakened, and rooms are made warmer by a chosen, cherished collection of spark-joy books by favourite authors.
So, yes to minimalism that allows us to major on the majors; but no to bare (or non-existent) bookshelves!

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Minimalism and the world of Charlotte Mason (second of three)

I recently read Lee Simpson's book about her year-without-buying-anything. Unlike some people who interpret that to mean "nothing new but used is fine," this Canadian woman set the bar a little higher: no additions to her closet, period. Not even underwear. An additional wrinkle was the fact that she had cleared out most of her work clothes in anticipation of a jeans-wearing retirement, but was suddenly offered a new job. Getting through a year on those terms required a great deal of creativity along with some humility, and it would have been understandable if she had pleaded exceptional circumstances and broken her self-imposed limits. She carried it through,  however, and on ending her experiment, she had also made herself more aware of (among other things) the huge environmental and human cost of clothing over-production and over-consumption.
Lee Simpson and Charlotte Mason agree on the value of keeping, cherishingappreciating things, and also of supporting craftspeople (such as knitters and weavers). Charlotte Mason is huge on sense of place, local economy, homegrown, artisanal--when it's the real thing, not just for the tourists. 
These aren't clothes, they're mats and tablecloths--but they're mostly handmade.

Simpson, unlike some who have written on fast fashion, does not differentiate between new and used items, reasoning that even something used will quickly be replaced as factories and sweatshops churn out more. This is the point where her beliefs and mine diverge a bit, and I think Charlotte Mason's opinion might fall between the two. I don't think that buying a pre-owned "something" magically creates another of its kind somewhere in Cambodia; and it is a worthwhile goal to give things a longer life and keep them out of the landfill, especially if a purchase supports a ministry such as MCC. The thrift store, for me, offers the creative potential of the overstuffed closet, craft shelf, and bookcases that I don't have, without the problems caused by buying new things. And of course, it stretches our budget. While Charlotte Mason was not a fan of bargain-hunting, she was always against waste, so I do believe she could have been convinced of buying used for justice and environmental reasons. I also think that you can do a decent amount of using the will, even from secondhand sources, by shopping with intention, buying what you need, and choosing the best quality you can.
However, I do see Simpson's basic point: that if we buy like crazy, new or used, we are repeating the values of the system that never allows us to say "enough." To break those patterns, we have to look first at the "maybe I don't need to buy anything at all"  levels of Sarah Lazarovic's Buyerarchy of Needs. (Using what we have, borrowing, swapping.) 
When Lee Simpson cut off shopping, she had to make the most of clothes and shoes that she might have otherwise ignored. That included a pair of red moccasins that suddenly became a "feature item" on her wardrobe menu, and the one good blazer that had escaped her workwear purge; but it also meant stained shirts hidden under other layers, and frayed collars disguised with silk scarves. The clothes were wearable, but under other circumstances they might have been discarded--like Simpson's tubes of cosmetics--before the last bits of usefulness had been squeezed out. Finding beauty and potential in your own closet is meaningful minimalism.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Minimalism and Charlotte Mason (first of three)

Minimalism defined as choice is a very Charlotte Mason concept.

That is, selecting your personal and household possessions not by trend and fad, but by individual choice based on principles of taste and suitability. As one example, Mason wrote that collections of objects are not bad in themselves; but that they should be worthwhile objects, and should be properly arranged and cared for. In her view, spending a great deal of money or travelling miles to add to the hoard may be a meaningless pursuit; on the other hand, a "free" collection of natural objects might be carefully curated and very significant. This is, in its best sense, "sparking joy."
A lesson plan on using flowers to design an embroidered book cover implies that some people, at least, enjoy designing, making, or owning embroidered book covers. It also discourages the use of cookie-cutter patterns. Aren't things more meaningful when they hold a bit of the maker's imagination? 

Charlotte Mason says that it can be fine to choose a standard  item of clothing or furniture, if that's what makes the most sense and if it means you don't have to "dither" over it. She emphasizes priorities, keeping things in proportion, and not being obsessive about perfect shopping choices. Life makes many other demands on us, and we are here to serve others--not to be served. 
But at the same time, serving others includes creating cheerful homes and classrooms, with as much comfort and beauty as we can manage. We do not default to the cheapest, plainest alternative either because we think paying the lowest price is the highest good or because our small-p-puritan ethic demands no frills or colour. In this era of madly cleaning out and embracing plain walls and white sheets (but only the best sheets), we may not realize how much we are, as much as ever, still following fashion and opinion, but missing the heart. To do what everybody's doing is to live in fear of offending, or in the self-centered wish to seem hip. We walk rather in faith, knowing that we have chosen.

Monday, January 21, 2019

The Intentional Thrifter: This, that, and Tom Thomson

(The cover painting's actually by F.H. Varley.)

From the archives: Charlotte Mason's "Illegal Moves"

First posted January 2013; edited slightly 

In one of The Apprentice's last homeschooling years (probably grade eight) she read Algebra Unplugged by Kenn Amdahl and Jim Loats.  (The Barnes & Noble website says 'This is one of only four algebra books recommended by Encyclopedia Britannica Online.")  This book pictures algebra as a  game with a series of moves, like chess.  You have to choose the right moves that will move you towards winning, and avoid illegal moves.  There are certain things you're just not allowed to do in the game, such as dividing by zero. 

In Chapter Five of Philosophy of Education, Charlotte Mason outlines a set of "illegal moves" that are perpetrated against children's minds, that trespass on their rights of personality.  Some of them are effective, but not morally right.  Some of them just waste time.  All of them, like too much junk food in the diet, crowd out the right motivation to learn--which, according to Charlotte, and it's the point of these chapters--is "knowledge for its own sake."

If all action comes out of the ideas we hold--in other words, our worldview, our philosophy, the principles that we say ground our lives and our approach to education--then what ideas do we have about personality, personhood, and the value and abilities of children?  And then how do we respond to those ideas?  As John Holt said, what do we do Monday?


For Charlotte Mason, it all seems to be about relationships.  Everybody has rights; everybody has duties.  Our duty includes submission to those over us, because we do need a certain amount of authority to make things run. 
If we are in a position of authority and expect obedience from those under us, while still recognizing that this position is not ours because of our personal superiority, then we'll treat those under us, even children, especially children, with the respect due to them as persons.  And, though this may be optimistic thinking on Charlotte's part, that understanding solves certain issues of discipline right there.  In general, children or students or employees who are treated with respect, who aren't put into a position where they have to get away with stuff, where it isn't them against the boss, will spend less time misbehaving and more time on task.

What are some of the illegal moves against students?  The "incidental list" includes management by fear or, the opposite, by encouraging parasitic love for the one in charge; using "suggestion," meaning that the child learns to depend on promptings from outside but is eventually unable to stand alone; using "influence," meaning one strong personality who dominates the child's thinking.

"More pervasive" ways take good and natural desires, those we discussed earlier such as the desire to excel, the desire for approval, even the desire of knowledge, and corrupt and pervert them by putting them in top position.  And again, what's wrong with the desire for knowledge--isn't that exactly what we're aiming at?  Here's what Charlotte says: 
"The desire of knowledge is commonly deprived of its proper function in our schools by the predominance of other springs of action, especially of emulation, the desire of place, and avarice, the desire of wealth, tangible profit.  This divine curiosity is recognised in ordinary life chiefly as a desire to know trivial things...incoherent, scrappy information which serves no purpose, assuredly not the purpose of knowledge whose function is to nourish the mind as food nourishes the body."  
So her answer seems to be...knowledge, misused, is junk food.

Do we believe that children really want to know?  Then, says Charlotte, we will teach from and with that conviction, and the rest will fall into place.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

From the archives: Narration and Wide Open Spaces

Excerpted from a March 2014 post

Narration begins with silence. Silence, like blank pages, or a tree to climb, can be disconcerting.

One of my children was once handed a cassette recorder and sent off  to record some examination answers. In an attempt to cover up the fact that she couldn't remember anything about one particular story, she recorded a few words and then gave us several minutes of feigned static, via some noisy crinkling paper. The cassette recorder had inexplicably developed technical trouble.  And I believed it, for about twenty seconds.

But often it's the adults who don't welcome large spaces, white pages, silences.  There is some risk involved with these things.  Multiple-choice questions give you a defined start, a fixed stop, and, if they're to be computer-answered, you had better not colour outside the little circles.

It's a bit like imagining ourselves flying through the air, or sailing over the sea, or galloping across an open field, vs. staying on the footpath.  Yes, there are lots of places where habit and duty and reason make life easier.  Some things just have to be roads, rails, and structure, and that's a good thing too.  But here we're talking about giving our students' minds room to stretch, play, run, and fly.

Mr. Quimby set his cup down. 'I have a great idea! Let's draw the longest picture in the world.' He opened a drawer and pulled out a roll of shelf paper....Together she and her father unrolled the paper across the kitchen and knelt with a box of crayons between them.
'What shall we draw?' she asked.
'How about the state of Oregon?' he suggested. "That's big enough.'
Ramona's imagination was excited. 'I'll begin with the Interstate Bridge,' she said.
'And I'll tackle Mount Hood,' said her father....
Ramona glanced at her father's picture, and sure enough he had drawn Mount Hood peaked with a hump on the south side exactly the way it looked in real life on the days when the clouds lifted." ~~ Beverly Cleary, Ramona and her Father

Friday, January 18, 2019

Gotta thank somebody (KonMari tidying)

I probably don't need to repeat this, but I'm old. I've been around through a lot of decluttering and organizing fads. I always wished for a magic clean-up wand, but I never connected success with seriously purging my belongings (weren't they all important?), or with not buying more yarn on sale. I grew up without much sense of "stop, that's enough stuff." If someone gave you a present, you were supposed to keep it. When the dolls on your dresser outgrew the dresser,  you didn't stop collecting, you built them a shelf. I had no idea that anyone could have too many books.

But I did try. I moved out on my own with books by Don Aslett and Sandra Felton (and stayed just as Messie), I survived house moves with It's Here...Somewhere and Deniece Schofield, and I watched Peter Walsh do the Clean Sweep.  I attempted Sidetracked Home Executives, but somehow escaped the FlyLady. The old advice to Keep What You Need is about as obvious as Don't Spend Money So You Don't Go Into Debt, but we got better at that than we did at keeping a handle on Stuff. We didn't buy a lot of new Stuff, but we did find a lot of used Stuff, and had a lot of free Stuff given to us, to the point that we had trouble sorting out the Keeper Stuff from the rest (or what one person called Keeper, the rest of us called the rest).
Pop psychology time: Mr. Fixit and I are both firstborns, and both of us were close to our grandparents. We felt a lot of expectation that we would be keepers of the family story. You can figure out the rest. 
Fast forward through our full-on decluttering and downsizing, which brought in more library books, Tiny House videos, and Apartment Therapy posts, plus Project 333, but not much awareness of Marie Kondo or KonMari. (I did post something about it once.) When I went to the Tiny Wardrobe Tour lecture the summer before last, I got there early and sat beside a woman who introduced herself as a professional KonMari organizer. She didn't know much about Project 333, and I didn't know much about KonMari, but our attempt to compare notes got cut short by a loud argument over priority seating. I seemed to be sitting in the middle of the war zone, and I think the KonMari lady blamed me somehow, so I did not learn any more about it that night.

Then Tidying fell into my lap while I was sorting books at the thrift store. Our move to a smaller space had sparked a new kind of Tiny-House-ish deliberateness about what we were keeping and where it should go, so the book helped us get over some storage bumps.

Now, suddenly,  Marie Kondo is on the Lifestyle page of our local paper, not to mention all over Youtube and everybody's media. Folding your clothes is suddenly cool. And the Big Thing that I am picking up from this came from a brief review where, I think, they got the reason for her popularity absolutely right. Even if you don't literally hug your sweater to see if it sparks joy (I don't), KonMari appeals to our emotions, because it is about valuing and thanking. If you arrange your shoes on a rack from lightest to heaviest, top to bottom, you're not saying "look at all the shoes I have" but "I am taking the time to appreciate how each pair fits into my life and into my space." If you're a bit animistic, you add "And I want the shoes to know that." If you're a Christian, you use that boring term stewardship, which means, essentially, that you're Jeeves cheerfully polishing Wooster's silverware. Stewardship is just taking care. Guardianship, sort of. You get the privilege of living with and caring for the shoes, but you know Who really owns them. When they're dirty, you clean them. When they wear out, you get them fixed.

And here's the rub: you can't do that with as much stuff as North Americans typically live with. Lots, in this sense, is not better than a few. Or one. We are finite beings, with limited time and attention spans. But, as Charlotte Mason says, we can develop habits of attention. We can invest time into knowing where pieces in our collection came from, hearing their stories. We can value loyalty. We can be thankful. We just can't do it so well with an overload of stuff.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

The Intentional Thrifter: When clouds are green

I like this painting of clouds in Algonquin Park. It was painted by Tom Thomson over a hundred years ago, but it reminds me of the view from our city balcony  (well, not today when it's all foggy and snowing). I guess clouds are clouds!
Thomson used an unusual variety of colours in his clouds and skies, and the land and water below: purples, pinks, even greens. You can see greens as well in this one:
 Northern Lake, Winter 1912–13. Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

I recently found a linen shirtjacket in a dusty sage green that reminds me of Thomson's paintings.
I know you don't wear linen so much in the winter, but I'm thinking spring.

Saturday, January 05, 2019

A year of KonMari tidying here

Marie Kondo seems to be getting more popular than ever--she now has a show on Netflix (which I can't watch because we just unsubscribed). The word most often applied to her personally is "cute," but she also has her firm side. In one You-tube video, the owner of a messy pantry shows her a package of spoon-shaped cookies, drawing appreciative coos from Kondo but followed quickly by a pointing out of their months-old expiry date. Cute cookies aren't worth much if you don't eat them.

In 2017, I read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and described some of my early experiments on the blog. Someone commented (kindly) that it would be interesting to know how long I'd stick with it.

Well, it's been a year-plus since I made my first t-shirt stand up straight, so I guess that's long enough now to call a habit. The food in our storage room has remained organized (and the wrapping paper I used on the bins has held up pretty well). The bathroom has stayed uncluttered. We had already gone through a lot of decluttering, during our downsize to the apartment. I had also done quite a lot of putting things into containers, and containers within containers, before I read Tidying Up. 

What I think KonMari added to our vision for a newer, cleaner space here was a sense of aesthetic pleasure, an extra bit of harmony. One of the odd bits I picked up from Kondo's books was the idea that containers and boxes with clashing labels and random printing may contribute to a sense of info-overload. They can feel like commercials that never get turned off. Solutions to garish containers include peeling off a label, painting or covering the box (as I did with the very miscellaneous pantry bins), or emptying the contents into a jar or something else neutral. If it's a shoebox or something to be repurposed as a drawer organizer, then the outside printing doesn't matter. But if the storage container is going on a shelf, you might want to pretty it up a bit. That doesn't mean crocheted cozies for the toilet paper, but just keeping in mind how what we look at every day can boost moods (or bring them down). If we have to look at words in our homes, let's make them important and beautiful words.

I appreciate Kondo's encouragement to use whatever you have instead of buying new (often plastic) storage goods. One thing she does like are the sets of large plastic drawers for closets, partly because they keep storage behind closed doors. I don't have any, but I've compromised by treating a couple of under-bed baskets as if they were drawers. (We don't get as many dust-bunnies here as we did at our old house, so under-bed storage is workable.)

Another KonMari idea that I found useful was sorting by categories, especially with seemingly miscellaneous stuff. Not that we hadn't already done a lot of that, but I appreciated her emphasis on its usefulness. It helps us know not only where things are in the apartment, but also when we need to re-stock.

Finally, Kondo's knack for turning even an underwear drawer into a sort of Bento box array should lead not to obsession with one's undies, but to appreciation and gratitude for what we have. This is something we can share with and model for children. Look--we have socks! They're nice colours! They're clean! They're (mostly) hole-free! Let's take care of them! Even small things arranged carefully can make our days brighter, and that echoes Edith Schaeffer's thoughts on tabletop flowers, sandwich plates for hobos, and writing little notes to cheer people up.

I still don't talk to my shoes. But I'm glad for the help KonMari has given us.
"Yet it was chiefly her body that was tired now; her mind, which had been so weary and fretted in London, had been wonderfully rested by this house that was now her home....[Nadine] stretched out a hand and laid it upon the paneled wall beside her; it was warm in the sun, as though it were alive....This house was maison-dieu [a house of God], and the stripping away of all that was unworthy and the building up of new beauty was in the nature of a crusade.  And the house had agreed and collaborated."  ~~ Elizabeth Goudge, The Herb of Grace (Pilgrim's Inn)

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Project 333, Winter 2019: A Quieter Space

In a recent article for Simplify Magazine, Myquillyn Smith described a New Year's ritual at her house. She chooses a room to "quieten,"  and removes everything but the basic furniture. (If you've ever read Myquillyn Smith's home books, you know that her decorating style is not bare-minimalist, so this is an undertaking.) For a short period of time, that space is allowed to just "be," giving it a fresh start. Stripped to essentials, does it feel bigger? Lighter? Is it easier to think in a clean space? The accessories and art are re-introduced gradually and carefully, with appreciation but also with deliberateness.

Courtney Carver's Project 333 could be called quieting the wardrobe. When you empty a closet, what goes back in? 
Scarves aren't essential (or quiet), but they're nice!

Do two pairs of pants and one skirt make us feel unburdened, or too limited? How many shirts or sweaters do we need until the next load of laundry? Do some of them suddenly feel like excess? Which things are fine in themselves, but don't work well with others, don't fit our current lifestyle, or (we finally admit) don't look wonderful on us? Pared down to the essentials, what shines through? 

I thought about all of this. I realize I could get along with fewer clothes, but: 

1. It's winter. I need enough clothes to stay warm.
2. I like most of what I'm wearing, and wear most of what I have. 
3. So a good general clean-out seemed like enough this time, rather than trying to pick this over that. I do have a bag of no-that-didn't-work things headed for the thrift store.