The Involuntary Vow of Silence

My days are in no way silent. I have never done a silent retreat. When I go on my mama retreats I find myself chattering to myself all weekend, narrating my actions like I do day in and day out when I’m shadowed by a little tribe of children. It’s a habit I can’t shake, and one I think of when I encounter monastic rules of silence occasionally in novels.

So, it was a big change when, recently, I got the first case of full blown laryngitis I can remember, right on the heels of my first bout of mastitis.

I didn’t see it coming, hadn’t realized I’d even caught the kids’ cold until the mastitis misery lifted, and by then, there was no saving my voice.

Homeschooling, as it turns out, is mostly talking, at least the way I do it, but we were already behind from the colds and mastitis so we limped along. It turned out Pip, now in fourth grade, can do almost all his work independently, but that second-grade Scout can do basically none of hers. It turns out lots of Ambleside Online books can be found on LibriVox or Scribd or YouTube, but very few of Mater Amabilis’s books. So John did a bit and the internet did a bit and some of it just got rolled over till later.

The more important lessons of my involuntary silence for me came outside of school hours, though. When I can’t speak, I listen more to my kids. I enjoy their conversation more when I can’t hustle them along or shape the conversation.

I have to go with the flow a lot more. So much of managing and adjusting to life with four kids has been me raising my voice and delegating, coaching and guiding us all through the grocery store aisles, or unloading the groceries. But when my coach voice failed me, mostly the kids rose to the occasion, even without my minute management.

Being rendered voiceless, more than anything, reminded me of those long mornings with just a couple small kids, when in my exhaustion I’d convince the kids to play doctor, so I could lie limp and sneak-sleeping on the floor of their bedroom as they flitted around me with their plastic stethoscopes, their faux-concerned voices. There was nowhere to go; we were just together, passing the time in each other’s company. As one murmured to the other, as the other inspected my wounded knee and dropped it with a professional cluck of disapproval, I’d doze off.

Nearly a decade ago, it was just me in the winter light of our silent New England apartment, staring in to the inscrutable blue eyes of our firstborn. Now, improbably, I am surrounded by a murmuration of starlings, a murmuration of my own making, the happy chatter and endless complaints of these little people God has called into the world. It is overwhelming and it is beautiful, both. It took being silent to remember that.

Incremental

So, what we’ve been doing since radio silence in July:

The answer is the usual thing. I found out I was pregnant and took to my bed like a Victorian lady, as per usual, but with extra trepidation and gratitude after our 2019 loss.

I had just finished my second annual Mama Retreat planning our 2021-22 school year and you know what they say about God and plans. The week we were meant to start (so that we could be done in time to lead study abroad, which we immediately canceled) happened to be Week 6 of pregnancy: When Things Get Real.

Rather than postponing the school year, I faithfully downed a Zofran each morning with breakfast and slogged through our year from my couchside nest, abandoning Spanish and most of music appreciation, neglecting any science that required anything as taxing as standing, vocally resenting the excellent Kate Snow math that required me to (gasp!) use manipulatives and games to make math fun. (But I did do that, at least.)

I got sick, and got sicker, and felt better because that suggested the pregnancy was ok, but also, bleh.

First trimester, homeschooling was all I did. And I mean all. Laundry? Extra credit! Any kind of food prep beyond microwaving a frozen pretzel? Kudos to you, good woman! And it felt like nothing. The best and worst part of my day, maybe two or three hours total for both kids, and the rest of the day just killing time between naps.

But here’s the thing. A trimester of four-mornings-a-week school is actually not nothing, once it accumulates. Ideas were introduced. Facts were learned. I even had fun with some of the readings! They even did fine on their end-of-term exams with J.

It turns out most of the important things are incremental, difficult to measure. I grew eyeballs for this here baby, and I can’t tell you how or when, though I could tell you, less usefully, how often I threw up in the process. Pip learned about the Tudor era and his penmanship gradually became less murderer-y, and, kicking and screaming, he learned how to do double narrations with Scout. Scout built up familiarity with addition facts (just to be betrayed by subtraction) and heard a couple fairy tales she’d somehow missed, and attained the Drinking Game Stage of Literacy.

They also learned important things like what is worth waking Mama from a pregnancy nap, how to make lunch on their own, and gestational development.

I am better now, 20-some-odd weeks in, but not dramatically. I am glad I didn’t wait to feel better but began the difficult slog when we did. It gave structure to our days and distracted me, a bit, from the misery of this process. God willing, this spring our baby boy will join us, with all the associated return to health and energy that usually brings me — not to mention J’s glorious parental leave. Maybe we will do grand projects then, in-depth nature studies where I hobble farther than the backyard park, catch up on those dozen lessons of science and try a bit of family Spanish. Maybe we will just stare at the baby in wonder and get to know him. But incrementally, I trust, we will work our way to where we need to be.

Our school is a combination of Ambleside Online, Mater Amabilis, and my own odd brain.

Low-Bar Homeschooling: Music Study

A music appreciation study by someone who doesn’t understand music for people who also don’t understand music!! What could go wrong?

For the last two years, I’ve been trying to create my own vaguely Charlotte Mason-esque music study units with varying degrees of success. This one, on Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” is the one that has gone best without running out of steam mid-term. I’m a librarian by trade, and librarians are all about saving effort and sharing their projects, so in this spirit, I offer you what I’ve done.

It helps to think of this piece as a guide in the sense of a tour, as described here, like you enter the lobby of a building and are led through it all, ta da, ta da.

  • Vocabulary (For me, the music-naive — I don’t dwell on the terms with the kids, just mention them in passing.) Definitions from this site:
    • Theme: main tune
    • Variation: alterations to the theme or “the tune in different ways— faster, slower, happy, sad, even upside down!”
    • Fugue: a melody with many voices entering at different times, a little like a round.
  • Versions of “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” We Watched
    • Trippy cartoon — I led with this to give them some visuals when listening to this piece, which is longer and less narrative than Peter and the Wolf and The Nutcracker, which we’d studied before.
    • Performance. We usually just watch several performances of our piece, one per week, because it seems to help all of us to have something to look at while we listen. I know some families listen while driving but my kids are usually already looking at books or chattering, so this works better for us.
    • Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra — empowering because kids! Filmed during lockdown, so you really see how the pieces fit together as they were all filmed separately.
    • Royal Philharmonic — also filmed during lockdown.
    • Really lengthy but helpful recording from the New York Philharmonic — lots of good explanations (like using the “Happy Birthday” to explain variations) and some funny parts. There are also interactive features.
    • Truly insane rip-off Muppet tour — ok, so my girls loved this, but I’m pretty sure it would fall under Charlotte Mason definitions of “twaddle.” Still, it taught me that a spit valve just has water from respiration (probably still spitty but STILL), which is a huge relief and something I wish I knew earlier so I wouldn’t have spent so many years haunted by the idea of spit valves.
  • Purcell’s Original
    • Scene from 2005 Pride and Prejudice featuring Purcell’s original rondeau, which Britten wrote his variations around. My early music expert brother-in-law pointed out the instrumentation elsewhere in this movie doesn’t reflect historical reality (I guess they’d still be playing harpischords rather than piano fortes? IDK), but I think it still gives a taste of the stripped-down look at the smaller piece of music that informs Britten’s larger piece. (And I love to show movie clips featuring our music selection because it really emphasizes how music literacy plays into other media and art forms — like the references to Peter and the Wolf in A Christmas Story. You can ask, “What does knowing this music tell you about this scene?”)
    • You can also see Purcell’s original performed as Purcell would have composed it in this clip.

What I don’t do in music study:

  • the aforementioned car listening
  • worksheets of any kind
  • sitting or lying still just listening, because no one is that good at concentrating among my littles and I for one would fall asleep

How has music study looked in your family?

Luxury and Freedom in Travel

We spent a full third of 2019 traveling with our children on trips mundane and ambitious alike, short jaunts and long hauls, with extended family and on our own.

Along the way I learned many things — how to rig an iPad video monitor for hotel naptime; how to hang a rubber laundry line almost anywhere; how to pack incredibly lightly for a family of five (and more importantly, be mostly calm and nice while I do it). But I also learned about myself, and one of the things I learned is that I really don’t much like to be pampered.Read More »

The Best Gift I’ve Given My Kids This Entire Pandemic

I mean, the baby Yoda winter hat was a real winner and I’m pretty unerring with my book picks, but the absolute best thing I’ve gotten my kids during this pandemic, the one thing that has helped to pass time wholesomely and been a bright spot in our lives is —

the dog I adopted in 2009.

It’s a pretty common story: Bonnie was our baby, and then we had a baby, and then she became this thing that lives with us.

Since 2012, my attitude toward Bonnie has fluctuated between apathy and active antipathy, spiking when Scout was a baby and occasionally since we’ve lived in this house, where her border collie wiles periodically liberate her from the fenced backyard and allow her a truly infuriating neighborhood meet-and-greet.

She also, and I cannot overstate this, sheds appallingly.

Pippin, meanwhile, has gradually progressed from a furrowed-brow toddler pronouncing DOG HAIR IN MOUF to exhibiting a growing affection born of too many repetitions of the Henry and Ribsy series on audiobook. But the real turning point was this winter when we made the world-reordering discovery that now, finally, Pip is big enough to just about control her on the leash.

Game changer, friends.

Now the kids are Bonnie’s inseparable and barely tolerated entourage. They stroke her and follow her around the house and lure her upstairs to their bedroom with a purloined bag of treats. They take a very lively interest in her well-being and fight over who feeds her, or lets her out, or, crowning honor above all others, doles out her old-lady joint supplement.

And they want to walk her everyday.

Without the lure of friends to keep the kids playing outside in cold temperatures, it’s been hard this winter to convince the kids to get fresh air and exercise, but they never, ever say no to walking Bonnie, even though she is The Absolute Worst™ on leash, lunging at other dogs and gurgling luridly, then dragging you to an abrupt and poorly placed poop stop. She has pulled out of Pippin’s grasp once so far (bless you, stranger you caught her trailing leash), not counting the other time that he outsmarted her by clipping her to his belt loop, only for Bonnie to then rip the belt loop right off. But she and Pippin dart up and down the hill near our house, the girls trailing behind, and it’s unclear who’s exercising who, but it’s clear who’s saving our afternoon.

I have had this dog for a dozen years, and I have often regretted the expense and responsibility, but during this long, dark winter, I find myself inordinately grateful that she’s still here with us, after all these years and moves and babies. When I spotted her at a Petsmart adoption event, I was 23 and desperate for something small and cute to love me, still scared silly by babies. I couldn’t have imagined the life she and I live now, my three, poor stir-crazy children writing her valentines as we pass another long, pandemic winter day. I count down to vaccines, to warmer temperatures, and I count my lucky stars for this exhausting, enduring stray of ours.

Running: Better than Grass-filled Jellybeans

(If you’re here from my piece on anosmia at Scary Mommy, welcome! I’m glad you’re here.)

A thing you know about me if you know me IRL, but may not if we haven’t met, is that for the past eleven years I’ve owned a dog named Bonnie, who is, according to our best guesses — and the sure-if-that’s-what-you-want people at the pound — a border collie mix.

Bonnie, approximately 77 dog years ago. Leave your breed guesses in the comment box.

Many years and three babies ago, when Bonnie was young, she and I would go running together. (If J and I were dogs, he would be a border collie like Bonnie, and I would be something sedate, like a basset hound.) I do not like running and so for the first three quarters of the run I would plod along while Bonnie dragged desperately, and then she’d lag and meander the last quarter.

When lockdown started, I buckled down with running and got more regular. I found myself with more anxiety to manage, so I was going to need to put in more time in my extra-narrow Brooks Ghosts. Because Bonnie is now approximately 129 in dog years, I ran alone, and these little runs became my lonely communes with the pre-dawn — not exactly fun, but something that made my day better once I was in sipping tea and warming up.

But then deep winter came to our valley, and SOMEONE got restless — no, not Bonnie. I don’t know if it’s a boy/girl thing or a Katherine/J thing, but my girls’ behavior doesn’t nosedive with a decrease in exercise, but my boy’s sure does. In December we’d settled back into pretty complete isolation as local numbers climbed, and so I wasn’t able to kick Pip out with friends anymore and for some unknown reason, he wasn’t keen to go wander our suburban yard by himself in sub-freezing temperatures.

And so he started joining me on runs.

Peregrine in his trail-running Saucony Peregrines

It was so completely and utterly like running with my border collie all those years ago — straining to race ahead at the beginning, with a smattering of good natured trash talk, followed by whining and trailing in the last quarter. (On our first run, he actually claimed that it was possible for your kneecaps to fall off and that he’d seen it happen in a cyclocross race.)

But with important differences: no constant pausing (ok, only for really irresistible ice puddles), no leash aggression, and with a breathless constant stream of mostly one-sided conversation.

Before Pippin started running with me, I would not have claimed I was in need of any more time with my children. It’s the middle of a pandemic and I homeschool, so they have been with me approximately 98% of the last year.

It is a family joke that I hate running and am given to snorting in derision when someone wishes me a good run. But then the other day, Pippin added to the recorded list of interests I keep for his homeschool report “runing with Mama.” And I was so flattered I brought it up, wheezily, on our next run.

“It’s a little bit fun, isn’t it, Mama?” he prodded.

Grudgingly, I admitted that it was better with him, at least.

“Better than lots of things!” he encouraged. “Better than jellybeans. Filled with grass!”

And it is, dear reader. I don’t love running, but I don’t hate it anymore, and it is better with this tiny companion, not so tiny anymore, full of ideas and fun, excited for a frosty sunrise run with his mom, even if she goes entirely too slow.

The most improbable alliance: running buddies

On Educating for a Provisional Future

I’ve been listening through and re-reading Wendell Berry’s fantastic essay “The Work of Local Culture,” which can be read online here or is included in the books The Unsettling of America and The World-Ending Fire (and you can listen to both read aloud by Nick Offerman of Ron Swanson fame—!!). It’s a long and far-reaching essay, not all of which I think I’ve fully unpacked, but today I want to turn an eye to Berry’s thoughts on education.

As he plumbs just how far America has wandered from a respect for local culture, Berry notes, “The schools are no longer oriented to a cultural inheritance which it is their duty to pass on unimpaired, but to the career, which is to the future, of the child.” Because my husband teaches at a nominally liberal arts college that frequently advertises its job preparation chops, because I attended an actual liberal arts (Great Books) program, and because we are leaning toward at least some elements of classical education in our homeschool, this is an idea we discuss often in the Bowers household. What’s more, a respect for cultural inheritance goes hand-in-hand with Catholicism, I think — Chesterton’s “democracy of the dead” and all that. Though our children may find themselves alone temporally in a cohort where no one else adheres to their faith, they can, with a proper education, remember all those who came before them as practitioners in the faith: Charlemagne and Gregor Mendel, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Beethoven. (It is worth noting here that Berry is at least partially — maybe predominantly — referring to passing on a “cultural inheritance” that is inextricably local. And I have no idea how to pass that on, having transplanted myself hundreds of miles from the [suburban] woods I walked as a child.)

Berry points out the value-neutral methods of education currently employed, an atmosphere in which the greatest good is not human flourishing or the care of a place or community, but rather to “earn money in a provisional future that has nothing to do with place or community.” It’s the whole marrying-for-money-and-career-prep argument all over again.

The educational system as it exists now is designed so that parents may

“find themselves immediately separated from their children, and made useless to them, by the intervention of new educational techniques, technologies, methods and languages. School systems innovate as compulsively and eagerly as factories. It is no wonder that, under these circumstances, ‘educators’ tend to look upon the parents as a bad influence, and wish to take the children away from home as early as possible.”

This alienation is often introduced with good intentions — to break the cycle of poverty, to equip a child with better opportunities. But the separation is also an expression of our cultural obsession with what is new and hip, in this case the newest pedagogical tricks or newest technology. Every child a laptop! we decree, as if concrete improvements have been documented. Instead, what is needed is this:

“There must also be love of learning and of the cultural tradition and of excellence. And this love cannot exist, because it makes no sense, apart from the love of a place and community. Without this love, education is only the importation into a local community of centrally prescribed ‘career preparation’ designed to facilitate the export of young careerists.”

Let me offer the disclaimer that these values of course are not unique to homeschool or embodied in every homeschooling family. But the values do require a knowledge of this particular child, of what will be demanded by him by a local community — which often has less to do with skill mastery and more to do with how he understands his place in the world, how she cares for the lives with which she’s entrusted.

The past year should show us what is really important in education and family life. By now we should realize we cannot prepare our children completely for an unpredictable world, because who among us predicted this? What we have learned to value, instead, is the strength of family affections that, depending on their presence or absence, have made the last few months tolerable or miserable. We cannot educate our kids into safety, but we can love them and equip them to love others through the storm.

Hard Work, More Work

Recently, through the slow machinations of delayed dentist appointments and referrals with wait times, I made it into a physical therapist to talk about the migraines I’ve been battling this pandemic. He obligingly sympathized with how tense the right side of my body has gotten (why????) and got a feel for what’s gone wrong with my jaw and started to help me unclench some of my months’ worth of tensing. But then — then he gave me exercises, warned me it would probably get worse before it got better, and sent me back out to the hard work.

The whole thing reminded me very much of the birth of my firstborn, in which, after an unexpectedly miserable pregnancy, I worked calmly and obediently through early labor only to be clobbered with a very hard time pushing. Finally, after four hours of pushing, I got the thing done, basked in the exultation and hormones and warm blanket that immediately follow childbirth and then — well, then the midwife handed me my baby and left me to take care of him after doing something very, very hard.

ok NOW WHAT

Before the actual experience of labor, I had thought this “rooming in” business was a very good idea. Bonding! Breastfeeding on demand! But when it finally happened, after I had done a very hard thing for a very long time and was very tired, I felt alarmed and betrayed to be immediately handed something else hard to do in the form of this new, soupy son I’d never met before.

Both of these experiences strike me as the way things will probably go for us as a culture when the pandemic has mostly died out. There will be no spontaneous bonfires and dancing in the streets, dreams I’d abandoned in late spring, but now I realize there also won’t immediately be an alleviation of all we’ve suffered. All of us will be licking our wounds, so who will there be unscathed to hand out medals for patience endurance and chocolate to keep our spirits up? Even those of us, like me, who have suffered only in the most indirect ways, will not feel a sudden melting away of the tension we’ve built up over these long months.

Instead, it will be the time for all of us to get down to the real work, the hard work, beyond the simple stepping aside that is the best that many of us have had to offer. We’ll be stretching new muscles we haven’t used in awhile, learning new skills and to care in new ways. It’s mostly not going to be fun, but it’s the only way through to the new world, the world after, the world where we’ll be strong enough not hurt in the same ways again — although of course we’ll find new ones.

In the meantime, I’ll be trying to treat my own battered body gently, repairing the damage life and I have wrought on this little, aging body of mine. I’ll be reading the good books and having the great conversations that will equip me. And someday, soon, I hope, I’ll step dazedly out into the new work prepared for me.

Practicing Hospitality in a Corona Summer, Part 2

[Catch up on Part 1 here!]

It occurs to me, too, that as I stress about when and how and if to invite people back into my home, I should be honing my hospitality skills toward the people already shored up here with me: my husband and kids.

LEGOs are giving us life

I don’t think it’s bragging to say I was very good at this quarantine with the kids the first few weeks and months. We had good systems in place already (like quiet time) and had already made choices that lent themselves well to quarantine (like homeschooling). I was (and am) sad not to be pregnant, but because my pregnancies are so….violent, it certainly made the job of caring for the kids without outside reinforcements much easier. We’ve been blessed, and family life when we are each other’s all in all has been much, much easier than I expected.

But fatigue is real, let me tell you. I’ve missed many hours of mother’s helper time, at least a handful of date nights, the several weeks of free co-op childcare I earned by teaching art all fall, and several grandparent visits. It is easy to spend days at a time constantly advocating for why I need a break, why everyone just needs to leave me alone, why I am a victim.

Sal and her socially-distanced berries

But my kids (and maybe yours, too) are really so easy. The things they delight in are usually so small. Going to socially distanced blueberry picking. Trying a new trail. Reading aloud in a quiet spot in the park. Heck, a little TV so I do get that alone time. Here, the only real difficulty is in choosing activities I can be nice about — there’s the rub. It is always better, I’ve learned very painfully and slowly, to be unambitious and kind than bent on enriching at the cost of warmth. Especially in this time of anxiety, if I can’t, say, manage that level of crowd without getting twitchy and short-tempered, it’s probably better that we do something else. In the early days, I kept thinking of that movie Life is Beautiful, in which a loving father serves as a sort of host or guide to his wife and young son, creating a lovelier world for them amongst the horrors of the Holocaust. My task is smaller; surely I can do it, if I keep focus.

All they want is gummy snack picnics tbh

What’s more, if I let it, school can be a time in which I intentionally remind these kids of mine over and over that I love them. I can cuddle Scout for her reading lesson, find fun toy boxes for Roo, stay patient and engaged in Pippin’s narrations. For the most part, the structure of our short school day has been sanity-saving, and so when we finished in early June, we took a week off and started the new year. But if I’m not careful, distractions sneak in. I go to set up Pip’s Duolingo lesson and suddenly I’m swept away on my Instagram feed. Someone’s trying to share something exciting she just learned and I’m thinking about when to fit in the laundry. Our school day is really, on paper, so short — it’s not too much to ask for me to give it my all, just as I require them to do.

When we were getting married, J’s church required us to attend premarital counseling. And one of my takeaways was this advice: At the very least, be as polite to your spouse as you’d be to a stranger.

More sweaty snuggling when I would rather not

Translation: When all else fails, be hospitable. The counselor knew what I, a 21-year-old bride-to-be did not: You will not always feel this radiant, effortless, selfless love toward your husband, and in the moments you don’t, politeness and disciplined kindness will carry you. This applies, of course, to your children, too. While I’m preoccupied with thinking through the justifications of my duty to the world in corona-times, I’ve got someone tugging on my skirt who doesn’t have the luxury of badgering her friend or teacher or neighbor instead, because she’s quarantined, too. And she needs a little kindness extended, too, a moment welcomed into my arms and my mind. She’s already, always, welcome in my heart, but my actions are what will remind her of that, over and over, for as long as this lasts and beyond.

Is Career Prep the New Marrying for Money?

There’s a trend right now in universities to emphasize the career training aspects of even a liberal arts education. The whole thing drives me nuts.

Let’s play a thought experiment, shall we? Here’s a passage from Pride and Prejudice with one alteration:

“A lucrative career had always been her object; it was the only provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want. This preservative she had now obtained; and at the age of twenty-seven, without having ever been handsome, she felt all the good luck of it.”

I’ll say that again: “however uncertain of giving happiness.” We all sympathize with plain, practical Charlotte Lucas. And things turn out ok for her, I guess. She marries a foolish man and she’s set up for life. She carves out her own spaces and routines and resigns herself to the comfort that she’s found her “preservative from want.” But is true happiness likely in her choice? Definitely not.

image
Image via

Compare this focus on financial security to Marmee March’s approach in Little Women, where again, I’ve made a few editing changes:

“My dear girls, I am ambitious for you, but not to have you make a dash in the world, hold down a lucrative job merely because it makes you rich, or have splendid houses, which are not homes because love is wanting. Money is a needful and precious thing, and when well used, a noble thing, but I never want you to think it is the first or only prize to strive for.”

She concludes, “I’d rather see you patching together some gigs, if you were happy, beloved, contented, than queens on thrones, without self-respect and peace.”

Really Seeing Marmee: Oh, How 'Little Women's' Matriarch Has ...
Image via

Do you see what I’m getting at? Just as we naturally root for true love in classic novels and feel at best only exasperated sympathy for characters who cop out and go husband-hunting, so should we feel the same about influences that demand we set the marketability of our (and our children’s) skill sets above all other factors.

Doing the right thing and pursuing virtue in love and career does sometimes financially pay off, of course, as when Amy March lands Laurie, but only after they’ve fallen in love. And more often, we rejoice in characters who abandon their dry, calculating pragmatism in pursuit of true love.

When we first meet Anne Shirley’s future college roommate, Philippa Gordon in Anne of the Island, she declares frankly, “Honey, you couldn’t imagine ME being a poor man’s wife, could you? I can’t do a single useful thing, and I am VERY extravagant. Oh, no, my husband must have heaps of money.” Still, after several years of virtuous living with Anne and their roommates and a thorough education, she eventually engages herself to a homely, poor preacher. Anne teases, “You’ll have to give up a good many things you’ve always had, when you marry Mr. Blake, Phil,” to which Phil retorts simply, “But I’ll have HIM. I won’t miss the other things.”

Her time in the girls’ college cottage, with its domestic pursuits and tight budget, has outfitted her for this new role. She vows, “I shall be poor as gaily as I’ve been rich. You’ll see. I’m going to learn how to cook and make over dresses. I’ve learned how to market since I’ve lived at Patty’s Place; and once I taught a Sunday School class for a whole summer.” Because her time in university involved not just college classes but also the school of love formed by the four girls and Aunt Jamesina, their housemother/chaperone, Phil has been trained to choose the good, rather than simply a “preservative from want.” We cheer for Phil, as “heart-glad” as Anne.

We can prepare our children for the world and for a profession, of course, but time is a limited commodity and it would be wrong to neglect the higher things: a strong moral formation, religious education, a robust relationship with us and each other. As Christie Purifoy says, what you do in your life has so little to do, ultimately, with what you do as paid work. I’ll quote her again because I love it so much:

It is especially strange that we burden children with this question of what they will one day do when so much of our lives is already prescribed. What will my children do? I can already see most of it. They will sleep. They will eat. They will live in relationship with others. They will celebrate special days and live ordinary days that tick with repetitive tasks. The truly important question seems not to be what they will do but how they will do it.”

We would do well to remember this when we’re sifting through a thousand extracurriculars or opting for just a bit more practice on some weak academic subject. When we stay awake worrying about whether our struggling first grader will ever hold a job that can support his family, maybe we should also ask ourselves if the bigger question is if we are preparing him to support his family in other ways: through his ability to form deep relationships, to manage his mental health and find happiness in difficulty, through his admiration for the natural world and the God who made him.

My husband teaches in computer science, which is the new major for parents to shove talented kids as a guarantee of future employability. (When I was a student in auld lang syne, that major was pre-med.) Many of the students don’t have the skills they need for the major, much less the passion to pull them through programming languages and tedious coding.

Maybe there is a place for mercenary marriages in the pursuit of survival — “Miss Lucas, who took the job solely from the pure and disinterested desire of an establishment” (P&P) — because certainly there is a place for abandoning fluffy “do what you live” sentiments and plugging away at the job that will put food on the table for your family. But that place, I think, shouldn’t be the primary focus of an education.

It’s something I’ve been thinking about since before the coronavirus outbreak, but the idea gains new force in our current climate. If you find yourself frantically trying to check boxes and leave no subject uncovered as a temporary homeschooler, terrified your children will be left unprepared for the nebulous “real world” because of this weird, disjointed season, try to cut yourself a little slack. Remember Marmee’s reminder — “Money is a needful and precious thing, and when well used, a noble thing, but I never want you to think it is the first or only prize to strive for.”