Traveling the long stretches of highway from Nashville to North Carolina, on our family road trip this January, gave me much time for contemplation. The view of woods on either side of the road remained the same for several hours. These woods were stripped bare of its finery, set in the rest of winter. For some stretches, snow blanketed the earth beneath the trees. In others, the snow had already melted revealing fallen leaves, twigs, stones, and rocks along the ground. I had just read the third chapter of Wind in the Willows to my daughter and the description of Mole wondering around the woods in winter was still fresh in my mind.
“The country lay bare and entirely leafless around him, and he thought that he had never seen so far and so intimately into the insides of things as on that winter day when Nature was deep in her annual slumber and seemed to have kicked the clothes off …
He was glad that he liked the country undecorated, hard, and stripped of its finery. He had got to the bare bones of it, and they were fine and strong and simple.”
As I looked out my window I was struck by that line, “He had got to the bare bones of it.”
This wood, with its bare trees, hadn’t lost its beauty. Yes, it was subdued and scaled back, yet still beautiful. It was strong. The trees stripped back of all their frills revealed their true self—their bones, so to speak. What became interesting to me was that when the woods were stripped to its bare bones, more of itself was revealed. You could see the landscape that the trees were a part of more clearly than when the trees were in full bloom. Every curve in the ground, hill, exposed root, the variety of color in the fallen leaves covering the ground were its own kind of beauty.
As I contemplated this ‘bare bones’ wood, I considered that for the tree to remain healthy and survive winter, it needed to lose its leaves so that it might conserve its energy and be able to grow in the spring with renewed vigor. It needed to rest.
Marveling at the amazing handiwork of God in building this rhythm of rest in nature, a connection was slowly dawning on me. An analogy between this natural time of resting and shedding of leaves to the bare bones, and my homeschool.
I had been feeling overwhelmed in my homeschool. Trying to adequately meet the needs of three students across multiple disciplines while caring for a toddler can send you loopy.
I needed to rest. I was beginning to burn out.
I then read Christy quote Nancy Kelly, “Keep cutting back until there is peace in your home.”
There it was. A shedding. A cutting back to the barebones. Not in the sense of ceasing from work, but cutting back the excess in order to have peace and rest in the work I was doing. The bare trees were still living, the woods still thriving, but they were not expelling the energy that was needed to maintain their health during the winter season. We can’t always see the ground beneath when our days are full of foliage. And this foliage can beautiful: music lessons, artist study, clubs, co-ops, sports activities, craft projects, play dates, camps, art lessons, extra math tutoring, composer study, foreign languages, the list can go on. All of these things are good, true, and beautiful, and are worthy of our time. But if the pursuit of these studies results in a crowded life with no room to see forward, perhaps a cutting back to bare bones is needed. As I contemplated this further I realized that it’s not simply a cutting back of activities, but a reordering of priorities. It’s getting back to the heart of what education is and answering the fundamental question, “Why am I doing this?” Perhaps it’s my mind that needed to shed its foliage so that I could re-energize and see more “intimately into the insides of things.” To see clearly where we were headed and the ground we were treading.
By answering “Why?” I could more easily identify those aspects of our current homeschool life that did not meet that purpose. I would have a point with which to measure all curriculums, activities, and studies against. I could then immediately identify and clear out any that did not meet our “Why?” I would find the bare bones of it, and it would “be fine and strong and simple.”
But what of the things that do answer the “Why?” and yet still seem too much? Charlotte Mason says that “Education is a life.” Christy takes this to heart and answers, “When everything was done in its own time and we allowed our learning to spill over into our ‘life,’ there really was time for everything without rushing.” To understand this is to realize that learning isn’t something that must be done between certain hours but is lived out through all moments of our day. I needed to redeem those moments. We could sing songs in our foreign language while we drive in the car. Discuss a book we’ve been reading while we take a nature walk or cook dinner, and even play classical music while we have breakfast.
Considering this further, I also saw a link between cutting back to bare bones and the space that is created because of it. The woods, stripped of its finery, created space. It was as though the woods were breathing. Each tree was individual, not blending or competing with the tree beside it. There was space to see. Space to breathe.
Stripping back to the bare bones creates space. It creates the atmosphere in which the education that I provide can thrive. There is space for my children to process new learning in order to see “so far and so intimately into the insides of things.”
“After learning something new children need a Sabbath, a time to process, internalize, to find pleasure in the new learning, and to make connections to previous learning.” – Carroll Smith
My children needed the space, the time, to process and internalize. Diligence in homeschooling doesn’t mean filling in all the space with long seemingly endless lessons, or too many extra-curricular activities and classes. By shedding the foliage in my homeschool I get back to the bare bones of education and create the space for that learning to take root in the souls of my children, shaping them and molding them as persons made in the image of God.
“For all our lives, we are human beings, in an active state of learning, responding, understanding. Education extends to all of life.” —Susan Schaeffer Macaulay
May I remember this next fall, as I prepare for the inevitable winter.
A book I found helpful in answering the “Why?” question was For The Children’s Sake: Foundations of Education for Home and School by Susan Schaeffer Macaulay. I highly recommend it.