I stood at the sink, my hands in hot soapy water while my three-year-old and my husband sat on the couch watching TV. Our daughter wanted something to eat, but didn’t like anything we had in the house. The sound of her whining climbed fingers up my spine. My shoulders moved up towards my ears as I moved around the house collecting dirty bowls, spoons and cups. My three-year-old wasn’t only disappointed that we had no sweets for her to eat, she was angry. She wouldn’t let either of us pick her up to comfort her. I struggled to feel sympathy or compassion while that terrible whining noise continued. I knew she was actually bumping up against the reality that she doesn’t make the decisions, that her life is in our control. She couldn’t choose to climb in the car, drive to the store, and change her options. She was finding her own edges, and processing a world full of limits. I pulled on my boots and grabbed the bowl of food scraps. The cold outside reached beneath my shirt as I walked to the compost box. The frost crackled on the veld grass of our little homestead. At the edge of the fence, our dog waited for tidbits, her scavenging instincts still strong from her days spent roaming wild in the township. I tipped out the bowl, and breathed deep of the winter air. The mountains were crisp below me, with only a light layering of snow. As I crunched back to our one-roomed house, I stopped to look at the icicles covering the edges of the leaves. They clung to the still-green surfaces like rows of tiny perfect diamonds.
Hours later, the house cleaned, our daughter dressed, the car packed for the day’s activities, I walked to the gate over the melting frost. It swung open wildly on its hinges, and at its full capacity, I hung onto its green frame and tipped my head back. My eyes closed, I felt the wind touch my face, move strands of hair across my skin. It was a small thing, it was a gift of joy.
A while ago, I read the transcript of a Q&A podcast hosted by a group of veteran unschooling moms. A listener had written in asking how they had handled the ‘grumpy days’ of mothering, when the demands of young children seem ceaseless. Unschooling is a parenting approach that focuses on unlearning the controls and expectations of society, that brings about daily choices to live according to our own rhythms and heart songs, to find joy and peace. It is a grand and liberating way to live, but parenting, especially in the season of small children, can narrow perspective and place a chokehold on big dreams. How to balance between the big and small, the freedom and the responsibility? On the podcast these three women advised to first change the language, a helpful starting point in most shifts of perspective. They are not ‘grumpy days’ but ‘grumpy moments’. You are not imprisoned by your feelings, or contracted into irritability by the needs of those around you. Standing beside the compost box, I had become conscious of the valley laid out below me in the greys, greens and blues of early morning, wrapped in the softness of lazy mists. I had remembered that I could choose, each moment, who to be and what kind of world to live in. Irritable and tired from parenting, sad from events of the week, confused about the future, it was in my power to choose the next moment.
When it comes to moments, there are always an infinite number of choices. I could have chosen to do a yoga stretch, stay outside, try for a tickle, suggest a game, put on some music, hang my laundry in the sunshine, remember a favorite taste or place, or even just laugh. One of my favorite unschooling writers, Pam Laricchia (the host of the podcast), uses the example of a nappy filled with shit. In the silence of a home occupied by one adult and one tiny child, this kind of task can enlarge to swallow up one’s sense of self, or freedom to choose. Pam lists some of the options that really lie inside that reality, including playing outside with warm water and soapy bubbles, hosing off the nappy into the bushes beneath the streaming sun, changing it on the carpet amidst play, moving to the change table, or even waiting a few moments to breathe, concentrate on the feel of your fingers moving against each other or enjoy a cup of tea. Remembering her choices, her ability to live her own life, helped her move through the settling cloud of self-pity.
On the podcast one of the women described, especially in the baby days, her commitment to see the small things. When anything unusual or beautiful happened, like a bird landing on the windowsill, or her son’s sweet smile as she handed him a cup of chocolate milk, or the light dancing through the autumn leaves, she would send out a message of thanks for that ‘gift from the universe’. She saw those precious pieces as specially crafted for her joy and her moment. The slow days in a small world teem with small things, and this can be our path to honing our awareness of what beauty is, and where it can be found.
I have found that throwing out all expectations of how to work, and when, what kind of house to live in, what kind of car to own, how much stuff one needs, how to parent, when to breastfeed, what to teach, what to wear, what to say, when to sleep, and how to love has brought me closer to who I am. But it requires submersion in a world unknown. Removing all the rules can be just as scary as it is liberating, and it takes dedication to find the joy in this kind of freedom. When I first dipped into unschooling, I waded past the counter-cultural shivers, dragged away the reading-and-maths weed choking up the surface, and felt the rush of cool water. It enveloped me in an embrace that was refreshing, invigorating, even thrilling. But as the weeks and years ticked by, and I became accustomed to the temperature, I started to see the dark shapes swimming beneath me. I learnt that fear is no less present here than it was on land. Unschooling is not the solution. Neither is minimalism, or spirituality, or following your passion, or building your own house on the side of a hill. Because the point isn’t to solve life. The point is to live fully.
This post was sponsored by Colleen of the Midlands House of Healing (084 603 0604). She dances to her own heart song and invites others to do the same. Her life is both expansive and tiny, because she digs deep for her beliefs, and lives them out in the small moments of every day. Her massages and energy treatments are exquisite present moments that span out over the lives of her clients to bring about change. As part of my commitment to my own small life, I start today a 30-day Instagram challenge to post one month of #smallthings that are gifted to me by the universe, that bring joy to my days, and that bring me into my own life. I invite her and you, dear reader, to join me. Let’s celebrate small.
Hello and welcome:) I am a South African mama who believes in unschooling, mindfulness. and living on purpose. I love traveling, reading, yoga, leading our family business, and eating delicious food in beautiful places. And tea. I love tea. Pour yourself a cup and settle in for a read.