The approach of a new school year often brings on an existential crisis for me. You know the one that goes: Am I doing enough for my kids? Will their chances of getting into a good college be ruined because we can't find a spelling curriculum that works? Will my child never find her genius if we don't take piano lessons in third grade? Should I have my child in gymnastics/ choir/ soccer/ archery/ piano/ that cool survival skills class?
Last year all these questions were hitting me pretty hard. We have always prioritized unstructured play and a slower-paced sort of life, but as our kids got older, there was more pressure to "enrich" their lives through extracurricular activities. We were also at the beginning of embracing an ultra-frugal season of our life so we could save money for some needed house repairs and get our financial life under control. All of these enrichment activities had a pretty high price-tag involved. Yes, the fees may not seem that high per child, but multiply that by four, it can add up. The other more hidden cost was that doing an activity for one child often meant that the rest of the family would have to wait in the car or find someway to occupy ourselves during practices.
As I worried over all of this, I felt like God whispered in my ear. "You are not in a rush."
What was I rushing towards, after all? Was I rushing through the years of picture books so we could get to chapter books? Was I rushing through my children's childhood so I could get to the next thing? So they could go to college? So I could have an empty nest? So that I could someday die?
In her poem, The Summer Day, Mary Oliver captured what I really wanted from my life:
The Summer Day
Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean- the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down- who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don't know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?—Mary Oliver
I thought about my grandmother's generation and how they raised large families in rural Appalachia during the depression. They had many worries I'm sure, but I think it's safe to say that they never stayed up at night worrying if they should sign up their kindergartener for tumbling class. I have talked to my aunts and uncles and cousins and what they remember from their hard-scrabble, hard-working, "unenriched" childhoods is joy. My mother made dolls out of overgrown cucumbers in the garden. They played games together and sat on the porch and snapped beans. My cousin said that when they got bored or depressed in winter as kids, their mom would open a jar of blackberries they had picked and canned the summer before and make cobbler. They lived in a place of natural beauty. They had no technology, and so they made up their own fun. They grew foods, preserved them, and made them into pies.
In Susan Schaeffer Macaulay's book For the Children's Sake, she wrote, ""Six-year-old children are as pressurized as executives. Children are being "fitted into" a streamlined schedule designed for parents so they can cope with their pressures. ...and so overentertained, pushed, pulled, and tidied up, often the child of today has the rich creative play response crushed out. Sometimes the only thing his dulled eyes focus on is a premature adolescence which will release him from childhood....Grown-ups need time if their life is to support this kind of play. ... This means saying no to too many time-consuming activities for both adults and children."
So we made the what-feels-like very counter-cultural choice to not sign up for any paid extracurricular classes, lessons, or sports last year. Instead I thought about what our kids really needed from time out of the house. It wasn't to learn a new skill or play on a team. We just needed time to play with friends.
So with our schedule opened up, I vowed to prioritize time with friends. I invited friends to meet up with us at the park. In turn, they invited us on adventures. We waded in creeks, swung on vines, went sledding. We carved pumpkins, decorated cookies, exchanged valentines, and celebrated advent and lent with other families. We had dinner weekly with friends from church and talked about our lives and faith. I spent very little money on extracurricular activities, and yet, we got to see live owls and dissect owl pellets, and go on field trips to a planetarium, a fire station, and the fish ladders. We dressed up and had an Anne of Green Gables tea party. We dipped beeswax candles and made homemade pretzels with friends. My daughter didn't get to participate in choir, but we taught our kids and their friends all of our favorite old hymns and carols and they sang them at the top of their lungs.We all made dear, dear friends that we love to spend time with.
This year has taught me how to let go of busy and the fear of missing out. Instead we have learned to be "idle and blessed." Not over-scheduling our days gave us the freedom to say yes to unexpected invitations. Not rushing to the next activity or event gave us time to stay a little longer at the park, to pick apples and make applesauce from scratch, to savor each moment of this "one wild and precious life."