I can multi-task with the best of them – talk on the phone while I mix bread dough, watch a movie while I fold laundry, read a book while I ride in the car, etc. It helps pass the time which makes things seem more enjoyable. In the back of my mind, however, I often wonder what I’m missing along the way.
A couple of weeks ago I was thinking about this sort of thing while watching a trailer for “How to Cook Your Life” and remembering a scene in the kitchen where Edward Aspe Brown is talking about mindfulness. He goes on (more or less) to explain what he’s written elsewhere on the same subject. In fact, for the non-video types, there’s a fantastic article over at Shambhala Sun called “Let Your Passion Cook” where he writes:
When I asked Suzuki Roshi for his advice about working in the kitchen, he said, “When you wash the rice, wash the rice. When you cut the carrots, cut the carrots. When you stir the soup, stir the soup.” Though very similar, this is not the same as, “be mindful in the kitchen,” which makes it sound like you have two things to do: washing and being mindful, cutting and being mindful, stirring and being mindful. What would that mindfulness part look like? Probably a bit stiff, as your impulse will be to move slowly and carefully so that only a moderate amount of energy and emotion arises to meet the circumstances. In other words most people hear be mindful as keep yourself in check.
Yet what is magnificent and magical is finding out how to manifest the cutting of carrots with your whole body and mind; how to wash the rice with your eyes and your hands, connecting consciousness with the senses and the world—not just going through the motions.
Of all the things Brown has said (in the movie and the article) this still stands out to me as plain as day (and as bright as newly fallen snow if I may venture into multiple clichés for a moment) so that now I’ve taken to repeating in my mind, “wash the rice,” whenever I catch myself wondering far away from where I stand. It’s not perfect (and I don’t always remember), but like I’ve said before, more often than not change comes in fits and starts and looks a whole lot more like work than miracle.
Here’s to the practice of everyday life!
I’ve spent the last half-hour wasting time as I tried to settle into the practice of writing before looking up at the slip of paper I had tacked up to the right of my computer screen. On it, I’ve written a short list of titles that I want to either check out from the library, read again, or continue reading presently. It’s also, not so coincidentally, a cross-section of what speaks most powerfully to me in this moment. Instead of writing about that, I’m going to instead include a trailer for a documentary that I think is valuable enough to watch or at least as valuable as anything is to watch. Mostly, though, it’s because there are still things percolating inside my head and what would break forth now would be a jumbled, tangled mess.
This is one of those documentaries that’s at times more than a little uncomfortable and I think that’s probably a good thing because the only sorts who insist that personal change comes about quickly or miraculously or due to any outside influence are the sorts who point to a supposed supernatural origin. For the rest of us, change comes in fits and starts and looks a whole lot more like work than miracle. Perhaps not so surprisingly, this is a take home message I can whole-heartedly endorse.
Sometimes I feel like the odd mom out. Homeschooling was often difficult and stressful. I couldn’t quite let go enough to unschool and I had had no interest in trying to make nice with the fundagelicals. These days I find that I don’t care enough about the sorts of things that public school parents are supposed to care about (mainly test scores and a freakish obsession with attendance). I let my kids watch Disney movies, but I don’t have cable television and I limit their opportunities to watch TV. I don’t let my kids have free access to computers and electronic games, but I do allow them to have judicious access to the iPad and am still on the hunt for good educational games and resources.
Lately, I feel this limbo even more keenly as I’m finding some parts of the previous roles I played difficult to give up. I may not be homeschooling my son anymore, but I still think in terms of themes, subjects, units, and other ways to tie the ordinary parts of life into learning. Some habits, as they say, die hard.
Back in 2007, I was the stay-at-home parent to just one child and would look forward to the new issue of Mothering Magazine with the sort of excitement only mothers of small children can understand. In one of the issues that year there was an article by Jean Van’t Hul called “Small Hands, Big Art” that inspired me (link to the author’s website as the magazine article is not online). While my dreams of a toddler art group and then a homeschool art group never materialized (sadly, though not for a lack of effort on my part), I still tried to replicate some of the things that Van’t Hul talked about in her article both when my son was an only child and now when my table is groaning under the collective weight of artwork generated by three enthusiastic (and mildly serious) artists.
People ask me in real life how I come up with the ideas of the things we do together as a family, believing that I am some creative maven, but to be honest, I often feel anything but creative. I, like so many other parents, often shy away from allowing the kids to do art projects because I dread the mess. Dread it. I am still discovering spots of red and blue tempera paint that my now five-year-old daughter sent flying three years ago in my kitchen. And glue? Oh, the glue. Sometimes it feels like more than any reasonable person can handle.
But when it all comes down to it, I believe in my heart that this sort of creative outlet is important in young children. It’s important in school age children. It’s important for homeschoolers. It’s important for the parents of public schooled children. Anyway you slice it, if you have kids, then opportunities for artistic and creative expression at home is as important as any other extracurricular or school related activity. I believe this with every fiber of my being and just as passionately as I do the importance of children playing outside without adult direction or structure (and the adult watching from the sidelines or the kitchen window, of course).
Whatever the sort of parent you think you are, would like to be, or plan on becoming at any point in the future, I still encourage you to take a few deep breaths and dive right in to creating with your children. I would say it borders on a cultural imperative requiring that even grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other adults who care for children take part.
I bet you’re feeling a little overwhelmed at the thought of where to start, right? I have a few “rules” that I think might get you pointed in the right direction.
First, I think it’s important to be well rested. I have a great deal more patience with my children if I’ve had enough sleep the night before. You’re going to need every ounce of emotional and mental energy to make it through this alive. Well, maybe not alive, but at least to prevent meltdowns of the adult kind. This is, of course, the ideal situation. Life, as I’m sure you’re aware, is not ideal which is why this past weekend I found myself the administrator of the little artists’ studio complete with headache and plenty of pauses to count to ten and breathe deeply. Rule number two then would be that sometimes rule number one does not apply. Sometimes it’s worth just diving in anyway.
The remainder of my “rules” relate to materials used. Primarily, buy the best art supplies that you can afford and buy in quantity – both of which should be done with an eye towards free expression. Buy so that you can say “yes” more often than you say “no.” Buy paper in large reams and try to breathe when they go through four sheets in one sitting. Often. And deeply.
Why quality? Because there’s nothing more frustrating to an adult than when the tools you are given to complete your task either don’t work or break. The same is true for children. But again, not so expensive that your eye starts twitching when the kids go through it like water as they are wont to do.
Most importantly, leave the craft projects to someone else. As endearing as the cut on the line, glue the tab here, and otherwise follow directions to make some specific thing may be for busy-work-needers and fillers-of-children’s-time, it’s not the same thing as the freedom to create what you see in your mind or the ability to follow where your inspiration takes you. One is about coloring in the lines and filling up a box. The other is about thinking outside of the box and daring to make a few mistakes along the way that just might turn into the next great masterpiece.
With that goal in mind here are –
Some of my favorite sources:
Nasco (www.enasco.com) – Supplier to schools, day care centers, etc, etc, but most importantly open to the public. They’re local for me which means that I can drive down the highway and shop right in their store, but you can order online. Nasco has been my key to keeping art supplies cheap and plentiful. They sell name brands, but they also have a line of their own that’s wonderful as well.
Dick Blick (www.dickblick.com) – Another fantastic supplier. Sometimes when I’m researching a particular medium or product I find their website answers most of my questions. They also have a line of their own products that’s very good quality.
Painting Boards – I like the birch plywood ones that Nova Natural sells. These are fantastic for protecting your table, but also make moving wet paintings a breeze.
My “must have” list of supplies:
Watercolor paint – I prefer pans because the kids can use them easier and I don’t have little jars of premixed paint sitting in my fridge. I bought cheap and went for 16 pans because my children ask for more colors, not less. I bought mine at Nasco and they must have been their brand because there was no label. For my second grader I went with a 10 pan Yarka.
Brushes – Royal Brush Big Kid’s Choice are my favorite. Plastic handles, comfort grips, and most importantly sturdy brushes that don’t shed bristles. I’ve purchased a number of brushes over the years, but these are my favorite hands down. A set of the Deluxe Shader 6-pack is the perfect place to start.
Paper – 50lb and a bright white. I think the last time I bought paper I went in intending to purchase this one and left with this one. At least I think so. I need to buy some more and I’m kicking myself for not writing down the product number. A 500 sheet ream is a must. Whatever I bought, I love it for all of our drawing and painting needs.
The BARP (aka big-ass-roll-of-paper) – Great for protecting your table from paint, pumpkin guts, clay, glue, etc. Makes for quick and easy clean up. Also perfect for those times when a standard sheet of paper just isn’t big enough. This one from Nasco is beyond cheap for what you get.
Fingerpaint – Crayola, of course.
Tempra Paint – Crayola or Nasco’s.
Acrylic – We used to use Tempra paint almost exclusively, but regardless of what the paint folks say, it always seemed flaky and I wasn’t super thrilled with the end product. We’ve since switched to Solucryl which is a water soluble acrylic paint and reasonably priced to boot.
Paint Markers/Daubers/Bingo Markers – I got a set from Do-a-Dot Art when an educational store in the area was going out of business, but the Nasco brand is nice as well. This is a relatively mess free way for kids to paint so get a set for each kid. There will be fewer arguments and I’ve been known to leave my kids at the table with these while I escaped to the shower in the morning. It makes for the most wonderful peace and quiet.
Oil pastels – I love the Crayola ones because they’re inexpensive, easy for the kids to use, and the shape keeps them from rolling off the table.
Colored pencils (we love the erasable ones too), markers (thin, thick, scented), and crayons (regular, beeswax, sticks, and blocks) – Crayola primarily, but Stockmar and Lyra are heavenly. Stock up on these during the back-to-school sales. If your kids are in school, buy a set for home and a set for school.
Glue (sticks, bottles, craft, white and gel) – Lots, please. You wouldn’t believe how much glue kids can go through. Consider buying it in gallon or quart sizes.
Glue-ables – Pompoms, wiggly eyes, beads, beans, cotton balls, popsicle sticks, glitter, tissue paper, etc.
Scissors – Fiskars or other decent quality scissors appropriately matched to your child’s handedness.
Stickers – As many as possible in as many color, shapes, and sizes. A big bucket of stickers and large sheets of paper is another wonderful way to get a little peace and quiet.
Modeling materials (clay, playdough, Crayola Model Magic, etc) – Some to play with and some to make things with that will last. Add in some rolling pins and other tools for even more fun.
Pipe cleaners – Their bendable-ness never ceases to inspire my children to make wearable art (necklaces, bracelets, headbands, etc). Get as many colors, shapes, and sizes as you can find. This is another great way to keep little people entertained so that you can get dinner made or find where you left your brain.
My favorite places for inspiration and ideas:
All of my best ideas lately have come from Joyce Raimondo. She has a series of books (some out of print, eek!!) that use an artist as inspiration for picture study and then projects inspired by that artist. The series of oil pastel pictures I used in this post were inspired by a Degas painting in “Picture This!: Activities and Adventures in Impressionism.” Lou picked the first project Raimondo listed after the picture study. I’m probably going to kick myself for mentioning this to you, but if you can get them, get them. I had meant to get the full set earlier and didn’t. Now I’m wishing I had.
MaryAnn F. Kohl is another great author. She has books on art of all kinds. Books for art and toddlers, kids, science, storybooks, etc. She even has books about artists with hands-on experiences much like Raimondo’s. Don’t forget to check out her blog or her fantastic Pinterest board!
The Studio Blog from the Eric Carle Museum.
The Crafty Crow (blog)
And last, but certainly not least, I’ve also created a Pinterest board called “Art with Kids” where I’ll be pinning some of my favorites listed here as well as other resources and materials I find along the way.
There are many regrets, dear reader, in my life when it comes to raising my children – doing less art is not one of them. Here’s to making art together!
I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions. To me it seems like a silly exercise in unkept promises, except this time it’s promises made with yourself. This is also why I consider canceling my YMCA membership for the months of January and February. You wouldn’t believe the way the parking lot and elliptical machines fill up for a few weeks at the beginning of the year only to empty out come March.
That isn’t to say that I don’t take advantage of winter’s more introspective nature forced by cold weather and diminished sunlight. For some it’s a recipe for depression. For me it’s a chance to recharge. What better excuse for an introvert to stay home than, the easily at hand winter weather?
Lately I’ve been thinking about food. What we eat. How I make dinner. How I plan our meals. Having long since given up on the folks (from all sides) who think that food is somehow at fault for everything currently wrong with us – a veritable fountain of youth to some and the path of required asceticism for others – I have been trying to reach a far more balanced approach where one eats, not to medicate away the ills of modern life, but because it’s necessary and if it’s necessary, why not do so in a way that brings pleasure to your life? (A foreign concept for our American Puritanical natures to be sure.)
I’m not interested in lists of forbidden foods. I’ve done the low-fat, high-fat, low-carb, high-carb, traditional foods, counters full of fermenting and bubbling kitchen experiments, pre-packaged, Snackwells, sugar-laden, South Beach, thirty minutes a day to a thinner, more beautiful you and I’ve had just about enough. Give me a roast chicken, some roasted root vegetables, and a pile of bacon-y greens to circle my plate and let’s just sit around the table and talk, laugh, love.
And bread. Give me bread in carefully toasted piles with melting salted butter, caramel brown crusts that audibly let you know that you have in fact arrived at meal time, and a slightly resistant chewy crumb that says, “I’m alive and this is bread.” You might think this sounds like a lot to expect of bread, but I can guarantee you that there wasn’t a single person around the birthday feast table on Friday that didn’t remark that the rolls we had were the sort of bread you could live on.
Not a one.
I’ve been reading Tamar Adler’s “An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace” the last few days, gasping over every other paragraph from words placed ever so carefully together by a writer who is as adept at spinning a phrase as she is at bringing together humble ingredients into nourishing meals. The husband thought I was a little crazy as we were following the curves of Highway 14 on our way to Black Earth and I was practically tearing up over what spoke so powerfully to my very core. Adler gets it and provides not a collection of recipes, but a way of cooking that makes sense to me.
In the chapter she calls “How to Paint Without Brushes,” Adler gives the shortest list of kitchen gear you’ll ever read and then instructs the reader:
You can gather all of that, in whatever versions. You can also cook well, not in different pots and pans, but in the ones you have. As long as you taste curiously, and watch and feel and listen, and prick your way toward food you like, you will find that you become someone about whom people will say that cooking seems to come naturally, like walking. They will say it and it will be true.
That is my advice then, on experience and equipment. Consider not minding whether you know the answer, and not filling your kitchen with tools, but becoming, rather, the kind of cook who doesn’t need them.
I’ve long been on the search for the perfect loaf of bread and have turned out my share of wheaten bricks. I had read much and tried lots with marginal results. Those who eat my bread would probably be surprised to learn that up until recently, I considered myself a marginal baker at best and a bumbling fraud at worse, but yesterday there was a moment when I looked into the mixing bowl and knew incontrovertibly that I had arrived. That bread dough right there in the bowl was done – there was no further need for kneading. I could shut the mixer off and know that my bread would turn out. I repeated the process with a second batch (because baking less than two loaves at a time in this house is silly) and arrived at the similar point. I knew it in the way that I know few other things in life.
I had, in fact, arrived.
And it was, dear reader, exactly as I thought it would be. The loaves rose perfectly in their pans and baked equally so with just the right combination of oven spring and browned crust. Arriving, as it were, to some portion of my true self, The Baker, and giving myself permission to cast as wide a net for my creativity as is honest and true to who I am.
Maybe food really is transformative – not in the health seeking, life prolonging, death preventing way, but in a way that allows us to live well, laugh often, and love intensely. Allowing us, maybe for once, to seek fulfillment in the everyday and to tell all the “experts” to kindly mind their own business.