Saturday, February 21, 2009

Serenity and Vigilance


I notice that Charlotte Mason mentions several habits that are uniquely the mother's or father's role (she mostly talks about the mother in Home Education, but in other books she discusses the father's role, too).

According to what she says, the mother:

  • Develops the habit of developing habits "one tick at a time" as Charlotte Mason said. Developing the habit of this will make the habit-forming a delight, she assures us.
  • Practices masterly inactivity.... avoid the Martha spirit of bustling about, hovering, or being troubled and anxious. "Our endeavours become fussy and restless. We are too much with our children, 'late and soon.'"
  • Develops a sort of vigilance -- this is a combination of the two, and also incorporates household management, which Aristotle called "oikos" -- our word "economy" derives from it. In CM's day most middle class parents had servants and so part of the household economy was supervising and directing the course of meals, child-care, and housecleaning. Even though a mother wouldn't be scrubbing floors or shining silver herself, she was responsible for these things being done. An ill-regulated household was one where the mother was careless and slipshod.

You notice that these almost seem to contradict each other. Most people I know tend to fall into one camp or the other..... the masterly or the inactive. Either they are very efficient but tend to over-manage, or they are more relaxed but let things slide. Or sometimes we alternate personalities. That's probably what I do, though I definitely fall on the relaxed side of the spectrum in temperament. Flylady talks perceptively about how the person who has been letting things slide starts making changes for the better and suddenly finds herself being horrible to her "babies". Then, if I am any example, she dislikes the harried self she has become and slips back to more pleasant chaos.

Both are manifestations of acedia, by the way. Over-industry and idleness are both traditionally attributed to sloth. I was shocked when I first read that several years ago because when you grow up in America, you tend to think you can never be too productive, too efficient, too active. But misplaced activity, burning the midnight oil at the office while the wife and kids are left to themselves, is just as misguided as slouching on the sofa with the remote control, and they come from exactly the same spiritual problem -- they are the excess and deficit. I can really see that in myself because I am often very industrious and productive -- concerning something that isn't the highest priority at the moment. What CM says of Prospero makes me wince a bit (and I'll work on that during Lent). Or I do the thing that Flylady and CM both warn against -- I start training habits, but I get wrapped up in my battle against the dust bunnies and childish messiness and forgetfulness, and by extension angry at the situation that makes me have to deal with the wretched things.

So what looks like a contradiction in her recommendations is really a description of the golden mean. That is how I think it must be, anyway.

I think the key to the different "habits" she recommends for the mother is the loving vigilance. She mentions that the one common thing all the traditional paintings of the Madonna share is Serenity. So this is the needful thing. Vigilance implies "keeping a vigil" -- observing and pondering, thinking ahead, not rushing around trying to put out figurative fires or curling up worrying all the time until the smoke of burnout curls around your ears. Serenity implies a peaceful though not slack spirit. Can you have both? I think you can, but I think it requires steering between a kind of sluggish or complacence on one hand, and a kind of worry and almost hostility or disappointment on the other hand.

I think I often settle personally for a sort of gentle blend -- a kind of amused, pleased happiness in the gifts my children are to me just as they are, combined with a wistful consciousness that I am not doing all I could or should be doing to make their childhood days all that they could be (and naturally, sometimes a bit of a feeling that I could use an occasional break from their more trying moments!). And sometimes a sort of plaintive "I'll live with your faults if you are willing to live with mine" attitude that could probably use a bit of tuning up to bring it closer to true love. Those are my things to work on.

I think another reason the description of serenity and mother's habits can sound so discouraging is that it sounds like you need to be someone besides yourself to actually succeed. Say I have a strong and lively, or thoughtful and slow, or laughing and playing young child. I DON'T want my child to think that the way to be "good" is to be like, say Elsie Dinsmore or Dora in the "Anne" series of LM Montgomery. An Augustine, an Aquinas, a Francis of Assissi need to become more deeply themselves to be what they were meant to be, not more like some Victorian pattern model of a child like the one in Jane Eyre who, when asked if he would rather have a gingernut or a tract, went for the tract, and thus was given two ginger nuts for his "infant piety". St Francis didn't need to become a methodical scholar; Augustine didn't need to go commune with the birds and wolves. Each had their own way of reflecting the capacities of the human being.

It is the same for mothers. God delights in, and the world needs, a range of mothers, a range of environments in which children are raised. These habits, I believe, are meant to help us to "become what we are".-- not become Pattern Models or dresser's dummies.

So this is another thing I want to keep in mind. Not only where I am in my journey (last post) but WHAT I am -- not an Edwardian lady with a nanny and governess and cook and housemaid, but a mom of seven up in the Range of Light, the Forest of Giants, raising boys and one girl who have grown up walking in light, among giants. My vocation, and each person has their own, unlike anyone else's in the world. So no, I probably don't want to be "habitized" or get my children into that state, but I do want them to attune their choices to the noble things and not the lesser ones. I don't so much care if they grow up to be football coaches or park rangers or computer game designers or monks or writers or physicians, but whatever they do, I want them to breathe the air of magnaminity. This was what Charlotte Mason wanted, too, so, accidents of time and place aside, we have the essentials in common, I think.

2 comments:

Kerry said...

This is the best thing I've read all week - thank you! This is something I've been thinking about a lot and I like how you've pulled it all together.

Poiema said...

This article was the perfect fodder for a thoughtful Sunday afternoon. The phrase "loving vigilance" is one I'm going to turn over in my mind a bit. We're always seeking to find that perfect balance as mothers, aren't we? It's wonderful that we can encourage and enrich one another along the way--thanks for doing that!