before this bubble bursts




Drifting along on this sea of unstructured days, I threw one anchor overboard, requesting that the four kids and I gather every afternoon, Monday through Friday, to do chores. Each weekday, we emerge from our separate corners, our Zooms and our classes, to work together for an hour, while my husband continues running his business upstairs.

Mondays and Fridays are for actual house cleaning, and the days in between are for doing what ever else needs doing around the house and yard. After a string of cold, rainy days, yesterday was finally nice, so we decided to work outside, in the garden. Will screwed together cedar planks to build a raised planter. Ben shoveled topsoil into ceramic pots, and Ivy transplanted peonies in the garden.

Sam tackled the bean problem. In early spring, we planted beans at the base of a conical trellis, but the wind kept blowing the trellis over, and ripping the seedlings out of the soil. Sam, my oldest child, has a philosophy degree, and is a composer, which is to say he is a person who does most of work in his head, and not so much with his hands. But he took a good look at the issue, went to the kitchen for some twine and scissors, and returned. He tied one end of the twine to the trellis, and the other to a stake, which he secured in the ground. He adjusted the location of the stake a few times, then strung the twine, like a guitar string, until it provided just the right amount of tension.

I was nearby, planting snow peas. When he finished, Sam turned to me and said, “Solving small problems with your hands is satisfying. It gives you a dopamine hit that solving bullshit problems in school never did.”


What’s going behind the scenes in my house is a sort of unlearning and relearning, all at once. Somehow, without ever really meaning to, my husband and I seem to have bought into the Grooming Your Children for Success model of child rearing... you know: competitive sports; too many AP’s; SAT tutors; believing that internships of any kind were more important than simple experiences of the rich kind. And even though we were never 100% comfortable with the methods, we were never really brave enough to risk foregoing the outcomes.

In truth, I never made my kids do many chores beyond clearing their own dishes. They were so busy and stressed with their intense achievement schedules, getting up early, school, sports and extracurriculars all day, and studying late in to the night, that it seemed inhuman to ask them to do more. Of course, that put a ridiculous amount of pressure on them to be “great” students, or athletes, or musicians, or whatever it was they were “specializing” in so that colleges would notice them. It’s no wonder they all became anxious. It’s no wonder we forgot how to play. No wonder no one had time for anything as silly as beans. My older kids half joke they are still in recovery from from the toxic pressure of high school. But it’s true that they have only recently begun to read again, for pleasure.

These simple afternoon chores are healing, a sort of re-introduction to the satisfaction of taking care of your own life day-to-day, of living in the present. Shoveling fragrant mulch, tucking a bean tendril into a trellis, washing a window, fixing a screen, these are ways of living, not in service to a future goal, but for now. We are experiencing the deep and simple pleasure of living with your head and your hands in one place, of doing one thing at a time.

Chores are over for today, and now I can hear a couple of the kids playing basketball together in the driveway, another ritual that has emerged as we shelter in place. The boys go out by themselves, too, and shoot and shoot. They are not readying themselves for team tryouts, or hoping for careers in the NBA. They're just playing. Their quiet, focused engagement reminds me of when they were little - when they spent hours at the beach filling buckets with water, and racing back and dumping them into the hole they had dug, over and over again, just for fun.


This simple working and playing is an important kind of remembering, and I want to do as much of it as we can, before this bubble bursts.


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© 2020 Sarah Balsley 

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