Atmosphere of the Home: Organization and Decoration

“The whole atmosphere of the house was so extraordinarily good–nothing ignoble seemed natural within its doors, and moreover the actual surroundings, the books, the pictures (reproductions of old masters) the simple furniture and the wildflowers for decoration everywhere were a revelation in themselves in those days when the world either lived in a crowd of ancestral treasures or in the unutterable hideousness of the Victorian Age when prosperity had to be apparent.” – In Memoriam, p. 74

Whenever I read Charlotte’s work, what stands out to me is the sense of beautiful simplicity.  In the way she can distill educational ideas into a fully formed philosophy and in the way she makes suggestions about things as simple as what the proper clothing for children is (woolens, if you were wondering.  See volume one, p. 36).  When it comes to the decoration of the home, her ideas also convey a beautiful simplicity.  This is where we can take our inspiration.

I’m sure most of you have at least heard of, if not read Marie Kondo’s book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up.  While I have reservations about her rituals of talking to inanimate objects, there is so much good in the book that I can’t help but just overlook the stranger aspects.  The main part that helped me? Don’t attempt to organize clutter. Just don’t do it.  Rather than looking for a system to organize all of your things, it is better to simply assess whether or not those things actually bring you any level of joy in the first place.  Here in lies the core of simplicity.

Let’s consider an example.  The last time I moved, we cleared one room first and packed it up so that all the items and furniture would be near the door in another space.  Cleaning up that room was suddenly very easy.  I checked the walls, dusted the mantle, and vacuumed.  It took all of 3 minutes. It then occurred to me that each item in that room added to my total cleaning time.  For certain items, this seemed like a worthwhile use of time. I want to sit.  I really like sitting. If it takes an extra 2 minutes to dust an armchair or to move it in order to vacuum underneath, that is fine with me.  Even if that is 2 minutes every week for the rest of my life and now I have invested 52 hours of my life over the next thirty years in the maintenance of that armchair, it is worth it in order to be able to comfortably sit.  Now, what are the items that I own that I don’t have strong feelings about?  Am I willing to dedicate the time to maintain that item for its (or my) entire lifetime? How much does it cost in cleaning products or professional maintenance?  How many things are you keeping that take an emotional toll – that you keep out of guilt or some obligation?  Each item you own has a cost far beyond the price you paid at the register.

Home should also represent the atmosphere you want to create – what words do you use when considering the ideal atmosphere? Some ideas I think of for my home would be calm, joyful, faith-filled, warm, orderly, and hospitable.  It took a long while to realize that my home did not match those words.  My home followed trends and was filled with stuff that didn’t carry much meaning at all, but that I really liked when I saw it at the store and bought rather impulsively. When you consider your list of words that describe your ideal home atmosphere, does your home match that description?  If not, start the process of having a home that matches your vision and not the store shelves (and it doesn’t matter if that store is Goodwill or Restoration Hardware).

Lastly, your home should carry your personal touch and reflect your family culture.  In a world where sites like Pinterest or shiny catalogs in the mail try to tell you what your home “should” look like based on the latest trends or a desire to create a sense of status, it is easy to feel like our homes must look a certain way.  Instead, consider who your home serves and how it can serve them best.  Does each person have a place to sit and read or paint or simply think?  Is the kitchen laid out to make cooking efficient and enjoyable, while leaving room for those who need a glass of water and a snack to not have to bump into the cook?  Does every item have a home, making cleaning easy for you or any member of the family? Is your love of camping clear when people walk in the door? Your love of books? Your love of watercolors? Whatever it is, your home shouldn’t look identical to any catalog, it should be where your family feels represented, respected, and loved.

If you have any doubts about whether or not something is worth your time or effort, or if it adds beauty or distracts from it, put it away for a few weeks and see if you miss it.  If not, give it away to a charity or someone who would be blessed by it.  You will enjoy the simplicity and the beauty found within that simplicity.

Simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication. – Leonardo da Vinci

The Atmosphere of our Home: Our Attitudes, Habits, and Tone

“That he should take direction and inspiration from all the casual life about him, should make our poor words and ways the starting-point from which, and in the direction of which, he develops––this is a thought which makes the best of us hold our breath. There is no way of escape for parents; they must needs be as ‘inspirers’ to their children, because about them hangs, as its atmosphere about a planet the thought-environment of the child, from which he derives those enduring ideas which express themselves as a life-long ‘appetency’ towards things sordid or things lovely, things earthly or divine.” -Charlotte Mason, Vol. 2, pg. 37

The above quote, so eloquently written was once summed up for me as, “More is caught than taught.”  Rather pithy, I’d say.  It gives credence to Charlotte’s idea that atmosphere is a full third of education.  How many of us have found ourselves using phrases with our children that we distinctly remember our mothers saying to us?  This may be wonderful, or it may be less than ideal, but either way it shows that to some degree, each of us are indeed a product of the atmosphere we grew up in. How then can we think through the atmosphere we set our children in each day?

First, we need to assess the atmosphere we set in our homes.  While many of us can immediately point out where we struggle, let’s begin instead with what we do well.  Mothers are slow to recognize all the good that we bring to our homes – Often, because the best of what we bring to our homes are small, daily actions that bring a sense of order, direction, kindness, and love to those around us.  The way you put that bandage on a boo boo may be what your child remembers more than anything, because each time you do it with a smile and a kiss.  Or perhaps the voices you do when you read aloud will be what your kids strive to recreate for their own children.  It is time to consider all of the beautiful traditions, actions, or kindnesses that you routinely do and to give yourself a pat on the back for them.  It might even be a good exercise to ask your children about their favorite memory or their favorite tradition – it may bring something to light that you didn’t even realize was important to them.

Once you realize how you are doing so many things right,  pick one thing that you would like to improve on.  We could probably all think of a much longer list, but when working on a new habit it is best to focus on one at a time.  Prioritize what you’d like to see improved most and put a plan into action for only that one thing.  Pray about it, talk to other moms (especially if you see they seem to have a strength where you think you have a weak area – we learn so much from fellow moms!), and come up with a system that works for you and your family.

When you have chosen your one thing, consider the attitude with which you approach that thing.  Will is be one of resignation and duty or an attitude of positivity and hope?  The way we approach a challenge will also be a part of the atmosphere of our homes.  Share the new thing you are working on with your family and allow them to help you and to see you challenged.  Next time you see your child struggle with something difficult, you will have more sympathy for them and they will see you as a compatriot as well as a parent.  Your example in how to improve yourself is likely to be far more important than the actual improvement itself!

“This relation of habit to human life––as the rails on which it runs to a locomotive––is perhaps the most suggestive and helpful to the educator; for just as it is on the whole easier for the locomotive to pursue its way on the rails than to take a disastrous run off them, so it is easier for the child to follow lines of habit carefully laid down than to run off these lines at his peril. It follows that this business of laying down lines towards the unexplored country of the child’s future is a very serious and responsible one for the parent. It rests with him to consider well the tracks over which the child should travel with profit and pleasure; and, along these tracks, to lay down lines so invitingly smooth and easy that the little traveller is going upon them at full speed without stopping to consider whether or no he chooses to go that way.”  – Charlotte Mason, Vol. 1, pg. 109

What to consider when thinking about what improvements we can make in the atmosphere of our home?  A good place to look is the list of habits Charlotte mentions in her books. It is a very long list.  Don’t let that intimidate you.  One at a time is the best pace. Forming these habits in ourselves is the easiest way to form them in our children, or at least set the example by which they can easily grasp the same habit later.  It is far more difficult to get a child trained to put their dirty clothes in a hamper when they see us dropping our own on the floor.  Something like 90% of our lives are habitual, the rest of our actions need decision from our minds.  If you set a habit well in yourself it will set your course for life, just as the rails of a train set its course.  What Charlotte told us years ago, modern books confirm.  This is the best place to start to avoid decision fatigue and unpleasant habits that form due to lack of consideration on our part.

Lastly, consider the tone of your home.  Consider the way that you speak to your children – both the words you use and the volume with which you use them.  We want to be careful as the words we use become part of the inner monologue of the child’s mind, as well as they way they speak to siblings, family members, and friends.  The tone we use is likely the one passed down to us from our own childhood and will likely be seen in the homes of our adult grandchildren.  If you sense that there is some improvement to be done in this area, it may be a good place to start.  Disrespectful language coming from us, the music we listen to, the shows and movies we watch all factor into the education of our children. Yelling, slamming of doors, stomping of feet, and other violations of a peaceful tone can create a restless undercurrent in the home.  Even if it seems a wildly uphill battle, this is a place where creating a new habit in yourself, and perhaps inviting your family to join you in this new endeavor, will improve the communication in your family and make every later improvement a more fruitful one.

 

The Atmosphere of the Home: An Introduction

“Therefore, we are limited to three educational instruments––the atmosphere of environment, the discipline of habit, and the presentation of living ideas.”     Charlotte Mason, Volume 6, pg. xxix

Let’s talk about atmosphere, shall we?  When we are limited to three educational instruments, it seems worth our while to think them through pretty thoroughly.  This topic is of especial interest to me as I am a really visual person.  I love to decorate, to make a house feel like a home, to set a table just so, or to find just the right piece of art for each spot in my home. When I first heard this was a full one-third of the formula for education, I probably thought something along the lines of, “Well, one out of three is a start…”  A deeper study of what Charlotte meant led me to find that what she meant by “atmosphere of environment” is about so much more than what your surroundings look like.  It is about the attitude I bring to our home, the amount of time we spend in nature, the sounds and smells that surround us, and how much I allow my children to spread their wings and do things on their own while giving them a strong sense of place in which to feel rooted.  The topic grew before me and I realized, I wasn’t anywhere near understanding this one-third of the equation!

“The bracing atmosphere of truth and sincerity should be perceived in every School; and here again the common pursuit of knowledge by teacher and class comes to our aid and creates a Current of fresh air perceptible even to the chance visitor, who sees the glow of intellectual life and moral health on the faces of teachers and children alike.”  Charlotte Mason, Volume 6, pg. 97

How much did I long that we should embody this goal set before us!  That even a “chance visitor” would be able to see “the glow of intellectual life and moral health on the faces of teacher and children alike” when they enter my home!  Because what is the good of a home perfectly arranged and full of beautiful things, when it gives the air of a gallery that children cannot touch and do not enjoy?  On the other side of the coin, when the children make the entire house into a play room, respecting no sense of order nor propriety, are we truly helping them to appreciate the true, and good, and beautiful?  Where does this happy balance land for each family in our quest for a glow on the faces of both teacher (mother) and student (child) alike?

“It is there, about the child, his natural element, precisely as the atmosphere of the earth is about us. It is thrown off, as it were, from persons and things, stirred by events, sweetened by love, ventilated, kept in motion, by the regulated action of common sense. We all know the natural conditions under which a child should live; how he shares household ways with his mother, romps with his father, is teased by his brothers and petted by his sisters; is taught by his tumbles; learns self-denial by the baby’s needs, the delightfulness of furniture by playing at battle and siege with sofa and table; learns veneration for the old by the visits of his great-grandmother; how to live with his equals by the chums he gathers round him; learns intimacy with animals from his dog and cat; delight in the fields where the buttercups grow and greater delight in the blackberry hedges.”  Charlotte Mason, Volume 6, pg. 96

To love young and old, be gentle and loving with man and beast, learn from tumbles, give and take a teasing with ease, and to delight in his surroundings.  This is what atmosphere teaches us. This is why we must think through the atmosphere we present through the person we are, the parents we are, the tone we use and allow in our homes, the art and music we enjoy, the places we go, the meals we make… The list goes on and on!

This post is the beginning of a series wherein we will discuss Charlotte’s writings on the topic of Atmosphere.  I look forward to sharing my findings with you and reading your comments and emails.  First we will give some thought to the atmosphere of our attitude, then on to how we keep the inside of our home, ending with our outdoor life.  Links to each post will be below for easy reference.

 

List of posts in this series:

The Atmosphere in our Home: An Introduction (You are here)

The Atmosphere in our Home: Our Attitudes, Habits, and Tone

The Atmosphere in our Home: Decoration and Organization

The Atmosphere in our Home: Sounds, Smells, and Textures

The Atmosphere in our Home: Going Outdoors