Editor’s note: Each Thursday, we feature a throwback piece from Topology’s predecessor, catapult magazine. In this essay from 2011, L. L. Barkat considers writing, schooling, and playing under the stars. The following is an excerpt from Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity & Writing.
I have a clog in my drain. It stops kitchen-life as I know it. But I am so overwhelmed by my current schedule, and Wednesday’s flat tire, and an article due on Friday, that I don’t bother to call the plumber.
My girls peek outside and discover that I’ve set up kitchen-shop by the hose. I am dipping dishes in a silver bowl of water and suds, then rinsing them with a barely-controlled spray that is speckling my glasses and my tan leather sandals.
“Can I do the dishes, Mommy?” asks Sonia. This is an unusual request, coming from my 11-year-old.
“Okay,” I say.
Before I know it, Sonia has been joined by Sara, and they have upgraded the dish-doing station. A red sled serves as a drain-board. One silver bowl is for sudsy water. Another has been added, for rinsing. Somebody starts composing a song about spaghetti.
I have a psychologist friend who has told me that when children start singing, it signals that they’re cognitively engaged, even cognitively growing at that very moment. This thing about singing: it was one of the reasons I first floated the idea of home educating our girls.
I’d already planned to register Sara for kindergarten, but then I visited a couple of classrooms. In one of the rooms, children were quietly sitting on a June day, raising their hands for a teacher to come by and check their letter L’s. Sara had been writing all her letters since she was two years old. I swallowed hard and went to the next classroom. This one looked more hopeful. Children were in small groups, working on a math project. One of the boys started singing softly. “Sammy, this is no time for singing,” said the teacher.
I left those classrooms and changed my mind about sending Sara to school. I talked to my husband, told him how strongly I felt, and we decided to home educate. It went completely against my background as a former public school teacher, and it felt scary but it also felt right, and we were in a position to make such a choice.
People home educate in various ways. I am somewhere to the side of unschooling, which means I use curricula for certain subjects like math and language. But the rest of the time my kids are doing things like washing dishes in a sled, or crashing down the hill on one, trying to miss the house.
It is not unusual for such play to result in a song. Today, in spring, I am treated to a humorous riff on spaghetti. In winter, the girls felt a bit more sentimental, and composed this song, as the sun was going down on their play…
Just Count the Stars
What do you do when the sky is orange
What do you do when it smells like porridge
What do you do when it’s purple as a plum?
Just count the stars, one by one.
What do you do when the trees are pouring
Snow on your head and it’s really quite boring
What do you do when the lamps are lit?
Just count the stars, bit by bit.
What do you do when the snow is falling
What do you do when your home is calling
What do you do when you’ve lost your heart?
Just count the stars, part by part.
When we are engaged in what feels like the serious business of writing, we may be reticent about regularly incorporating play into our writing habits. It might seem too childish, too outside our familiar routines, too unpredictable concerning its potential impact on our writing. Yet I have come to accept the drain-clog episodes as a kind of godsend in my writing life — a signal that I’ve been taking myself too seriously and need to change venues, from the writing counter to the sled.
If we don’t already incorporate play into our writing schedule, we might begin by taking the drain-clog moments (the flat tire, the key that we accidentally locked in the car, the missed airplane) and using them as a chance to pull out the proverbial hose and play.
If we don’t want to wait for a drain clog, we can do other things like occasionally write improv poetry on Twitter (I do this with a group called @tspoetry), or participate in playful writing projects with on- or off-line friends. Or we could juggle dishes in the back yard.
Tonight, my girls finally finish the dishes, but it turns out that the friendly hose has more to offer. Now they are spraying it skyward, dancing, giggling, playing in the falling water. It is the stuff of songs.