“Life right now, it’s a very small pattern. If you look closely, you can see something. Flowers, plaid, dots. But from a distance it all just sort of… blends.”
I once described being home full time with small children in terms of a textile print.
I suppose I felt then that the tiny design was less than ideal. Perhaps life would be a bit better if it had a bolder print, I thought, if just a few eighteen-inch dahlias or poodles galloped across the cloth, big enough to be seen from space. That, I could define, could explain. Look, I could say—as I used to say—at what I’ve done this year. I’ve taught these kids to write. I’ve read these books. I’ve seen these places. Everyone could see it, not just me, the one standing closest to the fabric.
But one year ago, mired in the small-print mysteries of stay-at-home-mom life, I made a tiny resolution for my little pattern. I wouldn’t be drawing anything big in 2020, I expected. I foresaw no job interviews or graduate school applications in the near future, prayed for no moves or other large transitions for our little family. My first child, Luci, wouldn’t start school until the next year, though preschool might interrupt our rhythm a bit in the fall. I expected we would grow a bit: taller, older, stronger. I thought my youngest might learn to talk, the oldest to ride a bicycle. And so, leaning into the repetition of our life, I decided that every day, sometime between the naps and meals that formed the quick cycle of our lives, we would go outside.
I started the year with rules and equipment. We had to go out intentionally—trips to the car, trudging across a parking lot to a store, or standing around after church didn’t count—and we had to stay out for at least half an hour. I bought yellow waterproof rain suits for my daughters in sizes they’d grow into, and hoped that by the end of the year I’d fit into the rain jacket I got for my twenty-sixth birthday. (Spoiler: I got a new rain jacket for my thirty-sixth birthday. I’m warm and dry and happy, if no thinner than I was a year ago. And let’s be honest, a decade is a worthy shelf life for a jacket, here in the rainiest corner of the country.)
We spent the wettest January in Seattle’s history—27 out of 31 days included rain—bouncing around the yard and various playgrounds, my girls turned to billowy yellow clouds that splashed in puddles and discovered that slides are extra fast when they’re soaking wet. We abandoned the thirty-minute rule pretty quickly, finding that it both limited and annoyed us (read: me). But we still went out intentionally, even if only for ten minutes, nearly every day, missing a few that first month or two due to hospital visits, or flood conditions. We met up with friends at local parks, watched trucks push trash around at the dump, explored the zoo with more friends. It was, as I’d hoped, a motivation to move, to venture, to connect. It became a habit; we would put on our boots and coats and splash out into the world.
What I didn’t expect—what very few of us seemed to see coming—was what 2020 would actually be like. I couldn’t have dreamed that while I was making my peace with the small-pattern life, a great multitude of others would begin living it at the same time. March came, and we stopped seeing friends, venturing out to playgrounds, or going to events or gatherings of any kind. But we kept going outside, as our radius shrank to include precisely one yard and, when the weather was forbidding enough to keep the crowds away, the lake near our house. Winter turned to spring, then summer, then fall. I marked the seasons by the weather, and nothing else, watching the earth orbit the sun with more attention than I’d ever given it before.
Half a lifetime ago, near the beginning of college, a handful of humanities classes introduced me to the conventional forms within various modes of art. A novice poet might compose a pastoral poem—or twenty—as he sought his own unique style. An aspiring painter would practice a familiar form, like a Madonna and Child or a Pietá, dozens of times, learning technical skills and honing individual expression. Classical composers had fugues and etudes. Some iterations of these conventions are famous in their own rite, but many are not; instead they form invaluable cornerstones of creativity, the foundation upon which artists build their body of work.
As a college student I didn’t get it; those paintings, those poems, those songs were dull, I thought. Repetitive. But I understand now. Without plans to make or places to be, in 2020 I zoomed (no pun intended) in on the smallest unit of time: today. And I painted today, again and again. In colors, shoes, hats that changed with the seasons. In flowers that bloomed, were picked, and dried up. In vegetables planted, watered, harvested. In knees skinned and healed. In words learned and strung together. In questions asked, and asked, and asked. In one-second videos of my children playing outside, day after day. Outside time became our ballad, our minuet, our Water Lilies, and we learned it together.
And somewhere along the way, I stopped thinking of this season of life as a textureless solid. Sometimes they were rough and haphazard, and sometimes mellow and lovely, but we grew better at these days. We stayed outside longer and complained less. We slowed down, filling our time no longer with slides and playground equipment, but with visits to particular spiders or collages made of fallen leaves. It was intricate, not repetitive. Each day was different from the last, slightly, in the end forming 340 unique studies on the same landscape, sliding from one season to the next and ending, as we’d begun, on an overcast day in the backyard.
It’s a new January, a new year, but we’re still going outside. I don’t mark it down on a checklist anymore, nor record a daily video on my phone as I did last year. Instead, at breakfast I often ask my girls what we should do today. “Go outside!” my youngest declares, nearly every time. Her sister mostly agrees, especially on days when she doesn’t have to cover her multicolored, pattern-happy fashion with an onerous yellow rain suit.
In my head, I sometimes think, “Well, what else would we do?” But I never say it, because this is the day that they’ve chosen, and it’s a good one. I’ve taught them, somehow, that there’s a life to explore out of doors, even when it’s raining and the branches of winter lace the iron-grey sky. I haven’t taught anyone to write an essay in years, nor analyzed a single poem, but if I’m proud of anything, it’s this. Two little girls, dripping with rain. One holds a worm, the other a magnifying glass, as their rubber-booted feet sink into the mud. Two little girls who live slowly, up-close, and a mother who’s learning, one stormy day at a time, to do the same.