There’s a screech owl living in my back yard. Every evening and every dawn he sits on a branch and sings a soft voiced quavering song that makes him sound far-off and mysterious. This past spring he made camp for a time under our eaves and we’d gather in the bedroom window to watch him sit on his doorstep and blink sleepy eyes at the world. One day, when it was overcast, Mo made a set of paper stars, including a comet, which she hung in the window so that the owl could have stars no matter the weather. Six months later, the stars are still there, although the owl has relocated to a nearby tree.
Watching and listening to the owl has been an recurrent happening this year. We have clustered excitedly on the back porch to watch him take off on perfectly silent wings, taken pictures, made short videos, read about owls, and nudged each other countless times to say “Shhh… there’s our owl,” and then fallen into silence. Mo has drawn owls, made paper and Lego owls, played at being an owl, and made inevitable segues into fascination with bats, the moon and stars, other birds and the magic of flight. It almost seems like a unit-study, put like that, but that hasn’t been what it has felt like. The owl is one of our family touchstones, as it were; life swirls around and it’s there again: “shhh, there’s our owl.”
“Shh” was one of Mo’s first words. It surprised me – I still don’t know where she picked it up, but she delighted in its power as a young child. It was the perfect stop to adult wordiness, a reminder to me to be still, to look and listen instead of nattering on. Even so, as Morgan has grown older I’ve been amazed by her capacity for silence. It’s not that she’s still or quiet by nature – she’s not likely to be described as “mellow” any time soon! Although she’s not as loquacious as some she certainly can chatter about her day: games and shows and projects. But I’ve seen her sit beside a creek and watch the water go by when she could be splashing in it, or spend an afternoon snorkeling, filling her ears with quiet when there were other kids, kids she likes, to play with. I’ve seen her swing for hours, or spend hours flying a kite, or a morning trying to figure out how to meditate. There isn’t anything particularly astonishing about any of those things… except that children aren’t usually described in terms of their capacity for contemplation.
It is ironic that while children are often adjured to sit still and be quiet they aren’t encouraged to spend hours of their “own time” in contemplation. I don’t mean to imply that children should be encouraged to be quiet if they’d rather do other things. Some people are more naturally contemplative than others and so some children have little need to listen to birdsong and watch the slow tracks of stick-insects. Ray needed to be listened to when he was younger, and still does when he’s bursting at the seams with new anecdotes of his projects and adventures although he has grown more contemplative over time. But then, as unschoolers, all of Ray’s and Morgan’s time is thier own. Stillness and quiet aren’t limits in thier world – or beauty and nature for that matter. They are free to play video games or watch television for hours at a time and sometimes do exactly that. They are free to be boisterous much of the time in that we rarely take them places where childish exuberance is disallowed unless they are agreeable to the experience. Given that much freedom, at times they both choose contemplation and silence. Mo simply chooses to enjoy more of it.
Instead of encouraging Mo’s quiet observations, George and I make room for them, as we made room for Ray’s wordiness. It’s easy for me to make room for listening to owls and frogs; less easy when “making room” involves planning extra time into things I’d rather do quickly like shop or read a list or magazine. I don’t necessarily want to sit and examine every advertisement, or turn over ever candle, or look at each and every one of the over five hundred Pokemon… but Morgan does. She’ll examine each picture or object in turn with utmost attention and care and I remind myself that this is a marvel and soak in her mindfulness.
I admit that I find myself resisting all this contemplation at times and wanting progress reports: What do you See? What are you Thinking? I want prosaic statements of interest and intention, reassurances that all this quiet is Good for Something. It’s some of my baggage: schoolish worries about progress and Puritan-work-ethic worries about utility. I keep those thoughts to myself: “shh”. Morgan, following her interests into silence and back out again, doesn’t need any of that.