Basing My Life On Scenes From Children's Books

From the Brambly Hedge books by Jill Barklem

I have thought long and deep about my last post, and the wonderful, thought-provoking and honest comments that followed it. I love, love, love you community of readers who drop by here and read and add your wisdom and questions and reveal your vulnerabilities. I feel really very honoured to be a part of a conversation with many people who I feel are kindred spirits, quite apart from the generous and kind support I have unfailingly received here over the years.

I have realised that what I look for in the spaces around me is not neatness, but Art. I don't mind disorder, as long as it has artistic merit. When you told me about your hard-working kitchens in the comments of the last post, I could imagine the pleasure of being in each one amongst all the food and home-made bread and the preserves and piles of vegies from the garden, the seeds and the books. That is all good mess. The mess that drives me a bit insane is plastic bags and food wrappers and technology - I have changed internet providers and ditched my unused home phone this week so I had a whole collection of cords and phones and modems sitting in my dining room doing my head in. Now that they are gone and I am looking at bowls of walnuts instead I feel much calmer.

My solution, as per last week, is to get rid of all the things I find aesthetically unpleasing. Then all the messes will be ones that don't bother me.  But it goes further. It is not just a sense of beauty I am looking for, but the kind of beauty. It is the beauty of things that are useful, but also make your heart sing. It is the beauty of tools that have been made with care and handled over and over again, the muddled glory of an artist's studio or a wood worker's shed or piles of garden pots or boxes of seeds. Cupboards full of sewing materials, fishing tackle or pots of jam. Who has read the Brambly Hedge children's books that are about mice living in the hedgerow? Their houses are full of Things and Mess but they are irresistible. They live in hard-working spaces filled with useful things that are beautiful because they are hand made.

From the Brambly Hedge books by Jill Barklem. Rose petal jam mess.

While it may seem a tiny bit insane to base how I want to live on scenes from children's books, I feel I could do much worse, and anyway, it doesn't hurt anyone, makes me happy, plus, it's good for the planet to live like the mice in Brambly Hedge. Everything they own you can buy from an op-shop, and they forage for all their food - very low food miles - and make everything themselves.

Jill Barklem's desk. The nicest kind of clutter.

Places that I am drawn to are studios, workshops and working kitchens - places where you can see that real things are being made. I do like space and light, but I have decided that minimalism is not for me. I will keep removing things from my spaces until what I have left is the functional and the beautiful and it is easy to find what I want without anything falling on my head. I think it would be ideal to know what I own and where everything is. It would be ideal not to buy anything without giving a great deal of thought to when and why and how I would use it, whether I can borrow it instead of owning it, and where it will live when it comes home with me. 

We live in a world where the acquisition of things is disastrously easy, and naturally there has been a backlash against this physical clutter, by making Things the enemy, to be gotten rid of completely in order to be spiritually pure. But Things aren't the enemy. The means of production of Things is the enemy. We can have Things, and make them, and use tools to make them and create beauty all around us if we do it slowly, carefully, thoughtfully, and on a small scale. We can turn our houses back into hubs of creativity instead of being black holes of consumption. 

I feel like I have strayed from the point here, which was housework. I think if I change the way I see the purpose of the house, then housework assumes a different level of importance. Yes, see how Zen this is, the middle path. Clutter and minimalism are two sides of one coin. Minimalism is a rejection of the crazy consumption of modern life, but it doesn't offer a new way of living, just less consumption. What I believe could be a more useful path is to change the way we use our houses - to create, to make, to work. If our houses are workshops instead of exhibition spaces, then housework becomes a different beast. It is more practical and utilitarian. Our houses then become all about what we produce rather than what they look like. 

This is a rather convoluted post, but remember - I am an Ideas Person. I really can work much better if I have an Idea to work by. All my days recently have flown by in a bit of a fog as I work out my over-arching Philosophy of Life to live by. Expect a manifesto any day now. Meanwhile, today I dusted and swept and tidied with my hands while my brain busied itself working on the meaning of life. So, you know, progress...


Anonymous said…
I love your posts. Last post I commented twice, after reading so many of the comments. I see my house as a haven. A place to retreat, create, be, laugh. It is the place my husband and I spend 30 years of our lives together. After his death, It is a place that holds his absence, his spirit, his memory. It is a place I have a hard time leaving. I plant, mow, think, cook, mop, occasionally dust ( very occasionally), knit, and laugh in. I cannot thank you enough for providing another "home" for me through the distance. Thank you for creating...

GretchenJoanna said…
My grandchildren and I love to spend a long time on each page of Brambly Hedge, poring over all their stuff and the busyness of their "hive." Even the clutter on the pages of these children's books is creative and useful for childrearing. :-)

I love the how you have figured out and written down the way this all works: Things of our Lives.
Not rambling at all Jo, a nice reflection of what you are aiming for. Those pictures from the Brambly Hedge books are absolutely beautiful. I must try and hunt the books down to share with my girls.
Look forward to seeing how your ideas are implemented.
simplelife said…
Another great post, best be careful you'll turn into an author at this rate ;)
I hadn't realised or maybe even thought about it until now, but as a child I loved to pour over books with illustrations like the brambly hedge ones, and then as a young adult (child carer) I loved to share Shirley Hughes' Alfie books with the kids. Those illustrations and storys about daily life transported me to my fantasy life. My own children were subjected to many Alfie storys as well. And now you've made me realise that I'm the same, it's not so much mess or tidiness but a real living, breathing, working home that brings me comfort and feels right. I don't think I achieve it often though, swinging between to two extremes and weighed down by shoulds and fears of judgement. I like colour, warmth, books and comfortable furnishings, not new and not so much single use items either. I just want to feel safe from the world inside my home, cocooned and nurtured and free to be myself, sometimes that means a big effort clean and sometimes it means a lick and promise.
Thanks again for sharing your thoughts
cheers Kate
Jo said…
Patricia, ah, your home does indeed sound like a haven. I can imagine the care and the love that has gone into its creation over those 30 years. I am so happy that you like to come here and that it feels homey. It does to me too:)

Gretchen Joanna, I think that children respond to the details of real living, both in books and in life. And clearly I am a bit child-like in that respect - I love to walk into a room that is being used for something. Painting, cooking, craftwork, preserving, music; anything that is in the process of creation, or all the tools for making things - aren't they irresistible?

Laura, do hunt down those books - they are likely to be in every library. I look forward to seeing how these ideas will be implemented too. I'll let you know!

Kate, I was actually thinking about a particular Shirley Hughes illustration as I wrote this post - one of the Tom and Lucy books. She does wonderful 'real' illustrations full of the mess of daily family life that my children and I loved as well. Sarah Garland is another one I love.
I like your thoughts about home as a cocoon, nurturing and safe. Also I believe that it can be the safest place to launch from, it can give you the courage to set out into the world again. I hear you on the internal judgement - this is what I am trying to get away from. Maybe moving away from seeing our houses as places that need to be perfectly curated and towards seeing them as hard-working workshops for production, for doing a job of keeping us warm and fed, will help us to get away from that competitive, envious, judgy mindset. Maybe.
Pam in Virginia said…
Hi, Jo!

You already have just the kind of house I like! I have used the Beatrix Potter books as inspiration for a lot of my surroundings. In the inside of my house it is not so hard, but with my landscaping it is really tricky as the deer eat almost everything. Unfortunately, at the moment I am playing Mr. McGregor in the fenced garden. I have never read the Brambly Hedge books. I am so glad that you mentioned them.

Hazel said…
I love your posts and the comments too Jo and think about them for a long time after I've read them.
I love the Brambly Hedge books and illustrations, in fact a lady on a facebook group I'm on rather bashfully admitted she started preserving because of the stories and was basing her pantry on a dresser from Brambly Hedge (she wan't the only one)-

I knew I wanted to get rid of 'stuff' but didn't identify with any of the minimalist or tiny house blogs- where is their knitting wool/jam pan/card making stuff/baking equipment?? I didn't want to live like that if you have to buy everything and exist on take aways, which some of the bloggers must do. I know professional minimalists don't send birthday cards, but you know what I mean! I think creative clutter is the way forward :-)

Jo said…
Mr McGregor, I hope that all that running around and shouting, Mr McGregor-style is scaring the deer away. I must admit to modelling my vegie garden on Mr McGregor's as well, with the red bricks. I would rather like a potting shed like his..

Hazel, yes, Brambly Hedge, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, What Katy Did, Little House on the Prairie, they have all had a hand in shaping my lifestyle :)
In the best of all possible worlds I would like to have a place for all my tools for living so I can find everything, but still be able to relax among my projects in progress and enjoy the creative process.
Anonymous said…
Yes, the Art of Mess! I aspire to a sort of Brambly Hedge aesthetic too, with maybe just a tiny hint of the Swedish artist, Carl Larsen's calm. I have had a book about his home for many years, and always loved the colours and his wife's textiles, which he very often used as background in his paintings. I think, however, that in reality my brain is more aligned with the Bramblies.

I am lucky enough to have a shed of my own in the garden, and it is there that I can be surrounded by some of my Great Treasures - none of which would have any meaning to anyone else. In there I don't have to compromise, as it is mine alone. I am delighted to see that it actually looks quite like Jill Barklem's writing corner, except for that cubby-hole thing, which I am now coveting like mad! Out there, and in the kitchen, are where I feel happiest.

I have been enjoying your recent posts so much, Jo, as well as the added value of your readers' comments. There is a real community here.

Linda in NZ
Hazel said…
Oh, I loved the Katy Did books. Fewer people seem to have heard of them than the others (perhaps because there was no film or TV series?) but I read and re-read the last two especially. I was talking to my youngest about them the other day because whilst dreaming of a dark rose for my garden I came across one called General Jacqueminot, which is what Katy wishes for in Naples instead of the nosegays made with wire ;-)
But yes, I loved all the descriptions of domesticity in those books, and try to explain to my children the excitement over an orange and a new cup at Christmas, or a tinned oyster as a treat in the middle of the USA.
I definitely hope for minimalism and tidy.

But I notice it's in contradiction to my 'dream' of a home where people drop in, and ultimately, the life you so regularly write about.

Today I drove past a new place, and a home has lemons or some other citrus all over the tree, and the ground. And I thought 'someone should really leave a note saying they'll take them, even for a paltry sum. Not let them rot' And then I thought how citrus don't just fruit for fun, it takes time and energy and effort.

Your rambles are enjoyable... keep it up.
Jo said…
Linda, Carl Larsen, yes! I have a little book of his farm paintings, but I have often borrowed books of his art from the library. He seemed like such a lovely family man, enjoying life with his children, and celebrating domestic life with his wife.
Aw, a shed of your own. I have to admit that I LOVE having a place of my own. Well, I share it with the children but they aren't that fussed about how decorate it.. I like my collection of treasures.

Hazel, oh, marvellous, a Katy fan! I re-read all four books continuously from about age 10. Then, a couple of years ago I discovered that there are one? two? more. I found them online, can't quite remember what they are called. BUT, they were a bit of a disappointment. I think Susan Cooper was suffering from a little ennui while writing them.. I'll see if I can find them again.
The main trouble I find with all the Anne and Katy books is that as children they were deliciously naughty and flawed and incidentally interesting, but as adults they become annoyingly perfect, and even though the books remain good reads, suddenly we are presented, yet again, with a perfect role model. Sigh. I have to admit I resemble the child Anne or Katy far more than the adult one. Although recently I reread Anne of Green Gables, and good lord, that child never shut up. If I was Marilla I would have packed her straight back to the orphanage..

Sarah, I have often noticed a contradiction between desires in my life too. I have both a need for order and an appreciation of chaos. I think I need to aim for ordered chaos. I like your thoughts about lemons. Actually they fruit in the hope that their fruit WILL rot and the seeds take root and produce a new lemon tree. So it isn't a complete waste. But I take your point. There is lots of food out there, and we tend not to see it if it doesn't come through some official food distribution system.
Jen's Busy Days said…
Hi Jo

I just came back from a visit to Melbourne and we managed to fit in a visit to Cook's Cottage in amongst the food and clothes shopping. (Winter coats have more guts in Melbourne than Brisbane. Buy a good one once and wear it forever is my motto, and I hate shopping any more than necessary.) Cook's Cottage reminds me of how homes were as you said a workshop for real living. Simple bedrooms, a good kitchen with warmth and a good table and a garden to feed and heal. No lounge, no bathroom (hmm) and just what was needed in their lives.

I hope your cottage does the same for you.

Best wishes
Jen in Qld

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