| Interview by Ronnie |
'Storytellers' is our special interview series, in which we talk to creatives whom we admire and find out how they are each preserving their personal stories. Today's interview is with Bethany Douglass, a mother of four living in Central Texas. Bethany is both a writer and a photographer, and her blog, Cloistered Away, is a beautiful and refreshing sanctuary for those seeking encouragement and inspiration when it comes to living simply, homeschooling, and the realities of family life. Bethany is also an amazing memory keeper, and I'm beyond thrilled that she is here to share her story with us.
Can you tell us a bit about you and your family?
My husband, Mark, and I married 15 years ago after a brief whirlwind engagement. We connected instantly, intuitively. We now have four children, aged 7–12, whom I homeschool – a surprising and wonderful twist in our family narrative. We lead a small but purposeful life together, one I often share through blogging and editorial writing. I am a writer and photographer, but at heart, I am memory keeper.
What is a typical day like for you these days?
Busy, but simple. I generally wake up early, around 4.30am–5am, to have time alone. I move slowly in the morning, so I value this time for waking up and moving at my own speed before I’m off to a day with the kids. I often write or edit photos during this time, but I’m learning to set apart certain days for meditation or exercise to create more balance to my workflow. Mark and I generally take a few moments at the table, or outdoors on the porch, with coffee before he leaves for work at 7am. We’re both more alert at this time of day, so it’s nice to have a little connection with him before the day unfolds.
At 7am, my day with the children begins. I wake up anyone still sleeping. We make breakfast together and then head to the table for poetry, journaling, and a little read-a-loud. We begin our mornings with the most difficult, focused studies, and we eventually settle into the right pace for the day. Our days vary in many ways, but they always center around books and art and play. The 2pm–4pm block can be a bit nebulous, depending on the day, and is filled with variety. At 4pm, we try to tidy up a bit and begin our dinner and evening routine. During the week, we eat, linger around the table, play outdoors, clean up the kitchen, bathe the kids, and then have read-a-loud time. (The weekends, of course, vary with movie nights, sleepovers, and eat-outs.) After reading together for a bit, the boys have independent reading time in their beds, whereas the girls go straight to bed. I then usually begin my own evening routine – bathing, spending time with my husband, reading, and then turning the lights out.
What do you love the most about homeschooling, and what do you find the hardest?
I love so many things, but I think the most beneficial thing thus far is that I have really gotten to know my children. There are things that I misunderstood about a couple of them when they were younger, but learning and living with them all the time as they grow has taught me to see them and myself differently. It’s beautiful, even when it’s not.
That said, there are plenty of difficult things about this path too – but isn’t that true about any choice we make for our families? In the early years, the hardest part might have been logistics, since our four children are only five years apart. There was little predictability as to how any single day might go. That’s different now. Nowadays, the hardest part is probably learning my limits and having to say no. I’m, by nature, a "yes" person. I love saying yes to people, but it’s impossible to do everything! Presently I’m learning to say no more often and to protect what I really value, even when it’s not the most popular or even the most beneficial thing for my personal work. My time with the children at home is brief (even when it feels loooong), and I know I won’t ever regret these years.
How would you describe your experience of motherhood so far? How do you feel as you watch your four beautiful children grow and change each day?
This may sound cliched, but motherhood is beautiful and hard. On one hand, it has increased my capacity to love and give and receive; on the other hand, it has made me so aware of every insecurity and fear. Motherhood turns your heart inside-out in the best possible way. As I live with my children and watch them tumble toward adulthood, I’m amazed and honored. I love watching their purpose unfold.
Is there any aspect of their childhood you wish you could freeze in time?
Surprisingly, no. I like that we all move on and through. We are progressive beings and not having the power to stop moments has taught me how to slow time simply by enjoying it. I think every mother should learn the art of enjoyment. For me, it happens through homeschooling, but that might not be the same for every family. Whatever the case, I hope every parent finds a way to treasure the day with their children. Somewhere deep within us, we know those are the best memories.
Can you share with us how you go about documenting their childhood and your family life in general? Has your approach changed over time?
Oh boy. I’m not sure that I have just one system. But I tend to document really ordinary things in our home and life, not just portraits of my children’s faces. When I look back at my own childhood photos, the ones I love the most are the ones that capture the ordinary moments: photos of us at the breakfast table, with bed-head and covered in morning light; photos of us swinging on a swing set; and photos of our family around the campfire. We rarely look polished or poster-child worthy, but I treasure them anyway. I think when my children grow older and move away, I’ll miss the ordinary. The messy breakfast table. The bed-jumping. The family adventures. The simple routines and learning at home.
I suppose like many people, my documentation has changed the most with the iPhone camera. It’s made it easier to snap photos of anything happening with our family, anywhere. But in some ways, the accessibility has made it harder to discern what moments are really worth keeping – when it’s appropriate to take images, and when it’s just best to live the moment. For most of my parenting years, I've decided which images to keep during post-processing, but that can be both cumbersome and time-consuming. The better practice for me is learning to notice which moments I really want to remember – or rather, which will my children want to experience again? Memory keeping (for me) doesn’t mean I need to regurgitate every moment or event; in the smallest way, it simply needs to stir up the memories we have already stored within us, like a favorite movie line or book quote.
Do you have any tips for those who struggle to "find time" for memory keeping?
Yes, for those who struggle with taking photos, begin with a small project that will give you specific deadlines and guidelines, like The 52 Project that Jodi Wilson inspired or the #lifecapturedproject (to inspire specific images and captions). Photo projects can be difficult to keep up with, but they are such a great way to begin creating a habit of documentation. Taking part in The 52 Project in both 2014 and 2015 helped me to really take notice of my children in specific ways. I chose to use the photo project to write something to each of them every week – either something I had noticed about them or something that we’d talked about together. I liked making it personal. I decided to take this year off from doing the project, as it was beginning to feel cumbersome, but I love the discipline it created in me to see my children individually and to take a quality image of them that fit in with their week.
For those who have no trouble taking images but instead struggle to make books or other keepsakes (ahem), using Chatbooks has been a life-saver for me. I link it to my Instagram feed and it automatically creates books for me. When I reach 60 pages, the book automatically goes to print and is sent to my home. This is life-changing for me, and it's been a wonderful way for my children to enjoy our 2000+ Instagram images without surfing on screens. For those who don’t share everything publicly online, there's always the option of creating a private Instagram account and linking it up with Chatbooks. It’s an easy way to make sure you’re printing photos.
In addition to your iPhone, what other camera do you use? Can you tell us when you use your DSLR or your iPhone for photos? How do you edit your photos (if at all)?
Yes, I always use a Nikon D700 for blog posts and editorial images. Honestly, I still prefer the control it gives to focus and light over the phone, but there's no denying that the phone is incredibly convenient. I tend to rely on it for in-the-moment photos: dinner spreads, homeschool scenes, everyday moments with the kids, and so on. I’m trying to leave my big camera out more often to capture more of the daily happenings these days. I edit my Nikon photos in Lightroom and edit my iPhone images in the VSCO app. Instagram’s editing capability has really improved lately, too.
Would you consider yourself a memory keeper? What sort of albums or photo books have you made over the years? Going forward, what keepsakes do you hope to make/create for your family?
Definitely. But honestly, I’ve always struggled with the follow through on making books. I blame my idealism. I have made too few books for all of the images I have stored up. Thanks to your InDesign class, I’ve started a few story books and am hoping to follow through with them this summer when our school workload is lighter. In the early years, I only used a film camera, so I have several printed images in traditional albums. But as I’ve taken more images digitally and written more to and about our children online, I’ve wanted to create books that feel more editorial in nature, much like the story books you've shared on your blog. This takes time, and that’s the rub with homeschooling – having to move slower on these sort of projects or shelf them altogether for seasons at a time. After taking your photo organization class, I’m hoping my habits are changing! I know your classes aren’t the point of this interview, but I truly can’t recommend them enough to anyone.
With four older children, I suspect you must have some sort of framework for organising all their school work and creative work? Can you tell us a bit about your system, or perhaps share some tips with those of us who have young children and who would love some guidance in this area?
When my children were little and prolific artists, I would write their name, date, and a title or story of the image on the back of the paper and store it in a folder or art box with each of their names. I have since gone back through and streamlined their collections, keeping only my favorites or the ones that felt most specific to a childhood phase, ie. “that time you were really into ___.” I had planned to scan and make a book of their art at some point, but I never have! Now there are companies and apps that will do this for you, which I’m looking into now. As most of my own children’s work has evolved into our learning, I would love to create books for them from their school work: their favorite lines and illustrations from poetry, literature, history, and science from each year. But honestly, I always struggle with the follow-through due to limited time these days. So for now, neatly storing (and dating) their work in hard art boxes in their closet is the best that I can do. I keep my favorite pieces and recycle the rest. Like images, there’s no need to keep everything.
What sort of memorabilia have you held onto from your own childhood?
Images mostly. I have a few pieces of personal writing from childhood through university that feel special for some reason or another, but mostly I’ve kept images.
What are the stories that you want to preserve, for yourself and for your family?
Although family life is beautiful in so many ways, it’s often mundane and rote. There are plenty of opportunities to feel that life isn’t good enough – that our home or lifestyle or clothing or work or educational practices aren’t good enough. In the face of this, memory keeping helps to create a sense of gratitude. It’s been an opportunity for me to pause – to find something lovely in the midst of difficult days and hard transitions. It’s a way for me to recognize that circumstances change, for better or for worse, and to remember the importance of now.
In the final pages of Little House in the Big Woods, Laura wonders about the meaning of Auld Lang Syne, which her father is playing on the fiddle. He tells her, “They are the days of a long time ago.” She surveys their one-room cabin – the flickering fire, her sister sleeping, her father playing the fiddle – and decides “they could not be forgotten because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.” There’s something of that passage that has always spoken to me about motherhood, about the fleeting days I try to capture in memory keeping. The brief truth that now is now, and the best memory keeping begins with enjoying one day at a time, together.
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You can read the other posts in this series here.