A little more than a year ago now, I decided to drop off the grid. I had been making a long slow escape from my previous life of working in politics, and I had finally truly crossed the Rubicon: I bought a cabin high up in the mountains of Colorado, hidden in the woods, beyond a locked Forest Service gate, and down a steep dirt road. I originally looked at it as simply the culmination of a dream—a single-family home in the middle of the forest on a stream. After this past year, I now understand it was all about educating myself.
My mother, Karen Laub Novak (whose work has been discussed in these pages before by writers far more talented than I) is to blame. She was always fully focused on the concrete, the here and now, the tactile—even as she embraced the abstract, the theoretical, and the imagined. As must be obvious, she was an artist, and this balancing act came naturally.
When my two siblings and I were children, she emphasized this trick of high-wire talent from day one. She believed that, “In school, the emphasis on teaching the child cognitive skills is nearly total. Intelligence is very narrowly defined.” As she noted in her article, “Children and Creativity”:
Artistic perception is the symbolic base of all practical thinking. … What I am proposing, for lack of a better word, is an aesthetic view of life. … The family first acknowledges that there are other habits of intelligence of equal importance to verbal and conceptual habits. These habits of nonverbal reasoning and intelligence demand equal development and training. In school, they need to be incorporated into every subject, not only reserved to a special class.
She understood that education—life!—is not about creating self-esteem, it is about nurturing the soul so that self-esteem comes about naturally. As she pointed out, when a child does something for him or herself, their joy is immense: “Godlike. A creator. The child is ecstatic; it has come from her hand, her eyes, her experience, her mind—and in her delight she knows it.”
Her article appeared in 1975—and 36 years later we have only moved further away from her simple yet profound points, and closer to her criticisms. Then, it may not have been labeled as “self-esteem focused,” but it was the same thing.
As education has embraced psychology—whether pop or profound—it has moved away from its fundamental mission. My mother noted that:
Each time a child acts out an idea, makes something related to it, it is further impressed in her memory. What we act upon becomes part of us. Too much learning is rote learning and we wonder why it didn’t stay with us.
She was right. It is not about rote learning, and certainly not about others doing it for the child (or us), it is about exploring, investigating, discovering for yourself, and truly experiencing the learning.
Which is probably why, exactly one year to the date my mother passed away, I went under contract to buy this remote mountain cabin—the type of place my mother discussed as the perfect artist’s retreat; the perfect place of learning and discovery—and why just two days after what would have been her birthday, I completed the purchase.
It was not enough for me to desire to get away from the hustle and bustle and constant distractions of modern life; not enough for me to want to escape the call of the Blackberry and the burden of constant meetings to “discuss” (discuss what? I never did figure out). It was not enough for me to move across country; and certainly not enough for me to read and memorize and hero-worship with shining eyes the independent, difficult, and entrepreneurial lives of those in the mountains, and especially of the frontier men and women who had opened up the West—I had to experience it.
Just as my mother, to teach us the letters of the alphabet, instead started by cutting out the shapes for us to play with and explore as nothing more than shapes, long before we understood what they were or stood for—I have had to play with the shapes and forms of life in the mountains long before I understood what they were. I have stumbled by myself through replacing a septic tank, moving electrical wires, opening walls, facing record-breaking (and back breaking!) snow, mitigating wildfire, managing wildlife, and juggling “handshake” payment plans as expenses went beyond erratic freelance income—as I did all of this, I slowly came to realize the shapes, the difficulties, the trials, had meaning.
They were all meaningless in theoretical—and my detailed notes of instructions, suggestions and advice were useless. Nothing made sense, nothing mattered, nothing could be handled until I actually “buckled down to work”, and I actually “acted upon” it. Every failure only reinforced my determination (well, admittedly sometimes only after a good cry, a good bourbon, or both). Every set back was, through either hardheaded stubbornness or lack of choice, simply encouragement to keep exploring, investigating, and discovering for myself.
And needless to say, every subsequent victory, no matter how miniscule, was a victory of greater pride and joy than anything else I have experienced. I did it. I was Godlike. A creator.
If I had been brought up under this new mis-education of self-esteem, I would not have survived. Even worse, I would not have discovered so much about myself—and I would not have boosted my own self-esteem. The old-fashioned way: naturally, because I did it myself. Something our educational system and our culture would be wise to learn.
So as I come up on the first anniversary of owning this cabin, and living at 10,000 feet, I am happier, healthier, and wiser—all by doing it myself.
I blame my mother.
Jana Novak, who spent more than a decade working in politics, is a freelance writer with two books—and several renovations, repairs and natural calamities—under her belt.