Have you ever sat down and asked yourself “What are my house rules?”
Parents are likely to be well-rehearsed in this kind of recital, because they are often verbally enforcing conventions of decorum, citizenship, values, and culture with small, impressionable children in tow.
But everyone has them.
Do you make the bed first thing in the morning? Do you eat only at the dining room table (or at the kitchen counter, or absolutely anywhere you want)? Do you find yourself adhering to “appropriate” times for lunch, laundry, happy hour? Do these “rules” change on the weekend? Who takes out the garbage? Who fills the car with gas, and at what level of depletion? Do you pray before meals? Do you run the dishwasher at the same time every day or only when filled to a certain level? Where do you keep spare toilet paper and batteries? Where do the remotes live? When do you close the garage door (at the end of the day? after each entry/exit from the garage?).
It is interesting to think about these conventions, some of which we blindly inherit and others of which perhaps enshrine more than we might think about what matters to us. As an example, I did not realize how often I left lights on in the house until I married my husband, who would walk around the house flipping off light switches behind us (ahem, me). Sometimes I was (and still am) embarrassingly oblivious — I would (and still sometimes do) walk into the laundry room and leave with my arms full of laundry and forget to return to extinguish the light. Other times, I consciously leave lights on because I love the feeling of a warm, lit house. But his commitment to turning things off when not in use stems from his energy consciousness and, I would suspect, his formal training as an electrical engineer. (I am certain, come to think of it, some initial rule of all engineering practice is to begin with power off.)
If you walk through a day in your life and imagine explaining to a visitor why you do all the tiny things you do every single day, in the exact order in which you do them, you find the experience illuminating. It makes me realize how much we wordlessly embody rules, values, and modes of being. Things like “we never eat in our bedroom” and “we always take our shoes off at the door, but we never require that guests follow suit” do not feel like rules in the sense that Mr. Magpie and I have never sat down to codify them, but they are, and they say a lot more than we might think about our attitudes toward dining, hygiene, hospitality, etc. Reflecting on this reminds me of an essay I originally published three years ago on the subject of rules, corrections, and their connection to creativity. Today, I am republishing it in modestly-edited format, because I found the themes as stirring now as I did when I wrote this in 2019.
My father was the Major Disciplinarian in our family in the sense that if we were testing our mother, she would sternly reply: “Just wait until your father gets home.” This was typically enough of a commination to corral us into line, but when I think back, I realize that it was my mother who set and enforced about ninety percent of the rules in our home because she was around the most, at least when I was under twelve and my father was chief counsel for a major technology business. One year, my father traveled something like 50 out of 52 weeks of the year, and so it was my mother who handled the lion’s share of discipline. Beyond that, though the unascertainable dimensions of my father’s threatened punishment were terrifying as child, my father was something of a softie. I knew this because even when my sister would stubbornly refuse to get in the bath, or would deviously wriggle her way out of three layers of cold weather clothing (snowsuit, sweatsuit, and skivvies all shed on the floor while my mother’s back was turned, delaying our entire pod a good five or ten minutes), or would monkey out of her carseat restraints and appear, apparition-like, at my mother’s cheek while she was driving us to school — shenanigans that were commonplace to the point of daily in our home at her hands — my father would often look bemused or shrugging upon return home, and I would routinely find him laying on the couch in our old sun room, watching the news, with my sister in his arms, just a few moments later.
These observations did not reconcile with one another, even to my jejune and ill-formed senses as a child. I can remember straining to parse out the rules: which ones mattered? And how much? And to whom?
One summer in Colorado, Elizabeth and I were of sufficient age to accompany my father on his morning fly fishing excursions. I presume in retrospect this might have been at least in part a convenience for my mother, who was laden with two even younger daughters, because I cannot imagine that it was desirable to monitor two busy girls while attempting to navigate the complexities of fly fishing. But we were there nonetheless. And if we bothered my father, I never read the frustration on his face. He afforded us a long leash to explore the surroundings and play by ourselves, but he did set two rules: first, stand to his right, and at a sufficient distance, or run the risk of interfering with his cast. Second, do not mess with the tackle box. I’m sure he intuited that the tidily arranged rows of flashy, just-the-right-size-for-small-fingers dry flies, with neon and metallic threading and what appeared to be fur pompoms and mohawks, would have been enticing to magpies like us. I managed to break the first rule wandering around behind him, collecting twigs and acorns for a Barbie campsite we were constructing. I crouched down to collect a pinecone and — SNAG. His dry fly, the extension of a perfect cast, caught in my ponytail. No harm, no foul, but a stern talking-to from my father, and I was ashamed at having broken the rule, even if it had been out of forgetfulness or distraction.
My sister and I retreated to a broad, flat rock not far from my father’s perch but safe from his casting and decided, in a wounded bird kind of way, that we would create our own language — something no one else would understand, least of all my father. Only we couldn’t quite wrap our heads around what that meant and so we instead settled for coining portmanteaus. The only one I can clearly recall is seasparkle, whose meaning I am confident you can ascertain but whose prominence in my memory speaks to the way in which, as children, our imaginations are at once wildly creative and entirely contained, almost as if existing within a snow globe. There we were, attempting a complex linguistic undertaking and yet only able to operate within the narrow ken of a vocabulary we already knew and the view in front of us: a lake in Aspen, CO, flecked with shards of sunlight.
The second rule was not broken until hours after a return from one of these sunny mornings at Maroon Bells (or Ruedi Reservoir, sometimes) outside Aspen, CO. Elizabeth and I were playing with My Little Ponies in the front hall of my parents’ rented condo and I remember her idling in front of my father’s tacklebox, left open on the entryway bench. I watched her eye its fineries and then begin to remove, one by one, the dry flies from their roosts, plucking them from the soft cushioned padding in which they were hooked and dropping them in an unceremonious heap, their sharp hooks glinting with danger. I padded off to get my father, but was interrupted by his sudden command:
“Elizabeth! Stop! You’re going to hurt yourself!”
I stood by, observing.
“See how sharp these are?” he asked, returning them to the box.
“And she shouldn’t have been in there anyway,” I offered, looking on knowingly.
My father turned to me, sternly:
“Jennifer, this has nothing to do with you.”
I’ll never forget that moment. Never. Not ever! I think on it every few weeks, in fact. I can still recall the blithe way in which I felt I was helpfully contributing to the conversation — or perhaps aligning myself with my father, seeking his approval. I was on the right side of the law — or so I thought. And then the jarring discovery of another, unspoken rule, jutting out like a hidden dagger — this one more about decorum. The burn of reproach dissolved into a film of self-frustration. I saw that I had overstepped something I perhaps should have known intuitively, and it felt worse than when my father had hooked me because I’d forgotten to heed his instruction.
There is something about this tangle of memories — rule-setting, enforcement, negligence, trespass, and all against the canvas of a maiden, unsophisticated voyage into creative language (“seasparkle”) — that hangs together in a way I viscerally understand but have had difficulty explaining. I have been writing around the memory, eyeing its meaning in silhouette but unable to read its face.
But I see now in these recollections something formative about my relationship with language. I think that I have always loved writing because it asks for a nuanced balance of heeding and breaking the rules. From a grammatical purist’s perspective, I use too many em dashes and colons. I tend towards syntactically complex sentences with too many clauses and a risky habit of burying the antecedent. But much of this is done (not always well) under the auspices of voice: this is how I think, and I like to let the grammar follow. Beyond that, a lot of creative writing involves an elastic use of language: there are risks, transmutations, that do not always pan out. At the same time, I observe and respect the vast majority of grammatical rules with something like religious fervor. I worked as a copy editor for many years; I know my way around the MLA Style Manual.
I think, in short, that good writing is about understanding the rules well enough to break them on occasion — but only certain ones, and only when handled thoughtfully and usually in the name of meaningful style. And I think the same thing in life, though I am nine times out of ten following the rules at any given moment. But that mish-mash of experiences set against the backdrop of childhood summers remains a touchstone in my understanding of ethics both linguistic and personal. It startles me to think how often the two converge: art and life and art and life in an endless mirroring of one another.
+This chic striped skirt I’ve been eyeing just went on sale — had to order!
+Loving these fun layering necklaces.
+Well-priced patio chairs.
+How gorgeous are these custom floral silhouettes?! A beautiful gift for a mom / grandmother.
+This lunchpail bag from cult following brand Cesta is on sale, plus extra 30% off when added to cart, bringing the total price to around $170!
+We are preparing to transition micro to a big boy bed! Beginning to consider bedding options. I really want one of these applique pillows for him!
+Speaking of pillows: love this European neck roll pillow.
+This little crossbody in the linen finishes is SO cute!
+People LOVE this pair of Agolde jeans, and it’s on sale!
+Chic oversized straw clutch for under $100.
+Adore this floral mini.
+Such an elegant sandal if you’re looking for something flat that will work with a maxi dress, cocktail dress, jeans, or anything in between.
+A fun add-on for your Lego-obsessed little one.
+Another dramatic option for a wedding guest.
+Love this Chanel-esque jacket (under $100)!