First, if you’re my wife, please stop reading this review. If you’re not her, I’ll explain that statement later.
Now that’s out of the way, The Rhythm of Family is a year-long journey through the life of one family living in Maine. It follows the seasons, from January snows back to the turning of the year at the winter solstice. The Soules have four children who are, during the year described in the book, from nine to one years of age. The point of the book is to describe the intersection of family and nature.
The introduction to the book is called “Noticing,” and this sets the tone for what follows:
Wonderful things happen in our family when we choose to move slowly through our days. When we stop running and rushing about, we discover more time, energy, and space for the things most important in our lives. By slowing down, our connections with our children and as a family inherently become deeper, our creativity thrives, and we find meaningful ways to fill our time.
It’s astonishing how things have changed since I was a child. In every family I knew, dinner was an affair when the entire family got together around a table. There may have been bickering and moodiness and children refusing to eat what was in front of them — I don’t want to romanticize — but the family was together. Now in most families people eat separately, often not at the same time, never mind in the same room. And the most commonly eaten “meal” at dinnertime is a sandwich. Now human beings are flexible, and I don’t think these changes represent The End of Civilization As We Know It, but I don’t think they’re healthy. Families need to spend time together. We’re too busy.
The Rhythm of Family is the rhythm of a family living close to nature. It’s hard to get a sense of exactly where the Soules live, but they describe their home as “suburban,” so I think it’s safe to say they don’t live in the depths of the countryside — a privilege (if it is such), open to few. But they make good use of the nature that is around them. They get out of the house. They play together. They explore.
Again, from the introduction:
The natural world can serve as both inspiration and reward on this journey. For it, too, is ever changing and constantly in motion .. there is an ever present awareness of both birth and death, and the constant passage of time … it is only by spending time in the natural world, by paying attention and noticing, that we see these important changes … this natural rhythm can act at the heartbeat of our lives.
The Rhythm of Family is a lyrical and poetic book. Amanda’s words are joined at times by those of her husband, Stephen. It often reads like a blog, and can at times be a bit too gushy for my taste. Amanda’s penchant for sentence fragments sometimes grates. Sometimes irritates. Sometimes annoys. (See what I mean?) Sometimes the writers are striving too hard for effect. It’s fine to say that the birds return in the spring, but phrases like “In the spring–oh, in those precious spring months–the birds return” made this reader wince. Something about birds seems to make Amanda’s brain turn to mush; at one point birds are described as “two-legged tiny creatures that fly.” Much of the writing, however, is excellent, and please note that the version I read was a pre-publication draft, and it’s possible that future editing will reduce some of this verbiage.
Despite the book’s occasional lapses into sentimentality, I enjoyed reading The Rhythm of Family very much. It’s a powerful reminder of the importance of nature, the preciousness of family, and the connection between the two. As well as lyrical pieces describing the family’s activities throughout the year, the book is illustrated with beautiful photographs. This is one book you won’t want to read on the Kindle. It’s a book to hold and appreciate as a visual object. The book also contains “Make and Do” sections that tell you everything from how to make a bird feeder to how to make potato soup, with some knitting instructions thrown in. I came away with a deeper sense of how we could have fun as a family, making things and using the things we’ve made to connect with nature. I don’t think I’ll be taking up knitting (to be honest, I skipped those parts) but there are some arts and crafts activities that I’d love to do with my kids.
Some harried families will no doubt be saying, at this point, “Yeah, it’s all right for them, but where do I find the time.” And there’s a certain degree of validity in that. What do the Soules do for work? I can’t tell you. After reading an entire year’s worth of description of their daily activities, I don’t recall any mention of anyone working, going to work, coming home from work, or any concern about finances. The word “money” doesn’t even appear in the book.
But don’t use that as an excuse. I think there are many families harried by a sense of time being short who, if they gave it some thought, could work out ways to spend more time together. The average adult American watches more than 28 hours of television each week. The average American child spends more time watching TV each year than he or she does in school. According to the TV Turnoff Network [2023 update: now defunct] the number of minutes per week that parents spend in meaningful conversation with their children is 38 ½. Before we start complaining about not having time to spend with our kids, let’s spend less time with American Idol and Dancing with the Stars.
You may not live in or near the countryside. But even in a city there are parks. Even in a city there are wild birds, and you can put out a feeder for them and make an effort to learn more about them. There are leaves and seeds and pods and flower petals you can take home and use in arts projects.
It is, however, unfortunate that the Soules, in trying to convince us to spend more time with our families and with nature, give the impression that they live in a protected bubble of unreality, since that impression reinforces the notion that time spent with children exploring nature is an unattainable goal. It’s not, and the book itself will give you plenty of ideas for activities with your kids, especially if they’re younger. The Soules do admit to being imperfect (“sometimes we eat popcorn for dinner, sometimes there is fighting, and sometimes we as parents wonder just how it is that we’re going to get through a day”) but they don’t show you that. You never get to see their struggles. You never get to learn from their mistakes or to empathize with them as they doubt their parenting abilities. But they also remind us that
Letting ourselves believe … that someone else has it so much more together than we do … is just a distraction and takes us away from the real work that each of us is doing in our everyday lives.
I wish The Rhythm of Family had taken a more honest “warts and all” approach, rather than offering a portrait of a perfect family who tell you, as an aside, “Oh, we’re not perfect.” But we should take their advice, cease from making comparisons, and simply starting from where we are, consider step-by-step how we can spend more time with our kids, and more time exploring nature as a family.
The Rhythm of Family is a flawed book for the reasons I’ve mentioned, but it’s an immensely valuable book as well. I’m inspired by it, and found myself appreciating much more the simple moments I spend with my children. And I’m sure my wife will like the book even more than I did. Her birthday’s coming up soon, almost exactly a month after the book’s publication date, and I was thinking it would make a great present for her.