When the Door Closes


Using time creatively when the children go to school

Every September and October, when the air gets as crisp as the red delicious apples I pick off our tree and the rims of puddles flourish in crystal ferns, autumn stirs and bubbles inside me. While nature’s year is closing, a new year is just beginning for our family—school for the children, and time alone at home for me.

Summer means noise: the lawn mower, the television, the dog barking; discussions, jokes, complaints; the phone ringing, the steam canner hissing; giggles, running feet, slamming doors; water flowing through the pipes; the floor creaking as someone practices dancing; the refrigerator door opening and shutting. Then school starts, and when the front door closes behind the last child rushing off, lunch sack in hand, a wave of silence rushes over me. It gives me a strange feeling of lonely freedom, an almost exhilarating restlessness. What will I do with my time now? Out of the possibilities the next nine months contain I want to use the free hours of my day to produce something wonderful!

Of course there is always housework, but by this time, everybody’s old enough to help. We work together. As supervisor and quality control inspector I see to it that our house is “clean enough to be healthy, and cluttered enough to be homey.”

Prayer, journal writing, scripture study, and physical exercise come first in all seasons. I love the way these essentials shoehorn me into my day and sharpen my personal tools. Besides, even if the car stalls in the middle of an intersection and I spend hours at the shop getting it fixed, at least in my nightly report to the Lord I can say I’ve done something that day toward my eternal goal.

I believe we gain that eternal goal in part through giving ourselves wholeheartedly to worthy causes. Family and church offer the best causes we can serve. To these “best causes,” however, we can add “good causes.” (See D&C 58:27.) At times, family and church callings have required all I could give and more. But when the pressures of these basic responsibilities have eased, I have discovered that there are other ways of finding my life by losing it. I call these ways “creative service.”

“Creative service” sometimes means direct help and friendship. It can also mean giving from my own resources of talents, experience, temperament, diligence, and imagination in indirect ways. Service is creative not so much in the kind of thing I choose to do as in the enthusiasm and involvement I bring to it. “Creative service” is what I think about while I’m doing other important but less interesting tasks. It’s what I plan when I’m driving the girls’ equipment to camp, waiting in line, weeding the garden. It’s what I look forward to and imagine when I’m scrubbing pots and pans, sweeping floors, and cleaning the oven. It’s what I get a flash of inspiration about when I’m exercising.

While the “service” part of it depends largely upon the actual time I spend in doing, one of the best things about the “creative” part is that so much of it can be planned, “created,” in the mind. When the children were small, the proportion of doing was less as I used nap periods or got up very early in the morning to find unencumbered time. Now that the children are in school, I can involve myself much more deeply.

Through the years, I’ve tried out many kinds of creative service, the way you might go house-hunting, searching for one with the cost, features, and possibilities for remodeling that suit you. Perhaps all of my projects aren’t equally important. Certainly all of them haven’t been equally successful. But nothing I’ve given real effort to has been a waste.

I’ve tried different types of needlework. I enjoy matching materials and trims with patterns to see not only how pretty one daughter looks, but how equally nice her two sisters look in that indestructible handed-down dress. I’ve crocheted granny-square ponchos. I’ve constructed down sleeping bags and parkas from kits. I’ve learned machine embroidery and double-knit construction, and I’ve taken a class in more advanced sewing.

One year I went to a Relief Society stake fair and saw a woman spinning wool with a spindle. She invited me to try. I took up the wool; breathed in its animal aroma, felt the lanolin on my fingertips. The thought of taking wool from the sheep, picking out the dirt, burrs, and other impurities, carding it, and rolling it into rolags for spinning stirred me all the way down to my pioneer roots.

I sent for a spinning wheel from New Zealand and learned to spin by reading the instructions. I bought books to learn about dying with vegetables, herbs, and fruits. I studied about various natural fibers and their qualities. I explored the fascinating world my ancestors knew.

When I reached a certain point in the learning process, when I had done more than dabble but had not yet made a lasting commitment to the spinning wheel, I realized that I really wanted something different. Gardening? My husband’s schedule didn’t permit him to help. I’d have to do it alone. I decided to borrow some land. I filled graph paper with diagrams of rows and dreamed over seed catalogues. Then I rapidly discovered the limitations of my physical strength, money, and just plain know-how with an immense truck garden. I dealt with rabbits, gophers, weeds. My irrigation water either pooled or washed out rows on the sloping land I worked. I tried for two years. The next season I was content with our home plot.

As a Relief Society teacher in a nearby convalescent home, I received a banquet of love every week. I sadly relinquished that opportunity because our family thought I should finish my college degree. Besides, I love to take classes. So I spent an enjoyable year and a half obtaining a secondary teaching credential and a miserable six months learning that I couldn’t cope with teaching English to seventh graders.

One year our family ate a different foreign food almost every night as I cooked my way through a set of international cookbooks. Another year I decided to see if I could fill every one of my canning bottles. Well into January I was still pureeing apples to make apple butter and pressure-cooking chili and spaghetti sauce, never able to keep all the bottles full because we emptied them as fast as I could fill them.

I served as PTA president at our elementary school for a year and then continued on the council level. I suppose that my feelings about the value of PTA could have carried me to other levels, but I chose to serve in the high school PTSA. Such experiences showed me that every road branches into fascinating paths as expertise increases. The more I give, the more interesting and rewarding the path becomes.

Because a college professor told me when I was nineteen that I had no talent, I didn’t even try creative writing for many years. Then, some years ago, I finally began paying attention to the thoughts that spoke in my mind whenever my hands were busy—and I wrote the first of a long line of gradually improving stories and poems. To my delight, I discovered that writing satisfied a craving that no other kind of activity had.

On the first day of school last year when the door closed, I scurried through the chores and sat down to type, full of ideas. I was rusty and fell asleep at the keyboard. Practice brought the skills back, but didn’t insure success in publishing. Over the months I entered several stories in contests (winning no awards), submitted poems for publication (many were rejected or ignored), wrote a libretto for a musical play (but couldn’t find anyone to write the music), and put together a ward conference production (there were more people in the cast than in the audience). I haven’t published a tenth of what I have written. My earnings are negligible.

But outward tokens of success don’t seem to matter. The ideas in my mind are as hard to ignore as a meowing cat. I can write in my mind when I can’t get to the typewriter—even during a noisy summer. I’m happy when I’m engaged in this kind of “creative service.” Nothing can match the quiet sense of fulfillment when the Spirit assures me that something I have done is acceptable.

I think I’ve enjoyed my variety of activities so much because whenever I work with enthusiasm, and become “anxiously engaged,” I receive a feeling of fulfillment, no matter what the task (though some things are simply more congenial to me—rather like a special friend you don’t really know why you love so much, but you do).

I will try other kinds of service or go back to old friends in autumns to come, I’m sure. In this marvelously varied world there are so many experiences to enjoy, paths to explore, and things of beauty to feast upon, who could resist the infinity to be tapped and treasured in that rushing silence when the door closes?

[photos] Photography by Marty Mayo

Penny Allen, mother of four, is Primary nursery leader in her Bountiful, Utah, ward.