Do You Potter?

Key Concept #1: ‘Lifelong learner’ is a term I’ve referenced in previous blog posts. I claim that character trait as my own. I’ve always read parenting magazines and books – from the time my kids were babies, on to toddlers, pre-teens, teens, college, and now young adults.  Yes, there are some innate aspects to parenting, but I was/am always looking for advice or insight. If you’ve done your share of reading as you’ve raised your own children, you’ve certainly read an article (or two or three!) about how children are over-scheduled and overly attached to their electronic devices. The directive is that children (of all ages) need unstructured time to be ‘bored’ so that the creative juices can flow. Certainly, my own childhood was filled with days of just hanging out with the neighborhood kids – riding bikes, swimming at the community pool, making sure we were home before the street lights came on. Benefits of unstructured time include using your imagination, being resourceful, developing problem-solving skills and lowering stress and anxiety, among many others.  

Key Concept #2: I’ve used the word “tinker” to describe my dad’s life on more than one occasion. Now he is resigned to a wheelchair and a room in a nursing home. But before this stage of life, he would tinker around the house. He rarely sat still. He worked on this and that. He floated from one thing to another. He was always busy. His hands were always moving. However, he wasn’t always necessarily completing a major project. He was tinkering. Hopefully, you know someone who behaves in a similar fashion and can readily understand what I mean by tinkering.  

Key Concept #3: Have you heard of “pottering”? It has nothing to do with Harry Potter. Nor is it related to pottery. I just read a book entitled, Pottering. A Cure for Modern Life, by Anna McGovern, and it brings together Key Concept #1 and Key Concept #2. I’m now convinced that ‘pottering’ is a synonym for ‘tinkering’ – and both are the adult equivalent to children having unstructured time. According to McGovern,

The definition of pottering is to occupy oneself in a pleasant way but without a definite plan or purpose. ‘Pleasant’ implies comfort. ‘With a definite plan or purpose’ implies freedom.

Furthermore, McGovern states,

The consequence of pottering – a feeling of relaxation and contentment – is usually achieved when you make do with what you’ve got, get moving but don’t go too far, don’t try too hard and keep it digital-free.

To me, pottering is the opposite of ‘mindfulness’ – otherwise known as the self-help drive to be ambitious/productive at everything, including your free time.  

I think I potter. Especially on the weekends. Especially in the yard.  

And before reading this book, I didn’t assign any thought or value to my behavior. However, now I can readily recognize the benefits. When I was forming my initial thoughts about Patch 405 – slow days, hard work, and miracles – I think pottering was on my mind.  

Now certainly, some of my weekends and gardening tasks are very goal-oriented, especially at the beginning and end of the growing seasons. But the days in between are filled with pottering. For me, the first sign of pottering in the fluidness of the day. One task naturally gives way to another. In my yard, I could decide to add dirt to a flower bed. In doing so, I see that there are weeds in that flower bed. While picking the weeds, I stumbling across a few rocks. I then decide now would be a good time to work on lining the back path with rocks. When I get back there, I see that I should water those shrubs. As I’m turning on the water, the cats come to drink and get a back scratch. The cats remind me of the birds, which makes me think to fill the feeders and birdbath.  (As I’m writing this, I am reciting the lines of the children’s book, If You Give a Mouse Cookie. Doesn’t it sound like that?!) Part of pottering, it seems, is the movement from one activity to another. You’re not necessarily moving fast or far. And the activities aren’t chores. There’s no need to rush.  

Another common aspect of pottering is rummaging. Just recently, I was looking for a specific set of hand-clippers in my garage. Oh, you probably can’t even imagine all the lovely things I uncovered while rummaging around. A ladybug windchime. A mason bee house. A nice pair of unused gardening gloves. A cool hand tool for digging out weeds. All of this, plus S-hooks, zipties, fence staples, picture hooks … lots of little things that I always need but I’m never able to find at the right time. Getting all those things organized is another aspect of pottering, and the tiny bit of satisfaction that I feel for getting these things rearranged is just the cherry on top!  Searching, rediscovering, sorting, moving, organizing – all aspects of pottering.     

Pottering encourages you to be resourceful. There’s always an opportunity to compromise and improvise. I’ve discovered all kinds of odds and ends in my garage and barn that I’ve used to add function, texture, dimension and a bit of whimsy to my garden. I’ve used various forms of tape to repair leaking garden hoses. Zipties are my version of duct tape. I can accomplish pretty much any task in the garden with a ziptie. I’ve been known to use a variety of packing materials, empty water bottles, and plastic food containers to fill the bottom of large flower pots before adding the soil. I save a variety of random supplies because I never know when one might come in handy. I have all sizes of wire baskets – and find them helpful in carrying supplies around the yard, holding the veggies I’ve just picked, or storing any number of items. I keep wood remnants around and use them for a variety of projects. If I find a garage sale treasure, I always have a can of spray paint on hand to upcycle and make it coordinate with my other garden elements. I have small wicker baskets around – and use them to share fresh produce with my co-workers and neighbors. Old glass jars and flower vases have a space in the garage so that I can quickly grab one to share wildflowers with a friend (and I have tons of ribbon in my craft closet, but that’s a completely different area of pottering for me!).   

Pottering provides an implied sense of freedom. Ultimately, making do with what you’ve got means accepting that you don’t always have to strive for perfection. When you’re pottering, you’re not trying to achieve a specific standard. No one is judging you (or if they are, feel free to ignore them!). There’s no need for structure. “Going with the flow” is the perfect attitude for pottering. The point is to give yourself a mental break; opt out of feeling pressured.  

Pottering encourages you to take pleasure in the small things. And to me, gardening is all about the small things. It’s watching the pollinators flit from plant to plant – and then taking time to replace the hummingbird food. It’s about surveying all the flowers in bloom – and removing the dead ones. It’s about pulling a random weed – and finding a way to discourage the next one. It’s about watching tomatoes literally ripen on the vine – and deciding what else I should try to grow. In all of these things, patience is rewarded. A pace of ‘slow’ is encouraged.  

I’m pleased to have discovered the pottering concept. It’s definitely a character trait I’m happy to have associated with me. After contemplating the concept and its role in my life, I can truly say that pottering enhances my overall mental and emotional health. Being able to potter in the yard on the weekends offsets the real world. Pottering frees my mind and helps me refocus on the things in life that are really important to me. I’m probably more patient, kind, and thoughtful after a weekend of pottering than I am when I arrive home on Friday night after a 40-hour work week. Recognizing this fact makes me more apt to protect the time that I can devote to pottering. And it also makes me want to encourage my now-grown children to find their own way to potter.  

That’s right, Grayson, Cooper, and Delaney – put away your phones, postpone the Netflix binge, and potter. Let me know if you need an idea on how to get started! 

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