Into the Woods

We’ve been very frugal on this cross-country road trip, camping or staying with friends instead of hotels, eating cookie butter sandwiches in the car instead of stopping for fast food, and finding these amazing free attractions along the way:

dolls rocking chair


tee chimes

Since we were in Pittsburgh today, we thought we should visit the famous Frank Lloyd Wright home Fallingwater until we discovered that the cost of entry did not fit with my vision of frugality. I wasn’t sure it was worth it, but my husband felt strongly that this was a once in a lifetime chance.

For some reason I remembered an article I read many years ago in Harper’s Magazine about an attempt to fight poverty by educating poor adults in the humanities. I was working for a foundation that brought music education to inner city schools at the time, so I was already a practicing believer in the elevating effect of the arts. We lost our copy of the article when we moved and all my attempts to find it online have been unsuccessful, but I found it! I re-read it yesterday and noticed that NPR recently aired a story on the program, the Clemente Course. I was very happy to discover that the course is still being taught twenty years later.

The part of the original article that stayed with me all these years (luckily, since it helped me narrow down my google search) was a discussion the author had with a woman in a maximum security prison. In response to the question, “Why do you think people are poor?” she said,

“You got to begin with the children,” she said, speaking rapidly, clipping out the street sounds as they came into her speech.

She paused long enough to let the change of direction take effect, then resumed the rapid, rhythmless speech. “You’ve got to teach the moral life of downtown to the children. And the way you do that, Earl, is by taking them downtown to plays, museums, concerts, lectures, where they can learn the moral life of downtown.”

I smiled at her, misunderstanding, thinking I was indulging her. “And then they won’t be poor anymore?”

She read every nuance of my response, and answered angrily, “And they won’t be poor no more.

“What you mean is—”

“What I mean is what I said—a moral alternative to the street.”

This answer was very different from the author’s previous six hundred interviews as he researched poverty. It surprised him and led him to develop the Clemente Course, which aimed to take people whose only concerns in life have been immediate survival and “open this avenue to reflection” that the study of art, history and philosophy provides.

I read this article before I had children, back when I believed I would be the kind of mom to fill every moment of my children’s lives with enriching cultural activities. Back when I knew I would do everything right. And  now here I was eighteen years later listening to my kids watch Spongebob Squarepants in the back seat and wondering if it was worth the extra money to take them to see an architectural wonder. This was just another example of how my current self would be such a disappointment to my younger self. I was persuaded by my husband and by Younger Me and decided to just go for it.

And guess what? It was worth it.


So worth it.


The sound of the waterfall, the stone floors, the windows, the sense of purpose to every little part of the house. The house was amazing, the grounds were gorgeous and peaceful, and the house and grounds were carefully and thoughtfully intertwined. I loved everything about it.


And we kept saying, “This was so worth it.”


And this beautiful family picture with every child smiling pleasantly except for that weird youngest one is so very worth it. If you’re going to ruin a picture, you might as well go whole hog, I guess.


I asked my boys what they liked about Fallingwater. My oldest seemed to enjoy himself the most, but when I tried to pin him down to something he specifically liked, he said, “If there was only one good thing about it, five million people wouldn’t come to see it.” My next oldest said he liked the feel of the house, of being “one with nature.” My third was impressed with how modern it looks for a house built in the 1930s, and my youngest said it was “relaxing.”

I don’t know how much they’ll remember about this visit. I’m not naive enough to think that it will instantly change their lives. But I am glad we made it a priority, that we took time away from the electronics and junk food that naturally accompany road trips, that we went to a place where we were surrounded by greatness, both natural and man made. I hope we’ll continue to make it a priority to seek out elevating experiences and eventually maybe our children will choose to do the same. Oh, how I hope they will.

face spongebob


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