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National Poetry Day

So honestly I didn’t even know it was National Poetry Day. I happened to read part of this poem on Terri Windling’s blog and needed to read it all. A quick Google search and I found it. It’s written by Greek poet C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933.) Later, I saw something on social media about National Poetry Day (it’s a U.K. holiday, it turns out) so I thought I ought to participate, since I had a moment with a poem today.

What struck me in this poem was the part about remembering that, while your destination is the goal, if you arrive too quickly, you will not be rich with the gifts your destination has to offer. Better to take your time getting there, having become old and wise and rich along the way. The experience in getting there is what makes the destination valuable.

This was helpful to hear today because there are so many things I want to be good at, right now. I don’t like looking like a fool. I’ve spent my life trying to maintain my image as a smart, talented person. But it turns out I’m not that good at a lot of the things I do, and I’m scared that people will find out. I suppose it’s Imposter Syndrome. Anyway, Ithaka helped me remember that the destination is actually the end, as in, nothing left. The fun and interesting part is the journey.

Case in point: this summer I made three pairs of jeans. (OK, the third one is almost done.) They are tight, flared, high waisted jeans, so it can take some tweaking to get the fit just right without being uncomfortably tight, or baggy. The first pair barely fit me. Jeans do stretch out with time, so I thought they would be ok. But no. They are painful to wear. I altered the pattern and sewed a second pair. They were better, and I wore them many times to see if I could break them in. But in the end they were still painful to wear in one area (the crotch.) Was I having fun? Yes, actually. I did a lot of research at this point to figure out how to fix the pattern. I fixed it a third time, and basted together a third pair. They were too big! But I was able to fit them to myself with pins, unpick the basting stitches, and re-sew them. I also made sure to adjust the paper pattern to match. Finally, they fit just right! (It’s truly magical what well-fitting clothes feel like. And I don’t mean stretchy clothes! I mean clothes that have been tailored fit and flatter you and you alone. ) It only took six yards of denim and hours of work to get there. But it was fun. And I learned a lot. And now I have a jeans pattern that fits me really well, so I can make more. No doubt my fourth pair will teach me something else. So it’s not really the end yet!

I wish I could lift this experience and plop it onto some of my other goals and hobbies. There are some I take too seriously, and worry too much about my “audience” (PIANO, and others.) They are not fun. There are times when I want to share my knowledge or thoughts with people, but stop myself because I’m afraid they will find out how little I know, or what I got wrong. If I just work on my goals and hobbies alone, I don’t have to worry about what other people think. It’s nice for a while. The judgmental voices in my head go away. I reach new levels of productivity. But eventually it feels like I am hiding most of myself from the world, and not connecting meaningfully with others. And, introverted as I am, that makes me sad.

This has all been on my mind the past few days, and when I read Ithaka, I had an “aha” moment. I love it when a poem speaks to my heart like that. So thank you, Ithaka, for reminding me that it’s ok to be an ignorant fool, even if the people around me do see it. It’s ok to not be “there” yet. Enjoy it! If I admit I’m not an expert, the pressure is off, and I can move forward (or sideways) with joy and curiosity. Stay curious, seek, discover, and don’t worry so much. The journey is the goal.

Ithaka

BY C. P. CAVAFY TRANSLATED BY EDMUND KEELEY

As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

The Career Journey of a Homeschool Mom

The past few years I have been wondering what sort of career I want to have. Even though I recently had an online shop where I sold handmade items, I knew that wasn’t what I wanted to do forever. There were too many things I didn’t like about it: having to maintain a branded online presence, having to make the same things over and over, having to convince people to buy things they didn’t need, having to think about what would sell rather than what I would like to make, having to deal with tax law and bureaucracy. In the end I finally realized that this list of things I didn’t like adds up to just about everything my shop required.

As a homeschooling mom who plans to homeschool through high school, me working or going to school full-time is not really an option for the next 15ish years. I’ll be almost 50 when my last kid is in high school. That’s a long time to wait to start a career. In a sense, homeschooling is a career. But it’s not the career I wanted. I mean, I wanted to homeschool, but I didn’t consider it my career -more of a lifestyle choice. And anyway, what would I do when my kids all graduated and I couldn’t homeschool anyone? I knew I wanted a personal career separate from homeschool, and I felt a huge drive to decide what it was and get started right away.

In essence, even though I had a lot of things to fill up my time, my life felt incomplete. I started seriously thinking about what I wanted to do as a career. I knew what I didn’t want to do: no academic jobs, fast paced jobs, extroverted jobs, or competitive jobs. That knocks out a lot. Most job ideas fell into two categories: from home and away from home. The main away from home job I considered was library science. I liked the idea of getting a master’s degree, just so I could say I had one. Ha! MLIS degree programs are usually entirely done online, so I could do it from home while homeschooling, and time it so I’d be ready to work when my kids didn’t need me so much. As I looked into the jobs in that field, I liked what I saw. The specific jobs that caught my eye were cataloging and preservation/conservation. Both are pretty introverted jobs. One requires organizing books and data, which sounds fun, and the other requires repairing books and artifacts with skill and patience, which sounds really fun. And wouldn’t it be cool if I worked at the university library where Samuel works? We could drive to work together and eat lunch together every day. I have a local friend who has an MLIS degree, and she told me that the local public library system often pays for its employees’ tuition while they get their degrees and work for the library. That sounded awesome, so I even applied to work at the public library part time, just to get into the system. I applied several times but they never contacted me. That was pretty disappointing.

Meanwhile, another local friend of mine was making a career for herself as an artist. She is also a homeschool mom, so her thoughts and her journey were of particular interest to me. I’ve wanted to be an artist since I was a child. All the career quizzes I take strongly suggest a creative, artistic career. My friend told me about her struggle with allowing herself to even pursue a career while homeschooling. Although she got a degree in illustration many years ago, she hadn’t worked in the field at all. Instead, she had four kids and started homeschooling them. Most of the voices around her were telling her that that was what she needed to do, and to have a career as well would be neglecting what was more important. That didn’t feel right to her though, so she kept searching. A handful of career books inspired her to believe that it was ok to have the career she wanted, and that in order to get it, she needed to take it seriously. Over the course of the few years I’ve known her, she went from beginning to allow herself to have a career, to being a legit freelance illustrator. I remember a couple years ago, before she had any clients, she invested in herself by buying a huge fancy Ipad. She couldn’t afford the whole thing and had to set up a payment plan. The Ipad allowed her to take on real illustration work, which she immediately did, and soon paid off the Ipad. I think she has had a steady stream of work since then. Meanwhile, she still homeschools her kids. So cool!

As I talked to my friend about her journey, I decided I wanted to try being an artist. Not an illustrator like her. In fact, I wasn’t sure what kind of art I wanted to make. Most of my art experience was in the craft realm, and then the academic realm of art history, which I minored in. I knew if I started selling my art, I didn’t want it to be in the craft realm. I just don’t love making the same thing over and over. And it’s hard to scale your business to make a decent income with crafts. Either you work like crazy, or you hire other crafters, at which point you’re not an artist, you’re a manager. I didn’t want to do that. I already have to manage homeschool. So I thought about the fine art realm. No employees, higher price tags, and you don’t have to make the same thing over and over.

I felt like I had a long way to go in the fine art realm. I had no clue how to navigate that field, but the idea of trying was exciting. I decided to start from scratch and treat it like a career by requiring myself to spend ten hours a week in the studio, trying to make fiber art. I also spent time researching current artists, reading academic articles about fine art, and going to local galleries. I felt in over my head a bit, but I loved the world I was in and I wanted to someday be recognized as a part of it.

I had been working on the above goals for a couple months when COVID-19, quarantine, and my gallbladder surgery hit all at once. Due to my surgery I had to take a break from my sewing machine and fiber art studio time. COVID-19 was overwhelming and the idea of trying to break into the fine art world also suddenly felt overwhelming. Then, when I forced myself to have a go, my sewing machine wouldn’t start. Samuel took it to the shop, where it still is, months later! But I do have a backup that works for basic sewing. I did some sewing for myself and my family, but nothing that was fine art. It just seemed too hard. All I really wanted to do was homemaking projects: sewing and quilting, cooking, organizing, minor remodeling, and gardening. And of course reading, homeschooling, and writing on this blog.

As I wrote in my first blog post, this time period shifted from being overwhelming to extremely creatively productive. At this time, I had this constant feeling that something exciting was going to happen, and it was career related. I felt like I was approaching something really exciting and meaningful. One milestone was that I realized that I am really good at staying home. Like, really good. I was reminded of a unique life purpose questionnaire I stumbled upon back in January of 2019. It was very helpful to me. You can read it at https://markmanson.net/life-purpose

I’m going to paste the questions and my answers below.

1. WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE FLAVOR OF SHIT SANDWICH AND DOES IT COME WITH AN OLIVE? (AKA, all jobs have undesireable parts. Which ones can you put up with and maybe even enjoy?)

-bad weather, being stuck at home, being creative with limited resources and materials, isolation

2. WHAT’S TRUE ABOUT YOU TODAY THAT WOULD MAKE YOUR 8-YEAR-OLD SELF CRY?

-not outside often enough, not enough pets/farm animals

3. WHAT MAKES YOU FORGET TO EAT AND POOP?

-obsessing over and planning future possibilities, planning systems and methods, researching new ideas and philosophies, planning for a big change

(I couldn’t think of answers for the next two questions, and I skipped them.)

6. GUN TO YOUR HEAD, IF YOU HAD TO LEAVE THE HOUSE ALL DAY, EVERY DAY, WHERE WOULD YOU GO AND WHAT WOULD YOU DO?

-I would hike trails and be outside with my kids. paint landscapes, become a naturalist, make art in a studio, preserve artifacts or textiles in a museum

7. IF YOU KNOW YOU WERE GOING TO DIE ONE YEAR FROM TODAY, WHAT WOULD YOU DO AND HOW WOULD YOU WANT TO BE REMEMBERED?

-homeschool my kids and spend time with them and Samuel doing creative things and being outside every day. I would want them to remember that. I don’t really care how others remember me.

Anyway, quarantine and this questionnaire helped me realize that I really like staying home, and I am really good at it. I realized I would prefer a career I could do at home, and that nixed the library science job. When I realized this, it’s like the career just disappeared with a poof and I stopped thinking about it immediately. I’m just no longer interested. I do think it might be a good option if Samuel died and I had to get a breadwinning career ASAP. Or if I become physically disabled and need an intellectual career. But other than those circumstances coming about, I don’t see myself pursuing that career.

The other thing quarantine helped me realize is that I really like gardening. I had a very successful garden this summer. I took an online class from the LSU Ag Center about home vegetable gardening. It was a legit class -about 3 hours a week of lectures and then lab work, plus putting things into practice in my own garden. I took it very seriously and did all I could to invest in my garden and myself. I bought a second fridge to hold produce and pickles. I broke out the canner for the first time in 8 years. I stayed on top of weeds, pests, and disease insofar as I could with organic methods. I spent a lot of money on scaling things up, irrigation systems, reference books, season extension materials, and more. I spent hours and hours researching, reading, learning, and planning. The reason I did all this is because I love it. Gardening is ALWAYS exciting to me. It’s not mentally exhausting, it’s satisfying, it’s outside, it’s creating beauty, it’s creating delicious food, it’s eco-friendly, and you don’t have to deal with any bureaucracy, coworkers, policies, taxes, or asking people to buy your stuff.

The garden led organically to me deciding that I was finally ready to get chickens. Besides the eggs, I wanted a natural fertilizer source besides compost (there’s just not enough compost!) And because I like to plan out big changes, within days (hours?) of the chickens idea I had tacked on bees and dairy/meat goats. Maybe pigs? Maybe sheep? Samuel helped me measure and draw a map of our property and began to plan out a legit backyard homestead with corrals, an orchard, etc. A goal was percolating in my head -growing all our own veggies, dairy, meat and eggs. It’s a lofty goal, but it filled me with excitement and I began to do the research and planning to make it happen.

While researching and planning, I kept having thoughts about how I was treating this like a career. Maybe homesteading isn’t exactly a career, but it fills that empty space I have been feeling in my life and seeing in my future that I call “my career.” It fits that space so perfectly that I keep mentioning little “perfect” things about it to Samuel. It checks off many of my desired career traits. It also has unique traits that I love, that are hard to get in any other job:

-staying at home REQUIRED
-works well with homeschooling
-creative, as in, you create things and plans and solutions.
-making things more beautiful
-being outside daily in all weather
-doesn’t involve selling things or bureaucracy (unless you want to go that route)
-lots of creative problem solving involved, on a daily basis
-planning required -big and small plans (bring on the spreadsheets!)
-working with animals (I did this a lot as a child and teen but have gotten away from it. I absolutely love working with animals.)
-never boring
-being fairly isolated from the drama of the outside world
-being a naturalist/aware of nature and the seasons and weather
-keeping detailed, organized records (spreadsheets again! yay!)
-cooking, storing, and eating delicious food (this takes a big chunk of time, and I love it)
-gives you a sense of abundance (hard to explain, but I’m drawn to abundance in many forms)
-seeing things improve over time, feeling that satisfaction as you learn from mistakes and gain skills, and yet no one is evaluating you but yourself. yes!
-potential to feed artistic endeavors with natural dye plants, wool, or just inspiration

And now, I must bring this blog post to a close, because I have a lot of work to do, including potting up a jillion fall crop seedlings, planting more seeds, working on setting up my record keeping system, shaping a new garden bed, making jam, and roasting a chicken. I probably can’t do it all today, but I’m excited to work through the list.

A Personal Theology of Animals

Lately I’ve been interested in getting some farm animals. Chickens, bees, goats. I’ve wanted to since childhood, but when we finally got some property where we could do so, I felt overwhelmed by life and the idea of being responsible for yet another living thing. This was all wrapped up with the fact that right after we moved here, our beautiful collie Arwen was hit by a car and died, due to my own carelessness. But a few years have passed, we got another dog and I’ve managed to keep him alive so far, not to mention my kids, and I’ve found myself not feeling nearly so anxious about…everything…like I had been in recent years. 

As I was reading books and listening to podcasts about farm animals, I was struck by a theme strung through all of them: the animals we have in our care, that we use for food and clothing, and even pets, must be treated with dignity, respect, and love. If you can’t do that, you don’t have any business raising animals. It’s not that we shouldn’t use animals at all: they have been bred for the purpose of human use. But we need to take care not to take advantage of their vulnerability. 

This theme was really instilled in me because while researching farm animals I was also reading “Wild Animals I Have Known,” by Ernest Thompson Seton, an older book where each chapter is a life sketch of a wild animal (except for two domestic farm dogs.) Being a book of life sketches, each chapter ends with the animal’s death, and it is always tragic -usually at the hands of men, though sometimes the tooth and claw of a predator. Seton says in the prologue, “Such a collection of histories naturally suggests a common thought (…) no doubt each different mind will find a moral to its taste, but I hope some will herein find emphasized a moral as old as Scripture -we and the beasts are kin. Man has nothing that the animals have not at least a vestige of, the animals have nothing that man does not in some degree share. Since, then, the animals are creatures with wants and feelings differing in degree only from our own, they surely have their rights. This fact, now beginning to be recognized by the Caucasian world, was emphasized by the Buddhist over two thousand years ago,” (Seton.) When I finished the book, I realized that it had deeply moved me, which I wasn’t expecting. I felt a renewed motivation to treat animals as well as I knew how. This book, combined with the farm animals research, got me to really think about what I believe concerning animals and our responsibility towards them, on a theological level.

  As a Latter-Day Saint, my theology explicitly teaches that the whole world and each being in the world was created by God spiritually before it was created physically. “I, the Lord God, created all things (…) spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth.” And also, “I in heaven created them; and there was not yet flesh upon the earth, neither in the water, neither in the air,” (Moses 3:5.) In Genesis: “These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, And every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew,” (Genesis 2:4-5.) “For by the power of my Spirit created I them; yea, all things both spiritual and temporal—First spiritual, secondly temporal,” (D&C 2931.) We also have a fascinating revelation about celestial animals -animals that are in “the paradise of God,” having arrived at their “destined border or sphere of creation, in the enjoyment of their eternal felicity.” They are “full of knowledge” and have “power to move, to act, etc,” (D&C 77:2-4.)  So yes, I believe nature, animals, plants, rocks, trees, humans, etc., all have spirits, or souls, have the power to choose right or wrong, and can even go to heaven. 

My theology is also clear that humans are different: as in, our spirits are not just a creation of God, but we are literally spirit children of God (Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother.) So I am trying to figure out what that means as far as how we all relate to each other (God, nature, humans.) It seems like humans are higher on the totem pole than nature, because we are children rather than creations. And that makes our current stewardship over nature make sense. And yet, when humanity considers itself separate from and above the entire rest of the world, that has Implications. A few I can see are feeling lonely and isolated, feeling justified in being wasteful, and feeling justified in seeking power over others (whether animal or human.) Ursula K Le Guin said, “We human beings have made a world reduced to ourselves and our artifacts, but we weren’t made for it, and we have to teach our children to live in it. Physically and mentally equipped to be at home in a richly various and unpredictable environment, competing and coesxisting with creatures of all kinds, our children must learn poverty and exile: to live on concrete among endless human beings, seeing a beast now and then through bars,” (Le Guin.) I don’t think we were ever meant to live this way. I don’t think it is something God wanted for us, but like so many things in this world, that’s the way it is. Our current circumstances that we have constructed for ourselves over the millenia have dictated the types of choices we can make. As I see it, one of those choices is how to treat the animals we have in our stewardship.

Another thing influencing my opinion here is something very personal. My childhood dog, a beautiful dalmatian named Lucky, died when I was about 16 or 17. Sometime in the years that followed, I had a dream about her. We were in heaven, and I was watching her run joyfulling through a field of grass. She didn’t come up to me, but we could somehow speak to each other in our minds. We didn’t use words, except that I said, “I miss you.”  From her I got a sense that she was very happy, very intelligent -even more intelligent than I had ever considered, and she knew who I was, loved me, and yet was not owned by me or anyone else. She was a free beast. I’ve never forgotten that dream and I take it pretty seriously. Dreams are often symbolic, and this one really left me with an impression that there is more going on inside an animal’s mind than we think we know. Also, that though we may have responsibility to care for animals in life due to our modern circumstances, they are meant to be free beasts, and more like friends or family than tools or slaves. 

When our collie Arwen was hit by a car after we (I) left the gate open and accidentally locked her out of the house when we left for a party, not only was I very sad to lose her, I felt deeply my failure to protect her. Because of the way we have constructed our modern world, our pets depend on us for everything. They are extremely vulnerable. When we buried her, I kept hearing the words from a song in my head, “You didn’t do right by me. You done me wrong.” My grief at her loss was compounded by the knowledge that I had done her wrong. It was a bitter lesson. It taught me the seriousness of choosing to keep animals, or even to use animals for food or clothing or what have you. Their position is extremely vulnerable, and we have a responsibility at this time to take our care of animals very seriously and somberly. 

As a Latter-Day Saint I have a lot of scripture available to me that reinforces this idea. Most of the “animal” verses in the Doctrine and Covenants have to do with using animals for food and clothing, and the general message is clear: we have a responsibility to take special care of the animals God has allowed us to use. God says that we should not tell anyone to “abstain from meats,” for that is not “ordained of God.” And yet, “wo be unto man that sheddeth blood or that wasteth flesh and hath no need.” He says “the beasts of the field and the fowls of the air, and that which cometh of the earth, is ordained for the use of man for food and for raiment, and that he might have in abundance.” But also “…these (are) to be used with prudence and thanksgiving…sparingly…and it is pleasing unto me that they should not be used, only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.” (D&C 49:18-21 and 89:10-21.) There is a tension in these assorted verses: we are given permission by God to use animals for meat and raiment, “that we might have in abundance,” but it would please God if we used them only in times of need. Wastefullness is condemned, and you’d think in this modern world of selfishness that we’d understand better the need to keep our resources from being overused. In another fascinating book related to this whole topic, The Enchanted Life, author Sharon Blackie warns, “As a consequence of our quest for mastery and possession of nature we are, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, much more likely to have sown the seeds of our own destruction,” (Blackie.)

When Arwen died I had to admit to myself that none of us are going to be perfect pet owners/farmers/meat eaters/leather shoe wearers, just like none of us are perfect parents, or perfect followers of Christ. I am never going to be able to take care of anything perfectly. Be it a pet, a house, a garden, finances, or even my own children. We live in an imperfect, fallen world where accidents happen and we make mistakes. Things get ruined or damaged. Loved ones get hurt or killed. We must do our best, and if we do so, things will probably turn out well most of the time. But that still doesn’t cover everything. Jesus Christ does. No, that doesn’t mean he is going to make life perfect and painless right now, and fix all our mistakes instantly. But he can help us see the beauty in this messy modern life, find peace, help us learn from our mistakes, and someday, because of him, everything that went wrong in this world will somehow be made right. With this knowledge, I feel ready to take on some more responsibility in the realm of caring for animals. I trust that God will bless my efforts.  

Works Cited:

Blackie, Sharon. The Enchanted Life. House of Anansi Press Inc., 2018. 

Le Guin, Ursula K. “The Beast in the Book.”  Words Are My Matter, Ursula K. Le Guin. Small Beer Press, 2016, pp47.

Seton, Ernest Thompson. Wild Animals I Have Known. Western Publishing Company, Inc., 1961.

The Doctrine and Covenants. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Salt Lake City, Utah, 2013.

The New Testament. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Salt Lake City, Utah, 2013.

The Old Testament. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Salt Lake City, Utah, 2013.

The Pearl of Great Price. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Salt Lake City, Utah, 2013.

Thoughts on “The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis,” by Alan Jacobs

The most recent book I finished is “The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis,” by Alan Jacobs. The book stirred up a lot of thoughts in me, which I’ve been chewing on. My relationship with C.S. Lewis’ work is complicated. Sometimes his writings inspire me deeply, and sometimes his writings make me cringe. This book helped me realize that that’s ok. He was brilliant, a gifted, fluent writer, loved a lot of the same things I love, and yet he sometimes contradicted himself, had a really strange and disturbing personal life, and was a product of his time, with misogynistic ideas that show up over and over in his writings. 

This biography is unusual in that it is about “The Life and Imagination” of Lewis. Now, I think this is what made me enjoy this book. I love to catch glimpses of peoples’ inner worlds: the ideas that drive their choices and come out in their creative work. Jacobs quotes one of Lewis’ friends as saying, “Somehow what he thought about everything was secretly present in what he said about anything.” Lucky for me, Lewis’ inner world was exceedingly rich by all accounts, and bits of it spilled out into his writings frequently. Jacobs did a great job collection them and organizing them.

The first thing I marked in this book was when Jacobs writes at length about how G.K. Chesterton influenced Lewis, and one of the things he referenced was Chesterton’s “Orthodoxy” (which I haven’t read) and “In Defense of Penny Dreadfuls,” which I have. The latter is an essay about how humans need simple, sensational stories (“penny dreadfuls”) to remind our subconscious of the purpose of life (from a Christian perspective anyway.) Jacobs explains that, according to Chesterton, “Christianity, then, is a penny dreadful-or perhaps the seed from which all penny dreadfuls grow. The story of each human life, in the account given by Christianity, is filled with the suspense and tension of a ‘boy’s book’ -that is, with just the vital decisions and dramatic consequences that were banished from much modern literature.” I love this idea -that we read (or today, often watch) those formulaic, plot-driven stories because we are rehearsing the story of Christianity, or rather, the story of “fighting the good fight” of keeping the faith.

In a similar vein, Jacobs turns to the topic of mythology, which C.S. Lewis loved. He was deeply moved by Norse Mythology from a young age, and in his late teens he writes to a friend that he “worships” Homer. “So too the craving for myths (hearing them, reading them, making them) suggests the presence of a nonphysiological need that they satisfy -or, more accurately, try to satisfy. Because they reach something deep within us, we return to them repeatedly, but because they do not and cannot meet the need they invoke, our experience with them is characterized by longing.” If you’ve read much Lewis, you know he writes about “longing” often. This feeling of longing for something (Heaven/God) that is not here on earth, is one I latched onto the first time I read about it in Surprised by Joy. I immediately recognized what he was talking about. I have felt it off and on from a young age, and I also love mythology, fables, folklore, and fairy tales, in part because they stir up that longing feeling in me.  

A new-to-me idea in the book was when Jacobs started writing about Lewis’ thoughts on the similarity between magic and science. He quotes Lewis’ “The Abolition of Man,” “The serious magical endeavor and the serious scientific endeavor are twins: one was sickly and died, the other was strong and throve. But they were twins. They were born of the same impulse.” But what was that impulse? Quoting Lewis again: “There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the wisdom of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is now to subdue reality to the wishes of men; the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious.” And then, “What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.” This blew my mind. I tried in vain to think of any sort of science or technology that was not used to give humans more control and power over their lives. Almost everything we do, our scientific research, the jobs we train for, medical treatments, even the education we get through school, is explicitly for the practical purpose of creating more control over our circumstances -not for wisdom or virtue. Lewis thinks this will result in the downfall of humanity, and I think he might be right, but I have a few points to write about. 

The first is that, to my understanding (and I am no expert on the ancient world, so bear that in mind,) the ancient philosophers who pursued wisdom and virtue for their own sakes were able to do so because of slaves and servants and other people taking care of their needs. They took slavery for granted. In a sense they had reached a pinnacle of control and power and thus were able to focus solely on wisdom. Similarly, classical education was meant to teach wisdom and virtue to students who belonged to the highest classes and again, didn’t have to worry about getting money or food or otherwise seek stability and control over their circumstances. Modern education is more interested in science and power and control. You get an education so you can get a job, so you can control your circumstances as best you can. It’s practical -nothing wrong with that. In our modern times, the idea of gaining wisdom just to have wisdom begs the question, “What are you going to do with that?” One of the reasons I love Charlotte Masons’ vision of education is because she was trying to meld the two methods together. Her intent was to give children of all classes a classical education (of which the sciences are a part and always have been, though perhaps not in the modern way we think of,) tweaked a bit to fit into a regular student’s life, so that they would obtain wisdom and virtue. She believed this was enough to prepare them to succeed in any career, including hard sciences. She was very successful in this. Conversely, she would argue, if a person were educated in the modern way, obtaining wisdom or virtue might slip through the cracks in some cases, because it was the side-goal to the more intentional goal of earning a living. I think she was right.  

An interesting part of the biography was the discussion of how Lewis shifted over his lifetime from writing mostly apologetics, to writing fantasy stories for children. He is quoted, “I am not quite sure what made me, in a particular year of my life, feel that not only a fairy tale, but a fairy tale addressed to children, was exactly what I must write -or burst. Partly, I think, (the reason is) that this form permits, or compels you to throw all the force of a book into what was done and said. It checks what a kind, but discerning critic called ‘the expository demon’ in me.” Jacobs says, “Objections to Christianity…are phrased in words, but that does not mean that they are really a matter of language and analysis and argument. Words are tokens of the will. If something stronger than language were available, then we would use it. But by the same token, words in defense of Christianity miss the mark as well: they are a translation into the dispassionate language of argument of something that resides far deeper in the caverns of volition, of commitment. Perhaps this is why Saint Francis, so the story goes, instructed his followers to ‘preach the Gospel always, using words if necessary.’ It is not simply and straightforwardly wrong to make arguments in defense of the Christian faith, but it is a relatively superficial activity: it fails to address the core issues….An apologist for Christianity, to some degree at least, commits himself or herself to answering questions that Jesus himself refused to answer….But…there is a kind of language that, if it does not avoid such superficiality, nevertheless shows an awareness of that danger and in a sense can point beyond itself. I refer to the language of stories -perhaps especially the language of fantasy and fairy tale. Sometimes fairy stories may say best what’s to be said.” 

Jacobs then goes on to describe how Narnia came about first as “images” popping up announced in Lewis’ head. There was nothing Christian about the images, but Lewis decided to “trust the images” in writing his story, and only write down “what was done and said,” rather than explaining, defending, or moralizing. He decided, “Let the pictures tell you their own moral. For the moral inherent in them will rise from whatever spiritual roots you have succeeded in striking during the whole course of your life.” This reminds me of another Charlotte Mason idea: that “moralizing” to children will not truly teach them anything. We learn when we make real, living connections between ourselves and what is being learned, not when someone tells us this or that. It’s the difference between watching a video of watercolor painting techniques vs. attempting those techniques in real life. It’s the difference between telling a child “don’t hit people,” which usually doesn’t work, vs. the child becoming personally convicted, through experience, whether physical or spiritual, or story. What we truly learn is what we connect with on a deeper level, what we connect to our “spiritual roots.” 

The talk about “images” in stories begs to be applied to all of the arts. “Let the pictures tell you their own moral.” I think what Lewis is trying to say is that “the pictures” will teach each of us different things based on our own receptivness and our own unique spiritual roots. Some of us will be receptive to one idea, some to another. When a group of people look at a painting, they will all think and feel something different about it. The painting will teach them each a different lesson. And that lesson will most likely be remembered because part of it will come from what is already within you. Conversely, apologetics tends to only teach those who have already made a spiritual connection with what is being defended. Those who are against it will usually only form a rebuttal, rather than accept what is being taught. Those who are undecided might sway one way or the other as their “spiritual roots” begin to show themselves. Stories and images are powerful tools for teaching morals or expressing complex spiritual ideas, but they require a willingness to trust the process, not to mention a lot of restraint to keep the “expository demon” from emerging. As far as Narnia is concerned, I think Lewis was pretty successful. 

One of the things that really bugs me about Lewis is his misogyny. By all accounts he treated women and girls very courteously and even like equals, (I do appreciate that so much!) yet in his writings misogynist ideas pop up all the time. Yes, I know he was just a product of his times and he could have been so much worse. But I claim the right to cringe through some of his books. And I appreciated that Jacobs, though he is clearly a huge fan of Lewis, brought up this problem in The Narnian. Here’s an example Jacobs brought up briefly, and my thoughts: It bugs me that in The Last Battle, Susan has lost her faith, and she is more interested in “silk stockings, lipsticks, and invitations” than Narnia. Now, I get the point that Susan was more concerned about what people thought about her than about what God/Aslan thought about her, and that had become a stumbling block for her. But using silk stockings and lipsticks to illustrate that just makes me mad. The fact that they are such feminine things that he chooses to showcase tells me more about him than Susan. Did he think all women who wore and enjoyed wearing silk stockings and lipsticks were in danger of losing sight of what’s important? I doubt it, yet he still managed to let the sentence slip from his pen. Not to mention the fact that in 1956 when this book was published, stockings and lipstick were conventionally expected of any woman who went out in public. That’s problematic, sure, but it’s not the woman’s fault. It’s the culture. Of course I have no way of knowing how he would defend his words. 

Even more annoying, when rumors were heard that Lewis was an ascetic, his friends laughed because in reality Lewis was a pleasure-seeker, usually in the form of pipes, alcohol, and good food. He believed that pleasure is God-approved, and that “matter” or, the stuff of this world, be it silk or tobacco or good food or anything else that can bring pleasure and delight, should be used (appropriately) and delighted in. He said, “God likes matter. he invented it.” So it feels like a double standard that pipes are God-approved but lipstick is a symbol of worrying too much about approval from others. Now, I can give Lewis some grace because I think most people, including myself, believe that women taking pleasure in beautifying themselves is a sign of weakness. Our culture sends that message constantly, along with the message that women ought to be as beautiful as possible at all times. You can’t win. There’s so much to unpack there. 

I have often thought about this regarding myself. I do take pleasure in beautifying myself, through makeup, clothing, jewelry, and hairstyles. Not every day, but often. And since I know I tend towards being self-centered, and given our cultural messages, and given my tendency to overthink every choice I make, I have wondered on a daily basis for the past twenty odd years if my compulsion to beautify myself, and the pleasure I find in it makes me a self-absorbed, appearance-obsessed, shallow person, at risk of neglecting the more important things in life. I got some new insights into myself recently thanks to quarantine. I haven’t left the house more than a handful of times in the past nearly three months. And yet I still have been wearing makeup, fancy clothes, and jewelry. Not every day, but often. Literally nobody cares, no one will see me, unless it’s a social media selfie, which I share on occasion. My husband doesn’t even like makeup on me, and I am still wearing it. It does seem to be purely for my own pleasure. Now this doesn’t necessarily assuage my doubts, but I think it helped. But yeah, I am still overthinking all of it. 

The last point in the book that I’ve been chewing on starts with this quote by Jacobs: “‘Religion’ is either a set of cultural practices or a set of doctrines, and in either case -though for Lewis the doctrines were always absolutely necessary as maps toward one’s true destination- they should never be the goal of the Christian life. (To make such a mistake would be (quoting Lewis) ‘as if navigation were substituted for arrival, or battle for victory, or wooing for marriage.’) Beyond all religion lies Something, or rather Someone, that religion can never capture, Who is more real than any practices or doctrines.” If we put our faith in “religion” we are missing the point. Religion is a tool, a “necessary map” to help us find our way back to God -it is not God. “Living our religion” is not what saves us: God saves us. The difference is subtle but crucial. I can easily and gratefully point to the many, many ways that my religion has helped me come closer to God. But at the same time, as a person who sometimes battles thoughts approaching religious scrupulosity, I find it comforting and helpful to remember that perfection in religiosity is not the end goal.

Nurturing Creative Energy

In this essay I hope to explain, through self-reflection, how I best nurture my creative energy. It’s a rather self-centered piece of writing, its purpose being to help me in the future when I get into a creative slump. Perhaps it could be of help to others interested in creative work too. It is not meant to be a list of all my accomplishments or a passive request for praise, although it certainly could look that way. And it certainly is not meant to make anyone feel like their behavior during quarantine or any other difficult time was lazy or unproductive or otherwise should have been different. Each of us is going to behave differently. If you were meant to behave like me, you would, in fact, be me. But it turns out, each of us is an individual, and any hope of being like someone else, or any feelings of shame at not being like someone else, is unfruitful. I appreciate when others share their experiences and voices. By definition, they will be different from mine. I can always find value in those differences -it’s something I love to do, and I deeply appreciate the rich variety of experience and expression within humanity.

For me, quarantine began when I had surgery to remove my gallbladder on March 20, 2020. For over three years something had felt “off” in the bottom of my ribs/middle of my abdomen. Sometimes it ached, sometimes it burned, sometimes it felt swollen, sometimes it felt fine, but it always felt like my top half and my bottom half were somehow disconnected. Not sure how to describe that last part. It was like there was a block in that part of my body that prevented two healthy parts from working well together. I wasn’t very sick by any means, but I wasn’t in full health. Physically, mentally, and emotionally, I had a lot of lows during that time, some of which I’m sure were related to my gallbladder. Finally in March I had a gallbladder attack, found out what was going on, and chose to have surgery a few weeks later. 

Recovery was hard the first week. I couldn’t eat much, I couldn’t read, I couldn’t listen to any books, music, or podcasts. All I wanted was silence and stillness. Every day I could hobble around a little more and I would go outside, which made my pain diminish. I began to think about my summer garden. I did not want planting time to pass me by, so, with Samuel and my kids’ help, I got everything planted. I would plant one or two seedlings, then go inside and rest. The go out and plant a couple more. It was only thing I had energy for during those first couple weeks.

I began to recover rapidly after that. I still checked the garden multiple times a day. But I also began to do more. I didn’t have mental space to read much, but I began to focus more on my health. I made a plan to work up to walking 10,000 steps a day. I wanted to take better care of myself, and I wanted to feel and look healthier. Getting to 10,000 steps was hard and I seemed to hit a block at around 5,000, unless we went on a family walk. I felt mostly recovered, but I wasn’t fully satisfied. About one month after my surgery, I still felt mostly unable to read or do much work besides gardening. I spent my days sitting on the couch scrolling through sad, scary news and social media, feeling anxious and unable to escape from it. Samuel was feeling similarly and as we talked that night we resolved to put some structure into our lives to see if it would help.  

The next morning I woke up at 6:30am to go for a walk by myself. This was so wonderful. I did it again and again. Every day I woke up early, every day I walked by myself, a little further down the road each time. I craved it. One day I walked all the way to the end of the road and back (2.7 miles, about 50 minutes.) This made getting my 10,000 steps feel effortless for the first time ever. Where a year or two ago walking this much would have wiped me out for the rest of the day, now it seemed to barely put a dent in my energy level. If anything, it energized me. (I attribute this stamina to solving the gallbladder problem, with a side of eating healthier.) I felt full of life and ready to do things, and I knew it was because I was alone for an hour first thing in the morning. Before checking social media, before my kids need me, I got to spend one blissful hour in solitude. A quote by C.S. Lewis kept popping into my head: “I entered with complete satisfaction into a deeper solitude than I have ever known.” Except I had known it before, I realized. In my late teens and before kids, whenever I became absorbed in an art project or book or poem or CD. My whole world was just me and myself, creating something or being inspired by something. Sure, I had had moments of this creative solitude as a mom, but they were infrequent and short. 

I began to look for more solitude in my days, and simultaneously, I found more mental space as well. I started reading and sewing again.  About this time I read “Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World.” I’ve known about this book for years but was avoiding it because I love Instagram. I love to feel inspired. Inspiration gives me creative energy, which leads to creativity and more joy in my life as I develop skills and am able to shape my life and environment to bring me joy. The things I share on social media usually tend towards the “look what I did/made/read” because I want to share that feeling of inspiration. My favorite people to follow on social media are the ones that post what they’ve accomplished lately. It fuels me. My main problem with social media is the trap of wanting to feel inspired, so I log on and spend hours feeling inspired by others without actually doing or making anything. What follows is feeling depressed that I’m not doing anything with my life, not feeling that creative energy, so I go back online to get another easy fix. And the cycle continues. 

“Minimalism is the art of knowing how much is just enough. Digital minimalism applies this idea to our personal technology. It’s the key to living a focused life in an increasingly noisy world,” -so says the book. As I read it I realized that my craving for more solitude was being denied by my overuse of social media, and that less solitude equalled less creativity equalled less joy. It’s not that social media is bad, or that being connected to so many loved ones is bad (obviously.) It’s that the social media apps are engineered to be as addictive as possible. Every day, every spare bored moment, I reached for my phone without even thinking. I filled my head with others’ inspiring posts, without taking any time to just be quiet and alone. This book explained to me that I need to be more intentional with how I use social media, especially since my life at home with kids is anything but quiet and solitary. Sure, I can use Instagram for creative inspiration. But do I really need to use it for hours every day to achieve that purpose? Absolutely not. More like an hour a week, tops. If I want to feel happy, the remaining hours should be used for actually creating. So after I read this book I set an intentional schedule for using social media. In addition to that, I stopped listening to music or audiobooks on my morning walks. The problems I solved and the cool ideas I came up with on those silent walks have proven to me how starved my mind was for quiet time to process my life.

With all the extra time no longer spent online, I started to dig deep at home and build in more structure: daily and weekly plans, cleaning checklists, homeschool, running 5Ks on the treadmill, cleaning windows inside and out, ripping down wallpaper, sewing, reading books, dialed up to eleven because I had more energy now than I’ve had in years. I felt healthy and inspired. Many of these activities are things I’ve been doing off and on for many years, because I enjoy them, but lately it’s been with a whole new level of determination, joy, and productivity. All the homeschooling, sewing, baking, cooking, cleaning, growing gardens, pickling things, art projects, writing projects, house projects, and folding laundry the KonMari way are all deeply inspiring to me. They make my life more beautiful or fun, or help me develop skills. I love to be inspired and creatively productive, and I love to inspire others, especially my kids. I enjoy it immensely. 

And now here I am, on June 18, 2020, nearly three months after my surgery. I’m feeling incredibly healthy and just bursting with creative energy. It’s the last week of school and I’m itching to get to work full-time on my many projects. I suspect this situation  will not last forever, so I am recording it to help my future self get back on track someday. I want to remember this time, unique in my life so far, when focusing on the daily tasks of life that support mental and physical health and creativity has ended up giving me more creative energy than I’ve ever had. I also want to mention that my husband has been an incredible support to me. First, while recovering from surgery, he took on all of my duties during a very stressful, busy time for his job as a professor. As I began to recover and seek out solitude and overflow with creative projects, he endured my retreating into myself and also encouraged me in my endeavors. He’s my best sounding board for ideas, and no one helps me understand difficult concepts better. He’s a gifted, deep thinker who helps me sort my thoughts and be better able to express myself. Along with solitude, I also am deeply enriched by connecting with him. Although he did not write this essay, in many ways I am able to write it because he has helped me figure out what I need to say.