The Wisdom of Fairy Tales

One of my favorite parts of being a parent right now is that I get to read a lot of fairy tales. We go to the library and head straight to the traditional fairy tale section. I’m always amazed at the gorgeously illustrated versions we keep discovering. Here are some of our favorites:

Snow White by Josephine Poole, illustrated by Angela Barrett

This is my 3 and a half year’s favorite book. I need to actually buy it rather than only borrowing it for months from the library. She looks at the illustrations over and over again — is it weird that her favorite picture is when Snow White appears dead on the ground of the cottage with the witch leaving in the background? It may be a little morbid, but I remind myself of the Uses of Enchantment, that fairy tales help children gently deal with grim realities.

Rapunzel by Paul O. Zelinsky

My kids went through a time when they wanted this book every day. His illustrations look straight from the Italian Renaissance. I did finally buy this one instead of only borrowing it from the library.

Here are a few more that we love:

Now, while this post may seem to be headed in the direction of “Fairy Tale Recommendations,” I really want to write this morning about what reading fairy tales all the time does for me.

I was a bit sick yesterday — sore throat, achy muscles, exhaustion. But, in the afternoon, I had an hour where I felt a little better and I slowly accomplished some chores while my girls (magically?) played. It was one of those afternoons where the light streams in and gives everything a different quality. I was reminded of those lines from Sylvia Plath’s Black Rook in Rainy Weather (even though it gloriously sunny yesterday):

A certain minor light may still
Lean incandescent

Out of kitchen table or chair
As if a celestial burning took
Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then —
Thus hallowing an interval
Otherwise inconsequent

By bestowing largesse, honor
One might say love. 

In fairy tales, we are seemingly in the midst of the ordinary world, but always, things are not quite as they appear. A bear (as in Rose Red and Snow White ) turns out to be a prince under a spell, straw can be woven into gold (i.e. Rumpelstiltskin), pumpkins may be turned into carriages. The world is just a little off-kilter, imbalanced with just a bit of enchantment. The common is always on the verge of being transformed.

Mason Jar Glory

Reading fairy tales constantly to my children makes me remember what I really do know — that the stories aren’t so far from the truth. I walk outside and the sunlight makes the little bits of frost into diamonds. The tassels of our ornamental grass are actually gilded with gold at the right angle. I was reading at the table and noticed the glory that my daughter’s mason jar cup of water was bestowing upon my book. The common is always on the verge of being transformed — in that certain light.

It reminds me of another quote that I love from Thomas Traherne:

“I was guided by an implicit faith in God’s goodness: and therefore led to the study of the most obvious and common things. For thus I thought within myself: God being, as we generally believe, infinite in goodness, it is most consonant and agreeable with His nature, that the best things should be most common. For nothing is more natural to infinite goodness, than to make the best things most frequent; and only things worthless scarce. Then I began to enquire what things were most common: Air, Light, Heaven and Earth, Water, the Sun, Trees, Men and Women, Cities, Temples, &c. These I found common and obvious to all: Rubies, Pearls, Diamonds, Gold and Silver; these I found scarce, and to the most denied. Then began I to consider and compare the value of them which I measured by their serviceableness, and by the excellencies which would be found in them, should they be taken away. And in conclusion, I saw clearly, that there was a real valuableness in all the common things; in the scarce, a feigned.”

Quick, Misc.

I woke up early because I wanted to be able to write a post here. But, my children have this amazing ability to sense when an adult is alert and therefore, wake up to share their company. If it weren’t so annoying, this infallible instinct would be astounding.

I did finally manage to write an “introductions” post. I’m sure I will change it as time goes on, but for now, if you’d like to know a little more about me, it’s there. Next (when my children allow it) why did I call this blog “Emberings?”

Over the weekend, I finally finished a review of Fertile Ground: A Pilgrimage Through Pregnancy on the Homely Hours. This was one of my favorite books of 2019 and one I wholeheartedly recommend.

One thing that is so lovely about blogging is that my posts showing up on a blogfeed doesn’t depend on me posting more often. For me right now, super frequent (frenetic?) posting on any medium probably means that I’m not being very faithful in my family life.

To end this random assortment of thoughts, I thought I’d share this quotation from Wendell Berry that I have been reflecting on lately.

“Contemporaneity, in the sense of being ‘up with the times,’ is of no value. Wakefulness to experience — as well as to instruction and example — is another matter. What we call the modern world is not necessarily, and not often, the real world, and there is no virtue in being up to date in it. It is a false world, based upon economies and values and desires that are fantastical — a world in which millions of people have lost any idea of the materials, the disciplines, the restraints, and the work necessary to support human life, and have thus become dangerous to their own lives and to the possibility of life. The job now is to get back to that perennial and substantial world in which we really do live, in which the foundations of our life will be visible to us, and in which we can accept our responsibilities again within the conditions of necessity and mystery. In that world all wakeful and responsible people, dead, living, and unborn, are contemporaries. And that is the only contemporaneity worth having.”

Image: I love Carl Larsson. Also, the girl on the left looks just like my daughter.

Social Media & Virtue

After my uncharacteristically bold (brash?) post yesterday, I’ve been wanting to write more contemplating virtue and social media. What does it mean to love my neighbor — both those in front of me and those that I’m following — in the context of social media? (When I refer to social media in this post, I’m not just including Instagram and Facebook. Blogging is also social media, and — while I probably won’t get to it tonight — I’d like to also think about what aspects of various social media encourage virtue or vice).

In terms of loving those in front of me, here is some of what I aspire toward (though often fail). With my children — I’m not watching them through the lens of social media. I’m not always saying, “Freeze! Right there! I need to get a photo so that I can post this.” I’m not oversharing about our family. I respect privacy. I don’t always feel the need to publicly record every lovely moment. I want to cultivate beauty in our home and sometimes keep it hidden.

As an overarching principle, I aspire to be attentive and grateful for my real life. That means not using Instagram as an escape hatch, so that I can avoid dealing with problems. I want to be intentional and not at the mercy of my impulses to avoid boredom or discomfort

In terms of loving those on the other side of the screen, I aspire to take the people behind the photos/posts seriously. I want to respect the amount of care and work inherent in each photo/post and give the dignity of my full attention. For some reason, even though Instagram is full of “creatives,” it’s too easy to forget the work and care behind each square and just scroll, scroll, scroll.

On both sides of the screen, I think that virtue here comes down to self-control and gratitude. Self-control makes me intentional. Gratitude makes me see what is here before me in my real life, bestowing clear eyes and heart to also see what is before me in social media, without jealousy, comparison, envy, etc. All that means greater attentiveness.

And with that, here are few things I’ve noticed about this #bloginstead experiment that relate to social media and virtue: a responsibility to comment on others’ blogs radically changes things for me — in a really good, humane way. It feels more like real life. Thoughtfully commenting takes energy. My introverted self gets tired. I can more easily identify in myself the fact that I need a break from my laptop/phone. On the other hand, receiving comments from others is just wonderful. I feel such gratitude that others would take the time to read and respond.

Today, I was in my backyard with my children and had many of your words (blog posts and comments) at the back of my mind. But I didn’t feel cluttered or vague. I felt more clear and attentive.* I don’t attribute that to the medium of blogging; I attribute that to the words of you writers. But, I do think that this medium and this way of using it encourages intentionality, encourages attentiveness, encourages virtue. And, with that, I need a break.

*Featured photo results from attentiveness to berries with rain droplets on my fence.

Social Media & Stale Potato Chips

The morning after the party, a half-eaten bowl of potato chips remains on the counter. It was never covered, so the chips are stale. But, as I keep cleaning up my house, I still keep grabbing for one here and there. My fingertips get a little greasy and I think to myself, “Why in the world am I eating this? This doesn’t make me feel good.” But, it’s salty and fatty and — most of all — easy.

That’s how I feel about using Instagram these days — like I can’t stop reaching for a stale potato chip in a moment when one hand is free. It doesn’t give me a sense of health and freedom, joy and discipline.

I have two Instagram accounts — one that is personal/private and one that is public. I don’t struggle to control the personal account. It’s just pictures of my kids that end up getting printed in a Chatbook family series. And, my feed on that account is pretty much just personal photos of other kids.

On the other hand, my account for the Homely Hours (the Anglican liturgical living resource my friends and I started a few years back) is a constant siren call. I suppose it’s because I’m very interested in the people that I follow and, moreover, I’m very interested in what people think of my posts. If I post something new, I want to keep checking in to see how much attention it got (or, even if I can resist, I don’t like that my brain has to put so much energy into that struggle).

I find that if I regularly delete the app from my phone (as in, one day on, a few days off), I can generally keep in better balance. But, on the days I install it, it will still shock me when I look at the timer for how long I used IG — how quickly those check-ins here and there added up.

I know that Instagram (and Facebook, which owns Instagram) pays people to figure out how to make these social media sites as addictive as possible. And then, I read articles like this one which make me wonder if it’s even ethical to be using it.

My reason for keeping the Homely Hours account? I’m trying to be helpful. I’m trying to make it easier, more convenient, for people to access Anglican resources and remember feast days, etc. But, would it be better to be forgotten by most followers on social media and just remain as a blog for the sake of the few who value the site enough to subscribe and get posts emailed to them? This is my constant question.

Marshall McLuhan famously said that the “medium is the message.” Learning the concepts of form and content (and that form communicates just as much as content) was what started leading my husband and I toward liturgy. What is the form of Instagram communicating?

[Now my children are awake for the day, so if this becomes more choppy and less careful, it’s because I’m moving between my laptop and getting them food, etc.]

In these past few days, I’ve become obsessed with reading what Katy Bowman says about natural movement — that our sedentary culture’s compulsion toward convenience almost always means minimizing movement. This applies even beyond physical movement to the way we think. And, in this rambling discussion of social media and blogging, it applies, too. Melinda’s observation about the awkward mechanics of checking all these blogs struck me. It’s not as convenient to check blogs and comment. It takes some internet movement. Perhaps that is a really good thing? Perhaps it gives us just enough inconvenience that we are a bit more intentional?

One more random element I’m going to throw in here (and where I’m probably not being careful enough): I just finished reading Animal Farm for the first time with a little book club I’m in. Obviously, I knew some of the basic plot, but as its subtitle (“a fairy story”) claims, it does stick with you and you find yourself interpreting the world through its archetypes. I’m sure we’ve all heard it said that Communism would be perfectly fine if we were all perfect. But, as time has shown, there aren’t enough checks-and-balances taking account of human sinfulness; corruption inevitably moves into the vacuum and makes the situation worse than even at the beginning.

Instagram used to be great, when it was just photos — no algorithms, not a micro-blog feed. Perhaps the form of it was too easy, too convenient? When Facebook bought it, Marketing and Money took over. And now, it’s so difficult to discern between what is real and what is “influenced.” And, it’s all mashing into one, where people paid to be “influencers” really do influence us. We make ourselves into ‘brands’ and see our children through the lens of marketing ourselves.

Decentralized, local forms– with lots of check-and-balance that make everything less convenient and streamlined– seem to work better since they take account of human tendencies. Perhaps blogging is the internet equivalent?

I was an early adopter of Facebook in 2005 (it came to my college when I was freshman). And, when I look back, I’ve struggled with the place of social media ever since then (well, maybe since around 2007, once they added the photo albums feature). Here I am still struggling. I’ve completely deleted accounts so many times. Then, I come back because you absolutely can’t paint it as all bad — some of the connections I’ve made have been truly invaluable.

Facebook became so much better when I installed the News Feed Eradicator and only used it on my laptop, making it so that I have to deliberately search to see what people post, but can still participate in Groups. I just don’t know what to do about Instagram. And, I return to the fact that even if I can figure out a way to help me manage it more faithfully, is it okay to use something that is so prone toward addiction and unhealth, even for a good cause?

How do you deal with this? How do you use social media faithfully? Can you use it for the glory of God? Or is trying to do that –like evangelical churches adopting pop culture forms — subverting the content we are proclaiming? Or is that putting the question too strongly, making it too black and white?

I'd Like To #bloginstead

After taking December off from any posting on The Homely Hours, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to start a personal blog — one where I could write about whatever I wanted to write and take myself less seriously.

When I was a piano major, deciding whether or not to switch to a Biblical Studies major, my beloved teacher gave me some advice that’s transferred to several different situations. She said, “Amanda, you should only be a piano major if you can’t be anything else.”

That instantly gave me clarity — I had to drag myself to the practice rooms for the 3 to 4 hours minimum practice per day. But on the other hand, I had friends who couldn’t leave — compelled by a deep joy in the music that remained even when they didn’t necessarily feel like practicing. Meanwhile, while I was laboring over my piano repertoire, I would be pining over the reading/researching and writing that I had been accustomed to in high school. Because at the end of the day, I’d always rather be reading and writing than doing pretty much anything else.

So, to bring it back to my teacher’s advice, I read and I write because I can’t do anything else. I process through writing (I’m not a healthy person if I don’t journal). I discover and adventure through writing.

That’s a bit about why I write, but why do I need to add to the internet clutter with yet another personal blog? Here it is, simply put: I just want to. I think it’s fun. I think it’s a good way to take myself more lightly. I have avenues for more serious writing, but I want to write about things like why I am among the 0.5% of women who adore Patrick O’Brian’s series about naval strategy and the Napoleonic Wars. I want to write about why I binge-read most of a book about body alignment last night. I want to write about how just now, my 3 year old was on a stool trying to reach for the bananas on the counter. When I grabbed one for her and started to pull back the stem, she cried, “No, I didn’t want you to peel it, I wanted to pretend it was my baby” (I don’t know where I really would go with writing about this, but I really enjoyed the moment).

In other words, I want to write posts about random topics that I used to write about on social media (and serious topics, too, that I’m working through). And that brings me to Melinda Johnson’s fantastic #bloginstead challenge. For the next 3 days, I’m joining in with a group of bloggers who are going to post on their blogs instead of social media. Then, we’re going to reflect and observe.

Even though this blog is still “under construction,” I decided to jump in and join in order to not overthink and get this going. And, with that, I’m also not going to overthink this post. I normally edit much more, but I’m going to let this be a stream-of-consciousness post in the spirit of forgetting-myself fun and getting on-board in the last minute.

[Update: The banana ‘baby’ is now very brown.]

A Bookish Year: 2019

Beginning something new is always a feat, so I’ve decided to start with an easy subject: the best books I’ve read lately. The temptation will be to write too much.

English Spirituality by Martin Thornton

This book was easily the most important one I read in the past year. Thornton traces the development and characteristics of English Spirituality — a spirituality that is grounded in Scripture, holds the affective (emotional) and speculative (intellectual) side-by-side in dynamic balance, and manifests the Benedictine three-fold rule of prayer (Holy Communion, the daily office, and private devotion). This book gave me a framework for a healthy asceticism in these early years with children (because of the emphasis that prayer with the church — i.e. the daily office — comes before personal devotion. Therefore, to me this means I don’t need to escape from my children in order to pray.)

Company of Voices: Daily Prayer and the People of God by George Guiver

After I read English Spirituality, I wanted to understand more about the history and development of the daily office. This book was incredibly helpful. In the first several chapters, Guiver roots the daily office in the basic realities of being human (I immediately knew I needed this book when I saw a chapter on “myth” in the table of contents). In the second half of the book, he describes how the early church prioritized morning and evening prayer for all Christians, which evolved through monasticism into the elaborate and extremely lengthy daily office of the middle ages. This leads him to how Thomas Cranmer brought the daily office back to the laity in the Book of Common Prayer, so that Anglicans could be called a “people of the office.”

In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden

This novel set in an English Benedictine monastery follows the vocation of Philippa Talbert, a rising professional who leaves certain success in the world in order to take Benedictine vows. Folding her story within the life of her community, Godden weaves together the lives of the nuns as they seek to do the work of God, through personal and communal trials. Before you start it, you think, “This is about a monastery. It’s going to be a trudge.” But I found it a page-turner. Godden’s portrayal of the contemplative life is lively and relatable. This book, read along with English Spirituality and Company of Voices, formed a sort of trilogy for me in understanding the daily office and Benedictine life.

Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich

Thornton describes Julian of Norwich as the epitome of English Spirituality — her love and fidelity to the Scriptures, her holding together of the emotions and intellect, her sense of the “homeliness” of God’s love for us. I know that I will return to her writings many times in my life. I didn’t anticipate reading a medieval woman to receive of a sense of the super-abundant delight of God in us.

Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ by Fleming Rutledge

It was a steady joy this Advent to read this collection of writings and sermons by Fleming Rutledge. I felt, for the first time, that I had clarity on what Advent is really about — namely, the second coming of Christ. Rutledge’s immersion in the Scriptures, and her ability to help her readers/listeners understand them as vivid and immediate is inspiring. I finished the book on Christmas Eve with such gratitude for the grounding it gave me during December –a conflicting and difficult month for me.

Fertile Ground: A Pilgrimage Through Pregnancy by Laura S. Janssen

I’m due with our third little girl at the beginning of March and I always struggle a lot with pregnancy. This book (I received a review copy from Ancient Faith Press) has been a faithful guide to receiving pregnancy as a daughter of Mary — “behold, I am the Lord’s handmaiden” — and, as she says, “theology in motion.” Janssen’s Scriptural and theological depth, combined with her years of experience as a doula, make this book incredibly valuable. And, it’s beautifully written, too. I’ll be rereading it this January to write my full review on the Homely Hours and I’m looking forward to it.

The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett

Oh, this was a gem of a book. Set in Maine, it’s an exemplar of regionalist writing. Though it’s loosely organized, the characters are living, vivid, and remain with you. It’s a quiet, perfect book. I think often of this quote from the earthy Mrs. Todd (and it’s a good representation of the simple loveliness of Jewett’s writing; she moves effortlessly between the refined voice of the narrator and New England dialect): “There’s sometimes a good hearty tree growin’ right out of the bare rock, out o’ some crack that just holds the roots,’ she went on to say, ‘right on the pitch o’ one ‘o them bare stony hills where you can’t seem to see a wheelbarrowful o’ good earth in a place, but that tree’ll keep a green top in the driest summer. You lay your ear down to the ground and you’ll hear a little stream runnin.’ Every such tree has got its own livin’ spring; there’s folk made to match ’em.’ “

Middlemarch by George Eliot

My last two books on this list are novels that I reread this past year. Middlemarch by George Eliot was my favorite novel in high school. I reread it in my twenties and now my thirties and it has kept its place (it would be difficult now to name it my absolute favorite, but it’s definitely in my top three). I relate with Dorothea perhaps more than any character in fiction — ardent, taking herself too seriously, idealistic to a fault. I could discuss this book endlessly, but this time reading it in my thirties, I saw very clearly Eliot’s exploration of how youthful idealism works itself out — when are we failures? I took great hope again in her well-known conclusion, “The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Persuasion by Jane Austen

I come back to rereading a novel by Jane Austen around every 4 or 5 novel. They are true companions and (indeed) friends. But this year, I decided (I think) that Persuasion is truly my favorite. Anne Eliot’s example of meekness and quiet strength is a lesson I keep in my heart. And — though this is a side note — I think often of how Anne repeats her favorite poems to herself, determined to not give way to despair while on the agonizing walk with her estranged, but still beloved Frederick and his present romantic interest Louisa. This example of a rich inner life has always made a strong impression on me.

The Full List

With that, here are the other books I read in 2019 (offering some slight proof that I don’t only read British literature or books about English Spirituality):

  • Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer – C.S. Lewis (Of course, this was wonderful)
  • Love in the Void: Where God Finds Us (Plough Spiritual Guide) – Simone Weil (So thought provoking — I plan to read Gravity and Grace this year)
  • The Secret History – Donna Tartt (Such a good novel!)
  • Thirsty for God: A Brief History of Christian Spirituality – Bradley P. Holt
  • Home Education – Charlotte Mason (Of course, I thought about including this on my list, but it’s hard to isolate one of the volumes from the rest. Suffice it to say, constantly reading Charlotte Mason this past year and a half has been incredibly influential and I will write much more about her on this blog).
  • A Winter Away – Elizabeth Fair
  • Gilead – Marianne Robinson*
  • Glittering Images – Susan Howatch (not a fan)
  • The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
  • A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles (I really enjoyed this!)
  • Village Diary – Miss Read
  • Demon in the House – Angela Thirkell
  • Storm in the Village – Miss Read
  • Parents and Children – Charlotte Mason
  • The Battle of the Villa Fioretto – Rumer Godden (After reading In This House of Brede, I went through a little Godden obsession)
  • The Greengage Summer – Rumer Godden
  • On Thomas Merton – Mary Gorden
  • An Enchanted April – Elizabeth von Arnim
  • Spiritual Proficiency – Martin Thornton
  • Black Narcissus – Rumer Godden
  • The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothkuss (Why can’t any fantasy books be as good as the Lord of the Rings? It’s always so disappointing)
  • The Wise Man’s Folly – Patrick Rothkuss
  • The Little Oratory – Leila Lawler (A great book — what I especially appreciated as an Anglican is that she encourages Roman Catholic families toward using the Customary of Our Lady of Walsingham which is essentially Morning and Evening Prayer from the 1928 BCP with a few Roman Catholic additions. I love when people from other traditions recognize the unique gift of the daily office in the Anglican tradition)
  • The Daisy Chain – Charlotte Mary Yonge (The “novelist of the Oxford Movement.”I had mixed feelings about this book — parts of it were so sentimental, but parts actually made me cry and books don’t make me cry very often).
  • Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen*
  • Excellent Women – Barbara Pym (I LOVED this book!)
  • That Hideous Strength – C.S. Lewis* (Favorite of the Space Trilogy)
  • Master and Commander – Patrick O’Brian* (O’Brian is a master himself).
  • The American Agent – Jacqueline Winspear
  • The Lifegiving Home – Sally & Sarah Clarkson
  • Post Captain – Patrick O’Brian*
  • HMS Surprise – Patrick O’Brian*
  • Seeking God – Esther de Waal
  • The Rule of Saint Benedict
  • The Child of the Sea – Elizabeth Goudge
  • The Warden – Anthony Trollope
  • Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen*
  • School Education – Charlotte Mason
  • The Mauritius Campaign – Patrick O’Brian*
  • Recapitulation – Wallace Stegner (My admiration for Stegner continues)
  • The Heart of Perfection, Colleen Carroll Campbell
  • Virgil Wanders – Leif Enger

*Re-reads