Understanding Our Culinary Past

Well, we are still waiting on baby number three, but fortunately the warmer weather has brought a renewed sense of vigor to all of us lately.  Anselm (4.5 yrs old) suddenly and quickly learned how to ride a real bike this weekend and set off cruising down the riverside trail today while the rest of us walked along and looked for bald eagles. We found two eagles, though could only see them from a distance. It was so wonderful to be out in the sunlight!

Waiting for a baby to be born can be a real drag; I find myself feeling so tired and a bit anxious. Yet, I’ve been trying to embrace it lately as one of the few mysterious bodily experiences left to us, when no one can say exactly when and how each woman’s body determines the proper time. I’ve been considering how, for so much of human history, the inner-workings of the body and mind in general were quite mysterious, and how differently people must have experienced such things as birth. Of course, there always have been explanations for these things, though perhaps more metaphysical or cosmological.

Nowadays we rely so heavily—almost to our detriment—on the explanations of science and medicine to tell us why we feel and experience anything, from sickness to health, pleasure to pain, happiness to dejectedness, love to hate. This can both be the source of real confidence and helpful knowledge, but also of anxiety and confusion, as we wade through the ever changing and oft-poorly reported/understood theories and results of studies, products being marketed, and medicines prescribed.

This ties into my theme for this month’s post: food! Eating seems to be one of the bodily phenomena which causes the most anxiety in our age and culture and is highly subject to conflicting theories and trends. It is something that I am very interested in, as I love to cook and eat, but am very aware of the possible medical and ethical issues at stake in what I buy, make, and ingest.

I was listening recently to an interview on food waste with food historian Rachel Laudan, who noted that the anxiety surrounding food today is very much the result of the unprecedented amount of choice that we exercise over our eating habits: we are probably only the second or third generation that has had to choose from so much variety for every meal of the day, every day of the week. This breadth of choice is not just due to the surplus and cheapness of food relative to the past, but also to the access to so many kinds of cuisine and the loss of widely held beliefs of what was good to eat based on certain understandings of the body, social hierarchy, and religious practice.

In this and other interviews with Laudan, I have come to appreciate her thoughtful perspective as an historian on these issues. Laudan’s opinions about the state of modern food are unorthodox among the educated elite (praising, for example, industry as a democratizer of food rather than as the ruination of it); frankly, I think it’s because she is actually informed enough about the history of food to avoid the typical myths and prejudices of today, which I myself have been prone to adopt.

Especially in college, when I was very involved in the university gardens and the farm-to-fork and slow-food movements, I held several unexamined beliefs about what food used to be like compared with what it is now. Granted, I was motivated by a concern for health and goodness, which is honorable. Yet, when one holds one’s own food preferences up as categorical imperatives (believing everyone should adopt the same choices), it’s dangerous to base those on naive assumptions…which is what I did. Just to give you a sense, some of those assumptions were: 1) people (including the poor) ate more wholesomely in the past 2) people used to be more connected to the land and enjoyed more local varieties of fruits and vegetables, which would have been more delicious and nutritive than what we get from the grocery store today 3) mealtime used to be more special and central to family life.

Having recently finished Laudan’s fascinating book, Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History, I thought I would try to distill some of her historical observations that I found most helpful, in part because I know that many other people struggle with the same stress about food choices as I do. I can’t say that her book has necessarily settled for me any of those contemporary questions, but I certainly do look at them differently because she has rid me of my nostalgia for some mythical, more wholesome culinary past.

Pardon the lack of elegance, but I am just going to list some of the main, overarching points that struck me.

– First, beliefs about eating and diet were, for most of human history, governed by cosmological beliefs about the order of the world and universe, in which certain foods corresponded with different orders of animals and people, including social classes. Everyone, even the leader of society, was highly limited in what they ate based on ritual and social rank. The majority of populations were limited to simple grain diets in the form of breads and porridges. To process grains well enough to make them digestible took a lot of manual work, the burden mostly falling on women. The poor not only experienced severe rationing of food, but sometimes even of wood for cooking fuel such that they could only bake every few months.  Ironically, diets for the urban poor were often better (especially with industrialization) than for the rural poor, who one might have thought would have had more access to harvests, livestock, and hunting game.

– Even among the wealthy elite, fresh, raw foods were seen as unhealthful. Processing and cooking was what made food healthful, carefully balancing the bodily humors with the proper concoctions. The more processed, the better; for example, white bread, rice, pasta, sugar etc was seen in every society as the most healthful and virtuous, symbolizing purity and cleanliness. Although the scientific revolution spurred a new understanding of food, one based on chemistry rather than on the more ancient beliefs of the bodily humors, it only reinforced the bias towards careful processing. This chemistry paradigm led to the development of French high cuisine, which was the dominant cuisine of the entire European elite until the twentieth century. It still emphasized elaborate cooking and processing techniques which were totally inaccessible to most of the European population.

  •  The eating of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as the drinking of fresh milk, was not widely promoted until the discovery of vitamins (and thus, vitamin rich foods) in the early twentieth-century and safety measures such as pasteurization.
  • Fruits and vegetables have changed dramatically with cultivation and modification. We should not assume anything about what they were like in the past based on their current quality. For example, when potatoes were first brought to Europe from the New World (the Andes), they were bitter, did not keep well, and were forced on the poor, resentful populations as a cheap crop. Over time, they have been bred and modified to be more palatable, such that they have become staples in many modern diets, especially after the French developed a method of delicately frying them (hence “French fries”).
  • Many fruits and vegetables were introduced and popularized as canned items once modern hot water bath canning was developed in the 1800’s. Canned corn, peas, and tomatoes are examples of this: “sweet kernels from young field corn were so popular that maize was bred to produce cobs that were sweet when mature. Something similar happened with the pea and the tomato, whose success owes much more to the canning industry than to the beefsteak tomatoes in Grandmother’s backyard” (Laudan, 296).

– Beginning in the 18th century, “middling” cuisines began to develop that incorporated some of the principles and ingredients of high cuisine with peasant cuisine, and coincided with the growth of the bourgeoisie and republican government. The Dutch Republic was home to one of the first middling cuisines, and it was there that the housewife was first celebrated as the primary cook and the family meal as paramount to the upbringing of children. Through colonial influence, America would absorb these traditions in its own national cuisine and identity, as well as foods like waffles, donuts, and cookies.

– Such middling cuisines now characterize the diets of most developed countries. Laudan notes, “Those lucky enough to eat middling cuisine, with plentiful meat, fat, and sugar, are probably about one in three of the world’s population, a higher proportion than ever before. Those in this group enjoy hot meals at least once a day and often more.” Because of our health obsessions, we take for granted what a diet rich in fat, meat and sugar symbolizes for most people, who until the last century, were relegated to simple grain diets. This also explains, for example, the revolution of McDonald’s not only in our country but worldwide: offering a safe, freshly cooked beef patty on white bread with some lettuce and tomato accompanied with French fries—hitherto a delicacy for the rich—encapsulates the dietary aspirations of generations of people who couldn’t get white bread or fresh meat and vegetables.

– Also, “fast food” is nothing new. Most urban people did not (and in many places, still do not) have kitchens. They relied on food that could be gotten on the street. Going back to the Dutch Republic, one of the main features of that middling cuisine was the development of “commercial processing of fish and dairy to make easy meals affordable by most of society” (Laudan 228). Pickled herring and cheese with bread was the common meal, “enabling the whole nation to eat fast, tasty, nutritious, and relatively inexpensive preserved food” (Laudan 229). When one considers the economies of scale that make it easier and cheaper for such things to be mass produced, as well as the price of cooking fuel (including fossil fuels which made modern kitchens possible), refrigeration, and appliances, even modern day fast food or street food is an economical choice for many people. (I saw this when I lived in Thailand for a summer, where few people in the city had kitchens and most could be seen getting Pad Thai from noddle shops on the street for their main meals.)

– What we know today as national cuisines primarily developed along with the rise of industrialization and nation-states. New nations, seeking their identity, embraced and cultivated certain foods as part of what set them apart or told their national story. Most of these did not take shape until the late 19th or 20th centuries, making them relatively new in history.  For example, Italian pasta and tomato sauce, one of the most famous and quintessential cuisines, was popularized in the late 19th century after the unification of Italy and was made possible by the new affordability of industrially produced dried pasta and canned tomatoes. Before then, most Italians ate bland polenta (from maize, which, like tomatoes, was brought over from the New World). There were not many Italian peasants making their own pasta and cooking sauce from their own homegrown tomatoes. In fact, the cultivation of Italian cuisine owes much to Italian immigrants in places like America and Argentina, who could better afford these quick and easy ingredients.

I could go on and on because the book is densely packed with fascinating facts. I haven’t really touched at all upon the interwoven narratives of Islamic, Christian, and Buddhist/Hindu cuisines with one another and with later colonial discoveries, which forms a major focus of Laudan’s work. These stories are very interesting and worth reading, though she treats them in a relatively dry way that can make for a slow rather than adventuresome read.

I found the book most challenging in its exploration of the accessibility and perceived healthfulness of foods throughout history and of real historical trends in diets. In her discussion of modern cuisines, Laudan readily admits problems in our current eating habits, including obesity and other health concerns, but she also emphasizes the danger of trying to control people’s eating choices. She concludes:

Good food, food freely chosen, is part of living your own life. Although this choice brings with it the responsibility of choosing your food wisely, the alternative is a world where the powerful constrain what you can eat, in the name of health, religion, or political and economic expediency.

The challenge is to acknowledge that not all is right with modern cuisines without romanticizing earlier ones; to recognize that contemporary cuisines have problems with health and equity without jumping to the conclusion that this is new; to face up to new nutritional challenges of abundance without being paternalistic or authoritarian; to extend the benefits of industrialized food processing to all those who still labor with pestles and mortars; and to realize that the problem of feeding the world is a matter not simply of providing enough calories but of extending to everyone the choice, the responsibility, the dignity, and the pleasure of a middling cuisine” (Laudan 359).

I find that to be an inspiring and balanced approach to our current food debates, and even in my own food choices, I am more at ease with taking the approach of moderation and appreciating the modern conveniences that we enjoy.

If you would like to listen to some interviews with Laudan:

Laudan on Food Waste

Laudan on the History of Cuisine

And here is an interview with food journalist Tamar Haspel that I appreciated:

Tamar Haspel on Food Costs, Animal Welfare and Honey Bees

A Painterly Vision

Happy Feast of Santa Lucia! I was surprised this morning by a parade of my nieces and nephews bringing saffron buns to our house, with our little niece Lucy dressed in white and crowned with red holly berries. They were engaging in age-old old European traditions, especially northern European, for the feast of Saint Lucy, the girl-martyr of the third century whose feast day used to coincide with the Winter Solstice, ushering in the light of Christmastime.

It was a scene that made me think immediately of one of my favorite artists, Marianne Stokes, who often painted girls and women engaging in their folk and religious customs. She loved the costumes and traditions of old Europe, like processions and pilgrimages.

Marianne Stokes, Hungarian Portrait, 1909 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHungary_(1909)_(14783572992).jpg

Then, it dawned on me: what a perfect subject for an advent post—a painting!

I had already been struggling to think up a subject for a new post, as I haven’t been reading much lately. I had been feeling bad about it, but then I realized that this time of year is never a time for leisure reading for me. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always had some gifts that I was busy making in the spare moments that I could find leading up to Christmas. I am grateful that my mom and dad put up with that! I am sure that I kept my open projects very “open” all over the dining room table and shared office desk.

Puppies are also legitimate reasons for not reading in spare time.

Fortunately, I have a work table in the basement now and thus my so-called horizontal surface disease (I cover every table or shelf surface within my reach) affects only myself down there. Advent stars to hang around the house have been the first priority, next will come some homemade gifts, mostly for Tom, who is the most grateful recipient of my artistic tinkerings. There will also be simple bows and arrows made for the boys, who recently watched Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood and are now busy pretending to pull arrows out of imaginary quivers and fight Prince John.

Advent star with our very creative nativity scene.

Anyway, it’s only fitting that an art history major should write on art at least once in a while (if you want a literary reflection for Christmas, there’s always last year’s Christmas post on James Joyce’s the Dead).

Marianne Stokes is an artist that I have loved for years. I discovered her six Christmases ago, when I saw her Madonna and Child on the cover of a booklet.

Marianne Stokes, Madonna and Child, 1905. tempera on panel https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMarianne_Stokes_Madonna_and_Child.jpg

To this day, I still think it is one of the most beautiful and sincere paintings of the subject that I have ever seen. Thanks to a wonderful monograph, Utmost Fidelity: The Painting Lives of Adrian and Marianne Stokes, written by their grand-niece Magdalen Evans, I have been able to learn a good deal about the artist and her husband.

Marianne Preindlsberger was born in 1855 in Graz, Austria. She was a gifted artist from her youth, winning awards that allowed her to study at the art academies in Austria and abroad in Munich and Paris. She came of age in an art world that was gradually opening to women, especially in Paris, where she could attend life-classes with nude models. She eventually met and married the English landscape painter Adrian Stokes. The two shared their Catholic faith, and in England were part of a Catholic revival and flowering of art and literature that coincided with the lifting of certain legal regulations that had banned Catholics from public office, etc.

Marianne and Adrian were unable to have children; still, together they had a life of great fruitfulness and beauty.  They traveled throughout Europe, studying and painting the people and landscapes of the countryside. Marianne’s work shows great sympathy and tenderness for women and children and a deep piety that appreciated the spiritual dimension to every day life.

She is often associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood for her choice of tempera as her main medium and her emulation of late medieval painting. She was never a formal part of that group, however, and many people do not realize that the return to tempera and the love of medieval themes was a much larger trend that extended beyond that cohort known as the “PRB.” (The Arts and Craft movement, for example, was very interested in medieval themes and methods). This coincided, as I already mentioned, with a re-opening of English society to Catholicism and even among Anglicans there was a renewed interest in older liturgical, musical, and artistic forms (research the Tractarians, led by John Henry Newman, if you are interested).

Now, with that background information in hand, let’s look more closely at this wonderful painting. During a tour of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Marianne painted at least a few studies of a young woman in the Hungarian town of Ragusa. It is this young woman and her baby whom she portrays as the Madonna and Child. The red robe and golden brocade were apparently the folk costume of her region, but how perfectly royal they look for the Theotokos, “the mother of God.” The rich red contrasts so beautifully with the hazy blue of the background.

The mother’s expression is both loving and a bit sad. The direct gaze, to me, is one of a woman to another woman. Her eyes are not downcast, embarassed, or shy as I think male artists often portray Mary. She confronts the viewer as a sympathetic person, one with whom she is at ease. She lifts the transparent veil from her baby with maternal pride and as a gesture of offering. The Christ child, swaddled in white fabric reminiscent of burial cloths, opens his hand to the viewer— a kind of wave and blessing, the vulnerable openness of the hand that would be pierced on the cross.

The decorative thorns also hint at his piercing, especially the crowning with thorns. The thorny stems bereft of flowers and the wild chervil plants that have dropped their blossoms remind us of winter barrenness and darkness, forth from which the singular rose will bloom. One of my favorite Christmas carols is brought to mind:

Lo, how a rose e’er blooming, from tender stem hath sprung! Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as men of old have sung. It came, a flower bright, amid the cold of winter, when half-spent was the night.

Mary’s opening of the veil and the child’s palm are petal-like in their delicate unfolding. Mary is the tender, flowering stem seated among the barren stems. As lovely as the plants in the background are in their sparity and fine, curving lines, they are also foreboding as those thorns and weeds (wild chervil is considered a noxious weed) that threaten to choke the tender stem and her blossom out.

Some might be wondering what difference the choice of tempera paint makes here. Tempera (by which I mean egg tempera, not the kiddie stuff you buy in bottles today) was the predominant medium of painters before oil painting was developed in the early Renaissance. It is made by mixing ground pigments with egg yolk; the paint is applied in many thin coats to a board which has been covered in layers of gesso (a kind of primer paint mixed with chalk). Unlike oil paints, tempera dries very quickly and it does not achieve the same rich, opaque colors and color blending. Instead, it has an ethereal thinness. Here, it is used to beautiful effect to create that sense of translucency in the fabric, the halos, even the blue background.

Stokes was a member of the Society of Painters in Tempera, which had been founded by an artist named Christiana Jane Herringham. Herringham also translated into English the 15th-century treatise on painting by the Italian master Cennino Cennini. In Il libro dell’arte, “The Book of Art,” Cennini narrates the beginning of the arts with Adam and Eve and puts “science,” by which I take him to mean knowledge of the nature of things, foremost among them. Second to science is painting, which derives from knowing the nature of things but also requires the operation and skill of the hand and imagination. For, the painter must “discover unseen things concealed beneath the obscurity of natural objects, and to arrest them with the hand, presenting to the sight that which did not before appear to exist.” (I am quoting from Herringham’s translation which you can find here)

Marianne Stokes had this painterly eye, which could see in a local country girl and her baby the pathos of Mary and her divine child. This, it seems to me, is just an echo of the grand painterliness of Christmas itself, when the divine artist renders himself in the most humble obscurity. Our rituals, too, echo this painterly vision: how else do we connect saffron buns to third-century child martyrs and decorated firs to first-century Jerusalem?

Happy Deaths

Happy Belated Hallow’s Eve and Feasts of All Saints and All Souls! Our town celebrates Halloween on two distinct days: the night before Halloween is devoted to trick-or-treating (our neighborhood is the most popular for some reason—we had over five hundred children come to our house), and then Halloween itself is reserved for an elaborate parade through downtown.  We participated minimally in the trick-or-treating, mostly handing out candy rather than seeking it. Instead of attending the parade on Halloween, we had a wonderful day hiking at a nearby state park called Pere Marquette, after the French Jesuit who navigated the Mississippi River. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to do something other than trick-or-treat— in this case to experience the autumnal splendor along the bluffs and in the river valley—on the Eve of All Saints.

Autumnal splendor in our yard.

On All Saints’ Day proper we went to pick up our new puppy, Dora. She is a beautiful silver labrador, eight-weeks-old when we brought her home. Among other reasons, we chose a silver lab because we love the story of St. John Bosco and the mysterious gray dog, which, for over thirty-years, would suddenly appear to protect him in times of danger. It seemed fitting, then, to bring home a gray dog on All Saints’ Day. Although silver isn’t quite the right label of her color, nor is gray. I’ve been enchanted by how well her coat blends with the color of the sticks she chews, or the rocks in the garden…in certain lights even the cement foundation of the porch. It’s because she has many flecks of tan in her.

Our puppy, Dora

The Halloween/All Saints/All Souls celebrations also coincided with my completion of the memoirs of Maria von Trapp, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, which she wrote in the late 1940’s. My most salient impressions and lessons from the book harmonized with the season; for, though it has many delightful and inspiring stories of music and their life as performers and immigrants, what struck me most about the book was the account of her husband Georg’s death. It was, despite its suddenness and suffering, a beautiful death. Maria describes the death for the reader by inserting the lengthy letter that she and the children wrote to their family and friends announcing his death. At the end of the letter, they justify its length and detail by writing, “He was a man whose taste was for the fundamental, the genuine, and the important things. What is more important than the ability to die well? In that he gave us a shining example that we cannot keep for ourselves.”

I do not want to spoil the book for those who might want to read it, but I will include a few excerpts from his death and funeral, which are so moving. Like his family, I don’t want to keep them for myself.

How terribly still it was in the room when the last death-rattle was silenced. The poor breast had its peace now, the brave heart stood still. In this holy silence Georg suddenly opened his eyes. The tortured features became calm and with an expression of endless wonder Georg gazed into another world. What may he have seen there? It must have been something indescribably beautiful. After about two minutes he nodded his head a little, and the dear eyes closed forever.”

Months before, not knowing that he was going to die soon, Georg had been musing to Maria about the kind of burial he wanted. He wanted to “sleep a day or two among you in the living room”  full of flowers from their property and with his favorite songs and prayers ushering him into the next life. After his death, Maria recalled the details of his daydream and she and the children dutifully fulfilled them:

Storms and rain were over; a brilliant blue spring sky arched over the world. We thought of the flowers. In the middle of the woods, where once a little farm had stood, we knew of a few wild apple trees. The boys brought a whole wagonful of enormous branches, and the living room was converted into a garden in bloom. In front of the chimney we hung a red brocade curtain. Then we brought our father down […] His face radiated such sublime dignity and beauty that one could not look long enough at it.”

After reading such descriptions, I have been thinking over what is meant by “happy death” ever since, and what kind of life leads to such an end. What a meaningful meditation to accompany the feasts of the dead, which in our culture today are so strangely morbid yet without ever truly confronting the reality of death.

In these thoughts, I was reminded of another memoir which I had read earlier in the summer, though never reported on here. Entitled A Two-Part Invention, it is the author Madeleine L’Engle’s reflection on her marriage of forty years as she experiences the illness and death of her husband. Her husband, too, I would say, died a happy death. He embraced his suffering and loved and was beloved throughout his life and in his death. Like Maria’s description of Georg, Madeleine’s image of her husband Hugh as he neared his death is luminous and beautiful.

I look at him, beautiful as an El Greco saint, for that is still the analogy that keeps coming to my mind. When I get home I look at a snapshot of the two of us together, Hugh’s face alert and alive. I observe and contemplate this child of love, made of the same stuff as galaxies and stars. And I know that the only meaning is love.”

Like Georg, Hugh was a man of faith and generosity, a noble spirit who delighted in beauty all around him, both in nature and art. He was a famous actor, yet totally humble. He and his wife worked hard at loving each other and their marriage was full of tenderness. Madeleine describes her longing for him at night when he is in the hospital, for the reassurance of his presence and vitality.

During the night I reach out with my foot through force of habit to touch his sleeping body. And he is not there. Nevertheless, we have been making love during this time in a profound way. He is making love with me in the pressure of his fingers. I am making love when I do simple little bodily services for him. How many times he has taken care of me! And that is intercourse as much as the more usual way of expressing our sexuality.”

Such true and tender eros! It reminds me that the goodness of these deaths is expressed not only in the dispositions of the dying, but in the reactions of those that have lost them. Clearly, these men both cultivated relationships and loved others in such a way as to enable their loved ones to experience beauty in their deaths, and to be comforted in their tragedy.

I am closing with a recording of one of Georg von Trapp’s favorite songs which he had imagined his family singing at his burial (and which they did sing). It is “Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen” by Heinrich Isaac.

After Virtue: What Rich Aesthetes, Managers, and Therapists Tell Us About Ourselves

During the last few weeks, I have been able to get back to reading in earnest, and there are a few books that I have been drinking up: one which I have gulped down thirstily, another which I have picked up rather sporadically, and a third which I sip very slowly and deliberately.

The first is The Story of the Trapp Family Singers—the memoir of Maria Augusta Trapp written in the late 1940’s which inspired the musical “The Sound of Music.” Her writing reveals a woman of true depth and faith, whose enthusiasm for life is indefatigable. She is a very good, and quite humorous, storyteller as she relates the history of her marriage to Georg, the development of their family’s musical culture and then career, and their journey to and life in America after they fled Nazi-occupied Austria. (The only other book which I have relished so much lately has been E.B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan, which our children have listened to on audio book at least 30 times in the past two months. We have the recording by E.B. White himself, and it is one of the most charming and playful stories that a child or an adult could read or listen to.)

Evidence of how E.B. White infiltrates our imaginations: Joe in a shark costume, but he insists he is a trumpeter swan

The second book, The Great Good Place (1999) by Ray Oldenburg, was recommended to me by the owners of our favorite bookstore in Annapolis after they learned that I was getting involved in turning an old mansion in our Illinois town into a children’s museum. Oldenburg laments the suburban isolation that is so typical in America, in which, due to strict zoning laws, a resident can find no “third place” outside of work and home for rest, recreation, and community. The author describes the features of these “third places”—like good cafes in France, pubs in Ireland, biergartens in Germany, even bustling and friendly sidewalks of downtowns—that make them so beneficial to individuals and communities. He hopes that, in understanding their nature and their virtues, we might be inspired and enabled to preserve and create them.

The text which I have had to sip slowly is After Virtue (1981) by Alisdair MacIntyre. It reminds me of drinking a cup of Yerba Mate tea: it is bitter, thick, nuanced, and satisfyingly mind-clearing in its effect. MacIntyre is a living moral philosopher at the University of Notre Dame and After Virtue, his most famous work. In it, he investigates the reasons for our current state of seemingly insoluble moral debates and the predominating emotivism that holds sway over our actions and moral self-understanding. It has been recommended to me over and over again throughout the years, as a book that would be foundational to my understanding of the history of Western philosophy and ethics. So far, it has been fulfilling those expectations.

Throughout my time in the St. John’s Masters program, I had planned on reading After Virtue once I had graduated. Indeed, I could not have read it before and understood much, since he heavily discusses the thought of Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Hume, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and others. Even now, there is still much that he references which I haven’t read, yet I understand the gist. Because it is such a complex and interesting work, I would find it helpful to reflect on it here in stages as I work my way through the book.

MacIntyre begins with a fundamental observation and claim: although we might use moral language (of something being good or bad) today, generally our language is empty or fragmented, for we do not have a shared and internally consistent system of morality any more. Any such consistent morality was shattered by the propagation and subsequent taking root of theories of emotivism in the early twentieth century. He defines emotivism as “the doctrine that all evaluative judgments and more specifically all moral judgments are nothing but expressions of preference, expressions of attitude or feeling, insofar as they are moral or evaluative in character” (this and all quotations to follow are from the first three chapters of After Virtue).

He distinguishes here between evaluative judgments, e.g. of whether a thing is good or bad (or beautiful or ugly, etc), and factual judgments, whether it is true or false. Although factual judgments can be reached by “rational criteria,” according to emotivism evaluative judgments cannot, rendering all moral disagreement as “rationally interminable.” Thus we find ourselves in a culture in which the sides in moral debates, like that about abortion, seem to be irreconcilable even down to their first principles, and moral judgments are often dismissed as “preferences” or the results of blind, emotional impulses like hatred.

MacIntyre points to the defects of the emotivist claims and rejects the notion that they can account for morality across time as a truth of the human condition. Yet, he wonders if, at the time emotivism became popular, it did in some way reflect the moral development in the culture and so seemingly accounted for what people were observing. Moreover, as it insinuated itself into the mainstream consciousness, it became self-fulfilling, such that in a certain way emotivism is true of moral arguments today.

Now, here comes a point which I found really fascinating. Once MacIntyre establishes what emotivism is and its place in the twentieth century, he identifies the “characters” in our culture that reveal its emotivist assumptions. First, what does he mean by character? In every phase of a culture, so he says, the moral philosophy of that time and place is manifest in the society through particular characters, which inhabit a specific kind of social role: “they are, so to speak, the moral representatives of their culture and they are so because of the way in which moral and metaphysical ideas and theories assume through them an embodied existence in the social world. Characters are the masks worn by moral philosophies.”

Characters: Masks worn by moral philosophies…

These characters are not necessarily those who are admired or revered by the rest of society, but they are sources of self-definition for the rest of us, even by contrast or disagreement. They are objects “of regard by the members of the culture generally” such that the character “morally legitimates a mode of social existence.”

MacIntyre identifies three such characters that embody the emotivist tendencies of our modern culture. These are the rich aesthete, the manager, and the therapist. I have spent a good deal of time over the past few weeks thinking over these three characters and whether MacIntyre correctly chooses them, whether they are still true of today’s culture as compared to the 1980’s, etc. I will briefly summarize his reasons for choosing these three and intersperse my own reflections on them.

Here are his reasons. First, in different ways, all three represent an important consequence of emotivism: if all evaluative judgments are merely reflections of personal feelings or attitudes, then every kind of social influence is rendered manipulative—treating another as a means rather than an end. We cannot influence any one to act for their own sakes, according to objective standards of what is good, because any attempt to persuade another person is, at rock bottom, an imposition of our wants and desires on that person, such that they will do what we want. In contrast, non-manipulative treatment assumes that the other person is a rational agent, and one presents them with objective reasons to act (or not act) in a particular way based on something we perceive as good for them. Then, we leave them to decide their own good. The distinction between manipulative (treating as means) and non-manipulative (treating as ends) is only possible if there are impersonal standards of good and bad (i.e. morality), and according to emotivism such impersonal standards are merely an illusion.

The rich aesthete, a wealthy person for whom pleasure is the primary end of life, views everything, including other people, as means to their end. Understanding the social world as “nothing but a meeting place for individual wills, each with its own set of attitudes and preferences,” the rich aesthetes “[contrive] behavior in others that will be responsive to their wishes, that will feed their sated appetites.” (Do we need a better description of the Harvey Weinstein type than this??)

The managerial character finds its roots in the German sociologist Max Weber’s ideas of bureaucratic authority and effectiveness. An organization has ends toward which it is striving and competing, and it has authority over people as means to those ends, and the criterion for its authority is its effectiveness. The manager, as leaders within organizations, must handle human resources with techniques of persuasion and motivation and control (the kind of influence that MacIntyre identifies earlier as manipulative). The question of values such as good or bad are absent, except insofar as they are synonymous with effective or ineffective.

The extent to which this paradigm of economic persuasion and effectiveness now permeates our social interactions is subtle but not to be taken for granted. The language and techniques of branding we apply so readily to ourselves, both professionally and socially. I was recently flipping through a book entitled To Sell Is Human (2013), in which the author Daniel Pink argues that all of us sell things…we all have to “move” people toward accepting something that we have to offer.  That may indeed be true to some extent, but why must the paradigm for such influence be “selling?” What are the hidden assumptions and implications behind that?

Like the manager, the therapist as a character is supposedly morally neutral. MacIntyre asserts,“The therapist also treats ends as given, as outside his scope; his concern is with technique, with effectiveness in transforming neurotic symptoms into directed energy, maladjusted individuals into well-adjusted ones.” The therapist assumes that emotions and attitudes are the primary determiner of well-being, and so his techniques focus on shaping and changing those, rather than changing behavior and thoughts by teaching moral truths.

Thus, it seems to be no coincidence that therapists come along with the rich aesthetes and the managers as a modern phenomenon, and that they have great influence in our culture. In a world without objective, external values of goodness, where every kind of social relation is blurred manipulation, and where people aspire to the social power of the aesthete and the manager, the therapist is both another representative of and salve for society’s moral confusion.  We look to mental health specialists who make pronouncements on what is “good” for us, but they can only do so on the grounds of data—what do the studies say? In our popular culture, we are fixated on such reports as a guide for behavior and choices. But this isn’t the same as morality.

Now, all that isn’t to say that these three kinds of characters are inherently bad, but the extent to which they represent our assumptions about ourselves and the social fabric within which we exist is–MacIntyre urges–a cause for concern. On the one hand, I find MacIntyre fairly convincing on this point; on the other, I find myself resisting belief that we are as emotivist as he claims and that our social self-definition can be reduced down to those three characters, but perhaps that is just wishful thinking!

I think that’s enough for you and me to ponder over for now! If you have any comments or questions, especially if you have also read MacIntyre, please contribute them.

In other news, this past weekend we finally went apple picking and brought home a good-sized harvest. Harkening back to Tom’s childhood traditions, we decided to make them into apple sauce. We cut the apples into quarters, leaving the skins on, and boiled them. Then we ground the softened apples through food mills, in order to take the skins and seeds and stems out.

apple picking

The resulting apple sauce is a beautiful rose color and has a wonderfully tart and sweet flavor—all we added was a bit of lemon juice and cinnamon. We will freeze several jars, alongside our summer peaches, so that we can enjoy the tastes of summer and fall when we are in the winter doldrums. They can be part of the festive arrival of the baby in February.

apple sauce!

I have returned to certain creative projects lately, which have been very fulfilling. I definitely experience a kind of “flow” when I am working on art or crafts that is very peace-inducing. Recently, I have been trying to put to creative use some beautiful birds’ nests and robins’ eggs that I have found around the yard and town. At least one has ended up in a hanging terrarium, and the supplies for that project led to some fairy-garden making with my older nieces and nephew (who made an army fort instead). I was very impressed with their creative little planted worlds.

Mary’s fairy-garden

On Alcott’s Little Men

First, I am belatedly sharing my Public Discourse article entitled “Educating the Educated: The Why and How of Liberal Education for Adults,” which was published a few weeks ago. It reflects upon my experience at St. John’s in order to argue for more programs like it in graduate-level liberal education.

In keeping with the theme of education, which has also been the topic of several recent posts, I’d like to share some thoughts on Louisa May Alcott’s novel, Little Men, which I finished a few weeks ago.

When we lived in Annapolis, the boys and I used to attend a storytime at a downtown bookstore every week. The storyteller was “Nanny K,” a lovely English woman and mother of three who dressed like Mary Poppins and “flew” into and out of the store with a parasol. A few weeks into our regular attendance at storytime, I saw Nanny K at my graduate school, discovered she was a fellow student, and learned that her real name was Katrina.

Over the next year and a half, my friendship with Katrina grew, in part through our wonderful conversations about books, both the ones we were reading ourselves and those we loved for our children. Among the many books she recommended to me for my boys was Louisa May Alcott’s Little Men. 

Unlike Alcott’s famous Little Women, I had never heard of Little Men until Katrina mentioned it. As a sequel to the former book, it follows the life of one of the sisters, Jo, and her German husband, Fritz Bhaer, as they run a school for boys.

The novel focuses on the development of the children in their school, where the students also live. We see the educational philosophy of “Mother and Father Bhaer”—as the children call Jo and Fritz—made manifest in the relationships of the adults and children to one another and in the resolution of various conflicts and even tragedies. That philosophy is primarily one of love and gentle correction that respects the natural virtues and aspirations of children, provided that they have a stable and happy environment and good adult models.

The story is sweetly amusing as Alcott clearly delights in childish ways and in observing the moral and intellectual development of boys at various ages and with very different temperaments and gifts. As a mother of boys, this was enough to keep me reading the story.

Boys and their shenanigans


However, on the whole, I didn’t really enjoy it and my dislike raised a few questions for me. First, it is unclear what audience Alcott intended for the book. Did she write it for adults? for boys or girls or both? I couldn’t imagine any of the above fully engaging in the story.

Alcott’s personal endorsement of the educational philosophy is too obvious; the plot seems heavy-handed in its sentimental, picturesque view of the children and the adults. In this way, it smacks of an overly adult self-awareness about a particular vision for education and its desired results. As an adult, I found this boring and a bit too predictable.

Relatedly, I do not think it is good for children (nor is it appealing to them) to be too aware of adult judgments of their personalities (whether positive or negative) and their project of educating them. These days I often hear parents talking about their children to them or within ear shot of them, labeling them as “such and such type” or over-analyzing them and nit-picking their education.  In trying to make sense of our children’s behavior, it is very easy to do this (I have done it), and it is certainly normal although I do not think we should be letting young kids overhear these kinds of conversations. It fixes in their own minds labels and self-conceptions that might not be correct, or if correct, still malleable.

For this reason, I cannot easily imagine children enjoying this book, even though it is about children. I think boys in particular would resist its adult perspective on and “taming” of them. It does not present the boys through their own eyes, but through those of a very feminine, sentimental narrator.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of excellent stories about children undergoing moral formation with strong parental characters. One of my favorites is Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder, in which she shares stories of her husband Almanzo’s childhood on a farm in upstate New York. Almanzo’s father is the second most important character in the story, and Wilder relates many instances of the father teaching nine-year-old Almanzo and even punishing him. But, we see their relationship mostly from Almanzo’s perspective: he knows that his father is teaching him certain virtues and skills, and he knows that his father loves him, but if his father has any particular judgments about Almanzo’s personality or his future adulthood, neither he nor we are privy to them.

Although I thus accuse Alcott’s novel of projecting her educational philosophy too heavily on the characters, there was much in that philosophy that resonated with me. The boys were given freedom and responsibility in various ways like personal garden plots, pets, and business ventures. They had lots of time for play. The main instruction in virtue was through modeling and through natural consequences like the loss of their peers’ respect or the adults’ trust because of misbehavior. For Father Bhaer, their teacher, the main punishment for lazy or bad work was the knowledge of his disappointment with them.

This generally resounds with the primary impulses of parenting and teaching today. We teach through gentle encouragement, self-esteem boosting, and modeling correct behavior. “Love is all you need” kind of stuff…

However, this vision of virtue formation also raises many suspicions on my part, for it assumes a child for whom the emotional and relational consequences of their actions are the most salient. For some this is due to nature; for others, due to their their rationality, which comes with age and experience. It takes a rational child to understand—in a moment of anger, willfulness, laziness, jealousy, etc—that the disappointment of their loving parents or peers is worse for them than not having whatever thing they are desiring.

The following episode illustrates what I mean. The children, under the leadership of the oldest among them, are going out berry picking in some fields a good distance from the house. Mother Bhaer, despite her better judgment, allows her four-year-old son to go with the group after he very cutely pleads with her. Robby, as he is so named, ends up getting lost alongside an older, more mischievous girl who lives with them and it is not until after a tormented search through the night in the woods that Mother Bhaer finds the two of them asleep in the leaves somewhere.

Now, the sheer fear of having been lost probably would have been enough to keep Robby from wondering off like that again, but the next day Mother Bhaer punishes the two of them by confining them to a very pleasant room and loosely tying them up for a little while so that they can appreciate the freedom which they had abused. After she leaves the room, the girl realizes that she can easily untie them and does so, but then they both feel guilty for how much worry they must have caused her and tie themselves back up.

Frankly, I just don’t believe many four-year-olds would do this. In a mother’s dream world, children would be able to make decisions and feel proper remorse based on how much she loves them…but most of the time they don’t. So, instead, we utilize some other sort of pain (whether loss of a beloved toy or having to sit in time out or even a smack on the hand or rear) or the fear of it to instill in them the proper remorse and regret that would teach them not to behave that way again.

But, Alcott’s adults generally avoid using fear and pain to teach the children lessons, and this feature of their schooling and parenting led me to reflect more seriously on whether and how these can be appropriately and lovingly used to teach children.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal written by a Chinese-American woman living in China described her son’s experience in an elite Chinese public school, which he started attending when he was three-years-old. At first, she was shocked by the use of force, stern punishment, and intimidation by the teachers, who are revered in society, to achieve the high standards of memorization in language and mathematics among the young children. Yet, she saw her son trying things that her gentle encouragement had not pushed him to do, and he was flourishing and enjoying school. Anyway, the article remarked on the attitudes of the Chinese toward teaching and what American schools systems could learn from them— despite some of their harsh and severe ways.

I thought that her article overlooked several important negative aspects of the Chinese schooling; nonetheless, I appreciated her point that the contemporary American emphasis on giving children freedom for self-expression and motivating them through gentle, positive encouragement could be hurting more than helping them, especially if it undermines a proper sense of adult authority. There is a place for punishment in teaching, the problem is finding the proper expression of it.

To give one final example, I’ll turn to Farmer Boy again. When I read it most recently, sometime last year, I was very struck by a particular event that had never stood out to me before. Almanzo had accompanied his father and some other men to cut ice from a frozen lake (or river, I can’t remember), and he got too close to the edge of the hole and nearly fell into the freezing water. Fortunately, one of the men caught him before he was submerged. His worried father ran over immediately, but, to my surprise, did not embrace or comfort his startled son. Instead, he looked Almanzo sternly in the eyes, told him that he ought to know better than to do something so dangerous and warned him that if he ever did something like that again, he would whip him.

If that were my child, I probably would have hugged him out of concern for his fear and the relief of my own panic at his near-death. But, Almanzo was eight-years-old and was being careless. Which response would more powerfully instill an awareness of the serious foolishness of his behavior—the kind he needs for basic self-preservation? One might wish that a mother’s loving heartache at the fear of losing him would be enough, but it’s probably not.

And which, then, is more fully motivated by love or the desire for the good of the chid? I do not endorse whipping, but I was struck by how much I could sense the father’s love in that moment, even though he was threatening and punitive. Ultimately, I think that either mode of response—that which comforts or that which instills fear—could be appropriate given the circumstances and the child, as long as it is informed by a loving and reasonable discernment of the child’s welfare and what they need to learn in that moment. This requires a certain detachment on the part of the parent from that which they desire: some overly desire love and comfort from their children, others crave authority and obedience at the expense of the child’s dignity.

So, there you have it. Despite recommendation from an admired friend, I will not be having my sons read Little Men when they’re older. However, I will have them read Farmer Boy, and I will read it too, again and again.

The eclipse of summer and the value of study

The summer is coming to a sudden close, as the last summer visitors have left and I see neighborhood children waiting for school buses in the morning on the corner across from my house. The weather is already getting cooler, which is a welcome change. Autumn has always been my favorite season.

As the grand finale of our first summer in Illinois, we went with family to go see the total eclipse in a town about an hour south of here. The eclipse, like many good things in life, was preceded by a long period of preparation, waiting, frustration, complaining, squinting…all for two and a half minutes of complete excitement and awe as we stared with our naked eyes at the fiery black orb in the sky. The difference in brightness and temperature between the moment when the last, tiny sliver of sun remained and the full eclipse was remarkable: almost as stunning as the eclipse itself was the palpable evidence of just how much light and heat the sun gives off. During the total eclipse, the sky was as in a most beautiful and pleasant dusk just after the sunset, accompanied by the birds singing and insects humming. But, within moments, it was over! And we drove home.

I did not get pictures of the eclipse, but I did capture this Monarch butterfly in our garden

For us, the changing season does not yet bring school and all it entails. Yet, after a wild summer of moving, hosting, visiting, working, being pregnant, etc, I am looking forward to a calmer and more predictable routine in our new home and town. Admittedly, my ambitious summer reading plans crumbled in the face of early pregnancy exhaustion—I have been stuck on page 5 of MacIntyre’s After Virtue for two months. Last weekend, though, I had an opportunity to read while I was traveling by myself to Florida for my aunt’s wedding. Instead of picking back up with my books, I decided to finally read a few papers written by friends from St. John’s. Two were papers for class and the other was my friend Staci’s Master’s thesis on Euclid.

It’s always wonderful to read the fruits of a friend’s intellectual labor, to hear her particular voice and style in the written word. Unless a friend is willing to write very long letters (or is a professional writer), we often don’t get an opportunity to read an extended exploration, narrative, or argument from him or her. Thus, I enjoyed the chance to do so with my friends’ papers, especially Staci’s thesis.

I followed those papers by an essay entitled “Why Intellectual Work Matters,” written by my St. John’s thesis advisor, Zena Hitz. In it, Ms. Hitz laments the modern tendency to view intellectual and academic work through the lens of activism—“doing something” for the world, “making a difference,” etc. This emphasis on social utility ultimately undermines itself, as people become disillusioned by the lack of social change that can be wrought by the study of say…Ancient Greek or Art History. The problem, she writes, is that we are overlooking the main good of intellectual pursuits, which is the enrichment of the interior life of individuals. Like humor or music, an intellectual life is one of the things that can sweeten and enliven our human experience; it is so deeply human in its gratuitousness. And, it’s privateness is necessary for its authentic pursuit.

Ms. Hitz’s article awakened many memories from my college years, when friends and I would commiserate about the “pointlessness” of writing essays that only one professor would ever read and we would crave to do something “real.” We were under the false assumption that public works were inherently superior to private ones and that study was not “real” work. There are many reasons why we suffered from this impression, but prime among them is the fact that, for our whole lives as students, our study was always valued in terms of its preparation for something else: for a test, for high school, for college, for a profession. Those of us who majored in the humanities were re-assured, “This will be useful! Employers will love you!”  Sadly, our studies were never measured by our own interior lives and whether they were rich, imaginative, thoughtful, clear, ennobled.

Now, however, I can read my friend Staci’s thirty-something page essay on the nature and use of reductio ad absurdum proofs in Euclid’s geometry and delight precisely in the intimacy of her inquiry. For it reflects a mind that is searching for clarity in nuance; that wants, in a very personal way, to understand. The value of that inquiry to herself alone is enough to justify the work, although many others also benefited from being drawn into her study through conversation and reading.

I have much on my mind these days. I am acutely aware of how little I am getting done, which I know is not actually helpful! But, I am enjoying a certain slowness and thoughtfulness during the day and relish being with the children as they learn and grow.

Philosophical Anselm, on a column outside of the art museum.

My older brother, Leon, who can always be relied upon to provide wonderful music, recently sent me this beautiful album of ancient African string instruments. It is called “New Ancient Strings” by Toumani Diabate (you can listen to it here). I have been playing it often; I love how it sort of permeates the whole house in a peaceful way and seems to match my overall mood.

Imagination and the Intellect

Last Friday, we said goodbye to my sister-in-law’s family who live down the street…they are only gone for a week but we’ve been together almost every day since we moved two months ago, and so the separation was bittersweet! As we walked home with their dog whom we are watching, I looked back to see my 10-year-old niece, Mary, sitting teary-eyed but smiling on the front porch of her grand-old brick house. Their family chickens were clucking about in the yard to her right, dwarfed by the big camper, which they had borrowed from a neighbor for their trip, in their driveway. I could hear the faint noise of her siblings getting ready for bed inside as Mary sat watching us walk home.

When I looked at my beautiful little niece seemingly caught in some interesting and subtle emotion, I thought of my own girlish self at her age. So many experiences were highly tinged by my imaginative world, permeated by a melange of narratives, characters, and emotions culled from books and movies and family stories. That’s not to say that I was always pretending, but that I processed real experiences through the lens of my imagination, and I did this even during my adolescence. I found intricate meaning in simple occurrences because I was weaving them into an internal narrative.

I don’t think that this is an unusual thing for children; in fact, it seems a healthy sign of their imaginative life helping them to build their character and their sense of meaning vis à vis other people and the world, including the characters and imaginary lands in books.

Imagination these days is mistakenly relegated to the development of creative skills and impulses: we want to encourage imaginative play so that our children will be creative, think-outside-the-box kind of people. Although that is partially true, imagination is perhaps more importantly a key to our intellectual and moral development. My brother-in-law Nate recently wrote an article, “How Not to Become a Dragon,” in which he argues for the importance of good books in the development of the moral imagination of ourselves and our children.

It’s a short article, well-worth reading directly, but I found the most striking element to be Nate’s referencing of C.S. Lewis and then Plato to discuss the idea that our imagination is fundamental to our intellectual and moral natures. Nate writes:

Behind Plato’s penchant for poetic storytelling is the deep insight that narrative is the fundamental mode of knowledge. Storytelling is the principal means by which we make the world and ourselves intelligible, and intelligibility is always expressed in the form of a story. As Alasdair MacIntyre puts it in After Virtue (1981), “Man is . . . a teller of stories that aspire to truth.” And he paraphrases Plato when he writes: “Deprive children of stories and you leave then unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words.”

There is a lot more at stake in a story than the development of literacy or entertainment. It’s important to cultivate a taste in stories, and I do not mean merely regarding the moral content of the story, but the actual quality of the writing and when applicable, the illustrations.

Nate’s discussion of the integral relationship of the imagination to the intellect and reason–as opposed to the modern dichotomy between reason and imagination–reminds me of an excellent book by St. John’s tutor, Eva Brann, which I just finished. The book is Paradoxes of Education in a Republic (1979) and I found it extraordinarily helpful in understanding education in our country and in general. Some of my favorite passages come at the very end, when she engages directly with the modern fixation on rationality, expressed in our emphasis on forms over content, standardization, methodologies, and utility.

Our reason, she points out, is the calculating tool of our minds: it “can be used or idled at will, can be handled like a tool to penetrate and strip and shape the world by distinguishing, analyzing, abstracting, comparing, contrasting, compounding.” However, the reason is not the same as the intellect, which is the “receptive capacity” of our minds to perceive and contemplate truth and beauty around us. It was just this sort of receptive contemplation, rather than reasoning, that was the height of philosophy.

Joe learning to contemplate music with his grandmother

And, she notes, the intellect requires an imagination informed by the beauty of the “grown and given realm” in order to be awakened. An education that focuses on rationality and our ability to impose order and shape the world has little place for imagination and contemplation.

One of the main forms with which modern rationality preoccupies itself is the “future.” According to Brann, the “future”  is an empty concept; it is merely “a notion that something is coming at us “which is “ever present.”

This demand that we prepare students for “tomorrow’s world” bedevils education, precisely because it enjoins attention to the most formal aspect of existence, its mere futurity […] The results of this fixation on the future is that the past and present substance is deprecated, and all efforts are centered on an indeterminable impending shape […]

In our focus on the future, we abandon the past and present, assuming that it will no longer be relevant anymore. Yet, such a futurist fixation, it seems to me, also assumes that there is nothing continuous and permanent in our human condition, and that the world of the future will not be at all shaped by our natures.

On the other hand, if we trust that our future will reflect our past and present, then the stories and characters of the past are valued not only for their entertainment and historical mystique but for their truth. It is in this sense that even ancient “poetry” (which I take Brann to mean broadly as poetry, literature, drama), supplies “model images to give resonance to inner life and reference to the public scenes.” This brings us back to Nate’s emphasis on the  importance of poetry for our self-understanding and ability to navigate the real world.

Nate’s concluding prescription in his article is to choose great stories for ourselves and our children and to read them aloud. I would add that we need to encourage imaginative play and storytelling even as kids get older. It’s easy to get annoyed by a certain dreaminess or scoff at melodramatic imaginative play (especially among girls), but we ought to resist these responses and allow kids to internalize stories and make them their own.



At last: Friendship, Part 4

We’ve been enjoying a lovely July so far in our new town, including a little fishing adventure with our cousins.

Meanwhile, I have been working on an article about the Graduate Institute at St. John’s, urging the creation of more programs like it for adults. It’s done and I will share it as soon as it is published. Now, I am finally finishing this series on friendship, which I started months ago after reading Aristotle’s Ethics.

In my first post on friendship, I summarized Aristotle’s descriptions of the types or levels of friendship and focused on his idea of a complete friendship, which is the greatest and most difficult of all. In my second post, I listed 6 reasons, based on my own experience and from talking with friends, that make the pursuit of deep friendship so hard in this day and age. These were:

  1. lack of time
  2. the number of actual friends and potential friends
  3. moving and managing the distance between friends
  4. changes in ourselves and in our friends that bring tension to the friendship
  5. different expectations of what friendship is and what it requires or how important a particular friendship is
  6. lack of order and discipline

In parts 2 and 3, I managed to get through #1-4. Today I will discuss #5 and #6 and also brainstorm some (hopefully) helpful ways to overcome these difficulties.

#5 Different Expectations 

It is very easy to misunderstand or overestimate another person’s disposition toward friendship in general or with you in particular. I have been quick to form expectations of deep friendship based on a few pleasant interactions, and after much disappointment, I am slowly learning my lesson. The rich and lovely conversations, mutual interests, and/or shared sense of humor and personality that often lead to real enthusiasm for another person often characterize a friendship of pleasure, but do not guarantee the development of a lasting and intimate bond.

The confusion around expectations is compounded by a lost sense of etiquette and boundaries in our culture. People are willing to share with literally anyone who will listen (or read their Facebook feed) what others in the past would have only shared with their family and dearest friends. So what I may read as a sign of intimacy or trust, another person might think of as merely friendly behavior or conversation.

We also have different ideas of what it means to be a good friend. Some equate good friendship with frequent mutual favors. For example, I have met some mothers of young children who thought that the test of friendship was how often we babysat for one another…but meanwhile, they barely made time for real adult time together. A good friend can be relied on during difficult times or for a favor here and there, but that isn’t what primarily characterizes friendship–friendship involves communion.

Others think that a good friend should make you feel good about yourself at all times. This expectation cuts off the healthy and important role of our friends to make us better people and help us find happiness. We ought to expect those who really love us to tell us when we are doing wrong. We have no obligation to assume that they are right, but we ought to take that very seriously and appreciate it.

#6 Lack of Order and Discipline 

Whether it’s you or your friend, if one or both in the friendship lack order and discipline, it’s very difficult to maintain or build a good friendship. Aristotle cites an old saying, “Lack of conversation has dissolved many a friendship.” Indeed! Even if you still have good feelings toward the person, if you don’t actually talk regularly, you aren’t intimate friends.

In our technological age, the means of communication ought to make conversations more possible but they are also real sources of distraction from our friendships. Lack of order can be manifest in spending too much time with friends or talking on the phone or text messaging or on social media. Or, it could be in not responding to phone calls, text messages, emails, or frankly, never sending any of the above because you are too distracted by other things. People get discouraged after a few unfruitful attempts to get in touch and then give up trying to catch up with you on the phone or get together with you. Even if you respond to their invitations or phone calls, friends also get discouraged and hurt if you never initiate any conversations or get-togethers yourself.

If the person is not someone you want to be close friends with, this may not be much of a problem–you may in fact choose not to be very responsive. But, if you desire to be a person’s good friend and can’t actually order your time well enough to get together regularly or be in touch often, then it’s your loss! What a shame!

Another manifestation is a disorder of desires and pleasures. Sometimes we desire the company of friends who are not actually good people, or, perhaps if basically good, still do not challenge us to be better people ourselves. We might choose to hang out with people who are less virtuous or ambitious than ourselves, in order that we might feel good around our friends. If this isn’t motivated by self-satisfaction, it lulls people into it.

Or, out of a sense of laziness, people just accept whoever pursues their friendship and enjoy feeling wanted, rather than making the effort that it takes to seek out worthy friends. These people think of friendship as merely the suppression of loneliness, rather than an active choice to love and be loved by another person.

Positive resolutions

I did not intend to write these reflections on the difficulty of friendship merely to draw attention to the problems, but to offer positive resolutions that could help us overcome them–at least those that are in our power to change.

The first is patience, with ourselves and other people. Patience not only for our weaknesses, but in trusting that building good friendships takes a long time. Our friendships will go through phases, depending on the state and stage of our lives. Patience also shows itself in a slowness to build expectations of, or to trust completely in, a friend, which can avoid much hurt.

Yet, at the same time, we need a sense of ambition and striving. Deep friendship requires a decision to love the other person and an active pursuit of time with them.

We have to be willing to make choices about our friendships: who will we prioritize?  This requires a certain amount of exclusivity. If a friend consistently does not respond to or reciprocate efforts at deepening friendship, then you don’t have to ditch the friend, but perhaps spend less of your energy on them. It’s possible that you have misunderstood her desire for friendship, and rather than make drama or lose peace, just move on. Also, sometimes we must disappoint someone who wants to spend time with us more than we’d like because we are prioritizing another friend.

How do we decide whom to prioritize as our closest friends? My husband Tom has a good measure: whom do you want to be more like at the end of the year? Whom do you admire most? I would add to that: who among those people seem most desirous of or open to being friends with you?  Try deepening your friendship with them.

In terms of very concrete suggestions here are a few more:

  • my sister-in-law arranges regular “coffee phone dates” with her long distance friends. They both plan in advance to have some quiet time (maybe they put on a show for the kids) and sit down in their respective houses with a cup of coffee and chat for a half hour. Planning in advance makes a big difference.
  • Decide how often you’d like to keep in touch with a friend and put re-curring reminders in your calendar. Also, you can be direct with friends and tell them that you’d like to keep in touch more often and then brainstorm how you could both do that better.
  • I have discovered the brilliance of “accountability groups” for keeping in daily touch with friends. Basically, find something that you would like help keeping on task with–like daily workouts or prayer or wake up time or even drinking enough water–and then ask a friend if she would be willing to work on that with you. Text each other when you have done your goal for the day. You will appreciate having the mutual project and you will be more likely to share other thoughts and daily news since you are already texting.
  • my husband Tom has realized that some friends are hesitant to talk on the phone regularly because they think that every conversation is going to be a major catch-up session, lasting an hour at least! But if you can get good at quick 5-10 minute calls–during which you just check in and ask a fun question, not just “what’s going on” but “what do you think about…”–you will end up talking to your friends more often.
  • Similarly, my mom and one of her friends send each other short little video updates every few days, sharing something special that they saw or listened to, etc.
  • Try to spend a few INTENTIONAL minutes each day on a friend.
  • Plan for quality, undistracted time with your closest friends. Don’t always have an activity that you are doing together (like watching a movie…or watching kids).
  • Intimate friendship requires that you reveal yourself to your friends, and they to you. You have to be willing to talk about what is closest to your heart.
  • If you find it hard to initiate deep conversations with your friends, invite them out for a walk. Often, it is easier to spark those when you are walking along side one another than when sitting face to face.
  • Write letters.
  • If you have a hard time keeping up with text messages or phone calls, give yourself clear times of the day when you use your phone and when you don’t. Keep a list of the people you need to call or respond to when it’s time to take your phone out.
  • If you are bad at responding to email, try the email game every week to clean out your inbox and make sure you respond to your friends.

It can feel awkward to establish new habits of friendship with people. Again, you just have to be patient: it takes a while to reap the fruit of those habits.

Also, do not stress about trying to deepen all of your friendships. Just focus on one or two people! It’s a treasure to have even one deep, adult friendship in a lifetime. Embrace your other friendships as they are, recognizing that there might be many people whom you sincerely love, but for whatever reason, you can’t keep up with them as regularly.

be peaceful like this little guy, on the bluffs at sunset.



Our move, and Friendship, Part 3

This is part of a series on Friendship, inspired by Aristotle. Here are the first and second parts of this. 

I am writing to you this afternoon from our “breakfast room” off of the kitchen in our new house in Alton, IL. As you can see, much has changed since I last wrote a post! About three weeks ago I graduated from St. John’s…

The Master.

…and we packed up our apartment in Annapolis a few days later and set off on a three day road trip to Alton, stopping to visit some Haine sisters along the way. When we first arrived, we stayed with Tom’s parents, while we waited for our things to come on the moving truck.

We have been in our house for about two weeks now. So far so good! It’s a wonderful old house; of course, we have discovered its flaws now that we are actually living in it but they are fairly minor  creaky and sometimes sloping floors, door latches that don’t work, paint colors we aren’t so sure of, etc).

Tom and Anselm working at the table behind me. We inherited those curtains, I still don’t know what I think of ’em.
Looking from my desk where I am typing into the kitchen

The boys and I just worked for a few hours in our new yard. We have several garden beds that are very overgrown and a bit ratty, so I have been trying to clean and clear them out a bit. There aren’t many flowers blooming right now, although we discovered some beautiful scarlet lilies hiding behind a small tree up against our back fence. That was a pleasant surprise!  Now that I have freed up some space, I think that I will plant at least sunflowers and herbs this summer. I’ll save more serious gardening for next summer.

It’s been so wonderful to have grandparents a few houses down and cousins a block away. We can run down to visit in our bare feet, stopping in to say a quick hello or bring over the family dance party with a speaker in one hand and a child in the other. We’ve been doing a good amount of visiting but also trying to spend some time as a family in our new house, so that we can settle in and get used to it. I could tell at first that the kids didn’t know what to do with themselves; as my mother-in-law pointed out, they were always looking for me but didn’t know where to find me.

Who knows what the next few months will bring here, but for now I would love to keep this blog even though I have finished at St. John’s. I will maintain the theme of books that I am reading as the anchor for the content, and now that school is done I can publish things a bit more often.

Before I start anything new though, I need to finish my thread on friendship! I have received several thoughtful responses to my last post on friendship, and I have appreciated these posts as opportunities to work out my own thoughts and challenges. Last time, I outlined six main difficulties that I have experienced in friendships. They were:

  1. lack of time
  2. the number of actual friends and potential friends
  3. moving and managing the distance between friends
  4. changes in ourselves and in our friends that bring tension to the friendship
  5. different expectations of what friendship is and what it requires or how important a particular friendship is
  6. lack of order and discipline

I managed to get through the first two last time, and today I will cover #3-4. Just a reminder, I am focusing on the challenges to deep friendship, not friendship in general. Basically, what keeps us from having that highest kind of friendship described by Aristotle?

3. Moving and Distance

This challenge is very à propos to my life right now, having just moved and now missing some of my best buds in Annapolis, wondering whether and how we will sustain our bonds. With modern mobility comes the sadness of frequently leaving good friends behind and having to navigate the new distance between us.

As Aristotle has said, friendship implies daily activity. Can you sustain that activity long-distance? My dear friend in Annapolis noted how sad it is that those friends with whom she feels most connected live so far away. Despite that connection, each is so busy with family and with life in their immediate surroundings that it’s too hard to have the intimacy she desires with those people; fundamentally, your day to day life does not include one another. Your lives cannot be intertwined. It is for that very reason that Aristotle thought that one should not expect a deep friendship to survive distance.

However, that was before the modern means of communication. Can these help keep the daily activity of deep friendship alive? I think they can to an extent, but it requires a lot of work and intentionality, which also needs to be reciprocated otherwise it doesn’t really work. I am also discovering how much it requires exclusivity—a choice of staying in touch with fewer people really well rather than many.

I have a loyal heart which feels a certain amount of guilt over losing touch with any one who once was my friend. I am learning to get over it, though it is still uncomfortable to let friendships go completely. Facebook did not help this, which is one of the reasons I ultimately deleted my profile. However, I always try to remain open to anyone who wants to stay in touch, and have often been surprised by who wants to make the effort after I have left a place.

Also, admittedly, I don’t think I have lived close to anyone (besides my dear husband) for long enough as an adult to adequately judge the quality of our friendship upon leaving it. Since college, itself only four tumultuous years, I have only lived in places for 1-2 years, and often the friendships in those places have existed for less than that and took a while to develop. “For though the wish for friendship comes quickly, friendship does not”—Aristotle nails it again. Perhaps my expectations for those friendships after moving away were not realistic given the short time of growth we had in the same place.

I have had a few friends with whom my friendship has actually grown deeper despite distance, but this is the exception rather than the norm. I think those cases are explained by a rare treasuring of one another, involving spiritual unity and moral likemindedness, and also, good habits. For, I have many friends with whom I feel a real love and connection, and we might be in touch a few times a year, but I don’t think that is the kind of deep friendship that we are talking about here. Again, that requires activity, not just a feeling of love and affection.

And now I have a completely different horizon for friendships—I have to start all over again yet the timeline is so different, perhaps indefinite. I think it will be good for me, slower but deeper growth over the long term.

4. Change (and I am adding here, Immaturity)

I always find it interesting how much other people can note the drastic growth and development of children when they aren’t with them every day. Even local friends who haven’t seen the kids in a few weeks will often comment with shock at some noticeable change in their size or facial features or their capabilities. I do the same thing to nieces and nephews and friends’ children! When you only see them once a year or less, the shock and surprise is even stronger. Yet, as a parent, although I definitely am aware of the changes and growth and often feel amazed by it, the change feels much more gradual and subtle. I cannot see their development so starkly unless I look at photos. Because I am with them everyday, I am growing alongside them, and my understanding of them is a continuous whole.

I think that this same phenomenon is present in adult friendships. While it is true that some friends and friendships are easier to reconnect with—when you’re with them after a long time, it can feel like “no time has passed”— still, when you are far apart and cannot live alongside them in the day-to-day, you lose that continuity in your understanding of each person. The changes don’t feel gradual or even necessarily make much sense. It’s hard when you cannot picture what a friend’s day is like, what kinds of thoughts she is thinking, who she is spending time with, what she is reading. All of those things inform who she is becoming.

I find that with my friends who are married and have children like me, it’s easier to “know” what’s going on in their lives and what’s on their heart a bit better without being told, and when we do talk, we often get to the vulnerable topics more quickly.

This issue of change seems most frequently felt with old childhood friends transitioning into adulthood. Aristotle recognized this challenge, particularly when it comes to differences in maturity. If you find that you yourself have matured into an adult, and your friend seems to remain a child, it is very hard for the friendship to be sustained.

This rings true for me: inequality in maturity makes old and new friendships difficult. What do I mean by maturity? I think of it in very plant-like metaphors: when has the human fruit reached its ripeness? Not in a physical way, but in an interior sense?

Maturity: humans bloom like these flowers hiding along my fence.

I recognize this ripeness in at least the following characteristics:

–  a life marked by selflessness rather than selfishness (the modern mantra that we have to raise kids to be able to take care of themselves seems to me to be the bare minimum–we want them to surpass care for themselves and grow to be able to care for others). The good of human life is love; those most capable of love are most fully human.

– examined principles and beliefs held confidently enough to respect those of others’

– virtuousness

– peacefulness and an un-self-conscious embrace of one’s personality, the quirks and unique tastes (even a peaceful recognition of one’s vices although not a celebration of them).

That’s just my basic stab at a description; actually, that’s worth reflecting on more later. And it’s not a static place one reaches perhaps, but a progression, a working upwards, and as long as one is on that climb, it is possible to be friends with people who are further along the path. When I think of some of the older women with whom I am friends, I wouldn’t say that we are exactly at the same level of maturity, but somehow we recognize in each other the manifestation of it in our own ages and stations in life.

Well, that’s all for today. I have to get moving on some chores here. More on friendship to come soon!


Springtime delights and Friendship, Part Deux

This is part of a series on Friendship, inspired by Aristotle. The first part is here. 

Spring came rather indecisively to Annapolis this year; we started having really warm days in February, warm enough for the trees to bud, only to be shocked with the cold again. Finally, this week has been warm enough to leave the house without our winter coats on just in case. Now Annapolis has truly burst into bloom, and we have been loving it. Our last memories of the town will be of its most luscious self, its flowering trees and beautiful homes in the spring light.

The boys have discovered and been relishing the special delights of spring weather. Anselm loves driving in the van with all of the windows down, and, as icing on the cake, he wants me to blast music as we go. His top request these days is Enya, which I amusedly oblige. I only started listening to Enya once I married Tom, who turns her on every once and a while to remember his Grandma Schickel. He has very strong memories of playing in his grandparents’ house while the music of Enya sifted through the whole place—feeling sort of curious and proud and fascinated by his grandmother and her musical taste. Having now observed the funny effects of her music on Anselm, I can imagine little Tom and his feelings a bit better.

The first time Anselm heard Enya’s “Orinoco Flow,” he suddenly jumped on his rocking horse and rode with such determination and joy, frequently throwing his head back as if in the wind. I didn’t want to make him self-conscious by laughing at him, but it was really quite hilarious so I had to go in the other room to crack up. When he requested the song, which he calls the “Sail Away song,” yesterday as we were driving, he sighed and smiled with such contentment as the song came on. He looked out the window with his face to the springtime air, kicking his legs over one side of his carseat and tapping his hand on his knee to the music.

It is very funny to observe my child’s first experiences of having a particular song that so resonates with how he feels, or so powerfully sparks moods and scenes in his imagination. It’s an effect of music that I have often experienced and wondered at as one of the most mysterious and marvelous things in life.

Another discovery of spring: the joys of jumping off of stone walls. 

Anselm has also been very sensitive to the idea of friendship lately. It might be because we have been reading Charlotte’s Web, which is such a good introduction to friendship for a little kid. He has been seeking out other children now as his “friends,” introducing himself and asking for their names, and then addressing them as “my friend, Henry” or “my friend, Charlotte.” He has also chosen a “best friend”: Gavin, the thirteen-year-old neighbor who always lets the little kids play with his gadgets on the playground. A few days ago, Gavin rode past on his bike and Anselm said to me, “there’s Gavin, my best friend!” and now he says that every time we see him. Gavin’s mom has told me that he thinks Anzo is the best little boy in the neighborhood, so the esteem is somewhat mutual.

Friendship has been on my mind a lot lately as well, perhaps because we are getting ready to move again and that always makes me reflect on the quality and status of my friendships, both near and far. It’s also led to some good conversations with friends about friendship: the general feeling is that adult friendships are difficult—perhaps more so than we expected.

Why does friendship seem so hard? For me, there are several main reasons:

  1. lack of time
  2. the number of actual friends and potential friends
  3. moving and managing the distance between friends
  4. changes in ourselves and in our friends that bring tension to the friendship
  5. different expectations of what friendship is and what it requires or how important a particular friendship is
  6. lack of order and discipline

They are all pretty interconnected, but let’s take them one by one.

# 1. Lack of time

This is the main excuse many of us give for not being better friends. “Sorry I am such a bad friend (or never call you back, etc), but I am just so busy with [family, work, school, and so forth].” Now, I am not dismissing this as untrue, because I know it often comes from a feeling of genuine regret and of being overwhelmed. But, I have become convinced that this a very bad thing to say to anyone or even just to yourself, when it comes to friendship.

First of all, none of us are victims to our own schedules. We are busy because of our own choices. If we sincerely feel like we don’t have any time for something that we want to pursue, including friendship, then it’s up to us to evaluate what to say “no” to and what to say “yes” to in order to make the time. I often used to give excuses for not being able to do things but I have been trying not to use the word “busy” and also not to give excuses so much. It’s hard! As an adult, I have to carefully discern how I spend my time, and not apologize or give excuses for it. And, I have to trust that my friends are doing the same thing.

When we blame our failure in friendship on a lack of time, we are just avoiding the reality that we are simply making (or sadly, not making) choices for other things. We might not admit this to ourselves, but when we make these excuses about a lack of time to our friends, they can see the reality behind it: we are choosing other things over them, or we lack control over our own lives and can’t get it together. Either interpretation can make a friend feel pretty bad about the friendship.

If we sit down and ask ourselves why we don’t invest time in a particular friendship and we discover that the things we are putting before the friendship are more important, then we shouldn’t apologize. We just have to own up to that fact and deal with awkwardness and disappointing other people and even ourselves. I would love to be able to follow up on every friendly promise of “getting together again” or “keeping in touch” that I make to new or old acquaintances, partly because I do genuinely like the person and partly because I think it’s important to keep my word. Lesson is, I should be more careful about saving my enthusiasm for those friendships that I will actually follow up on.

If, on the other hand, we look over our priorities and realize that we really could fit more time in with a friend or friends in general, and that we would love to do so, then we have to get to work changing our habits in order to make that happen (we’ll talk about this in #6).

#2. The number of actual friends and potential friends

Most of us have a good number of people we consider to be already friends and still more who could be friends if we spent more time with them. “Facebook friends” attest to the fact that a person can have many people towards whom she feels good and about whom she has a basic interest (or simply knows…).

It can be difficult to pursue friendship when you have so many options and you are trying to give attention to and keep in touch with many people. This is part of why people like Facebook: it gives the impression that we can connect with all sorts of friends simultaneously or with little effort, which seems to resolve the tension of having to prioritize one person over the other.

In my experience, if we don’t actually choose our friends and intentionally invest time with some more than others, we won’t be able to have deep and intimate friendships, since those require a lot of tender love and care

So, what is a good friend and how do we even have one? If we go back to Aristotle’s ideas of friendship which I quickly summarized a few months ago, there are three kinds of friendship: friendship of utility, friendship of pleasure, and complete friendship.The first two are not bad, since they still imply good will towards other people, but they are not friendship in its fullness. Moreover, friendships of utility and pleasure last as long as the usefulness or pleasure lasts.

Complete friendships are pretty rare, having certain requirements that are hard to meet. You must both be virtuous people and love the other for the other’s sake. You need time to really know each other and build up confidence. You have to enjoy and love similar things, seeing yourselves in one another and wishing for your friend what you would wish for yourself. The enjoyment of such a friendship is more in loving the other than in feeling loved. Aristotle’s evidence for this is the love of a mother for her children— he identifies the parent-child relationship as a kind of friendship—and how much she enjoys loving them without having her love matched.

One of my classmates, when we were discussing Aristotle on friendship, responded to this ideal by saying, more or less, “It sounds like looking in the mirror; I don’t want a friend who is just like me, and thinks everything that I think.” That’s an over-simplification. These days we like having “diverse” friends, since that makes us feel good about ourselves. I do think it is important to have friends with different beliefs and interests. But, for a deep friendship, where you really know the other person and make yourself known, you have to be able to understand each other.

Fundamentally, we are not complete in ourselves; the thoughts, feelings, insights, experiences, talents, virtues and interests of other people fill out and expand our own. When you and a friend have the most sacred things of the heart and mind in common, you help each other plunge deeper into those things, contemplating them and living them out better than you could on your own. This is why Aristotle says that the happiest people, who already have everything they need for a good life (most importantly, virtue), desire friendship most of all. In other words, they who are most able to delight in things for their own sakes appreciate them all the more with a good friend.

To build and maintain this kind of friendship, you must be striving to be virtuous. Then, you must have many—daily even—opportunities to connect with the friend. Aristotle describes the activity of the complete friendship as a kind of “living together,” which I think means a daily companionship and shared activity.  But this does not mean simply doing things side by side: good conversation is a must.

For those of us who are married, our spouses are likely the first person with whom we are really striving to have a complete friendship. And it’s easier, in a sense, because we spend our daily lives with them. What a sadly missed opportunity if we aren’t trying to cultivate deep friendship with them! The same goes for our family members, especially siblings. Friendship with them is very possible, but not guaranteed. It requires a lot of effort.

Still, it is important to seek deep friendship outside of your marriage and family. But, as such an intimate and focused kind of love, complete friendship is exclusive. You cannot seek it with many people at the same time. Thus, we have to be selective and exclusive—not everyone is potentially this kind of friend. That doesn’t mean that we ditch every other friend, but that we have more realistic expectations of our relationships with them (more to come with # 5).

And, it will take a long time to develop this kind of friendship, so we have to be patient. In my youthful naivety I have often jumped to attribute “deep friendship” to a relationship a little too soon. It takes many years for a friendship to be tried and true.

In the meantime, it’s helpful to have this ideal in mind for our own sense of what it means to be a good friend to other people: to love them for their own sakes, to be striving to be a virtuous person ourselves, to make time for good, intimate conversation about the things we value most, and to seek daily ways of connecting with them.

That’s all for today. In the next few weeks, I will try to cover the last three points on my list.

Happy Easter to all!

We are starting to make Ukranian eggs and getting out our favorites from previous years–this is my favorite one that Tom has ever made.