Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Climate Change Solution No One Wants to Talk About

A lot of ink is being spilled about the effects of climate change, the causes, and the myriad solutions to stop the inevitable destruction of the planet and consequently all of us with it. I realize I am going to ruffle more than a few feathers for pointing this out, but one thing I have never come across yet is the observation that the modern gender-equality ideal, which idolizes the consumption machine that is the corporate mobile workforce, has been a major contributing factor to the climate problem we are now facing.

How can that be? Well, apart from the big changes that liberals are now frantically pressing politicians to endorse-- like conversion to solar power and subsidizing the electric car industry, here are the simple habits which scientists have been telling us to adopt for decades in order to reduce our waste and stop carbon emissions from destroying the planet: 

Walk, ride bikes, or use transit for daily travel. Hang dry laundry. Wash and reuse containers instead of wasting plastic and paper. Use cloth instead of disposable nappies, wipes, menstrual pads, and paper towels. Cook our own food and use washable containers for lunches instead of buying take-away and processed junk and throwing out the wrappings. Build greenhouses and grow our own organic vegetables and fruits as much as possible. Make and use our own natural toiletries and household cleaners and store them in reusable containers. Preserve fruits and veggies (preferably local or from our own gardens) and bake our own breads etc to reduce packaging and production waste. Store and use our grey water for our home gardens and compost our food waste. Mend clothes and buy consignment where possible to avoid needless fabric waste. Better yet-- sew our own clothing from second hand fabrics--I hear drapes make terrific play clothes. The list goes on.

Can you guess why it is that these simple habits aren't the norm in every household even after decades of environmentalists telling us how important they were? The answer is time and skill. All these little changes and habits require someone to spend time at home and a few basic domestic skills that have been long neglected by society, which has characterized them as menial. Formerly known as "women's work" these skills have largely disappeared in city schools and are rarely taught even at home because who wants to do the menial, unpaid, unglamorous, unappreciated work in the home? And more importantly --who has time for it when both spouses not only want to leave home to work (because that's liberation! that's equality! that's success!), but increasingly need to leave home to work because one income isn't enough to support a household?

Now, instead of at least one adult staying home and cultivating the eco-friendly lifestyle that most of our grandparents took for granted, both parents leave home--usually in separate gas guzzling vehicles-- and drop their kids in large inefficiently powered schools and daycares so they can go to work in enormous, power hungry buildings miles from home. They don't have time to cook or prepare lunches so they buy cheap, over-packaged "snacks" for their kids (which is all daycares have time for anyway) and disposable wipes and nappies (also required at daycare).  They grab coffee and take-away for themselves as they go, throwing out trash carelessly on the way to and from their various destinations. They work all day and repeat the trash consumption on the way home and to soccer and swimming etc. They throw something half-prepped and prepackaged together for dinner. They let their various machines do as much of the clean-up as possible because they have to teach their kids all the stuff they were supposed to learn at school but apparently didn't in a classroom of 30 kids so now they have homework. And they repeat the whole process 5 days a week, telling themselves that if they put some things in the recycling they are doing their bit. Weekends are not enough to catch up on all the domestic work that's been neglected all week of course, and anyway it's taken up with shopping for more stuff and driving to lessons and sports practices. Unsurprisingly, the well-to-do fly the heck away from it all on fuel-chugging airplanes as often as possible, while the rest of us try to find some nature to remind us what life is actually supposed to be for occasionally. 

No one has time to walk or take transit or ride a bike--plus most people live way too far from work now. No one has time to wash nappies and towels and wait for it all to hang dry. No one has time to cook from scratch or grow their own food or make their own toiletries and cleaning products. No one has time for canning or fermenting or caring for small livestock-- heck most of us don't have the skill, let alone the inclination--or space. We don't have time to mend our clothes or shop consignment and most of us don't want to because we like being stylish and don't want our kids to be bullied for looking skint either. Sewing: no time, no skills. We just don't have it anymore and the truth is we don't really want it because busy-ness is next to godliness. 

Now, modern feminism didn't invent the consumer machine that's driving the environment to ruin, but it certainly has speeded it up in a mad way and that's because our definition of equality has gone from respect for women and appreciation of the work they have traditionally taken responsibility for to women abandoning that work as menial, low-class, uneducated drudgery in order to join the men who were driving the corporate mass consumerism we are now realizing is so destructive to the planet. As a result of fighting for our "liberation" from the home, we have unwittingly helped to push our planet to the brink of destruction. Who knew "women's work" was so important? And yet I rarely come across a so-called "strong" female character in film whose "strength" isn't qualified by a complete ineptness at domestic arts. Eowyn of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings can take down the Witch King that "no man can kill," but Peter Jackson can't help adding a scene to the movie in which she proves her strength by offering around a revolting stew to the troops--badass girls should not be able to cook apparently.

Now I'm not advocating that women go home and tend the house and garden. Nor am I trying to suggest that men shouldn't be responsible to learn and use all these basic skills too. Traditionally they didn't learn all of them, but then traditionally they did a lot of other domestic things around the home more suited to their usually greater upper body strength. They made stuff and repaired stuff. They hunted and gardened and fished and did all sorts of things in and around the home which nowadays only "hippies" and environmentalists tend to make a habit of. And they weren't hopeless at cooking and cleaning and mending clothes either, contrary to popular belief. Now, more often than not, men drive to the city to work their butts off for hours in the corporate machine. If they are among the more privileged they make lots of money, look important, and have more time and cash for those fuel-guzzling flights to hot countries with pretty beaches. If they aren't (and usually they aren't), they work really, really hard for long hours to grow someone else's profits and still struggle to feed and house their own families. And we wonder why we have trouble with obesity and depression in pandemic proportions. To say nothing of divorce. Of course sometimes men and women have more meaningful work and we are taught from early childhood to chase that rainbow --that anyone can get rich or famous or do something really important and meaningful that they love for a living wage, but that's not really true. What is true is that domestic work actually is meaningful and apparently crucially important to the future. And of course either sex can do it, but it certainly doesn't pay a living wage and hardly anything else does either now. But in spite of that, I'm not even advocating that "living wages" be high enough for households to manage on one income--although that would be nice (throw a pony in while we're at it). 

What I am advocating is that people change their definition of gender equality from women abandoning the home to both sexes sharing domestic work and paid work at whatever ratio seems to benefit them and their families--and society honouring both kinds of work as important to civilization. More importantly I am advocating that we change our perspective on the workplace itself and work towards a system which supports working from home as often as possible, working near home when necessary, and including children in the workplace where ever it is safe to do so. It's the digital revolution--we ought to be taking advantage of that so that people can work from home as often as possible. The only barrier I see to that way of thinking is that society still disparages home life as less valuable to society than work life and we are still stuck in the sexist, corporate trap of imagining that we are no one if we are not in public being someone. Great for profits? Maybe. Studies have shown otherwise. But definitely bad for people and planet. Because this waste-free, carbon-free utopia that climate change activists are pushing for isn't going to happen if there isn't anyone home to make it happen. We can lobby the government and corporations all we want for solar power and a halt on oil production; we can buy electric cars and organic cotton, and local food; we can use eco-friendly appliances and cleaning products, and install LED lightbulbs; but if we can't be home, if we can't do things for ourselves and include our children in our work lives so that they learn the habits that will later make them good stewards of the planet and valuable contributors to society, we will never ever get off this consumption train and it's due to crash any time now. 

Climate change does not have a government-endorsed, corporately funded solution that will enable us all to carry on more or less as we have been except with solar powered cars and organic food. We can't buy this problem off or legislate it away. We need to change the way we think about what kinds of work are actually valuable to society and stop feeding the consumer engine with our drive for self-fulfilment and misplaced ideals of gender equality. We need to think small, think humble, think gentle, think quiet-- because that small, humble, gentle work that no one talks about-- that's what's going to make the big change we need. 

Monday, March 31, 2014

10 Rules We Use to Get Our Kids to Eat Real Food

A number of friends have asked me how it is that I get my kids to eat pretty much anything. For example, this week's menu included marinated kale, potato, avocado, and asparagus salad, roasted squash and sweet potatoes, lentil curry, tahini dressed quinoa, and a tofu vegetable stirfry--all of which they ate without complaint and much of which was unfamiliar.

While I can positively say that my children used to exhibit that infuriating habit of refusing to eat anything but toast and juice and now they will eat anything, I can't be 100% certain if it's anything I'm doing or if they just grew out of bad habits. One thing I am sure about is that mealtimes used to be insufferable battles and after I instituted a few simple rules we've had relative peace at the table.

So here's some rules that WE follow and my reasons for them. They might be worth a try if you are having table troubles with the kiddies.

1) COOK-- and exhibit confidence in your own cooking. If you don't have any confidence in your ability to make something delicious, then it wouldn't be surprising if your kid is picking up on that. When my kids wrinkle their noses at something I put in front of them I always say cheerily and with complete confidence that "Mummy doesn't make yucky food--everything I make is delicious." By the same token--don't make your kids eat food you messed up. Forcing them to eat burnt porridge is not in the spirit of what you are trying to do. If you have truly messed dinner up--own up to it and don't make them eat it. Dig out the peanut butter jar and try again next time. Remember that feeding your kids isn't ultimately about putting necessary nutrients into their bodies. It's about teaching them to enjoy meals socially and develop healthy attitudes to food and eating. You can't teach them to enjoy good healthy food if you expect them to eat bad food.

2)DON'T BE A SHORT-ORDER COOK. This is a really bad habit that is easy to get into if you don't meal plan. You come downstairs in the morning and before you even think about what you are doing (probably because the coffee didn't make itself and walk upstairs to you) you say the worst thing possible:"What do you want for breakfast?" Before you know it the kids are asking for different meals that require heroic multitasking to pull off (especially first thing in the morning) and then the kicker: they change their minds half way through or start fighting over what they want you to make. The best way to avoid turning yourself into a kitchen slave is never ever to ask "What do you want to eat?" This just gives the kids the false impression that they don't have to eat anything they don't want to and undermines your authority as the household teacher of culinary good taste. 

3) DON'T BUY KIDDIE FOOD. And by "kiddie food" I mean anything marketed to children (fruit cups, rollups, snacks, mum-mums, cereals, yogurt cups, cheese strings, fish crackers etc etc). If you can't make it at home from scratch just don't buy it-- this is a good nutritional rule as well as a good way to combat food pickiness. Kiddie food, even Cheerios, is mostly sugar, totally stripped of all it's nutritional value (even the "organic" stuff). It's expensive, and worst of all, it's designed to make kids want it all the time. Not just with packaging or advertising, but taste, shape, texture--everything. We give our kids these things for 2 reasons: first, they are designed for a kid to be able to easily feed themselves independently of help from mum or dad, and second, we are all under the impression in the west that our kids physically need to be able to eat, unassisted, on demand, and so we keep an arsenal of this stuff in our cupboards and diaper bags and cars lest our kid should get hungry when we haven't the time to sit them at a table for a proper, civilised meal--something we rarely make time for these days. I firmly believe that while it's handy for a kid to be able to feed themselves, the habitual use of kiddie snack foods only reinforces the notion of control a kid thinks they ought have over what they put in their mouth, while teaching them nothing about table manners, good taste, nutrition, or how to wait for meals.

4) HAVE CIVILISED MEALS-- and don't offer snacks between meals if you can possibly avoid it. This is really, really hard to manage these days. I know. We're always busy, always on the go, and 3 meals a day is really hard to manage a lot of the time. I homeschool and I find this rule hard to stick to because we go out of the house, often over lunch time, at least 2 or 3 times a week and it's hard not to give into processed convenience food when you're out and about if you're already in the habit of packing it around. And let's face it, cooking 3 times a day is a LOT of cooking. One way to facilitate this is to get into the habit of having meals I call "bit of everything" meals. They are basically a Ploughman's Lunch, or lunches which you can open and present, but require little or no prep--a grain, a dairy product, a fruit, a veggie, and a pickle or preserve (or both). This is what picnic food used to be before the advent of sandwiches and fish crackers. Having whole food that you don't have to cook or prepare much makes it a lot easier to live a busy life and not be tied to your stove all day, while still keeping some kind of meal routine. Sticking to a meals-at-the-table rule when you're at home (as opposed to snacks whenever they ask for them) goes a long way towards getting them to try what you put in front of them-- at least in the case of my kids. Once we nixed snacks between meals and insisted on meals at the table, my kids were not only better behaved at the table, but they were a lot more likely to eat what was offered-- and usually finish it.

5) OFFER NEW STUFF OFTEN--but make sure one meal a day is fairly routine. This is where meal planning is so handy. I highly recommend it for budgeting as well as sanity. In our house dinner is different more or less every night and depending on what we have planned for that day depends on how laboursome the cooking will be for that night's dinner. Lunches, however, are usually limited to "bit of everything" or various  soups with bread and butter. Occasionally I make sandwiches. Breakfasts are almost always the same: porridge with maple syrup and cream, plus a fruit and some plain yogurt (if they're still hungry). Kids LOVE predictability which is why they tend to demand the same four foods all the time, so we make sure that one meal is predictable. In our house it's the family meal that is always the adventurous meal. The attitude we model is that it's FUN to try new things and we do our best to make them feel that eating what we are all eating is a privilege-- they are getting to join in on an eating adventure with the grownups.  If they aren't initially happy about what's offered don't take it off the menu after one try-- offer it more frequently. Especially if you like eating it.

6) DON'T AFFIRM NEGATIVE REACTIONS to new foods. My kids used to say "Ew that's disgusting!" and "I don't like it!" etc etc. It's important not to allow that kind of talk, but it's even more important not to let it come out of your own mouth. I was actually surprised how often and easily I slipped into mentioning to friends in my children's hearing that my daughter "disliked" or "wouldn't eat" something. I honestly think even asking our kid if they like something can be taken for offering control to your child over whether they eat something or not. All the recent science about food preferences suggests that if you dislike something it has everything to do with unfamiliarity of flavour or texture and that literally EVERYTHING is an acquired taste. When my kids object to unfamiliar foods I simply explain their reaction in a "scientific" way: "We don't call food disgusting--Mummy doesn't make disgusting food. Your mouth just hasn't learned how that food is good yet, so you have to keep trying it until your mouth learns to like it."

7) EXPECT THEM TO TRY EVERYTHING--but don't force them to finish it. I have a really hard time with this one because I'm such a control freak and I hate it when my kids waste food, so this rule is as much for me as for them. If you stick to the no-snacks rule, you can be pretty sure that they will be hungry come mealtime, so the rule at our place is that they must try everything--just one bite--before they get down from the table. But they needn't finish it. Sometimes your kid really is too full to finish. If our kids refuse to try things we offer (which is very, very rare if we stick to the other rules) we do everything in our power not lose our cool. We go through the list of reasons why they are expected to try it, and if that doesn't work, we excuse them, but--

8) OFFER NOTHING ELSE until the next meal. This is a hard one to stick to because in the West we have been taught to fear letting our kids go hungry for even a few minutes (hence the prolific power of the snack food industry). Because we have learned to reduce the value of foods to their nutritional components instead of enjoying them whole as part of a communal activity, we have unwittingly managed to convince ourselves that hunger is a sign that something is very, very wrong and must be immediately remedied by whatever means possible. And as parents we tend to use hunger as an excuse for bad behaviour in children as well. This may very well be true a lot of the time. I certainly get grumpier when I am hungry. But instead of teaching our children, or modelling ourselves, that good behaviour is expected regardless of what physical ailment may be bothering us, we tend to offer more food-- any food, at any time. Just make the screaming stop. Sympathy for discomfort is of course important, but not at the expense of reasonable boundaries and expectations. The hard thing I find in my house is to stick to those reasonable boundaries without losing my cool when they lose their cool. Practice, practice. One can affirm the emotional response without moving the boundary. But the key thing to keep in mind is that your child will not starve if you refuse to offer between meal snacks or allow participation in a dessert course when a meal is wholly rejected. (It helps if those dessert courses are rare too). Your child will not starve. Remind yourself of this. Repeatedly if necessary. They may get very, very hungry. They may get very, very angry. They may test your patience in every way possible. But they won't starve. Nor will they suffer malnourishment for having to wait until the next meal. Every other culture outside the West practices this and their health is usually better than ours. Depending on how stubborn or difficult your child can be when faced with boundaries depends on how rough this could initially be, but I guarantee you, you will not be damaging their health or guilty of child abuse because you made them wait for dinner. Quite the reverse.

9) DON'T FIGHT A LOSING BATTLE--make sure that every meal includes at least one thing you know they like and don't offer stuff that is too spicy or too sour or too strongly flavoured right off the bat. Introduce those things for sure, but slowly and only as "tastes" not as whole servings of food. Especially if your kids are used to only eating what they like and treating you like a short order cook. There's no point throwing them straight into the deep end. You could be setting yourself up for immediate failure. In our house we have been practicing these rules for long enough that I can generally experiment with any new recipe and be guaranteed that I will have little or no resistance about anything I put in front of my kids regardless of how unfamiliar or spicy or strongly flavoured. But even I won't serve my kids vindaloo or make them try wasabi on their sushi. And in the beginning I was careful to ensure that most meals included a course that they already enjoyed.

10)ENJOY YOUR MEALS--A big part of peaceful dining experiences is making sure that YOU are enjoying them. That you are cooking what you love to cook and eating what you like to eat with people you love in a civilised way. And that means setting boundaries not just for the kids but for yourself. Don't text at the table, don't rush your own eating, don't jump up from the table to change the baby or get people extra drinks or answer the phone. Make eating a priority and take the time to enjoy it. If you show the kids that you value cooking and eating and social interaction at the table by giving it your fullest attention, your kids will pick up on that priority too and learn to take enjoyment of food seriously.

So those are our household rules and I admit I am not always 100% good at following them. Nor am I completely certain that I didn't just get lucky with my kids. What may be easy for one family to do may be next to impossible for other families, so if any of this seems like way too tall an order for your family to manage don't beat yourself up or consider yourself a failure. Parenting is hard and picky eating is one of the hardest things to deal with. All of the above is merely what worked for us. I hope it's helpful for you.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Tying up threads

It's been a long time since I updated my blog while I've been working hard to graduate. That phase of my life is finally over and I will graduate on mine and Greg's anniversary, which is to say the 23rd of May. The date is a funny coincidence really. After nearly two years back in school I realized a number of things about my choice to go back that surprised me, not least that it was a much bigger sacrifice for our family than I was expecting or prepared for. And another was that my motives for finishing were incredibly mixed up and I would be lying if I said they had nothing to do with my own vanity.

Ultimately, however, finishing school had a number of important advantages for my family as whole. For one, I am now that much closer to a paid profession which we have discovered I will eventually need if we are to afford living in the lower mainland of BC --especially if we have more kids. For another, our family has grown a lot and learned a lot. My husband and I have navigated a rocky road trying to figure out how to manage our finances and actually co-parent instead of one person taking all the responsibilities and the other retreating to do "work." I've also learned a lot more about myself than perhaps I learned about literature or academia. I learned just how much my kids needed me, how crappy I am at parenting and being a wife, how to sacrifice my own perceived needs for my children's actual ones. These things may seem like the sorts of things that come naturally in healthy family relationships, but I guess they came a little slower for selfish old me.

I also had the chance for closure when it came to what I wished to have before I met and married Greg and what I felt like I'd given up before I had really decided it wasn't what I wanted. Before I got married, having kids seemed more worth while than pursuing an academic career or a career in theatre, and of course I never changed my mind about that, even when I was desperately sleep deprived and dealing with daily meltdowns and toilet accidents. But after the kids turned up and the daily slog of constant demand began to wear on me, I began to wonder if I could have my cake and eat it too, that is, be a good mom/wife and still pursue academia or theatre. I began to wonder if I could be 23 again and continue to follow the path I abandoned 10 years ago and just drag my kids and husband along it. I am sure there must be some moms and families that can do that, but I found that I wasn't one of them.

This discovery wasn't a disappointment though. Just good closure for me. I didn't know what kind of a sacrifice it would be to try to juggle both until I actually tried to juggle both. The truth is that I wasn't sure how many balls academia or theatre required until I tried to keep them all up and I wasn't prepared to drop any balls out of my ambitions as a parent. There's only so many balls a person can juggle, even a smart, hardworking person who excels at multi-tasking. I still only have two arms. And when it came down to a decision between having more children and homeschooling or stopping at two and sending them to school, I chose the former. Ultimately that was a bigger priority for me and for my family. That's not a judgement on the choices any other family makes with regard to mom's career or activities. It's just what I learned that I wanted to do and I'm not sure that I could have learned that for certain if I hadn't gone back to school and tried to have it all. Deep down I kept wondering if I should have dropped out or if I couldn't go back, and the thought always plagued me when I was most dissatisfied with my marriage or my kids. Now that I've put it to rest, I can focus on being a better mom and a better wife instead of looking at the past with rose colored glasses.

And I am incredibly lucky, blessed actually, that I got to do it. That I got to go back to age 20 and pick up the path I dropped 10 years ago before I got married. When I think of how many people had to make sacrifices so that I could do that and not lose everything I had gained since leaving school, I'm overwhelmed with gratitude. My long-suffering husband put up with months, years even, of neglect as I tried to get through my work and revisit my life's plans from before we met. He paid for my tuition without complaint, working over time to manage it, and he never walked out on me even though I was probably the world's biggest you-know-what for about two years straight. My kids still snuggle me every morning and are somehow the world's most fantastic, loving, little urchins in spite of the fact that their mother has more or less ignored them whenever she wasn't screaming at them to shut the !!! up. Beyond all reason I'm still lucky enough to be their favorite person in the whole world and I don't deserve em.

My parents and my sister have been incredibly patient and generous with their time while I tried to juggle homework and classes and I owe it all to their care and attention (and of course my husband's) that my kids haven't turn into hellions during my two year emotional and mental absence. I would not have finished this degree without them. They gave me this oppotunity and did everything they could to help me see it through. And I haven't thanked them enough. I'm not sure I could if I had tried.

Including my folks, the kids had any number of terrific babysitters. These people not only watched or entertained them, but loved them. They made me feel less guilty about leaving my kids behind because I knew they were in good hands. They made me feel as though being with my kids wasn't just a job or a favour but an utter delight. They were reliable and generous, they gave me energy, taught ME how to be more patient and a better mom, and they even cleaned my house!

Then there was my many loving and understanding friends who encouraged me through it all, who never let on that they probably figured I was off my nut, never judged me for being constantly short tempered and exasperated, never hinted that maybe I shouldn't be going to school after all or thought I was selfish to try. They just patted me on the back, tried to keep my spirits up, and listened patiently to my endless complaining. If only I were such a friend.

There were teachers, friends, and family members without whom I would never have gotten through my work. They read my papers and encouraged me in my writing. They stayed up late to talk about my work or the books I was reading or the theory my class was discussing or the Shakespeare play I was working on. They never failed to email me, to answer my questions or help me muddle through a problem. And they never treated me like I was anything less than brilliant, even though I know that I owe most of my academic achievements to their help and not my own intelligence or talent.

Finally, there were the people at the UBC theatre department and Bard on the Beach who gave me the chance to see what I was missing. Who opened the door to me in spite of my long absence from the theatre, my relative inexperience, and my lack of connection to anyone in the business. I never would have been able to let go of that dream if they hadn't let me in and given me the opportunity to judge whether I could ever pursue it while raising my kids.

The last two years have been probably the hardest of my life and certainly of my marriage. I stepped back in time and I'm darn lucky that I didn't mess up the space time continuum and lose my family or destroy their world in the process of figuring out what part of me I'd left behind and whether it was worth recovering. Now that I'm standing back where I was before I turned back, threads of my past all tied up fittingly on the day of my anniversary, I feel ready to face the future. I've got so many people who love me to keep me from failing along the way, to keep the threads of my life from unravelling while I muddle through.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Coda for my thesis--(Draft)

Coda: The Role of the Player

The play's the thing”--Hamlet

At the first rehearsal of a recent production of As You Like It, which I had the privilege to observe, the director opened the read-through of the script with the words “Now, it's Good Friday today, so feel free to crucify yourselves.” He meant, of course, that the actors were welcome to approach the script with as much creative gusto as they liked and ought not be too self-conscious about it. A sound piece of advice I thought, and one that I find too often actors need to be reminded of—especially when they approach Shakespeare. The simple reason, I expect, is this: modern actors favour character-focused interpretations over plot-centred ones. Such an approach assumes that Hamlet's value of “that within” is greater than a man's outward actions and that the truth and value of something is dependent upon its inward emotional manifestation. We have already examined the dangers of this approach for the actor. However, we have said little about the quality of the performance it produces.

As a part of the Elizabethan repertory system, plays were produced at frequent intervals. Andrew Gurr notes in The Shakespearean Stage that the players “can have had little time for doing more while studying their parts than the essential learning of the lines”(103). They performed 6 days a week and each day demanded a new play. Gurr observes that, “The Admiral's in their 1594-5 season...offered their audiences a total of thirty-eight plays, of which twenty-one were new to the repertory, added at more or less fortnightly intervals” (103). Such frequent introduction of new plays would hardly have allowed for in-depth character interpretations. As such, players were often type-cast to some degree according to their talents and plays were often tailored with the talents of the particular company in mind. While actors were admired for their versatility, the breadth of their talents rather than the idiosyncrasies of their interpretations were the real attractions.

By contrast, the modern actor is concerned with producing realistic and complex emotions on the stage. The preparatory work of the actor often involves a labour-some psychological background study of his character, including the invention of that character's biographical history. It is an extensive individual creative process. Similarly, in the modern production of Shakespeare plays, the design and direction of the play often involves careful and particular decisions aimed at offering a unique concept and fresh approach to the play. This approach or interpretation is frequently based on a particular message or issue of great personal importance to the director. In other words, the modern theatrical production is not only carefully crafted in its every detail, but is also essentially self-referential.

There is no question that Shakespeare took the purposes of playing very seriously, that his plays offered much more than mere entertainment, and that much of his own personal interests, beliefs and ideas must have gone into his writing. But the concept of a play or of that play's characters could not have been intended to overshadow the scripted play as a whole. The practical and business lives of the company members would have made such detailed artistic refinement impossible.

As such, many of Shakespeare's plays give trouble to modern actors and directors because they must invent non-existent motives and explanations to account for scenes or dialogue, which may have been intended as little more than an entertaining interlude to display the talents of a particular player. Such an idealistic approach to the script can, in a way, be admirably reverential. The assumption behind this approach, I imagine, may be that Shakespeare's genius is such that one must only stare at a play long enough and like a Magic Eye stereographic it will reveal its ultimate unifying truth. All the director needs to do to make sense of the play is figure out the meaning and purpose of anomalous scenes or bits of dialogue.

No doubt this approach is partly symptomatic of the past two hundred years of character-focused criticism, but the expectation that each play should be a consistent unified revelation of truth often leads to the most fantastical interpretations of characters and the creation of ever more bizarre play-concepts. And perhaps more unfortunately, it leads to the alteration of the script in order to aim at such concepts and present a unified play. Such a production is not one of the author's invention, but of the director's and the players'. The play is lost in the concept of the play, the character is lost in the concept of the character and the play, and the humanity of the production is lost in the concept of humanity represented by the production.

Part of this problem, I think, is due to the widely accepted method of characterization first introduced by Constantin Stanislavski, and now taught almost universally as part of an actor's training. Stanislavski invented what is known as “method acting” or “the method.” The basic principles of his approach involve an actor's use of his personal memories or actions on stage to produce convincing emotions. The actor is not performing a fake emotion. He is endeavouring to produce the emotion psychologically through memory or action and to react to it genuinely.

Most actors utilize method principles to some degree and many of today's most lauded and versatile actors are of the method school. Audiences value the believability of an actor's stage performance and there is no question that method principles help bring about some of the most marvellous and complex character interpretations which audiences cannot help but admire for their texture and realism. However, because the actors are looking at themselves and focused on their individual emotions as a way to tell the story, they are too often busy finding the truth of their character's emotions to tell Shakespeare's story instead of their own. The overall value of the play as a whole is often diminished

The loss to the performance is threefold. First, the method-actor whose performance is self-referential, runs the risk of never really performing anybody but himself. There is a sensationally funny scene in David Mamet's State and Main in which an actor is insisting to his director that cuts must be made to the script before they begin shooting. When the director asks his film star why a certain line must be cut the actor responds, “Because he wouldn't say that.” What the actor really means of course is that he himself wouldn't say that. With this attitude, the character is perceived by the actor as just another incarnation of himself under different circumstances and the craft of acting amounts to little less than self-indulgent fantasy.

Secondly, the actor who uses a self-referential form of characterization, while often pulling off brilliantly complex creative performances, also contributes little to the unified effort of the cast of a stage play. Method techniques may work wonderfully in film when one can cut and paste different shots or re-record dialogue to create a certain flow and consistency. But on the stage the players must work together to tell a story in real-time. I recall seeing Paul Gross play Hamlet in Stratford, Ontario several years ago, and while his performance of the character was quite compelling, the play itself was utterly forgettable. None of the actors were really talking to each other—least of all the lead, and the story was again eclipsed by the character.

Third and finally, the actor who is self-referential not only cuts himself off from his fellow actors, making for a disjointed production, but he also cuts himself off from his audience. This approach is easier because it involves looking no further than himself for emotionally stimulating material, but it is also easier because it is safe. While I was observing the rehearsals for As You Like It the actor playing Orlando was struggling with his opening speech and the coach recommended that he try not to allow the energy of his speech to build up in his shoulders, but to come from his gut and be cast into the audience. He tried the speech again in this manner and the result was beautifully engaging. The coach asked him how he felt about it and he replied that it was scary. When I asked him why, he said that throwing his performance out to the audience made him feel as though he was vulnerable and not in control. The actor who plays himself on the stage is effectively playing himself in disguise. The character becomes a barrier between himself and his audience and therefore any real contact with his audience is greatly diminished. The emotions he portrays are all genuine, but since they are not offered to the audience the loss to his performance is great.

In many instances I would argue, especially in the production of Shakespeare for the stage, what this approach amounts to is a disappointingly inconsistent play-experience. Shakespeare clearly felt that a person's actions, as opposed to emotions or intellectual thoughts, to be the determining factors of their character, both on and off the stage, and while there must be a certain amount of preparative thought that preempts a performance, method acting encourages a self-focused, emotive view of the craft which lends little to the talents of the actor, the production of a play, or the experience of an audience.

What Shakespeare seems to promote is an unself-conscious approach to acting which assumes a certain acceptance of one's part in the company. The clown may be free to extemporize but he was not free to play the hero. Nor indeed was the hero free to play the clown. In A Midsummer Night's Dream Shakespeare makes fun of the idea that being an actor proffers complete freedom to choose one's part. Bottom the Weaver repeatedly interrupts the handing out of parts in rehearsal to beg that he might play each one as well as his own, and while the absurdity of his excitement is almost endearing, the clear message is that every man must play his own part or there can be no play. Some men must play the heroes, others the lions, others amount to nothing more than a wall. The play is greater than the parts within it. This principle applies not only to the company of players, but to the world at large. The player's contribution to society is complex and important, but it is nonetheless a humble part to play and appears perfectly ludicrous when it is taken too seriously.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

What am doing here? : Connie Willis' To Say Nothing of the Dog

When I was considering what I should write my Honours paper on my first thought was that I was very sad my venerable Children's Lit prof (Kieran Kealy) had retired when I was in Britain because I wanted to do George MacDonald for years and the only Christian professor left with a remote interest in him was too sick to take on an Honours paper. I still had some inhibitions about Shakespeare then because after years of disappointing road blocks to my ambitions I was accustomed to thinking of Shakespearean theatre as inaccessible to me. So my next idea was Connie Willis and I spent a good two months frantically emailing everyone in the English department to see if anyone had heard of her. No one had.

Connie Willis writes Science Fiction, also known as SF by the initiated (as opposed to Sci-Fi). I know this because my Mum is a writer of the same genre and I gather that people who write "SF" actually know what they're doing and happen to be among the more brilliant and unappreciated writers of our particular literary era. This is because the education system functioning in most western countries is invested in teaching students to reject things which are exciting and fantastical as mere entertainment for the plebeian masses. Writing must be dull, depressing, and political to be remotely intelligent and worthy of note. I suspect this is why Connie Willis has remained below the notice of anyone at UBC.

I will openly confess I do not like SF myself and I can give no intelligent reason for this except that in general I prefer magic to science (though they are often indistinguishable) and for some reason most futuristic fiction bores me because it does not appeal to my feminine appetite for frilly fantasy with flowers and songs and long-haired maidens and beautiful elves and quaint hobbits and medieval-style battles. Science offers a backdrop of hard lines and cold technology. I enjoy it on television, but I cannot read it.

However, Connie Willis is one illustrious SF writer who really breaks out of the genre entirely in To Say Nothing of the Dog and some of her other novels and short stories. She is a Science Fiction author for people who don't like Science Fiction. The more I think about it the more I am convinced that only SF writers (and only ones of particular genius like Willis) can integrate so many genres into one piece of writing. To Say Nothing of the Dog is historical fiction, romantic comedy, mystery, and farce as well as SF. It's got something for everyone and, like much Science Fiction, it is also incredibly profound.

To Say Nothing of the Dog is the 3rd time-travel story which takes place in Willis' futuristic Oxford. I know I read it before I went to Britain because I had a very different picture of Oxford in my head the first time I read it and after I had been to Oxford, the book came alive to me in a different way. It is the story of Ned Henry and Verity Kindle, historians and time- travellers whose mission is to discover what happened to the bishop's bird stump and to somehow prevent the space-time continuum from collapsing accidentally.

If this brief description doesn't sell it to you I won't be surprised. I myself had great difficulty reading past the first three chapters. This is because you spend the first three chapters wondering what the heck is going on. Willis drops you right into the story, like one of Oxford's time-travelling historians, with no idea where you are or what is going on and it takes you 3 chapters to figure out that either you or Ned or both of you are suffering time-lag and you haven't a clue where you're both going or what to expect on your mission or indeed what your mission is even about because everyone keeps talking nonsense around you and all your historical and literary preconceptions are muttering in your ear about the role of women in Victorian society and where the fish fork goes and what science fiction novels and literature should be like. And bang!-- you're in the past (probably) and your trying to figure out what time it is and where you are and what the heck you're doing there. You thought you were going on holiday to recover.

It really is a piece of genius that is so rarely appreciated because the reader is often so grounded in the prejudices of his own literary era that he doesn't realise he's being used as a character in the bigger story itself. Instead of seeing where the story will take him and trying to figure out his place in it at large he gives up on the Grand Design-- a victim of our current literary era which emphasises the role of Blind Forces in the shaping of the world and art by extension. Our role in the great tapestry of earth's history is meaningless, nonexistent, which means so are we. This is why we are so completely obsessed with our individual identities and spend our lives (and obscene amounts of money too) in the interest of self-fashioning. We care less about what we do in our lives on a daily basis with others and more about what we can call ourselves to set ourselves apart from the meaningless Blind Forces and give our lives soe significance.

Both Ned and the reader experience the same displacement and it isn't until Ned mistakenly takes up with one of the "contemps" in Victorian Oxford that he begins to realise the gravity of his situation. He is NOT there on holiday. This is NOT about him. He has a very specific mission to perform, but he's too muddled by time-lag to remember what it is, and if he doesn't figure it out the entire space-time continuum could collapse or the Nazis could end up winning World War II--which pretty much amounts to the same thing: the world will tumble into chaos and evil.

Of course Willis does all this very humorously with Ned nearly being run over because it didn't occur to him that the horn he kept hearing wasn't the All-Clear siren of the Battle of Britain, 1940, but a bloody great stream train coming down the railway--which ought to have been obvious because he was standing on the tracks. How often it is that we are amidst the obvious answers to our problems and can't see them because of our ignorant "chronological snobbery" (as Lewis would call it) which enables us to assume that we are much better informed than all our elders. Time and what we now call "education" has really done nothing for the human race but help us to assume that because hindsight is 20/20, we therefore see perfectly clearly in comparison to everyone that came before us. As a matter of fact, all it means is that we have a much bigger muddle of information to sort through and are therefore aware of less of the world. I am sure that the internet has only reinforced this notion.

As Ned floats down the Thames with Terence (the contemp-- ie the Victorian) and Cyril, (his bulldog), he realises that not only is he not supposed to be there on a pleasure cruise, but that missing the details of his role in this historical mission could be disastrous. He knows that the historians in Oxford are researching every last detail of Coventry Cathedral before it was destroyed in the Blitz so that it might be rebuilt in perfect detail by the unstoppable Lady Shrapnell in Christ Church Meadow of all places. He also knows that the hideous piece of Victorian kitsch, referred to as "the bishop's bird stump"-- a cast iron urn of some sort-- is missing somewhere in history because it was not in the cathedral ruins after it was bombed, but it was there only a few days before and they cannot figure out when and where it was taken from the cathedral before the bombing. And though every historian on the project thinks it ugly enough not to bother recovering Lady Shrapnell insists that "God is in the details." This is how Ned ended up with time-lag in the first place-- he was flying all over the past trying to figure out what happened to the damned thing.

The "bishop's bird stump" is the Macguffin-- the thing everyone seems to be voluntarily or involuntarily chasing after, though it seems insignificant in itself-- it drives whole the plot and as a matter of fact serves as the perfect illustration of what we all really are: hideous, presumptuous creations that are neither aesthetically pleasing, nor particularly intelligent, that convey no obvious meaning and are base imitations of whatever fantastical nonsense seems to be popular in our own time. We are "cluttered, artificial, and...mawkishly sentimental." Nevertheless, we are all important details in one great creation that needs to be rebuilt, beyond all odds, because it has been destroyed in spiritual warfare.

This idea that we all have a role, that we are all important details in Creation, so great that we cannot actually perceive our own significance, is the main thing that blew me away about this book. It may be summed up by the often quoted maxim "everything happens for a reason." And this was not exactly news to me when I was at college. I recall years earlier talking about life and eternity with Dad-- I was probably 14 or 15-- and he told me that the history of the world is like a tapestry or painting and that we can't understand it because we can't see the whole thing. I'm not sure what occasioned this conversation but the idea of a Grand Design was not new to me when I read To Say Nothing of the Dog. What was new was the idea that I had an important role in the picture and that the things which happened to me in my life, good or bad, would ultimately be significant details, not only in my life but in everyone else's life too. I could not even begin to imagine how every detail of my life was affecting the lives of those around me.

When the bishop's bird stump goes missing Ned meets Verity, who has unwittingly created her own temporal incongruity by bringing a Victorian cat through to the future-- something they had always thought was scientifically impossible. The "net" or time-travel mechanism would not allow incongruities. They needed to return the cat to Victorian England and find the bishop's bird stump to prevent the space-time continuum from collapsing and of course everything they do to try to "fix" the problem only seems to make it worse. But in the end they find that everything they have done, intelligent or (mostly) otherwise, has been drawing them nearer and nearer to solving the mystery and preventing disaster. Time is altered slightly, the mystery is solved and the detectives go home to find that The Continuum has repaired itself, the Heavens are declaring the glory of God, both in spite of them and because of them.

The pagan notion of an inescapable Fate is redeemed by making the events that befall us in our lives not ultimately about us nor about nothing, but about all of us and everything. This is where Christianity transforms things. Where individual self-sacrifice to the Blind Forces which seem to shape our lives and make us believe in our insignificance becomes the Redeeming Force that changes everything and moulds it into the Grand Design. Christ did not seek out His death, but when the blind men nailed Him to the Cross it changed all of Creation and He allowed it to happen to Him for all of us. It had never occurred to me that accepting my Fate, such as it was, was actually submitting myself into the hands of God and allowing Him to use me in the redemption of His Creation-- if only I could stop looking at the world in hopelessly time-lagged dementia and see God in the details I could save not just me but all those around me.

This has been a hard hard lesson for me to learn and I am still learning it really, on a daily basis. We have the cursed luxury in the modern Western world of believing ourselves in control of our lives and we have all kinds of technology to assist us and reinforce this belief that we are our own. Letting God tell you what you can and can't do because you belong to Him is terrifying. Most of us Christians pretend we have faith in God, but the truth is I only have faith in Him when I already know what's going to happen to me and think I've got things in my life under control. It takes stepping into unfamiliar territory, taking a degree at a secular university, fleeing to a foreign country for two years, stepping into a marriage, opening oneself up to childbearing, throwing oneself into parenthood, going back to college at 28, to realise that we're at God's mercy. We might be insulted, defaced, bombed, revealed as foolish, but God doesn't want us to disappear and He'll seek us out and make sure we're there on the Last Day and in the Age to Come because we are all heroes in His epic Creation.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Keep Pedalling: C.S. Lewis' The Four Loves

I don't recall precisely the first time I picked up C.S. Lewis' The Four Loves. I read Lewis a lot in first year at UBC because he was a refreshing change from bullshit and something about his beautifully written, often intensely personal, and easily penetrable prose combined with his good common sense was just what I needed. It made me feel safe and a hell of a lot less confused.

I spent a good portion of my first year at UBC in the atrium at Regent College, the non-denominational Christian college. They boasted a terrific bookstore where I rediscovered the George MacDonald of my early childhood as well as entire Lewis and Tolkien sections. That year Lord of the Rings came out in theatres and I'm sure that was another draw at the time, for while Lord of the Rings cannot truly be among the most important books of my life, it was a part of my youth and reminded me forcibly of my parents. It contained a rich world in which Christianity was made almost epic without being explicit, and most importantly it taught me courage in the face of the outside world. Its popularity and Regent's extensive Tolkien (as well as Lewis) section was my access to my past and my future.

The most stunning part of The Screwtape Letters for me was the part where Screwtape reprimands Wormwood for allowing his patient "two real positive Pleasures" because it would "make him feel as though he was coming home, recovering himself." I cannot count how many times this has happened to me. It is always a little uncanny, but not in an unwholesome way. It is disturbing not for what it is in itself, but always because of what I am in myself in comparison to the reminder of the self God wants me to be: the kind of person those real positive Pleasures reveal to us, the people we used to be before our lives were clouded with nonsense and sin.

The Regent College bookstore was a refuge, a safe haven. Plus their cafe had delicious Lenten soups. I read a lot of Lewis that year, but I'm not certain The Four Loves was among them. My earliest memory of reading that book was when I was in Scotland. By then I had abandoned UBC in frustration, and disgust. I'd abandoned poetry in disappointment and Canada in misery. Love was something I needed to read about by then. I had no direction either at UBC or in my personal life. I was young and lost and far far away from home trying to figure out who the hell I was.

Culture shock is agonising. It is best described as waking up in a foreign country and realising you've been operated on by some anonymous, abstract and menacing power and come out of it with a different face. I literally looked in the mirror one day in a cafe loo on North Bridge and did not recognise myself. I cannot stress enough that this was neither because my actual appearance had changed, nor because I hadn't looked in a mirror for a month. It was because the internal me was radically different and somehow that radically new me was staring back in the mirror.

The only explanation I have for this is that we are what we do and what we do is indefinitely determined by who we interact with. We behave in certain ways with certain people. It's kind of like changing masks, like mimesis, but to call it pure imitation is a little too simple I think. There is give and take, and habit is a powerful personality determinant. Sometimes I wonder if this adapting to one's environment, which has a lot to do with one's ability to read social cues, is not only a more North American thing (Britain has more eccentric people per square inch than any place I've been), but also maybe not a particularly healthy thing. I think it must be a natural process--openness to change is a good thing for the soul, but I think it is sometimes considered an end in itself and prevents any real kernel of individuality to stick. The soul must have some stability as well as flexibility. In any case, I was in a country with no one I'd known much longer than I'd been there. Everything I did was new, everything I said was new. Those who knew me at the time will testify I had a bizarre half-Scots accent and I swear it was unconscious. One day I looked in the mirror and there was a flash of who I was and who I had been.

The new me was not a bad me, I should say. It wasn't the same kind of wake up call one gets when one suddenly realises the Enemy has slowly and silently sucked them into sin. But the sudden shock of realising you don't know quite who you are was very similar. I had been through a tough year. Scotland wasn't the half of it. My personal life had seen more ups and downs that year than any other. I had been a student living with her parents, whose church was English speaking and full of people who loved her and thought she was brilliant, whose ambitions were artistic, drama, poetry, art, who was working her brain and heart to outwit the hounds of the secular university, always single and able to picture herself braving the world alone and winning. Suddenly I was lost, ignorant, untalented, weak, working at a picture-framer's--a trade job. I was dating an Orthodox guy who was more opinionated than I was, that I had nothing on because he was cradle AND his dad was a priest, a priest radically different from mine. Church was like the Tower of Babel--different ethnic factions argued openly during the service about which language they should be using. No one thought I was great if they noticed me at all. I couldn't sing on key, I knew nothing about music, and I couldn't read Cyrillic. And no one took communion. Every week I trudged up to the chalice guiltily with the children and a few old ladies. I had no time to write. No idea who I was or what the heck I was doing.

This is a very grim picture of Edinburgh. It was not as bad as that all the time and it was a fairly young parish at the time. It has since grown into a beautiful little community, very different from St. Herman's in Langley, but most places are and I do not regret the growing pains I experienced in that parish. Nevertheless I was at sea within a month of moving there and church compounded the problem.

There was a terrific bookshop on South Bridge near where I was staying briefly on Drummond
Street and they had a boxed set of C.S. Lewis' apologetic works: Screwtape Letters, Miracles, Surprised By Joy, The Great Divorce, The Problem of Pain, and The Four Loves. I had definitely read Screwtape and Surprised by Joy while at UBC, but The Four Loves was, I'm certain, new to me. And for the first time in my life I was actually experiencing love in a real Romantic messy way.

My courtship with Greg is not something I look back on with nostalgic longing. It was hard. It was hard like things that are real are hard. I'm fond of telling people I was only in love with him for two weeks: after that it was work. And it was harder because we'd been "set up" and prompted to expect that we would be great together. Discovering that we drove each other nuts within a couple of weeks was not fun. But we had many important things in common. The night things got complicated was the same night he told me he thought he might like to marry me, but it wasn't the early use of the "m" word that complicated things. I was shocked to discover that I felt the same way even though I told myself it was crazy. What followed was a year of me figuring out who I was while Greg tolerated, begrudgingly, his foreign girlfriend's dramatic mood swings and battle with culture shock. I don't believe in "taking a break" from marriage. But before marriage I think it is a really healthy thing to do and I'm sure if I hadn't left Greg in Edinburgh for 6 months to move to Oxford I never would have figured myself out and we would most definitely not be married.

What does all this have to do with C.S. Lewis and The Four Loves? Well I picked it up during the phase of my life that I was figuring myself out. The book describes four distinct forms of love. The first three, Affection, Friendship, and Eros (romantic love) are earthly, natural loves, and I was experiencing them all intensely in ways I hadn't before.

Affection for Lewis was partly need-love (ie the kind of love that one needs from others) but what it often needs is to give love. It is the domestic love and the love which develops in unlikely places through familiarity. I was near nothing familiar and desperate for Affection. Sometimes people land in strange places and immediately find family. People take you in. Affection was something I needed. I didn't find it till I got to Oxford over a year later.

Friendship is the ideal love for the medieval man-- the love that develops out of common interest. It also has needs. It happens when two people realise that they are doing something together that they like, be it as dull as collecting stamps, and form an attachment over it, over a meeting of minds. Greg and I had nothing in common. He liked riding bikes at a billion miles an hour down mountains and skillfully building picture frames and music. I liked music but by his standards I was a plebeian and he made no secret that he thought so. He was a high school drop-out too. We had led two very different lives before we met. He was smarter than me and more talented and I was good at nothing which interested him. I was a writer, a university student, a poet and a theatre person. I was from a vastly different Orthodox tradition. Sometimes I wonder what the heck we talked about for those first few weeks. I had no other friends in Edinburgh to talk to. Not really. I was busy trying to make myself a "friend" and adopt a passion for his interests.

Then there was Eros. Ah Eros. It fuelled a good two weeks and no it was not about you-know-what. Lewis calls that "Venus" and I will not deny it had its place in our early relationship, as befits a chaste, unmarried Orthodox couple, but Eros is quite different. And for a good two weeks that's what it was about. In love. Soaring, tumbling, stumbling, where-am-I? in love.

One night we had THE TALK. The one where it's not just about the two of you now, but who you have been all of this time and who you want to be: the big step, where you go from enjoying each other to really knowing each other, which includes filling in the gaps, even the ones we'd rather forget. It was uncomfortable, it was painful. Oh dear God, you're not an angel! That was when it got messy.

It got messy because after that we were people, and people, generally, SUCK. After that our relationship had to be about something else. It couldn't be about Affection-- we hadn't been together long enough. It couldn't be about Friendship. I'm not sure it's ever been about Friendship and I'm not sure it ever will be. And Eros can only take you so far. As Lewis points out, all earthly forms of love, if we treat them as gods, they become demons. All love eventually becomes hatred if it is not guarded by the divine form of love: Charity.

I think the majority of my relationship with Greg has been about Charity, the self-sacrificial love. The kind Christ had for us. I say this observing that it has been thus for both sides, because I would not like anyone to think that it has been hard for only one of us the whole way. But our sinful halves have been fighting it tooth and nail and the figuring-out-who-we-really- are has played its part as we struggled with our earthly expectations of Friendship and Affection and lasting romance: our needs, our demands, for affirmation. For when left unchecked by Charity, these demands were vicious, towering, abusive assertions of independence and authority. Charity means letting yourself be nailed to the cross.

Lewis' book put me in my place and reminded me who I was and who I belonged to. When Greg came to Oxford to visit me for a weekend, I knew he was the right one because he spent his afternoon reading it the day before he proposed-- and not at my recommendation.

The night before we signed the papers in Leith I couldn't sleep but I had the most truly spiritual experience I'd ever had before or since. I knew the saints were there and they were telling me to do it. Flying down Leith Walk towards the registrar on the tandem bicycle in our wedding clothes, a fight broke out. We were going too fasting, I felt like I was falling and stopped pedalling. Greg barked at me to pedal and stop trying to counterbalance. It's been like that the whole way, me leaning one way and him the other, him flying on ahead, me screaming at him to slow down. Charity keeps the bike from falling into traffic, but it's a scary unpleasant ride sometimes and all you can do is hang on and keep pedalling. But when you get there, you get to do the nearest thing to a free act you've ever done. "Necessity may not be the opposite of freedom, and perhaps a man is most free when, instead of producing motives, he could only say 'I am what I do.'"

Friday, March 4, 2011

Return to Modesty: Sex, Feminism and the Domesticity Debate

I picked up a book of G.K. Chesterton's for the first time the other day because I am writing a term paper on rebellion against traditional forms of domesticity in the the inter-war period. I know: gripping. Chesterton was an outspoken advocate for the traditional family at a time when the Victorian ideal was under attack. The First World War left an entire generation shattered not only physically (through war wounds), but psychologically, politically, and socially. Chesterton felt that the attack on family values exacerbated the fractured psychological state of many Europeans and was detrimental politically as well. National identity was beginning to replace social identity and the casualties were both men and women, but most importantly children. Born into a world in which the home has no boundaries to separate them from the assault of capitalism, socialism, feminism, materialism, and atheism, children were given a more than daunting, perhaps even impossible, task of making sense of their world-- a job women were leaving for the State to manage.

This topic greatly interests me at the moment because I am currently trying to figure out precisely how to reconcile my responsibilities as a mother with my ambition to do more in my life than parent and keep a house. On the one hand, I do not think that mothers should abandon their children to "the State" for the sake of having a "fulfilling" career. Children need their mothers as much as possible, and while I understand perfectly how difficult it is to spend all day, every day even with one's own children, I do not think one's career ambitions should be a higher priority. If they are, maybe think twice about having kids. The procreation of children isn't a right and while some mothers have no choice but to put their kids in full-time daycare, it is not ideal and we should not behave as though parenthood should come without any sacrifices of our time and energy.

On the other hand, I think that many women of my generation have be raised in a world where they are expected and encouraged to pursue careers before having children. I think this is a good thing. Women have varied intellectual needs, the same as men, and not all women can feel satisfied with with a purely domestic life. God gave us other faculties that we ought to be able to use if we can. And I firmly believe that it does children a lot of good to know that Mummy's life isn't all about them all the time. Otherwise they will never appreciate the sacrifices she makes for them, however glad she may be to make them anyway.

These issues were becoming quite serious during the inter-war period and they remain pertinent today and especially for me at the moment as I try to juggle school, a possible forthcoming career, my marriage, my current two children, and my hopes for more children down the road. Feminism vs. Christian ideals are suddenly of interest to me again.

When I first began my Arts degree in 2000 I quickly discovered that most studies in the Humanities were really about two topics: Sex and Feminism. No matter what great poetry or works of literature we read, the only issues pertinent to our class lectures were these two. And I found myself severely outnumbered and up against some pretty tricky stuff that I hadn't had to deal with in high school. In high school, topics on the ethics of abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, pre-marital sex, and drug or alcohol use floated around the school among the students. I was a well brought up Christian whose parents never ever refused to engage me in discussion about these issues or treated me condescendingly if I happened to express a less than Christian view-point. They merely asked me to think very carefully about why I was saying what I was saying and pointed out respectfully why they thought I was wrong. I remember these discussions as early at 10 years old. But I'd never seen anything like the attack on my long-held Christian principles than what I got in first year university. It was good for me, but it was a struggle.
The biggest struggle by far was the issue of sex. All kinds-- for there are many you see, and even pedophilia was raised as something that our culture ought to think about accepting, because of course sex, is the true expression of who we are (to these people) and so should therefore be as free as possible. We were reading Nabokov's Lolita, which tells the story of pedophile Humbert Humbert and his sexual exploitation of Lolita--12 years old. The first half of the book was pretty hard to get through and I was appalled by Vanity Fair's quibble on the front that the book was "The most convincing love story of our time." Sadly, I think Vanity Fair may have been right, but I think that was ultimately Nabokov's point-- to criticise or at least openly display the selfish, exploitive nature or modern relationships in a world where the social constructs, which used to divide children from adults, men from women, mothers from fathers, have all been torn down. Moral duty is almost meaningless without them. Whether Vanity Fair meant "romantic" and "ideal" is not certain, but the post-modernists tend to prefer and idealise "convincing" stuff rather than that which is truly uplifting, beautiful, or traditionally ideal. We pretend it's beautiful because it makes it easier for us to be ugly people.

But pedophilia was not the only or major issue. Homosexuality was also a big one. Or even boring old adultery and sexual promiscuity were exciting topics of choice. Now I was
single and modest and all this talk about sex made me very uncomfortable, particularly because we never ever talked about normal marital sex: ie the kind almost everybody is having. One would almost think that normal domestic life was as gone as Pompeii: nothing but tragic plaster-cast statues of emptiness signifying destruction. All that was left was depravity. Let's pretend it's great.

This was certainly the attitude many took to traditional values after the First World War. In a way, time stopped for a whole generation and those who survived lived in an obliterated social landscape, no rank, no role in society, nothing but empty holes in the shape of a dying race. And yet they were free to do whatever they wanted with their dearly bought freedom. Instead of rebuild and repair, a great many of them tore down all the last remaining fragments of the old world and did their very best to build up everything in utter mockery of it, as though the old world were to blame for the destruction in the first place.

What I was trying to figure out that year was why the old world was worth preserving. I knew it should be preserved. I was Orthodox. We go in for tradition, and good thing too because it is very silly to tear down something when you don't actually know what it's for-- as Chesterton would say. That is when I discovered Wendy Shalit's Return to Modesty.

Return to Modesty was Shalit's final thesis for her philosophy degree (I believe) though probably heavily revised for publication I imagine. It is a very methodical, and yet humorous and readable argument for the virtue of sexual modesty-- incredibly well researched too. She was Jewish, which in many ways can be much closer to Orthodoxy, when it comes to lifestyle, than other Christian denominations. And the real selling point: she was basically a feminist. Her argument was (in a nutshell) that women are worth everything that the feminists say they are, which is why sex before marriage is an affront to their dignity and honour as equal members of the human race. We risk almost everything when we say yes to sex. Men ought to do us the courtesy of offering us everything before they ask us for it. It had never occurred to me that feminist ideals (which I was tempted to in many ways) were also justifiable Christian ideals: that Christianity was, in a sense, a great feminist religion. Except for God Himself, our greatest saint is a female, and a mother.

This idea has carried me through a lot of rubbish I had to deal with in university and led me to understand that much of what we do as Christians (particularly Orthodox Christians) is a transfiguration and enlightenment of a lot of originally good modern concepts. We do not say black is white or evil is good. But we are not what we seem either. While appearing (to the modern) to be sexist with our male-only clergy and our masculine god, we actually honour women more highly than men by our saints and our lifestyles. While appearing to be prudish and oppressive with our fasting and our sexual ethics that forbid extra-marital and gay sex, we actually nurture a healthful freedom that allows things to grow and flourish in good soil, not be choked by the thorns of lust and appetite. We could be feminists, real feminists, and we could be free -lovers too-- real lovers.

I had always assumed that Christianity was right about it's various rules and religious laws as being the best thing to strive for. I had also assumed everyone else who argued otherwise was just stupid. What had never occurred to me was that I could speak to non-Christians on their own grounds as equals. I could speak as one feminist to another and not be accused of narrow-mindedness and ignorance at the hands of my religion. I could engage in discussion with homosexuals and not be accused of hatred and homophobia. I didn't have to say they were all right, but I could say that I understood them. That I wasn't shutting my eyes to them or standing above them, superior.

This was a huge leap for me, for I confess I spent a good portion of my high school years in complete confidence of my superiority to all my silly little school mates who believed everything the telly fed them. When I got to university I had to stop being a snob and actually use my brain because there were far more intelligent people, far better educated, and far nicer than I was, who were going to accuse me of bigotry if I couldn't come up with anything to justify myself to them through my lifestyle.

The old ways, the traditional social constructs (and I will acknowledge them as constructs while arguing that this does not indicate they ought to be torn down or that they reflect anything false in them) needed to be justified to me in a language that I could then use to engage others without condescension. Wendy Shalit opened that door for me. What has since occurred to me is that what I was always missing, what might have brought me to this without her help, was what Lewis called "Charity" in his book The Four Loves. This will make up the review in my next post.