Am I just fiddling?
L'Engle and Lewis on making art in war and life, and some great links
Welcome to the Just Beautiful Newsletter where I write about making space for beauty and justice to meet, share about tinyhouse living, and give you too many links. Right now, I’m focusing on making space for creativity in the midst of motherhood. If a friend forwarded you this email, hit subscribe to get the newsletter each month.
There is a line in C.S. Lewis’ sermon, “Learning in War Time,” delivered to a group of university students at the beginning of WW2 where he poses the question,
“if we ourselves should happen not to be interrupted by death or military service, why should we -- indeed how can we -- continue to take an interest in these placid occupations when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?”
He goes on to answer his own question -no, it’s not fiddling while Rome burns. Learning history, making art, writing poetry, sitting at desks in a university and studying is not frivolity, or ignorance, or blind privilege, even at the beginning of the second World War.
But this is a question that continually haunts me. The great C.S. Lewis himself can’t quiet it, can’t answer the nagging roar of it when I look over my back fence and see the chasm of inequality that separates me and my neighbours. Can’t answer it when I see the way my four-year-old’s ankles and knees are losing baby fat and taking on the gaunt look of little a boy’s growth spurt. Can’t answer it when I hear stories of police violence, or my neighbour’s home being robbed by drug addicts, or when I feel as though time is this great ocean wave, shoving us along towards the beach whether we want to arrive there or not.
My questions are not quite as stark as Lewis’, “How can you write poems in the face of world war, or when people are about to burn in hell?”, but my evangelical missionary kid upbringing at least has impressed upon my subconscious the sense of significance, of efficiency. Don’t waste your time. Don’t waste your life!
Sometimes I answer this question for myself with logic. I read essays like Learning in Wartime, pin the points underneath each other as if to pin myself together: goodness and beauty are eternal, they are real and also part of the world, making art is human and it will be made, no matter the circumstances, we need the truth of beauty even in the pain of war, God is eternal and we can make art because death is not the end. I mean, what is this newsletter if not that?
But sometimes I hear another voice singing, “The lady protesteth too much, methinks.” If this was all so well and good and important, if it is not frivolous or indulgent or self-centred to write stories about bunny rabbits or spend money on grocery store flowers, if all this is not fiddling while Rome burns, why does it need so much justification? Shouldn’t it be self-evident?
And of course, there’s the other question - perhaps if I were Michelangelo, painting while peasants are dying outside my door (maybe?) makes sense. But I am not Michelangelo, I’m a 31-year-old with access to the internet and some spare time to write. I have qualifications in many things. I could actually use my sociology degree! I could use my communications experience! All could contribute to the good of the world, and there is no stamp of approval declaring writing is the thing I should do with my one wild and precious life. Even though Lewis acknowledged there’s no divide between the “sacred” and “secular” and all work is good work if it suits our talents and opportunity, his audience in some way did have a sense of the thing they should do, even in the face of war. As he says about determining one’s duty in wartime, “if our parents have sent us to Oxford, if our country allows us to remain there, this is prima facie evidence that the life which we, at any rate, can best lead to the glory of God at present is the learned life.”
So, given this immense freedom and no sense of mustness to my art, most of the time, I just curate some form of shelter around myself and try not to think about it. I think about what I am going to cook for dinner, or my child’s next shoe size. I take some time to make things – some time, mind you, not too much - and try not to think about the terror that underlies so much of existence on earth.
Sometimes, though, the filmy shelter breaks. Like this week, when my social media feed broke open with news of Ukraine - broke open with stories of mothers in Ukraine fleeing and their children asking for their lego, broke open with stories of racism at the Ukraine-Poland border, broke open with texts from desperate Russian teenage soldiers texting their mothers in confusion and terror at civilians refusing to stop before Russian tanks –
And then all my carefully pinned logic, and carefully preserved routines rip away like tissue paper and the questions are all still there, hard and unrelenting. My neighbour’s house has been there, too, of course, no matter how steadfastly I hold my eyes over the steering wheel as I drive past.
When the news broke, all I could think about was this article I read last year in the middle of the pandemic when researching Madeline L’Engle .Part of L’Engle’s reason to move out of New York City to the country house in Connecticut was the growing threat of nuclear war. As author Abigail Santa Maria writes,
Madeleine L'Engle with granddaughters Charlotte, left, and Léna, circa 1976. PHOTO:CROSSWICKS, LTD.
“Her journals from those years are threaded through with doom: “I look at the children, the budding trees, the sky, the tiny purple violets,” she wrote in May of 1959, “and I think: how can anyone contemplate wantonly destroying all this? This has nothing to do with war, mutilating innocent lives, laying waste our common heritage of Earth. How can the heads of nations be so criminally insane?”
I can picture L’Engle, chasing children around the garden, trying to get the laundry done in this drafty old house, trying to write and falling asleep at the typewriter, insanity of war “aggravat(ing) the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it” as Lewis says. He continues, “Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.”
L’Engle could feel the precipice, see the rocks slipping off the edge, even from her Connecticut farmhouse. And in the face of the precipice, she wrote.
You need to be a bit cocky, perhaps, to write in the face of rejection slips, in the face of your limits, in the face of inequality, of expectations, of war, of mortality, to write in the face of darkness. Or maybe it’s not cockiness. Maybe it’s just courage. “Go into yourself.” L’Engle says, quoting Rilke, in Walking on Water, Reflections on Faith and Art. Ignore the chaos out there, the approval or rejection of others, and find your must in the quiet, inside yourself.
Maybe they're true, all those reasons I cling to and pin up again and again, fragile as butterfly wings. Maybe beauty matters, maybe words mean something, maybe even in this life there are things more real than death that need picking up and dusting off, and holding up to the light so we can all see them better.
As L’Engle said in her journal about A Wrinkle In Time, “This is my psalm of praise to life, my stand for life against death.”
Tiny House News:
We had a rainy day with some sick kids this past week. It can go either way in a tinyhouse, but thankful it went very much towards the “cozy/family fun” and not the “why are we in this tiny box?!” direction.
Tiny House Q&A: Thinking of doing an instagram live on Tinyhouse living to make the algorithm like me - message me your questions! No question is too weird.
Just Beautiful Links:
This playlist for Lent - so peaceful.
This interview made me want to finally read Pachinko. It’s been on my TBR list for a long time, but hearing more about the author and her process made me want to pick it up. “I was really angry. I was, like, “Pay attention to this. This is terrible. Notice this.” But then I realized there’s a lot of terrible things happening every day. How do I make people care? I realized I have to figure out another way. Learning how to write stories is really different from writing the facts. I’ve thought about this a lot. Every day is chaos, right? How do I create cosmos? How do I get you to change your mind? That’s going to require you to feel something.”
And you should follow that author Abigail Santamaria because she’s working on the L’Engle biography we all wish existed, and she shares FASCINATING tidbits. I’m reading her book on Joy Davidman now (who was married to CS Lewis, actually, so, full circle??).
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I love hearing your thoughts! I may not reply straight away, but I always love hearing what you think — community and connection are a really big motivation for me in my writing. I’ve met some really lovely people through the internet - so thank you for reaching out. PS: You can comment publicly on this post, too! Maybe you’ll meet a kindred spirit.
Until next month!