How far do these beautiful lines bend?
Beauty serving justice, the woman who married C.S. Lewis, Islamophobia, and HUGE tinyhouse news
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 and other such chaos. If a friend forwarded you this email, hit subscribe to get the newsletter each month.
We are in a 19th Century English Literature class, squished into chairs with those beige-speckled writing tables attached to them by rigid metal arms of inconsiderate length. I am 20, the chairs are in a circle, and we are discussing the play Mrs Warren’s Profession by George Bernard Shaw. It’s a play about a woman who is a prostitute (well, a brothel owner) and her daughter, educated with the money that her mother has earned, is taking her mother to task for her immoral profession.
“It’s propaganda,” one person says. “Isn’t it? It’s too preachy. Shaw is just trying to convince us of his agenda.”
The idea is batted back and forth, this question of what makes “good art”. Is kitschy “Christian” art just propaganda to get a message out? Is Mrs Warren’s Profession’s clear message about gender, judicial, and economic inequality any different? But if you have a message, does that automatically mean you’re writing propaganda? Is beauty in service of something else still beauty?
I just finished the biography of Joy Davidman Lewis. She lived and wrote a bit after George Bernard Shaw, but she was American, born of Jewish immigrant parents, and lived in New York City. She was introduced to the ideas of Communism during the Depression and joined the party, enthusiastically writing poetry and editing literary magazines for the cause.( I wonder if she ever ran into Dorothy Day. I wonder how these two spicy, idealistic women would have gotten along).
She later converted to Christianity through the writings of C.S. Lewis, and then made her way across the pond to England after a long pen-pal relationship and married the man. She apparently loved Russian propaganda about life under Stalin. The communal and egalitarian ideals appealed to her so much (and she could see the results of unchecked capitalism and rising inequality all around her) that she never questioned it and let herself be led along. After her conversion to Christianity (and time) she finally was able to see some of the horrors of life in Stalin’s Russia, and was less enthusiastic about the ability of Communism to solve world problems. She turned her zeal to Christianity; however, and began writing on that topic. In an interview with her first husband Bill about their writing and beliefs she defended her view of “message over medium”, saying something like, “Oh, of course writing should say something, should teach. It’s always teaching something. It always has an agenda. The question is just what are you going to teach.” (Summary mine).
I was reminded of this while I was listening to the recent podcast from Serial, The Trojan Horse Affair. It’s an investigative journalism piece looking into a fake letter about the infiltration of radial Islam into Birmingham schools in England. The letter was used to justify educational policy and fire Muslim teachers. It even justified surveillance and anti-terrorism bills. One of the reporters, Syed, is a Muslim from Birmingham, the other, Reed, is an established white American reporter. As much as it’s a story about Islamophobia and the mystery of this hoax letter, it’s also a show about the way we tell stories. In episode 6, they have this interchange.
SYED: Do you think it will change anyone's mind about anything? Is that even an important ambition to hold? Or does it not matter?
REED: I don't think about that when I'm doing a story.
REED: 'Cause I feel like it will often lead to disappointment. The things that motivate me to do a story are 'cause it's a good-ass story, and I want to tell a good story. And I feel like it can have all sorts of byproducts, like changing people's minds. But for me, I think I would get disappointed a lot. Whereas, like, if you're doing a story where you personally want to know the answer to something, you personally want to do the best story you can, then that's, like, where I try to derive the motivation from, you know?
SYED: No, I didn't know. Why would you do a story if you didn't care what impact it would have?
Joy, daughter of immigrants, felt this, too. And she was disappointed. When the atomic bomb dropped and life began to be lived under the threat of nuclear war (same time as Madeline L’Engle by the way), Joy began to feel despondent about her work.
“Joy’s identity as a poet had been cast from the mold of war, with its oppression, violence, insurrection and death. Like young writers of every generation, she thought she could change the world with her words. She was beginning to contemplate futility. ‘I wanted to do something,” she wrote. But what had she done? Had she saved lives? Righted wrongs? Empowered the masses? Joy couldn’t know the range of impact she had on readers, but whether her contributions toward the causes of peace and equality, the present state of the world made her feel defeated.” – author Abigail Santa Maria, Joy Davidman: Poet, Seeker and the Woman who captivated CS Lewis
I’ll be honest. I, too, sometimes want to change the world. Maybe it’s just idealistic, the left-over impulse from being a missionary kid, where everything is fraught with eternal significance. Maybe it’s my South African schooling, where all of our visual art curriculum was based on anti-apartheid protest art. Or maybe, like Joy and Syead, whose very bodies witnessed and experienced injustice every day, maybe proximity to these sorts of pains and inequalities suddenly makes art-making a lot more urgent, a lot more fraught. Maybe when you have some distance, you can just care about the story. You can just think about making someone want to turn a page, about the rhythm and pacing, about your exact line breaks, the curve of the line.
But maybe, when it’s your body, your friends, your neighbours who are suffering, you want your art to do something in the world. You want the emotion it stirs to point towards something beyond itself. You want beauty to serve justice. Like Pachinko author Min Jin Lee said, “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… How do I get you to change your mind? That’s going to require you to feel something.”
Min Jin Lee is a masterful storyteller. She doesn’t write propaganda. But she is writing a “good-ass story” in order to change someone’s mind, to help them feel something.
But then I wonder sometimes, how far this can go. Maybe if you bend your beautiful lines too far towards justice, they will break. Maybe that’s too much weight for them to bear. Maybe beauty was never meant to serve justice, but the two were to run like parallel lines for eternity. Maybe they are meant to dance together, and it is only the broken spaces of our world that force us to choose one over the other.
Tiny House News
Okay, you’re hearing it first. There have been vague allusions to “family changes” for a while, and here they are- after 4 full years living in our 170 sq foot tiny house, we’re moving. We bought 3 acres of land that comes with a very run-down 80 year old house (and 2 rental cottages, and a giant field). We got the keys this weekend, and it’s a. LOT. I am still processing it all. I’m excited to think about the chance to work towards creating some kind of space for beauty and justice to meet – not just in words, but in the physical world. We’re excited to figure out how to practice hospitality and community and stewardship on this specific plot of land, that bridges two communities we love. But my life was SIMPLE before this. And now I have a whole counter-top of keys, and some smelly carpets. (They are not hiding ancient wood floors, just so you know. This is not one of those kind of fixer-upper houses. It’s just the old, run-down kind).
Making space. It’s work, you know, to make these spaces in this broken world. Good work, redemptive work, but not always glamorous. Like any time we work to bring order from chaos as God intended - whether it’s mothering children, making art, or tending a garden - the work we do as humans in God’s image is just hard sometimes. But good. And we don’t do it alone. Also: just welcome the fact that this is now inevitably going to be come a “home reno” newsletter.
Just Beautiful Links:
(Please note the over-use of the word “delight” in this section. There were really just some delightful things on the internet this month.)
In the shoes of a woman - other lives: I thought this was a really thoughtful essay on cultivating a culture of life that includes making space for loss and grief: welcoming life means welcoming the life we actually have, not a dream life — but that still means we need to grieve those losses. It seems that as soon as a woman has a baby, it’s all rainbow motherhood Instagram. There’s little space for the nuance of welcoming children with joy and delight, and grieving what we have given up to make room for them.
Mirrors: “Perhaps that’s the ugliest thing about mirrors. They reveal more about society than they do about individuals, and what they show isn’t always attractive.” This history of mirrors was just SO interesting.
Art as activism: How fun is this sidewalk protest? I think this is just such a delightful way that beauty and justice can meet - art can invite us to play and imagine and dream something better, while still showing what is wrong.
Problem with the trauma narrative: Okay. This is a really long essay, but this whole substack is full of DELIGHTFUL literary and cultural commentary. And a really nice blend of society and justice, along with beauty and craft (and just, so fun to read. His tone and voice come through so clearly). I had already read the original essay that this piece was responding to. The original essay left me thinking… hmmmm I’m not so sure about this, but I can’t articulate why…and so it was so refreshing to get someone else’s take on it.
Celebration sustaining activism : Yes, it’s poor form to link to two articles from the same site, but this is how I roll, people. I go on deep, stalking, dives into an author’s writing once I discover something of theirs that I love. Her whole philosophy of home design is just one giant YES! for me. But as I think about those two lines of justice and beauty, and how they relate, this article connected a lot of dots for me. Reminded me of writer Sandra Van Opstel saying, “Worship sustains justice.” This is a similar take. Justice work feels urgent (and it is!) but systemic change is a LONG HAUL and if you’re going to stick at it, you have to figure out how to do it without burning out.
I shared a poem on Instagram this month after an animated discussion with several of you about Joy Davidman Lewis and her rants against housework.
Alrighty folks! That’s all for this month. As always, it’s such a privilege to share this space with you — hit reply, or the comment button, and as always, the best way to support my work at this time is to share the newsletter with someone who you think would enjoy it!
PS: Apparently there is a substack app now, if that’s your thing.