What the author of terrifying fantasy novels taught me about the importance of Jo March
Also tiny house hospitality, illustrations of rabbits, songs that make me cry, and Advent!
I’ve been on a search for good audio books for our highly sensitive 4 year-old that are more interesting than Winnie the Pooh, and not as scary as Mercy Watson (Yes, the neighbor is mean), that are also available to stream from our library in the USA. This is a very small venn diagram. It also means once my son finds something he likes we listen to it on repeat. Daily.
We started a new series two weeks ago, Catwings, and they do not pass the “scary” test (they are incredibly dark and terrifying. Small kittens with wings sounds innocent enough. But kittens born with these wings so can escape a horrible city? Attacks from owls? Kittens so traumatized by rats they don’t want to talk? DARK). They are written by Ursula K. Le Guin, fantasy writer famous for The Left Hand of Darkness, so maybe I should have expected this. But, since they were available, we managed to skip our way to the 4th book, which is much tamer (although, yes, still dark). I wrote about listening to these books with my son here, and the way the book taught us both that we are braver together.
As this children’s story has become the background to my household tasks (we hear everything in a tiny house), the warp and woof of the story has become familiar to me. I inhaled it with my son the first time, and now that I am on the 28th listen, I am pretty convinced that Le Guin earns her title as one of America’s best novelists. It’s a story a 4 -year-old can enjoy, but in listening and listening to it, again and again, different themes and facets float to the surface in the midst of wiping down kitchen counters or prepping for supper. The darkness is real, but the comfort they find together is real, too. The world is scary. The world is dark. We can be brave. We can help each other. We can keep going. This is literature. Good literature.
And this good literature is written by a self-proclaimed “writer-housewife” with three children. She is one of the most prolific writers of our century, and a true firecracker (see quote below:)
“No matter how successful, beloved, influential her work was, when a woman author dies, nine times out of ten, she gets dropped from the lists, the courses, the anthologies, while the men get kept. ... If she had the nerve to have children, her chances of getting dropped are higher still. ... So if you want your writing to be taken seriously, don't marry and have kids, and above all, don't die. But if you have to die, commit suicide. They approve of that.”
"Prospects for Women in Writing" (speech), Portland, Me., Sept. 1986
I tumbled down an internet hole and uncovered her essay The Fisherwoman’s Daughter (written in 1988), where she pushes back against the dichotomy of mother OR artist. She quotes poet Alicia Ostriker saying ,
“That women should have babies rather than books is the considered opinion of Western Civilization. That women should have books rather than babies is a variation on that theme.”
She talks about her writing process: writing after her kids are in bed, writing once her kids were in school, and that the limited time she had when immersed the full life of parenting meant that when she did have time, she was productive. She had to be. Once her children were gone and she had limitless time, she quotes the mother/artist Kathe Kollwitz:
“I am gradually approaching the period in my life where work comes first. When both the boys were away for Easter, I hardly did anything but work. Work, slept, ate, went for short walks, but above all, worked. And yet I wonder if the “blessing” isn’t missing from such work. No longer diverted by other emotions, I work the way a cow grazes….perhaps in reality I accomplish a little more. The hands work and work, and the head imagines it’s producing God knows what, and yet formerly, when my working time was so wretchedly limited, I was more productive, because I was more sensual. I lived as a human being must live, passionately interested in everything…”
This “gentlemanly” way of working is, I believe, why I reacted so strongly to this book I just read, and this article by the same author. The premise is deep, good work needs long swathes of silence. His descriptions of artistic life are based in accounts of artistic production mostly written by men. Yes, if you are rich enough or privileged enough to farm off all your other responsibilities, you can wander about on long walks, pick up your work and put it down again, work like a cow grazes. But if you’re a mother, either you shut up the creative instinct for a good long season, or you figure out how to work differently. This doesn’t mean you’re not a real writer (or artist, or creator). It just means your process is different.
Le Guin argues that part of our problem is a poverty of imagination. Our imagination is peopled by fictional depictions of women writers (mostly written by men), or with accounts from famous writers (mostly men) about what writing “looks like”. She makes a beautiful case that one of the reasons so many women writers pictured themselves as Jo March (myself included! Anyone else?? I wrote about this) is because it’s one of the most compelling depictions of a woman in the creative process in the midst of family life, and it was written by a woman.
Le Guin ends her essay with the image of a mother fishing in her imagination for characters and plot while her child wanders on the banks nearby. The child knows her mother is working, and so she pictures herself doing it as well one day. It’s not “books OR babies”, Le Guin argues. Throw out that dichotomy. It may look different than what you imagine, but it can be both.
Just Beautiful Things
My article finally came out on Jo March and the Fiction of the Writing Mother in Literary Mama. I felt extremely validated that Ursula K. Le Guin agrees with me on this one.
Making more space for mother-writers (or parent-writers) is a space where I see justice and beauty coming together. This article on famous scientists and artists who were parents (and how their parenting enriched their work) was fascinating and beautiful.
I’m starting on illustrations for a story for my son’s Christmas present! It’s very “typical” as a mother-writer to write for your kids, but you know what— instant audience, instant gratification, I’m okay with typical! Who knows, if it goes well, I might just make it possible for you to see get one, too!
This song is making me cry. Totally sums up my view of the kingdom of God. I picture this as a communion hymn, and people coming up to receive their bread and wine then going out into the world again to bring more people in. I had a strange slip where I thought the bridge was “Come behold, come be loved, come be accepted, come as you are” and I thought- how beautiful, that we behold Christ in this feast, and in the beholding we are changed, we are accepted, we are transformed. (That’s not the actual line, but even without that, it’s still a powerful song. Read the artist’s note about hospitality at the beginning here).
I love the art and poetry on this account, and the focus on using beauty, art, and the contemplative tradition to help sustain the work of peace in the world.
Hutchmoot - hosted by the Rabbit Room - an online conference on the intersection of faith and art - are you going? If yes, let me know! I’d love to hear your thoughts on it! I’m excited for this talk by John Hendrix, one of my new favorite illustrators (I loved his kids books on the parables and wisdom of Jesus) on art as expression vs art as commerce.
Simple Family Advent anyone?
You’ll probably be hearing more about this next month, but for those of you who are planners — I’ve put up a digital download in my shop on the website. A simple tool to create your own family advent tradition paper chain, with the daily advent reading references from the Common Book of Prayer already filled in for you. There’s a full example (a.k.a. what our family will be doing!), and then a blank template for your to fill in your own activities. Print, cut, staple, done. It also includes a PDF with links to resources that our family has used in the past. Just $3.50 :)