Soul Advocacy

Sleep is an optional activity in Oxford. This is a fact I do my best to resist by actually sleeping. But sometimes, even I succumb to the vast and varied pace of this place and stay up until the wee sma’s when the stars blink down in bewilderment at my still-opened eyes. That’s when blog posts I was supposed to publish on Tuesday get published on Thursday. Like this one. Welcome to the belated Tuesday post!

While visiting a friend last year, I was captivated by her five-year-old sprite; a black-eyed lass with banshee curls and the smile of a vastly mischievous angel. I returned one night, just at her bedtime and she jumped into my lap, settled herself squarely and took my face firmly in two hands. “Sarah,” she squeaked, her eyebrows lifted importantly, “thank you for coming back to us.”

She is in my mind today, her jolly little face and buoyant words a theme in my head as I think over a book I was reading just before I left for England, that continues to inform my thoughts about Storyformed, and even informs the contemplations that grow from my studies here: Wes Stafford’s Too Small To Ignore: Why the Least of These Matters Most. Stafford was the head of Compassion International, the Christian child-sponsorship organization that works with children in the most poverty-stricken areas of the world. The gist of his book is that children in all societies, rich as well as poor, have become the second-class citizens of the world. Children, he says, are the most vulnerable members of humanity, but also the ones who bear the seeds of its future. They are the last in the global line to receive care, food, protection, nourishment, but it is the hope or despair begun in their littlest years that will shape future societies. The most basic of provisions of food, clothing, and education, can change whole generations. I love this.

But what especially caught my eye in what Dr. Stafford said was that children, even rich, Western children, can also be marginalized in spirit just as easily as body. Shunted aside in soul. We westerners, with our busy schedules and easy food and constant entertainment and ease have the whole nourishment, shelter, and education thing covered, but we often forget the soul. We forget what spiritual potential is in the young, impressionable heart of a child. We allow busyness and the voices of TV, hurry, peer pressure, and a materialistic view of the world to fill, and ultimately shape, the heart of a child. Ultimately this leads, not merely to a lack of creativity or wonder, but to a spiritually dormant heart. A child’s heart is a vast, devastatingly vulnerable space, a blank canvas, a fallow field. What is sown there in the earliest years will found the faith, morality, and purpose of a whole life. But do we busy moderns even know what is means any more to spark the eternal spirit of a child to life? Do we understand the need of the human soul for deep thought, for quiet, for strong relationships, for beauty? Do we understand how necessary these things are to a living, active faith in God?

Of course, this strikes right at the core of convictions behind the Storyformed project. Every bit of research I did for this website, for Read for the Heart, and Caught Up in a Story revealed the profound influence that childhood formation has on the whole of an adult life. I’ve come at this specifically through reading in the past years; as I researched the scientific side of what a “word-rich atmosphere” does to a child’s brain, I became convinced of the power of books to literally mold a child’s mind, to set the groundwork for an entire education. But I moved beyond the merely physical, the merely educational value of reading, and began to question how stories actually shape the spirit. That’s when Caught Up in a Story was born. I looked at research comparing the cultural activities of readers vs. non-readers. Did you know that a reader of fiction or poetry is almost twice as likely as a non-reader to see a play or concert or piece of art, get involved in politics, or volunteer with a charitable organization? I had to ask why. Why would a reading child have a heightened interest in music and art, in the forces of cultural ideas, in helping needy people?

Because stories wake the soul. Great stories with heroes and heroines teach us that we were meant to live in a meaningful way. Imagined beauty makes us want to create real-life art and music and song. Stories teach consequences to actions. Reading is not about merely fulfilling a quotient of words in order to make a child smart and I want to continually articulate that reality. Reading, I believe, is about the imprint of a great story on a child’s soul. Reading is about great words and vivid imagery sparking a child’s hunger for beauty, for good work, for friendship, for heroism. It’s about, in the far more philosophical words of Rowan Williams, in his book that I’m reading this week on Dostoevsky and faith:

The forming of a corporate imagination is something that continues to be the more or less daily business of religious believers….” 

By which, I believe Williams to mean that in loving God, and I would add, in raising children to love him, we are called not merely to teach right propositional statements, but to cultivate imaginations capable of insight into and communication of the beauty, goodness, and truth of God in the world around us, in Scripture, and in the other fragile, precious human beings we meet. We are called to perceive the storied nature of life, to discern value and meaning where the secular imagination does not. And we are called to cultivate that imagination in children.

In our modern, affluent culture, we have physical ease, we have food, we have huge systems of education, but none of these are enough to spark and nurture a new spirit to life. To do that, there must be a loving family and community instead of isolated hours with electronics. There must be great stories to widen the soul, and discussion round the dinner table instead of another hour of screen time and loneliness. There must be immersion in nature, the world of God, there must be beauty, laughter, daily rhythms of work, rich homes, strong images of what is right and good instead of morally ambiguous entertainment and constant, frenzied activity.

Dr. Stafford advocates for children poor in material goods and that is something I want to join him in doing. But he also advocates for children poor in spiritual and imaginative resources, and that is an advocacy I very much hope that Storyformed can aid. It breaks my heart to see children robbed of curiosity by hours of screen time, bereft of innocence because they’ve already been exposed to images and messages they should never see. I hate seeing lonely children because we are an isolationist culture who spends more time on facebook than on actual friends. I hate seeing busyness, the constant push to buy, see, and do shoving out the rich hours of quiet, of conversations with parents and mentors, of space for creativity, because we as a culture have lost sight of what it means to nurture not just the body, but the soul. The absence of affection, of rich words, of beauty, of deep relationships, of quiet and nature and creativity, can produce just as devastating a future for our world as material poverty.

I think back to my black-eyed little friend, her “thank you for coming back to us,” and I find an invitation, a challenge, hidden in her simple words. We must, as a culture, come back to the souls of little children. We must advocate for their spirits against rush and distraction. We must advocate by new creation, making homes, learning environments, and relationships rich in spiritual resources, rich in the imagination that will allow the children of today to imagine, and create, great goodness and beauty tomorrow.

Learning Fidelity through Fiction

Today, an excerpt from Caught Up in a Story as I have been reading back through Berry here in between papers and thinking about the way that literature teaches us what it looks like to be faithful. Literature and theology, actually, can create quite an excellent conversation between them, something I have noticed often as I study church doctrine on the one hand, and continue with my old beloved novels on the other.

What books, my readers, have taught you or your children the value of fidelity?

“How about this one, Gwen?”

I pulled a slender yellow book off the shelf and held it up to her inspection. I was on my yearly autumn visit to “Tante” Gwen, my mother’s best friend from her years as a missionary, a woman who had known and loved me since the day of my birth. Gwen and I share a love for good literature and having forgotten my own current read, I was scouring her shelves for a novel during my stay. Gwen’s reaction surprised me.

“Well, that’s a special one. You shouldn’t read it when you’re busy, your heart has to be quiet.”

Startled by her words, I set the book back on the shelf and picked a mystery novel instead. I understood Gwen’s caution; some stories are sacred and must be met with a ready soul. But Hannah Coulter was the story of a Kentucky housewife, the simple narration of her life from childhood to old age, and I was slow to believe that her story would grip me with unusual power. I forgot about the book until my next visit, when I opened Gwen’s birthday gift to me. Hannah Coulter stared calmly up from my hands, the pastoral scene on its cover like an echo of the half smile I caught when I glanced at Gwen and knew I was deemed ready.

One hour of reading in and I understood. Never have I encountered a work of writing that wrought such quiet in my mind and heart, where I was made freshly aware of the beauty of the earth and the way it tethers us to humility, to the love that is possible between people who choose to bear and forbear again and again. Simple stories of an age of farming now passed they may be, but they presented a picture of home, faithfulness, and love that has become one of the most shaping influences in my adult life. After that first afternoon of reading when Gwen asked me what I thought so far, I instantly answered, “his writing is so hushed.” She nodded, laughed, and entirely agreed.

The writing of Wendell Berry is hushed in the way that my own life, lived in the circle of my own days is hushed. The story is quiet because it reflects, with expert artistry, the mundane rounds of real people in normal life. When I enter the world of a Berry novel, I am not whisked away to an exotic land or a romantically unrealistic setting. To read Berry is rather to settle down, to be immersed in the workaday thoughts of people who labor and eat and love with the same joy or doubt that I bear. Slowly, as our own real days are slow, Berry’s stories build gradually, told often through the inner contemplation of his characters, and through them I became aware of the cadence present in ordinary life when love is practiced and faith is kept, and the music that comes from the keeping.

For the past ten years, that cadence has enhanced and shored up the rhythm of my own heart, the work and love of my own life. But the rhythm is bought at the high price of fidelity and assent, two concepts that underlie all of Berry’s writing. He believes that our increasing lack of these two qualities in modern life (and our negligence in passing them onto our youth) has caused a tear in the fabric of our society that is slowly unraveling marriage, family, community, and culture. To read a Berry novel is a challenge to learn what it means to be faithful to the flawed (but precious) people we are bound to in love, to cultivate loyalty to one community, and to steward our one place on earth as a gift entrusted to us by God.

This is his concept of fidelity, a word defined as “faithfulness to a person, cause, or belief, demonstrated by continuing loyalty and support.” In our frantic, feverish modern rush to experience, own, and try every thing (and try it immediately), to escape pain and discomfort, and discover the clearest path happiness, we have made self-fulfillment the driving goal of modern life. To young adults and those just beginning the mature story of their life, even those who have a strong faith, the messages of self-fulfillment come with siren intensity. Their hearts are stirred with hunger for life, for love, for experience because God created us in his own image with minds capable of great thought, imaginations primed to create, hearts hungry to love and souls driven to, yes, fulfillment.

But what culture will not tell young people today is that fulfillment will never be found in casting aside the bonds of love, the requirements of good work, the integrity required by virtue. Self-expression cannot be achieved in isolation or autonomy because we are inescapably communal creatures, tied first to God and then to each other in holy and eternal bonds. We were made to cultivate the earth, to work, to love. Fulfillment is found, not in casting aside the “ties that bind” but in fidelity to them, in walking the long journey required to bring about fulfillment, a journey that includes faith in love, devotion in work, and integrity in the discipline of our desires.

In the midst of my own tumultuous teenage years, the stories of Wendell Berry presented a picture of fulfillment that was much truer than the one offered by culture. The rooted, longsuffering love he portrayed, the homes built over decades of nurture and care, the pride his farmers took in the work of their hands offered me a picture of what my own faithful actions could attain. In Berry’s idea of fidelity, I also found hope that even in a broken world, beauty is still possible and love can remain. I know that many in my own generation, hungry for meaning just as I have been, find Berry’s words a deep comfort. We need images of something different than what concrete framed, technology driven, self-seeking modernity has offered.

That is why story is so vastly important in this period of falling action, this stage in which a young hero or heroine must decide which goal they want, which battles they will fight, which reward they give their life to attain. My siblings and I encountered this stage mostly as teenagers, and teenagers are notoriously restless as they begin that search for identity and love. But we also encountered specific stories that stabilized us in those tumultuous times.

My brother Joel greatly loved Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country, the story of a father’s long, faithful, sorrowing love for his son. Nate loved Peace Like a River. We read it out loud together, learning much from a dark and bright story of a rebel son, his janitor father who loves with a faith and hope that verge on the miraculous, and the asthmatic son Reuben who believes he was saved from death just to witness their tale. Joy shared my love for Elizabeth Goudge and her story of an orphan girl brought to a cathedral town and the many quietly faithful people who upheld its beauty.

For each of us, stories were an education in what it means to “be faithful to a person, cause, or belief,” to show continuing “loyalty and support,” even when that cost us much. But we were willing to bear the cost because in the stories we loved we had glimpsed a fulfillment of love, a richness of friendship, and a satisfaction after work that gave us a goal toward which, in our long days of falling action, we could journey with great hope.

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I & Q: Charles van Sandwyk

(Note: I & Q from this time forth shall stand for the series of blog posts listed under “Illustrations and Quotations.” There are just too many letters in the full version to fit in a post title, so this version stands. Consider this series the upping of your artistic and literary “IQ.”)

Today, oh today, I bring you an artist and illustrator whose work is a source of recurring delight and marvel to me. I stumbled upon my first glimpse of Charles van Sandwyk at a tiny art shop in a remote corner of Prince Edward Island. Tucked in between island souvenirs was a table spread with greeting cards and what looked like hand-made books, all with intricate, richly colored illustrations of friendly rabbits, reading lions, or talkative birds, tucked in a frame of delicately etched vines that reminded me of medieval illumination.

I bought three cards that day, one of which I framed and keep always in my room at home. But a bit of scouting on the web revealed a whole lovely world of van Sandwyk illustrations, and with it, a collection of books geared to children, and the childhearted, whose celebration of friendship, whose love of the intricate, seasonal earth, and whose revel in the marvels of imagination have started me collecting for my own one day home. I’ll admit, it’s hard to find these affordably. But since the Folio Society had C.V.S. illustrated their edition of The Wind in the Willows, the books are at least a little easier to find.

Great beauty is always worth marking, and this is an artist whose work brings richness to whatever room or mind it graces, even if just through a single framed card or perhaps one special book. I think van Sandwyk is rare in his vision of the world; his value for care in the craft of his art, his attention to the tiniest detail of illustration is a statement of chosen care in a hurry-up culture that rarely takes enough time to look. His pictures invite you to glance, then stay, then see, then breathe. And take, it is to be hoped, a little joy. Regardless, I hope you revel in the rich world this artists has made and offered in his work, and I hope you taste that tang of an earthy beauty that is also otherworldly all at once, the kind that almost tingles with the energy of a vivid imagination at work.

And if you’re curious after the taste below, go for a wander round the artists official website here, at CVS Fine Arts. There are links to various bookshops carrying his work. But if you just want a card or two to frame, I recommend the lovely Oakwood Gardens. They’ve helped me many a time and their page includes a an excellent artist’s statement and biography. And lastly, go here for fun encounter of my own with the mind behind “The Fairy Press.”

Todays illustrations:

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And a few quotes from The Wind in the Willows, one of my favorite children’s books of all time, and the one van Sandywck richly illustrated for the illustrious Folio Society:

“The smell of that buttered toast simply spoke to Toad, and with no uncertain voice; talked of warm kitchens, of breakfasts on bright frosty mornings, of cozy parlour firesides on winter evenings, when one’s ramble was over and slippered feet were propped on the fender; of the purring of contented cats, and the twitter of sleepy canaries.” 
― Kenneth GrahameThe Wind in the Willows

“As he hurried along, eagerly anticipating the moment when he would be at home again among the things he knew and liked, the Mole saw clearly that he was an animal of tilled field and hedgerow, linked to the ploughed furrow, the frequented pasture, the lane of evening lingerings, the cultivated garden-plot. For others the asperities, the stubborn endurance, or the clash of actual conflict, that went with Nature in the rough; he must be wise, must keep to the pleasant places in which his lines were laid and which held adventure enough, in their way, to last for a lifetime.” 
― Kenneth GrahameThe Wind in the Willows

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“All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.” 
― Kenneth GrahameThe Wind in the Willows

7 Values for Learning

Welcome to the first official Tuesday post my Storyformed friends!

About three weeks ago I went to an orientation session here at my college in Oxford that set my mind to simmering. I’ve wanted to share it here ever since and I’m quite delighted to make this post the opening to all that I hope to cultivate here at the Storyformed Blog. We stand here at the cusp of a new venture, just as I stood at the cusp of my Oxford studies a few weeks before, and the words I heard on that brisk, rainy, beautiful day reinvigorated my ideas about education and deeply challenged me to excellence. That’s pretty much my goal with this blog – I want to inspire, challenge ,and nourish you in your goal to educate and enrich the souls of the children in your care. So I couldn’t think of a better way to begin the Tuesday posts than with the seven principles I learned at my Oxford orientation.

I entered the classroom that day assuming I would get a list of directives, writing standards, and rules. So when a tall, kindly tutor rose with a swift smile and a quick welcome, I was a little surprised at his ease. He had us laughing within a minute, and told us that what he wanted to talk about was what our thinking ought to be while we were at Oxford. Not merely how to footnote, but how to be faithful. Instead, of rules, he then gave us a list of seven life-shaping values for learning. Values that cast a clear, compelling vision not just for making it through Oxford, but for why I ought to be educated in the first place. Amidst the clamor of my arrival, when the larger point of my work here could have been obscured by details, or insecurity, Dr. Robson cast a visional framework that renewed not just my faith, but my sense of purpose in the mountains of work ahead.

The more I have mulled it, the more I have realized how applicable the seven values for learning are to every age group, and I think they quite clearly have a lot to say to childhood education. So I wanted to share them here, along with some contemplations on how these values can enrich and expand a vision for childhood formation, for your own child’s education. And hey, yours as teacher or parent as well, because learning is lifelong – a journey, an adventure – and to be shaped by values like the ones I’m about to share is like being outfitted with cloak and pack and good boots to set you on your way. We need thoughtful roadmaps like these to help us envision what we desire as we teach, read, give, and then create from all we have gathered along the way. Dr. Robson very kindly gave me permission to use his material here; his points are in bold with the notes I jotted that day in italic bold, and my thoughts for this particular post in plain text below. So without further ado, our thinking ought to be:

  • Informed :: The aim is to dispel ignorance. To know what we know with great depth and intricacy, whether that is the nature of God or the function of language. To read, question, and wrestle with those who have gone deep in thought before us, and to then form our own beliefs in conversation with them. Every image, word, and conversation shapes the way a child encounters the world. In childhood, the goal of education is to outfit the mind and train the heart and imagination to a value for what is excellent. In those early years, it is imperative that children encounter stories of right and vivid imagination, characters with strong moral fibre, words woven with literary care. Children need to encounter the great ideas and images of the world so that they will have inner worlds from which to draw their faith, creativity, and convictions. Education is to dispel ignorance, and then to fill the mind with knowledge of all that is good, beautiful, and true. Also, I’m reminded here of how language expands our consciousness. How each word, thought, or imagined figure enriches the inner soil from which a child’s belief, creativity, and selfhood grows. To learn, to read, to be informed is to widen the horizon of spiritual imagination. In learning, we become more than we were before, and our capacity to give expands as well. What a privilege, then, to learn, and what a gift.
  • Humble :: We see in part, each limited by his or her own point of view. We see one aspect of the world, one facet of the cut, shimmering diamond of reality. We must value what we know, yes, but recognize its limitation. We must always be willing to question, or expand our ideas based on the challenge of Scripture. Education is, or I think it ought to be, a feast. But I think children need to be aware of it as a gift, one which equips them to serve, create, and interact with others, not as an elite knowledge that allows them pride or the right to stay still, never progressing, morphing, or growing with further study. This is something my parents were careful to inculcate in me, a sense of myself as a steward of the goodness I was given, and the sense of myself as a student on a journey. Educational pride turns wondering children into stubborn adults. Educational humility teaches wonder, love, and a willingness to accept correction, to grow in knowledge, and walk humbly with the God whose Word is a life-long source of conviction, and the people he gives us to make it plainer.
  • Critical :: Is this right? God gave us minds to discern between the good and the bad, the true and the false. Our learning is meant to strengthen us in this endeavor, so that we can ask the questions that must be asked about soul and mind, Church and culture. We ask for evidence, we read vigorously, we think with rigor. I feel often paralyzed by the plethora of choices, opinions, and beliefs encountered in the space of a day and I think that many children coming of age in this culture will as well. This particular value is a tonic to me; an assurance that with Scripture, study, and careful thought, I am fully able to discern what is right, what is good, and what that knowledge requires of me. Life’s more simple than it seems when a cool mind and a peaceful heart are in place.
  • Analytical :: Here, we practice the discipline of logical thinking. We learn to ask the questions that get to the pith of the matter. We learn to discern what is truly being stated, asked, or assumed in the thoughts of others. I come to this value with some experience as I was blessed with an editor dad who was determined to help us kids say what we meant. Learning to think, communicate, and speak with articulacy and order is a skill every lover of God ought to learn. To learn the skill of clear-thinking and careful analysis of ideas early is a gift a child will take into every facet of faith, education, and relationship.
  • Independent :: We are self-starting, self-driven educators who take ownership of our learning. Part of this is a resistance to herd-like thinking. We think in community, certainly, but we think independently as well, willing to question instead of simply assume. This is why I’m at Oxford. And this is why I so passionately value the vision of childhood education that makes its goal, not a crammed brain, but a lifelong learner. “Think of yourself,” said a new friend here, a little ahead of me on the same course,” as a scholar in training. You’re just a ways back from the great ones, but you’re on the same path. And you have to do the same work with the same integrity if you want to follow them.” Hard work, that, the discipline of setting essay schedules for myself, doing the extra bit of research I really could skip, answering the question fully instead of in part. But that is the grace of an atmosphere in which independence of learning is expected, and I think that is an identity a parent or teacher has the privilege to inculcate in a child. It’s about a larger vision of learning than the mere cramming of the head with facts. But it’s also about giving children a lifelong gift. Because when they have a hunger to learn, and the study habits to satisfy that hunger, they have the ability to pursue any question, conviction, doubt, or dream to the utmost heights and do something decisive about it.
  • Integrative :: Our learning must rightly enrich our actions. Theological study must enrich and further our discipleship. Otherwise, it is a useless endeavor. Oh, this beauty-loving, life-making girl loves this. Our contemplations must find meaningful, embodied expression. To hold knowledge apart, in an isolated box in our minds, is to make it meaningless. Children desperately need to know this. They need to understand that education is something to be applied, lived, incarnated into every aspect of the lives we live here, the loves we give, the legacies we are building. If what they learn in school doesn’t teach them how to tell the truth in their own time, how to love the people God is calling to himself, then the hours spent upon it will ultimately be empty. It’s what I feel here; if church doctrine classes don’t equip me to speak, in the language and metaphor of my own time, the living language of Christ, then I have learnt nothing at all. This learning must be a part of “life and life to the full,” life rich in the beauty and quickened light of Christ. And that is as true (perhaps truer!) of wonder-hearted little children as it is for crusty old theology students.
  • Faithful :: We learn in order to know the living God. Here I think of Bronson Alcott’s beautiful maxim: “We teach in view of eternity.” Always. Education, while lived out in the here and now is about the answering and living out of the eternal human questions. Michael Lloyd, the principal here at Wycliffe, in a talk given just before this one, commented (I don’t have notes so I’m paraphrasing) that theological study is, at base, the study of Love. So is most of life. In that light, I understand every jot of my pen here, every page of old text read, every essay eeked out in the wee sma’s as a journey deep into Love. And a rigorous training that will give me the mental acuity, the written and verbal fluency to make Love plain in my time. The same goes for every child beginning school.

So, friends. There you have it! I’m working on a C.S. Lewis essay today. I just finished Till We Have Faces, and now I need to form coherent thoughts about it. For now, I take my leave, but fear not, I’ll be back soon. There’s just too much glory here to keep it all to myself. Over and out from Oxford.

Wycliffe Hall, from the back.

My college, back view.

Read this book… now!

9636237I’m sitting in a coffee shop, supposed to be busy as a bee at about a dozen different and deadlined tasks, but I’ve just begun a marvelous book and I’m momentarily rebelling against responsibility in order to tell you that I think you should read it too. It’s called Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, by Anthony Esolen.

My lovely friend Lancia set this in my hands two days ago, and though I’m only into the first chapter,  the book promises to be a lively and convicting exploration of what imagination is, why it’s so precious in childhood, and what exactly we are all doing to kill it. Yes, kill it dead. I’m assuming it will also suggest how we might spark it alive as well. I knew I would like this book when the author began by describing a college librarian who discarded thousands of “outdated” books (like medieval Latin grammars and guides to Anglo-Saxon language – you know, the kinds of books that founded Western culture) as a vandal.

I don’t think this writer is going to pull any punches. And ah, how good that is for us in our busy, dazed state of modern existence. I get excited by books that offer a rallying cry to all of us who believe that imagination is a precious thing, our gift and birthright, a fragile, but powerful force that will shape every aspect of interior self and outer action. The blood in my veins quickens when I find an advocate for childhood wonder, for innocence, for a life in which imagination has room to run and play and beckon us toward eternity.

I’m just doing to you what I did to Joel and Joy, my ever-patient siblings, when I demanded a few moments ago that they cease their work and listen to this passage in which the author suggests that, when it comes to children, we might be in danger of becoming vandals ourselves: Books are bulky and inconvenient – like rocks, and trees, and rivers, and life. It occurs to me that everything that can be said against the inconvenience of books can be said about the inconvenience of children. They too take up space, are of no immediate practical use, are of interest to only a few people, and present all kinds of problems. They too must be warehoused efficiently, and brought with as little resistance as possible into the Digital Age. Provocative, eh? If you read it, let me know what you think.

Cheers on this blustery June day! Back to work I go.