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.

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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.CVS1069

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

The Green Ember

You all. (I guess I should dig into my Texas background and say ya’ll.) My good old friend Sam has written a children’s book that I think will become a family favorite the minute its published. Oh, it’s a grand story. I savored it. Rabbits with swords. (That alone should snag your attention.) Quests. Beauty. And written by a dad who began by telling these stories to his kids. I’m delighted to see this story on its fine way to publication, and I’m letting you know here because I think kids everywhere will be captivated by this story. And if you ever want to support this grand endeavor, well, you could get a copy hot off the press sent right to your doorstep. Go HERE to find out more.

No matter what, I hope you enjoy a Saturday treat in this video below. Over and out from Oxford.

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.

The Friendship of Art

Long ago, I decided that if my stubborn heart wasn’t so dead set on being a writer, I would have loved to be a great artist. (Having a generous portion of talent wouldn’t have hurt.) But I think that is partly because of how much art and literature combined to influence my growing up years. There is something mysterious and sweet in the way that the pictures lining the walls of my home, and the illustrations beaming up at me from my books have shaped me, befriended me, and created a touchstone of beauty to which I am always turning back in my mind. From the great children’s illustrators, to the classic artists of history, to the odd artist I have discovered here and there in my travels, their work has inspired and companioned me in all I have accopmlished. If you could come to my room today, you would find a merry myriad of pictures old and new staring brightly down at you from my walls. 

Sometimes it seems to me that people suppose a taste in art to be an intellectual pursuit. I disagree. A taste in art is simply a taste for beauty. As the art historian Fred Ross said, “all of the great art in history is Art about life”. Amen. And it’s not all that hard to delve right into it. I am keen to spread the lovely word about art; especially as some of my most beloved artists are only slightly known. So I will be posting a new (or old, as the case may be) artist every so often, with links to their sites and recommendations of where to get their work. My little “art gallery” at the top of this blog is also a beginning. I’ll post a new picture daily. For today, I’ll simply list a few of my favorite sources for posters and prints so that you’ll have a place to go when you’re itching to get your hands on something lovely.

PODkids
Update: apparently this site is no longer available. Here, instead, a similar, alternative link to the Art Renewal Center, a fascinating website dedicated to preserving and encouraging “realistic” art, or realism. They have an online library of many classic painters, and offer prints through their website. Well worth a ramble. This site specializes in making on demand posters of the work of the great children’s illustrators; Jessie Willcox Smith, Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac. Probably my favorite place to waste time. I already have great plans to use their gorgeous prints in my future children’s rooms.

ARTcyclopedia
This will give you info on just about any artist you encounter, as well as link you through to every museum carrying their work, and any posters availalbe at art.com.

ART.com
A huge selection of almost any artwork imaginable. I prefer small companies that specialize in particular artists as they tend to have more selection, but this is good for general searches, especially of well-known artists.

So, look for the first featured artist soon! Hopefully, you will discover a new treasury of color and imagination to bring a life-strengthening beauty to your days and home.