“Gave me cookie, got you cookie!”

When one loves, one does not calculate. – St. Therese of Lisieux
Gave me cookie, got you cookie! We’re even, we’re even, Schmidt! – Nick Miller

New Girl  has disappointed me lately with the way that it treats (or trivializes) eros. But a recent episode surprised me with a more sincere look at love between friends. Continue reading “Gave me cookie, got you cookie!”

Tumbleweeds and Freedom

This week, I went to a thought-provoking presentation on Plato’s critique of government sponsored by the Institute of Catholic Culture. You can watch the whole thing here soon.

But this post isn’t going to be about government. Something else caught my attention at the talk. At one point in his critique of government, Plato describes a man who:

lives from day to day indulging the appetite of the hour; and sometimes he is lapped in drink and strains of the flute; then he becomes a water-drinker, and tries to get thin; then he takes a turn at gymnastics; sometimes idling and neglecting everything, then once more living the life of a philosopher; often he is busy with politics, and starts to his feet and says and does whatever comes into his head; and, if he is emulous of any one who is a warrior, off he is in that direction, or of men of business, once more in that. His life has neither law nor order; and this distracted existence he terms joy and bliss and freedom, and so he goes on.

When the speaker read this quote, I first thought about how well the words apply to New Girl’s Nick Miller, and how Nick so often exemplifies Northrop Frye’s descriptions of characters stuck in the ironic mode. But then my friend who was also at the talk said “well, that description is sort of every man” and I’ve been thinking about the truth of that over the last several days.

The person Plato describes isn’t particularly terrible. I picture him like a tumbleweed—off in one direction, then another, but always subject to the whims of the wind. In Heretics, G.K. Chesterton points out that

The more dead and dry and dusty a thing is the more it travels about . . . Fertile things are somewhat heavier, like the heavy fruit trees on the pregnant mud of the Nile. In the heated idleness of youth we were all rather inclined to quarrel with the implication of that proverb which says that a rolling stone gathers no moss. We were inclined to ask, “Who wants to gather moss, except silly old ladies?” But for all that we begin to perceive that the proverb is right. The rolling stone rolls echoing from rock to rock, but the rolling stone is dead. The moss is silent because the moss is alive.

The person Plato describes as living a “distracted existence” is like Chesterton’s rolling, lifeless stone or the dry and dusty tumbleweed. The person Plato describes moves in no particular, willful direction, but is rather the subject (or slave) of changing, hourly appetites that pull him this way and that. True freedom, it seems, has something to do with putting down roots.

When I first came to Virginia a few years ago, I avoided putting down any roots. I started at George Mason following a sort of strange period in my life. I felt lost, and I also felt that I didn’t want to be found—like I didn’t want to be known. I guess I didn’t want to be known because I didn’t want to be found out; I was ashamed of recent choices I’d made. So I planned to duck into Mason, finish my last two years of undergrad, and duck out again. I would go to church and enjoy Mass but would avoid getting to know anyone and would certainly not go down for coffee and donuts afterwards. I would attend some interesting lecture, get my little intellectual stimulation, and then leave without talking to anyone. I tried not to put down roots and I avoided becoming a part of the place I was living in.

In an essay called “The Sense of Place,” Wallace Stegner considers the condition of such a non-placed or displaced person. It fits how I felt a few years ago, but also, Stegner suggests, this condition affects our country in general:

Adventurous, restless, seeking, asocial or antisocial, the displaced American persists by the million . . . He exists to some extent in all of us, the inevitable by-product of our history: the New World transient. . . . To the placed person he seems hasty, shallow, and restless. He has a current like the Platte, a mile wide and inch deep. As a species, he is non-territorial, he lacks a stamping ground. Acquainted with many places, he is rooted in none. Culturally he is a discarder or transplanter, not a builder or conserver. He even seems to like and value his rootlessness, though to the placed person he shows the symptoms of nutritional deficiency, as if he suffered from some obscure scurvy or pellagra of the soul.

Stegner’s displaced person and Plato’s distracted man strike me as one in the same person. Interestingly, Plato’s distracted man appears in a section on the dangers of democracy—where Plato considers in what ways the democratic state and the democratic man are prone to corruption—and Stegner sees the displaced person as a particularly American problem. Both the distracted man and the displaced man equate freedom with escape from or avoidance of ties that bind men to particular people and places and values. Stegner’s displaced man “even seems to like and value his rootlessness;” Plato’s distracted man, living a life without law or order, terms his “distracted existence” “joy and bliss and freedom.” Yet something is lacking. As Stegner suggests, there is something deficient about this form of freedom through isolation; it does not nourish the soul. The story of the good Samaritan is not “well I’ll leave you alone and you leave me alone and we’ll all get along fine.”

Stegner continues:

Indifferent to, or contemptuous of, or afraid to commit ourselves to, our physical and social surroundings, always hopeful of something better, hooked on change, a lot of us have never stayed in one place long enough to learn it, or have learned it only to leave it. In our displaced condition we are not unlike the mythless man that Carl Jung wrote about, who lives “like one uprooted, having no true link either with the past, or with the ancestral life which continues within him, or yet with contemporary human society. He . . . lives a life of his own, sunk in a subjective mania of his own devising, which he believes to be the newly discovered truth.”

Freedom is not something we find doing whatever we want whenever we want in isolation and anonymity—that becomes a prison, a “subjective mania” of our own devising. We find freedom when we honor the significant bonds we share with others and with the places we exist in—and not just the physical places you can point to on a map but places like your place in the mystical body of Christ. Our Lord’s love for us binds us to one another and to God, and in that bond is freedom and sustenance for our souls.

That’s something I’ve been learning over the last few years. Putting down roots doesn’t happen overnight, but it is a work in progress.

Childhood Hippos

This post is about the series of books that is closest to my heart: James Marshall’s George and Martha stories.

These children’s stories are simple and straightforward and true. If you go back and read them as a grown-up, you’re liable to laugh and maybe tear-up. I picture them connected by a golden thread to stories like The Little Prince, The Princess and Curdie, and The Wind in the Willows. Above all, George and Martha stories are merry.

James Marshall’s friend, Anita Silvey, recounts that “Jim” never planned on becoming a children’s book author. He played the viola and attended the New England Conservatory of Music until an accident ended his musical career. He went on to get a master’s degree at Trinity College and taught high school French and Spanish. Although he “loved to doodle,” he’d never received formal art instruction. Then:

One day, lying in a hammock in San Antonio, he found himself sketching two intriguing hippos. On the radio he had been listening to Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and hence named these characters George and Martha.

James Marshall at work

Through a friend who worked at Houghton Mifflin, Marshall met Houghton’s children’s book publisher Walter Lorraine. Lorraine recognized Marhall’s potential and gave him a job illustrating Byrd Baylor’s Plink, Plink, Plink. Marshall went on to illustrate and write dozens of other stories, including seven collections of short stories about the hippopotamus friends, George and Martha.

Some of my earliest memories are of reading George and Martha stories with my family. In the first story of the very first series, Martha makes George split pea soup. She doesn’t realize he can’t stand it, and he doesn’t have the heart to tell her. So while she’s out of the dining room, George tries hiding the soup in his shoes. The picture of George leaning under the table and pouring the green liquid into his little loafers is one of the funniest images I’ve ever seen in my life. It’s stuck in my mind for the last twenty years, along with other classic George and Martha moments, and with all the funny exclamations read in my parent’s voices.

Of course, Martha catches George:

“How do you expect to walk home with your loafers full of split pea soup?” she asked George.
“Oh dear,” said George. “You saw me.”
“And why didn’t you tell me that you hate my split pea soup?”
“I didnt want to hurt your feelings,” said George.
“That’s silly,” said Martha. “Friends should always tell each other the truth. As a matter of fact, I don’t like split pea soup very much myself. I only like to make it. From now on, you’ll never have to eat that awful soup again.”
“What a relief!” George sighed.
“Would you like some chocolate chip cookies instead?” asked Martha.
“Oh, that would be lovely,” said George.
“Then you shall have them,” said his friend.

Each story has some sort of moral, but the stories aren’t excuses for the morals and George and Martha aren’t just vehicles for Marshall to drive a point home on. Marshall has a wicked wit and draws with a kind of dead-pan humor, but no description can do these stories justice. Here are just a few images from the collection. I hope you get to know George and Martha; they are treasures.