On Things

On Things

Looking at a crucifix
Looking at a crucifix. The most thingiest of things.

This is my third post about Bed and Board: Plain Talk about Marriage by Robert Farrar Capon. In a way it’s also a sort of response to some of the posts that have been flying about a certain corner of the blogosphere about domestic arts and homemaking and button sewing. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, don’t worry, it’s not really important. Just, I’d probably have left it at two posts about this book and not gone on for a third had it not been for these ideas rattling around in my head that this chapter seems to engage rather nicely.

I really like what he says at the beginning about a Christian materialism. As a Catholic, I’d go further and call it a sacramental understanding of the world. God made the physical world and us in it and called it good. Moreover, He became flesh and dwelt among us, sanctifying matter with his very presence. Our faith is an embodied faith, a faith that manifests itself in the flesh, in things. A worthy thing to meditate on during this season of Advent.

On the Goodness of Things

The goal of all Christian self-denial is the restoration, not the destruction, of nature; the removal, not of matter, but of perversion. The saint fasts in order that someday his body, with all its parts and desires, may become whole and operative again. H is emphatically not trying to cease caring about matter. He is not in the business of stripping off a useless cocoon in order that the beautiful butterfly of his real self can fly free. The Christian religion is not about the soul; it is about man, body ad all, and about the world of things with which he is created, and in which he is redeemed. Don’t knock materiality. God invented it.

Matter is actually more of a help than a hindrance to spirit. A soul without a body is a ghost; the traditional notion os ghosts as poor, lovely, helpless beings is sound. Without my body I am only half a man. Nor does Christ himself seem to spend much time complaining about materiality. . . .

. . . Things, as such, are never bad; they are not even indifferent. They are positively good. Let a man just once really face fish or fowl, bread or wine, shoelace or gummed label, and he will know he has by no means lowered himself. In lifting them up, he himself grows taller.

What we need to work up is a Christian materialism, and no where do we need it more than in the home. Marriage and family are practically an inundation of matter. The world of the household is one long continuum of things; bed and board, food and drink, runny nose and soggy diaper are inescapably with us. Not all of them require the same degree of caring, but they all deserve a fair share, and we very commonly give it. With each man, however, the caring will be unique and personal. I cannot tell you what to care about. All I can manage to give you is a list of the things I care about, and a few peculiar reflections as to why. The only general remarks possible seem to be centered on the nature of caring, its marks and manifestations.

Overabundance and the Perversion of Care

Covetousness, greed, the lust for ownership. is only—is precisely— the perversion of care. It is the love not of things or people, but of having. It makes a good, not of goods, but of gain; and, in the long run, it makes a man quite unable to care for the real goods at all.

Two things follow from this. First, if care is shallow, possessions will be discarded….

Second, things are true to themselves, and must be loved for themselves….

Status is never enough of a reason for possession. Things demand more of us than we think. They are not waiting around simply to add a grace note to our mental symphony of being. They insist on being met in person, on being loved. If they are not, they will sooner or later insist on being left.

Perhaps the largest single trouble with our abundance of possessions is the fact that so many of them are owned, not because of what they are, but because of what they confer on us. They are there, but we seldom look at them. We have so much, but we love precious little of it for itself. After the itch of the mind has been scratched, matter itself goes into the discard; the junkyard is the true monument of our society. . . .

. . . When a little boy finds an old electric motor on a junk heap, he is pierced to the heart by the weight, the windings, and the silent turning of it. When he gets it home, his mother tells him to throw it out. Most likely he will cry. It is his first and truest reaction to the affluent society. He usually forgets it, but we shouldn’t. He is sane; society isn’t. He possesses because he cares. We don’t.

. . . Finding wonders in the rubbish isn’t enough; we show our care as much by the size of our effort as by the fact of possession. It is not only whether we have, but how hard we work at having, at holding, and at using, that is the test of care. . . .

. . . Caring is what counts most. Any effort spent in caring for even a minor good is on the side of the angels. And it is contagious; the minor can spread to the major. I developed a time schedule for writing only after I successfully made time to practice the recorder. I acquired a working knowledge of what care felt like, and then transferred it to a field where I knew I should care more than I did.

Now it is precisely the ignorance of what care feels like that is one of the roots of our trouble. We are unprepared for effort; it has become far too easy to achieve the results of care without caring. . . .

. . . Most divorces and wrecked friendships are the result of care that was just too small to prevent the big blunder. At the outset, it seemed big enough for anybody, no doubt, but time is the real test. This isn’t quite as dire as it sounds. First of all, care does tend to repair mistakes; therefore any care, even inadequate, may help as long as it is not deliberately killed off. Second, care can be learned; it can be deepened by acting as if you had it, by doing the things that constitute the true marks of care, even if you have to do them a bit woodenly at first. There is a place for pretense, as long as the basic intention is not to fool the onlookers, but simply to care more.

Hobbies: Learning How to Care

The amateur. The lover who sees that play matters. . . . A true hobby is the achievement through play of something very close to the creator’s own delight.

Unfortunately we frequently misunderstand. We tend to look on a hobby as a diversion; what it really is is a concentration. Anybody who has had a real hobby knows that it is always potentially a tyrant. It can ruin your sleep, empty your wallet, and monopolize your time. It needs watching, but nonetheless it is about as close to the truth of things as most of us ever get. . . . The hobbits sees his vocation precisely as a personal call to do it himself.

Do it yourself. The phrase is solid. It is a testimonial to the fact that no matter how far gone the age may be, nature still fights back…. A lot of the stuff offered to us for our care is just plain fake. I look at my sons’ plastic kits. The box advertises: embossed details. What a monumental giveaway of the whole phony system by which we are taught to care chiefly for results rather than things. Details grow out of care, they cannot be embossed. . . . I made all my own hardware and mechanism. The whole thing was exactly a priestly experience. I am a priest, and I know how close the two are. Detail is the hallmark of care; embossing is the triumph of result. . . .

. . . We have developed some of the worst features of what used to be referred to as the idle rich. We use, but we use without attention and without appreciation. We sometimes have a general notion of what is excellent, but we can’t manage the detail required to reproduce it. We just don’t care enough to bother. . . .

. . . We are being flooded with matter about which nobody gives a damn. But the really frightening part is that the attitude begins to rub off. No home can be built without that love of detail which is the hallmark of care, yet we seem to be getting less and less able to bother. People cannot be fed without detail; children cannot be taught manners without detail; wives cannot be kept happy without detail. But in our super spirituality, we expect that a handful of good intentions and a headful of bright ideas are quite enough to make a home. The truth is, though, that matter will break us unless we love it for itself and start paying some very careful attention to its demands. We are not angels; there are no disembodied intelligences in my household. We are all things here, from the raisins in the cake to the father at his table. For the likes of us there is no middle ground between care and catastrophe.

As I’m typing this up, I’m struck again by what he says about care for little things, care for the details, being important for the big things. It is important to allow ourselves to care about something enough to want to get the details right and it strikes me that this is what the mastering of these lost domestic arts is all about: learning to care for something small like knitting or sewing or baking bread can lead to being better able to care for bigger things like a family.

While knitting isn’t important in itself and can seem rather a pointless hobby, it’s not impossible that the discipline of learning to knit could help someone to be a better manager of the things in her household and of the people too if it helps her to develop discipline and an eye for detail and the ability to finish what she starts to name three skills I can see it fostering. Lady MacBeth talks about sleep knitting up the raveled sleeve of care, I’ve always been struck by the aptness of that homely metaphor: sleep as a knitter, a knitter whose handiwork eases care. Knitting can’t magically heal all the ills of a mismanaged household, but mastering a new skill could make a woman a better housekeeper if it taught her to better care for the things in front of her face. I think Leila Lawler gets at this in The Little Oratory too when she suggests that setting up and maintaining an oratory might help to give a greater sense of order to the whole household.

My own stints at cooking– and especially baking– and at sewing and even drawing, they make me feel more whole. And I do find that they teach me to care. When I take the time to make a quilt or doll clothes, when I craft a loaf of bread or a pot of pasta sauce, I’m definitely paying attention to the details. Does it help me also to pay attention to the children, to my husband, to the needs of our household? Does it help me to care more? Perhaps. Perhaps.

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  • What strikes me immediately when I start thinking about caring for family and hobbies–and particularly MY hobby, sewing–is that it is about bodies and embodiment. I was thinking about it… does sewing make me a better parent? Does it make me more caring toward my family? What I make most often are clothes for my girls, though I have been sewing for myself more lately. When I make things for the girls, though, it is sometimes about necessity, and sometimes about *different* needs than the need for clothing–as when they need a costume for the “book parade” at school I am showing off on a level, sure, but I am showing off for them. To make them feel special. So there is that aspect of it. But there are other times… when I’m making them something to wear–some actual, practical garment. At those times, I might find myself learning mroe about their bodies–how they are shaped, and how they have grown. Last year, I made pants for my youngest, only to find that they were ridiculously small. How had she grown that much? I initially blamed it on the pattern, but then realized that I should have sized it up. Yes, she had grown that much. And it’s not always an easy thing to notice–to stop and recognize in a tangible way that yes, she is getting bigger, and older. Not that she is slipping away from me, but that I haven’t been noticing enough. Cooking similarly has to do with bodies–but not only bodies, because food is also spiritual, as we know.

    • One thing I liked about this piece is that it allowed the “becoming a better parent” to be indirect and not necessarily observable. The example Capon gives of playing the recorder making him a more diligent writer. Or of making models. They don’t fill any immediate needs of the family and yet he argues that simply having a hobby you care about and attending to the details of the physicality is itself a good.

      And yes I’m also thinking too of how it comes back to the corporality in the corporal works of mercy: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked… we have to pay attention to the immediate physical needs of our household before we can venture to do them for others. And the one should in some way lead to the other, but I like that it allows for complexity, for there to be hobbies that are not practical or useful but are still good in themselves.

  • Leila has said somewhere that it is important to create something permanent since so much of what we do is ephemeral. I think there is something to that. There is always more laundry and another meal, but that dolly dress you made will still be around months from now.

    “He usually forgets it, but we shouldn’t. He is sane; society isn’t. He possesses because he cares. We don’t.”

    This makes me think about hoarding. Hoarders have not developed the vital ability to stop caring about their stuff. We are inundated and have to not care in order to not drown in junk. I am a packrat by nature, but I have always considered it a character flaw. I had not considered it from the angle of it being a virtue in a sane society. But we don’t live in a sane society.

    • Yes. That is precisely what I realized I wanted to say about sewing but was too muzzy headed to quite catch last night. Sewing creates something beautiful and ordered in the middle of the chaos. The food gets eaten, the toys are strewn around once more, but Bella still snuggles with her baby blanket every night. And even if I’m making something for myself or for someone outside of the house, it’s the act of Making that is grounding. I feel more sane after I’ve constructed a quilt block. In the words of T. S. Eliot, it’s a still point in a constantly turning world. An anchor.

      And that bit about a sane trait in an insane society really stuck with me. I tend to hoard too and I agree that it’s the same impulse as the boy crying over the junkyard treasure. I want to care about things and it makes me sick at the heart to just throw them away. But it’s the world and all the shoddy things that are wrong, the desire to mend and cherish things and to get more use out of them instead of tossing them, it’s not a bad one. It’s just that to maintain sanity, we need to learn the art of letting go. What really makes me sick are all the articles about how the third world doesn’t need our castoff clothes and how the glut of stuff actually hurts African economies. It hurts us all. And yet… I’m not exactly sure how to get off the merry go round. Buy less, yes. Consume less… but what to do about all the stuff that i’m given that I don’t want and can’t use. I guess face the facts that in a crazy world it’s not crazy to throw away what you don’t need.

  • I am comforted by this. I spend so much time beating back chaos, trying to rescue pretty and useful times from the destructive thoughtlessness of so many children, trying to get them to care about their school books and papers, their beds, their clothes and shoes, the things they touch with their hands. I always feel like I am losing and failing. But I think the struggle is worth it. I hope it is. I don’t want or need more things, but I hate broken china and broken pretty little dresses covered in marker, and the endless wreckage. I’m really counting on God restoring all of it.