The Abridged Screwtape, part 1

Foreword from the editors

In the short years since its publication, Screwtape’s correspondence with his nephew has become something of a classic. Part training manual, part cautionary tale, it regularly tops the novice demon’s recommended reading list.

Unfortunately, with the human population growth explosion being such as it is, young demons are being pressed into service earlier and earlier with less and less opportunity to read even such short works as this. A great need exists for concise training materials that can be quickly read by novice demons overtaxed by the strain of managing multiple patients.

To this end, we, the editors, have put together this all new abridge collection of Screwtape. We hope it serves Our Father Below well.

Letter 1: Avoid reasoning and science

“The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy’s own ground. He can argue too; whereas in really practical propoganda of the kind I am suggesting He has been shown for centuries to be greatly the inferior of Our Father Below.”

“…the best of all is to let him read no science but to give him a grand general idea that he knows it all and that everything he happens to have picked up in casual talk and reading is ‘the results of modern investigation.'”

Letter 2: Keep him disillusioned with the church

“All you then have to do is to keep out of his mind the question ‘If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?”

Letter 3: Promote little annoyances and disharmonies within the home

“Let him assume that she knows how annoying it is and does it to annoy – if you know your job he will not notice the immense improbability of the assumption. And, of course, never let him suspect that he has tones and looks which similarly annoy her.”

Letter 4: Keep him from praying

“Whenever they are attending to the Enemy Himself we are defeated, but there are ways of preventing them from doing so. The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves.

Letter 5: Do not rejoice overmuch in times of war, for the Enemy uses war to his own purpose

“Consider too what undesirable deaths occur in wartime. Men are killed in places where they knew they might be killed and to which they go, if they are at all of the Enemy’s party, prepared.”

Letter 6: Teach him to be anxious and to focus on his feelings

“[The Enemy] wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them.”

Letter 7: Encourage extremes or keep people complacent, depending on the age

“All extremes except extreme devotion to the Enemy are to be encouraged. Not always, of course, but at this period. Some ages our lukewarm and complacent, and then it is our business to soothe them yet faster asleep. Other ages, of which the present is one, are unbalanced and prone to faction, and it is our business to inflame them.”

I’ve been reading (and haven’t yet finished) C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters with the Reading to Know Classics bookclub. Thanks Barbara for choosing this month’s read. Follow the links to find out what other readers are saying about the Letters.

Why do I study God?

J.I. Packer begins his modern-day classic Knowing God with an apologetic of sorts for the practice of theology.

He quotes a Spurgeon sermon to say that the study of theology humbles us, expands us, and consoles us. He attempts to convince us that the study of God is essentially practical and relevant. He tells us what he intends to cover in our study of God: the Godness of God, the powers of God, the actions of God, and the character of God. And, he begs us stop and consider our motivations.

“We need to ask ourselves: what is my ultimate aim and object in occupying my mind with these things? What do I intend to do with my knowledge about God, once I have got it? For the fact that we have to face is this: that if we pursue theological knowledge for its own sake, it is bound to go bad on us.”

The truth of Packer’s caution was driven home when I began to inspect 1 Timothy, the book I have taken up for study after finishing Titus last week. In 1 Timothy 1:3-7, Paul writes of the reason for which he has left Timothy in Ephesus.

“As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions.”

Paul contrasts his motivation in giving the charge to avoid teaching false doctrine and spurious matters with the motivation of those who are teaching false doctrine and devoting themselves to spurious matters. Paul is motivated by love, by a pure heart, by a good conscience, and by a sincere heart. The “certain persons” have swerved from these, wandering into vain discussions, making confident assertions about things they don’t understand.

It makes sense. When am I most bound to misunderstand or misrepresent the gospel? When am I most bound to spend my time fighting about nonessentials? Is it not when I am seeking self-glorification (the opposite of selfless love)? Is it not when I am seeking to gratify impure desires? Is it not when I am seeking to assuage a guilty conscience? Is it not when I am trusting self rather than God?

So what is my motivation in studying? Is it love for God and my fellow man? Is it a pure heart, a good conscience, a sincere faith?

Maybe. But not always. Often, my motivation is to feel good about myself. To have something to blog about. To show how much knowledge I have or how deep a thinker I am. I swerve all too often from love, a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith.

Does that mean that I ought not study the Scripture, since I am bound to go wrong?

Certainly not.

Instead, it is a call to start my study where I’d rather not. It is a call to start my study on my knees, acknowledging my sinful desires, my sinful motives, my sinful actions. It is a call to start my study at the cross, begging God to yet again replace my heart of stone with his own heart. It is a call to approach my study as one who desperately needs for the Scripture to change me.

And, having studied, I must purpose to confess my sin as revealed in light of God’s truth. I must purpose to be obedient to God’s instruction as revealed in God’s word. I must purpose to glorify the One who is the object of my study.

Packer writes of it thus:

“Our aim in studying the Godhead must be to know God Himself the better. Our concern must be to enlarge our acquaintance, not simply with the doctrine of God’s attributes, but with the living God whose attributes they are. As He is the subject of our study, and our helper in it, so He must Himself be the end of it. We must seek, in studying God, to be led to God. It was for this purpose that revelation was given, and it is to this use that we must put it.

How are we to do this? How can we turn our knowledge about God into knowledge of God? The rule for doing this is demanding but simple. It is that we turn each truth that we learn about God into matter for meditation before God, leading to prayer and praise to God.”

May we ever have a heart to do so.

I’m reading J.I. Packer’s Knowing God along with Tim Challies’ “Reading Classics Together” bookclub. You can find Challies’ post on the first two chapters here. A couple bloggie friends are also participating and have posted this first week (I can link to them because I’m a day late in posting!) – Check out what Barbara and Lisa have to say about chapters one and two. And…it’s not too late to read along – we’re reading just two chapters per week and this is just the first week :-)

There is no land called Narnia

I was shocked, in rereading The Silver Chair for this year’s Chronicles of Narnia Reading Challenge, to realize how much I’d forgotten from this book. It’s never been one of my favorite of the series, but I’ve still read it at least a dozen times. So why had I forgotten so much?

One scene, though, that I could not at all forget, is the scene where the Lady of the Green Kirtle aka the Queen of the Underworld returns to her throne room to find Prince Rillian free from his chair and in his right mind.

She throws some powder on the fire, filling the room with a sickeningly sweet aroma. She begins thrumming a mandolin with a repetitive, mind-numbing thrum. And at last she speaks:

“Narnia?” she said. “Narnia? I have often heard your Lordship utter that name in your ravings. Dear Prince, you are very sick. There is no land called Narnia.”

The Prince, Puddleglum, Eustace, and Jill all try to counter the sweet smell, the repetitive thrumming, the queen’s patronizing derision. There is a Narnia, they say. They’ve been there. But the queen’s questioning makes clear she thinks it all a childish game, a dream. Since they describe Narnia in terms of what she knows, in terms of the Underworld, she presumes that they are only looking at her world and dreaming of something bigger and better.

Eventually, between the mind-fogging effects of the music and the odor and the scorn of the woman, all the travelers begin to relent.

“No, there never was a sun,” said the Prince, and the Marshwiggle, and the children.

In this scene, Lewis has the witch play the role of the Enlightenment scholar, who declares no need for god now that reason is king. Once upon a time, people needed to create myths of gods to explain their world – but now that we have science to explain, we need no God.

And here Lewis makes one of his most compelling arguments for the existence of God: joy. And the seemingly joyless Marshwiggle is the one to make it.

“One word, Ma’am,” he said… “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder….So I won’t deny any of what you said. But there’s one thing to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones….And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.”

You see, science might be able to explain a lot about how this world works – but it doesn’t explain the unfulfilled longing for joy that rests in each human heart. It doesn’t explain the hunger that every experience in this world serves only to deepen. A purely naturalistic world would ultimately have us all as nihilists – since we are mere pawns of impersonal natural forces.

One must say that, if religion is a story, it is a much better story than the one naturalism tells. And if there is no heaven, at least the tale of heaven goes further to quench our forever longing than does the naturalistic story of death.

If this be a game, it’s a play-world which licks your real world hollow.

As C.S. Lewis said in prose:

“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

~C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

So even if there is no Narnia, I shall live like a Narnian.

I choose joy.

Down from the mountain

When I was in high school, our youth group talked about “mountaintop experiences”.

Mountaintop experiences were when we had some sort of emotional experience with God or His word, usually at a camp or other special event. We would get all hyped up about one thing or another – evangelism, personal holiness, being in the word, whatever.

I don’t remember if we had any direct teaching on the Biblical basis for the term, but it hearkened to Moses on the mountaintop receiving revelation from the Lord or to Peter and James and John seeing Christ transfigured on the mountain. Away from people on the mountaintop, each of these had very special encounters with God.

And each of these ran into difficulties when they returned from the mountaintop to face everday life. Moses found the camp worshipping a golden calf. The disciples came down to discover their compatriots unable to cast out a demon.

We were given warnings about life off the mountaintop. We were warned that we’d come home from camp only to be tempted to get into a fight with our parents. And, amazingly enough, the warnings were usually right. It was a lot harder to be obedient, to be in the Word, to tell others about Christ once we were back in everyday life, once we had to clean our rooms and do our homework and get along with our siblings.

I was struck, as I re-read The Silver Chair last month for the Chronicles of Narnia Reading Challenge, that Lewis describes a mountaintop experience as well – and describes the difficulty of coming down from the mountain.

Jill meets Aslan on a vast plateau that sits high, high, high above the land of Narnia. She receives a task from Aslan: to find the lost prince of Narnia. And she receives four signs by which to complete the task.

Before Aslan blows Jill off the mountaintop to meet Eustace, he gives her a last warning – a warning about life off the mountaintop.

“Stand still. In a moment I will blow. But, first, remember, remember, remember the signs. Say them to yourself when you wake in the morning and when you lie down at night, and when you wake in the middle of the night. And whatever strange things may happen to you, let nothing turn your mind from following the signs. And secondly, I give you a warning. Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind. And the signs which you have learned here will not look at all as you expect them to look, when you meet them there. That is why it is so important to know them by heart and pay no attention to appearances. Remember the signs and believe the signs. Nothing else matters. And now, daughter of Eve, farewell — “

Aslan gives two instructions on leaving the mountaintop, but they are really one.

“Remember, remember, remember,” Aslan said. Lewis has Aslan almost quote the words following the Hebrew shema in Deuteronomy 6:

“And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

~Deuteronomy 6:6-9 (ESV)

Aslan was telling Jill that she needed to remember what he had spoken. She needed to repeat his words to herself multiple times a day. She needed to return to his word again and again and again.

“Let nothing turn your mind”, Aslan said. He was telling Jill that she needed to purpose to be obedient to Aslan’s word. What’s more, she needed to keep on purposing to do Aslan’s word, whatever the inducements otherwise.

“Take great care that it does not confuse your mind,” Aslan said. He was telling Jill that she needed to guard against distraction. I am reminded first of Titus 3:9 (I’m in Titus now, so that’s on my mind quite a bit), where Paul warns the Cretans: “But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless.” When Jill told bits of their quest to the lady of the green kirtle, she laughed them off with what seemed like enlightened words, dismissing Aslan’s words as myths. Eventually, under the power of the lady’s smoke, she would make Jill and her companions doubt that life above the ground even exists. Confusion was everywhere – but Jill needed to guard against distractions from her purpose – and from what Aslan had said.

“Pay no attention to appearances,” Aslan said. He was telling Jill that she needed to value Aslan’s word above her interpretation. How easy would it have been for Jill to have paraphrased the third sign “You shall find a writing on a stone in that ruined city, and you must do what the writing tells you” as “Follow the directions on the stone sign”? Very easy, I think. And when she saw the words “Under me” inscribed on the stone? She would have been looking for a stone sign, not writing carved on the stone underfoot. She could have missed (and nearly did miss) what Aslan had directed if she’d allowed herself to fixate on her interpretation of the sign rather than the sign itself. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day did exactly that, fixating on what they thought the Messiah was supposed to be and missing the Messiah when He came. “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” (John 5:39-40 ESV)

Lewis’s advice, given by the mouth of Aslan, is good advice, I think, for those of us who live on this side of divine revelation. We have the signs, they are written in the Scriptures. But as we live our busy lives, if we are to live out the purposes for which God has called us, we must:

  • Remember what God has spoken
  • Purpose to be obedient to what God has spoken
  • Guard against distractions
  • Value God’s word above our interpretations

If we do these four things, I think we will avoid many of the traps that lie in store for us in this world down from the mountain.

No other stream

Who from among the lovers of Narnia has not quoted Mr. Beaver’s famous words: “Safe? … Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

I certainly have, many a time.

Beaver was, of course, responding to Susan’s initial fear upon hearing that Aslan was a lion, not a man. When she had thought Aslan was a man, she had experienced that strange feeling – “like the first signs of spring, like good news”. But now that she knew she would be meeting a lion, she felt apprehensive. When the time came that she would actually meet Aslan, she felt apprehensive as well, begging Peter to go greet Aslan – Peter was the eldest after all.

Jill Pole’s initial experiences with Aslan were completely different. Her classmate had just fallen down an enormously high cliff and while Jill was prostate on the cliff in terror, an animal had rushed over and was breathing right beside her, so close she could feel his chest vibrating. She couldn’t move at first, but once she could, she saw that it was a lion. At that very moment, the lion stalked away.

Jill became thirsty, and when she did, she rose from her place on the ground and began to search for water, moving cautiously for fear of the lion. She safely tiptoes her way through the trees and at last finds her heart’s desire. Water. At this point, the thing she wants most in all the world. The thing she feels sure she will die without.

But the lion.

The lion was lying right there, between her and the stream.

She stopped short in terror. She could not advance towards the stream. The lion might kill her. She could not run away. The lion might kill her. She was desperate.

This was no lovely thrill of spring or good news. This was only terror.

And then the lion spoke. He offered her drink.

She asked him to move. He refused. She tried to negotiate for her safety. He refused. She tried to reassure herself that he wasn’t as dangerous as she felt he was. The lion would have none of it:

Do you eat girls?” she said.
“I have swallowed up girls and boys, women and men, kings and emperors, cities and realms.”

He couldn’t get any more unsafe.

Jill decides to forgo the stream. The lion reminds her that she will die without it. She tries to find another way, another stream – one that she would not have to go through the lion to get.

“Oh dear!” said Jill, coming another step nearer. “I suppose I must go and look for another stream then.”

“There is no other stream,” said the Lion.

And such is the crux of Jill’s dilemma.

There was no other stream. And this stream was accessible only through Aslan.

Aslan the great and terrible – the swallower of children, of adults, of kingdoms.

The only way she could live was to throw herself at His mercy.

And so she did, with no reassurances of His goodness.

Her situation was completely different than Susan’s – she had no assurances that this unsafe god was good. She would learn that, but she didn’t know it now.

For now, her only reality was that

“There is no other stream.”

I’ve been reading The Silver Chair as part of Carrie’s Chronicles of Narnia Reading Challenge. Don’t forget to check in there to see what others have been reading this month.

Book Notes: Christy by Catherine Marshall

Nineteen year old Christy Huddleston wanted to make a difference, wanted to be someone. Someone beyond the daughter of a well-to-do businessman, that is. And when she heard a missionary speak of the needs among the Appalachians just hours away from her city, she was determined to go.

What she finds in Cutter Gap, Tennessee is even more foreign than she’d ever dreamed. She is full of grand plans for helping – but soon discovers that being “someone” and making a difference doesn’t necessarily mean what she thought it had.

This wasn’t my first reading of Catherine Marshall’s Christy. Anna and I owned a copy when we were teens and I know I read it at least once. I think I saw the TV miniseries too – although I might be getting it mixed up with Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman (I know, not at all similar). Needless to say, by now you probably realize that while I read it I really didn’t remember anything from it. I was glad when Stephanie from Simple Things selected Christy as May’s Reading to Know Classics Bookclub reading.

I enjoyed reading the ambitious Christy’s story, thinking back to my own ambitious teenaged and young adult plans for saving the world. I think the desire to make a difference, to be somebody is a common one. I also think that being disappointed with how your well-intentioned efforts turn out is also a common experience. I remember taking an impoverished middle schooler under my wing, determining to share the gospel with her and to train her into a godly girl. I drove her places, taught her how to do various crafts, studied the Bible with her. And I quickly became disillusioned when she and her family began to expect that I’d drive her places on a moment’s notice, wanted me to buy her things, and generally took advantage of my good intentions. I struggled to know what to do when I wanted so badly to help but it didn’t seem to be working the way I thought it would work.

How I wish I’d had someone like Christy’s Miss Alice to mentor me in the ways of giving myself away. I loved reading Marshall’s descriptions of Miss Alice – a woman whose theology I didn’t particularly agree with, but whose gentleness and devotion are absolutely praiseworthy. Miss Alice is described as pretty much a saint, although she avers that she is not, and even the sordid tale she eventually tells does little to sully her reputation. Yes, wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a saint who always knows the right thing to say and to do to mentor one along the way?

Alas, we are much more like Marshall’s other characters – flawed humans with quirks and quibbles and mixed motives.

Christy marvels, in one section, at one woman’s wisdom mixed with superstition. I do too.

Opal went closer to Bird’s-Eye, took his empty plate. “Looky-here, Bird’s-Eye, whilst you was fixin’ that fawn’s leg, you was a real man. You know that? It’s plumb foolish for you not to let more folks in the Cove see a heap more of that Bird’s-Eye. They have the wrong idea ’bout you.”

The man looked at her in genuine astonishment. “That must be woman tease-talk. Are you a-joshin’ me? Fixin’ animals’ legs ain’t no man’s work.”

“Fixin’ onything is man’s work,” came Opal’s firm answer. “Tearin’ down or killin’, that’s easy. Any addlepated fool kin pull the trigger of a rifle-gun or fling a rock. It’s fixin’ that’s hard, takes a heap more doin’.”

Listening to this, I could see again the baby girl’s tiny body lying in the middle of the big bed. How amazing that this homespun mending philosophy and the awful liver-grown superstition could be part of the same woman.

We humans are a mixed lot – with God’s image stamped on world-played clay. Try as she might to smooth the edges and impress them into a new mold, Christy never managed to truly change those she worked with. And neither can we.

The answer, of course, the way to truly make a difference is not in “fixing” or “cleaning up” but in the gospel – as Miss Alice admonished the young pastor David Grantland:

“Clean up a pigsty,” she commented one evening, “and if the creatures in it still have pig-minds and pig-desires, soon it will be the same old pigsty again. Preach the gospel, David, teach it, preach to the hearts of men. That’s your business. Then the fruits, including the reforms in other areas, will follow as fruits. But it’s no good tying apples onto a tree. Soon they’ll be rotting apples….The question at issue, David, is how to get rid of the evil in men. Attacking corruption in the environment won’t do it. That’s like cutting weeds in a field. In a fortnight the weeds will be grown again. And attacking the men themselves won’t work either. Whatever separates men from love can’t be of God.”

Though David was stubborn, at last humbly, he asked the question Miss Alice must have been wanting him to ask, “Well then, how can we deal with evil?”

“By demonstrating to the people a way that’s more powerful than evil. And that’s good news! Let’s get on with living and teaching and preaching that good news with all the verve and enthusiasm we have.”

“Then,” David said, “if that’s the technique, why aren’t people changed more drastically by today’s preaching?”

“Could be because we don’t often have the courage to give the good news to people straight. Most of us are still talking religious theory that we haven’t begun living, and talking in worn-out cliches at that. A watered-down message is as futile as applying rose water to a cancer. When you heart is ablaze with the love of God, when you love other people – especially the ripsnorting sinners – so much that you dare to tell them about Jesus with no apologies, then never fear, there will be results. One of two things will happen. Either there’ll be persecutions, or the fire will leap from your heart to catch and blaze in the depths of other men’s being. I’ve watched the process over and over. And then when the blaze starts, the reforms will follow as surely as the flower follows the bud, or the fruit comes after the blossom on the tree.”

“It’s too slow a way.”

“No David, it isn’t too slow a way. The other is no way at all.”

Amen and amen.

This girl, at nineteen, dreamed of making a difference, of being someone. Life has taught her that her grand dreams don’t necessarily produce grand outcomes. But Miss Alice’s charge echoes in this woman’s heart, reminds her that the gospel is the only way to make a difference, that losing oneself for the gospel is the only way to be someone.

May I have a heart ablaze, a tongue unstopped, a love unfettered – a life that would make a difference.

Check out what other readers are saying about Christy at the May Bookclub wrap-up post

Going Green with Greywater (or not)

Greywater. It’s not sewage, but we send gallons of it into our sewers daily. It’s the water we wash our hands with, shower with, bathe in. We can reduce the amount we create but we can’t eliminate it entirely. We’ve got to get clean.

But we don’t have to send it into our sewers. It’s not sewage.

I’ve been doing the most low-tech of greywater recycling for years – dumping my dishwater out the door instead of down the drain – but when we bought ourselves a piece of land and started thinking about building on it, I started thinking about a more elaborate greywater system.

A little bit of research brough me to Art Ludwig’s Create an Oasis with Greywater, the definitive resource on greywater systems. Art describes the value of greywater, helps readers set goals for their greywater system, and helps them design a greywater system that fits their context. It’s a great (if not very pretty) book.

It also made clear that a greywater system is not for us.

Really? You might be asking. How’s it a great book if it convinced you to not go with a greywater system?

That’s the thing. Ludwig (unlike a lot of so-called green gurus) is an environmentalist with his head screwed on straight. He’s not interested in designing or implementing something that seems green but really doesn’t do any good. He spends quite a bit of time helping his readers to scale down their expectations of a greywater system and to evaluate what sort of system makes environmental and economical (he makes the excellent suggestion that economics can be a proxy for environmental soundness, which I wholeheartedly agree with) sense given their individual context.

In our case, our soil demands that we put an advanced septic system on our land. All our wastewater (greywater and the “black” water from our toilets and kitchen sink) will be sent through a dual-chambered system where aerobic fermentation will purify it before it is pumped through a series of tubing to irrigate our lawn from below. So we’ll already be getting one of the primary advantages of a greywater system (without installing separate pipes) – we’ll be irrigating with our water instead of sending it into a sewer. Furthermore, since the “irrigation” step is an important part of the septic process, we cannot add extra irrigation on top of the irrigation field (which will cover most of the area close enough to the house to be feasibly irrigated with greywater). In addition, a septic system requires a certain amount of “dilution” water to work – so it is possible to remove too much water from the septic through a greywater system.

So a greywater system isn’t for us.

Does that mean I won’t be using anything I learned from this book?

Actually, no. Ludwig points out that there are some forms of greywater reuse that can be done without a fancy system. Using your bathwater and a bucket to flush the toilet? Go for it (I fill our low-flow toilet with bathwater to rinse Tirzah Mae’s diapers in – and then flush it with more bathwater.) And throwing my dishwater out the door after I’m done with it? Well, that’s a tricky one. Kitchen sink waste is actually considered blackwater, since it contains organic matter that can feed icky bacteria, causing them to proliferate and make you sick. Even ordinary greywater is not encouraged for vegetable garden use, since it can can contain pathogens. The compromise I make is to discard my dishwater down the drain but to apply the rinse water to my garden. An even better choice would be to use that water on non-edibles, but I currently don’t have any nonedibles that require water.

If you’re at all interested in greywater reuse, I highly recommend Ludwig’s Create an Oasis with Greywater as a resource to help you evaluate a system. Ludwig’s website is also a great resource.

The Ideal Miss Trent

A frequent charge leveled against romance novels is that they make you discontent with the husband you’ve got by setting up a paragon of a hero.

This may well be true, but I think I’m just as likely (or more so) to fall in love with the heroines.

Take Miss Trent from Georgette Heyer’s The Nonesuch:

“She was always very simply attired; but she wore the inexpensive muslins and cambrics which she fashioned for herself with an air of elegance; and never had he seen her, even on the hottest day, presenting anything but a cool and uncrumpled appearance.”

She was a self-sufficient woman, becoming first a schoolteacher and then a private governess-companion rather than live beholden to her brother. She was, of course, accomplished in the female arts that make one suited for such a post – but above that, she had that certain something that made her universally respected.

The daughter of the house worshipped her as a heroine, yes – but she also won over the low-born mother who had been determined to keep the governess in her place:

“She had been too much delighted to regain possession of her niece to raise any objection to the proviso that Miss Trent must accompany Tiffany; but she had deeply resented it, and had privately resolved to make it plain to Miss Trent that however many Generals might be members of her family any attempt on her part to come the lady of Quality over them at Staples would be severely snubbed. But as Miss Trent, far from doing any such thing, treated her with a civil deference not usually accorded to her by her children Mrs. Underhill’s repressive haughtiness was abandoned within a week; and it was not long before she was telling her acquaintance that they wouldn’t believe what a comfort to her was the despised governess.”

What’s more, Miss Trent was so above-reproach that she even won the respect of the self-absorbed heiress under her care:

“Tiffany took an instant fancy to the new teacher, who was only eight years older than herself, and in whose clear gray eyes she was swift to detect a twinkle. It did not take her long to discover that however straitened her circumstances might be Ancilla came of a good family, and had been used to move in unquestionably genteel circles. She recognized, and was a little awed by, a certain elegance which owed nothing to Ancilla’s simple dresses; and bit by bit she began to lend an ear to such scraps of worldly advice as Ancilla let fall at seasonable moments.”

Miss Trent is just the sort of person I could wish to be: always elegant, always genteel, universally liked, and capable of saying and doing just the right things at the right times.

But, alas, I am myself. And while I can work to stay cool and uncrumpled even on the hottest days, can work towards being genteel without being haughty, can seek to live in such a way as to be above reproach – I am still myself. I sweat and stress, I can be common, I fail.

The important part is not that I be the ideal Miss Trent (which I am not), but that God be seen as Perfect (which He is.)

Cooking through Farmer Boy

When I first became obsessed with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books, Farmer Boy and The Long Winter were tied for first place in my affections.

The Long Winter appealed to my love for stories telling of survival in the midst of adversity. Farmer Boy appealed to my love for food.

Whose mouth does not water as they read the description of those stacked pancakes, piled high with butter and maple sugar? Who does not long to be beside Almanzo, silently eating the sizzling ham, the stewed pumpkin, the mashed potatoes and gravy? And the pie, oh that pie!

I dreamed of the pies, of the ice cream, of the pound cake and taffy. I delighted in the descriptions of the familiar and wished to try the unfamiliar – Rye’n’Injun bread, apples’n’onions, wintergreen berries. Oh, how I wanted to try those.

Knowing that Farmer Boy was the next book in my re-reading of the series for Barbara’s Laura Ingalls Wilder Reading Challenge, I determined to cook up some of those toothsome meals.

Now, neither Daniel nor I are 19th century farmers and our calorie needs are significantly less than those of the Wilder family. Furthermore, Laura’s descriptions of the meals are often regarded to be hyperbolic, reflecting more food than even a well-off family like the Wilders would have at a typical meal. So I didn’t at all feel bad about paring the meals down to a more manageable size for our purposes.

We had fried ham, stewed squash (in lieu of stewed pumpkin), and mashed parsnips for our first meals – and then I read through chapter 2 again and discovered that it was mashed turnips they had rather than parsnips. Oh well, the parsnips were good – and I was reminded how much I like them.

We made twisted doughnuts (using the recipe in The Little House Cookbook) with lots of powdered sugar on top – and I decided that I liked the twisted technique even if it didn’t flip itself like Mother Wilder’s did. I think I’d like to try the technique again, only with a yeast dough (I prefer raised doughnuts in general.)

With our friend Ruth, we made stacked pancakes (with maple syrup instead of maple sugar), sausage patties in gravy, and apple turnovers.

I used the leftover pastry from the apple turnovers to make a pumpkin-pecan pie, which we ate with more ham and fried potatoes and apples’n’onions. I decided that apples’n’onions are amazing and I should cook them all the time (except that my husband only moderately likes them, so I should just cook them occasionally.)

I made baked beans using Mother Wilder’s technique – take boiled beans (I used Great Northern Beans), add salt pork (I used fatty bits left on the bone I’d boiled the beans with) and onions and green peppers, pour scrolls of molasses over top and bake at a low temperature for a long time. Daniel’s not usually a big fan of baked beans, but he actually liked these fairly well, especially after adding a bit of garlic powder and cayenne pepper. I’ll be using this as a jumping-off point to try to come up with a recipe he’ll really like for everyday use. With the baked beans, I served rye’n’injun bread (made using the recipe in The Little House Cookbook). I really enjoyed the flavor of rye and cornmeal together, but the bread ended up dry and dense (probably because of long cooking time at low temperature and not quite enough steam in my oven.) The next time I make cornbread, I’m going to try using my regular recipe but substituting rye flour for the wheat flour to make a modern-day Rye’n’Injun bread.

Finally, after the month was over, I got around to making roast beef and mashed potatoes with pan gravy, boiled turnips, and boiled carrots. I know I’ve had turnips before, but I was pleasantly surprised at the horseradishy flavor they have, and resolved to find more to do with turnips.

All in all, I ended up making some of the more mundane recipes from the book, holding off on all the pies and cakes and ice cream and taffy. And I discovered just how delicious meat and potatoes can be (and how many vegetables I forget exist.) Mother Wilder didn’t have fresh greens all through the winter, didn’t even have canned green beans or fruits. She had apples, onions, potatoes, turnips, carrots, and squash – but she used them again and again throughout the winter to provide her family with surprisingly fruit and vegetable heavy meals. I’m encouraged that I can do the same, using these root vegetables to round out my usual go-to frozen vegetables or fresh salads.

In addition to cooking from Farmer Boy, I did actually read it – and made some comments on the chapter on Springtime.

Head over to the wrap-up post for Barbara’s challenge to see what others have been reading, and what they’ve said about it.

Where is the Heart of Darkness?

Is it deep in Africa, along the nineteenth century Congo River?

Is it in the bronze people who drum and dance among those shores?

Perhaps it is in the uncivilized world in general – in Britain before the Romans conquered it.

Or maybe it is confined to Mr. Kurtz, that overpowering voice whose dark heart accomplished terrors along the aforementioned Congo.

Joseph Conrad suggests all of the above in his influential story The Heart of Darkness.

Marlowe, our narrator, introduces the idea that darkness might be a place when he opens his story by reflecting on the Thames:

“And this also,” said Marlowe, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”

Again and again, Marlowe describes the encroaching forests along the bank of the Congo as an impenetrable darkness.

This, then, is darkness – unexplored, uncivilized places. These dark places infect the souls of the men within, turning them savage as the bronze men and their Mr. Kurtz.

It’s an appealing thought, that darkness is external.

Darkness is a place, free of civilization. Spend too much time isolated from civilization and you too will become dark.

But Marlowe’s story belies this interpretation, suggests a whole nother one.

Darkness is inside Mr. Kurtz. It is his passions that are the heart of darkness – the Congo only served to release his evil passions from the society that constrained them.

“They only showed that Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts, that there was something wanting in him – some small matter which, when the pressing need arose, could not be found under his magnificent eloquence. Whether he knew of this deficiency himself I can’t say. I think the knowledge came to him at last – only at the very last. But the wilderness had found him out early, and had taken on him a terrible vengeance for the fantastic invasion. I think it had whispered to him things about himself which he did not know, things of which he had no conception till he took counsel with this great solitude – and the whisper had proved irresistibly fascinating. It echoed loudly within him because he was hollow at the core.”

I like this interpretation, like to recoil in horror at the blackness of Kurtz’s soul, at the hollow core which enabled him to perform such evil as he did. I like to think him some kind of psychopath, with unusual lusts and lack of restraint.

But the thought niggles at my mind, burrows deep and will not be satisfied. For is not the heart of darkness in me?

I do not make those around me worship me, do not go to any length to obtain treasure, do not openly obsess over my reputation and fame. But that is only because I do not have Mr. Kurtz’s eloquence, his ability to convince anyone to my greatness. That is only because I am not unrestrained by society and culture as Mr. Kurtz was. My heart is just as lustful, just as hollow, just as absolutely dark.

This is what I must conclude from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”
~Jeremiah 17:9 (ESV)


“Cursed is the man who trusts in man
and makes flesh his strength,
whose heart turns away from the Lord.”
~Jeremiah 17:5 (ESV)