catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 11 :: 2006.06.02 — 2006.06.16


Turning again

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn…

These lines, from T.S. Eliot’s series of poems Ash Wednesday, provide the theme for Karen Armstrong’s memoir The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness. Her story opens on Ash Wednesday, 1969, at the beginning of the first Lenten season in seven years that she is not observing behind the walls of a convent. Armstrong writes that in 1962, at age seventeen, she “packed my suitcase, entered my convent, and set off to find God,” convinced that she had a religious vocation. What she found was a pre-Vatican II institution, rooted in an ancient tradition and struggling to identify its role in the modern world.  The occasional absurdities of absolute obedience, the increasing frequency of mysterious fainting spells, and most significantly, an increasing resistance to repressing the intellectual life awakening within her during her undergraduate study at Oxford, all contribute to her decision to leave religious life. It was the first of what she would consider to be many failures in her life. She records in the first chapter her feeling that

God was no longer calling me to anything at all—if he ever had. This time last year, even the smallest, most mundane job had had sacred significance. Now all that was over. Instead of each duty being a momentous occasion, nothing seemed to matter very much at all.

Armstrong goes on to find that seven years in a convent has not equipped her well for secular life. She is incapable of intimacy, and even casual friendship is difficult for her. Her study is interrupted by a suicide attempt and treatment in psychiatric wards. Her academic career collapses when her doctoral thesis is rejected, almost on a whim, by an external examiner, and she continues to suffer for years from blackouts whose onset is prefaced by “a sweet but sulfury aroma” before she is correctly diagnosed as epileptic.

She does encounter moments of grace however, in her friendship with Jacob, an autistic boy, and in a lecture delivered by Dame Helen Gardner on Eliot’s Ash Wednesday where she feels “the first flicker of true recovery.” The metaphor of a spiral staircase provides the structure for the poem, and even as the poet insists “I do not hope to turn again,” he continues to do so, as Armstrong writes, “slowly ascending from one new insight to another. And even though he insists that he has abandoned hope, I felt paradoxically encouraged.”

In my own minor way, I had also given up hope—and yet, Eliot seemed to be saying, that could be the way forward. I too had understood that I could not go back and undo the past. Ever since I had left the convent I had tried to be normal, to be just like everybody else. But I could not be the same as my fellow students. It was now time to give up “desiring this man’s gift” or “that man’s scope” and to refuse any longer to submit to the “usual reign.” At seventeen years old, when I had decided to become a nun, I had opted to be different, and now, whether I liked it or not, I was different.

Armstrong’s experience of Eliot’s poem leads her to the realization that her old, simplistic hope to “see the world transfigured by the presence of God” has died and that

The new joy demanded effort. It would have to be constructed as laboriously and carefully as I put together a chapter of my thesis or as engineers and aeronautical experts built an airplane. It would be a lifelong task, requiring alert attention to the smallest detail, dedication, and unremitting effort; but as I listened to Dame Helen that day, I knew that it could be done.

Gene Logsdon’s memoir You Can Go Home Again might also have been inspired by a few lines from Ash Wednesday.

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are…

Rejoicing that things are as they are, while maintaining a keen awareness that there is plenty in this world that is not at all right, is the theme of this book. Logsdon is one of a very select company of writers and farmers who have maintained a living link with a way of life that has almost become extinct from memory and experience. Along with writers like Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, and David Kline, Logsdon has devoted his life to renewing a habit of mind and a relationship with the land that used to be at the heart of farming, although it has no place in modern corporate agriculture.

Logsdon writes in the preface, almost sheepishly, that

It was not until I was fifty-five years old that I realized that my life had followed roads so less traveled by that even Robert Frost might have shaken his head in doubt and wonder. I was at first embarrassed by this realization because I understood for the first time how stupidly naïve I must appear to smart people who had spent their first fifty-five years getting rich. Then I realized that my life was unique (beyond being uniquely naïve) and that even from a historical point of view, my experiences might be worth writing down—as a kind of droll, sad hymn to the passing of rural culture.

Growing up in the midst of a thriving rural community in the thirties and forties, near Upper Sandusky, Ohio, Logsdon was shaped by “a farming culture that had really not changed much since the invention of the scythe, the reaping hook, and the three divine persons in one God.” He enters the Franciscan order as a young man, believing it is his duty to God to become a priest. An encounter with Martin Luther’s work and an ever-deepening homesickness begin to eat away at his resolve and after a transfer to a seminary in rural Minnesota, he and another young friar convince their superiors that by renting a small farm the seminary can supply nearly all its own food. This is the beginning of a journey back to farming that will take Logsdon almost twenty years to complete.

While at the seminary he and his fellow monks participate in the communal threshing of the oat crop. A long-standing rural tradition, a neighbourhood of farmers jointly own a threshing machine and move from farm to farm at harvest time. In this way “farmers had for centuries developed a cooperative spirit that transcended individual friendships and enmities alike and so made the only kind of community that was genuine—one with a mutual shared economy.” But in the early nineteen-fifties the end was in sight for both ways of life with which Logsdon was intimately familiar.

I knew that fate was granting me the sad privilege of living the last days of a Christian rural tradition that had fostered not just the family farm, but the self-subsistent monastery too. They existed side by side, and the circumstances that brought one down would bring down the other… The brick building we worked so hard to restore into our seminary would, within thirty years, be abandoned and crumble to the ground right in step with the decline of traditional family farming.

Logsdon does leave the seminary to return home to the farm, just as his father has decided he must subscribe to the “get big or get out” economic logic that was then beginning to revolutionize attitudes towards farming across North America. They expand their herd to a hundred dairy cows and very nearly go bankrupt in the process, because “all we were doing, although it was not then clear to me, was testing and perfecting the technology that, in twenty years, would allow factory farms with outside investment money to swallow us up.” Unable to draw a salary any longer from his father’s farm, Logsdon drifts into graduate studies, then journalism – writing for an agriculture magazine based in downtown Philadelphia. All the while he and his wife are saving every penny towards their dream of a small piece of land to call their own, which they eventually are able to buy. In the early nineteen-seventies, at the age of forty-three, Logsdon comes home to twenty-two acres of farmland in the same area where he grew up. And so begins his greatest adventure, a Thoreauvian experiment in living well that continues today.

I constantly asked myself, What is the most amount of healthful food, shelter, clothing, and recreation that a particular parcel of land could produce with the least amount of technological and physical energy? Would I be able to answer that in one lifetime?

The rest of the book consists of a series of loosely joined essays that attempt to answer these questions, as Logsdon reflects on economics, the importance of time alone, the relationship between landscape and memory, the joys of softball tournaments and Christmas traditions, and works to rediscover the value of traditional farming techniques that are as effective now as they ever were—if we will agree to be bound by nature’s terms. In this he admires the ingenuity of his Amish friends, who see a higher profit-per-acre than almost all other independent farmers, while (and by) binding themselves to a theology that limits their farming in technology and scale. He also continues to write, producing books “that I hoped would inspire those with a true vocation for this kind of living and would discourage those who were only fantasizing.”

The memoir ends on a particularly powerful note as Logsdon is taking part in a cornhusking contest at a local fair. Harvesting corn by hand is another tradition that looks hopelessly naïve in the eyes of the modern world, and had long since faded from the American landscape, until even the memory of it had almost disappeared. Logsdon and some friends revive the tradition for a fair contest, which he enters lightly, “fumbling at first, then slipping into the smooth, rocking step of a cornhusker moving from stalk to stalk down the row.”

At first I was laughing. This was supposed to be only a loving reenactment of the past. But soon I felt a more compelling reason for my efforts. There were young people watching my hands closely, and I wanted them to know that I did this not just for a sentimental contest, but in my own cornfield every year. I did it because this was the most economical way to harvest corn on a garden-farm. I did it today. I would be doing it tomorrow. Until infirmity stopped me.

Both Armstrong and Logsdon have walked remarkably similar paths, setting out along a road that seemed to be the epitome of the traditional “straight and narrow” to salvation only to find themselves blundering in circles, lost at times, falling often, but getting up and moving on, like the souls spiraling ever painfully upwards on Dante’s Mount Purgatory, to the discovery of their true vocations, the unique expression of Christ in them that they had given up hope of finding. Paradoxically, as Eliot’s poem suggests, it is exactly that release of hope, which too often means only control, that allows genuine transformation to take place. Both these writers express a hard-earned awareness that success is not about results—the quantifiable products that many of us are encouraged to make of our lives—and that literature, art, theology, farming, and ultimately life itself do  not flourish according to a set of “complicated creeds to which everyone must subscribe,” but in love and in community. As Armstrong writes towards the end of her book

I was convinced that I had not been alone in my doubts: there must be hundreds – thousands—of Christians who suppressed similar misgivings, stamped on their rebellious thoughts, and felt all the while a sinking loss of intellectual and personal integrity.

Both of these books are beacons of hope for those who have given up hope of finding their way, of “turning again,” because they are about, as Wendell Berry writes of Logsdon’s book, “what is possible.”

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