Books & Reading, Educational Philosophy, Other Thoughts

Little House in the Big Pandemic

April 1, 2020 by Caitlin Beauchamp

In Which I Write You a Letter on Day Twelve of Quarantine

Hello, friend

It feels simultaneously redundant, obvious, and deeply necessary to begin this note by saying: what strange times we’re living in. I have A Lot of Thoughts. I’ll spare you most of them, but there is one thing on my mind to tell you about.

A few days ago, I was scanning headlines when I saw an article about pregnancy during coronavirus. I am pregnant, as are a few of my friends, so I clicked on it.

This article turned out not to be informational, as I’d thought, but rather an op-ed by a single mom lamenting the difficulties of caring for her toddler and preparing for the birth of her second child under current circumstances. She wrote of her financial uncertainty, her fears about her upcoming hospital birth, the stress of trying to keep a toddler healthy in a heavily populated city. She mentioned her life-long anxiety issues, and how she’d just started feeling better from Seasonal Anxiety Disorder when all this began. She wondered how she’d manage to purchase what her baby needs to survive with stores understocked or closed, and she mourned the loss of experiences she’d anticipated while preparing for her baby. Now there will be no showers, and instead of fun outings to go shopping, she’ll just have to order everything online. Summary: times are hard for mothers and babies.

Later that evening, my daughter asked me to read her another chapter of Little House on the Prairie.

We’d already enjoyed two chapters that day, but really, what better use could I make of this time? So I read her one more chapter — the one where cowboys come through with a herd of longhorns, and Pa helps them for a couple of days, and in exchange they give him some meat, along with a milk cow and her calf. The family is elated. As I read, it dawned on me that they’d likely had no milk, butter, or beef for months.

Pa improvises a pen and milks the cow, which yields only one small cupful. Pa, Ma, Laura, and Mary agree to give little Carrie this precious first cup of milk. They watch in delight as she drinks it down and smiles.

Now, having shared these two anecdotes, there are several directions I could take this letter. But this, my friend, is what I want to say: I have read many old books, and they have given me courage.

In the era of cancel culture, the Little House books are sometimes maligned, labelled “problematic.” And believe me: I see the problems. Reading them aloud to a young child has required some editing on the fly, some careful conversations. And yet, reading them aloud has also been an unexpectedly profound joy, grounding and heartening. Old books are almost always going to be “problematic” some way or another, but meanwhile they can also teach us what all we humans have lived through, the resilience and creativity we are capable of. Old stories set our own times in context — not because they minimize our hardships by comparison, but because they remind us of the courage and grit that is our birthright, tethering our story to the stories of our ancestors.

Reading Little House on the Prairie under shelter-in-place orders during a worldwide pandemic is hardly a thing I could have planned — we started the book weeks before we saw this coming. The Ingalls’ circumstances are wildly different from ours, of course, but as we pass day after day isolated in our own Little House, what a gift to have this story to contextualize our anxieties and fortify our imaginations. My thoughts have often returned in this time not only to this and other old books I have read, but also to my family’s oldest stories: about the Dust Bowl farmers, the self-sufficient homesteaders, the trusted community midwives, the Civil War veterans. In these surreal and uncertain days, their stories matter more to me than ever.

Probably you have read Mere Motherhood by Cindy Rollins and don’t need to be reminded of Cindy’s words about memory and culture, about building education “on a platform of remembrance.” I will quote her anyway:

“We have a limited time to help our children fill the backpack they will carry into the future. The chemical elements are useful, but they have little meaning to a child of ten . . . In the early years, we want to feed their minds with stories of all kinds—through history, Bible, poems, songs, imaginative fiction, family traditions. . . Education is tethering our children to the past so that they are not adrift in the universe. That’s it.

. . .We stand in the gap between our children and all that came before. We are the keepers of the culture. If our culture commits suicide, we cannot wring our hands and point the finger. We are the ones responsible. We might have to avoid puffing up our children with [memorizing] the chemical elements in order to tell them about the time we picked blackberries with our grandfather. There is plenty of time to learn The Periodic Table of Elements, but the time is fleeting to throw out hooks of remembrance, as many as we can, between our generation and the next.”

Mere Motherhood, pp. 126-130

Friend, here’s what I’m pondering on Quarantine Day Twelve: what is the story we will tell our grandchildren about this time? What stories will our children tell their grandchildren?

In other words: what kind of ancestors will we be? What kind of ancestors are we raising?

In other words: how do we raise and educate people who can be good ancestors?

The basic assumption often made in our culture is that the purpose of education is to enable our children to be successful. But one problem with this (only one — there are many) is that we don’t know what “success” may look like in the future, or what may be required of our children in their lifetimes. I am not catastrophizing here — I am not implying that our children will need to be machete-wielding postapocalyptic subsistence farmers. All I’m saying is that I don’t know what kind of world I am raising my children for. This has always been true. Right now, however, it’s a little more obvious. Right now, we’re roused from the dream that our lives are predictable, that we can rely on our world continuing as we have known it. Right now, perhaps, we remember that we are dust.

Right now, I am contemplating even more deeply a conviction I’ve had for a couple of years: my task here is to raise good ancestors.

Not to raise people who will be Successful. Not to try to build around them a bulwark of accomplishment and accreditation to shield them from hardship. Rather, my task is to raise people of great heart and good courage, of joy and resilience and principle, equal to whatever may be asked of them. My hope is to educate them so that they may be strengthened, humbled, grounded, and dignified by many, many, many old stories. My prayer is that they will be people worthy of remembrance, that their stories will in turn convey courage into the hearts of their descendants. Whatever else I accomplish, I want to raise good ancestors.

That’s all for now, friend. Usually, I labor over every sentence I write until my eyes cross. This time, I’m simply sending this note along to you raw. After days of rain, I want to get outside and weed my neglected garden and sow the parsley and chard and lettuce seeds I bought back in the fall and never planted. Maybe they’ll grow, or not — I’m a bungling gardener. But the sowing itself is an anchor, a remembrance, an expectation.

I hope you are well and cozy, and have plenty of coffee and eggs and milk and flour, and plenty of old stories to share with your children. I hope your soul is open and tender to those stories, and to the unfolding story we are living. I hope your heart is full of good courage, at rest in our good and ever-reigning Jesus.

Please write back, if you wish to. I’d love to hear how life goes on in your Little House.

Present with you in heart and imagination,

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