Archives For Marriage

C.S. Lewis & Scrabble

February 12, 2019 — 9 Comments

scrabble

It’s not uncommon for people who love words to also enjoy the game Scrabble.

The word game, born in 1933, is quite popular. In fact, the Hasbro company claims “today the SCRABBLE game is found in three of every five American homes.”

The game made enough of an impact in New York City, that the neighborhood where it was conceived is adorned with the distinctive Scrabblesque street sign shown above.

C.S. Lewis was also a fan of the game. He and his wife Joy played the game regularly. But they modified the rules, to allow for their particular intellects. Doug Gresham, their son, describes this in The Magic Never Ends: The Life and Works of C.S. Lewis.

They played word games with each other. They had their own rather unique rules for Scrabble. They would take one board and both sets of letters from two Scrabble sets. And then they would proceed to play Scrabble, allowing all known languages, whether factual or fictional, and they would fill the whole board with words.

Jack, Joy & Their Love of Words

The third volume of The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis includes two references to the way Scrabble became a familiar feature of their married life. In the first, written in July of 1957, he describes the situation at the beginning of Joy’s remission.

It is fascinating in several ways. It describes Lewis’ own declining health and the manner in which God had used it to be a blessing in their relationship. The shock, however, comes in Lewis’ confession about who was the Scrabble champion at The Kilns.

Joy is now home, home from hospital, completely bed-ridden. The cancer is ‘arrested,’ which means, I fear, hardly any hope for the long term issue, but for the moment, apparently perfect health, no pain, eating & sleeping like a child, spirits usually excellent, able to beat me always at Scrabble and sometimes in argument.

She runs the whole house from her bed and keeps a pack of men not only loving her but (what’s rarer) one another.

We are crazily in love.

My back turns out to be not slipped disc but osteoporosis–a spongy condition of the bones that is common in men of 75 but almost unknown at my age (58). After full investigation by a great Professor of Pathology the cause remains quite obscure. It has passed the stage of spasms and screams (each was rather like having a tooth out with no anaesthetic and you never knew when they were coming!), but I still ache a good deal and need sleeping draughts.

Can you realise the good side? Poor Joy, after being the sole object of pity & anxiety can now perform the truly wifely function of fussing over me–I’m in pain and sit it out–and of course the psychological effect is extremely good. It banishes all that wearisome sense of being no use. You see, I’m very willing to have osteoporosis at this price.

The fact that Jack and Joy were truly “crazily in love,” made the brevity of their life together all the more poignant and precious. In July of 1960, Lewis wrote to inform a friend of Joy’s passing.

Dear Mrs Gebbert, Alas, you will never send anything ‘for the three of us’ again, for my dear Joy is dead. Until within ten days of the end we hoped, although noticing her increasing weakness, that she was going to hold her own, but it was not to be.

Last week she had been complaining of muscular pains in her shoulders, but by Monday 11th seemed much better, and on Tuesday, though keeping her bed, said she felt a great improvement; on that day she was in good spirits, did her ‘crossword puzzle’ with me, and in the evening played a game of Scrabble.

At quarter past six on Wednesday morning, the 13th, my brother, who slept over her, was wakened by her screaming and ran down to her. I got the doctor, who fortunately was at home, and he arrived before seven and gave her a heavy shot.

At half past one I took her into hospital in an ambulance. She was conscious for the short remainder of her life, and in very little pain, thanks to drugs; and died peacefully in my company about 10.15 the same night.

I could not wish that she had lived, for the cancer had attacked the spine, which might have meant several days of suffering, and that she was mercifully spared.

You will understand that I have no heart to write more, but I hope when next I send a letter it will be a less depressing one.

This letter suggests that Joy’s final evening in this world was a happy one. It was filled with warm and family domesticity. Under the circumstances, who could hope for more. As Lewis writes, it would only be for our own selfishness that we would wish to prolong the suffering of those we love.

I would be curious to learn whether Lewis ever again played Scrabble during those final few years of his own life. I suspect that it would have been too painful. Best to recall the game in light of the affectionate competition the two of them shared.

Those Lazy Males

October 12, 2016 — 4 Comments

squirrelIn some places a debate rages over the question of who works the hardest, men or women. In our family, there is no such disagreement. We all recognize that the typical woman works far more than her male counterpart.

Take my case. I’m a Type A workaholic who lost (unused) leave every year of my military career. I still keep extremely busy, but when it comes to work ethic and effort, I don’t even pretend to hold a candle to my wife.

Now another example from the animal kingdom has confirmed what most people have suspected—females do far more than their share of the work.

Men have been embarrassed for generations by the example of lazy lions who rely on the lionesses to do nearly all of the hunting. Not to mention taking care of the family’s domestic responsibilities.

And now men have been betrayed by a more modest mammal—the squirrel.

I happen to like squirrels. I always have, even when they try to hijack the birdseed we always have available at our home. I hate hearing people refer to them as “tree rats,” and considered it good fortune that the street where we built our home is named “Squirrel Place.”

C.S. Lewis loved small animals. Reepicheep, a mouse, is one of the great heroes of Narnia. But it was a squirrel who played a role in one of his earliest “mystical” experiences. Fittingly, it also relates to Autumn, the season those of us in the Northern Hemisphere currently enjoy.

The following passage comes from Lewis’ autobiography, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. It describes the impression left on him after reading one of Beatrix Potter’s children’s books.

It will be clear that at this time—at the age of six, seven, and eight—I was living almost entirely in my imagination; or at least that the imaginative experience of those years now seems to me more important than anything else. . . .

But imagination is a vague word and I must make some distinctions. It may mean the world of reverie, daydream, wish-fulfilling fantasy. . . .

The . . . glimpse came through Squirrel Nutkin; through it only, though I loved all the Beatrix Potter books. But the rest of them were merely entertaining; it administered the shock, it was a trouble. It troubled me with what I can only describe as the Idea of Autumn.

It sounds fantastic to say that one can be enamored of a season, but that is something like what happened; and, as before, the experience was one of intense desire. And one went back to the book, not to gratify the desire (that was impossible— how can one possess Autumn?) but to reawake it.

And in this experience also there was the same surprise and the same sense of incalculable importance. It was something quite different from ordinary life and even from ordinary pleasure; something, as they would now say, “in another dimension.”

Squirrely Dads

Returning to the recent research that proved beyond any shadow of doubt that even among industrious, nut-gathering rodents, the males cop out. Don’t be put off by the study’s title—“The secret life of ground squirrels: accelerometry reveals sex-dependent plasticity in above-ground activity”—this is serious.

Apparently, while mom is down in a dark burrow nursing the kids, dad’s out lounging in the sunshine. It’s inexcusable.

And don’t try to use some lame excuse or misogynist argument that these findings are only true for Urocitellus parryii, semi-fossorial arctic ground squirrels, but they’re only fooling themselves. We all know that women work harder than men, especially when it comes to raising kids.

The female squirrels are literally so drained by the demands put upon them that they have to begin their hibernations before the males and end them after the males emerge from their hibernacula!

Following the termination of heterothermy in spring, male arctic ground squirrels remain below ground for a three to five week interval during which they consume a food cache to regain body mass lost during hibernation . . . Males intercept and mate-guard newly emergent females that become pregnant within a few days of emergence; gestation lasts for approximately 25 days, and lactation is another approximately 28–35 days.

Unlike males, females do not cache food and, with the exception of early gestation when they continue to lose body fat, they appear to fuel their reproduction using energy gained concurrently through foraging. [Note: it doesn’t appear the males share. Another strike against them.]

In addition, females are delivering energy to pups as milk during lactation . . . Once their young have been weaned, females undergo a moult and fatten; autumn immergence occurs in August [while] males that fatten and cache food later in the autumn immerge in early- to mid-October.

And there is no doubt that the people who conducted this research are right, after all, they used “collar-mounted light loggers and triaxial accelerometers!”

 

Dating Like an Inkling

October 28, 2015 — 8 Comments

datingI don’t recall ever reading about C.S. Lewis’ dating life.

Certainly, much has been written about his late marriage to Joy Gresham. It began as one of legal convenience, allowing her to remain in England, and grew into genuine love.

The book he anonymously penned as he grieved her passing is regarded by many as his most moving work.*

Another relationship in Lewis’ life that has provoked much speculation, was his care for the mother of one of his friends who died in WWI. The fact that the two young soldiers had vowed to care for one another’s parents in that event, does not dispel questions about what that particular relationship may have developed into.

Yes, I’ve read a great deal about the women in Lewis’ life, but until recently I had not encountered his thoughts on dating while he was a young man. In a 1926 letter to his father, he related an odd predicament he was experiencing as a young professor.

My dear Papy,

. . . I have been bothered into the last job I ever expected to do this term: taking a class of girls once a week at one of the women’s Colleges. However, I am not engaged to be married yet, and there are always seven of them there together, and the pretty ones are stupid and the interesting ones are ugly, so it is alright.

I say this because as a general rule women marry their tutors.

I suppose if a girl is determined to marry and has a man alone once a week to whom she can play the rapt disciple (most fatal of all poses to male vanity) her task is done.

The most humorous part of this is Lewis’ accurate assessment of male vanity.

This passage got me thinking about the subject of dating.

Is dating fun? I’m sure to many it is. But, I suspect that to the majority of people, lacking a committed relationship is an unwelcome fact of life.

It seems to me that one of the very best things about having been happily married for 39 years, is not needing to date. I don’t remember it a being all that fun at the time. But then, memories can get foggy after so long.

Lewis was utterly content being an aging bachelor. In truth, the state suited him well, and many of his friends were shocked when he wed.

In marriage he encountered much unexpected happiness. But Lewis, despite being a Romantic, remained a Rationalist. He was no dreamer who professed idealized version of marriage that was immune to human flaws.

In 1962 he shared this wonderfully honest assessment of marriage . . . and this refers to a truly good marriage.

I nominally have [a place of my own] and am nominally master of the house, but things seldom go as I would have chosen. The truth is that the only alternatives are either solitude (with all its miseries and dangers, both moral and physical) or else all the rubs and frustrations of a joint life.

The second, even at its worst seems to me far the better. I hope one is rewarded for all the stunning replies one thinks of one does not utter! But alas, even when we don’t say them, more comes out in our look, our manner, and our voice. An elaborately patient silence can be very provoking! We are all fallen creatures and all very hard to live with.

If only we were all so honest as Lewis. Life would be simpler and we might actually become a little “easier to live with.” Spouses, family and friends would surely appreciate that new self-awareness.

_____

* A Grief Observed. I have quoted from the volume in the past, including here and here.

 

 

Distant Fathers

September 30, 2014 — 9 Comments

miceChildren don’t get to choose their parents. They aren’t able to select loving parents in contrast to abusers. They can’t  express any preference about being in a home with a mom and a dad committed to them, and to one another.

But the home into which children are born matters a great deal in the direction and shape of their entire life.

It doesn’t take a genius to acknowledge that some settings are healthier than others. The ideal context (which very few of us are blessed to experience) is a home where mom and dad keep their vows to one another, and devote themselves to placing their children in the forefront of their concerns.

Those of us who are people of faith recognize a third pillar to this structure. There is spousal love, parental love, and love of God. When you have all three, you are fortunate indeed.

Sadly, for many, one or both parents are absent. They may be physically present (as my own alcoholic father was) but they are disengaged . . . unconnected . . . absent. I believe that when they are physically present but not really there, they often teach their children worse lessons than they would have learned if they were literally gone. But that’s a conversation for another day.

A study some months ago reveals that the absence of fathers during childhood can actually affect the brain of the child. Yes, you read that right—it can physically affect their brains.

In the study Dr. Gobbi and her colleagues compared social activity and brain anatomy between the two groups . . . the first, raised with both parents, and the second,  that had been raised only by their mothers. The results showed that mice raised without a father demonstrated abnormal social interactions.

This group of subjects also showed more aggressive patterns of behavior in comparison with their counterparts raised with both parents. In addition, these effects were stronger for female offspring. Interestingly females raised without fathers also had a greater sensitivity to the stimulant drug–amphetamine.*

Before continuing, it’s important to note that these experiments were conducted on animals . . . mice, to be precise. While we don’t normally think of mice as paternalistic creatures, neuroscientists assure us that these results are significant.

“Although we used mice, the findings are extremely relevant to humans,” claims Dr. Gabriella Gobbi, a researcher of the Mental Illness and Addiction Axis at the RI-MUHC, senior author and an associate professor at the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University. “We used California mice which, like in some human populations, are monogamous and raise their offspring together.”

California mice? Monogamous? Who would have thought!

Whether you place much stock in this scientific research or not, most honest individuals acknowledge the significance our father and mother share in our early formation.

C.S. Lewis’ loss of his mother and the great distance between himself and his father greatly impacted the development of his personality. Lewis goes so far as to make this confession in Surprised by Joy: “With the cruelty of youth I allowed myself to be irritated by traits in my father which, in other elderly men, I have since regarded as lovable foibles.”

Elsewhere, Lewis writes longingly of the intimate relationship he longed to have had with his own father. Describing the source of author George MacDonald’s guiding inspiration in life, he writes:

An almost perfect relationship with his father was the earthly root of all his wisdom. From his own father, he said, he first learned that Fatherhood must be at the core of the universe. He was thus prepared in an unusual way to teach that religion in which the relation of Father and Son is of all relations the most central. (George MacDonald: An Anthology).

I did not have that sort of relationship with my own father. I strove to give it as a gift to my children though. And today, while I continue to be their dad, I am acutely aware of the kind of grandfather I am.

Whether it truly affects those developing minds or not, I am committed to caring for each of them as well as is humanly possible.

_____

* You can read the quoted article in The Neuropsychotherapist here. The abstract for the original research is available here.

 

 

Married, or Not?

April 22, 2014 — 11 Comments

unificationShould a wedding ceremony during which the bride forgets the groom’s name be considered valid? That question may sound slightly preposterous, but I just witnessed it happening.

One of the network news programs just did a story on the latest “Holy Marriage Blessing Service” conducted by the Unification Church. This is the religion founded by Sun Myung Moon, whose disciples believe to be the second coming of Jesus. (Moon died in 2012, but his wife continues to lead the religion, and officiate at these regular ceremonies.)

Many of the couples who marry in these ceremonies are matched by their parents or, if they are determined to be especially blessed, they are “randomly” matched by the church leader (presently the widow of their messiah). Reportedly, each match takes about thirty seconds as the prophets place the hands of men and women together in divinely appointed relationships.

Officially, a person can decline their match after they’ve had a little time to talk with their future spouse, but it’s evident that contradicting the action of one’s savior would require immense courage.

That said, I have no doubt that—due to the earnest commitment and efforts of both parties—many of these marriages end up happy. After all, as C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity:

Knowledge can last, principles can last, habits can last; but feelings come and go… But, of course, ceasing to be “in love” need not mean ceasing to love. Love in this second sense — love as distinct from “being in love”—is not merely a feeling. It is a deep unity, maintained by the will and deliberately strengthened by habit; reinforced by (in Christian marriage) the grace which both partners ask, and receive, from God. . . . “Being in love” first moved them to promise fidelity: this quieter love enables them to keep the promise. It is on this love that the engine of marriage is run: being in love was the explosion that started it.

In the case of Unification Church members, even if the relationship lacked an emotional stage of “being in love,” it doesn’t mean that it is destined to fail. Far from it, since, as Lewis wisely points out, true love isn’t about feelings.

In the aforementioned case, the bride was from a French-speaking African nation. The husband, I believe, was from Japan. Her English was quite good, but his was poor. They were essentially unable to communicate. Then, when the interviewers revisited them immediately before the ceremony was to begin, they asked the beautifully-gowned bride what her husband’s name was. And she had forgotten.

Another peculiar thing about Unification marriage practices is that, following the wedding, there is a 40+ “separation period,” during which they are required to refrain from intimate relations. While Christians are called to practice premarital chastity, I’m unfamiliar with any other group that requires a post-wedding purification.

One last comment about the Unification marriage blessings. As if they could not be more bizarre. In 1997 the Moons presided over a ceremony in Washington, D.C. While only 2,000 of the 30,000 couples were actually being married, among the other 28,000 couples having their marriage “blessed” by the Unification messiah included a prominent American political figure—none other than Al Sharpton.

At least he and his wife, Katherine, probably knew each other’s names.

_____

The picture above comes from one of the group weddings. This young bride has to be content with the photograph of her absent groom. One wonders if the two have yet to meet.

Clay Hearts

November 18, 2013 — 6 Comments

clay heartHonesty compels us to admit that we have clay feet. We are merely mortal, and our origin from the clay of the earth is a reminder that we are imperfect.

Stumbling due to our feet of mud is one thing. Far worse, we earthen vessels also have hearts of clay. Our affections are fickle, and too often we fail to fulfill our vows to those who have made themselves vulnerable by entrusting to us their own love.

I doubt any of us have been untouched by the pain of transient love. The ideal we long for . . . the vision we dream about . . . and the lasting intimacy we pray for often seem so very fleeting.

Saddest, to me, are those relationships that have lasted many years, where the once glowing light has dimmed and the comforting warmth has dissipated.

That is the story of a remarkable, Oscar-nominated animation I would like to commend to you. Head Over Heels is a unique 10-minute claymation film about a broken marriage and how it comes “unbroken.”

C.S. Lewis did not marry until late in life. The personal experience of marriage, of course, modified some of his bachelor perceptions about the holy estate.

Nevertheless, having been married for thirty-seven years myself, I continue to be amazed by just how perceptive Lewis was throughout his writing life. Consider the following from The Four Loves.

Lewis discusses the importance and glory of passion consecrated by marital vows, but he does not pretend that it does not wax and wane. Nor does he imagine that even between wife and husband, a focus on the passion in their relationship is without potential hazards.

Discussing erotic love (one of the four he describes), Lewis warns:

But Eros, honoured without reservation and obeyed unconditionally, becomes a demon. And this is just how he claims to be honoured and obeyed. . . . Of all loves he is, at his height, most god-like; therefore most prone to demand our worship. Of himself he always tends to turn “being in love” into a sort of religion.

Theologians have often feared, in this love, a danger of idolatry. I think they meant by this that the lovers might idolise one another. That does not seem to me to be the real danger; certainly not in marriage. The deliciously plain prose and businesslike intimacy of married life render it absurd. So does the Affection in which Eros is almost invariably clothed.

Even in courtship I question whether anyone who has felt the thirst for the Uncreated, or even dreamed of feeling it, ever supposed that the Beloved could satisfy it. As a fellow-pilgrim pierced with the very same desire, that is, as a Friend, the Beloved may be gloriously and helpfully relevant; but as an object for it—well (I would not be rude), ridiculous. The real danger seems to me not that the lovers will idolise each other but that they will idolise Eros himself.

I believe Lewis has identified something profound here. The utter familiarity, the nakedness of our souls, that is part of any genuine marriage precludes anyone sane person from idolizing their partner. We, after all, are more familiar than any other human being with their feet of clay.

However, if we succumb to the snares of Eros, cast wide across television, literature, cinema and internet, we doom ourselves. True love will not cohabit with this counterfeit.

An uncritical attention to the physical seldom results in happiness. As Lewis so accurately says, “For Eros may unite the most unsuitable yokefellows; many unhappy, and predictably unhappy, marriages were love-matches.”

The good news, celebrated by Head Over Heels, is that even when love fades away, there is still hope. Just as clay-footed human beings can experience resurrection, so too our clay-hearted relationships can be restored and blaze with renewed joy.

Thanksgiving is a very special holiday. In truth, it’s a “holy-day” for all those who offer their thanks to a benevolent God.

Like all holidays, it can be good or bad, depending on the way it is perceived by each individual, and the unique circumstances in which they find themselves. Most of us are thankful, for example, for our loving families. And, even if we can’t be together at these special times, we draw warmth and strength from their love. Tragically, others have been victimized by those who should have protected them, and “family” in their eyes is not something to be thankful for at all.

I was not a perfect son. I strove to be a better father. And, now that I’m blessed with seven grandchildren, I’m trying to be the best grandfather I can be

Many years ago, shortly after having our first child, I gave myself a Father’s Day gift. (That’s not a typo. I purchased for myself a modest plaque with a priceless message.) It reads: “the greatest gift a man can ever give his children is to love their mother.”

I displayed this proverb in my office through the years, as a reminder to myself and others of this profound truth. It’s easy to love one’s spouse as a newlywed in the hot flush of youth. It’s also easy, I’m learning, to love my wife in the snug and warm autumn of life. For many, however, the trials and tribulations that are a natural part of all relationships appear insurmountable. Between the newlywed and maturelywed days, it’s not all easy. While our hormones still surge and familiarity breeds corrosive contempt, we may take for granted the person we once vowed to cherish above all others.

The desire to be a decent father greatly amplifies the importance of being a devoted husband. Knowing this made my reading of a recent article quite painful. I had known for years that President John F. Kennedy was rather promiscuous. Yet a recent article in The Atlantic reveals just how debauched the man was. The article, if you have the stomach for it, praises the strength of his wife Jackie, and is available online here.

It describes just a few of his disease spawning liaisons, and noted that he often traveled with one of his so-called secretaries, should there be “any trouble scaring up local talent.” One imagines the dirtiness felt by the Secret Service agents tasked with protecting him during his sordid escapades in the White House pool. The saddest tale for me was his deflowering of a sophomore intern from Wheaton “right there on his wife’s bed.” I won’t sully you with any more accounts.

When I read the article, it nearly made me sick. He was a vile husband. I recalled the numerous famous pictures of him playing with his children—the doting father, one would think. Yet, in reality, just because he was such a malignant husband, he was also an appalling father. To mistreat his wife so badly, was to dishonor his children as well.

The image that came to me as I looked again at the pictures of Kennedy’s glorious Camelot brought to mind Jesus’ words about whitewashed sepulchers “which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.” (Matthew 23:26-28, ESV). The verse which follows could be JFK’s epitaph: “So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”

A More Godly Alternative

C.S. Lewis experienced neither the normal, nor ideal, form of fatherhood. While he loved and respected his own father, theirs was not a close relationship. And then, at the end of his life, the death of his beloved Joy caused him to transition from the already tentative role of stepfather into the fullest demands of single parenthood. Lewis loved his two sons. He was the best father he knew how to be.

Despite being ill equipped, he did the honorable and right thing—he could do no other. He provided for all the physical needs of his sons, and did his best to meet their emotional needs as well. In Lenten Lands, his son Douglas Gresham describes how painful it was to be at The Kilns following his mother’s passing.

In cowardice and self-pity, I deserted the home and the two men whose company and loving support had for so long been all that had preserved my sanity. When at home from school, I was rarely at home. I know now that I could have done far more than I did to help both Jack and Warnie to bear the burdens which were their lot, but with the blind selfishness which is characteristic of egocentric teen-aged boys, I was too wrapped up in myself to spare time for others.

Strangely, Jack and I had, through these difficult years, become very close, and I think that he understood quite well the reasons for my reluctance to be a part of The Kilns at that time. At first, after Mother’s death, with almost unbelievably naïve complacency, I never doubted that The Kilns and Jack would always be there for as long as I needed them. Then, when it began to dawn on me that there was an increasing likelihood of Jack being snatched away, and with him The Kilns, I reacted by rejecting The Kilns entirely and by not daring to love Jack any more than I already irrevocably did.

For his part, Lewis comprehended just how important understanding fatherhood was. In his tribute George MacDonald: An Anthology, he says this about his mentor:

An almost perfect relationship with his father was the earthly root of all his wisdom. From his own father, he said, he first learned that Fatherhood must be at the core of the universe. He was thus prepared in an unusual way to teach that religion in which the relation of Father and Son is of all relations the most central.

Lewis concurred with MacDonald that “Fatherhood must be at the core of the universe.” And, if this is indeed true, our emulation of it in this life possesses even more importance than I ever imagined.