We’re on the fourth book in the series — On the Banks of Plum Creek — and it’s the only one so far that I remember clearly from my own childhood. For the last year, I’ve been reading my five-year-old daughter some of my favorite chapter books at bedtime. We’ve been through the wardrobe with Lucy and Aslan, naturally, and into the chocolate factory with Charlie, and up the Big Hill with Betsy and Tacy. We’ve been through my favorite worlds of wonder and imagination.
Now we’re in a sod house.
Of course, that’s why this book stands out in my memory. The first books in the series do little more than chronicle in detail how the Ingalls family survived: this is how Pa built a door, this is how they smoked the bear meat, this is how they tapped the trees and boiled the sap. Plum Creek is where the drama leaves fear of Native Americans (and a bunch of somewhat racist sentences I had to skip when reading aloud) and moves to class anxiety about being “country” people dependent on the forces of nature.
The five of them live in a sod house — a house dug out of the side of a hill — until Pa builds a new house on credit. Then the plague of grasshoppers descends, ruining the wheat crop, destroying every green thing and drying up the creek beds. Pa walks 300 miles to find work elsewhere so that the family can survive the year. Ma and the girls wait at home, brushing grasshoppers off their skin whenever they venture outside.
I often wonder, as I read, if I have the same will to survive that Pa and Ma had. These days, I tend to think I’d just lay down and die.
* * *
It’s winter in Indiana now, a time when my Southern blood slows like molasses through my veins. February creeps toward March with relentless indifference, and Easter will come and go before the first daffodil even dreams of blooming. The hard snow that’s on the ground now has been there for twenty-seven days, and the sky’s spitting more of it as I write, erasing variety from the landscape, leaving it cold and muted. My will even to get out of bed shrinks, whipped by a negative-forty-degree wind into submission.
I don’t fight back. It’s a time when evening wear transitions seamlessly into day wear as I add furry slippers and a hoodie to my leggings and loose long-sleeved tee. My desires are disappearing. Even my favorite indulgences fail to excite me. I’d as soon eat the frozen pizza as the braised short ribs and goat cheese polenta, and I could take or leave the glass of Malbec. Parks and Recreation doesn’t make me laugh and Parenthood doesn’t make me cry. Instead of writing or lesson planning, I brew French press after French press of coffee and read Twitter as if it has a point. I sit in front of my happy light and take vitamin D. Nothing makes me angry, nothing stirs my imagination, and I don’t even want to want.
There’s a word for this, and no, depression isn’t quite it. This is not a sickness, a chemical imbalance that could be helped by medicine. This is a condition of the heart, which the desert fathers called acedia: severe lethargy, or the inability to find joy. It’s not exhaustion, but what Kathleen Norris describes in The Cloister Walk as “the death-in-life that I know all too well, when my capacity for joy shrivels up and, like drought-stricken grass, I die down to the roots to wait it out.” I suffer from it every winter, when the new year arrives, but then nothing feels new.
I suffer from it, but my children barely notice, because there are Goldfish crackers in the cupboard and annoying-voiced little knights and princesses on the screens. But what would Laura and Mary have done if their parents stopped caring about anything? If Pa and Ma saw their daily routines as meaningless, wouldn’t their children have just . . . starved?
Yet pioneer parents must have faced it too, since daily routines were an even more essential part of their survival. The “noonday demon” of acedia suggests that the things I’m doing — particular the daily routines, the mundane tasks I must complete every day for the rest of my life — are useless. The beautiful rhythms of life, sunrise to sunset, are empty of meaning, just a “disgusting repetition that stretches on forever” (Norris again, in The Cloister Walk again, of course).
Pa and Ma, with fewer distractions than I have today, and more reliance upon daily routines for survival, must have felt what I feel, and what the writer of Ecclesiastes felt:
All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:8–9)
* * *
I was hoping that writing about acedia would help shake me out of it, and it has, to some extent.
The truth is, I know the time-tested ways of recovering from acedia; I just often can’t muster the heart to try them:
Part of the reason I fall into acedia is that so many of my needs and wants are met, easily and regularly. I’m not a pioneer: I don’t have to fight to heat my house or put food on the table. Maybe if things were harder, I would care more. When I want to treat myself, it’s easy enough to hit up Starbucks and Redbox, or Amazon and Madewell. But when everything good is always available, it loses value. My spirit gets flabby from overconsumption.
Treats are only treats if they are rare, as the Ingalls children remind me with their ecstatic joy over oyster crackers and hard candy. So one way to restore joy is actually to abstain more often, as the approaching Lenten season encourages us to do. There are plenty of reasons for limiting our consumption, or at least being more careful about it, and fighting off acedia is probably the least important of those reasons. But if fasting can restore my hunger, I will fast.
Acedia tells me that the daily tasks I perform — picking up the Lego bricks, lining the trash cans with plastic bags, feeding the cat — are meaningless, mindless chores; so, I choose to be mindful about the way I perform them. It was Marx, a hundred and fifty years ago, who theorized that as human labor became divided into repetitive, highly specialized tasks, workers would feel more alienated from the completed products that gave their work meaning. I’m an adjunct ESL instructor and a mother, hardly a proletariat cog in a machine, yet I find his prediction helpful in understanding the ways in which my work can leave me feeling cut off from my own human essence. Completing repetitive tasks without a sense of how they contribute to the whole of my life is dehumanizing.
When I wash the dishes or grade the multiple choice quizzes, then, I try to cultivate my understanding of how those tasks fit into(yes!) the redemptive arc of history. Maybe I'm joining in God’s creative nature by creating babies and veggie stir-fry and quilts, by telling stories and painting with watercolors and making up silly songs and dances. Maybe I am making all things new by doing loads of laundry and getting dirty dishes to sparkle again. In each of these tasks, I am — hopefully — participating in God's plan to bring restoration to a broken world.
Of course, for me, a lover of language and literature, the rhythm of words has always been key to overcoming acedia. To the traditional disciplines of liturgical prayer and Scripture reading, I add poetry. When my soul grows weary I often find myself praying through T. S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday,” with its refrain:
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.
At its heart, my acedia is a problem of caring too little. Acedia is when my will has grown, as Eliot says, “small and dry,” and I do not hope to turn again, I no longer strive towards “this man’s gift and that man’s scope,” I am still.
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.
My soul is still and silent now, like the roots of blueberry bushes we planted months ago now under layers of snow and mulch and dirt, like the Ingalls in their sod house in the hill. It is easy to sit still in winter.
It is hard to sit still and to do it well.
I read Eliot’s words over and over again, comforted by their rhythms, the way they sound, even when I don’t know exactly what they mean. There’s a lot about not hoping, about moving to a place beyond hope and despair. Yet I don’t think he’s advocating detachment in the Zen Buddhist way, freedom from all thoughts or desires; rather, he seems to be giving up hope in his own ability to redeem himself. He writes about the “burden of the grasshopper” (the futility that forces its way into our lives), and the “years that walk between” (the liminal space between being and becoming, the already and the not-yet of faith), and “our exile,” but all of these hardships, these places of emptiness, only lead Eliot to ask again
Teach us to care and not to care.
Teach us to sit still.
Barrenness has a place in the life of faith, in the rhythm of the church even, I realize as we approach yet another Ash Wednesday. My acedia, the utter stillness in my soul, serves to remind me of the futility of striving in my own strength, the necessity of waiting on the lord. Eliot, free of striving and hope, still asks for help: “speak the word only” (quoting Matthew 8:8) and “let my cry come unto Thee” (quoting Psalm 102:1).
* * *
When the grasshoppers have destroyed a year’s worth of the Ingalls’s crops and threaten to destroy their hopes for the next year as well, things truly seem hopeless: “There was no rain, and the days went by hotter and hotter, uglier and uglier and filled with the sound of grasshoppers until it seemed more than could be born.” That’s when Ma finally lets her despair begin to show:, telling Pa one morning, “seems to me I just can’t bear one more day of this.’’
And then one day, the grasshoppers all just start walking away. They walk straight west for four days, and then of one accord rise up in a cloud and fly off.
I often think of Pa, trudging 300 miles to find work, to try to replace what the grasshoppers had eaten. I think of Ma, holding to her routines, ironing clothes in the middle of nowhere, for no one to see, because routine grounds her. What does it mean to persevere through acedia? How am I to understand the paradox in what Eliot asks — to care and not to care? What is the right amount of caring about your life, the right amount of trust in God to redeem you, rather than trusting in your own self to triumph?
Then I think of Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese”:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
And I think of the promise of God to his people through the prophet Joel:
I will restore to you the years
that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
my great army, which I sent among you. (Joel 2:25)
Emptiness and acedia are part of the life of faith, and I cannot work my way out of them. I can fast, I can be mindful, I can chant the words whether they mean something to me or not, but ultimately, restoration is something neither I nor the pioneers can earn. I can only wait on God to restore what has been lost. Like Eliot and Oliver, I give up hope of being good. I sit still, holding to the routines of my life and the rhythm of the church calendar, remembering the promise of God to Joel.
I approach the reality of my own barrenness with confidence that there is a God who restores what the grasshoppers have eaten: that deep underground, though all seems dead, there is life in the sod house.
Amy Lepine Peterson is a freelance writer and ESL instructor at Taylor University. Connect with her on Twitter.