Breaking Out of the Box

We tend to judge people the moment we meet them. Not condemn them, necessarily, but judge them. We find a suitably labelled box, and we pop them into it. Let us be honest: we all do it; and it isn’t always a bad thing. When you only have a few minutes’ experience of someone, you only get a sense of one or two dimensions of their character, and you need to proceed according to what you do know.

The problem comes when we try to keep people in that box when it doesn’t fit. When we refuse to admit that they have more than one or two dimensions to their character. (Pride & Prejudice, anyone?) When we make sweeping assumptions about what else is true of them, based on what else we keep in that box.

People often file me in the “Christian” box. This wouldn’t be so bad (since I do consider myself a Christian) but one of the fastest ways to wind me up is to make assumptions about me based on what else you’ve filed in there.
Believe me, people keep some weird stuff in that box.

I also get filed in the “young person” box a lot. This, despite the fact that people who started primary school the year I finished high school will now have finished high school themselves. OK, I’m not exactly old, but I don’t fit the “young person” stereotype. Neither do a lot of young(er) people. We aren’t all into drugs and loud music. Some of us prefer to stay home and knit. Or hang out and knit. Or crochet. Or debate theology late into the night…

Believed to be Italian nationals in a U. S. Detention camp - NARA - 196551
And then there’s the whole gender box complex. Even if your culture accepts that there are different ways of being male, or female, people still expect you to pick one and stick to it.

Example: a man may take an interest in sports. He may also take an interest in flower arranging (and I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you what else people keep in that box). People don’t expect a man to play rugby on Saturday morning and then go home and start messing about with roses, oasis, and variegated foliage. It makes them uneasy, as people tend to be when they find someone in two boxes at once. (Like Schrödinger’s cat, but with more boxes and less cruelty to animals.)

Or, to consider an example closer to home (my home, anyway), people have a box for the kind of woman who does hands-on stuff like reproofing an oilskin with homemade waterproofer; and they have a box for the kind of woman who wears floral dresses and aprons about the house. But I am here to tell you that it is perfectly possible to reproof an oilskin while wearing a floral dress (and you definitely want to be wearing an apron).

break the stereotype
I did it a couple of weeks ago, using this bloke’s recipe, or something like it. I didn’t have raw linseed oil, so I used wood oil instead. And I didn’t exactly measure anything. It worked, though the surface still feels a little tacky to the touch. After letting it cure in the sun for a week, I tested its waterproofness – with a small watering can, since it hadn’t rained so much as half a millimetre for a fortnight – and yup. Job done.

At the end of the day, you are who you are. Don’t bother trying to be someone else to please someone else (or avoid upsetting their prejudices). Like Cinderella’s evil step-sisters who each cut off a bit of their foot to fit in the shoe – no, that wasn’t in the Disney version – you won’t be able to sustain the deception, and you’ll end up with no prince and a munted foot.

And don’t feel guilty if you sort people into boxes yourself. Just be sure to leave the lid off.

Read It Again!

Thus goes up the cry from many a small child, with their insatiable desire for the same bedtime story to be told, over and over (and over) again.

Felix Schlesinger Die Gute-Nacht-Geschichte

But it’s not just little kiddies who do it. Scratch a reader and you will find a re-reader – but what is it we’re re-reading? And why?

The winner of the gold medal, blue ribbon and all-around first prize for re-reading (re-readiness?) is the Scriptures; unsurprising given the emphasis so many traditions put on reading, re-reading, memorizing and internalizing the words of God. As Jesus said, these are “foundational words, words to build a life on.” But, leaving the Scriptures aside, as the best-seller lists do (since the same book invariably tops the list), what are the most popular re-reads?

The comments on this post reminded me of the widespread passion for re-reading The Lord of the Rings – and not just re-reading it, but re-reading it again every year. That’s dedication, especially if you aren’t a fast reader.

Some people re-read other classic novels such as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, although I have yet to hear of anyone who repeatedly reads War and Peace – apart from Countess Tolstoy, who apparently recopied and edited it seven times. That’s going above and beyond the call of duty, it seems to me. Bearing thirteen children is one thing; reading War and Peace seven times is quite another.

woman writing at desk

Many people obsessively re-read C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia as children, and some continue the habit. I myself, as a child, re-read pretty much everything I could get my hands on, as I was a voracious reader with limited (re)sources. I even read our children’s encyclopaedia by the volume (Vol. 1, Article 1: Abbey, which may be connected to my subsequent interest in all things monastic).

More recently, I have noticed a pattern to my re-reading. When I am tired and want to relax, I read either an old favourite – Agatha Christie, Patricia Wentworth, Ngaio Marsh, Ellis Peters – or a book by an author with whom I am sufficiently familiar to be sure I will enjoy the book. And yes, this means that when I want to relax I almost without exception curl up with a mystery (although I did curl up with The Curse of Chalion the other day).

When I am not in need of book-induced relaxation – when I have more mental energy – I tend more toward the reading of non-fiction. Books about writing, books about whatever I have an interest in at the moment, books which happened to show up in an old box from someone’s grandmother. Reading entirely unfamiliar fiction doesn’t happen as often, unless the book is very compelling when I glance into it, because it doesn’t fit into either of my two settings: Relax or Absorb Information.

Simon Glücklich Hausaufgabe

But once I’ve read a non-fiction book, I seldom feel the inclination to re-read it, and I think this reveals something about why people re-read – or at least why I re-read. I re-read books because there is something in them which I cannot fully obtain from one reading. If it’s non-fiction, it’s because I didn’t absorb enough of the information it contained the first time round.

With fiction, that doesn’t apply. I mean, look at the enormous popularity of P.G. Wodehouse’s novels. Read one, you’ve got a pretty good idea of them all, but that doesn’t stop people reading the rest and then re-reading them. Because the essence of the book isn’t in the facts of it, it’s in something altogether more evanescent. The style of the book, or perhaps its soul. You can’t break that down to its component parts to analyze why it works. The letter kills, but the spirit gives life, you could say.

Or, to steal a structure from Maya Angelou, people will forget what the book said, they’ll forget what the characters did, but they will never forget how the book made them feel. And that, I am convinced, is the secret of all re-reading. Reading the book produced in us a feeling – and with great books it’s a feeling no other book creates – and re-reading the book is the only way to feel that again. This is how reading prescriptions work; and also why we have fan-fiction.

What do you think? What books do you re-read, and why?

Wardrobe Cheats: The Doily Cap

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that when you rely on a simple solution, you will find at the last moment it won’t work. Last weekend, I hosted a Pride and Prejudice marathon for a few friends – the BBC miniseries with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth, naturally – and I thought I’d dress up a bit.


Not being the kind of wonder-woman who can whip up a full historical outfit in a day or two (while writing a best-selling self-help book and raising a tankful of orphaned cuttlefish), I decided to wear the Empire-est clothes in my regular wardrobe, and Regencify the accessories.

Being in possession of a bonnet, my thoughts naturally turned first to that – but no sensible Regency woman would wear a bonnet indoors, in her own home. What she would wear, especially if she was a respectable married woman such as myself, is a cap. White, lacy, frilly – you get the idea.

Lodovico Giori Portrait Charlotte Luise Bennecke

Actually, even unmarried ladies of A Certain Age would wear caps – going bareheaded was a sign of being in the market for a husband. And from the Regency point of view, I am a lady of A Certain Age already, having passed the grand old age of twenty-seven. Jane Austen herself took up wearing them at about that age, “and they save me a world of torment as to hairdressing,” she wrote in a letter.

The classic cap-cheat is, of course, to simply plop a large round doily on one’s head. Nothing could be easier! Until one reaches the charity shop and finds there are no large round doilies to be seen. Clearly, there has been a lot of dressing up going on in these parts lately.

Dressed young female Brielle

Desperation drove me to purchase a large rectangular doily, rejecting the genre/gender-bending little-old-lady yarmulke look suggested by the small round doilies on offer. Like Lydia Bennet, I would have to tear it apart when I got home and see if I could make it up any better.

After one or two false starts, I found a simple, suitable solution. The moral of the story: do not be abashed by staring at your reflection with a doily over your head. You look a fool; it will pass.

I pinned the two short ends together and sewed it up into a tube which would fit over my head. Then I realized my mistake and unpicked nearly half the seam.
I then turned it right-way out and ran a ribbon (all right, a shoelace, but I’ve replaced it with a ribbon) through the doily at the end-of-seam line, pulled it tight and tied a bow.
Now I had a sort of lace beanie with an enormous frill hanging off the top – a frill nearly as large as the cap itself.
This I arranged over the cap, and voila! a lacy cap with two rows of scalloped edging, and a bit of ribbon dripping down the back.

Portrait of Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen
Jane Austen is not impressed.

It’s so soft and comfortable I find I keep putting it on – as Jane Austen noted in her letter, it’s just the thing for a bad hair day.

What are your secrets for wardrobe short-cuts? Please share!
And remember: dressing up is not just for fancy dress parties, Hallowe’en, or cosplaying at ComicCon. Dressing up is for eccentrics.