Friday, August 8, 2014

Life Lessons from Betsy (Warrington Ray)

As a child, I loved Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy~Tacy series; and as an adult, I still return to it--particularly the last three books, Betsy and Joe, Betsy and the Great World, and Betsy's Wedding-- for doses of comfort, optimism, and, yes, even wisdom.  To expand upon this last point, here are seven solid, healthy morals (so to speak) gleaned from Betsy Ray's adventures:

1.  Embrace the hide-and-seek of life.
"'I found myself out there,' Betsy had declared more than once. 
"Yes, but back at the University she had lost herself again.  Was life always like that?  she wondered. A game of hide and seek in which you only occasionally found the person you wanted to be?"  
(Betsy and the Great World, p. 16.)
Perhaps it's sad to say, but I still experience this feeling as a middle-aged mom!  Now and then for a moment I'm the parent I aimed to be, the wife I vowed to be, the scholar I'd planned to become.  Sometimes I'm even comfortable inhabiting my own character:  owning up to what I really enjoy, expressing (tactfully, I hope!) a controversial opinion, and admitting faults without flagellating myself.

But more often than not, I struggle to find my center.

There's a barrage of expectations to sort out; there's failure, and then recovery from failure; there are the endless practical details of life  ("Mama, have to go potty!").  At times I feel that I'm one person for my children, another for my grad school friends, quite another for my in-laws, etc., etc.  And then I run into myself and we have to get acquainted all over again.

Betsy gets this.

2. There is such a thing as the person you were meant to be.

Betsy is a writer, truly and inevitably.  It's a vocation.

Perhaps this isn't deep; and perhaps an identity shaped on "what I do" can seem inadequate today, when so many women work outside the home.  But, both in the time the series is set (c. 1900-1917) and the era of its writing (1955), there was daring in assigning vocation (beyond motherhood) to women; and even today, there is daring in the affirmation that each person has a unique call, something that they were meant to be and do.  (Darn it, we're just so used to options...!)

And Betsy has the guts to own it.  Early on, she calls herself a writer and adopts a writer's discipline.  Going abroad at age 21, she introduces herself as such-- despite being middle class, Midwestern, and about as avant-garde as Wisconsin cheese.  How many aspiring writers today hesitate to call themselves what they are, for fear that someone might think them overreaching-- or worse, trapped in an adolescent fantasy?

3.  The social whirl (and other nonessential busy-ness) distract and obscure that person.

When she's sad and depressed, Betsy-- much more extroverted than I-- tries to escape into her social calendar.   What she really needs, however, is to slow down, implement a schedule, and focus on what's important.  (In Betsy and Joe she does this at the Taggarts' farm; and in Betsy and the Great World, in Munich and Venice.)

4On the other hand, the right relationships support you in living-- and growing-- as that person.
"'You want to be a writer.  You want that more than anything else in the world.' 
"'No,' Betsy interrupted.  'There's one thing I want more, Joe.  I want to be a good wife to you-- and a good mother to our children.' 
"Joe patted her cheek.  'We'll put it this way.  You are a writer. . . . '"  (Betsy's Wedding, p. 106). 
With Joe (also a writer), Tacy, Tib, Julia, and her parents, Betsy feels accepted and supported.  In the series' later books, these bedrock relationships help her to overcome distractions (such as the collegiate social life) and personal failures.

But I wish that a subsequent book had addressed the issue of uniting/balancing the identities of "writer" and "mom"!

5. A lot of people out there in the "Great World" are playing a part.

Mr. O'Farrell flirts with Betsy onboard ship, despite having a wife and children waiting at home; the baroness Helena von Wandersee suffers from poverty and the alcoholism of her father, and yet-- trapped by a noblewoman's role-- refuses to rub elbows with the middle class.

In a related, broader point:  appearance is no guide to reality.  The one American millionaire whom Betsy meets abroad is "so plain ordinary nice" that she has no clue (Betsy and the Great World, p. 344).

Her education in these truths is gentle, but effective.

6. Hard work, perseverance, and self-discipline make all the difference.

While Betsy has a flair for writing, the books make clear that hard work makes the writer.  She creates a schedule-- and sticks to it.  Her stories are rejected again and again, but she keeps them moving through the mail.  Moments of success are the culmination of many discouragements.

7. Prayer helps.  Really helps!

While the Betsy~Tacy series isn't overtly religious, at crucial moments Betsy (a Congregationalist turned Episcopalian) looks to God for clarity. I'm thinking particularly of the instance, in Betsy's Wedding, when she and Joe have their first major disagreement.  Amid the ongoing household tension, Betsy goes to church for the first time in months-- and there, she finds her answer.

True to theme, that answer consists in supporting Joe in being the best version of himself.  "If she needed him, or someone in her own family needed him, how would she like Joe not being Joe?  What would it be like, not to be sure, always, that Joe would do whatever he thought was right?"  Moreover, in realizing this "[s]he felt all right.  She felt like herself" (pp. 177-8).

I appreciate that Betsy~Tacy stops short of preaching; and I love that it affirms the action of grace.

Someday, I hope, my daughters and I will share these books-- but until then, I'll curl up and enjoy them during nap time, with a cup of the cafe au lait that Betsy learns to order ("Mitte, bitte") in Munich.

Happy Friday, everyone!! 

PS:  Be sure to check out Conversion Diary for more Quick Takes.

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