In early 2020 as the world shut down, I experienced a new and undeniable desire to have a house plant. I already have four children that I am trying to keep alive, but I felt like I needed something green to cultivate or I would explode. My husband brought me a cutting from one of the plants at his job and I tended to it like my life depended on this fern’s survival.
During the initial lockdown I took a break from my usual nonfiction writing projects to try my hand at fiction. My husband would take over the homeschooling for a couple of hours and I would hide in our (very unfinished) attic like a twenty-first century pandemic version of Jo March and dream up a story filled with talking animals that turned into a completed children’s book. I also, like every other millennial with an Instagram account, started baking with a sourdough starter. At this point in the pandemic, the prevalence of 2020 sourdough mania and house plant obsession have become tired subjects of jokes and memes. But I think the motivation behind these trends is fascinating. What about the experience of a crisis pushes us toward certain activities? Why do we find comfort in them? Are these activities merely an escape from the realities of life?
Perhaps the cultivation of growing things, the crafting of a good story, and the art of baking all make us feel more fully like human beings. These activities, and many others, tap into our identity as creators, reflecting in our finite way the work of our Creator. We are not most ourselves when we are merely efficient, successful, or praised. We are most ourselves when we gather up the beautiful and wondrous things gifted to us by our Maker and create something.
J.R.R. Tolkien, Catholic author of The Lord of the Rings, calls the act of writing a fantasy or fairy-story an act of “sub-creation.” In his essay “On Fairy Stories,” he describes how a storyteller builds a world in a human imitation of God’s creating of this universe: “We make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”
To expand his explanation to other art forms and beyond, a visual artist may gather paints made from plants and minerals from the bounty of creation to paint an image—using what has been created by God to create something new. A baker combines flour, water, and starter and a loaf of bread is soon ready to be savored. We may find these activities therapeutic, but that is because on a deeper level they remind us that we are beings made in the image of God, called to be sub-creators in imitation of our Father. They are comforting not merely because human beings find these activities pleasurable but because we are hardwired to create.
In the same essay, Tolkien ponders the dismissive attitude of “the critics” toward fairy stories (a genre he takes quite seriously) as being a form of “escapism.” Instead of denying the escapist quality of fantasy, Tolkien argues that such escapism leads us to what is more truly real than the world we live in. “The maddest castle that ever came out of a giant’s bag in a wild Gaelic story is not only much less ugly than a robot-factory, it is also (to use a very modern phrase) ‘in a very real sense’ a great deal more real.” One can only imagine that the isolated digital landscape of 2020 would serve to confirm his perspective that we are made for more than modernity has to offer.
The critique of escapism could be made toward my fellow sourdough enthusiasts as we bake away in our kitchens, or us “plant moms” cultivating our indoor jungles, or my fellow fiction writers as we craft stories wholly inconsistent with the facts of “real world” during a time of global crisis. But Tolkien addresses this concern as well, asking, “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.”
Allowing ourselves to be what we are made to be—human beings who are God-wired to cultivate and create—is not a desertion of our fellow human beings. Rather than a denial of the problems of the world, sub-creation is tapping into what is our deepest reality.
For incarnational creatures, what could be more “real” than escaping from the battlegrounds of our social media feeds? Especially when so many essential aspects of life have been diminished (like intimate connection with our communities, public worship, and festivity) doesn’t it make sense that we would naturally reach for activities that remind us that we are human beings formed in the image of our Maker?
This does not mean that we ought to abandon our fellow man in his suffering, but as Tolkien argued, sub-creation does not mean running from reality but honing in on what is most real. When we can escape the prison of disembodied modernity, then we are liberated to fight the dragons of this world, and we are nourished by a deeper reality to participate in its redemption. Rather than deserting our fellow man or ignoring the magnitude of the world’s problems, sub-creation feeds our souls so that we can love well as a reflection of our Creator who is Love itself.
My fiction, my bread-making, and my plant-nurturing all feeds and strengthens the soul, so that I may love and reach out to others with a creative energy that has been refreshed and renewed by having tapped itself into the great Source of all love and creation. When St. Catherine of Siena reminds us to “be who you are meant to be and you will set the world on fire,” our identity as makers reflecting our Maker is one important piece of the puzzle. Sometimes we must lean into the small tasks that make us human in order to cultivate the creative spark that can change the world.