As many of you know, I have been fascinated by the writings of a Victorian woman, Charlotte Mason, for about two years now. I am inspired by passages like:
“Our aim in education is to give a full life. We owe it to them to initiate an immense number of interests. Life should be all living, and not merely a tedious passing of time; not all doing or all feeling or all thinking – the strain would be too great – but, all living; that is to say, we should be in touch wherever we go, whatever we hear, whatever we see, with some manner of vital interest.”Charlotte Mason
Some of it, on the other hand, I chuckle….ahhh to travel back to Victorian times…Scientific advice about feeding your child a variety of bland foods, airing out beds every day or dressing only in wool – while well-intentioned and researched for the time period – is dated in 2020. There are some wonderful words of wisdom in her writings, but you also have to read between the lines with a discerning eye and your critical thinking cap on.
One piece of advice that I initially scoffed at, though upon further reflection, she is absolutely right, is her obsession with air. She spends a full six pages in her first volume, “Home Education” talking about the air we breathe, and it is definitely something I took for granted before 2020.
“You can’t live upon air!” we say to the invalid who can’t eat. No, we cannot live upon air; but if we must choose among the three sustainers of life, air will support us the longest. We know all about it; we are deadly wearing of the subject; let but the tail of your eye catch ‘oxygenation’ on a page, and the well-trained organ skips that paragraph of its own accord….Oxygen, his name; and the marvel that he effects within us some fifteen times in the course of a minute is possibly without parrallel in the whole array of marvels which we ‘tot up’ with easy familiarity…” (p. 30, Volume 1)
Breathing is a pretty phenomenal activity – that we do it without thinking every few seconds, reassures me that even in a world teeming with busyness, chaos and uncertainty, some things go on as before. Here is a video, if you’re interested, about the mechanics of breathing.
Considering how important oxygen is for human existence, oxygen puzzled scientists for centuries. The prevailing theory in the 17th century was that all combustible matter contained a substance called phlogiston that was released during combustion. Air was so ubiquitous that we didn’t even realize we lived in it. Another element must be responsible for why things stopped burning under a glass dome – the item had run out of phlogiston, not that the oxygen in the dome was gone.
“Phlogiston theory states that phlogisticated substances are substances that contain phlogiston and dephlogisticate when burned. Dephlogisticating is the process of releasing stored phlogiston, which is absorbed by the air. Growing plants then absorb this phlogiston, which is why air does not spontaneously combust and also why plant matter burns as well as it does.”(Wikipedia)
Scientists at the time believed that when something burned, it was because it contained this mysterious fire-element, called phlogiston. These ideas built upon the Ancient Greek, Empedocles’ theory of the four elements: earth, water, air and fire. Phologiston was considered the element of fire. It wasn’t until scientists were trying to trap phlogiston that they discovered oxygen and hydrogen. However, ironically, they didn’t even realize what they had found – they believed they had found dephlogisticated air (air with the phlogiston taken out of it). (The Mystery of the Periodic Table, Benjamin Wiker, 2003)
As a fish moves about in an ocean of water, we live in an ocean of air – and yet it is something we think so little about and took us so long to even realize. So often the things that are most prevalent and unquestionable are overlooked. I rarely think about the process of breathing. I rarely think about the air I am breathing in and what it is made of or contains. I take such a fundamental thing to my continued existence completely for granted.
Mason lived between 1842 and 1923 – the crux of the industrial revolution in Britain. This was a time when coal and oil were burned for lighting, when every home had a fireplace for heat and cooking, and when the main means of transportation used horses (and in cities like London or New York, there were 50,000-100,000 horses working daily in the city, each horse producing 35 pounds of manure and two pints of urine per day.) Basically the air was putrid in dense cities like London. So her emphasis on fresh air for children was very relevant from a public health perspective.
Now, 100 years later, we are in the midst of a pandemic where the virus spreads chiefly through the air we breathe and as we sicken with it, our lungs fill with fluid, making it harder to breathe. Time I spend outside my home, I spend wearing a mask to protect myself and others from the virus, and in California as I type this it is literally raining ash on my car from surrounding wildfires. The air quality is poor here right now and we’ve been cooped up in our home for days.
For me, fresh air has never felt so precious. I don’t think I’ll ever take the ability to breathe freely for granted again.
One of my favourite spoken word poems is “If I Should Have a Daughter” by Sarah Kay. One portion of the poem comes to mind now.
“She’s gonna learn that this life will hit you, hard, in the face, wait for you to get back up so it can kick you in the stomach. But getting the wind knocked out of you is the only way to remind your lungs how much they like the taste of air.” – Sarah Kay, If I Should Have a Daughter [emphasis, mine]
These last few weeks, it has really felt that California’s lungs are just getting slammed from all sides.
Before covid, I would get outside with my kids every day. It was part of our daily routine, our habits. I could palpably feel a need for fresh air, my body craved it. We were outside every day rain or shine.
When the pandemic hit and everything shut down and we were instructed to not leave our homes for anything but essentials, we locked down and barely left our property for anything. Sure we could go out into nature, but I felt too afraid to in this new world order. We spent a lot of time in our backyard, still spending lots of time outdoors every day – but I missed the smell of trees and I missed the smell of the sea. And I missed the smell of sweet grasses blowing in the warm breeze.
Charlotte Mason wrote, “There is some circulation of air even in the slums of the city, and the child who spends its days in the streets is better supplied with oxygen than he who spends most of his hours in the unchanged air of a spacious apartment. But it is not the air of the streets children want. It is the delicious life-giving air of the country.” (p.32, Home Education)
The first day that we went to the beach after they reopened, I cried. Being back and being able to take in a great big breath of fresh air off of the expanse of the sea was life-giving. I hadn’t realized how much I had missed it until that moment.
Charlotte Mason saw the importance of getting out of the city as much as possible to breathe fresh air. She also emphasized the importance of airing out the home. As mentioned above, homes in Victorian England were heated and lit by burning different fuels, which suck oxygen out of the air. She wrote,
“Put two or three breathing bodies, as well as fire and gas, into a room, and it is incredible how soon the air becomes vitiated. We know what it is to come in out of the fresh air and complain that a room feels stuffy; but sit in the room a few minutes, and you get accustomed to its stuffiness; the senses are no longer a safe guide.”
In spite of all the technology advances we have made in heating/cooling/air filtration, my home still gets stuffy. And if the air outside wasn’t unhealthy to breathe from all the plumes of smoke settling into our valley, I would open the windows and take a deep breath.
What have you been taking for granted lately? What advice have you scoffed at? Whose friendship have you assumed would be there when you finally got around to responding to that text? Who have you disagreed with without hearing their side of the story? Maybe a moment to open the windows and let in some fresh air.