Thursday, June 18, 2020

What we can all learn from Susan Sowerby

When I recently read The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett, I was blown away by the practical, timeless wisdom in this story--wisdom that pours forth from the character of Susan Sowerby. The story doesn't center on her; the transformation and adventures of Mary Lennox (and Colin) are the prominent thread woven throughout the book. Yet, Susan Sowerby's thoughts pop up repeatedly, both through other characters' conversations and in the occasional appearance of the esteemed lady herself. Susan is known for raising twelve healthy, happy children, being "sensible and good-hearted," and--in the words of Mrs. Medlock, the housekeeper--"she's what you might call healthy-minded." 

Many people could, I'm sure, draw parenting lessons from Susan Sowerby's example. However, as I think about her advice and witness, I grow convinced that we can all learn from Susan Sowerby. While her lessons relate to the raising of children, they can easily be integrated into all of our lives, regardless of marital or childbearing status. 

While she says a great many things, an underlying theme in Susan's activity and words is that that life doesn't need to be complicated. Obviously, she birthed--and raises--a dozen children. Plenty of eventful, unpredictable things are sure to come her way, yet, Susan doesn't let it all continually overwhelm her. She orders her life with simplicity, focusing on what's essential and important. 

Specifically, she reminds us that physical activity--done in the fresh air--is vital for health and wellbeing. 
Martha Sowerby, the maid who helps Mary Lennox transition into life at Misselthwaite Manor, is one of Susan's children. One day, Martha presents Mary with a jump rope, accompanied with some wisdom from Susan herself. According to Martha, her mother claims that:
"Nothin' will do her more good than skippin’ rope...Let her play out in th’ fresh air skippin’ an’ it’ll stretch her legs an’ arms an’ give her some strength in ’em."
Later on in the book, Martha continues to pass along Susan Sowerby's appreciation of nature's healing properties as she notes: 
 "“Mother says there’s no reason why any child should live that gets no fresh air an’ doesn’t do nothin’ but lie on his back an’ read picture-books an’ take medicine."
Moreover, scientific studies have backed the idea that getting out in nature is important. We may often associate outdoor activity's benefits with children (particularly as we look to the many nature-centric and free-range parenting books out there) but the fact is, "green exercise" is good for everyone. 

Susan Sowerby also reminds us that we all have to start somewhere and can't expect success on the first try. When Martha initially gives Mary Lennox the jump rope, she recalls her mother's words: "
"You can't skip a hundred at first, but if you practice you'll mount up." 
How many times do we encourage children to "keep trying" while we ourselves hold a fixed mindset and seek to avoid failure at all costs? Susan's encouragement--passed on from Martha--is a reminder to all of us. We shouldn't act entitled and expect perfection initially, but can instead work hard, practice, and keep trying. 

She encourages others to nurture life. 
Some of Susan's wisdom comes through the actions of her children, as the reader sees the values she had raised them with. A prime example comes in Dickon, the boy whom Mary Lennox befriends. Mary notes that Dickon is 
"always talking about live things...He's always looking up in the sky to watch birds flying--or looking down at the earth to see something growing." 
At one point, Susan Sowerby herself confesses that: 
“We’d never get on as comfortable as we do...if it wasn’t for Dickon’s garden. Anything’ll grow for him. His ’taters and cabbages is twice th’ size of any one else’s an’ they’ve got a flavor with ’em as nobody’s has.”
Dickon is encouraged and supported by his mother, Susan Sowerby, to nurture life: to garden and to observe the living, growing animals and plants on the Earth. Susan gives him the time, space, and freedom to surround himself with the living beauty of the natural world. 

We may not consider ourselves "animal people" or think that we have a "green thumb," but we shouldn't let these preconceptions hold us back. Not only is the National Institutes of Health exploring the the benefits of human-animal interactions, but science has shown benefits from gardening, too. Even if we don't want to plant a garden or own a pet, there are still many ways that we can nurture life and encourage others to do so, for example: supporting local farmers, visiting humane zoos, birdwatching, and walking outside, sans earbuds. 

Susan makes time to slow down and be with those she loves. 
Despite having a dozen children, Susan Sowerby does not consistently live on the brink of chaos, at her breaking point of sanity. While she assuredly has plenty of work to do, she carves out the time to slow down and be with the ones she loves. As the text of the book reveals to us: 
"When she found a moment to spare she liked to go out and talk to him [Dickon]. After supper there was still a long clear twilight to work in and that was her quiet time. She could sit upon the low rough wall and look on and hear stories of the day. She loved this time."
How often do we find ourselves stressed and overwhelmed? How often do we find ourselves exhausted to the point where we can't even relax--truly relax--and have leisure time with others? Susan Sowerby reminds us that it is important to order our lives in such a way that we each have this "quiet time." Time without our devices and "to do" lists, time to simply be. There's a reason why topics like mindfulness and meditation are buzzwords right now; our culture is filled with noise, and we are finally realizing what scientific research has explicitly revealed: that quiet time is extremely beneficial. 

She believes in the importance in non-supervised free play and discovery. 
With twelve children (many of whom live at home), Susan can't watch every single one of them at every single moment-and that is OKAY. Her children thrive both under her gaze and while off on their own explorations of the natural world. Susan allows her children to play, and this space and freedom to play and "be themselves" is extremely good for them. At one point, Mr. Craven tells Mary that 
"She [Susan Sowerby] thought you needed fresh air and freedom and running about.” 
While discussions abound concerning the importance of play in the lives of children, it's easy to forget that we all--yes, including adults--need to bring play and discovery into our lives. Play can be good for our stress levels, relationships, and brain function. Not only that, but it's important to consider the value of unstructured play and discovery in our lives. Do we participate in highly-structured activities or groups simply because that's what feels comfortable and expected--but we feel intrigued by the thought of "going rogue" and trying something different? Do we give ourselves the freedom to try new things and look beyond the bounds of our usual experiences? We may be quick to encourage children to try new things, but we can forget that it can be good for everyone to experiment, no matter how old we are. 

Susan recognizes the importance of humor.
Fitting right into her relaxed mood and a calmness that jumps off the page, Susan Sowerby reminds us all that laughter is good for us. 
“Th’ more they laugh th’ better for ’em!” said Mrs. Sowerby, still laughing herself. “Good healthy child laughin’s better than pills any day o’ th’ year." 
As life, personal problems, the tragedies of the world, and stresses pile up, it is easy to grow overwhelmed and feel despair pounding on our shoulders. Furthermore, it can also be easy to take ourselves too seriously. What if we lightened up sometimes? We shouldn't downplay serious issues, but if we intentionally tried to find the humor in the small issues and stressors that sprang up, could we find more humor in everyday life? Laughter is good for us physically, mentally, and emotionally, so actively looking for humor each day could immensely benefit us. 

Life can feel overwhelming, complicated, and extremely challenging. What if we all decided to follow along with the characters of The Secret Garden and learn from Susan Sowerby? This literary character oozes with abundant wisdom for our homes, communities, and culture. 

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