Reference has already been made to The Squirrel Cage, by Dorothy Canfield.
Better than any book I have read for a long time, it reveals the causes of much of the worry that curses our modern so-called civilized life. These causes are complex and various. They include vanity, undue attention to what our neighbors think of us, a false appreciation of the values of things, and they may all be summed up into what I propose to call—with due acknowledgement to Mrs. Canfield—the Worry of the Squirrel Cage.
I will let the author express her own meaning of this latter term. If the story leading up seems to be long please seek to read it in the light of this expression: [A] [Footnote A: Reprinted from "The Squirrel-Cage" by Dorothy Canfield ($1.35 net); published by Henry Holt and Company, New York City.] When Mr. and Mrs. Emery, directly after their wedding in a small Central New York village, had gone West to Ohio, they had spent their tiny capital in building a small story-and-a-half cottage, ornamented with the jig-saw work and fancy turning popular in 1872, and this had been the nucleus of their present rambling, picturesque, many-roomed home. Every step in the long series of changes which had led from its first state to its last had a profound and gratifying significance for the Emerys and its final condition, prosperous, modern, sophisticated, with the right kind of wood work in every room that showed, with the latest, most unobtrusively artistic effects in decoration, represented their culminating well-earned position in the inner circle of the best society of Endbury.
Moreover, they felt that just as the house had been attained with effort, self-denial, and careful calculations, yet still without incurring debt, so their social position had been secured by unremitting diligence and care, but with no loss of self-respect or even of dignity. They were honestly proud of both their house and of their list of acquaintances and saw no reason to regard them as less worthy achievements of an industrious life than their four creditable grown-up children or Judge Emery's honorable reputation at the bar.
The two older children, George and Marietta, could remember those early struggling days with as fresh an emotion as that of their parents.
Indeed, Marietta, now a competent, sharp-eyed matron of thirty-two, could not see the most innocuous colored lithograph without an uncontrollable wave of bitterness, so present to her mind was the period when they painfully groped their way out of chromos.
The particular Mrs. Hollister who, at the time the Emerys began to pierce the upper crust, was the leader of Endbury society, had discarded chromos as much as five years before. Mrs. Emery and Marietta, newly admitted to the honor of her acquaintance, wondered to themselves at the cold monotony of her black and white engravings. The artlessness of this wonder struck shame to their hearts when they chanced to learn that the lady had repaid it with a worldly-wise amusement at their own highly-colored waterfalls and snow-capped mountain-peaks. Marietta could recall as piercingly as if it were yesterday, in how crestfallen a chagrin she and her mother had gazed at their parlor after this incident, their disillusioned eyes open for the first time to the futility of its claim to sophistication. As for the incident that had led to the permanent retiring from their table of the monumental salt-and-pepper 'caster' which had been one of their most prized wedding presents, the Emerys refused to allow themselves to remember it, so intolerably did it spell humiliation.
In these quotations the reader has the key to the situation—worry to become as good as one's neighbors, if not better. This is the worry of the squirrel cage.
Lydia is Mrs. Emery's baby girl, her pet, her passionate delight. She has been away to a fine school. She knows nothing of the ancient struggles to attain position and a high place in society. Those struggles were practically over before she appeared on the scene.
On the occasion of her final home-coming her mother makes great preparations to please her, yet the worry and the anxiety, are revealed in her conversation with her older daughter: 'Oh, Marietta, how do you suppose the house will seem to Lydia after she has seen so much? I hope she won't be disappointed. I've done so much to it this last year, perhaps she won't like it. And oh, I was so tired because we weren't able to get the new sideboard put up in the diningroom yesterday!' 'Really, Mother, you must draw the line about Lydia. She's only human. I guess if the house is good enough for you and father it is good enough for her.' 'That's just it, Marietta—that's just what came over me! Is what's good enough for us good enough for Lydia? Won't anything, even the best, in Endbury be a come-down for her?' The attainments of Mrs. Emery both as to wealth and social position, however, were not reached by her daughter Marietta and her husband, but in the determination to make it appear as if they were, Marietta thus exposes her own life of worry in a talk with her father: 'Keeping up a two-maid and a man establishment on a one-maid income, and mostly not being able to hire the one maid. There aren't any girls to be had lately. It means that I have to be the other maid and the man all of the time, and all three, part of the time.' She was starting down the step, but paused as though she could not resist the relief that came from expression. 'And the cost of living—the necessities are bad enough, but the other things—the things you have to have not to be out of everything! I lie awake nights. I think of it in church. I can't think of anything else but the way the expenses mount up. Everybody getting so reckless and extravagant and I won't go in debt! I'll come to it, though.
Everybody else does. We're the only people that haven't oriental rugs now. Why, the Gilberts—and everybody knows how much they still owe Dr. Melton for Ellen's appendicitis, and their grocer told Ralph they owe him several hundred dollars—well, they have just got an oriental rug that they paid a hundred and sixty dollars for. Mrs. Gilbert said they 'just had to have it, and you can always have what you have to have.' It makes me sick! Our parlor looks so common! And the last dinner party we gave cost—' Another phase of the squirrel cage worry is expressed in this terse paragraph: 'Father keeps talking about getting one of those player-pianos, but Mother says they are so new you can't tell what they are going to be. She says they may get to be too common.' Bye and bye it comes Lydia's turn to decide what place she and her new husband are to take in Endbury society, and here is what one frank, sensible man says about it: 'It may be all right for Marietta Mortimer to kill herself body and soul by inches to keep what bores her to death to have—a social position in Endbury's two-for-a-cent society, but, for the Lord's sake, why do they make such a howling and yelling just at the tree when Lydia's got the tragically important question to decide as to whether that's what she wants? It's like expecting her to do a problem in calculus in the midst of an earthquake.' And the following chapter is a graphic presentation as to how Lydia made her choice "in perfect freedom"—oh, the frightful sarcasm of the phrase—during the excitement of the wedding preparations and under the pressure of expensive gifts and the ideas of over enthusiastic "society" friends.
Lydia now began her own "squirrel-cage" existence, even her husband urges her into extravagance in spite of her protest by saying, "Nothing's too good for you.
And besides, it's an asset. The mortgage won't be so very large. And if we're in it, we'll just have to live up to it. It'll be a stimulus." One of the sane characters of the book is dear, lovable, gruff Mr. Melton, who is Lydia's godfather, and her final awakening is largely due to him. One day he finds Lydia's mother upstairs sick-a-bed, and thus breaks forth to his godchild: 'About your mother—I know without going upstairs that she is floored with one or another manifestation of the great disease of socialambitionitis.
But calm yourself. It's not so bad as it seems when you've got the right doctor, I've practiced for thirty years among Endbury ladies.
They can't spring anything new on me. I've taken your mother through doily fever induced by the change from tablecloths to bare tops, through portiere inflammation, through afternoon tea distemper, through artnouveau prostration and mission furniture palsy, not to speak of a horrible attack of acute insanity over the necessity of having her maids wear caps. I think you can trust me, whatever dodge the old malady is working on her.' And later in speaking of Lydia's sister he affirms: 'Your sister Marietta is not a very happy woman. She has too many of your father's brains for the life she's been shunted into. She might be damming up a big river with a finely constructed concrete dam, and what she is giving all her strength to is trying to hold back a muddy little trickle with her bare hands. The achievement of her life is to give on a two-thousand-a-year income the appearance of having five thousand like your father. She does it; she's a remarkably forceful woman, but it frets her. She ought to be in better business, and she knows it, though she won't admit it.' Oh, the pity of it, the woe of it, the horror of it, for it is one of the curses of our present day society and is one of the causes of many a man's and woman's physical and mental ruin. In the words of our author elsewhere: They are killing themselves to get what they really don't want and don't need, and are starving for things they could easily have by just putting out their hands.
Where life's struggle is reduced to this kind of thing, there is little compensation, hence we are not surprised to read that: Judge Emery was in the state in which of late the end of the day's work found him—overwhelmingly fatigued. He had not an ounce of superfluous energy to answer his wife's tocsin, while she was almost crying with nervous exhaustion. That Lydia's course ran smooth through a thousand complications was not accomplished without an incalculable expenditure of nervous force on her mother's part. Dr. Melton had several times of late predicted that he would have his old patient back under his care again. Judge Emery, remembering this prophecy, was now moved by his wife's pale agitation to a heart-sickening mixture or apprehension for her and of recollection of his own extreme discomfort whenever she was sick.
Yet in spite of this intense tension, she was unable to stop—felt she must go on, until finally, a breakdown intervened and she was compelled to lay by.
On another page a friend tells of his great-aunt's experience: 'She told me that all through her childhood her family was saving and pulling together to build a fine big house. They worked along for years until, when she was a young lady, they finally accomplished it; built a big three-story house that was the admiration of the countryside. Then they moved in. And it took the womenfolks every minute of their time, and more to keep it clean and in order; it cost as much to keep it up, heated, furnished, repaired, painted and everything the way a fine house should be, as their entire living used to cost. The fine big grounds they had laid out to go with the mansion took so much time to—' Finally Lydia herself becomes awakened, startled as she sees what everybody is trying to make her life become and she bursts out to her sister: 'I'm just frightened of—everything—what everybody expects me to do, and to go on doing all my life, and never have any time but to just hurry faster and faster, so there'll be more things to hurry about, and never talk about anything but things!' She began to tremble and look white, and stopped with a desperate effort to control herself, though she burst out at the sight of Mrs. Mortimer's face of despairing bewilderment. 'Oh, don't tell me you don't see at all what I mean. I can't say it! But you must understand. Can't we somehow all stop—now! And start over again! You get muslin curtains and not mend your lace ones, and Mother stop fussing about whom to invite to that party—that's going to cost more than he can afford, Father says—it makes me sick to be costing him so much. And not fuss about having clothes just so—and Paul have our house built little and plain, so it won't be so much work to take care of it and keep it clean. I would so much rather look after it myself than to have him kill himself making money so I can hire maids that you can't— you say yourself you can't—and never having any time to see him.
Perhaps if we did, other people might, and we'd all have more time to like things that make us nicer to like.
And when her sister tried to comfort her she continued: 'You do see what I mean! You see how dreadful it is to look forward to just that—being so desperately troubled over things that don't really matter—and—and perhaps having children, and bringing them to the same thing—when there must be so many things that do matter!' Then, to show how perfectly her sister understood, the author makes that wise and perceptive woman exclaim: 'Mercy! Dr. Melton's right! She's perfectly wild with nerves! We must get her married as soon as ever we can!' Lydia gives a reception. Here is part of the description: Standing as they were, tightly pressed in between a number of different groups, their ears were assaulted by a disjointed mass of stentorian conversation that gave a singular illusion as if it all came from one inconceivably voluble source, the individuality of the voices being lost in the screaming enunciation which, as Mrs. Sandworth had pointed out, was a prerequisite of self-expression under the circumstances.
They heard: 'For over a month and the sleeves were too see you again at Mrs. Elliott's I'm pouring there from four I've got to dismiss one with plum-colored bows all along five dollars a week and the washing out and still impossible! I was there myself all the time and they neither of thirty-five cents a pound for the most ordinary ferns and red carnations was all they had, and we thought it rather skimpy under the brought up in one big braid and caught down with at Peterson's they were pink and white with—' … 'Oh, no, Madeleine! that was at the Burlingame's.' Mrs.
Sandworth took a running jump into the din and sank from her brother's sight, vociferating: 'The Petersons had them of old gold, don't you remember, with little—' The doctor, worming his way desperately through the masses of femininity, and resisting all attempts to engage him in the local fray, emerged at length into the darkened hall where the air was, as he told himself in a frenzied flight of imagination, less like a combination of a menagerie and a perfume shop. Here, in a quiet corner, sat Lydia's father alone. He held in one hand a large platter piled high with wafer-like sandwiches, which he was consuming at a Gargantuan rate, and as he ate, he smiled to himself.
'Well, Mr. Ogre,' said the doctor, sitting down beside him with a gasp of relief; 'let a wave-worn mariner into your den, will you?' Provided with an auditor, Judge Emery's smile broke into an open laugh.
He waved the platter toward the uproar in the next rooms: 'A boiler factory ain't in it with woman, lovely woman, is it?' he put it to his friend.
'Gracious powers! There's nothing to laugh at in that exhibition!' the doctor reproved him, with an acrimonious savagery. 'I don't know which makes me sicker; to stay in there and listen to them, or come out here and find you thinking they're funny!' They are funny!' insisted the Judge tranquilly. 'I stood by the door and listened to the scraps of talk I could catch, till I thought I should have a fit. I never heard anything funnier on the stage.' 'Looky here, Nat,' the doctor stared up at him angrily, 'they're not monkeys in a zoo, to be looked at only on holidays and then laughed at! They're the other half of a whole that we're half of, and don't you forget it! Why in the world should you think it funny for them to do this tomfool trick all winter and have nervous prostration all summer to pay for it? You'd lock up a man as a dangerous lunatic if he spent his life so.
What they're like, and what they do with their time and strength concerns us enough sight more than what the tariff is, let me tell you.' 'I admit that what your wife is like concerns you a whole lot!' The Judge laughed good-naturedly in the face of the little old bachelor. 'Don't commence jumping on the American woman so! I won't stand it! She's the noblest of her sex!' 'Do you know why I am bald?' said Dr. Melton, running his hand over his shining dome.
'If I did, I wouldn't admit it,' the Judge put up a cautious guard, 'because I foresee that whatever I say will be used as evidence against me.' 'I've torn out all my hair in desperation at hearing such men as you claim to admire and respect and wish to advance the American woman. You don't give enough thought to her—real thought—from one year's end to another to know whether you think she has an immortal soul or not!' Later Lydia's husband insists that they give a dinner.
It was to be a large dinner—large, that is, for Endbury—of twenty covers, and Lydia had never prepared a table for so many guests. The number of objects necessary for the conventional setting of a dinner table appalled her. She was so tired, and her attention was so fixed on the complicated processes going on uncertainly in the kitchen, that her brain reeled over the vast quantity of knives and forks and plates and glasses needed to convey food to twenty mouths on a festal occasion.
They persistently eluded her attempts to marshal them into order. She discovered that she had put forks for the soup—that in some inexplicable way at the plate destined for an important guest there was a large kitchen spoon of iron, a wild sort of whimsical humor rose in her from the ferment of utter fatigue and anxiety. When Paul came in, looking very grave, she told him with a wavering laugh, 'If I tried as hard for ten minutes to go to Heaven as I've tried all day to have this dinner right, I'd certainly have a front seat in the angel choir. If anybody here to-night is not satisfied, it'll be because he's harder to please than St. Peter himself.' During the evening: Lydia seemed to herself to be in an endless bad dream. The exhausting efforts of the day had reduced her to a sort of coma of fatigue through which she felt but dully the successive stabs of the ill-served unsuccessful dinner. At times, the table, the guests, the room itself, wavered before her, and she clutched at her chair to keep her balance.
She did not know that she was laughing and talking gaily and eating nothing. She was only conscious of an intense longing for the end of things, and darkness and quiet.
When it was all over and her husband was compelled to recognize that it had been a failure, his mental attitude is thus expressed: He had determined to preserve at all costs the appearance of the indulgent, non-critical, over-patient husband that he intensely felt himself to be. No force, he thought grimly, shutting his jaws hard, should drag from him a word of his real sentiments. Fanned by the wind of this virtuous resolution, his sentiments grew hotter and hotter as he walked about, locking doors and windows, and reviewing bitterly the events of the evening. If he was to restrain himself from saying, he would at least allow himself the privilege of feeling all that was possible to a man deeply injured.
And that night Lydia felt for the "first time the quickening to life of her child.
And during all that day, until then, she had forgotten that she was to know motherhood." Can words more forcefully depict the worry of the squirrel-cage than this—that an unnecessary dinner, given in unnecessary style, at unnecessary expense, to visitors to whom it was unnecessary should have driven from her thought, and doubtless seriously injured, the new life that she was so soon to give to the world? Oh, men and women of divine descent and divine heritage, quit your squirrelcage stage of existence. Is life to be one mere whirling around of the cage of useless toil or pleasure, of mere imagining that you are doing something? Work with an object. Know your object, that it is worthy the highest endeavor of a human being, and then pursue it with a divine enthusiasm that no obstacle can daunt, an ardor that no weariness can quench. Then it is you will begin to live.
There is no life in worry. Worry is a waste of life. If you are a worrier, that is a proof you (in so far as you worry) do not appreciate the value of your own life, for a worthy object, a divine enthusiasm, a noble ardor are in themselves the best possible preventives against worry. They dignify life above worry. Worry is undignified, petty, paltry. Where you know you have something to do worth doing, you are conscious of the Divine Benediction, and who can worry when the smile of God rests upon him? This is a truism almost to triteness, and yet how few fully realize it. It is the unworthy potterers with life, the dabblers in life-stuff, those who blind themselves to their high estate, those who are unsure of their footing who worry. The true aristocrat is never worried about his position; the orator convinced of the truth of his message worries not as to how it will be received; the machinist sure of his plans hesitates not in the construction of his machinery; the architect assured of his accuracy pushes on his builders without hesitancy or question, fear, or alarm; the engineer knowing his engine and his destination has no heart quiver as he handles the lever. It is the doubter, the unsure, the aimless, the dabbler, the frivolous, the dilettante, the uncertain that worry. How nobly Browning set this forth in his Epilogue: What had I on earth to do With the slothful, with the mawkish, the unmanly? Like the aimless, helpless, hopeless, did I drivel —Being—Who? One who never turned his back but marched breast forward, Never doubted clouds would break, Never dreamed, though right were worsted, wrong would triumph, Held we fall to rise, are baffled to fight better, Sleep to wake.
No, at noonday in the bustle of man's worktime Greet the unseen with a cheer! Bid him forward, breast and back as either should be, 'Strive and thrive!' cry 'Speed,—fight on, fare ever There as here!' And this is not "mere poetry." Or rather it is because it is "mere poetry" that it is real life. Browning had nearly seventy years of it. He knew. Where there are those to whom "God has whispered in the ear," there is no uncertainty, no worry.
The musician who knows his instrument, knows his music, knows his key, and knows his time to play never hesitates, never falters, never worries. With tone clear, pure, strong, and certain, he sends forth his melodies or harmonies into the air. Cannot you, in your daily life, be a true and sure musician? Cannot you be certain—absolutely, definitely certain—of your right to play the tune of life in the way you have it marked out before you, and then go ahead and play! Play, in God's name, as God's and man's music-maker.
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