A Little Game Called Hide the Squash

(Slimy flying saucer)

OK, so here’s a little secret: I hate summer squash. Ditto zucchini. Eggplant as well. Cucumber, if you really want to know. Actually, a lot of vegetables. I’d prefer to live off carbs forever, thankyouverymuch.

But also, I want to model good eating to my picky eater tribe, not die a stupid and preventable death, support local farmers, etc., and so I try to eat vegetables anyway, ugh.

If you or someone in your life is similarly afflicted, here are some methods I’ve adopted:

  • Grate into pasta sauce
  • Grate into zucchini bread (cheating, because this turns it into a carb.) Note: Only use zucchini. The seeds remain when you use summer squash, and if you use cucumber, even though the internet swears it’ll be the same, your husband will consider mutiny.
  • Chop into ground beef and saute. A friend taught me this. Basically anything works, but I use it most often for eggplant.
  • Mandoline it up! If I had to make a hall of fame for completely unnecessary kitchen gadgets I adore, a mandoline would be top of the list. (Also, I’m assuming you say “mand-o-LINE” not “mandolin,” right?) It effortlessly juliennes the vegetables you already feel resentful that you’re having to prepare, and then you can toss the thin disks into stuff like frittatas or pad thai where they will obligingly melt away. And hey, you can use it to make potato chips, too. All work and no play, you know?
  • Purée it into a smoothie. I do this for the kids, who refuse to accept it in any of the aforementioned disguises, but they actually really like half a zucchini in their berry smoothie…so long as I only reveal its presence afterwards.

How do you work vegetables into meals so they’re not noticeable?

Adventures in Imperfect Sourdough

Our imperfect, reliable daily bread

Look, maybe your days are a wide vista and you welcome the complications, structure and challenge of the float test, careful ratios, and monitoring of bulk rises. That’s fine. Your sourdough will be better than mine.

But I’ve been baking sourdough for over two years, and I’ve pioneered a lean, mean Good Enough method. Care to join me for a walk through?

Here is my Good Enough recipe, Splendid Table’s Almost No-Knead Sourdough, which a friend gave me a year or so back. It makes a round, chewy loaf with enough crunch to please our grownups but not so crispy that the kids struggle to eat it. Mostly, though, I like it because its timeline is forgiving, so even when life gets in the way, you still end up with a tasty loaf.

Here are the absolute minimum supplies I need to make my loaf:

  1. a really big bowl — metal is ok, Katie of Hearts Content Farmhouse assures me; that rule about metal and sourdough is a myth, apparently.
  2. a big mixing spoon — I like wooden.
  3. liquid measuring cup, teaspoon, solid measuring cup — I feel stupid listing these things, but I learned how to cook in a very ill-equipped Ugandan kitchen, so I’m trying not to taken anything for granted here.
  4. parchment paper — I have not gotten silpat mats to work properly in a round dutch oven, please let me know if you figure something out.
  5. dutch oven — This seems to be nonnegotiable for this recipe; friends’ attempts to substitute or skip have failed. Remember, if you are also frugal, that you can probably borrow a dutch oven from someone to try out the recipe before buying one yourself for $30 or so.

If you are feeling fancy, I’ve incorporated these next-level items into my routine and appreciated the results. Notice I don’t link to where to buy them, because I’m trying to wean myself off Amazon and don’t need to hook you, too.

  • reusable shower cap for the proofing dough — I use this instead of cling film, which never sticks that well, or one of those disposable shower caps you can get from motels, which stays in place better, but still requires you throw it out.
  • bench scraper — this was a marriage saver for me, because it helps to get the counter really clean, especially after kneading or when you drip starter, which dries cement-hard. You can also use it for jobs like cutting buns.
  • grits, polenta or coarse-ground cornmeal — definitely not required, but sprinkled on the parchment paper just before you place your dough there to rise, it makes a loaf seem more artisanal — consider it just another example of one step up cooking.
  • scale — this is not even a little bit necessary, but I’ve had one for about six months now and it makes feeding your starter more precise and opens up more recipes for you, because many sourdough recipes are alarmingly fussy about measurements.
  • instant read thermometer — also not a must, but a much faster way to determine bread doneness than judging by time or color.

Beyond that, you just follow the straightforward recipe. It takes awhile to learn to plan so far in advance, but generally, I feed my starter the day before I want a new loaf of bread at dinner. I do not feed my starter except for when I’m planning a new loaf, because I bake frequently enough that this isn’t a problem.

That night of Day 1, I mix up my dough and let it sit. I do use the recommended King Arthur all-purpose flour whenever I can get it, and it’s often available in massive, inexpensive bags at my local closeout grocer. (Yes, even during a pandemic.) In the summer, when the house is warm, I need to mix the dough a bit later, say 9 or 10 pm, so it doesn’t overproof on the counter.

This lasted us about three months and cost around $20.

The next morning (Day 2, I guess), I aim to knead the dough and set it for its second rise by 8 am, but sometimes it’s later. (And honestly, even if it overproofs, it’s still going to be an edible loaf, just less pretty and harder to work with.)

So then sometime midday on Day 2, I’ll bake the bread. Sometimes I make a slice in the top but don’t find it to be all that necessary when shape is restricted by the sides of the dutch oven. Sometimes I’ll sprinkle everything bagel seasoning on top to shock and appall my kids. I usually determine doneness by temperature, and if it’s hot enough but still a bit pasty, sometimes I’ll set the loaf directly on the rack in the oven for a few minutes more.

That’s it, that’s all.

And I’d be remiss not to point you toward other guides to getting started in sourdough — Katie has a good one and has forgotten more than I’ll ever know about baking. But the important thing here is not to let all the demanding regimens and confusing terminology make this hard. In my experience, I can’t make myself care any more than I just do about the complications and challenges of a hobby; I just want to limp along and find my own way and not get fussy about any of it. So here’s one unfussy path forward, among many.

Practicing Hospitality in a Corona Summer, Part 2

[Catch up on Part 1 here!]

It occurs to me, too, that as I stress about when and how and if to invite people back into my home, I should be honing my hospitality skills toward the people already shored up here with me: my husband and kids.

LEGOs are giving us life

I don’t think it’s bragging to say I was very good at this quarantine with the kids the first few weeks and months. We had good systems in place already (like quiet time) and had already made choices that lent themselves well to quarantine (like homeschooling). I was (and am) sad not to be pregnant, but because my pregnancies are so….violent, it certainly made the job of caring for the kids without outside reinforcements much easier. We’ve been blessed, and family life when we are each other’s all in all has been much, much easier than I expected.

But fatigue is real, let me tell you. I’ve missed many hours of mother’s helper time, at least a handful of date nights, the several weeks of free co-op childcare I earned by teaching art all fall, and several grandparent visits. It is easy to spend days at a time constantly advocating for why I need a break, why everyone just needs to leave me alone, why I am a victim.

Sal and her socially-distanced berries

But my kids (and maybe yours, too) are really so easy. The things they delight in are usually so small. Going to socially distanced blueberry picking. Trying a new trail. Reading aloud in a quiet spot in the park. Heck, a little TV so I do get that alone time. Here, the only real difficulty is in choosing activities I can be nice about — there’s the rub. It is always better, I’ve learned very painfully and slowly, to be unambitious and kind than bent on enriching at the cost of warmth. Especially in this time of anxiety, if I can’t, say, manage that level of crowd without getting twitchy and short-tempered, it’s probably better that we do something else. In the early days, I kept thinking of that movie Life is Beautiful, in which a loving father serves as a sort of host or guide to his wife and young son, creating a lovelier world for them amongst the horrors of the Holocaust. My task is smaller; surely I can do it, if I keep focus.

All they want is gummy snack picnics tbh

What’s more, if I let it, school can be a time in which I intentionally remind these kids of mine over and over that I love them. I can cuddle Scout for her reading lesson, find fun toy boxes for Roo, stay patient and engaged in Pippin’s narrations. For the most part, the structure of our short school day has been sanity-saving, and so when we finished in early June, we took a week off and started the new year. But if I’m not careful, distractions sneak in. I go to set up Pip’s Duolingo lesson and suddenly I’m swept away on my Instagram feed. Someone’s trying to share something exciting she just learned and I’m thinking about when to fit in the laundry. Our school day is really, on paper, so short — it’s not too much to ask for me to give it my all, just as I require them to do.

When we were getting married, J’s church required us to attend premarital counseling. And one of my takeaways was this advice: At the very least, be as polite to your spouse as you’d be to a stranger.

More sweaty snuggling when I would rather not

Translation: When all else fails, be hospitable. The counselor knew what I, a 21-year-old bride-to-be did not: You will not always feel this radiant, effortless, selfless love toward your husband, and in the moments you don’t, politeness and disciplined kindness will carry you. This applies, of course, to your children, too. While I’m preoccupied with thinking through the justifications of my duty to the world in corona-times, I’ve got someone tugging on my skirt who doesn’t have the luxury of badgering her friend or teacher or neighbor instead, because she’s quarantined, too. And she needs a little kindness extended, too, a moment welcomed into my arms and my mind. She’s already, always, welcome in my heart, but my actions are what will remind her of that, over and over, for as long as this lasts and beyond.

Practicing Hospitality in a Corona Summer, Part 1

Earlier this month, our priest friend came over to give us the Sacrament of Confession. It was a huge grace, a great favor. It was a hot morning and J and I took turns with Father in lawn chairs beside the fire pit, catching up and then confessing. Afterwards, I left him by the raised beds while I ran in for the heads of lettuce I’d cut and bagged for him, tucked in in the fridge.

And I left him out there in the heat.

It did not feel good. I am the kind of woman who feels guilty continuing to lie down when the postpartum nurse comes into her hospital room. It felt disrespectful leaving our friend outside while we stepped into the cool of our house which, despite many half-started quarantine projects and three active stay-at-home kiddos, is about as company-ready as it ever is (which is, of course, to say, not very, but that doesn’t stop me). Still, I didn’t invite him in.

Hospitality has been a huge, intentional part of my life for years, since at least our time in Uganda, where I made a point to welcome homesick fellow expats as I haltingly learned to cook. It’s part of what we see as our family work. And now there hasn’t been another human in my house since mid-March.

So I’ve been thinking about what hospitality means when you aren’t welcoming any one into your home, and I have a few ideas.

Hospitality is about making people feel welcome, about loving on people. I think these things can be done, to an extent, from a distance. Letting people into your life, the life of your family, can be done, a bit, with Zoom calls and letters, with mailed kid art, by dropping off treats — baked goods and plants and magazines — on the porches of friends and neighbors. It can mean spending more time outside being neighborly, yelling conversation to your friend as she walks by, picking up groceries for others when you’re going to be out anyway, singing “Happy Birthday” from your car parked in a friend’s driveway. None of these are my own invention; I have been so grateful for all those thinking creatively about how to navigate these times.

The other afternoon I dropped off schoolbooks on one doorstep, and a meal for a friend who was hurting on another doorstep, where I was able to talk from a distance with her. I came home to find that some of our study abroad students had dropped off scones and goodbye presents for us and were talking on the curb with J, everyone in masks. Community and hospitality still exist — they just take some looking.

I think when you’re trying to love people well, to care for them, as one does in hospitality, it’s a dance between what they want and what you want for them, the same as when you’re deciding whether you can justify making them unhealthy food. Many of my friends, thoughtful and responsible people, are no longer socially distancing, but I still believe that the best way I can help to protect them is by continuing to stay at home myself. I like to think that they understand why I’m doing this, that I’m not snubbing them or prioritizing my health over our friendship, just as I hope they know I will try not to dwell on hurt feelings when they host gatherings I can’t, in good conscience, attend.

This ribbon of negotiation of terms, of interpretation, of good intentions, has always run through social interactions. It’s just that now, in a time of rapidly changing official advice and so much uncertainty, this back-and-forth is more explicit in the practice of hospitality. I will try to offer the good things I feel I can; you will try to accept what you feel you can. It’s a scary, awkward place to be sometimes, but I suspect it’s the way forward for now as our families all unfurl and contract on different evidence and circumstances. It turns out hospitality was always about grace, and now we’re just exercising it more consciously.

7 Read-Aloud Classics for When You’re Over Zoom Happy Hours

An image by Peter H. Reynolds for World Read Aloud Day via

At this point in the quarantine, I think we’ve probably all found ourselves there, overwhelmed and frustrated in the sea of familiar faces of a Zoom or FaceTime call with friends. Something that was supposed to be fun, to remind you of normal life IRL, has somehow managed to make you feel even lonelier. You clutch your glass of wine as you prepare to repeat a canned summary of how you’re hanging in there for the sixth person to join the call.

It turns out, it’s hard to replicate the spontaneity and side conversations of in-person social gatherings on a video conferencing platform. And one remedy for this awkwardness might surprise you, because at first it sounds even more awkward: gathering a group of friends online to read something out loud. Still, reading aloud together eliminates some of the stilted quality of large-group Zoom conversation, with its lags and embarrassed interruptions. You know when it’s your turn, and things move mostly smoothly, but you’re still getting to share something together. 

J and I had hosted a read-aloud party once before the pandemic because I’m a librarian super nerd — and it’s certainly more fun with your friend’s beer and your other friend’s cheese plate — but when we hosted another read-aloud party, this time online, I was surprised to discover how satisfying the gathering still was.

The guest list portion is easy: suddenly it doesn’t matter that that friend moved six months ago, or that that other friend is in the sleep-deprived newborn phase, because everyone is in this together. I would recommend, however, making sure most of the participants know each other, to help eliminate some of the self-consciousness of trying something new together.

If you’re looking to dip a toe into reading aloud with friends, I’d suggest you start by revisiting the classics. They’re free or cheap to acquire, and probably something you’ve always meant to get back to. Below, I’m linking in with Seven Quick Takes to share a few ideas to get you thinking about how to host your own read-aloud party.

  1. A lengthy and complex poem like The Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot works well and can easily be found online. (This was our recent read-aloud party choice.) Encourage people to call themselves out and yell “NEXT!” when overwhelmed by particularly tricky bits of language— everyone will be equally over their heads with a poem like this, but it offers up treasures when read slowly together, especially in the current crisis. Is this wisdom for a quarantine or what? “I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope / For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love, / For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith / But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting. / Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought: / So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.”
  2. You can’t go wrong with Shakespeare when you have a large crowd. Conventional wisdom is that the tragedies (like Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Othello) are easier to understand because tragedy is tragedy no matter what, while comedy sometimes requires context to be funny. Not up for more tragedy in the present climate? A recent pre-pandemic Epiphany read through of Twelfth Night with a group of friends showed how much can become clearer just by reading it aloud, even when you’re not entirely sure what you’re reading. Goofy costumes optional!
  3. Intimidated by poetic language? C.S. Lewis couldn’t be clearer and some of his shorter works, such as the sermon “The Weight of Glory” can be found reproduced online for free. You could also try the Victorian-era sermons of recently canonized St. Cardinal John Henry Newman.
  4. For a slightly more expensive option, read aloud a couple pivotal chapters from an old, free work like Emma or Little Women, then each partygoer can rent the new film adaptation and discuss.
  5. Hold a poetry reading where each attendee can read aloud (or recite!) a favorite poem, talent-show style. It can be surprising to find out what poems and passages your friends know by heart.
  6. Try Treasure Island for rollicking pirate adventures with an unexpected edge of moral complexity that can lead to fun discussions. Committing to this read aloud will take you three or four hours.
  7. G.K. Chesterton — just about any G.K. Chesterton, honestly. And there’s Chesterton for any taste: detective stories (The Father Brown short stories), apologetics (Orthodoxy), essays (What’s Wrong with the World), a “metaphysical thriller” (what even is that? The Man Who Was Thursday) and more. 

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Will it be a blip, or is it the end of the world, or is it something in between? It’s a question people have asked themselves through all kinds of crises, trying to fathom the way their own stories will turn out. And it’s why I’ve been finding books about World Wars I and II so comforting these past weeks.*

As present-day readers, it is reassuring to find ourselves in the middle of a story in which the characters don’t know the ending but we, in general terms at least, do. We know what kind of story these wartime books are, how their crises will ultimately turn out in broad terms, even if we don’t know the fates of each character, and that balance helps us to learn how to live in our own uncertain, still undetermined story.

Few Eggs and No Oranges by Vere Hodgson is a wartime journal written during the London Blitz, where in a letter, Hodgson notes, “I am still alive at this particular date, but whether I shall be when you receive it is another matter. However, everyone in London is in the same state of questioned animation” (September 23, 1940). That sensation of questioned animation — or suspended animation — is one that dogs our steps these days.

In World War I Canada, plucky teenager Rilla Blythe grapples for a script, and “after the first shock, reacted to the romance of it all, in spite of her heartache.” She is able, at least temporarily, to situate herself in a familiar narrative — the brave, heartbroken woman left behind at the front, and while this story will not completely sustain her through the coming years of war, it gives her a template to follow, expectations to attain. Similarly, Susan, an elderly maiden housekeeper of the Blythe family, never given to the temptation of romance, still determines to be, as she says, a “heroine”:

“I am not […] going to lament or whine or question the wisdom of the Almighty any more as I have been doing lately. Whining and shirking and blaming Providence do not get us anywhere. We have just got to grapple with whatever we have to do whether it is weeding the onion patch, or running the Government.”

Still, it’s hard to be patient in the middle of the story, waiting for it to unfurl. After my miscarriage earlier this year, I talked to several friends about their past miscarriages. There were women who immediately conceived after their loss and had to grapple with all the fear as they carried their next baby to term; women who conceived soon after and found solace knowing that this baby wouldn’t exist but for that previous loss — only to lose again; women who lost and did not conceive again. Each woman had spent so much time trying to fit her experiences into a narrative that made sense — and I assure you, in the weeks after my loss, none of the stories I told myself about my miscarriage ended with “followed almost immediately by a worldwide pandemic.”

So what is the point of all this work we do, trying to make up stories about events still in progress, trying to predict the future with almost no evidence? All I know is that we are a story people. It’s almost impossible to rest in uncertainty.

I keep thinking about that movie Stranger Than Fiction, where a pretty boring guy played (delightfully!) by Will Farrell, suddenly begins hearing his life narrated by a mysterious literary voice and sets out to try to figure out the kind of story he’s living. On his quest, he encounters a professor of English played by Dustin Hoffman, and then a montage follows in which he keeps track of the evidence in favor of his life being either a tragedy or a comedy.

Image via

The scripts we’ve thought we were following have all been thrown out by this pandemic, or else veered in a direction no editor could have predicted. So we are left grappling with the evidence for and against, making marks in the “tragedy” and “comedy” columns with each day’s events: a new outbreak near us, another person we know distantly infected; the kindness of neighbors we never knew, our toddler’s delightful antics, observed without rush during the slowness of quarantine. It’s why every columnist, every guy with an Internet connection, is throwing out predictions on what the next weeks, months, years might hold.

I don’t have any advice or predictions of my own to offer here. All I know is that we aren’t in this alone, and that we certainly aren’t the first people in history to feel this way. So we don’t know what our stories hold for us. (We never really did.) We don’t have a handy script to follow, what our parents or big sister or mentor did, and we feel unmoored from the past and all that went before. (We always needed to find our own way.) There are no shortcuts to the kind of lives we wanted from where we find ourselves now. (Life was always going to require patience, more patience than we thought we could muster.) As T.S. Eliot wrote in his Blitz-era poem “Little Gidding“:

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language, and next year’s words await another voice.”

*(I’m not the only one — Haley Stewart has a beautiful reflection on Rilla of Ingleside over at Public Discourse.)

Frugal Accomplishments from the Month of April

Schoolwork in pajamas. We NEVER do schoolwork in pajamas, but I guess this is our Pandemic Normal.
  • I mean we are all saving from the things that were canceled that we wish weren’t, among them for me the Motherwell Charlotte Mason retreat. But let’s not get too bleak and move on to the things I’ve intentionally accomplished.
  • I used Gap rewards to buy new pajamas for the kids, since that’s pretty much all they’re wearing during quarantine, a maternity shirt for a newly pregnant friend, and a dress for myself, as a treat since I was supposed to currently be in maternity clothes myself. The total came to $11. I am really missing thrifting and this was a pleasant approximation.
  • From scraps and bits I’ve made dandelion green pesto, candied violets, chicken stock, meatballs with bacon (from an unsuccessful roasted uncut bacon venture) and bread crumbs (from frozen ends of sandwich bread and sourdough). Most of these have also been free entertainment/education for the kids, too, as they’ve helped me.
  • I’m still enjoying the bounty I lugged home from a local pharmacy’s going out of business sale just before the pandemic broke: greeting cards, Easter basket craft kits, batteries and vitamins were among my biggest wins at 75% off.
  • As the warm weather approaches, I’m sorting out castoff clothes for friends and pulling from the basement things I’ve saved in future sizes, and we will swap with porch drop offs, no contact required. As a bonus, we decided that both Pip and Scout can still wear last year’s sandals.
  • On a walk around campus we found a bunch of tulips beheaded by a severe thunderstorm the night before. The girls and I gathered them up and distributed around the neighborhood in jam jars.
And then I washed the grit from them in the salad spinner.
  • In clearing grass from around my raspberry plants, I discovered new volunteers from the main plants, and in digging, realized they were a sort of sucker situation. I tried to carefully separate them from the main plant with plenty of root, and if they make it, I have three new raspberry plants. I also learned how to use a similar method to score free blackberries from roadside clippings, so I’ll try that, as I killed all my blackberries from last summer.
  • I signed up for the local college’s seed library. Next month I’ll pick up hollyhock seeds and Brussels sprouts seeds, and in exchange I’ll leave behind Mexican sunflower seeds. I also dug up and left out for neighbors day lilies, which continue to be the bane of my gardening existence.
  • I bordered new garden beds with rocks from a vacant lot in the neighborhood and bricks that I keep excavating from the site of our old shed.
  • We had switched Roo to a floor mattress at the beginning of quarantine when we found her sneaking out of her crib, but it wasn’t a permanent solution because mattresses will mold on a bare floor. So I looked into a sort of slatted platform like we have for Scout’s floor bed but a crib-sized one was as expensive as a toddler bed — and a twin mattress. So we just bit the bullet and ordered the twin mattress she’d eventually need anyway, used the old bed frame from the basement and figured out a way to fit three beds into their postage stamp of a bedroom.
Their room is basically impossible to photograph because it’s so tiny.

Is Career Prep the New Marrying for Money?

There’s a trend right now in universities to emphasize the career training aspects of even a liberal arts education. The whole thing drives me nuts.

Let’s play a thought experiment, shall we? Here’s a passage from Pride and Prejudice with one alteration:

“A lucrative career had always been her object; it was the only provision for well-educated young women of small fortune, and however uncertain of giving happiness, must be their pleasantest preservative from want. This preservative she had now obtained; and at the age of twenty-seven, without having ever been handsome, she felt all the good luck of it.”

I’ll say that again: “however uncertain of giving happiness.” We all sympathize with plain, practical Charlotte Lucas. And things turn out ok for her, I guess. She marries a foolish man and she’s set up for life. She carves out her own spaces and routines and resigns herself to the comfort that she’s found her “preservative from want.” But is true happiness likely in her choice? Definitely not.

image
Image via

Compare this focus on financial security to Marmee March’s approach in Little Women, where again, I’ve made a few editing changes:

“My dear girls, I am ambitious for you, but not to have you make a dash in the world, hold down a lucrative job merely because it makes you rich, or have splendid houses, which are not homes because love is wanting. Money is a needful and precious thing, and when well used, a noble thing, but I never want you to think it is the first or only prize to strive for.”

She concludes, “I’d rather see you patching together some gigs, if you were happy, beloved, contented, than queens on thrones, without self-respect and peace.”

Really Seeing Marmee: Oh, How 'Little Women's' Matriarch Has ...
Image via

Do you see what I’m getting at? Just as we naturally root for true love in classic novels and feel at best only exasperated sympathy for characters who cop out and go husband-hunting, so should we feel the same about influences that demand we set the marketability of our (and our children’s) skill sets above all other factors.

Doing the right thing and pursuing virtue in love and career does sometimes financially pay off, of course, as when Amy March lands Laurie, but only after they’ve fallen in love. And more often, we rejoice in characters who abandon their dry, calculating pragmatism in pursuit of true love.

When we first meet Anne Shirley’s future college roommate, Philippa Gordon in Anne of the Island, she declares frankly, “Honey, you couldn’t imagine ME being a poor man’s wife, could you? I can’t do a single useful thing, and I am VERY extravagant. Oh, no, my husband must have heaps of money.” Still, after several years of virtuous living with Anne and their roommates and a thorough education, she eventually engages herself to a homely, poor preacher. Anne teases, “You’ll have to give up a good many things you’ve always had, when you marry Mr. Blake, Phil,” to which Phil retorts simply, “But I’ll have HIM. I won’t miss the other things.”

Her time in the girls’ college cottage, with its domestic pursuits and tight budget, has outfitted her for this new role. She vows, “I shall be poor as gaily as I’ve been rich. You’ll see. I’m going to learn how to cook and make over dresses. I’ve learned how to market since I’ve lived at Patty’s Place; and once I taught a Sunday School class for a whole summer.” Because her time in university involved not just college classes but also the school of love formed by the four girls and Aunt Jamesina, their housemother/chaperone, Phil has been trained to choose the good, rather than simply a “preservative from want.” We cheer for Phil, as “heart-glad” as Anne.

We can prepare our children for the world and for a profession, of course, but time is a limited commodity and it would be wrong to neglect the higher things: a strong moral formation, religious education, a robust relationship with us and each other. As Christie Purifoy says, what you do in your life has so little to do, ultimately, with what you do as paid work. I’ll quote her again because I love it so much:

It is especially strange that we burden children with this question of what they will one day do when so much of our lives is already prescribed. What will my children do? I can already see most of it. They will sleep. They will eat. They will live in relationship with others. They will celebrate special days and live ordinary days that tick with repetitive tasks. The truly important question seems not to be what they will do but how they will do it.”

We would do well to remember this when we’re sifting through a thousand extracurriculars or opting for just a bit more practice on some weak academic subject. When we stay awake worrying about whether our struggling first grader will ever hold a job that can support his family, maybe we should also ask ourselves if the bigger question is if we are preparing him to support his family in other ways: through his ability to form deep relationships, to manage his mental health and find happiness in difficulty, through his admiration for the natural world and the God who made him.

My husband teaches in computer science, which is the new major for parents to shove talented kids as a guarantee of future employability. (When I was a student in auld lang syne, that major was pre-med.) Many of the students don’t have the skills they need for the major, much less the passion to pull them through programming languages and tedious coding.

Maybe there is a place for mercenary marriages in the pursuit of survival — “Miss Lucas, who took the job solely from the pure and disinterested desire of an establishment” (P&P) — because certainly there is a place for abandoning fluffy “do what you live” sentiments and plugging away at the job that will put food on the table for your family. But that place, I think, shouldn’t be the primary focus of an education.

It’s something I’ve been thinking about since before the coronavirus outbreak, but the idea gains new force in our current climate. If you find yourself frantically trying to check boxes and leave no subject uncovered as a temporary homeschooler, terrified your children will be left unprepared for the nebulous “real world” because of this weird, disjointed season, try to cut yourself a little slack. Remember Marmee’s reminder — “Money is a needful and precious thing, and when well used, a noble thing, but I never want you to think it is the first or only prize to strive for.”

How Time Abroad Teaches Resilience

A view of the banana trees and terraced fields of the Rwenzori mountains bordering the DRC

If you’re a longtime reader of this blog, you know that right after we graduated college and got married, J and I spent six months in rural Uganda from 2008-2009. Until the last couple of weeks, our time in Uganda had faded into a footnote in our lives, a fun piece of trivia, the explanation for our batik cloth napkins. I’d only receive occasional striking reminders of our time there — filling out a TB exposure questionnaire when pregnant with Pip and noting that, hey, actually I lived on a hospital compound that treated TB, for instance. Mostly I’m just a Target-shopping mom now.

But so many of the lessons we learned in Uganda have been flooding back, recently. Living in dread of infectious diseases is something we did a lot while residing on an equatorial hospital compound: malaria and hemorrhagic fever, then rabies after a patient died from it later in our stay. In Uganda, we couldn’t see most of the people we loved. (And with shaky internet, they were much harder to contact than they are in this coronavirus crisis.) In our rural village, there wasn’t a third place for us to hang out beside work and home, just like now. (Except the office is also out now, too, actually.) Just like now, we couldn’t go shopping very often for most of the things we’d normally buy, and I remember spending hours carefully drafting in my journal a shopping list for when we’d finally visit the capital city and its mzungu shopping mall. And I learned to cook very flexibly with my severely limited kitchen tools and circumscribed ingredients.

A local woman working in the communal hospital kitchen to prepare a meal for herself and a hospitalized family member.

This long-ago experience has made the last few bewildering weeks a little less unsettling for us, because they’re somewhat familiar. But I believe international experience of any kind helps to build up this kind of resilience for a person. My children have only visited the UK on our study abroad adventure last summer, but along the way, they (and we) got more comfortable with scrambled schedules, flexible eating habits, and separation from friends and extended family. Travel has made all of us more flexible, adventurous people. One of the scariest thoughts I’m dealing with right now is that this kind of travel could be a long way off for our world right now.

Watching practice for the Queen’s birthday in London last summer, jet lagged as all get out.

What experiences do you believe have helped equip you for coronavirus? Homeschooling? Camping? Watching entirely too many end-of-the-world movies?

A Round-Up of Encouragements

Have you been reading too much news? Me, too, and I find myself gravitating often to the most gruesome things I can find, like they can somehow confirm and thus alleviate my dread. But it doesn’t work, of course. Here are some antidotes to all the darkest prognostications, glimmers of light in this weird, weird time:

1. Over at the Big White Farmhouse, Ashley has this passage of C.S. Lewis that’s just terrific. I’ve read a lot of Lewis, but if I had read this before, I had forgotten:

In one way we think a great deal too much of the atomic bomb. “How are we to live in an atomic age?” I am tempted to reply: “Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plague visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night; or indeed, as you are already living in an age of cancer, an age of syphilis, an age of paralysis, an age of air raids, an age of railway accidents, an age of motor accidents.”
In other words, do not let us begin by exaggerating the novelty of our situation. Believe me, dear sir or madam, you and all whom you love were already sentenced to death before the atomic bomb was invented: and quite a high percentage of us were going to die in unpleasant ways. We had, indeed, one very great advantage over our ancestors—anesthetics; but we have that still. It is perfectly ridiculous to go about whimpering and drawing long faces because the scientists have added one more chance of painful and premature death to a world which already bristled with such chances and in which death itself was not a chance at all, but a certainty.
This is the first point to be made: and the first action to be taken is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.

“On Living in an Atomic Age” (1948) in Present Concerns: Journalistic Essays

2. Christine Keegan, new to me, has a lovely piece called “We Are Okay, We Are Not Okay,” written after 40 days of quarantine with her family in China, in which she writes:

I think too, that it is possible we are not as fragile as we might think. We modern people talk about our breaking points, we joke about them even. But I think about people like Corrie Ten Boom or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or a myriad of others before me and I think, maybe our breaking points should be a little further down the road than they are. We are broken, yes. I know we are broken. I know we don’t have it all together and that we have nothing to boast about in ourselves. I know it’s good to be real about our broken, messy lives and not to put up a false front or pretend that everything is okay when it’s not. And I am happy to say I am not okay. This family is not okay. Every day there are about fifty moments of not-okay-ness. But we are also okay.

Christine Keegan

3. “The Beautiful World Beside the Broken One” over at the New York Times is a lyrical reflective look at the world coming alive as we all retreat:

I can scroll and worry indoors, or I can step outside and remember how it feels to be part of something larger, something timeless, a world that reaches beyond me and includes me too. The spring ephemerals have only the smallest window for blooming, and so they bloom when the sunlight reaches them. Once the forest becomes enveloped in green and the sunlight closes off again, they will wait for another year. Sunlight always returns the next year.

Margaret Renkl

4. Here’s a thoughtful piece on gardening during quarantine and reflecting on a visit to the cloistered gardens of Thomas Merton’s monastery — I’ve been thinking about the cloistered life a lot during this time, especially having just read The Time Before You Die and Julian of Norwich.

5. Some gentle words on mothering under quarantine over at Learning As We Go — the later ones are especially good. My favorite, much-needed one? “Be generous with praise. Our kids are anxious. They may be reading the news, or just reading our moods, but they can tell things are not right. When we draw their attention (and our own) to what’s going well, the more of that we’ll get.”

6. Leah Libresco Sargeant beat me to the punch revisiting Kristin Lavransdatter in light of the current crisis — remembering Kristin’s death has kind of haunted me the last couple of weeks (along with the other books and movies I now highly regret). She reminds us that the quiet life demanded by quarantine is in keeping with the call of many Christians throughout history:

But it’s no surprise to Christians that we should value the invisible economy of grace over more worldly signs of effort and accomplishment. We are a people who believe that cloistered sisters, praying privately, have a powerful effect on the world. We are a people who believe that prayer, fasting, and humiliation are as much a part of our response to a pandemic as work on antivirals.

Discernment in Plague-Times

7. Finally, I’ll close with a link to the Wendell Berry poem, The Peace of Wild Things, which Dappled Things reminded me about.

What are you reading these days? What’s bringing you comfort?

I’m linking up with This Ain’t the Lyceum again for Seven Quick Takes! Check out some other speedy posts.