Commonplace Book 28 (ish)

So, my last Commonplace Book posted, but was backdated, and when I tried to fix it, I deleted it. It was all very livejournal circa 2004. So, picking up where we left off:

What is a commonplace book? For me, this is a space where I post interesting links, reflections on what I’m reading, and the newest recipes I’ve been trying out — a collection of miscellaneous micro-posts.

What I’m fixing:

  • Sausage barley spinach soup. (Slow cooker, obviously, or are you new here?) You can add the onions and garlic and sausage in raw, but I’ll warn you that the ground sausage will fuse into a strange puck you’ll have to chop haphazardly with a wooden spoon later on, so consider wisely…
  • Scallion pancakes. These are kind of a major pain, but not really hard: just labor-intensive. But the payoff! Almost exactly like the cheap Chinese dive version I love, but with a certain something reminiscent of the hot “chapat” we used to get at the hospital canteen for breakfast in Uganda, warm and wrapped in grease-spotted notebook paper. Is this not helping to sell them? Seriously. Delicious.

What I’m reading:

  • Anne of Green Gables, My Daughter and MeThis one is doubly personal for me, because a.) I am an Anne devotee and b.) I married into a family that also includes an adopted mother and adopted Korean little sister. I had expected to love the reflections on Anne but often I find them prone to dull summary, which may just be loyalty or jealousy  — I can nearly quote the original. But parts of the personal storytelling ring like Shauna Niequist’s essays, which is never a bad thing: sensory details and bustling families and warm, intimate friendships.
  • Dumplin‘: I had read a recommendation for this from, I think, Annie of The Bookshelf in Thomasville, Georgia (who I knew casually in high school, and who is now a real-like Kathleen Kelly), and audiobook is definitely the way to go on this. J doesn’t like the profanity emanating from my iPhone as I wash dishes in the evening, but the narrator, a prickly, overweight teenager from rural Texas named Willowdean Dixon reminds me of some of my favorite Southerner college friends.
  • Someone tell me if it’s worth reading all of The Well-Trained Mind right now all at once. I’ve made it to middle school and I’m losing steam because my oldest child is, in fact, four. But I’d like the big picture! Please advise.

Negotiating Surrender: Quiet Time

The nap, my friends, is dead. It made it past 4, and still lives on in sick days and after late nights, with much cajoling. But by and large, Pippin seems to be of his father’s school of sleep: less than the average bear. (His mother, on the other hand, was falling asleep on the way home from kindergarten until 6.)

I fought long and bitterly for nap time, which Pip would have liked to discontinue at 2 1/2, when I was pregnant with Scout, and which possibly would have literally killed either me or him. Sleepy introvert mamas need their quiet time, too. And now I’ve put a similarly insane amount of work into rebranding nap time as “quiet time.”

We have this ok to wake up clock, and at the time, in grad school, it felt like a wild indulgence even to ask for it on a Christmas list, but it’s paid for itself in dividends to the point where we contemplate even packing it on trips. Not only do we use it for morning wakeup, but it’s invaluable for making quiet time happen.

What I do is put Pippin in his bedroom by himself, set the clock for an hour and walk away. The rule is simple enough even he can understand: if I can’t tell if he’s taking a nap, he gets a treat. (Usually half an episode of Octonauts and five yogurt raisins, in this hedonist family.) He may come down only if he needs help using the bathroom, and he must be very, very quiet. I am very firm on this point — some might say fanatical.

At first I’d only give him books, but now that he’s got the general concept down, he gets to bring a bag of quiet toys upstairs with him. When he’s a bit more reliable, I’ll let him branch out into art supplies up there — for now, he writes his name all over the room in white chalk of mysterious origins.

I don’t think I need to tell you how essential this is to my sanity. Years ago, Catholic All Year gave me permission to carve out quiet time for myself and my kids, something my mom, a much more extroverted caregiver, always prioritized for herself, too. I use the time for all kinds of frivolous and noble purposes, from dinner prep to naps of my own, from reading to writing to straightening up. It is a small oasis in our day, a little moment of peace that benefits us all.

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Experiments in Naps

So I’ve been napping at naptime. I’m not pregnant. I’m not (always) sick. I don’t have a newborn.

At first I felt kind of guilty about this. I could prep dinner! I could write! I could finish one of the zillion books I’m currently alternating.

But the house grows quiet and I know, now that Pippin is finally taking quiet time instead of naptime (RIP NAP), that I’ve got exactly one hour free.

I ask myself, as I have ever since mastering the simultaneous nap, what would be most sustaining for myself, and often, I lie down. Sometimes I read or write a bit from the horizontal. Usually I transfer a load of laundry or turn on the slow cooker before I lie down. But I generally end up in the same place.

I felt embarrassed, until I confessed my new habit to my husband. He pointed out that stillness often leads to breakthroughs and refreshment. He reminded me that he generally doesn’t listen to anything on his walk to work, and I recalled how he’d often solve difficult problems in his thesis by taking a break and doing something entirely different.

This season has been my season of monastic reading, mostly unintentional. First there was A Canticle for Leibowitzthen In This House of BredeIn the latter, particularly, there’s a tension between the old order nuns and the new, young nuns, who, even in their cloistered order, long for productivity, efficiency.

For several years, I’ve mostly used the St. Benedict Prayer Book. The night prayer includes the psalm: “Ponder on your bed and be still.”

I’m not a good ponderer. Or, I mean, I suppose I’m a person who likes to think (hence this here blog), but I also have a deep commitment to proving my right to take up space through efficiency, output, motion. And the next line, lest we forget, is “Make justice your sacrifice and trust in the Lord.” It is not enough to spend my days lazing, neglecting house and home and justice all in one, but it is valuable, perhaps, for just a beat, to ponder on my bed and be still.

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May we all nap as thoroughly.

A Mother’s Rule of Life

I’ve asked it before: How do you decide what of all possible things to go deep in, when, as a stay-at-home mother, you’re a jack of all trades?

It would help to have a job description. As it is, I almost always have the nagging conviction I should be doing something other than whatever I’m doing at that moment. Last winter I read the Rule of St. Benedict and this winter I fell in love with the cloistered world of In this House of Brede — its quiet peace, and sense of purpose, and hard work, and order.

This reading primed me, I think, for A Mother’s Rule of Lifewhich is a pretty divisive book in my tiny microcosm of Catholic married mothers who are home full-time. Some friends worry it’s a temptation to rigidity; the one who lent it to me found it tolerably helpful in prioritizing; an Insta friend adored it. In it, Holly Pierlot promises to walk you through developing your own Rule, if you happen to find yourself a Catholic married mother at home rather than a nun in a convent.

Pierlot defines a Rule as “a reflection of the aims and mission of vocation,” and much of the book led me to fruitful consideration, as I followed her advice and took notes. Eventually I decided this: Our aim, as a family, as a household, is to progress in kindness and holiness through love of God, love of each other, and love of learning. From there, you take the tasks you believe are most essential to your vocation, prioritize them, and slot them into a schedule. If you were a Brede nun, it would involve singing the liturgy, working at your talent (translation or writing or gardening), common labor, prayer. For me, in this stage, it involves less liturgical singing and more laundry.

If my aim is to progress in kindness and holiness, I need to not over schedule, but I do need to keep things clean enough that I don’t flip out on my sweet family. I need to practice discipline so I’m not always fighting fires, but build in time for the seeming non-essentials of learning and reading. I need to take breaks from the fun (the latter) and the challenging (the former) to play with my children, to do nothing much with my husband. If I can just remember that, I feel like the rest will fairly fall into place.

The book has obvious weaknesses. I think it’s ordered badly, so that the rationale for a Rule comes at the very end, instead of as an argument before launching in to the nitty gritty of scheduling errands and drawing up monthly rotations. The writing style also isn’t my cup of tea, but Pierlot does have a knack for crystalizing a lot of the ideas that have been kicking around in my head while bringing in pretty compelling authorities. She also seems to assume the existence of bigger kids to share the load, which is hard when I only have littles, but it does remind me to be on the lookout for places Pip can help — putting away silverware, running the vacuum extension hose thing, which he adores.

I was surprised, reading, to discover just how much of a schedule we’ve already drafted toward, my routine-loving children and me. And writing that schedule down started to show me some gaps where maybe, after all, I could choose to be still, could choose to give to prayer, could choose to use for writing or frivolous reading or napping without guilt. It’s also, unexpectedly, giving me permission to let done be done, helping silence the guilty conviction that there’s always something I should be cleaning, or something noble I should commit to, because there I have, in writing, what my priorities are, and what qualifies as “done.”

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Precipice 

Around here, the daffodils are blooming, the irises and the forsythia. And it’s all too early. People talk with trepidation: It’s beautiful, and welcome, but surely winter will be back. It won’t last.

Something similar is going on in our house. We are at a sweet spot in our family’s rhythms. Scout is approaching being weaned. I’ve got a plan for Pippin for next year. The house is tolerably under control. We are out of the trenches on most fronts.

But that means it’s probably just a matter of time until the cycle starts over again, and, God willing, I’m pregnant again.

Because I love my babies, and I’d love more, and I love parts of having a baby: picking a name, feeling the baby move, even labor. And the baby coming: the tiny clothes, the sweet snuggles, nursing. But it’s all really, really hard, right? My two pregnancies have not come close to a hyperemesis gravidarum diagnosis, but the first one in particular was one of the most discouraging, exhausting, bleak experiences of my (admittedly very privileged) life. The second time, both pregnancy and the newborn phase were easier, because I knew with personal evidence they would, in fact, come to an end, and could therefore better savor them. (Also, real talk, I took nausea medicine for the second go round, which obviously helped in the morale department.) Still, pregnancy means ceding control, and ceding it for a pretty long time — much longer than just pregnancy itself. It’s a scary, dreary prospect.

Just as winter is a fruitful time, bulbs fastening on to life underground, unseen, the hibernation and disarray of the pregnant season yields much that is good, too. It’s a season of Lent for me, and this early taste of spring has felt like Easter.

It’s a scary prospect, to go back under, to submit to the privations of Lent, the bleakness of winter, the aches of pregnancy, to wait for the return of blossomtome. But time out of mind, the only way up has been through. And Lent and pregnancy are, in the end, privileges: both are, if embraced, a time to toughen up, to grow closer to God — and followed by rich and lasting reward.

Lenten rose, spotted on a springlike Fat Tuesday walk

Let’s Talk Lent

I’ve been enjoying talking to people and reading about how they’re choosing to approach Lent this year, so I offer this post as a matter of interest, and not a humblebrag. What are you doing? How are you approaching it? How is this year different from past years?

This is what I’m thinking for this year, which departs significantly from my hazy but noble goal last Lent of no yelling:

A study: Blessed Is She’s Put On LoveReading and discussing with friends one evening a week.

A prayer practice: Kneeling for prayer at bedtime. I usually lie on my side reading my St. Benedict’s Prayer Book very last thing, falling asleep as I go. I can do better, and give God more than just the very dregs of alertness.

A discipline: I’m going to try veiling at Mass. I am…not excited. But I have friends who I love and admire who do it, and I’ve been receiving on the tongue since Scout was born, and if we’re going to buy into all this Eucharist stuff, we might as well err on the side of caution, treating it just as reverently as possible. Like Flannery O said, “If it’s just a symbol, to hell with it.”

I’ve also set myself the tentative deadline of Ash Wednesday to finish reading A Mother’s Rule of Life and start trying to implement some of its suggestions. So, yay. I guess it’s kind of a lot, but at least there’s still chocolate.

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Anxiety and the Post Apocalyptic

When I list my favorite books, many follow a common theme: Anne of Green Gables, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Gilead, Persuasion — fairly light, fairly sweet. But there’s a thread that runs against this theme because, since I was about 12 and first read Alas, BabylonI also have a deep and abiding love for post apocalyptic  and dystopian stories.

I’ve read so many over the years, especially while I was a teen librarian and The Hunger Games reigned supreme, that my dreams are often combinations of survival scenarios and, depressingly, packing. But it’s hard to tell, chicken or egg, whether I dream of conflagration because I’ve read so much of it, or I read so many stories of utter destruction because these images have always haunted my dreams.

What I do suspect is that for me, post apocalyptic stories—the good ones—satisfy something deep inside. I am not, it’s perhaps worth noting, the kind of person with a bug-out bag and survivalist dreams — however, I am an anxious person, always worried about small impending catastrophes. For me, to read Alas, Babylon is to enter a world where my fear is confirmed, the worst occurs, and, in the books I especially love, the worst is overcome.

Because I’m not a fangirl of depths-of-despair forebodings like On the Beachwhere literally everyone dies, slowly and inexorably. The stories I find myself drawn to have their darkness, but also their hope. Sure, most of the world is obliterated by nuclear war in Alas, Babylon, but the surviving citizens of a small central Florida town rebuild a better world. Some of these novels are darker than others: salvation is sparing in The Road and The Dog Starsand life is hardscrabble in Station Eleven, though beauty and art endure. In  A Canticle for Leibowitz and The Children of Men, the margin of hope is a downright sliver.

Maybe that’s why, then, readers are flocking to George Orwell’s 1984 these days. Maybe these dystopian worlds, these after-the-disaster premises, allow us to feel safer: Sure, it’s bad now, but it could be much, much worse. Or maybe, when you’re scared, living out the worst-case scenario between the pages of a book can feel like an escape — or even preparation.

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