Taking — Not Giving — Old Stuff Is Charity

In the wake of all the fire hurricane devastation in recent weeks, a friend posted a piece called, “Best Intentions: When Disaster Relief Brings Anything But Relief” and it got me thinking about the nature of American generosity to the less fortunate.

The piece reports on the tremendous waste of disaster response, often costing the donors fruitlessly, and sometimes even costing disaster responders who must then deal with the sheer volume of inappropriate stuff flooding in, on top of everything else in the crisis. It’s well meant, no doubt, but ultimately ends up falling somewhere between useless and destructive.

We are not wrong, of course, especially as Christians but also as decent humans, to want to aid people near and far who are hurting, or even just lacking, as we live in such prosperity. Many Catholics have heard and heeded the words of St. Basil — a distinctly Gospel message that when we hoard things others could use, we are essentially stealing.

But there’s a more helpful way to look at this issue, now that material goods are often very cheap in comparison to previous eras. I ran across it first in a book called Money, Possessions and Eternity (which was pretty long and mostly not especially interesting, but read it if you want). Author Randy Alcorn suggested seeing the work of thrift shops and charity shops and rummage sales as a service provided to you, not a work of charity you’re performing by donating — regardless of how their slogans make you feel generous and virtuous. There will be exceptions to this, of course — when you give away the peacoat you really love because you just can’t justify two; when you loan beloved baby things you know you might not get back — but on the whole, we are a culture burdened with stuff, and this concept crystallized for me something I had been thinking about for awhile.

See, while we were in Uganda almost a decade ago (!), we saw all the weirdo donations of Americans right there in the field, in all their ludicrous glory: a woman carrying an empty laptop bag on her head; big stacks of American textbooks that cost a fortune to ship and can’t be used in the nationally mandated curriculum; stacks of second-hand Western clothes for sale in markets, edging out traditional dressmakers. A lot of money and well-meaning “thoughts and prayers” went into these donations, but nothing really helps. We were only in Uganda six months, and certainly don’t have all the answers, but these were the things we observed East Africans really needed from us: medical equipment and training; assistance in establishing robust computer systems; money for their own initiatives. In the meantime, local charity shops can take and resell our used, unwanted stuff, or we can do the extra legwork of matching our surplus with local need through Facebook, Craigslist, and our neighborhood and church communities.

These questions will continue to become more relevant as we face downsizing baby boomers with houses full of unwanted junk, a projected new fad of Swedish death cleaning, and a world of hurt we feel powerless to remedy. But we have a responsibility to the unsexy work of researching reputable organizations and causes and giving where we can, even if it’s just boring cash donations.

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Part of my Ugandan wardrobe

 

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A Picky Eating Manifesto

 

Is my kid eating kale salad, or peanut butter? You guess.

I don’t have a lot of patience for adult picky eaters, among which I may or may not number. Margaret Kim Peterson agrees with me, writing scathingly, “Deciding what one will or will not eat becomes a primary means of defining one’s own individuality.” She argues that instead of this identity-as-pickiness, a good eater finds herself realizing that “partaking readily of whatever is offered can be a way of affirming that eating together is at least as important as whatever it is that is eaten.”

Or, as Cat says in that tome of wisdom, Little Bear

“Can you really cook? If you can really make it, I will eat it.”

When it comes to juvenile picky eaters, my parents had three principles. I have two.

  1. Make sure your kid is polite. They can’t ask for special treatment and they should eat heartily and compliment the cook wherever they can.
  2. Pack snacks. A peanut butter and jelly sandwich can get a picky eater a long way, and then the obligation to find something for your weirdo isn’t on the host(ess).
  3. Try things. We don’t enforce this. My parents tried and it didn’t really seem to speed up my transition into a functional eater. In the end, it meant a lot of fights. Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eatingwhich I highly recommend if your child is not just stubborn but hysterical and anxious about trying new food, urges parents not to make food a battle field, and so we’ve tried to follow that route, despite our frustrations.

Mantra

For this recovering picky eater and child of a health inspector, potlucks are an act of faith and vulnerability, a chance to try new food, enjoy each other’s cooking, and, yeah, risk consuming out-of-temperature food. But I treasure the opportunity to engage in the social part of eating, and I’m trying to pass that down to two children who are both food-selective to varying degrees. When you eat something someone has made, it makes them happy. Be polite when you say you’d rather not have a slice of that. See if you can find something on the table you can enjoy. 

A recent personal victory occurred for me when we went to pick up a fellow parishioner for church. He’s Congolese and has some developmental delays and we think he speaks Swahili but it’s hard to tell because we do not. (It’s not common in Uganda as it is elsewhere in East Africa.) Greeting us in a mix of English and ?, he climbed into the car and handed me…Mandazi, I think, a little vaguely doughnut type thing. It reminded me of the Old Testament story: Manna being translated to mean, “what is it?” After decades when I would have gagged or demurred or both, I could finally accept his generosity and eat the damn thing.

And overcoming picky eating was, in fact, sweet as an African doughnut.

That’s what I hope for, in time, for my children.

 

 

 

The Special Kinship of Oxford

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This month I’ve been re-reading A Severe Mercy and while I have limited patience for the lovey-dovey beginning, I love the Oxford era Sheldon Vanauken describes mid-book.

It’s always an energizing, painful experience, talking to other folks who lucked into studying abroad in the city of dreaming spires. There’s so much I wish I had done, seen, explored, but it was only a single fall term, and I was only 21, on a budget, and had to, you know, actually study, too (which may have been one of the best parts). Vanauken writes evocatively,

“Coming back to Oxford, we were always, it seemed, greeted by the sound of bells: bells everywhere striking the hour or bells from some tower change-ringing, filling the air with a singing magic. We explored every cranny of this city of enchanting crannies and unexpected breathtaking views of towers and spires. We were conscious all the time of the strong intellectual life of a thousand years. Despite the modern laboratories, Oxford is still ‘breathing the last enchantments of the middle ages’: this wall was part of a great abbey; the Benedictines built the long, lovely buildings that are part of one college quad; the narrow passage where we bought tea things has been called Friars Entry for centuries; the Colleges bear names like Christ Church and Mary Magdalen and Corpus Christi; and the bells with their lovely clamor have rung through the centuries.”

Unlike trying to find someone from the tribe we lived among in Uganda (hasn’t happened, eight years and counting), it’s relatively easy to find friends who enjoyed a stint at Oxford. A friend here studied at Oxford a whole year, including the Michaelmas term when I was there, and he attended Mass at ancient churches while I vacillated lackadaisically between the union and the Oxford Oratory.  Pip’s godmother was an RA for a study abroad program there the summer before I arrived and lived near Black Friars, far from the “slightly dodgy” flat I’d call home, near Christchurch. I keep in touch to some degree with two of my three flatmates and another woman who studied in our program but lived in a different flat. My freshman college roommate studied two terms before me, and caught so much more: May Day, for instance. And so we reminisce, and I think for the umpteenth time of all the things I didn’t do, forgetting the things I did do: learn to enjoy Indian food, talk endlessly with my flatmates, take early morning walks just because, never ride a bus if I could help it.

Sometimes I regret that I only studied one term, instead of staying a full year, but I would have had to delay our wedding, which seemed like craziness after dating since 17, and I still stand, reluctantly, by that decision. What’s more, I was comforted by Vanuaken’s reflection, after spending three whole years in Oxford, that:

“[T]here we did feel that despite all that became part of us — bells and spires, C. S. Lewis and a host of friends, the face of the Warden of All Souls and the River Cherwell on a sunny day — there was something more, something still deeper, that we hadn’t time enough – world and time enough — to reach. We didn’t at all feel that we were unable to reach it, only that there wasn’t time enough.”

SV argues that this is evidence that we are out of place in time, made for eternity. Our longing that we continue to be surrounded by such beauty is natural, or rather supernatural: we are meant to be surrounded by the beauty of God, forever.

What’s more, Oxford isn’t a forever place for most of the students passing through, even if they’re lucky enough to take a degree there. It’s part of the wild, wandering freedom of college, if you’re fortunate and get to do things right, without the obligations of a family or earning an income as you go along (noble as those things are, of course). Vanauken notes,

“In a way all of us at Oxford knew, knew as an undercurrent in our minds, that it wouldn’t last for ever. Lew and Mary Ann expressed it one night by saying: ‘This, you know, is a time of taking in — taking in friendship, conversation, gaiety, wisdom, knowledge, beauty, holiness — and later, well, there’ll be a time of giving out.”

Though we might be wistful for that time of taking in as we find ourselves deep into an era of giving out, it’s a lovely thing to have the memories.

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“All this grey magic of Oxford”

 

Big Scary Purchases

I’ve had a mantra this summer as we’ve made several big, scary purchases:

It is my privilege to get to make these decisions.

When it’s overwhelming to decide on grouts. When there are delays in installation. When I’m learning how to drive a much bigger vehicle.

I sometimes find the language of privilege a little exhausting. But after years and years where frugality was a cornerstone of life, it is a novelty, if not an outright blessing, to be getting to shell out on these big, scary purchases that will, I hope, improve the life of our family for years and years to come.

There have been road trips where we crammed into our clown car with two small children, a dog, and quite a lot of associated kid stuff, and that was fine, because we then didn’t have a car payment, but now we have the option of financing a little when we could buy outright and enjoying enough space for our totally alarming amount of juvenile travel junk. There have been years where getting rid of all the mold in our various basement apartments was a (plumbing) pipe dream, so it’s kind of a privilege to wait around for the mold remediation guys now.

This can, of course, be argued further. Many Americans don’t have a reliable vehicle at all, much less the opportunity to upgrade to one spacious enough for their family. Many people long for children and would give anything to contend with the amount of junk that often accompanies parenthood. Or push beyond: not only am I lucky not have to have a moldy sink, but in the global perspective, I’m dang lucky to have running water in my home.

In that past life, I was never very patient when people would talk at length about their intense struggles to find the perfect shade of burgundy curtains or whatever. Like, does that really count as a legitimate frustration? In practice, this now mostly means that sure, I’ll talk your ear off about quartz versus soapstone if you’re in the market, too, but otherwise, I’ll keep my burdens of privilege to myself. So maybe we’ll have to go a few days without a kitchen sink this summer. So maybe J had to spend a day of vacation negotiating with used car salesmen when he’d rather be doing practically anything else, and we would have preferred a vacation to England over budgeting necessary home repairs.

It is certainly a pain in the butt to be a grownup and a homeowner, but right now, it’s better (for us) than the alternative.

The agony and the ecstasy, et cetera

Being Cool About a Reno

We have only been homeowners a little over a year and have only had a grownup salary for two years, so we still find it hard to spend even an unnecessary $100 on a rug for which we have no pressing need. So we might have limped along with lame white (!!!) laminate counters for quite awhile if not for MOLD.

Mold. Also, dirty dishes.

Our house was built in 1940 and I think the cabinets are original. They are beautiful, but mean we have a weirdly narrow counter, which, paired with no backsplash, means the back wall gets soaked. So, mold.

Are you bored yet? I don’t blame you.

We discovered the problem early in my morning sickness but didn’t mobilize till late first trimester because I am not a glutton for punishment or crying in the countertop swatch section of Home Depot.

Instead I just read about countertop materials and sinks and cried from the comfort of my own bed.

 

Be thou my vision. AND NO I DO NOT HAVE ATTRIBUTION I AM A BAD LIBRARIAN!!!

 

 

 

And after all, I would kind of recommend making renovations after two months of fairly crippling illness. Otherwise, I might have chosen soapstone instead of imitation soapstone quartz, because sure I’ve got time and energy to oil my counters (and move all the kitchen detritus off them each time). I definitely would have chosen the period appropriate and on trend cast iron sink, possibility of chipping be damned. I would have gone apron front even though there are well-documented drawbacks. I would have gotten mad that the first sink we ordered didn’t fit and maybe fussed at the sales rep, instead of taking a nap and going back to the drawing board.

As it is, you have a really reasonable idea of what your ambition/cleanliness level is after limping by for weeks. And so I made practical decisions for what I hope is my forever kitchen. Because in the life of a family, this probably isn’t the last time we will lack the time and energy for extra kitchen upkeep.

And at the very least, we won’t have white laminate anymore.

Easy solution: Keep counters tidy by removing them! (Mid-reno. Will post an update when they actually get around to installing.)

Ravenclaw, Ambition and Family Life

J and I are 31, which means we were about Harry Potter’s age when the books debuted, although we were engaged and 21 when his story ended. It’d be an understatement to say that the books were a big part of our adolescent years, and we’ve known for certain that ours was a mixed marriage from the beginning: an ISFJ Hufflepuff to a handsome ENTP Gryffindor.

Except, we recently took that 20th anniversary Time Magazine Sorting Hat Quiz and both got Ravenclaw.

Wait, what?

Neither of us would describe ourselves or each other as particularly ambitious, we admitted, discussing the highly scientific results as we walked the kids to the park after dinner on a recent evening. Geeky, sure. Bookish, each to our own varying degrees. But aren’t Ravenclaws supposed to be pretty driven?

I mean, maybe in college. J double majored in math and computer science and racked up accolades racing bikes. I nerded out on Great Books and English lit, and for awhile, entertained ideas of a PhD in English.

But these days? Not really. I wrote a friend recently that I particularly value jobs with very low stakes. I’d love to someday to work another Tiny Job, and I found teaching at homeschool co op last fall to be surprisingly rewarding. But I made it clear in grad school and to my library directors that I had no real ambition to join their ranks someday, and it would be a-ok with me if I never worked a traditional 9-5 job.

J, on the other hand, is absolutely terrific at his job, best I can tell, but chose a job based on work-life balance and geography, not prestige, and doesn’t intend to job hop if we can possibly help it. He tries to do enough to do right by his colleagues and students, but doesn’t obsess. I love that about him.

On our walk, J pointed out he’d been reading a biography of Eli Musk, and could see how he’d love that kind of intense work environment if he didn’t have a family. Sure, I agreed. When I was applying for Tiny Jobs and awaiting Pippin’s birth, I’d often come across 40-hour youth services library jobs that appealed to me — if I wasn’t already expecting a rather time-consuming tiny human.

Ultimately, we decided our ambitions have just shifted as we grew older. We’re not go-with-the-flow on everything: we know what we want for our family, and work for it, from building a family culture to enduring long seasons of illness to welcome tiny new members. We try to be deliberate about all our choices: whether to continue being a one-car family, how to arrange bedrooms in our house, how to steep our family in faith. That means toning down some of the other outlets into which we’ve traditionally poured our energies. It’s not Hufflepuff peaceableness or Gryffindor careless bravado, but selective Ravenclaw ambition after all.

So, hello, fellow Ravenclaws, I guess.

Drinking my daily Ensure while morning sick and nursing because ONWARD AND UPWARD

Friends Rush In

“Let me know how I can help!” We all say it, and it’s meant well, but not usually very helpful. So let’s real talk — things people have done for us in this and other pregnancies:

  • Brought fresh soap in case the smell bothered me
  • Brought snacks
  • Brought dinner
  • Watched my kids for appointments
  • Sent their big kids to be mother’s helper so I could lie down
  • Sent their husbands who work only part-time to be mother’s helper so I could lie down (my husband insists this isn’t be a mother’s helper but a “dad-in-training”)
  • Taken my kid to preschool or picked him up
  • Sent flowers
  • Left cookies
  • Mailed encouraging notes and prayer cards
  • Walked my dog when it was snowy and John was out of town and we didn’t have a fence
  • Helped me do laundry and straighten up

(My friends and acquaintances, let’s be clear, are awesome, and if I name this child after them, it’ll be about twenty names long.)

A friend was recently saying she felt like she was failing at modeling generosity for her kids because she wasn’t making a lot of time for soup kitchens and other volunteerism. And while those things are definitely important (and an area in which I regularly fail), this same friend has been helping me in big and small ways, from showing up to dinner to helping me lug the toddler around preschool events. No doubt her kids see these acts of friendship and generosity, too. 

A lot of this, of course, applies to more than crippling morning sickness or even newborn babies: to grief and all kinds of hardship. For more really concrete advice, check out Sheryl Sandberg talking about what helped her in the wake of her husband’s sudden death. What have people done for you in tough times that’s helped most?