Since Pippin was born five years ago, I’ve been sending out photo Christmas cards each year. It’s an opportunity to take stock of what’s happened in the year, of what’s worth reporting, as I sift through pictures from the year and maybe add a message. It’s an opportunity to be grateful.
If you’ve had a new baby this year you can combine the Christmas card roster with birth announcements or baby gift thank you cards. And if you haven’t had any babies in this or any year STILL SEND ME A CARD. I want to see your face and I will leave your card hanging for an embarrassingly long time. (You can even take hilarious pictures of yourself with your pets, like my sister does.) Whatever you choose, you’re giving a little beauty to the people in your life.
It doesn’t have to be a big and expensive ordeal. Use your Google address spreadsheet. Buy postcards — they’re less expensive and require cheaper stamps, and you don’t have to write a long personal message. Timeliness isn’t that important. Send 12 Days of Christmas cards, or new year cards, if you’re getting a late start this year. If you get an early start next year, you can buy a voucher or get 50% off deals around Thanksgiving.
Watch a movie and knock out the whole set, or challenge yourself to address five a day. Sit beside the fire listening to Christmas music or a good audiobook.
Put in the effort and start your year off right — not with more stress but with a small, thoughtful hello to the people who have touched your life this year.
Today my little sister turns 30. Today our little family also continues the long, giddy, exhausting process of adjusting to growing a bit larger with my kids’ own little sister finally here in our arms. And both have me thinking about sisters.
I have lousy pregnancies and probably it’s slightly insane that I keep enduring pregnancy (always secretly hoping for different results, but as one friend said, I have a pretty damning data set at this point). But one of my big driving factors, one of my best sustaining thoughts, is how much I’ve loved going through life with my sister.
We are, it must be admitted, dramatically, often comically different people. (Gamely attending a kid’s birthday party with me recently, she was asked her main areas of freelancing, and with only a deep breath, admitted cooly to the inquiring Catholic moms, “Sex and relationships.”) When we were kids, we squabbled a lot, but couldn’t resist reconciling — who else were we going to play school or grocery store with? She’s the only other Floridian I know who basically can’t swim, and when I come across something on the internet I find bizarrely funny, she’s the first person I want to share it with.
Even when we fought mostly bitterly, it’s been such a gift to have someone who grew up the same way, who knows about our mother’s penchant for lipstick or the way our dad blared classic rock on Saturday mornings while he waxed the car. We are very different, but I admire so much about Beca. She can put anyone at ease around her, while I stumble through small talk. She mustered enough determination to survive the cesspool that is Brooklyn [my opinion, not hers], carve out a freelance career, and light out for Atlanta. She’s also an enthusiastic and indefatigable aunt to my kids, snagging them books and gummy bears and gobbling their bellies till they squeal with delight — and while I don’t require that you like my kids, I’m going to like you much better if you do.
I got through my pregnancy with Scout knowing I was giving Pippin the gift of a sibling, and I was buoyed through the long and waddling months carrying Roo, knowing that our house would someday have the laughter and arguments and comradeship of sisters: like the Dashwoods, or the Marches, or the Penderwicks, or the Grimm girls. Scout and Elizabeth are only a few months further apart than Beca and I are, and I can’t wait to see their friendship and sisterhood develop in the coming decades.
And I’m forever glad to know my little sister will be there to watch it, too.
Last year, I revisited the goals I’d made in 2015 for my life after 30. (You can read the original goals here.) I thought I’d do the same again this year.
In addition to mostly keeping up with last year’s accomplishments, I can check off finishing Middlemarchand I’m on my way to learning how to cook red meat well, thanks to Beef Week and my overstuffed deep freeze. We also started to explore Charlottesville and Staunton, even in my waddlesome state. My flowers on the table rate probably hit about 60%. It’s a start.
Fitting in long walks at every opportunity. This is almost entirely pregnancy-related, though, and I’ve spent almost all of my 31st year pregnant, so I’m going to let it slide.
Plan another trip like the Dales Way. Well, I got knocked up. And I didn’t travel except once, I think, this pregnancy, and that was perfect. Maybe for 2018? We’d like to at least do the Virginia Creeper Trail. Or, you know, we could go big and go back to Inkland. That would be dreamy.
Celebrating the liturgical year. But! We got St. Nicholas Day and Michaelmas, All Saints and All Souls, so it’s not total despair city, even though we didn’t even dye Easter eggs till fall. (Darn you, morning sick Lent.)
Most importantly, though, I think I came a long way in learning to be more gentle with myself and the people I love. I can thank a fairly crappy pregnancy for that, but I was forced to begin to learn how to prioritize, to let little things go, and to try to enjoy my family instead of striving for exhausting perfection when my body literally couldn’t give anymore. Pregnancy meant I had to let a lot of plans and goals go, but look what I ended up with: a snuggly newborn curled on my belly as I write this. What could be a better 32nd birthday gift?
This summer we bought our first van to make space for our third child. This was maybe evidence enough that I am getting on in years, but it really took our free trial of Sirius XM to bring it home to me.
After slowly mastering the headlights and how to park the behemoth, I moved on to exploring the dial, and found, to my slight embarrassment, that two of my favorite stations are Pop Rocks and Prime Country.
Both date me pretty seriously, especially when I cut through campus and pass college students who maybe weren’t even born when these tunes debuted.
And it’s weird, right, the alchemy that nostalgia plays on our tastes? There are, of course, songs that fill me with delight just like they did in 2000: anything from Dixie Chicks’ Fly album, for instance. But there are also songs I never owned or wanted to own, but which I now greet with enthusiasm, associated indelibly as they are with my pop-punk little sister when we were in high school, or my freshman college roommate, who had far better informed tastes than I ever developed.
I feel, cruising past today’s freshmen, a little embarrassed by my musical selection (as if even the hippest music blaring from a minivan might somehow impress undergrads). I feel embarrassed, that is, until I think of my parents and their enduring love when I was growing up for both the local classic rock station and the “‘80s, ’90s and today” station. The memories of those songs form the soundtrack of my early childhood, of Saturdays when my dad washed the car and morning commutes to summer camp with my mom, so much more than whatever was hip at the time. (In fact, I remember being marveled at in third grade for not knowing who Boyz II Men were, even though I could have told the kids quite a lot about the Eagles.)
So, on balance, I’m grateful to have found a nostalgia niche for my generation, as the grey hair begins to fill my hairbrush and I stare down 32. I’m glad to be reminded, on my way to the grocery store, over the chatter of my chatty progeny, that before this era, I was mostly the same person: scrawny and introspective and shout-singing the same lyrics. It’s a world in which I hold a membership earned by those gray hairs, a world to which I can introduce my children, one scratchily, enthusiastically sung old hit at a time.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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).
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 Eating, which 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.
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.
This month I’ve been re-reading A Severe Mercyand 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.