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.
We celebrated Pippin’s feast day with the Feast of St Peregrine this week. He chose breaded fish, barbecue chips, cherry tomatoes, homemade ciabatta and cinnamon rolls he helped me make. He was over the moon. Kids are so easy sometimes.
When we had this newest baby, someone brought us sourdough bread and J raved, and it got me thinking about dabbling in sourdough, at a time in my life when I should really only be thinking about how to manage to get all of us properly dressed in one day.
Over Christmas break, my sister and I were talking about why restaurants are so much more important to other people than they seem to be to us. We grew up in a very frugal family that spent its early years with a low budget in a small town. At the time, three out of the four of us were cripplingly picky eaters. And so, with the exception of annual family vacations during which we’d eat at fast food joints three times a day, I didn’t grow up eating out very often.
Beca and I had a few theories as to why people so often want to go out:
Neutral ground: It can feel weirdly intimate to have someone you know only casually over to your house. After all, you live there. And there have definitely been times in my life that having someone over has required me to clean my entire house — like when we lived in a tiny pool house with the only bathroom in the bedroom, or when we lived in a studio apartment — so our whole life was on display.
Relaxing: Going out is fun! Staying in means someone has to cook, and that’s work. Isn’t that just what you did all day? Let someone else do the cooking and cleaning — go out. Right?
Gifting: The other person, the person you’ve asked to go out with you, is special, and taking her to the restaurant is your way of treating her specially. Let her order what she wants. Don’t force her to subsist on what you can scrounge up in your fridge.
Pantry hurdles: It’s hard to cook if you don’t cook, if that makes sense. I was in the lucky position of receiving most of the kitchen stuff I still use back when I was 22 and sometimes couldn’t successfully scramble an egg. (My trademark dish at the time was pasta with marinara dumped cold over it.) I know people can get in over their heads with a long list of equipment or ingredients, and so restaurants feel less intimidating.
The answer, quite a lot of the time, is to just keep things relaxed and expectations low. You’ll save money, and calories, and build up cooking skills and a working kitchen so you can host more easily in the future. I’ve said it before, but remind yourself again of scruffy hospitality, and the liberating concept of the crappy dinner party.
Maybe you can throw something in the slow cooker, while they bring sides. Or you can find lazy recipes, like the time in college I just slathered jarred pesto on a frozen pizza to unexpected rave reviews. If you’re a parent and they’re parents, too, remember that they might feel relieved if your house is as disorganized as theirs; if they’re not parents and you are, they might as well see how it really is.
A friend once made a steak frittata using leftovers because she couldn’t afford enough steak to feed us all. One time I had a friend over for chili and made her season it herself (the limits of anosmia). Sometimes we’ll have people over and they bring food they happen to have and we pull out food we happen to have and everyone gets fed over good conversation. Once, we were having a picnic outside the aforementioned crappy studio apartment and J killed a rat with a rock. (Remarkably, the guests who witnessed this act of brutality are still our friends.) Some of my favorite evenings have been meals thrown together in a tornado-hit house with a shoestring budget. There are times for a well-laid, thought-out table, and times, of course, to escape to a restaurant, but it’s worth considering your motive.
There is a club I’ve never attended and it takes place under my own roof while I’m sleeping upstairs. It’s the Chesterton Society, and I think I love it, even though I’ll never be a member.
Through other people’s shrewd behind-the-scenes maneuvering, this fall J became the leader of a Chesterton Society of Catholic men who meet, sometimes in our living room or at our fire pit, sometimes at one member’s downtown restaurant. The club’s goals and identity are still evolving, but it seems to center around Catholicism, the life of the mind, manliness, beer and meat. I like to think G.K. Chesterton, for whom the group is named, and who I discovered, like most people, through a college obsession with C. S. Lewis, would approve.
The group is Catholic men, some still in college, some as old as my father. There are married men and unmarried men, Catholic fathers with children of all ages. There’s a professor, a missionary, a restauranteur, an insurance man, and others who drift through the house with their books, their tobacco pipes. This club is their story, not mine, to tell, and yet — the comment of one of its members, whose wife is a dear friend, really struck me.
He said that the group is special for him because there aren’t a lot of opportunities for Catholic husbands and fathers to hang out and see how other people are doing it. This group provides that for him, one late, late evening a month.
Certainly stay-at-home motherhood is often seen as lonely work, and that’s absolutely true, when your coworker is a four-year-old who chews up his toothbrush during nap time. But on the other hand, I think of all the riches of companionship I’ve found, especially since moving here to Virginia: friends from church, some with children much older, one just starting out on her first pregnancy, some of us cradle Catholics, some converts and reverts. These are people I can text during a kid’s meltdown, who watch my kids when I run to confession, who talk about the nuts and bolts of marriage as our kids slug each other on the playground.
There’s also the Internet, of course. Catholic mom blogs are a thing (though I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say mine is), but I haven’t run across more than a handful of sites speaking to the Catholic man’s domestic experience. So my husband has the comfort of a department of comrades who love his subject as much as he does, and I’m reasonably certain none of them are prone to chewing up toothbrushes (at least during work hours). But he encounters many fewer opportunities throughout his day to think about his vocation as a husband and father in the context of community, and I have to admit that’s a real poverty, even on my most trying days as a stay-at-home parent.
The American Chesterton Society considers itself a contributor to the “revival of common sense, laughter, beauty, faith, and other good things.” So even if it leaves beer bottles on my kitchen counters, that kind of community seems like something worth building.
You’re pretty burnt out by this point. You have one or two or five little Christmas elves actively undoing all you clean. Or you’re packing to go out of town and someone’s velvet Christmas dress doesn’t fit, nor will everything cram in the car.
Either you have your Christmas presents ready to go and are trying desperately to find places to hide them, or you don’t have them yet and don’t know when you’ll shop without the recipients riding around in your shopping cart.
Maybe your car is accumulating snow melt water on the floorboards as you drive from errand to errand. Maybe it’s not snowing yet, but the 40 degree rain is as bad. Maybe this was supposed to be your quiet, contemplative Advent.
On the radio, in the car, in the stores, at your kid’s lame Christmas concert, are fairly ridiculous secular Christmas songs. They jar in your head hours afterwards. But some of the lyrics linger:
“I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.
I’ll be home for Christmas, where the love-light gleams.”
Why are so many Christmas songs about home? It’s something I noticed while driving around snowy Western Mass a couple Advents ago, morning sick and homesick. Pip was in the backseat, J on a multi-state interview tour, Scout a tiny Charizard in my belly, and everything was in flux. The radio played, I drove to Target for pregnancy-craving beef jerky, I cried. There’s no place like home for the holidays, indeed.
Maybe you’ve had Christmases like that, where nowhere in particular felt like home, or you longed for Christmases past. (“They’re singing ‘Deck the Halls’ but it’s not like Christmas at all…“).
And now you have a home where the love-light gleams if only you could find it under half-written Christmas cards and cookie sheets that still need cleaning.
Advent is about making room, in practical ways, in lofty, interior ways. We give away toys, carve out space for the tree, try to find a little extra time in our day. We make space for the people, like Mary and Joseph, who needed a comfortable place to rest.
Embrace hygge. Embrace the shabby hospitality Mary extended to shepherds and kings alike. All you can do is what you must, as kindly as possible.
Advent can’t always be contemplative and slow, or picture-perfect, either, and Christmases can’t always be white. But if we look real hard, I do believe the love-light is there, in our homes, in our churches. And our work, as homemakers, to amplify that light, to keep it alive, is nothing short of the work of story and song.
“Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the guest, is on the way.”
I first encountered Google Drive in library school. A lot of my program was distance learning, and so when I’d collaborate with a classmate who lived in New Hampshire or Rhode Island, it was helpful to be able to pass projects back and forth using Google Drive. Later, working a tiny job when Pippin was a baby, Google Drive allowed me to collaborate on a grant application from home during nap time. Now that I’m footloose and fancy(/job-) free, I still love Google Drive for a variety of tasks:
Thanksgiving spreadsheet: master shopping list of what is being served, who’s making it, when to make it, and ingredients to shop for. (I break that list up by stores, because I am insane.)
Christmas and birthday gifts spreadsheet: track your purchases, and record ideas when you don’t have a chance to shop, or links to items you’re considering.
Addresses: I have a master list of everyone and then a separate one I cut and paste onto for Christmas cards. This also helps with travel, because I can easily send a postcard, look up the address of a friend’s house we’re visiting, and get a thank you note mailed promptly.
Party prep: I learned this from event planning for library programs. Include these categories: food, activities, RSVPs, do/make/buy/borrow, etc. You can also cut and paste photos and URLs. It’s not as pretty as Pinterest, but it’s very handy.
How do you use Google Drive to make homemaking and hospitality easier?
But seriously. I’m usually classified as an ISFJ. And here’s what I figure.
You’re still called to generosity and loving on your neighbor, but you get to stack the deck in your favor.
See, you can be a Christian introvert, but I don’t think you can be a shy Christian. Or you can still consider yourself shy, find yourself quaking in anxiety, and still do the brave thing in seeking out the people who need your company, your generosity, your prayers. You can’t hide behind the label on the comfort of your couch, unchallenged, uninconvenienced.*
For me, introvert hospitality means things like reminding myself about scruffy hospitality so my (ISF)J side doesn’t take over and shift me to high-strung perfectionism. (I talk about that struggle in this old post.) It means hosting people during the hours I feel most alert and energetic — kids have helped in this regard, because it means we often wrap things up by 9. (I remember hosting my first college party and at 2 a.m., with mixed wonder and revulsion, pretty much just yelling, “OK GET OUT!!!”) It also means that, at my wedding, I invited everyone I loved, but I also deliberately kept the reception during daytime and short: I want to hug you all, but I also reserve the right to peace out.
Maybe the same is true for extroverts (probably — I’ll ask my husband, who is the ENTP to my ISFJ), but I think it’s particularly important for introverts. You need self-care, but you also need to care about people.
Possibly more than any other aspect of gardening, I really love to have something growing in my garden because then I’ve always got something to bring when I go visit. At various points in my life it’s been fresh mint or cherry tomatoes or (inherited) strawberries or mutant butternut squash but I love not arriving empty-handed.
We had neighbors at our old house who never arrive for dinner without a bottle of honey from their hives, and Scout’s godparents always have a jar of maple syrup for us (they “know a guy”). My parents make and gift orange marmalade from their tree; they and my sister both make their own wine and share freely.
Consumables are just such a portable, enjoyable, representative-of-place treat. For the years in which we lived in western Mass and my sister lived in Brooklyn, we had a country mouse-city mouse thing going where when we’d see each other, I’d tote along a bag of Atkins Farm cider doughnuts (recognized by Saveurso you can feel fancy) and she’d swap us for New York bagels. Magical.
I don’t have a trademark Thing yet, not like the wine or honey. I’m thinking it might end up being garlic compound butter, because I did that for Christmas gifts last year and it seemed like a crowd pleaser. I’m getting pretty good at ciabatta, too, but that’s not something I can make in a big batch and store. I’m still not sure, but it’s worth thinking on, isn’t it?
The other night we had our Blessed Buddy (worst name, best program) over for a chaotic, casual dinner in the midst of packing for a trip the next morning. (Seriously, the dining room table was so buried in luggage we had to eat around the coffee table.)
We go meatless for Fridays year round, and now that we have air conditioning, homemade pizza was the obvious choice. J is our pizza maker, so it’s always a mad scramble after he gets home to get the pizza in the oven so the kids can eat it before they go to bed.
And I hadn’t managed to get the goat cheese for his classic (goat cheese, nuts, caramelized onions, greens, honey, balsamic vinegar) so after co op I made the dough in the bread machine and I foraged for alternate ingredients.
And what I found: pesto I made the other night from aging mixed greens; roasted garlic I made weeks ago and froze; a bag of shredded mozzarella leftover from Sunday’s small group meeting.
J caught up with our Buddy as he worked and I corralled the children and it was one of the best pizzas we’d ever made.
And it just felt like a reflection of the best parts of our marriage and how far we’ve come as a household: we didn’t start making homemade pizza until a friend brought over a damn good one when Pippin was born and shared his tricks. And then there were various bad experiments with pizza dough. And countless seasons in our shared life where things like homemade pesto and roasted garlic weren’t sitting around waiting to be used because I was slammed with pregnancy exhaustion or toting around a new baby, my eyes glittering with Crazy.
Our marriage always works best in situations where I do the prep and then step side as perfectionist angst emerges at the last minute, while J doesn’t take anything seriously until go time, and we’ve learned to use that to best advantage. So I make the toppings and the sough, and he assembled. I plan and shop for Thankdgiving and make desserts days in advance, and he’s the day of man. I plan and pack for a trip, and then the morning we leave I take the kids for a walk while J loads the car and I try not to hyperventilate.
We’ve built up these habits and formulas and skills and while there are absolutely still dinner time disasters and meals of store bought frozen meatballs I guess the pizza made me realize we’ve surfaced from Baby Crisis Mode and made the best of our newfound and no doubt temporary calm.
It was a good pizza, I guess is what I’m saying, but sometimes a pizza isn’t just a pizza.
I’ve had this book on my shelf for ages — a gift, I think, from my parents, and I finally tackled it this spring. Boy, am I glad I did. Peterson opens with a series of questions I find myself asking:
“But why was it that not a single other one of them had made the choice I had, to keep house with more than leftover bits of time? Was keeping house really a waste of time, at best a hobby to be indulged by people who like that sort of thing and at worst an unpleasant set of necessary chores? Or were there broader cultural and theological factors that made housekeeping seem like all of these things when in fact it was, as I had found it, a disciple as interesting and worthwhile as many other kinds of work?”
Peterson equates thoughtful, conscientious, imperfect housekeeping with caring, a core Christian precept. She argues, “[H]ousekeeping is about practicing sacred disciplines and creating sacred space, for the sake of Christ as we encounter in our fellow household members and in neighbors, strangers, and guests.”
She calls out the isolation of contemporary society, noting “[W]e think it is normal for people to be by themselves and make an exception, as it were, for spouses and young children. But the movement in scripture is toward community, not separateness, and the bonds of community in scripture go well beyond those of the nuclear family.” Her observations highlight the growing conviction I’ve had since first encountering Wesley Hill’s musings on tumblr concerning the obligation of Christian marriages to expand the scope of their households.
Her observations also point to the rude wake up call I received when we had kids and I moved from full-time to part-time to no-time outside employment. Housekeeping had been just something we managed in the cracks of our lives before the huge upset that is a first child, and while we strove to have a cozy home to which we could comfortably invite friends, it wouldn’t have been something we listed as a major part of our lives. She argues, “How much more conducive to the well-being of the household it would be, both before and after children, if housekeeping were treated as an intrinsic and positive part of life in the body and in community rather than as a set of boring and limiting chores imposed on you by parenthood.”
I still struggle, over a year into being home full-time, not to feel like my housework is somehow un-hip, shamefully old-fashioned, and degrading. Peterson offers useful context, here as elsewhere, however: “But if in Jesus God himself could take up a towel and wash other people’s feet, surely we, as Jesus’ adopted brothers and sisters, can find it in us to wash one another’s dirty clothes and dirty dishes and dirty floors.” Amen, sister.
The bottom line, of course, is simple: “How much more hospitable it would be if our homes were routinely to be places filled with satisfying meals, with shirts warm from the dryer, with smoothly made beds — not because we are trying to win the housekeeping prize but because these are good and pleasant ways to care for one another and for ourselves!” I would do well to remember this myself.