An Unusual Christmas, Some Unusual Christmas Cards

I find myself in a bit of a conundrum. It seems wrong to approach this year with the sort of tongue-in-cheek family report I’ve written in previous years — I believe last year’s card involved news of Roo stuffing a bead up her nose. Luckily, stationery companies are here to fill the need! Let one stationery devotee walk you through some approaches, since I’m going to be obsessing over them anyway:

Approach 1: Wishing the Year Away

Pictured: from Minted, 100 for $130

This variety of cards kind of upset me. They’re funny, but I don’t want to completely dismiss the year, as hard as it’s been. (Similar sentiments also available at Shutterfly and Pinhole Press.) I mean, yes, it wasn’t great, but you’re alive and buying Christmas cards, so it could be worse. “We thought 2020 would never end” (link) strikes me as an improvement, as does “In hindsight 2020 was the longest year ever!” (link). And “2020—we got through” (link) seems more a rally of solidarity than a complaint.

Approach 2: Peace & Hope

Pictured: Peartree, 104 for $165.36 [why 104? I don’t know.]

This seems like a universally palatable wish in 2020 — not ostentatiously religious but encouraging. The one pictured is very much my favorite take of the bunch. (Similar cards at Paper Culture; these “hope always” ones are also good, especially if you don’t want a photo)

Approach 3: (Extra) Family Togetherness

Pictured: Simply to Impress, 100 for $94

In very large part I send Christmas cards each year so people who want a photo of my kids can have a photo of my kids. But I am still (probably too?) cautious about being braggy about my family. It’s true 2020 has taught us what’s really important so that if we have small kids at home we are probably extra grateful for them (when we aren’t contemplating strangulation), but it’s also important to me not to slip into a sort of #blessed mentality, especially because inevitably I’ll be sending cards to people not blessed in the same ways. The above one strikes a good balance, though, as does “Love was extra patient this year” (link) — and similarly, “Together more than ever—and we still love each other!” (link).

Approach 4: The Shared 2020 Experience

Pictured: Paper Culture, 100 for $128.80

“We laughed, we cried, we Zoomed, we made it” (link) and “Quarantine bingo” (link) also do a good job highlighting the unique, nearly universal experiences of this year — so does “Happy holidays, from our porch to yours” (link). But let’s all agree not to send each other toilet paper themed Christmas cards, ok? This feels like the holiday card equivalent of a Monica Lewinsky Halloween costume — entirely too topical and kind of crass.

How are you tackling Christmas cards this year? Are you more or less inclined to send them in 2020?

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. 

Your Eco-Friendly Friendships

Recently, I’ve been revisiting Radical Homemakers almost ten years after it rocked my world back in grad school. Parts are brilliant and parts a bit flaky, just like I remembered, but the overall effect is to fire me up. And I came across a cornerstone of X’s vision for domesticity: Save the planet, make a friend!

“Solid and satisfying relationships are beyond a doubt the primary step in building a sustainable home.”

This was good news to me. I don’t recycle anymore and I have a list as long as my arm of domestic skills I should probably cultivate, but I do invest in friendships.

When I think about the claim, I sort of see it. There aren’t all that many days anymore when I don’t feed someone outside my immediate family or get fed in return. I don’t buy many children’s clothes. We do very few formal cultural events –good and wholesome though they are–because much of our time is spent in pleasure and duty to our network of friends: just passing time and sharing meals at one home or another. All of this reduces consumption and waste.

We also are able to sidestep some childcare costs by swapping care for appointments and other one-offs. When we do have to pay for services (childcare, lawn care, tailoring, etc.) we can also often keep it within the church or homeschooling community. We are keeping our money hyper-local and practicing frugality while we’re at it.

J, vanquished by the children of our community of friends

Here is a fairly typical day:

  • At preschool drop off, I pass one bag of Pip’s hand-me-downs to a friend who passes me two bags of her daughter’s for Scout. (Everyone needs a friend with children the same ages as her own but opposite genders.)
  • I go through an IKEA bag of stuff from another friend who’s in the process of moving. I set aside the things I can’t use to find homes for.
  • At naptime a friend’s high school daughter brings by the duvet she finished making as a commission for me.
  • In the afternoon, I work out a complicated childcare scenario where a friend piggybacks on my mother’s helper, who subcontracts with her little brother. It ends up costing us $10 each for two hours of childcare, during which time I listen to an audiobook uninterrupted and wrap birthday presents. On the phone, I also walk a friend through setting up an evite for an All Souls prayer potluck.
  • A young friend’s husband is finishing up work on our back deck. She drops him off, grabs an apricot and leaves some vases I’ve left her
  • Dinner is pasta and homemade meatballs from our yearly cow. I double the recipe and drop half off at the home of the farmer friend who raised the cow, who’s having a difficult recovery from surgery.
  • When I get home J is having a beer on the porch with the wife of our deck repairman and the father of the extra kid our mother’s helpers watched.
  • After kid bedtime, I eat a brownie baked by one friend and enjoy a cup of tea from the hostess, when I meet to plan our Blessed Is She Advent retreat.

Pretty potatoes from our farm share, run by a parishioner, some of which were delivered to a friend of a friend recovering from a concussion

These friendships are different, more demanding and deeper, than those friendships when you get together when your life is under control for a night that feature fancy food, sparkling conversation and clean countertops. Sometimes we have those things and they are good things to be sure. But this life of ours paradoxically requires more mess and more order. When your child outgrows her wardrobe, you can’t just bag it up for Goodwill or simply toss it; instead, you divvy and deliver it between friends, and you accept hand-me-downs in advance that you’ll have to store. You invite people into the nooks and crannies of a busy family life and hope they don’t walk away when you run late because of a diaper blowout or you offer them half of the non-gourmet thing you froze weeks ago. It’s harder and more vulnerable than the independent suburban way I think a lot of people live, but its porosity and clamor and warmth are a comfort in times of trouble (and morning sickness) and a fortress against the materialism of the world in which our children can flourish.

PS–Would it be helpful for anyone if I did a detailed post on my system for storing hand-me-downs?

Family Work

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“Have you ever asked what work your family is supposed to do together?”

It’s a question I came across this winter in Jennifer Fulwiler’s One Beautiful Dream as I recovered from a particularly nasty stomach bug. And sometimes, as on that day, the answer can be summed up succinctly: SURVIVE.

It was a striking question, because while I vacillate a lot about what work I’m supposed to do — tiny library job? pouring more of myself into writing? fully embracing this time at home? — I think I do have a sense of what our family is supposed to do together.Read More »

Commonplace Book, 50

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.

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