A Literary Love of Flowers

photo via

So, I think one of the perks, if not one of the outright goals, of educating little kids yourself at home is that you get to choose what to stuff into their little brains. Maybe that sounds nefarious, but aren’t the early years mostly just about learning how to learn, and learning to love learning? That’s why I used a saint-based curriculum this year for Police Preschool and it’s why as the school year winds down we are focusing on nature and birds and most of all, flowers.

Because maybe someday Pippin will be a police officer and Scout will be something totally depressing, like a dentist, but they’ll keep these memories of the difference between a dandelion and a daffodil and the way robins dance beside the turned-up garden soil and how grape hyacinth smells like Concord grapes (and maybe a fact or two about St Thérèse, too).

And on our quest, there are plenty of books to light this love of flowers.

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Detective Stories and Objective Truth

Murder mysteries are a strange place to go looking for stories that point out the sacred, but in reading The Last Policeman series I was reminded of the British period drama Foyle’s War we had watched and enjoyed several years ago. Although both stories center around a lone male detective, most similarities end there: one is the story of American Henry Palace in the world’s final days, the other the career of Englishman Christopher Foyle in the shadow of World War II.

Though both men cling to the mores of a dying world, challenged by those who find their allegiance to duty futile under the circumstances, neither detective is simply a bureaucratic ritualist adhering to mindless rules at the cost of his humanity. Instead, both Palace and Foyle highlight a strength of the murder mystery: its affirmation of the vital importance of morality even in the face of dire circumstances. Read More »

What I Don’t Do

Three years and two children ago, I wrote about a Shauna Niequist essay that has stayed with me for years now. In it, she writes,

“And this is what Denise told me: she said it’s not hard to decide what you want your life to be about. What’s hard, she said, is figuring out what you’re willing to give up in order to do the things you really care about.”

The idea, from an essay excerpted here, and found in her book Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace and Learning the Hard Waycontinues to challenge me. Read More »

Dorothy Day’s Little Way of Motherhood

So, last month I finished On Pilgrimagethe first book I’ve read by Dorothy Day. If you’ve read it, you know it’s a weird experience — like if I printed out a year’s worth of blog posts, interspersed them with my diary entries, stapled it together, and called it a book. But only if I was as insanely interesting as Day, even at her most scattered.

One page struck me especially. We have a new tradition of mother’s blessings here, where we gather to pray for and encourage a friend as her pregnancy comes to its end, and maybe that’s why this passage struck me particularly.

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My Man In the Wing Chair

While I was spending my first (always insomniac) night postpartum in the hospital, J and Roo snoring softly on either side, I read The Awakening of Miss Primsomething I’d been meaning to read for ages. Unsurprisingly, given all the recommendations I’d received, I loved it.

Prudencia Prim is a practical modern woman looking for escape, who finds it in the eccentric job posting for a private librarian in a small French town. She soon finds herself working for the equally frustrating and charming Man in the Wing Chair, organizing his enviable private library and taking part — somewhat unwillingly — in the life of the household, where he’s raising his nieces and nephews and educating others from the village. Almost despite herself, Miss Prim is drawn in to the unusual community, challenging everything she held dear.

Along the way, she receives the wonderful advice:

“You must not aspire to finding a husband who’s your equal, but one who’s absolutely and completely better than you.”

This was something I took for granted in my parents’ marriage: it was always obvious that each believed the other had settled. My mom admired my dad; my dad admired my mom. And so I set out to find a boy who was my superior, and, like my parents before me, lucked out: John Bowers, a constant inspiration to me to be more kind, patient, energetic, creative.

(Warning: mild Awakening of Miss Prim spoilers)

Like the Man in the Wing Chair, he’s brimming with bookish ideas and convictions and cheerful rants. One of the lines in which the Man in the Wing Chair most reminded me of my husband was this one:

“He wasn’t delightful in arguments, or in debates: he wouldn’t yield an inch concerning what he believed to be true, and he had no mercy with opponents when he saw they weren’t on his level.”

J is a formidable debater who argued several friends into the Catholic Church before succumbing himself. His conviction in debate can make me nervous — I spend a lot of energy monitoring people’s feelings and worry about hurting someone. But his bravery in arguing for the truth reminds me I could stand to gain in tenacity.

One piece reveals the author’s inspirations in crafting her protagonist, exclaiming: “How could one not want to read a novel in which the male protagonist is a composite of C.S. Lewis, John Senior and Mr. Knightley from Jane Austen’s Emma!” While I’m not familiar with John Senior, except by name, biographies of C. S. Lewis have often reminded me of J: intellectually fleet and tough, slightly intimidating in intensity, boisterous with joy. And while Emma isn’t my favorite Austen novel, Mr. Knightley is definitely one of my favorite Austen heroes, one who’s absolutely and completely superior to Emma.

Another passage that struck me as familiar is this one, in which a friend characterizes the Man to Miss Prim:

“And there’s a third group, to which your Man in the Wing Chair belongs, whose aim is to escape from the dragon. They want to protect their children from the influences of the world, to return to the purity of old customs, recover the splendor of an ancient culture.”

Especially in this season, when J’s been able to take a lot of parental leave, I’ve seen all the big and small ways he seeks to protect our kids and “return to the purity of old customs” as he helps educate our kids, reads them books by the fire and leads them in Christmas carols on his violin.

We don’t know from the text if the Man in the Wing Chair sports a spectacular beard, like J, or if Miss Prim ends up with her Man in the Wing Chair. But today, on my Man in the Wing Chair’s birthday, I’m so glad I married mine.

 

The Man in the Wing Chair

 

Pippin’s Books of 2017 (Age 4)

This was the year of a chapter book awakening for Pip — we started with Ramona for reasons I can’t remember and from there he was insatiable. J had been working slowly through Hobbit and others since Pippin was twoish but now both adults were reading aloud to him and he was devouring audiobooks during quiet time much faster than I could source them.

We’ve only just started phonics so the only words he can read himself are “Pippin,” “police,” and “Grandpa” (!!!). We read a lot of picture books for fun, too, but I don’t track those. And his comprehension of these chapter books can vary — he regularly refers to plot details from Beverly Cleary books, but didn’t realize Beth March died until we watched a movie version of Little WomenBut he only has to listen to things that interest him, and I figure even if he doesn’t absorb all of some of the books he listens to, letting the words wash over him is still beneficial, especially if he enjoys it.

I didn’t keep perfect records but I think he “read” 40-something unique books in 2017, which doesn’t account for the frankly disturbing number of times he wan’t to re-read the Henry Huggins books and other favorites. You can see the full list on Goodreads if you’re interested.

I thought it would be fun to have him review his year in reading. You can probably tell from his answers he was less enthused!

  • What kind of books do you like?
    • “Police car ones.”
  • What was your favorite book Mama read aloud?
    • Henry Huggins
  • What was your favorite book Papa read aloud?
  • What was your favorite audiobook?
  • Who was your favorite character in a book?
    • “Captain John [from Swallows and Amazons] and also the Boxcar Children, Henry Alden.”
  • What books do you want to read next year?
    • All the same ones I did.
Reading Swallowdale last month

 


Readers’ Advisory: Policemen

Shortly after Pippin turned four, he got into policemen in a big way. (It may have been a half dozen back to back screenings of Lego City on the way to Christmas in Florida. Oops.)

Since then, his previous stockpile of truck books has simply become a source of needle-and-haystack searches for police cars and policemen. When asked why he loves police so much, he answers matter-of-fairly, “I don’t know. I’m just into right and wrong.”

We would have preferred his Next Big Thing be something like knights or animals, but it’s hard to argue with a thirst for justice. Still, with police books being at least 80% less popular than firefighter and construction books (WHY?!), we’ve been on a long quest now for the best in police books. Some suggestions for your young cadet:

  • Detective LaRuein which a dog solves the crime for which he’s been framed, with lots of irony between his letters and the illustrations.
  • Officer Buckle and Gloria. Probably my favorite. A police officer’s safety presentations become lively when a police dog begins to accompany him on his school visits. Bonus: John Lithgow reads the book aloud.
  • The Boxcar Children series for gentle mysteries — these don’t always feature police but they do feature bad guys and mysteries to solve and are unbelievably mild. The audiobooks are also often easy to come by.
  • Sergeant Murphy’s Busy Day and some other Richard Scarry titles. The Scarry spinoff show Busy Town on Amazon Prime also passes the test for extremely gentle mystery.
Bowers,Pippin-1
This year’s school picture. Weird homeschooled kid.

Dishonorable Mentions

  • Detective Chase McCain series. These are pretty agonizing to read aloud, but I could see how they might be OK to lure a Lego- and police-loving kid into reading by himself, if he were a bit older. Total fluff, though.
  • Officer Panda: Fingerprint DetectiveA little too odd and meta for me.

Have you found any police books your kids loved? We are always on the hunt!

 

 

The Catholic Wendy’s Booth

Lately I’ve been reading Emily Stimpson Chapman’s The Catholic Table with a book club of women from my church, and while we were pretty divided over A Severe Mercy, I think it’s possible we actually all like this one. Way to go, Emily S.C.

So I’ve been thinking about what food means for our family in this season where I’m increasingly incapable of actually preparing it. (It doesn’t help that I’m pretty sure being on my feet to make a freezer batch of NOT EVEN GOOD chicken pot pies jumpstarted my last preterm labor.)

Anyway, it was a Saturday morning and J took Scout on errands. So it was just me and Pippin, and I miraculously convinced him to help me go through Roo’s closery and start getting things cleared out in there from the 1000 bins of hand me downs it’s housed since Scout’s reign. And it was actually super fun. He loved being the strong man who slid the bins into the hall for me, and he helped me pick out tiny outfits for the hospital bag, and spun around in my spiffy new glider.

Afterwards, I decided to treat him to a lunch at Wendy’s, his all-time favorite restaurant, even though it would mean a longish waddle across the park. But he’d helped me all morning! And the weather wasn’t awful. And you know what they say about 31 weeks…it’s only going to get worse from here.

So we stopped at every park bench on the way and I tried not to think dire thoughts about my fitness level as I hobbled along, pausing for him to gather leaves to toss in the creek, enjoying his chatter about the proper way to plant these things I’m not even convinced are seeds.

At Wendy’s, we ordered our usual and sat at the window so we could keep look out for police cars and fire trucks. Pip has such a fraught relationship with food that it’s just a relief to go someplace where he’ll eat his fill cheerfully and gratefully. But even though it wasn’t the kind of meal I envisioned when reading The Catholic Table, something like the meals Shauna Niequist is so good at describing, and which I occasionally succeed in producing on our own big dinner table, there did seem to be something sacred about this little treat with my firstborn.

Lunchtime, especially on weekdays, is usually a time of frenetic activity for me. We Skype my parents, I cajole people to focus and eat, I try to produce balanced meals with zero effort, I get up from the table 30 times for things I’ve forgotten or someone’s decreed essential. Or I read on my phone and encourage folks not to bother me as I eat my poorly microwaved leftovers. Or I try to start the slow cooker and change out the laundry as the kids eat their lunch painstakingly slowly. It’s not the worst part of my day, but I doubt it’s a time they’ll recall me shining as a mom.

But at this little spontaneous lunch date with my eldest, I left my phone in my purse. I didn’t cajole him to eat more because it’s all garbage, and I didn’t get mad that he wasn’t eating what I had fixed. We talked about who in our family loves fries most as we split an order. He coached me on assembling the windmill toy he got in his kids’ meal, and we spotted a fire truck with lights speed by. We said grace, we enjoyed our meal, we enjoyed each other.

What else is sharing the Catholic Table about?