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?

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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”

 

A Mother’s Rule of Life

I’ve asked it before: How do you decide what of all possible things to go deep in, when, as a stay-at-home mother, you’re a jack of all trades?

It would help to have a job description. As it is, I almost always have the nagging conviction I should be doing something other than whatever I’m doing at that moment. Last winter I read the Rule of St. Benedict and this winter I fell in love with the cloistered world of In this House of Brede — its quiet peace, and sense of purpose, and hard work, and order.

This reading primed me, I think, for A Mother’s Rule of Lifewhich is a pretty divisive book in my tiny microcosm of Catholic married mothers who are home full-time. Some friends worry it’s a temptation to rigidity; the one who lent it to me found it tolerably helpful in prioritizing; an Insta friend adored it. In it, Holly Pierlot promises to walk you through developing your own Rule, if you happen to find yourself a Catholic married mother at home rather than a nun in a convent.

Pierlot defines a Rule as “a reflection of the aims and mission of vocation,” and much of the book led me to fruitful consideration, as I followed her advice and took notes. Eventually I decided this: Our aim, as a family, as a household, is to progress in kindness and holiness through love of God, love of each other, and love of learning. From there, you take the tasks you believe are most essential to your vocation, prioritize them, and slot them into a schedule. If you were a Brede nun, it would involve singing the liturgy, working at your talent (translation or writing or gardening), common labor, prayer. For me, in this stage, it involves less liturgical singing and more laundry.

If my aim is to progress in kindness and holiness, I need to not over schedule, but I do need to keep things clean enough that I don’t flip out on my sweet family. I need to practice discipline so I’m not always fighting fires, but build in time for the seeming non-essentials of learning and reading. I need to take breaks from the fun (the latter) and the challenging (the former) to play with my children, to do nothing much with my husband. If I can just remember that, I feel like the rest will fairly fall into place.

The book has obvious weaknesses. I think it’s ordered badly, so that the rationale for a Rule comes at the very end, instead of as an argument before launching in to the nitty gritty of scheduling errands and drawing up monthly rotations. The writing style also isn’t my cup of tea, but Pierlot does have a knack for crystalizing a lot of the ideas that have been kicking around in my head while bringing in pretty compelling authorities. She also seems to assume the existence of bigger kids to share the load, which is hard when I only have littles, but it does remind me to be on the lookout for places Pip can help — putting away silverware, running the vacuum extension hose thing, which he adores.

I was surprised, reading, to discover just how much of a schedule we’ve already drafted toward, my routine-loving children and me. And writing that schedule down started to show me some gaps where maybe, after all, I could choose to be still, could choose to give to prayer, could choose to use for writing or frivolous reading or napping without guilt. It’s also, unexpectedly, giving me permission to let done be done, helping silence the guilty conviction that there’s always something I should be cleaning, or something noble I should commit to, because there I have, in writing, what my priorities are, and what qualifies as “done.”

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Anxiety and the Post Apocalyptic

When I list my favorite books, many follow a common theme: Anne of Green Gables, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Gilead, Persuasion — fairly light, fairly sweet. But there’s a thread that runs against this theme because, since I was about 12 and first read Alas, BabylonI also have a deep and abiding love for post apocalyptic  and dystopian stories.

I’ve read so many over the years, especially while I was a teen librarian and The Hunger Games reigned supreme, that my dreams are often combinations of survival scenarios and, depressingly, packing. But it’s hard to tell, chicken or egg, whether I dream of conflagration because I’ve read so much of it, or I read so many stories of utter destruction because these images have always haunted my dreams.

What I do suspect is that for me, post apocalyptic stories—the good ones—satisfy something deep inside. I am not, it’s perhaps worth noting, the kind of person with a bug-out bag and survivalist dreams — however, I am an anxious person, always worried about small impending catastrophes. For me, to read Alas, Babylon is to enter a world where my fear is confirmed, the worst occurs, and, in the books I especially love, the worst is overcome.

Because I’m not a fangirl of depths-of-despair forebodings like On the Beachwhere literally everyone dies, slowly and inexorably. The stories I find myself drawn to have their darkness, but also their hope. Sure, most of the world is obliterated by nuclear war in Alas, Babylon, but the surviving citizens of a small central Florida town rebuild a better world. Some of these novels are darker than others: salvation is sparing in The Road and The Dog Starsand life is hardscrabble in Station Eleven, though beauty and art endure. In  A Canticle for Leibowitz and The Children of Men, the margin of hope is a downright sliver.

Maybe that’s why, then, readers are flocking to George Orwell’s 1984 these days. Maybe these dystopian worlds, these after-the-disaster premises, allow us to feel safer: Sure, it’s bad now, but it could be much, much worse. Or maybe, when you’re scared, living out the worst-case scenario between the pages of a book can feel like an escape — or even preparation.

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Homeschooling and the Bookshelf

A recent Goodwill haul

When I was getting ready to travel to East Africa as a newlywed, I re-read Heart of Darkness and The Poisonwood Bible(Optimistic choices, I know.) When we were expecting our firstborn, I pored over Natural Childbirth the Bradley WayI am a reader, first and foremost. It’s how I prepare, living out the future from the safety of the page.

The decision to homeschool Pip’s preschool next year has been different, because these sweet children already take up so much of my day that I can’t dive into a book as I once did. I want to read to prepare, but instead, I find myself reading Good Night, Good Night Construction Site or another Beverley Cleary instead of educational philosophy.

Although Virginia’s winter has been mild this year, it’s run roughshod on our family. One or more of us has been sick since we returned from Christmas weeks and weeks ago. Barred from playdates and parks, stir crazy in the house, overdosed on family movies, I find myself hauling the kids day after day from one thrift shop to another.

Right now, homeschooling feels so big, so nebulous, and as with first birth or expatriation, you can’t really know what it’s like until you’re already in the thick of it. I can be thinking about what I’d like to do, and talking to my many wise friends, and sneaking bits of The Well-Trained Mind on audiobook as I cook dinner, but for now, it’s mostly a matter of waiting.

I realized, though, there might be a method to my compulsion. I can’t read homeschooling manuals when I’m caring for my kids, but I sure as heck can wheel them around a thrift store, diving for literary treasures. With every chapter book I snag, I feel a little more prepared for the mostly unpreparable. I’ve got another book to read aloud to Pippin, another book of background reading I’ll get to one of these days (I’m looking at you, Last Child in the Woods). I can’t yet imagine what our homeschooling life will look like a year from now, but I rest assured I’ll be surrounded by old friends: Stuart Little, the Alden children, Mary Poppins, the Penderwick sisters.

Galentines: Literary Friendships

Galentines Day, invented by Parks & Recreation‘s Leslie Knope, is all about ladies celebrating ladies (with waffles, of course). We live in a world with bromances and guy love, but we can always use a little more gratitude for our female friendships, can’t we?

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First on our list from literature is a no brainer: Anne and Diana, of course. Bosom friends! Kindred spirits! Isn’t the Anne series really just an extended exploration of friendship? And so few male characters who aren’t pure cardboard. Let us always remember along with Anne, “Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.” (And it’s worth celebrating all the other friendships in the series. My favorite is Philippa Gordon.)

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Next, I nominate the lesser-known Julie and Maddie in Code Name Verity. The story opens improbably enough, with a Scottish spy, captured in occupied France, writing her confession to the Gestapo, but quickly unfolds into the story of her friendship with Maddie, an English pilot. There are too many good passages to choose from: “It’s like being in love, discovering your best friend” or the long and lovely meditation:

 I don’t believe for a minute–that we wouldn’t have become friends somehow–that an unexplored bomb wouldn’t have gone off and blown us both into the same crater, or that God himself wouldn’t have come along and knocked our heads together in a flash of green sunlight.

Uprooted. I know we just talked about this one. Friendship isn’t quite as central here, but its nuances make it memorable. Agnieszka and Kasia have always known that Kasia will be chosen by the mysterious and surly local wizard as a servant. Their friendship endures in spite of this inevitable truth, but when Agnieszka is chosen instead, things get complicated. Magic forces them to confront the darkness in their close and sustaining friendship, and they emerge stronger than ever:

My vision cleared, and looking into her face I saw the shame falling away. She looked at me with fierce love, with courage.

Can we count sisters? Christina Rossetti argues we can in “Goblin Market“:

For there is no friend like a sister

In calm or stormy weather;

To cheer one on the tedious way,

To fetch one if one goes astray,

To lift one if one totters down,

To strengthen whilst one stands.

Well, I’m convinced. So let’s add:

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The Marches in Little Women. Isn’t this Australian cover above just the sweetest?

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The Penderwicks. Love the Penderwick Family Honor, and how these girls seem to manage to be all be friends (well, most of the time), despite their age and personality differences.

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Elizabeth and Jane, Elinor and Marianne. Of course. What would Jane be without Elizabeth’s calls to courage, or Lizzy without Jane’s soft heart urging kindness? How lonesome Elinor’s path of dreary prudence would be without Marianne, and how destructive Marianne’s unrestrained passions without Elinor!

Who’s on your list of literary BFFs? Can you think of any contemporary books with central female friendships written for adults?

A day in books

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21 was a special summer for me. I got engaged. I was leaving for study abroad in September. And I got a job through my parents where sometimes I did administrative work on septic tank variances (WOOHOO) and sometimes I got paid to read my Oxford reading list holed up in my cubicle. And it was kind of the life.

At the time, I knew it was unlikely i would ever get paid even $10/hour again to read classical literature. And it’s been true. While I made minimum wage at a secretary job reading Wendell Berry and doing library school homework, and later snuck an occasional YA novel at the desk as a librarian, it’s never really happened again in the ten year since.

I don’t always love being a stay at home parent, but man, is it a fine career for reading. For fun, I tracked what we read on a slow winter weekday recently:

  • Away in the Manger — Scout’s current favorite, on repeat. (I’m not going to link to this one, because the point is: song, pictures of baby, pictures of animals. Pretty generic.)
  • Scout’s Little Book of Names and Faces — requested by both kids. I made it for Scout’s Christmas this year through this service.
  • I Can FlyRuth Krauss — Scout’s nap time choice.
  • Day Dreamers, Emily Winfield Martin — a Scout request. The illustrations are so lovely.
  • Paw Patrol: Puppy Birthday to You — Ugh.
  • Boxcar Children 1 (audiobook) — I didn’t read this one. Pippin has taken to listening to audiobooks while I cook dinner.
  • Boxcar Children 10 (paperback) — It makes me batty that he wants to read more than one book in the same series at the same time, but pfffft.
  • The Velveteen Rabbit — P’s first time.
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn — just me, during nap time, for bookclub.
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland — J’s reading this one chapter a night to the kids while I clean up from dinner.
  • Swallows and Amazons — J’s bedtime book for Pip which he reads beside the fire while I do more straightening up.

Sitting in a little over-air conditioned cubicle, I didn’t imagine this future for myself as a reader, but it’s one I’m grateful for (Paw Patrol aside).

And dear new mother Katherine, circa 2013 — you will read again, and something other than books that label truck parts. And it will be all you hoped for.

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