Commonplace Book, 29

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.

What I’ve been fixing:

  • Nada. My most masterful culinary accomplishment in weeks is buying potatoes for John to microwave and serve with chili I had made with my mom back at 5.5 weeks. Also, sometimes I make toast and sit on the grimy kitchen floor as it toasts.

What I’ve been reading:

Well, that’s a horse of a different color, or something. Here goes:

  • The Screwtape Letters: reread for Well Read Mom. I love that with each new pass, new things convict me — this time discussions of who time really belongs to and a striking critique of delicacy, which definitely comes into play when you’re trying to evaluate how much of your morning sick life is legitimate survival and how much is fretful selfishness.
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: I know the title is supposed to be cutesy, but it drives me nuts. Otherwise, loved this one about life in the Occupied and postwar Channel Islands. Told in sly epistles for bonus points!
  • The Light Between Oceans: In the early 20th century, an Australian lighthouse keeper and his wife discover a baby and a dead man washed ashore their isolated island. They keep the baby. Hypnotically depressing but with an unexpectedly hopeful ending. (See below.)
  • Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand: Not as good as I was hoping — kind of weirdly veering in places — but still fun. Major Pettigrew has lived his life in genteel English society in a way to uphold the family honor, but when his adult son’s behavior becomes increasingly crass and the Major himself strikes up a friendship with the village shopkeeper, he must decide how important the status quo really is.
  • Blythewood: See, here is where I got really wretchedly sick at nine weeks and dropped all literary pretensions. Young adult; girls at a mysterious boarding school in the early 20th century learn to fight the mysterious denizens of Faerie. But are all the creatures as evil as the girls have been taught? Fine. I don’t know. Probably not worth reading.
  • Red Rising: Life on Mars mining below its surface is hard to the point of slavery, but one miner discovers the truth: other castes rule this and other planets, living in unimaginable luxury. A little like Hunger Games, a little like Ender’s Game, way too violent for me. Also YA.
  • Edgewater: the YA parade continues as I demand plot and escapism. This was more nuanced than I was expecting. A girl raised by her eccentric aunt in their crumbling beachside manor is suddenly reduced to poverty just as she meets the tabloid boy of her dreams. See? It sounds ridiculous.
  • The Shade of the Moon: this is the fourth in a series I read so long ago I had forgotten some key plot points. In short: four years ago a meteor hit the moon out of orbit and towards the earth, causing mondo natural disasters and destroying society as we know it etc. Now our man Jon is a lucky resident of an enclave, a sort of fortress that exploits workers who live in comparative poverty. He’s a spoiled teenager till a new girl in the enclave opens his eyes to social justice. Then he does a bunch of bad things but eventually mends his was. This series is mysterious in its pull for me because parts are really, really grim for YA (rape, brutality) and yet some plot and dialog ring almost middle grade in their triteness. Luckily the series is finally over now so I can’t be lured back in.
  • Everything I Never Told You: in 1970s small town Ohio, the golden child of the biracial Lee family is found drowned in the neighborhood pond. As above, hypnotically depressing, but with an unexpectedly redemptive ending. And look! Twelve weeks and back to adult books, for the moment at least. 

Dispatches from an Enchanted Castle

Onions and garlic root in the pantry. Dog fur collects in drifts in the corners. On a sunlit couch somewhere in the house, a mama naps.

Or doesn’t nap. Just lies there with eyes closed tight, still as Snow White, still as Sleeping Beauty. And around her, her children play.

So, I was wrong in one of my last posts, and I am indeed pregnant. And for our family, that means everything goes into suspended animation. I’m almost thirteen weeks now, and can sometimes get by with just one nap and twelve hours at night. I can get by with a half dose of Zofran in the morning and a dose of Unisom and B6 at night.

But mostly, there’s a lot of lying around. In the spectrum of things, I seem to fall about in the middle first trimester: not glowingly symptom-free, not hospital fodder (though a stomach bug did earn me an IV this time).

Without my friends, it would be an unbroken schedule of hunch-walking from obligation to obligation with hibernation in between and lots and lots of tv and fast food for the kiddos.

It can feel like stagnation, or suffocation. It definitely feels interminable, every time I invariably fall ill at six weeks and stare down the rest of the first trimester. (I still have a pretty sensitive puke trigger after that, but not the soul-crushing constant nausea.)

Instead, this time, I’m trying to see it as a season. Like Quiet Month, but with more mint chocolate chip ice cream. I’m receiving more help from my village than in past pregnancies and trying to just have the grace and gratitude to accept it.

For three weeks there, Christmas lights turned on by the kids shone from our porch like some weird Lenten anomaly, a quarantine beacon: in this house, no one stirs. But that’s not the death sentence it felt like in my first pregnancy, nor the cataclysm of spoiled plans of my second pregnancy. It’s a season of enchantment in the old fairy tale sense: something strange and mysterious and hard, but yielding something wonderful. 

Commonplace Book 28 (ish)

So, my last Commonplace Book posted, but was backdated, and when I tried to fix it, I deleted it. It was all very livejournal circa 2004. So, picking up where we left off:

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.

What I’m fixing:

  • Sausage barley spinach soup. (Slow cooker, obviously, or are you new here?) You can add the onions and garlic and sausage in raw, but I’ll warn you that the ground sausage will fuse into a strange puck you’ll have to chop haphazardly with a wooden spoon later on, so consider wisely…
  • Scallion pancakes. These are kind of a major pain, but not really hard: just labor-intensive. But the payoff! Almost exactly like the cheap Chinese dive version I love, but with a certain something reminiscent of the hot “chapat” we used to get at the hospital canteen for breakfast in Uganda, warm and wrapped in grease-spotted notebook paper. Is this not helping to sell them? Seriously. Delicious.

What I’m reading:

  • Anne of Green Gables, My Daughter and MeThis one is doubly personal for me, because a.) I am an Anne devotee and b.) I married into a family that also includes an adopted mother and adopted Korean little sister. I had expected to love the reflections on Anne but often I find them prone to dull summary, which may just be loyalty or jealousy  — I can nearly quote the original. But parts of the personal storytelling ring like Shauna Niequist’s essays, which is never a bad thing: sensory details and bustling families and warm, intimate friendships.
  • Dumplin‘: I had read a recommendation for this from, I think, Annie of The Bookshelf in Thomasville, Georgia (who I knew casually in high school, and who is now a real-like Kathleen Kelly), and audiobook is definitely the way to go on this. J doesn’t like the profanity emanating from my iPhone as I wash dishes in the evening, but the narrator, a prickly, overweight teenager from rural Texas named Willowdean Dixon reminds me of some of my favorite Southerner college friends.
  • Someone tell me if it’s worth reading all of The Well-Trained Mind right now all at once. I’ve made it to middle school and I’m losing steam because my oldest child is, in fact, four. But I’d like the big picture! Please advise.

Negotiating Surrender: Quiet Time

The nap, my friends, is dead. It made it past 4, and still lives on in sick days and after late nights, with much cajoling. But by and large, Pippin seems to be of his father’s school of sleep: less than the average bear. (His mother, on the other hand, was falling asleep on the way home from kindergarten until 6.)

I fought long and bitterly for nap time, which Pip would have liked to discontinue at 2 1/2, when I was pregnant with Scout, and which possibly would have literally killed either me or him. Sleepy introvert mamas need their quiet time, too. And now I’ve put a similarly insane amount of work into rebranding nap time as “quiet time.”

We have this ok to wake up clock, and at the time, in grad school, it felt like a wild indulgence even to ask for it on a Christmas list, but it’s paid for itself in dividends to the point where we contemplate even packing it on trips. Not only do we use it for morning wakeup, but it’s invaluable for making quiet time happen.

What I do is put Pippin in his bedroom by himself, set the clock for an hour and walk away. The rule is simple enough even he can understand: if I can’t tell if he’s taking a nap, he gets a treat. (Usually half an episode of Octonauts and five yogurt raisins, in this hedonist family.) He may come down only if he needs help using the bathroom, and he must be very, very quiet. I am very firm on this point — some might say fanatical.

At first I’d only give him books, but now that he’s got the general concept down, he gets to bring a bag of quiet toys upstairs with him. When he’s a bit more reliable, I’ll let him branch out into art supplies up there — for now, he writes his name all over the room in white chalk of mysterious origins.

I don’t think I need to tell you how essential this is to my sanity. Years ago, Catholic All Year gave me permission to carve out quiet time for myself and my kids, something my mom, a much more extroverted caregiver, always prioritized for herself, too. I use the time for all kinds of frivolous and noble purposes, from dinner prep to naps of my own, from reading to writing to straightening up. It is a small oasis in our day, a little moment of peace that benefits us all.

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Experiments in Naps

So I’ve been napping at naptime. I’m not pregnant. I’m not (always) sick. I don’t have a newborn.

At first I felt kind of guilty about this. I could prep dinner! I could write! I could finish one of the zillion books I’m currently alternating.

But the house grows quiet and I know, now that Pippin is finally taking quiet time instead of naptime (RIP NAP), that I’ve got exactly one hour free.

I ask myself, as I have ever since mastering the simultaneous nap, what would be most sustaining for myself, and often, I lie down. Sometimes I read or write a bit from the horizontal. Usually I transfer a load of laundry or turn on the slow cooker before I lie down. But I generally end up in the same place.

I felt embarrassed, until I confessed my new habit to my husband. He pointed out that stillness often leads to breakthroughs and refreshment. He reminded me that he generally doesn’t listen to anything on his walk to work, and I recalled how he’d often solve difficult problems in his thesis by taking a break and doing something entirely different.

This season has been my season of monastic reading, mostly unintentional. First there was A Canticle for Leibowitzthen In This House of BredeIn the latter, particularly, there’s a tension between the old order nuns and the new, young nuns, who, even in their cloistered order, long for productivity, efficiency.

For several years, I’ve mostly used the St. Benedict Prayer Book. The night prayer includes the psalm: “Ponder on your bed and be still.”

I’m not a good ponderer. Or, I mean, I suppose I’m a person who likes to think (hence this here blog), but I also have a deep commitment to proving my right to take up space through efficiency, output, motion. And the next line, lest we forget, is “Make justice your sacrifice and trust in the Lord.” It is not enough to spend my days lazing, neglecting house and home and justice all in one, but it is valuable, perhaps, for just a beat, to ponder on my bed and be still.

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May we all nap as thoroughly.

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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Precipice 

Around here, the daffodils are blooming, the irises and the forsythia. And it’s all too early. People talk with trepidation: It’s beautiful, and welcome, but surely winter will be back. It won’t last.

Something similar is going on in our house. We are at a sweet spot in our family’s rhythms. Scout is approaching being weaned. I’ve got a plan for Pippin for next year. The house is tolerably under control. We are out of the trenches on most fronts.

But that means it’s probably just a matter of time until the cycle starts over again, and, God willing, I’m pregnant again.

Because I love my babies, and I’d love more, and I love parts of having a baby: picking a name, feeling the baby move, even labor. And the baby coming: the tiny clothes, the sweet snuggles, nursing. But it’s all really, really hard, right? My two pregnancies have not come close to a hyperemesis gravidarum diagnosis, but the first one in particular was one of the most discouraging, exhausting, bleak experiences of my (admittedly very privileged) life. The second time, both pregnancy and the newborn phase were easier, because I knew with personal evidence they would, in fact, come to an end, and could therefore better savor them. (Also, real talk, I took nausea medicine for the second go round, which obviously helped in the morale department.) Still, pregnancy means ceding control, and ceding it for a pretty long time — much longer than just pregnancy itself. It’s a scary, dreary prospect.

Just as winter is a fruitful time, bulbs fastening on to life underground, unseen, the hibernation and disarray of the pregnant season yields much that is good, too. It’s a season of Lent for me, and this early taste of spring has felt like Easter.

It’s a scary prospect, to go back under, to submit to the privations of Lent, the bleakness of winter, the aches of pregnancy, to wait for the return of blossomtome. But time out of mind, the only way up has been through. And Lent and pregnancy are, in the end, privileges: both are, if embraced, a time to toughen up, to grow closer to God — and followed by rich and lasting reward.

Lenten rose, spotted on a springlike Fat Tuesday walk