This Is Four

Lately, this is my boy when he sees me sneaking a photo. But when he gets my phone to himself during audiobook time while I’m making supper:

He’s been so into reading chapter books aloud since the new year, and when in flusterment* I handed him my phone with a hastily downloaded Mercy Watson library audiobook a couple weeks ago when I couldn’t manage to read aloud and chop onions simultaneously, I had no idea how popular this move would make me.

So while Scout methodically destroys my kitchen or deigns to throw Cheerios from her high chair and I frantically finish supper, Pippin listens to the adventures of the Boxcar Children and takes a million, jillion pictures of the things that make up his life. I love his weird compositions of scenes from our messy house during one of the most difficult times of our day as a family. I delete most of them, because I don’t really need (literally) 93 pictures of his Matchbox firetruck. I end up with pictures of the junky Lego book I let him get from the library; of our unstraightened playroom bookshelf; of shoes strewn with wild abandon (even though they know better!). I delete most of them, but I keep a few, mementos of these imperfect, fleeting evenings.

*not a word, but should be

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.

The Case for Photo Books

I’m a big believer in photo books. I make them a couple times a year, and have tried several different services.

The process is a mixed bag. The software or site can be clunky to use, and it’s tedious to sift through the thousands of pictures I take in six months and the hundred more restrained J manages. (A friend says she’s set up Dropbox so the photos from her phone and her husband’s both automatically import there, so I’ve got a new goal.) I usually spend a few evenings sitting beside J on the couch with our matching laptops, something inane on the TV, and crank out another photo book to add to our stash.

But the end result is alchemical: something magical out of a mess of poorly focused shots, duplicates, blurry snaps of children in motion. Looking back at these books reminds me there is good in every season, no matter how morning sick it was. Recently I pulled one volume from the shelf to show Pippin the winter he and J made a snow fort in the backyard, and suddenly I found the kids immersed in photo albums, Scout reverently whispering, “Baby” as she pointed emphatically at photo after photo.

I’ve used Shutterfly, Blurb, MyPublisher, Mixbook and Pinhole Press (this one just for board books). Of these, probably MyPublisher is my favorite for prettiness (cloth covers!) and Shutterfly/Mixbook are cheapest and easiest to use. (I just read MyPublisher is closing up shop, though. Figures.)

Along the way, I’ve assembled a stack of photo books that vary in size and quality but all serve to tell the story of our family. It’s easy to snag one off the shelf to show a neighbor how impressively bald and round-headed Pip was as a baby, or to show Pip what our old house in Granby looked like. Sometimes he’ll ask for one to be read to him as a story book, or Scout will page enthusiastically and violently through one. I remember my own childhood fondness for those static-page photo albums of the ’90s and so I soldier on with clunky software and crashing websites, building up the Grimm Bowers family record one photo book at a time.

Toddler Pip sharing memories with his uncle

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?

Commonplace Book, 27

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:

  • Samosa Pie. We loved this. I used ground beef instead of ground chicken because the use of poultry substitutes is grounds for abandonment in J’s mind. I also halved the jalapeño because I was also making a batch for a newly postpartum friend and her children. And then I stained our counter quite impressively with turmeric. But still. Worth trying.
  • Things with our friends’ Whole30 leftovers. (Don’t pity them. They’re in Hawaii now. Don’t grudge me my cashew milk chocolate pudding and carrot coconut milk soup.)

What I’m reading:

When we stop feeling like we need to make every moment of our kids’ lives picture perfect and enjoyable, it leaves us some room to breathe and (get this!) really, truly enjoy more of their childhood.   These year are precious, there’s no denying it; but more important than just enjoying them, we can actually be at peace in them (and not just in retrospect), knowing that we’re fully present and accepting of both the good and the hard.

  • The Boxcar Children series with Pippin. I remember reading these as a kid and delighting in them, in the kids’ independence and housekeeping, and P loves them, too. But reading them as an adult is so surreal, this weird double vision, a haunting awareness of how Gertrude Chandler Warner walks this tightrope around all the darkness in the children’s lives. As an adult, I think of the real bitterness of orphanhood when the Aldens mention casually their parents are dead; I think of the children I saw climbing in the dump in Uganda when the kids go hunting for treasures in the junkyard. And yet the passages where they forage blueberries and wash them down with a bottle of milk cooled in the stream are just as bewitching.
  • I finished A Tree Grows in Brooklynand despite my early reservations, I really loved it and had trouble putting it down by the end. I’ve never felt very at home in New York City, but I loved reading about Francie looking out over her Williamsburg neighborhood, thinking of the evening I spent on my sister’s roof almost 100 years later, when she spent a stint in Bushwick:

She looked out over Brooklyn. The starlight half revealed, half concealed. She looked out over the flat roofs, uneven in height, broken once in awhile by a slanting roof from a house left over from older times. The chimney pots on the roofs…and on some, the shadowing looming of pigeon cotes…sometimes, faintly heard, the sleepy cooing of pigeons…the twin spires of the Church, remotely brooding over the dark tenements…And at the end of their street, the great Bridge that threw itself like a sigh across the East River and was lost…lost…on the other shore. The dark East River beneath the Bridge, and far way, the misty-gray skyline of New York, looking like a city cut from cardboard.

Francie feels like the kind of character who becomes a watchword for discerning kindred spirits, like Anne, like Harry. You love Francie? Me, too! Katie I just adored and forgave all her limitations; Johnny I struggled with. When did you first read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn?

The high class A+ photography you come here for; Brooklyn roof life, 2013


Quiet Month


Stomach bug misery flop


Partway through January, we finally returned from our Christmas odyssey, the semester began, and the blows just kept coming. It was a cold. Then a stomach bug, that followed so closely that it took awhile for us to ID it until we inadvertently infected our small group. As we recovered from the bug, another cold knocked us down, and once we ventured out, Pip showed up after co op one Friday, feverish and weepy, and we started the strep fight.

None of it has been that severe — many of our friends have had it much worse — but the dull unending cycle has taken its toll. I complained to a friend that I felt like Beret in Giants in the Earth, isolated and slowly deteriorating. It’s melodramatic, I know: instead of a sod hut I’m quarantined in a properly heated house with internet, stacks of books, and a short commute to Target where I can sequester my sickies in the cart and walk slooooooowly down the aisles, but still.

All plans for the month have been conditional, and more often derailed than kept. There’s been more TV than I can feel entirely good about, takeout dinners when the grownups were too sick or exhausted to cook, and lots of missed days of preschool.

But something wonderful has come out of these long, odious weeks: Quiet Month.

One Saturday morning, Scout and I bundled up, I loaded the stroller with a precarious package, and we walked to the UPS store. The friendly employee there asked, naturally enough, what our plans were for the weekend. And…those were our plans. A walk to the UPS store.

We came home and rested and read and cleaned and that was about it.

A lot of our weekends recently have been like that, and that’s pretty different from our usual weekend template. I wouldn’t say we are terribly over scheduled, but we like to see friends and feed them, and we often have something on the calendar for each weekend day.

Not having those plans has felt different, but good. I miss my friends terribly as we update each other by text on our progeny’s maladies but I haven’t hated having nothing much to do. The house has slowly gotten cleaner, despite the catastrophic cleaning projects that follow intestinal illness. In January I read 9 books — more than twice my average — because I had whole days lying inert in bed, and because Pippin, cooped up and feeling lousy, developed an insatiable Ramona habit. I’ve spent long, sunlit afternoons cuddling unusually snuggly children, and felt with new appreciation the strength of my rickety little body on the cold, dark mornings I’ve managed to get out for a run between illnesses.

I’m excited for the health and new mobility that will come with spring. The irises I planted last fall are starting to poke their way out of the front garden bed, and I note their progress with gratitude as I haul a 12-pack of lotion Kleenex up the porch steps. I will be glad for spring, but this little pause in our seasons — it isn’t all bad.

A day in books


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.