Commonplace Book, 10

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:

  • On vacation, J and I went out to The Edison in Tallahassee to celebrate our anniversary (8!). Because I am a real grown up, I ordered the Grown Up Grilled Cheese, which had something called English muffin bread. Have you had it? Really, really good. And so when I got back to Virginia, I had to try this: King Arthur’s English Muffin Bread for the Bread Machine. Highly recommend.
  • Smitten Kitchen’s slow roasted cherry tomatoes. I’m not sure it can even be considered a recipe, but for people like me, who love the idea of garden-fresh tomatoes but in practice loathe watching their toddler chomp into backyard tomatoes, seeds and that creepy jelly dripping down his chin, this is a good compromise. They still taste fresh, and prep is a breeze, but when they’re done, they’re all shriveled and tart.


I’d like to say these are ripe from my backyard garden, or that I bought them from my friendly local farmer, but no, I just found them in the damaged produce section of Martins.

What I’m reading:

  • Have you read Swallows and Amazons? I did, for my children’s lit tutorial at Oxford, and it was entirely lovable. This First Things piece suggests to me it might be time to introduce Pippin.

The world of Swallows and Amazons is a normal child’s ideal world, quiet and sheltered and kind, but full of startling and unexpected things, some of them real and some imagined.


The Secret to Well-Behaved Kids at Mass

It’s touching. You just hold onto your kids. You hold him in your arms. You settle him in your lap.  You snuggle them close. You whisper what’s going on at the altar. You nibble the baby’s ear and tousle the toddler’s hair. You lift the kid high, her feet resting on the pew, to see the altar boys process, to see the Consecration.

You don’t need special, silent, Catholic toys. You don’t need mess-proof snacks. You just need to be ready for a full upper body workout. (Remember, people throughout history have endured much worse for the privilege of the Eucharist.)

You also don’t need matching outfits, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

There’s no way around the work and there’s no way around the distraction. You won’t hear a whole homily while your kids are little, or a full reading, although you can read them in advance of Mass, in the sleepy early morning while you nurse the baby.

You’ll evaluate your kid’s behavior by his age and his character. Is she misbehaving or just exuberant in her shouted ALLELULIA, two beats late? Maybe your kid will be wiggler or noisier than your friend’s kid the same age. That’s ok. God knows the kind of kid he gave you. (Also, remember the time-honored Catholic tradition of the doughnut bribe.)

Church nurseries and children’s church and crying rooms make sense for Protestant worship, which is primarily intellectual and demands concentration. But Catholic mass is all about incarnation, about bodily worship: bodies kneeling and genuflecting, eating and drinking, eyes on the real body of our God who was once a squirmy little boy at his mama’s breast. So the imperfect, earthy worship that is the only kind possible in the presence of children fits here, as incongruous as it may seem in the hush of solemn liturgy.

How do you manage more than two kids, when the adult-arms-to-wriggling-kid ratio exceeds 1:1? That, you’ll have to tell me.

Nailed it, St. Thomas-by-the-Sea

The Wandering Bowerses

We’ve been on the road for over a month, staying with one friend, two families, an Airbnb and two hotels so far. Stray observations:

  • I’ve felt much more relaxed about my own housekeeping standards staying with people whose houses I admire. Everyone has some things better organized or cleaner than I do, and some corners more neglected. 
  • I love seeing the contents of people’s fridges. Anchovy paste! Refrigerated pie crust! (So I’m not alone after all.) What must our friends think of the strange food we leave behind, the garlic naan and the frozen Trader Joe’s chocolate croissants?
  • I’ve gotten to cook with friends and loved ones and learned a lot along the way: why fresh lemons are better than lemon juice, for instance. 
  • There are so many small clashes in living with someone. My father in law and I are locked in eternal war with each other as everyday, I take out a drinking glass for water only to find it already loaded in the dishwasher when I come back for it later, meaning I then run through half a dozen glasses a day. I’m sure it drives him nuts, too. 
  • Baby proofing a variety of locations for two active kids is impossible. This week Pippin bashed his face on a coffeee table and Scout fell down a flight of stairs. Awful. 

Perhaps most importantly, I now feel like a Jane Austen heroine who goes to call for a fortnight at a stretch, and I’ve gotten to sleep in nearly every day. Bliss!

Scout will sleep anywhere but wants to nurse 327x a night
we have profited shamelessly from borrowed baby gear

The Long View

At the end of March, we bought ourselves a house. And I don’t know if it’s our age or the recovering economy or whatever, but in that time I’ve had four or five other close friends go through the same exhilarating/nauseating roller coaster.

Most of those friends have a kid or two, and one friend asked me how to get unpacked and settled in with kids underfoot and the answer, I suspect, is mostly you don’t, or at least not with much haste.

All of us, we new homeowners, want something Instagrammable right away. We are scouring Pinterest, so impatient to make this new house “ours.” It’s tempting to stay up late unpacking, to spend a lot of money right away for that missing detail, to hold off having anyone over until we’re really settled. We’re Millennials, and we’ve been renting our entire adult lives. We’re ready to really own a place.

Mostly, though, I try to get out of the house with the kids because hey, it’s summertime, and we shouldn’t waste it, but also because when I am chasing off the baby from the electric outlets and fielding the preschooler’s request for a toy we haven’t unpacked yet and thinking about how I should haul another box up from the basement or take a crack at a better kitchen arrangement, I’m not the kind of mother I want to be.

Luckily for me a few weeks into unpacking (or not) we headed down to Tallahassee, where much of the month I stayed in the house my parents have owned since I was seven years old.

My dad, spiffing up the back of the house in 1993

It’s a house where I can see work and evolution and process in every room. That evidence is somehow reassuring. My mom’s gardening has changed and improved as she’s gotten to know the soil and entered a new season of life without kids at home when she can devote more time. As far back as I can remember, my parents’ house has been tidier than my current acceptable level, but the level of cleanliness they can maintain now that my father is a full time homemaker differs form how I remember it growing up. And every time something has broken since 1993, my parents have replaced it with something just a little nicer, a little more to their taste.

It all combines to reassure me that there is no static moment when a house is done. It feels overwhelming to think of the projects that loom before us, but so long as we keep the back porch from completing its transformation into a rotted death trap, we’ve got all the time in the world to make this little Craftsman our home. We can afford to play the long game.

Commonplace Book, 9

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:

We’ve been on the road, but I’ve gotten a chance to make a few things. Most recently one of my best childhood friends and I picked blueberries at her mom’s house and made this pie together, an old recipe my mom received as a newlywed, each one-handed with babies, answering Pippin’s incessant questions. It was pretty magical.

What I’m reading:

  • “An Eclectic Home That Tells the Story of Us” [Apartment Therapy] — love this house and its ability to meld sentimental, unhip artifacts with a keen eye for design.
  • The Precious Onebecause I got it for cheap on Kindle and her Love Walked In is one of my all-time favorite feel-good novels although I should be hustling to read…
  • Brothers Karamazovfor Well-Read Mom. I read it my senior year of college, and loved it, and it’s much harder and much different reading it as a (forever interrupted) parent. But SO GOOD:

 Try to love your neighbors actively and tirelessly. The more you succeed in loving, the more you’ll be convinced of the the existence of God and the immortality of your soul. And if you reach complete selflessness in the love of your neighbor, then undoubtedly you will believe, and no doubt will ever be able to enter your soul.

Today Scout is one! For the record, don’t let your baby eat sand. The results, diaper-wise, are pretty harrowing.

Please Spoil My Children

Sometimes when we are visiting, my parents will ask if one thing or another is ok for my kids, and I try really, really hard to say “yes.” There are times, I admit, when I freak out because my mother-in-law is cutting up Pippin’s pizza when I’ve trained him to eat it whole, or my mom salts his fast food. But I try.

I try, because these are not just my son and daughter. They are also my parents’ grandchildren, my sister’s niece and nephew, my in-laws’ grandkids.

My nana, meeting Scout for the first time. (Pippin’s really psyched.)

Some of my happiest memories of time spent with extended family center around special treats and special treatment. I rode the streets of Sarasota in the front basket of my Gramps’s bicycle. My aunt Amy bought me a beautiful cashmere sweater set much too fancy for a third grader and festooned my ceiling with glow-in-the-dark constellations.  My mother’s father taught me to write  my letters inside my picture books (appalling my mother, and later serving as an early sign of looming Alzheimer’s). As a teenager, I’d meet my Granny on sticky summer afternoons talk about books and life over junk food. Not all of these were officially sanctioned by my parents (they particularly weren’t keen on the bike basket). But they stood back so it could be just me and that family member. Maybe you remember peppermints your grandpa sneaked to you in church, or staying up too late camping with your cool aunt.

So I let my dad feed Pippin those tiny prepackaged doughnuts and endless gummy snacks, and I know Dad’s hoping someday they’ll both love baseball, like he and his grandpa did. I let my sister-in-law test out the nickname “Ellie” for Scout, and my mother-in-law shower Pippin with the garish cartoon franchise stuff I so dislike. (He loves the Thomas the train blanket she got him inordinately.) My mom loves to give the resident baby baths, and doesn’t like to clip tiny fingernails, so those preferences make up who she is as Mumsey.

Aunt Maddy and her niece Ellie

These people are helping to raise my children, too, and if I’m the final boss of what flies (NO, YOU MAY NOT LET THE BABY PLAY WITH THAT STRAW!), I hope never to be a dictator. Consistency is important with kids, but so is a deep-seated knowledge they are loved, not just by me, but by a whole tribe.
After all, what’s the risk? We are all going to have to detox after a vacation anyway.

Except for riding in a bike basket. That actually probably is quite a risk.

(But it sure was fun.)

Grandpa Grimm and his “Elladorable.”

The Birth of a Cook

I come from a baking family. On weekends, my introverted dad would cheerfully stay home and bake a double batch of homemade bread, sending me and my sister to deliver the spare loaf to one or another neighbor. Everyone baked cookies, and brownies, and cake, and pushed the baked goods on each other until the leftovers got sent to my parents’ office, or, later, into the garbage disposal growing bodies of our high school boyfriends.

I wasn’t a cook at all until I got married, and it wasn’t the “Mrs.” title that pushed me into it – it was social pressure in rural Uganda, where people made fun of J for cooking, which is regarded as women’s work there. It helped, too, that I was very bored, and also that if we wanted food from home, we were going to have to make it ourselves.

So I set out to make things, and the limitations of ingredients (ground beef was the only meat I could buy by myself; the only cheese was a nameless frozen waxy wheel) and tools (an incomplete set of measuring cups, a single chef’s knife) made cooking approachable. In fact, when I returned back to the US to an empty fridge, a kitchen full of new registry bounty, and a grocery store that stocked everything all the time, I felt acutely overwhelmed.

In her excellent Keeping House: A Litany of Everyday Life, Margaret Kim Peterson argues, “Cooking can be a way of actively receiving the gift of food and actively participating in handing that gift on to others.” That was key for me. My parents had modeled baking delicious things and sharing the bounty, but now I learned that pleasure firsthand as I learned to make spaghetti with homemade tomato sauce and Parmesan from those Pizza Hut packets sent in care packages. I started to make biscuits for J with canned cream, and saved jarred pesto bought with care in Kampala for a feast.

In Uganda, I’d search online on our slow internet connection for recipes with ingredients I could obtain: baked potato soup, cottage pie, meatballs, banana bread. For our housemate’s birthday, I made chocolate cake with painstakingly hand-whipped peanut butter icing, and chili with one of those spice packets my mother sent. For my birthday, friends smuggled the weird, half-thawed local ice cream into our freezer. Peterson observes, “When we cook we produce things to eat, of course but we produce something else too: acts of care.” When food from home was hard to come by, it became more clearly what it always is: a concrete currency of love.

For better or worse, I recognize my limits as a cook: I have basically no sense of smell, and it pretty seriously limits my ability to cook intuitively. (It’s hard to tell what you don’t have, but through casual experimentation we’ve found that I can’t discern tastes as sensitively as other people.) If it’s a success, I owe it in large part to the recipe; if it’s a flop, I can blame my nose, or the recipe author. But seeing cooking as a humble way to care for someone else frees me from all the things that might otherwise intimidate me about cooking: whether I can make it trendy or locally-sourced or Instagram-worthy. It’s just me, feeding people I care about.