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!
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.
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.
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 One, because I got it for cheap on Kindle and her Love Walked Inis one of my all-time favorite feel-good novels although I should be hustling to read…
Brothers Karamazov, for 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In my adult life, I’ve passed through six translations of the liturgy: the old American Roman Catholic, England’s Roman Catholic liturgy, the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the Church of Uganda’s simplified English liturgy, the formal Anglican liturgy favored by our church in Massachusetts (the 1928 BCP, maybe?) and the new Roman Catholic — not to mention all the masses I’ve participated in, however feebly, in French and Italian, Latin and Lhukonzo.
The result being, I stumble over the Nicene Creed, struggle with the clunky response, “And with your spirit.” I feel like an outsider, clutching my laminated card of responses, sneaking furtive glances to remind myself if it’s “For our good and the good of all the church,” or if that’s some other fragment I am remembering. It’s hard to enter in to worship and lose myself when I’m forever bumbling.
But what’s that idea from literary theory? Defamiliarization? The idea that there is value in language getting shaken up, in looking at the same thing in a new light. I get that from all the credal and geographic peregrinations of my twenties.
The legacy of these church shakeups is all the little bits and pieces that have struck me anew because in some sense they were new, to me at least. I’ve got the Song of Simeon memorized from the long soft twilights of my two newlywed summers doing Evensong each Thursday with Anglican friends in Tallahassee. I know the Agnes Dei in Latin from the beautiful immigrant-built church I attended in college, because, though a cradle Catholic who met my husband in high school Latin class, I’d never worshiped in Latin till I moved to Macon.
“It’s the Creed! It’s not SAT prep!” Stephen Colbert complained when the Church rolled out its new translation of the Mass, and while I hope time smoothes the awkward edges of our still-new English Roman Catholic liturgy, I still love falling into the rhythm of communal speech, of being pulled up short by my own stumbles, echoes that draw me back to holy places throughout my life. A friend who has church-hopped nearly as extensively suggested that in our many mistakes, in lunging for the cheat sheet, maybe we make ourselves just a little more approachable to newcomers, and that’s valuable, too.
I’m not here to argue that they’re all equally right or even all equally beautiful. (The beautiful, cobwebby lyricism of the BCP will always win that for me.) But I feel deeply the romance of the universality that remains —behind impassioned scholarly debates between “born of” and “incarnate,” through the awkwardness of the word “consubstantial,” in the earnestness of imperfect words — in the beauty of the same supper celebrated by communities I’ve come to love the world over.
But at the same time, there are ways in which Christianity really is a time machine: As a Catholic, as a Christian, you can step into those worlds, find your footing, and realize that you are not somewhere altogether alien; that the past is another country but also somehow yours; you can in some sense think with the letter-writers of the New Testament and the Church Father scribbling in late antiquity and the medieval monk in the north of England and the Florentine poet and the philosopher-nun dealing with hapless popes and the mystic in Spain and the philosopher-martyr in Henry VIII’s court and thence back around to the saints and novelists and polemicists of the modern world.
My eyes meet Kristin Lavransdattar‘s over the communion rail; Alyosha Karamazov and I can discuss the overlap between western Roman Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy in the nineteenth century.
I feel, sometimes, though, like I’m caught between the librarian camp and the bookish mama camp. My librarian training would say that all books are valuable and that variety is most important, never looking down on a Spiderman novelization; the bookish mamas would say only quality will pass muster.
They give me a fictional framework upon which to contextualize knowledge I gain later from loftier sources — for instance, I’m reading the so-so Crazy Rich Asiansat the moment, maybe the first book I’ve ever read that takes place in Singapore, and it will form the conceptual framework I use next time I hear a NPR piece on Singapore. It’s like TV. There isn’t really anything you can watch that is particularly virtuous and educational, compared to, say a book or a lecture. But there’s something about the vividness of the nature documentary, or the setting of 1920s Yorkshire in Downton Abbey, entertainment you’ve chosen for yourself, that cements those facts more strongly in your head better than the driest, most informative book. I think the same goes for the fun fluff your kids choose to read. It’s not a meal in itself, but it’s certainly a start.
As a librarian, I was a staunch supporter of letting a kid add a Star Wars novella or two to his stack of books, and I still wince when a well-meaning parent outlaws any fluff from their little one’s reading. My varied, omnivorous reading has made me smarter, and wiser, and more compassionate, stretching me in all kinds of ways.
What’s more, divorced from community and faith and family, even great capital-Literature can be no stand-alone salvation. The summer I turned 25, my memories of my Great Books education became irrevocably tarnished, when a classmate in some of my early courses was charged with murder. The voices of goodness, truth and beauty that had spoken to me in that sunlit classroom haunted by errant wasps had fallen upon deaf ears, or perhaps been drowned out by subsequent influences or deep illness. The books I’d read and argued for gathered at that round table hadn’t necessarily meant the same to all of us.
Maybe good books matter, but good books aren’t the only ones that matter, and books aren’t all that matter. The simple act of reading cannot make us happier, or better, or holier, but filtered through experience and reflection, through the guide of a tradition and a community, reading can assemble behind us a rank of fictional counterparts, fighting down through the ages the same battles we now face.
Cottontail Cottage has a yard, and while it’s small, it’s the only one I’ve ever really owned. As we approached the final sale, I started haunting gardening blogs and drawing up lists. Though I’ve only ever managed a few cherry tomato bushes and a few herbs, I was excited to expand my gardening repertoire. We closed at the end of March and moved in mid-April and I was raring to go. And then…we stalled.
But in the meantime, I’m getting to know what’s already here, just as I did in our last house.
At our old house in the suburbs, we had forsythia and daffodils, tulips and hyacinth. At Cottontail Cottage, we have a lot of dead grass, but also two dogwoods, and an azalea and a thing that might be a rose bush and might be a weed, and some tulips which I step on all the time getting out of the car. There’s purple stuff the lady next door says is columbine. We have a big brush heap that is going to need to be addressed, and also we have a peony bush that I’m crushing on pretty seriously.
Peonies are what I would have had in my wedding bouquet if money were no object, but they don’t grow in Florida.
So instead of jumping into gardening and then leaving everything to languish through the heat of the summer, I’m trying to embrace the slow landscaping of a lifetime. One of our first weekends here, Pippin and I planted a freebie redbud tree — twig, really — in our yard, and it seems to be taking. I love the idea that if it survives and prospers, we will always be able to measure our time in the house by the growth of the tree.
I’m making dream-lists in my head, and asking all the gardeners in my life for advice. I want a kitchen garden, and so my sweet friend is starting herbs for me while we are away. Another friend has offered me hyacinth from her yard. I want something tendril-y to cover the ugly chain link fence that surrounds our backyard. I want forsythia, which reminds me of my mom, and lilac, which reminds me of my granny. I want irises, which are what I had in my wedding bouquet instead of peonies, and which bloom magically every year about the time of our anniversary.
It’s a fine thing to dream, but in the meantime, I will watch, and wait, and enjoy the sweet surprise of a garden worked by other hands than mine.
What I am, instead, is a passionate believer in The Nap.
Pippin has always been a wretched napper. I don’t think it’s something we did, but just the way God made him. He’s not a kid who relaxes very easily (he comes by this honestly, ahem), and so we spent the first couple of years of his life trying to trick him into sleep.
And there were some missteps, for sure, but I regret nothing. Because this is the kind of parent I am: the parent who needs her kids to nap.
It’s a rhythm that’s shaped my life for approaching four years, and at this point, if I’m not reading or writing or sleeping myself in a dim, quiet house come 1 o’clock, I feel off. Along the way, I’ve met people who will blow their kids’ naps quite casually if something exciting comes up, parents who admit defeat and allow their kids to kick the nap at two years old. And…that might be in other circumstances, or with subsequent kids, but The Nap is something worth fighting for.
I put Pippin into pajamas at nap time to make him sleepier. We are into blackout curtains and noise machines and loveys, and swings for babies. I’ve bribed. (Successful, mostly.) I’ve threatened. (Unsuccessful, overwhelmingly.) We’ve moved bedtime and wakeup time to make it happen. A nap-striking kid makes me angrier than almost anything else in this motherhood gig, but on a normal day, when things move smoothly, we meet back up in the afternoon refreshed and better able to enjoy each other through the day.
There are times I’ve wanted to quit. When Pippin learned to stand up in his crib and holler HELP ME. When he went through a phase where he’d be so low-sugar when he’d wake up that he’d shriek until I could convince him to eat a snack. There have been other times when I couldn’t get him down fast enough — especially when I was pregnant — and I’d start dreaming of nap time at 10:30.
Scout is a better sleeper. At 11 months, she still often takes three naps, whereas Pippin was down to a single nap by his first birthday.
I have to hustle and cajole and delay to get the kids to nap simultaneously, but it quite literally makes our day. I feel like the nap is under-appreciated as a means to family harmony. When we all get a little time alone and some rest, the whole day runs more smoothly. I can understand how it would be less of a priority for other mothers, but for this introverted, low-energy, melancholic lady, it keeps me sane, and I plan to insist on quiet time for the kids as they finally age out of naps.
In the end, I want to like my kids, to enjoy being around them, and paradoxically, to make that happen, I have to get them to sleep early and often. And so I do.
A few years ago I attended a wedding with a really memorable homily. The rest of the wedding was apparently less memorable, because I can’t remember whose it was. My brother-in-law’s?
Anyway, the priest talked about how, by attending the wedding, we were all making a promise to root for the couple in their marriage. In the Book of Common Prayer marriage ceremony, there’s this bit:
The Celebrant then addresses the congregation, saying: Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?
People: We will.
This meant, and means, putting their marriage ahead of our individual relationships with the new husband and wife. If it was my brother-in-law’s wedding, this message especially made sense because the bride and groom were very young, and for many of the attendees, this was one of the first weddings of their peers they’d ever attended.
Now that I am no longer a 24-year-old sitting in the pew beaming up at my devastatingly handsome be-tuxed (tuxed-up?) husband but rather a 30-year-old pulled in a thousand directions, a tiny hand clutched in each of my own, this message seems particularly relevant. Today, on our eighth wedding anniversary, I’m grateful for my sweet, strong, dedicated husband, but I’m also brought back to that priest’s words.
So many people have upheld our marriage. We’ve been blessed to come from a long line of healthy marriages, and we have a lot of folks to look up to. J’s mom advised me that she and J’s dad have a rule: Only one person gets to be mad at a time. My dad advised me that if you don’t feel like you’re giving more than 50% to your marriage, you’re not giving enough.
We’ve also been upheld by friends: friends who are transparent with their marriages, without being whiny, and talked openly about conflict in finance and parenting style and life goals. Friends who have modeled the difficulty of out-of-sync conversions, and marriage that sees career as a shared means toward an end, not an identity. We have friends who have prayed for the conception of our babies, and their safe delivery, and spoken frankly to us about their experiences with that marriage grenade, NFP.
I’ve had reading to guide me — though it seems like basically every recent novel is more about a marriage irreparably imploding — and even found encouragement in fluff like Parenthood, which reminds us that a marriage is worth fighting for.
I want to remind you all that how you live is building up or tearing down the marriages around you. Whether you pretend that marriage is effortless for you while a friend struggles, or indulge in cruel remarks about your spouse that open other marriages up to criticism, your actions affect the unions around you. Remember, please, that vow you may have made even if you’ve never married, simply by attending the wedding of someone you love — to do all in your power to uphold these two sweet, imperfect friends in their marriage.