Commonplace Book, 14

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:

What I’m reading:

  • Housekeeping 1o1: Catholic Style — This blog doesn’t seem to be regularly maintained at the moment, but this and other reads are inspiring, if a bit aspirational for me at this era of my life. Also, the author’s These Beautiful Bones: An Everyday Theology of the Body has been on my very long TBR list for ages. Anyone know if it’s any good?
  • I’m on to the next volume in the series passed to me by my sister-in-law, Crown of MidnightIt’s surprisingly gritty for a YA novel — I’m not sure I’d recommend it widely. But it’s fast-paced and keeps me guessing, and was a nice respite the other day when the A/C men decided to break out the power tools during nap time and I badly needed an escape.
  • The Dog Stars is my current in-cover-of-darkness ebook read when I’m sitting around with my phone nursing the baby in the half light. It’s probably too soon to say if I like it yet, but I remember wanting to read it the summer it was assigned by the local high school for summer reading, and feeling bad about using my librarian super powers to cut in line of the desperate teenagers.
  • In the continuing Summer of the Brothers Karamazov, I’m now slogging through it as an audiobook from LibriVox as I run. (Two labors of duty at once! How virtuous.) The reader annoys the hangfire out of me, but I’ve been known to react hostilely to a variety of people while running, so it may not be his fault. (And when I had a library version of the Brothers K earlier this summer, I didn’t like that reader any better.)

 

  • Oddly beautiful garlic skins. At least, beautiful if you feel about roasted garlic the way I do.

 

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Grubby Kids

When Pippin was a wee newborn, a friend with a toddler commented she’d had difficulty navigating the transition from keeping everything sanitary for a newborn to accepting everything would be filthy with a toddler.

I didn’t get it, at the time. Having a newborn felt pretty messy: he was kind of leaky, it seemed, always spitting up or blowing out or seeping through. It felt like a Herculean task to try to keep it all under control and his sweet seven pounds dry and tolerably clean.

Now I understand. I have an almost-toddler with dirt and butter in her curls, knees grimy from crawling, crumbs in her neck. I have an almost-preschooler who colors his legs with markers and smears PB&J around his pie(/sandwich) hole.

There is both a sadness and a glory in letting go, in letting the grubbiness take over. I can’t always pick out Pippin’s clothes now, or decorate his room just so, but in exchange I get his crazy, rainbow-hued ideas and his increasing helpfulness and independence.

I approved the Shire print, owl and duvet. The rest is all him.

With a newborn, you get to control everything but you have to control everything. These days, it’s a relief when Scout shows an obvious preference  for a lunchtime meal, and it’s touching when Pippin chooses what he’d like hanging on his walls, though there are so many times I’d rather just handle it myself — less mess, less drama. Delegating decisions is scary and frustrating and illuminating and freeing.

Pippin-selected art; Pippin-applied washi tape (I’m raising the next Martha Stewart here, y’all)
And grubby, for sure.

Fallsong 

It’s still hot and we’re still without AC but lately when I’ve been out with the kids, especially in the morning, there’s been the whisperiest hint of autumn in the air (and we all know the sweetest winds, they blow across the South).

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2013

Color me excited. New England autumn used to fill me with dread, but here in the Shenandoah Valley I can embrace the season without fear for coming winter. Here are a few of the things I’m most looking forward to:

  • Hot tea
  • Baked granola and ciabatta bread and roasted vegetables when I can use our oven with impunity
  • Not shaving (sorry)
  • Wearing a hat when my hair is dirty and pretending it’s because I want to wear a hat and not that my hair is dirty (my secret is out, sorry again)
  • The start of preschool (this fills me with a mix of excitement and dread so in traditional Grimm fashion I’m eager just to get it over with)
  • Seeing friends back in western Mass when fall is still beautiful and not yet ominous
  • Blooming ageratum (Does it even in grow in Virginia? I’ll have to pay more attention this year.)
  • Maple leaves, 4eva
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2014
  • Less sweating
  • Open curtains. This summer I’ve been a responsible citizen and mostly kept the shades down to keep the house cooler. But I didn’t escape basement living for nothing.
  • A visit from my parents, and a visit from my sister.
  • Taking pictures of Pippin with leaves, because that’s apparently a thing I like to do a lot.
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2015

How about you?

Commonplace Book, 13

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:

  • Yogurt-Marinated Chicken with Creamy Greek Sauce, for my lovely husband, who mowed the lawn. I’ve made it before, but had kind of forgotten about it — I tend to prefer recipes where you can do almost everything at your leisure, as with the slow cooker. But this is super easy, and makes J happy.
  • A not exceedingly good tomato cobbler, although that was probably my fault: too many caramelized onions, too few tomatoes.
  • A pretty exceedingly good batch of French toast from a loaf of Amish peach bread my aunt-in-law brought. FRENCH TOAST, HOW HAD I FORGOTTEN YOU?

What I’m reading:

“Forged love, married love, love that starts molten and throughout its life must be thrown back into the fire, recast, reshaped, restored. […] Married passion is a quest, in the end, and the lovers are its heroes, fighting along the way demons of their own making and of others, changing identities, carving their initials into each other’s hearts.”

and

“Perhaps, if anything, the meaning in this book for others may be this: Here is a job in which it is not unusual to be, at the same instant, wildly joyous and profoundly stressed.”

and

“I adore the privilege of our babies’ constant care even though to write a paragraph requires long preparation. […] One reason there is not a great deal written about what is like to be the mother of a new infant is that there is rarely a moment to think of anything else besides the infant’s needs.”

unrelated image of beautiful produce

My Garden, the Mission Field

Well, we’re back from our Superlong Vacation® and so the gardening can officially begin. But I find myself at a loss. I’ve kept tomato bushes and herbs alive, occasionally, and killed African violets with great guilt and inevitability, but my horticultural ignorance is considerable.

I feel inordinately bad when I kill things, and I don’t have the budget for it, anyway. So instead, I’ve been starting out slowly with hand-me-down plants, like the Solomon’s Seal a friend gave me last month, or the mini rose bush we received as a housewarming gift. But I keep hitting roadblocks from ignorance: Is this grassy weed-thing grass or actually some bulb? Is the peony bush supposed to look like that? Can I plant irises, and where?

A couple of weekends ago, some of J’s family came to visit. When they’re in town, we try to entertain them in high style (ha! two little kids! ha! our little town!), but on Sunday morning they materialized after Mass and his grandmother and aunt announced they were going to work on my garden.

Oh, ok, I said perplexedly. Then I noticed the gloves. They had been planning on this.

Grandma Judy rescues the front garden
For the next few hours, I flitted around unhelpfully, ferrying the occasional San Pellegrino, pulling a weed here and there as instructed, putting the baby down for her nap and getting her back up, then keeping her from eating (much) greenery.

And they — well, they revolutionized my yard. With cheerful determination, the two women shaped and tidied, tossing off advice as they went. I scrambled inside for my notebook. They sent J and his uncle to the hardware store with a list: mulch, trowel, more gloves, clippers. (When they had asked for clippers, we, with what I’m sure was charming naïveté,had fished out wire clippers.) In the interim J and his uncle fixed the gutter his keen-eyed real estate agent aunt had noticed needed attention.
The whole thing actually reminded me of the medical mission trip J and I tagged along on when we moved to Uganda as newlyweds. The doctors had drawn up careful lists of supplies and come armed to teach the local surgeon new orthopedic and urological procedures, leaving behind the scope and other tools they’d lugged with them. They’d assisted in surgery, teaching Dr. Frank as they worked, knocking out the most pressing cases in the region for free during their little mission trip. It was amazing.

New! Improved!
This, too, was a mission of mercy for clueless new homeowners. (I didn’t even know anything was wrong with our gutter, for starters.) They graciously sacrificed part of their vacation to work and work hard for our sake, and imparted their wisdom along the way. I’m not sure it’s any less noble, in its own way.

The rescue squad

That Hideous Strength and Housewifery

I think I first read That Hideous Strength when I was 18 or 19 and systematically making my way through C.S. Lewis’s canon. The conclusion of his Space Trilogy, THS is very different in tone and style from the first two books, and I didn’t much like it.

I gave it another chance at 21 while studying abroad in Oxford. I was engaged (J was studying abroad nearby in London), and I was starting to think about applying to doctoral programs for English literature. My time in Oxford only confirmed for me the rightness of both decisions: I loved traveling England with J and I loved the long mornings spent writing about Bleak House or the impact of the British school story on Harry Potter. When I read That Hideous Strength beside The Place of the Lion and saw the influence his friend Charles Williams had on Lewis’s writing, it sort of made more sense. But it was far from my favorite of Lewis’s works, even though it’s one of J’s favorite books ever.

Lewis is not someone who writes very often of women, having led an unusually male-centric bachelor life, and this book is, for the most part, fittingly male-centric. There are drinks at pubs, and jargon at the office, and later, a lot of kind of gross-out violence. Boy stuff. And yet.

The first sentence reads, “’Matrimony was ordained, thirdly’, said Jane Studdock to herself, ‘for the mutual society, help, and comfort that the one ought to have of the other.'” Then follows a plodding description of the emptiness of her existence as a housewife, concluding bleakly, “The sun shone and the clock ticked.” It’s a strange opening for a book that will encompass disembodied, sentient heads, Merlin, and more.

The reader soon learns that “marriage had proved to be the door out of a world of work and comradeship and laughter and innumerable things to do, into something like solitary confinement.” The fate was practically mandated in the 1940s, when Lewis was writing, but is not unlike bleak, isolated moments of modern motherhood. It wasn’t supposed to be this way for Jane, though: “She had always intended to continue her own career as a scholar after she was married: that was one of the reasons why they were to have no children, at any rate for a long time yet.” This part, at least, is not entirely unlike my own evolution from first reading THS to reading today, from PhD applicant to full-time mama.

Lewis suggests we compare Jane with Mother Dimble, her friend who “had been a kind of unofficial aunt to all the girls of her year” and whose house “was a kind of noisy salon all the term.” This Mother Dimble draws Jane to the safety of the resistance movement when things turn sinister in town under the sway of the National Institute of Co-Ordinated Experiment (N.I.C.E).

Jane is called to the resistance’s shared house at St Anne’s when she begins to exhibit second sight. It is revealed, in the kind of line we now recognize from superhero movies, “You are a more important person that you imagine.” As she rails against her second sight, Jane is also, perhaps, railing against her fate as a married woman called to something different than she had intended: “I want to lead an ordinary life. I want to do my own work. It’s unbearable! Why should I be selected for this horrible thing?”

Jane’s marriage is not a happy one as the novel opens, and her husband Mark falls into the wrong crowd at work. It turns out marriage is much more central to identity than Jane, or 21-year-old Katherine, believed. The Director, a sort of Arthurian spiritual director [this book is so weird please bear with me], explains: “Child […] it is not a question of how you or I look on marriage but how my Masters look on it.” He continues, “You do not fail in obedience through lack of love, but have lost love because you never attempted obedience.” Indeed, this entire novel can be seen in terms of obedience, and while the strict hierarchy that puts the women at St. Anne’s below both the Director and their husbands is uncomfortable to modern sensibilities, it is exactly this order that stands in contrast to the apparently egalitarian, sinister circle which draws in Mark Studdock.

 

Jane’s story in THS is the movement from cold and lonely independence to loving interdependence. She discovers, gradually, that her starting principles have been faulty:

“To avoid entanglements and interferences had long been one of her first principles. Even when she had discovered that she was going to marry Mark if he asked her, the thought, ‘But I still must keep up my own life,’ had arisen at once and had never for more than a few minutes at a stretch been absent from her mind. Some resentment against love itself, and therefore against Mark, for thus invading her life, remained. She was at least very vividly aware how much a woman gives up in getting  married. Mark seemed to her insufficiently aware of this. Though she did not formulate it, this fear of being invaded and entangled was the deepest ground of her determination not to have a child — or not for a long time yet. One had one’s own life to live.”

This is, after all, marriage and motherhood, right? Becoming entangled, inextricably.

Domesticity is immediately more bearable when Mother Dimble comes to stay briefly with Jane. “The whole process of getting up and doing the ‘morning jobs’ was more cheerful, Jane found, because she had Mrs. Dimble with her.” Children are also presented as more than just a hindrance as Mrs Dimble reflects on her own home: “All those big empty rooms which we thought we should want because we thought we were going to have lots of children, and then we never did.” Her words foreshadow the the dual themes of living in community (vs “empty rooms”) and the gift of children.

At the shared household at St. Anne’s, Jane discovers

“A wide, open hearth glowing with burning wood lit up the comfortable form of Mrs. Dimble, who was seated in a kitchen chair at one side of it, apparently, from the basin in her lap and other indications on a table beside her, engaged in preparing vegetables. Mrs. Maggs and Camilla were doing something at a stove—the hearth was apparently not used for cooking—and in a doorway which doubtless led to the scullery a tall grizzle-headed man who wore gum boots and seemed to have just come from the garden, was drying his hands.”

It’s an appealing image, and though primarily feminine, has the aspect, at least, of men contributing to the life of the household.

Upon meeting the Director, Jane “surrendered without terms […] abandoned (without noticing it) that prim little grasp on her own destiny, that perpetual reservation, which she thought essential to her status as a grown-up, integrated, intelligent person.” Reading it in light of current feminist thinking, it’s an uncomfortable passage, because shouldn’t we all be in charge of our own destiny? And yet, from a Christian perspective, might it be meant to be read universally, not merely as the proper realm of a woman, since after all, aren’t we all called to surrender without terms?

The novel concludes on a tiny scale, Jane obediently “descending the ladder of humility” as she crosses the yard to the cottage where her husband waits: “Then she thought of her obedience and the setting of each foot before the other became a kind of sacrificial ceremony. And she thought of children, and of pain and death.” She hesitates, unaware Mark is waiting inside; then, seeing through a window his heaped clothes, she enters in with loving, housewifely exasperation.

So what, in the end, is the point of all this domesticity and marriage talk in the cosmic battle of good and evil? Afterwards, once the N.I.C.E. has been dissolved, MacPhee demands, “I’d be greatly obliged if any one would tell me what we have done — always apart from feeding the pigs and raising some very decent vegetables.” I’m reminded of John Milton’s line, “They also serve who only stand and wait,” and Lewis would have been particularly steeped in Milton. The book makes more sense to me on this third reading, as I’ve moved toward a life more centered around the hearth, more intentional about love and obedience. Maybe loving well, feeding the pigs and raising some very decent vegetables is the point, for most of us, most of the time.

 

Commonplace Book, 12

What I’m fixing:

  • Slow-Cooker Split Pea Curry with Chicken and Potatoes: worst name ever, great recipe. It’s fast (chopping potatoes, onions and ginger are the only time-consuming bits); cheap (a couple pounds of chicken goes a looong way); it’s gluten-free. I made it for lunch when family was visiting this weekend, and was able to do all the prep before 8 a.m. Mass. Lovely.

What I’m reading:

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Pippin and I have been reading this book a lot, and decided to act it out with his figurines. Poor St. George had to ride a cow, because it would appear we don’t have a horse, but she made a very noble steed.