Idolatry, Control and Ownership: The Story of the Toy Closet


The toy closet: a place of great joy and mystery, usually child-locked to save us from utter ruin

This week I dropped a lot of nice toys off at the local thrift shop and felt…scared.

What if we need them again? What if I’m not grateful for the generosity of the people who love my children? Are these even really mine to give away?
It’s scary going, but I’m finally beginning to see these thoughts for what they are: my attempt to control things with things.
My husband knows how to treat yo’self. He will buy himself nice things if he’s going to use them, and sometimes those nice things will get broken or lost, because he is basically a boisterous human border collie.
I am not that way. In Divergent terms, I’m Abnegation, 110%. I am good at caring for things and saving them, often past the point of usefulness, as my childhood hoard of pristine sticker sheets attests. If someone gives me a gift, I want to honor the gift and the giver by keeping it forever. If it belongs to my children, I — ludicrously — want their permission before I give it away. (Refresher: my kids are 3 and 10 months.)
J buys himself things and I, mostly, don’t. (With the exciting recent exception of a new bite guard we’re getting me with our hefty tax return: PARTY ON.) And it’s easy to see that self-denial as virtue, if you’re already inclined in that direction.
But as I get older, I begin to see that strict frugality, that unwillingness to let go, for the handicap it most certainly is. I want to protect my family by being prepared for everything, and by saving money so that I’m never vulnerable. It’s squirrelly thinking, and bogs me down so that I can’t accept life as it comes, and the generosity of people as I need it. I don’t want my kids to be this way, and everywhere I look are gentle suggestions that it’s better for children to be weighed down with less physical junk.
Has 1000 toys, prefers to play with diaper boxes and the infant bathtub. You know.
So I am experimenting with being freer with belongings, not just in terms of the bulging toy closet. When I’m packing for a trip, I try to remember just the one or two items we each must have in order to function. When I’m weeding baby clothes, I try to give away a bit beyond the point of comfort. I push scenarios out of the way: twins or another truck lover or Pippin remembering, six months later, about his second-string garbage truck, long since handed on. God has provided for the kids thus far, and I can’t protect hypothetical future offspring with a hoarded wardrobe, much as I’d like to.

Building a Family Reading Culture, 1: On a Home Library

As we’ve been paring down our belongings in preparation for another move, I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes a book a keeper, and what I’m trying to do with our collection.

J and I come at this, as so many things, from opposite directions (ENTP and ISFJ over here!). Once J has bought or been given a book, it will live with us for all of time. I’m pickier. After several years of circ desk work and a bit of interlibrary loan duty, I know that I can get most books again from the library, should I really need them, so I try mostly to keep books that I can’t easily request (particularly Christian stuff) or expect to re-read or foist on friends.

New York Times column my mom sent recently came at just the right time. It cites a 2014 study that found the quantity of books — not quality of books, or access to a library — was the strongest predictor of reading performance. Sheer numbers matter — the sweet spot landing between 100 and 500, and giving the kids of bookish families up to 2.2 years’ head start on their classmates. The study doesn’t venture to determine whether it’s simply the presence of books at home or parents demonstrating bookworm behavior that accounts for the advantage, but the author, Teddy Wayne, argues, “To a child, a parent’s dog-eared book is a sign of a mind at work and of the personal significance of that volume.”

Historically, we have a book storage problem. Also, I am a bad librarian and sort by color. Sue me.

These findings reassure me because even in the face of moving I keep bringing home books for Scout and Pippin from thrift stores and book sales and anywhere I stumble across them — though I’m more selective for myself, given that I am mostly reading e-books in this nursing stage, and that I read a lot of bad books serendipitously in 2015.

Now, as I sift through our books in an attempt to downsize, I try to ask myself if this is a book I’d like my children to be able to find on the shelves in a decade or so. My parents, inheritors of my grandfather’s professorial library and collectors in their own right for my mom’s English Ed MA, always let me browse freely, and in this way, I picked up Animal Farm, and at the encouragement of my mom, both Pride and Prejudice and Alas, Babylon — two books I’ve read literally dozens of times since. Even now, there’s something special about reading the old, worn copy of Vanity Fair or Bleak House with my grandfather’s typewritten quiz as a bookmark or my mom’s tiny marginalia packed all around the story.

Not my books, as I don’t read Japanese. Just beautiful, though.

I see now that the Like Mother, Like Daughter post I meant to link to is also a response to the NYT column, and in it, Leila Lawler argues, “If you have all sorts of books,  you are outsourcing your task of teaching the children everything — which is a pretty good idea. What a relief! And that leaves you free to pursue your own interests. In turn, pursuing your own interests leads to a richer environment in the home, which furthers the education of the children.” As we feel our way toward homeschooling, it’s a reassuring thought: accumulate the books, model reading, and leave the rest to them.



Cloth Napkins

The napkins that launched a thousand napkins are the ones on bottom. Also, happy Easter, STILL!

When we left Uganda after six months of living on a hospital compound, our friends there gave us the gift they’d given many expats before us: a length of batik fabric.

I was a bit stumped as to how to use our gift — I already had a locally made dress or two. Eventually, I settled on cloth napkins, and my best friend’s sainted mother, who had just made six bridesmaid dresses for me the year before (not to mention my veil), agreed to cut them out for me.

The thing is, if you have cloth napkins, you might as well use cloth napkins. And if you use cloth napkins, you might as well have enough to do a load of just dishrags and bibs and cloth napkins, because you don’t want melted butter or whatever coming off onto your nice clothes in the laundry.

And over time, I’ve really come to embrace cloth napkins as a tiny but not insignificant part of our family culture and our practice of hospitality. I come from a paper napkin tribe, so this is a special Grimm-Bowers thing. I haven’t bought the plain white jumbo pack in years.

A table setting at our house rarely matches, but each set has a story: first the Ugandan napkins, next a few scrounged at a Target after-Christmas sale, then a set from a church sale with Pippin’s godparents, a thick stack from John’s grandmother, a rainbow of vintage napkins snagged at a neighborhood yard sale this fall with my mom and granny.

Once you start looking, cloth napkins are cheap to come by, if you’re not too fussy about matching, and they aren’t much work if you’re not intent on ironing. You can keep a little bin in or near the kitchen (mine attaches to a cabinet) to chuck the napkins and rags into as you clean up after dinner. I do a load about once a week, and fold them in five minutes listening to something fun or watching TV.

It’s a small, green, distinctive touch that helps make our house a home.

Just You Wait

“Sleep while you can, because when the baby comes, you’ll never sleep again!” she grins to the pregnant woman in the grocery line, who couldn’t go a two-hour stretch last night without waking up to pee.

“You think a baby’s hard? Just you wait until you hit the terrible twos!” the more experienced dad says, chuckling, to the harried new father.

“I raised twins! I didn’t have a moment to myself for years!” another older lady chimes in cheerfully when you confess at church coffee hour that your third baby reaching the mobile stage has temporarily overwhelmed you.

It’s kindly meant, I know, but I never want to be one of those “just you wait” parents, who minimize all the suffering and struggle of folks newer to parenthood. I’m good enough myself at playing those scenarios in my head: if one baby is hard, how will I survive two? If I’m tired in pregnancy, how will I keep up with a preverbal toddler someday? Just wait till I have surly teenagers, if I can’t control my temper with a toddler!

Oh, does that look like an impressive baby bump to you, first time mama? Just you wait until you look eleven weeks pregnant FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE.

Some of the kindest, most awe-inspiring mamas I know haven’t made my small challenges feel trivial. I rode out the long waves of morning sickness with Pippin, resting confident in the advice of a friend and mother of five. “If you have a lot of morning sickness and feel dreadful while you’re pregnant,” she assured me, “labor won’t be too bad, because it’s just one tough day, and not weeks long. And the first weeks with a new baby will be hard, but not so hard, because at least then when you’re exhausted, he’ll be here.” A mom of seven at our old church, knowing I was expecting my second baby, encouraged me: “It actually gets easier after three kids. There’s less having to entertain them because they play together. Though of course there’s more housework!”

Are you incapable of eating half a sandwich without throwing up, hugely pregnant lady? Just you wait until you don’t get to progress this far in pregnancy next time, and give birth to a 36-weeker!

These are women who could have minimized my struggles and made me feel lousy for even confiding in them. Instead, they validated me and encouraged me, that I could make it through motherhood, too. They remind me that we’re given grace for the stage we’re at — and in my case, not a lot of spare grace, the kind that would let me get ahead on developing my patience, or mop my floors. I guess that’s why it’s called sufficient grace.

Was your first pregnancy taxing and exhausting? Just you wait until you do it while chasing (and lifting!) a sturdy toddler. May I recommend a back support?

These mothers seemed to recognize a simple truth that breathed through all their reassurance: Sanctification isn’t easy, and as a mother, you’ll work out your salvation in appalling diapers and public tantrums and, I suspect, missed curfews and endless soccer practices. It will almost always feel like a stretch, no matter what level you’re at, or how many kids you have. Just as you’re mastering that stage, the rules will change.

And it will be hard, and it will be OK, and it will be the making of you.

Just you wait.

Sometimes, kind grocery store shopper, we can make it through the whole store with nothing more than a book and a doughnut and some mama cuddling. (Just you wait till the toddler won’t fit in the cart.)

The Future In Four Walls

Last week I had a day that was weirdly frenzied and crabby and anxious, even though Pippin was a dreamboat — nap, no fits, no “nuffin’,” as he’d say, and Scout, was, well, Scout. There were some scheduling complications, to be fair, but even during simultaneous nap (!), things felt frantic and hard.

I think some of it was coming off the tiredness from Scout’s most recent illness and trying to regroup in the shambles inevitably left behind, but mostly, I think, it was a sort of happy overwhelm at the prospect of moving.

You see, dear readers, we’ve bought our first house. (We hope it’s our last one.)

Furniture not included, but kiddo in pajamas and rain boots, free with purchase

We know we’re moving, but we don’t know when or our strategy (essentials first and camp out there, or non-essentials first and move last thing). We’re kind of in limbo and need to do nothing and everything, and, well — I’d always prefer doing everything to nothing. So that day, I’d start a blog post, then open 30 tabs about dining room chandeliers, then realize I hadn’t considered the possibility of wallpaper, then wonder if I should ask the neighbor her views on irises.

The thing is, I know this is the house where we will someday bring home the baby boy with the brown eyes, or the little girl with the dark hair, where Bonnie will grow old and creaky, where we’ll gather with fresh-faced, impossibly young college students, and welcome our future nieces and nephews, and grow old in friendships now just beginning. If I ever write a book, it will be in the weird, big master closet with the desk and window; if Pippin ever sticks glow-in-the-dark stars to the ceiling it’ll be in the bedroom that right now stands bare and waiting for him. Scout will invite friends there for her first sleepover, and J will try to appear nonchalant as he waits there for her return from her first date.

I just can’t wait to get started.

Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 1.29.10 PM.png
OUR ACTUAL FURNITURE IN OUR ACTUAL HOUSE. (Because J’s grandma bought us this swanky table.)

Learning to Love Housekeeping (Snippets), 5


Things I’ve been fixing lately:

On Holy Saturday, Pippin and I brought Easter eggs around to the neighbors. The weather was dreamy, and we ended up poking around the neighbors’ garden with them. Since it was near dinnertime, I invited them to join us for our simple slow cooker meal. I’m always a little embarrassed by its ’60s vibe, but here is my go-to Easy Chicken and Dumplings:

  • one can Grands biscuits
  • cooked vegetables (carrots, parsnips, potatoes, whatever) and/or frozen peas
  • two cans cream of chicken soup. (This time, I made it myself with this recipe and felt duly wholesome.)
  • couple cloves minced garlic
  • one diced onion
  • a cup or so of chicken broth
  • couple of big chicken breasts, split

Anyway, you combine everything but the biscuit dough and the vegetables. Put on high 4-5 hours. An hourish before it’s finished, shred the chicken, stir in the vegetables and slice the biscuit dough into strips, then nestle them on top, partially submerged. (Experiment to figure out how biscuity/dumpling-y you like it.) The neighbors brought homemade apple sauce, ice cream and homemade chocolate sauce, a loaf of good bread with honey from their bees, and we had an impromptu celebration. Which all goes to show you: don’t worry about being fancy. You’ll still have a good time.

{Pippin on his first egg hunt of Easter 2k16, and on his first ever egg hunt in 2014 with his Aunt K}

Things I’ve been thinking about lately:



The Lola Quartet and the Disintegration of Community

I picked up The Lola Quartet in a little bookstore’s closing sale in Montgomery, Alabama. I ached for the little business, blinking out of existence just as my brother-in-law and his wife moved within walking distance, but I couldn’t help but pick up a few half-priced impulse purchases. I loved Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and hoped I’d love this novel, one of her earlier books, just as much.

I bought The Lola Quartet in Montgomery, but read it in a blankly comfortable Knoxville hotel room as the kids slept, and finished it on the monotonous interstate of Tennessee and Virginia.

The book is literary noir but between the whodunit details breathe a rich setting and striking questions about identity, community, and loneliness. Mandel’s South Florida reminds me of nothing so much as the world of The Orchid Thieflush and quietly malevolent.

These days we are in the middle of buying our first ever house, and I grew uneasy as the protagonist Gavin takes a job with his sister, who sells foreclosed homes in the wake of the 2008 economic collapse. Gavin, long a New York apartment dweller, considers houses “[t]hese enormous anchors that people tied to their lives,” but his radical alienation is hardly the solution.

Mandel returns again and again to the sameness of everywhere — “Only the names of the towns varied, and the towns were like envelopes with all the contents the same.” Here is the stage where evil lurks behind closed doors, where abuse, neglect and addiction run rampant. It’s a hypnotically awful world, and it is, of course, our own, where every stop on the interstate offers the same fast food chains, where every suburban house is its own hermetically sealed mystery.

Gavin, like Binx Bolling in The Moviegoerseems more aware of this hollowness than those around him, and embarks on a quest that, for a time, brings meaning to his crumbling life. The people he encounters, in their late 20s and early 30s like me, are all frantically or else numbly lonely. They come from estranged or indifferent families and, despite their best efforts, are well on the way to repeating the pattern. Mandel doesn’t offer an anecdote, or much hope for this old high school quartet and its hangers-on, but her dark conclusion, perhaps, suggests what we must work against:

“On either side of the highway the suburbs continued uninterrupted, a continuous centreless glimmering of lights, shadows of palm trees on parking lots, malls shining like beacons and he was nowhere, this could be any suburb on the edge of any city but it seemed to him that none of the cities had edges anymore, just a long slow reach across landscapes.”

In our lives and in our new house, we must work against this insidious encroachment. We must respect the uniqueness of the landscape in which we find ourselves and support the businesses and culture that make it unique. We must resist the empty beacons of mindless consumption, never letting our house or our habits become a financial anchor around our necks. Most importantly, we must open our home to the wholesome air and light, and welcome in those who find themselves on the anonymous fringes.