The Patchwork Liturgist

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.


Building a Family Reading Culture, Part 3: Do Good Books Matter?

There are so many ways to approach this question.

As an undergrad, I received a Great Books and English literature education I loved. I still find many so-called great works to be a bolstering moral influence. The characters are more often concerned with the question of how one should live, and so I can take comfort in Anne Shirley‘s quest to be a good girl, or Fanny Price‘s uncool, surprisingly steely morality. What’s more, as I continue my adventures in reading, I meet new compatriots in unexpected places, on the French Canadian frontier, for instance. Catholic New York Times columnist Ross Douthat argued a year back,

 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.

Contemporary books, after all, and reading simply for pleasure’s sake, have brought so much into my life. John Ames has had a lot to teach me and the rest of us, even if the book in which he finds a home is a (comparatively) new one. Even low quality books may offer their own rewards: escapism for the wretchedly morning sick new mother; enthusiasm for reading in a young reader choosing his own books for the first time.

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 Asians at 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.

Important skill: napping while pretending to read a really lame book with your kid.

[Catch up! Building a Family Reading Culture, 1: On a Home Library; Building a Family Reading Culture, 2: Books as Un-Sacred Objects]

The Serendipity of an Inherited Garden

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.

First J got sick, then Pippin, then Scout. I think it’s rained ever single day in May so far, and my rain boots cracked in April. Summer 2016 entails a lot of travel for us, and I’m trying to be realistic about if we can commit to weeding and watering — our vegetable garden for 2015 only survived because of the stealthy help of our neighbors, quietly watering and weeding for us as we figured out this two-kid thing.

But in the meantime, I’m getting to know what’s already here, just as I did in our last house.

the forsythia and daffodils someone else planted

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.

Love you, boo.

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.

You gotta fight for your right…to NAPTIME

I am not really into attachment parenting, though I will lug my baby around in the Ergo to keep us all sane. I am not really committed to Baby Led Weaning, though it’s worked for Scout. I like having a hippie birth, but then I want all the vaccines. A friend once told me that I made her feel like it was OK to feed her child McDonalds, so maybe that is my parenting style: apply fast food as needed. Mostly, though, I’m kind of a parenting tribe misfit, borrowing a little of this, a little of that. I have no real parenting identity.

What I am, instead, is a passionate believer in The Nap.

The Nap Tent (TM): helping reluctant sleepers to nap in the car since 2012.

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.

The Nap at 3 years old.

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.

The Nap pro

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.

I am, I guess you could say, a Nappist.

Sometimes I like you best when you’re asleep. Is that OK?


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.

Free cake, champagne, and the requirement to UPHOLD US FOREVER

My Housekeeping Commonplace Book, 8

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:

  • Pippin’s been requesting these “cinnamon cookies” made with lots and lots of brown sugar, and as he’s a guy who finds cake, cobbler, and all chocolate gag-worthy, anything he’s into gets a lot of play from me. Sometimes I add chocolate chips or Heath bar bits, though obviously not to his.
  • Doughnut bread pudding, the traditional dessert of the Feast of Pope St. John I. Other foods favored by the good Pope Saint, we decided: brinner foods, mimosas, shower beer.

What I’m reading:

  • a piece inspired by a recent Instagram conversation, inspired, in turn, by a conversation at Well-Read Moms about A Mother’s Rule of Life — a book I’ve been vacillating about reading for a few months now. I think Joy has me convinced to give it a try. The book came up at book club when we read the Rule of St. Benedict.
  • Fangirlby Rainbow Rowell — which I’ve read, but this is the audio version. Somehow, even though I’m not into the fanfic scene, or an identical twin — two factors which strongly inform Cath’s freshman year in college — her experience reverberates really strongly with my experience as a new college student. The book is funny, and romantic, and asks really great questions about the place of art, and creation, and who art really belongs, too. Plus, Rowell gets anxiety, and does great dialogue:

“‘I feel sorry for you, and I’m going to be your friend.’
‘I don’t want to be your friend,’ Cath said as sternly as she could. ‘I likethat we’re not friends.’
‘Me, too. I’m sorry you ruined it by being so pathetic.’”

Although the opulence of the great home of Lord Grantham undergoes some social critique throughout the series, it is that very splendor that makes viewers tune in. Downton is a beautiful estate and simply stunning home, complete with gold candlesticks, silver platters, and crystal chandeliers. In fact, there is something liturgical about it all. This is precisely the draw. In a world or mega-churches and modern churches, many are starved for real beauty. It is innate to our nature to be drawn to something greater.

Natural Childbirth and Marathons

So, I am not, at heart, a runner. I will jog along like a tired old mare if absolutely essential, but you are not going to make me like it. I think I can say with reasonable certainty I will never run a marathon, and you can’t make me.

But maybe marathons make you feel alive. Maybe it’s a goal you work toward in concrete steps, keeping in mind that the purpose, in the end, is to have fun, be safe and use your body — though completing the race would be beyond amazing. You read about running, you prepare for the big day, you talk about it with anyone who shows even a glimmer of interest. No one’s making you do it, but it’s something you always wanted to try, and if you pull it off, you feel rightfully proud.

I feel that way about natural childbirth. No one’s making me, but I wanted to try, for a host of noble and ignoble reasons (mostly because I’m a control freak), so I put a lot of work and reading into it, and it worked, and I’m proud (though some of that success has nothing to do with me), and I’ll talk your ear off about it if you give me a chance.

Pregnancy sucks for me, pretty unequivocally. But birth — that’s my day. I come away feeling like a shocked, tired goddess. My body, which is mostly something I drag from library to library, is reborn: I DID IT. I GOT THIS SMALL PERSON OUT OF ME!

Maybe you don’t feel that way. Maybe you feel about childbirth the way I do about marathons — why go through that much discomfort if not strictly necessary? Why suffer needlessly when you can watch your way through Downton Abbey during labor? It’s a fair question (to which I counter: why run on a Saturday morning when you could eat bacon and take a bubble bath?). Then again, maybe you like both unmedicated birth and running long distances, and to that, I say: You are so ready for the zombie apocalypse.

We can agree to disagree on these matters. While I still am going to say that I think it’s a really good idea to learn about natural labor just in case you have a lightning labor like my second one — so you know what the hell is going on if the meds don’t work out — like most of motherhood (and most of life, I guess), I think with birth you just do what seems most survivable to you, and that might look different for you than it does for me. As Amy Poehler writes on the subject in Yes, Please“Good for her! Not for me. That is the motto women should constantly repeat over and over again. Good for her! Not for me.”

But I think we can all agree that birth would be even more awesome with rainbow color powder at the finish line.