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.

The Allure of the British Costume Drama

If you traffic much in Catholic blogs, you’ll have heard the strange place and people names that make up much of the TV consumed by this segment of the population: Granchester, Downton Abbey, Call the Midwife, Lark Rise to Candleford, Foyle’s War, and now Poldark.

J and I are guilty of indulging in the historical drama, too. It’s a tiny trend, but I think it makes sense. After all, most of these shows concern themselves with the question of how to live — what I should do versus what do I want. Lord Grantham wants to save the estate, not just for his own continued privilege but to provide for the household for whom he feels an inherited obligation. Ross Poldark makes a mistake, taking advantage of someone under his protection, and determines to make it right by providing for her. On the other hand, shows like Grey’s Anatomy are much more concerned with the deeply individualistic what do I want. (Or who do I want?) And that can be fun, soapy escapism. But for someone in the trenches of grown-up life, trying to figure out what one ought to do — especially in light of community and Church authority — is a much more central question.

In these dramas, the only Catholic character who comes to mind is the (dreamy!) Tom Branson, but for most of the characters, church is an intrinsic part of the rhythm of life, whatever their conflicted relationship with faith might be. This, too, is something with which we contemporary American Catholics can identify. Christopher Foyle quietly attends church between solving crimes; Reverend Sidney Chambers tries to reconcile his calling with the brokenness he sees in his town and which haunts his memories of the war. The young midwives who find themselves living at an inner-city Anglican convent see up close the lives of religious. Contemporary American primetime television has plenty of weddings, but the BBC historical drama also offers baptisms, funerals, even the occasional boring old Sunday worship.

Your worship would never be boring, Rev. Chambers.

[image via]

Episode 7 of Season 3 1.JPG
A baptism brings all the Crawleys to the (Johnny Foreigner papist) church

[image via]

Compare this with the Braverman clan of Parenthood, whose religion is baseball (though there’s a refreshing foray into faith with Jabbar’s praying in Season 4), or Gilmore Girls, which remains resolutely ignorant of even such obvious differences as Catholic imagery and fundamentalist distaste for crucifixes. I adore those Gilmore girls, but are these ladies really comfortable in a church?


[image via]

I don’t need or even want all my characters to be devout, wooden caricatures of proper faith, but I like it when a show at least admits religion as a factor in the everyday lives of some of its characters. You’ll notice that some of the posts linked above have fights to pick with the historical dramas, and that’s how it should be in good television. After all, I’m not looking for didacticism in my TV, and I shy away from just about anything labeled “inspirational.” Instead, these shows are asking real questions and standing for something, and while it doesn’t always align with the Catholic worldview, at least they’re trying. Because TV can do better than “I believe in good…versus evil.

Starting a petition for the inclusion of more nuns on television — who’s with me?

[image via]

Building a Family Reading Culture, 2: Books As Un-Sacred Objects

I’m a librarian, and I let my kids eat books.

Gee, this book tastes delicious.

I also let them break the bindings. (And I come from a book binding family.)

I will buy secondhand board books cheap — something I found horridly unsanitary before I had kids, but which became both feasible and essential after reading Good Night, Moon approximately 6742 times in Pippin’s first year, and, as grad students, not being able to buy many brand-new board books. (Why are they so much more expensive than other books?)

I will also spend absurd amounts of time and money on a customized book. Below is the only gift we gave Pippin for Christmas the year he was 1: a board book of photos of him and his extended family. (We got ours here — let me know if you find another service you like better, because Scout will need hers soon, and they don’t come cheap.) I’ve also made, upon Pippin’s request, a “Granby, Massachusetts book” of photos and memories from our life there, and we often read our family photo books as if they were stories.

Aunt K, Uncle Tom and the marshmallowy baptism boy, commemorated in a fully edible board book

I do all this because I think books are meant to be read and used and loved on. I buy Pippin dumb books that excite him and I buy books that excite me and I buy books I hope someday Scout will love.

If I collect enough copies, surely Scout has no choice but to be an Anne fan, right?

Books are meant to be loved on, and that will come at the cost of an untidy house (well, untidier) and books damaged beyond repair and books misplaced who knows where. Besides a lovely popup of The Little Prince my childhood friend once gave Pip, I can’t think of a book in the house I wouldn’t let him handle. (He can touch that when he is 12.)

This is his first copy of that book, long since relegated to the Great Bookshelf in the Sky and promptly replaced with another copy.

The goal, after all, is a family of readers, not a perfectly curated collection of tasteful and well-preserved books. The goal, after all, is this:

Reading the book he received for his third birthday from his godparents

The Perfect Pair of Jeans

Two springs ago, something amazing happened. My husband walked into a Gap in Cambridge, wandered around a bit, bought a pair of dark blue jeans in which he looked very handsome and…has never bought another pair since.

That’s it! He has one pair of jeans, and they always look great, and he hasn’t had to buy a single other pair. In two years.

Can we talk about all the reasons this would never happen to me? For one, duh, in that period of time I’ve swung about forty pounds in weight — even just during extended breastfeeding, I move from marshmallowy to wizened. For another, I’m pretty lucky to get two wears out of a pair of jeans these days before washing them is Absolutely Essential — and that’s if I play a little fast and loose with the definition of clean. And don’t you dare get me started on maternity jeans (a contradiction in terms, I begin to think).

Like half the Internet, I’ve been interested recently in the concepts of uniforms and capsule wardrobes. Post-pregnancy this time, I‘ve tried to streamline my wardrobe(s), choosing neutrals instead of always opting for the most rainbow-y item I can find at the consignment store. I’m also trying to channel my husband in seeking out exactly the right item, instead of settling for cheap and so-so.

Easter friends: One of Meg’s lovely new dresses; literally the only dress of mine that fits, is appropriate for warm weather, and is nursing-friendly

More and more, though, I begin to wonder if we’ve got the wrong idea, especially when it comes to mom jeans. The thing is, my figure has changed in such a way that jeans — especially the low-waisted stretchy monstrosities I once favored — aren’t ever going to work, and it’s not because I’m delusional about my size. A friend of mine with kids (pictured above) has decided to invest instead in dresses, and I’m intrigued.

The idea feels dangerously retro, but then, I’m the one actively pursuing excellence in housewifery. And I have been moving in the last couple years to more and more skirts and dresses — I spent as much of my second pregnancy as possible in dresses like this one, and didn’t have the droopy drawers problem of maternity jeans, and postpartum, I wore a lot of elastic-waisted skirts so I didn’t have to buy shorts (ugh) in a temporary giant size (double ugh).

So as a lark on Mother’s Day, a day when I’d worn a t-shirt and a skirt that straight-up doesn’t fit to church, while I “watched” 11,000 hours of Mighty Machines with poor sick Pippin, I decided to see if I could find a new, inexpensive wardrobe of dresses.

I started at eShakti, where Meg and I found both of the above dresses, but that meant I could only afford a dress or two, so I switched to ThredUp, which sells secondhand clothes, and developed an exhaustive list of criteria: button-down (for nursing); A-line silhouette (for belly reasons); cotton or cotton blend (because I’m slated for a sweltering summer); machine washable (because duh). ThredUp doesn’t have the granularity to search by terms like “shirtdress” or by fabric, so the hardest part may have been closing tabs on beautiful, impractical silk dresses.

Eventually I ended up with two dresses, a skirt and two button-down blouses J helped me choose. I hope they’ll work for both church and everyday wear. I’ll let you know how it goes, but don’t expect a lot of fashion blogger shots. Inevitably they end up like this:


I’m still on the lookout for the perfect pair of jeans, of course, but I begin to suspect that the perfect pair of jeans for me, for now…just might be a dress.


Everyday Use and Spending It Down

Today’s post combines two of my favorite things: the short stories you read in college and cute pictures of babies. Double win, right?

As discussed, I’m trying to be less clingy to material objects. Since my impulse is to hoard and preserve beautiful special things, it’s not easy to actually use the handmade items people have given me for my children. But I try! And look how cute!

Easter bonnets, hers and his — my granny made this little owl cardigan for Pippin, with a boy and a girl bonnet should we ever have a little girl, and I made sure to have them each wear it for their first Easter. It worked great for both, since Pippin was a chubby baby born in October and Scout was a petite thing born in June.


I think we’ve finally retired this green sweater, also by my Granny, now somewhat felted, but we got two good seasons out of it for Pippin. Here he’s sporting it at the lovely Mount Holyoke College greenhouses when he was two.

Finally, I’m not completely sure of the provenance of this little green cardigan, but I think it was mine when I was a baby. And here are both my cuties sporting it! You get the idea.

The old church ladies always assess the kids’ hand-knit and crocheted clothes with an air of professional appreciation.

In my attempts to be more adventurous, J and I use the shorthand reminder: everyday use. It’s from the Alice Walker story of the same name. In it, a woman must decide between her two daughters who will inherit the family’s heirloom quilts — the educated daughter interested in displaying them for their history, or her loyal, homebody daughter, who would use them on her marriage bed. The enlightened, stylish daughter argues, outraged, “Maggie can’t appreciate these quilts! … She’d probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use.”

Her mama answers her, “‘I reckon she would,’ I said. ‘God knows I been saving ’em for long enough with nobody using ’em. I hope she will!’”

And…that’s the point. Clothes, even beautiful handmade things, are made to be worn. They won’t pass pristinely down to future siblings or future generations, but their felting and snagging and staining will tell the story of their everyday use, and that’s a story worth telling.

My Housekeeping Commonplace Book, 7

So, some people thought the dining room in the post earlier this week was ours because FB made it the main image. LAWLZ. This is our dining room at presstime.

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:

  • Easy Batter Fruit Cobbler — a recipe I rediscover every so often and adore. It’s extremely easy and you can use frozen berries still frozen and it tastes like a PopTart made out of real food. Pippin helped me on one rainy afternoon recently when we had a bunch of aging blueberries to dispatch, and it felt so wholesome and healing to be together in the kitchen, getting along, after a week of threeiest three-year-old behavior. And then after dinner he eagerly tried a bite and had to claw it out of his mouth in rueful disgust. So there you go. Katherine approved, Pippin rejected.

Not the most stylized kitchen countertop, I’ll admit.

What I’ve been reading:

  • Mixed reviews of Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld’s updated take on Pride and Prejudice. This one is favorable, and I love Curtis Sittenfeld (especially Sisterland), so I’m hopeful. So many of the Austen modernizations overlook the strong morality of Austen, just emphasizing the romance or satire and there’s a lot to be said for Austen being interested in doing the right thing.
  • My friend Haley’s piece on audiobooks for little kids. I’m thinking about trying this for Pippin, especially because nap time continues to be a huuuuuge source of stress and anxiety for both of us, just as it’s been from the get-go. (Fortunately, Scout is a dream of a napper, or else I’d have to call it quits.)
  • Why are Southern porch ceilings blue? (Ours is.) A few theories trotted out here.
  • Frankenstein, for Well-Read Mom. Chalk this one up to one of so many books that’s a lot harder to read as a parent. Victor is such a diva!


Crafting a Craftsman (general house updates after a month of homeownership)

Look at our fancy Montessori floor bed…which has stayed this way for two weeks while we try to figure out what to do about our box spring not fitting up the stairs.

So, at the end of March we entered the ranks of homeowners, and mid-month, on a random Thursday evening, we decided just to get it over with and move. That means we’ve been sort of camping out here and bringing carloads over, setting up slowly as J rounds out the semester and fights a terrible case of not-flu.

One of the important things we had to settle was what to name our house — we loved the idea of our home having its own name. We consulted the names of some of our favorite literary houses (Ingleside, St. Anne’s on the Hill, etc.), and this British list of house naming conventions. Some possibilities we considered:

  • Avonlea Cottage (I’ll just have to wear J down into letting me use this for a baby girl someday.)
  • Benison Cottage (discarded because J thought I was saying “venison” and I doubt he’d be the last one)
  • Dogwood Cottage — our yard is pretty bare of vegetation, except for the two dogwoods outside Pippin’s window.

We eventually settled on Cottontail Cottage, because like a lot of this town, it’s overrun with the little guys.

We also spend waaay too much time trying to figure out how to incorporate our mostly mid century modern furnishings with the Craftsman bones of our house. Apartment Therapy has been a good resource here. Behold this looker:

view into dining room wood trim modern chairs
Not our house, but sort of what we’re going for — link below.

{a big inspiration is this house here}

A friend mentioned that she’d read the advice of keeping in mind friends’ houses you love, and I’ve tried to do that. I often think in particular about the home of Scout’s godparents. It’s not fancy or even especially intentionally decorated, and children are piled in. But if you run into one of the parents on campus, they’ll invite you to dinner and slide over to accommodate your whole family — the food is always unfussy and excellent. You’ll never worry about your kid making too big of a mess, and you’ll always feel welcome.

I think too of the houses I’ve found most beautiful, and most clearly a reflection of their owners’ taste: my grandparents’ light-filled Danish modern treehouse in Sarasota when I was growing up; the lovely Alabaman Craftsman that perfectly expresses my brother-in-law and sister-in-law’s eclectic antique tastes, my sister’s densely layered apartment, filled with art made by her friends. There are more, of course. We are lucky to have such warm and hospitable friends.

And let me say right here — and hold me to this — I promise you I won’t go around talking about how we just need the exact right shade of linen curtain, how I’ve looked everywhere for the perfect piece of art for that wall, how frustrated I am that I’m stuck with this kitchen layout. Because I’ve never been very tolerant of people who complain at length about the enormous privilege of getting to feather a nest that belongs to them. So while I’d like to talk to y’all about my adventures in homeownership and making this place our own, I’ll try not to be completely insufferable. Mmkay?

Grad Season

It’s that time, bittersweet from the inside, a little ridiculous on the outside. Driving through downtown, there’s a pack of college girls trailing a photographer, each wearing a matching flower crown. At the front of campus, a girl in platforms steps gingerly as she positions herself for photos in a picturesque clump of tulips. The restaurants are crowded with raucous college students.

We’re in the end of the school year homestretch.

I remember that nervous energy, that exhausted relief, the giddy excitement and intolerable sadness. Walking across campus and trying to soak it all in, turning in last papers, the Middle Georgia humidity hanging above our heads like a curtain about to fall. For me, May 2008 was an especially bittersweet time: I was leaving the college I loved and two weeks later, marrying the boy I’d loved for five years. I didn’t want to leave; I couldn’t wait to go.

Life doesn’t have those set definitions, the concrete end points, anymore, as I walk the park in a drizzle that feels too cold for May, even up here in Virginia. Grown up life, after undergrad, is different. Library school, for me at least, was kind of a thing I did in my spare time until I didn’t have to do it anymore, passed alongside people who all finished at their own pace. My last three jobs sort of petered out with the arrival of each of my kids. In this most recent move, I didn’t know I was waking up to my last sunrise over those ridiculously beautiful mountains until we decided to nip Pip’s anxiety in the bud and moved to the new house that very night.

That’s the way it works, in Grown Up Land. You won’t know the last day before you’re pregnant, or the last day before your baby comes, until in hindsight. Endings mostly sneak up without fanfare.

Watching those 22-year-olds crossing items off their bucket lists, snapping memento shots, I live that strange May month all over again, with all its sadness and anticipation. There’s such beauty and ache in knowing something is your last time. I’m not sure I’d want it back.


No fancy photo session needed: some of my most beloved Mercerians (and J the interloper) celebrating the end of college at the Otis Redding statue
Some of the same girls with me in Tallahassee two weeks later, for the start of a new chapter

When Your Life Is Actual Poop

When Pippin was a baby, every Monday, J would get home early from work and there would be a changing of the guard, where I’d fill him in on the day so far while I packed my dinner and work stuff and headed out the door. As I raced around the house gathering library books to return, a cardigan, my supper, we’d exchange information in bullet points. My day was good! It’s getting cold out there! Bonnie’s been fed and walked but didn’t poop! The baby probably needs a new diaper!

And at some point, J pointed out that a lot of these conversations centered around the pooping of various creatures. And that at one point in each of our lives, we only had to be concerned about our own personal pooping.

Fast forward, and now we worry about an aging dog, a (mostly!) potty trained three-year-old, and a baby fast developing a taste for solid foods. I spend a lot of time changing diapers, carrying plastic bags around the park, and removing unsavory stains from articles of clothing.

Let’s just say, it’s not anyone’s favorite part of grown-up life.

And it’s optional, of course. If I’d played my cards differently, I might have gotten another fifty years where my poop and only my poop was my private business. That’s the way a lot of us do it now.

But the way I see it, historically, that’s an anomaly. The world used to be a lot more community-based and a lot more hierarchical. If you weren’t concerned with the nourishment and cleanliness of a whole household, then probably, someone was tasked with worrying about yours. Maybe you lived as a nobleman in a castle and had to worry about the sanitation of, I don’t know, the moat, and keeping everyone fed and plague-free in a siege. Maybe you lived in a little sod hut on the prairie with your five children and your chickens and your cow, Hilda, and things got pretty ripe in the long winter months, you all squeezed in together. (But then, I may just be traumatized by stupid Giants in the Earth.)

Sometimes it’s easy to think I shouldn’t have to deal with all this, well, shit. I MADE GOOD GRADES, I sniff to myself with intolerable snobbishness. I could maybe outsource some of the diapers and cold weather walks to daycare, doggy and otherwise, although I’m coming up short on someone who would tackle the most harrowing of the laundry issues.

We are burdens to each other, and rightfully so, in the beginning and end of our lives, if not, sometimes, in the middle. As an old First Things piece argues, “Is this not in large measure what it means to belong to a family: to burden each other—and to find, almost miraculously, that others are willing, even happy, to carry such burdens?”

None of us likes to think of the disgusting, lowly things someone did for us when we were babies, or even worse, the humbling care we might require at the end of our lives. We as a culture want to opt out and pretend we are exempt. But you know, I feel a sort of kinship with all those blessedly crowded folks from long ago, who I’d imagine as I stomped my feet to keep warm while Bonnie took ages to find the perfect pooping spot, out there on the edge of the cold, moonlit New England woods. It is the humblest act of loving someone, a privilege with which I’m entrusted by those little weirdos in my care. I hope I’m up to the task.