Stop Skimping on Yourself: Making My Bedroom Not a Wreck

not staged, which is why you’ll see Cecil, the world’s most disgusting polar bear, on the bed
It’s always been the last thing we worried about decorating. In our Mole Hole studio apartment, it was a sort of dark pillow fort that was probably never truly clean. In our Granby apartment, there was cardboard in the bedroom windows for a long time even after we’d stopped needing to block light for our mixed-up newborn. I’m not sure we ever really unpacked and set up our Belmont apartment in the ten or so months we lived there.

I think there’s a tendency for me not to spend a lot of money or energy on my bedroom, as a grown-ass married lady, because no one sees it but me and my husband, and I don’t exhibit a lot of energy, eight years in, trying to impress him with my sophistication. And 1.) maybe I should, or else, 2.) maybe I shouldn’t be trying to impress anyone with my house, right? What about friendly and meaningful and interesting and, you know, COZY? So maybe no one will see my bedroom, which is mostly a good thing, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try to make it a lovely place to be, even if it just for me.

I’m trying to be better this time around, even though we spend very little waking time in the bedroom, attached as it is to Scout’s “closery.” Still, everytime I come in to change the sheets or grab my outfit for the day, I feel better to find a room not strewn with dirty clothes, dark and undecorated. I doubt I’ll be regularly making the bed anytime soon, but it’s a start.

prints, clockwise: a birch print I admired in an Western MA coffee shop and J bought me; us making out on our honeymoon in Washington State; a sweet print from an ATL artist Beca gave me for Christmas; a jar of little string lights from Pippin’s godparents
Advertisements

Adventures without Airconditioning

When we decided to buy our house, we knew a few of its problems. One of them was that the air conditioning wasn’t working. No big deal, we figured. We’ll be gone part of the summer, and we’re pretty tough people. (We thought this in February.)

It might be tempting to argue that our Floridian upbringing has made us immune to heat, but almost the opposite is true, especially for J. In Florida, central air-conditioning is the norm; my grandmother is literally the only person I’ve ever met there who doesn’t cool her house more or less year round. I mostly haven’t had central air-conditioning as an adult, first in the mountains of Uganda, and then in Massachusetts, where we limped along until the summer I was pregnant with Pip.

Look, I’ve read Laudato Si, which, while frustratingly short on specific proposals on what measures to take for our environment, does highlight air-conditioning as a particular excess worth examining. The whole idea of taking the hot air and pushing it outside so it’s someone else’s problem is obviously a little morally questionable. Still, in places like India, where air conditioner use is exploding, “It is cheaper than a car, and arguably more life-changing in steamy regions, where cooling can make it easier for a child to study or a worker to sleep.

hot days, cool sunhats

We knew when we bought this house that the air conditioning was broken, but we have friends here in Virginia who survive summers without air conditioning, and we were challenged by the Pope’s words, and also, we really, really didn’t want to have to pay for major repairs right now.

sunporch art, with saw

The past couple of weeks, I quite like the seasonality that life without air-conditioning fosters: eating dinners out on the porch, spending more time outside because it’s just as hot indoors, cooking special summertime meals that don’t heat up the house.

naked and raucous, charming all the neighbors

But you know what? Without air-conditioning, you get a lot more mold. And without air conditioning, my hot-blooded husband is really wilted and pitiful. I can’t cook things I want to cook, and I can’t take a shower the night before and be clean in the morning.

The clincher was arriving back from vacation to a stifling house with a feverish baby who sleeps in the eaves upstairs. (If it’s 85 downstairs where the thermometer is, what’s it like up there?!) We lasted a little over 24 hours before we bought ourselves a window unit.

I suspect I struggle more with ambiguity than some people: I want clear, universal answers about how I’m to live, and factoring in that other people have shadier yards, or aren’t home all day, or have single-story homes feels like cheating. Through force of will, we’ve made it seven years as a single-car family, which feels both like a sign we could slog through the heat if we really wanted to, and an excuse not to have to: we’ve proved our green cred, and our frugal.

At the moment we are in talks to get the central air-conditioning replaced, and I’m both guilty and excited. I am sweating as I type this, and I’ll be sweating as I go to bed, even with that contraband window unit cozied up beside me.

It’s probably just time to chill out.

 

 

 

Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible and Entitlement

I’ll tell you up front: here be spoilers. On the other hand, Eligible is a modern-day retelling of Pride and Prejudice, so there won’t be many major surprises for a Janeite.


Let me start by saying Eligible is really funny, and compulsively readable. It hews very closely to the original, which is itself no small feat. I love Curtis Sittenfeld’s dryly funny observations, and particularly her Sisterlandso as an Austen devotee, I’ve been eagerly awaiting this adaptation for months.

Some characters’ updates are spot-on. Mr. Bennet, who I find both amusing and upsetting in the original, retains the same slightly cruel hilarity in Eligible — as when, in the face of downsizing, he quips, “If your mother and I lived somewhere smaller, we might have to actually see each other.” Of Liz’s “wastrel sisters,” the younger ones work better than do Jane and Liz, I think. Mary, who could easily be valorized as an intellectual in an update, mooches off her parents and racks up online master’s degrees, remaining “proof, Liz had concluded, of how easy it was to be unattractive and unpleasant.”

As with most modern takes on Pride and Prejudice, however, Sittenfeld neglects to address the moral framework that informs Austen’s original. While she cleverly imports and updates the humor and romance of Pride and Prejudice, she loses sight of its integral justice, in which brave and good characters like Elizabeth are rewarded with their moral equals, like Mr. Darcy, and self-centered, headstrong, immoral characters like Lydia suffer their just desserts with an unhappy match to the villainous Mr. Wickham. Here, for instance, Lydia is much more sympathetic, and her actions approved of by Liz: “Lydia and Ham are living their truth. […] More power to them.”

In Eligible‘s world, the central place of marriage in Pride and Prejudice is more or less deposed in favor of the pursuit of parenthood. The most striking and uncomfortable aspect of this retelling is how divorced child-bearing is from marriage and even love — and no one cares.

In this story, nearly-40-year-old Jane undergoes an IUI with donor sperm to become a single mother, and when the pregnancy is revealed, she and Chip Bingley break up (temporarily, of course). Social climbing Mrs. Bennet, hearing the news of the breakup but unaware of the pregnancy, “sounded so bereft. ‘Now you’ll never have children.'” By making ridiculous Mrs. Bennet the champion of traditional families in the novel, Sittenfeld throws into doubt the desirability of such a goal. (Indeed, the Bennets are the only intact family in the story, and they are, as in Pride and Prejudice, kind of a train wreck.)

Charlotte, practical as ever in Eligible, muses, when facing dissatisfaction over her rash decision to move in with Willie (Mr. Collins), “Maybe instead of taking the job, I should get pregnant now, and that way, even if Willie and I break up, I’ll still be a mom.” It’s a shocking proposal, and yet Liz offers no censure, even mentally. Men are a means to an end here, and that end is usually, but not always, motherhood on the woman’s own terms. (I was reminded here again of Simcha Fisher’s excellent piece, “The Earth Is a Nursery” about our contemporary longing for children.)

Liz, and presumably the novel itself, suggest that biological children are just one among any equally acceptable options, not the natural consequence of marriage. When Mrs. Bennet complains that Lydia, having chosen a transgender husband, will never give birth, Liz points to alternate means. By placing the argument in snobbish, racist Mrs. Bennet’s mouth, we are meant to see any sense of the fitness of biological children to be as silly and behind the times as she is. (She is, after all, the same woman who says, “Liz, I don’t know if Kitty and Shane are serious, but life can be very hard for mulatto children.”)

“Lydia will never be able to have babies.” Mrs. Bennet scowled at Liz. “And at the rate you’re going, neither will you.”

“Lydia and Ham can adopt. Or”—it was impossible not to think of Jane—”there are other options.”

Mrs. Bennet shook her head. “When people adopt, God only knows what’s in those genes.”

“God only knows what’s in any of our genes,” Liz said, and Mrs. Bennet drew herself up into a haughty posture.

“I beg your pardon,” she said. “Your father and I both come from very distinguished families.”

At 38 years old, Liz, who strongly wishes to avoid motherhood, nonetheless confronts its specter everywhere in her “rapidly approaching expiration date,” much as an old maid might be constantly reminded of her unmarried state in Jane Austen’s era. She initially bonds with Darcy, in part, because in a discussion following hate sex (!!!), it is revealed neither wants to be a parent: “When I went into neurosurgery, I was making a choice that either I’d be the kind of person who lets his partner do ninety-five percent of the parenting or I wouldn’t be a parent, period. […] Any man with a viable sperm count can become a dad, whereas only some people can perform a decompressive craniectomy.” This Darcy is articulate and honorable as ever, but the prospect of a intentionally sterile marriage for Elizabeth Bennet and her Mr. Darcy is nonetheless depressing to contemplate.

There is no indication that either shifts position upon falling in love and getting engaged; on the contrary, when Liz finally meets her new niece, she finds her, “a miraculous and tiny human whom Liz felt immediate devotion toward and was relieved not to be the mother of.” While this attitude toward motherhood may be designed by Sittenfeld to demonstrate that Liz, like Elizabeth in P&P, is not interested in the ruthless pursuit of goals, it reads somehow off to me.

Maybe I need to say that I believe strongly in adoption, and sympathize with infertility, and appreciate when people recognize they shouldn’t be parents. Still, the modern landscape presented by Eligible suggests a wasteland of desperate people (women, mainly): desperate to become parents at all costs or else desperate to avoid the consequences of love and marriage.

Jane Austen’s masterpiece argues compellingly for a marriage of equals, founded in love. In Pride and Prejudice, we are not meant to approve of Charlotte marrying for financial security, or Lydia marrying for lust. In the same way, an update of Austen, if it is to substitute motherhood for marriage, should not approve all paths to parenthood no matter how flippantly or selfishly followed. In Austen’s world, virtue leads to flourishing, and there are no shortcuts; otherwise Elizabeth might have married Mr. Collins, or Lydia would have ended up happily married after her irresponsible elopement. Though Charlotte’s resigned pragmatism might translate from mercenary marriage to, in this version, contemplating intentional single motherhood, and Lydia in this case might seek motherhood flippantly (“If Jane’s baby turns out cute […] maybe Ham and I will use the same sperm donor she did”), we cannot be meant to cheer on Jane Bennet settling for motherhood without the loving support of a father, or Liz choosing an intentionally barren marriage just so she can keep having fun. (Her reasons are fuzzier and less heroic than Darcy’s.) That we are meant to laugh fondly in the epilogue at self-centered, masturbating Mary, determinedly single, left unchanged by the events of the novel, is the final insult to Austen’s legacy — none of the characters grow (with possibly the exception of Liz and Darcy), yet they all end up happily ever after.

We all of us want to claim Austen as a card-carrying member of our pet causes, but I can’t think she’d approve of the ruthlessness so richly rewarded in Eligible. In Eligible, as in our world, love and reproduction have been severed and the results aren’t pretty.  Then again — it’s possible that I’m on a fool’s errand, forever on the search for a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, unaware that I’m not modern enough myself to appreciate one.

 

 

Books I Love: Keeping House: The Litany of Everyday Life by Margaret Kim Peterson

unnamed
Please don’t judge a book by its cover because…not cool looking.

I’ve had this book on my shelf for ages — a gift, I think, from my parents, and I finally tackled it this spring. Boy, am I glad I did. Peterson opens with a series of questions I find myself asking:

“But why was it that not a single other one of them had made the choice I had, to keep house with more than leftover bits of time? Was keeping house really a waste of time, at best a hobby to be indulged by people who like that sort of thing and at worst an unpleasant set of necessary chores? Or were there broader cultural and theological factors that made housekeeping seem like all of these things when in fact it was, as I had found it, a disciple as interesting and worthwhile as many other kinds of work?”

Peterson equates thoughtful, conscientious, imperfect housekeeping with caring, a core Christian precept. She argues, “[H]ousekeeping is about practicing sacred disciplines and creating sacred space, for the sake of Christ as we encounter in our fellow household members and in neighbors, strangers, and guests.”

She calls out the isolation of contemporary society, noting “[W]e think it is normal for people to be by themselves and make an exception, as it were, for spouses and young children. But the movement in scripture is toward community, not separateness, and the bonds of community in scripture go well beyond those of the nuclear family.” Her observations highlight the growing conviction I’ve had since first encountering Wesley Hill’s musings on tumblr concerning the obligation of Christian marriages to expand the scope of their households.

Her observations also point to the rude wake up call I received when we had kids and I moved from full-time to part-time to no-time outside employment. Housekeeping had been just something we managed in the cracks of our lives before the huge upset that is a first child, and while we strove to have a cozy home to which we could comfortably invite friends, it wouldn’t have been something we listed as a major part of our lives. She argues, “How much more conducive to the well-being of the household it would be, both before and after children, if housekeeping were treated as an intrinsic and positive part of life in the body and in community rather than as a set of boring and limiting chores imposed on you by parenthood.”

I still struggle, over a year into being home full-time, not to feel like my housework is somehow un-hip, shamefully old-fashioned, and degrading. Peterson offers useful context, here as elsewhere, however: “But if in Jesus God himself could take up a towel and wash other people’s feet, surely we, as Jesus’ adopted brothers and sisters, can find it in us to wash one another’s dirty clothes and dirty dishes and dirty floors.” Amen, sister.

 

The bottom line, of course, is simple: “How much more hospitable it would be if our homes were routinely to be places filled with satisfying meals, with shirts warm from the dryer, with smoothly made beds — not because we are trying to win the housekeeping prize but because these are good and pleasant ways to care for one another and for ourselves!” I would do well to remember this myself.

 

 

Commonplace Book, 10

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:

  • On vacation, J and I went out to The Edison in Tallahassee to celebrate our anniversary (8!). Because I am a real grown up, I ordered the Grown Up Grilled Cheese, which had something called English muffin bread. Have you had it? Really, really good. And so when I got back to Virginia, I had to try this: King Arthur’s English Muffin Bread for the Bread Machine. Highly recommend.
  • Smitten Kitchen’s slow roasted cherry tomatoes. I’m not sure it can even be considered a recipe, but for people like me, who love the idea of garden-fresh tomatoes but in practice loathe watching their toddler chomp into backyard tomatoes, seeds and that creepy jelly dripping down his chin, this is a good compromise. They still taste fresh, and prep is a breeze, but when they’re done, they’re all shriveled and tart.

 

I’d like to say these are ripe from my backyard garden, or that I bought them from my friendly local farmer, but no, I just found them in the damaged produce section of Martins.


What I’m reading:

  • Have you read Swallows and Amazons? I did, for my children’s lit tutorial at Oxford, and it was entirely lovable. This First Things piece suggests to me it might be time to introduce Pippin.

The world of Swallows and Amazons is a normal child’s ideal world, quiet and sheltered and kind, but full of startling and unexpected things, some of them real and some imagined.

The Secret to Well-Behaved Kids at Mass

It’s touching. You just hold onto your kids. You hold him in your arms. You settle him in your lap.  You snuggle them close. You whisper what’s going on at the altar. You nibble the baby’s ear and tousle the toddler’s hair. You lift the kid high, her feet resting on the pew, to see the altar boys process, to see the Consecration.

You don’t need special, silent, Catholic toys. You don’t need mess-proof snacks. You just need to be ready for a full upper body workout. (Remember, people throughout history have endured much worse for the privilege of the Eucharist.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
You also don’t need matching outfits, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

There’s no way around the work and there’s no way around the distraction. You won’t hear a whole homily while your kids are little, or a full reading, although you can read them in advance of Mass, in the sleepy early morning while you nurse the baby.

You’ll evaluate your kid’s behavior by his age and his character. Is she misbehaving or just exuberant in her shouted ALLELULIA, two beats late? Maybe your kid will be wiggler or noisier than your friend’s kid the same age. That’s ok. God knows the kind of kid he gave you. (Also, remember the time-honored Catholic tradition of the doughnut bribe.)

Church nurseries and children’s church and crying rooms make sense for Protestant worship, which is primarily intellectual and demands concentration. But Catholic mass is all about incarnation, about bodily worship: bodies kneeling and genuflecting, eating and drinking, eyes on the real body of our God who was once a squirmy little boy at his mama’s breast. So the imperfect, earthy worship that is the only kind possible in the presence of children fits here, as incongruous as it may seem in the hush of solemn liturgy.

How do you manage more than two kids, when the adult-arms-to-wriggling-kid ratio exceeds 1:1? That, you’ll have to tell me.

Nailed it, St. Thomas-by-the-Sea

The Wandering Bowerses

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!

Scout will sleep anywhere but wants to nurse 327x a night
we have profited shamelessly from borrowed baby gear