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.

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What Works For Us In This Season

I think there are a lot of good ways to attack housework. Before we had kids, we’d take a desultory whack at the most egregious spots on the weekends, together, especially right before someone was coming over. When Pippin was a baby, we’d set a timer for 20 minutes every evening after we’d put him to bed, then accomplish as much decluttering, sweeping, dog-walking and dishwashing as we could before the timer sounded. Now that Pippin stays up till 8 and I’m no longer balancing library work in the evenings and we have all of us making an unholy mess all day long, we’ve developed a new approach.

Some of the set-it-and-forget-it work of the household I accomplish in the gaps of my day with the kids: starting the slow cooker or bread machine, tidying the bedrooms, running the dishwasher or a load of laundry, slapping together the rest of dinner in the dreaded 5 o’clock hour.

But the bulk of the housework — cleaning up after supper, putting away everyone’s clean laundry, vacuuming and wiping down surfaces and taking out the recycling and a thousand other small tasks — I knock out with one fell swoop in the space between finishing dinner and Pippin going to bed, with a small break somewhere in there to put Scout down.

And here’s my secret to enjoying it: THERE ARE NO CHILDREN AROUND.

I put on an audiobook, and I carry with me any leftover bit of wine or cider I might have from dinner, and I tackle whatever seems most important at the moment, steering clear of the playroom or yard, wherever the rest of the clan is hanging out. Unlike the rest of the day, I’m not simultaneously answering impossible questions (“What are you made out of, Mama?”) or removing choking hazards from a baby’s clenched fist, but can work uninterrupted. I can think things through, and choose my own (humble, cleaning-related) adventure.

This requires not getting mad at J for not helping. He made the mess, too! When is the last time he even used his dishwashing gloves? These are not helpful thoughts. During this time, he’s still working, because he’s spending time with our children in a way he can’t during the workday, roughhousing in the way they love and I hate, or adventuring outside, or visiting the neighbors. It’s important to remember that we are both working in these evenings, and also both having fun, because our evening work is different than our daytime work. It’s divide-and-conquer time, and I want the housework part, because by 6:30 I can use a break from the kids.

And then, finally, both the kids are in bed, and we’re finally free, free for real, to catch up, and to relax in the order and calm we’ve created together.

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Real talk: One evening assignment is periodically tackling the clutter and toddler toothpaste foam of our bathroom vanity armed only with half a cider and a bottle of Windex.

My Housekeeping Commonplace Book, 6

I’m switching formats on this feature slightly after being inspired by Abbey pointing me to this post on the value of a commonplace book. I was familiar with the term as a longtime reader of Alan Jacob’s tumblr, and historically my own tumblr more or less filled this niche. So I’ll shift these posts just slightly to be 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:

  • 4-ingredient Nutella cookies: because I realized I had three jars of Nutella and I didn’t want to move them all. Also, because YOLO.
  • Nothing else. We’re moving in stages and since I am lacking big pots, the rest of my plates, a working oven, etc., I’m pretty limited.

What I’m reading:

  • The anxious parent (First Things) — We used to talk a lot about this in our growth group back in Amherst. How do you balance risk with raising your kids the way you want them to live? The answer, this author suggests, is all about taking the eternal perspective — and particularly timely, as I’ve just started letting Pippin play outside where I can see him while I do chores. I feel proud of him that I can trust him, and proud of me that I can let him stretch his wings a bit, and just scared to death.
  • In Kerry Weber’s Mercy in the City, which we are reading for our small group:

As we stand there [at the Stations of the Cross], our own group is included in that tradition, all of us part of a long line of people in love with, pained by, suffering for, and taking part in the church. There can be a strange beauty in suffering, but, more important, there is beauty in having a community that helps us overcome it, to move forward toward that resurrection.

  • I just plowed through The Lake House in the moments when I was too tired to unpack. I LOVE the atmosphere in Kate Morton’s books, and while I think I liked The Secret Keeper better than this one, I’m still a fan. Who doesn’t like musings like these?

The thought pleased him; Anthony pictured layers of time and usage, yesterday’s ghosts making way for today’s players. Buildings were so much bigger than one man’s life, and wasn’t that a happy thing? It was what he liked most about the woods and fields of Loeanneth. Generations had walked them, worked them, and been buried beneath them.

  • In Margaret Kim Peterson’s Keeping House: A Litany of Everyday Lifeshe insightfully points out the subtext of many women’s housekeeping magazines:

    The message is clear: keeping house is not about mastering a set of complex and worthwhile skills for the sake of doing a good job at something that needs to be done. It is about being perfect without even trying.

Does anyone else need that reminder, like, constantly? I’m mastering a set of complex and worthwhile skills, not striving for perfection. Phew.

 

if I homeschool him and he doesn’t get to ride the schoolbus he will never forgive me

 

The Walk and Talk

We moved into our new house, and recently, on a warm spring evening, Scout and I set off.

The menfolk were at the old house, gathering up enough stuff to last us through the night, and in the squalor of our partially unpacked house, I couldn’t find the leash to take Bonnie along with us, so it was just me and my daughter, and though my shoulders ached under the Ergo from a week of packing and lifting and moving, the walk around our new neighborhood with my daughter felt right.

Long before I was introduced to the Aaron Sorkin walk and talk, I was an accomplished walk-talker with my mother. When I was seven, we moved from out in the country where we lived beside a busy highway to a sleepy outer suburb of a bigger city. And I don’t remember how or when it started — maybe when my mom started doing Weight Watchers? — but somewhere along the line, we started taking walks together.

Because the origins are hazy, I don’t remember why it was nearly always just me and my mom, and not my sister. In the same way, I don’t know if Pippin will ever be my walking buddy; he’s so focused that right now, at least, he seems always to prefer hurtling or bike riding or playground-clambering to anything as mundane and poky as a stroll. (And then he has the gall to complain his legs hurt as soon as I do convince him to go on a walk.) Maybe Scout won’t be a walker, either — but I hope so.

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Over two decades of walking with this lady, and this is the only photo I can find from our walks. (Also, that walking stick goes with us everywhere and has warded off many sketchy dogs.)

Just as they say that the car is an excellent place to have a conversation with your child — something about the lack of eye contact paired with sheer proximity — so my mom found, I guess, that walking was a great time to have conversations with me. I breathlessly related, in painstakingly dull detail, no doubt, the plot lines of the books I was reading and the little dramas of my schoolyard life. She told me about work frustrations, and we worked out elaborate mythologies for the neighborhood: its white squirrels, its odd dogs, that perpetually marshy corner. She’d knick my knuckles with her engagement ring as she swung her arms, and I’d get all huffy about it.

We walked through my school days, and when I was back from college in those still, oppressively hot summers. Now, when we’re visiting, we walk still, usually with a stroller or Ergo or both. We make the same loops we always did, sometimes with me in wheezy postpartum shape, sometimes with me in the lead. We talk about the neighbors who have moved, what I’ve heard the kids I grew up with are doing now, whether we like new landscaping choices. My parents have lived in the same house since 1993, but it’s different now from how I remember it: the yard sunnier after those trees had to be taken out, the garden more lush now that my parents have more time to devote to it. Sitting on the porch glider after a sweaty Florida walk, though, sipping water from a glass slick with condensation, it all feels about the same.

I want that for my own daughter, too.

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

 

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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.
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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.”

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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.

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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

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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.