A Mother’s Rule of Life

I’ve asked it before: How do you decide what of all possible things to go deep in, when, as a stay-at-home mother, you’re a jack of all trades?

It would help to have a job description. As it is, I almost always have the nagging conviction I should be doing something other than whatever I’m doing at that moment. Last winter I read the Rule of St. Benedict and this winter I fell in love with the cloistered world of In this House of Brede — its quiet peace, and sense of purpose, and hard work, and order.

This reading primed me, I think, for A Mother’s Rule of Lifewhich is a pretty divisive book in my tiny microcosm of Catholic married mothers who are home full-time. Some friends worry it’s a temptation to rigidity; the one who lent it to me found it tolerably helpful in prioritizing; an Insta friend adored it. In it, Holly Pierlot promises to walk you through developing your own Rule, if you happen to find yourself a Catholic married mother at home rather than a nun in a convent.

Pierlot defines a Rule as “a reflection of the aims and mission of vocation,” and much of the book led me to fruitful consideration, as I followed her advice and took notes. Eventually I decided this: Our aim, as a family, as a household, is to progress in kindness and holiness through love of God, love of each other, and love of learning. From there, you take the tasks you believe are most essential to your vocation, prioritize them, and slot them into a schedule. If you were a Brede nun, it would involve singing the liturgy, working at your talent (translation or writing or gardening), common labor, prayer. For me, in this stage, it involves less liturgical singing and more laundry.

If my aim is to progress in kindness and holiness, I need to not over schedule, but I do need to keep things clean enough that I don’t flip out on my sweet family. I need to practice discipline so I’m not always fighting fires, but build in time for the seeming non-essentials of learning and reading. I need to take breaks from the fun (the latter) and the challenging (the former) to play with my children, to do nothing much with my husband. If I can just remember that, I feel like the rest will fairly fall into place.

The book has obvious weaknesses. I think it’s ordered badly, so that the rationale for a Rule comes at the very end, instead of as an argument before launching in to the nitty gritty of scheduling errands and drawing up monthly rotations. The writing style also isn’t my cup of tea, but Pierlot does have a knack for crystalizing a lot of the ideas that have been kicking around in my head while bringing in pretty compelling authorities. She also seems to assume the existence of bigger kids to share the load, which is hard when I only have littles, but it does remind me to be on the lookout for places Pip can help — putting away silverware, running the vacuum extension hose thing, which he adores.

I was surprised, reading, to discover just how much of a schedule we’ve already drafted toward, my routine-loving children and me. And writing that schedule down started to show me some gaps where maybe, after all, I could choose to be still, could choose to give to prayer, could choose to use for writing or frivolous reading or napping without guilt. It’s also, unexpectedly, giving me permission to let done be done, helping silence the guilty conviction that there’s always something I should be cleaning, or something noble I should commit to, because there I have, in writing, what my priorities are, and what qualifies as “done.”

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Anxiety and the Post Apocalyptic

When I list my favorite books, many follow a common theme: Anne of Green Gables, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Gilead, Persuasion — fairly light, fairly sweet. But there’s a thread that runs against this theme because, since I was about 12 and first read Alas, BabylonI also have a deep and abiding love for post apocalyptic  and dystopian stories.

I’ve read so many over the years, especially while I was a teen librarian and The Hunger Games reigned supreme, that my dreams are often combinations of survival scenarios and, depressingly, packing. But it’s hard to tell, chicken or egg, whether I dream of conflagration because I’ve read so much of it, or I read so many stories of utter destruction because these images have always haunted my dreams.

What I do suspect is that for me, post apocalyptic stories—the good ones—satisfy something deep inside. I am not, it’s perhaps worth noting, the kind of person with a bug-out bag and survivalist dreams — however, I am an anxious person, always worried about small impending catastrophes. For me, to read Alas, Babylon is to enter a world where my fear is confirmed, the worst occurs, and, in the books I especially love, the worst is overcome.

Because I’m not a fangirl of depths-of-despair forebodings like On the Beachwhere literally everyone dies, slowly and inexorably. The stories I find myself drawn to have their darkness, but also their hope. Sure, most of the world is obliterated by nuclear war in Alas, Babylon, but the surviving citizens of a small central Florida town rebuild a better world. Some of these novels are darker than others: salvation is sparing in The Road and The Dog Starsand life is hardscrabble in Station Eleven, though beauty and art endure. In  A Canticle for Leibowitz and The Children of Men, the margin of hope is a downright sliver.

Maybe that’s why, then, readers are flocking to George Orwell’s 1984 these days. Maybe these dystopian worlds, these after-the-disaster premises, allow us to feel safer: Sure, it’s bad now, but it could be much, much worse. Or maybe, when you’re scared, living out the worst-case scenario between the pages of a book can feel like an escape — or even preparation.

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Homeschooling and the Bookshelf

A recent Goodwill haul

When I was getting ready to travel to East Africa as a newlywed, I re-read Heart of Darkness and The Poisonwood Bible(Optimistic choices, I know.) When we were expecting our firstborn, I pored over Natural Childbirth the Bradley WayI am a reader, first and foremost. It’s how I prepare, living out the future from the safety of the page.

The decision to homeschool Pip’s preschool next year has been different, because these sweet children already take up so much of my day that I can’t dive into a book as I once did. I want to read to prepare, but instead, I find myself reading Good Night, Good Night Construction Site or another Beverley Cleary instead of educational philosophy.

Although Virginia’s winter has been mild this year, it’s run roughshod on our family. One or more of us has been sick since we returned from Christmas weeks and weeks ago. Barred from playdates and parks, stir crazy in the house, overdosed on family movies, I find myself hauling the kids day after day from one thrift shop to another.

Right now, homeschooling feels so big, so nebulous, and as with first birth or expatriation, you can’t really know what it’s like until you’re already in the thick of it. I can be thinking about what I’d like to do, and talking to my many wise friends, and sneaking bits of The Well-Trained Mind on audiobook as I cook dinner, but for now, it’s mostly a matter of waiting.

I realized, though, there might be a method to my compulsion. I can’t read homeschooling manuals when I’m caring for my kids, but I sure as heck can wheel them around a thrift store, diving for literary treasures. With every chapter book I snag, I feel a little more prepared for the mostly unpreparable. I’ve got another book to read aloud to Pippin, another book of background reading I’ll get to one of these days (I’m looking at you, Last Child in the Woods). I can’t yet imagine what our homeschooling life will look like a year from now, but I rest assured I’ll be surrounded by old friends: Stuart Little, the Alden children, Mary Poppins, the Penderwick sisters.

Galentines: Literary Friendships

Galentines Day, invented by Parks & Recreation‘s Leslie Knope, is all about ladies celebrating ladies (with waffles, of course). We live in a world with bromances and guy love, but we can always use a little more gratitude for our female friendships, can’t we?

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First on our list from literature is a no brainer: Anne and Diana, of course. Bosom friends! Kindred spirits! Isn’t the Anne series really just an extended exploration of friendship? And so few male characters who aren’t pure cardboard. Let us always remember along with Anne, “Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.” (And it’s worth celebrating all the other friendships in the series. My favorite is Philippa Gordon.)

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Next, I nominate the lesser-known Julie and Maddie in Code Name Verity. The story opens improbably enough, with a Scottish spy, captured in occupied France, writing her confession to the Gestapo, but quickly unfolds into the story of her friendship with Maddie, an English pilot. There are too many good passages to choose from: “It’s like being in love, discovering your best friend” or the long and lovely meditation:

 I don’t believe for a minute–that we wouldn’t have become friends somehow–that an unexplored bomb wouldn’t have gone off and blown us both into the same crater, or that God himself wouldn’t have come along and knocked our heads together in a flash of green sunlight.

Uprooted. I know we just talked about this one. Friendship isn’t quite as central here, but its nuances make it memorable. Agnieszka and Kasia have always known that Kasia will be chosen by the mysterious and surly local wizard as a servant. Their friendship endures in spite of this inevitable truth, but when Agnieszka is chosen instead, things get complicated. Magic forces them to confront the darkness in their close and sustaining friendship, and they emerge stronger than ever:

My vision cleared, and looking into her face I saw the shame falling away. She looked at me with fierce love, with courage.

Can we count sisters? Christina Rossetti argues we can in “Goblin Market“:

For there is no friend like a sister

In calm or stormy weather;

To cheer one on the tedious way,

To fetch one if one goes astray,

To lift one if one totters down,

To strengthen whilst one stands.

Well, I’m convinced. So let’s add:

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The Marches in Little Women. Isn’t this Australian cover above just the sweetest?

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The Penderwicks. Love the Penderwick Family Honor, and how these girls seem to manage to be all be friends (well, most of the time), despite their age and personality differences.

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Elizabeth and Jane, Elinor and Marianne. Of course. What would Jane be without Elizabeth’s calls to courage, or Lizzy without Jane’s soft heart urging kindness? How lonesome Elinor’s path of dreary prudence would be without Marianne, and how destructive Marianne’s unrestrained passions without Elinor!

Who’s on your list of literary BFFs? Can you think of any contemporary books with central female friendships written for adults?

A day in books

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21 was a special summer for me. I got engaged. I was leaving for study abroad in September. And I got a job through my parents where sometimes I did administrative work on septic tank variances (WOOHOO) and sometimes I got paid to read my Oxford reading list holed up in my cubicle. And it was kind of the life.

At the time, I knew it was unlikely i would ever get paid even $10/hour again to read classical literature. And it’s been true. While I made minimum wage at a secretary job reading Wendell Berry and doing library school homework, and later snuck an occasional YA novel at the desk as a librarian, it’s never really happened again in the ten year since.

I don’t always love being a stay at home parent, but man, is it a fine career for reading. For fun, I tracked what we read on a slow winter weekday recently:

  • Away in the Manger — Scout’s current favorite, on repeat. (I’m not going to link to this one, because the point is: song, pictures of baby, pictures of animals. Pretty generic.)
  • Scout’s Little Book of Names and Faces — requested by both kids. I made it for Scout’s Christmas this year through this service.
  • I Can FlyRuth Krauss — Scout’s nap time choice.
  • Day Dreamers, Emily Winfield Martin — a Scout request. The illustrations are so lovely.
  • Paw Patrol: Puppy Birthday to You — Ugh.
  • Boxcar Children 1 (audiobook) — I didn’t read this one. Pippin has taken to listening to audiobooks while I cook dinner.
  • Boxcar Children 10 (paperback) — It makes me batty that he wants to read more than one book in the same series at the same time, but pfffft.
  • The Velveteen Rabbit — P’s first time.
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn — just me, during nap time, for bookclub.
  • Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland — J’s reading this one chapter a night to the kids while I clean up from dinner.
  • Swallows and Amazons — J’s bedtime book for Pip which he reads beside the fire while I do more straightening up.

Sitting in a little over-air conditioned cubicle, I didn’t imagine this future for myself as a reader, but it’s one I’m grateful for (Paw Patrol aside).

And dear new mother Katherine, circa 2013 — you will read again, and something other than books that label truck parts. And it will be all you hoped for.

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Commonplace Book, 26

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:

  • It’s possible I’ve shared this before: pesto bread machine bread. I’ve found if you add something like pesto or pureed pumpkin to your dough, it often tastes less “bread machine-y” than a more basic recipe. Do you have any favorites?
  • Everyday chocolate cake from Smitten Kitchen. But I forgot to sift the flour, and it mattered.
  • Add to the vaguely ethnic slow cooker recipes: vaguely French slow cooker cassoulet.
  • Quick tip obvious to everyone but me: if you do a whole chicken in the slow cooker, if you stick it in the oven for a few minutes at 400 degrees before serving it, you will make the chicken-skin eaters in your crowd really happy, because the oven will crisp the skin, while the slow cooker leaves the white meat tender and lovely.

What I’m reading:

  • Minimalism gets it wrong: This is something I’ve been thinking about a bit since reading some of the Little House books with Pippin at the end of last year. It’s not that we should have fewer things because the material world and everything bodily is bad; it’s that we should have fewer things because we only acquire those that are good and useful and beautiful — not to pass the time, or keep up with trends, or any of the other reasons we accumulate junk. The Ingalls family values their meager possessions, from the beautiful impractical ones, like Ma’s china doll, to the direly essential ones, like the horses that transport their wagon. An orange, or scattered Indian beads, are noteworthy treasures for Laura, and as our Christmas approached, this struck me all the more. A truly lovely Catholic church, like my college church, manifests this truth: it is in no way minimalist, but there is nothing trendy or junky or extraneous, either. I guess Marie Kondo hints at this, talking about things that bring you joy, but that’s not quite the same, is it?
  • A Tree Grows In Brooklynthis is the first time I’ve read this, and it’s beautiful and lyrical but so sad that I’m not enjoying it as much as I expected. I wanted something like Shadows on the Rock or Little Women, with lots of light amidst its lyricism, and this is much grittier than I’d expected —

    “The sad thing was in the knowing that all their nerve would get them nowhere in the world and that they were lost as all the people in Brooklyn seem lost when they day is nearly over and even though the sun is still bright, it is thin and doesn’t give you warmth when it shines on you.”

  • Housekeeping (audiobook) because I think it’s the only Marilynne Robinson novel I haven’t read yet. I don’t love it as much as Gilead but that’s not to say I don’t love it, if you see what I mean.
  • Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating because, you know.

Commonplace Book, 25

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:

  • Once I read a piece that talked about the culinary creativity that comes with “nap jail,” but I like “serendipity of the (pantry) shelf” — to modify a library term — better, as some of my innovations have to do with working around sleeping children, but a lot is just me being cheap and using what I’ve got. Anyway, earlier this week, the thing I was going to make ended up being impossible because I was completely out of soy sauce, but I had thawed chicken breasts, and this recipe — fragrant garam masala chicken stew with peas and potatoes — fit what I had on the pantry shelf without too many substitutions. And maybe it’s just that we ran out to the local ethnic deli for their lovely spiced rice to accompany it, but we ended up loving this dish probably better than what I’d intended to make.

What I’m reading:

  • At our Advent party, a friend and I got to talking about Children of Men when she saw it on my shelf and how it compared to the film. And I wish I could say the book is better but…it’s really not. I was reminded again reading this reflection on the movie, ten years after its debut.
  • This Christmas, I read In this House of Bredewhich I feel like has been recommended by every Catholic literary type ever, and it totally lived up to the hype — I think I’m still wandering the hushed and peaceful halls of the monastery now. There’s so much I’d like to excerpt, but I’ll stick to just one. A young nun reflects on Holy Saturday:

“As the candles caught their light one from another, Cecily had a vision of the flame running in the same way from one church to another throughout Christendom, far around the world: new light, new joy, fresh hope. Thousands of candles, pure wax, wax of bees, made through the year by the wings and work of infinitesimal creatures like us, thought Cecily, made for this night.”

I remember thinking something similar — though infinitely less lyrical — as a teenager in Mass, imagining the same feast being celebrated the world over, century upon century. And look! Dwija is reading it now, too!

  • My read-this-so-you-don’t-gasp-at-the-interstate-traffic book this year was Uprootedby Naomi Novik, which I doubt I would have picked up if it hadn’t come recommended by a friend. I’d describe it as a vaguely Polish fairy tale, but that would do it a disservice. It subverts all kinds of fairy tale tropes, self-consciously evaluating its own story in light of tradition. I especially like the way it doesn’t stoop to action movie scenes, as when the protagonist looks down from a high tower at warring soldiers:

That was a story, too; they all had stories. They had mothers or fathers, sisters or lovers. They weren’t alone in the world, mattering to no one but themselves. It seemed utterly wrong to treat them like pennies in a purse. I wanted to go and speak to that boy, to ask him his name, to find out what his story really was. But that would have been dishonest, a sop to my own feelings. I felt the soldiers understood perfectly well that we were making sums out of them—this many safe to spend, this number too high, as if each one wasn’t a whole man.

Don’t you just love that! I hate action movies and skim action sequences in books (also: Quidditch), but Uprooted highlights the humanity between warring sides, and its fantasy is truly innovative: spooky and unpredictable, deep and wide, like there’s a whole world just beyond the scope of the story. Anyway, highly recommend.

Profesh shot of me by the four year old in Cabbagetown, Atlanta, last week beside a mural made by an acquaintance