Commonplace Book, 37 (Week 34)

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:

  • Ciabatta Pizza. I make good ciabatta. Everyone likes pizza. Which my family should have loved, but one kid wouldn’t try it and one didn’t like it. But you know what? That meant we grownups had enough leftovers that I didn’t have to cook the next day (and I could doctor it with kid-unapproved soppressata), so I’m going to count that as a win. Sort of. Picky eaters, phew.
  • Chicken pot pie. I thought this would be a good idea because it’s delicious and I needed to double a recipe for a friend with a newborn, but also I got v nervous halfway through since I went into labor with Scout on a day I was on my feet for hours making chicken pot pie. That time, the chicken pot pie was the first thing I was making to freeze for a postpartum stash, and it was undersalted with undercooked vegetables, and it seemed like we ate it for weeks after Scout’s arrival. Ugh. Ridiculous, I know, but I could breathe a little easier this time when it was all done, and it was good, after all. I use this recipe as a sort of basis, but change up a lot: I roast vegetables that look good (this time potatoes, carrots and mushrooms), often use rotisserie chicken, sub homemade stock if I’ve got it, etc.

What I’m reading:

  • I FINISHED MIDDLEMARCH. And it was good! I enjoyed it infinitely more than my endless reread of Brothers Karamazov. I don’t know that I will ever seek out George Eliot as fun, comfort reading as I do Jane Austen (not that she doesn’t have very wise and severe things to say herself, just that the huge scope and cast of Mm felt more demanding), but I also don’t think I’ll easily forget it, especially some of the truths mentioned here. (h/t Dominika, maybe? My brain is cheerios.)
  • The Catholic Table. I might write more about it later, especially as book club discusses it and those ladies bring their sage insights, but I’ve already done a little reflecting on it.
  • An Everlasting Meal. I’m not sure I’m an unpicky enough eater for this one (don’t talk to me about tongue, pls), but I enjoy many passages, which are almost Annie Dillard-y. But we disagree on food safety:

“No bacterial treachery lurks in vegetables once they have spent some time other than in the refrigerator or oven. Nor does it necessarily in anything that is a few days old, or spends the night on your counter. … I am fairly sure he wasn’t right, and I am completely confident he was spiritually wrong.”

I can’t help my indoctrination on food safety.

  • Gileadmy third go round. If I copied out all the passages I loved and savored, this would be a Gilead appreciation blog. But seriously. So good. It’s making me a better mother while my children appear to go through simultaneous pregnancy-related (?) regressions.

Last year I was thinking about:

  • Determining one’s trademark food — what one is known for serving or gifting.
Absolutely a standard uniform for him these days
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7 Quick Takes: 7 Weeks Into Police Preschool

I’m linking up again with This Ain’t the Lyceum for a 7 Quick Takes to celebrate having finished seven weeks of Police Preschool.

  1. Pleasingly Flopped Field Trips
  • Bees: Pippin mostly just played with our friends’ Duplos and gobbled up their cherry tomatoes. Still a fun evening!
  • Ducks & Doughnuts: It poured rain, but everyone got a doughnut and Scout chased ducks to her heart’s content, so I’m counting this a win.

    • Eggs: Pippin was afraid of the chickens, but Scout loved collecting an egg and was rapturous about eating it next morning.

    • Frogs & Fish: See below.
    • Goats: Unbelievably hot, but both kids relaxed into it a little more. It may have been the influence of the goat owner and her kids, folks I know from the homeschool co-op.

2. Saint Stories. I have a friend with an amazing stash, and she’s been way more helpful than the library, frankly. Every week I add more books to my “Homeschooling Maybes” Amazon list, but because of her, I haven’t had to spend a fortune on supplementary readings — does anyone know a good site for child-accessible stories on the saints, when I can’t find a picture book version?

3. Outside Everyday. I kind of hate this right now, and the kids did at first, too, but are now gaining steam. If we have a playdate for the day, I count that as the outside time, as long as they’re out a bit; if we don’t have a playdate, we just head down to our neighborhood park, and there are usually kids there to recruit onto the police squad. I am not a great all-weather person and the kids definitely resist on rainy days, but especially when they’re really playing happily and I can just sit and watch and maybe read a bit, I know it’s the right thing to do. On the days we miss, I definitely notice it in their behavior.

4. Poetry. Our current favorite is The 20th Century Children’s Poetry Treasury edited by Jack Prelutsky. Pip particularly likes funny ones and riddles, but is occasionally fascinated by more…poetic…poetry, like the selections this collection has on bats. Any recommendations for us?

5. Letters. I have Pippin write a letter to a friend whose name starts with the letter of the week each week, and I love it, and mostly he does, too. “Write” is pretty loose here; he usually signs his name and scrawls the recipient’s. Sometimes he decorates with stickers, usually with police cars. Sometimes the recipient writes back.

6. Rosary Updates. So, he’s kind of hooked at looking at art associated with the day’s mystery on my phone, and it’s kind of disruptive, though it does lead to good conversations about how religious art works, why there are varieties, what medium the artist used, etc. My tentative solution is to cut him off when he turns five next week, and we can just look at the art in a book we have of rosary art, or he can color.

7. Doubling the Fun. So, I know I’ve got it easy right now. Homeschooling baby steps: no newborn (coming soon!), only one child in school, the child only in preschool. I took a friend’s school for Police Preschool recently because Pippin begged me, and it was fun, but utter chaos. Two kids, two months apart, and their skills and interests are so different — Other Kid isn’t writing yet, but pays way more attention during the Rosary and is much more agile on the playground. And everyone had fun on the playground, and going on a walk to look for frogs and fish, but then I lost my keys, and they got to solve a Real Detective Mystery and help me find them as I waddled grumpily along. (#thirdtrimesterhomeschool)

Happy Michaelmas, y’all!

Commonplace Book, 33 (Week 23)

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:

  • My granny visited! And it was her birthday! And Pippin is obsessed with baking birthday cakes he refuses to eat! And Scout is obsessed with eating “party cake” she refuses to make! So we made a molasses spice cake with buttercream icing and it was pretty delicious, if unusual for a July birthday. It makes just one 9″ round — I just love small cakes, instead of leftovers lingering for days to reproach me (or be consumed in a fit of heartburn). Also, question for readers: do you think I could sub butter for shortening next time?
  • Almost not a recipe at all but in case you’re craving what I’m craving in large quantities with minimal work: pesto mozzarella chicken in the slow cooker.

Granny humors me and smiles with her (Pippin-decorated) cake

 What I’m reading:

When I come to town with my kids, the table is extended to its maximum size and my dad makes a quintuple batch of crepes before sitting down to drink a few cups of strong coffee with  splashes of cream. When he brings the mug to his mouth, he overlooks a table full of two generations of his making.

We only have a few pieces of really grownup furniture, but one of them is the dining room table J’s grandma bought us when the original homeowners were selling it along with the house, and we already have so many happy memories gathered around it.

  • Children of Godthe sequel to The Sparrowwhich is making me excited and full of dread at the same time because I’m so invested. Also, let’s talk about The Sparrow — this piece is a good starting point.
  • Middlemarch as an audiobook read by Juliet Stevenson and I’m actually enjoying it this time! Like, excited for dishes-washing and tooth-brushing, when normally I’m just counting down till I can flop over.
  • A Severe Mercy for a book club. I’ve read it before and enjoyed it back in college, but to look legit I should probably stop calling it A Separate Peace.

Commonplace Book, 30

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:

  • So rude of you to even ask.

What I’m reading:

  • Blood Red, Snow WhiteI don’t know if I’ve talked about our family’s ardent affection for Swallows and Amazonsa book that kicks of a series in which kids float around on a little sailboat in the Lake District and, charmingly, almost nothing happens. But did you know THE AUTHOR WAS A RUSSIAN SPY? And someone wrote a lovely, lyrical, fairy-tale-y account of Arthur Ransome’s time in Russia, and you can read it, and agree with me that although it’s basically the opposite of Swallows and Amazons, it’s really very good.
  • Till We Have FacesCurrently reading. Was supposed to finish for WRM, but since I was too sick to go, I have the luxury of reading it slowly in epsom salt baths that are not curing my morning sickness but still qualify as one of the more fun possible remedies.
  • Creating with God: The Holy Confusing Blessedness of PregnancyI’ve been gushing about this one over on Instagram. I thought I had found the best of faith-oriented books on the sanctifying suckiness of pregnancy (if not a genre, it should be), but au contraire! I’ve been underlining a lot. So glad it’s in the world.

“Pregnant women learn through pregnancy to trust others for their basic needs. They learn their own limits. They learn to ask for and receive help. They learn to surround themselves with communities of support…They learn to trust that God will meet their needs through the people around them. In short, pregnant women learn to live by faith.”

Currently book people even more than normal. (Also TV people…)

Commonplace Book, 29

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’ve been fixing:

  • Nada. My most masterful culinary accomplishment in weeks is buying potatoes for John to microwave and serve with chili I had made with my mom back at 5.5 weeks. Also, sometimes I make toast and sit on the grimy kitchen floor as it toasts.

What I’ve been reading:

Well, that’s a horse of a different color, or something. Here goes:

  • The Screwtape Letters: reread for Well Read Mom. I love that with each new pass, new things convict me — this time discussions of who time really belongs to and a striking critique of delicacy, which definitely comes into play when you’re trying to evaluate how much of your morning sick life is legitimate survival and how much is fretful selfishness.
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: I know the title is supposed to be cutesy, but it drives me nuts. Otherwise, loved this one about life in the Occupied and postwar Channel Islands. Told in sly epistles for bonus points!
  • The Light Between Oceans: In the early 20th century, an Australian lighthouse keeper and his wife discover a baby and a dead man washed ashore their isolated island. They keep the baby. Hypnotically depressing but with an unexpectedly hopeful ending. (See below.)
  • Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand: Not as good as I was hoping — kind of weirdly veering in places — but still fun. Major Pettigrew has lived his life in genteel English society in a way to uphold the family honor, but when his adult son’s behavior becomes increasingly crass and the Major himself strikes up a friendship with the village shopkeeper, he must decide how important the status quo really is.
  • Blythewood: See, here is where I got really wretchedly sick at nine weeks and dropped all literary pretensions. Young adult; girls at a mysterious boarding school in the early 20th century learn to fight the mysterious denizens of Faerie. But are all the creatures as evil as the girls have been taught? Fine. I don’t know. Probably not worth reading.
  • Red Rising: Life on Mars mining below its surface is hard to the point of slavery, but one miner discovers the truth: other castes rule this and other planets, living in unimaginable luxury. A little like Hunger Games, a little like Ender’s Game, way too violent for me. Also YA.
  • Edgewater: the YA parade continues as I demand plot and escapism. This was more nuanced than I was expecting. A girl raised by her eccentric aunt in their crumbling beachside manor is suddenly reduced to poverty just as she meets the tabloid boy of her dreams. See? It sounds ridiculous.
  • The Shade of the Moon: this is the fourth in a series I read so long ago I had forgotten some key plot points. In short: four years ago a meteor hit the moon out of orbit and towards the earth, causing mondo natural disasters and destroying society as we know it etc. Now our man Jon is a lucky resident of an enclave, a sort of fortress that exploits workers who live in comparative poverty. He’s a spoiled teenager till a new girl in the enclave opens his eyes to social justice. Then he does a bunch of bad things but eventually mends his was. This series is mysterious in its pull for me because parts are really, really grim for YA (rape, brutality) and yet some plot and dialog ring almost middle grade in their triteness. Luckily the series is finally over now so I can’t be lured back in.
  • Everything I Never Told You: in 1970s small town Ohio, the golden child of the biracial Lee family is found drowned in the neighborhood pond. As above, hypnotically depressing, but with an unexpectedly redemptive ending. And look! Twelve weeks and back to adult books, for the moment at least. 

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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