Things that go CRASH in the night

This week’s parenting tip: Keep large wooden puzzles safely secured, especially at night.

You might be thinking, “That’s a strangely specific parenting tip. I wonder what made her think of that?”

Well. Let me tell you.

If your large (noisy) wooden puzzles are not secured, say in a cabinet, or in a crate, or with the pieces in plastic bags, it means they can be knocked over.

Perhaps by a five-year-old on a trip to your bedroom to inform you that he is cold.

And it is possible that, on the way back from this trip, intending to get under the blankets as you have wisely (if grumpily) recommended, this five-year-old will bump the puzzles, which are not safely secured. No, sadly, they are precariously balanced near his door.

And when the puzzles are bumped, well, they can’t help it, but they fall. And it sounds like a whole shelf in the pantry has come down, or the raccoons and opossums have finally defeated the cats and taken the screen porch for their own…and are tearing it apart to celebrate.

So the next sound you hear, after the almighty crash, will be some blood-curdling screaming. “SOMETHING IS TRYING TO EAT ME!” screaming.

So of course, you pop out of bed (fortunately you were still awake from employing your sagacity against the cold) and head towards the noises.

You’ll only get a few steps before you catch a five-year-old, coming at you full speed, and haul him back down the hall with his legs still churning, AWAY from the sleeping baby.

Somehow, you establish that the noise came from inside (so it’s not the raccoons…yet) and that what actually happened was that the cold, insomniac five-year-old bumped the puzzle stack.

By some miracle, the baby has not been awakened.

Everyone will be tucked back into bed. An hour or so later, your heart will have slowed down enough for you to go back to sleep.

At which point, the baby is sure to wake up.

Thus, my friends, heed my advice: Lock up the puzzles.

Mount Majestic

“There is a very good possibility that you will not believe a word I say. Alas, it is the risk all historians take. The truest things are often the most unbelievable.”

Thus begins one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic by Jennifer Trafton, and illustrated by Brett Helquist (whose work you’ll recognize if you are familiar with A Series of Unfortunate Events), is a romp. The language alone is magical, not to mention the flute, the pots, the Leaf-eaters’ tears…

Why, for example, has no one before thought of a “Lyre-That-Never-Lies”? Brilliant. And the whole book is full to the brim and overflowing with this kind of word play.

“And so I invite you to take off your cloak of doubt, empty your pockets of all suspicions and jests, sit down before the roaring fire of my tale, and believe.”

Trafton weaves a tale of mythic proportions. Giants? Check. Rumblebumps? Check. Poison-tongued jumping tortoises? Check.

Tell me you’re not intrigued.

Mount Majestic is one of the few novels I can remember my kids asking to read again…the morning after we finished it. That probably has something to do with all the laughing out loud we did while reading it. (Full disclosure: it is best if someone reads it aloud, especially if the someone uses different voices for the characters, and if several of the voices sound suspiciously like disgruntled Irish washer women.)

Mount Majestic gets 5+ stars from our family. That includes the parents, the 12-year-old, the 10-year-old, the 8-year-old, and the 5-year-old. They are all now in full quoting-during-mundane-conversations mode.

And besides being hilarious and wickedly clever, Persimmony Smudge, our heroine, realizes in the end that as wonderful as adventures may be, there is something wonderful about plain-old, everyday existence, too.

After all,

“Life is a mess and a miracle. So pick up a broom and dance.”

A Beautiful Baby Book

I’m so happy to share this beautiful book about a new baby joining the family! Nine Months: Before a Baby Is Born, by Miranda Paul and illustrated by Caldecott Honor Artist Jason Chin uses lively, rhyming text and colorful, touching illustrations to show both the baby’s growth before birth and the joy of her family as they prepare for her arrival.

There is so much to love about this book…where to start?? On the left page of every spread is a month-by-month depiction of the baby’s growth in utero. The images are realistic, but also touchingly beautiful. On the right side we see the baby’s family – mom, dad, and big sister – going about their lives: planting a garden, constructing a crib, leaving for the hospital. Excitement about this new life shines on all their faces. (My favorite illustration might actually be the one where the big sister meets her new sibling – she has the most perfect serious, pondering face.)

Miranda Paul’s text is lyrical and simple. It gives just enough detail to be exciting and intriguing, and yet is short enough that my 18-month-old will happily sit through it. I call that a win.

The “month six” spread, for example, shows mother and big sister sitting and talking to a bulging belly, with this precious text:

“Glasp.

Clasp.

Ears that can hear.

Sing as she listens.

Tell her you’re near.”

Beautiful.

After the story are four more pages of information, not counting the bibliography. The first two explain the hints Miranda Paul’s sweet text give about the wonders of this tiny person, lines like “Arms, legs..tail, too?” The next two pages include fun baby facts, baby animals, and a “What if…?” section which deals with twins, premies, and miscarriages, all with gentle grace.

Paul and Chin have treated this subject with such compassion and love. Honestly, this is a book I wish had been around for me to share with my kids as they became big brothers and sisters.

Zinnias



That’s all. I brought in the zinnias before the storm smushed them, and thought I’d share. 🙂 I’ve been trying to do nice things like this on the mantel lately.

(House)work, Part II

Part of the problem I have with writing a long, philosophical post like The Theology of (House)work is that it’s hard for me to get through it without a meandering digression every sentence or two.

This post is to take care of all those side-notes…so my apologies for the variety of topics and directions!

Kids are work!

First of all, the (House)work post oversimplified the situation in order to make a (good, I hope) point: it’s important for us, particularly as mothers, to be reminded that the people around us are more important than the housework. This seems to assume that there are two choices, kids or (house)work, and that they are different things.

We all know, of course, that it is also true that the kids are our work. Sometimes putting your children first means laying in the grass with them and looking for cloud animals…but sometimes it means changing diapers, and the pants that covered the diapers, and the carseat cover the pants were sitting on. So I don’t want to suggest that caring for our children is always as restful as a monk’s time in prayer. (Here comes the parenthetical statement, within the parenthetical post! The monks might point out that standing up and chanting for long periods of time can also be exhausting…but I digress.) Caring for our kids is both our work and our opportunity to praise and rest in God.

The Value of Labor

Then there’s a whole other issue here: the value of a woman’s work. Let’s imagine a couple. The husband has a high-paying job, which provides well for his family, and he prides himself on this. He ties his self-worth to his ability to provide for his family – to make money. His wife is blessed to be able to stay home and raise her children. On the other hand, she feels restless. She went to college to prepare for a good job; maybe she also worked for a while before staying home with the kids. Though she works hard every day, in an occupation she knows is deeply important and worthwhile, she makes no money doing it. It bothers her that she isn’t contributing to monetarily to the family.

The truth is, our society values people by productivity, and productivity is judged by how much money the person makes. By this logic, a homemaker’s work is worthless.

Obviously this is not true, but it’s incredibly difficult to tune out society’s messages completely. So whether it’s the cleaning or the cooking or the raising of children, women’s work is dreadfully undervalued, even by those of us who do it. (Sorry, stay-at-home dads, I know you’re out there, too.)

We can’t be reminded often enough that the job of raising children and creating a holy, beautiful place for our families to live and grow is a great and valuable work indeed.

It’s just not one that you can order on Amazon. Thank goodness.

Prayer vs. Progeny

There was also another false dichotomy lurking in the last post, again in the interest of simplicity. It seemed to imply that we had to choose: prayer (like the monks) or kids (like we have). While it’s true that we can’t spend the hours a day praying in a chapel like a monk or sister would, that doesn’t mean we have to neglect our prayer life. A few minutes when the kids are in bed (early or late) can make a huge difference.

There are also ways we can incorporate our kids into prayer, so that we not only refresh our own spirits, but teach our little ones to pray as well. I know several moms who will stop (with their very young kids) for just a few minutes in a local adoration chapel whenever they are passing (and not already running late!) And prayer that works well for kids is good for grown-ups too: use sea shells, a candle, icons, or other beautiful objects to help little ones focus. My mom used to teach RCIA for kids, and her classes always included both the parents and the children who were preparing for the sacraments. Her prayer table was rich with things to catch the children’s attention, and it worked for parents, too. Thinking like a child can open up a whole new dimension of our relationship with God, who after all, calls us to be like little children.

Finally, I was surprised, a couple of days after I uploaded the last post, to go to our Well-Read Mom meeting (we were discussing Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain) and hear Marcie Stokman on the audio introduction saying basically what I had said in the post, only much more eloquently. She suggests that for each of us, our home is our monastery, the very place where we can best meet God. In fact, she calls all the little interruptions of our days – snotty noses, kids fighting, late night talks with teenagers – the very bells calling us to greater sacrifice and deeper relationship with our families and with God.

Whew. It never ceases to amaze me how many side discussions one seemingly simple idea raises. I hope you find some food for thought in there somewhere!

Cultural Literacy?

My pop-culture illiterate daughter trying to explain to friends which songs she is playing for her next concert:

Lucy: I don’t remember the name of it, but it’s something about rocking somebody…

Morgan: “We Will Rock You”?

Phil: No way. [Because it’s a symphony, after all. It has to be more classy than that!]

Lucy: Yes! That’s it!

Origin of Species? Check.

Jane Austen? Check.

Queen? Not so much. 😀

Book Review: Marcelo in the Real World

I am totally smitten with this book.

First, I have to tell the story of how I came to read it. The book and its author, Francisco X. Stork, were in no way on my radar, until someone suggested I read Cheryl Klein’s The Magic Words, which is a how-to on writing middle grade and young adult novels. (It is infuriatingly detailed – if there is a problem in your text, there is probably a solution in The Magic Words. It’s very helpful, and completely exhausting.)

Anyway, Cheryl edited Marcelo, and uses it repeatedly in the examples in her book. I enjoyed the excerpts, learned from her description of its revision process, and was generally interested in reading the book.

Two years later, I finally did. And I am so glad I did.

First, the disclaimer: this is a YA novel. As in many YA novels these days (though this one is already 10 years old), there is foul language, and some pretty crude descriptions of various male-female interactions. Consider yourself warned.

Marcelo in the Real World is about a young man entering his last summer of high school. He is on the Autism Spectrum, though he doesn’t fit into any of the more specific diagnoses, and he hears “internal music” in his mind. He has always gone to a special school, and plans to spend his summer helping train some of the horses that the school uses for therapy. His father, however, has other plans.

Marcelo’s father is a powerful lawyer, and wants his son to be able to function in the “real world,” not just the protected world his school creates for its students. He offers Marcelo a deal: if Marcelo can work in the “real world” – at his father’s law firm – for the summer, he can go back to his beloved school. If not, he will transfer to the local public high school for his senior year. Marcelo gives up his summer plans and takes the deal.

At the law firm, Marcelo encounters a whole new realm of challenges. He works in the mail room, and his supervisor, Jasmine, has to find ways to help him do his job as well as he is able. Marcelo is faced with questions he has never faced before – how does he know who is his friend? How can he choose one friend over another? One good over another? How can he know what is the right thing to do?

Marcelo finds a picture of a girl whose face has been scarred by a shattering windshield – a windshield made by a company represented by his father – and this raises the most desperate questions of all.

As Marcelo puts it, “How do we go about living when there is so much suffering?”

Will Marcelo try to find a way to help the girl in the picture, even if it means hurting his own family?

No spoilers here. You’ll have to read it and find out.

Now, as to why I loved this book. It’s the first one in a very long time that I’ve stayed up at night to finish. There really is a lot to love.

First, Marcelo is wonderful. His voice is totally unique. It’s a little jarring at first, because his speech, and even his thoughts, are so formal. But I found I got over the awkwardness very quickly, and was delighted to hear his frank descriptions of life. For example,

“You said that if I follow the rules of the real world this summer, I will get to decide where I go next year. Who will decide whether I followed the rules? I am not aware of all the rules of the real world. They are innumerable, as far as I have been able to determine.”

I feel that way all the time. Marcelo offers a different perspective on the “real world,” and I am grateful for it.

Second, there are some wonderful supporting characters. The scene where Marcelo meets Jasmine’s dad in his barn would be laugh-out-loud funny, if not for the fact that it is Alzheimer’s which makes her dad so ornery and foul-mouthed. With that knowledge, it comes off as bittersweet. Marcelo’s friend and confidant Rabbi Heschel is also larger-than-life. I’d want to sit and discuss the great questions of the universe with her, too.

Finally, the thing I liked best about this book was that it attacks heavy questions head-on. Marcelo’s “special interest” is in religion. His family background is Catholic, and he talks about praying the Rosary with his grandmother and the picture of the Sacred Heart that hung in her room. He is interested in other religions as well. His dog is named Namu, after the beginning of a Buddhist prayer. He often visits Rabbi Heschel for long talks about God and about life.

These talks are some of the gems of the text. In one, Marcelo tries to understand a co-worker’s desire to go to bed with Jasmine. The rabbi’s explanation, going back to the Garden of Eden, encompassing how everything, including sex, was created good, and how the Fall disrupted the goodness, is thoughtful, insightful, and beautiful.

Marcelo cares deeply about good and evil. His time in the “real world” forces him to decide how much he is willing to sacrifice for what is right. In a bookscape (is that a word?) where 90% of protagonists show no sign of faith or religion whatsoever,* a book that discusses faith, goodness, and conscience so eloquently is a treat indeed.

My inclination is to add this book to my list of “Great Catholic Novels.” Despite the fact that the author may or may not be Catholic (he doesn’t mention his own religion anywhere that I could find), and despite the fact that Marcelo himself has a crisis of faith by the end of the novel, and seems to subscribe to bits of various religions all along…the spirit of the story fits what I would want to see in a “Catholic” novel. (And we can discuss if Catholic Novels must be written by Catholics, or about Catholics, or doctrinally sound, and all the rest of it, another time.)

However you might decide to label it, to my ears, Marcelo in the Real World sounds all the right notes.

*A necessary footnote: Angie Thomas’ best-selling The Hate You Give falls in the other 10%. Starr’s family is Christian, and they pray together at the beginning of the day. It’s simple and real, and was one of my favorite parts of that wonderful book.
In Middle Grade, The Inquisitor’s Tale also takes kids and their faith seriously, and is highly recommended.

Towards a Theology of (House)Work

So I’m a little behind in my reading, but this week I finally got to the February 8 issue of Commonweal.  There is an illuminating article in there by Jonathan Malesic which contrasts the American work ethic with the dignity of the human person, and specifically, the way work is treated in Benedictine Monasteries.  (You can read it here.)

The article is beautiful and challenging.  Malesic seriously calls into question whether it is possible to respect the health and dignity of a person in our achievement-driven society.  “No reputation for customer satisfaction is worth as much as the person who fills orders and endures complaints.  Your pride in a job well done, or your anxiety, or your ego: none of those is worth as much as your dignity as a person.”

I think Malesic has hit on an important topic, but his musings led me in another direction. 

There has been a convergence (the first word that came to mind was conflagration, and I think it is also appropriate) of ideas in my life lately, centered on what John Paul II called the “feminine genius.”  It’s not that I’m seeking this out, exactly.  I’ve been bombarded from podcasts sent by Well-Read Mom and friends, Caryll Houselander’s Reed of God, and a Day of Reflection at our parish, all circling this same topic.

Full disclosure: I haven’t done the background reading on this yet (the recommended reading usually includes Mulieris Dignitatem and JP II’s Letter to Women, among others).  So my understanding of the term is basically this: women have unique gifts to share with the world, specifically gifts which make it a kinder, gentler place.  Women, in general, are gifted at truly seeing the other and caring for him or her, wherever the person may be in life.

This is a drasticly short summary, but I think it will do to explain the jump I made when I read Malesic’s piece on work and the Benedictines.

The monks Malesic visited in the New Mexico desert fight the desire to make work the center of their lives by means of prayer and their rule of life.  

I’d like to argue that we mothers have a similar tool built into our vocation to help us fight this tendency to overwork.

Rumba?  Alexa? Wal-mart curbside pickup?

Nope.  Our kids.

Now you’re probably thinking, “Actually, my kids create nine-tenths of the work I do…so how exactly are they helping me to keep work from taking over my life?”

Think of a nursing baby.  He’ll spend some time laying on the floor, playing happily with his toes (hopefully!), during which time his mother frantically folds laundry, washes dishes, sweeps the floor…you get the idea.  But when that baby gets hungry, what happens? The work stops. Mom sits down, puts her feet up, and nourishes a little life. If there isn’t a cell phone or TV on, maybe she even nourishes her own spiritual life for a few minutes with some reading or just soaking in the silence.

True, this assumes there aren’t also a two-year-old and four-year-old pulling on her arm the whole time asking for snacks.  Or chasing each other around the house waving sticks. (Why are the sticks in the house!?) It’s almost never as easy at I make it sound, I know.

However, what if we took all these interruptions in this light?  Not “drat, now I’ll never get the bathtub scrubbed,” but, “Ah, yes!  Little child of God, how can I love and serve you right now?” Houselander would take it a step further, and say, “Yes, Jesus!  How can I serve YOU in this little person?”

Of course cleaning the bathtub is also serving…but that’s an essay for another day.

The monks Malesic visited have scheduled hours for work, and whether they finish the project or not, when the bell rings for prayer, they stop and go pray.  It takes practice, but they learn to accept that they must let their work go until the next work period. As Malesic puts it, “They get over work so they can get on with something much more important to them.”  That “something”? Prayer, and their relationship with God.

I don’t know any mother who can keep a monastery schedule day in and day out.  Still, we have the opportunity to put work in its place. Is a clean floor good?  Yes. Is it more important than reading to my children? Probably not. Is it more important than praying with my children?  No.

The Benedictines’ vocation is to pray.  That comes first, and everything else is secondary.  A mother’s vocation is to care for her children. That comes first, even if it means we have to drop other work (or play) to do it.  (Which I write as I tell my kids to leave me alone so I can finish writing this…yikes.)

It is in the discipline of walking away from our work, our productivity, our sense that we are accomplishing something earthly, to spend ourselves in caring for another human being, that we put work in its place.  Work is good. Human beings need work, and we are called to join God in the work of bringing order to creation. Yet we are also called to “get over” our work when our children need our help or attention.

Yes, it takes effort – mental, physical, and spiritual – to care for these little people.  It is work.  But it is work that, if we keep our hearts open, turns us towards God in a way that scrubbing and dusting and grocery shopping might not.  Dropping our menial labor to look into the face of a child is stopping to contemplate the divine, if only we can look with God’s eyes instead of our own.

(On a side note – this topic requires a part II, with some of the caveats which threatened to make this post a short book, and which I’ll get to soon.  I hope. It’s dangerous to make such promises in my state of life!)

Brothers and Sisters!

Clare: Why don’t people want to go to Mass?

Lucy: They probably think it’s boring.

Clare: I love the readings.  Except the ones that start “brothers and sisters”, they’re usually pretty boring.

Me: raucous laughter

Sorry, St. Paul.  I guess you can’t please everyone.