Reading, Eating, etc.

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Reading

Books:

Still marching through the middle of Middlemarch but I’ve been breaking it up with a few other things:

When Breath Becomes Air: I had high hopes for profundity from this one, but I wish there had been more of an integration of medicine, literature, philosophy, and faith. However, I do realize Kalanithi was actually dying as he wrote this and I imagine writing a book without knowing if you’ll live another week, month, or year makes it a harried process. I did find his wife’s and his largely unquestioning use of ivf out-of-character for him since he had spoken so eloquently about the dignity of human life and he made such a big deal about the need to have a critical mindset when facing possible ethical dilemmas. Otherwise, Kalanithi did come across as a genuinely kind person with both intellectual and personal depth.

La Morte D’Arthur: when Joe and I were dating, we made it a point to read together and some of my happiest memories of the early days of our relationship are wrapped up in the words of G. M. Hopkins, Kenneth Grahame, Josef Pieper, and others. Somehow, between work and babies, we fell out of the habit, but recently we picked up La Morte D’Arthur and it’s been hilarious to read together.

No-Drama Discipline: because it has good reviews and I don’t know the first thing about disciplining children well (how exactly are you supposed to react when your toddler won’t stop gleefully biting you when you’re trying to work out?)

-And some Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers on audiobook.

Articles:

Work, work, work:

The Work You Do, the Person You Are

The United States of Work

The Case for Being Grumpy at Work

-Maybe it’s just because I’m phlegmatic to the bone, but does this just seem more exhausting than laudable to anyone else?

Online life:

Before the Internet: “It was a heady time!” Made me laugh.

My son is a hashtag: “The best we can do is whatever feels OK for us and our children now.” I don’t know. Is that the best? Mightn’t we deeply regret what felt was okay at one point and wish we had thought more critically about it?

More on parenting:

St. John Chrysostom’s advice on raising children

In Defense of Motherhood as Art: I have a lot, a lot of thoughts about this, but I did especially love this part:

“At my most hopeful I think that writing and art are essential to motherhood and vice versa. Each accesses the most ancient, the most universal, the most complex emotions. Each requires the nurturing of a new consciousness, a new being, a new way of seeing. Each is endlessly different and endlessly dull, endlessly challenging and spiked with constant disappointment and beauty.”

Community: Having the Right Intention: lots of ideas here I need to be reminded of for living in my own tiny community.

-And just for fun: If you’re a word-nerd like me, you’ll love this.

Eating

-I threw a girls night a few weeks ago and my sweet friends who knew I’ve been craving Asian this pregnancy all brought me Asian food. The day coincided with National Donut Day and since donuts are one of my two very favorite foods (gnocchi being the other), I made these Vietnamese donuts. (Actually, I made prepped the dough and various friends facilitated the deep frying). I made condensed milk custard dips for them (plain, matcha, and cinnamon flavored) and writing this out makes me really need to get back in the kitchen and whip up another batch.

-We also made Taiwanese popcorn chicken and as a result, a street-food tour of Asia has made its way on my bucket list.

-More Asian yums: crispy ginger tofu. I made ours with stir fried Chinese eggplant and broccoli. Unfortunately, I didn’t dry the tofu out enough to it all got stuck together in one gelatinous mass that I had to cut up after frying. Still good. Still would make again.

-I like themey-ness, so for our anniversary I had originally intended to make something like gnocchi (our wedding day food…because my favorite food) or traditional English picnic fare (we honeymooned in the English countryside). But I had things that needed to be used up in the fridge so it ended up being pan-fried chicken thighs with a white-wine-shallot grape sauce, risotto, and a radicchio almond salad. I wasn’t at all sad for the lack of themey-ness.

-Of course, it’s an unspoken cooking rule that you should always intentionally make too much risotto so that you can make arancini (otherwise known as Italian rice balls of fun).

-Easy weeknight meal: Greek lemon-chicken soup: there was half a rotisserie chicken in the fridge and I had all the ingredients on hand, but I had forgotten how good and simple this soup is. (I made it without a recipe but this is basically what I did.)

Summer eats:

Peach-tomato salad with goat cheese, honey, thyme, olive oil, sea salt and pepper. Made to go alongside steaks and smashed red potatoes.

Worcestershire-balsamic marinated flank steak salad romaine leaves, roasted yukon gold potato medallions, tomatoes, sauteed onions, and goat cheese crumbles.

Tomates farcies (stuffed tomatoes). That sounds fancy, but really it was a clear-the-fridge, shop-the-pantry meal because we had tomatoes that were turning mushy on the counter. I mixed tuna (the good jarred kind, not the cat food in a tin kind), cooked rice, freshly grated parmesan, assorted chopped olives, fresh thyme, a few spoons of olive oil and brine from the olive jar. Then after stuffing the tomatoes with said mixture, I topped them with panko, more parmesan, and a few pats of butter and popped them in the oven to roast. Served with a buttery toasted baguette, this meal ended up being infinitely better than a lot of meals I plan out and shop for.

Etc.

Worth a listen. I’m always wary of buzzwords and ’empathy’ is a hot one right now.

“when…you’re imagining to be empathetic or to share suffering you’re immediately incorporating that experience into a view of yourself and your own worldview. What Arendt wanted was actually something a bit more radical than that, is to imagine something that’s not your world, that makes you feel uncomfortable. And that’s where the work has to start. And that’s why she was also very committed to thinking.”

-Do you and your significant other differ when it comes to board games? Joe likes a good strategy game (Risk, Pandemic, Settlers of Catan). I like a good party game (Loaded Questions, Balderdash, Cranium). I’ve been determined to find a game that fits us both and on an online forum, someone suggested Sushi-Go. It’s actually pretty entertaining, but it’s all the more fun when you get sushi to-go alongside it. I really think we could take our sushi game nights to a whole new level with this baby.

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Reading, Eating, etc.

Immaterial gifts

(c) Littlehampton Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Ever since I became a mother, I’ve been thinking about the connection of parenthood with gift giving. Gift giving for children is a subject fraught with strong opinions. And while I am interested in the relationship of physical objects in a child’s life and formation, I’m thinking here more of immaterial things.

It’s easy to become jealous of other parents who can afford all the organic/handmade/designer things for their children. Or of the private schools, neighborhoods, and travel destinations they’ll get to enjoy. Or to be persuaded by the false idea that certain things you may pass on to a child are gifts rather than what really might be burdens: opinions, political views, aesthetic taste, unfulfilled life dreams etc. Even beyond lovely and unquestionably good gifts of homecooked meals or craft time or, heck, reading, writing, and arithmetic, there are more foundational gifts Christian parents in particular are called to give their children. These gifts aren’t bound by money or intelligence, but only by love. Only by a mother or father’s willingness to conform their will to the One who is Love.

An existence rooted in love

In a world that wishes to make the starting point of existence conveniently vague, to turn children into commodities ready to be harvested and purchased when desired or blotted out when inconvenient, it’s a gift to root a child’s existence in the loving marital embrace of a husband and wife. By conceiving and receiving a unique and unrepeatable human being, a husband and wife live out the life-long vows they made the day they wedded themselves to one another: that they were “prepared to accept children lovingly from God”. And by being conceived and received as such, a child comes to know the truth that all creation is willed into existence by love–that, as a philosophy professor of mine once said, “all existence is a love affair with goodness.”

A recognized and honored identity

The mystery of the baby in the womb is thrilling and exasperating. You see them first during the ultrasound and now this abstract, fuzzy idea of your baby becomes concrete and breathtaking. Then, perhaps, you find out whether you are having a girl or a boy and you start to visualize the little person that’s about to make their entrance. Then you give birth to them and see them face to face and, maybe like I did, think, “Who are you??” Of course you don’t know their personalities yet. Their quirks. The things that will fill them with joy or irritate them. And honestly, it’s hard to even know what they really look like, all squashed and newbornish as they come.

But there are a few things you know and that you gift to your child by recognizing and honoring: that they are your son or daughter. That they have a heritage rooted in the families and cultures you’ve come from. But far more importantly, that they are are a son or daughter of God and have been made in His image and likeness. That they have a spiritual heritage: a family in the communion of saints.

That they are born with a free will that is most free when it is united to God’s will. That they are born with a vocation written in their hearts that you as a parent can’t alter or substitute with your own desire.

That they are ultimately not yours, but ultimately God’s. That they never fully belong to you. Not when they are growing in your belly or sleeping milk-drunk against your shoulder or at any moment beyond. That they are intended for deepest union with God and may be invited into that union in ways or at times unwelcome by you. To relinquish that control, to forever be reminding them of their identity and what that identity calls them to is a gift.

A name

A name is a powerful thing. A word imbued with such significance as to summon up a whole person in your mind. And you hope the names you choose for your children will be lovingly repeated again and again all the days of their life and for years after they’ve passed.

Names far too often become style symbols: a way to reflect the parents’s good taste and originality. Moreover, parents jealously guard them from “name-thieves” and woe be to anyone who “steals” the name they’ve chosen.

But a name is not a parent’s possession. Rather, it’s something that ought to be chosen and gifted for the good in itself that it is. How beautiful to give a child a name with namesakes of saints and angels and family members who then are called upon beyond time and space to become dear friends, guardians, and role models for the child. How beautiful it is to remember firstly that a name is not something in which to look for glowing reactions from others, but the very thing under which your child will be baptized and therefore forever be tied to his or her most fundamental identity as a Christian.

An understanding of reality

It’s easy to view childhood as a dreamy space removed from reality; that is, removed from suffering and sorrow. But reality is more than just hardship. It’s the fact that there is a ground beneath your feet and a sky above your head. That the physical world is impregnated with transcendence. That there are metaphysical confines of time and space which can be frustrating, but can also be made holy. That, like the mathematical laws that keep a cathedral standing through the centuries, there are absolute laws of nature written in the heart of man that must be upheld lest the architecture of human relations comes crashing down. But that within these solid and unchangeable truths of nature, there are a myriad of beautiful nuances. As Gerard Manley Hopkins so perfectly writes:

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Too often, adults withhold the beauty of reality from children because of their own relativistic confusion and fear of imposing absolutes on anyone. Parents and teachers mistakenly believe they are forming open-minded people, when instead they are turning out empty-minded people. Instead of imposing absolutes, they impose their own anxieties on susceptible minds left to fumble through the world as a distorted funhouse of mirrors. It’s, therefore, a child’s birthright to be rooted in reality. It’s a gift to share with a child stories and conversations that reflect reality, to give them experiences of the God-given diversities in nature and in people, and to sanctify the time they spend and the spaces they inhabit (i.e. living the liturgical year and making the home a domestic church). It’s through these things that a parent gives a child a cohesive and awe-filled vision of the universe.

Faith

There’s a moving part in the novel, Brideshead Revisited, where the character of Julia Flyte laments that she wasn’t able to give her childhood faith to her stillborn child:

“I hadn’t thought about religion before; I haven’t since, but just at that time, when I was waiting for the birth, I thought, ‘That’s the one thing I can give her. It doesn’t seem to have done me much good, but my child shall have it.’ It’s odd, wanting to give something one had lost oneself.”

The indelible mark left by her own baptism makes Julia realize that the passing on of faith to one’s child, no matter how poorly you’ve adhered to it, is a gift.

We are creations living in a created and fallen world so we necessarily need a relationship with the Creator to navigate the fallenness and to reach our final, intended end with Him. That relationship is nourished and cultivated through concrete things such as the sacraments, Sacred Scripture, the moral teaching of the Catechism, the works of mercy, and little traditions and devotions. It’s up to parents to integrate all the aspects of their lives with these things.

A community

There’s a reason a child is born to a mother and father rather than growing out of the ground or dropping from the sky: because we are meant for community. And there is nothing like the community of family to form a person in joy and humor and, you know, to painfully stretch their soul in virtue. This is why being open to having more children (i.e. siblings) is a gift to a child. This is why investing yourself in the larger community of extended family, friends, and neighbors is a blessing. Why choosing good and holy godparents for your child is so important. Why reading stories of the saints (i.e. their spiritual community) with your children is a gift. Why considering something radical like communal living might be a weightier choice for your child’s life than whether you should formula feed or co-sleep.

A lived theology of the body

This is tied deeply to growing up in a healthy, loving community and having a sane sense of reality, but I think it deserves its own section. We are incarnational beings in an incarnational world. But it’s a fractured world where body and soul are often at odds with one another. A world where we are never comfortable with our bodies because of ever-changing standards. Where bodily autonomy reigns even to the point of medicated self-destruction. An over-sexualized world where bodies are objectified and the caution-tape language of consent must be learned at a young age. It’s frankly scary to have a body in this world.

So one of the greatest gifts we can give our children is an lived theology of the body. To teach them, through the everyday touches of life and our conversations with them, that there will always be a tension between the desires of the body and the soul but that body and soul are meant to be reconciled and redeemed. That our bodies are groaning for the resurrection. That the bodily actions that make up our days and our lives (washing dishes and hugging and resting and crying and dancing and, yeah, sex or the sacrifice of it) are all profoundly bound up in our relationship with one another, with God, and with the course of history.

An appreciation for stories

This one might not seem as foundational as all the other ones listed, but there’s something to be said about every human culture valuing storytelling even before written language existed (or you know, before long-form Netflix tv shows). More crucially for the Christian, history is not simply a random succession of events, but the story of salvation, and we are living in that story. As such, all good stories dramatize truths about the human condition in light of the creation, fall, and redemption. And this is why good, compelling stories matter and can change your life.

Far better than I could ever put it, Jessica Hooten Wilson argues for the need to be scandalized and changed by good stories:

I hope that we…that we do not turn away from the stories that may shape us into better humans, better Christians, more faithful sons and daughters. For as Christians we all live in the shadow of the Book of books, and we all desire with great fear, trembling, and hope to be scandalized by the Word made flesh.

….

All these things might seem obvious but so often they’re considered secondary or obsolete to other, frequently false things. So if you’re like me wishing you could give your child the world (i.e. needle felted wool toys and the ability to speak French), you can at least take comfort in the fact that you’re doing your best (even if your best is far from the best) to give them the things that really matter.

Image: Reginald Bottomley, A Mother and Child Looking at the Virgin and Child

Immaterial gifts

Small circle, clear vision

small-circle-clear-vision

I saw this image on Pinterest a while ago and thought “that’s sounds about right”, pinned it, and forgot about it until recently.

When I was a teenager, before I had a laptop or a smart phone, before I had Facebook or Instagram, and before I knew what blogs even were, I would get on our family’s desktop computer (which was out in the open where everyone could see what you were up to) and I would get lost down Wikipedia rabbit holes sometimes for hours at a time. Now I have a small portable device always at the ready to tempt me down the far more appealing rabbit holes of social media. Not for two or three hour long blocks (although sometimes after Leo’s in bed…) but as a default for the frequent small pockets of empty time in my day.

A couple things happened that made that Pinterest quote pop back into my head. I couldn’t manage to text people in my life back but I could manage to fill lots of time with glimpses of other people’s lives on their blogs or Instagram accounts. I kept getting ideas for making this blog better or pursuing other projects bound up in the internet, but the idea of any more obligations to social media in my life made me feel sick and stretched thin (and I realize I’m way behind and do far, far less on social media than professional bloggers or Instagram “influencers”).

Instagram can be a really wonderful place. I’ve found so many artists whose work stuns and truly inspires me. I’ve found so many people there that I’m sure I would be great friends with if we met in real life. I’ve followed so many people whose rosy-cheeked, vintage-dressed flock of children make me think #familygoals. And I’ve made connections with kindred spirits who actually have reciprocated warmly. But it’s also a weird place when it starts making you wish you could unrealistically be bosom friends with one hundred other people. And it’s weird when you start desiring to be more like someone based on the fact that their children only have wooden toys rather than for some real virtue they possess.

And blogs are really wonderful and weird as well. They’ve been useful to me–before I had a baby, mom blogs made me less scared of motherhood. And when I first started reading blogs in college, I became engrossed with them. I adored these hilarious, warm, and wonderful bloggers and their families. I wanted to be friends with them. But I have never been able shake a weirdness about blogging: we create spaces on the internet revolving around our lives for strangers to read and look at. It’s always been strange to me how much I know about these people’s lives who know nothing about me.

I know the defense of these things usually has to do with finding or building community and I get that and I think it can be true. But the more I’ve followed and read and liked and commented on Instagram accounts and blogs, the less I’ve actually felt a part of a real community. Because at the end of the day, is simply being one among a sea of thousands of followers of a single person who will never invest the same amount of interest in your life, really being a part of a true community?

I do like the escape to beautiful images that Instagram affords me. But I’ve been realizing more and more how such a seemingly harmless thing as infinitely scrolling through lovely images can fill up your mind leaving little room for more important things. How beautifully styled pictures of bloggers homes and children, these little pieces of beauty from everday life, can in fact create an aesthetic glut. Along these lines, I recently read and was gripped by Maria Popova’s commentary on Susan Sontag’s collection of essays, “On Photography”:

“the social media photostream — the ultimate attempt to control, frame, and package our lives — our idealized lives — for presentation to others, and even to ourselves. The aggression Sontag sees in this purposeful manipulation of reality through the idealized photographic image applies even more poignantly to the aggressive self-framing we practice as we portray ourselves pictorially on Facebook, Instagram, and the like:

Images which idealize (like most fashion and animal photography) are no less aggressive than work which makes a virtue of plainness (like class pictures, still lifes of the bleaker sort, and mug shots). There is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera.

Online, thirty-some years after Sontag’s observation, this aggression precipitates a kind of social media violence of self-assertion — a forcible framing of our identity for presentation, for idealization, for currency in an economy of envy.”

There’s nothing wrong with reading a blogger’s tips for surviving the newborn phase or seeing a beautiful image of architecture with some poetic caption or reading a meme that makes you laugh. But dozens and dozens of mildly useful blogposts and hundreds and hundreds of decreasingly inspiring Instagram squares and thousands and thousands of sort of entertaining Facebook statuses and memes can make for a fractured, poisoned attention and soul.

I’m not writing this as an admonition for using Instagram at all or for following someone who has a large following. I don’t think every Instagram account I follow needs to involve a tangible friendship between me and the person. And this isn’t a completely cyncial diatribe about the impersonality of the Internet. I absolutely believe true friendships can arise out of the Internet. And I think those friendships can form without you having to hand over your entire attention to the mercy of social media.

But because it feels like I have been handing my entire attention over to social media and have come out exhausted by the aesthetic aggression of it all, I’ve been making a few resolutions for a smaller circle and a clearer vision:

-Cutting back on the sheer amount of instagrammers I follow and the amount of blogs I read no matter how harmless or even helpful they are. If I’m not really compelled to what the person is saying, I need to silence that source of noise in my life.

-Delete Facebook. I’ve deactivated it for now but I think I really need it dunzo. I know people who have either completely deleted their Facebook accounts or have never had one and their lives don’t seem lacking in any way.

-Carve out a specific block of time each week for writing letters and thank you notes.

-Actually work on some sort of prayer life.

-Read or clean or memorize poetry or do Slovak language flashcards while Leo’s playing independently instead of being on my phone.

-Write, paint, or practice self-care during Leo’s naptime or after bedtime rather than just vegging on social media or watching Netflix.

-Become more involved at my parish.

I’ve been listening to Emma on audiobook these days and I’m so struck by smallness and the intimacy of the communities Jane Austen creates. There’s certainly more occasions for annoyance or frustration with a small community of flesh and blood people than a wide community spread thousands of miles apart hidden behind or filtered through smartphones. But there’s also so many more occasions for growth and real affection for one’s neighbors. And that’s the sort of community I want to be more a part of.

So since I like to pick other peoples brains: has social media improved your life or has it been more problematic? Have you developed worthwhile friendships through it? How do you keep it from being an energy-sucker? And do you think there’s something necessarily artificial or aggressive about it?

Small circle, clear vision