Reading has not been cancelled!

Recently, we have been listening to the audiobook of ‘Little House in the Big Woods’ in the car. Ma and Pa have been getting ready for winter, preparing for a season of staying indoors. Food is grown and caught, prepared and stored. It is a lifestyle without excess – one of ingenuity and hard work. They live mostly in harmony, and sometimes fear. Winter is bitter and wolves are approaching their land.

I have thought about the Ingalls family as I have stood in line at the supermarket this week. How their story overlaps, how their story is different. They have barrels of salted fish in the pantry, smoked venison and ropes of onions hung in the attic. Their very survival depends on their cooperation. We have extra bags of pasta and tins of tomatoes crammed in our cupboards, trolleys full of cereal boxes, an empty bread aisle. Shopping habits suggest our survival depends on toilet roll. 

My book group is reading ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ by Amor Towles. It is a time of tumultuous upheaval in Russia and Count Alexander Rostov has been sentenced to indefinite house arrest in the attic of the Hotel Metropol. It is a very timely read.

Both these books offer escapism, but they also offer perspective. We need both, I think, in March 2020, and in the weeks ahead. Amongst the uncertainty and cancellations and closures, reading is accessible and free and portable. It is a gift. It is uniquely suited to self-isolation *and* to having your kids at home.

Reading has not been cancelled. How can we stock up?

Kids

Dr Daniel Willingham (in this podcast episode) encourages parents to make it really, really easy for their child  to choose reading. He suggests having books readily available in places that they typically get bored, and putting limits on some other things, such as screens. He discourages coercing your child into reading, or rewarding your child’s reading. The wonderful Sarah MacKenzie says that we should cultivate a Book Club Culture at home.

If you don’t have an abundance of books at the ready, maybe consider a Covid-19 Library trip to stock up? One of my favourite mottos is that Reading is a Feast, not a Ladder. Stock up on books *we* want our kids to have access to, of course, but free choice is also crucial to raising a reader. (One of my daughters still picks up board books with flaps, alongside novels. I bite my tongue and she checks them out.) There are also lots of high quality picture books that expose kids to great art and that use much more sophisticated language patterns than the chapter books our children may be reading themselves. Picture books are part of the feast, not something we outgrow.

Perhaps having a family Read Aloud time seems as old-fashioned as making your own butter and packing your venison away for the winter. However, it has huge emotional and cognitive benefits, *especially* as our children get older and learn to read themselves. Jim Trelease (author of The Read-Aloud Handbook) writes that reading aloud has proven to be so powerful in increasing a child’s academic success that it is more effective than expensive tutoring. “People would stand in line for days and pay hundreds of dollars if there were a pill that could do everything for a child that reading aloud does. It expands their interest in books, vocabulary, comprehension, grammar, and attention span. Simply put, it’s a free “oral vaccine” for literacy.”  We can also tailor what we read aloud to our children’s interests and personalities, and to what is happening in our lives at that moment. Best of all, it’s pleasurable.

Ourselves 

Friends often tell me they would love to read more, but simply don’t have time. In these very unusual days, as an increasing number of things on our calendar are being cancelled or postponed, many of us may have time to read more. Open that book that has been waiting on your shelf or go on your own Covid-19 library trip (dettol wipes at the ready!). Book swap with friends while we still can or sign up for Audible (audio books are reading, too). If you know me IRL nothing would make me happier than to match you up with a book or 2 from my shelves for the weeks ahead, so please just ask.

Here are a few recommendations of books I have enjoyed recently. Please add your own suggestions for surviving a lock-down in the comments!

A Gentleman in Moscow, mentioned earlier.

The Choice by Edith Eger. A trusted friend gave this to me and now I am constantly recommending it to people. Desmond Tutu calls it “a gift to humanity”. 

The Stationery Shop of Tehran by Marjan Kamali. A sweeping love story spanning 60 years and 2 continents. One of my favourite books of last year. 

Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng. A beautiful, literary thriller. 

The Ministry of Ordinary Places by Shannan Martin (Christian spirituality). This is a timely book about paying attention, staying put and investing in the lives of our neighbours. I loved it and underlined half of it. 

 

Reading has not been cancelled. It is a gift, to ourselves and to our children. Let’s stock up.

Dwelling

It feels like there is a gap between almost everything.

There is a gap in deep, profound and spiritual ways. The gap between now and not-yet, for example. We sense the weight of the world, the hard stories, the grief being walked through by friends.

’A weary world rejoices’ seems like too much to ask.

There is a gap in tiny, personal ways. The gap between how I write and how I am. The gap between my ideas and my capacity, between the vision and the actuality.

*

’The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.’

Or, as Eugene Peterson puts it, ’The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood’.

I think of Jesus dwelling. Among heartache and loss, among our clutter and contradictions. I think of him in the neighbourhood, in this house, maybe.

I imagine Jesus dwelling among these so-called-gaps. I imagine that all of it is welcome, and safe.

*

It feels like there are gaps.

But there is room, actually. For weary rejoicing. For wise words and wonky living. For dreaming and stalling.

I think about what it might mean to be a person who dwells among, who inhabits their neighbourhood, who is present, not pessimistic.

Some people, like me, tend to dwell in their thoughts instead of their bodies. We dwell on the gaps. We dwell on contradictions and disappointments and uncertainties.

I am trying, this week, to dwell with my people, in my places.

It feels like there are gaps.

But there is room, actually.

 

The Cost of Homework

‘The claims of the schoolroom should not be allowed to encroach on the child’s right to long hours daily for exercise and investigation.’

(Charlotte Mason, 19th Century Educator)

Driving to work last Friday I heard an interview on the radio with the lovely VP from the primary school in Cork that has hit the headlines for replacing formal homework with ‘Acts of Kindness’ for the month of December. The initiative has been widely praised as heart-warming and innovative and has been described as spreading the true meaning of Christmas.

I enjoyed the interview and the promotion of a positive school culture. The VP explained that the children were given Kindness Diaries with a suggested focus for each day – these ranged from spending time with an older person to helping with the dishes at home. I was particular pleased to hear that one day focused on being kind to yourself. The VP spoke of mental health and encouraging children to do things they enjoy such as reading or drawing.

I enjoyed the interview, but I was also frustrated –  not with the school – but with the fact that we consider this to be innovative.

Surely these activities are the stuff of normal life that homework actually prevents families and children from having the time to do? We should not need booklets to introduce the idea of drawing, helping in the kitchen and spending time with people in our community. After six hours in school, this is simply what a child’s afternoon should be like.

Ordinary life is not an initiative and  the entire  month of December is not long enough.

Well over a century ago the educator Charlotte Mason warned of our  endeavours becoming ‘fussy and restless’ when it comes to our children and suggested that ‘we are unable to perceive that wise and purposeful letting alone is the best part of education.’

Kindness Diaries sound lovely, but ‘wise and purposeful letting alone’ sound like words to live by.

Homework costs our children connection and rest, leisure and relationship, creativity and variety and fresh air. We wouldn’t need good ideas to replace it if it wasn’t a bad idea in the first place.

Marathons and Strudel

‘How many of us have been drawn into worlds we previously neither knew nor cared existed, because a friend or loved one took an interest and pulled us in with them?’

(Modern Mrs. Darcy)

Last month Chris & I went to Budapest to mark his 40th birthday. Budapest is my favourite city. It is almost 20 years since I lived and studied there as a student, and 13 years since Chris orchestrated a surprise visit featuring an engagement ring. (There is something to be said for a man who will choose your favourite place for his big life events).

Chris being Chris, we stayed in a cool Air BnB, had thermal baths, and he ran a marathon. Me being me, we looked at the river, took yellow trams, had cherry strudel from a metro bakery stall and met up with old friends. There is something to be said for how we are shaped by the favourite things of the people we love and do life with, for marrying marathons and cherry strudel, for the daily and long haul ways we influence one another. There is something to be said for combining together, not curating alone.

*

I had a recurring dream before this trip in which I was in Budapest, but it didn’t feel like Budapest. In the dream I could not get to the river and ALL I wanted was to get to the river. The success of our trip, therefore, was going to be measured by one person’s target for running 26.2 miles, and one person seeing the river.

I sometimes wish everyone could be satisfied by small things. I am approaching 40 myself and (unless we’re playing cards) I am not competitive – against others or myself. I am a curious spectator when it comes to this running life. I’m impressed, I’m bewildered. I want to cheer, I want to suggest rest.

*

On the day of the marathon I found a spot by the Szabadsag bridge, where I could see the river and cheer on my man. Spectating does not get any better than this. I soaked in the atmosphere and I watched the diverse faces and bodies and emotions passing me by. I immersed myself in stories and dramas, imagined or real. Stories of perseverance and pain and stamina and solidarity. I thought of the pride or the disappointment people would feel later. I felt conflicted.

*

Our first morning in Budapest we walked out of our apartment and I felt satisfied. Here we were on an ordinary street in this beautiful, beloved city. It felt so far from home and it felt like home. It stirred memories and feelings. I marvelled at the time I had lived here so long ago. I contacted my old uni friends so we could reminisce. I felt grateful for the time then and the time now.

*

I am approaching 40 and I am nostalgic by default. I love those yellow trams and cherry strudel all the more because I loved them before. On the Szabadsag bridge, though, I think about what it means to love a place and why. We indulged our immaturity at 19, but everything feels more conflicted at 39.

On the Szabadsag bridge I feel conflicted about running and travelling, about community and place, about participating v spectating.

*

Pinned to the back of Chris’s t-shirt were the words ‘Elso Maratonom’ – First Marathon. Towards the end when he started to struggle, he got a pat on the back and some Hungarian encouragement which he understood, even though he didn’t.

*

So here’s to the places and the people who widen our horizons, change our experiences, adopt our interests and introduce us to their own. Let us pat backs, celebrate milestones and suggest rest. And may you be encouraged – to cross a finish line, or to stand on a city street and be satisfied.

Reunited


‘I am all the ages I’ve ever been’

[Anne Lamott]

 

“Do you want to see a picture of my friends?” I ask my daughters, on return from a weekend away.

“Do we have to?”, they wonder with disinterest, leave me standing in the kitchen holding my phone.

*

Waiting for a bus that never really comes I talk to an old man and then, later, a younger one. One recounts a visit to his son, the other a stag-do. I tell them I was at a 20-year reunion. They feign interest. I talk more than I usually do at bus stops.

*

It felt like a risk, to be honest. To meet up with people who my younger self adored. To revisit one of the best summers of our lives.

20 years is a long time.

Except when it isn’t.

Omnia Mutantur, nihil interit.

Everything changes, nothing is lost.

*

Maybe there are reunions that involve comparison and showing-off, but this wasn’t one of them. Maybe if we had met after 10 or 15 years we would have tried too hard and connected less?

Perhaps we seemed so like our old selves because after 20 years we have the wisdom and grace to stop chasing a more polished version? Perhaps we are more like the crew of ‘99 now, than at several points along the way.

*

That first glimpse of old friends is wonderful.

We have been waiting, and now, there she is coming through the arrivals gate!

There he is in the pub.

There she is as we step off the bus.

There they are in the restaurant, keeping our seats.

It has been so long, but there you are!

Known and remembered and beloved. Hugged and questioned and listened to. Reunited.

 

 

Later, I look at photographs while waiting for the bus that doesn’t come, and in my kitchen with my daughters who do not care.

There they are, I think happily. My friends.

But also, there I am.

39 but reunited with my 19 year-old self. I glimpsed her this weekend too. I think she had been waiting for me. Known and remembered and beloved.

 

Here & Now

It’s June.

The shops, though, are whispering September.

I pass ‘Back to School!’ displays while I grocery shop. School uniforms alongside anoraks with fur trimmed hoods.

It’s June and there are strawberries and cherries and ice-lollies in my trolley. Should I pop a wee autumn coat in too?  Is that the smart thing to do?

It’s June and my colleagues seem so organised, so ready for September. Perhaps the school holidays can’t really begin without books labelled, without wall displays decided on?

It’s June and we have a modest but workable summer budget. The advert on TV, though, wants me to spend money I haven’t yet saved, to ‘Fast forward through the wait!’.

My phrase for the year is ‘Here and Now’,  a reminder – among other things – not to fast forward through the wait. Not to fast forward through dinner prep or through conversations with my family. Not to fast forward through middles and endings, through witching hour (4pm) or through bedtime (indeterminable time-frame). It is a reminder, currently, not to fast forward through June.

I love the autumn, actually, but we will not plan for it today. Here and now, we will plan burgers for dinner and a film for this potentially rainy afternoon. We will plan our summer bucket list (the beach and the planetarium and a sleepover at Nana’s). We will plan groceries for Donegal next week. We will pack, but not just yet.

It’s June and in a fit of organising last night I sat with my bullet journal and the calendar, with my coloured pens and my Plans. I hung the calendar back up, already turned to July. It felt satisfying. I felt ready.

This morning I turned it back.

It’s still June, let it have its ending.

 

‘Happy work is best done by the man who takes his long-term plans somewhat lightly and works from moment to moment “as to the Lord”. It is our daily bread that we are encouraged to ask for. The present is the only time in which any duty may be done or grace received.’

[C.S.Lewis]

 

Move Over

 

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Photo by David Mao on Unsplash

 

I have a lot to do, so I go to the park.

It’s not because I am procrastinating, which I am prone to, but because being outside alone is my reset button.  And I need reset.

I like to be up before my children.  I like to have the kettle filled, the porridge on.

My youngest daughter likes to catch me before I rise, to peel back the duvet and greet me with 2 words: move over.

She makes herself comfortable, it’s one of her favourite things.

If I could curate my perfect, introvert’s start to the day, it would not go like this.  Yet I live with other people, whose preferences (morning-related or otherwise), rub against mine.  My daughter closes her eyes and bends her knees, she is in her happy place.

Later, I text my husband asking him to please, stop putting keys in my prayer bowl.  I make a space beautiful, he makes it functional.  (He lives here, too).

In the park I breathe deeply – morning sunshine and cherry blossom, birds singing, no one talking to me.  I am in my happy place.

Yet in my mind I see the girls up in the branches of the tree they like to climb, I see splashes of red rolling down the grass banks, I see them pop up on their favourite ‘mound’ and disappear again.  I am usually here with these little companions, getting grass stains on their school uniforms, thwarting my best-laid plans.  Another kind of happy place, I suppose.

“It’s a good size for small keys”, he texts back later.

*

We like to read books about eccentric, fussy curmudgeons whose lives are disrupted by love – by unexpected friendship, by neighbours and community.

But aren’t we all disrupted and disrupting?  Learning to move over, filling our bowls with keys and with prayers.

Six.

But now I am Six, I’m clever as clever.

So I think I’ll be six now forever and ever.

A.A. Milne

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You left this morning looking like you were about to rocket into space, your school bag full of shoe boxes.  You only needed to bring in one, but if one shoe box is good, then three, surely, is better.  This is the philosophy by which you live.  You draw a sky with twenty suns.  You cover the page in penguins when asked to draw one.

‘So many penguins!’, your teacher writes.

‘So many suns!’

You draw everyone with curly hair.  Little curly queens and servants, curly farmers, astronauts with curls escaping from their helmets . You draw everyone with curly hair, apart from your sister.  You draw her by your side, more often than not.

You talk with your eyes and your eyebrows.  You talk with your finger wagging and your hand on your hip.  You skip and hum when you are happy, which is to say, when you are filled with purpose.

Your favourite number is always your age.  You were cross all Autumn because I had bought you age 6-7 tights when you were Still Only Five!  You raged at their bad fit, their lumpy toes.  Until you turned Six.  They were never mentioned again.

“Just six spoonfuls of the disgusting red stuff Mummy”, you instruct.  Bolognes is not your favourite, but you will eat your age.

Your favourite meals are all Japanese – Oyako Donbori, Teriyaki, Curry.  You keep a watchful eye on the soy sauce running out.

You upcycle everything you can get your hands on.  Sometimes we know what you are up to – the relentless sound of the sellotape dispenser.  Sometimes googly eyes mysteriously appear on things… pom-poms, washi tape, string.  Your natural habitat is the collage.  We try to sneak things out to the recycling bin before you nab them for your art trolley.

I heard someone on a podcast talking about how many books were on their ‘To Be Read’ list, how they had piles of books in every room of their house, even their bathroom. “It’s the best problem to have”, they said.

I do not know what to do with all your sculptures and projects, this creativity that takes over the house.  I do not feel equal to the internal motor that is always driving you, with all of the ways you are clever as clever, with so many suns.

It’s the best problem to have.

 

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Placards and Novels

There are books for certain weather, workloads and moods.  There are books that satisfy our need for a high body count, or for the tilling of the land. We need to escape, sometimes, from the news and from scrolling social media feeds.  We escape to Three Pines or Port William or Baltimore.  What a gift!  There are so many reasons to read and so many ways that books can reset and refresh us.

I have needed that in 2018.

In between my favourites (old and new), there are a few novels that I read this year that have been a different kind of gift. Not so much an escape, more an invitation.

I have muttered at the radio a lot in 2018.  I have wondered at the certainty expressed on placards and in memes.  How could I ever fit all my complicated thoughts and conflicting emotions on a topic on to a placard?  How could I ever have the certainty to wave it in the air?  These 3 novels, however, have invited me into the kind of issues I sometimes want to escape from.

 

These novels have simultaneously calmed me down and got under my skin.  I think this is because instead of headlines and soundbites they offer story.  Deep, wide, nuanced story.  We don’t have to align ourselves with a slogan after all, we can read many more words than that.

 

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

Is it better not knowing the ugly truth, and pretending it doesn’t exist? Or is it better to confront it, even though the knowledge may be a weight you carry around forever?

I hadn’t read any Jodi Picoult books for a few years and had forgotten how well she tackles controversial issues in a nuanced manner.  She thoroughly educates herself on her subject matter and then puts a very human face on it through her novels, giving voice to both sides. Small Great Things was recommended to me by my friend Tory and explores prejudice, race and justice.  In trademark Picoult style – ordinary lives intersect in this novel which is written from the point of view of a black nurse, a skinhead father and a well-intended white lawyer (who would never consider herself racist).  It is a powerful and provocative book and it encouraged me to pick up a few more Picoult books this year.  Her latest novel, A Spark of Light, which centres around an abortion clinic, is on my TBR list for 2019.  I really appreciated her conversation with Jen Hatmaker about it on this podcast.

 

Beartown by Fredrik Backman

The first thing that happens in a conflict is that we choose a side, because that’s easier than trying to hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time. The second thing that happens is that we seek out facts that confirm what we want to believe – comforting facts, ones that permit life to go on as normal. The third is that we dehumanize our enemy.

On the surface this is a story about ice-hockey, although it is much more than that.  This book is a very different style to Backman’s other books, which are uplifting and quirky.  There are many characters and dimensions to the story which make it slow to get into, but which work powerfully  in the end. The subject matter is difficult (trigger warning), but timely and necessary.  The injustice that surrounds what unfolds feels both unbelievable, yet sadly, believable.  I found myself thinking about this story for a long time afterwards and am looking forward to reading the sequel Us Against You.

 

This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel

Our first concern is his happiness of course; but not just today.

Because it wasn’t that  simple was it? Raising children was the longest of long games.

This is the story of an endearing family navigating hard questions that turn into even harder ones. The title of the book comes from the idea that parents often make huge decisions about their kids that feel like guesses. In this sense the book helps us relate to a situation that many of us have no experience of.  Yet the decisions faced by Rosie and Penn feel truly impossible, with far-reaching consequences.  The book gives such insight into the struggles faced by this family.   It lets us eavesdrop on the conversations in the kitchen between 2 parents as they go around in circles trying to decide on behalf of their child.  It captures the depths of their fear and their love.

I think, perhaps, before we ever take a ‘position’ on an issue, we should eavesdrop on these kinds of conversations.  A book that can capture them is truly a gift.

 

What about you?  What books are you grateful to have read in 2018?

 


(All Amazon links are affiliate links which means I get a few pennies from your purchase, at no extra cost to you!)

F***ing Cheesecake, and Community

“The Christmas story isn’t one of loneliness and quiet isolation in the darkness. This is a story of welcome and hospitality, of lamplight and family, of birth in all its incredible sacred humanness, entrenched in a culture and in a time and within a family.”

(Sarah Bessey)

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Photo by Mink Mingle on Unsplash

 

The first night we visited our church it was Christmas.  Our girls were tiny enough that we could bring them in their jammies.  I spent most of the service in the foyer with a toddling escapee and a chocolate-sharing elder whose name we didn’t know, yet.

After the Carol Service we ventured over to the church hall for the Pudding Party.  We hovered for a split second at the threshold – overwhelmed with dessert and noise and people we didn’t know yet.

Then we legged it back to our car.

(Our girls were tiny enough not to realise; they had just missed dessert).

We went back, though. More services, more foyer, more hovering at the threshold.  We went back enough times that the next Christmas, I was asked to bring a pudding.

And this is how I learnt to make cheesecake.

(And referred to it as The F***ing Cheesecake).

(And the name, unfortunately, stuck).

*

My girls, a little older now, dress themselves in Christmas jumpers and mismatched skirts and leggings.  They know now, that there’s a pudding party, a threshold they can’t get over fast enough.

Christmas is one of those markers, the passing of a year.  Look how they’ve changed since last year, look how they’ve grown.

Last Christmas I was grumpy.  I was tired and my children were ill-behaved. Other people ate my cheesecake and I ate something I didn’t mean to pick and snapped at the girls and tried to prevent a hundred spills. Next year, I tell my husband later,  I am making The F***king Cheesecake and eating it myself, on my own, in our kitchen.

Sometimes it seems like my daughters may be growing up, but I am not.

*

I read , recently, that Jesus was probably born into a noisy family home, not into the isolated stable that we imagine.  In Middle Eastern homes the family and animals  slept in one room, and guests slept in another.  There was no room in the guest room, Mary and Joseph were in the family quarters! Mary’s birth was likely to have been attended by many women and there would have been a community of family members in Bethlehem for the census.  Mary may have been tired, sore and scared but the one thing she was not was alone.

Which is beautiful.

And challenging.

*

Oh Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray.

I have thought, every Christmas, that everyone in Bethlehem turned Mary and Joseph away.  But I am learning, now, that they didn’t.  They were brought into a household.  Jesus became of Bethlehem.

I think of the places that I am of and the rooms I am invited into.  I think of how I miss out on community sometimes when I choose my own rhythm or cheesecake or privacy.

This isn’t about pudding, is what I’m saying. This is church.  This leaving your own kitchen, your favourite hiding places.  This showing up for communion, be it eucharist or pavlova.

*

It’s a Christmas tradition now, me in the kitchen, making The F***ing Cheesecake.  (Which I don’t eat alone, after all.)

I listen to Rend Collective as I smash the digestives: “There are no outsiders to Your love, We all are welcome, there’s grace enough.”

Christmas is one of those markers, the passing of a year. Look how you’ve changed, I whisper kindly to myself, look how you’ve grown.