Archive for February, 2012

I finally finished, last week, Josef Pieper’s Leisure, The Basis of Culture.  It took me about as long to get through those 175 pages as it did to get through 700 of Ancient History.  Part of the blame for that is that I paused to read up on gardening and composting.  And, also, I get less reading done during “Ordinary Time” than I do during holidays and vacations.  But, really, this one was a tough go.  It’s the kind of book I would have read and discussed intelligently in college but these days, I confess, I sometimes feel like flipping through Better Homes and Gardens is a mental stretch.  But part of the goal with my Book List this year is to flex my reading muscles a bit and I had to start somewhere.  Lucky for me, I’m married to a theology professor and my reading has sparked some good conversations during our nightly dish washing time.

The book is actually a volume of two separate essays.  The first, “Leisure, the Basis of Culture” is a discussion of the nature of work and the nature of leisure.  The modern idea that we rest only to be able to work again is challenged.  Pieper suggests, rather, that we have “leisure time” so that we may engage in our true work:  worship.

The second essay, “The Philosophical Act”, was a more enjoyable and understandable read for me.  Pieper discusses the relationship between philosophy and theology and the rootedness of philosophy in “wonder” (rather than doubt, which is  the more modern view).

I don’t have anything very interesting to offer to my readers at this point, I’m sorry to say.  But this is the sort of book that enters one’s intellect quietly and percolates down over time as other ideas and works are considered along side it.  I’m glad to have read it, glad to have cracked open the door to more serious reading.

But up next is a novel.  Never a good idea for me as I am a most intemperate novel reader.  I can muster self-control for a long time and keep myself from starting one but, once begun, I am stuck until the book is through.  And I have a terrible habit of entering the characters’ world a bit more than is strictly healthy for someone who has other responsibilities.  So it is, unfortunate, given these propensities that I chose Kristin Lavransdatter.  If you’ve read it then you can understand why it’s hard to wander around in Kristin’s head.  And you know that I have a long way to go.  I’ve read it before (it’s definitely on my Top Five list) which only makes it worse.  Because then I have absolutely no hope.  I know things just get worse and worse until . . . well, I do like the end of this book.  So, that’s good.  I read it first just after we were married.  Now, with almost nine years under my belt–and four children–I suspect I will read it differently.  And I’ve heard such rave reviews of the new (not that new–I just noticed that it came out seven years ago!) translation by Tina Nunnally.


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I’m taking awhile to get through my next official “Book List” book because I’ve taken some time this month to read Mel Bartholomew’s All New Square Foot Gardening and also Mary Apelhof’s Worms Eat my Garbage.  You can read a bit more about our adventures in urban vermicomposting over on the kids blog but the short version is that we keep a big bin of worms in our house and feed them all our compostable kitchen scraps.  We did this more or less successfully a couple of years ago but we never had a garden that could benefit from the castings.  This year:  we have big plans.

Last spring my husband was the big garden enthusiast in in the family.  I think I was still in the post-partum fog which was severely compounded by buying a house and moving.  I was still in survival mode while Eric sang rapturous odes to home-grown lettuce.  I was okay with the home grown lettuce idea, in theory.  One of the happiest periods of our courtship was the summer Eric house sat at a place with a huge garden and we went and picked a big salad for ourselves each evening.  But I didn’t want to be the one actually growing the lettuce.  Eric gamely threw together a planter box, scattered seed much too late, scratched his head when shoots would come up and then disappear, found the slugs that were munching our crop, and then hand picked the slugs from our lettuce each night and killed them.  After the Slug Danger Window had passed we enjoyed delicious lettuce for the rest of the summer though we all wished there had been more.  A lot more.  We managed to successfully grow basil, parsley and mint as well although there was not nearly enough basil for our purposes.

So with that amazing early gardening experience under our belt, we ordered the All New Square Foot Gardening on the advice of several friends.  When it came in the mail I surprised myself by having an inordinate amount of enthusiasm for the project.  I can’t recommend the book or the method until the fall (I hope) but after I had sketched our plans for a 47-square foot garden I called our tenants (and friends) who live upstairs from us and asked that we consult out on the back patio to divvy up the garden space.  My neighbor really just wants to get a few tomato and green bean plants in pots so it was a simple matter to show her where she could put those.  But she chatted with me for awhile as I outlined my ambitions and wondered aloud why we don’t move out to the country since so many of our interests in sustainable living and quality food seem, to her, incompatible with city living.

There are, I think, many, many reasons why living in the city is better for the planet but let’s just talk about food for now.  It stands to reason that city dwellers would have just as much desire for good, responsibly raised food as people who live elsewhere and, from what I’ve seen, getting that food is actually a little easier in the city.

For one thing, while it is true that urbanites don’t usually have big yards, we are often less attached to the yards we do have.  When we were house hunting we assumed we would have no yard.  You don’t choose a dense urban neighborhood for the wide green lawns.  The two are completely incompatible.  So, any outdoor space we have is a complete bonus as far as we’re concerned.  We ended up with a 100% concrete patio that is about 400 sq. feet.  Almost 25% of that space is now consumed by a wheelchair ramp.  It’s not like the space is huge “run around outside” area for my kids.  It’s more like an outdoor room.  Putting vegetables and plants out there will only make it a nicer outdoor room.  Though, that said, my 47-square foot garden isn’t going to take up a lot of that space in part because . . .

City dwellers can garden on their roofs.  The bigger your building, the more likely it is that you’ll have a flat roof.  Only a section of our 2.5-story house is flat and we aren’t gardening up there–at least not this year.  But we are gardening on the flat roof of the storage shed that sits in one corner of our tiny patio.  And the rest of the garden is going to get tucked into spots that aren’t all that useful for other purposes.  City dwellers who have small living spaces inside are accustomed to making the most of every square inch on the outside as well.

But, what if you really, really don’t have any outdoor space?  The density in a city allows for co-ops to flourish.  You do need a critical mass of people who want the same kind of food and, frankly, we don’t have that where we live now.  But when we lived in Washington, D.C. we helped start three different neighborhood co-ops and eventually were purchasing about 90% of our food on that model.  It just made sense for a small farmer to partner with us and send a truckload of stuff where there was a high concentration of customers all within walking distance of each other.

My one disappointment with our current situation is that we can’t have chickens.  It’s actually allowed, at least unofficially, where we live now and we had neighbors who did it when we first moved to this neighborhood.  But that 100% concrete yard isn’t going to get me good eggs.  I can buy eggs at the grocery store from chickens raised on concrete and not have the hassle of getting a chicken sitter when we go on vacation.

But, livestock aside, urban living has not meant sacrifices for us when it comes to obtaining quality food.

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Thinking about Lent

I am very happy to say for, I think, the first time in my life, that I am looking forward to Lent this year.  I won’t swear to the fact that it’s the first time I’ve said that, but it’s certainly the first time I can remember thinking it.  Even when I wasn’t a practicing Catholic I sort of dreaded Lent every year.  I would often choose something to give up, fail miserably, and be wracked with guilt for forty days.  This pattern continued unabated post-reversion.  I don’t even remember what I tried to give up most years but it was always a disaster.  I know that failure can be quite valuable.  And, I know that God often wants to show us stuff in the midst of our failures, stuff like Grace and Divine Sufficiency.  But there was still a part of me that didn’t want to continue to choose a penance this year that I had a proven track record of Completely Stinking At.  

Two years ago, for some reason, I came up with the idea of fasting more.  A lot more.  The Church requires Catholics to fast only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday but I think I heard a homily on the topic of fasting (that in itself is a wonder since we hear precious few good homilies) and was duly inspired.  I don’t remember the exact details of the conversation with my husband about my fasting plans but, knowing me, I proposed something like going without food until dinner time every day for the entire forty days.  That’s the way we roll:  I make a completely over-the-top and wildly optimistic suggestion and he tempers it with a combination of knee-jerk pessimism and reason and then we work out an idea that is actually good.  And that is exactly what happened with our fasting plan.  

Somehow we found ourselves wondering what the “old” fasting rules were.  Even my non-Catholic readers are probably aware that many of the externals of the Catholic faith changed post-Vatican II.  It is hard, sometimes, to sort out what was actually practiced by the average Catholic but it used to be that every day of Lent was a Fast Day (and that every Friday all year round was a day of Abstinence, that is, no meat, unlike now where that is only required during Lent).  This much we knew.  So we pulled our our antique Catholic Dictionary and looked up the regulations for fasting.  As it turned out, the regulations weren’t all that strenuous, at least at first glance.  They called for 4oz. of bread at breakfast and 8oz of bread at lunch.  Dinner was normal.  That amount of bread is equivalent to a standard-size French baguette.  And we even had the luxury, that first year, of living twelve steps from an old-fashioned bakery with hot, fresh (and inexpensive!) baguettes available every day.  

So we decided to go for it in way that would gradually ramp up the fasting as the weeks went by.  One fast day the first week (Ash Wednesday), two the next, and so on until we fasted every day of Holy Week.  We also kept up with the general “spirit of abstemiousness” with which the whole family approaches Lent.  Less dessert, less alcohol, more prayer, etc.  And it was great.  I really did it.  I’m not saying it was easy.  I admit, the first few days of noshing on fabulous bread all day long hardly felt like penance but as the days of fasting increased each week I started to get a little tired of bread.  I wasn’t ever exactly hungry fasting this way, but it did infuse my day with a certain sense of deprivation.  It was a constant reminder every time I’d wonder what to make for breakfast (my favorite meal) or when I’d instinctively reach to finish off a snack one of the kids left on the table.  

We repeated the fast last year and, again, it was a really good experience.  Meditating on the success of this particular fast two years in a row my thought was, “What a gift.”  And by that I mean, the Church and all she offers.  The tradition of fasting has been with the Church from the beginning and if I simply take that up and follow it the way the Church says I should, the graces abound.  I used to drive myself to distraction coming up with my own penances and trying to follow them (you have no idea the kind of legalistic mental gyrations I can pull off when chocolate is involved).  Now I just take what is given to me and enter into the penitential simplicity of the season.

So, needless to say, this year, for Lent, I’ll be fasting.  It will look a bit different this year since I don’t really eat bread anymore.  We also now make a point of observing the Ember Days which are a seasonal time of fasting.  I experimented a bit with different ways to fast during the December Ember Days and my plan this year is to fast completely from food from 10-5 for each day that we designate as a Fast Day.  I’ll eat a normal breakfast and dinner.  We’ll also be starting with two fast days the first week and then doing three days a week for the first few weeks.  We’ve found the last two years that three days of fasting is kind of hard and four is significantly harder.  

And, with that, I’m going to try to talk my husband into a “Vigil of Mardi Gras” hot fudge sundae since he won’t be home tomorrow.

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Zeal and Fervor

I’ve been thinking more about “fervor” since finishing my reading on St. Dominic last week.  My husband and I are always trying to sort out our life.  It seems, at times, to be one long series of transitions without time to ever settle into a boring, predictable routine.  This is, in part, objectively true.  The schedule of an academic is always changing.  Two different semesters each year with long breaks at Christmas and over the summer.  Throw in lots of moves and a baby every couple years and we are in a state of constant transition.

But that’s not a great place to live and we are continually frustrated by the fact that we have a lot of things we’d like to be doing but aren’t.  It’s very difficult for us to prioritize the various competing goods in our life.  So it is that we are often searching for a motivating idea of some kind.  I know that our faith tradition gives us plenty to work with already and I’m not discounting any of that.  In fact, I think we often get ourselves in trouble when we try to strike out too forcefully on our own path.  But the fact remains that we have discerned through years of prayer and conversation and living life together that there are various things, large and small, that we feel called to do in our family, our parish, our community.  But despite feeling that “call” we are still sorely lacking in motivation when it comes to putting all the pieces in order.

We have some years adopted a practice of having a “word” for the year.  The last two years (no surprise!) I’ve had trouble settling on an idea to guide my prayer and reading and meditation through the year.  Both times my husband has suggested the word “zeal” but it never did it for me.  Though it’s already most of the way through February, I think I’ve decided to adopt for this year the word “fervor”.  Aren’t they the same?  The dictionary lists them as synonyms and the official definitions are very similar.  But there is a subtle difference, at least in the way I hear the two words.  Zeal to me connotes activity, and enthusiastic promotion of an idea without regard to audience or situation.  Fervor, on the other hand, connotes contemplation.  Rather than indiscriminately enthusiastic action it is intense feeling.

(Now, I don’t mean to start co-opting words and putting my own spin on them just to make them say what I want.  I may be splitting hairs here–the Bible often seems to equate the two–but let’s just agree to be okay with the fact that I’ve finally become comfortable with integrating a good idea into my life.)

I’m going to one even further and say that, when interacting with the world, the goal, for the zealot, is to be right and to convince the other person of it.   Whereas the fervent person is motivated by charity.  The fervent person wants to love as God loves.  The fervent person has, as Guy Bedouelle says, “a dynamism that begets joy.”  And this joy-begetting fervor seasons and leavens all one does.  And all fueled by charity.

So, my word for the year:  fervor.  Past words of the year have been academic (Mary, Eucharist, and Incarnation) or practical (Homemaking) so this is quite a different idea.  But I’m confident I won’t grow bored trying to cultivate charity, beget joy, and live fervently.

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If you have more than three kids I’m sure you have been on the receiving end of all the tired one-liners that we hear all the time,  “Don’t you know what causes that?”  “You guys should get a tv!”  And so on.  I sort of wish I was one of those snappy people who cold respond with a zinger.  One of my favorites, from Simcha Fisher, “If you think tv is better than sex, you’re doing it wrong,”  because that is by far the comment we get the most often.  But I’m really only that snappy in my little fantasy world.  When someone actually has the gall to make a rude comment about my family size I’m usually just left standing dumb and speechless while trying to keep smiling so as to communicate that, for the most part, I’m pretty happy with my life.

But it occurred to me recently what these people are actually saying.  They’re saying, “Stop having sex.”  In the back of my mind I’d always kind of heard them say, “You know, there’s a Pill that will stop you from getting pregnant so much.”  But that’s not actually what any of them say.  And, of the many times I’ve been a part of a conversation with moms of many comparing notes on this particular type of social interaction, that’s not one that comes up very often.

So, really, the depraved culture that has produced all these people who feel compelled to make rude comments on the size of my family also has these people, in a backhanded sort of way, suggesting we use NFP more.

Or am I missing something?

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I find Valentine’s Day to be a pretty high pressure holiday.  At least with Christmas, if I want to keep things minimal I can claim that I’m, “focusing more on really living the liturgy this year.”  Not so with Valentine’s Day.  “Living the liturgy” today means celebrating Sts. Cyril and Methodius.  And, really, it’s too bad they get short shrift every year because they are pretty neat saints who even have their very own encyclical.  In the spirit of respecting the culture we’re trying to evangelize, we are not anti-Valentine’s Day.  I know, I know.  It’s a Hallmark holiday.  But just because hardly anyone understands what true love looks like, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to celebrate it.  But we don’t, on the other hand, have big expectations for each other.  My husband and I aren’t big gift-givers in general and we don’t have a gift giving tradition for this day.

But the low expectations make it all the harder.  If I don’t want to be an absolute curmudgeon it seems I ought to make some effort.  Produce some token of affection.  And today just sort of failed to launch.  After a morning of . . . well, I have no idea what happened this morning, but sometime late in the morning I sent the younger children away for rest time and managed to put together a special dessert*.  I had a vague idea of doing a nice dinner as well but when my husband called to check in at 3:00 I was totally fried and really tired and suggested that, perhaps if we added wine and candles, my special dessert could be considered a complete meal?  He responded by coming home early, sending me out shopping for garden supplies, and making dinner.  After which we all had dessert together.  Win, win, I think.

*The dessert was this Deep, Dark Chocolate Tart which is gluten, dairy, and egg free.  I couldn’t find my arrowroot powder so I substituted finely shredded coconut in the crust.  The two things are not at all similar but the crust was delicious.  For the filling all I did was melt together 8 oz of dark chocolate and a can of coconut milk, whisk until smooth and pour.  It set up just fine and was less fussy.  I served it with fresh raspberries.

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This is not one of the two books I said I would post about next but I am usually reading at least two books at once since I try to have one going for “spiritual reading.”  Regular spiritual reading is a habit I have long tried–and often failed–to cultivate.  I have generally pegged my spiritual reading to bedtime so I’m never up for anything too heavy.  If I put spiritual reading at more alert times of the day I tend not to do it.  Since the New Year I have managed to generally read as I’m nursing the baby to sleep.  This has been a good compromise.  I actually have a separate “spiritual reading” section on my 2012 bookshelf which is also pretty motivating.

I just finished In the Image of St. Dominic:  Nine Portraits of Dominican Life by Guy Bedouelle, O.P.  I have always enjoyed lives of the saints and my husband really loved reading this book last year.  He is actively pursuing the Dominican Third Order and, while I certainly support him I’m not sure how or if something like that would fit into my life.   I certainly have a deep love for the Dominicans.  Our first couple of years in Washington, D.C. I worked at the Dominican House of Studies and it was our main place for Daily and Sunday Mass.  I was also really blessed to go on a couple of individual silent retreats with the cloistered Dominican nuns who used to live right in D.C.  I loved their life.

This title of this book is fairly self-explanatory.  Nine saints who exemplify the spirit of St. Dominic are given a chapter each.  Bedouelle is not my favorite author and, though I enjoyed the book well enough, I wasn’t quite sure where he was going with it.  Until the last paragraph.  I’ll quote in full, and in closing, because it is a better summary than anything I could say.  The title of the final chapter is “St. Dominic and Fervor”:

The seed of everything is contained in Dominic’s fervor, and it is this dynamism that begets joy.  This is the leaven that pervades Dominican life; it is the salt that flavors all we do, the salt Christ asked of his apostles in the gospel.  If we would have Jordan’s (of Saxony) concern for Dominican communion, if we would possess zeal for the Faith with Peter Martyr, if we would thirst to seek truth with St. Thomas Aquinas, if we are drawn to spiritual beauty and long to express it with Blessed Fra Angelico, if we love the Church like St. Catherine of Siena, if we struggle for justice like Las Casa, if we are aware of the mystical dimension of our life like St. Catherine de Ricci, if we desire humility in the service of the poor like St. Martin de Porres, and if we fight for the liberty of Christian and of the church like Lacordaire–if we should do all these things and yet not have St. Dominic’s fervor–we have yet to discover the essential.  For I am convinced that beneath this “divine fervor”, there lies hidden in him the fire of charity that enkindles the joy of the Spirit.

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