Thursday, January 31, 2008

Soup Week I

My husband gave me the idea for soup week one evening as were enjoying a soup dinner that had been pulled from the freezer, "Could you just cook a whole bunch of soups in one week and stock the freezer with them?" Well, yes, I could. The more I thought about it, the more the idea appealed to me. Planning and cooking a bunch of soups all at once would save time in prepping and cleaning, would use ingredients most efficiently and would allow me to justify an out-of-the way trip to an Asian market where produce is sold at fantastic prices. I planned a week of cooking two double batches of soup each day. I estimated that this would provide forty meals for our family with enough for Eric's lunches here and there as well. I would have carried out this plan in December but at the time our freezers were crammed full of other bulk buying projects and I had no space for forty ziploc bags full of soup.

I kept putting off the project until it came time to think about Lent. We always try to simplify our food during Lent and this soup week project was going to net enough to have soup every night during Lent. I don't think I will be able to neatly fit the cooking and blogging into one week because I have to shop strategically. I'd also like to give you the recipes I'm using but I don't have time to type ten at once. I'll get two at a time up on the blog until I'm done.

As I said, all recipes will be doubled which we find yield enough for four meals for our family of four. I'll let the soup cool in the pot and then bag enough for one meal in a gallon-size ziploc bag. The bags will freeze flat and take up much less freezer space. To thaw I pull them out of the freezer in the morning and lay them on the counter. Since they are all meatless they won't spoil this way. About half an hour before dinner I dump the soup into a saucepan and heat for dinner. We'll have homemade sourdough with our soup each night. If the soup is low in protein we may make cheese sandwiches. Our Saturday Lord's Day meal will be something other than soup each week and Sunday supper will be either soup or Saturday leftovers. We also won't have soup on Eric's birthday or the Solemnity of St. Joseph. So, off we go . . .

Tomato Soup from Moosewood Cookbook
1 T olive oil
1 T butter
1 1/2 c. minced onion
3-4 cloves garlic, minced or crushed
1/2 t. salt
1 t. dill
lots of freshly ground black pepper
1 28 oz. can crushed concentrated tomatoes
2 c. water
1 T honey
1 T sour cream
2 fresh tomatoes, diced

Heat olive oil and butter in a kettle. Add onion, garlic, salt, dill and black pepper. Stir over medium heat for about 5 to 8 minutes, or until the onions are translucent.

Add canned tomatoes, water and honey. Cover and simmer over low heat for 20 to 30 minutes.

About five minutes before serving, whisk in sour cream and stir in diced fresh tomatoes. Serve hot topped with yogurt, fresh basil, fresh parsley, scallions or chives.

Gypsy Soup from Moosewood Cookbook
2 medium-sized ripe tomatoes
2 T olive oil
2 c. chopped onion
3 medium cloves garlic, crushed
1 stalk celery, minced
2 c. peeled, diced sweet potato
1 t. salt
2 t. milk paprika
1 t. turmeric
1 t. basil
dash of cinnamon
dash of cayenne
1 bay leaf
3 c. water
1 medium bell pepper, diced
1 1/2 cups cooked chickpeas

Scald and peel the tomatoes. Squeeze out the juice and seeds and chop the remaining pulp.

Heat the olive oil in a kettle. Add onion, garlic, celery, and sweet potato, and saute over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Add salt and saute 5 minutes more. Add seasonings and water, cover, and simmer for about 15 minutes.

Add tomato pulp, bell pepper, and chickpeas. Cover and simmer for about 10 more minutes, or until all the vegetables are as tender as you like them. Taste to adjust seasonings and serve.

(Incidentally, if you are not familiar with the Moosewood Cookbook, it's really fantastic. It was one of the first cookbooks I'd ever used and it taught me a lot about food. Many of my recipes come from this book or one of its spinoffs.)

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Price book

I think I've mentioned before my love for the Tightwad Gazette. Eric found this for me at a used book store and we leave it around pretty much all the time for inspiration and encouragement. I love that this book doesn't really tell you that you have to live a certain way. Rather, she encourages you to set a goal and look for ways to reduce spending so you can increase your savings to reach that goal. For most people it is easier to save more than to earn more. She further says that the most important things you can do are the little things that happen every day. She reasons, correctly, I think, that you seldom have an opportunity to save $100 but every day you have many opportunities to save a few pennies. And those pennies add up. Developing the habit of saving money in small ways also trains you in frugality so that when the bigger opportunities to save come up you don't feel like you are missing out when you choose a much less expensive option.

I doubt that Amy Dacyczyn invented the price book concept, but it is a centerpiece of her lifestyle and one that I recently adopted. It's simple, really. Make a chart of all the food you buy and all the stores you could reasonably shop at. Then record prices. I used to think that I just "knew" where things were the cheapest. When I made my pricebook I found that my instincts were correct in some cases and not in others. When a friend recently introduced me to her neighborhood food co-op I was able to take the price list and quickly find the things on it that were a better deal than what I was currently paying. I don't happen to shop any place that has sales but if you use regular supermarkets you can note the dates of good sales on the price book. You might notice that peanut butter is on sale every six weeks so you buy a six-week supply then. You might notice that butter bottoms out twice a year and decide to stock the freezer.

Sometimes driving around to a bunch of different stores each week can negate any financial savings. I get my food from seven different places. Three are food co-ops where we place monthly orders. Two of those are in my neighborhood and are a great way to see my friends. The third is in a good friend's neighborhood and its a great excuse to see her. The other four places are stores. I use Trader Joe's for regular shopping. I use an Asian market for produce when I'm buying enough produce to make the extra trip worth it. I use Safeway when I need white vinegar, chocolate chips, or ice cream. That's the store in our neighborhood so it gets hit up when we run out of something last minute. I also go on occasion to The Glut (motto: still cheap, still funky). That used to be my main store but I've found almost everything there for better prices. I'm a little sad about that, actually, because I always liked shopping there and wondering if they could tell how conservative I was just by looking at me. They have the best prices on supplements, so I go there when we're sick or I'm pregnant.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The planner

I should be reading to Joseph but he's looking at books and singing the Gloria and I sort of don't have the heart to interrupt him. Failing the read-aloud time I should be making him his new fleece "take-a-nap bag" but Margaret is sleeping on my back and I have felt so very aware lately of her fleeting smallness and babyness that I just don't have the heart to desnuggle her and banish her to the bedroom. Besides, that would probably wake her up and Margaret needs all the sleep she can get--so would you if you did what she does while awake.

So, due to the overwhelming demand (though I'm pretty sure Robyn doesn't actually care about my planner per se but just doesn't want me to get into another anti-blog funk) I'm going to write about my planner.

For those of you who just can't get enough of this sort of thing, there was a recent Simply Lovely Fair devoted to the topic of planning. I was actually pretty excited about that blog fair but when I started to skim the entries I realized that these moms are in a different universe with regard to planning. At the time of that blog fair I did not even have a planner because I knew, on some level, that a planner would ask me, by its mere presence, to actually be responsible. And once I had a planner I'd have to stop shopping for planners and where's the fun in that? But don't feel bad if you just love to plan and love even more to read about other people and their plan-making because, really, enough people love it to inspire this blog fair.

I used to be a digital planner person. I had a nifty iPaq that did lots of things I'd never heard of and it was really fun and got me through a lot of boring meetings back in my going-to-meeting days. When my husband took over the job requiring meeting attendance I gave him the iPaq and I think I did buy myself a little paper calendar then but it didn't get used very faithfully. My life really isn't all that complicated. Then Eric read Getting Things Done by David Allan last summer and we both were able to more or less adopt a new system for getting things done and staying organized. Though I've never really implemented the system as fully as I'd like, I think I've tried it enough to know that it works for me. There are planner sites where you can buy your own planner forms based on David Allan's book but, really, my life isn't all that complicated. Someday I may write "David Allan for Moms" where I note things like, "A mom's inbox needs to be the size of a laundry basket," and other such tips.

Anyway . . . after much more debate than the matter deserved I settled on a Catholic Woman's Daily Planner. I like supporting a fellow home-schooling mom and I like the format of this planner. A two-page spread for each week with room for notes each day and a two-page spread for each month. I really wanted my calendar to include feast days and daily Mass readings and I briefly considered doing it all myself on the computer but I'm not very good at that sort of thing and I finally decided to let someone do it for me. This planner has some fun extras like the Holy Father's prayer intentions, nice quotes from the Church Fathers, liturgical information, common prayers. But it doesn't have a lot of typical planner stuff that I don't need like a map of timezones and a list of birthstones. I sprang for the menu planning pages because I'd been making my own on little scraps of paper anyway and I thought having a year's worth of menu plans in one spot would be an interesting study. Each page has a tear-off column for the grocery list--a feature I also needed.

I got a hole-punched version of the planner because I wanted to incorporate the inbox/list-making approach in David Allan's book but I wanted it to be infinitely flexible and customizable. This task proved difficult. It is really hard to find three-ring notebooks to fit 5.5 x 8.5 paper. I had a homemade recipe book this size and the recipes never got used so I dumped them and refilled the book. I got some gridded paper from the Day Timer company and some post-it index tabs to place on the pages. I also included a zip pouch to hold extra tabs, the Sacred Planner Pen, and a calculator when I get around to buying one.

How do I use it? The monthly calendar pages are used for month-at-a-glance questions, "What day of the week is Christmas?" and also to record when something last happened. For example I have noted in January when I last went to confession and when we changed the hallway lightbulbs (that is a separate, long story).

The weekly pages are used to record appointments. Anything that happens less often than every day qualifies as an appointment for me. I don't know why it is that in college, when I had a very busy life, I could keep track of everything in my head and now I can't. I really don't want to believe that being a mom makes one stupider but sometimes I start to wonder . . . In the notes section for each day I write any task that has to be done that day but not at any particular time.

I menu plan for a week at at time, make a shopping list as I go, go shopping and then see how much longer than a week I can make everything last. It's a lot of fun. I'm looking at going at least four days over this time around which should get us to Ash Wednesday.

My tabs are for my various lists and records. Right now I have the following sections:
Projects: where I have a list of, well, projects. Basically anything that requires more than one step to complete.
Next Actions: where I list the next step--and only the next step--for every project on my list.
Computer: anything I want to write about, research, order online.
Letters: people I need or want to write to.
Shopping: anything that needs to be bought other than groceries (when I run out of a staple grocery item it gets written down immediately on the next shopping list.
CHUC: one of my food co-ops.
Quail Cove: another food co-op.
Budget: this is a tool for encouragement where I record any decision or new find that saves money.
NFP: the extensive CCL chart was a bit much for our needs these days so I just make basic notes here to keep an eye on my "cycles."

Each of these sections is currently only a two-page spread so the tabs might seem excessive but it makes it all much more user-friendly. I can add or delete sections any time I want. This planner only works for me if is open in my new permanent planner station at all times. Every time a plan is made it gets written down. Every time I think of something that needs attention I write it down. I need to keep things out of my head and get them down on paper. Then I can look at that paper as much as I need to in order to make it all happen--but I don't need to keep reminding myself to order brown sugar this month.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Cure for the common cold

Thyme, sage, and fresh ginger.

If this gives you an excuse to use your beautiful new teapot, so much the better.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Kitchen Makeover

I don't know how many square feet our apartment is, but not very many. Under a thousand door-to-door and much less if you count actual, usable living space (MUCH less if you don't count the hallway, but I'm warming up to the idea of the bowling alley being useful). This place, really, is about the same size as our old place but the design is completely different. I'm finding that the clutter gets to me more here but also that there is much more room for creativity in how I deal with it all. I've never lived in a big house, so I can't support this claim, but it does seem that living small does lend itself to more creativity and innovation.

We are almost certainly moving out of here in five months so it would be tempting for me to think in temporary terms about all the little things I love and hate about this place. But I actually enjoy figuring out the best way to live in this space and I think it's probably good practice for the next stop on our journey. Anyway, after living in this apartment for a year I will never again be able to say, "There's just no other way to arrange things." There is always another way. There is always space to be found. I can't believe how much space I've found in this tiny place and how many times a small change has had huge results. If we owned this apartment and had money to put in to it, there are many other things we could do to improve our situation. As it is, I thought I'd share the small discoveries I've made in my kitchen.

The kitchen is my favorite part of this place. It is purely accident that this apartment came with a beautiful kitchen. This was the only ground-floor apartment with hard floors in our price range. We would have moved in pretty much regardless of the kitchen. But--it is beautiful. This is a 100-year old building and the apartment was very shoddily renovated about three years ago. The kitchen doesn't stand up to close scrutiny, but it does look nice. I would absolutely pay for granite counter tops in the future, if we could afford it. They are wonderful and functional. Can't say the same for stainless steel, but a black refrigerator would be just as nice. What this kitchen lacks in space it makes up for in design. Everything is at hand and I can see the rest of the living space while I work. I reorganized all the cabinets during our recent total closet overhaul and this week tackled the countertops.

So, left to right, first I made a baking center. I thought "centers" were only for large kitchens, but it works in this one, too. This counter is used for kneading dough and staging ingredients for supper and, lately, drying dishes. But it formerly housed a wine rack and a blender. I pulled the stand mixer out of its corner, making it much easier to use, re-hung my measuring cups--I love the look of them on the wall--and got myself a lot more counter space. The other regular residents of this counter are the bread in the bag, the sourdough starter in the jar, and our coffee equipment. I need to get a collapsible dish rack for this counter soon because the dishwasher below it is on an extended vacation . . . The wine rack has been moved to the top of the refrigerator which is a much better place. I think it's sort of in poor taste to have a wine rack on such prominent display.

Next, I cleverly got a picture of my Kitchen Madonna, Our Lady of Lourdes, without showing you the sinkful of dirty dishes below it. Eric got me this image for some May occasion (there are three in this house) a few years ago. I wanted something to help me do the dishes. He wanted to remind me that St. Bernadette was just a simple girl out doing her duty to her family (collecting firewood) when Our Lady appeared to her. I love that. We also spent part of our honeymoon in Lourdes. The top of the image is not dark--we just have a very low cabinet overhang. The one thing I would wish for my kitchen is a window in this spot--but this icon almost makes up for it.

This corner did not, at first, seem useful. But it's much easier to stand here and chop vegetables than it looks and I can get to the sink with one hand and the stove with the other. The blender does not get used daily in the winter so it got buried in that deep corner. The basket of root veggies and canister of utensils were on the far side of the stove but got moved over here. I finally hung my cutting board and trivet--to nice effect, I think. I love that blue and green trivet but it never gets used and this is the first time I've ever nicely hung it. It does not at all match the kitchen but it makes me happy and someday I might have a kitchen where it does match. This corner is more crowded than it was but the space wasn't being used, anyway, so it doesn't matter.

Finally, the impetus for all this reorganization was my desire to have a permanent planner station. I finally got myself a planner when I realized that I was putting it off so that I could then put off everything else in my life. But it is completely useless to me if it is not at hand pretty much every second. I can do a separate post on the planner itself if any readers of this blog are into that sort of thing--just speak up . . . This counter has been the root veggie storage/general dumping ground. I decided not to entirely fight that. I left Eric's mail sorter on the counter so that papers for him can still be stuffed in there. They stay more or less neat and he can go through them at his leisure. Other than my planner I have a few odds and ends that I like to have nearby: chapstick, lotion, vitamins. I got out St. Josemaria weeks ago and since this new setup I'm remembering to pick it up several times each day to read a point for meditation. Other than that the open space on the counter is fair game for dumping with the understanding, in my mind at least, that an item is only there until the next time I walk by on my way to the bedrooms and bathroom. So far, so good.

Friday, January 25, 2008


I was reflecting recently on the evolution of my food tastes and cooking skills. The occasion was a Saturday evening meal with a menu of Chicken with Forty Cloves of Garlic, Sauteed Broccoli with Garlic and Garlic-Roasted Red Potatoes. I remembered, during that meal, the time when Robyn, newly married and hosting her single friends for burritos asked me to peel the garlic for the guacamole. I had no idea what to do with the cloves of garlic in front of me. I had always thought that garlic was a powder.

The first time Eric and I ever cooked together was in my apartment during my DC internship. He surveyed my meager ingredient offerings and said, "Okay. Where's your olive oil?" I trudged around to the other intern apartments asking skeptically for olive oil. I'd never really heard of that, either.

The first meal I cooked for Eric by myself was an unqualified disaster. I served black beans and rice. I think I prepared some rice-in-a-bag and heated up a can of beans. I made a salad of iceberg lettuce with tomatoes and cucumbers. I think I even had ranch dressing. I can't believe he married me.

I've come a long, long way since then. They year we were engaged I bought myself a cookbook and made almost everything in it for Eric and his roommates. That, to my mind, is the best way to learn how to cook. I learned one cook's methods really well and it left me with the freedom to improvise. I use cookbooks maybe a third of the time, now, and I only follow recipes exactly when making something for the first time. Eric is an excellent cook but he only exercises his abilities on holidays when he has usually had major menu input as well. We have had very few real fights but the first was over kitchen supremacy right at the point when my abilities started to surpass his. I've been in charge of the kitchen ever since.

We are not vegetarians, but most of my family think we are. They tend to latch on to ideas very securely so when I casually mentioned, during our first year of marriage, that we were eating mostly vegetarian (code for"we can't afford meat right now) we became committed meat-haters in their minds. Plus everything we serve is foreign: all the courses in one dish? Flavor? Soup? Garlic? Olive oil? In fact we are die-hard carnivores but we are very picky about the quality and source of our animal products and we don't often have the chance to seize on meat-buying opportunities.

I've been trying out new recipes the last couple weeks and making a real effort to make things interesting before we dive into our All Soup Lent (about which, more later). Last night I made the Spinach-Rice Casserole from Moosewood except that we had some kale on hand so I substituted kale for half the spinach. It was really, really good. My husband especially loved the kale.

Now, here is something I do not understand. What is the deal with kale? I feel like kale is the trendy food right now that everyone has to love even though it's gross. What is likable about a tough, chewy, curly green leaf? I know it's the healthiest food on the planet so I'm not opposed to including it in our diet, particularly when it's buried under a thick coating of rice, eggs, milk, feta cheese and red pepper but why do I have to like it? I see "Eat More Kale" bumper stickers whenever I shop at our food co-op. Friends react in horror when I offer them the kale out of our farm share. What am I missing? Am I buying the wrong vegetable? Am I cooking it incorrectly? I have never known anyone to passionately love any other green vegetable. Someone educate me before I make another casserole with all spinach.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Speaking of home loveliness

I have a futon dilemma.

In our old apartment we had two "couches". One was a futon which was housed in the "study" and used as a guest bed (much to the dismay of our guests). As futons go, it's pretty nice, but it's still a futon. The other couch was the "bird couch" which matched the wallpaper in the nursing home it came from. We got a slipcover for it but that made it sort of a wash because the slipcover was not fitted and could not be kept neat. When we moved to this smaller place one couch had to go and the bird couch got the axe.

Neither of us loves that a futon is such a prominent part of our living space. I've had it arranged with a beautiful quilt across the back and cushions on the sides. But it's a futon. It's completely uncomfortable. Only very tall guests can sit on it and have their feet touch the floor. Sitting curled up at one end as you might do on a cozy winter evening with a book is completely out of the question because the seating surface is a sharp downward slope. We have two chairs in the room and those are our first choice for places to sit.

Margaret recently baptized the futon with a full mug of hot coffee so we put it in "bed" mode, stripped the cover and left it to sort of air out, reshape, etc. We were thinking we'd rotate the mattress and replace the cover in a day or two and put the thing back up to "sofa" mode.

The thing is, we don't want to. Bed mode is better in almost every way. It's suddenly comfortable because we can sit on a flat surface and lean against the big cushions. We can sprawl on our stomachs and read at night. The kids have a raised, soft surface for wrestling (nice in a place with hard floors). It's good for Joseph's trunk muscles that he has to sit with no back support and now he can see out our bay windows to our fairly lively street scene--whereas before the high back of the futon blocked his view.

My only concern is that now we not only have a futon in our living room but a bed as well. Is this kind of wierd? Are we contributing to the downfall of civilization and the erosion of manners and hospitality by leaving a bed in our living room? Are we going to have to quickly get the futon into sofa mode whenever a guest arrives? I need help from fellow homemakers, here.

(By the way, the pile in the picture above is Joseph pretending that he is driving an elevator cage a la Allen Say's Tea With Milk).

Thursday, January 10, 2008

I do wish my husband would blog more . . .

But I guess someone has to finish that dissertation.

In case I don't get back here after laundry and dishes, here's a piece from the more thoughtful half.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Reviving a lost art

I went to the post office yesterday and asked for a roll of stamps. The clerk gave me a funny look and said, "A roll?" I confirmed my order and she ventured into a back room to fetch me a roll of stamps from the closet. "You don't sell many rolls?" I asked. "No," she said, "You know . . . the internet."

People don't send enough mail to make a roll of stamps worth buying any more. So sad.

My first resolution in the area of etiquette is to write more social correspondence. Christmas is a great time to get excited about this idea because we've received lots of gifts and been hosted at lots of houses so I started with thank-you notes. I then went through our backlog of Christmas cards that the post office finally delivered and ventured to write brief notes to people who still didn't have our new address. Then I opened a card from an old friend who has, miraculously, kept me on her Christmas mailing list and saw that she'd had a new baby. Last year I would have thought, "How nice!" This year I wrote her a congratulations note and updated her about our lives.

I'm hoping to move on to real letters next but, honestly, I'm afraid that people will think I'm weird. Maybe I should just be upfront and tell people that I'm trying to revive the lost art of letter-writing. I'm afraid, though, of setting my sights too high. I barely have time to eke out a typed blog entry most days.

Then again, the kids don't seem to clamor for my attention quite so much when I'm sitting at the table with pen and paper as when I'm standing at the desk, staring at a screen. There is just something humanizing about paper. Eric just got his first issue of a newspaper subscription this morning and was reflecting this evening how much nicer it was to start his day with a paper rather than an online news briefing. My father-in-law got the new Amazon electronic book reader for Christmas. It's an impressive little gadget but I just don't see myself giving up the satisfying heft of a good book, the quick flipping back to check a detail or re-read a favorite passage. And what would we do with all the extra square footage in our apartment?

It's funny how much I look forward to the mail each day. Nothing ever really comes. Even our junk mail is so scant that some days we don't even get mail. I remember my mom looking forward to the mail each day, too. Why is it? I think I'm always harboring a completely unreasonable hope that someone will have sent me a letter.

Eric and I began our courtship the day before I moved from Boston to Washington. Prior to that day we had met, in person, only four times. We had exchanged letters weekly for an entire summer and we continued to write to each other--two or three times each week--for four months. We've had the good fortune since then never to have been separated long enough to need to write letters but I so treasure the shoebox of letters I have from him.

Besides the romance of letters, I'm starting to see how using the postal service to correspond is generally more civilizing. So often I write an e-mail and get annoyed when there is not an immediate reply. I know the message has arrived the moment I click "Send." E-mail and telephone bumps into someone's day and demands a quick response. Letters arrive at a set time each day and invite consideration and respect. So why do I feel like I'm really imposing on people if I write a letter? Part of the reason Eric and I began our relationship with letters is that a real, hand-written letter is a gift. We wanted to think enough of the other to take the time to create these gifts on a regular basis.

Well, I'm not going anywhere in particular with this at the moment. I mostly want to get the conversation going, if only with myself, about etiquette. Etiquette (much of which involves written correspondence) is commonly seen as something imposed by the rich or snobby on the poor and/or ignorant. My thesis this year is that etiquette is none of these things but is, in fact, a fundamental part of human relations and is abandoned at our peril. I've been reading Miss Manners' book lately and I'm struck with her notion that most failing marriages need help from someone like her rather than a psychologist. An interesting argument. At the very least, I think we have a responsibility to know the rules before we break them.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

We did something crazy

We stole a Christmas tree off the sidewalk.

Just before we left for our New England Christmas Tour we decided that our own family would have a small Christmas celebration for Epiphany. Last year we made a snap decision that Christmas in our house would be celebrated throughout the twelve days. Watching our easily-overwhelmed two-year old struggle through stacks of gifts was too much for us. We opened a few Christmas morning and continued to open one or two a day thereafter. Even then, we only lasted until New Year's. Our family helped us out this year by staggering parties and gift shipments so that we have received something almost every day of Christmas this year. We've even managed to come up with one gift for each of us. We're not really compulsory gift-givers around here. We've never given the kids anything ourselves because they are inundated by everyone else. Some years Eric and I have gifts for each other and some years we don't. This year it would have been painfully obvious if anyone had been left out but, fortunately, we had ideas. Margaret will be getting her doll. I'm fully prepared to have it tossed aside and forgotten for the next year or so but Eric is more hopeful. Joseph will be getting a violin! We are so excited about this. Joseph has been talking about playing the violin almost every day for months and months. He turns most of his toys into pretend violins. He can identify the violin (and many other instruments) by sound on the radio. I don't think we'll start all of our kids on instruments at age three, but there is so much Joseph can't do. We wanted to get him going with music. Eric has been dithering about it for weeks but today he went out and rented two violins: one for himself and one for Joseph. A teeny, tiny 1/16 size instrument that might still be too big. I hope it goes well.

Anyway, on and on I go about gifts when all I really meant to do was talk about our tree. We didn't think we were going to have a tree this year. Usually we put one up on the 24th and take it down on the 6th and since we were gone more than half that time it didn't really occur to us. Plus, you can't buy trees on January 2. No. You can't buy them. But you can troll the sidewalks looking for nice rejects from all those secular lame-os who ditch their trees early. We were kidding when we suggested this idea to ourselves several weeks ago but yesterday, out for a walk, we spied a nice green little tree out in front of an apartment building. Most of our neighborhood is ditching trees that have been filling cathedral ceiling living rooms since November 14th so they look bad, but this little one was still green. We put it up in a jiffy, filled it with both strings of lights and hung our small collection of ornaments.

I can't tell you how happy this little tree is making me. Sure, we saw trees in our travels, but not as many as we should have and none of them were our tree. My parents always made our tree magical when I was a kid. It went up on Christmas Eve and Santa decorated it in the night so that on Christmas morning the beauty of the tree almost dulled the spectacle of the gift mound underneath.

Part of me hated to miss the tree this year because I wanted to savor that look of astonished awe that only a one-year-old can have upon beholding the family Christmas tree. Margaret, however, is not one for astonished awe (hence the mental preparation for dolly rejection). Joseph is more than making up for it, though. He loves the tree almost as much as I do.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Interior Life

I'll start here since it's the most important of my New Year projects and the most vague.

I've spent the last year learning about and trying to improve the practical aspects of my vocation. I call the year a complete success not because I am suddenly the world's best wife, mother, and homemaker but because I kept the theme of "vocation" as a consistent background for most of the year. This blog is one of the fruits of that theme as is a marginally more well-ordered home. I have a long way to go in terms of living up to my own homemaking ideals but I think it's depressing to keep at something in such a focused way so I'm moving on and I trust that, as in high school math, some of the lessons of the last year will start to click sometime this summer.

So--interior life. This last year was a mostly practical project: figuring out how to order and accomplish all the little tasks of my life. Great strides were made but now I see myself running up against the monotony of it all. I'm at home with two small children. Someone asked me this Christmas what I do besides take care of my kids. Fighting back snarkiness I replied, "I do a lot of laundry. I cook dinner. I pick up a lot of toys . . ." I also read a lot of picture books, do a lot of dishes, cook breakfast and lunch, and, well, I don't think I have any readers who aren't familiar with my job description so I'll stop there. It's a wonderful, beautiful vocation. I don't have any hangups about it. I don't wish I were working. I don't wish I could earn money from home. I don't wish I'd finished my master's degree. I don't wish I'd waited longer to get married. I have no regrets about the life I am living. In my moments of reason and consolation, when I can step back and look at the big picture I can think wonderful thoughts and look forward to a glorious future full of children, grandchildren, home education, housekeeping routines. The works. I love it. I have no problem with the big picture "this is worth it" stuff.

My trouble is in the moment. It's 5:30. Dinner just got started. Both kids are screaming. I'm having a blood sugar crash. The pile of dirty dishes are preventing me from washing the lettuce leaves. I just remembered that my co-op order was due last night and that Eric needed to eat by 5:45 this evening because of a meeting. That's where I fail. I yell at the kids, think mean thoughts about my husband and completely despair. It all just seems like one damn thing after another.

Earlier in the day I survey the wreckage of the moment and think, "I'll just see if any of my favorite bloggers have posted in the last fifteen minutes." I escape from the craziness instead of embracing it. A confessor said to me recently, "You are acting like a person at a cocktail party who, instead of focusing on the person she is with is constantly looking over her shoulder to see if anyone better has come into the room. Except you are doing it to God. He's here in the midst of it all and you are missing it." (Don't you all wish you had my confessor?)

He was right. In the moment to moment living of my vocation I don't have much of a well from which to draw when the frustration and stress and despair threaten to overwhelm me--and they threaten almost every day! I don't have much of an interior life.

This next year I want to work slowly on developing an interior life. A constant awareness of God's presence. An attitude of gratitude. An acceptance and offering up of suffering. An ongoing dialogue with the Lord because no one better is coming to our cocktail party.

I don't have the year mapped out in its entirety. That approach doesn't work for me. But I have thought through the first few steps.

First, I want to work on cultivating gratitude. My goal is to make seven Acts of Gratitude throughout the day. I don't have a formal, written Act for this purpose. I try to incline my heart towards God and thank him for something specific. I need to connect these Acts to different points in my day and right now I'm working towards: upon waking, before my first sip of coffee, after Margaret goes down for a nap, noon, at teatime, after Margaret falls asleep at night, and before I fall asleep at night. Right now I'm hitting about two of these each day but I'm hoping that as the habit develops in one spot it will help out the other spots. This is my main goal for January.

I also have a few books lined up. The first will be Robert Sokolowski's The God of Faith and Reason. Eric has been privileged to take every class offered by Sokolowski during his time here in Washington and I'm looking forward to sharing in his wisdom. Next I'll read Story of a Soul for the third or fourth time. I never fail to take something new from St. Therese. Eric tentatively suggested Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind but I haven't decided about that, yet. I've also taken Josemaria's The Way off our shelf and I'm experimenting with just leaving it out to pick up whenever I have a minute. We have all three of his collected thoughts in one volume--so that's about 3000 points for meditation. Eric has used this as spiritual reading, but I'd rather have the points season my day throughout the year. We'll see if I can stay faithful to actually picking up the book.

So there is the beginning of my spiritual project for the year. I don't know what success will look like. Ideally, I'll be a saint but, more practically, I will be more aware of each little thing in my day and try to more consciously do it all for the love of Jesus. But, really, if I'm still thinking about interior life ten months from now, I will count the year a success.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Fresh starts, goals, resolutions . . .

I have a hard time with the resolutions, fresh starts, and decluttering bonanzas that start on January 1. I still want to be in Christmas mode. Ist't it still Christmas? That's a funny question, actually. We had a good friend here this morning, a recent convert, who was asking us to explain Christmas. There is the Feast of the Nativity, of course, on December 25. Then every day until January 1 (the Feast of Mary, Mother of God) is a solemnity within the Octave of Christmas--so every day is Christmas, liturgically. But then from Mary, Mother of God to Epiphany we're still in the "Twelve Days" of Christmas and some cultures don't even celebrate Christmas until January 6th, anyway. Epiphany is further complicated by the American bishops transferring it to a Sunday so that we celebrate it anywhere from January 2-8. Confused, yet? And THEN it's still the Christmas season until the Baptism of the Lord which is the Sunday after Epiphany, except when we skip that feast because Epiphany is celebrated after January 6. This time of year is when all the liturgical junkies get their kicks.

I would really rather think about New Year's with the start of Ordinary Time. I feel like we're still waiting for Christmas around here. It was very lovely to see our families this year but we weren't able to do really any of the things that have come to signify Christmas for us. We're planning a small Epiphany celebration and thinking about prospects for long term traditions if we end up moving to Texas or something.

But 2008 arrived despite my grumblings about Christmas in our culture and I have given some thought to goals and resolutions and such. I hope to write at a bit more length on each of these very soon but here is my summary, just to get myself started.

Each year I take a word or phrase as a theme for the year to help organize my prayer, spiritual reading and journaling/blogging. Last year was "vocation" and I'm quite happy with the "results." This year my theme is "interior life." More later--probably more than you care to hear, but this blog is about me, after all.

In addition I've decided to identify some projects to work on myself and inflict on my family. I don't really want to call these goals or resolutions because I can't identify any measurable end result. These are things I want to work on, learn about, and try to improve. Warning: they sound shallow at first but I'll defend them later. Three projects: etiquette, personal style and appearance, beauty in the home.