Monday, October 04, 2010

Edith Stein on "extraordinary women"

A few weeks ago I emerged from one of my favorite places of prayer, the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC, with a new book under my arm: "Essays on Woman," by Edith Stein. The German Jewish philosopher-turned-Carmelite, is also known to the world as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, whose fruitful life ended in martyrdom at the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

In the church’s cool underground chapels I had been pondering the call to sainthood, a call that of late had been plummeting through the chasms of my stubborn, quick-to-speak and slow-to-hear personality, snagging on the sharp edges of my anger and my fear, and getting mired in the muck of my self-indulgence and self-pity... read the rest here, at Catholic Womanhood.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Final Thoughts on Kristin Lavransdatter

Hello to the faithful few who made it through all of Kristin Lavransdatter! Unfortunately someone requested my copy of the book, which I actually finished reading over a month ago, so my thoughts will have to be a bit here-and-there and without page citations. I was so engrossed in the book I both did and did not want it to end!

I had two main themes that I was musing on as I finished the book. Feel free to toss out anything you may remember or questions you have in the comments section.

Independent woman or woman of the Church?

The back matter on the copy of the book I had describes Kristin Lavransdatter as being about a woman who “defies her family and her faith to follow the passions of her heart.” I beg to differ. Perhaps the book reviewer saw Kristin as an “independent woman” who does “what she feels is right” rather than being “confined” by the structures, traditions, and authorities of the Church. Perhaps they saw her sins, and thought that they put her outside the confines of the Church. But to me, this is an incredibly simplistic (and of course theologically incorrect) reading of a complex character. I don’t think I could have read a thousand pages about an “independent woman who defies tradition” -- there’s not much nuance to that, and I know I would have tired of it after a while.

I would like to propose that despite--or perhaps even because of-- her transgressions and weaknesses, Kristin remains both in heart and in deed in communion with the Church. The dialogue she has with Sira Eiliv (the priest she was close to throughout her early married life at Husaby) in the convent towards the end of the book, describes the dynamic of much of her life-- over and over again she chose her own will rather than God’s, and was broken by her choice. But from that brokenness came the fruit of lessons learned and wisdom gained.

Particularly illustrative of one of the main dynamics of Kristin’s spiritual life was Sira Eiliv’s question to Kristin-- when a child burns their hand on an ember, after their mother cautioned them not to, does the mother then take credit for the burn as her punishment of the child for transgressing boundaries she had set for the child’s own well-being, happiness, and health? Not really; the burn is merely the natural consequence of the action which the child must suffer, even if the mother might wish to shield her child from the suffering. In the same way, Kristin suffers the consequences of stepping outside the boundaries that the church has put in place for her well-being, but her suffering also bears fruit. This fits within the understanding of the Church that God can use all things for good, even the greatest evil, as the Cross teaches. A simplistic reading might understand the “fruit” of Kristin’s sin to be proof that the sin was not in fact sin at all, but I don’t think one could argue this as a point of the novel itself, given the internal suffering and conversion that Kristin must go through at each stage of her life. This is not a novel about turning away from God, about rejection; it is ultimately one about redemption.

Note how Kristin in a sense “began” her life (as an adult) in a brothel and ends her life in a convent. There are nuances in each tableau-- despite her willingness to succomb to her passion with Erlend, there remained a certain purity to her, in her childish demeanor and her blind trust in Erlend’s promises. Gunnulf, Erlend’s brother, heavily placed the blame for the couple’s sin on Erlend, particularly on the fact that he was taking advantage of a woman barely beyond childhood. Kristin herself knows that she was not forced into the situation, but there still remains the sense that what she was doing was beyond her own understanding. Within this “beginning” of her life, Kristin is involved in the death of Eline, Erlend’s mistress for years, and leaves the incident feeling somewhat responsible for her death.

At the end of her life, Kristin becomes a nun; turning from the world to God. She has made two pilgrimages to Nidaros--one as she began her life, to atone for her dramatic sin with Erlend, and one as she ended her life, to atone for the less dramatic, more persistent sins that laced their way through her life as wife and mother. Finally, she enters the convent to end her days. Yet she is not simply a nun; her person retains that sense of being “mistress” of Husaby and Jorundgaard; although much of her life running the household was peppered with the faults of her strong personality, it was also seasoned with her generosity, particularly with the poor and with her children. Her strength of character is finally a redeeming quality when towards the end of her life she saved the life of an innocent child and bringing the body of a poor woman to consecrated ground for burial, and in so doing brings upon herself her own death.

Throughout her life, Kristin experiences moments of consolation and desolation; times when her prayer is fruitful and easy; times when it wells up from the searing sorrow of her soul; times of business when prayer is sparse and almost thoughtless; times when her soul seems dead and unable to reach outside itself to God. A simplistic reading, perhaps of one not experienced themselves is the life of prayer, might see Kristin as someone who is “not pious”, someone who is not “within the church” but “out on her own“ given that she does not live a life of sugar-coated perfection or consistent mystical union with God. Yet anyone practiced in the spiritual life knows that it is not the way one feels about prayer or towards God that matters; “by their fruits you will know them”. Kristin is not a saint--she speaks harshly towards her husband, and bitterly holds within her heart many of his transgreassions. Many a time the book notes that Erlend did not hold on to Kristin’s faults with such stubbornness (illustrative I think of women/men in general); in fact his lack of rancor is pointed to several times as the main hope that his family and friends had after death that God would have mercy on his unconfessed, unabsolved soul. The contrast with Erlend makes Kristin’s stubborn holding on to his sins seem even greater. She clings too much to her children, she turns to pagan practices to save the life of a child (what she does-- taking dirt from the cemetery to lay on the child-- seems not to be all that big of a deal, but towards the end of the book, we realize what might happen if pagan practices are taken to their ultimate expression-- sacrifice of innocent blood.) Her action was small compared to those who would sacrifice a child that they might save themselves. [Anyone have any other thoughts on this topic…? I wrote this quite a while ago and Kristin’s virtues are getting fuzzy in my memory.]

Regardging Motherhood & housewifery

One thing that struck me about Kristin’s wifehood is the scale of it. She was considered an excellent wife and a skilled mistress. Perhaps some might say that this was out of the ordinary, because Erlend was so inept at household matters that she had to take over the role of a man. Yet later in the book, when we are able to get a glimpse into the household of Simon and Ramborg, it is clear that even in the hands of an able man like Simon, who purposely allowed Ramborg to be shielded from the typical duties of the wife, the medieval household needs a woman to take charge of some elements, otherwise there will be disarray.

I can’t help but reflect on the difference with our own time. A household was basically a small, somewhat self-sustaining town. Being a wife and mother did not mean sitting inside one’s house alone with small children, taking care of menial tasks, and never interacting or conversing with another adult from 8am until 4pm. I think when we “modern women” reflect on what the vocation of motherhood means, we need to reflect carefully on what precisely we are including within that vocation. A vocation, it seems to me, must have an enduring meaning outside the historical period within which it is lived. We see here a historical account of medieval women who are in charge of much more than just a couple kids, vacuuming, and cleaning bathrooms. Many times Kristin refers to herself as “ just a simple woman” or “a foolish woman”-- certainly the feminists out there must shudder at such terms-- yet the rest of the story proves her to be far from that, particularly in her moments of bravery--setting out alone on pilgrimage to Nidaros, first at the beginning of her life and then the end.

Another funny thing I’ve found within this book is solace in extended breastfeeding, child wearing, and cosleeping. Kristin connects her breastfeeding relationship with her children with the joy of their early years; their sleeping by her side with intimacy with them. Bjogulf, the child she need not nurse herself, is the child who is most distant from her; she was blind to his blindness for many years. Once her sons move to the loft bedroom above her, they are grown, distant, and mysterious to a certain extent.

For all the La Leche League propaganda encouraging breastfeeding, I never read anything as compelling as this book regarding the goodness, the satisfaction, and the joy of the breastfeeding relationship. Kristin is aggrieved when she is forced to turn her children over to a wet nurse due to circumstances beyond her control; in this I saw a comparison to bottle feeding. It seems it should not be a “first choice” but rather a means of nourishment for a child when there are circumstances that make it necessary.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Book Nook Book Club: Kristin Lavransdatter, Part I: The Wreath

I have two confessions to make as I begin this "check-in" on our reading of Kristin Lavransdatter-- appropriate for a novel full of confessions and secret revelations, don't you think? First, I am about 100 pages from finishing the entire three volumes. It has been an engrossing novel that has held my attention throughout! I really meant to just stick to the pace I had proposed, but we took a mini family vacation, and I've had more down time than usual, so I had more time for reading. I promise to try not to reveal anything about the story, though! Second, we are in the middle of painting our kitchen, so this first installment of our book discussion might be more of just an invitation to share thoughts/comments. I think this appropriate, though, considering that the most fruitful discussion will come once the novel can be seen as a whole. (Photo to the right is of a medieval Norwegian church.)

In addition to referring back to my previous post on Part I, and inviting comments on those points, I thought it might be helpful to group any thoughts/discussion into four areas.
  • The Plot : Anything surprising? Confusing? Interesting?
  • The Characters: What do you think of them? I can't nail it down to only the first part of the book, but I find Undset's description of the internal spiritual/emotional life of her characters deep and compelling.
  • The Cultural/Historical Setting: So much here. I'm particularly fascinated by the interplay between superstition and Catholicism. Did anyone else notice that after writing these books Sigrid Undset converted to Catholicism? It makes sense; it is hard for me to imagine some of the dialogues that pertain particularly to personal experiences of faith to come from someone who is merely looking "from the outside in" in a historical manner.
  • Personal responses to the book: Is this book making you look at life in a different way? Making you appreciate/think about anything differently? Kind of a random response, but I thought I'd note it because it was something I mentioned to Michael-- I may have a slightly romantic notion of what it would be like to live, and in particular, eat, in a traditional society. However, as I read this book I pondered the fact that there is nothing really romantic about eating rancid butter, going without protein for months on end, or having to scrape around forests for bark and moss when the winter months grow long and the supply barrels are low. Just as I have to tip my hat to the goods that modern medicine have brought about, there are genuine goods of health and human flourishing that the ability to ship food over distances and store it for longer periods of time.

This Wikipedia article provides a short summary of each section of the novel; particularly helpful are two charts of characters, one of of the fictional characters and one of the historical characters (kings, etc). As the book goes on and the family relationships become more important in the plot, this is quite helpful, especially when all the names begin to run together!

Unfortunately this is all I'm going to be able to manage for now... I hear Daddy and the boys coming back from a Home Depot run to buy more spackle and painting supplies...and someone is crying... so I'm off! Remember that our next chat on Part II of the book will be June 22.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Nature's gifts

Gabriel, Peter and I escaped to the woods the other day. We escaped a load of wet laundry in the washer, carpets speckled with dirt, and bathrooms crying out to be cleaned. Despite the mess, we needed the escape; life has been hard and conflict-wrought lately, and we needed the healing of tree-shaded paths and one-on-one time with each other. Our escape route would take us to a small waterfall a friend had told us about the day before; it would be a long walk for Gabriel, but the promise of an exciting destination was enough to keep his three-year-old legs cheerfully moving down the path. He marched along with a walking stick he had discovered on the side of the trail, balancing himself with the stick as he forged across creeks, and, true to Gabriel-form, intermittently pretending to weed-whack long grasses that grew along the side of the trail.
I wondered if the spirits of our little group would remain high enough to make it to our destination. Often we start out well, but energy and enthusiasm lags as the distance we cover grows. I used to bring snacks, thinking it would provide inspiration to continue our journeys, but that proved to distracting--the main question would then become not the hike but when and where we would eat our snack and how much of it there was. Trail mix was more engaging for my three year old than nature, and so much would go unseen.
Fortunately, on this particular journey, I had left the snacks at home, yet we still had much to sustain us. Everywhere we turned, the bounty and the beauty of nature was spread before us. Small creeks welcomed rocks plopped into their shallows by gleeful toddler hands. Tiny freshwater clams peeked out of the mud at the base of the waterfall. A black water snake slid by, and we watched from a respectful distance as he flicked his purple-black tongue in and out. A friendly birdwatcher pointed our eyes towards an amazing daytime sight: a huge barred owl peering down from a tree branch quite near the trail. His black eyes blinked and his feathered head swiveled as we passed his perch; he seemed almost as surprised to see us as we were to see him. As we emerged from the woods into the sunshine, an abundance of butterflies and moths amused Gabriel. Even in a small, unassuming puddle on the side of the path we found treasure: hundreds of tadpoles flitted between marshy grasses.
The beauty of such moments, for both myself and my children, is that they cannot be produced, and thus cannot be consumed, as one might “consume” a television show, or a ride at an amusement park. In those cases, there is a certain expectation of planned for, anticipated, perhaps even calculated enjoyment--there is a certain element of surprise lacking. With nature, there is always the element of the unknown; the risk of what may or may not be. Nothing can be demanded; there may be clouds of gnats or rain; there may be sunny skies and wildflowers; in either case one must accept what has been offered and make the best of it. I am glad to immerse myself and my children in this dynamic whenever I can--either on short walks or longer camping trips--because it is good for all of us. We learn to accept the gifts for what they are-- exciting moments of experiencing something new or challenging ones that call us to cheerfully make the best of a tough situation.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Book Club: Themes, Thoughts, Questions

Many of you have told me you're interested in reading Kristin Lavransdatter this summer. Our goal for finishing Part I of the book is June 1, so I hope you can find a copy and start reading soon if you haven't already!

I thought it might be helpful to lay out a few themes, thoughts, and questions regarding Part I--purely from my own encounter with the text. (I will probably glance at and share some thoughts from others' commentaries on the text once I read the whole thing, but honestly, I don't want to read them yet and spoil the plot!) I'll try not to give anything "major" away, so these points will be very general, and filled out more on June 1. I admit up front that I don't think I can approach this book in the "detached" way that I did books in my lit classes for high school and college, discussing it purely for the sake of literary criticism. There's just too much here that begs to be related to our own humanity and our own experience of faith, life, family, tradition, etc.

A few things to keep in mind/think about as you read:
  • The dynamic of sin: There is so much here... how the sin of individuals can affect not only those persons but also relationships, families, communities. Notice the comparisons/contrasts with our own culture. The same sins persist, but in a cultural milieu that claims that the actions of individuals can be conducted in a realm that is merely "private" and without relevance to the outside community.
  • Honor: What is honor, for the characters in this book? Is it meaningful, or is it simply an imposition of the culture?
  • Filial/spousal/fraternal/friendship/fuedal relationships: I don't want to say too much here for fear of giving too much away. I just want to note the excellent depth with which Undset treats these relationships and ask what, if anything, stood out to you about them.
  • Natural world: Notice how frequently the natural world is not simply an intert backdrop for the story-- life is dependent on and affected by the natural world, not only because many of the characters are farmers, but also because in this historial period there is little technology to separate one from the realities of nature. At the same, the natural world also seems to both highlight and echo the characters' experiences/feelings.
  • Historical/cultural elements: What stands out most to you about life in 14th century Norway? A few questions: what do you think of the "Catholicism" of the culture? What does it mean for life to be dated not by numerals but by feasts and fasts, holy days and saint's days? Here's one particular moment that stood out to me:
    "Directly opposite her, on the south wall of the nave, stood a picture that glowed as if it had been made from nothing but glittering gemstones. The multicolored specks of light on the wall came from rays emanating from the picture itself; she and the monk were standing in the midst of its radiance. Her hands were red, as if she had dipped them in wine; the monks face seemed to be completely gilded, and from his dark cowl, the colors of the picture were dimly was like standing at a great distance and looking into heaven." (p. 32 in my copy)

Kristin, as a child, wonders at the beauty and mystery of stained glass in her first encounter with it on a trip to a faraway city with her father. This was a singular experience for her; the cathedral was probably the largest building she had ever entered, and other than in the natural world, she had probably never experienced such beauty. What a constrast with our own experience--we have entered countless large structures with purposes far from glorifying God, and colors, sounds, and images are constantly flickering past our eyes in all sorts of media and modes. The church is no longer a world set apart in this way; the mere entry into a church building is not an entry into a new more wonderous or more beautiful world that reflects heaven. In fact, the art, imagery, and music encountered within a church can sometimes seem to be struggling to reach the excellence of that which we have experienced outside.

Certainly, I can think of many exceptions. Personally, when I think of beautiful (non-natural) places, my mind turns to a short list of cathedrals, churches, and chapels that I hold dear. I think what I am reflecting on is that in our cynical, technological, post-Enlightenment age, it is difficult to count on a spontaneous experience of wonder as a companion to our entry in a church structure; in the environment in which we live today, I think the ability to wonder must be both protected and cultivated because it seems important with regard to the desire for God, and that which is not "of this world," but that's another post for another time. I'd love to hear what you all think on this topic.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Book Nook Summer Book Club

For once, last week, I decided to browse through the "grown up" library books. As Gabriel and Peter zoomed around me pushing the step stools like lawnmowers in front of themselves and peeking at one another through the shelves, I remembered why I haven't attempted to to this for a long time. In any case, glancing through all the great books that there are out there made me realize that I am in need of an incentive to read good books. I am more and more convinced that I will only be authentic in my encouragement of my children's reading if I can continue to feed my own mind and heart with rich literature. (Not to mention the fact that the former lit major in me is itching to read something other than parenting books!)

With summer stretching before us, I thought we might take up a book together. On our adventure through the library shelves, I managed to snag Kristin Lavrensdatter by Sigrid Undset, a Norwegian author who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1928. It depicts "the clash between fuedal violence and Christian piety, traditional imperatives and the individual conscience" as it describes the life of a young woman in fourteenth-century Norway. It's long, but so far it's been a very fast read, and comes highly recommended to me by trusted sources.

I will post (and invite comments/discussion) on Part I on June 1, Part II on June 22, and Part III on July 13. And if locals are enthusiastic about this we might even have an in person book discussion at the end, but we'll see how things are going in July. I've been reading the newer translation by Tina Nunnaly (which has interesting historical footnotes in addition to more accessible language for the modern reader).

I found these interesting thoughts regarding the novel on a blog called "Why I am Catholic," in case you need a couple compelling reasons to give the book a shot.

Are you--or anyone else you care to invite--up for joining me? Drop me a line and let me know.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Antonia's Home

Here's some photos and news from Antonia and David, home in Slovakia now and living in their temporary flat.

Monday, April 05, 2010

The Grace of Survival

[Happy Easter, everyone! Somehow this got backlogged and I never knew it was up at it is, better late than never, in any case.]

Be calm, infinitely calm, both in soul and in body. Do not attempt too much, but what you do, do well and gently. Quality first, but good quality. Follow grace in souls; take its step.
~Dom Augustin Guillerand, O. Cart

As the New Year began, my husband headed out of town for four days–he was off on a yearly silent retreat– while I stayed home with our two sons, ages three and one. I was just barely on the recovery end of an exhausting few weeks of whole-family illness. I knew that if I set unreasonable goals for our home-on-our-own-days, I would end up being an impatient, uncharitable, and downright unpleasant mommy. So I decided to keep things simple. While my husband was gone I planned to accomplish... nothing. The bar of cleanliness, order, and efficiency would be lowered to the level of basic survival... Read the rest here!

Monday, March 29, 2010

Ends and beginnings

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.
(from T.S. Eliot's poem "The Four Quartets")

On Sunday afternoon I took a spade to the Virginia clay to the garden in front of Antonia's house, and in four or five quick thrusts I uprooted a cluster of lavendar. The plant's silver-green leaves shook the fragrance of memory into the spring air; I hoisted it by the roots into the dark trunk of my car. "In France they grow this by the field-full," she laughed, remembering a post-university adventure; I thought of my mother's garden.

Antonia had called me earlier in the day-- she, David, the triplets, and her mother are leaving for Slovakia on Wednesday, and they're packing, clearing out the house, and tying up loose ends. Most people in her situation would probably not give a second thought to their garden plants--but Antonia is not most people. She had planted her gardens from seed and couldn't bear the thought of abandoning them to their fate. As the sun sank towards evening, I churned up the rocky red soil in the front of my own house, carving out a new home for her lavendar, her daisies, her sage.

* * *

It is Holy Week, and it is spring. A good time for ends and beginnings, I think. Antonia's triplets--Bronte, Lukas, and Aiden--will first experience Slovakia as a world of beginnings: slowly-greening mountains, black gardens pierced by tentative sprouts, and flocks of wandering sheep punctuated by the bleats of newborn lambs. They will awake to their first Slovakian morning on Good Friday, when the Cross of Christ turns up the soil of our hearts, churning us out of our complacency, loosing the deep-rooted sins that snake through the soil of our lives. And then they will listen, watch, and pray (as much as one-and--a-half-year-olds can) at the triumphant Easter celebrations, when we revel in the verdant fullness of Christ's resurrected life and its promise to those who are faithful, who believe.

* * *
I am experiencing the peculiar yet familiar blend of gratitude and sadness that always seems to attend farewells; the fullness of relationship and the emptiness that physical distance brings. Let us continue to pray for this sweet family; I will let you know how things go with their house. (As of right now I believe they have raised about one quarter of the funds needed to build their house; help is still appreciated, I'm sure.)

Monday, February 08, 2010

A Call to Generosity and Sacrifice

Our late Holy Father John Paul II reminds us, in his Aposotolic Letter Mulieris dignitatem, that there is a constant link between motherhood and the Paschal mystery. We can think of Mary, as she presented her infant son in the Temple, full of the promise and joy and mystery that all babies bring. Before his birth she had carried him, the fruit of her womb, her very flesh, each day her body swelling tight around the life that grew ever-heavier within her. After Simeon's foreboding words that her own heart would be pierced by a sword, she certainly carried the weight of her Son's agony in her soul, each day bringing the inevitable Cross ever-nearer. The Cross will accompany us all as mothers--it is just a question of when, how, or to what degree.

Antonia Broadwell is one of us, a mother, who, like Mary, is bearing the Cross both in her heart and in her flesh. She is a parishioner at Our Lady of Hope, and a mother of triplets. Her husband David has appealed to us for help. Join us, the Our Lady of Hope Mom's Faith Formation group, in responding to their need, in helping carry her (and her family's) Cross, though our own generosity and sacrifices.

Update: Read Catholic Online's story "A Husband with the Heart of St. Joseph" to hear more about the Broadwell's journey.
I've already contacted David and Antonia to tell them to count on our group's efforts to raise them $2500 towards the construction of their home in Slovakia. If each mother in our group--surely there are 25 of us at least-- donates $100, we can reach this goal.

Yes, there are many other appeals for money at this time of year-- Lenten Appeals, Catholic Relief Services, Haiti disaster relief-- but may I suggest that this cause is different? David has termed their effort an "Amish Barn Raising" and I find his title very appropriate for us. There is a physical, incarnational reality to the fact that the Broadwells are part of our parish, neighbors living just down the street from us, to whom we can extend a neighborly helping hand.

Perhaps we gave all of our surplus to these other causes, and we have no "extra" funds left. May I suggest, then, giving sacrificially, particularly as Lent is coming up soon?

Some sacrifices to consider~

Could you...
  • shave $25 off your grocery bill each week for a month, perhaps by fasting from juice, alcohol, coffee, sweets, meat, cereal, or magazines?
  • go an extra month or two before getting your hair trimmed and donate the savings in the meantime?
  • buy your next pair of jeans from a thrift store and donate what you would have spent?
  • "dine in" on a night you might usually be inclined to go out, once or twice, and donate the cash to Antonia and David?
  • plan a $100 cut in your summer vacation budget?
These are real sacrifices, but certainly relatively painless in the face of the true suffering of one of our own parish and neighborhood community.

If you feel called to donate to their cause, or help in any other way, please do the following:

1. Contact me at carlagaldo at gmail dot com
with a) your name; b) your phone number; c) your donation amount (a "pledge" so I know how our group is doing in terms of the $2500 goal). Feel free to add your name in a comment here on my blog too, to let others know you are participating, although of course leave out the personal info and the donation amount, for privacy's sake.

2. Send your actual donation to David Broadwell at 5 Glengyle Lane
, Potomac Falls, VA 20165. (I won't be collecting the funds myself--I think it is just simpler and more direct this way, as they need the funds ASAP for their move at the end of March.)

Anyone else outside of the OLOH community is more than welcome to contribute to the cause too, of course!

You can follow their story and see others who are helping the family at

A few more pictures that David sent me, pre-diagnosis--

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Book Nook: St. George and the Dragon

Truth be told, I had been trying to avoid the knightly stories and legends until later. At the tender age of 3.5, I doubted that Gabriel could discern the difference between inappropriate and uncalled-for violence and force used in honorable defense of a just cause. Plus, I just didn’t want to fuel the mischievous fire of using sticks, poles, brooms, or any other as long pointed objects as tools for recreational poking of younger brothers.

But Gabriel kept coming upon knights anyway– a plastic castle play set, and exhibit of armor in the National Gallery, books he found on his own in the library– and I think he was getting the idea that they were just plain “bad” because every time he played knight (which entailed poking people or things inappropriately) I curtailed or redirected his fun. And he kept playing knight anyway. So, rather than have him play “bad” knight, I thought it better to fuel his imagination with some “good” knight stories.

So I caved and during “G” week we talked about St. George (a possibly mythological Catholic saint, but useful for teaching purposes nonetheless), and read this beautiful, Caldecott-medal winning picture book that dwells in the realm of myth most certainly. Written by Margaret Hodges and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, it is a retelling of a portion of Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene (about which I know quite little other than what is in this book).

Not only did Gabriel love this book, it was beautifully written, with rich, descriptive language and illustrations that could serve as practically a full semester’s study in floral botany for an older child. Although the language was on first glance a bit above Gabriel's level, I try to read a bit above his comprehension level because I think he rises to the occasion. Plus, I've noticed him using similes and metaphors in his own speech and I think it is thanks to us reading books that are a bit more "advanced." This book had a similar aura of magic and allegorical possibilities that I appreciate so much in C.S. Lewis’ Narnia. George is led to the battle with the dragon by a princess named Una, who to me had slightly Marian overtones...

Now the travelers rode together, through wild woods and wildness, perils and dangers, to Una’s kingdom. The path they had to follow was straight and narrow, but not easy to see. Sometimes the Red Cross Knight [George] rode to far ahead of Una and lost his way. Then she had to find him and guide him back to the path. So they journeyed on. With Una by his side fair and faithful, no monster or giant could stand before the knight’s bright sword.
The battle between St. George and the dragon is a bit grisly– do read the book ahead of time if you’re not sure about age-appropriateness of dragon’s tails gushing a bit of blood and a slightly wounded St. George lying almost-defeated before the last day of his battle). Although the battle is kind of intense, it leads to a Baptism-like moment when a near-to-death St. George falls into an “ancient spring of silvery water” that heals him, such that he is able to rise with the sun to face the dragon again the next morning.

I hesitated to introduce this book to Gabriel–it’s kind of a confusing mix of fairytale, myth, true virtue, and the concept of sainthood–but this book deservedly captivated his imagination and enabled me to talk to him a bit about bravery and. The Loyola Kids Book of Saints has a great take on St. George– mythological or not, the story teaches us that with Christ we can bravely fight against the dragons in our lives–whether they be or problematic habits or behaviors of our own or evil that comes from outside. Less profound but still useful in our house was the fact that I can now say “Did St. George use his sword on the nice townspeople or against the mean dragon? Your brother is not a mean dragon...” ...and it's been (mostly) effective so far.

For some more lighthearted, not quite so advanced knight books, focusing on the “good knight” idea, try the Good Knight series and the Sir Small series. Neither are particularly beautiful nor profound, but for a little guy who's into knights, they help drive home the idea that knights can be honorable and good, and they are slightly humorous if read in with an attempted British accent.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Traditional Table Tuesday: Lacto-fermentation and my new favorite condiment

I'd like to introduce you all to my new favorite condiment... drumroll, please... Ginger Carrots, a.k.a. Pickled Ginger Carrots or Lacto-fermented Ginger Carrots. As strange as they sound, they are amazing, and really easy to make. You must try these!

I was inspired to make these carrots by reading Nourishing Traditions' explanation of the benefits of lacto-fermented vegetables, long a staple in many societies because the lactobacilli produced in this method of fermentation serve not only to preserve veggies, but also makes them more beneficial to the health of those who consume them. The lacto-fermented vegetable most people are familiar with is sauerkraut, although much of what we find canned or jarred nowadays lacks the beneficial lactobacilli that homemade sauerkraut contains because industrial processes kill it off. Lactobacilli and the lactic acid they produce help to promote healthy intestinal flora, much like the good bacteria we are familiar with in yogurt.

I thought I'd try these carrots after I wasn't much a fan of the sauerkraut I made. (The family loved the kraut, though I did not. Gabriel will enthusiastically eat a PBJ sandwich and sauerkraut--on the side, not on the sandwich--for lunch! Peter likes my lacto-fermented beets better than the sauerkraut, due to texture issues. Guess he's not the only baby like this!)

Here's the recipe, with some of my own notes added, based on that from Nourishing Traditions. These are a delicious accompaniment to so many things, including, but not limited to: Black Beans and Rice, Thai Coconut Fish Soup, Hummus and Avocado Sandwiches, the above-pictured "Garden Pitas" (layered with hummus, carrots, beets, and feta), Red Lentil soups and dals, Spinach & Cranberry salad, and other rich or spicy foods.

Ginger Carrots

4 cups grated carrots, very tightly packed
1 T. freshly grated ginger (use less if you're not sure you're a big ginger fan--it's strong)
1 T. sea salt
4 T. whey (if not available, use an additional 1 T. salt, although know it might be a bit salty for your taste--you can get whey by draining yogurt or buttermilk through cheesecloth, or, join a milk co-op like me and order a quart of it. Hey, if anyone is really excited about making this, I'll order you some whey myself!)

Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl or pot. Pound with a wooden pounder or meat hammer until the carrots release their juices, maybe about 10 minutes. Place in a quart-sized, wide-mouth mason jar and press down firmly so that the juices cover the carrots. The top of the carrots should be at least 1 inch below the top of the jar (they expand!). Cover tightly and leave at room temperature about 3 days before transferring to cold storage (the top shelf of your fridge).

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Comp Lit 101, Preschool Style

Today as we sat down to read Gabriel's rest time book, Swimmy, by Leo Lionni, he looked up at me and said, "Mommy, I think when Swimmy meets the big bad salmon fish he is brave just like St. George is brave!" We had read swimmy a couple times, but we just read our book on St. George and the Dragon for the first time today. Guess he got the idea. Not bad for almost 3 and a half, I thought, anyway!

(We've been talking about virtues and good habits, and I was wondering if it was really worth it at this stage of the game, but I think if he can identify bravery in literary form, he can understand at least in a rudimentary way what we've been talking about for "G" week this week--"gratitude" both to others and to God, mostly by working on saying thank you.)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Slow Death by Rubber Duck

Heard these guys on the Diane Rhem Show on NPR today. (Here's a quick book review from the Post regarding the book as well.) The chemical folks claim BPA isn't harmful, but it sounds like the FDA is beginning to be "concerned" about it. Better safe than sorry, if it's not too hard to change, right? So I'm currently checking up on all my kitchen plastics--we've eliminated zip-lock bags for the most part, but I use 32-oz yogurt containers for freezing all my stock and extra soup. I am dismayed about the fact that there is BPA in the lining of ALL food industry cans (except the beans sold by Eden Organics)! We don't eat much canned food, but I do like getting canned tomatoes, tuna, and salmon. Sigh. I guess the bright side is that I'll be inspired to can my own tomatoes this summer--they sell tons of cheap, organic bruised tomatoes at our farmer's markets in the summer! I'm experimenting with alternatives to shampoo too; the experiment is on-going so I'll let you know how that goes after my hair goes through its "de-tox" days.
* * *
On a more philosophical note, Michael asked me the other day why changing our own lifestyle in little ways promotes what Pope Benedict XVI calls in his World Day of Peace Message "an authentic human ecology" that would "forcefully reaffirm the inviolability of human life at every stage" as well as promote a "respect for nature." I was reminded of his question when I heard the authors of the above-mentioned book discuss their investigation of the city of Parkersburg, WV, home to the Dupont Chemical plant that produces (yuck) Teflon. We stopped using Teflon a while back, and have (obviously) not knowingly purchased any cookware that is coated with the stuff since then. As I heard on the radio, there have been concerns that one of the most dangerous of the Teflon chemicals, known as C8 or PFOA (perfluorooctanic acid), has contaminated the air and drinking water near DuPont's plant, with all sorts of ramifications for the health of the citizens there--cancers, strange illnesses, etc. It hit me then again-- this isn't just about me, although I was thinking that it really was. There is a face, a person, suffering the consequences of the production of that Teflon cookware that I am consciously choosing not to purchase. I could be wrong, but I think I heard on the radio that they were moving to completely eliminate the production of Teflon...? Lots of individuals refusing to purchase such products has got to have something to do with that, at least, I hope so.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Traditional Table Tuesday ( a day late): Our Daily Bread

As I mentioned in my first post on our journey to becoming more “traditional” eaters, we would like most, if not all, of the foods that we purchase to be foods that mankind has been eating for thousands of years. This means eliminating from our cabinets packaged foods such as cereals, crackers, boxed cookies, frozen premade dinners, and highly processed breads.

Now, I grant that there are some delicious breads out there, from good bakeries, made with only fresh, traditional ingredients. I don’t even allow myself to browse at the Whole Foods Bakery, primarily because at $5-$8 a loaf, their breads just aren’t in our normal-everyday budget range, but also because I would probably drool on the cases and I know Peter and Gabriel would be begging to have some bread since they love the stuff!

At home, I can make my own bread with all organic ingredients and eat it fresh out of the oven for about $0.89, if I make my standby Whole Wheat Sourdough. My sourdough starter has been disappointing me lately, so at Michael’s request, I tweaked a 100% Whole Wheat bread recipe with conventional yeast, soaking the grains overnight to reduce their phytate content (what in the world is this, you ask? Read here or here to find out) and also to make mouth-wateringly fluffy bread and rolls.

The new conventional yeast recipe I’ve recently discovered, based pretty closely on a recipe from an awesome used-bookstore treasure, Cooking with Whole Grains by Ellen and Vrest Orton, costs me about $2.00. Again, I use all organic ingredients, but instead of water I use milk, butter, and honey, so that adds to the cost. However, a great frugal tip-- you can use milk that's past its prime for this loaf--yes, sour milk-- and honestly I think it tastes even better!

I have to tip my hat to my mother who facilitated my discovery of this great cookbook which has tons of old-fashioned, all 100% whole grain recipes! She passed along this fascinating article called The Mystery of the Mill, which is the introduction to the cookbook I referred to above. Anyone interested in the history of food and the industrial food system will be interested in reading this history of how white flour, although less nutritious, became the predominant flour of our American food system. (It’s all about the money, folks. Are we surprised?)

Here’s the recipe from Cooking With Wholegrains with my modifications:
Soaked Wholewheat Bread

12-24 hours before you wish to start rising the bread, put in a large bowl:
3 T. honey
3 T. butter

Pour over:
1 ½ cups warmed (but not boiled) milk
Stir until butter and honey are melted.
½ cup buttermilk or yogurt
5 ½ cups flour

Stir until well mixed. Let stand covered in a warm place until you are ready to start the rising process. I usually do this step ( the “soaking” step) the night before, and start my rising process in the morning.

Mix together and allow to proof:
2 1/4 tsp commercial yeast
1/4 cup warm water
1 tsp sugar or honey Mix this into your bread. (I used the bread hook on my Kitchen Aid with much success.)
Once it’s mostly incorporated, mix in:
2 tsp salt

Knead it for a bit, then set in a well-oiled, covered bowl to double in bulk. You’ll be allowing this doubling four times. Once it’s doubled–about an hour, but sometimes a bit more the first time–punch down the dough, and fold the dough from the sides to the center until it is about turned over, and let rise until doubled again. After the fourth time, turn the dough out onto a floured board and knead for a minute or so until it seems firm. Cut off about a third of it, leaving about 2 lbs. of dough for a loaf and about 14 oz. of dough for a couple dinner rolls. Alternately, you could make 2 loaves. After cutting the dough knead it a minute or so more, shape, and place in your bead pan. Let rise in the pan until about doubled–don’t let it over-rise, so keep a close eye on it, then place in a pre-heated oven at 425 for 15 minutes, then lower to 375 and bake for 20 minutes longer, maybe 45 minutes in all. You may need to "tent" the bread with some foil to keep the top from browning too much.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Weekend Book Nook: Paddle-to-the-Sea

“Hmmf. Good book,” remarked the bearded, not-all-that-friendly-looking, middle-aged librarian as I checked out this book with its companion 70's-produced DVD. It’s not all that often that even the chatty, friendly, lady-librarians remark on my book choices, so when our silent male librarian behind the checkout desk shared his approval of Paddle-to-the-Sea, I had an inkling that this was a good boy-book. I discovered it by chance, by typing the word “creek” into my library system’s card catalog. We read it back in the fall, during “C” week, when we were investigating creeks and ponds. Paddle-to-the-Sea is a small wooden Indian carved one winter by a Native American Indian boy in the snowy mountains of Canada. The boy sets him on the edge of a snowbank to wait for spring, and when the snow melts into the creeks, Paddle begins his journey. He makes his way to the sea by way of rivers, the Great Lakes, and the helping hands of some friends he meets along the way, including fishermen, children, and lighthouse keeper.

The illustrations are vivid and detailed–I think this is why the book engaged my son even though it had a full page of text for each vignette of Paddle’s journey. He was fascinated (of course) by the forest fire scenes, as well as the depictions of the industries and pasttimes one encounters along the river and lakes (logging, fishing, the Coast Guard, lighthouse keeping, etc.) The book puts flesh and bones to geography and natural science with maps of Paddle’s journey, as well as explanations of how water travels to the sea, and beautiful pictures of the various ecosystems he encountered. The characters Paddle meets along the way, and their jobs would make a great mini-unit on Canadian and North-Eastern American social studies.

As I mentioned, there is a short film based on the movie, which can be found in DVD form. We enjoyed it, although it was definitely a get-it-at-the-library kind of thing, not something I would say was so great that we’d want to purchase it. That being said, it seems as though Paddle has something of a cult-following (in the lightest meaning of the term), given that there are...yes... facebook groups dedicated to him. Guess I found a good one, eh? :)

* * *
Also on my grown-up bookshelf this weekend:

Fire Within:St Theresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross by Thomas Dubay... I've only read the intro so I'll have to save any detailed thoughts on it for later.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Deciphering Gabriel

Intense, physical, squirmy, imaginative, verbal, sweet, boyish, and loud: my three-year-old son is all these and more. He is my first baby-turned-child, the first little person I am accompanying on the complicated journey of figuring out how to dwell in the world. Gabriel barrels through each stage of growth like a snowplow, strewing in jumbled heaps everything I thought I knew about both him and myself. When he was just over a year old... (Read the rest here!)

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

101 uses for junk mail...

Maybe it was the pounding sinuses and the fever that weakened my defenses...whatever the case, 3:30pm this afternoon found me in a living room strewn with dried pine needles from the Christmas tree I had just dragged out the front door, pitching wadded up balls of junk mail to a plastic-bat wielding three year old, while my one year old gleefully threw his own stash of discarded junk mail into the front hall toilet. I should have been vacuuming, but that wouldn't have been half as fun. :)
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Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Traditional Table Tuesday: Why Food Matters

On holy milk

From virgin nurse the Boy God feeds;
This miracle all else exceeds.
The One to whom all owe their lives
On food from someone else survives.
O peerless wonder! See him thrive
On fleshly food who keeps alive
the flesh.
(From a poem featured in the Magnificat on January 1, celebrating Mary the Mother of God.)

Over the past months, and years, really, I have been trying to get to the root of why food is not incidental to those who live a life of faith. Food isn’t just a neutral factor in our lives, something just to be consumed without thought, a topic that hovers on the margins of the life of faith but never really enters in. Why? So many reasons come to mind. I’ll just get started with one. The One to whom all owe their lives/ On food from someone else survives. These simple lines reveal two simple truths:

1) Christ ate.
He who shares all in common with us (except for sin, of course) ate, and in so doing, he incorporated the act of eating into the eternal Trinity. Kind of blows you away, doesn’t? God not only made the world, but entered into it, and entered into it all the way, made it a part of himself in the most basic way possible.

2) Food comes from.
Even the completely self-sufficient farmer (and perhaps the self-sufficient farmer is more greatly aware of this) exists in a relationship of reception. For him, food comes from the earth, from his animals, from the good graces of a Creator who has set the world up to be responsive to his labor. For most of the rest of us non-farmer types, food “comes from” in an even more radical way. Food comes from the farmer, from the field laborer, from the trucker, from the butcher, from the supermarket shelf-stocker, and finally, from whomever it is who prepares it for us. What does all this mean? It means that food comes from someone. Thus, food establishes relationships. This basic fact is beautifully illustrated by the infant who must be fed; the entire survival of the infant is completely dependent upon being in relationship with someone who will feed, someone from whom food will come.

These days it is easy to forget that food comes from. We could potentially enter a supermarket, purchase some shrink-wrapped, pre-made frozen food, swipe through a self-checkout aisle, and breeze out of the store, without a word to another human being. No one to thank, no one to even acknowledge.

Looking at these two points together, we see that in eating, Christ entered into relationships. The first and most basic we see in the poem–nursing put him in relationship with his mother Mary (and through her, with all of created humanity). We can only guess at the web of relationships that the Holy Family entered into in order to obtain their food, but I would guess that they were probably not self-sufficient farmers if Joseph and Jesus worked as carpenters. They probably raised part of their own food and traded for part of it. In any case, I doubt that Christ or the Holy Family entered into exploitative relationships in order to obtain the food they ate. Granted, it was a very different time in history, but I am certain there were those who were exploited by the commercial system of the day. All this has convinced me that I need to think hard about the relationships that are established by the food that my family purchases. Am I doing my best to make sure that I am not exploiting others just to get a lot of something cheap, when I could pay more or go to some small amount of trouble to be more respectful of those who are bringing my food to me?

I know there is so much suffering that is invisible to me, suffering that I take for granted on a daily basis, but the suffering of agricultural workers is something that will probably always be present to me. I was blessed by the opportunity to meet and work with a handful of the Mexican migrant workers who pick the apples for our Virginia applesauce and the grapes for our classy Virginia wines. I see their faces when I pay more for the organic produce I purchase, when I chose to get our summer produce from Amish family farms by joining a summer CSA. Most vividly, I see Lupita’s face–she was young, she was my best student, and she and her husband worked in a vineyard. They had constant rashes from the sprays that irritated their arms as they picked the grapes, and although they wished for children, were having a lot of trouble conceiving and wondered why. Although I will never know for sure, I often wondered if the level of chemicals Lupita was exposed to had something to do with their fertility issues.

Our “traditional table” has a lot more to it than just the conventional/organic issue, and certainly, there are nutritional and health benefits to organic foods as well, but honestly, for me, those have always been the icing on the cake, as it were. To me, it is more about the people, more about the social and commercial structures that I am supporting with my food dollar, although it’s nice to know that there’s less toxic chemicals building up in my family’s bodies as well.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Simple Woman’s Daybook, January 4, 2010

Outside My Window...
It’s probably still icy cold. Yesterday I put the OJ outside on the deck to keep it cool; in the morning it was a block of ice!

I am thinking...
About traditional foods and all the things there are to write and say about them.

I am thankful for...

Time to be a family.

From the kitchen...
Monday: French Toast Casserole, Homemade pitas and hummous with ginger carrots, leftover chicken and veggies, and freshly baked bread with a (tweaked) recipe from my new cookbook Cooking with Whole Grains– I’ll share if it works out!
Tuesday: Red Lentil Soup with Lime
Wednesday: Leftovers
Thursday: Spaghetti and meatballs
Friday: Tuna melts
Saturday: We’ll be at my Mom’s enjoying her delicious cooking!
Sunday: Something with our grass-raised lamb from our Winter CSA with Moutoux Orchards

I am wearing...
PJ’s, still. Snuck upstairs while Michael was with the little guys.

I am going...
To the Air and Space Museum today! We promised Gabriel, our Apollo 11 fan, a Christmas trip there again, just like last year.

I am hearing...
Michael and the boys downstairs.
A Few Plans For The Rest Of The Week:
• Michael goes on retreat Wednesday through Sunday with his wonderful community; I need to brace myself for the alone time with two energetic little boys!
• I’ll pick up our casual “school time” again next week... which means I need to figure out which letter of the alphabet we’re on, request some books from the library, and plan a saint and some fun activities to go with it.
• My New Year’s resolution–part I– I’m going to read through Simplifying your Domestic Church, make photocopies of the blank forms, and choose some areas to start simplifying!
• New Year’s resolution part II– Once that is sufficiently done, maybe in a couple months, I’m going to start actually thinking about decorating our new home. That will be in a while, though, as Michael won’t be able to help out until summer.
• Michael and I will start reading Hold on to Your Kids and Raising Your Spirited Child together. Gabriel has been incredibly challenging during Christmas and we’re at our wits’ end. Literally.

Here is picture thought I am sharing...

Our little Peter, not so little anymore!

(For more, similar daybooks, see

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Another newbie for 2010: The Weekend Book Nook

"By inner necessity, the search for God demands a culture of the word or – as Jean Leclercq put it: eschatology and grammar are intimately connected with one another in Western monasticism (cf. L’amour des lettres et le désir de Dieu). The longing for God, the désir de Dieu, includes amour des lettres, love of the word, exploration of all its dimensions. Because in the biblical word God comes towards us and we towards him, we must learn to penetrate the secret of language..."

"Thus it is through the search for God that the secular sciences take on their importance, sciences which show us the path towards language. Because the search for God required the culture of the word, it was appropriate that the monastery should have a library, pointing out pathways to the word. It was also appropriate to have a school, in which these pathways could be opened up. Benedict calls the monastery a dominici servitii schola. The monastery serves eruditio, the formation and education of man – a formation whose ultimate aim is that man should learn how to serve God. But it also includes the formation of reason – education – through which man learns to perceive, in the midst of words, the Word itself."

(From Pope Benedict's speech to representatives of the world of culture in France on September 12, 2008)

Pope Benedict offers an idea that speaks to all bibliophiles who always knew that there was something more to their love affair with books. We are drawn to books–good books, books that reveal the truth about the human person; books that speak of the beauty as well as the sorrows of this created world; books that overflow, above all, with words– because we long to know The Word himself. "The longing for God, the désir de Dieu, includes amour des lettres, love of the word, exploration of all its dimensions."

Why is this? Pope Benedict points out that one key way that God has revealed himself is through the word, the Scriptures. The only way such a revelation can be fully appreciated is through a cultivation of a “culture of the word.” My life as a lover of language has made me realize that the more one reads, the greater one’s sensitivity to the nuances of phrasing, the depth of metaphor, and the painting of character.

Our family is embarking on a new exploration of words as we teach our little ones to "penetrate the secret of language" through learning to read and write. Like the monastery, our little domestic church is called to pursue eruditio, the formation and education of man. And so we fill our days with living books, exploring childhood’s literary landscape in order to engage the heart and open the mind to knowledge. As Charlotte Mason remarks, the key to education is presenting children not with dry facts, but “with fact clothed upon by living flesh, breathed into by the vital spirit of quickening ideas.” Good literature incarnates history, geography, science, culture, and faith, propelling the naturally curious mind of the child towards a greater engagement with topics than the faceless facts of textbooks.

Such literature does not always leap off the library shelves into our hands. Often we find it through the guidance of others who have gone before us, sometimes we happen upon it. This little Weekend Book Nook will be a space to share literary discoveries and our family’s engagement with them. Most will probably be elementary-aged children’s literature, as my oldest child is only 3, and that is where our sights are set at the moment.

My grown-up reading habits entail much “grazing” and little “finishing,” but I’m sure from time to time my own reading will make its presence known as well.