Commonplace: The Quotidian Mysteries

The subtitle to this tiny but thoughtful volume is “Laundry, Liturgy, and ‘Women’s Work.'” How is that for provocative?

This book, about a worshipful posture toward everyday living, was a timely read for me as I gear back up for a new school year and a plate full of quotidian opportunities!


Here were some of my favorite nuggets:

On being too busy for daily worship:

“Workaholism is the opposite of humility…when evening comes, I am so exhausted that vespers has become impossible. It is as if I have taken the world’s weight on my shoulders and am too greedy, and too foolish, to surrender it to God…

“I have come to believe that ween we despair of praise, when the owner of creation and our place in it are lost to us, it’s often because we’ve lost sight of our true role as creatures–we have tried to do too much, pretending to be in such control of things that we are indispensable. It’s a hedge against mortality and, if you’re like me, you take a kind of comfort in being busy. The danger is that we will come to feel too useful, so full of purpose and the necessity of fulfilling obligations that we lose sigh too God’s play with creation, and with ourselves.”

On the connection between liturgy and housework:

“Like liturgy, the work of cleaning draws much of its meaning and value from repetition, from the fact that it is never completed, but only set aside until the next day. Both liturgy and what is euphemistically called ‘domestic’ work also have an intense relation with the present moment, a kind of faith in the present that fosters hope and makes life seem possible in the day-to-day.”

On holiness in everyday life:

“I have come to believe that the true mystics of the quotidian are not those who contemplate holiness in isolation, reaching godlike illumination in serene silence, but those who manage to find God in a life filled with noise, the demands of other people and relentless daily duties that can consume the self…

“If they are wise, [the busy saint] will treasure the rare moments of solitude and silence that come their way, and use them not to escape, to distract themselves with television and the like. Instead, they listen for a sign of God’s presence and they open their hearts toward prayer.”

In summary:

“Laundry, liturgy, and women’s work all serve to ground us in the world, and they need not grind us down…

“Both worship and housework often seem perfunctory. And both, by the grace of God, may be anything but. At its Latin root, perfunctory means ‘to get through with,’ and we can easily see how liturgy, laundry, and what has traditionally been conceived as ‘women’s work’ can be done in that indifferent spirit. But the joke is on us: what we think we are only ‘getting through’ has the power to change us, just as we have the power to transform what seems meaningless–the endless repetitions of a litany of the motions of vacuuming a floor. What we dread as mindless activity can free us, mind and heart, for the workings of the Holy Spirit.”

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Vacation Reading: Yours, Mine, and Ours

We went on an extended-family vacation a few weeks ago, which gave Les and I a rare but wonderful opportunity: reading together!

This meant Leslie reading out loud to me while I drove one of the vans on the way to Missouri. She timed it perfectly so that we read the final paragraphs of These Happy Golden Years as we literally pulled into the parking lot of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Museum in Mansfield.

Once we arrived at our final destination (NOT Laura’s house, sadly), we settled in to reading our own books in close proximity and then trading them back and forth as we finished.

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One of the first nights we were all together we celebrated all of our summer birthdays. Leslie and I were showered with books and book-themed gifts. (Does our family love us, or what?)

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Finally, it meant Leslie stealing one of the books that I had gotten for my birthday to read on her drive home. Just yesterday she told me that she was just going to ship me another copy from Amazon because she wasn’t going to give my original one back!

I was going to post a a detailed Vacation Reads summary, but Leslie covered almost all of my titles with her June recap! (See aforementioned book swapping.) SO…I’ll keep it simple.

Still Life by Louise Penny

I’ve never claimed to be into murder mysteries, but I’m making a happy exception for this series. These plots are interesting without being icky; much more about human nature and relationships than about the grisly details of a character’s untimely demise. Still Life is book 1 and I’ve heard the series just gets better from here!

The Knockoff by Lucy Sykes and Jo Plazza

A total change of pace, this novel set in the rapidly changing world of fashion publishing is delightfully larger-than-life. Editor Imogen has paid her dues and risen to the top of her field until she is usurped by her 26-year old former assistant who returns to Glossy magazine with an MBA. Manic catfighting ensues.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple

I read this a long time ago and liked it okay, but after years of Leslie’s fangirling I decided to give it another try. She was right! I totally loved the snarky tone and the creative narrative structure.

All Good Things by Sarah Turnbull

I was excited to discover that the author of my all-time favorite memoir, Almost French, had written a follow-up companion. It’s always fun to catch up with beloved characters. But honestly, if I hadn’t already had a connection to the characters, I don’t know if this book would have captured my interest. The tone is much more melancholy (the main theme is Turnbull’s struggle with infertility and her longing for a child), and the pacing is inconsistent. For example, a description of a deep-sea dive might go on for pages, but (SPOILER!) the long-awaited baby turns one just a few pages after his birth. The strongest points of this memoir are Sarah’s struggles and successes as a foreign member of a new culture– this time in Tahiti.

 

But enough about me…what have you been reading on your summer vacation?

Morningside Heights (Cheryl Mendelson)

In a word: charming

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An artsy New York City neighborhood. A cast of characters: a husband and wife trying to maintain their standard of living as their family grows and expenses rise. Their friend, a socially awkward biologist in need of a career breakthrough. Their other friend, a successful scholar and writer worried she’s missed her chance for marriage and children. A neighborhood priest, good-intentioned but full of his own doubts.

Mostly this book just pulls back the curtain and lets you watch these people as they go about their lives. There’s a plot, of sorts, but it’s only a gentle velvet rope, nudging the meandering story along toward the inevitable happy ending.

Although this is a modern novel about liberal, urban characters, this book has an old-fashioned feel. The writing is pleasant and un-ironic, without any harshness or snark. The characters are funny and quirky, but portrayed sympathetically and gently. At the center of the story is the character Anne Braithwaite, who personifies the novel itself with her sometimes naive, but ultimately vindicated optimism.

Throughout the novel, you’ll encounter clever characterization and wry cultural commentary. This was one of my favorite paragraphs, written from the perspective of one of the many minor characters populating the novel:

Jonathan had few romantic aspirations. He only wished that in the ordinary cyclical course of things life would turn more Victorian, with the bachelorhood or spinsterhood of anyone over the age of thirty accepted as a permanent state unless or until the spinster or bachelor chose to surprise the world and take a mate. As things were, people who were unmated but middle-aged, or nearly so, were still in the game. There was no repose, no ease available to someone like him, who would always have ended up a bachelor. Women who had turned forty, as Jonathan himself had, were always looking him up and down as if he were some prime pig, trying to gauge his marital potential and hoping for an invitation to the movies, insisting that he carry the ball in some unduly prolonged version of the mating game. Dating and getting fixed up, dieting, people over fifty still sucking in their stomachs and wearing come-on clothes–it was all insanity. It had been far better when women past their twenties were simply not marriageable, and left men like him alone.

Reading plot-driven books is like hopping on a roller coaster or a race car; this is much more like people watching from a cafe table on a busy New York street.* But if you’re a reader who finds a leisurely pace appealing, grab a cup of coffee and snuggle up with this one.

(I realize that sipping coffee in a sidewalk cafe is more Paris than New York City, but work with me here. Just imagine that such an opportunity exists, complete with the ability to hear the inner thoughts of the colorful cast of characters who chance to pass by.)

Pilgrim’s Inn (Elizabeth Goudge)

In a word: Refreshing

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I didn’t love everything about this book. I’ll start with that, because I want your last thoughts of this book to be the good ones.

  1. Character-driven. This is not, in itself, a bad thing. But it does mean that no matter how much I enjoy a book while I’m reading it, I have to make myself keep picking it up to read all the way to the end–especially if I’m reading a more fast-paced book at the same time.
  2. Mystical qualities of settings and symbols. Again, this is not always a deal-breaker, but in this case it did not enhance the story for me.
  3. Precocious child characters. I’m realizing this is a pretty constant literary pet peeve of mine. And the little five year old girl, Josephine, was nicknamed Jose´, which I just couldn’t get over.

Despite these three tiny complaints (and all matters of preference, not legitimate criticism), I am glad that I read this book, and I’ll probably read the other two in the series. First of all, the writing was delightful, as you already know from the commonplace post. I actually kept a stack of sticky notes in the front cover of the book because I ended up wanting to mark a passage almost every time I picked up the book (and it was a borrowed copy, so I couldn’t make pencil marks or fold down corners!).

Other than the aforementioned precocious twins, the characters were likable and often surprisingly complex. My favorite character was Nadine, because her theme was one that is crucial in real life but that basically never shows up in books or movies: It is possible to talk back to your feelings, do the right thing even if you don’t want to, and still find happily ever after.

It seems like a truth universally acknowledged by every storyteller that once you fall in love with someone (this can happen in mere seconds), then that person has a claim to your heart that can never be revoked or overruled. It doesn’t matter if twenty years go by, if one or both of you marry other people, if you discover that the other person is actually an ogre, or if you have otherwise incompatible values and lifestyles.

It’s very important to my personal happiness that this “truth” is not actually true, and so I found Nadine’s story particularly inspiring. She was in love with someone who was not her husband. In any other story, this would have meant the end of her marriage. But, no! Nadine discovered that feelings can be reasoned with, and she turns her back on the affair, releases her lover to find happiness elsewhere, and ultimately, she finds contentment and peace in duty and faithfulness. Similarly, she thinks of herself as ill-suited to motherhood. And, yes, she does hire some good help. But she also learns to embrace her family and her home, and to find joy in living the life that she has been given.

You are not a slave to your feelings.
You are not limited by your natural temperament and weaknesses.
People can change and grow.
Joy and fulfillment can be found on the other side of duty and commitment.

These are themes worth celebrating!