Late last week, a shipment of books arrived in the mail.
Is there anything better than when a shipment of books arrives in the mail?
See I’m on a frenzied mission to stock (or restock, or continue stocking I suppose) our home with good books–when we quit homeschooling three years ago and sent our children to nearby charter and public schools, I pretty much stopped shopping for children’s books. Yes, that sounds sad. But we already had quite a number of them, anyway, and my kids were no longer around during the day to read. (That also sounds sad.) We had switched gears and so, apparently, I stopped buying books.
Then a couple of weeks ago, I picked up a copy of Jim Trealease’s The Read Aloud Handbook. If you have kids at home and do not own this book, get thee to a bookstore and buy it. Jim offers GREAT, backed-up-by-research insights into education and literacy, along with a descriptive (and large!) booklist with summaries and age recommendations at the end. As a formerly-homeschooling mother (I had kids learning at home for five years), I actually had this book sitting on my shelf for years, but had regretfully never read it. Some of his ideas which, again, are supported by both anecdotal evidence and legitimate studies, run contrary to what I had always assumed about reading. It would have been helpful back in our homeschooling days to have this information. Oops.
The whole reason I finally pulled the book off my shelf and opened it up was that now, with three kids in middle school (and three years into our public school journey), I find myself a little concerned about a few things. Namely, one of my middle schoolers doesn’t like to read (he says it’s boring, which sends unbearable and stabbing pains through my book-loving heart), and I feel like two of the three perhaps aren’t reading enough. One of my kids said she wished we owned more saint biographies.
Enter the aforementioned shipment of books. Fill the shelves with all the books!
I have big plans, by the way, to give some as gifts for Saint Nicholas’ feast day–which yes I do plan to implement and celebrate in our home this year, FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER. (I’ve been Catholic for five years. Clearly, I’m a late adopter. Mea culpa.) The books will of course be in addition to the chocolate coins that I will somewhat-reluctantly place in the kids’ stinky shoes, as I hold my nose. Then some of the books are for Christmas gifts. They (both chapter books and picture books) are primarily about various saints, but there are also some great fiction titles thrown in there as well, like Raymond Arroyo’s first Will Wilder volume, which looks positively delightful. My sons (even the one who, sniff, doesn’t like to read) will love it, I think!
But anyway, imagine my surprise and frustration when I tore open the package (again, is anything better than receiving a big ol’ pile of books in the mail?), and instead of the St. Ignatius biography I’d selected for my twelve-year-old daughter, was a copy of The Fault In Our Stars.
Can you hear the sad trombone?
Now I know–I know–this was a really popular read. I read it myself, in fact, on a flight to Rome last year. Certainly it was gripping and compelling and, well, a page-turner. I realize I’m treading on thin ice here because it was beloved by so many, and for all I know you thought it, and the movie that followed, were the bees’ knees. And yes, knowing the general gist ahead of time, I certainly expected a bittersweet love story as I munched on my mini-bag of mini-pretzels, begged God to keep our plane in the air as I always do, and dove in. Yet I have to be honest and say that when it was over and done with, I found it overall to be, well, downright depressing. (Good thing I had gelato and cappuccinos and Pope Francis to look forward to when I disembarked the plane!) The whole “there’s nothing after you die” and “this is all there is” mentality that permeated the story was, in my mind, decidedly and dreadfully nihilistic. Particularly when you consider that the characters are all teenagers. The idea that there was nothing remotely redemptive to be found in suffering was kind of a drag. And as we touched down in the eternal city, I ranted to my husband about all of the already-prone-to-being-angsty-because-hormones young people reading this stuff, and about how steeping oneself in literature marked by this worldview, without the knowledge or capability of discerning a better way, might negatively contribute to the collective state of that age group.
No doubt he, too, developed a desperate and urgent need for gelato, on account of my rant. Sorry dear.
Sure, it’s always possible that I overthought the whole matter. I do that sometimes, being an introvert and whatnot. But the novel left me with a very yucky feeling, and I felt that it had given me a window into how much of the world (particularly young people) currently thinks. It made me more resolved in my mission to raise my own children with a Christian worldview marked by hope, faith, and truth.
Incidentally, my daughter had asked me earlier in the year if she might read the book herself, as it was on her teacher’s bookshelf. I was glad that I had gone with my instinct and said no.
But now, sitting among the stacks of beautiful Tomie DePaola stories, I unfortunately own it (again–I’d donated my original copy back to the thrift store, from whence it came in the first place, shortly after we returned home from our trip). And not only that, but in lieu of a book about a Spanish priest who founded the Society of Jesus in the sixteenth century. Sigh.
Maybe this is utterly crazy, but the whole mix-up really felt to me like some sort of metaphor for raising my kids, in general. We Catholic moms have all these things we want to pass on to our children: virtues, joy, morals, peace, faith, knowledge, an appreciation for beauty. We long to instill a love for Jesus in their hearts, to cultivate a relationship between them and God, to show them how very much God loves them and wants the best for them. But there are so many other things (so.many.things.) competing for their affections and attention. This is true, by the way, regardless where you live, how you spend your time, or what type of school your kids attend. (Really. I promise.) You want to subject your children to the right things so that they’ll choose the right things and, ultimately, be happy, but there is other stuff out there subtly undermining all of that. That’s just the way it is.
I think it was Plato who said the purpose of education was to teach people to recognize beauty, or something similar. I could be getting it wrong. But anyway, I just feel lately like I’ve been renewed in my mission to do this very thing. I’ve been reminded that, hey, most of the people in my state think that suicide should be legal! and endorsed! by doctors. I’ve seen the hate and anger spewed at Christians all over my Facebook feed, when the election didn’t turn out the way that some hoped it would. On a pretty much daily basis I see and hear so much about the dangers of the internet and the ever-coarsening culture, be they pornography, bullying, or even just gossip that hurts feelings and wastes time. My children aren’t immune to being affected by any of this stuff, even in spite of the fact that they are generally screen-free at home (other than for homework.) It’s my job to help them navigate and learn to discern, but I can’t live for them or hold their hand every waking minute of every single day.
So, we press on. I won’t waste these precious years worrying myself to death, partly because I’m too busy trying to give my kids the tools to build a good, healthy worldview. I am also busy changing diapers. (Yet another side-benefit of babies–they distract you from becoming too hyper-focused on other scary things. So I may be tired, but I am also convinced that I’m winning.) What those tools are…well…that’s the rub. That’s the tough part, and what I’m always trying to figure out. For now the biggest and perhaps most crucial thing we have going for us (aside from prayer!), that we are always and forever working to maintain, is just this ongoing conversation between us and the kids. We do A Lot Of Talking in our home. Questions, discussion, processing, noodling. Sometimes it’s “I felt sad/frustrated/happy at school today because”, other times it’s “Mom and Dad, is Limbo real?” No matter what, there is ever-present communication happening in my living room, kitchen, and bedroom (also the bathroom, though that is NOT my preference). It occasionally hurts my brain and/or heart, but regardless, always remains a great privilege as a mother.
I get to see, really see, what my kids are thinking, hear their concerns, celebrate with them in their joys. When a 7th grader is elated when her poster on prepositions isn’t handed back, because the teacher wants to display it on the wall, or when a 4th grader is sad about sitting on the buddy bench alone at recess, or when a 1st grader has a silly story about a joke she told in the lunchroom, I am there. Listening, giving feedback, listening some more. (By the way, my favorite joke that my 1st grader tells, that I believe she came up with all on her own sometime around Halloween is, “What do you call two witches at the mall?” There is a pause until you ask her. Then she responds with, “Get out of the mall!” She tells me that the lunchroom supervisor once told them no more jokes, because the jokes weren’t that funny, and they weren’t real jokes. I highly disagree. Because “Get out of the mall”? Best. punchline.ever.)
Other things we try to do around here is to involve our family in parish activities (Little Flowers and serving in the sacristy for girls, altar serving for boys, religious ed and youth group, all in addition to attending Mass and potlucks and such all together as a family), offer guidance while also getting the child to really think through things, and provide background information behind rules/decisions when and where appropriate. That last one has become increasingly necessary as some of our kids are getting older. And more naturally, um, analytical.
Did I mention there’s a lot of talking in our home?
And, of course, there is pointing our children to the beautiful and the True.
As mothers, we have such an opportunity here to love, shape, and guide these kids. I feel like I’m deep in the trenches, doing my best and praying hard that God not only helps me do all this super tough stuff, but also that He will fill any of the gaps. Which there surely will be, because I am human. I make mistakes. We all do.
And though it’s hard, grueling work in the trenches, I know that a bunch of you folks are here praying, toiling, laughing, and crying right alongside me. Trying to convince your own reluctant readers that books are pleasurable, helping kids learn to make good choices, and taking a break from doing the dishes to apply copious amounts of diaper rash cream to a screaming, fussy baby. This vocation to marriage, and subsequently, for many of us, motherhood, is no small matter. But it is also wrought with fulfillment, carries a great capacity for joy, and might actually just draw us closer in to the very heart of Jesus. Our kids need us, in the very best possible way. And unlike what popular young adult fiction novels read en route to Europe might have you believe, there is so much more to life than merely being free of pain or responsibility or a serious illness. There is beauty and hope and love, even in suffering.
Which is something I’m pretty sure someone like Saint Ignatius would say. But then again I’m not totally sure. Because, you know, I got a different book instead.