Book Review

New Biography of Michael O’Brien and Some Novelties of Summer

If you’ve ever read any of Michael O’Brien’s books, chances are you’ve wondered, just who in the blazes is this man who writes so well?  As soon as I discovered that his biography, On the Edge of Infinity, was for sale, I bought it and was not disappointed.

I couldn’t put it down.

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You need this book written by Clemens Cavallin.

Not only do I consider Michael O’Brien the greatest Catholic novelist since J.R.R. Tolkien, but I also wonder about this man’s sainthood.  He’s got an amazing conversion story, going from such things as Ouija boards and seances to being attacked by malevolent spirits and spontaneously reciting Psalm 23.

This book is not boring.  And the neat thing is, as one suspects from reading O’Brien’s fiction, many of his stories come straight from his own life.  For example, has anyone ever read O’Brien’s A Cry of Stone?  This book features the story of Tchibi, a boy who experiences abuse from his headmaster at his private school.  O’Brien modeled this boy on his own experience of abuse at Grollier Hall in Canada.  It’s excruciating to read.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Back to On the Edge of Infinity.  Clemens Cavallin begins this biography of Michael O’Brien (born in 1948) with stories from Michael’s parents and grandparents.  Then Cavallin moves into detailing O’Brien’s childhood in the Canadian arctic and then chronicles the turbulent years following the Second Vatican Council wherein suddenly altars were stripped and destroyed, statues of saints disappeared, and families were discouraged from praying the rosary.  O’Brien’s family was deeply affected by these radical changes.

Naturally the book goes on to relate Michael’s conversion, his meeting of Sheila, their marriage, and his momentous decision in 1976 to devote himself wholly to God and to art – specifically icon painting.  (Writing fiction would come later.)

Probably what fascinated me the most in reading Cavallin’s biography, however, was Michael and his wife Sheila’s utter trust in God, to the point of downright poverty.  Seriously, at one point, Michael and his eldest son had to push the wheelbarrow to the local convent, because they didn’t have a working vehicle, to get the leftover vegetables from the sisters, just to eat for the week.

The other thing that I greatly appreciated about this book was its focus on art and beauty.  I’ll never get tired of this subject, because in our culture it is of extreme importance that we get it.  Art ought to be beautiful because it’s a reflection of the Divine.  Beauty matters!

Finally, if any of you have children and homeschool them, you will probably enjoy hearing about the trials and experiences of the O’Brien family.  Michael and Sheila homeschooled their 6 children.  And it wasn’t easy.

The Novelties of Summer

  1. I hope you’re all enjoying summer.  We are.  Normally the children start a little Summer School by now, but we haven’t yet.  For we’ve had this to contend with:
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This is our backyard.  We’re in the process of planting grass, trees, bushes, and a garden.  Oh, the work!

2.  We have had time for ice cream, however.

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3.  And we did just recently make a little pilgrimage to a beautiful rural church in Strasburg, North Dakota, named Sts. Peter and Paul.

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Here are the children on the front steps.

Even though this church is in the middle of nowhere, people still go to see it.  Why?  Because beauty is attractive.  The following is what one sees when walking in.  I apologize for the lack of lighting.  We didn’t know how to turn all the lights on.

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Check out those sweet confessionals flanking the sanctuary.

Of course you can see the high altar behind that newly inserted wooden table altar from the 1970s.  Here’s a closer look of both altars:

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And an even closer look of the high altar:

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Just look at that detail.

Question of the day:  Which altar speaks to the greatness of God?

 

Homeschooling

The Homeschool Room

In our old home, we didn’t have a homeschool room.  Rather, I was very creative about where I placed our homeschool materials–on shelves in the living room, in kitchen cabinets, or in bedroom closets…anywhere.

And the children worked just about anywhere too.  In fact, we even had a card table set up in the basement storage room where The Eldest preferred to do her math, as it was a quiet spot.  One does get creative with limited amounts of space.

Thankfully, however, our current home has 5 bedrooms: one for my husband and me, one for the baby, one for the 3 girls, one for the 3 boys, and one for homeschooling.  Deo Gratias.

The Homeschool Room

Now, we’re trying to educate our children classically.  Just what does that mean?  If you’ve got twenty minutes, I strongly encourage you to listen to Andrew Kern’s podcast, The Top 5 Ideals That Any Classical School Should Employ.  It’s awesome.  And I mean, awesome, as in awe-inspiring.

But…

How does that relate to my homeschool room?

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In order to educate all these children, I need a space that is neat, simple, and beautiful, if possible.

Neat?  Most days.  Although it does happen that the boys will take out their circuits and leave them all over the room, and the Two-Year-Old will decide to shred an entire notebook to pieces.

Simple?  Sigh.  I operate a school.  Therefore, I must have some supplies, but these need not be in overabundance.  For example, do I really need those nifty magnetic shapes that everybody else has?  Nope.  (Although I secretly think they’re the coolest thing ever.)  Or how about a bucket full of markers?  Definitely not.

The third one?  Beauty?  I’m always harping on beauty, because it matters!  After all, Ratzinger once said, it’s martyrs and the arts that will evangelize the world, not all your committees and words.  Shoot, I came back into the Church through studying Church architecture, painting, and sculpture.*  One can only stare at Brunelleschi, Fra Angelico, and Wislawa Kwiatkowska for so long until one begins to ask questions.

In any case, today I’ll show you what works for us.

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In our homeschool room, you’ll see a table and chairs, where The Eldest prefers to do her school work because she can shut the door.  The other children like to carry their work out to the kitchen to be near me.

On the walls in here you’ll see a picture of B16 (our affectionate name for Pope Benedict XVI), two maps, a history timeline, the alphabet, and numbers.  These are all practical things, but I’ve also tried to place them proportionally on the walls.  (Proportion is so important that St. Thomas Aquinas names it as one of the three elements of beauty.)

The other side of the room features our computer work space and bookshelves.

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These are mostly our school history, science, and religion books.  Our other literature books are in a different room.

Lastly, we have the closet, which is a blessing.  No longer must I run from room-to-room in order to gather my daily supplies.  They’re all just here.

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And here’s a look at the inside of both sides:

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This side features the children’s completed work trays, cubbies, my answer keys on one of the upper shelves, and a few games on top.
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This side has the children’s puzzles with DVDs on the top shelf and a few art supplies on the lower shelf.

In a previous post I went into detail about educational supplies or “toys” HERE.

And that, my friends, completes the tour of our Homeschool Room.  But I’ll leave you with three things that I’m continually working on:

  1. It’s better to have less.
  2. How I organize my space matters, because beauty matters.
  3. And, less is really better.  (Except for books.)
*This is why ugly churches and bad art are a sin.  They convert no one.
Christ-Like Minimalism, Kim's Kitchen

Christ-Like Minimalism: The Kitchen

Today I’ll continue the minimalist discussion with a look at my kitchen.

Disclaimer (Again)

I’ll say it again, always be careful about comparing yourself to other families.  We are all different and are called to different stations in life.  No two families will look alike!  I am only offering one way that works for us.  Maybe an idea or two will stick out for you in the following.

My Kitchen

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So here we go.  The above is my kitchen, which you can see is one big room with the dining room to the east and the living room to the north.  (You can’t see the living room, as I’m standing in it to take the photo.)

I probably don’t need to say that our kitchen is used for preparing food, (I do have 7 perpetually hungry children and 1 husband who is grateful to eat anything) and the dining room is for eating in.  Except that I feel that I do have to mention it.  Not all families cook and eat together.  We do.  So this space is important.

A Note on Beauty

Beauty matters.  Beauty is objective, and it affects us.  I learned this in grad school, studying art and reading what St. Thomas Aquinas and others had to say about it.  But really, I didn’t need to study those great thinkers to know that I am influenced by my surroundings.  Walking into a clean and simple room has a calming, peaceful effect on me.  Walking into a dirty and chaotic room will instantly overwhelm me.

Since I am at home all day, with 7 loud children, I find it very important to live as neatly and simply as possible.  And if I can, I add a touch of beauty.  Maybe it’s a candle; maybe it’s a few flowers for the table.  Wild flowers are readily available where I live in the warmer months, and during the rest of the 10 months of the year, my husband can pick them up from a florist very cheaply, if they’re bought by the stem.  (It’s only arrangements that are expensive.)

I’ll say it again, beauty matters, especially in our culture of throw-away, plastic ugliness.  We are not utilitarian communists after all.  We are Catholics.  Do you suppose Jesus ever picked a bouquet of wildflowers for his mother?  I’ll bet he did.

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Tulips by the stem.  $12.83.  Always worth it, even if they only live for 5 days.

Back to the Kitchen

So in the kitchen, I’ll point out 3 things I try to do.

  1. I try to put very little on the countertops.  In the above photo, you’ll notice that only the items that get used daily get a place there.  This is for both practical and aesthetic reasons, for it allows for more space to cook, and it makes the space seem cleaner and bigger.
  2. Everything in the kitchen has a place.  If it doesn’t have a place, then it doesn’t belong.  And I try to put things in a logical spot.  For example, since my husband and I drink a bottle or so of wine per week, these items need to be easily accessible.  (See the photo below.)  Of course if wine isn’t your thing, then get rid of all those wine glasses taking up space!
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I realize that to some of you, this may seem ridiculous that we own all these wine glasses, but trust me, we use them.*

And lastly, #3.  If I haven’t used something in a year, then I get rid of it.  I’ll highlight that for you again.

If you haven’t used it in a year, get rid of it!

Seriously, if you haven’t used that egg separator in over a year, get rid of it.  If you’ve never used that brand new juicer, get rid of it.  If you have two ice cream scoops, get rid of one.  For that matter, how many large, cooking spoons do you have?  Or when’s the last time you used all those cook books crammed in your cabinet?  Or how about those 52 water bottles?

It’s freeing, living with less.  And who knows?  Maybe someone will be overjoyed at finding your mini-muffin tins and champagne flutes at the secondhand store.

Parting Notes

Lastly, I’ll point out a few other practical things that I do in my kitchen.

Here’s a shot of the island.

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Like the countertops, I keep this as clear as possible too, so that it is a space that can be used throughout the day.  Children will do homework here, work on a puzzle, or just sit and watch me chop vegetables.

The other notable thing about the island is that I put all the plates, cups, and bowls in the lower righthand cabinet.  I did this so that the little children need not climb the cabinets to set the table.

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Every day plates and bowls on the bottom shelf, and cups on the top shelf.

The other thing I’ll point out is a shelf by the dining room table.  (See photo below.)

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Note:  Everything has a place.

We keep our laptop here, so that we can listen to audio books during lunch.  (The speakers are on the middle shelf.)  My husband I also enjoy listening to jazz music in the evenings too, so it’s nice to have it readily available.

Next to the laptop are our prayer books for meal times.  This includes the Magnificat for the Mass readings and Butler’s Lives of the Saints.  I also keep the children’s current poetry there too, since we review them at breakfast.

And next to the speakers, you’ll notice a white basket.  This is where we keep our cloth napkins during the day.  After supper, Child #5 empties it into the laundry.

That’s all for today.  If you have any questions, be sure to ask in the Comments Section below.  Others may have the same question!  Or if you have any great ideas to live more simply in the kitchen, post them for us to see.

 

*Two notes here.  1.  We enjoy drinking wine out of proper wine glasses.  Hence all the different stemware.  2.  Did you notice all the glass bowls?  It also may seem ridiculous that I own that many.  And I agree with you.  I think I’ll give away one or two.  But I’ll also have you know that I’ve made progress in this department.  I used to own about 25 beautiful glass bowls.  Not kidding.  People were very generous to us at our wedding.