Potatoes of Penitence

If God has never thrown a potato at you, well, you just aren’t praying in the right way. Of course, the right way, in this case, is a very specific wrong way. One year ago today, or so Mrs S is informed by the Facebook algorithmic powers that be, Mrs S was in a particularly foul mood. She was tired and had a sore back, and was walking home after collecting C from nursery school, pushing N in the stroller, and wondering how she was going to make it the whole mile, with a tired three year old in tow, let alone make another two mile round trip to collect R in a couple hours’ time. To make matters worse, she had no idea what she was going to cook for dinner. Many days Mrs S only perseveres with the day because she is looking forward to dinner. 

As Mrs S walked, she fumed silently. Every idea she came up with seemed perfect, except for one missing ingredient. No tomatoes, or no garlic, or no chicken stock, or, repeatedly, no potatoes. Potatoes! Ugh. She was not going to the grocery store. No way. Not today. She doesn’t even particularly like potatoes. Just a hundred yards from home Mrs S’s internal whining turned into a vulgar sort of praying. “Why, Lord?” she demanded to know, “Why the hell don’t I have any potatoes.” Only, perhaps she didn’t use so genteel or spiritual a word as ‘hell.’ Perhaps it was a bit earthier, a bit more Anglo-Saxon. Suffice it to say it was not her finest spiritual communion. It is one thing to rant and rave to oneself, and to wonder in sweary solitary reverie how to feed one’s offspring without a ready supply of starchy tubers in the larder. It is quite another to curse at the Lord as one bemoans the bareness of the pantry. 

 

The Penitential Potatoes. The small one on the top left found its mark. Things could have been much worse.

 Now, Mrs S has always suspected it was her long-suffering guardian angel who actually took aim, but whatever the mechanism of its flight there was some almighty power behind that potato. It hit her plumb on top of the head and then bounced down to rest between her feet. Mrs S’s gaze flew to the passing tractor with its trailer overflowing of fresh potatoes that was rumbling past. It hit a bump and  four more potatoes landed in front of Mrs S, three of them of menacing proportions. It is a demonstration of the mercy of God that He answered her abominable prayer without killing, or even concussing, her. It is a demonstration of His justice that she had a pounding headache for the rest of the day, and of her reformed and penitential spirit that she didn’t demand to know why the hell that was. The family had a lovely stoved meat pie filled with the leftover Sunday roast and topped with the projectile potatoes, and a great deal of amusement at Mrs S’s expense.

Mrs S remembers being taught that prayer is A.C.T.S., meaning that prayer is adoration, contrition, thanksgiving and supplication. “Lord, why the hell don’t I have any potatoes,” does not fall into any of these categories. In an attempt to form them in the faith, Mrs S has simplified the language for the little S children. There are four kinds of prayers you should say, she tells them: ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, ‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I love you’. (Incidentally, these are the four cornerstones of healthy familial relations as well.) This underlines the problem with swear-prayers. You might be tempted to think that “Why the hell don’t I have any potatoes?” is supplicatory, but good and proper supplication always starts with ‘please’, not ‘why the hell.’ In short, if you’ve been adoring properly, you’ll get the language right; if you’ve remembered the ‘I love you,’ you probably won’t start with an accusatory curse, no matter to whom you are speaking.

Each family, each domestic church, has its own special feast days, and ways of celebrating them. Some are of broader significance and some are more private affairs. Tomorrow is the feast of the Nativity of Mrs S, and she does not imagine that everyone will be marking the day with sushi and rosé as she intends to, but the S children are all stirred up because there will be presents (and for most children it is as exciting to give a gift to someone beloved as it is to receive) and cheesecake. Special days are good pedagogical tool. Religious holidays come with ready-made lessons, because that’s how the Church calendar was devised: as a microcosm of human experience in relation to God, in a single year. Each day gives us something to think on. You could even say that the Church calendar examines and celebrates the action of God in the world. That is why this year, on the anniversary of the potato pelting, Mrs S instituted a new feast in the calendar of her domestic church: the feast of the Penitential Potatoes. Afterall, seeing one’s mother hit on the head by a potato apparently flung from heaven is one of the more vivid spirtual lessons a child can have. C still remembers it, and R and N  have heard the story, and the explanation. The Feast of the Penitential Potatoes will be like a little lent the day before the great Feast of the Nativity of Mrs S.  On this day of penance they shall dine on potatoes and whatever else is available in the fridge. And if they have not the cheese, or sausages, or beans they wanted, they shall not whine and swear. They shall practice manners and gratitude. They shall be reminded of the universal call to conversion, of the need for repentance and continuing formation in virtue. 

At least, that all seemed like a good idea to Mrs S when she realised that once again on the 22nd of September she had no idea what to cook for dinner. But this time there were potatos in the pantry, and she thought it was best just to get on with cooking and not pester Heaven with the problems she created for herself through her lack of domestic virtue.

But Next Week It Will All Be Homemade, Organic, Sugarfree, Low Carb, Low Salt, Superfoods Served With a Smile

This is a tale of disintigration, both moral and culinary. Mrs S is an appalling housekeeper in most ways, but she has always prided herself on her ability to feed her family good, nutritionally-balanced food, even in difficult or chaotic circumstances of her own making, and in the face of stiff opposition to any meal that doesn’t contain sausages. But pride cometh before the fall as surely as homemade ravioli preceedeth frozen chicken nuggets. Despite the fact that each week she carefully plans menus from which to construct a shopping list, Mrs S’s mental state can accurately be guaged from what actually ends up on the table at dinner time, and indeed which table it lands on (kitchen table=functional adult; coffee table in front of the TV=send wine now). This is Mrs S’s week told through the medium of food. (And for fun, it will be linked in to Simcha Fisher’s weekly ‘What’s for Supper?‘ feature on I Need to Sit Down.)

Saturday: On which day Mrs S sort of made Kedgeree and the S children sort of ate it

 

Kedgeree-ish

 

Kedgeree, for those unfamiliar with the dish, is a mix of rice, smoked fish, the occassional vegetable, and curry flavouring, traditionally served with hard boiled eggs. It originated, Mrs S believes, in British imperial India, and was eaten for breakfast. Mrs S must have been feeling especially bullish regarding her offsprings’ yearning for culinary adventure when she planned this meal, because serving them curried rice with anything sounds lunatic in hindsight. Nevertheless, it was a greatly adapted from the original concept: she sauteed some chopped onions with mild curry powder until soft, then added some uncooked basmati rice and peas (why not?) to coat them in the curry flavouring, and tipped the lot into a cassserole dish, poured over some vegetable stock, placed some haddock fillets (unsmoked, because she is a Philistine) on top, and as a last minute imporvisation topped the fish with lemon slices and covered the whole thing with foil to bake in a medium-hot oven for about an hour. Then she hardboiled some eggs, and warmed some store-brought naan. The result was tasty, thought Mr and Mrs S. N shoved handfuls of it into her mouth (but then, she is the ‘easy’ one); C ate a decent portion (she is the adventurous one), discovering that warm naan dipped in chutney really does the business; R sulked, but was ultimately persuaded that dinner was edible, and could he have more naan please? This is a remarkable result.

Sunday: On which day Mrs S came over all domestic godessy

Mrs S had been looking forward to Sunday’s supper all week, because it was Thai Burgers. This may sound humble, but it is one of the best meals she makes. Everyone loves Thai Burger night. 

Thai Pork Burgers:

Mix by hand a pound and a half of lean ground pork, 3 Tbs Nam Pla (thai fish sauce), 2TBS dark soy sauce, two sticks of finely minced lemon grass (a couple Tbs if you can buy it ready minced), the zest and juice of one lime, a squirt of sriracha or a minced chili or two (optional: wear gloves to mix if using chilli), and a handful or two of breadcrumbs. 

Form into about six burgers and griddle or grill as desired. 

Just a note: Mrs S has discovered that doubling the meat does not require doubling the nam pla and soy sauce. Add a bit more, but don’t overdo it or the burgers will be too salty.

These deeply satisfactory burgers were served on toasted burger buns (except the itsy-bitsy tiny baby burgers Mrs S always makes for the little girls). The perfect condiment is a blend of mayo, sriracha, lime juice and sweet chilli sauce. The children prefer ketchup. Mrs S also prepared a plate of lettuce, tomato and spring onion to garnish the burgers. N ate most of the tomato and spring onion before the rest of the meal was ready. Mrs S always pretends to be aggrieved when the children pilfer fresh veg before dinner, as it seems to encourage them to do so. On the side Mrs S provided steamed broccoli and steamed zucchini, or “Girl food,” as Mr S calls it. 

 

Om nom nom

 
So far, so ordinary, really, but wait: there’s more! Following the S family making utter pigs of themselves, Mrs S brought out the real star of the show: A pear, chocolate and custard tart made with pears from the S’s back garden. Good does not begin to describe it: sublime, unctous, indulgent, and justifying all the smugness Mrs S took forward into the new week.

 

Eat your heart out, Delia Smith.

 
The truly amazing thing is that there were leftovers: Monday’s breakfast made easy. 

Monday: On which day they ate Mexican food made with child labour

“Taco night! It’s taco night! Can I chop the peppers for you, Mommy? Can I chop the tomatos for you, Mommy? Can I put the olives in a bowl? I’ll warm up the soft tacos! Can I grate the cheese? Do we have any MILD salsa?” rang through the house once the children discovered it was in fact taco night. Once it was established that, as a big girl who now goes to school all day C may use a sharp knife to cut the tomatoes, and likewise, R may use one to cut the peppers if he promises to cut AWAY from his fingers and not attempt to amputate them again, (perhaps ‘not attempt again to amputate them’ would better reflect the undire, but slightly bloody, nature of the history referenced.) the children were happy to help. There is no tragic punchline; no fingers were so much as nicked, C was declared the resident ‘tomato chpping expert,’ and Mrs S was content to stir the beef around in the pan and grate the cheese (there are limits to the sharp edges with which she trusts her children). In the end, what was served was milddly spiced beef, soft tacos, chopped tomatos, peppers, and green onion, shredded lettuce, black olives, refried beans, grated sharp (mature) cheese, sour cream, spicy salsa, and super-spicy west-indian chilli sauce (the means by which Mrs S childproofs her food). 

After dinner, as though keen to demonstrate what a superior mother Mrs S really is, the older children read their reading books, and then everybody got ready for bed with a minimum of drama.

Tuesday: On which day they hurriedly ate pasta.

Tuesday was meet-the-teacher night at the children’s school, when parents are invited along to explore the classroom and put make sure they are well-known to the teachers as valuers of education who will broke no nonsense, or something like that. This evening event runs from five to six, which puts a real wrench in the dinner schedule when one routinely puts one’s two and four year old daughters to bed at 6:30. So Mrs S made pasta with a jar of sauce, and they ate at 4:15. She provided two types of grated cheese, and a plate of sliced apples, so clearly she was still making an effort. And it was ready at quarter past four, so clearly she is a prodigy of organisation and timekeeping.

Meet the teacher night was enjoyed by all. Then it started raining as though an ark would be required, the school started to flood, and as the S family was driving home, the fire brigade was arriving to pump out the front office. 

Wednesday:  On which day Mr S had requested turkey escalopes
These woud be called turkey cutlets by many Americans. The idea is: thin slices of turkey breast, breaded, lightly fried, served with mashed potatos, carrots, peas, maybe some corn, maybe creamed spinach. 

Actually, it turned out Mrs S didn’t have any potatos, so she made rice, cooked in chicken stock, which the children refused to eat. (Philistines.) She peeled and chopped carrots, put them in the microwave, and then forgot to cook them. This turned out not really to matter, as she couldn’t remember what the four stages of breading turkey are. Milk, flour, egg, breadcrumb, she now knows (She only cooks this dish two or three times a month, whyever would it be etched in her brain?), but the children kept arguing and changing the CD she was listening to, and leaving toys right behind her to be tripped over, and she had gotten out only three plates for the necesssary ingredients, and could not recall why. (It turns out that this is because the turkey comes from the butcher’s, and is brought home in a plastic bag, into which she can just slosh a bit of milk, saving the need for a fourth plate…but life by Wednesday Mrs S was only just a functional adult, and could not be expected to remember everything). Meanwhile, C couldn’t find her reading journal for school, N wanted a snack, and R was in a mood because he wanted to watch TV, but hadn’t done his reading book yet, so couldn’t. Then Mrs S remembered to cook the carrots. Then she managed to get the girls to stop changing the music and just dance to Adele like good middle class children. Then she breaded the turkey and cooked it. Then she remembered her intention to provide more than one vegetable, and opened a tin of creamed corn (which Mr S and C both regard as quite the special treat). In the end they ate delicious turkey cutlets, slightly crunchy carrots, a bit of corn, and “not the rice we like.” And all of that wasn’t ready until 5:45, which is late for the S children, though early to the rest of the world. At 6pm, in the midst of intensive negotiations regarding vegetable consumption (“But you all LIKE carrots! No you may not have a treat! Finish your veg!”) she looked at the clock, realised it was still two hours until the Great British Bakeoff was on, and almost burst into tears, despite not usually caring whether she saw the show or not. It was all so very sad.

Bedtime was a disaster, being slightly later than normal, but eventually the children were in bed, and Mrs S made herself a coffee, spiked with amaretto. Unfortunately, she forgot that, the time being 8pm, she needed to switch to decaf, and instead of being soothed and gruntled, got the shakes.

Thursday: On which day the girls ate pasta in front of the TV

Mrs S rather overdid the caffeine on Thursday. R was having his supper at a friends’s house, and C was particularly exhausted as she neared the end of her first full week in fulltime school. So Mrs S made the girls Cheesy-Peasy Pasta and let them eat it while watching Frozen. 

Cheesy-Peasy Pasta (the easiest mac-n-cheese on the planet)

Boil some pasta. Reserve about half a cup of the water before draining. Return to pan over low heat and add a couple spoonfuls of cream cheese (soft cheese), a couple handfuls of grated cheese, and a small bowl full of cooked peas (optional; bits of ham or bacon or chicken can go in too. Or not. we’re not trying to win Michelin stars here…). Stir to melt cheese. Add the pasta water a Tbs at a time to get the right slack, creamy texture. Season with a bit of black pepper, and salt if you’re a complete nutter. At the end, if it’s on hand in the fridge, Mrs S often adds a Tbs or two of sour cream, which makes this dish wonderfully creamy. Do as you like. This is a dish for days when you can barely form coherent words, or just need the kids to be in bed 15 minutes ago, so no one will judge you on faithful adherence to recipes.

Around eight o’clock when the children were asleep, Mrs S recalled that she hadn’t actually made anything for herself and Mr S, which would explain why the latter looked decidedly grumpy. So she made more pasta and stirred in some tomato and chilli pesto (from a jar, of course). She asked Mr S if he wanted her to grate some cheese. He looked terrified and spoke not a word. So she asked again, more sharply. 

“I don’t know the right answer, and I don’t want to get in trouble!” the 6’4″ mountain of a man cried. Mrs S stomped off to grate the cheese.

Friday: On which day dinner came from the freezer.

Frozen fishcakes, frozen chips (fries), frozen peas and corn: cooked according to packet instructions, served with immoderate amounts of ketchup, in front of the TV. This required a herculean effort to accomplish. (A single thing to note in Mrs S’s defense: Fridays are called ‘Feet-Up Friday’ in the S household: they always eat in front of the TV on that day of the week. They tell the children it’s a treat, but really it’s inducement to get them to actually clean up all the kid-related mess that acccumulates in the living room during the week.)

The only addition to this compendium of convenience food was pretty little cakes from the bakery. This is becasue when Mrs S arrived to pick R and C up from school, C marched out at the front of the Reception (Kindergarten) class wearing a crown with the words “Star of the Week” emblazoned accross the front. The little girl’s grin was so large the corners of it disappeared under her crown. The teaching assistant told Mrs S how good and hardworking C had been all week. C then piped up to say “But that’s not why Mrs L [the teacher] said I was Star of the Week! We have to be good and work hard all the time, no matter what. Mrs L said I’m Star of the Week for being a kind and gentle friend!” And Mrs S figured that deserved celebratory cakes.  

Then the children were in bed, and Mrs S had showered and put on her pyjamas by the time the Rugby World Cup kicked off at 8pm. Mrs S was too tired to open any wine. Too tired for wine! Hopefully she will recover.

Take the Children to Church, No Matter What They’re Flinging

Yesterday, as on every Sunday, Mrs and Mr S took the children to mass. Church attendance is non-negotiable in the S household. Illness and misadventure are the only excuses for missing a week. Anything else can be rescheduled. This is not to say that mass with three children, aged two, four and six, is a deeply spiritual experience. Even when the children are good it’s not by chance, but through the exhausting efforts of their parents. The last time any of Mrs S’s neurons vibrated in prayer during mass was probably the second of August when she was at mass at a conference in Oxfordshire and the children were tormenting the S-in-laws in Buckinghamshire. Be that as it may, the fact remains that children do not learn to behave in church by staying at home. So the S children go to church. 

Not everyone is happy to see young children at church, and to these people Mrs S has vociferously defended parents who bring barely-civilised hoodlums into this sacred space: how else are they to show them the importance of religious practice? Parents are the first teachers of the faith, and they have an obligation to bring their children to mass. Sunday worship is not just about personal contact with God, it is a matter of justice to the Creator. In short, it doesn’t matter if you get nothing out of it (and parents should expect to get nothing out of it for at least ten years and likely longer, because they will be far too busy looking after their children). Sunday obligation is not about having good or powerful feelings: it’s about doing what is right. Of course, within certain tolerances, parents should ensure the good behaviour of their children, and, if possible, remove them if they are uncontrollably disruptive; but some wiggling, baby babble, and quiet conversations between parent and child concerning the mass should be tolerated. There should be no loud toys, no buffet of crunchy food in crinkly packets, no running naked & screaming (or even clothed & screaming) down the aisle without swift and draconian repercussions. Cuddly toys and simple books for the tiny ones are fine. Bribes are expedient. (After-mass donuts are the accepted currency in the US; in the UK biscuits/cookie seem to be the norm.) When there is a lone parent grappling with a pack of children who, having separated the doe from the herd, are circling her like irreverent, screeching and dancing wolves going for the kill — death by social humiliation — allowances have to be made, even if the wolves start howling naked in the aisle. If they’re still doing it as teenagers, then you may judge. In the meantime, if the children of others offend you during mass, offer it up. Pray for the grace of imperviousness to distraction. Stay after mass to pray in silence. Find a different mass to attend. Befriend a struggling parent and offer to help, since you are clearly an expert in such matters. Jesus knows you’re there. Be at peace.

So, to the dismay of some members of the congregation, the S children go to church. This week Mrs S was feeling smug, because none of them were howling naked in the aisles and R, now six and a half, was even following along with the readings in the mass book. 

“Cleary,” Mrs S thought, as she knelt for the consecration, “the children are so good because I am a good and worthy parent, unlike those other parents with little monsters…” 

This made the Lord chuckle, and He guided two-year-old N’s hands to a fascinating little pouch in her mother’s handbag. N took out said pouch and, tugging at the zipper, exerted rather more force than was required. The pouch flew out of her hands, and the venerable ninety-three-year-old woman kneeling one row back was pelted with a large number of brightly-wrapped tampons.  This created a dilemma: when an unsuspecting elderly parishioner has just been assaulted with feminine hygiene products, does one pretend to be deep in prayer and remain kneeling; apologise, even during this most sacred part of the liturgy; or scramble around the pew to tidy up? Fortunately, four-year-old C took the initiative and returned the items to Mrs S’s bag. 

N, who it must be said is a child possessed of a quiet dignity but a carrying voice, waited for a pause in the words of institution and then said sombrely to the victim of the flying tampons: “I sorry. Those for Mommy’s bottom.”

Mrs S considered that perhaps she had been hasty in her insistence that parents of young children should not expect to get anything out of the Sunday church. It appears there is always soul-enriching humiliation on offer. Embrace it, parents! For the sake of your children’s souls, embrace it!

No Cause for Alarm

As she writes this, Mrs S’s nerves are raw, strained and jangled. If you would like to gain some insight into her state, you could try turning on an alarm clock, or, better yet, six of them, and just letting them beep, on full volume, the whole time you read this post. Make sure you have your windows open so that the neighbors can join you, involuntarily, in this exercise.

On Sunday morning the S family was woken by the muffled, but nonetheless piercing, sound of a house alarm. It went on for a few minutes, then stopped, then started again a while later, and repeated at random intervals as they dressed and prepared to go to Mass. Of course, thanks to the thick walls of their early Edwardian house, and the fact that the alarm was sounding outside, the S family was unaware that it was their own house alarm, and were collectively wondering what was wrong with the neighbors to just let the nuisance continue like that. It had gone quiet by the time they left for church. Apparently that silence didn’t last. When they returned after Mass and discovered that it was in fact the alarm on their own house that was disturbing the neighborhood they were doubly surprised: first because of the catastrophic failure of their powers of observation; and second because the noisome speaker was from an old system that they believed to have been disconnected when the house was remodelled and the system updated almost five years earlier. Never mind that no one had turned the alarm on, that there had been no break-in, and there were no sensors remaining to be triggered by spiders and the like, snipped into its constituent parts, as they believed it had been, how on earth was the blooming thing going off at all? 

And how were they going to turn it off? They had to get it turned off before the neighbors arrived en masse with torches and pitchforks. Ah-ha! Cut the power. Mr S went to the fuse box and switched off the electricity. Perhaps they should have mentioned to the children, who they had parked in front of the TV, that they were about to do this. But they didn’t.  The TV went off. The kids went off on one. The alarm continued to go off. Clearly it is a zombie alarm, Mrs S thought. Clearly it is wired directly into the mains, Mr S stated. 

Climb up and pull it off the wall, Mrs S suggested. Mr S said it was too high: two stories up. Their ladder would only reach one. Mrs S put an urgent request for a tall ladder to her local facebook friends. There was no immediate response. She went next door to ask to borrow a ladder, if one was available. No one was home. Well, at least those neighbors wouldn’t be braying for blood.

The code. What was the code? WHERE was the code? It was on a piece of paper…somewhere. Who keeps a code for a disconnected alarm system? Well, maybe it was in with the instructions. Who keeps the instructions to an old alarm system? 

Fortunately, Mr S does.

 It took a while to find them. It took longer to find anything helpful in them, but Mr and Mrs S did locate a handwritten set of instructions from the previous owner entitled ‘If the alarm goes off.’ Sadly, that was the only line that was easily decipherable amongst the crossed out and rewritten chicken scratches. However, they cobbled together what appeared to be the procedure, and the code, and went upstairs to try it. No luck. None. Then the phone rang and Mr S was reminded of an appointment he had, and was now late for. So he left.

Mrs S was now alone in a situation that consisted of no fewer than five elements she usually refuses, on principle, to deal with:

  1. Loud, unmelodious noises
  2. Technological elements more complex than a lever or inclined plane
  3. Children insistently spouting advice concerning problems of which they have no knowledge and several incorrect opinions
  4. Situations that appear to defy the laws of physics and the most basic principle of cause and effect
  5. A high liklihood of being lynched by the neighbors 

She spent several minutes typing in possible variations of what appeared to be written in the instructions. Once or twice the alarm seemed to respond, but then it would display the message BATT FLT and resume blaring. Mrs S called Mr S to say, triumphantly, she thought it was a problem with the battery. Mr S said he knew that. Mrs S demanded to know why he hadn’t told her, and was he going to pick up a new battery on the way home. Mr S said he thought he had told her and that the battery was not of the kind readily purchased from the grocery store on a Sunday afternoon, and he really did need to go. Mrs S went back to pushing buttons with vengeful fingers.

Then N announced that she needed a new nappy (diaper), which seemed a good excuse to just give up. While Mrs S was changing the child downstairs in the living room, a police officer peered in the side window. Mrs S waved him to the front door, and then went out to see him, preparing her defense against the inevitable noise complaints. 

“We are TRYING to shut it down! It’s malfunctioning!” she led with. 

As it turned out, two officers passing on patrol had heard the noise (as if it could be avoided) and were just making sure that everything was OK. “Can’t you see it’s not!” Mrs S wanted to wail, but didn’t, for she knew that “everything is fine” was shorthand for “I’m not being held at knifepoint whilst my home is ransacked,” which was the information the strong, adventurous and unsettlingly handsome young officers were really after. The officers suggested turning off the power. They suggested calling the alarm company. They found it amusing that the alarm had not been under contract in six and a half years, and had in fact been disconnected five years ago, and was still screaming away in paranoia. “Check the battery connections,” was their parting suggestion. Mrs S wanted to fling herself at their feet and beg them not to leave. They didn’t seem able to fix the problem, but they added a certain aesthetic value to proceedings that she had not thought the Hertfordshire constabulary had to offer. Her sense of dignity prevailed. Off they went to finish their patrol.

Mrs S went upstairs to do battle with the battery. As she was trying to wiggle her finger down one side to check that the wires connecting the twelve-volt brick were secure, giving no thought to the risk of electrocution because at that point it might have brought welcome relief, the battery was suddenly dislodged, slid down the case with a thump, and the alarm stopped mid-whoop. Victory! After twenty minutes of silence (disturbed only by vivid descriptions from R of the headache he had had all day) Mrs S called Mr S to gloat. He was pleased, but not as impressed as she would have wished.

All was well for the next four hours until, in an uncharacteristically timely attempt to right the chaos created by getting to the alarm box and accessing the  battery, Mrs S decided to screw the cover back on the box while the children got ready for bed. Thirty seconds later the alarm went off again. The children went nuts, Mrs S burst into tears, or at least wanted to, and Mr S went to pry the cover off again. The doorbell rang and Mr S ran downstairs to apologise to whatever neighbor it was. Mrs S knocked the battery about and pressed a few numbers.

Then everything changed. The alarm continued to sound, but Mr S came upstairs with news, not of impending police action or threats of violence, but of charity. The next door neighbors had rushed over to make sure everyone was alright. They were not angry. They offered to take the children next door so Mr and Mrs S could attend fully to the problem. As Mr S described the conversation the alarm stopped of its own accord. Mr S took the cover out of the room so that no one could be tempted to put it back on (and, Mrs S thought, so that the zombie alarm would not catch sight of it and start panicking again). Mrs S finished putting the children to bed and Mr S went next door to thank the neighbors for their concern and reassure them that the situation seemed to be resolved. He returned with one more kind offer: 

“They said if it goes off in the middle of the night and the children can’t sleep that we should all come next door and sleep at theirs, even if it’s three in the morning, and that they will be upset if we don’t take them up on that,” he reported. 

He also said that the neighbors recommended total destruction of the speaker — by hammer or any available means — as soon as a tall ladder could be procured. Mrs S vowed to bake them a cake. It is so pleasant to discover that one’s neighbors are more charitable than one is disposed to be onseself.

Such was the saga of the zombie alarm. If you thought it was lengthy to read, try it in real time. (You may turn off your alarm clocks now, by the way. Isn’t that better?) It is always unfortunate when such pointless problems consume a great deal of our time, and leave us too jangled to cope with more important matters, and suffering from tinnitus to boot. It’s not the same as real and urgent suffering, but it certainly prevented Mrs S from accomplishing anything worthy that day. And this general trend of time-consuming triviality continued. But there is not time now to describe why, on Monday morning, Mr and Mrs S were obliged to disassemble the refrigerator. Suffice it to say that it (eventually) ended well, that Mr S derives profound satisfaction from voiding manufacturers’ warranties, and that Mrs S might have coped better without the previous day’s drama. 

Still, once a tall ladder is procured, it’s going to be terrific fun to bludgeon the inexplicable life out of the zombie alarm speaker.

In the Name of These Refugees

“Take the child and his mother and flee.”  –Matthew 2:13

When Mrs S was a child, her mother did a great deal of volunteer work teaching English to Russian and Ethiopian refugees. These people were forced to leave their homelands for fear of political or religious persecution, or were displaced due to war and famine. Some of them escaped with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, and when they arrived in the United States were initially wholly dependant ont he compassion of strangers for survival. Theirs was not a planned and careful emigration, prepared for with language lessons, realestate purchase and job interviews. They left in fear, furtive and hurried, and carried with them worries for loved ones left behind heavier than any worldly goods abandoned in flight. Mrs S didn’t know what all their stories were, but she does remember how difficult it all appeared to be: arriving in a country where you couldn’t speak the language, and few spoke yours, where you had no money, no status, and many people thought you were an intruder. And yet they seemed so glad to have these hardships over the ones they had left behind, that one knew immediately what they had run away from must have been very bad indeed.

To this clear and persuasive example of charity and mercy, Mrs S’s mother added this formative image. Though the poster was tucked away in a corner of the home library, it made an impact on Mrs S such that she cannot hear of a new tragedy afflicting refugees without it springing instantly to mind:

  
Be not deceived that this image of Mary, Joseph and the Christ child fleeing to Egypt to escape the murderous jealousy of Herod speaks only to Christians. Admittedly, it speaks most clearly and accessibly to Christians in the manner of a short sharp clip upside the head: “Your Lord and Saviour was himself a refugee. When you fail them you fail Him.” But behind the religious maxim is a principle that ought rightly to be at the heart of western democratic Liberalism: the universality of humanity. Hardship and suffering do not strip away the essential human dignity of any person. 

The BBC is stubbornly sticking to the allegedly neutral term “migrants” to describe those fleeing from Syria and elsewhere in that part of the world. (They explain why here.) How ridiculous: as though these desperate, displaced and war-ravaged people are casually strolling into non-native lands by preference. When thousands upon thousands of people flee with nothing but what they can carry and show up at a foreign border, en masse, they are not just merely migrants. When they are willing to risk not only their bold young men, but their elderly, their women, their children, and their babes in arms, to leave their homes, to climb onto a boat that is little more than a raft, you can be sure that it is only because this fearful journey is less terrifying than what they are leaving behind. When people are fleeing an evil greater than all the perils of escape, they are not ‘migrants.’ They are refugees.

There are times when Mrs S feels called to polemic, and this is one of them. The so-called ‘migrant crisis’ is suddenly getting a lot of press, probably because Syrians are not just suffering at home: they are drowning in the Mediterranean, right on the doorstep of the Western first world. (Though more drowned in April than in August, so the timing is still odd.) They are dying in the trucks whose drivers were bribed to smuggle them across Europe. They are living in tents on the streets of Greece — Greece! where we were all directing our pity so few months ago. And all of this to avoid being slaughtered in their homeland. But the situation in Syria and the broader Middle East  and north Africa is neither new, nor unforseen. And for every poor soul who escapes, many more suffer violence, persecution, acute deprivation, and death in their native land. For any rich Western government to be caught unprepared, when there has been ample time to take action to avert this humanitarian crisis, or, failing that, prepare to do what is necessary cope with it, is indefensible. For those fleeing from terror and atrocity to arrive and find their place of refuge unready is inexcusable. For them to arrive and find the borders closed is criminal. It is certainly hard to know how to house and care for large refugee population, both in the short and the long term, but unfortunately they do not have the luxery of time to wait for us to figure it out. However reluctant, unprepared or unequal we feel when faced with this necessary act of mercy, now is not the time for political posturing and hand-wringing. Whatever economic or practical concerns arise, they are trivial in comparison to the plight of displaced peoples. It is not a question of resources, for Europe has the money, but of willing. We just have to take them in. There is no moral way around it.

Mrs S has written and rewritten an uncharitable rant about westerners who are not willing to share from out of their vast resources, who place finances and convenience before the moral demands of humanity. But the fact is a large number of Westerners are concerned — more than concerned — about the plight of refugees. There are prolific efforts to raise awareness and form the consciences of those who still lack passion for the welfare of their afflicted brethern. Some of these come in the form of highly sensational, and hugely distressing, images of brutalised, maimed and even drowned children. Mrs S spent rather a long time trying to figure out why she was upset by this tactic. She thinks of herself as a realist, meaning that she does not imagine that facts wait upon her pleasure or approval. Photographs of this kind are deeply upsetting, but they are a vivid depiction of the nature of the evil that is stalking so many of the most vulnerable. But do images like this form a conscience to fight evil and eagerly safeguard its victims? Mrs S is concerned that the more natural response is to recoil, first from the image and then from the atrocity itself, to turn away and refuse to see what cannot be born. Those sharing the image want to ignite the moral fervour of those who disparage the “migrants” and wonder why those troublesome people don’t just stay where they are. The pictures offer a forceful proof of harm. The message of the picture is “Without our compassion more children will die like this.” But someone seeing such a picture, perhaps caught unawares (Mrs S certainly was, several times, on Facebook), may instead be brought to despair that this child had not been saved. Conscience, instead of being nurtured, is paralysed, seeking refuge in willful ignorance or desensitisation. Better, if possible, to form conscience through diligent example, tireless witness, and, bluntly, making a nuisance of oneself to show that the truth and the urgency of this crisis are more than passing media fads. 

So, what witness should this be? Well, if you are reading this you clearly have internet access, and a very little time with a select few search terms will uncover reputable organisations dedicated to helping refugees and the afflicted. For many, donating to these causes is the most effective way to help, so long as it is not viewed as buying insurance against future obligations. But Mrs S thinks the simplest and best council is to be guided by the works of mercy ennumberated by the Church (and, Catholic or not, it is hard to argue with this list). There are seven corporal works of mercy, which care for the body: 

feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, tend the sick, visit the imprisoned, bury the dead

and seven spiritual works of mercy, which care for the soul: 

admonish the sinner, instruct the ignorant, council the doubtful, comfort the sorrowful, bear wrongs patiently, forgive all injuries, pray for the living and the dead. 

For those who want a simple rubric for virtue, there is no truer guide. In everyday life, do these things. When you encounter great need, do these things. Wheresoever you go, do these things. In the name of these refugees, do these things.