Posted in What I'm Learning, Work & Life

Building a Non-Narrative Reading Habit

A year or so ago, a friend of mine asked a question on Facebook about establishing a non-fiction reading habit. As I pondered her question I was, first and foremost, encouraged by her admission. She’s one of those people I rank very high on the “smart preacher’s wife” list—but here she was struggling with non-narrative reading just like I always have! I’d always felt “less-than” on the intelligence scale because of my struggle with non-fiction. It was encouraging to see that even smart people sometimes struggle with non-fiction.

Secondly, her question opened my eyes to the fact that I have actually achieved a long-desired turning point in my own reading habit. I have gone from struggling greatly with non-narrative reading to establishing a needed habit of it to truly enjoying it! For the first time in my life, I look with excitement on my growing list of non-fiction titles instead of feeling overwhelmed. How exactly did I get there?

More Than Fiction vs. Non-Fiction: Starting with My Strengths

Fiction lovers often talk about preferring our novels over our non-fiction. But there are more distinctions than simply fiction and non-fiction. It’s not so much that I prefer fiction. It’s that I prefer story. I love Corrie Ten Boom’s The Hiding Place just as much as From Dust and Ashes by Tricia Goyer, my long-time favorite World War II novel. One is non-fiction, the other fiction created from memories of men who lived it. But both are stories. Narratives that bring history to life.

Recognizing that reality helped me take my preference and pick out non-fiction authors who paint word pictures. Even if they don’t tell stories in purely narrative form the same way The Hiding Place does, they do bring words to life, turning them into images that explode in my visual mind, helping me grasp abstract concepts.

The biggest challenge was that the recommended “greats” of Christian literature don’t always write like that. I had to realize that there was no failure in going with my strengths. I was still challenging myself by breaking out of my fiction restriction and moving to story-telling, non-fiction writers. As long as I was challenging myself, I was not failing, no matter what authors I was “ignoring” at the time.

My goal was to read for a set amount of time each morning, so I chose books that fit well with my morning devotional time. I never dreamed what kind of doors that new habit would open!

Going with a Theme

As I became more comfortable with non-fiction, I began to branch out by choosing books based on current themes rather than writing style. I’d read books by word-picture artists like Mark Buchanan and Ken Shigematsu that greatly challenged my approach (or lack thereof) to rest and Sabbath. So, I began to intermingle other books on the same theme. Although not all of these were by authors who were great at painting word pictures, the familiar themes helped me make connections. I could take the new information and convert it myself into imagery that worked well for my method of learning.

These themes have morphed and adjusted over the years. Sometimes while working through one theme, I “accidentally” pick up on a new one, and that directs me to my next book. Some of those directions have led me to books that are very much outside of my natural inclinations and reading styles. Reading those books, especially when first starting, can be a challenge. But, the more I read, the more I get used to different writing styles and am able to better and more quickly process the information before me.

The growth didn’t stop there. Once I’d firmly established the devotional non-fiction reading habit, I added a second book each morning. This one is not always “spiritual.” Not automatically written by a Christian author. But, it always contains something that will help me become a better…something. Strengthen who I am as a wife, a mom, a writer, a homeschooler, an organizer…you get the idea. But, because I read it at the end of my morning quiet time, I always approach it with the perspective of what I have just finished studying in God’s Word and reading from my spiritually nourishing non-fiction.

Voila! A Habit is Born!

I didn’t intentionally follow these steps. I just wanted to start reading non-fiction. And, honestly, I didn’t really realize what I’d accomplished until I saw that question on Facebook. I stand now in amazement, though, as I realize just how one little action—the decision to read a non-fiction book for five minutes every morning—has helped me grow so greatly.

Small actions can produce powerful habits. What small action can you take today?

Posted in What I'm Learning, Work & Life

Tools to Inspire

Several years ago, I taught myself how to knit. That seems like such a simple statement to encompass the full victory of this process. You see, many, many, many years before, some friends had tried to teach me to knit. They loved knitting and couldn’t imagine not knowing how to do it. I could crochet. Why not knit.

But I couldn’t. Two needles covered in loops that you maneuvered in a variety of ways just did not compute in my mind. So, I’d sit with my single little crochet hook and they would sit with their knitting needles, and we’d have a grand ole time.

It was a failure I never could shake, though, because so many beautiful patterns called for knitting. My favorite patterns, in fact. Oh, the crochet patterns were pretty. Don’t get me wrong. But there was something about the style of knit that I longed to be able to accomplish.

So, finally, as an adult, I decided to give it another try. And somehow, this time, I succeeded. Perhaps it was the teaching method. Perhaps it was that I saw the diagrams in a book instead of simply trying to mimic the style of someone else. Perhaps it was the patience that I’d learned in the two plus decades since my first attempt. Maybe it was simply a true desire. Back then, my friends wanted me to learn. This time, I wanted to learn. Makes a difference!

Whatever the case, I succeeded. I didn’t become phenomenal or grasp intricate patterns quickly. But, I did learn.

I don’t knit constantly, or even daily. It’s an occasional burst here and there, dropped for a time when a project demands more attention than I can give it. When a day comes along that allows me to give the project extra attention, I get it back to a point of being easy enough to pick up for ten minutes here or thirty minutes there. Then I can keep it going during a work meeting (when my involvement is more about listening than actively engaging) or school with the kids (when we are discussing a book together).

By necessity, most of my projects remain simple, although I do enjoy challenging myself with a new stitch here or a new design there. I like to create projects that allow me to merge the simple with the complex, though, so I’m frequently learning new techniques but also have something that’s easy to pick up and do without a whole lot of need to watch a pattern.

Because of this desire to challenge my skills, I have needed certain tools. Various sizes and styles of needles. Place markers and counters. Cable hooks. I keep it all on the inexpensive end because I’m not enough of an enthusiast to spend a lot of money on the hobby. But, even those inexpensive tools give me a chance to experiment and learn.

At one point, I picked up a little plastic case full of knitting tools. I’d chosen this kit because it had several marker options and a couple of counters. But when I opened it, I also saw a wide variety of other tools. Tools I had never seen before. I had no idea what they were called (again, inexpensive set…no labels) or how to find out. As time has passed, I’ve learned about a couple of them, but there are still several that leave me baffled.

But they also inspire me. They make me want to learn more about knitting. Figure out new skills. Try new challenges. Explore new options. Could this be the tool for that fancy stitch? Might that one help me feel a little more coordinated with cable knitting? Or enable a more elaborate cable? The tools motivate my curiosity and nudge my desire to learn. Well, most of the time, at least.
Here’s the deal: sometimes these unknown tools scare me a bit. They remind me of my limitations. They let me know how much I can’t do. And sometimes that is more overwhelming than inspiring.

Do you ever feel that way about your spiritual growth? Do you ever feel like you’re plugging along nicely, only to suddenly get a glimpse of tools, resources, and learning scales that you’ve never even thought of before? Do you ever feel that you will never be able to learn enough? Grow enough? Use resources well enough?

Or are you motivated and inspired to reach for a new goal? Learn a new skill? Climb a higher peak?

I know we will all hit walls that scare us just a bit. We will be overwhelmed by the discovery of just how much we don’t know. But, my prayer for both myself and for you, dear reader, is that those moments aren’t what define us. My prayer is that the more common response of our heart is to be inspired. To be motivated. To desire to learn how to tackle that new skill. To use that new resource. To climb to that next level.

To not be defined by fear, but to be motivated by inspiration.

Image by Tammy McLean from Pixabay
Posted in Work & Life

Getting It Done

It never ceases to amaze me the number of practical life lessons I’ve learned because of the challenges I’ve worked through in homeschooling. For instance, in the homeschool community, record-keeping discussions are common. What do I keep? How much do I keep? What information is needed? How do I gather, organize, and maintain the necessary information?

The needs vary from state to state, depending on local homeschooling laws. Some states, like Arkansas, are very lax. I fill out a form every year stating my intent to homeschool. That’s it. In other states, parents have to have regular meetings with education officials, showing not only intentions but also progress. Samples of work, grades, test results, etc.

Now, on the one hand, I am thankful that Arkansas does not require such things. On the other hand, that makes it easy to lose track of where the kids actually are and what progress they have made. I have had to be intentional from the beginning about choosing curricula designed to help me keep them on track, knowing that my husband and I are accountable for the progress of our children – if not to a state education representative, then definitely to ourselves and to their future needs.

This intentionality in homeschooling serves as a continual reminder that there’s not always someone else to keep me accountable and on track in life any more than there is in homeschooling! I have to be intentional and diligent about finding ways to hold myself accountable in every aspect of life.

Keep in mind that just because I know I should find ways to hold myself accountable doesn’t mean I always do it. But, when I am diligent, here are some of the things that work:

Recognize the Trouble Spots

Like with homeschool record-keeping, there are areas where we know we will face problems if we do not keep ourselves accountable. So, the first step is to recognize those trouble areas. One for our family comes at meal-time. I hate to decide what to cook. So, menu planning is critical for me. If I don’t plan, we don’t eat well. We either eat less healthily or more expensively or both. So, the first step is recognizing the trouble spot that mealtime can be for me.

Make a Plan

Once the problem is identified, a plan has to be made. I can say I’m going to cook well or teach my kids well or make progress in any other area of life. But unless I actually create an avenue to accomplish this, it will never get done! So, a plan is critical. I have a list of what needs to be done each year to prepare for and progress through a school year. I know each month when I need to menu plan. (And before you think I’m always on top of this, realize that last year I failed in this area much more often than I succeeded. I’m a work in progress.) I have plans for other areas of life as well, including trying to get back to regular writing. It doesn’t have to be anything rigid, but having a plan keeps the need right in front of me.

Find Accountability

My job is the best example of this. Every Monday, each employee in the small company I work for gives our boss a list of priorities for the week, talking through them with her and with one another for clarification. At the end of each week, we send her a record of how we spent our time. This is not because she doesn’t trust us or is trying to micromanage and nitpick. In fact, it is just the opposite. These lists help her know where our energy is going, allowing her to keep track of whether or not the limited time, energy, and resources of our company are being used effectively. But, this also allows me to clearly see where I am using my time and gives me a measure of accountability for my work days.

By using the same principle in other areas of life, I don’t have to handle the full weight of responsibility all on my own. I can have others help hold me accountable.

Implement!

As is obvious with the confessed menu plan failures, implementation is the final key. We can know what to do, plan to do it, and even have others remind us. But, ultimately, it’s up to us to take action. And when we do, the pay-off is more than worth the effort.

Posted in Helpful Hints, What Works for Me, Work & Life

Erasable Ink

Sometimes, life really comes down to the practical. No deep lessons. No profound thoughts. Just basic and practical.

Sometimes as I ponder depth and meaning and how to surrender to the surgery I desperately need the Lord to do on the deep parts of my heart, mind, and habits, I forget just how important those basic and practical things are.

Like erasable ink.

Several years ago, a friend introduced me to Frixion pens. I’d never liked erasable pens because they never seemed to really erase. But these? Oh my word…they work!! And I became addicted! They’re pretty and fun and just a treat to use. They add a little pizazz to life.

But, there’s more to these pens than just fun. There are actually two reasons I really, really like the idea of being able to use erasable ink pens, especially in my planners.

Flexibility

The first really is obvious. I always function better when I can plan ahead, and sometimes I need to plan FAR ahead. But the truth is that life changes. Plans change. I need to be able to erase and make changes, both in my personal planner (the Mommy brain, as my kids call it) and in my homeschool planner. It’s just a necessity.

But, that can be done in pencil, can’t it? Yes, it can. And, for a long time, it was done in pencil. Erasable colored pencils, to be certain, because I color code. In the homeschool planner, each child has a color for independent work and a color for work I do with them (read-alouds, etc.). In my personal planner, I have separate colors for general family life, school, work, church, writing, and personal development. It saves space, helps me keep it all distinguished, and helps me not overlook tasks and activities. Color is my friend.

But, why ink?

Commitment

While pencil works well for flexibility, it doesn’t work well – at least mentally – for commitment. You’ve probably heard the phrase, “I’ll pencil you in.” More often than not, that means plans will change. We are not committed to penciled-in obligations, tasks, and events.

Yes, it’s mental. And yes, it’s something we might just need to get over. But, for me, being able to use ink instead of pencil helps with that mental commitment – even if they are equally erasable. There’s just something about seeing it in ink that solidifies a task, event, or other commitment in my mind.

It’s just a little thing. But sometimes those little things make the deeper things more feasible. Even something as little, as practical, as basic as using erasable ink.

Posted in What I'm Learning, What Works for Me, Wonderments

My Sweet Spot of Bible Exploration

I’ve long struggled with finding the sweet spot of keeping myself immersed in Scripture. On the one hand, a read-through-the-Bible-in-a-year plan has always appealed to me because it enables me to not get bogged down in a narrow-minded focus. On the other hand, those broad plans tend to keep me from being able to really dig in and study on a deep level. So, I have tended to alternate between the two, some years reading through the whole Bible and other years spending extensive time in a single, focused spot.

Really and truly, though, my desire has always been to combine both. Time has just prevented it in the past. So, where does that leave me? There are so many depths to explore in Scripture. So many great books to read to help me along in my spiritual growth. So much journaling to do as I process each thought. How do I make it all fit into my schedule?

It’s Not a Race

The first thing I had to realize is that there’s no real rush. True, I only have so many years left on this earth. But, I will not learn it all in my limited lifespan. I can’t. It’s just not possible. And, once I get to heaven, my eyes will be opened as I see clearly instead of through a glass, darkly.

On the one hand, that could dissuade me from studying at all. Why bother if I’ll know it in eternity? But, if God didn’t want us to start here, He would not have given us His Word. He would not have revealed Himself so amazingly. So, even if it doesn’t all make sense to me, knowing that He wants me to do it is enough – at least for me.

So, if I really do need to study, even if I can never know it all, the other end of the argument states that there is no need to rush. If it takes me a year to process through a study, so be it! Progress is progress.

Broad Doesn’t Have to Be So Broad

The challenge of a one-year, whole-Bible plan is that the daily reading portions are long. It takes an average reader about twenty to thirty minutes of reading a day to get through the Bible in a year. I live in a family of above-average readers; they all read much faster than I do. But, I’m average. So, a through-the-Bible plan leaves little, if any, time for journaling, devotional reading, or closer studying.

This year, our church is working through a reading plan that is more focused, alternating between the Gospels (Monday and Friday) and the Pentateuch (Tues-Thurs). I’ve personally re-established the habit of reading a chapter of Proverbs each day as well. Small bites, but broad reading that allows distinct progress through the Bible this year. At this rate, it might take me closer to three years to process through the whole Bible. But, again, it’s not a race!

A Well-Paced Walk through the Focused

Meanwhile, each week I have two aspects of more focused study. One is my Sunday school lesson. This one is definitely time-based, but I try to spend some focused time – even if it’s only ten minutes a day – truly processing the Sunday school lesson passage. Over the weekends, I spend more time in specific lesson preparation, but I’m processing the passage in some form all week.

I choose a separate study for my own edification. This is important, because studying a passage for teaching requires a different form of focus and study than studying for personal growth. My current personal study is in 1 Peter, utilizing a Bible study and a conversational commentary to aid my slow work through this letter.

I love the combination of the time-sensitive focused study for Sunday school and the open-ended focused study of 1 Peter. (And I love how the Holy Spirit can tie them all together!)

It’s Not an Either/Or

This has really been the biggest discovery for me. I’ve always alternated between the broad and the focused, but it really doesn’t have to be either/or! This year, it’s smaller doses of both, with each taking up a certain percentage of my overall time. It may just be for a season, but I’m really enjoying this season!

Posted in What I'm Learning, Wonderments

Not Ready

Hibbard Academy’s thirteenth year of operation began on Monday, but the teacher was not really ready.

All summer, I’ve fought to find moments here and there to prepare for the new school year. I’ve spent evenings working far later than I should. I’ve squeezed as many Saturday moments as possible. Whenever the work and family schedule allowed, I put in hours during the day. But, I still wasn’t ready. Two days before we started, I realized I was missing the lesson plans for an entire course for my ninth grader. Morning of, I scrambled to find answer keys for the work my son had completed that needed to be graded. I still have a folding table set up beside my desk, full of miscellaneous tasks needing to be finished. I even created a brand new to-do list just so I wouldn’t miss something in the middle of the chicken scratch that remains of my working lists. In the middle of it all, I have this crazy feeling that I’ve missed something huge. Major. Critical.

But we still started. The kids dove in happily, asking me questions as we went along and helping me see what still needed to be added to my list – but never in a demanding or complaining way. They’re old hats at this, and they knew how to dive in to even some of the things that weren’t quite ready for them. They bound some of their own loose worksheet pages, made their own reminder notes, and laughed through the first day.

The things undone are still hanging over my head. They still have to be done so I can clean up the chaos around my desk, walk through the year well, and be ready and able to handle the demands for flexibility that inevitably pop up throughout the year. But, as the first day progressed, I realized that the last push to get the most major things ready was enough. We were able to have a good first day, despite it all.

Sometimes, not ready is okay.

As a planner addict, I’m not really okay with a lack of readiness in most situations. I want to have all of my ducks in a row and all of my plans lined up. It’s not so much that I expect things to go as planned – I’ve learned that they almost never do! But, when I have the plan well laid, I’m more ready and able to make adjustments when the need arises.

That’s not a bad thing. In fact, when things fall apart, it can more frequently be traced to lack of planning than to over-planning. I’ve seen it time and time again. We need to plan. We need to be aware of what’s coming and think through the logistics of what needs to be done. But, sometimes planner people like me take it too far. We plan and plan and plan, aiming for a point of readiness, often missing that the specific target is not very solid. There is always some other way we can plan. Some other avenue we can pursue. Some other contingent we need to create an alternative for. There’s always something.

And in the planning, we neglect to act.

On Monday morning, it was time to act. Although it went against the grain of who I am as a planner, I chose to hold myself to that deadline. And it worked – three days in, the first week of school is going quite well. More remains to be done, but I’ll get it done along the way. For now, though, I feel better for the acting. Yes, sometimes “not ready” really is okay.

Posted in Thoughts from Life, What I'm Learning

Sufficiency and Tightropes

I’m procrastinating today.

We slept in a bit this morning, which has me running a little later on the routine than normal. But, that’s not really what has me moving slowly. In reality, it’s the subconscious knowledge that, if I keep putting off writing, I once again won’t have time to get a blog post written, edited, and published before I absolutely have to get to work in order to get my hours in before church. That subconscious knowledge has actually become my safety net. And I’ve been spending more time in the safety net than on the tightrope where I belong.

You see, I have quiet a few blog posts stored in my files right now. Some are just thoughts tapped out quickly that need to be fleshed out. But others are fully written and just need to be edited. I have good intentions of starting my morning with some editing, photo searching, and publication prep so I can get one of those posts up. But each morning I find a whole list of other things that just have to be done. Then my time is spent, and I have to get to work. So, the posts never go up.

But it’s not really because of a lack of time or because of so many other things that are pressing. It’s really because staying in the safety net is more comfortable. It keeps me from falling. Because I know that I’m not going to stay on that tightrope. I will fall. How much easier to just stay down here where I know I’m going to end up anyway?

I’ve always been like that. I’ve never been a risk-taker or a daredevil. Thrill has never enticed me. In some ways, that’s a good thing. There is a place for people like me, because we like to keep the show running. We like to be in the background providing everything the thrill-seekers and dreamers and brainstormers and visionaries need. We make their ideas happen because we’re good at the practical and the organizational and – to be completely honest – the boring. That’s our place. That’s our strength.

But, too often it’s also our hiding place. And we have a litany of reasons to hide. One of the big ones for me is a feeling of insufficiency.

One of my daughters surprised me one day by verbalizing exactly how I feel so often, especially in the presence of my children. They are so talented. So amazing. They all have such incredible skills. I feel pretty mediocre standing next to them. Yet, one morning my daughter expressed how she felt useless and untalented, especially compared to her siblings. They, in turn, stared at her with mouths gaping and quickly began stating all of the ways she was so awesome and her talents were so amazing and useful, especially compared to how they viewed their own talents and strengths. As I worked to build up and encourage each of them, I also ached because I knew exactly how they all felt.

Insufficient.

They believe about themselves the same things I believe about myself. We may have our skills and talents, but what difference do they actually make in the real world? How can we possibly compare to the extraordinary offerings of so many other people? What impact can we, with our piddly contributions – actually make?

We recognize that we’ll never know if we don’t try, but we’ve also all – yes, even my three precious children at their tender ages – have tried and have fallen off the tightrope. Multiple times. Sometimes because of our own failing and other times because we’ve been shoved. Every time because of some insufficiency.

We long for the tightrope. We even do all of the preparations needed to walk the tightrope. And really, we don’t mind falling in the process of learning to walk the tightrope. But, we know that we won’t always fall on our own. Sometimes we will be knocked down, whether accidentally because of a lapse of attentiveness on someone else’s part or intentionally because of jealousy or rudeness or pride. But, it will happen. And in that fear, we stay in our safety net and wish that we were already experts on the tightrope. Already skilled to the point of being able to better resist the shoves. Unsure that we can handle both the learning and the struggling.

That’s why I’m procrastinating today. That’s why multiple posts remain in my folders, unedited and unpublished. And that’s why I’m forcing myself to publish this post today. Because it’s time to get out of the safety net and get back on the tightrope.