A Satisfying Reading Life

Image by Jose Antonio Alba from Pixabay

When you consider your reading life, it’s not the number of books that counts but the satisfaction you have in the books that you are reading. For instance, if you read 50 books in a year, but you didn’t like 90% of them, then your reading life isn’t going to make you happy even if you did read a book a week. On the other hand, if you read only 20 books, but they are books you’ve been longing to read, you delighted in each one, and you thought long and hard about them days after finishing, then you have a rich reading life.

This year, I have been fortunate to have a satisfying reading life. Since I’ve mostly been working from home and so have no commute, I achieved my 2020 Goodreads goal of 75 books with three months to spare. Of the 16 books I read since my last check-in, six were nonfiction and ten were fiction. Thus, over a third of books I’ve read this year has been nonfiction, which is a great improvement over last year. The memoirs I read this past month were memorable—Maya Angelou, Ruth Reichl, and Anthony Doerr all had interesting tales to tell in very different ways. Reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings made me simultaneously sad and angry for the child Maya was. Living in Rome for a year with Anthony Doerr was a delight to the senses. My mother and I always loved reading Gourmet magazines, and my mother introduced me to the joys of reading about food. I still love to cook and to read about cooking so Reichl’s memoir of her years at Gourmet was a treat to lose myself in, especially since Reichl included a recipe for a chocolate cake that I must make one of these days.

If I can finish two theology books and fit in a book of poetry before the end of December, I will be pleased with this year’s reading , even if I finish nothing else. Add in a book by one of the Puritan theologians though, and my pleasure will turn to delight.

Currently, I am still reading Union with Christ by Rankin Wilbourne and have Gospel & Kingdom by Graeme Goldsworthy, a Biblical Theology book recommended by Nancy Guthrie, to start next. I’m two thirds through a reread of September by Rosamund Pilcher. I’ve always loved her long novels and have never reread this one. Since she has a long novel that seems to fit each season—September for fall, Winter Solstice for winter, Coming Home for spring, and The Shell Seekers for summer—I’m toying with the idea of reading one each season over the next year. Even if I don’t, I am still enjoying the foray into Scotland this month. October is a month for rereading Persuasion, which I will probably bring with me when travel to my son’s wedding. There’s something autumn-like and reflective about Austen’s novel of second chances.

A hold from the library just came in for me this week: The 5 AM Club by Robin Sharma. I’m an early riser myself so am looking forward to any new tips she may have on how to make the best use of my mornings. I’m I’m about halfway through Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on audio for my October book group. It has been good to view my country and culture through the eyes of someone so different from me in every way.

Overall, my reading life is just grand. How satisfied are you with your reading life?

The Darkness of the Dungeon

Image by Evgeni Tcherkasski from Pixabay

Last week I was reading a blog post by a friend, in which she said that she was feeling that rock bottom has a basement. The definition of rock bottom is the “lowest of the low.” Yet my friend felt that life had managed to go even lower than the lowest possible place.

In Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, Christian and his friend Hopeful are caught by Giant Despair and put in his dark dungeon. There they lay for three days, terrified and without hope. They were also in the basement of rock bottom.

In Psalm 88, the Psalmist is also in that place beyond the lowest low:

You have put me in the depths of the pit,

in the regions dark and deep.

Your wrath lies heavy upon me,

and you overwhelm me with all your waves. vv. 6-7

In fact, unlike the other Psalms that start in despair and end up on a positive note, Psalm 88 ends:

You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me;

my companions have become darkness. v. 18

The alternative meaning in Hebrew is darkness has become my only companion. The Psalmist has no hope left. There is nothing for him. He is in the black dungeon of Giant Despair. He’s with my friend in the basement of rock bottom.

If we left him (and Christian and my friend and us) there in that dungeon, then what would be the reason to go on? Where is there hope for the Psalmist or for any of us?

This man feels that God is against him, that there is nothing in life that’s good, that his soul is full of trouble, that he has no strength, that he has been forgotten by God, that his friends have all abandoned him and view him as a horror, that the only companion, the only friend he has is darkness, and that the only place lower is death.

However (praise the Lord, there is a however), despite all of these feelings and circumstances of darkness and feeling forgotten by God, the Psalmist still cries out to God, he still has the small kernel of faith that looks to God in the darkness and believes that He hears and that He cares.

Jesus says, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you. (Matthew 17:20)

In our dark places, the tiny seed of faith that the Lord has given us strengthens us to turn to Him, the Light of the World, and cry out, pleading with Him for light, for hope, for salvation. When we are in the dark, we need only to remember to look for the light.

Despite the seeming hopelessness in this Psalm and in our lives, there are glimmers of light if we look closely enough. The glimmers of God’s promises:

  • He will never leave us nor forsake us (Hebrews 13:5)
  • Even if a mother could forget her nursing child, God will never forget us (Isaiah 49:15)
  • We are inscribed on the palms of His hands (Isaiah 49:16)
  • He will with us in the waters and walk with us in the fire (Isaiah 43: 2)
  • He has loved us with an everlasting love (Jeremiah 31:3)
  • He rejoices over us with singing. (Zephaniah 3:17)

As we focus on these promises, even if the circumstances are still hard and our road seems endlessly black, we begin to see the glory of our Father’s face shine out in the gloom, the fingers of sun gleaming through the cracks of the dungeon walls, and to believe again in His love poured out for us in Christ. We start to grasp that if God is for us, which He is in Christ, who could be against us. We take shelter in His love and in His protection. And we take hold of the glorious truth that Christ is sufficient and will always be sufficient for all our needs, no matter what is occurring in this world. If we have Christ, then we have eternity and glory and unfailing love from our God.

Charitie Lees Bancroft wrote:

When Satan tempts me to despair

and tells me of the guilt within,

upward I look and see him there,

who made an end to all my sin.

Because the sinless Savior died,

my sinful soul is counted free;

for God, the just, is satisfied

to look on him and pardon me,

to look on him and pardon me.

Christ has become wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption for us. (I Corinthians 1:30) If He has done all this, how will He not also give us all things. (Romans 8:31)

As Christian lay in the dungeon, he prayed and the Lord reminded him of the promises of God, and these promises were the key that allowed Christian and Hopeful to escape into the sunshine. My friend, too, acknowledged that God’s light still shines even when it is clouded over by life’s circumstances and she can’t see it at that moment.

What about you, friend? Are you in the darkness of the basement of rock bottom? Do you feel abandoned, forgotten, and alone in your hard times? Can you see no hope and no light and no escape?

Go to Jesus. He loved you enough to die for you, He stands at the throne of God and pleads your case, He will give you all that you need to walk with Him in this life, and He will come and take you home to be with Him, basking in the sunshine of His love for eternity.

Writing in Difficult Times

A journal with paper that doesn’t allow the ink to bleed through and a roller ball pen are my tools of choice when writing by hand.

Like most of you reading this, I have been home a good deal over the last several months, in order to help keep my loved ones and other people in my circles healthy and safe. You would think that with all of this extra time at home (no commute!), I would have been writing up a storm. Alas, it seems that the same conditions that are keeping me at home also seem to be stopping up my creativity.

However, I have been writing and hanging out with writers long enough to know that creativity is not something that always strikes like lightning. Instead, thoughts and ideas come when you cultivate the right conditions for them. What are these conditions? Here are a few that I found help me create a conducive atmosphere for writing:

Noticing
A good writer notices things—the color of the sky, the sound of a dog barking in the street, the conversation in a restaurant, the way a girl skips home, the feel of a fuzzy kiwi in your hand, etc. Writers also notice the way the world works with all of its contradictions, surprises, ruts, pleasure, and pain. They then take these noticings and turn them into ideas for stories, essays, poems, and more.

Recording ideas
No matter how much noticing you do and how many ideas rise to the surface, unless you record them somehow, they could slip through your fingers and be lost. Find a good way to record your ideas and the things you notice. I use several methods to retain ideas. I have a notebook with a pen clipped to it. It’s small enough to keep with me most of the time so I can always jot down a thought as it occurs. I also use the notes app on my smart phone for the times when I don’t have my notebook handy. In a pinch (usually when I’m driving, which seems to be a great time for writing blog posts in my head), I have resorted to talking into my phone and recording my thoughts or the ideas taking shape. Then I can work with them when I get home.

Routines
A good writer develops routines. Writing only happens when you sit down in the chair on a regular basis and put something on paper. Find the time and place that works for you and make it part of your everyday life. The following quote says it all:

Serious writers write, inspired or not. Over time they discover that routine is a better friend than inspiration.

Ralph Keyes

Transition Rituals
Oftentimes, writing requires changing gears from your daily tasks to reaching down into your mind and soul to transform your ideas and thoughts and noticings into something new. This can be a hard transition, and oftentimes a little ritual of some sort can help. Lighting a candle, brewing a cup of something hot, putting on certain music, or picking up a favorite pen can all be signals to your brain that writing time has begun.

Planning
While some writers don’t need plans to write, others find that planning is the key to bridging the gap between ideas and words on a page. I fall into that camp. If I sit down to write without any plan at all, I sometimes will merely stare at a blank page or produce only garbage. Planning seems to be an essential part of writing for me. This is not true for every writer, but if you are having difficulty getting words on paper, try brainstorming several ideas and then sit down and work on an idea a day. Just having something in mind going into your writing session can be the difference between a blank page and a rough draft.

Tools
Choose your tools wisely. If you prefer paper and pen, choose smooth paper that feels good and a pen that doesn’t make your hand hurt or smear on the paper. If you choose digital, feel comfortable with your keyboard and make sure your computer or tablet or phone has the space to contain what you want to write. If you’re writing outdoors or off the grid, make sure your device is fully charged. Having enough light helps as does having a comfortable chair and sturdy desk or table.

Focus
Finally, good focus makes a difference. We live in an age of increasing distraction, but successful writing requires the ability to focus for substantial amounts of time, using deep thought and hard work. A book that I have found helpful in re-teaching myself how to focus well is Cal Newport’s Deep Work. He doesn’t have any easy answers. Work is still work, but Newport does give you the tools and practical frameworks for learning to focus for longer and longer periods of time, which can make or break your writing routines.

I hope these ideas are helpful with inspiring you to create words and articles and books and poems. Do you have any tips for creativity? Please share them in the comments.

Interesting Articles and Podcasts

Each week, I send articles to a website that sends me a collection of articles to read in a single document for my kindle. This helps prevent me from falling down “rabbit holes” when I should be doing something productive but allows me to keep reading interesting things from around the web. Here are a few of the articles I’ve read this past month:

Jen Wilkin lists nine things to help in studying the Bible: https://www.crossway.org/articles/9-tips-for-making-the-most-of-your-bible-study/

Many of us are still working from home, which can make the work/home lines bleed together a bit too much at times. This article is a helpful look at the benefits of unplugging from work and other online pursuits: http://lauraearnest.com/unplugging/

While we are able to get out and about more these days, spending a couple of hours in a coffee shop may not be optimal or even possible. Here are ways to duplicate that experience of writing (or working) in a coffee shop: https://thewritelife.com/recreate-coffee-shop-experience-from-home/

Although I’ve been a Christian for many years, prayer is still difficult for me at times. Lectio Divina has been one way, through two prayer apps a friend suggested, to focus on the Lord each morning: https://www.24-7prayer.com/ancientprayerrhythms

My garden has never looked better since I’ve had more time at home to tend it. There’s something wonderfully healing about being outside in nature without a phone or other electronic device and dig: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/08/24/the-therapeutic-power-of-gardening

Reading has been a daily habit of mine for decades. However, I’m always reading articles and books on how to cram more reading time into my life. This article was great. https://psyche.co/guides/how-to-make-a-daily-habit-of-reading-more-books

I subscribe to several podcasts, some of which I listen to every single episode and some of which I dip into once in a while when the episode sounds applicable to my life or I want to know more. Here are some episodes I found particularly useful or interesting this past month:

Sarah from theshubox.com has started a new planner/planning podcast, which I love. Here’s her take on building a planning system: https://bestlaidplans.libsyn.com/rss

I just found the Redeeming Productivity podcast this summer and am slowly working my way through the back episodes. This recent episode was helpful in thinking about how contentment doesn’t have to interfere with ambition and productivity: https://www.redeemingproductivity.com/feed/podcast

I have loved all of the episodes of Help Me Teach the Bible with Nancy Guthrie, but I found this one especially fascinating as she talked to Andrew Sach about Elijah and Elisha and their foreshadowing of the New Testament: https://feeds.simplecast.com/TtKQNBCJ

Cal Newport, author of one of my favorite productivity books, Deep Work, started a new podcast this year. This is his kickoff episode. Don’t let the length scare you. He addresses multiple questions in each episode, which means you can listen for 10-20 minutes and then leave it until the next time without losing the thread of a discussion. I highly recommend this for anyone who wants to do focused knowledge work for their job or personal projects. His humor is a bit nerdy, which adds to the fun: https://feeds.buzzsprout.com/1121972.rss

When I’m trying to focus on work or writing, sometimes I need silence and sometimes background music helps. Eric Nordhoff is an artist I discovered recently, whose music is uplifting and great for focusing:

https://open.spotify.com/album/6co8Pt2GpcnqNa17Mbr77C?si=RagH7JKOTuibDTaX5kyeKQ

What are you reading and/or listening to this month?

Reading Goals Check-in

After listening to the latest podcast episode of What Should You Read Next, I realized that I wanted to do a check-in on my reading goals before September hits. Since 2020 ended up being far different than anything we could have imagined, I wanted to see if I was keeping up my with my original reading goals, did I need to tweak my goals and reading trends, or did I want to throw out my goals altogether?

As of mid-August, I have read 59 of 75 books, listed on my Goodreads 2020 Reading Challenge. I’ve actually read more this year, but I don’t list everything on Goodreads, particularly those books that I reread for comfort. Here are my current stats, as of mid-August 2020:

  • Fiction – 46 (78%)
  • Nonfiction – 13 (22%)

One of my reasons for having a smaller number of books in my 2020 challenge was to have more to read a larger percentage of nonfiction. Even with a couple of months of reading only murder mysteries in order to cope with quarantine, I’m almost at 25% nonfiction, which makes me happy. I’d like to bump that up to 30% by the end of the year, which would require my reading ten more nonfiction books in the next four months—an achievable goal!

Tweaking my goals – While I’ve read a couple of Christian living books, I haven’t finished even one theology book this year. I’d like at least two of my ten nonfiction books to be theology books. If I put my mind to it, I could probably read one a month to give me four for the year, but I’m going to shoot for two theology titles in my final count.

I’ve read one poetry book and would like to squeeze one more in before the end of the year.

Fiction is going well. I’ve read some good new fiction, and I have several more waiting on my ereader for me, thanks to ARCs (Advanced Reader Copies–there are perks to working at a library!). I’ve also reread a few favorites and in December, I am very likely to reread a few more of my favorite Christmas books.

If I had to choose favorite books so far this year, I’d have to choose This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing by Jacqueline Winspear in nonfiction, Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens in fiction, and Tales from the Perilous Realm by J.R.R. Tolkien in audio.

Winspear’s memoir comes out this fall and is a real, sometimes enchanting, often difficult, story of her family and growing up years. It gives the reader a lot of background understanding for her Maisie Dobbs mystery series, and I enjoyed reading about her youth in mid-20th century Britain.

Everybody loved Where the Crawdads Sing when it came out in 2018, and I am late to that party. For the longest time, the hold list was so long at the library that I had decided to wait until it died down. A couple of months ago, I was poking around our library ebook selection, and it was available to borrow, so I snatched it up. It’s a beautiful, heart-wrenching story about a young girl, abandoned by everyone, who somehow makes a life for herself in the marshes of North Carolina. There’s nature, family, a murder, and more. I loved every minute of it.

Finally, who can resist listening to stories, written by J.R.R. Tolkien and read by Sir Derek Jacobi. This was a commute listen before the pandemic hit. Every story is enjoyable and the audio version is definitely the way to go because of Derek Jacobi’s first-rate retelling.

I am currently reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, a classic that has long been on my TBR list; What’s Best Next by Matthew Aaron Perman, a Christian productivity book; Union with God by Rankin Wilbourne, a theology book about living the Christian life through our union with Christ; a couple of ARCs that are due out later this fall, and I just downloaded a YA novel about magic in regency England by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer , which should be sheer fun.

How are your reading goals going at this point in the year? What has been your favorite book (or least favorite)? Do you want to tweak some of your reading goals? I’d love to hear about how your reading is going in the comments.

A Month of Sundays

That fiftieth year shall be a Jubilee to you; in it you shall neither sow nor reap what grows of its own accord, nor gather the grapes of your untended vine. 12 For it is the Jubilee; it shall be holy to you; – Leviticus 25:11-12a

This Sabbath is to be kept holy unto the Lord when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs beforehand, do not only observe an holy rest all the day from their own works, words, and thoughts about their wordly employments and recreations,[38] but also are taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of His worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy. – Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 21.VIII

Our culture, which had become increasingly busy over the last few decades, suddenly came to a screeching halt because of the virus roaming the world. Many people started working from home rather than commuting or traveling. Shopping became a thing of necessity rather than recreation. Family meals, which were often interrupted or even non-existent due to school and recreation activities, became the norm rather than the exception

Everything slowed down and it gave us an opportunity to catch our breath, to regroup, to think about what matters to God, to us, to our friends and family. It has given us time to ask questions: What is the most important thing in my life? How do I spend my time? Are all of these activities and commitments even necessary?

In the Old Testament, the Lord not only set up one day in every seven for rest and worship, the Sabbath, He also set up an entire year, the year of Jubilee, a year in which slaves were freed, property was restored to its original owner, and the land was left to rest from the planting of crops. While the original Hebrew word, yobhel, referred to the ram’s horn used to proclaim the year of Jubilee, the meaning altered through the centuries to come to mean rejoicing. Rejoice that you are free. Rejoice that your property is restored. Rejoice that you can rest. Rejoice that more time has been freed up for worship.

In the 17th century, a group of men created the Westminster Confession of Faith, a document systemizing the theology of the Scripture for the church in England during the reign of James I. In that confession, these men wrote about the Sabbath as a time to rest from ordinary activities each week and turn hearts and minds to worship and rest.

This time of staying at home, of withdrawing from normal activity, of becoming more aware of what is important and what is not, has seemed like a jubilee or Sabbath. While I have been working from home every day, I have had much more time to think, time to take regular walks in the fresh air, time to reflect on what is important, time to see patterns in my life that weren’t always edifying, time to be rather than do.

Instead of only one day of the week, Sunday, to regroup, reset, take a nap, plan ahead, all of my days have had an extra cushion of time in which to rest my mind and heart and body. I have had the time to consider what is most important: to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness”, “to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God”.

The news continues to be sobering, people are still suffering, and all many of us can do is to stay at home or socially distance in order to keep those around us safe. However, we can use the extra time for reflecting, for freeing ourselves from activities that have become a burden, for giving the soil of our hearts and minds a rest from its usual things, for resetting our schedules, and for rejoicing in God and His goodness in the midst of this difficult time.

As our communities begin to open up again more fully and work, commitments, and activities all begin to require more of our time and energy again, let’s make sure that we have built in the rest we’ve discovered during the past several months. Let’s reset our expectations for ourselves and for others. Let’s turn to the Lord for wisdom and discernment as we add back in only those things that help us to seek His kingdom first. And let’s rejoice that His sovereign will is perfect, trusting that all of these difficulties will bring Him glory and us good.

Christ is Risen!

MOST glorious Lord of Lyfe! that, on this day, 
Didst make Thy triumph over death and sin; 
And, having harrowd hell, didst bring away 
Captivity thence captive, us to win: 
This joyous day, deare Lord, with joy begin; 
And grant that we, for whom thou diddest dye, 
Being with Thy deare blood clene washt from sin, 
May live for ever in felicity! 

And that Thy love we weighing worthily, 
May likewise love Thee for the same againe; 
And for Thy sake, that all lyke deare didst buy, 
With love may one another entertayne! 
   So let us love, deare Love, lyke as we ought, 
   –Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.by Edmund Spenser

Just around the corner

March is here along with the birds and the budding trees and flowers. Bulbs I planted last autumn are pushing up out of the ground. I can hardly wait to see what colors they will be!

Little birds twitter from the trees and hop along the ground in search of food while the geese are flying home. I see them resting in a nearby field as they stop on their long journey north. The air may be chilly yet, but the sun is warm, and the whole world is waking up.

A favorite book of mine is The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady, one of the loveliest nature journals ever created. Each month has it’s own watercolor drawings and poems and notes on what is growing. I read this bit of verse this morning and thought it apt for the day:

Now the North wind ceases;
The warm South-west awakes;
The heavens are out in fleeces
And earth's green banner shakes. 
--Geo. Meredith

Spring is just around the corner. What harbingers of the new season do you see today? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

Using Historical Context in Writing

Girl waiting for a train – pen & ink drawing by Victor Doyle

One of my writing projects is the story of my grandparents, told through my grandfather’s artwork. One thing I’ve discovered in researching for this book is that context is essential. If you are writing any memoir set in the present or near past, most readers will have the information they need to understand the times, the culture, and the details about everyday life. However, when you are writing a historical memoir, you must include specifics about the culture and lifestyles since much, if not all, of it is alien to your reader.

For instance, in the book about Victor and Estelle, things like clothing, music, transportation, communication, and more differ greatly from our experience today. Women were occasionally wearing trousers, but rarely. They wore hats and gloves and always looked “smart” when they left the house. Men wore suits, ties, and hats more often than not. Music was jazz, big band, and classical. Rock music hadn’t been invented yet.

Radio and newspapers were the main forms of communication. Long-distance phone calls were pricey, so people generally used telephones for local calls. Television sets had been invented but were not commercially available until the late 1930s; most people had a radio in their home for news and entertainment. Since email did not yet exist, letters were the main form of personal communication, both locally and long distance.

In the early 1930s, almost half of American households owned cars, and the highway system was being developed. However, for long-distance travel, trains were most often used. Air travel was still rare.

As you can see, much has changed in America since the 1930s. I have had to delve into history books from that time period to recall what life was like back then. Including those facts and connecting them to the pictures in the envelopes as well as our experience today will help make the stories more appealing and relevant.

Historical research is a key component to writing any historic piece, whether that be historical narrative, memoir, or historical fiction. As a result, you will want to develop your skills as a researcher to frame your story well.

Winter Reflection

Once New Year’s is over and January sets in, I spend more time thinking, musing, and meditating. Winter seems to be more conducive to slowing down and pondering ideas. I wonder if it’s because the cold drives us indoors to cuddle under a warm woolen blanket with a cozy sweater and a hot drink. Burrowing into a pile of warmth leads to more time alone with myself, which is the perfect opportunity to think about all the things I’ve been avoiding or not able to set aside time to deal with in busier times.

Image by janbrokes from Pixabay

I consider my yearly goals at the very beginning of January, as many others do, but then I move on to more profound thoughts. In the early morning when it’s still dark outside, and no one is awake except me and the cat, I have the silence and solitude to meditate. Snuggled in a quilt and woolly robe, I read my Bible and devotional books, jotting down thoughts and contemplating what the author is saying.  Sometimes another book I’ve been reading catches my attention in a richer way than mere entertainment so I focus on making sense of its deeper meaning. 

I think about and pray for my friends and family in those dark hours before dawn, giving the Holy Spirit room to bring certain people to my attention for prayer. I allow my mind to drift and make connections between the things I’m studying and my everyday life at home and work. Meditation allows me to pick up on strings of logic and networks of relationship that I might otherwise miss. Burying myself in thoughts and prayers allows the Lord to speak truth into my heart that I might not hear if I was living at a shallower level or surrounded by noise, real and virtual. 

Current devotional reading

Winter is my reflective season, which produces seeds of wisdom and truth that will yield a harvest for the rest of the year.

Do you find winter to be a good time to reflect and meditate? I’d love to hear about your meditations in the comments!