Amid the difficulties and trials of the pandemic this past year, at least one good thing has emerged: the time to stop and listen. In our pre-pandemic busyness, it was easy to dash ahead with recreation, work, and duties and never pause to notice the little things that make up our days. Several years ago, a reporter experimented with our preoccupation with rushing through our day when he set Joshua Bell up as a violinist in a busy subway station. Hardly anyone stopped to listen! The beauty of his playing was lost amid the urgent.
But these days, most of us do have the margin in our lives to pause, and as we do, we notice the world around us and listen to the background noise of our lives. This noticing and listening require us to still our hearts, to pay attention, and to turn off the incessant background hum of sound, but the rewards are well worth it.
Here are some of the things I am noticing and listening to right now:
the change in light as the sun rises earlier and earlier each day
bird song as it greets each morning with joy
weeds starting to grow again even though my plants are still mostly dormant
wind blowing through the trees
connections between ideas that pop up in books and conversation throughout the day
the dialog between my soul and God in the early morning hours
the way my cat focuses all of his attention every morning on the spot where the birds hang out
the sound of silence, heavy and soft, in which I can almost hear my heart beating
rays of light that fall across my bed each morning as I make it up for the day
how my heart lies quiet as I stop and stare and wonder, instead of rushing on
the soundtrack in my neighborhood—dogs barking, birds singing, leaves rustling—as I walk outside after lunch
feeling the sunshine warm on my skin when I go outside
seeing the first blades of green thrusting up where my tiger lilies grow
hearing words that my husband does not say in between the ones he verbalizes
Stop…listen…notice…reflect. These are gifts from the pandemic that came in the midst of the hardship, and I am thankful that I have cut out enough of the busyness to experience them.
As part of my planning and organization, I purposely set up time for reading. Planning experts talk about the Eisenhower Grid, which divides things into four categories: urgent and important, urgent and non-important; non-urgent and important; and non-urgent and non-important. I will unpack those more in a future blog post, but for most of us, reading tends to falls into the category of non-urgent and important.
Why is this so? For one thing reading doesn’t have a deadline, unless you are a student or have to read something for work. Books just sit quietly on their shelves and while passing them by might make you feel guilty for a moment, they aren’t going to jump down and tackle you. If you’re not in school, no teacher is going to test you on that book you want to read. Even if you add it to your Goodreads “Currently Reading” list, it’s unlikely that anyone will say something if it lingers there for months, or you quietly move it back on the To Read shelf. I know this because I have done that more than once, and no one has ever asked me about it.
So, while reading is not usually urgent, it is important, because reading allows you to grow as a person by learning new things. Putting yourself in another place or another person’s shoes or another time helps you develop compassion and insight. Reading expands your mind and your heart.
Therefore, if reading is important but it doesn’t reach out and grab you, it’s up to you to make time for it. The easiest way to make sure I have regular time for books and article is to schedule it into my regular rhythms and routines.
Morning is set aside for devotional and intellectual study since that’s when my mind is most able to chew on meaty topics. By lunch time, I’m ready for some good nonfiction or serious fiction, which I read while I eat or listen to while walking. By the time evening rolls around, my mind is done for the day, and often I’m only able to read easier fiction, light essays, or a fun memoir.
I like to read articles from magazines and blogs but don’t have time for those during the work week. Several years ago, I discovered Instapaper, which allows me to gather articles together and then send them in batches to my kindle. Once a week, usually on the weekend, I sit down with a batch or two of articles and read through them. Some I skim quickly while others are worth thinking more deeply about. The beauty of having them converted to kindle documents is that I can highlight or make notes on points I want to study further or use in my future writing.
Other things I consider are my energy, emotions, and the season of the year. After considering the time of day, I also consider whether it’s the beginning of the week and/or the weekend when I have more energy. If things in my life are difficult, I will sometimes read for escape. For instance, I went on a murder mystery binge during the pandemic. Mysteries are my favorite genre and rereading old favorites was especially helpful when I didn’t want to think about the outside world for a couple of hours. My reading also tends to follow the seasons of the year—reflective reading and rereading in winter, more challenging reading in spring and fall, and mostly fun reading in the summer.
A key part of making time for books is knowing what I’m going to read next. I like to have several books lined up, some light and some heavier reading, so that when I finish a book, I don’t have to hunt around for another. That hunting tends to lead me down rabbit trails on the internet, and I lose all of my reading time to deciding what I’m in the mood for. If I have several good titles of varying difficulty and genre already chosen, I can almost always just pick one up and jump right in.
I get my ideas for titles to read next from what’s new at the library, book blogs and podcasts, and suggestions from friends and fellow librarians. Since part of my job is to read about books, I often have more books in mind than I can possibly read. An endless to-be-read list is one way to ensure I always have my next book waiting for me to pick it up.
Planning ahead and arranging my time and energy allows me to establish rhythms of reading into my days and weeks. How do you fit reading into your life? Please share in the comments.
One of my goals for 2021 is to be more intentional in my reading. Last year, along with many others, I did a lot of comfort reading. That was fine, and I don’t regret it, but there are areas in which I’d like to grow in my reading life. Growth will only occur if I’m deliberate since I’d much rather just pick up one more murder mystery.
One thing that helped a lot in my planning was listening to Episode 265 of theWhat Should I Read Next podcast. Anne’s guest Laura Tremaine had ten questions to ask about your reading life. I journaled through these questions and came up with some ideas on how I wanted to approach my reading in 2021.
Here are the categories I hope to tackle in 2021. These include both challenges plus some work reading:
Poetry – They suggested an anthology, of which I own several. Normally I don’t read one straight through but dip in and out.
Letters – These would be real-life letters, which I love to read. I may combine this category with the next one and read the last book of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s letters that I’ve owned for several years but not yet read.
A book from my To-Be-Read stack – Lots to choose from here!
Old Books – My cut off is anything pre-1950
A Shakespeare play – I’ve read about three fourths of his plays and plan to read one new to me.
A book that requires jumping a hurdle. Either because it’s difficult to read or long or I’m avoiding it for some reason.
A book I started but never finished – There are several possibilities for this category.
Something Russian – Perhaps I should combine the previous category with this one and finally finish Anna Karenina!
Biography and Memoir – This is one of my favorite categories so I’ll have fun choosing a book for this one.
Something Local – I can read a book set in my area or by a local author. Since I work with the local authors at my library, I have many possibilities.
Reading Outside My Comfort Zone – This is a work category and part of the challenge.
Travel Books – I have a couple on my shelves that I’ve been meaning to read.
A Re-Read – I re-read regularly so this will be easy.
A Favorite Topic – I could choose several areas here–writing, genealogy, cooking, needlework, English history, or theology.
Focusing on an author – The idea is to read three or more books by the same author. I hope to choose a non-mystery author to stretch me.
Multicultural/#OwnVoices novel or memoir – This is for work and part of the challenge – I completed this one by reading The Beauty in Breaking by Michele Harper.
Theology and Christian Living – At least two of each this year.
A Winter Reading Challenge badge – Our library has a winter reading challenge each year, and you can earn badges by reading books in different categories. I earned the Surviving Winter Challenge by reading Snow by John Banville, A Cold Day for Murder by Dana Stabenow, and Crossed Skis by Carol Carnac.
My January reading was very satisfying in comfort although not so much in the challenge. I read three nonfiction, one of which was poetry, fifteen fiction books, and one children’s book. Of the fiction, only three weren’t mysteries. As much as I love mysteries, I need to be more adventurous in my reading.
I re-read several Hercule Poirot novels, which could count in the rereading category as well as the focus on a single author category, but they aren’t really stretching my reading life so I won’t count them toward the challenge. Waiting on the Word was poetry and devotional, but since I started it in December, I don’t plan to count it on this list. Also, I finally finished Union with Christ, which I started last year, too, so I’m not counting it either. Business as Usual by Jane Oliver was a delightful novel in letters. It doesn’t count for the challenge since that’s supposed to be real life letters, but it was so wonderful that I don’t care. I loved every second of it and will most likely read it again in the near future.
February is off to a better start as I intentionally chose books to read and am setting aside time daily to make progress in them—theology, nonfiction, and a book on literature. I’d like to add a book on writing and some poetry. I’ve almost decided which poetry anthology to read. In the meantime, I’m listening to a podcast on poetry and one on writing.
Do you plan to read intentionally in 2021? What’s the best book you read in January?
According to the weather report, we may be getting our first snow since Christmas Day. I love watching the snow fall and feeling cozy with a cup of tea. I always feel a bit more relaxed and ready to take time for reading and reflection.
Here are some interesting things I read and listened to this month:
Why Is It So Hard to Think? The reason deep thinking requires time and space is because deep thinking is work. It takes energy to sift through thoughts and put them in some kind of order, spring cleaning the attic at the top of my body, forcing my way through cobwebs and unexpected memorabilia to stay on task.
Cancelling Chaucer – Apparently he’s no longer relevant for today’s students although this poet disagrees. Let’s hope that wiser heads will prevail and old books will be added back into the learning of our young people.
Winter Trees – I have a fondness for trees in the winter time, stark against the sky, and my favorite movement of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is Winter, but there’s no doubt that winter can be hard. Here’s a bit of help to make it through until spring.
The Stories Between Us podcast – This new-to-me podcast is delightful. A husband and wife, both writers, talk together on the writing life with wisdom and compassion and fun. I’m currently working through the back episodes and have enjoyed every one.
The Well Read Poem podcast – This new podcast is perfect for those of us wanting to add more poetry to our lives. Thomas Banks not only loves poetry, he understands it and can explain the mystery behind the words. Also, he reads beautifully! I highly recommend this one.
Although his podcasts are LONG, I still listen to Cal Newport’s The Deep Life regularly. Recently, he has started doing a deep dive on a specific topic at the beginning of each episode. His first topic, The Deep Reset, was very helpful for those of us wanting to add in more depth to our work and life. At some point, I believe he will string these all together into a single video. In the meantime, if you listen to the first several minutes of each of these podcast episodes, you can hear the whole thing: Episodes 49, 51, 53, 55, and 57.
Last year, my husband and I consolidated our music app subscriptions to one: Apple Music. However, I wasn’t thrilled at how hard it was to find good classical music with full pieces all together, not jumbled up in classical-lite playlists. Enter Concertino, a free app that I now have on my phone and my computer. I logged in with my Apple account and can choose any composer, genre, or time period. I can listen to a specific piece of music or set up a radio station. I am loving it and now I’m loving Apple music, too.
I hope you find these articles, podcasts, and app useful. If one of them is especially helpful to you right now, please share in the comments.
In 2019, I purchased a goal planner, which included a process of setting goals and choosing a single word to focus on during the year. I was intrigued and chose the word, reflect. I placed it on a card on my desk and over the year, I did think about what that meant in my life and how it was working itself out.
Last year, I decided to try the word of the year again. I chose a word, wrote it down, and then, at some point, lost the card with the word. It made so little impression on me that I can’t even remember the word I chose.
With such an abysmal failure with the word of the year, I had decided to skip it in 2021. I have plenty of intentions for my year and don’t really need that single focus. Or, at least, I didn’t think I did until the last week in December. A friend posted a discussion topic on a forum I’m part of and asked if we could discuss choosing a word of the year. I confessed what had happened in 2020 with my now lost word and that I didn’t think I would choose a word this year.
But I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind. In my desire to improve my prayer life and draw closer to the Lord, one thing I am learning to do is to stop and listen, to notice when I see or hear patterns or trends in my reading, thinking, sermons, friends’ counsel, etc. Over that last week in December, I started noticing the theme of rest coming up over and over. That noticing caused me to stop and think about what rest might mean for me.
Anyone who has known me for any length of time probably has picked up that I am a planner. I like to have my ducks in a row, to know what is happening throughout a day, a week, a month. I track progress I make in several areas of my life. In order to best use my time, I have built structures into my life to help me stay on track with intentions and goals.
However, as I have been pursuing a deeper relationship with the Lord this past year, I had added regular Bible reading and study, regular prayer times, and other means of grace, but I knew something was blocking me going further. As I pondered the idea of “rest”, I began to realize that in the good and godly pursuit of knowing Christ more and drawing closer to Him, I was striving in my own strength to do it. Instead of resting in my union with Him and allowing His life and power to pour through me, I was trying to make myself fruitful. To use an analogy from Rankin Wilbourne’s book Union with Christ, I was frantically try to blow the wind on my own sail to live the Christian life.
I saw the idea of rest in the study of Matthew I’m doing with friends at church. I saw the idea of rest in this book I’m reading on union with Christ. We sang the hymn Jesus I am Resting, Resting in church the last Sunday of December. Rest was everywhere I looked when I started paying attention.
Listening is not my strong suit but even I couldn’t miss the fact that the Lord was telling me something. I didn’t need to strive and do a bunch of things to draw close to Him. In fact, all of that doing was possibly getting in the way. Instead, He desires me to rest in Christ, to know the truth of the gospel—that Christ became the wisdom from God, the righteousness, sanctification, and redemption for us. As we rest in Him, His life flows through us and we are fruitful as a result of that life, not as a result of our own work.
I have been a Christian for many years and I know these truths in my head, but I keep having to go back and work them out in my life. I have been saved by grace and I walk by grace but again and again, I need to learn what that looks like. Every time I want to go deeper with God, I have to see what that grace looks like in my day to day life in a new way.
After all this thinking, I ended up choosing a word for 2021: REST. I have written it down in my journal, on that forum with friends, and placed it in several places so I can’t forget it. This year, I will once again learn what it means to rest in Christ.
Do you choose a word to focus on each year? What have you chosen for 2021? Please share in the comments so we can encourage each other in our growth this year.
You will see the theme of reflection throughout my January posts. Last week, I mused about my reading life in 2020. Today I want to focus on using these first weeks of the new year to think and set my intentions and priorities.
I started using the first few weeks of January for reflection after reading an article in the old Victoria magazine back in the 1990s. Each January, the magazine would print a “winter journal”, focusing on different topics about the season. One year, there was an article which talked about using the quiet winter months for reflection and thought. This resonated with me, and I have viewed January as a time for thinking about the new year ever since.
Years ago, I chose September as my calendar start since it coincides with the start of school and many activities after summer vacations are done. This crisp season seems right for jumping into a new calendar.
January, on the other hand, is the time that I stop and think about priorities, values important to me, and intentions. It’s a quiet month. The holidays and their busyness are over. Often, the weather is more conducive to staying inside with a hot cup of tea than for gardening or taking walks. Even the trees are quiet with their leaves long gone and their branches stark against the sky. Birds and animals are asleep or slow this month. Even my garden is asleep, sometimes under a coverlet of snow.
So I take my direction from the rest of nature and become still inside. What is going to be important to me this year? What do I want my life to look like? How will I focus my reading? My writing? My use of time and energy?
As I ask myself these questions, slowly ideas form in my mind as to where I want to focus. I write down these big ideas, from which I will derive the quarterly, monthly, weekly, and even daily intentions that land in my planner.
Laura Vanderkam, a time management expert that I particularly admire, often talks about the importance of being intentional in using your time. There are millions of things we can choose, but we have a limited amount of time. How we want our life to look, things we want to accomplish, priorities in our spiritual, physical, emotional, and intellectual lives that we want to set–all of these are the things we use to choose how to spend our time.
I will spend the next few weeks, curled up in a comfy chair in my bookroom with pen and paper in hand, reflecting on my progress over the last year and creating or sustaining the intentions for this upcoming year. This will help me to know if I used the time I have been given wisely the next time January rolls around again.
Do you have a specific time to set your goals or intentions? Are you intentional in your use of time? I’d love to hear about your choices in the comments below.
Now that 2020 is behind us and I’ve caught my reading journal up, I’m ready to reflect on what my reading life looked like last year. As with most other people, I have been at home a lot more than normal. While I continued to work from home for most of my regular hours, my commute shrunk to nothing for half the year and is still only a couple of times a week vs. every weekday.
Back in August, I did a reading goals check in on how my reading was going. At that point, I was reading almost 78% fiction and hoping to get to about 30%-70% nonfiction books to fiction books. I ended up reading 106 fiction and 30 nonfiction by the end of 2020. That’s 72% fiction and 28% nonfiction, which isn’t quite 30% but still the highest percentage I’ve read in recent years.
I did manage to squeeze another poetry book in, but because it was one that followed the Christmas calendar and didn’t end until Epiphany, I can’t count it for 2020. I’d like to bump the number of poetry books up to at least one a quarter or, even better, one every other month in 2021.
Audiobooks were so low–only five for the year. Losing my commute did a lot for my exercising and cooking, but killed my listening time. I ended up listening mostly to sermons and podcasts during my walks each day and dropped audiobooks altogether from March on. However, I have hopes for a better listening year in 2021. I’ve already downloaded Hilary Mantel’s third Cromwell book. I loved listening to Bring Up the Bodies on audio so I have high hopes for finishing The Mirror and the Light, too.
The biggest jump was in rereads: 64 of the 139 books I read were ones I had read before. That’s almost 50%! I put that down completely to compulsive comfort reading during the lockdown, pandemic, and political shenanigans throughout the year. I reread several mystery series, including Deborah Crombie’s Kincaid-James series and much of Charles Todd’s Ian Rutledge series. At the end of the year, I gulped down many of Agatha Christie’s Poirot novels and thoroughly enjoyed myself.
Here are the books I appreciated or enjoyed this most. Many of them were nonfiction.
Voices from the Past, Volume 2: Puritan Devotional Readings, edited by Richard Rushing – The deep devotion and theology of the Puritan theologians kept me grounded during this difficult year.
Life Path: Personal and Spiritual Growth Through Journal Writing by Luci Shaw and Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation by Ruth Haley Barton – I read both of these with a group of women and the discussions made the reading so much richer.
Beholding and Becoming: The Art of Everyday Worship by Ruth Chou Simons – The combination of the gorgeous artwork and theological truth made this a great book to read this autumn.
What’s Best Next: How the Gospel Transforms the Way You Get Things Done by Matt Perman and Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport – Both of these books on living a productive life were helpful although from completely different places theologically.
Jenny Walton’s Packing for a Woman’s Journey by Nancy Lindemeyer – I had forgotten how much I loved this book. This is one of two rereads that made my best of 2020 list. It’s filled with beauty–both in writing and subject matter–and I enjoyed every essay.
My fiction reading wasn’t nearly as rich, probably because I did so much rereading for comfort. However there were a few that rose to the top:
Sorcery & Cecelia: or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia C. Wrede – For sheer fun, this was a winner. It’s an epistolary novel (my favorite kind!) and clever, witty, and full of the best kind of magic.
The Windsor Knot by S.J. Bennett – This mystery set in Windsor Castle and involving Queen Elizabeth II and her secretary won’t be out until March 2021, but when it comes out, read it if you love mysteries and/or the royal family. It was a fun, fun book. I sped through it in two days and wasn’t sorry at all. I’m already looking forward to the sequel.
The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin – I read the first two of The Broken Earth Trilogy last winter. They are filled with amazing world-building and an intricate plot. Now that things are settling down again, I’m ready to pick up the final book in the trilogy to see how Jemisin ties it all up. She’s inventive and clever, and I recommend these to anyone who likes science fiction/fantasy.
The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge – A reread but a very special one. This story about mental illness and new beginnings is healing and beautiful.
Last, but definitely not least was Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell – I don’t know if I have the words, with which to praise this book. The plot was simple–a story about a wife of a famous man and their relationship before and after the loss of a child. It was how O’Farrell wrote it–the descriptions were lush, the characters were so well-drawn that you felt that you knew them personally, the plot of tight and held together, and the emotional punch was gut-wrenching and tear-inducing but yet I couldn’t put it down. There is a bit of magical realism and the Black Death, and Shakespeare. If you love any of those things or if you just want a “Thumping Good Read”, pick this one up.
As I reflect on my reading year in 2020, I can see gaps, but overall I’m happy with what I read last year, even if a lot of it was rereading. What was your favorite book from 2020 and what do you hope to read next?
For the past couple of years, I’ve been working on a book project about my grandfather’s pen and ink drawings. When he was courting my grandmother in the 1930s, they wrote letters to one another, and he always created a drawing on the envelope he sent her. He didn’t have much money, but the little piece of art he sent every few days meant more to her over time than anything he could have bought in a store. I’ve written about these envelopes here, here, and here.
As I’ve researched, organized, and written some caption drafts, gradually the project has started to organize itself. At first, I had no idea how to structure the book. I knew I wanted it to include copies of the envelopes themselves, something of my grandparent’s story, and information about the historical and cultural events depicted in the drawings.
When I began, I thought I would have to research and write about all 180 envelopes. However, after scanning and working on the first dozen or so, a form has taken shape. Using each drawing as a type of prop, I told the story of what America was like in the 1930s and, when appropriate, how my grandparents’ lives were examples of that particular piece of culture, event, or occurrence.
Now I am ready to start writing a book proposal. However, I’m hung up on who the audience should be. Would this book be attractive to readers of memoir, art historians, or people interested in America during the Depression years? Or is it more of a “coffee table” book?
One piece of advice is to find a book similar to the one you want to write and determine that book’s audience. My difficulty is that I have not found a book similar to this. Is it memoir? Kind of. Is it art history? Not really, but I suspect anyone into envelope art would be interested in it. Is it history? History-light, perhaps, as I’m not a trained historian. My day job is research, not history.
Part of marketing is knowing your target audience so that you can sell it to them. I’m not a publisher, a literary agent, or an experienced author, but even I know that you need people to buy your book if a publisher is going to take a chance on it. Therefore, part of the book proposal I will be writing in the next few months will have to include information on my target audience.
Have you written a book proposal or had to determine your target audience for your writing or another creative endeavor? How did you do it? I’d love to hear from anyone who has a great idea on how to find an audience. Or, if you have an idea on who my target audience might be, I’m all ears.
October was a busy month. My son got married in another state, which required planning, travelling, and quarantining afterward. Then, a few days ago, I was in charge of a virtual conference that has taken a lot of time and work this past month to plan and coordinate all the moving parts.
Added to those two big things, a third big event was the reopening of library access to the public, which requires a lot more time in the library branches. I’m so happy to see and help our community again in person, albeit masked and socially distanced.
However, I have still carved out to read and listen to various articles and podcasts. Here are some of my favorites:
Feed the Better Hunger – I used to tell my boys that taking in too much “junk food of the mind” is as bad for your brain as eating too much junk food is for your body. Glenna Marshall writes about what we should be hungering for in this article. We need to intentionally learn to love what is good for us and this article points us in the right direction.
6 Tips to Help You Tackle the Classic Novel – Anne Bogel gives six great ideas on how to read that classic from high school that you skipped. I 100% agree about trying it on audio. I finally managed to read Moby Dick several years ago by listening to the audio, and Heart of Darkness was much more manageable when read by Kenneth Branagh.
Your Devotional is Not Your Bible – As usual, Jen Wilkin encourages the reading and study of God’s Word over everything else: “Devotional writing, when done with excellence, may supplement our time in the Scriptures, but it must not subordinate or supplant it.”
The Hidden Discipline of John Stott – This is an inspiring, convicting article. If I was half as disciplined in my reading and writing as John Stott was, I’d be a first class scholar. Definitely something to aspire to!
Fact Checking Is the Core of Nonfiction Writing. Why Do So Many Publishers Refuse to Do It? – A longish article on the need for fact checking nonfiction books and the lack of industry standards. This was interesting to me as I’m currently working on a nonfiction book and anyone who is also writing nonfiction might want to give it a read. Fact checking and copy editing are not the same thing, and I had been thinking about how to make sure my facts were correct (important when you work in research for a living!) when I saw this article.
As I mentioned in my last post, I had hoped to finish Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell by the end of October and I did. I think this was my favorite fiction book in 2020. The combination of historical detail, rich characterization, an inventive plot, magical realism, and deep, deep emotions left me with a huge book hangover and food for thought for weeks. If you like Shakespeare or you like historical fiction, you will like this book.
A podcast on the three stages of creative work: friction, flow, and finalization – At the beginning of episode 37, Cal Newport talks about how all creative work has these three stages, what each stage entails, and how to push through to complete your project. I’ve often said that writing is 25% thought, 25% drafting, and 50% editing/polishing. Even if my percentages are a bit off, it was nice to know that I’m not the only one who has noticed that the majority of the project is not the fun drafting part.