Morning Quiet

We live in a world full of noise. Everywhere we go, there are TVs and cell phones and radios. I work in a library, and even there, now that we no longer require silence and hush people, it can be noisy. If you are similar and you find noise interferes with thinking and meditation, what do you do?

If there isn’t a place of quiet, find a time of quiet. The best time I have found are those early morning hours before people want to get out of bed.

Most mornings I get up at 5:00 a.m. When I confess this to others, they are appalled at the thought of getting out of their cozy beds at that hour, far earlier than they need to get up to prepare for their day. Admittedly it is difficult to convince my body to leave the warmth of my bed some days, but I have a bigger goal in mind than bodily comfort. My morning time is a time for prayer, for contemplation, for creativity. Without it, I go through my day mindlessly and on auto-pilot.

Now, I’m sure you’re thinking, “That’s fine for you. You enjoy the morning.” Well, yes, I do. I’ve always been a lark and found it easy to get up early. Your quiet time may be in the evenings, long after everyone has gone to bed. However, the main reason morning works better for me is not because of my love for mornings. It is because, in the morning, the world has not yet had the opportunity to start demanding. By evening, I am depleted by the many people who have needed me and the tasks that required my attention. My own thoughts have had no chance of developing because I am too full of other people’s thoughts or I’m just too weary to think.

In the morning, I read Scripture and pray, and then with a fresh mind and a quiet heart, I can hear the thoughts I want to share and sometimes even write them down. C.S. Lewis said,

It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.

In the quiet of that first hour, I am recentering my mind and heart on the true, the good, and the beautiful. Whenever I skip that time, the ‘wild animals” run the zoo of my mind, and I have a much harder time putting things into their correct perspective. Once I put aside my wishes and hopes for what the Lord is asking of me that day, I can see more clearly what to do and how to think. Once I find that quiet within, I can hear my true thoughts, underneath the stresses and to do’s and oughts and shoulds.

In the very early morning, my family is asleep and aside from the dog next door, the only thing I hear is the humming of my computer and the song of the birds. I can look out my window and see the sun just peeping up from the horizon and let the thoughts and ideas and feelings arise from inside my heart and mind and pour forth onto paper.

Since I do not live alone, I need to have two places in which to seek that morning quiet. Most mornings, I hide out in my bedroom because my husband leaves early for work and it is quiet there. Some mornings (on weekends and vacations particularly), he is still sleeping so I  wander downstairs to my book room with my coffee, close the doors, and seek my quiet there.

Whichever room I choose, the main requirement is that there are no competing voices in my head. That means I need to quiet the external voices—TV, radio, internet, etc. And then I need to quiet the internal voices—the clock, my desire to be lazy, my worries and anxieties, and all of the “ought to do’s”.

As I sit in silence before the Lord, I pray for wisdom to share what He has laid on my heart. Sometimes those sharings are spiritual, lessons I have learned or am learning, to help my fellow travelers on their journey through life. Other times I want to write about books, my favorite topic, and share what I have read that may be enjoyable or helpful for those reading. Occasionally I share a glimpse of my heart so that my readers can hear what is most important to me and what I am convinced ought to be most important to all of us.

However, if I’m bombarded with external voices and demands, I cannot read, meditate, and then compose what is on my heart and mind. So, I seek quiet.

Apparently, I’m not alone in this. Jesus got up early in the morning to pray and seek His Father’s will for Him:

Now in the morning, having risen a long while before daylight, He went out and departed to a solitary place; and there He prayed. (Mark 1:35)

So He Himself often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed. (Luke 5:16)

Surrounded by people and demands, Jesus knew that He could not pray or meditate or plan for what He should do and where He should go unless He had time alone in the quiet to pray. Martin Luther, Saint Benedict, and many other Christians also found the early morning a good time for prayer and meditation.

Will you join me and find your quiet time each day? It could be morning. Or perhaps nighttime is the best time for you. If so, you may need extra time to rid yourself of the day’s voices and demands to hear your own thoughts and those of God. Whenever and wherever you choose, give yourself time each day to read, pray, and meditate. It won’t be long before you find that your morning (or evening) quiet hour is the most valuable of your day.

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Favorite Authors: Dorothy L. Sayers

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While I read widely and in a variety of genres, my favorite fiction books are invariably British detective stories, and the author I like best of all in that genre is Dorothy L. Sayers. I first discovered the Lord Peter Wimsey novels just after I graduated from university. I don’t remember now just how I found them, but I suspect that I was wandering in the public library after work one evening and picked one up. Or it could be that someone recommended them to me, knowing I enjoyed Agatha Christie. At that point, I had read most of Christie and was looking for a new author.

However it came about, I soon discovered how much I liked Sayers. Her plots were clever but fair. The clues were always there if you looked hard enough for them, but she didn’t make it easy for you. The first several Lord Peter novels are not great character studies. As much as I enjoyed them, Peter seemed a bit too good to be true and Bunter was almost too perfect. The mystery plots are gems though. Where else would you read about advertising agencies or change ringing (ringing of the bells in church towers)?

In each book, there is a depth of knowledge that enhances the reader’s experience. There is something to learn, something to dig into, something to be exposed to for the first time in such a way that your interest is grabbed and you can’t wait to find out more.

For instance, I had never read much about the fens and how they flood. A cricket match was a plot point in one novel, and I’ve been intrigued by the game ever since I first read about bowling and achieving a century. I suspect that Bellona Club is the origination of my interest in World War I and Remembrance Day is now a date on my calendar (Veteran’s Day for us in the U.S.). I learned that Dukes were tried by the House of Lords rather than in a regular court so that they could be tried by a jury of their peers (this right was abolished in 1948). Lord Peter novels first introduced me to first editions, the color primrose, shell shock, and the lot of a generation of unmarried women due to the numerous casualties in the Great War.

My favorite books are those with Harriet Vane. She was introduced in Strong Poison. Shockingly for the time period, she was on trial for the murder of her lover. In the 1930’s, good girls didn’t live with men who weren’t their husbands, and Harriet’s background (daughter of a country doctor) seemed to indicate that she was one of the good girls.

However, she lived in Bloomsbury and had picked up some of the Bohemian ways of that set. For a time she had set up house with an artist, but broke off with him several months before the events in Strong Poison took place. Her ex-lover was murdered, she was accused, and Lord Peter first saw her in court while she was being tried for the crime.

Harriet brings a three-dimensional character to the Wimsey books that makes them good novels as well as great detective puzzles. Her inner dialogues, choices, and interactions with Peter help to elevate the books to a higher level than most other mysteries. Gaudy Night, one of my top five favorite novels of all time, is a masterpiece of learning, character, plot, and description. When I finally had the opportunity to go to Oxford for the first time not many months after reading Gaudy Night, I walked the streets with Harriet beside me.

Busman’s Honeymoon introduced me to poetry and one of my favorite poets—John Donne. I especially enjoyed the quote game Harriet and Peter play with the police inspector. My school French was required to translate a letter written to Peter in that language. There is no translation because Sayers assumed that her readers spoke that language as many educated people did in her day.

If Sayers had just written these detective stories, she would be remembered as an author. However, she also wrote plays, essays, and produced an excellent translation of Dante. In fact, her translations of Purgatorio and Paradiso were the first I encountered and they still have a special place in my heart. Her essays are amazing, and one of my favorites, The Dogma is the Drama, is a first rate defense of the importance of theology to the Christian.

Reading Dorothy L. Sayers’s works and about her life helped me to realize that Christians can be intellectuals. I found many more Christian intellecturals afterwards, but her top notch scholarship combined with her strong Christian faith  gave me “permission” to be a thinking Christian.

I had been surrounded by Christians all my life but it was mostly those who weren’t Christians who read the Great Books and wrote strong essays and became scholars. Sayers introduced me to the grand tradition of the Christian scholar and the fact that women can be scholars, too.

Her study of medieval Italian during the air raids of World War II sent me back to my Latin and gave me the desire to read medieval literature. Her theological essays gave me the impetus to go deeper in my own theological studies. And, of course, her essay, The Lost Tools of Learning, was one of the main starting points to the eighteen years of homeschooling I did with my children. I wanted that kind of education for them. I wanted them to be as learned, as tough-minded, and as logical in their thinking as she was.

I became a scholar, a thinker, a true reader, a lover of poetry, and a writer as a result of my first picking up a mystery novel. That’s an amazing influence and the reason I place Sayers in the top five of all time best mystery novelists. She certainly earned her title as one of the Queens of Crime. I highly recommend her novels for anyone who likes detective fiction or just wants a good book to read. Who knows? You may be inspired to go off on an intellectual journey of your own as a result.

My Reading Life

You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me. —C. S. Lewis

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For anyone who has read my blog for any length of time, I’m sure you’ve discovered that I love to read. I cannot remember a time when I didn’t love books or have time for books in my life. As a child, the bookcase in my room was a never-ending source of delight. I read and reread favorite books. Every year a friend of my grandmother’s gave my brother and me books for Christmas. The Velveteen Rabbit, the Little House books, The Little Princess, and a set of six matching hardbacks, including titles such as Mary Poppins and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe were some of the titles I remember receiving from her.

My mother took us to the library regularly and once I was big enough and strong enough to bike there myself, I would go on my own. We lived in a small town for several years and the library was only a few miles away. By the time I was in junior high, I could go by myself.

I still remember that library. It was a little house on the town square, filled with books. I first read the Anne of Green Gables books and The Scarlet Pimpernel there. It’s funny that I remember no librarians, just stacks full of books to browse and borrow.

When I was in high school, we moved to a different state and I had a job at our town’s public library. That meant that I could bring books home every day after work. I didn’t have to wait for the once a week trip. It was in high school that I discovered Agatha Christie books, selling for 10 cents a piece at our library book sale. I spent many happy hours reading when my schoolwork was done and on weekends. I remember taking a book out with me to the woods, sitting in a chair with an apple and a book on a rainy Saturday, curled up on my bed one weekend with Gone with the Wind and astonishing my mother when I finished it by Sunday evening.

In the library where I worked, the fiction collection started on the left-hand wall, continued around the back wall, and finished on the right-hand wall. I started the A’s with Jane Austen and spent the last two years in high school working through classics like Sense and Sensibility, Jane Eyre, Les Miserables and many others. I also fell in love with the historical fiction books by Thomas Costain, Anya Seton, and Leon Uris.

Despite my studies in college, I still found time for pleasure reading. I mostly had to rely on the books that I had brought from home until my last year in college. The summer before my senior year, I moved to a house within walking distance of the university with a bunch of other girls.

Just around the corner, there was a tiny public library extension and any time I wasn’t at work that summer, I was reading. Our house didn’t have air conditioning and the nights could be unbearably warm so a book to read until 2 a.m. was a help in making myself tired enough to sleep in the heat.

I worked at my university after graduation. On weekends, I poked around used bookstores and made a trip to the main downtown library for something new to read. My collection of books was growing. I started branching out from historical fiction and mysteries into poetry, plays, and literary fiction. I first found Miss Manners and learned etiquette while giggling over her snarky attitude. I read biographies. It was at this time that I first discovered Anne Morrow Lindberg’s books of journals and letters that made such an impact on my life. I was single and not a party girl. I would go to work and afterwards my books would keep me company in the evenings.

I did finally get married, but I didn’t stop reading. My husband was in school so we spent evenings reading—me with my beloved classics and mysteries and he with his school books. This worked out well since it would have been hard if my new husband hadn’t understood my love for books.

After our children came, I was busy most of the day caring for them and the house but I still carved out time for books. With just one baby, I could find time to read while nursing, while he napped, before bed. However, when the second little guy came along, it was much harder. I was on the go all day. Every time I wasn’t doing something, I was exhausted and only wanted to sleep.

I was feeling starved, intellectually and spiritually, without time spent reading, reflecting, and writing. One day, I realized that after the baby’s early morning feed, he went back to sleep and I had an hour before my oldest woke up. Rather than go back to bed, as I had been doing, I used that time to read my Bible, to journal, to read uplifting books. I rediscovered my core being again as God’s Word nourished my spirit and mind, as I read good fiction and edifying nonfiction, as I reflected on new ideas, and wrote about what I was thinking and how I was growing.

When we started homeschooling our children, I introduced reading as a pastime to my children. I had read aloud to them for years, but now we spent long hours every day with books—reading, discussing, narrating. The boys would look forward to library day when we would go for library programs, gather a new stack of books, and spend the evening together, everyone with the book of their choice.

People asked me how I had time to read while homeschooling three children and running the house. My response was that I needed to read in order to do those things. Reading and studying was key to my ability to grow in my faith, teach my children what they needed to know, and to keep my sanity. Studies detailed how many women were on anti-depressants and other drugs in order to cope with the stresses of modern life. I found that if I kept learning and reading and regularly interacting with good ideas, those pastimes helped me with stress. I found strength in the nourishment I was receiving intellectually, emotionally, and, most importantly, spiritually.

These days I still read whenever I can find a few moments. Now that my children have grown up and starting new lives in working and higher education, I work at our local library so I still have plenty of books at my fingertips. Newly published books make their way to my nightstand, piles of books that I’m reading and pondering teeter around my “book room”, and my bookshelves still overflow.

What started as a common pastime as a child has turned into a way of life. I still spend many evenings and weekends with a book and a pot of tea. I do not regret the many hours spent in other people’s lives. I lived a thousand lives, traveled the world, and learned about life from other people’s experiences. Reading has enriched my life beyond all imagining. The reading life is the only life for me.

Focus Word of 2018

20170510_140503903_iOSAt the beginning of 2017, a friend encouraged me to choose a word to focus on for the year rather than make a slew of resolutions that I would probably end up ignoring. After much thought, I chose the word Transition for 2017. I knew that it would be a year of many endings and beginnings which can be stressful even when those things are good and normal.

Every time I felt grieved at the loss of my work of 18 years or frantic at learning to cope with a new schedule and responsibilities, I would remember that it was a transition year and would give myself some grace. It helped a lot as I adjusted to new schedules, new routines, and new duties.

A few weeks ago I was having a conversation with one of my sons, in which he commented that many people these days complain too much about their work, busyness, and life in general. I realized that I, too, had fallen into a habit of complaining more often than being thankful. Last night while watching the movie, Dunkirk, my husband commented that he was thankful he didn’t live in such a difficult time, which reminded me of how blessed we are to live in a comparatively safe country.

With those comments in mind, I decided to focus on the word Contentment in 2018. I have much for which I am thankful to the Lord. My life is full of blessings, small and large, not the least of which is my Savior, Jesus Christ, who leads, comforts, strengthens, and encourages me daily. Add to that, I have family and friends, a beautiful job, an enjoyable and challenging job, and more books than I can ever read. How can I ever feel sorry for myself!

Rather than focus on the difficulties and discouragements of daily life as is so easy to do, I want to look at the blessings instead and be content with where I am in my life and circumstances.

There are many ways to do this. One good way is to read books on thankfulness and contentment. Two I have read in the past and found helpful are The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs and One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp.

Another way to cultivate contentment is to count my blessings each morning. After my alarm goes off, I hit snooze, but I don’t use the nine minutes to sleep. Instead I pray and think of the things I am thankful for. This morning I was thankful for a warm bed and a warm house on such a bitterly cold morning. I thank the Lord for a job, for my family and friends, for books and learning, for music and flowers and laughter. Whatever I can think of that is a blessing in my life, I thank Him. It sets my heart and mind in the right direction for the day when I start with a grateful heart.

Sometimes I focus on gratitude and contentment by singing. When my boys were small and complaining, I taught them the old chorus that my grandmother used to sing,

Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your blessings, see what God has done!
Count your blessings, name them one by one,
Count your many blessings, see what God has done.

Singing praise to the Lord is a good way to combat a peevish spirit. I often sing during my prayer and Bible time, sometimes aloud and sometimes under my breath if the house is asleep. Many times I sing along with the radio in the car as I am driving or sit down at the piano and play and sing hymns and praise choruses. There are many ways and times to sing, and the Scripture encourages us to do so as in Ephesians 5:19-20: speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord, giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ….

Writing down my blessings in my journal is another way I cultivate thankfulness. When I see the results of a bitter, complaining spirit, I want to guard my tongue and stop grumbling. Complaint and ingratitude start in my heart and mind. If I focus merely on not uttering complaints, I’ve fought only half the battle. I must start with what I believe, and my words will flow out of the abundance of my heart. Seeing my thoughts and beliefs in black and white on a page helps me to refocus on what is right and true rather than on my transitory feelings.

Will you join me in cultivating a spirit of contentment in 2018? And if you hear me complaining, please remind me of my word of the year. I want to succeed in replacing a spirit of complaint with one of thanksgiving this year.

Achieving My Goal

There is nothing as satisfying as achieving a goal you’ve set for yourself, especially if that goal is one that stretches you outside of your comfort zone. As I wrote a few weeks ago, I decided to spend the month of November participating in NaNoWriMo to develop the habit of daily writing.

If I had plenty of time at home to work on my goal, reaching it would have been easier, but between going to work daily, organizing a conference, and preparing for Thanksgiving, my time has not been free and easy this month. Instead, I had to do what many writers did over the centuries.  Anthony Trollope, William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and many others had to fit their writing in around their day jobs and so did I. Each morning, I wrote until my timer went off, signaling that I had to quit writing for the day and prepare for work.

I wrote about books and reading, my faith, prayer, and listening to sermons, memories of my mother and favorite authors. Despite many responsibilities, I was able to carve out moments for reflection, creativity, and turning my thoughts into words and sentences and paragraphs.

I missed one day of writing and found myself writing in my head instead. I once read that the more you express love the more it grows, and creativity is similar. The more I wrote, the itchier my fingers grew, waiting for the time to put my words on paper.

I never stop thinking, but my thought life can become stagnant when I don’t feed it or let it flow freely. Like damming a stream, you can stop up your mind until the algae forms on top and nothing can grow because the water of your mind is stagnant. On the other hand, when you let your stream of thoughts run freely, the flow brings many kinds of thoughts and ideas and words and mental images tumbling out, eager to be shared. Writing daily gave my thoughts a place to go which, in turn, allowed more thoughts to form.

Before I started, I didn’t know whether I could make the time or have the discipline to write every day this past month. Some days I didn’t want to write. If I did my writing at the start of my day, I was more likely to succeed than if I waited until later in the day when distractions abounded and my brain was overflowing with too much input.

Like regular exercise, I became used to working on a new idea each morning and began to look forward to my daily creative time. I had listed topics for possible blog posts in October, but I ended up using only half of them because the more I wrote, the more new ideas would pop up during the day that I wrote about as soon as I could find time.

November was a good month, and I plan to continue to write or at least edit every day. I hope to share the fruits of my work with you over the next several months.

Do you write every day? If so, when is your best time for writing and how do you carve out time for your creativity each day?

Deep Work – Using Free Time Wisely

I just finished reading about Rule #3 in Deep Work by Cal Newport. Rule #3 is Quit Social Media. I won’t go into all of the reasons he mentions or some of his suggestions as to how. You can get a good idea from his TED talk  (or read his explanation in the book).

Instead, I want to focus on the last section of the chapter because I found it very motivating. His subheading is Don’t Use the Internet to Entertain Yourself and in this section, he refers often to Arnold Bennett’s How to Live on 24 Hours a Day.

We tend to think that distracted free time and wasting time after work is a recent phenomenon. Apparently it was also a problem in the early 20th century when Bennett wrote his book. I read Bennett’s book about ten years ago and found it very helpful and practical. Newport refers to it often and, in particular, focuses on two main points that Bennett made.

The first is Put more thought into your leisure time. Newport says,

It’s crucial, therefore, that you figure out in advance what you’re going to do with your evenings and weekends before they begin. Structured hobbies provide good fodder for these hours, as they generate specific goals to fill your time. A set program of reading, a la Bennett, where you spend regular time each night making progress on a series of deliberately chosen books, is also a good option, as is, of course, exercise or the enjoyment of good (in-person) company. p. 213

He goes on to say that he spends his evenings reading, with his computer and phone tucked away.

The second point he pulls out from Bennett reminded me of Charlotte Mason, who suggested switching subjects often for children since changing to a fresh type of work helps our minds not become too fatigued. Bennett wrote,

One of the chief things which my typical man [or woman] has to learn is that the mental faculties are capable of a continuous hard activity; they do not tire like an arm or a leg. All they want to change—not rest, except in sleep.

Newport goes on to confirm this,

If you give your mind something meaningful to do throughout all your waking hours, you’ll end the day more fulfilled, and begin the next one more relaxed, than if you instead allow your mind to bathe for hours in semiconscious and unstructured Web surfing. p. 214

This section resonated with me. There are so many times that I am annoyed with myself for wasting time over too much time surfing the Web, but I am rarely dissatisfied with time spent reading a good book or writing or knitting or walking around the block. I am finding that I must actually plan for those things or it’s all too easy to waste time doing nothing. If I write down the things I want to accomplish, work or recreation, on my daily “to do” list, I am much more likely to do them than if I just float through my day. That may not be true for you, but try planning your free time this week. Or pick up Arnold Bennett’s book and see if he inspires you to give some structure to your recreation. I’d love to hear how it goes for you.

Autumn has come

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The other morning I stepped outside to go to work and discovered that autumn had arrived. The sky was that perfect blue that you only see in September. Geese were flying overhead, calling to one another as they flew toward warmer climes. A slight mist was floating over the trees, bushes, and the flowers in my garden. The air had the faintest crispness, hinting at the cooler weather soon to come. Just like that, in the space of a day, summer had turned to autumn.

Autumn is my favorite time of year. It’s a time of new beginnings, of starting over, of turning the page of my life. As I was growing up, January never seemed as strong a new year as September, when the season began to change, new classes were starting, new books were bought and begun, and new unknowns were yet to be explored. New notebooks were full of white, clean pages, waiting to be filled with thoughts and ideas, facts and questions, many of which would influence my soul and my mind from then until the present.

Even now, when I no longer go to school myself nor teach others, I still view September as the beginning of my year. I turn over the calendar page to September and breathe a sigh of relief—the heat of August is waning and cool weather is right around the corner. Sweaters, my favorite garments, will soon be required in the mornings and evenings. Lap blankets and hot tea will accompany me to our back deck, as I read, write, and ponder the world while my nose grows rosy in the chill and my fingers and cheeks get cool.

Autumn is also a time for reflection. As the world around us readies itself for winter, I watch all the non-essential things be cast off. Plants stop blooming, trees drop their leaves, birds fly off and leave their old nests behind, animals prepare to sleep, and insects die after taking care to leave eggs for the next year. Everything prepares for cold days, in which only the truly necessary things will be kept.

So it’s a time for me to get back to basics, too. What is truly necessary in my life? What activities and relationships and duties are sapping my strength and dividing my attention unnecessarily? What is not in line with my most important goals, the things I believe I’m called by God to accomplish? Which thoughts are entangling me and keeping me from walking this particular path in a God-honoring way?

It’s a time to regroup, to choose again from all of the good opportunities for growth and service, to decide on the best things that fit in to the calling on my life at this time. With prayer and pondering, I consider each activity. I measure, not just my time but also my energy and margins, to determine how many extra things I can fit in to my schedule. I weigh the benefits (to others as well as to myself) of every opportunity before me to decide whether or not it fits in with my life goals, my family’s needs, and the gifts with which I have been blessed.

Autumn is a time for new beginnings, for shedding expectations and unnecessary encumbrances, and for looking to future blessings and work with a joyful heart. How glad I was, the other morning, to see that autumn had arrived!