A Room of My Own

For many years, my bedroom was the room where I did much of my study, reading, writing, and thinking. Morning is when I read, meditate, pray, reflect, and work on my current study project. With children in the house and a busy schedule, there was no other time and place to work on my own studies and cultivate my devotional life.

Now that my children are grown and mostly gone, I am working every day outside the home so I still don’t have a lot of time. However I still write and read in the morning, and I now have a place for my studies. When we moved into our house, my husband decided that since I was the only woman in a house full of men, it would be a good thing for me to have a room I could call my own. He had our contractor take the back porch and turn it into a room off the back of the house.

It’s a jewel of a room. The pale green walls reflect the sunlight that pours in like liquid gold throughout the day. The dark wood floor is covered with an oriental carpet with rich, deep colors, which my father gave me. Family heirlooms dot the room and the wingback chairs are both elegant and comfortable. And, of course, there is a full wall of bookshelves, covered in books of all kinds, so that I have novels to sink into and bits of information right at my fingertips.

Virginia Woolf wrote in her famous essay, A Room of One’s Own, that for a woman to write fiction, [she] must have money and a room of her own…. She did not just mean a physical place, but also that one must have leisure as well as mental and emotional space in order to pour out her thoughts onto a page.

While I believe that anyone can write in the middle of a busy, crowded room, if necessary, as journalists and other professional writers have learned to do, I also can see what Woolf was implying. In order to write, you must create a mental space to take in information through reading, watching, observing, and then meditate on those things long enough to turn them into your own thoughts. Once those thoughts are formed, they must then be written down in some way. All of this takes time and space and energy, much of which is lacking in busy family life, especially when the children are small.

Of course, a mother must make time for her children. Interruptions must be allowed. Attention must be turned from her work to her child’s needs. Reeve Lindbergh discussed this in her memoir, Under a Wing:

…if I knocked at my mother’s door, she always answered, and if I entered the room, she never seemed to mind. She would put down her pen immediately, and smile gently, and ask what I wanted.

However, since my children have grown and moved out into the world to embrace their lives as adults, it has been easier for me to go deeper and further in my thinking and writing. The empty nest has allowed me to acquire the mental and physical space I need work. Having a room with doors that can be closed signals to others that I am in working mode: please do not disturb. I can now fall into what I call the “black hole of research” without being concerned for hungry tummies and skinned knees.

It doesn’t mean that the men in my house always pay attention to that closed door (which is why I still get up before everyone else in the mornings), but it does help me to feel less conflicted and less likely to be interrupted, which allows me to more freely pour out what I want to communicate. Long stretches of time are still scant, but with careful planning, I can often find corners of time and sometimes even a few hours to gaze out the window, read beautiful prose, chase down my myriad of thoughts, and write what’s in my heart.

A room of one’s own—what a luxury and a comfort to have this place of beauty in which to work and think and ponder the important things of life. This room, this jewel, is in the top ten of things for which I am thankful every day.

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Favorite Authors: Madeleine L’Engle

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Last week I finished A Circle of Quiet, the first in the Crosswicks books, by Madeleine L’Engle. It has been on my “to be read” list for years. However, I had never found the right time or been in the right mood for it until now. What a lovely book! L’Engle talks about the writing life, family, community, God, and many other things. It’s a memoir of sorts but so much more. Listening to her voice, I heard echoes of ideas I have pondered, events I have meditated upon, and values I also hold dear. It gave me hope that my writing is not in vain and that I must continue to pursue it as long as I am called to put words on paper.

This is not the first time that L’Engle has written something that filtered into my mind as sunlight filters through the branches of a stand of trees. In my early teens, I read A Wrinkle in Time for the first time. The protagonist, Meg, was so like me—nerdy, misunderstood, thoughtful, awkward. I had braces but no glasses at that point in my life. Instead, I had wild, curly hair in a time when everyone had straight hair, “feathered back”.  My nose was stuck in a book every possible moment, I spent hours writing in journals, and I was still fond of my dolls, although I’d never dream of letting anyone at school find out.

I loved Meg and her search for her father, the quirky Mrs. Whatsit and the adventure. When Meg found a friend in Calvin, who seemed out of her reach, I realized that I might not always be weird and misunderstood. Her little brother Charles Wallace, her mother’s lab at the house, and making spaghetti sauce while doing research charmed me.

The sequel, A Wind in the Door, was another favorite. Looking back, I suspect it had something to do with my love of biology in high school and choice of a major in biochemistry. I spent many hours in the library after finishing A Wind in the Door, reading about mitochondria and wishing that farandolae existed so I could discover them.

Both of the books helped form my thinking as a teenager. I learned that being odd was okay, that big thoughts were allowable, and that someday my outer and inner lives would reach an equilibrium of some sort.

I read many of L’Engle’s adult fiction years later including one of my favorite books, A Small Rain, and its sequel, A Severed Wasp. As I read these two books I realized how L’Engle incorporated her belief about God throughout her books, which caused me to view her writing in a new light.

Five years ago, I first picked up one of her nonfiction books, The Rock That is Higher: Story as Truth. I marked so many of the thoughts, it’s almost a solid underline. I did the same with Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art a couple years later.

I plan to read the rest of the Crosswicks quartet soon and someday finish the Austin books (I’ve only read the first). I know that Madeleine L’Engle’s books have much more to say to me as a writer, as a human being, and as a Christian. It is a delight to know there are so many of her works I have yet to read for the first time. I look forward to learning much from them as well as enjoying her prose and sampling her poetry.

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.

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?

Daily writing and NaNoWriMo

For the past four years I have been leading and facilitating local writers groups at the library where I work. Each November I encourage the writers to take part in NaNoWriMo, but I have never participated myself. I had multiple excuses: I write nonfiction, not novels. I am homeschooling and working so when would I find time to write?  I could never write that many words in a month. That’s for real writers not my wannabe self.

NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. Each year hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world attempt to write 50,000 words in November. If they succeed, they “win”. What do they win? Nothing monetary, but they will have a completed rough draft of a novel and a banner to download to their website/social media.

So why participate? There are several reasons: it’s more fun to write with others cheering you on which happens a lot during the month. It’s more likely you will sit down and write when you have made it public you are writing 50,000 words. There is nothing quite like the pressure of making a public pledge to keep you accountable. Even if you don’t achieve 50,000 words, you will still develop the discipline of writing every day.

Writing is only successful when you sit down every day and put words on the paper. Neil Gaiman said, “To be a good writer… read a lot and write every day.” A writer once commented that it takes a million words before you are a competent writer. That means if you write 1,000 words a day, it will take three years of daily writing to get the bad writing out of your system. Only then will you start to write the good stuff. But if you never start, you will never reach competency.

I cheered others on but never took part myself until I  decided to join in the fun this year. Why did I change my mind?

First, I discovered the “rebels” group. There are various group forums on the NaNoWriMo site. Groups for research, various genres, resources and support, fans, and the rebel group. The rebel group includes poets, playwrights, bloggers, nonfiction writers, and others. They set their own goals. Some want to write 50,000 words on a nonfiction project. Others want to write a poem a day for 30 days or work on their thesis or set research goals for a new book. There are as many goals as rebels, which is okay.

Since there was a group in which I would fit, I thought about joining. But what would I write? I still have far too much research to do on my book and I didn’t want to set research goals this first time out. I did, however, want to develop the discipline of writing every day, and I decided to write 30 blog post drafts in 30 days.

I won’t be posting all thirty immediately since the point of this exercise is getting a rough draft down.  However, I hope to post at least once a week, and by the end of the month, if I succeed, I will have two things: thirty blog post drafts for the future and the discipline of writing every day.

As I have been writing regularly over the last couple of weeks, I’ve noticed that it easier to get my thoughts on paper and I have been increasingly creative. Also, it is autumn and I spend more time thinking and pondering and meditating this time of year.

To reach my goal, I’ve been rearranging my morning time customs: I am getting up earlier each morning to make time for more contemplation and prayer, more reading, and regular writing. I am spending less time on social media and the internet. I am picking up pen and journals more often. I’m attempting to spend more time with real books rather than electronic books.

I’m not against electronic books but it is too easy to get distracted when the internet is on the same device as the book. With a paper book in my hand and the internet devices in another room, I am more likely to lose myself in the story than go look up a rabbit trail topic. With a paper journal and pen, I am more likely to keep writing rather than go find the perfect word or do research on my current topic or find the exact wording of a quote I want to use.

Expect to see more regular posts from now on and also ask me how it’s going. If my friends and family know about this, hopefully they will encourage me, keep me accountable, and check in on my progress throughout the month.

Are you participating in NaNoWriMo this year? I’d love to hear about your goals and cheer you on in your writing.

Letters to Estelle

When my grandmother, Lee Estelle Wood, was 22 years old, she broke her ankle.  While that would normally be considered a painful, inconvenient event, for Estelle it was the beginning of a relationship that would last a lifetime. As she was convalescing, Estelle received a get well card from a childhood acquaintance, Victor Lawrence Doyle.  Thus began years of letters exchanged between Estelle, who lived in Baltimore, MD, and Victor, who lived in Wilmington, DE.

What made these letters special was not the contents, although those were precious to the recipients, but the envelopes.  Each envelope had a pen and ink drawing on it.  Over the years of their courtship and beyond, Victor created over 200 pieces of art on the envelopes of his letters.

The envelope below shows a picture of Estelle, waiting by the phone for Victor’s call.  In the 1930’s, when the letters were exchanged, America was in the midst of the Great Depression.  There wasn’t much money for “extras”. Phone calls were expensive and train trips were even more, which meant that most communication was in letters. By 1935, when this letter was sent, Victor and Estelle had been corresponding for over a year and were including phone calls. Their weekly “date” usually consisted of a phone call at 7:15 P.M. on Saturday evenings.  Between the letters, phone calls, and an occasional trip to Baltimore, Victor courted Estelle from 1933 until 1936.

Telephone call April 3 1935

The problem of distraction or how it seems harder to think deeply these days

 

Like so many people today, our family owns and uses computers, smart phones, tablets, and ipods.  For much of the day, an observer would notice that most or all of us is doing something with an electronic—listening to music or audio books, checking email, playing a game, writing a blog post, looking at facebook, reading an article, and so forth.  Most of those things are not a bad way to spend time necessarily but what I’ve begun to notice is that the more time I spend doing things electronically, the more distracted I become.

I have been musing about how to approach this difficulty I’m having with distraction and this week I read two articles which gave me some ideas on how to minimize or, even better, reverse some of this trend of thinking shallowly due to my continual distraction.  The first was an article on Facebook (how ironic that it would be on one of the biggest timewaster sites of them all!), 7 Skills Your Grandparents Had that You Don’t.   While some of my friends and I agreed that we do know how to do all of the things on the list (except perhaps haggling), none of us write real letters any more and we regret that loss.  The second article, Unplugging  Your Student–Focusing and Communicating in the Present, is one I read this morning about ways to help your students learn to manage the distractions in order to study more effectively.

Since I am quite sure that my increasing inability to focus on the task at hand is due, at least in part, to my increased use of electronics, these articles helped me to think about some things I can do to help to reverse this shallowness:

1. Write real letters again.  Two of my friends, who live in distant states, and I have decided to each write a letter a month to the others.  While two letters a month is not very much, it is a start, and I’m curious to see if my communication with these friends will be of a different quality via pen and paper vs. email.  I will have to slow down and think more carefully before writing with pen and paper than when I write digitally.

2. Read my “real” Bible instead of the Bible on my tablet and use my paper journal at least five times a week.  I used to copy Scripture and devotional reading as well as write prayers, lyrics to hymns, and my thoughts on my reading almost daily for many, many years but I’ve noticed that I rarely do so now that I use my Kindle Fire for my devotional time.  I suspect that fact many account for the feeling that my devotions are more shallow than they used to be.  I want to see if it makes a difference if I go back to the older style of reading and note-taking.

3. Only allowing myself to check my phone or tablet after I’ve spent a minimum of 45-50 minutes on a task, whether that be cooking dinner, ironing, reading a book, correcting papers, gardening, or working on schoolwork with my students.  By re-learning how to focus on the task at hand for a reasonable amount of time, I’m hoping to also relearn how to think more deeply than I have lately.

4.  As a companion to #3, I intend to stop checking my phone when I am with other people_–family, friends, or even standing in line at the store.  I used to talk with the people around me so much more than I do now that I can bury my face in my electronics.  Instead I need to leave my phone and tablet in my purse or in another room when I am reading with the children, playing a game, having a meal, or just relaxing on the sofa with my husband.

My plan is to start these four things immediately.  I’ll be sure to check back at the end of the summer to report how things are going.