Monday, February 4, 2013

Journal Keeping

A long time ago (before kids, etc.) I actually had time to journal and kept a daily journal.  The thought of doing so now overwhelms me.   So deep in my bookshelves I had a book called Journal Keeping: Writing for Spiritual Growth by Luann Budd. 

Here are some interesting thoughts I found in this book:
Private writing gives us the time we need to pause and consider our lives.

Some of us are unaware of or flaws and the reasons we do what we do.  J.P. Morgan said “there are two reasons why a man does anything.  There’s a good reason, and there’s the real reason.

There are three “lights” in our lives: the Holy Spirit, the study of Scripture, and our conversations with others.  Journaling can help us determine when those 3 lights converge.

Do not just write to record what you already know.  Your thinking should develop as you write – generate new thoughts and extend your knowledge in new ways.

A warning to school teachers: “Beware of the cute idea.”  Do not let clever teaching methods replace the substantive information actually taught.

Knowing the facts of a Bible story is not the same as experiencing the text of Scripture.  Journaling helps you go deeper.

Spend time on one verse, to see more.

Writing helps to sustain focused thought for a long time to figure out what you think.

Use writing to scrutinize all aspects of life and find God in the midst of the mess.

I do not expect to be able to have the time and discipline to journal regularly again for many years.  But, I still dream of being able to!

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Gift of a Letter

Before I got married and had children (we were "older" when we got married so had kids right away) I loved the author Alexandra Stoddard.  She writes such inspirational books about elegant living.  Now, as I juggle my ridiculously busy life, I need practical advice more than elegant advice.  Her books now have a comical tone to them.

One I found on my shelf and read recently, Gift of A Letter, is particularly comical in light of texting, Facebooking, etc.  It is about the niceties of writing letters (she means with a pen, on paper, to be mailed via the post office):
Some of her suggestions seem so ludicrous to me that I wondered if it was me or was it her?  For example, she suggests that you go to the Crane headquarters in Manhattan and pick out a family ink to be used on all of your "house stationery."  She suggests that husbands and wives can use different fonts for their formal stationery, but should coordinate the ink colors and the paper types.  Many years ago she had the printers at Crane design a watermark especially for her which they keep on file and she uses on all of her various types of stationery which she has made there.

For less formal letters, she suggests that you hand make marbleized paper with matching envelopes.  Or perhaps paint beautiful calligraphy borders around plain parchment paper you purchased on your last trip to Paris. 

Once you write your letter, Stoddard suggests you read it over a few times, out loud.  That way you can listen to the rhythm of your writing and rewrite sections which don't convey the message you intend.  Is she kidding?  Do multiple drafts of personal correspondence?

She even discusses how you should store the various ink cartridges you have for your fountain pens.  And if your local post office balks at the wax seals you use to close your personal correspondence, she suggests that you "double envelope" those special envelopes, to protect the wax seal.

She claims that she has amassed a varied stamp collection over the years and chooses Texas stamps for her friends in Dallas, flower stamps for her relatives who like to garden, etc.

In addition to giving what I consider ridiculous advice about my own letter writing, Stoddard explores numerous books she has read of other people's correspondence.  Most of these books were by authors and historical fiction.  Some of the references were interesting. 

She indicates that she saves every letter she receives.  Somehow she must organize these.  I personally have never saved a letter someone wrote me.  I cannot imagine saving a lifetime of letters for publication.  I have no expectation that anyone would save a letter I have written them.

But, for example, Stoddard suggests saving all of the letters you and your daughter write to each other and have them bound for posterity.

If you think that I am exaggerating or joking, here is an exact paragraph which Stoddard writes (I have not edited this at all):

On that particular letter writing session, I used sky blue paper with hand-painted fuchsia borders and fuchsia-tissue-lined envelopes.  I bought fuchsia ink cartridges so the ink matched the border.  I even found some sealing wax that was color-coordinated; that inspired me to make the extra effort and use my signet ring to stamp the letters with a personal touch.  Once you've made this kind of effort, choosing an attractive stamp shows panache.

See what I mean?  I read this book and wondered if I am crazy or if she is crazy.  She describes a world which is so different than mine it was mind-boggling.  The book was written in 1990, before e-mail and social media.  Still, the ideas she presents are not inspiring to me, they are laughable.  I do send handwritten thank you notes and Christmas cards, but that is the extent of my personal correspondence.  Sometimes I will send sympathy cards or get well cards.  Perhaps the occasional birthday card.  But Stoddard's ideas are either completely outdated (by 200 years!) or represent a completely different subculture of wealthy Manhattanites with a lot more time on their hands than I have.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Bringing Up Bebe

Having traveled a lot throughout Europe before I was married, I was intrigued by the idea of this book: how French parenting compares with American parenting.  Ex-patriot American write Pamela Duckerman has written a very readable, enjoyable book:
Duckerman lives in Paris with her British husband.  Although much of her book is anecdotal, the differences between how Parisians raise small children and Americans do is startling. Here are some highlights:

-  French living rooms and kitchens rarely have any toys in them; all the toys and "baby stuff" is kept in the child's room.  If the child does bring a toy into the public area of the house, it is returned to their room when they are done playing with it.  By contrast, our living room frequently is covered with toys.  All of my parent friends, as well as myself, constantly bemoan the excessive quantity of toys we have in our homes.  Yet, despite years of hating and complaining about the toy clutter, it continues.
-  French babies generally sleep through the night within the first 2 or 3 months of life.
-  French women are calm, discreet, and extremely decisive.  They would never jokingly call themselves "neurotic" or brag about the "chaos" in their life.  If they have any self doubt, it is kept completely hidden.
-  When a newborn cries at night, French parents do not immediately rush to the baby.  Instead, they do the "pause."  If you wait a few minutes, the baby will often return to sleep.  If the baby does not return to sleep in a few minutes, then the parents respond to them.  The babies learn from birth that someone will not immediately come to their aid if they make a tiny noise.  They also learn to be patient for a few minutes.
-  Little babies need to play by themselves some, to learn that they can be alone from time to time and do not always need to be on "mama's hip."  The mother needs time to herself to freshen up, do her make-up, etc.
- Duckerman frequently sees what Americans would call a miracle: small children playing quietly by themselves while the adults in the room have a cup of coffee, a piece of pie, and a calm, peaceful adult conversation.  For an hour!  The mothers tell the children "attend," which is French for "wait."  They do not say "stop" or "quiet" to their kids. 
- In America we act like it is acceptable for small children to have no self control.  We excuse the behavior.  French parents train their children in self control from birth.  Life is more pleasant for everyone if children are capable of waiting.
-  French parents do not teach their children distraction techniques (like playing with a portable video game).  Instead, they give their children lots of opportunities to practice waiting - from birth.
-  French families generally bake every weekend, teaching their children how to do it.  Duckerman was at a Parisian friend's house.  While she and her friend had a calm conversation, the Parisian woman's three year old daughter sat at the kitchen table.  The child (unassisted) mixed cake batter from scratch, measuring all the ingredients, lined a muffin tin with cupcake wrappers, then filled the cupcake wrappers with batter.  She did this by herself, without making a mess.  My kids are 7 and 5 and I cannot comprehend either one of them doing any of that by themselves.  I have never even considered allowing them to try to make a cake even from a boxed cake mix.  I don't even let my 5 year old pour a bowl of cereal for herself. 
- All French meals include at least three courses: a starter (usually a cold salad), a main course, and a dessert (usually cheese or fruit).  Everyone eats breakfast (8 a.m.), lunch (noon) and dinner (8 p.m.).  Dinner is so late that children can also eat a mid-afternoon snack at 4 p.m.  Kids cannot eat at other times than these schedule.  People almost never eat "on the run" or in the car.  All kids eat the same thing the adults eat, although food may be pureed or chopped up for really small children.
-  When a child tries to interrupt her mother, the French mother calmly and firmly says "Just wait two minutes, I am in the middle of talking." 
- Mealtimes are totally fixed; kids never go to the refrigerator and help themselves to a snack.  Parents in France do not carry little bags of Cheerios, fruit snacks, etc. in their purse to give kids a snack whenever and wherever the child seems hungry.
- Only an American mother will joke "maybe in five years we can have a complete conversation." 
- French parents are not competitive with the children and obsessed with getting them to meet certain milestones as soon as possible, bragging about it to everyone.
- Duckerman's infant daughter's room is filled with Baby Einstein DVD's, alphabet flashcards, and tons of toys designed to develop cognitive functioning.  Her Parisian friends with infant children have a set of blocks and a teddy bear for their children.
- French parents talk to their infants, at a few months old, like they understand what they are being told.  There is no baby talk.
- Duckerman sends her child to a preschool.  A typical menu for toddlers includes four courses: (1) hearts of palm and tomato salad, (2) sliced turkey with rice in a Provencal cream sauce, (3) St. Nectaire cheese with a baguette, and (4) fresh kiwi.  Duckerman is in such disbelief at the menu that she actually sits into a lunch at the day care center and watches the three and four year olds dine like this.  Apparently the teacher at the day care presents each food to the children, describing it, and boasting about it.  The children must try everything, with good manners.  The quantity of how much they eat is never discussed.  If the child only eats one bite, that is fine.  But, French children are regularly exposed to a wide variety of foods from a young age.  Because they are not allowed to snack at all, the children are hungrier during meals. 
- French children can regularly tell the difference between Brie, Camembert, and other cheeses by the age of three or four.  My five year old will only eat cheddar cheese.  One time I attempted to give her some sliced Swiss cheese.  She balked and I have never attempted again.  I have never even considered presenting a soft cheese to my children, or any of the more "exotic" cheeses to my kids.  The preschool menu described above is a better meal then I typically eat. 
- Duckerman drops her child off at day care wearing jeans, a t-shirt and a ponytail.  The French mothers wear high heeled boots, a designer dress, and perfume.  Their hair is coiffed and they are wearing make-up.
- American mothers practice "narrated play" with their children.  At the playground, the American mother will say "Look at the slide.  It is blue.  You can climb up the ladder.  Now you can sit down.  Weee!  You can slide down!  Wasn't that fun?  Look at the seesaw.  It goes up and down.  Let's walk over to it.  See the tree next to it.  It has leaves on it.  You can sit on the seesaw."  The American mother will escort and guide their child throughout the entire playground.  A French mother will sit (in her designer dress and high heels) on a bench next to the playground and chat with a friend or read a book.  The French mother trusts that a child will learn to navigate the playground by themselves.  I have been guilty of this before, thinking I need to "engage" with my children as much as possible.  Duckerman points out that if we engage with our children 24/7, then we never get to engage with other adults, or with ourselves.
- Every single person in France, children and adults, say "bon jour" when they arrive somewhere.  It is common courtesy.  In America we allow children to play and ignore adults who enter our homes.  If Mickey Mouse Clubhouse is on TV, an American child can keep watching it even when a visitor enters the room.  We do not expect small children to have good manners. 
- French parents take week long vacations without their children a few times a year.  In America we are lucky if we get a monthly "date night."  French parents scoff at the term "date night" because they have them several times a week.
- French mothers do not even consider that their husbands will do half the work.  It is not a standard they even think may occur.  So, they are not frustrated when it doesn't happen and they do not fight with their husbands about who does laundry.
- French parents never ask their children "what do you want to eat?"  Everyone eats the same thing, from carrots in vinaigrette to roasted pork.  There are no children's menus.  The kids must taste everything and eat whatever they want from what is presented to them.  Mealtimes are very calm.  Other than a taste, kids are not forced to eat something they do not want to eat.  They simply do not eat if they choose not to eat what is presented to them.  In America, we have set the precedent that children can eat macaroni and cheese, chicken tenders, French fries, and applesauce instead of what everyone else eats.  We make separate meals for our children.  We cater what we make to what they are willing to eat. 
- French parents rarely yell at their children.  When they do, they resort to surgical strikes instead of constant carpet bombing.
- French parents really push autonomy with their kids.  Kindergarten classes go on week-long field trips (overnight with teachers, not parents).  This teaches the children that they can be OK without a parent with them all the time.
- Birthday parties are drop-offs for children from age three on.  In America, we regularly have all the parents remain at every birthday party, even for kids much older.
- Watching what her friends do, Duckerman starts to serve her small children meals in courses.  She learns that it works well, because she can serve the "less desirable" foods as the starter course while the child is hungrier and while she is preparing the rest of the meal.  For example, she will serve cut up fruit for breakfast.  While the child is eating that, she will prepare toast or oatmeal.  For dinner, she will serve a cucumber salad for the child to eat first.  Once that is mostly eaten, she will serve the main course.  Therefore, the child has to eat a good bit of vegetables before presented with a meat and starch.
- French parents never offer an alternative food to a rejected food.  If the child will not eat broccoli, then he does not get another vegetable to replace it.
- Making kids learn to wait from a young age is a way to make them deal with frustration.  Everyone, especially small children, have a "now mentality."  My girls seem incredibly impatient.  Catherine wants to show me her painting now, not in five minutes.  Sabrina wants some juice and a snack now, not in two hours at dinner time.  When I do not respond instantly, they scream.  I am, unfortunately, guilty of the same behavior back at them.  When I ask them to do something, I expect & demand immediate reactions.  As a result, none of us are able to wait very well.  We all want instant responses to everything.  Catherine has very little toleration for frustration.  If things do not go exactly as she wants it to, she will react negatively rather than calmly work through her frustration.  We have been talking a lot about frustrating situations and how to address them. 

I loved this book.  The cynic in me wonders how accurate the differences are and how much of the stories are merely anecdotes.  I really wonder if these "techniques" actually work.  But, the book made me think about my parenting and encourage me to try some different methods, which may work with my kids. 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Simplify Your Work Life

In the early 2000's, Elaine St. James became very popular with her Simplify series.  I recently read Simplify Your Work Life
This is a quick read, and becoming less relevant to me.  But, she still brings up some interesting ideas.

St. James talks about "batching" your work together.  Do all your phone calls at once, then your typing, then your research, etc.  She talks about only doing one thing at a time and getting in particular mindsets ... such as the writing mindset, then the phone call mindset.  As a home schooling mom, this seems impossible. 

A typical moment in my day will consist of me emptying the dishwasher, keeping Catherine on task with her math worksheets, making a quesadilla in the microwave for Sabrina, talking on the phone with a doctor to change an appointment, getting Catherine's feeding pump started, and helping Sabrina pick out paint colors for her newest creation.  I am not exaggerating.  I rarely get to do just one thing at a time, let alone batch my tasks by type. 

Instead, I divide my interest and focus among several different tasks.  I cannot imagine of any other way to handle the quantity of tasks I must do each day.

A more relevant piece of advice which St. James gives is to limit your Internet usage strictly.  This book was written in 2001.  The vast majority of Americans have not taken this advice and now, with the advent of smart phones, are even more addicted to Internet usage.

St. James also suggests that you take a sabbatical for six months and focus on travel, studying, hobbies, etc.  She claims that two out of ten companies offer sabbatical programs.  I doubt the accuracy of her statement.  Other than preachers, I have never met anyone who has ever taken or even considered a sabbatical.  Maybe some college professors.  But the vast majority of employees, in fact almost all, cannot even consider taking off six months of work to "study" or "travel."  It would be great, but seems like incredibly impractical advice.  Actually, impossible advice for parents of small children.

Saying no and creating and enforcing boundaries is a problem for me.  I constantly agree to do too much.  St. James suggests approaching "boundary setting" as a game or a skill which I need to learn. 

Like all business books I have ever read, St. James discusses the 80/20 rule.  Eighty percent of our boss' satisfaction with us is based on twenty percent of the work which we do.  This probably also applies to our marital and parental roles too.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Invisible Woman

Many years ago (I think before I had children) I attended a Women of Faith convention.  For the first time, I saw Nicole Johnson "perform" as a dramatist.  She did one about motherhood and cathedrals called "The Invisible Woman."  I loved her skit so much that I bought the book.  The book ended up in my library (in the basement) with a zillion other books and I never read it.  I pulled it out this week as I continue on my quest to go through all of my books, read them, and donate them.

Her book, The Invisible Woman, is subtitled When Only God Sees
The book' premise is simple, and hits home for many mothers.  The narrator is a mother and feels "invisible."  She is a former attorney who writes that invisibility is the complete opposite of life in college and the workplace.  In school and in work, the more you did, the more credit you got.  You become more visible, not less

The narrator writes of feeling like her family only appreciates what she does, not who she is.  She considers herself a laundry folder, a floor cleaner, a toy picker upper, a dinner maker, a dish washer, etc.  She feels like no one asks her about herself or even notices if she changes her personal appearance.  In short, she feels like a slave.

I do not share that same experience.  I feel overly visible.  All day long I hear "Mommy!"  I feel like my children notice me all day long and want me to participate in their lives every minute of the day.  I feel like my husband is involved in whatever we do.  I almost want to be invisible, to get the peace and quiet.

But I do share the rest of her feeling.  Johnson writes that she feels like her hands, which once took notes in law school, wrote briefs, and shook hands with powerful politicians, have taken on a new role.  Those same hands now wipe noses, scrub toilets, and bake cupcakes.  This is a huge paradigm shift for me in my identity.  I still question my value as a mostly "stay at home" mom.  I am certainly busy: no question about it.  But am I fulfilled?

In Johnson's book, she compares motherhood to building a cathedral.  A friend of hers gives her a book about the construction of cathedrals in Europe.  As she reads it, she learns many things about cathedrals.  The vast majority of the stone cutters, the stained glass artisans, etc. are totally anonymous.  Construction often took over 100 years, which is several generations.  Sometimes entire towns or regions sacrificed for the construction of the cathedral for 100 years.  Many of the workers would never live long enough to see the cathedral constructed, let alone enjoy it.

The author of the cathedral book (not Johnson, the author of The Invisible Woman), concludes that no cathedral like the great European ones could be built today because of the sacrifices required.  That author believes that today's society would never consent to such an enormous, lengthy construction project.  Especially when the purpose of the construction project is to glorify God.   

Mothers are mostly anonymous workers building one little part of a child's life (there are other teachers and factors in addition to us).  We will likely never see the "finished product," assuming that our children outlive us.  Mother's work is, generally, not very glamorous.  Society tells us we are missing out on a better life, that other options are more valuable. 

But like the anonymous stone cutters carving designs into a cathedral, a Christian mother's faith is her motive.  The stone cutter knows he will never get the credit and has no desire for the credit.  His purpose is to glorify God.  Our role as a mother is also not about getting credit.  Unlike life in the business world, our sole purpose is to raise children to love and honor God.

Johnson writes that "Invisibility is not inflicted upon me.  It is a gift to help me truly serve."  Such  a paradigm shift ... mothering is about serving.  This is so contrary to the career woman mindset.

Johnson writes that "I'm building a cathedral, but not for them, in them.  They will not see me if I am doing it right."  Again, my career woman mindset says "What!"  I will be invisible if I am doing it right?  How can that be? 

I loved this book because it helps mothers answer a question that is near and dear to my heart: Do I matter? 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Fulfilled Family

I generally think of John MacArthur as writing books about business and leadership, not home life or families.  But this one focuses on Ephesians 5-6 and focuses on the mutuality of submission.
As a career woman who married somewhat later in life, who was raised by a fairly feminist mother, the concept of "submission" is hard to swallow.  I also handled divorces for clients for 15 years and saw some abusive men use this verse to justify beating their wives.  So, I picked up this book with some trepidation.

But, MacArthur made some interesting points:

-     The book of Ephesians is written only to Christians.  If you are not a Christian, you cannot possibly make your marriage everything God intended it to be.

-      Mutual submission is the single most important principle governing all personal relationships for all Christians.  It is not merely a wife submitting to a husband.  MacArthur quotes numerous Scriptures which show that all Christians should submit to all other Christians.  It is what Jesus modeled for us.

-      Wives must submit to the leadership of their husbands.  But husbands must also submit to the needs of their wives.

-       The command for mutual submission is unconditional.  It does not exclude women whose husbands are not believers.

-      Submit does not mean obey.  Submit is an active, deliberate, loving, intelligent devotion to the husband's noble aspirations and ambitions.

-      Titus 2:4-5 commands a woman "to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands."  Yes, we are commanded to be home makers. 

-      Wives are required to submit to their own husbands, not all husbands or all men. 

-      Children are commanded to honor their parents, not obey them.  Of course honoring parents usually means obeying them.  The commandment includes a promise: that if you obey your parents the days of your life on this land will be long.  In other words, rebelling against parents often has built-in consequences that tend to shorten one's life.

-       MacArthur writes that "Teaching children to obey is ...a  full-time, years-long duty for parents, often frustrating and always requiring diligence."  He writes of our innate desire to disobey and the need to overcome it.

-       The parent's job is to nurture and admonish.  Admonition should always include instruction, not just discipline.

-       Instilling an attitude of obedience in our children is more important than the actions of obedience.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Red Sea Rules

Two good friends of mine gave me the book The Red Sea Rules by Robert Morgan in September 2004.  I had just suffered a miscarriage, which at the time seemed like the worst thing that could ever happened to me.  The book is subtitled 10 God-given Strategies for Difficult Times.  Neither my friends nor I had any idea just how appropriate this book would become.  Just a few months later I would become pregnant with Catherine and start a much more difficult journey than a miscarriage.

Here’s some advice I like from this book:

-          Morgan quotes Bishop Fulton Sheen, who says that worry is “a form of atheism, for it betrays a lack of faith and trust in God.”

-          A deep secret of the Christian life is that when you are in a difficult place, realize that God either placed you there or allowed you to be there, for reasons perhaps known only to Himself.

-          When you are in a bad situation, do not ask “How can I get out of this mess?”  Instead, ask “How can God be glorified in this mess?”

-          Don’t acknowledge God and keep an eye on Satan.  Instead, acknowledge Satan but keep your eye, your focus, on God.  In Paul’s letters, he uses the word Jesus 219 times, the word Lord 272 times, and the word Christ 389 times.  But, he uses the word Satan only 10 times and the word devil 6 times.  Paul’s focus is on God, not on the devil.

-     Morgan quotes Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones with a high calling: "I do not care what the circumstances may be, the Christian should never be agitated, the Christian should never be beside himself, the Christian should never be at his wit's end, should never be in a condition in which he is lost ... it implies a lac of trust and confidence in Him."

-     Morgan quotes C. H. Mackintosh: "God never gives guidance for two steps at a time.  I must take one step, and then I get light for the next.  This keeps the heart in abiding dependence on God."

-     Morgan quotes Sir William Osler about living in the present: "Our main business is not to see what lies dimly at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand."