October Reading Roundup

Rather than doing individual posts for each book I read, I’ve decided to do a few longer articles about particularly thought-provoking books, and then one monthly roundup of the rest.  I’m linking up to Quick Lit at Modern Mrs. Darcy, where you can find lots of similar posts to inspire your To Read list.

Erich Maria Remarque - All Quiet On The Western FrontAll Quiet on the Western Front is billed as “the greatest war novel of all time” and it may be so.  It’s certainly an exceptional addition to World War I literature, and broadened my understanding significantly.  I read it as we were studying World War I in our homeschool, and after I had read The Long Shadow, which is a very readable history of the ways World War I impacted the rest of the 20th century (highly recommended).

One of the major strengths in the novel is its portrayal of the changes wrought when young men in the most idealistic phase of life are dropped into horrific realities of war.  I’m sure that this happened throughout history, but it’s particularly striking in this novel.  World War I was, of course, a really horrifying war–trench warfare plus the first widespread use of more destructive modern weaponry–but the seeming futility of the way it was conducted also had a tremendous impact on the young men at the front.

a girl named zippyOne of the book clubs I’m in read A Girl Named Zippy last month and otherwise I probably wouldn’t have picked it up. The title and description didn’t really grab me.  However, one of the bonuses of book clubs is that they sometimes make you read books you wouldn’t choose on your own and sometimes you’re glad about it.  I listened to this one on audio–read by the author–and it was really great in that format.  The author’s voice is perfect and her delivery is excellent.  The book is funny, poignant, and contains great story-telling.

Jewel_Bret_LottAfter reading Before We Get Started and Letters & Life, Bret Lott’s exceptional books on writing, I was inspired to read Jewel, his best known novel.  I enjoyed the story, which is a sweeping saga of a woman from Mississippi and how she transcends her background to care for her youngest child, who has Downs Syndrome.  Lott writes with great sensitivity and nuance describing family relationships and the tension Jewel feels as a woman greatly constrained by her time period and sub-culture, but also driven to do her best by her daughter and navigate a way to love her husband well without being drowned in the conventions of her time and place.

I really enjoyed the character development in Jewel and would recommend it.

BOOK OF SPECULATION_MECH_01.inddThe Book of Speculation has a great premise and strong writing, but fails to explore the issues it raises in very great depth.  The book could have been much stronger if it had delved into things like how you can break the cycle of persistent personality types and tendencies, why relationships perpetuate the same tragedies over generations and what to do about it, and how people cope with being different in their social groups.  That sounds like a list of self-help book topics, but believe it or not you really can address big issues like that in fiction–and often it’s the best way to address them.  Rather than digging in to those topics, though, The Book of Speculation stays pretty surface.  People tend to label those they dislike or find different, and in the past this family was labeled as cursed. So, the book says, I guess they are!  So they destroy some stuff and move away and voila!  Problem solved!  Except that’s not actually how life works.  It’s how made-for-TV Halloween movies work.  After the solid story-telling and great premise, I was ultimately pretty disappointed with how this book failed to deliver.  It’s still a good story, but falls a bit flat.

The_End_of_the_Sentence_by_Maria_Dahvana_Headley_and_Kat_HowardMy other book club chose The End of the Sentence as a slightly off-beat Octobery choice. The book plays with the traditional fairy tale genre–that is, the original versions not the Disney-fied takes.  Setting a fantastical fairy tale/ghost story in small town Oregon was an interesting choice, and although you can basically see where the story is going from the start it does move really quickly.  You can easily read this whole novella in under two hours. As I write this, I haven’t been to the book club yet, so I’m not sure how much we will have to discuss. But since book clubs are good for discussion AND for pushing you to read things you might not otherwise pick up, I’m sure we’ll think of something.  I wouldn’t say The End of the Sentence is a must-read by any stretch, but if you need something quick and the genre thing appeals to you, you’d probably enjoy it.

RelentlessCoverfinalThis month I used my friend Darcy Wiley’s Biblestudy on the book of Judges, Relentless, for my personal study and discussion in a Hello Mornings group.  Tackling a book like Judges in a six-week study is a big task, but Darcy did a great job of combining background and insight with thoughtful invitations to make personal applications.  At several points in the study I was struck by much deeper perspectives on the events I had read about many times before, and I found I was also challenged in good ways to really apply this book of Scripture.  Since if you grew up in the church you probably interacted with Judges primarily through flannelgraph, an opportunity to dig deeper may be just the thing.  The study is affordable and easy to use digitally (although I printed my copy out of personal preference) and I’d highly recommend it.

art and the bibleFrancis Schaeffer’s Art and the Bible discusses how Christians should consume, evaluate, and produce art. I think at the time it was first published, this book probably seemed more ground-breaking. Nowadays I feel like Christians have a better understanding of how faith and art can co-exist, and many also understand that Christians should lead in art, not just produce derivative “junk for Jesus.”

I got some good points from the book, both as a consumer of art and as a writer.  However, if you don’t have time to read widely in this genre I might recommend Makoto Fujimura’s Refractions or Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water instead.

Schaeffer’s book is short and to-the-point, and certainly worth your time if you are interested in the topic of faith and art.

Year of WondersGeraldine Brooks’ novel Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague is well reviewed generally, but it wasn’t my favorite. I’m not sure if it’s because I read a lot of historical fiction–especially historical fiction set in England–or just my mood, but I was sort of annoyed throughout the book by anachronistic attitudes in the main characters.  I just didn’t buy the way the characters reacted to situations, thought, or interacted.  And the secondary characters were often flat and even less compelling than the main cast. Because I didn’t believe in them, I didn’t really wind up caring all that much about any of the characters, which makes a book about the plague hard to like.  With so much rich material, I expected this to be a better book.  So perhaps it was more of a missed expectations problem, but even so the characterization issues probably wouldn’t have been overcome.

northanger-abbey-cover2To be honest, Northanger Abbey is not my favorite Jane Austen novel.  You can sort of tell this was an early attempt–the story contains a lot of Austen’s trademark aspects, but the story felt a bit forced and it lacked the polish and wit of her later works.  One of the book clubs I’m in read this for our November meeting and I don’t regret devoting the time to it, but if you only have time for one or two Austen pieces, I wouldn’t recommend this one.

What have y’all been reading this month?  If you have any particularly stand-out recommendations–or warnings to run away–I’d love to hear them in the comments.

Thanks for reading, and don’t forget to check out other review round-ups at Quick Lit.


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

Posted in Reading, Week in Books 2015 | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

King Lear, a Pandemic, and the Good Life

StationElevenIn Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel creates a rich novel structured around the intersecting lives of main characters as they are impacted by a world-wide flu pandemic. If you love excellent world-building, beautiful writing, interesting characters, and a compelling plot, you’ll enjoy this book.

But, as in all really great books, this novel goes much deeper than the surface story to explore deeper questions. The book delves seamlessly into nuanced explorations of technology, connection, art, and purpose. The pandemic provides a great hook and drives the narrative, but in the end the reader is left thinking about ways to make better choices even if 99% of humanity is not wiped out by the flu any time soon.

Mandel’s work joins an increasingly popular genre. The end-of-the-world-as-we-know it framework is of course a good plot propeller, but I think it resonates now because people feel harried and fragmented and sometimes it really seems like it would take something massive–no electricity! no internet! zombies!–to jar us out of our warp speed.

But this feeling–that we are caught up in modern life and have no choice in the matter–is an illusion. And it’s one of the themes Mandel explores so well in Station Eleven. Before the collapse, Mandel’s characters can’t see their way clear to do what they really love, live the way they really want to, establish deep connection with their families, or stay true to themselves.  They are caught up in the superficiality of social media interaction, chasing fame, sleep-walking through jobs full of banality and cliches and long purposeless hours in a desk chair.  When the modern era collapses around them, they find ways to live with purpose and beauty even in the midst of uncertainty. Both eras see characters who create and characters who destroy, those who choose to add beauty and those who feel locked in by their circumstances.

As their stories unfold through flashbacks and the real-time narrative arc, we begin to see that the characters may have had the freedom to make difference choices in the pre-pandemic world too, which leaves what would otherwise be a kind of dark story with a pervasive sense of hope.  Maybe we don’t have to accept the surface-level friending and flippant comments, the rat race of how careers are supposed to work and endless chasing after illusory rewards and empty goals.  Maybe instead we can choose–even in our modern milieu–for deeper relationships and greater purpose, for truth and beauty and a life well-lived.

Station Eleven is the sort of novel you should not start at 9pm, because you will want to stay up all night reading it.  It’s a fantastic story and very well conceived, beautifully composed with lovely use of language and scene.  But it’s also an invitation to think about what matters in life and how you can live more deliberately, and that makes the book even better than its technical excellence and entertainment value.

I’d recommend this one pretty highly, and think it would also be a great book club selection – so many things to think about and discuss, with lots of possible perspectives and positions to explore.


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

Posted in Reading, Week in Books 2015 | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

September Read-Alouds

pollyannaI can’t believe that I never read the complete Pollyanna as a child.  I watched the Hailey Mills movie dozens of times, but the book is so far superior to the movie.  The book contains more characters, with more developed plot lines, and appealed to my girls as well as to Jack, although I don’t think Jack would have picked up the volume on his own due to it’s predominantly pink cover.

Although I think the book would make a great read-alone, it was really great as a read-aloud.  The chapters are quite manageable (we usually read two per night, but the last night we read six in order to find out what happened more quickly) and there are lots of opportunities for different voices.

As a side note, I’m really impressed with the Oxford Children’s Classics series.  The series prints high quality copies of complete and unabridged classics.  These are children’s books.  There is absolutely NO NEED to abridge children’s books.  I loathe the Great Illustrated Classics series because it takes great kids lit and cuts it down abominably. So I toss this out as an aside–check when you buy or borrow books for kids–the GIC series is NOT the same thing as the OCS!


This year in school we are covering the 1900s, so we listened to Susan Wise Bauer’s exceptional The Story of the World: History for the Classical Child, Volume 4: The Modern Age: From Victoria’s Empire to the End of the USSR on audio while we were taking a road trip and driving around town doing errands.  I know I keep saying this, but this four volume audio set is without a doubt one of the top five things I have ever purchased for the kids.  I’m so glad that we own it!  The kids have listened to these books so many times and we continue to get a lot out of them (practical note: take it from me and rip these CDs to your iTunes BEFORE you give them to the kids!).

What I love about this series is it’s ability to present history as a story, with events tying in to previous eras and different parts of the globe.  It’s not a Western-centric series, although Western history is of course covered.  You also learn how what was going on in other parts of the world influenced and was influenced by things happening in Europe and America.

I’ve seen Volume 4 described as not being for younger elementary kids but honestly I’m not sure why.  Although the 20th century was full of terrible things, so were other centuries.  This book does a great job of removing details that might disturb small children without shying away from the evil perpetrated by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, etc.  I have no problem with small kids hearing this book.

You could do Story of the World as a read-aloud, but I’ve been glad to have it as a high quality audio book (Jim Weiss reads well).

Note About Picture Books: As of this month, the Five Favorite Picture Books series is moving to the newsletter.  You’ll also find the Quarter in Books superlatives in this month’s issue.  If you want to get some inspiration for stellar things to read to younger kids–plus other interesting tips and articles–check out the newsletter archive and subscribe to get thoughts and tips for the bookmarked life in your inbox the last Monday of every month.


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Snapshot: Autumn 2015

FullSizeRender 3Sometimes it helps to read about other people’s life hacks. This fall I have a 9 1/2 year old, an 8 year old, a 6 1/2 year old, a 2 year old, and a baby due in early November.  So what works for me may not work for you.  On the other hand, maybe you’ll find a couple of things that might make life easier at your house, or give you a few ideas, or just make you glad that you don’t have my life!  :)


One fact I have accepted about myself: I abhor having to get my family anywhere by a set time in the morning. This is odd because I tend to be a morning person and my kids tend to wake up early.  But every time we have tried a morning activity–MOPS, co-op classes, tennis lessons, etc–it has resulted in stress and more than the usual amount of fussing at everyone to find their shoes and stop crying and remember their backpacks.  I’m sure there are hacks for this, but I’m done looking for them.  Instead, I rejoice in the fact that I can arrange our schedule to NOT have to be anywhere in the morning.

I like to get up earlier than the kids and have time for coffee, Biblestudy, exercise, and a shower before everyone else wakes up.  I really like it if I can get work time in that window too.  But the reality is that I am not sleeping well at this stage of pregnancy so I’m cutting slack wherever I can.  I do get up and shower and get dressed, and sometimes have time for coffee and a little bit of work time before the kids descend and the wild rumpus starts.


In the interest of streamlining I have cut breakfast down to things the kids can make themselves with no mess.  That means cereal or breakfast sandwiches or yogurt and peanut butter toast type meals.  I’d love to make this a higher protein, higher quality meal, but the reality is that I can’t do it all right now.  The kids get their own breakfast, either while I’m cooking my eggs or while I’m reading out loud to them.

IMG_4354Sarah (6 1/2 – 1st grade) is cheerfully eager to learn first thing so we go with that.

Sarah has first Teaching Time as soon as breakfast is mostly over and morning jobs are done.  We usually start this around 8, give or take half an hour.  I have 45 minutes slated for her individual teaching, but it’s often more like an hour or more.  She often has her independent assignments (copywork, cursive, math page) done already. I teach her the next new thing in math–she’s on about lesson 60 of Saxon 3–which could mean one lesson or could mean several, depending on how well she’s catching on.  Then we do a grammar lesson from First Language Lessons 2 and a section in All About Spelling 3.  After that, Sarah reads out loud to me from a chapter book (currently Little House in the Big Woods) for 15 minutes, which helps me catch anything she’s skimming in her reading and helps her work on good expression and reading aloud skills, which are different from independent reading (she does lots of that too).  Finally, she does the Biblestudy her Sunday School teachers put together, which involves looking up and reading a short passage then answering a couple of questions.

Hannah (9 1/2 – 4th grade) is working very independently but needs oversight.

Next is Hannah’s Teaching Time.  At this point, Hannah does her copywork, math problem set, writing assignment, and independent reading on her own just fine.  However, she does still need oversight and so we have a 30-45 minute one-on-one teaching time every day. In that time we go over the new material in her math lesson and talk about any issues with the previous day’s problem set (she’s working in Saxon 6/5). This is my reminder to CHECK that she actually completed the problem set, as a couple of times she has slacked off there and I only found out later.  Then we cover grammar in First Language Lessons 4, and spelling in All About Spelling 4.  I’m about to loop in Writing With Skill, but for now I give her weekly writing assignments based on independent reading.

The Reading – We cover lots of subjects together.

After Hannah’s Teaching Time we collect on the couch to read for an hour or 90 minutes from our history, literature, poetry, geography, art history, composer study, and science books.  We use a literature-based approach to all subjects, and look for living books.  So we read a mixture of different levels of books to learn about all sorts of aspects of the time-period we’re studying.  The kids intermittently narrate what we read, especially science, but I don’t make them narrate everything because I find that tiresome.  We often have talks about how different subjects relate or how what we’re learning about now relates to things we’ve learned before.  It’s a good way to process ideas and put things in context.

DSC_0434Table Time – For things that fall through the cracks.

Next we eat some sort of protein snack and cover subjects that might otherwise fall through the cracks.  Lots of subjects don’t have to be done every day, so I have a rotating list and we do what we can in 30-45 minutes.  Days when we are pressed for time, we can have a short Table Time or none at all and still get more than enough done to see progress.  Table Time subjects include:

  • Alternating Latin (we’re all doing Song School Latin this year, with extra games and activities since the kids are older – I might post more on my evolving philosophy of Latin) and Spanish (mostly covering what the kids are learning in their co-op Spanish classes)
  • Map study (twice a week in addition to maps we look at during The Reading)
  • Dictionary look-up (twice a week each kid takes turns finding words from our Tapestry vocabulary list and reading the definition out loud)
  • Poetry memory and review
  • Art projects – Tapestry includes lots of hands-on project ideas so we do some of that, and we’re also doing a great book with step-by-step instructions for how to draw like Picasso, who is the subject of our current artist study.

Jack (8 – 3rd grade) is the wild card.

This is a challenging year parenting- and teaching-wise for Jack. What’s working for the most part is to give him a concrete list of expectations and then lots of latitude for when he accomplishes things.  So some days he does Teaching Time with me, and some weeks he elects to do his entire roster of assigned work on Fridays.  It’s not always convenient, but I’m working to let go of what he’d have to do in a traditional school setting in favor of keeping the goal in mind–which is that he be challenged and learning and making progress.  This is only an issue for his individual subjects, not the rest of school, which is good.  On a day when he’s doing Teaching Time, we do a math lesson (he’s in Saxon 5/4 and mostly doing the problem sets out loud with me after working problems in his head because he hates writing things down.  Writing things down is important so I do make him show his work a little bit in each problem set, but I also don’t want to hold him back since he mostly still finds this book easy), a grammar lesson from First Language Lessons 3, and spelling from All About Spelling 4.  If he’s willing, he breezes through Teaching Time, having been known to do a math problem set including algebra in 12 minutes flat.  Other days, he drags his feet and wants to stop to talk about random things like how penicillin works and it takes a lot longer.  Again, I’m learning flexibility.  He does always get the week’s assignments done, so I’m letting go of when and where and how that happens.


By lunch time I am wiped out. We do easy things that the kids can mostly handle themselves like sandwiches, cheese and fruit, vegetables and hummus, baked potato bar, or leftovers.

Rest Time/Work Time

After lunch the big kids can finish up independent work assignments and read or play quietly in their rooms or the basement until the neighborhood kids get off the bus.  Eliza (2) takes a nap.

This is my prime work time.  Most weeks my friend who owns the business I contract through comes to watch the kids on two afternoons, which shifts depending on her schedule and when I have client meetings.  I try to schedule work calls and client phone meetings for Eliza’s nap time.  It usually works.

  • On days when my friend watches the kids, I get five hours of focused work time.
  • On other days, I get two to three work hours while Eliza naps, and then sometimes another hour or two of interrupted time if the kids are playing well and we don’t have other appointments.
  • One afternoon a week we are at our homeschool co-op from right after lunch until 4:45 or so–each of the big kids takes three classes, Eliza takes pre-K, and I teach in two classes and have one parent connect hour.
  • One afternoon a week all of the big kids have back-to-back piano lessons, so I get two hours of work time and then either take work with me or read a book for the hour and a half of piano lessons.
  • Other work time happens on Saturdays.

IMG_4496Late Afternoon/Dinner

I’m trying to make dinner super simple too.  So I’m experimenting with meals I can dump in the crockpot, freezer meals, and very simple things.  The big kids are supposed to be prepping and cooking one meal per week each, but the reality is that is very time-consuming for me and I’m usually not looking to spend another hour and a half on my feet at this point in the day.  So easy wins for now.

Ideally I would do Eliza’s individual reading time in the morning but mostly it happens in the late afternoon before dinner.  I aim to read to her from a story Bible, a Mother Goose, and at least five picture books every day.  This takes 15-20 minutes.  If we have time, I also do the alphabet with her, if only because of the disarmingly cute way she says “bobba-lyewww” for W.  Otherwise Eliza is in the mix all day.  She likes to “write” and color when the other kids are at the table doing school, or works on puzzles, plays with the Little People dollhouse and barn (which are kept in our school room), or plays with whichever big kid is done with school or taking a break.  She listens in on our school reading and evening read aloud time as well.

In the afternoons I usually try to find time to do my around-the-house walks.  I can get some exercise while keeping tabs on kids playing outside and listening to podcasts or books on tape.

We eat dinner as a family the vast majority of nights.  Josh gets home from work late so we often don’t eat until 6:30 or 7.  We spend 30-45 minutes at dinner–according to my time logs–and actually have some pretty good discussions.  We usually listen to music during dinner, either the composer we’re studying or some other classical music.  Then there are the nights when everyone is talking at once and squabbling and spilling things and acting like they have never heard of manners and were raised in a barn.  It’s not always idyllic, but many nights are, so we press on.

FullSizeRenderTwice a month I have book club meetings, one or twice a month I go meet a friend for coffee or something, a couple of Thursdays per month Josh has worship team practice (I’m taking off this trimester), and sometimes he works really late so we eat without him, but mostly this is how evenings work.

Evening Routine

After dinner Josh puts on music that is more dance-friendly and he does the dishes, the kids do their assigned jobs, and I do general kitchen clean up, make lunches ahead, and things like that with breaks for family dance parties.  This way clean up is faster and more fun.

The kids go up to take showers or otherwise get ready for bed, Josh gives Eliza her bath, and I do school prep.  This involves updating notebooks, changing the white board, rotating job wheels, and setting up for anything that requires advance setting up, which is not much.

We really don’t ever do night time activities, with a very few, very rare exceptions.  Evening activities are kind of disruptive for our family and keep us from the things we’re prioritizing like family time and reading aloud and getting to bed at a decent hour.  That won’t work for everyone, but it’s something we’ve realized works best for us, at least for this stage.

IMG_4468A side note about keeping track of things:

Each kid has a spiral notebook for math and another for everything else.  I prep the notebooks by writing the day’s date for them to copy (in print for Sarah, cursive for Jack and Hannah) and then their copywork (print for Sarah, cursive for Jack and Hannah).  The next page is their daily checklist, which also serves as my reminder to check up on what’s gotten done.  The checklist includes independent assignments and reminders to do things that may eventually become habits like doing morning and evening jobs, practicing piano, daily hygeine, unloading the dishwasher, putting clothes away, cleaning rooms, etc.  A lot of it stays the same every day, but it’s a good visual and also something I can keep track of.  Last year I tried printing out checklists, but found that they got lost or the kid would say “I finished it and threw it away” etc.  In the notebook means I know where to find it.  Each kid uses this notebook for grammar stuff like proofreading and diagramming sentences, spelling, writing assignments, etc.  I also tape in art projects and other loose pieces of whatnot as a sort of record keeping device.  Then I have one school binder where I keep my teaching notes for where we are in Tapestry, our file of poetry and scripture memory for review, and the record keeping sheets showing what each child did for school each day.  It’s much more streamlined than last year, and it’s working well.

More reading aloud.

Once everyone is (reasonably) clean, we have read-aloud time of 30 minutes to an hour, then worship, which sometimes is reading from the Bible, sometimes is reading from a Biblstudy book, and always is singing a Psalm or hymn because we like singing.  Then we have prayers and the kids go to bed.  Josh does final bedtime round up because I’m almost always incapable of doing stairs by that point (lots of hip and back pain this trimester).

My Wind Down

After the kids are in bed I finish any school prep that needs to be done, hang out with Josh, read, and do my Biblestudy (since I can’t count on early morning time anymore).  I try to stay off the computer at night because it’s a huge black hole of time wasting, but I’m not always successful.  I try to get to bed by 10 or 11.  Sometimes earlier, but with the kids not usually in bed until 8:30 or 9, I find I really need some wind down time, and then it takes me a while to get my contacts out and get ready for bed.  I’d like to streamline the get ready for bed part, but haven’t found a hack for that yet.

jack soccerWeekends are different.

Two kids have soccer, I take one kid per week out on “special time” to run errands and get groceries and Starbucks, I usually do a longer chunk of work time, Josh handles household stuff and plays with the kids, we do church stuff on Sundays, and sometimes we do fun extras.

But, generally, this is the flow of our weekdays.  Having a general routine and order to the day helps a lot.

I’m planning on devoting one post per month to a more general homeschool and/or life topic.  Let me know if you have questions or specific things you’d like to know more about!


Disclosure: The curriculum links above are affiliate links.

Posted in Bookmarked Life, Homeschool, Working | Tagged , , , , , , | 11 Comments

On Balance, Doing It All, and Tracking Time

“I cannot subscribe to the belief that there is something about modern life that makes us harried and maxed out.   If we are, then it’s time to examine our own choices and the scripts that are running through our heads. You don’t become a better parent or employee by not enjoying your life. There are likely lots of options available to you that would make life more fun. Don’t assume anyone is judging you, or actually cares, if you choose some of them.” –Laura Vanderkam in I Know How She Does It

If there’s one thing that being pregnant with a fifth baby while working, homeschooling three older children, and dealing with intense parenting issues has shown me, it’s that really, truly, and absolutely I cannot do All The Things.  I am a pretty efficient person, and I get a lot done.  For a long time there, I was pushing through pretty handily. But this year’s added challenges made that completely unsustainable and I realized that if something had to give, it needed to be the extras, not my core priorities.

In other words, to Do It All I had to stop doing All The Things.  Yes, those are two different cultural narratives.  Using them interchangeably is what causes problems.

Doing It All is about making time for the things that are truly important to you–that are YOUR priorities, that work for YOUR family, where YOU uniquely contribute value.  It absolutely means different things for different people.  Whereas doing All The Things is external–it’s doing the things that are expected, that are other people’s priorities, that aren’t necessarily of critical core importance to you.  Doing It All is about finding a unique way to do the things you’re really called to do, and keep your soul fed and body rested and healthy at the same time.  Doing All The Things is about feeling guilty for your choices and staying up until 2am doing your kid’s science project for him and distressing store bought pies to make it look homemade (remember that part from I Don’t Know How She Does It?)

Before you jump in with all the reasons you can’t possibly do anything differently in your life, I’d recommend you track your time for a bit.  I have done this every once in a while since I read 168 Hours (still my most highly recommended life management book four years later) and it’s invaluable for several reasons.

Tracking time helps me check my words and attitudes.  How we talk–to ourselves and others–about our life matters.  When I track my time, I see the big picture of how I spend time over the course of a week or month, rather than just how I remember a given day.  We all have a bias to weight the negative more heavily than the positive, but when I track my time I can’t say, “I spend all day picking up after everyone!” because I can see that actually I spend 10-20 minutes on it.  Maybe 10-20 excruciatingly annoying minutes, but not all day.  For me, knowing that reality helps me to turn around a negative attitude and start thinking of better solutions.

I also have to be honest about the “I don’t have time for…” excuse, because when I track my time I see that I spent X hours a week piddling around on Facebook or chopping onions instead of doing the thing I claim is something I want to do.  You don’t even want to know how much time I used to spend chopping onions.  My time logs have helped me get more focused about internet time, and were my impetus to buy those $1 bags of pre-chopped frozen onion.  And sometimes I’ve had to own up to the fact that the thing I keep saying I don’t have time for is really just not a priority right now.

Tracking time helps me check my pain points.  I overreact to some things (like feeling I pick up all day) but often completely miss actual problem areas.  One time my time log showed that I was spending a crazy amount of time making breakfasts.  I didn’t realize how much that was throwing off our day, but it was, and seeing on paper that I was spending over an hour a day prepping ONE meal–and during our prime work/teaching time nonetheless–helped me start to think through solutions.  This time around I’m looking at the time I spend getting ready for the day and getting ready for bed at night.  I’m not convinced those are hours well spent because they aren’t really restorative or rewarding, and they are keeping me from doing the things that ARE restorative and rewarding.

Tracking time helps me check my priorities.  Tracking time is not about trying to max out every minute of your day.  It’s about having an accurate view of how you spend your time now, so you can decide if that’s how you WANT to spend it.  Sometimes I’m pleasantly surprised at how well my time and priorities line up, and other times I’m forced to look at the fact that I’m skipping out on something I say is a top focus area.

I know how she does itI recently read Laura Vanderkam’s new book I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time.  Although perhaps less universally applicable than her previous book 168 Hours, this one brings fresh perspective to the question of women doing it all in our culture.  The major strength of the book is its reliance on actual time logs tracking 1001 days in the lives of mothers who earn six figures.  Laura is up front about the bias there–plenty of important jobs don’t pay that much, and lots of us define success in different terms than our annual salaries–but the point she was trying to make was that even women in the top tier jobs still have time for personal lives and being involved parents.

As I’ve tracked my time, I’ve often struggled with what counts as work and what does not.  I like Laura’s definition that work is anything that’s contributing to your career trajectory.  So, in my case, a business building meeting or doing the administrative tasks that keep my business going count as work even though I’m not directly paid for them, but an office worker wasting an hour on Facebook during the work day probably shouldn’t count that as work even if she is getting paid a regular salary.  I also apply that to the time I spend on homeschooling–my prep counts for me, but my kids doing independent work without me doesn’t factor into my time log.  It counts for their school record, but doesn’t count against my available schedule space.

When you look at it this way, and especially as you consider the time logs in Laura’s research, you quickly see that the key to balance is actually to determine your OWN definitions of success in your various roles, and fill your time with important things first, rather than trying to add important things on top of whatever you’re actually doing.  In this sense, working (or working more) may not actually harm your family at all.  What’s overwhelming is the plethora of little unimportant things we find ourselves saying yes to, even when they aren’t contributing to our big priorities, goals, and roles.  

“You don’t build the life you want by saving time. You build the life you want, and then time saves itself.” –Laura Vanderkam in I Know How She Does It

When I track my time or build an “ideal week” type schedule, I find this to be invaluable. I know from tracking my time that I spend 20-30 hours a week directly on homeschooling (the kids spend a bit more time doing independent assignments).  I also know that I read aloud to the kids, on average, just under two hours per day.  And I interact with them a lot of other times as well.  Therefore, I do not have to feel any guilt when I set aside afternoons as work time and let them play independently or with a babysitter. I also see that, although I’m not in a stage of life where I can easily fit in a 90 minute workout every day, over the course of a week I do exercise more than the recommended average.  My time logs help me see the big picture on my time, so I can more easily try out shifting things around to free up a block of time for things I want to spend time on.

So can you work a “big job” and also have a life and be a good mom?  Depending on how you define those terms, sure.  I fully believe that you can do the big jobs with kids if you got started at the big job BEFORE you had kids.  Having looked into this pretty extensively, I don’t think you can start entry level in a demanding field and immediately hope for the kind of flexibility people achieve after devoting several years to a career path.  So, ideally, you’d discover your love for the big job prior to starting your family.

What do you do if you already have the family and want to on-ramp into some kind of work?  I transitioned out of a very particular type of government job when I had kids, and gradually figured out ways to translate those skills into the private sector in a way that is very flexible and allows me to also devote considerable time to my other callings, passions, and interests.  I think the transition could have been faster if I had been more deliberate about the advice Laura gives in this book and in her previous work to put the big pieces in first, and then fill in the schedule with other things, rather than trying to shove a new big piece in on top of the minutia.

One criticism I’ve seen of this book is the fact that women who earn at this level can afford to outsource in ways most of us can’t.  There is something to that, especially if these women have only a few children and if they are in dual-income households.  Even on-ramping would be easier if your spouse is already earning enough to off-set start-up costs and childcare and housekeeping.  But, after reading the book, I can’t say that it’s the outsourcing that makes these women able to balance.  The schedules include lots of cleaning, piddling around, and working when kids are sleeping or otherwise occupied.  It can be done.  If you take the main principles into consideration, you might be surprised at the ways you can escape overwhelm and find time to do what’s most important to you.

I Know How She Does It gave me a lot to think about and inspiration for some new solutions I’m integrating into my own balance.  While it would probably be most helpful for moms who do some work outside of the home, the principles do apply to anyone who has a work identity–including homeschooling, homemaking, volunteering, or whatever.  I still think 168 Hours is more universal, but if you’re a person who is interested in work/life balance or who is contemplating trying it out, or who needs some inspiration to stop feeling stuck in your choices, I’d recommend I Know How She Does It

What do you find is your biggest challenge to work/life balance?  Have you ever tracked your time to try to solve it?


Disclosure: This post contains some track-backs to my original reviews, but also some affiliate links.  Thanks for clicking through to Amazon from A Spirited Mind!



Posted in Parenting, Reading, Week in Books 2015, Working | Tagged , , , , | 6 Comments

An e-book bundle for people who don’t buy e-book bundles

Maybe you’re like me.  I never buy e-book bundles because:

  • Lots of e-books are free anyway.
  • Lots of e-books (even the not-free ones) are poorly written, poorly edited, and full of bad information.
  • You can often find the same information online for free.

And yet, this week I bought an e-book bundle.  I can’t believe I just typed that.  There was really only one thing that made me pull the trigger.


  • One of the free (well, almost, you have to pay $6.50 shipping) bonuses is three bottles of essential oils: lavender, lemon, and peppermint.

That’s it.  I clicked Buy Now on The Ultimate Healthy Living Bundle.  It was $29.97, and if you purchase by September 12 you also get access to a free live webinar with an aromatherapist about how to use essential oils safely and effectively.  I think that’s worth it.  Here’s my thought process:

  • I use Young Living essential oils, and the ones included in the bundle are not YL, they are Plant Therapy brand.  I may not use these oils exactly as I use my YL oils, because I did a lot of research into YL and trust them, but there are a lot of uses for oils that don’t require ingestion or undiluted use, especially for lavender and peppermint.  These three oils would set you back a lot more than $36.47 if you bought them elsewhere, making the bundle worth it for the oils alone.
  • In addition to the oils, there is also a bonus $16 credit, plus two Meyers soaps, plus free shipping to ePantry.  So even if I’m considering those as replacements for drug store brands, that saves me another $10.
  • The people at Ultimate Bundles screened and curated the included e-books, so I’m assuming a higher level of quality than your standard free-on-Amazon fare.

The Ultimate Healthy Living Bundle also includes:

  • A month-long membership to Paleofit and Paleo Meal Plan.  I’m not all in for paleo, but I do prefer to eat lower carb, real food meals, so paleo often fits recipe-wise, even if I don’t believe it as a philosophy.
  • Two free months of Once a Month Meals membership–choose menus based on your eating preferences and family size, and get a personalized plan to shop for, prepare, make ahead, or cook as you go, all of your meals for the month.
  • The Foundational Five course–a heal your diastasis program I have looked at before and will NEED after baby arrives.
  • Other good workout resources I can access any time after I get through post-partum recovery and ramp back up.
  • An e-book on handling PCOS, which is a major problem that comes roaring back every time I wean a baby.
  • Several e-books on healthy/real food easy freezer/crockpot type meals.  I’m a working, homeschooling mom expecting her fifth baby.  I’m sure I don’t need to explain why meal streamlining is a big thing for me right now!
  • money back guarantee on the whole bundle.  For 30 days, no questions asked.

There are also about 85 other e-books I might look at later although they don’t immediately appeal, and other free bonuses that I might or might not redeem depending on if I feel like paying for shipping is worth it (updated to add: I did wind up redeeming several of the other bonuses because the shipping charge still made the items cheaper than what I would normally pay).  You should check out the full list of courses and e-books and bonuses included–topics include: allergy friendly, essential oils, fitness and weight loss, healthy kids, homesteading, natural home, natural remedies, paleo, and real food–because different things would probably appeal to you.

So, you never buy e-book bundles.  I get it; neither do I.  But The Ultimate Healthy Living Bundle might make you reconsider.  At least this once.


Disclosure: If you do decide to purchase the bundle, I’d love it if you click through my link.  I signed up as an affiliate after I made the purchase because I think this is an actual good deal, and I so appreciate it when y’all help support A Spirited Mind!  Thank you!

Posted in Reviews | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

An Excellent Memoir of Growing Up in Soviet Russia

crumbsIn 1993, when I was in 9th grade, I did a Russian exchange program. We lived in Germany at the time so it wasn’t as huge an undertaking as getting there from the US would have been. Our group spent several days in St. Petersburg at the beginning, then several days in Moscow at the end, and in between we stayed with Russian families in a little textile town called Ivanovo.

When I ran across Elena Gorokhova’s memoir A Mountain of Crumbs I nearly fell out of my chair because Gorokhova’s mother was from Ivanovo–and it sounded like the passage of decades between when Gorokhova left Russia for the US and when I visited hadn’t changed very much about the general standards of living.  The author writes about her experiences with exchange students in the 80s, and it was so fascinating to get the other perspective.  My point of view was as an American kid wondering how on earth a family made up of parents, grandmother, great-aunt, daughter, and a dog lived in two rooms plus a small kitchen and balcony apartment, wondering why the daughter didn’t seem to have many clothes and none of them were what teenagers wore in the West, wondering why there wasn’t actually anything for sale in the store we visited…and yet the whole family was very polite and friendly and had a dacha, which I thought sounded like a vacation home–and kind of upper class.  Now I’m wondering what lengths they must have gone to just to pull together what they did have, and also thinking about the ways their mindsets formed in Soviet Russia might have influenced their perceptions of me as a Western kid.

Gorokhova does a fantastic job in her memoir of painting a picture not just of what daily life was like in 1960s-1980s Soviet era Russia, but also of giving the reader insight into how people thought and why.  The writing is insightful and compelling, with balanced storytelling and development of family relationships.  Although I spent considerable time in high school, college, and thereafter reading about Russia and studying the language, I felt like Gorokhova’s perspective added depth and nuance to my understanding in a way most sources don’t cover.

Even if you don’t have a long-term interest in the region, I still think A Mountain of Crumbs would be a good investment of your reading time.  You’ll learn a lot about the country, develop a more well-rounded understanding of the Cold War era from a different perspective, and have the pleasure of reading a well-crafted memoir.


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

Posted in Reading, Week in Books 2015 | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Exceptional Books About Writing

before we get startedAs someone who writes professionally, I find that different types of writing feed each other–for me at least, the strategic and marketing writing I do for pay both helps and is helped by the creative non-fiction writing of book reviews and essays, and the work of creating short stories and longer fiction. That’s why I was delighted and challenged by Bret Lott’s two exceptional books about writing:
Before We Get Started: A Practical Memoir of the Writer’s Life, and Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian. As a successful author who also teaches in MFA programs, and as a Christian who does not write in the Christian publishing industry, Lott has a perspective on writing that shares similarities with other books on craft and vision, but also brings a refreshingly different twist on familiar topics.

Lott examines long fiction, short stories, and narrative non-fiction to get at the root of what each genre is and why and how we write it.  Further, he explores how our understanding of fundamental principles informs our writing even–and especially–when we are simply writing honest stories.

letters & lifeBoth books are also personal memoirs of Lott’s development as a writer and major events in his family relationships.  I found those sections interesting as memoirs, but also instructive as narrative non-fiction and the roles that writing, words, and thinking about creativity and art play in a writer’s life.

What made the books stand out as exceptional to me was their mix of vision and practical application, as well as Lott’s perspective as a Christian who is a writer ( and not a writer for Christians).  Lott’s insight helped me to to see how my work with words can be seen as a calling, which is sometimes hard for me to see or communicate since some people see corporate writing as a lesser way to write or selling out or something like that, and also how important it is to remove myself from the equation entirely and pursue the work whether or not I make a successful attempt at publication for my other–currently just personal–writing efforts.

If you’re a writer in any form, or if you are another type of creative or artist, and especially if you’re a Christian creative, I’d recommend both of Lott’s books on writing.  You’ll find a lot to think about, and will come away inspired and challenged.


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

Posted in Creativity, Reading, Week in Books 2015, Writing | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Helpful Books for Dealing With Intense Kids

So far all of my children tend toward intensity, and this year one child in particular has been navigating a phase of particularly heightened emotional responses.  After a troubling encounter with the pediatrician, who immediately declared those behaviors abnormal and probably indicative of extremely serious mental illness, we had a major parenting crisis and the wheels felt like they were coming all the way off of our already challenging family life (not challenging in a bad way, but parenting soon-to-be five children when we are all pretty intense people and are in various stressful and/or developmental stages takes considerable effort).  Thankfully, and as a major answer to prayer, we got connected with a very understanding and helpful psychiatrist who assured us that the child in question is not at all mentally ill, but is a gifted kid with an intense personality who needs different strategies and parenting techniques.  Progress has been slow, but we do see progress, both in this child’s responses and in our own ability to parent these intense–but also intensely interesting!–kids of ours.

In this process we got a lot of good counsel from friends we trust, and naturally I read some books.  On the off chance that one of you might run into similar situations at some point, I’m reviewing a few that were particularly helpful.

misdiagnosisIt turns out that common characteristics of gifted children and adults are often misdiagnosed as mental illness or disorder.  It also turns out that we were exceedingly fortunate to find a mental health professional who recognizes the difference (as apparently this is not the norm). Misdiagnosis and Dual Diagnoses of Gifted Children and Adults: ADHD, Bipolar, Ocd, Asperger’s, Depression, and Other Disorders contains exceptionally helpful comparisons between behaviors and markers for a variety of illnesses and the ways giftedness can look like those conditions but is actually different.  The book also goes into what to look for when a child or adult has a dual diagnosis–that is, the person is gifted AND has another condition, and how that dual diagnosis often presents differently or can be overlooked.  The information is complex, but the detail is critical if you are at all unsure about what someone is telling you about your child.

To be very clear: I absolutely support getting help and using medication for actual mental illness or imbalance.  This book does NOT take the line that you shouldn’t medicate children at all, ever.  It just counsels restraint and accurate diagnosis prior to medicating, which seems eminently reasonable to me, especially as so many of the case studies in the book involve kids being given serious drugs designed to treat conditions the children did not even have–to the detriment of the child’s development.

Even if you aren’t currently dealing with a potential diagnosis issue, I still might recommend this resource for parents of gifted kids in general.  I’ve read plenty of books on the topic, but this one presents data-driven findings about the way gifted kids think and react to situations that I found helpful for all of my kids.  The authors point out that often giftedness is a touchy topic because it strikes people–even people who are gifted themselves–as gilding the lilly, but in reality parenting kids who think differently, experience life differently, and engage differently and more intensely can be very, very challenging.  This part of the book is insightful, encouraging, and helpful.

explosive childThe Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children is not written explicitly about gifted kids–although lots of the case studies seem to feature them–but rather offers perspective and techniques for parenting kids who are intense (in all sorts of ways) because they lack skills in flexibility and frustration tolerance.

One criticism I’ve seen of this book is that it’s just making apologies for kids who are bad and manipulative.  Don’t they just need more discipline or sticker charts or to be told to get over it when they overreact?  Well, maybe some kids do.  But if your kid is consistently flipping out at one or two key triggers (in our house this often happens with deviations from the planned schedule–whether our stated agenda or what the child had in mind for the day.  Other kids may overreact to bedtime or departures or homework or whatever) and the regularly suggested parenting tips aren’t working, it might be worth your while to consider another approach.

The book suggests a collaborative problem solving approach to teach kids to deal with unexpected situations with greater flexibility and perspective.  It’s not an easy one-click solution, but if you have a kid who flips out it might take less time than dealing with that.  One thing I found particularly helpful was examining my own reasons behind making changes or asking kids for things.  I kind of like flexibility and being able to change plans when things make more sense a different way, but I have a few kids who don’t roll with that as easily (and who aren’t as highly motivated by efficiency as I am!).  The problem solving approach requires the parent to articulate the actual concern behind a request–why am I saying no/changing the plan/setting this requirement–and sometimes once I’ve considered what I’m really concerned about, I realize that I don’t actually need to instigate the problem.  Sometimes I do–I’m still the parent here–but being more aware of the couple of triggers a child has can go a long way to minimizing them.  I also liked how the book emphasizes teaching skills rather than various techniques for strong-arming or manipulating kids into doing what you want.  It seems more in line with the goal to train children to be functional adults.

As for how well the problem solving works…well, it’s a process and the author admits that.  We’ve had some success with it, and I’ve been surprised at how well mutually agreed upon solutions can work–especially in areas where I have pretty well defined ideas of how things should go.  By getting to what my concern is, and what the child’s concern is, we can come up with solutions that might not have been either of our first idea, but which are workable.

Emotional Intensity 3Emotional Intensity in Gifted Students: Helping Kids Cope with Explosive Feelings is a very readable, encouraging book geared primarily toward parents but also with considerable insights for teachers, schools, and other outside-the-family situations.  I liked how the book focused on the strategies you can teach kids to help them to navigate their feelings and intensity.  So often the response is “get over it” or “stop overreacting” or otherwise implying that something is wrong with the child.  But our feelings are not wrong, just sometimes what we do with those feelings.

I think this book does a great job of exploring the different ways that kids can be intense.  It doesn’t always look like anger or flipping out or weeping–many kids just chatter a lot, get giddy, and have a lot of energy.

If you’re parenting a gifted kid, especially if you are also teaching one, this book has a lot of practical helps and things to think about.  I found it very, very helpful and would highly recommend this one.

living with intensityLiving With Intensity: Understanding the Sensitivity, Excitability, and the Emotional Development of Gifted Children, Adolescents, and Adults takes a much more academic approach, which was fine with me but might be dry if you aren’t really fascinated with the topic.  I found that there were several chapters I only skimmed, while others I took time to read slowly and carefully, because some dealt with things I’m not dealing with currently, or were better laid out in other books (like the Misdiagnosis book reviewed above).

I thought the particular strengths of this volume were the chapters on specific strategies for different excitabilities (if you’ve read much of the literature of giftedness you’ve probably run into this idea of different types of intensity/excitability) and the sections on being a gifted adult.  I took LOTS of notes on the practical strategies, because my kids do have different excitability types and frankly, I can actually use some of these ideas on myself!

Sometimes I wonder if I read books on giftedness halfway for parenting and halfway for myself.  The chapters in Living With Intensity on adult giftedness really helped me. First, it’s helpful to know that I’m not so very strange or abnormal as I usually feel.  This book goes into several studies on how gifted adults progress through life stages, and it helped me to look at my stage in life and realize that I am not alone in some of my feelings and fears.  It also helped me to think through strategies of dealing with things as part of a bigger picture–this is the very thing I try to help my kids with, but I don’t always do it for myself.

Living With Intensity might be a good book to check out of the library so you can read sections of particular interest to you, but if you don’t have time to read widely on these topics you really can skim lots of it.

If you have intense and/or gifted kids, or were/are one yourself, what resources have you found particularly helpful?


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.


Posted in Parenting, Reading, Week in Books 2015 | Tagged , , | 7 Comments

Consider This

Consider ThisOne problem with modern life is the difficulty we have with defining our terms.  Some words become labels, and yet can mean vastly different things to different people.  When people hear you’re a Christian, maybe they think you handle snakes. Or that you are a die-hard Republican who hates women and likes to judge people for fun.  Or that you are a vaguely moral person who may be a hypocrite.  And that’s not what you mean at all.

The same thing happens in the homeschooling community, and it has an unfortunate side effect of tripping people up.  Labeling something as “classical” or “Charlotte Mason” can mean very different things.  In my experience this has often resulted in expensive curriculum and co-op mistakes that don’t fit with my educational philosophy.

That’s why I think it’s really important to read carefully and define your own philosophy and standards.  Then, when an opportunity comes along, you can evaluate it in light of what YOU mean by popular terms, rather than what anyone else says.

Karen Glass’s book Consider This: Charlotte Mason and the Classical Tradition is helpful in this regard. The book challenges readers to explore the ways that the classical tradition has changed over time, and how in fact many currently espoused “classical” education techniques and programs are actually grounded in modern invention. But not to knock the classical idea, Glass also gently takes CM fans to task for divorcing Mason’s educational philosophy from the classical tradition in which it is rooted.  Ultimately, Glass upholds what Mason actually did, which was consider what was good and working out of the classical mold, and change what was not to fit the ideals–which ARE classical ideals–of pursuing truth, beauty, ideas and synthetic thinking.

A particular strength of the book is Glass’s articulation of the difference between synthetic thinking–“an approach to knowledge that places things together, comprehending the relationship of new knowledge to old knowledge, one discipline to another, and man to all things”–and the purely analytical approach which artificially separates facts from ideas, and disconnects subjects from the whole.  Modern education–including, unfortunately, many neoclassical approaches–vaunts analytical thinking at the expense of the integrated, holistic continuing story of synthetic thinking.  Glass points out that analytical thinking has its place, but that before we can take things apart, we need to understand how they fit together.

This had me shouting Amen at every turn, as it matches up with my own educational goals and with the reasons that I choose curriculum like Tapestry and use lots of Susan Wise Bauer’s materials–even though die-hard CM’ers often dismiss both resources as classical-not-Charlotte-Mason.  I think the focus on synthetic thought and THEN analysis lends itself well to CM ideals and methods, even in materials that aren’t explicitly CM.  And likewise I have found that many people who claim Charlotte Mason’s philosophy overlook the synthetic strengths of certain classical ideas.

Can’t we all just get along?!!

Of course not.  :)  What works for me won’t work for everyone.  But if you are interested in educational philosophy, and especially if you’re homeschooling, I’d recommend reading books like Consider This to help clarify your thinking–whether you self-identify as classical, Charlotte Mason, or neither.  Of course, read them with a critical eye, and sort them out for yourself, but I think it’s good to keep thinking through and refining your positions as you go.


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

Posted in Homeschool, Reading, Week in Books 2015 | Tagged , , , , | 12 Comments