Ordering the rhythms of our tables, calendars, and hearts

a-spirited-mind-1We live in a time in which we are fortunate to have lots of options. You can eat strawberries in November and wear sweaters in July. From where we live to how we eat, even to how we observe or ignore the weather, we pretty much get to chart our own course.

Because we have this freedom, it’s even more important that we pay attention to the underlying framework that drives our choices. I’ve recently been reading and thinking about this in light of seasons and rhythms.

I’m not against the convenience of modern life. I’m writing this post in my air conditioned office while it’s 94 degrees outside. I’ll be putting a can of tomatoes in tonight’s dinner, and I buy everything from books to pajamas to eyeliner on Amazon. But I do see a difference between using modern conveniences as tools and being blindly co-opted by our consumer culture.

As I read I began articulating some impressions of unease I’ve had about how (or if) my life reflects my beliefs on a number of fronts. I’ve made some steps to change our rhythms with things like moving to a term schedule for school (generally six weeks on, one week off), and we’ve always done a Jesse Tree for Advent. Still, in reading thinkers like James K. A. Smith and others, I’ve found myself examining our life looking for the liturgy embedded therein–we all live a liturgy, Smith says, it’s just a matter of what we base it on.

circle of seasonsIn a roundabout fashion this brought me to Kimberlee Conway Ireton’s excellent book The Circle of Seasons. Ireton didn’t grow up in a high church tradition, so her study of the church year as an adult gives her a valuable outsider perspective. Ireton avoids the temptation to create or uphold empty ritual, and digs into the value and symbolism of various church traditions.

For example, in looking at Advent as a season of waiting and preparation for Christ’s birth followed by a twelve day feast of Christmas, Ireton ties in ways Christians can move beyond the commercial Christmas to enjoy a season of peace and then extend joy and love when everyone else is tapped out and suffering a post-holiday slump. What if we had a Christmas party the week after Christmas? What if we invited people over for a Christmas dinner on December 28? How would that impact our family’s ability to enjoy Christmas and be a blessing to others?

Likewise, Lent offers a chance to think about the true purpose of fasting–not self-denial or being absorbed in yourself, but creating space for God to work in and through us.

I appreciated how Ireton thoughtfully examined ways that the church calendar can break us out of our tendency to passively trudge through life, and make us more mindful of our days.

irrational seasonI’ve already mentioned The Irrational Season, but it bears repeating here because in the book Madeleine L’Engle writes her reflections on the year in a way that is informed by and immersed in the church year.

L’Engle did a masterful job of showing how being aware of the church calendar can direct our thoughts and contemplation. Thinking about Jesus’ coming birth during Advent leads to being watchful for His return. Considering the events of our lives in light of Epiphany, Easter, or the Trinity helps us to understand them in a truer light, and orient our own experiences in light of a bigger story.

Reading The Irrational Season won’t be so much a practical primer on how to celebrate the church year as an inspiration for how being aware of seasons and traditions can be a rich avenue for study and contemplation. I’m thinking about this a lot as I structure our school terms for next year.

feastOne of the e-books in a bundle I bought recently turned out to be an interesting resource on the Christian year. Feast! is full of practical tips and recipes for aligning your family culture with church culture.

The first two sections–on Advent and Christmas–were particularly helpful. I liked the ideas for ways to build up to Christmas and make that our focus, but without seeming Scroogey or anti-Christmas. A lot of the tips were ideas that would help to keep December less frantic by spreading out all the things we love about the season into a longer and more relaxed celebration. I’ve always felt that Christmas was this weird abrupt stop after a couple of weeks trying to cram too much in. I really like the idea of a more restful Advent and then a great fun long Christmas with plenty of time to listen to music, make gingerbread houses, and read Christmas books rather than putting everything away. The authors suggest adding to your Jesse Tree until Epiphany, which I remember my mom trying to do for us some years. The Stewarts suggest adding the names of God or attributes of Jesus for those extra twelve ornaments. I have this on my list to try.

I will say that after the Easter ideas the book wasn’t as applicable for me. The authors are Catholic and so they have special saints days they celebrate at different times, which isn’t something we do. But there was enough good food for thought in the other sections to make Feast a worthwhile read for me.

life giving home

Sally and Sarah Clarkson’s book The Life-giving Home is arranged around the year too, although I didn’t take as many notes on practical things to do in January versus May or anything like that.  Those ideas are there, but I found the book to be more helpful to me in giving me a stronger vision for the way that my home and life can better express the truth and beauty I believe in, versus specific decorating or menu ideas.

I love the point the Clarkson’s make about how our homes and family cultures are ways to engage with the broader culture and a means to tell the story of what is most important to us. This is true no matter what we believe, and certainly worth serious thought. Are our lives–from our time to our traditions to our decorating aesthetic–telling the story we want them to? Are they restorative and life-giving for our families and friends and neighbors?

jameskasmith-youarewhatyoulove

If you want to dig more deeply into how our lives tell a story of what we love and reveal our vision of the good life, you should certainly check out James K. A. Smith’s latest work, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit. This book is powerfully insightful and profoundly challenging.

Smith talks about the way that our worship must incorporate not just our minds, but also our hearts. If we fail to capture and reorder our hearts, our head knowledge will not be enough. “You are what you love,” Smith writes, “because you live toward what you want.”  When we have misdirected loves it’s not because we have bad ideas, but because “our desires have been captivated by rival visions of flourishing. And that happens through practices not propaganda.”

So if we are formed by liturgies whether we admit it or not, we ought to devote careful consideration to what those liturgies are. As a parent and teacher, this gives me a lot to think about. Of course we want to give our children truth and sound ideas, but are we going beyond that to capture their hearts with truth and beauty? Does our worship and our family culture give them a vision for what it means to flourish, or are we giving them second-rate music and sappy stories and then wondering why their palates incline them to cartoons and the mall?

This has so many implications for how we structure our time, our family culture, our schools, our work…while the book may seem the odd one out in this post, it really forms the basis for why and how we follow (or don’t) seasons, rhythms, and traditions–Christian or otherwise.

There is so much in You Are What You Love that I can’t begin to touch on all of it, but I highly recommend it if you’re interested in habits, virtue, the good life, spiritual life…well, really I’d recommend it for anyone.

I haven’t finished thinking all of this through yet, so can’t give you my conclusions, but I’d be interested to know if you’ve considered these things and, if so, how you shape your family’s calendar or traditions as a result?

 
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Homestead

homesteadHomestead, Rosina Lippi’s lovely collection of interrelated stories about a small village in the Austrian Alps, captures the depth of human nature and richness of relationships in seemingly small settings and quiet lives.

Each of Lippi’s vingettes centers around a woman from the village–a snapshot of life in the village over a span of about 70 years, including the World Wars.  In Rosenau, families are interrelated, and people are known by their connection to the land and to the people they come from.  Their lives are circumscribed by their valley, nestled like a bowl surrounded by towering peaks, and everyone seems to know everything about their neighbors, yet Lippi grants each of the women extraordinary depth, insight, and dignity.  The author spent years researching German dialect in the area where the book is set, and she clearly communicates her love for the culture and communities of isolated Alpine pockets.

Aside from the book’s narrative beauty and it’s fascinating cultural insight, I most enjoyed the way Lippi imbued her characters with worth and dignity.  I think our prevailing modern view is that small town people are dull or close-minded or less worthwhile than big city movers and shakers.  Authors who write about small towns seem to either poke fun at the people there, or go too far the other direction and are condescending.  I probably wouldn’t have noticed that enough to articulate it before, but as I read Homestead I was struck by the contrast.

This book gave me a lot to think about in terms of how people are formed by where (and who) they come from and how rarely we truly understand what’s going on in someone else’s heart.  Life gives us so much room to extend grace (it’s funny that grace was my word for last year, but that thought keeps coming to mind as I read and interact with people this year–obviously grace is not a one year concept!) to other people rather than judging their motives or assuming you can accurately assess their depth.

I really enjoyed Homestead and would highly recommend it.  It’s a quiet book, but beautiful and thoughtful.

{An aside: My 9 year old wanted to read this book and I think she would have enjoyed parts of it, but there are several references that are not appropriate for younger readers.  It’s tastefully handled from an adult perspective, but not the sort of thing to pass on to a kid, even if they are interested in the setting or time period.}

 

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Contentment

contentmentIn Contentment: The Secret to a Lasting Calm, author Richard Swenson explores the concept of choosing to be content no matter what the circumstances–what that really means, what it looks like in practice, how it conflicts with modern values, and how to put it into practice.

The book is thoughtful and helpful, with a good blend of vision and application.  Swenson does a great job of breaking down the concept of contentment and giving it biblical, historical, and modern context.

While I can’t say that anything in the book was really new to me, the delivery forced me to examine some of the ways that our culture has impacted my perspective.  It is really difficult to call out your own blindspots, so I always appreciate authors who can point to ways our milieu is in conflict with a biblical view.

One example would be the way we view success.  Modern western sensibility dislikes the concept of contentment because it smacks of mediocrity and underachievement.  But the modern alternative is restless discontent, where nothing is ever enough and we churn around “relentlessly striving after dissatisfactions we can scarcely name.”  Swenson shows that biblical contentment is not about sloth, but about taking a right view of work as something we do to the best of our ability, but balanced by the view that we owe our success and every good thing to God, whose provision is trustworthy.  Yes, we work for our food, but God provides the soil, sun, water, etc.

Another example is in how we tacitly define the good life.  Swenson observes that the modern script defines the good life through media, technology, and money, but greater contentment comes through a community-oriented definition.  When we build a rich lifestyle based on community, relationship, and hospitality, we can be content with much less by our culture’s measurement.

I’ve noticed that, for me anyway, technology and media offer a false sense of community–a sense that I’ve connected with an old friend because I’ve seen her pictures on Facebook, when in reality I haven’t talked to her in 14 years and we have no real idea of what’s going on in each other’s lives.  Facebook is what it is–the Christmas card of connection–but it’s not real community.  One of my goals for this year is to work much harder at real life connections and really owning that my life is happening here in Indiana whether I feel like I fit in or not.  Getting together with people and being determined about getting on people’s schedules takes time and is sometimes uncomfortable (I hate feeling like I’m imposing on busy people who already have friends and don’t really need an extra!) but I’m always happier when I make the effort.  So I think Swenson’s point about defining the good life as community-based rather than consumption-based is valid and worth deep consideration.

I thought Contentment was a worthwhile read, full of good reminders and helpful challenges to my perspective.

How do you define contentment?  Do you think it’s challenging to maintain a counter-cultural definition of living well?

 

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Notes From a Blue Bike

In Notes from a Blue Bike: The Art of Living Intentionally in a Chaotic World, author Tsh Oxenrider (who you might know from the blog Simple Mom, which is now The Art of Simple) writes about how to make the everyday liturgy of our lives line up with how we really want to live.  The book is primarily a memoir, but woven in to Tsh’s experiences are numerous invitations to think through the little ways that our decisions add up to a life–either one lived in contentment, knowing that you’re in line with your purpose, or one lived in vague malaise of missed moments and dreams deferred.

Tsh and her husband have worked for international non-profits and run their own business, so their commitment to lots of travel and living in other cultures works for them.  Perhaps because of living all over the US, Asia, and Europe as a child, travel and living in new places is my bent too, but my husband’s preference is for roots so I often struggle with how to balance my goals with his.  In Notes from a Blue Bike, Tsh addresses the problem of how to fit your dreams in when they seem to depend on other people or a different cultural setup.  I really appreciated her thoughts on how to identify your core values (it might not work for us to move to Turkey, but what is it about the thought of living in a different country that appeals to me, and how can I apply that to the life I have?) and how to, as she puts it, live life rather than life living you.

I also got a lot out of Tsh’s experiences balancing work with family, thinking through educational options (they have gone back and forth between homeschool and traditional school), and her honest descriptions of the struggle to live fully and deliberately without burning out.  The tension between living with intention and also holding plans loosely to allow for God’s leading is one that I share, and Tsh’s insights were helpful for me.

Notes from a Blue Bike resonated with me in part because of the great writing and inclusion of issues relevant to my own experience, but also because Tsh avoids canned prescriptions, instead taking a more thoughtful and nuanced approach to guiding the reader into considering ideas and possibilities in a personal way.  Because of this feature, I think this book would be a worthwhile read for anyone who desires to live a deliberate, well-considered life, no matter what that includes.

 

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The Necklace

I read The Necklace: Thirteen Women and The Experiment That Transformed Their Lives after seeing Amy’s enthusiastic review, and, like she did, I found the story of a group of women who shared a diamond necklace fascinating.

The idea of a group of women in their 50s pooling their money to buy a diamond necklace is pretty interesting in itself.  Separately they might not have spent that much money on jewelry, but when they had to pitch in $1,200 each they went for it.  And, when they only had the necklace one month a year, they wore it all the time, and it started to change the way they looked at possessions, how they related to other people, and how they thought about what they could do to make an impact.  Best of all, the necklace turned them into a group of friends as they met every month to trade off the necklace and started using the necklace to do fundraisers and charity events.  For a lot of the women, that seemed to be the best part of the deal.

I especially enjoyed the insight I got into different ways that women deal with the decade of being in their fifties.  It’s an interesting thing to see how our concept of age changes over time–both culturally and as individuals.  In your fifties, it seems to me at least theoretically, your children are older but you’re still young enough to do all sorts of things, so it’s a very interesting decade.  I like the idea of being able to embark on an entirely different career or take up a whole new hobby.  I quite enjoyed reading about how each woman thought about her age (not always overtly expressed in the book, but you can understand it through what they say and do in many cases), was interested that nearly all of them had definite views about plastic surgery, and how the necklace reinforced or even totally changed each woman’s self-concept.  One woman lost a ton of weight, several boosted their love lives, became more daring, or interacted differently with their community.  In many ways, I think the necklace idea worked because the women were in a phase of life that has a little more leeway than other decades.

To be honest, the writing was pretty dreadful throughout this book.  However, the story was so compelling and the women were so interesting that I thought the story made up for the awful telling and I’d still recommend it!

Would you drop $1,000 to go in on some fabulous piece of jewelry or some other luxury item to share?  If so, what item would you go for?  

I would probably do it to gain the group of friends who got together for dinner parties once a month and out of interest to see what would happen.  I mean, who knows what sort of adventures would result if I broke my “no diamonds before 5pm” rule?  🙂

 

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Catching up

Instead of saying “Life is so busy” I think I’m going to try saying “Life is so full” instead.  Right now my life is full of good things (mostly–I’m not going to lie and say I love waking up three times a night with the baby!) and I’m pouring my time into homeschooling and a new exercise routine and doing fun things with family and friends, so all of my extra writing time is going to the writing I do for work.  Since I’ve let the blog languish a bit, I thought I would use Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Twitterature link to catch up on book reviews.  More on other topics soon!

I loved Michael Card’s Scribbling in the Sand: Christ and Creativity.  An excellent and inspiring set of essays on how to be a Christian artist, this book gave me a lot to think about as a writer.  While Card doesn’t think that Christians should use their art (music, writing, painting, what-have-you) as a bludgeon for evangelism, he does have unique insights into how being a Christian changes how you’re an artist.  After reading this book I added several more scenes to my novel (yes, dear reader, I’m still working on it).  If you liked Makoto Fujimura’s book (which you should read if you haven’t; it’s excellent), you’d like Card’s as well.  #recommended #writing

I adore Shauna Niequist’s writing–it’s funny and poignant and somehow encapsulates things I’ve thought and experienced in a different way that makes me say “aha!” and understand their significance better. Her book Bittersweet: Thoughts on Change, Grace, and Learning the Hard Way is amazing.  It’s about navigating difficult circumstances and relationships and learning to let go of doing-it-all, about trying not to lose old friendships and accepting how desperately you need grace all the time.  It’s also about writing and parenting and food.  In short, it’s a rich and full and incredible book.  #readit #bestof2013

I always get a lot out of Paul David Tripp’s books (if you haven’t read his book on marriage, stop now and go read it because it’s phenomenal) so I wasn’t surprised to find Broken-Down House: Living Productively in a World Gone Bad insightful and helpful.  It took me a while to get into it because I thought the opening section on the house metaphor was a little long, but once I got to the meat of the book I gleaned a lot of great thoughts about theology and life.  Tripp’s writing is deep and wise, but accessible, and his section on dealing with waiting through difficulties was hands down the best explanation of how to handle suffering that I have ever read. #helpful #insightful

After enjoying Amy’s bookclub posts on this book and getting so much out of the author’s more recent book Desperate, I so wanted to love Seasons of a Mother’s Heart, but in the end I got way more out of Amy’s observations than I did from the actual book. I did get some encouragement as a homeschool mom so it wasn’t a waste of a purchase (our library doesn’t have the book so I bought a copy), and perhaps I’ll read it again and have a different perspective later.  #ok #homeschool

You can read more short reviews of books at Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Twitterature linkup.

What have y’all been reading lately?

 

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Letter Writing, Book Clubs, and Connection

Growing up I wrote letters back and forth with various family members, but as I grew older and more relatives got on email, I gradually cut back, until I was only writing consistently with my grandmother.  She wrote newsy letters about what was going on in her life, often finishing a thought by writing up and down the margins of her stationery.  From time to time we would recommend books to each other, and I sent her books to read that I thought she would especially like so that we could discuss them.  Our talks and letters about The Help and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society were particularly memorable, as I learned more about her experiences during World War II, and the relationships she had with her family’s maids.

This month at a book club tea we discussed The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and we had an interesting discussion about letter writing–both how it’s sad that it seems to be dying out and that it seems we’ve lost a lot of the skill of letter writing.

The book, as you might know, is written entirely in the form of letters, which is a device that works beautifully for revealing the voices and characters of the people in the story.

It seems to me that writing actual hand-written letters is an entirely different genre than the ubiquitous e-mail.  We say things differently when we type, when we know the message could easily be forwarded, when it’s legally discoverable but unlikely that we’ll pass our gmail on to our grandchildren.  Hand-written letters offer an entirely different form of connection.

One of the girls at book club shared how she started a notebook of letters with her son.

She writes him a letter, then he writes one back, she responds, and so forth.  It struck me as such a wonderful idea to open that line of communication early, and to keep the letters in a notebook so they can refer back to it later.  I immediately started notebooks with Hannah and Jack and both of them are thrilled at the thought of having letters of their very own.  Writing letters with them is something I started doing after reading How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, but I’m glad to have the letters in a notebook now.

Another friend recently told me about how she has her children work on letters as part of their copywork.

I thought that was an excellent idea so I have also had the kids write letters in the past couple of weeks–they have written letters to my parents and to one of my aunts so far, and it does take several days for them to finish the letters and get the envelopes addressed, but I think it’s a good exercise.  They treasure cards and letters they receive, so I think it’s good to develop the habit of writing replies.  I hope this will be a good source of connection with their family members as well as a handwriting and composition exercise.

Shauna Niequist (author of Cold Tangerines) recently had a good article related to changing forms of connection in Relevant Magazine that had me thinking along these lines in relation to my focus on connection this year.

Although technology gives us lots of ways to connect, we really do have to be careful not to let those connections be superficial, fake, and disheartening.

While we don’t have to throw all technology out with the bathwater, certainly we need to think deeply about how to cultivate real community and how to truly encourage our friends.

I’m always open to suggestions, and would love to hear your ideas on letter writing, book discussions, and using media positively to build connections.

Do you write letters?

Word of the Year – Connect

I recently attended a party where, for some reason, I felt free to be myself.  I had great conversations about homeschooling and books and writing and cheese.  I did not put on the “reserved and quiet” persona I often adopt in an attempt not to offend anyone.  And it felt good.  As I drove home, it struck me that although I had just met a few of those people, they had a better sense of who I am from that one event than do many people who I have seen on a weekly basis for years.  At some point I got out of the habit of really connecting with people, and I feel this as a lack–a lack of real friendships, a lack of community, a lack of the support people can only give if they know the real you.

As I thought through goals for 2013 I realized that this theme of connection was the common denominator to nearly everything I had on my list.  I feel strongly that 2013 needs to be a year when I focus on connecting–with God, my family, and with friends and neighbors.

Taking a cue from Gretchen Rubin, I made a short (for me, anyway) list of resolutions that tie specific actions to the overall theme word connect.  Some relate to my spiritual life, some to my marriage, some to my children, some to my work, and some to my friends and community.  Instead of just saying “I want to make 2013 about connecting” I made a list of concrete, attainable steps I can take on a daily or weekly basis that will hopefully, by year’s end, have resulted in growth and connection.

My word of the year in 2012 was “brilliant,” in the sense of striking, multi-faceted, bold, and glittering.  In hindsight, I’m not sure that’s how things turned out.  As the year happened, I had some major shifts in plans, changes in circumstances, adjustment of attitudes, and overhauling of goals.  I’m not disappointed in the year, and there were small pockets of brilliant moments, but if I had to remember 2012 by a word it would probably be “re-evaluate” rather than “brilliant.”

And that’s OK.  As Johanna wrote helpfully about not being a slave to our goals, it’s all right to take stock and change goals midstream.  I also love this quote I read on Keren’s blog:

I hope that in this year to come, you make mistakes. Because if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something. So that’s my wish for you, and all of us, and my wish for myself. Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before. Don’t freeze, don’t stop, don’t worry that it isn’t good enough, or it isn’t perfect, whatever it is: art, or love, or work or family or life. Whatever it is you’re scared of doing, Do it. Make your mistakes, next year and forever.  –Neil Gaiman

In 2013 I’m probably going to make mistakes as I push toward connecting.  I’ll change my goals and change my mind and hopefully grow in the process.  I love that life is not static, and that we can always count on curve balls.  And I love that we don’t have to fear change and risk, because God is sovereign and He has our best in mind.

If you distill your goals into a word of the year, what did you choose for 2013? Here’s to a wonderful, challenging, connected year no matter what your goals!

Making Room For Life

Do you spend a lot of time sitting around pondering how slow your life is?  How relaxed you and your family feel?  The surplus of time you have?  Don’t you wish you could work more, spend more time running around in the car, take your kids to more activities, cut things closer?

No?

I didn’t think so.  That’s why I think I’d recommend Making Room for Life: Trading Chaotic Lifestyles for Connected Relationships to absolutely anyone.  This book will not only give you a lot to think about and talk over, it will also give you tools to think through how you want your life to be and how to realistically evaluate your schedule and priorities to create space for actually living in your life.

Randy Frazee begins Making Room for Life with a description of common problems in Western families: we have lots of exposure to different groups of people, but very few truly deep connections.  We have linear friendships rather than connected friendships–most people know one facet of who we are, but very few know the whole story of who we are, which leads to loneliness, anxiety, and a general sense that something is off balance.

The solution, Frazee believes, is to establish boundaries in the way we devote our time, and establish habits of connection.  He advocates limiting your work to the hours of 6am-6pm, and leaving the hours of 6pm-10pm for real dinners, conversation, and community.

I think the time boundary section was most compelling for me.  I work from home, and I homeschool, and so often it feels like there is never a time when I’m not working.  Or, if there is, I feel guilty, as though I really ought to be doing something.  At the same time, I definitely struggle with feeling like I have a lot of superficial friendships but few deep connections.  As a homeschooling family, we spend a LOT of time together, but I have long sensed that we lack the kind of unstructured relaxing together time that is refreshing and restoring as well as relationship-building.

In the book, Frazee discusses different ways people structure work, how to establish a strong family dinner time, how to work around homework and sports schedules, and how to figure out ways to connect more of the disparate groups you’re a part of currently.  Although a lot of the book is directed at two parent families, significant sections speak to single parents, singles, empty nesters, and the elderly.

I really appreciated Frazee’s honesty about how this has been a gradual process in his family’s life, and his understanding that different situations and phases of life might call for different solutions.  I found myself wondering at times how certain ideas could be implemented with small children, introverts, or a spouse who is not a morning person, but I think that with some thought the main ideas of the book are sound enough for a variety of applications.

Whether you are the sort of family that attempts radical overhauls or the kind that prefers incremental changes toward a goal, I think there is something for everyone in this book.  I found it challenging and compelling and once my husband and I have a chance to discuss it more fully I think we will probably integrate a number of these ideas into our life in the new year.

As you look ahead to the new year, I would highly recommend Making Room for Life, and I’d love to hear your thoughts if you’ve read it!

 

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