Tag Archive for books

Storying Your Education through an Artifact

“What object would you use to tell the story of your education?”

This question was posed to me by Jenn Fishman, an Assistant Professor at Marquette University, who is today’s speaker at the Summer Seminar in Rhetoric and Composition that I am attending. Jenn asked us beforehand to bring with us an artifact that would help us tell the story of our education.

I thought about this prompt for at least a few weeks before coming to the conference (Isn’t it such a provocative thing to consider?). I even posed this question to my friends on Facebook, who responded with creative and interesting artifacts, including a flute, library, teachers, a spreadsheet, a human skull, and a laptop. Notice that these items were not limited to schooling; instead, these (smart) people looked at education from many different vantage points, including schooling, of course, but also extracurricular activities, hobbies, places, people, and extraordinary objects.

When I began thinking about how I would answer Jenn’s question, the object that first popped to my mind was a Bible. But this was not the story I wanted to tell about myself. I didn’t want to be one of those people who, at least in academia, are often viewed as narrow-minded, predictable, ignorant, judgmental, and hateful. I didn’t want to be characterized, stereotyped, or judged because of this artifact that I might bring.

So I began to ponder other artifacts.

I looked around my office. I noticed the three diplomas hanging on the wall. I considered bringing one of those. I even took a picture of my Ph.D. diploma–just in case I chose to use it. This diploma holds great meaning to me, and not just in ways you might think (but that’s another story).

I considered telling the story about how I overcame a speech impediment when I was young. I couldn’t pronounce my els, rs, or esses. I couldn’t even say my own name correctly. This story has defined me in ways that I cannot fully articulate, that no one else quite understands even when I try to explain. It is connected to why I try so hard at things, why being a valedictorian and getting a Ph.D. mean so much to me. But I couldn’t think of an object to bring. I thought of My Fair Lady but decided against it. I thought of bringing a picture of my speech teacher whose name I can’t remember but who, in the second grade, showed me how, though six months pregnant, maternity pants worked. I couldn’t find a picture.

I also thought about bringing a basketball. Basketball was not the first sport I ever played or the first sport I was good at, but it was the sport to teach me about discipline, teamwork, dedication, and hard work. It was also the sport I loved the most, the sport I excelled at most, a sport I now play today with my own children. I learned about my strengths, my weaknesses. I noticed that some of my strengths and weaknesses were innate (I had a logical mind and could predict where a player would throw the ball and intercept it; I was short and could not block a shot); others were developed in life (I could nail three pointers from all over the arc; I could throw a ball poorly to a teammate and get it intercepted).

I learned so much about myself through playing basketball.

I learned about life and people and love.
I learned about good teaching through both good and bad coaches.
I learned about passion and practice and performance.
I learned how to have a good attitude, not be selfish, how to lose, how to win, how to be a good teammate, how to be a leader, how to forgive other’s mistakes.
Basketball taught me how to experience and live life.

I also thought about bringing one of my all-time favorite novels, The Grapes of Wrath (To Kill a Mockingbird is another favorite of mine.). I read this book my senior year of college. It was in “The American Novel,” the first upper-level English course I took after switching majors my junior year. This book changed me. It changed how I viewed the world. It changed the way I approached people and story. It expanded my understanding of listening, emphathizing, understanding. I identified with the Joads and Tom and the pain and suffering and loss this family experienced. The stories within this book broke my heart. I quickly bought and read as many John Steinbeck books as I could, including Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row, East of Eden, and Travels with Charley.

John Steinbeck, I might argue, made me more socially aware.

More aware of injustice.
More aware of the terrible ways people treat each other.
More aware that the idea of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps is a myth.
More aware of systemic poverty, racism, classism, and sexism.
More aware of privilege.
More aware of my own subject position.

The Grapes of Wrath gave me reason to be angry. To be raving mad. But it also allowed me to understand the dignity of wrath. It led me to want to fight injustice. It changed me.

Eventually this book led me back to the first book I considered as my artifact: the Bible. And, in the end, the Bible is the artifact I chose. I thought the risk was worth it.

Holy Bible Pink Cover


How I Created a Budget: A Story Involving a Church Plant, a Spreadsheet, Cash, and Envelopes

Yesterday, my post on 12 Tips for Saving Money resonated with you. Within 4 hours, this blog post quickly moved to fourth on my list of most-read blog posts. The three posts receiving more hits than that one are these:

#1: Running around Like a Crazy Woman: Why Less Is More
#2: Up In the Clouds or Down on the Ground: When Marriage Is Difficult
#3: Why I’m Uncomfortable with Mother’s Day

Since you seem somewhat interested in money and how to save it, I decided to follow yesterday’s post with another post on this topic. Today, I’m writing about how (and why) I created a budget and what it has done for me and my family. This process involves a story, a spreadsheet, cash, and envelopes.

Cash System

First, the story. In 2006, Shane and I lived in Gatesville, Texas. We had been married for four years, and Shane was a preacher at a church there. I had just finished my Ph.D. in May of that year and began working at Baylor in August of the same year. I was finally making a salary after so many years living off of Shane’s salary and a meager graduate school stipend. We were excited about almost doubling our income and beginning the process of paying off school loans and other debt we had accrued, including our car loan, loans on some appliances, and our mortgage. Luckily, we did not have credit card debt. We only had one kid. We didn’t really need a budget.

Shane liked his job, and we loved that church (our first child was born there and those people and that church will always hold special places in our hearts), but we felt a desire to reach out to “non-church” people. People who didn’t know about Jesus. People who hated the church or who had been burned by “church people.” We wanted to reach out to, meet, and befriend the so-called “unchurched” or “dechurched.” We had heard about Mission Alive, a church-planting organization, and became interested in this thing called”church planting. After many months of praying and planning and preparing, we decided to move to Waco at the end of 2007 to plant The Grove Church.

During the transition time (or the “in-between” time as Shane called it in one of his blog posts at the time), from the time we decided to plant until we moved (which was about one year), I began to think seriously about our money. Like I said before, I’ve always been a saver, but now we were about to have to raise money for Shane’s salary and the church’s operating expenses. This was not a part of the church planting process that we liked. So much was unknown. We didn’t know how much money we could raise or how much money we would need to live on in Waco where we would soon be moving to a new, bigger, and more expensive house. We did not want to rely on the generosity of others for very long (less than three years). In the worst-case scenario, I wanted to be prepared to live off my salary alone if we had to.

So, in late 2005 at the very beginning of our dreaming and conversations on church planting (years before we took any action), I created a budget in an Excel spreadsheet. I looked online to determine what categories I needed for my budget. I decided on 18 categories, ranging from Household Purchases, Saving, and Groceries, to Giving Student Loans, and individual bills (cable, internet, phone, water, electricity, etc.). I then input Shane’s salary (I was writing my dissertation and bringing home zero dollars) and divvied up the money according to his paycheck. I followed the budget for three months, all the while adjusting it according to what I really spent.

After I started working and bringing money home a few years later, I decided to implement a cash envelope system. Here’s what this system entailed: I wrote out all the categories in our budget on various envelopes (see picture), which had been extended to about 35 different items.

Some of the Budget Categories I Use

When we got our monthly paychecks, I went to the bank and took out the amount of cash I needed for that month’s envelopes. I then put the right amount of cash in each of the envelopes. We used the cash until it ran out, and we were very diligent about not stealing from one envelope if we had run out in another one.

I took the envelopes with me when I shopped. I even found a nifty checkbook-size organizer that had eight different sections in it to carry around the cash I needed when I shopped. The system worked great. It did take me a while to get “caught up.” What I mean by this is that before beginning the cash system, I paid my bills based on the paychecks for that month. With the cash system, however, I had to have enough money in the envelopes before I spent the money. This meant that I had to have money in the envelopes and the bank. It was a process to be able to save enough money for this to happen, but it did.

Around this same time, I also decided to read Dave Ramsey’s The Total Money Makeover. I found many of his principles helpful, especially the ones about reducing debt, namely paying off the loans with the least amount of debt (which we did with my student loan, our freezer purchase, and two of our car payments). I also liked his suggestion to have a $1,000 emergency fund for use in, well, emergencies. If you had to use the money, then your immediate goal was to replace it.

One note about the book: I did not implement Ramsey’s principle of abstaining from giving (or “tithing”, as he called it) until you are completely out of debt. No matter how much money you make or have or how much debt you are in, I think it’s important to give some of it away throughout the process of getting out of debt. If we all wait until we are completely debt-free, we will NEVER give anything. Remember the widow in the Book of Luke? She gave all she had, even in her poverty. One of my friends did recently tell me, however, that he has since revised his stance on this issue (good!), but I’m not sure what he advocates now.

For several years, I carried around a lot of cash. Cash for groceries, household purchases, baby, haircuts, medical expenses, and a few other categories. However, this all changed two years ago when my husband and I went to see Wicked at Faire Park in Dallas. While we were eating lunch, someone stole my big organizer with all my cash right out of my purse (my driver’s license, social security card, and credit cards were also inside–ugh). I lost thousands of dollars.

I thus discovered a flaw in the system. A HUGE FLAW.

I began looking for other ways to utilize this system. I decided to still utilize the cash system but to do so without having to take out so much cash each month. I decided to organize it all in a spreadsheet and to just keep track of it electronically. It has worked even better.

Today, our budget contains 57 items in the list. Shane thinks I’m crazy for how detailed it is, but it works for me (and him, I think). I am constantly adjusting the items and the amount designated to each item because different expenses come up as your situation changes.

And what have been the results? We have a balanced budget. I don’t stress over money. I adjust the budget when necessary. We have paid off or gotten rid of at least seven loans (2 school loans, 2 car loans, 1 furniture loan, and 2 large appliances). We have not accrued any more debt. We now save in advance for cars rather than paying for them after we buy them. We only spend what we have. We have gained financial peace.

I want to leave you with a list of five budget categories that have helped me in one way or another. These may not be the typical items you will include in your budget, but they have been helpful to me so I’ll share them with you.

1. “School Fees”, one envelope for each child you have (this includes teacher gifts, school supplies, school pictures, field trip money, t-shirt money, and all those other expenses that come up once kids start school).

2. “Extracurricular Activities.” Includes tee-ball and other sports for your kids, as well as piano lessons, swim lessons, or art lessons. It can also include art, cooking, or tennis lessons for yourself (This category could also include the gym, but I typically have a separate item for it when I have been a member of the gym since it’s a recurring fee). You could also include going to the movies or other family activities.

3. “Babysitting.” If you want to have a Date Night with your significant other, or if you are a single mom/dad and want to go out at night, this envelope is a MUST. Saving for a babysitter is also good incentive to actually go on the date. You already have the money saved, so go spend it.

4. “Christmas.” I have a “Gift” envelope for birthday parties, holidays, and other special occasions, but I have found that I am more conscious about how much I spend on Christmas and what I buy when I have a special envelope designated for Christmas. Beginning in January, I start putting money in this envelope. By the time Christmas comes around, I know exactly how much I have to spend, and it is there before I spend it. No worries. No fuss. I have also noticed that I spend much less than I did before. It’s not because we don’t necessarily have the money to spend; it’s just that I became aware of how much money I spent on Christmas and realized that it was way too much…and not even what Christmas is about for me anyway. If you don’t celebrate Christmas (or if you don’t spend enough to warrant a separate enveloped), then maybe you can think of a different occasion.

5. “Work Expenses.” I have two separate Work envelopes–one for Shane and one for me. We both have expenses for our jobs (most of them are for books we need to buy). It’s important to itemize all of these small items so that you don’t mess up the budget.

Thanks for reading.


Twelve Tips for Saving Money

I am a saver. I like to save money. I like a bargain.

When I was growing up, my dad required my three siblings and I to keep three jars: one labeled Saving, one labeled Spending, and the third labeled God. When we received money of any kind, Three Money Jarswhether it be our meager allowance ($1.00-$3.00) or birthday or Christmas money, we were required to divide the money evenly between the three jars. He wanted us to know how important it was to save, only spend what was available, and give away a large portion of our money as well (33%).

Two of my jars were always full. Can you guess which ones? If you guessed Saving and Spending, you would be correct. I even saved my spending money.

I guess my dad discovered I was a saver early on because by the time I was eight, he put me in charge of balancing the family checkbook (some of you young people don’t even know what that means!). This was a big responsibility and I took it seriously. My husband thinks it is hilarious that I balanced the checkbook because of how poor my math skills are. Balancing the checkbook taught me some things about money. I learned the true value of a buck. I learned how important it is to only spend what you have. I learned the importance of organization.

As I’ve grown up, I’ve become even more of a saver. I especially like it when I can save money in one place (electricity, gas, housing, groceries, etc.) so I can either save it or spend it on something I really like spending my money on, such as traveling with my husband or kids.

For today’s 12 Series, I give you twelve tips for saving money.

1. Cook (and eat) at home. Buying food, cooking it, and eating it–at home–is much cheaper than eating out, especially when you have more than two people to feed. Eating out drains the budget and you will save money if you eat at home. The more people you have to feed, the more expensive it gets to eat out.

Eating at home may not save a single person much money (I can’t speak to this anymore). But I do know that it can be quite cheap (even for one). If you’re scared by cooking, just try it. Begin with a recipe that takes 15 minutes. You’ll be amazed how quick you pick it up. After ten years, I now like to cook and feel confident in my skills. Plus, the food I make at home is much healthier than the food in restaurants around here. There are many reasons to eat at home.

People often say it’s more expensive to cook healthy food. I don’t really agree with this assumption, especially when you compare how full you get when you eat healthy food versus how much more you eat when you eat junk food. But, even if you think healthy food is more expensive (which I don’t), I think it’s one area worth spending the extra money on. Good food equals good health, and paying extra for things that are good for my body and my spirit and my family is fine with me.

2. Don’t be enticed by marketing ploys that promise “the best sale ever.” Seriously, don’t. Resist the temptation to sign up for emails from Pottery Barn, Ann Taylor Loft, Pier One, Children’s Place, Old Navy, and all those other stores that offer big sales and discounts.

The goal of these emails is not to save you money, contrary to the subject line in the email. Their goal is to get you in their store so you will spend money.

If you hadn’t gotten that email saying, “Everything at the store is 40% off!!”, you wouldn’t have gone to the store anyway! Unsubscribe from these email alerts. Even when places offer coupons through email (like Bealls or Target), you can often find them on their websites, or, when you are at the counter checking out, just ask if they have any coupons you can use and they will most likely give it to you or just apply the discount to your purchase.

Emails aren’t the only place retailers get you, though. TV commercials are another way they do it, especially with our children. If you have DVR, skip through the commercials. If you don’t, tell your children to get up and go do something during the commercials so they aren’t manipulated into wanting more “stuff” that just clutters your house and your life.

Do not be enticed. Resist temptation. Flee from it…quickly. When we give in, we always end up spending more money than we would have had we not known about these “sales” in the first place. Less is more.

3. Buy from Amazon. I have a lot of friends who refuse to buy from Amazon (or Wal-Mart) for moral reasons or for fear these big companies will destroy small, local businesses. I respect those positions. I have thought them at one time or another.

But, ever since moving to a small country town, I have become Amazon-obsessed. Here’s why. Their stuff is competitively priced. I can get new and used stuff for low prices, probably the cheapest on the planet. I also live in a small town that doesn’t always have what I need, which means that I would have to drive 45 minutes to one hour to get what I need. Gas is expensive and driving that far takes up a lot of my time. So, I use Amazon. They deliver right to my door.

I also have a Prime membership, which one of my college roommates convinced me to get, and I’m so glad I listened to her advice. Prime offers free two-day shipping on almost everything (even big, expensive things like playground equipment and furniture), free returns, and free streaming on thousands of movies and TV shows (saves rental fees). I encourage you to check it out.

I also shop at Amazon because of “Amazon Mom” (they also have Amazon student for college students) and “Subscribe and Save.” I use Subscribe and Save to buy diapers, wipes, oatmeal, paper towels, and many other household items. With the Amazon Mom discount added to the Subscribe and Save discount, you end up saving a lot of money.

One last reason I use Amazon is because they are tax-free in Texas. I feel a bit guilty admitting this as a reason because I think we all have a responsibility to pay taxes to live here, but I also want to save money, so I still buy from them. This will all be changing soon, though, because starting July 1, Amazon will no longer be tax-free in Texas. We can thank the Lone Star State for that! (Note the sarcasm.) They sued Amazon over back-taxes and reached a settlement, so now we all have to pay taxes. I guess I’ll be buying a lot of items at our state’s annual tax-free weekend.

4. Buy in bulk. I try to avoid eating a lot of non-perishable food items (see #2 above), and I eat food that is fresh, refrigerated, or frozen as much as possible (food located in the U-shape of the grocery store). However, there are some items located in the center aisles that I do buy, and I try to buy in bulk whenever possible. I buy bigger bags of cereals, canned goods, snack foods, pasta, beans, and household items like toothpaste, shampoo, and paper towels. We don’t have a Costco nearby, but there is a Sam’s Club in Waco where I buy most of my bulk items. I also buy a lot of these bulk goods at Amazon through Subscribe and Save.

5. Conserve in your home. Turn out the lights in rooms you are not using (better yet, use natural light). Adjust the thermostat according to your comings and goings (and don’t forget to do it!). Buy a programmable thermostat that won’t let you forget. Weatherproof your home. Don’t use as much water. Wash dishes by hand. Use more cold water.

6. Set a budget. Setting a budget and sticking to it has helped our family immensely. It also keeps me sane and lets me know where our money is going.

7. Don’t purchase books (printed or digital) unless absolutely necessary and, if necessary, buy used. I’m sure this advice seems odd, given I’m an English professor, but I believe spending less on books is an important way to save, and it’s an easy expense to drop when you want to save money. Instead, check out books from the library. Most libraries now offer digital lending services where you can download books to your Kindle. And all of this is free. LibraryIf you have an Amazon Prime account (and a Kindle), you can check out Amazon’s Lending Library where you can check out a variety of books. They also have a variety of free Kindle books for purchases–new ones are added all the time.

You can also ask your local library if they have an Interlibrary Loan (ILL) department.

If you live near a university, see if you can get a library card there. You’ll have an even greater selection to choose from and most of them have wonderful ILL Departments where you can order any book you want from other libraries (and it’s free!). You can also borrow books from friends or buy used books.

I am somewhat hypocritical when it comes to children’s books and scholarly books for my work. Although I use the library extensively in both of these cases, there are some books that I must own.

8. Shop consignment stores. I buy my children clothes from consignment stores (The only new clothes they get is given to them by their grandparents.). I’m not at all ashamed of this because not only does it save money but it is also good for the environment. I also shop in the off-season when everything is on clearance. It’s getting a bit harder to find used clothes for Elizabeth. She’s in a size 7/Medium and most clothes in her size are worn out because of how long children stay in one size. I can still find dresses and jeans, but t-shirts and shorts are much more difficult.

There are places that sell cheap kids’ clothes (i.e., Target, Wal-Mart, Kohls, Ross, Marshalls), but I am somewhat hesitant to buy from these places because if it is THAT cheap to consumers, then most likely the person who made it was not paid a fair wage and that bothers me (but that’s for a different post).

9. Spend less. Spending less doesn’t seem like it should be an entry on ways to save money because it’s so obvious, but I think it’s an important one. If you spend less, you will save money. We live in a materialistic, competitive culture that tells us to find our identity in material things and stuff, but this doesn’t bring true fulfillment or happiness. Spend less. Just do it.

10. Garden. Our garden is beginning to produce vegetables, and we are so excited. We’ve already eaten cucumbers, zucchini, squash, and peppers from the garden and tomatoes, onions, and watermelon are almost ready. Last year, our garden produced so many tomatoes that I was able to make marinara and pasta sauce for the entire year. We just ran out in March. That saved us a lot of money.

11. Pay bills online. I was a latecomer to online bill pay, but I’ve been doing it for over 3 years now, and I find it fast, convenient, cheap, and easy. No stamps. No envelopes. And it’s free (if you’re paying for it, find a different bank).

12. Spend only what you have. Here at Casa de Alexander, we use the Cash System to help us spend only what we have. We take cash out each month (it’s all electronic, so we don’t have all that cash lying around in our house, but it’s the theory). We have been able to get out of almost all of our debt by spending only what we have in the bank.

These are just a few of my tips. I know there are hundreds of other ways to save money. I’d love to hear ideas of how you save money or spend less.


My Favorite Children’s Books

One of our favorite things to do during the long summer days at home is to read. We like to read throughout the year, but we designate more time during the summer for reading because we are home almost every day, we like it, and it’s a good skill to practice and learn. It also fosters bonding, confidence, and independence.

One thing we did for the first time last year was participate in a couple of summer reading programs. Our local library always has a summer reading program. They participate in the State of Texas’ Library Association’s reading program. This year, the theme is “Get a Clue…at the Library.” Last year the theme was “Dig Up a Good Book.” Both Peyton and Elizabeth, with my help, read 100 books during the month of July. I don’t know about you, but that is A LOT of books to read for one month (25 per week), and since I was helping both of them read, that was double for me! But, we all persevered, (somewhat begrudgingly by the end), and the kids felt so much pride in having read so many books and completed the program. They especially liked the celebration at the end where they earned certificates and prizes. They were successful consumers of literacy, or “literacy winners” as I call it in a recent article published by CCC.

Other companies like Barnes and Noble and Scholastic also have summer reading programs that often offer free books or incentives for kids who participate. All in all, these programs can motivate kids to read, encourage parents to read with their kids and older siblings to read to younger siblings, and get you through the “I’m bored” talk of the long summer days.

For today’s 12 series, I am going to list my favorite children’s books. Children’s books are both visual and verbal, beautiful in words and in art, and I really, really like them, especially as a teacher of writing and multimodal composition (using words and images and other modes together to make meaning). I have a lot of favorites, but these are the ones that top my list right now.

1. How Do Dinosaurs Say I Love You by Jane Yolen. This book is silly and fun to read. It’s also poetic and clever, especially for rambunctious children. My son Peyton had it memorized after the 4th or 5th reading and loves reading it as we go to bed. (Also, check out How Do Dinosaurs Say Good Night? and other titles int he series)

2. There Is a Bird on Your Head by Mo Willems. I discovered Mo Willems last summer during our reading extravaganza, and I enjoy many of his books. My kids laughed out loud at this book and most of the others we read. This specific title is part of the Elephant and Piggie series about two friends experiencing life together. He has another series about a pigeon, and the kids liked those, too. I highly recommend this witty author. Both the words and pictures will crack you up.

3. The Pencil by Allan Ahlberg. Creative, suspenseful, and fun to read. It will keep your kids attention and keep them guessing throughout the entire book about what would happen next.

4. The Berenstain Bears and the Messy Room by Stan and Jan Berenstain. We like so many of the Berenstain Bears books, but I listed this one because of our recent emphasis on simplifying and de-cluttering and “less is more”. Last summer, Elizabeth only wanted to check out these books.

5. Ox-Cart Man by Donald Hall. I had the joy of hearing Donald Hall give a wonderful presentation a few years ago when he came to Baylor as part of the Beall Poetry Festival, which the English Department here puts on every Spring. My children love this book. It’s a sweet story about a hard-working family who lives on a farm and makes their living by working with their hands. It’s simplicity at its best. The images are evocative and the message is simple, yet profound. It’s an oldie, but a goodie.

6. The Runaway Garden: A Delicious Story That’s Good for You, Too! by Jeffrey Schatzer. This book is about a garden that runs away and what happens to the individual vegetables as a result. This book contains a lot of literary devices, including homonyms and puns, which make it fun for older children as well as adults. And I always like books about food.

7. Sir Cumference and the First Round Table by Cindy Neuschwander. What a fascinating, original book. The author has several books in the series and I recommend them all. This book teaches math terms (radius, pi, circumference, diameter) in a very creative way. You definitely should check it out (my daughter didn’t like it as much as my son because “it’s a boy book”, but I disagree with her!).

8. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. Classic book about imagination and dreaming. I didn’t read this book as a child (probably because I was almost a teenager), but I highly recommend it. Beautiful pictures.

9. The Curious Garden by Peter Brown. My sweet mother-in-law gave this book to Peyton recently, and it’s a wonderful book about taking care of the planet and being good stewards with our resources. Big change starts small, and this book emphasizes this throughout. The artwork is amazing.

10. Zin! Zin! Zin! A Violin by Marjorie Priceman. When I give someone a book, this is the book I give them, especially younger children because it emphasizes counting and music. But older kids like it, too. You must read this at least once. Great story about an opera.

11. If I Ran the Zoo (and many more…) by Dr. Seuss. Dr. Seuss is, by far, the most often read author in our house. Between The Lorax, Oh, The Places You’ll Go, Green Eggs and Ham, and The Cat in the Hat, we feel like Dr. Seuss is a member of our family. What an amazing talent he was. His legacy lives on in kids and adults all over the world.

12. Aliens Love Underpants by Claire Freedman. I tend to be a little bit of a prude (I was raised that way), but having sons has changed me. Boys like to talk about pee and poop and underwear and penises and all other sorts of things that used to make me very uncomfortable (the fact that I even wrote the word penis shows how far I’ve come!). This book is wonderfully hilarious and great fun for boys (at least for my son) who like to talk about these things at the dinner table.

Well, there’s twelve of my faves. But I do have one more, so here it is, just because…

13. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst. This book is a classic. I always liked it, but as an adult and a parent, I like it even more. I understand the story differently, and I think it teaches a lot of good lessons for children.

What children’s books would you add to this list? What were your favorites as a kid? What are your favorites as an adult? A parent? Will your kids be participating in a summer reading program? I look forward to seeing what you come up with.


Up In the Clouds or Down on the Ground: When Marriage Is Difficult

A few weeks ago I was on the couch reading a book. My husband was sitting on the other couch reading a book. We had been there a while when I glanced over at my husband. The title of the book caught my eye. Here is what I saw.

What If I Married the Wrong Person?

(Of course, I didn’t take a picture of him actually reading the book, so this picture will have to suffice.)

Before I had a chance to process the title of the book, he caught my eye and smiled. Then he began giggling.

I asked, “WHAT are you reading?”

Apparently, one of his mentors was clearing out some of his books and my husband–hilarious as always–couldn’t resist taking this one. He and a friend even brainstormed all the ways I should “discover” this book, even anticipating how I would react when I saw it.

Knowing the two of them, I laughed. It was a joke. He got the book as a joke. He doesn’t think that about me (whew!).

For several weeks since, I have been wondering about this book.  It’s been sitting on the counter for a while. Lingering. Waiting for one of us to read it. We still haven’t, and I don’t know if we will. But, I finally put it on the bookshelf next to C.S. Lewis, our Bibles, and some library books (for now). Guests perusing our bookshelf will see this…

What If I Married the Wrong Person? Bookshelf

I wonder what they will think when they notice the title.

I haven’t read the book, nor do I think I will, but I do think the book poses an interesting question,

“What if I married the wrong person?”

The week before I got married, I was riding in the car with a female mentor of mine. She had been married for almost 30 years at the time. She told me, “Kara, one day, you may regret your decision to marry Shane. You may come to a point where you do not love your husband. You may want a divorce. You may become resentful, or angry, or discontent. And I want to tell you that it’s okay. At various points throughout my marriage, I felt this way, too.”

As a person a few days shy of getting married, this conversation, frankly, shocked and surprised me (yes, I was naive). I couldn’t believe that this woman I admired and sought to emulate had felt this way about her husband. She always seemed so happy in her marriage. She respected, admired, and publicly demonstrated her love and devotion to her husband.

But she had gone through low times, too. She wanted me to know that if (or when) I felt this way to remember that I was not alone. Others had been there.

My friend proceeded to reveal to me what she did during these times.

She prayed.

She prayed for her husband.
She prayed for herself.
She prayed that God would help her focus on the things she first loved about her husband.
She prayed that God would help her fall back in love with her husband.
She prayed that God would keep her committed to her husband, even when her heart did not feel it.

I cannot count how many times I have come back to this conversation throughout my soon-to-be 10 years of marriage.

I have remembered her words. 

When I was hurt by my husband.
When my expectations were not met.
When I was disappointed.
When I wanted to be alone.
When I was depressed and lonely and sad.
When I disliked something about my husband.

I remembered: Perhaps my immediate situation will not change, but, through prayer, the way I feel about it can change. I can’t control what my spouse does; I can control my reaction. I can control my feelings about him. I can still choose to love him.

My friend may never know how much her words impacted me. And as I was soon to learn, marriage is not easy. But, my friend’s willingness to share something so personal, so real, has been a source of encouragement to me again and again. You see, her words taught me, first, to take my struggles to God. And, second, to look at myself…the only person in the marriage I can control.

Note: I don’t mean to trivialize marriage or the real difficulty of making marriage work. Marriage is hard. It, literally, takes two people to work. I know many people who have tried for years to work on their marriage, only to be met with abuse, affairs, or an unwilling, unbending spouse. I only point out here that being honest and real about marriage–rather than idealistic–can make a difference in the lives of young people about to embark on the journey.


Anxiety Abatement: 12 Ways to Simplify Your Home

Today is the first post in my 12 series.

I write today about simplifying your home by clearing out the clutter–physical clutter, such as toys, books, and decor; environmental clutter that increases anxiety; and emotional clutter like distraction.

I have my own issues with clutter. Last fall, I stayed home with my new baby. I work outside of the home, but my wonderful university gave me a semester-long maternity leave when I had my baby at the beginning of the term. During this time at home–almost every single day–I came to realize that I did not like being at home. I was shocked by this revelation. I really thought I would like staying at home.

I have a nice home. And I like my stuff. But I disliked being at home because of the constant mess. I didn’t like looking at the junk, and I mostly stayed in one or two rooms so that I didn’t have to see the rest of the house. Too much clutter.

I decided to do something about it.

Today, I present to you 12 ways to simplify your home, to de-clutter your home so that you can find the emotional sanity you need and truly live your life in focus. These items are not ranked in order of most important, but I chose to number them to make it easier to skim the list.

1. Consign, sell, or donate at least 2/3s of your toys. Seriously, do it. Over the past several months, I have been cleaning out the toys. It’s been easy to get rid of the ones my kids have outgrown. If we don’t need it anymore, I’ve gotten rid of it. I also tried to get rid of toys that limit creativity or originality, toys that come in such a pre-form package that they do not allow children to use their imagination. My daughter’s Barbie dolls are the only things that I have yet to throw out in this vein. She has about 10 of them. I told her she can keep 2. She’s deciding which ones and then they are gone.

The hardest part for me has been to dwindle down the toys to a very small stack. But I have tried. I only have one more room to do. The results? It’s been freeing for my children. Their rooms are neater. Cleaning up is not quite as big of a task. They don’t seem so stressed out or overwhelmed when I ask them to clean up. I’ve also noticed that they are playing more. They aren’t coming to me saying their bored. They know where their toys are, and they want to play with them and then pick them up. As I was separating the toys into consignment or donation piles, I also added one more pile–a rotating pile. I put the rotating pile into one storage bin and moved it to our garage. Eventually, I will rotate the toys in the bin out with the toys in their room. My kids are enjoying their clutter-free spaces. And I am enjoying their better attitudes and their renewed interest in the toys they have.

2. Cook the same meals (or types of meals) each week. I like to cook gourmet meals. I like to eat good food. I like to watch cooking shows and discover new recipes. And I must admit, I’m still trying to put this one into practice. We have simplified our weekly menu by instituting Pizza Night, a tradition going strong for several years now. The problem here is that I’m the only one who’s known about this weekly event. I cook and plan the menus and having one weekly meal on my list has made meal-planning and grocery-shopping easier. My kids know that we have pizza a lot (it’s my daughter’s favorite food), but until recently, I didn’t call it Pizza Night. I am learning, however, that children need to experience anticipation, so I plan on communicating meals like “Pizza Night” to my children. Over the summer, I plan to institute “Meatless Monday,” “Pasta Night,” and a “Mystery Dinner.”

If you were to take this tip one step further, you might even designate the exact meal: chicken spaghetti, soup, chicken tenders, breakfast-for-dinner, lasagna, etc., so that the meals are simplified even further. I don’t think this would work for me because of my own interests as a cook, but if it works for you, great. Go for it. The goal here is to simplify meal-planning, cooking, and eating and for all to experience joy at the dinner table.

3. Get rid of all those extra cookbooks on the shelf. Admit it, you probably don’t use half the cookbooks you have on the shelf. I just went and counted my cookbooks. I have at least 50 (and I just got rid of about 30–still working on the others!). I probably only use 8 of them. But the others are special to me, so I’ve kept them. I still have too many, though. My sign should be that they don’t all fit on the bookshelf I have in my kitchen. Still trying…

4. Play a game. Indoor or outdoor. As a family. With your child. By yourself. Play a pick-up game of basketball. Play Horse or Knock-Out (I recently played this with my 7-year-old nephew and my brother-in-law Derek, and it brought back so many memories of playing these games in middle school and high school. I loved it!). Play a baseball game where the trees in your backyard are your bases. Play board games like Candy Land, Chess, Monopoly, or Checkers. Play Double 9 dominoes, Uno, Spades, or Memory. Anything your kid likes. Or, make up your own game, complete with materials and rules.

5. Try to filter out the adult world from your children. Try this for one week: No fights with your spouse. No negative comments about other adults (friends, teachers, church people, the president, politicians, relatives, in-laws). No inappropriate content coming to your children through the TV (especially the morning and evening news or certain video games that can desensitize us to violence). Instead, be present with your children. Talk to them at the dinner table or when they come inside from the backyard. Listen to them. Learn about their world, their interests. And let me know how it goes.

6. Donate all those books on your bookshelf to your library. My husband and I both went to graduate school, where we were required to buy hundreds of books for our courses and our research. Most of those are at our respective offices, but many have entered our home. If you don’t use it or think you will use it, get rid of it.

But graduate school books are the least of our worries when it comes to books in the home. Novels, Christian books, self-help books, biographies, and children’s books are of much greater concern. I must admit that I am cheap when it comes to books. I don’t like to spend money on books. I go to the library at least once a week. Any book my local library doesn’t have I can get through my university’s interlibrary loan service (which is awesome). That being said, I still have a lot of books. People give books to me because I am an English teacher, and, hey, I like books. But I don’t like books to clutter my shelves. I used to think having books in your home was a sign of intelligence and brilliance and being smart. Just think of all those movies where smart, rich people have these amazing libraries with the movable ladder. But now I don’t really care to live up to that standard. Books and bookshelves lead to clutter. So, get rid of your books. Getting rid of the children’s books has been the hardest part for me. I put some of them in the rotating pile and got rid of at least three shelves’ worth. I now have three shelves of books–one shelf for each kid. That’s still a lot, I know. But we do read a lot and we read a lot of the same books, so I’ve kept a few.

7. Consign or donate your unworn clothes. Seriously, do it. It is liberating. Go through your clothes, your spouse’s clothes, your kids clothes. Consign clothes that don’t fit or that are out of style. If you have gained or lost a lot of weight recently, get rid of the clothes in the different size. Even if you lose that weight (or gain it back), those clothes will be out of style. And it will make you feel better when you are getting dressed each day not to be staring at those other sizes.

8. Turn off the TV. At least 2 days a week, no TV allowed. Try it. It’s amazing how much more time you have to do things you love to do–and things that will make you feel so much better about yourself than watching 4 hours of TV every night. Read, write, cook, eat, talk, scrapbook, exercise. Find a passion and turn off that screen.

9. When you feel yourself getting overwhelmed at the mess, take 15 minutes to do a quick pick-up of the house. Toys and mess can be overwhelming for adults, too, and setting a limit on how much time you spend picking up is good for you, too. Get the kids involved. Make it a game. We did this recently and it was the fastest, most fun clean-up we’ve ever had. I set the timer and provided an incremental countdown of how much time we had left. The older kids were so excited. They kept coming back to ask, “How much more time?!!” Fun will be had by all.

10. Read more. Take the time to read that mountain of books on your nightstand. You will have more to contribute to discussions with your husband or your friends. You will learn something. You will feel good about yourself. You will grow as a person.

11. Make it a goal to have 2 entire days or evenings of unstructured time at home. Nothing planned. Nothing scheduled. Except being with your family and letting your kids run free. They can know you are there and come to you when they need you, but don’t plan an activity–even in the home. If your kids get bored, tell them, “Well, then, something amazing is about to happen.” Just be. Your kids will appreciate it in the long run. And you will, too.

12. Pray more, and dwell in the presence of the Lord as often as possible. In the rush of my busy life, I must admit that personal time with God often gets lost first. I used to have quiet time in the morning. But with young children, such a goal is idealistic rather than realistic, and I won’t beat myself up over not being able to have this peaceful time the same way I did as a single woman. Instead, I have learned–through the gentle love of some older, wiser women–how to integrate prayer and God into my day rather than save a single time or space for it. I like this idea. I’m still not very good at it, though. I am trying, though.

This list is far from comprehensive. These changes take time. Change is a process, not a one-time fix. I merely offer some things that have worked for me. They’ve helped make our family closer. They’ve allowed my kids to open up to me in ways they hadn’t before. They’ve decreased my own anxiety and have helped me deal with the feelings I have being in my own home.

What tips do you have to make your home a peaceful place?