Tag Archive for organization

How I Planned a Teacher Appreciation Banquet and What I Cooked

A few months ago, I had an idea to honor the teachers at our church. Our teachers sacrifice so much of their time, not just on Sunday morning, Sunday afternoon, Wednesday morning, or Wednesday night when they actually teach, but also in the time they spend outside of class planning and preparing and praying. I wanted them to know that I—as a parent of three children and as a student in several adult Bible classes—appreciate them.

I thus decided to host a Teacher Appreciation Banquet for all the teachers in our church—from cradle roll to youth to adults to men’s and women’s classes. I had been to one of these dinners before at a different church when my husband was invited to be the guest speaker, and I thought it was a great idea then. Nothing like this had been done in the almost three years I have been at this church, so now was the right time.

Without talking to anyone except Shane, I put together a proposal for the elders at our church (yes, I teach technical and professional writing and must practice what I preach when it comes to ideas and suggestions). This proposal was complete with a rationale, budget, and agenda. I then distributed it to the elders who discussed it, thought it was a great idea, and approved it. They even told me they would like to help serve the food. Great!

One thing that surprised me through this process was when I learned that nothing like this had ever been done before at this church (at least according to the people I talked to). I’m not sure why, but I can only guess that it didn’t happen because the people who would have done this are all teachers themselves. Most (not all) of the really involved people at our church teach and would not have planned this for themselves.

I began taking pictures and shooting video footage of all the children and youth. I decided on music for the video (it’s hard to beat Ray Boltz’s “Thank You”), and then our youth minister put the video together. I mailed invitations to all of our teachers, planned the menu, bought the food, ordered gifts, and bought lovely rose bouquets for the tables.

The day of the event comes. I had originally intended to ask parents of children and youth whose kids are blessed through these teachers to help me prepare the meal. I thought that was a great idea, but the dinner ended up falling on Memorial Day when many of our young families were busy or out-of-town. So, it was just me and two other people.

Terrie, a sweet woman who is always quick to volunteer to help out.

And Terrie’s daughter Hollie. I did not know Hollie very well beforehand because she currently lives in another town a few hours away, but she just took a teaching position here and will soon be moving back and wanted to help out.

My Helper!

Hollie, and I had a great time preparing the meal. We blabbed the whole time and the six hours we were there went by very quickly (The only way I knew how long I had truly been up there cooking was by how badly my feet hurt!). Here’s Hollies blog post about the event.

Here was the menu:

Strawberry Pecan Salad

Strawberry Pecan Salad

Applewood Smoked Bacon Pork Tenderloin and Dinner Rolls

Applewood Bacon Pork Loin Roast

Twice-Baked Potatoes
I used the Pioneer Woman’s recipe. It is definitely the best recipe I’ve ever tried. A healthy-minded person cannot have these

Twice-Baked Potatoes by Pioneer Woman

Green Bean Bundles
Hollie wrapped at least 200 of these! The Green Bean Bundles I make have butter, soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, brown sugar, salt, and pepper. Yum.

Green Bean Bundles

Green Bean Bundles and Twice-Baked Potatoes--Yum!

Dazzle Berry Pie (a light and tart raspberry dish that my sister gave me and I have adapted somewhat)

Dazzle Berry Pie

Here I am holding one of these yummy pies (notice my Sonic drink in the background!).

Holding one of the TEN Dazzle Berry Pies I made.

The tables with the flowers (beautifully arranged by Terrie)

Teacher Appreciation Banquet Tables

Each teacher also received this pitcher as a gift. (I got a great deal on the pitchers, thanks to Jessica Turner at The Mom Creative).

Simple Graces Pitcher Given to All Teachers

I end this post in the same way our video did: In the words of 3-year-old Mallory, “I love you, teachers.”

I hope you have been blessed by a teacher.


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.


What I Really Do in the Summer

College students and professors all over the country are beginning their summer breaks. Courses are complete. Finals are taken. Seniors have graduated and moved away (hopefully finding jobs). Current students are enjoying the break from the daily grind of reading, writing, and studying for courses, while professors are appreciating not having to go into the office every day, taking a break from planning for classes and grading, and having more time allotted to non-teaching aspects of our jobs.

Graduation was a little over a week ago and since then, I have heard the following comments from friends, family, and acquaintances:

“You’re so lucky to have the entire summer off!”
“Aren’t you glad to be out for three whole months?”
“I wish I had as much time off as you.”

“Are you enjoying your break from work?”
“It must be nice to only work 32 weeks out of a year.”

These comments—while well-intentioned and most likely just meant to start a conversation about my summer plans—point to some faulty assumptions about academic life, especially life on the tenure-track.

Such a perspective isn’t surprising. Most of these well-meaning people have jobs with clear-cut work hours (8-5, Monday-Friday), vacation time (2 weeks), and sick time (a certain number of hours).* Others are K-12 teachers who actually do have a true break during the summer, so, they assume, I must have a break, too. My mom, for instance, was a 3rd and 1st grade teacher most of my life (she retired last year), and except for a week or two of professional development in which she was required to participate, she was “off”. She was not required or expected to do any work during her summer vacation. Of course, it wasn’t a true “vacation” for her; she was home with four kids during the summer. But she didn’t have to “work”.

*This doesn’t always apply to many people I know who own their own business and do not get any time off (perhaps they don’t have any employees or only have one or two people or just can’t afford to take off). If they take time off, they don’t make any money or their business might suffer from being closed for so long.

When professors are “off” (i.e., not teaching), however, they are *not* on vacation. Instead, we are busy doing the stuff we are unable to do during the academic school year. For today’s post, I’m going to debunk this assumption that professors are “off” all summer by explaining what I will be doing over the summer in terms of my work. My summer plans are specifically situated in my own context as a a tenure-track academic preparing to go up for tenure in the fall. Summer plans and activities may not be the same for other academics, professors, or instructors, especially ones whose primary responsibility is teaching (although they probably feel pressure to write and publish as well during the break).

1. Read. A lot. I have developed a list of about 30 (academic) books I would like to read over the summer, which equals out to about 2-3 books a week. I’ve already read three books since school ended, but I have a large stack waiting for me. Some of the books are for my research; others are for my teaching. Either way, I have a lot to read. It’s important to note that this reading does not include all the fiction and non-fiction I want to read.

2. Write. A lot. If I were ranking this list, writing would be at number 1. It is expected that academics write over the summer, even when we are not paid for our summer work through a sabbatical or grant. I hope to send out at least one article over the summer.

3. Revise an article that has been rejected. Last week, I received (bad) news that an article I wrote was rejected to the journal to which I submitted it. Rejection is no fun. It can be extremely discouraging and disheartening to receive such news. You can only send an article to one journal at a time and they hold on to it between 4-6 months (at best) before notifying you of the decision. When you receive negative news, it can depress me for days. But it’s the reality of academic life. There’s even a journal called The Journal of Universal Rejection that rejects every single article they receive. I don’t plan on submitting there, but I find the premise delightfully ironic.

4. Plan the courses I will be teaching in the Fall (and even the Spring). This activity involves several components:

a. Compose a syllabus. Decide on course objectives, assignments, grading criteria, rules and guidelines for the course. This needs to be done at least one week in advance of the semester and takes a lot of planning.

b. Draft a course schedule. Creating a course schedule for the entire semester before you ever teach a course is probably the hardest part of planning for a course. I begin work on this early and make changes all the way up to the start of class.

5. Plan for next year’s research project. I received a Baylor University Research Committee (URC) grant for a project I’m working on that examines how students write about the writing they will complete in their jobs. I will have a Research Assistant and I need to make plans for the academic year.

6. Compose a Research Leave application. I plan on applying for a Research Leave for Fall 2013 or Spring 2014. This application is detailed and time-consuming, and I plan to do much of it over the summer.

7. Compose an application for a Summer Sabbatical. I would like to have summer funding next summer, so I will also apply for a Summer Sabbatical through my university.

8. Update my technological skills. I teach writing and design courses, and my students and I use technology every day. I am quite adept at Word, Excel, Publisher, and WordPress, but I need to enhance my skills in the Adobe suite, particularly InDesign and Photoshop. I plan on learning these better over the summer.

9. Get organized. Shred paperwork. Clean out my office. Organize and delete computer files. Go through my email Inbox and delete, delete, delete.

10. Attend professional development seminars or workshops. In June, I will be attending a one-week seminar in Rhetoric and Composition at Michigan State University.

11. Begin thinking about and planning for the graduate course I will teach next Spring. Book orders will be due in October, and I need to know early what I will be doing in the course, tentatively titled “Teaching Digital Rhetoric.” I will do a lot of research for the course in terms of texts, assignments, and requirements. And, since there isn’t much time in December to plan for Spring course, I need to do most planning over the summer and during the Fall semester.

12. Put together my tenure notebook. More on this in the future.

As you can see, my summer is filled with things I must get done before school resumes in August. Yes, I appreciate that I have a break from teaching and commuting to the office every day, but it’s not a true break that the word “vacation” entails. I will take a vacation–two actually. One with my husband for my 10th anniversary and another with my family to the beach. But, the pressure to read, write, publish, and get caught up is ever present in my summer life, even when I’m playing with my children, watching a movie, or hiking in the park. That’s just the way it is.


Don’t Patronize My Pantry!: A Rhetorical Analysis of Organization Images on Pinterest

Several months ago, I was perusing Pinterest and saw this image of a pantry (we’ll call it Image A). Many, many people were pinning this picture at the time, and it soon became a very popular pin on the entire site.

An organized pantry

Image courtesy of bhg.com

User comments about this pantry ranged from “The most organized pantry ever!” and “My dream pantry,” to “I love all the canisters!” and “I wish my pantry looked like this!!”

Last week, I came across this image of another organized pantry/cupboard (Image B). It, too, was popular with Pinterest users.

Organized pantry

Image courtesy of thesocialhome.blogsot.ca

I did not pin either of these images. (I do have an Organization board, though.)

I was not enticed by the beauty or seeming simplicity or amazing organization (complete with labels, no less) of these spaces. No clutter. No mess. I was not jealous of these pantries. Nor do I want my pantry to look this way.

Here’s why:

1. These pantries do not operate under the “Less Is More” mentality.

They, instead, scream, “Buy more! Use more!” “Then, once you buy all this stuff, buy bins and canisters and containers and baskets to hold all of your stuff.” “Buy, buy, buy! Then, organize everything in neat, tidy containers so that you will feel better about all the stuff that you have.” (Is that too cynical?)

2. These pantries (especially Image A) emphasize a paradox: Most of the items in the canisters contain food for children, but anyone with kids would not have GLASS containers in their pantry, and definitely not where kids could reach them.

It is an understatement to say that obviously no kids live in this house, yet the message being sent is that this pantry is perfect for parents with kids (just look at the gum balls, the graham crackers, and all the individually-wrapped snacks).

Children make messes of things. Children get in the pantry and take things out of it. Children crawl on the shelves to get things down. Children would BREAK these glass canisters. Every single one of them. And then they would get hurt.

3. These pantries are too unrealistic and make good people–organized people–feel guilty about their own pantry, their home, and perhaps even their lives.

These images communicate that having an organized pantry is a moral issue. A disorganized pantry (or home, or life) means that you are morally inferior, morally reprehensible, morally disgusting because you may have live your life in more of an organized chaos (like I do). That you don’t take care of your things. That you don’t care about your home, or your family, or the tone you want to set.

4. These pantries do not foster the same mentality about food that I do. First, these images say, “Buy junk food and processed food and food that will last on your shelf for years. Buy all kinds of food that is not necessarily good for your children.” In fact, it’s most likely bad for your children to have so much processed flour and sugar. I do see the whole grains and nuts in Image B. That’s good food for the family.

Second, these images communicate that you should hoard food. Instead of buying food when you need it, you should store up for yourself “treasures on earth.” This pantry really is a hoarder’s dream (of course, it wouldn’t be this organized).

Finally, these images say that you shouldn’t feed your family fresh, local produce (many pantries do contain such foods).  You shouldn’t offer your kids apples, pears, onions, or potatoes. No, only prepackaged, highly refined foods are the way to go…at least if you are going to keep your house organized.

5. The pantry in Image A is enormous, unrealistically big, and it makes people without oversized pantries wish for more: more stuff, better organization skills, less clutter, better taste.

Most people I know do not have a pantry this large. I know many people with pantries larger than Image A (I do not judge you), but, let’s be honest, the vast majority of people are quite limited in their pantry space (just think of your typical single-family home, loft, or apartment). Some places don’t even have a pantry. Instead, people use the kitchen cupboards. Even Image B, though it is in a small space doesn’t seem like this is the only pantry in this person’s kitchen (Where are the opened bags of chips, pretzels, or cereal?).

6. These images imply that the people living in these homes do not cook, which bothers me because of the implication that they do. 

If you are a cook, you know how messy kitchens get. Three meals a day = messy! And if both parents work or if one parent stays home, you know that the kitchen doesn’t always get cleaned up right away. Perhaps not even the next day…or the next (should I admit this?). Cooking is messy. It is not as tidy, neat, and clean as these images imply.

7. Finally, the worse part is that trying to live up to the standard set in these images, for order and cleanliness (and godliness), can make you depressed, anxious, and lonely. It can even lead to self-loathing and self-hatred.

  • When your house does not look perfect, you (I) get stressed and overwhelmed. cannot function.
  • When your house looks lived in and well loved but not neat and tidy, you (I) get frustrated, angry, and mean.
  • When our houses don’t t look brand new in mint condition, we don’t want people to come over. Our home doesn’t look like those Pinterest images.
  • Our friends don’t want us to come to their home because they think you expect their home to be in such mint condition.
  • We stay secluded because we don’t think we can live up to societal expectations of order and organization and we don’t want to experience the negative judgments people might make about us.

No good can come from promoting images like these. I’ll take my pantry over these any day. My well used and not-so-neat (but still organized) pantry could out-cook theirs every time.

My Pantry


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?