Last Sunday, I called my mom as I was walking around the lake. My parents live on the East Coast, and we currently live in the mid-west. I know that they appreciate it when I call regularly, but I sometimes find it difficult to make the time. My mom said she was planning to attend a prayer group that she really didn’t want to go to. I asked her what I thought was an obvious question, “If she didn’t want to go, why didn’t she just stay home?”
She went that night, but a week later, she left a message on my voicemail. “I just wanted to thank you for suggesting that I don’t need to go to Sunday night prayer group. I realized that we always visit your grandparents in the afternoon, and I always feel rushed because I have to get to prayer group after, and I don’t really like being apart from your Dad on Sunday night, and I don’t get that much out of it. Such a simple solution to stop going, but it didn’t occur to me that I could do that until I spoke to you.” Listening to her repeat my advice back to me, I realized how crucial that last thread about getting something out of our efforts is to how we invest our time. Currently, I am coaching a Girls on the Run team at one of the elementary schools where I teach. After a full day of work, I lead 16 third to fifth grade girls in lessons designed to empower and inspire them, to encourage them to believe in their limitless potential. We talk, we listen, and we move, and while it is exhausting, and I get home late, and it encroaches on the time I spend with my own family, it is worth it because I get so much out of it. I would like to believe it would be worth it if the girls alone got so much out of it, but I am not so sure I am that generous and unselfish, and coaching this team replenishes and inspires me. It is time well spent.
Yet, while I find it easy to recognize some of the more meaningful experiences in my life, and I was quick to dole out advice to my mom, her reflection on my advice gave me some pause. A few days later, I reached for the large book of E.B. White’s letters that I had renewed twice from the library each time thinking, I’ll surely get to it this time. I chose this compilation of letters because I had read Melissa Sweet’s juvenile biography of White, and it was so enticing and delightful, and I had recently reread Charlotte’s Web with the kids, talk about one of the most meaningful ways to spend time. However, this time when I reached for the book out of habit, I paused and thought about my conversation with my mom. I admitted that if I really wanted to read this book, I probably would have gotten to it sometime in the past six weeks. I probably would be further than page 63. I had to ask myself the question, “What am I getting out of reading this book?” and I had to admit, “not much.” I tell my students that they should give a book they are choosing for pleasure 50 pages, if they are not pulled in by then, it is time to let it go and choose something else. Such simple advice… to stop reading. Yet, I am never able to follow my own advice. I always feel like it is some kind of innate failure when I am unable to move through a book especially if the book has been recommended by a friend. Instead of letting go and choosing something else, I force myself to plod through the pages. I tell my students to move on when a book doesn’t capture them for several reasons. The primary one is that they have so much required reading they have to do, what they read for pleasure should simply be that, pleasurable. Further, the sooner they let go of a book that is not meaningful them, the sooner they will connect with a book that is.
I have so much admiration for E.B. White’s prose and for his stories. I doubt I will ever tire of reading Charlotte’s Web. His letters are well-written and whimsical, a treasure trove to dig through. You can sift through them like sand and find some amazing shells, but also lots of sand, and right now, it is burying me. I dig myself out and brush myself off. I gently close the book and place it aside to return to the library, maybe even on time. With my free hands, I pick up a book on writing that my best friend gave me as a birthday gift, and I wonder why it has taken me so long to open it up. Pleasurable books, moments and experiences are like glasses of water when you have just finished running. You cannot seem to get enough. You are thirsty, eager, grateful and satisfied. It is a wonderful feeling, one you can only find if you are willing to step out of the sand long enough to help yourself to a drink.