I intend to make sure I don’t substitute reading about self-improvement for actually practicing it
y mother always used to tell us that when we were younger, she had to make sure her house was spotless before sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. Her best friend, though, was able to block out the detritus of a long day with little kids and dive into a stimulating read.
“And that’s why she turned out thoughtful and well-read, and I’m just... me,” she would finish. It was wise, went the implied postscript, that I put intellectual stimulation ahead of gleaming counters.
Fast-forward 15 years, and I’ve begun to see the merits of both approaches. I’ve been enriched and edified by years of reading, but my house sure could use a good deep clean.
It’s more than just housekeeping, though. Reading is a way to unwind, an escape, a distraction from the mundane that fills my days. Instagram and Twitter get all the flak, but really anything used excessively can impinge on relationships. When I read, I’m as withdrawn from my husband and kids as if I were on my phone.
And on a personal level, while reading is a more highbrow use of time than, say, Candy Crush, it can be a virtuous way to avoid hard self-scrutiny or introspection. There are so many things I wish I had time for: really focusing on my kids’ problems, self-development, staying on top of housework. How much of the time I spend reading could be devoted to those pursuits?
I’m going to cut out all recreational reading for a week. What’s recreational? That’s a little ambiguous. At the very least, all periodicals, novels, popular nonfiction.
A halachah sefer would be okay, as would mussar. English-language Torah material? Borderline. While it may be uplifting, for the purpose of this experiment, it has to have some direct relevance. Otherwise, it’s suspected of just being another sneaky attempt to distract me from more important areas of focus.
I intend to make sure I don’t substitute reading about self-improvement for actually practicing it.
My chief preparation turns out to be procrastination. The most obvious day to start my week would be Shabbos, but as the kids head off to bed on the first early Friday night of the year, the recliner beckons and my Family First is simply too enticing. I can’t manage a whole Shabbos of this!
Besides, if everyone is going to sleep, I can’t spend quality time with them, right? What harm would it do?
So I push off my start time. Come Sunday, I push it off again. A whole Sunday spent ferrying kids to their various clubs, friends, and shopping trips, definitely calls for dipping in and out of the local advertising and news circular. And when the house is blessedly quiet for a few minutes, a book and a snack.
How It Went Down
Monday proves to be an excellent day to start, since the whirlwind beginning of a school- and workweek leaves me with very little downtime. In the evening, it’s relatively easy to quell the post-supper temptation to let the mess of the day sit a few minutes while I unwind with a book; instead I immediately begin sorting laundry and loading the dishwasher as if I do this every night.
And when I’m done, and I’m not allowed to reward myself with a chapter or two, I head to bed earlier than usual. Monday: a victory all around.
The following weekdays prove similarly successful. There isn’t much spare time, and my commitment gives me that little edge to power through those moments when I’m tempted to give in. I’m more present for my kids in the afternoons. When I’m not dipping in and out of Bashevkin’s Top Five, my first-grader’s constant chatter about who had the best snack at recess isn’t an intrusion, it’s a conversation.
A day or two later, I implement the next change I’d been planning. Because I’m not allowed to read, I use my commute to work to tackle things I’ve been forever meaning to make time for — journaling, organizing the family photos on my laptop. I don’t make much progress, but even getting started feels like an accomplishment.
As expected, Shabbos turns out to be the biggest hurdle. After bentshing licht, instead of sinking down on the couch with my serials, I daven an unhurried Kabbalas Shabbos with my girls, something I always mean to do but often end up doing hastily or on my own. I have time to play with my kids and prep for the seudah, and we all came to the table cheerful.
So far, not too bad, I think.
But the big test is yet to come, and when the going gets tough, I buckle. After the seudah, the kids have been bundled off to bed and are in various states of fighting off sleep, and my husband is at a shalom zachar. That’s when the internal argument really heats up. If a book is read and there’s no one there to notice, does it really count?
The little cherub on my right shoulder wins, for the moment, and I pull out an English-language sefer to get started on the long-postponed review of hilchos Shabbos that I’ve been meaning to start.
Next up, some reflection on family issues that always get shunted to the side for lack of time. I take a couple of minutes to think about where each of my kids is holding, and whether I’ve been sufficiently in tune with what they’ve needed over the past week.
And then I get the bag of popcorn and a cup of Snapple, and read the entire Family First cover to cover. Whoops!
It’s a little embarrassing to say this, but when my week was finally up, I felt a ridiculous sense of relief, almost like breaking a fast or, l’havdil, that feeling when you can finally stop being somber after the Three Weeks.
This isn’t a project I would embark on long-term.
And yet, it did teach me a lot about the impact my habits have on my relationships. I can judge more objectively now whether the few snatched minutes of reading in the afternoon are worth my kids’ feeling that their schmoozing is an interruption. And it’s pretty clear that if I don’t sit down to read for “just a few minutes” after supper, it’ll be much easier to stick to a schedule.
Unfortunately, while those little logistical changes are pretty simple, the more fundamental issue — that reading can so easily substitute for actual growth — is less easily solved. Because if I’m not reading, then I’m cooking, playing, cleaning. I don’t automatically start thinking deeply about my relationships with Man and Hashem.
Changing a habit can create pockets of time, but it’s up to me to fill it with the right things.
Easy-peasy: I’m great at research and planning. Mediocre at implementation.
Next dare: Replacing my car’s music with shiurim. I always tell myself that driving is wasted time that I should capitalize on, but never get around to doing something about it,
I would never dare: Let myself be without backup reading material. I get low-grade anxiety when my bookshelves empty out.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 676)
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