What I Learned from the Library

Photo by Susan Yin on Unsplash

When I return books to the library, I would prefer to bring them inside and hand them to a staff member.

In doing so, I’m trying to be … I don’t know … polite or helpful or faster in getting them back on the shelves for someone else. This is opposed to dropping them in the large container outside where it says “return books here.”

I’ve done it my way a few times, but a couple of times when I checked out later, my account was flagged for not returning a book.

This was a concern. I knew quite well that I had returned the book – and I denied not returning it. But you can’t argue with a record, and the record said I hadn’t returned the book.

So … what to do, what to do, what to do?

Well, I had a thought. I went to the shelves and looked for what I could see. And sure enough, I found the book in question right where it needed to be. I brought it to the staff member who’d alerted me to the flag and said, “See? I did return the book. Here it is.”

This happened twice before I understood what was probably going on. I was operating outside procedures and expecting someone else to do the same.

It makes sense, when you think about it.

When all the books are retrieved from “return books here,” there is a set procedure for checking them back in and returning them to the shelves. If a book is set on a counter, though, the person at the desk may get busy with the next patron, and the check-in step gets overlooked. Later, when the staff member turns his/her attention back to the book that’s still sitting there, it’s returned to the shelf without the official check-in.

So I don’t take the returned books inside anymore. I drop them outside where it says “return books here.”

One of the morals of this story is: don’t get mad at human nature when any of us could make the same mistake.

The other moral is: most of us operate better when we have set procedures, checklists, guidelines. And if you’re a solopreneur, the nice thing is, you can invent your own.

I like the procedures I’ve established for tending to my tasks, staying in front of my market, and moving forward on my goals. Structure frees me to get the things done that I’d like to do.

Minnie Lamberth is an author, content writer and creativity coach.

Taking a Break to Volunteer

Yesterday I took a break from my copywriting to volunteer with the Respite Ministry at First United Methodist Church. Other community-centered companies give their employees volunteer hours, so I figure I can give myself the same, even as a solopreneur.

For one of the activities, we set up four long church tables, pulling them together to form a much larger rectangle. We then covered them with long cloths and set up stacks of empty soft drink cans. The participants rolled (or threw) tennis balls to knock down the cans, and volunteers set them back up again.

I thought about calling the game “Tin Can Alley.” But then I thought maybe “Can ‘n Ball.” I could sort of see a logo and packaging. This was my writer’s mind meandering while engaged in other pursuits.

Volunteering is a chance to do something fun and helpful while it also gives a your brain a break, and I love how creative ideas come (even ones I’ll never use) when I’m not doing what I usually do.

Remembering a Hero

There are always heroes among us … the ones who do the small things you almost don’t notice or the big things you can’t miss or the middle-size things that’d show up if you made a list.

I remember my friend Pat one time saved me a glass of iced tea. She had hidden it on the counter during a luncheon event where I was volunteering. She’d heard me say I hoped there’d be some tea left by the time the workers ate. So she set a full glass behind some other stuff. When it was time, she pulled it out and said, “Here’s your tea. I saved it for you.”

That was a small thing, but I was grateful … not as much for the glass of tea, which could have been replaced with another type of beverage, but for the fact that she saved one for me.

Others have done big things and those middle-size things … or regular things over and over and over.

It’s nice to think about all the people who make a difference — the heroes among us — and to realize we can be those people too. Hope you’ll have a good week doing small things, big things or middle-size things that people appreciate and remember.

Where Will You Walk Today?

“A motto favored by the ancients was solvitur ambulando: It is solved by walking.” – Kathleen Rooney in Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk

I have been walking for 30 years. I wonder where I’d be now if this walking had been done in a straight line instead of in a route that always took me back to the beginning. Most always in the mornings.

I started as a young adult when I lived in the Cloverdale community of Montgomery. I walked the neighborhoods and enjoyed seeing the beautiful and interesting homes.

Keeping a schedule was essential. I had to walk, dress, get to work. I was disciplined – no hesitation or variation. At a turn on Thorn Place, I would pass a couple almost every morning. We exchanged a friendly greeting. Later I found out that they knew a friend of mine. When he made the connection, he told me, “They can always tell if they’re running late by where they run into you.”

You could have set a watch by me.

When I moved to east Montgomery, I tried my own neighborhood, but it wasn’t good for walking. One time a dog, a pit bull I think, was at his front door with his owner. The owner had stepped inside at the moment the dog spotted me and tore down the street barking ferociously.

I stopped and stood still as he ran nearer and nearer. With no protection except my instincts, I started calling him, “Here, girl, here, boy (I didn’t know which), come on, come on.” I clapped my hands in friendly encouragement. He stopped bearing down with ferocity. He bent over and started a wag that moved through his whole body. He could see that I wasn’t a threat to him; I was a friend.

By then his owner stepped back outside and called the dog home. It was a good lesson: greet your threats with friendliness. But I didn’t walk that way again.

Back then, they said it was safe to walk in the malls. You could be a “mall miler” in an enclosed, weather-protected, climate-controlled space. I gave it a try, still on a tight schedule to get to work by 8.

When I signed up, no one told me, “This may be a free place to walk, but it’s also a social gathering of retirees. They’re going to expect you to maintain a certain ‘friendliness’ standard. Believe me, they will try to score points on you if you fail to meet this standard.”

I soon found out that, as a much younger member, I had stepped into some mores and customs I did not expect. I figured out which lady was in charge of the social environment when I could see that she had purposefully doubled back to greet me head on: “My, you sure take you’re walking seriously, don’t you?”

“Yes, I do,” I said, surprised. I did sense, though, that this was like a line of dialogue in a film noir, and I suspected I was headed for trouble. This question represented a conversation she had been having with “the others.” I was about to fail a test.

One morning an older couple was walking along the length of the mall behind me as I turned down one of the alcoves. Instead of following me down the alcove, the husband motioned to his wife to walk straight so that they would be exactly where I was as I completed the alcove. His wife laughed as they joined me at the alcove’s end. Her laughter was the tell. They were making a point. They didn’t talk to me. They weren’t friendly. They just forced this situation where I would have to walk beside them through the rest of the mall. He had scored points, and now he and his wife had an enjoyable story to tell the others. I conceded defeat.

It’s been many, many years, and I’ve walked many, many miles in different places. Yet I am always saddened when I think of how that man made his point – showing off for his friends, creating discomfort for me, and hearing his wife’s laughter as he did. So unnecessary. I didn’t go back, though I did wonder if they ever felt regret.

We don’t always know what it’s taken someone to get where they are. We don’t always know what problems they’re trying to solve by walking. Kindness isn’t that hard. Besides, it’d be a shame if the people who met us today said to themselves, “In retrospect, the pit bull was nicer.”

Are There Questions You Need to Change?

I remember when my mother was ill and near the end of her life, I tried to make an intentional change in the questions I asked.

This is what was different now: normal Q&A. “What are you doing this weekend?” “Do you have bridge club today?” “How’s your garden?” “When are you coming to Montgomery?”

Questions like that just weren’t a good fit under the circumstances. But this one question was the one that stood out: “How are you feeling today?” Or the variation: “Are you feeling better?”

There was just so much I was bringing to questions like these, and I knew she knew that. The answer I wanted was something like: “I’m fine. I’m getting better every day. This will be over soon.”

I could feel how complicated this was getting, and I could tell as well that putting pressure on her to give me the answer I wanted to hear wasn’t helpful.

So I tried to discipline myself to change the questions. It wasn’t easy. Because the instinct for “Are you better?” was strong.

I thought of this need to change the questions yesterday after I got home from volunteering with Respite Ministry. (This is the caregiver support ministry at First Methodist, where participants with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia spend four hours enjoying social, recreational and mental engagement while their caregivers get a respite.)

I had read about a storytelling process to create engagement without pressure – designed by an organization called TimeSlips – and I was glad to see that we were going to use that process in one of the activities.

Basically you show an image and ask people to use their imagination and tell a story about the image. It removes the pressure of “remember when we did this?” and creates an opportunity for engagement and interaction by changing the questions.

It’s similar to creative prompts I’ve done many times in coaching groups I’ve been in. You take yourself out of the way you usually do things and ask a different question, and for those moments of creativity, the imagination becomes a source of delight and joy.

It’s not easy to change the questions. But I did hear someone yesterday say, “That was fun. I enjoyed that.” I’m glad I had a chance to see how creativity brings moments of healing.

How Do You Move Forward?

I have long believed in the principle of incremental progress. That’s how I wrote a novel in 30 minutes – or rather in 30 minutes a day over a much longer period of time. I would get up a half hour earlier, work on a project that had a lot of meaning to me, then I’d dress and head to my other job.

When I was seeking an agent or publisher for that novel, I kept a list going of the next thing to try if my effort didn’t meet with success. I kept adding to the list as I went along – names of people to contact. That was where I fed my resilience: “If this thing doesn’t work out, I’ll do this other thing.” “If this person doesn’t respond, I’ll move on to the next one.”

Keeping the next step in focus is how I brought another publishing project down to size. When I felt overwhelmed by everything I needed to do to move an idea from manuscript to finished product, I could ask and answer smaller questions: “What size should the book be?” “How much space should be in the page gutters?” This process provided the sense of progress and accomplishment that kept me moving forward.

Also this was important: I had faith that the work had value. I had a belief that I was called for a purpose.

That’s the other thing needed for incremental progress – confidence that what you’re doing matters, that it makes a difference.

It does. If you’re called to a purpose, don’t stop. Keep going. If you’re stuck, start moving again.

Don’t worry how far you’ve got to go. If you’re doing the work you were designed to do, you’re already there. If you’re getting better at it, you’re on your way. If you have an idea, congratulations. Take a small step and rejoice.

How Do You Learn to Care about Others?

I was reading stories I wrote in my early days – high school, college and early adulthood. In these stories I can tell that I am trying to work through issues of faith, belief, morality, empathy. Writing has always been the way I work through the puzzles of life. These are the rough drafts of who I will become and how I will find meaning.

The puzzle of empathy was one of the things that stood out in my re-reading. I remembered that an elderly relative passed away when I was a young child. I didn’t know her well or relate to her personally, so I didn’t understand the sadness that people felt when she died.

In the first draft of a 30-year-old story, “Jesus Is a Big Name for a Little Girl,” I had written about someone else’s loss then concluded: “I know you can be sad for other people if you really think about it hard, but it’s just easier to push it all away. It just is.”

I am a whole lot older now, and I can see what I am trying to figure out. How do you hold your heart open to what other people are experiencing?

I had a chance to do that this week when I volunteered with First Methodist’s Respite Ministry, where participants are in various stages of dementia. I sat next to someone deeply loved by her family, and I could feel the desire for this time at Respite to go well for her. My heart opened in the presence of someone else’s treasure.

Perhaps empathy is aided by recognizing that everyone is loved by someone and certainly by our heavenly Father, if earthly connections have gone awry. Is there a way today that you can care for someone loved by someone else?

What Are You Asking Today?

Thirty years ago my short story, “Jesus Is a Big Name for a Little Girl,” was published in a Christian youth magazine. I had returned to church in my young adult life, and I was sorting through various feelings about that experience. Is this a good fit, or is it not? In some ways I still ask myself that question.

There’s a section in the short story that reads: “All I can figure is that you can’t let Jesus in your heart without letting the whole world in too. I mean, it’s not like He’s going to sneak into the backdoor. I would think He would throw the doors wide open, walk right in, announce Himself, and say ‘and here are some of My friends.’ Then, one by one, every person you meet for the rest of your life comes into your heart too because Jesus keeps inviting them in. I just really don’t think that Jesus wants to stay in your heart all by Himself. It would be a lot easier if He would, but I don’t think that’s the way it works.”

Since then, I have rewritten this same story several times. I continue to work through the same issues. Is this a good fit, or is it not? Where is my place within the faith? Frederick Beuchner’s famous quote hits home: “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is.”

I continue to ask, seek and knock. How about you?

Are You Ready to Begin Again?

This morning there’s a kid waiting for the school bus at the corner of my street. He stands silent at this early hour – ready with backpack and pencils and notebooks and what have you, and waiting for the next year’s experience.

His life story is still in its first few chapters. I hope this story will go well for him.

This world is a tough place. Knowing how to read will help. Bumping up math skills is useful. A knowledge of history provides context. Science leads to discovery. Insight into who he is and what he’s meant to do, however, will provide the frame for applying what he is learning.

I hope this will go well for him.

The earliest moments of life begin with optimism. Babies don’t enter the world saying, “Is this all there is?” Belief that we’re here for a purpose and that good things are ahead is a lot easier to grasp.

Struggles intervene over the years, certainly. But knowing your purpose makes the losses, changes and transitions easier. Or if not easier, at least more meaningful. Tying your purpose to the larger story helps you see that there’s still beauty to behold, and you can see that beauty as your own story unfolds.

The kid on my street has been at the bus stop before – for several years now – and it’s time for him to begin again. How about you?