Friday, September 15, 2023

Update to the Book Tour Plans

Unfortunately, while visiting my daughter Jenny, I came down with Covid. This has altered our book tour schedule slightly. 

The event tonight at the Lodi library in NY has been canceled. Emily and Paul will be at the event tomorrow, September 16, at Milly's Pantry in Penn Yan, NY from 10am to 3pm, but I will not be there.

By Monday I should no longer be contagious, so I plan to do the Monday and Wednesday events in PA as scheduled. Here is the information for those events:

If you think about it, please continue to pray for my health!

Wednesday, September 06, 2023

Ask Aunt Dorcas: Putting Off the Hard Tasks

 Dear Aunt Dorcas,

I’d love to hear your thoughts on avoiding things that feel too hard or overwhelming. For me that tends to be tasks that either have a lot of details to keep track of or things that I know are outside my ability and require heavy dependence on Holy Spirit. It’s not that I avoid them forever, but there tends to be a period of avoidance before surrendering to the inevitable and diving in. Can you identify? What have you learned along the way about dealing with these types of tendencies?


Processing corn feels like a huge, overwhelming task.
But I had lots of help, and that made it much easier.

Dear Naomi,

Just this week, a young woman asked me how I motivate myself to go places. She knows me well enough, especially that introverted part of me, to know that I'm always ecstatic when plans are canceled. I find it really hard to get ready and go out the door, into the car, and off where I need to be.

“It’s not so bad when I’m doing something WITH someone,” she explained. “If I’ve arranged to go to church with someone else, I get ready and go. But if they don’t go, then I end up not going either.”

I thought about this. In the last week, I had gone to the fair and sat there for six hours even though it was a rainy day and very few people were even at the fair, let alone wandering past the authors’ table. I went to the doctor for a physical even though I dreaded it with a heavy knot in my stomach. I went to church twice on Sunday, and on Thursday I went to Emily’s Red Barn Coffee Hour, a weekly event.

In every case, I overcame my inertia because of commitments to someone else. I had told Bill Sullivan I’d be at the fair from 12-6, and I wanted to keep my word. Also, if I didn’t show up, he might not invite me to the Christmas event for authors and artists. I’d have to pay the doctor if I didn’t give him 24 hours’ notice. I was committed to teaching my class on Sunday morning, and on Sunday evening, Paul was going to speak so of course I needed to be there for him. And Emily feels discouraged if no one shows up for her coffee klatsch, so I always go.

We see here what motivates me to do the hard thing of showing up: prior commitments, other people counting on me, financial cost, and the shame of dropping the ball.

There are many many times when I think I really need to go get groceries or pick up some fresh fruit at Detering Orchards or take a box of books to the post office. Grudgingly, I comb my hair and pick out a clean outfit. Then I look at the clock and think, “This really could wait for tomorrow,” or “I think I can cram that box in the mailbox,*” or “I’ll bet Paul would love an excuse to run to Harrisburg.” Then I stay home and feel inordinately happy about it.

*Prepaid labels are a blessing, but I don’t know the post office ladies as well as I used to.

Your situation is different. It seems you avoid specific tasks that seem overwhelming. But I think we connect on the emotions and the dread.

I have a theory that we are all having a rough time of it. Our collective mental health isn’t very good, we all struggle with inertia, and normal tasks seem harder than they ought. I base this on my own experience, conversations with my grownup kids, watching my friends’ struggles, and people online. I feel like something has shifted, and not in a good way.

I have excellent reasons for being fragile and struggling with normal responsibilities, I'd say, because the past three years have brought an insane load of upheaval, change, tragedy, and challenges. I try to give myself grace. If I manage to hang onto my pool noodle until the wave passes, I give myself points for that.

But that doesn’t explain the pervasive cloud over the whole culture. The only upheaval I shared with everyone else was Covid, which was not experienced nearly the same by everyone, so it doesn’t seem like it would make us all equally discouraged.

But here we are, and things are hard.

My sense is that Covid, smartphones, an individualistic culture, the high cost of living, and probably other factors have all chipped away at our connectedness. We show the results in random, unexpected ways—such as struggling to do the tasks we find difficult.

I hope we learn whatever lessons God is trying to teach us and have the wisdom and courage to change.

So here’s my advice to you, both general and specific.

1. You’ve already identified a number of things about the tasks you find difficult. Lots of details, not in your skills or giftings, needing to rely on God. Good for you. Analyze a bit deeper and look for information, letting go of any shame and frustration. Are there outside factors such as fatigue that make it worse? Who is asking/telling you to do these things? What will happen if you don’t do them at all? Are they more difficult than they used to be? Jot down the answers and see if you can find insight or patterns.

2. Look at your life, schedule, and health—mental, physical, and spiritual. If you are constantly overwhelmed with surviving, anything beyond basic, simple work is going to feel like Too Much. If you can ease the stress, do that. If not, give yourself grace. This stage will pass. Also, recognize that factors like depression and ADHD will affect how you approach work. It helps to know what’s typical, and the information can help you find a path around the obstacles.

3. Make sure you actually need to do the things. Is this for sure your job and your assignment? Should it be delegated to someone else? If you feel a deep resentment, it’s often a sign that you are doing it because of pressure from someone else, and you ought to be saying “No” but feel like you just can’t.

4. Get others involved, even though this takes humility and a pushing back against an individualistic mindset. We need other people, connection, accountability, support, and understanding, all things that we are collectively losing in my [admittedly small] world. It takes humility to push back, and to admit, tell, and ask.

As mentioned, it’s the commitment to others that gets me going when I’d rather stay home. A contrived accountability helps me in other challenging areas. Maybe I’ll tell my daughter I can’t get online until I’ve worked an hour on an article, or I’ll post a chart where everyone can see if I’m taking daily walks.

When I’m stressed and/or can’t sleep, my brain finds it restful to scroll through reels, those captivating little movies on Instagram. I can easily lose all track of time. It’s embarrassing. So then I have a choice—keep trying to do better with a combination of shame and great effort, or recognize that I need assistance. I have a “fun money” jar where I save cash toward a girls’ trip, so I’ll text one of the daughters and tell them I have to put a dollar in the jar for every reel I watch that day.

Is it silly? Should a grown woman have the character and wisdom to not get sucked into the Instagram whirlpool? Yes and yes.

Does it work to get my daughter involved, and does it yank me out of that spiral? Also yes and yes.

Tea makes hard tasks easier.

5. Recognize that you are always learning and growing. We are always struggling in our cocoon until we break out into a new stage of growth. Change is really hard, and we don’t change until the misery of changing is less than the misery of staying the same. It will take you a while to learn to do the hard tasks right away, but you’ll get there, and meanwhile there will be failure, frustration, and fatigue.

Embrace the process.

One of the many things I learned through my husband’s catastrophic injuries three years ago is that God made our bones and muscles to need resistance, pushing, pulling, and hard work. That is the way of health, strength, and thriving.

The same seems to be true in emotional and spiritual maturity. Accept it. Something amazing is happening. You are going to get there.

I wish you all the best.

I hope the societal winds shift, the clouds lift, and we become more healthy and connected. I hope we all do our part to make this happen, even if it means telling someone we are having a hard time.

We were not designed to figure it out on our own.

That’s what I think.

Aunt Dorcas

Tuesday, September 05, 2023

Book Tour--Upstate New York and Pennsylvania

 My daughter Emily and I will soon be holding some book events "back East" as we say in Oregon. If you live in either of these areas, we'd love to see you.

Here's our schedule:

If you can't download the poster, here's the information:

Friday, September 15, 6:30 pm--We'll read from our books, meet visitors, and have books for sale at the Lodi Whittier Library.

Saturday, September 16--We'll be at Milly's Pantry from 10 am to 3 pm, 19 Main St., Penn Yan, New York.

Monday, September 18, 1:00 to 4:00 pm--find us at Main Street Exchange, 3000 Lincoln Hwy. East, Gordonville, PA.

Wednesday, September 20, we'll be at two Goods Store locations. 
10 am to 12 pm at East Earl
2 pm to 4 pm Ephrata

You can bring books and have us sign them, shop for more, or just come and say Hi.

Friday, August 25, 2023

Travel: Interesting Things In Kansas and Uncle Johnny Turns 100

When Uncle Johnny calls me, he hollers into the phone, wondering how I’m doing, how Paul is recovering from his accident, and, sometimes, when I’m coming to see him. “You’ll come see me when I’m in a box,” he grumbled one time, and I thought that was probably true. Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if I found a way to see him before that?

I holler my answers when Johnny asks me questions, and on a good day he hears about 10% of what I’m saying. But we still manage to feel connected and up to date, and that’s what matters.

Johnny is my dad’s youngest brother. Dad lived to be almost 103, Johnny just turned 100, and their mother was almost 104 when she passed. “Sucks to be you,” a young friend told me when I quoted these numbers. But I am ok with the longevity genes I carry, because “Kansas Mommi” and Dad and Johnny made it look like long years of enjoying life, pursuing interests you didn’t have time for when you were fifty, and (Mommi especially) getting by with speaking your mind because people give you a free pass when you’re old. Dad was reading a classic—I think it was War and Peace—shortly before he died, and he wrote countless letters in his final years. Mommi was also a prolific letter-writer, with a mind tack-sharp almost to the end. Johnny had been living alone since his wife, Bertha, passed away maybe six years ago, and he hosted a revolving roster of visiting relatives in his basement. “Johnny’s EconoLodge,” he called it. In the last year, his son and daughter-in-law moved into the basement to stay with him.  Up to age 99, Johnny also had a job spraying his neighbors’ fencerows.

When the family announced a 100th birthday party for Uncle Johnny, I remembered his comment about seeing him in a box and decided to prioritize seeing him alive and well.

So Paul and I, as well as most of my siblings and their spouses, headed for Kansas two weeks ago. We stayed in some friends’ beautiful house and filled our days with a book event, an afternoon tea with a fun bunch of ladies, a visit to a museum, church on Sunday, visiting an Amish family whose daughter lives with our daughter in Thailand, cooking dinners for all of us, and of course the party itself, all in the context of Kansas in August.

At the tea party, I met my friend Miriam’s daughter-in-law, a lovely young lady who told me she grew up in Washington State, in the mountains, no less. She indicated that the transition to Kansas hasn’t been easy.

I tried to imagine it. Living in the Northwest, you expect the horizon to be like a frame around your world, and you get used to driving an hour or so and seeing a completely different landscape. All the physical features—from forests to desert to ocean beaches to high mountains—are wild and huge and breathtaking.

The graph-paper-grid roads, the landscape, and the farmhouses reminded me of Minnesota where I grew up, only Kansas is more so. Roads don’t detour around lakes, and the land is even flatter than central Minnesota. The roads are wide and the fields are wider.

I heard someone use the word “boring.”

“Here, we watch the sky for drama, rather than the landscape,” one of the women said.

That made sense to me. Compared to Oregon’s sedate weather, the Midwest’s tornadoes and hail and thunderstorms are wild drama. If I lived in Kansas, I’m sure I would watch them like all the locals and download a weather-radar app on my phone.

Still, I think I’d find it difficult to look at those flat fields, stretching to the flat horizon, day after day.

However, there’s something I could endlessly watch for sheer entertainment if I lived in Hutchinson, Kansas, and that is the people. Not only does the community offer Uncle Johnny and all his quirks, along with dozens of interesting relatives, it is also home to a unique stripe of Anabaptists who value reading and studying more than any other group of Plain people I’ve had the chance to observe. I decided to make the most of this trait and organized a book signing plus had a boxful of books in the car during Johnny’s party. Happily, that was the right move, and my favorite customer was the Amish woman, probably fifteen years older than me, who bought a stack of books at the event at Rendezvous Coffee and then nimbly climbed into her blue tractor and drove away.

Hundreds of people showed up for Johnny’s party, and the line waiting to greet Johnny stretched around all four sides of the gym. I talked with many different people, finding the most random points of connection. Evelyn and I were penpals when we were teenagers. Emma Grace was the little sister of my playmate Priscilla in Iowa when I was four or five, and now she’s married to my cousin Herman. My cousin Freeman and his wife Margaret came from Oklahoma, and we reminisced about the tea party she hosted at her house and how her son came in with a snake he’d found, which she realized was not a wise move to make if I was her guest. Roy from Montana is my local friend Jane’s brother and he’s married to my cousin Glenn’s daughter. And on and on, with not nearly enough time to connect and observe like I wanted, especially with a bunch of little Amish children kicking a soccer ball or waiting patiently in line. But what I squeezed in was precious and nourishing, deep down.

The Amish generally aren’t big on hugging, but Johnny is an exception. He hugged all of us and let us know how glad he was that we had come. I’m told he learned to hug after his children were pretty much grown up, and his daughter decided The Time Had Come and taught her parents this valuable skill.

Johnny has also learned to use a cell phone. My cousin John Earl’s wife Janice told me that the week before the party, Johnny had asked her to take him to town. They arranged a time, and Janice arrived to pick him up. Johnny didn’t come to the door, and she couldn’t find him in the house. She looked all around the basement, fearing she’d find him collapsed or worse, but no Johnny.

Finally, she called his cell phone. Johnny answered, hollering, “I’m not interested! I’m almost one hundred years old, and I’m outta the game!”

That’s his standard answer for telemarketers.

So Janice knew he was alive, but she still didn’t know where he was.

Finally he came walking in from a row of trees some distance from the house, where he’d been cleaning up in preparation for company coming. He had forgotten about Janice coming to take him to town.

I hope when I’m 100 years old I can still look outside and see mountains on the horizon, because despite being raised in the Midwest, I like having a frame around the world. Even more, I hope that I’ll keep in touch with my descendants and nieces and nephews, find useful things to do and good books to read, and welcome hundreds of people to my party. I hope I drop useless traditions and pick up new ones that serve me far better. I hope I find life endlessly interesting, whether I live in Kansas or Oregon or the uttermost parts of the world.

Maybe the key to an interesting life is not so much where you live, but how, and among whom.

Here's part of the line waiting to wish Johnny a happy birthday.

At the family dinner after the party, they served lots of delicious food, but all that really mattered to us was Amish peanut butter spread on homemade white bread. We used to eat this delicacy at the communal meals after the Amish church services of our childhood, and there is nothing like it in the whole world.
Dipping the sticky substance onto my plate, I tried to explain to my brother-in-law Chad who grew up Holdeman Mennonite and sadly deprived. "This stuff will make everything in your life all better. If you are stressed about anything, it will all go away when you eat this. It is that amazing."
I don't know if Chad believed me, but we see here that my sister Rebecca and brother Marcus immediately partook of their bread and peanut butter before touching the rest of the meal.
That is how it is with Amish peanut butter.

Roy read to the little kids

Paul and my cousin Truman caught up with their lives.

Chad the brother-in-law's cousin John took us on a tour of the Inman museum. He is really good at what he does, and I absorbed more Mennonite history in two hours than in the past ten years. 
Anna and Marcus, Loraine and Fred, Rebecca, me and Paul, and Margaret and Chad
[the sibs are Marcus, Fred, Rebecca, me, and Margaret. Our oldest brother, Phil, wasn't there.]

This lady came to my book signing in a tractor. The writing is from the coffee shop window. I contacted her daughter about posting this shot. She said, "Oh, that's my sweet mom, and she will be perfectly fine with it! Side note: This 84 year old Amish lady learned how to text since she knew that was her grandchildren’s primary way of communicating. She has a very strong desire to keep learning even in the limits of her Amish faith!"
[See what I mean about Kansas people?]

Tuesday, August 01, 2023

Mr. Smucker Speaks: Identifying with Nicodemus

I recently read through John 3, the story of Nicodemus visiting Jesus at night.  As I read the conversation, I had a unique experience:  I related to Nicodemus in ways I seldom do with people in Scripture. 

We are told three facts about Nicodemus. From those, we assume other things, and from his conversation with Jesus we can deduce several more things. We know that Nicodemus was a Pharisee, probably a life-long Pharisee which means he was a religious conservative.  We know his name was Nicodemus.  He was a ruler among his people.  He was not a dramatic man like some of the scribes and Pharisees.    I am a life-long Mennonite and a religious conservative.  My name is Paul.  For 25 years I was an undramatic minister among the Mennonite people.

When Nicodemus came to question Jesus, he did not do it like it seemed most of the scribes and Pharisees did.  He was not dramatic.  He did not create a scene.  He seemed to be older, and trying to piece things together.  He seemed to know all about the law of Moses and how things were to be.  He seemed to know about God.  But then Jesus appeared.  John does not tell us if Nicodemus ever saw a miracle or ever heard Jesus preach.  But it is easy to infer that Nicodemus was troubled because he saw that Jesus was definitely from God, but he was so different and he taught things so differently.  So Nicodemus decided to visit Jesus, address him respectfully,  and try to figure things out.  

Toward the beginning of their conversation, Jesus introduced a brand new concept, the new birth, that Nicodemus had never been taught and could hardly wrap his mind around.  Nicodemus responded with questions.  Jesus answered the questions with comparison between physical birth and spiritual birth and statements like being born of water and born of the Spirit which we still don’t know for sure what it means.  Then Jesus states that Nicodemus should just accept what Jesus says and realize that there are some things our human mind has trouble comprehending about God and how he works.  He uses wind for an example.  Jesus reminds Nicodemus that he recognizes wind.  He hears it and feels it, but he cannot control it, nor will he ever understand how it comes and where it goes and why at times there are wind gusts.  Today the wind is still beyond complete human understanding.  Being born again is the same way.  We see the effects and hear the effects and can understand it to a certain degree, but there is a lot about it that Jesus knew Nicodemus would never fully understand or comprehend, even when he explained it.

Nicodemus answers, how can these things be?  There is not enough context to say for sure, but to me Nicodemus seems to be saying, “How can it be that there is a spiritual concept I have not been taught and that you are telling me I cannot understand?  I am Nicodemus.  I am a ruler of the Jews.  God has given us the law.  I have studied it.  Surely somewhere in the law is the answer.   How can it be that being born again is a true concept and God never distinctly mentioned it before?”

Jesus’s response was to state that it was okay for master of Israel who has studied the law and who was a follower of God to not know things.  Jesus implied there were a lot of earthly things and heavenly things God would not tell us because our human brains would have trouble understanding it.  Nicodemus needed to be okay with that, and it appears he was.  Jesus then proceeded to tell Nicodemus about the brass serpent being lifted up and compared that to himself being lifted up and then the wonderful verses 15 and 16 --15 That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. 16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

These wonderful concepts were all brand new things for Nicodemus, things he had never been taught.  Things that were not immediately supported by what he already knew.  It was hard, but Nicodemus made tremendous growth that evening with Jesus.  Even though it was difficult, he seems to have enjoyed what he was learning.  Nicodemus, as far as we know, remained a Pharisee, a ruler in Israel.  He believed in Jesus.  He had eternal life.  We are told in John 7 that Nicodemus defended Jesus in a public way and in John 19 that Nicodemus brought myrrh and aloes for Jesus’ burial.  Nicodemus in his older years realized that even though he was a leader, he was a smart man, and he had studied scripture, he needed to be careful how he formed and expressed his opinions. He also needed to be open to learning and growing even though it was hard and made him end up at a new, unforeseen place.

Growing, learning, and changing are hard work. When I was a young child it was a natural process to grow and learn, even though I had to work hard at learning from my parents and teachers. I worked hard in high school and college. Marriage, children, teaching school, doing ministry in the church, and running a business added to the work of growing older. Now that I am mostly retired, at times it is tempting to sit back and stop learning and growing and changing as I get older.  

Recently I have watched older Christian leaders grappling with new ideas which confront things they have been taught from an early age and that they have always believed.  Things that are based on Scripture, and implied by Scripture, but not definitely stated in Scripture.  As I have participated with these leaders, I have been struck with how important it is to recognize my own limitations and to realize that there might be a lot about what I have learned and been taught about eternity, raising children, and controlling people under my authority that God cannot show to me because I have a frail human mind.  I need to work at forming my opinions, but I also need to be able to understand, like Nicodemus, that some things God will not try to explain to me because I might not be able to understand.  That is growth that is very hard for an older person and I struggle at times with being willing to say “This is what I think it means.” If God did not say that specifically in Scripture and I reach my conclusion because of implications and inferences, I need to reach the place where I can say, “This is what I think God is saying” rather than “This is what I know God is saying.”

A week and a half ago I was with my aunt and some cousins and their wives. We began talking about how much water we needed to drink, difficulties with leg cramps, hearing issues, and other older people health issues.  Someone made the comment that growing old is hard and involves hard work, but it still can be fun.  I was reminded of that on Friday when I organized an overnight canoe trip on the Willamette River like I had done numerous times up until maybe 10 years ago.  I had not been in a canoe since I had my fall over 3 years ago.  Planning took a lot of work to find paddles and gather the canoes and fix the trailer.  It was hard, but a lot of fun.  

Once on the river, paddling was much harder.  With one bum arm, I could not handle being in the back of the canoe, but the sense of freedom I felt by paddling a canoe was intensified by the realization that with hard work, much harder work than when I was younger, I could still enjoy paddling a canoe down the river. We observed red-tailed hawks attacking a bald eagle which flipped over at the moment of attack, and we saw a deer swim the river.  Paddling was hard work, but probably more fun as an older person than it was as a younger person. Like Nicodemus, I want to never give up on learning and growing.

The day after the canoe trip, Mr. Smucker hiked up Mary's Peak.

He joined us for a few minutes of the weekly Red Barn Coffee Hour.
He didn't drink coffee, though.

Tuesday, July 25, 2023

On Writing: How to Begin to Start

This question appeared in the comments on a recent blog post:

I have wanted to find an efficient way to ask you this question— I want to start writing a blog. I’m an old gal— 76, so it’s not like I have a lot of time. I have enjoyed writing since I was a young girl. I fantasized about writing my memoir but have never taken the plunge to actually seriously start. However, I think writing a blog would be good for a number of reasons. I write things occasionally on my Facebook page and many people have commented that they enjoy my writings. I think, among other things, the discipline of writing a blog would be beneficial to get me serious about communicating my ideas/thoughts/ impressions to a wider audience.

So, my question to you is: What advice would you give me in terms of starting a blog— What should I do—in terms of setting it up? ( I am not on Instagram, etc. Mainly just FB.) Thank you!

I heard similar questions from a woman in her seventies when I was selling books at the county fair last week. She had slightly more specific ideas of what she wanted to do [her life story for her grandchildren, and life lessons for a wider readership.] Her main question was the same: How do I begin?

Long ago, my sister Rebecca and I would put on plays and performances for our family. We would get all set up and then announce, “Now the show is beginning to start!”

I am still puzzled that we, as little Amish girls, knew anything about putting on shows of any kind.

Later, at maybe ten and eleven years old, we outgrew that silly announcement with our performances. At that stage [pun intended], we adapted stories from old books into plays, roping our little sister Margaret into the role of the maid or the spavined mare. One year it was an elaborate Christmas play, with all of us whipping into and out of roles and costumes.

We would find a story, write out the script, practice over and over, create costumes [including our brothers' pants and Dad's hats as needed], string a curtain over the pantry doorway, write out invitations to our parents and brothers, and set up chairs for our audience. Then it was time to begin. We’d pull aside the curtain, take a deep breath, and say the first lines. In one play, two poor spinsters discussed a tea rose that changed their lives. In another, two men argued over a horse, the one insisting it was a “spavined mare” and the other insisting it was sound. “But the eye, Master Schneider!” is the only line I remember.

The beginning is where your preparation ends and the show starts. It’s a lot harder than it sounds, and it takes a lot of energy to overcome the fears and barriers to that first step.

So, here’s my advice for anyone who wants to write. And I define “write” as it was meant by the women who asked me the above questions—writing specific pieces or projects and displaying your words for public consumption.

1. Answer this question: What are you feeling called to do, say, write, or publish? Some feel only a vague urge to share their accumulated wisdom in some way, some have a goal of writing their life story for their grandchildren, and others definitely want to write a book or start a blog.

It’s ok if you have only a general nudge toward writing. It’s also ok if you know exactly what you want to say and how to say it.

Think about this. Answer it for yourself.

2. Think about what you’ve already written. If you’re feeling the nudge in your seventies, I’m pretty sure you already have an accumulation of writings. Think of letters, diaries, updates in family emails or work newsletters, Sunday school lessons, and college essays.

If you can, gather your writings and flip through some of them.

What kind of writing do you do best?

What themes keep coming up?

What received the most response from others?

3. If you know exactly what you want to write, narrow your focus. Let’s say it’s a children’s book on first getting electricity when you were a child.  File away the journals from high school and the diary from your year in the Peace Corps. You'll use those in later projects; you don't need them now.

For the children's book, write down everything you can remember from that era of your life. Ask family members for their memories. Look up local history. And so on.

If you want to write your life story, gather the diaries and letters, but don't dig through the Bible study notes and the instruction manuals you wrote at work. Focus on a specific time period, and gather all the information you can.

4. If you don’t have a specific project in mind, then choose a platform. I recommend blogs as a great way to break into publishing. If you can figure out email, you can manage a blog. Go to or and start clicking. Other social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, are great for spreading the word but not so great as places to express actual essays or articles.

A less techy and less public option is email newsletters. My almost-90-year-old mother-in-law considers herself neither techy nor a writer, but she sends out weekly emails updating us all on the bread she baked, the Sunday sermon, and the progress of harvest outside her window.

Your emails can be chatty letters, devotionals, essays about your thoughts, stories from your past, or carefully-crafted articles about specific topics. Ask friends and family if they’d like to be on your list, and encourage them to forward your emails to others if they find them interesting.

You can also operate offline and write with paper and ink. Compile a list of people who have enjoyed your letters in the past, type up letters or articles, copy them, and mail them out. See what happens.

5. Ask for help. The writing/publishing world is complicated and frustrating. I don’t know of anyone who does it well, all alone.

Ask your family for memories, ask young people to show you how to access the internet, ask published writers for advice. Most writers are “pathologically helpful,” as my friend Jessica Maxwell described herself. I freely ask for help, and I freely give help whenever I can.

6. Set small deadlines for yourself, and create a bit of structure. Not only is it hard to begin, it’s hard to create a pattern and keep up the momentum. For almost 19 years, I had a monthly newspaper-column deadline that kept me motivated. This summer, I have a goal of writing a blog post every Tuesday. I even have a rotating list of subjects—travel, life advice, random ramblings, writing advice, and so on. While I don’t have an editor waiting on me, I have a commitment to my readers and a bit of structure to keep me going. You can also create accountability with someone else—a spouse, friend, or another writer.

7. Take a deep breath, and let the show begin to start. Write something. Share it with someone else.

Many writers can plan and organize and outline until the cows come home. At some point you have to begin. Pick up your pen or laptop. Write something. Look it over. Make it better. Share it before it’s 100% perfect.

8. Keep going. Blog today and next week and the week after that. Write a devotional, then another, then another. Write about your birth and your early years and kindergarten. Write a letter and mail it to everyone in your group. Do it again, and again.

Words accumulate. Before long, you’ll be surprised at how many words and pages you’ve written. Eventually, you’ll have a children’s book or memoir or a set of devotionals ready to go.

9. Listen to feedback. Obviously, you don’t need to take all feedback seriously, but treat any response as valuable information. Someone read your writings and took the time to reply. You can learn from all of it. Look at what everyone enjoys or misunderstands. That can guide you in how and what to write next time.

10. Take opportunities that show up. You might be asked to write about vacation Bible school for a church newsletter or gather memories from the cousins to read at the reunion. Please say yes. 

11. Knock on doors. Contact publishers about your children’s book, ask other authors about printers they like, submit articles to magazines. 

Recently I’ve become aware of how much Anabaptists wait to do things until we’re asked, and how much that has shaped my writing life. Think about it. We often wait for a phone call asking us to serve in missions or a voluntary-service venue. We don’t pursue becoming a pastor, but wait to see if we’re chosen by the church. We don’t fill out applications to teach in church schools but wait until the board finds out about us through that mysterious school-board network and asks us to teach.

[Disclaimer—I’m sure this varies with place and time, but it has been very true in my experience.]

I saw this distinctly in my dad’s life when I read his book, A Chirp From the Grass Roots. Over and over, he says, “[Someone] suggested/put a lot of pressure on me to [go to college, go to Paraguay, teach in Indiana], so I thought I would try it.”

I find myself doing the same, "So I thought I would try it" routine. This worked out spendidly when the Register-Guard asked me to write a monthly column. It hasn’t worked so well since that job ended and I published the last book of family-life essays. I find myself waiting for someone to ask instead of figuring out what I want to do and going after it. 

So I’ve been thinking about Jesus’s words in Matthew 7:

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

I’m good at waiting. Pursuing is a skill to be learned. It means doing everything I’ve just told you, especially beginning.

Here’s my summary of how to begin:

Gather what you have.

Choose a project.

Set small goals and deadlines.

Put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.

Start writing.

Share it with others.


Keep going.

It's time for this show to begin to start.

[But seriously, if there’s a specific topic, book, article, or post you wish I would write, please tell me. I'd love to hear from you.]

Thursday, July 20, 2023

Correction--Anna Lucas's address

 This is for everyone who gets my updates by email.

Yesterday's post about Anna Lucas's book had the wrong address for ordering a book.

Instead of the Colorado address, please use this:

Anna Lucas, 26303 US Hwy 83, White River, SD 57579

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Book Review--Roses in Kiev by Anna Lucas

Most missionaries aren’t Elisabeth Elliot or Gracia Burnham. This shows in many ways, but especially in their inability to write their memoirs in an engaging way. You’ve read a few of them, I’m sure, while trying to be gracious, especially if you know the writer. Unfortunately, what was lifechanging for them sounds tedious to you, or you’re troubled at their patronizing attitude toward the local population, or they sound so super-spiritual you feel like you can’t relate.

So I am happy to introduce you to Roses in Kiev—Rigors and Romance in the Life of a Young English Teacher, by Anna Lucas.

Anna and I have met online but not in person, but we connect with each other's writing. We have a lot in common, as we are both wives, moms, and writers. We've both traveled to other countries. We both have blogs about our lives--she's at Prairie Pines & Posies.

In 1993, Anna moved to Kiev to teach Bible and English. Both before and after this experience, she traveled and worked in various points around the world. This book is about her life in Kiev, written over 25 years later, drawing from notes and diaries.

I enjoyed this book very much. Here’s why:

1.       Not only does Anna convey her life in Kiev, but we also go along on an inner journey of hardships and growth. In addition, there’s a delightful and unusual romance, complete with a few surprising moments that had me laughing out loud. The story is well-paced and well-told.

2.       Ukraine has been in the news for the past year, and this story is especially interesting in that context. She tells of the hardships of life soon after the fall of Communism, and you feel the frustration and desperation of the cold winter, the lack of consumer goods, and the unbelievable challenges in simple things like moving into an apartment or fixing appliances. You think about their lives today and wonder if the Ukrainians are ever going to catch a break.
Anna includes many details such as the weird juxtaposition of moving into an apartment with beautiful wood furniture, built-in glass-fronted cupboards, and even a chandelier, far nicer than anything she’d grown up with in a large family, and then venturing out to shop for groceries when even the basics like eggs were scarce and hard to find.

3.       The author has the greatest respect for her Ukrainian Christian colleagues. She recognizes what they endured under Communism and their incredible faith and courage. I could tell that their stories mattered to the author. She did not consider herself superior, or like she had the right to tell them how to live.

4.       Anna may have been a courageous missionary in a faraway land, but she is utterly, completely relatable in her narrative. Young and scatterbrained and uncertain, she navigates sickness, exhaustion, cold, relationship challenges, and loneliness. She works unbelievably hard to learn the Russian language and carry out her responsibilities, but life in Kiev works against any sort of efficiency, progress is slow, and her hard work isn’t often seen or appreciated.
Eventually, a highly unusual romance appears, but all is not smooth or rosy. I felt for her about every bit of it—the waiting, the uncertainty, the expectations of how things ought to be, the disquieting opinions of others, the wondering what God was up to.
Then there was the moment when Anna thought her young man was going to propose, but he asked a very different question instead. It would be unfair to give away that part of the story, but I will say I don’t often scream and laugh when I read books, but I did then.

5.       Missionaries can be very spiritual, and I am easily intimidated. I confess I started reading Roses in Kiev with a bit of hesitation, not only because it’s a missionary memoir but because Anna is part of a denomination similar to the Holiness church at the high school and college that Paul attended. Those folks are very nice but they were always far more earnest, sure, and vocal than me, with their uninhibited public prayers and their booming sermons about being saved and sanctified.
I am happy to report that I am quite sure that Anna would not intimidate me at all if we met, and we could talk as equals about our journeys of faith.
In the book, Anna shows us what she believes and how she lived it out, but she handles denominational nuances with great finesse and no pretension or superiority.

6.       Anyone who’s been on the mission field knows that often the greatest challenge is getting along with your teammates. Anna handles this subject with grace as well. We get a good sense of the differences among them and the difficulties that followed, but she doesn't say too much, and we don’t feel like she’s being cagey or intentionally mysterious. That’s a delicate line to walk, and she does it well.

You should read this book if:
--you’re interested in Ukraine, modern missions, language study, or trusting God with your future romance or any other unknowns.
--you’re thinking of writing a memoir, especially about working in another country or culture.
--you enjoy a good story.

 This book and others may be ordered from Anna Lucas at

 Sparrows and Roses Books
16270 Sarita Cir.
Peyton, CO 80831
oops! this is the wrong address! Please use this one instead:

Anna Lucas
 26303 US Hwy 83
 White River, SD 57579

(719) 332-6336
or email

This paragraph told me that
a) Anna as a young woman was a lot like me at that age.
b) Sherri the roommate might have been a teensy bit irritating, but Anna lets us draw our own conclusions on this.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Things I've Learned Lately

1. Staying home all summer doesn’t mean I have time to write blog posts every Tuesday as I had purposed to do. That was sort of magic-fairy thinking. Not traveling doesn’t mean automatic hours in front of the computer. You also have to not cook so much, or talk with so many people, or water the hydrangeas regularly.

2. Mackinac is pronounced Mackinaw and Tijuana is pronounced Tia-juana, despite the spellings. I waited until I was 61 to learn this, after no doubt proving myself an outsider in both places.

[Note to various commenters: it turns out that when you’re speaking Spanish, you say “tee-HWAH-na” and when you’re speaking English you say “tee-uh-WAH-na.” Kind of like when you speak English you say Germany and when you’re speaking German you say Deutschland.]

3. This is a good summer for snakes but not so much for me. Some summers I don’t see any around here. This year I’ve run across four, not counting the dead one on the road. I didn't "run across" that one or any of the others as in driving over them with a car, but run across as in merrily scooping up grass clippings along the blocks along the flower bed and literally raking my fingers right across the back of a very zigzagging, very alive, very striped garter snake. I can still feel it. I have not been the same since.

4. My husband has hidden reserves of clever humor. 

Me: I am so sick and tired of finding snakes around here! I picked up a piece of cardboard in the garden to see if there were any volunteer potatoes coming up underneath and there was

Paul: A volunteer snake??

Me: YES!! 

5. Speaking of volunteer plants, the mystery bush in the garden turned out to be hollyhocks! It showed up last year, multiple stalks in a cluster with squash-like rough leaves. But it produced neither flower nor fruit. I left it over the winter, and it grew even taller, then developed green bud things along the stalks, reminding me of both artichokes and ground cherries. Suddenly, I noticed a few blobs of red, and soon the whole thing bloomed in hollyhocks. I have no memory of planting it. Maybe a few seeds resurrected from previous owners long ago when the garden was dug through two years ago with numerous holes and trenches for the sewer line for the barn.

6. Our fine son Ben is annoyed by, or at least suspicious of, many types of people. 

a. People who wear stretchy caps when it’s not cold.

b. People who cover as much of their car as possible with stickers. This includes people in Subarus with every outdoor and left wing cause who think they’re sticking it to the man with stickers about socialized medicine as well as people with every manner of Bible verse slapped on every surface.

c. People who talk about their dog like it’s a child.

d. People who add unnecessary letters to children’s names. 

e. People on bikes who never yield to pedestrians and want to be treated like either a car or a pedestrian, whichever is most convenient.

f. People who self-describe as “creatives.”

g. People with tattoos in a language they don’t speak.

7. Ben said, “Clearly I’m annoyed by a lot.” He was finishing his dissertation at the time. I’ve learned that finishing up a doctoral dissertation and presenting it are unbelievably, alarmingly stressful.

8. Paul’s cousin Darrell is harvesting a type of ryegrass called Koga. I had never heard of it. Technically, it’s “Koga Tetraploid Annual Ryegrass.” 

9. “Conservative” has changed its meaning in the Mennonite lexicon. I had a conversation with an Amish person about taking pictures and it opened up a memory of my Uncle Art and Aunt Vina and Uncle Ervin taking pictures of us when we were Amish, which was ok because it was in our house and no one would ever know. These relatives were all “Conservative,” which, in that day, meant Conservative Mennonite Conference. “Conservative” meant that they could do and have all kinds of cool things like plaid dresses and pretty belts and taking pictures. Today, that conference is known as CMC, and the term “conservative Mennonite” has different and more restrictive connotations, at least when used by people in my sphere.

[The commenters also inform me that CMC is now RNOC—Rosedale Network of Churches]

10. It is ok to hire help. I feel extravagant and silly doing so because, after all, I come from Amish stock, we are almost empty nesters, and I am reasonably healthy and capable. However. Even though I am no longer doing multiple loads of laundry a day or baking gigantic pot roasts, it turns out this nest has a lot of cubic footage, cobwebs, and dusty corners, and the outside is way more acreage than is easily handled without a bunch of teenagers to help out. So. I hired a cousin’s daughter to whip the hedge into shape and a niece to clean weekly and another niece to bake food for the freezer.  My parents ran their own house and farm until Mom was 93, and I don’t recall them ever hiring help until the family got someone to live in and take care of them. I’ve learned I can honor their incredible work ethic AND get the nieces to work for me. The world is still turning, and I can still speak Pennsylvania German. Amazing.

11. Listening is a gift. Recently I was doing a bit of shopping and as I walked to my car a young woman came running across the parking lot. She gave me a hug and wished me a late happy birthday. She said, “I just want to bless you, because you were the first person to listen to me.”

Well, of course I started crying, as one does.

Listening, in the moment, consists of pouring more tea, nodding, saying “mm-hmm” repeatedly, and asking a question now and then. It doesn’t seem like enough to merit a hug in a parking lot five years later.

But apparently it is.

12. The problem was with Apple and not with me or my phone. See, a while back my phone went as blank as my brain when I have a writing deadline on a sunny day. I plugged it in, pushed buttons, and pleaded. Nothing.

I was about to plague our son Matt with yet another desperate, tearful, tech-related entreaty when Paul suggested we take the phone to Best Buy and ask them what to do.

The nice young man behind the counter said, “Oh, this is an issue with the latest update from Apple. It goes into what we call ‘brick mode.’”

He showed me how to fix it. Press the “up” volume button. Press the “down” volume button. Press the power button for longer than you’d think.

It worked!

In the following weeks, the phone went into brick mode a few more times, and I knew what to do.

When there’s a problem of any sort, I assume I’ve done something wrong or stupid. But sometimes it's not my mistake at all, but a glitch in the system and someone else’s error.

What a profound revelation.

12. Harvest in Oregon is just as fun to watch and feel and smell as it was when I first experienced it, 41 years ago. You'd think it might grow old. It doesn't.

13. I've been learning about stress and autoimmune things and activating the Vagus nerve to make your body and mind settle down and behave. One way to do this, say the Instagram experts,  is to stick your head  [still attached to your body, please] into the freezer, or to plunge your face in cold water.

Sudden revelation: this is why Canadians and Minnesotans are so chill: all winter, they plunge their faces into air that's often colder than your freezer, for long periods of time.

No one's as happy as Minnesotans walking into the coffee shop when it's 25-below outside and billows of mist surround them as they stomp inside in their parkas and Sorel boots. "Cold out dere," they mutter, grinning through their frosty beards.

Their Vagus nerves must be humming along like a well-maintained Case combine in a field of K-31 fescue.

Maybe I need to spend summers in Oregon and winters in Minnesota.

This is Emily harvesting Darrell's Koga ryegrass.

Tuesday, July 04, 2023

Ask Aunt Dorcas: On Being "The Book Writer"

Dear Aunt Dorcas,

Here's something I'd like to hear about from other writers. I shy away from meeting people because as soon as I say even my first name they say, "Oh, the book writer." (Maybe if my name was Mary Martin I could hide better.) Next question is, "What are you writing now?" 

Today, as many times before, I walked into a room and saw people looking at me and whispering. I get tired of it. How do other writers handle these things? What is a good answer? I thought maybe when people say "the book writer" I could say, "are you a book reader?'

You're good at stirring up a discussion. Maybe you can stir something up on this from a variety of writers. I'd love to hear any thoughts or advice.

--"Gladys Hostetler”

Two authors, Emily Smucker and her mom, Dorcas, sat at their table at the fair and wished for a little more fame and recognition.
You can find their books at

Dear Gladys,

This immediately brings to mind the first time I met you. You were a middle-aged woman who had just traveled from Pennsylvania to northwestern Ontario. I was in my twenties, an aspiring writer.

It was evening.

I met you in the second-floor hallway of the Northern Youth Programs guest house as you were being shown to your room. Laden with travel bags and accessories, you looked weary.

I chose that auspicious time to go all fan-girl on you. “Are you. . . Gladys Hostetler??!! Oh, I’m so glad to meet you! My name is Dorcas, and I like to write too!”

You were unbelievably and undeservedly kind.

I hope you got a really good night’s sleep.

Years later we were in the same class, taught by Harvey Yoder, at the CLP Writers Conference. We did an exercise together—pulling a story from our childhood, I think—and we had a fun conversation, more as equals than the hallway meeting.

First , the writer’s perspective.

We had no idea, did we? We were like Job’s young friend Elihu in Job 32—

 I too will have my say;

    I too will tell what I know.

For I am full of words,

    and the spirit within me compels me;

inside I am like bottled-up wine,

    like new wineskins ready to burst.

I must speak and find relief;

    I must open my lips and reply.

We too were full of words, so we wrote and published, happy for the opportunity to release the words into the wide world and have them found and read.

We didn’t know we were placing ourselves in a one-dimensional mold from which we would never escape, or that we were giving up the privilege of being anonymous. We might be photographers, gardeners, or experts on Roman history. We are wives and moms and daughters.

But we are known as The Writer.

We wanted “fame” in the sense that we want our books to be purchased and read, but we didn’t ask for the whispers when we walk into a room. This is hard to talk about except with fellow writers, because it comes across as “poor little famous me; it’s so annoying to be recognized.”

But sometimes the things we want have side effects we didn't expect.

I know people who are perfectly fine with being known and recognized for a single thing. They walk into a room and Oh look! It’s the missionary! The evangelist! The singer! That’s their identity, and they seem to revel in it.

Many of us writers, however, are introverts, and fame, even if it’s small and contained, unnerves us. We want to be known well, in our many dimensions, by those close to us, and to be anonymous with those outside that circle. Being a writer messes with our sense of self and even our sense of safety. The “writer” label is too complicated to embrace as our whole identity, and we know we are many things besides.

I am not as introverted as many writers, and I enjoy a bit of recognition, which I attribute to a lack of attention as a child. But it quickly becomes too much. I remember a REACH conference in Pennsylvania where I wanted to walk around with a paper bag over my head after about half a day because I kept catching people looking at me with a gleam of recognition in their eyes.

Then I went to a BMA summer convention and this didn’t happen at all, so it’s all about appearing in the demographic that reads your books. It's not like I'm Taylor Swift and can't go anywhere without being recognized, in case you wondered.

I’ve had some truly weird experiences with fame and recognition. Generally, I am easy to ignore. I’m not cool or fashionable or the person who walks into a room and takes over. I’ve had times in a group or social setting when I was obviously not worth noticing or talking to by others until suddenly people found out who I was. When I was “Dorcas Smucker!” I was worth attention and conversation. When I was just me, I was invisible.

That has taught me that the “writer” persona is an illusion that people carry in their own heads and project onto me, and it’s important that I know who I am. Dorcas Smucker feeding the cats is not the same person as “Dorcas Smucker!!” recognized in a public setting.

Here's how I respond to “Oh! The writer!” when it happens to me: much as I cringe at being one-dimensional, I like to express gratitude that they actually read my stuff, which is truly a gift. Then I try to shift the conversation to them as quickly as possible. Name, where are you from, what brings you here, what is your connection to the bride/conference/speaker/deceased? Usually by that time there’s some point of connection, something besides me and my writing, to provide a conversational rabbit trail.

My response to “What are you writing now?” is to panic inside and want to burst into tears, especially if they ask if I’m finally writing that Mennonite fiction book I’ve talked about for years. I don’t have the time or coherence, in the moment, to explain all the ideas that haven’t worked out, all the demands on my time despite the children being grown and gone, all the delays and frustrations with the printer, all the time it took for my brain to sort of recover after my husband’s life-threatening injuries, all the life transitions we’ve been through, and all the obstacles to pursuing creativity.

I believe I’m not alone in this, that The Next Book is a touchy subject for every writer, and we all wish that no one would ask until about a week before the book is released--polished and ready and complete.

This brings up another peril of being a writer: readers feel like they own a piece of you. Not everyone, of course, thank God, but many readers feel that you’re obligated to release at least a book a year, inform them of details about your family that you don’t have permission to share, take a look at their manuscript and give feedback, write their uncle’s life story, and write an article about their favorite subject.

If you haven’t learned to say No, you’re in trouble. And you have to do it graciously enough that you don’t lose a reader and future sales.

Now for the other side. You’re a reader. You love Annie Brubaker’s books and feel like she understands you. She makes you think and laugh. You’d love to meet her someday.

And then she walks into the room at the rehearsal dinner. Oh my stars. Yes, it has to be her. You had heard rumors that she’s the groom’s cousin and sure enough!!

You squeal a bit and elbow your sister beside you. “Look who just walked in! Isn’t that…?” And then Annie Brubaker turns and looks at you, and you catch her eye—aack! How embarrassing!  You wonder if this is how Peter felt when the rooster crowed and Jesus turned and looked at him. 

Now what?

My advice is to be up front and matter-of-fact. Don’t stare, but go talk to her if you have the chance. Express your appreciation but don’t squeal like a teenager at a Justin Bieber concert. Here’s a sample script: “Excuse me. I’m curious if you’re Annie Brubaker?”

“Yes, I am.”

“I’m Sarah. I just want to tell you I appreciate your books, especially the devotional for new moms.”

“Thank you.”

At that point, if Annie glances over to the buffet line, end the conversation. If she maintains eye contact and asks if you have a new baby, you can keep talking. Maybe you’re curious about her writing process or want to tell her about a situation in your life that was affected by her story. That’s fine. Just talk like she’s a real human, and you and she are equally valuable. Find connections, compare opinions, and “encourage one another, and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. [1 Thessalonians 5:11]

End the conversation before you exhaust her, and make sure she has a chance to eat.

If she sits beside you, take it as permission to continue the conversation, making sure to pause often and long enough to let her enjoy her meal.

If you’re both writers, you’re going to rattle off about all the things that only writers find interesting, and you’ll both forget to eat.

And now, a word of advice to all of us: most people, writers or not, don’t want to be known for only one thing. 

Maybe ten years ago, a woman in our church was employed outside her home. This was unusual—most married Mennonite women are stay-at-home moms. I didn’t know her that well, so when we happened to walk down the hall together toward the women’s Sunday school class, I’d cast about for things to talk or ask about. Often, the first thing that came to mind was her job.

One day she pulled me aside and said, “I’d like to share something with you. When you talk to me, you always ask about my work. I wish you’d talk about other things. There’s a lot more to me than my job, and the truth is I work because I have to, and I don’t like to talk about it.”

Ouch. I like to know these things, but it hurts to find out. 

But I was so grateful. Her telling me showed that she trusted that I would listen, because we all know we don’t confront people we already know won’t hear us. Also, it taught me to work at getting to know the whole person and putting more thought into questions and conversation. After that, I tried to ask about her children, her summer activities, and so on.

It’s ok to recognize Annie or Gladys when they walk into the room. It’s good to encourage writers and tell them we appreciate their work. The same with singers and speakers and candlestick makers. It’s fine to recognize what they do.

But let’s do more. We can all give others the honor and gift of seeing them as a whole, multi-dimensional person. We can ask about a hundred things besides the one thing that first comes to mind. We can find connections and mutual interests. We can make introverted writers feel safe in public gatherings, and we can make invisible people feel seen.

That's what I think.

Aunt Dorcas

Are you a writer? What are your experiences or advice?

Are you a reader who's met a favorite author? What are your stories and advice?

Are you well known for one thing? How do you navigate always being seen in one dimension only?