Monday, May 29, 2023

From Typewriters to Tiktok--The Changing World of Storytelling

[Oof, this got long. TL;DR--writers my age are having a hard time adapting and we might be a tiny bit jealous of the Mennonite influencer moms. But we're going to be ok, really.]

My generation of writers is confused. I hope, someday, they say we were also brave.

“Marketing Tools for Published and Pre-Published Authors.” That seemed like something I badly needed, with my new self-published book arriving any day, so I signed up for the class at a writing conference two months ago.

Perhaps twenty-five people, most of them my age or older, sat at round tables in a windowless classroom. The others at my table were a man named Tom who was about my age and a white-haired woman about twenty years older that we will call Jane.

The cheerful young teacher—I’ll call her Mandy-- handed us papers to fill out as the class began.

We looked at the first question, then at each other. “Where am I now with number of subscribers?”

The second was like unto it: “Where would I like to be with number of subscribers?”

I raised my hand. “Is this email subscribers or Facebook followers or what?”

“All of the above,” Mandy said. “Social media, email, everything.” 

“That’ll be easy,” muttered Tom. He jotted briefly, then said, “I wrote ‘Less than 1000’ because it sounded better than ‘Less than 100.’”

Jane frowned in confusion over her paper.

I tried to remember how many followers I had on Facebook and my blog, and how many people used to get my newspaper column by email. I guessed at the number of subscribers and added it to my list.

I seldom track my followers on various platforms, but even with my best guesses, and even comparing with Mr. Less Than 1000, my numbers seemed weak and pathetic when Mandy explained that publishers today won’t even look at your work unless you have at least 40,000 followers.

Mandy then launched into a rapid and confident lecture about followers, lead magnets, and promo tools, about Wix, genre, audience, MailChimp, and branding.

I glanced around and felt heartened to see that everyone looked as glum and confused as I felt. Writing conferences are rich sources of information and connection, but even at the best of times they can make your biggest fears bubble to the surface and your most persistent worries walk onstage in your brain. The question is always, “Do I have what it takes?” For my generation, the question has an added layer: “Do I have what it takes in today’s world?”

I felt like I understood about 30% of what Mandy said, but, essentially, what I took from the class was that subscribers and followers are crucial if you want to be a published writer, and email-newsletter subscribers are the blue ribbon/gold medal of the industry. Of course, to get email subscribers you have to snag that elusive prize: email addresses.

Hmmm, I thought. Apparently I need to find ways to ask people if they want to be on my email list.

But no. You can’t be that honest and obvious.

Mandy’s advice for obtaining all those addresses was this: you come up with a freebie of some sort—maybe a printable list of motivational quotes, or a short story connected to your books. You set this up with a website that’s designed for this sort of thing, and then link it to all your social media platforms.

“Click here for a free short story!!” “Free printable poster for moms!”

Then, when people click to get the freebie, a popup window tells them to enter their email address before they go on to the prize. And ta-da! You’ve got another email address to exploit, although Mandy didn’t use that word.

You’ve seen these boxes a thousand times, I’m sure, and happily typed your address. Well. Just so you know, someone was very happy to snag your address.

So, said Mandy, you then have their email address in hand, and pretty soon you’ll have enough accumulated for Zondervan and Revell to take your manuscript seriously. How happy is that!?

We were skeptical. Isn’t that kind of dishonest? Shouldn’t you ask people straight up if they want to sign up for updates from you?

Oh no, it’s not sketchy at all! You are actually giving them something they want, not a brand or a sales pitch so much as a piece of YOU, of emotion, of connection, of inviting them along on your journey! Share what God’s given you, rather than “marketing!”

Across the table, Tom muttered, “This process makes me feel like I’m selling timeshares.”

Despite our questions and confusion, Mandy’s happy, confident demeanor never faltered as she lectured on and on, the unfamiliar terms flying at us like baseballs that clonked into our heads and left us dazed. Premade templates! Podcasts!  Tools for launching! Opt-in forms!

“I can never do this,” said Jane when the class ended. “I guess I can’t ever be published.”

We filed out, twenty-five people with a fragile dream, feeling like maybe the world had moved on and we were left behind with no more chances of success.

As I wandered toward the coffee server in the foyer, I couldn’t stop thinking about the two Amish ladies I’d met the week before.

After I had spoken at a ladies’ retreat in another state, Paul and I attended a fish-fry fundraiser in an Amish community. Two of the women recognized me and came over to talk. They were also authors, young sisters-in-law who had collaborated on a fiction-based-on-fact book that was doing well in the Anabaptist world. One of them mentioned that they’d just ordered their third printing.

Authors are nosy, so I had to ask, “How many books are in each printing?”

“Five thousand,” she said, quite matter-of-factly, as though sharing that they get two dozen eggs every day from their hens.

My stars.

I was very impressed and told them so.

I Googled this just to make sure my impression was right. It was.

How many fiction books sold is considered successful?

Qualifications aside, if you are a new writer at a big publisher and you've sold more than 10,000 copies of a novel you are in very good shape — as long as you didn't have a large advance. It should be easy for you to get another book contract. If you sold more than 5,000, you are doing pretty well.


So, as I left the class on marketing, I tried to correlate these conflicting situations. First, the Christian publishing world with its emphasis on glitz, gimmicks, social media, and a vast following. And then, these two sweet Amish women on their way to selling 15,000 books with no online presence, no premade templates for emails, and no pre-launch magnets. They fly completely under the radar of both the Christian and secular publishing industries, and quietly outsell a good percentage of the books published with great fanfare in the broader world.

I saw Mandy near the table where my books were set out for sale, so I told her about the Amish writers I’d met and how I felt there had to be some way for us older, traditional writers to be successful without all the online marketing methods. She looked as confused as Tom and Jane [and I, I’m sure] did during her class, and I’m sure I didn’t explain myself well, because the jarringly-different images were still clanking together and breaking in my brain, and I was trying to process my thoughts by talking to her.

How did I expect a young online marketing expert to understand the unique connectivity of the Amish community, a world that flourishes out of sight, much like the mushrooms of the Oregon forest that are connected underground over vast areas, forming the biggest living organisms in the world?

[More info here] [email address not required]

I didn’t tell her this, but recalling the Amish authors gave me a sense of hope after that disheartening class. Maybe Mandy and others like her won’t have the last word about publishing.

I wonder if future historians will look back at the writers of my generation and wonder what it was like to navigate the enormous, sweeping changes in communication. I would like to think they’ll give us credit for adapting, for developing skills and watching them become obsolete, and for forcing ourselves, at retirement age, to become inept kindergarteners, slowly learning to post Instagram photos and Facebook Lives.

It happened in transportation and medicine in previous generations. My dad, I’m told, was the best horseman in the county when he was a young man in Oklahoma. By the time he was in his sixties, he farmed with tractors. All that hard-won knowledge and expertise with horses was obsolete, and he was stuck in a more modern world, always wrestling with mysterious, cantankerous, uncooperative machines, always seeming incompetent.

James Herriot, in his books about working as a veterinarian in Yorkshire, tells of the dispensary full of bottled chemicals and medicines, and all the hard work to learn the exact dosage for each disease in each sort of animal. Then all that knowledge was useless, swept away by the new antibiotics that came after World War II.

When I first pursued writing, the process was strict and straightforward. Magazines, newspapers, books. Typewritten query letters, synopses, and sample chapters. First, second, or full rights for periodicals. We learned at conferences to write informative queries, to include the title on each page of the manuscript, and to keep a rotation of articles in the mail, circulating from one potential publisher to the next to the next. We knew that double spacing and proper margins were important to editors. Often, there was only one copy of our manuscript, and if it got lost in the mail, it was gone forever.

Then, it all changed.

First came computers, writing programs, and the end of KoRecType. Blogs, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok followed, with content creation that included not only writing but photos, videos, links, gimmicks, and giveaways. Paper publications disappeared. Online marketing became essential. It was a wild and rapidly changing world with a completely new set of skills.

We seasoned Mennonite writers, having worked our way slowly up the publishing ladder, closed our filing cabinets full of manuscripts, rejection letters, and sample magazines and watched slack-jawed as young Mennonite moms launched YouTube channels, racking up more followers in one year than we had scratched together in 30 years of submissions, rejections, and early-morning typing.

“But Mom, you’re not competing. They post cute videos of their babies and living room d├ęcor. You write real writing. It’s completely different.” That’s what my lovely daughters told me when I tried to explain how disconcerting it all feels. They are my guides to the internet world, interpreting and coaching, and their words helped. “Besides, you reach a completely different audience. It’s not like they’re stealing anyone from you.”

I said I know that, but still. Sometimes the influencers write books, and then it feels like competition, even though there’s room in the world for both of us.

Jenny said, "You're not an influencer. Yeah, they'll sell books, but no one reads them."

"Come on. No one?"

"Well, ok, but they end up at Goodwill. They don't keep them and re-read them."

Our son Ben said, “Just remember that followers don’t necessarily translate to sales.”

All right then. My kids obviously think I should follow my calling and let the influencer moms follow theirs. Sometimes they’re wiser than me.

Recently, a discouraged author friend called me. While she’s younger than me and far beyond me in email formatting and online marketing, she still feels dismayed at the young women posting on Instagram or channeling the vibe into successful online businesses. “I really can’t help but compare myself with a young lady in our community. She randomly started a small business printing cards and that kind of thing, and she just “gets” the Instagram look, if you know what I mean. She’s just gone gangbusters. And I think about how long and hard I’ve worked, and I still have way less of an audience.”

“You’re not competing,” I said, parroting my daughters. “You write actual books.”

My friend brought me up short with a brutal fact. “She can afford to add onto her house and fix it up pretty. Not to be ungrateful for what I have, but let's be honest, that's the most glaring difference between her work and mine."

I could only sympathize. Maybe we’re not competing in the same race, technically, but we are conservative Mennonite women presenting creative content to the world. It was hard enough in our day to gain an Anabaptist audience. It was ten times as hard to find publishers and readers in the broader non-Mennonite culture.

And then Sharla from down the road hops on Instagram, as they say, and a year later has thousands of non-Menno followers hungry for a taste of the simple lifestyle. Furthermore, she makes money at it.

It’s incredible to watch it happen. I am happy for them in the same way that my grandma was probably thrilled that her children had running water and modern washers.

At the same time, I wonder about the effects of success coming so easily. Did farming with horses or typing on a typewriter build a sort of character unavailable today?

I also circle back to all the characters in this story, such as those Amish authors, writing and selling books in a universe outside of social media and mainstream Christian publishing. I think of Mandy, telling us confidently how marketing needs to be done, and the grandma at my table, feeling like there’s no room for her and her story.

I have always said that each of us has a story to tell, and we need to find a way to tell it. So I really should applaud those who do, whether it’s self-published Amish women or Sharla Stoltzfoos in her white veil, baking bread for an audience of 50,000.

I wish the big Christian publishers would choose authors more for quality content than for the potential audience they bring. I wish Marketing Mandy could recognize that her rapid-fire teaching excludes my generation, and especially the writers who are twenty years older, making us feel like today’s publishing world has no place for us.

I think we who tell stories of any kind need to draw others in rather than building fences that keep them out. What would it be like if Mandy sat down with the Amish authors and they learned from each other? Or if a young influencer interviewed Jane and shared her story on YouTube?

Maybe the Mennonite ladies on Instagram, reading to their babies in their pristine white living rooms, could teach me a thing or two about growing an audience and being a Mennonite woman telling her story to a secular world.

Most of all, I need to tell my own story and follow my own calling. These days, that means typing on a laptop surrounded by handwritten notes on random papers, producing books outside of traditional publishing, and doing all I can to mentor beginning writers and encourage the experienced writers who feel bogged down in the waves of change swirling all around.

I don’t know how history will judge my generation of authors, but I hope it will be said of us that we adapted with the times, we drew others in, and we were brave. Most of all, I hope we will be found faithful to our calling of telling our stories, whether that involved typewriters or TikTok.

And here's my brave attempt at online marketing: You can order my books HERE.

Monday, May 22, 2023

Ask Aunt Dorcas: Letting Adult Children Go

Dear Aunt Dorcas,

I have 6 children, and they are very much like you have described yours - hard-working, education and career-seeking.

And now, my second oldest daughter, age 19, just got a job offer that will take her about 9 hours from our home in South Florida. It’s definitely what she wants to do and I’m so happy for her, but I’m really struggling with this. She will be leaving the only home she’s ever lived in - I brought her home from the hospital to this home. All the rest still live here, and I feel like there will be a hole that I won’t be able to fill once she’s gone. Many tears, so much sadness on my part, but I won’t show it to her because that would be wrong to do I think.

Can you give me any advice that might make this time easier for me? I would appreciate it so much. This has just been so hard for me.

Thank you and God bless you richly.


After a visit home, Amy navigates the security line at PDX on her way back to Thailand.
Not pictured: Aunt Dorcas crying.

Dear Heidi,

My heart goes out to you. Every mom reading this, if she has any empathy at all, is feeling for you as well.

I have many thoughts on this subject, and I may wander around for a while here, spelling them out.

For our women’s Sunday school class, I’ve been teaching about how Jesus related to different women. Last week, I looked at how Jesus and his mother related to each other. It’s a fascinating study.

Mary’s experience as a mom was both unique and universal. Carrying the Messiah was a once-in-history event, of course. So was the virgin birth. A few other women had an angel show up and announce a forthcoming pregnancy, but no prophecy was quite like the one Gabriel gave Mary. “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

Can you imagine?

Yet, despite this incredible beginning, Mary’s story as a mother is also universal. She is all of us, every mom, down through history.

1. She was deeply invested in her child.

2. Her child had a destiny and calling apart from hers.

3. It hurt to see her child moving away from her to do what he needed to do.

4. Her child’s calling was more important than her feelings.

So many times, I’ve circled back to Mary’s experiences. For example, she “kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.”

That is all of us moms, watching silently, drawing conclusions, seeing progress, lying awake and thinking, praying for what we believe in but cannot yet see.

The episode at the wedding in Cana when they ran out of wine--that has a universal thread as well. Does anyone else see this story playing out like a movie in their minds? Do others find it as funny as I do? Mary hears about the problem—there is no more wine! Well! Oh my, we can’t have that! We sense the wheels turning in her head—she knows just what to do! Off she goes, weaving through the crowd, and nothing is stopping her. Jesus is having a deep conversation with his buddies, and Mary breaks right into the middle of it. “Jesus! We need you! There’s no more wine, and you have what it takes to make this desperate situation all better!”

He doesn’t leap to his feet with an eager, “Great idea, Mom! Thanks for letting me know!”


We see him, collecting his thoughts after being interrupted mid-paragraph, and his friends all looking at Mary, resenting the intrusion. “Why do you involve me?” Jesus says.

Well. She doesn’t answer that, knowing good and well that she’s said enough and it’s time to be quiet, so she leaves it at that and slips away.

She also knows very well that he’s going to indulge her and save the day, because he's so nice, so she pulls the servants aside and whispers, “Do whatever he tells you.”

He saves the day in quiet but spectacular fashion. Of course he does.

What mom hasn’t been there? Here is a need, and we know exactly what ought to be done, and by whom. Off we go to find our adult child, the one who amazes us with their talents and abilities, so far beyond ours. “Katie! They need a teacher at Elliott Prairie this fall!” “Jonathan! They need more guys for the community choir!” “Amanda! We need someone to decorate for the baby shower!”

Then, with full confidence in their compliance, we tell the social committee that they can count on Amanda to do the decorations, we’re sure of it.

Meanwhile, our talented children may or may not be ok with us offering their services, and we may or may not have a good idea of how God is calling them to serve.

And then, of course, we also relate to Simeon’s terrible prophecy to Mary.  “A sword will pierce your soul.”

When did it begin, the sharp blade breaking the skin? Maybe with the frantic search for the twelve-year-old Jesus. And then the shocking moment when Mary didn’t have a frightened child run to her arms for comfort, as she probably expected, but instead had a determined young man tell her firmly that she didn’t need to be so upset because, after all, he was doing his Father’s bidding.

His destiny was more important than her feelings.

Surely nothing was ever as painful, sharp, or deep as the sword in Mary’s soul when she stood watching as Jesus was crucified. All the predictions, all the miraculous moments, all the things she had stored up in her heart must have ricocheted in her mind as she watched this kind and loving son suffer beyond imagination.

Two thousand years later we normal moms, imperfect and overwhelmed yet loving our imperfect offspring more than life and breath, we remember the unique pain Mary endured and we sense that the prophecy was not only for her.

It is for all of us. Our child’s destiny calls, their purpose begins its fulfilment, and a sword pierces our souls. God’s purpose for them is more important than our feelings.

When our children leave home, eager and excited about their future, we wave wildly until the car rounds the last curves and disappears from view. We hug our children at the airport and watch as they disappear into the security lines.

Then we sit down with a cup of tea and cry because the sword is deep in our souls and the pain is crushing us.

It is right that they go, and we wouldn’t want them to stay home, frustrated and bound by our wishes, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less.

I write here mostly about the physical leaving and moving out, but of course this is about any kind of growing up and pursuing a life separate from yours.

To you who are doing this for the first time, I hate to break it to you, but you are going to say goodbye and send them forth many times. The piercing sword is the price of your love, your investment, your hard work bearing fruit.

It’s right and good. It hurts.

Your feelings are valid, and they matter, but not enough to drag your child back to you.

What do you do now?

Here are my thoughts and advice, born of endless launchings and goodbyes.

1. Cry just enough in the airport or when they pack the car to move out so they know you’ll miss them but not so much that they feel guilty for leaving or like they need to rescue you. They need to feel loved and missed but also free to seek their fortune.

2. Remember that it will be truly awful while they’re in transit. You will imagine hijackings, icy roads, danger at every turn, sickness, lost passports, armed predators, flat tires. Let it be awful. Don’t try to make it better. Sit down with a pot of tea and a flannel blanket and a box of tissues. Cry a lot.

3. Also remember that it will get better after they arrive. Once they’re at the college dorm or the Nairobi airport or the new apartment, you will get a text or email or call, and suddenly you will be able to breathe again. Wash the teapot and put the flannel blanket away, but keep the Kleenexes close. I didn’t say you’d be all better, only that a weight will come off.

4. Explain to the children who are still at home that they need to indulge you for a little while. This is what moms are like when their children leave. It’s normal. You don’t love them any less than Katie or Sam who just moved out, and you will do the same when they go. They can hug you if they want, but it isn’t theirs to fix. Laugh a bit through your tears. Moms are silly like this, and it’s ok.

5. Find someone to talk to. My husband doesn’t miss the kids in the same way that I do, and it puts a burden on him if I expect him to feel exactly what I’m feeling. It’s good to find another mom who’s been through the same letting go. God bless the mom friends who listen and empathize. 

6. Arrange a regular time to talk. A young person living an exciting new life sometimes has a hard time remembering to stay in touch. Give them time to figure out their schedule, then plan a weekly or monthly phone or FaceTime call. Our daughter Jenny in Virginia doesn’t have a regular time to call, exactly, but she often calls when she’s walking home at the end of the day, and I hear a familiar recorded voice at the crosswalks saying “Wait!” It’s an odd thing to find comforting, but I do.

 Amy, who lives in Thailand, connects with me by WhatsApp video call on her Sunday mornings and my Saturday afternoons. I can’t explain what those calls do for me. She bakes her Sunday potluck food while we talk or kills a big spider. I hear the neighbors’ chickens and they also comfort me in an odd way.

7. I was going to say “pray a lot,” but of course you already do and always will. Even if you hear disturbing reports of your faraway child, remember that God is there with them and he cares about them even more than you do. He has a good purpose for them, and a solid plan. Believe it even when no one else does. Have faith--it's the evidence of things not yet seen.

8. If you can, get your child to commit to a tentative plan for coming home for Christmas or summer break or furlough. It will help a lot if you have an idea of when you’ll see them again, even if it’s a long time off.

9. Go visit them. When my children are far away, I have this urge to see them in their current environment. To do this, we have traveled to Jamaica, Thailand, Virginia, Colorado, Houston, Washington DC, Toronto, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and probably other places besides. There’s nothing quite like seeing where your child is living, where they work, and who they interact with. You need to drive the roads they drive, worship where they go to church, feel the wind and heat and cold, and meet the people who invest in them. After you’re home, you’ll be able to picture what they’re doing and where they’re going. It will ease the sting of missing them.

10. Face the question, “Who am I now?” Many of us have poured our adult lives into our families, and it shakes our foundations to have them grow up and move on. You are still you, only older and wiser. God has a purpose for this stage, and you need to seek it out. As your responsibilities lessen, it’s ok to pursue your interests and have fun. Go hiking, grow dahlias, learn to paint with watercolors. Invest your time in ministry you couldn’t do when you were raising a family: lead a Bible study, host guests, volunteer at an elementary school. Of course it’s scary. Do it anyhow. Your adult children will be better able to pursue their calling if they know you’re busy and occupied.

11. Get professional help if you can’t function. Eventually, you should be able to enjoy life again, even if you miss your children. Sometimes, instead of normal sadness, moms experience a debilitating grief so deep they can’t function for a long time. It can indicate that the pain of your child leaving is connected to a deeper pain from long ago that was never examined or healed. Or maybe your children distracted you from an unhealthy marriage, and now you are forced to face it. Or you are terrified of the future and feel like you’re worthless if you’re not a mom.

There is help available. Google “counselors near me,” or ask around for recommendations. This is probably more than a friend and a pot of tea can fix.

Uncle Paul and Aunt Dorcas visited their kids in Texas

After the excruciating pain of watching the crucifixion, Mary saw the resurrected Jesus. What was it like, I wonder, to see God’s redemptive purpose fulfilled? She had another goodbye, not long after, when Jesus ascended to Heaven, and Mary knew she wouldn’t see Him again on earth. She lived out her days with the apostle John, who would have loved Jesus like she did, only without the unique aspect of being his mom. I like to think that she and John made tea and told stories about Jesus and discussed all the things that Mary had kept and pondered in her heart, all those years.

Someday, I hope we can sit down with Mary and talk about all the things that only a mom understands—the love, the destiny, the letting go, the piercing sword, and the ultimate redemption of their sacrifice and ours.

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Travel: San Diego--A Sister and Sunshine, and Why You Should Go Too

Working on the front porch.
The Coronado Bridge

When I think of San Diego, I think of sisters and sunshine.

My sister Rebecca and her husband Rod live in a retirement community on a hill in a suburb of San Diego. Unlike their neighbors, they are not retired and thus do not have time to monitor all the comings and goings of the neighbors, or if their potted plants are The Right Kind. Rod teaches at a training center for overseas work, and Rebecca works as a hospice nurse.

This past January, Rebecca was in need of sister time, so she impulsively invited me for a visit, sweetening the deal with an offer to go fabric shopping in Los Angeles.

This winter in Oregon was relentlessly chilled and rainy, so I said yes, even though I wasn’t eager to travel. After all, how could I say no to a mix of sister time, fabric, and sunshine?

Because San Diego is one of the most optimistic, sunny places I’ve ever seen. The sun shines in your face as you ride the trolley around town and glints off the waves as you ride high above them on the beautiful, curving Coronado Bridge. It warms your face as you sit on your sister’s porch and see all the way to Mexico to the south and the islands off the coast to the west.

California is next door, so to speak. The West Coast is an awful long way from everywhere else, and plane trips always involve a long day’s travel and adjusting to different time zones. San Diego is a thousand miles south, but connections are easy, and your body doesn’t need to adjust to a time difference.

Visiting a sister near your own age means that you have similar energy levels and are content with maybe one touristy expedition a day, followed by naps, tea on the veranda, and long conversations about adult children and the hard years of trying to take care of Mom and Dad from a long distance away.

When our son Matt was thirteen, Paul took him on a road trip, and they visited thirteen zoos up and down the West Coast, culminating in the San Diego Zoo, which I’m told is the best of the best.

If I had known all the city had to offer, I might have pushed for taking the whole family.

Here are some sights the city offers, in case you’re thinking of taking your family:

1. Everything ship-[and Navy] related. San Diego is home to a huge Naval base and has made ships a big tourist attraction. You can walk along the waterfront and see sailing ships from a long time ago and also one from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. You can tour the battleship Midway and see sailors on duty inside the ship and historic planes on top. Across the harbor are the huge gray battleships coming and going from the base, and south of the Coronado Bridge are docked Navy ships being repaired. The Navy influence extends to the air. You’re likely to see fighter jets in formation screaming by. 
Even if you're Mennonite and pacifist/nonresistant, you'll find it all highly informational.

The Navy ships in the "hospital

2. Balboa Park. This is a fascinating piece of the Spanish-mission influence in southern California. You can walk around exploring for a long time—gardens, history, beautiful old buildings.

3. The Zoo. I’ve driven by but never toured it. Paul and Matt gave it high marks back in 1999.

4. The Trolley. You can buy a ticket and ride the old-fashioned trolley all day, if you wish. You can get off at Chinatown, the stadium, Balboa Park, or wherever you like and get back on an hour or two later. We took it out to:

5. Coronado Island. The main attraction here is the Hotel del Coronado, in its day the biggest wooden structure in the world and destination of Presidents, royalty, and movie stars. Tourists can explore at will, and adventuresome sisters can even sneak, giggling, into the antique cage-style elevator and go all the way to the servants’ quarters on the top floor, where the hallways are far more cramped than down below, and the floors slant. You can wander down hallways and around corners, look out the high windows, and open doors and peek inside until you are stopped by sudden voices on the other side. I mean, you could do that if you wanted to. You didn’t think we gray-haired Amish girls actually tried that, did you? Ach my.

Then you can go to the beachside cafe on the ground floor of the hotel, buy good coffee, and sit in the sunshine sipping while fighter planes roar by overhead.

6. Shopping. I’m sure there are plenty of fancy places, but we had a great time at a swap meet about a mile from Rebecca and Rod’s house. We were very much in the minority, as probably 99% of the vendors and shoppers were Hispanic. It seems people cross into Mexico and buy supplies to sell on this side—from laundry soap to clothes to leather goods to tools to hair bows to kitchenware. Having flown to California, I didn’t buy much. But it was fun to look.

7. Ethnic food. Obviously there’s lots of authentic Mexican food available, but we went for Mediterranean/Middle Eastern. It was incredible. Rebecca and Rod had fun explaining not only the food but also the subtle differences in culture among the patrons, much like I could take you to the Blue Gate in Indiana and show you the significant differences in dresses and head coverings. Rebecca was especially fascinated by the Chaldean women who like to have elaborate hair and makeup before they go out in public. So Rebecca pretended to take pictures of me while actually capturing the chic Chaldean lady behind me.

You will find plenty to keep you busy in San Diego. Take sunglasses and have as good a time as I did.

I’ll wait for another travelogue to tell you about buying fabric in Los Angeles.

Monday, May 15, 2023

Staying Home, Writing, and Wondering if Anyone's Listening


Three of the guys on the Oregon coast in March.

I haven’t flown anywhere for a month!

Slowly,  the doors and windows in my mind are opening, and the breezes are blowing through. As we speak, I am sitting in my Sparrow Nest looking at the purple camas blooming and listening to birds in the trees by the creek.

It is calming all the turbulent seas in my head.

This past year has been full of travel and a new book. It’s a little alarming how impossible it is for me to do anything like blogging and hosting when I’m traveling and publishing. Even though I love to travel and to see family in faraway places, the energy it requires is enormous.

So the absences from Life in the Shoe have been long, and I kind of wonder if anyone is still out there, listening, or if they've all wandered off to TikTok.

God willing, I won’t take any trips by plane for four months. The next venture involves going to Kansas in August for my Uncle Johnny’s 100th birthday party.

So I’m preparing my dahlia beds and a straw bale garden, filling book orders, and cleaning forgotten corners. And, I hope, blogging regularly again.

For the next few months, I’d like to post on Tuesdays and follow this schedule:

Week 1: Travel—I’ll tell you about somewhere I’ve been in the past year.
2—Ask Aunt Dorcas—I’m still learning and growing, but I’ve accumulated an astonishing pile of experiences, and I do love to dispense advice and inspire discussion. I’d be happy to add your questions to my stack. Life, mothering, writing, relationships, moral dilemmas, all kinds of things: email them to I’ll see what I can do.
3. Random rambling about a subject of my choice.
4. Book reviews. Some of you have been waiting a long time for me to deliver the review of your book. I hope to catch up. I might have some random recommendations as well.
5. On writing—how-tos, questions, and information on this broad subject. Updates on projects and conferences. Maybe a rant or two. Again, send questions if you have them.
6. Mr. Smucker speaks—Paul has sort of consented to write book reviews and other posts for me. He’s been doing a lot of speaking about how to help the poor with dignity and ethics. I hope he’ll share some of it with you.

If I get permission from the right people, I’ll really resurrect the Old Days and include a Quote of the Day.

Thank you for staying with me through the long silences. Scroll down the page if you'd like to subscribe by email. [Note: I'm told you can't subscribe if you're reading this on your phone. If you message me with your email address, I can sign you up. You'll get an email from FeedBlitz to confirm your subscription.]

Quote of the Day:

“Wow, you guys live a long time! Too bad for you, I guess.”

--a Smucker relative, when I told her about Uncle Johnny’s birthday. I told her living a long time isn’t so bad when you can read books and weed flower beds at 100.

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

A New Book: Coming Home to Roost

I'm happy to announce that I have a new book coming out. The title is Coming Home to Roost, and it's my seventh collection of essays and stories about family life--and probably the last one, seeing as how the children all grew up and are living their own lives and telling their own stories.

"Coming home to roost" has a triple meaning. First of all, it's about my charming chickens. Second, it's about adult children who leave the nest but keep circling back home. And third, it's about life choices and how they turn out. As your mom and aunts probably said when you experienced consequences, "Well, I see the chickens are coming home to roost."

So this is about decisions, relationships, memories, results, changes, regret, and hope.

I'm sure it'll appeal most to women past age 50, but I'm told it will give younger moms a sense that everything's going to turn out ok.

The book is being printed as we speak, and if all goes well I can ship the pre-orders by March 15th.

Here are three ways to order a book:

1. Go to my website.

2. Mail me a check for $15 (includes postage). 
Dorcas Smucker
31148 Substation Drive
Harrisburg, OR 97446

3. Stop by the house and buy a copy in person. Again, I should have them in hand around the first of March.

If you would rather have an ebook, or if you just want a sneak preview, head over to Amazon. 

I had a whole team of excellent women working on this project. Janessa did the initial edits, Emily came up with the title, Kelly made sure I didn't have mistakes like two spaces after the periods, Gabrielle formatted the pages for printing, Donna did the same for the ebook, Joanna coordinated the printing process, and Margie did the delightful illustrations.

Margie's contributions are the most visible, and I think they add a fun vibe to the book. You have my permission to color the pictures, if you like.

Please let me know if you have any questions or any glitches in the ordering process.

Thursday, November 24, 2022

The Story--A Thanksgiving Poem


I want to write a story,
I said.
A good story,
with good people,
a tale that winds on pleasant paths,
that makes me gasp
and smile
and breathe a happy sigh
at the end.

All right,
they said,
those conference speakers
come from the mysterious
world of Publishing.
And also my friend Pat,
practical and kind,
who writes Fiction,
first you need
All right.
And, Godlike, I created
out of nothing but
words and
the memories of all the people
God had already made
and let me meet.
I liked these humans
I had made--
two teenage girls
full of spunk and fun
mischief and potential.
Now what? I said
and I was told that
I must now
make my precious Characters
face hard and painful things
and even suffer
and not know what to do.
I must get them up a tree
and throw rocks at them
must have the reader
shedding tears.
But why? I cried
I like these characters
love them, even,
these humans made of words
that I’ve created.
Why must they not only
meet a gentle obstacle or two
easily hurdled,
but also be rejected
suffer loss
be disappointed
suffer pain,
and in the blackest moments
lose all hope?
They looked at me
kind eyes that knew,
and said,
It's not a story
if you don’t.
The reader needs the Characters
to struggle and keep on,
through all the hard,
to try new ways,
when none of it makes sense,
to cling to hope
when all is hopeless,
and finally,
at the end,
to overcome.
All right,
I said,
and as I formed the story I
sadly forced my precious Characters
to be rejected
and suffer pain
and not know what to do.
But what an unexpected joy
to make them triumph in the end
and find them wiser than before
resilient yet still
their fun and lively selves.

As I typed and edited
manipulated time
chose events
and shaped my characters
I came to see
that my attempts
and even those bestselling books
from conference speakers
are only knockoff paperback
flimsy imitations
of the vast and overarching
Story we are part of
all around us
behind and beyond us in time.
This is the most epic of Epic Sagas
and we are characters
struggling trying hoping
learning growing wondering
what on Earth is going on
suffering crying and
ultimately triumphing.
He is the Storyteller
shaping the narrative
and allowing his beloved characters
made not of words but
flesh and blood and soul
to face dilemmas
and obstacles
to face black nights of hopelessness
because the Story matters
and He’s already
typed the ending
and He knows
that on the final page
both He and we will triumph,
overcome all obstacles
destroy the enemies
and looking back
breathe a happy sigh
it all makes sense
and all the suffering mattered
We will see
how all the threads connect
and all the meaningless frustrations
were actually clues
and all the pain and suffering
mattered more than we
could even dream.
Behind the scenes and
hidden from our vision
were crowds and armies
cheering us and
battling wild fights
on our behalf.
The hopeless nights had purpose
in chapters that couldn’t
any other way.

The Author knows
what He’s about
and I a minor character
face my daily challenges
and pain,
and I give thanks
to be included in this story
and that
the ending is already typed,
edited and published,
and we win.

Tuesday, November 01, 2022

Book Review: 30 Days to Discover the Genius in Your Child

UPDATE--We have chosen a winner: Betty Griffin, who commented on Facebook. Thanks to everyone who entered the drawing!

This post is a review of my friend Sharon Kuepfer's book. First, as usual, I had to share all the wider thoughts and memories the book generated. So scroll down to the second part to read about the book, and to the third part to see how to buy or win a copy.


 As a young mom, I found a wide spectrum of parents’ views on children’s potential, from Deciders on one end to Discoverers on the other.

Deciders see their children as “Tabula Rasa,” or blank slates, as the philosophers used to say. These parents plan to make the child into the person he or she ought to become, not only a football player, farmer, Fundamentalist, or fiddler, but a certain kind of personality as well. Deciders tend to follow systems and methods, expecting specific and equal results with all their children. At their worst, they are rigid and inflexible, pushing children into roles that simply don’t fit.

Discoverers see their children not as blank slates but as unique little people who come pre-programmed with personalities, giftings, and natural bents that it is up to the parent to discover and encourage. They tailor their parenting and guidance to each child’s talents, limits, and even preferences. They tend to be looser about rules, workbooks, and what you wear to church, and at their worst ignore terrible behavior and a need for routine.

Like I said, it’s a spectrum. Most parents teach specific skills and behaviors; most find that natural giftings manifest themselves early on. Many parents slide back and forth on the spectrum at different stages of parenting.

I’d say I was somewhere in the middle, pushing too hard with the workbooks and chores in adolescence but letting the kids explore and discover their own interests in other areas.

Mostly, I recall the incredible sense of discovery when they were born. With each one, I thought, “So that was YOU! I knew someone was in there, kicking and squirming, but I didn’t know it was YOU!”

In the ensuing days and years, that feeling of finding out who this little person is only increased. Look at him, stacking blocks! Look at her, making up stories with Little People for four hours straight! It pains me that I missed this early discovery in Steven’s life, but I still recall his delight, at the orphanage, when I had him mix blue and yellow paint and he yelled, “Iss GDEEN!!” So I was finding out about him as he found out about colors.

Christian parenting was system-heavy when our kids were little. Most people took specific courses and followed certain teachers. The pressure was intense. Often, I felt like we needed to go against the prevailing systems to work with our children’s needs and bents, like we were Discoverers in a world of Deciders.

My impression is that the methods of 1990 have faded away, but the pressure has only intensified. From Gentle Parenting to Tiger Momming, the voices are more insistent than ever. Discipline is always a big issue, as well as safety, nutrition, and limits on electronic media. When I read some of the debates on social media, it makes me relieved I’m not raising little ones right now.

A big issue, both then and now, is education. The young moms I talk to make schooling decisions with endless research and anguished second-guessing. Most of our conversations have been about teaching children to read.

In that area, for sure, I was a Discoverer. I found that if I read a lot to the children, they were ready for phonics around ages six or seven. I used the ACE Learning-to-Read curriculum because it was free to use from the school where Paul taught, but we were flexible with it. Amy learned to read at age 4 from watching me teach Matt. Jenny never needed the ACE course because she learned to read from pointing at letters in books I read to her. Emily didn’t really read until age 7 ½.

I’ve tried to communicate this mixture of intention and observation, waiting and deciding, to numerous moms, but I never felt too successful.


Happily, I now have a book to hand to moms navigating not only teaching children to read but educating them at every stage. My friend Sharon Kuepfer has published a new book, 30 Days to Discover the Genius in Your Child. I wish I could have had it in hand when I had young children, as it provides a unique, multi-angled way of looking at how children learn and a balance of relaxed observation with intention and structure. It’s not a guide to specific schedules and benchmarks, but a way of looking at learning as an integrated part of life.

 Sharon is the mother of five young adults and definitely a Discoverer. I've known her for years and remember her as a quirky, relaxed mom who saw no need to follow the fads of the day. When “groupings” of pictures and little shelves and baskets were all the rage in home decorating, she kept her walls almost bare because it simplified cleaning. Likewise, she didn’t follow parenting fads if they didn’t suit her children’s needs. Apparently this was more difficult than it appeared, as she writes about the pressure to get her son up to grade level. “It felt like we were going against every grain there was to go against!”

However, Sharon is also a Decider in her own way, deliberate and intentional. She observes, researches, reasons, decides, and then does. She calls her approach the SIFT method—Sharon’s Interest Focused Teaching--describing  it as “a powerful learning style for any educational setting, in which children—or anyone really—can follow their interests, giftings, and passions.”

30 Days is, as the title indicates, a guide to learning about your children. Observation and documentation are key methods, and Sharon tells you how, each day for a month, without making it all huge or overwhelming.

The introductory chapters address all the “But what about?” objections that pop into your head. She does this thoroughly and well, then moves into the daily chapters. Each one looks at an aspect of learning and life skills, along with many stories and anecdotes. Each chapter includes assignments which involve an activity, such as meeting with friends or playing music or introducing children to tools and devices and jotting down how they react and respond.

The overall theme is one of discovery, and the knowledge you gain from working through this book will enhance whatever education method you choose, from public or private school to homeschooling to unschooling to your own unique hybrid.

This shows you the book's readable style and cute illustrations.

While she discourages rigid curriculums and endless deskwork, Sharon recognizes the need for children to learn academics. One of the first exercises involves writing down long-term goals for children. She wanted hers to be able to pursue a university education if they chose. That meant they needed skills in math, reading, studying, writing, and so on.

Then, she shows you how she met that goal without resorting to hours a day hunched over desks in the dining room.

One of the most satisfying aspects of this book is that it opens your eyes to all the ways your children can learn academic and social skills. The book is liberally sprinkled with real-life examples, so we see how her children and others learned math, planning, organizing, cooperation, and much more from following their interests. They baked cookies, played at setting up a “motel” in their house, pursued little businesses, and a lot more. The magic of observing and writing it down is that not only do you notice each child’s learning style, but you document how much education is going on in the middle of playing and projects.

If you’re a Discoverer who’s intimidated by lists and schedules, this book provides a gentle and adaptable structure that is easy to follow and provides the rewards of documenting what you’re already doing.

If you’re a Decider who’s afraid anarchy will break loose if you let go of methods and bookwork, this book will give you a month-long taste of Discovery learning without insisting that you embrace every aspect of it for the rest of your life.


1.    Win it! I have a copy to give away, so comment to enter the giveaway. You can comment here, on my personal and author Facebook accounts, or on Instagram. “Me!” is sufficient, or comment with something you discovered about your child. [I have comment moderation on the blog, so don't panic if your comment doesn't show up right away. Also include your name, please, so I can reach you if you win.]

DDrawing will be Thursday morning, November 3rd.

2.    Order a copy. Here’s the link onAmazon, and here is Sharon’s website. Or you can get it from the publisher, Masthof Press.

Not only will you see your children in a new light when you read this book, you’ll find out a lot about yourself as well.

Quote of the Day:

Ben: How much would I have to pay you to say "This book is about discovering your kid’s genius in 30 days. With my kids, it took me about five. Still a good book, though."?

Me: Name your price.

Ben: The problem is I don’t have much money. I need Matt’s funding behind me.

Me: I'm quoting you either way.

Sunday, October 23, 2022

This Stage of Life: "OR" vs. "AND"

I am sixty years old now, a fact thoroughly celebrated this year. Paul organized one wave of surprises after another, beginning with our children all coming home to surprise me, followed by a party for local friends and a fun weekend with my sisters.

This is the most profound fact I’m finding at sixty: Life is “OR,” now, not “AND.”

I look at old letters and blog posts, and I think, “Life was all AND back then.” I gardened AND grocery shopped AND blogged AND served a hot lunch at school AND did minister’s wife duties AND flew to Minnesota regularly to see my parents.

These days, it’s OR. I can garden OR host visitors OR travel OR write. Not all the above.

Part of this is that my energy and brain capacity have dimmed. The other part is that I feel a lot less obligated to keep the world spinning. There’s not a lot of me, and I need to spend it carefully, choosing an occasional “yes” while leaving a sea of “no’s” behind.

That is why I haven’t been active on Life in the Shoe since June.

The last six months, beginning with the kids showing up at that overlook on the Oregon Coast, have been crazy in a very good way.

First was the avalanche of celebrations. Then came summer with the urgency of outside work like planting dahlias and trimming hedges. After that came a flood of adventures.

My two sisters, Rebecca and Margaret, came to visit at the end of August. I treasure them, and time with them, more and more all the time.

After that, on the fourth of September, a long-held dream came true when three of my Smucker sisters-in-law and I traveled to the UK for ten days.

Lois, Bonnie, Rosie, and me in front of a mirrored wall at Heathrow

I had two weeks at home and was barely over the inevitable jet lag when Paul and I left for Thailand to visit Amy. Paul was going to go on to India and Nepal to visit Open Hands savings group, but we both got Covid and our plans went completely sideways.

Paul and me at a temple near Chiang Mai

Fabric shopping with Amy

Now I am at home, once again in the cocoon of misery that is jet lag but planning to stay tethered here for a long time. The fall rains have begun, very delayed and welcome, so I might be able to post more, eventually, about all our travels.

So, as you see, I chose adventure and people over writing blog posts. I also took a break from meeting with my fiction writing group and almost all hospitality and time with friends, which was painful, but again, life is very much OR at this stage.

I did, however, fit a couple of “ands” in between. My dahlias survived a late planting and sporadic attention from me, and now they’re exploding into bloom like fireworks on the Fourth of July.

I also assembled a book of essays to finish out the series of books on family life that I’ve been collecting from my newspaper articles for almost twenty years. This one contains a number of columns from the paper that never made it into a book, along with other material I wrote around the same time, roughly five years ago.

During a long layover in Seoul, Korea, I finished the edits on the book and sent it off to a proofreader, which felt like the ultimate attempt at “and”—trying to make a deadline while traveling overseas.

We still have a number of steps to complete, such as formatting, cover design, and printing. It looks like launch will be in March.

To answer your questions before you ask them: The title isn’t finalized, so I’m not announcing it. This is not fiction—that is still percolating. And it’s not about Paul’s accident—I’m not ready to put that on paper. It’s about life past age fifty, with adult children. And because they’re adults now, I see this as the final book of essays about family life, because I can no longer write about them in the same way or pay them $5 to let me mention something funny or dangerous they said or did.

The fact that I’m writing again, in several different venues, testifies to a good work happening in my life. The last three years have been wild and difficult, beginning with my dad’s death and careening on to Covid, Paul’s accident, deaths and disasters around us, and many private griefs and challenges.

Eventually, by God’s mercy, spring came, my brain thawed, and the words trickled like a tiny stream of melted snow in the high Cascades.

I am excited about being sixty years old, about the possibilities and opportunities before me, and about “bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God.” [Colossians 1:10] 

If life forces me into “OR” mode rather than “AND,” I hope to choose wisely and make the most of whatever I pick.