Sunday, January 09, 2022

The Strangest Trip

The older we get, the more we travel, it seems like. Or, the more we travel together. Paul no longer takes trips to Mexico by himself to visit missionaries, and I no longer drop everything to fly to Minnesota to take care of my parents.

Now, we fly together to weddings and funerals. We take in weekend courses, visit family, and attend conferences.

De-icing the planes in Chicago

Paul approaches his travel responsibilities eagerly, his mind spinning with plans and schedules. He loves to find the cheapest tickets, the best rental cars, and the most efficient routes. If he can, he prints that Southwest boarding pass 23 hours and 59 minutes before our flight, grinning with satisfaction if he manages to get us A seating.

Leading up to a trip, unlike Paul, I am never in a very cheerful state of mind. There are so many decisions to make and so many things to remember that I feel overwhelmed. Outfits for travel and events. Inhalers and vitamins. Plenty of pens. Who's going to get the mail and feed the chickens? What will the weather be like there? Will this sweater go with more than one skirt?

If I have book events scheduled, the planning and preparations double in intensity.

Also, inevitably, my introversion manifests itself the last day or two, and I just want to stay home and drink tea.

For Paul, the last day of preparation simply means that almost all the planning is done and it's time to plan the next thing. And the next. 

Last November, I was frantically getting ready to go across the mountains for four days, where not only would we attend Allison the niece's wedding, but our family would get together in a rental house for Thanksgiving dinner. Two daughters were flying in, I was sewing a new silvery-gray dress, and Phoebe the daughter-in-law and I were planning all the food.

Paul, meanwhile, was doing his own preparations, his brain spinning with possibilities and plans. At one point, he showed up where I was working and said, "So, do you think we should leave on a Wednesday or a Thursday?"

I yanked my brain from the list before me and looked at him. "What??"

"When we go to REACH. What day would you like to fly?"

REACH is a conference in Pennsylvania. In March. I raised my voice more than was required with his hearing aids and exclaimed, "I AM TRYING TO PLAN THE FOOD FOR THIS TRIP AND YOU ARE EXPECTING ME TO THINK THREE TRIPS AHEAD???!!"

He acted just a bit chagrined.

As I said, Paul is always eager and excited about trips and enjoys the preparations. No matter how happy the purpose of the trip, I always find it a huge undertaking and always have an impulse to stay home.

Paul has been working for Open Hands, an organization that teaches people to form savings groups. We were asked to attend the Open Hands staff retreat in Pennsylvania last week, from Tuesday to Thursday.

As trips go, it wasn't that huge an undertaking. No weddings, speaking engagements, or book sales. No meals to plan.

We decided to expand the trip and visit the daughters in Virginia after the retreat. 

It all sounded doable and fun, until it didn't. I had a sense of dread about it that I couldn't shake or define.

Five attendees had to cancel because they got Covid. Our daughter Emily, who is doing photography work for Open Hands, got sick for over a week. Although she tested negative, she would be unable to drive to Pennsylvania for the retreat.

After hearing that Covid was rampaging in Virginia, we decided to cancel that half of the trip, but the sense of dread didn't leave.

I mentioned my misgivings to Paul, expecting him to say that this is what I always feel and yet it always works out ok. Instead, he said he felt he should go, but I could stay home if I wanted.

Bless him. But that didn't seem like the right thing to do, either.

So I made sure we had cat food on hand, printed the retreat schedule, and got the big suitcase from the attic, all with a firm conviction that not only were we not supposed to go, but we weren't going to go. I didn't ask the church ladies to pray for us like I usually do, because I didn't want to explain when we stayed home. And I didn't contact two friends in Pennsylvania that I had hoped to see, because I didn't want to cancel our plans when we ended up not going.

What does one do with such feelings? I looked in the mirror and had a conversation with myself. "Mrs. Smucker. Is this just your introversion talking?"

"No. This is something else."

"So, should you stay home?"

"No, you can't stay home on a weird feeling, and I don't think I should send Paul by himself."

All right then. I prayed that if my intuition was accurate, then God would send a logical sign to make it obvious, like our flights getting canceled. And I kept moving forward with our plans. 

We got up at 4 a.m. on Monday, tucked in our phone cords, poured coffee, and headed for Portland. All went well, and we flew to Chicago. 

I thought, "Ok, God. So much for my intuition. I guess we were supposed to go. Thanks for working it out." 

To his credit, Paul never said, "I told you so."

We had four hours in Chicago before our late-afternoon flight to Baltimore.

An announcement came over the intercom. They badly needed passengers on the Baltimore flight to volunteer to get bumped. We would get a $600 voucher per ticket, a night at a motel nearby, and a flight to Baltimore at 6:30 a.m.

Getting bumped gives Paul even more satisfaction than getting an A seat on the boarding pass. We consulted quickly and hurried over to stand in line, still discussing plans. We'd arrive at 9 a.m., plenty of time to get to the retreat by 1 pm.

"Do you still need volunteers?" Paul asked when it was finally our turn.

"Yes. Oh, thank you." The woman printed our vouchers and a motel pass. Then she printed vouchers refunding our tickets, then she said, "Oh that's not very much," and gave us each a bonus voucher.

We took a shuttle to the motel and our very nice suite, where we ordered in Panda Express via GrubHub like real city folks. We had pretty much everything we needed in our carryon bags. Our luggage had gone on to Baltimore without us.

The next morning we got up at 4:00 and caught the shuttle to the airport. 

Our flight to Baltimore was canceled.

They rebooked us for the following morning, Wednesday the 5th. 

Ok then. Paul called the motel. They said we could come back to the same room. So we did, sleeping all morning before connecting with the retreat via Zoom all afternoon.

Southwest emailed us another $250 voucher. I'm not sure why.

We tried walking to a restaurant for dinner, not having a vehicle to use, but it was bitterly cold and snowy, and Paul hadn't brought a hat or gloves. So we ordered dinner again.

Later that evening we got an email telling us our Wednesday morning flight to Baltimore was canceled, but they graciously rebooked us for Wednesday evening.

That meant that we could get in on the last four hours of the retreat, on Thursday morning, before heading home, if we did more driving than sleeping.  And, hopefully, we could get our luggage.

I looked out at the bleak gray Chicago landscape, dreary with freeways and factory steam blowing sideways. "I just want to go home."

Paul checked online. The flights to Portland were all booked full, all day Wednesday. So he called, and was put on hold for hours.

I washed clothes in the bathtub and hung them on hangers to dry, then went to bed.

I was awakened by Paul saying, "But my car is in Portland. I don't want to go to Eugene."

I leaped out of bed, yanked open the bedroom door, and hissed, "No! Let's go to Eugene! I just want to go home! We can go get your car whenever!"

Paul said, "Oh, wait. My wife says Eugene is fine."

I went back to bed.

Wednesday morning we dressed in clean clothes that thankfully had dried overnight, got on the shuttle at 8:20, and flew without incident to Las Vegas and then Eugene. Phoebe picked us up. The next day Ben took Paul to Portland to get his car.

I am happy to be home, where the tea is hot, the couches are comfortable, and the cats are happy to see me. Yesterday Southwest sent us a refund for the second night in the motel and all the food we ordered in. We still don't have our luggage, but FedEx is supposed to deliver it tomorrow.

I am also analyzing my strange intuitions about the trip. My mom used to tell, ominously, of people she knew who had had "premonitions" before they died. I admit these had the same heavy tone of Mom's description of a premonition, except I never had the sense we would die. Or maybe it was more like what she called a burden--"Ach, ich hap usht so'n burden..." I just have such a burden...

My main takeaway is that I don't need to figure things out or persuade anyone of anything. All I had to do was keep moving forward; the Holy Spirit did the rest. Our path was made clear by the exact sign I had prayed for--canceled flights--and also by something Paul would be persuaded by: getting bumped.

We are small autumn leaves caught up in winds much larger than ourselves. Even if we have glimpses and senses and feelings, the outcome isn't ours to control. It's best--as they tell you on Southwest Airlines--to sit back, relax, and enjoy the flight.

With our oddly generous fistful of vouchers, we'll have plenty of opportunity to fly in the coming year--hopefully without incident or prophetic intuitions.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Turtle Heart: Much More Than a Story of Friendship

Luci was at my house for a writers' dinner in 2013. She's in front, on the right.

I had a friend in college, in maybe 1983, who felt that I simply couldn’t be a writer and effectively convey the human experience because my world as a Beachy-Amish woman was so narrow and my experience so limited.

When I tried to pin her down on particulars, her main point was that I never went out and got drunk. I thought that was kind of ridiculous, but I didn’t tell her so because I was Beachy-Amish and also I hadn’t had a chance to see if my writing appealed to anyone, Anabaptist or not.

Luci Miller Kinsinger grew up like me, only more so. She lived on a dairy farm in Wisconsin, similar in culture and climate to my rural Minnesota. I knew a few more of the world’s vices and profanities by the time I was in my 20s, since I’d attended public high school and community college, but both of us were Plain, sheltered, different. Curious, bookish, and word-hungry.

I knew for sure that my college friend was wrong when I began writing for the Register-Guard in Eugene. Sometimes, the most simple, individual, home-and-hearth musings touched a diverse readership. The personal, I found, is universal.

Luci’s book, Turtle Heart, is simple. A young Mennonite woman forms a friendship with an older Ojibwe woman named Charlene. They are both changed in the process. 

I have a feeling the theme of Turtle Heart is universal. I don’t know the effect it will have on others, but I know what it did for me. It shone a bright LED light into my own heart and memories and showed me exactly what was there. I kept thinking, “Yes! That’s exactly what it’s like! How does she do that?" 

Luci crafts words and sentences and chapters like my friend Dana makes wedding cakes: carefully and deftly, layer by layer, turning simple shapes and ingredients into a well-planned work of art.

I marked the pages and passages I loved.

I think my favorite element of the story is the honesty. I feel like Luci searched until she found the right words to describe exactly the event, the emotion, the aged skin lifting from her friend as Luci removed a bandage, and the discoveries about herself, Charlene, and God.

I also love the changes in Luci’s view of the world, from an earnest young woman trying to “witness” to her friend, to a more mature woman who realizes that God reaches people’s hearts in His own ways. 

Or maybe my favorite part is the pervasive sense of “otherness.” If someone wants to know what it’s like to be a Midwestern Amish or Mennonite girl venturing into the big world, hand them Turtle Heart.

Happily, this will be especially easy right now, because Luci is offering a special on Turtle Heart.


I decided to do a Q & A with Luci about her writing process.

Q: I think every writer who has struggled with structure notices it in other people's work. Turtle Heart is so carefully crafted. Each chapter seems like its own piece of quality furniture in a large room, or maybe a piece of wood in a house. You balance another step in the outer story with your inner journey, memories, dialogue, and so on. There is much you don't say. I'm interested in anything you can tell me about how this came about, how much was intentional vs. it just happened, etc. 

A: That’s a hard question to answer. Probably like most writers, I write with a combination of instinct and learned skill. When I first started Turtle Heart, I took four huge sheets of butcher paper and plotted with circle-mapping how the work would fit together. I used different colors to visually map different themes and how they would weave through the book. I’ve kept the basic shape of the first draft but rearranged multiple pieces of it since then. I’ve worked through multiple revisions both on my own and with several different editors and can credit the outside eyes along with the many revisions for helping me to know what didn’t quite flow and helping to refine it.

Q: Can you tell me a bit about the process of writing the book? I know it's been through several drafts and lots of time. How much did your diaries/journals and/or class assignments become part of the book?

.  A: During our friendship, I recorded many moments with Charlene or stories she told me or emotions she stirred up in me, sometimes as a vent and sometimes because I wanted to remember. When I started to write the story, I had so much I wanted to say but no idea how to begin. I ended up taking my conglomeration of pieces and stringing them together and then adding, whittling down, and refining from there.

Q: How much of the process was solitary and how much was influenced by others--family, college classes, critique groups, etc?

A: The heart of the book was forged in solitary places, but it was refined and changed significantly by the input of beta readers and my editors.

Q: It feels like each word of every chapter is carefully selected and slotted into place. Do you naturally write that concisely, or do you write more lavishly and then cut and slice and discard?

A: I write lavishly and then I discard. After so many edits, I had multiple chances to cut out repetition and excess! I also read the book out loud through almost every revision so I could hear the flow of words and make them sound exactly right.

Q: What compelled/motivated you to write the story of your friendship with Charlene? 

A: We were so different. I could see the story in the contrast between us, and I wanted to write that story. I was also fascinated by Charlene. I think she is the most unique individual I’ve ever met, and I wanted to record some of that vitality and spirit.

Q: How has this compared with your first published book, Anything but Simple, in terms of the writing process and your perspective after it's sent out into the world?

A: I wrote Anything But Simple specifically for Herald Press, so I had a defined purpose, and writing it was relatively simple. It took me six months to write the first draft and another six to work with the editing team through to publication. I wrote Turtle Heart to satisfy the burning passion in me for this story, and I had no idea where to go with it when I’d finished. I started the rough draft in 2013 and finally published in 2021, with uncounted revisions and edits in between. I’ve felt much more fear after Turtle Heart’s publication because it feels like it came from such a vulnerable place inside me. It’s also less easily defined than Anything But Simple, so talking about it is more difficult.

Q: My daughter Emily and I both connected with your sense of otherness as a Mennonite woman venturing into the world and becoming learners and receivers after our clumsy attempts to share the Gospel. I'm curious what aspects of the story that other readers connect with most.

A: I’ve loved reading various reviews and hearing what stood out to different people. Almost everyone mentions something different.

Q: Your stepmother-in-law is my cousin Dorothy, and the family grapevine tells me you and your baby are a delight to your husband's family. How has being a wife and mom changed your thinking/writing process? You've said that your husband is your business manager. Every introverted writer should be so fortunate. Any insights/advice on making that work well? 

A: I don’t know if I can define all the ways being a wife and mom has changed me. I know that now I’m a larger unit than just me. I still write openly and honestly, but there’s a bigger area of privacy in me than there used to be because I am protecting the intimacy of three people.

Ivan has been a tremendous support both in my writing and in encouraging me to finish my communications degree. Knowing that he genuinely cares if I meet my school and writing goals motivates me to keep working through long busy days or days I don’t feel like getting out of bed in the mornings. Sometimes when I write something that feels vulnerable, I ask him if he thinks it’s okay, and he says, “It sounds like you.” To him, that’s what matters. He’s also helped me in so many practical ways like looking for agent possibilities, deciding on a publisher, updating my website, mailing books, and making marketing decisions. Maybe “personal support person and life coach” would be a better title than business manager. 😊 Ivan is a businessman, but he’s never been in the book business before, so I feel like we’re both still learning how to make it work well. One of our goals since dating is teamwork, and that is what we try for.

 Thank you, Luci, for sending me a copy of the book, and for answering my questions. You can get a copy of your own here, where it's 25% off today and tomorrow!

You can also get it on Amazon.

My copy of the book, already worn and 
stained from spilled coffee on an early-morning 
airport run.
But a well-used book is a well-loved book, right?

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

For You, If You Don't Know Everything

This is for the person who doesn’t know for sure.

It's for you if you’re timid, uncertain, and aware of all sides of every issue.

If you’re not very confident.

If you preface your statements with disclaimers:
 “I think.”
“I can’t say for sure, but.”
“In my experience.”
“It would seem to me.”
“I could be wrong.”
“It depends.”

If you know how much you don’t know, and it’s a lot.

This is for you.

The world is full of people who know. They are big, noisy, and sure, speaking with utter conviction, full as a bobbing helium balloon with serene confidence.

This is not for them.

They make declarative statements. “This is how it is." "This is what it means.” “Well, duh. It’s so obvious. Any idiot can see this.”

They never question themselves, qualify their statements, or admit to not knowing everything. They never say, "I could be wrong." Because they just know all the things.

Very early on, when you were learning how the world worked, you found that the ones who knew everything got to define how things were. Whatever they said about life, about the world, about God, about you—all of it was true. They said it like it was so obvious. Everybody knows this. So you said, “Oh. Ok then.”

They were bigger and older, confident and powerful. If they said you were ugly, stupid, and bad, you knew deep in your soul that you were all those things and were always doomed to be.  So you acted as though these things were all real, and in some ways made them all come true. So they were right, after all. See? Of course they knew.

If they said it was your fault that something happened to you, then it was. They knew. It seemed vaguely confusing and certainly out of your control, but that’s what they said, so it had to be so.

If they said matter-of-factly that the pig pellets in the granary were good to eat, then they were, and you munched them when you did chores. If they said God would send you to hell for a single mistake, you faced the world with dread and constant anxiety, closed to any interpretation of Scripture that could ease your mind.

They told you what to do so often that you never learned to listen to yourself, to know what you wanted, to trust what your senses were telling you. You didn’t know how to say no, or that it was even an option.

If you tried to inject an opinion or relevant information, you were shot down so fast that you withdrew even more.

So you did what you were told but grew more and more resentful. You kept your own counsel, watched, listened, and wondered about things, because sometimes, no matter how much the confident people said, you felt deep down that just maybe it wasn’t actually so. 

I feel like I’ve always been one of the timid, easily swayed by stronger voices, voicing the opinion of the last person I talked to.

I suppose that was part of Paul’s attractiveness: that nonchalant confidence that could make a classroom of children salute and click their heels. It felt like safety and security.

Thankfully Paul was a good-hearted person, because his confidence gave him a lot of power over me that could have been abused by a less ethical man. He valued my perspective.

Paul’s whole family seemed to know all the things and state them, unqualified and declaratively.

“What’s the use of having an opinion if you don’t state it emphatically?” Rosie exclaimed one time.

One time at a family dinner, an out-of-town guest was asking me about publishing books. I said I had learned you don’t just write a letter to a publisher and ask them if they’ll buy your book.

“Yeah,” interjected a family member with serene confidence and a bit of scorn, like they were a managing editor at Harvest House, “You have to send a manuscript.”

“No,” I said with a touch of annoyance, “You need a cover letter, a synopsis, and three sample chapters.”

Can you imagine, tossing off such speculation without a shred of embarrassment if you’ve never published a word in your life?

You and I would never do that, but the confident people do it all the time.

[Also, just to be clear, today you need an agent and a very detailed proposal if you want to be published.]

Another time some cousins were talking about people who try to discredit faith in God. “And then there’s the Theory of Relativity,” one of them said, full of loud contempt. “They think everything is relative, and there’s no absolute truth.”

One of the quieter cousins, who had studied far more about Einstein’s work, tried to insert a “Well, actually….” into the conversation, but it didn’t penetrate very far.

That is how it works.

It didn’t take too long until I discovered something alarming. My husband knew lots of things, but sometimes he would say things as though they were absolute fact, and he actually didn’t have a clue. Like why some Amish allow bikes and others don’t, for instance. He would make “factual” statements without the slightest qualm, and I would look at him in confusion and alarm. He didn’t know what he was talking about! He was just guessing! I knew way more than he did.  And yet he tossed out these statements like he had a degree on the subject.

I learned to ask, “Wait. Do you actually know or are you just guessing?”

He’d tell me which it was, but he saw no need to be embarrassed at being called out. To his credit, he didn’t mind if someone disagreed with him. Most of the confident people on Facebook are not like this, which you might already know.

[Later: I had Paul read this page about himself to make sure it was ok, as I do. He said, “Hey, if everybody’s just guessing, why wouldn’t you state your guesses confidently?!” LOL. But how was I supposed to know you were all just guessing?!]

In all my almost-60 years of dealing with people who talk like they know all the things, the past couple of years have been the worst. Even living among Smuckers for over 35 years didn't prepare me. This was different and much more hostile.

Suddenly, everyone but you and I knew everything about politics, Covid, climate change, forest fires, and the Middle East. They knew about racism and women’s roles and riots. They knew about raising children, marriage, the Constitution, and who was guilty or innocent in every well-publicized hearing.

If you ventured online, you saw their emphatic statements. They knew with utter confidence that, for instance, Covid was a well-coordinated plan by the government to control us all, and masks were of the Devil.

There you were, nervous about Covid but simply not knowing much about it. Surely, you thought, they must be interning at the Illuminati, or they have a press pass to the Wuhan Virus Institute, if they know so much. But no, that poster was a truck driver from Missouri and the other was your cousin from Virginia who always misspells words.

How were they so sure? It was perplexing.

In your heart, you thought masks made sense if there was a respiratory disease going around. After all, you still remembered that little rhyme from kindergarten:

When I sneeze
I cover my nose
And into my hanky
My ACHOO goes.

But these people were so unbelievably sure of themselves that you doubted your own mind.

It’s hard to be the person who wonders, who isn’t sure, and who knows that you don’t know lots of things. And yet, you have a great gift: you are honest about uncertainty.

Because even the most self-assured people know only a tiny fraction of the vast world of knowledge, and they have only the tiny illusion of control that any of us have over our own lives.

I don’t know if my words carry any weight with you, but I am here to give you my permission to ignore the confident people. To disagree, to disregard, and to be very suspicious of what they say. I’m giving you a hall pass, a permission slip, a stamp in your passport: you’re allowed to say no to the noisy people who know all the things.

Your mind is as good as theirs, you have the same Holy Spirit, and your conclusions are just as valid--assuming, of course, a similar level of training and actual expertise.

Just so you know.

Most of those emphatic, confident people don’t actually know any more than you do. They are trying to make their way forward in a highly volatile world, and this is what works for them.

If their words resonate with you, that’s fine. Follow them on Instagram and learn from them.

But you can also listen to the ones who are all about nuance, who state exactly what they can prove and what they can’t, who clearly explain both sides of an issue and clarify why they choose the side they’re on. Listen to the ones who will tell you their qualifications and expertise but also their limits. “I’m a curious mom, not a nurse.”  “I’m a pastor, not a psychiatrist.” 

This is often a revelation to us little sisters, shy introverts, and abuse survivors: the confident people don’t get to decide. Things aren’t so just because they say so. 

When I wrote, a few paragraphs up, about the confident Smuckers, I realized I’m still kind of resentful. Even recognizing my resentment is a big step for me, because it’s been a long process, listening to my own thoughts and feelings. 

If you examine what’s happening inside, you can figure out what’s behind it.

I feel resentful when I feel coerced and powerless. In some ways, I'm still six years old, thinking that the self-assured people get to shape and define my reality, and I don’t want their words to be true.

See, when I spell it out like that, I can move forward. Of course it’s not true just because they say it is. They’re not God. Some of them just think they are.

You and I are not powerless, even if we’re outshouted. I don’t need to be resentful, and neither do you. The noisy blustering folks are allowed to say what they want, in the manner they want. It’s a free country.

But we don’t need to take them seriously! They don’t get to decide all the truth and verity of the world! That was all an illusion from your childhood, that the big brothers got to say how the world worked and whether or not you were pretty.

Your five senses are as valid as theirs. You are allowed to be discerning. You can listen to that little voice inside. You can choose who you will listen to and who you will disregard. You can walk away, unfollow, ignore, or laugh.

You are free to say, in your mind or out loud, “That doesn’t make sense.” “That doesn’t work for me.” “I disagree.” “That’s what they think, but that isn’t the final truth about the universe.”

I think the group that’s the most vulnerable to pressure of every kind is young wives and moms who are desperate to get it right, and I seem to hear from them more than any other demographic.

From Instagram to the church nursery, all the loud voices tell them what to feed their children, which cleaning products to buy, how to discipline children, and how to be the perfect wife to an imperfect husband.

It’s hard when you are a young mom, and you simply don’t know. They sound so sure, but it’s not working for you, and you’re afraid to say so out loud.

It’s amazing how many emphatic voices on social media are currently influencing the Mennonite world. Recently a few people wrote to me wanting my opinion about a woman who writes about marriage and motherhood online. So I looked her up. The first thing that struck me was all the declarative unqualified statements.

This is how far I’ve come: I could read those emphatic posts on overcoming past hurts and improving your marriage, and I could say, “This isn’t where I’m at,” without feeling like she got to define how things were, just because she was confident. Thus, I didn’t need to feel resentful. She reminded me of a long list of high-energy and very confident women who have written for Christian wives and moms in the past, like Cheryl Lindsay from Gentle Spirit magazine, Debi Pearl, Mary Pride, and the Above Rubies ladies.

I used to feel very intimidated and unspiritual when I read these women’s writings. After Cheryl Lindsay’s life and ministry imploded, partially due to Mary Pride's shockingly unethical maneuvering, I gave myself a lot more permission to disregard writings that made me uneasy.

Again, it’s a free country, and women are allowed to write what they want. If you like to read their writings, then great.

But, online and in person, you are allowed to disagree, to say no, to move on. If you think the latest product is silly, or you want it but can’t afford it, you can say “No” without shame or apology. If the discipline method seems overly indulgent or cruel, you can study your child and figure out what they need, rather than listening to all the conflicting voices around you. If the writer that everyone else follows makes you feel weird and queasy, you don’t need to follow them. 

To do this, you need to listen hard, not to all the clamoring voices around, but to the Holy Spirit within, to what your eyes and ears are saying, to your gut instincts signaling danger. You need to notice patterns in your life, and what works and what doesn’t. You need to listen to your husband’s perspective, not because he gets to define reality, but because you are a team, your choices affect each other, and his support can give you courage to stand alone.

The end of the story isn’t written yet. Many of the emphatic voices will be proved wrong, but don’t wait around for them to admit it, because they won’t. Meanwhile, it’s ok to do the best you can with the information you have. It’s fine to withhold comment until it all plays out.

It’s healthy to admit uncertainty.

You are not the only timid person out there. There are many of us, here in the shadows, wondering about things but not knowing for sure.

Sometimes we find each other, and that is a delightful meeting of kindred spirits. 

Take courage. You’ll be amazed at how things play out while you wait, your eyes and ears open, watching and listening.

Monday, November 15, 2021

You Can Worry If You Want

Yesterday I got yet another private message from a reader: "Are you ok? You haven't been posting anything. I'm worried about you."

The mom part of me is horrified at putting burdens of any sort on anyone. You know how we are. "No no, I'm fine, really. I'm not coughing up much blood. Oh no, I don't have an appetite anyway, so don't bother bringing anything."

DON'T WORRY. I only have a perpetual asthma cough. But it's awfully nice of you to ask.

I'm just poking my head into the online world to give a quick wave. I guess I posted something similar to this back on September 21, which shows that I keep expecting life to settle down enough to allow me to write, but it takes way longer than I think it ought.

The word for the past couple of years is CHANGE. 

As with many of you, Covid was a huge disruption, bringing lots of complications, even though none of us ever got the virus. Then there was Paul's accident and the abrupt end to everything he'd been employed at. Lots of adult children living here transitioned suddenly to having only one at home. Large remodeling and building projects involved crazy amounts of planning, upheaval, work, and carpenters in corners of the house like mice, scritching and scurrying.

At such times, I find, it takes a while for your mind to catch up with itself and figure out what's happening and who you are now. Writing helps to sort it out, but it's probably best if this is private journaling rather than cogitating online. If you don't even know who you are and what you're doing, how are you supposed to have anything coherent to say or write? That doesn't stop some people, I admit, but I'd like to wait until I have something articulate to say.

So, if you've been concerned, here are a dozen nibbles from the large potluck dinner of our lives. My intention is to assuage your worries, but you may well read things into them and decide to worry all the same.

[Actually, that's something I'd like to write about someday "when I have my full mind" as my neighbor Anita says--how we can't help but put the truth about ourselves into our writing, no matter how hard we try to hide it. Pictures on Instagram can lie, but writing doesn't. That's what I think.]

1. My niece Emma-Lynn got married in South Carolina. What a fun trip that was. I had never seen my sister Margaret's place, near Cheraw, and it was so special to stand around her kitchen, chopping vegetables and talking and just being a gossipy aunt.

Three sisters: Margaret, Dorcas, Rebecca
Purses, comfortable shoes, and discussions about everything--that's what aunts
are all about.

Nic and Emma and the bridal party

Annette the niece, Jenny promoting peace, Kathleen the friend,
Rebecca coming to the rescue

Marcus and Paul, the exhausted uncles, after the wedding

2. But before the wedding, my daughter Emily and I did a brief book tour in Pennsylvania and Virginia. This involved the usual intensity of book events in faraway places: lost books, delayed flights, long drives in the dark on weird eastern roads, and lots of conversations with people crammed into a short time. It's like a hard hike up a mountain--exhilarating but totally exhausting.
At Harrisonburg, Virginia

3. In between, I got to see the apartment where my two daughters, Emily and Jenny, live in Blacksburg, Virginia. There is nothing quite as sweet as being able to see and experience where your adult children live.

I had such fun buying steak and shrimp at "Gucci Kroger"
and cooking fajitas for the daughters.

Jenny gave me a nighttime tour of the VT campus

4. Oh, but before that, Jenny graduated from Oregon State University! That baby girl of mine is amazing, and I am going to brag on her. She got a degree in math, one of the toughest majors at OSU, and she had a 4.0 average. She got an A (not, heaven forbid, an A-minus or anything lower) in every single class she took in four years of college.

Jenny is a natural teacher who was always tutoring other students through physics and advanced calculus, so it was painful for her to do her last year of college from her bedroom because of Covid. 

She decided she wants to be a math teacher, which requires an advanced degree. Four different schools [Baylor, U of Houston, OSU, and Virginia Tech) offered her a full ride to get her Ph.D. She chose Virginia Tech. Because she's a teaching assistant, she also gets a stipend to live on. 

If you met Jenny, you would see a funny redhead who likes coffee, combines, clothes, conversation, and cats. You wouldn't think "math nerd," at first glance, I don't think. 

I like how she defies stereotypes.

5. We built a barn. This place has never had the normal farm outbuildings like machine sheds and sheep barns. We stored canoes, tools, and extra bed frames at the warehouse, a quarter mile away. With Paul transitioning out of running the warehouse and turning it over to his nephew, we felt like we needed space for that stuff here.

Well. You will find that after twenty years of cramming all the garden things into the carport and all the boxes of books in the chicken shed and under beds, the very suggestion of a barn brings creative ideas popping up like put-to-bed children on Christmas Eve.

I could have a room just for storing and shipping books! Paul could have an area for woodworking! We could set it up for an RV hookup! I could have a quilting room in the loft!!

"Just how big are these quilts you plan to do?" someone asked me.
This space turned out bigger than I had pictured in my head, but
I can think of lots of uses for it.

And, oh yeah, we could have a room for the chickens.

It actually happened. We will skip the parts about how much time, money, and ripping up of soil all over the place it involved. I have been slowly hauling flower pots and fertilizer out of the back corners of the carport and organizing them in my spacious garden room in the barn.

6. Well, The garden room is spacious, but is it big enough for tubers from 114 dahlias? That is what we're figuring out now. My dahlias were slow to get going, but then they went absolutely crazy.

We haven't had a good freeze yet, but it really was time to put them to bed for the winter. Paul did most of the digging and hosing off for me, despite having only one fully usable arm. "How does he manage that?" wondered Amy, in a call from Thailand. Well, he'd shove the fork in the ground, give it a good stomp, and crank out the root ball with his right arm.

Now it's my job to cut the clusters apart and stash they away in peat moss.

7. I got a pig! Actually, he isn't really mine, but I'm caring for him for the winter while his owner, my neighbor and honorary niece Dolly, lives in sunnier climes.

His name is Cornelius. He understands Pennsylvania German.

We went to a housewarming for Dolly today, since she fixed up a travel trailer to live in. All the guests painted drawer handles for her, which has to be the most creative way ever for guests to leave their touch on a new home.

Me, Hannah, Simone, and Dolly

8. The daughters left home. Amy returned to Thailand in June, where she's teaching English in a small town. Emily moved to Virginia with Jenny, since she's a writer and can work from anywhere.

I miss them, especially the conversations. Also, I didn't realize or fully appreciate just how much work the girls did around here--cooking, dishes, cleaning, and outside work. You know how it is with adult daughters. They just appear at your side and artfully snip greens for a salad for Sunday dinner. The guys in the house are helpful but less instinctive about it, requiring far more explaining.

I like to host a crowd for Sunday dinner, but it's a whole new prospect to learn to do this without daughters.

9. The sons have also moved around, but happily they're all within reach right now. Matt and Phoebe moved their Airstream out of the front driveway and are now about ten miles away. Ben and Steven moved home from Corvallis, but only Ben is home now because Steven finally moved to the top of the list for the apartment he wanted, so he moved closer to work in Junction City.

Steven came home for a birthday dinner of Thai food.

I am enjoying Ben's quirky sense of humor. It's subtle and not very noisy, so maybe it gets a bit lost in the crowd when everyone's here. At any rate, it's a special season of having only one kid at home, and he makes me laugh a lot.

This "kid" spends many hours typing upstairs and gets his Ph.D. in March, God willing. The degree is in smoldering combustion.

He likes to make memes on the side.

10. My lovely Sparrow Nest got ransacked. I didn't lock it before we left on a trip, because I forgot and also this is Harrisburg, where you can generally be relaxed about security. 

After we were home a few days, I went out to the cabin with a pot of tea for some nice solitude. When I stepped inside, it looked as though someone had picked up the cabin, tilted it, and shaken everything to one side.

Further inspection told me that someone had been in there for hours doing all kinds of weird things like taking the clock and couch cushions up into the loft, spilling tea and sugar, and sticking a bookmark up on my teacup rack.

"It was obviously a tweaker, looking for money and drugs," said the sheriff when he inspected the damage.

"I don't know that word," I said.

"Tweaker? Druggie, homeless, criminal element. He was probably walking down the road testing all the doorknobs."


Thankfully, I'd had my laptop with me. The intruder broke my computer screen, coffeepot, and dishes, but he didn't slash furniture or break windows.

"Did he jimmy the lock?" the LEO asked.

"No," I said. "I'm embarrassed to admit this, but it wasn't locked."

"Oh, don't be embarrassed! You shouldn't have to lock it out here!" he said.

I can't explain how nice it was to hear that.

Somehow, I had thought my Sparrow Nest had such a mystical, peaceful aura that no one would ever violate it. Well, that proved untrue, and now I'm locking it all the time, even though I shouldn't have to.

The mess in the loft.

The furniture on the main floor was shoved and stacked into one corner.

11. "How is Paul's recovery going?" people ask, even more often than they ask if they should worry about us. 

It looks like he's plateaued with recovering nerve and muscle function in his shoulder and upper arm.

However, he's still learning to compensate in creative ways, and he's gaining strength in his forearm and left hand, which carried two gallons of milk the other day.

12. Another question that people ask is, "Are you working on another book?"

The answer is yes, in the same way that I'm using up my fabric, which is slowly, in tiny increments. At the rate I'm going, I'll publish a book in 2023. And I'll use up the last of my fabric in 2123.

As always, thanks for your concern and for reading this far. If you want me to write more, come do my baking and mulch my dahlia bed.

Sunday, October 24, 2021

On Relatives, Numbers, and First Cousins Once Removed.

"I'm going to go out for coffee with my cousins Laverta and Marilyn and Loretta when I'm in Iowa," I might say to my offspring.  Then I add, "Well actually. . ."

"Let me guess," the kids say. "They're actually your first cousins once removed."


My grandparents on my dad's side had seven children. Edna, one of the oldest, was married in 1924 a few weeks before her 18th birthday. She had her first baby, Sylvia, the next year.

My dad was one of the younger ones in the family and by far the last to get married, at age 37. His youngest child, Margaret, was born in 1968.

That meant there was a 43-year range from the oldest grandchild to the youngest. It also meant that Dad became a grandpa for the last time in 2005, when he was 88 years old. Pretty sure that doesn't happen very often.

With Dad's siblings marrying young and mostly having large families, we had scads of cousins who were having children at the same time as Mom and Dad, so the relatives we had slumber parties with were not our first cousins but our first cousins once removed.

In fact, Margaret used to hang out with her cousin Sylvia's grandchildren.

If you're from an Amish family line, you learn to parse and accurately label the family tree the way you learn to diagram sentences in seventh grade. Every twist and generation matters.

We took a trip to Iowa last week. Paul is doing some PR work for a ministry called Open Hands, which works with churches and missions in low-income countries to set up savings groups, where people meet regularly and help each other save their money. He was scheduled to speak at a few churches.

Well, I was not going to miss a chance to go to Iowa and see relatives--mostly my last aunt, Mom's sister Vina, plus many others. We stayed with my cousin Anna Fern, also on Mom's side of the family and therefore more of a peer.

As always, Yoder first cousins once removed popped out of the woodwork every way I turned, especially at church and a dinner hosted by my FCOR Loretta. There are just. so. many. of them. 

Since I'm home, I dug out the John A Yoder book and did the math. My grandparents had 203 great-grandchildren. Of course you don't count my children and their cousins, so I have 185 FCORs. Mostly, they're scattered across the Midwest.

We stayed with one of these, Sylvia's daughter Edna, in southern Iowa after a few days in Kalona. Edna is 75 and still runs a big nursery, raises exotic birds, drives Amish people around, and pursues all kinds of interests.

Being around relatives is strangely validating. Around Vina's storytelling and Anna Fern's quilts, I see reflections of my own attraction to words and fabric.

With the Yoder cousins I saw odd bits of myself in other ways. Edna's varied interests reminded me so much of my own ability to go equally crazy about dahlias, history, thrifting, math, books, cultures, chickens, and many more random topics. 

When I went out for breakfast with Loretta, I discovered it's a Yoder "thing" to have a runny nose as soon as you start eating. There's also the "Yoder cough," a dry little hacking in the background.

I told Edna about the blizzard in Minnesota over the time of Mom's funeral, and she said that at winter funerals she can hardly stand it that they don't tuck a blanket around the deceased in the coffin before they bury him or her. I felt so understood, because at Mom's burial I could hardly stand it that she was lowered into that frozen earth without one of her quilts to keep her warm, and I always felt kind of silly that it mattered that much to me.

In Oregon, I'm pretty far removed from most of the relatives, and it's comforting and even a bit humbling to be reminded that some of my strange quirks are actually common family traits. If you want to feel like you're not all that unique of a snowflake, chat with some other members of a huge family.

The Yoder book was compiled in 2011. At that time, my grandparents had produced over 900 offsprings. I'm sure that number has grown much larger in the ten years since,the great-greats being of childbearing age and exponential growth being what it is.

If you live in the Midwest, you've probably run into some of my relatives. Yoders are, for the most part, not very large or noisy or outspoken people. I don't think any of them have run for office or become famous on Instagram. You probably saw them farming, teaching, serving behind the scenes, or quietly running a small business.

When you spend time with the relatives and look at the numbers in the genealogy book, you might think of Jesus's promise in the Beatitudes and what He said about how to have an impact on the world.

As someone has said, "The meek will inherit the earth...if that's ok with the rest of you."

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Returning, Rest, and Book Events in the East

Isaiah 30:15 says, ". . . In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength:. . ."

I rested, and now I've returned.

This summer we've had two graduation parties, one out-of-state trip, five adult kids and one spouse moving out of the house or front driveway, two adult kids moving in [one did both], large construction projects, a garage sale, 93 days without measurable rain which meant shlepping hoses and sprinklers for up to two hours a day, and a whole lot more.

Somewhere in there, I decided to prioritize responsibilities before I lost my mind. As you see, writing is at the end of the list. I didn't think anyone would really notice if I disappeared for a while, but a few of you did.

Last weekend it rained a couple of inches. The new barn is almost done, and nearly all the books and garden tools and lawn chairs are moved in.

Only one offspring lives at home.

I hope to get back into writing of all kinds. But first!

Emily and I will be hosting three book signings in the faraway East, getting extra mileage out of a trip to a niece's wedding.

In case you can't download pictures on your email, this is our schedule:

Wednesday, September 29, 2021 10 am to noon

Goods Store, 1338 Main St, East Earl, PA 


Wednesday, September 29, 2021 

3-6 pm

Rotary Pavilion, East Lampeter Township Community Park

2330 Hobson Road, Lancaster, PA


Thursday, Sept. 30, 2021, 10 am to noon

Shenandoah Heritage Market

121 Carpenter Lane, Harrisonburg, VA

We'd love to see you there. Feel free to stop and say hi, or bring books of ours you already have, and we'll sign them.

Just so you know, in case you or a family member are extra vulnerable to Covid: the PA events will be outside.

We'll be happy to wear a mask to speak to you, if you prefer. Just ask!

I am looking forward to more rest after our return from across the country.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

How to Order Peanut Butter and Dragon Wings

After I posted the review of Shari Zook's new book, Peanut Butter and Dragon Wings, someone asked how they can buy it if they don't shop online.

You can call MennoMedia at 800-245-7894.

Or write to them at 

P.O. Box 866
Harrisonburg, VA 22803

The price is $16.99 plus $5.95 shipping.

I'd also encourage you to ask your local bookstore to order it from Herald Press.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Review of Peanut Butter and Dragon Wings

The world deserves a chance to right itself, to lumber slowly along in approximately the right direction. The church deserves a chance to find out what happens when I am not the first name on every sign up sheet. . .My child deserves a chance to experience disappointment, failure, inadequacy, mild fear and danger, because that is how growth happens.

In a world where God, the faithful Father, is so slow to jump in and miraculously intervene (unless there is a whistle he responds to that I haven’t found yet – always a possibility), why am I so sure that good parenting, good living, involves instantaneous response? Part of his genius is his patience. I am always with you. But I do not often step in to fix and rescue what you can figure out – or learn from.

--Shari Zook

I really like and appreciate Shari Zook. You might want to know this before I review her new book, Peanut Butter and Dragon Wings. Friendship bias colors my view, as well as feeling like I’ve known her forever since I knew her parents and grandparents. She and I have communicated a lot, but the only time I recall a serious heart-to-heart in person was when we grabbed a blessed opportunity during a session at a writers’ conference at Christian Light Publications when neither of us was speaking.

Sometimes I think we are afraid, at worst, or at least uncomfortable, with honesty and excellence. By “we” I mean Mennonites, Christians, and other groups as well, like Minnesotans, which Shari and I both are, sort of.

Brutal personal honesty makes us uneasy. We don’t want anything to be that bad. Maybe if you don’t say it, it won’t be true. We want the rules to work. Behave yourself, do your best. It’ll all come out in the wash.  

How quickly the expression of blinding grief, overwhelming exhaustion, or maddening irritation is shushed with words meant to make it all better, as quickly as possible.

“He’s in a better place.” “This too shall pass.” “You just need to love them like Jesus does.”

 He bites his brother through the skin and throws apple slices and knocks books off shelves and flashes the darlingest blue-eyed smiles. He writes in crayon on my kitchen door, and in permanent marker on our library books and our carpet, in long lavish streaks. He drizzles breakfast syrup over everything in my dining room, and runs to me for snuggles. He grabs knives and strips leaves off African violets and pushes over floor lamps and drops his father’s technological devices down the toilet.

He isn’t even two years old yet 

We are not comfortable with shocking words hanging in the air like the smell of burnt eggs. We are even less comfortable with what the honest words mean—this person before us is feeling such wild and untamed feelings, such despair and grief, right now, even as we speak.

There there. You don’t really mean that. Get some rest. Please.

If we can’t hear the truth from others, we certainly can’t face it in our own lives or wrestle fully with things not being at all what they ought to be.

I think we are also, many of us, uncomfortable with excellence. Average is manageable. I fit in when nothing I do is too outstanding. I can handle you if you’re not too amazing. Please be a person who won’t make me feel inadequate.

Sometimes we sense our own potential and giftings, and we find them downright scary. How is this possible, this music that burns inside, these words, this passion for numbers? Unless we find encouragement from people who aren’t afraid of us, we often retreat to the safety of average, closing the door and hiding the gift.

Shari Zook is not afraid of honesty or excellence. Or, if she is, we don’t see it, as she steps forward steadily, leaning into the storm. She examines the truths of her own life under bright lights and shares them with us in their full color. Her writing is not cute, trendy, or aimed at the lowest common denominator. It is excellent.

When you look around, you see the smiling Others whose lives seem to work – their bodies, their faces, their families. They seem to skip over the hard bits, or laugh them off, or overcome them. They seem so on top of things, and in the darkness you wonder why you are the odd one out.

I was sent a pdf copy of Shari’s new book, Peanut Butter and Dragon Wings, a few months ago. I skimmed through it, then sent a summary blurb as requested, which appears on the back cover. Now, I’m reading it more slowly, once again gasping or wincing by turns, nodding my head yes or shaking it NO-nonono please say it ain’t so, crying and laughing, because even in the middle of overwhelm and hopelessness, she is hilarious.

A few years ago we vowed sickness and health

But what that entailed I couldn’t have shown ya

The germs staged a coup and attacked us by stealth

The year I had bronchitis and he had pneumonia.

This poem continues on. Then there's this, in the introduction:

 I’m a wife and mother and foster parent and pastor’s wife and firefighter’s wife. (Don’t worry, that’s all the same man. One husband is plenty.)

At the conference I mentioned, Shari taught a class on story writing, since many of us wrote or hoped to write for CLP’s Sunday school take-home papers. “Maybe not every story has to have a happy ending, with everything resolved,” she suggested. “After all, does everything resolve nicely in real life?”

That’s a pretty wild suggestion for us Mennonite writers who like to convince the next generation that everything will turn out ok if Sam and Debbie tell the truth about the broken geranium, even when we know that tidy endings and smooth turn-outs are far less common in real life than in Sunday school stories.

Shari carries that same attitude into her blog and especially into her book. Truth trumps tidy endings. Process beats product.

We call it empathy. You can’t buy it cheaply in the shops where it’s sold. It is the mingling place where  hurting meets healing, which enables us to handle more hurting, which enables us to share more healing. When once I have been wrenched open, I am less frightened of the cracks of others. I am more resilient, more forgiving. Out of my shattered parenting-idolatry grows a passion to love. 

Shari weighs every word in her hands before typing it out, arranging the sentences like threads forming a fine lace. Her style is an intriguing mix of vivid, shattering details and things left unspoken. She trusts that we are big enough to figure it out, fill in the blanks, and understand.

I was tempted to copy and paste the entire book, because I find it difficult to summarize in one post. Essentially, Shari tells us she’s a wife and mom who appears really good and does many things really well.  Then the storms break, the cracks appear deep inside, and the slow shattering begins.

When the snowplows get through, we host the church’s small group at our house and I make a snack. I am always making food, and it is never filling me.

It gets really bad. It hurts to watch. We wince and gasp.  No no no. Please, no.

Our simple answers are not going to be enough.

How, having lived through such brokenness, is she able to relive and analyze the long journey toward God and wholeness, and the means of grace along the way, putting them into concise words and chapters? But she does, with such skill that it both scares and invites us.

One spring day I sit under trees in a park, the new-blown leaves an indescribable shade of light. I lay back against the trunk, my shoulders on the moss, and I look up into a depth I cannot imagine. Rocked in the bosom of Abraham – this is what they always meant. After a time I sit up and try to journal what I feel, but immediately I lose the sweet sense of presence. I put down my book and pen and lie down, and I come. I am alone in the arms of the Father, and nothing matters but his eyes. There is a roaring in the Treetops.

You want to read this book. Order it on Amazon.