Sunday, December 20, 2015

What I Recall From My Week

"You haven't been posting, Mom." 

When a 16-year-old notices and mentions this, I take it seriously. It means she reads my blog and takes note of a pause in posts.  That age is hard to impress and unfailingly honest about what they think.

So, definitely time to type.

"But," I said, "I don't know what's been happening in my life."

She thought that was silly.  "You're LIVING your life.  You know what's happening!"

Oh Sweetie, you have no idea.

I can be busy all day and that evening I have a hard time recalling anything I did.

But let me try to recall a few incidents in the last week.

1. I had half an hour of heart-in-my-throat fear.

Last Sunday Ben and Emily took off for Thailand to visit Amy.  But first I packed a suitcase and a half with stuff for Amy such as peanut butter, vitamins, Party Mix ingredients, and gifts.  Then Ben and Emily filled in the rest of it with their things, so the final proportions for the two big bags were approximately:
75% stuff for Amy
20% Ben's clothes
5%  Emily's clothes

Emily is a minimalist.

Paul had found tickets for them that were quite reasonable, as overseas tickets go, if they took off from Vancouver, BC, and flew China Eastern Airways.

So the plan was to drive to Vancouver--about 8 hours I think--fly to Shanghai, China, then to Kunming, China, then to Chiang Mai, Thailand.

I checked my email a few times, hoping they'd drop me a line en route, but nothing showed up.  Oh well.

On Tuesday morning I was gradually awakened to the sound of a phone ringing.

It was Amy.

She had gone to the airport to pick up Ben and Emily, and they never showed up.  Their flight arrived just fine, but they weren't on it.

And she hadn't heard a word from them either.

Oh, Reader, there is no describing what flies through your mind in a very short time when you hear such news, and how very very far away China seems at such a moment, and how utterly silent the world seems when there is No Word and No Contact and No Explanation.

Our conversation roused Paul.  He decided to call China Eastern after I located a phone number and he found the kids' itinerary.

He was still on hold when I got a message from Amy to check Emily's blog.  Hallelujah!  Words!  From the kids!  There for us to see!!

One flight was delayed, making them miss the flight to Chiang Mai, and China has a nasty way of blocking all the normal Internet means of communication.

They got there a day later, and Emily wrote about the experience, and others that followed, which you can go read.  
Right here.
Nothing else here will be as exciting as that, so you don't have to come back here if you don't want to.

2.  I had an incident that made me think of my mom and wonder if she was sending sympathy vibes from Heaven.

Mom was a very hard worker but she wasn't the most tidy and organized housewife ever, and her family didn't make it any easier for her, and she had an absolute horror of visitors seeing our house in its normal state.

Company coming required a major onslaught of cleaning, putting away, and tidying.

She had an especial horror of a big vanload of Amish relatives showing up unannounced, as the Amish were wont to do back before anyone had cell phones and most Amish would at some point hire a driver and take a Western Trip which might take them through the Midwest and our house.

The Pa. Dutch term was "gonzy loat psooch," inadequately translated a "whole load of guests," and the idea was so fearful to Mom that she would have dreams about a gonzy loat psooch showing up when the house was a mess and she was in the middle of canning applesauce or something.

Well, let's just say that the apple didn't fall far from the tree.

Paul and I were gone for three days last week, (see #3) and as soon as we got back I focused on getting those suitcases all packed for Amy, so the new week dawned and things sort of stayed chaotic all week.

Jenny decided to decorate for Christmas, since I wasn't getting it done.  By Thursday evening there was a basket of laundry in the living room along with 3 big bins of Christmas stuff and also leaning stacks of files and papers all around Paul's recliner,  I was making Party Mix and Puppy Chow, I had half the table covered in Christmas cards in various piles, and I had just started the dishwasher but had many dishes left to wash.....
there was a knock on the door and there were our young friends Justin and Esta.  They came breezing in with a plate of cookies.
Oh.  They were out delivering Christmas cookies....??
I said, "Ummm, can you...stay a while?"
Esta said, "Oh! Did you forget that you said the missions committee can meet here tonight?"
I screamed.  I had typed up the notes for the meeting myself, and included that I had offered to host the meeting.
But I had totally forgotten, and here I was in unwashed hair and a flannel shirt with food smears, in a disastrous house.
Justin hauled bins upstairs and vacuumed.
I handed Esta a broom and went to comb my hair.
Justin put the supper leftovers in a Tupperware container.
I called Paul and said he should come home instead of visiting his mom.
Jenny said she'd watch the Party Mix in the oven.
We survived.

I asked Jesus to take away any lingering shame I felt from that Gonzy Loat Psooch moment straight out of Mom's nightmares, because He is good at that, and it really was a moment to make a Mennonite minister's wife feel like a Complete Failure.

3. I got to see and hear the Messiah.

I missed the only local performance because like Esau I chose the temporal over the eternal, in this case a Sunday afternoon nap rather than going with Ben and Jenny and our weekend guest Kayla to a concert, which I later learned included part of the Messiah, and, again like Esau, I "found no place of repentance, though [I] sought it carefully with tears."

My nice husband had been saying for some weeks that we needed to get away by ourselves for a few days, so we did some hunting online, found a Messiah performance that fit our schedule, and went to Portland for three days.

And on a rainy night we found the First Baptist Church in downtown Portland, found our seats, and took it all in.

There's nothing quite like Handel's Messiah, and to have it performed live, by an excellent orchestra and choir, and in the most beautiful old church you ever saw...well, I felt like Esau would have felt if he had received the blessing after all.

4. We went to various programs, concerts, and services locally.

Christmas isn't Christmas unless you see a pageant with little kids in it, all dressed up like sheep or angels or Mary or whatever.

And, this is the interesting thing about such things: you want choirs to be impeccable and professional.  You want big kids and adults to be polished and well-rehearsed.

But oh how you want little kids to mess up because little kids acting out the Christmas story and forgetting lines and losing their way and whispering cues to each other and pushing shepherd headpieces out of their eyes and dropping stuff and utterly messing up--that is JUST SO CUTE.

At one program, the littlest angel was all intrigued with her white robe, essentially one long piece of fabric with a hole for her head and a belt holding it together.  She grabbed the flap in front and pulled it up, laughed, flapped it around....and then her gold-tinsel halo slipped she yanked it back into place, and then while the teacher gestured and her parents telegraphed parentish looks and the other angels sang dutifully, she bent forward and deliberately let the halo fall off her head, and grinned with delight.

It was naughty and distracting and unprofessional, but it was the cutest thing I'd seen in a long time.

It made the Christmas season feel complete.

I hope your Christmas season is complete most of all with lots of Jesus and all of the grace and hope and mercy He brings.

Quote of the Day:
"I just love the Christmas season! Janane and I are doing so much stuff, it makes me feel like we almost have lives! Friday we went to the Fairview pageant, Saturday we went to The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Sunday we went to Kaitlyn's concert, today we're caroling, Wednesday we're in our school play together, and Sunday we're doing something with our Sunday school class for the program! I mean, we're almost Sarah Bething!!"
--Jenny a.k.a. Miss Hyper Energy 2015
[Sarah Beth is a high-energy friend with more friends and ministry at age 18 than most of us have accumulated by age 50]

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Letter from Harrisburg--Dec. 13

With time, life starts to make sense

By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard
DEC 13, 2015

Two of my sons stood in the kitchen the other day and discussed Christmas break, cooking, travel plans, guns, snowboarding and college.

They also talked enthusiastically about fire.

This isn’t surprising, considering their fascination with the subject when they were younger. I recall WD-40 sprayed and ignited in an upstairs bedroom, for instance, and, when I had my back turned, charcoal lighter fluid tossed onto a brush fire just to see what would happen.

But this conversation was different.

Ben, who is suddenly 22 years old and a senior in mechanical engineering at Oregon State University, talked about his interest in combustion and an OSU project studying forest fires.

Steven, age 21 and finishing his first year in Chemeketa Community College’s firefighter/EMT program, was immediately interested, even though most of his academic pursuits have been far removed from Ben’s math and engineering.

So their interest converged on the subject of fire, once again, only this time they weren’t scheming a new way to put the house and their lives in danger.

Instead, they discussed — could it be? — British thermal units! “The stupidest unit of energy,” they agreed, and went on to mention smoldering combustion, fire suppression and unit conversions.

I am quite sure I was awake and not dreaming. Since then, I’ve been wondering: Why couldn’t God have made me know back then what I know now? Wouldn’t I have freaked out a bit less and stayed calm a bit more?

Back when I was calling my husband, desperate and in tears, because I just found out about the WD-40 episode upstairs — the boys thought it was all a big joke, there were black smudges on the ceiling above the top bunk, the house could have burned down, I feared the whole family was doomed to a terrible end, and their dad just had to do something right now — back then, I didn’t see this day coming.

I couldn’t look ahead 10 years and see two handsome, responsible grownups leaning on the kitchen counter and having an easy conversation about technical things I barely understand.

I would have appreciated a glimpse of this.

Yet, I know well that not nearly everything turns out this nicely. That middle ground between decisions and results is soil where tenacious regrets can sprout and grow.

Missing a Christmas concert was a small regret, as regrets go, yet I felt an oversized sadness about it.

Every year, I hope to attend a performance of Handel’s Messiah. Nothing else quite elevates the Christmas season into its proper spiritual plane. I can never watch and listen objectively, detached or analytical. Instead, the music immerses me in sound and worship, the ancient words of hope and incarnation carried on voice and violin in an experience so beautiful that it feels irreverent to describe it.

Unfortunately, it’s often hard to find a local performance that fits our schedule.

Last week was an exhausting mix of attending our daughter’s children’s-choir performances, Christmas-outreach activities at church, and selling books at two of the biggest authors’ events of the year. I was vaguely aware of the kids’ plans to attend some kind of concert at OSU on Sunday after church, but by then I was desperate for a long nap.

“Hey, Mom, you can come along if you want,” they said.

I debated briefly, and flesh won over spirit. They took off soon after lunch. I stayed home and slept.

They returned that evening with reports of an orchestra and multiple choirs, of majestic Latin pieces and beautiful sacred music, and, yes, even of selections from the Messiah including the Hallelujah Chorus, my favorite.

Exactly what my soul needed, and the only local concert like it. I had chosen to miss it, for a nap. I felt so sad about this, and regretted it so deeply, that I actually mulled Scrooge’s words in Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”: “No space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused.”

I could and should have, but I didn’t. It was entirely my fault. If I had only known, I’d have chosen differently.

As a person of faith, I celebrate Christmas believing that all our questions find their answers in Jesus, in God becoming flesh and dwelling among us.

Even Jesus, I am told in the book of Luke, “increased in wisdom,” which I don’t begin to understand if he was the all-knowing God in the flesh, but I find it comforting. It tells me there’s a cosmic design in this painful process of accumulating wisdom rather than knowing it all at once.

If I’ve learned anything, it’s that I don’t have life figured out, and I need to trust my story and all its unknowns to someone who does, so that even the mistakes and regrets can turn into eventual growth.

After years of dealing with it every fall, I recognized my oversized reaction to the missed concert as a symptom of seasonal affective disorder, and immediately spent more time outside and boosted my dosage of vitamin D. I know this now; 10 years ago, I didn’t.

To my delight, my sympathetic husband offered to take me to a Messiah performance in Portland. It would be held at the First Baptist Church — the same church, I am quite sure, where, long ago when I was pregnant with our first child, I attended a daylong seminar on mothering. I distinctly recall my lack of sympathy that day for a friend who ended up in tears at her own inadequacy. I knew how to do it right, and logically, that’s how I was going to do it.

Would I really have wanted to know then all that I thought I knew, or would I have chosen to be loved and guided through years of mistakes and hard-won insights to where I find myself today, somewhat wiser and vastly more compassionate?

The day of the flaring WD-40 upstairs, I did not see that I would learn to rank calamities and stay calm through all but the worst or that I was receiving a hope and perspective to offer to younger moms in the future. I had no premonition of these two sons, so different from each other, connecting as adults on the very subject that had given me so much anxiety.

A divine author is shaping this story, I believe. Even my ignorance and floundering, my mistakes and regrets have had a purpose, and I have always been shepherded and loved.

I did not see these coming — the responsible young men, the ballooning joy, the overwhelming gratitude, the second chances, the grace. They were all a glorious surprise, my frustrating human limitations divinely transformed into the most valuable and improbable gifts.

Wednesday, December 02, 2015

You're Invited

I'd like to invite you to 3 events--2 sales and 1 concert.

1. The Register-Guard Columnists' Book Sale is tomorrow--Thursday, Dec. 3, from 4-6 pm. At the RG building on Chad Drive in Eugene.

2. Joyful Noise Choir will be presenting a concert at Eastside Christian Church, (1910 Grand Prairie Road SE, Albany) on Friday, Dec. 4. Prelude music at 6:45pm; concert at 7.

3. The annual Lane Library League Author & Artists' Fair is at the Lane County Fairgrounds on Saturday, Dec. 5, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Lots of interesting books and amazing artwork available here, and a % of the profits go toward expanding library services to rural areas.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

On Giving Thanks

[There's a tradition of a poem appearing on Life in the Shoe on Thanksgiving.  This year, for the first time, it's free verse. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, all of you reader-blessings.]

"Give Thanks"

Sometimes the summer heat
Begins in June and then
For weeks and months forgets
As fuchsias die
And wells run dry
And grass turns brown
and all of us grow weary
and cows keep looking at the ground
for green that isn’t there—
that summer wasn’t meant to be like this.
A breeze at times
A summer shower
Is that too much to ask?

“Give thanks” the Father says
And so we do, or try,
And think “How long
This season lasts.
Do you not see?
The thirsty cow
And me?”
So “thanks” I say
And find again
The seed of hope
The surety
That change will come
This will not last forever.

“Give thanks,” He says
In those relentless times
Of silent suffering
And too much noise
And more than we can do
Or take
Or comprehend.
And people scraping hard
On that old wound
And all my faults exposed
like dangling dusty spiderwebs.
Those times of loss
Of how I wanted things to be.
The depths of helplessness.
The wounds,
The wondering
If this season ever ends and
If there is any chance He sees.
“Give thanks.”
And so I do
For life and grace
For change to come someday.

My helplessness to change
The heat the drought
The loss the pain
Also means I’m powerless
To change the flow of time
And so it moves
Unseen by me.
Until the clouds decide
To congregate one day,
Block out the sun
And bless the waiting earth
With rain.
Sheep and cats and cows
All drink
And grass turns green
With life.
The time has come.

So time moves on
For me as well
One day I wait in hope
Unseeing still
And then the clouds move in
And change arrives.
The splinter pulled at last,
The finger bandaged clean
The pressure lifts
Forgiveness comes,
A healing word,
A hope fulfilled
A change,
A tree of life
Solution, restoration.
And seeing, I give thanks.

He sees.
He waits for unseen purposes
And wise and full of love
He keeps my heart
And when its soil
Is ready for new growth
He sends
The rain.
No season lasts forever, so,
He watches in the waiting
Calls us to trust,
Stand on the iron ground,
Turn to the sky of bronze,
And give our thanks.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Annual Book Giveaway AND a Special Sale

It's time for the Annual Book Giveaway.

Here's how it works:

If you know someone who is going through a hard time and needs encouragement, and you think a book from me might give them a bit of cheer, you write and tell me about them and of course include their name and address.

If I decide they qualify, I send them one of my books as a gift.

This tradition is always a strange mix of fun and sadness.  The people who write to me always seem happy that here's something they can do for a friend, and I have lots of fun sending out the books.  But when I get the emails with these stories of sickness and grief and loneliness and abandonment and tragedy, I sit at the computer and cry.

I fully recognize that one of my books is not going to go far in alleviating anyone's pain, but getting a mysterious package in the mail and finding out that an anonymous friend was thinking of you--now that would do an aching heart good.
So.  If you're thinking of someone, email me at dorcassmucker at

Tell me their name and address, why they need a book, and, if it matters, which book it should be.

I reserve the right to accept or decline the nomination.

Do not recommend yourself!  That is the Rule!

Here are the titles to choose from:
Ordinary Days
Upstairs the Peasants are Revolting
Downstairs the Queen is Knitting
Tea and Trouble Brewing
Footprints on the Ceiling
If you'd like to buy books for Christmas gifts, you can send me your order and a check at:

Dorcas Smucker
31148 Substation Drive
Harrisburg, OR 97446

Ordinary Days--$10
Upstairs the Peasants are Revolting--$10
Downstairs the Queen is Knitting--$10
Tea and Trouble Brewing--$12
Footprints on the Ceiling--$12

Postage is $2 per book.

And a SPECIAL from now through December 10--USA CUSTOMERS ONLY--
A set of 5 books including postage for $50 !!!

Locals--you can stop by the house and buy a set of books for $45.

Note: The orders might be delayed just a bit if I have to wait on the new printing of Tea & Trouble Brewing.  It's supposed to ship on Nov. 27.

Quote of the Day:
"The author’s engaging writing style makes these short essays a little more readable. "
--Judge, 23rd Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards
[Let's just say, this wasn't the most encouraging beginning to an evaluation of Footprints on the Ceiling, and if someone wants to send me a mysterious anonymous package to cheer me up, well, they may.] 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Mrs. Smucker's Grocery Depot Dessert

One of my dream jobs would be to develop recipes for food banks.  Say one week they get a big donation of soybeans from a feed mill, outdated matzo mixes, and cans of spinach.  It would be my job to work this into an actual edible low-cost menu.

I got my start on the mission field, using up gallon cans of mandarin oranges and outdated Christmas candies.

These days, I shop at Grocery Depot whenever I get to Albany and work my finds into recipes and meals.

I was very happy with this low-cost and easy but good-enough-for-company dessert.  This is pretty casual as far as amounts and proportions.  It's hard to get it wrong.


1. Go to Grocery Depot and buy Ladyfingers, Neufchatel cheese, and strawberry topping.  The Neufchatel cheese is a low-fat version of cream cheese and is just as versatile.  And it's only $3.99 for a big 3-pound box. Or you can get the tube of cream cheese.

You can make this recipe even if you can't pronounce Neufchatel.

Yes.  3 for a dollar.  But why is the picture sideways?

2. I had read about ladyfingers in fancy magazines but never actually eaten them.  So I was happy to find that they separate like this.  How slick is that?
So.  Peel them apart and put them around the sides and on the bottom of your dessert bowl.  I used a glass bowl but a springform pan actually works better.

3. Scoop some softened Neufchatel cheese into a mixing bowl.  Maybe 16 oz. or so.  It looks a bit watery and gloppy but it's still ok.  Mix it up good.

4. If you have Cool Whip on hand, mix it into the Neuf cheese now.  If you don't have Cool Whip, mix about 1/2 cup powdered sugar and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla into the cheese.  If you like really sweet desserts, add more powdered sugar.

Then whip some cream with the mixer or your smoothie maker.  I started with about 3/4 cup.  Again, skip this if you used Cool Whip.

Mix in the whipped cream.  It's fine if the cream isn't terribly stiff.

5.  Lick the beaters.  When I make food on Sunday mornings, I wear one of Paul's shirts over my church dress.
In case you wondered.

6. Pile the happy mixture into the bowl with the ladyfingers.
Top with the jar of strawberries.
Keep it in the fridge while you're at church.  Serve for Sunday dinner.

Most of all, have fun.  

My mother-in-law took a second helping of this dessert.  Just so you know. 

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Letter from Harrisburg: On Appropriating Cultures

Write and explore your own culture, your own journey

By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard
NOV. 8, 2015

"More and more, around Halloween, people are beginning to discuss cultural appropriation,” my college-­senior­­ daughter told me a few weeks ago after a day at Oregon State University. “When is it OK to copy someone’s culture, and when is it offensive, making fun of them or grossly misrepresenting their customs?”

I learn a lot from Emily, and she makes me think. Was it cultural appropriation when my sister Margaret and I dressed up as Amish, I wondered.

We didn’t see it as our culture at the time — Mom and Dad’s, definitely, but not ours. Goodness, we were far more progressive — driving cars, listening to 8-track tapes, and wearing pastel dresses with zippers up the back. True, our dresses still had “capes” and solid colors only, but as “Beachy” Amish we were a long, long way from the Old Order, we thought.

Like the Amish of our past and the Mennonites of our future, we didn’t celebrate Halloween. It was too tainted with evil, too happy about death and darkness.

But even in that strict setting there was an unspoken understanding that sometimes exceptions are perfectly fine, such as the woman I knew who enjoyed watching quilting shows on TV while she cleaned houses in town. It was all about knowing who might find out and how much was too much.

One year, we made an exception on a chilly Halloween.

My little sister Margaret was a young teenager and I was back home after three years away. I was determined to make it a fun year for her in order to undo some of the damage I inflicted in earlier years. So we had fun adventures like dragging Mom to “The Sound of Music” at a local high school for the one and only musical of her life.

We were eating supper together when one of us said, “Hey! It’s Halloween. We should do something!”

Margaret and I pondered this. A prank of some kind? Certainly dressing up, as we loved to do that. And surprising someone. Maybe Marcus and Anna, our brother and his wife, who lived just up the road.

Yes, definitely Marcus and Anna.

We thought some more and then at the same time we looked at each other and said, “AMISH!!”

Instantly we were buzzing with plans while Mom smiled in spite of herself and said, “Ach, girls!” which meant, “This is risky but I guess I won’t stop you.”

We raided Mom and Dad’s closet for the Old Order outfits they kept on hand to wear to Amish relatives’ funerals.

Margaret dressed up in Mom’s long, black, Amish dress with the “schatz und hals-duch” (cape and apron), a mass of straight pins and polyester. She wore jet-black stockings and Mom’s black shoes and her big black bonnet and an old pair of cat-eye glasses. She even found a huge, ancient black purse.

She looked an absolute sight.

I wore Dad’s white Sunday shirt and his gray “mutza” suit with the funny flaps in back and his black church shoes and his black hat. I was also an absolute sight.

Except, we decided, I looked too girlish.

So I smeared Vaseline all over my jaw and Margaret helped me press coffee grounds into it, and suddenly I was transformed into a young Amishman with a good start on his beard.

Mom was amazed. “You look like Johnny’s boys,” she said — our handsome, renegade cousins who, in Amish custom, showed up at their own weddings with a hint of dark beard, since single men shave and married men do not. These cousins and the bridal party also slipped behind the house after the ceremony and posed for pictures for the worldlier guests with cameras, which was not an Amish custom, but Johnny’s boys knew when an exception was in order.

Mom also warned, “Margaret, don’t you hold Lenny on your lap, with all those pins.”

We drove down the gravel road to Marcus and Anna’s and knocked at the door. Anna opened it.

Margaret in her black bonnet opened the big black purse, held it wide, and said, “Trick or treat!”

Anna made a choked exclamation and then she started laughing. She doubled over and laughed some more. Marcus came up behind her to see what was going on and he simply howled.

They managed to invite us inside, where we sat primly on the couch while Marcus and Anna collapsed into chairs and guffawed like I’ve never seen them laugh before or since.

They played along and asked us questions, and we pretended to be an old married couple with eight children. Margaret said our oldest son just got a job in town, and I hung my head and said, Dad-like, “Ya, we don’t like it...” and Marcus laughed so hard he nearly passed out.

Little Annette stood around looking bewildered and Lenny sat on someone’s lap — not Margaret’s — and looked frightened.

We rode this horse as far as it could take us, all with straight faces on our part, and then when Marcus and Anna were exhausted from laughing we got up to leave.

Anna offered to find some candy to put in our black purse.

We went home and even Mom and Dad chuckled at us, and then we carefully returned our clothes to Mom and Dad’s closet and washed the beard off my chin.

Every Halloween, we remember. “Shall we dress up Amish tonight?” Margaret texts me from Pennsylvania. “I’ve got the coffee grounds all ready,” I text back.

I realize now that, culturally, we were a lot closer to the Old Order Amish than I liked to think, and we knew, without anyone explaining to us, what was appropriate in this charade, what was going too far, why I could have a coffee beard but not a moustache, what kind of pins we should use, and where they all belonged on that complicated dress.

If you’re part of the culture, you instinctively understand the subtleties that are almost impossible to explain to someone outside of it.

This year, just a few days before Halloween, I received yet another request to help an author who wants to write a novel about conservative Mennonites. She wants to make sure she’s authentic with the details, she said.

Perhaps I was too harsh in my refusal, as she seemed more serious and scholarly than most, and I applauded her desire to not be offensive. But I couldn’t bring myself to help her, not only because of all the details that defy explaining, but because I have come to believe that the only story you can really tell is your own.

Back when Margaret and I were young, the Amish and Mennonites — sister denominations under the Anabaptist roof — were an obscure subculture that few Americans had heard of and even fewer admired. It wasn’t unusual to be harassed and mocked.

Then, for reasons I will never understand, Anabaptist became cool. Bizarre TV shows featured the producers’ visions of Amish and Mennonite life, giving an entire generation of watchers — I am told — a completely distorted picture.

An avalanche of novels featuring the Amish but written almost entirely by the “Englisch” poured out of Christian publishing houses. “Bonnet fiction,” the industry called them. They range from well-structured but subtly “off” to simply horrifying, with boxy Photoshopped kapps on blond girls with eyeliner on the front covers.

Struggling authors saw a potential bonanza, and too many of them somehow found me, hoping that I would be that genuine source who could lend the stamp of authenticity to their hopeful story of young Lizzie pinning on her kapp, enjoying her Rumspringa without getting shunned, and falling in love with the handsome non-Amish neighbor, leading to a crisis of soul to be solved by following her heart in a very suburban-American way.

Always, these manuscripts were all wrong from the opening, “Ach, such a beautiful day it is,” to the individualistic-­American approach to decisions. They made exceptions to the rules, but always got them wrong, in vague ways that I couldn’t put into words.

“But I found a glossary on the Internet,” one author said, “and it said that ‘ach’ means ‘oh.’ ”

“But it’s always negative,” I said. “Ach, the pigs are out again,” not, “Ach, it’s a beautiful day.”

This phenomenon goes deeper than the cultural appropriation of a costume and brings troubling questions of exploitation and superiority.

Why, for instance, do publishers and producers and writers think the Amish/Mennonite story needs to be told for them?

Also, why is it OK to impose their own perceptions on another culture, portraying them either as universally holy and peace-loving, or oppressive and patriarchal, or wild and trapped under the plain exterior?

The saddest questions in this fascination with Anabaptist culture, I think, are, first, why do so many creative people feel that their own lives do not have a story worthy of telling, and they must cast their nets in utterly foreign waters to produce something worthwhile? And then why do so many readers immerse themselves in these stories?

If there is such a deep longing and admiration for the Amish way of life, then what is missing in modern culture that creates this hunger?

Instead of ranting about exploitation, I have learned, like a good Mennonite woman, to turn to gentle encouragement for these aspiring authors who contact me.

“Why don’t you write what you know best?” I ask.

“You too have a subtle thread winding through your life. You know why you did what you did, most of the time, and why you took that crazy adventure, and when you knew enough was enough, and how that single choice affected the rest of your life. You were a product of your parents and your community, and yet you created your own path and walked it. You knew the unspoken rules of your school, family, and hometown, and you knew when they needed to be broken.

“You had times when you embraced your past and times you let it go, and moments on a chill October evening when you swam in laughter, and you were sure you mattered to your big sister after all. Years later, you still text and remind each other.

“You don’t have to live someone else’s life or write another culture’s story. You have a life, a history, a story of your own. It is worthy of telling, and no one else will ever tell it quite like you can.

“It is yours to tell, and if you tell it well, I promise we will all be eagerly listening.”

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Book Review: Joey's Story

When we rode the school bus back in Minnesota, we picked up THAT family about two miles west of us.  A big blended family, they lived down a long lane, and the house had an air of hidden poverty.  Some of the children were clean, others were very dirty, with greasy hair and unbrushed teeth, and you got the sense that the kids were raising themselves and surviving a pretty high level of chaos and untold secrets.  Today, they never come to high school reunions, and don't show up on Facebook, and none of our classmates seem to know what happened to them.

I feel like I've just read their story.

And you know those little kids you pick up for vacation Bible school who live in the trailer house with the cars in the back yard and the broken steps, and who smell of smoke and punch the other kids?

This is their story too.

And then there's that girl who grew up Old Order Amish and then Beachy Amish, with a hot supper on the table every night and family devotions in the morning, but with hidden family chaos from mental illness and poverty and anger.

This is her story too, by which I mean mine of course.

I glibly agreed to review Joey's Story a long time ago, and then I was intimidated by its length (631 pages!) and put it off until I could do it Right, so it slipped into a to-read pile and for various reasons it never rose to the top of the pile.

My apologies for the long wait, Timo and Joanna, and thanks for your patience.  At least I learned to be more careful with agreeing to do book reviews.

But maybe the timing was just right, having been through some hard-won healing of my own in the meantime.

In summary, this book is the story of Joanna, known as Joey, who was born in Michigan into an unbelievably chaotic situation, with a sick, detached mom, lots of siblings, a well-meaning dad who simply didn't have the tools to keep his life and family functioning, a revolving door of aunts and half-siblings and--worst of all--men who boarded in the basement.

Eventually the children are taken elsewhere and have a series of foster homes before they are finally adopted into a family.

The family joins a Mennonite church, which is how Joey became a Mennonite and indirectly how the story came to be written by Ruth Ann Stelfox and published by Christian Light Publications.

That is the very short version of Joey's young life.  The long version involves almost impossible quantities of loss, grief, confusion, separation, abuse, neglect, and pain.

And yet, there is a thread of hope, of God's presence, of being called and drawn to a loving Father, of Jesus bringing healing, of redemption.

A few things that stood out to me:

1. The length was appropriate.  I expected to find it overly wordy, with unnecessary detail, but there was never anything I felt should have been omitted.  If Ruth Ann Stelfox would have told the story in a humdrum "Then this happened, then this person showed up, then they went to this other home," it would have been a lot shorter and less interesting. Instead, she creates a vivid scene with each step of the story.  You see the moldy towels on the floor or the clean curtains at the window.  You get to know the characters and hear the dialogue.

2. The author did an astonishing job of telling Joey's story without inserting herself into it or distracting us with her style.  It reads with the vividness and immediacy of a memoir, and the writing style loses itself in the story, so it was hard to separate the two.  The mark of a good biographer, I would say.

3. It's real but discreet.  I will be honest and say that I've come to expect a few annoying quirks from Mennonite publishers, such as stilted dialogue, "Would you like to come with us?" said Susan. "Oh, yes, I surely would!" exclaimed Julia.  And a subtle condemnation of worldly clothes and habits, even on children. I was happy to see that Joey's Story has remarkably realistic dialogue all the way through, even when people were fighting or drunk.  Cursing is referred to but not quoted, which came across as discreet rather than stilted.  Also, the little brother tugs at Joey's pants without any hints that she should have been wearing a dress instead.

The most notable example of the real-but-discreet was the handling of sexual abuse and acting out as a result.  As an adult, I saw clearly what was happening, but if I had read it at age 13, most of it would have flown right over my head.

4. Joey's courage and honesty in telling this story, and in letting it be told, are astonishing.  "Telling" is a large issue throughout the book, and any of us who have sinned, or been sinned against as children can understand the inner turmoil she went through before she finally finally TOLD.  Abuse changes how you see the world, and truth gets skewed, and things somehow become your fault, and the shame is suffocating, and sometimes there's no safe person around, and it is just extremely hard to TELL.  Yet, from the perspective of adulthood and knowing the infinite relief of having TOLD, we can hardly stand how long Joey waits.

Even then, some of us can't bring ourselves to tell the whole world.  There are hard things I finally shared with a few select people, and fewer things that I've shared with a group, and far fewer that I've shared in writing.  So the fact that she's this honest and detailed in a BOOK--I think it's amazingly courageous.

5. Joey's life story is so painful and so full of loss that at times I was in tears.  And yet, there was one way in which I envied her, and that was that she and her siblings always seemed FOR and not AGAINST each other, pulling together to survive.  During the dark period of our lives when I was about 8-12 years old--no particulars because I am not as brave as Joey--one of the saddest memories is of my siblings being against me and not for me, and the pain I inflicted on them.  Despite the occasional sticking up for someone else, we did not coalesce as a group.

That sibling support was one of several bright spots in Joey's childhood, and one of the encouraging aspects of the book is these glimpses of grace.  This kind person, that attempt by the dad to give them a good Christmas, Joey's phenomenal spunk and determination.

6. That a story like this can end joyfully is purely the grace of God.  The ending feels miraculous, and the redemption is deeply satisfying.  Best of all, you get the clear message that what is true for Joey is true for all of us, that we have value, no matter how broken we are.  That Jesus will forgive and heal us.  And that our pain can be turned into something beautiful to offer to others.

Go buy and read this book if you:
--had a rough childhood or want to understand people who did.
--want to know how to reach out to those people in the rundown trailer, either as an individual or a church.
--are wondering if you have a story worth sharing, and how to tell it.
--just want a good read.

Joanna's husband, Timo, offered to sponsor a giveaway of two copies of Joey's Story.  To be included in the drawing, comment below with an example of grace and/or redemption in your own life.  And please include enough info that I can contact you if you win.

Quote of the Day, from the afterword:
"This book is not about my heroic triumph over a difficult past.  This book is about suffering that finds resolution in Christ Jesus, the Sacrificial Lamb who suffered that we might be set free."
--Joanna Miller a.k.a. "Joey"

Later: the giveaway signup is now over and the winners are Rhoda Hostetler and!!  Congratulations!

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Book Decision

A number of you weighed in on my publishing dilemma, giving us lots of angles to consider that hadn't occurred to us.

Thank you!

I say "we" and "us" for all the commenters who encouraged me to consult my husband about this, as though I hadn't thought of that.  [She says, surprised and slightly offended.]  I thought everyone knew he is the business brain that provides the solid framework behind my creativity.

So yes.  WE had some decisions to make, and took the sensible advice to let the publishers prove their worth with the first three books, and then decide if they can be trusted with my last two.

They have some cool ideas for re-doing the first three titles sometime next year.

Meanwhile, I put my order in today for another printing of Tea and Trouble Brewing.  The timing isn't the best, but they should be ready to ship by November 27, in time for at least some of the Christmas season.

And in an illustration of Paul's role in the process, I was going to order 750 copies and he talked me into getting 1500 instead, which means that either he's a smart businessman or else he has an inflated view of his wife's potential.

Again, thanks to everyone who took an interest in the process.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Me and Miss Buncle Get Acquainted

Last week Emily borrowed a book from the Oregon State University library.  She said, "You should read it, Mom."

It was an old green hardcover by D.E. Stevenson called Miss Buncle's Book.  Paul's sister Lois had introduced me to D. E. Stevenson years ago at our annual birthday teas, at which Lois always produces a stack of secondhand books that Anita and I can choose from.  Lois always apologizes that she is not a careful-gift-with-pretty-wrapping person, but Anita and I love this tradition of hers and mentally salivate in anticipation.  Lois is a great one for sniffing out good books and knowing what we'd like.

But despite reading a variety of D.E.Stevenson, thanks to Lois, I had never read this one.

"Mom, you REALLY should read it.  The main character reminds me of you."

Well, that was incentive, but still I held off, feeling that the little time I have for reading should be devoted to something deep like The Emotionally Healthy Church, or to the two book reviews that I promised their authors a long time ago and never got done.

But then I realized that the book would soon be due at the library, and also I caught a bad cold, the kind that had me in such pain from a sore throat that in my dreams I was wandering through large buildings trying to find a clinic to take a swab to see if it was strep, and then I woke up and took ibuprofen and spent the day resting and drinking lemon tea with vinegar and cayenne pepper and honey.

And reading Miss Buncle's Book, because if you're trying to ward off bronchitis you need fluffy and not deep, everyone knows that.

I was charmed right off the bat because Miss Buncle's servant girl was named Dorcas!  This happens so rarely that it's like being a teenager and finding my name on a little thick-soled flip-flop key chain at a gift shop.

And the description of Dorcas getting up in the morning: it was so apt that I laughed and laughed.

"She sat up and swung her legs over the edge of the bed and rubbed her eyes." [slippers, shuffling, splashing her face follow] "Dorcas was so used to all this that she did it without properly waking up.  In fact it was not until she had shuffled down to the kitchen, boiled the kettle over the gas ring, and made herself a pot of tea that she could be said to be properly awake.  This was the best cup of the day and she lingered over it, feeling somewhat guilty at wasting the precious moments, but enjoying it all the more for that."

The story is set in a village in England in --I'm guessing-- the early 1930s, because lots of people's financial states have deteriorated, including Miss Buncle's.  She used to get dividends sufficient to live on, and they no longer arrive in the previous quantities, so she needs to do something.  

She considers raising hens, among other things.

She decides to write a book, and this is where Emily guessed right that I'd connect with the story, because Miss Buncle wants to write fiction but is so lacking in imagination that she is sure she can't come up with an original story, so she simply changes all the names and uses people from her village as characters in her book, describing them in minute and piercingly accurate detail, being a quiet but sharp observer.

Eventually her imagination kicks in and she has the characters doing what she thinks they ought.  The nasty guy reforms, those two spinsters finally go on a trip overseas, and that man finally marries his neighbor lady.

The book is published under the pseudonym of John Smith and becomes a bestseller.  People in the village start reading it and soon realize that this is WAY too close to home.  

There is a furious determination among some accurately-portrayed citizens to find and punish John Smith.

Miss Buncle quietly observes this and uses it all as fodder for her second book.

I don't want to give away the ending, but you know it all turns out well.

Another passage that made me laugh:

"I believe hens would have been less bother after all, Dorcas thought, as she prepared a tray with the poached egg, a cup of cocoa, and two pieces of brown toast. . . Authors! said Dorcas to herself with scornful emphasis--Authors indeed!--Well, I'll never read a book again but what I'll think of the people as has had to put up with the author, I know that."

I enjoyed this as well:

"Mr Abbott [the publisher] had never before read a novel about a woman who wrote a novel about a woman who wrote a novel--it was like a recurring decimal, he thought, . . "

How often have you read a book where something was compared to a recurring decimal?  

I finished the book in plenty of time for Emily to take it back to the library, and my cold is getting much better, and I'm wondering about finally trying my hand at fiction but doing it anonymously so I can do what Miss Buncle did and write about all the fascinating and crazy people around me who are WAY more interesting than anything I could make up.

Read Miss Buncle's Book the next time you catch a cold.  If it turns to bronchitis, God forbid, at least there are three subsequent Miss Buncle books available on Amazon.

Quote of the Day:
"I guess for people to appreciate your cleverness you have to also not confuse them."
--Emily, after she posted on my Facebook page as a joke and everyone took her seriously

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Fred and the Big Tomato

So I was slicing a fresh tomato the other day and I remembered this:

My brother Fred was the coolest guy God ever made.  He was as rogueish and mischievous and adventuresome as Tom Sawyer, good-looking, charming, and smart.

You always got the sense that his imagination was simmering just below the surface, and when all the boring people had their backs turned, he and a lucky sidekick or two would skate off and do something wild and fun and just bad enough to make your eyes get big if you ever found out.

Which you probably wouldn't.  At least I wouldn't, because I was the boring little sister who might tattle.

I heard hints of his escapades, a whiff of contraband in the barn joists above the milk house or sly explorations in the woods.

As the fascinated little sister, I wanted most of all to be noticed, to be drawn into that dazzling circle where furtive and funny and dangerous adventures happened, just out of sight.

But he almost never chose me.

Except one day he did.

I was probably eight or nine years old that summer.  One warm afternoon, unexpectedly, Fred sidled up to me and asked if I wanted to do something with him.

Yes! YesYesYes!!

"Shhhh. Don't tell Mom.  Just walk normal and go to the garden."

You betcha. We la-di-da-ed to the garden like we were going to fetch a few onions for Mom.

"Now," said Fred, "there's nothing as good as the juice from a ripe tomato on a hot day.  So let's each find the biggest one we can.  And make sure no one's looking."

I made sure.  Then, giggling, I poked around the tomato patch and found a huge, heavy, ripe, red tomato.

So did Fred.

"Let's hide," he said, and we crept into the corn rows and sat down with the tall green rustling stalks hiding us from the whole world.

"This is what you do," said Fred.  "You take one bite, and then you suck the juice out.  It's so good."

So that is what we did.  I sat with him under the arching green leaves of the corn and we grinned and held the tomatoes in both hands and sucked out the juice and it really was the best possible drink on a hot summer day. I felt like I was in the middle of the coolest conspiracy ever, doing something naughty and mysterious, but not naughty enough to worry about losing my salvation over, and I was In On Fred's Ideas, which was the best place to be.

We put the drained tomatoes where Mom wouldn't see them and la-di-da-ed back to the house.

I have never forgotten that feeling of crazy adventure.

But I realize a lot of things now that I didn't then.  Such as:
1. Fred was actually going through some very hard things during those years, and it was no wonder he found ways to escape, both in imagination and in reality.
2. He could have reacted to the abuse he suffered by taking me somewhere and doing horrible things, and I would have been a shockingly easy target.  But he didn't.
3. Mom had such an enormous garden, and so many hundreds of tomatoes, that she wouldn't have cared a bit about us finding a few to drink the juice out of on a hot summer day.

Fred still makes me feel like he is always up to something mysterious and exciting.

Monday, October 19, 2015

A Decision About Books

Much of my publishing journey of the last years has taken place out of public view.

But now I need a bit of advice from The Public.

I've been writing for the Register-Guard for 15 years, and my columns have accumulated into five books.

I self-published my first collection, Ordinary Days, in 2003.  I wasn't that happy with the process and especially the marketing, which was a miserable ordeal for someone raised Amish and constantly told to be more quiet.

Eventually Good Books picked it up, and they published three books:
Ordinary Days
Upstairs the Peasants are Revolting
Downstairs the Queen is Knitting

They didn't sell that terribly well for Goods, partly because books of essays don't sell nearly as well as, say, Amish novels.

Good Books did quite a bit of publicity, mailing free books to 900 bookstores and such.

But the books never really took off in the general population.  So Goods decided not to publish the fourth book.

So I self-published Tea and Trouble Brewing three years ago, and Footprints on the Ceiling one year ago.

At this stage, I love self-publishing.  I love having control of the process, most of all.  I love having enough years under my belt that some people have actually heard of me and read my other books, and now they WANT to hear about the next one. How astonishing is that??

The industry has changed a lot, and technology is much more friendly toward self-publishing.  Also, the internet has radically changed marketing, so that even an ex-Amish girl can publicize her stuff without making a lot of noise.

Also, I get far more money per book than I ever did with royalties.

Meanwhile, in a strange plot twist, Good Books went bankrupt.  For a nail-biting year, I couldn't get any more of my first three books.  Instead, I got dozens of legal papers in the mail that could be used as evidence that the legal industry is a strange, bizarre, wasteful world of its own, with its own language and systems designed to exclude mere mortals but still make money off them.  And to use up forests of paper.

I digress.

Then, happily, another company bought up what remained of Good Books, along with all the inventory and rights.  I could once again buy books to sell at Loretta's Country Bakery and at the fair.

Recently I've been conversing with this new publisher, whom I won't name except to say that they're in New York City and bigger than Good Books but smaller than HarperCollins.

They're interested in publishing one of my last two books.

As I see it, my books have two very distinct markets: the Eugene community and the Mennonite/Amish community.  There's also a third, the online community, which encompasses parts of the above, plus a random mix of other people.

As a self-publisher, I can easily market to the above groups.

The people I can't reach are the average folks in other parts of the country.  Maybe a 40-year-old teacher in Billings, a grandma in Connecticut, a young mom in Memphis.

Those are the people that a "real" publisher could reach.  But would they buy my books if they haven't been following me in other media for a long time, like most of my lovely readers have, God bless them?

Going with a publisher would work for me only if:
1.They can reach these other readers, actually persuade them to buy books, and be more successful at it than Good Books was.
2. They sell about 10 times more books than I'm selling now, to come out as well financially.
3. They don't try to take over my blog, as so many publishers do when a blogger gets a book deal

I've got to say, it is a wonderful thing to be in a position with a bit of power, where I can hold out for the deal I want.  Or I can simply say No and still have a good system going.

To you beginning writers: it took a long time to get here, so don't despair.

If you have an opinion or expertise and want to speak into this, please do.

Have I mentioned that I appreciate all my readers?  Well, I do.  I think it's amazing that you do so voluntarily, and some of you even spend money to do so, which I wouldn't do myself, so God bless you all a lot.