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.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Cabin Gets a Name

Paul's great-aunt Berneice didn't have a name until she was 4 years old.  They always called her "Babe," and somehow never got around to giving her an actual name.  Then one day the parents had to fill out some legal documents in town and had to fill in their children's names.

Well.  What do we call Babe?  They decided on Berneice, and, as I recall the story, came home from town and informed her of this.  She was quite pleased.

We had been calling our project The Cabin and The Writing Cabin and the Acorn House and similar things while I waited on The Right Name.

Various readers weighed in.  "Don't choose Acorn Cottage!  It'll become The Nut House!"  "DO choose Acorn Cottage!  The Nut House is a fun name!"

And it was my decision to make, and even something this small can be terrifying when the final word is yours.

I made lists of synonyms for house:

And I listed natural features:

And words for "quiet":

Someone suggested using the word "Selah," in the sense of "pause and think," which I thought was a great idea, especially since it would tie in well with some of my favorite verses, in Psalm 84, that I hope to accomplish with my writing:
Blessed are those who dwell in your house;
    they are ever praising you. Selah.
Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
    whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.
As they pass through the Valley of Baka,
    they make it a place of springs;
    the autumn rains also cover it with pools.[d]
They go from strength to strength,
    till each appears before God in Zion.
"Baka" means "balsam" and represents weeping or bitter.  I really like the idea of going through a bitter time and turning it into a place of springs for whoever comes after me.

Also, the part about the autumn rains covering the area with pools seemed appropriate for our location.

But nothing came together, name-wise, or felt Right.

It crossed my mind that I had forgotten to pray about this.  So I prayed about it, but I didn't ask for a sign, only for wisdom, not wanting to be a wicked and adulterous generation. [Matthew 16:4].

The next day Ben was flying in from points afar, and I needed to pick him up in Portland.  I decided to leave early and eat supper with my brother Phil in Newberg, so I fixed a cooler of homemade food, as a good sister ought to, with chicken soup and fresh tomatoes and Mom's "goommera salaut" [cucumber salad] as best as I could replicate it.  As I was leaving, I grabbed a few cd's to play on the way, and for much of the drive on I-5 a cd of hymns was playing, but I didn't listen much, because when I am alone I like to Think.

Among other pressing matters, I thought about a name as I drove, and realized that one name I hadn't considered was "nest."  Hmmm.  Well, what kind of nest would it be?  Eagle? Raven? Robin?

Hey!  Sparrow!

Yes!  A quiet place for an obscure little brown bird who isn't anything to brag about but the Father still watches over it!  Yes yes yes!

The Sparrow Nest.

I said it to myself, and I liked it, and Right Then I came back to reality and the hymn that was playing in the car at that exact second--"His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me."

How could it be anything but a Sign?

Later, some of the family thought it should be "Sparrow's" and not just "Sparrow," and Paul said cautiously that sparrows don't nest in the oaks by the creek, and someone mentioned Captain Jack Sparrow of Pirates of the Caribbean.

But I said The Sparrow Nest just feels right.

Later I realized that it still goes perfectly with Psalm 84.  Verse 3, just before the above quote, says:

Even the sparrow has found a home,
    and the swallow a nest for herself,
    where she may have her young—
a place near your altar,
    Lord Almighty, my King and my God.

Lovely, isn't it?

I'm happy to have this settled.

But maybe we don't need to mention to Great-aunt Berneice how much time and complication this naming process involved.

Meanwhile, like a nest accumulating straw by straw, this cabin is becoming reality.  Paul is doing most of the work, so it has to fit in between preaching, principaling, and grass seeding.  But it IS happening, little by little.

Yesterday they poured the 8-foot concrete posts that should keep it above the 100-year flood plain.

And the cabin isn't the only thing that's up high and out of reach.  I told Paul he is setting the bar so high that pretty soon husbands everywhere are going to resent him.

Quote of the Day:
"If you put "the" in, it changes it."
--Cousin Simone, who wasn't sure about Sparrow vs. Sparrow's

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Bible Memory Camp 2015--Chapter 2

At Ben Swartzendruber’s suggestion, we went to Bandon for Bible Memory Camp, down on the southern Oregon Coast.

Paul and I hadn't been there since our honeymoon.

It’s a lovely area, a bit warmer than points north, I’m told, and while the miles of uninterrupted beach further north are lovely, the Bandon beach with its random massive rocks is beautiful as well.

The rocks are great places for kids to climb on, and for the boys to have a seaweed battle.

Ben brought his boat and we brought crab rings.  The kids took turns spending hours and hours out on the boat, crabbing.
We also did some crabbing and fishing from the dock.
Jadrien, Annika, Eunice, McKenzie

On the last day, we ate lots of crab.
Mrs. Smucker eating crab, daintily.

We had one injury that involved blood, when Weston grabbed a crab the wrong way and it pinched his finger.

We also had one hurt feeling, when one of the guys connived, Thelma-like, to have "Andrew" sweep out the yurt at the end of our stay.  I didn’t know about this until I was walking to the restroom and suddenly a voice came out of a tree above me, bird-like, and it was "Andrew," who had retreated there to regain his equilibrium and told me what had happened.  I sympathized and told him that God will bless him for serving, which probably didn’t help much.

I can’t remember if I talked to “Thelma” about it or not.

With this age, it’s always hard to know when you assume they can handle it and when you need to intervene.
The guys did a lot of grilling, drove boats and vans, and conversed.

We also had one scare.  They boys were playing hide-and-seek on the beach, darting around the big rocks and running far down that enormous beach where even a Smucker’s voice carries only a few hundred feet and then is lost in the wind and waves.

The sun was setting and it was time to go.  We stopped the game, started rounding up children, and took inventory. Tanner was missing.

Tanner is a slow-moving, slow-talking, slow-grinning sort of guy.  We looked behind logs and around rocks, up the beach and down the beach.  We called, but our voices didn’t reach far enough to rouse a well-hidden kid.

Where in the world was he?

The boys went scampering back down the beach where they’d been playing before, maybe half a mile away.  We saw them skittering and darting around, playing a new game, and finally one of us went down to fetch them, and there was Tanner.

Weston had remembered seeing Tanner crossing a dune, heading away from the beach, but hadn’t divulged this to us when we were all frantically looking.  So when the boys went back to where they had played before, Weston knew where to look.  But right about that time Tanner showed up.  So they started playing another game.

I asked Tanner later if he’d fallen asleep.  “Nooo, not quite,” he said.  “But just about.  I lay back in the grass for a long time and nobody found me.  But then I saw the sun was settin’ and I thought I’d better come back.”

Well, I guess he won the game, for sure.

 Riding in a van full of boys is exhausting even if you don't have to drive, or say or do anything.  Just the constant NOISE.
In our Reliable Old Van: Cody and Logan in back.
Tanner and Jadrien in front
Boys communicate with a lot of noises in between words.  I kept track for about 20 minutes.


But then I noticed that, depending on the subject, all these sounds and more would be uttered many times, at high volume, and with wild gestures, within about 2 minutes.  These subjects included:
1. A high-speed police/motorcycle chase through Brownsville and Harrisburg the day before
2. A chiropractor fixing someone's back
3. Dirt biking
One sand sculpture.
It was a wonderful camp.  Annika and Trevin won the verse contest.  People were fun and kind and helpful.  The weather was amazing.  A bunch of adolescent girls made me feel included.  And at night, in my top bunk, I could look out the skylight and see stars.

It doesn't get better than that.

Quote of the Day:
I forget who, talking about pets, I think: Their names are Flint and Weston.
Me: That's like guns!
Ashton: Uh, that's Smith and Wesson.
Me: Oh yeah...

Logan and Tyler on the jetty

Boys being boys.

Some of us went to a wild animal park.
This cat was about as cooperative as your average housecat.

Ashton, Brittney, Eunice in the "valley of dry bones" 

Girls, waiting.
These people will do a great job with camp in the coming years.
[Ruth: "And then he threw a frisbee and it hit me right here!"]
[just kidding]

The Bandon bayfront has all kinds of benches, sculptures, and fun things to do.
Loading up: why does it always take so much Stuff?
But we used it all.
Except we had too much food.

It's been a fun ride.

The beautiful Bandon beach.

The Campers, 2015
Goodbye, beach and Bandon and Bible Memory Camp.  It was good to be here.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Bible Memory Camp 2015--Chapter One

First, some definitions.

Bible Memory Camp: an annual project in which we hand out cards printed with 50 Bible verses to the 9-to-14-year-olds at church.  If they memorize them and recite them to their parents, they get to go on a 3-day trip.

Camp: a loose term that can mean actual camping, with tents and campfires and hauling water, or staying in a house with actual beds and showers, or something in between, such as staying in yurts.

Yurt: a round, wood-framed, canvas-covered building based on dwellings in Mongolia and featured at a number of Oregon campgrounds.  They provide more structure and shelter than tents, and a lot less than motorhomes or houses, thus providing the true camping experience without the complete despair of a cold rain on a leaky tent with homesick 10-year-olds.
The outside of a yurt.
The inside of a yurt.

Our big red and white van, the Verse Contest, Treasure Hunts, the Sand Sculpture Contest, and Way Too Much Food Sent By The Moms: Unchanging camp traditions.

Paul and I have been involved in Bible Memory Camp for 20 years.  For a number of years, Arlen and Sharon Krabill were involved.  The last few years, we organized it, with various people helping.

Last year, Paul said, "Someone else needs to be in charge of this."  So he told the congregration we'd like to take two younger couples along and train them in. Was anyone interested?

Ben and Ruth Swartzendruber volunteered, and also Preston and Heather Kropf.

The Sponsors, still smiling at the end of camp
Ben thought, and we agreed, that this sort of interaction between church leadership and the kids from church has been invaluable.  So, in the future, they might invite a pastor/deacon couple to go along each time.

Which means there's a chance we'll do this again, but for now this was officially our Last Bible Memory Camp.
Weston and Jadrien in back. Then Tyler, Tanner, Trevin, Logan, Cody,
Brittney, Eunice, Ashton, and McKenzie. Annika in front.
It was wonderful.

Well, most of it was wonderful.

Paul stayed in a yurt with the boys, and I was in another with the girls.  The other couples had tents at another campsite. The first night, I climbed awkwardly up into the top bunk and unzipped my sleeping bag.  Did the girls seem extra expectant and quiet, in retrospect?  Maybe so.  Because down in my sleeping bag I found something long, tubular, brown, cold, alive-ish, and awful awful awful.  Not a snake, praise be to God, but awfully awfully snakelike.

Shudders and horrors, gasps and exclamations.

It was a long coiled end of one of those awful long brown tubular seaweed things.

And the culprit was Ashton, one of those lucky girls who isn't scared of anything.

She still teases me about it, sneaking up behind me after church and murmuring, "How about some seaweeeeeddd??"

And the next day, while I was still jumpy, McKenzie came up behind me on the beach and twined a long cold seaweed around my ankles.  GAAAAHHHHH!!

She laughed and laughed.

Both seaweed incidents involved this kind of seaweed.  Logan was dragging all this
along to use in his sand sculpture.  He reminded me of the prisoners
dragging the ship in the opening scene of Les Miserables.*
This was much more voluntary, and happy.
This was the first time we rented a community yurt in addition to the yurts we stayed in.  It was the best idea yet, as we could make food there, stash all the food without losing it to raccoons, and have a place to hang out together after dark.
Jadrian and Logan, the Camo Cap Campers
One night Ruth introduced a game where each team had to stack plastic cups using only a rubber band and string.

Trevin, Tanner, and Eunice

Tyler and Cody, with Ruth looking on.
 This post is getting way too long.  I'll post more pictures tomorrow.

But first, the Quote of the Day:
"Guys!  Act normal! It's the park ranger!"

*Disclaimer: this is not an endorsement of Les Mis, which I watched on a plane once, about the only time I watch movies clear through, and it was pretty intense. Especially if you don't watch movies much. Excellent story, though.

That's Annika dragging the stick in the sand.
I think this shot just shines with the Fun and Joy of the Coast.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Today's LFH: On Finding Ways to Communicate

It’s about communicating love, no matter what the technology or platform

By Dorcas Smucker
For The Register-Guard
OCT. 11, 2015

 We were in the middle of making 50 quarts of applesauce when I suddenly remembered it was time to talk to Amy. I left kids on the porch washing and quartering apples, pots of apples hissing on the stove, and the Squeezo applesauce-extractor in mid-crank as I dashed to the computer.

Communication trumps canning, after all.

Every Saturday at 5 p.m. I sit down at the desktop computer in the office and open a program called Skype.

I type in my name and password. My list of contacts appears on the left, and I look for a green check mark by our oldest daughter’s name telling me she’s also signed in.

A click on the little video camera icon, a short wait and there is Amy, just waking up on the other side of the world in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I see her arranging herself and her cup of coffee against a green pillow in front of the curtains that I sewed for her a year ago.

She looks healthy. And happy. Praise God.

And then we talk.

Amy always wants to know what’s happening here. Is Jenny in choir again and how are Steven’s EMT courses going? Is harvest over and has JoNell had her baby?

I hear the tropical birds trilling outside her open windows, and a dog barks. She tells me about tutoring university students and about the funny neighbor who puts sweaters on her dog when the temperature drops to a chilling 68 degrees.

After an hour, she needs to get ready for church and I need to go make supper.

“Bye.” “Love you!” “Good talking to you!” “You too!”


“How has technology changed your life?” an email asked me recently.

My first thought was, “Communication.”

We were Amish when I was little, which means you can’t pick up the phone to call your relatives, so Mom would seat us around the dining room table, pass out papers and pencils, and tell us to write letters to Grandma.

I saw one of these specimens, years later. “Dear Grandma, How are you? I am fine. Are you very busy these days?”

As teenagers, we talked on the phone with our friends, which never had quite the charm of the girls in magazines lying on their chenille bedspreads chatting on their Princess phones, because we had exactly one phone, right in the middle of the house, and it was a party line to boot, so the neighbors could listen in too.

My parents never transitioned to technology and always preferred paper and ink letters. Writing, addressing, and mailing a letter seemed like a huge bother in comparison to email, especially when we had small children, so it was hard to stay in touch.

We even bought a fax machine and installed it in Mom and Dad’s basement, hoping to make communication one step easier. I wrote a detailed list of instructions and pasted little numbers and arrows to various buttons on the machine. They never grew comfortable with it.

“If you have a message to give, it’s your job to figure out how to make sure it’s understood,” we were told in a cross-cultural communication class while working with Native Americans in Canada. “this includes learning another language, if need be. You can’t expect them to learn your language.”

When your children are at home or your parents live nearby, communication can include hugs, big ginger molasses cookies, and help with raking leaves.

When they’re far away, communication is mostly words.

I love my family, and love is all about relationships, and relationships fade and even die without words. So, I need to continually figure out how to keep those crucial, life-giving words flowing back and forth between us, not only in a language they can understand, but in a medium they can easily use.

It’s my task to make communication a priority. It’s not mine to dictate how it has to happen.

My dad and I still write letters to each other, but otherwise the days of weekly paper letters are long gone, and talking on the phone is out of fashion with young people as well.

I need to adapt to the culture and learn their language and customs.

First I learned to email. Then, a few years ago, I learned to text. Before I discovered backspacing, I would type “oops” whenever I made a mistake, wildly amusing my daughters.

On Sunday afternoons I sometimes Skype with our son Matt. He shows me the latest project in his Washington, D.C., apartment, such as a wooden rack for his weights, and tells me about his work at the Navy Yard while I analyze the room behind him (messy), his beard (handsome), and the green smoothie he’s sipping (impressive).

At Matt’s urging, I bought an outdated iPhone from a Craigslist ad. “It’s more intuitive,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “It might work better with how your mind works.”

He was right. Slowly, swipe by swipe, I learned. I’ve even downloaded a few apps.

My sister in Oman introduced me to WhatsApp, an online messaging system that’s a few steps easier than email and works better than texting for communicating overseas.

“Plipp!” chirps my phone on the kitchen counter, and there is a picture of Rebecca’s tiled patio, ringed in greenery that must be hard to keep alive in the 120-degree heat.

Another day, the phone beeped and no words appeared, only a line and a triangle. “Oh! It’s an audio message!” I clicked the triangle and my sister’s voice, in our traditional Amish dialect of Pennsylvania German, came out of my iPhone in a bizarre bending of time, space and communication.

In the next week, I’ll probably text my high school daughter about picking up milk after school, Skype with the older kids, write a longhand letter to my dad, and have a long philosophical discussion as all of us wash the dishes after supper.

I’ll call friends my age, send Facebook messages, comment on a niece’s Instagram photo, and text a nephew about coming for Sunday dinner — words and always more words, pulling us together.

In this strange modern world of endless ways to communicate but increasingly isolated and lonely people, I feel an urgency to reach out, to connect, to include, to speak and listen, even if it means the applesauce scorches or the cleaning waits.

Words and sentences and paragraphs, again and again. Written, tapped, and spoken. Cut apart into electrons and mysteriously reassembled on another continent. No matter the method, it always comes back to the words that form the communication that makes the connections that keep alive the relationship, the friendship, the family, the love.