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!