Thursday, September 28, 2023

The Best and Worst of Times

By the Agape restaurant, you can get pellets from dispensers and feed the friendly goats.
I don't see that combination happening in Oregon, but the East is a different animal than the West.
Liberty learned that if you put the pellets anywhere but the palm of your hand, the goats might bite your fingers.

Like so many misadventures, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Emily had floated the idea of her and I doing a small book tour in the East this fall. When she received an invitation from a library in New York to come do a reading and signing, it felt Meant To Be.

When you self-publish, you arrange your own book signings, which means trying to figure out the demographics and details at places you’ve never been, plus finalizing all the specifics and doing all the publicity.

When you go Back East from the West Coast, you (or at least I) try to fit more into your trip than it can comfortably hold, the way you max out your suitcases with about 40 pounds of books and 10 of clothes and shampoo. Why not go early and visit Jenny in Virginia?! And then maybe we can borrow Jenny’s car for all our travels?! And Paul is leaving for Nepal—why not have him fly out with Emily on the companion pass so we can have a little more time together before he leaves?

Thus began the most complicated trip I’ve ever planned. The good thing about this was something I realized when I was talking with my niece and she said, “I wouldn’t have the brain space right now to think through anything like that.” And I realized—My brain is healing! I went through a couple of years when I couldn’t plan an overnight trip to the coast without crying in sheer overwhelmed anxiety. And look at me now. I worked hard for this recovery, but it still snuck up on me, and suddenly I’m scheduling book signings and train trips and visits!

The unfortunate thing about a complicated itinerary is that one thing—just ONE THING—can blow up the whole plan.

It wasn’t the canceled flights that sent it all sideways, although that was bad enough. I had a stopover at Houston Hobby and texted Matt and Phoebe that it made me sad to be only half an hour away from them but I didn’t have time to see them.

Then the flight to Baltimore was delayed for five hours. Well! I texted again, Matt came and picked me up, and Phoebe fed me a fine dinner. What fun!

Matt and me. I am still smiling at this point.

Back at the airport, the flight was delayed further, then cancelled.  I was rebooked for the next day, flying Houston-Dallas-Louisville-Baltimore. 

Matt came and got me. I spent the night at their house.

The next morning, I flew to Dallas and an hour later boarded the plane for Louisville. I was all settled when an announcement came that the next leg, Louisville to Baltimore, was cancelled.

I got off, along with a dozen others who were as upset as I was but used different language to express it. I just repeated, “Oh my stars!” a few times.

“You can’t get to Baltimore today,” said the man at the counter.

“So what am I supposed to do?” I said, channeling the voice Paul uses in such cases that means, “This is your job to sort this out, so do it.” 

The man tapped and frowned. “There are two seats left on the afternoon flight.”

“Yes,” I said. “I’ll take one.”

While I waited, I used my last good tea bag and tried not to despair. I also thought, with a sense of doom, that I was very tired and spending a lot of time in crowded airports and planes, not a good combination for someone who gets sick easily.

Oh well.

I flew from Dallas to Memphis to Myrtle Beach, seeing places I’d never been before, then to Baltimore, where Jenny’s friend Kathrine and her husband Luke appeared like comforting angels and took me to their cute brick house only ten minutes from the airport. I spent the night in their upstairs, and Kathrine put me on the right train in the morning, headed for Roanoke.

This is another significant conclusion from my travels: people are your most valuable resource when traveling. Having Matt and Phoebe in Houston made all the difference in that debacle, and Kathrine’s generous offer to pick up and house anyone in Jenny’s family who flies into BWI was a lifesaver.

Kathrine's hospitality went above and beyond.

Side note: I am very fond of Kathrine, but that is not because we have similar backgrounds. She was raised in the Philippines, an only child whose nanny fed her like a little bird until she was in the third grade. Luke, however, came from a line of blue collar people in Maryland. His family worked in construction, and his grandpa had a sheet metal business. I understand that sort of history.

That information led to stories about Uncle Jimmy, Luke’s dad’s brother. Uncle Jimmy grew up working in his dad’s sheet metal business and kept on when he was out of school. That was basically all he did. When he was thirty, he rode on an escalator for the first time, and it freaked him out. When he was forty, still plugging away in his dad’s business, a woman who was a bit older than him asked him for his phone number. He didn’t have a cell phone and gave her the business number that reached the old rotary dial phone in the shop. Whatever she did worked, though, and they started dating. One night they had a double date with Luke’s parents. Uncle Jimmy thought he’d treat everyone to a movie and popcorn and stuff. He brought $20 for this splash. We assume he hadn’t been out on the town since about 1985. But despite the phone and the movie debacle, Uncle Jimmy and this woman were married four months later. They have a number of dogs, including one with kidney problems, which the new aunt described in detail to Kathrine the first time they met.

I do love stories about interesting people.

Uncle Jimmy’s marriage caused a rift in the family business, and now he has his own sheet metal business. Luke didn’t say this, but I have a suspicion that Grandpa had conveniently underpaid him all those years and the new wife said You Are Worth More Than This.

Good for her.

I hadn’t been on an Amtrak train in probably 20 years, and the ride to Roanoke got me hooked. Comfortable, quiet, roomy, relaxed. Plug-ins on the wall, hot coffee a few cars down, lovely scenery, room to work or sleep. I am planning future trips.

Then, at last, I was with Jenny! We had lost a day, so we crammed as much into the next few as we could. I met her lovely roommate Rebekah, a girl from Malaysia who somewhat incongruously has become well known as a writer and meme-maker in the Anabaptist world. I saw Jenny’s office, met a bunch of her friends, and had dinner with my nephew Derek and his wife Grace and their baby in the next town over. Jenny and I walked all over the Virginia Tech campus, had lunch at the pescatarian place, and worked on our own projects at a coffee shop.

Jenny in her office.
Jenny got me hooked on Hagoromo chalk a couple of years ago. She said it's the favorite of grad students everywhere. I saw proof of this at Virginia Tech.
I crept down these stairs to do laundry and hoped Jenny was alert and cautious whenever she comes down here to pay her rent or do her wash. Yikes.

Before I came, Jenny had told me she wants me to fix her sewing machine as it had completely stalled. The motor revved but it wouldn’t sew. I was delighted not only to have my daughter trust me with the task but also because I love taking things apart and figuring out what’s wrong.

So Jenny gave me screwdrivers and I started taking her precious machine apart—throat plate, bobbin case, and so on. I removed the slab on the end that covers the light and most of the threading loops and fished out a long, stuck, piece of thread.

It still didn’t work. I fiddled and fussed some more.

Then, suddenly, it worked.

I had flipped the little prong on top. The machine had been in bobbin-winding mode. That was all.

It was tempting to tell Jenny that I had done an amazing, complicated fix, but that wouldn’t help her the next time it happened. So I told her. I think she felt a little silly, but now she knows.

I slept in Jenny’s bed while she was on an air mattress in the living room. Wednesday night I was freezing cold all night. I couldn’t find extra blankets, so I pulled a coat and fuzzy onesie pajama out of Jenny’s closet and piled them on the bed.

The next morning I felt absolutely terrible—congested, fever, cough, throwing up. Jenny insisted I take a Covid test. It was positive.

You don’t think about how many people you’ve seen and how many lives you touch until you test positive for Covid. Jenny and Rebekah, who both teach at VT, have a whole protocol to follow if they’re exposed or get sick, which they both did, but not as severely as me. So did Derek and Grace. My sister and her husband were going to stop in a few days later before a trip overseas, and I thought I could not bear it if Rebecca missed out on seeing her grandbaby because I had infected them all. I don’t think Luke and Kathrine or Matt and Phoebe got sick, but it still pained me that I had unwittingly exposed them all.

Seriously, we all touch more lives than we realize.

You also don't think about how hard it is to rearrange the logistics if you suddenly get really sick, or how hard it is to think when you have a fever, or the logistical nightmare of making arrangements with people who are in the air most of the day. 

I wasn't fit to drive the car from Blacksburg to Baltimore as planned, or to go to New York for those events. We finally figured out how to get to Lancaster, PA, and decided to have Paul and Emily do the events in New York.

Through all this, I was trying to make sense of the fact that the last time I caught Covid, a year ago, I was visiting Amy in Thailand. What in the world is with that? And are my daughters going to develop anxiety every time I come visit them??

Paul and Emily flew in, and Paul came by train to fetch me and Jenny’s car while Emily stayed at Kathrine’s. Since everything had to go sideways, he got on the wrong train in Baltimore, hopping on the MARC, a local commuter train, rather than the Amtrak. By God’s mercy, both trains went to Union Station in Washington, DC, and he switched.

Then we had to figure out how to ride in the car together, with me all feverish and drippy, without Paul and Emily getting infected, especially since Paul was leaving in a few days for a trip to Nepal and India.

It was complicated. We decided to wear N95 masks, which is what medical people do in the presence of infection, and hope for the best.

Once again, Kind People came through. I was able to isolate in a guest apartment belonging to a board member of Open Hands, the ministry Paul works for. Paul and Emily went on to New York to do the book signings without me. The library cancelled their event, which was hugely disappointing, and the second event was not well attended because my judgment of the demographics of the area had been way off.

It was all very disheartening.

I used to look for signs in situations when everything went wrong. Had I not prayed enough about the trip, had I missed obvious cues, was I being punished, was there a major life lesson I needed to learn?

I don’t do that any more. You do the best you can with the information you have. Things happen. You deal with it. You know for next time.

Then, things turned around. I felt better, Paul stayed well and left for Nepal, and Emily and I went to our final three book signings at Main Street Exchange (a modest clothing boutique) and two Good's Stores, each one better attended than the last. We had a wonderful day with my niece Annette, I flew home without the slightest hiccup, Emily went on to a work retreat, and Paul thoroughly enjoyed his trip.

Paul says this little girl was eating fruit of some kind while having a lively conversation with him, despite the fact that neither could understand the other.

At Good's Store in Ephrata, the employees had decorated our table with greenery and this little hen. It spoke of welcome and forethought.
Cora and her daughters drove an hour and a half to see us at Main Street Exchange! Cora and I went to a little Amish school in Ohio when she was in first grade and I was in fourth.

Between customers, Emily browsed the lovely clothes at Main Street Exchange.

Stacey-Jean got a group of ladies together for coffee and encouragement. We're all part of a Facebook group and it was lovely to meet in person.
At Annette's house, Emily helped the girls sew doll clothes.
She is their "Aunt Emily" and is honored to have the title.

Sometimes trips go well, and sometimes they don’t. This one was both the best and worst of times. I haven't extracted any profound meaning from it yet, except that it's lifesaving to have people to call when everything goes wrong. God bless everyone who stepped up in our desperate moments.

I hope I am as willing and available when it’s my opportunity to help when someone else's plans are going completely haywire.

My friend/neighbor/niece Dolly housesat for us and took care of everything including the dahlias, which were still blooming gloriously when I got home.
For the first few years, my dahlias were mostly purples and whites. I'm slowly cultivating more pinks, corals, and yellows, thanks to strategic specifics on my Christmas lists.

I call these dinnerplate dahlias Pink Patricias, because my friend Pat Lee gave me the tubers.

My new book, Coming Home to Roost, is available at


  1. You had quite the trip! It was good to see you in Ephrata!
    My grandpa began his family in Harrisburg! We are related to alot of people in your area! GettingGetting

  2. I'm so sorry about your hassles. I came home from a trip to Ohio recently that had some hiccups, too, but they sound kind of minor compared to yours. We had a missed flight due to sitting on the tarmac a long time waiting for our gate. But they put us up in a nice hotel. And we still got to our destination in time for my niece's afternoon wedding (it's a good thing it wasn't a morning wedding). Then on the way home we had a night lay-over planned with a room booked in a hotel in the airport. But the Skylink in Dallas was down for maintenance--it was, after all, after midnight. So we had a very long walk to our hotel. Linda Rose

  3. Ah my this made me tired and stressed just to read about it. 🤪 You lived it. I was struck w how PEOPLE help us along and bless us, and that means we are blessed indeed. To have a community even far from home! Thank u Lord

  4. I love your approach to life and I love knowing that little trips used to stress you out and you worked through it to come through to big trips. Inspiring. And I agree, we do the best we can. I am working on giving myself that grace which means I can also give that grace to other people. . .

  5. I have pretty much quit wearing masks when I go out, and have even been brave enough to eat at a couple of (mostly empty) restaurants. I caught COVID last January, about a month after getting my last vaccination. Though I didn't get TOO sick (probably because I WAS vaccinated) I was irritated that the vaccine hadn't "worked." I've seen more people running around with masks on again lately, and I suppose it won't kill me (probably quite the opposite) to get into the habit again. COVID has not gone away, the sneaky, annoying little bug!
    As for your trip, it seems like a glowing example of exactly what you said--what a blessing it is to have people who will step up and help when you need it! Not a bad lesson to (re)learn!

  6. Rebecca Strite10/02/2023 10:58 AM

    I was so blessed to meet you at your book signing at the Ephrata Good's! Two of my girls&I were out shopping while my husband was at a minister's mtg & we decided to go to Good's, not knowing you were there! I asked the Lady working the booksection if she had any books by Dorcas Smucker & she said, "Oh my! She's here signing books today!" So we raced to your table &had the delightful surprise of meeting you! I've read your books for years & loved them! (You're so refreshingly honest & encouraging!) In reading your books I've discovered a fellow tea drinker(I have a large stash of tea, too) & that we both spent part of our lives in Canada- I was born in Northwest Ontario in 1969.... my dad was an airplane mechanic for the mission up there for 20years!