“This book is beautifully written. I have to admit, having a 19-year-old artist daughter myself, I spent the majority of time reading this book with tears streaming down my face. I even sobbed through a couple sections. That said, I’ve been through tremendous loss myself, so it was a cathartic read. Though I’ve never lost a child, reading Vaudrey’s story helped me understand my daughter’s terrible loss. We all loved our Jacob, but for a mother to lose her child is heart-rending. Still, Vaudrey manages to give hope and light to a topic that needs to be talked about. Her daughter Katie was a beautiful soul, and her mother does her and the topic of the loss of a child justice.”- from my June 13, 2016 Goodreads review
The author, September Vaudrey, will be speaking Friday, November 2, on “Boulders Leave Craters,” as part of the Heal Your Grief retreat at Shalom Spirituality Center in Dubuque, Iowa. Those who wish to hear her speak do not need to sign up for the entire retreat weekend, but can pick and choose from a roster of speakers and workshops. Tickets can be purchased through Eventbrite Heal Your Grief.
“What would it look like to have friendships with those who are not like us, wherein we learn to argue well and lovingly- and yet at the end of the day we can still be friends?”
So asks author Sarah Arthur in A Light So Lovely: The Spiritual Legacy of Madeleine L’Engle in regards to the friendship L’Engle shared with Luci Shaw.
Longtime followers of our blog will recall that I reviewed Madeleine and Luci’s book Friends for the Journey in 2014. I even listed it as a complementary book example in the proposal I wrote for Mary & Me,
“And you, on your part, can make radical theological statements with which I may disagree, but again, because of our bond of love we accept each other for who we are, flawed and failing, but always truth-seeking,” Luci wrote to Madeleine in their co-authored book.
“Do you feel it, the quiver of longing? I’m guessing I’m not the only one who knows firsthand just how rare, how valuable, such a grace-filled, truth-seeking kind of friend is. Not an idol, not a mentor or spiritual director: a friend.” Sarah Arthur marvels.
Mary Humston and I are blessed to share that unique kind of friendship. Before we co-wrote Mary & Me, I would have said we are more alike than we are different, but our co-writing venture seems to have heightened the differences between us, opening the door to conversations we may have avoided before through thousands of letters. We’ve discussed political issues more in the ensuing three years than we had in the previous thirty. A recent exchange regarding educational reform ended with a respectful agreement to disagree.
“This is a lost art in our culture, particularly as we create ever narrower, taller, insular silos on social media, cut off from opposing viewpoints. With a mere click of a button we can ‘unfriend’ and ‘unfollow’ those with whom we disagree…” Sarah Arthur continues. Her depth of research into Madeleine L’Engle’s life reveals a woman who, much like my dear friend Mary, always attempted to practice charity and empathy towards others. About an acquaintance who worshipped alongside her every day but hated all people of an Asian descent, Madeleine wrote “Surely within me there is an equal blindness, something that I do not recognize in myself, that I justify without even realizing it. All right, brother. Let us be forgiven together, then.”
“All right, brother, we say to the angry relative at Thanksgiving. All right, sister, we say to the person on social media whose politics sound like a foreign language. All right, we say to our idols when they disappoint us. Let us be forgiven together, then. We will only make a way forward when we recognize that we too are flawed and wounded sojourners, that where we are now on the journey is not the end game,” Sarah Arthur extrapolates.
Up until the reading of this beautifully-written biography, I’ve managed to pointedly ignore any hint of criticism of my idol, Madeleine L’Engle, preferring instead to keep the Christian mother and author atop the carefully crafted pedestal I’d established for her in my mind. Somehow, Arthur has managed to delve into that criticism in a way that does not cause disappointment, but instead reveals the complexity of a woman who, despite her failings, still managed to convey a strength and faith we should all strive for.
“Madeleine showed up to serve the work of writing; she disciplined herself to sit down and be present. And she showed up as a struggling believer; she disciplined herself to continue praying, continue reading the Bible, continue practicing hospitality, continue worshiping in community. She perhaps never wrested every chapter of her life into a tidy resolution in which ‘all shall be well,’ but she put her trust in the One whose love does not fail.”
In sharing Madeleine’s own words from the 1996 Festival of Faith and Writing, Sarah Arthur reveals my own greatest desire;
“We’re supposed to be such witnesses of Christ’s love that other people will want to know what makes us glow.”
Novelist Leif Enger called Madeleine “an apologist for joy,” Sarah Arthur informs the reader. A Light So Lovely aptly conveys that aspect of her.
Three Things About Elsie
By Joanna Cannon
Review written by Mary Jedlicka Humston
I added Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon to my reserve list at the Iowa City Public Library, because recent reviews intrigued me. When this novel became available, I felt drawn to read it right away, even though I have stacks of books here at home begging to be read. Once drawn in, let me say, it is a hard one to set down. I would categorize reading this book as more of an “experience.” And, for that reason, I will share only the gist of the plot.
As those of you who follow us know, Mary PK and I generally post reviews about books that deal with friendships, letter writing, or related aspects. Three Things About Elsie centers on friendship with the setting being the Cherry Tree Home for the Elderly. Florence Claybourne deals with dementia, but is aided by her best friend and confidante Elsie. Elsie helps Florence when she’s confused, uncertain, and needing a friend’s guidance.
Florence says: “There are three things you should know about Elsie, and the first thing is that she’s my best friend. People chop and change best friends, first one and then another depending what kind of mood they happen to find themselves in and who they’re talking to, but mine has always been Elsie and it always will be. That’s what a best friend is all about, isn’t it? Someone who stands by you, no matter what.” (pg. 9)
Their friendship alone is reason enough to read this novel, but there is so much more substance to the storyline and characters Cannon has created. Cannon also constructed believable interactions between residents, staff, and administrators at Cherry Tree.
Plus, it is also a mystery. It leads the reader on a journey detailing the challenges as Florence, Elsie and new friend Jack try to piece together the reasons for the strange events that occur to them and other Cherry Tree residents and staff, as well as trying to understand Elsie and Florence’s past.
The story becomes even more curious when a new resident looks exactly like a man who died sixty years ago.
I’m not trying to be cute, dramatic, or smaltzy when I say that I will treasure my first reading of Three Things About Elsie. A reader only gets that opportunity with a book once. Just once. However, I will be reading this book again, because it is that good. This is a rarity for me. “One and done” is my usual mode.
I guarantee readers will be hearing much more about this book in the future. I hope you’ll soon experience Three Things About Elsie.
Review written by Mary Jedlicka Humston
“Where’s the power button?”
“I’m scared I’ll spend half my life deciding what to do with it and the other half regretting that choice.”
“I just want to push your buttons.”
“What is the password?”
“Avoid identity theft. Use a typewriter. They are much harder to hack.”
“I will find someone someday.”
Intrigued by the statements above? If so, you’re sure to love Notes from a Public Typewriter by Michael Gustafson and Oliver Uberti. This cute, little fire-engine red book has dozens of comments that were typed on an old manual typewriter resting atop a simple table, with a straight-back chair and floor lamp beside it.
The typewriter resides on the lower level inside Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, operated by Michael and Hilary Gustafson. This independent bookstore opened in the spring of 2013 in response to a long held dream the co-owners shared.
The public typewriter experiment was just that….an experiment. Would customers take time to type out notes? If so, what words would they leave? Poetry? Random thoughts? Jokes? Gustafson even wondered if some people would even know how to use this now-antiquated machine.
The experiment took off. Typed pages of notes accumulated to the point that Gustafson was encouraged to write a book to display some of his and coauthor Uberti’s favorite comments.
Notes from a Public Typewriter is that book. It is filled with funny, serious, clever, heartbreaking, and personal notes. Colored photographs (with a small number of black and whites) add to the book, as do the short vignettes Gustafson pens.
I loved this book. I thought I would read it in short snips of time. And, that’s how it started out since I was in the middle of reading another book when I first thumbed through it. Soon, I found myself so engaged, I sat down in my favorite chair and read the rest of the book in one sitting. Regardless of how you choose to read Notes from a Public Typewriter, I hope you’ll find it as enjoyable as I did.
Here’s one final typed note that I loved:” Life, like this typewriter, has no backspace. Type strongly and don’t look back.”
Note to Self: Inspiring Words from Inspiring People
Collected and Introduced by Gayle King
Review by Mary Jedlicka Humston
Whenever I find a book that relates to letter writing or friendship, I’m instantly intrigued to learn what others feel about these two topics that are near and dear to my heart. There is always something I can learn which is why I recently read Note to Self: Inspiring Words from Inspiring People.
This book is a collection of letters written by 26 people with the main question being: If you could write your younger self a letter, what words would you want to impart?
Truly, all 26 letters were inspirational, but if I had to select the two that touched me the most, I’d pick the letters by Dr. Ruth and Tyler Perry.
Dr. Ruth Westheimer became well-known for her expertise in imparting out relationship and sex advice. She writes her ten-year-old self after the devastation of losing her family at the hands of the Nazis.
She says to that orphan girl: “…making a new family will be more dear to you than you could possibly imagine, because they’ll be living proof that Hilter failed at wiping out your family” (pg. 43). How powerful is that?
I’d previously read how Tyler Perry’s young life was filled with abuse, challenges, and belittling from many others. His mother’s enduring love and support plus a strong faith guided Perry to not only survive but also to thrive, enough so that many Americans will know him as a writer, producer, director and actor.
While there are many memorable lines that are quote-worthy, one grabbed me.
When Taya Kyle’s husband Chris Kyle, a US Navy Seal returned home from duty who was killed on American soil in 2013, I was reminded about the importance of friends when she writes: “Go to them. Hold their hands. In your moments of despair, a friend’s hand on yours will get you through the worst of it.” (pg. 95).
This book can easily be read in one sitting. However, letters are only a few pages long, so readers can savor them slowly if they desire. Whatever way you choose to read Note to Self, you’re sure to have been inspired.
As Mary and I worked on our respective chapters for Mary & Me it became apparent that we’d had very different childhood experiences, most notably in regards to bullying. As our readers will remember, it was me, Mary Potter Kenyon, who endured bullying in childhood. I have heard from many readers regarding their own similar experiences. I wish I had the answer to bullying, but I don’t. What I do know is that we can each make a difference in our own little corner of the world. Contemplating the topic this weekend, I wrote the following essay:
I spent a lot of time around chickens as a youngster. My family lived on the outskirts of a small Iowa town and raised chickens for the eggs and meat. They were friendly fowl for the most part, except when we chased them around the yard for butchering or attempted to confiscate warm eggs from beneath the broody hens.
Not a big fan of my mother’s oatmeal, I’d sit on the front step of the chicken coop, holding my bowl full of the dreaded stuff, and flicking spoons of sticky oats behind my back. The sudden squawking and frantic beating of wings as the chickens scrambled for the treasured milk-sopped grain should have revealed my subterfuge, but Mom never said a word.
I’d play with fluffy yellow chicks when they escaped the confines of the pen, cupping them in my hands and letting them peck at the buttons of my shirts. I named my favorites, once befriending a chicken who let us hold and pet her. When our parents were gone to the grocery store, we’d let “Chickey” loose in the house, where she’d run straight to the living room chair and make herself at home.
Because of their close proximity, I also carry a vivid memory from a summer when the usual mild feather-pecking of my father’s flock heightened to cannibalistic proportions. I watched in horrified fascination as the laying hens circled their designated prey; one of their own. Whether one hen was more aggressive than the others wasn’t discernable, because chickens imitate each other. Soon all of them were pulling feathers and pecking until they drew blood, ultimately pecking their peer to death.
Dad read books about the disorder, asked questions at the feed store, and frantically tried every tactic suggested to get them to stop, to no avail. He lost several chickens before butchering the entire flock.
When I look back on the bullying I endured in elementary school, I think of those chickens. For whatever reason, I became the target of the class tyrant. Because her taunts were aimed at me, others soon joined in. She was relentless, always finding something wrong with me; my hair, my clothes, my entire existence.
When my nine siblings and I would gather at my mother’s house many years later, our reminiscing sometimes included stories of being bullied and our subsequent lack of self-esteem. My mother’s countenance would dramatically alter when our chatter veered off in that direction. With a pained look on her face, she’d insist that we were better people for having experienced the poverty that likely led to the bullying.
“You’re more empathetic, more sensitive, because of it,” she’d say. “Being poor didn’t hurt you. You all have good work ethics and know the value of a dollar.”
Being poor might not have hurt us, but the incessant bullying certainly did. You cannot be pushed, tripped, kicked, spit on, and informed daily that you are worthless, without some ill effects, no matter how wonderful your family is or how many teachers told you differently.
“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” I was taught, but the words did hurt. At some point, I began to believe the repeated taunts; I was ugly. I smelled bad. My clothes were even uglier. I was stupid. I morphed from a happy first-grader who loved learning, to a sixth grader who navigated the school hallway with books clutched tightly to my chest. I’d scurry to my destination, shoulders hunched, head down, avoiding eye contact. I couldn’t do anything about the clothing, but by golly, I wouldn’t be stupid. I retreated into a world of books and writing. By the time I escaped the bowels of hell parochial school had become, I’d lost any semblance of self-esteem. I was fortunate to escape the bullying when I transferred to a public junior high, where the friendship of one popular girl meant an acceptance I’d never experienced in elementary school.
Yes, we are the sum of our experiences, and it could be said I was driven to prove myself as worthy because of my grade-school experience. I excelled in school; acting in plays, participating in speech contests, writing for the newspaper, and joining several clubs. I even ended up as senior class secretary. I went on to graduate from college, no mean feat for an attendee of the inaugural 1965 Head Start government program designed to offer the preschool experience to low income children.
But the fact remains that to this day, some fifty years later, a chance meeting with one of those childhood bullies can transport me right back to that awful feeling of worthlessness. I consciously steel my shoulders to prevent them from slumping, and it takes every ounce of courage to meet the eyes that once looked upon me with disdain.
As a parent, I understand the reason my mother hadn’t wanted to be reminded of the bullying that most of her children endured. There wasn’t much she could do about it, except suffer with them. Even as a child, I soon realized that. The one time I arrived home in tears, knees and palms skinned because I’d fallen as I ran from a group of boys throwing snowballs at me, her eyes betrayed her own pain as she feebly tried to convince me that boys only picked on girls they liked. I didn’t come home crying again. I couldn’t bear to see my mother’s hurt, just as she couldn’t bear to be reminded that her children had once suffered at the hands of others.
I don’t have the answer to bullying. I only know that, having experienced it, I want my corner of the world to be filled with kindness. And maybe it’s that simple; beginning in our own homes, teaching our children kindness and compassion while emulating it ourselves. Kindness might be one of the most powerful and underrated agent of social change there is.
How can one person make a difference? By keeping in mind that every human being faces their own private battle. Showing compassion and love for even the most unpleasant and disagreeable among us. Speaking up when we observe an act of meanness. Remembering that words hurt and being careful with our own. It isn’t always easy. Sometimes our kindness is rebuffed. Our intentions misread. Avoiding gossip and mean-spiritedness can be difficult in a workplace or environment that thrives upon such banter. When the desire for approval from our peers supersedes our good intentions, it can feel like a risk, but it’s one worth taking. The future of our world depends on it.
Don’t be a chicken. Always choose kindness.
Galatians 5:22 “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness,”
Little Blue Truck
Written by Alice Schertle and illustrated by Jill McElmurry
Review written by Mary Jedlicka Humston
If you hear the words “blue truck” and “friendship,” I doubt your next words would be “excellent children’s book.” But, in this case, that would be an accurate progression, especially if you’re looking for a children’s book that highlights the importance of friendship.
Little Blue Truck by Alice Schertle shows how friendship is important and can make a difference. This is a sweet story with beautiful, detailed illustrations and clever rhyme.
The little blue truck says “hello” to many of his animal friends as he wends his way down the dirt road. Without giving away the story line, I’ll just say that a huge yellow dump truck enters the scene. In the end, that big truck says, ‘Now I see a lot depends on a helping hand from a few good friends.”
All six of my grandchildren (aged 1 to 8) have enjoyed Schertle’s book. After reading through it a time or two, I’d suggest you and your young ones take the time to peruse the illustrations. The detail is exquisite and can provide conversation and additional learning.
If you love this book like I do, go to your local bookstore or public library. The Little Blue Truck has even more adventures which is a wonderful delight for readers of all ages.
by Mary Jedlicka Humston
If you’re looking for an honest portrayal of how one woman meets tragedy with strength, faith, and courage, I highly recommend Allison Pataki’s Beauty in the Broken Places: A Memoir of Love, Faith and Resilience. Pataki is five months pregnant when her thirty-year-old husband Dave (a healthy surgical resident) suffers a rare form of stroke while on a vacation flight.
At this point, his life is in serious jeopardy. If he survives, will he have a full recovery? So much is uncertain that Pataki begins to write letters to Dave. They become written memories she hopes to share with him, reminders of all that has happened while he fights for his life and eventually as he works to reclaim it through a challenging and rigorous recovery.
Pataki is the author of several books, including the bestselling novels Sisi, The Traitor’s Wife, and The Accidental Empress, so writing is a large part of her life. Composing these letters became essential in how she managed as a caretaker for her husband and eventually their newborn daughter.
As she states:
“I would write to understand. I would write to bring together the ragged and disparate threads, to try to weave something comprehensible from the frayed strands of pain and love, loss and hope, fear and faith, beauty and brokenness. I would write to try to find some order, some narrative, some meaning from the daily torment of having lost so much. And so that is what I did. DearDave.doc became the place where I turned, the pages piling up as the days passed, one by one.”
Pataki includes some of these letters for Dave while she honestly portrays the challenges of dealing with her husband’s stroke. Her book will keep you so involved it will be difficult to set down. That’s how it was for me.
Both Marys have a tendency to storing “stuff,” particularly paper. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, the average U.S. household contains 300,000 things, from paper clips to ironing boards. That statistic presented a dilemma when it came time for a move to Dubuque, Iowa, where I now work. The house I purchased was less than half the size of my former one. I realized I was going to have to get rid of a lot of “stuff.” Several weeks of sorting, two garage sales, and copious donations later, last week I managed to fit all my worldly possessions into a U-Haul cargo van driven by my son and a horse trailer pulled behind the truck of my generous friends Dan and Carmen Cooke.
In preparing for this move, I had to carefully consider each and every item I owned, deciding which items meant the most to me. I would no longer have a separate office. No storage space, except an outside shed. Some of my favorite things that wouldn’t fit in my smaller home made their way into my new office, instead.
One thousand books were weeded down to less than fifty. I sold a bench, two oak shelves, my huge solid oak desk, a kitchen shelf. A cabinet. Half my wardrobe. My mother’s kitchen table that wouldn’t fit in the new house, went to my sister. I sold, donated, and left things on the curb to be carted off. I was amazed, and somewhat horrified, at the sheer amount of paper in my possession; photographs, newspaper clippings, letters, greeting cards. I spent hours, then days, sifting through stacks, boxes, totes, and a trunk. Daybooks (shorter day diaries) were burnt, journals kept. Greeting cards that were simply signed; discarded. Despite all this, much of the paper still came with me; photo albums packed into storage totes that fit under my bed, letters organized by groups; my mother, my siblings, my children, and yes, even fan letters. The childish scrawls of a niece, crayon drawings of a grandson; too precious to dispose of. The trunk in my bedroom is filled with such paper memories.
I’ve spent three days unpacking, managing to fill one room with the contents of two; my bedroom and office. The laundry area is also in this same room, but hidden behind a door in the corner. Because of what shall forever be remembered as “the great purge,” everything that remains gives me joy, makes me smile.
The corner across from the laundry area. Without a desk, a single cabinet and several file folder totes hold my important papers. The wonderful hanging bins are from Hobby Lobby, and serve as a receptacle for my stationery. Of course my bird/butterfly curtains and Michael the Archangel came with me.
My mother’s cabinet. The books inside are the only survivors of the purge, outside of favorite spiritual ones I moved to my office, and a stack of books to be read on the floor by my bed. The hand-carved clock made by my brother Bill has my favorite Bible verse inscribed on it.
The cozy chair my children gave me for Christmas, where I listen to music, write, read, and journal. I’ve been known to fall asleep in this wonderful chair.
There’s a reason a big black star was drawn on one of my kitchen boxes; the coffeemaker was inside it! My daughter Rachel came over Thursday night to help me unpack the kitchen. She organized a coffee shelf and a tea corner for me. Those make me smile, too.
There’s still a lot of unpacking to do, organizing, and hanging pictures on the wall, but overall, I’m excited by how the house is coming together, and grateful for my children’s help and that of my good friends Dan and Carmen in getting here. I don’t know what I would have done without them. It was a huge amount of work.
I’ve heard it said that everyone should move once every ten years, just to clean out their possessions. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, but downsizing to a house half the size certainly does the trick!