Book Review: Note to Self

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.

note to selfThis 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.

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Kindness Matters

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:

Kindness Matters

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.
chicken
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,”

Book Review of children’s book on friendship

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
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.

Book Review: Beauty in the Broken Places

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.

beauty in broken
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.

A Slice of Heaven in My New Home

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.

office.jpg

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.

st. michael
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.

cabinet.jpg

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. chair.jpg

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.

coffee.jpg

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!