Book Review: Letter to My Daughter

Reviewed by Mary Jedlicka Humston

Maya Angelou.

I believe everyone in our country knows of this acclaimed poet/writer. Like me, many have probably read or at least heard of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. My friend Denise and I even had the good fortune to attend our local performing arts center years ago to hear Ms. Angelou speak and recite her oh-so-true-to-the-heart poetry.
So, how is it that I hadn’t heard of Letter to My Daughter?

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When I checked the publish date, I had my answer. 2008. The year I had stage 3 thyroid cancer surgery, treatments, and recovery. The year destructive flooding occurred not only in Iowa City (where I live) but in many parts of Iowa, destroying homes, businesses, and even University of Iowa buildings (including the performing arts center). It was a year where staying current with the literary world took a back seat to living the world around me.

However, finding this gem now was well worth the wait. Short essays fill Letter to My Daughter with a variety of Angelou’s deeply personal experiences to laughter to poetic reflection to memoir.
While Angelou never had a daughter, she writes as if readers belong to her family, thus pulling us right into the meat of her life.

I love her introduction.
“I gave birth to one child, a son, but I have thousands of daughters. You are Black and White, Jewish and Muslim, Asian, Spanish-speaking, Native American and Aleut. You are fat and thin and pretty and plain, gay and straight, educated and unlettered, and I am speaking to you all.”

The chapters are short, headlined by such titles as “Violence,” “Accident, Coincident, or Answered Prayer,” “Reclaiming Southern Roots,” and “Salute to Old Lovers.” The length allows this book to be read for a few minutes, set down to digest, and then picked up again so the reader never loses momentum for the next slice of Angelou’s life.

In Letter to My Daughter, Angelou invites us into her vibrant, wise, and honest world. I highly recommend that you accept her invitation.

Book Review: Chasing Slow

“Listen, are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?” –Mary Oliver

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I know it’s going to be a good book when, only a few pages in, I pull out a paper and pen to take notes, then get so lost in the narrative I abandon all note-taking. Chasing Slow: Courage to Journey Off the Beaten Path by Erin Loechner is just such a book. Before I became too engrossed, I did manage to jot down this tidbit;

“There is a lion inside us all. It reigns over pace and time and intention, and it lingers in the rooms of our hearts daily. It roams, searching for the reasons we were place on this planet- our passions, dreams, abilities- and it scoffs at the demands of our daily lives- our schedules, responsibilities.” (page 18)

Yes. Oh, yes.

This same thing has been up for discussion in recent letters between the two Marys. The demands of life and lack of time are not new topics for us. In Mary & Me, we both mention time being at a premium during our early mothering years, though mine stretched out far beyond hers. I still have two daughters remaining at home.  Readers of our book also know that of the two of us, I’m the one who has struggled with envy over the amount of time other women seem to have, especially those who don’t have to work outside the home.

What does the lion in each of us want, we’ve recently wondered (only we didn’t use the term lion, but our own desires), and how does that align with God’s intention for us? During Mary’s visit last week I mentioned our mutual friend, and the book she was working on.

“I’m not in a hurry,” the woman had told me, and with that pronouncement, it was instantly clear to me that I am. 

“I am in a hurry,” I told Mary. “I’m always in a hurry. And it’s never enough. No matter what I do, I want to do more. I want the book proposal written. To finish my next book.”

I’ve also bemoaned my greediness with time in recent letters to Mary. Since I’ve changed jobs, I’ve dropped in hours,opening up more mornings. I’ve always utilized morning time for writing, even during the years I was raising young children, when I’d get up at 5:30 a.m. just to savor a precious hour or two. I lost that morning time to an office job for 18 months, and nearly came undone in the process. With my new job, I have five of seven mornings free, and I’m making the most of them.

“And still, it’s not enough,” I lament to Mary. “I hunger for more. More time. More hours to myself. More speaking engagements. More workshops. What’s wrong with me?”

Or, if we are speaking lions, why is my lion so restless, so loud?

“We fluff this great pit with our ego boosts, our need for control, our unrealistic expectations, and soon our days are dictated by its excess. The lion sulks around our soul, pacing for his next meal, hungry for more than we are throwing his way. Perhaps we are feeding him the wrong thing.” (page 19)

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It fascinates me that for the majority of the book, I was seeing the author’s unique style of chapter headings and her numbered “lists” in the sidebars as 00:01.

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Not 001. 002. 003. But 00:01, 00:02, 00:03. Like a clock. Quite telling, don’t you think?

Perhaps it’s natural I would be starved, ravenous even, for time. For the majority of my adult life, my time has not been my own. That same mother who trudged down the stairs in her pajamas at 5:30 a.m. for a moment’s peace, would inevitably be called back up by a baby or toddler’s cry on the baby monitor before long. Factor in the logistics of mothering eight children in an attachment-style manner, and there wasn’t much “me” time. Of course I want more now, when I finally have some.

But according to Erin Loechner’s wonderful book, more will never be enough.

“It can’t be counted or valued or summed or justified. More is always, by definition, just ahead at the horizon. That’s why we never stop chasing it. More is never enough.” (page 87)

Of course, Erin wasn’t talking about time here, but stuff. It was material possessions, fame and fortune, she made a conscious decision to minimize. In Chasing Slow, she turns away from her viral and HGTV fame and frenzy to shift her focus to the journey that matters most; her husband’s brain tumor, bankruptcy, family loss, a baby. Not only does she say no to some choice opportunities, she empties her closets, and pares down possessions, carting bags of excess to Goodwill.

My chase for more time is still a chase.

“We can throw it all at the lion and watch as he devours it like scraps of meat; the fast life, the slow life, the more, the less. We can exhaust ourselves with our offerings. We can keep tabs, keep pins, keep watch, keep score, keep track.” (page 281)

“Why do you always have to be doing something?” was my husband’s lament when I begged off sitting on the couch next to him to watch television, or I was too intent on finishing something up at my desk to lie next to him for a nap. Too late now, I can no longer do either. What drove me to be incessantly busy?

I believe part of the answer lies in the words I recently transcribed to my journal from Mary DeMuth’s memoir, Thin Places.

“I cannot stop. I must always work. I must always prove that I am worthy to take up space on this earth.” 

Maybe all of the former “raggedy little girls,” as DeMuth describes her childhood self, feel that way.

I need to remind myself daily that God put me here for a reason, that He has plans for me. He gifted me with the same 24 hours in a day he gave everyone else. I don’t have to “do more,” “be more,” “work faster” to gain the grace He has freely given me.

Life’s answers are not always hidden where they seem. It’s time to venture off the beaten path to see that we’ve already been given everything we need. We’ve already arrived. (from the back cover of “Chasing Slow”)

Some of my takeaways from this book:

  • The author married a man with a brain tumor, but she still had to figure out how to put him first. According to her, that was ten years. I was married for 27 years before a stint of caregiving when my husband went through cancer treatment taught me that valuable lesson. I’m grateful for the bonus five and a half years we shared after that.
  • Sometimes, the answer (to more) should be NO.
  • The lion inside of us can be a real beast.
  • God is in control.
  • Sometimes, less is more.
  • The next time Erin Loechner gets rid of her stationery, I think she should give it to me.

You can check out Erin’s website Design for Mankind by clicking HERE. Read the first chapter of Chasing Slow HERE.

Book Review: Chilbury Ladies’ Choir

Review written by Mary Jedlicka Humston

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir by Jennifer Ryan, has a unique format. It is told entirely by the letters and diaries of five women and girls. That interesting aspect alone would appeal to both of us Marys, who are letter-writers-extraordinaire, but the multitudes of friendship stories Ryan weaves throughout the novel also draws us in.

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Middle-aged Mrs. Tilling writes in her journal. Letters from Miss Edwina Paltry to her sister Clara reveal an underbelly of deceit and plotting. Venetia Winthrop’s letters to Angela Quail show their growth from twittering flirts to mature young women. Young Silvie, a Jewish refugee from Czechoslovakia, keeps a minimal diary. And, then there’s impetuous and curious Kitty Winthrop who fills her diary with teenaged musings while trying to understand the changes war brings to her hometown.

“You need to find where you fit in this world, where you are happiest, where you can make a difference. And, don’t be afraid of change.” (pg. 364).

This comment from Kitty, 13, “almost 14” as she continually reminds everyone, becomes a basic theme of the novel. With the men of the community off to war, the vicar declares the church choir defunct. The women are concerned about losing their singing community until they realize they can create a choir themselves if they overcome the uncertainty of establishing such an unprecedented proposition.
Well, I don’t think we were doing very well at all until one spring day the new choirmistress arrived and got us singing again. She resurrected the choir, making it a women’s-only choir—the Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. It seemed such an unthinkable idea at first, but then we won a competition and realized how much better we were, and how we could transform ourselves into a charity singing show, or anything we liked. Well, after that we all began looking around and realizing we could do a lot of things better by ourselves, or with the help of each other, and together we became stronger, better: A force to be reckoned with.” (Kitty, pg. 368).
The five ladies’ letters and diaries relate the stories about the choir and war life. They show how the entire community pulls together despite hardship, loneliness, death, challenge, and sadness.
I highly recommend this book. The reader will definitely be swept along by its riveting storyline.

Book Review: World Enough & Time

I picked up this book from an end table at my sister Joan’s house in Florida. Once I started reading it, I couldn’t stop, and she generously offered to let me take it home.

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The timing was perfect. World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down by Christian McEwen, was all about slowing down, something I’ve never been particularly good at.

This was the first real vacation I’ve ever taken. Any other traveling I’ve done has been for workshops, conferences, public speaking, or some other work-related trip. I’ve never traveled just for fun. I wasn’t sure I could ‘just be.’ A visit to the beach convinced me otherwise.

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Yes, I just sat and closed my eyes, listening to the sound of the ocean waves.

McEwan claims it is solitude, quiet, introspection, and slowing down that begets creativity, and while I understand the concept, there was very little time for any of that those many years while I was raising small children, yet I managed to create.

Even on vacation, I snuck in some writing time, staying up after everyone else one night to write an essay for the journal that will be published next spring. I also began three of the four mornings spent at my sister and brother-in-law’s house writing a letter to Mary, as a way to share my trip with her. McEwen would understand.

“I surrender to the pleasures of old-fashioned epistolary friendship: warmed by my friends’ kindness, their imagined company, even before I begin to write.”- Christian McEwen

She was, of course, talking about the pleasures of letter writing, something she often does on an airplane.

Other topics included in this book are obvious from chapter titles such as these: “The Art of Looking,” “In Praise of Walking,” “Learning to Pause,” and “Across the Bridge of Dreams.” (regarding the importance of getting enough sleep, something else I need to take to heart)

You can read more about the author on her website Christian McEwen, which coincidentally, includes a beach scene at the top of the webpage.

 

Book Review: Last Letter from Your Lover

Reviewed by Mary Jedlicka Humston

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I’ll admit from the start that I am a JoJo Moyes fan. I love her fast-paced, emotionally-engaging novels. Her characters and plots hold me long after I’ve read the last sentence. So, it’s no surprise I enjoyed The Last Letter from Your Lover.
If you’ve ever wondered about the importance of a handwritten letter, then this novel will prove how one letter (received or not received) changed lives.
Let me explain. Moyes takes you back in time to the early 1960s to main character Jennifer, the wife of rich Laurence, and to her lover “B.” Jennifer and “B’s” letters become even more intriguing when Jennifer suffers a head injury and can’t remember anything. And, I do mean anything.
The action moves to 2003 when Ellie, a young journalist, discovers one of “B’s” letters stuffed in an old box hidden away in her newspaper’s archived library. Ellie becomes intrigued enough to doggedly pursue the details.
I don’t want to give too much away, other than you’ll be turning pages long after you should’ve gone to bed. While I’m usually not too keen reading about infidelity and cheating spouses, the storyline takes you onto deeper issues of merit.
The author’s superb storytelling will make this one hard to put down. Enjoy.

Book Review: The Guineveres

Review by Mary Jedlicka Humston

If you’re looking for a book on friendship, consider picking up The Guineveres by Sarah Domet.

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Four teens, all named Guinevere, meet at a Catholic convent, a boarding school where residents aren’t clamoring for admittance. Taking place in a war torn country, the girls discover that convent life is strict, challenging, and full of deprivation.
Vere, Win, Gwen, and Ginny aren’t at the convent by choice. Each has tragic reasons for attending there. Each faces personal struggles. Each finds comfort and solace with the others. However, it’s clear they’d never have become friends if their names hadn’t been Guinevere, for it’s the name that solidifies their unified loyalty. War plays an integral part in this debut novel alongside the medical and nursing home facility the nuns operate besides the school.
The author weaves the Guineveres’ past, present and future into the novel, so the reader comes away knowing the why, what, and where of each of their lives.
Four very different girls become friends under unique, sad circumstances. Readers will find themselves rooting for them, both individually and as a foursome. I found it an absorbing, worthwhile read.

Book Review: Dear Ann, Dear Mary

“Where was I in your grief? I feel like such a thoughtless, insensitive person not to have been aware of what you were going through, not to have called you as you have called me just to say help, not to have communicated more that I care about you and your family- not just at Stu’s memorial service but weeks, months, and years after. Because you have such a loving heart, I feel you have not blamed me, but I am remorseful. You are teaching me how to give comfort to others.”

So wrote Ann Carli to her friend Mary Scherr in Dear Ann, Dear Mary, a compilation of actual letters and e-mails exchanged between the two women in the year after Ann’s husband died. Mary’s husband had died five years before. The women share poetry, prayers, creative rituals, and dreams in these exchanges.

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Where was I in your grief? This is not a question my Mary (Mary Jedlicka Humston) will ever have to ask me. Readers of Mary & Me know exactly where she was after the death of my husband in 2012. Mary sat next to me and held my hand during a portion of David’s wake. She wrote me letters. She drove 80 miles once a month to take me out to lunch. Despite not having experienced widowhood herself, she somehow knew what it was that I needed, and as uncomfortable as it was to companion someone through their grief, she still did it. She has continued to be there for me in the weeks, months, and yes, years following the loss of my husband.

As I read this book, I couldn’t help but contemplate a future when I will be the experienced widow. These two women were in their 70s.  Despite the unfairness of me having to face the same situation in my early 50’s, I trust that my experience will someday help me companion others in their journey.

Book Review: Twelve Days of Christmas in Iowa

book review by Mary Jedlicka Humston
                                              

The Twelve Days of Christmas in Iowa, written and illustrated by Sue F. Cornelison

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While visiting our two-year-old grandson Levi, I noticed this beautifully illustrated book. Immediately intrigued by the title, I thumbed through it and was rewarded by something both Marys love: letters! Yes, part of this book involves handwritten letters.
But first, as you would expect from the title, The Twelve Days of Christmas in Iowa does indeed follow the familiar holiday tune but substitutes “a goldfinch in an oak tree” for “a partridge in a pear tree.” It can be sung all the way through to “twelve mutton busters” instead of the traditional “twelve lords of leaping.”
You can read this book solely for the fun repetition of Iowa-themed verses to this familiar holiday song. However, an older child will enjoy the handwritten letters that accompany each day of Christmas.
Farm girl Ella writes the first full-page letter inviting her cousin Aiden to visit Iowa for the holidays. After Aiden arrives, the letters are then written by him to his parents detailing unique aspects of Iowa life. Think of hot air balloons in Indianola, a train ride on the Santa Express in Boone, or the Bridges of Madison County. Author Cornelison deftly weaves Iowa history and interesting state details into these letters.
So, on one level, this book is a holiday song. On another level, the song can be sung and the letters read to an older child. And, then to extend the interested age-groups of this book even further, an advanced reader will enjoy reading the letters as well as singing along.
Wouldn’t this be a lovely Christmas present for the Iowa children in your life? If you don’t live in Iowa, Google to see if your state has a Twelve Days of Christmas in….” Without spending too much time, I located several other states represented in this clever style, almost all with different authors.
I hope you and your family enjoy The Twelve Days of Christmas in Iowa. Then, after reading it, you’ll be privy to what “mutton busters” means.
Ho! Ho! Ho! Merry Christmas!

New release in the Grief Diaries book series, Christmas Giveaway~

Update: mctag2015 was the winner of the new books. Please message Mary at marypotterkenyon@gmail.com with your name and address~ Thank you to all who entered.

Lynda Cheldelin Fell  lost her 15-year old daughter Aly in 2009. Fueled by a desire to help others through loss, she founded AlyBlue Media in 2013,launched Grief Diaries Radio in February 2014, and the National Grief & Hope convention in April 2015, which is where I met her.

When she began her Grief Diaries series of books last year, I knew I wanted to be a part of them. Filled with poignant firsthand accounts, each anthology serves as a portable support group.

My writing is featured in several of the books, including Grief Diaries: Loss of a Spouse and Grief Diaries: Hello From Heaven.    I’m a co-author of the newest book in the series, Grief Diaries: Poetry & Prose, released yesterday.

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I’m especially excited about this book because of its focus on utilizing expressive writing as a tool for healing. The pieces included were written by those who experienced a loss of some sort. Coincidently, at the same time we were completing this book, I’ve been working on a related project, a grief journal I signed a contract for in August. Lynda will be writing the foreword for the book I hope will be utilized as a healing tool. Clinical research reveals it isn’t the simple act of writing alone that promotes healing in the emotionally wounded. Instead, it is reflecting and searching for meaning in our experiences that helps us heal. James Pennebaker, Regents Centennial Chair of Psychology at the University of Texas in Austin, is a pioneer in the study of using expressive writing as a route to healing. His research has shown that short-term focused writing can have a beneficial effect on anyone dealing with stress and trauma.

Reading about grief can help others in their own healing, and that is the concept behind the Grief Diaries. After my husband died, I devoured every book on the market that dealt with the loss of a spouse. It helped me to know that others had gone down the same path and not only survived, but thrived.

My friend, Dianna Vagianos Armentrout says much the same thing in her introduction:

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Many of Dianna’s poems are included in the book, along with poetry, blog entries, journal entries, and prose pieces from other authors. Here’s one of mine, written on my blog six years ago today:

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There is more to the entry, but you’ll have to pick up the book to read it. It’s uncanny  that the very first entry in my section of the book is dated six years and one day before this book’s release. Or that so much of what I am working into the journal fits into this book. In compiling quotes for the journal, I could then include my favorites in the Grief Diaries:

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Again, there are many more pages of uplifting and encouraging quotes included in Grief Diaries: Poetry & Prose.  I also utilized the resource section of my journal to help me compile a list of ten books that brought me hope in a dark time.

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Despite my lack of poetry prowess, I even managed to write some poetry myself. Any widow with children still at home will recognize the sentiment.

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To celebrate the launch of this newest title in the Grief Diaries series, I’m giving away two books from the Grief Diaries series: Grief Diaries: Poetry and Prose, and Grief Diaries: Hello From Heaven.

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To enter, just leave a comment below this post. I will randomly choose one name next Sunday, December 18.

 

 

Book Review: Use Your Words

Because writing has been such a big part of both of our lives, an entire chapter of our co-written  Mary & Me: A Lasting Link Through Ink  is devoted to the topic of combining motherhood and writing. My first check for a published piece came in January 1989, a month after my fourth baby was born. I’ve never looked back. I’ve been writing ever since, with brief breaks after each of my next four children were born. I started my blog Mary Potter Kenyon in June 2009 as a “Housewife Writer blog,” and I’ve been teaching writing classes and workshops at community colleges, libraries, and writer’s conferences since 2011.

One thing I’ve heard repeatedly during these classes is the question “How do you find the time?” or the comment “I’ll write when the kids are older.”

That’s when I pull out this picture my husband snapped of me at my typewriter in early 1994.

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Yes, I wrote my way through much of those years of raising a large family. I wrote my way through caring for my husband during his cancer treatment in 2006, I wrote my way through mourning my mother in 2010, my husband in 2012, and my grandson in 2013. Because I intimately know the saving grace of the writing craft, I want to help other women (and men) discover it too. That’s the impetus behind my current writing project, a grief journal, and an expressive writing workshop I’ve put together.

Because I have a passion for encouraging young mothers to write, I was thrilled to discover this wonderful book, Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers, by Kate Hopper.

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Each chapter focuses on an element of the writing craft and includes published essays or poems from other women writers, along with writing exercises that serve as jumping-off points for the readers’ own writing. Use Your Words is a book for both beginning mother writers and more advanced writers who want to improve their writing ability as they process the gritty, mundane, humorous, and sometimes heartbreaking nature of motherhood.

When Hopper’s daughter was born prematurely, she withdrew from graduate school, where she was pursuing an MFA, to care for her daughter. Her baby was five months old when she escaped to a coffee shop and began writing what would eventually become her first book, Ready for Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood

“And for the first time since my daughter was born, the world felt a little bigger, and I felt a little less alone. Just getting those memories down on paper made me feel lighter. In the following weeks, I continued to write about Stella’s birth and hospitalization, and with each passing month, I felt healthier and more grounded; I was doing the only thing I knew how to do to make sense of what happened to me, to us- I was writing again.”

Yes. I know just what Hopper means. If you can’t take one of Hopper’s classes, offered online or at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, then the writing exercises after each chapter are sure to jump-start your writing.

You can read more about Kate Hopper HERE.