Mother’s Day Masterpiece

I’m speaking at a church this morning; about mothers, creativity, and faith, as I culminate months of writing about the same topics. The message I hope to convey is that God has given each of us gifts, and it is up to us to use them.
Ephesians 2:10 “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”
My mother knew this. She lived it every day as she raised ten children, practiced her faith, and injected creativity into all aspects of her life.

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While she produced many pieces of beautiful art, in the end, her life of faith had been her greatest masterpiece, the legacy she left behind for her children and grandchildren.

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While I still have work to do to meet the end of May deadline, in honor of my mother on Mother’s Day, I’m sharing a small piece that comes at the end of my book, a brief, illustrative moment with my mother at the end of her life.

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It was an unseasonably warm October day. Mom and I had conversed comfortably in the car on the way to and from her radiation appointment; about my recent blog posts that mentioned her, the LIVE sign I’d purchased, and her concern over her cat being attacked by some feral felines. I’d assumed if she’d wanted to discuss more serious topics, she’d have brought them up.
Back at her house, I helped her out of the car. She swayed a little as she stood, and I grabbed her arm to steady her. She clung to me as we made our way to her back door. Mom expressed the desire to stay outside, so I settled her in a chair before getting her coffee and cigarettes. Setting them on the small white table in front of her, I asked if she’d be alright if I headed home to make supper for David and the children. She assured me she would. I can remember leaning down to kiss her cheek, and while I’m certain I would have told her I loved her, I can’t recall actually saying the words.
Once inside the car, I started the engine before glancing back at Mom. She was looking straight at me, a smile on her face. She raised her hand slightly, giving a little wave. It was that one small gesture that undid me. My throat filled with tears and I could barely breathe. I looked away so she wouldn’t see me cry. My mother is dying, I thought as I headed down the driveway. My mother is dying. I sobbed all the way home.
There is so much we didn’t talk about that day. In fact, we hadn’t mentioned death or dying in any of our conversations since her diagnosis. I’d been with her when the doctor informed her she had lung cancer, had heard her whispered “I wondered what it would be.” We never talked about fear, or even faith, which surprised me, considering how important her religion was to her.
More than six years after her death, in early 2017, when I re-read letters Mom had written, her Memory Book, and the odd notebooks and partial journals I’d inherited, I realized she’d already said it all, had managed to impart her faith and knowledge in the life she’d lived. There was nothing more to say. Her last lesson was in facing death with dignity, grace, and the firm belief she would soon be joining both our father and Our Father.
She surprised me, this mother of mine, appearing in this manuscript in ways I had not imagined, her words neatly written in her perfect penmanship. It was a delight when my father unexpectedly made an appearance in the ninth chapter, and healing when a poem about my grandson erupted from the ashes of grief.
As I culminate months of writing, in my mind’s eye, I see my mother sitting outside at that little table, a cigarette in her hand, a cup of coffee in front of her. Her face is lit by a beatific smile, her eyes filled with love. She lifts her hand, giving a little wave.
“I love you, Mom,” I say this time, waving back.

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Book Review: Power to Be, by Twila Belk

“If I keep my attention on my problems and heartaches they become overwhelming to me and tend to control my life. But if I fix my thoughts on God, he becomes magnified in my heart and mind, and I’m reminded of who he is and what he’s able to do.”

So writes my friend Twila Belk in her newest devotional, The Power to Be: A 40-Day Devotional: Be Still, Be Grateful, Be Strong, Be Courageous.  I met Twila at a writer’s conference a couple of years ago, and felt as though I was meeting a long-lost sister.

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This lovely little book doesn’t have to be utilized as a 40-day devotional. I finished it in one evening, copying down quotes that inspired or encouraged me. I have the same wall plaque she mentions hanging in her living room, though mine is in my bedroom.
Happy moments- praise God. Difficult moments- seek God. Quiet moments- worship God. Painful moments- trust God. Every moment- Thank God.
Knowing the difficulties the author has experienced in her life gives credence to her words. It doesn’t get more real than this.
I happened to pick up The Power to Be exactly when I needed it, as I’m facing some challenges in my own life. I love the quotes and the Bible verses, including my current life verse Proverbs 3:5-6 Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your path.

This book would make a wonderful gift for Mother’s Day, or a pick-me-up for someone you know who is going through a difficult time.
Learn more about the author at www.gottatellsomebody.com

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: Walking on Water

Madeleine L’Engle has long been one of my favorite authors, but not for the book her name is most associated with; A Wrinkle in Time. I was in my late 30’s when I read A Circle of Quiet, identifying with the writer who was also a mother, a woman who “escaped” the cacophony of a noisy household to burn garbage in the back yard. I often did the same. Like Madeleine on her 40th birthday, I was at a point in my life where I sometimes wondered if I was wasting my time by choosing to write every morning, when my husband worked so hard to pay bills and I wasn’t making any money with my writing, outside of the small checks I was getting for some freelance work  I did for a local newspaper. Mostly, I identified with her need to write. I couldn’t imagine a life without writing. I still can’t.

A few years later, I would pick up The Irrational Season. I read her Two-Part Invention during my husband David’s cancer treatment in 2006. I vividly remember sobbing on the couch as I read about her husband’s death. Two-Part Invention was one of the first books I read after David died in 2012. Glimpses of Grace and Reflections on a Writing Life, written with Carole Chase, are prominently displayed on a shelf in my bedroom.

And it was L’Engle’s Friends for the Journey, written with her dear friend Luci Shaw, that served as inspiration for our Mary & Me: A Lasting Link Through Ink. (NOTE: available for a special holiday price of just $6 through the publisher right now. Click on the title for more information)

Madeleine L’Engle’s words touched my heart and soul so deeply, I mentioned her several times in my book  Refined By Fire; A Journey of Grief and Grace. Her granddaughter Lena Roy, was kind enough to endorse it.

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For all these reasons, I was especially thrilled to get my hands on a new edition of Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art, by Madeleine, originally published in 1980, the year I gave birth to my first child. It was only when reading it, I realized Lena was the granddaughter of Madeleine’s that had been hit by a truck when she was a young child!

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On page 2, I was instantly enthralled, reading these words;

“I sit on my favourite rock, looking over the brook, to take time away from busyness, time to be. I’ve long since stopped feeling guilty about taking being time; it’s something we all need for our spiritual health, and often we don’t take enough of it.”

And this:

“And then there is the time in which to be, simply to be, that time in which God quietly tells us who we are and who he wants us to be. It is then that God can take out emptiness and fill it up with what he wants and drain away the business with which we inevitably get involved in the dailiness of human living.” (page 162)

I’ve so rarely allowed myself that special time of just being, particularly during those years of raising young children. There was no quiet in a house full of babies and toddlers, much less time to just sit and be.  Yet, despite a distinct lack of time, I wrote. Now, my youngest is eight years old, and while I enjoy more quiet, reflective time, I also have an office to go to every weekday.

I’m working on the manuscript for a grief journal that will include my short essays along with quotes from other authors who have walked down the path of grief, including L’Engle. I was slightly dismayed when I found myself admitting in one of the essays that I occasionally missed the slow paced days of those early months of grieving, and the quiet stillness of mornings when I didn’t have to be anywhere or go anyplace. I wrote my way through much of those mornings.

When I signed a contract for this journal, I was well aware that this would be the first book-length project I would be working on without the luxury of the morning writing hours I had counted on for more than 25 years. So I’ve learned to utilize my weekend mornings and snatched moments here and there, just like I did as a mother with young children. I’d sit on the lid of the toilet to write while toddlers splashed in the bathtub, pull over to the curb and write when an infant fell asleep in the car seat. As was true back then, I don’t have hours of uninterrupted time to write. I have to find the time.

“To work on a book is for me very much the same thing as to pray. Both involve discipline. If the artist works only when he feels like it, he’s not apt to build up much of a body of work. Inspiration far more often comes during the work than before it, because the largest part of the job of the artist is to listen to the work and to go where it tells him to go. Ultimately, when you are writing, you stop thinking and write what you hear.” (page 140)
L’Engle shares these words of Rilke’s from his “Letters to a Young Poet” that she’d jotted down in her journal:

“You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you to write; find out whether if is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all- ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: Must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple ‘I must,’ then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and testimony to it.”

Must I write?

In this wonderful book, L’Engle says she would answer in the affirmative.

Just another thing L’Engle and I have in common. Me too.

NOTE: I am excited to report that Lena Roy and her sister, Charlotte, are working on a biography of their grandmother. Read more about that by clicking HERE.

Book Review: The Waiting

Twenty years of hand-written letters. That’s what was included in baby Betty Jane’s adoption file; letters from the mother who had given her up for adoption.

The Waiting, by Cathy LaGrow, with Cindy Coloma, is a powerfully written true story of a young girl whose brutal assault in 1928 resulted in a pregnancy. It was more than 75 years before that woman would meet the baby that she never stopped loving or missing.

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It was her faith that kept Minka (Minne) going all those years until she was reunited with her daughter. She knew a lot of heartache in her life, but her faith never wavered.

I read this book in one sitting, unable to put it down.

Book Review: Nobody’s Cuter Than You

Nobody’s Cuter Than You: A Memoir About the Beauty of Friendship was released in April 2015, weeks after Mary & I had submitted our completed manuscript for the September-released Mary & Me: A Lasting Link Through Ink.

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Had we been aware of this book, we would have added it to our resource chapter. Had we read it, I would have wondered if my friend Mary had unconsciously picked up a phrase from it.

On page 16 of our book, Mary Jedlicka Humston looked back on our first meeting:

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On page 3 of Shankle’s book, she said much the same about her first meeting with her friend Gulley.

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I read Shankle’s wonderful book in one sitting, marveling at how much like the other Mary she was; forming female friendships with such ease. She was Mary JH, but with more money! Yes, I found myself wondering as I read her book what my life would have been like in elementary school if I’d had the wardrobe Shankle had. Is it easier to make friends with the right clothes, the hip hairstyle, and keys to a car handed to you on your 16th birthday?  It made me think of our Book Club discussion questions at the back of our book.

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Certainly having parents pay for college and access to Dad’s credit card made Shankle’s college days more fun than the years at UNI for either of the Marys, who had to pay their own way. I was a married woman my second year of college, had my first baby and worked part-time around my husband’s college classes and part-time job. There were no nights of partying, no groups of female friends. By the time I graduated college, I was the mother of four children, with four more to follow. When would I have had time for weekend road trips in which to bond with fellow females?  I found myself getting a little, um…jealous, and if you’ve read our book, you know that is a very uncomfortable feeling for me. I was even envious of Shankle’s fourth grade summer camp and the resulting turning point in her faith in Christ. I had to wait until age 51, and the loss of my mother for my own turning point in faith.

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Surprisingly, Shankle tackles the topic of jealousy in her book, too. Maybe one can’t discuss female friendship without broaching the subject. Perhaps everyone deals with envy at some point in their life.

The similarities between our books doesn’t end there. The author obviously shares a love of epigraphs with me. (the quotes of others at the beginning of each chapter). She also touches on loss, and the importance of being there for a friend.  Readers of Mary & Me know intimately of how my friendship with Mary deepened after I faced the loss of my husband.

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After reading Melanie Shankle’s memoir, I want to read her other books. I’m now a follower of her Big Mama blog. I want Melanie and her Gulley to sit down at a table with Mary and me to share a cup of tea (or coffee~ it is not clear which beverage this author prefers) and talk into the night about friendship, faith, jealousy, and what it means to be a Christian woman.

Readers will have a chance to win a copy of this book in the giveaway that I will be posting on our blog tomorrow.  Not only will we be giving away several books, a journal, and stationery, but a Barnes & Noble gift card is involved~  The giveaway drawing will be held next Sunday, September 18, which just happens to be National Women’s Friendship Day.

Choose Joy

Mary and I have been writing letters for nearly thirty years, which means I have written through many ups and downs; early days of mothering infants and toddlers, balancing freelance writing and part-time jobs while parenting, an emergency C-section, David’s job loss and subsequent financial struggles, the beginning of a bookstore business and its eventual demise, David’s cancer and the celebration of his survivorship five years later, the loss of my mother, a grandson’s cancer diagnosis, David’s death, and my eventual need for a job outside the home. Mary has been privy to much celebration in my life, along with an equal amount of complaining and venting in the thousands of letters I’ve written her. But in the past few months she had seen more than her share of complaints as I attempted to find balance (my chosen word for the year) in my life. Several days ago, I was once again lamenting the quiet, contemplative morning time I have lost when I began a new job.

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For more than 20 years, writing has served as my therapy. Even as a mother with young children, it was how I jump-started the day, whether it was a letter to Mary, an article or essay. After David’s death, morning (mourning) writing became a crucial part of my healing. I began each and every day with journal entries, prayer, and reading from inspirational books and devotionals.  For eighteen months after his death, I wrote like a mad woman, completing book manuscripts, essays, and blog postings. Even after I got an afternoon job as director of a library, my mornings were mine. And they were delicious.

Suddenly, with a new job, I found myself in an office every weekday morning. What could be better for a writer than being paid to write every day, right? And yet, I discovered I’d lost something in the process; quiet, contemplative time, and free hours to write whatever I wanted to write; essays and blog posts, and journal entries. For the first time in five years, I’m not working on a book. And yes, my letter-writing has decreased. It had to. Something had to give.

But all along, I was determined that “something” would not be my public speaking. When it came to speaking to the hearts of those who grieve, I’ve felt no angst, no hesitation to add to my commitments, particularly when it was an evening event, or like the October grief retreat I’ve been planning with two other women, something I feel strongly led to organize. I’ve also planned vacation days around a Christian writing workshop in June that I’ve looked forward to ever since the last one ended. The women and men I’ve met at this conference have become dear friends, and the spiritual sustenance I receive during those days is food for my soul.

But other things? Like the letter-writing workshops Mary and I had begun doing last fall in conjunction with our book release? I found myself balking, filled with anxiety. Could I really rationalize filling my Saturdays as I had before getting this job? I agonized about saying no to such fun events. Yet I found myself giddy with happiness each time I faced a free Saturday morning.

Of course, I shared these unaccustomed feelings with Mary in letters and phone calls. We prayed. We pondered. We had two big events already on the roster in March; a letter-writing workshop and a speech in front of lovely group of women. I enjoyed both of them immensely. We’ve made the decision to face future co-speaking event requests on a case-by-case basis, with prayerful discernment.

I did not send the letter I’d begun that day. If I was tired of my own complaining, I was certain Mary did not want to see more of it.

Instead, I picked up this book, Choose Joy: Finding Hope and Purpose When Life Hurts, by Sara Frankl and Mary Carver.

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Sara’s story of pain and loss touched me deeply. It also made me ashamed. If Sara could consciously choose joy every single day of her too-short and pain-filled life, then with all the blessings in my life, I could certainly choose joy each day. If God brought me to this new job, and I’m certain that he did, then he would lead me to find the balance I have so desired.

When I find myself lamenting the loss of my husband and the struggles of single parenthood, I can look at these words from Sara’s book:

Life isn’t fair. But it wasn’t meant to be. What we tend to forget is that we created the idea of fair. God didn’t. He never told us we deserve a perfect existence. He never told us life would be simple if we were faithful. He just told us to be faithful, and that He would be too. I embraced that concept and realized that as long as I stay focused on Him, and what he needs from me, rather than what I want for me, my life will be full and balanced.” (page 111)

A full and balanced life.

The very idea brings me joy.

 

I complete this blog post on the morning of what is the fourth anniversary of my husband’s death. And today, I choose joy for the years I had with my husband, for the eight children, two children of my heart spouses of my children, one soon-to-be son-in-law, and three healthy grandchildren I will spend my day with. I choose joy.

 

Learn more about Sara and her daily struggle through this video: