Take the April Challenge; write a letter~

In 2001, the U.S. Postal Service officially designated April as “National Card and Letter Writing Month” to raise awareness of the importance and historical significance of card and letter writing. While Mary JH and I don’t need a month designated to letter writing to write each other (we’ll do that regardless) I do love a challenge, and the idea of sending out at least one letter or card each day in the next 30 days appeals to me, particularly if I up the challenge and make it a card or letter to someone other than Mary!

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I often get asked where I get all my stationery and cards. While the majority of my stash is unearthed in thrift stores and from eBay, I have a penchant for paper, and there are times when I can’t resist a splurge. Like this butterfly paper I discovered in our local Widner drugstore last year. I mean, really…as much as I like butterflies, how could I have resisted?

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As part of the April challenge, I’ll be sharing some stationery resources in this blog.

Today’s feature is the Lang Company, where today only (April 1) you can get 30% off your order with the code JOKES.  They sell gift items, as well as calendars, notepads, and notecards, like these beautiful Christian notecards.

lang note cardsYou might want to check their clearance section out for some good deals on beautiful gift items, calendars, address books and notecards as well.

 

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.

 

Journey back in time…with journals

My co-author and I discuss our mutual use of journals in Mary & Me: A Lasting Link Through Ink. Mary JH has been journaling for most of her adult life. I, on the other hand, utilized daybooks from 1992-2012, with just enough room on the pages to make daily notes.

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I clearly remember choosing most of these; searching for one that spoke to me in some way. If I really loved the style, I’d order more than one. The Lucy Swindoll “Quite Honestly” and the “Fruit of Her Hands” came from a Christian book club I belonged to. I loved the Susan Branch Days style so much, I searched for more on eBay. Who knows why I chose the 2010 Retro Mama with a wine bottle on the front, when the only time I drink wine is on Christmas Eve? Clearance rack, perhaps? The 2009 large format Day Book was one of my favorites. The dark blue leather-bound was a splurge for 2012. Sadly, I stopped writing in it after my husband’s death in late March, but that was also when I began journaling in earnest, utilizing personalized journals I’d gotten free with coupon codes, and then stashed away, not sure what to do with them.

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In looking through my old daybooks this morning, I discovered just how much I managed to convey in them; It’s painfully obvious that I lamented my lack of time as a young mother. I can’t look too closely at the many times I scrawled notes like a woman crazed, desperate for some time alone. I wrote about this in Mary & Me:

Not long ago, I unearthed my old weekly engagement books dating back to 1990, when I was a thirty-year-old mother of four. Two things are evident from these abbreviated journals: I loved my children with all my heart, and being a mother was a difficult job most days. Parenting was particularly hard considering the intensity of my mothering style. In the span of twenty years’ worth of journals, I would add an additional four children to our fray. Those daybooks with their brief notations do a pretty fair job of chronicling what it was like to care for a large brood.

After several hours of reading them, my breath quickened and my heart raced. Before I succumbed to an anxiety attack, I shoved them back into the cupboard. I telephoned my daughter Elizabeth. When she picked up and said hello, I heard a screech in the background along with an ominous crash.

“How do you do it?” I asked without preamble. “How do you handle three children underfoot all day and not go crazy?”

“Who said I’m not crazy?” she retorted with a laugh.  (page 50)

This morning’s foray into the past netted some interesting tidbits of information. I’m surprised how much of my past would eventually become my future. In 1992, I listed my goals for the year. I wanted to #1) send out one article a week, #2) present the idea of a couponing/refunding class to Hawkeye community college, and #3) approach the Independence Bulletin Journal newspaper with an idea for a column. By March 3 of that year, I had a job with the Bulletin-Journal, one that included a once a month column. In May, a New York film company visited my house, filming for a video-tape about couponing. It wouldn’t be until November 2011 that I would conduct a couponing workshop for a community college. On May 7, I noted that my article on “letter-writing” had appeared in the newspaper. A  prelude to a future book on letter writing perhaps?

In October 1994, my book proposal for “Homeschooling From Scratch” was accepted, via a postcard through the mail. I signed the book contract (again by mail) on December 14. Advance copies of that first book arrived on my doorstep on June 13, 1996.

I wouldn’t remember these dates, if it weren’t for the engagement books.

In 1998, I noted that I was sending out a book proposal to potential publishers again, one for a book I planned to write that would be filled with hints and tips for large families. I advertised in Mary Pride’s “Big Happy Family” magazine for women to respond to my questionnaire, and had collected nearly 40 responses.

Eventually, I would throw out the entire file. It wasn’t the greatest idea for a book, particularly during an era when families were getting smaller. After reading my daybooks, the real reason behind it becomes obvious. I was desperate to know the secrets of those mothers who’d managed to find time for themselves. Peace and quiet. Contemplative silence. By researching and writing a book specifically for women like me, I was hoping to find some answers for myself. Those answers remained elusive, however. I was disappointed to discover that none of the women who filled out my questionnaire had free time.

Maybe because the secret was in not having a large family in the first place. When Mary JH and I met in 1986, the youngest of her three children was three years old. I was pregnant with my third, and would go on to have five more children in the ensuing years, while Mary stopped at three. During the years I was lamenting my lack of time, letters from her revealed she was experiencing what I yearned for. She could already see a difference in 1987:

“Later journal entries showed mothering was less intense as my children grew, reflecting that freedom by showing a less-stressed mother. More joys of parenting were chronicled, and a woman with better rest, more confidence in her mothering, and more free time emerged. Me time was still a precious commodity, don’t get me wrong, but it was easier to fit in than before. Looking back, I only wish I could’ve given that worn-out mother with the young children in the early 1980s even a smidge of the bountiful time I have now. That young mother would’ve devoured it. I know this because I remember her well.”- Mary Jedlicka Humston, “Mary & Me” page 59

It’s obvious through the notes in my engagement books that I did manage to find time for one thing during those years, and that was writing. Some days, I think it saved my sanity.

I carried a notebook everywhere I went. If a child fell asleep in the back seat while I was driving, I’d pull over to the curb and frantically write before he or she woke up. I scribbled away on a legal pad as I sat on the toilet lid while toddlers bathed. I made notes on the back of grocery lists in the store. I eagerly welcomed my children’s desire to have me sit near them as they fell asleep, because I could write by the dim bulb of a nightlight.

When I teach beginning writing workshops now, I bring along a laminated 8 x 10 photo from that era. There I am in 1994, pecking away at a typewriter with baby Matthew in a backpack, peeking over my shoulder. This was my reality, the “glamorous life of a writer,” I tell those young mothers in my classes who lament their lack of writing time. –from “Mary & Me,” page 67

No matter how many children or how little time I had, that 1992 goal became a reality for me. Outside of a few arid months after the birth of each baby, I submitted something at least twice a month, sometimes once a week. If my work was rejected, which happened quite often, I’d tweak it, polish it up, and send it out again. The submissions, rejections, and acceptances are all noted in the daybooks. I managed to hit 100 acceptances by 1993. 1996 was particularly prolific. I stopped counting published clips by the time I hit 500.

I often wonder what I should do with my daybooks and journals. Mary JH has confided that she has wondered the same thing.

When I filled the first journal after David’s death, I knew I would leave it behind for the purpose of possibly helping one of my children (probably a daughter) through the inevitable loss of a spouse. It would have helped me to know how my mother handled the loss of Dad.  I lived more than an hour away from Mom and was busy raising young children when he died. She and I didn’t share a lot of conversations about her experience, but I still cherish the letters she wrote afterwards, where she shared little bits and pieces. Dad died in May. In June, my mother wrote about Father’s Day. It seemed as though she was thinking about her children’s loss more than her own:

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Four months later, she would write about a bereavement support group she attended:

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My children won’t need to wonder how widowhood was for me. They’ll have my journals and my book, “Refined By Fire: A Journey of Grief and Grace.”

But do they need to know that on November 4, 1994, I paid the bills and had only $85 left to get through the rest of the month?  Or that too many times to count in the year 2000 I wrote I would “go stark-raving mad” if I didn’t get some time to myself?

But then, maybe Michael would like to know we went to Show Biz Pizza on his 5th birthday, and Dan left on an airplane for Alaska on June 15, 1994, and a year later, on June 5, their dad and I opened a bookstore. That Matthew fell down the stairs on October 12, 1995, and while the ER doctor said it was just a bad sprain, three days later, our family doctor would discover his wrist was fractured. Would Emily like to know that in February 1996, when we discovered I was carrying a girl, we were considering naming her Sarah?

I guess I’ll hang onto those daybooks, after all.

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.

Letters from Mom~

I spent an entire afternoon with my mom today.

That’s quite a feat, considering my mother passed away in 2010, but it’s possible when you save letters.

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An article in the Dubuque Telegraph Herald, ‘Letters to Jane’ prompted this visit with Mom. The article was about a Dyersville woman who wrote her daughter Jane hundreds of letters while she attended the Iowa School for the Deaf in the 60’s and 70’s. It got me to thinking about the box of letters I store in my trunk. I kept every letter my mother ever wrote me, but until today, I hadn’t taken the time to look through them.  I’ve read, and re-read, the letters she wrote my grandmother in the 60’s. Since her death, I’ve read her notebooks and the Memory book she filled out for me, but for some reason, I’ve never revisited some 200 letters I had stashed away.

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How appropriate that the first one I pulled out of the (unorganized) box was dated 36 years ago yesterday.

In this letter, Mom informs me that there is a little snow falling, but my Dad doesn’t think it will amount to much. She also tells me that the previous week was the warmest January she could remember and she even hung out laundry and Dad raked leaves. The letter continues for two pages. My brother John had just been laid off work and was waiting for unemployment to kick in. My younger sister Jane had to stay home from school for several days with an earache, and my sister Pat’s children were recovering from the flu. But what I hold most precious from this letter are the words of encouragement regarding my college classes. I began attending the University of Northern Iowa in the fall of 1978, got married in the summer of 1979, and had my first child in March 1980. At the time my mother wrote this letter, David and I were both taking classes and working part-time, but we’d arranged it so that one of us was always with Dan.

“When we think back on it, we realize there must have been a lot of determination on your part to finish school, and you must have had a lot of discouragement too. Putting your stubbornness to good use,” my mother had written, a back-handed compliment (was she calling me stubborn?), but precious words of encouragement, nonetheless. As were these words, before my graduation in December 1985.

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She didn’t make it to the graduation celebration, but there were several more letters that revealed her frustration and disappointment at not being there.

My Dad died the following May, and my mother became a widow at the age of 58, just a year older than I am now. I lived in Cedar Falls at the time so wasn’t privy to much of her grieving, but she shared pieces of it in her subsequent letters. She knew that first Father’s Day would be hard for all of us.

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That first holiday season must have been excruciating for her, and yet she was still thinking of her children. This also wasn’t the only time she expressed a desire to write more letters.

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I hadn’t remembered that Mom had attended a bereavement support group. This was in September, four months after his death.

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Just four months after the death of her husband, and my mother was “helping” others in their grief. Note, too, how she laments the letters she owes others.

Many of the letters left me in tears, made me wish for another chance to talk to Mom, to ask her a question, or comment on something she’d written. There was laughter too, with some of Mom’s descriptions. Occasionally, a note from one of my younger sisters was included in an envelope. Once or twice, my dad wrote something.

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But it was these words that really touched my heart today as I face some decisions in my life.

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Thanks, Mom. I needed that.

 

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.

What a “good mail day” looks like to one of the Marys

A couple of my children might tell you they are scarred for life because their mother actually used to sing this song when she spotted the mailman at the end of the driveway.

I nearly sang it today when I arrived home from work and saw these things in my mail:

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The boxes of vintage stationery were purchased on eBay. The textbook is for a course I am taking toward grief counseling certification. And what mail day would be complete without a letter, from the other Mary of course.

While I didn’t immediately sit down and write a letter, I did begin reading the textbook, getting to page 55 before I looked up and realized it had gotten dark outside. Yes, I love learning, and am fascinated by anything related to grief or psychology, and this textbook includes both.

It doesn’t take a lot to make either Mary happy, but a good mail day truly makes me want to sing!

 

A few of my favorite things

I begin every day in my office, even those mornings I need to rush to get to my workplace. I sit in my recliner, my book lamp on, a cup of coffee sitting on the end table where I keep my Bible, a devotional and writing materials.

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I can look in one direction and see my beautiful oak bookshelves filled with a few of my favorite things. Next to it, the St. Michael the Archangel wood carving I inherited from the man who bought it from my mother more than forty years ago. It sits on my grandmother’s trunk that is covered by a quilt my mother handmade for me.

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Each day, I gather strength from the visual reminder of God’s promise in Psalm 91:9-16
“For he will order his angels to protect you wherever you go. They will hold you up with their hands so you won’t even hurt your foot on a stone. You will trample upon lions and cobras; you will crush fierce lions and serpents under your feet! The LORD says, “I will rescue those who love me. I will protect those who trust in my name.”

In the other direction, on the wall near my desk, are decorative and inspirational wall plaques, reminding me to dream and explore.

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I’m never sure if it’s the surroundings, the gift of silence, or the coffee that jump-starts my day. It might be the combination of all three. But it is in this space, this haven, that I do my deepest thinking and my best writing.
For the majority of my adult life, my purchases were mostly utilitarian, and nearly always second-hand. Raising a large family meant operating on a tight budget. It wasn’t until I began conducting workshops that I needed to invest in some nicer clothing for myself. It was around that same time I developed a penchant for jewelry. Not high-priced diamonds or expensive gold, mind you, but dangly earrings and long chains with meaningful pendants and charms or steam-punk style; keys, gears, feathers, butterflies. I still enjoy that style of jewelry and since Christmas, thanks to my daughter Katie, I now have a way to display it.

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After my husband died, the purchases of “stuff” got out of control. Still not of the fur, diamond and gold variety, but everywhere I went I was picking up books, stationery, jewelry, inspirational wall plaques, and clothing; anything to fill the gaping hole in my heart. Of course, it didn’t work. Nothing would fill that gaping wound.
The binge-buying was financially unhealthy, but my urge to surround myself with beauty and inspirational messages was not. Many of those items from that period of buying still bring me joy; the jewelry, the stationery, a butterfly pillow, and those inspirational plaques and pictures on my walls.
Author Alexandra Stoddard is convinced our surroundings can nourish us physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
“The home is the center of your soul; it’s a total reflection of your inner life. If you have a dreary home, it means you are dark inside,” she wrote.
Possessions aren’t all bad. Our desire to surround ourselves with beautiful things is natural. God decorated our skies with stars and rainbows, peppered our hills with budding flowers, and filled our pastures with bright green blades of grass. An artsy plaque with an inspirational message on our wall or the soft glow of a lamp in the corner of the room can be soothing to the soul. My home office is full of such things, and my favorites are hand-made; my mother’s wood carvings, my daughters’ paintings and drawings, the painted brick books one daughter made, or wooden letters that spell out the word “WRITE” that another daughter crafted with the cover designs of my books. My book lamp, a handmade quilt on a trunk, and solid oak bookcases filled with books; these things make me feel as though I am surrounded by warmth and beauty.

A recent acquisition that is bound to become one of my favorite things; Martha Stewart Pen-pal bed sheets from Macys.  I bought them as a Christmas gift to myself, when they were 60% off.  I’m not sure I would have invested in pen-pal sheets when I shared a Queen bed with my husband, but if the other Mary is interested, there are flamingo sheets available as well.

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What about you? What are a few of your favorite things?

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!