Big news for After three years and 302 posts blogging about other people’s memoirs, I  have a book contract of my own.

The contract was completed August 5. It’s taken me three months to tell my readers about it.

I was tempted to go incognito and then spring the surprise when the book was published. But the more I meditated on whether and how to share my good news, the more I recognized a core dilemma. I’ve found that if I wrestle with these dilemmas, opportunities arise.

The dilemma: Mennonites frown on excessive individualism and can pick up signs of pride from a mile away. Some might even say that “a single life Mennonite memoir” is an oxymoron. Pride will be a major theme in my book. As an imaginative, inquisitive, and exuberant child, I confronted the church’s teachings against pride in my youth even while absorbing and appreciating the church’s greatest gifts — community, simplicity, and peace.

That liminal space between becoming smaller for the sake of others and celebrating too wildly at my own party has taken me a lifetime to find. Sometimes I fail utterly. Sadly, I’ve had to learn how to celebrate outside my faith community. But what I really long for is a celebration larger than self — a way to bring the self fully present and alive inside the community and at the same time enlarge the space of the community itself. Could this happen? Could it happen through memoir — not only my own, but others?

Let me tell you a little story:

The best-selling book by a Mennonite author for many years was the Mennonite Community Cookbook first published in 1950. The author was Mary Emma Showalter, my husband’s aunt. Here’s how she described the idea for her cookbook:


Among the cookbooks on the pantry shelf at home there has always been the little hand-written notebook of recipes. As a child I learned that this blue notebook, which contained a collection of my mother’s favorite recipes, was her favorite cookbook. Not only were all the pages of this notebook filled with recipes, but inserted between the pages were loose sheets of paper on which were written other favorites. These were copied by friends and relatives whom Mother had visited at some time and whose specialty she had admired. Since a cookbook of the favorite recipes of Mennonite families had never been published, I began to sense that the handwritten recipe books were responsible. I asked to see them wherever I went and was astonished to learn how many of them had been destroyed in recent years. The daughters of today were guilty of pushing them aside in favor of the new, just as I had done one day. This collection is a compilation of over 1,100 recipes, chosen from more than 5,000 recipes sent in. They come to you from most of the Mennonite communities in the United States and Canada.

Anna Mary Herr Hess' (my maternal grandmother) kitchen notebook

My mother still has such a notebook  from her mother. I estimate that Grandma Hess, who died in 1951, created this notebook soon after her marriage in 1918. Soon the notebook will be one hundred years old.

Aunt Mary Emma, as the Virginia-based cookbook author was called by my husband and his siblings and cousins, collected recipes by asking for them in church publications. I don’t think my Grandmother Hess responded from her farm in Pennsylvania, but at least she kept her own notebook instead of throwing it away. I still make a few of the recipes, my favorite being steamed cherry pudding. But the collection of other notebook entries in the Mennonite Community Cookbook was the most important book in almost every Mennonite kitchen (and many others as well) for generations.

And, what’s also true, is that most Mennonites have other treasures in their homes, like those recipe notebooks, that they have not valued highly enough. They come in the form of letters, diaries, photos, and heirlooms of close and distant ancestors. Many of them are already lost. But it’s not too late to claim a great heritage.

Today it is almost impossible to reach all Mennonites through a single outlet or publication. We live in too many places and speak too many languages for any one publication to reach us all. Churches borrow from many different sources. The Mennonite magazine and Mennonite Weekly Review reach many, but certainly not all, Mennonite homes in the United States. Facebook, Twitter, and blogs reach some others.

I would love for storytelling and story writing to become as Mennonite as shoofly pie. And I would love for the whole world to join in the great Mennonite story-telling enterprise as if it were a hymn sing. And for Mennonites to sing in the hymnals of others.

What if:

  • Stories were as important as recipes.
  • Mennonites would begin to share their stories. Not in a single master narrative but in truthful tales of real emotions and remembered events, practices, and people.
  • Some of those stories were sold as books and their authors toured the country, not only speaking about their own stories, but holding workshops on storytelling and story writing in churches, schools, libraries, and homes.
  • Sunday school classes and small groups would read Mennonite memoirs together and then write or tell their own stories to each other.
  • The stories that aren’t published are collected Story Corps fashion on a blog or made available as podcasts.
  • Historical Societies around the country sponsor annual storytelling and story writing events.

I don’t exactly know how all of this would look, but I do know that it greatly inspires me to tell my story if I know others are both helping in the process and thinking of their own stories and how to share them.

And so, dear reader, I am sharing my memoir writing timetable with you and giving you the keys to holding me accountable. I’d like to create in some fashion a Mennonite Community Memoir! And you don’t have to be Mennonite to come to the table.


  • Draft intro, chapter one and chapter two are finished. Very rough!
  • Chapter three deadline is Nov. 2. Yikes!
  • Chapter four: Dec. 1
  • Chapter five: Jan. 1
  • Chapter six: Feb. 1
  • Chapter seven: March 1.
  • Chapter eight: April 1.
  • Chapter nine: May 1.
  • Chapter ten: June 1.
  • Chapter eleven: August 1 (to allow time for moving from Brooklyn to VA and for two international trips)
  • Chapter twelve: Sept. 1
  • Chapter thirteen: Oct. 1
  • Chapter fourteen and epilogue: Nov. 1.
  • Revisions, photos, index, permissions, etc.: Nov. 15, 2012–Feb. 15, 2013
  • Estimated publication date: Fall 2013

Does this timetable give you heart palpitations? Probably not. But I can feel a few coming on.

That’s why I need you now more than ever.

I will keep you updated via this blog and a new website now in production. Soon I’ll have a FB page where I will be able to ask questions as I write. For example, if you are Mennonite, what do you remember about preparatory services for communion? Did you have to be able to say, in the company of witnesses, that you are at “peace with God and your fellow man” before you were ready to “partake of the cup”? What did/do you think of such a practice?

If you aren’t Mennonite, what would you like to know about Mennonite life?

Of course, as I write, I will continue taking care of grandson Owen until we leave Brooklyn at the end of May. I consider him an inspiration rather than a drain on my creativity, and his presence in my life is part of my memoir story that I will try to describe in the epilogue.

I would love to hear from many of you in the comments section and to build a larger community through the subscription list (right hand side) to this blog. Please respond to anything in this post that gives you pause, brings up a memory, or an idea. How can I be of service to you?

Now a final story:

When I became the 14th president of Goshen College, the chapel committee invited me to sing a call-and-response hymn, “Lead Me, Guide Me” by Doris Atkers. Somehow I managed to sing the solo part, buoyed up by the voices of the community, and there followed eight years in which God and that community gave me the strength I needed for the many tasks as president. Now I feel like I am standing alone at the mike again, but I know you will be there and that if you are, great things will happen. Lead me, guide me, again.

I am weak and I need thy strength and pow’r

to help me over my weakest hour.

Help me through the darkness thy face to see.

Lead me, O Lord, lead me.

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