Three Things Every Grandparent Learns Again and Every Wise Parent Knows

Today’s post was going to be about children and memoir storytelling. I had it all set up like this:

The perfect granny picture. We're reading a giant Richard Scarry book.

The perfect granny picture. We're reading a giant Richard Scarry book.

The post would be the third in a series of how my grandchildren are my spiritual teachers. The first post (2011) was about learning attention and proprioception (awareness of the body) from a baby. The second (2013) focused on learning to become one with nature. I would continue the tradition of borrowing from other writers, like Wordsworth, and Kathleen Norris, and Anne Lamott to enhance the depth of my own experience. I love these little essays and wanted to write another like them.

But it was not to be.

In preparation for a talk I am giving Friday night called “I Love to Tell the Story,” I created a literal story board:  copies of pictures that appear in my memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World.

the literal story board

The literal story board.

I thought Owen, now age three, would select photos he was curious about and want to hear stories.

Alas, he was much more interested in his new Hello Kitty coloring book. In the 2.5 hours between the time he awoke and the time Stuart and I strolled him and Julia to school, Owen didn’t ask for any stories. Instead, he shed some tears. He:

  • cried because I wasn’t in bed when he came to wake me up
  • cried because Julia was playing with the bouncy ball he instantly decided he needed to have
  • cried because the stripes on his socks were too wide

Was all lost?

Of course not! Even in their tears, Owen and Julia teach Grandma and Grandad. They give us gifts different from the ones we hoped for. But they amaze us by wisdom we can neither predict nor demand.

ready for a ride

Grandad buckles up skeptical Owen while Julia waves.

What spiritual gifts have we gained from a week of intensive grandparenting?

I. Let go of expectations.

Sometimes grandparents forget what to expect at a certain age or develop expectations of what will or won’t be fun for a child.

Wise parents know that children run according to their own feelings and needs. They have their own timetables for everything. Often, by going where the children are instead of insisting that they come to you, you get to explore places you would not have gone otherwise. Those places may be better than the ones you anticipated in advance. In the process, you start asking what you might need to let go in your own life.

As Dr. Stephen Cowan says, “Each season, each stage, each little rhythm of our life is a matter of letting go. This allows us to get rid of what we don’t need to make room in our lives for new information. Learning to let go is not always easy and each child has his own adaptive style and timing. Nature favors diversity.”

II. Practice in reframing.

Tears flow easily for three-year-olds. And they give way just as easily to smiles. Sometimes a little creativity is necessary. For instance, I discovered, along with Owen, that:

  • it’s easy to pop back into bed and start snoring so that Owen gets to wake you up and clap his hands when you rub the sleep out of your eyes. His offer to make you coffee will jump start your day better than caffeine.
  • a bouncy ball can bounce two ways; a brother can bounce it to a sister.
  • questions re-orient thoughts: “I wonder if any of the other socks in the drawer look like they want to be on Owen’s feet today?”

III.  Take time to smell the roses, literally and figuratively.

Such a cliché, smelling the roses. But how often do we do it? Owen examined every one of these flowers, seeking names of types and colors. He filled the glass with water and noticed that the flowers drank it with their stems. He sniffed the roses on the table.

Smelling the roses

Smelling the roses

He also exclaimed about the buds about to pop on the trees outside. Every day he examines them to see how much progress they’ve made.

His wise mother allowed Owen and Julia to dig in the dirt in the front lawn and asked them questions about what they saw.

Soon we will travel back to Virginia. We will leave with all of our senses tuned tighter (and our backs a little sorer). We will often hear imaginary laughter. And we’ll stride back into our own world with these two stepping stones to wisdom firmly in place:

Steps under the sink.

Steps under the sink.

I haven’t drawn any morals from this story related to memoir or to writing. But I’ll bet you can! What lessons in wisdom have you learned anew from your own children and grandchildren? Or have you had other teachers of the same ideas? Do tell!

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Learning from Rachel Held Evans: A Book Tour Pro

Do you know Rachel Held Evans? If not, you should.

She’s a barrel of laughs.

A good laugh with Rachel Held Evans

A good laugh with Rachel Held Evans. Photo credit: Jessica Hostetler.

She’s also a bestselling author and a courageous leader among Christian Feminists online. She’s helped many people bridge between faith and doubt. Read this blog post about World Vision and see how much energy (over 600 comments) she generates! My respect for her has only increased after I met her on March 19 at Eastern Mennonite University.

Rachel is also a memoir and book marketing pro. Less than half my age, she teaches me. When I heard she was coming to my alma mater, right down the street from my house, I knew I had to be there.

If you are an avid reader, if you are a writer, you look forward to events like this one that give you an opportunity to meet a favorite author — or maybe just a famous one who becomes a favorite after the event.

After Rachel’s visit I created a check list of a dozen activities I did before and after the event. It’s easy to forget networking skills when caught up in the excitement of the moment.

I figured that if I needed to remind myself of how to help the writer, the sponsoring institution, and myself, perhaps these simple strategies might help my readers also. I also want to get better at serving authors and readers through this blog, so I’m hoping you will improve the list after you read it.

I’m about to go on another tour myself, and though I’m not a star like Rachel, the list below might help me know how to act and how to ask for help when I’m the speaker.

The List: A Dozen Ways to Connect

1. Check out the pre-event publicity. Help spread the word on social media. I used Facebook.

2. Twitter comes in handy before, during, and after the presentation. If you have an account, share a few pithy quotes. Retweet others.

3. After the presentation, ask a question. It doesn’t have to be profound, just sincere.

4. Buy the book!

5. Get in the line.

Rachel Held Evans, Andrea Schrock Wenger, and Blush

Enjoying conversation when I reached my turn in line. Andrea Schrock Wenger (left) was the host. Photo credit: Jessica Hostetler

6. Pay keen attention when others talk to the author.

You can learn a lot from an author about how she listens to her fans. Some clearly want to dispatch with the task as quickly as possible. Rachel Held Evans focuses on the person in front of her, not on the length of the line. People in the line don’t grow restless. They know they will get Rachel’s full attention when their turn comes.

7. Photo op? Of course. Offer to take photos for others in line also. Good chance to deepen friendships with readers as you wait in line. If you’re lucky, a good photographer you offer to help, will help you. Thanks, Jessica Hostetler!

Getting my copy of A Year of Biblical Womanhood

Getting my copy of A Year of Biblical Womanhood autographed. Photo credit: Jessica Hostetler

8. Follow up. Thank her for the visit in Tweet form. Feel a little thrill when she replies or favorites the  tweet.

9. Follow up. Offer a guest post.

10. Write a blog post about the event such as this one.

 If I had been thinking further ahead, I would have asked to interview her on my blog!

11. Tweet a link to her it as a way to say thank you one more time for her mission in the world. Only another writer knows how lonely the journey can be. I think I will also tweet some of my laugh lines from A Year of Biblical Womanhood.

12. And then leave her alone. She’s an introvert. And she’s got another book to write!

How can you improve this list? Can you tell a story of what it was like to meet a famous author? I’d love to listen!

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Richard Gilbert’s Memoir Shepherd: A Masterpiece of Rumination

Did you know that there are 150 ruminant species living on earth?

Cover photo, Shepherd: A Memoir of Freckles, the good mother.

Cover photo, Shepherd: A Memoir of Freckles, the good mother.

Sheep, goats, and cattle, however, play a special role. About 10,000 years ago they helped bring us agriculture and the familiar landscape of pastures and meadows.

I learned that fact from one of my favorite guides to memoir, Richard Gilbert, whose posts and comments have appeared on this site for the last three years.

Richard himself is an ruminant, a writer who grazes down to the roots and then chews on ideas until they yield nurture.

In his forthcoming book (May 1 from Michigan State University Press)  Shepherd: A Memoir, he ruminates on three archetypal quest themes:

  • the son’s search for his father
  • the search for a lost bucolic paradise
  • a spiritual quest for invisible wholeness and connection

 I. The Son’s Quest for the Father

The story begins before the first page. We learn, in chapter one, that the author’s paternal grandfather committed suicide took his own life years ago. Something  immediately “clicks,” bringing all other descriptions of the author’s father, Charles Churchill Gilbert, into the foreground. The suicide happened when Charles was fourteen. By the time of this story, which takes place after 1996, Charles has died. As a father, he was both charismatic (when in public) and distant (to his sons, at least, a “stone face”).

The father also lost an inheritance by buying two cattle farms, never able to make them financially sustainable. He was no slouch, however, but a man of action and dreams, ahead of his time in some ways, able to make contributions to aviation and agriculture even when he couldn’t save his farms. His son Richard admired him.

At the impressionable age of six, author Richard moved with his family away from the second farm, the lost paradise in Georgia, to what many would have considered a better place: Florida and the middle-class suburban life that surrounded the space industry in its prime. From then on, Richard would have a dream, perhaps an obsession, to return to the land.

In mythic language, he wants to find the holy grail and restore the land to fecundity. He will do this in some ways for his father and in some ways in opposition to his father, besting him at his own game in the classic ways of sons. He will live to tell the story. He will write a book.

Of course, Charles Gilbert, the father, was also an author — of a niche publication still available online: Success without soil: how to grow plants by hydroponics. The memoir Shepherd could have been called Success With Lambs. Fortunately, it wasn’t. But I do note that its Amazon category is not memoir but horticulture!

Throughout the book the reader yearns along with the son for the father’s gaze, touch, verbal approval. It never arrives in fullness. Even the final good-bye fails to satisfy. The father’s heart gives out, but the son still cannot reach him:

I fell on him, kissed his rough cheek, tried to hug him. He submitted quietly, unmoving, his face slightly turned from our first embrace (291).

II. Paradise Lost, Found, Regained

At the center of this narrative lies two farms. First there is that lost farm in Georgia, the one that the boy Richard lamented and the man Richard tried to find through the purchase of a magical but run-down property in Appalachian Ohio in 1996.

By this time Richard was a middle-aged man and a father, married to a woman he met when both of them were graduate students at Ohio State University. Kathy, unlike Richard, grew up on a farm and held no romantic illusions about it.

Nevertheless, Kathy works “like a horse” and applies herself to leadership in academics, eventually becoming a college president. She has a gift not only for working hard but for seeing opportunity. She finds the seventeen acre farm, ironically called Lost Valley, and she suggests the strategy of bidding an extra $101, which is enough to make them winners.

Throughout the book, Richard ignores her sage advice only at his own peril. And she is there to help in every project he initiates, smoothing relationships with neighbors and their two children, and offering plenty of labor.

But Richard is the one who eventually finds the project that will bring in income and make him a shepherd. He settles on assembling a herd of Katahdin hair sheep. He learns, the hard way every time, how to purchase, select, breed, tend, feed, and evaluate his herd.

Coming from a farm myself, and having investigated farm inheritance issues in my own memoir, I can heartily endorse Richard and his father’s conclusion about farming. You can only make a go of it if you inherit the land or if you scale up from small to large or both.

If you want to know just how many adventures old buildings, animals, and town/gown issues in a small town can produce, read the book! You will veer from one near-catastrophe to another. And you will learn to love sheep, especially the one pictured above, Freckles.

Along the way, make sure you pause to appreciate Richard’s gifts as a writer. His imagery will pull you into his cave, where you will find, for example, “jagged stalagmites of greasy mud” (32).

His exquisite braiding of three different stories: childhood, early adulthood, and life on the farm may at times confuse you, but never confuses him. I suggest you create a timeline for his life as he distributes clues.

 III. Wholeness. The Mystic’s Quest.

The "ruminants" I grew up with -- cows. Richard didn't choose this animal because he didn't want to be "chained to an udder."

The "ruminants" I grew up with -- Holstein cows. Richard didn't choose this animal because he didn't want to be chained to an udder (31).

“The animals, their reproductive cycles, the pastures, and the farmer’s efforts move in turn with the seasons, with the entire tilting, spinning planet.” (55)

Throughout the book, the author offers us glimpses of his soul. Behind all his longings — for the approval of his family, especially his father, for the chance to create and live in a rural paradise, and for the achievement of a work of art in this book — lies one big longing: he wants to feel himself part of the “entire tilting, spinning planet.”

No writer can do more than suggest this kind of union. And too much yearning turns the words into abstract mush. Richard always stays with the concrete image but manages to suggest invisible forces beyond.

In fact, this book contains one of the most satisfying endings I’ve ever encountered. It sent a shiver through me and rewarded me for close reading. As a reader, I got to put the whole together myself.  The words are suggestive, transcendent, and yet grounded. I defy you to find a better, more electric, ending.

And I’ve got to believe that somewhere Charles Churchill Gilbert is saying, “Well done!”

What else would you like to know about Richard, memoir, this book? Are you also a ruminant?

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100 Magical Memoir Moments: A Possible New Book?

Have you ever walked out the door, sniffed the air, and felt an arrow fly into your heart?

Sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen, San Francisco. Wikipedia image.

Sculpture by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje Van Bruggen, San Francisco. Wikipedia image.

I think there must be another kind of Cupid in addition to the one at Hallmark  — a Memoir Cupid who sends us pangs of joy or sorrow from our past.

Scientists who study memory know that the senses, especially the sense of smell, connect us to storage of people, places, things, and events we know we experienced before, but we don’t recall vividly — yet.

Two years ago I wondered what I could offer readers who are ready to think about or talk about or maybe even write about their own stories.

If you have read Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World, you know that my mother wrote a story called “The Magic Elevator” in high school and that she has now told that story to three generations of her own family.

I wanted to offer my readers entré into the world of memory, which is just as magical as the world of imagination. Some would say the two worlds are the same. :-) But in the case of memory, the fairy dust floats over real objects, sense perceptions, and artifacts.

So, what if I sent you one of my artifacts by email every week and made a short observation and asked you a question. Could I share the Magic? Would Cupid’s arrow sting you also?

I decided to offer Magical Memoir Moments to readers in 2012, the year before my book was published. I wasn’t sure what images to send. So I tried landscapes. And old photos from my family collection, some of which ended up in my published memoir.

And, of course, I had to throw in a few photos of Cupid’s best weapon — my grandchildren.

Sample Magical Memoir Moment

Sample Magical Memoir Moment

Uh oh. I found a typo in the text above. Can’t correct it right now. Just like all Magic, this one includes a touch of imperfection.

Yesterday, I sent Magical Memoir Moment #100 out the door. This weekend, I have to fill up Cupid’s Quiver with new arrows to send to the 620 people who subscribe. You may remember that making an eBook out of the weekly offerings now accumulated was one of my goals for 2014, along with travel. I’d also love to grow the membership in Magical Memoir Moments, so please share this post online if you enjoy receiving Cupid’s arrows, and please subscribe yourself if you haven’t tried them yet. If they aren’t for you, it’s easy to unsubscribe at the bottom of every message.

sign up in the box on the right-hand side of your screen

Sign up in the box on the right-hand side of your screen. You'll have to scroll up to the top.

In addition to signing up, I would love your guidance about what kind of Moment to select. I have pictures galore. Some are color and contemporary, like the sample above. Some are old and frayed.

I’m thinking of collecting the best 100 of these into a book called 100 Magical Memoir Moments. I may call some of my tribe members together to help me select which 100. Let me know if you had a favorite and/or want to help select.

As you think about your own Magical Memoir Moments, do you have a story to share of a time your heart was pierced by memory? I’m all ears!

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What’s the Best Way to do a Book Tour? A Hybrid Approach Between Virtual and “Live”

Hamming it up with Maxine in Kansas City

Hamming it up with Maxine in Kansas City. Photo credit: Shirley Yoder. I got to be a tourist and had a blast at the Hallmark Visitors Center.

Book tours have gotten a bad rap lately. Publishers seldom sponsor them except for their A-list authors in A-list venues in large cities.

In fact, back in 2011 Anne R. Allen advised authors to celebrate their demise in a post titled  RIP the Author Book Tour.  She preferred BLOG tours and social media, which, three years ago, were all the rage. Later, some authors questioned this method also, but most found them worthwhile. Here’s author Madeline Sharples in 2012 explaining the benefits on

My own response? Do both: travel and use social media!

So here are five tips extracted from my recent trip to Kansas City and two small towns: Hesston and North Newton, Kansas. I spoke to more than 600 people in mostly packed venues. I sold and signed at least 88 books. My email list grew by more than 100 names. I had a whole team of people helping me.

1. Define success before you begin.

What makes any endeavor in life successful? Clear goals in advance help. For example: are you going to go strictly by cost/benefit analysis? Cost of tour versus income from book sales?

If so, the only way to go is having the ability to charge for public speaking. Even then, your fee will need to be hefty if your costs are high. It’s almost impossible to fly, rent a car, pay hotels and restaurants, without having someone at the other end who wants you enough to pay expenses plus at least $500 in honoraria. If you have this, the book sales become the icing on the cake instead of the cake itself.

On the other hand, you may have the luxury of having a “bucket list” of places to visit and people to see. You may be willing to make that the “cake” and everything else the icing.

Most authors fall somewhere between the two extremes above.

Tweet: “Your book tour goals should be linked to the reasons you wrote your book in the first place.” @shirleyhs

My own goals for this tour were to sell two boxes (88 copies) of books sent in advance by my publisher, renew ties with friends in the area, listen to and engage with readers, hone my abilities as a speaker, and generate buzz in the community about my book Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World.

These goals are linked to my overall goal as an author to leave a legacy, to promote values such as simplicity, peace, and kindness, and to prepare for my own death by living one good day at a time. I also want to learn as much as possible about writing well. And I can only learn that by engaging with other writers, coaches and critics, and my readers.

It’s important to note that BLUSH is nearly six months old. That’s past the shelf life of the average book. BLUSH is now in its third printing, which means it’s on track to exceed the publisher’s minimum sales goals, but now is a critical time.

Tweet: “For books, as for all other living things, the rule is: grow or die.” @shirleyhs

It’s also important to note that most authors don’t make a living from sales of their books. I never expected to do so. I place the writing and marketing of this book into the category in my budget called education and travel. I am fortunate enough to not depend on sales for success, but I’m both frugal and still have an inner child’s voice inside, the voice that opened BLUSH with these words:

Tweet: “Ever since I was little, I wanted to be big. Not just big as in tall, but big as in important, successful, influential.” @shirleyhs

So, I am very actively involved in promotion for this book. For my own learning and enjoyment, for the benefit of my chosen charity, and for FUN!

2. Start about five months before the actual tour.

Here’s a checklist of both “real” and “virtual” activities:

  • examine your calendar for potential “anchor events and locations.” Then reach out to people you know in the area. (My anchor event was a conference my husband was already attending in Kansas City. His expenses were paid, which reduced mine.)
  • ask for help from people who have reasons of their own to want to help. Fans of your book. Other writers, friends, former students and colleagues, online friends. You can ask for suggestions of contacts for bookstores, libraries, churches, colleges, and retirement communities. I found all my venues through this avenue.
  • Social media. Use FB friend search to locate both current friends and friends of friends you may know.
  • As time gets closer to events, consider using your author page on FB to reach a new audience. I coughed up $50 to advertise just to Kansans. My number of “likes” expanded by about the same number.

3. Select topics that meet local needs/interests and show your interest in their area.

Tweet: “Humor is the engine that lifts a tour from duty to delight” @shirleyhs.

I spoke to five different audiences and did not duplicate any topic. I worked with the sponsors of each event to listen to their needs and craft titles that they could promote with zest, which they did.

the red shoes

"Dorothy"'s red shoes were a subject of pre-tour conversation on my FB author page and on the FB event page

Time to introduce my red shoes. They are a whole story in themselves. Here’s the quick and dirty version. I posted the picture above on my author page and asked,

So, if you go to Kansas, what item of apparel do you get to haul out of the closet? Do I dare wear these? To a Mennonite Church??

More than 640 people saw this post (about the number of “likes” I had on the page) and about 30 people commented. Since FB usually makes you pay to get that many eyeballs, I knew the shoes would make a great conversation piece. I was truly uncertain in asking about them in the first place, but people loved making multiple connections to Dorothy, the wizard of Oz, Kansas, tornados, fashion, Mennonites, and feminism. :-)

One of my amazing Tour Team members just happened to be a professional photographer, Jon Friesen, who, without my requesting it, took a whole storehouse of excellent pictures. Then Kathleen Foster Friesen, one of my first contacts in the area, put up the photos online, reporting on three of the five events which she and Jon attended. Without prompting, Jon posted this companion picture of my feet under the table where I was signing books at Schowalter Villa.

red shoes under the table in Kansas

Red shoes under the table in Kansas. Photo credit: Jon Friesen.

A wonderful gentleman in the audience of my last talk, which happened to be about humor: “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to My Memoir,” opened the Q & A session with the question:

“I notice you are wearing red shoes. Can you tell us why?”
Tweet: All I had to say was, “I’m in Kansas! @shirleyhs

He brought the house down.

4. Keep the conversation going online before, during, and after the events. But, offline, be absolutely present to each person.

Here are two Friesen photos that tell a story I love. The first is a photo of the audience at the last event. The woman in blue is asking a question. Look at the expression on those faces as she reaches deep into her soul to pull out words.

An audience member asks a question

An audience member asks a question. Photo credit: Jon Friesen.

Kathleen herself takes wonderful pictures. She captured the exchange below at the Kauffman Museum. When it was shared on Facebook, one of my friends said, “This is my favorite.” I think you can see how and why exchanges like these fuel me as an author whose mission is social and spiritual.


listening one-on-one to a question

Listening one-on-one to a question. Photo credit: Kathleen Foster Friesen. Taken at the Kauffman Museum.

5. Never stop saying Thank You!

I tried to thank my hosts Jim Juhnke and Miriam Nofsinger, Kathleen and Jon Friesen, Clif and Karen Hostetler, Rachel Pannabecker, Wendy Miller, Nathan Bartel, Sue Stuckey, and Bethany Martin (as well as many other staff members of Bethel College, Schowalter Villa, Faith and Life Bookstore, Hesston Mennonite Church, and the Kauffman Museum) when I was there. My publisher was also very helpful. Jerilyn Schrock at Herald Press arranged to have the books shipped to Kansas City and helped me with logistics of connecting them to Faith and Life Bookstore in North Newton. She also supplied book cover posters and book plates for any venue that used them in publicity.

Yesterday, I spent three hours sending thank-you cards. This blog post is another way of saying thanks.

Now, what else would you like to know, authors? And what else fascinates you as you look at the behind-the-scenes life of an author, readers? Your comments below will make this post much more valuable to all of us.

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Coverings and Bonnets, Part Three: Church of the Brethren and Quaker Stories

Back in 1966, both Charlene and I wore prayer coverings to Warwick High School. Here’s a picture from our senior yearbook showing both of us in relation to our classmates — enjoying the fun, but from a distance. Charlene is sitting closest to the windows. I am holding a paper.

Charlene and me in our civics class

Charlene and me in our civics class, 1966

 Charlene’s Story

Charlene Fahnestock

Charlene Fahnestock

Charlene was then, and still is, a member of the Church of the Brethren, Northeast Atlantic District. Today, she still wears her hair up under a prayer covering. She was most helpful to me in locating other friends from our growing up years, Judy, and Carol, both of whom are mentioned in Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World

When asked why she wears a covering, Charlene cited many of the same reasons mentioned by Kathy and of the Old Order Mennonites. She begins with the biblical command in I Corinthians 11. Then she focuses on the opportunity to be a witness:

“I was in a direct sales business for 29 years and there were a few times my veiling intimidated some people, but the majority of times it increased their faith in me. Christian women, especially, were happy to discuss their faith and relationship with the Lord with me.”

She continues,

“I don’t think I worry much about showing uniformity with others, and most often I don’t have a meek and quiet spirit. I don’t wear a “plain” dress. I go to a regular store and purchase clothing that I like. . . . modest clothing compared to what many others wear. . . . That’s a separate decision from the head covering.”

Some of Charlene’s friends have abandoned the covering. Others never wore it. Charlene doesn’t judge either group:

I have always liked being with people and enjoyed meeting new people. Most of them just accepted me as I am and I wanted to do the same with them . . . . The prayer covering does NOT save any of us and I would never presume that it does. . . . I really dislike hearing someone say ‘My church makes us wear them.’ Without a personal conviction to wear a head veiling I really don’t see that it can be any kind of a witness to anyone.”

When you meet Charlene, you can tell that she is very comfortable in her own skin, with her own choices, and with faith and family that show not only her beliefs but her very identity:

“My prayer covering has been an important part of my life for over 50 years.”

Eileen’s Story

You may remember Eileen. She’s the young poet whose book on silence I featured in a previous post.

Eileen, like Kathy Wenger, was in the audience when the book launch for BLUSH was held at Lititz Mennonite Church, Lititz, Pennsylvania.

Eileen Kinch is on the right. Her mother, Marie Riegle Kinch, is on the left (gray head covering).

Eileen Kinch is on the right. Her mother, Marie Riegle Kinch, is on the left (gray head covering). Photo credit: Linda K. Zeranko.

Here’s Eileen in her own words:
I am a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and part of the Conservative branch of Friends.  I attend Keystone Friends Meeting.
My reasons for wearing a covering of some kind are rather complicated. I started to wear something on my head in 2005, not because of Biblical reasons, but rather because I felt led by God to wear some kind of covering.  My wearing it is a reminder of my submission to God, not of submission to men.
Of course, wearing it does remind me to be aware of the example I set for others, and it does remind me to think about God.  My role is to be obedient to God.  Certainly, my headgear does open conversations about faith in the larger culture–but I wear it out of a sense of leading.
I think another reason I wear it is cultural.  Other women around me wear a covering, and so I feel, yes, some sense of wanting a consistent witness with other women, but it also feels culturally comfortable for me to do this.  [Note: Some Muslim women cover their heads for cultural reasons, and not for religious ones, as well.]
Another reason is purely personal.  My hair is important to me, and I feel like I need to protect it somehow.  It’s private.
One time someone asked me about why I wear a covering and simple clothes, and I explained that my reasons were rather intellectual, feminist, and individualistic, so perhaps I didn’t do it for the right reasons. She said, “Yes, but when you’re in a setting that is intellectual, feminist, and individualist [I was in grad school at the time], what stands out about you is your simplicity.”So in the end, her comment brought me back to articulating my hope to live in such a way that keeps me focused and responsive to God’s presence and desire.  Modesty and simplicity help with this.
Friends (Quakers) have always allowed women to speak during meeting, and I don’t think the book of discipline for my yearly meeting says anything about a head covering at all.  I can’t even recall it being much of  an issue in historical documents I have read.  I think Quaker women in the past may have covered their heads out of modesty, perhaps, but also out of a desire to be separated from the world (and certain kinds of dress were encouraged by the meeting/congregation).
But women who preached during meeting still had to be submitted to God–to speak only what God would want–just the same as the men speaking during meeting.  My meeting and yearly meeting do not see head coverings or plain/simple dress as a requirement; the current position is that it is a personal choice, between an individual and God.  (This was not always the case, historically.)
I believe Friends would reject the God-man-woman hierarchy, for the most part, and would not cite 1 Corinthians 11 as a reason to wear a head covering.   In the end, at least with the Friends I’ve been in contact with more recently, it comes down to the individual woman and God.
I know this is not the classically Anabaptist way of thinking of things.  Fortunately, I belong to a congregation and denomination that allows this kind of individual understanding, and, on good days, understands that obedience will not look the same for everyone.
Finally, I wear a head covering because I feel a sense of leading to.  I don’t believe every woman will feel led to, and that’s okay.  I respect women who choose to cover their heads and/or wear plain or simple clothes, and I respect women who don’t.  What is important for me is being faithful to what I feel God calling me to.  I am someone who feels called to writing as public ministry–that is to say, I feel called to write and publish poems and other writing and even speak sometimes–and somehow being reminded, through a head covering, of who I belong to and whose authority I am under frees me to write and speak.  I often feel bolder and more confident, somehow.

Having listened to these women’s stories, how do you respond? Did any of these ideas surprise, disturb, or move you? I hope you can see similarities and differences and draw your own conclusions. What have you learned from them?

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Coverings and Bonnets, Amish, Quaker, and Mennonite Stories: Part Two

Kathy Wenger and her mother at the book launch

Kathy Wenger's sister and mother at the BLUSH book launch

When BLUSH launched at Lititz Mennonite Church September 19, 2013, I, like any new author, was excited.

But I was also a little worried, as any memoir writer with extended family in the room will be!

My family’s response filled my heart with joy that night. I will always be grateful for their amazing support.

But I still felt a few other niggling questions. I wondered how two friends, Kathy and Eileen, sitting in the audience might react to Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Both of them wear head coverings.

My memoir is all about wanting choices and taking the choice, eventually, not to wear a prayer covering.

I knew they each had taken the opposite path. I hoped that my story would not cause them pain or separate us from each other.

As it turned out, my worry was displaced. They know who they are, what they have chosen, and neither has a desire to dictate to others. Both have many friends who made different choices.

In my last post I described stories of women who left the practice of plain dress, including the head covering. I promised to offer this space also as a forum for other perspectives. To prepare, I read articles by scholars Beth Graybill and Donald Kraybill.

Beth Graybil’s chapter in the book Strangers at Home: Amish and Mennonite Women in History (Johns Hopkins University Press 2002), based on interviews with Eastern Conference Mennonite women, lists reasons for wearing the covering and functions it serves in women’s lives. I summarized them below and then shared them with Kathy and Eileen:

  • to show nonconformity to the world
  • to follow the biblical command in I Corinthians 11: 5 to pray with her head covered
  • to witness to the world — to open conversations about faith
  • to show submission and to accept the divine order of God>man>woman
  • to show uniformity in having a consistent witness with other women
  • to remind oneself to have a meek and quiet spirit
  • to make a statement against the fashion industry (in combination with plain dress)
  • to protect oneself against sexual temptations or attacks
  • to increase virtuous behavior. “We want people to look at us and think of God.”
  • to be in contact with a sacred symbol that isn’t sold in stores
  • to provide emotional security of knowing one’s role in the community as wife, mother, caregiver, and one who enjoys working hard to serve others

 Kathy’s Story

Kathy Wenger, is the co-owner and hostess of the Forgotten Seasons Bed & Breakfast, the colonial-era farmhouse I grew up in. I interviewed her briefly about her mission in hospitality here.

The Home Place Farmhouse -- Forgotten Seasons

The Home Place Farmhouse -- Now Forgotten Seasons

Last week I asked Kathy to respond to some questions specifically about the prayer covering she puts on every day.

Greetings to you from PA.  I have been thinking about your questions this evening and no, I do not find them intrusive.  I will be glad to respond, but am not sure how to condense all that in an e-mail.  I guess we need a few hours sometime of a good discussion!  I realize there are many things along the way in my spiritual journey that have impacted how I view wearing a headship veiling today.  At times I have struggled with it, but can’t say I felt the “blush” that you described in your memoir.  I will answer your first question tonight and then finish tomorrow after thinking about how to word my response to the statements that Beth Graybill received in her interviews.

We are members at Lime Rock Mennonite Church west of Lititz.  It is not far from the Erb Mennonite Church.  Our congregation is part of the Weaverland Conference which is still considered an Old Order Mennonite Church.  Growing up in Lancaster County, you probably heard of the “Black Bumper” or Horning Mennonite. That is the same church we go to — although not many have the black bumpers anymore.

 Which statement (above) means the most to me personally?  The one of being in submission to God’s divine order of God > man> and woman. That is because that is the one where I have struggled the most but also the one where God has revealed Himself so clearly to me. Too many times I felt women wore coverings because they were expected to or forced to. Women should feel honored and protected, respected and loved by the men in their lives for them to rest in the role they are in.  Sadly, that is not always so.

I was single until I was 37 years old and let some of that fear bind me. “Would I be happy if I got married?” “ How would my husband treat me?” ” Could I be in my place as a wife and yet still feel alive as a woman and that I had a voice?”  Thankfully, I can say that God has worked powerfully in our lives and I am blessed with a wonderful husband and can rest in that divine order.

 What reasons [above] do I reject?  I don’t like the wording “to increase virtuous behavior” or “to remind oneself to have meek and quiet spirit” or “to make a statemant against the fashion industry.”  All that feels draining to me. It feels performance- based. It feels like there is so much I need to ”do” to be a godly woman.  Sometimes Proverbs 31 has felt that way to me.  I like a quote I once read ” Before you can be a Proverbs 31 woman, you need to be Psalms 1 woman.”  Read it and place “she” where there is the word “he”. ["She shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water."]

I like to think of my dress corresponding with what is coming from my heart. Does my face show that I am at peace? Am I warm and welcoming to anyone I meet? Does who I am as a person show that I know the Lord?  Women can wear a covering and a cape dress, but have a hard face and a bitter spirit.

 I know that I can be a godly woman and live for the Lord without wearing a covering. But God chose my family, my home, and the culture and placed me here “for such a time as this.”  As I live my life for God as an adult, I choose to follow the  scriptural teaching of wearing a head covering.  But even more than my dress, I want to live out what God calls me to be as a woman fully alive for Him in my femininity.

Being separated by dress is a visible symbol, but truly being transformed by the work of God and his Son Jesus calls me to show Himself to others.

     Blessings to you,

I think you can see why I respect Kathy. And I think you can see on her face the Spirit she serves. I’d love to know what you felt as you read her words.

Do you have any other questions to ask her? I’m sure she will respond to you in the same thoughtful, kind, and open way she answered my questions. She also welcomes guests at Forgotten Seasons to ask questions about any of the Old Order practices she and her husband Jay honor and adhere to.

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Mennonite Bonnet and Covering Stories: Part One

Ready to enter the Blue Mosque, Istanbul

Ready to enter the Blue Mosque, Istanbul

All this week I’ve had coverings on my mind. Yesterday, as I was doing research about plain dress among the Eastern Pennsylvania Mennonites, I was joined at the library computer table by a Muslim woman in full head veiling.

Yes, it’s true. There are more Muslim head veilings at Eastern Mennonite University these days than there are Mennonite ones.

And the last time I veiled my own head, it was to enter a mosque.

So, as I prepare to speak on the subject of Coverings: Amish and Mennonite Stories next Tuesday, February 25, at Mount Joy Mennonite Church, Mount Joy, Pennsylvania, I recognize the complexities of this subject.

In my own case, the story I have to tell is one of both attraction and rejection. I wore a Mennonite prayer veiling 1960-1966 every day all day. My memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World tells the story of how hard it was for me to choose between the loving faith community that surrounded me and the glittering world that attracted me.

I was saved from the hardest choice by the fact that the church itself was changing. Conservatives would say that the Lancaster Conference gave way to the pressures of the world. Liberals would say that the church had been placing an unfair burden on women to maintain religious and ethnic boundaries for the whole community. The old visible symbols gave way to more abstract and historical theological identities.

Thousands of Mennonite women living today at one time wore a covering on their heads and no longer do so. Thousands of Mennonite women living today still wear coverings on their heads.

It seems only fair that both should speak.

my last two coverings and my Grandmother Hess's last two bonnets

my last two coverings and my Grandmother Hess's last two bonnets

I asked my Facebook friends, many of whom belong to the category of formerly-covered Mennonites, for their stories.

I can’t include all of them here, but you may be interested in this summary:

  • 21 people responded with stories
  • two people suggested scholarly articles to consult
  • most of the stories were from women. Most of them had either humorous or rebellious themes. All of them showed evidence of the strain of carrying the weight of communal identity.

Here are just two of the stories representing the latter theme. Since I didn’t ask permission for attribution, the actors in the stories are anonymous:

I love these stories because they show how boundaries beg for creative responses, which women supplied many times.  The last story shows how complicated the issue becomes when there can be a profit motive for  using the symbol without its religious base:

The president at Hesston called me to his office one day to tell me he noticed I wasn’t wearing my covering to chapel and that my parents wouldn’t appreciate that. In protest, I dyed the rim a pale pink!

Ditched it by college, but kept one folded up in a drawer for years. Found it last week. My now 35-year-old daughter played nurse with it when she was little.

I stared wearing a “covering” when I was baptized at age 9. I never minded as all my friends wore one too. Then in college I stopped wearing it and still remember how upset my mother was. She kept a drawer full of coverings by the kitchen table and would slap one on my head at meal time.

I remember when I had to start wearing a covering to school. I was so embarrassed. I had always been embarrassed when my mother came, and my peers saw her covering. Now, I had to wear it, too. We still wore strings, untied. So, what happens the first day I wear it in 7th grade? The young man who sat behind me pulled on the strings that were hanging down the inside of my dress, anchored by a large safety pin. And he pulled up the safety pin. He was surprised, and I was embarrassed even more than I already was.

It was a cold, snow covered December Sunday. She arrived at church to lead singing — but forgot her covering. When she told the worship leader, assuming they could improvise somehow, he said she wouldn’t be able to lead singing without her covering. So someone else took her place. When she got home, she quietly gathered up all the coverings in the house, took them out into a snow drift and lit them on fire.

The last time I put the covering back on was in the mid-eighties when I began waitressing part-time at the local Mennonite restaurant. Waitresses were required to wear a small, white-net covering. When I was hired and was asked if I would agree to wear it, I agreed. I also said, however, that it was difficult to put it back on because my mother and my grandmother wore it for religious reasons. And I was wearing it so that they would make a profit. It seemed disrespectful to me. He agreed, but he said his father-in-law insisted on the practice.

These are real stories from real women. It’s quite clear that most women who no longer had to wear the covering felt liberated when the change came.

The blush imagery I chose for my memoir has resonated with women like those above. They even use the same pink-red themes!

Below, I’d love to hear from you whether or not you ever wore a covering. I’d love to know your questions about the practice if you are viewing these stories from outside your own experience. Was there any symbol in your life you were happy to leave or any that you endured through creative positioning? Next time, in Part Two, I will try to represent the choices of women who still wear the veil.

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What kind of Mennonite Mother Would Name Her Daughter for Shirley Temple?

Shirley Temple

Shirley Temple, age 16. Wikipedia photo. Year: 1945

You would think I would have prepared for February 10, 2014, the day Shirley Temple Black died. A few years ago I had wanted to interview her but learned that she was in ill health and not responding to requests.

The news of her death broke while I was traveling back from Los Cabos, Mexico. I felt not only sad but a little shocked.

Shirley Temple had always been a part of my life, and it was easy to imagine she always would be.

When I heard the news, a face flashed in front of me, the face of my soon-to-be-eighty-seven-year-old mother, Barbara Ann Hess Hershey Becker. She, after all, is the one who named me for her alter-ego, the little girl just one year younger than herself, whose face appeared everywhere in the Depression years of the late 1930′s.

Today Mother called me and we talked about Shirley Temple. Both of us struggled to put into words what connected us to this woman we never met. Neither of us watched her movies until we were adults, yet she reached into our Mennonite worlds and pulled something out of us. What was it? I went back to Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World and opened the book to the introduction:

If you were called Shirley, you were probably born after 1938 and before 1955. Seventeen years is a relatively short shelf life for a name, even if Shirley was a wildly popular one for that brief shining era.

If you arrived into a plain-dressing, plain-speaking Mennonite farm family and were named for Shirley Temple—a movie star you would then be forbidden to watch—you might have been confused and perhaps embarrassed at times. As you grew up, old enough to sense the contradiction, you might have blushed.

Three years after the picture of Shirley Temple (above) was taken, I arrived in the world. Mother and I looked like this:

Mother and me, 1948

Mother and me, 1948

A week after mother named me Shirley, the preacher at Lititz Mennonite Church preached against naming your children after movie stars. Mother’s cheeks flushed. But I kept my name, and when I went to school, I looked a lot like a Mennonite Shirley Temple.

The pictures Mother took on my first days of school 1954-57 show that she wanted to replicate an image in me that had seared her own heart as a child. It was an image she saw on the cobalt blue pitchers and bowls she pulled out of Wheaties boxes. It was the rosy-cheeked, curly-haired Shirley Temple doll she spied on the top shelf of Hager’s Store and craved as a child — but was denied.

First day of school, 1955

My first day of school, 1955

As the author of Blush, I thought the name Shirley was all about me. And about how I was the answer to the gifts mother wanted but never got: a doll and a sister.

Today, I see that the story is all about her, my mother. It’s a story about the gifts she had and then gave up in order to find other gifts.

As a teenager, mother was a Mennonite Shirley Temple herself. She had not yet joined the church, and my grandmother encouraged her to develop gifts of music (piano, violin, voice), elocution and public speaking, and even drama. None of these were gifts women could use in public in the Mennonite Church in the 1940′s through 1970′s in our part of the world.

So Mother waited until after graduating from high school to join the church. In the meantime, she took every public stage she could find.

In the meantime, she looked like this:

Barbara Ann Hess, 1945

Barbara Ann Hess, 1945

Today when I looked at this picture for the one thousandth time, and then looked at the picture of Shirley Temple above, taken in the same year, the resemblance leaped out at me, and I had an epiphany. It was Mother, not I, who was the Mennonite Shirley Temple.

She did exactly what Shirley Temple herself did. When the stage (movie) roles disappeared, Shirley Temple refocused her life around family and public service.

When Mother joined the church, she re-centered herself too around family, church, and community.

Her life changed dramatically. On the outside.

Inside, however, Mother continued loving the good, the true, and the beautiful in whatever avenues she could find. She followed Shirley Temple in another way: determination. Like all Americans, she saw hope in the midst of the bleak Depression through the eyes of this little girl who was nearly her twin. The key to transformation was through imagination. Over and over again, she imagined. Over and over again, she made her dreams come true, even after experiencing loss after loss.

Today as I say good-bye to my namesake Shirley Temple, I find one more reason to love my mother.

She told me today that, “I don’t know why Shirley Temple has always meant so much to me. But she has. And she always will.”

Mother opening her Christmas 2012 present. Her first Shirley Temple doll.

Mother opening her Christmas 2012 present. Her first Shirley Temple doll.

I see Shirley Temple in my mother’s face, which shows her every thought and feeling.

I see it in her love of family, the love that replaced her love of entertaining on a bigger stage.

I see it in the way she became a public speaker and leader among her era of Mennonite women.

I see it in the way she she has plowed through hard times to get to good times.

If the best legacy any of us leaves behind is an image, a voice, and values that never disappear, then Shirley Temple will always be with us.

My mother will see to it!

Do you have any Shirley Temple memories to share? Some mother memories? Please leave them below.

Mother will see them on her 2013 Christmas present. An iPad!


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Why There’s More than Enough Love to Go Around

Mother with children

It’s tempting to think of love as finite.

A loving mother can help her children to trust the infinite nature of love.

Were you fortunate enough to have a loving mother? If not, how have you found love in your life?

Today’s writing prompt:

Can you tell as story of the day that you touched the hem of the infinite garment of love?


For more memoir moments, click on the picture below and buy Blush now.

Blush Book Cover and image of farm

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