Building “THIS”: How an Online Course Has Inspired Me to Continue Blogging

A confession.

After blogging for six years, I sometimes wonder if it is time to let go. Float away past the ether . . .

Free pin: hot air balloon

Free pin: hot air balloon

Instead of blogging, I could take photography and painting classes that are part of the “road not taken” I want to travel.

And speaking of travel, there’s that long bucket list.

Finally, there’s the mission of preparing for death and helping others do the same.

But I’m not yet ready to give up blogging as I continue my search. That’s why I decided last week to see how much memoir I might still have inside as I explore the Box in the Basement. I wasn’t being coy. Should I write a sequel to Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World?

Your comments on that post were so helpful! They help me to stay open in this place of indecision and exploration, waiting on the new call. That’s hard for an INTJ on the Myers-Briggs scale. :-)

My job right now is to dwell in possibilities.

That phrase from Emily Dickinson means more to me now because I’m “taking” the class called Modern and Contemporary Poetry. It’s a MOOC — a massive open online course — taught at the University of Pennsylvania to thousands of students throughout the world.

It’s an amazing experience and not what I expected. It’s actually intimate. The professor, Al Filreis, not only loves his subject, he has a wonderful collaborative pedagogy and a huge heart. He’s as selective as Emily Dickinson and as inclusive as Walt Whitman. He transforms the lives of many students.

Professor Al Filreis, leading the online class "ModPo" with his student assistants

Professor Al Filreis, leading the online class "ModPo" with his student assistants.

Two poems from that class are helping me right now.

I dwell in Possibility – (466)

By Emily Dickinson

I dwell in Possibility –

A fairer House than Prose –

More numerous of Windows –

Superior – for Doors –


Of Chambers as the Cedars –

Impregnable of eye –

And for an everlasting Roof

The Gambrels of the Sky –


Of Visitors – the fairest –

For Occupation – This –

The spreading wide my narrow Hands

To gather Paradise –

When Al Filreis teaches”I dwell in Possibility,” he does so by using the “collective close read” approach, asking each of his students to elaborate on each word of this poem. In rapid-fire succession, they dissect the metaphor of the house in the poem. The professor flings out a few ideas of his own, including this zinger:

 ”The word ‘this’ is the most important word in the English language.”

If this truly is the most important word, than this time, this place I dwell, this occupation of waiting and being open, this is the thing itself! And writing these words, this too, is my calling.

And you, dear reader, are implicated too. You are part of THIS.

Or to say it a little differently:

Song of Myself (1892 version)

By Walt Whitman

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,

And what I assume you shall assume,

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Memoir sings the self, whether in the form of a blog post or a book.

My THIS  is to wait, write, and dwell, for a while.

What is your THIS? How do you spread wide your narrow hands to gather Paradise?

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Does BLUSH Have a Sequel?: The Box in the Basement

Readers have been asking if Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World has a sequel.

My honest answer is that I don’t know.

However, this box has been whispering to me. “Come look.”

The box in the basement.

From out of the stack of albums pictured below, a little voice squeaks: “Play me, Shirley, Shirley bo burley.”

The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Robert Flack and The Mennonite Hour

The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Robert Flack and The Mennonite Hour --an eclectic mix!

So, I am cautiously approaching the door to the basement.

If you come with me, you have to first open the door that leads downstairs.  This is what you’ll see:

The sign above the door used to announce the name of farm near Lititz. My mother likes alliteration.

The sign above the door used to stand across from our house in Lititz, 1960-1994.

A bookcase full of binders full of letters from my college years stands sentry in the corner of the room.

The letters home, 1966-1980's.

The letters home, 1966-1980's.

My friend and fellow Mennonite memoirist, Ted Swartz, suggested that I play with the idea of The Box in the Basement as my new blog title and just see what happens week by week as I make my trip to the underground and surface to tell stories.

I’d love to know if you like this idea. Please leave a comment below if you have your own suggestion. A simple yes or no vote would be very helpful.

And, if you have some similar treasures in your basement or attic, please tell!

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Celebrating Readers! An Invitation to Help Plan a Book Birthday Party

Can books have birthdays?

Of course! In just a few days, Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World celebrates her first birthday.  I’d love to have your help to think about an appropriate way to thank readers, celebrate story, and find an excuse to indulge in cake and punch. Or more sugar cookies.

Today I have an appointment to plan an event to take place September 18 at Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community at 3 p.m.

My family helped bake and package cookies to make the occasion festive.

My family helped bake and package cookies to make the occasion festive. September 19, 2013

Looking backward:

  • A year ago, several hundred people had entered the 100 Day Challenge on this website and were helping to prepare the launch.
  • The launch itself packed out Lititz Mennonite Church. We sang, reminisced celebrated and connected. Time and space melted away. More than 140 copies of BLUSH were sold.
  • Since then, I’ve traveled about 10,000 miles and given scores of book talks, sermons, retreats, and readings.
  • My publisher Herald Press lists BLUSH among its bestsellers, and, every once in a while, Amazon (Mennonite category) does also. It’s in its third printing.
  • I’ve talked to many readers kind enough to tell me how they connected to my childhood. I cherish reader letters and emails too. Sometimes readers tell me they are writing their own stories. I always encourage them.

So, as I plan with the wonderful VMRC staff people, I’d love to hear from you, too, about which of these topics you find most interesting. I’ll use the feedback in selecting the topic, and, if one of these seems of high interest, I’ll come back here to write about it. Sorry about the virtual nature of the punch and cookies, but at least they won’t cause you to gain weight!

But if you want to enjoy your own sugar cookies from a distance, here’s the old family recipe printed in BLUSH.

Possible topics:

  1. Are you glad you wrote your memoir? What have been the chief rewards/disappointments?
  2. What did you discover about yourself, or any other subject, that you didn’t know before?
  3. What have you learned about memory, truth, love, grace, anger, reconciliation — the big subjects — by writing your own story?
  4. What disciplines did you use to get the writing, editing, and marketing done?
  5. What have you learned about/from your readers?
  6. Other — please specify!

Multiple choice seems only appropriate for a September blog. Please pick one and comment below.

For you memoirists reading this, please feel free to select one of the topics above and write a few sentences about it below, thus introducing yourself and YOUR work to the readers here.

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Blog Post #500 and a Six-Year Anniversary Milestone

It all started with a gift and a milestone birthday.

Anthony's gift. Inscribed in a leather-bound journal.

Anthony's gift. Inscribed in a leather-bound journal.

I was sixty. My tech-savvy son Anthony was approaching age thirty-two. I cashed in his “gift certificate” in the next month and started blogging — without having a clue. No pictures. Just a few random words. But I at least had a subject. The blog was called 100 Memoirs. I would read and write, and sometimes review, memoir.

And so I did. For six years. This post is number 500!

I decided to ask my Facebook friends for help in visualizing milestones. They were so creative! I got a kindergarten graduation picture, a mountain peak picture and lots of stories. I chose this picture of an actual, historic milestone to share with you. My friend Lynn Miller traveled the Camino Portuguese de Santiago and took this photo:

Milestone from the Camino Portuguese de Santiago.

Milestone from the Camino Portuguese de Santiago. Credit: Lynn Miller

The inscription reads: “MILESTONE Vilar-Guiza-Louredo. To indicate distances the Romans used poles that derive their names from the unit they measured: MILIA PASSUM (miles passed). This milestone formed the Via XIX that united the cities of Braga and Astorga, passing Lugo. It was possibly raised during the tenure of the Emperor Trajan in the beginning of the second century AD. ”

Wow. Second century. That puts six years into perspective, doesn’t it?

Here’s another offering, from photographer friend Marilyn Nolt. Can you tell what the “milestone” is?

A symbolic milestone from eastern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania

A symbolic milestone from eastern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Credit: Marilyn Nolt

Marilyn describes this figure as an old solo silo in the middle of a field.

Wow. Milestones can represent much more than miles.

When I started out on this blogging journey, I didn’t know when it would end. I still don’t!

Your turn: Did either of these photos resonate with you? How and why? What milestones have you passed recently? Which ones would you like to pass?

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Carpe Diem: A Tribute to Robin Williams

When I heard the news of Robin Williams’ death on August 11, 2014, I felt it viscerally, along with so many other people around the world.

I’ve seen most of his most famous movies, but the one I thought of immediately was Dead Poet Society, a film I have often watched with English majors. The character in the film who made the greatest impression on me was Neil, the boy who takes his own life after he despairs of his parents’ lack of understanding and love. Robin Williams plays the teacher who awakens Neil’s voice as a poet only to mourn his death.

Reading Williams’ obituary through the lens of his own suicide, I went back again to the famous “Carpe Diem” passage and understood why Mr. Keating’s love for Neil comes through so clearly in the movie. Williams, who was painfully shy and went to a private school himself, must have identified with all the boys, but especially with Neil. Here’s the famous scene from the very beginning of the movie,

I think the best tribute any of us can make to Robin Williams is to Seize the Day ourselves.

My post for Not Quite Amish this week tells how a bike ride into Old Order Mennonite farm country helped me seize one day and made me think of my own epitaph.

Has any death made you more determined to live now? How?

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Three Amazing God Stories from My Self-Chosen Amtrak Writer’s Residency

When we travel, we multiply the chances that we encounter a “once in a lifetime” event that defies all odds, seemingly flying to us on wings from the universe. I like to think of these times as God moments. Or, as my sister Doris says, “God’s poetry.”

On our BookTourAnniversaryPalooza, on Amtrak, July 1-28, 2014, we had hundreds of such moments, large and small. Here’s a sampling as told through pictures and Facebook Updates:

A gobsmacker at the very end of the trip.

A gobsmacker at the very end of the trip.

In Vancouver, mid-way through our travels, one of Stuart’s former advisees at Goshen College, noticed that we were headed her direction and invited us to visit her. We found an open spot in our schedule and stood on her doorstep a few days later. She was able to express her thanks to Stuart for his essential help years ago when she felt very vulnerable as a new student in a strange culture. What a lovely evening we had as she cooked, we all conversed — and then ate. Yum!

Karen and the special meal in Vancouver

Karen and the special meal in Vancouver

I found writer Patricia Grace King because her novella Small Country (Kindle Single, 1.99) showed up in the Mennonite Bestsellers list next to Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. We got acquainted online and met in Chicago while I was on my trip. We discovered many Mennonite family and institutional connections, though we had never met each other before.

Patricia Grace King, the one with the pink hair :-)

Patricia Grace King, the one with the pink hair :-)

As you read these words, Patricia is preparing for a double mastectomy operation. Chemotherapy was successful, but the operation is still necessary. I’ve been touched by Patricia’s honesty, courage, and spirit. She needs all the love and prayers she can get just now. Won’t you join me in this moment of God’s poetry and pray for Patricia as she fights for her health and wholeness?

I’m also interested in your own stories of God’s Poetry. What moments amazed you recently? Or in your travels from anytime in your life?

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My Amtrak Writer’s Residency: Five Tips for Authors After 4,000 Superliner Miles

A few months ago, the online world buzzed with the news that Amtrak had decided to offer “residencies” –  a writer’s competition that offered free travel worth up to $900. Thousands applied, including me.

Amtrak arriving at the station

Amtrak train arriving at the station, East Glacier, Montana

The odds were stacked against winning, but the marketing campaign succeeded in reigniting my old dream of seeing the USA via train, a dream shared with my husband Stuart, who joined me in planning a BookTourAnniversaryPalooza. We started a long conversation about where to go, whom to see, how to have fun celebrating our 45th anniversary, which scenic vistas to look for, and, last but not least, how to arrange book talks and book signings for Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. After some research, we determined that the 30-day Rail Pass was our best option.

We’ve returned now after spending 28 days in July riding the rails. It was an amazing trip! Our best-laid plans succeeded almost flawlessly and unto them many spontaneous gifts were added. I can’t possibly describe a trip of this richness in one post. So I’ll treat different topics in the upcoming weeks. Today I just want to focus on authors and offer some tips on how to combine a book tour and a train trip.

Five Tips for Book Touring Authors

1. Travel by train only if you are prepared to move into slow time.

Don’t travel by train if you are trying to cover maximum territory in minimum days. The trains in this country are seldom efficient, so build in extra time and NEVER count on the train to deliver you to an event on the timetable printed in the schedule. Think of these verbs: meander, ponder, and tarry. These adjectives: leisurely, rhythmic, and surprising. These nouns: revery, rust, and majesty.

The landscape along the Pacific coast and through the Rocky Mountains will more than compensate. The movement from hectic to slack will take you deeper into thought and imagination, making you more open to serendipity in life and in writing.

Through the train window between Oakland, California, and Portland, Oregon

Through the train window between Oakland, California, and Portland, Oregon, on the Amtrak Coast Starlight Superliner.

2. Budget for the trip in a way that fits your pocketbook.

To keep the costs of train travel reasonable, place the trip in the “Travel, Entertainment, and Education” tabs in your budget, not “Profit from selling books.” If you do that, you will find the expenses transform from “expensive business cost” to “reasonably priced vacation.” You and your accountant will have to figure out what, if any, tax write off applies.

We are still doing the expense documentation for the trip, but I am pleased with the results so far. I spoke to about 400 people, many of whom had not heard about my book before. I had four speaking events that paid honoraria and sold all the books I carried in my suitcase plus fifteen more my publisher shipped midway through the tour. In addition, my Amazon rankings bumped up modestly and looked like this during the days on tour:

Amazon rankings July 1-28

Amazon rankings July 1-28, the peak day was July 12, just after my visit to Third Place Books in Seattle

3. Call upon your friends and relatives for help.

Facebook and Twitter can produce amazing stories. Facebook, in particular, does something very valuable in addition to offering you a place to share (selectively — don’t overwhelm) pictures and highlights from your journeys. The search function allows you to search for “friends in Seattle, Vancouver, Chicago,” etc. What an easy way to see who you may want to see and who may want to see you.

I started planning this trip after receiving an invitation to speak in Vancouver, BC, July 13, which we then decided would be the “Anchor” location. We got serious about reserving hotels in April, and I made up a Google Doc so that Stuart and I and some of our hosts could edit the plan as it unfurled. Planning took a lot of time because it involved phone calls and emails to multiple people whenever we needed help with lodging, venues, and transportation.

Our dear, dear friends helped us so much. Sometimes we asked them and sometimes they volunteered. We tried to be low maintenance/high gratitude guests, and we were overwhelmed by generosity so many times.

The numbers show a portion of how much help we received along the way.

The numbers show a portion of how much help we received along the way.

4. Document with photos, diary, receipts, and social media.

A trip like this is an investment, not only in your writing, but in your life. It has not just helped you reach a wider audience and sell some books, it gives you a rich vein of material for new writing. I bought this little pocket notebook in Santa Barbara and filled it up. It fit snugly into my little travel purse next to my passport and smart phone, the other essential tool for documentation and sharing.

The travel diary.

The travel diary.

5. If you plan to include visits to National Parks in your trip, . . .

Start reserving lodges a year in advance if possible. We were amazed that our first choice lodge in Glacier National Park was booked three months before we wanted to go. The agent suggested a year’s planning for these highly attractive locations with very short tourist seasons. Also, if you get off the train, you may want to rent a car for travel within the park. We didn’t do that and were saved by a good shuttle driver who helped us navigate successfully using his services and other public conveyances. Plus our feet! I was very glad for a good pair of hiking shoes.

I’ve just scratched the surface of all the wisdom gained from this trip. So please jump in to ask more questions. I’ll not only comment, I’ll go into more depth in future posts.

If you were going to plan your own writers residency on a train, what criteria would you set for yourself?

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On Being Not Quite Amish: A Mennonite Perspective

Last evening, as Stuart and I came into Union Station by train here in Chicago, we followed two young Amish families. They walked rapidly, carrying a matching powder blue luggage set without wheels, assorted other bags, and several babies. The men wore black hats. The women black bonnets, black hose, and long dresses.

Stuart speaks with his first cousin at the Rhodes Reunion -- name tags necessary!

Stuart, on left, speaks with his first cousin at the Rhodes Reunion -- name tags necessary!

Everyone around us was intent on getting somewhere, and costumes vary wildly in a large city, so no one stared at them.

They didn’t know that we were spiritual “cousins,” because no one looking at us could tell outwardly that we are Mennonite.

Nevertheless, when I see Amish people, I smile. We share a faith with family feeling.

The Rhodes Reunion this summer made that feeling palpable. Four hundred fifty-five people gathered as descendents of the same two people — Stuart’s grandparents. You can read the story and see the pictures here. You have to see the picture of that pie table!

I’d love to hear your family reunion story. Do you share this tradition?

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Blessed Are the Peacemakers: Grandma Hershey’s Way of Peace

When I think of peacemakers, I don’t think of soldiers or guns or even the Peace Corps. I think of this verse from the Sermon on the Mount.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God.”

Then I think of Grandma Hershey.

Sue Snyder Hershey about 1980. Daughter Lois in the background.

Sue Snyder Hershey about 1980. Daughter Lois in the background.

Grandma Hershey was soft. When I was sick, she made me soft-boiled eggs and toast and put them in a cup. When she sewed, which was often, she wrapped her soft arms around me and brought me close to show me how she did it.

She and my mother were the peacemakers when their husbands could not understand each other. Under that softness was a very tough willingness to suffer for the sake of peace.

Grandma Hershey had soft eyes. You can see them in the picture above. She left this earth in 1985, but I still feel those kind eyes on me. She’s expecting me to be peacemaker too. Here’s how I described the way she taught me without words in Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World:

 The “girls” in the Hershey family, my aunts, all acknowledged each other and their mother the way all adults in the church did. They performed the ritual of the same-sex, “holy kiss.” I observed this custom often from a rocking chair on the porch, watching each aunt approach Grandma Hershey as she gathered them to herself, one at a time, like a hen with her chicks. In the gesture of those serious kisses was great love and respect quite different from the effusive hugs I later saw and envied in other families. It carried a tone of awe for the divine order of things and for the great commandment to love one another as God has loved us.

The “holy kiss” was one of the ordinances of the Lancaster Conference Mennonite Church. From the Statement of Christian Doctrine and Rules and Discipline of the Lancaster Conference of the Mennonite Church, 1968, pages 16–17:

“The salutation of the holy kiss should be observed and practiced by the believers, brethren among brethren and sisters among sisters, as an expression of fervent love. It should be practiced when meeting for worship as well as when meeting for social fellowship.”

I wrote about ten ways to practice peace in my latest Not Quite Amish contribution. I hope you click on the link and join the conversation there. And I invite you to name a peacemaker in your life below. Tell us what brings them to mind when you read about Grandma Hershey or Atlee Beechy (in the Not Quite Amish essay).

Also, another way to find peace is to go on vacation! This blog will return on July 30, 2014, a special day for me. I’ll report on the BookTourAnniversaryPalooza which I am now enjoying to the hilt! Wishing you peace, and joy, until we meet again.

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The Tie that Binds: How Mennonite College Friendships Grew from Twig to Vine

I’ve just said good-bye to my three closest college friends: Mary, Tina, and Gloria. We gathered in Gloria’s home, State College, Pennsylvania, just to renew our friendship for three days.

L-R Shirley, Mary, Tina, Gloria

L-R Shirley, Mary, Tina, Gloria

This photo was taken next to a pergola covered with trumpet vine. The story of how the vine grew over time, told by Gloria the gardener, struck me as the perfect analogy for our friendship.

We began as twigs.

In 1966, when we first met, we were malleable sprouts, newly separated from our parents, but eager to find new growth on our own.

Just as the twig is bent, the tree's inclined.

Just as the twig is bent, the tree's inclined.

Our twigs formed themselves around the combination of intellectual and spiritual pillars at Eastern Mennonite College in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Just like these slender stalks, we needed each other and we needed the occasional help from a binding material like the string on the photo above.

Following Mary McCarthy, we somewhat ironically called ourselves “The Group.”

We were a tame Mennonite version of those eight Vassar graduates from the scandalous book we read about but didn’t read. We spent hours telling each other stories and helping to analyze and understand the world around us, the chaotic 1960′s world of rebellion and protest, experienced within a religious tradition that was itself counter-cultural.

The Eastern Mennonite soil fed us, and our environment shaped us, as did the partners we found, and the careers we chose. Eventually, we scattered. Then there were children. All the while, our roots and branches grew.

Now we are grandmothers.

Our vines are full. They put out new roots and branches, offering abundant shade.

The mature trumpet vine. Entwined and sturdy.

The mature trumpet vine. Entwined and sturdy.

The ties that bind us to each other are fused by time, faith, laughter, tears, similarities, and differences.

When we greet each other, we jump for joy. When we part, we sometimes wipe away tears. This time we actually sang the hymn, next to the pergola, arms entwined.

Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.

Without the posts that held us when we were young, we might never have stayed in touch. Without the deliberate entwining and binding, we might have grown tall separately.

Do you have lifelong friends? Is there a “Group” in your life, whether scandalous or tame? How did you/do you stay in touch? What binds you to your friends? What obstacles have you overcome? What cycles has your friendship experienced?

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