Do You Have a Landscape of Love? A Walk Down Memory Lane

Northlawn Residence Hall, Eastern Mennonite University

Northlawn Residence Hall, Eastern Mennonite University

This is Northlawn, my college dorm, 1966-1969.

I fell in love with Stuart in the spring of 1967.

He was a grand senior. I was a lowly “frosh.”

Stuart pinned a red rose corsage on my lime green Spring Banquest dress while I stood on the porch of that dorm.

Now, after 45 years of marriage, we have returned to live less than a mile from this place.

We walk nearly every day through familiar scenes infused with memories of giddy joy.

The profusion of blooms bring back the intensity of first love tempered by the security of love tested, tried, and true.

If you are interested in more pictures and stories comparing past and present in the landscape of love, let me know in the comment section below.

In the meantime, here we are together just before Spring exploded.

On the deck March 25, 2015. Photo by J. Daniel Hess.

On the deck March, 2015. Photo by J. Daniel Hess.


Writing Prompt: Our landscape of love is here in the Shenandoah Valley. Where is yours? Can you tell a story? Why not leave a paragraph below?

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Seven Lessons from My Lenten Sabbatical

Doves on the Deck

Doves on the Deck -- Contemplative Photography

I expected that a Lenten Fast would give me a time to rest. I craved a less active, more contemplative, life.

Did I get it?

Well, yes.

What improved?

  • Exercise. At least an hour/day of stretching, weights, walking, yoga, and even a little jogging. I feel stronger and leaner, especially when I wear Spandex biking pants. :-)
  • Food. I ate mostly plant foods and avoided sugar successfully — except for a mindless bite of my granddaughter’s pancake.
  • Reading. Most of my Facebook and Twitter time went into books, about ten of them.
  • I kept a daily journal except when I was traveling. I posted one picture a day on Instagram in order to keep a visual record also.

Seven Lessons from a Facebook/Twitter Sabbatical


1. Everything is connected to everything else.

The worldwide WEB is well named! Unless you go to a desert island, or unplug from the grid (or at least from your computer and smart phone), you can’t escape the omnipresence of social media. People tag you on posts, notifications come into email, etc. I didn’t initiate updates, and I stayed away from my news feed but I could not avoid minimal contact.

2.  Relationships form webs also.

Even though my life during Lent became more contemplative, I still could not evade the feeling of “busy-ness.” I gave two book talks, two radio interviews and one Skype interview, revised a book chapter, spent three days of vacation in New York City, traveled also to Illinois to celebrate the wedding of a dear friend, and made other stops in Ohio and Pennsylvania. I also spent a day at the Virginia Festival of the Book.

For two weeks of the seven, I helped take care of grandchildren in New Jersey. Stuart and I entertained numerous guests. And then 40 Hershey family members converged at my sister Sue’s farm in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, on Easter Sunday for a glorious celebration of faith, family, and food. On the way home, inspired by grandson Owen’s new-found love of rhyming, I wrote a children’s book called The Bear in There.

Family Hug on the Wooden Hill

Family Hug on the Wooden Hill

Each of these individual events was wonderful.

Overall, I recognize that Being and Doing are as intertwined as Facebook and email.

3. Life is paradox.

In the midst of contemplation, I got an exciting new idea for a new writing project. I felt that familiar “powerful pulsing of love in the veins,” a feeling I have known since childhood and now associate with all creative work. I have been buzzing with gratitude for the gift of inspiration, even if it comes to naught or goes into directions I can’t foresee.

The electrical feeling of touching God’s garment can never be dismissed. As long as I have it, I’ll never feel old. I’ll be working on this new idea for weeks or months before I can talk about it. For now, I just want to report that I wasn’t expecting it and that I’m enjoying it. By getting calmer, I also got more excited.

4. “Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.”

Okay, I stole this line from Anne Lamott, whose list of everything she’s learned in her 61 years on earth includes this great sentence. When in doubt, reboot! I unplugged for seven weeks, and now I’m turned on again.

5. The world around us is moving at warp speed.

The universe pays no attention when you unplug. It keeps moving at full speed. It takes a village of helpers when you choose to slow down even a little. For example, my husband kept me up to date occasionally on important news I would have seen on Facebook. Also my friend and fellow author Carol Bodensteiner took the lead in arranging publicity and interaction with our new adventure I Grew Up Country, a Facebook page for people who are sharing country stories, pictures, blog posts, etc.

6. Time is like a vacuum. It sucks up all available space.

You may recall that I said I wanted to be more passive? I love the word my spiritual ancestors used, Gelassenheit, which means submission to God, a condition of the soul necessary for true contemplation. I found it hard to keep space open and had to actively fight not to fill one form of busy-ness with another. So I was still active in order to be more passive (another paradox).

Which leads me to a question about self. Is it useless to try to bend the restless spirit? Can we submit in the midst of activity also, if we notice more of God’s gifts, feel more gratitude, and open ourselves to divine guidance? I believe the answer to this question is YES, and it is the one gift I hope to keep carrying into life beyond the sabbatical.

7. A feast tastes even better after a fast.

The Easter Dinner served at noon at my sister’s house was delicious. My first sugar in seven weeks? I enjoyed the traditional Pennsylvania Dutch sweet and sour dressing on cole slaw and kale salad (perfect complement to ham and cheesy potatoes). And then I had a Hershey Kiss, a tradition in our family you’ll recognize from reading Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World.

Hershey Kisses -- How I broke my sugar fast.

Hershey Kisses -- How I broke my sugar fast.

Now, I’ve told you what I’ve been doing, thinking, and being. What about YOU? I MISSED YOU. I promise to respond and to visit your latest updates and posts to try to catch up. I’m a little starved for news. :-)

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Entering Lent and Leaving Social Media Behind: Welcoming a More Passive Life

What do you get when you cross Lent with Sabbath?

I’m about to find out.

Oyster Bay, Chincoteague Island, Virginia

Oyster Bay, Chincoteague Island, Virginia. Taken during last week's writers' retreat.

The last four years of moving to Virginia, living in Brooklyn as a “granny nanny,” writing a book, and traveling, have been wonderful. You might call this period of time The Active Life.

This style of living has been a great blessing to me. I relish waking up in the morning to a list of tasks to accomplish — and even more, going to bed after I have crossed them off my list. I even made a list of things to do when I went to a writers’ retreat!

Along the way, I have made thousands of new friends on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn. I even have Flickr , Tumblr, and Pinterest accounts, although I did draw the line on actively using all of these. Facebook has been my favorite. Twitter next.

Because of social media, the launch of Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World was fun! Without social media, book sales would not have exceeded my hopes and dreams. Audiences at book talks would have been smaller. I would have traveled less.

As grateful as I am for the Active Life made possible by social media, there’s a part of me that needs more time for rest and reflection.

I crave a more Passive Life for awhile. I want to surrender to silence.

To show you how my brain has  been trained, I wrote those words and then thought, “That would make a great tweet.” :-)

I need to stop looking for inspiring 140-character quotes and start listening to my own questions.

I need to return to my favorite red chair where I read, write in longhand, and pray.

The red chair with a view of the mountains.

The red chair with a view of the mountains.

I want to lift up mine eyes to the hills from whence cometh my help. I want to listen and notice.

When will the first signs of spring appear? How do the passages in the Lenten Meditation booklet stir signs of new life in my own spirit?

The Shenandoah Valley last Spring

The Shenandoah Valley last Spring

Here are the concrete steps I am taking. I make them public so that I will feel more accountable when I return.

1. I’m taking Facebook and Twitter off my phone.

2. I’m leaving my phone on my desk at night (and not taking it into the bedroom).

3. I’ll check my email, and I’ll send out a weekly Magical Memoir Moment to the people who have signed up to get one every week (see email signup on the upper right-hand column)

4. I’m giving up sugar while I’m at it!

Will I go crazy? I’ll keep track of my withdawal symptoms and try to go for walks when they get too bad. What else will I do?

I’ll spend a week helping out with grandchildren and another week in New York City getting ready to celebrate Owen’s fourth!! birthday and then Easter Sunday with my family in Pennsylvania.

I’ll also spend some time with that pesky Box in the Basement.

And when Easter comes, and Passover ends, I’ll come back here on April and report in.

I promise.

In the meantime, I leave you with this Irish blessing I’ll look at every day:

An Irish Blessing

An Irish Blessing

Yes, if you look carefully, you’ll see my reflection as I took that picture. That’s where I’ll be. Behind the glass of the internet, looking out into nature itself.

Taking inspiration from Whitman:

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,

If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.

Do you ever long to go on a social media fast or sabbatical? What questions do you have for me to think about during this last week before Ash Wednesday?

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Be a Namer! How Madeleine L’Engle Named My Vocation

Every writer hopes to find words that resonate in other lives.

And every reader chooses favorite writers, partly based on their proven power to penetrate the veil of death through language.

Madeleine L’Engle plays such a role in my life. Even though she died in 2007, she lives in my memory through her visits to Goshen College and, even more, through her books.

Be a Namer: An Admonition

Be a Namer: An Admonition

I encountered Madeleine L’Engle many times over the course of her 88 years. The first time, I was a young teacher who tried to read A Wrinkle in Time (Time Quintet). One of my tenth-grade students loved the book. I could not connect with it. I assumed that I just didn’t like fantasy, the genre, since the book had won a Newbery Award and was already a classic.

After fours years of graduate school and after becoming a mother, I tried the book again. This time I loved it. And as my son Anthony grew older, I placed this book and the others in the series on my list of books to read to him at night.

Mother and son taking in the view above Port au Prince

Mother and son taking in the view above Port au Prince

One night, as I was reading to Anthony from A Wind in the Door (second in the Time Quintet), I came across an exchange between Meg, the teenage heroine of the book, and an angel named Progo.

Progo is explaining why he is calling out the names of the stars. He knows they need to be named in order for peace to exist on earth.

The enemy of peace is a force called the Ecthroi, which Progo interprets to Meg this way:

“I think your mythology would call them fallen angels. War and hate are their business, and one of their chief weapons is un-Naming – making people not know who they are. If someone knows who he is, really knows, then he doesn’t need to hate. That’s why we still need Namers, because there are places throughout the universe like your planet Earth. When everyone is really and truly Named, then the Echthroi will be vanquished.”

As I read these words to Anthony, tears began sliding down my cheeks. My own deepest desires surged through me. I wanted him to know his name. Anthony. A family name, yes. But also the name of the desert father St. Anthony, a Christian mystic and first monastic.

"Piero di Cosimo 025" by Piero di Cosimo - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

From the Visitation of St. Nicholas and St. Anthony by Piero di Cosimo

St. Anthony was a namer.

When Madeleine L’Engle came to Goshen College and signed Anthony’s copy of The Wind and the Door, she reached me, too, with her message of “Be a Namer.”

I took on the role of Namer as mother and Namer as teacher.

As a result, I paid attention to my own literal name in Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World and have talked with my children, husband, students, colleagues, and friends about names and their importance in our lives.

I have also tried to reach the depth of metaphor Madeleine L’Engle discovered. My deepest desire is to contribute to peace by helping others find their names — their callings and purpose in life. In so doing, I have found my own.

Anthony has become a namer too. He has found his own way to follow Madeleine L’Engle’s advice. I think she would approve.

Anthony reads to Julia

Anthony reads to Julia

Does this idea of being a namer resonate with you? Have words from an author entered deeply into your own life and vocation? How?

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The Snowstorm that Wasn’t: Legendary Busts and Blizzards

Yesterday the internets were alive with jokes about the Great Storm Bust of 2015. For those who lived in NYC, especially, a huge gap emerged between the hyped predictions (“historic storm coming — two to three feet!) and the actual snowfall of between 1.5 and 10 inches in the greater NYC area.


The poor politicians and meteorologists had snowballs  — small ones — on their faces.

It could have been otherwise, of course.

The blizzard hit further north and east than predicted. It came. It just didn’t come to where the subways and media outlets connect nearly nine million people to the rest of the world.

Snowfall is like wine and fishing — the longer the distance in time, the greater the size and quality of the product.

I remember, for example, the Great Blizzard of 1958 — the year 42 inches of snow fell in Lancaster County and closed Fairland Elmentary School, where I was a student in fourth grade. You may remember reading about that school in Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World.

The snowstorms of that year never made it into the book. Nor did this picture of the Spahr Farm covered in two feet of snow.

Spahr Farm after the snow fell and wind died down, 1958

Spahr Farm after the snow fell and wind died down, 1958

My father and his neighbor Dan Martin worked together to create a path for the milk truck to use, since the road that connected our two farms had blown shut. They used tractors and trucks and saved the milk from having to be dumped, which would have been a calamity.

We children, however, loved the blizzards that year. We pressed our ears to the radio to hear “school closing” announcements. When the announcer finally said “Manheim Central Schools,” we shouted with joy and began to plan our adventures in the snow. Sleds, snowball battles, forts, snow angels, ice cream. We did it all.

Our soaked mittens, hats, snowsuits, and coats hung over the radiator to dry. Sometimes the smell of hot wool sizzling reminded us that they were dry enough to go outside and play again.

Now, when I look out my window and see snow, I just rejoice in the beauty.

January 2015 view from the deck

January 2015 view from the deck

It matters not to me whether blizzards come or not. Unless I am headed to an airport, which I am today. That’s the luxury of this stage of life.

Tell us your snow story, either recent or long ago. Have you survived real blizzards? Busts?

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Pittsburgh and Propelle: Where Fun and Family Meet

I came to Pittsburgh this week for two reasons: to spend some good face-to-face time with my daughter Kate and to get some help with my 2015 planning.

Kate at her work station in the co-working space on the first floor

Kate at her work station in the co-working space on the first floor

Yesterday was a “work” day for my four-day visit. We launched the work day at Whole Foods and then returned to the “sunny urban” AirBnB unit on the second floor.

I purchased two hours of time from Kate and her business partner Emily who are co-founders of a company called Propelle. They gave me the VIP treatment.

Kate prepared lunch, using her signature style -- sunny colors -- as snow fell outside.

Kate prepared lunch, using her signature style -- sunny colors -- as snow fell outside.

We looked at the long list of weekly activities I am now doing. Emily and Kate responded with some great suggestions to my request that we find a way to simplify website, newsletter, blog, and social media presence to give me more time for that project I announced way back in September 2014 — the box in the basement.

We talked for two hours, reviewing options. I was awed by the enthusiasm and quick minds and fingers of these two young women as they whizzed through the analytics on WordPress and MailChimp and explained how easy it would be to do XY and Z.


Emily and Kate, ready to serve up the challenges and suggest solutions.

Emily and Kate, ready to serve up the challenges and suggest solutions.

I picked their brains for two hours. Then we enjoyed a lovely lunch.

Later that same day, I got a summary of the suggestions. Now all I have to do is put them in practice. More about that in future posts.

In the meantime, I’m back to hanging out with just Kate.

Lucky me.

Kate in relaxed mode. She saw this pic and said, "I look like a mermaid!"

Kate in relaxed mode. Chillin' like a pink mermaid.

Does your weekly to-do list have too much on it? Have you ever hired a family member to help you? How did that go for you?

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A Week in Sarasota: The Bittersweet Disruption of Cars

As you read these words, I am heading back north from Sarasota, Florida.

Sunrise on the wing of the airplane on the way to the South.

Sunrise on the wing of the airplane on the way to the south.

I leave behind the palm trees, Gulf breezes, white sands, delicious fresh sea food, key lime pie, beach sunrises and sunsets, — and some wonderful surprises!

Photo by Janet Oberholtzer. I enjoyed speaking to her book club. I met nine new readers of BLUSH and felt like all of them were old friends.

Photo by Janet Oberholtzer. I enjoyed speaking to her book club. I met nine new readers of BLUSH and felt like all of them were old friends.

Two of the surprises had to do with cars.

A 1975 Olds 88 convertible. Friends gave us a memorable ride on Stuart's birthday.

A 1975 Olds 88 convertible. Friends gave us a memorable ride on Stuart's birthday. We didn't even know this beautiful vintage car existed until we took the trip.


Tesla Motors Showroom in Sarasota

Tesla Motors Showroom in Sarasota. Meeting a new vision of the future. We'll take this vision home and ponder it.

Just last week I described my approach to 2015 as “planning more and planning less.”

This week Stuart and I practiced what I preached last week.

We didn’t know we would be visiting a Tesla showroom. We had heard of Tesla, both the original inventor and the car named after him, so when one of our friends mentioned the fact that the new mall included a showroom, we decided to head over there. We were met by an “evangelist.”

If you want to get the flavor of the excitement on the floor, watch this video about the visionary CEO of Tesla Motors, Elon Musk:

When we planned the trip months ago, we had five or six known appointments. Some were book talks. Some were related to Stuart’s work. We knew we would enjoy the weather and reunions with many friends.

What we didn’t know were the “bonuses,” all the sweeter because they were not planned.

There was sadness also. While we were enjoying beautiful cars in Florida, Uncle Ken passed away in Pennsylvania.

If you read Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World, you remember that he and Daddy were best friends and that both of them loved cars. Our joy of discovery became bittersweet with the news of Uncle Ken’s death.

Uncle Ken (left) and Daddy (right) 1946. They shared a love of cars and farming. They were best friends until Daddy's death in 1980.

Uncle Ken (left) and Daddy (right) 1946. They shared a love of cars and farming. They were best friends until Daddy's death in 1980.

What bonuses popped into your life this week? Did any of them have to do with cars? Have you encountered bitter-sweetness in any of your discoveries?

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Plan More, Plan Less: Continuing the Search for Simplicity and Legacy By Reviewing 2014 and Sharing Goals for 2015

Last year at this time, I had a plan for 2014. I even wrote about it.  I heard back from many readers about my plan to CONNECT (my word for the year) and to continue the search for simplicity and legacy by creating goals centered on my mission: to prepare for the hour of my death by living one good day at a time.

Notes from 2014 planning. These are always on my right as I write.

Notes from 2014 planning. These stayed up all year and are always on my right as I write.

The process of end-of-year reflection is one I look forward to each year.

First, here are my three 2014 goals:

  • daily rituals that remind me of my mission: to prepare for the hour of my death by living one good day at a time, and to help others do the same.
  • travel to at least eight places (plans so far include Laurelville and Lancaster, PA; Mexico; Kansas City and other Kansas towns; Elkhart County, IN; Holland, MI). I would love to do a West Coast trip, a Canada trip. I am planning my travel for the year now, so please let me know if you would like me to speak in a location near you or have a venue in mind for a book talk. Have book, will travel. :-)
  • a possible new e-book using the best of Magical Memoir Moments to help inspire other people to remember stories from their past and build a legacy. If you have signed up in the right-hand corner, you get these weekly photos and short prompts from me. Would you value having the best of them in one e-book at a low price (likely between .99 – and 2.99)?

Grading my goals: (Once a teacher, always a teacher).

I give myself a B- on being faithful in daily rituals. The days that felt the best were ones that included silence, inspirational reading, prayer or meditation, exercise, and good conversation. Travel often disrupted the plan. I had to learn to simplify and shorten the ritual.

I give myself an A+ on travel and book talks.  2014 was a great year to CONNECT about the subject of story and memoir. So many ordinary lives are really extraordinary. Instead of focusing only on my own childhood memoir, Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World my talks were about the sacred nature of story itself. After reading Blush, many readers poured their hearts out to me. I was touched to read and hear their sacred stories.

I am convinced there is no such thing as an unimportant life.


Letters, notes, and emails illustrate the power of story.

Letters, notes, and emails illustrate the power of story.

As for that third possible goal? It gets an F. I found myself uninspired to do the work of figuring out how to turn Magical Memoir Moments into a book. The biggest barrier is technical. I don’t know how to locate the photos, in the right size, organize them and transfer them into a book. I don’t fret about leaving behind a goal that didn’t capture my imagination.

My friend Sherrey describes the need to stay flexible while making goals. And Elaine, the grief of no longer having plans after the death of a spouse. They illustrate the futility of thinking we are in control, especially in control of our health and our penultimate foe, death.

My friend Laurie, has a solution to this problem in how she approaches the subject of planning this year. Her word for the year is FLOW.

I determine to plan and to not be a slave of planning.

If I should die before I wake, I pray for grace.

I want to focus, therefore, on waking. On being as alive as I can be.

I have a daily partner to help me with that goal. A book, Wide Awake. Every Day, by an online friend Starla. From the short passage I read today, here is some advice I could use myself and share with you.

Plan more. Plan less.

—Starla King

A red book on a red chair.

A red book on a red chair.


So, today I will plan more by naming three goals for 2015.

1. Continue seeking simplicity and legacy by sitting in the red chair, thanking God for a new day, reading, and praying.

2. Continue to travel when called, visiting family often, and responding to invitations to speak with both generosity and appropriate boundaries.

3. Try to find time for The Box in the Basement. (I am amazed at how little I have done so far.) Try to consolidate social media efforts to preserve more time for memorabilia research and possible next memoir vignettes.

My word for the year, as I seek to be awake, is NOTICE.

To prepare for 2015, I’ll listen to two of my favorite people, Krista Tippett and Seth Godin, in this wonderful On Being podcast: The Art of Noticing, and Then Creating.

Now, your turn. Do you have a word to help you focus this year? Have you evaluated last year’s goals? How can we help you in this year’s goals?

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Eves-dropping: A Good Way to End 2014

Mother before the 39 family members showed up for the Hershey family gathering.

Mother before 39 family members showed up for the Hershey family gathering.

I created a new word today: “eves-dropping.”


To prepare a blog post on the eve of a holiday and then drop it on your readers.

Since Christmas and New Years this year fall on Thursdays, and this blog goes live regularly on Wednesdays, you get eves-drops.

As a way of celebrating the year-end of a great year, I send you a few holiday photos. Knowing you are busy, I’ll make the post short. Hope you enjoy seeing a few visual highlights of our last week.

The great grandchildren actually voted to let Great Grandma open her presents first. They helped!

The great grandchildren actually voted to let Great Grandma open her presents first. They helped her open them!

Last Sunday we had a lot of fun at Landis Homes which has a great community center for family events like ours.

After the party, we drove from Pennsylvania to Virginia with our son, daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren.

Stuart with his favorite audience.

Stuart with his favorite audience.

We extended Christmas two more days by going on walks, reading books, consuming homemade paella, and having more adventures in the car.

Harrisonburg has a great Children’s Museum. It was full of three-generation families, lots of our friends were enjoying family time there.

Owen and Julia loved the Green Room and practiced their make-up skills on me.

Owen and Julia loved the Green Room and practiced their make-up skills on me.

These are some eves-drops from Harrisonburg. How about adding some of yours? Can you name a holiday highlight to share with us?

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Christmas Eve: In the Bleak Midwinter

It’s a very quiet Christmas Eve at our house.

Fog covers the mountains.

Bleak Midwinter in the Shenandoah Valley

Bleak Midwinter in the Shenandoah Valley

We didn’t decorate a tree. No sound of children’s voices.


Our family had festive days together in November and will have more this weekend. Tomorrow there will be brunch in the home of friends.

But today it’s just us. And time.

Time for reviewing the year, mug in hand, wrapped in an afghan made by loving hands long ago.

Time for prayer for our troubled world. Black lives that matter. Police lives that matter too. Endless wars.

Christina Rosetti focused on bleakness at Christmas, turning away from tinsel and sleigh bells and snowmen who sing.

In 1872 she responded to a Scribner’s Monthly request for a Christmas poem with “In the Bleak Midwinter.” The poem appeared in her collected works, was set to music by the composer Gustav Holst, and published in the English Hymnal in 1906.

I invite you to get your own mug and afghan and listen and watch.

The bleak midwinter is calling me to celebrate Christmas quietly this year, to open no presents, just to give the babe my heart.

I immerse myself in bleakness and ask what it has to teach.

Have you been called by bleakness this holiday season? I’d love to hear how.

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