Interview with Carol Bodensteiner, Memoirist Turned Novelist

Meet Carol Bodensteiner. Pershaps you already have. Fellow writer Janet Givens refers to her as my twin!

That’s because both of us wrote memoirs about being country girls and growing up on dairy farms. But only one of us is a blonde.

Author Carol Bodensteiner

Author Carol Bodensteiner

1. Your first book was about growing up on an Iowa dairy farm in the 1950′s and ’60′s. I loved your well-told stories and felt like we had lived parallel lives when I read your memoir. Did people expect you to write a sequel to your first book? Why did you choose not to do that for your second book?

Cover of Growing Up Country by Carol Bodensteiner
Cover of Growing Up Country by Carol Bodensteiner

I felt a kindred spirit when I read your memoir BLUSH, Shirley. I’m glad our childhood experiences connected us. The stories in my memoir Growing Up Country dealt with the time in my life when my world revolved around the insulated nucleus of our family, church and country school. The stories felt complete as they stood. A sequel didn’t occur to me until I heard from so many readers that they wanted more stories about growing up on the farm. But by then I had moved on to writing my novel.

Still, my readers planted a seed that may yet come to be. Should the seed germinate and grow, it would need a title something like, She Got On The Bus, because the stories wouldn’t be confined to the farm, they’d engage the broader years and experiences of high school and college.

2. When did the idea for your novel come to you?

Go Away Home was inspired by my maternal grandparents. My grandfather died of the Spanish Flu in 1918. Throughout my life, I’ve been intrigued by my connection to this major world event. Of course I never knew my grandfather and even though my grandmother lived until I was well into my 20s, I never asked her a single question about him or their lives together. And she was not the type to share. So, this story is fiction based on a few facts. It creates a life for the man I never knew and for the grandmother I only knew as a stern old woman.

3. Was the novel easier or harder to write (than the memoir) as a first draft?

The novel was a much greater challenge. My career had been spent in business writing where I communicated facts as clearly and concisely as possible. Memoir writing was an easier step because I knew the stories, the people, and the places. The challenge was to write in a way that would show that life to readers.

With the novel, I started out with a few places and dates and family stories in mind, but I eventually learned I had to let go of even those few touchstones because they didn’t serve the plot that was developing. While I thought it would be easier to start with some facts because that was what I was used to, the reality was there was great freedom in starting with nothing.

4. How about the revision process?

This novel went through at least three significant rewrites. Because I’d never written fiction before, I was learning the craft as I went. It took these rewrites to help me finally break from the starting point facts and let the story be what it needed to be.

5. Plot construction for the beginning novelist is often a challenge. Did you find it so? How did you educate yourself on ways to keep the reader turning the page?

Plot construction was perhaps my largest challenge. The thing that helped me most was attending advanced novel workshops at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. It would have saved a lot of time if I’d taken a “plotting the novel” workshop before I even started. As it was, I retrofitted what I learned in each workshop to where my manuscript was at the moment and went from there. Now, I analyze every novel as I read with an eye toward plot construction and keeping the reader moving along.

6. You have chosen to self publish. You have rave reviews in good quantity on Amazon and Goodreads and a following on social media. What benefits have you found in self publishing?

When I decided to indie publish my memoir, a friend who’d gone that route herself said, “Well it’s not a mountain; but, it’s not a molehill either.”  There’s considerable work in self publishing, but it’s not impossible to learn. I’m grateful to all the friends who’ve so willingly share publishing wisdom. I ‘m successful because of them. My background in public relations prepared me well both for managing the process of publishing and for doing the marketing. Authors who commit to writing and publishing a high quality book – and then commit to getting the word out – can enjoy the benefits of greater control over their own product and greater financial payback.

7. Like me, you’ve always been a writer but have only become an author after leaving a professional career behind. Can you comment on how your writing has changed over the course of your career and what you are still learning about the new world of books, publishing, and social media.

My writing has improved because I have more tools in my writing toolkit. As a public relations professional, I was accomplished at business and journalistic writing. Since taking up creative writing, I’ve learned the power of various prose styles, the value of a strong analogy, the importance of plot and conflict, and much more. There is always something new to learn, which is why I love writing. The changes in social media give me more to learn daily. We’re all lucky the social media world is such a helpful place.

Speaking of helpful places: here are two other posts from Kathy Pooler (with Mary Gottschalk) and Jerry Waxler (David Kalish) on the same subject of moving from memoir to novel. I think we have spotted a trend!

Carol Bodensteiner is a writer who finds inspiration in the places, people, culture and history of the Midwest. After a successful career in public relations consulting, she turned to creative writing.


She blogs about writing, her prairie, gardening, and whatever in life interests her at the moment. She published her memoir GROWING UP COUNTRY in 2008. GO AWAY HOME is her debut novel.


Tweet @CABodensteiner



Growing Up Country: Memories of an Iowa Farm Girl is available in paperback and ebook formats from Amazon.

Go Away Home will be available in paperback and ebook formats from Amazon in July. Read the first chapter now. 

Which would you rather read — a memoir or a novel? Of Carol’s two books, does one interest you more than the other? Why?

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Three Reasons to Read Your Memoir in New York City

Some writers leave the provinces and yield to the siren call of the city in their youth.

My favorite author Willa Cather did that.

She was published by Alfred A. Knopf, a powerful imprint designating quality, so powerful it has survived many mergers and is part of Penguin Random House, one of the Big Five publishers that still support many authors on national book tours.

I published with Herald Press. I tour at my own expense, grateful for honoraria when offered.

Should I despair of speaking in the Big Apple? Should you?

The Empire State Building From our Hotel Window

The Empire State Building From our Hotel Window

Willa Cather was born in the nineteenth century. She didn’t do book tours. Like my friend Parker Palmer, she might christen two weeks in ten cities as “the trip from hell.”

I’m a different kind of writer from many of my mentors; I’m entering the field as a beginner. My apprenticeship in art was through reading. My reasons for writing have more to do with ending well than with a youthful calling, let alone a “career path.”

I’m a memoirist, not a novelist. There are thousands, if not millions, of others like me in the land. We’ve enjoyed careers in other fields. We have family and friendship priorities now. We love to read. And we’re responding to an inner tug: “write your story!”

I’ve done that in the form of Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World.

Now I’m touring. I like to think that Willa Cather might like this kind of tour. For three reasons:

  • It’s organic. Every place I’ve spoken relies on re-engaging relationships from my past. Social media has allowed me to explore all the layers of time in my life and all the branches of friendships connecting close family and friends to their close friends.
  • It’s on my schedule.
  • I combine it with my “bucket list” of places I want to see before I die.

Using these three principles, I offer these parallel suggestions to other writers.

1. Review your friendships to see if you have an organic connection to New York City. I had two. One with Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship (reading there this Sunday) and the other with a blogger Charles R. Hale who lives and writes about the city and who devotes much of his life now to helping create venues for artists living in the city. He was kind enough to invite me to join Artists Without Walls last Tuesday night at The Cell Theatre, an lovely and intimate setting.

2. Create a reading that piggybacks on other events. In my case, I added readings before and after the huge Book Expo America event. I’m also planning to visit journalist Bill Moyers in his studio. I learned to know Bill at The Fetzer Institute and will be thanking him again for his wonderful endorsement for Blush.

3. Some places never get checked off my bucket list! New York City is #1 on the permanent list. Because Stuart and I are here together, we’ve already enjoyed some once-in-a-lifetime experiences. I described some amazing encounters in my last post, and I know there will be more to come.

Oh, and did I mention the two most special little people in my life, grandchildren Owen and Julia, live just across the Hudson River?

I like to save the best for last. :-)

Are these tips ones you can use? What can you add or subtract from your own experience? Let’s make this a really useful list.

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Why I Love to Travel and Why the Big Apple is a City Like No Other

Jamie from Australia

Jamie Kuzich, doctor and musician, from Perth,Australia

Do you like travel stories? Some people hate to see the pictures their friends take on vacation. I’m personally  the opposite . . . as long as I get to hear good stories. I especially love small world/chance encounter tales.

Yesterday Serendipity bopped us on the head –over and over.

Meet Jamie. He’s a doctor (and a musician with the band Anton Franc) from Perth, Australia. He’s spending his four-week vacation (!) in New York City.

Yesterday afternoon, while enjoying a large sandwich in Central Park, Jamie decided to go online to see whether there might be any concerts that looked good. He found this one. It looked really good! The New York Philharmonic Orchestra playing at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

As Stuart and I were traveling to the city by Amtrak, we did the same thing.

We thought a free concert with some of America’s finest musicians in America’s largest cathedral, St. John the Divine sounded heavenly. We got on the subway aiming to arrive at the Cathedral two hours before the concert began.

We were dismayed to find that the line snaked all the way around the cathedral, at least three blocks! Just as we found the end, Jamie found it too. Serendipity.

What can you do in a situation like that but wait and hope to strike up a conversation, showing an interest in the other people in the line?  We started asking Jamie questions and responding to his smile, listening to his stories. He was curious about our lives too.

Time flew by!

We discussed art, music, publishing, the medical systems in two countries, and travel.

Then a lovely sight. A man came through the line and handed out tickets, passed the spot we had supposed would be the end. We were in!

After an hour of waiting in the Cathedral line

After an hour of waiting in the Cathedral line

We continued our conversation, talking about end of life care as we mounted the steps to the Cathedral. Glancing up now and then into the trees and blue sky beyond. We were alive! Talking about death with a doctor we would never have known without this city, this Cathedral, and the internet made us aware of the preciousness of the moment and of our “wild and wonderful” lives.

I felt “gooseflesh” as the Brits say.

Then gooseflesh again inside the Cathedral, where we met this sight:

Phoenix, by Xu Bing, inside the Cathedral

Phoenix, by Xu Bing, mobile inside the Cathedral, high above the chairs

The mobiles are by Xu Bing, called Phoenix, made from recycled industrial material in China. The aspirations of human beings to transform themselves and their world were palpable, before conductor Alan Gilbert of the New York Philharmonic lifted his baton.

As we listened to the program of Nielson and Tchaikovsky, more gooseflesh.

The sun rose in its chariot across the sky in Nielson’s Helios, traveled through all kinds of weather, and then set.

Critics were hard on Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony when it was first performed in 1888. Apparently, the composer agreed with the critics, thinking himself to have failed because he had not mastered form.

Fortunately, the audience disagreed then, and certainly disagreed last night, jumping to their feet, clapping in spontaneous thunder, at the end.

I wish everyone in the world could experience art like this.

The 3,500 people in that audience came from all around the world. They spoke different languages. Some of them made new friends because of the line. And for all of them, the wait was part of the experience. It was an invitation to Serendipity.

After the concert, we invited Jamie for a bite to eat and drink. We chose a little Italian place on Amsterdam Ave.

And then Serendipity struck again.

I heard my name, “Shirley!”

Soon I was hugging Angel Gardner, from Goshen, Indiana, where our paths intersected for twenty years or more while she grew up as a faculty kid and Stuart and I taught at Goshen College. I hope to see Angel again tonight at my reading from Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World tonight at The Cell Theatre on 23rd St. Angel said she wants to come.

Angel and me. And Serendipity.

Angel and me. And Serendipity, who is not visible, but present!

If you try to figure the odds of meeting people from around the world and from your home town the same night at the same time, you will go crazy.

Except that you’re in New York City, where stories like this happen every day.

P.S. Our last experience with Jamie was on the subway. He was overheard speaking to us, and the young woman beside me asked, “Are you from Australia?” He smiled, and they immediately launched into animated connection. Turned out she was not only from Australia, but from Perth! I kid you not.

Tell us a travel story you love. No matter where it’s from. We’re all ears. And we love gooseflesh.

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Not Quite Amish: Photos of Simplicity Rooted in a Mennonite Childhood

Amish laundry line. Photo by Henry H. Hershey

Amish laundry line. Photo by Henry H. Hershey

I like the honesty of this website name: Not Quite Amish.

Here’s the explanation of the name from the home page:

Maybe you’d like to be Amish…but not quite. You want more peace in your life, in your home, in your family, and in your heart. You want to try a new recipe and pick up a needle and thread. You want to learn to simplify and care for God’s green earth (and teach your children to do the same).
We’re on that same journey. You’re not alone in your quest. We’ll be opening our hearts and homes, too. I believe that together we can find inspiration in all things Amish (and a few that are “not quite Amish”) and enjoy their simple lifestyle in ways that are quite unique to our own lives.

I was intrigued enough by this idea that I accepted the offer to write a monthly column there. I did a guest post on frugality and my first column on rugs. Every month, on the 21st, I will contribute new posts on the themes of simplicity, peace, and frugality.

Today, May 21, it happens that my contribution to Not Quite Amish falls on the same day that I post my own weekly essays here. So I invite you to visit my post featuring my brother Henry’s photography.
If you have read Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World, you know Henry as my childhood playmate:


Shirley and Henry, Sunday morning, 1956, the Spahr Farm

Shirley and Henry, Sunday morning, 1956, the Spahr Farm. Photo by Barbara Ann Hershey

As Henry grew older, one of his hobbies became photography. You can learn more about how that happened by reading this post at Not Quite Amish. Henry took the photo of the Home Place that I used in Blush. Here’s the original version showing my sister Linda running down the hill, the tiny figure on the lower right:

The Home Place, 1965, photo by Henry H. Hershey

It’s no great surprise to anyone who knows my mother that her children are storytellers and photographers. When my 63-year-old brother takes his camera out into Amish country, where he still lives, he does so with memories of of the sights and sounds of his own childhood in his head and heart. When asked for captions, he goes back to the King James Version of the Bible. Please step over to NQA and enjoy Henry’s lovely photos from the land that gave him birth and has been his home all his life. Continue reading and view Henry’s lovely photos here.

Do you have a hobby from your youth that you are picking up again in adulthood? Tell us about it!

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On the Road Again: Coming to a City Near You?

Forty-five years ago, these two merry wanderers decided to set off on the journey of life together:

Stuart and Shirley whirling

Stuart and Shirley whirling, 1969. Beside the barn on the Home Place.

We used the image of the Conestoga Wagon to dream together, having been influenced by the story that a Mennonite invented the wagon, and having read lots of Little House on the Prairie books, we somehow associated freedom, love, and joy with travel and with the West.

Now that we have resettled in the East, and now that we have traveled together for 45 years, we decided to celebrate this anniversary by doing a huge summer tour, using Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World as an excuse to set up book talks along the way. Before our special date of August 2 arrives, we will have visited seven churches, a retirement community, three historical societies, several colleges and universities, and many bookstores.

We’ll also do a lot of sightseeing in the cities below, visit many friends, and spend two days in Glacier National Park.

You can find the full itinerary of speaking engagements on this page on my website. But here is a list of places we will be starting this weekend:

1. May 17, noon, Harleysville, Pennsylvania, The Mennonite Heritage Center

2. May 18, morning, Blooming Glen, Pennsylvania, Mennonite Church

3. May 27, 7 p.m., The Cell Theatre, 23rd St., New York, NY

4. June 1, 5-7 p.m., The Friends Meetinghouse (Manhattan Mennonite Fellowship), 15 Rutherford Place, New York, NY

5. June 4, noon, Samaritan Center fundraiser, Elkhart, IN

6. June 5, 10 a.m., Greencroft Retirement Community, Goshen, IN

7. June 5, 7 p.m., Kazoo Books, Kalamazoo, MI

8. June 30, 1 p.m. Harrisonburg, VA Public Library

9. July 6, morning, Portland Mennonite Church, Portland, OR

10. July 6, Pacific Northwest Mennonite Historical Society, near Zion Mennonite Church

11. July 9, 7 p.m., Third Place Books, Seattle.

12. July 11  7 p.m. House of James Book Store and Café, Abbottsford, BC, Canada.

13. July 13, morning, Vancouver, BC, Point Grey Inter-Mennonite Fellowship

14. July 20, morning, Faith Mennonite Church, Minneapolis

15. July 26 Workshop From Perplexed to Published, Squirrel Hill Carnegie Library, Pittsburgh

15. July 27 morning, Pittsburgh Mennonite Church Sunday School

Instead of a Conestoga Wagon, we’ll be traveling by Amtrak. We got a 30-day pass and will be on two scenic routes. The Coast Starlight along the Pacific Ocean. We won’t be waiting to be selected into the Amtrak Writers Residency program. We’ve made our own!

And the Empire Builder from west coast to east coast. We will be using Superliner Roomettes, like the one in this video:

Will we be coming to a city near you? I’d love to see you! Ask us, and Stuart and I might even try that whirling thing again.

Have you taken a long train ride? Have any advice for us? I will probably blog about the trip, so send me your questions, too!

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Catherine R. Mumaw: A Different Kind of Mother’s Day Tribute

Who mothered you in addition to or instead of or beside your biological mother?

As we celebrate mothers this Sunday, I invite you to answer this question.

For me, there were many such women. Women in my family; Mary Lauver, our pastor’s wife and a leader in her own right, and many others in my church. My teachers. Then there was summer camp. And this woman.

Catherine R. Mumaw, Director

Catherine R. Mumaw, Director at Laurelville Girls Camp. Photo was included in 1957 or 1958 Shen.

In childhood

Catherine R. Mumaw entered my life first as the director of summer camp at Laurelville Mennonite camp in 1959. I turned eleven years old that summer.

I remember three things about Catherine from my deep memory well:

  • she was a woman in charge.
  • she had a lovely lilting southern accent. Yet she wore a covering like my mother. This combination amazed me.
  • she loved to sing and she led singing with confidence, just like she led the prayers and the announcements.

Catherine showed up in my life again during college. As one of the first women in the Mennonite Church to earn a Ph.D., Catherine taught home economics and fine arts at Eastern Mennonite College. Here’s how she looked in the 1970 yearbook, the Shen. Most of her colleagues were male.

Catherine Mumaw and Homer Mumaw, EMC faculty members, 1970

Catherine Mumaw and Homer Mumaw, EMC faculty members, 1970. The Shen.

Professional model and colleague

I took fine arts from Catherine and remember her as an enthusiastic professor with high standards. She pulled my best work out of me, taught me about the architecture of cathedrals, the vanishing point in classical art, and the structure of the symphony.

Later, Catherine and I both served on the faculty of Goshen College during a time of great change in her field of home economics. She later went on to teach at Oregon State University for several years, making international work her chosen focus. This work became a springboard for the next four years as a volunteer education adviser at Kathmandu University in Nepal.


Catherine and I have become friends again in our post-retirement years. Catherine has been battling cancer. She has neither denied that fact nor wallowed in it. Instead, she continues to mother me by modeling what I hope to do as I contemplate the end of my own life. She laughs. She gives away her possessions to her friends. And she continues to make things.

Catherine stopped by my house with a present the other day. It’s a musical memoir: a CD with an accompanying booklet. It details eighty years of musical education in the family, church, and academy. It begins with “Jesus Loves Me” and ends with Lutkin’s “The Lord Bless You and Keep You.”

Catherine has no biological children. She married Clair Basinger late in life and has become mother to his four daughters who have brought her great joy: Eileen, Carolyn, Darlene, and Debbie. Yet even if she had not become a mother through marriage, she would still be among my mothers.

I have her songs on a CD with this picture on the cover.

Catherine in a role she was born to play.

Catherine in a role she was born to play.

But what I really have are her songs and stories in my heart. Through her work as musical memoirist and storyteller, I can carry her stories. They amplify my alto voice the way that soprano, bass, and tenor surround me in church.

In my mind’s eye I will always see her, in front of all those girls at camp, being in charge, and singing!

 Who are your mothers? Please select one woman who has influenced you and say why and how you remember her below. Or give us one of your own musical memories.

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Are You a Pantser or a Plotter? Approaches to Memoir Writing and Life

Among writers, the question is this one:

Are you a pantser or a plotter?

When I first heard this question, I immediately linked it to my graduate adviser at the University of Texas at Austin. After I passed my Ph.D. exams, he said,

Just think of finishing your dissertation this way: put your seat in a chair and stay there until you’re done.

Having confessed to being a  sprinter rather than a marathon runner in last week’s post, you might have already guessed where I come out between these two types.

Instead of labeling myself, however, I’ll show you a picture:

2014 calendar with trip planning papers below

2014 calendar with trip planning papers below

This picture of how I am planning a year of book touring looks a lot like the way I “plotted” Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. More about this trip later, but for now, you can just witness some of the complexity.

Back in October 2011, when I was living in Brooklyn, New York, and taking care of our grandson Owen by day, I made up a timetable for writing. Then I blogged about it, making myself more accountable to my readers.

I respect deadlines, and when I announce one, I usually come through. I’ll sit in my seat even after my shoulders, neck, and arms begin to hurt. (I know, “sitting is the new smoking” and I need to change that habit.)

But being a “pantser” refers to more than the location of one’s derrière! It also means that a writer finds joy in the journey itself and wants to discover her way to the plot. Not surprisingly, this term is used most frequently by fiction writers.

Good memoirs read like fiction. They require narrative arcs. There’s an art and a science to developing such arcs. I placed my life stories, most of which were written in short segments, into a series of questions meant to interrogate the narrative of my childhood.

Did you have a choice to become Mennonite or not?

What was going on in the church and in the outside world that influenced the answer to that question?

What happened to your family after your father bought the farm?

To answer these questions before the end of writing a draft was to become a “plotter.” I tried on that role and took lessons from some pros. Here are my notes on how to storyboard:

Storyboard notes

Storyboard notes

If you’ve read Blush, you might or might not recognize this pattern in the story. I had difficulty making my life fit into the form.

I saw my model as being most like Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression
by Mildred Armstrong Kalish, which I reviewed in 2008.

My guess is that Mildred was a pantser, whose reminiscences were woven together beautifully through the “high spirits” still evident in her approach to life, and who had a great deal of discipline over her daily habits, writing this book one story at a time.

If you are a writer yourself or contemplating becoming one, you will enjoy the video below. You can see that the question of whether to write from an outline (plot) or from curiosity about your characters (pants) can throw writers into a tizzy of conversation.

But whether or not you take time to watch the video, I hope you respond with some stories of your own in the comment section below. Do you prefer to discover your way to the finish line by following your intuition and “high spirits”? Or do you need to chart a very careful path in advance? Something in between? Something different depending on the circumstances?


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Are You a Sprinter or a Marathoner? Is There a Third Way?

My daughter just ran ten miles for the first time with her friend Kristi.

Having my propensity toward rosy cheeks, she got beet red:

Kristi and Kate after Kate's first ten-mile run

Kristi and Kate after Kate's first ten-mile run

She did not, however, inherit the capacity for long-distance running from me or from her father.

She earned every mile from her own effort. Having worked hard to run in two 5K races in the past, I am proud that she will run a half-marathon soon.

If you have read Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World, you may remember that I pounded out a very fast 50-yard dash, impressing my gym teacher, who went on to nickname me “Rosy Cheeks.”

So I guess you could call me a sprinter. In fact, when I look back on my career, I’d use that term metaphorically also. I moved from challenge to challenge, pouring my energies into quick bursts. The longest I ever persisted in the same job was the eight years I spent as the president of Goshen College.

Before that and after that, I moved from one academic or administrative task to another, usually when someone else asked me to do something.

I’ve sometimes felt envious of the marathoner, who puts “slow twitch” muscle fibers to such good use, continuing past all obstacles to draw upon deep reservoirs of inner strength.

However, what comes more naturally to me, what I seem to be built for, is the dash, an explosive burst of energy. One dash leads to another and then to another.

It would be easy to say I am only a sprinter. And to try to justify sprinting v. long distance runs, or careers.

Dividing the world into two classes can be fun. But fruitless.

How many times have you heard a statement that begins by dividing the world into two classes?

The famous humorist Robert Benchley pricked that bubble with these words:

There may be said to be two classes of people in the world; those who constantly divide the people of the world into two classes, and those who do not. Both classes are extremely unpleasant to meet socially, leaving practically no one in the world whom one cares very much to know.

--Robert Benchley

Robert Benchley, image from Wikipedia

Robert Benchley, image from Wikipedia

I’ve decided, after pondering the two classes of sprinter and marathoner, that I aspire to neither. As a Mennonite, I like to look for a “third way” when presented with two alternatives.

In this case, the third way I choose is to be a marathon sprinter. Each of the bursts of energy in my life has led me to the next over all sixty-five of my years. When woven together, like a braided rug, each individual sprint, like an old t-shirt, contributes to a marathon whole, like a large rug.

Writing a book and then touring with it has been a major sprint. I’m still waiting to feel the familiar nudge that calls the next sprint out of me. Perhaps you will be the person whose story inspires my next step.

At my age, it may look more like a jog or a walk, but that’s fine with me. It’s all part of the journey home.

Are you a sprinter or a marathoner? A marathon sprinter or a sprint marathoner? I’d love to hear stories about running, metaphors, dualisms, whatever came to mind as you read this story.

Next week? Stay tuned for the big Writing Dualism: Pantser v. Plotter

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How to Get Ready to Die: Easter Lessons from My Mennonite Mother

“Just don’t say, ‘She fell into the arms of Jesus.’”

We were talking about death and funerals, fun topics for a 65-year-old woman and her 87-year-old mother.

When Mother described the clichés and embellished phrases of some obituaries, we both howled in recognition, eager to reduce the serious, universal, subject of death with just enough defiant humor.

Mother was expressing the most important idea she wants her funeral to convey. She wants to for her faith in Jesus to shine through — not in fancy language –  but by how she lived her life.

Mother and me on the deck, Spring, 2014

Mother and me on the deck, Spring, 2014

It’s Holy Wednesday for the Christian church, and my mother, Barbara Ann Hess Hershey Becker, is with me in Virginia for her second visit since we moved here in 2010.

She brought along two new “friends” — her hearing aids and her cane.

I asked her what it’s like to be 87 years old.

Sometimes, she said, I feel like I am 39 again. Energetic. Interested in my surroundings. Looking forward to a new day and new challenges.

But when I go to bed at night, I am very aware of my age.

  • I take out my “partials” that helped me chew and taste my food
  • I take out my hearing aids, that (sometimes) help me hear and contribute to conversations
  • I take off my glasses that still let me read (!) and see people’s faces
  • I take off my elastic hose that helps reduce the swelling I get in my legs

We  laughed at the image of the deconstruction of the elderly self, one item at a time, but then Mother got serious and said, “When you are really tired, you just want to flop into bed like you used to, and suddenly, you are exhausted in a deep, new way.”

During the visit, Mother enjoyed reading, writing, and reciting — three activities she started in fifth grade and has continued all her life.

Mother looking up from her journal. Spring, 2014.

Mother looking up from her journal. Spring, 2014.

We drafted an obituary — hers — and listed all the groups and interests Mother has been part of, getting lost in our attempts to remember dates of other deaths, which friends are gone now and which ones remain.

Mother looked up and smiled broadly, asking, “Where are we? Am I dead yet?”

Another eruption of laughter.

Our talk felt very healthy.

I only teared up once.

It happened when we talked about her funeral when Mother said, “I’d like Doris to sing that song. If she can.”

Her eyes grew misty.

“She can,” I said emphatically.

Then a thought struck me: “You will help her get through it,” I said, my breath suddenly constricted, as I let myself imagine life without Mother in it for just a moment.

Then I looked away.

As hard as it is, it also feels good to have this kind of  “necessary conversation.”

Mother declares herself to be ready. She’s made peace with God and her fellow man, as the Mennonite Church examination required of her in her youth.

She wants all of us to be ready too. That’s why she can laugh when she talks about death. She knows who will have the last laugh in the end. She loves this movie and especially this “saying we have in India.”


Celebrating Easter with Mother will have a special meaning this year.

Death has been swallowed up by victory.

Triumphant tulips after a hard winter.

Triumphant tulips after a hard winter.

I now have Mother’s wishes for her obituary and her funeral written down in my own journal.

I’m not ready to let her go! But I also know that my own time is coming, and when it does, I too want to keep laughing. I will want to talk with my children about death, removing a little of the sting, creating memories which will come back to comfort them. If I go suddenly, they will have these words.

When it’s time to say good-bye to Mother, I will be like her, the person who described herself as “drunk with grief” when her mother died.

Mother says funerals in her youth contained more wailing and sobbing. Today they are more subdued, the focus being on celebration of life. “Celebration is good, but not suppression of feeling.”

Nevertheless, Mother doesn’t want her funeral sermon to be a eulogy. The focus should be on the Comforter, the Holy Spirit.

“My legacy is my family. They will sing and play for me.”

And so we will.

Have you talked with your parent(s) or children about your wishes surrounding end of life? What suggestions do you have to help make the conversations better, easier?

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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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© Copyright Shirley Hershey Showalter
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