Monday, June 30, 2014

When you think you only have one week

I slipped into the bustling hotel banquet room for the first meal of the 2008 American Christian Fiction Writers Conference in Minneapolis. Harried from a long trip north, I’d lost a jewelry roll along the way, which had meant making several phone calls on my arrival to Delta, the airport in Atlanta and Minneapolis, etc. The pieces were only valuable to me, and I mourned their loss. The scene in front of me was chaotic with hundreds of people reconnecting with friends. As I scanned the crowd, I couldn’t spot a soul that I knew. Even as an introvert, I usually don’t have a problem sitting down at a table and meeting new people, but this night, I didn’t know if I could summon the energy, not really up for the job. Then I heard someone calling my name.

I turned and there was Sue Duffy. Sue and I had met a year or so earlier because we shared the same agent. She sat alone and waved me over. “Come join me.”




We immediately connected over many areas in our lives, foremost of which was a shared angst over rejections we’d received days earlier from publishers who had expressed serious interest in our projects. We’d both been working a very long time. She’d even left a job as an executive editor with a regional magazine to pursue fiction.

We’d felt a call to write fiction, yet things hadn’t gone as we’d hoped. Our mutual struggle bonded us, so though our orbits at that conference took us to separate classes and interviews, we still intersected for meals to share about our experiences. We tried to encourage and support each other. Blessedly, my jewelry turned up. We had a laugh over me finding it in a temporarily forgotten pocket of my suitcase.

When the conference ended, we pledged to try to room together at the next one. Hours apart in different states, we kept in touch via email. 

Not long after the conference in Minneapolis, Sue received a contract from Kregel for Fatal Loyalty, which released in 2010. About the same time, I won a book deal in a writing contest for Give My Love to the Chestnut Trees.

We congratulated each other, but the next year, I couldn't go to the conference. Sue went alone. So it went, every year around conference time, we’d swap emails and either she went and I couldn’t go, or I went and she couldn’t go. Most recently, I attended ACFW in 2012 without her, and in 2013, she went without me.

An incredibly gifted writer, Sue's success continued and her Red Returning trilogy won a National Book Award back in April of this year. I sent her a congratulatory message, but didn’t hear from her, which I thought strange.

A week ago, I saw a post on Facebook, which rocked my world. Sue Duffy had died. She was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last fall a few weeks after our usual email exchange and went into a steep decline. I never knew. There had only been a couple of posts on Facebook about her condition, one of which was a Caring Bridge link, and I missed them.

Most of our communications related to writing, so when I read her obit, I found she was a musician who had been involved in prison ministry. I have been a church musician since childhood and helped lead worship in prisons for over a dozen years. If we’d only had more time together, we would have discovered this mutual interest. We could have swapped stories of our prison ministry and maybe planned a mission together. I like to think we also might have collaborated on some writing project.

But we didn’t. Even in retrospect, neither of us could have altered the circumstances, which prevented us from having another conference together. It seemed we would only have the one week in Minneapolis.

As I write, I’m sitting on the patio of a seaside retreat listening to roaring waves. A short distance away, shell seekers peruse the beach plucking exoskeletons of marine mollusks from soggy sand. Something about the beach intensifies the sense of our mortality but paradoxically the eternal realities, as well. The tides roll in and out in moon-guided cycles washing away one day and ushering in another. However, the ocean expanse is so great and points to a Creator who is even greater, one who transcends twenty-four hour boundaries.

I feel the shifting sands as I make my way through her brave Caring Bridge journal, tissues in hand. I feel her own sense of the fragility of life, but I also hear in post after post her firm faith in a mighty God. I wish I’d had a chance to respond when these pieces were written.

I think of Sue and what she taught me the short time I knew her. A woman of faith, elegance, and grace, she possessed a commitment to follow the path God had established even in times of confusion and discouragement. She held fast when seas became stormy. I hope I can do the same. Her life’s story encourages me, and I’m grateful to have known her, even for such a short time.

So, here’s to Sue and her one beautiful life. Here’s to the assurance that the next time I hear her calling my name, we’ll have more than a week together.

“Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6).


Friday, June 27, 2014

I'm over here today at Lena Nelson Dooley's Blog, A Christian Writer's World, where she's interviewing me about Home to Currahee. Thanks for reading.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

when you need a billboard or a bluebird

Early in the morning, I sat down at my dining room table to read.

Through the window, the bluebirds nesting in the box fluttered in and out taking care of their brood. I ignorantly put up a bluebird box in the front and back yard not realizing until later the size of this property only supports one box (the birds can fight over territory in too small a space), but I have nesters back and front. I guess their need for a home has overshadowed their lack of neighborliness.



As I picked up a devotional to read, I felt weary. Circumstances had continued to mount and added to an unrelenting attack from that voice that brings discouragement.

Sometimes the negative voice can be the loudest one in our heads.

I had let my guard down, and hated to admit it, but I was starting to believe that voice a bit.

I read the verses from Isaiah 40 listed for the day. The theme for the week was “Our weakness and God’s strength.” I sure related to the weakness part.

“Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”

I experienced what’s often call a God moment. A rhema word—it was persevere.

I turned to another devotion.

The verse?

“Therefore, strengthen your listless hands and your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but be healed” (Heb 12:12-13). 

Again a word about God bringing healing to the weak and faltering.

I flipped to a guide I’d been using as a resource in praying for others to find Christ. 

The theme continued, and I don’t know if I could have intentionally strung together verses and readings, which spoke more directly to my circumstances, but this one even included the sentence, “Lord, help me persevere.”

I pondered the words as the bluebirds sat on a utility line a short distance from the house. One thing I’ve come to observe about them is how fiercely they carry out their duties. I’ve seen them repeatedly attack squirrels to divert them from the nest. They do not flag in their zeal, often raising two broods in a season.

Finally, I removed the bookmark from this book, and read again the story of persistence about the paralytic being lowered through the roof to see Jesus. Osteen says, “You are closest to your victory when you face the greatest opposition.

The words from James that I'd been memorizing came to mind, "Let perseverance finish its work . . ."

It’s as if God had rented a billboard, put my name on it, and said, “Don’t’ miss this. PERSEVERE.” 

More flapping outside, and I’m not sure, but a Bluebird may have winked at me.

If you’ve found yourselves in a firestorm in some endeavor, I don’t know what victory would look like for you, but please remember, victory is coming.

Here's your billboard: "Persevere. Persevere. Persevere."

As you do, don’t be surprised at an approving flash of blue in the wind.

Laura Hilton reviews Home to Currahee on her blog today. Click here to read. Many thanks to Laura for taking the time to review.



Monday, June 23, 2014

If you're missing now


I hesitated a few moments, but then had to act. “Jerry, please, turn around.”

He’d dealt with this enough, he didn’t even ask why. I wondered how the light might change in the few moments it’d taken me to make up my mind.

I grabbed my cell phone from my purse. “Turn right here.”

He did, I jumped out of the car, and snapped.



The glow of the setting sun as it banks off clouds in the east—an example of why filmmakers call this time of the day “golden time.”

My son says I take my own stock photos, but I never know if I’ll ever witness that scene in front of me again. I never know how God might speak to me through a picture.

Robert Frost wrote, “I am not a teacher, but an awakener.” One of the challenges in life is continually to allow ourselves to be awakened by the wonder around us—the fleeting moments of now that make up our lives. If we let the present beauty pass us by in favor of some maybe beauty in the future, we might miss both.

That’s why, sometimes, we have to turn cars around to stand on the road and snap pictures—to take a few moments to capture now and say, thank you, God.
  
“Far and wide they’ll come to a stop,
    they’ll stare in awe, in wonder.
Dawn and dusk take turns
    calling, “Come and worship”


Friends, no matter what troubles are brewing on this Monday of your life; I’m praying moments of beauty and wonder for you. I'm praying now for you. Come and worship.

If you're headed out on vacation, would you consider Home to Currahee or Give My Love to the Chestnut Trees for your summer reading. Both are available through several online retailers.




Thursday, June 19, 2014

If it's shame that you're wearing


Middle school is a breeding ground for it. Suzy Q looks over at your clunky loafers and asks, “Where’d you get those shoes?”

You’re not sure if she’s asking in a good way or not, but you don’t want to tell her it was a discount store, instead of the shop where all the popular girls buy their Bass Weejuns, John Romain handbags, and Villager outfits. So you just tell her it was in a store in the next town over.

But she sees through it and laughs. “Oh, you’re just saying that so you don’t have to admit it was some cheap place.”
And you feel it. The blood rises to your face, and the dark cloud comes down—shame. Shame that you’re not one of the popular girls with the cute clothes.  You know your mama bought your dresses off the five  for twenty-five rack, and you blush even more, and maybe that’s just the tip of the iceberg, because there’s a lot you don’t tell anyone. You feel the shame at what you don’t have, and what you’ve lost, and those moments can stack up like Boeing 737s over Hartsfield on a Friday afternoon.

This source says that, “The roots of the word shame are thought to derive from an older word meaning "to cover"; as such, covering oneself, literally or figuratively, is a natural expression of shame.”
You try to cover with the cloak of anonymity and fade into the background, but if you stand as tall and nearly skinny as a Georgia pine, it’s impossible. Because you literally stick out.

Shame follows you around and wants to name you. Wants to tell you that you are shame. Shame points out every loss, every failure, every time you don’t measure up. And somewhere along the way, you pick it up and began to carry it like luggage for life—ashamed of you.

It was not always like this. Genesis 2:25 says, “Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.” Before sin, there was no shame. However, one bite, one taste of the forbidden fruit, and shame began to stalk us for destruction.

And stalked and stalked until in the fullness of time, God sent Jesus to deal with it, once and for all.

“And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God”(Hebrews 12:2).  

Jesus didn’t run from shame. He faced it. In the Message, Peterson says Jesus, “could put up with anything along the way: Cross, shame, whatever.” He did this for us, so we wouldn't always have to be dragging that heavy suitcase around, so we wouldn't have to live under a shadow, covering ourselves with the blanket of our unworthiness.

One day you believe it. You leave that suitcase and that blanket and walk away into the sunshine. You aren’t all those things shame has said. You are His.

Paul quotes the prophet Isaiah in Romans 10, “Anyone who believes in him will never be put to shame.”

Oh, you’ll still have those moments when shame pretends to own you again, but it cannot, because you’ve already been bought with the blood of God’s Son, and you are not ashamed anymore.

My friends, that’s good news, no matter what shoes you’re wearing.

Monday, June 16, 2014

What fried apple pies have to do with the Bible


To sit down at my grandmother’s kitchen table which was always decked out in a red checked tablecloth meant a special treat. One of the most anticipated was her fried apple pies. She prepared them in much the same way Jubilee Johnson does in Home to Currahee.



Like Jubilee, my grandmother spread screens on sawhorses in her back yard, and laid out thinly sliced apples to dry in the Georgia sun. Cheesecloth protected them from debris. A thunderstorm approaching meant scrambling to get the screens under cover, so the apples wouldn’t get wet.


When it came time to cook the pies, today we’d probably  have our cardiologist standing by, as my grandmother fried them in “lard” (for the uninitiated, lard is animal fat). Thankfully, Jubilee has been influenced by his daughter’s health conscience attitude and now cooks his pies in canola oil. My grandmother kept hers in a pie safe just like the one Addie has in Home to Currahee. Dried apples could be kept for many months, so we enjoyed the pies almost year round.


This process of drying apples was called “laying away,” something once practiced regularly in generations past to prepare for the winter. Today, our “laying away” mostly consists of pension plans and stock investments. However, there’s another kind of “laying away.” Proverbs 7:1 says “My son keep my words, and store up my commands within you.”


When I feel a little off kilter, unprepared for life’s bumps and jolts, I can usually trace it back to not taking the time to steep myself in the word of God.


Daily study of the Bible helps us to “keep God’s words” and provides a foundation for our lives. The word of God supports us when winds of adversity threaten to blow us down.


“Laying away” the word of God in our hearts will reap benefits not just for the winter of the year or the winter of our lives, but also for all eternity.


Make sure you check out the recipe for Fried Apple Pies in Home to Currahee. My family loves it.

           

Thursday, June 12, 2014

My dad, his dog Sandy, and jumping up


My dad has been remembering a story lately that I’ve never heard before.

“I used to have a dog,” he says his eyes clouding over with memory. “It was a black dog named Sandy with tan spots above his eyes. It wasn’t a hound and couldn’t hunt like a hound. Couldn’t use his nose. But he always went with me rabbit hunting.”
 

My dad’s family eked out a living during the Great Depression as sharecroppers. I imagine a rabbit would’ve been meat for the evening meal.

Dad grins as he continues. “That dog couldn’t find a trail, but he hunted by sight. When the rabbit disappeared, he’d bounce up and down in the air trying to see that rabbit above the brush. Found him, too.”

I smiled at the story that bubbled up out of dad’s memory after so many years about his dog, Sandy.

It reminded me of times when I’ve lost the trail, unable to see what I’m looking for. Kind of lost—sometimes feeling like Sandy with his lack of a nose or like the travelers on the way to OZ, if I only had a heart, or a brain, or courage, I wouldn’t be in the predicament I’m in.

 Sandy and his jack-in-the-box ways help me.

Because when I’m stuck in a bramble, I can jump up. Up towards God, up towards the one with the bird’s eye view.

Ruth Graham, wrote, “We can stand on tiptoe by walking consistently in our relationship with God, by keeping our focus on Him, by looking forward to the future with the expectation that He will be there.”

So, if you’ve lost your way, jump up. God will be there.

Thanks for the story, Dad, and have a Happy Father’s Day.

“God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us” (Acts 17:27).

Monday, June 9, 2014

On being a light, on being a neighbor


A light went out on our street a few years back, and no energy efficient bulb has been able to fix the resulting darkness. Our neighbor, Margaret, died.

By the simple act of buying a house a couple of decades ago, our lives were enriched more than we could have ever imagined. I was pregnant with our first child at the time, and our baby would have no close grandmother. Our neighbor, Margaret, took care of that, and stepped into the role with a flourish. Through the years, usually at least once a week, I found a grocery bag hanging on the back door. It might contain cookies, flowers plucked from her garden, or some trinket she thought we might like. Though the gifts varied, the message of kindness and concern remained constant. 

 
I found out we weren’t the only ones who’d been the beneficiaries of her love. She embraced a sting of neighbor children through the years up and down our street, some of them now adults. Her feisty, endearing ways made her a kid magnet. If I wondered where my children were, they’d be over at Margaret’s sipping cokes and trying to beat her at gin rummy. I don’t think they ever did.

 
There is so much more. Every week, she systematically bagged groceries which she took to a growing list of shut ins, many times anonymously. She did this well into her eighties. The entire time I knew her, she seemed to spend a lot of time thinking about whom she could help and how. Why did she do this?

 
Her late husband, Mell, who died a few years before her, emerged from the Pacific Theatre of World War II knowing the cost of living in a free country. “Mell says we have to give back,” Margaret often declared. So they did, in every way they could. Up until the year he died, we’d come back from vacation and often found he’d mowed our grass.

 
 People don’t think much about being a neighbor anymore. At least not like Margaret and Mell did.

 
At the little gathering at her graveside funeral, I looked around at the mostly graying heads attending and found myself asking the same question I’d asked when Mell died—who will take Margaret and Mell’s place? One tiny woman had left a very large hole. In one way, no one ever could. But in another way, those of us still here would have to continue her neighborly art. I’ve been a poor neighbor myself, using that terrible “busy” word as an excuse. But because of Margaret, I aimed to do better.

 
I’ve made a few attempts, but I don’t think I’ll ever match Margaret’s standard.

 
Another neighbor, Virginia, passed recently, and the day after her service, a friend, Karen, from down the street dropped by with homemade rolls and fig preserves. “In the spirit of Virginia,” she said entering our house holding high a mason jar of figs. In the spirit of Margaret, too, I thought to myself.

 
 
With indelible ink, Margaret and Mell are written into the stories of our family. Our children will tell their grandchildren  of these beloved neighbors. Nothing would make Margaret happier than to continue her legacy by filling grocery bags from our pantry or garden and make a few deliveries. We could meet the new neighbor who’s just moved in, or catch up with ones we haven’t seen in awhile. Like my neighbor Karen, we can do what a light bulb cannot by bringing a glow to someone's heart. We could change lives. We could change our community.
 
 
Maybe your neighborhood could use a little light as well.

 
Margaret, we still miss you at our house. And as a better neighbor than I once said, thanks for being our neighbor.

 
“. . . better a neighbor nearby than a relative far away” (Proverbs 27:10).
 
 
Margaret with our daughter who was dressed to dance the Viennese Waltz a little later
Though Margaret is not a character my novel, Home to Currahee, she did inspire several scenes of neighborly kindness. See if you can spot them.
 

 

Thursday, June 5, 2014

A snapshot from home

Please join me today at the Stephens County library in Toccoa, Georgia at 10:30 for a reading and later at Troup's at 2:00 for a signing of Home to Currahee. I look forward to seeing you.

A writing instructor once said that if you want to see a writer’s most intense emotion, have them write about their hometown.

I am heading in that direction today for a book signing and reading, because Home to Currahee is set in my hometown, Toccoa, Georgia. Pardon me, as I’m growing a bit nostalgic.

If I could share one snapshot from those years I spent in the rolling foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, it would be from the front porch of my grandparent’s house on Sage Street. Though no one house or character in  Home to Currahee is either of my grandparents, elements of them and their home found their way into the book. In fact one of the characters is named after my grandmother, Addie, who I still long for thirty years after her death.

Though my family lived elsewhere for several years prior to our return to Toccoa, I still have strong childhood memories of my grandparent’s home. Far from being fine by the world's standards, it is a precious place in my memory.

In the spring and summer, my grandfather planted flowers and vegetables in every square inch of the property a stones throw away from the center of town. A sharecropper his entire life, even in retirement my grandfather continued to rise at 4:30 or 5:00 every morning to work the vegetable garden and water the flowers.


My grandparents in their garden

Later in the morning, the ladies in town would come to buy dinner plate Dahlias and roses for their bridge and garden club luncheons. My grandmother would “put up” the produce from the garden by spending countless hours canning.

My grandfather had a Royal Crown bottling plant around the corner deliver crates of RC’s, Nehi oranges, and Nehi grapes. He’d have them stacked on the front porch, and in the afternoons when it was too hot to do anything in the garden, we’d sit in porch rockers, drink Nehi orange, and watch traffic.

Probably seems a mind-numbing prospect to kids today, but the peace and ease of those languid afternoons on the porch still draws me.

As the day wore on, after the evening meal, we’d return to the porch and watch the garden light up with the twinkling of lightning bugs. The moths would buzz the tulip shaped street lamp across the street as the night breezes blew across the vine-covered porch.

When my mother had to go to a rehab facility after a fall in what turned out to be the final year of her life, a friend’s mother was across the hall in her last hours. We’d hear this woman calling repeatedly, “I want to go to Elberton. I want to go to Elberton.”

The social worker in the hospital theorized that she was not just calling for the town of Elberton, but for a time in her life far away from the pain and suffering she was experiencing.

I hope I go out some distant day as my grandmother did. She fell asleep while sitting in a chair and woke up in heaven. However, if I do not leave so quickly, as you pass by my room, you might hear me calling out, “I want to go to the front porch. I want to go to the front porch.” You’ll know I’m thinking of Nehi orange, fireflies, dahlias as big as your face, and a peace that foreshadows heaven.
 
My people will live in peaceful dwelling places, in secure homes, in undisturbed places of rest (Isaiah 32:18)
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid (John 14:27).

 

Monday, June 2, 2014

If you want to be a writer.

Just a reminder that I'll be in Toccoa, Georgia at the Stephens County Library on Thursday, June 5, for a reading. The event will start at 10:30. Later in the day I'll be at Troup's for signing at 2:00. Hope to see you there if you live in the Northeast Georgia area.

 
Sometimes, I get this question, “What do you do all day?”

After decades of keeping journals, I became serious about writing for publication when I still had children at home and was also home schooling. I learned to write in between all the other duties I had. The children have split now, but I still have chores, so they’re interspersed between the times I spend at the computer.

My days don’t always look the same, but I start my day with a time with the Lord.  A couple of mornings a week, I write at a nearby restaurant, because they don’t expect me to clean, and I don’t have to drop everything and stop Mama Kitty from killing a chipmunk. I don’t have Carl and Wilbur sitting on the arm of my chair staring at me, either, making me feel like a specimen under a microscope. My office is in the sunroom. No door. Lots of distractions.
 
Other days, I'm at home with the zoo and spend a few hours in the morning at the computer. I may get up to put a load of laundry in the washer, to let Lucy out, or to deal with other duties at home.

After lunch, I’m back at it again at the computer.

Over the years, my inspiration for orchestrating life as a writer with other responsibilities comes from Newberry Medal winner, Madeleine L’Engle, who said, “. . . there is a constant balancing of priorities. We have to learn to turn away from the typewriter in order to cook dinner. And, yet, we mustn’t lose the train of thought.”

I love this life I have. When I think about doing anything else, tears well. However, writing involves many challenges.

It isn’t all about creating the story, the part I really love. It’s also about editing the story, so when people ask me what I’ve done all day, I don’t think they want to hear that I spent six hours getting rid of “ly” words, trimming just, that, and so from the manuscript and making my verbs stronger. I spend many hours doing tedious jobs that I’d like to hire out, but thus far, no one’s been willing to work for hugs.

No matter how long one writes, there will be rejections and criticism, which can kick the breath out of us. However, if we’re called to write, we lick our wounds, get up, and keep going. If we can’t deal with rejection, we’ll never make it as a writer. If we can’t take criticism, we’ll miss a premier opportunity to make our work better.

Another challenge is dealing with expectations of others. Books don’t get written unless someone writes them, and for me that takes sitting all day in a chair for many months. If I don’t watch how I use my time, the book doesn’t get written. If I allow distractions to overtake me, the book doesn’t get written. If I don’t set goals, the book doesn’t get written. If I have lunch out every day, the book . . . well, you get it. There are sacrifices that have to be made, and sometimes others besides me make them, too.

Having said that, I do try to balance time I spend alone writing with time with others. We can get a bit eccentric if we don’t keep connected to friends and family.

I heard a statistic lately that 23% of people in the United States want to be writers.

If you’re thinking about writing yourself, as you consider the life, ponder these questions:

Did you dream of being a writer as a child?

Do you already write even though no one reads it but you?

Do you write when you feel inspired AND when you don’t?

Do you see a story in everything?

Do you have something to say that could benefit others?

If you answered yes to these questions, then write, study, learn, and work on your craft.

L’Engle said there is no work too small and that it takes, “ . . . time and energy and considerable pain to give birth to even the most minor of stories.” She asks, “Are you willing to make the sacrifice? But if you feel that you are called, then I can promise you great joy as well as conflict and pain.”

To that I say, Amen.

“Your marvelous doings are headline news; I could write a book full of the details of your greatness” (Psalm 145:6 The Message).

 

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