Saturday, December 2, 2023

Sisters' December Reading

Charity and I don't plan to post reading challenges for winter. But we thought we'd share a few book recommendations for December in case you want some book ideas. 

(We are looking forward to the Brighter Winter Reading Challenge in January and February. Registration is open now.) 

This post contains affiliate links.

Children's Christmas Picture Books

Charity -  The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski

I grew up with a few very special Christmas books. This treasure is beautifully illustrated and the story is about redemption, simple acts of kindness, and the hope in Jesus. Mr. Toomey is grumpy and keeps to himself ever since he has lived on the edge of the village. What no one understands is that once his life was filled with laughter. The widow and her son have something to offer that might bring the light back into his eyes. I can’t wait for my little boy to be old enough to call this book part of Christmas. 

Gina - Christmas Day in the Morning by Pearl  S. Buck

A young boy wants to give his dad a special gift, and what would be better than doing the barn chores for him? I'm not sure I've ever read this to my children without getting a catch in my throat at the love between parent and child.

Middle-grade Christmas Books

Charity - Jack and Jill by Louisa May Alcott

This isn’t exactly a Christmas book, but it opens with snow and sledding and so I always thing of it as warm, cozy, and Christmasy. The subtitle calls it a village story and it is just that. A story about a group of friends and what happens in their lives as they become young men and women. I loved this story as a girl and I’m thinking about dipping back into it this month. Alcott often has lovely Christmas scenes in her stories so many of them are great December reading options.

Gina - Turkey for Christmas by Marjuerite de Angeli

I love the warmth of de Angeli's books and Turkey for Christmas is a short book that I read aloud nearly every Christmas. Maybe it is so special because it is a story of her own childhood, and the difficult winter when money was tight because of her sister's hospital bills. Bess didn't think it possible to have Christmas without turkey, but if they bought a turkey, there would be no money for presents. 

Adult Christmas Books

Charity - Christmas Stories by Charles Dickens

Most of us are very familiar with A Christmas Carol, but did you know that Dickens wrote five Christmas novellas? My goal is to read the last two this Christmas. If you reread Dickens' well known novel or try one of his lesser known novellas, I’m quite certain he won’t disappoint! 

Gina - A Symphony in Sand by Calvin Miller 

This book is hard to categorize. Is it an allegory? Poetry? Fantasy? Miller rewrites the Christmas story in free verse allegorical form and makes me think of this familiar story in a new way. It has been several years since I read it, and I'm looking forward to a reread. 

Cozy Books

Charity - The Mitford Series by Jan Karon

I’ve been rereading a few of Karon’s cozy novels and loving every moment of it! Not only does she have one book that is dedicated to just Christmas, but most of her books have a chapter or two about Christmas.  Set in the fictional town of Mitford, South Carolina,  Father Tim is a rather average Episcopal priest, except that he is surrounded by interesting happenings and hilarious people. This is my favorite series when I need a light, comfortable book to read.

Since reading Turner's newest book, I've been longing to reread her whole series. Most are set somewhere around Derby, North Carolina and, though each one is about a different character, they manage to meet other characters from other books. Turner's books aren't just a cozy read, they make me think. I wrote a review of the series quite a few years ago.

And for the new year...

Goal Setting/Organizing Books

Charity - The Lazy Genius Kitchen by Kendra Adachi

I read this book soon after setting up my own kitchen. The author walks you through the different parts of your kitchen and habits and gives tips on the best way to organize, plan meals, and decide what is important to you. I also enjoyed the beauty of the graphics which made it a pleasure to read. 

Gina - The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry by John Mark Comer

It is easy to slide into habits that don't build the life I want. I've heard good things about Comer's book and am planning to read this book with a few friends. I expect to be convicted and hopefully motivated to change.

Do you have books that you enjoy rereading in December? Are you setting goals for your winter reading?

Wednesday, November 29, 2023

Hope in the Dark

It is no secret that Christmas is a hard time for many people. For those who are lonely or grieving or feeling abandoned - Christmas with it glitter and lights and smiles can feel like a gut punch.

My friend Geneva Eby has struggled with Christmas. It was a reminder of her broken family and a dad who walked away. A few years ago, Geneva began to study the Biblical characters who lived before Christ, before the Light came to the world. That study became Hope in the Dark, a devotional journal that was just released by Daughters of Promise Ministry. 

Hope in the Dark examines the lives of thirteen Bible characters with short devotionals. Then Geneva shares questions to help the reader examine their own life and the hope found in Jesus. The book is laid out into twenty-five days so that it can be used as an advent journal for December 1-25. But nothing about the book's text or design screams Christmas so it can be used any time of the year. 

I was given a review copy of the book so began it in November. I've been wanting to begin journalling more, and I thought this might be the perfect tool. There is plenty of room to write in the book and the pages are uncoated for smear-free writing, but I chose to use a separate lined journal to record my answers. 

Though each of the Bible characters were well-known to me, Geneva's insights into their lives helped me look at them in a new way. The act of writing encouraged me consider my response to the truth of God's Word. 

Hope in the Dark would make the perfect gift to remind someone going through a hard time that God is with us and that even from the beginning, He was preparing a plan of hope for us. The restful photos and full-color design make this a lovely as well as meaningful book.

You can purchase Hope in the Dark from the Daughters of Promise. The first shipment sold out quickly, but they will have more available soon. I was given a free review copy of Hope in the Dark, but was not required to give a positive review. You can read more of Geneva's writing on her blog, One Brave Thing.

Friday, November 24, 2023

A Fragile Heritage

We Mennonites love our heritage. We love family history. I'm pleased that I can trace my ancestors back ten or twelve generations to German or Swiss immigrants on a ship to Philadelphia in the early 1700s. We love that we can get together with about other Mennonite and find common connections. It is a bond, a privilege, a legacy, a heritage. 

But Sheryl Leinbach found that it is a legacy that may carry heartbreak and suffering. A fragile heritage. 

I met Sheryl ten years ago. She told me that she was writing a book about her family's crushing experience with maple syrup urine disease (MSUD). Her daughter was now healthy, but only after excruciating experiences of strict diets, painful procedures, many hospital stays, and, eventually, a liver transplant.

But the real agony was that MSUD was an genetic disease, passed through Lancaster Mennonite families and descendants. Sheryl's daughter had been so very sick because Sheryl had unknowingly married another MSUD carrier.

Over the years I talked to Sheryl numerous times about her book. We discussed writing memior, simplifying confusing genetic information, and Sheryl's desire that fewer children would suffer genetic diseases. 

But I didn't actually know much about Sheryl's story. Last week I picked up a copy of A Fragile Heritage at a bookstore in Lancaster County. I cracked it open one night before bed and didn't lay it down until after midnight. The same thing happened the next night. On the third night, I knew I couldn't miss sleep yet again so I placed A Fragile Heritage in another room less I be tempted to read until the last page. (I'm not sure what this says about my self-discipline.)

I'm not typically drawn toward medical stories, but Sheryl's story sucked me in. It wasn't just a story of amazing doctors who transform medical care (though it includes much about Dr. Morton and the Clinic for Special Children). It isn't just a story of God's grace carrying a family through very hard experiences - though it is certainly that. 

Like me, Sheryl wanted to protect her children from pain. Like me she wanted to be the perfect mom. She read the books, wrote the goals, made the plans. Like me she wanted to control the outcome of her children so they would grow up strong and healthy in body, mind, and spirit. But her best efforts failed. She couldn't be the perfect mom. Her child was very sick despite her best efforts, and no one knew when her child would get even sicker. Her husband cracked from the stress, and as a carrier, all this suffering seemed like their fault. 

And what about the future. Should they have more children? Could they bring more children into the world that could also have MSUD?  How could they prevent this disease from reaching their grandchildren? 

Sheryl's honesty and huge amounts of research show through this book. The only thing I knew about genetics were dim memories of science class and pea plants, but Sheryl's careful explanation made sense. Her vulnerability in showing the challenges of a child with a genetic disease will help me be more sympathetic to other parents with sick children. 

You can purchase A Fragile Heritage from Christian Light or at your local Mennonite bookstore or fabric store. Though I consider Sheryl a friend, I purchased the book at full price, and she doesn't know I'm doing this review.

Saturday, November 11, 2023


I hold his hand tightly, my eyes locked in his.

We speak age-old words

For better or for worse; until death do us part.

How does God make two one?

We’ve planned this day for months

and can’t stop grinning.

A weighty moment

but I don’t grasp,

I can’t comprehend

how much changed in that instant.

I am a wife.

I hold tightly to her slippery body, my lips on her damp head.

She wails her first breath,

Flails tiny hands, missing comforting resistance.

How did part of me and part of him make this perfect human?

We’ve anticipated this day for months;

he’s choked up; I’m smiling.

A weighty moment

but I don’t grasp,

I can’t comprehend

how much changed in that instant.

I am a mom.

I hold him tightly, leaning over the bed, my cheek pressed into his hair.

He gasps his last breath.

I hold him, but I can’t keep him here.

I turn off the oxygen; silence drops into the room.

I’ve grieved the coming of this day for months,

watched the slow dying; now, I have no tears.

A weighty moment

but I don’t grasp,

I can’t comprehend

how much changed in that instant.

I am a widow.

Saturday, October 28, 2023

Illness and Grief

A friend asked, how has widowhood changed your life? What do you wish others knew about widowhood? Here are some thoughts . . .

Our family had been remarkably healthy for years. Ed had seasonal allergies in the spring. One child had a few rashes as a baby which she outgrew. Another baby had bronchitis twice that required antibiotics. But most of our six children had never had any medications stronger than Tylenol. None of my children had a broken bone or stitches or been hospitalized since their birth. Our family’s medical history could fit on an index card.

Do bad things happen in groups? They did for Job, though we know those events weren’t random but a test from the enemy allowed by God. Sometimes it feels as if once the wrecking ball starts swinging, everything falls apart.

A few months after Ed’s brain cancer diagnosis, I heard screams for help and ran to the door to see my son hobble toward me. Wet grass, a small hill, and slippery boots somehow resulted in a collision course with his brother pushing a lawn mower. For the first time, I rushed a child to the emergency room. Ed left work and met us at the ER.

I wondered what the medical personal thought when they saw Ed’s nearly bald head clearly displaying a long skull scar. Clearly our family already had faced trauma. I rode in the ambulance with our son as they transferred him to a larger hospital and watched him being wheeled into the operating room twice in the next two days as surgeons repaired his knee. Thankfully he hadn’t injured any bones or tendons, and he healed quickly with only an ugly scar to remember the event.

But the doctor visits continued. And not just for Ed, whose medical file grew longer each month. In the two years between Ed’s diagnosis and death, all but one of us needed medical treatment. A broken arm, a bull’s eye rash, a UTI, a cut hand, and a leg rash so severe the doctor called in his co-worker to look at it. 

None of these were chronic conditions and each healed quickly, but at the time it felt overwhelming. What would happen next? I knew with six children, accidents and illness were inevitable, but why all on top of each other? Now? I wanted to hide our latest injury or illness from our friends and family, because I didn’t want to be on the prayer list yet again. I didn’t want pity, though I felt like pitying myself.

After Ed’s death, I observed that widows have two reactions to their personal health.

Some widows become more careful, almost paranoid. It was understandable. Their heartbeat is the only thing that stands between their children becoming orphans. Losing a husband, especially if he was young, makes you realize that life is fragile and contains no guarantees. It is easy to worry about every sun spot, push mega doses of supplements, and panic about busy highways.

Other widows become more cynical. They may have tried to eat healthful diets, taken safety precautions, and prayed for healing and protection, yet their husband died anyway. Why try to live a healthful lifestyle if death is inevitable? If you can’t grow old with the love of your life, living a long life no longer has an appeal. When dreams for a future together evaporate, life can feel pointless.

Widows can experience survival guilt. Why are they alive and their husbands gone? Why were they granted more years, more time with their children and their husband did not?

Some widows face financial challenges which not only add more stress, but also discourages spending money on their own health needs. A widow with children may focus on her children’s needs to the determent of their own. Not only is she parenting alone, and may be too busy for time to unwind and relax, she doesn’t have a husband to persuade her to get rest or medical help if needed.

After a traumatic loss, many people experience physical symptoms from stress. Some women lose hair, maybe as much as 50% of their hair—the result of hormonal imbalance from grief stress. Some women’s weight fluctuates, and they become under or over-weight. The distraction of grief and the inability to think clearly can cause an increased number of accidents and injuries. Numerous studies have shown that if you lose your spouse, you have a significantly higher likelihood of dying in the next six months.

A few weeks after Ed’s death, I began having pain in my right elbow. Sometime the pain even interfered with sleep. I couldn’t remember injuring my arm, and the pain seemed to wax and wane without reason. It was many months before it began to feel normal again and several years later, I sometimes found myself still pampering that elbow.

About the same time that the elbow pain began, I lost my voice. I could still hold a conversation, but I couldn’t sing or read aloud to my children. I struggled through homeschooling, and we listened to an audio Bible for family devotions. At church, I didn’t want to draw attention by not singing so I mouthed the words and choked back tears while wondering if I’d ever be able to sing again.

Neither elbow pain or losing my voice were major health conditions, but at the time, the questions felt heavy. Was my body reacting to stress? Had I injured myself while caring for Ed? Was my body warning me to slow down? Did I have a deeper health issues? Was I simply getting older?

A few years after Ed’s death, I realized that I hadn’t had a physical check-up since my last baby’s birth, seven years before. I knew it was wise to get updated blood work and a general check-up, but I kept putting it off. Even more important, with my family history of colon cancer, was to schedule a colonoscopy, but it was easy to ignore. Ed would have insisted that I schedule the appointments, but it was hard to force myself to make the phone calls.

Finally I visited my doctor for a physical, updated my blood work, scheduled the colonoscopy, and asked a friend to drive me the appointment since I’d be unable to drive home afterwards.

I dreaded the colonoscopy. I had never liked needles. Even though I had birthed six babies in the hospital, I had never had an IV. When Ed would get an IV during his many hospital stays, I always carefully averted my eyes lest I get weak-kneed. I had never had any kind of surgical procedure nor been under anesthesia, so I fought down anxiety at the thought of the colonoscopy.

This is your public safety announcement: If you are over forty, consider getting a colonoscopy. Colon cancer is the third most common cancer in the US and preventable with a colonoscopy. It wasn’t as bad as I expected. With my family history, this won’t be my last one so I’m glad I no longer have to dread it.

Grief affects people differently, but anyone who experiences traumatic grief will be affected by stress. And stress impacts the very cells and hormones of the body. Knowing this fact can help make sense of the fatigue, distraction, maybe even mysterious ailments after a loved one’s death.

I had a compassionate husband—one that said things like “You go to bed, I’ll finish the dishes” or “Let’s get a babysitter so we can go away this weekend.” Part of widowhood has been accepting the loss of someone who knows my needs and cares for me as himself. While the modern focus on self-care is perhaps out of balance, we do need to care for our bodies as temples of God. If you are a tight-wad cynic like me, you may need to force yourself to schedule the doctor appointment or buy the vitamins.

And if you are close to a widow, help her care for herself. Ask if she is stressing about finances, offer to babysit so she has time alone, and encourage her to get needed medical care. It might feel like prying to ask about her medical needs, but she might not have anyone else who will.

All photos from our delightful family trip to Outer Banks, North Carolina.

Monday, October 9, 2023

A Fruitful Field

If you read through old blog posts from ten or so years ago, you'd find that I used to do a lot of homesteading-type activities. For example, we no longer raise chickens for eggs and meat.  Sometimes I miss it. Other times I'm willing to accept that my life looks differently than a decade ago. 

I wrote about this quandary for the recent issue of Commonplace. 

A Fruitful Field

 Soon after Ed and I became engaged, we toured the house that would become our home. A dusting of snow lay on the ground as we walked through the backyard to the one-acre pasture. I was smitten.

The house wasn’t perfect, but I fell in love with that pasture. I had spent hours of my childhood playing in a pasture like this. I could envision our future children scrambling over the rocks, playing hide-and-seek under the cedar trees, and picking raspberries.

A few years flitted by, and my vision came true. Now, when I walked through the pasture and avoided the clutches of brambles, I saw signs of childhood imagination. An overturned crate and a few jars marked a young lady’s store. Under a pine, old cans and a few rocks created a kitchen. High in the arms of an oak, a pallet was wedged, constructing a rough tree house. Our evening routine included picking burrs out of socks, rubbing lotion on poison ivy, and checking for ticks.

We attempted to make the stony field productive. We pastured a few steers and raised chickens. We dreamed of someday having a milk cow and perhaps even boiling maple syrup from our own sugar bush. But eventually the fence fell into disrepair, and the steers began regular visits to the neighbors. The chickens became dinner to some wild beast. We quit pretending we were homesteaders, and when visitors peered into the overgrown pasture and asked what we raised, Ed simply said, “Children.”

Besides, the steers weren’t the only ones pulled past the boundaries of our property. Ed and I pushed the stroller in Hagerstown, our nearby city, handing out Bible Study invitations and introducing our children to the concrete jungle. As years passed, Ed’s spare time became divided between work projects at a boys’ camp, Bible studies in prison, and sermon preparations. I remember Ed looking at the leaning pasture fence on a rare quiet Saturday and saying, “Maybe we should stay home and work, but the children are growing up so fast, let’s take a bike ride.”

Then brain cancer stole my husband. The children and I became dependent on others for daily sustenance. Fence repair wasn’t a high priority, and honeysuckle and wild roses prospered in our unruly pasture.

When I drove down the road I saw productive fields. A trim pasture with a quiet herd of black cattle. Tidy rows of peach trees. Orderly vegetables growing behind a picket fence. Lush acres of corn, soybeans, and alfalfa. All my life I have valued efficiency, productivity, and profitability. My personality finds value in what I do, what I produce, what I give. My pasture didn’t live up to my standard.

But I didn’t see slothfulness when I looked at that field. I saw memories. I saw suntanned creative children spending hours under blue skies amid waving wildflowers and weeds. I saw a dad who chose people over projects. I didn’t see regrets.

Sometimes I compare my productivity, my fruitfulness, with what I see in others’ lives. But there are as many ways to live a faithful life as there are ways to tend a field. 

Ruth gathered barley, elderly Elisabeth guided a well-respected home in Jerusalem, Lydia sewed for the poor, and Priscilla traveled with her husband to share the gospel while making tents. A praying invalid, a mother of toddlers, a grandma washing dishes, a teen sending a note of cheer – all are fruitful fields.

Whatever our age, marital status, economic position, or health condition, each of us can bear fruit. Because fruit bearing isn’t simply what we do, or how we appear to others, it is about connection to God, abiding in the Vine, and allowing His Spirit to bear His fruit in us.i 

Yes, obedience and surrender are required, and faithfulness isn’t optional, but we can’t conjure up love, joy, and peace on our own—it is the work of God.

Some days I feel like a weedy pasture smothered by burdock and thistles. Life is often harder and more complicated than I expected. I compare myself with that lush field of soybeans and wonder what I did wrong. 

Sometimes it is hard to know if my desire to be fruit-bearing is based on pride and people pleasing or a genuine desire for God to be glorified. But the important question to ask is, Do I receive the Word of God with joy and am I nourishing that seed? If so, my Master is pleased even if my field looks different from my neighbors.

I dream of someday repairing our fence and filling the pasture with spotted goats. Maybe I’ll have another little flock of hens to scratch among the red clover. But even if this field grew only memories and nourished children, it has been fruitful.

iJohn 15:4-5

First published in Commonplace - In Fields and Wood in Fall 2023.

Monday, September 25, 2023

He Shall Supply - Part 1

 I was going through some files and found this account that I recorded back in 2015. I had completely forgotten about it, and don't remember the details, such as what was the emergency medical bill. But I do remember that God had given me some experiences that bolstered my faith. I didn't know how much I'd need a strong faith for 2017.

“It might work out after all.” Ed pushed his chair back from the desk.

I looked up from my book. “You mean you paid all the bills?” I knew the balance of our checkbook. A new heating system and an emergency medical bill had depleted our savings. With the recent birth of our baby and taxes due, finances were tight.

“All of them, even the taxes,” said Ed. “I drained the checking account, but by the time the hospital bill comes, I'll have another paycheck. We might just make it—if nothing unexpected happens.”

I grimaced. I could guess what he was thinking. Two aging vehicles sat in our driveway. In the past, they had broken down at the worst possible times. What were the chances that one, or both, would choose this time to add some more bills?

Ed and our older children spent the next Saturday cutting wood. Late in the morning, Ed pulled into the yard with a pile of wood on a borrowed trailer. I expected them to stop for lunch, but our daughter ran into the kitchen with the empty water bottles.

“Dad wants to know if you can give us some lunch to take along. We're going to get another load.”

I threw sandwiches and cookies into a bag, and she dashed out. Soon the truck was pulling out the drive.

Later that afternoon, a tired husband and children came in from the woodpile after bringing home a second load. “Did the children tell you about our close call?” Ed asked.

“No. Did someone nearly get hurt?” I envisioned tragic accidents with chain saws and falling trees.

“Not that. It was the truck. The alternator went out.”

“The what?”

“The alternator—the part that charges the battery. I knew the battery wasn't charging so when I dropped off the load before lunch, I let the truck run. If I turned it off, I didn't think I'd be able to start it again. By the time I got back to the woods, even the turn signal wasn't working. When I turned off the truck, the battery was completely dead.”

“Then how did you get home?” I looked out the window to see whose vehicle he had borrowed.

“Well, your brother Eric happened to be in the woods too. You know how good he is with motors. And today we were cutting wood from the back of the wood lot—right beside the junk yard. We walked down to the junk yard, bought an alternator that fit the truck, and Eric had the tools to install it.”

“You mean it is already repaired?”

“Yes. And it only cost $20.00.”

Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith? (Matthew 6:30)


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