Tag Archives: finding joy

A Story is Born: From the Remnants Just Released

12 Sep

It’s official!

Today Cathy Schrader and I released “From the Remnants, A Story of Light and Hope.

bookcover

Click on Book Cover to Order! …And thank you. 🙂

It is the true story of Cathy’s journey from heart-shattering brokeness to a place of healing and purpose.

This book is for anyone whose faith in God has been tested by the sudden and unexplainable loss of a loved one. Although we all race through life understanding its inherit brevity, we sometimes take for granted the days we’re given to share with those we love. We choose our paths based on what we expect they hold for us. However, God, in his sovereign mercy, knowing infinitely more about our journey than we do ourselves, sometimes allows devastation in our lives by calling our loved one to Himself sooner than we could have predicted, turning those paths into dead-end roads, and thereby prompting that age-old question:

Why, God?

This book responds with the age-old answer:

We don’t know.

Because we’re not God.

However, sometimes, if we press forward through the anger and pain, and we resolve to retain our faith despite the apparent senselessness of it all, we can catch a glimpse of the larger picture—an aerial view, so to speak—of our lives and purpose through His eyes.

This vision may not, and probably won’t heal the scars of our suffering, but it’s not supposed to. Those scars brought us to the place we are, to a place of awareness that we are not the author of our own destiny, but that we can walk with the One who is. And when we walk with Him, we can know we’re on the course he intended for us to travel. Only then can we truly receive the joy and peace He has placed along the way.

I invite you to walk briefly along Cathy’s path, and to discover as she did, that God’s ways are not our ways, but when we trust him, they tend to be just a tad better…

Blessings and Happy Reading!

———————————————————-

Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or imagine, according to the power that works within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen. – Ephesians 3:19-21

Happy Birthday to Joe; Lessons Learned from a Sparrow’s Journey

5 Jul
Sparrow in prison book cover

Still a Good Summer Read!

This week we celebrate a birthday, of sorts, as my baby, “Caged Sparrow” is officially one year old. I suspect that’s about 20 in book years, judging by how much of my energy went into raising it.

Although completing one book hardly qualifies me as an expert in anything, I would like to share a few lessons I’ve learned over the past few years, because I know my dream was just one in a sea of dreams still to be fulfilled in the world.

It’s been two and a half years since I walked away from my “day job,” a job that paid quite well, where I loved my co-workers and needed to invest only three more years to qualify for retirement benefits.

But I couldn’t shake the pull to write full time.

I tried to ignore it, working 8-hour days during the week and spending my nights and weekends juggling responsibilities as wife and mother. Stories and characters filled my head until I thought I might burst. Every once in a while I’d have to steal away to a quiet corner and dash off a few pages of one project or another. Rarely did I finish anything. I did create a collection of short stories, but had no idea how to market them.

My one annual indulgence was to escape every May to attend the Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers’ Conference near Asheville, NC. Although I felt like a phony there, a pretend writer surrounded by real writers, I couldn’t stay away. Something about the creativity flowing through everyone I met wrapped around me like a lasso of possibility and just kept tugging.

This IS where I belong.

I drank in the writing seminars and workshops, basked in the warm writing talk at every meal, and left the conference on fire to keep writing, even though nobody wanted to read my short stories.

“Short stories just don’t sell,” said the experts.

Then “Caged Sparrow” fell into my lap in a most unconventional manner, during small talk in a lounge area at the writers’ conference with two women I’d never met. When I mentioned I liked to write people’s stories, the first, Linda Rondeau, became quite animated.

“I know someone with a story!” She then described this former undercover cop who had been framed and sent to prison among the very people he’d been putting in jail for nearly 20 years. As she finished telling me about Joe Tuttolomondo, the second woman, Diana Flegal, leaned over and said, “If you write it, I’ll take a look at it.”

She’s an agent! Who knew?

The rest is history. I started planning my departure from the typical work force almost immediately. Most of my co-workers expressed incredulous encouragement. I couldn’t blame them for the incredulous part, as I felt the same.

Am I really going to do this?
Why yes, I really am.

Today I’m barely making a living, editing documents and writing short stories to cover the cost of gas and groceries so I can write my own stories on the side. Both family cars will need to be replaced soon, the front porch is falling down, and there’s this barely perceptible drip, drip, drip coming from the pipes above the kitchen ceiling. But I’m not worried. As with everything else over the past two years, somehow, the Lord will ensure those issues are taken care of.

joe

Who could say no to someone filled with this much joy for the Lord?

I may go back to work at some point, but I haven’t regretted leaving for a minute, because Caged Sparrow is an actual book, available in book stores. And because Joe is so gosh darned tickled pink to have his story in print, it makes me giggle inside. And because I am a “real” writer and have been since I was 14. (To anyone who feels the same as I did during my early writers’ conference years, know that you’re a writer because you write, not because you sell.)

 

I will wrap up by telling you some of the advice I heard along my journey:

 

It’s irresponsible to quit your day job for a dream. To that I say, humbug. If it’s really your passion, you’ll find a way to make it work. I’d trade 12 “safe” years for two years of living on the edge while doing what I love. Oh, wait, that’s what I did.

Nobody reads memoirs. Humbug again. These are real stories about real people. Memoirs can inspire, uplift, encourage, and enable others to dream. Perhaps if we could get our young generations to read more memoirs, we’d need fewer animated cartoon heroes. Oh, and did I mention, at this year’s writing conference, it took first place in the 2016 Selah awards for best memoir, and overall director’s choice for best non-fiction book of the year! Not bad for something nobody wants to read.

Self-publishing is risky business. So is crossing the street. Sometimes, however, self-publishing is the only way to go. Although Ms Flegal did take on my book, she met up against a brick wall of “nobody reads memoirs” publishers, so I took it back. I’m glad I did, because Joe’s story needed to be told. Of course, if you’re planning to go this route, ensure your book is professionally edited, make sure you’re linking up with a reputable company, and get yourself a kick-butt cover designer, but then, by all means, go for it.

Without a publisher, you can probably hope to sell about 300 copies. To that I say, 1,300 copies later, wait, what?

If you’re going to autograph your books with a reference, make sure you memorize it. Okay, this I have to agree with. I chose the encouraging, hope-filled verse from Proverbs 16:9, which states, “In their hearts humans plan their course, but the Lord establishes their steps,” because it’s the story of my life. However, somewhere around the 30th copy I noticed I was referring people to Proverbs 19:6, which is NOT my life verse at all. In fact, it states, “Many curry favor with a ruler, and everyone is the friend of one who gives gifts.” No doubt, the recipients of those autographs are still confused. (NOTE: If you’re one of those lucky few, consider yours a special “error copy,” which will no doubt be worth something one day.)

So here I am, about to release my second book, “From the Remnants,” and still clutching my collection of short stories that some expert has told me won’t sell. Considering all the advice I’ve received recently, what do you think I’m going to do with these?

You are correct…which is why I’m now resuming work on “The Perfect Parent, Parables for the New Believer.”  Details coming soon.

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A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God – Ecclesiastes 2:24

Great News for Caged Sparrow

4 May
Sparrow in prison book cover

Get your copy now!

Okay, so it’s not a Pullitzer, and it’s not even a super big deal, but it’s a ray of hope, so I’m going with it.

Caged Sparrow has been named a finalist in the 2016 Selah Awards for the Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers Conference. Not too shabby!

We’ll have to wait until May 25 to learn how the book fares overall, and while I haven’t read the competing books, this is a group of writers I admire and respect very much for their professionalism and dedication to Christian writing. As such, Joe and I are far from expecting to win. However, just being a finalist gives the book a greater chance of getting picked up by book stores, so I’m more than thrilled.

Those of you who have read Caged Sparrow have surely noticed its potential to lift the spirits of those imprisoned, whether by real iron bars or bars of their own making. If you’re the praying type, please pray with me that, win or lose, this event will catapault Joe’s story onto a new level of readership, and into the hands of those whose hearts would be filled with hope if they read it.

To those of you who have yet to read it, what are you waiting for?

Depressingly Close to Darkness? Step Back.

10 Feb

They say God won’t give you more than you can handle. I say that’s a bunch of baloney.

I’ve been mulling over that phrase for a few weeks now, after a recent email conversation with a friend. I know the sentiment comes from a good place, but these words present such a simplistic view of a complex God that I’m wondering if uttering them as solace might do more damage than good. I can think of three families right this minute who are struggling with more than they can handle.

Did their troubles come from God? I don’t think so. The Bible tells us that all good things come from God, but all we know for sure about the negative is that sometimes He allows bad things to happen. Still, is it any consolation when we’re hit with tragedy or pain that it probably didn’t come from God? The logical response to that thought is, well then, why is He allowing it?

Every year about this time I go through what I’m finally beginning to recognize as depression. It may be a seasonal effect brought on by the dark and cold, the short winter days, and the weariness of less exercise, but this year it’s compounded by a heart-wrenching sadness because people I love are hurting deeply, and a fearful awareness of life’s uncertainty. We’re not guaranteed a single breath on this earth, let alone another hug from a loved one. How can we not become depressed at such revelation?

We can start by stepping back into the light and reexamining the situation. By remembering that darkness is not a color, but a tool that hides color. Under the proper light, we can see so much more of the picture. Sometimes what we think is revelation is actually the lie.

I often imagine my life as a beautiful tapestry being woven together strand-by-strand, the joy and sadness creating rich colors of every hue that merge with and contrast each other in a dramatic, unique story that only my life can tell. Sometimes, particularly in the winter months, I find myself with my face pressed into a tiny portion of that tapestry, sobbing at its bleakness. If I step back at all, it’s likely in a desperate attempt to yank out the dark strands and replace them with more joyful colors. I can’t weave, so I stuff and jam strands into the crevices until they look like weedy tufts spilling out at odd angles.

The Weaver knows, however, that if I could chose my own colors, and even if I could weave them in, I’d ruin everything. Without the dark hues, the final creation would just be evidence that I existed. What I imagined as bright colors would seem dull and ordinary, because without challenge or adversity, what would bring true joy? There might be an absence of sorrow, but that’s not joy. The entire piece would probably look beige.

Up close look at a carpet

Up close, the lines make no sense. I thought about including the bigger picture, but we each have our own, so I leave that part to you.

To fully understand the artwork AND the dark colors, I must stand all the way back and view the creation as a whole. In that light, I’d see an amazing story of victory and triumph over, at times, seemingly insurmountable odds, I’d see surprising twists and turns just when the end seemed sure, and I’d see a testimony about God’s bountiful goodness and generosity toward a woefully undeserving child.

Lately, I’m envisioning my own tapestry as a single strand in itself, being woven into the lives of those around me. When we purposefully examine how our lives are intertwined, and how much we can affect each other, we can become either overwhelmed or awed at the concept. I choose awed, because I know the Weaver, and I trust Him.

You see, it’s in those times of going through more than we can handle that we’re forced to give up trying to manipulate the strands by ourselves. He never expected us to handle it all. He wants us to let Him weave, to lean on Him, to pour our hearts out to him, and to love him regardless of what we see in the tapestry up close. In the right light, we can see our lives, not as fragile possessions we might lose at any moment, but gifts in which every undeserved breath and hug is a treasure. We can look to others and see how our strands are aligning, whether for one season or for many years, and to notice how, intertwined, they strengthen each other.

So it is with awe that we can step back and see the tapestry He’s weaving, understanding that we’ll never, under this sun, be able to see it all. But if that part we can see, if we look with the proper light, is so stunningly magnificent, just imagine the entire story!

I know, even as I write this, that it’s not always easy to take a step back. If you’re like me, and you still have your face meshed into the darkness, promise me that you will at least remember there’s a bigger picture around you, waiting for you to turn your face. When you’re ready, look up first, and trust Him to help you see it.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight. – Proverbs 3:5-6

 

 

 

State of the Portrait Writer Report

31 Dec

How Did We Fare in 2015?

As 2015 draws to a close, it’s time for the now-annual State of the Portrait Writer report, in which I will examine my writing progress thus far. In re-reading my year-old journal entry of expectations for 2015, I’m amazed at how many of the events I planned or promised last year (to myself and others) never materialized. This is to be expected because, as I’ve learned and re-learned throughout the year, I’m not in charge. In fact, if everything had turned out as I planned, it would have been quite the boring year. Instead, it’s been a year of victory and surprises, and a wee bit of sadness. However, it’s also been a year of seeing first-hand what God can do in our lives if we step aside.

Many of you who have been with me from the start might be bored by this list, but in celebration of the 130 new readers I picked up in 2015 (yay, and thank you!), for today’s blog I will recap the highlights of the Portrait Writer’s year:

In January, the hubby and I celebrated 31 years of marriage, which translates into 30 years of him listening to me yammer about being a “real writer” and one year of watching me in action. By that time I’d been working from home for 11 months and still had nothing to show for my efforts. After a financially challenging and emotionally frustrating year, however, he was, and miraculously still is, my greatest supporter, without whom there would be no Portrait Writer…and no cheesecake.

February was a month of learning to listen, or to discern exactly what I should be listening to. I was fooled by imitation voices in I Got Screwed!, and later fooled by lovely noises, in Ask Not for Whom the Phone Rings, both of which brought much frustration, until I wizened up. I sure hope I’m smarter now, but it’s a daily battle.

Willa

Love

March brought sadness and a greater appreciation for love and family, when Willa, the Fitzsimmons’ matriarch, left us for a far better place. Although her four children are still reeling from the loss, and miss her more with every Bronco victory they wish she could be sharing with them this year, they are finding solace in knowing she’s no longer in pain. One beautiful ray of light that has emerged from this cloud, her children—the Fitzsimmons Four, who seemed to have been drifting apart, have created new, tighter bonds. Despite the California/Virginia divide, they spent more time together and kept in e-touch more in 2015 than they have in many years, and we’re all praying this trend will continue.

Food staring

Livin’ in the Fridge…

April started in a delightfully silly way with a foolish fridge, and then devolved into a month of contemplation. We examined the need for sports-fan-like loyalty for one’s spouse in Married for Life, and hubby tackled school lunches in No Fishy Business.

In May I shared with you my love/hate relationship with lists in My Ship Will Float, and I finished out the month on an overwhelming high with the cover reveal for my first book, “Caged Sparrow.” I also made promises I couldn’t keep for June, but that’s an entry for…

…in June, I realized I couldn’t make my self-appointed deadline for “Caged Sparrow,” and contemplated cutting corners, which gave me a new appreciation for my Best Boss Ever, in Deadlines and Rocket Surgery. I chose my next writing project in Who Says you Can’t Go Home Again?” That project quickly fell to the sidelines to make room for another and to show me that, once again, I’m not in charge. Rest assured, the project is still on the horizon.

Sparrow in prison book cover

Caged Sparrow

In July, “Caged Sparrow” became a reality, bringing to fruition my life-long dream of becoming a PUBLISHED AUTHOR. I gave my first Totally Made-up Interview in Let the Caged Sparrow Fly! And, while the book is not exactly flying off the shelves—more like falling off—sales are progressing as expected. Reviews on Amazon are quite kind, and some aren’t even from friends and family. Joe and I wanted only to hear that people’s perspective changed upon reading his story, and we received many notes and comments that this, indeed, is happening. Also in July, Hubby and I hit the open road and all the open doughnut stores between San Francisco and Pittsburgh, in Down Home America. This saga turned out to be so great it rolled into…

Corn and bean field: Succotash

Succotash, get it? Corn and beans? Nevermind.

…August, with Salt, Bugs and Doughnuts, which lulled me into inertia, nearly bringing my writing career to a halt with its Dangerously Pleasant Anchor. I’d say the biggest revelation of August was that not everyone gets my sense of humor. The succotash field pic is a joke. Get with it folks!

In September we explored the undervalue of Teachers (If You Can Read This…) and canines (Treat Each Other like Dogs), both of whom improve our lives significantly.

October was just plain fun. After examining the light in the darkness in Storms May be Brewing, I took you on a somewhat scary journey through a typical ADD writer’s sleep-deprived night in Left Brain, Right Brain. Then I took you to Naples, Florida for a book signing and interview with the now famous Joe Tuttolomondo. What a blast that was, and I haven’t even shared about it yet…hmmm…could be a January blog…

In November and December, I let my blog wind down, paying tribute to my friend Michele in Five Years Strong and Counting, remembering my non-Norman Rockwell Thanksgivings of long ago, and ending the year contemplating the preposterousness of Peace on Earth.

Last year the Portrait Writer published one book, edited two others, wrote 20 short stories and about 30 blog posts—all fulfilling, fun work. The short stories provided enough income to keep me writing, and I’m excited about what’s around the corner. More on that in 2016.

Have a happy and blessed new year, everyone. And remember, you’re not in charge.

————–

In his heart, a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps. — Proverbs 16:9

Image

When Fathers Are Imperfect: You Call this Love?

14 Jun

Not everyone loves Fathers’ Day.

Did you have the perfect dad, someone who attended every sporting event, band concert, and scout ceremony? Who knew your friends’ names and read the articles you wrote for the school paper?

I didn’t. My dad barely knew me, and he attended nothing—not even my high school graduation.

Dads are a strange lot. When we’re young we think they’re perfect, but for most of us, at some point we learn the truth: that they’re human, and we’re disappointed.

What was that moment for you?

Perhaps your dad was away on business on your birthday one year and he didn’t call.

Or maybe he promised to bring you something and then forgot.

Perhaps he committed an unspeakable shame that your mother forbade you to talk about, even  with your best friend.

Perhaps one day, when you needed him more than ever, he looked the other way.

Or worse, walked out of your life.

Maybe he died before you even got to know him, and all you have of him is a photograph in a tiny frame.

Or maybe you don’t even know who he is.

I believe there’s a place in everyone’s heart set aside for loving a father, and we long for that love, but it doesn’t always look as we expect it to.

My dad was tough, a U.S. Marine, private first class. He fought with the First Marine Division in Korea, where one day a piece of shrapnel sliced through his head like a band saw. The Corps sent him home with a metal plate in his head and a glass eye, and a prediction that he wouldn’t live to 25. He beat the odds, married, fathered nine children, and died at the age of 64 in 1997. Love wasn’t part of his vocabulary.

Still, I know without a doubt that my father loved me, even though he only said it once. I was around 35, and home for Christmas, unaware that it would be the last time I’d see him alive. He mumbled, “luv ya” at the door when we were saying good-bye. I was so surprised I asked him to repeat himself, but he wouldn’t.

If I had measured his love for me according to outward affection, I’d be one hurtin’ puppy. In fact, I remember standing beside his easy-chair every night, waiting for my bedtime kiss. He’d touch his palm to his lips, turn his hand over, and slap me on my forehead. That was love.

Oh, how I despised him sometimes. Many times. He let me down; he let my brothers and sisters down, each one in a different way; and he let my mother down in the worst way. He never read to me. He got himself fired every time we were about to be ok. And he died, way too soon.

Oh, how I loved him. He was a good man. He made us all laugh. He could fix just about anything, and he loved dogs. We joked that he treated his dogs better than he treated his kids, but I challenge my siblings to consider this: he treated us just like his dogs. He wrestled with us, took us out on the water so we could feel the ocean breeze blow through our hair, and he always made sure we were fed. That was love.

Dad and his father

Dad and Grampa. Don’tcha just want Gramps to pull him closer?

Dad’s own father was more than strict; he’d been hardened by events of World War I and the Depression, and by a secret past he didn’t want anyone to know about. To his children, he was as cold as ice.

So here’s my epiphany: Nobody taught my dad how to “do” fatherhood, so he did the best he could with what he knew. I believe my dad was determined to be what his father was not—warm, funny, and adventurous. He took the good from his dad, too, like a hard-working spirit and a sense of responsibility for family. We often went without, but we were always sheltered and fed (I know Jo, but a tent is shelter). You see, he could do the opposite of his father’s example and he could mimic those traits in his father he admired, but he couldn’t create a picture of what love looked like by watching a man who didn’t love.

I forgave Dad for being human long ago. He gave me my sense of humor, pride for my country, and a special fondness for the ocean. As a parent, I’ve tried to retain the good from his example and forget the rest. I’ve disappointed my sons many times, but I think I’m closer to getting the love part right because I saw into my dad’s heart, to who he wanted to be but didn’t know how. I pray my sons come even closer with their children.

I know now that there’s only one perfect Father, and He has shown us everything we need to know about love. He loved us first so we could watch and learn. I so wish my dad had known Him.

Regardless of where you stand this Fathers’ Day, there’s something you can do to make it a meaningful day:

If you’re angry at your dad, forgive him.

If your father is still here, tell him you love him.

If he’s gone, remember the good things about him.

If your heart is aching because you never knew a father’s love, call to the one true Father. He won’t let you down.

“We love because he first loved us.” 1 John 4:19

Take THAT, Cancer! A letter of hope.

30 Apr
Cicada swarm of 2013

Remembering the cicada swarm of 2013

Call me Jim, for want of any other name.

My world came crashing down about a year ago when the cicadas swarmed, with their beady little eyes and gnashing teeth, making a noise that was so horribly loud I thought it would never stop. But it did, and they disappeared, leaving destruction in their wake. I could see it on the oak tree across the street all summer long, a constant reminder of my own condition: dead, cancerous brown tufts where there was supposed to be verdant new life.

I tried to live a normal summer, but the after-effects of my treatment was devastating. My limbs are still scarred from the abuse I suffered, and I ached in the core of my being. Some days it sapped all my energy just to keep breathing. 

By autumn, I began to shut down. I took no pleasure in the foliage across the street because I just couldn’t bring myself to feel joy. One by one, I began to drop those things that gave me my own color.

I slept through most of the winter, and through the long Spring that Refused to Come. I just couldn’t seem to get going again. As we were pounded by one snowfall after another, each bringing the cold back with it like an unwanted relative, I became certain I would never be warm again. It was almost too much to bear. I wanted God to take me. I even begged Him. I stood outside one morning with my bare, frail arms stretching upward and I made a fist as best I could in the buffeting wind and screamed,“ENOUGH!”

But He didn’t take me.

Spring blossoms, at last

Across the street, spring blossoms, at last

Instead, He gave me another spring. Today I look around at all the color across the street, and I’m amazed. The oak is green again, having sloughed off those dead branches. The cherry tree on the corner is alive with pink blossoms. Front lawns are decorated with yellow daffodils, purple hyacinths, and tulips of all colors. Bees are darting about the fragrant blooms, transporting life from one end of their world to another.

Cynically, I say to myself, it’s only temporary. The colorful blossoms will fall away, and all around will be ordinary green. It will be as if spring never happened.

Or will it? I consider the oak across the way. I remember only a few years ago when it was a frail sapling, struggling to survive. Yet each year after the spring, it is a little bit taller, stronger, and heartier. What a nice word, hearty. I let it linger on my tongue, tasting it gently, longingly.

Finally, each day is warmer than the last. I stand still in the front yard, staring up at the sun as His life-giving sap runs through my veins. I can tell that I, too, have been touched; my own color is returning. It was a long, arduous year, but I made it. And like the oak, I know I will never be the same as I was. God may, indeed, still take me before I’m ready to go, but right now I’m alive, and He is with me, so I will lift my face to the heavens and sing praises for the days I have.

I peer into the window where I can see my friend Bill resting in his chair after another round of chemo. I beckon wildly but he does not notice. I wish, as I have so often since the cicadas came, that I could speak to him, but I don’t know how.

If I could though, do you know what I would say?

I’d say, “Bill, take heart and look to the heavens. If He would bring me through all this…me, an ordinary dogwood tree, what do you suppose He’s doing in you?”